Notes From the Frontline: Sudden Death

By Matt Delito on at

Note: Due to the nature of this post, it might not make the best lunchtime reading. Unless you have a strong stomach; in that case, carry on!

"Elementary, my dear Watson", I said, jokingly. "Clearly, nobody killed the poor sod, so whatever he died of, it's probably nothing criminal. Best get him ready for the coroner though, eh?"

January is a dreadful time to be on foot patrol, but due almost exclusively to my own daft stupidity, my Ticket had expired. The ticket is my police driving license -- you need your own driving license as well, of course, but in order to be allowed to drive any patrol car, you have to special driving license. To get your license, you do a course, a theoretical exam, and a practical exam.

Police driving licenses come in different levels, starting at 'level 4', which is the boring ticket that allows you to drive from somewhere to somewhere else, but not on blues and twos. You can do a 'compliant stop' -- which means that you can drive behind somebody and turn your blue lights on to pull them over, but if they drive off, you have to call off the pursuit. It happened to me only once when I was on the basic ticket, and I felt pretty daft having to let the guy drive off. Of course, with London being London, we had a helicopter in the air; they followed him to a petrol station, where I was able to go and arrest them. Turns out they had a sizable amount of drugs in the car. "Sorry, I didn't see you officer." Nice touch. Anyway, there are dozens of different courses you can take. Personally, I have my solo ticket (that's for riding police motorbikes), and my advanced driving course. That one is rather interesting, and includes all sorts of high-speed pursuit stuff. It's a shame, then, that our end of the borough has 40 mph limits -- or less -- everywhere, so you never get to open the cars up properly.

Letting your ticket expire (I went to the driving school at Hendon, but due to an emergency the instructor I was meant to go out with was called off to something or other. You'd be surprised how often that sort of thing happens; I think he moonlights for the DPG -- Diplomatic Protection Group -- which might explain things) isn't a disaster. I normally end up operating on a panda or one of the area cars - but since I also managed to make it to work late today, the skipper sent me out on foot patrols through some of the shopping centres and markets that have been plagued with drugs and shoplifting recently. He claims he sends me out on foot patrol to 'help build character', and I pretend to be insulted and grumpy as I leave. 'Pretend', because honestly, I don't really mind foot patrols all that much. It means you're not on response duties, and it's actually quite nice to have an opportunity to stroll around the borough for a day. You talk to people, you get some exercise, all that goodness.

Today's foot patrol was less than pleasant, however, largely due to the weather. The heavy clouds were sagging with the weight of grey depression, ready ejaculate its heavy, sleety load all over my freshly washed overcoat. Needless to say, I did spend a fair bit of time getting to know the cafe owners around my sector of the borough. A chat and a cup of coffee here, a quick vandalism report and a cup of tea there -- it all makes the world spin merrily on its columna cerului.

Lunchtime came along eventually, and since it was a Friday, I decided (stupidly, in retrospect), to treat myself to a greasy treat from Burger King.

Just as I finished the last bite of my Burger King double whopper, my radio interrupted a rather pleasant day-dream I was indulging on. Something about girls with ample advantages, I seem to recall.

"Five nine two receiving Mike Delta?", it squawked.

"Retheifsglowblead", I replied, with my mouth full of burger, and my last two fries. The couple who were sitting on the table glanced over at me for a fraction of a second, before they both crunched over their trays, laughing.

"You broke up there, say again?"

"Receiving, go ahead!", I repeated, and smiled at the couple, with a shrug. I ended my transmission "Hey, they don't like waiting, what can I say", I said to them, and winked.

"We have a code Zulu up on Eastern Terrace. Are you free to deal?", the CAD operator said, drily.

Our Airwave radios are heavily encrypted -- it's a long time since you were able to buy an off-the-shelf 'police scanner' to listen in on police conversations, like they do in the movies -- but there is a rather obvious security flaw with the police radios: As I'm sitting there, eating my lunch, the couple at the table next to mine could overhear everything my colleagues were talking about. Mostly, it's boring stuff: There's a shoplifter here, a colleague needs an Op Reclaim recovery of an uninsured car, or CCTV reports some youths drinking in the park. Obviously, there are also frequently much more serious things that are transmitted over the radio. Most of the time, it's not really a problem; but we're not insensitive to the fact that some radio messages, when overheard by people who don't have the context, can be quite serious.

On American cop shows, you often hear them say things like "10-4" (we'd say "received"), 10-23 (we say "Stand by, please"), or 417A (We'd say "suspect with a knife"). You don't really want to have to look up all sorts of inane codes for every thinkable situation ("10-41" means "Will you be requiring an ambulance", apparently. What's wrong with saying "Will you be requiring an Ambulance"? Oh, Yanks...), but we do have a few codes we do use, even over the military-grade-encrypted radios we use. We'd use a code like "Code X-ray" for a sexual assault, for example; "Code Yankee" could be a bomb threat, and Code Zulu...

The situation the operator was asking me to attend was a Code Zulu -- a Sudden Death.

Sudden Deaths are bread-and-butter policing; whenever a 'sudden death' happens, police are called as a routine. I'm actually a little bit fuzzy on what defines a 'sudden death', but I believe it is any death that doesn't happen as the cause of an accident, and to someone who has not seen a doctor in the past few weeks or so. "A few weeks", you say, "Shit, I haven't been to my GP in over a year". Well, you might say that, that was certainly my reaction when I first found out what a sudden death was; but basically it rules out anybody who has had recent medical issues -- heart attacks, late-stage-cancer and so on, and so forth.

As a police officer, it is easy to become a little bit blasé about death. I see dead bodies relatively routinely as part of my job, whether the living, breathing person expired through traffic accidents, work accidents, suicides, violent deaths -- it all ends up across our proverbial desks sooner or later, and as a response copper, you're sent to deal with death.

Sudden deaths are eerie, because they are unexpected. I suppose being side-swiped by a lorry is also unexpected, but at least there's something plain and honest about a traffic death. One memorable sudden death I had to attend was after we received a call from a very distressed cinema manager. Apparently a 25-year-old girl had bought a ticket to a matinee showing, and quietly sat down at one of the back rows of the cinema... Where she remained seated until the credits had finished. The cleaners poked her to wake her up, and she flopped over, dead as last week's kebab dinner. At first, we thought it was a suicide, but it turned out to be a weird, obscure heart failure. Well, it was either that, or she simply lost her will to live half-way through M Night Shyamalan's The Happening. Which, to be fair, is a conclusion any coroner worth their salt would accept -- if they've seen The Happening, that is.

"Yeah, I'm free. I'm on foot, but I'll stroll over. I'll be about 10 minutes", I transmitted, much quicker than the time-shifting immensity of the above monologue would indicate.

"Great. Please liaise with 34 and 71, they are en route", the CAD operator concluded. Two skippers to a sudden death? This was going to be interesting, I figured, and slowed my pace a little. No point in getting to the party early.

Just when I made it to the property, and walked in the front door, Jeff, one of the new members on our team, came bursting out of the living room, careened across the hallway, and launched himself, face-first, into the toilet. I snorted a short giggle. I could hear him throwing up his lunch as I walked towards the living room. I noticed that the house was in absolutely meticulous condition. Every photograph was so straight I suspected the owner had used a spirit level to make sure they were perfect. The carpets looked crisply shampooed, the windows were spotless; apart from the incredible swarm of flies, the house was practically a model home. A far cry from some of the crackdens we have to wade around every now and again -- some of them are bad enough that you feel obliged to wipe your boots on the door mat on the way out of the flat, so you don't make the street outside the house dirty when you leave.

I turned the corner into the living room, and the sight that met me was, put simply, grim-tastic. A man who must have been quite obese, had died sitting on a wooden chair in his living room. As he drew his last breath, he fell off his chair, and his ample body had come to rest against the radiator. Of course, seeing as it was January -- and a pretty nippy January at that -- the radiator had been at full blast.

The combination of the heat from the radiator and the dead body was not a good thing: The man had probably only been dead for about about a week, but the warmth means that the flies breed all the much faster. I am not sure which sight or smell that had made Jeff bolt from the room to the bathroom, but it could have been the maggots that were boring their way through the skin on his face and neck. It could be the large stains on the carpet where his gas-bloated skin had burst, spilling flies, larvae, maggots, and bodily liquids everywhere. My bet was on the smell though -- the smell of somebody who has been dead for a couple of weeks is something that stays with you for days, even if you wash your hands and stand under a hot shower for an hour. It's such a distinctive, persistent, piercing smell, that I swear can smell it now as I am typing this -- even though I haven't had the (mis)fortune of attending a sudden death in weeks.

"You all right, Matt?", I heard a weak voice behind me. It was Jeff.

"Yeah, bud. You feeling better?", I asked.

"Man... I can just never get used to seeing people like that."

"You will, eventually. Trust me. Who called it in?" I asked.

"A neighbour smelled him this morning, and called the landlord to complain, of all things"

"Hah, the landlord, eh? You'd have thought people had the sense to call us..."

"I spoke to the neighbour. He was in a state of complete shock", Jeff said. "He apologised so many times I thought for a moment he might have killed the guy himself. Turns out he's never seen a dead body before; he thought it was the smell of cat litter. The complaint to the landlord was about him having pets!"

I shuddered. I've been to a sudden death once where a pair of cats were in the house with the owner. Suffice to say that the cats didn't go hungry despite not being fed, but the sight that met us was anything but pleasant.

"Who would have known, eh?", I said.

"Yeah." Jeff said, still standing at the door, looking at the bloated body slumped against the radiator. "So... er... what do you reckon?"

"No idea, mate. He doesn't look that old", I said. "How did you get into the flat?"

"We had to kick the door in", Jeff said. "Landlord couldn't get in; the latch was on".

"Elementary, my dear Watson", I said, jokingly. "Clearly, nobody killed the poor sod, so whatever he died of, it's probably nothing criminal. Best get him ready for the coroner though, eh?"

Jeff excused himself and ran off to throw up some more. I wasn't feeling too hot either.

Preparing someone for the coroner includes checking all the property of the deceased -- including their pockets. I could tell that this particular pockets-check was going to be unpleasant.

When Jeff returned, one of the sergeants was with him.

"What have we got, Delito", he barked. It was Mike Delta 71, who was only ever known as 'seventy-one'. I'm sure he must have a name, and I'm sure his name is printed directly underneath "Police Sergeant" on the velcro name tag on his Metvest, but nobody ever used it. I made the dreadful mistake in the station cafe a few months before, of mimicking my impersonation of 71's wife, as she, in the throes of orgasm, screamed out "Oh! Ooh! My god! Yes! Seventy-One! I'm coming! Sevent..." and that is when my audience stiffened up, pretending not to know me. I turned around, seeing seventy-one himself standing there. "G'won", he said. "I wanna know how this one goes".

We haven't really been on speaking terms ever since, even though I've gone out of my way to do some serious brown-nosing around him. I guess it's one of those things that sticks in your mind.

"Hey, seventy-one", I said. Jeff ducked away from the door again, except this time it was to laugh, not to throw up. He was one of the people who had cheered on my impersonation of Mrs. 71, and he had been unable to keep a straight face ever since.

I explained the goings-on so far. 71 nodded, and shrugged.

"Jeff", he barked. "Come help Delito with this body".

We had to place Mr. Bloggs on his back to be able to search him properly. Jeff moved the chair out of the way, and took the body under one arm. I meticulously put on a pair of gloves before I took his other arm.

"Onto his back", I said. "Slowly. One... Two..."

We moved him on three, and the side of his head seemed to stick to the radiator. In slow-motion, I saw the skin of his face stretch, ever-so-slowly, until it finally gave way. The dead man's head flopped back with a crunch. My eyes were glued to the radiator, where a disturbingly large amount of cheek-skin was still sticking to the metal. Jeff let go of his side, leapt up, and nearly made it to the hall-way before the last rests of his lunch came in return. I dropped the body as well, as it slid away from me towards were Jeff had been sitting. His head hit the carpet with a muffled sound, halfway between a thud and a crack.

The combination of the cheek stuck on the radiator, the sound of Mr Joe Bloggs's head hitting the floor, and the sound of Jeff retching had me over the edge as well. I started moving towards the hallway, but as I noticed Jeff had blocked the way by throwing up on seventy-one's leg, I decided to take my hat off, and leave my lunch in it instead. I knew having Burger King would be a bad idea; the smell set me off again.

We spent several more hours at the property until the people showed up to board up the door Jeff had kicked in. Which was fine, since we had to do inventory of the valuables and other property in the apartment anyway. At last we were done with the body itself, and the coroner's office had sent someone over to bag, tag, and snag him.

As horrible as a ripe sudden-death body is, I'll still take it over a teenager who has administered a dose of auto-euthanasia any day of the week, though. Those are a whole different level of disturbing. The smell of Mr Bloggs will eventually fade away; I don't think the soul-jarring howl of a bereaved parent ever fades


Matt Delito is a pseudonym for a policeman working for the Metropolitan Police. All Notes from the Frontline are not entirely “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” due to the sensitive nature of the business, but are all based on actual events. These days, he’s on Facebook and Twitter as well.

Matt has a book based on his Notes from the Front Line column out now - you can get it from Amazon, in paperback or on Kindle.

If you missed his previous columns on Giz UK, check them out over here.

Image credit: Police image from Shutterstock.