For the detectives on D.C.'s 'Routine Squad,' death is mostly of the natural variety-and live means keeping your sense of humor on the job.

When Detective Pat McGinnis enters the Connecticut Avenue apartment, Bart Simpson is grinning impishly from the blaring TV set, a half-completed crossword puzzle sits on the coffee table, and a 77-year-old woman lies dead on the floor. McGinnis, a 20-year veteran of the D.C. police force, gently drapes his jacket over a chair, looks down impassively at the body for a moment and then says to no one in particular, "Okay, let's get to work."

"Work" for McGinnis means, among other things, looking death straight in the face every day. He's one of four homicide detectives on the D.C. police force who make up what is euphemistically known as the "routine squad," charged with investigating every apparently natural death in the city that is reported to the police. While the District's spiraling murder rate deservedly has received national attention, the 2,000 natural deaths and suicides that occur every year will never be the focus of a government program or part of any politician's campaign promise. Long after the senseless drug killings in Washington subside, the sensible natural deaths will continue unabated -- the heart attacks, strokes, cancers, accidents and drownings. The Final Checkout is a sobering thought, but everyone knows the deal before it comes down -- you're born, you live, you die. And then Pat McGinnis comes by to see you.

The ghostly blue flicker of the television is reflected in McGinnis's glasses as he stands over the body and questions the police officer who first responded to the call at the apartment. At first, the two men talk above the din of "The Simpsons," until the officer absentmindedly reaches for the remote control and turns off the set. McGinnis learns from the officer that the resident manager of the apartment building had come by to check on the woman and found her sprawled on the living room floor. The resident manager called 911, and District ambulance crew No. 8 arrived several minutes later and pronounced the woman dead on the scene. McGinnis listens carefully to the officer's account, jots a few notes in a notebook and then asks the officer to go over certain parts of the story again. McGinnis unfurls his questions deliberately, his way of emphasizing that there's no reason to rush the investigation.

"Again, officer, you say the door was locked when the resident manager first came by? Were you here while the ambulance was on the scene? Has anything in the room been disturbed?"

If it's beginning to sound a bit like a murder mystery, it's only because McGinnis is adhering to the first rule of any death investigator: Assume nothing. The cause of death is often more than an academic question -- lawsuits and insurance claims often hinge on these findings. And even a seemingly cut-and-dried natural death can turn out to be a murder or a suicide.

"That happened to me a couple of months ago when I was called to the scene of a fire," McGinnis recounts later. "When I got there, I started looking around, and there were things that just didn't add up. There was blood in the house that didn't agree with the location of the body, and there was a little bit of dried blood on {the victim's} hands, which there shouldn't have been. After more investigation, it turned out that someone had set the fire to cover up a murder. I turned the case over to a homicide investigator who did some good work on it, and now that case is closed."

So far, nothing in the Connecticut Avenue apartment has led McGinnis to believe there's been foul play, and the discovery of more than a dozen bottles of prescription pills for a heart condition points toward a heart attack as the likely cause of death. McGinnis gets the phone number of the woman's doctor off one of the bottles and, without pausing, picks up the phone to call him. Being a death investigator means never having to say "Mind if I use your phone?"

The doctor, surprisingly, is still in his office. From him, McGinnis learns that the woman has had a heart condition for many years and was released from the hospital only three weeks ago after recovering from a mild attack. McGinnis jots the information in his notebook, for later inclusion in the death report, and continues to pick through the apartment in search of clues.

The apartment sits like a big open book, with each page fluttering in the breeze. There's an undeniable element of voyeurism in every death investigation, where the search for relevant clues inevitably uncovers facts not directly related to the case, details that paint a picture of a person's life. A statue of the Blessed Virgin surveys the scene from a nearby night stand, and several Catholic items -- a church bulletin, several holy cards, a religious calendar -- are scattered throughout the apartment. A half-smoked pack of Kent III's sits on the living room table next to a dirty ashtray. Thumb-size photographs of grandchildren are stuck in the corners of the hallway mirror, bright young faces with gap-toothed grins. On the coffee table next to the body sits a dog-eared Harlequin romance open to the last page the woman read before she died. The name of the book is One More Night. McGinnis walks into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator.

"You can tell a lot about a person by what they keep in their refrigerator," McGinnis says, scrutinizing the labels on several prescription medications on the top shelf. "Hey, here's a 12-pack of National Bohemian. She's my kinda girl."

After 20 minutes of snooping around the apartment, only two loose ends remain. One is locating a next of kin in order to release the body to a funeral home. Ironically, it's discovered that the woman, whose only relatives live out of town, once worked for Joseph Gawler's & Sons, a prominent funeral home in Northwest. But since the resident manager hasn't been able to contact the woman's family, the body must be taken to the city morgue instead. McGinnis calls the medical examiner's office on his police radio and, sounding a little like a taxi dispatcher, instructs them to send around a truck for a "pickup."

The second piece of unfinished business involves making a detailed observation of the body, a key component of the death report. McGinnis usually saves this until last because, as he dourly observes, "the body's not going anywhere." Standing over the corpse, McGinnis gently picks up the woman's arms and rotates them slowly across her torso, noting the amount of muscle rigor in order to fix an approximate time of death. He touches her skin at her thighs, stomach and chest to feel how cool various parts of her body are, another guide to estimating how long a person's been dead. (Blood sinks to the lowest part of the body.) The limbs are relatively supple, and the skin isn't completely cold, indicating the woman's been dead for only a few hours. McGinnis opens each of the woman's eyes with his thumb and notes the dilation of the pupils. The woman's expression is calm, not quite serene, but certainly not pained or even startled. Death clearly came quickly, with the TV on, a Harlequin romance by her side and a fresh 12-pack in the refrigerator. Lastly, McGinnis studies her face, and his own face softens, as though he hadn't really been looking at the woman until just this moment.

"You know, she looks a lot like my mom," McGinnis says

quietly. "She even wears the same kind of clothes."

IT'S NOT EVERY DAY THAT THE ROUtine squad assignments live up to their name. "Some of this stuff is anything but routine," says McGinnis, who like many death investigators has acquired a knack for understatement. McGinnis has seen some pretty unnatural deaths in his day -- freak bathtub accidents, death by autoerotic asphyxia -- so exaggerating the stories would seem like, well, overkill.

"Some of the things you see in these houses are incredible," McGinnis says as we patrol the streets in the routine squad's cruiser, an unmarked Plymouth Reliant, waiting for someone to die. "I went in a house the other week where an elderly person had died and there was dust a few inches thick everywhere. You could tell some rooms hadn't been used in years because there were paths cut in the dust in the few places where the person did walk. I had another house where I opened one of the desks and found lots of white envelopes containing small denomination bills, all neatly stacked and marked with the amount on the outside. Those envelopes were everywhere. It turned out to be more than $50,000, all of it squirreled away through the years."

The four-member routine squad has only been in existence since January, set up so that the District's already overburdened homicide detectives would no longer have to handle natural death investigations. McGinnis, who is 44, worked in homicide for seven years, and as he approached the 20 years of police service needed to receive a pension, he viewed the routine assignment as a good way to keep his hand in detective work without burning himself out on the seemingly endless succession of drug-related homicides. Also the hours were attractive; unlike the homicide branch, the routine squad doesn't work weekends or overnights. That perk alone led nearly a quarter of all homicide detectives to apply for the four routine squad slots.

Now that he's had a chance to see how the routine squad works, McGinnis says the assignments are in many ways more challenging than the homicide detail. "If a guy's laying out in the street with four or five bullet holes in him, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that it's a murder," McGinnis says. "On the other hand, if you've got a guy lying at the bottom of a staircase, he may have fallen, he may have been pushed, you just don't know."

Another motivation to leave homicide is the toll the job exacts on detectives, a cost not as easily quantified as the yearly murder count. During his police career, McGinnis has worked on some of the city's most celebrated -- and horrific -- cases. As a member of the crime lab, he photographed the dozens of bodies that were pulled out of the icy Potomac following the crash of an Air Florida jet into the 14th Street Bridge in January 1982. Two years later, he spent 16 months working on the murder of Catherine Fuller, the 48-year-old Northeast woman who was beaten to death by a gang of youths who compounded the felony by ramming a foot-long metal pole into her rectum before leaving her in an alley to die. Like a good cop, McGinnis did his job and kept his feelings to himself, until they screamed to get out.

"For years, I would hear a woman screaming just as I was falling asleep," McGinnis says, in the same matter-of-fact tone with which he conducts death investigations. "It was a blood-curdling scream. I'd wake up and my heart would be beating so bad that I'd have to sit up in bed. I'll be honest with you -- I thought someone in the neighborhood was beating their wife. I found out differently when I started seeing someone."

McGinnis went to see a psychologist, who handed him a list of 35 symptoms and told him to put a check mark next to the ones he thought he had. "I had 32 of 35," McGinnis recalls. What McGinnis had was post-traumatic stress disorder, a malady common among those who come face-to-face with death on a daily basis -- soldiers, hospital personnel, firefighters and police officers. The symptoms range from sleep disorders and flashbacks to hypervigilance and short-term memory loss; treatment involves letting out some of those bottled-up feelings to loved ones. Since identifying the problem, McGinnis says he feels "100 percent better"; the screams at night have stopped.

"I have an excellent marriage, and I'm very involved in my church," McGinnis says. "For me, if there wasn't that strong support system from my marriage and my church, I don't know how I'd do it. That's just me personally. I don't know how some of these other guys do it."

McGinnis also has long-standing ties to the community, growing up on Longfellow Street NW near Fort Totten, and in Prince George's County. He graduated from Oxon Hill High School, attended American University but left before graduating and served in the D.C. National Guard during the 1968 riots. After working as a clerk for the FBI, he realized he really wanted to become a police officer, and joined the force in 1970. He worked in the department's crime lab for 11 years and became interested in crime-scene investigation, which led him to the homicide unit and, finally, the routine squad. Now that his government pension is guaranteed, McGinnis has begun considering a new career, perhaps as an investigator for an insurance firm or government agency. In the meantime, he still manages to bring a passion for detective work to the job every day, no small feat in a profession where a good day is when only one person dies.

One activity that keeps McGinnis fresh is sailing on the Chesapeake, a love he shares with his best friend on the police force, Detective Mike Helwig, another routine squad member. Both McGinnis and Helwig own sailboats and like nothing better than spending a day with the spray in their face and the wind at their back. McGinnis and Helwig also share a pretty wicked sense of humor, which perhaps more than anything keeps them in the proper frame of mind to confront death every day.

"You have to have a sense of humor to do this job," says McGinnis. "That's the only way you stay sane."


Well, for one thing, they tend to be a good bit more morbid than the typical joke told around most office water coolers. Here's one of the milder ones:

"There were two brothers, both of whom lived with their mother. One of the brothers was going out of town, so he asked the other brother to take care of his cat while he was away. The other brother agreed. When the first brother came back a week later, the first question he asked was, 'How's Kitty?' And his brother answered, 'Your damn cat is dead.' 'Oh, no! That's terrible!' the first brother says. 'Why did you have to come out and say it like that?' The second brother says, 'What do you mean?,' and the first brother says, 'Well, you know, make something up. Say that Kitty was playing with a ball of yarn up on the roof and she fell and was taken to the hospital, but there was nothing they could do for her and she died peacefully. You didn't have to just come out and say she was dead just like that. That's very insensitive.' The second brother says, 'Yeah, maybe you're right. I'm sorry.' The first brother says, 'That's okay. By the way, how's Mom?' And the second brother says, 'Well, she was playing with a ball of yarn up on the roof . . .' "

After McGinnis recounts the joke, an old chestnut among homicide detectives, he laughs at it and apologizes for it almost in the same breath.

"Some of the insensitivity that's displayed by members of my profession -- homicide detectives in particular -- could appear cruel to people outside of that community," McGinnis says. "But there are a lot of walking wounded up there {in homicide}. It's the way a lot of people deal with death."

For many death investigators, humor is a powerful weapon. It acts as both a sword and a shield, slicing through the pain that they feel comfortable dealing with and blocking the pain that they can't quite face. To an outsider, the humor can seem macabre, or even sick; to someone who deals with death every day, it's nothing less than an affirmation of life: I'm O.K. -- You're Dead.

The need for humor springs from what McGinnis and Helwig describe as the toughest part of the job: notifying a next of kin about the death of a loved one. Breaking the news is never easy, but both men have found the natural death notifications tougher than the ones they did when they were on the homicide squad.

"To me, natural death notifications are much harder than the murders," McGinnis says. "The typical murder case in the city is the 19-year-old kid. His parents know he's a drug dealer, and all of a sudden he's dead. Now, everyone's upset, it's still their baby, but it's usually pretty clear to the parents that the kid's been on the wrong side of the law for a while. That's a lot different from Dad who works hard every day at a construction site to support his family, and someone working on the sixth floor accidentally drops a brick that hits him in the head and kills him. Or the guy who's been married to the same woman for 42 years goes to the store and suddenly he keels over."

Routine squad members are called on to break the bad news to someone on average once every day, and the task is approached with the sort of dread that not even a dead body can conjure up. Most times, the notifications are sandwiched between more mundane tasks -- writing up death reports, interviewing doctors, tracking down medical records. On one recent morning, Mike Helwig went from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where he investigated the death of a 69-year-old tourist from Illinois who dropped dead waiting in line at the White House, to a row house in Northeast to notify a man that his grandson, who had been imprisoned in D.C. Jail, had died of AIDS in the hospital that morning.

"Now, the grandfather's listed as the next of kin, but I'm not sure if he's been notified of his grandson's death yet, and I'm not going to assume he has," Helwig says as he pulls the routine squad cruiser in front of the house. "I learned that a long time ago. Sometimes a hospital will tell someone's next of kin that their loved one is in the hospital, without saying that he's lying there with a sheet over his head. And you go in and start asking {the next of kin} questions about how he died."

Helwig, an outgoing Dick Butkus lookalike, employs many of the same investigative techniques as McGinnis, but adapts them to suit the contours of his own personality. While McGinnis's soft-spoken demeanor creates an air of quiet authority at a scene, Helwig relies more on bluster, befriending sources with good-natured small talk in the hope that they will take him into their confidence. Helwig raps on the door, and a man appearing to be in his early sixties answers.

"My name is Michael Helwig. I'm with the medical examiner's office of the homicide division . . ."

"Yes . . ."

"And . . . may I talk to you for a minute?"

The man's expression is frozen as he lets Helwig in the door.

"It's in reference to your grandson, Claude," Helwig says, rolling out the news slowly.


"Has anybody talked to you about him yet?"

"Well, I was over at the hospital to see him about two weeks ago . . ."

"Well, I have some information to give you," Helwig says. "Claude passed away earlier this morning. I'm sure it doesn't come as a surprise to you because of his medical deterioration. I'm just here to tell you that's all over with now. He's out of pain now."

The grandfather nods with an impassive, almost dazed look on his face. He stares directly at Helwig but seems to be looking through him, swept away by a flood of thoughts and feelings. Helwig brings the man back with a few specific questions about his grandson, trying to find out exactly how he contracted AIDS.

"Well, obviously, one of the things the medical examiner's office tries to do is to determine where the disease may have come from," Helwig says, his voice soft and comforting. "Now, we know that AIDS can be associated with intravenous drug use, and also within the gay lifestyle, there's a lot of it. In your conversations with your grandson, did he ever indicate he used heroin or intravenous drugs?"

"Not to my knowledge," the man says. "He was into some sort of drugs, I know that, but heroin -- I never saw anything like that."

There's a pause, and Helwig seems ready to change the subject when the grandfather surprisingly expands on the drug theme. Far from being offended by the question, the grandfather actually seems anxious to volunteer as much information as Helwig wants, indeed, more than he wants.

"I never saw any marks on him that would say to me that he was using needles, but you never can tell, people shoot up in strange places," says the man. "I've got enough wisdom to know the difference between a heroin abuser and a coke abuser, you know. I know what I'm talking about . . ."

"I believe you, I believe you," Helwig says, nodding his head.

"You know, there's certain things about them that you pick up," the man continues. "A heroin abuser, they're kind of laid-back, they're just real cool . . ."

"Right . . ."

"You take a crack addict, they get hyper all the time."

"Right . . ."

"Marijuana users, they're pretty laid-back too," the grandfather says. "So the only thing I can think he might have used was crack or marijuana."

Helwig listens carefully to the slightly confused drug primer, though it isn't exactly relevant to his investigation.

"Let me ask you this," Helwig says when the man has finished. "Was your grandson in a gay lifestyle at all?"

"Well, we were talking about that," the grandfather says. "I know that one of the times he ran away from home, he came back with someone who my daughter said was talking a little bit on the gay side. Then when he became ill, I didn't talk to him too much because he was so weak and I didn't want to pump him, you know, for information. But one time he did mention something about that the disease was from some gay thing, but I don't really know."

"I see, I see," Helwig says, gleaning the piece of information he was looking for. Helwig proceeds to explain that the body is at the city morgue and that there's "no rush" to make arrangements with a funeral home to pick it up. He gives the man the number for the morgue, along with a card containing his own phone number.

"If you have any problem or question, here's my name, here's my phone number. Don't think twice about calling. That's what I'm here for," Helwig says. "I'm sorry about your loss, but your grandson's out of pain now. That's the important thing."

"Well, it was so sad to see him waste away like that," the grandfather says, showing Helwig to the door. "But I appreciate you coming by, I really do."

Helwig climbs back in the cruiser, and for a while, he doesn't say anything.

"Some guys on the force will tell you that breaking the news to people doesn't bother them anymore," Helwig says finally. "That's a bunch of crap. You never get used to it."

WHEN THE ROUTINE SQUAD MEMBERS aren't investigating a death, making a notification or typing up reports, they're usually back in the cruiser waiting for the next call. They're never disappointed; death investigation is one of the few completely recession-proof jobs. Between assignments, Helwig talks a little about life after police work, now that, at 43, he's only about a year shy of qualifying for his 20-year pension.

"I think I'd like to be a history teacher after this, maybe teach high school history in the Carolinas or the Florida Keys," Helwig says. "I'd like to teach kids when they're still impressionable. I figure if I can talk a kid into giving up the rest of his life {by confessing to a crime}, I can talk a kid out of it."

Helwig grew up in Allentown, Pa., graduated from the University of Arizona with a business degree and came to Washington with the thought of working his way through law school. He changed his mind about law and joined the police force in 1971, working first as a uniformed officer and then as an investigator in the sex offense branch. He joined the homicide division in 1980, and then landed a spot on the routine squad when it started up.

"Cruiser 308, respond to possible natural on East Capitol Street," crackles Helwig's radio suddenly. "Decomposed body."

"A smelly," Helwig says, swinging the cruiser east. "Sometimes these are the hardest ones to investigate because the state of the body can hide a stab wound or a bullet hole, so what appears to be a natural may in fact turn out to be a homicide.

"Have you ever seen a decomposed body?" he asks me. "I'll tell you one thing: You never forget that smell."

I'll tell you another thing: That 7-Eleven jumbo coffee I've been nursing has suddenly lost its appeal. As we pull up to the building, an eight-story apartment complex for senior citizens, Helwig's comments about the smell take on the tone of a warning.

"Uh, listen, once you're in the room, don't continually walk in and out," Helwig advises. "Your sense of smell becomes, well, I won't say used to it, but sort of accustomed to it. It's when you walk in and out that you sometimes get into trouble. Another trick I always use is to breathe through your mouth, not your nose."

We enter the building and take the elevator to the third floor. As soon as the doors open, a rank, fetid odor shoots straight up the nostrils, where it will remain hours after we leave the scene. The smell defies a complete description, which is probably just as well. As soon as we step into the hallway, we are met by a policewoman holding her nose, practically running away from the direction of the smell.

"Oh, come on, you're going to have to get used to this," Helwig says good-naturedly to the officer, a rookie on her first decomposed body assignment. "It's worse if you hold your nose."

He strides confidently down the hallway, where two other police officers brief him on how they responded to the call. "Okay, let's take a look," Helwig says, opening the door to the apartment.

As it turns out, the odor in the hallway is only a warm-up to the stench inside the apartment; it literally makes the eyes water. About 15 feet from the door lies the bloated body, a 68-year-old woman lying face down on the living room floor with a wheelchair flipped over on top of her. The apartment is a mess. The counters and table tops are strewn with various items -- an open box of Kellogg's All-Bran, a stack of old newspapers, several empty cans of iced tea, more than a dozen packets of sugar and several books of burnt matches. On the kitchen counter sits a coffee mug that reads: "OLD BOOKKEEPERS NEVER DIE, THEY JUST BECOME UNBALANCED."

Helwig sketches the scene in his notebook, noting the position of the body in a pool of fluid and the location of other items in the apartment. He estimates the woman has been dead seven to 10 days. A search of the bedroom turns up a wallet with ID, as well as a number of vials of prescription pills to treat seizures and a heart condition. Helwig makes an inventory of the drugs and gathers them in a plastic bag.

The pills and the position of the body seem to paint a clear picture of the "terminal event," as it's called in the death report -- the woman most likely had a heart attack or seizure, flipped over in her wheelchair and died. Nevertheless, Helwig continues to dig for more information, walking out in the hallway to chat up the woman's next-door neighbor, an elderly man in a wheelchair. From the way the old man warms up almost immediately to Helwig, it's clear he doesn't get to talk to many people.

"Did she ever complain about not feeling well?" Helwig asks the man after exchanging small talk.

"Well, I'm a diabetic, and she once came in asking if I had any needles left," the old man tells Helwig. "I said, 'I didn't know you were a diabetic too.' And she said, 'Oh, I'm not. I just need it, you know, to get high.' "

Even Helwig can't control the look of surprise that flashes across his face. He thanks the man and reenters the woman's apartment.

"See?" Helwig says. "That's what all of these packets of sugar are -- to cook heroin. I'll bet you we find a syringe in here if we look hard enough."

Sure enough, he discovers a syringe under a pile of clothes in the bedroom.

"She may have just been a chipper -- an occasional user," Helwig says. "It may not have had anything to do with her death. But now I'll include that in my report. You just never know what will turn up, even when you think you've got the puzzle all figured out."

Several minutes later, two technicians from the medical examiner's office arrive with a zippered body bag, and they bundle the body away to be autopsied. Before Helwig leaves, he stops to say goodbye to the old man next door.

"Hey, thanks for your help," Helwig says to the man. "Next time I come by, we'll just have a cup of coffee and talk."

"I'd like that," the old man says, his face lighting up. "I'd like that very much."

A WEEK LATER, HELWIG AND MCGINNIS are aboard Helwig's sailboat, bobbing gently on the Chesapeake just off Solomons Island. They talk briefly of work, their children, the house McGinnis is building near Waldorf, the computer program Helwig recently purchased. But mostly, they let their surroundings do the talking, as they listen to the wind ripple through the sails, squinting at the water as it refracts the sun into hundreds of shimmering pools of light.

The sloop sails north toward Cove Point, and the reddish-brown cliffs of Calvert County begin to thrust from the shoreline. Helwig lies sprawled across the front of the boat, his feet dangling over the bow, while McGinnis steers the vessel from the stern. A tape player below deck blasts Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," a sentiment that's hard to dispute with the wind in the sails and the sun in your face.

"Ah, it doesn't get any better than this," Helwig sighs, his voice wafting from the bow, borne on the breeze.

Washington is only 50 miles away, but it might as well be on another planet for all the influence it has here. Spending a day on the Chesapeake won't stop anyone from dying, but it's as good a place as any to make one's peace with death; a necessary reminder that the same ineffable force that takes a life also has the power to make a life worth living again. Looking up through the sails at the sun blasting a silver hole in the clouds, it's hard not to feel, if only for a moment, the incredible and all-too-fleeting thrill of simply being alive.

Tom McNichol last wrote for the Magazine on the wonders of 976 telephone numbers.