Praised for their meticulous research and accuracy, especially in forensic medicine and police procedures, Patricia Cornwell's novels have set a new standard for crime fiction. Cornwell's first crime novel, Postmortem, introduced Dr. Kay Scarpetta as the Chief Medical Examiner of the Commonwealth of Virginia-and became the first novel to win the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony, and Macavity awards as well as the French Prix du Roman d'Aventure in a single year. In addition to the string of Scarpetta bestsellers that includes Body of Evidence and Book of the Dead, she has penned several other novels (including At Risk and The Front), two cookbooks, and Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper-Case Closed. She also co-wrote and co-produced the movie ATF, and is often interviewed on national television as a forensic consultant.
The Bone Red
I check my oversized titanium watch on its rubber strap and reach for my coffee—black, no sweetener—as distant footsteps sound in the corridor of my bullet-shaped building on the eastern border of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s campus. It isn’t light out yet this third Monday of October.
Seven stories below my top-floor office, traffic is steady on Memorial Drive, rush hour in this part of Cambridge well under way before dawn no matter the season or the weather. Headlights move along the embankment like bright insect eyes, the Charles River rippling darkly, and across the Harvard Bridge the city of Boston is a glittery barrier separating the earthbound empires of business and education from the harbors and bays that become the sea.
It’s too early for staff unless it’s one of the death investigators, but I can’t think of a good reason for Toby or Sherry or whoever is on call to be on this floor.
Actually, I haven’t a clue who came on at midnight, and I try to remember what vehicles were in the lot when I got here about an hour ago. The usual white SUVs and vans and one of our mobile crime scene trucks, I dimly recall. I really didn’t notice what else, was too preoccupied with my iPhone, with alert tones and messages reminding me of conference calls and appointments and court appearance today. Poor situational awareness caused by multitasking, I think impatiently.
I should pay more attention to what’s around me, I chastise myself, but I shouldn’t have to wonder about who’s on call, for God’s sake. This is ridiculous. Frustrated, I think of my head of investigations, Pete Marino, who can’t seem to bother updating the electronic calendar anymore. How hard is it to drag-and-drop names from one date to another so I can see who’s working? He’s not kept up with it for quite some time and has been keeping to himself. Probably what I need to do is have him over for dinner, cook something he likes, and talk about what’s going on with him. The thought of it tries my patience, and at the moment I seem to have none.
Some mentally disturbed person, or maybe evil is the word.
I listen for whoever might be prowling around but hear no one now as I search the Internet, clicking on files, pondering the same details repeatedly as I realize how defeated I feel and how angry that makes me.
You got what you wanted this once.
There really isn’t anything gory or gruesome I’ve not seen or can’t somehow handle, but I was caught off guard last night, a quiet Sunday at home with my husband, Benton, music playing, the MacBook open on the kitchen counter in case anything happened that I should know about immediately. In a mellow mood, I was preoccupied with making one of his favorite dishes, risotto con spinaci come lo fanno a sondrio, waiting for water to boil in a saucepan, drinking a Geheimrat J Riesling that made me think of our recent trip to Vienna and the poignant reason we were there.
I was lost in thoughts of people I love, preparing a fine meal and drinking a gentle wine, when the e-mail with its attached video file landed at exactly 6:30 Eastern Standard Time. I didn’t recognize the sender: BLiDedwood@stealthmail.com.
There was no message, just the subject heading: ATTENTION CHIEF MEDICAL EXAMINER KAY SCARPETTA, in a bold uppercase Eurostile font.
Iron rails the rusty brown of old blood cut across a cracked paved road that leads deeper into the Lowcountry. As I drive over train tracks, it enters my mind that the Georgia Prison for Women is on the wrong side of them and maybe I should take it as another warning and turn back. It’s not quite four p.m., Thursday, June 30. There’s time to catch the last flight to Boston, but I know I won’t.
This part of coastal Georgia is a moody terrain of brooding forests draped with Spanish moss and mudflats etched with convoluted creeks that give way to grassy plains heavy with light. Snowy egrets and great blue herons fly low over brackish water, dragging their feet, and then the woods close in again on either side of the narrow tar-laced road I’m on. Coiling kudzu strangles underbrush and cloaks forest canopies in scaly dark leaves, and giant cypress trees with thick gnarled knees rise out of swamps like prehistoric creatures wading and prowling. While I’ve yet to spot an alligator or a snake, I’m sure they are there and aware of my big white machine roaring and chugging and backfiring.
How I ended up in such a rattletrap that wanders all over the road and stinks like fast food and cigarettes with a whiff of rotting fi sh, I don’t know. It’s not what I told my chief of staff , Bryce, to reserve, which was a safe, dependable, mid-size sedan, preferably a Volvo or a Camry, with side and head airbags and a GPS. When I was met outside the airport terminal by a young man in a white cargo van that doesn’t have air-conditioning or even a map, I told him there had been an error. I’d been given someone else’s vehicle by mistake. He pointed out the contract has my name on it, Kate Scarpetta, and I said my first name is Kay, not Kate, and I didn’t care whose name was on it. A cargo van wasn’t what I ordered. Lowcountry Concierge Connection was very sorry, said the young man, who was quite tan and dressed in a tank top, camo shorts, and fishing shoes. He couldn’t imagine what happened. Obviously a computer problem. He’d be glad to get me something else, but it would be much later in the day, possibly tomorrow.
So far nothing is going the way I’d planned, and I imagine my husband, Benton, saying he told me so. I see him leaning against the travertine countertop in the kitchen last night, tall and slender, with thick silver hair, his chiseled handsome face watching me somberly as we argued again about my coming here. It’s only now that the last trace of my headache is gone. I don’t know why a part of me still believes, contrary to evidence, that half a bottle of wine will resolve differences. It might have been more than half. It was a very nice pinot grigio for the money, light and clean with a hint of apples.
Inside the changing room for female staff, I toss soiled scrubs into a biohazard hamper and strip off the rest of my clothes and medical clogs. I wonder if Col. Scarpetta stenciled in black on my locker will be removed the minute I return to New England in the morning. The thought hadn’t entered my mind before now, and it bothers me. A part of me doesn’t want to leave this place.
Life at Dover Air Force Base has its comforts, despite six months of hard training and the bleakness of handling death daily on behalf of the U.S. government. My stay here has been surprisingly uncomplicated. I can even say it’s been pleasant. I’m going to miss getting up before dawn in my modest room, dressing in cargo pants, a polo shirt, and boots, and walking in the cold dark across the parking lot to the golf course clubhouse for coffee and something to eat before driving to Port Mortuary, where I’m not in charge. When I’m on duty for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, the AFME, I’m no longer a chief. In fact, I’m outranked by quite a number of people, and critical decisions aren’t mine to make, assuming I’m even asked. Not so when I return to Massachusetts, where I’m depended on by everyone.
It’s Monday, February 8. The wall clock above the shiny white sinks reads 16:33 hours, lit up red like a warning. In less than ninety minutes I’m supposed to appear on CNN and explain what a forensic radiologic pathologist, or RadPath, is and why I’ve become one, and what Dover and the Department of Defense and the White House have to do with it. In other words, I’m not just a medical examiner anymore, I suppose I’ll say, and not just a habeas reservist with the AFME, either. Since 9/11, since the United States invaded Iraq, and now the surge of troops in Afghanistan—I rehearse points I should make—the line between the military and civilian worlds has forever faded. An example I might give: This past November during a forty-eight-hour period, thirteen fallen warriors were flown here from the Middle East, and just as many casualties arrived from Fort Hood, Texas. Mass casualty isn’t restricted to the battlefield, although I’m no longer sure what constitutes a battlefield. Maybe every place is one, I will say on TV. Our homes, our schools, our churches, commercial aircraft, and where we work, shop, and go on vacation.
I sort through toiletries as I sort through comments I need to make about 3-D imaging radiology, the use of computerized tomography, or CT, scans in the morgue, and I remind myself to emphasize that although my new headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the first civilian facility in the United States to do virtual autopsies, Baltimore will be next, and eventually the trend will spread. The traditional postmortem examination of dissect as you go and take photographs after the fact and hope you don’t miss something or introduce an artifact can be dramatically improved by technology and made more precise, and it should be.
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