MONDAY MORNING WAS carried in on a storm that thrashed the city with violent winds and pelting rains. I drove to work with windshield wipers going fast and air conditioning on to defog the glass. When I opened my window to toss a token into the toll bin, my suit sleeve got drenched, and then of all days for this to happen, two funeral homes had parked inside the bay, and I had to leave my car outside. The fifteen seconds it took me to dash through the parking lot and unlock the back door of my building concluded my punishment. I was soaked. Water dripped from my hair and my shoes squished as I walked through the bay.
I checked the log in the morning office to see what had come in during the night. An infant had died in his parents' bed. An elderly woman appeared to be a suicidal overdose, and, of course, there was a drug-related shooting from one of the housing projects on the fringes of what had become a more civilized and healthy downtown. In the last several years, the city had been ranked as one of the most violent in the United States, with as many as one hundred and sixty homicides in one year for a population of less than a quarter of a million people.
Police were blamed. Even I was if the statistics compiled by my office didn't suit the politicians or if convictions were slow to come in court. The irrationality of it all never ceased to appall me, for it did not seem to occur to those in power that there is such a thing as preventive medicine, and it is, after all, the only way to halt a lethal disease. It truly is better to vaccinate against polio, for example, than to deal with it after the fact. I closed the log and walked out of the office, my shoes carrying me wetly along the empty corridor.
I turned into the locker room because I was already getting chilled. I hurried out of my sticky suit and blouse and struggled into scrubs, which were always more unwilling the more I rushed. I put on my lab coat, and dried my hair with a towel, running my fingers through it to push it out of my way. The face staring back at me in the mirror looked anxious and tired. I had been neither eating nor sleeping well, and was less disciplined with coffee and alcohol. All of it showed around my eyes. A good deal of it was due to my underlying helpless anger and fear brought about by Carrie. We had no idea where she was, but in my mind she was everywhere.
I went into the break room, where Fielding, who avoided caffeine, was making herb tea. His healthy obsessions did not make me feel any better. I had not exercised in over a week.
'Good morning, Dr Scarpetta,' he said cheerfully.
'Let's hope so,' I replied, reaching for the coffeepot. 'Looks like our caseload is fairly light so far. I'm leaving it up to you, and you can run staff conference. I've got a lot to do.'
Fielding was crisp and fresh in a yellow shirt with French cuffs, and vivid tie and creased black slacks. He was cleanly shaven and smelled good. Even his shoes were shined, because unlike me, he never let life's circumstances interfere with how he took care of himself.
'I don't see how you do it,' I said, looking him up and down. 'Jack, don't you ever suffer from normal things, like depression, stress, cravings for chocolate, cigarettes, Scotch?'
'I tend to overcondition when I get whacked out,' he said, sipping his tea and eyeing me through steam. 'That's when I get injured.'
He thought for a moment.
'I guess the worst thing I do, now that you have me thinking about it, is I shut out my wife and kids. Find excuses not to be home. I'm an insensitive bastard and they hate me for a while. So yes, I'm self destructive, too. But I promise,' he said to me, 'if you would just find time to fast-walk, ride a bike, do a few push-ups, maybe crunches, I swear you'd be amazed.'
He walked off, adding, 'The body's natural morphines, right?'
'Thanks,' I called after him, sorry I asked.
I had barely settled behind my desk when Rose appeared, her hair pinned up, fit for a CEO in her smart, navy blue suit.
'I didn't know you were here,' she said, setting dictated protocols on top of a stack. 'ATF just called. McGovern.'
'Yes?' I asked with interest. 'Do you know about what?'
'She said she was in D.C. over the weekend and needs to see you.'
'When and about what?'
I began signing letters.
'She should be here soon,' Rose said.
I glanced up in surprise.
'She called from her car and told me to let you know that she was almost to Kings Dominion and should be here in twenty or thirty minutes,' Rose went on.
'Then it must be important,' I muttered, opening a cardboard file of slides.
I swung around and removed the plastic cover from my microscope and turned on the illuminator.
'Don't feel you have to drop everything,' said the ever protective Rose. 'It's not as if she made an appointment or even asked if you could fit her in.'
I set a slide on the stage and peered through the eyepiece lens at a tissue section of pancreas, at pink and shrunken cells that looked hyalinized, or scarred.
'His tox came back as zip,' I said to Rose as I put another slide on the stage. 'Except for acetone,' I added. 'The byproduct of inadequate metabolism of glucose. And kidneys show hyperosmolar vacuolization of the proximal convoluted tubular lining cells. Meaning, instead of cuboidal and pink, they're clear, bulging and enlarged.'
'Sonny Quinn again,' Rose said dismally.
'Plus we've got a clinical history of fruity-smelling breath, weight loss, thirst, frequent urination. Nothing that insulin wouldn't have cured. Not that I don't believe in prayer, contrary to what the family has told reporters.'
Sonny Quinn was the eleven-year-old son of Christian Science parents. He had died eight weeks ago, and although there had never been any question as to his cause of death, at least not in my mind, I had finalized nothing until further studies and tests had been completed. In short, the boy had died because he had not received proper medical treatment. His parents had violently protested the autopsy. They had gone on television and accused me of religious persecution and of mutilating their child's body.
Rose had endured my feelings about this many times by now, and she asked, 'Do you want to call them?'
'Want has nothing to do with it. So, yes.'
She shuffled through Sonny Quinn's thick case file and jotted down a phone number for me.
'Good luck,' she said as she passed through the adjoining doorway.
I dialed, with dread in my heart.
'Mrs Quinn?' I said when a woman answered.
'This is Dr Kay Scarpetta. I have the results from Sonny's…'
'Haven't you hurt us enough?'
'I thought you might like to know why your son died…'
'I don't need you to tell me anything about my son,' she snapped.
I could hear someone taking the phone from her as my heart hammered.
'This is Mr Quinn,' said the man whose shield was religious freedom and whose son, as a result, was dead.
'Sonny's cause of death was acute pneumonia due to acute diabetic ketoacidosis due to acute onset of diabetes mellitis. I'm sorry for your pain, Mr Quinn.'
'This is all a mistake. An error.'
'There's no mistake, Mr Quinn. No error,' I said, and it was all I could do to keep the anger out of my voice. 'I can only suggest that if your other young children show Sonny's same symptoms that you get them medical treatment immediately. So you don't have to suffer this way again…'
'I don't need some medical examiner telling me how to raise my children,' he said coldly. 'Lady, I'll see you in court.'
That you will, I thought, for I knew the Commonwealth would charge him and his wife with felony child abuse and neglect.
'Don't you call us anymore,' said Mr Quinn, and he hung up on me.
I returned the receiver to its cradle with a heavy heart and looked up to see Teun McGovern standing in the hallway, just outside my door. I could tell by the look on her face that she had heard every word.
'Teun, come in,' I said.
'And I thought my job was hard.' Her eyes were on mine as she took a chair and moved it directly across from me. 'I know you have to do this all the time, but I guess I've never really heard it. It's not that I don't talk to families all the time, but thankfully it's not my job to tell them exactly what inhaling smoke did to their loved one's trachea or lungs.'
'It's the hardest part,' I said simply, and the weight inside me would not go away.
'I guess you're the messenger they want to kill.'
'Not always,' I said, and I knew that in the solitude of my raw inner self, I would hear the Quinns' accusing, harsh words replay for the rest of my days.
There were so many voices now, screams and prayers of rage and pain and sometimes blame, because I had dared to touch the wounds, and because I would listen. I did not want to talk about this with McGovern. I did not want her to get any closer to me.
'I've got one more phone call to make,' I said. 'So if you want to get coffee? Or just relax for a minute. I'm sure you'll be interested in what I find out.'
I called the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and although it was not quite nine, the registrar was in. He was excruciatingly polite but not at all helpful.
'I completely understand why you're calling and promise that we very much want to help,' he was saying. 'But not without a court order. We can't simply decide to release personal information about any of our students. Certainly not over the phone.'
'Mr Shedd, we're talking about a homicide,' I reminded him as impatience tugged at me.
'I understand,' he said again.
This went on and got me nowhere. Finally I gave up and got off the line. I was dejected when I returned my attention to McGovern.
'They're just covering their asses in case the family tries to come after them later,' McGovern told me what I already knew. 'They need us to give them no choice, so I guess that's what we'll do.'
'Right,' I said dully. 'So what brings you here?' I asked.
'I understand the lab results are in, or at least some of them. I called late Friday,' she said.
'News to me.'
I was irked. If the trace evidence examiner had called McGovern before me, I was going to be really hot. I picked up the phone and called Mary Chan, a young examiner who was new with the labs.
'Good morning,' I said. 'I understand you have some reports for me?'
'I was just getting ready to bring them downstairs.'
'These are the ones you've sent to ATF.'
'Yes. The same ones. I can fax them or bring them in person.'
I gave her the number of the fax machine in my office, and I did not let her know my irritation. But I did give her a hint.
'Mary, in the future, it's best if you let me know about my cases before you start sending lab results to others,' I said calmly.
'I'm sorry,' and I could tell she very much was. 'The investigator called at five as I was halfway out the door.'
The reports were in my hands two minutes later, and McGovern opened her battered briefcase to retrieve her copies. She watched me as I read. The first was an analysis of the metal-like shaving that I had recovered from the dead woman's cut to the left temporal region. According to the scanning electron microscope and energy dispersive X-ray, or SEM/EDX, the elemental composition of the material in question was magnesium.
As for the melted debris recovered from the victim's hair, those results were just as inexplicable. A FTIR, or Fourier transform infrared spectrophotometer, had caused the fibers to selectively absorb infrared light. The characteristic pattern turned out to be that of the chemical polymer polysiloxane, or silicone.
'A little strange, don't you think?' McGovern asked me.
'Let's start with magnesium,' I said. 'What comes to mind is sea water. There's plenty of magnesium in that. Or mining. Or the person was an industrial chemist or worked in a research lab? What about explosives?'
'If potassium chloride came up, then yes. That could be flash powder,' she answered. 'Or RDX, lead styphnate, lead azide or mercury fulminate if we're talking about blasting caps, for example. Or nitric acid, sulfuric acid, glycerin, ammonium nitrate, sodium nitrate. Nitroglycerin, dynamite, and so on and so on. And I will add that Pepper would have picked up on high explosives like that.'
'And magnesium?' I asked.
'Pyrotechnics, or fireworks,' she said. 'To produce the brilliant white light. Or flares.' She shrugged. 'Although aluminum powder is preferred, because it keeps better, unless the magnesium particles are coated with something like linseed oil.'
'Flares,' I thought out loud. 'You light flares, strategically place them, and leave? That could buy you several minutes, at least.'
'With the appropriate fuel load, it could.'
'But that doesn't explain an unburned turning or shaving of it embedded in her wound, that would appear to have been transferred by the sharp instrument she was cut with.'
'They don't use magnesium to make knives,' McGovern observed.
'No, nothing like that. It's too soft. What about the aerospace industry, because it's so light?'
'Most definitely. But in those instances, there are alloys that would have come up during testing.'
'Right. Let's move on to silicone, which doesn't seem to make any sense. Unless she had silicone breast implants before they were banned, which she clearly didn't.'
'I can tell you that silicone rubber is used in electrical insulation, hydraulic fluids, and for water repellency. None of which makes sense, unless there was something in the bathroom, maybe in the tub. Something pink - I don't know what.'
'Do we know if Sparkes had a bathmat - anything rubbery and pink in that bathroom?' I asked.
'We've only begun going through his house with him,' she said. 'But he claims that the decor of the master bath was mostly black and white. The marble floor and walls were black. The sink, cabinets, and tub, white. The shower door was European and wasn't tempered glass, meaning it didn't disintegrate into a billion little glass balls when the temperature exceeded four hundred degrees Fahrenheit.'
'Explaining why it basically melted over the body,' I said.
'Yeah, almost shrink-wrapped it.'
'Not quite,' I said.
'The door had brass hinges and no frame. What we recovered was consistent with that. So your friendly media tycoon's memory holds true at least on that score.'
'And on others?'
'God only knows, Kay.'
She unbuttoned her suit jacket as if it suddenly occurred to her to relax, while she paradoxically glanced up at the clock.
'We're dealing with a very smart man,' she said. 'That much all of us know.'
'And the helicopter? What do you make of that, Teun? I'm assuming you've gotten word about the little white Schweizer, or Robinson, or whatever it was that the farrier saw two days before the fire? Perhaps the same one you and I saw two days later?'
'This is just a theory,' she said. 'A groping one at that, okay?'
Her look was penetrating.
'Maybe he sets the fire and needs to get to the airport fast,' she went on. 'So the day before, the helicopter does a recon over the farm because the pilot knows he'll have to land and take off after dark. Following so far?'
'Saturday rolls around. Sparkes murders the girl and torches his place. He runs out to the pasture and gets on the helicopter, which transports him somewhere near Dulles, where his Cherokee is stashed. He gets to the airport and does his thing with receipts and maybe baggage. Then he makes himself scarce until it's time to show up at Hootowl Farm.'
'And the reason the helicopter showed up on Monday, when we were working the scene?' I then asked. 'How does that fit?'
'Pyros like to watch the fun,' she stated. 'Hell, for all we know, Sparkes was up there himself watching us work our asses off. Paranoid, if nothing else. Figured we'd think it was a news bird, which we did.'
'This is all speculation at this point,' I said, and I had heard enough.
I began rearranging the infinite flow of paperwork that began where it stopped and stopped where it began. McGovern was studying me again. She got up and shut the doors.
'Okay, I think it's time we had a little talk,' she said. 'I don't think you like me. And maybe if you come clean about it, maybe we can do something about it, one way or another.'
'I'm not sure what I think of you, if you must know.'
I stared at her.
'The most important thing is that all of us do our jobs, lest we lose perspective. Since we are dealing with someone who was murdered,' I added.
'Now you're pissing me off,' she said.
'Not intentionally, I assure you.'
'As if someone murdered makes no difference to me? Is that what you're implying? You think I got where I am in life by not giving a shit about who set a fire and why?'
She shoved up her sleeves, as if ready for a fight.
'Teun,' I said. 'I don't have time for this, because I don't think it's constructive.'
'This is about Lucy. You think I'm replacing you, or God knows what. That's what this is all about, isn't it, Kay?'
Now she was making me angry, too.
'You and I have worked together before, right?' she went on. 'We've never had a big problem before now. So one has to ask, what's different? I think the answer's pretty obvious. The difference is that even as we speak, your niece is moving into her new apartment in Philadelphia, to be in my field office, under my supervision. Mine. Not yours. And you don't like it. And guess what else? If I were in your shoes, maybe I wouldn't like it either.'
'It is neither the time nor the place for this discussion,' I said firmly.
She got up and draped her jacket over her arm.
'Then we'll go somewhere else,' she decided. 'I intend to resolve this before I drive back north.'
For an instant I was stymied as I reigned from the empire of my wrap-around desk, with its foremen of files, and guards demanding the hard labor of journal articles, and legions of messages and correspondence that would never set me free. I took my glasses off and massaged my face. When McGovern was blurred, it was easier for me.
'I'll take you to lunch,' I said. 'If you're willing to hang around three more hours. In the meantime' - I got up from my chair - 'I have bones in a pot that need heating up. You can come with me, if you have a strong stomach.'
'You won't scare me off with that.' McGovern seemed pleased.
McGovern was not the sort to follow anyone around, and after I had turned on the burner in the decomposition room, she lingered long enough for steam to rise. Then she headed out to ATF's Richmond field office, and reappeared suddenly within an hour. She was breathless and tense when she walked in. I was carefully stirring simmering bones.
'We got another one,' she said quickly.
'Another one?' I asked.
I set the long plastic spoon on a countertop.
'Another fire. Another whacko one. This time in Lehigh County, about an hour from Philadelphia,' she said. 'Are you coming with me?'
My mind raced through all the possibilities of what might happen if I dropped everything and left with her. For one thing, I was unnerved by the thought of the two of us alone for five hours inside a car.
'It's residential,' she went on. 'It started early yesterday morning, and a body has been recovered. A woman. In the master bathroom.'
'Oh no,' I said.
'It's clear the fire was intended to conceal that she had been murdered,' she said, and then went on to explain why it was possible the case was related to the one in Warrenton.
When the body was discovered, Pennsylvania state police had immediately requested assistance from ATF. Then ATF fire investigators at the scene had entered data on their laptops, and ESA got a hit almost instantly. By last night the Lehigh case had begun to take on huge significance, and the FBI offered agents and Benton, and the state police had accepted.
'The house was built on a slab,' McGovern was explaining as we got on I-95 North. 'So no basement to worry about, thank God. Our guys have been there since three o'clock this morning, and what's curious is in this case, the fire didn't do the job well at all. The areas of the master suite, a guest room right above it on the second floor, and the living room downstairs are pretty badly burned, with extensive ceiling damage in the bathroom, and spalling of the concrete floor in the garage.'
Spalling occurs when rapid, intense heat causes moisture trapped in concrete to boil, fragmenting the surface.
'The garage was located where?' I asked as I tried to envision what she was describing.
'On the same side of the house as the master suite. Again, a fast, hot fire. But the burning wasn't complete, a lot of alligatoring, a lot of surface charring. As for the rest of the house, we're talking mostly smoke and water damage. Which isn't consistent with the work of the individual who torched the Sparkes farm. Except for one important thing. So far, it doesn't appear that any type of accelerant was used, and there wasn't a sufficient fuel load in the bathroom to account for the height of the flames.'
'Was the body in the tub?' I asked.
'Yes. Makes my hair stand on end.'
'It should. What kind of shape is she in?' I asked the most important question as McGovern held our speed ten miles over the limit in her government Ford Explorer.
'Not so burned that the medical examiner couldn't tell her throat was cut.'
'Then she's already been autopsied,' I assumed.
'To be honest, I really don't know how much has been done. But she's not going anywhere. That's your turf. Mine's to see what the hell else we can find at the fire scene.'
'So you're not going to use me to shovel out debris?' I asked.
McGovern laughed and turned on the CD player. I was not expecting Amadeus.
'You can dig all you want,' she said with a smile that relieved a lot of tension. 'You're not bad at it, by the way, for someone who probably doesn't run unless she's being chased. Or work out anything except intellectual problems.'
'You do enough autopsies and move enough bodies, and you don't need to lift weights,' I distorted the truth, badly.
'Hold out your hands.'
I did, and she glanced over at them, changing lanes at the same time.
'Damn. I guess it didn't occur to me what saws and scalpels and hedge pruners will do for muscle tone,' she commented.
'You know, what you use to open the chest.'
'Rib shears, please.'
'Well, I've seen hedge pruners in some morgues, and knitting needles used to track bullet wounds.'
'Not in my morgue. At least not in the one I have now. Although I will admit that in the early days one learned to improvise,' I felt compelled to say as Mozart played.
'One of those little trade secrets you don't want to ever come out in court,' McGovern confessed. 'Sort of like stashing the best jar of confiscated moonshine in a secret desk drawer. Or cops keeping souvenirs from scenes, like marijuana pipes and whacko weapons. Or medical examiners hanging on to artificial hips and parts of fractured skulls that in truth should be buried with the bodies.'
'I won't deny that some of my colleagues aren't always appropriate,' I said. 'But keeping body parts without permission is not in the same category as pinching a jar of moonshine, if you ask me.'
'You're awfully straight and narrow, aren't you, Kay?' McGovern stated. 'Unlike the rest of us, you never seem to use poor judgment or do anything wrong. You probably never overeat or get drunk. And to be honest, it makes the rest of us schleps afraid to be around you, afraid you'll look at us and disapprove.'
'Good Lord, what an awful image,' I exclaimed. 'I hope that's not how I'm perceived.'
She said nothing.
'Certainly I don't see myself that way,' I said. 'Quite to the contrary, Teun. Maybe I'm just more reserved because I have to be. Maybe I'm more self-contained because I always have been, and no, it's not my tendency to publicly confess my sins. But I don't look around and judge. And I can promise I'm much harder on myself than I'd ever be on you.'
'That's not been my impression. I think you size me up and down and inside out to make sure I'm suitable to train Lucy and won't be a pernicious influence.'
I could not answer that charge, because it was true.
'I don't even know where she is,' I suddenly realized.
'Well, I can tell you. She's in Philly. Bouncing back and forth between the field office and her new apartment.'
For a while, music was our only conversation, and as the beltway carried us around Baltimore, I could not help but think of a medical student who also had died in a suspicious fire.
'Teun,' I said. 'How many children do you have?'
'One. A son.'
I could tell this was not a happy subject.
'How old is he?' I asked.
'Joe is twenty-six.'
'He lives nearby?'
I stared out the window at reflective signs flowing by, announcing exits to Baltimore streets I used to know very well when I studied medicine at Johns Hopkins.
'I don't know where he lives, to tell you the truth,' she said. 'We were never close. I'm not sure anyone has ever been close to Joe. I'm not sure anyone would want to be.'
I did not pry, but she wanted to talk.
'I knew something was wrong with him when he started sneaking into the liquor cabinet at the tender age of ten, drinking gin, vodka, and putting water in the bottles, thinking he would fool us. By sixteen, he was a raging alcoholic, in and out of treatment, DUIs, drunk and disorderlies, stealing, one thing after another. He left home at nineteen, skipping around here and there and eventually cut off all contact. To be honest, he's probably a street person somewhere.'
'You've had a hard life,' I said.