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THE TASK OF collecting trace evidence was overwhelming and had to be done before anything else. People generally have no idea what a microscopic pigpen they carry with them until someone like me starts scouring clothing and bodies for barely visible debris. I found splinters of wood, likely from the floor and walls, and cat litter, dirt, bits and pieces of insects and plants, and the expected ash and trash from the fire. But the most telling discovery came from the tremendous injury to her neck. Through a lens, I found two shiny, metallic specks. I collected them with the tip of my little finger, and delicately transferred them to a square of clean white cotton cloth.

There was a dissecting microscope on top of an old metal desk, and I set the magnification to twenty and adjusted the illuminator. I could scarcely believe it when I saw the tiny flattened and twisted silvery shavings in the bright circle of light.

'This is very important,' I started talking fast. 'I'm going to pack them in cotton inside an evidence container, and we need to make double sure there's no other debris like this in any of the other wounds. To the naked eye, it flashes like a piece of silver glitter.'

'Transferred from the weapon?'

Gerde was excited, too, and he came over to take a look.

'They were embedded deep inside the wound to her neck. So yes, I'd say that was a transfer, similar to what I found in the Warrenton case,' I answered him.

'And we know what about that?'

'A magnesium turning,' I answered. 'And we don't mention anything about this to anyone. We don't want this leaking to the press. I'll let Benton and McGovern know.'

'You got it,' he said with feeling.

There were twenty-seven wounds, and after a painful scrutinizing of all of them, we found no other bits of the shiny metal, and this struck me as a little puzzling since I had assumed the throat had been cut last. If that were the case, why wasn't the turning transferred to an earlier wound? I believed it would have been, especially in those instances when the knife had penetrated up to the guard and was swiped clean by muscular and elastic tissue as the blade is withdrawn.

'Not impossible but inconsistent,' I said to Gerde as I began measuring the cut to the throat. 'Six and three-quarters inches long,' I said, jotting it down on a body diagram. 'Shallow up around the right ear, then deep, through the strap muscles and trachea, then shallow again higher on the opposite side of the neck. Consistent with the knife drawn across the neck from behind, by a left-handed assailant.'

It was almost two P.M. when we finally began washing the body, and for minutes, water draining through the steel tabletop was bright red. I scrubbed stubborn blood with a big soft sponge, and her wounds seemed even more gaping and mutilating when her taut brown skin was clean. Kellie Shephard had been a beautiful woman, with high cheekbones and a flawless complexion as smooth as polished wood. She was five-foot-eight, with a lean, athletic figure. Her fingernails were unpainted, and she had been wearing no jewelry when she was found.

When we opened her up, her pierced chest cavity was filled with almost a liter of blood that had hemorrhaged from the great vessels leading to and from her heart and from her lungs. After receiving these injuries, she would have bled to death in, at the most, minutes, and I placed the timing of those attacks later in the struggle, when she was weakening and slowing down. The angles of those wounds were slight enough for me to suspect she had been moving very little on the floor when they had been inflicted from above. Then she had managed to roll over, perhaps in her last dying effort to protect herself, and I conjectured that this was when her throat was slashed.

'Someone should have had an awful lot of blood on him,' I commented as I began measuring the cuts to the hands.

'No kidding.'

'He had to clean up somewhere. You don't walk into a motel lobby looking like that.'

'Unless he lives around here.'

'Or got into his vehicle and hoped he didn't get pulled for something.'

'She's got a little brownish fluid in her stomach.'

'So she hadn't eaten recently, probably not since dinner, at any rate,' I said. 'I guess we need to find out if her bed was unmade.'

I was getting an image of a woman asleep when something happened either late Saturday night or in the early hours of Sunday morning. For some reason, she got up and turned off the alarm and unlocked the back door. Gerde and I used surgical staples to close the Y incision at shortly past four. I cleaned up in the morgue's small dressing room, where a mannikin used for staging violent deaths in court was in a state of disarray and undress on the shower floor.

Other than teenagers burning down old farmhouses, arsons in Lehigh were rare. Violence in the tidy middle-class subdivision called Wescosville where Shephard had lived was unheard of, as well. Crime there had never been more serious than smash and grabs, when a thief spied a pocketbook or wallet in plain view inside a house, and broke in and grabbed. Since there was no police department in Lehigh, by the time state troopers responded to the clanging burglar alarm, the thief was long gone.

I got my BDUs and steel-reinforced boots from my turnout bag and shared the same changing room with the mannikin. Gerde was kind enough to give me a ride to the fire scene, and I was impressed by lush fir trees and roadside flower gardens, and every now and then, a well-kept, unassuming church. We turned on Hanover Drive, where homes were modern brick and wood, two-story and spacious, with basketball hoops, bicycles, and other signs of children.

'Do you have any idea of the price range?' I said, watching more houses flow past.

'Two-to-three-hundred-K range,' he said. 'Got a lot of engineers, nurses, stock brokers, and executives back here. Plus, I-78 is the main artery through Lehigh Valley, and you can shoot straight out on that and be in New York in an hour and a half. So some people commute back and forth to the city.'

'What else is around here?' I asked.

'A lot of industrial parks are just ten or fifteen minutes away. Coca-Cola, Air Products, Nestle warehouses, Perrier. You pretty much name it. And farmland.'

'But she worked at the hospital.'

'Right. And that's at most a ten-minute drive, as you can tell.'

'Are you aware of ever having seen her before?'

Gerde thought for a minute as thin smoke drifted up from behind trees at the end of the street.

'I'm fairly certain I've seen her in the cafeteria before,' he answered. 'It's hard not to notice someone who looked like that. She may have been at a table with other nurses, I don't really recall. But I don't think we ever spoke.'

Shephard's house was yellow clapboard with white trim, and although the fire may not have been difficult to contain, the damage from water, and from axes chopping great holes to vent the fire out of the roof, was devastating. What was left was a sad, sooty face with a caved-in head, and shattered windows that were depressed, lifeless eyes. Borders of wildflowers were trampled, the neatly mown grass turned to mud, and a late-model Camry parked in the drive was covered with cinders. Fire department and ATF investigators were working inside, while two FBI agents in flak jackets were prowling the perimeter.

I found McGovern in the backyard talking to an intense young woman dressed in cut-off jeans, sandals, and a T-shirt.

'And that was what? Close to six?' McGovern was saying to her.

'That's right. I was getting dinner ready and saw her pull into her driveway, parking exactly where her car is now,' the woman recounted excitedly. 'She went inside, then came out maybe thirty minutes later and began pulling weeds. She liked to work in the yard, cut her own grass and everything.'

McGovern watched me as I walked up.

'This is Mrs Harvey,' she said to me. 'The next-door neighbor.'

'Hello,' I said to Mrs Harvey, whose eyes were bright with excitement that bordered on fear.

'Dr Scarpetta is a medical examiner,' McGovern explained.

'Oh,' said Mrs Harvey.

'Did you see Kellie again that night?' McGovern then asked.

The woman shook her head.

'She went in,' she said, 'I guess, and that was it. I know she worked real hard and usually didn't stay up late.'

'What about a relationship? Was there anybody she saw?'

'Oh, she's been through them,' Mrs Harvey said. 'A doctor here and there, different folks from the hospital. I remember last year she started seeing this man who had been her patient. Nothing lasted very long, it seems to me. She's so beautiful, that's the problem. The men wanted one thing, and she had something different in mind. I know because she used to make remarks about it.'

'But nobody recently?' McGovern asked.

Mrs Harvey had to think.

'Just her girlfriends,' she replied. 'She has a couple people she works with, and sometimes they dropped by or went off somewhere together. But I don't remember any activity that night. I mean, that's not saying I would know. Someone could have come over, and I wouldn't necessarily have heard a thing.'

'Have we found her cat?' I asked.

McGovern did not answer.

'That darn cat,' Mrs Harvey said. 'Pumpkin. Spoiled, spoiled, spoiled.'

She smiled and her eyes filled with tears.

'That was her child,' Harvey said.

'An indoor cat?' I then asked.

'Oh, absolutely. Kellie never let that cat out of the house, treated him like a hothouse tomato.'

'His litter box was found in the backyard,' McGovern told her. 'Did Kellie sometimes empty it and leave it out all night? Or for that matter, did she have a habit of emptying it at night? Going out after dark, the door unlocked and the alarm off.'

Harvey looked confused, and I suspected she had no idea that her neighbor had been murdered.

'Well,' she said, 'I do know that I've seen her empty the litter before, but always in a trash bag that went into the super can. So it wouldn't make sense for her to do that at night. My guess is, she might have emptied it and left it outside to air, you know? Or maybe she just didn't have time to hose it off and was going to do it the next morning. But whatever the case, that cat knew how to use the toilet. So it wouldn't be any big deal for him to be without his litter box for a night.'

She stared off at a state police car cruising by.

'No one's said how the fire started,' Harvey went on. 'Do we know?'

'We're working on it,' McGovern said.

'She didn't die… well, it was quick, wasn't it?'

She squinted in the setting sun, and she bit her lower lip.

'I just don't want to think she suffered,' she said.

'Most people who die in fires don't suffer,' I answered, evading her question with gentle words. 'Usually carbon monoxide overcomes them and they aren't conscious.'

'Oh, thank God,' she said.

'I'll be inside,' McGovern said to me.

'Mrs Harvey,' I said, 'did you know Kellie very well?'

'We've been neighbors for almost five years. Not that we did a whole lot together, but I certainly knew her.'

'I'm wondering if you might have any recent photographs of her, or know someone who might?'

'I might have something.'

'I have to make sure of the identification,' I then said, although my motive was other than that.

I wanted to see for myself what Shephard had looked like in life.

'And if there's anything else you can tell me about her, I would appreciate it,' I went on. 'For example, does she have family here?'

'Oh no,' Harvey said, staring at her neighbor's ruined house. 'She was from all over. Her father was military, you know, and I think he and her mom live somewhere in North Carolina. Kellie was very worldly from having moved around so much. I used to tell her I wished I could be as strong and smart as her. She didn't take crap off anyone, let me tell you. One time there was a snake on my deck, and I called her, all hysterical. She came on and chased it in the yard and killed it with a shovel. I guess she had to get that way because the men just wouldn't leave her alone. I always told her she could be a movie star, and she would say, But Sandra, I can't act. And I would say, But neither can most of them!'

'She was pretty streetwise, then,' I said.

'You bet. That's why she had that burglar alarm put in. Feisty and streetwise, that's Kellie. If you want to come in with me, I'll see what I can do about pictures.'

'If you don't mind,' I said. 'That's very nice of you.'

We cut through a hedge and I followed her up steps into her big, bright kitchen. It was apparent that Harvey liked to cook, based on a well-stocked pantry and every conceivable appliance. Cookware hung from hooks in the ceiling, and whatever was simmering on the stove smelled rich with beef and onions, perhaps a stroganoff or stew.

'If you want to sit right over there by the window, I'll go get what I've got from the den,' she said.

I took a seat at the breakfast table and looked out the window at Kellie Shephard's house. I could see people passing behind broken windows, and someone had set up lights because the sun was low and smoldering. I wondered how often her neighbor had watched her come and go.

Certainly, Harvey was curious about the life of a woman exotic enough to be a movie star, and I wondered if someone could have stalked Shephard without her neighbor noticing a strange car or person in the area. But I had to be careful what I asked, because it was not publicly known that Shephard had died a violent death.

'Well, I can't believe it,' Harvey called out to me as she returned to the kitchen. 'I got something better. You know, some television crew was at the hospital last week filming a feature about the trauma center. It showed on the evening news, and Kellie was in it, so I taped it. I can't believe it took me this long to think of it, but my brain's not working all that well, if you know what I mean.'

She was holding a videotape. I accompanied her into the living room, where she inserted the tape into the VCR. I sat in a blue wing chair in a sea of blue carpet while she rewound and then hit the play button. The first few frames were of Lehigh Valley hospital from the perspective of a helicopter swooping in with an emergency case. It was then I realized that Kellie was really a medflight paramedic, and not merely a nurse on a ward.

Footage showed Kellie in a jumpsuit dashing down a corridor with other members of the flight crew who had just been paged.

'Excuse me, excuse me,' she said on tape as they darted around people in the way.

She was a spectacular example of the human genome working just right, her teeth dazzling, and the camera in love with every angle of her fine features and bones. It was not hard to imagine patients getting major crushes on her, and then the film showed her in the cafeteria after another impossible mission had been accomplished.

'It's always a race against time,' Shephard was telling the reporter. 'You know even a minute's delay could cost a life. Talk about an adrenaline rush.'

As she continued her rather banal interview, the angle of the camera shifted.

'I can't believe I taped that, but it's not often someone I know is on TV,' Harvey was saying.

It didn't penetrate at first.

'Stop the tape!' I said. 'Rewind. Yes, right there. Freeze it.'

The frame was of someone in the background eating lunch.

'No,' I said under my breath. 'No way.'

Carrie Grethen was wearing jeans and a tie-dye shirt, and eating a sandwich at a table with other busy hospital personnel. I had not recognized her at first because her hair was below her ears and henna red, and last I had seen her, it was short and bleached white. But it was her eyes that finally pulled at me like a black hole. She was staring straight into the camera as she chewed, her eyes as coldly bright and evil as I remembered.

I came out of the chair and went straight to the VCR and popped out the tape.

'I need to take this,' I said, my voice on the verge of panic. 'I promise you'll get it back.'

'Okay. As long as you don't forget. It's my only copy.' Sandra Harvey got up, too. 'Are you all right? You look like you've seen a ghost.'

'I've got to go. Thank you again,' I said.

I ran next door and trotted up steps into the back of the house, where cold water was an inch deep on the floor and dripping slowly from the roof. Agents were moving about, taking photographs and talking amongst themselves.

'Teun!' I called out.

I carefully moved further inside, stepping over missing areas of flooring and doing my best not to trip. I was vaguely aware of an agent dropping the burned carcass of a cat into a plastic bag.

'Teun!' I called out again.

I heard sure feet splashing and stepping over fallen roofing and collapsed walls. Then she was mere inches from me and steadying my arm with her hand.

'Whoa. Careful,' she started to say.

'We've got to find Lucy,' I said.

'What's going on?'

She began to carefully escort me out.

'Where is she?' I demanded.

'There's a two-alarm fire downtown. A grocery store, probably an arson. Kay, what the hell…?'

We were out on the lawn and I was clutching the videotape as if it were my only hope in life.

'Teun, please.' I held her gaze. 'Take me to Philadelphia.'

'Come on,' she said.

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