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BENTON WESLEY WAS taking off his running shoes in my kitchen when I ran to him, my heart tripping over fear and hate and remembered horror. Carrie Grethen's letter had been mixed in a stack of mail and other paperwork, all of it put off until a moment ago when I had decided to drink cinnamon tea in the privacy of my Richmond, Virginia, home. It was Sunday afternoon, thirty-two minutes past five, June eighth.

'I'm assuming she sent this to your office,' Benton said.

He did not seem disturbed as he bent over, peeling off white Nike socks.

'Rose doesn't read mail marked personal and confidential.' I added a detail he already knew as my pulse ran hard.

'Maybe she should. You seem to have a lot of fans out there.' His wry words cut like paper.

I watched him set pale bare feet on the floor, his elbows on his knees and head low. Sweat trickled over shoulders and arms well defined for a man his age, and my eyes drifted down knees and calves, to tapered ankles still imprinted with the weave of his socks. He ran his fingers through wet silver hair and leaned back in the chair.

'Christ,' he muttered, wiping his face and neck with a towel. 'I'm too old for this crap.'

He took a deep breath and blew out slowly with mounting anger. The stainless steel Breitling Aerospace watch I had given to him for Christmas was on the table. He picked it up and snapped it on.

'Goddamn it. These people are worse than cancer. Let me see it,' he said.

The letter was penned by hand in bizarre red block printing, and drawn at the top was a crude crest of a bird with long tail feathers. Scrawled under it was the enigmatic Latin word ergo, or therefore, which in this context meant nothing to me. I unfolded the simple sheet of white typing paper by its comers and set it in front of him on the antique French oak breakfast table. He did not touch a document that might be evidence as he carefully scanned Carrie Grethen's weird words and began running them through the violent database in his mind.

'The postmark's New York, and of course there's been publicity in New York about her trial,' I said as I continued to rationalize and deny. 'A sensational article just two weeks ago. So anyone could have gotten Carrie Grethen's name from that. Not to mention, my office address is public information. This letter's probably not from her at all. Probably some other cuckoo.'

'It probably is from her.' He continued reading.

'She could mail something like this from a forensic psychiatric hospital and nobody would check it?' I countered as fear coiled around my heart.

'Saint Elizabeth's, Bellevue, Mid-Hudson, Kirby.' He did not glance up. 'The Carrie Grethens, the John Hinckley Juniors, the Mark David Chapmans are patients, not inmates. They enjoy our same civil rights as they sit around in penitentiaries and forensic psychiatric centers and create pedophile bulletin boards on computers and sell serial killer tips through the mail. And write taunting letters to chief medical examiners.'

His voice had more bite, his words more clipped. Benton's eyes burned with hate as he finally lifted them to me.

'Carrie Grethen is mocking you, big chief. The FBI. Me,' he went on.

'FIB,' I muttered, and on another occasion, I might have found this funny.

Wesley stood and draped the towel over a shoulder.

'Let's say it's her,' I started in again.

'It is.' He had no doubt.

'Okay. Then there's more to this than mockery, Benton.'

'Of course. She's making sure we don't forget that she and Lucy were lovers, something the general public doesn't know yet,' he said. 'The obvious point is, Carrie Grethen hasn't finished ruining people's lives.'

I could not stand to hear her name, and it enraged me that she was now, this moment, inside my West End home. She might as well be sitting at my breakfast table with us, curdling the air with her foul, evil presence. I envisioned her condescending smile and blazing eyes and wondered what she looked like now after five years of steel bars and socializing with the criminally insane. Carrie was not crazy. She had never been that. She was a character disorder, a psychopath, a violent entity with no conscience.

I looked out at wind rocking Japanese maples in my yard and the incomplete stone wall that scarcely kept me from my neighbors. The telephone rang abruptly and I was reluctant to answer it.

'Dr Scarpetta,' I said into the receiver as I watched Benton's eyes sweep back down that red-penned page.

'Yo,' Pete Marino's familiar voice came over the line. 'It's me.'

He was a captain with the Richmond Police Department, and I knew him well enough to recognize his tone. I braced myself for more bad news.

'What's up?' I said to him.

'A horse farm went up in flames last night in Warrenton. You may have heard about it on the news,' he said. 'Stables, close to twenty high-dollar horses, and the house. The whole nine yards. Everything burned to the ground.'

So far, this wasn't making any sense. 'Marino, why are you calling me about a fire? In the first place, Northern Virginia is not your turf.'

'It is now,' he said.

My kitchen seemed to get small and airless as I waited for the rest.

'ATF's just called out NRT,' he went on.

'Meaning us,' I said.

'Bingo. Your ass and mine. First thing in the morning.'

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' National Response Team, or NRT, was deployed when churches or businesses burned, and in bombings or any other disaster in which ATF had jurisdiction. Marino and I were not ATF, but it was not unusual for it and other law enforcement agencies to recruit us when the need arose. In recent years I had worked the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings and the crash of TWA Flight 800. I had helped with the identifications of the Branch Davidians at Waco and reviewed the disfigurement and death caused by the Unabomber. I knew from stressful experience that ATF included me in a call-out only when people were dead, and if Marino was recruited, too, then the suspicion was murder.

'How many?' I reached for my clipboard of call sheets.

'It's not how many, Doc. It's who. The owner of the farm is media big shot Kenneth Sparkes, the one and only. And right now it's looking like he didn't make it.'

'Oh God,' I muttered as my world suddenly got too dark to see. 'We're sure?'

'Well, he's missing.'

'You mind explaining to me why I'm just now being told about this?'

I felt anger rising, and it was all I could do not to hurl it at him, for all unnatural deaths in Virginia were my responsibility. I shouldn't have needed Marino to inform me about this one, and I was furious with my Northern Virginia office for not calling me at home.

'Don't go getting pissed at your docs up in Fairfax,' said Marino, who seemed to read my mind. 'Fauquier County asked ATF to take over here, so that's the way it's going.'

I still didn't like it, but it was time to get on with the business at hand.

'I'm assuming no body has been recovered yet,' I said, and I was writing fast.

'Hell no. That's going to be your fun job.'

I paused, resting the pen on the call sheet. 'Marino, this is a single-dwelling fire. Even if arson is suspected, and it's a high-profile case, I'm not seeing why ATF is interested.'

'Whiskey, machine guns, not to mention buying and selling fancy horses, so now we're talking about a business,' Marino answered.

'Great,' I muttered.

'Oh yeah. We're talking a goddamn nightmare. The fire marshal's gonna call you before the day's out. Better get packed because the whirlybird's picking us up before dawn. Timing's bad, just like it always is. I guess you can kiss your vacation goodbye.'

Benton and I were supposed to drive to Hilton Head tonight to spend a week at the ocean. We had not had time alone so far this year and were burned out and barely getting along. I did not want to face him when I hung up the phone.

'I'm sorry,' I said to him. 'I'm sure you've already figured out there's a major disaster.'

I hesitated, watching him, and he would not give me his eyes as he continued to decipher Carrie's letter.

'I've got to go. First thing in the morning. Maybe I can join you in the middle of the week,' I went on.

He was not listening because he did not want to hear any of it.

'Please understand,' I said to him.

He did not seem to hear me, and I knew he was terribly disappointed.

'You've been working those torso cases,' he said as he read. 'The dismemberments from Ireland and here. Sawed-up bone. And she fantasizes about Lucy, and masturbates. Reaching orgasm multiple times a night under the covers. Allegedly.'

His eyes ran down the letter as he seemed to talk to himself.

'She's saying they still have a relationship, Carrie and Lucy,' he continued. 'The we stuff is her attempt to make a case for disassociation. She's not present when she commits her crimes. Some other party doing them. Multiple personalities. A predictable and pedestrian insanity plea. I would have thought she'd be a little more original.'

'She is perfectly competent to stand trial,' I answered with a wave of fresh anger.

'You and I know that.' He drank from a plastic bottle of Evian. 'Where did Lucy Boo come from?'

A drop of water dribbled down his chin and he wiped it with the back of his hand.

I stumbled at first. 'A pet name I had for her until she was in kindergarten. Then she didn't want to be called that anymore. Sometimes I still slip.' I paused again as I imagined her back then. 'So I guess she told Carrie the nickname.'

'Well, we know that at one time, Lucy confided in Carrie quite a lot,' Wesley stated the obvious. 'Lucy's first lover. And we all know you never forget your first, no matter how lousy it was.'

'Most people don't choose a psychopath for their first,' I said, and I still could not believe that Lucy, my niece, had.

'Psychopaths are us, Kay,' he said as if I had never heard the lecture. 'The attractive, intelligent person sitting next to you on a plane, standing behind you in line, meeting you backstage, hooking up with you on the Internet. Brothers, sisters, classmates, sons, daughters, lovers. Look like you and me. Lucy didn't have a chance. She was no match for Carrie Grethen.'

The grass in my backyard had too much clover, but spring had been unnaturally cool and perfect for my roses. They bent and shivered in gusting air and pale petals fell to the ground. Wesley, the retired chief of the FBI's profiling unit, went on.

'Carrie wants photos of Gault. Scene photos, autopsy photos. You bring them to her, and in exchange she'll tell you investigative details, forensic jewels you've supposedly missed. Ones that might help the prosecution when the case goes to court next month. Her taunt. That you might have missed something. That it might in some way be connected with Lucy.'

His reading glasses were folded by his place mat, and he thought to slip them on.

'Carrie wants you to come see her. At Kirby.'

His face was tight as he peered at me.

'It's her.'

He pointed at the letter.

'She's surfacing. I knew she would.' He spoke from a spirit that was tired.

'What's the dark light?' I asked, getting up because I could not sit a moment longer.

'Blood.' He seemed sure. 'When you stabbed Gault in the thigh, severing his femoral artery, and he bled to death. Or would have had the train not finished the job. Temple Gault.'

He took his glasses off again, because he was secretly agitated.

'As long as Carrie Grethen is around, so is he. The evil twins,' he added.

In fact, they were not twins, but had bleached their hair and shaved it close to their skulls. They were prepubescently thin and androgenously dressed alike when I last saw them in New York. They had committed murder together until we had captured her in the Bowery and I had killed him in the subway tunnel. I had not intended to touch him or see him or exchange one word with him, for it was not my mission in this life to apprehend criminals and commit judicial homicide. But Gault had willed it so. He had made it happen because to die by my hand was to bond me to him forever. I could not get away from Temple Gault, though he had been dead five years. In my mind were gory pieces of him scattered along gleaming steel rails and rats moiling out of dense shadows to attack his blood.

In bad dreams his eyes were ice blue with irises scattered like molecules, and I heard the thunder of trains with lights that were blinding full moons. For several years after I had killed him, I avoided autopsying the victims of train deaths. I was in charge of the Virginia medical examiner system and could assign cases to my deputy chiefs, and that was what I had done. Even now, I could not look at dissecting knives with the same clinical regard for their cold sharp steel, because he had set me up to plunge one into him, and I had. In crowds I saw dissipated men and women who were him, and at night I slept closer to my guns.

'Benton, why don't you shower and then we'll talk more about our plans for the week,' I said, dismissing recollections I could not bear. 'A few days alone to read and walk the beach would be just what you need. You know how much you love the bike trails. Maybe it would be good for you to have some space.'

'Lucy needs to know.' He got up, too. 'Even if Carrie's confined at the moment, she's going to cause more trouble that involves Lucy. That's what Carrie's promising in her letter to you.'

He walked out of the kitchen.

'How much more trouble can anybody cause?' I called after him as tears rose in my throat.

'Dragging your niece into the trial,' he stopped to say. 'Publicly. Splashed across The New York Times. Out on the AP, Hard Copy, Entertainment Tonight. Around the world. FBI agent was lesbian lover of deranged serial killer'

'Lucy's left the FBI with all its prejudices and lies and preoccupations with how the mighty Bureau looks to the world.' Tears flooded my eyes. 'There's nothing left. Nothing further they can do to crush her soul.'

'Kay, this is about far more than the FBI,' he said, and he sounded spent.

'Benton, don't start' I could not finish.

He leaned against the doorway leading into my great room, where a fire burned, for the temperature had not gotten above sixty degrees this day. His eyes were pained. He did not like me to talk this way, and he did not want to peer into that darker side of his soul. He did not want to conjure up the malignant acts Carrie might carry out, and of course, he worried about me, too. I would be summoned to testify in the sentencing phase of Carrie Grethen's trial. I was Lucy's aunt. I supposed my credibility as a witness would be impeached, my testimony and reputation ruined.

'Let's go out tonight,' Wesley said in a kinder tone. 'Where would you like to go? La Petite? Or beer and barbecue at Benny's?'

'I'll thaw some soup.' I wiped my eyes as my voice faltered. 'I'm not very hungry, are you?'

'Come here,' he said to me sweetly.

I melted into him and he held me to his chest. He was salty when we kissed, and I was always surprised by the supple firmness of his body. I rested my head, and the stubble on his chin roughed my hair and was white like the beach I knew I would not see this week. There would be no long walks on wet sand or long talks over dinners at La Polla's and Charlie's.

'I think I should go see what she wants,' I finally said into his warm, damp neck.

'Not in a million years.'

'New York did Gault's autopsy. I don't have those photographs.'

'Carrie knows damn well what medical examiner did Gault's autopsy.'

'Then why is she asking me, if she knows?' I muttered.

My eyes were closed as I leaned against him. He paused and kissed the top of my head again and stroked my hair.

'You know why,' he said. 'Manipulation, jerking you around. What people like her do best. She wants you to get the photos for her. So she can see Gault mangled like chopped meat, so she can fantasize and get off on that. She's up to something and the worst thing you could do is respond to her in any way.'

'And this GKSWF - something or other? Like out of a personal?'

'I don't know.'

'And the One Pheasant Place?'

'No idea.'

We stayed a long time in the doorway of this house I continued to think of singularly and unequivocally as my own. Benton parked his life with me when he was not consulting in big aberrant cases in this country and others. I knew it bothered him when I consistently said I this and my that, although he knew we were not married and nothing we owned separately belonged to both of us. I had passed the midline of my life and would not legally share my earnings with anyone, including my lover and my family. Maybe I sounded selfish, and maybe I was.

'What am I going to do while you're gone tomorrow?' Wesley got back to that subject.

'Drive to Hilton Head and get groceries,' I replied. 'Make sure there's plenty of Black Bush and Scotch. More than usual. And sunblock SPF 35 and 50, and South Carolina pecans, tomatoes, and Vidalia onions.'

Tears filled my eyes again, and I cleared my throat.

'As soon as I can, I'll get on a plane and meet you, but I don't know where this case in Warrenton is going to go. And we've already been over this. We've done it before. Half the time you can't go, the rest of the time it's me.'

'I guess our lives suck,' he said into my ear.

'Somehow we ask for it,' I replied, and most of all I felt an uncontrollable urge to sleep.


He bent down to my lips and slid his hands to favorite places.

'Before soup, we could go to bed.'

'Something very bad is going to happen during this trial,' I said, and I wanted my body to respond to him but didn't think it could.

'All of us in New York again. The Bureau, you, Lucy, at her trial. Yes, I'm sure for the past five years she has thought of nothing else and will cause all the trouble she can.'

I pulled away as Carrie's sharp, drawn face suddenly jumped out of a dark place in my mind. I remembered her when she was strikingly pretty and smoking with Lucy on a picnic table at night near the firing ranges of the FBI Academy at Quantico. I could still hear them teasing in low playful voices and saw their erotic kisses on the mouth, deep and long, and hands tangled in hair. I remembered the strange sensation running through my blood as I silently hurried away, without them knowing what I had seen. Carrie had begun the ruination of my only niece's life, and now the grotesque coda had come.

'Benton,' I said. 'I've got to pack my gear.'

'Your gear is fine. Trust me.'

He hungrily had undone layers of my clothing, desperate for skin. He always wanted me more when I was not in sync with him.

'I can't reassure you now,' I whispered. 'I can't tell you everything is going to be all right, because it won't be. Attorneys and the media will go after Lucy and me. They will dash us against the rocks, and Carne may go free. There!'

I held his face in my hands.

'Truth and justice. The American way,' I concluded.

'Stop it.'

He went still and his eyes were intense on mine.

'Don't start again,' he said. 'You didn't used to be this cynical.'

'I'm not cynical, and I'm not the one who started anything,' I answered him as my anger rose higher. 'I'm not the one who started with an eleven-year-old boy and cut off patches of his flesh and left him naked by a Dumpster with a bullet in his head. And then killed a sheriff and a prison guard. And Jayne - Gault's own twin sister. Remember that, Benton? Remember? Remember Central Park on Christmas Eve. Bare footprints in snow and her frozen blood dripping from the fountain!'

'Of course I remember. I was there. I know all the same details you do.'

'No, you don't.'

I was furious now and moved away from him and gathered together my clothes.

'You don't put your hands inside their ruined bodies and touch and measure their wounds,' I said. 'You don't hear them speak after they're dead. You don't see the faces of loved ones waiting inside my poor, plain lobby to hear heartless, unspeakable news. You don't see what I do. Oh no, you don't, Benton Wesley. You see clean case files and glossy photos and cold crime scenes. You spend more time with the killers than with those they ripped from life. And maybe you sleep better than I do, too. Maybe you still dream because you aren't afraid to.'

He walked out of my house without a word, because I had gone too far. I had been unfair and mean, and not even truthful. Wesley knew only tortured sleep. He thrashed and muttered and coldly drenched the sheets. He rarely dreamed, or at least he had learned not to remember. I set salt and pepper shakers on corners of Carrie Grethen's letter to keep it from folding along its creases. Her mocking, unnerving words were evidence now and should not be touched or disturbed.

Ninhydrin or a Luma Lite might reveal her fingerprints on the cheap white paper, or exemplars of her writing might be matched with what she had scrawled to me. Then we would prove she had penned this twisted message at the brink of her murder trial in Superior Court of New York City. The jury would see that she had not changed after five years of psychiatric treatment paid for with their taxes. She felt no remorse. She reveled in what she had done.

I had no doubt Benton would be somewhere in my neighborhood because I had not heard his BMW leave. I hurried along new paved streets, passing big brick and stucco homes, until I caught him beneath trees staring out at a rocky stretch of the James River. The water was frigid and the color of glass, and cirrus clouds were indistinct chalky streaks in a fading sky.

'I'll head out to South Carolina as soon as I get back to the house. I'll get the condo ready and get your Scotch,' he said, not turning around. 'And Black Bush.'

'You don't need to leave tonight,' I said, and I was afraid to move closer to him as slanted light brightened his hair and the wind stirred it. 'I've got to get up early tomorrow. You can head out when I do.'

He was silent, staring up at a bald eagle that had followed me since I had left my house. Benton had put on a red windbreaker, but he looked chilled in his damp running shorts, and his arms were crossed tightly at his chest. His throat moved as he swallowed, his pain radiating from a hidden place that only I was allowed to see. At moments like this I did not know why he put up with me.

'Don't expect me to be a machine, Benton,' I said quietly for the millionth time since I had loved him.

Still he did not speak, and water barely had the energy to roll toward downtown, making a dull pouring sound as it unwittingly headed closer to the violence of dams.

'I take as much as I can,' I explained. 'I take more than most people could. Don't expect too much from me, Benton.'

The eagle soared in circles over the tops of tall trees, and Benton seemed more resigned when he spoke at last.

'And I take more than most people can,' he said. 'In part, because you do.'

'Yes, it works both ways.'

I stepped closer to him from behind and slipped my arms around the slick red nylon covering his waist.

'You know damn well it does,' he said.

I hugged him tight and dug my chin into his back.

'One of your neighbors is watching,' he said. 'I can see him through sliding glass. Did you know you have a peeper in this ritzy white-bread place?'

He placed his hands over mine, then lifted one finger at a time with nothing special in mind.

'Of course, if I lived here, I would peep at you too,' he added with a smile in his tone.

'You do live here.'

'Naw. I just sleep here.'

'Let's talk about the morning. As usual, they'll pick me up at the Eye Institute around five,' I told him. 'So I guess if I get up by four' I sighed, wondering if life would always be like this. 'You should stay the night.'

'I'm not getting up at four,' he said.

A Kay Scarpetta Mystery | Point of Origin | c