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20

IT WAS ONE-THIRTY when I parked inside the bay again and got out of my car. I walked quickly to the elevator and keyed myself back up to the third floor. I was looking for Jerri Garmon, who had examined the pink residue in the beginning and reported to me that it was silicone.

Ducking into doorways, I located her inside a room housing the latest instrumentation used in analyzing organic substances, ranging from heroin to paint binders. She was using a syringe to inject a sample into a heated chamber of the gas chromatograph and did not notice me until I spoke.

'Jerri,' I said, and I was out of breath. 'I hate to disturb you but I've got something I think you'll want to look at.'

I held up the pink swimming cap. Her reaction was completely blank.

'Silicone,' I said.

Her eyes lit up.

'Wow! A swimming cap? Boy howdy. Who would have thought that?' she said. 'Just goes to show you, there's too much to keep up with these days.'

'Can we burn it?' I asked.

'This has got to run for a while anyway. Come on. Now you've got me curious, too.'

The actual trace evidence labs, where evidence was processed before it was routed through complicated instruments such as the SEM and mass spectrometer, was spacious but already running out of room. Scores of airtight aluminum paint cans used in the collection of fire debris and flammable residues were in pyramids on shelves, and there were big jars of granular blue Drierite, and petri dishes, beakers, charcoal tubes, and the usual brown paper bags of evidence. The test I had in mind was easy and quick.

The muffle furnace was in a corner and looked rather much like a small beige ceramic crematorium, the size of a hotel mini-bar, to be exact, that could heat up to as much as twenty-five-hundred degrees Fahrenheit. She turned it on, and a gauge very soon began registering its warming up. Jerri placed the cap inside a white porcelain dish not so different from a cereal bowl, and opened a drawer to get out a thick asbestos glove that would protect her up to her elbow. She stood poised with tongs while the temperature crept to a hundred degrees. At two hundred and fifty, she checked on our cap. It wasn't the least bit affected.

'I can tell you right now that at this temperature latex and Lycra would be smoking up a storm and beginning to melt,' Jerri let me know. 'But this stuff's not even getting tacky yet and the color hasn't changed.'

The silicone cap did not begin to smoke until five hundred degrees. At seven hundred and fifty, it was turning gray at the edges. It was getting tacky and beginning to melt. At not quite one thousand degrees, it was flaming and Jerri had to find a thicker glove.

'This is amazing,' Jerri said.

'Guess we can see why silicone's used for insulation,' I marveled, too.

'Better stand back.'

'Don't worry.'

I moved far out of harm's way as she pulled the bowl forward with tongs and carried our flaming experiment in her asbestos-covered hand. The exposure to fresh air fueled the fire more, and by the time she had placed it under a chemical hood and turned on the exhaust, the outer surface of the cap was blazing out of control, forcing Jerri to cover it with a lid.

Eventually, flames were suffocated, and she took off the lid to see what was left. My heart thudded as I noted papery white ash and areas of spared silicone that were still visibly pink. The swimming cap had not turned gooey or become a liquid at all. It simply had disintegrated until either cooling temperatures or an absence of oxygen or perhaps even a dousing with water had thwarted the process. The end result of our experiment was completely consistent with what I had recovered from Claire Rawley's long blond hair.

The image of her body in the bathtub, a pink swimming cap on her head, was ghastly, and its implication was almost more than I could comprehend. When the bathroom had gone to flashover, the shower door had caved in. Sections of glass and the sides of the tub had protected the body as flames shot up from the point of origin, engaging the ceiling. The temperature in the tub had never climbed above one thousand degrees, and a small telltale part of the silicone swimming cap had been preserved for the simple freakish reason that the shower door was old and made of a single thick sheet of solid glass.

As I drove home, rush hour traffic hemmed me in and seemed more aggressive the greater my hurry. Several times I almost reached for the phone, desperate to call Benton and tell him what I had discovered. Then I saw water and debris in the back corner of a burned-out grocery store in Philadelphia. I saw what was left of a stainless steel watch I had given to him for Christmas. I saw what was left of him. I imagined the wire that had confined his ankles, and handcuffs that had been locked with a key. I now knew what had happened and why. Benton had been killed like the others, but this time it was for spite, for revenge, to satisfy Carrie's diabolical lust to make him her trophy.

Tears blinded me as I pulled into my driveway. I ran, primitive sounds welling up in me as I slammed the front door behind me. Lucy emerged from the kitchen. She was dressed in khaki range pants and a black T-shirt, and holding a bottle of salad dressing.

'Aunt Kay!' she exclaimed, hurrying to me. 'What is it, Aunt Kay? Where's Marino? My God, is he all right?'

'It's not Marino,' I said chokily.

She slipped an arm around me and helped me to the couch in my great room.

'Benton,' I said. 'Like the others,' I moaned. 'Like Claire Rawley. A swimcap to keep her hair out of the way. The bathtub. Like surgery.'

'What?' Lucy was dazed.

'They wanted her face!'

I sprang up from the couch.

'Don't you understand?' I yelled at her. 'The nicks to bone at the temple, at the jaw. Like a scalping, only worse! He doesn't build fires to disguise homicide! He burns everything because he doesn't want us to know what he's done to them! He steals their beauty, everything beautiful about them, by removing their faces.'

Lucy's lips were parted in shock.

Then she stuttered, 'But Carrie? Now she's doing that?'

'Oh no,' I said. 'Not entirely.'

I was pacing and wringing my hands.

'It's like Gault,' I said. 'She likes to watch. Maybe she helps. Maybe she fucked things up with Kellie Shephard, or maybe Kellie simply resisted her because Carrie was a woman. Then there was a fight, the slashing and stabbing until Carrie's partner intervened and finally cut Kellie's throat, which is where the magnesium shavings were found. From his knife, not Carrie's. He's the torch, the fire builder, not Carrie. And he didn't take Kellie's face because it had been cut, ruined, during the struggle.'

'You don't think they did that to, to…?' Lucy started to say, her fists clenched in her lap.

'To Benton?' I raised my voice more. 'Do I think they took his face, too?'

I kicked the paneled wall and leaned against it. Inside I went still and my mind felt dark and dead.

'Carrie knew he could imagine everything she might do to him,' I said in a slow, low voice. 'She would have enjoyed every minute of it as he sat there, shackled. As she taunted him with the knife. Yes. I think they did that to him, too. In fact, I know it.'

The last thought was almost impossible to complete.

'I just hope he was already dead,' I said.

'He would have been, Aunt Kay.'

Lucy was crying, too, as she came to me and wrapped her arms around my neck.

'They wouldn't have taken the chance that someone might hear him scream,' she said.

Within the hour, I passed on news of the latest developments to Teun McGovern, and she agreed that it was critical for us to find out who Carrie's partner was, if possible, and how she might have met him. McGovern was more angered than she would show when I explained what I suspected and knew. Kirby might be our only hope, and she concurred that in my professional position, I had a better chance of making that visit successfully than did she. She was law enforcement. I was a physician.

Border Patrol had ferried a Bell JetRanger to HeloAir, near Richmond lnternational Airport, and Lucy wanted to take off this minute and fly through the night. I had told her this was out of the question, if for no other reason than once we got to New York, we had no place to stay, and certainly we couldn't sleep on Ward's Island. I needed a chance first thing in the morning to alert Kirby that we were coming. It would not be a request, but a statement of fact. Marino thought he should accompany us, but I would not hear of it.

'No cops,' I told him when he dropped by my house at almost ten in the evening.

'You're out of your friggin' mind,' he said.

'Would you blame me if I were?'

He stared down at worn-out running shoes that had never been given a chance to perform their primary function in this world.

'Lucy's law enforcement,' he said.

'As far as they're concerned, she's my pilot.'

'Huh.'

'I have to do this my way, Marino.'

'Gee, Doc, I don't know what to say. I don't know how you can deal with any of this.'

His face was deeply flushed, and when he looked up at me, his eyes were bloodshot and filled with pain.

'I want to go because I want to find those motherfuckers,' he said. 'They set him up. You know that, don't you? The Bureau's got a record that some guy called Tuesday afternoon at three-fourteen. Said he had a tip about the Shephard case that he'd only give to Benton Wesley. They gave the usual song and dance, that sure, everybody says the same thing. They're special. Got to talk to the man direct. But this informant had the goods. He said, and I quote, Tell him it's about some weirdo woman I saw at Lehigh County Hospital. She was sitting one table away from Kellie Shephard.'

'Damn!' I exclaimed as rage thundered in my temples.

'So as best we know, Benton calls the number this asshole left. Turns out to be a pay phone near the grocery that got burned,' he went on. 'My guess is, Benton met up with the guy - Carrie's psycho partner. Has no idea who he's talking to until BOOM!'

I jumped.

'Benton's got a gun, maybe a knife to his throat. They cuff him, double-locking with the key. And why do that? Because he's law enforcement and knows that your average Joe don't know about double-locking. Usually, all cops do is click shut the jaws of the cuff when they're hauling somebody in. The prisoner squirms, the cuffs tighten. And if he manages to get a hairpin or something similar up there to override the ratchets, then he might even spring himself free. But with double-locking, no way. Can't get out without a key or something exactly like a key. It's something Benton would've known about when it was happening to him. A big bad signal that he was dealing with someone who knew what the shit he was doing.'

'I've heard enough,' I said to Marino. 'Go home. Please.'

I had the beginning of a migraine. I could always tell when my entire neck and head began to hurt and my stomach felt queasy. I walked Marino to the door. I knew I had wounded him. He was loaded with pain and had no place to shoot, because he did not know how to show what he felt. I wasn't even sure he knew what he felt.

'He ain't gone, you know,' he said as I opened the door. 'I don't believe it. I didn't see it, and I don't believe it.'

'They will be sending him home soon,' I said as cicadas sawed in the dark, and moths swarmed in the glow of the lamp over my porch. 'Benton is dead,' I said with surprising strength. 'Don't take away from him by not accepting his death.'

'He's gonna show up one of these days.' Marino's voice was at a higher pitch. 'You wait. I know that son of a bitch. He don't go down this easy.'

But Benton had gone down this easy. It was so often like that, Versace walking home from buying coffee and magazines or Lady Diana not wearing her seat belt. I shut the door after Marino drove away. I set the alarm, which by now was a reflex that sometimes got me into trouble when I forgot I had armed my house and opened a slider. Lucy was stretched out on the couch, watching the Arts and Entertainment network in the great room, the lights out. I sat next to her and put my hand on her shoulder.

We did not speak as a documentary about gangsters in the early days of Las Vegas played on. I stroked her hair and her skin felt feverish. I wondered what was going on inside that mind of hers. I worried greatly about it, too. Lucy's thoughts were different. They were distinctly her own and not to be interpreted by any Rosetta stone of psychotherapy or intuition. But this much I had learned about her from the beginning of her life. What she didn't say mattered most, and Lucy wasn't talking about Janet anymore.

'Let's go to bed so we can get an early start, Madame Pilot,' I said.

'I think I'll just sleep in here.'

She pointed the remote control and turned down the volume.

'In your clothes?'

She shrugged.

'If we can get to HeloAir around nine, I'll call Kirby from there.'

'What if they say don't come?' my niece asked.

'I'll tell them I'm on my way. New York City is Republican at the moment. If need be, I'll get my friend Senator Lord involved, and he'll get the health commissioner and mayor on the warpath, and I don't think Kirby will want that. Easier to let us land, don't you think?'

'They don't have any ground-to-air missiles there, do they?'

'Yes, they're called patients,' I said, and it was the first time we had laughed in days.

Why I slept as well as I did, I could not explain, but when my alarm clock went off at six A.M., I turned over in bed. I realized I had not gotten up once since shortly before midnight, and this hinted of a cure, of a renewing that I desperately needed. Depression was a veil I could almost see through, and I was beginning to feel hope. I was doing what Benton would expect me to do, not to avenge his murder, really, for he would not have wanted that.

His wish would have been to prevent harm to Marino, Lucy, or me. He would have wanted me to protect other lives I did not know, other unwitting individuals who worked in hospitals or as models and had been sentenced to a terrible death in the split second it took for a monster to notice them with evil eyes burning with envy.

Lucy went running as the sun was coming up, and although it unnerved me for her to be out alone, I knew she had a pistol in her butt pack, and neither of us could let our lives stop because of Carrie. It seemed she had such an advantage. If we went on as usual, we might die. If we aborted our lives because of fear, we still died, only in a way that was worse, really.

'I'm assuming everything was quiet out there?' I said when Lucy returned to the house and found me in the kitchen.

I set coffee on the kitchen table, where Lucy was seated. Sweat was rolling down her shoulders and face, and I tossed her a dishtowel. She took off her shoes and socks, and I was slammed with an image of Benton sitting there, doing the same thing. He always hung around the kitchen for a while after running. He liked to cool down, to visit with me before he took a shower and buttoned himself up in his neat clothes and deep thoughts.

'A couple people out walking their dogs in Windsor Farms,' she said. 'Not a sign of anybody in your neighborhood. I asked the guy at the guard gate if anything was going on, like any more taxi cabs or pizza deliveries showing up for you. Any weird phone calls or unexpected visitors trying to get in. He said no.'

'Glad to hear it.'

'That's chicken shit. I don't think she's the one who did that.'

'Then who?' I was surprised.

'Hate to tell you, but there are other people out there who are none too fond of you.'

'A large segment of the prison population.'

'And people who aren't in prison, at least not yet. Like the Christian Scientists whose kid you did. You think it might occur to them to harass you? Like sending taxis, a construction Dumpster, or calling the morgue early in the morning and hanging up on poor Chuck? That's all you need, is a morgue assistant who's too spooked to be alone in your building anymore. Or worse, the guy quits. Chicken shit,' she said again. 'Petty, spiteful, chicken shit generated by an ignorant, little mind.'

None of this had ever occurred to me before.

'Is he still getting the hang-ups?' she asked.

She eyed me as she sipped her coffee, and through the window over the sink, the sun was a tangerine on a dusky blue horizon.

'I'll find out,' I said.

I picked up the phone and dialed the number for the morgue. Chuck answered immediately.

'Morgue,' he said nervously.

It was not quite seven, and I suspected he was alone.

'It's Dr Scarpetta,' I said.

'Oh!' He was relieved. 'Good morning.'

'Chuck? What about the hang-ups? You still getting them?'

'Yes, ma'am.'

'Nothing said? Not even the sound of somebody breathing?'

'Sometimes I think I hear traffic in the background, like maybe the person's at a pay phone somewhere.'

'I've got an idea.'

'Okay.'

'Next time it happens, I want you to say, Good morning, Mr and Mrs Quinn.'

'What?' Chuck was baffled.

'Just do it,' I said. 'And I have a hunch the calls will stop.'

Lucy was laughing when I hung up.

'Touche,' she said.


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