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5

I GOT HOME that night in time for a dinner I did not feel like cooking. Benton had left me three messages, and I had not returned any one of them. I felt strange. I felt an odd sensation of doom, and yet I felt a lightness around my heart that spurred me into working in my garden until dark, pulling weeds and clipping roses for the kitchen. The ones I chose were pink and yellow, tightly furled like flags before glory. At dusk, I went out to walk and wished I had a dog. For a while I fantasized about that, wondering just what sort of dog I would have, were it possible and practical.

I decided on a retired greyhound rescued from the track and from certain extermination. Of course, my life was too unkind for a pet. I pondered this as one of my neighbors came out of his grand stone home to walk his small white dog.

'Good evening, Dr Scarpetta,' the neighbor said grimly. 'How long are you in town for?'

'I never know,' I said, still imagining my greyhound.

'Heard about the fire.'

He was a retired surgeon, and he shook his head.

'Poor Kenneth.'

'I suppose you know him,' I said.

'Oh yes.'

'It is too bad. What kind of dog do you have?'

'He's a salad bar dog. Little bit of everything,' my neighbor said.

He walked on, taking out a pipe and lighting up, because his wife, no doubt, would not let him smoke in the house. I walked past the homes of my neighbors, all different but the same because they were brick or stucco and not very old. It seemed fitting that the sluggish stretch of the river in the back of the neighborhood made its way over rocks the same way it had two hundred years before. Richmond was not known for change.

When I reached the spot where I had found Wesley when he had been somewhat mad at me, I stood near that same tree, and soon it was too dark to spot an eagle or the river's rocks. For a time, I stood staring at my neighbors' lights in the night, suddenly not having the energy to move as I contemplated that Kenneth Sparkes was either a victim or a killer. Then heavy footsteps sounded on the street behind me. Startled, I whipped around, gripping the canister of red pepper spray attached to my keys.

Marino's voice was quickly followed by his formidable shape.

'Doc, you shouldn't be out here this late,' he said.

I was too drained to resent his having an opinion on how I was spending my evening.

'How did you know I was here?' I asked.

'One of your neighbors.'

I did not care.

'My car's right over there,' he went on. 'I'll drive you home.'

'Marino, can I never have a moment's peace?' I said with no rancor, for I knew he meant no harm to me.

'Not tonight,' he said. 'I got some really bad news and think you might want to sit down.'

I immediately thought of Lucy and felt the strength go out of my knees. I swayed and put my hand on his shoulder as my mind seemed to shatter into a million pieces. I had always known the day might come when someone would deliver her death notice to me, and I could not speak or think. I was miles beyond the moment, sucked down deeper and deeper into a dark and terrible vortex. Marino grabbed my arm to steady me.

'Jesus,' he exclaimed. 'Let me get you to the car and we'll sit down.'

'No,' I barely said, because I had to know. 'How's Lucy?'

He paused for a moment and seemed confused.

'Well, she don't know yet, unless she's heard it on the news,' he replied.

'Know what?' I asked as my blood seemed to move again.

'Carrie Grethen's escaped from Kirby,' he told me. 'Some time late this afternoon. They didn't figure it out until it was time to take the female inmates down for dinner.'

We began walking quickly to his car as fear made him angry.

'And here you are walking around in the dark with nothing but a keychain,' he went on. 'Shit. Goddamn son of a bitch. Don't you do that anymore, you hear me? We got no idea where that bitch is, but one thing I know for a fact, as long as she's out, you ain't safe.'

'No one in the world is safe,' I muttered as I climbed into his car and thought of Benton alone at the beach.

Carrie Grethen hated him almost as much as she hated me, or at least this was my belief. Benton had profiled her and was the quarterback in the game that had eventually resulted in her capture and Temple Gault's death. Benton had used the Bureau's every resource to lock Carrie away, and until now, it had worked.

'Is there any way she might know where Benton is?' I said as Marino drove me to my house. 'He's alone on an island resort. He probably takes walks on the beach without his gun, unmindful that there might be someone looking for him…'

'Like someone else I know,' Marino cut me off.

'Point well taken.'

'I'm sure Benton already knows, but I'll call him,' Marino said. 'And I got no reason to think that Carrie would know about your place in Hilton Head. You didn't have it back then when Lucy was telling her all your secrets.'

'That's not fair,' I said as he pulled into my driveway and came to an abrupt stop. 'Lucy never meant it that way. She never meant to be disloyal, to hurt me.'

I lifted the handle of my door.

'At this point, it don't matter what she meant.'

He blew smoke out his window.

'How did Carrie get out?' I asked. 'Kirby's on an island and not easily accessible.'

'No one knows. About three hours ago, she was supposed to go down to dinner with all the other lovely ladies, and that's when the guards realized she was gone. Boom, no sign of her, and about a mile away there's an old footbridge that goes over the East River into Harlem.'

He tossed the cigarette butt on my driveway.

'All anyone can figure is maybe she got off the island that way. Cops are everywhere, and they got choppers out to make sure she's not still hiding somewhere on the island. But I don't think so. I think she's planned this for a while, and timed it exactly. We'll hear from her, all right. You can bet on that.'

I was deeply unsettled when I went inside my house and checked every door and set the alarm. I then did something that was rare and unnerving for me. I got my Glock nine-millimeter pistol from a drawer in my office, and secured every closet in every room, on each floor. I stepped into each doorway, the pistol firm in both hands as my heart hammered. By now Carrie Grethen had become a monster with supernatural powers. I had begun to imagine that she could evade any security system, and would glide out of the shadows when I was feeling safe and unaware.

There seemed to be no presence in my two-story stone house but me, and I carried a glass of red burgundy into my bedroom and got into my robe. I called Wesley again and felt a chill when he did not pick up the phone. I tried once more at almost midnight, and still he did not answer.

'Dear God,' I said, alone in my room.

Lamplight was soft and cast shadows from antique dressers and tables that had been stripped down to old gray oak, because I liked flaws and the stress marks of time. Pale rose draperies stirred as air flowed out from vents, and every movement unglued me more, no matter the explanation. With each passing moment, my brain was further overruled by fear as I tried to repress images from the past I shared with Carrie Grethen. I hoped Benton would call. I told myself he was okay and that what I needed was sleep. So I tried to read Seamus Heaney's poetry and dozed off somewhere in the middle of The Spoonbait. The phone rang at twenty minutes past two A.M., and my book slid to the floor.

'Scarpetta,' I blurted into the receiver as my heart pounded the way it always did when I was startled awake.

'Kay, it's me,' Benton said. 'Sorry to call you this late, but I was afraid you were trying to reach me. Somehow the answering machine got turned off, and, well, I went out to eat and then walked the beach for more than two hours. To think. I guess you know the news.'

'Yes.' I was suddenly very alert.

'Are you all right?' he said, because he knew me well.

'I searched every inch of my house tonight before going to bed. I had my gun out and checked every closet and behind every shower curtain.'

'I thought you probably would.'

'It's like knowing a bomb is on the way in the mail.'

'No, it's not like that, Kay. Because we don't know one is coming or when or in what form. I wish we did. But that's part of her game. To make us guess.'

'Benton, you know how she feels about you. I don't like you there alone.'

'Do you want me to come home?'

I thought about this and had no good answer.

'I'll get in my car right this minute,' he added. 'If that's what you want.'

Then I told him about the body in the ruins of Kenneth Sparkes's mansion, and I went on and on about that, and about my meeting with the tycoon on Hootowl Farm. I talked and explained while he listened patiently.

'The point is,' I concluded, 'that this is turning out to be terribly complicated, if not bizarre, and there is so much to do. It makes no sense for your vacation to be ruined, too. And Marino's right. There's no reason to suspect that Carrie knows about our place in Hilton Head. You're probably safer there than here, Benton.'

'I wish she'd come here.' His voice turned hard. 'I'd welcome her with my Sig Sauer and we could finally put an end to this.'

I knew he truly wanted to kill her, and this was, in a way, the worst damage she could have done. It was not like Benton to wish for violence, to allow a shadow of the evil he pursued to fall over his conscience and heart, and as I listened, I felt my own culpability, too.

'Do you see how destructive this is?' I said, upset. 'We sit around talking about shooting her, strapping her into the electric chair or giving her a lethal injection. She has succeeded in taking possession of us, Benton. Because I admit that I want her dead about as much as I've ever wanted anything.'

'I think I should come on home,' he said again.

We hung up soon after, and insomnia proved the only enemy of the night. It robbed me of the few hours left before dawn and ripped my brain into fragmented dreams of anxiety and horror. I dreamed I was late for an important appointment and got stuck in the snow and was unable to dial the phone. In my twilight state I could not find answers in autopsies anymore and felt my life was over, and suddenly I drove up on a terrible car accident with bleeding bodies inside, and I could not make a move to help. I flipped this way and that, rearranging pillows and covers until the sky turned smoky blue and the stars went out. I got up and made coffee.

I drove to work with the radio on, listening to repeated news breaks about the fire in Warrenton and a body that was found. Speculation was wild and dramatic about the victim being the famed media mogul, and I could not help but wonder if this amused Sparkes just a little. I was curious why he had not issued a statement to the press, letting the world know he was quite alive, and again, doubts about him darkened my mind.

Dr Jack Fielding's red Mustang was parked behind our new building on Jackson Street, between the restored row houses of Jackson Ward, and the Medical College of Virginia campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. My new building, which was also home to the forensic labs, was the anchor of thirty-four acres of rapidly developing data institutes known as Biotech Park.

We had just moved from our old address to this new one but two months before, and I was still adjusting to modern glass and brick, and lintels on top of windows to reflect the neighborhoods once there. Our new space was bright, with tan epoxy flooring and walls that were easily hosed down. There was much still to be unpacked and sorted and rearranged, and as thrilled as I was to finally have a modern morgue, I felt more overwhelmed than I had ever been. The low sun was in my eyes as I parked in the chief's slot inside the covered bay on Jackson Street, and I unlocked a back door to let myself in.

The corridor was spotless and smelled of industrial deodorizer, and there were still boxes of electrical wiring and switch plates and cans of paint parked against walls. Fielding had unlocked the stainless steel cooler, which was bigger than most living rooms, and he had opened the doors to the autopsy room. I tucked my keys into my pocketbook and headed to the lockers, where I slipped out of my suit jacket and hung it up. I buttoned a lab coat up to my neck, and exchanged pumps for the rather gruesome black Reeboks I called my autopsy shoes. They were spattered and stained and certainly a biological hazard. But they supported my less-than-youthful legs and feet, and never left the morgue.

The new autopsy room was much bigger than the one before as it was better designed to utilize space. No longer were large steel tables built into the floor, so they could be parked out of the way when not in use. The five new tables were transportable and could be wheeled out of the refrigerator and wall-mounted dissecting sinks accommodated both right- and left-handed doctors. Our new tables had roller trays so we no longer had to use our backs to lift or move bodies, and there were non-clogging aspirators, and eye wash stations, and a special dual exhaust duct connected to the building's ventilation system.

All in all, the Commonwealth had granted me most of what I needed to ease the Virginia Medical Examiner System into the third millennium, but in truth, there was no such thing as change, at least not for the better. Each year we explored more damage done by bullets and blades, and more people filed frivolous lawsuits against us, and the courts miscarried justice as a matter of course because lawyers lied and jurors did not seem interested in evidence or facts anymore.

Frigid air rushed as I opened the cooler's massive door, and I walked past body bags and bloody plastic shrouds and stiff protruding feet. Brown-paper-bagged hands meant a violent death, and small pouches reminded me of a sudden infant death and the toddler who had drowned in the family pool. My fire case was swathed, broken glass and all, just as I had left it. I rolled the gurney out into a blaze of fluorescent light. Then I changed shoes again and walked to the other end of the first floor, where our offices and conference room were sequestered from the dead.

It was almost eight-thirty, and residents and clerical staff were getting coffee and traveling the hall. We exchanged our usual detached good mornings as I headed toward Fielding's open door. I knocked once and walked in as he talked on the phone and hastily scribbled information on a call sheet.

'Start again?' he said in his strong blunt voice as he cradled the receiver between his shoulder and chin and absently ran his fingers through his unruly dark hair. 'What's the address? What's the officer's name?'

He did not glance up at me as he wrote.

'You got a local phone number?'

He quickly read it back to make sure he'd gotten it right.

'Any idea what kind of death this is? Okay, okay. What cross street and will I see you in your cruiser? All right, you're good to go.'

Fielding hung up and looked harried for so early in the morning.

'What have we got?' I asked him as the business of the day began to mount.

'Looks like a mechanical asphyxiation. A black female with a history of alcohol and drug abuse. She's hanging off the bed, head against the wall, neck bent at an angle inconsistent with life. She's nude, so I think I'd better take a look to make sure this isn't something else.'

'Someone definitely should take a look,' I agreed.

He got my meaning.

'We can send Levine if you want.'

'Good idea, because I'm going to start the fire death and would like your help,' I said. 'At least in the early stages.'

'You got it.'

Fielding pushed back his chair and unfolded his powerful body. He was dressed in khakis, a white shirt with sleeves rolled up, Rockports, and an old woven leather belt around his hard, trim waist. Past forty now, he was no less diligent about his physical condition, which was no less remarkable than it had been when I had first hired him shortly after I had taken office. If only he cared about his cases quite so much. But he had always been respectful and faithful to me, and although he was slow and workmanlike, he was not given to assumptions or mistakes. For my purposes, he was manageable, reliable, and pleasant, and I would not have traded him for another deputy chief.

We entered the conference room together, and I took my seat at the head of the long glossy table. Charts and models of muscles and organs and the anatomical skeleton were the only decor, save for the same dated photographs of previous male chiefs who had watched over us in our previous quarters. This morning, the resident, a fellow, my three deputy and assistant chiefs, the toxicologist, and my administrators were present and accounted for. We had a medical student from MCV who was doing her elective here, and a forensic pathologist from London who was making the rounds in American morgues to learn more about serial murders and gunshot wounds.

'Good morning,' I said. 'Let's go over what we've got, and then we'll talk about our fire fatality and the implications of that.'

Fielding began with the possible mechanical asphyxiation, and then Jones, the administrator for the central district, which was the physical office where we were located, quickly ran through our other cases. We had a white male who fired five bullets into his girlfriend's head before blasting away at his own misguided brain. There were the sudden infant death and the drowning, and a young man who may have been changing out of his shirt and tie when he smashed his red Miata into a tree.

'Wow,' said the medical student, whose name was Sanford. 'How do you figure he was doing that?'

'Tank top half on, shirt and tie crumpled on the passenger's seat,' Jones explained. 'Seems he was leaving work to meet some friends at a bar. We've had these cases before - someone changing clothes, shaving, putting on makeup while they're driving.'

'That's when you want the little box on the death certificate that says manner of death was stupid,' Fielding said.

'Quite possibly all of you are aware that Carrie Grethen escaped from Kirby last night,' I went on. 'Though this does not directly impact this office, clearly we should be more than a little concerned.'

I tried to be as matter-of-fact as possible.

'Expect the media to call,' I said.

'They already have,' said Jones as he peered at me over his reading glasses. 'The answering service has received five calls since last night.'

'About Carrie Grethen.' I wanted to be sure.

'Yes, ma'am,' he said. 'And four more calls about the Warrenton case.'

'Let's get to that,' I said. 'There will be no information coming from this office at this point. Not about the escape from Kirby nor the Warrenton death. Fielding and I will be downstairs the better part of the day, and I want no interruptions that aren't absolutely necessary. This case is very sensitive.'

I looked around the table at faces that were somber but alive with interest.

'At present I don't know if we're dealing with an accident, suicide, or homicide, and the remains have not been identified. Tim,' I addressed the toxicologist, 'let's get a STAT alcohol and CO. This lady may have been a drug abuser, so I'll want a drug screen for opiates, amphetamines and methamphetamine, barbiturates, cannabinoids, as fast as you can get it.'

He nodded as he wrote this down. I paused long enough to scan newspaper articles that Jones had clipped for me, then I followed the hallway back to the morgue. In the ladies' locker room I removed my blouse and skirt and went to a cabinet to fetch a transmitter belt and mike that had been custom-designed for me by Lanier. The belt went around my upper waist under a long-sleeved blue surgical gown so the mike key would not come into direct contact with bloody hands. Last, I clipped the cordless mike to my collar, laced up my morgue shoes again, covered them with booties, and tied on a face shield and surgical mask.

Fielding emerged into the autopsy room the same time I did.

'Let's get her into X-ray,' I said.

We rolled the steel table across the corridor into the X-ray room and lifted the body and accompanying fire debris by corners of the sheets. This we transferred onto a table beneath the C-arm of the Mobile Digital Imaging System, which was an X-ray machine and fluoroscope in one computer-controlled unit. I went through the various set-up procedures, locking in various connecting cables and turning on the work station with a key. Lighted segments and a time line lit up on the control panel, and I loaded a film cassette into the holder and pressed a floor pedal to activate the video monitor.

'Aprons,' I said to Fielding.

I handed him a lead-lined one that was Carolina blue. Mine was heavy and felt full of sand as I tied it in back.

'I think we're ready,' I announced as I pressed a button.

By moving the C-arm, we were able to capture the remains in real time from many different angles, only unlike the examination of hospital patients, what we viewed did not breathe or beat or swallow. Static images of dead organs and bones were black and white on the video screen, and I saw no projectiles or anomalies. As we pivoted the C-arm some more, we discovered several radiopaque shapes that I suspected were metal objects mingled with the debris. We watched our progress on screen, digging and sifting with our gloved hands until I closed my fingers around two hard objects. One was the size and shape of a half dollar, the other smaller than that and square. I began cleaning them in the sink.

'What's left of a small silver metal belt buckle,' I said as I dropped it into a plasticized carton, which I labeled with a Magic Marker.

My other find was easier, and I did not have to do much to it to determine that it was a wristwatch. The band had burned off and the sooty crystal was shattered. But I was fascinated by the face, which upon further rinsing turned out to be a very bright orange etched with a strange abstract design.

'Looks like a man's watch to me,' Fielding observed.

'Women wear watches this big,' I said. 'I do. So I can see.'

'Some kind of sports watch, maybe?'

'Maybe.'

We rotated the C-arm here and there, continuing to excavate as radiation from the X-ray tube passed through the body and all the muck and charred material surrounding it. I spotted what looked like the shape of a ring located somewhere beneath the right buttock, but when I tried to grab it, nothing was there. Since the body had been on its back, much of the posterior regions had been spared, including clothing. I wedged my hands under the buttocks and worked my fingers into the back pockets of the jeans, recovering half a carrot and what appeared to be a plain wedding band that at first looked like steel. Then I realized it was platinum.

'That looks like a man's ring, too,' Fielding said. 'Unless she had really big fingers.'

He took the ring from me to examine it more closely. The stench of burned decaying flesh rose from the table as I discovered more strange signs pointing to what this woman may have done prior to dying. There were dark, coarse animal hairs adhering to wet filthy denim, and though I couldn't be certain, I was fairly sure their origin was equine.

'Nothing engraved in it,' he said, sealing the ring inside an evidence envelope.

'No,' I confirmed with growing curiosity.

'Wonder why she had it in her back pocket instead of wearing it.'

'Good question.'

'Unless she was doing something that might have caused her to take it off,' he continued to think aloud. 'You know, like people taking off their jewelry when they wash their hands.'

'She may have been feeding the horses.' I collected several hairs with forceps.

'Maybe the black foal that got away?' I supposed.

'Okay,' he said, and he sounded very dubious. 'And what? She's paying attention to the little guy, feeding him carrots, and then doesn't return him to his stall? A little later, everything burns, including the stables and the horses in them? But the foal gets away?'

He glanced at me across the table.

'Suicide?' he continued to speculate. 'And she couldn't bring herself to kill the colt? What's his name, Windsong?'

But there were no answers to any of these questions right now, and we continued to make X-rays of personal effects and pathology, to give us a permanent case record. But mostly we explored, in real time on screen, recovering grommets from jeans and an intrauterine device that suggested she had been sexually active with males.

Our findings included a zipper and a blackened lump the size of a baseball that turned out to be a steel bracelet with small links and a serpent silver ring that held three copper keys. Other than sinus configurations, which are as distinct as fingerprints in every human being, and a single porcelain crown on the right maxillary central incisor, we discovered nothing else obvious that might effect an identification.

At close to noon, we rolled her back across the corridor into the autopsy room and attached her table to a dissecting sink in the farthest corner, out of the main traffic. Other sinks were busy and loud as water drummed stainless steel, and stepladders were scooted as other doctors weighed and sectioned organs and dictated their findings into tiny mikes while various detectives looked on. The chatter was typically blunt with fractured sentences, our communication as random and disjointed as the lives of our cases.

'Excuse me, need to be right about where you are.'

'Darn, I need a battery.'

'What kind?'

'Whatever the hell goes in this camera.'

'Twenty dollars, right front pocket.'

'Probably not robbery.'

'Who's gonna count pills. Got a shitload.'

'Dr Scarpetta, we just got another case. Possible homicide,' a resident said loudly as he hung up a phone that was designated for clean hands.

'We may have to hold it until tomorrow,' I responded as our work load worsened.

'We've got the gun from the murder-suicide,' one of my assistant chiefs called out.

'Unloaded?' I answered back.

'Yeah.'

I walked over to make sure, for I never made assumptions when firearms came in with bodies. The dead man was big and still dressed in Faded Glory jeans, the pockets turned inside out by police. Potential gunshot residue on his hands was protected by brown paper bags, and blood trickled from his nose when a wooden block was placed beneath his head.

'Do you mind if I handle the gun?' I asked the detective, above the whine of a Stryker saw.

'Be my guest. I've already lifted prints.'

I picked up the Smith Wesson pistol and pulled back the slide to check for a cartridge, but the chamber was clear. I dabbed a towel over the bullet wound in the head, as my morgue supervisor, Chuck Ruffin, honed a knife with long sweeps over a sharpening stone.

'See the black around there and the muzzle imprint?' I said as the detective and a resident leaned close. 'You can see the sight here. It's contact right-handed. The exit's here, and you can see by the dripping he was lying on his right side.'

'That's how we found him,' the detective said as the saw whined on and a bony dust drifted through the air.

'Be sure to note the caliber, make, and model,' I said as I returned to my own sad chore. 'And is the ammunition ball versus hollow point?'

'Ball. Remington nine-mill.'

Fielding had parallel-parked another table nearby and covered it with a sheet that he had piled with the fire debris that we had already sifted through. I began measuring the lengths of her badly burned femurs in hopes I could make an estimate of height. The rest of her legs were gone from just above the knees to the ankles, but her feet had been spared by her boots. In addition, she had burn amputations of her forearms and hands. We collected fragments of fabric and drew diagrams and collected more animal hairs, doing all that we could before beginning the difficult task of removing the glass.

'Let's get the warm water going,' I said to Fielding. 'Maybe we can loosen without tearing skin.'

'It's like a damn roast stuck to the pan.'

'Why are you guys always making food analogies?' came a deep, sure voice I recognized.

Teun McGovern, in full morgue protective garb, was walking toward our table. Her eyes were intense behind her face shield, and for an instant we stared straight at each other. I was not the least bit surprised that ATF would have sent a fire investigator to watch the postmortem examination. But I had never expected McGovern to show up.

'How's it going in Warrenton?' I asked her.

'Working away,' she replied. 'We haven't found Sparkes's body, which is a good thing, since he's not dead.'

'Cute,' Fielding said.

McGovern positioned herself across from me, standing far enough back from the table to suggest to me that she had seen very few autopsies.

'So what exactly are you doing?' she asked as I picked up a hose.

'We're going to run warm water between the skin and the glass in hopes we can peel the two apart without further damage,' I replied.

'And what if that doesn't work?'

'Then we got a big fat mess,' Fielding said.

'Then we use a scalpel,' I explained.

But this was not necessary. After several minutes of a constant warm bath, I began to very slowly and gently separate the thick broken glass from the dead woman's face, the skin pulling and distorting as I peeled, making her all the more horrible to look at. Fielding and I worked in silence for a while, gently laying shards and sections of heat-stressed glass into a plastic tub. This took about an hour, and when we were done, the stench was stronger. What was left of the poor woman seemed more pitiful and small, and the damage to her head was even more striking.

'My God,' McGovern said as she stepped closer. 'That's the weirdest thing I've ever seen.'

The lower part of the face was chalky bone, a barely discernible human skull with open jaws and crumbling teeth. Most of the ears were gone, but from the eyes up, the flesh was cooked and so remarkably preserved that I could see the blond fuzz along the hairline. The forehead was intact, although slightly abraded by the removal of the glass, so that it was no longer smooth. If there had been wrinkles, I could not find them now.

'I can't figure out what the hell this is,' Fielding said as he examined the bits of material mingled with hair. 'It's everywhere, all the way down to her scalp.'

Some of it looked like burned paper, while other small pieces were pristinely preserved and a neon pink. I scraped some of it onto my scalpel and placed it into another carton.

'We'll let the labs take a crack at it,' I said to McGovern.

'Absolutely,' she answered.

The hair was eighteen and three-quarters inches long, and I saved a strand of it for DNA should we ever have a premortem sample for comparison.

'If we trace her back to someone missing,' I said to McGovern, 'and you guys can get hold of her toothbrush, we can look for buccal cells. They line the mucosa of the mouth and can be used for DNA comparison. A hairbrush would be good, too.'

She made a note of this. I moved a surgical lamp closer to the left temporal area, using a lens to painstakingly examine what appeared to be hemorrhage in tissue that had been spared.

'It seems we have some sort of injury here,' I said. 'Definitely not skin splitting or an artifact of fire. Possibly an incision with some sort of shiny debris imbedded inside the wound.'

'Could she have been overcome by CO and fallen and hit her head?' McGovern voiced the same question others had. 'She would have had to have hit it on something very sharp,' I said as I took photographs.

'Let me look,' Fielding said, and I handed him the lens. 'I don't see any torn or ragged edges,' he remarked as he peered.

'No, not a laceration,' I agreed. 'This looks more like something inflicted by a sharp instrument.'

He returned the lens to me, and I used plastic forceps to delicately scrape the shiny debris from the wound. I swiped it onto a square of clean cotton twill. On a nearby desk was a dissecting microscope, and I placed the cloth on the stage and moved the light source so that it would reflect off the debris. I looked through the eyepiece lens as I manipulated the coarse and fine adjustments.

What I saw in the circle of reflected illumination were several silvery segments that had the striated, flattened surfaces of metal shavings, such as the turnings made by a lathe. I fitted a Polaroid MicroCam to the microscope and took high-resolution instant color photographs.

'Take a look,' I said.

Fielding, then McGovern, bent over the microscope.

'Either of you ever seen anything like that?' I asked.

I peeled open the developed photographs to make certain they had turned out all right.

'It reminds me of Christmas tinsel when it gets old and wrinkled,' Fielding said.

'Transferred from whatever cut her,' was all McGovern had to say.

'I would think so,' I agreed.

I removed the square of white cloth from the stage and preserved the shavings between cotton balls, which I sealed inside a metal evidence button.

'One more thing for the labs,' I said to McGovern.

'How long will it take?' McGovern said. 'Because if there's a problem, we can do the work at our labs in Rockville.'

'There won't be a problem.' I looked at Fielding and said, 'I think I can handle it from here.'

'Okay,' he said. 'I'll get started on the next one.'

I opened up the neck to look for trauma to those organs and muscles, beginning with the tongue, which I removed while McGovern looked on with stoicism. It was a grim procedure that separated the weak from the strong.

'Nothing there,' I said, rinsing the tongue and blotting it dry with a towel. 'No bite marks that might be indicative of a seizure. No other injuries.'

I looked inside the glistening smooth walls of the airway and found no soot, meaning she was no longer breathing when heat and flames had reached her. But I also found blood, and this was further ominous news.

'More premortem trauma,' I said.

'Possible something fell on her after she was dead?' McGovern asked.

'It didn't happen that way.'

I noted the injury on a diagram and dictated it into the transmitter.

'Blood in the airway means she inhaled it - or aspirated,' I explained. 'Meaning, obviously, that she was breathing when the trauma occurred.'

'What sort of trauma?' she then asked.

'A penetrating injury. The throat stabbed or cut. I see no other signs of trauma to the base of the skull or lungs or to the neck, no contusions or broken bones. Her hyoid's intact, and there's fusion of the greater horn and body, possibly indicating she's older than twenty and most likely wasn't strangled manually or with a ligature.'

I began to dictate again.

'The skin under the chin and superficial muscle are burned away,' I said into the small mike on my gown. 'Heat-coagulated blood in the distal trachea, primary, secondary, and tertiary bronchi. Hemoaspiration, and blood in the esophagus.'

I made the Y incision to open up the dehydrated, ruined body, and for the most part, the rest of the autopsy proved to be rather routine. Although the organs were cooked, they were within normal limits, and the reproductive organs verified the gender as female. There was blood in her stomach, too; otherwise it was empty and tubular, suggesting she hadn't been eating very much. But I found no disease and no other injuries old or new.

Height I could not positively ascertain, but I could estimate by using Trotter and Gleser regression formula charts to correlate femur length to the victim's stature. I sat at a nearby desk and thumbed through Bass's Human Osteology until I found the appropriate table for American white females. Based on a 50.2 millimeter, or approximately twenty-inch, femur, the predicted height would have been five-foot-ten.

Weight was not so exact, for there was no table, chart, or scientific calculation that might tell me that. In truth, we usually got a hint of weight from the size of clothing left, and in this case, the victim had been wearing size eight jeans. So based on the data I had, I intuited that she had been between one hundred and twenty and one hundred and thirty pounds.

'In other words,' I said to McGovern, 'she was tall and very slim. We also know she had long blond hair, was probably sexually active, may have been comfortable around horses, and was already dead inside Sparkes's Warrenton house before the fire got to her. I also know that she received significant premortem injury to her upper neck and was cut right here on her left temple.' I pointed. 'How these were inflicted, I can't tell you.'

I got up from my chair and gathered paperwork while McGovern looked at me, her eyes shadowed by thought. She took off her face shield and mask and untied her gown in back.

'If she had a drug problem, is there any way you might be able to tell that?' she asked me as the phone rang and rang.

'Toxicology will certainly tell us if she had drugs on board,' I said. 'There may also be crystals in her lungs or foreign body granulomas from cutting agents like talc, and fibers from the cotton used to strain out impurities. Unfortunately, the areas where we might be most likely to find needle tracks are missing.'

'What about her brain? Would chronic drug abuse cause any damage that you might be able to see? For example, if she started having severe mental problems, was getting psychotic and so on? It sounds like Sparkes thought she had some sort of mental illness,' McGovern then said. 'For example, what if she were depressive or manic-depressive? Could you tell?'

By now the skull had been opened, the rubbery, fire-shrunken brain sectioned and still on the cutting board.

'In the first place,' I answered, 'nothing is going to be helpful postmortem because the brain is cooked. But even if that were not the case, looking for a morphological correlate to a particular psychiatric syndrome is, in most cases, still theoretical. A widening of the sulci, for example, and reduced gray matter due to atrophy might be a signpost if we knew what the weight of the brain originally was when she was healthy. Then maybe I could say, Okay, her brain weighs a hundred grams less now than it did, so she might have been suffering from some sort of mental disease. Unless she has a lesion or old head injury that might suggest a problem, the answer to your question is no, I can't tell.'

McGovern was silent, and it was not lost on her that I was clinical and not the least bit friendly. Even though I was aware of my rather brittle demeanor around her, I could not seem to soften it. I looked around for Ruffin. He was at the first dissecting sink, suturing a Y incision in long strokes of needle and twine. I motioned to him and walked over. He was too young to worry about turning thirty anytime soon, and had gotten his training in an O.R. and a funeral home.

'Chuck, if you can finish up here and put her back in the fridge,' I said to him.

'Yes, ma'am.'

He returned to his station to finish his present task while I peeled off gloves and dropped them and my mask into one of many red biological hazard containers scattered around the autopsy room.

'Let's go to my office and have a cup of coffee,' I suggested to McGovern in an attempt to be a little more civil. 'And we can finish this discussion.'

In the locker room, we washed with antibacterial soap and I got dressed. I had questions for McGovern, but in truth, I was curious about her, too.

'Getting back to the possibility of drug-induced mental illness,' McGovern said as we followed the corridor. 'Many of these people self-destruct, right?'

'In one way or another.'

'They die in accidents, commit suicide, and that gets us back to the big question,' she said. 'Is that what happened here? Possible she was whacked out and committed suicide?'

'All I know is, she has injury that was inflicted before death,' I pointed out again.

'But that could be self-inflicted if she were not in her right mind,' McGovern said. 'God knows the kinds of self-mutilation we've seen when people are psychotic.'

This was true. I had worked cases in which people had cut their own throats, or stabbed themselves in the chest, or amputated their limbs; or shot themselves in their sexual organs, or walked into a river to drown. Not to mention leaps from high places and self-immolations. The list of horrendous things people did to themselves was much too long, and whenever I thought I'd seen it all, something new and awful was rolled into our bay.

The phone was ringing as I unlocked my office, and I grabbed it just in time.

'Scarpetta,' I said.

'I've got some results for you,' said Tim Cooper, the toxicologist. 'Ethanol, methanol, isopropanol, and acetone are zero. Carbon monoxide is less than seven percent. I'll keep working on the other screens.'

'Thanks. What would I do without you?' I said.

I looked at McGovern as I hung up, and I told her what Cooper had just said.

'She was dead before the fire,' I explained, 'her cause of death exsanguination and asphyxia due to aspiration of blood due to acute neck injury. As for manner, I'm pending that until further investigation, but I think we should work this as a homicide. In the meantime, we need to get her identified, and I'll do what I can to get started on that.'

'I guess I'm supposed to imagine that this woman torched the place and maybe cut her own throat before the fire got her first?' she said as anger flickered.

I did not answer as I measured coffee for the coffeemaker on a nearby countertop.

'Don't you think that's rather far-fetched?' she went on.

I poured in bottled water and pressed a button.

'Kay, no one's going to want to hear homicide,' she said. 'Because of Kenneth Sparkes and what all of this may imply. I hope you realize what you're up against.'

'And what ATF is up against,' I said, sitting across my hopelessly piled desk from her.

'Look, I don't care who he is,' she replied. 'I do every job like I fully intend to make an arrest. I'm not the one who has to deal with the politics around here.'

But my mind wasn't on the media or Sparkes right now. I was thinking that this case disturbed me at a deeper level and in ways I could not fathom.

'How much longer will your guys be at the scene?' I asked her.

'Another day. Two at the most,' she said. 'Sparkes has supplied us and the insurance company with what was inside his house, and just the antique furniture and old wood flooring and paneling alone were a massive fuel load.'

'What about the master bath?' I asked. 'Saying this was the point of origin.'

She hesitated. 'Obviously, that's the problem.'

'Right. If an accelerant wasn't used, or at least not a petroleum distillate, then how?'

'The guys are beating their brains out,' she said, and she was frustrated. 'And so am I. If I try to predict how much energy would be needed in that room for a flashover condition, the fuel load isn't there. According to Sparkes, there was nothing but a throw rug and towels. Cabinets and fixtures were customized brushed steel. The shower had a glass door, the window had sheer curtains.'

She paused as the coffeemaker gurgled.

'So what are we talking about?' she went on. 'Five, six hundred kilowatts total for a ten-by-fifteen foot room? Clearly, there are other variables. Such as how much air was flowing through the doorway…'

'What about the rest of the house? You just said there was a big fuel load there, right?'

'We're only concerned with one room, Kay. And that's the room of origin. Without an origin, the rest of the fuel load doesn't matter.'

'I see.'

'I know a flame was impinged on the ceiling in that bathroom, and I know how high that flame had to be and how many kilowatts of energy were needed for flashover. And a throw rug and maybe some towels and curtains couldn't even come close to causing something like that.'

I knew her engineering equations were pristinely mathematical, and I did not doubt anything she was saying. But it did not matter. I was still left with the same problem. I had reason to believe that we were dealing with a homicide and that when the fire started, the victim's body was inside the master bath, with its noncombustible marble floors, large mirrors, and steel. Indeed, she may have been in the tub.

'What about the open skylight?' I asked McGovern. 'Does that fit with your theory?'

'It could. Because once again, the flames had to be high enough to break the glass, and then heat would have vented through the opening like a chimney. Every fire has its own personality, but certain behaviors are always the same because they conform to the laws of physics.'

'I understand.'

'There are four stages,' she went on, as if I knew nothing. 'First is the fire plume, or column of hot gases, flames, and smoke rising from the fire. That would have been the case, let's say, if the throw rug in the bathroom had ignited. The higher above the flame the gases rise, the cooler and denser they become. They mix with combustion by-products, and the hot gases now begin to fall, and the cycle repeats itself creating turbulent smoke that spreads horizontally. What should have happened next was this hot smoky layer would have continued to descend until it found an opening for ventilation - in this case, we'll assume the bathroom doorway. Next, the smoky layer flows out of the opening while fresh air flows in. If there's enough oxygen, the temperature at the ceiling's going to go up to more than six hundred degrees Celsius, and boom, we have flashover, or a fully developed fire.'

'A fully developed fire in the master bath,' I said.

'And then on into other oxygen-enriched rooms where the fuel loads were enough to burn the place to the ground,' she replied. 'So it's not the spread of the fire that bothers me. It's how it got started. Like I said, a throw rug, curtains, weren't enough, unless something else was there.'

'Maybe something was,' I said, getting up to pour coffee. 'How do you take yours?' I asked.

'Cream and sugar.'

Her eyes followed me.

'None of that artificial stuff, please.'

I drank mine black, and set mugs on the desk as McGovern's gaze wandered around my new office. Certainly, it was brighter and more modern than what I had occupied in the old building on Fourteenth and Franklin, but I really had no more room to evolve. Worst of all, I had been honored with a CEO corner space with windows, and anybody who understood physicians knew that what we needed were walls for bookcases, and not bulletproof glass overlooking a parking lot and the Petersburg Turnpike. My hundreds of medical, legal, and forensic science reviews, journals and formidable volumes were crammed together and, in some cases, double-shelved. It was not uncommon for Rose, my secretary, to hear me swearing when I could not find a reference book I needed right that minute.

'Teun,' I said, sipping my coffee, 'I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for taking care of Lucy.'

'Lucy takes care of herself,' she said.

'That has not always been true.'

I smiled in an effort to be more gracious, to hide the hurt and jealousy that were a splinter in my heart.

'But you're right,' I said. 'I think she does a pretty admirable job of it now. I'm sure Philadelphia will be good for her.'

McGovern was reading every signal I was sending, and I could tell she was aware of more than I wanted her to be.

'Kay, hers will not be an easy road,' she then stated. 'No matter what I do.'

She swirled the coffee in her mug, as if about to taste the first sip of fine wine.

'I'm her supervisor, not her mother,' McGovern said.

This irked me considerably, and it showed when I abruptly picked up the phone and instructed Rose to hold all calls. I got up and shut my door.

'I would hope she's not transferring to your field office because she needs a mother,' I replied coolly as I returned to my desk, which served as a barrier between us. 'Above all else, Lucy is a consummate professional.'

McGovern held up her hand to stop me.

'Whoa,' she protested. 'Of course she is. I'm just not promising anything. She's a big girl, but she's also got a lot of big obstacles. Her FBI background will be held against her by some, who will assume right off the bat that she has an attitude and has never really worked cases.'

'That stereotype shouldn't last long,' I said, and I was finding it very difficult to objectively discuss my niece with her.

'Oh, about as long as it takes for them to see her land a helicopter or program a robot to remove a bomb from a scene,' she quipped. 'Or zip through Q-dot calculations in her head while the rest of us can't even figure them out on a calculator.'

Q-dot was slang for the mathematical equations, or scientific evaluations, used to estimate the physics and chemistry of a fire as it related to what the investigator observed at the scene or was told by witnesses. I wasn't sure Lucy would make many friends by being able to work such esoteric formulas in her head.

'Teun,' I said, softening my tone. 'Lucy's different, and that isn't always good. In fact, in many ways it is just as much a handicap to be a genius as it is to be retarded.'

'Absolutely. I am more aware of this than you might imagine.'

'As long as you understand,' I said as if I were reluctantly handing her the baton in the relay race of Lucy's difficult development.

'And as long as you understand that she has and will continue to be treated like everybody else. Which includes the other agents' reactions to her baggage, which includes rumors about why she left the FBI and about her alleged personal life,' she stated frankly.

I looked at her long and hard, wondering just how much she really knew about Lucy. Unless McGovern had been briefed by someone at the Bureau, there was no reason I could think of why she should know about my niece's affair with Carrie Grethen and the implications of what that might mean when the case went to court, assuming Carrie was caught. Just the reminder cast a shadow over what had already been a dark day, and my uncomfortable silence invited McGovern to fill it.

'I have a son,' she said quietly, staring into her coffee. 'I know what it's like to have children grow up and suddenly vanish. Go their own way, too busy to visit or get on the phone.'

'Lucy grew up a long time ago,' I said quickly, for I did not want her to commiserate with me. 'She also never lived with me, not permanently, I mean. In a way, she's always been gone.'

But McGovern just smiled as she got out of her chair.

'I've got troops to check on,' she said. 'I guess I'd better be on my way.'


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