AT FOUR O'CLOCK that afternoon, my staff was still busy in the autopsy room, and I walked in looking for Chuck. He and two of my residents were working on the burned woman's body, defleshing her as best they could with plastic spatulas, because anything harder might scratch the bones.
Chuck was sweating beneath his surgical cap and mask as he scraped tissue from the skull, his brown eyes rather glazed behind his face shield. He was tall and wiry with short, sandy blond hair that tended to stick out in every direction no matter how much gel he used. He was attractive in an adolescent way and, after a year on the job, still terrified of me.
'Chuck?' I said again, inspecting one of the more ghoulish tasks in forensic medicine.
He stopped scraping and looked up furtively at me. The stench was getting worse by the minute as unrefrigerated flesh continued to decompose, and I was not looking forward to what I needed to do next.
'Let me just check this one more time,' I said to Ruffin, who was so tall he tended to stoop, his neck jutting out like a turtle when he looked at whoever he was talking to. 'Our old battered pots and pans didn't make it in the move.'
'I think somehow they got tossed out,' he said.
'And probably should have,' I told him. 'Which means you and I have an errand to run.'
He wasted no time heading into the men's locker room to get out of his dirty, stinking scrubs and shower just long enough to get the shampoo out of his hair. He was still perspiring, his face pink from scrubbing, when we met in the corridor and I handed him a set of keys. The dark red office Tahoe was parked inside the bay, and I climbed up into the passenger's seat, letting Ruffin drive.
'We're going to Cole's Restaurant Supply,' I told him as the big engine came to life. 'About two blocks west of Parham, on Broad. Just get us on 64 and take the West Broad exit. I'll show you from there.'
He pushed a remote control on the visor and the bay door rolled up heavily, letting in sunlight that I had not noticed all day. Rush hour traffic had just begun and would be awful in another half hour. Ruffin drove like an old woman, dark glasses on and hunched forward as he kept his speed about five miles an hour less than the limit.
'You can go a little faster,' I told him calmly. 'It closes at five, so we sort of need to hurry along.'
He stepped on the gas, lurching us forward, and fumbled in the ashtray for toll tokens.
'You mind if I ask you something, Dr Scarpetta?' he said.
'Please. Go right ahead.'
'It's kind of bizarre.'
He glanced in the rearview mirror again.
'That's all right.'
'You know, I've seen a lot of things, at the hospital and the funeral home and all,' he began nervously. 'And nothing got to me, you know?'
He slowed at the toll plaza and tossed a token into the basket. The red striped arm went up and we rolled on as people in a hurry darted past us. Ruffin rolled his window back up.
'It's normal for what you're seeing now to get to you,' I finished his thought for him, or thought I did.
But this was not what he wanted to tell me.
'You see, most of the time I get to the morgue before you in the morning,' he said instead, his eyes riveted forward as he drove. 'So I'm the one who answers the phones and gets things ready for you, right? You know, because I'm there alone.'
I nodded, having not a clue as to what he was about to say.
'Well, starting about two months ago, when we were still in the old building, the phone started ringing at around six-thirty in the morning, just after I got in. And when I would pick it up, nobody was there.'
'How often has this happened?' I asked.
'Maybe three times a week. Sometimes every day. And it's still happening.'
He was getting my attention now.
'It's happening since we moved.' I wanted to make sure.
'Of course, we have the same number,' he reminded me. 'But yes, ma'am. In fact it happened again this morning, and I've started getting a little spooked. I'm just wondering if we should try to get the calls traced to see what's going on.'
'Tell me exactly what happens when you pick up the phone,' I said as we drove exactly at the speed limit along the interstate.
'I say Morgue, ' he said. 'And whoever it is doesn't say a word. There's silence, almost like the line is dead. So I say Hello? a few times and finally hang up. I can tell there's someone there. It's just something I sense.'
'Why haven't you told me this before?'
'I wanted to make sure it wasn't just me overreacting. Or maybe being too imaginative, because I got to tell you it's kind of creepy in there first thing in the morning when the sun's not up yet and no one else is around.'
'And you say this started about two months ago?'
'More or less,' he answered. 'I didn't really count the first few, you know.'
I was irritated that he had waited until now to pass this along to me, but there was no point in belaboring that.
'I'll pass this along to Captain Marino,' I said. 'In the meantime, Chuck, you need to tell me if this happens again, okay?'
He nodded, his knuckles white on the steering wheel.
'Just beyond the next light, we're looking for a big beige building. It will be on our left, in the nine thousand block, just past JoPa's.'
Cole's was fifteen minutes from closing, and there were but two other cars in the lot when we parked. Ruffin and I got out, and air conditioning was frigid as we entered a wide open space with aisles of metal shelves all the way up to the ceiling. Crowded on them was everything from restaurant-sized ladles and spoons, to food warmers for cafeteria lines, to giant coffeemakers and mixers. But it was potware that I was interested in, and after a quick scan I found the section I needed, halfway to the back, near electric skillets and measuring cups.
I began lifting great aluminum pans and pots when a sales clerk suddenly appeared. He was balding and big-bellied, and sporting a tattoo of a naked woman playing cards on his right forearm.
'Can I help you?' he said to Ruffin.
'I need the biggest cooking pot you've got,' I answered.
'That'd be forty quarts.'
He reached up to a shelf too high for me and handed the monstrous pot to Ruffin.
'I'll need a lid,' I said.
'Will have to be ordered.'
'What about something deep and rectangular,' I then said as I envisioned long bones.
'Got a twenty-quart pan.'
He reached up to another shelf, and metal clanged as he lifted out a pan that had probably been intended for vats of whipped potatoes, vegetables or cobbler.
'And I don't suppose you have a lid for that either,' I said.
Different-sized lids clattered as he pulled one out.
'It's got the notch right here for the ladle. I guess you'll be wanting a ladle, too.'
'No, thank you,' I said. 'Just something long to stir with, either wooden or plastic. And heat-resistant gloves. Two pairs. What else?'
I looked at Ruffin as I thought.
'Maybe we should get a twenty-quart pot, too, for smaller jobs?' I mused.
'That'd be a good idea,' he agreed. 'That big pot's going to be mighty heavy when it's filled with water. And there's no point in using it if something smaller will work, but I think you're going to need the bigger pot this time, or it all won't fit. You know?'
The salesman was getting more confused as he listened to our evasive conversation.
'You tell me what you're planning to cook, and maybe I can give you some advice,' he offered, again to Ruffin.
'Different things,' I replied. 'Mostly I'll be boiling things.'
'Oh, I see,' he said, even though he didn't. 'Well, will there be anything else?'
'That's it,' I answered him with a smile.
At the counter, he rang up one hundred and seventy-seven dollars of restaurant cookware while I got out my billfold and hunted for my MasterCard.
'Do you by chance give discounts to state government?' I asked as he took my card from me.
'No,' he said, rubbing his double chin as he frowned at my card. 'I think I've heard your name on the news before.'
He stared suspiciously at me.
He snapped his fingers.
'You're the lady who ran for the senate a few years back. Or maybe it was for lieutenant governor?' he said, pleased.
'Not me,' I answered. 'I try to stay out of politics.'
'You and me both,' he said loudly as Ruffin and I carried our purchases out the door. 'They're all crooks, every single one of 'em!'
When we returned to the morgue, I gave Ruffin instructions to remove the remains of the burn victim from the refrigerator and wheel them and the new pots into the decomposition room. I shuffled through telephone messages, most of them from reporters, and realized I was nervously pulling at my hair when Rose appeared in the doorway that joined my office to hers.
'You look like you've had a bad day,' she said.
'No worse than usual.'
'How about a cup of cinnamon tea?'
'I don't think so,' I said. 'But thanks.'
Rose placed a stack of death certificates on my desk, adding to the never-ending pile of documents for me to initial or sign. She was dressed this day in a smart navy blue pants suit and bright purple blouse, her shoes, typically, black leather lace-ups for walking.
Rose was well past retirement age, although it didn't show in her face, which was regal and subtly made up. But her hair had gotten finer and had turned completely white, while arthritis nibbled at her fingers, lower back, and hips, making it increasingly uncomfortable for her to sit at her desk and take care of me as she had from my first day at this job.
'It's almost six,' she said, looking kindly at me.
I glanced up at the clock as I began to scan paperwork and sign my name.
'I have a dinner at the church,' she diplomatically let me know.
'That's nice,' I said, frowning as I read. 'Damn it, how many times do I have to tell Dr Carmichael that you don't sign out a death as cardiac arrest. Jesus, everybody dies of cardiac arrest. You die, your heart quits, right? And he's done the respiratory arrest number too, no matter how many times I've amended his certificates.'
I sighed in annoyance.
'He's been the M.E. in Halifax County for how many years?' I continued my tirade. 'Twenty-five at least?'
'Dr Scarpetta, don't forget he's an obstetrician. And an ancient one at that,' Rose reminded me. 'A nice man who's not capable of learning anything new. He still types his reports on an old manual Royal, flying capitals and all. And the reason I mentioned the church dinner is, I'm supposed to be there in ten minutes.'
She paused, regarding me over her reading glasses.
'But I can stay if you want me to,' she added.
'I've got some things to do,' I told her. 'And the last thing I would think of is to interfere with a church dinner. Yours or anyone's. I'm always in enough trouble with God as is.'
'Then I'll say good night,' Rose said. 'My dictations are in your basket. I'll see you in the morning.'
After her footsteps vanished down the corridor, I was enveloped by silence broken only by the sounds of paper I was moving around on my desk. I thought of Benton several times and warded off my desire to call him, because I was not ready to relax, or maybe I simply did not want to feel human quite yet. It is, after all, hard to feel like a normal person with normal emotions when one is about to boil human remains in what is essentially a large soup pot. A few minutes after seven, I followed the corridor to the decomposition room, which was two doors down and across from the cooler.
I unlocked the door and entered what was nothing more than a small autopsy room with a freezer and special ventilation. The remains were covered by a sheet on a transportable table, a new forty-quart pot filled with water on an electric burner beneath a chemical hood. I put on a mask and gloves and turned the burner on a low heat that would not further damage the bones. I poured in two scoops of laundry detergent and a cup of bleach to hasten the loosening of fibrous membranes, cartilage, and grease.
I opened the sheets, exposing bones stripped of most of their tissue, the extremities pitifully truncated like burned sticks. I gently placed femurs and tibias into the pot, then the pelvis and parts of the skull. Vertebrae and ribs followed as water got hotter and a sharp-smelling steam began to rise. I needed to see her bare, clean bones because they might have something to tell me, and there simply was no other way to do it.
For a while I sat in that room, the hood loudly sucking up air as I drifted in my chair. I was tired. I was emotionally drained and feeling all alone. Water heated up, and what was left of a woman I believed had been murdered began to process in the pot, in what seemed one more indignity and callous slight to who she was.
'Oh God,' I sighed, as if God might somehow hear me. 'Bless her, wherever she is.'
It was hard to imagine being reduced to bones cooking in a pot, and the more I thought about it the more depressed I got. Somewhere someone had loved this woman, and she had accomplished something in this life before her body and identity had been so cruelly stripped away. I had spent my existence trying to ward off hate, but by now it was too late. It was true that I hated sadistic evil people whose purpose in life was to torment life and take it, as if it were theirs to appropriate. It was true that executions deeply disturbed me, but only because they resurrected heartless crimes and the victims society barely remembered.
Steam rose in a hot, moist vapor, tainting the air with a nauseating stench that would lessen the longer the bones were processed. I envisioned someone thin and tall and blond, someone wearing jeans and lace-up boots, with a platinum ring tucked in her back pocket. Her hands were gone, and I probably would never know the size of her fingers or if the ring had fit, but it wasn't likely. Fielding probably was right, and I knew I had one more thing to ask Sparkes.
I thought of her wounds and tried to reconstruct how she might have gotten them, and why her fully clothed body had been in the master bathroom. That location, if we were correct about it, was unexpected and odd. Her jeans had not been undone, for when I had recovered the zipper it had been zipped shut, and certainly her buttocks had been covered. Based on the synthetic fabric that had melted into her flesh, I also had no reason to suspect that her breasts had been exposed, not that any of these findings ruled out a sexual assault. But they certainly argued against one.
I was checking the bones through a veil of steam when the telephone rang, startling me. At first I thought it might be some funeral home with a body to deliver, but then I realized that the flashing light was one of the lines for the autopsy room. I could not help but remember what Ruffin had said about spooky early morning calls, and I halfway expected to hear no one on the other end.
'Yes,' I said abruptly.
'Geez, who pissed in your cornflakes?' Marino answered back.
'Oh,' I said, relieved. 'Sorry, I thought it was someone playing pranks.'
'What do you mean, pranks?'
'Later,' I said. 'What's going on?'
'I'm sitting in your parking lot and was hoping you might let me in.'
'I'll be right there.'
In fact, I was very pleased to have company. I hurried to the enclosed bay, and I pushed a button on a wall. The huge door began to crank up, and Marino ducked under it, the dark night smudged with sodium vapor lights. I realized the sky had gotten overcast with clouds that portended rain.
'Why are you here so late?' Marino asked in his usual grumpy way as he sucked on a cigarette.
'My office is smoke-free,' I reminded him.
'Like anybody in this joint's gotta worry about secondary smoke.'
'A few of us are still breathing,' I said.
He flicked the cigarette to the concrete floor and irritably crushed it with his foot, as if we had never been through this routine, not even once in our lives. In fact, this had gotten to be a standard act with us that in its own dysfunctional way somehow reaffirmed our bond to each other. I was quite certain that Marino's feelings would be injured if I didn't nag him about something.
'You can follow me into the decomp room,' I said to him as I shut the bay door. 'I'm in the middle of something.'
'I wish I'd known before,' he complained. 'I would've just dealt with you over the phone.'
'Don't worry. It's not too bad. I'm just cleaning up some bones.'
'Maybe that ain't bad to you,' he said, 'but I've never gotten used to smelling people cook.'
We walked inside the decomposition room and I handed him a surgical mask. I checked the processing to see how it was going and turned the heat down fifty degrees to make sure the water did not boil over and knock bones against each other and the sides of the pot. Marino bent the mask to fit over his nose and mouth and tied sloppy bows in the back. He spotted a box of disposable gloves, snatched a pair and worked them on. It was ironical that he was obsessive in his concerns about outside agents invading his health, when in fact the gravest danger was simply the way he lived. He was sweating in khakis and a white shirt and tie and at some point during the day had been assaulted by ketchup.
'Got a couple interesting things for you, Doc,' he said, leaning against a brightly polished sink. 'We ran the tags on the burned-up Mercedes behind Kenneth Sparkes's house, and it comes back to an '81 Benz 240D, blue. The odometer's probably rolled over at least twice. Registration's a little scary, comes back to a Dr Newton Joyce in Wilmington, North Carolina. He's in the book but I couldn't get him, just his answering machine.'
'Wilmington is where Claire Rawley went to school, and close to where Sparkes had his beach house,' I reminded him.
'Right. So far the signs are still pointing that way.'
He stared blankly at the steaming pot on the burner.
'She drives someone else's car to Warrenton and somehow gets inside Sparkes's house when he's not home, and gets murdered and burns up in a fire,' he said, rubbing his temples. 'I tell you, this one stinks about as bad as what you're cooking there, Doc. We're missing a really big piece, because nothing's making sense.'
'Are there any Rawleys in the Wilmington area?' I asked. 'Any possibility she has relatives there?'
'They got two listings, and neither of them have ever heard of a Rawley named Claire,' he said.
'What about the university?'
'Haven't gotten to that yet,' he answered as I went over to check the pot again. 'Thought you were going to do that.'
'In the morning.'
'So. You gonna hang out here all night cooking this shit?'
'As a matter of fact,' I said, turning off the burner, 'I'm going to let it sit so I can go home. What time is it anyway? Oh God, almost nine o'clock. And I've got court in the morning.'
'Let's blow this joint,' he said.
I locked the door to the decomposition room, and I opened the bay door again. Through it I saw mountainous dark clouds blowing across the moon like boats in full sail, and the wind was wild and making eerie rushing sounds around the corners of my building. Marino walked me to my car and seemed in no hurry as he got out his cigarettes and lit one.
'I don't want to put any hinky ideas in your head,' he said, 'but there's something I think you ought to know.'
I unlocked my car door and slid behind the wheel.
'I'm afraid to ask,' I said, and I meant it.
'I got a call about four-thirty this afternoon from Rex Willis at the paper. The editorial columnist,' he said.
'I know who he is.'
I fastened my seat belt.
'Apparently he got a letter today from an anonymous source, kind of in the format of a press release. It's pretty bad.'
'About what?' I said as an alarm shot through my blood.
'Well, it's supposedly from Carrie Grethen, and she's saying that she escaped from Kirby because she was framed by the feds and knew they'd execute her for something she didn't do unless she got away. She claims that at the time of the murders you were having an affair with the chief profiler in the case, Benton Wesley, and all the so-called evidence against her was doctored, made up, a conspiracy between the two of you to make the Bureau look good.'
'And this was mailed from where?' I asked as outrage heated me up.
'And it was addressed specifically to Rex Willis?'
'And of course, he's not going to do anything with it.'
'Come on, Doc,' he said. 'When's the last time a reporter didn't do something with something?'
'Oh for God's sake!' I blurted out as I started the engine. 'Has the media gone totally mad? They get a letter from a psycho and print it in the paper?' e
'I've got a copy if you want to see it.'
He dug a folded sheet of paper out of his back pocket and handed it to me.
'It's a fax,' he explained. 'The original's already at the lab. Documents is going to see what they can do with it.'
I unfolded the copy with shaking hands, and did not recognize the neat printing in black ink. It was nothing like the bizarre red printing that was on the letter I had received from Carrie, and in this epistle, the words were very articulate and clear. For a moment I read, skimming over the ridiculous claims that she had been framed, my eyes stopping cold on the last long paragraph.
As for Special Agent Lucy Farinelli, she has enjoyed a successful career only because the ever influential chief medical examiner, Dr Scarpetta, her aunt, has covered up her niece's mistakes and transgressions for years. When Lucy and I were both at Quantico, it was she who came on to me, not the other way around as it would most certainly be alleged in court. While it is true that we were lovers for a while, this was all manipulation on her part to get me to cover for her when she screwed up CAIN time and time again. Then she went on to take credit for work she'd never done. I'm telling you this is the God's truth. I swear it. And I'm asking you to please print this letter for all to see. I don't want to stay in hiding the rest of my life, convicted by society for terrible deeds I did not do. My only hope for freedom and justice is for people to see the truth and do something about it.
Have Mercy, Carrie Grethen
Marino quietly smoked until I was finished reading, then he said, 'This person knows too much. I got no doubt the bitch wrote it.'
'She writes me a letter that seems the work of someone deranged and then follows it with this, something that seems completely rational?' I said, and I was so upset I felt sick. 'How does that make sense, Marino?'
He shrugged as the first drops of rain began to fall.
'I'll tell you what I think,' he said. 'She was sending you a signal. She wants you to know she's jerking everybody around. It wouldn't be fun for her if she couldn't piss you off and ruin your day.'
'Does Benton know about this?'
'And you really think the paper's going to print it,' I asked again, hoping his answer would be different this time.
'You know how it goes.'
He dropped the cigarette butt and it glowed to the ground and scattered in sparks.
'The story will be that this notorious psychopathic killer has contacted them while half of law enforcement is out there looking for the bitch,' he said. 'And the other bad news is that there's nothing to say she hasn't sent the same letter other places, too.'
'Poor Lucy,' I muttered.
'Yeah, well, poor everybody,' Marino said.