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8

MARINO PULLED INTO my driveway early, at quarter of nine, because he wanted coffee and something to eat. He was officially not working, so he was dressed in blue jeans, a Richmond Police T-shirt, and cowboy boots that had lived a full life. He had slicked back what little hair had weathered his years, and he looked like an old beer-bellied bachelor about to take his woman to Billy Bob's.

'Are we going to a rodeo?' I asked as I let him in.

'You know, you always have a way of pissing me off.'

He gave me a sour look that didn't faze me in the least. He didn't mean it.

'Well, I think you look pretty cool, as Lucy would say. I've got coffee and granola.'

'How many times do I got to tell you that I don't eat friggin' birdseed,' he grumbled as he followed me through my house.

'And I don't cook steak-egg biscuits.'

'Well, maybe if you did, you wouldn't spend so many evenings alone.'

'I hadn't thought about that.'

'Did the Smithsonian tell you where we was going to park up there? Because there's no parking in D.C.'

'Nowhere in the entire district? The President should do something about that.'

We were inside my kitchen, and the sun was gold on windows facing it, while the southern exposure caught the river glinting through trees. I had slept better last night, although I had no idea why, unless my brain had been so overloaded it simply had died. I remembered no dreams, and was grateful.

'I got a couple of VIP parking passes from the last time Clinton was in town,' Marino said, helping himself to coffee. 'Issued by the mayor's office.'

He poured coffee for me, too, and slid the mug my way, like a mug of beer on the bar.

'I figured with your Benz and those, maybe the cops would think we have diplomatic immunity or something,' he went on.

'I'm supposing you've seen the boots they put on cars up there.'

I sliced a poppyseed bagel, then opened the refrigerator door to take an inventory.

'I've got Swiss, Vermont cheddar, prosciutto.'

I opened another plastic drawer.

'And Parmesan reggiano - that wouldn't be very good. No cream cheese. Sorry. But I think I've got honey, if you'd rather have that.'

'What about a Vidalia onion?' he asked, looking over my shoulder.

'That I have.'

'Swiss, prosciutto, and a slice of onion is just what the doctor ordered,' Marino said happily. 'Now that's what I call a breakfast.'

'No butter,' I told him. 'I have to draw the line somewhere so I don't feel responsible for your sudden death.'

'Deli mustard would be good,' he said.

I spread spicy yellow mustard, then added prosciutto and onion with the cheese on top, and by the time the toaster oven had heated up, I was consumed by cravings. I fixed the same concoction for myself and poured my granola back into its tin. We sat at my kitchen table and drank Columbian coffee and ate while sunlight painted the flowers in my yard in vibrant hues, and the sky turned a brilliant blue. We were on I-95 North by nine-thirty, and fought little traffic until Quantico.

As I drove past the exit for the FBI Academy and Marine Corps base, I was tugged by days that no longer were, by memories of my relationship with Benton when it was new, and my anxious pride over Lucy's accomplishments in a law enforcement agency that remained as much a politically correct all boys club as it had been during the reign of Hoover. Only now, the Bureau's prejudices and power-mongering were more covert as it marched forward like an army in the night, capturing jurisdictions and credits wherever it could as it pushed closer to becoming the official federal police force of America.

Such realizations had been devastating to me and were largely left unspoken, because I did not want to hurt the individual agent in the field who worked hard and had given his heart to what he believed was a noble calling. I could feel Marino looking at me as he tapped an ash out his window.

'You know, Doc,' he said. 'Maybe you should resign.'

He referred to my long-held position as the consulting forensic pathologist for the Bureau.

'I know they're using other medical examiners these days,' he went on. 'Bringing them in on cases instead of calling you. Let's face it, you haven't been to the Academy in over a year, and that's not an accident. They don't want to deal with you because of what they did to Lucy.'

'I can't resign,' I said, 'because I don't work for them, Marino. I work for cops who need help with their cases and turn to the Bureau. There's no way I'll be the one who quits. And things go in cycles. Directors and attorneys general come and go, and maybe someday things will be better again. Besides, you are still a consultant for them, and they don't seem to call you, either.'

'Yo. Well, I guess I feel the same way you do.'

He pitched his cigarette butt and it sailed behind us on the wind of my speeding car.

'It sucks, don't it? Going up there and working with good people and drinking beer in the Boardroom. It all gets to me, if you want to know. People hating cops and cops hating 'em back. When I was getting started, old folks, kids, parents - they was happy to see me. I was proud to put on the uniform and shined my shoes every day. Now, after twenty years, I get bricks throwed at me in the projects and citizens don't even answer if I say good morning. I work my ass off for twenty-six years, and they promote me to captain and put me in charge of the training bureau.'

'That's probably the place where you can do the most good,' I reminded him.

'Yeah, but that's not why I got stuck there.'

He stared out his side window, watching green highway signs fly by.

'They're putting me out to pasture, hoping I'll hurry up and retire or die. And I gotta tell you, Doc, I think about it a lot. Taking the boat out, fishing, taking the RV on the road and maybe going out west to see the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, all those places I've always heard about. But then when it gets right down to it, I wouldn't know what to do with myself. So I just think I'll croak in the saddle.'

'Not anytime soon,' I said. 'And should you retire, Marino, you can do like Benton.'

'With all due respect, I ain't the consultant type,' he said. 'The Institute of Justice and IBM ain't gonna hire a slob like me. Doesn't matter what I know.'

I didn't disagree or offer another word, because, with rare exception, what he had said was true. Benton was handsome and polished and commanded respect when he walked into a room, and that was really the only difference between him and Pete Marino. Both were honest and compassionate and experts in their fields.

'All right, we need to pick up 395 and head over to Constitution,' I thought out loud as I watched signs and ignored urgent drivers riding my bumper and darting around me because going the speed limit wasn't fast enough. 'What we don't want to do is go too far and end up on Maine Avenue. I've done that before.'

I flicked on my right turn signal.

'On a Friday night when I was coming up to see Lucy.'

'A good way to get carjacked,' Marino said.

'Almost did.'

'No shit?' He looked over at me. 'What'd you do?'

'They started circling my car, so I floored it.'

'Run anybody over?'

'Almost.'

'Would you have kept on going, Doc? I mean, if you had run one of them over?'

'With at least a dozen of his buddies left, you bet your boots.'

'Well, I'll tell you one thing,' he said, looking down at his feet. 'They ain't worth much.'

Fifteen minutes later we were on Constitution, passing the Department of the Interior while the Washington Monument watched over the Mall, where tents had been set up to celebrate African American art, and venders sold Eastern Shore crabs and T-shirts from the backs of small trucks. The grass between kiosks was depressingly layered with yesterday's trash, and every other minute another ambulance screamed past. We had driven in circles several times, the Smithsonian coiled in the distance like a dark red dragon. There was not a parking place to be found and, typically, streets were one way or abruptly stopped in the middle of a block, while others were barricaded, and harried commuters did not yield even if it meant your running into the back of a parked bus.

'I tell you what I think we should do,' I said, turning on Virginia Avenue. 'We'll valet park at the Watergate and take a cab.'

'Who the hell would want to live in a city like this?' Marino griped.

'Unfortunately, a lot of people.'

'Talk about a place that's screwed up,' he went on. 'Welcome to America.'

The uniformed valet at the Watergate was very gracious and did not seem to think it odd when I gave him my car and asked him to hail a cab. My precious cargo was in the backseat, packed in a sturdy cardboard box filled with Styrofoam peanuts. Marino and I were let out at Twelfth and Constitution at not quite noon, and climbed the crowded steps of the National Museum of Natural History. Security had been intensified since the Oklahoma bombing, and the guard let us know that Dr Vessey would have to come down and escort us upstairs.

While we waited, we perused an exhibit called Jewels of the Sea, browsing Atlantic thorny oysters and Pacific lions' paws while the skull of a duckbill dinosaur watched us from a wall. There were eels and fish and crabs in jars, and tree snails and a mosasaur marine lizard found in a Kansas chalk bed. Marino was beginning to get bored when the bright brass elevator doors opened and Dr Alex Vessey stepped out. He had changed little since I had seen him last, still slight of build, with white hair and prepossessed eyes that, like those of so many geniuses, were perpetually focused somewhere else. His face was tan and perhaps more lined, and he still wore the same thick black-framed glasses.

'You're looking robust,' I said to him as we shook hands.

'I just got back from vacation. Charleston. I trust you've been there?' he said as the three of us boarded the elevator.

'Yes,' I replied. 'I know the chief there very well. You remember Captain Marino?'

'Of course.'

We rose three levels above the eight-ton African bush elephant in the rotunda, the voices of children floating up like wisps of smoke. The museum was, in truth, little more than a huge granite warehouse. Some thirty thousand human skeletons were stored in green wooden drawers stacked from floor to ceiling. It was a rare collection used to study people of the past, specifically Native Americans who of late had been determined to get their ancestors' bones back. Laws had been passed, and Vessey had been through hell on the Hill, his life's work halfway out the door and headed back to the not-so-wild west.

'We've got a repatriation staff that collects data to supply to this group and that,' he was saying as we accompanied him along a crowded, dim corridor. 'Respective tribes have to be informed as to what we've got, and it's really up to them to determine what's done. In another couple years, our American Indian material may be back in the earth again, only to be dug up again by archaeologists in the next century, my guess is.'

He talked on as he walked.

'Every group is so angry these days they don't realize how much they're hurting themselves. If we don't learn from the dead, who do we learn from?'

'Alex, you're singing to the choir,' I said.

'Yeah, well, if it was my great-grandfather in one of these drawers,' Marino retorted, 'I'm not so sure I'd feel too good about that.'

'But the point is we don't know who is in these drawers, and neither do any of the people who are upset,' said Vessey. 'What we do know is that these specimens have helped us know a lot more about the diseases of the American Indian population, which is clearly a benefit to those now feeling threatened. Oh well, don't get me started.'

Where Vessey worked was a series of small laboratory rooms that were a jumble of black counter space and sinks, and thousands of books and boxes of slides, and professional journals. Displayed here and there were the usual shrunken heads and shattered skulls and various animal bones mistaken as human. On a corkboard were large, painful photographs of the aftermath of Waco, where Vessey had spent weeks recovering and identifying the decomposing burned remains of Branch Davidians.

'Let's see what you've got for me,' Vessey said.

I set my package on a counter and he slit the tape with a pocket knife. Styrofoam rattled as I dug out the cranium, then the very fragile lower portion of the skull that included the bones of the face. I set these on a clean blue cloth and he turned on lamps and fetched a lens.

'Right here,' I directed him to the fine cut on bone. 'It corresponds with hemorrhage in the temporal area. But around it, the flesh was too burned for me to tell anything about what sort of injury we were dealing with. I didn't have a clue until I found this on the bone.'

'A very straight incision,' he said as he slowly turned the skull to look at it from different angles. 'And we're certain this wasn't perhaps accidentally done during autopsy, when, for example, the scalp was reflected back to remove the skull cap?'

'We're certain,' I said. 'And as you can see by putting the two together' - I fit the cranium back in place - 'the cut is about an inch and a half below where the skull was opened during autopsy. And it's an angle that would make no sense if one were reflecting back the scalp. See?'

My index finger was suddenly huge as I looked through the lens and pointed.

'This incision is vertical versus horizontal,' I made my case.

'You're right,' he said, and his face was vibrant with interest. 'As an artifact of autopsy, that would make no sense at all, unless your morgue assistant was drunk.'

'Could it be maybe some kind of defense injury?' Marino suggested. 'You know, if someone was coming at her with a knife. They struggle and her face gets cut?'

'Certainly that's possible,' Vessey said as he continued to process every millimeter of bone. 'But I find it curious that this incision is so fine and exact. And it appears to be the same depth from one end to the other, which would be unusual if one is swinging a knife at someone. Generally, the cut to bone would be deeper where the blade struck first, and then more shallow as the blade traveled down.'

He demonstrated, an imaginary knife cutting straight down through air.

'We also have to remember that a lot depends on the assailant's position in relation to the victim when she was cut,' I commented. 'Was the victim standing or lying down? Was the assailant in front or behind or to one side of her or on top of her?'

'Very true,' said Vessey.

He went to a dark oak cabinet with glass doors and lifted an old brown skull from a shelf. He carried it over to us and handed it to me, pointing to an obvious coarse cut in the left parietal and occipital area, or on the left side, high above the ear.

'You asked about scalpings,' he said to me. 'An eight- or nine-year-old, scalped, then burned. Can't tell the gender, but I know the poor kid had a foot infection. So he or she couldn't run. Cuts and nicks like this are fairly typical in scalpings.'

I held the skull and for a moment imagined what Vessey had just said. I envisioned a cowering crippled child, and blood running to the earth as his screaming people were massacred and the camp went up in flames.

'Shit,' Marino muttered angrily. 'How do you do something like that to a kid?'

'How do you do something like that at all?' I said. Then to Vessey, I added, 'The cut on this' - I pointed at the skull I had brought in - 'would be unusual for a scalping.'

Vessey took a deep breath and slowly blew out.

'You know, Kay,' he said, 'it's never exact. It's whatever happened at the time. There were many ways that Indians scalped the enemy. Usually, the skin was incised in a circle over the skull down to the galea and periosteum so it could be easily removed from the cranial vault. Some scalpings were simple, others involved ears, eyes, the face, the neck. In some instances multiple scalps were taken from the same victim, or maybe just the scalplock, or small area of the crown of the head, was removed. Finally, and this is what you usually see in old westerns, the victim was violently grabbed by his hair, the skin sliced away with a knife or saber.'

'Trophies,' Marino said.

'That and the ultimate macho symbol of skill and bravery,' said Vessey. 'Of course, there were cultural, religious, and even medicinal motives, as well. In your case,' he added to me, 'we know she wasn't successfully scalped because she still had her hair, and I can tell you the injury to bone strikes me as having been inflicted carefully with a very sharp instrument. A very sharp knife. Maybe a razor blade or box cutter, or even something like a scalpel. It was inflicted while the victim was alive and it was not the cause of death.'

'No, her neck injury is what killed her,' I agreed.

'I can find no other cuts, except possibly here.'

He moved the lens closer to an area of the left zygomatic arch, or bone of the cheek. 'Something very faint,' he muttered. 'Too faint to be sure. See it?'

I leaned close to him to look.

'Maybe,' I said. 'Almost like the thread of a spider web.'

'Exactly. It's that faint. And it may be nothing, but interestingly enough, it's positioned at very much the same angle as the other cut. Vertical versus horizontal or slanted.'

'This is getting sick,' Marino said ominously. 'I mean, let's cut to the chase, no pun intended. What are we saying here? That some squirrel cut this lady's throat and then mutilated her face? And then torched the house?'

'I guess that's one possibility,' Vessey said.

'Well, mutilating a face gets personal,' Marino went on. 'Unless you're dealing with a loony tune, you don't find killers mutilating the faces of victims they don't have some sort of connection with.'

'As a rule, this is true,' I agreed. 'In my experience where it hasn't been true is when the assailant is very disorganized and turns out to be psychotic.'

'Whoever burned Sparkes's farm was anything but disorganized, you ask me,' Marino said.

'So you're contemplating that this might be a homicide of a more domestic nature,' Vessey said, now slowly scanning the cranium with the lens.

'We have to contemplate everything,' I said. 'But if nothing else, when I try to imagine Sparkes killing all his horses, I just can't see it.'

'Maybe he had to kill them to get away with murder,' Marino said. 'So people would say what you just did.'

'Alex,' I said, 'whoever did this to her made very sure we would never find a cut mark. And were it not for a glass door falling on top of her, there probably would have been virtually nothing of her left that would have given us any clue as to what happened. If we had recovered no tissue, for example, we wouldn't have known she was dead before the fire because we wouldn't be able to get a CO level. So what happens? She gets signed out as an accidental death, unless we prove arson, which so far we've been unable to do.'

'There's no doubt in my mind that this is a classic case of arson-concealed homicide,' Vessey said.

'Then why the hell hang around to cut on somebody?' Marino said. 'Why not kill her and torch the joint and run like hell? And usually when these whackos mutilate, they get off on people seeing their handiwork. Hell, they display the bodies in a park, on a hillside next to a road, on a jogging trail, in the middle of the living room, right there for all to see.'

'Maybe this person doesn't want us to see,' I said. 'It's very important that we not know he left a signature this time. And I think we need to run as exhaustive a computer search as we can, to see if anything even remotely similar to this has turned up anywhere else.'

'You do that, and you bring in a lot of other people,' Marino said. 'Programmers, analysts, guys who run the computers at the FBI and big police departments like Houston, L.A., and New York. I guarantee you, someone's going to spill the beans and next thing this shit's all over the news.'

'Not necessarily,' I said. 'It depends on who you ask.'

We caught a cab on Constitution and told the driver to head toward the White House and cut over to the six hundred block of Fifteenth Street. I intended to treat Marino to the Old Ebbitt Grill, and at half past five, we did not have to wait in line but got a green velvet booth. I had always found a special pleasure in the restaurant's stained glass, mirrors, and brass gas lamps wavering with flames. Turtles, boars, and antelopes were mounted over the bar, and the bartenders never seemed to slow down no matter the time of day.

A distinguished-looking husband and wife behind us were talking about Kennedy Center tickets and their son's entering Harvard in the fall, while two young men debated whether lunch could go on the expense account. I parked my cardboard box next to me on the seat. Vessey had resealed it with yards of tape.

'I guess we should have asked for a table for three,' Marino said, looking at the box. 'You sure it doesn't stink? What if someone caught a whiff of it in here?'

'It doesn't stink,' I said, opening my menu. 'And I think it would be wise to change the subject so we can eat. The burger here is so good that even I break down now and then and order it.'

'I'm looking at the fish,' he said with great affectation. 'You ever had them here?'

'Go to hell, Marino.'

'All right, you talked me into it, Doc. Burger it is. I wish it were the end of the day so I could have a beer. It's torture to come to a joint like this and not have Jack Black or a tall one in a frosted mug. I bet they make mint juleps. I haven't had one of those since I was dating that girl from Kentucky. Sabrina. Remember her?'

'Maybe if you describe her,' I said absently as I looked around and tried to relax.

'I used to bring her into the FOP. You was in there once with Benton, and I came over and introduced her. She had sort of reddish blond hair, blue eyes, and pretty skin. She used to roller skate competitively?'

I had no earthly idea whom he was talking about.

'Well' - he was still studying the menu - 'it didn't last very long. I don't think she would have given me the time of day if it wasn't for my truck. When she was sitting high in that king cab you would've thought she was waving at everybody from a float in the Rose Bowl parade.'

I started laughing, and the blank expression on his face only made matters worse. I was laughing so hard my eyes were streaming and the waiter paused and decided to come back later. Marino looked annoyed.

'What's wrong with you?' he said.

'I guess I'm just tired,'' I said, gasping. 'And if you want a beer, you go right ahead. It's your day off and I'm driving.'

This improved his mood dramatically, and not much later he was draining his first pint of Samuel Adams while his burger with Swiss and my chicken Caesar salad were served. For a while we ate and drifted in and out of a conversation while people around us talked loudly and nonstop.

'I said, do you want to go away for your birthday?' one businessman was telling another. 'You're used to going wherever you want.'

'My wife's the same way,' the other businessman replied as he chewed. 'Acts like I never take her anywhere. Hell, we go out to dinner almost every week.'

'I saw on Oprah that one out of ten people owe more money than they can pay,' an older woman confided to a companion whose straw hat was hanging from the hat rack by their booth. 'Isn't that wild?'

'Doesn't surprise me in the least. It's like everything else these days.'

'They do have valet parking here,' one of the businessmen said. 'But I usually walk.'

'What about at night?'

'Shooo. Are you kidding? In D.C.? Not unless you got a death wish.'

I excused myself and went downstairs to the ladies' room, which was large and built of pale gray marble. No one else was there, and I helped myself to the handicap stall so I could enjoy plenty of space and wash my hands and face in private. I tried to call Lucy from my portable phone, but the signal seemed to bounce off walls and come right back. So I used a pay phone and was thrilled to find her at home.

'Are you packing?' I asked.

'Can you hear an echo yet?' she said.

'Ummm. Maybe.'

'Well, I can. You ought to see this place.'

'Speaking of that, are you up for visitors?'

'Where are you?' Her tone turned suspicious.

'The Old Ebbitt Grill. At a pay phone downstairs by the restrooms, to be exact. Marino and I were at the Smithsonian this morning, seeing Vessey. I'd like to stop by. Not only to see you, but I have a professional matter to discuss.'

'Sure,' she said. 'We're not going anywhere.'

'Can I bring anything?'

'Yeah. Food.'

There was no point in retrieving my car, because Lucy lived in the northwest part of the city, just off Dupont Circle, where parking would be as bad as it was everywhere else. Marino whistled for a cab outside the grill, and one slammed on its brakes and we got in. The afternoon was calm and flags were wilted over roofs and lawns, and somewhere a car alarm would not stop. We had to drive through George Washington University, past the Ritz and Blackie's Steakhouse to reach Lucy and Janet's neighborhood.

The area was bohemian and mostly gay, with dark bars like The Fireplace and Mr P's that were always crowded with well-built, body-pierced men. I knew, because I had been here many times in the past to visit my niece, and I noted that the lesbian bookstore had moved and there seemed to be a new health food store not too far from Burger King.

'You can let us out here,' I said to the driver.

He slammed on the brakes again and swerved near the curb.

'Shit,' Marino said as the blue cab raced away. 'You think there's any Americans in this town?'

'If it wasn't for non-Americans in towns like this, you and I wouldn't be here,' I reminded him.

'Being Italian's different.'

'Really? Different from what?' I asked at the two thousand block of P Street, where we entered the D.C. Cafe.

'From them,' he said. 'For one thing, when our people got off the boat on Ellis Island, they learned to speak English. And they didn't drive taxi cabs without knowing where the hell they was going. Hey, this place looks pretty good.'

The cafe was open twenty-four hours a day, and the air was heavy with sauteing onions and beef. On the walls were posters of gyros, green teas, and Lebanese beer, and a framed newspaper article boasted that the Rolling Stones had once eaten here. A woman was slowly sweeping as if it were her mission in life. She paid us no mind.

'You relax,' I said to Marino. 'This shouldn't take but a minute.'

He found a table to smoke while I went up to the counter and studied the yellow lit-up menu over the grill.

'Yes,' said the cook as he pressed sizzling beef and slapped and cut and tossed browning chopped onions.

'One Greek salad,' I said. 'And a chicken gyro in pita and, let me see.' I perused. 'I guess a Kefte Kabob Sandwesh. I guess that's how you say it.'

'To go?'

'Yes.'

'I call you,' he said as the woman swept.

I sat down with Marino. There was a TV, and he was watching Star Trek through a swarm of loud static.

'It's not going to be the same when she's in Philly,' he said.

'It won't be.'

I stared numbly at the fuzzy form of Captain Kirk as he pointed his phaser at a Klingon or something.

'I don't know,' he said, resting his chin in his hand as he blew out smoke. 'Somehow it just don't seem right, Doc. She had everything all figured out and had worked hard to get it that way. I don't care what she says about her transferring, I don't think she wants to go. She just doesn't believe she's got a choice.'

'I'm not sure she does if she wants to stay on the track she's chosen.'

'Hell, I believe you always got a choice. You see an ashtray anywhere?'

I spotted one on the counter and carried it over.

'I guess now I'm an accomplice,' I said.

'You just nag me because it gives you something to do.'

'Actually, I'd like you to hang around for a while, if that's all right with you,' I said. 'It seems I spend half my time trying to keep you alive.'

'That's kind of an irony considering how you spend the rest of your time, Doc.'

'Your order!' the cook called out.

'How 'bout getting me a couple of those baklava things. The one with pistachios.'

'No,' I said.


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