A fiery sunset burns out along the darkening horizon in Old Town Alexandria at not quite five p.m. the Monday after Thanksgiving.
The wind is kicking up and fitful, the moon shrouded by fog rolling in from the Potomac River. Trees and shrubbery shake and thrash, dead leaves swirling and skittering over the tarmac. Ominous clouds advance like an enemy army, the flags flapping wildly in front of my Northern Virginia headquarters.
I crouch down by the fireproof file cabinet, entering the combination on the fail-safe push-button lock. Opening the bottom drawer, I lift out the thick accordion folder I’ve been hauling around for many months. I smell the musty oldness of declassified government documents going back to the late 1940s, many heavily redacted and almost illegible. I’ve got much to review before the next meeting of the National Emergency Contingency Coalition, better known as the Doomsday Commission, this time at the Pentagon. My White House– appointed responsibilities aren’t for the faint of heart. But they’re not nearly as pressing as what’s right in front of me, and I can’t stop thinking about the murdered woman down-stairs in my cooler.
I envision the slashes to her neck, the bloody stumps left when her hands were severed, and I don’t know who she is. I know virtually nothing about her beyond what her dead body has to say, dumped like trash by railroad tracks on Daingerfield Island, several miles north of here. After spending the entire weekend on her, I’m no further along.
Not even a month on the job, and it’s been one ugly conundrum after another, accompanied by plenty of obstructions and hostility. It’s an understatement that my presence isn’t appreciated and I’ve been handed quite the mess. Taking off my lab coat, draping it over my office chair, I cover my micro-scope for the night as distant thunder cracks and reverberates, lightning shimmering.
From my second-story corner suite, I have quite the ringside seat for weather- related drama. The parking lot we share with the forensic labs has emptied quickly, streetlights blinking on blearily. Dozens of scientists, doctors and other staff hurry to their cars as rain spatters my windows.
I don’t know most people yet, and just as many don’t remember me from what seems another life ago. Millennials in particular weren’t around when I was the first woman chief medical examiner of Virginia. I ran the statewide system more than a decade before moving on. I assumed I’d left for good, never imagining I’d be back, and I hope I haven’t made the biggest mistake of my life.
On wall- mounted flat screens I can monitor live images of my building inside and out, and the night- shift security guard is walking through the cavernous vehicle bay this moment. I feel like a ghost or a spy as he yawns and scratches, unmindful of the closed- circuit TV cameras overhead. In his sixties, his first name is Wyatt but I don’t know his last.
He looks like a sheriff in his khaki uniform with brown pocket flaps, walking up the concrete ramp leading inside the morgue, pressing a button on the cinder block wall. The massive door begins rolling down in the swirling exhaust of the hearse driving out, probably the suicide from Fairfax County, based on bodies scheduled for release.
“Dr. Scarpetta?” My officious British secretary interrupts my ruminations, opening the door between her office and mine. “So sorry to disturb you.” She’s not sorry in the least, rarely bothering to knock.
“I’m about to head out, and you should do the same.” I move window to window, closing the blinds.
“I just spoke to August Ryan,” she announces. “He wanted you to know that a situation has come up requiring your assistance.”
“Is this about the woman downstairs?” I presume, and the U.S. Park Police investigator and I haven’t talked since Friday night. I’m hoping he finally has new information. The case is getting traction in the media, and rumours and theories are on the Internet. It’s almost impossible to solve a violent crime when you don’t know the victim’s identity.
“He needs you to meet him somewhere.” My secretary acts as if I answer to her instead of the other way around.
Dressed in her typical couture of a tweedy skirt suit and loafers, her steely grey hair styled like the 1950s, Maggie Cut-bush eyes me disapprovingly over the wire- rim glasses perched on the tip of her sharp nose.
“He needs to meet me for what reason— ” I start to say.
“He’ll explain,” she interrupts.
“Why didn’t you just put him on the phone with me? He could have called directly for that matter. I gave him my cell number at the scene Friday night.”
“August and I have worked together for years. He was polite enough to check with me first, and will call you when he’s in his car,” she says in her lovely London accent, having zero respect for a woman in charge.
Certainly not a second- generation Italian who grew up poor in Miami. I collect my coat from the coatrack. I’m eager to get out of here, and not because of present company and the weather. Today is my niece’s birthday, a difficult one with all that’s gone on, and I’ve planned a quiet celebration at home, just family.
“One of Doctor Reddy’s strengths is he knows how to delegate.” Maggie hasn’t finished lecturing. “He didn’t hand out his personal contact information like Halloween candy,” as if I do. “He made it clear he wasn’t at the beck and call of the police. It’s a lesson you’d be well served to learn.”
At every opportunity, she can’t resist mentioning her former boss, the chief I replaced under somewhat false pretenses as it turns out. Or bait and switch might better summarize what happened once I’d moved here from Massachusetts. Everything changed in the blink of an eye.
It was too late by the time I discovered that Elvin Reddy wasn’t leaving state government for the private sector as I was promised by him and others high up the chain. Instead, he was appointed the new health commissioner of Virginia, overseeing all departments responsible for the well- being and safety of the public.
That includes the statewide Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME). Meaning I answer to him when push comes to shove, a slick political trick if ever I heard one. “As you’re seeing, it doesn’t take long for people to get entitled,” Maggie says ironically. “I’d suggest you take an investigator with you. Fabian’s on call tonight. He was at his desk when I walked past a few minutes ago.”
“It depends on what we’re dealing with,” I reply. “It probably won’t be necessary. I believe I can manage.” Looking around for the spray bottle of filtered water, I spot it on a shelf near the conference table.
“It’s unwise for the chief to show up at all, much less alone, and it’s not a good precedent for you to start,” Maggie says as if I just fell off the turnip truck.
“Look, I’m sure you have my best interests in mind.” I’m not rude about it, not even snide.
“I believe that goes without saying.” She dominates our shared doorway as I step around boxes of books and other personal belongings I’ve yet to unpack.
“I realize my style isn’t your cup of tea, Maggie.” I begin spritzing my fiddle- leaf fig tree and potted orchids. “But I’m not the sort to stand on ceremony. If I can’t be bothered then why should anyone else?”
It’s all I can do not to admit the major reason I was asked to become chief again. The number of cases that have been neglected and mishandled for years is stunning. Especially here in Northern Virginia, which has its own special problems because of our location.
My office is but five miles from the Pentagon, and I stipulated that if I took this job, I had to work out of the headquarters here in Alexandria. Considering the various national obligations my husband and I have, it’s important we’re in close proximity to Washington, D.C.
“If the police want my help, that’s why I’m here.” I tell Maggie what I have before. “They don’t need to go through you.”
“I suppose we should postpone Lucy’s birthday gathering.” She curtly changes the subject. “Benton, Pete Marino, your sister, anybody else? I’ll let them know.”
“Nobody else, and I agree that’s probably wise.” I’ll never stop feeling awful about disappointing everyone on a regular basis. But violence and senseless tragedy don’t care who you are or the occasion, and someone has to respond. Returning to my desk, I vow to make it up to Lucy, as I’ve vowed so many times before.
“I can’t imagine how difficult it must be.” Maggie grimly shakes her head with phony sympathy. “Losing her partner and adopted son,” she says, and I don’t intend to discuss my niece and why she’s living at home. “Not that I really understand that lifestyle. But this time of year, everything’s harder for people who are unhappy.”
“No reason to wait.” I tell her it’s fine to leave, and to drive carefully in the wind and rain, as I ignore how offensive she can be. “I’ll see what’s going on with August Ryan.”
Hopefully, he has something helpful about the murdered woman in my cooler. One doesn’t need to be a forensic pathologist to determine that she died of exsanguination after her carotid arteries were transected by a sharp blade. I don’t know how old she is, possibly in her late twenties or early thirties when someone fractured her skull from behind, cutting her throat down to the spine.
Last Friday night was stormy as I worked the scene in a remote wooded area of Daingerfield Island. I can almost smell the creosote- treated wood, raindrops smacking on railroad ties as I went over every inch of the body with a hand magnifier. The beams of tactical flashlights slashed through the blackness like a laser show as cops searched the area.
Nothing turned up except a flattened penny, possibly run over by the seven p.m. commuter train as the engineer spotted what he thought was a naked mannequin sprawled by the rails.
“I hate to screw up your evening,” August Ryan drawls right off when I answer my phone. “Because I’m pretty sure I’m about to, and I can tell you already that it’s not pleasant driving out here. But as I explained to Maggie a little while ago, I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”
“What can I do for you?” I write down the time and date in a pocket- size Moleskine notebook.
“We’ve got a missing person, and it’s not looking good.” The park police investigator wastes no time getting to the point.
“I’m sorry, is this about Friday night’s case?” I puzzle. “Are you thinking this missing person might be the murdered woman in my cooler?”
“It’s sounding like it could be. Alexandria P.D. called me after one of their officers did a wellness check on someone who’s vanished. I’m on my way to your neck of the woods, Colonial Landing on the waterfront,” he startles me by adding.
I know the new residential development all too well. Pete Marino and my sister Dorothy have a place there, the luxury townhomes an easy walk from the historic district where Benton and I bought an old estate that needs some fixing up. Lucy lives with us in the guesthouse, everybody safely close by for once. Or so I thought, not that any location is immune from violence.
But it’s rare in Old Town. Homicide is an anomaly, on average one a year, typically a robbery, a domestic fight that takes a fatal turn, based on the statistics I’ve studied. Rapes and assaults are uncommon, and mostly what the locals worry about is burglary and car break- ins.
“Gwen Hainey.” August tells me the name of the missing woman. “A thirty- three- year- old biomedical engineer at Thor Laboratories. About twenty miles from you in Vienna, one of those big tech companies off I-95.”
“I’m familiar with Thor, at least by reputation. What exactly does she do there?” I’m writing down the details.
“The person I talked to is the lab director, and he wouldn’t say. Only that she’s a scientist working on special projects, and as you may or may not know, a lot of what goes on is classified stuff for the government.”
“Among other things they’re pioneers in 3-D printing human skin, organs, blood vessels, and other body parts including ears.” I give him the upshot.
“As science fiction as it might sound, it’s already happening.” “Just one more thing to make life more confusing and our jobs harder” is what he has to say about it, and I don’t know him well.
Friday night was the only time I’ve been around him so far, and he’s what I’d call a cool customer, a smooth operator. Understated. Hard to read. Recently divorced, he has no kids, and I get the impression he’s too busy for much of a social life.
“How do you get a DNA profile from artificial skin? What about fingerprints?” August’s voice over speakerphone.
“We’ll worry about that another day,” I reply. “When’s the last time anybody at Thor had contact with Gwen?”
“Apparently, not since Thanksgiving. She wasn’t at work today, wasn’t answering her phone, which hasn’t turned up so far.”
He goes on to explain that her lab director was concerned enough to call 911. The uniformed officer making the well-ness check found Gwen’s front door locked, no sign of anyone.
“Officer Fruge.” August wonders if I might know her.
Fruge as in frugal, and I have a feeling the unusual name is one from my past. I wonder out loud if the officer he’s talking about is related to the controversial toxicologist I once worked with in Richmond.
“Yep, that’s the one,” he says. “Blaise Fruge is her daughter, and she was at the scene briefly Friday night, was the first responder.”
He says that the Alexandria police officer was on routine patrol when the body was discovered. She heard the radio call, and likely was gone by the time I showed up. But I wouldn’t have a clue who was there, the park crawling with police while I dealt with the body.
“A wannabe plus full of herself, and they’re the worst kind,” August adds as my fitness tracker bracelet vibrates, messages and e-mails landing. “You’ve got to watch her, and she thinks she’s the next Sherlock, but trust me, she’s not.”
“Let me make sure I understand,” I reply. “Officer Fruge responded to the body found on Daingerfield Island. And now she’s responded to a missing person report that may be connected. It would seem she gets around.”
“I don’t think she’s got a life, you want my opinion.”
“What happened when she arrived at Colonial Landing?”
“She had to get the manager to let her into Gwen Hainey’s townhome, and it’s clear that something violent went on.” August’s voice sounds over speakerphone as I glance at the text Benton just sent.
He’s heard from Maggie, and is on his way home, running late, and that’s strange. I didn’t know he was going anywhere today, thought he was working remotely. Texting him a quick reply, I ask if everything’s okay, while August continues to explain what Officer Fruge discovered inside the townhome.