*San Francisco Chronicle
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Hometown:Boston, MA and New York, NY
Date of Birth:June 9, 1956
Place of Birth:Miami, Florida
Education:B.A. in English, Davidson College, 1979; King College
Read an Excerpt
On the last morning of Virginia's bloodiest year since the Civil War, I built a fire and sat facing a window of darkness where at sunrise I knew I would find the sea. I was in my robe in lamplight, reviewing my office's annual statistics for car crashes, hangings, beatings, shootings, stabbings, when the telephone rudely rang at five-fifteen.
"Damn," I muttered, for I was beginning to feel less charitable about answering Dr. Philip Mant's phone. "All right, all right."
His weathered cottage was tucked behind a dune in a stark coastal Virginia subdivision called Sandbridge, between the U.S. Naval Amphibious Base and Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Mant was my deputy chief medical examiner for the Tidewater District, and sadly, his mother had died last week on Christmas Eve. Under ordinary circumstances, his returning to London to get family affairs in order would not have constituted an emergency for the Virginia medical examiner system. But his assistant forensic pathologist was already out on maternity leave, and recently, the morgue supervisor had quit.
"Mant residence," I answered as wind tore the dark shapes of pines beyond windowpanes.
"This is Officer Young with the Chesapeake police," said someone who sounded like a white male born and bred in the South. "I'm trying to reach Dr. Mant."
"He is out of the country," I answered. "How may I help you?"
"Are you Mrs. Mant?"
"I'm Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the chief medical examiner. I'm covering for Dr. Mant."
The voice hesitated, and went on, "We got a tip about a death. An anonymous call."
"Do you know where this death supposedly took place?" I was making notes.
"Supposedly the Inactive Naval Ship Yard."
"Excuse me?" I looked up.
He repeated what he had said.
"What are we talking about, a Navy SEAL?" I was baffled, for it was my understanding that SEALs on maneuvers were the only divers permitted around old ships moored at the Inactive Yard.
"We don't know who it is but he might have been looking for Civil War relics."
"Ma'am, the area's off-limits unless you have clearance. But that hasn't stopped people from being curious before. They sneak their boats in and always it's after dark."
"This scenario is what the anonymous caller suggested?"
"That's rather interesting."
"I thought so."
"And the body hasn't been located yet," I said as I continued to wonder why this officer had taken it upon himself to call a medical examiner at such an early hour when it was not known for a fact that there was a body or even someone missing.
"We're out looking now, and the Navy's sending in a few divers, so we'll get the situation handled if it pans out. But I just wanted you to have a heads up. And be sure you give Dr. Mant my condolences."
"Your condolences?" I puzzled, for if he had known about Mant's circumstances, why did he call here asking for him?
"I heard his mother passed on."
I rested the tip of the pen on the sheet of paper. "Would you tell me your full name and how you can be reached, please?"
"S. T. Young." He gave me a telephone number and we hung up.
I stared into the low fire, feeling uneasy and lonely as I got up to add more wood. I wished I were in Richmond in my own home with its candles in the windows and Fraser fir decorated with Christmases from my past. I wanted Mozart and Handel instead of wind shrilly rushing around the roof, and wished I had not taken Mant up on his kind offer that I could stay in his home instead of a hotel. I resumed reading the statistical report, but my mind would not stop drifting. I imagined the sluggish water of the Elizabeth River, which this time of year would be less than sixty degrees, visibility, at best, maybe eighteen inches.
In the winter, it was one thing to dive for oysters in the Chesapeake Bay or go thirty miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean to explore a sunken aircraft carrier or German submarine and other wonders worth a wet suit. But in the Elizabeth River, where the Navy parked its decommissioned ships, I could think of nothing enticing, no matter the weather. I could not imagine who would dive there alone in winter after dark to look for artifacts or anything, and believed the tip would prove to be a crank.
Leaving the recliner chair, I walked into the master bedroom where my belongings had metastasized throughout most of the small, chilly space. I undressed quickly and took a hurried shower, having discovered my first day here that the hot-water heater had its limitations. In fact, I did not like Dr. Mant's drafty house with its knotty pine paneling the color of amber and dark brown painted floors that showed every particle of dust. My British deputy chief seemed to live in the dark clutches of gusting wind, and every moment in his minimally furnished home was cold and unsettled by shifting sounds that sometimes caused me to sit up in my sleep and reach for my gun.
Swathed in a robe with a towel wrapped around my hair, I checked the guest bedroom and bath to make certain all was in order for the midday arrival of Lucy, my niece. Then I surveyed the kitchen, which was pitiful compared to the one I had at home. I did not seem to have forgotten anything yesterday when I had driven to Virginia Beach to shop, although I would have to do without garlic press, pasta maker, food processor and microwave oven. I was seriously beginning to wonder if Mant ever ate in or even stayed here. At least I had thought to bring my own cutlery and cookware, and as long as I had good knives and pots there wasn't much I couldn't manage.
I read some more and fell asleep in the glow of a gooseneck lamp. The telephone startled me again and I grabbed the receiver as my eyes adjusted to sunlight in my face.
"This is Detective C. T. Roche with Chesapeake," said another male voice I did not know. "I understand you're coveting for Dr. Mant, and we need an answer from you real quick. Looks like we got a diving fatality in the Inactive Naval Ship Yard, and we need to go ahead and recover the body."
"I'm assuming this is the case one of your officers called me about earlier?"
His long pause was followed by the rather defensive remark, "As far as I know, I'm the first one notifying you."
"An officer named Young called me at quarter past five this morning. Let me see." I checked the call sheet. "Initials S as in Sam, T as in Tom."
Another pause, then he said in the same tone, "Well, I got no idea who you're talking about since we don't have anybody by that name."
Adrenaline was pumping as I took notes. The time was thirteen minutes past nine o'clock. I was baffled by what he had just said. If the first caller really wasn't police, then who was he, why had he called, and how did he know Mant?
"When was the body found?" I asked Roche.
"Around six a security guard for the shipyard noticed a johnboat anchored behind one of the ships. There was a long hose in the water, like maybe there was someone diving at the other end. And when it hadn't budged an hour later, we were called. One diver was sent down and like I said, there is a body."
"Do we have an identification?"
"We recovered a wallet from the boat. The driver's license is that of a white male named Theodore Andrew Eddings."
"The reporter?" I said in disbelief. "That Ted Eddings?"
"Thirty-two years old, brown hair, blue eyes, based on his picture. He has a Richmond address of West Grace Street."
The Ted Eddings I knew was an award-winning investigative reporter for the Associated Press. Scarcely a week went by when he didn't call me about something. For a moment, I almost' couldn't think.
"We also recovered a nine-millimeter pistol from the boat," he said.
When I spoke again, it was very firmly. "His identification absolutely is not to be released to the press or anyone else until it has been confirmed."
"I already told everybody that. Not to worry."
"Good. And no one has any idea why this individual might have been diving in the Inactive Ship Yard?" I asked.
"He might have been looking for Civil War stuff."
"You speculate that based on what?"
"A lot of people like to look in the rivers around here for cannonballs and things," he said. "Okay. So we'll go on and pull him in so he's not down there any longer than necessary."
"I do not want him touched, and leaving him in the water a little longer isn't going to change anything."
"What is it you're gonna do?" He sounded defensive again.
"I won't know until I get there."
"Well, I don't think it's necessary for you to come here ..."
"Detective Roche," I interrupted him. "The necessity of my coming to the scene and what I do when I'm there is not for you to decide."
"Well, there's all these people I've got on hold, and this afternoon it's suppose to snow. Nobody wants to be standing around out there on the piers."
"According to the Code of Virginia, the body is my jurisdiction, not yours or any other police, fire, rescue or funeral person's. Nobody touches the body until I say so." I spoke with just enough edge to let him know I could be sharp.
"Like I said, I'm going to have to tell all the rescue and shipyard people to just hang out, and they aren't going to be happy. The Navy's already leaning on me pretty hard to clear the area before the media shows up."
"This is not a Navy case."
"You tell them that. It's their ships."
"I'll be happy to tell them that. In the meantime, you just tell everyone that I'm on my way," I said to him before I hung up.
Realizing it could be many hours before I returned to the cottage, I left a note taped to the front door that cryptically instructed Lucy how to let herself in should I not be here. I hid a key only she could find, then loaded medical bag and dive equipment into the trunk of my black Mercedes. At quarter of ten the temperature had risen to thirty-eight degrees, and my attempts to reach Captain Pete Marino in Richmond were frustrating.
"Thank God," I muttered when my car phone finally rang.
I snatched it up. "Scarpetta."
"You've got your pager on. I'm shocked," I said to him.
"If you're so shocked, then why the hell'd you call it?" He sounded pleased to hear from me. "What's up?"
"You know that reporter you dislike so much?" I was careful not to divulge details because we were on the air and could be monitored by scanners.
"As in which one?"
"As in the one who works for AP and is always dropping by my office."
He thought a moment, then said, "So what's the deal? You have a run-in with him?"
"Unfortunately, I may be about to. I'm on my way to the Elizabeth River. Chesapeake just called."
"Wait a minute. Not that kind of run-in." His tone was ominous.
"I'm afraid so."
"We've got only a driver's license. So we can't be certain, yet. I'm going to go in and take a look before we move him."
"Now wait a damn minute," he said. "Why the hell do you need to do something like that? Can't other people take care of it?"
"I need to see him before he's moved," I repeated.
Marino was very displeased because he was overly protective. He didn't have to say another word for me to know that.
"I just thought you might want to check out his residence in Richmond," I told him.
"Yeah. I sure as hell will."
"I don't know what we're going to find."
"Well, I just wish you'd let them find it first."
In Chesapeake, I took the Elizabeth River exit, then turned left on High Street, passing brick churches, used-car lots and mobile homes. Beyond the city jail and police headquarters, naval barracks dissolved into the expansive, depressing landscape of a salvage yard surrounded by a rusty fence topped with barbed wire. In the midst of acres littered with metal and overrun by weeds was a power plant that appeared to burn trash and coal to supply the shipyard with energy to run its dismal, inert business. Smokestacks and train tracks were quiet today, all dry-dock cranes out of work. It was, after all, New Year's Eve.
I drove on toward a headquarters built of boring tan cinderblock, beyond which were long paved piers. At the guard gate, a young man in civilian clothes and hard hat stepped out of his booth. I rolled my window down as clouds churned in the windswept sky.
"This is a restricted area." His face was completely devoid of expression.
"I'm Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the chief medical examiner," I said as I displayed the brass shield that symbolized my jurisdiction over every sudden, unattended, unexplained or violent death in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Leaning closer, he studied my credentials. Several times he glanced up at my face and stared at my car.
"You're the chief medical examiner?" he asked. "So how come you're not driving a hearse?"
I had heard this before and was patient when I replied, "People who work in funeral homes drive hearses. I don't work in a funeral home. I am a medical examiner."
"I'm going to need some other form of identification."
I gave him my driver's license, and had no doubt that this sort of interference wasn't going to improve once he allowed me to drive through. He stepped back from my car, lifting a portable radio to his lips.
"Unit eleven to unit two." He turned away from me as if about to tell secrets.
"Two," floated back the reply.
"I got a Dr. Scaylatta here." He mispronounced my name worse than most people did.
"Ten-four. We're standing by."
"Ma'am," the security guard said to me, "just drive through and you'll find a parking lot on your fight." He pointed. "You need to leave your car there and walk to Pier Two, where you'll find Captain Green. That's who you need to see."
"And where will I find Detective Roche?" I asked.
"Captain Green's who you need to see," he repeated.
I rolled my window up as he opened a gate posted with signs warning that I was about to enter an industrial area where spray painting was an imminent hazard, safety equipment was required and parking was at my own risk. In the distance, dull gray cargo and tank landing ships, and mine sweepers, frigates and hydrofoils in intimidated the cold horizon. On the second pier, emergency vehicles, police cars and a small group of men had gathered.
Leaving my car as instructed, I briskly walked toward them as they stared. I had left my medical bag and dive gear in the car, so I was an empty-handed, middle-aged woman in hiking boots, wool slacks and pale army-green Schoffel coat. The instant I set foot on the pier, a distinguished, graying man in uniform intercepted me as if I were trespassing. Unsmiling, he stepped in my path.
"May I help you?" he asked in a tone that said halt, as the wind lifted his hair and colored his cheeks.
I again explained who I was.
"Oh, good." He certainly did not sound as if he meant it. "I'm Captain Green with Navy Investigative Service. We really do need to get on with this. Listen," he turned away from me and spoke to someone else. "We gotta get those CPs off ..."
"Excuse me. You're with NIS?" I cut in, for I was going to get this cleared up now. "It was my belief that this shipyard is not Navy property. If it is Navy property, I shouldn't be here. The case should be the Navy's and autopsied by Navy pathologists."
"Ma'am," he said as if I tried his patience, "this shipyard is a civilian contractor-operated facility, and therefore not naval property. But we have an obvious interest because it appears someone was diving unauthorized around our vessels."
"Do you have a theory as to why someone might have done that?" I looked around.
"Some treasure hunters think they're going to find cannonballs, old ship bells and whatnot in waters around here."
We were standing between the cargo ship El Paso and the submarine Exploiter, both of them lusterless and rigid in the river. The water looked like cappuccino, and I realized that visibility was going to be even worse than I had feared. Near the submarine, there was a dive platform. But I saw no sign of the victim or the rescuers and police supposedly working his death. I asked Green about this as wind blowing off the water numbed my face, and his reply was to give me his back again.
"Look, I can't be here all day waiting for Stu," he said to a man in coveralls and a filthy ski jacket.
"We could haul Bo's butt in here, Cap'n," was the reply.
"No way José," Green said, and he seemed quite familiar with these shipyard men. "No point in calling that boy."
"Hell," said another man with a long tangled beard. "We all know he ain't gonna be sober this late in the morning."
"Well, now if that isn't the pot calling the kettle black," Green said, and all of them laughed.
The bearded man had a complexion like raw hamburger. He slyly eyed me as he lit a cigarette, shielding it from the wind in rough bare hands.
"I hadn't had a drink since yesterday. Not even water," he swore as his mates laughed some more. "Damn, it's cold as a witch's titty." He hugged himself. "I should'a wore a better coat."
"I tell you what's cold is that one over yonder." Another worker spoke, dentures clicking as he talked about what I realized was the dead diver. "Now that boy's cold."
"He don't feel it now."
I controlled my mounting irritation as I said to Green, "I know you're eager to get started, and so am I. But I don't see any rescuers or police. I haven't seen the johnboat or the area of the river where the body is located."
I felt half a dozen pairs of eyes on me, and I scanned the eroded faces of what easily could have been a small band of pirates dressed for modern times. I was not invited into their secret club and was reminded of those early years when rudeness and isolation could still make me cry.
Green finally answered, "The police are inside using the phones. In the main building there, the one with the big anchor in front. The divers are probably in there too staying warm. The rescue squad is at a landing on the other side of the river where they've been waiting for you to get here. And you might be interested in knowing that this same landing is where the police just found a truck and trailer they believe belonged to the deceased. If you follow me." He began walking. "I'll show you the location you're interested in. I understand you plan on going in with the other divers."
"That's right." I walked with him along the pier.
"I sure as hell don't know what you expect to see."
"I learned long ago to have no expectations, Captain Green."
As we passed old, tired ships, I noticed many fine metal lines leading from them into the water. "What are those?" I asked.
"CPscathodic protectors," he answered. "They're electrically charged to reduce corrosion."
"I certainly hope someone has turned them off."
"An electrician's on the way. He'll turn off the whole pier."
"So the diver could have run into CPs. I doubt it would have been easy to see them."
"It wouldn't matter. The charge is very mild," he said as if anyone should know that. "It's like getting zapped with a nine-volt battery. CPs didn't kill him. You can already mark that one off your list."
We had stopped at the end of the pier where the rear of the partially submerged submarine was in plain view. Anchored no more than twenty feet from it was the dark green aluminum johnboat with its long black hose leading from the compressor, which was nestled in an inner tube on the passenger's side. The floor of the boat was scattered with tools, scuba equipment and other objects that I suspected had been rather carelessly gone through by someone. My chest tightened, for I was angrier than I would show.
"He probably just drowned," Green was saying. "Almost every diving death I've seen was a drowning. You die in water as shallow as this, that's what it's going to be."
"I certainly find his equipment unusual." I ignored his medical pontifications.
He stared at the johnboat barely stirred by the current. "A hookah. Yeah, it's unusual for around here."
"Was it running when the boat was found?"
"Out of gas."
"What can you tell me about it? Homemade?"
"Commercial," he said. "A five-horsepower gasoline-driven compressor that draws in surface air through a low-pressure hose connected to a second-stage regulator. He could have stayed down four, five hours. As long as his fuel lasted." He continued to stare off.
"Four or five hours? For what?" I looked at him. "I can understand that if you're collecting lobsters or abalone."
He was silent.
"What is down there?" I said. "And don't tell me Civil War artifacts because we both know you're not going to find those here."
"In truth, not a damn thing's down there."
"Well," I said, "he thought something was."
"Unfortunately for him, he thought wrong. Look at those clouds moving in. We're definitely going to get it." He flipped his coat collar up around his ears. "I assume you're a certified diver."
"For many years."
"I'm going to need to see your dive card."
I looked out at the johnboat and the submarine nearby as I wondered just how uncooperative these people intended to be.
"You've got to have that with you if you're going in," he said. "I thought you would have known that."
"And I thought the military did not run this shipyard."
"I know the rules here. It doesn't matter who runs it." He stared at me.
"I see." I stared back. "And I suppose I'm going to need a permit if I want to park my car on this pier so I don't have to carry my gear half a mile."
"You do need a permit to park on the pier."
"Well, I don't have one of those. I don't have my PADI advanced and rescue dive cards or my dive log. I don't have my licenses to practice medicine in Virginia, Maryland or Florida."
I spoke very smoothly and quietly, and because he could not rattle me, he became more determined. He blinked several times, and I could feel his hate.
"This is the last time I'm going to ask you to allow me to do my job," I went on. "We have an unnatural death here that is in my jurisdiction. If you would rather not cooperate, I will be happy to call the state police, the U.S. Marshal, FBI. Your choice. I can probably get somebody here in twenty minutes. I've got my portable phone right here in my pocket." I patted it.
"You want to dive"he shrugged"then go right ahead. But you'll have to sign a waiver relieving the shipyard of any responsibility, should something unfortunate happen. And I seriously doubt there are any forms like that here."
"I see. Now I need to sign something you don't have."
"Fine," I said. "Then I'll just draft a waiver for you."
"A lawyer would have to do that, and it's a holiday."
"I am a lawyer and I work on holidays."
His jaw muscles knotted, and I knew he wasn't going to bother with any forms now that it was possible to have one. We started walking back, and my stomach tightened with dread. I did not want to make this dive and I did not like the people I had encountered this day. Certainly, I had gotten entangled in bureaucratic barbed wire before when cases involved government or big business. But this was different.
"Tell me something," Green spoke again in his scornful tone, "do chief medical examiners always personally go in after bodies?"
"Explain why you think it is necessary this time."
"The scene of death will be gone the moment the body is moved. I think the circumstances are unusual enough to merit my taking a look while I can. And I'm temporarily covering my Tidewater District, so I happened to be here when the call came in."
He paused, then unnerved me by saying, "I certainly was sorry to hear about Dr. Mant's mother. When will he be back to work?"
I tried to remember this morning's phone call and the man called Young with his exaggerated Southern accent. Green did not sound native to the South, but then neither did I, and that didn't mean either of us couldn't imitate a drawl.
"I'm not certain when he'll return," I warily replied. "But I'm wondering how you know him."
"Sometimes cases overlap whether they should or not."
I was not sure what he was implying.
"Dr. Mant understands the importance of not interfering," Green went on. "People like that are good to work with."
"The importance of not interfering with what, Captain Green?"
"If a case is the Navy's, for example, or this jurisdiction or that. There are many different ways that people can interfere. All are a problem and can be harmful. That diver, for example. He went where he didn't belong and look what happened."
I had stopped walking and was staring at him in disbelief. "It must be my imagination," I said, "but I think you're threatening me."
"Go get your gear. You can park closer in, by the fence over there," he said, walking off.
What People are Saying About This
A standout...Gripping reading...So hard to put down your arms will tingle with intimations of rigor mortis before you reach the smashing climax. (Newsday)
Fascinating, frightening ...Reaffirms that Cornwell is one of the best crime fiction authors working today. (Miami Herald)
Filled with suspense. (Cosmopolitan)