“Sears its way into the psyche…Ablaze with Cornwell’s finest, scariest writing.”—Atlanta Journal Constitution
The devastating fire tore through the horse farm, destroying everything it touched. Picking through the wreckage, Dr. Kay Scarpetta uncovers human remains—the work of an audacious and wily killer who uses fire to mask his brutal murders. And when Scarpetta learns that her old nemesis, Carrie Grethen, has escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane and is somehow involved, the investigation becomes personal. Tragedy strikes close to home. And Scarpetta must match Grethen’s every move with one of her own to douse the inferno of evil that threatens everyone around her...
Includes an Introduction by the Author
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
Benton Wesley was taking off his running shoes in my kitchen when I ran to him, my heart tripping over fear and hate and remembered horror. Carrie Grethen's letter had been mixed in a stack of mail and other paperwork, all of it put off until a moment ago when I had decided to drink cinnamon tea in the privacy of my Richmond, Virginia, home. It was Sunday afternoon, thirty-two minutes past five, June eighth.
"I'm assuming she sent this to your office," Benton said.
He did not seem disturbed as he bent over, peeling off white Nike socks.
"Rose doesn't read mail marked personal and confidential." I added a detail he already knew as my pulse ran hard.
"Maybe she should. You seem to have a lot of fans out there." His wry words cut like paper.
I watched him set pale bare feet on the floor, his elbows on his knees and head low. Sweat trickled over shoulders and arms well defined for a man his age, and my eyes drifted down knees and calves, to tapered ankles still imprinted with the weave of his socks. He ran his fingers though wet silver hair and leaned back in the chair.
"Christ," he muttered, wiping his face and neck with a towel. "I'm too old for this crap."
He took a deep breath and blew out slowly with mounting anger. The stainless steel Breitling Aerospace watch I had given to him for Christmas was on the table. He picked it up and snapped it on.
"Goddamn it. These people are worse than cancer. Let me see it," he said.
The letter was penned by hand in bizarre red block printing, and drawn at the top was a crude crest of a bird with long tail feathers. Scrawled under it was the enigmatic Latin word ergo, or therefore, which in this context meant nothing to me. I unfolded the simple sheet of white typing paper by its corners and set it in front of him on the antique French oak breakfast table. He did not touch a document that might be evidence as he carefully scanned Carrie Grethen's weird words and began running them through the violent database in his mind.
"The postmark's New York, and of course there's been publicity in New York about her trial," I said as I continued to rationalize and deny. "A sensational article just two weeks ago. So anyone could have gotten Carrie Grethen's name from that. Not to mention, my office address is public information. This letter's probably not from her at all. Probably some other cuckoo."
"It probably is from her." He continued reading.
"She could mail something like this from a forensic psychiatric hospital and nobody would check it?" I countered as fear coiled around my heart.
"Saint Elizabeth's, Bellevue, Mid-Hudson, Kirby." He did not glance up. "The Carrie Grethens, the John Hinckley Juniors, the Mark David Chapmans are patients, not inmates. They enjoy our same civil rights as they sit around in penitentiaries and forensic psychiatric centers and create pedophile bulletin boards on computers and sell serial killer tips through the mail. And write taunting letters to chief medical examiners."
His voice had more bite, his words more clipped. Benton's eyes burned with hate as he finally lifted them to me.
"Carrie Grethen is mocking you, big chief. The FBI. Me," he went on.
"FIB," I muttered, and on another occasion, I might have found this funny.
Wesley stood and draped the towel over a shoulder.
"Let's say it's her," I started in again.
"It is." He had no doubt.
"Okay. Then there's more to this than mockery, Benton."
"Of course. She's making sure we don't forget that she and Lucy were lovers, something the general public doesn't know yet," he said. "The obvious point is, Carrie Grethen hasn't finished ruining people's lives."
I could not stand to hear her name, and it enraged me that she was now, this moment, inside my West End home. She might as well be sitting at my breakfast table with us, curdling the air with her foul, evil presence. I envisioned her condescending smile and blazing eyes and wondered what she looked like now after five years of steel bars and socializing with the criminally insane. Carrie was not crazy. She had never been that. She was a character disorder, a psychopath, a violent entity with no conscience.
I looked out at wind rocking Japanese maples in my yard and the incomplete stone wall that scarcely kept me from my neighbors. The telephone abruptly rang and I was reluctant to answer it.
"Dr. Scarpetta," I said into the receiver as I watched Benton's eyes sweep back down that red-penned page.
"Yo," Peter Marino's familiar voice came over the line. "It's me."
He was a captain with the Richmond Police Department, and I knew him well enough to recognize his tone. I braced myself for more bad news.
"What's up?" I said to him.
"A horse farm went up in flames last night in Warrenton. You may have heard about it on the news," he said. "Stables, close to twenty high-dollar horses, and the house. The whole nine yards. Everything burned to the ground."
So far, this wasn't making any sense. "Marino, why are you calling me about a fire? In the first place, Northern Virginia is not your turf."
"It is now," he said.
My kitchen seemed to get small and airless as I waited for the rest.
"ATF's just called out NRT," he went on.
"Meaning us," I said.
"Bingo. Your ass and mine. First thing in the morning."
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' National Response Team, or NRT, was deployed when churches or businesses burned, and in bombings or any other disaster in which ATF had jurisdiction. Marino and I were not ATF, but it was not unusual for it and other law enforcement agencies to recruit us when the need arose. In recent years I had worked the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings and the crash of TWA Flight 800. I had helped with the identifications of the Branch Davidians at Waco and reviewed the disfigurement and death caused by the Una-bomber. I knew from stressful experience that ATF included me in a call-out only when people were dead, and if Marino was recruited, too, then the suspicion was murder.
"How many?" I reached for my clipboard of call sheets.
"It's not how many, Doc. It's who. The owner of the farm is media big shot Kenneth Sparkes, the one and only. And right now it's looking like he didn't make it."
"Oh God," I muttered as my world suddenly got too dark to see. "We're sure?"
"Well, he's missing."
"You mind explaining to me why I'm just now being told about this?"
I felt anger rising, and it was all I could do not to hurl it at him, for all unnatural deaths in Virginia were my responsibility. I shouldn't have needed Marino to inform me about this one, and I was furious with my Northern Virginia office for not calling me at home.
"Don't go getting pissed at your docs up in Fairfax," said Marino, who seemed to read my mind. "Fauquier County asked ATF to take over here, so that's the way it's going."
I still didn't like it, but it was time to get on with the business at hand.
"I'm assuming no body has been recovered yet," I said, and I was writing fast.
"Hell no. That's going to be your fun job."
I paused, resting the pen on the call sheet. "Marino, this is a single-dwelling fire. Even if arson is suspected, and it's a high-profile case, I'm not seeing why ATF is interested."
"Whiskey, machine guns, not to mention buying and selling fancy horses, so now we're talking about a business," Marino answered.
"Great," I muttered.
"Oh yeah. We're talking a goddamn nightmare. The fire marshal's gonna call you before the day's out. Better get packed because the whirlybird's picking us up before dawn. Timing's bad, just like it always is. I guess you can kiss your vacation goodbye."
Benton and I were supposed to drive to Hilton Head tonight to spend a week at the ocean. We had not had time alone so far this year and were burned out and barely getting along. I did not want to face him when I hung up the phone.
"I'm sorry," I said to him. "I'm sure you've already figured out there's a major disaster."
I hesitated, watching him, and he would not give me his eyes as he continued to decipher Carrie's letter.
"I've got to go. First thing in the morning. Maybe I can join you in the middle of the week," I went on.
He was not listening because he did not want to hear any of it.
"Please understand," I said to him.
He did not seem to hear me, and I knew he was terribly disappointed.
"You've been working those torso cases," he said as he read. "The dismemberments from Ireland and here. `Sawed-up bone.' And she fantasizes about Lucy, and masturbates. Reaching orgasm multiple times a night under the covers. Allegedly."
His eyes ran down the letter as he seemed to talk to himself.
"She's saying they still have a relationship, Carrie and Lucy," he continued. "The we stuff is her attempt to make a case for disassociation. She's not present when she commits her crimes. Some other party doing them. Multiple personalities. A predictable and pedestrian insanity plea. I would have thought she'd be a little more original."
"She is perfectly competent to stand trial," I answered with a wave of fresh anger.
"You and I know that." He drank from a plastic bottle of Evian. "Where did Lucy Boo come from?"
A drop of water dribbled down his chin and he wiped it with the back of his hand.
I stumbled at first. "A pet name I had for her until she was in kindergarten. Then she didn't want to be called that anymore. Sometimes I still slip." I paused again as I imagined her back then. "So I guess she told Carrie the nickname."
"Well, we know that at one time, Lucy confided in Carrie quite a lot," Wesley stated the obvious. "Lucy's first lover. And we all know you never forget your first, no matter how lousy it was."
"Most people don't choose a psychopath for their first," I said, and I still could not believe that Lucy, my niece, had.
"Psychopaths are us, Kay," he said as if I had never heard the lecture. "The attractive, intelligent person sitting next to you on a plane, standing behind you in line, meeting you backstage, hooking up with you on the Internet. Brothers, sisters, classmates, sons, daughters, lovers. Look like you and me. Lucy didn't have a chance. She was no match for Carrie Grethen."
The grass in my backyard had too much clover, but spring had been unnaturally cool and perfect for my roses. They bent and shivered in gusting air and pale petals fell to the ground. Wesley, the retired chief of the FBI's profiling unit, went on.
"Carrie wants photos of Gault. Scene photos, autopsy photos. You bring them to her, and in exchange she'll tell you investigative details, forensic jewels you've supposedly missed. Ones that might help the prosecution when the case goes to court next month. Her taunt. That you might have missed something. That it might in some way be connected with Lucy."
His reading glasses were folded by his place mat, and he thought to slip them on.
"Carrie wants you to come see her. At Kirby."
His face was tight as he peered at me.
He pointed at the letter.
"She's surfacing. I knew she would." He spoke from a spirit that was tired.
"What's the dark light?" I asked, getting up because I could not sit a moment longer.
"Blood." He seemed sure. "When you stabbed Gault in the thigh, severing his femoral artery, and he bled to death. Or would have had the train not finished the job. Temple Gault."
He took his glasses off again, because he was secretly agitated.
"As long as Carrie Grethen is around, so is he. The evil twins," he added.
In fact, they were not twins, but had bleached their hair and shaved it close to their skulls. They were prepubescently thin and androgenously dressed alike when I last saw them in New York. They had committed murder together until we had captured her in the Bowery and I had killed him in the subway tunnel. I had not intended to touch him or see him or exchange one word with him, for it was not my mission in this life to apprehend criminals and commit judicial homicide. But Gault had willed it so. He had made it happen because to die by my hand was to bond me to him forever. I could not get away from Temple Gault, though he had been dead five years. In my mind were gory pieces of him scattered along gleaming steel rails and rats moiling out of dense shadows to attack his blood.
In bad dreams his eyes were ice blue with irises scattered like molecules, and I heard the thunder of trains with lights that were blinding full moons. For several years after I had killed him, I avoided autopsying the victims of train deaths. I was in charge of the Virginia medical examiner system and could assign cases to my deputy chiefs, and that was what I had done. Even now, I could not look at dissecting knives with the same clinical regard for their cold sharp steel, because he had set me up to plunge one into him, and I had. In crowds I saw dissipated men and women who were him, and at night I slept closer to my guns.
"Benton, why don't you shower and then we'll talk more about our plans for the week," I said, dismissing recollections I could not bear. "A few days alone to read and walk the beach would be just what you need. You know how much you love the bike trails. Maybe it would be good for you to have some space."
"Lucy needs to know." He got up, too. "Even if Carrie's confined at the moment, she's going to cause more trouble that involves Lucy. That's what Carrie's promising in her letter to you."
He walked out of the kitchen.
"How much more trouble can anybody cause?" I called after him as tears rose in my throat.
"Dragging your niece into the trial," he stopped to say. "Publicly. Splashed across The New York Times. Out on the AP, Hard Copy, Entertainment Tonight. Around the world. FBI agent was lesbian lover of deranged serial killer...."
"Lucy's left the FBI with all its prejudices and lies and preoccupations with how the mighty Bureau looks to the world." Tears flooded my eyes. "There's nothing left. Nothing further they can do to crush her soul."
"Kay, this is about far more than the FBI," he said, and he sounded spent.
"Benton, don't start..." I could not finish.
He leaned against the doorway leading into my great room, where a fire burned, for the temperature had not gotten above sixty degrees this day. His eyes were pained. He did not like me to talk this way, and he did not want to peer into that darker side of his soul. He did not want to conjure up the malignant acts Carrie might carry out, and of course, he worried about me, too. I would be summoned to testify in the sentencing phase of Carrie Grethen's trial. I was Lucy's aunt. I supposed my credibility as a witness would be impeached, my testimony and reputation ruined.
"Let's go out tonight," Wesley said in a kinder tone. "Where would you like to go? La Petite? Or beer and barbecue at Benny's?"
"I'll thaw some soup." I wiped my eyes as my voice faltered. "I'm not very hungry, are you?"
"Come here," he sweetly said to me.
I melted into him and he held me to his chest. He was salty when we kissed, and I was always surprised by the supple firmness of his body. I rested my head, and the stubble on his chin roughed my hair and was white like the beach I knew I would not see this week. There would be no long walks on wet sand or long talks over dinners at La Polla's and Charlie's.
"I think I should go see what she wants," I finally said into his warm, damp neck.
"Not in a million years."
"New York did Gault's autopsy. I don't have those photographs."
"Carrie knows damn well what medical examiner did Gault's autopsy."
"Then why is she asking me, if she knows?" I muttered.
My eyes were closed as I leaned against him. He paused and kissed the top of my head again and stroked my hair.
"You know why," he said. "Manipulation, jerking you around. What people like her do best. She wants you to get the photos for her. So she can see Gault mangled like chopped meat, so she can fantasize and get off on that. She's up to something and the worst thing you could do is respond to her in any way."
"And this GKSWF--something or other? Like out of a personal?"
"I don't know."
"And the One Pheasant Place?"
We stayed a long time in the doorway of this house I continued to think of singularly and unequivocally as my own. Benton parked his life with me when he was not consulting in big aberrant cases in this country and others. I knew it bothered him when I consistently said I this and my that, although he knew we were not married and nothing we owned separately belonged to both of us. I had passed the midline of my life and would not legally share my earnings with anyone, including my lover and my family. Maybe I sounded selfish, and maybe I was.
"What am I going to do while you're gone tomorrow?" Wesley got back to that subject.
"Drive to Hilton Head and get groceries," I replied. "Make sure there's plenty of Black Bush and Scotch. More than usual. And sunblock SPF 35 and 50, and South Carolina pecans, tomatoes, and Vidalia onions."
Tears filled my eyes again, and I cleared my throat.
"As soon as I can, I'll get on a plane and meet you, but I don't know where this case in Warrenton is going to go. And we've already been over this. We've done it before. Half the time you can't go, the rest of the time it's me."
"I guess our lives suck," he said into my ear.
"Somehow we ask for it," I replied, and most of all I felt an uncontrollable urge to sleep.
He bent down to my lips and slid his hands to favorite places.
"Before soup, we could go to bed."
"Something very bad is going to happen during this trial," I said, and I wanted my body to respond to him but didn't think it could.
"All of us in New York again. The Bureau, you, Lucy, at her trial. Yes, I'm sure for the past five years she has thought of nothing else and will cause all the trouble she can."
I pulled away as Carrie's sharp, drawn face suddenly jumped out of a dark place in my mind. I remembered her when she was strikingly pretty and smoking with Lucy on a picnic table at night near the firing ranges of the FBI Academy at Quantico. I could still hear them teasing in low playful voices and saw their erotic kisses on the mouth, deep and long, and hands tangled in hair. I remembered the strange sensation running through my blood as I silently hurried away, without them knowing what I had seen. Carrie had begun the ruination of my only niece's life, and now the grotesque coda had come.
"Benton," I said. "I've got to pack my gear."
"Your gear is fine. Trust me."
He hungrily had undone layers of my clothing, desperate for skin. He always wanted me more when I was not in sync with him.
"I can't reassure you now," I whispered. "I can't tell you everything is going to be all right, because it won't be. Attorneys and the media will go after Lucy and me. They will dash us against the rocks, and Carrie may go free. There!"
I held his face in my hands.
"Truth and justice. The American way," I concluded.
He went still and his eyes were intense on mine.
"Don't start again," he said. "You didn't used to be this cynical."
"I'm not cynical, and I'm not the one who started anything," I answered him as my anger rose higher. "I'm not the one who started with an eleven-year-old boy and cut off patches of his flesh and left him naked by a Dumpster with a bullet in his head. And then killed a sheriff and a prison guard. And Jayne--Gault's own twin sister. Remember that, Benton? Remember? Remember Central Park on Christmas Eve. Bare footprints in snow and her frozen blood dripping from the fountain!"
"Of course I remember. I was there. I know all the same details you do."
"No, you don't."
I was furious now and moved away from him and gathered together my clothes.
"You don't put your hands inside their ruined bodies and touch and measure their wounds," I said. "You don't hear them speak after they're dead. You don't see the faces of loved ones waiting inside my poor, plain lobby to hear heartless, unspeakable news. You don't see what I do. Oh no, you don't, Benton Wesley. You see clean case files and glossy photos and cold crime scenes. You spend more time with the killers than with those they ripped from life. And maybe you sleep better than I do, too. Maybe you still dream because you aren't afraid to."
He walked out of my house without a word, because I had gone too far. I had been unfair and mean, and not even truthful. Wesley knew only tortured sleep. He thrashed and muttered and coldly drenched the sheets. He rarely dreamed, or at least he had learned not to remember. I set salt and pepper shakers on corners of Carrie Grethen's letter to keep it from folding along its creases. Her mocking, unnerving words were evidence now and should not be touched or disturbed.
Ninhydrin or a Luma Lite might reveal her fingerprints on the cheap white paper, or exemplars of her writing might be matched with what she had scrawled to me. Then we would prove she had penned this twisted message at the brink of her murder trial in Superior Court of New York City. The jury would see that she had not changed after five years of psychiatric treatment paid for with their taxes. She felt no remorse. She reveled in what she had done.
I had no doubt Benton would be somewhere in my neighborhood because I had not heard his BMW leave. I hurried along new paved streets, passing big brick and stucco homes, until I caught him beneath trees staring out at a rocky stretch of the James River. The water was frigid and the color of glass, and cirrus clouds were indistinct chalky streaks in a fading sky.
"I'll head out to South Carolina as soon as I get back to the house. I'll get the condo ready and get your Scotch," he said, not turning around. "And Black Bush."
"You don't need to leave tonight," I said, and I was afraid to move closer to him as slanted light brightened his hair and the wind stirred it. "I've got to get up early tomorrow. You can head out when I do."
He was silent, staring up at a bald eagle that had followed me since I had left my house. Benton had put on a red windbreaker, but he looked chilled in his damp running shorts, and his arms were crossed tightly at his chest. His throat moved as he swallowed, his pain radiating from a hidden place that only I was allowed to see. At moments like this I did not know why he put up with me.
"Don't expect me to be a machine, Benton," I quietly said for the millionth time since I had loved him.
Still he did not speak, and water barely had the energy to roll toward downtown, making a dull pouring sound as it unwittingly headed closer to the violence of dams.
"I take as much as I can," I explained. "I take more than most people could. Don't expect too much from me, Benton."
The eagle soared in circles over the tops of tall trees, and Benton seemed more resigned when he spoke at last.
"And I take more than most people can," he said. "In part, because you do."
"Yes, it works both ways."
I stepped closer to him from behind and slipped my arms around the slick red nylon covering his waist.
"You know damn well it does," he said.
I hugged him tight and dug my chin into his back.
"One of your neighbors is watching," he said. "I can see him through sliding glass. Did you know you have a peeper in this ritzy white-bread place?"
He placed his hands over mine, then lifted one finger at a time with nothing special in mind.
"Of course, if I lived here, I would peep at you too," he added with a smile in his tone.
"You do live here."
"Naw. I just sleep here."
"Let's talk about the morning. As usual, they'll pick me up at the Eye Institute around five," I told him. "So I guess if I get up by four..." I sighed, wondering if life would always be like this. "You should stay the night."
"I'm not getting up at four," he said.
Table of Contents
On July 13, 1998, barnesandnoble.com on AOL was pleased to welcome Patricia Cornwell to our Authors@aol series to talk about her latest novel, POINT OF ORIGIN. Bestselling mystery writer Patricia Cornwell is the only American female recipient of the Gold Dagger, England's crime-writing award, widely regarded as the most prestigious prize of its kind. Her many novels include POSTMORTEM, BODY OF EVIDENCE, and her latest, POINT OF ORIGIN, available at Keyword: bn.
LeightonBN: Ms. Cornwell, we're glad to have you here tonight.
Patricia Cornwell: Well, many thanks!
LeightonBN: The audience is clamoring for you, so perhaps we should turn it over to them now.
Patricia Cornwell: Okay, great!
Question: From Kay Scarpetta to Kinsey Millhone to Dana Sculley, it seems like single women in their 30s are all the rage as fictional mystery sleuths. Do you have any theories to explain it?
Patricia Cornwell: Well, I think that women typically have had to use their minds to work out problems of violence because we've never been the ones with our spears to protect and defend; we've had to find another way. We've had to use our minds and our intuition. In the case of Scarpetta, I think what's different is that you have a woman that works in a man's world and has entered a profession that's historically male, but has brought to it the mindset and intuition that is unique to her being a woman.
Question: Since Carrie's body was never located, will she be back in the next Scarpetta novel?
Patricia Cornwell: You know, I'm always asked this about people whose remains we don't see. As far as I know, she's in bits and pieces in the ocean. Sadly, I don't need to continue evil charactics like Carrie and Temple Gault because of others to take their place.
Question: You were awesome flying in a helicopter for your book signing in Richmond on Saturday. Describe how it felt to learn how to fly.
Patricia Cornwell: It scared the hell out of me. The very first time I went up, and the instructor turned the controls over to me (about 1-1/2 yrs ago), I felt I was flying an egg and all it did was roll around with me. It's tremendously difficult to fly a helicopter. You're using both hands and both feet at the same time. And it took me a long time to learn how to hover. But I love it, and as a matter of fact I flew about two hours today coming back from the coast. And thank you for the compliment!
Question: I love how you get into your research, literally. How was working with the ATF versus the FBI?
Patricia Cornwell: The ATF is the most fascinating and unassuming group of federal agents I've ever encountered. They're a combination of forensic scientists and guerrilla soldiers who silently invade terrible scenes and are never there to take the credit. I just adore them.
Question: I think it is wonderful the way you tie in donating blood with your book signings. How successful are these blood drives, and are these drives in all the cities where you have a book signing?
Patricia Cornwell: I wish they were in all the cities, and maybe someday they will be. At the Richmond book signing, 200 people tried to give blood; 150 of those were successful. I wanted to do it myself, but nobody would let me because they were afraid that I wouldn't make it to the book signing. I think it would be a great idea to take it on the road and thanks to you, I'm going to suggest that.
Question: I get sick and tired of hearing negative comments about Lucy's sexual preference. I hope you keep her just the way she is. Do you receive more negative or positive comments about Lucy?
Patricia Cornwell: I think I receive more positive. Perhaps people with negative opinions keep them to themselves. But it's not a matter of my keeping her a certain way. She is what she is and I'm proud of her, as is Scarpetta.
Question: I'm a volunteer paramedic, and find your novels refreshingly authentic, and I applaud you for your extensive research -- it is what I admire most about you. But how do you find the time? And how did you get your foot in the door with the FBI?
Patricia Cornwell: I simply make the time. The research is the most important part of what I do. I do research with many law enforcement agencies. I simply ask permission, and after a while they either trust you or they don't. What I've found is that if you're fair with them, they're fair with you, for the most part.
Question: Ms. Cornwell, I am writing from Austin, Texas, and am wondering about the status/future of your plans to write about us now that Elizabeth Watson is no longer with us. Have you approached Chief Knee about the continuation of the project?
Patricia Cornwell: I'm still very interested in Austin. I very much love the city, and I have not given up the notion of coming back and using it as a setting for something. Perhaps for one of the future books of the Chief Hammer series.
Question: Why have you chosen to give quotes from the Bible in the beginning of your books, and do you choose the quotes before or after you have written the book?
Patricia Cornwell: That's a very interesting question. I find there is a great power in some of the poetry of the Bible, a pronouncement that goes far beyond what we see every day. What interests me about the Bible is that there's nothing that happens now that hasn't happened thousands of years ago. For example, when it says that Cain slew Abel and Abel's blood cried up from the earth, I've always thought that this is why blood is red. Because it is such a vivid reminder of life. I choose the quotes after I've written the book; I just use the concordance.
Question: When is the movie coming out, and who is going to play Dr. Kay Scarpetta?
Patricia Cornwell: I wish I knew! Once again, FROM POTTER'S FIELD is in development, but I haven't signed the contract yet. Hollywood has a hard time with strong female characters.
Question: I really love your books! I have always been a mystery fan, and since I am also a nurse, I appreciate your mysteries, especially. Do you have any tips for doing research, and for coming up with a believable story line?
Patricia Cornwell: Number one, write what you know about. For example, since you are a nurse, I'd advise you to explore your own experiences and think about what would be a good story to tell based on what you know and what you've lived. Beyond that, the only secret is to sit down and write, write, write. Like learning a sport, you're going to hit a lot of tennis balls over the fence at first, so don't give up.
Question: How did you get the name Scarpetta? I will name my daughter that one day, and hope she'll be as strong of a woman.
Patricia Cornwell: It was the name of a landlady my former husband had in graduate school. And I thought it was a wonderful name. It's one I rarely, rarely come across, even when I'm in Italy. And I wish you great luck with your daughter!
Question: With the exception of the Ruth Bell Graham novel, I have read all of your books. My problem is I read them right when they come out and then have to wait for you to write another one. About how often do you publish a new novel?
Patricia Cornwell: Used to be once a year; now, since I also have the Chief Hammer series, it will probably be (we hope) two novels maybe every year and a half...if I can do it! For example, the second in the Chief Hammer series, which is called SOUTHERN CROSS, will be out in January.
Question: Do you ever wish that you could really be Scarpetta for a day? I mean, other than writing about her?
Patricia Cornwell: Maybe for a day. [laughs] I wouldn't want to do what she does every day of her life. Although I have such a strong wish to bring about justice that sometimes I feel very frustrated that I'm not someone who has that sort of profession.
Question: Is the thumb ring in your pictures from the dead Claire?
Patricia Cornwell: No, it's just a ring I had that I felt like wearing on my thumb because I was supposed to look so professional and adventuresome in my flight jacket with the helicopter, so I thought I'd do something funky. And I'm glad you noticed it. Sometimes I wear earrings that don't match, too, just because I feel like it, I guess.
Question: Pat, where do you draw your inspiration for creating a strong female character like Kay Scarpetta?
Patricia Cornwell: Mostly from strong professional people I've been fortunate enough to work with and come across. But what I think is essential to creating a viable, powerful character is you must draw from the strength and good qualities (and bad qualities) within yourself. There is a little bit of me in all of my characters, except for the killers, I hope.
Question: Are you working on another Kay Scarpetta novel, or will your next one be based on other characters?
Patricia Cornwell: Well, as I said, my next novel, SOUTHERN CROSS, will be out in January. It follows HORNET'S NEST. I am working on the next Scarpetta novel, and it should be out a year from now. I have continued to do a Scarpetta novel every year. There has been no lapse. It's just that I do other things as well now.
Question: How do you know so much about the new morgue equipment that is out now? Do you visit your former employer to research new equipment, or just do general research on this subject?
Patricia Cornwell: I visit facilities all over this country, and in other countries as well. If you keep up with the profession, you're always hearing about new instruments, and then I investigate them and in some instances I may purchase one, such as an alternate light source, and I will see how it works and donate it to a medical examiner's office. I've done this many times because I like it if the professionals get something out of it, too. In fact, I've had many strange things in my garage, which the housekeepers know not to see.
Question: Like your character Kay Scarpetta, do you find it hard to work in a mostly male profession?
Patricia Cornwell: Yes. Because oddly enough, even writing crime novels is mostly a male profession in the sense that if you write the sort of books I do, men often trivialize them, thinking they're "whodunits." Whereas [books by] people like Tom Clancy and John Grisham are not categorized as murder mysteries, and my books, frankly, are just as technical and hard-driving and graphic as any written by any man. So, yes, it is hard to break stereotypes. It just makes me try harder every year.
Question: Your new book is exceptional, but your last book was not of the caliber that your books have always been. Why?
Patricia Cornwell: Before I get to this question, a few years ago a male reader said to me, "If I hadn't seen your name on the cover, I would have thought your books were written by a man." I'm not sure what that means, but I think it was a compliment and I take it as one. [laughs] Now to the next question, that is not the opinion that most people have. Everybody has their own tastes, but in fact, UNNATURAL EXPOSURE was considered by many to have been my best book to that date. And I feel that way too. If you're basing any of this on what critics say, I don't advise it.
Question: How difficult is it to maintain a semblance of a private life when you're a bestselling author?
Patricia Cornwell: I think it's difficult. People know most of the fundamental details about you. And I don't really care about that. What bothers me most is how much they're distorted. If you have read about me in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, or many other publications with features in them, you have gotten a very slanted view and really don't know me at all. Other than that, exposure is part of the price you pay for being well-known and successful, and I accept that. And actually I am grateful that people are interested in me.
Question: Do you have one heck of a security system at your house? With the story lines Kay Scarpetta gets involved in, especially this latest in POINT OF ORIGIN, I'd be worried about psychos feeling a "kinship.''
Patricia Cornwell: Don't come visit me unless you're invited!
Question: Have you ever come across any stories of homosexuals being forced out of the FBI, à la Lucy? Did you receive any words of protest [about] the depiction from the Feds?
Patricia Cornwell: I have received no words of protest, but without a doubt in many federal agencies, whether the military or law enforcement, that persuasion is not popular to say the least, and unfairly so. However, I have not noticed such a small-mindedness with the ATF.
Question: You have dedicated this book to Barbara Bush. What is the connection?
Patricia Cornwell: Her family literacy foundation is something that I think is very, very important. I have given a million dollars to it and believe that any successful writer who does not support literacy does not deserve to be successful. Plus, I'm privileged to know President and Mrs. Bush as friends. No matter our political differences on some topics, we are warm with each other and have a lot of fun.
Question: As the series continues, will Kay start taking a backseat to Lucy? Will Lucy slowly start becoming the main character?
Patricia Cornwell: No. I can see them becoming more "peers," as they have, for example, in POINT OF ORIGIN. But these books will always be Scarpetta's books. If I didn't do that, she would either fire me or indict me for treason!
Question: As a longtime fan of Kay Scarpetta, I was all for her relationship with Benton (I felt that it helped keep her sane, at times!). Why did you have Carrie kill him?
Patricia Cornwell: There are some parts of the plot or the story I don't want to discuss when many people haven't read the book.
Question: Do you ever listen to ideas from fans?
Patricia Cornwell: Not ideas, but I do listen to opinions. For example, years ago, I was asked why I didn't have more black characters. And that thought had never really occurred to me. And I've tried very hard to have characters of different races and nationalities in my books since then. I have found that readers can open your mind and cause you to look at something that you didn't even know you were doing. But I don't ever want story ideas from anyone. Nor do I accept them if they are sent to me; they are returned unopened.
Question: Are you familiar with the work of Kathy Reichs? She has a style and character similar to Kay....
Patricia Cornwell: Yes, and I think the more strong female characters out there -- the more strong characters out there -- the better. Scarpetta would like a few friends. I have tremendous respect for the people who do the real work, whether it is a forensic anthropologist or forensic pathologist. They ought to be the ones writing the books.
Question: Katie from Maryland... How much is Kay Scarpetta based on yourself?
Patricia Cornwell: In spirit, opinions. We're both fierce when it comes to crime. We are both fighters and believe so much in fairness. Both of us believe that all evil stems from people unfairly taking power over others. Beyond that, there are many differences between the two of us.
Question: When you do the research for these books, do you actually go in and watch the autopsies being performed, and have you had full cooperation from the professionals in the area you research?
Patricia Cornwell: I begin the research when I come up with the concept for the next book, whether it is biological homicide, or serial killings, or fire, and then I go to the real people who do the real work. I do go to medical examiners' offices several times a year to watch autopsies, so I never forget the reality of what I'm writing about. (I worked in a medical examiner's office for six years and saw over 500 autopsies, which helps explain why I still get access). Beyond that, it's a matter of trust.
Question: Do you feel it necessary to experience the things that characters do in your novels (flying, watching autopsies, etc.), so you can accurately write about them?
Patricia Cornwell: Yes. And with rare exceptions, I will do whatever that character does within reason. For example, I may learn how to fly a helicopter but I'm not going to fly one by myself (my agent won't let me), nor would I shoot an AR-15 out the window. I don't make Y-incisions, either; I just watch them.
Question: The President is a fan of your books, I've heard. Any idea if he's picked up a copy of POINT OF ORIGIN yet? Did he let you know which of your novels are his favorites?
Patricia Cornwell: I don't know if he's picked up POINT OF ORIGIN. I heard that he had very kind comments about UNNATURAL EXPOSURE, which may not be the most appropriate title for him at this stage of things. [laughs]
Question: In UNNATURAL EXPOSURE, the true criminal (who commited the first nine murders) was never unveiled. Do you plan on continuing that story line?
Patricia Cornwell: It is continued in POINT OF ORIGIN -- continued and answered.
Question: It has always been a dream of mine to visit Quantico. Have you ever actually been there?
Patricia Cornwell: Yes. I used to go there very often in the early '90s. Most of the friends I had there then have moved on, and I have gotten interested in writing about other law enforcement agencies. There are so many fascinating ones. I frankly think the FBI has gotten inflated to a Hollywood legend. And there are many other people out there who deserve credit, too.
Question: What mystery or fiction writers do you like to read?
Patricia Cornwell: I don't read mystery writers at all and don't consider myself one, because I constantly violate the conventions of that genre. I really don't read fiction hardly at all. One of my favorite crime books, however, is IN COLD BLOOD. It still haunts me. And I also love biographies. My very favorite biography is THE LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS, about Elvis Presley. I kid you not! [laughs] I also love UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, which was written by one of my ancestors.
Question: Would you say you get more inspiration for writing in Richmond or New York?
Patricia Cornwell: Neither. I go to quiet places to write. These days, always the ocean. Richmond and New York are more about business (and residential concerns).
Question: Where can I find a list of your book signings?
Patricia Cornwell: You might try Jim Junot's web site. There are various unauthorized web sites that have listings. The best one is Junot's. I might have the spelling wrong.
Question: How difficult or different was it learning to track fires, as you had to learn for POINT OF ORIGIN?
Patricia Cornwell: That has been as hard as learning about autopsies. I did a tremendous amount of very intensive research, which included writing the fire department and going to fire scenes to watch how ATF investigators worked them. I have been studying fires for almost two years. Next I move on to explosives.
Question: In your novels, you never really describe Scarpetta physically. In your mind, what does she look like, and about how old is she?
Patricia Cornwell: It's funny, I don't have a really clear picture of what Scarpetta looks like. I see her as average height and weight, with blond hair or light hair, and light eyes. She would be handsome more than pretty. With very capable, strong hands. I think she can look like whatever you want her to look like -- that's part of the fantasy. That's one of the reasons I have a lot of ambivalence about making a movie. Because I want you to see her the way you do. She can be anything you want her to be.
Question: Any chance our heroine will find true love?
Patricia Cornwell: [laughs] I think she's already found true love, more than once. I can't say she will ever permanently settle down, because I frankly don't know. But that part of her life will not be ignored. In fact, that's the research I like the best.
Question: The Tuen character was interesting, as was Kay's reaction to her. Is it possible that Kay and Tuen will become close in future books?
Patricia Cornwell: I don't know. But I could certainly see them being peers and friends. They both understand the battle.
Question: Ms. Cornwell, Treeda Smith here... Which came first, your character's need to fly a helicopter or your personal interest in that form of flight?
Patricia Cornwell: Hi! It's too bad we have to use the Internet to talk to each other these days. As for your question, both came first. Now figure that one out! [laughs] Come see me sometime! I miss you!
Question: I am a forensic scientist, and I have heard the FBI is phasing out agents in the labs and hiring more civilians. What do you think of that?
Patricia Cornwell: I think that doesn't matter as long as we have local agencies that have well-trained and accredited scientists and laboratories. In fact, I think it's better if local jurisdictions can handle their own cases. And my respect to you, because you guys are great!
Question: How disciplined are you with your writing? Is it a daily thing? How long did POINT OF ORIGIN take to complete?
Patricia Cornwell: POINT OF ORIGIN took, on and off, almost two years, during which time I also worked on other projects. I don't write every day because at least four months out of every year I do nothing but research. But my writing is a relationship, so even when I'm not sitting down doing it, it is with me everywhere I go and in everything I do. When I'm really in the throes of doing nothing but writing, typically I will write 14 to 15 hours a day. I don't wash my hair. Sometimes I don't change my clothes for four days. I don't see anybody and they probably don't want to see me. I'm totally like a street person.
Question: How can I get your autograph?
Patricia Cornwell: Come see me at a book signing. Check Jim Junot's web site; he usually does a good job listing them. For example, I'll be in Milwaukee tomorrow night. But just check the schedule and come see me!
Question: Hello, I am one of your biggest fans. I find so much pleasure reading your books. What is the hardest and easiest part of writing them?
Patricia Cornwell: The hardest part is the research, because the entire time I'm trying to take in very technical, intense, and ofttimes painful information, I'm also trying to figure out how I will use it in the book. Sometimes I go home with terrible headaches. The easiest part is revision, because the story is already there. And promotion, which is physically taxing but stimulating and fun.
Question: Patricia, HORNET'S NEST was centered in Charlotte. Do you have relatives in the North Carolina area?
Patricia Cornwell: I was brought up in North Carolina. I went to school there. College. And I started out my career at the Charlotte Observer. The novel that follows HORNET'S NEST, THE SOUTHERN CROSS, is set in Richmond. The main characters move and after the book comes out, I'll probably have to do the same. [laughs] I live in Richmond at this moment.
LeightonBN: This will be our last question...
Question: Do you have any plans to start using your maiden name on book jackets?
Patricia Cornwell: No. People know me by "Patricia Cornwell." And actually, my former husband and I are good friends and I'm more than happy to stick with his name, which by now I've had so long it would feel odd to go to anything else.
LeightonBN: Thanks so much for your time, Ms. Cornwell. It was a record breaker.
Patricia Cornwell: The pleasure is mine! I thank you for your time, too!
LeightonBN: I hope you'll be back for your next novel.
Patricia Cornwell: I would love to! Good night, and see you again soon!
LeightonBN: Good night, Ms. Cornwell. And good night to the audience. Thanks for sticking around.
Patricia Cornwell: One last note -- every one of my fans means a great deal to me, and I thank all of you for your interest. I'll do my best to keep up the good work!