When a woman turns up dismembered in a landfill, Scarpetta initially suspects the work of a serial killer she’s been tracking. But her investigation turns far more dangerous when she realizes the victim’s skin is covered in an unusual rash—and Scarpetta herself may have just been exposed to a deadly virus.
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
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Chapter 1 of Unnatural Exposure
Night fell clean and cold in Dublin, and wind moaned beyond my room as if a million pipes played the air. Gusts shook old windowpanes and sounded like spirits rushing past as I rearranged pillows one more time, finally resting on my back in a snarl of Irish linen. But sleep would not touch me, and images from the day returned. I saw bodies without limbs or heads, and sat up, sweating.
I switched on lamps, and the Shelburne Hotel was suddenly around me in a warm glow of rich old woods and deep red plaids. I put on a robe, my eyes lingering on the phone by my fitfully-slept- in bed. It was almost two A.M. In Richmond, Virginia, it would be five hours earlier, and Pete Marino, commander of the city police department's homicide squad, should be up. He was probably watching TV, smoking, eating something bad for him, unless he was on the street.
I dialed his number, and he grabbed the phone as if he were right next to it.
"Trick or treat." He was loudly on his way to being drunk.
"You're a little early," I said, already regretting the call. "By a couple of weeks."
"Doc?" He paused in confusion. "That you? You back in Richmond?"
"Still in Dublin. What's all the commotion?"
"Just some of us guys with faces so ugly we don't need masks. So every day is Halloween. Hey! Bubba's bluffing," he yelled out.
"You always think everybody's bluffing," a voice fired back. "It's from being a detective too long."
"What you talking about? Marino can't even detect his own B.O."
Laughter in the background was loud as the drunk, derisive comments continued.
"We're playing poker," Marino said to me. "What the hell time is it there?"
"You don't want to know," I answered. "I've got some unsettling news, but it doesn't sound like we should get into it now."
"No. No, hold on. Let me just move the phone. Shit. I hate the way the cord gets twisted, you know what I mean? Goddamn it." I could hear his heavy footsteps and a chair scraping. "Okay, Doc. So what the hell's going on?"
"I spent most of today discussing the landfill cases with the state pathologist. Marino, I'm increasingly suspicious that Ireland's serial dismemberments are the work of the same individual we're dealing with in Virginia."
He raised his voice. "You guys hold it down in there!"
I could hear him moving farther away from his pals as I rearranged the duvet around me. I reached for the last few sips of Blackbush I had carried to bed.
"Dr. Foley worked the five Dublin cases," I went on. "I've reviewed all of them. Torsos. Spines cut horizontally through the caudal aspect of the fifth cervical vertebral body. Arms and legs severed through the joints, which is unusual, as I've pointed out before. Victims are a racial mix, estimated ages between eighteen and thirty-five. All are unidentified and signed out as homicides by unspecified means. In each case, heads and limbs were never found, the remains discovered in privately owned landfills."
"Damn, if that don't sound familiar," he said.
"There are other details. But yes, the parallels are profound."
"So maybe the squirrel's in the U.S. now," he said. "Guess it's a damn good thing you went over there, after all."
He certainly hadn't thought so at first. No one really had. I was the chief medical examiner of Virginia, and when the Royal College of Surgeons had invited me to give a series of lectures at Trinity's medical school, I could not pass up an opportunity to investigate the Dublin crimes. Marino had thought it a waste of time, while the FBI had assumed the value of the research would prove to be little more than statistical.
Doubts were understandable. The homicides in Ireland were more than ten years old, and as was true in the Virginia cases, there was so little to go on. We did not have fingerprints, dentition, sinus configurations or witnesses for identification. We did not have biological samples from people missing to compare to the victims' DNA. We did not know the means of death. Therefore, it was very difficult to say much about the killer, except that I believed he was experienced with a meat saw and quite possibly used one in his profession, or had at one time.
"The last case in Ireland, that we know of, was a decade ago," I was saying to Marino over the line. "In the past two years we've had four in Virginia."
"So you're thinking he stopped for eight years?" he said. "Why? He was in prison, maybe, for some other crime?"
"I don't know. He may have been killing somewhere else and the cases haven't been connected," I replied as wind made unearthly sounds.
"There's those serial cases in South Africa," he thickly thought out loud. "In Florence, Germany, Russia, Australia. Shit, now that you think of it, they're friggin' everywhere. Hey!" He put his hand over the phone. "Smoke your own damn cigarettes! What do you think this is? Friggin' welfare!"
Male voices were rowdy in the background, and someone had put on Randy Travis.
"Sounds like you're having fun," I dryly said. "Please don't invite me next year, either."
"Bunch of animals," he mumbled. "Don't ask me why I do this. Every time they drink me outa house, home. Cheat at cards."
"The M.O. in these cases is very distinctive." My tone was meant to sober.
"Okay," he said. "So if this guy started in Dublin, maybe we're looking for someone Irish. I think you should hurry back home." He belched. "Sounds like we need to go to Quantico and get on this. You told Benton yet?"
Benton Wesley headed the FBI's Child Abduction Serial Killer Unit, or CASKU, for which both Marino and I were consultants.
"I haven't had a chance to tell him yet," I replied, hesitantly. "Maybe you can give him a heads-up. I'll get home as soon as I can."
"Tomorrow would be good."
"I'm not finished with the lecture series here," I said.
"Ain't a place in the world that don't want you to lecture. You could probably do that and nothing else," he said, and I knew he was about to dig into me.
"We export our violence to other countries," I said. "The least we can do is teach them what we know, what we've learned from years of working these crimes . . ."
"Lectures ain't why you're staying in the land of leprechauns, Doc," he interrupted as a flip-top popped. "It ain't why, and you know it."
"Merino," I warned. "Don't do this."
But he kept on. "Ever since Wesley's divorce, you've found one reason or another to skip along the Yellow Brick Road, right on out of town. And you don't want to come home now, I can tell from the way you sound, because you don't want to deal, take a look at your hand and take your chances. Let me tell you. Comes a time when you got to call or fold . . ."
"Point taken." I was gentle as I cut off his besotted good intentions. "Merino, don't stay up all night."
* * * * * * * * *
The Coroner's Office was at No. 3 Store Street, across from the Custom House and central bus station, near docks and the river Liffey. The brick building was small and old, the alleyway leading to the back barred by a heavy black gate with MORGUE painted across it in bold white letters. Climbing steps to the Georgian entrance, I rang the bell and waited in mist.
It was cool this Tuesday morning, trees beginning to look like fall. I could feel my lack of sleep. My eyes burned, my head was dull, and I was unsettled by what Marino had said before I had almost hung up on him.
"Hello." The administrator cheerfully let me in. "How are we this morning, Dr. Scarpetta?"
His name was Jimmy Shaw, and he was very young and Irish, with hair as fiery as copper ivy, and eyes as blue as sky.
"I've been better," I confessed.
"Well, I was just boiling tea," he said, shutting us inside a narrow, dimly lit hallway, which we followed to his office. "Sounds like you could use a cup."
"That would be lovely, Jimmy," I said.
"As for the good doctor, she should be finishing up an inquest." He glanced at his watch as we entered his cluttered small space. "She should be out in no time."
His desk was dominated by a large Coroner's Inquiries book, black and bound in heavy leather, and he had been reading a biography of Steve McQueen and eating toast before I arrived. Momentarily, he was setting a mug of tea within my reach, not asking how I took it, for by now he knew.
"A little toast with jam?" he asked as he did every morning.
"I ate at the hotel, thanks." I gave the same reply as he sat behind his desk.
"Never stops me from eating again." He smiled, slipping on glasses. "I'll just go over your schedule, then. You lecture at eleven this morning, then again at one P.M. Both at the college, in the old pathology building. I should expect about seventy-five students for each, but there could be more. I don't know. You're awfully popular over here, Dr. Kay Scarpetta," he cheerfully said. "Or maybe it's just that American violence is so exotic to us."
"That's rather much like calling a plague exotic," I said.
"Well, we can't help but be fascinated by what you see."
"And I guess that bothers me," I said in a friendly but ominous way. "Don't be too fascinated."
We were interrupted by the phone, which he snapped up with the impatience of one who answers it too often.
Listening for a moment, he brusquely said, "Right, right. Well, we can't place an order like that just yet. I'll have to ring you back another time.
"I've been wanting computers for years," he complained to me as he hung up. "No bloody money when you're the dog wagged by the Socialist tail."
"There will never be enough money. Dead men don't vote."
"The bloody truth. So what's the topic of the day?" he wanted to know.
"Sexual homicide," I replied. "Specifically the role DNA can play."
"These dismemberments you're so interested in." He sipped tea. "Do you think they're sexual? I mean, would that be the motivation on the part of whoever would do this?" His eyes were keen with interest.
"It's certainly an element," I replied.
"But how can you know that when none of the victims has ever been identified? Couldn't it just be someone who kills for sport? Like, say, your Son of Sam, for example?"
"What the Son of Sam did had a sexual element," I said, looking around for my pathologist friend. "Do you know how much longer she might be? I'm afraid I'm in a bit of a hurry."
Shaw glanced at his watch again. "You can check. Or I suppose she may have gone on to the morgue. We have a case coming in. A young male, suspected suicide."
"I'll see if I can find her." I got up.
Off the hallway near the entrance was the coroner's court, where inquests for unnatural deaths were held before a jury. This included industrial and traffic accidents, homicides and suicides, the proceedings in camera, for the press in Ireland was not allowed to print many details. I ducked inside a stark, chilly room of varnished benches and naked walls, and found several men inside, tucking paperwork into briefcases.
"I'm looking for the coroner," I said.
"She slipped out about twenty minutes ago. Believe she had a viewing," one of them said.
I left the building through the back door. Crossing a small parking lot, I headed to the morgue as an old man came out of it. He seemed disoriented, almost stumbling as he looked about, dazed. For an instant, he stared at me as if I held some answer, and my heart hurt for him. No business that had brought him here could possibly be kind. I watched him hurry toward the gate as Dr. Margaret Foley suddenly emerged after him, harried, her graying hair disarrayed.
"My God!" She almost ran into me. "I turn my back for a minute and he's gone."
The man let himself out, the gate flung open wide as he fled. Foley trotted across the parking lot to shut and latch it again. When she got back to me, she was out of breath and almost tripped over a bump in the pavement.
"Kay, you're out and about early," she said.
"A relative?" I asked.
"The father. Left without identifying him, before I could even pull back the sheet. That will foul me up the rest of the day."
She led me inside the small brick morgue with its white porcelain autopsy tables that probably belonged in a medical museum and old iron stove that heated nothing anymore. The air was refrigerated-chilly, modern equipment nonexistent except for electric autopsy saws. Thin gray light seeped through opaque skylights, barely illuminating the white paper sheet covering a body that a father could not bear to see.
"It's always the hardest part," she was saying. "No one should ever have to look at anyone in here."
I followed her into a small storeroom and helped carry out boxes of new syringes, masks and gloves.
"Strung himself up from the rafters in the barn," she went on as we worked. "Was being treated for a drink problem and depression. More of the same. Unemployment, women, drugs. They hang themselves or jump off bridges." She glanced at me as we restocked a surgical cart. "Thank God we don't have guns. Especially since I don't have an X-ray machine."
Foley was a slight woman with old-fashioned thick glasses and a penchant for tweed. We had met years ago at an international forensic science conference in Vienna, when female forensic pathologists were a rare breed, especially overseas. We quickly had become friends.
"Margaret, I'm going to have to head back to the States sooner than I thought," I said, taking a deep breath, looking about, distracted. "I didn't sleep worth a damn last night."
She lit a cigarette, scrutinizing me. "I can get you copies of whatever you want. How fast do you need them? Photographs may take a few days, but they can be sent."
"I think there is always a sense of urgency when someone like this is on the loose," I said.
"I'm not happy if he's now your problem. And I'd hoped after all these years he had bloody quit." She irritably tapped an ash, exhaling the strong smoke of British tobacco. "Let's take a load off for a minute. My shoes are already getting tight from the swelling. It's hell getting old on these bloody hard floors."
The lounge was two squat wooden chairs in a corner, where Foley kept an ashtray on a gurney. She put her feet up on a box and indulged her vice.
"I can never forget those poor people." She started talking about her serial cases again. "When the first one came to me, I thought it was the IRA. Never seen people torn asunder like that except in bombings."
I was reminded of Mark in a way I did not want to be, and my thoughts drifted to him when he was alive and we were in love. Suddenly he was in my mind, smiling with eyes full of a mischievous light that became electric when he laughed and teased. There had been a lot of that in law school at Georgetown, fun and fights and staying up all night, our hunger for each other impossible to appease. Over time we married other people, divorced and tried again. He was my leitmotif, here, gone, then back on the phone or at my door to break my heart and wreck my bed.
I could not banish him. It still did not seem possible that a bombing in a London train station would finally bring the tempest of our relationship to an end. I did not imagine him dead. I could not envision it, for there was no last image that might grant peace. I had never seen his body, had fled from any chance, just like the old Dubliner who could not view his son. I realized Foley was saying something to me.
"I'm sorry," she repeated, her eyes sad, for she knew my history well. "I didn't mean to bring up something painful. You seem blue enough this morning."
"You made an interesting point." I tried to be brave. "I suspect the killer we're looking for is rather much like a bomber. He doesn't care who he kills. His victims are people with no faces or names. They are nothing but symbols of his private, evil credo."
"Would it bother you terribly if I asked a question about Mark?" she said.
"Ask anything you want." I smiled. "You will anyway."
"Have you ever gone to where it happened, visited that place where he died?"
"I don't know where it happened," I quickly replied.
She looked at me as she smoked.
"What I mean is, I don't know where, exactly, in the train station." I was evasive, almost stuttering.
Still she said nothing, crushing the cigarette beneath her foot.
"Actually," I went on, "I don't know that I've been in Victoria at all, not that particular station, since he died. I don't think I've had reason to take a train from there. Or arrive there. Waterloo was the last one I was in, I think."
"The one crime scene the great Dr. Kay Scarpetta will not visit." She tapped another Consulate out of the pack. "Would you like one?"
"God knows I would. But I can't."
She sighed. "I remember Vienna. All those men and the two of us smoking more than they did."
"Probably the reason we smoked so much was all those men," I said.
"That may be the cause, but for me, there seems to be no cure. It just goes to show that what we do is unrelated to what we know, and our feelings don't have a brain." She shook out a match. "I've seen smokers' lungs. And I've seen my share of fatty livers."
"My lungs are better since I quit. I can't vouch for my liver," I said. "I haven't given up whiskey yet."
"Don't, for God's sake. You'd be no fun." She paused, adding pointedly, "Course, feelings can be directed, educated, so they don't conspire against us."
"I will probably leave tomorrow." I got back to that.
"You have to go to London first to change planes." She met my eyes. "Linger there. A day."
"It's unfinished business, Kay. I have felt this for a long time. You need to bury Mark James."
"Margaret, what has suddenly prompted this?" I was tripping over words again.
"I know when someone is on the run. And you are, just as much as this killer is."
"Now, that's a comforting thing to say," I replied, and I did not want to have this conversation.
But she was not going to let me escape this time. "For very different reasons and very similar reasons. He's evil, you're not. But neither of you wants to be caught."
She had gotten to me and could tell.
"And just who or what is trying to catch me, in your opinion?" My tone was light but I felt the threat of tears.
"At this stage, I expect it's Benton Wesley."
I stared off, past the gurney and its protruding pale foot tied with a tag. Light from above shifted by degrees as clouds moved over the sun, and the smell of death in tile and stone went back a hundred years.
"Kay, what do you want to do?" she asked kindly as I wiped my eyes.
"He wants to marry me," I said.
* * * * * * * * *
I flew home to Richmond and days became weeks with the weather getting cold. Mornings were glazed with frost and evenings I spent in front of the fire, thinking and fretting. So much was unresolved and silent, and I coped the way I always did, working my way deeper into the labyrinth of my profession until I could not find a way out. It was making my secretary crazy.
"Dr. Scarpetta?" She called out my name, her footsteps loud and brisk along the tile floor in the autopsy suite.
"In here," I answered over running water.
It was October 30. I was in the morgue locker room, washing up with antibacterial soap.
"Where have you been?" Rose asked as she walked in.
"Working on a brain. The sudden death from the other day."
She was holding my calendar and flipping pages. Her gray hair was neatly pinned back, and she was dressed in a dark red suit that seemed appropriate for her mood. Rose was deeply angry with me and had been since I'd left for Dublin without saying good-bye. Then I forgot her birthday when I got back. I turned off the water and dried my hands.
"Swelling, with widening of the gyri, narrowing of the sulci, all good for ischemic encephalopathy brought on by his profound systemic hypotension," I cited.
"I've been trying to find you," she said with strained patience.
"What did I do this time?" I threw up my hands.
"You were supposed to have lunch at the Skull and Bones with Jon."
"Oh, God," I groaned as I thought of him and other medical school advisees I had so little time to see.
"I reminded you this morning. You forgot him last week, too. He really needs to talk to you about his residency, about the Cleveland Clinic."
"I know, I know." I felt awful about it as I looked at my watch. "It's one-thirty. Maybe he can come by my office for coffee?"
"You have a deposition at two, a conference call at three about the Norfolk-Southern case. A gunshot wound lecture to the Forensic Science Academy at four, and a meeting at five with Investigator Ring from the state police." Rose went down the list.
I did not like Ring or his aggressive way of taking over cases. When the second torso had been found, he had inserted himself into the investigation and seemed to think he knew more than the FBI.
"Ring I can do without," I said, shortly.
My secretary looked at me for a long moment, water and sponges slapping in the autopsy suite next door.
"I'll cancel him and you can see Jon instead." She eyed me over her glasses like a stern headmistress. "Then rest, and that's an order. Tomorrow, Dr. Scarpetta. Don't come in. Don't you dare let me see you darken the door."
I started to protest and she cut me off.
"Don't even think of arguing," she firmly went on. "You need a mental health day, a long weekend. I wouldn't say that if I didn't mean it."
She was right, and as I thought about having a day to myself, my spirits lifted.
"There's not a thing I can't reschedule," she added. "Besides." She smiled. "We're having a touch of Indian summer and it's supposed to be glorious, in the eighties with a big blue sky. Leaves are at their peak, poplars an almost perfect yellow. Maples look like they're on fire. Not to mention, it's Halloween. You can carve a pumpkin."
I got suit jacket and shoes out of my locker. "You should have been a lawyer," I said.
Excerpted from Unnatural Exposure by Patricia Cornwell. Copyright 1997 by Patricia Cornwell. Excerpted by permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons, a division of Putnam Penguin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.