Dr. Scarpetta Heads to Psych Ward
In an excerpt from the bestselling crime writer’s latest novel, Scarpetta, Cornwell’s titular protagonist rushes to Bellevue on a mysterious assignment from the NYPD.
Brain tissue clung like wet, gray lint to the sleeves of Dr. Kay Scarpetta's surgical gown, and the front of it was splashed with blood. Stryker saws whined, running water drummed, and bone dust sifted through the air like flour. Three tables were full. More bodies were on the way. It was Tuesday, January 1, New Year's Day.
She didn't need to rush toxicology to know her patient had been drinking before he pulled the shotgun's trigger with his toe. The instant she'd opened him up, she detected the putrid, pungent smell of booze as it breaks down in the body. When she was a forensic pathology resident long years ago, she used to wonder if giving substance abusers a tour of the morgue might shock them into sobriety. If she showed them a head opened up like an egg cup, let them catch the stench of postmortem champagne, maybe they'd switch to Perrier. If only it worked that way.
Hearing her name always unnerved Scarpetta, gave her a tightness in her chest that had nothing to do with the New York prosecutor personally.
She watched her deputy chief, Jack Fielding, lift the shimmering block of organs from the chest cavity of a university student robbed and shot at an ATM, and waited for his outburst. During this morning's staff conference, he'd made the incensed comment that the victim was the same age as his daughter, both of them track stars and pre- med. Nothing good happened when Fielding personalized a case.
"We not sharpening knives anymore?" he yelled.
The oscillating blade of a Stryker saw screamed, the morgue assistant opening a skull and yelling back, "Do I look busy?"
Fielding tossed the surgical knife back on his cart with a loud clatter. "How am I supposed to get anything f------ done around here?"
"Good God, somebody get him a Xanax or something." The morgue assistant pried off the skull cap with a chisel.
Scarpetta placed a lung on a scale, using a smartpen to jot down the weight on a smart notepad. There wasn't a ballpoint pen, clipboard, or paper form in sight. When she got upstairs, all she'd have to do is download what she wrote or sketched into her computer, but technology had no remedy for her fluent thoughts, and she still dictated them after she was done and her gloves were off. Hers was a modern medical examiner's office, upgraded with what she considered essential in a world she no longer recognized, where the public believed everything "forensic" it saw on TV, and violence wasn't a societal problem but a war.
She began sectioning the lung, making a mental note that it was typically formed with smooth, glistening visceral pleurae, and an atelectatic dusky red parenchyma. Minimal quantity of pink froth. Otherwise lacked discrete gross lesion, and the pulmonary vasculature was without note. She paused when her administrative assistant, Bryce, walked in, a look of disdain and avoidance on his youthful face. He wasn't squeamish about what went on in here, just offended for every reason one might be, and he snatched several paper towels from a dispenser. Covering his hand, he picked up the receiver of the black wall phone, where line one was lit up.
"Benton, you still with me?" he said into the phone. "She's right here holding a very big knife. I'm sure she told you today's specials? The Tufts student is the worst, her life worth two hundred bucks. The Bloods or the Crips, some gang piece of shit, you should see him on video surveillance. All over the news. Jack shouldn't be doing that case. Does anybody ask me? About to blow an aneurysm. And the suicide, yup. Comes home from Iraq without a scratch. He's fine. Have a happy holiday and a nice life."
Scarpetta pushed back her face shield. She pulled off her bloody gloves and dropped them in a bright red biohazard can. She scrubbed her hands in a deep steel sink.
"Bad weather inside and out," Bryce chatted to Benton, who wasn't fond of chatting. "A full house and Jack's irritable depression, did I mention that? Maybe we should do an intervention. Maybe a weekend getaway at that Harvard hospital of yours? We probably could qualify for a family plan . . . ?"
Scarpetta took the receiver from him, removed the paper towels, and dropped them into the trash.
"Stop picking on Jack," she said to Bryce.
"I think he's on steroids again, and that's why he's so cranky."
She turned her back to him and everything else.
"What's happened?" she said to Benton.
They had talked at dawn. For him to call again several hours later while she was in the autopsy suite didn't bode anything good.
"I'm afraid we've got a situation," he said.
It was the same way he'd phrased it last night when she'd just gotten home from the ATM homicide scene and found him putting on his coat, headed to Logan to catch the shuttle. NYPD had a situation and needed him immediately.
"Jaime Berger's asking if you can get here," he added.
Hearing her name always unnerved Scarpetta, gave her a tightness in her chest that had nothing to do with the New York prosecutor personally. Berger would always be linked to a past that Scarpetta preferred to forget.
Benton said, "The sooner the better. Maybe the one- o'clock shuttle?"
The wall clock said it was almost ten. She'd have to finish her case, shower, change, and she'd want to stop by the house first. Food, she thought. Homemade mozzarella, chickpea soup, meatballs, bread. What else? The ricotta with fresh basil that Benton loved on homemade pizza. She'd prepared all that and more yesterday, having no idea she was about to spend New Year's Eve alone. There would be nothing to eat in their New York apartment. When Benton was by himself, he usually got take- out.
"Come straight to Bellevue," he said. "You can leave your bags in my office. I have your crime scene case ready and waiting."
She could barely hear over the rhythmic rasping of a knife being sharpened in long, aggressive sweeps. The buzzer from the bay blared, and on the closed- circuit video screen on the countertop, a dark- sleeved arm emerged from the driver's window of a white van as attendants from a delivery service buzzed.
"Can someone please get that?" Scarpetta said at the top of her voice.
On the prison- ward floor of the modern Bellevue Hospital Center, the thin wire of Benton's headset connected him to his wife some hundred and fifty miles away. He explained that late last night a man was admitted to the forensic psychiatric unit, making the point, "Berger wants you to examine his injuries."
"What's he been charged with?" Scarpetta asked.
In the background, he could hear the indistinguishable voices, the noise of the morgue or what he wryly called her "deconstruction site."
"Nothing yet," he said. "There was a murder last night. An unusual one." He tapped the down arrow on his keyboard, scrolling through what was on his computer screen.
"You mean there's no court order for the examination?" Scarpetta's voice moved at the speed of sound.
"Not yet. But he needs to be looked at now."
"He should have been looked at already. The minute he was admitted. If there was any trace evidence, by now it's likely been contaminated or lost."
Benton kept tapping the down arrow, re-reading what was on the screen, wondering how he was going to approach her about it. He could tell by her tone she didn't know, and he hoped like hell she didn't hear it from someone else first. Lucy Farinelli, her niece, had damn well better abide by his wish to let him handle it. Not that he was doing a good job so far.
Jaime Berger had seemed all business when she'd called him a few minutes earlier, and from that he'd inferred she wasn't aware of the trashy gossip on the Internet. Why he didn't say something to her while he'd had the chance, he wasn't sure. But he hadn't, and he should have. He should have been honest with Berger long before now. He should have explained everything to her almost half a year ago.
"His injuries are superficial," Benton said to Scarpetta. "He's in isolation, won't talk, won't cooperate unless you come. Berger doesn't want anyone coercing him into anything and decided the exam could wait until you got here. Since that's what he wants..."
"Since when is it about what the inmate wants?"
"PR, political reasons, and he's not an inmate, not that anybody on the ward's considered an inmate once they've been admitted. They're patients." His nervous ramblings didn't sound like him as he heard himself talk. "As I've said, he's not been charged with any crime. There's no warrant. There's nothing. He's basically a civil admission. We can't make him stay the minimum seventy- two hours because he didn't sign a consent form, and as I said, he's not been charged with a crime, at least not yet. Maybe that will change after you've seen him. But at this moment, he can leave whenever he wants."
"You're expecting me to find something that will give the police probable cause to charge him with murder? And what do you mean he didn't sign . . . ? Back up. This patient signed himself into a prison ward with the proviso he can walk out the door whenever he pleases?"
"I'll explain more when I see you. I'm not expecting you to find anything. No expectations, Kay. I'm just asking you to come because it's a very complicated situation. And Berger really wants you here."
"Even though he might be gone by the time I get there."
He detected the question she wasn't going to ask. He wasn't acting like the cool, unflappable forensic psychologist she had known for twenty years, but she wasn't going to point that out. She was in the morgue and she wasn't alone. She wasn't going to ask him what the hell was wrong with him.
Benton said, "He definitely won't leave before you get here."
"I don't understand why he's there." She wasn't going to let that go.
"We're not entirely sure. But in a nutshell? When the cops arrived at the scene, he insisted on being transported to Bellevue...."
"Oscar Bane. He said the only person he'd allow to conduct the psychological evaluation was me. So I was called, and as you know, I left immediately for New York. He's afraid of doctors. Gets panic attacks."
"How did he know who you are?"
"Because he knows who you are."
"He knows who I am?"
"The cops have his clothes, but he says if they want any evidence collected from him physically and there's no warrant, as I keep emphasizing, it will have to be you who does it. We hoped he'd calm down, agree to let a local ME take care of him. Never going to happen. He's more adamant than ever. Says he's terrified of doctors. Has odynephobia, dishabiliophobia."
"He's afraid of pain and taking his clothes off?"
"And caligynephobia. Fear of beautiful women."
"I see. So that's why he'd feel safe with me."
"That part was supposed to be funny. He thinks you're beautiful, and he's definitely not afraid of you. I'm the one who should be afraid."
That was the truth of the matter. Benton didn't want her here. He didn't even want her in New York right now.
"Let me make sure I understand. Jaime Berger wants me to fly there in a snowstorm, examine a patient on a prison ward who hasn't been charged with a crime?"
"If you can get out of Boston, the weather's fine here. Just cold." Benton looked out his window and saw nothing but gray.
"Let me finish up with my Army Reservist sergeant who was a casualty in Iraq but didn't know it until he got home. And I'll see you mid- afternoon," she said.
"Fly safe. I love you."
Benton hung up, started tapping the down arrow again, then the up arrow, reading and re- reading, as though if he read the anonymous gossip column often enough, it wouldn't seem so offensive, so ugly, so hateful. "Sticks and stones," Scarpetta always said. Maybe that was true in grammar school, but not in their adult lives. Words could hurt. They could hurt badly. What kind of monster would write something like this? How did the monster find out?
He reached for the phone.
Scarpetta paid scant attention to Bryce as he drove her to Logan International Airport. He'd been talking nonstop about one thing or another ever since picking her up at her house.
Mainly, he'd been complaining about Dr. Jack Fielding, reminding her yet again that returning to the past was like a dog returning to its own vomit. Or Lot's wife looking back and turning into a pillar of salt. Bryce's biblical analogies were endless and irritating and had nothing to do with his religious beliefs, assuming he had any, but were leftover pearls from a college term paper he'd done on the Bible as literature.
Her administrative assistant's point was you don't hire people from your past. Fielding was from Scarpetta's past. He'd had his problems, but then who hadn't? When she had accepted the position up here and had started looking for a deputy chief, she wondered what Fielding was doing, tracked him down, and found out he wasn't doing much.
Benton's input had been unusually toothless, maybe even patronizing, which made more sense to her now. He'd said she was looking for stability, and often people move backward instead of forward when they are overwhelmed by change. Feeling the desire to hire someone she'd known since the early days of her career was understandable, Benton had said. But the danger in looking back was that we saw only what we wanted to see, he'd added. We saw what made us feel safe.
What Benton had chosen to avoid is why she didn't feel safe to begin with. He hadn't wanted to get within range of how she really felt about her domestic life with him, which was as chaotic and dissonant as it had ever been. Since their relationship began with an adulterous affair more than fifteen years ago, they'd never lived in the same place, didn't know the meaning of day-to-day togetherness, until last summer. Theirs had been a very simple ceremony in the garden behind her carriage house in Charleston, South Carolina, where she'd just set up a private practice that she then was forced to close.
Afterward, they'd moved to Belmont, Massachusetts, to be near his psychiatric hospital, McLean, and her new headquarters in Watertown, where she'd accepted the position of chief medical examiner of the Commonwealth's Northeastern District. Because of their proximity to New York, she thought it a fine idea for them to accept John Jay College of Criminal Justice's invitation to serve as visiting lecturers there, which included offering pro bono consultation for the NYPD, the New York Medical Examiner's office, and forensic psychiatric units such as the one at Bellevue.
". . . I know it's not the sort of thing you'd look at or maybe even be a big deal to you, but at the risk of pissing you off, I'm going to point it out." Bryce's voice penetrated her preoccupations.
She said, "What big deal?"
"Well, hello? Don't mind me. I was just talking to myself."
"I'm sorry. Rewind the tape."
"I didn't say anything after staff meeting because I didn't want to distract you from all the shit going on this morning. Thought I'd wait until you were done and we could have a little heart-to-heart behind your closed door. And since nobody's said anything to me, I don't think they saw it. Which is good, right? As if Jack isn't pissy enough this morning. Of course, he's always pissy, which is why he has eczema and alopecia. And by the way, did you see the crusty lesion behind his right ear? Home for the holidays. Does wonders for the nerves."
"How much coffee have you had today?"
"Why is it always me? Kill the messenger. You zone out until what I'm trying to convey reaches critical mass, and then kaboom, and I'm the bad guy, and bye- bye messenger. If you're going to be in New York more than a night, please let me know a-sap so I can get coverage. Should I set up some sessions with that trainer you like so much? What's his name?"
Bryce thought, touching a finger to his lips.
"Kit," he answered himself. "Maybe one of these days when you need me as your boy Friday in New York, he can have a go at me. Love handles."
He pinched his waist.
"Although I hear liposuction's the only thing that works once you turn thirty," he said. "Truth serum time?"
He glanced over at her, his hands gesturing as if they were something alive and not part of him.
"I did look him up on the Internet," he confessed. "I'm surprised Benton lets him anywhere near you. Reminds me of, of what's-his-name on Queer as Folk? The football star? Drove a Hummer and quite the homophobe until he hooked up with Emmett, who everyone says looks just like me, or the other way around, since he's the one who's famous. Well, you probably don't watch it."
Scarpetta said, "Kill the messenger because of what? And please keep at least one hand on the wheel since we're driving in a blizzard. How many shots did you get in your Starbucks this morning? I saw two Venti cups on your desk. Hopefully not both of them from this morning. Remember our talk about caffeine? That it's a drug, and therefore addictive?"
"You're the whole damn thing," Bryce went on. "Which I've never seen before. It's really weird. Usually it's not just one famous person, you know? Because whoever the columnist is, he roams around the city like some undercover asshole, and shits on a lot of celebs at once. The other week, it was Bloomberg, and, oh, what's her name? That model always getting arrested for throwing things at people? Well, this time she was what got thrown out of Elaine's for saying something lewd to Charlie Rose. No, wait a minute. Barbara Walters? No. I'm crossing over into something I saw on The View. Maybe what's-her-name the model went after that singer from American Idol. No, he was on Ellen, not in Elaine's. And not Clay Aiken or Kelly Clarkson. Who's the other one? TiVo's simply killing me. It's like the remote surfs through channels when you're not touching anything. You ever have that happen?"
Snow was like a swarm of white gnats hitting the windshield, the wipers hypnotically useless. Traffic was slow but steady, Logan just a few minutes out. "Bryce?" Scarpetta said in the tone she used when she was warning him to shut up and answer her question. "What big deal?"
"That disgusting online gossip column. Gotham Gotcha."
She'd seen ads for it on New York City buses and taxicab tops, the anonymous columnist notoriously vicious. The guessing game of who was behind it ranged from a nobody to a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who was having great fun making mean-spirited mischief and money.
"Nas-ty," Bryce said. "Now, I know it's supposed to be nasty, but this is nasty below the belt. Not that I read such tripe. But for obvious reasons, I have you as a Google alert. There's a photograph, which is the worst part. It's not flattering."
Reprinted from Scarpetta by Patricia Cornwell by arrangement with G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright © 2008 by CEI Enterprises, Inc.