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Authors: Patricia Cornwell

Tags: #Women detectives, #Medical examiners (Law), #Scarpetta; Kay (Fictitious character), #Mystery & Detective, #Virginia, #General, #Medical novels, #Women Physicians, #Mystery Fiction, #Women Sleuths, #Thrillers, #Legal stories, #Fiction, #Forensic pathologists

Point of Origin (5 page)

BOOK: Point of Origin
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'At least you have either.' McGovern started cleaning her boots, too.

Teun was really an odd hybrid of the initials T. N., which stood for something Southern-awful such as Tina Nola, or so I had been told. For as long as I had been on the NRT, she had been Teun, and so that was what I called her. She was capable and divorced. She was firm and fit, her bone structure and gray eyes compelling. McGovern could be fierce. I had seen her anger flash over like a room in flames, but she could also be generous and kind. Her special gift was arson, and it was legend that she could intuit the cause of a fire simply by hearing a description of the scene.

I worked on two pairs of latex gloves as McGovern scanned the horizon, her eyes staying a long time on the blackened pit with its shell of standing granite. I followed her gaze to scorched stables, and in my mind heard screams and panicked hooves battering stalls. For an instant my throat constricted. I had seen the raw, clawed hands of people buried alive, and the defense injuries of victims who struggled with their killers. I knew about life fighting not to die, and I could not bear the vivid footage playing in my mind.

'Goddamn reporters.' McGovern stared up at a small helicopter flying low overhead.

It was a white Schweizer with no identification or mounted cameras I could see. McGovern stepped forward and boldly pointed out every member of the media within five miles.

'That van there,' she let me know. 'Radio, some local-yokel FM dial with a celebrity talent named Jezebel who tells moving stories about life and her crippled son and his three-legged dog named Sport. And another radio over there. And that Ford Escort over that way is some fucking son-of-a-bitch newspaper. Probably some tabloid out of D. C. Then we got the Post.' She pointed at a Honda. 'So look out for her. She's the brunette with legs. Can you imagine wearing a skirt out here? Probably thinks the guys will talk to her. But they know better, unlike the Feebs.'

She backed up and grabbed a handful of latex gloves from inside the supertruck. I dug my hands deeper into the pockets of my BDUs. I had gotten used to McGovern's diatribes about the biased, mendacious media, and I barely listened.

'And this is just the start,' she went on. 'These media maggots will be crawling all over the place because I already know about this one here. It doesn't take a Boy Scout to guess how this place burned and all those poor horses got killed.'

'You seem more cheerful than usual,' I said dryly.

'I'm not cheerful in the least.'

She propped her foot on the shiny tailgate of the supertruck as an old station wagon pulled up. Pepper the arson dog was a handsome black Labrador retriever. He wore an ATF badge on his collar and was no doubt comfortably curled in the warm front seat, going nowhere until we were ready for him.

'What can I do to help?' I said to her. 'Besides staying out of the way until you need me.'

She was staring off. 'If I were you, I'd hang out with Pepper or in the truck. Both are heated.'

McGovern had worked with me before and knew if I was needed to dive into a river or sift through fire or bombing debris, I was not above the task. She knew I could hold a shovel and did not sit around. I resented her comments and felt she was somehow picking on me. I turned to address her again and found her standing very still, like a bird dog pointing. She had an incredulous expression on her face as she remained fixed to some spot on the horizon.

'Holy Jesus,' she muttered.

I followed her stare to a lone black foal, maybe a hundred yards due east of us, just beyond the smoky ruins of the stables. The magnificent animal looked carved from ebony from where we stood, and I could make out twitching muscles and tail as he seemed to return our attention.

'The stables,' McGovern said, in awe. 'How the hell did he get away?'

She got on her portable radio.

'Teun to Jennifer,' she said.

'Go ahead.'

'Take a look maybe beyond the stables. See what I do?'

'Ten-four. Got the four-legged subject in sight.'

'Make sure the locals know. We need to find out if subject is a survivor from here or a runaway from somewhere else.'

'You got it.'

McGovern strode off, a shovel over her shoulder. I watched her move into the stinking pit and pick a spot near what appeared to have once been the wide front door, cold water up to her knees. Far off, the aloof black horse wavered as if made of fire. I slogged ahead in soggy boots, my fingers getting increasingly uncooperative. It was only a matter of time before I would need a toilet, which typically would be a tree, a mound, an acre somewhere in what was sworn to be a blind with no men within a mile.

I did not enter the remaining stone shell at first but walked slowly around it from the outside perimeter. The caving-in of remaining structures was an obvious and extreme danger at scenes of mass destruction, and although the two-story walls looked sturdy enough, it would have suited me better had they been pulled down by a crane and trucked away. I continued my scan in the bright, cool wind, my heart sinking as I wondered where to begin. My shoulders ached from my aluminum case, and just the thought of dragging a rake through water-logged debris sent pain into my back. I was certain McGovern was watching to see how long I would last.

Through gaping wounds of windows and doors I could see the sooty pit coiling with thousands of flat steel whiskey-barrel hoops that drifted in black water. I imagined reserve bourbon exploding from burning white oak kegs and pouring through the door in a river of fire downhill to the stables that had housed Kenneth Sparkes's precious horses. While investigators began the task of determining where the fire had started and hopefully its cause, I stepped through puddles and climbed atop anything that looked sturdy enough to bear my weight.

Nails were everywhere, and with a Buckman tool that had been a gift from Lucy, I pulled one of them out of my left boot. I stopped inside the perfect stone rectangle of a doorway in the front of the former mansion. For minutes I stood and looked. Unlike many investigators, I did not take photographs with every inch I moved closer into a crime scene. I had learned to bide my time and let my eyes go first. As I quietly scanned around me, I was struck by many things.

The front of the house, unsurprisingly, would have afforded the most spectacular view. From upper stories no longer there, one should have seen trees and gentle hills, and the various activities of the horses that the owner bought, traded, bred, and sold. It was believed that Kenneth Sparkes had been home the night of the fire, on June seventh, and I remembered that the weather had been clear and a little warmer, with a light wind and full moon.

I surveyed the empty shell of what must have been a mansion, looking at soggy couch parts, metal, glass, the melted guts of televisions and appliances. There were hundreds of partially burned books, and paintings, mattresses, and furniture. All had fallen from upper stories and settled into soupy layers in the basement. As I imagined Sparkes in the evening when the fire alarm went off, I imagined him in the living room with its view, or in the kitchen, perhaps cooking. Yet the more I explored where he might have been, the less I understood why he had not escaped, unless he were incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, or had tried to put out the fire until carbon monoxide had overcome him.

Lucy and comrades were on the other side of the pit, prying open an electrical box that heat and water had caused to rust instantly.

'Good luck,' McGovern's voice carried as she waded closer to them. 'That's not going to be what started this one.'

She kept talking as she slung a blackened frame of an ironing board to one side. The iron and what was left of its cord followed. She kicked more barrel hoops out of the way as if she were mad at whoever had caused this mess.

'You notice the windows?' she went on to them. 'The broken glass is on the inside. Makes you think someone broke in?'

'Not necessarily.' It was Lucy who answered as she squatted to look. 'You get thermal impact to the inside of the glass and it heats up and expands more and faster than the exterior, causing uneven stress and heat cracks, which are distinctively different from mechanical breakage.'

She handed a jagged piece of broken glass to McGovern, her supervisor.

'Smoke goes out of the house,' Lucy went on, 'and the atmosphere comes in. Equalization of pressure. It doesn't mean someone broke in.'

'You get a B-plus,' McGovern said to her.

'No way. I get an A.'

Several of the agents laughed.

'But I have to agree with Lucy,' one of them said. 'So far I'm not seeing any sign that someone broke in.'

Their team leader continued turning our disaster site into a classroom for her soon-to-be Certificated Fire Investigators, or CFIs.

'Remember we talked about smoke coming through brick?' she continued, pointing up to areas of stone along the roofline that looked as if they had been scrubbed with steel brushes. 'Or is that erosion from blasts of water?'

'No, the mortar's partially eaten away. That's from smoke.'

'That's right. From smoke pushing through the joints.' McGovern was matter-of-fact. 'Fire establishes its own vent paths. And low around the walls here, here and here' -- she pointed -- 'the stone is burned clean of all incomplete combustion or soot. We've got melted glass and melted copper pipes.'

'It started low, on the first floor,' Lucy said. 'The main living area.'

'Looks like that to me.'

'And flames went up as high as ten feet to engage the second floor and roof.'

'Which would take a pretty decent fuel load.'

'Accelerants. But forget finding a pour pattern in this shit.'

'Don't forget anything,' McGovern told her team. 'And we don't know if an accelerant was necessary because we don't know what kind of fuel load was on that floor.'

They were splashing and working as they talked, and all around was the constant sound of dripping water and rumbling of the pumps. I got interested in box springs caught in my rake and squatted to pull out rocks and charred wood with my hands. One always had to consider that a fire victim might have died in bed, and I peered up at what once had been the upper floors. I continued excavating, producing nothing remotely human, only the sodden, sour trash of all that had been ruined in Kenneth Sparkes's fine estate. Some of his former possessions still smoldered on tops of piles that were not submerged, but most of what I raked was cold and permeated with the nauseating smell of scorched bourbon.

Our sifting went on throughout the morning, and as I moved from one square of muck to the next, I did what I knew how to do best. I groped and probed with my hands, and when I felt a shape that worried me, I took off my heavy fire gloves and felt some more with fingers barely sheathed by latex. McGovern's troops were scattered and lost in their own hunches, and at almost noon she waded back to me.

'You holding up?' she asked.

'Still standing.'

'Not bad for an armchair detective.' She smiled.

'I'll take that as a compliment.'

'You see how even everything is?' She pointed a sooty gloved finger. 'High-temperature fire, constant from one corner of the house to the other. Flames so hot and high they burned up the upper two floors and pretty near everything in them. We're not talking some electrical arc here, not some curling iron left on or grease that caught fire. Something big and smart's behind this.'

I had noticed over the years that people who battled fire spoke of it as if it were alive and possessed a will and personality of its own. McGovern began working by my side, and what she couldn't sling out of the way, she piled into a wheelbarrow. I polished what turned out to be a stone that could have passed for a finger bone, and she pointed the wooden butt of her rake up at an empty overcast sky.

'The top level's gonna be the last one to fall,' she told me. 'In other words, debris from the roof and second floor should be on top down here. So I'm assuming that's what we're rooting around in right now.' She stabbed the rake at a twisted steel I-beam that once had supported the roof. 'Yes sir,' she went on, 'that's why there's all this insulation and slate everywhere.'

This went on and on, with no one taking breaks that were longer than fifteen minutes. The local fire station kept us supplied in coffee, sodas, and sandwiches, and had set up quartz lights so we could see as we worked in our wet hole. At each end a Prosser pump sucked water through its hose and disgorged it outside granite walls, and after thousands of gallons were gone, our conditions did not seem much better. It was hours before the level dipped perceptibly.

At half past two I could stand it no longer and went outside again. I scanned for the most inconspicuous spot, which was beneath the sweeping boughs of a large fir tree near the smoking stables. My hands and feet were numb, but beneath heavy protective clothing I was sweating as I squatted and kept a nervous watch for anyone who might wander this way. Then I steeled myself to walk past every charred stall. The stench of death pushed itself up into my nostrils and seemed to cling to spaces inside my skull.

Horses were pitifully piled on top of each other, their legs pugilistically drawn, and skin split from the swelling and shrinking of cooking flesh. Mares, stallions, and geldings were burned down to bone with smoke still drifting from carcasses charred like wood. I hoped they had succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning before flames had touched them.

BOOK: Point of Origin
7.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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