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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 (6 page)

BOOK: Point of Origin
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I counted nineteen bodies, including two yearlings and a foal. The miasma of burned horse hair and death was choking and enveloped me like a heavy cloak as I headed across grass back to the mansion's shell. On the horizon, the sole survivor was watching me again, standing very still, alone and mournful.

McGovern was still sloshing and shoveling and pitching trash out of her way, and I could tell she was getting tired, and I was perversely pleased by that. It was getting late in the day. The sky had gotten darker, and the wind had a sharper edge.

'The foal is still there,' I said to her.

'Wish he could talk.' She straightened up and massaged the small of her back.

'He's running loose for a reason,' I said. 'It doesn't make sense to think he got out on his own. I hope someone plans to take care of him?'

'We're working on it.'

'Couldn't one of the neighbors help?' I would not stop, because the horse was really getting to me.

She gave me a long look and pointed straight up.

'Master bedroom and bath were right up there,' she announced as she lifted a broken square of white marble out of the filthy water. 'Brass fixtures, a marble floor, the jets from a Jacuzzi. The frame of a skylight, which by the way, was open at the time of the fire. If you reach down six inches to your left, you'll run right into what's left of the tub.'

The water level continued to lower as pumps sucked and formed small rivers over grass. Nearby, agents were pulling out antique oak flooring that was deeply charred on top with very little unburned wood left. This went on, and added to mounting evidence that the origin of the fire was the second floor in the area of the master suite, where we recovered brass pulls from cabinets and mahogany furniture, and hundreds of coat hangers. We dug through burnt cedar and remnants of men's shoes and clothing from the master closet.

By five o'clock, the water had dropped another foot, revealing a ruined landscape that looked like a burned landfill, with scorched hulls of appliances and the carcasses of couches. McGovern and I were still excavating in the area of the master bath, fishing out prescription bottles of pills, and shampoos and body lotions, when I finally discovered the first shattered edge of death. I carefully wiped soot from a jagged slab of glass.

'I think we've got something,' I said, and my voice seemed swallowed by dripping water and the sucking of pumps.

McGovern shone her flashlight on what I was doing and went still.

'Oh Jesus,' she said, shocked.

Milky dead eyes gleamed at us through watery broken glass.

'A window, maybe a glass shower door fell on top of the body, preserving at least some of it from being burned to the bone,' I said.

I moved more broken glass aside, and McGovern was momentarily stunned as she stared at a grotesque body that I instantly knew was not Kenneth Sparkes. The upper part of the face was pressed flat beneath thick cracked glass, and the eyes were a dull bluish-gray because their original color had been cooked out of them. They peered up at us from the burned bone of the brow. Strands of long blond hair had gotten free and eerily flowed as dirty water seeped, and there was no nose or mouth, only chalky, calcined bone and teeth that had been burned until there was nothing organic left in them.

The neck was partially intact, the torso covered with more broken glass, and melted into cooked flesh was a dark fabric that had been a blouse or shirt. I could still make out the weave. Buttocks and pelvis were also spared beneath glass. The victim had been wearing jeans. The legs were burned down to bone, but leather boots had protected the feet. There were no lower arms or hands, and I could not find any trace of those bones.

'Who the hell is this?' McGovern said, amazed. 'Did he live with someone?'

'I don't know,' I said, scooping more water out of the way.

'Can you tell if it's a female?' McGovern said as she leaned closer to look, her flashlight still pointed.

'I wouldn't want to swear to it in court until I can examine her more closely. But yes, I'm thinking female,' I answered.

I looked up at empty sky, imagining the bathroom the woman possibly had died in, and then got cameras out of my kit as cold water lapped around my feet. Pepper the arson dog and his handler had just filled a doorway, and Lucy and other agents were wading our way as word of our find hummed down the line. I thought of Sparkes, and nothing here made sense, except that a woman had been inside his home the night of the fire. I feared his remains might be somewhere in here, too.

Agents came nearer, and one of them brought me a body bag. I unfolded it and took more photographs. Flesh had cooked to glass and would have to be separated. This I would do in the morgue, and I instructed that any debris around the body would need to be sent in as well.

'I'm going to need some help,' I said to everyone. 'Let's get a backboard and some sheets in here, and someone needs to call whatever local funeral home is responsible for body removals. We're going to need a van. Be careful, the glass is sharp. As she is, in situ. Face up, just like she is now, so we don't put too much stress on the body and tear the skin. That's good. Now open the bag more. As wide as we can get it.'

'It ain't gonna fit.'

'Maybe we could break off more of the glass around the edges here,' McGovern suggested. 'Somebody got a hammer?'

'No, no. Let's just cover her as is.' I issued more commands, for I was in charge now. 'Drape this over and around the edges to protect your hands. Everybody got their gloves on?'

'Yeah.'

'Those of you who aren't helping here, there may be another body. So let's keep looking.'

I was tense and irritable as I waited for two agents to return with a backboard and blue plasticized sheets to cover it.

'Okay,' I said. 'We're going to lift. On the count of three.'

Water sloshed and splashed as four of us struggled for leverage and balance. It was awful groping for sure footing as we gripped slippery wet glass that was sharp enough to cut through leather.

'Here we go,' I said. 'One, two, three, lift.'

We centered the body on the backboard. I covered it as best I could with the sheets and fastened it snugly with straps. Our steps were small and hesitant as we felt our way through water that no longer came over our boots. The Prosser pumps and generator were a constant humming throb that we scarcely noticed as we ferried our morbid cargo closer to the empty space that once had been a door. I smelled cooked flesh and death, and the acrid rotting odor of fabric, food, furniture, and all that had burned in Kenneth Sparkes's home. I was breathless and numb with stress and cold as I emerged into the pale light of the fast-retreating day.

We lowered the body to the ground, and I kept watch over it as the rest of the team continued their excavation. I opened the sheets and took a close long look at this pitifully disfigured human being, and got a flashlight and lens out of my aluminum case. Glass had melted around the head at the bridge of the nose, and bits of pinkish material and ash were snared in her hair. I used light and magnification to study areas of flesh that had been spared, and wondered if it was my imagination when I discovered hemorrhage in charred tissue in the left temporal area, about an inch from the eye.

Lucy suddenly was by my side, and Wiser Funeral Home was pulling up in a shiny dark blue van.

'Find something?' Lucy asked.

'Don't know with certainty, but this looks like hemorrhage, versus the drying you find with skin splitting.'

'Skin splitting from fire, you mean.'

'Yes. Flesh cooks and expands, splitting the skin.'

'Same thing that happens when you cook chicken in the oven.'

'You got it,' I said.

Damage to skin, muscle, and bone is easily mistaken for injuries caused by violence if one is not familiar with the artifacts of fire. Lucy squatted closer to me. She looked on.

'Anything else turning up in there?' I asked her. 'No other bodies, I hope.'

'Not so far,' she said. 'It will be dark soon, and all we can do is keep the scene secured until we can start again in the morning.'

I looked up as a man in a pinstripe suit climbed out of the funeral home van and worked on latex gloves. He loudly pulled a stretcher out from the back and metal clacked as he unfolded the legs.

'You gonna get started tonight, Doc?' he asked me, and I knew I'd seen him somewhere before.

'Let's get her to Richmond and I'll start in the morning,' I said.

'Last time I saw you was the Moser shooting. That young girl they was fighting over's still causing trouble round here.'

'Oh yes.' I vaguely remembered, for there were so many shootings and so many people who caused trouble. 'Thank you for your help,' I said to him.

We lifted the body by gripping the edges of the heavy vinyl pouch. We lowered the remains onto the stretcher and slid it into the back of the van. He slammed shut tailgate doors.

'I hope it's not Kenneth Sparkes in there,' he said.

'No identification yet,' I told him.

He sighed and slid into the driver's seat.

'Well, let me tell you something,' he said, cranking the engine. 'I don't care what anybody says. He was a good man.'

I watched him drive away and could sense Lucy's eyes on me. She touched my arm.

'You're exhausted,' she said. 'Why don't you spend the night and I'll fly you back in the morning. If we find anything else, we'll let you know right away. No point in your hanging around.'

I had very difficult work ahead and the sensible thing to do was to head back to Richmond now. But in truth, I did not feel like walking inside my empty home. Benton would be at Hilton Head by now, and Lucy was staying in Warrenton. It was too late to call upon any of my friends, and I was too spent for polite conversation. It was one of those times when I could think of nothing that might soothe me.

'Teun's moved us to a better place and I got an extra bed in my room, Aunt Kay,' Lucy added with a smile as she pulled a car key out of her pocket.

'So now I'm Aunt Kay again.'

'As long as nobody's around.'

'I've got to get something to eat,' I said.

WE BOUGHT DRIVE-THRU Whoppers and fries at a Burger King on Broadview, and it was dark out and very cool. Approaching headlights hurt my eyes, and no amount of Motrin would relieve the hot pain in my temples or the dread in my heart. Lucy had brought her own CDs and was playing one of them loudly as we glided through Warrenton in a rented black Ford LTD.

'What's this you're listening to?' I asked as a way of registering a complaint.

'Jim Brickman,' she said sweetly.

'Not hardly,' I said over flutes and drums. 'Sounds Native American to me. And maybe we could turn it down a bit?'

Instead, she turned it up.

'David Arkenstone. Spirit Wind. Got to open your mind, Aunt Kay. This one right now is called Destiny .'

Lucy drove like the wind, and my mind began to float.

'You're getting kooky on me,' I said as I imagined wolves and campfires in the night.

'His music's all about connectivity and finding your way and positive force,' she went on as the music got lively and added guitars. 'Don't you think that fits?'

I couldn't help but laugh at her complicated explanation. Lucy had to know how everything worked and the reason why. The music, in truth, was soothing, and I felt a brightening and calm in frightening places in my mind.

'What do you think happened, Aunt Kay?' Lucy suddenly broke the spell. 'I mean, in your heart of hearts.'

'Right now it's impossible to say,' I answered her the way I would anybody else. 'And we shouldn't assume anything, including gender or who might have been staying in the house.'

'Teun is already thinking arson, and so am I,' she matter-of-factly stated. 'What's weird is Pepper didn't alert on anything in any areas where we thought he might.'

'Like the master bathroom on the first floor,' I said.

'Nothing there. Poor Pepper worked like a dog and didn't get fed.'

The Labrador retriever had been food-reward trained since his youth to detect hydrocarbon petroleum distillates, such as kerosene, gasoline, lighter fluid, paint thinner, solvents, lamp oil. All were possible, if not common, choices for the arsonist who wanted to start a major fire with the drop of a match. When accelerants are poured at a scene, they pool and flow as their vapors burn. The liquid soaks into fabric or bedding or carpet. It seeps under furniture and between the cracks in flooring. It is not water-soluble or easy to wash away, so if Pepper had found nothing to excite his nose, chances were good that nothing was there.

'What we got to do is find out exactly what was in the house so we can begin to calculate the fuel load,' Lucy went on as the music turned to violins, and strings and drums got sadder. 'Then we can begin to get a better idea about what and how much would have been needed to get something like that going.'

'There was melted aluminum and glass, and tremendous burning of the body in the upper legs and lower arms, any areas that weren't spared by the glass door,' I said. 'That suggests to me the victim was down, possibly in the bathtub, when the fire reached her.'

BOOK: Point of Origin
4.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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