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Authors: Patricia Cornwell

Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #Medical, #Political, #Crime, #Fiction, #General

Postmortem

BOOK: Postmortem
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Postmortem (1990)<br/>

Postmortem

Postmortem (1990)<br/>

Patricia Cornwell

Postmortem (1990)<br/>

*

Chapter
1

It was raining in Richmond on Friday, June 6.

The relentless downpour, which began at dawn, beat the lilies to naked stalks, and blacktop and sidewalks were littered with leaves. There were small rivers in the streets, and newborn ponds on playing fields and lawns. I went to sleep to the sound of water drumming the slate roof, and was dreaming a terrible dream as night dissolved into the foggy first hours of Saturday morning.

I saw a white face beyond the rain-streaked glass, a face formless and inhuman like the faces of misshapen dolls made of nylon hose. My bedroom window was dark when suddenly the face was there, an evil intelligence looking in. I woke up and stared blindly into the dark. I did not know what had awakened me until the telephone rang again. I found the receiver without fumbling.

"Dr. Scarpetta?"

"Yes."

I reached for the lamp and switched it on. It was 2:33 A. M. My heart was drilling through my ribs.

"Pete Marino here. We got us one at 5602 Berkley Avenue. Think you better come."

The victim's name, he went on to explain, was Lori Petersen, a white female, thirty years old. Her husband had found her body about half an hour earlier.

Details were unnecessary. The moment I picked up the receiver and recognized Sergeant Marino's voice, I knew. Maybe I knew the instant the telephone rang. People who believe in werewolves are afraid of a full moon. I'd begun to dread the hours between midnight and 3:00 A. M. when Friday becomes Saturday and the city is unconscious.

Ordinarily, the medical examiner on call is summoned to a death scene. But this wasn't ordinary. I had made it clear after the second case that no matter the hour, if there was another murder, I was to be called. Marino wasn't keen on the idea. Ever since I was appointed chief medical examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia less than two years ago he'd been difficult. I wasn't sure if he didn't like women, or if he just didn't like me.

"Berkley's in Berkley Downs, Southside," he said condescendingly. "You know the way?"

Confessing I didn't, I scribbled the directions on the notepad I always kept by the phone. I hung up and my feet were already on the floor as adrenaline hit my nerves like espresso. The house was quiet. I grabbed my black medical bag, scuffed and worn from years of use.

The night air was like a cool sauna, and there were no lights in the windows of my neighbors' houses. As I backed the navy station wagon out of the drive, I looked at the light burning over the porch, at the first-story window leading into the guest bedroom where my ten-year-old niece, Lucy, was asleep. This would be one more day in the child's life I would miss. I had picked her up at the airport Wednesday night. Our meals together, so far, had been few.

There was no traffic until I hit the Parkway. Minutes later I was speeding across the James River. Taillights far ahead were rubies, the downtown skyline ghostly in the rearview mirror. Fanning out on either side were plains of darkness with tiny necklaces of smudged light at the edges. Out there, somewhere, is a man, I thought. He could be anybody, walks upright, sleeps with a roof over his head, and has the usual number of fingers and toes. He is probably white and much younger than my forty years. He is ordinary by most standards, and probably doesn't drive a BMW or grace the bars in the Slip or the finer clothing stores along Main Street.

But, then again, he could. He could be anybody and he was nobody. Mr. Nobody. The kind of guy you don't remember after riding up twenty floors alone with him inside an elevator. He had become the self-appointed dark ruler of the city, an obsession for thousands of people he had never seen, and an obsession of mine. Mr. Nobody.

Because the homicides began two months ago, he may have been recently released from prison or a mental hospital. This was the speculation last week, but the theories were constantly changing.

Mine had remained the same from the start. I strongly suspected he hadn't been in the city long, he'd done this before somewhere else, and he'd never spent a day behind the locked doors of a prison or a forensic unit. He wasn't disorganized, wasn't an amateur, and he most assuredly wasn't "crazy."

Wilshire was two lights down on the left, Berkley the first right after that.

I could see the blue and red lights flashing two blocks away. The street in front of 5602 Berkley was lit up like a disaster site. An ambulance, its engine rumbling loudly, was alongside two unmarked police units with grille lights flashing and three white cruisers with light bars going full tilt. The Channel 12 news crew had just pulled up. Lights had blinked on up and down the street, and several people in pajamas and housecoats had wandered out to their porches.

I parked behind the news van as a cameraman trotted across the street. Head bent, the collar of my khaki raincoat turned up around my ears, I briskly followed the brick walk to the front door. I have always had a special distaste for seeing myself on the evening news. Since the stranglings in Richmond began, my office had been inundated, the same reporters calling over and over again with the same insensitive questions.

"If it's a serial killer, Dr. Scarpetta, doesn't that indicate it's quite likely to happen again?"

As if they wanted it to happen again.

"Is it true you found bite marks on the last victim, Doc?"

It wasn't true, but no matter how I answered such a question I couldn't win. "No comment," and they assume it's true. "No," and the next edition reads, "Dr. Kay Scarpetta denies that bite marks have been found on the victims' bodies . . . " The killer, who's reading the papers like everybody else, gets a new idea.

Recent news accounts were florid and frighteningly detailed. They went far beyond serving the useful purpose of warning the city's citizens. Women, particularly those who lived alone, were terrified. The sale of handguns and deadbolt locks went up fifty percent the week after the third murder, and the SPCA ran out of dogs - a phenomenon which, of course, made the front page; too. Yesterday, the infamous and prize-winning police reporter Abby Turnbull had demonstrated her usual brass by coming to my office and clubbing my staff with the Freedom of Information Act in an unsuccessful attempt at getting copies of the autopsy records.

Crime reporting was aggressive in Richmond, an old Virginia city of 220,000, which last year was listed by the FBI as having the second-highest homicide rate per capita in the United States. It wasn't uncommon for forensic pathologists from the British Commonwealth to spend a month at my office to learn more about gunshot wounds. It wasn't uncommon for career cops like Pete Marino to leave the madness of New York or Chicago only to find Richmond was worse.

What was uncommon were these sex slayings. The average citizen can't relate to drug and domestic shootouts or one wino stabbing another over a bottle of Mad Dog. But these murdered women were the colleagues you sit next to at work, the friends you invite to go shopping or to stop by for drinks, the acquaintances you chat with at parties, the people you stand in line with at the checkout counter. They were someone's neighbor, someone's sister, someone's daughter, someone's lover. They were in their own homes, sleeping in their own beds, when Mr. Nobody climbed through one of their windows.

Two uniformed men flanked the front door, which was open wide and barred by a yellow ribbon of tape, warning: CRIME SCENE-DO NOT CROSS.

"Doc."

He could have been my son, this boy in blue who stepped aside at the top of the steps and lifted the tape to let me duck under.

The living room was immaculate, and attractively decorated in warm rose tones. A handsome cherry cabinet in a corner contained a small television and a compact disc player. Nearby a stand held sheet music and a violin. Beneath a curtained window overlooking the front lawn was a sectional sofa, and on the glass coffee table in front of it were half a dozen magazines neatly stacked. Among them were Scientific American and the New England Journal of Medicine. Across a Chinese dragon rug with a rose medallion against a field of cream stood a walnut bookcase. Tomes straight from a medical school's syllabi lined two shelves.

An open doorway led into a corridor running the length of the house. To my right appeared a series of rooms, to the left was the kitchen, where Marino and a young officer were talking to a man I assumed was the husband.

I was vaguely aware of clean countertops, linoleum and appliances in the off-white that manufacturers call "almond," and the pale yellow of the wallpaper and curtains. But my attention was riveted to the table. On top of it lay a red nylon knapsack, the contents of which had been gone through by the police: a stethoscope, a penlight, a Tupperware container once packed with a meal or a snack, and recent editions of the Annals of Surgery, Lancet and the Journal of Trauma. By now I was thoroughly unsettled.

Marino eyed me coolly as I paused by the table, then introduced me to Matt Petersen, the husband. Petersen was slumped in a chair, his face destroyed by shock. He was exquisitely handsome, almost beautiful, his features flawlessly chiseled, his hair jet-black, his skin smooth and hinting of a tan. He was wide shouldered with a lean but elegantly sculpted body casually clad in a white Izod shirt and faded blue jeans. His eyes were cast down, his hands stiffly in his lap.

"These are hers?" I had to know. The medical items might belong to the husband.

Marino's "Yeah" was a confirmation.

Petersen's eyes slowly lifted. Deep blue, bloodshot, they seemed relieved as they fixed on me. The doctor had arrived, a ray of hope where there was none.

He muttered in the truncated sentences of a mind fragmented, stunned, "I talked to her on the phone. Last night. She told me she'd be home around twelve-thirty, home from VMC, the ER. I got here, found the lights out, thought she'd already gone to bed. Then I went in there."

His voice rose, quivering, and he took a deep breath. "I went in there, in the bedroom."

His eyes were desperate and welling, and he was pleading with me. "Please. I don't want people looking at her, seeing her like that. Please. "I gently told him, "She has to be examined, Mr. Petersen."

A fist suddenly banged the top of the table in a startling outburst of rage. "I know!"

His eyes were wild. "But all of them, the police and everybody!"

His voice was shaking. "I know how it is! Reporters and everybody crawling all over the place. I don't want every son of a bitch and his brother staring at her!"

Marino didn't bat an eye. "Hey. I got a wife, too, Matt. I know where you're coming from, all right? You got my word she gets respect. The same respect I'd want if it was me sitting in your chair, okay?"

The sweet balm of lies.

The dead are defenseless, and the violation of this woman, like the others, had only begun. I knew it would not end until Lori Petersen was turned inside out, every inch of her photographed, and all of it on display for experts, the police, attorneys, judges and members of a jury to see. There would be thoughts, remarks about her physical attributes or lack of them. There would be sophomoric jokes and cynical asides as the victim, not the killer, went on trial, every aspect of her person and the way she lived, scrutinized, judged and, in some instances, degraded.

A violent death is a public event, and it was this facet of my profession that so rudely grated against my sensibilities. I did what I could to preserve the dignity of the victims. But there was little I could do after the person became a case number, a piece of evidence passed from hand to hand. Privacy is destroyed as completely as life.

Marino led me out of the kitchen, leaving the officer to continue questioning Petersen.

"Have you taken your pictures yet?" I asked.

"ID's in there now, dusting everything," he said, referring to the Identification section officers processing the scene. "I told 'em to give the body a wide berth."

We paused in the hallway.

On the walls were several nice watercolors and a collection of photographs depicting the husband's and the wife's respective graduating classes, and one artistic color shot of the young couple leaning against weathered piling before a backdrop of the beach, the legs of their trousers rolled up to their calves, the wind ruffling their hair, their faces ruddy from the sun. She was pretty in life, blond, with delicate features and an engaging smile. She went to Brown, then to Harvard for medical school. Her husband's undergraduate years were spent at Harvard. This was where they must have met, and apparently he was younger than she.

She. Lori Petersen. Brown. Harvard. Brilliant. Thirty years old. About to have it all realized, her dream. After eight grueling years, at least, of medical training. A physician. All of it destroyed in a few minutes of a stranger's aberrant pleasure.

Marino touched my elbow.

I turned away from the photographs as he directed my attention to the open doorway just ahead on the left.

"Here's how he got in," he said.

It was a small room with a white tile floor and walls papered in Williamsburg blue. There was a toilet and a lavatory, and a straw clothes hamper. The window above the toilet was open wide, a square of blackness through which cool, moist air seeped and stirred the starchy white curtains. Beyond, in the dark, dense trees, cicadas were tensely sawing.

"The screen's cut." Marino's face was expressionless as he glanced at me. "It's leaning against the back of the house. Right under the window's a picnic table bench. Appears he pulled it up so he could climb in."

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