Authors: Tess Gerritsen
“It’s just the shell of the crate,” said Dr. Brier.
Maura glanced at Robinson and saw that his lips were pressed together in thin lines. Would Madam X turn out to be nothing more than an empty bundle of rags? Dr. Pulcillo stood beside him, looking just as tense, gripping the back of the radiologist’s chair as she stared over his shoulder, awaiting a glimpse of anything recognizably human, anything to confirm that inside those bandages was a cadaver.
The next image changed everything. It was a startlingly bright disk, and the instant it appeared, the observers all took in a sharply simultaneous breath.
Dr. Brier said, “That’s the top of the cranium. Congratulations, you’ve definitely got an occupant in there.”
Robinson and Pulcillo gave each other happy claps on the back. “This is what we were waiting for!” he said.
Pulcillo grinned. “Now we can finish building that exhibit.”
“Mummies!” Robinson threw his head back and laughed. “Everyone loves mummies!”
New slices appeared on the screen, and their attention snapped back to the monitor as more of the cranium appeared, its cavity filled not with brain matter but with ropy strands that looked like a knot of worms.
“Those are linen strips,” Dr. Pulcillo murmured in wonder, as though this was the most beautiful sight she’d ever seen.
“There’s no brain matter,” said the CT tech.
“No, the brain was usually evacuated.”
“Is it true they’d stick a hook up through the nose and yank the brain out that way?” the tech asked.
“Almost true. You can’t really yank out the brain, because it’s too soft. They probably used an instrument to whisk it around until it was liquefied. Then they’d tilt the body so the brain would drip out the nose.”
“Oh man, that’s gross,” said the tech. But he was hanging on Pulcillo’s every word.
“They might leave the cranium empty or they might pack it with linen strips, as you see here. And frankincense.”
frankincense, anyway? I’ve always wondered about that.”
“A fragrant resin. It comes from a very special tree in Africa. Valued quite highly in the ancient world.”
“So that’s why one of the three wise men brought it to Bethlehem.”
Dr. Pulcillo nodded. “It would have been a treasured gift.”
“Okay,” Dr. Brier said. “We’ve moved below the level of the orbits. There you can see the upper jaw, and…” He paused, frowning at an unexpected density.
Robinson murmured, “Oh my goodness.”
“It’s something metallic,” said Dr. Brier. “It’s in the oral cavity.”
“It could be gold leaf,” said Pulcillo. “In the Greco-Roman era, they’d sometimes place gold-leaf tongues inside the mouth.”
Robinson turned to the TV camera, which was recording every remark. “There appears to be metal inside the mouth. That would correlate with our presumptive date during the Greco-Roman era—”
“Now what is
?” exclaimed Dr. Brier.
Maura’s gaze shot back to the computer screen. A bright starburst had appeared within the mummy’s lower jaw, an image that stunned Maura because it should not have been present in a corpse that was two thousand years old. She leaned closer, staring at a detail that would scarcely cause comment were this a body that had arrived fresh on the autopsy table. “I know this is impossible,” Maura said softly. “But you know what that looks like?”
The radiologist nodded. “It appears to be a dental filling.”
Maura turned to Dr. Robinson, who appeared just as startled as everyone else in the room. “Has anything like this ever been described in an Egyptian mummy before?” she asked. “Ancient dental repairs that could be mistaken for modern fillings?”
Wide-eyed, he shook his head. “But it doesn’t mean the Egyptians were incapable of it. Their medical care was the most advanced in the ancient world.” He looked at his colleague. “Josephine, what can you tell us about this? It’s your field.”
Dr. Pulcillo struggled for an answer. “There—there are medical papyri from the Old Kingdom,” she said. “They describe how to fix loose teeth and make dental bridges. And there was a healer who was famous as a maker of teeth. So we know they were ingenious when it came to dental care. Far ahead of their time.”
“But did they ever make repairs like
?” said Maura, pointing to the screen.
Dr. Pulcillo’s troubled gaze returned to the image. “If they did,” she said softly, “I’m not aware of it.”
On the monitor, new images appeared in shades of gray, the body viewed in cross section as though sliced through by a bread knife. She could be bombarded by X-rays from every angle, subjected to massive doses of radiation, but this patient was beyond fears of cancer, beyond worries about side effects. As X-rays continued to assault her body, no patient could have been more submissive.
Shaken by the earlier images, Robinson was now arched forward like a tightly strung bow, alert for the next surprise. The first slices of the thorax appeared, the cavity black and vacant.
“It appears that the lungs were removed,” the radiologist said.
“All I see is a shriveled bit of mediastinum in the chest.”
“That’s the heart,” said Pulcillo, her voice steadier now. This, at least, was what she’d expected to see. “They always tried to leave it in situ.”
“Just the heart?”
She nodded. “It was considered the seat of intelligence, so you never separated it from the body. There are three separate spells contained in the Book of the Dead to ensure that the heart remains in place.”
“And the other organs?” asked the CT tech. “I heard those were put in special jars.”
“That was before the Twenty-first Dynasty. After around a thousand
, the organs were wrapped into four bundles and stuffed back into the body.”
“So we should be able to see that?”
“In a mummy from the Ptolemaic era, yes.”
“I think I can make an educated guess about her age when she died,” said the radiologist. “The wisdom teeth were fully erupted, and the cranial sutures are closed. But I don’t see any degenerative changes in the spine.”
“A young adult,” said Maura.
“Probably under thirty-five.”
“In the era she lived in, thirty-five was well into middle age,” said Robinson.
The scan had moved below the thorax, X-rays slicing through layers of wrappings, through the shell of dried skin and bones, to reveal the abdominal cavity. What Maura saw within was eerily unfamiliar, as strange to her as an alien autopsy. Where she expected to see liver and spleen, stomach and pancreas, instead she saw snake-like coils of linen, an interior landscape that was missing all that should have been recognizable. Only the bright knobs of vertebral bone told her this was indeed a human body, a body that had been hollowed out to a mere shell and stuffed like a rag doll.
Mummy anatomy might be alien to her, but for both Robinson and Pulcillo this was familiar territory. As new images appeared, they both leaned in, pointing out details they recognized.
“There,” said Robinson. “Those are the four linen packets containing the organs.”
“Okay, we’re now in the pelvis,” Dr. Brier said. He pointed to two pale arcs. They were the top edges of the iliac crests.
Slice by slice, the pelvis slowly took shape, as the computer compiled and rendered countless X-ray beams. It was a digital striptease as each image revealed a tantalizing new peek.
“Look at the shape of the pelvic inlet,” said Dr. Brier.
“It’s a female,” said Maura.
The radiologist nodded. “I’d say it’s pretty conclusive.” He turned and grinned at the two archaeologists. “You can now officially call her Madam X. And not
“And look at the pubic symphysis,” said Maura, still focused on the monitor. “There’s no separation.”
Brier nodded. “I agree.”
“What does that mean?” asked Robinson.
Maura explained. “During childbirth, the infant’s passage through the pelvic inlet can actually force apart the pubic bones, where they join at the symphysis. It appears this female never had children.”
The CT tech laughed. “Your mummy’s never been a mommy.”
The scan had moved beyond the pelvis, and they could now see cross sections of the two femurs encased in the withered flesh of the upper thighs.
“Nick, we need to call Simon,” said Pulcillo. “He’s probably waiting by the phone.”
“Oh gosh, I completely forgot.” Robinson pulled out his cell phone and dialed his boss. “Simon, guess what I’m looking at right now? Yes, she’s gorgeous. Plus, we’ve discovered a few surprises, so the press conference is going to be quite the—” In an instant he fell silent, his gaze frozen on the screen.
“What the hell?” blurted the CT tech.
The image now glowing on the monitor was so unexpected that the room had fallen completely still. Were a living patient lying on the CT table, Maura would have had no difficulty identifying the small metallic object embedded in the calf, an object that had shattered the slender shaft of the fibula. But that bit of metal did not belong in Madam X’s leg.
A bullet did not belong in Madam X’s millennium.
“Is that what I think it is?” said the CT tech.
Robinson shook his head. “It has to be postmortem damage. What else could it be?”
“I’ll—I’ll call you back, Simon.” Robinson disconnected his cell phone. Turning to the cameraman, he ordered: “Shut it off. Please shut it off
” He took a deep breath. “All right. All right, let’s—let’s approach this logically.” He straightened, gaining confidence as an obvious explanation occurred to him. “Mummies have often been abused or damaged by souvenir hunters. Obviously, someone fired a bullet into the mummy. And a conservator later tried to repair that damage by rewrapping her. That’s why we saw no entry hole in the bandages.”
“That isn’t what happened,” said Maura.
Robinson blinked. “What do you mean? That has to be the explanation.”
“The damage to that leg wasn’t postmortem. It happened while this woman was still alive.”
“I’m afraid Dr. Isles is right,” said the radiologist. He looked at Maura. “You’re referring to the early callus formation around the fracture site?”
“What does that mean?” asked Robinson. “Callus formation?”
“It means the broken bone had already started the process of healing when this woman died. She lived at least a few weeks after the injury.”
Maura turned to the curator. “Where did this mummy come from?”
Robinson’s glasses had slipped down his nose yet again, and he stared over the lenses as though hypnotized by what he saw glowing in the mummy’s leg.
It was Dr. Pulcillo who answered the question, her voice barely a whisper. “It was in the museum basement. Nick—Dr. Robinson found it back in January.”
“And how did the museum obtain it?”
Pulcillo shook her head. “We don’t know.”
“There must be records. Something in your files to indicate where she came from.”
“There are none for her,” said Robinson, at last finding his voice. “The Crispin Museum is a hundred thirty years old, and many records are missing. We have no idea how long she was stored in the basement.”
“How did you happen to find her?”
Even in that air-conditioned room, sweat had broken out on Dr. Robinson’s pale face. “After I was hired three years ago, I began an inventory of the collection. That’s how I came across her. She was in an unlabeled crate.”
“And that didn’t surprise you? To find something as rare as an Egyptian mummy in an unlabeled crate?”
all that rare. In the 1800s, you could buy one in Egypt for only five dollars, so American tourists brought them home by the hundreds. They turn up in attics and antiques stores. A freak show in Niagara Falls even claims they had King Ramses the First in their collection. So it’s not all that surprising that we’d find a mummy in our museum.”
“Dr. Isles?” said the radiologist. “We’ve got the scout film. You might want to take a look at it.”
Maura turned to the monitor. Displayed on the screen was a conventional X-ray like the films she hung on her own viewing box in the morgue. She did not need a radiologist to interpret what she saw there.
“There’s not much doubt about it now,” said Dr. Brier.
No. There’s no doubt whatsoever. That’s a bullet in the leg.
Maura pulled out her cell phone.
“Dr. Isles?” said Robinson. “Whom are you calling?”
“I’m arranging for transport to the morgue,” she said. “Madam X is now a medical examiner’s case.”
“Is it just my imagination,” said Detective Barry Frost, “or do you and I catch all the weird ones?”
Madam X was definitely one of the weird ones, thought Detective Jane Rizzoli as she drove past TV news vans and turned into the parking lot of the medical examiner’s building. It was only eight
, and already the hyenas were yapping, ravenous for details of the ultimate cold case—a case that Jane had greeted with skeptical laughter when Maura had phoned last night. The sight of the news vans made Jane realize that maybe it was time to get serious, time to consider the possibility that this was not, after all, some elaborate practical joke being played on her by the singularly humorless medical examiner.
She pulled into a parking space and sat eyeing the vans, wondering how many more cameras would be waiting out here when she and Frost came back out of the building.
“At least this one shouldn’t smell bad,” Jane said.
“But mummies can give you diseases, you know.”
Jane turned to her partner, whose pale and boyish face looked genuinely worried. “What diseases?” she asked.
“Since Alice has been away, I’ve been watching a lot of TV. Last night I saw this show on the Discovery Channel, about mummies that carry these spores.”
“Ooh. Scary spores.”
“It’s no joke,” he insisted. “They can make you sick.”
“Geez, I hope Alice gets home soon. You’re getting overdosed on the Discovery Channel.”
They stepped out of the car into cloying humidity that made Jane’s already unruly dark hair spring into frizzy waves. During her four years as a homicide detective, she had made this walk into the medical examiner’s building many times, slip-sliding across ice in January, dashing through rain in March, and slogging across pavement as hot as ash in August. These few dozen paces were familiar to her, as was the grim destination. She’d believed this walk would become easier over time, that one day she’d feel immune to any horrors the stainless-steel table might serve up. But since her daughter Regina’s birth a year ago, death held more terror for her than it ever had before. Motherhood didn’t make you stronger; it made you vulnerable and afraid of what death could steal from you.
Today, though, the subject waiting in the morgue inspired fascination, not horror. When Jane stepped into the autopsy suite anteroom, she crossed straight to the window, eager for her first glimpse of the subject on the table.
The Boston Globe
had called the mummy, a catchy moniker that conjured up a vision of sultry beauty, a Cleopatra with dark eyes. Jane saw a dried-out husk wrapped in rags.
“She looks like a human tamale,” said Jane.
“Who’s the girl?” asked Frost, staring through the window.
There were two people in the room whom Jane did not recognize. The man was tall and gangly, professorial glasses perched on his nose. The young woman was a petite brunette wearing blue jeans beneath an autopsy gown. “Those must be the museum archaeologists. They were both going to be here.”
an archaeologist? Wow.”
Jane gave him an annoyed jab with her elbow. “Alice leaves town for a few weeks, and you forget you’re a married man.”
“I just never pictured an archaeologist looking as hot as her.”
They pulled on shoe covers and autopsy gowns and pushed into the lab.
“Hey, Doc,” said Jane. “Is this really one for us?”
Maura turned from the light box, and her gaze, as usual, was dead serious. While the other pathologists might crack jokes or toss out ironic comments over the autopsy table, it was rare to hear Maura so much as laugh in the presence of the dead. “We’re about to find out.” She introduced the pair Jane had seen through the window. “This is the curator, Dr. Nicholas Robinson. And his colleague, Dr. Josephine Pulcillo.”
“You’re both with the Crispin Museum?” asked Jane.
“And they’re very unhappy about what I’m planning to do here,” said Maura.
“It’s destructive,” said Robinson. “There has to be some other way to get this information besides cutting her open.”
“That’s why I wanted you to be here, Dr. Robinson,” said Maura. “To help me minimize the damage. The last thing I want to do is destroy an antiquity.”
“I thought the CT scan last night clearly showed a bullet,” said Jane.
“Those are the X-rays we shot this morning,” said Maura, pointing to the light box. “What do you think?”
Jane approached the display and studied the films clipped there. Glowing within the right calf was what certainly looked to her like a bullet. “Yeah, I can see why this might’ve freaked you out last night.”
“I did not
Jane laughed. “You were as close to it as I’ve ever heard you.”
“I admit, I was damn shocked when I saw it. We all were.” Maura pointed to the bones of the right lower leg. “Notice how the fibula’s been fractured, presumably by this projectile.”
“You said it happened while she was still alive?”
“You can see early callus formation. This bone was in the process of healing when she died.”
“But her wrappings are two thousand years old,” said Dr. Robinson. “We’ve confirmed it.”
Jane stared hard at the X-ray, struggling to come up with a logical explanation for what they were looking at. “Maybe this isn’t a bullet. Maybe it’s some sort of ancient metal thingie. A spear tip or something.”
“That is not a spear tip, Jane,” said Maura. “It’s a bullet.”
“Then dig it out. Prove it to me.”
“And if I do?”
“Then we have a hell of a mind bender, don’t we? I mean, what are the possible explanations here?”
“You know what Alice said when I called her about it last night?” Frost said. “‘Time travel.’ That was the first thing she thought.”
Jane laughed. “Since when did Alice go woo-woo on you?”
“It’s theoretically possible, you know, to travel back in time,” he said. “Bring a gun back to ancient Egypt.”
Maura cut in impatiently: “Can we stick to real possibilities here?”
Jane frowned at the bright chunk of metal that looked like so many she had seen before glowing in countless X-rays of lifeless limbs and shattered skulls. “I’m having trouble coming up with any of those,” she said. “So why don’t you just cut her open and see what that metal thing is? Maybe these archaeologists are right. Maybe you’re jumping to conclusions, Doc.”
Robinson said, “As curator, it’s my duty to protect her and not let her be mindlessly ripped apart. Can you at least limit the damage to the relevant area?”
Maura nodded. “That’s a reasonable approach.” She moved to the table. “Let’s turn her over. If there’s an entrance wound, it will be in the right calf.”
“It’s best if we work together,” said Robinson. He went to the head, and Pulcillo moved to the feet. “We need to support the whole body and not put strain on any part of her. So if four of us could pitch in?”
Maura slipped gloved hands beneath the shoulders and said, “Detective Frost, could you support the hips?”
Frost hesitated, eyeing the stained linen wrappings. “Shouldn’t we put on masks or something?”
“We’re just turning her over,” said Maura.
“I’ve heard they carry diseases. You breathe in these spores and you get pneumonia.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Jane. She snapped on gloves and stepped up to the table. Sliding her hands beneath the mummy’s hips, she said: “I’m ready.”
“Okay, lift,” said Robinson. “Now rotate her. That’s it…”
“Wow, she hardly weighs anything,” said Jane.
“A living human body’s mostly water. Remove the organs, dry out the carcass, and you end up with just a fraction of its former weight. She probably weighs only around fifty pounds, wrappings and all.”
“Kind of like beef jerky, huh?”
“That’s exactly what she is. Human jerky. Now let’s ease her down. Gently.”
“You know, I wasn’t kidding about the spores,” said Frost. “I saw this show.”
“Are you talking about the King Tut curse?” said Maura.
“Yeah,” said Frost. “
what I’m talking about! All those people who died after they went into his tomb. They breathed in some kind of spores and got sick.”
“Aspergillus,” said Robinson. “When Howard Carter’s team disturbed the tomb, they probably breathed in spores that had collected inside over the centuries. Some of them came down with fatal cases of aspergillus pneumonia.”
“So Frost isn’t just bullshitting?” said Jane. “There really was a mummy’s curse?”
Annoyance flashed in Robinson’s eyes. “Of course there was no curse. Yes, a few people died, but after what Carter and his team did to poor Tutankhamen, maybe there
have been a curse.”
“What did they do to him?” asked Jane.
“They brutalized him. They sliced him open, broke his bones, and essentially tore him apart in the search for jewels and amulets. They cut him up in pieces to get him out of the coffin, pulling off his arms and legs. They severed his head. It wasn’t science. It was desecration.” He looked down at Madam X, and Jane saw admiration, even affection in his gaze. “We don’t want the same thing to happen to her.”
“The last thing I want to do is mangle her,” said Maura. “So let’s unwrap her just enough to find out what we’re dealing with here.”
“You probably won’t be able to just unwrap her,” said Robinson. “If the inner strips were soaked in resin, as per tradition, they’ll be stuck together as solid as glue.”
Maura turned to the X-ray for one more look, then reached for a scalpel and tweezers. Jane had watched Maura slice other bodies, but never before had she seen her hesitate so long, her blade hovering over the calf as though afraid to make the first cut. What they were about to do would forever damage Madam X, and Drs. Robinson and Pulcillo both were watching with outright disapproval in their eyes.
Maura made the first cut. This was not the usual confident slice into flesh. Instead, she used the tweezers to delicately lift the band of linen so that her blade slit through successive layers of fabric, strip by strip. “It’s peeling away quite easily,” she said.
Dr. Pulcillo frowned. “This isn’t traditional. Normally the bandages would be doused in molten resin. In the 1830s, when they unwrapped mummies, they sometimes had to pry the bandages off.”
“What was the point of the resin, anyway?” asked Frost.
“To make the wrappings stick together. It gave them rigidity, like making a papier-mâché container to protect the contents.”
“I’m already through the final layer,” Maura said. “There’s no resin adhering to any of this.”
Jane craned forward to catch a glimpse of what lay under the wrapping. “That’s her skin? It looks like old leather.”
“Dried skin is precisely what leather is, Detective Rizzoli,” said Robinson. “In a way.”
Maura reached for the scissors and gingerly snipped away the strips, exposing a larger patch of skin. It looked like brown parchment wrapped around bones. She glanced, once again, at the X-ray, and swung a magnifier over the calf. “I can’t find any entry hole in the skin.”
“So the wound’s not postmortem,” said Jane.
“It goes along with what we see on that X-ray. That foreign body was probably introduced while she was still alive. She lived long enough for the fractured bone to start mending. For the wound to close over.”
“How long would that take?”
“A few weeks. Perhaps a month.”
“Someone would have to care for her during that time, right? She’d have to be fed and sheltered.”
Maura nodded. “This makes the manner of death all the more difficult to determine.”
Robinson asked, “Manner of death? What do you mean?”
“In other words,” said Jane, “we’re wondering if she was murdered.”
“Let’s settle the most pressing issue first.” Maura reached for the knife. Mummification had toughened the tissues to the consistency of leather, and the blade did not cut easily into the withered flesh.
Glancing across the table, Jane saw Dr. Pulcillo’s lips tighten, as though to stifle a protest. But as much as she might object to the procedure, the woman could not look away. They all leaned in, even spore-phobic Frost, their attention glued to that exposed patch of leg as Maura picked up forceps and plunged the tips into the incision. It took only seconds of digging around in the shriveled flesh before the teeth of the forceps clamped down on the prize. Maura dropped it onto a steel tray, and it gave a metallic clang.
Dr. Pulcillo sucked in a sharp breath. This was no spear tip, no broken bit of knife blade.
Maura finally stated the obvious. “I think we can now safely say that Madam X is not two thousand years old.”