Authors: Tess Gerritsen
“I don’t understand,” Dr. Pulcillo murmured. “The linen was analyzed. The carbon dating confirmed the age.”
“But that’s a bullet,” said Jane, pointing to the tray. “A twenty-two. Your analysis was all screwed up.”
“It’s a well-respected lab! They were certain about the date.”
“You could both be right,” said Robinson quietly.
“Yeah?” Jane looked at him. “I’d like to know how.”
He took a deep breath and stepped back from the table, as though needing the space to think. “I see it come up for sale from time to time. I don’t know how
of it is genuine, but I’m sure there are caches of the real thing out there on the antiquities market.”
“Mummy wrappings. They’re easier to find than the bodies themselves. I’ve seen them on eBay.”
Jane gave a startled laugh. “You can go online and buy mummy wrappings?”
“There was once a thriving international trade in mummies. They were ground up and used as medicines. Carted off to England for fertilizer. Wealthy tourists brought them home and held unwrapping parties. You’d invite your friends over to watch while you peeled away the linen. Since amulets and jewels were often among the wrappings, it was sort of like a treasure hunt, uncovering little trinkets for your guests.”
“That was entertainment?” said Frost. “Unwrapping a corpse?”
“It was done in some of the finest Victorian homes,” Robinson said. “It goes to show you how little regard they had for the dead of Egypt. And when they’d finish unwrapping the corpse, it would be disposed of or burned. But the wrappings were often kept as souvenirs. That’s why you still find stashes of them for sale.”
“So these wrappings
be ancient,” said Frost, “even if the body isn’t.”
“It would explain the carbon fourteen dating. But as for Madam X herself…” Robinson shook his head in bewilderment.
“We still can’t prove this was homicide,” said Frost. “You can’t convict someone based on a gunshot wound that was already healing.”
“I kind of doubt she volunteered for mummification,” said Jane.
“Actually,” said Robinson, “it’s possible that she did.”
Everyone turned to stare at the curator, who looked perfectly serious.
“Volunteer to have her brains and organs ripped out?” said Jane. “No, thanks.”
bequeathed their bodies for precisely that purpose.”
“Hey, I saw that show, too,” said Frost. “Another one on Discovery Channel. Some archaeologist actually mummified a guy.”
Jane stared down at the wrapped cadaver. She imagined being encased in layer after layer of smothering bandages. Being bound in a linen straitjacket for a thousand, two thousand years, until a day when some curious archaeologist would decide to strip away the cloth and reveal her shriveled remains. Not dust to dust, but flesh to leather. She swallowed. “Why would anyone volunteer for that?”
“It’s a type of immortality, don’t you think?” said Robinson.
“An alternative to rotting away. Your body preserved. Those who love you never have to surrender you to decay.”
Those who love you.
Jane glanced up. “You’re saying this could have been an act of affection?”
“It would be a way to hold on to someone you love. To keep them safe from the worms. From rotting.”
The way of all flesh, thought Jane, and the temperature in the room suddenly seemed to plummet. “Maybe it’s not about love at all. Maybe it’s about ownership.”
Robinson met her gaze, clearly unsettled by that possibility. He said softly: “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
Jane turned to Maura. “Let’s get on with the autopsy, Doc. We need more information to work with.”
Maura crossed to the light box, removed the leg X-rays, and replaced them with the CT scan films. “Let’s turn her onto her back again.”
This time, as Maura cut through the linen strips covering the torso, she wasted no effort on preservation. They now knew this was no ancient cadaver she was cutting into; this was a death investigation, and the answers lay not in the linen strips but in the flesh and bone itself. The cloth parted, revealing the torso’s brown and shrunken skin through which the outlines of ribs were visible, arching up in a bony vault beneath its parchment tent. Moving toward the head, Maura pried off the painted cartonnage mask and began to snip at the strips covering the face.
Jane looked at the CT films hanging on the light box, then frowned at the exposed torso. “The organs are all taken out during mummification, right?”
Robinson nodded. “Removal of the viscera slows down the process of putrefaction. It’s one of the reasons the bodies don’t decay.”
“But there’s only one little wound on the belly.” Jane pointed to a small incision on the left, sewn closed by ungainly stitches.
“How do you get everything out through that opening?”
“That’s exactly how the Egyptians would have removed the viscera. Through a small wound on the left side. Whoever preserved this body was familiar with the ancient methods. And clearly adhered to them.”
these ancient methods? How, exactly, do you make a mummy?” asked Jane.
Dr. Robinson looked at his associate. “Josephine knows more about it than I do. Maybe she’ll explain it.”
“Dr. Pulcillo?” said Jane.
The young woman still looked shaken by the discovery of the bullet. She cleared her throat and straightened. “A large part of what we know comes down to us from Herodotus,” she said. “I guess you could call him a Greek travel writer. Twenty-five hundred years ago, he roamed the ancient world and recorded what he learned. The problem is, he was known to get details wrong. Or get snookered by the local tour guides.” She managed a smile. “It makes him seem human, doesn’t it? He was like any tourist in Egypt today. Probably hounded by trinket sellers. Duped by crooked tour guides. Just another innocent abroad.”
“What did he say about making mummies?”
“He was told that it all starts with a ritual washing of the corpse in dissolved natron.”
“It’s essentially a mixture of salts. You can reproduce it by blending plain old table salt and baking soda.”
“Baking soda?” Jane gave an uneasy laugh. “I’ll never look at a box of Arm and Hammer the same way again.”
“The washed body is then laid out on wooden blocks,” Pulcillo continued. “They use a razor-sharp blade of Ethiopian stone—probably obsidian—to slice a small incision like the one you see here. Then, with some sort of hooked instrument, they pull out the organs, dragging them out through the hole. The empty cavity is rinsed, and they pack dry natron inside. Natron is poured over the body as well, to dehydrate it for forty days. Sort of like salting a fish.” She paused, staring as Maura’s scissors cut through the last strips covering the face.
“And then?” prodded Jane.
Pulcillo swallowed. “By then it’s lost about seventy-five percent of its weight. The cavity is stuffed with linen and resin. The mummified internal organs might be returned as well. And…” She stopped, her eyes widening as the final wrappings fell away from the head.
For the first time, they saw the face of Madam X.
Long black hair was still affixed to the scalp. The skin was stretched taut over prominent cheekbones. But it was the lips that made Jane recoil. They had been sewn together with crude stitches, as though joined by the tailor of Frankenstein’s monster.
Pulcillo shook her head. “That—that’s all wrong!”
“The mouth isn’t usually sewn shut?” asked Maura.
“No! How would you eat in the afterlife? How would you speak? This is like condemning her to eternal hunger. And eternal silence.”
Jane looked down at the ugly stitches and wondered: Did you say something to offend your killer? Did you speak back to him? Insult him? Testify against him? Is this your punishment, to have your lips bound together for eternity?
The corpse now lay fully revealed, her body stripped of all wrappings, her flesh little more than shriveled skin clinging to bones. Maura sliced into the torso.
Jane had witnessed Y-incisions before, and always before, she’d found herself recoiling from the odors as the blade first cut into the chest cavity. Even the freshest of corpses released a stench of decay, however faint, like the sulfurish scent of bad breath. Except that the subjects weren’t breathing. Dead breath was what Jane called it, and just a whiff of it could nauseate her.
But Madam X emitted no such sickening odors as the knife cut into her thorax, as Maura methodically snapped apart ribs, as the chest wall was lifted like an ancient breastplate to reveal the chest cavity. What wafted up was a not-unpleasant scent that reminded her of incense. Instead of backing away, Jane leaned closer and took a deeper whiff. Sandalwood, she thought. Camphor. And something else, something that reminded her of licorice and cloves.
“Now, this is not what I expected,” said Maura. She lifted a dried nugget of spice from the cavity.
“It looks like star anise,” said Jane.
“Not traditional, I take it?”
“Myrrh would be traditional,” said Pulcillo. “Melted resin. It was used to mask the stench and help stiffen the corpse.”
“Myrrh’s not exactly easy to obtain in large quantities,” said Robinson. “It might explain why substitute spices were used.”
“Substitute or not, this body looks very well preserved.” Maura pulled wads of linen from the abdomen and placed them in a basin for later inspection. Staring into the hollowed-out torso, she said, “It’s as dry as leather in here. And there’s no odor of decay.”
“So how will you figure out the cause of death?” asked Frost.
“With no organs?”
“I can’t. Not yet.”
He looked at the CT scan on the light box. “What about the head? There’s no brain, either.”
“The cranium’s intact. I didn’t see any fractures.”
Jane stared at the corpse’s mouth, at the crude stitches sewing the lips together, and she winced at the thought of a needle piercing tender flesh.
I hope it was done after death and not before. Not when she could feel it.
Shuddering, she turned to look at the CT scan.
“What’s this bright thing?” she said. “It looks like it’s in the mouth.”
“There are two metallic densities in her mouth,” said Maura.
“One appears to be a dental filling. But there’s also something in the oral cavity, something much larger. It may explain why her mouth was sewn shut—to secure that object in place.” She picked up scissors.
The suture material was not mere thread, but dried leather, the strips rock-hard. Even after she’d cut through them, the lips adhered together as though permanently frozen in place, the mouth a tight slit that would have to be pried open.
Maura introduced the tip of a hemostat between the lips, metal grating against teeth as she gently widened the opening. The jaw joint suddenly gave a shocking snap and Jane flinched as the mandible broke off. The lower jaw sagged open, revealing straight teeth that were so cosmetically perfect, any modern orthodontist would be proud to claim the alignment as his work.
“Let’s see what this thing is in her mouth,” said Maura. Reaching in with the hemostat, she pulled out an oblong-shaped gold coin, which she set on the steel tray, where it landed with a soft clang. They all stared in astonishment.
Jane suddenly burst out laughing. “Someone,” she said, “has a sick sense of humor.”
Stamped on the gold were words in English:
VISITED THE PYRAMIDS
Maura turned over the object. On the reverse side were three engraved symbols: an owl, a hand, and a bent arm.
“It’s a cartouche,” said Robinson. “A personal seal. They sell these souvenirs all over Egypt. Tell a jeweler your name, and he’ll translate it into hieroglyphs and engrave it right on the spot for you.”
“What do these symbols mean?” asked Frost. “I see an owl. Is that like a sign of wisdom or something?”
“No, these glyphs aren’t meant to be read as ideograms,” said Robinson.
“What’s an ideogram?”
“That’s a symbol that represents exactly what’s illustrated. For instance, a picture of a running man would mean the word
Or two fighting men would mean the word
“And that’s not what these are?”
“No, these symbols are phonograms. They represent sounds, like our own alphabet.”
“So what does it say?”
“This isn’t my area of expertise. Josephine can read it.” He turned to his colleague and suddenly frowned. “Are you feeling all right?”
The young woman had gone as pale as any corpse that had ever been stretched out on the morgue table. She stared at the cartouche as though she saw some undreamed-of horror in those symbols.
“Dr. Pulcillo?” said Frost.
She glanced up sharply, as though startled to hear her name.
“I’m fine,” she murmured.
“What about these hieroglyphs?” Jane asked. “Can you read them?”
Pulcillo’s gaze dropped back to the cartouche. “The owl—the owl is the equivalent of our
sound. And the little hand beneath it, that would sound like a
“And the arm?”
Pulcillo swallowed. “It’s pronounced like a broad
What kind of name is that?”
Robinson said, “Something like
maybe? That would be my guess.”
“Medea?” said Frost. “Isn’t there some Greek tragedy written about her?”
“It’s a tale of vengeance,” said Robinson. “According to the myth, Medea falls in love with Jason of the Argonauts, and they have two sons. When Jason leaves her for another woman, Medea retaliates by slaughtering her own sons and murdering her female rival. All to get back at Jason.”
“What happens to Medea?” asked Jane.
“There are various versions of the tale, but in them all, she escapes.”
“After killing her own kids?” Jane shook her head. “That’s a lousy ending, having her go free.”
“Perhaps that’s the point of the story: that some who commit evil never face justice.”