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They have kept the heart of her child... They have accused her of murder... Angels of mercy...or the devil in disguise? Who owns your body, anyway?
Lynn Hightower's novels have tackled such diverse subjects as female serial killers and lethal debt collectors. Now, in her most explosive and controversial thriller to date, she exposes the hidden secrets of hospital pathology labs, the darkest mysteries of motherhood, and the most unthinkable crime of all.
Private investigator Lena Padgett has been approached by a single mother with a stunning tale to tell. Emma Marsden, still grieving over the death of her infant son from an inexplicable illness, has been dealt another devastating blow. Her pediatrician, Theodore Tundridge, has accused Emma of poisoning her son in a psychotic bid for attention. Emma wants to counter his charges by accusing Tundridge of keeping a shocking chamber of horrors in his pathology lab -- all the more frightening because it is entirely legal. Lena agrees to take on Emma's case and uncovers other suspicious deaths under the doctor's care. But when a secretly taped video incriminates Emma in the most intimate of ways -- and Emma's teenage daughter disappears -- even Lena isn't prepared for where the truth will take her.
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Lynn Hightower's previous novels include Fortunes of the Dead, High Water, and the Shamus Award winner Satan's Lambs. She studied creative writing with Wendell Berry at the University of Kentucky and holds a degree in journalism. She lives in the South.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I have often thought that my sister knew she was going to die. I don't mean that she had psychic dreams; I don't mean she was pessimistic. I think she evaluated the odds of her situation, and, in her heart and her mind, she had faced the outcome. Whitney was seven months pregnant when my ex-brother-in-law killed her, my little nephew, and, by default, my unborn niece.
Whitney always knew how dangerous Jeff was -- after she married him, she knew. Yet she had one child with him and conceived a second. There were times, many times, when I wanted to strangle her for this stupidity. Easy for me, on the outside looking in. When Whitney looked at Jeff, she saw the person he could be; she saw the best in him. And when she realized (finally, and much too late) that everything good about Jeff was heavily outweighed by everything bad, she cut him out of her life.
But she always knew that the odds of keeping him out weren't so very good. My sister knew that she might not win, but knowing that never seemed to make a difference. She didn't have to know that she would win before she did what she knew was right. That's brave. It's powerful, too. It means you are free and clear of the kind of manipulations that can sear your soul.
Emma Marsden was like that. She was a lot like my sister in other ways too. She had that same inner vibrancy, a tuned piano full of music. She was ready for the next thing, a wary half smile on her lips, and in her eyes you could see that she was expecting something interesting to happen.
Her likeness to my sister made me vulnerable to her, according to my one and only, Joel Mendez. It was what made me believe in her. It was what made me work for her, and stick with her, when the rest of the world was ready to burn her at the stake.
But I think Emma Marsden brought out the best in me, because to me, Emma Marsden was like that elusive Christmas back home when everything goes right. Just being around her eased the nostalgic homesickness those of us who have lost family always carry in our souls. I guess because she was so much like my sister.
It's all about taking sides. Life, I mean. That's what it comes to if you're honest. Right, wrong, revenge, forgiveness...you take a stand. That's what Emma Marsden did. She took her daughter's side. Everything she did was for Blaine, her fifteen-year-old girl. Even when Blaine lost her way. Maybe that's why women are so much better at taking sides than men are. Maybe it plays on the nurturing and mothering instinct -- my child first, no matter what.
Which is why, when I met her, Emma Marsden's life was a nightmare. Because she'd been accused of Munchausen by proxy, which, as you know, from watching those television movies of the week that you refuse to admit you watch, means a mother is so reprehensible, and so disturbed, that she will make her own child sick in order to get attention for herself.
I can imagine the hell a parent goes through when they lose a child. But I have no children of my own, so I can only imagine it. To be accused of killing that child, for motives of personal narcissism, was, according to Emma herself, the tenth circle of hell that is reserved for women who have the temerity to thwart the medical system.
The first time I met Emma Marsden was in the Main Street office of her attorney and ex-husband, Clayton Roubideaux. It was a small office, behind a brown door in a townhouse-style building. Roubideaux clearly kept an eye on the overhead. He may have been one of the most successful litigators in Lexington, Kentucky, but there were none of the oversized conference rooms, heavy mahogany furniture, or hushed discomfort you find in large law firms where billable hours are considered an art form.
No ankle-deep carpeting -- a status symbol of the past, along with the office fireplace in the center of the room. None of the shiny new hardwood floors preferred by the edgy firms in entertainment law, none of the creaky old wood floors found in the hallowed halls where the business of making money is sometimes confused with social significance.
Roubideaux's office had Berber carpet, the wealthy man's form of indoor/outdoor: practical, pricey, ugly. The front desk was small and the receptionist clearly limited to answering the telephone. Marsden worked with two other attorneys, and there were no cubicles or horseshoe work areas for legal secretaries, researchers, paralegals, or the amazing and generally underpaid legal creature who does all of the above.
There was a receptionist, aged twenty or twenty-two, and as it was five fifteen and Friday she was happily putting away the pencil that was the only clutter on the tiny oak desk behind the kind of partition one usually finds in a small doctor's office or veterinary clinic. She pointed me to a small hallway on her way out the door. I followed the sound of a man and woman who were laughing in the way people do when they are in a waiting room somewhere, anxious about the appointment ahead, and trying to keep their spirits up.
I understood from Clayton himself that he and his wife -- ex-wife -- hadn't been divorced that long. A year at most. I was wary about being in the office with the two of them, but the only tension I could sense arose when I walked through the door. I wasn't used to being dreaded.
Clayton Roubideaux stood up the minute he saw me, but the first person I noticed was Emma Marsden, who sat with her legs crossed in a high-backed maroon chair. She wore blue jeans and a black sweater and worn, dirty Nikes. We were dressed just alike, except I wore high-topped Reeboks, which were white and new. Her hair was clean, but pulled back in a rubber band, and she hadn't bothered with makeup. She looked like she hadn't had a good night's sleep since the last presidential election. Many of us hadn't.
Emma Marsden was thirty-seven years old, and her hair was already threaded with gray. Her forehead was ridged with worry wrinkles that were startling but not unattractive on such a young face. She had the look of a woman who has forgotten how to be beautiful.
She looked at me over her shoulder, steadily, without smiling. Her ex-husband, already on his feet and waiting for my attention, shook my hand across the oak veneer desk.
"Lena Padget? Clayton Roubideaux." His grip was firm, his smile toothy. "This is my wife...ex-wife, I mean. Emma."
Her hand was ice cold, fingers slim, nails cut short, a tall woman whose hand dwarfed my own.
"Please, sit down," Roubideaux said.
I took the other wingback chair and sat all the way back in the cushion so that my feet did not quite touch the floor. I didn't feel ridiculous. I'm used to my height, and the posture had exactly the effect I wanted. Emma Marsden smiled and loosened up, settling back in her own chair. She wasn't rude enough to laugh out loud, but the vision of me with my feet dangling over the edge of the seat clearly amused her.
"We appreciate you coming in after business hours," Clayton said.
I nodded. Why lose credit by explaining that I set my own business hours, that I had slept late that morning and had plenty of time to drink coffee, read USA Today, and peel the threadbare indoor/outdoor carpet away from half of the little screened-in porch in the cottage I shared with my significant other?
The old carpet had been evocative of many faded but die-hard layers of ancient cat urine, an odor that is as hard to kill as a cockroach, although it does not run away. But I had soaked in my claw-foot tub, and changed to clean jeans and another of the black sweaters that make up a significant portion of my wardrobe. I was clean and crisp and smelled only of the vanilla lotion I buy from Bath and Body Works. I was ready to go to work.
Clayton Marsden looked at his ex-wife, who looked back at him. "Emma, do you want to start, or do you just want to interrupt me later?"
"Go ahead," she said.
She had an interesting voice, a little scratchy, like she was recovering from laryngitis.
Roubideaux looked at me. "Lena, do you have any children?"
"I have a cat."
He didn't smile. Neither one of them did. Cats, clearly, did not count, although I was not being flip, and I absolutely love my cat.
"Emma and I had one child together. She also has an older daughter. Her youngest child, our son, died two years ago, while being treated by Dr. Theodore Tundridge at Fayette Hospital. Tundridge is a pediatrician and the director of the Tundridge Children's Clinic."
Clayton and Emma exchanged looks.
The faint music of "La Bamba" drifted into the room from somewhere, the hallway maybe.
"How old was your son when he died?"
"Right at two and a half."
A toddler, I thought. "What did he die of?"
Emma Marsden looked at her feet, and Clayton ran a finger along the edge of his desk. Their silence interested me.
"His liver failed," Clayton said.
Neither of them met my eyes, but pain seeped like acid through their self-containment. They weren't looking for sympathy, they were looking for help. They were looking for somebody to be on their side.
I wondered why they wanted me.
Marsden leaned back in his chair and placed his fingertips along the edge of his desk. He seemed absorbed in placing those fingertips in some kind of preordained and essential alignment, and to manage this he wasn't able to look at me while he talked.
"I don't know if you know this, Ms.... Lena. But in this day and age, if you give permission to have an autopsy performed on a family member who dies in a hospital, or if, as in the case of our son, an autopsy is required, that's pretty much license to plunder."
He looked at me.
I looked back. "What exactly do you mean by that? Plunder?"
Emma Marsden faced me. "What it means is that they stole my son's internal organs; kept some of them for research, and donated others for profit."
"Technically, it's not for profit," Clayton said.
Emma looked at him the way I had looked at the urine-scented carpet on my screened-in porch. "Their 'fee,' my dear ex-husband, is simply a non-profit way of saying profit. Creative accounting. The not-fo...
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