THE FIRST BODY IS A MYSTERY.
She’s young. She’s beautiful. And her corpse, laid out in the office of Boston medical examiner Kat Novak, betrays no secrets – except for a matchbook clutched in one stiff hand, seven numbers scrawled inside.
THE NEXT BODY IS A WARNING.
When a second victim is discovered, Kat begins to fear that a serial killer is stalking the streets. The police are sceptical. The mayor won’t listen. And Kat’s chief suspect is one of the town’s most prominent citizens.
THE FINAL BODY . . . MIGHT BE HERS.
With the death toll rising, Kat races to expose a deadly predator who is closer than she ever dreamt. And every move she makes could be her very last.
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Tess Gerritsen left a successful practice as an internist to raise her children and concentrate on her writing. She gained nationwide acclaim for her first novel of medical suspense, the New York Times bestseller Harvest, and went on to write many more top-5 bestsellers. Tess lives with her family in Maine.
Gerritsen / GIRL MISSING
An hour before her shift started, an hour before she was even supposed to be there, they rolled the first corpse through the door.
Up until that moment, Kat Novak’s day had been going better than usual. Her car had started on the first turn of the key. Traffic had been sparse on Telegraph, and she’d hit all the green lights. She’d managed to slip into her office at five to seven, and for the next hour she could lounge guiltlessly at her desk with a jelly doughnut and today’s edition of the Albion Herald. She made a point of skipping the obituaries. Chances were she already knew all about them.
Then a gurney with a black body bag rolled past her doorway. Oh Lord, she thought. In about thirty seconds Clark was going to knock at her door, asking for favors. With a sense of dread, Kat listened to the gurney wheels grind down the hall. She heard the autopsy room doors whisk open and shut, heard the distant rumble of male voices. She counted ten seconds, fifteen. And there it was, just as she’d anticipated: the sound of Clark’s Reeboks squeaking across the linoleum floor.
He appeared in her doorway. “Morning, Kat,” he said.
She sighed. “Good morning, Clark.”
“Can you believe it? They just wheeled one in.”
“Yeah, the nerve of them.”
“It’s already seven ten,” he said. A note of pleading crept into his voice. “If you could just do me this favor . . .”
“But I’m not here.” She licked a dollop of raspberry jelly from her fingers. “Until eight o’clock, I’m nothing more than a figment of your imagination.”
“I don’t have time to process this one. Beth’s got the kids packed and ready to take off, and here I am, stuck with another Jane Doe. Have a heart.”
“This is the third time this month.”
“But I’ve got a family. They expect me to spend time with them. You’re a free agent.”
“Right. I’m a divorcee, not a temp.”
Clark shuffled into her office and leaned his ample behind against her desk. “Just this once. Beth and I, we’re having problems, you know, and I want this vacation to start off right. I’ll return the favor sometime. I promise.”
Sighing, Kat folded up the Herald. “Okay,” she said. “What’ve you got?”
Clark was already pulling off his white coat, visibly shifting to vacation mode. “Jane Doe. No obvious trauma. Another body-fluid special. Sykes and Ratchet are in there with her.”
“They bring her in?”
“Yeah. So you’ll have a decent police report to work with.”
Kat rose to her feet and brushed powdered sugar off her scrub pants. “You owe me,” she said as they headed into the hall.
“I know, I know.” He stopped at his office and grabbed his jacket—a fly fisherman’s version, complete with a zillion pockets with little feathers poking out.
“Leave a few trout for the rest of us.”
He grinned and gave her a salute. “Into the wilds of Maine I go,” he said, heading for the elevator. “See you next week.”
Feeling resigned, Kat pushed open the door to the autopsy room and went in.
The body, still sealed in its black bag, lay on the slab. Sergeant Lou Sykes and Detective Vince Ratchet, veterans of the local knife and gun club, were waiting for her. Sykes looked dapper as usual in a suit and tie—a black homicide detective who always insisted on mixing corpses with Versace. His partner, Ratchet, was, in contrast, a perpetual candidate for Slim- Fast. Ratchet was peering in fascination at a specimen jar on the shelf.
“What the hell is that?” he asked, pointing to the jar. Good old Vince; he was never afraid to sound stupid.
“That’s the right middle lobe of a lung,” Kat said.
“I would’ve guessed it was a brain.”
Sykes laughed. “That’s why she’s the doc and you’re just a dumb cop.” He straightened his tie and looked at her. “Isn’t Clark doing this one?”
Kat snapped on a pair of gloves. “Afraid I am.”
“Thought your shift started at eight.”
“Tell me about it.” She went to the slab and gazed down at the bag, feeling her usual reluctance to open the zipper, to reveal what lay beneath the black plastic. How many of these bags have I opened? she wondered. A hundred, two hundred? Each one contained its own private horror story. This was the hardest part, sliding down the zipper, unveiling the contents. Once a body was revealed, once she’d weathered the initial shock of its appearance, she could set to work with a scientist’s dispassion. But the first glimpse, the first reaction—that was always pure emotion, something over which she had no control.
“So, guys,” she said. “What’s the story here?”
Ratchet came forward and flipped open his notebook. It was like an extension of his arm, that notebook; she’d never seen him without it. “Caucasian female, no ID, age twenty to thirty. Body found four a.m. this morning, off South Lexington. No apparent trauma, no witnesses, no nothing.”
“South Lexington,” said Kat, and images of that neighborhood flashed through her mind. She knew the area too well—the streets, the back alleys, the playgrounds rimmed with barbed wire. And looming above it all, the seven buildings, as grim as twenty-story concrete headstones. “The Projects?” she asked.
“Who found her?”
“City trash pickup,” said Sykes. “She was in an alley between two of the Project buildings, sort of wedged against a dumpster.”
“As if she was placed there? Or died there?”
Sykes glanced at Ratchet. “You were at the scene first. What do you say, Vince?”
“Looked to me like she died there. Just lay down, sort of curled up against the dumpster, and called it quits.”
It was time. Steeling herself for that first glimpse, Kat reached for the zipper and opened the bag. Sykes and Ratchet both took a step backward, an instinctive reaction she herself had to quell. The zipper parted and the plastic fell away to reveal the corpse.
It wasn’t bad; at least it appeared intact. Compared with some of the corpses she’d seen, this one was actually in excellent shape. The woman was a bleached blonde, about thirty, perhaps younger. Her face looked like marble, pale and cold. She was dressed in a long-sleeved purple pullover, some sort of polyester blend, a short black skirt with a patent-leather belt, black tights, and brand-new Nikes. Her only jewelry was a dime-store friendship ring and a Timex watch—still ticking. Rigor mortis had frozen her limbs into a vague semblance of a fetal position. Both fists were clenched tight, as though, in her last moment of life, they’d been caught in spasm.
Kat took a few photos, then picked up a cassette recorder and began to dictate. “Subject is a white female, blond, found in alley off South Lexington around oh four hundred . . .” Sykes and Ratchet, already knowing what would follow, took off their jackets and reached into a linen cart for some gowns—medium for Sykes, extra large for Ratchet. The gloves came next. They both knew the drill; they’d been cops for years, and partners for four months. It was an odd pairing, Kat thought, like Abbott and Costello. So far, though, it seemed to work.
She put down the cassette recorder. “Okay, guys,” she said. “On to the next step.”
The undressing. The three of them worked together to strip the corpse. Rigor mortis made it difficult; Kat had to cut away the skirt. The outer clothing was set aside. The tights and underwear were to be examined later for evidence of recent sexual contact. When at last the corpse lay naked, Kat once again reached for the camera and clicked off a few more photos for the evidence file.
It was time for the hands-on part of the job—the part you never saw on House. Occasionally, the answers fell right into place with a first look. Time of death, cause of death, mechanism and manner of death—these were the blanks that had to be filled in. A verdict of suicide or natural causes would make Sykes and Ratchet happy; a verdict of homicide would not.
This time, unfortunately, Kat could give them no quick answers.
She could make an educated guess about time of death. Livor mortis, the body’s mottling after death, was unfixed, suggesting that death was less than eight hours old, and the body temperature, using Moritz’s formula, suggested a time of death of around midnight. But the cause of death?
“Nothing definitive, guys,” she said. “Sorry.”
Sykes and Ratchet looked disappointed but not at all surprised.
“We’ll have to wait for body fluids,” she said.
“I’ll collect it, get it to the state lab today. But they’ve been running a few weeks behind.”
“Can’t you run a few tests here?” asked Sykes.
“I’ll screen it through gas and TL chromatography, but it won’t be specific. Definitive drug ID will have to go through the state lab.”
“All we want to know,” said Ratchet, “is whether it’s possible.”
“Homicide’s always possible.” She continued her external exam, starting with the head. No signs of trauma here; the skull felt intact, the scalp unbroken. The blond hair was tangled and dirty; obviously the woman had not washed it in days. Except for postmortem changes, she saw no marks on the torso, either. The left arm, however, drew her attention. It had a long ridge of scar tissue snaking down it toward the wrist.
“Needle tracks,” said Kat. “And a fresh puncture mark.”
“Another junkie,” Sykes said with a sigh. “There’s our cause of death. Probable OD.”
“We could run a fast analysis on her needle,” said Kat. “Where’s her kit?”
Ratchet shook his head. “Didn’t find one.”
“She must’ve had a needle. A syringe.”
“I looked,” said Ratchet. “I didn’t see any.”
“Did you find anything near the body?”
“Nothing,” said Ratchet. “No purse, no ID, nothing.”
“Who was first on the scene?”
“Patrolman. Then me.”
“So we’ve got a junkie with fresh needle marks. But no needle.”
Sykes said, “Maybe she shot up somewhere else. Wandered into the alley and died.”
Ratchet was peering at the woman’s hand. “What’s this?” he said.
“She’s got something in her hand.”
Kat looked. Sure enough, there was a tiny fleck of pink cardboard visible under the edge of her clenched fingers. It took two of them to pry the fist open. Out slid a matchbook, small and pink with raised gold lettering: l’etoile, fine nouvelle cuisine. 221 hilton avenue.
“Kind of out of her neighborhood,” Sykes remarked.
“Hey, I hear that’s a nice place,” said Ratchet. “Not that I could ever afford to eat there myself.”
Kat opened the matchbook. Inside were three unused matches. And a phone number, scrawled in fountain pen ink on the inside cover.
“Think it’s a local number?” she asked.
“Prefix would put it in Surry Heights,” said Sykes. “That’s still out of her neighborhood.”
“Well,” said Kat. “Let’s try it out and see what happens.” As Sykes and Ratchet stood by, she went to the wall phone and dialed the number. It rang, three times, four. An answering machine came on, the message spoken by a deep male voice:
“I’m not available at the moment. Please leave your name and number.”
That was all. No cute music, no witty remarks, just that terse request, and then the beep.
Kat said, “This is Dr. Novak at the Albion medical examiner’s office. Please call me back, in regard to a . . .” She paused, unwilling to reveal that she had a corpse whom he might know. Instead she said, “Please call me. It’s important,” and left her number. She hung up and looked at the two cops. “We’ll just have to wait and see who calls back. In the meantime, do you both want to stick around for the autopsy?”
It was probably the last thing the men wanted to do, but they remained stoically by the table, wincing as she stabbed various needles into the corpse, collecting blood from the femoral vein, vitreous fluid from the eye, and urine from a puncture through the lower abdominal wall. After you’ve watched a needle pierce an eyeball, a blade does not hold nearly as many horrors. Kat picked up the Henckels knife and this time neither man flinched, even as her blade sliced into the torso. Even as she snapped apart ribs and lifted off the sternum, releasing the odor of blood and offal.
Inside the chest, organs glistened.
Kat put down her knife and picked up a far more delicate scalpel. Reaching into the cavity, her gloved hands registered the neutral temperature of those organs. Neither warm like the living, nor chilled like a refrigerated corpse. As Goldilocks would have said, Not too hot, not too cold, but just right—this description suitable for a corpse that had been lying exposed on a spring night. She sliced through the great vessels, freeing the heart and lungs, which she lifted out of the chest cavity.
“These lungs feel pretty heavy,” she noted. She set them on the scale and watched as the dial confirmed her judgment.
“What would cause them to be heavy?” asked Ratchet.
She noticed the fleck of froth that had leaked from the bronchi. “There’s foamy edema. The lungs are filled with fluid.”
“Meaning what? She drowned in an alley?”
“In a sense, she did drown. But the fluid came from her own lungs. Foamy edema can be caused by any number of things.”
“Like a drug OD?” asked Sykes.
“Absolutely. This could certainly happen after an overdose of narcotics.”
She sliced open the heart, examined the chambers. Except for the soggy lungs, the organs appeared grossly normal. The coronary vessels were healthy, the liver and pancreas and intestines undiseased. Cutting open the stomach, she found no food remnants, only 20cc of bilious fluid.
“Died with an empty stomach,” said Kat.
“Look at how skinny she is,” said Sykes. “When you’re shooting crap into your veins, I’d guess eating takes second priority.”
Kat moved on to the vagina and rectum. It was one aspect of the postmortem that made her uncomfortable, but only because two men were in the room. As she inspected the external genitalia, as she inserted swabs to collect body fluids, they were watching intently, and it was more than just Jane Doe’s privacy that felt violated. “I don’t see any evidence of sexual assault,” she said.
She turned her attention to the head. Of all the parts of a corpse, the face is the most personal, and the most disturbing to contemplate. Until that moment, Kat had avoided looking at it too closely, but now she was forced to. In life, the young woman might have been pretty. Shampoo her hair, animate those facial muscles into a smile, and she probably would have caught the eye of more than a few men. But death had made her jaw droop, her mouth gape open, revealing coffee-stained teeth and a tongue dried out from exposure. It was a blank face, revealing no secrets.
Neither did her cranium provide any answers. Kat sawed open the skull, and the brain within showed no signs of hemorrhage or stroke or trauma. It was a healthy-looking brain, a young brain, and it should have given its owner many more years of service. Instead that brain...
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