Excerpt: Patricia Cornwell's 'Port Mortuary'


"You shouldn't have. It was for me to tell. It was for me to decide what he needs to know." I'm sitting with the passenger's door open wide and the wind blowing in. I'm damp from the shower and chilled. "You don't raise things up the chain just because I'm busy."

"Well, you were busy as hell, and I told him."

I climb out of the van and reassure myself that what Marino has just described can't be accurate. Cambridge EMTs would never make such a disastrous mistake, and I try to conjure up an explanation for why a fatal wound didn't bleed at the scene and then bled profusely, and I contemplate computing time of death or even the cause of it for someone who died inside a morgue refrigerator. I'm confounded. I haven't a clue, and most of all I worry about him, this young man delivered to my door, presumed dead. I envision him wrapped in a sheet and zipped inside a pouch, and it's the stuff of old horrors. Someone coming to inside a casket. Someone buried alive. I've never had such a ghastly thing happen, not even close, not once in my career. I've never known anyone who has.

"At least there's no sign he tried to get out of the body bag." Marino tries to make both of us feel better. "Nothing to indicate he might have been awake at some point and started panicking. You know, like clawing at the zipper or kicking or something. I guess if he struggled he would have been in a weird position on the tray when we found him this morning, or maybe rolled off it. Except I wonder if you would suffocate in one of those bags, now that I think of it. I guess so, since they're supposed to be watertight. Even though they leak. You show me a body bag that doesn't leak. And that's the other thing. Blood drips on the floor leading from the bay to the fridge."

"Why don't we continue this later." It's check-in time. There are plenty of people in the parking lot as we walk toward the inn's modern but plain stucco entrance, and Marino has a big voice that projects as if he's perpetually talking inside an amphitheater.

"I doubt Fielding has bothered to watch the recording," Marino adds anyway. "I doubt he's done a damn thing. I haven't seen or heard from the son of a bitch since first thing this morning. MIA once again, just like he's done before." He opens the glass front door. "I sure as hell hope he doesn't shut us down. Wouldn't that be something? You do him a fucking favor and give him a job after he walked off the last one, and he destroys the CFC before it's even off the ground."

Inside the lobby with its showcases of awards and air force memorabilia, its comfortable chairs and big-screen TV, a sign welcomes guests to the home of the C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globe-master III. At the front desk I silently wait behind a man in the muted pixilated tiger stripes of the army combat uniform, or ACU, as he buys shaving cream, water, and several mini bottles of Johnnie Walker Scotch. I tell the clerk that I'm checking out earlier than planned, and yes, I'll remember to turn in my keys, and of course I understand I'll be charged the usual government rate of thirty-eight dollars for the day even though I'm not staying the night.

"What is it they say?" Marino goes on. "No good deed goes unpunished."

"Let's try not to be quite so negative."

"You and me both gave up good positions in New York, and we shut down the office in Watertown, and this is what we're left with."

I don't say anything.

"I hope like hell we didn't ruin our careers," he says.

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