Excerpt: Patricia Cornwell's 'Port Mortuary'


The name of the dead soldier I just took care of is Peter Gabriel, like the legendary rock star, only this Peter Gabriel was a private first class in the army and had been in the Badghis Province of Afghanistan not even a month when a roadside bomb improvised from plastic sewer pipe packed with PE-4 and capped with a copper plate punched through the armor of his Humvee, creating a molten firestorm inside it. PFC Gabriel took up most of my last day here at this huge high-tech place where the armed forces pathologists and scientists routinely get involved in cases most members of the public don't associate with us: the assassination of JFK; the recent DNA identifications of the Romanov family and the crew members of the H.L. Hunley submarine that sank during the Civil War. We're a noble but little-known organization with roots reaching back to 1862, to the Army Medical Museum, whose surgeons attended to the mortally wounded Abraham Lincoln and performed his autopsy, and I should say all this on CNN. Focus on the positive. Forget what Mrs. Gabriel said. I'm not a monster or a bigot. You can't blame the poor woman for being upset, I tell myself. She just lost her only child. The Gabriels are black. How would you feel, for God's sake? Of course you're not a racist.

I sense a presence again. Someone has entered the changing room, which I've managed to fog up like a steam shower. My heart is beating hard because of the heat.

"Dr. Scarpetta?" Captain Avallone sounds less tentative, as if she has news.

I turn off the water and step out of my stall, grabbing a towel to wrap up in. Captain Avallone is an indistinct presence hovering in haze near the sinks and motion-sensitive hand dryers. All I can make out is her dark hair and her khaki cargo pants and black polo shirt with its embroidered AFME gold-and-blue shield.

"Pete Marino . . ." she starts to say.

"I'll call him in a minute." I snatch another towel off a shelf.

"He's here, ma'am."

"What do you mean 'here'?" I almost expect him to materialize in the changing room like some prehistoric creature emerging from the mist.

"He's waiting for you out back by the bays, ma'am," she informs me. "He'll take you to the Eagle's Rest so you can get your things." She says it as if I'm being picked up by the FBI, as if I've been arrested or fired. "My instructions are to take you to him and assist in any way needed."

Captain Avallone's first name is Sophia. She's army, just out of her radiology residency, and is always so damn military-correct and obsequiously polite as she lingers and loiters. Right now is not the time. I carry my toiletry basket, padding over tile, and she's right behind me.

"I'm not supposed to leave until tomorrow, and going anywhere with Marino wasn't part of my travel plans," I tell her.

"I can take care of your vehicle, ma'am. I understand you're not driving. . . ."

"Did you ask him what the hell this is about?" I grab my hairbrush and my deodorant out of my locker.

"I tried, ma'am," she says. "But he wasn't helpful."

A C-5 Galaxy roars overhead, on final for 19. The wind as usual is out of the south.

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