Excerpt: Patricia Cornwell's 'Port Mortuary'


One of many aeronautical principles I've learned from Lucy, who is a helicopter pilot among other things, is that runway numbers correspond to directions on a compass. Nineteen, for example, is 190 degrees, meaning the opposite end will be 01, oriented that way because of the Bernoulli effect and Newton's laws of motion. It's all about the speed air needs to flow over a wing, about taking off and landing into the wind, which in this part of Delaware blows in from the sea, from high pressure to low, from south to north. Day in and day out, transport planes bring the dead and take them away along a blacktop strip that runs like the River Styx behind Port Mortuary.

The shark-gray Galaxy is the length of a football field, so huge and heavy it seems scarcely to move in a pale sky of feathery clouds that pilots call mare's tails. I would know what type of airlifter it is without looking, can recognize the high pitch of its scream and whistle. By now I know the sound of turbine engines producing a hundred and sixty thousand pounds of thrust, can identify a C-5 or a C-17 when it's miles out, and I know helicopters and tilt rotors, too, can tell a Chinook from a Black Hawk or an Osprey. During nice weather when I have a few moments to spare, I sit on a bench outside my lodgings and watch the flying machines of Dover as if they're exotic creatures, such as manatees or elephants or prehistoric birds. I never tire of their lumbering drama and thundering noise, and the shadows they cast as they pass over.

Wheels touch down in puffs of smoke so close by I feel the rumble in my hollow organs as I walk across the receiving area with its four enormous bays, high privacy wall, and backup generators. I approach a blue van I've never seen before, and Pete Marino makes no move to greet me or open my door, and this bodes nothing one way or another. He doesn't waste his energy on manners, not that being gracious or particularly nice has ever been a priority of his for as long as I can remember. It's been more than twenty years since the time when we first met in Richmond, Virginia, at the morgue. Or maybe it was a homicide scene where I first was confronted with him. I really can't recall.

I climb in and shut the door, stuffing a duffel bag between my boots, my hair still damp from the shower. He thinks I look like hell and is silently judging. I can always tell by his sidelong glances that survey me from head to toe, lingering in certain places that are none of his business. He doesn't like it when I wear my AFME investigative garb, my khaki cargo pants, black polo shirt, and tactical jacket, and the few times he's seen me in uniform I think I scared him.

"Where'd you steal the van?" I ask as he backs up.

"A loaner from Civil Air." His answer at least tells me nothing has happened to Lucy.

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