Excerpt: Patricia Cornwell's 'Port Mortuary'

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The private terminal on the north end of the runway is used by nonmilitary personnel who are authorized to land on the air force base. My niece has flown Marino here, and it crosses my mind they've come as a surprise. They showed up unannounced to spare me from flying commercial in the morning, to escort me home at last. Wishful thinking. That can't be it, and I look for answers in Marino's rough-featured face, taking in his overall appearance rather much the way I do a patient at first glance. Running shoes, jeans, a fleece-lined Harley-Davidson leather coat he's had forever, a Yankees baseball cap he wears at his own peril, considering he now lives in the Republic of the Red Sox, and his unfashionable wire-rim glasses.

I can't tell if his head is shaved smooth of what little gray hair he has left, but he is clean and relatively neat, and he doesn't have a whisky flush or a bloated beer gut. His eyes aren't bloodshot. His hands are steady. I don't smell cigarettes. He's still on the wagon, more than one. Marino has many wagons he is wise to stay on, a train of them working their way through the unsettled territories of his aboriginal inclinations. Sex, booze, drugs, tobacco, food, profanity, bigotry, slothfulness. I probably should add mendacity. When it suits him, he's evasive or outright lies.

"I assume Lucy's with the helicopter . . . ?" I start to say.

"You know how it is around this joint when you're doing a case, worse than the damn CIA," he talks over me as we turn onto Purple Heart Drive. "Your house could be on fire and nobody says shit, and I must have called five times. So I made an executive decision, and Lucy and me headed out."

"It would be helpful if you'd tell me why you're here."

"Nobody would interrupt you while you were doing the soldier from Worcester," he says to my amazement.

PFC Gabriel was from Worcester, Massachusetts, and I can't fathom why Marino would know what case I had here at Dover. No one should have told him. Everything we do at Port Mortuary is extremely discreet, if not strictly classified. I wonder if the slain soldier's mother did what she threatened and called the media. I wonder if she told the press that her son's white female military medical examiner is a racist.

Before I can ask, Marino adds, "Apparently, he's the first war casualty from Worcester, and the local media's all over it. We've gotten some calls, I guess people getting confused and thinking any dead body with a Massachusetts connection ends up with us." "Reporters assumed we'd done the autopsy in Cambridge?"

"Well, the CFC's a port mortuary, too. Maybe that's why."

"One would think the media certainly knows by now that all casualties in theater come straight here to Dover," I reply. "You're certain about the reason for the media's interest?"

"Why?" He looks at me.

"You know some other reason I don't?"

"I'm just asking."

"All I know is there were a few calls and we referred them to Dover. So you were in the middle of taking care of the kid from Worcester and nobody would get you on the phone, and finally I called General Briggs when we were about twenty minutes out, refueling in Wilmington. He made Captain Do-Bee go find you in the shower. She single, or does she sing in Lucy's choir? Because she's not bad-looking."

"How would you know what she looks like?" I reply, baffled. "You weren't around when she stopped by the CFC on her way to visit her mother in Maine."

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