Excerpt: Patricia Cornwell's 'Port Mortuary'

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We are sitting in the van with the engine off. It is almost completely dark, the horizon and the sky melting into each other with only the faintest hint of light to the west. When has Fielding ever handled a disaster without me? Never. He absents himself. Leaves his messes for others to clean up. That's why he's not tried to get hold of me. Maybe he's walked off the job again. How many times does he need to do that before I stop hiring him back?

"According to them, he died instantly," Marino adds.

"Unless an IED blows someone into hundreds of pieces, there's really no such thing as dying instantly," I reply, and I hate it when Marino makes glib statements. Dying instantly. Dropping dead. Dead before he hit the ground. Twenty years of these generalities, no matter how many times I've told him that cardiac and respiratory arrests aren't causes of death but symptoms of dying, and clinical death takes minutes at least. It isn't instant. It isn't a simple process. I remind him again of this medical fact because I can't think of anything else to say.

"Well, I'm just reporting what I've been told, and according to them, he couldn't be resuscitated," Marino answers, as if the EMTs know more about death than I do. "Was unresponsive. That's what's on their run sheet."

"You interviewed them?"

"One of them. On the phone this morning. No pulse, no nothing. The guy was dead. Or that's what the paramedic said. But what do you think he's going to say—that they weren't sure but sent him to the morgue anyway?"

"Then you told him why you were asking."

"Hell, no, I'm not retarded. You don't need this on the front page of the Globe. This hits the news, I may as well go back to NYPD or maybe get a job with Wackenhut, except no one's hiring."

"What procedure did you follow?"

"I didn't follow shit. It was Fielding. Of course, he says he did everything by the book, says Cambridge PD told him there was nothing suspicious about the scene, an apparent natural death that was witnessed. Fielding gave permission for the body to be transferred to the CFC as long as the cops took custody of the gun and got it to the labs right away so we could find out who it's registered to. A routine case, and not our fault if the EMTs fucked up, or so Fielding says, and you know what I say? It won't matter. We'll get blamed. The media will go after us like nothing you've ever seen and will say everything should move back to Boston. Imagine that?"

Before the CFC began doing its first cases this past summer, the state medical examiner's office was located in Boston and was besieged by political and economic problems and scandals that were constantly in the news. Bodies were lost or sent to the wrong funeral homes or cremated without a thorough examination, and in at least one suspected child-abuse death the wrong eyeballs were tested. New chiefs came and went, and district offices had to be shut down due to a lack of funding. But nothing negative ever said about that office could compare to what Marino is suggesting about us.

"I'd rather not imagine anything." I open my door. "I'd rather focus on the facts."

"That's a problem, since we don't seem to have any that make much sense."

"And you told Briggs what you just told me?"

"I told him what he needed to know," Marino says.

"The same thing you just told me?" I repeat my question.

"Pretty much."

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