EXCERPT: 'The Scarpetta Factor'

She was about to be late for the three p.m. staff meeting and needed to be home by six to go to the gym and have dinner with her husband, Benton Wesley, before rushing over to CNN, the last thing she felt like doing. She should never have agreed to appear on The Crispin Report. Why for God's sake had she agreed to go on the air with Carley Crispin and talk about postmortem changes in head hair and the importance of microscopy and other disciplines of forensic science, which were misunderstood because of the very thing Scarpetta had gotten herself involved in—the entertainment industry? She carried her boxed lunch through the loading dock, piled with cartons and crates of offi ce and morgue supplies, and metal carts and trollies and plywood. The security guard was busy on the phone behind Plexiglas and barely gave her a glance as she went past.

At the top of a ramp she used the swipe card she wore on a lanyard to open a heavy metal door and entered a catacomb of white subway tile with teal-green accents and rails that seemed to lead everywhere and nowhere. When she first began working here as a part-time ME, she got lost quite a lot, ending up at the anthropology lab instead of the neuropath lab or the cardiopath lab or the men's locker room instead of the women's, or the decomp room instead of the main autopsy room, or the wrong walk- in refrigerator or stairwell or even on the wrong floor when she boarded the old steel freight elevator.

Soon enough she caught on to the logic of the layout, to its sensible circular flow, beginning with the bay. Like the loading dock, it was behind a massive garage door. When a body was delivered by the medical examiner transport team, the stretcher was unloaded in the bay and passed beneath a radiation detector over the door. If no alarm was triggered indicating the presence of a radioactive material, such as radiopharmaceuticals used in the treatment of some cancers, the next stop was the floor scale, where the body was weighed and measured. Where it went after that depended on its condition. If it was in bad shape or considered potentially hazardous to the living, it went inside the walk-in decomp refrigerator next to the decomp room, where the autopsy would be performed in isolation with special ventilation and other protections.

If the body was in good shape it was wheeled along a corridor to the right of the bay, a journey that could at some point include the possibility of various stops relative to the body's stage of deconstruction: the x-ray suite, the histology specimen storage room, the forensic anthropology lab, two more walk-in refrigerators for fresh bodies that hadn't been examined yet, the lift for those that were to be viewed and identified upstairs, evidence lockers, the neuropath room, the cardiac path room, the main autopsy room. After a case was completed and the body was ready for release, it ended up full circle back at the bay inside yet another walk-in refrigerator, which was where Toni Darien should be right now, zipped up in a pouch on a storage rack.

But she wasn't. She was on a gurney parked in front of the stainless-steel refrigerator door, an ID tech arranging a blue sheet around the neck, up to the chin.

"What are we doing?" Scarpetta said.

"We've had a little excitement upstairs. She's going to be viewed."

"By whom and why?"

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