EXCERPT: 'The Scarpetta Factor'

"CNN knows I won't discuss active cases."

"You think she's dead? Because I sure do." Rene's voice followed Scarpetta into the elevator. "Like what' s-her-name in Aruba? Natalee? People vanish for a reason—because somebody wanted them to."

Scarpetta had been promised. Carley Crispin wouldn't do that to her, wouldn't dare. It wasn't as if Scarpetta was simply another expert, an outsider, an infrequent guest, a talking head, she reasoned, as the elevator made its ascent. She was CNN's senior forensic analyst and had been adamant with executive producer Alex Bachta that she could not discuss or even allude to Hannah Starr, the beautiful financial titan who seemingly had vanished in thin air the day before Thanksgiving, reportedly last seen leaving a restaurant in Greenwich Village and getting into a yellow cab. If the worst had happened, if she was dead and her body turned up in New York City, it would be this office's jurisdiction, and Scarpetta could end up with the case.

She got off on the first floor and followed a long hallway past the Division of Special Operations, and through another locked door was the lobby, arranged with burgundy and blue upholstered couches and chairs, coffee tables and racks of magazines, and a Christmas tree and menorah in a window overlooking First Avenue. Carved in marble above the reception desk was Taceant colloquia. Effugiat risus. Hic locus estubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae. Let conversations cease. Let laughter depart. This is the place where death delights to help the living. Music sounded from a radio on the floor behind the desk, the Eagles playing "Hotel California." Filene, one of the security guards, had decided that an empty lobby was hers to fill with what she called her tunes.

"...You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave," Filene softly sang along, oblivious to the irony. "There should be someone in the family room?" Scarpetta stopped at the desk.

"Oh, I'm sorry." Filene reached down, turning off the radio. "I didn't think she could hear from in there. But that's all right. I can go without my tunes. It's just I get so bored, you know? Sitting and sitting when nothing's going on." What Filene routinely witnessed in this place was never happy, and that rather than boredom was likely the reason she listened to her upbeat soft rock whenever she could, whether she was working the reception desk or downstairs in the mortuary office. Scarpetta didn't care, as long as there were no grieving families to overhear music or lyrics that might be provocative or construed as disrespectful.

"Tell Mrs. Darien I'm on my way," Scarpetta said. "I need about fifteen minutes to check a few things and look at the paperwork. Let's hold the tunes until she's gone, okay?"

Off the lobby to the left was the administrative wing she shared with Dr. Edison, two executive assistants, and the chief of staff, who was on her honeymoon until after the New Year. In a building half a century old with no space to spare, there was no place to put Scarpetta on the third floor, where the full-time forensic pathologists had their offices. When she was in the city, she parked herself in what was formerly the chief's conference room on the ground level, with a view of the OCME's turquoise-blue brick entrance on First Avenue. She unlocked her door and stepped inside. She hung her coat, set her boxed lunch on her desk, and sat in front of her computer.

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