Red Mist

By: Patricia Cornwell

1


Iron rails the rusty brown of old blood cut across a cracked paved road that leads deeper into the Lowcountry. As I drive over train tracks, it enters my mind that the Georgia Prison for Women is on the wrong side of them and maybe I should take it as another warning and turn back. It’s not quite four p.m., Thursday, June 30. There’s time to catch the last flight to Boston, but I know I won’t.

This part of coastal Georgia is a moody terrain of brooding forests draped with Spanish moss and mudflats etched with convoluted creeks that give way to grssy plains heavy with light. Snowy egrets and great blue herons fly low over brackish water, dragging their feet, and then the woods close in again on either side of the narrow tar-laced road I’m on. Coiling kudzu strangles underbrush and cloaks forest canopies in scaly dark leaves, and giant cypress trees with thick gnarled knees rise out of swamps like prehistoric creatures wading and prowling. While I’ve yet to spot an alligator or a snake, I’m sure they are there and aware of my big white machine roaring and chugging and backfiring.

How I ended up in such a rattletrap that wanders all over the road and stinks like fast food and cigarettes with a whiff of rotting fish, I don’t know. It’s not what I told my chief of staff, Bryce, to reserve, which was a safe, dependable, mid-size sedan, preferably a Volvo or a Camry, with side and head air bags and a GPS. When I was met outside the airport terminal by a young man in a white cargo van that doesn’t have air-conditioning or even a map, I told him there had been an error. I’d been given someone else’s vehicle by mistake. He pointed out the contract has my name on it, Kate Scarpetta, and I said my first name is Kay, not Kate, and I didn’t care whose name was on it. A cargo van wasn’t what I ordered. Lowcountry Concierge Connection was very sorry, said the young man, who was quite tan and dressed in a tank top, camo shorts, and fishing shoes. He couldn’t imagine what happened. Obviously a computer problem. He’d be glad to get me something else, but it would be much later in the day, possibly tomorrow.

So far nothing is going the way I’d planned, and I imagine my husband, Benton, saying he told me so. I see him leaning against the travertine countertop in the kitchen last night, tall and slender, with thick silver hair, his chiseled handsome face watching me somberly as we argued again about my coming here. It’s only now that the last trace of my headache is gone. I don’t know why a part of me still believes, contrary to evidence, that half a bottle of wine will resolve differences. It might have been more than half. It was a very nice pinot grigio for the money, light and clean with a hint of apples.

The air blowing through the open windows is thick and hot, and I smell the pungent, sulfuric odor of decomposing vegetation, of salt marshes and pluff mud. The van hesitates and surges by fits and starts around a sun-dappled bend where turkey buzzards forage on something dead. The huge ugly birds with their ragged wings and naked heads lift off in slow, heavy flaps as I swerve around the stiff pelt of a raccoon, the sultry air carrying a sharp putrid stench I know all too well. Animal or human, it doesn’t matter. I can recognize death from a distance, and were I to get out and take a close look, I probably could determine the exact cause of that raccoon’s demise and when it occurred and possibly reconstruct how it got hit and maybe by what.

Most people refer to me as a medical examiner, an ME, but some think I’m a coroner, and occasionally I’m confused with a police surgeon. To be precise, I’m a physician with a specialty in pathology, and subspecialties in forensic pathology and 3-D imaging radiology, or the use of CT scans to view a dead body internally before I touch it with a blade. I have a law degree and the special reservist rank of colonel with the Air Force, and therefore an affiliation with the Department of Defense, which last year appointed me to head the Cambridge Forensic Center it has funded in conjunction with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Harvard.

I’m an expert at determining the mechanism of what kills or why something doesn’t, whether it is a disease, a poison, a medical misadventure, an act of God, a handgun, or an improvised explosive device (IED). My every action has to be legally well informed. I’m expected to assist the United States government as needed and directed. I swear to oaths and testify under them, and what all this means is that I’m really not entitled to live the way most people do. It isn’t an option for me to be anything other than objective and clinical. I’m not supposed to have personal opinions or emotional reactions to any case, no matter how gruesome or cruel. Even if violence has impacted me directly, such as the attempt on my life four months ago, I’m to be as unmoved as an iron post or a rock. I’m to remain hard in my resolve, calm and cool.

“You’re not going to go PTSD on me, are you?” the chief of the Armed Forces Medical Examiners, General John Briggs, said to me after I was almost murdered in my own garage this past February 10. “Shit happens, Kay. The world is full of whack jobs.”

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