The Scarpetta Factor

Voltaire, 1785

A frigid wind gusted in from the East River, snatching at Dr. Kay Scarpetta’s coat as she walked quickly along 30th Street.

It was one week before Christmas without a hint of the holidays in what she thought of as Manhattan’s Tragic Triangle, three vertices connected by wretchedness and death. Behind her was Memorial Park, a voluminous white tent housing the vacuum-packed human remains still unidentified or unclaimed from Ground Zero. Ahead on the left was the Gothic redbrick former Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, now a shelter for the homeless. Across from that was the loading dock and bay for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, where a gray steel garage door was open. A truck was backing up, more pallets of plywood being unloaded. It had been a noisy day at the morgue, a constant hammering in corridors that carried sound like an amphitheater. The mortuary techs were busy assembling plain pine coffins, adult-size, infant-size, hardly able to keep up with the growing demand for city burials at Potter’s Field. Economy-related. Everything was.

Scarpetta already regretted the cheeseburger and fries in the cardboard box she carried. How long had they been in the warming cabinet on the serving line of the NYU Medical School cafeteria? It was late for lunch, almost three p.m., and she was pretty sure she knew the answer about the palatability of the food, but there was no time to place an order or bother with the salad bar, to eat healthy or even eat something she might actually enjoy. So far there had been fifteen cases today, suicides, accidents, homicides, and indigents who died unattended by a physician or, even sadder, alone.

She had been at work by six a.m. to get an early start, completing her first two autopsies by nine, saving the worst for last—a young woman with injuries and artifacts that were time-consuming and confounding. Scarpetta had spent more than five hours on Toni Darien, making meticulously detailed diagrams and notes, taking dozens of photographs, fixing the whole brain in a bucket of formalin for further studies, collecting and preserving more than the usual tubes of fluids and sections of organs and tissue, holding on to and documenting everything she possibly could in a case that was odd not because it was unusual but because it was a contradiction.

The twenty-six-year-old woman’s manner and cause of death were depressingly mundane and hadn’t required a lengthy postmortem examination to answer the most rudimentary questions. She was a homicide from blunt-force trauma, a single blow to the back of her head by an object that possibly had a multicolored painted surface. What didn’t make sense was everything else. When her body was discovered at the edge of Central Park, some thirty feet off East 110th Street shortly before dawn, it was assumed she had been jogging last night in the rain when she was sexually assaulted and murdered. Her running pants and panties were around her ankles, her fleece and sports bra pushed above her breasts. A Polartec scarf was tied in a double knot tightly around her neck, and at first glance it was assumed by the police and the OCME’s medicolegal investigators who responded to the scene that she was strangled with an article of her own clothing.

She wasn’t. When Scarpetta examined the body in the morgue, she found nothing to indicate the scarf had caused the death or even contributed to it, no sign of asphyxia, no vital reaction such as redness or bruising, only a dry abrasion on the neck, as if the scarf had been tied around it postmortem. Certainly it was