The Last Precinct (2 стр.)


The telephone pierces the air like a foil. I pick up the extension by the bed. "Dr. Scarpetta," I announce into the handset, and my own voice saying my name reminds me of calls in the middle of the night when I answer my phone and some detective gives me very bad news about a death scene somewhere. Hearing my usual businesslike self-announcement triggers the image I have so far evaded: my savaged body on my bed, blood spattered all over the room, this room, and my assistant chief medical examiner getting the call and the look on his face as police_probably Marino_tell him I have been murdered and someone, God knows who, needs to respond to the scene. It occurs to me that no one from my office could possibly respond. I have helped Virginia design the best disaster plan of any state in the country. We can handle a major airline crash or a bombing in the coliseum or a flood, but what would we do if something happened to me? Bring in a forensic pathologist from a nearby jurisdiction, maybe Washington, I suppose. Problem is, I know almost every forensic pathologist on the East Coast and would feel terribly sorry for whoever had to deal with my dead body. It is very difficult working a case when you are acquainted with the victim. These thoughts fly through my mind like startled birds as Lucy asks me over the phone if I need anything, and I assure her I am fine, which is perfectly ridiculous.

"Well, you can't be fine," she replies.

"Packing," I tell her what I am doing. "Marino's with me and I'm packing," I repeat myself as my eyes fix on Marino in a frozen way. His attention wanders around and it seeps into my awareness that he has never been inside my bedroom. I don't want to imagine his fantasies. I have known him for many years and have always been aware that his respect for me is potently laced with insecurity and sexual attraction. He is a hulk of a man with a swollen beer belly, and a big disgruntled face, and his hair is colorless and has unattractively

migrated from his head to other parts of his body. I listen to

my niece on the phone as Marino's eyes feel their way around my private spaces: my dressers, my closet, the open drawers, what I am packing and my breasts. When Lucy brought tennis shoes, socks and a warm-up suit to the hospital, she didn't think to include a bra, and the best I could do when I got here was to cover up with an old, voluminous lab coat that I wear like a smock when I do odd jobs around the house.

"I guess they don't want you in there, either," Lucy's voice sounds over the line.

It is a long story, but my niece is an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and when the police responded, they couldn't exile her from my property fast enough. Maybe a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and they feared a big-shot federal agent would insert herself into the investigation. I don't know, but she is feeling guilty because she wasn't here for me last night and I almost got murdered, and now she isn't here for me again. I make it clear I don't blame her in the least. I also can't stop wondering how different my life would be had she been home with me when Chandonne showed up_instead of out taking care of a girlfriend. Maybe Chandonne would have known I wasn't alone and would have stayed away, or he would have been surprised by another person in the house and would have fled, or he would have put off murdering me until tomorrow or the next night or Christmas or the new millennium.

I pace as I listen to Lucy's breathless explanations and comments over the cordless phone and catch my reflection as I go past the full-length mirror. My short blond hair is wild, my blue eyes glassy and puckered with exhaustion and stress, my brow gathered in what is a mixture of a frown and near-tears. The lab coat is dingy and stained and not the least bit chiefly. I am very pale. The craving for a drink and a cigarette are atypically strong, almost unbearable, as if almost being murdered has turned me into an instant junkie. I imagine being alone in my own home. Nothing has happened. I am enjoying a fire, a cigarette, a glass of French wine, maybe a

Bordeaux because Bordeaux is less complicated than Burgundy. Bordeaux is like a fine old friend you don't have to figure out. I dispel the fantasy with fact: It doesn't matter what Lucy did or didn't do. Chandonne would have come to murder me eventually, and I feel as if a terrible judgment has been waiting for me all of my life, marking my door like the Angel of Death. Bizarrely, I am still here.

Chapter 1

I KNOW FROM LUCY'S VOICE THAT SHE IS SCARED. Rarely is my brilliant, forceful, helicopter-piloting, fitness-obsessed, federal-law-enforcement-agent niece scared.

"I feel really bad," she continues to repeat herself over the phone as Marino maintains his position on my bed and I pace.

"You shouldn't," I tell her. "The police don't want anybody here, and believe me, you don't want to be here. I guess you're staying with Jo and that's good." I say this to her as if it makes no difference to me, as if it doesn't bother me that she is not here and I haven't seen her all day. It does make a difference. It does bother me. But it is my old habit to give people an out. I don't like to be rejected, especially by Lucy Farinelli, whom I have raised like a daughter.

She hesitates before answering. "Actually, I'm downtown at the Jefferson."

I try to make sense of this. The Jefferson is the grandest hotel in the city, and I don't know why she would go to a hotel at all, much less an elegant, expensive one. Tears sting my

eyes and I force them back, clearing my throat, shoving down

hurt. "Oh," is all I say. "Well, that's good. I guess Jo's with you at the hotel, then."

"No, with her family. Look, I just checked in. I've got a room for you. Why don't I come get you?"

"A hotel's probably not a good idea right now." She thought of me and wants me with her. I feel a little better. "Anna's asked me to stay with her. In light of everything, I think it's best for me to go on to her house. She's invited you, too. But I guess you're settled."

"How did Anna know?" Lucy inquires. "She hear about it on the news?"

Since the attempt on my life happened at a very late hour, it won't be in the newspapers until tomorrow morning. But I expect there has been a storm of news breaks over the radio and on television. I don't know how Anna knew, now that I think about it. Lucy says she needs to stay put but will try to drop by later tonight. We hang up.

"The media finds out you're in a hotel, that's all you need. They'll be behind every bush," Marino says with a hard frown, looking like hell. "Where's Lucy staying?"

I repeat what she told me and almost wish I hadn't talked to her. All it did was make me feel worse. Trapped, I feel trapped, as if I am inside a diving bell a thousand feet under the sea, detached, light-headed, the world beyond me suddenly unrecognizable and surreal. I am numb yet every nerve is on fire.

"The Jefferson?" Marino is saying. "You gotta be kidding! She win the lottery or something? She not worried about the media finding her, too? What the shit's gotten into her?"

I resume packing. I can't answer his questions. I am so tired of questions.

"And she ain't at Jo's house. Huh," he goes on, "that's interesting. Huh. Never thought that would last." He yawns loudly and rubs his thick-featured, stubbly face as he watches me drape suits over a chair, continuing to pick out clothes for the office. To give Marino credit, he has tried to be even-tempered, even considerate, since I got home from the hospital. Decent behavior is difficult for him given the best of

circumstances, which certainly are not the ones he finds himself in at present. He is strung out, sleep-deprived and fueled by caffeine and junk food, and I won't allow him to smoke inside my house. It was simply a matter of time before his self-control began to erode and he stepped back into his rude, big-mouthed character. I witness the metamorphosis and am strangely relieved by it. I am desperate for things familiar, no matter how unpleasant. Marino starts talking about what Lucy did last night when she pulled up in front of the house and discovered Jean-Baptiste Chandonne and me in my snowy front yard.

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