A Kay Scarpetta Mystery
This book is for the inimitable Dr. Marcella Fierro.
(You taught Scarpetta well.)
(A Meditation At Spring Street By The Damned)
It is two weeks before Christmas. Four days before nothing at all. I lie on my bed staring at my dirty bare feet and the white toilet missing its seat, and when cockroaches crawl across the floor I don't jump anymore. I watch them the same way they watch me.
I close my eyes and breathe slow.
I remember raking hay in the heat of day and getting no pay compared to the way white folk live. I dream of roasting peanuts in a tin and when the tomatoes are in eating them like apples. I imagine driving the pickup truck, sweat shining on my face in that no-future place I swore I'd leave.
I can't use the john, blow my nose, or smoke without guards taking notes. There's no clock. I never know the weather. I open my eyes and see a blank wall going on forever. What's a man supposed to feel when he's about to be gone? Like a sad, sad song. I don't know the words. I can't remember. They say it happened in September when the sky was like a robins egg and leaves were on fire and falling to the ground. They say a beast got loose in the city. Now there's one less sound.
Killing me won't kill the beast. The dark is his friend, flesh and blood his feast. When you think it's safe to stop looking that's when you'd better start looking, brother.
One leads to another.
Ronnie Joe Waddell
The Monday I carried Ronnie Joe Waddells meditation in my pocketbook, I never saw the sun. It was dark out when I drove to work that morning. It was dark again when I drove home: Small raindrops spun in my headlights, the night gloomy with fog and bitterly cold. I built a fire in my living room and envisioned Virginia farmland and tomatoes ripening in the sun. I imagined a young black man in the hot cab of a pickup truck and wondered if his head had been full of murder back then. Waddell's meditation had been published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and I had taken the clipping to work to add to his growing file. But the business of the day distracted me and his meditation had remained in my pocketbook. I had read it several times. I supposed it would always intrigue me that poetry and cruelty could reside in the same heart.
For the next few hours I paid bills and wrote Christmas cards while the television played mutely. Like the rest of Virginia's citizens, whenever an execution was scheduled I found out from the media whether appeals had been exhausted or the governor had Bran clemency. The news determined whether I went on bed or drove downtown to the morgue.
At almost ten P.M. my telephone rang. I answered it expecting my deputy chief or some other member of my staff whose evening, like mine, was on hold.
“Hello?” asked a male voice I did not recognize. “I' trying to reach Kay Scarpetta? Uh, the chief medic examiner, Dr. Scarpetta?”
“Speaking,” I said.
“Oh, good. Detective Joe Trent with Henrico County. Found your number in the book. Sorry to bother you at home.”
He sounded keyed up. “But we've got a situation we really need your help with.”
“What's the problem?” I asked, staring tensely at the TV. A commercial was playing. I hoped I wasn't needed at a scene.
“Earlier this evening, a thirteen-year-old white male was abducted after leaving a convenience store in Northside. He was shot in the head and there may be some sexual components involved.”
My heart sank as I reached for paper and pen.
“Where is the body?” I asked.
“He was found behind a grocery store on Patter Avenue in the county. I mean, he's not dead. He hasn't regained consciousness but no one's saying right now whether he'll make it. I realize it's not your case since he's not dead. But he's got some injuries that are real odd. They're not like anything I've ever come across. I know you see a lot of different types of injuries. I'm hoping you might have some idea how these were inflicted and why.”
“Describe them for me,” I said.
“We're talking about two areas. One on his inner right thigh, you know, up high near the groin. The other's in the area of his right shoulder. Chunks of flesh are missing - cut out. And there's weird cuts and scratches around the edges of the wounds. He's at Henrico Doctor's.”
“Did you find the excised tissue?”
My mind was racing through other cases, looking for something similar.
“Not so far. We've got men out there still searching. But it's possible the assault occurred inside a car.”
“The assailant's. The grocery store parking lot where the kid was found is a good three or four miles from the convenience store where he was last seen. I'm thinking he got into somebody's car, maybe was forced to.”
“You got photographs of the injuries before the doctors started working on him?”
“Yes. But they haven't done much. Because of the amount of skin missing, they'll have to do skin grafts full grafts, is what they said, if that tells you anything.”
It told me they had debrided the wounds, had him on intravenous antibiotics, and were waiting to do a gluteal graft. If, however, that was not the case and they had undermined the tissue around the injuries and sutured them, then there wasn't going to be much left for me to see.
“They haven't sutured his wounds,” I said.
'That's what I've been told.'
“Do you want me to take a look?”
“That would be really great,” he said, relieved. “You should be able to see the wounds real well.”
“When would you like me to do this?”
“Tomorrow would work.”
“All right. What time? The earlier the better.”
“Eight hundred hours? I'll meet you in front of the ER.”
“I'll be there,” I said as the anchorman stared grimly at me. Hanging up, I reached for the remote control and turned up the sound.
“… Eugenia? Can you tell us if there's been any word from the governor?”
The camera shifted to the Virginia State Penitentiary, where for two hundred years the Commonwealth's worst criminals had been warehoused along a rocky stretch of the James River at the edge of downtown. Sign-carrying protesters and capital punishment enthusiasts gathered in the dark, their faces harsh in the glare of television lights. It chilled my soul that some people were laughing.
A pretty, young correspondent in a red coat filled the screen “As you know, Bill,” she said, “yesterday a telephone line was set up between Governor Norring's office and the penitentiary. Still no word, and that speaks volumes. Historically, when the governor doesn't intend to intervene, he remains silent.”
“How are things there? Is it relatively peaceful so far?”
“So far, yes, Bill. I'd say several hundred people are standing vigil out here. And of course, the penitentiary itself is almost empty. All but several dozen of the inmates have already been transported to the new correctional facility in Greensville.”
I turned off the TV and moments later was driving east with my doors locked and the radio on. Fatigue seeped through me like anesthesia. I felt dreary and numb. I dreaded executions. I dreaded waiting for someone to die, then running my scalpel through flesh as warm as mine. I was a physician with a law degree. I had been trained to know what gave life and what took it, what was right and what was wrong. Then experience had become my mentor, wiping its feet on that pristine part of myself that was idealistic and analytical. It is disheartening when a thinking person is forced to admit that many cliches are true. There is no justice on this earth. Nothing would ever undo what Ronnie Joe Waddell had done.