Patricia Cornwell book excerpt: Inside the hunt for a killer

"Dust" cover Putnam

(CBS News) In Patricia Cornwell's "Dust," the author continues the story of Kay Scarpetta in the twenty-first installment of her wildly popular series.

In "Dust," readers are re-introduced to the Scarpetta, chief medical examiner and the director of the Cambridge Forensic Center in Cambridge, Mass., where she coaxes the truth out of dead bodies and grisly acts of violence. At this point in her career, Scarpetta has seen it all and very little throws her, but right now she is exhausted and shaken having just returned from working one of the worst mass killings in U. S. history-the blood bath at the Newtown, Conn., elementary school. She's barely home and recovering from the flu when she gets a call about a dead body discovered on the nearby MIT campus. The grad student, identified as Gail Shipton, has been found on an athletic field wrapped in unusual cloth and posed in a deliberate way that suggests this isn't the killer's first victim.

Below is an excerpt from the book's opening chapter.

Reprinted from Dust by Patricia Cornwell by arrangement with G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, Copyright (c) 2013 by Cornwell Entertainment, Inc.

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 19

4:02 A.M.

The clangor of the phone violates the relentless roll of rain beating the roof like drumsticks. I sit straight up in bed, my heart leaping in my chest like a startled squirrel as I glance at the illuminated display to see who it is.

"What's up?" There is nothing in my voice when I greet Pete Marino. "It can't be good at this hour."

My rescued greyhound Sock presses closer to me and I place my hand on his head to calm him. Switching on a lamp, I retrieve a pad of call sheets and a pen from a drawer as Marino starts in about a dead body discovered several miles from here at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT.

"Out in the mud at one end of the athletic fields, what's called Briggs Field. She was found about thirty minutes ago," he says. "I'm on my way to where she probably disappeared from, then heading to the scene. It's being secured until you get there." Marino's big voice is the same as if nothing has happened between us.

I almost can't believe it.

"I'm not sure why you're calling me." He shouldn't but I know his reason. Technically, I'm not back to work. Technically, I'm still out sick." I sound polite enough and calm, just a little hoarse. "You'd be better off calling Luke or . . ."

"You're going to want to take care of this one, Doc. It's going to be a PR nightmare and you sure as hell don't need another one."

He's wasted no time alluding to my weekend in Connecticut that was all over the news and I'm not going to discuss it with him. He's calling me because he can and he'll probe where he wants and do as he wishes to make sure I know that after a decade of taking orders from me the roles suddenly are reversed. He's in charge. I'm not. That's the world according to Pete Marino.

"Whose PR nightmare? And PR's not my job," I add.

"A dead body on the MIT campus is everybody's nightmare. I've got a bad feeling about this. I would have gone with you if you'd asked. You shouldn't have gone by yourself." He's talking about Connecticut again and I pretend I don't hear it. "Really, you should have asked me."

"You don't work for me anymore. That's why I didn't ask." It's as much as I'm going to say to him.

"I'm sorry about what it must have put you through."

"I'm sorry about what it put the entire world through." I cough several times and reach for water. "Do we have an ID?" I rearrange pillows behind me, Sock's narrow head finding my thigh.

"Possibly a twenty-two-year-old grad student named Gail Shipton."

"A grad student where?"

"MIT computer engineering. Reported missing around midnight, last seen at the Psi Bar."

My niece's favorite hangout. The thought disconcerts me. The bar is located near MIT and caters to artists, physicists, and computer wizards like Lucy. Now and then she and her partner Janet take me there for Sunday brunch.

"I'm familiar with the place" is all I offer this man who has abandoned me and I know I'm better off.

If only it felt like it.

"Apparently Gail Shipton was there late yesterday afternoon with a girlfriend who claims that at around five-thirty Gail's phone rang. She went outside so she could hear better and never came back. You shouldn't have gone to Connecticut alone. At least I could have driven you," Marino says, and he's not going to ask how I'm doing after what he's caused by walking off the job so he could start over.

He's a cop again. He sounds happy. The hell with how I feel about the way he did it. All he wants to know about is Connecticut. It's what everyone wants to know about and I didn't give a single interview and it's not the sort of thing to talk about. I wish to hell he hadn't brought it up. It's like something hideous I'd filed in a back drawer and now it's in front of me again.

"The friend didn't think it was unusual or reason for concern that this person she was with went out to talk on the phone and never came back?" I'm on autopilot, able to do my job while I try not to care about Marino anymore.

"All I know is when Gail quit answering her phone or texts, the girlfriend got worried something bad happened." Already he's on a first-name basis with this missing woman who may be dead.

Already they've bonded. He's sunk his hooks into the case and he's not about to let go.

"Then when it got to be midnight and still no word she started trying to find her," he says. "The friend's name is Haley Swanson."

"What else do you know about Haley Swanson and what do you mean by girlfriend ?"

"It was a very preliminary call." What he's really saying is he doesn't know much at all because what Haley Swanson reported likely wasn't taken very seriously at the time.

"Does it bother you that she wasn't worried earlier?" I ask. "If Gail was last seen at five-thirty, some six or seven hours passed before her girlfriend called the police."

"You know how the students are around here. Drinking, they go off with someone, they don't keep track or notice shit."

"Was Gail the type to go off with someone?"

"I got a lot of questions to ask if it turns out the way I suspect it will."

"It sounds like we don't know a whole hell of a lot." Even as I say it I know I shouldn't.

"I didn't talk to Haley Swanson very long." He's starting to sound defensive. "We don't officially take missing-person reports by phone."

"Then how is it you talked to her?"

"First she called nine-one-one and was told to come to the department and fill out a report, and that's standard. You come in and do it in person." He's gotten loud enough that I have to turn the volume down on my phone. "Then she calls back a little later and asks for me by name. I talked to her for a few minutes but didn't take her all that seriously. If she was so worried, come fill out the report ASAP. We're open twenty-four-seven."

Marino's been with the Cambridge police but a few weeks and it strikes me as almost unbelievable that a stranger would request him by name. Instantly I'm suspicious of Haley Swanson but it won't do any good to say it. Marino's not going to listen if he thinks I'm trying to tell him how to do his job.

"Did she sound upset?" I ask.

"A lot of people sound upset when they call the police but it doesn't mean what they're saying is true. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred missing students aren't missing. These types of calls aren't exactly uncommon around here."

"Do we have an address for Gail Shipton?"

"Those really nice condos near the Charles Hotel." He gives me the details and I write them down.

"Very expensive real estate." I envision gracious brick buildings close to the Kennedy School of Government and the Charles River not far from my headquarters as a matter of fact.

"Probably her family's paying the bills, the usual around here in Ivy Leagueville." Marino is typically snide about the people of Cambridge, where police will give you a ticket for being stupid he likes to say.

"Has anybody checked to see if she might be home and simply isn't answering her phone?" I'm making copious notes, more focused now, distracted by a different tragedy, the latest one.

But as I sit up in bed and talk on the phone it's exactly as it happened and I can't block out what I saw. The bodies and the blood. Brass cartridge cases were bright like pennies scattered over floors inside that red brick elementary school, all of it indelibly vivid as if I'm still there.

Twenty-seven autopsies, most of them children, and when I pulled off my bloody scrubs and stepped into the shower I refused to think about what I'd just done.

I switched channels. I compartmentalized, having learned long years ago not to see destroyed human flesh after I've had my hands in it. I willed the images to stay where I left them at the scene, in the autopsy room and out of my thoughts. Obviously I failed. By the time I got home this past Saturday night I had a fever and ached all over as if something evil had infected me. My usual barriers had been breached. I'd offered my help to Connecticut's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and no good deed goes unpunished. There's a penalty for trying to do what's right. The dark forces don't like it, and stress will make you sick.

"She claimed she went over to make sure Gail wasn't there," Marino is saying, "and then got security to check inside the condo but there was no sign of her or that she'd ever come home from the bar."

I comment that she must be familiar to people who work at Gail Shipton's apartment building because security wouldn't open up a door for just anyone, and as I'm saying all this my attention drifts to the ridiculous mountain of FedEx packages still unopened by the sofa on the other side of the bedroom. I'm reminded why it's not a good thing if I'm isolated for days and too sick to work or cook or leave the house and afraid to be alone with my thoughts. I will distract myself and I did.

A vintage Harley-Davidson leather riding vest and skull belt buckle are for Marino, and there's Hermes cologne and Jeff Deegan bracelets for Lucy and Janet, and for my husband Benton a titanium watch with a carbon-fiber face that Breguet doesn't make anymore. His birthday is tomorrow, five days before Christmas, and it's very hard to shop for him and there's not much he needs or doesn't have.

There is an abundance of gifts to wrap for my mother and my sister, and for our housekeeper Rosa and members of my staff, and all sorts of things for Sock and also for Lucy's bulldog and my chief of staff's cat. I'm not sure what the hell got into me when I was sick in bed, ordering like mad off the Internet, and I'll blame it on my fever. I'm sure to hear all about the typically sensible and reserved Kay Scarpetta and her wild holiday spending spree. Lucy in particular won't let me live it down.

"Gail's not answering her cell phone, e-mails, texts," Marino continues as rain slashes the windows, clicking loudly against glass. "Nothing posted on Facebook, Twitter, or whatever, and her physical description is consistent with the dead lady and that's the bigger point. I'm thinking she might have been abducted, was held somewhere, her body wrapped in a sheet and dumped. I wouldn't bother you under the circumstances but I know how you are."

He does know how I am and I'm not driving myself to MIT or anywhere, not when I've been in virtual quarantine for the past five days. I tell him that. I'm stubborn and all business with my former lead investigator. Yes, former, I think.

"How you feeling? I told you not to get a flu shot. That's probably why you got sick," he says.

"You can't get sick from a dead virus."

"Well, the only two times I had a flu shot I came down with the flu, was sick as a damn dog. I'm glad you sound better." Marino pretends to care because he has a purpose for me.

"I suppose it's all relative. I could be better. I could be worse."

"In other words, you're pissed at me. We may as well put it on the table."

"I was talking about my health."

To say I'm pissed would trivialize what I feel right now. Marino hasn't seemed to consider what his walking off the job might say about me, the chief medical examiner of Massachusetts and director of the Cambridge Forensic Center, the CFC. For the past ten years he's been my head of investigations and suddenly he professionally divorces me. I can imagine what cops in particular will say or already are saying.

I anticipate being doubted at scenes, at my office, in the autopsy room, and on the witness stand. I imagine being second-guessed when in fact none of this is about me. It's all about Marino and a mid-life crisis he's been afflicted with for as long as I've known him. Let's be clear, I would tell the world, if I were indiscreet, that Pete Marino has suffered poor self-esteem and identity confusion since the day he was born to an abusive alcoholic father and weak, submissive mother in a bad part of New Jersey.

I'm a woman out of his reach and the one he punishes, possibly the love of his life and for sure his best friend. His motivation is neither fair nor rational for ringing me up at this hour when he knows I've been home with the flu, so sick that at one point I worried I was dying and it began drifting through my mind, This is it, what it's like.

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