The narrow road led me through a vacant land of weeds and woods that ended abruptly at a security checkpoint. I felt as if I were crossing the border into an unfriendly country. Beyond was a train yard and hundreds of -boxcar size orange containers stacked three and four high. A guard who took his job very seriously stepped outside his booth. I rolled down my window.
"May I help you, ma'am?" he asked in a flat military tone.
"I'm Dr. Kay Scarpetta," I replied.
"And who are you here to see?"
"I'm here because there's been a death," I explained. "I'm the medical examiner." I showed him my credentials. He took them from me and studied them carefully. I had a feeling he didn't know what a medical examiner was and wasn't about to ask.
"So, you're the chief," he said, handing the worn black wallet back to me. "The chief of what?"
"I'm the chief medical examiner of Virginia," I replied. "The police are waiting for me." He stepped back inside his booth and got on the phone as my impatience grew. It seemed every time I needed to enter a secured area, I went through this. I used to assume my being a woman was the reason, and in earlier days this was probably trueóat least some of the time. Now I believed the threats of terrorism, crime and lawsuits were the explanation. The guard wrote down a description of my car and the plate number. He handed me a clipboard so I could sign in and gave me a visitor's pass, which I didn't clip on.
"See that pine tree down there?" he said, pointing.
"I see quite a few pine trees." "The little bent one. Take a left at it and just head on towards the water, ma'am," he said. "Have a nice day."
I moved on, passing huge tires parked here and there and several red brick buildings with signs out front to identify the US Customs Service and Federal Marine Terminal. The port itself was rows of huge warehouses with orange containers lined up at loading docks like animals feeding from troughs. Moored off the wharf in the James River were two container ships, the Euroclip and the Sirius, each almost twice as long as a football field. Cranes hundreds of feet high were poised above open hatches the size of swimming pools.
Yellow crime-scene tape anchored by traffic cones circled a container that was mounted on a chassis. No one was nearby. In fact, I saw no sign of police except for an unmarked blue Caprice at the edge of the dock apron, the driver, apparently, behind the wheel talking through the window to a man in a white shirt and a tie. Work had stopped. Stevedores in hard hats and reflective vests looked bored as they drank sodas or bottled water or smoked.
I dialed my office and got Fielding on the phone.
"When were we notified about this body?" I asked him.
"Hold on. Let me check the sheet." Paper rustled. "At exactly ten fifty-three."
"And when was it found?"
"Uh, Anderson didn't seem to know that."
"How the hell could she not know something like that?"
"Like I said, I think she's new."
"Fielding, there's not a cop in sight except for her, or at least I guess that's her. What exactly did she say to you when she called in the case?"
"DOA, decomposed, asked for you to come to the scene."
"She specifically requested me?" I asked.
"Well, hell. You're always everybody's first choice. That's nothing new. But she said Marino told her to get you to the scene."
"Marino?" I asked, surprised. "He told her to tell me to respond?"
"Yeah, I thought it was a little ballsy of him."
I remembered Marino's telling me he would drop by the scene, and I got angrier. He gets some rookie to basically give me an order, and then if Marino can fit it in, he might swing by and see how we're doing?
"Fielding, when's the last time you talked to him?" I asked.
"Weeks. Pissy mood, too."
"Not half as pissy as mine's going to be if and when he finally decides to show up," I promised.
Dockworkers watched me climb out of my car and pop open the trunk. I retrieved my scene case, jumpsuit and shoes, and felt eyes crawl all over me as I walked toward the unmarked car and got more annoyed with each labored step, the heavy case bumping against my leg.
The man in the shirt and tie looked hot and unhappy as he shielded his eyes to gaze up at two television news helicopters slowly circling the port at about four hundred feet. "Darn reporters," he muttered, turning his eyes to me.
"I'm looking for whoever's in charge of this crime scene," I said.
"That would be me," came a female voice from inside the Caprice. I bent over and peered through the window at the young woman sitting behind the wheel. She was darkly tanned, her brown hair cut short and slicked back, her nose and jaw strong. Her eyes were hard, and she was dressed in relaxed leg faded jeans, lace-up black leather boots and white T-shirt. She wore her gun on her hip, her badge on a ball chain tucked into her collar. Air-conditioning was blasting, light rock on the radio surfing over the cop talk on the scanner.
"Detective Anderson, I presume," I said.
"Rene Anderson. The one and only. And you must be the doc. I've heard so much about," she said with the arrogance I associated with most people who didn't know what the hell they were doing.
"I'm Joe Shaw, the port director," the man introduced himself to me. "You must be who the security guys just called me about."
He was about my age, with blond hair, bright blue eyes and skin lined from years of too much sun. I could tell by the look on his face that he detested Anderson and everything about this day.
"Might you have anything helpful to pass along to me before I get started?" I said to Anderson over loud blowing air and rotating helicopter blades. "For example, why there are no police securing the scene?"
"Don't need 'em," Anderson said, pushing open her door with her knee. "It's not like just anybody can drive right on back here, as you found out when you tried." I set the aluminum case on the ground. Anderson came around to my side of the car. I was surprised by how small she was.
"Not much I can tell you," she said to me. "What you see is what we got. A container with a real stinker inside."
"No, there's a lot more you can tell me, Detective Anderson," I said. "How was the body discovered and at what time? Have you seen it? Has anybody gotten near it? Has the scene been contaminated in any way? And the answer to the last one had better be no, or I'm holding you responsible."
She laughed. I began pulling the jumpsuit over my clothes.
"Nobody's even gotten close," she told me. "No volunteers for that one."
"You don't have to go inside the thing to know what's there," Shaw added. I changed into the black Reeboks and put on the baseball cap. Anderson was staring at my Mercedes.
"Maybe I should go work for the state," she said.
I looked her up and down.
"I suggest you cover up if you're going in there," I said to her.
"I gotta make a couple calls," she said, walking off. "I don't mean to tell people how to do their jobs," Shaw said to me. "But what the hell's going on here? We got a dead body right over there and the cops send in a little shit like that?"
His jaw muscles were clenching, his face bright red and dripping sweat. "You know, you don't make a dime in this business unless things are moving," he went on. "And not a darn thing's moved for more than two and a half hours." He was working so hard not to swear around me. "Not that I'm not sorry about someone being dead," he went on. "But I sure would like you folks to do your business and leave." He scowled up at the sky again. "And that includes the media."
"Mr. Shaw, what was being shipped inside the container?" I asked him. "German camera equipment. You should know the seal on the container's latch wasn't broken. So it appears the cargo wasn't tampered with."
"Did the foreign shipper affix the seal?"
"Meaning the body, alive or dead, most likely was inside the container before it was sealed?" I said.
"That's what it looks like. The number matches the one on the entry filed by the customs broker, nothing the least out of the ordinary. In fact, this cargo's already been released by Customs. Was five days ago," Shaw told me. "Which is why it was loaded straight on a chassis. Then we got a whiff and no way that container was going anywhere." I looked around, taking in the entire scene at once. A light breeze clinked heavy chains against cranes that had been offloading steel beams from the Euroclip, three hatches at a time, when all activity stopped. Forklifts and flatbed trucks had been abandoned. Dockworkers and crew had nothing to do and kept their eyes on us from the tarmac. Some looked on from the bows of their ships and through the windows of deckhouses. Heat rose from oil stained asphalt scattered with wooden frames, spacers and skids, and a CSX train clanked and scraped through a crossing beyond the warehouses. The smell of creosote was strong but could not mask the stench of rotting human flesh that drifted like smoke on the air.
"Where did the ship set sail from?" I asked Shaw as I noticed a marked car parking next to my Mercedes.
"Antwerp, Belgium, two weeks ago," he replied as he looked at the Sirius and the Euroclip. "Foreign flag vessels like all the rest we get. The only American flags we see anymore are if someone raises one as a courtesy," he added with a trace of disappointment. A man on the Euroclip was standing by the starboard side, looking back at us with binoculars. I thought it strange he was dressed in long sleeves and long pants, as warm as it was.
Shaw squinted. "Darn, this sun is bright." "What about stowaways?" I asked. "Although I can't imagine anyone choosing to hide inside a locked container for two weeks on high seas."
"Never had one that I know of. Besides, we're not the first port of call. Chester, Pennsylvania, is. Most of our ships go from Antwerp to Chester to here, and then straight back to Antwerp. A stowaway's most likely going to bail out in Chester instead of waiting till he gets to Richmond.
"We're a niche port, Dr. Scarpetta," Shaw went on. I watched in disbelief as Pete Marino climbed out of the cruiser that had just parked next to my car.
"Last year, maybe a hundred and twenty oceangoing ships and barges called in the port," Shaw was saying.
Marino had been a detective as long as I'd known him. I had never seen him in uniform. "If it were me and I was trying to jump ship or was an illegal alien, I think I'd want to end up in some really big port like Miami or LA where I could get lost in the shuffle." Anderson walked up to us, chewing gum.
"Point is, we don't break the seal and open them up unless we suspect something illegal, drugs, undeclared cargo," Shaw continued. "Every now and then we preselect a ship for a full shakedown search to keep people honest."
"Glad I don't have to dress like that anymore," Anderson remarked as Marino headed toward us, his demeanor cocky and pugilistic, the way he always acted when he was insecure and in an especially foul mood.
"Why's he in uniform?" I asked her.
"He got reassigned."
"There's been a lot of changes in the department since Deputy Chief Bray got here," Anderson said as if she were proud of the fact.
I couldn't imagine why anyone would throw someone so valuable back into uniform. I wondered how long ago this had happened. I was hurt Marino hadn't let me know, and I was ashamed I hadn't found out anyway. It had been weeks, maybe a month, since I had called just to check on him. I couldn't remember the last time I'd invited him to drop by my office for coffee or to come to my house for dinner.
"What's going on?" he gruffly said as a greeting.
He didn't give Anderson a glance.
"I'm Joe Shaw. How you doing?"
"Like shit," Marino sourly replied. "Anderson, you decide to work this one all by yourself? Or is it just the other cops don't want nothing to do with you?" She glared at him. She took the gum out of her mouth and tossed it as if he had ruined the flavor.
"You forget to invite anyone to this little party of yours?" he went on. "Jesus!" He was furious.
Marino was strangled by a short sleeved white shirt buttoned up to the collar and a clip on tie. His big belly was in a shoving match with dark blue uniform pants and a stiff leather duty belt fully loaded with his Sig Sauer nine millimeter pistol, handcuffs, extra clips, pepper spray and all the rest. His face was flushed. He was dripping sweat, a pair of Oakley sunglasses blacking out his eyes.
"You and I have to talk," I said to him.
I tried to pull him off to the side, but he wouldn't budge. He tapped a Marlboro out of the pack he always had on him somewhere.
"You like my new outfit?" he sardonically said to me. "Deputy Chief Bray thought I needed new clothes."
"Marino, you're not needed here," Anderson said to him. "In fact, I don't think you want anyone to know you even thought about coming here."
"It's captain to you." He blew out his words on gusts of cigarette smoke. "You might want to watch your smart ass mouth because I outrank you, babe."
Shaw watched the rude exchange without a word.
"I don't believe we call female officers babe anymore," Anderson said.
"I've got a body to look at," I said.
"We've got to go through the warehouse to get there," Shaw told me.
"Let's go," I said.
He walked Marino and me to a warehouse door that faced the river. Inside was a huge, dimly lit, airless space that was sweet with the smell of tobacco. Thousands of bales of it were wrapped in burlap and stacked on wooden pallets, and there were tons of magfilled sand and orifet that I believed were used in processing steel, and machine parts bound for Trinidad, according to what was stamped on crates.
Several bays down, the container had been backed up to a loading dock. The closer we got to it, the stronger the odor. We stopped at the crime-scene tape draped across the container's open door. The stench was thick and hot, as if every molecule of oxygen had been replaced by it, and I willed my senses to have no opinion. Flies had begun to gather, their ominous noise reminding me of the high pitched buzzing of a remote control toy plane.
"Were there flies when the container was