October 22, 2012
Where the Red Willow and Wapiti Rivers merge in the Peace Region of northwestern Alberta, dark green waters tumble and foam around fallen trees and gray sandy islets with white pebble shores.
Black spruce and aspens are thick on the hillsides, and saplings grow at steep angles on riverbanks and cliffs, the slender boughs straining toward the sun before gravity bends them and snaps them in half.
Dead wood litters the water’s edge and collects in nests of split trunks and splintered branches that rapids boil around and through, the debris moving downstream in the endless rhythm of life thriving and dying, of decay and rebirth and death.
There is no sign of human habitation, no man-made trash or pollution or a single edifice I can see, and I imagine a violent catastrophe seventy million years ago when a herd of migrating pachyrhinosauri perished at once, hundreds of them thrashing and panicking as they drowned while crossing the river during a flood.
Their massive carcasses were fed upon by carnivores, and decomposed and disarticulated. Over time, bones were pushed by landslides and currents of water, becoming glacial deposits and outcrops almost indistinguishable from granitic bedrock and loose stones.
The scenes flowing by on my computer screen could be of a pristine wilderness that has remained untouched since the Cretaceous Age, were it not for an obvious fact: The video file was made by a human being holding a recording device while skimming over shallow water, careening at precarious speeds around sandbars and semi-submerged boulders and broken trees.
No recognizable details of the jetboat’s exterior or interior or the pilot or passengers on board are shown, only the aft deck’s metal rail and the shape of someone blacked out by the sun’s glare, a sharply outlined solid shadow against bright rushing water and an open blue sky.
I check my oversized titanium watch on its rubber strap and reach for my coffee—black, no sweetener—as distant footsteps sound in the corridor of my bullet-shaped building on the eastern border of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s campus. It isn’t light out yet this third Monday of October.
Seven stories below my top-floor office, traffic is steady on Memorial Drive, rush hour in this part of Cambridge well under way before dawn no matter the season or the weather. Headlights move along the embankment like bright insect eyes, the Charles River rippling darkly, and across the Harvard Bridge the city of Boston is a glittery barrier separating the earthbound empires of business and education from the harbors and bays that become the sea.
It’s too early for staff unless it’s one of the death investigators, but I can’t think of a good reason for Toby or Sherry or whoever is on call to be on this floor.
Actually, I haven’t a clue who came on at midnight, and I try to remember what vehicles were in the lot when I got here about an hour ago. The usual white SUVs and vans and one of our mobile crime scene trucks, I dimly recall. I really didn’t notice what else, was too preoccupied with my iPhone, with alert tones and messages reminding me of conference calls and appointments and a court appearance today. Poor situational awareness caused by multitasking, I think impatiently.
I should pay more attention to what’s around me, I chastise myself, but I shouldn’t have to wonder about who’s on call, for God’s sake. This is ridiculous. Frustrated, I think of my head of investigations, Pete Marino, who can’t seem to bother updating the electronic calendar anymore. How hard is it to drag-and-drop names from one date to another so I can see who’s working? He’s not kept up with it for quite some time and has been keeping to himself. Probably what I need to do is have him over for dinner, cook something he likes, and talk about what’s going on with him. The thought of it tries my patience, and at the moment I seem to have none.
Some mentally disturbed person, or maybe evil is the word.
I listen for whoever might be prowling around but hear no one now as I search the Internet, clicking on files, pondering the same details repeatedly as I realize how defeated I feel and how angry that makes me.
You got what you wanted this once.
There really isn’t anything gory or gruesome I’ve not seen or can’t somehow handle, but I was caught off guard last night, a quiet Sunday at home with my husband, Benton, music playing, the MacBook open on the kitchen counter in case anything happened that I should know about immediately. In a mellow mood, I was preoccupied with making one of his favorite dishes, risotto con spinaci come lo fanno a sondrio, waiting for water to boil in a saucepan, drinking a Geheimrat J Riesling that made me think of our recent trip to Vienna and the poignant reason we were there.
I was lost in thoughts of people I love, preparing a fine meal and drinking a gentle wine, when the e-mail with its attached video file landed at exactly 6:30 Eastern Standard Time.
I didn’t recognize the sender: BLiDedwood@stealthmail.com.
There was no message, just the subject heading: ATTENTION CHIEF MEDICAL EXAMINER KAY SCARPETTA, in a bold uppercase Eurostile font.
At first I was simply puzzled by the eighteen seconds of video with no audio, a cut-and-pasted jetboat ride in a part of the world I didn’t recognize. The film clip seemed innocent enough, and meant nothing to me as I viewed it the first time. I was sure someone had e-mailed it by mistake until the recording suddenly stopped, dissolving into a jpg, an image meant to shock.
I launch another search engine into cyberspace, unable to find much useful about the pachyrhinosaurus, a thick-nosed herbivorous dinosaur with a horned bony frill and flattened boss likely used to butt and gore other animals into submission. A uniquely strange-looking beast, somewhat like a two-ton short-legged rhino wearing a grotesque bony mask, I suppose, as I look at an artist’s rendering of one. A reptile with a face that’s hard to love, but Emma Shubert did, and now the forty-eight-year-old paleontologist is missing an ear or dead or both.
The anonymous e-mail was sent directly here to the CFC, the Cambridge Forensic Center, which I head, the point I can only assume to taunt and intimidate me, and I imagine a jetboat skimming over a river thousands of miles northwest of here in what looks like a lost part of the world. I study the overexposed ghostlike shape sitting in back, possibly on a bench seat, directly facing whoever was filming.
Who are you?
Then the steep rocky slope, what I now know is a dinosaur dig site called the Wapiti bone bed, and the image dissolves into a jpg that is violent and cruel.