He is coming for me.
I feel it in my bones. I sniff it in the air, as recognizable as the scent of hot sand and savory spices and the sweat of a hundred men toiling in the sun. These are the smells of Egypt’s western desert, and they are still vivid to me, although that country is nearly half a globe away from the dark bedroom where I now lie. Fifteen years have passed since I walked that desert, but when I close my eyes, in an instant I am there again, standing at the edge of the tent camp, looking toward the Libyan border, and the sunset. The wind moaned like a woman when it swept down the wadi. I still hear the thuds of pickaxes and the scrape of shovels, can picture the army of Egyptian diggers, busy as ants as they swarmed the excavation site, hauling their gufa baskets filled with soil. It seemed to me then, when I stood in that desert fifteen years ago, as if I were an actress in a film about someone else’s adventure. Not mine. Certainly it was not an adventure that a quiet girl from Indio, California, ever expected to live.
The lights of a passing car glimmer through my closed eyelids.
When I open my eyes, Egypt vanishes. No longer am I standing in the desert gazing at a sky smeared by sunset the color of bruises. Instead I am once again half a world away, lying in my dark San Diego bedroom.
I climb out of bed and walk barefoot to the window to look out at the street. It is a tired neighborhood of stucco tract homes built in the 1950s, before the American dream meant mini mansions and three-car garages. There is honesty in the modest but sturdy houses, built not to impress but to shelter, and I feel safely anonymous here. Just another single mother struggling to raise a recalcitrant teenage daughter.
Peeking through the curtains at the street, I see a dark-colored sedan slow down half a block away. It pulls over to the curb, and the headlights turn off. I watch, waiting for the driver to step out, but no one does. For a long time the driver sits there. Perhaps he’s listening to the radio, or maybe he’s had a fight with his wife and is afraid to face her. Perhaps there are lovers in that car with nowhere else to go. I can formulate so many explanations, none of them alarming, yet my skin is prickling with hot dread.
A moment later the sedan’s taillights come back on, and the car pulls away and continues down the street.
Even after it vanishes around the corner, I am still jittery, clutching the curtains in my damp hand. I return to bed and lie sweating on top of the covers, but I cannot sleep. Although it’s a warm July night, I keep my bedroom window latched at night, and insist that my daughter Tari keeps hers latched as well. But Tari does not always listen to me.
Every day, she listens to me less.
I close my eyes and as always, the visions of Egypt come back. It’s always to Egypt that my thoughts return. Even before I stood on its soil, I’d dreamed about it. At six years old, I spotted a photograph of the Valley of the Kings on the cover of National Geographic, feeling instant recognition, as though I were looking at a familiar, much-beloved face that I had almost forgotten. That was what the land meant to me, a beloved face I longed to see again.
And as the years progressed, I laid the foundations for my return. I worked and studied. A full scholarship brought me to Stanford, and to the attention of a professor who enthusiastically recommended me for a summer job at an excavation in Egypt’s western desert.
In June, at the end of my junior year, I boarded a flight to Cairo.
Even now, in the darkness of my California bedroom, I remember how my eyes ached from the sunlight glaring on white-hot sand. I smell the sunscreen on my skin and feel the sting of the wind peppering my face with desert grit. These memories make me happy. With a trowel in my hand and the sun on my shoulders, this was the culmination of a young girl’s dreams.
How quickly dreams become nightmares. I’d boarded the plane to Cairo as a happy college student. Three months later, I returned home a changed woman.
I did not come back from the desert alone. A monster followed me.
In the dark, my eyelids spring open. Was that a footfall? A door creaking open? I lie on damp sheets, heart battering itself against my chest. I am afraid to get out of bed, and afraid not to.
Something is not right in this house.
After years of hiding, I know better than to ignore the warning whispers in my head. Those urgent whispers are the only reason I am still alive. I’ve learned to pay heed to every anomaly, every tremor of disquiet. I notice unfamiliar cars driving up my street. I snap to attention if a co-worker mentions that someone was asking about me. I make elaborate escape plans long before I ever need them. My next move is already planned out. In two hours, my daughter and I can be over the border and in Mexico with new identities. Our passports, with new names, are already tucked away in my suitcase.
We should have left by now. We should not have waited this long.
But how do you convince a fourteen-year-old girl to move away from her friends? Tari is the problem; she does not understand the danger we’re in.
I pull open the nightstand drawer and take out the gun. It is not legally registered, and it makes me nervous, keeping a firearm under the same roof with my daughter. But after six weekends at the shooting range, I know how to use it.
My bare feet are silent as I step out of my room and move down the hall, past my daughter’s closed door. I conduct the same inspection that I have made a thousand times before, always in the dark. Like any prey, I feel safest in the dark.
In the kitchen, I check the windows and the door. In the living room, I do the same. Everything is secure. I come back up the hall and pause outside my daughter’s bedroom. Tari has become fanatical about her privacy, but there is no lock on her door, and I will never allow there to be one. I need to be able to look in, to confirm that she is safe.
The door gives a loud squeak as I open it, but it won’t wake her. As with most teenagers, her sleep is akin to a coma. The first thing I notice is the breeze, and I give a sigh. Once again, Tari has ignored my wishes and left her window wide open, as she has so many times before.
It feels like sacrilege, bringing the gun into my daughter’s bedroom, but I need to close that window. I step inside and pause beside the bed, watching her sleep, listening to the steady rhythm of her breathing. I remember the first time I laid eyes on her, red-faced and crying in the obstetrician’s hands. I had been in labor eighteen hours, and was so exhausted I could barely lift my head from the pillow. But after one glimpse of my baby, I would have risen from bed and fought a legion of attackers to protect her. That was the moment I knew what her name would be. I thought of the words carved into the great temple at Abu Simbel, words chosen by Ramses the Great to proclaim his love for his wife.
Nefertari, for whom the sun doth shine
My daughter Nefertari is the one and only treasure that I brought back with me from Egypt. And I am terrified of losing her.
Tari is so much like me. It’s as if I am watching myself sleeping. When she was ten years old, she could already read hieroglyphs. At twelve, she could recite all the dynasties down to the Ptolemys. She spends her weekends haunting the Museum of Man. She is a clone of me in every way, and as the years pass there is no obvious trace of her father in her face or her voice or, most important of all, her soul. She is my daughter, mine alone, untainted by the evil that fathered her.
But she is also a normal fourteen-year-old girl, and this has been a source of frustration these past weeks as I’ve felt darkness closing in around us, as I lie awake every night, listening for a monster’s footsteps. My daughter is oblivious to the danger because I have hidden the truth from her. I want her to grow up strong and fearless, a warrior woman who is unafraid of shadows. She does not understand why I pace the house late at night, why I latch the windows and double-check the doors. She thinks I am a worrywart, and it’s true: I do all the worrying for both of us, to preserve the illusion that all is right with the world.
That is what Tari believes. She likes San Diego and she looks forward to her first year in high school. She’s managed to make friends here, and heaven help the parent who tries to come between a teenager and her friends. She is as strong-willed as I am, and were it not for her resistance, we would have left town weeks ago.
A breeze blows in the window, chilling the sweat on my skin.
I set the gun down on the nightstand and cross to the window to close it. For a moment I linger, breathing in cool air. Outside, the night has fallen silent, except for a mosquito’s whine. A prick stings my cheek. The significance of that mosquito bite does not strike me until I reach up to slide the window shut. I feel the icy breath of panic rush up my spine.
There is no screen over the window. Where is the screen?
Only then do I sense the malevolent presence. While I stood lovingly watching my daughter, it was watching me. It has always been watching, biding its time, waiting for its chance to spring. Now it has found us.
I turn and face the evil.
Dr. Maura Isles could not decide whether to stay or to flee.
She lingered in the shadows of the Pilgrim Hospital parking lot, well beyond the glare of the klieg lights, beyond the circle of TV cameras. She had no wish to be spotted, and most local reporters would recognize the striking woman whose pale face and bluntly cut black hair had earned her the nickname Queen of the Dead. As yet no one had noticed Maura’s arrival, and not a single camera was turned in her direction. Instead, the dozen reporters were fully focused on a white van that had just pulled up at the hospital’s lobby entrance to unload its famous passenger. The van’s rear doors swung open and a lightning storm of camera flashes lit up the night as the celebrity patient was gently lifted out of the van and placed onto a hospital gurney. This patient was a media star whose newfound fame far outshone any mere medical examiner’s. Tonight Maura was merely part of the awestruck audience, drawn here for the same reason the reporters had converged like frenzied groupies outside the hospital on a warm Sunday night.
All were eager to catch a glimpse of Madam X.
Maura had faced reporters many times before, but the rabid hunger of this mob alarmed her. She knew that if some new prey wandered into their field of vision, their attention could shift in an instant, and tonight she was already feeling emotionally bruised and vulnerable. She considered escaping the scrum by turning around and climbing back into her car. But all that awaited her at home was a silent house and perhaps a few too many glasses of wine to keep her company on a night when Daniel Brophy could not. Lately there were far too many such nights, but that was the bargain she had struck by falling in love with him. The heart makes its choices without weighing the consequences. It doesn’t look ahead to the lonely nights that follow.
The gurney carrying Madam X rolled into the hospital, and the wolf pack of reporters chased after it. Through the glass lobby doors, Maura saw bright lights and excited faces, while outside in the parking lot she stood alone.
She followed the entourage into the building.
The gurney rolled through the lobby, past hospital visitors who stared in astonishment, past excited hospital staff waiting with their camera phones to snap photos. The parade moved on, turning down the hallway and toward Diagnostic Imaging. But at an inner doorway, only the gurney was allowed through. A hospital official in suit and tie stepped forward and blocked the reporters from going any farther.
“I’m afraid we’ll have to stop you right here,” he said. “I know you all want to watch this, but the room’s very small.” He raised his hands to silence the disappointed grumbles. “My name is Phil Lord. I’m the public relations officer for Pilgrim Hospital and we’re thrilled to be part of this study, since a patient like Madam X comes along only every, well, two thousand years.” He smiled at the expected laughter. “The CT scan won’t take long, so if you’re willing to wait, one of the archaeologists will come out immediately afterward to announce the results.” He turned to a pale man of about forty who’d retreated into a corner, as though hoping he would not be noticed. “Dr. Robinson, before we start, would you like to say a few words?”
Addressing this crowd was clearly the last thing the bespectacled man wanted to do, but he gamely took a breath and stepped forward, nudging his drooping glasses back up the bridge of his beakish nose. This archaeologist bore no resemblance at all to Indiana Jones. With his receding hairline and studious squint, he looked more like an accountant caught in the unwelcome glare of the cameras. “I’m Dr. Nicholas Robinson,” he said. “I’m curator at---”
“Could you speak up, Doctor?” one of the reporters called out.
“Oh, sorry.” Dr. Robinson cleared his throat. “I’m curator at the Crispin Museum here in Boston. We are immensely grateful that Pilgrim Hospital has so generously offered to perform this CT scan of Madam X. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to catch an intimate glimpse into the past, and judging by the size of this crowd, you’re all as excited as we are. My colleague Dr. Josephine Pulcillo, who is an Egyptologist, will come out to speak to you after the scan is completed. She’ll announce the results and answer any questions then.”
“When will Madam X go on display for the public?” a reporter called out.
“Within the week, I expect,” said Robinson. “The new exhibit’s already been built and---”
“Any clues to her identity?”
“Why hasn’t she been on display before?”
“Could she be royal?”
“I don’t know,” said Robinson, blinking rapidly under the assault of so many questions. “We still need to confirm it’s a female.”
“You found it six months ago, and you still don’t know the sex?”
“These analyses take time.”
“One glance oughta do it,” a reporter said, and the crowd laughed.
“It’s not as simple as you think,” said Robinson, his glasses slipping down his nose again. “At two thousand years old, she’s extremely fragile and she must be handled with great care. I found it nerve wracking enough just transporting her here tonight, in that van. Our first priority as a museum is preservation. I consider myself her guardian, and it’s my duty to protect her. That’s why we’ve taken our time coordinating this scan with the hospital. We move slowly, and we move with care.”
“What do you hope to learn from this CT scan tonight, Dr. Robinson?”
Robinson’s face suddenly lit up with enthusiasm. “Learn? Why, everything! Her age, her health. The method of her preservation. If we’re fortunate, we may even discover the cause of her death.”
“Is that why the medical examiner’s here?”
The whole group turned like a multieyed creature and stared at Maura, who had been standing at the back of the room. She felt the familiar urge to back away as the TV cameras swung her way.
“Dr. Isles,” a reporter called out, “are you here to make a diagnosis?”
“Why is the ME’s office involved?” another asked.
That last question needed an immediate answer, before the issue got twisted by the press.
Maura said, firmly: “The medical examiner’s office is not involved. It’s certainly not paying me to be here tonight.”
“But you are here,” said Channel 5’s blond hunk, whom Maura had never liked.
“At the invitation of the Crispin Museum. Dr. Robinson thought it might be helpful to have a medical examiner’s perspective on this case. So he called me last week to ask if I wanted to observe the scan. Believe me, any pathologist would jump at this chance. I’m as fascinated by Madam X as you are, and I can’t wait to meet her.” She looked pointedly at the curator. “Isn’t it about time to begin, Dr. Robinson?”
She’d just tossed him an escape line, and he grabbed it. “Yes. Yes, it’s time. If you’ll come with me, Dr. Isles.”
She cut through the crowd and followed him into the Imaging Department. As the door closed behind them, shutting them off from the press, Robinson blew out a long sigh.
“God, I’m terrible at public speaking,” he said. “Thank you for ending that ordeal.”
“I’ve had practice. Way too much of it.”
They shook hands, and he said: “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Dr. Isles. Mr. Crispin wanted to meet you as well, but he had hip surgery a few months ago and he still can’t stand for long periods of time. He asked me to say hello.”
“When you invited me, you didn’t warn me I’d have to walk through that mob.”
“The press?” Robinson gave a pained look. “They’re a necessary evil.”
“Necessary for whom?”
“Our survival as a museum. Since the article about Madam X, our ticket sales have gone through the roof. And we haven’t even put her on display yet.”
Robinson led her into a warren of hallways. On this Sunday night, the Diagnostic Imaging Department was quiet and the rooms they passed were dark and empty.
“It’s going to get a little crowded in there,” said Robinson. “There’s hardly space for even a small group.”
“Who else is watching?”
“My colleague Josephine Pulcillo; the radiologist, Dr. Brier; and a CT tech. Oh, and there’ll be a camera crew.”
“Someone you hired?”
“No. They’re from the Discovery Channel.”
She gave a startled laugh. “Now I’m really impressed.”
“It does mean, though, that we have to watch our language.” He stopped outside the door labeled ct and said softly: “I think they may be already filming.”
They quietly slipped into the CT viewing room, where the camera crew was, indeed, recording as Dr. Brier explained the technology they were about to use.
“CT is short for “computed tomography.” Our machine shoots X-rays at the subject from thousands of different angles. The computer then processes that information and generates a three-dimensional image of the internal anatomy. You’ll see it on this monitor. It’ll look like a series of cross sections, as if we’re actually cutting the body into slices.”
As the taping continued, Maura edged her way to the viewing window. There, peering through the glass, she saw Madam X for the first time.
In the rarefied world of museums, Egyptian mummies were the undisputed rock stars. Their display cases were where you’d usually find the schoolchildren gathered, faces up to the glass, every one of them fascinated by a rare glimpse of death. Seldom did modern eyes encounter a human corpse on display, unless it wore the acceptable countenance of a mummy. The public loved mummies, and Maura was no exception. She stared, transfixed, even though what she actually saw was nothing more than a human-shaped bundle resting in an open crate, its flesh concealed beneath ancient strips of linen. Mounted over the face was a cartonnage mask --- the painted face of a woman with haunting dark eyes.
But then another woman in the CT room caught Maura’s attention. Wearing cotton gloves, the young woman leaned into the crate, removing layers of Ethafoam packing from around the mummy. Ringlets of black hair fell around her face. She straightened and shoved her hair back, revealing eyes as dark and striking as those painted on the mask. Her Mediterranean features could well have appeared on any Egyptian temple painting, but her clothes were thoroughly modern: skinny blue jeans and a Live Aid T-shirt.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” murmured Dr. Robinson. He’d moved beside Maura, and for a moment she wondered if he was referring to Madam X or to the young woman. “She appears to be in excellent condition. I just hope the body inside is as well preserved as those wrappings.”
“How old do you think she is? Do you have an estimate?”
“We sent off a swatch of the outer wrapping for carbon fourteen analysis. It just about killed our budget to do it, but Jose phine insisted. The results came back as second century bc.”
“That’s the Ptolemaic period, isn’t it?”
He responded with a pleased smile. “You know your Egyptian dynasties.”
“I was an anthropology major in college, but I’m afraid I don’t remember much beyond that and the Yanomamo tribe.”
“Still, I’m impressed.”
She stared at the wrapped body, marveling that what lay in that crate was more than two thousand years old. What a journey it had taken, across an ocean, across millennia, all to end up lying on a CT table in a Boston hospital, gawked at by the curious. “Are you going to leave her in the crate for the scan?” she asked.
“We want to handle her as little as possible. The crate won’t get in the way. We’ll still get a good look at what lies under that linen.”
“So you haven’t taken even a little peek?”
“You mean have I unwrapped part of her?” His mild eyes widened in horror. “God, no. Archaeologists would have done that a hundred years ago, maybe, and that’s exactly how they ended up damaging so many specimens. There are probably layers of resin under those outer wrappings, so you can’t just peel it all away. You might have to chip through it. It’s not only destructive, it’s disrespectful. I’d never do that.” He looked through the window at the dark-haired young woman. “And Josephine would kill me if I did.”
“That’s your colleague?”
“Yes. Dr. Pulcillo.”
“She looks like she’s about sixteen.”
“Doesn’t she? But she’s smart as a whip. She’s the one who arranged this scan. And when the hospital attorneys tried to put a stop to it, Josephine managed to push it through anyway.”
“Why would the attorneys object?”
“Seriously? Because this patient couldn’t give the hospital her informed consent.”
Maura laughed in disbelief. “They wanted informed consent from a mummy?”
“When you’re a lawyer, every i must be dotted. Even when the patient’s been dead for a few thousand years.”
Dr. Pulcillo had removed all the packing materials, and she joined them in the viewing room and shut the connecting door. The mummy now lay exposed in its crate, awaiting the first barrage of X-rays.
“Dr. Robinson?” said the CT tech, fingers poised over the computer keyboard. “We need to provide the required patient information before we can start the scan. What shall I use as the birth date?”
The curator frowned. “Oh, gosh. Do you really need a birth date?” “I can’t start the scan until I fill in these blanks. I tried the year zero, and the computer wouldn’t take it.”
“Why don’t we use yesterday’s date? Make it one day old.”
“Okay. Now the program insists on knowing the sex. Male, female, or other?” Robinson blinked. “There’s a category for other?”
The tech grinned. “I’ve never had the chance to check that particular box.”
“Well then, let’s use it tonight. There’s a woman’s face on the mask, but you never know. We can’t be sure of the gender until we scan it.”
“Okay,” said Dr. Brier, the radiologist. “We’re ready to go.”
Dr. Robinson nodded. “Let’s do it.”
They gathered around the computer monitor, waiting for the first images to appear. Through the window, they could see the table feed Madam X’s head into the doughnut-shaped opening, where she was bombarded by X-rays from multiple angles. Computerized tomography was not new medical technology, but its use as an archaeological tool was relatively recent. No one in that room had ever before watched a live CT scan of a mummy, and as they all crowded in, Maura was aware of the TV camera trained on their faces, ready to capture their reactions. Standing beside her, Nicholas Robinson rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, radiating enough nervous energy to infect everyone in the room. Maura felt her own pulse quicken as she craned for a better view of the monitor. The first image that appeared drew only impatient sighs.
“It’s just the shell of the crate,” said Dr. Brier.
Maura glanced at Robinson and saw that his lips were pressed together in thin lines. Would Madam X turn out to be nothing more than an empty bundle of rags? Dr. Pulcillo stood beside him, looking just as tense, gripping the back of the radiologist’s chair as she stared over his shoulder, awaiting a glimpse of anything recognizably human, anything to confirm that inside those bandages was a cadaver.
The next image changed everything. It was a startlingly bright disk, and the instant it appeared, the observers all took in a sharply simultaneous breath.
Dr. Brier said, “That’s the top of the cranium. Congratulations, you’ve definitely got an occupant in there.”
Robinson and Pulcillo gave each other happy claps on the back. “This is what we were waiting for!” he said.
Pulcillo grinned. “Now we can finish building that exhibit.”
“Mummies!” Robinson threw his head back and laughed. “Everyone loves mummies!”
New slices appeared on the screen, and their attention snapped back to the monitor as more of the cranium appeared, its cavity filled not with brain matter but with ropy strands that looked like a knot of worms.
“Those are linen strips,” Dr. Pulcillo murmured in wonder, as though this was the most beautiful sight she’d ever seen.
“There’s no brain matter,” said the CT tech.
“No, the brain was usually evacuated.”
“Is it true they’d stick a hook up through the nose and yank the brain out that way?” the tech asked.
“Almost true. You can’t really yank out the brain, because it’s too soft. They probably used an instrument to whisk it around until it was liquefied. Then they’d tilt the body so the brain would drip out the nose.”
“Oh man, that’s gross,” said the tech. But he was hanging on Pulcillo’s every word.
“They might leave the cranium empty or they might pack it with linen strips, as you see here. And frankincense.”
“What is frankincense, anyway? I’ve always wondered about that.”
“A fragrant resin. It comes from a very special tree in Africa. Valued quite highly in the ancient world.”
“So that’s why one of the three wise men brought it to Bethlehem.”
Dr. Pulcillo nodded. “It would have been a treasured gift.”
“Okay,” Dr. Brier said. “We’ve moved below the level of the orbits. There you can see the upper jaw, and...” He paused,
frowning at an unexpected density.
Robinson murmured, “Oh my goodness.”
“It’s something metallic,” said Dr. Brier. “It’s in the oral cavity.”
“It could be gold leaf,” said Pulcillo. “In the Greco-Roman era, they’d sometimes place gold-leaf tongues inside the mouth.”
Robinson turned to the TV camera, which was recording every remark. “There appears to be metal inside the mouth. That would correlate with our presumptive date during the Greco-Roman era---”
“Now what is this?” exclaimed Dr. Brier.
Maura’s gaze shot back to the computer screen. A bright star-burst had appeared within the mummy’s lower jaw, an image that stunned Maura because it should not have been present in a corpse that was two thousand years old. She leaned closer, staring at a detail that would scarcely cause comment were this a body that had arrived fresh on the autopsy table. “I know this is impossible,” Maura said softly. “But you know what that looks like?”
The radiologist nodded. “It appears to be a dental filling.”
Maura turned to Dr. Robinson, who appeared just as startled as everyone else in the room. “Has anything like this ever been described in an Egyptian mummy before?” she asked. “Ancient dental repairs that could be mistaken for modern fillings?”
Wide-eyed, he shook his head. “But it doesn’t mean the Egyptians were incapable of it. Their medical care was the most advanced in the ancient world.” He looked at his colleague. “Josephine, what can you tell us about this? It’s your field.”
Dr. Pulcillo struggled for an answer. “There --- there are medical papyri from the Old Kingdom,” she said. “They describe how to fix loose teeth and make dental bridges. And there was a healer who was famous as a maker of teeth. So we know they were ingenious when it came to dental care. Far ahead of their time.”
“But did they ever make repairs like that?” said Maura, pointing to the screen.
Dr. Pulcillo’s troubled gaze returned to the image. “If they did,” she said softly, “I’m not aware of it.”
On the monitor, new images appeared in shades of gray, the body viewed in cross section as though sliced through by a bread knife. She could be bombarded by X-rays from every angle, subjected to massive doses of radiation, but this patient was beyond fears of cancer, beyond worries about side effects. As X-rays continued to assault her body, no patient could have been more submissive.
Shaken by the earlier images, Robinson was now arched forward like a tightly strung bow, alert for the next surprise. The first slices of the thorax appeared, the cavity black and vacant.
“It appears that the lungs were removed,” the radiologist said. “All I see is a shriveled bit of mediastinum in the chest.”
“That’s the heart,” said Pulcillo, her voice steadier now. This, at least, was what she’d expected to see. “They always tried to leave it in situ.”
“Just the heart?”
She nodded. “It was considered the seat of intelligence, so you never separated it from the body. There are three separate spells contained in the Book of the Dead to ensure that the heart remains in place.”
“And the other organs?” asked the CT tech. “I heard those were put in special jars.”
“That was before the Twenty-first Dynasty. After around a thousand bc, the organs were wrapped into four bundles and stuffed back into the body.”
“So we should be able to see that?”
“In a mummy from the Ptolemaic era, yes.”
“I think I can make an educated guess about her age when she died,” said the radiologist. “The wisdom teeth were fully erupted, and the cranial sutures are closed. But I don’t see any degenerative changes in the spine.”
“A young adult,” said Maura.
“Probably under thirty-five.”
“In the era she lived in, thirty-five was well into middle age,” said Robinson.
The scan had moved below the thorax, X-rays slicing through layers of wrappings, through the shell of dried skin and bones, to reveal the abdominal cavity. What Maura saw within was eerily unfamiliar, as strange to her as an alien autopsy. Where she expected to see liver and spleen, stomach and pancreas, instead she saw snake-like coils of linen, an interior landscape that was missing all that should have been recognizable. Only the bright knobs of vertebral bone told her this was indeed a human body, a body that had been hollowed out to a mere shell and stuffed like a rag doll.
Mummy anatomy might be alien to her, but for both Robinson and Pulcillo this was familiar territory. As new images appeared, they both leaned in, pointing out details they recognized.
“There,” said Robinson. “Those are the four linen packets containing the organs.”
“Okay, we’re now in the pelvis,” Dr. Brier said. He pointed to two pale arcs. They were the top edges of the iliac crests.
Slice by slice, the pelvis slowly took shape, as the computer compiled and rendered countless X-ray beams. It was a digital striptease as each image revealed a tantalizing new peek.
“Look at the shape of the pelvic inlet,” said Dr. Brier.
“It’s a female,” said Maura.
The radiologist nodded. “I’d say it’s pretty conclusive.” He turned and grinned at the two archaeologists. “You can now officially call her Madam X. And not Mister X.”
“And look at the pubic symphysis,” said Maura, still focused on the monitor. “There’s no separation.”
Brier nodded. “I agree.”
“What does that mean?” asked Robinson.
Maura explained. “During childbirth, the infant’s passage through the pelvic inlet can actually force apart the pubic bones, where they join at the symphysis. It appears this female never had children.”
The CT tech laughed. “Your mummy’s never been a mommy.”
The scan had moved beyond the pelvis, and they could now see cross sections of the two femurs encased in the withered flesh of the upper thighs.
“Nick, we need to call Simon,” said Pulcillo. “He’s probably waiting by the phone.”
“Oh gosh, I completely forgot.” Robinson pulled out his cell phone and dialed his boss. “Simon, guess what I’m looking at right now? Yes, she’s gorgeous. Plus, we’ve discovered a few surprises, so the press conference is going to be quite the---” In an instant he fell silent, his gaze frozen on the screen.
“What the hell?” blurted the CT tech.
The image now glowing on the monitor was so unexpected that the room had fallen completely still. Were a living patient lying on the CT table, Maura would have no difficulty identifying the small metallic object embedded in the calf, an object that had shattered the slender shaft of the fibula. But that bit of metal did not belong in Madam X’s leg.
A bullet did not belong in Madam X’s millennium.
“Is that what I think it is?” said the CT tech.
Robinson shook his head. “It has to be postmortem damage. What else could it be?”
“Two thousand years postmortem?”
“I’ll --- I’ll call you back, Simon.” Robinson disconnected his cell phone. Turning to the cameraman, he ordered: “Shut it off. Please shut it off now.” He took a deep breath. “All right. All right, let’s --- let’s approach this logically.” He straightened, gaining confidence as an obvious explanation occurred to him. “Mummies have often been abused or damaged by souvenir hunters. Obviously, someone fired a bullet into the mummy. And a conservator later tried to repair that damage by rewrapping her. That’s why we saw no entry hole in the bandages.”
“That isn’t what happened,” said Maura.
Robinson blinked. “What do you mean? That has to be the explanation.”
“The damage to that leg wasn’t postmortem. It happened while this woman was still alive.”
“I’m afraid Dr. Isles is right,” said the radiologist. He looked at Maura. “You’re referring to the early callus formation around the fracture site?”
“What does that mean?” asked Robinson. “Callus formation?”
“It means the broken bone had already started the process of healing when this woman died. She lived at least a few weeks after the injury.”
Maura turned to the curator. “Where did this mummy come from?”
Robinson’s glasses had slipped down his nose yet again, and he stared over the lenses as though hypnotized by what he saw glowing in the mummy’s leg.
It was Dr. Pulcillo who answered the question, her voice barely a whisper. “It was in the museum basement. Nick --- Dr. Robinson found it back in January.”
“And how did the museum obtain it?”
Pulcillo shook her head. “We don’t know.”
“There must be records. Something in your files to indicate where she came from.”
“There are none for her,” said Robinson, at last finding his voice. “The Crispin Museum is a hunred thirty years old, and many records are missing. We have no idea how long she was stored in the basement.”
“How did you happen to find her?”
Even in that air-conditioned room, sweat had broken out on Dr. Robinson’s pale face. “After I was hired three years ago, I began an inventory of the collection. That’s how I came across her. She was in an unlabeled crate.”
“And that didn’t surprise you? To find something as rare as an Egyptian mummy in an unlabeled crate?”
“But mummies aren’t all that rare. In the 1800s, you could buy one in Egypt for only five dollars, so American tourists brought them home by the hundreds. They turn up in attics and antiques stores. A freak show in Niagara Falls even claims they had King Ramses the First in their collection. So it’s not all that surprising that we’d find a mummy in our museum.”
“Dr. Isles?” said the radiologist. “We’ve got the scout film. You might want to take a look at it.”
Maura turned to the monitor. Displayed on the screen was a conventional X-ray like the films she hung on her own viewing box in the morgue. She did not need a radiologist to interpret what she saw there.
“There’s not much doubt about it now,” said Dr. Brier.
No. There’s no doubt whatsoever. That’s a bullet in the leg.
Maura pulled out her cell phone.
“Dr. Isles?” said Robinson. “Whom are you calling?”
“I’m arranging for transport to the morgue,” she said. “Madam X is now a medical examiner’s case.”
“Is it just my imagination,” said Detective Barry Frost, “or do you and I catch all the weird ones?”
Madam X was definitely one of the weird ones, thought Detective Jane Rizzoli as she drove past TV news vans and turned into the parking lot of the medical examiner’s building. It was only eight am, and already the hyenas were yapping, ravenous for details of the ultimate cold case --- a case that Jane had greeted with skeptical laughter when Maura had phoned last night. The sight of the news vans made Jane realize that maybe it was time to get serious, time to consider the possibility that this was not, after all, some elaborate practical joke being played on her by the singularly humorless medical examiner.
She pulled into a parking space and sat eyeing the vans, wondering how many more cameras would be waiting out here when she and Frost came back out of the building.
“At least this one shouldn’t smell bad,” Jane said.
“But mummies can give you diseases, you know.”
Jane turned to her partner, whose pale and boyish face looked genuinely worried. “What diseases?” she asked.
“Since Alice has been away, I’ve been watching a lot of TV. Last night I saw this show on the Discovery Channel, about mummies that carry these spores.”
“Ooh. Scary spores.”
“It’s no joke,” he insisted. “They can make you sick.”
“Geez, I hope Alice gets home soon. You’re getting overdosed on the Discovery Channel.”
They stepped out of the car into cloying humidity that made Jane’s already unruly dark hair spring into frizzy waves. Despite the heat, she kept on her blazer, the ME’s building being the equivalent of a giant icebox. Only when they reached the autopsy suite anteroom did she shrug off her jacket. As she pulled on a surgical gown to protect her clothes, she looked through the window into the autopsy lab, at the subject lying on the table.
Madam X was what The Boston Globe had called the mummy, a catchy moniker that conjured up a vision of sultry beauty, a Cleopatra with dark eyes. Jane saw a dried-out husk wrapped in rags.
“She looks like a human tamale,” said Jane.
“Who’s the girl?” asked Frost, staring through the window.
There were two people in the room whom Jane did not recognize. The man was tall and gangly, professorial glasses perched on his nose. The young woman was a petite brunette wearing blue jeans beneath an autopsy gown. “Those must be the museum archaeologists. They were both going to be here.”
“She’s an archaeologist? Wow.”
Jane gave him an annoyed jab with her elbow. “Alice leaves town for a few weeks, and you forget you’re a married man.”
“I just never pictured an archaeologist looking as hot as her.”
They pulled on shoe covers and autopsy gowns and pushed into the lab.
“Hey, Doc,” said Jane. “Is this really one for us?”
Maura turned from the light box to face her. “We’re about to find out.” She introduced the pair whom Jane had seen through the window. “This is the curator, Dr. Nicholas Robinson. And his colleague, Dr. Josephine Pulcillo.”
“You’re both with the Crispin Museum?” asked Jane.
“And they’re very unhappy about what I’m planning to do here,” said Maura.
“It’s destructive,” said Robinson. “There has to be some other way to get this information besides cutting her open.”
“That’s why I wanted you to be here, Dr. Robinson,” said Maura. “To help me minimize the damage. The last thing I want to do is destroy an antiquity.”
“I thought the CT scan last night clearly showed a bullet,” said Jane.
“Those are the X-rays we shot this morning,” said Maura, pointing to the light box. “What do you think?”
Jane approached the display and studied the films clipped there. Glowing within the right calf was what certainly looked to her like a bullet.
Maura pointed to the bones of the right lower leg. “You can see how the fibula’s been fractured, presumably by this projectile.”
“You said it happened while she was still alive?”
“You can see early callus formation. This bone was in the process of healing when she died.”
“But her wrappings are two thousand years old,” said Dr. Robinson. “We’ve confirmed it.”
Jane stared hard at the X-ray, struggling to come up with a logical explanation for what they were looking at. “Maybe this isn’t a bullet. Maybe it’s some sort of ancient metal thingie. A spear tip or something.”
“That is not a spear tip, Jane,” said Maura. “It’s a bullet.”
“Then dig it out. Prove it to me.”
“And if I do?”
“Then we have a hell of a mind bender, don’t we? I mean, what are the possible explanations here?”
“You know what Alice said when I called her about it last night?” Frost said. “ ‘Time travel.’ That was the first thing she thought.”
Jane laughed. “Since when did Alice go woo-woo on you?”
“It’s theoretically possible, you know, to travel back in time,” he said. “Bring a gun back to ancient Egypt.”
Maura cut in impatiently: “Can we stick to real possibilities here?”
Jane frowned at the bright chunk of metal that looked like so many she had seen before glowing in countless X-rays of lifeless limbs and shattered skulls. “I’m having trouble coming up with any of those,” she said. “So why don’t you just cut her open and see what that metal thing is? Maybe these archaeologists are right. Maybe you’re jumping to conclusions, Doc.”
Robinson said, “As curator, it’s my duty to protect her and not let her be mindlessly ripped apart. Can you at least limit the damage to the relevant area?”
Maura nodded. “That’s a reasonable approach.” She moved to the table. “Let’s turn her over. If there’s an entrance wound, it will be in the right calf.”
“It’s best if we work together,” said Robinson. He went to the head, and Pulcillo moved to the feet. “We need to support the whole body and not put strain on any part of her. So if four of us could pitch in?”
Maura slipped gloved hands beneath the shoulders and said, “Detective Frost, could you support the hips?”
Frost hesitated, eyeing the stained linen wrappings. “Shouldn’t we put on masks or something?”
“We’re just turning her over,” said Maura.
“I’ve heard they carry diseases. You breathe in these spores and you get pneumonia.”
“Oh for God’s sake,” said Jane. She snapped on gloves and stepped up to the table. Sliding her hands beneath the mummy’s hips, she said: “I’m ready.”
“Okay, lift,” said Robinson. “Now rotate her. That’s it...”
“Wow, she hardly weighs anything,” said Jane.
“A living human body’s mostly water. Remove the organs, dry out the carcass, and you end up with just a fraction of its former weight. She probably weighs only around fifty pounds, wrappings and all.”
“Kind of like beef jerky, huh?”
“That’s exactly what she is. Human jerky. Now let’s ease her down. Gently.”
“You know, I wasn’t kidding about the spores,” said Frost. “I saw this show.”
“Are you talking about the King Tut curse?” said Maura.
“Yeah,” said Frost. “That’s what I’m talking about! All those people who died after they went into his tomb. They breathed in some kind of spores and got sick.”
“Aspergillus,” said Robinson. “When Howard Carter’s team disturbed the tomb, they probably breathed in spores that had collected inside over the centuries. Some of them came down with fatal cases of aspergillus pneumonia.”
“So Frost isn’t just bullshitting?” said Jane. “There really was a mummy’s curse?”
Annoyance flashed in Robinson’s eyes. “Of course there was no curse. Yes, a few people died, but after what Carter and his team did to poor Tutankhamen, maybe there should have been a curse.”
“What did they do to him?” asked Jane.
“They brutalized him. They sliced him open, broke his bones, and essentially tore him apart in the search for jewels and amulets. They cut him up in pieces to get him out of the coffin, pulling off his arms and legs. They severed his head. It wasn’t science. It was desecration.” He looked down at Madam X, and Jane saw admiration, even affection in his gaze. “We don’t want the same thing to happen to her.”
“The last thing I want to do is mangle her,” said Maura. “So let’s unwrap her just enough to find out what we’re dealing with here.”
“You probably won’t be able to just unwrap her,” said Robinson. “If the inner strips were soaked in resin, as per tradition, they’ll be stuck together as solid as glue.”
Maura turned to the X-ray for one more look, then reached for a scalpel and tweezers. Jane had watched Maura slice other bodies, but never before had she seen her hesitate so long, her blade hovering over the calf as though afraid to make the first cut. What they were about to do would forever damage Madam X, and Drs. Robinson and Pulcillo both were watching with outright disapproval in their eyes.
Maura made the first cut. This was not the usual confident slice into flesh. Instead, she used the tweezers to delicately lift the band of linen so that her blade slit through successive layers of fabric, strip by strip. “It’s peeling away quite easily,” she said.
Dr. Pulcillo frowned. “This isn’t traditional. Normally the bandages would be doused in molten resin. In the 1830s, when they unwrapped mummies, they sometimes had to pry the bandages off.”
“What was the point of the resin, anyway?” asked Frost.
“To make the wrappings stick together. It gave them rigidity, like making a papier-mâché container to protect the contents.”
“I’m already through the final layer,” Maura said. “There’s no resin adhering to any of this.”
Jane craned forward to catch a glimpse of what lay under the wrapping. “That’s her skin? It looks like old leather.”
“Dried skin is precisely what leather is, Detective Rizzoli,” said Robinson. “In a way.”
Maura reached for the scissors and gingerly snipped away the strips, exposing a larger patch of skin. It looked like brown parchment wrapped around bones. She glanced, once again, at the X-ray, and swung a magnifier over the calf. “I can’t find any entry hole in the skin.”
“So the wound’s not postmortem,” said Jane.
“It goes along with what we see on that X-ray. That foreign body was probably introduced while she was still alive. She lived long enough for the fractured bone to start mending. For the wound to close over.”
“How long would that take?”
“A few weeks. Perhaps a month.”
“Someone would have to care for her during that time, right? She’d have to be fed and sheltered.”
Maura nodded. “This makes the manner of death all the more difficult to determine.”
Robinson asked, “Manner of death? What do you mean?”
“In other words,” said Jane, “we’re wondering if she was murdered.”
“Let’s settle the most pressing issue first.” Maura reached for the knife. Mummification had toughened the tissues to the consistency of leather, and the blade did not cut easily into the withered flesh.
Glancing across the table, Jane saw Dr. Pulcillo’s lips tighten, as though to stifle a protest. But as much as she might object to the procedure, the woman could not look away. They all leaned in, even spore-phobic Frost, their attention glued to that exposed patch of leg as Maura picked up forceps and plunged the tips into the incision. It took only seconds of digging around in the shriveled flesh before the teeth of the forceps clamped down on the prize. Maura dropped it onto a steel tray, and it gave a metallic clang.
Dr. Pulcillo sucked in a sharp breath. This was no spear tip, no broken bit of knife blade.
Maura finally stated the obvious. “I think we can now safely say that Madam X is not two thousand years old.”
Excerpted from THE KEEPSAKE © Copyright 2011 by Tess Gerritsen. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.