"Five Autopsies" - by Leah BobetAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Johns Hopkins Medical Center, Baltimore, MD, November 26, 2011
Madeline Frost, M.D. November 26, 2011, 9:13 p.m. Postmortem dissection of decedent Audrey Michelle Gillespie. Race: White. Age: 27. Sex: Male. Date of death: November 24, 2011.
There was steel, and light.
The steel was in her hand, and where it cut, it demarcated: a line between correct and incorrect, evidence and conjecture; a line fanned out around two chilly breasts. The air was cool and sharp with bleach. The scalpel moved. Stiff skin split.
Madeline Frost peeled back the chest flap and said, "Fractures visible on ribs eight and nine."
Another pathologist might have paused with the scalpel; lined it up against the cracks to catch the angle of the blow. Frost tracked it with her eye and saw one blow, long and sharp: a crowbar, or a straight tree branch.
Different from the face, she noted. The face had been beaten. Hard.
The scalpel moved twice, and she lifted the fractured rib cage clear.
The breast implants got in the way. Frost bent back the chest flap impatiently, secured it with a pair of medical clamps. They bobbled between the layers of skin like a pair of fatty tumors. Her breath hissed. Inconvenient. Not the most inconvenient thing people did to bodies, but nonetheless.
She had a pan for the organs. They came out tough and tenuous, lightly damaged: there was no fatal rupture, no leak of fluids. Frost again glanced at the decedent's face: the layers of bruising that had become shattered cheekbones, a buckled skull, teeth knocked free and glistening in the depths of the opened mouth. One eye was bloodied. The expression was the expression of every corpse: faint, blank surprise.
She weighed the organs rhythmically. Her scale was digital, and did not creak. Sliced from them deft samples, from the arteries, from the veins. Opened up the stomach, and found half-digested beans, pine nuts, brown rice, a smear of green avocado. Two pills, which she fished out with a sharp pair of tweezers and separated into glass. "Time of death," she said into the hanging recorder, "was no more than two hours after the final meal." They had found this one in an alley. There was likely a restaurant receipt among the personal effects. She would fix it definitively when the pills were identified, and their rate of dissolution.
She wiped the scalpel. Paused. Came back, again, to that face.
The lines were wrong. There were consistencies to punched-in faces--and it was most definitely a pair of fists; blow after blow, bruise after bruise, measured the same fingers'-width across--and this face did not have them. There were no concentrations of bruising on the sides, as the decedent tried to turn away. No defensive wounds on the arms, no ligature marks or round-gripped bruises. Just jagged breaks, flowering outward--
She looked again at that line of breakage on the rib cage. The cracks spidered out at the bottom of each rib. She turned the whole structure, ran a hand along the eighth rib like a British matron checking, white-gloved, for dust: found them much rougher, jagged-edged.
The ribs had been cracked from the inside.
Frost frowned slightly and reached for her electric saw.
The brain was damaged: nearly pulped against the skull. She lifted it out with delicate fingers, charting the crushed pathways. Where they leaned against the skull, bone splintered just slightly. Outwards.
Autopsy was all about ruling out: what remained, no matter how improbable, as Conan Doyle and her first-year medical-school instructors had said, must be the truth.
Madeline Frost reached for her needle and thread, and thought how she might explain this to the FBI.
After the first trifecta of bodies Stephen Reyes and Solomon Todd delivered to Frost's autopsy suite, they had given her a cell phone. "Use this one," Reyes had said, "and we'll know it's you."
"Like the Batphone," Todd had added, and fell quiet when she just stared.
Madeline Frost hit the speed dial with finger-skipping precision; ten tones echoed uniform in her ears. The phone rang twice--once to fish it out of his pocket, or from a clip on his belt, and once for the hesitation--and then the line shocked to life.
"Reyes," he said, curt. As if she didn't know who she was dialing.
"Agent Reyes, this is Madeline Frost," she said, as if he didn't possess call display.
"Dr. Frost?" he said; needless repetition, but common enough to brush aside. "I have the rest of the team here. I'm going to put you on speakerphone."
"Very well," she said, and waited for the depth of the sounds in her ear to change.
"Go ahead," he said after a moment, hollower, lighter. She cleared her throat briskly.
"I will not have the toxicology reports for another two days," she said, and tallied, briefly, the vials and vials and jars with her eyes. "But your decedent likely died of blunt force trauma."
"Mm," he said, far away. Something rustled at the other end of the connection: a paper, perhaps. A crumpled coffee cup.
"The injuries, however," she said, "appear to have been inflicted from the inside."
"You mean internal trauma?" A light, gruff voice. Daniel Brady. A credible officer of the law, but not--and never--a doctor.
"No, Agent Brady," she said, crisp and clear, to ensure she was not misunderstood. "The trajectory of the blows is such that it indicates they were inflicted from the inside of the body outward."
There was a brief silence.
"The eighth and ninth rib are cracked with impact occurring on the inside of the ribcage," she added. "And the skull, while likely settled in transit, was impacted outward at a thirty-degree angle. The brain damage sustained is the most probable cause of death. The other injuries are comparatively minimal."
"And...nothing came out?" Brady said, slower than usual. "No holes, or...exit wounds?"
She could not have said what he was picturing, but it was certain he was picturing something. "There was no evidence of any foreign bodies, no. Just impact trauma, centered on the face."
This rustle of paper was perhaps more predictable. They would have photos in their files, just as she received an evaluation of each crime scene with the bodies. She rarely looked at them. They only biased the data.
"Maybe," another voice said--she sorted through mental recordings of gesture, pitch, syllable stress and decided Nicolette Lau--"the UNSUB was trying to prevent an ID of the body."
Lau was likely not talking to her; the tone was too quiet, too musing. "The dentition," Frost reminded, "is largely intact. And if one wished to prevent identification one would certainly remove the fingerprints."
The depth of the silence on the end of the line spread. Hopefully they would recruit another agent with medical training soon. They'd asked fewer foolish questions when Agent Worth was alive.
"There are Egyptian myths about that." Agent Villette's voice came, tinny, across the cellular connection. "That if you destroy a person's image, you destroy their afterlife."
"So that's mythology," Agent Brady said. "Or this is really, really personal."
Frost glanced at her dissection table. The drains were dark, lightly slicked under the bright, industrial lights.
"Those are my preliminary findings," she said. "I have to clean my table now."
Reyes's voice jumped in smooth after a moment. "Yes. Thank you, Dr. Frost. We'll be in touch."
"Yes," she said, and disconnected.
She would write up a more complete preliminary later that night, when the table was scrubbed and her instruments sterilized. The maintenance staff was not of the caliber of FBI special agents. They had repeatedly proved reluctant to clean an autopsy suite at 11:35 on a Saturday evening. After the third series of phone calls and forwardings and disagreements, Dr. Evans had provided her with three large bottles: detergent, sodium hypochlorite, 2% aqueous glutaraldehyde. The bleach went, dilute, to bathe the instruments. The glutaraldehyde went on the table.
Madeline leaned with both arms onto a fat yellow sponge. It scrubbed away the blood, germs, and dirt. Like a rush of soft dopamine working through a vein, order leaked slowly back into the world.
It was ten to midnight. There was an abnormal temporal lobe tumor waiting in the cooler, sent from a hospital in Tallahassee.
Surely, surely there was time for another.
It was not a very interesting tumor.
Madeline wrote Tallahassee about the tumor from her office: a cramped booth that opened direct into the autopsy suite. Most pathologists attached to Johns Hopkins had offices upstairs, in a wood-paneled and sunlit administrative wing, but she did not see patients. She did not entertain coroners, did not aspire to sit on the hospital executive staff. She kept an old brown desk and a set of Ikea lamps in the office, and her filing cabinets. The cabinets were light beige. She emptied them to storage every three years.
When she finished it was late: two-thirty in the morning, and the hall lights dim. Frost walked through them at habitual, efficient angles. Her flat shoes gripped the linoleum-tiled floors. The Pathology Building sounded distinct by night. The administration powered down diagnostic machines, autoclaves, lighting to conserve power, and from under them, the hum of the freezers emerged.
There was a young man at the security desk by the north door--Male, she catalogued, late twenties, Hispanic, brown eyes, black hair, approximately six feet two inches, two hundred and ten pounds. He wore a nametag: Ricky. The security officers rotated daily. It prevented familiarity.
"Would you like a walk out to your car, ma'am?" he asked. His eyes strayed to her badge, assuring himself she belonged here. Back up to her face. She did not have the kind of body young men's eyes lingered upon.
Madeline's assigned parking space was across the street from the Pathology Building. During daytime hours, she could take an indoor walkway right to the garage. In the evening it was locked. Crime was up in Baltimore since the economic crash. Most hospital entrances now shut down at six.
"Yes, thank you," she said, and Ricky's face muscles took an odd turn, and he stood and tucked his radio into his belt.
Ricky left her at her car door--a small grey Volkswagen, inoffensive and fuel-efficient--and she drove the thirteen minutes into Guilford, to the parking spot always left clear in front of her townhouse doorway. The porch light was on; an automatic timer. She locked the car door, unlocked the front door. Turned the porch light off with a flick of an inside switch.
From the inside, she thought as she shed her cushioned work shoes and placed them neatly on the shoe rack. Hm.
A flyer for sports equipment curled, solitary, on the floor underneath the mail slot. Madeline stooped to pick it up and carried it into the kitchen, to the stack of scrap paper on the rarely-set kitchen table. Put the already-full kettle on the spotless stove and turned the burner on.
Plucked the crime scene evaluation out from her black medical bag and flipped open the crisp brown folder.
It was a curiously empty crime scene: no blood spatter, no violence, no haste. A small stain darkened the brick of the building that bordered the alley, and that was all. Not much, she thought, to indicate a homicide if not for the extensive facial damage. Not much without knowing that the decedent was halfway transitioned, male to female, and that there had been a similar death three weeks prior.
She leaned back against the counter. Audrey Gillespie worked as a software developer. Two cats, divorced parents, one sibling, no human dependents. Neither lived nor worked in the neighborhood where the murder occurred. Crewed on refurbished tall ships as a hobby, and had sailed to seven countries.
Irrelevant, she thought with a sigh.
The kettle whistled. Madeline took it off the stove top, and reached into her cupboard for the bag of Sleepytime she would usually have had at the ready, if not for that crisp folder, the angle of those ribs, the rough catch of them on her glove as she caressed the naked rib cage.
From the inside, she thought again, and frowned.
Cause of death: Brain damage due to blunt force trauma.
Manner of death: TBA.
Madeline Frost, M.D. November 27, 2011, 11:32 a.m. Supplementary report to postmortem dissection of decedent Audrey Michelle Gillespie. Race: White. Age: 27. Sex: Male. Date of death: November 24, 2011.
It was bothersome.
She slept badly. Madeline did not, as a habit, remember her dreams, but she dreamed, and woke thick-eyed and uncomposed to her 7:30 alarm. She stirred an extra sugar into her morning coffee and sipped it at the kitchen counter, eggs in the frying pan and preliminary report atop the bread box. The calculations were good. There was nothing wrong with her math, her photos, her inferences.
The drive into Johns Hopkins was fifteen and a half minutes on Sunday mornings. Madeline flashed her pass to a new security guard--black female, thirty-five to forty years of age, fit, short brown hair, and conveniently labeled Jeanine--and followed the empty hallways to her lab. The morning light shut off like a faucet. There were no windows in the forensic pathology wing.
It took two hours and seventeen minutes to recalibrate all of her instruments. She did not begrudge it; keeping one's tools sharp was best practice in any case, and considering how often Greenwich Mean Time slipped, or the weight of the standard kilogram was revised these days, it was wise to ensure that one's most basic foundational assumptions hadn't shifted slightly leftward in the night. Foundations, after all, crumbled. The leaks that started their crumbling were born years and years beforehand.
She snapped on a fresh pair of nitrile gloves at the end--timed perfectly, timed exactly for the diener's arrival--and opened the cooler. Watched him lift the body with a light grunt and place it on the table.
There was nothing wrong with her calculations, and nothing wrong with her measurements. The angles of the wounds echoed the same degrees; the force cracked bone to the same depths. Her calipers clanged on the stainless steel tray. All her notes were correct. No details had been missed.
Madeline Frost closed up the body bag. Stripped off the nitrile gloves. Dialed the extension for the toxicology lab, and put a rush on the tests.
At two-thirty, an orderly tapped on the door. "Dr. Frost?" He glanced down at the charts, the photographs, the reference books spread all over her pristine autopsy suite counters. "You forgot the release form for Audrey Gillespie's remains. Can I get a signature?"
There were cases of severe internal trauma where no mark was left on the outside of the body: sports injuries. Blast damage. Car accidents, she thought, and shook the thought away. Bodies were often deceptive. Bodies outright lied. DiMaio had a case study--
She looked up. "I didn't forget."
The orderly's forehead crinkled. Surprise caused certain involuntary movements in the face and forehead. One observed them frequently on decedents. "I'm sorry if I misplaced the form--"
"Hold the body, please."
"I'm not finished with it yet," she said, and turned back to DiMaio.
Toxicology took two days in total. She had twenty-four hours.
There was little to do but wait.
It was a slow day in the laboratory, or she had frightened someone or impressed them. The toxicology results arrived a full nine hours early.
They materialized under her laboratory door in the eight short minutes it took to fix a coffee in the staff lounge on Monday morning. She returned to the sound of fading footsteps, a slight catch in the door's swing, and then the folder beneath it, damp with fading sweat. She juggled the coffee cup to her right hand and plucked the folder off the floor, spread it wide on her office desk: prostate antigen test negative, blood work a complicated cocktail of chemicals (marked up by the lab physician as consistent with hormone therapy in scrawled red felt-tip pen), no substances on the clothes or hair or skin that could not be found in an urban alleyway. The pills in the stomach were estrogen and Tylenol. No rape, no drugs, no evidence.
Madeline Frost put down her coffee, decapitated a sugar packet, and scowled.
Frost's acting supervisor was the assistant head of Johns Hopkins Pathology: Dr. Tenzin Dawa, male, forty-five years old, black hair, black eyes, Ph.D./M.D. University of Pennsylvania. He was regarded as popular, meticulous, and a highly ranked researcher in the subfield of gastrointestinal pathology. He largely left her alone. She largely returned the favor.
Dr. Dawa had one of the wood-paneled offices, six floors up, equipped with a long hallway and reception area, thick carpeting (entirely unsuitable for bodily fluids), and three administrative assistants. The one seated at the reception desk was tall, broad-shouldered, graying in a desultory sort of way. Frost straightened the dress jacket she kept in her office for occasions when she needed to go above stairs--the lining felt too slick on her forearms, and clinging cold--and said, "Dr. Madeline Frost to see Dr. Dawa."
To her credit, the administrative assistant did not ask if she had an appointment. She merely nodded smoothly. "Dr. Frost. I'll see if Dr. Dawa's free."
"Thank you," Frost said, and glanced around the reception. It was too formal and lush to have a magazine rack; this was not a level at which a doctor needed to exercise their power by leaving the patient waiting. The decorations were understated: photos of Johns Hopkins pathologists celebrating awards, milestones, and discoveries among a forest of conference centre podiums. The chairs in Dr. Dawa's reception were sturdy and thickly upholstered, brown against the green of the walls. She sat.
Dawa's receptionist was efficient: she returned after no more than seventy-four seconds, heeled shoes muffled by that carpet. "He'll be out in just a moment," she said, and he was; practically behind her, striding down the short hallway in his executive's suit, face pinched and expressionless.
"Dr. Frost," he said. "What seems to be the matter?"
Dr. Dawa was exceptionally polite. What did you do now? Frost translated.
It was not an unreasonable question. She had not come up to the pathology offices in over eight months. Generally, when she came up to the pathology offices, rather than remaining within the boundaries of her working environment, something was indeed the matter.
Frost held out the brown folder she'd stuffed the entire case into. "I'd like a second opinion on this."
Dr. Dawa's eyebrow rose. To his credit, the involuntary indicators of surprise cleared off his face almost quicker than they arose. "We should do this inside," he said, and motioned for her to follow.
She passed thick oak doors contrasted with door-length windows showing the head pathologist's office, empty and dark; a room lined floor to ceiling with installed file drawers; a kitchen nook, countered, with a microwave and commercial fridge. The door to Dawa's office was open, and she saw the edge of a grey-suited man--white, fifty or above, six-foot, no--drat--before he steered her into an empty small conference room by the simple expedient of blocking the hallway with his own lean frame.
He shut the door softly behind them, and pulled out a leather-backed chair to sit. She took the cue, and sat in her own. Put the folder down on the polished oak table and slid it across, within mutual reach.
"Anything in particular?" he asked.
"I'd rather not bias your opinion," Frost replied, and withdrew her hand.
"All right," Dawa said, slower than usual, and opened the brown file.
Frost controlled the urge to lean forward as Dawa's eyes skimmed the paper, the pictures; as he flipped through the charts and tests and police reports. The view outside was impressive, even on a cloudy fall day such as this: leaf-shed trees, and lawns, and the wandering paths of the medical campus, and then straight across the unfolding buildings and byways of Baltimore. She turned away from the window. Sat straight and firm, and watched the twitches of his fingers instead.
"I won't ask if you're sure," he said finally, looking up at her with a small, dry smile.
She inclined her head. "Thank you. I verified every measurement."
"And this is one of your FBI cases?" he asked. Her consultancy was a sideline, but it was a prestigious one for the department. Or so she was informed. She was not asked to meet with any donors, or give any lectures, and her photograph was not on the wall amid the podiums and plush. Thankfully.
"It is," she said. "The confidentiality requirements are rigorous. But if you're familiar with any case studies with similar findings, I would prefer to give a complete report."
Dawa nodded thoughtfully. His eyes strayed back down to the paper. "I'm going to ask Eunice to make me a personal copy of this."
Frost waited. The inquiring note, the allusion to permission, was social courtesy. He was not a boss who ruled through giving orders, but he was nonetheless her boss.
"If I find anything," he said, and shut the file carefully, and stood, "I'll get back to you."
"Thank you," she said, and meant it, and stood as well. Class dismissed.
Eunice, the receptionist--black female, five feet three inches tall, age approximately forty-five to fifty years, she filled in belatedly--vanished momentarily into the file room, and then handed her the original file, neatened and in order. "Thank you," she said again, and navigated through the sunshiny halls to the elevator. The jacket pulled across her shoulders. The hospital staff she passed slid their eyes past her, chattered over her head. The metal doors of the elevator opened before her and then closed behind her.
She pressed the second basement button. The jacket lining stuck to her elbow like dead skin. She reached up and peeled it, curling, away; felt the recycled air on her forearms, and reveled in the regained ability to breathe.
The phone was ringing when she opened the autopsy suite door.
Two rings, high and sharp: the FBI phone. Frost stalked across the room, shoes squeaking softly on tile--no one, at least, objected to a pathologist wearing sensible shoes--and reached her desk on the fifth ring. The cell phone had come with preprogrammed numbers. The call display spat up Reyes.
She had rarely been in a position where she was unsure what to say to Stephen Reyes. It was an uncomfortable proposition.
The sixth ring echoed off the tiled walls of her office, and she pushed the talk button hard.
"This is Dr. Frost," she said, and the line was buffeted by a blow, or a breath, or the wind.
"Frost?" Reyes said--and did not bother to identify himself, oddly enough--"Do you have a moment?"
"Yes," she said, mildly unnerved. Simple questions did not make her jump. The echoes of her own office did not make her jump. "I have the toxicology results from your decedent. There was nothing out of normal parameters, and no fiber or DNA evidence, and neither I nor my acting supervisor can explain the results."
"Yes," she replied, and awaited the barrage of questions.
But Stephen Reyes seemed to wave off the mystery as if it were an errant breeze. "Any sexual assault?" he asked tersely.
"None. There are some additional tests I might run--"
He cut her off before she could even draw breath to enumerate them. "That's fine. We have another body."
Eagerness flooded her mouth. "Send it," she answered.
Cause of death: Brain damage due to blunt force trauma.
Manner of death: Undetermined.
Madeline Frost, M.D. November 27, 2011, 2:42 p.m. Postmortem dissection of decedent Simone Stephanie Carter. Race: White. Age: 35. Sex: Male. Date of death: November 27, 2011.
The second body arrived early that afternoon, by air. It was escorted to Frost's autopsy room by a pair of uniformed federal marshals, jacketed in black nylon over crisp-pleated pants. One Hispanic male, thirty years of age; one black female, approximately forty-two years of age--she began, and then the staff attendant placed the body on the table, and there were more important things to do.
Frost had already scrubbed her hands clean. She tugged two nitrile gloves from a box of one hundred and pulled them snug; unzipped the body bag.
The decedent was fresh. Rigor mortis was just setting in, stiffening up muscles and limbs. She pulled the bag wide, opened its jaws to expose the face. It was bloodstained, nose-broken, wrecked. Just now darkening with bruises.
One of the federal marshals coughed. Frost looked up, impatient. He extended a brown folder in one tentative hand. The chain of custody form for the body, and the FBI's file. The useless file.
"On the counter," she said sharply, and inked her precise signature in the three denoted blanks. Turned, crisply, back to the body. White, and older. Dried blood splashed about the blouse, the loose skirt; the two-inch-heel shoes were muddy with it. No indication as to whether the involuntary mechanisms of surprise had taken hold on--she glanced at the tag--Simone Stephanie Carter. The decedent's face was destroyed.
She snapped three brisk digital photographs. Unbuttoned the blouse, neck to tails; then cuffs. This decedent's bra was stuffed with shaped prosthetics, soft breast forms like the ones made for cancer survivors. She strode to the counter and flipped open the file, avoiding everything but the medical history. There was no mention of cancer, but there was a plastic surgeon, and a listed therapist, endocrinologist, and GP.
Male-to-female transition, she read. Not as far along, then. Or hoping, through hormone therapy, to grow natural breasts.
At least I won't need the clamps, she thought, and took the next set of pictures.
The marshals stood at attention while she filled the pan she would use to wash the body clean with warm water, secured a clean cloth, laid out sample bags and vials, and turned on her digital recorder. She prepped until there was no more prep work to do, and then looked up at them with an impatient eye. The male twitched slightly. The female rubbed both hands down the uncreased hem of her jacket, and said, "We'll leave you to it, then."
"Thank you," Frost said--Get out--and turned on the recorder.
She noted the clothing, layer by layer: color, state, position. Moved her magnifier over every inch, its light blasting too-white onto bloodless skin, delicate tweezers held loose in her left hand. There was a fiber, here and there. She gathered every one.
There was something pasty on the eyelids: thick and clear and shining under the bright light of her lamp. Abrasions on the face, but too far away to have seeped there. She lifted one eyelid, then the other.
A pair of bloodied holes stared back at her.
No, she corrected, when she had adjusted her light, tamped down all the unprofessional, involuntary responses. The eyeballs were in there, just deflated; fluids had clumped the lashes together and dried in the corners of each socket. No wonder the lids had stayed so decorously closed, bouncing along in the body bag. Cautiously, so cautious, she scraped flecks of dried something off the eyelids, and into an evidence bag.
Went searching, hair by hair, for more.
She caught the second glint on the left-hand fingertips: dried, shiny fluid coating them like melted gloves. It had run down the fingers to the first joint. Ended there.
She scraped lightly under a fingernail; held the tip of her pick to the light. Blood, crusted dry. In half-moons along both hands, dug deep under the nails.
Aha, she thought, and grabbed for an evidence bag.
The tests did not take a day and a half this time. They came back after barely four hours. And not with an orderly, or slid under the door; with a technician, tall and ponytailed, still in her lab coat.
"That was quick," Frost said, and fought the urge to reach out for the wadded, pressed printouts. The technician guarded the packet of papers close, blithely unaware of the social cues inherent. Frost settled her hand on her counter, to keep the fingers from drumming.
"Dr. Dawa's fast-tracked your lab requests," the technician said, glancing around the autopsy suite. It was spotless: table clean and every jar, bag, and fluid in its proper place, no posters or pictures on the walls. The undisguised curiosity in her eyes shuttered, then went dark. "I've got tox, multiple blood test IDs, and fiber samples. The impact stuff will have to wait until tomorrow; Rashid's out with a cold."
Frost tipped her a sharp nod and took the packet of papers. Four hours. They must have pulled half their laboratory off of everything. The grain of those papers was so very thin.
Dawa's professional interest could be useful. If she didn't spend all the time she'd gain not waiting fending off administrative inquiries, deflecting scrutiny. Waiting for staff half her age from other departments to escort themselves off her doorstep.
The technician's gaze had fixed itself: on her desk, with its tidy in-and-out tray, its single lamp, its wall-mounted shelf of anatomy books. "Oh hey, you do origami?" she said.
"Pardon?" Frost asked.
The technician pointed. Ah. She'd seen the caribou, folded crisp, head high and scenting some papery invisible wind, perched on the base of Frost's desk lamp. The skin was brown, textured. Tissue-thin.
"Yes, that's mine," Frost said, and skimmed the first page. Similar hormones in play, but at lower levels. No intoxicants. No convenient way to say her decedent had slipped on the floor and cracked her face into pieces, or gouged out her eyes on a convenient loose tile.
Drat, she thought first, but easy answers were for simple people. So, then: Good.
"There's this great origami mobile in the kids' ward," the technician rattled on. "Oncology. With all these colors and a little green frog, and a raccoon that opens its mouth when you pull the tail--"
"Mm-hmm," Frost said, and flipped the printed page to read the second.
"--someone donated it and it's just a work of art, the kids love it," she said.
"It's not that hard," Frost said. Reread the page. Hoped the tech might stop talking.
"How do you learn to do that?" the technician breathed.
Madeline remembered distinct soft hands, large on hers. Long, concealing hair. The tip of an adult nose. Fold, and crease, and then gently, tug just so--
"My mother taught me," she said, and put the packet down. Hospital paper was blank, anonymous, efficient. It made impermanent figures at best: designed to be filed, tucked away, recycled. "The impact studies will be forwarded?"
The technician leaned back, just a little. "Yes, right away," she said, professional again, and crisp. Frost was not her boss, but one could still issue a dismissal.
Frost looked away when the shadow had faded down the hall; when the hum of her lights took over as the high note ringing in her ears.
One body could be an oddity. Two was much, much more.
She stood and went to her computer.
Agent Reyes, she typed in, above the digital document copies that were somehow slower in arriving than young lab technicians eager to snoop, here is your preliminary data. Please telephone as soon as possible.
Bodies had rules, even the ones that came by way of Stephen Reyes. And she was going to find out how these two had broken them.
They called within the hour.
"Dr. Frost," Reyes said, backed by a soft chorus of shifts and shuffles, echoes too close -- indoors, then, and not alone. "We're all here if you'd like to brief us."
She did not want to brief them. She wanted to speak to him about tile floors, and circumstances, and crime scenes. She wanted information. "Very well," she said. One for one was a solid rate of exchange. It would present better than just asking.
"Your decedent," she started, "shows factors consistent with the previous subject: elevated hormonal levels consistent with gender reassignment, a cracked skull, and insufficient evidence of impact trauma. Although this one," she added, "had enough damage to the skull that it was unclear where the blow trajectory began. The fall to the floor destroyed it."
"But the blows should have come from the inside?" Daniel Brady pressed.
"There was one fracture," Frost said. "Left arm. And no evidence of impact with an object on that arm that was at all consistent with the angle of fracture."
No evidence of an impact with an object at all, actually. Just splintered bone and torn muscle, and no physical explanations.
Someone's breath whuffed out. "So. Definitely one of ours," Brady said.
Frost shifted in her chair. It turned noiselessly; it was old, but well-maintained. "Another thing," she added. "There were traces on the fingernails. Blood," she said, "and vitreous humor. Both belonging to the decedent."
"She tried to dig it out," Villette said, faint.
The thing in her head, yes, Frost filled in, and felt the disappointment resurface. There was a reason the pathologist's job was to merely report the facts, and not to pursue theories, causes, motives. They made you want things. They slanted your ability to observe and synthesize evidence.
Define, she asked herself, in anatomical terms, "the thing in her head."
"That's correct, Agent Villette," she said instead.
There was little else to tell them: old bleach on the skin, from the tiled floor of the washroom where the body had been located. The contents of one last meal. Scratches on the face. Eyelashes. Skin.
From their reaction, or lack of it: no new evidence.
"Well," Reyes said, taking the ends of the conversation smoothly in hand. "Thank you for your time."
"Agent Reyes," she said, and cleared her throat lightly. "Might I speak with you privately?"
Her cooler hummed. Someone's shoes squeaked down the hall, past her door, and away to parts unknown. A throat cleared on the other end of the line. "I don't see why not," Reyes said, and the echo of the telephone connection drew smaller, closer, as he switched off speakerphone.
"Is everything all right?" Reyes asked, and he did not appear to mean it as what did you do now?
"Agent Reyes," she said, and shifted the sheet of paper so the corners lined up right. "Tell me more about this case."
There was a short silence. "You don't usually ask that," he said.
That was true. She glanced over her shoulder, at the square door of the cooler where the body of Simone Carter lay. "Bodies have rules," she said--repeated, though he did not know it. "Even the ones you bring me."
"I'd be curious too," he said blandly. An attempt to lighten the mood. She ignored him.
"And remember I'm not a profiler, Agent Reyes," she said. "Please explain the terms as you go."
The breath he let out may have been annoyed or amused. It did not bear analyzing. "All right," he said, and cleared his throat. "We have a few things to go on. This UNSUB stays in a fairly small pool of victims: white, late twenties to early thirties, transitioning from male to female. The fact that he can find them means he's at least partially a member of their community, someone they're familiar and comfortable with--a restaurant waiter, a neighbor, a friend--and the narrowness of his victim pool tells us that he's thinking of someone in particular when he kills: someone he knows, or himself, who he wants to kill again and again."
The cadence of his voice had changed. There were fewer edges to it. Professorial, she decided; he had been a teacher. "Go on."
"You've told us there's no sexual component. No damage to the genitals."
"There's not," she confirmed. Remembered those false, rounded, inconvenient breasts.
"Then there's a strong chance this isn't purely a hate crime. There are stories about men who kill male-to-female transitioners because they find out they're not originally women, and either can't handle their own attraction or strike out from shock or betrayal. But there's no anger focused on those parts of the body; it's focused on the face. So this is probably more complicated than that."
"Probably?" she asked, and shifted the phone to her other ear.
"Probably," Reyes said. "Profiling's an inexact science. We draw from what's probable. Guidelines."
"You rule out the evidence that's not there," she said, suddenly comfortable, suddenly sure. Not so far away from autopsy after all.
"That's right," he said, a little surprised. "And the sexual element's not there. The crime scenes are also wrong for the kind of sustained privacy a hate crime suspect tends to want: They like dark fields and tall trees," he said dryly.
There was a space left for her to laugh in. She did not opt to take it, but she marked it as an offering, just as dry.
"The alley was plausible," Reyes continued. Unlike the younger agents, he did not wobble, did not ever lose stride. "The library washroom, and a neighborhood Laundromat with street-facing windows? They aren't: too high a chance of interruption, too many people around to identify them, and not enough time with the victim. These pattern more like blitz attacks: a lot of stalking and planning, and then a sudden, short amount of violence."
"Unexplained violence," she said. Violent force springing up quick, and quiet, and without DNA or fiber remains. The hole in her facts that was that violence.
"Anomalous violence," Reyes said, and she thought perhaps he was agreeing. "And the more we know about how he kills, the more we can figure out why, in his head, he kills."
And then catch him and put him in Idlewood, Frost finished. Or provide a specimen for her to examine. She scrunched up her nose. Either way, there could be more data at the end of the line. Data that would make sense, if she could help them find their suspect.
"He's also accelerating his timetable," Reyes continued. The emotional response he gets from each kill is wearing off quicker every time. He's going to get sloppier. And more violent."
And more people are going to die, she filled in. And those deaths, bodies sent to her autopsy suite to lie there as mysteries, as undetermined, would be useless.
"And what can I do to assist?" Frost asked.
To Stephen Reyes's credit, he did not smile indulgently at her; that pull of the lips would have been audible, or the seconds-thin slowing of the pace of the words that told you that no, you could not possibly handle this, and you were not needed here. Go back to bed, her memory whispered, and she shook it irritably off. "I'm not sure," he said, serious; thoughtful and thinking. "Right now what we're doing is trying to establish why these victims. Something else has to connect them: whether it's a place they've all been, or someone they all know. Geographic profiling and victimology. We've only come up with one thing, and"--he paused--"it's too intangible to pursue well."
"What's that?" she asked. Put the pen down.
"All three posted an It Gets Better video in the past six weeks."
Madeline's hand paused on the pen. "Pardon?"
"It Gets Better," he said, and maybe now a touch of that indulgence was there, but never mind it, never mind. "Video messages from gay adults to teenagers who are being bullied in high schools. It was on the news a few months back."
"I don't watch the news, Agent Reyes," she said. "Too many unpleasant stories."
Reyes made a noise that was something like a harrumph, and yet curiously unflappable. "I'll send you the specific links," he said. "Right now it's our main connection between the victims."
"That they were public as transgendered persons?" Frost said.
Reyes paused; the tone of his voice went low, surprised. "Perhaps," he said. "Or maybe just that they were happy."
"Hi," the speaker-flattened voice said, drawl-inflected, uncertain. "My name's Simone. When I was born I was Simon."
A slender arm reached out. Adjusted the camera. It slowly refocused, close: an anonymous blur of skin, and then eyes, nose, mouth.
"When I was in grade three I was getting picked on--I was getting picked on already in kindergarten. But this one day some kid called me a homo, a fag, a queer, and I just couldn't handle it anymore. I walked right out of the classroom, down the hall, no idea where I was going. I have no idea where the teacher was. There was this big window, and I stopped and looked out over the schoolyard and the street, not knowing where to go, what to do. And...they'd followed me out. They were right behind me. And this skinny guy, this wiseass nasty little kid, said, 'Hey, gonna jump? Why don't you jump?'"
A crimp of the mouth. The tiny digital lines of lips, tinted with reddish-brown lip gloss, pulling into fences.
Madeline Frost sat cross-legged at her kitchen table with her hand around a mug of cold tea, and watched.
(Hey there queer kids, Audrey Gillespie's reconstructed face, throat, lips said. My name's Audrey. Here you go, thinking, "Just some asswipe on the Internet telling me my problems not real problems," right? But I been there. My life from eight to eighteen was nothing, and I mean nothing, but sharks. I don't know how they knew. I didn't know. I just--I got that I was different. But I didn't know.)
"They say that suicide's contagious: that it's some kind of thought virus that you can spread around like AIDS. Well, I didn't stop thinking about it. I didn't stop hearing that little voice that asked me if I was gonna jump for years and years, every time something got bad. Every time I didn't know what to do there it was, whispering in my ear."
(Then, y'know--shift of the chair, of the chin; hair pushed out of the face--I got older, and I start growing all this hair on my arms and chest. And it doesn't feel like something to be proud of, becoming a man. A pause. It feels like filth. It felt like a tumor.)
Audrey Gillespie's bedroom was small, white-walled, darkened: the hump of a futon mattress off to one side, and the edge of a particleboard prefab desk clearly visible where her hand gripped and gripped the edge, turning the knuckles pale. Simone Carter sat on a couch, overstuffed green velvet. It was wreathed in pillows and fringe. The seat on one of the cushions was frayed. Secondhand, Frost noted. Well-loved.
"Here are the things you'll have to do to go into gender reassignment therapy. You have to go to a therapist for three months before you can get a referral for hormone therapy. Then they can refer you to a doctor. Then you need to get a lawyer, to help change all your ID and documents."
(I didn't want anyone to see my body. I wore long sleeves all summer for years. I think some of my teachers thought my parents were hitting me, and y'know? Crooked smile. That would've been easier to explain.)
"I spent two years going for electrolysis, so someone could burn the hair off my face and arms, one at a time, for an hour a week." A rueful grimace. "I lost forty pounds right up front, 'cause when you start taking the hormones it messes with your metabolism. I took voice lessons so I didn't talk so much like a man."
(Y'see, I'm not supposed to be a dude. Inside, I'm Audrey. And when I figured that out? It got better. I don't know how. I don't know if they could smell the knowing on me, or if I just walked different or what. I guess--sheepish smile--I don't know much. But I do know this.)
"And you know what?" A lean in, filling up the lens. "It was all worth it. And you know what?"
(It gets better, Audrey said, and reached out a hand to blank the webcam dark.)
"It gets better," Simone Carter said, and smiled a wide, shy smile Frost would not have been able to detect from the dental evidence. "I promise."
The video ended. Madeline Frost rubbed her arms, warding off an errant chill. Something crinkled in her palm. She looked down: she'd folded the sports equipment flyer from the top of the paper stack, unconscious, automatic, into a crease-edged paper crane.
(--soft, large hands; fingernails chipped. Hands showing her where to put her own on the paper, and a voice twice as soft. A voice that was never raised in all the time she could remember except for once, hoarse and feeble, outside a nighttime window.)
She closed her eyes. Put the garish-colored crane down, and laid her hands flat on the table. She was not going to go into this. She had decided, long ago, that there was no useful information to be had there, and she had signed the bodies away.
(--floral perfume. Light hair around her fingertips. Soft, bewildered, frightened voices calling and calling her name.)
A branch scratched at the kitchen window. She jumped. It sounded like thin fingers.
"It is nine thirty-five," she told herself quietly. "You are fifty-one years old, and you are in your house in Guilford, Maryland, in the United States of America."
Your mother is dead, she added silently, savagely. Your father is deader. You were only nine years old.
The screen of the laptop stared back at her. Play again? it queried, silently, flashing images of a dozen, a hundred earnest faces across the black space where those two dead ones had lived.
"No," she told it, and shut the browser down. The wind blew. The branches scratched again. She made a note to have the tree pruned, and to seal the windows against the cold that surely must be coming through the gaps between their panes. Observable facts. And evidentiary likelihoods. Those were the things one could work with.
You should have done something, the little voice whispered, like a clean, sharp cut.
Madeline Frost tugged at the crane's beak, sharp as a peck. The delicate paper wings bowed, and then dissolved.
Cause of death: Cardiac arrest due to circulatory shock.
Manner of death: Undetermined.
Madeline Frost, M.D. November 29, 2011, 11:03 a.m. Postmortem dissection of decedent Vincent James Beach. Race: White. Age: 22. Sex: Male. Date of death: November 29, 2011.
The telephone woke her.
Madeline had been dreaming. She blinked her eyes, focused on the molded white ceiling of the house that had been hers for years; peeled away the overlay of another house she'd lived in, another time, another bedroom not much larger than this one. The phone trilled; not her landline, she realized, as her hand found the alarm clock, her handset, mashed buttons on both to no avail. It was the FBI cell phone.
She fumbled at her sparse brown wood nightstand and thumbed it on.
"Hello?" she said, surprised at how thick and old her voice was after all.
"Dr. Frost?" Agent Villette's voice came, higher, out of the phone. "I'm sorry, did I--"
She opted not to let him finish. "Yes," she said, limbs still locked and stiff, heart still racing. Adrenaline, she noted, detached. The body's response to perceived threat, even if no threat was actually present. Her mouth tasted tangy and sour.
It was an old dream. It no longer surprised her, and neither did the fear.
"It doesn't matter," she said, half to herself, into the phone. "What is it?"
"Well, ah--" he said, all poise gone. He was a kind man. She waited for him to recover it, fingers plucking at the bedsheets, grasping for the edges of her own. "We have another body. And Agent Reyes said I was"--another pause--"to brief you."
"That's correct," she said, and rubbed her eyes. "Please wait a moment. I need to get a pen."
Madeline Frost did not leave a pen and paper beside her bed. The notions she had during sleep were foolish ones, dead issues and old data, and anything sufficiently productive would not need to be written down. She swung both legs onto the small rug and padded into the hallway, checking, old as lifelong habit, that each door was as open as she'd left it; each room still dark and empty. The counter in the bathroom sparkled in the morning sun. The handles of her office desk drawers were positioned just so. She took a fresh yellow legal pad from one of them, selected a ballpoint pen. "Thank you, Agent Villette. Please proceed."
"We have another victim," he said, clipped; matching, tone to tone, her dredged-up professionalism. "Fitting the same profile as the last ones: white, young, and transgendered. She was called in two hours ago, from a city bus shelter, by one of the other commuters. The glass is shattered." He paused. "Nobody saw anything."
Impact damage, she thought, mind wakening. Savored the disjunct feeling of being briefed on a murder, instead of briefing another. "Send me photographs of the broken glass as well, please. And there were fluids?"
Villette's tone stayed unwaveringly neutral. Implausibly so. "There were."
"Samples from the scene as well. And the eyes? Is that consistent to the last decedent?"
He cleared his throat. "There, ah, isn't enough left of the face to tell."
She felt the odd urge to console him; Charles Villette, pale and wounded, wired in a hospital bed with his father's knife wounds on his back. "That's all right," she said. "I'll make do."
The space on the telephone was awkward; even tired, she could tell. Frost cleared her throat. "Is there anything else pertinent?"
"We're checking to see if she made an It Gets Better video. There are people down at the community center here who'll know. And we'll be looking into which doctors approved the surgery."
"Oh?" she said. That had not been a part of Reyes's investigation.
"Yeah," Villette said. "Something Agent Reyes thought of yesterday."
"Very well, then," she said, the indefinable sense of someone else's theory tickling at the inside of her skull. "I'll contact your team when the autopsy is complete."
"Yes," Villette said, awkward again. "Thanks," and hung up.
The sun came in the window, dappled with the shadows of oak leaves. The branches pressed up against the panes like fingers. She really had to do something about that tree.
Madeline showered and dressed slowly. The house was chill, and night tension made her limbs ache. Her sweater was utilitarian, and her pressed pants; she would change into scrubs at the hospital in any case, and likely wear them throughout the day. She did not taste her breakfast.
She disarmed the alarm system to unlock the door, and armed it again before leaving. The leaves were drifting onto her small porch. She dusted them away with one foot and locked both locks tight.
The car was slightly warmer. She tucked herself into the driver's seat, handbag stashed securely in the passenger's. Shut the door, reached down.
Her hand wavered on the seat-belt buckle--
(--a reach; a soft click; a yank of the wheel and then tuck the chin, surprised shouting drowning out the radio, curl up tight and brace One-Mississippi Two-Mississippi Three, brace for impact--)
--and clicked it shut. Joined the strap together. Put the keys in the ignition, and started her car.
The body was waiting when she arrived at the hospital, still just as discomfited. The late November sun streamed through the doorway and petered out along the hall. Two marshals were waiting in her doorway with an envelope, the appropriate forms. She took them and felt the stiffness of a cardboard folder. Directed the marshals to the cafeteria. There was nowhere in her hallway to sit.
Frost brought the files inside and left them on the counter. Opened up the cooler, and stepped inside.
It was impossible to miss the new cadaver. The drape of the body bag was wrong: two legs, two arms, and a dented, misshapen ruin. Frost circled it carefully; took hold of the gurney handles, and began to push. The dented thing flapped slightly with the motion. She watched it move over the smooth tile floor. Pondered asking for assistance in transferring the body to the table; in the end, just lined the gurney up gently, braked it at the edge of the table, and pulled.
The bag slid smoothly off the gurney and onto her bright-lit table.
The setup was mechanical: recorder, and tools, and buckets and bags. She went into her office and closed the door, and changed into the fresh pair of scrubs and goggles kept there.
It was waiting for her when she stepped back out. She donned new gloves, one after the other, and unzipped the bag.
The right side of the jaw was torn nearly off its hinge. Acceleration. Escalation, Frost thought--profiler word, motive word -- and charted teeth automatically, marking which were stable, which were broken, which were knocked out of the jaw. The front incisors were bowed forward like broken white masts. Their roots shoved against the gumline. Bent from the inside, out.
Trajectories of force, spilling, shoving out of eyes and nose and mouth.
There is an order to this, she told herself, mildly shocked that she'd even thought to violate it. The teeth should, at the moment, be nonexistent. The teeth were secondary until she had taken her initial photographs; catalogued the clothing and trace evidence and examined every inch of skin.
She reached for her camera, and her hand hovered over the file, the prejudicing, irrelevant, useless file.
She opened it.
There were multiple angles to the pictures: back, side, above, below, all blurred with the distortion of thick industrial glass. Orange markers scattered like raindrops across the sidewalk, marking drops of blood, blue-edged shards of glass, crumpled dropped tissues. The break in the glass indeed qualified as shattered; chips crumpled and fell from a bull's-eye target broken clean through, and the remains were smeared with blood and skull fragments.
The body slumped through that broken pane, head lolling forward and still half-seated on the shelter bench, like a sack of drowned cats.
No witnesses, she reminded herself, and spread the lips of the body bag wide to give the camera enough light.
"This is the postmortem dissection of decedent Vincent James Beach," she said into the softly blinking recorder as the images on her digital camera stuttered and set--she had turned off the false shutter sound five minutes after its first use. "White male, twenty-two years of age, date of death November 29, 2011. Presiding pathologist is Madeline Frost, M.D."
She took six close-up angles of the ruined head, the mouth. They shivered silently in frame and blinked into bright-lit reality.
"Clothing," she said into the recorder, with a little cough. "One button-down shirt, purple, three-quarter sleeve; undisturbed. One pair black pants, zipper and buttons intact. One pair black socks. One necklace, blue glass charm hung from a black cord--"
The icicle teeth splayed out from behind red lipstick. She reached one-handed for her tweezers, and plucked carefully at a hair, matted in blood, on the black nylon cord of the necklace.
The upper right canine gave, and tinkled to the floor.
Afterward, she went to her computer and navigated to YouTube, her fingers wrinkled and cold from the grip of the gloves and the anti-heat of the body. There were whole channels of them, labeled and sorted and weighed by geography, by age and identity. It didn't take her long to find the video.
"Hi there," the face said, barely recognized, unrecognizable. "I'm Vin. I'm just turning twenty-two now, and"--hesitation--"this is my last day of looking like a man."
The high forehead tilted up. The face was angular and smiling; smiling like a getaway.
"Yeah, I know that this is gonna take years. I've been waiting ever since I was four years old for this, and I just got off probation at my new job today, and y'know what that means? It means I've got a salary for the first time ever. I don't have to keep waiting anymore."
"So here's my to-do list." One long hand held it up: black-marker block letters, neatly printed for the camera: electrologist, therapy appointment, insurance company calls, pretty new dress. "Here's all the things I'm going to do this weekend. And I'm kinda hoping you'll stick with me and watch while I do it, because just like our buddy Dan says, it gets better. And I'm going to prove it to you."
The list fluttered down. The eyelids fluttered, a slow blink.
"I'm not going to be trapped in here anymore," that smiling mouth said. "I'm planning the Great Escape. I'm getting out of here, and I'm going to be a butterfly. And I'm going to show you every step of the way."
She had no results. There was no reason to make a formal phone call. She was not a profiler, and whatever her experience with the anomalous, she dealt in facts and actualities, and not metaphor, theory, the workings of other people's thoughts. It was not a qualified suggestion to make.
She typed the address of the video into her FBI cell phone, and sent it, text-message, to Stephen Reyes.
The answer came three hours later: TY. Important. Will call. Stand by.
Shouting was usual. In the house, there was always shouting. Silence of this quality was not.
(It is January 20, 1969; there is no saying what time of night, because this is when Madeline learned to pay attention to time, its numbers dripping like fluid from an IV bag, like spit in the mouth, like blood. It is also the afternoon of November 29, 2011; an office door shut and locked firmly behind her, an hour of bleary desk-chair nap, and Madeline Frost has had this nightmare before.)
She sat up in bed. The silence had woke her, and not the shouting; the smell of something cold and unexpected, outside the parameters of her world. She sat very still and very quiet in bed, seeking with her eardrums. Listening for clues.
Shh, she told her heartbeat, just like Mama told her when she sent her upstairs on the bad nights, but it chattered noisily on.
There was a sound downstairs, finally; a click. A catch, and three heavy footsteps.
Madeline slid her feet out from under the blankets and set them on the floor. Her weight eased onto them, a little at a time. She crept to the bedroom door, and opened it, and peered outside.
Her parents' door was open. No lights were on in the bedroom, not in the bathroom, not in the hall. The hall light downstairs shone like a yellowed moon, and so she tiptoed to the banister, looked down through its rungs. Tried, hesitantly, a couple stairs.
Her father was in the living room, pulling down the blinds. Dust puffed out from their accordion slats; they had not been moved in a while, left wide open for the sparse light of winter to come in and touch the floors. He fumbled and tugged with his big fingers noiselessly, lips pressed together, face spotted on the cheeks with furious red. No swears, no complaints, no calling for Mama to clean this damn house, or fix this stupid shit, or even to bring him a rag for it. Utterly, absolutely silent.
The banister creaked. He turned around.
There were only two mirrors in the Frost household: one in Madeline's little bathroom, and one in her father's. She was close to neither. There was no way of telling what involuntary things her face spoke; how she succeeded, or failed, at schooling it to silence.
And silence was important. Silence was everything.
He regarded her, tight-wound, deliberate. She stared back, not sure where to go, not wanting to ask, Where's Mama? or What's going on?
"I had a bad dream," she said, lamely. She was a terrible liar. It was a terrible lie.
He looked at her a moment longer, and then wiped his hands on his jeans.
"Maddy," he said, rough as a splintered rib cage. "Go back to bed."
She watched his heaving, sweat-soaked shirt; his red face; the ruffle of cold air in his perfectly kept hair. The air was sharp with frostbite.
There was a vein pulsing in his fist, jumpy. Hungry.
It was thirty-one minutes past eleven. She went back to bed.
--and woke with a start, neck cramped and arm bloodless and tingling, in the blackness of her hospital office.
She fumbled at her desk for a light; pulled the cord of the lamp, and its green-tinged brilliance hurt her eyes. She squinted against it and rubbed her eyes. Twenty minutes past five.
Stephen Reyes's last text message sat there, fat and waiting. There was one missed call. Just seconds ago; the phone must have woke her. She hadn't recognized the noise. She rubbed her eyes, hit the redial button immediately, brought it up past short, mussed hair to her ear.
Stephen Reyes's phone rang, and he picked up immediately. His voice was thick and crackly, broken by bad signal and acres of noise. "Reyes," he said, sharp and automatic.
"Agent Reyes," she said, "It's Dr. Frost. I was indisposed for a moment--"
"That's all right," he said, and seemed to draw in a breath, backpedal. "We have a suspect. It was a good lead. We're performing the operation now."
Performing the operation, she thought, and it was a scalpel-thought: black-vested, fit, sharp people reaching into a small house in a small city in a small corner of the world and excising the cancer with a twist of the edge.
"His name is Leslie James," Reyes continued. "He's forty-one, white, works as a QA analyst for a computer company. And was turned down for gender reassignment multiple times by multiple doctors."
Profiler details, she thought. Unimportant things, while their suspect was still living and breathing.
"What sort of"--she paused--"operation are you referring to?" she asked.
Reyes breathed out, and there was something funny and grim in his tone on the heels of it. "He's barricaded himself in his apartment. Lau is trying to talk him out."
And there was a soft voice mixed in with all that crackle: a firm and kindly Leslie, we can solve this problem here-- and soft shuffling, too much to be wind. It was Reyes's earpiece, interfering with the cellular signal held so close; blending and bleeding together.
A reply to it, high, thin, strained: The problem is I'm trapped. The problem is I can't get out.
The Great Escape, she realized, and shifted the phone in her hand. Not the probable rings and rings of police officers surrounding this unnamed building in an unknown city block. That body. That life. Her parents' house.
"And then he'll go to Idlewild," she said to Reyes still waiting on the other end of the line; Reyes who might cut off her channel to those soft voices if she did not provide him more questions.
"That's the goal," he said, distracted; just as distracted as she by the conversation whispering in the background. "We don't have the staff capacity for reassignment surgery, but Ramachandran can probably bring in a consultant."
All you wanted, right? Lau's voice ghosted across the line. To get out of your body.
Tired of being stuck. The reply came dark, hardened. Tired of hearing how I'd make a fucking terrible woman. They told me it was just a body, just a step. They said I could come out of it like a butterfly, they always say WAIT AND WAIT--
Idlewood; Frost considered it. Closed doors. Four thick walls. A house in the country, loveless, far away, where you could live under the microscope and never blend in. Never escape the scrutiny of the different or damaged.
What can I do to assist? she'd asked, and now there was an answer. Her throat went dry, and that still place, that quiet place in her head emerged, gently, guiding her through the next words like a steering hand. "That's a cruel bargain, Agent Reyes," she said.
"Yes," he replied.
The files lay stacked beneath her hand, the top folder slightly creased where she'd laid her head to sleep. She smoothed it; the crease would not come out.
Leslie, Agent Lau's garbled voice said.
And then the phone moved away from that breath, or the breath from the phone. There was a moment of silence, then a flurry of noise: steps and shouting and then the explosions lit her ear up, blotted out everything, turned it to static.
Five shots. Then a sixth, an afterthought, aftershot, ringing over the phone line loud and out of tune. Footsteps echoed, stampeding, on the other end of the line. There were shouts; a crack, blurred and dim as a skull breaking. The wind blew over the receiver.
She clutched the phone tighter. Stared at the wall.
"Frost?" Reyes said. He was panting.
"Is everyone safe?" she blurted. The adrenaline taste fluttered through her mouth. She stood straight and tall, irreproachable, unmoving. Hand tight around the phone.
"He charged the police line. He's dead. I'm sorry," Reyes said, after a moment. The buzz of noise, of activity, had slackened. The quiet crept back in.
"I--" she started, and wet her dry lips. "I expect to see the subject as soon as is practicable."
They found Charlotte Jane Frost (age thirty-five, white female, blond hair, brown eyes) in the snowbank the next morning, after her husband reported her missing; after the county officer noted the house slipper sticking out in the back field, well back from the county road; after, at dawn, Gerard Frost unlocked the door.
Autopsies were cruder things then. The county coroner--a coroner, not a pathologist--measured the blood alcohol level and the creep up arms and ankles of the blackened, staining frostbite, and declared the manner of death to be misadventure. Everyone in the county knew Charlotte Frost drank. Nobody said anything at the small, untidy funeral.
Madeline, nine years old, dressed in scratchy black, went home with her father.
The first six months were subdued. Her father folded in, kept low, said little; fixed her lunches and dinners with an elaborate flair that might have meant reward, or deniability, or the purchasing of silence. There was no guessing; her mother had tried to guess, tried to calibrate, tried to please, and it had done her no good.
Madeline Frost did not have the word for what she was either. But she knew that she was different, and patient. And she knew from the autopsy, the shape of her teachers' mouths, the silence in her household what would and would not work.
She stayed quiet. She gathered data. She moved through the house like a ghost, and watched, and waited for the Great Escape.
Cause of death: Brain damage due to blunt force trauma.
Manner of death: Undetermined.
Madeline Frost, M.D. November 30, 2011, 11:03 a.m. Postmortem dissection of decedent Leslie Mark James. Race: White. Age: 41. Sex: Male. Date of death: November 30, 2011.
The final body did not come with an escort. It came with Agent Daniel Brady.
"Dr. Frost," he said, with an incline of his big blond head, as the orderly behind him shuffled the necessary paperwork. He looked fatigued. There were thick, dark circles under his blue eyes.
"You will be observing?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said, and reclined, lean and heavy, against the farthest wall she had. She pulled out a pair of nitrile gloves, ran a practiced eye over her tools. Queued up the recorder hung above the empty, metallic table.
They wheeled the body in for her at ten o'clock: white, late thirties to early forties, with a stocky build. Brown hair. Brown eyes. Unrelentingly male.
There was steel in her hand, final and clean. She cut.
"Do you want to know the story?" Brady asked. She cut. The scissors flashed, still bright, in the densely packed machinery of her decedent's chest cavity.
She might have ignored it, on another assignment. She might have turned her face away, or told Agent Brady, crisp and clear, that he was welcome to watch only if he did not interrupt the proceedings. Frost spread the skin of her decedent's chest wide, unwrinkled, smooth, and made another sharp, short cut, and nodded.
"Reyes told you he was turned down for gender reassignment," he began.
She nodded again. Worked her fingers between the arteries. Cut.
"We wasted two days looking at it as a hate crime. And once we put the profile together and thought, no, this is about someone else having what you want, we tracked him down through his medical history. He was turned down three times. The doctors felt he was too heavy to pass convincingly as a woman. Or too old. Or too something. He went to every reassignment doctor in the state."
Brady's voice was cold and acid. Frost lifted the heart out of Leslie Mark James's chest and set it in the metal pan atop her digital scale. "Heart," she said for her recorder, "three hundred and two grams." It was an average size for a heart: no greater and no smaller than the regular run of parameters. She set it aside, and located the gall bladder. A little heavy. She reached for a new tray.
"That's where the videos fit in," Brady said. "The first crack was the denial. The second was seeing everyone else get what he wanted, and seeing how happy it made them, and knowing he was never going to have it."
I'm going to be a butterfly, she remembered, one wild moment of uncontrolled conjecture. And voices buzzing around her own head, lying down in the back of an ambulance: Heart rate's high; nothing's broken, but she's not responding; it must be shock. Miss? Miss? Can you tell me where you were driving? Can you tell me your name?
The giddiness had paralyzed her entire. The feeling of lightness, of flight, of freedom so huge and bright and terrifying that she had stared past the paramedics, stared at her father's body lumped in the thick black bag, and thought Oh, no, this is too good. This is too bright.
I can never do it again.
And the feeling of reckless escape stopped pressing glorious on the inside of her skull, and the manic joy abated, and she could blink, and focus her eyes, and go: Officer?
She put the gall bladder off the scale and noted down the numbers; tucked the pan decorously to the side of the big stainless-steel sink. Last organ. Nothing to do but sew the body up, wash everything clean, close the file, and call it an end. "And how will you prove these things?" she asked.
Daniel Brady straightened, and blinked, and went, "Pardon?"
Her results were not fast-tracked. It was unimportant. She waited.
Tallahassee had a question about the tumor, one she'd set aside for three full days. She tapped an e-mail to them on her office computer, hunt-and-peck. There was an in-house consult to prepare for a child patient (thirteen years old, Cree, male; a leukemia that didn't look quite standard). A supplies requisition form for more hairnets, a replacement scale tray, and sample containers.
Work had a rhythm. Work was a series of small, indelible facts, and you could set them out like fences, or posts to hang the fences on. She gathered them, one by one, and waited.
There were no surprises in the laboratory reports: Early stages of organ failure. A preternatural amount of heavy foods in the stomach, digested erratically, with still more waiting in the lower intestines. Despite that, the brittle nails and hair and dry, flaking skin of the chronically malnourished. A sunken cast to the cheeks. Blood, that when tested was abnormally high in iron and trembling at the lowest threshold of glucose levels.
All the markers of one of Stephen Reyes's anomalous individuals.
The families of the anomalous rarely claimed their bodies, if there were families left standing. Even receiving an anomalous decedent sufficed, at this point, as permission. Frost prepared a large jar to house the brain and all its folds of evidence, and carefully wrote out the label.
She would dissect it later. When she was less fatigued. When the disquiet, the ache for theory and conjecture and bullshit had worn clean. She would dissect it and note down its abnormalities, its curls and quirks, its parameters in the cold, clean language of scientific fact.
Dr. Dawa arrived at her workspace late in the day, suitcase over one arm and a black wool trench coat over the other. It got dark early at this time of year. He stood shadowed against the false brightness of artificial lights and did not interrupt as she wiped down her table for the third time that evening.
"Dr. Dawa," she said when she looked up, and stood. He inclined his head, polite as ever.
"Dr. Frost. Hard at work, I see." He did not wait for a reply. He knew her habits better than that. "I wanted to touch base about that case you brought me."
Frost pushed the sponge, and felt that place in her head that made her different run truths, and lies, and numbers. "My consultancy on it has ended. The FBI were successful in apprehending their suspect," she said.
Dr. Dawa tilted his head down and met her eyes. "And medically?"
Her gaze didn't waver. She was not in the habit of lying, and that frequently made it easier to dodge the whole truth. "Medically," she said, "I have no further information. The families came forward to claim the bodies this afternoon."
All but one, she reminded herself; a jar, filled with fluid, in her cooler. All but one.
Dr. Dawa shifted his coat. He was not a preeminent pathologist for nothing, and he had not climbed the ranks to administration without reason. He knew she was withholding.
For this, she reflected, sudden and simple, I could get in trouble.
But: "Madeline," he said, surprisingly patient. "If it's classified, just tell me it's classified. It's not the answer I want to hear, but--" and he shrugged, short and fluid.
She let out her breath. Tucked her head. "I'm afraid it is."
Dawa nodded. The fluid on the sponge dripped, wended slowly down one gloved finger. "Do you expect we'll be able to follow up on this anytime soon?"
She was a pathologist, and not an investigator. She ruled out possibilities. She did not rule them in.
"I do not expect that we will," she said.
These were the facts: Charlotte Jane Frost died of exposure in the snow, half-drunk and furious, at exactly 3:32 a.m. Mountain Time on January 21, 1969. Her husband, Gerard Anthony Frost, had four hours prior locked all external doors to the residence, and taken away her keys. He went into his bedroom at five minutes past midnight, and did not emerge until dawn.
Her daughter, Madeline, failed to open her window, reachable by an adult climbing the old oak tree outside it. No investigating authority examined the physical evidence, including fingerprint marks, on the outside of said window in the twenty-four-hour period before they washed away.
Seven years later, after no incident witnesses could describe as a disagreement in the household, both Gerard and Madeline were involved in a multivehicle crash heading westbound, fifteen minutes outside of town. Gerard was not wearing his seat belt. He was propelled through the windshield at one hundred miles per hour and impacted upon the back of the transport truck in front of them. He died on impact. Madeline, sixteen, was wearing her seat belt. She survived.
"Pardon?" Brady had said, like a startled guide dog, and Madeline Frost peeled the gloves off her small, round hands and dropped them in the waste bin.
"You seem to be speaking primarily to motive," she said, and turned to face him fully. "I'd like to know what physical evidence you have on hand to assert the decedent's state of mind."
Brady's eyebrows rose like skyscrapers. "It's logic. His victims have what he doesn't, what he wants. They're happy. He's not. People don't kill each other for new reasons, you know."
"Perhaps they do," she said, and rummaged in the drawer for her needle. "Perhaps we don't find out because so many of them are in no condition for asking."
Brady stared at her a long, long moment. "You're baiting me," he said.
"I stick to the observable facts, Agent Brady," she replied, and threaded the needle taut. "Unless there was a confession of motive, I would not presume it, and it does not really matter."
He was still staring, vaulted up from what had been an easy lean on the edge of one of her counters. "So motive doesn't matter. Why doesn't matter. Aren't you even curious?"
"I am not," she said. Reached for a washcloth. For a bowl to fill with water, to wash the body clean. "I am curious about how, but that appears to be a dead issue."
"You can't be serious," he said.
"I am always serious," she replied. It got better. I don't know how, Audrey Gillespie's round ghost-voice said. I guess I don't know much. "It happened," she said. "It will not happen again. The facts are on the ground, and they can't be undone. Why, at this point, is immaterial."
"Oh, come on. Why people do things means something," he snapped.
A winter cold ghosted past her knuckles. She stopped, turned, fixed Daniel Brady in her stare. "No, Agent Brady," she said, unmoving, controlled as a fine bright scalpel. "It means nothing."
They stood there a moment, faced off, taut, until there was a tap on the door and a small, firm, "Excuse me?" The lab tech, her coat wrinkled and her long brown braid flopping over her shoulder, had opened the door and was frowning. "Everything all right here?" she asked.
Frost looked at Brady, at the decedent on her table, splayed and gutted and internally hollow, and nodded her head. "Yes," she said. "It is."
I didn't have a good home life growing up, the skinny black boy said, his voice fuzzed by the web camera, or the video quality, or her computer screen. Yeah; people have had worse ones. But what's that saying, about how each unhappy family is unhappy in its own special way? It was some pretty special unhappiness.
A long-haired, plump, bright Chinese woman tilted her head at the camera and said, I know it seems bad now. I know it seems like the worst thing in the world; like your whole universe is being carpet-bombed day after day after day. But it won't always be like that. All these things are going to mean less than nothing one day, compared to what you'll have.
A round-cheeked Southeast Asian boy sat on the lidded toilet seat of a dorm room bathroom stall, and leaned, fisheye close, into his laptop screen. I'm happy here, he said, and footsteps echoed past, and he bit his lip and smiled. I really am.
Madeline Frost closed her laptop and went upstairs.
Her toothbrush was tidy in the holder. She took it out, and the clean glass beside it, and brushed her teeth diligently for five minutes. Smoothed her short hair down into place. Shut off the bathroom light and left the door open behind her at the correct angle, and took three crisp strides to her bedroom to change into her long nightdress.
The branches of that oak tree were no longer rattling the windows. Arborists did not receive many pruning calls this time of year, and the young man they sent (Korean, five feet ten, approximately twenty-five to thirty years of age, black hair dyed with green tips, brown eyes) had been resistant to cutting back the branches with the temperatures finally falling. But he had, and her yard had the faint scent of chipped wood, and the night around her was quiet.
It was 1:23. She was fifty-one years old, and she was in her house in Guilford, Maryland, in the United States of America, the house she had bought with the insurance money; and the alarm system was armed, and every outside door double-locked and all the internal ones propped open, and every window could be opened from the inside, in case she needed to throw them wide at night.
Madeline turned down the blankets on her wide, white bed, and tucked herself beneath them.
The voice rattled softly in her head. Bruised her eyes. Pressed against her skull. Maddy, please baby, open the window, open up.
She closed her eyes. The body flitted across the backs of them, livid and stiff with cold. And then the other: crumpled, hurled, so surprisingly small on the slick roadway, her fingers tingling with the feel and smell of metal buckles and her head exploding with transformation.
It was a comforting lie. Madeline Frost was fifty-one years old. It did not get better. You grew older, and more able to deal with the things done to you, the things you'd done. Or you did not. But they were always bad. They were always the same terrible things, no matter if you were not the same person anymore.
You could slice into, weigh, examine your own past endlessly, and find no reply.
She grew tired of this, some nights. She was tired of doing this autopsy, over and over again.
"Put it away," she said aloud, huddled underneath the sheets and blankets. They slowly warmed. "It's over. It's done."
She reached to her nightstand. Turned off the light.
Closed her eyes, and fell familiar into that crashing car.
Cause of death: Multiple gunshot wounds to left vena cava; exsanguination.
Manner of death: Homicide.