True blue, p.8
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       True Blue, p.8

           David Baldacci
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  “Yes, but the brain stem was also transected.”

  She glanced up sharply from the laptop screen. “Brain stem transection?”

  “It’s most often seen in car crashes where you have massive deceleration. A basilar skull fracture is what killed Dale Earnhardt at Daytona. Or when there’s some sort of lengthy fall involved. The brain stem pops and death is instantaneous.”

  Beth pointed to Diane’s body. “This lady was found wedged inside a refrigerator at her law firm about two hours after she walked in the door of her office. She wasn’t driving in the Daytona 500 and she didn’t fall off a building.”

  The ME again pointed to the base of the neck where there was considerable discoloration. “A blow right here did the trick. Her being placed in a refrigerator certainly did me no favors, but there are definite signs of bruising before death at this location.”

  “A blow? With what, Doc?”

  “Now that’s the strange part. I found no trace evidence, no hairs, fibers, plastics, metals, or anything else relating to the injured area.”

  “So what was used to kill her, then?”

  “My guess is a blow from a foot.”

  “A foot?”

  Cassell pointed to the abrasions on Tolliver’s face. “It could have happened this way. She’s held down on the floor, facedown with her chin pressed against the linoleum, which accounts for the cut and bruising there when the killing blow was struck. Then someone, a large, powerful man probably, stomps on the back of her neck with all his weight. Now, if a board or pipe or hammer or bat had been used, they might well have left a patterned injury mark on the skin. But as you can see, there was nothing like that here. However, a human foot is flexible and could well have left no discernible marks. Even a fist would have left some sort of pattern, knuckles or even the shape of a palm, for instance. Plus, of course, you can generate much more force with a leg stomp than an arm strike because you can deploy most of your weight in a downward motion.”

  “So a foot. But wouldn’t a shoe have left a mark?”

  “Possibly, although human skin is not as revealing as a nice wet patch of grass or dirt. I may be able to discern an image at the wound area provided you find me a shoe, a patterned sock, or a foot to compare it with.”

  “Okay, but when have you ever seen a brain stem transection from a weaponless assault?”

  “Only once, but it was a nonhuman assault.”

  She looked at him curiously. “Nonhuman?”

  “Years ago I was on vacation at Yellowstone National Park. There unfortunately was a fatality with a camper and I was recruited to perform the autopsy.”

  “What killed the person?”

  “A grizzly bear. Probably the most dangerous predator on land.” He smiled at Beth. “Other than man, of course, as we both know so well. Anyway, this unfortunate camper had surprised a full-grown male bear while it was scavenging a carcass.”

  “But there are no grizzlies in Georgetown, Doc.”

  “No, but there is at least one person with abnormal strength and skill. That bruise is in the exact spot necessary to transect the brain stem. I doubt the location of the blow was a coincidence.”

  “So was she already unconscious? Or was someone holding her down? If it was just one bandit you’d think she would have fought back and we’d have defensive trace under her fingers.”

  “Her cuticles were clean.”


  “Tox reports aren’t back yet.”

  Beth studied the body. “Bandit could’ve had a gun, ordered Tolliver to lie facedown. Then he kills her. That would only take one assailant.”

  “Quite right.”

  “Okay, what else?”

  “We took an inventory of her clothes. We found a couple of fibers that were not from her garments.”

  “Her attacker?”

  “Possibly. There was also some soiling on her jacket that seemed odd.”

  “What kind of soiling?”

  “Like grease or dirt, we’re analyzing it now.”

  “Not residue from anything in the fridge that might have spilled on her.”

  “We inventoried that too. No, it didn’t come from that source.”

  “It’s the start of the day, she goes from parking garage to office, and she’s got dirt on her clothes. Bandit leave-behind?”

  “Probably.” Cassell shook his head. “It’s still confusing. I spent ten years at the Bronx ME’s office.”

  Beth nodded in understanding. “I know, NYPD says perp, MPD says bandit. Can you give me a window on when she died?”

  “Extremely problematic, Beth. She was found in a refrigerator set at thirty-eight degrees Fahrenheit and then her body was at room temp for several hours. When I arrived at the crime scene she was very cold to the touch. And then she was parked in one of our morgue freezer beds on arrival here. Now fully freed of those icy conditions, the body is decomposing quite on schedule. She’s still in rigor, as you can see.” He lifted one of the stiff arms. “But the initial refrigeration forestalled the normal post-death chemical process.”

  “Stomach contents?”

  Cassell clicked some computer keys and then scanned the screen. “At most ME shops unless there’s suspicion of a drug overdose or poisoning we don’t typically do a detailed gastric content analysis. But I knew if I didn’t run it, you’d just tell me to do it.”

  “Working relationships just get better with age, don’t they?”

  “She had no breakfast, but apparently she had some dinner last night. About six hundred cc’s worth of gastric contents including partially digested red proteins.”

  “In other words, bits of steak?”

  “Most probably, yes. Peas and corn and what looks to be red-skinned potatoes. Spinach too. The stomach and duodenal mucosal lining were a bright green.”

  “Broccoli will do that as well.”

  “But broccoli along with corn does not digest readily in the stomach. I would have found parts of it in the gastric content. The corn was there as noted, but no broccoli.”

  “Anything else?”

  Cassell made a face. “This lady liked her garlic. The smell was overpowering.”

  “Remind me to buy you a pair of clothespins. So time of death? Any thoughts?”

  He took off his glasses. “If you’ve got reliable witnesses on both ends substantiating a two-hour window of when she was killed, I can’t do any better than that even with all my fancy equipment and tests.”

  “I’m not sure yet how reliable my witnesses are. What else?”

  “When I said we did an inventory of her clothing I forgot to mention that one item was missing.”

  “Her panties.”

  “Of course I am assuming that the lady typically wore underwear.”

  “She was forty-seven years old, a partner in a law firm, lived in a million-dollar town house on the water in Alexandria, and was wearing a Chanel suit when she was stomped. I think we can safely assume she was the sort of woman who wears underwear. What did the sex assault workup find? Was she raped?”

  “Bruising around her genitalia clearly evidenced a sexual assault.”

  “Please tell me what I want to hear, Doc.”

  “The fellow left a few pieces of himself behind.”

  Cassell led her over to a microscope. She examined the slide under magnification and her smile was immediate. “The holy grail of forensic detection.”

  “Sperm,” Cassell added, with a note of triumph. “High up in the vaginal vault and some deposited on the cervix.”

  “You said the fellow left pieces?”

  “Two pubic hairs with root balls that do not belong to the deceased.”

  “Let’s hope we get a database hit. Anything else I should know?”

  Cassell hesitated. “Not on the case, no, but I hear that Mace is out. Please tell her I said hello.”

  “I will.”

  “How is she?”

  “You know Mace. Everything slides right off her back.”<
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  “Tell her that there is indeed a heaven and that Mona will never make it there.”

  Beth smiled. “Will do.”


  GATES. Big gates. And a wall. A long, high wall.

  The gates opened when Roy pushed a button on a squawk box out front and announced their arrival. They’d ridden over in Roy’s Audi since he didn’t want to chance serious head trauma on Mace’s bike without a helmet.

  “You’ll have to get one if you want to ride with me, then,” she’d told him.

  “I’ll think about that,” he’d said back.

  “The helmet?”

  “No, whether I want to ride with you again.”

  They drove up the winding paved road. The property was set high up on what folks in the D.C. area would call a ridge, although people from places with real mountains would simply call it a slightly elevated mound of dirt.

  Mace looked out the window. “I didn’t know anyone in northern Virginia had this much land.”

  “Looks like a compound of sorts,” said Roy. He pointed to a large structure whose roof must’ve been thirty feet high. “I wonder what’s in there?”

  As they rounded a bend the mansion came into view.

  “Damn!” they both said together.

  “It looks like one of the buildings on the Georgetown campus,” said Roy.

  “Only bigger,” added Mace.

  They pulled to a stop next to a full-size Bentley. Beside that was a two-door dusty and dented Honda, which created the impression of a dinghy next to a yacht. They got out and walked up to two massive wooden doors that would not have looked out of place at Buckingham Palace. Before Roy could ring the bell, one of the doors opened.

  “Come in, come in,” said the man.

  Abraham Altman was of medium height, a few inches taller than Mace, with white hair to his shoulders and a clean-shaven face. He had on faded jeans and an untucked long-sleeved shirt open at the neck that revealed a few curls of gray chest hair. Open-toed sandals covered his long feet. His eyes were blue and active. He was in his seventies but seemed to have the energy of a far younger man.

  Altman shook Mace’s hand vigorously and then abandoned formality and gave her a hug, actually lifting her up on her tiptoes in his exuberance.

  In a rush of words he said, “It’s so wonderful to see you again, Mace. Your sister told me what happened. Of course I’d read about it in the papers. I was unfortunately in Asia during the whole debacle or rest assured I would have been a character witness for you. What an injustice. Thank God you came out unharmed.”

  He abruptly turned and held out his hand to Roy. “I’m Abraham Altman. Please call me Abe.”

  “Roy Kingman. I know your son Bill.”

  “Wonderful. That’s his Bentley out there.”

  “He’s here?” said Roy.

  “No, he’s out of the country with his family. He’s leaving it here until he gets back.”

  “Who does the Honda belong to?” asked Mace.

  “That’s mine.”

  “So old Bill has a Bentley?” Roy said inquiringly. “Does he still work at the public defender’s office?”

  “No, he left there last year. He’s doing other things now.” Altman didn’t seem inclined to elaborate. “Come into the library. Would you care for something to drink?”

  Roy and Mace exchanged glances. Roy said, “Beer?”

  “I was actually thinking of tea. It’s late for afternoon tea, of course, but we’ll call it evening tea. I admire many things of our English friends, and afternoon tea is one of them.”

  “Tea’s good,” said Roy, exchanging an amused glance with Mace as they headed into Abe Altman’s humble thirty-thousand-square-foot abode.


  A SMALL MAN in a spotless gold tunic and brown slacks brought in a large tray with a pot of hot tea, cups and saucers, and some scones and muffins and set it down on a massive ottoman covered in a tasteful striped pattern that seemed inconsequential considering the massive scale of the room they were in. The ceilings were high, the walls paneled in leather, and the bookcases solid mahogany and filled with tomes that actually looked as though they’d been read. There was a metal globe at least six feet tall in one corner and a large and old-fashioned slanted writing desk near one of the windows. Another long, low table had dozens of books on it, most of them open and lying page down.

  After the man departed Altman said, “That’s Herbert. He’s been with me for ages. He handles all domestic duties. I could not get along without Herbert.”

  Mace said, “We should all have a Herbert in our lives.”

  Altman poured the tea and handed out the food.

  “Quite a place you have here,” said Roy as he balanced a teacup and saucer on one thigh while biting into a blueberry scone.

  “It’s far too large of course for me now, but I have lots of grandchildren and I like for them to have a place to come. And I do like my privacy.”

  “Beth said you had a job offer for me?”

  Altman solemnly gazed at her. “Yes. And I have to say that I can never repay you for what you did for me. Never.”

  Mace looked down, embarrassed by his obvious adoration. “Okay.”

  Altman glanced at Roy. “This woman saved my life. Did you know that?”

  “No, but I can certainly believe it.”

  “The HF-12 gang,” Altman added. “Nasty buggers.”

  “HF-12?” said Roy.

  “Heroin Forever, and there were a dozen in the crew,” said Mace. “They were bad guys but not that creative with names. Half of them are locked up.”

  “The other six?” asked Roy.


  “I came to see you several times,” said Altman. “But they wouldn’t let me in the prison.”


  “My reputation precedes me. That correctional facility in West Virginia has been the object of my wrath on several occasions.”

  “You should’ve talked to Beth. She could’ve gotten you in.”

  “I did not want to further add to the distress of your sister’s situation.” He glanced at Roy. “There’s a U.S. attorney who has it in for Mace and her celebrated sister.”

  “Mona Danforth,” said Roy.

  “Precisely.” Altman turned back to Mace. “There was even talk a
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