Read an Excerpt
When I was seven years old, I learned how important it is to cry at funerals. On that particular summer day, the man lying in the coffin was my great uncle Orson, who was most memorable for his foul-smelling cigars and his stinky breath and his unabashed farting. While he was alive, he pretty much ignored me, the way I’d ignored him, so I was not in the least bit grief-stricken by his death. I did not see why I should have to attend his funeral, but that is not a choice seven-year-olds are allowed to make. And so that day I found myself squirming on a church pew, bored and sweating in a black dress, wondering why I couldn’t have stayed home with Daddy, who had flat-out refused to come. Daddy said he’d be a hypocrite if he pretended to grieve for a man he despised. I didn’t know what that word, hypocrite, meant, but I knew I didn’t want to be one either. Yet there I was, wedged between my mother and Aunt Sylvia, forced to listen to an endless parade of people offering insipid praise for the unremarkable Uncle Orson. A proudly independent man! He was passionate about his hobbies! How he loved his stamp collection!
No one mentioned his bad breath.
I amused myself through the endless memorial service by studying the heads of the people in the pew in front of us. I noticed that Aunt Donna’s hat was dusted with white dandruff, that Uncle Charlie had dozed off and his toupee had slipped askew. It looked like a brown rat trying to crawl down the side of his head. I did what any normal seven-year-old girl would do.
I burst out laughing.
The reaction was immediate. People turned and frowned at me. My mortified mother sank five sharp fingernails into my arm and hissed, “Stop it!”
“But his hair’s fallen off! It looks like a rat!”
Her fingernails dug deeper. “We will discuss this later, Holly.”
At home, there was no discussion. Instead, there was shouting and a slap on the face, and that’s how I learned what constituted appropriate funeral behavior. I learned that one must be somber and silent and that, sometimes, tears are expected.
Four years later, at my mother’s funeral, I made a point of noisily shedding copious tears because that was what everyone expected of me.
But today, at the funeral of Sarah Basterash, I’m not certain whether anyone expects me to cry. It’s been more than a decade since I last saw the girl I knew in school as Sarah Byrne. We were never close, so I can’t really say that I mourn her passing. In truth, I’ve come to her funeral in Newport only out of curiosity. I want to know how she died. I need to know how she died. Such a terrible tragedy is what everyone in the church is murmuring around me. Her husband was out of town, Sarah had a few drinks, and she fell asleep with a candle burning on her nightstand. The fire that killed her was merely an accident. That, at least, is what everyone says.
It’s what I want to believe.
The little church in Newport is packed to capacity, filled with all the friends that Sarah made in her short life, most of whom I’ve never met. Nor have I met her husband, Kevin, who under happier circumstances would be quite an attractive man, someone I might make a play for, but today he looks genuinely broken. Is this what grief does to you?
I turn to survey the church, and I spot an old high school classmate named Kathy sitting behind me, her face blotchy, her mascara smeared from crying. Almost all the women and many of the men are crying, because a soprano is singing that old Quaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” and that always seems to bring on the tears. For an instant, Kathy and I lock gazes, hers brimming and wet, mine cool and dry-eyed. I’ve changed so much since high school that I can’t imagine she recognizes me, yet her gaze is transfixed and she keeps staring at me as if she’s spotted a ghost.
I turn and face forward again.
By the time “Simple Gifts” is over, I too have managed to produce tears, just like everyone else.
I join the long line of mourners to pay my last respects, and as I file past the closed coffin, I study Sarah’s photograph, which is displayed on an easel. She was only twenty-six, four years younger than I am, and in the photo she is dewy and pink-cheeked and smiling, the same pretty blonde I remember from our school days, when I was the girl no one noticed, the phantom who lurked in the periphery. Now here I am, my skin still flush with life, while Sarah, pretty little Sarah, is nothing but charred bones in a box. I’m sure that’s what everyone thinks as they look at the image of Sarah Before the Fire; they see the smiling face in the photo and imagine scorched flesh and blackened skull.
The line moves forward, and I offer my condolences to Kevin. He murmurs, “Thank you for coming.” He has no idea who I am or how I knew Sarah, but he sees that my cheeks are tearstained, and he grasps my hand in gratitude. I have wept for his dead wife, and that is all it takes to pass muster.
I slip out of the church into the cold November wind and walk away at a brisk pace, because I don’t want to be waylaid by Kathy or any other childhood acquaintances. Over the years, I’ve managed to avoid them all.
Or perhaps they were avoiding me.
It is only two o’clock, and although my boss at Booksmart Media has given me the whole day off, I consider going back to the office to catch up on emails and phone calls. I am the publicist for a dozen authors and I need to schedule media appearances, mail out galleys, and write pitch letters. But before I head back to Boston, there is one more stop I have to make.
I drive to Sarah’s house—or what used to be her house. Now there are only blackened remains, charred timbers, and a pile of soot-stained bricks. A white picket fence that once enclosed the front garden lies smashed and flattened, wrecked by the fire crew when they dragged their hoses and ladders from the street. By the time the fire trucks arrived, the house must already have been an inferno.
I get out of my car and approach the ruins. The air is still foul with the stench of smoke. Standing there on the sidewalk, I can make out the faint glint of a stainless-steel refrigerator buried in that blackened mess. Just a glance at this Newport neighborhood tells me this would have been an expensive house, and I wonder what sort of business Sarah’s husband is in, or if there’s money in his family. An advantage I certainly never had.
The wind gusts and dead leaves rattle across my shoes, a brittle sound that brings back another autumn day, twenty years ago, when I was ten years old and crunching across dead leaves in the woods. That day still casts its shadow across my life, and it’s the reason I am standing here today.
I look down at the makeshift memorial that’s materialized in Sarah’s honor. People have left bouquets of flowers, and I see a mound of wilted roses and lilies and carnations, floral tributes to a young woman who was clearly loved. Suddenly I focus on a bit of greenery that is not part of any bouquet but has been draped across the other flowers, like an afterthought.
It is a palm leaf. Symbol of the martyr.
A chill scrabbles up my spine and I back away. Through the thudding of my heart, I hear the sound of an approaching car, and I turn to see a Newport police cruiser slow down to a crawl. The windows are rolled up and I cannot make out the officer’s face, but I know he’s giving me a long and careful look as he passes by. I turn away and duck back into my car.
There I sit for a moment, waiting for my heartbeat to slow down and my hands to stop trembling. I look again at the ruins of the house, and I once again picture Sarah at six years old. Pretty little Sarah Byrne, bouncing on the school-bus seat in front of me. Five of us rode the school bus that afternoon.
Now there are only four of us left.
“Goodbye, Sarah,” I murmur. Then I start the car and drive back to Boston.
Even monsters were mortal.
The woman lying on the other side of the window might appear to be as human as all the other patients in this intensive-care unit, but Dr. Maura Isles knew only too well that Amalthea Lank was indeed a monster. Behind the cubicle window was the creature who stalked Maura’s nightmares, who cast a shadow over Maura’s past, and whose face foretold Maura’s future.
Here is my mother.
“We’d heard that Mrs. Lank had a daughter, but we didn’t realize you were right down the road in Boston,” said Dr. Wang. Was that a note of criticism she heard in his voice? Disapproval that she’d neglected her filial duties and failed to turn up at the bedside of her dying mother?
“She is my biological mother,” said Maura, “but I was just an infant when she gave me up for adoption. I learned about her only a few years ago.”
“You’ve met her, though?”
“Yes, but I haven’t spoken to her since . . .” Maura paused. Since I swore I’d have nothing more to do with her. “I didn’t know she was in the ICU until the nurse called me this afternoon.”
“She was admitted here two days ago, after she developed a fever and her white count crashed.”
“How low is it?”
“Her neutrophil count—that’s a specific type of white blood cell—is only five hundred. It should be triple that.”
“I assume you’ve started empiric antibiotics?” She saw him blink in surprise and said, “I’m sorry, Dr. Wang. I should have mentioned that I’m a physician. I work for the medical examiner’s office.”
“Oh. I didn’t realize.” He cleared his throat and instantly shifted to the far-more-technical language they shared as medical doctors. “Yes, we started antibiotics right after we drew blood cultures. About five percent of patients on her chemotherapy regimen get febrile neutropenia.”
“Which chemo regimen is she on?”
“Folfirinox. It’s a combination of four drugs, including fluorouracil and leucovorin. According to one French study, Folfirinox definitely prolongs life for patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer, but they have to be closely monitored for fevers. Fortunately, the prison nurse at Framingham stayed on top of that.” He paused, searching for a way to pose a delicate question. “I hope you don’t mind me asking this.”
He looked away, clearly uncomfortable with the subject he was about to broach. It was far easier to discuss blood counts and antibiotic protocols and scientific data, because facts were neither good nor evil; they did not invite judgment. “Her medical record from Framingham doesn’t mention the reason why she’s in prison. All we were told is that Mrs. Lank is serving a life term with no chance of parole. The guard assigned to watch her insists that his prisoner stay handcuffed to the bed rail, which seems pretty barbaric to me.”
“That’s simply their protocol for hospitalized prisoners.”
“She’s dying of pancreatic cancer, and anyone can see how frail she is. She’s certainly not going to jump up and escape. But the guard told us she’s far more dangerous than she looks.”
“She is,” said Maura.
“Why was she sent to prison?”
He stared through the window at Amalthea. “That lady?”
“Now you understand the reason for the handcuffs. And for the guard stationed outside her cubicle.” Maura glanced at the uniformed officer who sat by the doorway, monitoring their conversation.
“I’m sorry,” said Dr. Wang. “This must be difficult for you, knowing that your mother—”
“Is a murderer? Yes.” And you don’t know the worst of it. You don’t know about the rest of the family.
Through the cubicle window, Maura saw Amalthea’s eyes slowly open. One bony finger beckoned to her, a gesture as chilling as the command of Satan’s claw. I should turn and leave now, she thought. Amalthea did not deserve anyone’s pity or kindness. But Maura did share a bond with this woman, a bond that went as deep as their molecules. If only by DNA, Amalthea Lank was her mother.
The male guard kept a close eye on Maura as she donned an isolation gown and mask. This would be no private visit; the guard would be observing their every look, every gesture, and the inevitable gossip would surely make the rounds of this hospital. Dr. Maura Isles, the Boston medical examiner whose scalpel had sliced open countless cadavers, who regularly followed in the wake of the Grim Reaper, was the daughter of a serial killer. Death was their family business.
Amalthea looked up at Maura with eyes as black as chips of obsidian. Oxygen hissed softly through her nasal prongs, and on the monitor above the bed, a cardiac rhythm blipped across the screen. Proof that even someone as soulless as Amalthea possessed a heart.
“You came to see me after all,” whispered Amalthea. “After you swore you never would.”
“They told me you’re critically ill. This may be our last chance to talk, and I wanted to see you while I still could.”
“Because you need something from me?”
Maura gave a disbelieving shake of the head. “What would I need from you?”
“It’s how the world works, Maura. All sensible creatures seek an advantage. Everything we do is out of self-interest.”
“That may be how it is for you. Not for me.”
“Then why did you come?”
“Because you’re dying. Because you keep writing me, asking me to visit. Because I like to think I have some sense of compassion.”
“Which I don’t have.”
“Why do you think you’re handcuffed to that bed?”
Amalthea grimaced and closed her eyes, her mouth suddenly tightening in pain. “I suppose I deserved that,” she murmured. Sweat glistened on her upper lip and for a moment she lay perfectly still, as though any movement, even drawing a breath, was excruciating. The last time Maura had seen her, Amalthea’s black hair was thick and generously streaked with silver. Now only a few wisps clung to her scalp, the last survivors of a brutal round of chemotherapy. The flesh of her temples had wasted away, and her skin sagged like a collapsing tent over the jutting bones of her face.
“You look like you’re in pain. Do you need morphine?” Maura asked. “I’ll call the nurse.”
“No.” Amalthea slowly released a breath. “Not yet. I need to be awake. I need to talk to you.”
“About you, Maura. Who you are.”
“I know who I am.”
“Do you, really?” Amalthea’s eyes were dark and fathomless. “You’re my daughter. You can’t deny it.”
“But I’m nothing like you.”
“Because you were raised by the kind and respectable Mr. and Mrs. Isles in San Francisco? Because you went to the best schools, had the finest education? Because you work on behalf of truth and justice?”
“Because I didn’t slaughter two dozen women. Or were there more? Were there other victims that didn’t show up in your final tally?”
“That all happened in the past. I want to talk about the future.”
“Why bother? You won’t be here.” It was a heartless thing to say, but Maura was not in the mood to be charitable. Suddenly she felt manipulated, lured here by a woman who knew exactly which puppet strings to pull. For months, Amalthea had been sending her letters. I’m dying of cancer. I’m your only blood relative. This will be your last chance to say goodbye. Few words held more power than last chance. Let that opportunity pass, and what followed might be a lifetime of regret.
“Yes, I’ll be dead,” said Amalthea matter-of-factly. “And you’ll be left to wonder who your people are.”
“My people?” Maura laughed. “As if we’re some sort of tribe?”
“We are. We belong to a tribe that profits from the dead. Your father and I did. Your brother did. And isn’t it ironic that you do as well? Ask yourself, Maura, why did you choose your profession? Such a strange one to pursue. Why aren’t you a teacher or a banker? What compels you to slice open the dead?”
“It’s about the science. I want to understand why they died.”
“Of course. The intellectual answer.”
“Is there a better one?”
“It’s because of the darkness. We both share it. The difference is, I’m not afraid of it, but you are. You deal with your fear by cutting it open with your scalpels, hoping to reveal its secrets. But that doesn’t work, does it? It doesn’t solve your fundamental problem.”
“That it’s inside you. The darkness is part of you.”
Maura looked into her mother’s eyes, and what she saw there made her throat suddenly go dry. Dear God, I see myself. She backed away. “I’m done here. You asked me to come and I did. Don’t send me any more letters, because I won’t answer them.” She turned. “Goodbye, Amalthea.”
“You’re not the only one I write to.”
Maura paused, about to open the cubicle door.
“I hear things. Things you might want to know.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “You don’t seem interested, but you will be. Because you’ll find another one soon.”
Maura hovered on the verge of walking out, struggling not to be sucked back into the conversation. Don’t respond, she thought. Don’t let her trap you here.
It was her cell phone that saved her, its deep-throated buzz trembling in her pocket. Without a backward glance, she stepped out of the cubicle, yanked off the face mask, and fumbled under the isolation gown for the phone. “Dr. Isles,” she answered.
“Got an early Christmas present for you,” said Detective Jane Rizzoli, sounding far too breezy for the news she was about to deliver. “Twenty-six-year-old white female. Dead in bed, fully dressed.”
“We’re in the Leather District. It’s a loft apartment on Utica Street. I can’t wait to hear what you think about this one.”
“You said she’s in bed? Her own?”
“Yeah. Her father found her.”
“And is this clearly a homicide?”
“No doubt about it. But it’s what happened to her afterward that’s making Frost freak out over here.” Jane paused and added quietly, “At least, I hope she was dead when it happened.”
Through the cubicle window, Maura saw that Amalthea was watching the conversation, eyes sharp with interest. Of course she would be interested; death was their family trade.
“How soon can you get here?” said Jane.
“I’m in Framingham at the moment. It might take me a while, depending on traffic.”
“Framingham? What’re you doing out there?”
It was not a subject Maura wanted to discuss, certainly not with Jane. “I’m leaving now” was all she said. She hung up and looked at her dying mother. I’m done here, she thought. Now I never have to see you again.
Amalthea’s lips slowly curved into a smile.