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THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES

Part 3 ("The Appointed Time"), Chapter 2

A terrible murder has been discovered in New York's Central Park. What makes the murder even more terrible to FBI Agent Pendergast is the chilling similarity to a rash of murders that happened over a hundred years before.


 

Warning: This novel contains profanity and graphic violence.

 

Dr. Bill Dowson lounged against the sink, examining his precisely-trimmed fingernails without interest. One more, then lunch. Thank God. A cup of coffee and a BLT at the corner deli would hit the spot. He wasn’t sure why he wanted a BLT, exactly: maybe it was the lividity of the last stiff that started him thinking about bacon. Anyway, that Dominican behind the deli counter had elevated the sandwich into an art form. Dowson could practically taste the crisp lettuce, the tang of tomato against the mayonnaise. . .

The nurse brought in the clipboard and he glanced up. She had short black hair and a trim body. He glanced at the clipboard without picking it up and smiled at her.

"What have we here?" he asked.

"Homicide."

He gave an exaggerated sigh, rolled his eyes. "What is that, the fourth today? It must be hunting season. Gunshot?"

"No. Some kind of multiple stabbing. They found it in Central Park, in the Ramble."

He nodded. "The dumping ground, eh? Figures." Great. Another piece-of-shit killing. He glanced at his watch. "Bring it in, please."

He watched the nurse walk out. Nice, very nice. She returned a moment later with a rolling gurney, covered by a green sheet.

He made no move toward the body. "So, how about that dinner tonight?"

The nurse smiled. "I don’t think it’s a good idea, doctor."

"Why not?"

"I’ve told you before. I don’t date doctors. Especially ones I work with."

He nodded, pushed down his glasses, and grinned. "But I’m your soul mate, remember?"

She smiled. "Hardly."

But he could tell she was flattered by his interest. Better not push it, though, not these days. Sexual harassment and all that.

He sighed, eased himself off the sink. Then he pulled on a fresh pair of gloves. "Turn on the videocams," he said to the nurse as he prepped.

"Yes, doctor."

He picked up the clipboard. "Says here we have a Caucasian woman, identified as Doreen Hollander, age 27, of Pine Creek, Oklahoma. Identified by her husband." He scanned the rest of the top sheet. Then he hung the clipboard on the gurney, drew on his surgical mask, and with the nurse’s help lifted the sheeted corpse onto the stainless-steel examining table.

He sensed a presence behind him, and turned. In the doorway was a tall, slender man. His face and hands looked remarkably pale against the black of his suit. Behind the man stood a uniformed cop.

"Yes?" Dowson asked.

The man approached, opening his wallet. "I’m Special Agent Pendergast, Dr. Dowson. And this is Sergeant O’Shaughnessy of the NYPD."

Dowson looked him over. This was very irregular. And there was something strange about the man: hair so very blond, eyes so very pale, accent so very, very southern. "And?"

"May I observe?"

"This an FBI case?"

"No."

"Where’s your clearance?"

"I don’t have one."

Dowson sighed with irritation. "You know the rules. You can’t just watch for the hell of it."

The FBI agent took a step closer to him, closer than he liked, invading his personal space. He controlled an impulse to step backward.

"Look, Mr. Pendergast, get the necessary paperwork and come back. Okay?"

"That will be time consuming," said the man named Pendergast. "It will hold you up considerably. I would appreciate your courtesy in letting us observe."

There was something in the man’s tone that sounded a lot harder than the mellifluous accent and genteel words suggested. Dowson hesitated. "Look, with all due respect—"

"With all due respect, Dr. Dowson, I’m in no mood to bandy civilities with you. Proceed with the autopsy."

The voice was now cold as dry ice. Dowson remembered the videocam was on. He glanced covertly at the nurse. He had a strong sense that a humiliation at the hands of this man might be just around the corner. This would not look good and it might cause trouble later. The guy was FBI, after all. Anyway, his own ass was covered: he was on record stating the man needed clearance.

Dowson sighed. "All right, Pendergast. You and the Sergeant, don scrubs."

He waited until they returned, then pulled back the sheet with a single motion. The cadaver lay on its back: blonde hair, young, fresh. The chill of the previous night had kept it from decomposing. Dowson leaned toward the mike and began a description. The FBI man was looking at the corpse with interest. But Dowson could see that the uniformed cop was beginning to look uneasy, shifting from one foot to another, lips pressed tight together. The last thing he needed was a puker.

"Is he going to be all right?" Dowson asked Pendergast in an undertone, nodding to the cop.

Pendergast turned. "You don’t have to see this, Sergeant."

The cop swallowed, glancing from the corpse to Pendergast and back again. "I’ll be in the lounge."

"Drop your scrubs in the bin on your way out," said Dowson with sarcastic satisfaction.

Pendergast watched the cop leave. Then he turned to Dowson. "I suggest you turn the body over before making your Y-incision."

"And why is that?"

Pendergast nodded toward the clipboard. "Page two."

Dowson picked it up, flipped over the top page. Extensive lacerations... deep knife wounds... Looked like the girl had been stabbed repeatedly in the lower back. Or worse. As usual, it was hard to make out from the police report what had actually taken place, from a medical standpoint. There had been no investigating M.E. It had been given a low priority. This Doreen Hollander didn’t count for much, it seemed.

Dowson returned the clipboard. "Sue, help me turn her over."

They turned the body, exposing the back. The nurse gasped and stepped away.

Dowson stared in surprise."Looks like she died on the operating table, in the middle of an operation to remove a spinal tumor." Had they screwed up again downstairs? Just last week—twice—they had sent him the wrong paperwork with the wrong corpse. But immediately Dowson realized this was no hospital stiff. Not with dirt and leaves sticking to the raw wound that covered the entire lower back and sacrum area.

This was weird. Seriously weird.

He peered closer and began describing the wound for the benefit of the camera, trying to keep the surprise out of his voice.

"Superficially, this does not resemble the random knife slashing, stabbing, or cutting described in the report. It has the appearance of— of a dissection. The incision— if it is one— begins about 10 inches below the scapula and seven inches above the belt line. It appears as if the entire cauda equina has been dissected out, starting at L1 and terminating at the sacrum."

At this, the FBI agent looked at him abruptly.

"The dissection includes the filum terminale." Dowson bent closer. "Nurse, sponge along here."

The nurse removed some of the debris around the wound. The room had fallen silent except for the whirr of the camera, and there was a clattering sound as twigs and leaves slid into the table’s drainage channel.

"The spinal cord—more precisely, the cauda equina—is missing. It has been removed. The dissection extends peripherally to the neuroforamen and out to the transverse processes. Nurse, irrigate L1 to L5."

The nurse quickly irrigated the requested area.

"The, er, dissection has stripped off the skin, the subcutaneous tissue, and paraspinous musculature. It appears as if a self-retaining retractor was used. I can see the marks of it here, and here, and here." He carefully indicated the areas for the benefit of the video.

"The spinous processes and laminae have been removed, along with the ligamentum flavum. The dura is still present. There is a longitudinal incision in the dura from L1 to the sacrum, allowing full removal of the cord. It has the appearance of a... of a very professional incision. Nurse, the stereozoom."

The nurse rolled over a large microscope. Quickly, Dowson inspected the spinus processes. "It looks as if a rongeur has been used to remove the processes and laminae from the dura."

He straightened up, running a gowned arm across his forehead. This was not a standard dissection one would do in medical school. It was more like the kind of thing neurosurgeons practiced in advanced neuroanatomy classes. Then he remembered the FBI agent, Pendergast. He glanced at him, to see how he was taking it. He had seen a lot of shocked people at autopsies, but nothing like this: the man looked, not shocked exactly, so much as grim Death himself.

The man spoke. "Doctor, may I interrupt with a few questions?"

Dowson nodded.

"Was this dissection the cause of death?"

This was a new thought to Dowson. He shuddered. "If the subject were alive when this was done, yes, it would have caused death."

"At what point?"

"As soon as the incision was made in the dura, the cerebrospinal fluid would have drained. That alone would have been enough to cause death." He examined the wound again. It looked as if the operation had caused a great deal of bleeding from the epidural veins, and some of them had retracted—an indication of live trauma. Yet the dissector had not worked around the veins, as a surgeon on a live patient would have done, but had cut right through them. The operation, while done with great skill, had also apparently been done with haste. "A large number of veins have been cut, and only the largest—whose bleeding would have interfered with the work—have been ligated. The subject might have bled to death before the opening of the dura, depending on how fast the, er, person worked."

"But was the subject alive when the operation began?"

"It seems she was." Dowson swallowed weakly. "However, it seems no effort was made to keep the subject alive while the, ah, dissection was progressing."

"I would suggest some blood and tissue work to see if the subject had been tranquilized."

The doctor nodded. "It’s standard."

"In your opinion, doctor, how professional was this dissection?"

Dowson did not answer. He was trying to order his thoughts. This had the potential of being big and unpleasant. For the time being, no doubt they’d try to keep a low profile on this, try to fly it as long as possible beneath the radar of the New York press. But it would come out—they always did—and then there would be a lot of people second-guessing his actions. He’d better slow down, take it one step at a time. This was not the run-of-the-mill murder the police report indicated. Thank God he hadn’t actually begun the autopsy. He had the FBI agent to thank for that.

He turned to the nurse. "Get Jones up here with the large-format camera and the camera for the stereozoom. And I want a second M.E. to assist. Who’s on call?"

"Dr. Lofton."

"I need him within the half-hour. I also want to consult with our neurosurgeon, Dr. Feldman. Get him up here as soon as possible."

"Yes, Doctor."

He turned to Pendergast. "I’m not sure I can let you stay without some kind of official sanction."

To his surprise, the man seemed to accept this. "I understand, doctor. I believe this autopsy is in good hands. I, personally, have seen enough."

So have I, thought Dowson. He now felt sure that a surgeon had done this. The thought made him feel sick.

 

 

O’Shaughnessy stood in the lounge. He debated whether to buy a cup of coffee from a vending machine, then decided against it. He felt distinctly embarrassed. Here he was, supposed to be a tough, sardonic New York City cop, and he’d wimped out. All but tossed his cookies right there on the examining room floor. The sight of that poor chubby naked girl on the table, blue and dirty, her young face all puffed up, eyes open, leaves and sticks in her hair... he shuddered afresh at the image.

He also felt a burning anger for the person who had done it. He wasn’t a homicide cop, never had wanted to be one, even in the early days. He hated the sight of blood. But his own sister-in-law lived in Oklahoma. About this girl’s age, too. Now, he felt he could stand whatever it took to catch that killer.

Pendergast glided through the stainless steel doors like a wraith. He barely glanced at O’Shaughnessy. The Sergeant fell into step behind him, and they left the building and climbed into the waiting car in silence.

Something had definitely put Pendergast into a black mood. The guy was moody, but this was the darkest he had ever seen him. O’Shaughnessy still had no idea why Pendergast was suddenly so interested in this new murder, interrupting his work on the nineteenth-century killings. But somehow, this didn’t seem to be the time to ask.

"We will drop the Sergeant off at the Precinct house," said Pendergast to his chauffeur. "And then you may take me home."

Pendergast settled back in the leather seat. O’Shaughnessy looked over at him.

"What happened?" he managed to ask. "What did you see?"

Pendergast looked out his window. "Evil." And he spoke no more.

 


THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES is copyright 2002 by Lincoln Child and Splendide Mendax, Inc. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this text, or any portion thereof, in any form.
THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES is available in paperback from Grand Central Publishing, www.HachetteBookGroup.com.


2018 Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child