I spent a long afternoon at the morgue. I had left my desk at the Manhattan district attorney's office shortly after lunch to review autopsy results on a new case with the deputy chief medical examiner. A nineteen-year-old, dressed in an outfit she had bought just hours earlier, was killed outside a social club as she waited on a street corner for her friends.
Now I walked a quiet corridor, again surrounded by death. I did not want to be here. I paused at the entrance of an ancient tomb, its painted limestone facade concealing the false doorway to an underground burial chamber. The faded reliefs that decorated its walls showed offerings of food and drink that would nourish the spirit of the dead. I didn't harbor any hope that the young woman whose body I had seen today would ever be in need of the kind of good meal displayed before me.
I made my way past a granite lion and nodded at the uniformed guard, who slouched on a folding chair beside the elegantly carved beast, once the protector of a royal grave. Both were sleeping soundly. The outstretched arms of the neighboring alabaster monkeys held empty vessels that had no doubt been receptacles of the body parts of some mummified dignitary of the Old Kingdom.
Voices echoing from behind me suggested that I was not going to be the last arrival at this evening's festive dinner. I quickened my pace and swept by cases filled with goddesses' stone heads, perched on shelves holding jeweled sandals and golden collars that had been buried with them for centuries. A sharp left turn brought me face-to-face with the enormous black sarcophagus of a Thirtieth Dynasty Egyptian queen, held open by two iron posts, so that passersby could see the image of her soul portrayed on the inside of the upper lid. The dark, heavy casket with a faint outline of the slender body it once housed chilled me, despite the unseasonal warmth of the late-spring night.
Then I turned the last corner, where the darkness of the funereal rooms gave way to the glorious open space that housed the Temple of Dendur. The northernmost end of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a sloping, glass-paned wall soaring above the sandstone monuments, opening the vista into Central Park. It was almost nine o'clock, and the streetlamps beyond the windows lightened the night sky, giving definition to the leafy green trees bordering the great institution.
I stood at the edge of the moat that surrounded the two raised buildings in this stunning wing, searching the crowd for my friends. Waiters in sleek black suits zigzagged back and forth among the guests, stopping to dispense smoked salmon on black bread and caviar blinis. They were trailed by others who carried silver trays filled with glasses of white wine, champagne, and sparkling water, dodging the elbows and arms of the assembled museum members and supporters.
Nina Baum saw me before I spotted her. "You came just late enough to miss most of the speeches. Smart move."
She signaled to one of the servers, and handed me a flute of champagne. "Hungry?"
I shook my head.
"Not a very pleasant afternoon."
"Was she -- ?"
"I'll tell you about it later. Chapman thought he had a lead on a case he's been handling that's reached a dead end, so I wanted to get a clear understanding about the pattern of injuries and how they'd been inflicted. That way, if he picked up a suspect and I got a chance to question the guy tonight, I'd be ready for him. Turned out to be a bad tip, so there's no interrogation, no arrest. It's on the back burner for a while."
Nina looped her arm through mine and started to walk me toward the steps. "Why didn't you bring Mike with you?"
"I tried. Once I told him it was black tie he sent me home to shower and change. No penguin suit for him, not even to see you. He'll catch you later in the week."
Copyright © 2003 by Linda Fairstein
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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