Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Nashville, Tennessee
Dr. Samantha Owens

Dr. Samantha Owens, head medical examiner for the state of Tennessee, checked her watch, then hurried down the forty-foot brown-carpeted hallway to the prep area for the autopsy suite. As head of Forensic Medical, the suite was her home. A place she knew as intimately as her own body. She had four medical examiners, eight death investigators and six techs on her staff, all handpicked, all excellent. And since her conference call had gone long, she was keeping them waiting.

            Sam spent a minimum of four hours a day in the suite, overseeing autopsies, for the most part, though she liked to put herself in the rotation at least once a week to keep her skills sharp. The exceptions were unique or difficult cases, or especially high-profile homicides. Those were always slated for her scalpel. Though she’d never talk about it, Sam was one of the finest forensic pathologists in the country.

            She was already dressed in scrubs but stopped before the doors and geared up the rest of the way. Booties, cap, an extra mouth shield. Gloves. The heavy-duty Marigolds that could take a slip of a knife and not get cut, followed by two pairs of regular electric-blue nitrile.

            She used her shoulder to push open the door. The stainless-steel cart that housed her knives waited for her.

            Sun streamed through the skylights, cheering the place up a bit. The job was hard on everyone. Death was the most natural part of life, but it took a special kind of person to live with it day in and day out. Autopsy was brutal, but necessary. There were good days and there were bad. Then there were the excruciating ones; those that saw children were always the worst. But any unfortunate death could cause tightening around the mouths and eyes, quiet glances, extra gentleness.

            So anything she could do to keep her teams happy, she did.

            But today wasn’t going to be one of those days. She could tell. When she entered the room, there were genuine smiles. The radio blared Van Halen.

            I’m hot for teacher.

            “Okay, team, what have we before us today?”

            Stuart Charisse, her favorite tech, came forward with charts. “Four guests, Dr. Owens. Two unattended deaths, a probable coronary and a possible suicide by overdose.”

            Sam went to the computer on the far side of the room and looked over the information on the guests, then nodded to her team, a signal for them to get started. The ballet began, Y-incisions done on all four bodies almost in unison, with Sam tapping a pen against her leg like a conductor.

            They worked quickly, efficiently, and when the first tech yelled, “Chest’s ready,” she started her own dance.

            She was just beginning the dissection of an aortic rupture on their cardiac guest when the suite phone rang.

            Stuart turned down the radio and answered it, mumbled a few things she couldn’t make out, hung up and came to Sam and stood quietly.

            “What’s up?” she asked, not taking her eyes off the board.

            “Um, that was Ann.”

            Ann was one of Sam’s top death investigators.


            “She’s bringing in a…a drowning.”

            At the word, the room went silent. Sam froze. There was a pause of at least four heartbeats before Stuart lightly touched her shoulder.

            “Dr. Fox is already here. He’s handling the remains they found yesterday, from the dig in the lot off Demonbruen. That skeleton. He can finish up. I’ll just go get him.”

            Sam bit her lip and swallowed down the nausea.

            Breathe, Sam. Breathe.

            “Hold on. Let me just finish here,” she managed. She made her final cut a little more forcefully than necessary, read off her findings to Stuart, then went to the sink, washed her knives and left the suite. Behind her, the din resumed. She hoped they weren’t talking about her but assumed that was wishful thinking.

            Out of sight from her team, the rabbit hole opened and dragged her into the abyss. She hated how her world could turn on a dime. Still. Would it ever end?

            She stripped off her gloves and washed her hands methodically at the sink outside the autopsy suite, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four. The washing had become a shrivening of sorts, a way to find forgiveness for the act of mutilation that was a postmortem.

            She didn’t know when she’d started thinking of it that way. She’d been a forensic pathologist for fifteen years, starting in the morgue straight out of her residency. It was safe, and comfortable, and she was damn good at her job. She made a difference. She answered the unanswerable, for both loved ones and the police. That should be enough.

            But lately she’d been drawing back. Not looking forward to coming to work. Cringing as she dissected the organs. Not wanting to identify stomach contents. It wasn’t like she’d ever been breathless in anticipation to start the day—it was a job, after all, and a difficult one—but she’d begun dreading waking in the morning: the alarm blaring in her ear, the five-minute shower to wake up, the cup of coffee from the brown mug, the organic cornflakes from Trader Joe’s, the obligatory makeup and hairdryer, slipping into her trousers and tank, a cardigan and pearls, soft loafers on her feet, a dab of perfume, then the twenty-minute drive from the dark house across town to Forensic Medical.

            The bodies, one after another, stacking up like cordwood in the cooler, waiting for her to ferry them across the river Styx with a slash of scalpel and a signature on a page.

            She’d actually seen a body with a coin in its mouth once, payment for Charon, and forevermore felt herself allied with the age-old euphemism: Death comes for us all.

            It just comes for some sooner than it should.

            Rote. Her life was only safe when it was a metronome.

            Five Mississippi, six Mississippi, seven Mississippi, eight.

            She turned the water a little warmer and rinsed, taking care to remove all of the residue, because she’d developed an allergy to the industrial hand soap the state provided, and when it was left on her skin her hands turned red and flaked. At least, that’s what she told herself.

            She turned the sink off with her elbow and used the harsh brown paper towels to dry off. A flash of light from the suite indicated the morgue garage doors were opening. She did not look.

            It was understood among the staff.

            Sam didn’t post drownings.

            Not anymore.

            Into her office for a moment, to gather her purse and keys. She needed to go home.


            It was better that way.

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