I GAVE THE VINTAGE TEDDY BEAR TO LUCY WHEN she was ten and she named him Mister Pickle. He sits on the pillow of a bed made military tight with institutional linens tucked into hospital corners.
The chronically underwhelmed little bear stares blankly at me, his black thread mouth turned down into an inverted V, and I must have imagined he’d be happy, yes grateful if I rescued him. It’s an irrational thing to think when we’re talking about a stuffed animal, especially when the person having these thoughts is a lawyer, a scientist, a physician presumed to be coolly clinical and logical.
Death is greedy and ugly. It assaults our senses. It sets off every alarm in our cells, threatening us with our very lives. Be careful. Stay away. Run for the hills. Your turn could be next.
I feel a confusion of surprised emotions at the unexpected sight of Mister Pickle in the video that just landed on my phone.A fixed camera must have been pointed down at an angle, possibly from a pinhole in the ceiling. I can make out the smooth fabric bottoms of his paws, the soft swirls of his olive green mohair, the black pupils in his amber glass eyes, the yellow Steiff tag in his ear. I remember he was twelve inches tall and therefore an easy companion for a speeding comet like Lucy, my only niece, my de facto only child.
When I found the toy bear decades ago he was toppled over on a scarred wooden bookcase filled with musty-smelling obscure coffee table tomes on gardening and southern homes in a boutique-y area of Richmond, Virginia, called Carytown. He was dressed in a dingy knitted white smock, and I stripped him.I repaired several tears with sutures worthy of a plastic surgeon and placed him in a sink of tepid water, shampooing him with antibacterial color-safe soap, then drying him with a blow dryer set on cool. I decided he was male and looked better without smocks or other silly costumes, and I teased Lucy that she was the proud owner of a bare bear. She said that figured.
If you sit too still too long my Aunt Kay will rip your clothes off and hose you down and gut you with a knife. Then she’ll sew you up and leave you naked, she added gleefully.
Inappropriate. Awful. Not funny really. But after all Lucy was ten at the time, and her childish rapid-fire voice is suddenly in my head as I step away from decomposing blood that is brownish red with watery yellow edges on the white marble floor. The stench seems to darken and dirty the air, and flies are like a legion of tiny whiny demons sent by Beelzebub. Death is greedy and ugly. It assaults our senses. It sets off every alarm in our cells, threatening us with our very lives. Be careful. Stay away. Run for the hills. Your turn could be next.
We’re programmed to find dead bodies off-putting and repulsive, to avoid them literally like the plague. But embedded in this hardwired survival instinct is a rare exemption that is necessary to keep the tribe healthy and safe. A select few of us come into this world not bothered by gruesomeness. In fact we’re drawn to it, fascinated, intrigued and it’s a good thing.Someone has to warn and protect those left behind. Someone has to take care of painful unpleasantness, to figure out the why, how and who and properly dispose of rotting remains before they further offend and spread infection.
I believe that such special caretakers are created unequally.For better or worse we’re not all the same. I’ve always known this. Give me a few strong Scotches and I’ll admit I’m really not quote normal and never have been. I’m not afraid of death. I rarely notice its artifacts beyond what they have to say to me.Odors, fluids, maggots, flies, vultures, rodents. They contribute to the truths I seek, and it’s important I recognize and respect the life that preceded the failed biology I examine and collect.
All this is to say that I’m unbothered by what most people find upsetting and disgusting. But not by anything that has to do with Lucy. I love her too much. I always have. Already I feel responsible and to blame, and maybe that’s the point as I recognize the plain vanilla dorm room in the recording that’s just ambushed me. I’m the master designer, the authority figure, the doting aunt who put her niece in that room. I put Mister Pickle there.
He looks pretty much the same as when I spirited him away from that dusty Richmond shop and cleaned him up at the beginning of my career. I realize I don’t remember the last time I saw him or where. I have no idea if Lucy lost him, gave him away or has him packed in a closet. My attention flickers as loud spasms of coughing sound several rooms away inside this beautiful house where a wealthy young woman is dead.
“Jesus! What is this? Typhoid F***ing Mary?” It’s Cambridge Police Investigator Pete Marino carping, talking, joking with his colleagues the way cops do.
The Massachusetts state trooper whose name I don’t know is getting over a “summer cold” supposedly. I’m beginning to wonder if what he really has is whooping cough.
“Listen meat puppet. You f***ing give me what you got? You get me sick? How about standing over there.” More of Marino’s bedside manner.
“I’m not contagious.” Another salvo of coughing.
“Jesus! Cover your f***ing mouth!”
“How am I supposed to do that with gloves on?”
“Then take them off dammit.”
“No way. It won’t be me leaving DNA in here.”
“Oh really? Coughing doesn’t spray DNA from one end of the house to the other every time you hack up your toes?”
I tune out Marino and the trooper, keeping my eyes on the display of my phone. Seconds tick by on the video and the dorm room stays empty. Nobody is there but Mister Pickle on Lucy’s military-looking uncomfortable, ungenerous bed. It’s as if the white sheets and tan blanket have been spray-painted on the narrow thin mattress with its single flat pillow, and I hate beds made as tight as a drum. I avoid them every chance I get.
She’s relentless about controlling her environment and that’s another argument against her having a clue she was under surveillance inside her own dorm room.
My bed at home with its plush Posturepedic mattress, its high-thread-count linens and down-filled duvets is one of my most cherished luxuries. It’s where I rest finally, where I have sex finally, where I dream or better yet don’t. I refuse to feel shrink-wrapped. I won’t sleep trussed up and restrained like a mummy with the circulation cut off in my feet. It’s not that I’m unaccustomed to military quarters, government housing, lousy motels or barracks of one sort or another. I’ve spent countless hours in unwelcoming places but it’s not by choice. Lucy is a different story. While she doesn’t exactly live a simple spartan life anymore she also doesn’t care about certain creature comforts the same way I do.
Put her in a sleeping bag in the middle of the woods or a desert and she’s fine as long as she has weapons, technology and can bunker herself against the enemy, whatever that might be at any given moment. She’s relentless about controlling her environment and that’s another argument against her having a clue she was under surveillance inside her own dorm room.
She didn’t know. Absolutely not.
I decide the video was filmed sixteen, at the most nineteen years ago with high-resolution spy equipment that was ahead of its time. Megapixel multicamera input. A flexible open platform. Computer controlled. Facile software. Concealable.Remotely accessible. Definitely New Millennium research and development but not an anachronism, not faked. It’s exactly what I would expect.
My niece’s technical environment is always ahead of its time, and in the mid- to late 1990s she would have known about new developments in surveillance equipment long before other people did. But that doesn’t mean Lucy is the one who installed covert recording devices inside her own dorm room while she was an intern for the FBI, still in college and as excruciatingly private and secretive as she is today.
Words like surveillance and spy dominate my internal dialogue because I’m convinced what I’m looking at wasn’t recorded with her knowledge. Much less her consent and that’s important. I also don’t believe it was Lucy who texted this video to me, even if it appears to have been sent from her In Case of Emergency (ICE) cell phone number. That’s very important. It’s also problematic. Almost no one has her ICE number. I can count on one hand the people who do, and I carefully study the details in the recording. It started playing ten seconds ago. Eleven now. Fourteen. Sixteen. I scrutinize images filmed from multiple angles.
Were it not for Mister Pickle I might not have recognized Lucy’s former dorm room with its white horizontal blinds shut backward like a nappy fabric or fur rubbed the wrong way, a habit of hers that’s always driven me a little crazy. She routinely shuts blinds with the slats verso, and I gave up saying it’s like wearing your underwear inside out. She argues that when the closed slats curve up instead of down it’s impossible to see in. Anybody who thinks that way is vigilant about being watched, stalked, spied on. Lucy wouldn’t let someone get away with it.
Unless she didn’t know. Unless she trusted whoever it was.
SECONDS TICK BY and the dorm room is the same. Empty. Silent.
The cinder block walls and tile floor are primer-white, the furniture inexpensive with a maple veneer, everything plain and practical and prodding a remote part of my brain, a pain-saturated part of my memory that I keep sealed off like human remains under poured concrete. What I’m seeing on my phone’s display could be a private psychiatric hospital room. Or a visiting officer’s quarters on a military base. Or a generically bland pied-à-terre. But I know what I’m looking at. I’d recognize that moody teddy bear anywhere.
I go flatline. I focus. I think clearly, objectively, scientifically. I must. The video playing on my phone is authentic. It’s crucial I accept that.
Mister Pickle always went where Lucy did, and as I look at his poignant face I’m reminded of what was going on with me during the long lost days of the 1990s. I was the chief medical examiner of Virginia, the first woman to hold that position. I’d become Lucy’s caretaker after my selfish sister Dorothy decided to unload her on me. What was presented as a short impromptu visit turned into forever and the timing for when it all began couldn’t have been worse.
My first summer in Richmond and it was under siege as a serial killer strangled women in their own homes, in their own beds. The murders were escalating and becoming increasingly sadistic. We couldn’t catch him. We didn’t have a clue. I was new. The press and politicians thundered down on me like an avalanche. I was a misfit. I was chilly and aloof. I was peculiar.What kind of woman would dissect dead bodies in a morgue? I was ungracious and lacked southern charm. I wasn’t descended from Jamestown or the Mayflower. A backslidden Catholic, a socially liberal multicultural Miami native and I’d managed to anchor my career in the former capital of the Confederacy where the murder rate per capita was the highest in the United States.
I never got a satisfactory explanation for the reason Richmond won the prize when it came to homicide and what sense it made for the cops to brag about it. For that matter I didn’t understand the point of Civil War reenactments. Why would you celebrate the biggest thing you ever lost? I quickly learned not to give voice to such skepticisms, and when asked if I was a Yankee I said I didn’t follow baseball closely. That usually shut the person up.
The exhilaration of being one of the first female chiefs in the United States quickly lost its thrill and the brass ring I’d grabbed tarnished fast. Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia felt more like a stubborn old war zone than a bastion of civility and enlightenment, and it didn’t take long for the truth to become abundantly clear. The former chief medical examiner was a misogynistic bigoted alcoholic who died suddenly and left a disastrous legacy. No seasoned board-certified forensic pathologist with a decent reputation wanted to take his place. So a bright idea occurred to the men in charge. What about a woman?
Women are good at cleaning up messes. Why not find a female forensic expert? It doesn’t matter if she’s young and missing the requisite experience to head a statewide system. As long as she’s a qualified expert in court and minds her manners she can grow into the position. How about an overeducated detail-addicted work-obsessed perfectionistic Italian woman who grew up dirt poor, has everything to prove, is turbo-driven and divorced with no kids?
Well no kids sort of until the unexpected happened. My only sister’s only offspring Lucy Farinelli was the baby on my doorstep. Except this baby was ten years old, knew more about computers and all things mechanical than I did or ever would, and she was a tabula rasa when it came to appropriate behavior.To say Lucy was difficult is like saying that lightning is hazardous. It’s a statement of fact that will always be a given.
My niece was and is a challenge. Immutably and incurably.But as a child she was impossible and uncivilized. She was a genius aborigine, angry, beautiful, fiery, fearless, remorseless and untouchable, overly sensitive and insatiable. Nothing I might have done for her could have been enough. But I tried. I tried relentlessly against all odds. I’ve always feared I’d be a lousy mother. I have no reason to be good one.
I thought a stuffed bear might make a neglected little girl feel better and possibly loved, and as I watch Mister Pickle on the bed of Lucy’s former dorm room in a surveillance video I didn’t know existed until one minute ago, a low voltage shock settles into a generalized calm. I go flatline. I focus. I think clearly, objectively, scientifically. I must. The video playing on my phone is authentic. It’s crucial I accept that. The footage wasn’t Photoshopped or manufactured. I know damn well what I’m seeing.
The FBI Academy. Washington Dormitory. Room 411.
I try to pinpoint precisely when Lucy was there as an intern first and later a new agent. Before she got run off the job.Basically fired by the FBI. Then ATF. Then became a mercenary special operator disappearing on missions I don’t want to know about before starting her own forensic computer company in New York City. Until she got run out of there too.
Then has become now, a Friday morning in the middle of August. Lucy is a thirty-five-year-old extremely rich technical entrepreneur who generously shares her talents with me, with my headquarters the Cambridge Forensic Center (CFC), and as I watch the surveillance video I’m in two places. Back in time and here in the present. They’re connected. A continuum.
Everything I’ve done and been has pushed forward slowly and unstoppably like a landmass, propelling me into this marble foyer spattered with putrid blood. What’s gone before has brought me exactly where I am, limping and in pain with a badly injured leg and a decomposing dead body near me on the floor. My past. But most importantly Lucy’s past, and I envision a galaxy of bright swirling shapes and secrets in a vast inky void. Darkness, scandals, deceptions, betrayals, fortunes won and lost and won again, bad shootings, good ones and near-misses.
Our lives together started with hopes and dreams and promise, and incrementally got worse and better and finally not so bad and then pretty good until it all went to hell again this past June when I almost died. I thought the horror story was over forever and no longer foremost on anybody’s mind. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. It’s as if I outran a speeding train only to be hit by it coming the other way around a bend in the tracks.