In the morning, I grabbed a bagel and headed west on Route 80 for forty-five minutes. Route 80 in New Jersey is a fairly nondescript strip of pavement. Once you get past Saddle Brook or so, the buildings pretty much vanish and you're faced with identical lines of trees on either side of the road. Only the interstate signs break up the monotony.
As I veered off exit 163 at a town called Gardensville, I slowed the car and looked out at the high grass. My heart started thumping. I had never been here before - I'd purposely avoided this stretch of interstate for the past eight years - but it was here, less than a hundred yards from where I now drove, that they found Elizabeth's body.
I checked the directions I'd printed off last night. The Sussex County coroner's office was on Mapquest.com, so I knew to the tenth of a kilometer how to get there. The building was a blinds closed storefront with no sign or window lettering, a plain brick rectangle with no frills, but then again, did you want any at a morgue? I arrived a few minutes before eight-thirty and pulled around back. The office was still locked up. Good.
A canary-yellow Cadillac Seville pulled into a spot marked Timothy Harper, County Medical Examiner. The man in the car stubbed out a cigarette - it never ceases to amaze me how many M.E.'s smoke - before he stepped out. Harper was my height, a shade under six feet, with olive skin and wispy gray hair. He saw me standing by the door and set his face. People didn't visit morgues first thing in the morning to hear good news.
He took his time approaching me. "Can I help you?" he said.
"Yes, that's right."
"I'm Dr. David Beck." Doctor. So we were colleagues. "I'd like a moment of your time."
He didn't react to the name. He took out a key and unlocked the door. "Why don't we sit in my office?"
I followed him down a corridor. Harper flicked light switches. The ceiling fluorescents popped on grudgingly and one at a time. The floor was scratched linoleum. The place looked less like a house of death than a faceless DMV office, but maybe that was the point. Our footsteps echoed, mixing with the buzzing from the lights as though keeping the beat. Harper picked up a stack of mail and quick-sorted it as we walked.
Harper's private office, too, was no-frills. There was the same metal desk you might find a teacher using in an elementary school. The chairs were over varnished wood, strictly functional. Several diplomas spotted one wall. He'd gone to medical school at Columbia, too, I saw, though he'd graduated almost twenty years before me. No family photographs, no golf trophy, no Lucite announcements, nothing personal. Visitors to this office were not in for pleasant chitchat. The last thing they needed to see was someone's smiling grandkids.
Harper folded his hands and put them on the desk. "What can I do for you, Dr. Beck?"
"Eight years ago," I began, "my wife was brought here. She was the victim of a serial killer known as KillRoy."
I'm not particularly good at reading faces. Eye contact has never been my forte. Body language means little to me. But as I watched Harper, I couldn't help but wonder what would make a practiced medical examiner, a man who oft dwelled in the world of the dead, blanch so.
"I remember," he said softly.
"You did the autopsy?"
"Yes. Well, in part."
"Yes. The federal authorities were involved too. We worked on the case in tandem, though the FBI doesn't have coroners, so we took the lead."
"Back up a minute," I said. "Tell me what you saw when they first brought the body in."
Harper shifted in his seat. "May I ask why you want to know this?"
"I'm a grieving husband."
"It was eight years ago."
"We all grieve in our own way, Doctor."
"Yes, I'm sure that's true, but-"
"But I'd like to know what you want here."
I decided to take the direct route. "You take pictures of every corpse brought in here, right?"
He hesitated. I saw it. He saw me seeing it and cleared his throat. "Yes. Currently, we use digital technology. A digital camera, in other words. It allows us to store photographs and various images on a computer. We find it helpful for both diagnosis and cataloguing."
I nodded, not caring. He was chattering. When he didn't continue, I said, "Did you take pictures of my wife's autopsy?"
"Yes, of course. But - how long ago did you say again?"
"We would have taken Polaroids."
"And where would those Polaroids be right now, Doctor?"
"In the file."
I looked at the tall filing cabinet standing in the corner like a sentinel.
"Not in there," he added quickly. "Your wife's case is closed. Her killer was caught and convicted. Plus it was more than five years ago."
"So where would it be?"
"In a storage facility. In Layton."
"I'd like to see the photographs, if I could."
He jotted something down and nodded at the scrap of paper. "I'll look into it."
He looked up.
"You said you remember my wife."
"Well, yes, I mean, somewhat. We don't have many murders here, especially ones so high profile."
"Do you remember the condition of her body?"
"Not really. I mean, not details or anything."
"Do you remember who identified her?"
Harper scratched his temple. "Her father, wasn't it?"
"Do you remember how long it took for him to make an identification?"
"Was it immediate? Did it take a few minutes? Five minutes, ten minutes?"
"I really couldn't say."
"You don't remember if it was immediate or not?"
"I'm sorry, I don't."
"You just said this was a big case."
"Maybe your biggest?"
"We had that pizza delivery thrill kill a few years ago," he said. "But, yes, I'd say it was one of the biggest."
"And yet you don't remember if her father had trouble identifying the body?"
He didn't like that. "Dr. Beck, with all due respect, I don't see what you're getting at."
"I'm a grieving husband. I'm asking some simple questions."
"Your tone," he said. "It seems hostile."
"Should it be?"
"What on earth does that mean?"
"How did you know she was a victim of KillRoy's?"
"So how did the feds get involved?"
"There were identifying marks-"
"You mean that she was branded with the letter K?"
I was on a roll now, and it felt oddly right. "So the police brought her in. You started examining her. You spotted the letter K-"
"No, they were here right away. The federal authorities, I mean."
"Before the body got here?"
He looked up, either remembering or fabricating. "Or immediately thereafter. I don't remember."
"How did they know about the body so quickly?"
"I don't know."
"You have no idea?"
Harper folded his arms across his chest. "I might surmise that one of the officers on the scene spotted the branding and called the FBI. But that would only be an educated guess."
My beeper vibrated against my hip. I checked it. The clinic with an emergency.
"I'm sorry for your loss," he said in a practiced tone. "I understand the pain you must be going through, but I have a very busy schedule today. Perhaps you can make an appointment at a later date-"
"How long will it take you to get my wife's file?" I asked.
"I'm not even sure I can do that. I mean, I'll have to check-"
"The Freedom of Information Act."
"I looked it up this morning. My wife's case is closed now. I have the right to view her file."
Harper had to know that - I wasn't the first person to ask for an autopsy file - and he started nodding a little too vigorously. "Still, there are proper channels you have to go through, forms to fill out."
"Are you stalling?" I said.
"My wife was the victim of a terrible crime."
"I understand that."
"And I have the right to view my wife's file. If you drag your feet on this, I'm going to wonder why. I've never spoken to the media about my wife or her killer. I'll gladly do so now. And we'll all be wondering why the local M.E. gave me such a hard time over such a simple request."
"That sounds like a threat, Dr. Beck."
I got to my feet. "I'll be back here tomorrow morning," I said. "Please have my wife's file ready."
I was taking action. It felt damn good.