The Body Farm

By: Patricia Cornwell


On the sixteenth of October, shadowy deer crept to the edge of dark woods beyond my window as the sun peeked over the cover of the night. Plumbing above and below me groaned, and one by one other rooms went bright as sharp tattoos from ranges I could not see riddled the dawn. I had gone to sleep and gotten up to the sound of gunfire.

It is a noise that never stops in Quantico, Virginia, where the FBI Academy is an island surrounded by Marines. Several days a month I stayed on the Academy’s security floor, where no one could call me unless I wanted them to or follow me after too many beers in the Boardroom.

Unlike the Spartan dormitory rooms occupied by new agents and visiting police, in my suite were TV, kitchen, telephone, and a bathroom I did not have to share. Smoking and alcohol were not allowed, but I suspected that the spies and protected witnesses typically sequestered here obeyed the rules about as well as I did.

As coffee heated in the microwave, I opened my briefcase to retrieve a file that had been waiting for me when I had checked in last night. I had not reviewed it yet for I could not bring myself to wrap my mind around such a thing, to take such a thing to bed. In that way I had changed.

Since medical school, I had been accustomed to exposing myself to any trauma at any hour. I had worked around the clock in emergency rooms and performed autopsies alone in the morgue until dawn. Sleep had always been a brief export to some dark, vacant place I rarely later recalled. Then gradually over the years something perniciously shifted. I began to dread working late at night, and was prone to bad dreams when terrible images from my life popped up in the slot machine of my unconscious.

Emily Steiner was eleven, her dawning sexuality a blush on her slight body, when she wrote in her diary two Sundays before, on October 1:

Oh, Im’ so happy! Its almost 1 in the morning and Mom doesnt know Im’ writing in my dairy because Im’ in bed with the flash light. We went to the cover dish supper at the church and Wren was there! I could tell he noticed me. Then he gave me a fireball! I saved it while he wasnt looking. Its in my secret box. This afternoon we have youth group and he wants me to meet him early and not tell anyone!!!

At three-thirty that afternoon, Emily left her house in Black Mountain, just east of Asheville, and began the two-mile walk to the church. After the meeting, other children recalled seeing her leave alone as the sun slipped below the foothills at six P.M. She veered off the main road, guitar case in hand, and took a shortcut around a small lake. Investigators believed it was during this walk she encountered the man who hours later would steal her life. Perhaps she stopped to talk to him. Perhaps she was unaware of his presence in the gathering shadows as she hurried home.

In Black Mountain, a western North Carolina town of seven thousand people, local police had worked very few homicides or sexual assaults of children. They had never worked a case that was both. They had never thought about Temple Brooks Gault of Albany, Georgia, though his face smiled from Ten Most Wanted lists posted across the land. Notorious criminals and their crimes had never been a concern in this picturesque part of the world known for Thomas Wolfe and Billy Graham.

I did not understand what would have drawn Gault there or to a frail child named Emily who was lonely for her father and a boy named Wren. But when Gault had gone on his murderous spree in Richmond two years before, his choices had seemed just as devoid of rationality. In fact, they still did not make sense.

Leaving my suite, I passed through sun-filled glass corridors as memories of Gault’s bloody career in Richmond seemed to darken the morning. Once he had been within my reach. I literally could have touched him, for a flicker, before he had fled through a window and was gone. I had not been armed on that occasion, and it was not my business to go around shooting people anyway. But I had not been able to shake the chill of doubt that had settled over my spirit back then. I had not stopped wondering what more I could have done.

• • •

Wine has never known a good year at the Academy, and I regretted drinking several glasses of it in the Boardroom the night before. My morning run along J. Edgar Hoover Road was worse than usual.

Oh, God, I thought. I’m not going to make it.

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