Today's Reading


May 8th
5:49 A.M.

Laurie Montgomery-Stapleton's eyes popped open much earlier than usual and without Jack Stapleton repeatedly nudging her shoulder. She couldn't remember the last time she'd spontaneously awakened at such an hour. But her mind was churning because it was going to be an exceptionally busy day. So busy, in fact, that she was going to have to talk Jack, who was still blissfully sleeping next to her, into standing in her stead for at least one of her obligations, and that was not going to be an easy task. A week previous she'd agreed to go into John Junior's school and meet with his fourth-grade teacher, Miss Rossi, and possibly the school psychologist about JJ's supposedly recent disruptive behavior. Apparently there had been some aggressive incidents on the playground during recess and other impulse-control episodes. Knowing Jack's impatience with such issues and his tendency to be less than diplomatic, Laurie hadn't even broached the subject with him, preferring to handle it herself as she was certain there was nothing wrong with JJ. Now Jack was going to have to deal with the situation on his own because Laurie had newly arisen, pressing work-related obligations down at City Hall that conflicted.

By lifting her head and gazing out of the two large, north-facing sixth-floor bedroom windows, Laurie could tell that the sun had just peeked over the eastern horizon. Although there were closable window treatments and even blackout shades, neither she nor Jack bothered to use them. Several blocks away on the top of a significantly taller building, she could see an old water tower. At the moment it was totally awash with early-morning sunlight, giving the illusion that it was made of gold.

Next Laurie's eyes turned to glance at the digital clock. It was even earlier than she'd suspected—just a smidgen past 5:50—yet she was totally awake. Laurie had never in her life been a morning person and always struggled to wake up and get out from under the warm covers. It had been particularly true since she'd married Jack, because Jack insisted they keep the bedroom cool, almost cold from Laurie's perspective. But the real reason Laurie had trouble getting up in the morning was that she was a night owl beyond any doubt. On occasion she'd been known to sleep through an alarm only feet away. When she'd been younger, she'd loved to read fiction far into the night, with a predilection for late-eighteenth-century and early-twentieth-century novels. That began to change once she had become a doctor and needed to keep up with the ever-expanding professional literature.

These days, she was obsessed with reading not only the current forensic articles but also all the material she was expected to be familiar with as the chief medical examiner of the City of New York. As the first woman to hold the title and thus a pioneer of sorts, she felt particular responsibility to be the absolute best she could be. To that end she'd had to learn how to read spreadsheets and budgets and all the appropriate reports coming out of the New York City Council, from its various committees, and from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She still sometimes found herself shocked at the sheer volume of documents that landed in her in-box.

Despite Laurie's commitment to doing her job well, the jury was still out in terms of how she personally felt about having accepted the position. Only now did she have a true idea of the extent of the political aspects of the job. It had been her general understanding that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, known as OCME, had fought and gained its independence after its founding in 1918, so that it could speak unencumbered for the dead. Although that was mostly true, she was learning the hard way that the mayor, who had appointed her, and the City Council, which held the purse strings, could exert considerable power, which she had to struggle to resist. It was especially hard since the OCME's $75,000,000 yearly budget was a tempting target in a city continually starving for funds for other worthwhile obligations. On top of that, the morgue itself, where all the autopsies were actually done, was in need of a multimillion-dollar replacement. At one time it had been state of the art, but that was no longer the case.

Apart from the political headaches of the job, Laurie found that she missed the intellectual stimulation of being personally immersed in the actual forensics, with the responsibility of determining the cause and manner of death. Objectively she recognized that it was best for her to let the nearly forty highly qualified medical examiners handle all the cases—otherwise, as her predecessor, Dr. Bingham, had learned the hard way, every district attorney, police higher-up, fire chief, city bigwig, and mayor would want the chief to do any case they were interested in simply because she was the Top Dog. But for Laurie, it was a sacrifice to take a step back and settle for frequent, unofficial morning rounds down in the morgue, looking over people's shoulders and asking questions. The closest she came to being intimately involved was Thursday morning, when she regularly assisted one of the forensic pathology fellows on an autopsy. In partnership with New York University Medical School's Department of Pathology, the OCME trained a handful of fellows to become board eligible forensic pathologists.

With a sense of excitement and no small amount of trepidation, Laurie threw back the covers and stood up. She shivered as her warm feet made contact with the ice-cold floor. Hastily she wiggled her toes into the slippers she dutifully kept at the bedside and pulled on her robe. She always kept both handy in case she had to get up during the night. Jack had not moved a muscle. He was on his back with his arms outside of the blankets, his hands clasped over his chest, and his mouth slightly ajar, the picture of contented repose. Knowing him as well as she did, Laurie had to smile. Jack was not the calm person he appeared at the moment, but rather someone whose mind never stopped and who had little patience for what he called red tape, meaning rules and regulations he didn't agree with. He didn't abide fools, or mediocrity, and he was never one to hide his feelings. From where Laurie was standing, she could see the scar on his forehead and his chipped left front tooth, both remnants of his determination to do what he thought was right despite putting himself at risk and getting pummeled for it. Although she loved him, she knew he was a handful, especially now that she was technically his boss. Although Jack was by far the most productive medical examiner on the entire staff, he was also the one who required the most corralling. Laurie knew, because she'd been rather similar inher day.

This excerpt ends on page 14 the hardcover edition.

Monday, July 13, we begin the book The Heartless by David Putnam.

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