I spent a long afternoon at the morgue. I had left my desk at the Manhattan district attorney's office shortly after lunch to review autopsy results on a new case with the deputy chief medical examiner. A nineteen-year-old, dressed in an outfit she had bought just hours earlier, was killed outside a social club as she waited on a street corner for her friends.
Now I walked a quiet corridor, again surrounded by death. I did not want to be here. I paused at the entrance of an ancient tomb, its painted limestone facade concealing the false doorway to an underground burial chamber. The faded reliefs that decorated its walls showed offerings of food and drink that would nourish the spirit of the dead. I didn't harbor any hope that the young woman whose body I had seen today would ever be in need of the kind of good meal displayed before me.
I made my way past a granite lion and nodded at the uniformed guard, who slouched on a folding chair beside the elegantly carved beast, once the protector of a royal grave. Both were sleeping soundly. The outstretched arms of the neighboring alabaster monkeys held empty vessels that had no doubt been receptacles of the body parts of some mummified dignitary of the Old Kingdom.
Voices echoing from behind me suggested that I was not going to be the last arrival at this evening's festive dinner. I quickened my pace and swept by cases filled with goddesses' stone heads, perched on shelves holding jeweled sandals and golden collars that had been buried with them for centuries. A sharp left turn brought me face-to-face with the enormous black sarcophagus of a Thirtieth Dynasty Egyptian queen, held open by two iron posts, so that passersby could see the image of her soul portrayed on the inside of the upper lid. The dark, heavy casket with a faint outline of the slender body it once housed chilled me, despite the unseasonal warmth of the late-spring night.
Then I turned the last corner, where the darkness of the funereal rooms gave way to the glorious open space that housed the Temple of Dendur. The northernmost end of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a sloping, glass-paned wall soaring above the sandstone monuments, opening the vista into Central Park. It was almost nine o'clock, and the streetlamps beyond the windows lightened the night sky, giving definition to the leafy green trees bordering the great institution.
I stood at the edge of the moat that surrounded the two raised buildings in this stunning wing, searching the crowd for my friends. Waiters in sleek black suits zigzagged back and forth among the guests, stopping to dispense smoked salmon on black bread and caviar blinis. They were trailed by others who carried silver trays filled with glasses of white wine, champagne, and sparkling water, dodging the elbows and arms of the assembled museum members and supporters.
Nina Baum saw me before I spotted her. "You came just late enough to miss most of the speeches. Smart move."
She signaled to one of the servers, and handed me a flute of champagne. "Hungry?"
I shook my head.
"Not a very pleasant afternoon."
"Was she -- ?"
"I'll tell you about it later. Chapman thought he had a lead on a case he's been handling that's reached a dead end, so I wanted to get a clear understanding about the pattern of injuries and how they'd been inflicted. That way, if he picked up a suspect and I got a chance to question the guy tonight, I'd be ready for him. Turned out to be a bad tip, so there's no interrogation, no arrest. It's on the back burner for a while."
Nina looped her arm through mine and started to walk me toward the steps. "Why didn't you bring Mike with you?"
"I tried. Once I told him it was black tie he sent me home to shower and change. No penguin suit for him, not even to see you. He'll catch you later in the week."
Mike Chapman was a homicide detective. Best one on the job, in my view. Nina Baum was my closest friend, and had been for exactly half my life. We were eighteen when we met, assigned to be roommates at Wellesley College when we arrived freshman year. She was married now, living in California with her husband and young son. She had met Mike many times during the decade that he and I had worked together on cases, and she looked forward to spending time with him whenever she was in town.
"First we'll find Jake." She led me up the steps, past the lone palm tree that stood on the platform below the great temple. "Then I'll introduce you to my boss and all the museum heavyweights."
"How's Jake behaving? You still have a job after tonight or is he hounding everybody here, looking for scoops?"
"Let's say we've raised a lot of eyebrows around town. I keep telling people that I've only borrowed him for the evening, but when you read tomorrow's gossip columns, you might begin to wonder. You must have a lot of friends here, 'cause they can't figure out why I'm hanging on to him and why you're nowhere to be seen."
"'Who is that auburn-haired beauty who whisked in from the coast and stole NBC correspondent Jake Tyler right out from under the long arm of the law? Prosecutor Alexandra Cooper has a warrant out for her arrest. And also for the return of the terrifically sexy -- and backless -- navy blue sequined dress that this interloper slipped out of Alexandra's closet when she wasn't looking.' That's what I'm likely to see in the tabs?"
"I figured you loaned me the guy for the evening, how sore could you be about the sexy, backless gown?"
Nina had arrived in New York a day earlier. She was a partner in a major L.A. law firm, where she had developed an expertise in packaging large entertainment projects for big-screen and television movies. Tonight's event was staged to announce an historic occasion for two great New York institutions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History, with some help from Hollywood, would hold the first cooperative exhibition in their histories.
The controversial mix of scholarship and show business had had a difficult birth, struggling to overcome resistance from trustees and curators, administrators and city officials. But blockbuster shows like the Met's "Treasures of Tutankhamen" and the Costume Institute's collection of Jacqueline Kennedy's White House clothing filled the museum coffers and argued for the drama of a spectacular twenty-first-century display of the two museums' collective greatest hits.
Nina's California client, UniQuest Productions, had successfully bid on all the media marketing rights to the new project. "A Modern Bestiary," as the show had been titled, would feature all the fantastic animals of the world, as represented in both collections, from hieroglyphs, tapestries, and paintings to mounted specimens and stuffed mammals. There would be dazzling, high-tech creations and virtual dioramas, IMAX time trips to examine artists and artifacts in their natural habitats, and commercial tie-ins for souvenir sales in museum shops and on the web. There would be Rembrandt refrigerator magnets, triceratops lapel pins, plastic human-genome Slinkys to bounce down staircases across America, and snow globes with endangered species of the Amazon being doused by acid rain.
Nina steered me toward a short, dark-haired man with too much facial hair and a collarless tux shirt. "Quentin Vallejo, I'd like you to meet Alexandra Cooper. She's -- "
"I know, I know. The best friend." Quentin did the up-and-down thing. My five-ten frame towered over him, so his eyes just focused at the level of my breasts and worked their way south to my knees before lifting back up to meet my glance. "The sex crimes prosecutor. Nina talked about you for the entire flight yesterday. That's an interesting job you've got. We ought to have a chat sometime, just the two of us. Like to hear more about what you do."
Quentin turned to exchange his empty wineglass for a full one, and I gave him a nod as I walked away. Nina blew him a kiss and followed me.
"That's the guy who's running this show?"
"Worked with Spielberg for twelve years. He's absolutely ingenious at designing interactive materials and futuristic movie images. Makes inanimate objects look like flesh and blood. He sees things in ways that nobody else does."
"That much was obvious to me." I stood on tiptoes, looking over heads and shoulders for any sign of Jake. "Did the big guns at the Met and Natural History ever meet Quentin before today?"
"You think we wouldn't have done a deal if they had?"
"Have you lost your mind? This museum was founded by old men. Very rich, very white, very Presbyterian. Natural History was pretty much the same. The good old boys may be dead and buried, but this place isn't exactly run by the most diverse crowd in town."
"Somebody on the project did his homework. Our advance group managed all the hands-on work to get this event up and running. Probably the preppiest-looking film team I've ever seen west of the Mississippi. Hired a white-shoe law firm here to handle the contract work. Saved the outing of Quentin for tonight's gala, the big announcement."
"How'd that go?"
"Listen to the buzz. The trustees, the press, the upper crust -- whoever these people are, they seemed thrilled about the news." Nina steered me to the small recess at the center of the taller building, the gateway to the Temple of Dendur. She was looking for a quieter place to tell me about the presentation that I had missed.
"Do you know Pierre Thibodaux?" She pointed to the podium, where a tall, dark-haired man was being led away from a small group of museum officials. He motioned to his colleagues with a raised finger and stepped into the adjacent corridor.
"Only by reputation. New guy in town." Thibodaux had replaced Philippe de Montebello as director of the Met less than three years ago.
"He's taken all the meetings with our advance crew himself. This show is his baby. Brilliant, mercurial, handsome. You've got to meet him -- "
"Ladies, you can't be leaning against the building, y'all hear me?" a security guard said.
We walked out of the narrow opening and searched for another quiet nook.
"Let's get out of this wing so we can have a normal conversation. There are as many living, breathing jackals in here tonight as there are limestone ones standing sentry over all the Egyptian galleries. I somehow think poor Augustus didn't foresee when he built these monuments that they would become the most prized cocktail space in Manhattan."
I could tell that Nina was annoyed with me, as she tried to follow me back down the steps.
"Who's Augustus? What the hell are you talking about? The temple is Egyptian, right?"
I had been coming to the Met since my earliest childhood, and knew most of the permanent exhibits pretty well. "Half right. It was built near Aswan, but by a Roman emperor who ruled that region at the time. Augustus had it erected in honor of two young sons of a Nubian chieftain who drowned in the Nile. I hate to dampen your enthusiasm, Nina. I've just been around too much death today not to wonder why we find it appropriate to organize our festivities in and around the tombs of all these ancient cultures. Wouldn't people find it offensive to have the next cocktail party at Arlington Cemetery?"
"Sorry they're not serving scotch tonight, Alex. Take it easy, will you? We can leave any time you'd like. Who's the old dame hanging on to Jake?"
He had spotted the two of us and was making his way to the foot of the platform on which we stood. A silver-haired woman with lots of dangling sapphires -- from earlobes, wrists, fingers -- had grasped Jake by the arm and was bending his ear about something. I stopped on the bottom step and fished in my purse for some coins to toss in the moat.
"Look out for that crocodile, darling. The most dangerous creature in Egypt, the embodiment of the essence of evil." Jake held out his hand to lower me down as I tossed a few quarters in the water, for good luck. The ebony croc mocked the gesture, his gaping mouth posed for eternity, seeking something meatier than the quiche that was being circulated around the room.
I kissed Jake's cheek, which was already covered with the shapes of pursed lips in a variety of colors. "I don't mind that you're in loco husband for Nina, but who's the rest of my competition?"
"That last woman? Just one of the trustees. Didn't catch her name. Gushing about how exciting the joint show is going to be and asking whether the networks are covering the fireworks tonight."
"There's supposed to be a preview, a five-minute sound-and-light show to kick off the news about the bestiary exhibition. Here comes Thibodaux. He'll do the honors."
Instead, the director walked straight toward us, smoothing his jacket with one hand and his hair with the other. "Nina, may I have a word with you? Do you know where Quentin is?"
"I'll find him for you. Pierre, I'd like you to meet my -- "
"Enchanté." He greeted us tersely but his eyes searched the room over my shoulder. He and Nina broke away, retracing our steps to look for the producer.
I glanced at my watch. "Soon as we tear her loose, think you'd treat your two dates to burgers at '21'?"
"My chariot awaits you, madam."
Nina, Quentin, and Pierre had their heads together at the top of the stairs. The director did a double take over his shoulder as Quentin pointed down at me. Nina was shaking her head in the negative and trying to block me from Quentin's line of sight. You're right, pal. Whatever it is, keep me out of it.
Pierre Thibodaux didn't wait for the others to descend the two tiers of steps.
"Miss Cooper? Mr. Vallejo just told me that you're a prosecutor. May I have a moment with you, alone, for some advice? Do you mind, Mr. Tyler?" This time, no guard admonished us as Thibodaux led me back up to the platform, removed the rope between the two pillars at the entrance of the Temple of Dendur, and stepped into the quiet archway.
"You're a bureau chief in the Manhattan district attorney's office? I need your help in dealing with the police tonight."
"Here, at the museum?"
"No, actually, in a freight yard. I'm going to make a few remarks to close the evening and send all these people on their way. We'll forgo the drama of the UniQuest Productions pyrotechnics. The last thing we need tomorrow is any bad publicity linked to our splendid new show."
"Perhaps I can make a call to the proper -- "
"There's a shipment of exhibits going abroad, stored in containers for transit. It's a very routine occurrence for us. Crates go in and out of the country all the time. Exchanges with other museums, items we've deaccessioned or loaned to foreign institutions. Happens regularly."
"I doubt there's anything that I can help you with. If you've got a problem with Customs -- " I said, as Thibodaux continued to speak over my objection.
"What doesn't usually happen is that one of the ancient sarcophagi was opened for inspection a few hours ago. There was supposed to be a mummified princess in the coffin, Miss Cooper. Twelfth Dynasty, Middle Kingdom. A couple of thousand years old and quite valuable. Instead, there's a corpse inside. Someone has substituted a body, I'm afraid. A few centuries younger than my princess, no doubt, but just as dead."
Copyright © 2003 by Linda Fairstein
The Bone Vault
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Reading Group Guide
2. The investigation into Katrina Grooten's murder takes Alex through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters, and the Natural History museum. What do these museums have in common, and how is each distinct?
3. Alex says that she feels fortunate that her boyfriend Jake Tyler's unpredictable schedule helps him understand the demands of her own profession. But what are the drawbacks to this type of relationship? Do her concerns that Jake is leaking information about her cases point to larger issues between them?
4. Do you think that Alex made the right call in taking a tough stand with Angel Alfieri? What kind of person does it take to be able to make those kinds of judgment calls every day?
5. What are Alex and Mike Chapman's favorite rooms of the Met, and what do their choices tell us about them?
6. Alex's stalker, Shirley Danzig, has followed her from THE DEAD HOUSE to this novel. What does Shirley's presence add to this story? Why do you think that Alex waited so long to tell Chapman that Shirley was back in her life?
7. Alex wants to know as many personal details as possible about the victims she encounters, while Chapman doesn't want to know the deceased any better than the facts force him t see more