W.W. Norton, 2007, 384 pages

Excerpt: Chapter 1

I spot her as soon as I get off the elevator on the fourth floor. She’s waiting on one of the metal folding chairs in the corridor just outside the office. Her bright russet hair sliding out of a barrette, her skin mottled, her face carefully neutral.

I stop short. Listen to the elevator doors slide shut behind me.

Victims exist in another dimension, as far as I’m concerned—they’re theoretical. The police meet the victims; we work in an office. I wouldn’t have become a print examiner if I wanted to meet victims.

I sidle past her, trying not to make eye contact, as I enter the office. Alyce, the division leader, is trying to signal me with her eyes. “Hey—Lena—”

But the woman’s fast; she walks right into the office, between the cubicles, tall and pale and intimidating with this kind of intensity that I realize must be grief. A scary kind of grief. I don’t even make it to my desk, she’s saying, “You’re Lena? Are you Lena Dawson?” I flinch.

Alyce is on her feet now as well; she’s maybe two-thirds this woman’s size, but concentrated, wiry with combative energy. “Miss, please. Now. I don’t know how you got up here—our office is totally closed to the public. I already tried to tell you once—”

The woman is way too close to me—her white face and flashing voice—so at first I barely take in what she’s saying. I retreat behind my desk. But the woman actually follows me around my desk. “My name is Erin Cogan, my baby is—he died five weeks ago. The police haven’t done a single thing about it. Nothing.” She’s talking fast—ready to be ushered out; she seizes my hand, her voice throbbing in my head like an electrical echo. “Please Lena—Ms. Dawson—I’ve heard that you can—that you—”

My bossy colleague, Margo, bustles into the office with Ed Welmore, who was probably just about to go home after the night shift. The top button on his PD uniform is undone and there are dark crescents under each arm. “All right over there,” he says as he enters the room. “Time to go home, Mrs. Cogan.”

Erin Cogan releases my hand but continues to stare at me. “Please, please, Ms. Dawson, please…”

Ed stops right behind her. He’s not much taller than I am, but he’s solid. He puts his hands on his hips and glances at me over the woman’s head, then says, “You’re going to have to come on out now.”

She swivels her head at Ed then back at me with an expression of such anguished panic that I can’t help myself. I don’t know her, but I do know that feeling. A scraped down devastation that frightens me almost as much as it makes me feel for her. Her hands curled up tight and sharp and white. “Okay, okay, okay.” I touch the clean top of my desk with the flat of my hand, trying to catch my breath. “Miss—Ms. Cogan? Come on. Yeah, let me just walk you outside here.”

In the elevator, Ed looks off toward the corner—I’m sure he would’ve been much happier if I hadn’t come out with them. Alyce comes along too, arms crossed and locked on her bowed-in chest; glasses propped on her head, she glares at the woman. I’ll get an earful later, I know, on how she’d prefer if I’d try not to encourage lunatics; I have to work harder not to be a sap; and so forth and so on.

Erin Cogan twists her hands together, a dry wringing, she looks only at me. “I’ve been waiting outside that office since six a.m. The janitor let me in—I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do anymore. Please, please, no one will talk to me about Matthew’s case. I think I might be going out of my mind. My baby—my Matthew—he died and no one will talk to me…”

Lena, they sent interviewers over there, they sent two counselors over…” Ed addresses me over the woman’s head; he sounds flat, gamely trying not to reveal his exasperation.

The elevators door open and it takes a moment for us to move. “I’m not sure—” my voice rasps and I have to clear it. “Ms. Cogan, I’m not really sure what you’d like me to do for you.”

Ed stands holding the elevator door open with his back and ushers us out. She looks startled, her gaze wobbles from me to Alyce back to me. “You’re the evidence specialist? You can find things. That’s what I heard. You’re better than the police.”

Alyce rolls her eyes. 

“No, that’s not true, not at all.” I’m shaking my head as we enter the lobby. “There usually isn’t evidence per se in this kind of case—I mean, of course, depending on the cause of…” I trail off anxiously, looking at Alyce. She scratches at the slim bone along her jaw, her expression distant and abstracted. I ask, “What did the medical examiner rule as the cause of death?”

“Sudden infant death,” she says bitterly. “Which you know is another way of saying they have no idea what happened.” She glances over her shoulder at Ed. He just  says, “Ms. Cogan, the Lab isn’t a police station, you shouldn’t be in this building at all. It’s time to get on home.”

“Yes, it was time about a half hour ago,” Alyce says.

But Erin Cogan stays trained on me. “Please. I know you don’t believe me. Or you think I’m crazy. But even so, please, please listen—I know that my baby was murdered.” She leans forward. “I’m just saying, really I’m just—I’m begging you….Please, will you just look at our file?”

“What evidence do you have that it wasn’t SIDS?” I ask, hating myself. Ed rubs the nape of his neck.

She lowers her head into a confiding posture and now, her face streaked with white light from the glass entrance and the rims of her eyelids glistening, she does look half-mad and vaguely savage. She says, her voice like a hot steam, “There was someone in the house! I was downstairs, watching my show, and I head the footsteps clear as day, right over my head. Someone came into my house and murdered my baby. He was upstairs sleeping, and then suddenly I heard these footsteps—I thought I was imagining it. I was tired out—it’s so hard to have a baby, sometimes. Sometimes you just need to rest, you know—I don’t have anyone to help me—I mean—my husband is away all day at work, and—” Her voice cuts off. She looks unfocused for a moment, staring at the floor, then she turns to me. “Do you have any children?”

Alyce exhales in a huff.

“No, I don’t,” I say.

She blinks as if I’ve just clapped my hands in her face. “I’m sorry,” she says.

Ed puts a hand on her upper arm. “The medical examiner’s office will investigate this, Miss. They will do everything in their power. I can personally assure you.” Ed’s voice edges between kindness and complete impatience.

She leans closer to me, so close now that her agitation comes to me in a kind of static. I take a step back, my eyes unfocus. Behind her, the snowfall looks like a white screen in the big lobby windows. “You know it and I know it,” she says, then repeats it, “you know it and I know it,” sounding in fact quite a bit like a crazy woman. She brushes at her coat sleeve a little compulsively and I notice for the first time that it’s a nice, expensive garment, probably cashmere, with deep, notched lapels. “The county isn’t interested, the police aren’t even interested. I’m nothing to them. I’m a hysterical mother—which is actually worse than nothing, isn’t it? Isn’t it?” She looks around at Ed and Alyce, who both stiffen. She wheels back to me, her voice climbing: “My husband Clay works as a civil engineer—he knows everyone in the city offices. He knows Rob Cummings—they play golf at the Onondaga Country Club. After our—after our loss—first we waited for the police to do something. When nothing happened, then Clay began asking around. Every night he came home saying Lena Dawson, Lena Dawson. She’s supposed to have this—something—especially with children’s cases—she can see through evidence—that’s exactly what he heard.” She glares at me with that fierce light in her face. “The counselor says it just happens sometimes—babies just die—just like that! But it doesn’t always just happen, does it? Matthew was six months old—completely healthy and beautiful—so beautiful. And now he’s gone and the person who killed him is still alive—” she gestures toward the door. “Out walking around, out there somewhere! Can you understand what that feels like? Knowing that?” With that, she grabs my hands again. She squeezes, grinding the bones in my fingers together and I nearly yelp. Her face is a white streak, too close.

Ed yanks her back, seizes both her arms. “That’s it!” He starts muscling her toward the door but she surprises him, shrieking and flinging out her arms, knocking him off. She lurches at me, clutching my wrists. I’m too shocked to even flinch, but adrenaline thumps into my muscles and lungs. I watch her pupils contract, and then Alyce is shoving between us, also screaming, “Let her go. You’re hurting her!”

Erin wails; she sags down into a squat, clinging to my fingers, her big wedding ring digging into my knuckles. I’m panting, gulping air, pulling out of her grasp.

Alyce shouts, “That’s enough, that’s enough!”

She lets go. Her head is down, hands out; she’s saying, “Sorry—I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Someone comes through the entrance and stops, and instinctively I’m hoping it’s Charlie, come to rescue me. But it’s Keller Duseky—one of the homicide detectives from next door. He looks around in the doorway. “Everything okay here?”

Ed says, “It’s good, Kell, I got it.”

I nod at Keller. Erin is still saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She seems to be getting fainter and fainter, as if turning invisible, the words peeling away from her. She twists the diamond around on her finger. More than anything, I want her to stop saying I’m sorry. Just to stop the spiraling voice, I stammer, “Please, I don’t know – I’m not sure what—”

She sobs once, a raw sound, and my own throat tightens. Her grief has some sort of penumbra, like an aura, and I’m caught in it, in some hidden and corresponding sadness in myself. “Really, I just—” I stop. I can’t turn her away.

She stares at me, her eyes look bruised. “I’ll never get to see him grow up,” she says in her terrible, transparent voice. “I’ll never throw a birthday party for him, never cut his hair, never meet his girlfriend…” As she speaks, her voice begins to toll inside of me. It changes shape, taking on substance: like an old memory—as if she was someone I used to know a long time ago, and for me that sort of ancient recognition is rare and disturbing as waking to the sight of a ghost. I have no old memories. I say,  “Jesus. Just let me think about it.” My voice is trembling.


My name is Lena; I work at the Lab because they provided training. It said so in the Herald-Journal advertisement: Crime Lab Tech I. One year correspondence course through the FBI Fingerprint Classification School, two years of part-time junior college, and on-the-job-training, filing, and coffee-brewing.

I work in the Wardell Center for Forensic Sciences, a futuristic rectangle, built in 1989—the year before I applied for the job. It houses the health department’s toxicology lab, the medical examiner’s office, the Red Cross tissue donation center, and the city and country crime labs. Cops right next door. The tiles on the lab floor are a high-sheen blue that look like water when the light hits them right; the walls of windows are all tinted a pale, cosmopolitan teal.


Of course, after that episode with Erin Cogan, we’re all wrecked for doing work. I feel as shocky as if I’ve just been in an accident. The office is filled with the formal silence of catastrophe—everyone sitting trance-like at their desks.

I try to go back to the set of print-matches I’d been working on yesterday, but nothing comes into focus. For a while, I moon out the window—distracted by the way the light seems to unravel into winged insects and lizards and then back into light and glass. I open another case file, try to force myself to read police reports, but eventually I give up, go to the tall cabinet on the end—Cases Involving Juveniles, 2002-- and pull the bedeviling Cogan file. There are two other folders, recently filed in the same drawer, that I glance at, considering. I push the drawer shut. Two or more deaths, same-age victims, within the same time frame and geographic area: red flag.

Alyce keeps wandering in and out of the office, shooting me the evil eye.


She bunches up her face. “You know what. I can’t believe you.”

“What?” I feel touchy and helpless. I flash again on the wild, imprisoned look on Erin Cogan’s face.

“That woman—you just had to talk to her.”

“What would you have had me do, Alyce?”

She clicks her tongue and walks out. Sylvie, another colleague, looks up at me sympathetically from her desk near the door, her streaky blonde hair falling in her face. Margo sighs, leans back in her chair and centers a damp washcloth on her forehead. “What was that,” she says. “What just happened.” We loiter around the office until someone gets the idea for an early lunch.

The four of us congregate at a table in the tank. That’s what we call our break area because of the white tile walls, the windows covered with a fine wire mesh, and the fluorescent lights.  Margo turns her chair at an angle to mine: I can feel her watch me as I browse through a file, a half-sandwich resting on the inside of the folder. Margo, who came to Criminalistics five years ago, is 29, the youngest, but she’s the only mother among the four of us. She started in arson and fire debris examination, but she’s training in DNA typing—which is where all the “excitement” is, she says—and soon she’ll be moving to a newer office downstairs.

“So that’s the Cogan file, isn’t it,” she says.

I show her the folder name.

“What do you think?” she asks.

I run my fingertip over the examiner’s report. “Mother’s a smoker—the baby slept on his stomach—the paramedics found him on his stomach.” I shake my head, rest my chin on my hand and mutter into my palm, “I don’t know, kind of like SIDS.”

Alyce’s face is hard. “She should’ve been over at the police if she wanted help-- what was she doing up in the Lab in the first place?”

“What she was doing was her baby just died,” Margo says. “Any mother would do what she did. You try and hurt my babies, you just see what happens.”

“Did you know she’s from a big family,” Sylvie says. “I mean big, like, rich. I looked at her hospital chart? Her father’s Peter Billings—you know, like the Billings School at SU?”

“Well, we can’t have people just coming up here like that,” Alyce says. She crosses her arms on the table and leans forward on to her elbows. “I don’t care who they are. And I don’t care whose mother they are. We are professionals here. Lena is a professional. She has to be allowed to do her work.”

The other two women look at me silently; Margo lowers her eyes. Alyce taps the lunch table and asks, “How many SIDS cases came through here lately?”

I don’t quite look up at her; I turn my tuna fish sandwich to different angles.

“I’m not sure what the total SIDS cases were—usually it’s only once every few months. But I do know that in the past two months they’ve brought in two cribs,” Margo says. “Not counting that woman’s baby—the Cogan baby. I don’t think they ever brought in that crib.”

“What’s going on with those cribs?” Sylvie says.

“That’s all I know,” Margo says. “Just that there were two cribs,” she adds quietly.

“You know, I also noticed that the Cogans live in Lucius.” Sylvie holds her cup of tea in both hands. “Didn’t they have problems with tainted well water?”

“Bunch of hippie college kids started that rumonr,” Alyce says.

I stare at the tuna fish: somewhere inside all this mayonnaise and pickle relish are shreds of a once-living animal. I imagine its flash in water, the articulated scales, its bright fish-mind. I try not to think about things like this. I try to just eat lunch, like Pia was always saying, arms folded, gazing away from the table.

Sylvie rubs her forehead with the flat of her palms. “It’s not normal at all. It’s kind of bizarre.”

“Are we getting bloodstains? Prints?” Margo asks. Her kids are still small—Amahl and Fareed. She carries their baby photos in her wallet; sometimes they wait for her in the corridor after school. Frank, the Lab manager, gives Amahl colored chalks and red pens and lets him draw in his notepads. He’s a good kid, cross-legged on the floor, head lowered to his work.

“Everything’s clean,” Alyce says. “I mean, as far as I know. No unusual prints. Nothing in the autopsy reports.”

But of course, we all know that the investigators wouldn’t bother sending cribs into the evidence room unless someone on the scene thought there was something irregular. It could be any fluky thing at all—a strange response from one of the family, a odd smell in the air, or just the simple desire to double-check everything. Cribs are unusual, but they were still just a few more items in the mountain of evidence we have to analyze every day. You get inured to things in a crime lab, and SIDS is such a commonplace tragedy. Sudden Infant Death is defined by its mysterious nature—the examiner applies it to any unexplained infant death under age one. When the cribs came in, I assumed that the SIDS diagnosis was correct and that there really wasn’t any need to give them more than a cursory going-over. I tracked the whirling ridges of mothers’ hands, babies’ rudimentary prints—so rarely do babies leave real traces, swimming through their cradles on their backs, hands and feet waving empty.

“If I were her,” Margo says, quietly and deliberately, “and I thought there was even a possibility of someone…having done what I thought they’d done. I’d hire a professional.”

Alyce makes a breathy impatient sound. She stares at the takeout salad she orders every day from the student services building a block up State. Somewhere in her early fifties (she never tells), Alyce specializes in forensic chemistry; she helped start the original Lab twenty years ago for the city—back when the county and city had separate labs. And Sylvie—trace evidence—started six years later. Sylvie’s 36 and swears that if she doesn’t find a husband this year, she’s going to go to a sperm bank.

The four of us have worked together, sharing the same office room and lab space for years. It’s an odd arrangement—they brought Alyce over from Toxicology to temporarily head up the management of Trace Evidence and she just stayed on. Sometimes it seems that things are decent between us, all systems go. But often, tensions rise up—Alyce and Margo especially like to fling tiny lightning bolts at each other. Margo hints that Alyce should head back to her “own” division and leave Trace to “people who know what’s going on.” Alyce says it’s better to have an outsider manage an office because they’re more objective; then she’ll intimate that Margo is a prima donna and that she spoils her children. Margo says that until someone arranges to bear and raise a baby they basically don’t know the first thing about anything.

Sylvie leans over her limp bologna sandwich and says, “What? You mean like hire a private eye?”

“A bunch of retired rent-a-cops. Christ, those guys aren’t gonna be able to help you,” Alyce says. “Do you know what those people charge?”

“One of my babies is involved?” Margo draws herself up. “I wouldn’t care! Mortgage the house, go rob a bank. Who cares?  I’d want to know that I’d done everything in my earthly powers.”

“I think that’s why she came looking for Lena,” Alyce says evenly.

“Maybe I’d hire a hit man,” Margo says. But then she sighs and glances at me.

I look down. I don’t want to eat this tuna, even though I just made it myself this morning; I put it back on the wax paper wrapping and fold it up. I can feel Margo looking at me, her irises so dark they blend into her pupils.  Lena?” I slide the sandwich back in the paper bag. “Lena?” Her voice is tenuous. “Do you, you know, sense anything on this one?”

I shake my head. I can see the mother in her face. I see her waiting in there like an animal in a cave. I look down and say, “No, nothing in particular.” Sometimes the crime circumstances and motives come to me so clearly that I’ll feel shaken for days afterwards. I’ll see the crust of blood on an embroidered handkerchief and the motives come to me out of nowhere: she wanted to kill her husband for a long, long time. Or: he was always afraid of the other children at school. Or: she couldn’t take the noise in that house one second more.

Once, I collected a wilted page of notebook paper from a crime scene, that turned out to have been dampened with tears, and I saw it: the man writing that page knew that his killer was coming.

But I smile at Margo and say, “Just doesn’t seem that unusual.”

“No, I didn’t think so,” she says.

Forensics takes a straightforward approach: it leans scientific principles up against the pursuit of the law. One set of rules crosshatches the other. You gaze at the hair and skin fibers scraped from under a victim’s nails: first under a hand lens, then the microscope, waiting for the legal-scientific thing called “evidence” to appear. The hope is, of course, that the harder and closer and longer you look, the more you see. But sometimes the thing you must do is lean back, relax, close your eyes. You can’t rush.

I watch Margo settle into the chair. Her unconscious hand taps the purse where she keeps her children’s photographs. Sometimes in the Lab, we’ll say things just to soothe each other. Margo has decided, for now, to believe me. She knows full well about the way evidence can look when you stand in one light, then change utterly when you stand in another. She nods again and squeezes my hand. “I’m paranoid,” she says weakly.

 “What do you expect?” Alyce brandishes one hand as if we were at the gates of hell. “Working here?”

“The worst humanity has to offer, on a daily basis,” Sylvie says. “It’s like when medical students start to think they’re getting all the diseases they’re studying.”

Alyce says, “We think we’re gonna get all the crimes.”

Margo is smiling but she doesn’t stop gazing at me, either. My eyes feel hot, x-rayed.

The women look at each other, then laugh as if startled, the sound rippling around me, silvery little waves at the base of a rock, swirling with anxiety.

The detectives think the Lab techs are a little creepy—with our jokes and our attitude. But the street police, the infantry, know—you’ve got to hang on to a sliver of humor. We’re piece-workers, trained on our segment of the mystery. Which is just how I like it—working in a mute space all my own.

Margo says, very casually, “It’s a good thing you don’t have any of your own, Lena. Really girl, you are so so lucky.”

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