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background on the excerpt

This section was a lot of fun to write.

Our hero, Daryl Putnam, after finding the body of a strangled middle-aged woman in the park, is suddenly seen in an odd, sterile setting going through her purse, which is reported in meticulous detail, down to the bits of tobacco around the seams of the purse, then going through her body, carefully disemboweling her. As he works on her, she seems to get younger and younger.

I wanted to inspire a sense of dread in this scene, early in the novel, hoping to make the reader queasy not only about what is being immediately described, but also about what might still be described later on in this long novel.

going through sylvia
excerpt from the novel Father Figure

The big round clock on the wall read 3:24.

Daryl switched on the overhead light, cone shining down on the dead woman on the table.

He stood by her head, looking down at her face. Unanimated, the face looked loose, the flesh slack across the bones, but she must have been beautiful while she was alive.

He went through her purse first.

It was a light brown, medium-sized bag with raised dots across the leather suggesting ostrich skin.

He drew open the zipper at the top.

The first contents he pulled out were blue facial tissues, three of them, all crumpled. He carefully unfolded each one, pulling them taut at their corners until all three were opened, flat and less wrinkled. None of the tissues appeared to have been used for any purpose other than dabbing at lipstick. He glanced again at her face, her still full lips. A smudge of red was left on her lower lip. The color appeared to match the color on the tissues.

With the tissues out of the purse he could see the rest of the contents more clearly. He took out a half-eaten chocolate bar, the consumed portion of it ghostly suggested by the spiral of paper and foil still attached to the untorn half of the wrapper. The name of the bar was in a foreign language, as were the ingredients. The language appeared to be German or Dutch.

Next out came a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. Flipping up the lid on the box, he counted nine cigarettes left. He inverted the pack. The tax stamp was Alaska.

A heavy, jewel-encrusted shell opened on its hinges to reflect Daryl looking down. He averted his eyes from the mirror, putting the case down on the table next to the tissues.

He uncapped both lipstick containers he found, rotating up their color. Dark red, like her lips, like the smears on the tissues. One lipstick was full and untouched, the other worn down to a stub.

He removed a wallet and put it on the table to return to later.

Holding the bag up to the light, he slanted it this way and that to see what was left inside.

Some toothpicks, their tops frayed, a few beheaded Marlboros, two Bic disposable lighters, one yellow, one green, and a scattering of loose tobacco along the interior seams of the purse.

The wallet was the large, flat claspless kind men usually carry in their inside jacket pocket. Dark brown leather, slightly shiny. The material appeared to be either eel skin or snake skin, judging by the long narrow strips of leather sewn together.

He set the wallet on its spine on the table, opening it like a small book. The left side held a sleeve for paper money and, beneath the sleeve, a zippered compartment. His thumb and forefinger grasped the tiny brass zipper tab and pulled down. His finger felt inside the compartment, sliding over the smooth lining, pushing into each soft corner. Empty.

He counted the money, mostly fifties and twenties. Seven hundred and eleven dollars.

The right side of the wallet displayed a row of credit cards slipped into individual leather slots running down the wallet's length. At the bottom, behind clear plastic, was her Alaskan driver's license.

Behind the row of cards was a sleeve. He groped his finger around in it and pulled out a one inch by one inch square of folded glossy paper which felt thicker than it should.

He carefully unfolded the paper, pretty sure of what he would find. The innermost square was covered with a slightly granular white powder. Unfolded, the paper, a magazine page, showed a full-page color photograph of a nude blonde standing at the seashore, the line of blue horizon at her waist level. Her breasts, navel and legs puckered cubistically over the square folds in the picture. The back of the page showed the same nude woman in four smaller photographs, on her hands and knees looking over her shoulder at the camera, painting her toenails, staring out a window, lifting her knees and touching her clitoris with the tip of a vibrator. There was no indication at the top or bottom margins of either side of the page what magazine the page had been torn from.

He thumbed up some of the credit cards just far enough to see what they were. Six Visa or MasterCards, one American Express Gold Card, and two gas cards. One bank card was on an Anchorage bank, four on Louisiana banks, and one on Citibank in New York. All were in the name of Sylvia Gold.

The small picture in the driver's license was definitely her, although she looked older in the picture than she did on the table. According to the license she was 5'4" with black hair and brown eyes. The address on the license was in Anchorage. He did some arithmetic with her birthdate. She was fifty-five.

She was wearing black patent leather shoes, black pantyhose, a short black fabric skirt with a slight slit up the back, a wide black patent leather belt with an oversized, squarish brass buckle in front, and a sleeveless, dark red pullover sweater. No rings on her fingers, no bracelets or watches on her wrists, no necklaces, no earrings, no pins.

Beginning with her shoes, he started undressing her.

The shoes slipped off easily. The soles were barely scuffed, suggesting they were new. Her feet were small, with strong arches.

He undid the buckle on her belt, fumbled behind the weight of her waist to release the catch on the back of her skirt, and pulled the long zipper at the back of her skirt down. Holding onto the hem he tugged the skirt gently off her hips, down her thighs, over her knees and off her feet.

He glanced at her black-covered legs. Even with the panty hose still on, he could tell she must have kept herself in excellent shape. The long lines of her legs were slim and well-developed, like a dancer's.

Curling his fingers around the elastic top of her pantyhose, drawing the band away from her navel, he peeled them down her legs.

She wasn't wearing underwear. The dark bush of her pubic hair stood out in contrast to the marble-like flesh of her lower abdomen and thighs.

He ran a hand up the inside of a naked leg, watching his long fingers glide over the pale, rounded flesh. The skin was smooth and youthful, even though rigor mortis was becoming evident.

Each blade of the shears ran over the sharpening stone with a rasp.

He brought the shears up to the side of her head, carefully tucking the lower, thinner blade under the collar of her sweater. Fingers flexing up repeatedly against his thumb pad he cut straight down the material to its hem, baring a shapely white shoulder, her left breast, her navel. He pushed the cut halves of her sweater off her shoulders, yanking them down her arms, under her buttocks and off her cold feet.

She lay naked on the table now. He stopped for a moment to look at her.

Why had someone killed her?

Her face was stunning, her breasts as full as her waist was trim, the swell of her hips tapering to a pair of beautiful legs.

Looking down at the tone of her skin, at the athletic perfection of her curves, Daryl was struck again at how youthful, even in death, she appeared. If he didn't know from her driver's license she was fifty-five, he would have guessed her age as mid-thirties.

Yet someone had decided to trash her.

He walked over to the front of the table and lowered his face to her opened mouth. He sniffed at the protruding tongue. The faintest scent of garlic.

His right index finger rolled her eyelids down one after the other, careful not to apply too much pressure against the soft bulges of the eyes beneath.

Small pinpoint hemorrhages showed on both rolled-down lids.

One hand on her nostrils, one on her chin, he delicately pulled her mouth open, the tongue retracting.

The beam from his penlight shone over the ridged, ruby interior of her palate and throat, making the backs of her teeth gleam. He angled the small, dentist's mirror around inside her mouth. Visible damage showed on her tongue. Hemorrhaging had risen up from her throat.

He clicked the penlight off, drawing out the mirror, its curved edge hitting the back of one of her incisors, snapping it off at the gum line. The tooth fell with a chink into the back of her mouth.

Daryl straightened up, frowning. The gap was right in the front of her upper teeth. A tingle of dread wiggled at the top of his spine. Coincidence.

He went to reach in her mouth for the broken tooth with his hand, then checked himself and picked up a pair of tweezers.

Their sharp metal points shook slightly as they approached the fragment, which lay just above the opening to her throat.

Steadying his elbow between her breasts, the side of his hand on her chin, he carefully braced the slippery tooth between the tweezer's two points.

He lifted the fragment off her tonsils, the tooth shifting as he raised it, and quickly drew it out past her lips. He placed it on the table beside her right ear.

He shined the penlight at what was left of the tooth in her gum, trying to determine what had weakened it.

The dentin around the edge of the stub glowed hard and white, but the center, all of the pulp and most of the cementum, was brown and gritty.

It's just the shock of the tooth snapping off like that. It caught me off guard. But he stopped long enough to switch some more lights on in the room.

Coming back to the table he rubbed his palms together, cracked his knuckles. He lit a cigarette, taking a deep drag, blowing the smoke up at the cone of light, which made the grey smoke float horizontally above her body. He placed the cigarette on the edge of the table, lit end hanging over space.

Slipping his hand around her right wrist, he lifted it off the table's surface, turning her slim forearm to see the blue veins still evident under the pale skin. Through the plastic bag secured around her wrist he could see her long, delicate hand, the slight creases across her palm, the smudges of blue ink alongside the top joint of her middle finger, the microscopic curls of horn along the rims of the fingernails she must have just recently filed. He realized with a start his thumb was unconsciously pressing into the bundle of tendons at the underside of her wrist, feeling for a pulse.

He put the arm down.

Standing at the base of the table he leaned forward, held her by her ankles, and slowly spread her legs apart, feeling the resistance of rigor mortis in the limbs.

Now he could see the vertical maroon line between the tops of her thighs, the twinned, plump nethersides of her buttocks, the darkening discoloration along the backs of her legs where the blood, no longer moving, had settled.

Placing a thumb on either side of her pubis, feeling the soft, curly hairs against his thumb pads, he slowly stretched the split of her vagina open.

Stickily uncurling itself from inside the recess, a centipede feathered its way over the springiness of her pubic hair.

When it dropped down off the hair onto the tabletop he killed it with the bottom of a bottle, the crunch echoing in the silence of the room.

He pushed a paper under the centipede, legs still swimming along its uncrushed half, and slid it into a small jar.

He rubbed the back of his neck with both hands, looking up at the clock.

Putting a Winston in his mouth, he glanced at the half-full pack of her Marlboros on the table. The thought of smoking one of her cigarettes crossed his mind. Surprisingly, the thought aroused him. He lit the Winston.

Puffing on his cigarette, he reached under the foot end of the table on either side and unlatched it, the lower third unhinging downwards, her calves, because of their stiffness, lowering only slightly, sticking out in mid-air.

He knelt on the floor between her knees and placed his hands on her hips, pulling her pubis closer to him until his face was right in front of her vagina, his breath ruffling her pubic hair.

The faint scent of citrus wafted up to his nostrils.

Gingerly poking around inside her slit with a tongue depressor to make certain she was free of infestation, he opened up the tunnel of her vagina, moving his penlight over its spiraled interior, inspecting the condition of the vagina's round walls. Satisfied, he inserted a narrow metal spatula inside her, gently scooping along the soft walls to snag clots of semen, which he scraped off the spoon into a collection jar.

He glanced to his left, where his hand rested on the rounded inside of her thigh. His fingers shifted slightly, feeling the coolness of the skin.

He took a break, going off to the side of the room to start some coffee brewing. He lit another cigarette, watching the hot, black liquid splash down drop by drop into the glass carafe.

When he went back to her, her calves were still sticking out in space over the bottom of the table. He picked up her driver's license again, studying the little picture. She looked like a smartly dressed, middle-aged woman with fading face and drooped shoulders.

But on the table she looked young, vibrant, sexual. Like a teenager who never has to draw her stomach in.

He checked the expiration date on the license and calculated that she must have had the picture taken about three-quarters of a year ago.

Sometime between then and tonight she must have met someone.

Flashing above her, he took a rotational series of shots of the abrasions fanning in from both sides of her neck.

He raised the bottom third of the table up again and resecured it, then rolled her over onto her stomach.

The lividity here was well established, the twin cheeks of her buttocks dark as eggplants.

Putting his hands palm down on her buttocks he spread them apart with difficulty, holding them open with his left forearm while he scrapped a thin spatula along the inside passage of her anus.

He rolled her onto her back again, the arms snapping around rigidly as though they had no elbows.

One more cup of coffee before I proceed.

The empty stainless steel table rolled heavily on its wheels to alongside the one where she lay.

One hand under her knees, one around the small of her back, he picked her up in his arms, like carrying a bride, and transferred her to the autopsy table.

When he set her down her body, brought against itself by his hold, stayed in that scrunched position on the shiny steel, as though frozen in mid-exercise.

He wheeled her over to the wall, her body wobbling with the movement.

His hands squeaked into a pair of white plastic gloves.

He pushed down on her chest, her hips rising.

Keeping one hand on her chest he put the other on her pubis, pushing down on both until her back straightened out against the metal.

He adjusted the overhead light, pulled the smaller table behind him closer. His plastic glove passed across the white paper on the smaller table all the way over to the right, to the largest scalpel.

He positioned the blade above her belly button, facing up her body, its curved tip dimpling the skin. Clearing his throat, he increased pressure on the hard tip until it punctured through the epidermis, through the layer of fat beneath; until he could feel in the handle the sudden release of resistance as the tip popped down into her abdominal cavity.

Not looking at her face, not looking at the rest of her body, he concentrated on his right hand as he pulled the blade slowly forward through her body, separating the flesh into two thickish halves, all the way up to her sternum.

At the sternum he rotated the blade ninety degrees, then cut along her lowest left rib to the table. Returning the blade to the sternum, he cut it along her lowest right rib to the table.

When he was finished, he had a Y-shaped incision in the middle of her body.

He lay the scalpel down on the table, using both hands to clamp the two open flaps of her abdomen apart.

Bending over sideways until he could look straight up under her rib cage, he extended a pair of needle-nosed scissors inside, snipping here and there, detaching enough of her lungs from the chest cavity to be able to wiggle them out.

They were heavy with water, especially in the lower lobes, which is what he expected to find. He placed them in a steel tub.

He glanced superstitiously at her face. It registered nothing.

Taking his time, he worked his way through the usual slippery chaos in the abdomen, turning each organ over in his hands to look for obvious indications before slipping them into the tub for later cross-section.

The last organ he removed was her heart, as red and purplish as an oversized, peeled plum. He held it in the palms of both hands, the slackened chambers sagging to the sides.

He added her heart to the pile.

Which way now, up or down?

He looked at her face, looked at her abdomen, and decided to finish up there first.

Taking up his scalpel he cut down through the muscle of her lower abdomen, bisecting her belly button, slicing deeper down through the hair of her pubic bush until the pubis itself separated into two parts, like cutting through a tire.

He reached into the slippery softness of her intestines, pushing them up onto his forearms to get them up out of her in one try. Holding them across his arms, he looked down.

Inside the glossy tube something dark shifted around, still alive.

He pulled out the entire length of intestines, then cut through the top band, trying not to compress its circle.

Tilting the opened end up, he shone his pen light inside, the interior shadow lowering into the tube with the advance of the light, exposing the nine small heads greedily fastened to the interior curve of the intestine, ringing it like wet, living beads, their long, thin, boneless bodies floating down into the tube's shadows, switching like tails in reaction to the light.

He raised his head, speaking up at the microphone. "Subject infested with tapeworms, average length estimated to be..." He slid his gloved hand down the outside of the intestine, yanking more of its length up, feeling with his fingers, shining his penlight along the gleam, hearing the tape above him automatically stop in the silence and rewind to the last spoken word. "Average length estimated to be forty-five feet."

He snipped the opposite end of the intestine, folded the length up over itself to make it more manageable, and dropped it into a separate tub, where the loops slithered apart. He put a pane of glass across the top of the tub.

Her ovaries made him wince for her. He had expected to find two smooth, shiny sacs, but these were grossly deformed, with large, dark, blood-filled cysts massed lumpishly around both, making them look like blind, bulging eyes.

He glanced back up at her face, down at her perfect legs, both ends looking surreal flanking the opened abdomen joining them. He sighed.

"Chocolate cysts on both ovaries, average size between eight and ten centimeters in diameter. Presence also of yellow-brown nodules ranging from one to two centimeters in diameter, suggesting external endometriosis."

He did her neck last, carefully slicing into the throat. Each structure he removed, trachea, larynx, esophagus and tongue, was as damaged as he had expected.

On the side of her neck was an angry-looking red welt. He leaned over, shining his penlight back and forth across its shininess. "Sore or severe abrasion on the left side of the neck, in direct line with the jugular." Picking up his scalpel, he carved a wide, deep square around it, lifting it out for further study.

He moved on to her broken arms.

By the time he was finished, the birds were tweeting outside the windows below the ceiling. Daryl washed up, the frown on his forehead deepening.

For all the violence that had been done to her, he hadn't been able to find any defensive wounds at all.

There was none of the damage to her face he would have expected from this type of murder. Whoever strangled her did so from the front, meaning he would almost certainly have to strike her at least once during the struggle. And although her forearms were heavily bruised, and both ulna bones fractured, bruises and fractures were on the outsides of her forearms, away from where the killer on top of her would be, rather than on the insides.

Which suggested she hadn't tried at all to stop her killer.