Authors: Kathy Reichs
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General
“Donovan’s killer, that’s who. It’s classic felon behavior. Like returning to a crime scene.”
Bird and I looked at each other, thoughts definitely not on the same page.
My mobile rang.
“Your flight went well?” Ryan sounded as exhausted as I felt.
“I can’t remember that far back.”
“I’m beat, too.”
“Any progress?” I offered Bird another scrap of fowl. He repeated his pat-and-snatch maneuver.
“None. Where are you?”
“Home. I spent the day with Slidell.”
“He often addressed me in an ill-mannered fashion.”
I described the visit with Lonergan and the meeting with Salter. Explained Tasat’s notation and Lonergan’s denial about making the call. “Slidell’s convinced there’s nothing to it.”
“Has he agreed to subpoena the phone records?”
“Grudgingly. Says it could take weeks. Meanwhile, we—” A bottle rocket exploded in my head. “Shit!”
“How did I miss it? I must be totally brain-dead.”
“Earth to Brennan.”
“The kid from Salisbury.”
“I was distracted by Slidell and Tinker sniping at each other.”
“Stay on point.”
“According to the case log, a journalist called six months after Estrada went missing.”
“I’m almost certain that was the last entry in the chronology. And the file contained no news clipping dating to 2013.”
“You’re thinking that call might also be bogus?”
“It’s identical to Donovan. Someone calls six months after the child vanishes. Maybe it was the same person who phoned for info on Donovan. If so, there’s a pattern. Something linking the cases.”
“Worth some following through.”
Suddenly, I was on fire to hang up. “I’ve got to go.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
“Jesus, Ryan. You sound like Slidell.”
There was a long empty pause on the line. Then he asked, “Anson County, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. Do you remember who caught the case?”
“Very helpful.” Actually, it was. “Henrietta something, right?”
“I think so.”
“And I thought of something else. We need to compare pics of the Gower, Nance, and Leal scenes. See if any gawker makes a repeat appearance.”
“No one’s done that?”
“Not that I know of.”
I disconnected, my weariness dispelled by the prospect of a big bang.
After clearing the table, I grabbed my purse and jacket, and bolted.
The second floor of the LEC was quiet. I went straight to the conference room and spread the Estrada file on the table.
The last article ran in the
on December 27, 2012, roughly three weeks after Tia was found. At least that was the last one saved.
The story was little more than a summary of facts. The child’s disappearance. The discovery of the body four days later, near the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge. The mother’s deportation to Mexico. It ended with an appeal to the public for further information. There was no byline credit.
I got online and Googled the
A woman named Latoya Ring seemed to be covering a lot of the crime beat. A link provided her email address. I composed a brief message, explaining my interest in the Estrada case and asking that she call me.
Setting aside the
clipping, I reread the entire file. Every few minutes checking my iPhone. When finished, I’d learned nothing.
But I had the name I needed. Henrietta Hull, Anson County Sheriff’s Office.
My head was pounding from struggling over lousy handwriting and blurry text. And the fatigue was back double-time.
I closed my eyes and rubbed circles on my temples. Call Hull? Or wait to hear from Ring?
It was after nine on a Friday. Unless Hull was working the night shift, she was probably home enjoying a beer. Maybe at church or bowling with her kids. Better to talk to Ring first. If she or a colleague had phoned about Estrada, end of story.
“Anson County Sheriff’s Office. Is this an emergency?”
“Hold, please.” I held.
“All right, ma’am, what’s your name?”
“Dr. Temperance Brennan.”
“The purpose of your call?”
“I’d like to speak to Deputy Hull.”
“All right, can I tell her what it’s about?”
“The Tia Estrada homicide.”
“Okay. May I ask for specifics?”
A slight hesitation. Then, “Hold, please.”
I held. Longer than before.
“Deputy Hull.” The voice was guarded. Husky but softer than I’d expected. Perhaps a bias on my part due to the nickname.
I explained who I was and my reason for contacting her.
“Suddenly, everyone’s interested.”
“Two years go by, nothing. Then three queries in a week.” I could hear dialogue in the background, the cadence of a sitcom laugh track.
“You’ve spoken to Detectives Ryan and Slidell.”
“Slidell. He’s a pip.”
“Did he mention Colleen Donovan?”
“Donovan was reported missing in Charlotte last February. We suspect her case may be linked to that of Tia Estrada.”
“Who did you say you’re with?”
“The medical examiner. And the CMPD cold case unit.”
“Six months after Colleen Donovan vanished, an aunt phoned asking for an update. Donovan’s only aunt denies making that call. Six months after Estrada was abducted, a journalist contacted your office. We’re wondering if that call was also a sham.”
“Who’s the journalist?”
“The notation is handwritten, one line that provides no name or number. And there’s no clipping in the file.”
“I’m not surprised. Estrada was killed on Bellamy’s watch, and he already had one flip-flop out the door. I inherited the case when he retired to Boca.”
“I’ve left a message for Latoya Ring. Do you know her?”
“Ring is solid.”
“This might turn out to be nothing. Donovan’s aunt is a tweaker and pretty wasted. But if no one at the
made the call, do you think you can find and trace the number?”
Twice, canned laughter cued me that something was funny. Finally, “Done. Now tell me what you know.”
I did. Along the way remembered another loose end. “According to the autopsy report, the local ME found hair in Estrada’s throat. Do you know if that hair was tested for DNA?”
“If not, find out what happened to it.”
A long silence came down from Wadesboro.
“Thanks, Dr. Brennan. This kid deserves better.”
“Tempe,” I said. “I’ll call if I hear back from Ring.”
“You’ll hear back.”
I spent another hour going over photos from the Gower, Nance, Estrada, and Leal scenes. Scrutinizing faces with a handheld magnifier. Comparing features, body shapes, clothing, silhouettes. It was no good. The vessels in my head were trying to blast through my skull. Someone with superior skills and equipment would have to do it.
At ten I packed up and headed home. I’d just pulled in at the annex when my mobile launched into “Joy to the World.” I’d switched the ringtone to try to be festive.
The number was blocked. I hesitated a moment, then clicked on. “Brennan.” Shifting into park.
“It’s Latoya Ring. I’ve just spoken with Hen Hull.”
“Thanks for returning my call.”
“No one here at the
phoned the sheriff.”
I felt an electric shock fire through my body. “You’re certain?”
The New York Times.
Only two of us cover the crime beat. He didn’t call, I didn’t call.”
Across the yard, something rippled the tangle of shadows thrown by an enormous magnolia. A dog? A late-night walker? Or did I imagine it?
“And I phoned my editor just to make sure,” Ring continued. “A move that will not contribute to my being named employee of the month. He green-lighted no follow-up on Estrada.”
“You’re certain of that?” Straining to see through the dark.
“The assignment would have fallen to me. I’d asked several times. Was repeatedly told no.”
“There was no point. The cops had zip—no suspects, no leads. The mother wasn’t even in the country by then.”
Tia Estrada wasn’t a blue-eyed darling with Shirley Temple curls.
“Thanks for jumping on this,” I said.
There. Was that movement just past the coach house? A deer?
“The whole thing stinks.”
I waited for Ring to elaborate.
“Some bastard murdered this kid. Then the system let her fall through the cracks.”
“We’ll get him,” I said, squinting into the thick vegetation surrounding my car.
I sat a moment, mildly uneasy. Then got out and scurried to the annex.
I was in bed in seconds.
Unconscious in minutes.
Unaware of what I’d set in motion.
THAT WEEKEND IT
rained in Charlotte, not hard but constantly. At times a mist, at times ramping up to a halfhearted drizzle. A cold dampness saturated the air, and water dripped from the eaves and off the broad green leaves of the magnolias outside.
On Saturday, Mary Louise dropped by to see Birdie. That day’s hat was a striped bucket affair with a tassel on top.
Maybe I was lonely for Ryan. Maybe just lonely. Or maybe I was avoiding a stack of reports that needed my attention. Hell, maybe it was the weather. I surprised myself by asking Mary Louise to stay for lunch.
After gaining parental clearance, we made and ate ham and cheese sandwiches. Then we baked cookies and decorated them with M&M’s. Mary Louise talked about her desire for a dog. Her problems with math. Her love of Katniss. Her goal of becoming a fashion designer. The kid was good company.
On Sunday I drove up to see Mama. At higher elevations, the precipitation hovered on the brink of snow. We sat by the fireplace, watching soggy flakes dissolve into puddles on the deck.
Mama seemed tired, distracted. She asked only once about the “poor lost angels,” drifted through other topics, as though she’d forgotten or lost interest in what had energized her less than two weeks earlier.
Mama’s stance on chemotherapy hadn’t softened. When I broached the subject, she shut me down. The only spark she showed all day.
On my way out, I conferred with Dr. Finch. She urged acceptance. I asked how long. She refused to speculate. Inquired what hospital I preferred should the time come when Heatherhill was no longer adequate. As before, her eyes said more than her words.
Once in the car, I phoned Harry. She refused to acknowledge the inevitable. Talked only of new therapies, miracle cures, a woman in Ecuador who had lived a decade following diagnosis. Classic baby sister.
After disconnecting, I let the tears flow. Riding the salty gush, I focused on my headlights arrowing through the dark.
The trip down the mountain seemed endless. The slushy snow triggered thoughts of my trip from St. Johnsbury to Burlington. I almost welcomed them. But not the horrendous collage that followed in their wake.
A pale body floating in amber liquid. A small bloated corpse on a stainless steel table. Adolescent bones stored in a box on a shelf.
That night the same images kept me awake. When sleep finally came, they invaded my dreams.
Nellie Gower on the edge of a quarry. Lizzie Nance in a field at Latta Plantation. Tia Estrada beside a gazebo at a campground. Shelly Leal under a highway overpass.
Facts. Leading to questions. Which looped into more questions. Never to answers.
Anique Pomerleau hadn’t acted alone in Montreal. Her MO had involved an accomplice.
Pomerleau’s second killing season had begun at a farm in Vermont. Her DNA was found on a victim there, on another in Charlotte.
DNA from a lip print said the current doer in Charlotte was male. That fit the theory that Pomerleau had a killing partner.
But Pomerleau was dead. Had her accomplice taken her off the board? Why? When?
Had he brought his perverse delusions south? Why North Carolina? Was I the draw? Why?
Was he following Pomerleau’s pattern of kidnapping on the anniversaries of previous abductions? Why continue the legacy without her?
Would he strike again soon?
I awoke to bright sunlight. Made coffee and went to bring in the paper.
Blown leaves dotted the patio bricks. The sky was blue. The trees were alive with the businesslike twitter of mockingbirds and cardinals.
I’d just filled my mug when my mobile sounded. At first I didn’t recognize the caller ID. Then I did.
“Hope I didn’t rouse you.” Something in Hen Hull’s voice kicked my pulse up a notch.
“Awake for hours,” I lied.
“Took some doing, but I got it,” Hull said. “Ready?”
I grabbed pen and paper from the counter. “Shoot.” She read off a number, and I wrote it down. “Can you trace—?”
“The call to Bellamy inquiring about the Estrada case came from a pay phone near the intersection of Fifth and North Caswell in your fair city. I thought mobiles had put pay phones up there with the horse and buggy. That and vandalism.”
“The line might be long gone.”
“Or the booth could be a toilet stall.”
I thought a moment. “Even if the phone exists, and there’s video surveillance on that corner, there’s no chance footage would still be around.”
“Not after two years.”
The number was another dead end. I wanted to scream in frustration. “You think the caller was Estrada’s abductor?”
“It wasn’t a journalist at the
“Any word on the hair?” I asked.
“The autopsy was done by a guy named Bullsbridge. I’m waiting for a callback.”
“Is he competent?”
“I’m waiting for a callback.”
“I’ll brief Slidell,” I said.
“Keep in touch.”
I disconnected. Redialed. The line was busy.