Authors: Kathy Reichs
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General
“Posed,” Barrow said.
Rodas shifted to his left hand. “Both victims were clothed. Both had remnants of tissue on their fingers. Neither showed evidence of trauma. Neither showed evidence of sexual assault.” He withdrew a plastic sleeve from his carton and put it on the table. Inside was a white-bordered five-by-seven color print.
Barrow dug a similar print from the tub and placed it beside Rodas’s. As one, we leaned forward to view them.
The photos were undoubtedly school portraits. The kind we all sat for as kids. The kind kids still take home every year. The backgrounds differed. A tree trunk versus rippled red velvet. But each subject looked straight at the camera with the same awkward smile.
“I got to admit,” Tinker admitted, “they are of a type.”
“Of a type?” Slidell pooched air through his lips. “They look like friggin’ clones.”
“Both victims were roughly the same height and weight,” Rodas said. “No bangs. No glasses. No braces, which I’d guess are fairly common in that age group.”
It was true. Both girls had fair skin, fine features, and long dark hair center-parted and drawn back from the face. Gower had hers tucked behind her ears.
I looked at Lizzie Nance. At the face I’d studied a thousand times. Noted the dusting of caramel freckles. The red plastic bow at the end of each braid. The hint of mischief in the wide green eyes.
And felt the same sorrow. The same frustration. But new emotions were stirring the mix.
Unbidden, images genied up in my mind. An emaciated body curled fetal on a makeshift bench. Yellow-orange flames dancing on a wall. Blood-spattered crystal casting slow-turning shadows across a dimly lit parlor.
My gaze drifted past Slidell toward the back of the room.
Though I couldn’t see the view from where I was seated, I knew the window looked out over the parking lot. And the buildings of uptown. And the interstate snaking through the power grids of the Northeast. And the far distant Canadian border. And a dead-end street beside an abandoned railroad yard. Rue de Sébastopol.
The sound of silence brought me back to the present.
“You need a break?” Barrow was studying me with an odd expression. They all were.
I nodded, rose quickly, and left the room.
As I hurried up the hall, more images popped. A dog collar circling a willowy neck. Dark refugee eyes, round and terrified in a morgue-white face.
I locked the lavatory door, crossed to the sink, and held my hands under the faucet. Watched and didn’t watch as water ran over them. A full minute.
Then I cupped my fingers and drank.
Finally, I straightened and looked in the mirror. A woman looked back, knuckles white as the porcelain she was clutching.
I studied the face. Not young, not old. Hair ash blond but showing gray feelers. Eyes emerald green. Revealing what? Grief? Rage? Congestion and fever?
“Pull yourself together.” The reflected lips mouthed the words. “Do your job. Nail the bitch.”
I shut off the tap. Yanked paper towels from the dispenser and dried my face. Blew my nose.
Returned to the CCU squad room.
“—just saying it’s unusual to find no sexual component.” Tinker sounded steamed.
I resumed my seat.
“Who knows what’s sexual to these fuckwads.” Slidell slumped back in his chair, dragging a balled fist across the tabletop.
“If the perp’s female, we could be looking at a whole different ball game,” Tinker said.
“Yeah, well, it’s
ball game,” Slidell snapped. After a pause, “Gower was 2007.”
Slidell slid Tinker a withering look. “Gower was 2007. So there’s a three-year gap between Vermont and what went down earlier in Montreal. Another year and a half goes by and Nance is grabbed here.”
“What’s your point?”
“Time line, you dumb shit.” Slidell shot to his feet before Tinker could fire off a cutting retort. “I’m done here.”
“Let’s call it a morning.” Barrow, trying to defuse what was escalating toward open combat. “We’ll reconvene when Detective Slidell and the doc have reviewed the Nance file.”
A look passed between Barrow and Slidell. Then Skinny was gone.
“Send in the clowns.” Giving a tight shake of his head, Tinker pushed up from his chair.
Rodas watched Tinker disappear through the door before eyebrowing a question at Barrow. Barrow gestured at him to stay put. Rodas settled back. So did I.
Slidell reappeared minutes later, a manila folder in one hand. Attached to the folder was a snapshot.
Dropping into the closest chair, Slidell thumbed off the paper clip and placed the photo beside the two school portraits.
I felt adrenaline flutter anew.
The girl had brown eyes and light olive skin. Her long chestnut hair was center-parted and drawn up in combs. I guessed her age at twelve to thirteen.
“Michelle Leal. Goes by Shelly,” Slidell said. “Thirteen. Lives with her parents and two siblings in Plaza-Midwood. Last Friday afternoon the mother sent her to a convenience store at Central and Morningside. She bought milk and M&M’s around four-fifteen. Never made it home.”
I’d spent most of the weekend zoned out on cold meds, drifting off quickly every time I turned on the TV. I recalled vague fragments of news reports on a missing child, video of a search team, a mother’s teary appeal.
Now I was seeing that little girl’s face.
“She hasn’t turned up?” I swallowed.
“No,” Slidell said.
“You think it’s related.”
“Look at her. And the MO fits.”
I glanced up. Met Barrow’s eyes. “You think I’m the draw,” I said evenly.
Barrow tried a comforting smile. It didn’t work out.
“You think Pomerleau learned where I live, came here, and killed Lizzie Nance. And now she’s taken Shelly Leal.”
“We have to consider the possibility,” Barrow said quietly.
“That’s why you asked me here this morning.”
“That’s one reason.” Barrow paused. “With cold cases, we’ve got all the time in the world. No pressure from the public, the media, the guys up the pay scale. That won’t be the situation with Shelly Leal.”
“Maybe the kid’s already dead,” Slidell said. “Maybe not. Gower was found eight days after she was snatched. If Leal is alive, we may be looking at a real narrow window.”
Barrow jumped back in. “You’re familiar with Pomerleau’s thinking, her way of operating.”
“I’m an anthropologist, not a psychologist.”
Barrow raised both palms. “Understood. But you were there. That’s one reason we need your help.”
“And the other?”
“A detective named Andrew Ryan was lead on the Pomerleau investigation. Word is you know the guy personally.”
Heat rushed my face. I hadn’t seen that one coming.
“We want you to find him.”
I DO NOT
keep track of Detective Ryan’s whereabouts.”
My heart was still sending blood to my cheeks. I hated it. Hated that I was so easy to read.
Barrow had a habit of clearing his throat. He did it now. “You’ve worked with this Ryan a long time, right?”
“Do you know why he dropped off the grid?”
“His daughter died.”
“Yes.” OD’d in a heroin den.
“That would knock anyone off the rails.”
I glanced down at my watch. Reflex. I knew the time.
“It’s been almost two months, and no one has a clue where this Ryan has gone.”
I said nothing.
“He ever talk about favorite getaways? Places he wanted to visit? Places he’d gone on vacation?”
“Ryan is not the vacationing type.”
“The guy has quite a reputation.” Rodas grinned. “Way they
up there, he’s cleared every homicide since the Black Dahlia.”
“Elizabeth Short was killed in L.A.”
The burn of embarrassment also colored Rodas’s cheeks. Or something did.
“Ryan worked Pomerleau,” Barrow said. “We could really use his input.”
“Good luck.” Testy, but I don’t respond well to pressure.
“LaManche had the impression that you and Ryan were close.”
I managed to curb my impulse to get up and leave.
“Sorry. That came out wrong.”
No, Detective Rodas, that came out right. Ryan and I share more than murder. We share memories, affection. We once shared a bed.
“What I meant was, LaManche thought if anyone could find Ryan, it would be you.”
“Bring him in from the cold?”
“That only happens in books.”
Original files never leave the CCU squad room. After telling Slidell, Barrow, and Rodas everything I could remember about Anique Pomerleau, I set about photocopying the contents of the plastic tub.
Slidell went to take a call. He never came back.
Shortly before one, my mobile rang. Tim Larabee wanted me to examine remains found in the trunk of a Subaru at an auto salvage yard.
My head felt like lead, my throat like hot gravel. And I was about to pass out from toner fumes.
I delivered a duplicate of the Nance file to Slidell’s desk. Then I got a box, loaded my own copy, and left.
Instead of heading to the ME facility west of uptown, I called Larabee to beg off, citing plague as an excuse. Then I pointed my Mazda toward an enclave of overpriced homes set beneath trees so large, their summer foliage turned the streets into tunnels. Myers Park. My ’hood.
In minutes, I turned off Queens Road onto a circular drive that swooped up to the pompous brick Georgian reigning over Sharon Hall. My complex.
I continued past the carriage house to a tiny two-story structure tucked in one corner of the grounds. The “annex,” date of birth and original purpose unknown. My home.
I let myself in and called out, “Hey, Bird.”
I thumped the box on the counter and looked around the kitchen. The shutters were angled down, casting long golden slashes across the oak floor.
The refrigerator hummed. Otherwise, the place was quiet as a crypt.
I pushed through a swinging door, crossed the dining room, and climbed to the second floor.
Birdie was curled on my bed. He lifted his head from his paws at the sound of movement. Looked startled. Maybe irked. Hard to tell with felines.
I tossed my purse to the chair, then my clothes. After pulling on sweats, I downed two decongestant tabs and slipped under the covers.
Eyes closed, I listened to familiar sounds, trying not to think about Anique Pomerleau. Trying not to think about Andrew Ryan. The steady
dip dip dip
of the bathroom faucet. The soft
of a magnolia branch scraping the screen. The rhythmic
of air flowing past Birdie’s vocal cords.
Journey burst into song. “Don’t stop believin’ …”
My lids flew open.
The room was dim. A thin rectangle of gray outlined the shade.
“Hold on …”
I rolled to my side. The glowing orange digits on the clock said 4:45.
The music ended abruptly. I stumbled to my purse, yanked out my iPhone, and checked caller ID.
Dropping onto the edge of the bed, I hit callback. Slidell picked up right away. Background noise suggested he was in a car. “Yo.”
“Tell me this ain’t some new epidemic?”
My drug-clogged brain could do nothing with that.
“First Ryan takes a powder, then you.”
Seriously? “You’re welcome for the photocopies,” I said.
Slidell made a noise I took to mean thanks.
“You pulled your own disappearing act.” I yanked a tissue from the box and held it to my nose.
“Had to check out a lead on the Leal thing.”
“Guy walking on Morningside Friday afternoon spotted a kid getting into a car. Said she looked upset.”
“Meaning the moron’s got the IQ of lentil soup. But the time line fits, and the guy’s sketch of the kid skews right.”
“Did he get the license?”
“Two digits. What the hell’s wrong with your voice?”
“It could be a break.”
“Or it could be the toad’s hallucinating.”
“What’s with you and Tinker?”
“Guy’s like something crawled out of a saucer at Roswell.”
Slidell’s negativity didn’t surprise me. His knowledge of the alleged UFO incident did.
“Is it just that Tinker’s state?”
“It’s all bullshit.”
“What do you mean?”
“The SBI’s taken a real hosing in the press lately. Now some asshole in Raleigh’s decided a clear on a serial involving kids is just the spit shine they need.”
Beginning in 2010, the SBI had been rocked by a scandal involving the serology and bloodstain units in its forensics lab. The North Carolina attorney general commissioned an investigation, and the conclusions were blistering. Faulty lab reports. Failure to report contradictory results. A unit director who lied about his training, perhaps perjured himself. Prosecutorial bias up the wazoo.
Defense attorneys throughout the state did the happy dance.
Appeals were submitted. Convictions were overturned. The ensuing avalanche of litigation was expected to cost North Carolina millions.
The media went batshit.
In the end, heads rolled, including that of the lab director. The legislature enacted a number of reforms. Procedures and policies were revamped. The accreditation process was changed. The SBI was still battling to restore credibility.
Was Slidell right? Was the bureau inserting itself into our investigation in an attempt to rehab its image?
“You think Tinker was sent to this morning’s meeting because of politics?”
“Nah. I think he likes the pickles they serve downstairs.”
“Nance has been cold for years. Isn’t it risky for the SBI to insist on involvement in such an old unsolved?”
“The public sees a clear, they’re heroes. They don’t, we’re the dumb rubes who screwed up.”
I had to admit, that made some sense. “SBI input isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe Tinker can help. You know, bring a different perspective.”