Authors: Kathy Reichs
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General
“Does Tinker know?”
“Oh, yeah. The asshole’s acting all mind-hunter, pissing everyone off.”
“He’s not a profiler.”
“Try telling him that. Is Ryan with you?”
“Loop him in.”
I heard a staticky radio voice. “Gotta go,” Slidell said.
“You’ll attend the autopsy tomorrow?”
“The child is dead?” Ryan asked.
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
“They want us to join them?”
I shook my head.
“Larabee’s doing the autopsy tomorrow?”
I nodded again.
People flowed in two directions around us. A girl passed, maybe twelve or thirteen, a parent at each elbow. All three were eating chocolate ice cream cones. I pictured lights rippling blue and red across a small, still body on filthy concrete. I watched the girl melt into the crowd, my stomach clamped into a hard, cold lump.
Suddenly, my hands began to tremble. I pressed them to my thighs. Looked down at my feet. Noted a lone weed growing from a crack in the pavement.
Shelly Leal. Mama. Ryan. Or maybe it was the tail end of the cold. Or simply lack of sleep. I had no energy left to block the despair.
Tears welled. Broke free. I backhanded fat salty drops from my cheeks.
“I’ll walk you to your car,” Ryan said. No questions about Leal. About the call from Finch. I appreciated that.
“I’m a big girl.” Not looking up. “Go on to your hotel.”
Music swelled as a door opened in the colossus behind us. Receded. Somewhere, a truck beeped rhythmically, backing up.
Ryan reached out and took both my hands in his. Clamped tight to stop the shaking.
“I’ll pick you up in the morning,” I said.
Ryan’s gaze burned the top of my head. “Look at me.”
I did. The irises were too bright against the backdrop of bloodshot. Electric blue. Startling.
“When a child is killed, something inside us dies.” Ryan’s tone was gentle, meant to calm. “But an investigation doesn’t normally throw you like this. It’s me, isn’t it?”
I took a second and a breath to make sure I’d say nothing I’d later regret. “Life’s not always about you, Ryan.”
“No. It’s not.”
I pulled my hands free and wrapped my arms around my ribs. Lowered my eyes.
“I can’t explain why I needed to go away. To grieve alone. To see if anything remained of me worth salvaging. My leaving was selfish, but I can’t undo it.”
I focused on the green wisp struggling for life at my feet. Said nothing.
“Please know I never meant to hurt you.”
I wanted to smash Ryan with my fists. I wanted to press my cheek to his chest. To allow him to pull me close.
Ryan had walked out of his life with barely a backward glance at me. One quick visit. One email. His daughter’s death had been an unimaginable blow. But could I forgive the insensitivity? Would forgiveness just set me up for more pain?
I studied the brave little weed. Felt oddly buoyed. Such optimism in the face of impossible odds.
I had no obligation to explain myself to Ryan. To ever trust him again. Yet the words came out. “My mother is here in North Carolina.”
I could sense Ryan’s surprise. I’d never spoken to him of Mama.
“She’s dying.” A sliver of a whisper.
Ryan remained still, allowing me to continue or not.
Snapshots formed in my mind. Mama’s hand in mine in the dark when she couldn’t sleep. Mama’s face flushed with delight after a binge at the mall. Mama’s suitcase packed with silk scarves, satin nighties, and Godiva cocoa mix.
Mama hunkered with her laptop behind a cart.
The weed blurred into a wavery green thread. A ragged breath juddered up my chest.
I palmed the new tears, squared my shoulders, and raised my chin.
Ryan’s neon-etched face was right above mine.
I managed a weak smile. “How about that sarsaparilla?”
At the annex, Ryan brewed coffee while I went to the study to phone my mother. She sounded tranquil and lucid. She’d gone to the computer center to continue her research. No big deal.
I wasn’t fooled. Even when the demons slipped their leash, Mama was able to coat her actions in wholly believable rationalizations. To convincingly lay on others the blame for overreaction. It may have been the most disturbing aspect of her madness.
“Are you making progress on your end?” A fizz of excitement below her calm.
“Progress?” I was lost.
“With your poor dead girls.”
“Listen, Mama. I—”
“I’m doing everything I can on mine.” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “They’re trying to stop me, but it won’t work.”
“No one is trying to stop you. The Internet went down.”
“There are more, you know.”
“Poor lost souls.”
“Are you taking your meds, Mama?”
“The minute you left, I began pulling up old newspaper stories from Charlotte and the surrounding area. The Vermont girl was killed in 2007, so I started with that year.”
Jesus bouncing Christ.
“I’ve found at least three.” Again, the spy-versus-spy whisper.
I had two options. The smart one, shut her down and call Finch. The easy one, hear her out. It was late, I was exhausted. I opted for easy. Or perhaps I hoped enough of her brain was functioning logically to have actually produced something.
“Three?” I asked.
“I’m putting it all in my journal. In case anything happens to me.” I could hear the gleam in her eye. “But I’ve sent you the names, dates, and locations. In separate emails, of course.”
“This isn’t necessary, Mama.”
“What about your young man?”
“Ryan has agreed to help.”
“I’m glad. If my brilliant baby likes him, this gentleman must be very clever.”
“I’ll visit as soon as I can.”
“You’ll do no such thing. You be dogged until you catch this horrible creature.”
I found Ryan in the kitchen discussing baseball with Birdie. Over coffee and quinoa-cranberry cookies, I gave him the basics.
WHEN I WAS
eight, following the loss of my father to an auto crash and my baby brother to leukemia, my grandmother relocated Mama, Harry, and me from Chicago to the Lee family home at Pawleys Island, South Carolina. Years later, after Harry and I had each married and moved on, Gran died at the overripe age of ninety-six.
A week after Gran’s funeral, Mama disappeared. Four years later, we learned she was living in Paris with a maid/nurse named Cécile Gosselin, whom she called Goose.
When I was thirty-five, Mama and Goose returned to the States. Since then they’d migrated between the Pawleys Island house and a sprawling condo on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Throughout the years, if Mama felt the darkness closing in, or if Goose noted the telltale signs, they’d make their way to whatever facility had caught my mother’s attention most recently. While Daisy reassembled herself, Goose would return to France to revisit whatever life she’d lived pre–Katherine Daessee Lee Brennan.
It was midnight by the time I’d explained Mama to Ryan. Her beauty. Her charm. Her madness. Her cancer. By then we’d ingested sufficient caffeine to barefoot the entire Appalachian Trail.
“She’s smart as hell. And kick-ass on the Net. You want something, Mama will find it.” Perhaps needing to emphasize the positive. “She helped me find you.”
“Sounds like your mother should work for the NSA.”
“My mother should be shot straight back into treatment.”
We looked at each other, both knowing the time for therapy was past.
“Check her emails?” Ryan suggested.
There were nine in all, sent to my Gmail, AOL, and university accounts. Coded, to indicate what linked to what.
“She is cautious,” Ryan said.
“She’s batty,” I said. Immediately regretted it.
We opened the lot, and I copied the information into a Word document.
Avery Koseluk, age thirteen, went missing in Kannapolis, North Carolina, on September 8, 2011. The child’s father, Al Menniti, vanished at the same time.
Tia Estrada, age fourteen, went missing in Salisbury, North Carolina, on December 2, 2012. Her body was found in a rural area of Anson County four days later.
Colleen Donovan, age sixteen, had been reported missing in Charlotte the previous February.
“I remember Donovan,” I said. “She was a high school dropout living on the streets. I think a prossie filed the missing persons report.”
“Cops probably wrote her off as a runaway. And she was older, so she didn’t fit Rodas’s profile,” Ryan said. “Koseluk would have been treated as a noncustodial parent abduction.”
“Estrada was Latina, so she wouldn’t have matched Rodas’s profile, either.” I’d just said that when my phone pinged three times, signaling incoming texts. Mama had sent photos of the girls, undoubtedly copied and pasted from the archived articles she’d found.
Ryan put his head close to mine as I tapped to enlarge each image. I had to work to keep breathing normally.
Each girl had fair skin and long center-parted brown hair. Each was at that child-woman phase typical of adolescence, limbs gangly, chests showing the first blush of breasts.
Donovan didn’t look sixteen. Estrada didn’t look Latina. It didn’t need stating.
“Slidell can contact Salisbury tomorrow,” Ryan said.
I nodded in his direction, not really seeing him. We knew what the police and autopsy reports would say. The article on Tia Estrada reported that she was found in the open, dressed and supine. Cause of death undetermined. No arrest made.
“Until then, we could both use some sleep.”
“Yeah.” I didn’t move.
I brought Ryan’s face back into focus. His eyes made me think of cool blue fire.
“As a Russian tanker.”
“Would you prefer that I stay here tonight?”
“Go on up.” Ryan’s voice sounded strange. “I know where you keep the bedding.”
I awoke to the feeling that something was wrong.
Birdie was gone. Sunlight was knifing in through the shutters.
My eyes whipped to the clock: 8:10. I’d slept through my alarm. I never do that. Larabee may have already started the Leal autopsy.
I shot out of bed, threw on clothes, no shower. Pulled my hair into a pony and brushed my teeth. Thundered down the stairs.
Ryan was in the kitchen, pouring Raisin Bran into bowls. The cat was asleep on top of the fridge.
“Jesus, Ryan. Why didn’t you ring me? Or holler up?”
“I figured you were tired.” Adding milk to the cereal. “Eat.”
“We need to go.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You have to eat.”
“No. I don’t.”
Ryan filled two travel mugs with coffee, added cream to mine. Then he sat and began spooning flakes into his mouth.
Eyes rolling, I sat and emptied my bowl. “Can we leave now?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Salute to the brim of his cap. Which was purple and said
This is not your father’s hat
The drive took only minutes. An advantage to crossing uptown on a Saturday morning.
I swiped us in at the MCME. We passed through the lobby and biovestibule, then followed the sound of muted voices to autopsy room one.
The wave hit as soon as I pushed through the door. Sulfur-saturated gas produced by bacterial action and the breakdown of red blood cells. The stench of putrefaction.
Larabee was viewing X-rays on wall-mounted illuminators. He wore scrubs and had a mask hanging below his jaw. A half-dozen crime scene photos lay on the counter.
Slidell was beside Larabee, looking like hell. Dark stubble, baggy eyes, skin the color of old grout. I wondered if he’d been up all night. Or if it was the odor. Or the grim show he was about to witness.
An autopsy assaults not just the nose but all senses. The sight of the fast-slash Y incision. The sound of pruning shears crunching through ribs. The
of organs hitting the scale. The acrid scorch of the saw buzzing through bone. The
of the skullcap snapping free. The
of the scalp and face stripping off.
Pathologists aren’t surgeons. They’re not concerned with vital signs, bleeding, or pain. They don’t repair or overhaul. They search for clues. They need to be objective and observant. They don’t need to be gentle.
The autopsy of a child always seems more brutal. Children look so innocent. So soft and freckled and pink. Brand-new and ready for all life has to offer.
Such was not the case with Shelly Leal.
Leal lay naked on a stainless steel table in the center of the room, chest and abdomen bloated and green. Her skin was sloughing, pale and translucent as rice paper, from her fingers and toes. Her eyes, half open, were dull and darkened by opaque films.
I steeled myself. Kicked into scientist mode.
It was November. The weather had been cool. Insect activity would have been minimal. The changes were consistent with a postmortem interval of one week or less.
I crossed to the counter and glanced at the scene photos. Saw the familiar faceup straight-armed body position.
We watched as Larabee did his external exam, checking the contours of the belly and buttocks, the limbs, the fingers and toes, the scalp, the orifices. At one point he tweezed several long hairs from far back in the child’s mouth.
“They look a little blond to be hers?” Slidell asked.
“Not necessarily. Decomp and stomach fluids can cause bleaching.” Larabee dropped the hairs into a vial, sealed and marked the lid.
Finally, the Y-cut.
There was no chatter throughout the slicing and weighing and measuring and sketching. None of the dark humor used to lessen morgue tension.
Slidell mostly kept his gaze fixed on things other than the table. Now and then he’d give me a long stare. Shift his feet. Reclasp his hands.