Authors: Alexa Grace
Lane grabbed his cell out of the deputy's hand and raced toward his county sheriff department issued SUV. He turned on his lights and sirens as he sped out of the parking lot. His adrenalin shot into high gear as it always did when a possible homicide was assigned to him.
The flashing lights ahead let him know he'd found the crime scene. He pulled up behind a patrol car, threw his county sheriff investigator jacket on over his baseball uniform and pushed his small notebook in his back pocket.
Karen Katz, a crime scene technician, stood near the crime scene investigation van. Striding toward her, he asked, "Hey, Karen, what do we have here?"
"See for yourself. Enter over there.” She cocked her head toward the entry a few feet away. “And stay in the woods and off of the path we've got secured with crime scene tape. Other than the hikers' shoe impressions, we don't want any more made. The rain storms we've had for the past week washed away any chance of getting the victim's and the killer's shoe impressions. Same goes for tire prints.”
“Thanks,” he said as he started toward the opening of the woods.
"Where's your partner?" She called after him.
"Jan is out on maternity leave."
"Already? I thought she had a couple of months to go."
"Triplets. Her doctor put her on bed rest."
Lane hiked through the brush and soggy earth, his boots making a squishing sound with each step. He walked as close as he could get to the narrow dirt path which was more mud than dirt. Although it was early evening; there was still enough light so he didn't need his flashlight. Lane noticed two sets of shoe impressions, which were undoubtedly those of the hikers. Pressing onward, he hoped he wouldn't get a raging case of poison ivy like he did the last time they found a body in a wooded area.
A few feet away farther into the woods, a pair of teenaged hikers sat on a log talking with a deputy named Sam Hillsen. They looked like they might around fourteen years old. One was holding his stomach and looked like he'd either been sick or would vomit any second.
“Your parents are on the way,” explained Sam as he gave Lane a nod.
Lane made a mental note to get their names from Sam and schedule an interview with them after their parents arrived. Judging from the terrified expression on their faces, he also needed to call in one of the victim advocates or counselors.
Bob Goldberg, another crime scene technician, took photos of the entire scene. He cautiously inched around the body of a fully clothed young girl lying face down in the dirt careful not to disturb the scene. He eyed a small leather purse lying near her. He fought the temptation to search it for identification. Touching anything before all pictures were taken and the medical examiner arrived was a violation of the rules.
He moved closer. The bullet wound at the back of her head was unmistakable. The gun shot appeared to have been taken at point blank range. Lane could see stippling had burned onto her skin around the wound. The killer could have been as close as three feet from the girl when he had fired. He looked around for any sign of a bullet in case it went through the victim. He saw nothing and assumed the bullet lodged itself in her skull. If so, the medical examiner would recover it from the body during the autopsy.
"I won't be able to get blood spatter," said Bob as he swatted a bug away from him. "Did Karen tell you that we can't get shoe or tire impressions either?"
"Yeah, I know, thanks to the rain." He inched closer to the body and bent down to examine her hands and wrists. There were no defensive wounds on the delicate, white skin nor was there any damage to her long, painted fingernails. He checked the wrists for ligature marks to determine if she came to the scene voluntarily. There were none.
He walked to the path. There were no drag marks. From what he could see, there wasn’t a single sign of a struggle, nor were there signs she'd been dragged here. For what reasons would she willingly follow her killer to this remote area? And why would someone want to shoot her at point blank range?
Footsteps trudged through the mud behind him. He turned to see his supervisor, County Sheriff Tim Brennan, had finally arrived.
"What's your initial assessment?"
Tim studied Lane’s face as he asked the question. He’d had been promoted to detective just five months before and he knew the sheriff still considered him a rookie.
"There are no defensive wounds or physical signs that she fought back, nor are there any signs she was dragged here. By what I’ve viewed so far, I think she knew her killer. Also her killer lives in this area now or has lived here in the past. How else would he even know this place exists? I don't think it was a random decision that he lured or brought her here to kill her."
"Wouldn't the rain have washed away the drag marks?" The question was to test Lane. Even with rain, there would've been drag marks if there was a struggle to get the girl to where the killer wanted to go.
"Not if there'd been a struggle. The drag marks would've been deep enough so that the rain would’ve filled the indentations in the ground instead of washing them away. None of the surrounding plants have been disturbed either."
"Agree. Find a bullet or casing?"
"No, sir. Chances are good that it's still lodged inside her skull."
Doc Meade arrived and shot a glance over to Lane and Tim before he bent to look at the body.
Lane slipped on his latex gloves as he watched Doc Meade open the girl's purse while Bob took photos of the contents. Doc handed the purse to Lane, who withdrew a small wallet. A bank debit card, driver's license, library card and Indiana University identification card were inside.
"Victim's name is Mandy Morris, 19 years old, and a student at I.U. There's a dorm address on the ID. The driver's license lists an address in Bedford that may be her parents' residence. I'll do a computer search for the phone number and contact them first." Lane jotted notes on a small pad he'd retrieved from his pocket. Contacting a victim's parents was his least favorite thing to do, but the task had to be done.
"Shit. She goes to I.U.? My daughter, Jennifer, is a junior there." Tim cringed and pulled his jacket collar up as if he was trying to fight a chill rushing through his body. “This murder hits too close to home. My wife, Megan, and I have worried about my daughter's safety since she'd moved out of their home to live in a dorm in Bloomington. You know what they say about crime statistics related to coeds on college campuses."
“Yes, I do. On college campuses there are large concentrations of young women who are at greater risk for rape and other forms of sexual assault than women in the general population or in a comparable age group.”
"That’s why Jennifer's safety remains on my worry top ten list.”
"There's a cell phone." Lane took out a plastic sandwich bag and placed the slim, silver cell phone inside. He'd examine it later for recent calls. There were no car keys, but that was not a surprise if Mandy Morris lived on campus. Many students at I.U. walked to their destinations or used public transportation. Mandy might be one of them.
The deputy and the crime scene technician gingerly loaded her body on a gurney and headed for the M.E.'s van. Doc Meade turned to follow them and said, "Lane, I'll do the autopsy at ten o'clock tomorrow morning. I'll see you there."
Lane had stopped by his apartment to shower and shave. As he found his cubicle in the bull pen at the Sheriff's office he felt almost human again. A smile spread across his face as his gaze took in streamers and colorful confetti littering his cubicle to celebrate the Cop Team's win over the Fire Fighters.
After pushing the small pieces of confetti from his desk into the trash can, he turned on his computer then searched for the home address listed on Mandy Morris's driver's license and found the name of Nelle Morris as the homeowner. He'd go to Bedford in the morning after the autopsy to talk to Nelle Morris in person, and then to Bloomington to talk to Mandy's friends.
At 10:00 a.m. sharp, Doc Meade made the initial Y-shaped incision in the body of Mandy Morris. Lane didn't think Doc would find anything of interest in his examination of the victim's organs. She was nineteen years old, for Christ's sake. Lane's interest was in the skull where he'd seen the entry of the bullet.
Queasiness swirled around in his gut. He cursed himself for meeting with some buddies from the baseball team at Mom's Cafe for his usual farm-style breakfast which included everything from the kitchen except the sink. It wasn't the smartest move just hours prior to an autopsy but it wasn't his first one and he didn't think eating all that food would matter. Until now. It was the combination of the formaldehyde smell and the sickening ripening of the dead body that had the contents of his stomach doing acrobatics. The Vicks VapoRub he'd smeared in each of his nostrils hadn't helped a bit. He would have walked into the hallway for some fresh air, but his boss stood beside him and Lane didn't want to reinforce the rookie impression his supervisor already had about him.
The fluorescent lights were old and periodically crackled and blinked. The medical examiner went through the motions of removing and examining her organs as he spoke into his tape recorder. Lane's mind wandered and thought about how young the victim was. He was startled when Doc plunked a bullet into a stainless steel bowl and handed it to him.
"I'm no bullet expert, but that sure looks like a .38 hollow point to me." Doc wiped the sweat from his brow and glanced at Lane. "It’ll be interesting to find out what ATF has to say about what kind of gun it was shot from."
Lane put the bullet in a padded envelope to send it to ATF for analysis. He, too, was curious about the make of the gun the killer used. It would be one more piece to a puzzle he intended to solve in order to bring justice for the victim and her family.
He pulled up to the house and rechecked Mandy Morris's home address on his notepad. This was the right place. The house looked like it was overdue to be condemned with grass and weeds that went to his knees and house paint peeling down to raw wood in places. There was an ancient sofa on the front porch with a can of cigarette butts lying on a table beside it.
He knocked on the front door several times. The porch creaked beneath his weight as he turned toward the stairs. A female voice on the other side of the door asked, "What do you want?"
Not the friendliest greeting, but he could deal. "I'm Detective Lane Hansen and I'm looking for Nelle Morris." He held his badge up to the peep hole.
"Yeah, well what do you want with her?" She barked through the door.
"I have news about her daughter."
The door flew open and a middle aged woman with scary, wiry gray hair, and yellow teeth stood in front of him. She held a glass of what smelled like bourbon.
"That's funny. I don't have no daughter," she said. "I've got a good for nothing niece that my brother left me when he died. But she ain't here."
"Are you Nelle Morris?"
"Who else would you be talking to at this address?" She scowled at him and took a drink of her bourbon.