Authors: Nick Russell
"D.W. wants to see you," Sheila said when he came in.
"I don't know, he just said that he wanted to talk to you."
"Any news from Tallahassee about those skeletons, yet?"
"Not that I've heard."
He went up the stairs to the second floor, wondering what kind of trouble he was in this time. Had someone seen him driving so fast and called to see what was happening? But if that were the case, Sheila would have taken the call and tipped him off.
He knocked on the sheriff's door and D.W. said, "Come in."
One look told him D.W. was upset about something.
"Have you talked to Flag today?"
"No, I try to avoid him as much as I can. Why, what's he up to?"
D.W. held up a piece of paper and said, "This here is a request for your suspension and the first step to dismissal from the department."
D.W. looked at the paper and said, "Accordin' to him, you are carryin' an unauthorized weapon, you fired said weapon at a suspect and failed to fill out a shooting incident report in a timely manner, and then when he ordered you to surrender the unauthorized weapon to him you refused."
"Are you kidding me? He's really going to try to push that?"
"Got the paperwork right here in front of me."
"Come on, D.W. You know this is bullshit!"
"What can I say? You can look at it for yourself." He handed John Lee the form.
"You do realize how hypocritical this is, right?"
"What do you mean?"
"He's bitching about me carrying an unauthorized weapon, but he's carrying a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum."
"Yeah, Flag always says if you are gonna dig a hole use a shovel, not a spoon."
"If my Browning, which he's tried to buy from me for over a year and I won't sell to him, is unauthorized, so is his Smith. So he's going to try to hang me for something he's doing himself?"
"Well, besides that, he said you failed to file the shooting incident report in a timely manner."
"Give me a break D.W. It had been a long day and I had other things on my mind."
"Yeah, I know what kind of things you had on your mind. I was at your house yesterday morning, remember?"
"Is that what this is about? You're gonna let him can me for what happened between me and Beth Ann?"
"If I had my way I'd beat your brains out."
"Then do it D.W.! Kick my ass. I deserve it. But this here, this thing with Fig, it's bullshit and you know it."
D.W. leaned forward and rested his elbow on the top of his desk and put his forehead in his hand. "I just don't understand what this world is comin' to, John Lee. Beth Ann tells me that Emily's a part time lesbian or somethin', and you and her are doin'... I don't even want to think about that. When did life get so damn complicated?"
"I don't know, D.W. I don't know what's going on with Emily. I've tried to be patient, hoping she'd get her head together, but I just don't know anymore. And this thing with Beth Ann... just kick my ass and get it over with, okay?"
"I ain't gonna kick your ass, because it wouldn't do any good no how. I know a hard dick ain't got no conscience. Learned that from my own daddy with the crap he was pullin' before he dropped over dead. And I ain't gonna fire you, either. I wish my wife had never talked me into hiring Flag in the first place all those years ago. Worst decision I ever made sittin' here in this office."
"So what about his piece of paper here wanting me suspended and fired?"
"Tell you what, John Lee, why don't you walk down the hall there to Flag's office and tell that son of a Suzuki to wipe his tokus with it. And if he says anythin' else about that pistol you got on your gun belt, you tell him to come see me about it and talk to me with you sittin' here man-to-man. Not sendin' some bullfeather piece of paper like this through channels."
"Will do," John Lee said with a grin.
"Before you go, we need to talk about somethin' else."
A list of all of his possible sins went through John Lee's mind. If he was off the hook on the argument with Fig and nobody had reported his fast run to the county line, and D.W. was not pushing the issue about the relationship between he and Beth Ann, he wasn't sure what was coming next.
"I don't want Flag runnin' the investigation into those skeletons you found."
"Okay. Why not?"
"You know why not. He'd do anything he could do to get his face in front of the press and make himself look important. So I'm puttin' you in charge of the case."
"He's not gonna like that."
"I don't give a donkey's dingdong what Flag Newton likes or don't like. I'm the sheriff, and he needs to remember that!"
"So until further notice, you're off road duty and you only answer calls for assistance when there's nobody else available to handle them."
"Any word from Tallahassee yet?"
"I haven't heard anything," D.W. said. He fished in his desk drawer and pulled out a pink telephone memo slip. "The person you want to talk to over there is named Shania Jones."
"Not Jayne with a Y?"
"No, she's one of the field people. This Shania is in charge of the lab there where they do that stuff. I told her you'd be her contact here at the Sheriff's Department."
"Thanks D.W., I appreciate your faith in me."
"Well, I gotta tell ya' it's a bit strained right now. And I still might take a baseball bat to you one of these days. But of all the people that have pissed me off lately, I trust you more than I do Flag. Now get out of here and go tell him what's what. And tell him if he's got any questions to come see me."
John Lee had expected Fig to hit the roof, and the Chief Deputy didn't disappoint him.
"This is bullshit! Absolute bullshit! It's nepotism, that's what it is, and I won't stand for it! I'll take this to the county commission if I have to."
"So you're going to tell them that your brother-in-law, the sheriff, overruled you in favor of his son-in-law, a deputy?"
"Don't you start any shit with me, you peckerwood."
"Hey, don't kill the messenger. D.W. said if you want to talk about it he's right down the hall."
"And that's exactly where I'm goin' right now," Flag said, coming around his desk and purposely bumping John Lee hard with his elbow as he went by.
As much as he was tempted to punch the man out, Flag was still his superior officer, so John Lee resisted the impulse. Instead he followed him down to D.W.'s office.
"Who the hell do you think you are, overrulin' me like this, D.W.?"
"Accordin' to this here nameplate on my desk, I'm the sheriff. That's who I think I am."
"I won't stand for this. No sir, I won't stand for this for a minute!"
"Well, what are you going to do about it?"
"I'll take it up with the county commission, that's what I'll do."
"Okay, have at it." D.W. pushed his telephone across the desk in Flag's direction.
"Don't think I won't do it, D.W."
"Oh, I don't doubt you'll do it," the sheriff said. "You been lookin' for a way to get in my shorts ever since the day I hired you. So you go ahead and do it. And when you do, I'm goin' to tell them how you tried to force this here deputy to give you his personal weapon after he wouldn't sell it to you. From what I know about the law, that might be considered extortion. Not to mention abuse of your office. And I'm gonna point out to them that you're wearin' an unauthorized weapon, too. The very thing that you're trying to get this man fired for. What was that word you used, John Lee? Hypocrite?"
"And what's this bullshit about puttin' John Lee in charge of the investigation of those bones we found? I'm the Chief Deputy! I should be in charge of decidin' who's gonna do what!"
"It's been over 24 hours and you still hadn't assigned anybody to it, so I figured you were too busy twiddlin' your thumbs or whatever it is you do down the hall there in your office to get around to it. So I took the initiative. That's what I get to do, because I'm the sheriff."
"I should be runnin' that investigation."
"Your job is to be an administrator. Now, if you want to stop being an administrator and go back to being a road deputy, I got no problem with that at all. You two can trade jobs. John Lee, how'd you like to be Chief Deputy? Sit on your ass in an air-conditioned office all day and look important? It can't be that hard. Flag figured out how to do it."
Flag knew that his bluff had been called and he didn't like it. But he also knew that this was a battle he wasn't going to win. Okay, he'd let D.W. and John Lee have this one. But no matter what kind of problems it caused in the family, come next election he was going to run for Sheriff and unseat that fat bastard sitting behind the desk. Without another word he turned and walked out of the sheriff's office and down the hall.
"Why don't you find someplace to go where you're outta' his sight for the rest of the day? I don't want him havin' a stroke here," D.W. said. "At least not 'til he's downstairs. I'd hate to think of one of the paramedics gett'in a rupture tryin' to carry him down the stairs."
John Lee nodded and started out the door, but D.W. called him back once more. "Just to rub some salt in the wound, just keep on drivin' that Charger. Ain't no use lettin' a good car like that sit when it could be out on the road workin'."
"I'm going to be examining them this afternoon," forensic anthropologist Shania Jones told him on the telephone. "Would you like to come up and watch, or do you just want me to send you a report?"
"I can be there in about two hours," John Lee said.
"Sounds good, I look forward to seeing you."
He called dispatch and told Sheila that he was going to Tallahassee, then fed Magic and made sure his outside water bowl was topped off. It was a little more than 90 miles to the state capital. He followed a two lane road north to Interstate10, then pointed the Dodge west. There wasn't much traffic and he made good time, arriving at the Crime Lab well within the two hours he had told Shania Jones it would take him.
Shania Jones was a tiny black woman who wore her hair in cornrows and had a beautiful smile and a warm handshake.
"Thank you for inviting me over," John Lee said.
. It's always nice when folks have enough interest to actually come and see what we do here. And don't worry, they're just bones so if you're squeamish, you're not in for any unpleasant surprises."
"Actually, I was there when they found the first skull," John Lee told her.
"Well then, shall we?"
She led him into the lab, where they donned gowns, face masks, and paper hats, and pulled on latex gloves. The bones had been laid out on three tables, which were assembled side-by-side.
"We don't have any one complete skeleton," Shania said. "We've tried to put the bones we do have in the right places, based on our observations and past experience. But that's not to say that every bone on Number 1 here shouldn't actually be over there on Number 2 or 3."
"I understand. What do you think happened to the other bones? Everything we found out there is here."
"Oh, it's hard to say. Animals may have carried some off, changes in the earth from temperature variations may have shifted some around. There are all kinds of possibilities. I'm sure your folks and the team that went out from here found everything there was to find."
"Good, I'd hate to think we missed something. We've never come across a crime scene like this before, so we're kind of out of our league."
"Not to worry, we'll give you all that we have here. So, here are a few things I can tell you to start with. All three of the victims were of African descent."
"How can you tell that?"
She pointed at one of the skulls and said, "The nasal features of the skull, of all three skulls, are the first clue. Notice the shape of the nasal opening on each one?" She went to a glass cabinet on the wall and removed another skull. "This gentleman is a Caucasian of European descent. See the difference in size and shape?"
She replaced the specimen in the cabinet and turned back to the table. "I would go so far as to say that these people are all of West African descent. Skulls of people from that region are prognathic. They usually have a protruding mouth/jaw area, and a tendency to have a longer, thinner shape. On the other hand, Caucasian skulls like the one I just showed you tend to be more flat faced, and quite often have occipital buns."
"That's amazing," John Lee said.
"I think so. Now in addition to their race, I feel comfortable in saying that these gentlemen were of a low socioeconomic status. Notice how the teeth are all worn and look like they were poorly cared for? This indicates to me a poor diet along with a lack of any kind of dental care,"
"You just described half the people in Somerton County, black or white," John Lee told her, remembering Rita Sue Baker's smile.
Shania laughed. He found himself really enjoying her company.
"You said gentleman. You can tell their sex?"
"Deputy Quarrels, I don't have to see a penis to know it's a man."
"These days you're never sure either way unless you actually check," John Lee said, then instantly regretted it, hoping he had not stepped over a line. But she put his mind at ease when she laughed loudly.
"There's a lot of truth there. Even in a relatively small city like Tallahassee I've seen some things that just make me shake my head."
John Lee found himself liking her more by the moment.
"Anyway, back to gender. Male skeletons have a narrow deep pelvis and women a wider, shallower pelvis better suited to carry a baby. And you see this notch here in the fan shaped bone of the pelvis? If you stick your thumb in and there is room to wiggle it, it's a female. If it's tight, it's a male. And I know what you're thinking, you sicko, you!"
This time they both laughed.
"I have to admit, you're not at all what I expected," John Lee told her.
"What do you mean? Because I'm black, or a woman, or a scientist?"
"All three," he admitted. "I don't know, I'm just a backwoods boy. I guess I pictured some gray-haired old man with thick glasses and no sense of humor."
"I'm sorry to disappoint."
"Not at all," he assured her. "It's a very pleasant surprise."
"For what it's worth, you're not exactly what I expected, either," Shania said
"A good ol' boy white deputy from the piney woods. I guess maybe a black city girl like me expected a redneck named Bubba with a cheek full of tobacco. But you're not half bad."
"Oh, if you want to meet some of those Bubbas you just described, I know a whole bunch of them," John Lee told her.
She laughed and said, "Thanks, but no thanks. Anyway, back to the subject at hand, the other thing these gentlemen all have in common is that they all did hard physical work. Notice these bony ridges on the wrists? Those are where the muscles are attached and are caused by years of pulling and stretching, lifting, things like that."
John Lee wasn't sure how to broach the subject, but he had to ask. "Do you think these folks could have been slaves?"
"I don't think so. No, I'm sure they're not. The bones aren't that old."
"Do you have any idea when they were killed?"
"Based upon my observations of the condition of the bones you recovered, at least fifty, but less than a hundred years ago."
"Wow. Talk about a cold case. What else can you tell me?"
"Well, at the most, I would say the oldest of these three gentlemen was probably somewhere around 40 to 45 years old when he was killed. The other two were younger."
"How can you tell that?"
"Again, they tell me." She pointed to skeleton Number 1. "Do you see this squiggly line that runs the length of the skull?" She traced her finger along it.
"Yeah, I see it."
"That's called the sagittal suture. Now, let's look at Number 3. Do you notice that it's more tightly closed? When it is completely fused together like that, it's an indication that the person was older than 35 years of age. And this second line, here at the front of the skull? That's the coronal suture, which fully fuses by about age 40. Now let's go look at Numbers 1 and 2. Do you see the difference in their sutures and those compared to Number 3?"
"Okay, now I want to show you something else," Shania said. She lifted one of the wrist bones from Number 2 and asked, "Can you see what look like gouges or scrapes right here?"
She put the bone down and then walked to Number 3. "Again, we don't have all of the bones, and I couldn't put my hand on the Bible and swear that this particular bone goes with this particular victim. However, this bone here," she said lifting another one, "is also from the right wrist, just like the other one I showed you. And do you see the same scrapes or gouges?"
"Yes, I do."
She went to a table on the wall and came back with a short piece of rusty barbed wire. "This was also found at the crime scene. It's in poor shape and pretty fragile, and I imagine the rest of it rusted away a long time ago. But see this one barb right here?" She held it next to the wrist bone, against the scrapes in the bone."
"You're saying the barb wire did that?"
"I believe so. I think whoever killed these poor guys first tied their hands behind them with barbed wire and that these scrapes on the bone happened when they were struggling to free themselves."
"They had to be fighting damn hard to get loose to do that much damage."
"Wouldn't you be?"
"What I'm going to say now has no basis in fact. It's total conjecture. You need to understand that."
"I don't see those scrapes on the bones of victim Number 1, just the other two. Here's what I think, and again, I'm just making this up as I go and I could be completely wrong. But here's what I think, for what it's worth. I think they were probably all bound with barbed wire and that whoever murdered these guys shot Number 1 first. The other two, seeing what was coming, were struggling real hard trying to get free. I think that's how they got those scrapes. I think that barbed wire cut right through their skin and went to the bone."
John Lee shuddered, thinking of the terror and misery the men must have suffered before they died. "Damn!"
"Yes, damn indeed," Shania said. "Whoever did this to them was one evil son-of-a-bitch."
Even in a small place like Somerton County, John Lee had been a deputy long enough to know just how cruel people could be. He had seen not only his share of bodies that had been mangled in car wrecks, but also those shot or stabbed or bludgeoned after a night of hard drinking. He had seen victims of domestic abuse too many times. But this, this was something even worse.
"Could it have been the Klan, Ms. Jones?"
"Call me Shania. And yes, that was my first thought."
Black or white, anyone who had been raised in the South knew that the Ku Klux Klan was a true fact of life, and depending on one's politics and view of the world, one either accepted them for what they were and maybe even secretly thought they served a purpose, or else one knew that the racist organization was one of the most shameful examples of humankind in the nation's history. John Lee fell into the latter category, but he knew there were still plenty of bigots and Klansmen out there, even today.
All he could do was look at the skeletons on the three tables in the crime lab and say, once again, "Damn!"