Authors: Carrie Stuart Parks
My Remington Model 700 North American Custom rifle stood in solitary glory in the ten-rifle display case by the front door. Robert, although he never fired a gun, took all the other rifles. I'd purchased this gun as a gift to myself for completing cancer treatment, then ordered it in pink camouflage. My choice of finish probably broke the heart of the gunsmith, but I was pretty much guaranteed that no self-respecting man would take it or try to steal it. Besides, I think pink's a killer color.
Slinging the rifle over my shoulder with its matching pink camo strap, I snatched the camera and stuck it in my pocket, then picked up my drawing kit. I passed Aynslee in the living room making a lackluster attempt to dust. “Don't forget to unload the dishwasher.”
“Slave labor,” Aynslee mumbled. “Mail came. It's on the kitchen table.”
After placing a small pad and mechanical pencil from my forensic kit into my pocket, I left the rest of the supplies by the kitchen door. Winston raced out of the house in front of me. The clean morning air smelled of cedar and wet grass. I turned toward the trees, but jerked to a stop. Would Dave have planted bones to have an excuse to hire me? After the Utah case, I'd gone
from reserve deputy to a paid position as forensic artist, then the bean counters told Dave to lay off all nonessential personnel, and I was shifted to being paid on an as-needed basis. The interagency forensic art position I'd applied for was on hold, and for some reason, law enforcement agencies weren't calling. Dave knew I was having trouble making ends meet.
Nah. That wasn't ethical, and Dave was by-the-book honest.
But he hadn't sounded surprised by my call last night.
I really couldn't see Dave doing anything the least bit shady.
Winston stood at the edge of the lawn, dancing with impatience.
“Did Dave give you that skull?” I approached the dog. He blinked at me and wagged his tail. “Never mind. Where did you find her?” Now I was talking to a dog
waiting for an answer.
Winston spun toward a point where the trees and underbrush formed a dense wall and pushed through on a barely discernible game trail. I followed, plunging into an eerie twilight.
A hawk shrieked. Small branches bent and snapped like a cap gun. The strange dusk made color seem muted and gray.
Something landed in my hair and skittered across my head. I screamed and did a whooping spider-in-the-hair dance.
I shook my head, ending with a shudder, then calmed my breathing. A quick pivot assured me that no human had watched me do the insect boogie, and I trotted after Winston.
We followed the trail east for almost half a mile. Winston would trot forward, stop, sniff, then resume his quest. I recognized the route. We'd eventually end up at the old McCandless farm, less than a mile through the woods. I'd painted a watercolor of the house a few years ago. It was part of my only sold-out art show.
With all that had happened in the past two years, I'd completely forgotten about that show.
The trees thinned, then opened to an overgrown hayfield dotted with white daisies and purple lupine. On my right, pressed into the forest, the landscape slowly devoured a grayed building, the windows level with the earth sucking it down. The old farmhouse.
In the two years since I'd painted a watercolor of the site, a thick blanket of field grass obliterated the dirt driveway. A creek, khaki-colored with spring runoff, flowed from the woods, swerved toward the house, then meandered off to the county road. Dense, waist-high snowberry bushes enveloped the ground between the house and driveway.
Winston followed the creek, his white fur the only light spot in the forest, until he came to a large, moss-covered log spanning the rushing water. After bounding across the log bridge, he turned and waited for me.
The creek's flooding gouged a new channel, exposing a rib cage of tree roots bordering a level clearing. This had to be her grave.
I paused and swallowed hard.
Beneath Winston's paws, tattered plastic escaped from the disturbed ground. A bone jutted from the center of the clearing, sprouting a wisp of blackened material. The wind shifted and ruffled the plastic, as if beckoning me to come closer, just a little closer. It carried the odor of rot, dank soil, and moldering plant life.
Don't act like a rookie
. First step: secure the site.
“Winston, here, come.” I coaxed the dog off the grave. He drifted over and sat.
“Good boy.” I scratched his ear, unslung the rifle that was digging a trench in my shoulder, and leaned it against a tree, then knelt and leaned forward. It was enough to cause a small cascade of dirt to slither off the plastic into the rushing stream. I rocked on my heels. Winston definitely compromised the scene when he retrieved the cranium. Then again, if he hadn't brought me the evidence, how long before anyone would have found this spot?
Tugging out the small pad of paper and pencil, I studied the scene. Might be some evidence on the surface. Fingerprints on the plastic? The killer attempted to conceal his victim's body instead of leaving it out in the woods. Based on the plant growth and winter snow covering this area, he'd probably dug the grave no later than the fall of last year. Shallow. In a hurry? The earth over the plastic seemed recently moved. Maybe loosened by Winston's snooping? I jotted some notes. If it hadn't been for the spring rains and my dog's discovery, no one would have foundâ
Winston's paw landed on my shoulder. “Winston! Stop it. Not now.” I shoved the dog away and brushed off the dirt. I should've brought my camera.
Stupid mistake. Move on; keep looking.
So who's missing? Dave would'veâ
Again, a giant paw slammed into my back.
“Darn it, Winston!” I turned to push him away, but he dodged me, shook something blue and red, then placed it in my hand.
A cheap sandal. Smeared with blood.
I DROPPED THE SHOE LIKE IT WAS A SNAKE AND
scrubbed my hand on my jeans.
The sandal fell on its side, and Winston sniffed it.
I grabbed Winston's ruff, pulled him away, then looked past the dog to the old farmhouse.
My scalp felt prickly. Was this both a dump site and a kill site? I jumped up and raced toward the house, then stopped dead. The open door yawned like a skid-row drunk, revealing the sepia interior, dimly lit from a glassless window frame.
My legs seemed rooted to the ground.
Look down. Concentrate on moving forward. One foot. Now another
. I'd worked hundreds of crime scenes.
Yeah, but it's been awhile since you've had a homicide
Not that long. Seven months.
Pausing in the doorway, I took a deep breath. The stench of cheap lilac perfume made my nostrils burn.
I raised my head.
more like an abandoned cow barn than a one-time residence for humans. Colorless, tattered wallpaper drooped off the drywall. The remains of a shredded piece of calico draped from a sagging wire in the corner.
I forced my gaze downward.
A body sprawled in the center of the room. Her ginger-red hair tangled in the dirt.
My vision narrowed and lungs emptied. I dropped to my knees.
Please, dear Lord, not Aynslee. It can't be. I left her at home. She's home.
Winston crowded next to me in the doorway and licked my face. I put my hands over my mouth.
Can't be Aynslee. Look. Look carefully.
She was tiny. And young.
I grabbed Winston. Held on, gaining strength. My vision cleared enough to see a small tattoo on the girl's ankle. A butterfly. Aynslee didn't have a tattoo. And I'd just left her at home. This was not my daughter.
I waited until I could feel my legs again, then used Winston to stand.
“You poor thing,” I whispered.
Don't get emotional. Check details.
I inspected the ground. Dirt and dried manure formed a thick gray matting, not capable of holding my footprints if I approached the body. “Good, good. I won't be leaving my shoe impressions to confuse the crime-scene technician.” Hearing my voice slowed my racing heart. After checking for spiderwebs, I approached her, hunching slightly to keep from scraping the low ceiling. The young woman, girl really, lay on her back on an old
Hudson's Bay blanket. The killer must have brought the floor covering. It was too clean to have been left here by the prior occupants. He, or maybe she, had prepared well for a murder.
Closer yet, I studied her face. She did look a bit like my daughter. I wiped my sweaty hands on my jeans.
She'd died with her eyes mercifully closed. I hated the half-open, flat look of unknown remains. Garish pink lipstick was smeared on her lips. Had the killer done this? “Posing?” I whispered. “Some kind of ritual with the lipstick? The perfume could be hers or maybe part of his fantasy.”
He'd arranged her left hand, complete with screaming fuchsia nail polish, on her chest, and hiked up her short skirt. Rape? One bare and deeply bruised leg ended with a slender foot still encased in a cheap sandal, a match to the one Winston had found. She'd ripped a toenail, and blood streaked down the other foot. She'd fought her abductor. Judging by age, she was probably the kidnapped girl from Missoula.
May. Marsha. No, Mattie.
I stepped closer and glanced at her face again.
She turned her head and looked at me.
I jerked upright and banged my head on the ceiling. It couldn't be . . .
Mattie blinked, then closed her eyes.
Oh, dear Lord!
I leaned over the girl's mouth, listening for breathing. Go through the drill. ABC . . . airway, breathing, circulation. I placed my hand on the girl's neck and felt a faint
thump, thump, thump
. Was she bleeding? The blanket showed tiny smears of blood: no puddles. I snatched my cell phone from my pocket
and hit Redial. Nothing happened. I stared at the display. No reception.
Resisting the urge to throw the phone, I jammed it into my jeans pocket, then yanked off my jacket. I started to cover her but halted. Locard's exchange principle. The transference of evidence occurs . . .
Darn it, Gwen! She's alive and probably in shock! Hang Locard.
I gently covered her. “I don't know if you can hear me, but my name is Gwen. I'm going to call the sheriff and get help.” I touched Mattie's cheek. Ice cold.
Winston appeared on the other side of the prone figure, sniffed her face, and then lay beside her, instinctively knowing she needed warmth and protection. Outside, the breeze rustled the trees, sounding like cars in the distance.
“I'll be right back,” I soothed, stroking her hair. “You're safe . . .”
I stiffened. Safe? How dumb could I be! The killer left her alive.
And your rifle is outside, leaning against a tree, in screaming pink camo
My hand froze. I peered over my shoulder. The creek rushed yards from the front of the farmhouse. The sound would cover anyone approaching on foot.
Maybe the killer thought she was dead.
Ha. Want to bet on it?
I'd been so convinced that it was Aynslee, I'd barged into the house without thinking, hadn't secured the perimeter, hadn't even looked beyond the obvious. What if he was merely taking a walk? Dreaming up new tortures for the girl.
Get some backup. Now
“I'm leaving my dog, Winston.” I started to stand. “He'll protect youâ”
Mattie grasped my wrist. My heart lurched. The fingers were corpse-stiff, broken and swollen. I took the hand, shivering at the feel. “I have to leave you to get help, sweetheart. I can't call from here.”
Mattie opened her eyes. Her lips moved. “Staaaay.”
“I'm . . . I'm so sorry. You're Mattie, right?”
Mattie nodded slightly.
“I have to leave. Just for a few minutes. I'll be back.” I looked at the girl's hand. The gaudy nail polish contrasted with the black-and-purple bruising. Yeah. Definitely into torture. Angry abrasion lines marred her wrists. Tied up. Check for rope.
“Nooooo.” Mattie's word came out as escaping air. “Remember. Six. Twenty-five.”
“I will, sweetheart. Don't worry about it.” I bit my lip. “I've got to call Dave. He's the sheriff. No one knows I'm here, you see, so if I don't get help, you're going toâ” I clamped my mouth shut.
Her breathing barely lifted the jacket.
A car engine rumbled, growing louder.
My head jerked up. I glanced at her. Eyes closed.
Vaulting to my feet, ducking at the last minute before hitting the ceiling again, I looked toward the door. Dave must have figured out where I was heading. Sure. It was Daveâ
A car door slammed.
You're kidding yourself. The killer is returning.
Winston stared out the opening.
I turned frantically, seeking a weapon, something, anything. The fabric hanging from the wire wouldn't hide a mouse. Empty space mocked me, bare walls with rusting nails holding up crumbling plasterboard. The solitary window frame, minus its glass, faced the field, visible to anyone.
Bushes rustled. A twig snapped.
Winston stopped panting.
Heavy footsteps crunched, getting louder.
Winston's ears raised in alert.
I dove right and pressed my back to the wall next to the door. He'd have to step through to see me.
The entrance darkened.
A man, I could tell by the scent of wood chips and cologne, paused, his shadow reaching toward the still tableau of dog and girl. He chuckled.
My nails ground into the decaying surface of the plasterboard. His breathing was harsh, uneven, inches from me. A step forward and he'd see me.
Winston's lips pulled up, exposing sharp, ivory canines. A growl rumbled deep in his throat.