Authors: Carrie Stuart Parks
“What happened to that one?” Wes asked.
“That's what brought me here,” I said. “The cranium's in my car. Her mandible, or the probable mandible, is over there.” I slowly circled the grave, photographing it from all angles.
“I'm going to need the state crime lab on this,” Dave said, “and what's-his-name, the forensic pathologist. We can't afford to miss something because we damaged the bones. Dre, you get that portable tent in case it rains again. Gwen, finish your notes and diagrams and get them to me. Bring me that skull your dog found. Jeannie, I appreciate your helpâ”
A shout came from the nearby trees.
I flinched. More bodies?
A deputy loped over waving an evidence container. It held a cell phone.
“I found it over there,” the deputy said. “Where the snowberry bushes stop and the driveway starts. And, yes, I did photograph and measure first, Gwen, before you jump all over me.”
“Sweet,” I said. “A sloppy serial killer.”
Dave examined the phone through the clear plastic before carefully handing it to the deputy. He swiftly walked to his truck, looked inside, then returned. “That's my cell phone.”
I rolled my eyes. “You were giving me a hard time about acting like a rookie. Anything else you want to confess to? Did you smoke a few cigarettes and drop the butts? Perhaps ran your fingerprints over a few cans? Toss your business card on top of tire marks?”
“I guess I didn't make myself clear.” Dave's voice was grim. “I was never near those bushes. I didn't drop it.”
THE WORLD WAS BLINDING, WITH MOVING ROUND
globes. Mattie squinted, then closed her eyes until she could barely see through her eyelashes. The globesâno, facesâcame close, then drifted away. Echoing words made no sense.
“She . . .”
“X-ray . . . soon . . . Do you . . .”
“Kit . . . not now . . . Call the . . .”
Her brain seemed filled with gauze. Vomit rose in her throat, then receded. The smell of disinfectant and alcohol made her think of the free clinic she used to visit. Cool air swirled around her, but a warm blanket covered her and kept away the buzzing voices. Was that her mom's hand stroking her face?
No! He is back!
The nausea surged, filling her mouth with caustic bile. She swung her fist at his head, missed, swung again. Connection.
“Uff! She hit me! Grab her arm. She'll pull out the IV!”
He held her arms down, and she tried to bite him. More hands clutched her legs. He was everywhere!
“She needs restraints. Get a doctor in here.”
She arched her back, struggling. Something clamped her wrists and ankles.
“Mattie. Mattie, stop. You're safe. Do you hear me?”
The face took shape: eyes, nose, mouth. A stranger. Not
“Mattie,” the lips moved. “Mattie, I'm a nurse. You're protected here. You're in a hospital. Do you hear me? Do you understand what I'm saying?”
Mattie blinked, and the nurse's image bounced, then drifted out of focus. Mattie's thoughts floated again. The world retreated.
She opened her eyes. She was alone. Something
ed above her head. Her hands felt odd, muffled somehow, stiff. Partially raising one hand, she saw a white mitten. Not a mitten, a splint holding her hand and fingers immobile, with an IV threaded into her wrist. Restraints held her bound to the bed. She felt exposed and helpless.
The room was dim and painted pale blue, with cream-colored blinds partially drawn across the window to her left. A curtain hanging from the ceiling on a metal track was closed on her right, but the clattering of gurney wheels and chattering of voices in the hallway carried clearly.
“You'll let me know when she's awake? We'd like to get a composite sketch out as soon as possible.” The male voice spoke with authority. It sounded like
“So you've told us about a hundred times, detective,” the female voice snapped.
A surge of relief flooded her. It was a deputy.
wasn't here, and she was safe. “Thank You, Jesus.”
Where did that come from?
She didn't believe in Jesus. Or God. Or anybody. Not for a long, long time.
Her mind drifted, enjoying the freedom from pain. The bed was soft and clean. A woman's face, like an angel, emerged from her musing.
My guardian angel?
Wavy, short hair. Blue eyes. Gentle hands. The lady at the house.
Adrenalin shot through her veins. Her eyes flew open. Where was
No. She was safe, at the hospital. She'd get out of here and go . . . where? Missoula was out. He'd found her in Missoula. She could go to Seattle. Or Portland. Maybe farther away. San Francisco? She'd never been to California. But she wouldn't turn tricks anymore. Maybe she could make a living drawing things. She could draw pretty well. When she had a chance. She could set up an easel on the street. Or better yet, on the beach. She'd heard they had nice beaches. She wiggled her shoulders into the mattress, feeling warm sand under her. She could hitchhike, catch a ride with a long-haul trucker.
Her stomach hurt. She was hungry. Didn't they ever feed people in a hospital? What was she supposed to do, just hang out? Boring. A television attached to the wall looked promising, but the restraints held her to the bed. Someone would come and unfasten them soon.
It's not as if I'm gonna hurt someone.
Voices in the hall and the squeaking of rubber soles grew louder, then softer as they passed her door.
“Is there any coffee around here?” The man was right outside her room.
A female voice responded, “Just down the hall, Detective. I heard Gwen Marcey found her and might do a sketch. Is Gwen . . .?”
“Don't know her personally. I'm just supposed to let the
sheriff know when Mattie's awake enough to interview.” The detective's words faded as he moved away.
Gwen Marcey. The lady that saved her had a name. A nice name. Sunlight caressed the Venetian blinds, forming golden horizontal bars across her bed. She relaxed.
. She should go to California. Someplace like that. Lots of sunshine. No dark . . . houses.
More voices, a creaky gurney, then the whiff of food. Finally! It smelled like soup: tomato soup. Her mouth watered. Tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich was her favorite.
How would she eat? They'd have to untie her. That'd be good, then what? She bit her lip and stared at her hands.
Using her elbows, she partially propped herself up. The walls twisted and whirled around her, making her want to puke. She slid down, concentrating on the ceiling and counting the tiles until the sickness passed. The side rails on either side of her head felt like jail bars. Nudging the pillows, she managed to block the view.
When was the last time she ate?
The curtain glided on its track.
“That smells good.” Mattie continued to stare at the ceiling. “I was starting to think I'd starve to death. That would be funny, wouldn't it? Croak in a hospital.”
Figures. No sense of humor.
Footsteps shuffled to her bed. A
as the nurse placed something beside her on the table.
“You're gonna have to untie me. And I don't know if I can sit up,” Mattie said. “I need a remote for the TV.” Strange. It didn't smell like lunch. It smelled like flowers, sweet lilacs, and chocolate. She loved chocolate, especially the kind with caramel in the center.
Tilting her head back, she sniffed again. It smelled like . . . wood chips.
She couldn't move.
“They tell me your real name is Mattie.”
His voice. Soft, caressing her, so gentle, so deadly.
“I know you can hear me.”
She was rigid, unable to move. Black edges encircled her vision.
“Despite your disgusting flaws, you did exactly right and everything went as planned.” The whisper of fabric, his voice now closer. “I could kill you now. But I'm not done.”
Her bladder released. The acrid smell of urine flooded the room. She tugged the restraints. If she could just reach the Call button.
Get help. Move away. Do something
“I have one more task for you. I know you'll do it, but just to be sure you remember how easily I can reach you, I'm leaving a gift.” His voice was inches from her ear, his breath stirring her hair.
The blackness grew, filling her mind.
The blackness won.
I RESTED MY CASE ON THE GROUND AND FOLDED
my arms. This looked ugly.
Dave's face paled, his umber-brown mustache standing out in stark contrast and his brows knit together. “My cell was on the front seat of my truck. Someone deliberately removed it and threw it into those bushes.”
“Are you saying”âJeannie flushed and her lips compressed as she moved closerâ“you think one of my peopleâ”
“Somebody did. And I'm going to find out who.” Dave glared at each officer individually. “And when I do, someone's going to walk.” He finally looked back to Jeannie. “We can't afford to compromise this case. I'm not going to let a greasy defense attorney throw the whole thing out on a technicality. I've already called in the state guys. I'm turning jurisdiction over to you
Jeannie nodded, stepped away, and crossed her arms.
The deputies closed rank around Dave. I pulled out my pad of paper and wrote each person's name on a clean sheet of paper. I'd find the skunk that tried to frame Dave. I could do statement
analysis on each one, determining through their written language who was lying. No one was going to smear my friend.
A skiff of wind passed over the grave and rammed the odor of rotting flesh against my nose. I held my breath. I'd forgotten to throw something in my kit for smell. The breeze drifted past the officers. Two of Dave's deputies turned away and gagged. Jeannie covered her nose.
Dave frowned. “Keep me informed.” He turned and stomped to his truck, slamming the door so hard, I thought the window would break.
Jeannie strolled to her car and pulled out the handset of her radio. “Yeah, this is a 10â36 . . .”
Dave backed up, then drove off. Two patrol cars followed. The meadow seemed suddenly empty.
Wes sauntered over to me.
“Well, that was awkward,” I said.
“Uh . . .” I plucked some Pyrenees fur off my jeans. “So . . . where'd you get the Forest Service pickup?”
“They auction them off up in Missoula.”
I didn't want to tell him that the hue reminded me of his favorite palette: abnormal colors not found in nature. More importantly, a Forest Service truck would pass unnoticed by the locals. “So they're pretty easy to buy?”
“Yeah, well, I'm sorry about all this. Tough break.”
“Dave will figure out how his phone got there. And I wouldn't want to be the person responsible.”
“I meant a tough break for you.”
“Sure. I'm the forensic artist for Missoula. I have a contract with them to do all the work. Full-time. Paid.”
My mouth opened and closed, but no words came out. Contract! I'd never thought to ask for a contract. My hands formed fists, nails digging into my palms.
No wonder I wasn't getting any work or referrals.
“You could save me some time by giving me your notes.” He held out his hand.
I stared at it, then at his face. The corner of his mouth twitched.
I wanted to spit at him, claw that smirk off his face. He took my work to get even with me. He didn't need the job. His insipid art sold like half-priced Tupperware.
Bending down, I bit back the words I wanted to fling at him. I grabbed my notes from the kit and held them out.
He took them, smearing my writing with his thumb, glanced down, then stuffed them into his back pocket. “Thanks.” He swaggered away.
I blindly looked for my case, found it, then jogged to my car and fumbled for the key. Okay, then, no big deal. Let Wes have Missoula. It was one department. There were many agencies that didn't know I was working again. FBI. ATF. I had some connections with an arson investigation group in Helena. I'd do a promotional tour. Demo all my skills: crime-scene sketching, surveillance clarification, facial reconstructions, unknown remains, image modification. The turnover could be pretty high in law enforcement, and people didn't knowâor had forgottenâwhat I could do for them.
But Missoula gave me the most cases.
No whining. Look on the upside. Wes could get too busy.
. And I could pick up his crumbs. He'd let me have the stop-and-robs, purse snatchings, and indecent exposures. Even with Robert's reluctant child-support checks, I needed a job.
Or I'd have to move. Leave the only place I'd felt safe from my past.
Wes wasn't motivated. He didn't have a killer in his backyard, and Mattie Banks didn't look like
Dre appeared, took the key, and opened the car door for me. “No worries, the cow ain't ate the cabbage yet.” He winked and patted the roof.
The drive home was a blur. I should fight this. Wes couldn't reconstruct a skull. How many cases had he even worked? It wasn't fair. It wasn't right.
I parked beside my log house and rested my face on the steering wheel for a moment. Just give up. Maybe God was telling me I needed to find a new career.
Everything happens for a reason.
A tan cruiser pulled behind me and Jeannie stepped out.
That was fast. I'd bet Wes admitted he didn't know how to work a crime scene, nor work on a skull. They needed me after all. I got out of my car.
“I think you have something for me.” Jeannie's eyes flashed.