Authors: Tess Gerritsen
“It’s the lips,” said Josephine.
Maura shook her head. “I don’t see any difference. All three have their lips sewn shut with cotton thread.”
“It has to do with Jivaro ritual. What Nicholas just said.”
“That the wooden pegs are eventually removed from the lips and cotton string is threaded through the holes.”
“All three of these have cotton thread.”
“Yes, but it doesn’t happen until the
feast. Over a year after the kill.”
“She’s absolutely right,” said Robinson, looking pleased that his young colleague had picked up on precisely the detail he’d wanted her to notice. “The lip pegs, Dr. Isles! When they’re left in for a whole year, they leave gaping holes behind.”
Maura studied the heads on the table. Two of the
had large holes punched through the lips. The third did not.
“No pegs were used in this one,” said Robinson. “The lips were simply stitched together, right after the head was removed. This one isn’t Jivaro. Whoever made it took a few shortcuts. Maybe he didn’t know exactly how it should be done. Or this was merely meant to be sold to tourists, or bartered as trade goods. But it’s not a ceremonial specimen.”
“Then what are its origins?” asked Maura.
Robinson paused. “I really can’t tell you. I can only say that it is not authentic Jivaro.”
With gloved hands, Maura lifted the
from the table. She had held severed human heads in her palms before, and this one, minus its skull, was startlingly light, a mere husk of dried skin and hair.
“We can’t even be certain of its sex,” said Robinson. “Although its features, distorted though they are, seem feminine to me. Too delicate to be a man’s.”
“I agree,” said Maura.
“What about the skin color?” asked Jane. “Does that tell us its race?”
“No,” said Robinson. “The process of shrinking darkens the skin. This could even be a Caucasian. And without a skull, without any teeth to x-ray, I can’t tell you how old this specimen is.”
Maura turned the
upside down and stared into the neck opening. It was startling to see merely a hollow space rather than cartilage and muscle, trachea and esophagus. The neck was half collapsed, the dark cavity hidden from view. Suddenly she flashed back to the autopsy she’d performed on Madam X. She remembered the dry cave of a mouth, the glint of metal in the throat. And she remembered the shock she’d felt at her first glimpse of the souvenir cartouche. Had the killer left a similar clue tucked into this victim’s remains?
“Could I have more light?” she said.
Josephine swung a magnifying lamp toward her, and Maura aimed the beam into the neck cavity. Through the narrow opening, she could just make out a pale mass balled up within. “It looks like paper,” she said.
“That wouldn’t be unusual,” said Robinson. “Sometimes you find crumpled newspapers stuffed inside, to help maintain the shape of the head for shipping. If it’s a South American newspaper, then at least we’ll know something about its origins.”
“Do you have forceps?”
Josephine retrieved a pair from the workroom drawer and handed them to her. Maura introduced the forceps into the neck opening and grasped what was inside. Gingerly she tugged, and crumpled newspaper emerged. Smoothing out the page, she saw it was printed in neither Spanish nor Portuguese, but English.
Indio Daily News
?” Jane gave a startled laugh. “It’s from California.”
“And look at the date.” Maura pointed to the top of the page.
“It’s only twenty-six years old.”
“Still, the head could be much older,” said Robinson. “That newspaper could have been stuffed in there later, just for shipping.”
“But it does confirm one thing.” Maura looked up. “This head wasn’t part of the museum’s original collection. She could be another victim, added as recently as…” She paused, her gaze suddenly focused on Josephine.
The young woman had gone pale. Maura had seen that sickly color before, on the faces of young cops observing their first autopsies, and she knew that it usually heralded a nauseated dash to the sink or a stagger toward the nearest chair. Josephine did neither; she simply turned and walked out.
“I should check on her.” Dr. Robinson stripped off his gloves.
“She didn’t look well.”
“I’ll see how she’s doing,” Frost volunteered, and he followed Josephine out of the room. Even after the door swung shut, Dr. Robinson stood staring after him, as though debating whether he should follow.
“Do you have the records from twenty-six years ago?” asked Maura. “Dr. Robinson?”
Suddenly aware that she’d said his name, he turned to her. “Excuse me?”
“Twenty-six years ago. The date of this newspaper. Do you have documents from that period?”
“Oh. Yes, we have found a ledger from the 1970s and 1980s. But I don’t recall any
mentioned in it. If it came in during that time, it wasn’t recorded.” He looked at Simon. “Do you remember?”
Wearily, Simon shook his head. He appeared drained, as if he’d aged ten years in the last half hour. “I don’t know where that head came from,” he said. “I don’t know who put it behind that wall or why.”
Maura stared at the shrunken head, its eyes and lips sewn shut for eternity. And she said softly: “It looks like someone has been compiling a collection all his own.”
Josephine was desperate to be left alone, but she could think of no graceful way to brush off Detective Frost. He’d followed her upstairs to her office and was now standing in her doorway, watching her with a look of concern. He had mild eyes and a kind face, and his shaggy blond hair made her think of the towheaded twin boys she often saw whooshing down the slide in the neighborhood playground. Nevertheless, he was a policeman, and policemen frightened her. She shouldn’t have left the room so abruptly. She shouldn’t have called attention to herself. But a glimpse of that newspaper had hit her like a fist, stealing her breath, rocking her off her feet.
Indio, California. Twenty-six years ago.
The town where I was born. The year that I was born.
It was yet another eerie connection to her past, and she didn’t understand how it could be possible. She needed time to think about this, to figure out why so many old and secret ties to her own life should be hidden in the basement of the obscure museum where she had taken a job.
It’s as if my own life, my own past, has been preserved in this collection.
Even as she mentally struggled for an explanation, she was forced to smile and keep up the small talk with Detective Frost, who refused to leave her doorway.
“Are you feeling better?” he asked.
“I got a little light-headed in there. Probably low blood sugar.” She sank into her chair. “I shouldn’t have skipped breakfast this morning.”
“Do you need a cup of coffee or something? Can I get one for you?”
“No, thank you.” She managed a smile, hoping it would be enough to send him on his way. Instead, he stepped into her office.
“Did that newspaper have some special significance to you?” Frost asked.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just that I noticed you looked really startled when Dr. Isles opened it up and we saw it was from California.”
He was watching me. He’s still watching me.
Now was not the time to let him see how close she was to panic. As long as she kept her head down, as long as she stayed on the periphery and played the role of the quiet museum employee, the police would have no reason to glance her way.
“It’s not just the newspaper,” she said. “It’s this whole creepy situation. Finding bodies—and body parts—in this building. I think of museums as sanctuaries. Places of study and contemplation. Now I feel like I’m working in a house of horrors and I’m just wondering when the next body part’s going to pop up.”
He gave a sympathetic smile, and his boyishness made him look like anything but a policeman. She judged him to be in his midthirties, yet there was something about him that made him seem much younger, and even callow. She saw his wedding ring and thought: There’s yet another reason to keep this man at arm’s length.
“To be honest, I think this place is already pretty creepy,” said Frost. “You’ve got all those bones displayed on the third floor.”
“Those bones are two thousand years old.”
“Does that make them less disturbing?”
“It makes them historically significant. I know it doesn’t seem like much of a difference. But something about the passage of time gives death a sense of distance, doesn’t it? As opposed to Madam X, who could be someone we might actually have known.” She paused, feeling a chill. And said, softly: “Ancient remains are easier to deal with.”
“They’re more like pottery and statues, I guess.”
“In a way.” She smiled. “The dustier the better.”
“And that appeals to you?”
“You sound like you can’t understand it.”
“I’m just wondering what kind of person chooses to spend a lifetime studying old bones and pottery.”
What’s a girl like you doing in a job like this?
Is that the question?”
He laughed. “You’re the youngest thing in this whole building.”
Now she, too, smiled, because it was true. “It’s the connection with the past. I love to pick up a pottery shard and imagine the man who spun the clay on his wheel. And the woman who used that pot to carry water. And the child who one day dropped it and broke it. History’s never been dead for me. I’ve always felt it was alive and pulsing in those objects you see in the museum cases. It’s in my blood, something I was born with, because…” Her voice trailed off as she realized she’d strayed into hazardous territory.
Don’t talk about the past.
Don’t talk about Mom.
To her relief, Detective Frost did not pick up on her sudden wariness. His next question wasn’t about her at all. “I know you haven’t been here too long,” he said, “but did you ever get the feeling things weren’t quite right here?”
“How do you mean?”
“You said that you feel as if you’ve been working in a house of horrors.”
“That was a figure of speech. You can understand it, can’t you, after what you just found behind the basement wall? After what Madam X turned out to be?” The temperature in her air-conditioned office seemed to keep dropping. Josephine reached back to pull on the sweater she’d hung on her chair. “At least my job isn’t nearly as horrifying as yours must be. You wonder why I choose to work with pottery and old bones. And I wonder why someone like you would choose to work with—well, fresh horrors.” She looked up and saw a glimmer of discomfort in his eyes because this time, the question was directed at him. For a man accustomed to interrogating others, he did not seem eager to reciprocate with personal details of his own.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I guess I’m not allowed to ask questions. Only answer them.”
“No, I’m just wondering what you meant.”
“When you said
someone like you.
“Oh.” She gave a sheepish laugh. “It’s just that you strike me as such a nice person. A kind person.”
“And most policemen aren’t?”
She flushed. “I keep digging the hole deeper, don’t I? Really, I meant it as a compliment. Because I’ll admit, most policemen scare me a little.” She looked down at her desk. “I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way.”
He sighed. “I’m afraid you may be right. Even though I think I’m the least scary person in the world.”
But I’m afraid of you anyway, she thought. Because I know what you could do to me if you learned my secret.
“Detective Frost?” Nicholas Robinson had appeared in her doorway. “Your colleague needs you back downstairs.”
“Oh. Right.” Frost shot a smile at Josephine. “We’ll talk more later, Dr. Pulcillo. And get something to eat, why don’t you?”
Nicholas waited until Frost had left the room, then he said to her: “What was that all about?”
“We were just chatting, Nick.”
“He’s a detective. I don’t think they
“It’s not as if he was interrogating me or anything.”
“Is something bothering you, Josie? Something that I should know about?”
Though his question put her on guard, she managed to say calmly: “Why would you think that?”
“You’re not yourself. And it’s not just because of what happened today. Yesterday, when I came up behind you in the hallway, you almost jumped out of your skin.”
She sat with her hands on her lap, grateful that he could not see them tighten into two knots. In the short time they’d worked together, he had become eerily astute at reading her moods, at knowing when she needed a good laugh and when she needed to be left alone. Surely he could see that this was one of the times she wanted to be alone, yet he did not retreat. It was unlike the Nicholas she knew, a man who was unfailingly respectful of her privacy.
“Josie?” he said. “Do you want to talk about anything?”
She gave a rueful laugh. “I guess I’m mortified that I blew it so badly with Madam X. That I didn’t realize we were dealing with a fake.”
“That carbon fourteen analysis threw us both off. I was just as wrong as you were.”
“But your background isn’t Egyptology. That’s why you hired me, and I screwed up.” She leaned forward, massaging her temples. “If you’d hired someone more experienced, this wouldn’t have happened.”
“You didn’t screw up. You’re the one who insisted on the CT scan, remember? Because
didn’t feel completely confident about her. You were the one who led us to the truth. So stop beating yourself up about this.”
“I made the museum look bad. I made
look bad, for hiring me.”
He didn’t respond for a moment. Instead he pulled off his glasses and wiped them with a handkerchief. Always carrying linen handkerchiefs was one of those anachronistic little habits of his that she found so endearing. Sometimes Nicholas reminded her of a gentleman bachelor from an earlier, more innocent time. A time when men would stand up if a woman walked into the room.
“Maybe we should look at the bright side of all this,” he said.
“Think of the publicity we’ve gotten. Now the whole world knows the Crispin Museum exists.”
“But for all the wrong reasons. They know us as the museum with murder victims in our basement.” She felt a fresh pulse of cold air blow in through the vent, and shivered in her sweater. “I keep wondering what else we’re going to find in this building. Whether there’s another shrunken head stuck in that ceiling up there, or another Madam X bricked in behind this wall. How could this happen without the curator knowing about it?” She looked at Robinson. “It had to be him, didn’t it? Dr. Scott-Kerr. He was in charge here all those years, so he must have been the one.”
“I knew the man. I find it very hard to believe.”
“But did you
He considered this. “Now I have to wonder how well any of us knew William. How well we ever know anyone. He came off as a quiet and utterly ordinary man. Not someone you’d particularly notice.”
“Isn’t that how they usually describe the psychopath with two dozen bodies buried in his basement?
He was so quiet and ordinary.
“That does seem to be the universal description. But then, it could apply to almost anyone, couldn’t it?” Nicholas gave a wry shake of the head. “Including me.”
Josephine stared out the window as she rode the bus home. Didn’t they say that life was full of coincidences? Hadn’t she heard startling tales of vacationers abroad spotting their next-door neighbors on the streets of Paris? Strange convergences happened all the time, and this could simply be one of them.
But it wasn’t the first coincidence. That had been the name on the cartouche. Medea. Now there’s the
Indio Daily News.
At her stop, she stepped out of the bus into a syrupy heat thick with humidity. Black clouds threatened, and as she walked toward her building she heard thunder rumble, felt the hairs feather on her arms, as though stirred by the static of lightning-charged air. Rain pelted her head, and by the time she reached her apartment building it had become a tropical downpour. She dashed up the steps and into the foyer, where she stood dripping water as she opened her mailbox.
She’d just pulled out a bundle of envelopes when the door to Apartment 1A swung open and Mr. Goodwin said, “I thought I saw you running in. It’s pretty wet out there, isn’t it?”
“It’s a mess.” She shut the mailbox. “I’m glad I’m in for the evening.”
“He delivered another one today. Thought you’d want to take care of it.”
“Another letter addressed to Josephine Sommer. The mailman asked me what you said about the last one, and I told him you took it.”
She glanced through the mail she’d just collected and spotted the envelope. It was the same handwriting. This one, too, bore a Boston postmark.
“It’s kind of confusing for the post office, you know?” said Mr. Goodwin. “You might want to tell the sender to update your name.”
“Right. Thanks.” She started up the stairs.
“Did you find your old key ring yet?” he yelled.
Without answering, she scurried into her apartment and shut the door. Dropping the rest of the mail on the couch, she quickly ripped open the envelope addressed to Josephine Sommer and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. She stared at the words
BLUE HILLS RESERVATION
and wondered why anyone would send her a photocopied map of nearby hiking trails. Then she turned the sheet over and saw what had been handwritten in ink on the other side:
Beneath that were numbers:
42 13 06.39
71 04 06.48
She sank onto the couch, the two words staring up from her lap. Outside, the rain had intensified to a torrent. Thunder rumbled closer, and a slash of lightning lit the window.
There was no threat implied in that message, nothing that made her think the sender meant any harm.
She thought of the earlier note she had received a few days ago:
The police are not your friends.
Again not a threat, but a sensible whisper of advice. The police were
her friends; this was something she already knew, something she’d known since she was fourteen years old.
She focused on the two numbers. It took her only seconds to recognize what they must represent.
With the lightning storm moving closer, it was not a good time to turn on her computer, but she booted it up anyway. She navigated to the site for Google Earth and used the two numbers as latitude and longitude. Magically the screen panned across a map of Massachusetts and zoomed in on an area of forested land near Boston.
It was the Blue Hills Reservation.
She had guessed correctly; the two numbers were coordinates, and they pointed to a precise location within the park. Clearly this was the location she was meant to visit, but for what reason? She saw no time or date given for any rendezvous. Certainly no one would patiently wait in a park for the hours or days it might take until she showed up. No, there was something specific she was supposed to find there. Not a person, but a thing.
She made a quick Internet search for Blue Hills Reservation and learned that it was a seven-thousand-acre park south of Milton. It had 125 miles of trails that traversed forest, swamp, meadows, and bogs, and was home to a diversity of wildlife, including the timber rattlesnake. Now,
was an attraction to recommend it. A chance to encounter rattlesnakes. She retrieved a Boston-area map from her bookshelf and spread it open on the coffee table. Gazing at the large area of green that represented the park, she wondered if she’d have to bushwhack her way through trees and swamp in search of…what? Something bigger or smaller than a bread box?