Read Without Mercy Online

Authors: Jefferson Bass

Without Mercy (20 page)

BOOK: Without Mercy
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“Special Agent Tim Kidder.”

“Oh, I know Kidder. I worked a case with him just a few months ago. He's good. Put him on.”

I heard the phone change hands.

“Dr. Brockton? Tim Kidder here.”

“Hey, Tim. Glad to hear ATF is sending in the best. You having fun up in Cooke County?”

“It's a blast,” he said—a joke I felt sure he'd made countless times in his career. “Sheriff O'Conner says you've got an interesting update for me.”

“I think so.” I told Kidder what I'd told O'Conner. He listened without interrupting, except for a few monosyllabic grunts to register surprise or thoughtfulness.

“That
is
interesting,” he said when I was finished.

“Would y'all like me to send you copies of the x-rays and CT scans? That way, you guys can tell me if I've misread anything,” I said. “Besides, the images might be useful for training, too—give your folks some interesting insight into blast-related trauma.”

“That'd be great, Doc,” said Kidder. “I'm glad you passed this along. I think maybe it explains something we've been
wondering about up here at the scene. Something that doesn't add up.”

“Such as?”

“There's a shed in the woods here where our detectors are going crazy. Alerting for dynamite, nitroglycerin, ammonium nitrate, C-4, and a couple other things only demolition experts have ever heard of.”

“Y'all be careful taking that stuff out,” I said.

“No need to be, Doc. The shed's empty. The detectors are alerting on residues.
Only
residues. Leftover traces of stuff that isn't here anymore.”

“So you're saying there was a lot of stuff in the shed at some point—”

“No. Recently.
Very
recently.”

“But now it's gone?”

“Gone, baby, gone,” he said. “And from what you just told me about Jimmy Ray Shiflett and his afternoon snack, I'm thinking somebody besides him cleaned out that shed.”

I had a bad feeling. “So what you're saying, Tim, is that we might be looking for a killer who's got explosives and isn't afraid to use them?”

“Not ‘might be' looking, Doc.
Are
looking. I just hope we find him fast.”

“I'll let you get to it,” I said. “And I'll get those x-rays and scans to you right away.” He thanked me and hung up.

I turned, with a sigh, to page seven in Miranda's dissertation and resumed reading, my eyelids instantly feeling heavy. I'd slogged through only a paragraph when my door suddenly boomed with a frantic pounding. I whirled in my chair, muttering, “
What
the—”

“Doc? You in there? Dr. Brockton!”

My heart still hammering, I unlocked the door—I'd been
careful to lock it, ever since Satterfield's escape—and opened it. “Jesus, Deck, you scared the living crap out of me. What the hell?”

“Is it true, what I heard about Shiflett?” His eyes were wild, and he looked almost unhinged.

“Come on in, Deck,” I said, in what I hoped was a calming voice. “Have a seat, and tell me what you heard.”

He came in, but he didn't—wouldn't—sit down. Instead, he paced back and forth, back and forth, like a caged tiger. “I heard his face was blown off. His face and part of his hand.”

“Yes, that's true. And his neck was broken.”

“Dammit, Doc, why didn't you tell me?”

“Hell, Deck, I just found out. I just got out of the autopsy suite an hour ago.”

“But you
saw
him—you saw his face and his hand—up there at the scene. Yesterday! Why didn't you call me?”

“What difference does it make, Deck? Why are you so upset?”

He whirled on me, furious now. “Christ almighty, Doc, don't you see? It's him. Satterfield.”

“The dead guy? No way.”

“No, goddammit!” he shouted. “Not the dead guy—the
killer
, dumb-ass! Don't you remember what Satterfield did to the pizza delivery guy, twenty-four years ago? He killed the guy, traded clothes with him, and put a stick of dynamite in the kid's mouth, with his hands around it. We had his house surrounded, zipped up tight, but he drove off in that shitty delivery car with the Domino's signs, right under our noses. Thirty minutes later,
bam!
We go charging in, and it looks like Satterfield has offed himself.” He stared at me angrily. “How can you not even
remember
that?”

“I never saw that, Deck,” I reminded him gently. “I wasn't
there, remember? Y'all told me to stay away. I left my office and drove home—with Satterfield hiding in the back of my own truck. The Trojan horse, 1992-style. Thank God my assistant slowed him down, and you came charging in.”

“I should've blown his head off,” Decker said bitterly.

“I should've let you,” I admitted. “But hindsight's always 20/20, right? So here we are.”

It was easy now to understand Decker's agitation, because his brother—a bomb-squad technician—had died at Satterfield's house that day. Decker had struggled for years with PTSD, I knew—once, in my office years after his brother's death, something had triggered Deck's PTSD, and I'd had a hard time calming him. Lately, though—until this moment—he'd seemed recovered. But now, the more I grasped Decker's distress, the more agitated I felt, too. “Deck, what makes you think Satterfield had any connection to Shiflett? Do you have anything linking them?”

“The MO links them. It's exactly the same thing he did to the pizza guy. Almost exactly, anyhow. Only difference, that one was staged to look like a suicide, this one like an accident. But everything else? Explosive device detonated in the mouth, to throw us off the scent? Déjà vu all over again. It's Satterfield, Doc.
Has
to be!”

I hoped he was wrong. But that, I feared, was too much to hope for.

CHAPTER 27

MY INTERCOM BEEPED, AND I GLARED AT IT IN ANNOYANCE
. I was bleary and sleep deprived from another bad night: hours of restless thrashing punctuated by harrowing dreams of looming menace and terrible violence. Some of the dreams involved Satterfield, and some involved Shiflett, and one—the worst—involved both of them, teaming up to shove a blasting cap down my throat.

I resolved to ignore the call, but after half a dozen plaintive beeps, I couldn't stand it anymore. Snatching up the phone, I resisted the urge to shout. “Yes?” My voice was steady, calm, and icy.

There was a pause, then Peggy—her voice carefully casual—said, “Are you shunning me?”

“What? No, of course not.”
Am I?
I wondered.
Maybe
. “I'm just preoccupied.”

“Of course. Steve Morgan from the TBI is here. He's brought something he says you'll want to see. Shall I tell him you're preoccupied?”

Ouch
, I thought. “No, send him down. He's been here
before. He knows how to find me.” She rang off without saying good-bye.
A fine mess you've made with her
, I thought. Maybe our hand-holding was the opening of some sort of door to romance, or maybe it was simply a onetime fluke, a reflexive response to a scary scene in a movie. But I'd never know, if I kept acting as if it simply hadn't happened. What's more, I was introducing a barrier, a layer of awkwardness between Peggy and me, that hadn't existed until now.

Five minutes later I heard the stairwell door open and close, followed by a staccato tap-tap-tapping at my chamber door. I unlocked and opened the door, and Steve entered, a U-Haul book box tucked under one arm. “Looks like you've brought me a present,” I said. “And it's not even my birthday.” He set the box on my desk. “Can I shake it?”

“You could, but I wouldn't recommend it,” he said. “You might want to glove up, though.”

My pulse quickening, I snagged a pair of gloves from the box I kept at the ready—most people keep tissues on their desktops, but forensic anthropologists keep gloves—and then pulled on the gloves. Beneath the cardboard flaps was a thick wad of bubble wrap, which I grasped and lifted gingerly. “Is this what I think it is?” Steve's only answer was a one-shouldered shrug, accompanied by a we'll-see hoist of his eyebrows. I laid the bubble wrap to the side before I peered into the box's interior. “Yes,” I said, reaching in with both hands, my fingers meeting at the bottom of the box. Carefully, like a priest raising the Communion host to be sanctified, I lifted the object: a human skull, surely as much in need of a blessing as any loaf of bread ever was. The skull was clean and pale, except for a vivid mark on the forehead—a reddish-brown swastika, ragged and smeared, as if traced by a finger dripped in blood.

I felt sure that the skull had come from a twenty-something male whose skeleton appeared European, both to me and to ForDisc; a male whose DNA looked Middle Eastern, to Delia's sequencing machines; and whose death, to any decent human being, had been horrific. “This was in Shiflett's house? A trophy?”

“Kinda looks that way.”

The white-supremacist symbol on the forehead seemed not merely offensive but deeply ironic, for without the flesh, this skull—from a brown-skinned Middle Easterner—was indistinguishable from the skulls of the blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryans that the Nazis and the neo-Nazis considered the “master race.” It had the same narrow nasal opening; the same sharp nasal sill beneath that opening; the same geometry in the cheekbones and eye orbits.
Brothers under the skin
, Delia had said when I'd given her the DNA sample a few days before. Trouble was, so many people had trouble seeing beneath the skin—beneath the surface differences—to the shared humanity at the core.

Steve nodded grimly. “That's not all. There's more in the bottom of the box.”

I set the skull down gently on the bubble wrap I had already removed from the box, then peered inside again, but I saw only more bubble wrap. I took that out and saw that what I had taken for the box's bottom was actually a second box tucked inside, square but shallow. I slid my fingers down two sides of this box and lifted it out, then set it on the desk and removed a close-fitting lid. Inside, resting on a bed of odd, squiggly packing material, was a small leather-bound volume. Its dark green cover was embossed with ornate geometric designs in gold and red; the title was also stamped in gold—an exotic, swirling script I guessed to be Arabic.

The book's cover had been mutilated—the entire book had been mutilated, in fact—by what appeared to be a large-caliber gunshot. The entry wound, as I would have termed it if it were in a corpse, was a neat half-inch hole in the center of the cover. The exit, out the back, was ragged and twice that size. Bizarrely, the “wound” appeared to be bloody, and I stared in puzzlement, riffling through the volume, whose pages were all stained around the edges of the hole. I turned to Steve. “What on earth?”

“I suspect it's related to those,” he said, pointing at the packing material in the shallow box. “The book and the skull were both settin' on those.”

“But what are they?” He didn't answer, so I leaned down to examine the material. I had assumed they were made of cardboard, but looking closer, I saw they were furry, with longer tufts of hair at their ends. I reached in and plucked one from the box, holding it up to the light, my face a foot away. One end bore a tapered, inch-long tuft of hair; the other end was blunt—was cut—and bloody. “My God,” I said. “These are pig tails?”

“Looks like it to me,” he said, “but I'll ask the lab to confirm it.”

I nodded in the direction of the other items. “So I'm guessing that's pig blood on the skull and on the Quran?”

“Could be,” he said, “but it might be Shiflett's—he might have wanted to mark his territory, like a dog pissing on a tree. The lab can test it with HemaTrace, tell us if it's human or animal. Do you want to keep the skull?”

“I'd like to, yes. I want to get a facial reconstruction done. Put the likeness out there, see if anybody recognizes it. But I can scrape off some of the blood, so you can take that to the lab, too.”

He nodded, and I rummaged around in my desk drawer for a scalpel. I cleaned the blade with an antibacterial wet wipe—another staple the Anthropology Department purchased in bulk and consumed at a rapid rate—and began scraping flakes of dried blood from the forehead onto a clean sheet of paper. After I'd scraped off a tiny heap of flakes—if the material were salt, I'd call the quantity a pinch—Steve said, “That's probably good.” He folded the paper, marked it as evidence, and sealed it in the envelope I offered him.

“What else did y'all find?” I asked. “Hard evidence tying Shiflett to the kid chained to the tree?”

“Looks like it, though we need the computer forensics people's help.”

“With what?”

“His computer's hard drive was erased.”

“Crap,” I said. “Although frankly, I'm kinda surprised this guy
had
a computer.”

“Why, Doc? He did communications work in the military. And you know from the snuff film that he was savvy with video editing and social media.”

“Good point,” I conceded. “But what can the computer forensics people find, if the hard drive's been wiped clean?”

“Erased,” he said, “but probably not wiped. Most people think that deleting files is enough to cover their tracks, but it's actually not.”

“How's that?”

He shrugged, as if to say that he didn't fully understand it himself. “The way it was explained to me, deleting a file doesn't actually delete the file. It makes that file's space on the drive
available
, but the data doesn't really get removed. It just gets overwritten, a little at a time, as new data gets added. So a lot of the old data is still there, especially if there hasn't been
a lot of new data. Sort of like deciding to paint your house a new color, but only painting for a few minutes every couple days. Gonna take a long time before that old paint's out of sight.”

“Steve, you missed your calling,” I said. “You should've been a computer scientist. Who dabbles in home improvements.”

He laughed. “Point is, our computer nerds can probably recover a lot of the data.”

“Well, I hope you're right.”

He grinned and held up an index finger. “But wait, there's more. Much more. We found six video surveillance cameras, powered by a twelve-volt car battery. A video hard drive. DVDs with raw footage of the victim chained to the tree.”

I felt my excitement rising. “That's great!” I winced at the way I'd said it, and he gave a shrug: absolution. He understood.

“Also a big assortment of hate literature. White supremacy publications. Neo-Nazi stuff. A bunch of antigovernment stuff, including
The Turner Diaries
, Tim McVeigh's inspiration for Oklahoma City. Militia handbooks. DIY manuals on bomb making and sabotage.”

I was afraid to ask my next question, but I was even more afraid not to ask it. “Steve, did you find anything that ties Jimmy Ray Shiflett to Nick Satterfield?”

His brow furrowed. “Satterfield? The escaped killer?” I nodded. “No, nothing. Whatever makes you ask that?”

“Forget it,” I said. “Just jumpy, I guess. Hearing things go bump in the night.”

MOST TABLES IN THE BONE LAB WERE LITTERED WITH
bare bones. Joanna Hughes's table was occupied by human heads—some male, some female; some Anglo, some Latino; some smiling, some sad.

Despite the diversity, all the heads were the uniform gray of potter's clay. Joanna was a facial reconstruction artist—the first and, as far as I knew, the only student at UT to major in forensic art. She had devised the major herself, combining classes in sculpture, drawing, anatomy, and osteology: a combination that gave her detailed knowledge of how bones, muscles, and tendons meshed to create the complex structures of the human face. Reconstructing a face wasn't simply a matter of slathering clay onto a skull and mashing it around to create lips and noses and cheeks. No, reconstructing a face was a remarkably intricate process, requiring every muscle of the face to be created and applied, layered and interwoven, just as they had been in life, before the final covering of clay “skin,” whose thickness had to match precise scientific measurements of tissue depth at numerous landmarks on the face and head.

In my younger days I had tried my hand at clay facial reconstructions. The results were appalling: my reconstructed John Does tended to look like Neanderthals—and misshapen, stupid Neanderthals, at that. Perhaps, in hindsight, it was my failed attempts at facial reconstruction that had taught me to stick with things I could do well. And certainly my own failed attempts had made it easy for me to appreciate the remarkable blend of art and science manifested in every one of Joanna's reconstructions. Now, I was counting on that blend to show us what the killer's grainy video had not: the face, in detail, of our Cooke County murder victim.

When I walked into the bone lab with the skull Steve
Morgan had brought me, I arrived just in time to see Joanna grab the nose of an African American woman and twist it completely off the face. “Ouch,” I said. “Why'd you do that?”

“I didn't like it,” she said. “It didn't look right.” She frowned. “Noses are hard. There's no foundation of bone to guide you. Nothing but a hole—the nasal opening.” She made a self-contradicting face. “Well, actually, there is a formula for estimating breadth and projection. But it still leaves a lot of margin—a lot of requirement—for artistic interpretation. So you just have to guess, from how massive or delicate the rest of the face is, what sort of nose that particular face is asking for. And this face”—she nodded at the one she had partially defaced—“wasn't asking for the nose I gave her.” She pushed back from the wooden table and eyed the box under my arm. “So that's him? The guy chained to the tree?” I nodded and handed her the box. She opened it and carefully removed the skull, studying it closely as she talked to me. “You said he's in his twenties?”

“Early twenties, at most. Could be as young as nineteen. But definitely not, say, twenty-seven.”

“Wow, the bone structure is classic Caucasoid. But you said he's Middle Eastern?”

“According to the DNA.”

“Crap,” she said.

“What?”

“The nose. Narrow? Wide? Straight? Hooked? Middle Eastern noses are all over the map.”

“So to speak,” I said.

She laughed. “So to speak.”

“You'll do fine,” I assured her, as she set the skull on a cushion to one side of her table. “Just give him whatever nose the rest of his face wants to have.” The last thing I saw, before
I turned to go, was a scowling Joanna taking an X-acto knife to the face of the dead African American woman and, in the place where a nose had been only a few moments before, carving a two-inch question mark.

She'll do fine
, I assured myself.
Really
.

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