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Authors: Linda Castillo

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural

After the Storm (13 page)

BOOK: After the Storm
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“Maybe animals carried the bones away over the years,” I surmise. “Dogs or coyotes.”

“Of course that’s a possibility,” Doc Coblentz says. “Anytime remains are unprotected, they are vulnerable to scavenger activity.”

“But that doesn’t explain the
I found on some of the bones,” Harris tells me. “Nor does it explain why so many of the smaller bones are missing.”

“Markings?” Puzzled, sensing they’re withholding the punch line to a private joke and I’m being left in the dark, I look from man to man. “Signs of trauma? What?”

“Well, basically, both hands and feet are missing,” Doc Coblentz says.

I’ve heard of cases—homicides—in which killers removed the hands of their victims so the police were unable to identify the victims using fingerprints, but I didn’t expect it on this case. “So we’re dealing with a homicide,” I say slowly.

“Probably, but we can’t say for certain,” Harris says.

“But if the hands were cut off—” I begin.

Coblentz interrupts. “Not cut off, Kate.

It’s the last thing I expected him to say, and for the first time I understand why they’re so titillated. Not because they’re macabre, but because their scientific minds have been confronted by a particularly challenging puzzle.

?” I ask.

“We don’t know,” Doc Coblentz admits. “We’re trying to identify the tooth marks now.”

marks? Seriously?” Incredulity rings hard in my voice. If the circumstances were different—if we weren’t dealing with the death of a human being—I’d expect one of them to burst into laughter and shout, “Surprise!”

“Let me explain.” With gloved hands, Harris picks up a bone that’s slender and curved and about a foot in length. “This is the left proximal ulna, which is at the distal end of the forearm.”

“Small bone in the lower forearm,” Doc Coblentz explains.

“It’s not unusual in cases like this for skeletal remains to exhibit postmortem carnivore and scavenger marks. In Ohio, for example, we would probably be dealing with coyotes or dogs or even a feral cat. The bones would show evidence of chewing, crushing, and gnawing. Sometimes the ends of long bones are missing altogether, which happens when the animals are trying to get to the marrow. This typically occurs if a body is dumped in a remote location and it remains undiscovered for an extended period of time.”

Looking troubled, Harris indicates a long, narrow, carved indentation on the bone. “I can’t be certain, but I don’t believe these gouges were made by dogs or coyotes.”

“By what, then?” I ask.

“We don’t know,” Doc Coblentz replies.

I think about that a moment, chilled by the possibilities. “Were you or will you be able to give me cause or manner of death?”

“Undetermined at this point,” Harris says with a shrug.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever know for certain, Kate,” Doc Coblentz adds.

“No clothes or shoes. Hands missing. Chances are the body was disposed in a garbage bag and hidden in that crawl space.” I look from man to man. “It’s got to be homicide. But we need to be able to prove it, and we can’t do that without an official ruling from you.”

“We can only go by the facts,” Harris tells me. “These bones are not going to reveal their secrets easily.”

“So what’s your theory?” I ask.

Coblentz nods at Harris. “John?”

“Let me preface by giving you some preliminary info on how we’ve arrived at this non-conclusion, if you will,” Harris begins. “Typically, we have three types of bone injury: antemortem, which is an injury that takes place when the decedent is still alive. We can tell the injury occurred before death because there’s some level of bone remodeling or healing. The second type of injury is postmortem, which takes place after death. In the instance of a postmortem bone injury, the edges of the bone will be rough or worn, if you will. And, of course, there’s no remodeling.

“The third type of bone injury is perimortem. As with the postmortem bone injury, there is no bone remodeling. But with a perimortem injury, the edges of the damaged area are relatively sharp and crisp.” Dr. Harris removes his glasses and looks at me. “We believe the injuries on the distal area of the ulna, as well as the lower extremities of both fibulas, occurred perimortem.”

“You’re going to have to explain that in English.” But even as I say the words, in some small corner of my mind I already know, and a shiver hovers between my shoulder blades.

“The injury occurred at or near the time of death,” Doc Coblentz tells me.

I stare at the two men, trying to get my mind around the repercussions of that. “Let me get this straight,” I say. “The bone injuries you’re referring to are tooth marks?”

“Correct,” Harris says.

Coblentz meets my gaze. “These tooth marks, carved into those three large bones, occurred shortly before or shortly after death.”

“Are you telling me this individual may have died
of those tooth marks?” I ask.

“I’m telling you it’s a possibility,” Harris says.

I look down at the bones, and the chill that had been hovering moves through me. “So this decedent could have been attacked by an animal and killed?”

“An animal or animals as yet unidentified,” Harris tells me.

“Could that have occurred in the crawl space beneath the barn?” I ask. “Maybe he was working on the foundation and a coyote or dog attacked him? Or was he killed elsewhere and his remains moved and hidden in that crawl space?”

“We have no way of knowing for certain,” Doc Coblentz says.

“And, of course, we don’t yet know which species of animal,” Harris points out.

I stare at him, searching my memory for someone I’ve come in contact with over the years who might be able to identify the tooth marks, but I come up blank. “Do either of you know of someone who might be able to identify the tooth marks?” I ask. “If that was the cause of death, I need to know.”

Harris nods. “I worked with a guy over at the Columbus Zoo six or seven years ago. I’d performed an autopsy on a Franklin County man who’d been keeping a cougar illegally on his property and was mauled to death when he went into the animal’s pen to feed it. Nelson Woodburn’s specialty is wildlife biology. If anyone can figure out the source of those teeth marks, Woodburn can.”

I address Doc Coblentz: “Can you forward images of those tooth marks to Woodburn?”

“Right away.”

Harris looks excited by the prospect of involving his colleague. “I’ll let him know to expect your call.” He grins. “Nelson can’t resist a good mystery.”

I think about everything I’ve learned and realize that while it’s crucial to determine the source of the tooth marks, there’s still a possibility that foul play was involved. “So if those pieces of fabric or plastic found on scene turn out to be a garbage bag, then it’s possible that while our victim may have been attacked by an as-yet-unknown animal, his body may have still been put into some type of bag and dumped in that crawl space.”

“Bag aside, perhaps he was attacked and injured and crawled beneath the barn, trying to reach safety,” Doc offers.

I nod, realizing that while I know a lot more about this victim than when I started, the list of things I don’t know is much longer. “I guess I’d been hoping this guy had been working on the foundation or repairing a squeaky floor plank in the barn and had a heart attack or something.”

“Unfortunately,” Harris says with a sigh. “I suspect this individual suffered a much more horrific demise.”



Herb and Marie Strackbein live in a small Victorian that’s painted a cheery yellow and set among mature maple and black walnut trees. According to the Holmes County auditor, they’ve owned the property on Gellerman Road since inheriting it when his mother passed away in 1978. The Strackbeins are in their sixties and live in Painters Mill.

I park in a shady spot at the curb and shut down the engine. Concrete steps draw my eye to a railed front porch, where blooming geraniums and petunias spill from a dozen or so terra-cotta pots. A red Volkswagen sits in the driveway in front of a one-car detached garage, also painted yellow. It’s a pleasant-looking home with a cozy, welcoming countenance. I take the sidewalk to the door and ring the bell. When no one answers, I leave the porch and look in the garage, but there’s no one there. I’m on my way back to the Explorer, when I hear the sound of a chainsaw coming from the backyard. I take the narrow sidewalk that cuts between the house and the garage.

“Hello? Mr. and Mrs. Strackbein?” I call out. “It’s Chief of Police Kate Burkholder!”

I’ve just reached the chain-link gate, when a woman wearing a floppy straw hat peers around the corner of the house. “Oh. Hi. We’re back here.”

I open the gate and go through. “Sounds like someone’s doing some storm cleanup,” I say.

She takes off her hat and wipes her forehead with the back of her hand. “I worry when he gets that chainsaw out, so I came out to supervise and make sure he doesn’t cut off his fingers. Almost as bad as when he gets up on that ladder. I swear the man is going to kill himself one of these days.” But she says the words with a generous helping of good humor.

As if realizing I’m not there to shoot the breeze, she cocks her head. “We’re not making too much noise with the chainsaw, are we?”

“No, ma’am. I wanted to ask you and your husband some questions about some property you own out on Gellerman Road.”

“We saw that the barn was down.” Nodding, she clucks her tongue. “It’s just crazy how a tornado picks and chooses what it does and doesn’t destroy.”

She’s a chatty, friendly woman with an amiable demeanor. But I know from experience that just because someone looks like your favorite aunt doesn’t mean she doesn’t have secrets.

“Can we help you?”

I look up at the sound of the male voice to see a sixty-something man approach. He’s wearing dark work trousers and a white T-shirt that’s damp with sweat at the chest and armpits.

“Mr. Strackbein?”

“That’s me.” He comes up behind his wife and sets his hand protectively on her shoulder. “What can we do for you?”

“I was just asking your wife about your property on Gellerman Road,” I tell him.

“Knew that barn was going to go down one day,” he says. “We inherited it from my mom when she passed in ’eighty-eight. Randy Smith leases it from us, puts in corn or soybeans every year.”

“There was a Boy Scout troop cleaning up out there, and a couple of boys discovered human remains in the crawl space of your barn.”

The man’s eyes widen. “What?”

Mrs. Strackbein gasps. “A

“I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it on the news,” I say.

“We were without power for two days,” he tells me. “I heard something about bones on the radio, but didn’t realize it was on

“Who is it?” Mrs. Strackbein adds.

“We’re trying to identify the remains,” I tell them. “I’m wondering if either of you have any idea who it might be or how they may have gotten into that crawl space.”

The two shake their heads. “No earthly idea,” Mrs. Strackbein says.

I turn my attention to Mr. Strackbein. “Did your parents ever mention the crawl space?” I ask. “Did they ever say anything that might explain who died down there or why? Or did any friends or family ever go missing?”

Pulling a blue kerchief from his rear pocket, he blots sweat from his forehead. “No, ma’am. They never said a thing. That property’s been in our family for as long as I can remember. I grew up in the house that used to be there. Played in that old barn, too.”

“I understand the house burned back in 1982?” I ask.

“Mom was living there by herself back then. Couldn’t take care of the place. Fire marshal said it was some kind of electrical fire.”

“She moved in with us after that,” Mrs. Strackbein adds.

“How long has…” He grapples for the right word. “…
been there?”

“Many years.” I pause, watching for any signs of nervousness or discomfort, but I get neither. These people are genuinely shocked. “Did your parents ever quarrel with anyone that you know of? Did they have any enemies?”

“Not that I know of.” Mr. Strackbein scratches his head. “My dad was kind of a crotchety old guy. You know, rubbed folks the wrong way sometimes. But that’s just the way he was.”

“What about your mom?”

“She was a real quiet gal. Nice, though. Baked a lot. Everyone really liked her.”

“Didn’t stand up for herself enough if you ask me,” his wife puts in. “But everyone loved her.”

“Have both of your parents passed away?” I ask.

“Dad in 1981. And mom in ’eighty-eight.”

I nod, trying not to be disappointed. “Did you ever see anything unusual or strange in the barn or on the property?” I ask.

He shakes his head adamantly. “I spent many a day exploring that dusty old place.” He huffs a laugh. “Thought I knew every inch of it, but I never went down into the crawl space. I guess you never know about a place, do you?”

*   *   *

I swing by LaDonna’s Diner for a coffee-to-go, and I’ve nearly reached the station, when my phone vibrates against my hip. A glance at the display tells me it’s Nelson Woodburn, the wildlife biologist with the Columbus Zoo. I fumble with my Bluetooth and catch the call on the third ring. “Mr. Woodburn?”

“Yes, hello, Chief Burkholder. I understand you’ve got a mystery on your hands down there in Painters Mill.”

“The more we learn about the remains, the more questions that arise.”

“Well, I’ve never met a mystery I didn’t enjoy, and I must admit with regard to this one my curiosity has bested me.” He has a soft, scholarly-sounding voice with a hint of Kentucky. “Doctor Harris e-mailed me the images of the teeth marks in some of the large bones. I downloaded them immediately and set to work enlarging and trying to identify them.”

“I appreciate your getting to this case so quickly.” I have a whole new appreciation for science nerds. “Any luck identifying the tooth marks?”

He pauses with a smidgen too much drama. “I believe so, which I did mainly by ruling out the usual suspects, the domestic dog and the
Canis latrans thamnos,
a subspecies of coyote present in this part of Ohio.” Another dramatic pause. “I looked at the dental formula of these mammals and I was quickly able to rule them out.”

BOOK: After the Storm
11.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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