Authors: Linda Castillo
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural
Bending, Stevitch picks up the skull, weighing it in his hands. “The pronounced supraorbital ridge isn’t foolproof, but at this early stage and without looking at the hip bones, I can say with relative certainty that the deceased was probably male.” He gives Doc Coblentz a nod of approval. “As far as how old they are…” He shrugs. “… Ten years is a solid estimate. But until I get them cleaned up and under some decent light, I’m afraid I can’t narrow it down any more than that.”
I glance at Tomasetti. “What’s the usual procedure for manner and cause of death in a situation like this?”
“The FA does the excavation,” he tells me. “Then we send everything over to the local morgue, where the coroner as well as a forensic osteology expert will take a look. We’ve got a guy from Lucas County on our resource list.”
“John Harris,” Doc Coblentz chimes in. “I know him. John and I went to med school together. He’s good. One of the best.”
Tomasetti nods. “From there, we’ll ship everything down to the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth to see if they can extract mitochondrial DNA.”
Something sinks inside me when I realize a definitive ID is, indeed, going to take some time. I look at Dr. Stevitch. “Is there any way you can tell me how old he was when he died?”
“Again, anything definitive is premature at this point, but I might be able to give you a range.” He runs his finger across the top of the skull, from front to back. “See this squiggly line that runs the length of the skull?”
I move closer. “I do.”
“That’s the sagittal suture.” Using his finger, he taps another barely discernible ridge of bone, this time from left to right. “This one is the coronal suture. Neither are fused, which tells me this person was relatively young.”
“Are you comfortable with a guess?”
“If it’s a good one.” I smile at him.
“I’d say between sixteen and thirty-five.” He spreads his hands. “I’m sure Doctor Harris will be able to give you a more definitive answer.”
I motion toward the femur. “Height or weight?”
“I’m afraid not, Chief Burkholder.” But he grins.
Stevitch goes back to work. I step away from the scene and call Lois.
“I want you to pull all open missing person reports for Holmes County that are ten years or older. Go back forty years. We’re looking for a male sixteen to thirty-five years of age. If you strike out with Holmes County, expand your search to Coshocton and Wayne Counties. If you’re still not getting anything, add Cuyahoga County.”
I pause. “Everything okay there?”
“Phones are ringing off the hook. Some of the folks without power are starting to get antsy. And people are finding out about the bones and starting to call with questions.”
“Word travels fast.”
“You know kids and technology. Half the town knows by now.”
“Let me know if you come up with a name.”
“Will do, Chief.”
I’ve just ended the call, when I hear the crunch of tires on gravel. At first I think it’s Steve Ressler, publisher of the local newspaper, wanting a scoop on the remains. It’s not Ressler’s Ford Focus but an older Thunderbird with wide tires on aluminum wheels, oxidized paint, and a hail-damaged hood. A middle-aged man with sandy-colored hair gets out. He’s wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt. Without looking at me, he crosses in front of the vehicle, opens the passenger door, and bends to help a woman exit.
Something quickens inside me when I spot the crutches. The woman has blond hair that hasn’t seen a cut in some time. She’s wearing faded jeans and a pink blouse with the sleeves rolled up. The cast on her right leg stretches from just below her knee to her ankle. It’s the woman from the Willow Bend Mobile Home Park. The one with the compound fracture, whom Tomasetti carried out. The woman whose baby later died.…
She’s standing beside the car, leaning heavily on her crutches, staring at me. No smile. No spark of recognition or any indication that she remembers me. I don’t know why she’s here. To thank Tomasetti for saving her life? Thank us for trying to save her child? Or is she here to rage at us because her baby died? I know all too well that when you lose something precious, you always look for someone to blame.
I start toward her, my brain scrambling for words of comfort, but nothing seems adequate. Several things strike me at once as I cross to her. She’s a thin woman with a pale complexion. The brown roots showing at her scalp tell me the blond came from a bottle. The cast on her leg looks huge and out of place. I can tell by the way she’s shifting around that she’s not used to the crutches. That she’s probably in pain. And she’s been crying.
“Mrs. Kester?” I say as I approach her.
I know immediately this is no thank-you-for-saving-my-life visit. Mentally, I brace because I know it’s not going to be pleasant. The woman totters over to me and stops a scant two feet away. A little too close. Invading my personal space. I heed my instincts and step back because I know grieving people can be unpredictable. She looks at me as if I’m something she’s scraped off the bottom of her shoe.
“You Burkholder?” she asks.
I nod. “I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Kester. What can I do for you?”
Vaguely, I’m aware of Tomasetti approaching from behind me. A few feet away, the man who’d driven her here leans against the fender of the car, arms crossed, staring down at the ground.
“You can’t do anything for me.” Kester’s voice is monotone, her eyes flat. “I just wanted you to know … my baby died. Because of you.” Propping herself on the crutches, she raises a finger and jabs it at me. “She had an injured neck and you moved her.”
I’m usually pretty adroit at deflecting malicious comments. But I feel her words like the sharp edge of a knife against my skin. The death of the child has been a weight on my conscience. I spent most of the night reliving those moments in the trailer home, envisioning what I could have done differently. I spent the rest of the night dreaming of her.
“Why did you have to move her?” Her eyes fill, but there’s more anger than grief. “Why couldn’t you just leave us alone?”
The need to defend myself is strong, but I don’t. Grief is a powerful state of mind, and I know that no matter what I say at this point, it won’t help. It won’t ease her pain or make her feel better. It sure as hell won’t bring back her baby. So I stand there and I take it.
“Mrs. Kester, I’m very sorry—”
Her hand snakes out, connects solidly with the left side of my face. The force of it sends me sideways. I stumble, catch myself. My training kicks in and I reach for her wrists.
“You killed her!” she screams. “Murderer!”
I hear shoes against the ground behind me. Tomasetti moves in, wedges himself between us, grasps her biceps. The crutches fall away as he hauls her back. “Murderer!” she screams.
“Calm down,” Tomasetti tells her.
She trips and starts to go down. He breaks her fall, then gently lowers her to the ground to keep her from getting hurt. “Let go of me!”
“Stay down.” His eyes land on me. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” I tell him.
Rasmussen trots up beside me. “Didn’t see that one coming. You sure you’re okay?”
“Yup.” But my throat is so tight I can barely speak. I’m embarrassed because I let my guard down and got myself sucker punched. On an emotional level, I’m still reeling from the woman’s accusation.
The deputy jogs over to them, his handcuffs out, and kneels next to the woman. She’s screaming and crying as they roll her onto her stomach.
“Watch her leg,” I remind them.
“Shut up!” she screams. “This is your fault!
“I’m aware,” Tomasetti growls at me as the two men pull her arms behind her back and handcuff her.
It’s an ugly scene, painful to watch. Despite her behavior, this is the last thing I wanted to happen to Paula Kester. She’s distraught and out of control. Helpless because of her broken leg. But with so many cops present, it’s out of my hands. They’re bound by law to make the arrest. I figure if I can go to bat for her later, I will.
At the sound of the male voice, I look up to see the man who’d driven the woman here approach us. He’s heavy set, jogging toward us, his face a mask of concern. “What are you doing to her?”
I step toward him, put out my hand to stop him. “Halt right there, and keep your hands where I can see them.”
“Okay. Okay!” The man freezes and raises his hands. “I’m cool.”
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Show me some ID.”
While he digs for his wallet, I jab a thumb at the woman on the ground. “Why did you bring her here?”
“She wanted to see you.”
“I figure that’s between you and her, ma’am.”
“What’s your relationship with her?”
For the first time he looks contrite. “I’m her dad.”
I can still feel the sting of her palm against my face. The adrenaline beginning to ebb. A gnarly ball of guilt churning in my gut. “Is she on any kind of medication?”
He sighs. “I think the doc gave her something for the pain.”
“Did it cross your mind that bringing her here wasn’t a very smart thing to do?”
Another heavy sigh. “She was pretty adamant about it.”
“Well, now she’s under arrest for assaulting a public servant,” Tomasetti interjects.
Shellenberger’s mouth opens. “Aw, come on! You can’t do that! She’s got a broke leg and just lost her baby. Not to mention her home. You can’t take her to jail!”
“She hit a cop,” Tomasetti snaps. “We don’t have a choice.”
“It’s the law,” Rasmussen adds.
“Well, she’s not thinking right,” the man says, looking stressed.
Tomasetti and Rasmussen help Paula Kester to her feet. She’s sobbing now, head down, hair hanging in her face. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me,” she sobs. “It’s all her fault.”
I want to say something to reassure her. Let her know I’ll help her if I can. But I know she’s too angry, and any commentary from me would probably make things worse.
She raises her head. Her eyes connect with mine. Her lips peel back. Snarling an expletive, she yanks hard against Tomasetti and Rasmussen. “I’m going to get a lawyer and sue you!” she screams. “I’ll sue you for everything you’ve got, you bitch! All of you!
Rasmussen looks away and shakes his head.
Next to him, the deputy clears his throat. “I’ve got a cage. Do you want me to transport her and book her in?”
The sheriff nods. “Let’s put her in the car.”
“What about her leg?” her father cries.
Tomasetti gives him a withering look. “I guess you should have thought about that before you drove her over here, Einstein.”
It’s nearly 10:00
by the time Stevitch and his assistant call it a night. Sheriff Rasmussen left an hour ago. Tomasetti, of course, stayed.
Stevitch and Hochheim spent nine grueling hours going over every inch of the site, running the soil through handheld screens and geologic sieves. All the bones were placed in paper bags, labeled, and stowed in plastic tubs. Once the topsoil had been examined, they turned to their shovels and dug a series of shallow holes. Again, the soil was put through geologic sieves. As darkfall neared and they began to run out of light, I radioed Glock and asked him to bring a generator. I called Holmes County and they sent a deputy out with work lights. The two men continued their tedious work beneath the buzz of spotlights, setting aside bones and fabric and anything else that wasn’t indigenous to the site. Finally, once soil samples were taken, Hochheim went over the entire grid area with a metal detector.
Now, while Hochheim packs tools into the canvas bag and carries it to the Prius, Stevitch approaches me. “I think we’ve extracted everything this site is going to relinquish,” he tells me.
“I appreciate your coming out so quickly and on such short notice,” I tell him.
“It is the nature of the beast.” He chuckles. “This may sound morbid, Chief Burkholder, but we anthropologists live for the dig.”
“Any thoughts you can share?” Tomasetti asks.
Sobering, he rubs his beard between his thumb and forefinger. “Interestingly, about twenty percent of the bones are missing. More than likely scavenged by animals.”
“Do you have enough for identification?” I ask.
“Fortunately, we have the teeth, which are typically an excellent source of DNA. I’ll extract samples and send them off to the lab and get us into the queue.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to come up with height or weight?” I ask. “Race?”
“Eventually, but it’s not going to be a speedy process. I’ll get to work on a biological profile as soon as I get everything logged. That includes age, sex, stature, and ancestry.”
“What about clothing?” I ask. “Any personal items?”
“A few scraps of fabric, but it’s very deteriorated.” He lifts a large clear plastic envelope containing several smaller envelopes of different sizes, some of which are paper, some plastic. “Metal detector picked up a couple of interesting items.” He indicates a tiny clear plastic envelope inside. “This ring. Small diamond. Band is probably gold.”
“Looks like a woman’s ring,” Tomasetti says.
“An engagement ring?” I add.
“Or a wedding ring,” Stevitch concurs. “We’ll take a look at it under magnification and see if we can come up with some kind of identifying mark.”
“If we can get the name of the manufacturer,” Tomasetti says, “we might be able to locate the retailer.”
“And maybe the customer.” I think about that a moment. “Can you take some photos of the ring and e-mail them to me?”
“Absolutely.” As if saving the best news for last, he reaches into the envelope and pulls out a large white envelope. “This is probably the most remarkable item we found. The metal detector picked it up. I believe it could be extremely helpful in terms of identifying the decedent.”
He opens the envelope flap. I look inside and see a dirt-caked piece of steel about half an inch wide and four inches in length. Several screws protrude from one end. At first glance, I think he’s showing me the hasp from the barn door, but I know it must be more important than that. “What is it?”