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“My father said you’d found some interesting dental work.”

Dr. Peres’s face brightened a degree. “Maybe that could help give us a time line. It was removable, so I bagged it already.” She strode six steps to a plastic storage case and started rooting through a pile of evidence bags.

Lacey’s shoulders relaxed a notch. Victoria Peres wasn’t one of the people who’d mutter “nepotism” about Lacey’s job. Maybe the doctor understood the job was tougher when your father was the chief medical examiner of the state. And your boss.

Lacey pressed her lips together. Anyone who’d worked directly with her knew Lacey was damned good at her job.

“That’s a rock, not a bone.” One of the techs peered at an ivory chunk on his partner’s outstretched hand.

“No way. It’s gotta be a bone,” argued his counterpart.

Lacey glanced at Dr. Peres, expecting her to referee the dispute, but the doctor’s attention was still buried in a storage case. Curious, Lacey carefully stepped over the tiny skeleton and held out a hand.

“Can I take a look?”

Two startled faces turned her way. Lacey stood her ground and tried to look like a competent forensic specialist. The men were young. One dark, one blond. Both bundled up as if they were working in the Arctic. Probably college students interning with Dr. Peres.

“Sure.” Acting like he was handing over the Hope diamond, the dark-haired tech handed her a narrow piece, shorter than an inch. He cast a quick look at Dr. Peres’s back.

Lacey studied the piece in her hand, understanding their confusion. She couldn’t tell if it was bone. She lifted the piece to her mouth and gently touched her tongue to it, feeling its smoothness.

“Jesus Christ!”

“What in the hell…!” Both men rocked back, identical shock covering their faces.

Lacey handed back the little piece, hiding her smile. “It’s rock.”

Porous bone would have stuck to her tongue. A trick she’d learned from her father.

“She’s right.” Dr. Peres’s close voice made Lacey jump and turn to face her. The doctor glanced at the men over Lacey’s shoulder. “I can never shock those two guys. I guess I need to start gnawing on skeletons more frequently.” Her eyes narrowed at Lacey. “Don’t repeat that.”

Dr. Peres’s reputation was hard-assed enough without a rumor circulating that she gnaws on bones.

“I’m still looking for the dental work I removed first thing this morning. Why don’t you take a look at the rest of her teeth while I check the other bin?”

Lacey nodded and kneeled by the sparse skeleton, the tarp crinkling loudly. She scanned the lonely remains, feeling quiet sadness ripple through her chest.

What happened to you?

The skull silently stared at nothing.

Lacey’s heart ached in sympathy. The dead woman was the ultimate underdog, and Lacey was a sucker for the vulnerable. Whether a long shot in a football game or an injured animal, she instinctively threw her support to the weakest. It was the same with her job. Every victim sparked Lacey’s utmost effort.

But this situation felt different from other recoveries. Was it the freezing weather? The depressing location?

This feels personal.

That was exactly it. The examination felt personal.

Was it because the body was so small? Petite like herself? Young. Female. A victim of a horrible…

Stop it. She was projecting herself onto the remains. Lacey mentally pulled back and hammered down her emotions, swallowing hard.

Do the job. Do your best. Report the findings and go home.

But somewhere, someone was missing a daughter. Or sister.

Resolute, she gently lifted the mandible from the tarp and focused. Perfectly aligned teeth with no fillings. But the first molars were missing. Strangely, the second molars behind the missing ones were in perfect placement. She touched one of the empty spots with her little finger. It fit perfectly. Usually when teeth have been extracted, the proximal teeth eventually tip or shift into the empty spaces. Not on this mandible. And the extraction sites weren’t new, because the bone had fully regenerated in place of the removed roots.

“Something was keeping the spaces open,” she mumbled as she set the mandible down and reached for the skull. She ran questioning fingertips over the smooth, bony surfaces that shaped the head. Definitely female. Male skulls were lumpy and rugged. Even in death, the female form demonstrated a distinctive, smooth grace. She tipped the skull upside down and saw a perfectly aligned arch with all teeth present.

Braces. Or else great genes. The woman’s smile had been beautiful.

Large silver fillings covered every surface of the upper first molars.

“She managed to keep the upper set of first molars,” she muttered to no one. Lacey squinted as she scanned for any elusive white fillings. “But the bottom set was beyond saving at some point. Something probably weakened her first molars during their formation,” she theorized. Lacey eyed the central incisors, looking for any signs of odd development, since those teeth formed during nearly the same time period as the first molars, but her front teeth were white, smooth, and gorgeous.

Lacey touched the bone posterior to the second molars. Bare hints of wisdom teeth poked through the bone. Without X-rays to check the root lengths of the wisdom teeth, she wasn’t quite ready to agree that the woman was in her late teens or early twenties, but she hadn’t found anything to counter Dr. Peres’s premise.