Frank met his eye. “My preliminary observations. Victim is female. Caucasian. Body is slender. Hard to age her with the amount of damage to her face, but skin and muscle tone indicates she is likely young. Facial trauma will make identification by appearance impossible. From the bruising patterns on her forearms I’d say she tried to block the blows, maybe even fought back a little.”
“Maybe we’ll get some DNA under her nails,” Brody said.
“We can hope.” Frank scratched his bald head.
“Time of death?”
Frank’s lips pursed. Hands on hips, he stared back at the body. “Twelve to twenty-four hours. I’ll narrow that window when I get her on the table.”
“When do you think you’ll get to the autopsy?”
“First thing tomorrow morning. I’d do it tonight, but I don’t have the staff available. I won’t half-ass it, though. I’ll get the body fingerprinted ASAP.”
“Thanks, Frank,” Brody said.
“I hope it’s not her.” The ME turned back to the clearing. Brody watched him slip paper bags over the victim’s hands to protect any tissue that might be lodged under her fingernails.
Don’t we all. Brody walked through the scene with the lead crime scene investigator. They agreed on the search perimeter and discussed evidence to be bagged. Brody pointed out the used condom by the lane. “Plus, the usual soil and bug samples.”
“Hey, Brody.” A tech brought him a slip of paper. “We found a receipt in her jacket pocket.”
Brody brightened with thoughts of store surveillance tapes and an easy visual ID. “A receipt?”
“Unfortunately, it’s a generic register tape. No store name.” The tech showed him a small plastic baggie containing the paper. “I’ll get you a copy of this.”
“Thanks.” Why is it never that easy? Brody squinted at the paper. She’d purchased cigarettes yesterday at eight in the evening. Today was Sunday. She’d been killed between four p.m. Saturday and four a.m. Sunday. This receipt just narrowed the likely window. She was probably alive at eight p.m.
Brody headed toward the teenagers. Stella broke into a jog to catch up. In the street, she introduced him to the seventeen-year-olds, who confirmed the accidental finding of the body. Stella had already taken their statements, driver’s license numbers, and contact information, so Brody let the kids go home, despite the faint scent of marijuana wafting from them. Like Stella, Brody was willing to give them a break for doing the right thing. They climbed into an aging Honda and drove off. A van from the medical examiner’s office parked in the Honda’s place. Two attendants jumped down from the cab, opened the back, and wheeled out the gurney.
“Oh, no.” Stella tapped his arm and pointed down the road. A dark blue sedan pulled onto the shoulder near the gate. Chet got out and walked toward them.
“What do you have?” Chet braced his hands on his hips. His suit jacket and white shirt bagged on his frame. He’d given up eating real food when his wife died.
Brody tried to act casual. “Road crew found the body of a dead woman. The ME’s crew is collecting her now. Scene is being processed by county.”
Chet turned and took a step toward the woods.
Heart bleeding for his friend, Brody planted a hand in the center of Chet’s chest. “Don’t go back there.”
“I heard she’s young and has long dark hair.” Chet knew everyone in law enforcement and emergency response, from the clerk’s office to animal control. Someone had called him.
“It’s probably not her,” Brody said quietly. “But you don’t need to see. Don’t torture yourself.”
“Move your hand, Brody.” Chet spoke through clenched teeth. “If there’s any chance that woman is Teresa, I have to see her.”
But Brody held fast. “Please. Don’t do this.” Once Chet saw this woman, he would see her every time he closed his eyes.
Morgue attendants wheeled a stretcher through the grass toward the road. A black body bag was strapped to the gurney. Chet held up a hand to stop their movement.
Frank, walking next to the body, stepped up. “Are you sure? We have no proof it’s her.”
Chet nodded. “I need to see.”
“Brace yourself. Once this is in your head, you won’t be able to get it out.” Frank waited for Chet’s tight nod before he unzipped the bag. The crew had wrapped the body in a white sheet to preserve evidence. Frank peeled the sheet off the upper part of the body, leaving the unclothed lower half covered.
Chet flinched. His face went gray, and his lips mashed together until every drop of blood was forced out of them. His gaze fell to the “I Love NY” logo on the victim’s T-shirt, and the light in his eyes dimmed faster than taillights on a car speeding away in the darkness.
No one spoke. Just as Chet knew all the municipal employees, the entire town knew his story as well. Three years before, his fifteen-year-old, mentally ill daughter had run away. Chet had been unable to track her down for a year. He’d caught sight of her last winter, in New York City, but she’d evaded him. He’d stopped actively searching since her eighteenth birthday this past spring, when Chet had taken his vacation and spent two weeks trying to drown himself in Johnnie Walker.
Frank straightened the sheet, zipped the bag, and motioned for the attendants to roll onward. He paused and spoke in a low voice to Chet, “We’ll take care of her.”
Discomfort at the ME’s unusual display of emotion spread through the group in a wave of bodies shifting position.
“I’ll have her dental records sent over to your office,” Chet said.
The morgue crew loaded the body into the van and drove away.
“I’m going home. You’ll fill me in later?” Chet spoke to the grass at his feet.
“I will,” Brody answered. “I can stop by your place when I’m done here.” He didn’t want Chet to be alone while he waited for news.
“No need. I’ll be fine.” Chet’s jaw tightened. “I have work to do.” He turned away, then paused, his face nearly as gray as the corpse’s skin. “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a body that could be hers.”
But it might be the last.
“Let me remind you that you can’t base an identification solely on very basic physical characteristics,” Brody said.
With slow steps, Chet walked back to his car. He drove off slowly, as if even his vehicle were weighted with despair.
Brody watched the sedan disappear, frustration and sadness filling him. Then he went to his car and brought up Teresa’s file on his laptop. The photo was several years old.
Stella leaned into his vehicle through the open driver’s door. “It’s possible, but I wouldn’t put money on it.”
“Hard to tell. I haven’t seen her for a long time.” If that body was Teresa, how would Chet survive? He’d given up actively searching for her, but there was still hope that someday she’d come home. And even if she didn’t, he knew she was out there somewhere, alive. What would he do if he learned she was gone for good?
“When will we know for sure?” Stella asked.
“Chet’s been through the identification process before. He doesn’t have Teresa’s fingerprints on file, so dental records will be compared when Frank x-rays the body in the morning. Hopefully, the X-rays won’t match, and Chet will have his answer before lunch.”
In the meantime, Brody was going to do everything in his power to identify the dead woman and prove she wasn’t Teresa.
Stella went back to her duties. Brody checked his cell for messages. The sun sank over the trees, and the forensics team broke out overhead lights and turned them to high noon. The next twelve hours were going to be the longest in history. Chet was going to have a very bad night.
Jewel opened her clenched fist and stared at the business card she’d snatched off the floor of the woman’s car. Hannah Barrett, whoever she was, had tried to help her. But look what she’d gotten for her good deed. Mick had cracked her good. She’d gone down hard. Had Mick and Sam gone back for her after they’d dragged Jewel from the car? Maybe Mick killed her. Maybe Mick was going to kill Jewel.
Maybe that would be best.
The last six months had made her feel less than human. Most people treated their dogs better, except Mick. He starved and beat Butch, too. Asshole.
Sunbeams slanted through the dust-encrusted window high on the opposite wall. She licked her cracked lips. She’d been freezing all night, but the temperature in the shed had been rising all day. Sweat soaked her skirt and top. Dirt stuck to her damp skin. She straightened her leg to ease a cramp. Pain wracked her torso, her ribs screaming with every breath.
What day was it? Sunday?
Death couldn’t be too far away. She couldn’t last another day without water. The desert climate wasn’t natural to her. She never thought she’d say it, but she missed Toledo. At this point, she’d be happy to go back to her mom’s house and deal with the new boyfriend. Lenny’s abuse seemed like nothing after the hundreds of men since she’d been grabbed off the street and brought here.