“His parents have agreed to a closed-casket funeral,” Seth said softly. “But I’ll do what I can for their personal viewing. It shouldn’t be too bad with a deep pillow.”
Zander stepped in for a closer look. Typically the medical examiner cut through the scalp around the back of the head from ear to ear, then peeled the scalp forward over the face, leaving it attached to the forehead. Next they would cut out a large piece of the skull to gain access to and remove the brain. After removing the brain, the examiner would replace the cranial cap like a puzzle piece and return the scalp to its former position, stitching it in place under the hair, making it acceptable for an open casket.
The issue with Copeland was the damage at the back from the exit wound. The skull could break into several pieces as Dr. Rutledge worked and never look quite right for his parents’ final viewing.
“Let’s see how the bone looks and figure it out from there,” Seth said to himself. His assistant lifted the head, and Seth used his scalpel to make a cut around the back of the head and then worked the scalp forward. Seth’s gloved fingers showed through the hole in the scalp left by the bullet.
Once exposed, the bullet’s damage to the skull was brutally clear. “Big one,” Seth said under his breath.
“He carried a G 21,” Zander told him. “A .45 round.”
The bullet’s impact had created a star pattern of cracks that led away from the large exit wound. “If I cut the cap a little lower than usual, I can avoid crossing the cracks, and I believe the cranial cap will stay in one piece.” Seth nodded firmly, confident in his decision, and picked up the Stryker saw.
The saw wasn’t much larger than Zander’s drill at home, but the Stryker’s sound reminded him of a dentist’s drill cutting into his tooth and reverberating through his head. He stepped away as a cloud of fine bone dust bloomed.
Beer. Zander found that odd. Nate Copeland had beer early in the day when he was already planning to go drink more with his friend? Was he getting an early start, or had he been entertaining someone else?
Ava tugged his sleeve. “You’re glaring. What are you thinking about?” she said loudly to be heard over the saw.
“I want to know who drank beer with Nate Copeland in the morning.”
“You’re not the only one.” She watched the doctor move to the other side of Copeland’s head for a new angle. “Where was Billy Osburne yesterday morning?”
“His shift at the auto parts store didn’t start until noon.”
“So he was available. Is he someone Nate would have a beer with? Did he have motive?” Ava questioned.
“The Osburnes are about ten years older than Nate,” Zander said. “But I don’t know if that means they wouldn’t hang out together. We can find out if they knew each other enough to have a morning beer.”
“But why Nate?”
The saw stopped, and the silence was a balm to Zander’s hearing. Seth lifted the cranial cap as if it were the most delicate glass. In a way, it was. The doctor had managed to contain the cracks in the cap, but a few puzzle pieces of the skull had been dislocated adjacent to the exit hole. Fierce concentration shone in his eyes as he gently set the large piece aside.
Zander held his breath for several long seconds as he followed the doctor’s movements, Ava’s question buzzing in his brain. “Nate must have seen something he shouldn’t have at the Fitch murders—even if he wasn’t aware of it,” he replied. “Or Nate was seen at the murders. Did anyone go farther into the woods behind the Fitch house? Maybe someone was watching when Nate arrived.”
“I think I read that the woods were checked a bit. I doubt they looked very hard.”
Based on the sloppy work Zander had seen that morning, he agreed. “Okay. We need to take another look at the property. What else?”
“Do we need to go over the Fitch autopsy reports with Seth?” Ava asked. “I saw his final report in my in-box, but I haven’t opened it yet. He talked to you about preliminary findings. Have you discussed anything else?”
“No. But he was going to check to see if Sean fathered Lindsay’s baby. We can ask if that is done.” Zander glanced back as Seth weighed the brain. “He’s almost finished.”
After the brain had been examined and the samples removed, all the organs were typically placed in a plastic bag and returned to the empty chest cavity. Then the ribs were replaced and the Y incision stitched closed.
Seth returned to the cranial cap and lifted it with precision gentleness. There were two notches on the edges, sawed by the doctor to line the cap back up in position on the skull and keep it in place. With skill and caution, he set it in, and his eyes crinkled in pleasure.
“That will do,” he said with satisfaction to the assistant, who’d watched the process with concern. The two of them efficiently stretched the scalp back over the cap. “You got it from here?” Seth asked. She nodded and picked up a curved needle to stitch the scalp back together.
The doctor took a few seconds to study Copeland’s face. With the jaw closed, there was no visible sign of the bullet hole in the palate. Seth rested a gloved hand on the officer’s shoulder and took a deep breath.
After a long moment, he turned to Zander and Ava, and gestured for them to follow him to the other side of the room, away from Nate Copeland. Seth’s expression was all business. “You had wanted to know if Sean had fathered his wife’s baby. I got the lab results back, and he is the father.”
Something relaxed in Zander’s chest. It didn’t mean Lindsay wasn’t having an affair with Billy Osburne, but it eliminated a possible minor motivation.
“But Lindsay and Sean wouldn’t know that was a fact if she was sleeping with Billy Osburne,” said Ava.
Shit. She’s right. The motivation couldn’t be crossed off the list.
“We need to find Osburne,” Zander said.
“I want to look at the property behind the Fitch home first. Billy Osburne second.”
It was well past lunchtime by the time Zander and Ava returned to the coast from their visit to the medical examiner’s office. They had hit a Dairy Queen drive-through on their route back, and the SUV still smelled of french fries.
It was a better scent than in the medical examiner’s building.
“Straight to the Fitch house?” Zander asked.
“No time like the present.”
The sheriff hadn’t found Billy Osburne and was getting frustrated. Even over the phone, Zander heard it in his voice.
He took the narrow winding road to the Fitch location, feeling a sense of déjà vu. A lot had happened over the two and a half days since he had been there last. The road turned to gravel, and the homes grew farther apart. He spotted the Fitch house and parked on the road’s shoulder. The two of them studied the small white ranch in silence. Behind the house, tall firs swayed, shedding needles and small branches.
“Windy,” Ava commented.
“I wouldn’t live with trees of that size near my house.”
“Hell no.” She leaned forward and pointed at low bushes a dozen yards from their vehicle. “Look.”
Several bikes lay on their sides, partly hidden by the greenery.
“Kids.” Annoyance had Zander immediately opening his door. Kids would be curious and snoop around a crime scene; that was a natural instinct at that age. But he’d have to be the bad guy and chase them off. He counted four bikes, each in a different stage of wear and tear.
Nostalgia enveloped him. A bike and a deep inquisitiveness had sent him and his childhood friends on many adventures. They were fearless, convinced that their world was open to exploration. The more prohibited the location, the more exciting. The fenced-off electrical station behind the middle school. The barn with the caved-in roof on the neighboring property. The row of rotten-smelling dumpsters behind the strip mall.
Three locations that would distress their parents—which made them powerful kid magnets.
“At least they’re outside and not playing video games.”
Zander snorted. “I’ll grab a couple of flashlights from the back.” He popped the rear hatch and grabbed two small LED units. It wasn’t dark, but the gray clouds cast a pall. It would be hard to see in the shadows of the forest.
She took a flashlight, and they headed around the left side of the home.
“Think the kids would go inside?” Ava murmured.
“I trust the county locked it up tight, but I can guarantee you the kids tried every door and window.”
“I was a nosy kid once,” Zander admitted. He would have been fascinated, oblivious to the disrespect, if this had occurred in his childhood neighborhood.
“I was too, but I wouldn’t try to enter a home where people had been murdered.”
“You can add this to your list of differences between the sexes.”
“Not all boys,” she added.
“Not all boys,” he agreed with a grin. He held up a hand as he heard young voices behind the home.
Ava sighed. “Crap. They must be at the tree.”
The two of them turned the corner and saw three boys who appeared to be eleven or twelve circling the trunk of the tree. A fourth was up the tree, several branches above where Sean Fitch had been hanged. The branch used in the hanging had been removed to process for evidence. Crime scene tape still circled a large portion of the backyard.