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Alice frowned. “A very long time, I believe.”

He had gone with Alice’s assertion that the remains were female because he had no idea how to tell the difference. When he looked at the skull, his gut told him it was a woman, but that could be Alice’s influence.

“Did you know her before?”

“Before what?”

I can’t be vague. “Did you know her before she was . . . a skeleton?” He grimaced at the word.


“How did you meet her?”

“I saw them bring her here.”

Adrenaline rocketed through his muscles. “Who brought her here?”

Alice’s hands fluttered and picked at her coat. “I don’t remember.” She no longer met their eyes. He glanced at Ava, who made a subtle slow down motion with her hands.

He wanted to press but knew Alice would close off more.

The arrival of two deputies and Sheriff Greer interrupted their discussion. Their response had been quick—within ten minutes.

“Good evening, Alice,” Greer said kindly as his sharp gaze took in the sight of the bones by the tree. “Getting cold this evening, isn’t it?”

Alice muttered something and refused to meet the sheriff’s eyes. She’d tensed as the three law enforcement officers arrived and shuffled closer to Ava. Zander suspected she’d had previous run-ins with the sheriff’s department.

A quick conversation with Greer confirmed that suspicion. “She gets confused,” Greer told them as they stepped away from the scene, leaving a deputy to keep an eye on Alice. “She means well, but several times she’s wandered onto other people’s property and even looked in their windows. We just take her back home. She’s been evaluated, but every time we get the same reply: she’s capable of taking care of herself and doesn’t present a danger to herself or others.”

“She’s thin,” Ava pointed out.

“She’s been thin as long as I can remember,” answered Greer. “But even I’ve run into her at the grocery store. She’s quite competent . . . most of the time.”

“Then why is she wandering around in the forest? She could get lost.”

The sheriff was emphatic. “No one knows these woods or the coastline like Alice. She’s been wandering both for the last fifty years.” He gestured for one of the deputies to come closer and asked him to drive her home. “We can question her tomorrow,” he told the agents. “She’s sharper in the mornings.”

By the time Alice left, Zander noted she looked exhausted.

“Who are your missing persons in the area?” Ava asked the sheriff, all business now. “We might need to go back decades. Clearly the remains have been here awhile.”

“Well, now . . . I’ve heard of bodies reduced to skeletons in less than a year,” the sheriff said, tapping his chin, deep in thought. “Depends on the environment and how exposed they are.” He tipped his head at the skull. “Doesn’t look like anybody buried the body. Could have died naturally. Maybe got lost in the woods or had a heart attack.”

“Yes,” Ava said impatiently. “Any of those could have happened, but they’d still be reported missing, right?”

“True. Let me think . . . We had a woman go missing from a trail along the cliffs south of here. Her husband was found guilty of her murder even though they never found the body. He claimed she slipped while taking a photo and went over the edge. State police handled that one.”

Zander eyed the skull. “Could her husband have dumped her body here and claimed she went over the cliffs in an accident?”

“Possible,” said Greer. “Either way, he’s already locked up.”

“What about Hank West?” asked the remaining deputy as he strung crime scene tape and listened to their conversation.

The sheriff’s face cleared. “That’s right. How long’s that been? Five years?” He looked from Zander to Ava. “Old Hank had dementia. Wandered off from his home in Warrenton. Never did find him.”

All three of them turned their attention to the skull.

“Maybe we should do a database search for missing persons instead of relying on memory,” Ava suggested tactfully.

“Not that many people go missing around here,” Greer said. “But that would be more efficient. I’ll get someone started on it. My deputy can bring up some lights and watch the scene if you want to grab dinner. It’ll take a few hours for that anthropologist to get here from Portland.”

Zander scanned the darkening woods. It was cold, but an inner voice wouldn’t let him leave. “I’ll stay. I can help with the lights.”

“I’ll pick up some takeout,” Ava told him. “And lots of coffee. It’ll be a late night.”

Dr. Victoria Peres arrived two hours later, and the forensic anthropologist immediately took charge of the scene. Peres was tall, with librarian glasses and long, dark hair. Zander had heard her referred to as the Ice Queen but had never seen anyone say it to her face.

The forensic anthropologist was intimidating.

She shook Zander’s hand and gave him a once-over even though they’d met a few times. Ava knew her quite well. As they worked, the women exchanged small talk about mutual friends and Ava’s upcoming wedding.

Zander watched Peres in admiration. The doctor moved with an economy of motion as she gave orders to her assistants and set up the station for removal of the skeletal remains. Everyone jumped to do her bidding. Even the wind had stopped after she glared at the swaying trees. She had lighting, tarps, buckets, sifters, and bins ready to start her excavation. As she waited for her assistants to set a grid and finish taking photos, she lifted the skull.

He observed with fascination. The doctor’s hands were gentle with reverence—reminding him of her husband’s hands at the autopsy—as she raised the skull for a closer look. The mandible still lay on the dirt, and Zander’s stomach twisted, jarred by the sight of the jawbone outside of its rightful position on the skull.

Dr. Peres softly hummed as she studied the skull and turned it in her hands, holding it closer to one of her bright lights, peering inside, and then studying the face again. “Hello, pretty girl,” she said in a quiet voice.

“It is female?” Ava asked.

“Oh yes, definitely. Young, too.”

Zander scratched Hank West, the missing man with dementia, off his mental list. “How young?”

The doctor turned the head upside down, ran a finger across the teeth and then along a few of the seams in the skull. “Teenager. Early twenties at the latest.”

She glanced down at some of the half-buried bones. “I need to examine everything to give a definite answer, but you can take that with ninety-five percent certainty.”

“Got some coins of some sort here, Doc,” said one of the techs as she pushed a small grid stake into the dirt. Zander squatted beside her, not surprised they hadn’t noticed the small disks. They were caked with dirt and blended perfectly into the ground. The tech poked at a few with a tool. “I don’t think they’re money . . . at least not US money.”

Zander agreed. They were larger than quarters but smaller than half dollars. The faint pattern under the dirt was unrecognizable, and he stopped himself before picking one up to wipe it off. “Maybe a foreign tourist?” he suggested to the tech, who shrugged.

“You can’t tell us how long she’s been here, can you?” Ava asked.

“No. I’ll need to do some testing,” said the doctor. “But she has a few composite posterior fillings. No alloy. That tells me she’s probably not from the 1970s or earlier. Dentists were doing composite fillings pretty regularly from the 1980s on, but primarily on anterior teeth. These posterior fillings indicate she’s from a more recent decade or else had an ahead-of-his-time dentist. Sorry . . . I know that’s vague.”

“It helps,” said Zander. “Tightens the window of when to search.”

“She’s African American.”

Zander went still.

“You’re sure?” Ava asked in a flat voice.

The doctor’s lips rose. “Yes.” She raised an are-you-questioning-me brow at Ava.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Ava began, dismay in her eyes.

“See the rectangular shape of her orbits?” The doctor traced the edges of the bones around where her eyes should be. “Caucasians have angular orbits. Asians, round. But that’s not all I see. At the top of the skull there’s a slight depression where it’d be flat on Asians and Caucasians, and the nasal aperture is broad and rounded—”

“We trust your judgment, Victoria,” Ava said quickly.

“How was she killed?” Zander cut in, his heartbeat pounding in his ears.

Dr. Peres eyed him over the top of her glasses and made a deliberate show of examining the skull. “She wasn’t shot in the head.” She gave him a side-eye.

He knew he had asked too early. “Forget I asked that,” he said in apology. “It was unfair.” He met Ava’s eyes. “Did Greer mention any missing African American teens when you went for food?”

She pointed. “No. But you can ask him.”