Zander turned and saw the sheriff returning to the scene. The deputy who’d taken Alice home was with him. Both men had their jacket collars turned up against the cold, and the deputy wiped his nose continually with a tissue.
Ava introduced the sheriff to Dr. Peres. “The doctor says this is an African American female in her teens or early twenties,” she announced. “Does that match any missing person records?”
The sheriff looked grim and exchanged a glance with his deputy. “Yep. Cynthia Green.”
Cindy? “Alice called her Cindy.”
Surprise crossed the sheriff’s face. “Well, why in the hell didn’t Alice tell us this missing girl was up here?”
“Because she’s Alice,” said the deputy.
“True.” Resignation flashed in Greer’s eyes.
“Missing from when? What happened?” Ava crossed her arms, her tone one of heavily tested patience.
The sheriff pulled out his phone and tapped on the screen. “Cynthia Green’s parents reported her missing a couple of decades ago.” His eyes darted back and forth as he read. “They’re from Seattle and were vacationing along the Oregon coast during spring break. Their nineteen-year-old went for a walk along the beach south of here near Gearhart and never returned.”
“She vanished on their vacation,” Ava repeated, her eyes wide. “But we’re miles from Gearhart.”
“I remembered the case once I saw her name come up in our search,” Greer said. “I was a deputy, and all of us spent many hours combing the beach and surrounding hillside, even though the state police were in charge of the investigation. I remember they’d speculated that she’d been picked up by a car or knocked into the ocean by a sneaker wave. She had two younger sisters, and her parents were out of their minds. It was heartbreaking.”
“Alice said she saw the people who brought Cindy here,” Zander stated. “We pressed her for a little more info, but she shut down.”
Greer didn’t look surprised. “Gotta know how to handle Alice. She’s skittish.” He shook his head ruefully. “Don’t know how good her memory will be.”
“Alice said, ‘She is safe here’ when she showed us the skull,” Ava added. “Maybe she didn’t tell anyone because she was worried for the girl’s safety.”
“Even though she was already dead?” asked Dr. Peres.
“It might have made sense in Alice’s mind,” Zander said, remembering the protective look on the woman’s face as she brushed the debris from the skull.
“How long will it take you to remove the remains?” Greer asked Dr. Peres.
“A few hours, maybe less. It appears nothing was deliberately buried. We’ll get the bulk of it tonight and then come back tomorrow to widen the search area.”
“Widen?” asked Ava.
“Yes, tiny animals will have dragged off the smaller bones of the hands and feet. Frequently we find them nearby.”
“Will you be able to tell how she died?” Greer asked.
Greer asked the question in a much better way than Zander had.
“Sadly, with skeletal remains, what I can find is very limited. Bones can show stab marks, blunt force trauma, strangulation if the hyoid is present—which I don’t hold a lot of hope for since it’s a tiny bone and the body might have been here for twenty years. We’re lucky we have as many bones as we do.” She gave a curt nod, determination in her gaze. “I’ll do my best.”
The skull in her hands held Zander’s attention.
Are you related to the Fitch case?
The race of two of the victims and their adjacent locations were the only connections.
Only connections so far. The length of time between the deaths—
“Sheriff, what’s the exact date of Cynthia Green’s disappearance?” he asked.
Greer checked his phone and told him.
Ava’s wide eyes met Zander’s.
Cynthia had vanished two weeks before Emily Mills’s father had been hanged.
Zander had barely slept.
The skeletal face of Cynthia Green haunted him as he followed Ava into the county sheriff’s department the next morning, his coffee in hand. He saw Cynthia when he closed his eyes and when they were open. He and Ava had spent an hour last night discussing every direction they needed to investigate in their ever-expanding case. The hate crime of the Fitch deaths was spiraling larger and larger.
A missing black girl found a few hundred yards from the Fitch residence.
She’d disappeared two weeks before Emily’s father was hanged.
A hanging also happened at the Fitch home.
The same homemade GHB that was in the Fitches had been found in Nate Copeland.
The facts were tenuously connected, as in a spiderweb, and many pieces were missing.
“This won’t do.” Ava put her hands on her hips as she considered the table and chairs in the small room. They had asked Emily Mills to meet them that morning for follow-up questions.
“What’s wrong with it?” It was a bare-bones room that the sheriff’s department used for interviews. Crumbs on the table and fast-food wrappers in the overflowing wastebasket told Zander it was frequently used for other things.
“I don’t want a table between us and Emily.”
Zander made a face, understanding what she meant. Ava had insisted on conducting this follow-up at the station because the location “felt official.” Now she didn’t want a table because it could give suspects a feeling of protection, as if they could hide behind the table. She wanted Emily to feel exposed.
A little anxiety could make people reveal deceptive behaviors—possible indicators of lying.
He handed his coffee to Ava, shoved the table out of the center of the room and up against a wall, and then arranged three chairs to face each other. “How’s that?”
She grinned, pleased, and returned his coffee.
“Nothing from Dr. Peres yet?” he asked as he lowered himself into a chair and stretched out his legs.
“It’s only nine a.m. Give her a chance to get to work at least.”
“I figured if her husband started early, then maybe she did too.”
The forensic anthropologist had driven back to Portland after midnight, promising to have her forensic odontologist take dental films of the skull and compare them to the X-rays from the state police who had originally handled the disappearance of Cynthia Green.
A silver stud earring and a beaded bracelet had been found with the odd coins near the remains. A few small shirt buttons had been scattered in the ground cover, but there were no shoes.
The sheriff had refused to notify the family until the dental records had been examined and confirmed. “No point in getting their hopes up twenty years after her disappearance when we aren’t positive,” he’d said. Everyone had agreed.
Even exhausted, Zander could barely sit still in the airless room, needing to know if they had found Cynthia Green. Questions bubbling in his head had kept him up half the night.
Emily appeared in the doorway, curiosity in her features, a cautious smile on her lips. She was dressed for the cold in tall boots, jeans, and a heavy wool coat.
Ava’s allegation that Zander had a fondness for the witness had taken hold in his brain, popping up at odd moments and disrupting his focus. Now he purposefully detached to analyze his reaction to the woman in the door.
He felt a small prickle in his stomach. A pull toward her. And he felt suddenly awake.
Knowing that Ava was about to expertly grill Emily over her previous interview bothered him. And it wasn’t a worry that he hadn’t been thorough in the first interview; it was a stupid caveman instinct to shield her from Ava’s sharp and probing exam.
Ava is right about my feelings.
No wonder Ava had ordered him to say as little as possible to Emily today.
“Are we doing this here so you can easily lock me up afterward?” Emily joked as she stepped in the room. She slid off her coat, unwrapped the scarf, and pushed her long hair off her neck. Taking a seat, she looked at Ava and Zander expectantly, her gaze acute, her posture alert.
“Thanks for coming, Emily,” Ava replied with a half grin. “I don’t think we’ll need a cell today.”
“Maybe I need one for protection.”
“What?” Zander sat up straight. “Have you been threatened? What happened?”
Emily held up her hands. “I was kidding . . . sort of. Nothing’s happened, but I’ve had a hard time getting Nate’s death out of my head, and I’m constantly looking over my shoulder. Has it been determined if it was suicide?”
Zander didn’t miss the faint hopeful note in her tone.
“It wasn’t suicide,” Ava said. “The forensics lead us to believe he was murdered.”
Emily went perfectly still. “How do you know for certain?” she finally asked.
“You’ll have to trust us,” Ava said. “We can’t share that information right now.”
Emily glanced at Zander. He gave a short nod to confirm Ava’s statement.
She’s scared. With good reason.
“What does that mean for me?” Emily bluntly asked. “Knowing that someone might want me dead has been on my brain for almost two days—I can’t get it out of my head. Now it’s confirmed.” She gripped her coat tightly in her lap, her knuckles white. But her chin was up and her gaze steady.