Criminal, p.19
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       Criminal, p.19

           Karin Slaughter

  “Are they able to scream?”

  “I’d be shocked if they could manage more than a hoarse whisper, but people surprise you sometimes. Everyone is different.”

  Amanda tried to process all this new information. “But what you’re saying is that Lucy Bennett was choked.” She remembered Pete’s earlier terminology. “Strangled to death.”

  He shook his head and shrugged at the same time. “I’ll need to see the lungs. Strangulation causes aspiration pneumonitis—the inhalation of vomit into the lungs. The gastric acids eat into the tissue. This gives us something of a timeline. The more tissue damage, the longer she was alive. Was she strangled into unconsciousness and then thrown off the roof or was she strangled to death and then thrown off the roof?”

  “Why does it matter?” Either way, Lucy had been murdered.

  “When you catch your perpetrator, you’re going to want to know the details of the crime. That way, you can make sure you’ve got the right guy and not some nut looking for a headline in the newspaper.”

  Amanda didn’t see a scenario where she would be catching any perpetrator. She wasn’t even sure why Pete was answering her questions. “But why would the killer give details of the crime? That would just make the case against him stronger.”

  “He won’t realize he’s walking into the trap you set.” Pete told her, “You are a lot smarter than he is. Your perpetrator is a man who cannot control himself.”

  Amanda considered the statement, which didn’t strike her as wholly true. “He was smart enough to try to cover the crime.”

  “Not as smart as you think. Throwing her off the roof was risky. It called attention to the crime. It opened up the possibility of witnesses. Why not leave her in the apartment and let a neighbor report the smell a few days—weeks—later?”

  He was right. Amanda remembered the Manson murders, the way the bodies were posed. “Do you think the killer was sending a message?”

  “Possibly,” Pete allowed. “We can also assume that he knew the victim fairly well.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  Pete gripped his hands around the top of the sheet. “Remember to breathe.” He pulled away the covering, exposing the rest of the body.

  Amanda put her hand to her mouth. Nothing rushed up her throat. She didn’t pass out. She wasn’t even woozy. As with Roz Levy’s photos, she expected a violent reaction inside her body but was met instead with steely resolve. That same locking sensation from Techwood ran up Amanda’s spine. Her stomach actually stopped churning. Instead of fainting, she felt her vision sharpen.

  Amanda had never seen another woman entirely nude before. There was something sad about the way her breasts hung to the side. Her stomach was saggy. Her pubic hair was short, as if it had been trimmed, but the hair on her thighs was grotesquely unshaven. Blood and viscera leaked between her legs. Her body had been pummeled. Bruises blackened her stomach and ribs.

  Pete said, “In order to hurt somebody like this, you have to hate them. And hate does not come without familiarity. Just ask my ex-wife. She tried to strangle me once.”

  Amanda glanced up at him. There was no suggestion behind his smile. He wasn’t just creepy, he was downright strange. And polite. Amanda could not recall the last conversation she’d had with a man where she wasn’t constantly interrupted or talked over.

  Pete said, “You could be very good at this.”

  Amanda didn’t know if that was much to write home about. It certainly wasn’t conversation for the dinner table. “Can you tell me anything about the nail polish?”

  He took a latex glove out of his pocket. “Why don’t you tell me?”

  Amanda didn’t want to, but she took the glove. She tried to shove her hand into the stiff latex.

  “Wipe your palm first,” Pete advised.

  Amanda wiped her sweaty hand on her skirt. The glove was still a tight fit, but once she managed to force her fingers into the tips, the rest of her hand easily followed.

  Gently, she reached out for Lucy’s hand. The skin felt cold through the glove, or maybe Amanda was just imagining that. Instead of being limp, the body was stiff.

  “Rigor mortis,” Pete explained. “The skeletal muscles contract, locking the joints. Onset varies depending on temperature and lesser factors. It starts in as little as ten minutes and lasts for up to seventy-two hours.”

  “You can tell how long she’s been dead by how stiff she is.”

  “Precisely,” he confirmed. “By the time I got to our victim yesterday afternoon, she had been dead approximately three to six hours.”

  “That’s quite a window.”

  “Science is not as precise as we’d like to believe.”

  Amanda tried to turn the arm. It wouldn’t move.

  “Don’t worry about being gentle. She can’t feel pain anymore.”

  Amanda heard the sound of her throat working as she swallowed. She wrenched up the arm. There was a loud popping sound that sent a knife into Amanda’s chest.

  “Breathe in and out,” Pete advised. “Remember, it’s just tissue and bone.”

  Amanda swallowed again. The sound echoed in the room. She looked at Lucy Bennett’s fingers. “There’s something under her fingernails.”

  “Very good catch.” He went over to the cabinet in the corner. “We can send it to the lab for analysis.”

  Amanda wished she had Roz Levy’s magnifying glass. It wasn’t grime under the girl’s fingernails. “What do you think it is?”

  “If she fought back, it’s probably skin scratched off her attacker. Let’s hope she managed to draw blood.” Pete was back with a glass slide and something that looked like an oversized toothpick. “Hold her steady.” Pete scraped the wooden pick under the fingernail. A long piece of skin came out. “If there’s enough blood in this skin tissue, and you find a suspect, we can analyze his blood and see if it’s the same type, whether he’s a secretor or nonsecretor.”

  “We’d need more than blood to convict him.”

  “The FBI is doing amazing work with enzymes right now.” He tapped the skin tissue onto the slide. “In ten years’ time, they’ll have samples from everyone in America stored on thousands of different computers all around the country. All you’ll have to do is send the sample around to each computer and bingo, within months you’ll know your perpetrator’s name and address.”

  “You should tell that to Butch and Rick.” The two homicide detectives would probably laugh in his face. “This is their case.”

  “Is it really?”

  She didn’t bother answering the question. “I guess I don’t have to tell you how much trouble Evelyn and I would be in if they found out we were down here poking around.”

  Pete put the slide on the counter. “You know, the GBI can’t find enough women to meet their quotas. They’re going to lose their federal grants if they don’t fill up the slots by the end of the year.”

  “I work for the Atlanta Police Department.”

  “You don’t have to.”

  Pete obviously didn’t know Duke Wagner as well as everyone else she’d met today. Forget Butch and Rick. Her father would have a canary if he knew Amanda was at the morgue. Touching a dead person. Talking to a hippie about leaving her steady job to be the token woman on the state’s police force.

  In for a penny, she supposed. There was still the reason they’d come here in the first place. Amanda turned the woman’s hand out, exposing the wrist to the light. There they were—the familiar white scars. “She tried to kill herself before.”

  “Maybe,” Pete allowed. “A lot of young women cut themselves. Generally, it’s for attention. Your victim was obviously an addict. You can see that from the track marks. If she wanted to kill herself, she would’ve doubled down with the needle and her old friend H.”

  Amanda realized, “You washed her.”

  “Yes. We took photographs and X-rays, then we cut off her clothes and washed her down in preparation for the procedure. She’d urinated on herself—an u
nfortunate by-product of strangulation. Though one could point out this pales in comparison to the intestinal prolapse.” He added, “I should point out that she was remarkably clean considering her occupation and addiction.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “There was the expected results of the fall—picture a water balloon being dropped from that height—but in my experience, addicts don’t favor bathing. The natural oils clog the skin. They think it holds the drug in longer. I’m not sure if there’s a scientific basis for that, but someone who injects drain cleaner into their veins isn’t necessarily troubled by facts. You can see the trimming—” He indicated the short pubic hair. “That’s unusual, but I’ve seen it before. Some men are drawn to women who appear more infantilized.”

  “Child molesters?”

  “Not necessarily.”

  Amanda nodded, though her eyes avoided the area Pete was talking about. Instead, she studied Lucy’s hands again. The fingernail polish was perfect except for the chip. The strokes were even. It had taken a lot of time and patience to apply such a thick coat. Even Amanda, who buffed and clear-coated her nails in front of the television every night, couldn’t manage such an expert job.

  Pete asked, “Did you find something else?”

  “Her fingernails.”

  “Are they fake? I’ve been seeing a lot of those plastic ones out of California lately.”

  “It looks like—” Amanda shook her head. She didn’t know what it looked like. The nails were trimmed in a straight line. The cuticles were neat. The red polish was evenly within the margins. She’d never met a woman who could afford a professional manicure. She doubted a dead prostitute would be the first.

  Amanda walked around the table and looked at Lucy’s other hand. Again, the polish was perfect, as if someone else had applied it for her.

  Amanda opened her mouth to speak, then stopped herself.

  “Go on,” Pete said. “There are no silly questions in here.”

  “Can you tell if she’s left- or right-handed?”

  Pete beamed at Amanda as if she was his star pupil. “There will be more muscle attachment to the bone on the dominant side.”

  “From holding a pen?”

  “Among other things. Why are you asking?”

  “When I paint my fingernails, one side always looks better than the other. With her, both sides look perfect.”

  He smiled again. “This, my dear, is why more women should be in my field.”

  Amanda doubted any sane woman would ever do this job—at least not one who ever wanted to get married. “Maybe she has a friend who painted her fingernails?”

  “Do women really groom one another? I assumed Behind the Green Door was taking cinematic liberties.”

  Amanda ignored the observation. She carefully put Lucy’s hand back down on the table. It was so easy to focus on the parts rather than the whole. She’d let herself forget that Lucy Bennett was an actual human being.

  This was to be blamed in part because Amanda had not yet looked at the girl’s face. Amanda forced herself to do so now. She felt her early steeliness, but there was a tandem emotion of what could only be called curiosity. With the blood washed from Lucy’s face, she looked different. As in Roz’s photo, the skin still hung loosely to the side, but something beyond the obvious was not right.

  “Could you …” Amanda didn’t want to sound morbid, but she pushed through it. “Can I see her teeth?”

  “Most of them were broken in the fall. What are you getting at?”

  “The skin on her face. Is it possible to move it back to—”

  “Oh, of course.” Pete went to the head of the table. He gripped the loose flesh of the cheek and forehead and pulled it back over her skull. Lucy had bitten her lip in the fall. Pete returned it to the proper position. He used his fingers to tack the skin into place around the eyes and nose, like a baker kneading dough. “What do you think?”

  Amanda realized it was exactly as she had expected. This woman was not Lucy Bennett. The scars on her wrist weren’t the only indication. The open sores on her feet had a familiar pattern, like a constellation of stars. Barring that, there was the face, which clearly belonged to Jane Delray. “I think we need to get Evelyn back in here.”

  “How intriguing.”

  Amanda left the room through the swinging doors. The lab was empty, so she pushed open the other set of doors leading into the hallway. Evelyn was several yards ahead, close to the entrance. She was talking with a man wearing a navy blue suit. He was tall, over six feet. His sandy brown hair touched his collar. The tailoring of his clothes was obviously professional. The jacket curved into his back. The flared pants hovered over his white loafers. He was finishing a cigarette when Amanda joined them. Evelyn shot her a look, her eyes practically bulging from their sockets.

  She was talking to Mr. Blue Suit.

  “Mr. Bennett.” Evelyn’s voice was pitched higher than usual, though she was doing a good job of hiding her excitement. “This is my partner, Miss Wagner.”

  He barely glanced at her, keeping his eyes on his white loafers as he stamped out the cigarette. “As I said, I just want to see my sister and leave.”

  “We had a few more questions,” she began, but Bennett cut her off.

  “Is there a man I can talk to? Someone in charge?”

  Amanda thought of Pete. “The coroner is in the back.”

  Bennett’s lips twisted in distaste, whether at the thought of the coroner or what he saw in Amanda, she wasn’t sure. And it really didn’t matter. The only thing she could focus on was how arrogant and unlikable he was.

  Amanda said, “Dr. Hanson is preparing the body. It’ll only be a few more minutes.”

  Evelyn picked up the lie. “You won’t want to see her how she is now, Mr. Bennett.”

  “I don’t want to see her period,” he snapped back. “As I told you, Mrs. Mitchell, my sister was a drug addict and a whore. What I’m doing here is a mere formality so that my mother can have some peace at the end of her life.”

  “His mother has cancer,” Evelyn explained.

  Amanda let a few seconds pass out of respect for the man’s mother, but she couldn’t stop herself from asking, “Mr. Bennett, can you tell us when was the last time you saw your sister?”

  He glanced away. “Five, maybe six years?” He looked down at his watch. It was a furtive movement, as obvious as Evelyn tugging the back of her hair. “I really do not appreciate your wasting my time. Shall I go back to the coroner?”

  “Just another minute.” Amanda had never been good at spotting a liar, but Bennett was as easy to read as an open book. “Are you sure that’s the last contact you had with your sister?”

  Bennett took a pack of Parliaments from his breast pocket and shook out a cigarette. A large gold college ring was on his middle finger. UGA Law School. Class of ’74. The Georgia Bulldog was etched into the red stone.

  Amanda asked, “Mr. Bennett, are you sure about the timing? It seems like you’ve had contact with Lucy more recently.”

  He showed a flash of guilt as he jammed the cigarette between his lips. “I mailed her a letter to the Union Mission. It was perfunctory, I assure you.”

  “On Ponce de Leon?” Amanda asked. The Ponce Union Mission was the only homeless facility that allowed women.

  Bennett said, “I tried to find Lucy when our father passed away. My mother had it in mind that she’d joined the hippie movement—you know, just dropped out for a while. She thought Lucy would want to come home, go to college, live a normal life. She could never accept that Lucy chose to be a whore.”

  Evelyn asked, “When did your father pass?”

  Bennett flicked his gold lighter, taking his time to light the cigarette. He didn’t speak again until he’d blown out a stream of smoke. “It was a few weeks after I graduated from law school.”

  “Last year?”

  “Yes. July or August. I can’t recall.” He inhaled deeply on the cigarette. “Lucy was never really a goo
d girl. I suppose she fooled us all, right up until she ran off with some greaser to Atlanta. I’m sure you’ve heard this story more than a dozen times.” He exhaled, smoke curling from his nostrils. “She was always too willful. Stubborn.”

  Amanda asked, “How did you know to mail the letter to the Union Mission?”

  Bennett seemed irritated that she wouldn’t let him change the subject. “I made some calls to some people. They said that Lucy probably would’ve ended up there.”

  Amanda wondered who these people were. She took a chance. “Are you a litigator, Mr. Bennett?”

  “No, I do tax abatement. I’m a first-year associate at Treadwell-Price downtown. Why do you ask?”

  So, Evelyn was right. He’d obviously gotten his boss to make a phone call. “Did you hear back from your sister?”

  “No, but the man working there assured me that he gave the letter to Lucy. For whatever that’s worth.”

  “Do you remember the man’s name?”

  “Trask? Trent?” Bennett blew out a plume of smoke. “I don’t know. He was very unprofessional. Dirty clothes. Hair unkempt. Frankly, there was an odor about him. I imagine he’s a marijuana smoker.”

  “You met him in person?”

  “You can’t trust these people.” He sucked on the cigarette. “I thought I might find Lucy there. What I found was a bunch of disgusting whores and drunkards. Just the sort of place I knew Lucy would end up.”

  “Did you see her?”

  “Of course not. I doubt I would even recognize her.”

  Amanda nodded, though this seemed like an odd statement coming from a man who was about to identify his dead sister’s body.

  Evelyn asked, “Do you know a young woman named Kitty Treadwell?”

  He narrowed his eyes. Smoke drifted from the tip of his cigarette. “What do you know about Kitty?” He didn’t let them answer. “You two ladies should mind where you stick your noses. They’re liable to get cut off.”

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