All that remains, p.15
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       All That Remains, p.15
 

           Patricia Cornwell

  "Maybe," I said as the coffee began to drip.

  "1 think we should go back out there and poke around a little. You up for it?"

  "Frankly, the idea has crossed my mind."

  8

  In the light of a clear afternoon, the woods did not seem so ominous until Marino and I drew closer to the small clearing. Then the faint, foul odor of decomposing human flesh was an insidious reminder. Pine tags and leaves had been displaced and piled in small mounds by the scraping of shovels and emptying of sieves. It would take time and hard rains before the tangible remnants of murder were no longer to be found in this place.

  Marino had brought a metal detector and I carried a rake. He got out his cigarettes and looked around.

  "Don't see any point in scanning right here," he said. "It's been gone over half a dozen times."

  "I assume the path's been gone over thoroughly as well," I said, staring back at the trail we had followed from the logging road.

  "Not necessarily, because the path didn't exist when the couple was taken out here last fall."

  I realized what he was saying. The trail of displaced leaves and hard-packed dirt had been made by police officers and other interested parties going back and forth from the logging road to the scene.

  Surveying the woods, he added, "The fact is, we don't even know where they was parked, Doc. It's easy to assume it's close to where we parked, and that they got here pretty much the same way we did. But it depends on whether the killer was actually heading here."

  "I have a feeling the killer knew where he was going," I replied. "It doesn't make sense to think he randomly turned down the logging road and then ended up out here after haphazardly wandering around in the dark."

  Shrugging, Marino switched on the metal detector. "Can t hurt to give it a try."

  We began at the perimeter of the scene, scanning the path, sweeping yards of undergrowth and leaves on either side as we slowly made our way back toward the logging road. For almost two hours we probed any opening in trees and brush that looked remotely promising for human passage, the detector's first high-frequency tune rewarding our efforts with an Old Milwaukee beer can, the second with a rusty bottle opener. The third alert did not sound until we were at the edge of the woods, within sight of our car, where we uncovered a shotgun shell, the red plastic faded by the years.

  Leaning against the rake, I stared dismally back down the path, thinking. I pondered what Hilda had said about another place being involved, perhaps somewhere that the killer had taken Deborah, and I envisioned the clearing and the bodies. My first thought had been that if Deborah had broken free of the killer at some point, it may have been when she and Fred were being led in the dark from the logging road to the clearing. But as I looked through the woods, this theory didn't really make sense.

  "Let's accept as a given that we're dealing with one killer," I said to Marino.

  "Okay, I'm listening."

  He wiped his damp forehead on his coat sleeve.

  "If you were the killer and had abducted two people and then forced them, perhaps at gunpoint, to come out here, who would you kill first?"

  "The guy's going to be a bigger problem," he said without pause. "Me, I'm going to take him out first and save the little girl for last."

  It was still difficult to imagine. When I tried to envision one person forcing two hostages to walk through these woods after dark, I continued to draw a blank. Did the killer have a flashlight? Did he know this area so well he could find the clearing blindfolded? I voiced these questions aloud to Marino.

  "I've been trying to see the same thing," he said. "A couple ideas come to mind. First, he probably restrained them, tied their hands behind their back. Second, if it was me, I'd hold on to the girl, have the gun to her ribs while we're walking through the woods. This would make the boyfriend as gentle as a lamb. One false move, and his girl gets blown away. As for a flashlight? He had to have had some way of seeing out here."

  "How are you going to hold a gun, a flashlight, and the girl at the same time?" I asked.

  "Easy. Want me to show you?"

  "Not particularly."

  I backed away as he reached toward me.

  "The rake. Geez, Doc. Don't be so damn jumpy."

  He handed me the metal detector and I gave him the rake.

  "Pretend the rake's Deborah, okay? I'm yoking her around the neck with my left arm, the flashlight in my left hand, like this."

  He demonstrated. "In my right hand I've got the gun, which is stuck against her ribs. No problem. Fred's gonna be a couple feet in front of us, following the beam of the flashlight while I watch him like a hawk."

  Pausing, Marino stared down the path. "They're not going to be moving very fast."

  "Especially if they're barefoot," I pointed out.

  "Yeah, and I'm thinking they were. He can't tie up their feet if he's going to walk them out here. But if he makes them take off their shoes, then that's going to slow them down, make it harder for them to run. Maybe after he whacks them, he keeps the shoes as souvenirs."

  "Maybe."

  I was thinking about Deborah's purse again.

  I said, "If Deborah's hands were bound behind her back, then how did her purse get out here? It didn't have a strap, no way to loop it over her arm or shoulder. It wasn't attached to a belt, in fact it doesn't appear she was wearing a belt. And if someone were forcing you out into the woods at gunpoint, why would you take your purse with you?"

  "Got no idea. That's been bothering me from the start."

  "Let's give it one last try," I said.

  "Oh, shit."

  By the time we got back to the clearing, clouds had passed over the sun and it was getting windy, making it seem that the temperature had dropped ten degrees. Damp beneath my coat from exertion, I was cold, the muscles in my arms trembling from raking. Moving to the perimeter farthest from the path, 1 studied an area beyond which stretched a terrain so uninviting that 1 doubted even hunters ventured there. The police had dug and sifted maybe ten feet in this direction before running into an infestation of kudzu that had metastasized over the better part of an acre. Trees covered in the vine's green mail looked like prehistoric dinosaurs rearing up over a solid green sea. Every living bush, pine, and plant was slowly being strangled to death.

  "Good God," Marino said as I waded out with my rake. "You're not serious."

  "We won't go very far," I promised.

  We did not have to.

  The metal detector responded almost immediately The tone got louder and higher pitched as Marino positioned the scanner over an area of kudzu less than fifteen feet from where the bodies had been found. I discovered that raking kudzu was worse than combing snarled hair and finally resorted to dropping to my knees and ripping off leaves and feeling around roots with fingers sheathed in surgical gloves until I felt something cold and hard that I knew wasn't what I was hoping for.

  "Save it for the tollbooth," I said dejectedly, tossing Mao a dirty quarter.

  Several feet away the metal detector signaled us again, and this time my rooting around on hands and knees paid off. When I felt the unmistakable hard, cylindrical shape, I gently parted kudzu until I saw the gleam of stainless steel, a cartridge case still as shiny as polished silver. I gingerly plucked it out, touching as little of its surface as possible, while Marino bent over and held open a plastic evidence bag.

  "Nine-millimeter, Federal," he said, reading the head stamp through plastic. "I'll be damned."

  "He was standing right around here when he shot her," I muttered, a strange sensation running along my nerves as I recalled what Hilda had said about Deborah's being in a place "crowded" with things "grabbing" at her. Kudzu.

  "If she was shot at close range," Marco said, then she went down not too far from here."

  Wading out a little farther as he followed me with the metal detector, I said, "How the hell did he see to shoot her, Marino? Lord. Can you imagine this place at night?"

  "The moon was ou
t."

  "But it wasn't full," I said.

  "Full enough so it wouldn't have been pitch-dark."

  The weather had been checked months ago. The Friday night of August thirty-first when the couple had disappeared, the temperature had been in the upper sixties, the moon three-quarters full, the sky clear. Even if the killer had been armed with a powerful flashlight, I still could not understand how he could force two hostages out here at night without being as disoriented and vulnerable as they were. All I could imagine was confusion, a lot of 'stumbling about.

  Why didn't he just kill them on the logging road, drag their bodies several yards into the woods, and then drive away? Why did he want to bring them out here? And yet the pattern was the same with the other couples. Their bodies also had been found in remote, wooded areas like this.

  Looking around at the kudzu, an unpleasant expression on his face, Marino said, "Glad as hell this ain't snake weather."

  "That's a lovely thought," I said, unnerved.

  "You want to keep going?"

  he asked in a tone that told me he had no interest in venturing an inch farther into this gothic wasteland.

  "I think we've had enough for one day."

  I waded out of the kudzu as quickly as possible, my flesh crawling. The mention of snakes had done me in. I was on the verge of a full-blown anxiety attack.

  It was almost five, the woods gloomy with shadows as we headed back to the car. Every time a twig snapped beneath Marino's feet, my heart jumped. Squirrels scampering up trees and birds flying off branches were startling intrusions upon the eerie silence.

  "I'll drop this off at the lab first thing in the morning," he said. "Then I gotta be in court. Great way to spend your day off."

  "Which case?"

  "The case of Bubba shot by his friend named Bubba, the only witness was another drone named Bubba."

  "You're not serious."

  "Hey," he said, unlocking the car doors, "I'm as serious as a sawed-off shotgun."

  Starting the engine, he muttered, "I'm starting to hate this job, Doc. I swear, I really am."

  "At the moment you hate the whole world, Marino."

  "No, I don't," he said, and he actually laughed. "I like you all right."

  The last day of January began when the morning's mail brought an official communication from Pat Harvey. Brief and to the point, it stated that if copies of her daughter's autopsy and toxicology reports were not received by the end of the following week, she would get a court order. A copy of the letter had been sent to my immediate boss, the Commissioner of Health and Human Services, whose secretary was on the phone within the hour summoning me to his office.

  While autopsies awaited me downstairs, I left the building and made the short walk along Franklin to Main Street Station, which had been vacant for years, then converted into a short-lived shopping mall before the state had purchased it. In a sense, the historic red building with its clock tower and red tile roof had become a train station again, a temporary stop for state employees forced to relocate while the Madison Building was stripped of asbestos and renovated. The Governor hod appointed Dr. Paul Sessions commissioner two years before, and though face-to-face meetings with my new boss were infrequent, they were pleasant enough. I had a feeling today might prove a different story. His secretary had sounded apologetic em the phone, as if she knew I were being called in to be gaffed.

  The commissioner resided in a suite of offices on the second level, accessible by a marble stairway worn smooth by travelers scuffing; up and down steps in an era long past. The spaces the commissioner had appropriated had once been a sporting goods store and a boutique selling colorful kites and wind socks. Walls had been knocked out, plate glass windows filled in with brick, his offices carpeted, paneled, and arranged with handsome furnishings. Dr. Sessions was familiar enough with the sluggish workings of government to have settled into his temporary headquarters as if the relocation were permanent.

  His secretary greeted me with a sympathetic smile that made me feel only worse as she swiveled around from her keyboard and reached for the phone.

  She announced that I was here, and immediately the solid oak door across from her desk opened and Dr. Sessions invited me in.

  An energetic man with thinning brown hair and large-framed glasses that swallowed his narrow face, he was living proof that marathon running was never intended for human beings. His chest was tubercular, body fat so low he rarely took his suit jacket off and frequently wore long sleeves in the summer because he was chronically cold. He still wore a splint on the left arm he had broken several months ago while running a race on the West Coast and getting tangled up in a coathanger that had eluded the feet of runners ahead of him and sent him crashing to the street. He was, perhaps, the only contender not to finish the race and end up in the newspapers anyway.

  He seated himself behind his desk, the letter from Pat Harvey centered on the blotter, his face unusually stern.

  "I assume you've already seen this?"

  He tapped the letter with an index finger.

  "Yes," I said. "Understandably, Pat Harvey is very interested in the results of her daughter's examination."

  "Deborah Harvey's body was found eleven days ago. Am I to conclude you don't yet know what killed her or Fred Cheney?"

  "I know what killed her. His cause of death is still, undetermined."

  He looked puzzled. "Dr. Scarpetta, would you care to explain to me why this information has not been released to the Harvey's or to Fred Cheney's father?"

  "My explanation is simple," I said. "Their cases are still pending as further special studies are conducted. And the FBI has asked me to withhold releasing anything to anyone."

  "I see."

  He gazed at the wall as if it contained a window to look out of, which it did not.

  "If you direct me to release my reports, I will do so, Dr. Sessions. In fact, I would be relieved if you would order me to meet Pat Harvey's request."

  "Why?"

  He knew the answer, but he wanted to hear what I had to say.

  "Because Mrs. Harvey and her husband have a right to know what happened to their daughter," I said. "Bruce Cheney has a right to hear what we do or don't know about his son. The wait is anguish for them."

  "Have you talked to Mrs. Harvey?"

  "Not recently."

  "Have you talked to her since the bodies were found, Dr. Scarpetta?"

  He was fidgeting with his sling.

  "I called her when the identifications were confirmed, but I haven't talked with her since."

  "Has she tried to reach you?"

  "She has."

  "And you have refused to talk to her?"

  "I've already explained why I'm not talking to her," I said. "And I don't believe it would be polite for me to get on the phone and tell her that the FBI doesn't want me to release information to her."

  "You haven't mentioned the FBI's directive to anyone, then."

  "I just mentioned it to you."

  He recrossed his legs. "And I appreciate that. But it would be inappropriate to mention this business to anybody else. Especially reporters."

  "I've been doing my best to avoid reporters."

  "The Washington Post called me this morning."

  "Who from the Post?"

  He began sorting through message slips as I waited uneasily. I did not want to believe that Abby would go behind my back and over my head.

  "Someone named Clifford Ring."

  He glanced up. "Actually, it's not the first time he's called, nor am I the only person he's attempted to milk for information. He's also been badgering my secretary and other members of my staff, including my deputy and the Secretary of Human Resources. I assume he's called you as well, which was why he finally resorted to administration, because, as he put it, - the medical examiner won't talk to me" "A lot of reporters have called. I don't remember most of their names."

  "Well, Mr. Ring seems to think there's some sort of cover-up going on, s
omething conspiratorial, and based on the direction of his questioning, he seems to have information that buttresses this."

  Strange, I thought. It didn't sound to me as if the Post was holding off on investigating these cases, as Abby had stated so emphatically.

  "He's under the impression," the commissioner continued, "that your office is stonewalling, and that it's therefore part of this so-called conspiracy."

  "And I suppose we are."

  I worked hard to keep the annoyance out of my voice. "And that leaves me caught in the middle. Either I defy Pat Harvey or the justice Department, and frankly, given a choice, I would prefer to accommodate Mrs. Harvey. Eventually, I will have to answer to her. She is Deborah's mother. I don't have to answer to the FBI."

 
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