All that remains, p.8
All That Remains,
"It gets worse," promised Jay Morrell, who was leading the way.
Black mud sucked at our feet, and every time Marino brushed against a tree I was showered with freezing water. Fortunately, I kept a hooded Gore-Tex coat and heavy rubber boots in the trunk of my state car for scenes like this one. What I had been unable to find were my thick leather gloves, and it was impossible to navigate through the woods and keep branches out of my face if my hands were in my pockets.
I had been told there were two bodies, suspected to be a male and a female. They were less than four miles from the rest stop where Deborah Harvey's Jeep had been found last fall.
You don't know that it's them, I thought to myself with every step.
But when we reached the perimeter of the scene, my heart constricted. Benton Wesley was talking to an officer working a metal detector, and Wesley would not have been summoned unless the police were sure. He stood with military erectness, exuding the quiet confidence of a man in charge. He seemed bothered neither by the weather nor by the stench of decomposing human flesh. He was not looking around and taking in the details the way Marino and I were, and I knew why. Wesley had already looked around. He had been here long before, I was called.
The bodies were lying next to each other, facedown in, a small clearing about a quarter of a mile from the muddy logging road where we had left our cars. They were so badly decomposed they were partially skeletonized. The long bones of arms and legs protruded like dirty gray sticks from rotted clothing scattered with leaves. Skulls were detached and had been nudged or rolled, probably by small predators, a foot or two away.
"Did you find their shoes and socks?"
I asked, not seeing either.
"No, ma'am. But we found a purse."
Morrell pointed to the body on the right. "Forty-four dollars and twenty-six cents in it. Plus a driver's license, Deborah Harvey's driver's license."
He pointed again, adding, "We're assuming the body there on the left is Cheney."
Yellow crime scene tape glistened wetly against the dark bark of trees. Twigs snapped beneath the feet of men moving about, their voices blending into an indistinguishable babble beneath the relentless, dreary rain. Opening my medical bag, I got out a pair of surgical gloves and my camera.
For a while I did not move as I surveyed the shrunken, almost fleshless bodies before me. Determining the sex and race of skeletal remains cannot always be done at a glance. I would not swear to anything until I could look at the pelvis, which were obscured by what appeared to be dark blue or black denim jeans. But based on the characteristics of the body to my right - small bones, small skull with small mastoids, non-prominent brow ridge, and strands of long blondish hair dinging to rotted fabric - 1 had no reason to think anything other than white female. The size of her companion, the robustness of the bones, prominent brow ridge, large skull, and flat face were good for white male.
As for what might have happened to the couple, 1 could not tell. There were no ligatures indicating strangulation. I saw no obvious fractures or holes that might have meant blows or bullets. Male and female were quietly together in death, the bones of her left arm slipped under his right as if she had been holding on to him in the end, empty eye sockets gaping as rain rolled over their skulls.
It wasn't until I moved in close and got down on my knees that I noticed a margin of dark soil, so narrow it was barely perceptible, on either side of the bodies. If they had died Labor Day weekend, autumn leaves would not have fallen yet. The ground beneath them would be relatively bare. I did not like what was going through my mind. It was bad enough that the police had been tramping around out here for hours. Dammit. To move or disturb a body in any way before the medical examiner arrives is a cardinal sin, and every officer out here knew that.
Morrell was towering over me, his breath smoking. "Was just talking to Phillips over there."
He glanced in the direction of several officers searching thick underbrush about twenty feet east of us. "He found a watch and an earring, some change, all right about here where the bodies are. The interesting thing is, the metal detector kept going off. He had it right over the bodies and it was beeping. Could be from a zipper or something. Maybe a metal snap or button on their jeans. Thought you should know."
I looked up into his thin, serious face. He was shivering beneath his parka.
"Tell me what you did with the bodies in addition to running the metal detector over them, Morrell. I can see they've been moved. I need to know if this is the exact position they were in when they were discovered this morning."
"I don't know about when the hunters found them, though they claim they didn't get very close," he said, eyes probing the woods. "But yes, ma'am, this is the way they looked when we got here. All we did was check for personal effects, went into their pockets and her purse."
"I assume you took photographs before you moved anything," I said evenly.
"We started taking pictures as soon as we arrived."
Getting out a small flashlight, I began the hopeless task of looking for trace evidence. After bodies have been exposed to the elements for so many months, the chance of finding significant hairs, fibers, or other debris was slim to none. Morrell watched in silence, uneasily shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
"Have you found out anything else from your investigation that might be of assistance, assuming this is Deborah Harvey and Fred Cheney?"
I asked, for I had not seen Morrell or talked to him since the day Deborah's Jeep had been found.
"Nothing but a possible drug connection," he said. "We've been told Cheney's roommate at Carolina was into cocaine. Maybe Cheney fooled around with cocaine too. That's one of the things we're considering, if maybe he and the Harvey girl met up with someone who was selling drugs and came out here."
That didn't make any sense.
"Why would Cheney leave the Jeep at a rest stop and go off with a drug dealer, taking Deborah with him, and come out here?"
I asked. "Why not just buy the drugs at the rest stop and be on their way?"
"They may have come out here to party."
"Who in his right mind would come out here after dark to party or do anything else? And where are their shoes, Morrell? Are you suggesting they walked through the woods barefoot?"
"We don't know what happened to their shoes," he said.
"That's very interesting. So far, five couples have been found dead and we don't know what happened to their shoes. Not one shoe or sock has turned up. Don't you find that rather odd?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am. I think it's odd, all right," he said, hugging himself to get warm. "But right now I've got to work these two cases here without thinking about the other four couples. I've got to go with what I've got. And all I've got at the moment is a possible drug connection. I can't allow myself to get sidetracked by this serial murder business or who the girl's mother is, or I might be wrong and miss the obvious."
"I certainly wouldn't want you to miss the obvious."
He was silent.
"Did you find any drug paraphernalia inside the Jeep?"
"No. Nothing out here so far to suggest drugs, either. But we've got a lot of soil and leaves to go through - " "The weather's awful. I'm not sure it's a good idea to begin sifting through the soil."
I sounded impatient and irritable. I was put out with him. I was put out with the police. Water was trickling down the front of my coat. My knees hurt. I was losing feeling in my hands and feet. The stench was overpowering, and the loud smacking of the rain was getting on my nerves.
"We haven't started digging or using the sieves. Thought we might wait on that. It's too hard to see. The metal detector's all we've used so far, that and our eyes."
"Well, the more all of us walk around out here, the more we risk destroying the scene. Small bones, teeth, other things, get stepped on and pushed down into the mud."
They had already been here for hours. It was probably too damn late t
"So, you want to move them today or hold off until the weather clears?" he asked.
Under ordinary circumstances, I would have waited until the rain stopped and there was more light. When bodies have been in the woods for months, leaving them covered with plastic and in place for another day or two isn't going to make any difference. But when Marino and I had parked on the logging road, there were already several television news trucks waiting. Reporters were sitting in their cars, others braving the rain and trying to coax information out of police officers standing sentry. The circumstances were anything but ordinary. Though I had no right to tell Morrell what to do, by Code I had jurisdiction over the bodies.
"There are stretchers and body bags in the back of my car," I said, digging out my keys. "If you could have somebody get them, we'll move the bodies shortly and I'll take them on in to the morgue."
"Sure thing. I'll take care of it."
Then Benton Wesley was crouching next to me.
"How did you find out?"
I asked. The question was ambiguous, but he knew what I meant.
"Morrell reached me in Quantico. I came right away."
He studied the bodies, his angular face almost haggard in the shadow of his dripping hood. "You seeing anything that might tell us what happened?"
"All I can tell you at the moment is their skulls weren't fractured and they weren't shot in the head."
He did not respond, his silence adding to my tension.
I began unfolding sheets as Marino walked up, hands jammed into his coat pockets, shoulders hunched against the cold and rain.
"You're going to catch pneumonia," Wesley remarked, getting to his feet. "Is Richmond PD too cheap to buy you guys hats?"
"Shit," Marino said, "you're lucky they put gas in your damn car and furnish you with a gun. The squirrels in Spring Street got it better than we do."
Spring Street was the state penitentiary. It was true that it cost the state more money each year to house some inmates than a lot of police officers got paid for keeping them off the street. Marino loved to complain about it.
"I see the locals drug your ass out here from Quantico. Your lucky day," Marino said.
"They told me what they'd found. I asked if they'd called you yet."
"Yeah, well, they got around to it eventually."
"I can see that. Morrell told me he's never filled out a VICAP form. Maybe you can give him a hand."
Marino stared at the bodies, his jaw muscles flexing.
"We need to get this into the computer," Wesley went on as rain drummed the earth.
Tuning out their conversation, I arranged one of the sheets next to the female's remains and turned her on her back. She held together nicely, joints and ligaments still intact. In a climate like Virginia's, it generally takes at least a year of being exposed to the elements before a body is fully skeletonized, or reduced to disarticulated bones. Muscle tissue, cartilage, and ligaments are tenacious. She was petite, and I recalled the photograph of the lovely young athlete posed on a balance beam. Her shirt, I noted, was some sort of pullover, possibly a sweatshirt, and her jeans were zipped up and snapped. Unfolding the other sheet, I went through the same procedure with her companion. Turning over decomposed bodies is like turning over rocks. You never know what you'll find underneath, except that you can usually count on insects. My flesh crawled as several spiders skittered off, vanishing beneath leaves.
Shifting positions in a fruitless attempt to get more comfortable, I realized Wesley and Marino were gone. Kneeling alone in the rain, I began feeling through leaves and mud, searching for fingernails, small bones, and teeth. I noticed at least two teeth missing from one of the mandibles. Most likely, they were somewhere near the skulls. After fifteen or twenty minutes of this, I had recovered one tooth, a small transparent button, possibly from the male's shirt, and two cigarette butts. Several cigarette butts had been found at each of the scenes, though not all of the victims were known to smoke. What, was unusual was that not one of the filters bore a manufacturer's brand mark or name.
When Morrell returned, I pointed this out to him.
"Never been to a scene where there aren't cigarette butts," he replied, and I wondered just how many scenes he could swear he had been to. Not many, I guessed.
"It's as if part of the paper has been peeled away or the end of the filter nearest the tobacco pinched off," I explained, and when this evoked no response from him I dug in the mud some more.
Night was falling when we headed back to our cars, a somber procession of police officers gripping stretchers bearing bright orange body bags. We reached the narrow unpaved logging road as a sharp wind began to kick in from the north and the rain began to freeze. My dark blue state station wagon was equipped as a hearse. Fasteners in the plyboard floor in back locked stretchers into place so they did not slide around during transport. I positioned myself behind the wheel and buckled up as Marino climbed in, Morrell slammed shut the tailgate, and photographers and television cameramen recorded us on film. A reporter who wouldn't give up rapped on my window, and I locked the doors.
"God bless it. I hope like hell I ain't called to another one of these," Marino exclaimed, turning on the heat full blast.
I drove around several potholes.
"What a bunch of vultures."
Eyeing his side mirror, he watched journalists scurrying into their cars. "Some asshole must've run his mouth over the radio. Probably Morrell. The dumb-ass. If he was in my squad, I'd send his ass back to traffic, get him transferred to the uniform room or information desk."
"You remember how to get back on Sixty-four from here?" I asked.
"Hang a left at the fork straight ahead. Shit."
He cracked the window and got out his cigarettes. "Nothing like driving in a closed-up car with decomposed bodies."
Thirty miles later I unlocked the back door to the OCME and pushed a red button on the wall inside. The bay door made a loud grating noise as it opened, light spilling onto the wet tarmac. Backing in the wagon, I opened the tailgate. We slid out the stretchers and wheeled them inside the morgue as several forensic scientists got off the elevator and smiled at us without giving our cargo more than a glance. Body-shaped mounds on stretchers and gurneys were as common as the cinderblock walls. Blood drips on the floor and foul odors were unpleasantnesses you learned to step around and quietly hurry past.
Producing another key, I opened the padlock on the refrigerator's stainless-steel door, then went to see about toe tags and signing in the bodies before we transferred them to a double-decker gurney and left them for the night.
"You mind if I stop by tomorrow to see what you figure out about these two?"
"That would be fine."
"It's them," he said. "Gotta be."
"I'm afraid that's the way it looks, Marino. What happened to Wesley?"
"On his way back to Quantico, where he can prop his Florsheim shoes on top of his big desk and get the results over the phone."
"I thought you two were friends," I said warily.
"Yeah, well, life's funny like that, Doc. It's like when I'm supposed to go fishing. All the weather reports predict clear skies, and the minute I put the boat in the water it begins to friggin' rain."
"Are you on evening shift this weekend?"
"Not last I heard."
"Sunday night - how about coming over for dinner? Six, six-thirty?"
"Yeah, I could probably manage that," he said, looking away, but not before I caught the pain in his eyes.
1 had heard his wife supposedly had moved back to New Jersey before Thanksgiving to take care of her dying mother. Since then I had had dinner with Marino several times, but he had been unwilling to talk about his personal life.
Letting myself into the autopsy suite, I headed for the locker room, where I always kept personal necessities and a change of clothes for what I considered hygienic emergencies. I was fil
One of many things Anna had advised me to do after Mark moved to Denver was to make an effort to counteract the damage I routinely inflicted upon my body.
She had said that frightful word. "The endorphins relieve depression. You will eat better, sleep better, feel so much better. I think you should take up tennis again."
Following her suggestion had proved a humbling experience. I had scarcely touched a racket since I was a teenager, and though my backhand had never been good, over the decades it ceased to exist at all. Once a week I took a lesson late at night, when I was less likely to be subjected to the curious stares of the cocktail and happy hour crowd lounging in the observation gallery of Westwood Racquet Club's indoor facility.
All That Remains by Patricia Cornwell / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes