Forensic Mystery 1
Edgar Allan Poe Award: Nominee 2007
Fascinated by forensics, seventeen-year-old Cameryn Mahoney persuades her father, the county coroner in sleepy Silverton, CO, to take her on as his assistant. But she never expects her first case to involve the death of a friend! Rachel Geller, a beautiful young waitress, is found strangled in a field with a Christopher medal around her neck—clearly marking her as the fourth victim of a serial killer. Cameryn is determined to help find Rachel’s killer, and attending the autopsy gives her the first clue. But as she follows her instincts and gets closer to the killer, Cameryn suddenly finds herself on the verge of becoming his fifth victim!Chapter Five
“YOU GUYS DON’T HAVE TO wait here with me,” Cameryn said, drumming the steering wheel nervously. “The bell’s going to ring any second, and . . . I don’t know, I just . . .” She didn’t finish the sentence. It felt like she couldn’t string her words together, or worse, her thoughts. It was hard to make anything inside her head line up. Instead, her syllables spun like autumn leaves caught in a whirligig of air. It was all the crazy talk of Jewel that was making her think sideways. She had to pull herself together.
“Don’t worry about me; I don’t care if I’m late,” Adam announced from the backseat. “I mean, I’m still trying to take it all in. Somebody’s dead.” He shook his head and exclaimed, “Man. It’s just like Jewel said last night.”
“We don’t know that—right now we don’t know anything except someone died. And, you guys know not to say anything to anyone at school, right?” Cameryn said for the third time. “Remember, my dad said he didn’t want reporters showing up. It’s still a crime scene. We’ve got to get it all sorted out.”
“We already promised we wouldn’t say a word,” Lyric replied. “Don’t worry, we’ll keep our mouths shut. But, you do realize this is going to be a Christopher killing. When the media catches wind of what happened, it’s going to get crazy. You need to prepare yourself.”
“It’s not the Christopher Killer,” Cameryn said, her voice sharp. “Okay, it’s a possible murder—and I say possible because we haven’t even been to the scene yet to know for sure—but that doesn’t mean it’s the murder. I mean, you just made a huge leap in logic. I want to stick to facts.”
“The fact is this—a murdered girl in the mountains is just what Dr. Jewel saw in his vision,” Lyric told her calmly. “The orange soil. The body by water. I don’t care if you believe me now or not, because you will believe as soon as you get there.”
But Cameryn would hear none of it. “Statistically, there have been lots of murders since Jewel made his prediction. And by the way, where was Dr. Jewel when he ‘saw’ all this, anyway?”
“New Mexico,” Adam answered. From his coat pocket he pulled out a cigarette and rolled it between his hands. Cameryn turned in her seat so she could watch him. “You’re not going to light that, are you?” she asked.
Adam shook his head. “See, right now Jewel’s holding a live psychic convention down there in Santa Fe. But you can’t let the distance throw you, because with mediums, space and time and all of those existential limitations no longer exist. It’s still hard to get my head around this. I knew Jewel had power, but I got to admit this is freaking weird.” He stopped rolling his cigarette and looked up through his curtain of hair. “Do you think the dead girl is someone from Silverton?”
Her heart skipped a beat. “No way,” she said. Cameryn didn’t know why she was so sure, but she was. “It’s got to be a tourist. We’ve still had a lot of people coming up on the train since the weather’s been so good. It’ll be an out-of-towner. And I’m getting out of the car—I think I need some air.”
As if on cue, the three of them spilled out of the car. It was harder for Adam. He exited legs-first, unfolding himself, piece by piece, as though he were a piece of collapsible gear that needed to be reassembled outside its box. Lyric reached around him to grab her backpack, and when she did, she accidentally bumped against him. “Sorry,” she said softly.
Crossing her arms, Cameryn leaned against the side of the Jeep and waited. It was only eight thirty and already the air was warming up. October weather in Silverton could be schizophrenic. The last few days had brought cool temperatures in the mornings and evenings only, when the sky was still purple-blue and the stars mere pricks of pale light. The middle of the day, however, had been uncharacteristically warm. The higher than normal temperatures, she knew, would make her father’s job—her job—that much harder.
She knew a body would decompose fast in the heat. Insects, especially blowflies, honed in on their mark within hours and laid their eggs into any available flesh. That was the science of it. A short while later maggots would emerge, a wriggling white mass capable of stripping a corpse to the bone within weeks, depending on temperature and humidity levels, which meant precious evidence could be lost quickly.
And that wasn’t even factoring in the animal activity that would inevitably occur when a body was left in the wild. Mentally she tried to prepare herself for what she might see, but how could she steel her insides for what lay at Smith Fork? Was it only last week that she’d seen the man in the bathtub? It seemed like a lifetime ago that she’d retched from the smell. Today, Cameryn realized, could be much, much worse.
Adam lit his cigarette with a plastic lighter, politely blowing the smoke away from Cameryn. His smoking irritated her. She wished the two of them would leave, but at the same time she liked them there with her—just one more contradictory set of emotions to sort through. The warning bell rang, followed by the bell signaling the start of school, and still her father had not come.
“What’s taking your dad so long?” Lyric asked, tapping her foot into the dirt. “I thought he was rushing right over to pick you up.”
Cameryn shrugged. “He might have stopped to get a white body bag. They’re supposed to use white ones when it’s a murder. That’s what the books say, anyway.” “Why white?” Adam asked. Already he was working on a second cigarette. A bit of paper had stuck to his bottom lip, which he carefully pinched off.
“Because evidence left inside the bag is easier to spot.”
Adam nodded. He took a drag and exhaled. “Man, how do you know this stuff?”
“I read,” she answered. “I study. I focus on things you can see, taste, smell, and test. Then I throw in a rosary for Mammaw and I’m good to go.”
“And they say I’m twisted.”
At that moment Patrick’s station wagon whipped around the corner and into the parking lot. From the way he clutched the steering wheel she could tell he was upset. “Dad!” she cried, waving frantically. “Over here!”
When he saw her he flipped a U-turn in front of the school, so close his wheel bounced up on the curb. He slowed down as he approached them. The passenger-side window was already down, and he scooped the air with his hand, ordering her in. “Come on, they’re waiting for us!”
A jolt of electricity shot through Cameryn as she hopped inside the car and buckled up. Adam and Lyric gave a wave as the station wagon pulled away. She watched them as they grew smaller in the distance, Adam, as tall and thin as a poplar tree next to Lyric’s full evergreen frame. Lyric’s backpack slumped between them like a tired dog.
The station wagon turned onto Greene, and soon the car was heading south along the Million Dollar Highway, so named because it cost the state well over a million dollars to carve it into the high mountains. Patrick said nothing; his posture behind the wheel was ramrod straight, and his head grazed the ceiling of the car, bending his hair back like the bristles of an old scrub brush.
“I’m sorry to make you miss school,” he said. “I almost didn’t call you, but since it’s a murder, well, I need all the help I can get.”
“It’s okay, Dad. You know I’ve got all As. So do they know who it is?” she asked.
Patrick shook his head. “Not yet. With all the tourists running around it’s most likely one of them and . . . well, it’s bad no matter who it is, right? Jacobs said the victim appears young.” Shaking his head, he looked as though he were trying the clear his thoughts. “But we’ve got to get to business. I’ve brought two cameras—one’ll take color and the other black and white. So here’s what I want you to do: I want you to photograph the body from every conceivable angle using both the cameras—color first. That’ll be important.” He rubbed a hand over his chin. “It’s been years since I’ve done homicide and I’m trying to remember every single step. The cameras and other supplies are in that knapsack in the back. Can I put you in charge?”
Cameryn nodded. She’d taken many photographs in her life, just never of something so grim.
“Good. I’ve got to admit it, I’m glad you’re with me.” He wore a long-sleeved plaid shirt beneath a navy bomber jacket. Patrick tugged at the collar of his shirt and then, with one hand, unfastened the top button. “The way you handled yourself with Robertson, Cam, well, you were a real professional. I have total faith in you. And it sure doesn’t hurt that you’ve been reading up on forensics. I could use some of that expertise.”
If she hadn’t been so preoccupied with the murder she might have cringed at the compliment. When faced with Robertson’s body the second time around she’d been able to hold her emotions in check. The difference was in knowing what was in front of her, of being mentally steeled. Stone-faced, she’d photographed the body, and both her father and Jacobs thought her a natural investigator, which she’d let them believe. And Justin, true to his promise, never said a word. But that was a different death, a different reason. This was a murder.
Now they fell into silence. She looked out of the station wagon, to the pines that marched straight up the granite mountain in an endless evergreen army. The trees were thick at Smith Fork, and Cameryn suddenly wondered if there was blood there. And if that blood soaked into the earth to disappear like water into sand, what then? Were they supposed to dig it out? Her books hadn’t told her anything about that—they probably hadn’t told her about a lot of things. She pictured blood and suddenly she had a strange thought: What happened to the blood they couldn’t reach? Would the tree roots drink up the blood molecules? If the roots leeched the blood, then the victim might become part of the trees themselves and live again, like the circle of life that Lyric always talked about. Or was it like her mammaw told her—when you died, your spirit soared to heaven and you lived on streets paved with gold? Or were you just dead, like the deer she saw strapped to big pickup trucks that rumbled through Silverton every fall.
Robertson had looked plain dead. The old lady had looked peaceful, sleeping, and thinking of that face Cameryn could believe in some kind of angelic rest. But what happened with a murder, when a soul was ripped out of a body and the person wasn’t ready? Cameryn squeezed her eyes shut; it seemed as though her mind was jumping sideways again. She had to get a grip, to think clinically instead of emotionally. She’d be no good at all if she didn’t get her thoughts clear.
On her right she saw a sheet of water weeping from slick rock, and past that a wall of stone where the mountain had been sheared off as if by a giant’s knife. Smith Fork, and the body it contained, was less than a mile ahead. She chewed on the edge of her lip. “You’re mighty quiet there, Cammie.”
“I was just thinking.”
“Something Lyric told me. She said a psychic in New Mexico talked to the spirit of a girl who was murdered near a stream, and now this has happened, and, well . . .” She looked at him, eyes wide. “Dad, do you think . . . ?”
“There are lots of murders and lots of streams. The only fact that’s real is that there’s a dead girl out there. Lyric’s a sweetheart and I love her, but don’t be dancing to her song. One colorful seventeen-year-old in Silverton’s enough. And who was that other kid with you? I don’t remember seeing him before.”
“His name’s Adam.”
“Oh, so that’s Adam. I’ve heard about him.”
“Tell me about Sheriff Jacob’s call,” she said, changing the subject. “I figure it can’t be one of us locals or he’d have identified her.”
“Except the victim’s lying facedown.”
“Didn’t he turn her over?”
“No. Remember, he can’t move the body until I get there.”
Cameryn swallowed. “Was she shot?”
“Doesn’t appear so. Jacobs said he didn’t see any obvious signs of trauma.” “Well if she’s facedown and there’s no bullet hole then how does he know it’s a murder?”
Her father waited a beat before replying, “Her hands were tied behind her back. Duct tape.”
“Oh,” she said. Picturing it, she felt almost paralyzed inside. “Well.”
“Oh well is right, Cammie. From this point on everything we do will become evidentiary, which means there’ll be a lot of pressure to do it right. Obviously, there will be an autopsy. And even though I know it’ll be hard, I’ll say it again—I’m mighty glad to have you with me. You’ve got great instincts.” Her father glanced at his watch. “It’s been over half an hour since the call came in. Jacobs is having a fit while he waits on me, but, technically I own the body so he’s stuck till I show. I’ll have to buy him a beer when it’s over.”
“A beer?” Cameryn’s eyes widened. “It’s still morning!”
“It won’t be when we’re done. We won’t be getting the body to Durango before three o’clock.”
Hesitating, she asked, “Is Deputy Crowley with him?”
Her father’s voice cooled. “Don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
Patrick took a hard right onto a narrow dirt road, one Cameryn wasn’t sure the station wagon could easily handle. Had it only been this morning that she’d complained about Silverton’s dirt roads? Those streets in town were graded almost every month in order to remain smooth and hard-packed, but Smith Fork was one step from wild. Now she bumped along like a rodeo rider on a bull, pitching back and forth so hard her teeth jarred. If they had to park and walk, it would take time, and, Cameryn realized, it would be harder still to carry the body back to their wagon on a stretcher.
She need not have worried, though, because soon the sheriff’s SUV loomed into view. His lights were flashing blue and red onto a knot of people who stood to one side. A woman with a blanket around her shoulders looked like she was crying while Justin, pad and pen in hand, scratched down information.
After he parked, her father pulled a large case from the bay of the station wagon while Cameryn grabbed the black knapsack from the backseat. When they shut the car doors, the sound echoed off the face of a nearby mountain; it sounded like gunshots.
Yellow tape had been tied to the base of some trees in a huge, lopsided square, at least four hundred feet on each side including the opposite side of the stream. In the square, standing dead center was John Jacobs. His body was positioned at an odd angle. Leaning forward from his waist, hands pressed to his face, his elbows akimbo like a pair of coat hangers, he held something to his eye. Cameryn quickly realized he held a camera, but she could see only a patch of wheatgrass shimmering in the sun. The body must have been directly beneath Sheriff Jacobs’s camera lens.
“John, we’re here,” her father called, waving his arm.
Sheriff Jacobs looked up, acknowledged their presence with a quick nod, then went back to snapping pictures.
Their shoes scuffed through the dirt as they made their way toward the crime scene. Two women dressed in hiking gear stood miserably to one side, waiting for the woman in the blanket to finish with Crowley. They eyed Cameryn as she got closer but said nothing. Cameryn could hear the woman in the blanket speak between sobs.
“ . . . and then there she was! I almost walked right on top of her when I saw her leg and at first I thought it was just a mannequin. Then I realized it was a real person and so me and my friends, we called 911 right away—thank God we had a cell phone—and then Sophie started to faint and Amanda caught her. I mean you see death on television but it’s different when it’s real. That girl—just lying there facedown in the dirt. How could anyone do this to another human being? It’s terrible . . . just terrible.” The woman blew her nose, and Crowley patted her shoulder awkwardly. He looked at Cameryn, but Cameryn pretended not to see. She was still embarrassed from their last meeting, and more than a little intrigued. It was best not to let him know, so she kept her gaze straight ahead.
They were only twenty feet away from Sheriff Jacobs when Cameryn heard Justin call out to her father.
Patrick stopped and Cameryn stopped with him. Turning abruptly, her father said, “Yes?”
The wind had been blowing, which caused Crowley’s hair to fall across his forehead in tousled locks. He jerked his head at Cameryn. “Sir, do you think this is wise?”
“Excuse me, I’m doing my job,” Cameryn replied, annoyed by his condescension. “I’m assistant to the coroner, remember?”
Crowley kept his gaze on her father. “I’m sure you already realize that this isn’t a natural—we’re dealing with a murder. I think it’s too strong for the young lady to see.”
“Young lady?” Now she was indignant. “Are you serious?”
Her father’s eyes flashed. “What I do with my own family is none of your concern, Deputy, although you seem to think otherwise. My daughter is here in an official capacity. Now if you’ll excuse us, we’ve got work to do. I suggest you do the same. Come on, Cammie.”
Justin dug his hands into his pockets. “All right, all right, I understand, but I just need to speak to Cameryn for just one—”
“I said we’re done!” Her father bit off every word.
Patrick marched ahead and jerked up the yellow tape, allowing Cameryn to duck under first. With a smooth motion he slid under as well, leaving Justin on the other side. She wanted him to stay there. There was not enough room in her head to deal with murder and Justin Crowley so she let the yellow ribbon do the work for her. Thoughts of Justin would stay on the other side of her mind, cordoned off by the strip of plastic tape. There was no more room for games.
“Don’t get too close to the body until I tell you,” Patrick warned. “From now on everything counts.”
Cameryn said nothing. She was glad he couldn’t hear the hammering of her heart. Twenty feet away a murder victim lay in the grass, and Cameryn was part of the case, a part of the team that could put the pieces together. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. She could feel her hands begin to tremble so she clenched them, hard. This was what she’d been working for, what she’d wanted. Blowflies buzzed through the grass like tiny vultures while birds chirped overhead, ready to eat the flies that ate the girl. Cameryn steeled herself now; she was a link in the chain that would hang the criminal who did this, and she was glad.
And then she saw the body.
The first thing she noticed were the shoes—regular Nikes like Cameryn and all her friends wore, but the girl’s feet seemed especially awkward, as if she were a ballerina dancing on pointe. The victim’s hands had been tied behind her with duct tape, and her fingers, white as marble, curled like claws. Long, brown hair ended in the middle of her back in a perfect line, as if it had been combed after death, and her face was hidden by a fringe of wild grass. She wore jeans and a T-shirt. A bracelet twinkled from her wrist. From her size and the kind of clothes she wore, Cameryn guessed her to be about her age. About her age and dead. A chill spread inside her and she looked at the grass near her feet.
“Took you long enough,” was Sheriff Jacobs’s greeting. “I didn’t touch the body, didn’t even go into her pockets. We need to go by the book.”
“Let me get some pictures before we move anything. Cammie?”
At the sound of her name, Cameryn snapped her head up.
“Start with color.”
“Oh. Right. Sure.”
Numb, Cameryn reached into the knapsack and brought out the Canon. Focusing on the shoes, she began to snap one picture, then another, like an automated robot. Emotions surged through her in rapid succession—horror, fascination, fear, curiosity, and yet most of all anger. It welled up like bile in her throat—no one deserved to die this way, trussed like an animal and left in the wild. Snap, snap, snap. She began to take the pictures more rapidly now.
“Did you get an ID on her?” Cameryn’s father asked Jacobs.
“I already told you I didn’t touch her. Procedure, remember?”
“Uh-huh. I think I need to bag her hands before we do anything else. I don’t want to lose trace evidence.”
Patrick placed a medium-sized paper bag around the victim’s hands and secured it with a large rubber band. He had to use paper, Cameryn knew, because plastic could cause any trace evidence to degrade.
More pictures, and then Cameryn switched to the black-and-white. Her father and the sheriff talked and wrote down notes. Deputy Crowley was beginning to sweep the grass with a metal detector, his brow furrowed in concentration. Police from Durango were on the way to help secure the crime scene, Jacobs told them, and they’d have more folks sweeping for whatever they could find. The three women stood at the yellow tape line, watching, like cattle behind a fence. Her father put on gloves and searched the girl’s back jeans pockets for ID but found nothing; finally he declared it was time to roll the body over. By now, Deputy Crowley had joined them. He tried to look at Cameryn, but she refused to meet his gaze.
“Ready?” her father asked.
Jacobs nodded and placed his hands carefully under the corpse’s shoulders while Justin put his hands beneath her hip. Her father held the head.
“One, two, three!” Patrick said. “Careful, now.”
The body was stiff, in full rigor, and as it rolled the hair fell forward to cover the face in a chestnut-colored web; gently, her father removed it, and then his eyes grew wide. “Oh, no,” he said. “Oh, God, please no.”
And then Cameryn saw the perfect oval face and the eyes staring blankly, and she felt her hand fly to her mouth and tears blurred her vision until she couldn’t see anymore.
“Oh, my God!” she cried. “That’s Rachel!”
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