[If you have not already done so, you must
read the Introduction
Revenge Should Have No Bounds
Chapter 12 (042-048): The Detective
She was floating somewhere in the borderland between sleep and wakefulness when the phone rang. She turned over and looked at the red number on the clock radio: 7:30. She had asked for a wakeup call at 8:15 and felt irritation at the loss of the last forty-five minutes of rest. She’d never get back to sleep at this point.
Tossing aside the heavy bolster tangled around her legs, she sat upright on the edge of the bed without robbing Samuel of his share of blanket and cradled the handle against her ear.
“Yes?” Not pleasant, not rude.
“Phoebe! Glad I caught you.” Mollifying and light.
“Tanya, what’s up? Isn’t it a bit early to be so cheerful?” Monday morning, not yet eight, and Tanya was already at it. Phoebe did not know anybody who was so demonstrably enthusiastic about her job as Tanya, who had been with her going on a decade now.
She lashed the extension cord a few times to free it from the kinks it had acquired and walked over the window. She pulled the curtain and narrowed her eyes against the intense brightness. “I see it’s snowed a mess since last night.”
“Yes, it started here about an hour ago and it looks like it’s going to pile up.” Tanya was calling from the Detective Bureau. Her responsibility was to coördinate the case by case field work for the city detectives, a job for which her organized mind suited her perfectly.
“Looks like we already got about a foot here,” Phoebe said, looking out on the wintry landscape beneath the window. “But you didn’t call to talk about the weather, did you?”
“On point as usual.” She hesitated. “We got a call from the County Sheriff’s Office a few minutes ago. They’ve got a body out in the boonies, and they’re not equipped to handle this kind of thing. The boss thought you should catch this one. You’re not that far from the scene.”
Phoebe Light knew Bud Eaton, the Swaithe County sheriff, and had worked with him once before about five years ago. “No, they’re really not. Fortunately, the sheriff down there is smart enough to know when he needs help, something I can’t say for every other sheriff in the state.”
In her mind she was already reviewing what needed to be done. “What’s the story?”
“It seems a hunter stumbled … and I do mean stumbled … over a body in a ditch by the road. He had a cellular and called it in right away. Have you got a map with you there?”
“It’s in the car. But I know the area reasonably well. Here, let me get my pad and pencil.” She went back and sat on the bed, grabbed a paper block on the nightstand and clicked out a stub of lead from her pencil. She laid the notepad across her knee. Shoot!”
“It’s near Dust. Just go straight south from Woulfton on 933 down to the Pellman turnoff. No need to stop at their office. The sheriff department is already at the scene, in force, and a tech unit is on its way from here. You continue west on 612 till you get to 519; go south till you hit Dust, and hang a left on 630 for about a mile or so. Where it turns south again, continue straight onto county 67; it angles off to the left. The body is about eight miles in.”
As she talked she drew a rough map and made some notations. She repeated Tanya’s directions back to her. “That’s right,” Tanya confirmed.
“Tanya,” she said, “have you got Eaton’s cellular number?”
“Coming up,” her efficient secretary answered. She heard the rustling of paper, and copied down the number she came back with. “Is the hunter still on the scene?”
“Last I heard, yes. Apparently he was pretty flustered.”
“Give Eaton a call and ask him to have the hunter hang around if at all possible. It’s going to take me a half hour to get ready here, and probably close to an hour down there. Tell Eaton I should be there by maybe nine.”
“Will do. Anything else?”
“The usual, Tanya. Make sure Eaton and the others don’t touch anything till the tech people arrive. And ask them to wait until I get there. For now, the only thing I want the sheriff’s people to do is rope off the area with a good fifteen feet border on all sides around the body.” She thought for a moment? “Do we know if anybody has touched the body?”
“The hunter did. But only to get the snow off it. I don’t think he moved it.”
“That’s good. Thanks for small favors.”
There was a moment’s lull on the whispering line.
“One other thing, Tanya.”
“Be sure you don’t come on strong. This is technically a county beef, and we don’t want to look like we’re walking in and taking over. I mean, we are, and they invited us. But let’s be polite guests.”
“Got it,” Tanya responded, silently admiring Phoebe for her sense of fair play and typical attention to the importance of turf and personalities at a time like this.
Phoebe Light had come up the old-fashioned way: she hadn’t slept for it, and the government hadn’t mandated it.
Now in her late fifties, a grandmother, portly, a mind like a wolf-trap, she was Chief of Detectives and had caught the investigation into what the squad was later to dub ‘The Ice Case’. It would turn out to be the consensus among the power barons in the police structure that if anybody could get a handle on the case it would be this phlegmatic and plodding detective. They knew her. After all, they were the ones who over the years had pushed her from one rung to the next higher one on the ladder leading upstairs. Reluctantly at first, it must be admitted, but in the final analysis nobody could argue with her clearance rates. They far outdistance those of any other detectives on the murder squad.
Almost forty years ago, long before the government got into the business of telling public agencies and private companies how to hire and fire, Phoebe graduate from the police academy third in her class. The Neanderthals downtown just didn’t like the idea of women on the force – secretaries aside, of course – and decided to make a minatory example of this pushy upstart. They gave her beat duty in the River district, a rough part of town down by the docks. Nasty in the daytime, even worse at night. Hustlers, hoodlums, whores; drunks, druggies, dirt. The bosses figured either she’d fold from the pressure or start palming rake-offs they could hang around her neck and can her for.
What they didn’t figure on was that Phoebe was as fearless as she was righteous. Arrests – and, what is more telling, resulting convictions – spiked soon after she began walking those cruel and callous quarters. The ‘protected’ establishments howled to the bosses. The bosses wrung their hands. The press had got wind of what was up and Phoebe became something of a celebrity. What could the bosses do?
A dumb pimp in the area offered up the perfect solution for them. One night when Phoebe happened along this thug was flogging a teenager he’d put out on the street. Phoebe pulled her gun; she told him to stop; he continued his thrashing, telling her to “fuck off, slash, or I’ll cut you an extra one.” Electing to interpret this verbal abuse as what is now called hate speech, interference with a police officer in the performance of her duty, and an imminent threat to said police officer, she put a warning shot above his ugly head. Enraged at this uppity bitch, he came at her with a ten-inch blade. She let him come, just a little closer, come on, and when he was exactly four feet away, knife arced above his head, she had all the probable cause she’d
ever need, stayed all cool and pumped a double load of heavy grain into his chest. He crumpled before the smoke cleared the barrel, twitched, and never got up again.
‘Good fucking riddance,’ she thought to herself in silence, having picked up some of the local argot around the locker room.
The girl and one of her co-workers cowering in a nearby doorway independently confirmed Phoebe’s account of the shooting. Everybody was delighted: the city got rid of garbage, the bosses got to go back to business as usual in the River district, and Phoebe got a citation. And more.
Every thirsty blood-sucking flea in the local power structure wanted to hitch a free ride on this cool bitch – the Democratic machine pols, the university feminists, the Black Sisters, the D.A.R., the Chicanas, the Power Agers … you name it: how about running for City Council? state assembly? Washington?
Phoebe, as amused as she was amazed, politely but firmly – with Samuel‘s full support — declined any engagement with all her new-found friends.
And it turned out that the girl getting the whipping was a wayward child of a member of the City Council, and in gratitude he pushed Phoebe to take the detective exam. She passed it by a wide margin – on her own merit — and the Homicide Squad won a new recruit. Her River district beat was history, but she never forgot what the streets were all about. And if the big boys were Neanderthals, the detectives were Cro-Magnons. Phoebe decided there was evolutionary hope after all.
“Thanks, Tanya,” Phoebe said. “While I’m on the scene, put together a team. You know the drill. I want Garrett, Aronson and Sundelius on deck when I get back. You have my cellular if anything comes up in the next hour or so. Let’s see if we can figure this thing out.”
“Right. Talk to you later, Phoebe.”
She replaced the phone thoughtfully and took half a minute to organize himself.
Samuel rolled over an put a hand on her waist. “Anything?” he mumbled.
“Something,” she said, mussing her husband’s hair as he peered up at her, the sleep still in his eyes. “Go back to bed, baby. I’ve got to roll.” Se kissed him on the cheek.
“Be careful,” he said. He always did. And rolled over again, pulling the heavy blanket up around his ears.
She showered, dressed warmly, and checked her valise. Coffee would have to wait until she got on scene.
Leaving the Woulfton city limits and traveling south on 933 she realized it was going to be one of those thick winter days where the sun goes into hiding. Road crews had already been out along this stretch of highway once, but the continuing fall was blanketing the blacktop with a second round of snow. She diminished speed, deciding that today slow was wise. What would the county roads be like in this weather?
It took her longer than she’d thought to get to the turnoff on 612. She met a plow going in the other direction just as she was entering Marloe, a snowy idyll of wintry rusticity. A mile on the other side of town she turned south, and at Dust went left. She flicked on the low lights. About a mile and half further along, county road 67 angled off and had obviously not been plowed, but it was equally clear that it had handled a lot of recent traffic. Tracks laid down by other cars made it easy for her to follow without having to worry about sliding off the road. It was almost ten o’clock.
Poking along at a sedate 20 mph it took her close to half an hour to reach the scene. She saw the swiveling blue lights of the emergency vehicles flashing in the falling snow before she arrived at a cluster of cars and people. There were three patrol cars from the sheriff’s department, a hearse, and the light blue wagon of the city tech team. Phoebe cinched herself up in her big parka and put on cold weather gloves so she could write on her pad. As she got out of the car, Bud Eaton, the sheriff of Swaithe, approached her.
“Glad to see you, Phoebe,” he said and held out his hand. “Too bad it always has to be something like this to make us get together.”
“Nice to see you, Bud,” she said and shook the man’s hand.
They walked over towards the groups of officers and functionaries standing in a circle and tramping their feet for warmth. A yellow ribbon had been nailed into the verge and ran over a ditch about twenty feet into the forest; here it looped around a tree and paralleled the road for another twenty feet before heading back to another nail in the road. “I’ve got a call in for a road crew to bring out some wooden markers we can place along the side of the ditch,” Eaton explained.
“Looks good,” she said.
People had stopped moving around and turned expectantly toward Phoebe and the sheriff. “I think you know my senior deputy, Bobbie Jamison,” the sheriff said. “And this is Vernon Williamson. He’s been with us for a couple of years now.” Phoebe exchanged greetings with both of them.
“Detective Light, how are you? I’m Preston Schwenicke, if you remember.” A short and compact man with a smooth complexion vigorously pumped her hand. “We met at the M.E. seminar in Birchville last April. I own the funeral parlor in Marloe when I’m not doing this,” he gestured vaguely towards the ditch
“Of course,” Phoebe said, recalling the man as an intense and seemingly knowledgeable participant in one of the sessions on which he had participated. “Nice to see you again.”
She turned toward the men wearing the thick black coats stenciled ‘Crime Scene Investigator’ in yellow above the front left pocket. The same message, she knew, would also be found across the back in larger block letters.
“Gentlemen,” Phoebe greeted them, “and lady.” The lead technician was Barb Purcell, a fact which pleased Phoebe. She trusted the woman, for experience had taught her Purcell was a tenacious investigator when it came to ferreting out useful evidence from a crime scene. Her assistant was an eager overweight young man named Henry Friend. The third tech was Pete Anders, a somewhat sour individual who gobbled antacids by the handful for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But he was a first-rate forensic photographer who had a knack for taking just the kinds of pictures that, three or four weeks into an investigation, you wished you had. And he wasn’t bad on the video end, either.
“Phoebe,” they acknowledged.
They all turned towards the man who had been standing a bit outside the circle nervously observing them.
“This is Mr. Wright. Dexter Wright,” the sheriff introduced him to Phoebe. “He’s the hunter who called this in.”
“How do you do, Mr. Wright,” Phoebe said, extending her hand.
“Dexter’s fine, ma’am,” he said.
It’s not all that unusual for the perpetrator of a violent crime – especially if it’s one of passion, done in the heat of the moment, without premeditation – to be the person who reports its commission. It’s a way of trying to deflect the investigation’s focus onto a false trail. Though sometimes successful initially, in the end such evasions do the perpetrator more harm than good. Phoebe wasn’t sure about the exact statistics on this, but it would have been negligence on her part if she had not at least entertained the possibility that Mr. Wright, the friendly Dexter, could be involved in this murder in ways not immediately apparent.
He was in his early twenties, good-looking in a rough outdoorsy kind of way, and under the bulky winter outfit Phoebe imagined a lean build. She guessed about five-eleven, maybe 160, but it was hard to be sure with all those clothes. He was clean-shaven, and had frosty blue eyes that were alert but not alarmed. He was standing very straight up but appeared at the same time to be quite relaxed.
“Dexter it is,” Phoebe said and smiled kindly at him. “Excuse me just a minute,” she continued, lightly touching his forearm, and turned to the group of men watching them.
“Sheriff, anybody touch the body or the area where it’s lying?”
“Nobody. Bobbie and Preston laid out the crime scene tape. You can see their tracks in the snow up there. But nobody’s been near the actual body.” He peered over into the ditch where the partially exposed corpse lay.
“See any tracks on the road when you came out here?”
“Nothing,” the sheriff said. “No traffic since the snow started falling.”
Phoebe made some more notations.
“Good.” She paused a moment. “Pete,” she said turning to Anders, “why don’t you get started here and do a full series on the body and the immediate area around it. Start from the edge of the road, and then work your way down into the ditch and around. But stay about ten feet away from the body. Try to get as many shots as you can close to ground level, too. And take some from up here down on top of her. Do that first so we have a record of Dexter’s tracks in the snow.”
“You got it, Phoebe!” Pete Anders said, glad finally to have something to do. Soon his flash was bouncing off the snow non-stop as he began shooting.
Phoebe put her arm over Barb Purcell’s shoulder and walked her off to the side where the others couldn’t hear her. “Say, Barb,” she said softly, “ when Pete’s through, can you put a small plastic sheet over the woman’s chest and then fold a blanket across it? Let’s show her some respect, OK? Be sure the blanket doesn’t touch her, though.”
“Absolutely,” Barb said.
As Phoebe walked back over to Dexter, who had been following the exchanges attentively, Barb beckoned to Henry, and the two of them shuffled over to their wagon.
“Dexter,” Phoebe resumed her conversation with the hunter, “I understand you were the one who found this body.”
“That’s right, ma’am.” He looked suddenly uncomfortable, but Phoebe hardly found that strange. “It really blew me away, too. This kind of thing has never happened to me before.”
“I’m sure you won’t forget it,” Phoebe sympathized. She looked him straight in the eyes, but saw nothing. “I imagine you already talked to the sheriff about what happened …”
“… that’s right,” Dexter interrupted.
“I hope you won’t mind telling it again, to me this time. Just take it slow and give me as much detail as you remember.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. He gathered his thoughts and began. “Well, ma’am, I came out here about four. I like to hunt deer, and I’ve had good luck in this general area before. There aren’t too many people in Swaithe county and that’s good for hunters. The deer don’t have much reason to be shy of humans. But today was a blank. Nothing. I have a blind a bit up in the forest there where I sit and wait, but by seven I gave up. It was too cold, and I’d had enough.”
Phoebe moved her head up and down in silent encouragement.
“While you were waiting out there, did you hear any cars going by or stopping?”
“No, not on this road, certainly. Nothing at all. It was very quiet, and I would definitely have heard any traffic.”
She wrote in her notebook. “O.K., and then what?”
“Well, I decided to take a different way back. Maybe I’d run into an animal. I’d parked my car over there,” he pointed down the road toward a late-model car, “and headed off up into the forest to the east. After getting settled in, it started to snow.”
“Do you remember roughly what time, by any chance?” Phoebe interjected.
“I remember exactly. I have one of these watches that glow in the dark,” he said, and rolled up the thick sleeve of his parka to expose a large wristwatch with green readouts. “See. It was exactly 4:15 when I noticed the first flakes, and it’s snowed good and hard ever since. And it still is.” He made a sweeping motion with an arm and gazed off into the forest.
“So then you came back to the car?”
“Right. I had to move kind of careful, because you never know what might be under the snow. It’s easy to sprain an ankle or worse in this underbrush. There was already a thick layer of snow by this time.”
“You weren’t lost, then, or anything like that?”
“No. Not at all. As I said, I hunt this area quite a bit, and I know the terrain. I also have a compass if I should ever need it.” Again he displayed the wrist watch. “Here,” he explained, “watch when I push this button.” He had taken off his mitten and when he pushed one of the side buttons a purple LED displayed the corners of the compass; as he turned his wrist a darker purple light moved in unison around the periphery of the watch..
“I see,” Phoebe said. She was writing rapidly in her notebook. “And then?”
“Well, ma’am, I came to that slope up there,” he continued, pointing up into the forest behind where Pete was taking his pictures, “and I started to work my way down slowly. But of course I tripped, or slipped, and went on my ass … uh, on my behind, that is, right into the ditch. I landed hard, on top of a little elevation. And when I tried to get up, I used my rifle as a support, and it slipped off to the side. It pushed some snow off the mound I was on, and that’s when I saw what looked like a belt around some jeans. At first I didn’t think much about it. People throw all kinds of trash along these country roads. But then I realized there was something inside the jeans.”
“What made you realize that?”
“Because the jeans were too solid. Even frozen pants would have some give in them, but this was rock solid. I got off that mound as fast as I could, and I don’t mind telling you I was scared then. I’ve never seen a dead body before.”
“Then what did you do?”
“I started to brush snow away from the jeans, and that’s when I saw it was a body. I worked down to around the groin, I guess, and then worked up from the belt. I saw she was naked above the waist, and … well … .” The easy flow of the narrative ground to a halt. Dexter turned away, and Phoebe heard him sigh.
“It’s all right, son,” she said gently. “Just take your time.”
“I guess … I think I felt ashamed,” he continued in a low voice. “I mean, seeing her naked and all that. I felt … I felt it wasn’t … well, you know, right for me to see her that way. Who could do such a thing to a beautiful woman like that?” He shook his head in disbelief.
“So it was you who uncovered her face, too?”
“Yes, ma’am. I guess now that I think about it I probably shouldn’t have touched anything, should I? But I wasn’t thinking very clear then. I just had to see what her face looked like.”
“That’s fine, Dexter, there’s been no real harm done here. But let me be sure about this: you never moved the body, did you?”
“Oh, no, ma’am. Not at all. I just brushed that snow off, and you can see it’s starting to cover her again.” He stopped and cocked his head. “I think I may have touched the side of her body, right above the belt, with my hand.”
“Did you have your mitten on or off?”
“It was still on. I’m sure of that.”
“O.K. Go on.” Phoebe flipped a page and continued jotting notes to herself.
“O.K., at first I thought it was a pale stone or something, it looked so white and was absolutely solid. But who would put a pair of jeans around a smooth rock?” He shrugged his shoulders.
“Just to be sure I’ve got this right. You brushed the snow from her legs and torso and face, but didn’t moved the body at all. Is that correct?”
“Yes, ma’am. But I only brushed the snow off her down to her knees.”
Phoebe looked into the ditch and saw that indeed the snow covering the lower part of her legs was much thicker than on the rest of the body.
“And then you called it in?”
“Right. I always carry a cellular with me,” he said, pulling out an Erickson from a shirt pocket and showing it to Phoebe. “I didn’t know if 911 works out here, so I called the operator and he connected me with the sheriff’s office.”
“What time was that?”
“I’d say that was about 7:30 or so.”
“Anything else you can think of, Dexter?”
He searched his memory. “Not for now, no!”
She patted him on the shoulder. “You’ve been a great help, son. I appreciate you notified the authorities about what you found. Some people would have said nothing.”
“It just isn’t right,” he said with an edge. “Just dumping another human being like she was some kind of road trash or something. It just isn’t right.”
“No, it isn’t. But you’ve made it possible for us to find out who did this thing and make the responsible party answer for what they’ve done.”
He bobbed his head up and down in agreement.
“Just a few more things, Dexter, and then you can go. You’re name is Dexter Wright, D-e-x-t-e-r W-r-i-g-h-t,” she spelled it out.
“Where do you live?”
“I live in Woulfton. At 314 Litchen Street, apartment 223. You need a phone number?”
He gave Phoebe both his home and cellular number.
She read back the information to be sure he had it right. “What do you do, Dexter.”
“I’m a student. A senior in accounting at the University in the City. I don’t have any classes today, so that’s why I decided to go hunting. I could have picked a better day, huh?”
She shook hands with him, and said she would undoubtedly be in touch again in the next few days. She gave Dexter her card.
“Call me anytime if you think of something else in the meantime.”
Dexter read the card. “Chief of Homicide. Phoebe Light, detective.” He looked at her. “ I sure will, Ms. Light. I really hope you catch the one who did this,” he said. There was no mistaking the conviction in his wish.
“We probably will, Dexter. We probably will.”
Dexter ambled off to his car, started it, and, making a precarious turnaround on the badly marked road, headed back towards Dust and 933.
She followed him with her eyes till the car disappeared in the flurries of white. “I’m not a betting lady, but I’d lay big odds this guy’s not the perp. Just someone who stumbled across a piece of nasty violence,” she thought to himself.
She turned to the men who had held off at a discreet distance. Pete was huffing up out of the ditch. “I’ve shot three rolls, Phoebe,” he said. “Let me get the video set up before we start in on this thing.”
A couple thermoses of coffee and some paper cups had appeared out of nowhere on the hood of Eaton’s patrol car. They all filled up and drank while they waited for Pete to mount the video camera on the heavy tripod.
Pete fiddled with some buttons, and a light went on. “All set, Phoebe,” he yelled.
Strong beams broke through the falling snow, and soon a yellow truck pulled up.
“First let’s let these guys set up the markers along the side of the road,” she said.
Two men in coats with ‘Swaithe County Road Crew’ lettered on the back got out and proceeded to unload half a dozen small cone-like structures that they pushed down into the snow. They formed a straight line where the lip of the ditch met the edge of the road.
The sheriff nodded to the men. “Thanks!” he said. “Any chance of not getting this road plowed real soon?”
The men looked at each other dubiously. “Yeah,” said the one who had been driving, “I guess so, sheriff. I can call dispatch if you want. I’m sure they’ll be glad to hear from someone who doesn’t want the snow removed yesterday.”
“I appreciate that,” Eaton said. “Let’s just try to discourage sightseers for a while.”
The driver got into his truck and spoke a few minutes into a mike.
“”No problem, sheriff,” he reported back. “Dispatch just says for you to give the word when you’re done out here.”
The sheriff nodded again. “I’ll buy you boys coffee and donuts later in the week. Don’t forget to cash in my chit.”
“Yes, sir, sheriff,” they both said in unison.
Then they got back in the truck and did a smart job of turning it around on the narrow county road. Soon the red tail lights disappeared and they were gone.
“O.K.,” Phoebe said. “Let’s do it.”
Anders started the video camera as Barb eased her way down into the ditch. Henry Friend followed with a small suitcase containing specimen bags, plastic bottles, and various equipment to be used in the search of the crime scene. Barb began on the side farthest from the road. She used a light-whiskered brush and carefully pushed snow off the body at ninety degrees to its longitudinal axis. She began at the feet and slowly worked her way up toward the head. After each stroke of the brush she examined the deposit that collected at the side of the dead woman. With a long thin wooden poker she had removed from the kit Anders was carrying she stirred the pile of snow gently. When she had assured herself there was nothing else there but snow, she brushed off another swath and repeated the procedure. Anders stuck close behind her to the right, and Phoebe could see that from time to time the two of them spoke briefly to each other.
When they got to the crown of the head Barb again addressed Anders. He handed her a plastic bag, and she used a broad-bladed chisel to loosen material from the ground and bag it. She bent down as close to ground level as she could and shined a flashlight under the body’s head and seemed to study what she saw. Then they continued, circling around to the other side of the head.
It was a slow and cautious procedure, and it took a good twenty minutes before Barb had worked her way all the way around the body back to where she had started. Eaton and Vernon, one of the deputies, reached down their hands and helped Barb and Henry back up onto the road, which at that point had been pretty much trampled through to the blacktop.
“What was it you were putting in the bag?” Phoebe asked her.
“I couldn’t be sure, but I thought there were stains on the ground. Lab analysis will show if it’s got anything to do with the body,” she explained.
She hesitated, and Phoebe prompted her.
“I don’t know for sure, but I think there was a gash on back of her head. It’s hard to tell, the way she’s lying, but there is something that isn’t right about her head. Any blood or tissue would have frozen with the hair. I couldn’t make out any clearly visible evidence.”
Phoebe made a note of the possibility of head trauma.
“Anything else,” she asked.
“Except for that, nothing else I could see on the first pass,” she answered. Apologetically.
“That’s kind of unusual, isn’t it?”
“Well, not necessarily,” she said. “If there are loose items on her, hair, fibers, effluvia of some sort, they’re for sure frozen solid and glued to the clothes and skin.”
“What about that shirt,” Phoebe asked. As Barb had removed the plastic and blanket covering the woman’s chest and pushed away the snow they had all seen that she was dressed in some kind of short-sleeved shirt whose two flaps had fallen down on each side of her.
“Stiff as boards. Like the woman herself. Hard as rock.”
“Is it possible to tell how long she’s been there?”
“Not really. She would have frozen pretty fast in this climate if she was put there any time within the last day or two. Or even the last couple of months. It’s been a very cold winter, as you know. I suspect something like that happened. There’s no sign of decomposition, so she’d been just killed before being dumped.” Barb bit her lower lip. “Or might still have been alive and unconscious, but wouldn’t last long in the cold dressed the way she was.”
The coroner had been following their exchange closely. “That makes sense to me, too,” he said. The sheriffs indicated their silent agreement.
“Yes,” Phoebe concurred. “There is always that possibility.” She rapped her pencil on the writing pad. “Were the pants intact?”
“Yes. If there was any sexual assault, it didn’t happen here. Assuming she was dumped at night, in the time frame I’m projecting, it would have been too cold for that kind of business. Of course, it might have happened earlier, somewhere else. The autopsy will determine if anything like that was the case.”
“How long will it take for the body to … defrost? I mean, I imagine they can’t do much autopsying before it softens up.”
“Have you ever defrosted a frozen turkey?” the coroner chimed in.
“Sure I have.” Phoebe saw, with a certain delicacy about the analogy, where this was going.
“How long does it usually take? Say a 16-pound turkey?”
“I don’t know. A couple of days maybe.”
“At least,” the coroner replied, happy to have become the sudden cynosure of everyone’s morbid attention. “But this,” he gestured into the little gulley where the exposed body lay, “is no 16-pound turkey. More like a hundred, hundred-ten pounds, I’d say.”
The young deputy sheriff, Vernon Williamson, took on a greenish hue and turned aside for a moment.
“I see what you’re getting at,” Phoebe said slowly. “A bit longer, then?”
“Yes, a bit longer,” the coroner said. “Let’s see, it’s Monday morning. I’d say by Friday or Saturday for sure. You’ll have the gross autopsy report by Sunday. Tox screens and tissue analysis might take a few days more. A week from now you’ll know everything this poor soul’s body can tell you.”
“Yes,” Phoebe intoned, “that’s what I was afraid of.” She flipped through the pages of the notebook she’d been scribbling in. “Any indication animals got to her at some point?”
“None that I saw,” Barb said. “The fact that there are no tracks up to the body doesn’t mean much. I mean, she obviously ended up here at some point before the snow began falling this morning.”
Phoebe nodded in silent agreement.
“I’m going to have a look myself,” she said. “Barb, I’d like you and Henry to take measurements for me. The body, width and length, distance from the road, to the nearest trees.”
The two assistants slid back down into the ditch, and Phoebe followed them clumsily, holding on to Pete’s hand as he stood by the edge of the road. She wished she could have stuck to that diet she’d made in yet one more New Year’s resolution – and that had gone the way of all the others over the years. She opened a fresh page in her notebook and began to draw in a rough sketch of the crime scene. It was not art, but it was functional. She was good at getting proportions of distances right, and she scratched in wavy lines where there were tracks from the hunter’s initial approach. Where the snow had gathered under the side of the corpse she used a gloved hand to remove some sample patches. The body was not lying directly on top the dead plants and brushwood of the ditch but on earlier layers of solidified snow. Alongside the drawing she noted in her private shorthand as follows: “no sno/ground whn dumpd – Ö Weather Bur date last sno Sw cnty.”
With the flat of her hand, glove on, she felt the body right above the belt. It was indeed rock-hard. Yes, like a frozen turkey, she thought distastefully. The jeans had pockets, and from the stitching on the reversed sides of the shirt she inferred that it too contained pockets. The side pockets on the jeans were solidified, and she would have had to force them open to check for contents. There was no tell-tale bulge of wallets or ID cards or money clips. The back pockets, or the shirt, might be another matter, and she made a note to check this possibility when they lifted the body for transport.
She finished her walk-around. Henry and Barb had completed their measurements, and the three of them were helped up onto the road. Phoebe got the numbers from her assistants and jotted them down on her drawing.
She had seen nothing that Barb hadn’t. As far as what was visible of the corpse, they had pretty much exhausted the preliminary search for evidence. And yet the most pressing question was still a complete blank: who was this Asian woman, and how did she come to end up so sadly in this remote rural spot in the deep of winter?
She motioned to Preston Schwenicke, the coroner. “O.K., Mr. Schwenicke, it’s your turn.”
The sheriff said, “Vernon, why don’t you give Preston here a hand with the body.”
Vernon didn’t look pleased at this prospect, but he did as asked.
He and the coroner got a gurney from the hearse and slid it down into the ditch about five feet from the head of the corpse. It was laborious going for them with the unwieldy stretcher on the uneven ground beneath the thick snow, but they managed to place it almost level next to the body. When they moved her, she rocked freely, not as if she were coming unstuck from the ground. As the men lifted the body onto the gurney the shirt flaps stuck out stiffly from the bed like truncated wings on a bird. The woman herself was like a board.
Using ropes and the helping hands from above they got the woman up on the road. They popped the gurney up on its wheels.
Phoebe bent down to waist height and peered under the body. There were pockets on the back of the jeans. “Can we rock her just a little?” she asked. “I’d like to see if there’s anything in the back pockets.”
The coroner was standing on the other side and together they rolled the stiff corpse over about thirty degrees in the direction of the coroner. As they did so, the shirt flap on that side cracked and fell to the ground. “O.K., hold it. That’s O.K.,” Phoebe yelled. “Barb, can you pick that up?”
Barb darted in beside the coroner and retrieved the broken bit of cloth. “See anything in the pocket on your side?” Phoebe asked the coroner.
“It looks empty to me,” he said, and felt tentatively along the contour of the pocket. “Nothing here,” I think.
“Yeah, looks the same on this side,” Phoebe said with disappointment. “Anything in that shirt?” she queried Barb.
She had turned it over and examined the obverse. She had also ducked down to inspect the underside of the other half of the shirt still attached to the body, or what was left of the shirt back. “Nothing here either,” she reported.
Phoebe’s face wore a pained expression. “So we have no idea who this person is.”
They all looked at her, but nobody said anything.
“This should be interesting,” she said. “At least we have a body, and in time it will tell us something.” From the present vantages she had little difficulty seeing that the back of the head was a mucky mess of darkened tissue and black hair. Somebody had indeed given her a crushing blow to the parietal region of the head.
“Load her up, Mr. Schwenicke,” Phoebe said. “I’m going to ask you to take her to Pathology at the University. Make sure you tell reception that I’d like Professor Wendel to handle this case – he regularly works with us on these kinds of cases.” The coroner was reluctant to get started. “And you file the normal transfer charges with our office in the city, and you’ll get the standard reimbursement for your services.”
Schwenicke’s face relaxed. “Yes, ma’am,” he said briskly and turned to the deputy. “Come on, Vernon, give me a hand here.”
“And cover her chest again, please,” Phoebe said. “Use that same plastic and blanket Barb had before.”
With great solemnity the two of them did as she had requested and then began pushing the gurney towards the hearse.
Phoebe pulled Eaton off to the side.
“Bud,” he said, “do you know off-hand of any Asian families living around here?”
“I was just thinking the same thing myself,” he answered. “And the truth is I can’t think of any. Sometimes on Fridays we’ve had some students come up from the university for a few drinks and some pool at The Lounge back in Marloe. As far as I know, always men, by themselves. Jennie tells me they’re quiet and stick close to each other. She’s never had any trouble with them, and the locals don’t seem to give them much mind.” He wiped his nose with a sleeve. “But as for any of them living here, not as far as I know.”
Phoebe touched his forearm.
There was a sound of ripping from the hearse. Everybody turned in unison to the source. The coroner had broken off the other shirt wing and was placing it on top of the body. “She’ll never fit into the bag otherwise,” he explained sheepishly to the watching crowd. It would have been normal procedure to encase the corpse in a body bag before loading it on the gurney, but the precarious incline on both sides was slippery with snow and they had decided to wait to bag her until they got her up on flat ground.
Phoebe allowed herself a final look around the scene. “I think we’re done here, people,” she said. Addressing herself to the tech assistants, she explained, “I’ll be heading back to the city in a few minutes. You three go ahead, and I’ll catch up with you. Get on that sample you scraped off the ground as soon as you get back, Barb, and let’s hope we find something there. Pete, no need to remind you I’d like all those photos by this afternoon. There’ll be a full organizational meeting in the conference room around five o’clock. “That gives you,” she looked at her watch, “a little over four hours.”
The tech crew shook hands with the sheriff’s people and got into their van.
“I’ll be writing up the prelim on this in the next few days,” Phoebe said to Eaton. “I’ll be glad to send you my report. It may save you some work. Just let me know if you disagree with anything you find in my version.”
“Appreciate that, Phoebe,” the sheriff said. “Reports are not my favorite way to pass the time.”
Just as they were breaking up and heading for their cars, there was an excited shout from the hearse.
“Hey,” the coroner yelled excitedly, “I think I found something here.” He had been bending over the body to zip up the bag they had stuffed her into. He was peering intently at the midsection of the corpse. “There’s a piece of paper in the coin pocket of the jeans.”
They all rushed over, including the technicians who had been just on the point of taking off. Inside the woman’s right jeans pocket there was a smaller flap for keeping change. It had frozen in such a way that it stood out slightly from the cloth forming the larger pocket.
“There,” the coroner pointed with his bare finger, “right in there. See it? I just happened to notice it as I was pulling up the bag zipper.”
They all bent forward and stared intently at a small white piece of paper. “It must have come loose when we moved her around. Explains why no one saw it before when she was lying in the ditch,” Schwenicke announced.
“Yes,” Barb seconded him. “It looks as though it’s the only part of her that wasn’t frozen stuck. She must have had it in the coin pocket all along, which somehow made a pouch. Maybe from the way she had been moved or transported by the killer.”
“Get me a pair of tweezers from the kit, would you, Henry?” she said to her assistant. “And an evidence baggie.” Henry was back in an instant.
Barb proceeded to extract the piece of solid paper. “Easy, easy,” cautioned Phoebe. “There’s something written on it. Maybe that’s our clue to who this lady is.”
Barb got the paper out in one piece from the jeans. She placed it inside the transparent plastic and set the baggie on top of the dark rubberized canvas of the body bag. There were some clearly legible letters done in a black felt tip and, below and to the right side, what looked like a telephone number that was totally smudged.
Phoebe read aloud the cryptic message from the dead woman, “Mazarine.”
TO BE CONTINUED