Read an Excerpt
Seven stainless steel gurneys were lined up in the morgue, each occupied by a partially assembled skeleton and a large garbage bag. The bones gleamed under the florescent lights. An eighth gurney was heaped with the stray bones that had been found lying separately. Caitlin Fleming’s first thought was that the extra bones looked forlorn. Deprived of their dignity, until they could be rejoined to form the remnant of the person they’d once belonged to.
Her second thought was that without the skulls, the chances of identifying those persons decreased dramatically.
“What do you think?” Sheriff Marin Andrews demanded. Her booted feet echoed heavily as she walked from one gurney to the next. “The bones were pretty much loose in the bags, but the medical examiner made an attempt to re-assemble them. We brought out the bones scattered on the bottom of the cave floor in a separate body bag. Recovery operation was a bitch, I’m telling you. The cave branches off from the original vein, gets wider and higher. Then it drops off to a steep chamber about seven feet down. These were probably dumped from above into that chamber.”
Cait barely restrained a wince as she thought of what the recovery process might have entailed. And what could have been destroyed or overlooked. “I think I’ll want to see the cave.”
Andrews’s expression first revealed shock, then amusement. “Fortunately for you, that won’t be necessary. It’s on the face of Castle Rock and not too accessible. Either you climb or rappel down over the edge, or you scale upwards nearly eight hundred feet. There are trails, of course, but they could be tricky for an inexperienced climber. We don’t need an injury on our hands before we even get started.”
“I’m not inexperienced.” Cait knew exactly what the sheriff saw when she looked at her. It was, after all, the appearance she’d cultivated for well over a decade. But her days on the runways of New York, Milan and Paris were long behind her. She was most comfortable these days in a room exactly like this one or hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “I’ll want to see the cave,” she repeated firmly.
The other woman shrugged. She wasn’t much older than Cait, maybe thirty-five or so. Her looks were nondescript. A sturdy build filling out a beige uniform. Close cropped light brown hair and hazel eyes. But Cait knew better than anyone that appearances could be deceiving. Marin Andrews had a reputation for being an excellent, if ambitious cop. And that ambition, along with her father’s millions, were rumored to be priming her for a chase to the governor’s mansion.
Cait’s help in solving this case would provide a stepping stone to that end.
“Figured you’d want to see the area, anyway. We’ve hired Zach Sharper to stay available during the course of the investigation to take you anywhere you want. He’s the guide who found the bodies. Said he was preparing for a client who wanted to spelunk some out of the way caves, so Zach explored a few off the beaten path. Thought he’d discovered a new one when he stumbled on this.” Andrews’s waved a hand at the skeletons. “He runs a wilderness guide company. Rafting, kayaking, mountain climbing, hiking, that sort of thing.” The assessing look in her eye said better than words that she didn’t believe Cait’s assertion of her outdoor experience. “He’s also on the search and rescue team when campers and hikers go missing. He’s got some rough edges, but he’s the best in the state.”
“I can handle rough edges.” Cait walked around the gurneys to look more closely at the nearly identical junctures where the skulls had been separated from each skeleton. “Looks like an ax may have been used here. Or something else with a wide sharp blade heavy enough to decapitate the victim with one blow.” If they were living in the 1600s she’d suspect a guillotine. The slice was that clean. There were no serrations at the top of the skeletons. The skulls hadn’t been sawed off. “You’ve got four men and three women, but I suspect the medical examiner told you that.”
“He did, but this thing is way out of his league and he knows it. He’s a pathologist, not a forensic anthropologist. When I saw what we had here, I immediately thought of Raiker Forensics. Adam Raiker assures me you’re the best in this field.”
She bent over to examine the femur of the second skeleton. The guy had suffered a fracture to it at some point in his life. It had knit cleanly, suggesting certain medical attention. “I am,” she responded absently. She looked up then to arrow a look at Andrews. “My assistant will be arriving at dawn tomorrow with our equipment. Will this facility remain available to us?”
“It will. Anything you need, talk to the Lane County ME. His name is Steve Michaels. You’ll have to meet him tomorrow.” Cait followed the direction of the woman’s gaze as she looked at the clock. Eight PM. And Cait had left Dulles Airport at six am, east coast time. Weariness was edging in, warring with hunger.
“I’ve arranged two rooms for you and your assistant at the Landview Suites here in Eugene. You’ve rented a vehicle?”
“Picked it up at the airport.” The compact SUV looked perfect for the ground she’d be covering in the course of this investigation. “I’d like all the maps you can provide for the area. Roads, forests, surrounding towns. . .” A thought struck her then and she looked at the other woman. “And thanks for arranging for the weapon permit so quickly.” Raiker refused to let any of his consultants work without one.
Andrews lifted a shoulder. “Raiker made it clear that condition wasn’t up for discussion. I doubt you’ll need it. These bones have probably been in that cave for a decade or more. Even if we determine foul play, that would mean the unknown subject could be long gone by now. The threat should be minimal.”
“You think so? Come smell this.” She held up the skeleton’s leg with one hand under its fibula.
Andrews looked at her askance but she approached cautiously and gave a token sniff. When she straightened she looked quizzical.
“Calcium oxide.” The faint but unmistakable odor still clung to the bones. “Lime,” she explained when the sheriff looked confused. “It’s possible that we’ll find it’s a naturally occurring element in the cave’s chambers.”
“Or perhaps an UNSUB decided to hasten the decomposition process by covering the corpse with lime prior to dumping the remains,” Andrews said slowly.
Cait nodded. “Even without help, it doesn’t take decades for a corpse to be reduced to a skeleton. In some climates it’d be a week if the body were left out in the elements. In Oregon it’d take several weeks or months, depending on where the body’s dumped, the season, the temperature, insect and animal access. Maybe you’re right and these bones have been there for decades. But not necessarily.”
When she saw the satisfied gleam in the sheriff’s eye, Cait knew she’d read the woman correctly. Whatever the outcome of this case, Andrews was going use it to vault her political career. And solving a current crime spree would make for a lot better press than some old murders that had happened long ago.
But the woman only said, “I’ve got a copy of the case file for you in the car. You’ll be reporting directly to me, but a great deal of the time I’ll have you working side by side with my lead investigator, Mitch Barnes. You can meet him tomorrow, too.”
Her attention was already back on the skeletons. There was a lot of preparatory work to be done on them, but it would have to wait until tomorrow when Kristy arrived. Although she’d be supervising the lab work, these days Cait was an investigator first, a forensic anthropologist second. And she was anxious to get a look at the secondary scene.
“I’ll want to get my assistant started first thing tomorrow morning. Have Barnes meet me here at nine and tell Sharper to stand by. We’ll head up to. . .”
“. . .McKenzie Bridge,” the other woman supplied.
“. . .and he can take me to Castle Rock. Show me how he happened to discovered the remains of seven people.” She shot a glance at the sheriff as they headed to the door. “How did Sharper react to the discovery? Is he pretty shaken up?”
Andrews gave a bark of laughter, real amusement showing in her expression. “Nothing shakes up Sharper, unless it’s people wasting his time. He’ll be steady enough, don’t worry. But he won’t win any congeniality contests.”
Cait shrugged. “I don’t need congenial. I’ll be satisfied with competent.”
Andrews led the way out of the morgue, the echo of her booted footsteps ringing hollowly. “I may need to remind you of those words after you meet him.”
Her first stop had been an office supply store. The next was a fast food drive through for a grilled chicken salad with definite wilting around the edges. Cait had eaten in between setting up her work area. The crime scene photos were tacked to the white display boards sitting on top of the desk. A collection of labels, index cards, markers and post it notes sat neatly at the base.
Now she sat on the bed leaning against the headboard, the contents of the fat accordion file folder scattered across her lap and on the mattress. The photographs taken in the cave chamber had been taken with a low light lens, but they were still darker than she’d like. While she was able to easily make out the skeletons’ proximity to one another, it would be much more difficult to use the pictures to tell which one was which.
There was a preliminary report from the ME, Steve Michaels, and it appeared to be solid work. Exact measurements of each set of bones were included, as was a thorough examination for evidence of trauma. None of the skeletons showed recent signs of injury. Perhaps the missing skulls would. Or maybe the deaths were the result of poison. Cait narrowed her eyes, considering. She found herself hoping the decapitation had been enacted posthumously. The deaths would be too gruesome to contemplate otherwise.
Had the skulls been removed to impede identification of the victims? To prevent investigators from detecting a telltale method of death? Or were they kept by the perp as trophies?
Taking a look at her watch, Cait began gathering up the materials and replacing them in the file. But it occurred to her that if she could answer those questions, she’d be a long way toward profiling the UNSUB they were searching for.
Kristy Jensen was a full foot shorter than Cait at four-eleven, a wispy ethereal creature with an otherworldly air. Slap a pair of wings on her, and with her elfin features and blonde wavy hair, Cait had always thought she’d looked like a fairy in a kid’s storybook.
Once she opened her mouth, however, that notion would be dispelled forever.
“There is no fucking good way to get to this fuck dump of a town, you know that, don’t you?” Kristy sipped at her Starbucks coffee and aimed a gimlet stare over the rim from cornflower blue eyes. “Charter plane, my ass. Eight fucking hours it took me from Dulles. I could have walked faster. I could have parachuted half way here, hitched a ride on a mother-fucking migrating duck and still gotten here before that damn plane.”
“So the plane ride was good?” Cait laughed at her diminutive friend fingered her as they entered the morgue. “And you owe me four bucks. I’m giving you a pass on the ‘damn’, and the one finger salute, because at least that’s silent.”
“We haven’t even started work yet,” Kristy complained. But she was already digging in her purse to pull out the money. “I think we should change the rules so it only counts during work time.”
“Tough love.” Cait snatched the five from the woman’s hand and handed her a one in change. “You wanted help cleaning up your language. Can’t change the rules mid course.”
“Why not, nothing else has changed, except for my disposable income. I’m still swearing like a one-legged sailor.”
They showed their temporary ID to the clerk at the front desk and headed down the long hallway to the room where Andrews had brought Cait the evening before.
“Discipline,” she chided. But there was no heat to the word. She could care less whether Kristy sounded like a hardened special ops soldier, as long as she did her job to Cait’s exact specifications. And since she was the best assistant she’d ever been assigned, Cait was satisfied. “Anyway you’ll cheer up quick enough once you see what we have to work with.” She paused before the door at the end of the hall, before opening it with a dramatic flourish.
“Sweeeeet,” Kristy breathed, when she got a glimpse of the remains on the gurneys. “Very sweet. What do we have, mass burial? Mass murder,” she corrected as she got closer and noted the lack of human skulls attached.
“I suppose we have to allow for the possibility that someone stumbled upon that cave long before the wilderness guide did,” mused Cait. The thought had occurred belatedly, once she’d gone to bed, the contents of the files still filling her mind. “Someone with a sense of the macabre who took the skulls as souvenirs.” There were other possibilities, of course. But she found it unlikely that a group of cave explorers would have all followed each other down into the chamber, once one had fallen in. Unless it was a suicide pact.
Kristy was practically salivating as she walked between each gurney. “So you want me to clean them first, right? And then match up the spare parts with the proper skeleton?”
“I want you to start a photograph log first,” Cait corrected. “I need a notebook kept of images of each skeleton throughout each step of the process.” It would easier to correct mistakes that way, especially in the tricky process of reassembling the full remains of each, which was often a matter of trial and error. “The ME should be around somewhere. Get him to give you a copy of the measurements he’s done.”
“But you’ll want me to do my own,” the other woman said surely.
Cait sent her a look of approval. “I doubt he had a caliper to do the measurements with. We’ll want to double check and make sure the bones are with the right remains. Match the spare ones over on that extra gurney. And then you can clean the bones. And we’ll see exactly what we’ve got here.”
“What should I do in my spare time?” But her sarcasm was checked. Kristy was hooked by the enormity of their task, just as Cait was. Anticipation was all but radiating off her in waves.
“I heard voices.” At the sound of the newcomer the women turned toward the door. The man approaching them was average height, with hair as dark as Cait’s. He wore blue scrubs, shoe covers and a slight smile that faded as he got closer. Then his expression took on that slightly stunned expression that was all too familiar. He stared from Cait to Kristy and back again, with the look of a starving man surrounded by a steaming banquet. “Ah. . . Michaels.” He held out his hand to each of them in turn, visibly wrestling to get the words out in proper order. “Steve. I am, that is.”
He looked chagrined but Cait spared him no slack. “Well, Michaels Steve, I’m Cait Fleming.” She jerked a thumb at the other woman. “My assistant Kristy Jensen. I’ve got your preliminary report. Appreciate it. Kristy will be working down here most of the time. I’ve been assured that whatever she needs, she can come to you.”
While she spoke the man seemed to have regained his powers of speech. But twin flags of color rode high on his cheeks and his dark eyes still looked dazed. “Certainly.” He dragged his gaze away from Cait and fixed it on Kristy. “Certainly,” he repeated.
“Then I’ll leave you to get started.” She didn’t know if the investigator would be here yet, but she wasn’t anxious to spend any more time with the ME who looked like he’d just cast them in a low budget porn fantasy involving a threesome and a stainless steel coroner’s station. She started out of the room, throwing a look at Kristy over her shoulder. “Keep me posted.”
As she headed through the door she heard her assistant say sweetly, “So Michaels Steve, why don’t we go out to the truck and you can help unload the mother-fucking equipment.”
A smirk on her lips, Cait decided to let it slide. Nothing to shatter a guy’s X rated fantasy than a pint sized angelic blonde with a mouth like a sewage plant. She almost felt sorry for him. Would have if she weren’t still annoyed at his all too common reaction. As it was, she figured he was going to get exactly what he deserved working with Kristy.
When she stepped out of the morgue doors she saw the Lane County Sheriff squad car pulling up to the curb a full fifteen minutes early. Her good humor restored, Cait rounded it to approach the driver’s door. A stocky deputy got out, extended his hand. “Mitch Barnes, Ms. Fleming.”
Belatedly, Cait realized she was still wearing the morgue temporary ID. She pulled it off as she shook hands with the deputy. “Looking forward to working with you, Mitch.”
The man came to her chin, had receding blonde hair and brown eyes that were pure cop. And it was her shoulder harness that drew his attention rather than her face or figure. She liked him immediately for that fact alone.
“Sheriff says you want to head up to Mckenzie Bridge. Over to Castle Rock.”
She nodded as she dropped her ID into her purse. “I’d like to get a look at the dumpsite. Get a feel for it.”
“You got the pictures?”
Understanding what he was getting at, she nodded. “Still want to see it.”
Shrugging, he leaned into his front seat only to withdraw a moment later with an armful of maps. “Andrews said you asked for these.”
“I did, thanks.” She took stack from him. “If you want to lead the way up to the McKenzie Bridge area, I’ll follow this time. That way you don’t have to wait around while I go through the cave if you don’t want to.”
“Sounds good. It’s about a forty-five minute drive. I’ll call Sharper on the way and let him know we’re coming by.” A smirk flashed across the man’s otherwise professional demeanor. “He’ll be thrilled to take you to the cave.”
Coupled with the sheriff’s comments the night before, Cait had the distinct impression that the guide they kept mentioning was light on social graces. The thought didn’t bother her nearly as much as it would if he were another ogler like the ME.
Men like that rarely brought out the best in her.
How the hell had he gotten into this mess?
Fuming, Zach Sharper threw another look at the rear view mirror at the empty ribbon of road behind him. The answer was swift in coming. Ever since he’d reported his findings from that cave, Andrews had had him wrapped up like a damn trick monkey. First he’d had to lead law enforcement to the place. Then there’d been the incessant questioning.
And now he found himself forced to be at the beck and call of some consultant hired by the sheriff’s office. Playing glorified nursemaid to a cop—or close enough to a cop—promised to be worse than the biggest pain in the ass client he ran across from time to time. At least he had a choice taking on the clients.
Yeah, not being given a choice here rankled the most.
He saw the county car headed toward him. Zach put on his sunglasses and got out of his Jeep. Damned if he’d been about to travel down to Eugene and then back again, once he’d heard what the consultant wanted. And he sure as hell hadn’t wasn’t going to arrange for the cops to meet him at his place. Whispering Pines was his getaway. His refuge. Guests were rarely invited.
A small navy SUV pulled off the road in back of the sheriff’s car. He was unsurprised to see Mitch Barnes get out of the lead car. The way Zach heard it Barnes did most of the grunt work for Andrews while she got all the glory. He’d been the first of the cops to follow Zach into that cave. The sheriff sure hadn’t gone in, though she’d been present, running things on top Castle Rock while her people had hauled the bones out. If Barnes wanted another pass at the cave he sure as hell didn’t need Zach. He knew where it was located.
Made a guy wonder if this was just one more way for Andrews to yank his chain, show him that she was calling the shots.
He got out of the car and walked toward the deputy, who was approaching on the inside shoulder. The driver of the SUV got out, too, but it was Barnes Zach concentrated on. He wasn’t a bad sort, for a cop. Maybe he could talk him into a change of plans. Zach was resigned to the fact that he wasn’t going to get out of this forced alliance with the sheriff’s office. But Andrews wouldn’t necessarily have to know whether he was the one playing nursemaid, or if one of Zach’s employees fulfilled the duty.
Although truth be told, he wasn’t sure he had an employee he disliked enough to saddle with this job.
“Barnes,” he said by way of greeting. The other man gave him a nod. Wasting no time, he continued, “Maybe you and me can reach a. . .”
“Sharper, I want you to meet Caitlin Fleming, a consultant for the sheriff’s department. She’s with Raiker Forensics.”
The inflection in the man’s voice imbued his last words with meaning. But it was his earlier words that had Zach halting in disbelief. Tipping his Wayfarers down he looked—really looked—at the woman approaching.
The mile long legs could be right. And she was tall enough; only a few inches shorter than his own six-three height. The kiss-my-ass cheekbones were familiar. But it was the thick black hair that clinched it, though shorter now than it’d been all those years ago. He didn’t need her to remove her tinted glasses to know the eyes behind them were moss green and guaranteed to turn any breathing male into an instant walking hard-on.
His voice terse, he turned his attention to the deputy and said, “Is this some kind of a joke?”
Barnes blinked. “What?”
“I mean are there going to be TV trucks and cameras following our every move?” Christ, what a clusterfuck. He could already imagine it. But he’d seen enough so-called entertainment featuring desperate cultural celebrities to anticipate what was going on here. “I’m not about to get involved in a reality TV show or whatever the hell she’s part of. You can tell Andrews the deal is off.” Andrews had threatened to jam him up with the constant renewal of permits needed to take his clients camping or kayaking. But maybe he could bribe someone at the permit department to circumvent her meddling. He was willing to take his chances.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“He’s talking about me.” The voice was smoke, pure sex. He’d never heard her speak before, but he’d imagined it often enough years ago in his adolescent fantasies. “Probably recognizes me from some of my modeling work, isn’t that right, Sharper? A long time ago. If you want me to believe you’ve changed from a sweaty hormone ridden teenage boy who undoubtedly used one of my posters to fuel your juvenile wet dreams, then you’ll have to credit that I too grew up and moved on. I want a first hand look at that cave. You’re going to take me there.”
Somehow when he’d imagined her talking decades ago it had been without that tone of withering disdain. His disbelief dissipated, the skepticism remained. He slanted a glance at the deputy. “Seriously, Barnes. This is the department’s consultant?”
The man’s manner was stiff. “Like I said, she’s from Raiker Forensics. The Mindhunters. That might not mean anything to you, but in law enforcement circles it carries a helluva lot of weight.”
Caitlin Fleming as a cop. The implausibility of it still rang in his mind. But then he gave a mental shrug. Most people in these parts used to be something else. Many were reluctant to talk about their pasts. Including him.
He looked her over again, noting the jeans, tennis shoes and long sleeve navy t-shirt. “Either we hike down Castle Rock or climb up it. Either way, it’s not a walk in the park. Mitch here can tell you that. You might want to rethink visiting it in person.”
Instead of responding, she looked at the deputy. “You coming along?”
He shook his head. “Once was enough for me. I’ve been stopping in at the forest service stations in the area. Getting a look at the citations they’ve issued in the last few years.”
She nodded. “I’ll be anxious to look them over when you’re done. See you back in Eugene, then. This will probably take most of the day.” She walked back to her SUV and pulled a pack out of the back of it. Then she locked it and headed back to where they stood waiting for her.
“We’ll use your vehicle, Sharper. I don’t care which approach we take to the cave, although I’ll want to explore both of them.” She headed toward where he’d left his pickup parked on the shoulder of the road. Her voice drifted behind her as she walked away. “I’d already been warned you were an asshole, so your attitude isn’t much of a surprise. But it’ll be up to you to convince me that you’re as good at your job as I’ve heard. Right now, I’ve got to say, I have my doubts.”