The heavy scent of pine and wet autumn leaves stirred memories I’d suppressed for fifteen years. The unearthed body, dotted with evidence markers and splayed out like a science experiment, added an array of offensive odors that didn’t help my nervous stomach. I was used to gruesome crime scenes. It was for other reasons entirely that I’d tried to avoid returning to the Pacific Northwest to the point of nearly losing my job.
“Special Agent St. James,” I said, taking the hand of one of the detectives milling around the scene.
“Detective Rick Schild.” He met my eyes and gave a firm handshake. He stood my height, and a ring of mouse-brown hair circled his balding head. That and his ruddy cheeks added to his overall appearance of roundness. A slightly plump belly resting at his belt line indicated that this was probably more action than his unit typically saw.
“I’m sorry we have to move in on your investigation,” I said, taking in the scene with my customary stoicism. Horse flies and cops swarmed the body in equal numbers. “We typically don’t get involved in murders, but I guess you guys found someone we care about.”
“The more eyes on this one, the better,” Schild shook his head as if he was trying to rid himself of the horror before him. He lifted the crime scene tape and I stepped underneath.
“Don’t get a lot of these around here?”
“No, the Key Peninsula is a farily quiet area. We spend most of our time bagging speeders; occasional drug op; broke up a drunken teenage party a few weeks ago.” He chuckled. “This is the first murder I’ve encountered on the force here. Don’t remember any from when I grew up here, either.”
Wet leaves squished underfoot. A chill ran the length of my spine. No matter how many homicides I’d investigated, the first sight of a badly mangled body is never easy to process.
“The victim was found in a shallow grave by the landowner's kid and dog,” Schild continued, wringing his hands. “Poor kid’s going to need years of therapy.”
A petite woman in jeans and a plaid, flannel shirt stooped next to the body, scraping at a long gash on the victim’s forearm with a scalpel. There were similar wounds raked in parallel patterns of threes or fours across the man’s chest, legs and arms. His relatively unmarked face made identification pretty easy. I had seen that face, smiling and full of life, on a campaign sign on the drive in: Senator William F. Mansfield.
“Do you know what the senator was doing out here?” I asked, turning to face Schild. “The Key Peninsula is a pretty isolated area, isn’t it?”
“He made an appearance at the Halloween masquerade at the Civic Center a couple weeks ago. Right before the election. Campaign push, I guess. Reelection, and all that. We don’t get many celebrity guests out this way. It was a pretty big deal. Most of the KP showed up. Lots of suspects.” Schild’s voice trailed off at the thought.
“Well, we can work together.” I smiled for a second before my lips set back into a grim, thin line. “I’ll be handling your public relations, too.”
“I heard you were coming in from remote?”
“Yes,” I said, scanning the surroundings. The dense, pine forest closed in around the scene, giving the clearing the feel of a small room. Salal and blackberry bushes snarled under the trees, broken here and there by trails only the youngest of deer could squeeze through. Stark white alders, their last leaves of gold and brown clinging to mostly bare branches, stood out against to the pine groves that seemed to suggest twilight even at noon. Memories long suppressed threatened to come to the surface. I swallowed hard. “I’m from the San Francisco field office, but my uncle used to live out here. We used to visit a couple times a year.”
“Here? On the KP?"
"Don’t we have bureau up here?” Schild asked.
“Seattle, yeah. I’ll be working with them. They’re sending out a profiler. Haven’t been to the office yet.”
“Too bad you couldn't just come relive some good memories." He nodded toward the body.
My mind spun at the involuntary recall of running, my heart hammering in my chest, with my cousin outdistancing me, despite his lack of athletic ability. Adrenaline and fear crept up my spine, and I shoved it down hard. It was a stupid prank. Had to have been.
"Where about did your uncle live?" Schild asked, filling my silence.
I forced a smile. “His house was about three miles from here. He’s long since moved, though. Down to Oregon.”
“Small world, huh?”
“Yeah, never thought I’d have to come out here again.” I shifted uneasily at the accusatory look Schild flashed, and quickly added, “It is beautiful, though.”
The forensic analyst stood, zipping shut an evidence bag, and faced us. The nappy, auburn bun atop her head frayed like old rope. Freckled cheeks crowned her full lips, and her emerald green eyes reflected hues of the forest floor. The badge clipped to her shirt read Jan Stevens.
“There’s hair in his wounds,” Stevens said in a high voice, holding up the bag for inspection as if it was a prize. “Particles of skin, too, I think. The hair’s not his. It’s longer and darker. Hopefully we’ll get a DNA match and make this an easy case.”
“That would be great,” Schild’s voice sounded hopeful for the first time since I arrived.
“That could help with suspects,” I agreed, “but it could also be his wife’s hair. Or his pet’s. Let’s just start with what we know, and start pulling in suspects. Take video from the Halloween party. Put out a public notice asking for pictures, video, and volunteer witness accounts. Set up an anonymous hotline. We need to narrow this down. We can’t start with a suspect base of...” I looked at Schild.
“Roughly fifteen thousand.”
I heaved a sigh, “Yeah, we need to narrow this down.”
A car door shut behind us, and I turned to see a familiar black government cruiser. The driver was tall with thick, dark hair. He wore jeans and a standard-issue FBI jacket. Sunglasses covered his eyes, even though it was overcast and threatening to rain. He walked with long, confident strides toward us.
He pulled off his glasses and extended a hand to Schild. I felt like a ton of bricks slammed me in the chest. My heart raced. It was Danny. My mind’s eye saw him drawing his bow, loosing the arrow, and striking whatever it was that was chasing me. I gulped down the memory; I had to get a grip.
“How’s it going, Rick?” he asked, taking Schild’s outstretched hand. The two exchanged broad smiles.
“Good to see you, Danny!” Schild grabbed Danny’s hand and clapped him on the back.
“And you would be Special Agent Kessa St. James from San Francisco, yes?” He turned toward me. The twinkle in his ice-blue eyes told me he remembered exactly who I was.
“Seattle field?” I asked dumbly.
“Agent Danny Harmon, at your service.” He smiled, performing a half-curtsy, half-bow. “Let’s get a look at our late senator.”
He squatted down next to the body and pulled a purple latex glove from his jacket pocket with a flourish. Holding his hand high, he wiggled his fingers as he snapped the glove in place. The effect was like bad TV comedy, and I immediately thought prostate exam. Fifteen years later, and he was still as dramatic as ever.
I moved around the body to stoop down opposite Harmon. Getting in close is never fun. Iron mixed with salt mixed with feces assaulted my nasal passages. Harmon’s mouth set in a hard frown.
“You sure this wasn’t an animal attack?” He looked up, directly at me.
“I don’t think so,” said forensic analyst Stevens from behind him. “Maybe a rake or a garden trowel?”
“The patterns aren’t consistent. Some wounds are three gashes; some are four.” He pointed to various lacerations on the body, poking a gloved finger into a spot on the victim’s sternum. “And they’re jagged like they could be claw marks.”
“There are no bite marks,” Stevens continued. “If it was a coyote or bear...”
“Or a wolf,” Harmon interrupted, flashing me a searching look. I suddenly took great interest in the wounds covering the victim’s left hand.
“Or a wolf,” she continued, “there would be bite marks, too.”
“A wolf wouldn’t bury its victim,” Schild added dryly.
“True,” Harmon conceded with half a nod. He continued toying at the wound on the sternum.
“What’s so interesting there?” I asked.
“This one is much deeper. Like a puncture before the claw mark. I think this is probably the one that did him. Bled out through the aortic. I'm going to hazard a guess that cause of death was exsanguination.” He flashed a sideways smile back at Stevens, "Though you should probably still perform your autopsy."
“That would have to puncture the solar plexus,” Stevens countered.
“It would, and I think you’ll find that it did. I think this claw mark…”
“Or rake mark,” Stevens interjected.
Harmon traced a finger across the senator’s chest, cocking his head to the side, “…is covering a puncture wound of some sort.”
“If so,” I said, pulling a glove on my own hand, “then we definitely don’t have an animal attack.” Harmon shot me a questioning glance, and I added, “Animals don’t use piercing implements, as a general rule.”
Schild chuckled, “That would be something, though. The bear did it in the woods with the samurai sword.” He shook his head and wandered away from the body to where a pair of investigators emerged from the woods. Stevens followed behind him, holding up her bag of bloody hair.
“You know what this is,” Harmon said in a low voice, pulling off his jacket. He wore a short-sleeved, black polo shirt, seemingly unaffected by the cold November air.
I just looked at him. His eyes still held the piercing quality they had when we were kids. His black hair clung to his temple, only the last time I’d seen him, it was plastered on his face from the rain. Now he had it expertly gelled to one side and cropped short in the back. He had filled out over the years; lean, muscular arms indicated a lot of training. Straight teeth replaced a smile full of braces.
“You can’t be serious, Harmon.” I scoffed, studying the puncture wound.
“Call me Danny, please.”
I ignored him. “But you’re right about this puncture. It’s deep, and he definitely bled out. Which means he was also cleaned up. It also explains the missing shirt. Probably removed because it was blood-soaked. Might even identify the murder weapon. Maybe we’ll be lucky and it’ll turn up.”
“You still good in a fight?” Harmon asked. I met his eyes. He smiled with his entire body.
“Look, if you think it’s funny to bring up some stupid prank played by my cousin on a murder scene, I’ll have your badge.”
“You still have fight in you, that’s for sure,” he said, his smile turning down into a flash of a frown, before resuming an expression of puppy-dog playfulness.
“This is a serious case, Harmon.” I indicated the senator. “We don’t get pulled in on these cases—I don’t get pulled in—unless there’s some serious shit going down. And this is serious.” I punctuated my words with fingers pointed at the victim before us.
“Serious,” he said, forcing the smile from his lips, “Yes.”
I couldn’t tell if he was messing with me, or if he was actually trying to be professional. I guessed the former.
A moment of tense silence crept on between us. I finally broke it. “We should interview the family of the boy who found the body.”
“Yes, we should.” Harmon held eye contact with me until I felt discomfort creep across my skin.
“Something on your mind?” I asked, with more challenge in my voice than was intended.
He looked at me, his face a question mark, “You know this could have been us, right? As kids, we were this close...” he held his thumb and forefinger an inch apart, right in front of my face, “—to winding up just like the senator.”
“Harmon, that’s ridiculous,” I scoffed, pinching my brow. “If there is some crazed, lunatic wolf-man running around, why is this the first attack—ever—out here?” He started to answer, but I held up my hand. “No, on second thought,” I said, “don’t answer that.”
He darted glances around the scene and lowered his voice to nearly a whisper. “Like I said before, you know what this is.”
He cut me off with a wave of a hand. “I know. You don’t want to believe me. You don’t want to remember. You think it was a kid’s game and a well-played prank. Let me convince you otherwise.”
I stood up, and he rose with me, locked onto my eyes all the way.
“I’m going to go interview the family,” I said, crossing my arms. “You can come with me, but keep your local legends to yourself. I have a murder to solve.”
Schild tapped me on the shoulder, and I spun on my heel, startled. “Find anything?” I asked after catching my breath.
“Nothing of use. But we’re getting a dog team out here to search.” He handed me a card. “Here’s my cell; give me a call if you find anything, and I’ll do the same.”
“We’ll be in touch, detective,” Harmon said, handing him a card of his own before I could produce mine. I shot him a glare. He pretended not to notice.