Wednesday, April 24: early morning
It was raining.
A warm, steady drizzle, it was carried ashore from Chesapeake Bay by gusting winds from the southeast, blurring the red tail lights of the cars ahead of them through the steady pulsing of the cruiser’s windshield wipers. The roof lights were flashing, and the uniformed officer behind the wheel had blipped his siren once or twice, trying to push through the morning rush-hour traffic, but Homicide Lieutenant Hank Donaghue finally told him not to bother.
“She’ll wait for us,” he said, rubbing his temple to try to clear a nagging headache.
Hank closed his eyes. No one liked working outdoor crime scenes in bad weather. Responding officers hated standing around doing nothing for hours in bulky rain gear, crime scene technicians and medical examiners cursed as the rain washed away trace evidence before it could be collected, and detectives grew short-tempered as everyone else at the scene vented their bad mood and made the job that much more unpleasant.
Hank dreaded rainy day crime scenes because he disliked getting wet and because the rain often gave him a nagging headache, just like the one he was nursing this morning.
They passed the on-ramp for the Howard K. Chase Bridge and took the next right onto Levitt Street. Ahead, through the wipers and the rain, Hank could see the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles gathered on the pavement beneath the massive, arching span of the bridge. He released his seat belt and fastened the top button of his trench coat as they stopped at the wooden barricades marking the outer perimeter of the crime scene.
“Thanks for the lift,” he told the officer, getting out.
“No problem, Lieutenant.”
Ignoring the cameras and the shouting journalists, Hank held up the wallet containing his badge and identification to a uniformed officer who moved aside the barrier for him. Twenty feet ahead, barely within the shelter afforded by the bridge, Hank handed the wallet to another officer behind a line of yellow tape. The officer wrote down his name and badge number and gave the wallet back without comment.
Hank lifted the tape and moved forward, a little uncomfortable beneath the tons of concrete and steel above his head. He joined a circle of people watching other people work in the rain beyond the protection of the bridge, down near the water’s edge.
“How are they coming?” he asked Detective Jim Horvath.
“Morning, Lieutenant.” Horvath ran the sleeve of his police windbreaker over his damp forehead. “They got the body tent up but there isn’t going to be much. Stains is getting the rundown from Chalmers, but the vic was dumped naked and has been out here all night. It doesn’t look promising.”
Tim Byrne, the crime scene unit team leader, handed Hank a tablet. Hank began to swipe through photos of the scene.
“She was found halfway in the water,” Byrne said, watching as Hank studied a close-up showing the victim’s submerged head. “Posed that way. Given the amount of time it’s been out here, the body was probably dumped when the level was slightly lower, about three inches, so either it’s coincidental that she was found this way—”
“Or he planned it, and this is how he wanted her to be found,” Horvath finished.
Hank looked up from the tablet. “With the head completely underwater, and the rest of the body on shore?”
“How the hell would I know how he wanted her to be found?” Byrne snarled. “I’m not a fucking telepath.”
Horvath raised an eyebrow at Hank. Thirty-three years old, he stood three inches shorter than Hank at an even six feet tall, and he was twenty-five pounds lighter at a slim one hundred and eighty. His short, black hair was neatly groomed and his green eyes, a gift from his Irish mother, normally danced with good humor. This morning, however, they looked tired and stressed.
Hank shrugged and went back to the photos. The body had been posed by the dumper in a provocative, obscene manner. The arms were extended and slightly bent at the elbows, palms up, as though inviting an embrace. The legs were splayed and bent at the knees, exposing the pubic area. The skin was pale and the long, straight blonde hair drifted on the surface of the water like fine angel’s hair. He stopped at a photo taken after the body had been moved to the spot it now occupied on the pavement, about twelve feet from shore. The multiple ligature marks around the neck were clearly visible.
“Did you want to question the witness?” Horvath asked. “He says he’s late for work and has to get going.”
Hank gave the tablet back to Byrne and shook his head. “He called it in?”
“Yeah. He was the third who called but the only one who stopped. Name’s Fred Adams, works as a pipe-fitter for a construction company. Says he was coming off the bridge and happened to look down. Saw the body and looped around down here from the off-ramp. That’s his truck over there.”
Hank looked at a black Dodge Ram with Maryland tags parked inside the crime scene tape. “Thought he could help?”
“We’ve all taken turns giving him shit for messing up the scene,” Byrne said. “We’ve gone through his truck already. He swears he didn’t touch the body. The footprints left by the dumper are a lot smaller than his boots, which fit his feet, so I’m fine with that.”
“He says he came close enough to see that the eyes were open under the water,” Horvath added. “That’s when he called it in.”
Hank looked at the young man sitting on the chipped cement footing of one of the bridge piers. He wore a plaid shirt, jeans, and scuffed work boots. He glanced up and nodded as a paramedic handed him a bottle of water, but he didn’t smile. He looked very upset by what he’d seen.
“You’re done with his truck?”
Byrne nodded. “He signed off on prints and a search, gave us a DNA sample, the works. We know where to find him if we want him. I’ve got no problem letting him go.”
“Let him go,” Hank told Horvath.
As the detective left in search of the sergeant in charge of the scene, Hank flipped up the collar of his coat and stepped out into the rain. After processing the body in situ, Dr. Sarah Chalmers, the assistant medical examiner, had moved it up onto the pavement where it was now hidden inside a blue eight-by-four body tent.
“Don’t you just love this weather?” Detective Karen Stainer shoved her fists into the pockets of her tweed jacket. “She’s gonna be as clean as a whistle and there’s not a damned thing we can do about it.”
Thirty-eight years old and a seventeen-year veteran of the Glendale Police Department, Karen was short, athletic, and about as intense as they come. Her shoulder-length blonde hair was plastered to her head, drops of rain clung to her slightly-pointed nose and chin, and her pale blue eyes smoldered in anger as she stared at Hank, her lips pressed tightly together.
Chalmers joined them. She wore a bright yellow rain jacket with OME emblazoned on the back. The hood was up, hiding her wavy red hair, and the drawstring was tied tightly beneath her chin. She looked like a freckle-faced schoolgirl.
“She’s been here all night. We’re about to transport. Do you want to see her?”
“I’ve seen the photos,” Hank said, glancing down at the tent. “Walk me through it.”
“She’s in full rigor, so she’s been here at least six to nine hours. She would’ve been positioned like that no more than two, possibly two-and-a-half hours post-mortem.”
Hank nodded, understanding her point that positioning of the body must occur before rigor mortis sets in, which generally begins to appear two to three hours after death. It gave them a time frame in which the body would have been dumped, and a hint as to approximate time of death.
“Internal body temp also suggests a TOD of about ten to twelve hours ago,” Chalmers went on, using the cuff of her jacket to dab at rain on her cheek, “although given the weather, I trust the rigor more. Once we’ve done the autopsy, I’ll be able to give you a reliable time frame.”
“So he kills her early last night at about seven thirty,” Karen said, “brings her here when it’s dark, wheels her body down to the water with some kind of hand truck or something—”
“Yeah, I saw the tracks,” Hank interrupted.
“—then drops her there and poses her before rigor starts.”
“You think he wanted her discovered with her head under water like that?” Chalmers asked.
Hank ran his hand through his frizzy brown hair. It came away wet. He shook off the drops. “It’s possible. Low tide last night was at about eight o’clock, this morning it’s at nine twenty, sunrise is about six thirty, he’s got to figure the body will be seen by commuters as soon as it’s daylight—”
“Probably counted on it.” Karen took her fists out of her pockets and folded her arms.
“Maybe. Maybe he wanted the body found exactly the way it was found. So he checked the tide charts and did his calculations, brought it out and positioned it exactly where he wanted it after measuring it out.” He looked at Chalmers, his thoughts shifting. “I saw the ligature marks on the neck.”
“Yes. Overlapping. The most prominent being the final one.”
“Any mutilation other than the removal of the breasts?”
“Not that I could tell.”
“They look like clean amputations.”
“Yes, with a very sharp instrument and no hesitation.”
Karen muttered something under her breath. Hank didn’t ask her to repeat it.
Chalmers stoically stared back at him.
“Restraint marks on the wrists and ankles,” he prompted.
“Multiple marks consistent with plastic locking straps.”
“She was held for a while, maybe several days,” Hank said. “Freed to use the washroom, then restrained again.”
“Could be,” Chalmers said.
Hank turned now to Karen. “Anything left behind?”
“No. Crime Scene found jack that hasn’t been here less than a week, other than the wheel tracks and his footprints. They’re still looking along the shore in case something blew over there.” She pointed.
Hank stepped to his right and saw two yellow GPD FORENSICS rain coats about twelve feet apart, stooped over, creeping along the edge of the river where it met the vacant lot on this side of the bridge.
“He washed her,” Chalmers put in.
Hank cocked his head. “Oh?”
“I could smell a faint odor of disinfectant, despite the rain. We’ll be lucky to find anything at all, never mind DNA. I’ve bagged her hands and feet, but her nails looked like they’ve been trimmed and scrubbed.”
“Anything he missed, the rain probably got,” Karen groused.
“All right. Thanks, Sarah,” Hank said.
Hank turned away to stare out across the river.
“Man, I hate the rain,” Karen said.
“Join the club.” He went back under the bridge and spoke to the sergeant in charge of the scene, who pointed out the public information officer. Unlike some PIOs Hank had worked with, this one was sworn personnel who wore a patrol officer’s uniform beneath her police rain jacket. Water dripped from the brim of her hat.
“Officer Eleanor Montgomery,” she said, shaking his hand. “If you have a minute, I’d like to run over the statement with you.”
“Sure.” Hank watched her tap the screen of her tablet. She was short, slender, and pretty enough to be a model in a toothpaste commercial. Her makeup was subdued and natural-looking, in conformity with departmental policy for female officers, but done with an eye to enhancing her appearance before the cameras. Her long, blonde hair was pinned in a bun at the back of her neck, just below the brim of her hat. Her fingernails were carefully manicured to the permitted quarter-inch length and done with a light-colored polish. It was probable that her looks had been a contributing factor in her selection as a PIO.
“The victim is unidentified,” she began, “white female in her early to middle twenties. She was sexually assaulted and strangled, then left unclothed on the river shore by the killer, who brought her body here from a location currently unknown. I’ll polish up the wording. Detective Horvath suggested that I omit the mutilation, but said I should check with you first.”
“Omit it for now,” Hank said. “It’s early.”
Montgomery nodded. “We should include an appeal to the public for any information they may have about suspicious activity around the bridge last night, or any missing female matching the description, which I’ll go over for them.”
“The eyewitness, Mr. Adams, got away without having to talk to them. They filmed him and took his picture, but there was no statement. They’ll track him down, though.”
“I would imagine. You’ll schedule a press conference for later in the day?”
“I’m not sure,” she said, “the D.C. may want to.” She was referring to Deputy Chief Alonzo Philbin, who ran the administrative division in which she worked. “I’ll repeat this statement at our regularly-scheduled briefing at ten—pending updates, of course—but we could do a three-o’clock conference if everyone thinks it’s needed.”
“Did they get any shots of her before they got the tent up?”
“I don’t think so,” Montgomery replied, “but traffic’s slow at this time of morning coming off the bridge and someone may have gotten something on their cell phone from a vehicle up there before they moved her. We’ll have to see what turns up. Will you make a statement at this time?”
Hank shook his head, causing droplets of rain to fall from his frizzy brown hair. They ran down his cheek. “It’s all yours.”
“All right, Lieutenant.”
He watched her walk away, eyes on her tablet, index finger tap-tapping. He turned to see uniformed officers holding up a tarpaulin as Chalmers supervised the movement of the body from the tent to a body bag. The bag was then shifted onto a gurney for transportation to the morgue.
Behind Chalmers, Karen looked over at him.
The raindrops on her face could have been misinterpreted as tears, but the anger in her eyes was unmistakable.