Autumn Secrets © Susan C. Muller
She didn't weigh much. A hundred and ten, tops. But it was hard work carrying, as they called it, dead weight.
If he didn't have a place prepared, he'd be tempted to drop her beside the road like the trash she was.
But he'd done the necessary groundwork.
He'd spent days driving aimlessly around Houston, scouting the perfect location. One that met his specific criteria.
No cameras recording suspicious activity. No neighbors glancing out an upstairs window. No headlight beams from oncoming traffic.
Then one June night, under a sky so clear he didn't need a flashlight, he'd found the spot. Right under his nose all the time.
His heart swelled in anticipation, and he sang to himself as he dug in the barren soil.
The moon at night
It shines so bright
I'm right at home here in Texas.
Not exactly the way he'd learned it at his father's knee, but better. New and improved.
Then again, sometimes what not to do was the lesson.
Like get caught.
His father needed three tries to wise up. First, his mother took her own life when she caught him diddling the nanny. Wife number two took his money. Finally, wife number three didn't care who Daddy diddled, as long as she got her monthly allowance and wasn't bothered with domestic duties.
So he'd watched and learned, and unlike Daddy, hadn't been caught. He took his cues from the Boy Scouts. Always be prepared.
And he was. For months to come. Which was good, because he liked Houston. The people were friendly, trusting, yet not too inquisitive. Each suburb a separate municipality. Even in the city there were plenty of open spaces. Dead end roads.
He stopped to catch his breath and laughed at his own pun.
After here, who knew? He couldn't go back to Austin. And didn't want to.
Not Huntsville. People actually noticed when college girls went missing.
Dallas maybe, or Amarillo. He'd always liked the sound of Seguin. Definitely not Galveston.
On an island, you could get trapped.
After six weeks of "officially encouraged" vacation and four weeks back on the job, Noah Daugherty was accustomed to his office and the constant beeping, whirring, ringing of phones, printers, and computers. They were white noise that didn't register on his conscious brain.
But he hadn't gotten used to seeing dead bodies. Maybe he never would.
He stood, knee deep in weeds, not half a mile off I-45. The ship channel bridge was visible in the distance. Big-rigs belched past. Drivers leaned on horns as rubberneckers slowed to look at the gathering of squad cars, ambulances, and crime scene vans.
News helicopters hovered overhead.
The vultures had descended with amazing speed. And he wasn't thinking of the winged creatures who alerted a fisherman to the presence of the decaying body.
He should be searching the scene, but there was nothing more to see here and he'd already trudged through enough gumbo mud to coat the bottom six inches of his pant legs. Instead, his mind kept returning to his forced time off and the peace he'd felt. He longed for those hours of silence. Entire days when he spoke to no one except Sweet Pea. The five-pound Yorkie never answered him, but her expression spoke volumes.
Unfortunately, the criminals of Houston hadn't spent the summer on vacation.
This discovery made two bodies found less than a block apart. From what he could see of her condition, she pre-dated the other by several months.
The first had been left inside an abandoned apartment building two weeks earlier. She'd still be there if a county employee hadn't been given a clipboard and a list of derelict buildings with instructions to decide if they posed an danger to the community and should be demolished, refurbished, or ignored.
But someone had taken time to bury this one's remains. And last night's rain had opened her shallow grave.
The first cool breeze of autumn did little to blow away the stench.
If she was the perp's earliest victim, there was a good chance he'd made mistakes, left trace evidence this time.
If she wasn't, there were likely more. Waiting. Someone's daughter or mother or sister or even a wife, left to rot a few feet below ground.
Waiting to be discovered. Waiting for justice. For retribution.
While at home someone waited for that phone call or knock on the door. Waiting even while knowing the news would end all hope.
Noah slapped at a mosquito as his partner bowed his head over the makeshift grave. He never knew for certain whether Conner's prayer was for the victim or his own ability to bring her justice.
A moment later, he approached, memo book in hand. Noah's fears that fatherhood would force Conner to transfer to a less demanding department had never materialized. Yet he knew his partner's five a.m. jog had turned into a six o'clock speed walk around the neighborhood pushing a baby carriage. The dark circles under his eyes hinted even this might not last much longer.
"The M.E. says early summer, best he can tell. He'll know better when he has her on the table."
"Don't suppose the illustrious Dr. Mackie is willing to comment on cause of death. Or if she's related to the other one." Would Noah rather have one guy going around killing young women, or two different sleaze bags working the same area? None of the above didn't seem to be an option.
Conner slipped the memo pad into his shirt pocket. "You know better than to ask. I was lucky to get that much out of him."
They'd be lucky to get an identification any time soon, considering she was only wearing the skin she was born in.
He'd bet his pension on manual strangulation. This guy liked it up close and personal. Looking into their eyes as the light of life faded.
If it was the same perp, he didn't know his victims. He'd dumped them like a piece of garbage without the decency to lay them out. With only two feet of dirt to cover their nakedness.
Conner's voice brought him back to the present. "What now?"
He looked over the vacant lot, the size of a football field. What were the odds? He'd shucked his coat, rolled up his sleeves and loosened his tie, but sweat ran down the back of his neck and his shirt stuck to his skin.
It would take a dozen academy rookies—something they weren't likely to get—to do a proper grid search, but he and Conner were there, dirty and miserable.
"Want to walk the field, see if anything else washed up?"
An hour later, Noah regretted his suggestion. His slacks were clammy and clung to his legs like yoga pants. He'd stepped out of his shoes in the thick mud twice so even his socks were wet.
Every step through a new batch of weeds or yaupon stirred up a fresh swarm of mosquitoes. He'd have quit, but he didn't want to give up before Conner.
His fastidious partner didn't seem to sweat or get bitten by the veracious bloodsuckers, but at least his expensive slacks were filthy from the knee down and that gave Noah a perverse sense of pleasure.
He took another step and his foot sank ankle-deep into the mud. He stepped to the side to pull that foot out when the other plunged in even deeper.
"Hey, partner. I think I'm stuck. Is there really such a thing as quicksand?"
Conner eyed him, standing shin deep in the mud. "I don't know, but if there is, you found it. Let's get you out of there and call it a day."
Praise the Lord and pass the biscuits. He never thought he'd live to see the day Conner quit first.
His partner yanked up several handfuls of the tall weeds and laid them on the edge of the muddy area. He placed one foot on the grass, grabbed Noah's wrists, and tugged. Noah came out, but one shoe didn't.
Now what? Limp home?
They had worked their way close to the crime scene techs so he yelled to them. "Hey, guys. I need a shovel over here."
The youngest tech, a kid he could have sworn wore a Bozo the Clown fright wig, brought the smallest shovel Noah had ever seen. Not two feet long, it couldn't possibly scoop up more than a handful of the gooey muck at a time.
The tech—his name tag read Benny Schroeder—smiled, and Noah swore under his breath. If that kid dared laugh, he'd make his life miserable as long as he worked for the department. Maybe longer.
Two shovelfuls later, Noah's shoe reappeared. But so did something else.
A hand. Red fingernail polish still visible.
For once, Noah and Conner had taken a motor pool car to the crime scene. They sat in the front seat, caked in mud, smelling like old fish left in the sun, and let the air conditioning blow in their faces.
It wasn't much, but it helped.
Noah almost felt human by the time Benny trudged up and tapped on the window. "You might want to come see this," he said and swung around to trudge away again.
He glanced at Conner who closed his eyes and sighed. "I guess we have to."
Damn, he could get used to this new Conner. Sure, it was only temporary. One day, the baby would start sleeping through the night and Conner would be his old self again.
Until then, the slight feeling of superiority was the kick he needed.
The midday sun had driven away any clouds and the hot air slapped Noah in the face as he opened the car door. The first of October and eighty-five degrees at least.
He scraped an inch of mud off the bottom of his shoe, but really, what was the use? It would be back again after half a dozen steps.
The M.E. squatted next to the shallow grave. "We've got a problem."
Noah stared down at the body. Long hair, blonde under layers of filth, covered the face of the nearly-intact woman. Other than another body, ten feet from the one they were investigating, what could possibly be wrong?
Doc M pointed to a bone next to the woman's arm. A femur, yellowed with age. "She's not alone."
Conner's hands dropped. He didn't even bother to take notes.
Noah looked again. He could make out portions of a skull and other parts of a skeleton hidden beneath the blonde with the red fingernails.
His stomach threatened to rebel. He was supposed to investigate homicides, not discover them. While he'd always had empathy for witnesses, some part of him would secretly will them to grab hold of their grownup panties, pull themselves together, and give him the information he needed to find the killer.
Now he truly understood, and he didn't like it one bit.
This was bad. How was he going to solve this case? No neighbors to question. No businesses nearby that might have security cameras. No firm date of death to know who'd gone missing.
As backed up as the lab was, he couldn't expect DNA anytime soon. And were fingerprints even possible after this length of time?
The only good thing about this entire day was that the news media had gotten tired and gone home before he stumbled into the second grave. That wouldn't last. They'd find out and be back.
He turned to Conner, disillusionment weighing heavy on his shoulders. "Let's head to the office, write this up, and wait for the autopsy to give us some direction. If we can get anything that says even two of these are the same guy, I'd like to push for one of those cadaver sniffing dogs or ground penetrating radar. Look around this field. See if they had any more company."
"Do we even have those things?"
"Damned if I know, but it might be worth finding out."
"Her hyoid bone is not broken." Glacial blue eyes peered at Noah from under the M.E.'s surgical cap.
Noah had always hated the morgue. Who wouldn't, with its chemical smells, near freezing temperatures, and disgusting sights? Well, apparently not Doctor Mackie and his merry band of part-vampire helpers. But since the day, little more than a year ago, he'd had to identify Betsy's body, it held a special spot in his places-to-avoid list.
So why did he always seem to be the one tasked with attending post mortems?
Because he'd kept that secret, along with many others, from his partner.
His gut churned and he longed to be away from the building and back outside, no matter how gray the day.
"Are you saying she wasn't strangled?" One time he'd like to have Doc M spew out the pertinent facts and let him leave before the stink settled into his hair and clothes.
"Oh, no. She was manually throttled. You asked me for similarities in the deaths. I assumed you wanted differences as well. On the other girls, the bone was broken."
"So the doer wasn't the same person." Okay, he wasn't searching for one douchebag but two. Maybe more.
"I didn't say that."
Shit. "So what are you saying?"
"The hyoid is only fractured in one third of strangulation cases. There are multiple causes for this. In children under ten, the bone is not yet fused. In adults over forty, ossification may occur."
There were people all over the world, millions of people, who went through their entire lives never learning this stuff. Right now he wished he was one of them.
"Also, the amount of pressure is significant. Compression of the carotid arteries or jugular veins indicates less pressure while the trachea, which is crushed in all four victims, takes as much as six times the pressure."
Yep, more information he could have done without. "I'm not studying for an exam, Doc. Can you keep the lecture to this victim and how she compares to the other women?"
"You realize I'm estimating the age by teeth and bone structure." The doc stopped abruptly. Disappointment flooded his face.
For one moment Noah felt like an ass. Doc M had missed his calling as a teacher or some kind of professional negotiator. But this was work, not a hobby, and he had four dead women waiting for identification.
"Numbering the victims by the order in which they died, not by when they were found, victim number one, the skeleton, was probably twenty-two and had been in the ground for ten years."
Ten years was a long time between kills if this was the same doer. Did he know where the grave was and used it again, or did a second mope stumble on it and decide to add to the collection? Hell, there could be four murderers out there, waiting to strike again.
He'd say he'd lost faith in humanity, but that ship sailed a long time ago.
"Victim number two was the young woman you went to the field to investigate. She was approximately twenty-one and had been in the ground about four months. She's the one without a broken hyoid. Victim number three is the poor soul who had to share her grave. She was the oldest at twenty-four and the only Hispanic. Estimated death, late August. About six weeks ago. Which leaves us with your fourth victim. The one discovered in a vacant apartment building."
Not his victim. She was Lefty Bob's case and he was welcome to her. Three deaths in one day were plenty for him.
"She was dead about two weeks when her body was found, placing her death in mid-September. She was most likely no more than seventeen."
Fuck. Only a girl. Not even a woman yet.
"Fortunately, I was able to retrieve a DNA sample from victim one, the skeleton, and sent it to the lab along with that of victims two and three. Victim four's was sent in last week."
"What about fingerprints?" The bodies were in bad shape. He didn't hold out much hope, but the doc was an expert.
"No chance on victim one, but three and four were manageable. Victim two will be a little tricky and may take me a while but I should be able to come up with something for you." He motioned to a body on the table. "I've already removed her hands and put them in a formaldehyde solution to reconstitute them. In time, I'll be able to take off the skin and slip it on like a glove to retrieve the prints for you."
Holy shit. He could never tell that to the girl's parents. He was sorry he heard it himself.
"Is there anything else I should know?" Please let the answer be no…
"Using maximum pressure, a person will lose consciousness within a few seconds. It's impossible to tell for certain on the first victim, although she did have a broken wrist, but the other three lasted long enough to suffer from air hunger and fought back vigorously. Whoever killed these women took his time, making their deaths last as long as possible."
He'd have been so much happier if he hadn't asked that question.