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The Woods, Page 35

Harlan Coben

Chapter 36

  "What we have here is a problem/'

  Sheriff Lowell wiped his nose with a handkerchief that looked large enough to be a clowns prop. His station was more modern than what Muse had expected, but then again her expectations weren't high. The building was new, the design sleek and clean with computer monitors and cubicles. Lots of whites and grays.

  "What you have here," Muse replied, "is a dead body. "

  "That's not what I mean. " He gestured toward the cup in her hand. "How's the coffee?" "Outstanding, actually. " "Used to be crap. Some guys made it too strong, some too weak. It got left on the burner forever. And then last year, one of the fine citizens of this municipality donated one of those coffee pod machines to the station. You ever use one of those things, the pods?"


  "Yes. "

  "Is this your attempt at wooing me with your aw-shucks, homespun charm?"

  He grinned. "A little. "

  "Consider me wooed. What's our problem?"

  "We just found a body that's been in the woods, by early estimates, a pretty long time. We know three things: Caucasian, female, height of five-seven. That's all we know for now. I have already combed through the records. There were no missing or unaccounted girls within a fifty-mile radius who match that description. "

  "We both know who it is," Muse said.

  "Not yet we don't. "

  "You think, what, another five-foot seven-inch girl was murdered in that camp around the same time and buried near the other two bodies?"

  "I didn't say that. "

  "Then what did you say?"

  "That we don't have a definite ID. Doc O'Neill is working on it. We've ordered Camille Copeland's dental records. We should know for sure in a day or two. No rush. We have other cases. "

  "No rush?"

  "That's what I said. "

  "Then I'm not following. "

  "See, this is where I have to wonder, Investigator Muse-what are you first and foremost? Are you a law enforcement office or a political crony?"

  "What the hell does that mean?"

  "You're the county chief investigator," Lowell said. "Now, I'd like to believe a person, especially a lady your age, reached that level based on her talent and skill. But I also live in the real world. I understand graft and favoritism and ass kissing. So I'm asking-"

  "I earned it. " "I'm sure you did. "

  Muse shook her head. "I can't believe I have to justify myself to you. "

  "But, alas, my dear, you do. Because right now, if this was your case and I came waltzing in and you knew that I was going to run right home and tell my boss-someone who was, at the very least, involved-what would you do?"

  "You think I'd sweep his involvement under the rug?"

  Lowell shrugged. "Again: If I was, say, the deputy here and I was given my job by the sheriff who was involved in your murder, what would you think?"

  Muse sat back. "Fair enough," she said. "So what can I do to com fort you?"

  "You can let me take my time identifying the body. "

  "You don't want Copeland to know what we found?"

  "He's waited twenty years. What's another day or two?"

  Muse understood where he was going with this.

  "I want to do right by the investigation," she said, "but I don't much relish lying to a man I trust and like. " "Life's tough, Investigator Muse. " She frowned. "Something else I want too," Lowell went on. "I need you to tell me why that Barrett guy was out there with that little toy of his looking for long-dead bodies. "

  "I told you. They wanted to test this machine in the field. "

  "You work in Newark, New Jersey. Are you telling me there are no possible burial sites in that area you could have sent them to?" He was right, of course. Time to come clean. "A man was found murdered in New York City," Muse said. "My boss thinks it was Gil Perez. "

  Lowell dropped the poker face. "Come again?"

  She was about to explain when Tara O'Neill rushed in. Lowell looked annoyed by the interruption but he kept his voice neutral. "What's up, Tara?"

  "I found something on the body," she said. "Something important, I think. "

  After Cope left the car, Lucy sat alone for a good five minutes with the trace of a smile on her lips. She was still swimming from his kiss. She had never experienced anything like that, the way his big hands held her face, the way he looked at her. . . it was as though her heart had not only started beating again but had taken flight.

  It was wonderful. It was scary.

  She checked through his CD collection, found one by Ben Folds, put on the song "Brick. " She had never been sure what the song was about-a drug overdose, an abortion, a mental collapse-but in the end, the woman is a brick and she's drowning him.

  Sad music was better than drinking, she guessed. But not much.

  As she turned off the engine, she saw a green car, a Ford with New York license plates, pull up right to the front of the building. The car parked in the spot that read no parking. Two men got out-one tall, one built like a square-and strolled inside. Lucy didn't know what to make of it. It was probably nothing.

  The keys to Ira's Beetle were in her bag. She rummaged through the purse and found them. She jammed a piece of gum in her mouth. If Cope kissed her again, she'd be damned if bad breath was going to be a factor.

  She wondered what Ira was going to say to Cope. She wondered what Ira even remembered. They had never talked about that night, father and daughter. Not once. They should have. It might have changed everything. Then again it might have changed nothing. The dead would still be dead, the living still living. Not a particularly deep thought, but there you go.

  She got out of the car and started toward the old Volkswagen. She held the key in her hand and pointed it toward the car. Odd what you get used to. No cars today open with a key. They all have the remote.

  The Beetle didn't, of course. She put the key into the lock on the driver side and turned it. It was rusted and she had to twist hard but the lock popped up.

  She thought about how she had lived her life, about the mistakes she'd made. She'd talked to Cope about that feeling of being pushed that night, of tumbling down a hill and not knowing how to stop. It was true. He had tried to find her over the years, but she had stayed hidden.

  Maybe she should have contacted him earlier. Maybe she should have tried to work through what happened that night right away. Instead you bury it. You refuse to face it. You're scared of confrontation so you find other ways to hide-Lucy's being the most common, in the bottom of the bottle. People don't go to the bottle to escape.

  They go to hide.

  She slid into the driver's seat and immediately realized that some thing was wrong.

  The first visual clue was on the floor of the passenger seat. She looked down and frowned. A soda can. Diet Coke to be more exact. She picked it up. There was still some liquid in it. She thought about that. How long had it been since she'd been in the Beetle? Three, four weeks at least. There hadn't been a can then. Or if there had, she had missed it. That was a possibility.

  That was when the smell hit her.

  She remembered something that happened in the woods near camp when she was about twelve. Ira had taken her for a walk. They heard gunshots and Ira had totally freaked. Hunters had invaded their land. He found them and started yelling that this was private property. One of the hunters had started yelling back. He got close to them, bumping Ira's chest, and Lucy remembered that he smelled horrible.

  She smelled that now.

  Lucy turned and looked in the backseat.

  There was blood on the floor.

  And then, in the distance, she heard a crack of gunfire.

  The skeletal remains were laid out on a silver table with tiny holes in it. The holes made it easier to clean by simply spraying it with a hose. The floor was tile and tilted toward a drain in the center, like the shower room at a health club, which also made it easier to get rid of debris. Muse didn't want to t
hink what got caught up in such drains, what they used to clean it out, if Drano did any good at all or if they had to use something stronger.

  Lowell stood on one side of the table, Muse on the other with Tara O'Neill.

  "So what's up?" Lowell asked.

  "First off, we're missing some bones. I'll go out later and take an other look. Small stuff, nothing major. That's normal in a case like this. I was about to run some X-rays, check the ossification centers, especially up at the clavicle. "

  "What will that tell us?"

  "It gives us an idea of age. Bones stop growing as we get older. The last place of ossification is up there, pretty much where the clavicle meets the sternum. The process stops around the age of twenty-one. But that's not important right now. "

  Lowell looked at Muse. Muse shrugged.

  "So what's the big thing you found?"

  "This. "

  O'Neill pointed to the pelvis.

  Muse said, "You showed me that before. That's the proof that the skeleton belonged to a female. "

  "Well, yes. The pelvis is wider, like I said before. Plus we have the less prominent ridge and smaller bone density-all the signs that she's female. There is no doubt in my mind. We are looking at the skeletal remains of a female. "

  "So what are you showing us?"

  "The pubic bone. "

  "What about it?"

  "You see here? We call this notching-or better, the pitting of the pubic bones. " "Okay. " "Cartilage holds bones together. That's basic anatomy. You probably know this. We mostly think of cartilage in terms of the knee or elbow. It's elastic. It stretches. But you see this? The marks on the face of the pubic bone? That's formed on the cartilaginous surface where the bones once met and then separated. "

  O'Neill looked up at them. Her face was glowing.

  "Are you following me?"

  Muse said, "No. "

  "The notches are formed when the cartilage is strained. When the pubic bones separate. " Muse looked at Lowell. Lowell shrugged. "And that means?" Muse tried. "That means that at some point in her life, the bones separated.

  And that means, Investigator Muse, that your victim gave birth. "