BENEATH THE BONES (PAPERBACK)
BENEATH THE BONES (PAPERBACK)
Book 3 in the Hidden Valor Military Veteran/K-9 Suspense Series
New to Kate & Ruger's Hidden Valor Series? Start Here
Some secrets should stay buried...
With a second serial killer case under her belt, Deputy Kate Holland is finally making headway with her PTSD. But when skeletal remains are unearthed on a sandbar amid the Arkansas River, Kate's world is rocked again.
The decaying bones belong to a soldier once attached to a nearby National Guard unit, and their DNA links to an unsolved missing person's investigation headed up by the very cop who spent his life undermining Kate's personal and professional confidence.
The more Kate digs into the murdered soldier's life, the more connections she discovers between the victim, an old family friend…and her own father.
Other bodies have begun to turn up as well, and these murders appear to be connected to the original soldier's death—and a sinister plot years in the making.
Will the clues her father missed all those years ago lead to the deaths of every current officer on the Braxton police force—including Kate's?
Written by a former US Navy Lt., Beneath the Bones features Ruger—Kate's 3 yr old German Shepherd & self-appointed therapy dog.
Please Note: Graphic crime scenes abound throughout the Hidden Valor books. This series also contains an honest & raw portrayal of PTSD. If you like strong, female protagonists and seriously gritty, complex suspense that twists and turns all the way to The End, you'll love Candace Irving's Hidden Valor series.
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They were still staring.
Kate Holland had no need to glance over the top of her menu for visual confirmation. She could feel it. The two, twenty-something, Middle Eastern women who'd paused their conversation to covertly study the man who'd escorted her into Persepolis five minutes earlier were now openly admiring that same man. She couldn't blame them. Last weekend, wearing a threadbare, Razorback-red sweatshirt with his dark hair and distinctive Persian features coated with shreds of calcified glue and recently stripped wallpaper, Arash Moradi had been attractive. But this afternoon? Dressed in the tailored, charcoal gray suit and slate-blue tie he'd donned for his day job? The Mazelle detective was downright riveting.
If only she could keep those women focused on him.
But, no, the two had finally shifted their attention. The women were zealously examining her features now. Comparing. And they were talking again.
Given that Arash had offered her the preferred "cop seat" at their bistro table in the corner, it was bound to happen. Just as Kate possessed an unobstructed view of the only other patrons in the restaurant aside from the trio of men who lingered over coffee by the door, the willowy, partially veiled woman and her curvier companion at the center of the room had a full-on view of her.
Unfortunately, it wasn't her lack of modest hair covering, much less the Braxton PD deputy's uniform or the 9mm Glock that she'd holstered in at the right of her utility belt this morning that held either woman's attention.
It was her own face. One that no one would have ever deemed model material. Not before her final tour in Afghanistan—and definitely not after.
She knew full well the mishmash of mottled scars and burns that she'd brought into this intimate, Little Rock restaurant were anything but palatable.
Which was why she'd fought this for so long. Him. The fellow police officer seated just around the curve of the table on her right, politely pretending a similar fascination with a menu he had to know by heart, since his friend owned the place. She could tell Arash was doing his damnedest to remain calm and cool amid the shift in scrutiny, but he was failing. Every stretch of sinew beneath that suit had become taut. She didn't need the services of a UN translator to know why.
Those feminine whispers had become louder. Pointed.
Granted, her Arabic was sketchy at best, and her Farsi was non-existent. It didn't matter. Kate knew exactly what was being said at that nearby table.
What is he doing with her?
The moment the ire in those normally easy-going features of the man beside her turned molten, she was certain.
She reached out. But by the time her fingers connected with the sleeve of his suit, Arash had risen halfway out of his chair.
Those dark eyes, so much like the feminine ones across the way—yet nothing like them—dipped to hers. "Kate, you don't understand—"
"Yeah. I do." More than he'd ever know. Though she was certain the detective had been referring to his decision to put an end to the mortifying conversation across the way, rather than her own lack of ability to translate that conversation.
She squeezed his forearm. "Arash, it's not worth it." She wasn't worth it. Even if she hadn't been wearing a Braxton PD uniform, and this wasn't his friend's place.
"Yes, it is. You're worth it."
There was no arguing with the iron in that decree. She didn't even try. She shifted her fingers instead, trailing them over the back of his hand. "Please."
She could feel the battle within as every muscle in his body remained rigid. She didn't think he was going to let it go.
But he had to. Because those two young women? They weren't the only ones staring now. The trio of men near the entrance had dispensed with their conversation. Coffees ignored, all three were observing the interplay across the restaurant, curious to see what the patron in the suit decided to do.
He finally clipped a nod and sank into his chair, albeit stiffly.
Relief eased in…until Kate realized that Hashem Baku had stalked out from the kitchen. He headed straight for the women's table. The decree that accompanied the older man's arrival was quiet, but firm. Hashem also spoke in Farsi, but like before, there was no translation required. His meaning resonated within the narrowed glint of the taller woman's stare, as well as the outright pinching of glossed lips as both stood: this was his establishment and they were no longer welcome within. Leave.
To Kate's utter humiliation, Hashem made a point of walking the seething duo to the door, which he firmly closed behind them. If he returned to his friend's table now to take their order, she'd be forced to slide all the way underneath.
As for Arash? Kate couldn't even look at him.
She stared at her menu instead, her entire body heated and flushed as she attempted to study the glossy photos within. It was useless.
She hadn't felt this exposed since she'd woken up as a POW in an Afghan, mud-brick hovel four years earlier, abused, bleeding and naked.
Thankfully, the trio of gentlemen accepted their host's proffered round of fresh coffee, their lively conversation and teasing camaraderie restored by the time Hashem retreated into the kitchen.
As for the camaraderie that she and Arash had been experiencing of late, that had been obliterated.
Undaunted, he leaned close to tap the photo of an elaborate stew over rice. "You might like this one. It's similar to khoresh bademjan, the eggplant dish I brought to the house. Except with beef."
She forced a smile. But the breezy, you're right; we can get through this disguised as the mundane "sure" that should've accompanied it refused to materialize. The one her impromptu, late-lunch date was hoping to hear.
Kate caved into the growing agitation instead, and stood. "Excuse me. I…ah…need to use the restroom."
The man's lips tensed, but whatever he was about to say remained trapped. Inclining his head, he eased the back of her chair from the table as he, too, stood. Those same archaic, yet charmingly attentive manners of his had been in full force from the moment she and Arash had linked up out in the parking lot. The ease with which they and that warm, smoky smile of his had been extended to her as they'd entered Persepolis was probably what had set the two women sniping in the first place.
Hell, who was she kidding? One look at her face was all the fodder those two had needed.
Kate threaded her way around the abandoned table and turned into the hall that led to the restrooms, intent on the privacy she'd begun to crave from the moment she'd sensed the disgust in those stares. She pushed through the second door and threw the lock. Bypassing the floral settee and hand-painted wooden partition that shielded the toilet, she stopped in front of a sleek pedestal sink at the far wall. But as she turned on the water to splash a palmful over her still-heated features, she realized her error.
Hashem's wife had hung an oval mirror above the faucet. One large enough for a diner to take in her entire face should she want to touch-up her hair and makeup.
And the face that greeted Kate?
There was no escaping it now—much less the four-inch mottled scar that bisected her right cheek, along with the smattering of smaller scars and pockmarks that marred the curve of her jaw and the entire length of her neck. Fortunately, her uniform hid the ravaged shoulder and torso beneath.
She'd woven the russet strands of her hair into a French braid that morning. Perhaps if she'd left it down—
Right. Hair swinging past her shoulders or not, there was no escaping the fallout from her final tour with the Army.
It wasn't as though she wasn't used to the encroaching fascination and outright rude stares the mutilated side of her face tended to engender in others. Especially very attractive adults. But the crass comments that occasionally accompanied them? Those tended to roll off her equally battered back.
So why had they mattered today? With those women?
Except, she knew. Arash.
She and the Mazelle detective had gotten to know each other as he'd helped begin the remodel of her father's old bedroom. They'd gotten along so well, he'd taken to nudging her openly. Oh, Arash had been smooth and diplomatic enough, but the message had been clear: after nearly a month of nightly visits to her secluded split log home, he wanted to take her out. In public. Make the idea of them public.
Her shrink had backed him up. After all, she'd completed seven of the twelve cognitive processing therapy appointments designed to conquer her PTSD. And those sessions? They were working. She truly believed her best friend's beheading was not her fault and that she couldn't have prevented it. Although she still woke from the occasional nightmare, the acceptance had dulled their intensity. Much to the relief of Ruger, since her German Shepherd took his guard-dog duties seriously.
Especially when Ruger was forced to protect her from herself.
She was even able to wear Max's dive watch again without twisting it so hard that she ended up excoriating the skin beneath.
And the best part? Her confidence in her professional judgement had returned. Which was…a profound relief.
But the rest?
During their sessions, Dr. Manning had zeroed in on the distancing from her mother and the flat-out active emotional abuse from her father. Both of which had evidently laid the groundwork for her eventual PTSD. Fortunately, Manning had also promised that the fallout from the abuse could be reversed. And that enjoying a public date with Arash was a step toward becoming the happy, well-adjusted person he believed she could be, on the job and off. Manning was determined to heal the entire person.
She wanted that too. So she'd called Arash and had invited him for a late lunch prior to her pending meeting with a colleague out at the Little Rock Airbase. It was two o'clock on a dreary Thursday in mid-January. Persepolis should have been deserted. Yet she'd still ended up the star of the freak show.
Arash had to be having second thoughts about them by now.
Time to find out.
She turned her back on the image in the mirror and crossed the room to unlock the door. Two steps up the hall, her phone rang.
She stopped to retrieve it from her utility belt, surprise filtering in as she spotted the name on her caller ID. "Hey, boss. What's up?"
"Howdy to you, too. Sorry to interrupt your meet with Agent Wynne—unless you're still with Arash. In that case, I'm interruptin' lunch."
Yeah, there was no way she was confirming the latter. Even if a pair of sniping women hadn't tainted this outing, Lou Simms was a stickler for breaks. He believed they kept his deputies happy and healthy. Which meant, she'd just been handed a get out of a humiliating lunch free card. "What happened?"
"We got a skull."
Shock had her snapping to attention. "In Braxton?"
"Yep, that was pretty much my reaction, too."
"Can you tell—"
"If it was murder? Not yet. It's still mostly buried. Looks to be human, though—and old. Cecil Newbury's kid found it on that sandbar that reappeared durin' the last passel of water releases upriver at the Toad Suck locks. Colton and his metal-detector totin' buddy were huntin' treasure. The kids got more than they bargained for. Anyways, Seth and I just strung the tape. Nester and the rest of the crime scene boys ain't even here yet, and Tonga's roughly forty minutes out, too. So if you're needin' a bit more downtime—"
"I'm leaving now."
She could hear the stream of tobacco juice as it shot from her boss' mouth, hopefully landing well away from yet another potential crime scene in town. Their sixth since this past November. If foul play had been involved in the burial of that skull, what the heck was going on in their supposedly sleepy southern town?
Then again, if the skull was old, the crime was too.
But how old?
"If you're sure ya don't need—"
"Absolutely." Even if her lunch with Arash had been steaming along fantastically, her curiosity had locked in the moment she'd heard skull. "See you in thirty, boss."
Kate hung up before the sheriff could argue, her boots clipping up the remainder of the tiled hallway and into the dining area beyond. She caught sight of Arash in quiet conversation with his friend.
Both men came to their feet as she reached the opposite side of the table, with Hashem smiling and nodding before he retreated to his kitchen.
Arash waited beside the chairs. That searching stare of his took in the energy humming through her and sharpened. "What happened?"
"Lou called. We've got human remains on our hands."
"Wow. Foul play?"
"Don't know yet. Though if it was murder, Lou's initial impression suggests it's likely to be a pretty old one." Which meant they'd be lucky to solve it. Something Arash was well aware of due to his own experiences on the job.
"Damn." He shook his head, then waved a hand over the fragrant naan and humus Hashem had delivered in her absence. "Rain check?"
"Looking forward to it."
And there was the first bald-faced lie she'd ever kicked this man's way. With that pointed lift of his brow, he'd let her know that he knew it, too.
Thankfully, he didn't call her on it.
His dusky fingers curled over the closer chair, biting into the darker wood as the tension returned. It was clear he didn't want her to leave. Not with the ugliness of what had happened with those sniping women still tainting the air. Fortunately, Arash was a dedicated public servant. He bit back what he wanted to say and nodded. "I'll see you to your SUV."
She shook her head sharply. From the way his frown deepened, too sharply. "You stay. Enjoy what's left of your lunch. Chat with your friend. I'll, ah—"
Her phone rang again, saving her from the awkward remainder of that drawn-out excuse, and an even more awkward goodbye. She retrieved it and held it up. "Sorry. I need to—"
"No problem. I'll swing by tonight. Usual time. To start the painting?"
"Sounds good." She accepted the call as she turned to the door.
It was Agent Wynne from the airbase, needing to postpone this afternoon's meeting and the evidence hand-off from their previous case. By the time she'd assured Wynne that something had come up on her end too and agreed to meet the following week, she'd cleared the door to the restaurant and climbed inside her Durango.
Two minutes later, she'd turned off Markham Street and was headed out of Little Rock and north to Braxton.
With traffic light on this stretch of I-40, just under half an hour passed before she reached the access point closest to the reappearing sandbar that Lou had referenced. Pulling into the gravel lot beside the stand of trees that shielded this bend in the Arkansas River, she spotted nearly every vehicle in their department, save for the medical examiner's meat wagon. At least she'd beaten Tonga to the scene.
Clearing Nester's crime scene van, she turned into the slot that Seth had left for her between his official Braxton SUV and the sheriff's sedan. Lou's graying girth was braced against the rear of his trunk, texting on his phone.
Kate glanced at the orange face of the Doxa dive watch strapped to her left wrist just before she killed the engine. 2:39. On a Thursday. Crap.
Since it was scraping the wrong side of forty degrees outside and threatening to resume drizzling, she snagged her Braxton PD jacket and navy-blue ball cap from the passenger seat as she climbed out. "You're late."
Her boss glanced up from his phone long enough to shoot a stream of blackened tobacco juice toward the opposite end of the lot and shrug. "The mayor won't mind the wait—once I explain why."
Yeah, but the head of the city council would, especially if that was who was on the other end of the text stream that Lou had promptly returned to. Woody Skelling had had a blister on his butt with Lou's name on it ever since the man's son had swept into town last fall to schmooze the remaining council members in an effort to convince them to fire Lou so he could take his job.
Fortunately, the bid had failed.
Skelling Jr. might hold an impressive arrest record with the Jonesboro PD, but he was also a sanctimonious snob. The day she was forced to call that man boss would be the day she'd be turning in her notice, along with Seth, Owen, Drake and the rest of their "hick" department—except, possibly, for their most recent hire, Deputy Brice.
The verdict was still out on Brice, personality and job-skills wise.
According to Lou, Tab Brice had been an up-and-comer out west with the Phoenix PD, until a family setback had precipitated the deputy's move to Arkansas. And since the previous hire Lou had lured down from Fayetteville had been forced to quit before his first day, Lou had deemed the department and town damned lucky to get Brice. But other than her and Lou, no one'd had a chance to get a bead on the new guy. Brice wasn't even on the roster yet. She'd just met the man herself last night, and only because she and Ruger had swung by Lou's to return half of his wife's Tupperware collection on their way back from the dog park.
But those ninety seconds with the town's newest deputy? As with Skelling Jr., she'd been admittedly less than impressed.
Hopefully, the impression would improve upon further exposure. Which she was about to have, given that she could see Brice's squared-off, closely shaven towhead and crisp, navy-blue uniform bobbing through the trees buffering the river beyond.
Swinging around to her SUV, she donned her cap and jacket, then popped the Durango's hatch so she could root through the crated items within for her crime scene kit and knee-high wet boots as Lou finally pocketed his phone before heading out to intercept that newest deputy. Retrieving the stainless-steel kit and brown waders, Kate set the former on the gravel, before taking the time to swap out her leather patrol boots with the latter.
Rubbers donned, she chucked the leathers into the rear of her SUV and secured the hatch, then reached down to pick up her kit.
The entirety of Brice's brawny, reputedly former US Marine Corps bulk loomed over her as she straightened. "Deputy Holland, you're late."
A thick glower accompanied the same greeting she'd offered Lou. It was also missing the note of teasing she'd infused into hers—not to mention the respect that had accompanied it. It seemed her first impression of the man had been accurate.
Lou swung his girth around before she could respond. "Deputy Brice, Kato's early. She and Arash were still sharin' lunch in Little Rock when I called."
All that qualifier earned her was a meaty frown. "Well, Kato. If your love life's in order now, perhaps you'll deign to join us at the scene?"
A multitude of questions and comments slugged in with that—not the least of which was who the hell had told this jerk that she and Arash were more than friends? Because that degree of a relationship could not be inferred from simply "sharin' lunch."
Surely Lou and/or Della hadn't discussed her personal life once she and Ruger had left them all to their dinner last night? If so, Kate was more than pissed.
From the ruddy flush that stained the base of her boss' neck, he knew it too. Even more damning, that flush confirmed just whose lips had been loose.
Kate ignored the open apology in Lou's eyes, as well as the taller, scowling source of impatience beside him. She simply turned and walked up between the sheriff's sedan and her Durango toward the trees at the head of the lot.
She could hear Lou telling his remaining deputy that she was in charge of the scene and the coming investigation as she cleared the gravel. Both comments made even less sense than the gossip-fest Lou had inexplicably undertaken about her private affairs for the first time in his life. As Braxton PD's newest hire, not to mention one enjoying his first blessed day on the job, every other deputy in the department currently outranked Tab Brice, former Phoenix patrol officer credentials or not.
Kate shook her head as she picked her way through the modest stand of trees before reaching the reedy shallows that separated the outskirts of Braxton proper from the eastern shore of their newest, twenty-by-eighty-foot sandbar. Back in high school the trees behind her had been denser. But after a number of rotting and healthy ones had been felled by near tornadic winds a few years back, the town council had coughed up the funds to have the entire thicket cleaned up and professionally thinned.
As for the sandbar, Seth, Owen and their forensic team were milling over the northern end, methodically raking through the damp sand in an attempt to find the rest of the skeleton while they waited for her and Tonga to show. The remainder of the entire narrow patch of resurfaced geography appeared naked but for a tented, yellow crime scene marker and the barest hint of a curved cranium near the southernmost end.
"Hey, Kato!" Seth handed off his plastic rake to a tech and ambled across the sandbar to wait for her as she slogged through the remaining three feet of murky water and reeds. "Everythin' okay? You look ticked."
Kate blew out her breath, along with her lingering ire over Lou's loosened lips, as she stepped onto the packed sand. "Yeah. It's just been a long, gray day that appears as though it's about to get a whole lot longer."
"Amen to that." Seth tugged a spare set of crime scene gloves from the sterile zipper baggie in his jacket pocket and held them out.
"Thanks." She set her case down long enough to don the latex, then scooped the kit up as she headed for the sole tented marker.
Seth fell into step beside her. "You get a chance to touch base with Lou before he left for his weekly what the devil are you doin' with the town's money meetin'?"
"Yes." And no.
But she wasn't about to scurry back to the lot and ask Lou if he'd been loitering beside his sedan with his phone for a specific reason. If he had, he could text that to her when he had a chance. Hell, he could have his new gossip buddy pass it on…if Brice ever got that buzzed blond hair and collection of over-developed muscles down here.
She and Seth's darker bulk were all but standing over the mostly buried skull, and for all his impatience and snark, Brice was nowhere to be found.
Just as well.
Their newest deputy's absence gave her a chance to kneel down and absorb the view—along with the multitude of other, all-too-similar images already blotting up her mind and heart—with just her favorite bubba peering over her shoulder.
There wasn't much to see. At least, not yet. Just a low, sloping frontal bone and the two rectangular, orbital sockets beneath.
But those empty sockets where a potential neighbor's eyes had been?
Those gaping holes would've been enough to send Colton Newbury and his nine-year-old best friend scrambling to report their find to Colton's daddy.
Heck, they were lucky the boys weren't older. Another year or two and they'd have snagged the skull and carted it into school tomorrow to show it off.
Her curiosity growing, Kate retrieved her phone from her utility belt.
Although the yellow evidence marker meant Nester had finished taking the official initial-scene photos, she snapped a backup of that distinctive, frontal slope and the equally suggestive angles within the orbital cavities beneath, then stood.
She nodded to the find at their feet. "Is this all we have?"
"So far, yep. And as you can see from all the rakin', we've been lookin'." Seth folded his arms as he edged closer. "Well? What's the verdict on this part?"
"It's definitely a human skull."
And, thankfully, it was one human skull. Not eleven or thirty-seven…and definitely not two thousand, three hundred sixteen decaying human skulls with most of their corresponding skeletal bones and the vestiges of rotted clothing and other personal items bulldozed in, over and around them.
It made a difference. A huge one.
But the best part?
That kneeling, admittedly cursory glance of hers had revealed that this skull most likely belonged to an adult male. Not a child or an infant.
The rest of the memories clamored in, despite her determination to keep them at bay. The smell of dust, decay and death shuddered in as well, churning up the sludge that Kate suspected would always reside in her, ready to bubble up and suck her under at a moment's notice—no matter how many CPT sessions and self-analyzing worksheets she and her shrink pushed through.
Seth unfolded those bubba arms and settled an oversized paw on her good shoulder. He gave it a comforting squeeze. "You good?"
The sound of boots sloshing through water caused the remainder of the memories to fade.
She and Seth swung around in unison to catch sight of Owen and their newest deputy at the edge of the shallows, with a slowly progressing Tonga several yards further out, the medical examiner's beanie-warmed scalp and flannel-jacketed torso—not to mention his black canvas field kit—all dipping perilously close to the murky surface as he searched for a smoother path through the overgrown reeds.
There wasn't one.
Although Owen's right leg was wrapped up in a black, heavy-duty contractor bag to protect the cast he still wore beneath, he was the one who shot into the muck, not Brice. Owen grabbed Tonga's arm, straightening and steadying the older man, before he slipped the strap to the canvas duffle off the ME's shoulder. Duffle in one hand, Tonga's upper right arm firmly in the other, Owen returned to the sandbar and Brice.
There, Owen nodded between the two men, appearing to introduce them.
Tonga extended a weathered palm and a warm smile—both of which Tab Brice declined to meet.
"Sweet Mother Mary—" Seth's frown furrowed deep as he swung toward Kate. "—did you just see that?"
"Yeah. The man's a charmer." Brice hadn't shaken her hand either when Lou had introduced them on his front porch last night. At least she knew it wasn't her ravaged features or the set of breasts beneath that had prompted the lack of manners.
Then again, Tonga's skin was a gorgeous shade of polished ebony. And there were the man's encroaching years to consider.
Could be Brice had problem with it all.
Either way, Owen was as aghast with Brice as Seth had been. The wiry deputy took the time to pass his own smile and the canvas duffle to the ME that he'd come to respect as much as everyone else in their department, then leveled a glare on Brice before turning on the heels of his one wet boot and wrapped cast to stalk to the northern end of the island where Nester and his techs were raking through the sand.
The over-combed section was now dotted with a dozen-plus tented markers.
Kate watched as Nester paused to bend and nestle another one near his boots before snapping a photo to catalogue the odd bit of debris he'd unearthed.
It wasn't a human bone though, much less the entire collection of two hundred plus pieces of calcified man that should be scattered about. If Nester had found so much as the distal phalange from their subject's left pinkie, he'd have sent up a shout.
Kate swung around to the skull, leaving the search for the rest to the others. She'd unearthed enough horror from the desiccated dirt of Iraq to last a lifetime.
Tonga reached her side.
Unfortunately, Brice had come with him.
She waited as the ME accepted, then donned his own set of sterile gloves compliments of Seth, before extending her right forearm to assist Tonga in lowering smoothly to his knees. Once he and his kit were settled, she hunkered down beside him.
The man reached into his duffle and retrieved a soft-bristled paint brush. "Would you like to do the honors, Kate?"
But like the darker and friendlier of the deputies standing over them, Tonga also knew she was decidedly overqualified for the task. She accepted the brush and closed in, excavating the damp, clumping grains beneath the frontal bone and those sand-packed orbital sockets first, slowly but surely exposing the entire maxilla and its eerily gaping mandible. There, she paused so she and Tonga could take in what appeared to be a complete set of dental eruptions in both the upper and lower jaws.
Brice hunkered down on her left, tipping his similarly blunted chin toward the one barely out of the earth. "Looks like we got a caveman—or woman—on our hands."
Kate shook her head. "This guy hasn't been in the ground nearly that long. He's not daisy fresh, mind you. But he's new enough."
"New?" The onion burger Brice must've had for lunch blew in on his scoff. "I was kidding about the cave. But those bones are gray, Holland, and the teeth are beyond yellow. This skull's definitely old. I'd put money on it." The man tipped his head past Nester and his toiling techs. "Hell, with that bend in the river up there, some pugnacious, homesteading mail-order bride could've stopped by to draw water and gotten her head lopped off by a pissed-off Yankee's saber during the Civil War and was left to rot in the silt, and it's only surfacing now."
"Charming story." But it was wrong.
Though Brice had been spot on regarding the geography and inherent thermodynamics of the river that had revealed the stretch of sand they were kneeling on.
That said, if the man who'd owned this skull had been alive during one of this country's wars, it had been a much more recent one. Because the tint to the bones and those discolored teeth? That was Arkansas herself at work—every scorching, muggy degree of her. Not to mention the bits of plants, animals and fish that had rotted down and around the skull over the past decade or so, staining it.
Five at the most.
How else to explain the trio of singular lighter, whiter patches in the lower row of molars?
Kate looked at Tonga. "You see them, right?"
He nodded sagely. "I see two from where I'm kneeling. But your eyes are younger than mine—and closer to the source. How many are there?"
Retrieving her mini Maglite from her utility belt, she bent lower and angled her head and the LED beam from the flashlight to better study the working ends of the upper teeth—and added another patch to her list. "Four."
"Four what?" Brice.
"Fillings." She accepted the tweezers Tonga offered and used the tips to point out the lighter areas of dental resin she'd illuminated at the left rear side of the mandible. "There are two right here. These cavities would've been plugged with silver before 1970, and probably a few decades after, but that gives us a general timeline to start with. As for age—" She nudged the tweezer tips further back. "—he's got both sets of wisdom teeth, so we know he's hit his early twenties." She shifted her hand, tracing a path above the fused coronal suture that connected the frontal and parietal bone plates. "This fusing bumps him up to thirty, at least. And when you add in the wear and tear to what are still excellent teeth—" She glanced at the ME as she returned the tweezers, re-securing the Maglite to her utility belt with a shrug. "—I put him in his mid-thirties."
"Him?" Another ripe scoff seared past her face.
Kate nodded as her eyes watered. They would run the DNA. But that low, sloping frontal bone? The rectangular, instead of rounded orbital sockets? The overall squared shape of the front of the skull, plus the straight, blunted edge to the chin? The near ninety-degrees at the outer points of the mandible? And when she added on that, even without the added layers of muscle and skin, the size and heft of the entire thing rivaled that of her favorite bubba's head, as well as the substantially thicker skull that belonged to the asshole kneeling on her left? "Absolutely."
"Where'd you get your anthropology degree…deputy?"
Same place as her forensic dental one. University of Seriously Hard Knocks. Not that she was sharing the courses she'd survived with this jerk.
Unfortunately, Seth had already lowered that overly protective bulk of his. The man's light brown stare turned piercing as it met Brice's darker blue.
"Iraq." Seth nodded toward her. "You just got to Braxton, Tab, so you may not know it yet. But you've got a former Army criminal investigator hunkered down on the other side of you. One who worked that mass grave they unearthed in Tikrit a while back. She and others like her pulled the skeletons of some two thousand men, women and kids outta that damned trench. Coulda been more. She don't…talk about it."
Seth was right. She didn't talk about it.
Hell, she'd only mentioned it to Seth after he'd begun attending Manning's off-the-books group session for local veterans and first responders with PTSD—and then only because Seth had been so profoundly broken up about the human body parts that he'd found rotting in barrels at the pet crematorium in November. Admitting to a few of her own nightmares had helped Seth begin to deal with his.
As for the estimate that Seth had offered Brice on that body count outside Tikrit, it was…close enough.
Seth caught her stare and realized the intimacy of the information he'd just shared—and with whom he'd shared it—and flushed.
She shook her head, absolving her friend. Unlike Lou's revelation regarding Arash, Seth's had been in defense of her professional credentials.
That earned him some slack.
As for Brice, the man just stared at her. Mute.
Kate resumed her labors with the skull. As she brushed the sand away from the upper parietal and temporal regions, she could hear Tonga rooting through his canvas duffle, then retrieving and preparing one of the smaller plastic bags for human remains that he kept within. She was about to begin cleaning the lower sections of the parietal bone of sand so they could gently lift the skull and bag it, when she caught the crunch of Nester's slightly uneven tread. Like the Shepherd waiting for her at home, the head of the department's forensic team had once taken a bullet to his pelvis. Though that shot had rung out thirty years ago, and Nester had been a patrol officer with the Little Rock PD and in hot pursuit of an armed pedophile fleeing from a city playground at the time.
Hope filtered in as Kate looked up, though it was Seth who rose to his feet and voiced it. "Did you find anything interesting? Like another bone?"
Those wizened shoulders slumped. "Nah. I was hoping y'all were having better luck over here. Most of what we've got so far is a handful of old coins, a few bottle caps and a rancid, sand-packed hiking boot. Found a fishing rod and a six-pack of Forrey Stout, too. But the rod's busted, and the cans are long since emptied and crushed."
"Forrey Stout?" Brice snorted as he, too, stood. "There you go, Deputy Holland. No need to drag out that old CID badge and scrape off the rust. I can solve this mystery, right here and now." That blond unibrow furrowed as he flicked the blue beneath toward the skull at her knees. "Your thirty-five-year-old man there decided to play hooky from work a few decades back. John Doe called in sick, then swung by the corner gas station for a cup of worms to feed that fishing pole's habit and a six-pack to satisfy his. The guy was guzzling his last beer when he finally got a bite. But by then, John was so drunk he tripped over his pole and went flying into the river. Probably smacked his head on a rock at the bottom, added a lungful of water to all that beer and drowned. Serves the bastard right. Man had shit taste in booze. Either way, case closed."
With that, Brice shook his head and walked off, leaving a bemused Nester to trail in his wake.
Seth shot her a look that vowed he'd keep their new co-worker occupied while she and Tonga finished up here, then set out after them.
Kate shrugged as she refocused her attention on the skull. That last tale of Brice's had used up twice as much air during its delivery, but she preferred his first.
It was more interesting.
Ready to begin piecing together the true story of their John Doe's life and death, she set the brush down and eased her fingers around the sides of the skull, gently lifting it from its sandy cradle. Surprise spiraled in as she turned the skull to get a look at the reverse. Neither of Brice's tales were correct. More importantly, their victim had not had his life extinguished due to drowning, accidental or otherwise.
"Kate? What's wrong?"
She turned the skull so Tonga could get his own view of the back—and watched those salt and pepper brows climb.
The entire occipital bone was as rounded as she and the ME had expected it to be. But it was also a spidery web of fissures and cracks. Far too many to have been caused by a drunken or sober fall into the river. And if there'd been a rock involved, it had been used to bash the life out of their victim—over and over again.
They might not know when or why their John Doe had been out here at the river, but they did know that the man had been murdered.