Lacey Campbell stared across the hazy field of snow at the big tent pitched against the rundown apartment building. She inhaled a breath of icy air, letting it fill her lungs and strengthen her resolve.
There. That’s where the body is.
Her stomach knotted as she trudged toward the site, carefully watching where she placed her feet. She yanked on the sides of her wool hat and tucked her chin into her scarf as she strode through the fluff, blinking away the swirl of snowflakes. Snow was great, unless you had to work in it. And six inches of new snow covered the grounds of her current assignment. This weather was for skiing, sledding, and snowball fights.
Not for investigating old bones in a frosty tent in Boondocks, Oregon.
Two big boots appeared in her downward line of vision. She hit her brakes, slipped, and landed on her rear.
“Do you live here?” The cop’s voice was gravelly and terse.
From her ungraceful, sprawling seat on the ground, Lacey blinked at the meaty hand he held out.
He repeated his question and her gaze flew to his scowling face. He looked like a cop who’d stepped straight out of prime-time TV. Solid, tough, and bald.
“Oh!” Her brain switched on and she grabbed his offered hand. “No, I don’t live here. I’m just—”
“No one’s allowed near the apartment complex unless you’re a resident.” One-handed, he smoothly hoisted her to her feet as his sharp eyes took a closer look at her leather satchel and scanned her expensive coat.
“You a reporter? ’Cause you can turn right around. There’ll be a press conference at the Lakefield police station at three.” The cop had decided she was an outsider. Not a difficult conclusion; the neighborhood reeked of food stamps and welfare checks.
Wishing she were taller, Lacey lifted her chin and then grimaced as she brushed at the cold, wet seat of her pants. How professional.
She whipped out her ID. “I’m not a reporter. Dr. Peres is waiting for me. I’m a…” She coughed. “I work for the ME’s office.” No one knew what she meant when she said she was a forensic odontologist. Medical examiner’s office was a term they understood.
The cop glanced at her ID and then bent over to stare under the brim of her hat. His brown eyes probed. “You’re Dr. Campbell? Dr. Peres is waiting for a Dr. Campbell.”
“Yes, I am Dr. Campbell,” she stated firmly and tilted up her nose.
Who’d he expect? Quincy?
“Can I get by now?” She peered around him, spying several figures moving outside the big tent. Dr. Victoria Peres had requested her forensic skills three hours ago, and Lacey itched to see what the doctor had found. Something unusual enough to demand Lacey come directly to the site instead of waiting to study the dental aspect of the remains in a heated, sterile lab.
Or maybe the doctor thought it’d be amusing to drag Lacey out of a warm bed, force her to drive sixty miles in crappy weather, and squat in the freezing snow to stare at a few teeth. A little power trip. Lacey scowled as she scribbled her name on the crime-scene log the cop held out and then shoved past the male boulder in her way.
She plodded through the snow, studying the old single-story apartment building. It looked deflated, concave along the roof, as if it was too exhausted to stand up straight. She’d been told it was home to seniors on small pensions and to low-income families. There was warped siding on the walls, and the composite roof sported bald spots. Irritation swirled under her skin.
Who dared charge rent for this dump?
She counted five little faces with their noses smashed against the windows as she walked by.
She forced a smile and waved a mitten.
The children stayed inside where it was warm.
The seniors were another story.
Small groups of gray-haired men and old women in plastic rain bonnets milled around in the courtyard, ignoring the cold. The rain bonnets looked like clear seashells capping the silver heads, reminding Lacey of her grandmother, who’d worn the cheap hoods to protect her rinse and set. She trudged by the curious lined faces. Without a doubt, today must be their most exciting day in years.
A skeleton in the crawl space under their building.
Lacey shivered as her imagination spun with theories. Had someone stashed a body twenty years ago? Or had someone gotten stuck in the crawl space and was never missed?
A half dozen Lakefield cop cars crowded the parking lot. Probably the small town’s entire fleet. Navy-blue uniforms gathered around with hot cups of coffee in their hands, an air of resignation and waiting in their postures. Lacey eyed the steam rising from the paper cups and unconsciously sniffed. The caffeine receptor sites in her nerves pleaded for coffee as she pushed aside the flap door of the tent.
At the sharp voice, Lacey popped out of her coffee musings, froze, and fought the instinct to look for her father—also Dr. Campbell. The bright blue tarp at Lacey’s snowy boots framed the partial recovery of a skeleton. Another step and she would’ve crushed a tibia and sent Dr. Peres’s blood pressure spiking through the tent roof. As she ignored the doctor’s glare, Lacey’s gaze locked on the bones and a sharp rush surged through her veins at the sight of the challenge at her feet.
This was why she accepted assignments in freezing weather. To identify and bring home a lost victim. To use her unique skills to solve the mystery of death. To put an end to a mourning family’s questions. To know she made a difference.
The cold faded away.
The skull was present, along with most of the ribs and the longer bones of the extremities. At the far end of the tent, two male techs in down jackets sifted buckets of dirt and rocks through a screen, painstakingly searching for smaller bones. A huge, gaping hole in the concrete wall of the crawl space under the building indicated where the remains had been discovered.