“I won’t miss this part of the job,” Victoria heard Dr. James Campbell mutter as he held a blackberry vine out of the way for Lacey and Victoria to pass by.
A discovery of dead bodies had abruptly shortened their Italian dinner at Portland’s fabulous Pazzo Ristorante. The trio of coworkers had been relaxing over a lovely Barbaresco when the medical examiner’s phone buzzed. He’d taken the call at the table and raised a brow at the women, who’d nodded. Both forensic specialists wanted to accompany him to the crime scene.
Five teenagers were dead in the depths of Forest Park.
Time to go to work.
The guiding police officer who’d met them at the trailhead commented, “A hiker found the scene about four hours ago. Looks pretty fresh. One of the girls was still breathing and they rushed her to the hospital. She’s not expected to make it.” He paused to take a breath, and the volume of his voice dropped to where Victoria leaned forward to hear him. “I gotta say, this is one of the most disturbing sights I’ve ever seen.” The tough cop looked rattled.
Who would kill so many teenage girls? Victoria Peres shook her head. It was a messed-up world. And working at the medical examiner’s office as a forensic anthropologist showed her some of the darkest corners of that world. The indignities and atrocities that people inflicted on other human beings were mind-numbing. The kids were the hardest for her to stomach.
The three of them pointed their flashlights at the dirt path, choosing their footsteps carefully, following the police officer. Luckily the fall rains had paused for the moment, because tonight the forest was intimidating enough. Firs towered overhead, blocking all light from the full moon. Ferns sprouted from tree trunks, drawing nutrition from the bark and thick moss that draped the branches. Victoria had already given thanks that she’d worn her boots to dinner in honor of the fall chill. Still dressed for dinner, the three of them looked out of place for the two-mile hike in the damp woods. It was rare that she accompanied Dr. Campbell to a scene. Her job usually kept her inside the medical examiner’s building.
But this was Dr. Campbell’s last month on the job. Oregon’s ME was ready to retire. And Victoria wanted to spend every working moment she could with him, soaking up his experience, wisdom, and wit. “I can’t do anything about the death,” Dr. Campbell once told her. “But I can do something about what happens after the death. I can speak for the victims, explain their injuries, and bring justice.” It described exactly how Victoria felt about her job. There was a mutual respect between her and Dr. Campbell that made her cross her fingers, hoping she could achieve the same with the new medical examiner.
Dr. Campbell’s daughter, Lacey, had told Victoria she’d miss working with her father. Lacey served as the ME’s forensic odontologist. She and her father were very close.
Lacey was quiet behind Victoria as they trudged along the dark path. She didn’t wonder out loud at the cause of the kids’ deaths or bitch about the hike; she was professional. Victoria had worked with the petite forensic specialist for a few years, her respect growing every time one of their cases crossed paths. Only recently had they started using each other’s first names.
A soft buzz of conversation touched Victoria’s ears and the trail seemed to light up farther ahead. They were nearly there. She swallowed hard as the gnocchi she had eaten twisted in her stomach. Maybe she should have gone home after dinner and let the medical examiner do his job. But she’d be greeted by a lonely house. The evening had been so wonderful between the food and conversation, she’d hated for it to end. She’d decided to tramp a few miles through Portland’s five-thousand-acre park to view dead teenagers.
Was something wrong with her?
The trail grew choppy with boot prints and small tire marks from the equipment hauled in to process the scene. They emerged into a clearing lit up with glaring lights, and the quiet hum of conversation stopped. The three of them halted and stared, scanning the surreal setting. Cops stood idle in small groups, observing, while crime-scene techs crawled through the display.
It looked straight out of a cheap horror film.
Off the path about ten yards, five young women lay motionless in a lush bed of ferns, arranged like a wagon wheel, their heads at the center, feet pointed out. The image was simultaneously beautiful and evil. One prong of the wheel was missing—the girl who’d been rushed to the hospital.
A cop thrust a log into Dr. Campbell’s hands to sign. He barely glanced at it, his gaze locked on the eerie spectacle.
“Lead all souls to heaven,” Lacey whispered.
Victoria Peres felt as if her hands were tied. These poor children still had the flesh covering their bones, unlike her usual subjects at work, but she still had a need to examine them to discover their story.
Five girls gracefully sprawled in the center of a clearing. Their skin harshly exposed by the lighting the crime scene team had brought in. Each girl had long dark hair and they all wore white dresses of different styles. Their hands were all crossed on their stomachs. There was neither blood nor immediate indicator of cause of death, just an unnatural grayness to their skin and lips.
The girls looked asleep.
No kiss would wake them.
Victoria pushed her own long hair behind one ear, disturbed by the similarity between the girls’ appearances. Why did they look and dress the same?
She didn’t usually attend a fresh death scene. But she helped wherever her skills were needed. She’d definitely put in her share of hours over the flesh of the freshly deceased and the not-so-freshly deceased. Digging in the burial pits of the mass executions in Kosovo had desensitized her to most situations.