Torrid desert heat rose up to assault his senses, stifling every breath, playing tricks with his eyes as shifting heat monkeys danced illusively in the distance. But the image sprawled out in the craggy rocks before him was no heat-induced trick of the mind. He could taste the heat as it crept into his mouth to steal even his spit; the camphor smeared under his nose, while distorting the usual smells, did little to block the sickeningly acrid stench that hovered close in amongst the mesquite.
He paused to look up at one distinguished mesquite whose vast skeletal arms reached downward as if to clownishly mock him: "Look what I have for you, Matt. Here's another one just for you." Matt Peyson didn't put much credence in portents, but as he stood there he couldn't dismiss the idea that the haunting silhouette augured ill. He shook his head clear of the abstraction and looked back down the dry alluvial wash, listening, watching. The air, festering with the garish hum of bloated flies, churned his stomach. With a handkerchief over his mouth and nose, he suppressed the gag that threatened to spill the rising bile. His young partner, however, was not so fortunate-Alejandro Ochoa, an expression of nausea blanching his face as he breathed in short, involuntary gasps, clutched at a juniper limb. He felt the slick tree bark, sensed the heat radiating up from the rocks, heard the arrogant caw of a shrub jay passing overhead. Alejandro's cheeks ballooned as his belly revolted. He heaved his lunch onto the smooth rocks at the juniper's base.
Matt skirted around the perimeter of the scene allowing the shaken young man time to compose himself. Judging from the novice agent's pallor, he needed it. Walking back to where Alejandro sat, Matt handed him a canteen.
"Might help to rinse your mouth out."
Alejandro sputtered, "Sorry I?I'll get used to it."
Matt studied him silently a moment before answering, "I hope you never get used to this." He took a shallow breath. "How old?"
"Dunno," Alejandro murmured. He paused, wiping his mouth across his sleeve. "Mid twenties maybe," he continued as he nervously ran a hand through his black hair. "Hard to tell in this heat."
"How long?" Matt asked flatly.
"Day. Maybe two. We had to fight back the vultures so it's been long enough for them to get the scent. But the damned coyotes got to her first, Matt." Alejandro felt a tightness constricting his throat. It was like swallowing sand. "God, she's a mess," he said raspily.
Matt nodded in agreement but didn't respond. The two men fell silent, quietly standing against the backdrop of the Arizona horizon. Behind them the sinking sun exposed a peaceful beauty that ironically masked the intrinsic danger of the terrain?low mountains and sloping foothills, bluish in the heat haze, dangling cloud garlands dyed in reds and purples, the musical whining of the wind in the trees. Twisting tendrils of heat shimmers snaked up from the desert floor to pull the sky down into rocky land itself, and returned Matt to the ponderous image lying askew beneath the draping limbs of a Palo Verde tree. The nauseatingly sordid portrait of death was like a contradictory spot of paint dropped absurdly from the sun's brush. It wouldn't be long before full sunset, and Matt watched the long shadows reach to claim not only the remains of another day but the grotesque scene that stretched out before him on the desert floor.
"Any ideas?" Matt asked with a frown.
"Kinda hard to tell." Alejandro went on. "Like I told you, the coyotes got to her first."
Matt sighed. The light was still good even though the sun hung precariously low on the horizon. He adjusted his weathered hat and deftly moved closer to study the markings in the dust near the body without disturbing the scene. With attempted hope in his voice, he said softly: "Well, we'll see what Jake can come up with." He paused, then continued tersely: "Alejandro, finish taping off the perimeter. Expand it up the wash, there and there," Matt indicated as he pointed west and north, "maybe another thirty feet or so."
"What about the federales?"
"Damn the federales!" Matt barked. "I don't want anybody in here without my authorization. Nobody...comprende...including them, if they show up, nosing around down here. And I don't care how shiny their new insignias are gleaming!" The tone of his voice was brusque. Alejandro remained silent and set back to work playing out more yellow perimeter tape.
"Jesus, what a smell!" Matt shifted his tone and turned to walk past the sight, past the instinctive gnawing in his gut that had clenched him since he had received the call about the latest discovery of yet another dead illegal?dead hopes, he thought. Each passing day witnessed futile attempts of those fleeing beyond the despair that was Mexico with its devastating sorrow and hopelessness. The lure of el otro lado, the other side, was too great not to chance the crossing.
More bodies of desperate illegals trying to cross the Mexican-American border piled up in his mind and in the morgue. But what he saw now was no ordinary border crosser who had misjudged this unforgiving land. No, there was something different here. The desert doesn't bash in skulls, Matt's thoughts whispered to him.
Matt returned and situated himself at the west end of the body to observe the scene more closely. He felt an unsettling sense of déjà vu as the uneasy feeling he'd had the last few weeks resurfaced. Two other murder cases in the past six months. Well, technically all border deaths were murders, he thought, since the coyotes *1 treated these unsuspecting hope seekers like cattle herded into a slaughterhouse. Money was the only motivation a coyote knew. The hopes and dreams of some ignorant desert rat were inconsequential to them. Life held no value. Only the fee to get a body across an invisible political line drawn in the sands counted to a coyote, and if that body died, no matter. They still had their money up front, and the world was one less Mexican pollo *2 .
Paramount in Matt's mind were the other two cases. For the past few months, he had been unable to put his finger on what tickled at his brain, teased him in its refusal to come clear. Something just didn't add up. Now, as he looked back at the badly decomposed remains of the dismembered body of what surely had once been a beautiful young woman, reality intruded. Matt instinctively knew. His back stiffened. "Son of a bitch?she's not the first." His voice held the faintest trace of panic as he resisted the idea that she'd almost certainly not be the last. "Jesusfuckingchrist," he muttered under his breath. "I've got a goddamned killer here in the desert. As if the heat and the coyotes and the damned illegals aren't enough to contend with, I go and get myself a scorched-brained serial killer."
Matt hiked up the steep grade of the arroyo toward the rim. He stopped abruptly when he neared the crest?a dust cloud rising in the distance, moving fast and getting closer. Looks like we got company, he surmised. "Jake?you better find me some answers with this one," he whispered aloud.
Long legs ending in booted feet peeled out of the silver Land Rover. Jake strode around to the back. She had already unloaded her gear and was halfway to the wash as the white forensic van pulled in. A rugged looking, salt and pepper-haired man in his fifties jumped out of the van's passenger side. He yelled over his shoulder to the driver: "Let's get the equipment unloaded and set up the lights. It'll be dark before long."
The tall, athletic Hispanic woman accompanying him was already handing hairnets and foot covers to the rest of the CSI team. "The coveralls are in the back of the van, Baltazar," she motioned. Tying the strings of her facemask behind her neck, Kilana Trujillo looked toward the gathering of officers at the foot of a large mesquite. A lone figure walked toward the tree's cool, azure shadow. As Jake's calm approach narrowed the distance to the grisly offerings hidden down in the wash, Kilana was struck by the irony of the scene she surveyed. She thought, "Just a little over a hundred years ago the Indians around here called this place the Enchanted Land. Not too enchanting now."
Matt had topped the rim of the arroyo and stepped out onto the desolate landscape that surrounded Walker Canyon just when the van pulled to a stop. His lean and muscular six-foot frame swiftly carried him toward the investigative team as he watched them busily readying for the job. He was intercepted, however, before he made it to the team.
"Jake." There was a pause. "Sorry to bring you out so late on a weekend. The light's still good and?"
"Well just be glad," Jake cut in, hazel eyes flashing, "that it was you who called and ended my perfect evening."
A frown tore across Matt's weathered features, and Jake laughed. Regaining his composure, he smirked, "Yeah right, like you were doing something better than poring over all those journals or reading the minutes of the last Medical Examiner's meeting. Jake, you need to get away from the job more when you are not working."
"Well I am away right now," Jake countered stoically.
Looking Jake square in the face, Matt protested, "That's not what I mean, and you know it."
Jake shifted nervously but quickly headed for the wash. Below, two figures solemnly gathered bits and pieces of what the desert chose to surrender.
"What have we got, Matt?" Jake questioned, changing the subject back to the comfort zone of the job.
"Hispanic female, early twenties I would guess," Matt replied. "Dead a day or two?a Border Patrol agent on a routine sweep of Walker Canyon spotted the vultures this morning. Head crushed in, no clothes, but we found her ripped skirt a little way up the wash." Matt's voice flattened as he locked his blue eyes onto hers. "Jake, she's partially dismembered?hard to tell if the coyotes did it." Matt took off his hat and wiped his face on his sleeve. He started again, pointing with his sweat-stained hat: "She's about fifty or so feet up the wash there, just barely inside our border. I found truck tracks, down the wash about a hundred yards, but the ground's fairly hard up that way. We can't really tell how many crossed there. "But further up, over there on the south rim," Matt indicated with a wave of his hat, "we found some good sign *3 ?footprints indicate possibly as many as twenty unloaded. From the looks of the ground where the truck parked, they were losing oil fast. Then the truck drove west before cutting across the wash to the north. I've got a couple of trackers following the sign. They'll most likely find it burnt out?couldn't have gone too far?probably outside Oro Blanco somewhere. Matt fell silent as he repositioned his hat over sandy brown hair. Then he started again: "Jake, before you go down there, I need to tell you som?
"No. Don't say anything. Just let me see her," Jake whispered without taking her eyes off the shadow makers, the cholla and mesquite and ocotillo that guarded the wash. She removed her brown, wide-brimmed hat to run her hands through her sun-blonde hair. After adjusting her hat back in place, Jake hoisted her gear to her shoulder and headed across to the patchwork of shadows.
Matt quickly caught up and steered Jake to the Palo Verde at the foot of the wash where Alejandro was just finishing up with cordoning off the perimeter. While Matt stepped inside the area, Jake remained still, planted solidly, outside the circle. Matt scrutinized the slender blue-jeaned figure agilely circling the outside of the yellow boundary that screamed stay away, stay away. She stood pensively, peering inward into death, readying herself for the mysteries that would soon reveal themselves to her.
Matt knew Jake would wait outside the circle of death until the anguished soul welcomed her, when death itself spoke to her, beckoning her to come close and discover its secrets. Methodically, she zigzagged outside the taped off area, glancing furtively down at the sand, peering up to a limb. Once, she squatted down and retrieved a silvery paper lodged on a barrel cactus.
"Matt, are you chewing gum?"
"What about Alejandro?"
"Alejandro, you got any gum?" Matt shouted over his shoulder.
"Sure boss, want some?"
Jake rose slowly and approached the line. "Alejandro, is this the kind you have?" she asked, holding out the offending wrapper, as she noted the nervousness in his eyes.
"Damnit, you've got to be more careful."
"Sorry, Jake. It must have fallen out of my pocket," Alejandro apologized.
"Just be more careful," Jake responded and turned back toward the body stowed at the roots of the Palo Verde tree. She approached slowly, looking at every inch of ground between her and the body.
"Foot prints here," she pointed to an area near a cholla.
Matt nodded, "Yeah, we got em."
Then Jake entered the arena of death. She neared the body patiently, carefully maneuvering each step so as not to disturb any evidence. Once she closed the distance and was within three feet of the girl, she lingered several minutes without speaking. The silence was inevitable, and both Border Patrol agents knew the drill with Jake. Stay back and keep quiet.
Finally, she turned away and sighed. The desert sighed with her as melting shadows surrounded her. She spoke into the gloom: "Hopefully, I'll get something conclusive once I get her back to the morgue." As she eased past Matt, she murmured softly, "But I know your question, Matt. Unofficially, I think the answer is yes."
Disclaimer: For the squeamish, this chapter contains a graphic depiction of an autopsy.
As with any unexplained death, Jake's role as a pathologist was to determine the cause and manner of death, whether accidental, natural, homicide, or undetermined. She paused before she pushed through the double doors that led into the cold, sterile room where the remains of the murdered girl lay. Casting a glance above the transom, her eyes touched the words that hung there: Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae *4 it read. The Latin credo for pathologists was her faithful reminder that she was entering where death rejoices to teach those who live. Taking a deep, calming breath, she approached the body with solemnity and respect. She had performed more autopsies in her career than she cared to remember, but the job before her was neither a simple pathological examination of a cadaver nor a routine autopsy of a crime victim.
Jake routinely began recording her initial observations of the body. She merely nodded an acknowledgement when Kalani joined her and continued speaking into the microphone.
"The victim is a Latino female, approximately eighteen to twenty. From all appearances, the deceased has been in the desert two to three days. The body is in an advanced state of decomposition and covered with debris." She removed, bagged, and labeled several specimens for later processing while Kalani photographed the body.
"Five superficial lacerations just into the first two of layers of skin on her legs, two on the left leg and three on the right running from the heels to mid-way up her calves, ranging from one and a quarter inches up to six and a half inches in length would suggest the victim was possibly dragged backwards. All indications are she was alive during severe trauma to her body. Skin fragments beneath the fingernails and bruises on her hands and knuckles are consistent with a victim fighting an attacker. There is a large bruise on her throat?odd?made by something elongated and narrow. Kalani, what do you see?"
"Hmmm, a restraint of some kind?" she mused, tracing an imprint, an almost S configuration within the bruise. "I'll check it with the 3D stereoscopy equipment, get some depth perception. Maybe it will bring out the imprint better."
Jake continued the autopsy organizing in her mind the multiple types of trauma. First, she observed numerous blunt force injuries including three skull fractures. One indicated a tremendous amount of force had been applied. There was notable bruising of the brain, clearly in an outline of a rod-shaped instrument, as well as bleeding in the small vascular ventricles in the brain. The hyoid bone was broken on the left side where more force was exerted, denoting that the killer was left-handed. There was a small bruise on the back of the right shoulder with two small superficial tears or lacerations in the center of it; and the top of the shoulder blade was broken and completely displaced in the area beneath the bruise. She had bruises ranging from one to four inches in the back of her hands, in the back of her left forearm, and on the inside of both forearms, both which were broken and were textbook examples of someone trying to shield themselves from attack.
With an icy stare, she noted several fractures of the fingers, again consistent with defensive wounds. "She put up a hell of a fight, didn't she." Jake's voice threatened to expose her façade of cold detachment and professional demeanor.
As the autopsy progressed, Jake and Kalani observed, measured, and photographed the multiple wounds and lacerations. Substantial tearing and bruising of the vaginal area confirmed what Jake had suspected, the victim had been raped. Jake continued her observations as Kalani began to fingerprint the three fingers that hadn't been gnawed off by scavengers, but she didn't expect to find any prints on record that would help identify the girl. Still, there was always an outside chance.
Jake proceeded to open the body. Deft hands quickly maneuvered the scalpel, making a Y-shaped incision from the girl's shoulders to her mid-chest and downward, ending at the pubic region. Jake then reflected the soft tissue back, revealing the abdominal organs.
The second set of trauma came from the stab wounds. The girl had been stabbed twice, once below her right breast four inches to the right of the centerline, over the fifth and sixth ribs, perforating the liver. The other stab wound was about two and a half inches below the level of the chest wound in her left upper abdomen.
"These wounds would have been fatal within twenty to thirty minutes at the greatest. She was probably unconscious from the head wounds by the time she was stabbed."
The third set of trauma was the worst to fathom, canine teeth marks were present over the fleshy parts of the body, and several bones had been gnawed clean of muscle. "Note: Victim did not bleed from the stab wounds to the extent that she would have without the head wounds, too little blood in the abdominal cavity. Had she just suffered the stab wounds, she would have had much more, approximately four times that amount."
Jake determined that the girl died from a combination of the head injuries and stab wounds. And that she had most probably been dead, judging from the amount of blood surrounding the scene, when the animals got to her.
The overall condition of the body made it difficult to establish a time of death. Examination of the girl's stomach contents yielded very little as more often than not, illegal crossers were allowed little food or drink and were detained, sometimes several days, by the unscrupulous coyotes waiting for a full load, using the opportunity to extort more money. They were allowed little food or drink. Opening the entire abdominal cavity, Jake froze a moment then closed her moist eyes tightly.
"Well this puts a whole new complexion on the matter," she whispered. "Looks like we have another innocent victim here."
Concerned, Kalani moved to her side. "What did you find?"
"She was pregnant-looks around four to six weeks."
After a moment of silent prayer for the dead fetus, the two women braced their resolve and continued the somber task of recording every detail no matter how small or seemingly unimportant.
The sun had long set and was threatening its presence again when both women straightened up and stretched their aching backs.
"Time to call it a day," Jake said looking up at the faint daylight coming through the distorted glass of the transom above the door. "Or night." She peeled her gloves off and with a gentle compassionate touch, she wiped a lone tear from Kalani's cheek. "We will find the diablo who is doing this?I promise."
Kalani's whispered "Yes" was barely audible above the hum of glaring, florescent lights.
Jake approached the morning in stages usually, mornings being her favorite and one of the two times of day she actually favored-dusk being the other, when shadows lengthen to embrace the fleeting memory of day. She loved mornings sitting on the porch with the day's first cup of coffee watching the sun announce itself over the Santa Rita Mountains. But not today. Having gotten home just after sun-up this morning, she had tossed and turned, finally giving in as her mind submitted to her body's need for sleep. Jake opened her eyes and turned her lithe body restlessly under white sheets of cool, Egyptian cotton. Her rapaciousness for the luxury of the cotton sheets had been well honed over the years. Jake was not one to put much stock in material items-not that she couldn't afford all the finest possessions-she simply was of a mind that objects fettered a person. The less you had, the less you had to lose, was her thought on the matter. But when it came to sheets, Jake liked what she liked and she never compromised.
As the morning swayed over her, she focused her mind just beyond the open windows. A chorus of birds clamored in the mesquite, and she listened intently as the overplay of trembling cottonwood tops softened the noise. She heard the sycamore leaves, nearer to the house, rustling in a freshening breeze that sifted the clean sweetness of morning air into her adobe home-along with the dust that kicked up from the desert to invade and coat everything with a fine, reddish brown powder. She smiled thinking what effect its presence had on her mother's incessant need to dust; but Jake needed fresh air more than a dustless house.
A moment later, she shifted toward the window, letting the warmth of the sun ease her further into the day. Crisp sheets enveloped her legs. The sensation jerked her thoughts backward to a time when more than sheets caressed her, back too many years ago when?and now she felt the aloneness all over again. She felt it keenly in the other time of day, dusk, when the light of the world dimmed, just before it fell into the chill of an indigo desert night. When she sat out on the spacious wraparound porch of the adobe in a worn rocker that had belonged to her grandfather, it reached out from the golden red sun and touched her just as it had every day. Then, as now, she felt that tingly emptiness in her stomach. Here in the brisk morning air, she didn't want to look at her life or the loneliness that had wrapped itself into her. She'd always done what her father had drilled into her. She could hear him as clearly now as she had all her life: "Do right, Jake, just do right." His voice ricocheted past the calm morning sounds to invade her mind.
For Jacquelyn Lee Biscayne, or Jake as she was called since her father never seemed able to forgive her for not being a boy, doing right had seen her through four years of undergraduate work. Graduating magna cum laude with a double major in psychology and criminal justice, she had even managed to excel in sports at the same time. Doing right led her to medical school and a five-year residency in anatomic and clinical pathology at Loyola University Medical School in Chicago, where she practically lived in the morgue dissecting cadavers at all hours of the night and morning until she could have done an autopsy blindfolded and probably could have discovered the cause of death just by feel. And that was followed by two years of fellowship training in New Orleans Medical Examiner's office where the hundreds of homicides per year had honed her skills to the point that she could hold a lung in her hands and guess its weight within a gram. The hard work never left Jake much time for dating or relationships.
She pushed the painful memories away, refusing to linger there this morning, or on the reason that she now lived outside Nogales, Arizona. At thirty-six, work was what she knew?what she lost herself in?what pacified her loneliness.
Jake wasn't just good at her job; she was one of the best forensic pathologists the FBI had. Her uncanny insight and ability to see what wasn't obviously there put her at the top of their list of profilers. She was the perfect combination of pathologist, detective, politician, and public relations liaison. As Chief of Forensics at the FBI's field office based in the U. S. Border Patrol's Tucson sector, she dealt with every faction of the US Government, from Border Patrol and Customs to the CIA and Immigration. They were all there, in the shadows of Nogales, not wearing "Men-in-Black" attire, but behind every pair of eyes was a possible operative for one agency or another. Recently she and her team were working with the BP regarding a series of inexplicable border deaths- young Hispanic women, brutally murdered and discarded in the merciless desert.
Jake's thoughts returned to the night before, and the autopsy. She rubbed her nose to free it of the smells that still clung inside her nostrils. It was useless lying in bed any longer. That old restlessness was on her again. It always came when she didn't have all the answers, couldn't find that elusive strand of evidence to pinpoint all the details of a death. She rose, padded across the braided rug that spread across the tiled floor, and headed to brush her teeth and shower. She stood looking out the window, letting the unique sounds of the desert return her thoughts to the present as she absently brushed her teeth. I've missed something, she thought. "There just has to be something more you can tell me," she spoke aloud around her toothbrush. Jake settled it in her mind that she had to re-examine the body. All her autopsies were conducted meticulously, but she still felt she had overlooked something. If there's something more you have to tell me, I'll hear you this time, she contemplated.
Easing into the shower, Jake turned the spray on and rested her tired body against the cool, tile wall. She welcomed the hot water that soothed over tense muscles and the edginess that had crept into her because of her errant ramblings into the past as much as by the inconclusive autopsy she had finished only hours before. Just as she stepped onto the tiled floor, the telephone blasted into her solitude. Wrapping a towel around her naked body, she groaned as she glanced at the caller ID. It's way too early for this.
"What?don't I even get a how are you, Matt? Or a good morning might be nice. Even a simple hello would do."
"Sorry, you're right, I'm sorry. It was a long night and a short morning, but I don't have to take it out on him. Jake cleared her throat. "Good morning, Matt, what's up?"
"My guess is you and all night too, it could have waited until mornin ?"
"Don't even go there, Matt, it's my job."
Matt sighed and launched into what he needed to tell Jake. "We have a suspect in the case. Nogales police picked up a young Mexican guy driving a truck with tires that match the tracks we found a ways up the arroyo from the murder site. Of course, we can't be sure when they were left there, but this guy and truck were seen in the area approximately around the time of the murder. He's not saying anything, I mean nothing, hasn't spoke a word since he was told what he was arrested for. And then he only asked what the girl looked like, strange huh?"
"Give me a run down on him."
Listening intently to Matt's description of the suspect, Jake commented. "That doesn't fit the profile we've been working up."
"Don't know, but what I do know is, he'll be held in custody until your preliminary is in and we can run a background check and prints. Guess we'll know for sure when you run the DNA and finish the rest of your report."
Jake sat on the edge of her bed staring at the wall, stress lines evident across her brow. "We're in the process of comparing this evidence with what we have on the other two Jane Does. With the first victim, we might get lucky. I don't hold out much hope with the second one. The evidence was just too tainted. I hate it when I get this damn feeling there's something were missing."
Matt scrubbed his face. "Yeah I know, it has me spooked too."
Jake jumped up, reaching for a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. "Okay. I'm on my way, meet me for breakfast, say in about an hour?"
Matt chuckled, "I never could understand how you or your dad could do this kind of work after eating eggs sunny side up. Ok, see ya in an hour then. Oh and Jake?"
"We have a meeting with Cara Vittore this morning. She's driving down from Tucson. Just wanted to warn you."
"Wha?Vittore?why?" Jake couldn't believe what she just heard. Her entire body tightened up.
"We got a call bright and early this morning from a higher authority requesting Vittore be given open access to everything we have on this case, Jake. If need be, she'll be representing the kid."
Jake was thoroughly shaken as she listened to what Matt was telling her.
"The state wants a quick resolution on this case and would prefer it not to be connected with any others and they want it pronto. This case has a lot of people nervous, Jake. Seems like neither side wants this to turn out to be a political hot potato." Matt paused a moment. "They're pushing for an arraignment as soon as yesterday."
Jake tried to concentrate on what Matt was saying. "Arraignment! I haven't even finished the damn report! All I have is preliminary. Oh! Don't tell me?the ass kissing District Attorney Dan Manning. Must be an election year! And Vittore is defending, well good luck to the bastard, he'll need it!"
Matt frowned as he wondered what had Jake in such an uproar. He could almost see the sparks flashing from those hazel eyes. " Uh?gotta go, meet you at Maria's," Matt said in his low, gravely voice.
Jake sat back down on the side of the bed and felt the hard edge of dread creep into her stomach. Not Cara Vittore.