Caitlyn declined to answer Hal’s question about her motives. Not only because she was on shaky ground since this wasn’t actually official business, but also because all her attention was focused on restraining her migraine and the accompanying nausea. She rolled her window down, sucking in the crisp evening air. After an initial attempt at further conversation, Hal left her in peace.
Finally, they arrived at a large Queen Anne house complete with a round turret and wide veranda. Hal pulled around back to where there was a gravel parking lot, a gazebo and an inviting path into a garden shielded by beech and willow trees. Serenity Grove, a sign proclaimed.
Hal grabbed his cell phone and jumped out, rocking the SUV as he slammed the door. Caitlyn closed her eyes for a brief moment, composing herself, forcing the headache into retreat, then joined him at the rear door of the mortuary.
He rang a doorbell and a moon-faced overweight man in his forties appeared a few minutes later. “Hal, didn’t know you were coming down tonight.”
The man’s attention was focused on Caitlyn. He wore a T-shirt hidden by a large rubber apron and carried a set of black, extended length rubber gloves in his hands. “And who’s your beautiful companion?”
Caitlyn was surprised by Hal’s frown at Merton’s leer. She offered her hand and shook his. “I’m Caitlyn Tierney, Mr. Merton. Thank you for allowing me to observe.”
Merton kept her hand in his as he glanced at Hal. “Observe?”
“She’s FBI,” Hal answered tersely. He stepped forward, forcing Merton to both drop Caitlyn’s hand and concede the point. Caitlyn followed the two men through a dark corridor to a windowless room. A stainless steel table with a sink at one end sat under the bright glare of an overhead examination light. A lighted magnification unit was poised over the head of the bed. An unopened body bag lay on the table.
Lined up on the counters were embalming chemicals, surgical instruments, a corkboard with pin ups of photographs of the recently deceased when they’d seen better days, several wigs perched on foam heads, and a multi-tiered makeup kit that would rival any Hollywood studio’s.
“Sorry about the smell, ma’am.” Gerald’s eyes glinted with a smirk that said he wasn’t sorry at all, that he was eager to see how the “lady” reacted to the stench of decomp.
“No problem,” she said, meeting his eyes effortlessly. “I’ve been around much worse.”
Which was true. The smell of body decay didn’t make her stomach revolt. It was the overwhelming sickly sweet scent of carnations, roses, and a chemical room deodorizer that was meant to smell like apples and cinnamon. Combined with Merton’s citrus cologne, that he apparently bathed in, Caitlyn’s olfactory senses reeled.
Merton’s face tightened with disappointment and he turned to address Hal, ignoring Caitlyn. “Haven’t started yet, Chief. No one told me this was a rush job.”
“Didn’t know myself.”
She took shallow breaths through her nose and stubbornly refused to reach in her bag for the jar of Vicks she always carried. Her headache began a drum roll against the back of her eyes and the bright lights didn’t help any, but then she saw that Hal looked pretty wretched as well. She had the feeling those zillion or so fries he’d chowed down on weren’t sitting so well right about now.
Somehow the thought eased her own discomfort. Petty, she knew, but she’d take comfort where she could find it. Spotting a box of vinyl gloves on the counter, she slid a pair on, shrugged out of her jacket and set her bag down in a safe corner. Then, as the two men watched, she approached their silent partner, the unknown corpse wrapped in its body bag.
“Mind if I do the honors?” She didn’t wait for their answer, but unzipped the bag.
The corpse grinned up at her with a lopsided grimace. She didn’t take it personally. Rigor mortis and post-mortem changes often created that rictus. In this case, the effect was amplified by his jaw hanging to one side and his missing teeth.
Remnants of adipocere formed greasy, brown islands of fatty tissue interposed with tufts of light-colored hair and exposed sections of skull. Caitlyn carefully worked the bag to one side, exposing only the skull.
“Ruler?” she asked, holding out a hand without looking.
She slid a neck support below the head, elevating it so she could examine the entire circumference. Merton rummaged through a drawer, eventually pulling forth a white plastic T-square with large numerals on it. He slapped it into her waiting hand and danced back, ready to pounce if she needed anything.
Caitlyn adjusted the ruler. A flash and whirl of a camera told her that Hal knew his job. He circled behind her, taking photos from every angle as she positioned the ruler. She carefully combed through the corpse’s remaining hair, depositing the remnants of grey algae, dead leaves and other organic debris into Petri dishes Hal held open for her.
Her headache retreated as she concentrated on the corpse. She liked the way Hal anticipated her needs, moving with her in a well-choreographed dance. The only sound in the room was the occasional sound of the camera and Merton’s nasal wheezing.
Caitlyn parted the clump of hair above the man’s left ear and straightened. “Bingo,” she said, rolling her shoulders.
“Entrance wound?” Hal asked, shooting several close-ups.
Merton crowded against them, eagerly leaning over the table, blocking the light. Caitlyn used her arm to push him aside. “Excuse me, sir. You don’t mind me borrowing this, do you?”
He shook his head silently, stepping back far enough for her to slide the magnifying lamp over. She clicked it on, centered it over the wound. “Entrance wound,” she confirmed. “Look at the stellate damage to the bone. That wasn’t done by any animal.”
“What about a blow to the head?” Hal asked. “He was found at the bottom of the gorge. Lots of chances to hit rocks and such.”
Caitlyn considered this. “Maybe. But that doesn’t explain this.” She grabbed a pipe cleaner from the canister on the counter and probed the wound. “Look now, can you see it?”
Hal’s body was nestled beside hers as he leaned down and peered through the glass. “Damn. Is that what I think it is?”
“A bullet. Looks fairly large. I’m guessing a forty caliber.”
Hal gave a low whistle. “I’m impressed, Agent Tierney. But you realize there’s one problem with your theory. Forty caliber ammunition is usually reserved for law enforcement officers.”
“And the military. If this is Leo Richland, then he could have been shot with his own gun. In which case, we’ll have ballistics on file.”
Hal cleared his throat, touched her arm. Caitlyn looked up, was surprised to see the muscle at his jaw twitching as he stared at her as if she was the one who’d shot Richland.
“Mind telling me just who the hell Leo Richland is?” he asked, his voice booming through the cramped room. “Seems the least you could do, seeing as how all the sudden I’m in charge of his murder investigation.”