Excerpt, State of Denial

State of Denial (Regal Crest Enterprises, 2008)
Chapter One
© 2008, Andi Marquette

CHRIS SQUATTED BY the shallow grave. A cold late January breeze ruffled her hair as she studied the body within. He lay face-down, hands tied behind his back with what looked like electrical cord. The odor of human decomposition wafted under the edge of the bandanna she held against her mouth and nose and she automatically stopped breathing through her nose.

A crime scene tech ducked under the yellow tape that surrounded the perimeter of the clearing, fastened to trees. He carried a clipboard and a plastic tackle box. If only this was a fishing trip, Chris thought as he set his box down near the perimeter and started writing on the form attached to his clipboard.

Dale Harper hunched across from her, pressing a handkerchief to his face. Two crime scene techs were engaged a few feet away, carefully screening the dirt that a third tech was gingerly removing from around the body with a small trowel and emptying into a stainless steel pail.

“Nasty,” Harper intoned. Chris’s fellow detective spoke with the accent of the upper Midwest, a blend that sounded like Chicago-meets-Canada. He rubbed the fingers of his left hand on his knee, as if the fabric of his trousers was some sort of cleansing agent.

Murder always is. Chris didn’t vocalize the thought, waiting for him to make an inappropriate comment about the naked man in the grave. He seemed to have a penchant for doing that and it grated on her nerves. Gallows humor was one thing. Harper’s comments were another.

He shifted his weight forward to get a better look, careful not to dislodge soil from the grave’s edge. “I’m guessing sexual assault,” he began, holding the handkerchief over his nose. “Probably a gay thing. No normal guy would end up like this.”

“No normal guy goes out and kills another guy, either, and then leaves him naked in a hole in the bosque.” The cloth blunted the hard edge in Chris’s voice. She didn’t look at Harper, instead continued studying the dead man between them, silently apologizing to him for Harper’s remark, as if he still lived, and was only sleeping or comatose. As if he could still care what anybody said about him. She apologized to him again anyway.

“Well, I seriously doubt a chick killed him,” Harper muttered with what sounded like distaste.

Chris stared at him. “We don’t know that yet.”

He shrugged. “Oh, right. Women can do everything men can do.”

Typical male cop crap, trying to get a rise out of her, most likely. Chris counted backward from ten before responding. “Yeah, we can. Unfortunately.” She looked down at the body again. “But I agree that the perp in this case is most likely male. Still, the evidence isn’t in.”

Harper muttered something that she didn’t pick up. She looked back at the man in the grave. He appeared to be Caucasian, mid-twenties. Maybe he had been considered handsome when he was alive, though she couldn’t see his face. She studied his pale form and tried to imagine his last day of life. Maybe he went to work, as usual, thinking about all the things he had to do that day and the next. And maybe he went out after work with friends. Or maybe he went to a party somewhere. A night of fun, hormones, drinking. And then he’d ended up here.

Chris adjusted her weight to better balance on the balls of her feet as she leaned over, assessing. He was maybe six feet tall, about one-seventy-five. Dark-haired, this young man thrown away with no more ceremony than a bag of dead leaves. He had been somebody’s son, somebody’s grandson. Maybe somebody’s brother. Did he have friends? Was he missed? What drove someone to put an end to this vibrant young man? What could he possibly have done to warrant this?

A little prickle raised the hairs on the back of her neck. As much as she hated to admit it, Harper was probably right. The young man in the grave was most likely gay. Why she thought that she wasn’t sure, since what happened to him here didn’t feel like a hate crime. She’d seen what happened to the victims of hate crimes. They were horrendously brutalized, often beaten beyond recognition, and sometimes stabbed numerous times. Here, the perp had undressed the victim, tied his hands, and placed him face-down. Without the electrical cord around his wrists, he might have just been sleeping. From her vantage point, Chris didn’t see any bruising or stab wounds on his body or any kind of marks that would indicate he had been knocked around. So why did she think he died because he was gay?

A ring graced the third finger of his right hand but she couldn’t get a good look at it without touching him and possibly disrupting the scene before the team started processing it. Animals had been gnawing on his fingertips, which might hinder identification. She checked his feet. Something had been chewing on his heels, which made sense since those, like his fingers, were closest to the surface. She picked out faint ligature marks on his neck. So he’d been strangled. That was a crime of intimacy, requiring close contact and physical strength. He might have known his killer.

Chris stood, brushing at her khaki trousers, and looked around the clearing. The main trail was to her right, past a tangle of bushes and stands of massive cottonwood trees and from there, the distance from the grave to the parking lot of the Rio Grande Nature Center was about three hundred yards, down a sandy path toward a paved bike path that ran perpendicular to the trail. About twenty yards from the bike path, the trail wended between what looked like huge metal jacks strung with wire to keep mountain bikers and hikers from walking in ecologically sensitive areas.

She studied the clearing in which the body had been found. Six feet from the gravesite ran one of the numerous hard-packed BMX bike tracks that spiderwebbed the bosque. The Rio Grande was located just a few minutes west, through underbrush and cottonwoods. Chris glanced east, back toward the Nature Center. The Sandia Mountains bordered Albuquerque’s eastern edge, looming above the city like giant pointed teeth, and the setting sun splashed their western flanks a pinkish red, like the flesh of a watermelon, the fruit for which the mountains were named.

Chris returned her gaze to the crime scene. She noted bike tracks in the dirt not two feet from the grave and a large disturbed swath of soil and dry leaves that nearly touched one side of the grave. A sloppy killer? In a hurry? Or someone who wanted the body found? Why not just dump him in the river? Too awkward to lug a body the extra yards? If so, the vic might already have been dead when he was brought here.

Sam Padilla, head of the Albuquerque crime lab, approached, smiling apologetically. His heavy boots thwumped in the soft dirt and his reddish hair looked like he had just rolled out of bed. His face bore a perpetually bemused expression. “We’ve gotta start processing the body,” he explained. “You guys need to see anything else at the moment?” He set his equipment box carefully on the ground and pulled a pair of latex gloves out of the pocket of his mid-weight jacket.

She shook her head. “No. Go ahead and do what you need to do. The perimeter’s been processed, but I might do another walk-around.” She liked working with Sam, a tall, thin guy with a calm demeanor. Nothing rattled him, an extremely helpful personality trait when dealing with the press as well as the decedent’s friends and relatives.

“Cool,” he responded, marking time on the triathlon watch around his right wrist and writing it on his checklist.

“Who was first on the scene?” Chris addressed Harper as she shoved the bandanna into her jacket pocket though she still watched Sam. She heard Harper flip through his notebook.

“Um, Halstead.” He closed the small notebook and took a few steps away from the grave. “I’m gonna check in with the canvass team.”

“Good idea. I’ll talk with Halstead.” Any excuse to limit her interaction with him. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, Sergeant Jerry Torrez wanted Harper working with Chris on this one and he’d cleared it with the area commander. For Jerry, Chris would deal with Harper. She’d do the best damn job she could. The young man lying face-down in the grave deserved no less and his friends and family deserved no less than everything she could do to find his killer.

She ducked under the crime scene tape and followed Harper around the bushes to the path, one of the official routes from the Nature Center to the river. About three feet wide, stones lined it and occasional signs informed passersby about native vegetation. The path intersected at a near right angle with a paved bike route that ran north-south the length of Albuquerque here on the east side of the Rio Grande. She automatically checked for cyclists and roller-bladers before crossing, though the police had blocked if off for a tenth of a mile on either side of the Nature Center. Harper split off and headed north on the bike path.

Chris turned right on the path and went down a short rise to a pedestrian bridge that crossed an arroyo, mostly dry this time of year. On the other side of the bridge stood the entrance to the Nature Center. She took the dirt path through the grounds toward the parking lot, where Officer Erin Halstead leaned against the driver’s side of the closest police car. She was facing Chris, talking animatedly to another uniform Chris recognized from the back as one of the rookies. Andrews, she catalogued as she passed Maria Geddes, part of the crime scene investigation team. Maria wore two older cameras slung over her neck and she carried a newer digital. “Hey,” Maria greeted her, headed toward the gravesite. Chris waved at her and continued toward Halstead and Andrews.

To Chris’s left stood the walled enclosure of the interpretive building for the Nature Center. Chris knew the area well. When she was a beat cop, she had broken up numerous illicit parties along the banks of the river, usually involving drugs, alcohol, and teenagers. More people used the park for legitimate reasons, fortunately. Even in winter months like now, the bosque was popular with runners, cyclists, and assorted sportsters taking advantage of dry weather for athletic pursuits. The Nature Center wasn’t necessarily easy to find, though, because it wasn’t marked on any major thoroughfares in the city. The perp probably knew the Albuquerque area, which might narrow the field of inquiry.

The Nature Center closed around five but the bosque was always open, accessible by a hundred-yard walk down a paved path from Candelaria, a sleepy residential street lined by a mixture of old money and older haciendas and new money and newer multi-storied residences behind high adobe walls. The street dead-ended in a turn-around in front of the Nature Center. After dark, the cottonwood forest could be dangerous, as homeless people and tweakers often used the area as a campground in spite of park patrols. Had the killer known that? The body hadn’t been hidden well, so whoever put the vic in the grave was probably looking for a quick body dump, after dark.

Erin raised her sunglasses and perched them on her head. Uniforms milled around the parking lot, keeping curious onlookers at bay. The mobile crime lab—a tricked-out RV—was parked closest to the trailhead at the Center.

“So I understand you’re the lucky winner,” Chris said, tone dry. She nodded in greeting to Andrews, who moved away, suddenly engaging himself with dissuading a few curious spectators from getting too close to the path into the bosque. Chris looked past Erin toward the turn-off into the Nature Center’s parking lot as a media van eased in, avoiding a huge rut at the entrance. She turned her attention back to Erin, who could easily have passed for a California surfer girl, all long blond hair and blue eyes. She kept her hair tied back in a pony tail when she was working, but she still attracted lots of attention from the straight male cops on the force. And a few not-so-straight females. Not really Chris’s type, but Chris could see why people of both sexes allowed their gazes to linger much longer than necessary on Erin. Especially when she was in uniform.

“Yep. Got the call at thirteen thirty-six.” Erin’s tone broadcast calm professionalism. Smooth. Chris knew the tone. The younger ones always had it. A detached, almost military cadence. Confident but cautious, especially when interacting with older cops like her.

“Fill me in.” Chris joined Erin at the car, leaning her right side on it, arm braced on the roof, demeanor casual. In spite of her easygoing manner, Chris was focused entirely on Erin and what information she had.

“Teenager found him. One of those BMX racers. He was down here practicing and took a jump—you probably saw it. A pile of dirt between the grave and river. About ten feet tall.”

Chris nodded once. She had seen it, top packed hard and smooth beneath myriad BMX bike tire assaults.

“He took the jump and landed it but his front wheel caught on a rock and he endoed. When he got up, he looked to his right and damn if the back of our vic’s head and a few of his fingers weren’t sticking up out of the dirt.”

That would explain the disturbance on the ground near the body. The teenager’s bike wreck. Chris pursed her lips, thinking. “Where is he now?”

“Over there, with Jenkins.” Erin turned her head to the left and gestured with her chin. Chris saw a lanky blond-haired young man standing next to another uniform, talking. He wore a bright yellow long-sleeved shirt with anime designs all over it and black padded leggings, typical of BMX racers. Extra padding puffed out the elbows and knees. A big white bandage covered his chin.

“His name’s Paul Woodfin. I told him he had to hang out awhile because some of the bigger department guns would need to shake him down for info.” The expression in her eyes was sly though her tone was neutral.

“That’s right. I’m the biggest damn gun on the force.” Chris took the jibe and tossed it back at her. “When there’re teenagers to interrogate, they wheel me out of my cage, like Hannibal Lecter.”

Erin’s mouth twitched in a smile.

“So walk me through it.” Chris settled in against the car.

“Arrived on the scene at thirteen forty-two. I was just off the Plaza over there on Rio Grande and Central when the call came in. Woodfin met me in the parking lot, actually. His chin was bleeding pretty badly so I called for an ambulance, which arrived at thirteen fifty-one. They cleaned him up and at fourteen-oh-seven he led me to the body. He had left his bike there with his friend, Rodney Garcia.”

“Garcia still here?”

“Yep. He’s the kid over there behind Woodfin.”

Chris followed Erin’s gaze over the top of the patrol car and saw another teen, mostly hidden behind Woodfin’s greater height. “And?”

“Garcia was not near the body. He was standing by the bike jump to make sure nobody else rode it. Smart kids, actually. Woodfin didn’t follow me to the body. He stayed on the perimeter and pointed. I did a quick visual, then retreated in my footprints and called it in. I took photos and roped it off, then put a uniform over where Garcia was and took ’em both to the parking lot with me. I’ve already interviewed ’em but you’ll want to do your own follow-up.”

“Other witnesses?”

“Nope. Garcia tells me nobody else was riding the trail. No surprise, really. It’s January and gets dark early. Plus it’s a school day.” She arched an eyebrow.

“Our boys missing classes?” The thought amused Chris.

“They both admitted they skipped out at lunch. Woodfin drives. That’s his truck by the meat wagon. They’re students at Highland.”

A Southeast Heights high school. Middle- and working-class neighborhoods that abutted Albuquerque’s War Zone, an area known for drugs, gangs, and violence. The Nature Center was part of the northwest quadrant of the city, generally a better area. It provided easy access to the trails along the river and a place to park.
Chris pushed off the car and stood regarding Halstead. “What’s your take?”

Erin looked surprised, as if no one had ever asked her opinion. “From the look of the dirt when I got there, I don’t think he’d been in the ground that long. A few days tops. The perp was either sloppy or in a hurry. I think both. I’m surprised coyotes or dogs didn’t dig him up, actually.”

“What else?”

Erin was quiet for a moment before answering. When she did, she sounded thoughtful. “I think the vic was dead when the perp brought him here. Maybe he was looking for a quick body dump. I don’t think he had much time to really think this through. I mean, shallow grave, close to a trail? I don’t think he had a light with him or decent tools. So maybe he didn’t mean for the vic to die. Or if he did want to kill him, something made him do it before he could really plan it out. Depending on what kind of homicide this is.”

A slow smile pulled the right side of Chris’s mouth up. “My thoughts exactly. What’s your take on Woodfin and Garcia?”

Erin relaxed at Chris’s encouragement. “They’re good kids, doing what kids do on a reasonably nice January day in Albuquerque. They get their gear and go tear it up in the bosque before they have to get home. Except this time, their folks are gonna bust ’em for ditching school.” She shrugged and Chris saw a tiny smile edge the corners of Erin’s mouth. It softened her features.

“I take it you’ve—ah—engaged in such behavior?” she teased.

Erin snorted and smiled. “Who hasn’t?”

Before Chris could respond, Harper’s voice interrupted the conversation. “Hey, Gucci, I got nothin’.” The nickname grated across her nerves. He was originally from North Dakota and couldn’t pronounce Spanish to save his gringo ass. In addition to his insensitive and often sexist and homophobic remarks, he felt compelled to grant everyone he knew a nickname. The one he bestowed upon Chris was his attempt at her last name, which he mangled as “goo-chee-hair-eez” when he deigned to use it.

“Jesus, Harper, I hate that name.” Chris made a disgusted noise in the back of her throat.

“Not to mention, the detective ain’t exactly a Gucci girl,” Erin added innocently. “She’s more Eddie Bauer, maybe.”

Harper ignored them both and zipped up his windbreaker. A big, raw-boned man with broad features, pale blue eyes, and strawberry-blond hair he kept cropped in a military buzzcut, he fit Chris’s idea of what a cornfed Midwestern male should look like. “I think our boy took a straight shot with the vic from parking lot to grave. He did what he had to do, then went right back to the parking lot.”

“Detective Gutierrez and I were just discussing that,” Erin said, putting a deliberate emphasis on her correct pronunciation of Chris’s last name.

Chris swallowed a laugh.

If Harper caught the dig, he didn’t acknowledge it. “On the other hand,” he said slowly, looking at a page in his little pocket notebook, “could be the perp put the vic in a busy spot like that so trace around the grave could get wiped out. Maybe he’s done this before. Or maybe he’s just some loser perv getting his rocks off.”

Chris looked at him with grudging interest. “Not a bad idea.” She braced her hands on her hips, pondering. “Yeah. I can see that. Still, it’s risky because so many people and dogs come through here that the body could have been discovered faster than the perp liked. But it’s something to think about.” She turned her attention back to Erin. “Thanks for the update. I’d appreciate a copy of your report, and I want to compare notes on Woodfin and Garcia with you.”

“No problem. Let me know.” Erin pushed off from the side of her car and moved quickly to head off a group of reporters who were bee-lining for the trail into the bosque.

“I’m going to talk to the guys who found the body. You’d better be in on this, too,” Chris said to Harper as she headed across the parking lot. He grunted a response and followed her.

end (of chapter!)

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