ALSO BY KATHY REICHS
BONES TO ASHES
BREAK NO BONES
DEATH DU JOUR
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DESIGNED BY ERICH HOBBING
Manufactured in the United States of America
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Library of Congress Control Number: 2010024094
ISBN 978-1-4391-1279-3 (ebook)
Henry Charles Reichs
Born December 20, 2009
“Until They Are Home”
The motto of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command
From the Forensic Files of Dr.Kathy Reichs
Spider Bones benefited greatly from the help and support of colleagues, friends, and family.
First and foremost I must thank those at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL). Robert Mann, PhD, D-ABFA, Director, Forensic Science Academy, patiently answered thousands of questions, some by text from Southeast Asia. William R. Belcher, PhD, D-ABFA, Forensic Anthropologist/Supervisor, and Wayne Perry, Lt. Col., USAF, Director of Public Affairs, hosted me on a thorough and congenial refresher tour of the facility. Andretta Schellinger, Archivist, J-2 Section, clarified the process of record keeping. Audrey Meehan, DNA specialist, enlightened me on DNA analysis JPAC style. Thomas D. Holland, PhD, D-ABFA, Scientific Director of the CIL, was a good sport about my invasion of his turf, both professional and literary.
Equally invaluable was the help of Kanthi De Alwis, MD, former Chief Medical Examiner for the City and County of Honolulu. Pamela A. Cadiente, Investigator, provided details concerning the death investigation process in Hawaii.
Alain St-Marseille, Agent de liaison, Bureau du coroner, Module des Scènes de Crime S.Q., Division de l’Identité Judiciaire, Service de la Criminalistique; Mike Dulaney, Detective, Homicide Unit, Calgary Police Department; and Sergeant Harold (Chuck) Henson, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, helped with various policing and law enforcement queries.
Mike Warns answered some very odd questions. Frank and Julie Saul, Ken Kennedy, Tony Falsetti, and David Sweet gave input on gold inlays in teeth.
In the Belly of the Lizard, an unpublished manuscript by Miles Davis, provided insight into the United States involvement in the Vietnam war.
I appreciate the continued support of Chancellor Philip L. Dubois of the University of North Carolina–Charlotte.
I am grateful to my family for their patience and understanding. Extra credit to Paul Reichs for reading and commenting on the manuscript, and for sharing his experiences in Vietnam.
Deepest thanks to my agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, and to my virtuoso editors, Nan Graham and Susan Sandon. I also want to acknowledge all those who work so very hard on my behalf, including: Katherine Monaghan, Paul Whitlatch, Rex Bonomelli, Simon Littlewood, Gillian Holmes, Rob Waddington, Glenn O’Neill, Briton Schey, Margaret Riley, Tracy Fisher, Michelle Feehan, Cathryn Summerhayes, and Raffaella De Angelis. I am also indebted to the Canadian crew, especially to Kevin Hanson and Amy Cormier.
And, of course, I am grateful to my readers. Buckets of thanks for your e-mails, your visits to my Web site, and your presence at signings, author lunches, literary festivals, and other events. Most of all, thanks for reading my stories. I know your time is precious. I am honored that you choose to spend some of it with Tempe and me.
If I have forgotten to thank someone I am truly sorry. If this book contains errors they are my fault.
THE AIR SMELLED OF SUN-WARMED BARK AND APPLE BUDS RARING to blossom and get on with life. Overhead, a million baby leaves danced in the breeze.
Fields spread outward from the orchard in which I stood, their newly turned soil rich and black. The Adirondacks crawled the horizon, gaudy bronze and green in the glorious sunlight.
A day made of diamonds.
The words winged at me from a war drama I’d watched on the classic-film channel. Van Johnson? No matter. The phrase was perfect for the early-May afternoon.
I’m a Carolina girl, no fan of polar climes. Jonquils in February. Azaleas, dogwoods, Easter at the beach. Though I’ve worked years in the North, after each long, dark, tedious winter the beauty of Quebec spring still takes me by surprise.
The world was sparkling like a nine-carat rock.
A relentless buzzing dragged my gaze back to the corpse at my feet. According to SQ Agent André Bandau, now maintaining as much distance as possible, the body came ashore around noon.
News telegraphs quickly. Though it was now barely three, flies crawled and swarmed in a frenzy of feeding. Or breeding. I was never sure which.
To my right, a tech was taking pictures. To my left, another was running yellow crime-scene tape around the stretch of shoreline on which the body lay. The jackets of both said Service de l’identité judiciaire, Division des scènes de crime. Quebec’s version of CSI.
Ryan sat in a squad car behind me, talking to a man in a trucker cap. Lieutenant-détective Andrew Ryan, Section des crimes contre la personne, Sûreté du Québec. Sounds fancy. It’s not.
In la Belle Province, crime is handled by local forces in major cities, by the provincial police out in the boonies. Ryan is a homicide detective with the latter, the SQ.
The body was spotted in a pond near the town of Hemmingford, forty-five miles south of Montreal. Hemmingford. Boonies. SQ. You get it.
But why Ryan, a homicide dick working out of the SQ’s Montreal unit?
Since the deceased was plastic-wrapped and wearing a rock for a flipper, the local SQ post suspected foul play. Thus the bounce to Ryan.
And to me. Temperance Brennan, forensic anthropologist.
Working out of the Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de médecine légale in Montreal, I do the decomposed, mummified, mutilated, dismembered, and skeletal for the province, helping the coroner with identification, cause of death, and postmortem interval.
Immersion leaves a corpse in less than pristine condition, so when Ryan caught the call about a floater, he enlisted me.
Through the windshield I saw Ryan’s passenger gesture with agitated hands. The man was probably fifty, with gray stubble and features that suggested a fondness for drink. Black and red letters on his cap declared I Love Canada. A maple leaf replaced the traditional heart icon.
Ryan nodded. Wrote something in what I knew was a small notebook.
Refocusing on the corpse, I continued jotting in my own spiral pad.
The body lay supine, encased in clear plastic, with only the left lower leg outside and exposed. Duct tape sealed the plastic under the chin and around the left calf.
The exposed left foot wore a heavy biker boot. Above its rim, a two-inch strip of flesh was the color of oatmeal.
A length of yellow polypropylene rope looped the boot roughly halfway up its laces. The rope’s other end was attached to a rock via an elaborate network of knots.
The victim’s head was wrapped separately, in what looked like a plastic grocery bag. A black tube protruded from one side of the bag, held in place with more duct tape. The whole arrangement was secured by tape circling the neck and the tube’s point of exit.
What the flip?
When I dropped to a squat, the whining went mongo. Shiny green missiles bounced off my face and hair.
Up close, the smell of putrefaction was unmistakable. That was wrong, given the vic’s packaging.
Waving off Diptera, I repositioned for a better view of the body’s far side.
A dark mass pulsated in what I calculated was the right-thigh region. I shooed the swarm with one gloved hand.
And felt a wave of irritation.
The right lower was visible through a fresh cut in the plastic. Flies elbowed for position on the wrist and moved upward out of sight.
Suppressing my annoyance, I shifted to the head.
Algae spread among the folds and creases of the bag covering the top and back of the skull. More slimed one side of the odd little tube.
I could discern murky features beneath the translucent shroud. A chin. The rim of an orbit. A nose, bent to one side. Bloating and discoloration suggested that visual identification would not be an option.
Rising, I swept my gaze toward the pond.
Nosed to the shore was a tiny aluminum skiff with a three-horsepower outboard engine. On the floor in back were a beer cooler, a tackle box, and a fishing rod.
Beside the skiff was a red canoe, beached and lying on its starboard side. Navigator was lettered in white below the port gunwale.
Polypropylene rope ran from a knot on the canoe’s midship thwart to a rock on the ground. I noted that the knots on the rock resembled the one securing the victim’s ankle weight.
Inside the canoe, a paddle lay lengthwise against the starboard hull. A canvas duffel was wedged below the stern seat. A knife and a roll of duct tape were snugged beside the duffel.
An engine hum joined the buzz of flies and the bustle and click of techs moving around me. I ignored it.
Five yards up the shoreline, a rusted red moped sat beneath a precociously flowering tree. The license plate was unreadable from where I stood. At least with my eyes.
Dual rearview mirrors. Kickstand. Raised trunk behind the seat. The thing reminded me of my freshman undergrad wheels. I’d loved that scooter.
Walking the area between the skiff and the moped, I saw a set of tire treads consistent with the pickup parked by the road, and one tread line consistent with the moped itself. No foot or boot prints. No cigarette butts, aluminum cans, condoms, or candy wrappers. No litter of any kind.
Moving back along the water, I continued recording observations. The engine sounds grew louder.
Mud-rimmed pond, shallow, no tides or chop. Apple trees within five feet of the bank. Ten yards to a gravel road accessing Highway 219.
Tires crunched. The engine sounds cut out. Car doors opened, slammed. Male voices spoke French.
Satisfied I’d learn nothing further from the scene, and wanting a word with the industrious Agent Bandau, I turned and walked toward the vehicles lining the road.
A black van had joined Ryan’s Jeep, the blue crime-scene truck, the fisherman’s pickup, and Bandau’s SQ cruiser. Yellow letters on the van said Bureau du coroner.
I recognized the van’s driver, an autopsy tech named Gilles Pomerleau. Riding shotgun was my new assistant, Roch Lauzon.
Exchanging bonjours, I assured Pomerleau and Lauzon the wait wouldn’t be long. They crossed to view the corpse. Ryan remained in the cruiser with the unfortunate angler.
I approached Bandau, a gangly twentysomething with a wheat blond mustache and skin that looked like it really hated sun. Though it was hidden by his agent’s cap, I envisioned pale hair going south at a rate that alarmed its young owner.
“What’s with the plastic wrap?” Bandau asked in French, looking past me toward the corpse.
“Good question.” I had no explanation.
“Male or female?”
“Yes,” I said.
Bandau’s face came around, winking my reflection off his aviator shades. My expression was not a happy one.
“I understand you were the first responder.”
Bandau nodded, eyes unreadable behind the dark lenses.
“How’d that go?”
Bandau cocked his chin toward his cruiser. “Local named Gripper found the vic. Claims he was fishing when he saw the canoe. He motored over to investigate, something snagged his propeller. Says he paddled in, saw his catch was a corpse, dialed nine-one-one on his cell. While waiting, he dragged the body ashore then retrieved the canoe.”
“Guess you could say that.”
“Is he believable?” I asked.
Bandau shrugged. Who knows?
“What are his creds?”
“Lives on avenue Margaret with his wife. Works maintenance at the wildlife park.”
Hemmingford is located in the Montérégie region, a hair from the Canada-U.S. border. The Montérégie is noted for apples, maple syrup, and Parc Safari, a combination drive-through nature preserve and amusement park.
When I first started commuting to Quebec, the media were following the story of a group of rhesus monkey escapees from the park. I had visions of the band belly-crawling south through the night to avoid border patrol, risking all for a green card and a better life. Twenty years later, the image still amuses me.
“Go on,” I said.
“I caught the call around noon, drove out, secured the area.”
“And printed the body.” Chilly.
Sensing my disapproval, Bandau spread his feet and thumb-hooked his belt. “I thought it might speed the ID.”
“You cut the plastic.”
“I wore gloves.” Defensive. “Look, I had the new camera, so I shot close-ups and transmitted the file electronically.”
“You compromised the scene.”
“What scene? The guy was bobbing in a pond.”
“The flies will chip in to buy you a beer. Especially the ladies. They’re ovipositing with glee as we speak.”
“I was trying to help.”
“You broke protocol.”
Bandau’s lips tightened.
“What happened with the prints?”
“I got ridge patterning on all five digits. Someone at the post sent the file to CPIC. From there it went into both NCIC and the New York state system.”
CPIC is the Canadian Police Information Centre, a computerized index of criminal justice information. NCIC is the U.S. equivalent, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.
“Why send the prints south?”
“Being on the border, we get a lot of Americans coming through. And the scooter has a New York plate.”
Not bad, Bandau.
Hearing a car door slam, we both turned.
Ryan was walking toward us. Released for the moment, Gripper was leaning on his pickup, looking uneasy.
Ryan nodded to Bandau, spoke to me.
“What do you think?”
“Based solely on size.”
“Tough to say. Given this week’s warm temperatures, and the shrink-wrap, I’d guess a day or two. There’s some decomp, but not much.” I cast a meaningful glance at Bandau. “That’ll change now that the bugs have been issued a gate pass.”
I told Ryan what Bandau had done.
“What kind of rookie move was that?”
Bandau’s cheeks went raspberry.
“That’s no way to make it up the chain, son.”
Ryan turned back to me.
“Twenty-four to forty-eight hours tracks with the wit’s account. Gripper says he comes out here on his days off, usually Tuesdays and Thursdays. Swears day before yesterday the pond was canoe and corpse free.”
“Algae patterning suggests the body was floating with the head just at or below the waterline,” I said.
Ryan nodded. “According to Gripper, the body was hanging head up in the water, with the booted foot attached to a rock lying on the bottom. He guesses the pond’s about eight feet deep where he found the guy.”
“Where was the canoe?”
“Beside the vic. Gripper says that’s how the rope got tangled in his outboard.”
Ryan spoke to Bandau. “Check for feedback on those prints.”
Ryan and I watched Bandau lope toward his cruiser.
“Probably DVR’s cop shows,” Ryan said.
“Not the right ones,” I said.
Ryan glanced toward the body, back to me.
“What do you think?”
“Weird one,” I said.
“Suicide? Accident? Murder?”
I spread my palms in a “who knows” gesture.
Ryan smiled. “That’s why I bring you along.”
“The vic probably kept the canoe at the pond and drove the moped back and forth.”
“Back and forth from where?”
“Yep. Can’t do without you.”
A wood thrush trilled overhead. Another answered. The cheerful exchange was in stark contrast to the grim conversation below.
As I glanced up, hurried footsteps startled the birds into flight.
“Got him.” Bandau’s aviators were now hanging by one bow from his pocket. “Cold hit in the States. Thirteen-point match.”
Ryan’s brows may have shot higher than mine.
“John Charles Lowery. Date of birth March twenty-first, nineteen fifty.”
“Not bad, Bandau.” This time I said it aloud.
“There’s one problem.”
Bandau’s already deep frown lines deepened.
“John Charles Lowery died in nineteen sixty-eight.”
“HOW’S LOWERY A FLOATER TODAY IF HE CLOCKED OUT FOUR decades back?” Ryan voiced the question I’d been asking myself.
I had no answer.
We were heading north on 15. The coroner’s van was somewhere behind us. Pomerleau and Lauzon would check their soggy passenger into the morgue, where he’d wait in a cooler until I unwrapped him in the morning.
“Maybe the hit was a mistake.”
“Thirteen-point match?” My tone conveyed the skepticism I felt.
“Remember that lawyer in Oregon?”
Brandon Mayfield. The FBI linked him to the Madrid train bombing based on fingerprint evidence. Turned out the match was erroneous.
“That was a fluke,” I said. “You think printing the body on-site will cause blowback?”
“On the good agent, yeah. A bonehead move, but probably little harm done.”
“He meant well.”
Ryan shook his head in disbelief.
For several miles, silence filled the Jeep. Ryan broke it.
“You going home?”
Minutes later we were arcing over the Saint Lawrence on the Champlain Bridge. Below us, the river flowed cold and dark. To one side, tiny gardens and lawns winked nascent green amid the condo and apartment towers on île-des-Soeurs.
Back in the city, traffic moved like mud through a straw. The Jeep lurched and jerked as Ryan shifted between gas and brake.
Kind, yes. Witty, affirmative. Generous, absolutely. Patient, no way. Travel with Ryan was often a trial.
I checked my watch. Five ten.
Normally Ryan would have queried my dining plans by now. Suggested a restaurant. Tonight he didn’t.
Supper with his daughter? Beers with the boys? A date?
Did I care?
I cracked my window. The smell of oily water drifted into the Jeep. Warm cement. Exhaust.
Yeah. I cared.
Would I ask?
No way. Since our breakup we’d established a bimodal new balance. Professional relations: same as always. Social relations: don’t ask, don’t tell.
My choice, really. Though Lutetia was once again history, getting dumped for Ryan’s ex still hurt.
Once burned, twice shy.
And there was Charlie Hunt.
Snapshot image. Charlie on the rooftop deck of his uptown Charlotte brownstone. Cinnamon skin. Emerald eyes. Tall as his daddy, who’d played in the NBA.
I slid a glance toward Ryan.
Sandy hair. Turquoise eyes. Long and lean as his daddy in Nova Scotia.
Not bad either.
Truth be told, after decades of marriage, then a rocky postseparation readjustment, followed by going steady and an undeserved boot to the scrap heap, I was grooving on the nonmonogamy thing.
Except for two teensy details. Ryan hadn’t shared my bed since the previous summer’s split. Charlie Hunt had yet to gain access.
On dual levels it had been a long, cold winter.
The sound of Ryan’s mobile broke into my musings.
I listened as he said a lot of ouis, asked a few questions. From the latter I assumed the call was about John Lowery.
Ryan spoke to me after disconnecting. “Bandau sent a query south. Turns out our boy died in combat in Vietnam.”
“Are you using the Sesame Street theme as your ringtone?”
“Keeping the clouds away,” Ryan sang.
“Got some Big Bird sheets on your bed?”
“Bien sûr, madame.” Big wink. “Want to come check them out?”
“Ever hear of an outfit called JPAC?”
“Sure. I used to work with them. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. Used to be called CILHI until two thousand three.”
“Hallelujah. Alphabet soup.”
“Now I’ve said my ABC’s,” I sang.
“Let’s not push the metaphor, Ryan said.
“Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii. JPAC resulted from the merger of CILHI and the Joint Task Force–Full Accounting Commission. JPAC’s lab portion is now referred to as the CIL. It’s the largest forensic anthropology laboratory in the world.”
“Lowery didn’t come through JPAC, but that’s where his case has been bounced. What’s your connection with the place?”
“Every positive JPAC ID has to be approved by a zillion reviewers, some of whom are civilian and external to the CIL. I served in that capacity for many years.”
“Right. I forgot about those midwinter trips to Hawaii.”
“Travel was required twice yearly for lab oversight.”
“And a little surfing, my coconut princess?”
“I don’t surf.”
“How about I hang ten over to your place and we—”
“I rarely had time to set foot on a beach.”
“When was Lowery ID’ed?” I asked.
“Bandau didn’t say.”
“If it was back in the sixties, things were totally different.”
Ryan turned off rue Sainte-Catherine, drove half a block, and slid to the curb in front of a gray stone complex with elaborate bay windows fronting the sidewalk. Sadly, my unit is in back and derives no benefit from this architectural whimsy.
“You plan to do plastic man first thing tomorrow?”
“Yeah. Since there’s a five-hour time difference, I’ll phone the CIL tonight, see what I can learn about Lowery.”
I felt Ryan’s eyes on my back as I walked toward the door.
Quebec springs usually send a lot of work my way. Rivers and lakes thaw. The snow melts. Corpses emerge. Citizens abandon their sofas for the great outdoors. Some discover the corpses. Some join their ranks.
Because my May rotation to Montreal is usually a long one, Birdie accompanies me as a carry-on under the seat. Except during the flight, the little furball is pretty good company.
The cat was waiting inside the front door.
“Hey, Bird.” I squatted to pet him.
Birdie sniffed my jeans, neck forward, chin up, nose sucking in quick little gulps.
“Good day today?”
Birdie moved off and sat with paws primly together.
“Eau de decomp not your scent?” I rose and tossed my purse onto the sideboard.
Bird raised and licked a paw.
My condo is small. L-shaped living-dining room and shotgun kitchen in front, two bedrooms and two baths in back. It’s located at ground level, in one wing of a four-story U-shaped building. French doors give onto a tiny fenced yard from the living room. Opposite, through the dining room, another set opens onto a central courtyard.
Direct access to the lawn on one side and the garden on the other are what hooked me originally. More than a decade down the road, I’m still in the place.
Appetite intact despite the olfactory affront, Birdie padded behind me to the kitchen.
The condo’s interior features earth tones and recycled furniture that I antiqued. Natural wood trim. Stone fireplace. Framed poster of a Jean Dubuffet. Vase full of shells to remind me of the Carolina shore.
My answering machine was blinking like a tripped-out turn signal.
I checked the messages.
My sister, Harry, in Houston, unhappy with her current dating arrangement.
My daughter, Katy, in Charlotte, hating her job, her social life, and the universe in general.
The Gazette, selling subscriptions.
My neighbor Sparky complaining about Birdie. Again.
Charlie Hunt. “Thinking of you.”
Deleting all, I headed for the shower.
Supper was linguini tossed with olive oil, spinach, mushrooms, and feta. Birdie licked the cheese from his pasta, then finished the crunchy brown pellets in his bowl.
After clearing the dishes, I dialed the CIL.
Five thousand miles from the tundra a phone was answered on the first ring. After identifying myself, I asked for Roger Merkel, the lab’s scientific director.
Merkel was in Washington, D.C.
Daniel Tandler is assistant director of the CIL. Being the same age, he and I rose through the forensic ranks together, though always at different institutions. We met as undergrads, via the student association of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. We’d even enjoyed a brief carnal romp way back at the misty dawn of creation. Good fun, bad timing. Enter Pete Petersons. I married, attended grad school at Northwestern, then joined the faculty first at Northern Illinois University, then at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Danny stuck with the University of Tennessee straight through, and upon completion of his doctorate, beelined to Hawaii.
The one that got away? Maybe. But, alas, too bad. Danny Tandler is now married and out of play.
Over the years Danny and I have provided mutual support through dissertation defenses, board exams, job interviews, and promotion reviews. When the CIL needed a new external consultant, Danny proposed my name. That was back in the early nineties. I served in that capacity for almost ten years.
The wait for Tandler was a wee bit longer than the one for the initial switchboard pickup.
“Tempe, me lass. How’s it hanging?” A voice hinting of country and wide-open spaces.
“Tell me you’ve reconsidered and are coming back on board.”
“It’s eighty degrees right now. Wait, wait.” Dramatic rustling. “OK. Got my shades on. The sun off the water was blinding my vision.”
“You’re inside a building on a military base.”
“Palm fronds are gently kissing my window.”
“Save it for winter. It’s beautiful here now.”
“To what do I owe this unexpected surprise?”
I told him about the pond, the plastic, and the fingerprint identification of the victim as Lowery.
“Why the packaging?”
“Bizarre. Let me see if I can pull Lowery’s file.”
It took a full ten minutes.
“Sorry. We’ve got an arrival ceremony starting in less than an hour. Most folks have already headed over to the hangar. For now I can give you the basics. Details will have to wait.”
I did. An arrival ceremony is a solemn occasion honoring an unknown soldier, sailor, airman, or marine fallen far from home in the line of duty. Following recovery and transfer to U.S. soil, it is step one in the complicated path to repatriation.
I’d attended several arrival ceremonies during my tenure with JPAC. I envisioned the scene about to play out. The newly arrived aircraft. The servicemen and women standing at attention. The flag-draped transfer container. The solemn cross-base drive to the CIL lab.
“Private John Charles Lowery was an eighteen-year-old white male. Went in-country on June twenty-fourth, nineteen sixty-seven.” Danny’s tone suggested he was skimming, picking out relevant facts. “Lowery went down in a Huey near Long Binh on January twenty-third, nineteen sixty-eight.” Pause. “Body was recovered several days later, ID’ed, returned to family for burial.”
“Your neck o’ the woods. Lumberton, North Carolina.”
I heard a voice in the background. Danny said something. The voice responded.
“Sorry, Tempe. I’ve got to go.”
“No problem. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. I should know more once I’ve examined our guy.”
That’s not how it went.
THE NEXT DAY I ROSE AT SEVEN. THIRTY MINUTES LATER I WAS worming my Mazda through the Ville-Marie Tunnel. Again, the weather was splendid.
The Édifice Wilfrid-Derome is a looming T-shaped thirteen-story structure in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district east of centre-ville. The Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de médecine légale occupies the building’s top two floors. The Bureau du coroner is on eleven, the morgue is in the basement. The remaining acreage belongs to the SQ.
Yesiree. Ryan and I work just eight floors apart.
Though the morning staff meeting held no unpleasant surprise for the anthropologist, it had been an unusually busy Thursday. A workplace electrocution and a stabbing went to one pathologist. A suspicious crib death and a fire victim went to another. Pierre LaManche, director of the LSJML’s medico-legal section, assigned himself an apparent suicide involving a teenage boy.
LaManche also assumed responsibility for LSJML-49744, the case number assigned to John Lowery, but asked that I get the ball rolling. Since ID had been established via prints, once preliminaries were done, depending on body condition, either LaManche would perform a normal autopsy, or I would clean the bones and do a skeletal analysis.
By nine thirty I was downstairs in salle d’autopsie number 4, a unit specially outfitted for decomps, floaters, and other aromatics. I work there a lot.
Like its three counterparts, salle 4 has swinging doors leading to parallel morgue bays divided into refrigerated compartments. Small white cards mark the presence of temporary residents.
After locating the bay in which LSJML-49744 waited, I got the Nikon and checked its battery. Then I pulled the stainless steel handle.
The smell of putrefying flesh rode the whoosh of refrigerated air. Disengaging the foot brake, I pulled the gurney from its slot.
Pomerleau and Lauzon had dispensed with the usual body bag. Understandable, given Lowery’s exotic outerwear.
I was shooting wide views when a door clicked open and footsteps squeaked across tile.
Seconds later Lisa Savard appeared.
Honey blond, with a ready smile and Dolly Parton jugs, Lisa is the darling of every straight homicide cop in Quebec. She’s my favorite, too, for different reasons. The woman is the best autopsy tech in the province.
Wanting to improve her fluency, Lisa always speaks English to me.
“A strange one, yes?”
Lisa studied Lowery a moment.
“Looks like a Ken doll still in the package. Radiology?”
While Lisa shot X-rays, I went through Lowery’s dossier. So far it held little. The police incident sheet. The morgue intake form. Bandau’s report of the NCIC hit. A fax showing an ancient fingerprint card.
I checked the source of the fax. NCIC.
Curious. If Lowery died in ’68, why was he in the system? Were prints that old typically entered?
On impulse, I called the fingerprint section of Service de l’identité judiciaire. A Sergeant Boniface told me to come on up. Grabbing the file, I climbed the back stairs to the first floor.
* * *
Forty minutes later I descended, knowing a dizzying amount about tented arches, ulnar loops, and accidental whorls. Bottom line: though Boniface was uncertain why Lowery was in the FBI database, he had no doubt the match was legit.
Lowery now lay on a floor-bolted table in the center of salle 4. Flies crawled his plastic shroud and buzzed the air above it. A police photographer shot overviews from a ladder.
LaManche and Lisa were examining X-rays popped onto wall-mounted light boxes. I joined them as they moved along the row.
On each film, the skeleton glowed white within the pale gray of the flesh. I noted nothing unusual in the skull or bones.
We were on the fifth plate when LaManche’s gnarled finger tapped an object lying by Lowery’s right foot. Radiopaque, the thing lay angled across the calcaneous.
“Un couteau,” Lisa said. A knife.
“Oui,” LaManche said.
The next prize appeared in a view of the thorax. Roughly eight centimeters long and two centimeters wide, the second object glowed as bright as the first.
“Mais oui.” LaManche nodded slowly, finally understanding. “Oui.” The nodding morphed to head shaking. “Sacrebleu.”
Great. The bizarre death now made sense to the chief. I still didn’t get it.
I considered the shape on Lowery’s chest. It wasn’t another knife. Nor was it a watch, a belt buckle, or a piece of fishing paraphernalia. I hadn’t a clue.
Crossing to the body, LaManche began dictating notes.
“Victim is enclosed in what appears to be a homemade bag constructed of a large plastic sheet doubled over and secured with duct tape. The bottom and all but the top ten centimeters of one side are sealed from the outside. The neck end and top ten centimeters of the side are sealed from the inside.
“The plastic has been freshly cut, exposing the right hand. Moderate insect activity is evident in the region of the cut.”
As LaManche droned on with details, the photographer snapped away, repositioning the case identifier with each shot.
“It appears the victim entered the bag, then secured the plastic using one arm extended through the ten-centimeter side opening, which was later sealed from the inside.”
LaManche gestured to Lisa to measure the ankle rope.
“The left foot is booted and attached to a rock by a twenty-centimeter length of polypropylene rope. It appears the victim secured the rope to the rock then to his ankle, which was left exterior to the plastic.”
As Lisa ran her measuring tape, LaManche dictated dimensions. “The outer plastic envelope is one meter in width by two and a half meters in length and conforms closely to the body.”
LaManche moved to the end of the table. Flies rose with a buzz of annoyance. Behind me, tiny bodies bounced off the light box.
“The head is wrapped separately. A breathing tube extends to the exterior, duct-taped to the bag.”
I looked at the slime-covered cylinder. Was the plastic arrangement some sort of jerry-rigged diving gear?
“The bag’s lower border is taped tightly around the neck.”
On and on. Lisa measured. LaManche recorded lengths, positions, opening dimensions. Finally, he palpated the cranial setup.
“The breathing tube is displaced laterally and posteriorly from the region of the mouth.”
I’m not sure why, maybe a vision of the tube popping from Lowery’s mouth. A tube through which he intended to draw air.
Suddenly it clicked. The body wrapping. The ankle rock. The knife, meant for escape, but fallen far out of reach.
I felt like a dunce. The chief had it figured way before I did.
But underwater? I vowed to check the literature.
At that moment my mobile sounded.
Stripping off my gloves, I moved to the anteroom and clicked on.
“We’re unwrapping Lowery.”
“You sound pretty confident that’s who it is.”
I described my session with Boniface.
“Too early for cause of death?”
“I’m pretty sure LaManche is thinking autoerotic. The guy rigged himself up to get his rocks off.”
“In a pond?” Ryan sounded skeptical.
“Anything’s possible if you follow your dream.”
“Worth sliding down for a peek?”
“Autoerotics usually are.”
“In the meantime, I thought you’d want to know. The plate on the moped traced to one Morgan Shelby of Plattsburgh, New York. He and I just finished chatting.
“Shelby says he sold the scooter to a Hemmingford man named Jean Laurier. The transaction was, shall we say, informal.”
“Cash, no paperwork, the bike goes north costing Laurier no cross-border tax.”
“Bingo. According to Shelby, the purchaser promised to deal with registration and licensing in Quebec.”
“The sale took place only ten days ago.”
“Jean Laurier. John Lowery.”
“What’s his story?”
“Bandau did some canvassing, found a few locals who knew the guy. One says Laurier’s lived around Hemmingford for as long as he can remember.”
“Since nineteen sixty-eight?”
“The gentleman wasn’t that specific.”
“What did Laurier do?”
“Worked as a handyman, strictly freelance.”
“Oui, madame. Laurier stayed pretty much off the grid. No voter registration or tax record. No social insurance number. Bandau’s informants say the guy was a loner, weird but not threatening.”
“Did you get an LSA?” Last known address.
“Oui, madame. Thought I’d toss the place tomorrow. You game?”
“It’s a date.”
“It’s not a date, Ryan.”
“Then perhaps a little après-toss toss at my place?”
“I promised Birdie I’d make him deviled eggs.”
“I also phoned the Lumberton PD.” Ryan’s vowels went longer than Dixie. “Nice friendly boys down thataway.”
“Some Lowerys still live there. Guy I talked with actually remembered John, promised to go to the library and copy the kid’s yearbook photo.”
“Why were Lowery’s prints in the system?”
“Because of some part-time job he held during high school. Nurse’s aide? Orderly in a mental facility? Something like that.”
“I’m a detective. I detect. I’ll be down when Lowery’s face faxes in.”
By noon, the plastic head bag and body wrap hung on drying racks in the hall. The breathing tube turned out to be a common snorkel. It had been photographed, swabbed, and sent upstairs for analysis.
So had a small piece of plastic found bow-tied around Lowery’s penis. That would also be tested for bodily fluids.
Lowery lay supine on stainless steel, face distorted, scrotum bloated, gut swollen, and going green. But, overall, the guy was in pretty good shape. A skeletal analysis would not be needed.
“White male, fifty to sixty years old,” LaManche dictated. “Black hair. Green eyes. Circumcised. No scars, piercings, or tattoos.”
I helped Lisa maneuver the measuring rod.
“Approximately one hundred and seventy-five centimeters in height.” Five foot nine.
Ryan arrived as LaManche was circling the body, checking eyes, hands, scalp, and orifices. He handed me the Lumberton fax.
The image was so small and so blurry, it could have been anyone. But a few things were evident.
The boy had dark eyes, curving brows, and regular features. His black hair was worn side-parted and short.
“Victim shows no signs of external trauma.” LaManche looked up. Nodded in greeting. “Detective.”
After explaining its source, Ryan handed the fax to LaManche. He and Lisa studied it.
“Clean him, please,” LaManche requested.
Lisa used a spray nozzle on Lowery’s head. After toweling him dry and side-combing his hair, she positioned the printed image beside his right ear.
Eight eyes ping-ponged from the fax to the face and back.
Four decades of life and two days of death separated the man on the table from the boy in the photo. Though the nose was more bulbous, the jawline more slack, the pond victim had the same dark hair and eyes, the same Al Pacino brows.
Was the Hemmingford floater an older version of the kid from Lumberton?
I couldn’t be sure.
“Think it’s him?” I asked LaManche.
The chief gave one of his inexplicable French shrugs. Who knows? Why ask me? What herb flavors the ragout you are making?
I looked at Ryan. His eyes were glued to the man on the table.
No wonder. The sight was bizarre.
John Lowery had died wearing the following: a cotton soft-cup bra, Glamorise brand, color pink, size 44B; ladies’ polyester hipster panties, Blush brand, color pink, size large; a cotton-polyester blend nurse’s cap, one size fits all, white with blue stripe; one steel-toed boot, Harley-Davidson brand, side left, color black, size 10.
And that was just the wardrobe.
Lowery had taken two tools inside the plastic with him: a proctoscope, for sport I didn’t want to envisage; a Swiss Army Knife, for escape when the party was over.
The proctoscope remained in a fabric sack suspended from his neck. The knife had ended up at his feet.
Bite marks on the snorkel’s mouthpiece suggested this wasn’t Lowery’s first attempt at making subsurface solo whoopee. But somehow, this time, things went bad. Most likely scenario: the tube slipped from his mouth; the knife dropped from his hand.
The setting was unusual, but the chief’s initial impression was most probably correct. Lowery’s death would go down as accidental asphyxia associated with autoerotic activity.
John Charles Lowery died playing naughty nurse underwater in a self-made ziplock.
SATURDAY MORNING PRODUCED ANOTHER IMMACULATE BLUE sky. Again meteorologists were promising eighty degrees.
Three spring beauties back-to-back. Perhaps a Montreal record.
LaManche called around nine. A courtesy, not required. I like that about him.
The chief’s autopsy findings were as I expected. Other than slight atherosclerotic disease, Lowery had no preexisting medical conditions. No traumatic lesions. Some pulmonary edema. A blood alcohol level of 132mg/100 ml.
Cause of death was asphyxia due to oxygen deprivation. Manner was accidental, in the context of autoerotic activity.
By ten Ryan and I were zipping south toward Hemmingford. His mood was upbeat. A rocking Friday night? Light traffic? Too many doughnuts? I didn’t pursue it.
I did ask the length of Laurier/Lowery’s residence at the address to which we were heading. Ryan said a very long time.
Given that, I queried Laurier/Lowery’s ability to stay off the grid. Ryan relayed a complex story of lax rental agreements and changing proprietorship. Bottom line, when the last landlord died without heirs, Laurier/Lowery simply stayed on. Instead of paying rent, he paid taxes and utilities in the deceased owner’s name. Or some such scheme.
The conversation turned to Jean Laurier/John Lowery’s unfortunate demise. How could we resist?
“So Lowery got his kink on bundling in plastic, going deep, and beating off in a pond.” Ryan’s tone was tinged with distaste.
“Dressed as a nurse.”
“Apparently he changed in the canoe. The duffel contained jeans, socks, sneakers, and a shirt.”
“Must take good balancing skills.”
“It also contained a flashlight.”
“Suggesting he went to the pond at night.”
“Wouldn’t you?” Ryan shook his head. “I don’t get it. What’s the kick?”
Having no life, I’d done research the evening before, learned that the term autoerotic refers to any solitary sexual activity in which a prop, device, or apparatus is used to enhance sexual stimulation. I knew Ryan was fully aware of this.
“Most autoerotic activity takes place in the home,” I said.
“Gee. Why would that be?”
“Death is usually due to the failure of a preestablished escape mechanism.”
“Lowery probably lost his snorkel, then panicked and dropped the knife he was using to cut himself free.”
“That’s LaManche’s take. And it’s plausible. Most autoerotic deaths are accidental. The person chokes or smothers, due to hanging, or the use of a ligature or plastic bag. Also in the mix are electrocution, foreign-body insertion, overdressing, or body wrapping.”
“A plastic bag over the head is fairly common, body wrapping less so. Last night I read about a sixty-year-old man found rolled in fourteen sewn blankets, his penis wrapped in a plastic bag. A forty-six-year-old man was discovered wearing seven pairs of stockings, a dress, and ladies’ undies cut to allow Mr. Happy a front-row seat. A twenty-three-year-old schoolteacher died sporting a plastic mackintosh, three cotton skirts, a raincoat, and a plastic—”
“I get the picture. But what’s the point?”
“Heightened sexual excitement.”
Two killer blues swung my way. “I can think of better routes to that end.”
Oh, could he. I felt myself blush. Hated it. Focused on what I’d learned the night before.
“Autoerotic arousal derives from a limited number of mechanisms.” I ticked points off on a hand. “One, direct stimulation of the erotic regions.” My thumb moved to middleman. “Two, stimulation of the sexual centers of the central nervous system.”
“As in strangulation or hanging.”
“Or the use of a head covering. It’s well known that cerebral hypoxia can heighten sexual pleasure.”
My thumb went to ring man.
“Three, creation of fear and distress in the context of a masochistic fantasy. Spice things up with electrocution or immersion, for example.”
“Weenie-whacking submerged can’t be all that common.”
“There’s actually a term for it. Aqua-eroticum. I found a few cases reported in the literature. One victim used an ankle rock, just like Lowery.”
Ryan turned onto Highway 219. We passed the pond, and a few minutes later pulled to the shoulder beside a mailbox with the number 572 hand-painted on one side. An SQ cruiser was already there.
Ryan and I studied the house.
Laurier/Lowery’s small bungalow was set back from the road and partially obscured by a thick stand of pine. Green frame. One story. Small storage shed attached on the right.
As we walked up the gravel drive, I noted freshly painted trim and neatly stacked wood. A large garden in back appeared recently plowed.
Catching movement through a window, I turned to Ryan. He saw it too.
“Bandau better not be pulling more of his Lone Ranger bullshit.”
The outer door stood open, its frame gouged and splintered at the level of the knob. Ryan and I entered directly into a living room sparsely furnished with what looked like Salvation Army castoffs. Bandau was in it. Hearing footsteps, he turned.
At Bandau’s back was a desk holding a MacBook Pro that appeared fairly new. Its cover was open.
“Not jumping the gun again, are we, Agent?” Ryan’s smile was icy.
“You entered ahead of the warrant.”
“Just securing the scene.”
“Let’s hope that’s true.”
Bandau offered nothing in defense or apology.
Ryan and I moved methodically, unsure what we were seeking.
In the kitchen cabinets were chipped tableware, cleaning products, supermarket shelf goods, and enough home-canned produce to outlast the next coming.
The refrigerator offered the normal array of condiments, dairy products, lunch meat, and bread. No caviar. No capers. No French bottled water.
A plate, glass, and utensils stood drying in a green plastic dish rack. A half-empty bottle of Scotch sat on one counter.
The bath, like the kitchen, was surprisingly clean. Over-the-counter meds and personal products in the medicine cabinet. Cheap shampoo and soap in the shower.
The bedroom was equally unremarkable. Double bed with gray wool blanket, pillow, no coverlet. Side table with lamp, clock radio, and lubricating eye drops. Wooden dresser containing boxers and tees, one striped tie, a half dozen pairs of rolled socks, all black.
The closet was the size of a mailbox. Jeans and shirts. Black polyester pants. One bad sports jacket, tan corduroy.
On the floor were two and a half pairs of boots, one pair of oxfords, and one pair of sandals, the kind with tire treads for soles.
The overhead shelf held stacked magazines.
Ryan pulled and scoped a couple. “Hell-o.”
I read the titles. Tit Man. Butt Man.
“The guy’s flexible,” I said.
Ryan chose another. Lollypop Girls. The lead story was headlined Park It in My Panties. I tried to decipher that literary gem. Gave up. The request made no sense.
I looked at Ryan. His eyes were doing that scrunchy thing. I knew a panty suggestion was coming my way.
“Hither we yonder to fair computer?” Ryan asked demurely.
“Hither is not a verb.”
“Let us forth, flaxen-haired maiden.”
My eye roll may have attained a personal best.
“I yield to my lady’s superior skills.”
“And to her unclean undies.” Whispered.
Smacking Ryan’s arm, I hithered to the desk.
Bandau continued staring out the window, feet wide, elbows winging, hands clasped behind his back.
“No phone,” I said. “No cables. Did Laurier have an ISP account?”
“Internet Service Provider. Like Videotron or Bell.”
“Not that I found record of.”
The Mac whirred to life, asked for a password. I tried PASSWORD. 123456. ABCDEF. Various combinations of Jean and Laurier. Laurier’s address and street name. All of the above jumbled, reversed.
I took the initials JCR and converted them to number positions within the alphabet. 100318. Flipped the sequence. 813001. Reversed the initials to RCJ. 180310. Flipped that. 013081.
Still the little cursor defied me.
Picturing a phone, I tried the digits associated with the letters LOWERY, 569379.
I was in.
When the computer was fully booted, I checked a fan-shaped icon on the far right of the toolbar. Three stripes. I clicked on it.
“He pirated signal from the neighbors.” I pointed to a network code name. Fife.
“Can he do that?”
“The Fifes probably use their phone number as their password. A lot of folks do. Laurier knew or looked it up. Or maybe he asked permission. Anyway, once the password is entered, the computer remembers and automatically selects that network. The Fifes can’t be far away. The signal’s weak but sufficient.”
As Ryan jotted the name Fife in his spiral, I noted applications.
Standard Mac stuff. Numbers. Mail. Safari. iCal.
Laurier/Lowery had stored no spreadsheets or documents. He’d entered no contacts into the address book, no appointments into the calendar.
“He didn’t use e-mail,” I said. “Or iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD.”
Another eye roll. “Let’s check what he found amusing on the net.”
I launched Safari and pulled up the browsing history.
In the past two weeks the user had researched mulch and fertilizer, corn hybrids, scuba diving, hypoxia, poison ivy, copper wire, roofing tiles, North American squirrels, Quebec dentists, and a variety of vitamins.
“A site called robesoniandotcom was visited six times,” I said.
Ryan leaned close. He smelled of male sweat and a “Don’t worry, be happy, mon” cologne. Bay rum, I think.
The flaxen-haired maiden felt a tingle in her southern parts. She managed to stay focused.
Robesonian.com was an online newspaper for Lumberton, the county seat of Robeson County, North Carolina.
“Hot damn,” Ryan said, close to my ear.
Back to the surfing log. In moments I’d spotted additional telling activity.
Laurier/Lowery had visited dozens of sites designed for and by American draft dodgers of the Vietnam era. CBC archive pieces. Coverage of a 2006 draft dodger reunion in Vancouver. A site devoted to an exile community in Toronto. A University of British Columbia page titled Vietnam War Resisters in Canada.
“That nails it.” Ryan straightened. “Lowery left Lumberton for Canada to avoid service in Vietnam. He’s been living the straight life as Jean Laurier ever since.”
“Straight except for one quirk.” I indicated several Web addresses. Love Yourself and Tell. Hard Soloing. Ramrod’s Self-Bondage Page.
“Pick one,” I said.
Ramrod’s blog featured two stories.
A Baptist minister was found dead, alone in his Arkansas home, wearing a wet suit, face mask, diving gloves, and slippers. Underneath the outerwear were a second rubberized suit with suspenders, rubberized male underwear, and bondage gear constructed of nylon and leather. The reverend’s anus featured a condom-covered dildo.
A Kansas plumber hanged himself from a showerhead with his wife’s leather belt. The gentleman survived to tell the tale. In vivid detail.
Ramrod’s home page had a colorful sidebar encouraging visitors into his chat room. Ryan and I declined the invitation.
Shutting down the computer, I began casually rummaging in the desk. What more did we need? Jean Laurier of Hemmingford, Quebec, was clearly John Charles Lowery, a Vietnam draft dodger from Lumberton, North Carolina.
The top drawer was a jumble of rubber bands, paper clips, tape, pens, and pencils. The upper side drawer held lined tablets, envelopes, and two pairs of drugstore reading glasses.
I could hear Ryan behind me, lifting couch pillows and opening cabinets.
The lower side drawer contained computer paraphernalia, including headphones, keyboard brushes, cables, and AC adapter plugs. In closing it, I jostled a white corner into view from below a mouse pad.
Lifting the pad, I discovered a four-by-six white rectangle. On it were written a name and date. Spider, April 7, 1967.
I teased the thing free and flipped it.
The snapshot was black-and-white. Cracked and creased, it looked every bit of forty years old.
The subject was a teenage boy leaning against a fifties Chevy, ankles crossed, arms folded. He had dark hair and eyes, and heavy brows that curved the upper rims of his orbits. He wore jeans and a tee with rolled sleeves. His smile could have lighted the state of Montana.
“Check this out.”
Ryan joined me. I handed him the picture.
“Looks like Lowery,” Ryan said.
“The name Spider is written on the back.”
Ryan studied the photo, then returned it to me.
I stared at Lowery’s face. So young and unspoiled.
Other images flashed in my brain. Water-bloated features. Algae-slimed plastic. A soggy nurse’s cap.
“We’re done here,” Ryan said.
“Take these?” My gesture took in the photo and the Mac.
Ryan’s gaze went to Bandau, then to the gouged front door.
He nodded. “The warrant covers it.”
I couldn’t have known. But that photo would dog me for many days across many, many miles.
And nearly get me killed.
I AWOKE TO RAIN TICKING ON GLASS. THE WINDOW SHADE WAS A dim gray rectangle in a very dim room.
I checked the clock. Nine forty.
From atop the dresser, two unblinking yellow eyes stared my way.
“Give me a break, Bird. It’s Sunday.”
The cat flicked his tail.
“You can’t be hungry.”
Arriving back from Hemmingford, Ryan and I had grabbed a quick bite at Hurley’s Irish Pub, then walked to my place. Thanks to Mr. Soft Touch, the cat ended up the beneficiary of my doggie-bagged cheesecake.
I know what you’re thinking. Empty condo. Barren winter. Spring awakening!
Didn’t happen. Despite Ryan’s bid to frolic, the visit remained strictly tea and conversation, mostly about our kids and shared cockatiel, Charlie. Ryan took the couch. I sat in a wing chair across the room.
I explained my concern about Katy’s dissatisfaction with the concept of full-time employment. And about her recent fascination with a thirty-two-year-old drummer named Smooth.
Ryan talked of Lily’s latest setback with heroin. His nineteen-year-old daughter was out of rehab, home with Lutetia, and attending counseling. Ryan was cautiously optimistic.
He left at seven to take Lily bowling.
Was Lily’s fragile progress the reason for Ryan’s recent good humor? Or was it springing from renewed contact with Mommy?
Ryan promised to deliver Charlie the following day, as per our long-standing arrangement. When I was in Montreal, the bird was mine.
When told of the cockatiel’s upcoming arrival, Birdie was either thrilled or annoyed. Hard to read him sometimes.
After Ryan’s departure I took a very long bath. Then Bird and I watched season-one episodes of Arrested Development on DVD. He found Buster hilarious.
In Montreal, the week’s major paper comes out on Saturday. Not my preference, but there you have it.
I made coffee and an omeletlike cheesy scrambled egg thing, and began working through the previous day’s Gazette.
A massive pothole had opened up on an elevated span of Highway 15 through the Turcot Interchange. Two lanes were closed until further notice.
A forty-year-old man had snatched a kid in broad daylight and thrown him into the trunk of his car. The sleazeball now faced multiple charges, including abduction, abduction of a child under fourteen, and sexual assault.
Twelve stories reported on how the economy sucked.
I was reading a human interest piece about a hamster that saved a family of seven from a house fire when my mobile sounded.
We’re Southerners. It’s how we greet.
“You’re up early.”
“It’s a gorgeous day. I’m going to Carmel to play tennis.” Katy’s lighthearted mood surprised me. Last time we’d talked she was in a funk.
“With Smooth?” I had trouble picturing the dreadlocks and do-rag on the country club courts.
“With Lija. Smooth’s got a gig in Atlanta.” Derisive snort. “His ass can stay there for all I care. Or Savannah, or Raleigh, or Kathmandu.”
There is a God who answers our prayers.
“How’s Lija?” I asked.
Katy and Lija Feldman have been best friends since high school. A year back, following Katy’s much-delayed college graduation, they’d decided to try rooming together. So far, so good.
“How’s work?” I asked.
“Mind-numbing. I sort crap, Xerox crap, research crap. Now and then I file crap at the courthouse. Those jaunts through the halls of justice really get the old adrenaline pumping.” She laughed. “But at least I have a job. People are being dumped like nuclear waste.”
“Where are you?”
“At the town house. Gawd. I hope we can stay here.”
“Coop’s returning from Afghanistan.”
Coop was Katy’s landlord and, from what I could tell, an on-again, off-again romantic interest. Hard to know. The man seemed perpetually out of the country.
“I thought Coop was in Haiti.”
“Ancient news. His Peace Corps commitment ended two years ago. He was in the States ten months, now he’s working for a group called the International Rescue Committee. They’re headquartered in New York.”
“How long has Coop been in Afghanistan?”
“Almost a year. Someplace called Helmand Province.”
Was Coop’s reappearance the reason for Katy’s sunny mood? For Smooth’s heave-ho?
“You sound happy about his homecoming.” Discreet.
“Oh, yeah.” The Oh lasted a good five beats. “Coop’s awesome. And he’s coming straight to me after he checks in at home.”
“Really.” My tone made it a question.
“Play your cards right, Mommy dearest, I might bring him by.”
A blatant dodge, but since Katy was so excited, I decided to press on for details.
“What’s this awesome gentleman’s actual name?”
“Webster Aaron Cooperton. He’s from Charleston.”
“You met him at UVA?”
“How is it that young Mr. Cooperton holds deed to a town house in Charlotte?”
“He finished school here.”
“Didn’t like Charlottesville?”
“Wasn’t invited back.”
“He’s really nice. Loads of fun.”
I had no doubt of that.
“And the town house?”
“His parents bought it for him when he transferred to UNCC. As an investment. They’re beaucoup bucks up.”
Thus Coop’s freedom to hold morally admirable but woefully underpaid aid jobs.
Whatever. Shaggy musician out. Humanitarian in. Worked for me.
“You and Coop dated following his return from Haiti?”
“When we could. He was in New York a lot.”
I paused, allowing Katy to get to the reason for her call. Turned out there was none.
“Well, Mommy-o. Have a good day.”
Who was this strange woman posing as my daughter?
Ryan delivered Charlie around noon. Eager to be off to Lily, he stayed only briefly. The door had barely closed when the bird fired off two of his bawdier quips.
“Fill your glass, park your ass!”
“Cool your tool!”
Clearly, the cockatiel training CD had seen no play time in my absence.
Point of information: confiscated during a brothel raid several years back, Charlie became Ryan’s Christmas gift to me. My little avian friend’s repertoire is, shall we say, colorful.
Jean-Claude Hubert, the chief coroner, phoned at one o’clock. Hubert had located John Lowery’s father, Plato Lowery, and informed him of the fingerprint ID on the body in Hemmingford. At first Plato was confused. Then shocked. Then skeptical.
The United States Army had also been brought into the loop.
“Now what?” I asked Hubert.
“Now we wait to see what Uncle Sam has to say.”
At one thirty I headed to Marché Atwater, near the Lachine Canal in the Saint-Henri neighborhood. A ten-minute drive from my condo, the market there dates to 1933.
Inside the two-story art deco pavilion, shops and stalls offer cheese, wine, bread, meat, and fish. Outside, vendors hawk maple syrup, herbs, and produce. At Christmas, freshly cut trees fill the air with the scent of pine. In spring and summer, flowers turn the pavement into a riot of color.
When I first started shopping at Atwater, the neighborhood was blue-collar and definitely down-at-the-heels. Not so today. Since the reopening of the canal in 2002, upscale condos have replaced low- and modest-cost housing and the area has become a real estate hot spot.
Not sure I’m a fan of such gentrification. But parking is easier now.
Inside, I purchased meat and cheese. Outside, I bought produce, then flats of marigolds and petunias. Made of sterner stuff, I figured their sort might survive my regime of horticultural neglect.
Back home, I planted the flowers around my postage stamp patio and in my little backyard. Rain was still falling. Hot damn. No need to water.
I was cleaning dirt from my nails when my cell phone sounded. 808 area code. Hawaii.
Toweling off, I clicked on.
“Dr. Tandler. To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?” Though a Sunday call was unexpected, I had no doubt the topic.
“What? I have to have a reason?”
Danny let out a long breath. “This Lowery thing is causing some concern on our end.”
Sensing an edge of anxiety in Danny’s voice, I waited.
“Yesterday Merkel got a call from Notter while driving home from the airport. You can imagine how getting tagged that soon after landing brightened his day.”
JPAC employs more than four hundred people, both military and civilian. In addition to the CIL, situated at Hickam Air Force Base, there are three permanent overseas detachments: in Bangkok, Thailand; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Vientiane, Laos; and another U.S. detachment at Camp Smith, in Hawaii. Each is commanded by a lieutenant colonel. The whole JPAC enchilada is under the command of an army major general. For now.
Danny referred to Brent Notter, deputy to the commander for public relations and legislative affairs, and Roger Merkel, scientific director and deputy to the commander for CIL operations. Merkel was Danny’s direct superior.
“After hearing from the Quebec coroner yesterday, Plato Lowery contacted his congressman,” Danny went on.
“Oh, boy,” I said. “What’s Lowery’s juice?”
“Danny, we both know phone inquiries aren’t handled that fast. It’s been only twenty-four hours since Plato Lowery was informed of the situation. He must have connections.”
“According to Congressman O’Hare, John Lowery came from a family with a tradition of sending its boys into the military.”
“So do a lot of kids.”
“I checked. O’Hare has to run for reelection this year.”
“So do a lot of kids.”
“O’Hare and Notter were frat bros at Wake Forest.”
“That’ll do it.”
“Go Kappa Sig.” Danny was trying hard for casual. It wasn’t working.
“Is Notter worried?” I asked.
“Lowery was pretty upset. Wants to know why some guy in Canada is questioning his son’s proud record.”
“Why some Frenchie’s calling his kid a deserter.”
“I doubt the coroner used that term.” Or provided details of the circumstances surrounding John Lowery’s death. I kept that to myself.
“Congressman O’Hare has vowed to protect his constituent from a smear campaign by our neighbors to the north.”
“He said that?”
“In a statement to the press.”
“Why would O’Hare notify the media?”
“The guy’s a showboater, jumps at every chance he sees to ingratiate himself to the voting public.”
“But it’s ridiculous. Why would the government of Canada pick John Lowery of Lumberton, North Carolina, as someone to smear?”
“Of course it’s ridiculous. Merkel thinks O’Hare’s probably in trouble over NAFTA. Lashing out at Canada might make him look good with the home folk.”
That theory wasn’t totally without merit. North Carolina was hit hard by the North American Free Trade Agreement, lost thousands of jobs in the textile and furniture industries. But the agreement had been signed in 1994.
“Lowery senior also demands to know, if John died in Quebec, who the hell’s buried in his son’s grave.”
“Notter wants to make sure the thing doesn’t turn into a media nightmare.”
“What’s his plan?”
“You live in North Carolina.”
“I do.” Wary.
“Y’all speak the native lingo.”
“Notter wants you to go to Lumberton and dig up whoever is in that grave.”
PLATO LOWERY WAS YOUNGER THAN I EXPECTED, EARLY EIGHTIES at most. His hair was the kind that turns L.A. waiters into stars. Though white with age, it winged thick and glossy from a center part to swoop down over his ears.
But Lowery’s eyes were what grabbed you, black as wormholes in space. His gaze seemed to laser straight into your soul.
Lowery watched as I called a halt to the digging. Others in the assembly: the backhoe operator; two cemetery workers; two coroner’s assistants; a reporter from the Robesonian; another from WBTW; a Lumberton cop; an army lieutenant who looked all of sixteen.
It was Tuesday, May 11. Two days since my call from Danny.
Though the time was barely 10 a.m., the temperature already nudged ninety. Sun pounded the cemetery’s psychedelically green lawn. The scent of moist earth and cut grass floated heavily on the air.
I squatted for a closer look at one side of the freshly opened grave.
Stratigraphy told the story.
The uppermost layer was a deep black-brown, the one below an anemic yellow-tan. Four feet down, the bucket’s teeth had bitten into a third stratum. Like the topsoil, the dirt was rich with organic content.
I gestured the tractor back and the cemetery workers to action. Collecting their spades, the men hopped in and began shoveling dirt from the grave.
In minutes a coffin lid took shape. I noted no protective vault, only the remnants of a crushed burial liner. Bad news.
A vault, whether concrete, plastic, or metal, completely encloses a coffin. A burial liner covers only the top and sides and is less sturdy. Dirt is heavy. The absence of a vault boded ill for the integrity of a box forty years underground.
In an hour a casket stood free within the excavated grave. Though flattened at one end, it appeared largely intact.
While I shot pictures, one of the coroner’s assistants drove the van graveside.
Under my direction, a plank was positioned beneath the bottom and chains were wrapped around the casket’s head and foot ends. With the cemetery workers directing movement with their hands, the backhoe operator slowly raised the box up, swung left, and deposited it on the ground.
The coffin looked jarringly out of place on the emerald grass in the warm spring daylight. As I made notes and shot pictures, I thought of John Lowery’s other sun-drenched resurrection far to the north.
And of the buoyant young man in the photo from Jean Laurier’s desk drawer.
I’d read the entire IDPF that morning, the Individual Deceased Personnel File, including paperwork sent by the military back in 1968. DD Form 893, the Record of Identification Processing Anatomical Chart; DA Form 10–249, the Certificate of Death; DD Form 1384, the Transportation Control and Movement Document; DD Form 2775, the Record of Preparation and Disposition of Remains.
I understood the acronym TSN-RVN. Tan Son Nhut–Republic of Vietnam. Lowery’s body had been identified and readied for transport at Tan Son Nhut, one of two U.S. military mortuaries in Vietnam.
The preparing official, H. Johnson, probably a GS-13 civilian identification officer, had listed John Lowery as the decedent on the DD 893, and provided Lowery’s grade and service number. He’d checked both “decomposed” and “burned” for condition of the remains.
In the front and back body views, Johnson indicated that Lowery’s head was severely injured, and that his lower arms and hands and both feet were missing. He diagrammed no scars or tattoos.
In the remarks section, Johnson stated that Lowery was found wearing army fatigues but no insignia, dog tags, or ID. Odd, but not unheard of. I’d handled one such case during my time consulting to the CIL. Since villagers had been caught looting bodies in the area, Johnson suggested these items had probably been stolen before Lowery’s body was found.
A medical officer with an indecipherable scrawl had completed the DA 10-249, listing cause of death as “multiple trauma.” Again, a common finding, particularly with victims of plane and chopper crashes.
Finally, a mortician named Dadko had signed the section titled Disposition of Remains. Dadko had also handled the DD 2775.
The DD 1384 listed Saigon as Lowery’s point of exit from Vietnam, and Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, as his point of arrival onto home soil.
No form detailed the basis for the positive ID.
Who, I wondered, had we just raised from this grave?
Ordering the chains removed, I took a few final pictures. Then, with much grunting and sweating, the plank was lifted by joint effort of the cemetery workers, the cop, the backhoe operator, the army lieutenant, and one less-than-enthusiastic television journalist.
I glanced at Plato Lowery as the coffin was transferred to the coroner’s van. Though his face remained rigid, his body jerked visibly at the sound of the slamming doors.
When the vehicle pulled away, I walked over to him.
“This must be very difficult.” Banal, I know, but I’m lousy at small talk. No, that’s being generous. When it comes to offering condolences, I totally suck.
Lowery’s face remained a stone mask.
Behind me I could hear car doors closing and engines starting up. The journalists and the cop were heading out.
“I promise to do everything I can to sort this out,” I said.
Still no response. Consistent. When we were introduced earlier, Lowery had neither spoken to me nor offered a hand to shake. Apparently I was one of the targets of his anger. For my role in Quebec? For intruding into his world to unearth his dead son?
I was about to try again when Lowery’s eyes flicked to something over my shoulder. I turned.
The lieutenant was hurrying our way, a gangly man with close-cropped hair and olive skin. Guipani? Guipini? Undoubtedly he’d been sent from Fort Bragg to put the best possible spin on a bad situation.
“Dr. Brennan. Mr. Lowery, sir. I’m so pleased this went well.” Sun glinted off bars on his shoulders and a plaque on one pocket. D. Guipone. “We’re all pleased, of course.”
A nervous smile revealed teeth that should have worn braces.
“The army knew that it would, of course. Go well.”
Not a muscle fiber stirred in Lowery’s face.
“My colleagues at the Central Identification Laboratory say Dr. Brennan is the best. That’s how this will be handled, sir. Only the best. And total transparency, of course.”
“Of course.” Lowery’s voice was gravel.
“Of course.” Firm nod from Guipone.
“A horse is a horse.”
Guipone cast a confused glance my way.
“Of course,” I said, deadpan as the old man.
Guipone was either too young or too dumb to realize he’d been made the butt of a joke.
“Well then.” Again the snaggletoothed smile, directed at me. “What happens now?”
“This morning, using cemetery records and the grave marker, I established that this was, indeed, the plot assigned to John Lowery.” I gestured toward the open grave. “Now, in the coroner’s presence, I’ll open the coffin, record the condition of the remains, then seal the body in a transport container. As soon as the army completes arrangements, the remains will be flown to JPAC for analysis.”
“My son died a hero.” Taut.
“Yes, sir. Of course, sir. We will get to the bottom of this.”
Turning his back to Guipone, Lowery spoke to me. “I want to see him.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” As gently as I could.
The ebony eyes bore into mine. Seconds passed. Then, “How do I know my son will be treated with the respect he deserves?”
Reaching out, I placed a hand on the old man’s shoulder.
“My husband was a marine, Mr. Lowery. I am a mother. I understand the sacrifice made by the man in that coffin. And by those who loved him.”
Lowery tipped his face to the sun and closed his eyes. Then, lowering his head, he turned and walked away.
Medical examiners are appointed. Most are physicians, preferably pathologists, ideally board-certified forensic pathologists.
Coroners are elected. Candidates can be mechanics, teachers, or unemployed pole dancers. Most are morticians or funeral home operators.
In 1965, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation allowing individual counties to abolish the office of coroner and to appoint medical doctors to investigate deaths within their borders.
Today North Carolina has a centralized death investigation system. County MEs are appointed for three-year terms by the chief medical examiner in Chapel Hill.
Sound progressive? Actually, the setup is not so hot.
In counties lacking willing or capable doctors, nonphysicians—sometimes registered nurses—still serve. Instead of coroners, they’re now called “acting medical examiners.”
And get this. On its Web site, the North Carolina Medical Examiner System describes itself as a network of doctors who voluntarily devote their time, energy, and medical expertise.
Read between the lines. Doctors or dog walkers, in North Carolina, MEs are paid zilch.
Robeson County’s acting medical examiner was Silas Sugarman, owner and operator of Lumberton’s oldest funeral home. By prearrangement, following exhumation the casket would go from the cemetery to Sugarman’s facility.
I’d driven from Charlotte to Lumberton in my own car, departing as the first tendrils of dawn teased the Queen City awake. Though careful timing was required, I managed to shake Guipone and leave alone from the cemetery.
It wasn’t just that I found the lieutenant annoying. I had a plan.
Over the years, I’ve driven countless times from Charlotte to the South Carolina beaches. The back route I favor involves a long stretch on Highway 74 and brings me close enough to Lumberton for a barbecue detour. That was my target today. Being already in Lumberton, it only made sense to score some “que.”
I headed straight for Fuller’s Old Fashioned BBQ. A bit of a diversion, but I wasn’t due at the funeral home until two. And my stomach was broadcasting deprivation distress.
At one fifteen, most of the lunch crowd was gone. Ignoring the buffet, I ordered my usual. Barbecue pork, coleslaw, fries, and hush puppies. A tumbler of sweet tea the size of a silo.
OK. No smiley heart. But the owners, Fuller and Delora Locklear, know how to do pig.
Exiting the restaurant was like stepping into the molasses I’d left untouched on my table. The temperature inside my Mazda was 150.
After cranking the AC, I punched an address into my portable GPS and wound south toward Martin Luther King Drive. Within minutes the robotic voice was announcing arrival at my destination.
Sugarman’s Funeral Home looked like Tara on steroids. Redbrick. White antebellum pillars and trim up and down. Elaborate drive-through portico in front.
The interior could only be described as rose. Rose carpet. Rose drapes. Rose floral wallpaper above the wainscoting and beadboard.
In the main lobby, a faux-colonial placard listed two temporary residents. Selma Irene Farrington awaited mourners in the Eternal Harmony Room. Lionel Peter Jones cooled his heels in Peace Ever After.
A young woman materialized as I was pondering the relative merits of harmony versus peace. When I requested directions to the owner’s office, she led me past the Lilac Overflow Reposing Room and the Edgar Firefox Memorial Chapel.
Sugarman was seated at a massive oak desk with carved pineapples for feet. At least six-four and three hundred pounds, with greasy black hair and a crooked nose, he looked more mafioso than mortician.
Also present were the good lieutenant and a small, rat-faced man with short brown hair parted with surgical precision.
The trio was chuckling at some shared joke. Seeing me in the doorway, they fell silent and rose.
“Dr. Brennan. It is indeed an honor.” Sugarman’s voice was surprisingly high, his drawl as thick as the Fuller’s molasses.
Sugarman introduced rat-face as his brother-in-law, Harold Beasley, sheriff of Robeson County. Beasley nodded, repositioned a toothpick from the right to the left side of his mouth. No comment, no question. Obviously he’d been prepped on my role in the day’s activities.
“And you know the lieutenant.”
“Yes.” I resisted the impulse to add “of course.”
Sugarman arranged his beefy features into an expression of appropriate solemnity. “Ma’am, gentlemen. We all understand the sad business the Lord has chosen to send our way. I propose we get to it without further ado.”
Sugarman led us down a hall and through a door at the back of the facility. No name plaque. Everlasting Embalming? Perpetual Preparation?
The room was windowless, and maybe fifteen by twenty.
From the west wall, a door opened to the outside. Beside it, metal shelving held the usual array of instruments, chemicals, cosmetic supplies, plastic undies, and fluids whose purpose I didn’t really want to know.
A deep sink jutted from the south wall. Aspirating and injection machines sat on a counter beside it. So did a crowbar and small electric saw.
Dressing and embalming tables had been snugged to the north wall. An open casket yawned ready inside an aluminum transport case on a gurney pushed up to them.
The exhumed coffin rested on the collapsible gurney on which it had ridden from the graveyard. Though fans did their best, the smell of mildew, moldy wood, and decomposing flesh permeated the small space.
Sugarman removed his jacket and rolled his sleeves. He and I donned gloves, aprons, and goggles. Beasley and Guipone watched from the doorway. Both looked like they’d rather be elsewhere. I hoped I was more discreet.
The old coffin was mahogany, with sculpted corners and a domed top, now collapsed. Both swing bars and most of the hardware were gone. The metal that remained was eroded and discolored.
I made notes and took photos. Then I stepped back.
Sugarman raised both brows. I nodded.
Crossing to the gurney, the big man inserted one end of the crowbar and levered downward. Rotten wood cracked and flew.
Kicking aside splinters, Sugarman heaved again. And again. As fragments detached, I tossed them to the floor.
Finally, sweat rings darkening both armpits, Sugarman laid down his tool.
I stepped close.
Guipone and Beasley moved in beside us.
Breathing hard, Sugarman lifted what remained of the top half of the coffin lid.
Beasley’s hand flew to his mouth.
“Sweet baby Jesus.”
THE FUNERAL INDUSTRY CLAIMS ITS PRODUCTS AND SERVICES protect our dearly departed from the ravages of time. Coffin manufacturers offer vaults, gasket seals, and warranties on the structural integrity of their caskets. Morticians tout the permanence of embalming.
Nothing stops the inevitable.
Following death, aerobic bacteria begin acting on a corpse’s exterior, while their anaerobic brethren set to work in the gut. By excluding the former, airtight coffins may actually accelerate, not retard, action due to the latter. The result is liquefaction and putrefied soup in the box.
A simple wooden coffin, on the other hand, permits air passage, and thus, aerobic sport. The outcome is rapid skeletonization.
With most exhumations it’s anyone’s guess what lies under the hood. Bones? Goo? Some time-hardened combo?
Burned body. Forty years. Compromised box.
With this one I’d had little doubt.
I was right.
The coffin held a skeleton covered with mold and desiccated black muck. Below the pink-white outer crust, the bone surfaces looked dark and mottled.
“Dear God in heaven.” Beasley’s words came through a hand-shielded mouth.
Guipone swallowed audibly.
The remains had been casketed military-style. Though the traditional wool blanket shroud was now gone, rusted safety pins attested to its previous presence.
“May I see the file again?”
Sugarman retrieved a manila folder from the counter and handed it to me. This go-round I skipped the government forms in favor of the mortician’s handwritten account.
“Regrettably, record keeping wasn’t one of my daddy’s strengths.” Sugarman flashed what I’m sure he considered his “regrettable” smile. Probably practiced it in the mirror while knotting his somber black ties. “Such were the days.”
Not everywhere, I thought.
Pvt. John Charles Lowery was killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. (See army forms.) The body was flown from Dover, Delaware, to the Charlotte, North Carolina, airport. On February 18, 1968, accompanied by Plato Lowery, I met and drove the body to Sugarman’s Funeral Home in Lumberton, North Carolina.
At the request of Plato and Harriet Lowery, the deceased was transferred to a privately purchased casket and buried at the Gardens of Faith Cemetery on February 20, 1968 (Plot 9, Row 14, Grave 6). No additional services were requested.
March 12, 1968
Note: Gravestone erected October 4, 1968.
Tossing aside Daddy’s useless report, I began pulling remnants of decaying fabric from the casket and dropping them to the floor. Lining. Padding. Head pillow. Blanket shreds.
Sugarman helped. The sheriff and lieutenant watched mutely.
The smell of rot and mildew heightened.
Within minutes the skeleton lay fully exposed, naked but for its postmortem armor of mold and charred gunk. The skull was in pieces. Every tooth crown was gone. As indicated on ident official Johnson’s diagram, the lower arms and hands and both feet were missing.
I evaluated the remains as best I could for compatibility with John Lowery’s known biological profile.
A faucet dripped. Fluorescents hummed. Beasley and Guipone alternated shifting their feet.
Pelvic shape said the individual was clearly male. A pubic symphyseal face suggested an age range of eighteen to twenty-five. Skull fragmentation made accurate race assessment impossible.
With a gloved finger, I scraped at one cranial fragment. Below the outer crust, the cortical surface was black and flaky. Again, consistent with Johnson’s report of body condition. The deceased had suffered a fiery event, either during or after death.
Besides the safety pins, the coffin contained one inclusion, an empty jelly jar with powder filming the bottom. No burial or dog tags, buttons, belt buckles, or insignia.
I made notes and took photos.
Finally, satisfied I’d missed nothing, I turned to Sugarman. The mortician donned new gloves, and together we maneuvered a blue plastic sheet beneath the bones. Then, gingerly, we lifted and transferred them to the new casket.
We all watched as Sugarman lowered and locked the coffin lid, then positioned the top of the transfer case. I helped twist the metal fasteners that held the thing shut.
Noticing the words Head and Foot stamped on the aluminum, I thought of the honor guard that would flag-drape the case, and of the respect with which it would be positioned in the plane and hearse.
It was five thirty when I finally washed my hands and signed the transfer paperwork.
We parted under the front portico. I thanked Sugarman. He thanked me. Guipone thanked all of us. If Beasley was appreciative, he kept it to himself.
Heat mirages shimmered above the parking lot. The asphalt felt soft under my sneakers.
Sensing movement, I glanced left. The driver’s door was opening on a blue Ford Ranger five slots down from my Mazda. A tiny alarm sounded, but I kept walking.
A man got out of the pickup and tracked my approach. Though his face was shadowed by the brim of a cap, I recognized the solid body and square shoulders. And the Atlanta Braves tee.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Lowery.” When I was ten feet out. “Too early in the year for such a hot day.”
“Yes, ma’am. “
“Could be a long summer.”
Above the coal black eyes, yellow letters double-arced the green silhouette of a landmass. Korean War Veteran Forever Proud. 1950–1953.
Though it was obvious Lowery had been waiting for me, he said nothing further.
Exhausted, dirty, and sweaty, I longed for soap and shampoo. And dinner. Under ideal conditions, the trip from Lumberton to Charlotte takes two hours. At that time of day I was looking at a minimum of three.
“Have you something to ask me, sir?”
“You gonna tell me what you saw in that coffin?”
“I’m sorry. I’m duty bound to keep my observations confidential for now.”
I thought Lowery would leave. Instead he just stood there. Moments passed, then he nodded tautly, as though arriving at a difficult decision.
“I ain’t much for words. Don’t talk ’less I need to. Don’t talk ’less I know who’s on the other end of what I’m saying.”
The old man wiped both palms on his jeans.
“O’Hare’s using my troubles to get his name in the paper. Guipone’s a moron. The army’s got a dog in the fight. I ain’t a churching man, so I can’t ask the Lord who’s upright and who ain’t. I gotta go with my gut.”
Lowery swallowed. His discomfort was painful to watch.
“I listened to what you said back at the cemetery. To what you said just now. My gut’s telling me I can trust you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I’d appreciate you listening to what I got to say.”
“Shall we talk in my car?”
As I wheep-wheeped my door locks and cranked the AC, Lowery retrieved something from the dashboard of his truck. When he dropped into my passenger seat, a wave of cheap cologne and stale sweat rolled my way.
Not pleasant, but it beat the odors I’d just left behind.
Lowery pressed a gilt-edged album to his chest. Eyes fixed on something outside the windshield, he drummed callused thumbs on its red leather cover.
Seconds passed. A full minute.
Finally, he spoke.
“My mama give me a cracker of a name. Plato. You can imagine the jokes.”
“I hear you.” I tapped my chest. “Temperance. People think I’m a movement to reinstate prohibition.”
“So I picked good solid names for my boys.”
“Hard to go wrong with John,” I said, wondering at Lowery’s use of the plural.
“John wasn’t but five when he started collecting spiders. Lined ’em up in jars on his windowsill. Red ones, speckled ones, big hairy black ones. Got so his mama dreaded going into his room.”
I didn’t interrupt.
“Soon’s he could read, John took to borrowing at the mobile library.” The i in mobile was pronounced as in spider. “That’s all he talked about. Spiders this and spiders that. What they ate, where they lived, how they made young ’uns. Librarian got him every book she could lay hands on. I wasn’t working much, couldn’t buy.”
Lowery paused, gaze still on something outside the car, perhaps outside that moment in time.
“Folks took to calling him Spider. Nickname stuck like gum on a shoe. Before long, no one remembered nothing about John. Even his schoolteachers called him Spider.”
Again, Lowery fell silent. I didn’t push.
“Wasn’t just spiders. John loved animals. Brought home all kinda strays. His mama let most of ’em stay.”
Lowery turned toward me but kept his eyes lowered.
“Harriet. She passed five years back. Kidneys finally give out. Harriet was always poorly, even after the transplant.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Spider offered his mama one of his very own kidneys. That’s how generous that boy was.” Lowery’s voice dropped. “Didn’t work out.”
I didn’t interrupt.
“Spider had a twin brother, Thomas. John and Tom. Good, solid names. Tom’s passed, too. Killed on a tractor in two thousand three. Losing both her boys just took the wind out of Harriet’s sails.”
“Grief has consequences not fully understood.”
Lowery’s eyes rose to mine. In them I saw the anguish of resurrected pain.
“You find a jar in that coffin, miss?”
“Yes, sir. I did.”
“I put that there.” He paused, perhaps embarrassed, perhaps regretting his disclosure. “Foolishness.” With a tight shake of his head, Lowery turned away. “I went out and caught a spider and tucked it in with my boy.”
“That was a very kind gesture, Mr. Lowery.”
“My boy.” Lowery thumped his chest so hard I jumped. “And he was growing into a fine young man.” Lowery’s jaw hardened, relaxed. “That’s why I’m going on like this. I want you to think of Spider as a person when you’re cutting him up.”
“Mr. Lowery, I won’t be the one—”
“His mama kept this.”
When Lowery leaned my way, the cloaked BO was almost overwhelming. Opening the album, he slid it toward me.
Each page held four to six pictures. Black-and-whites with scallopy edges. Baby and school portraits. Three-by-five drugstore prints.
I leafed through the pages, asking about people, places, events. Lowery gave short, often single-word explanations. Christmas of 1954. 1961. 1964. A trip to Myrtle Beach. Harriet. Tom. The house on Red Oak. The trailer at the lake. Each image included a younger version of the boy I’d first seen in Jean Laurier’s desk drawer.
One snapshot showed Plato and a woman I assumed was Harriet.
“Is this your wife?” I asked.
Plato provided uncharacteristic detail. “Harriet had real pretty eyes. One brown, one green as a loblolly pine. Damnedest thing.”
The next Kodak moment caught Spider, Plato, and Harriet on a pier. All wore shorts and light summer shirts. Harriet looked like she’d seen way too much sun and way too little blocker. A stack of creases V’ed into her substantial cleavage.
The second to last picture captured Spider under a balloon arch with a girl in glasses and hair piled high on her head. He wore a boutonniered white jacket. She wore a pink satin formal and wrist corsage. Both looked stiff and uncomfortable.
The album’s last entry was a formal portrait of a baseball team, twelve uniformed boys and two coaches, front row down on one knee, back row standing. A printed date identified the season as 1966–67.
Again, Plato’s answer was unexpectedly long.
“This was took Spider’s senior year, before he went off to the army. He weren’t much for sports, but he give it a shot. Mostly rode the bench. That’s him.”
Lowery jabbed at a kid kneeling in the first row.
I was raising the album when Lowery yanked it sideways.
“Wait.” He held the page out at arm’s length, drew it in, then out again. This time the finger-jab indicated one of the kids standing. “That there’s Spider.”
I understood the source of Lowery’s confusion. Both boys had the same dark hair and eyes, the same heavy brows curving their orbits.
“Wow,” I said. “They could be brothers.”
“Cousins, down through Harriet’s side. Folks used to confuse ’em. ’Cept Spider got the green eyes from his mama. Reggie’s was dark like mine.”
The image was too faded, the faces too small to note the difference.
“Thick as thieves, that pair,” Plato went on. “Reggie’s the one talked Spider into joining the team.”
The old man took back and closed the album. There was another long, long silence before he spoke again.
“My daddy fought in France. I did my duty in Korea. Got three brothers was army, one navy. Their sons all joined up. Not bragging, just stating a fact.”
“That’s admirable, sir.”
“Spider went off to Vietnam, come home in a box.”
Lowery inhaled through his nose. Exhaled. Swallowed.
“I’ve always had faith in the military. Now—”
Abruptly, he reopened the album, yanked out the team photo, and thrust it at me.
“I’m trusting you to do right by my boy.”
My estimate was low by over an hour. When I reached my town house in Charlotte, Gran’s mantel clock was already bonging ten.
Bird cut me off at the door, radiating disapproval.
After apologizing and filling the cat’s bowl, I stripped, chucked my clothes into the washer, and headed for the shower. While toweling off, I told him about my day in Lumberton.
I’d just slipped on pj’s when something banged in the kitchen.
Puzzled, I hurried downstairs.
I was crossing the dining room when Katy slammed through the swinging door.
The look on my daughter’s face froze the blood in my veins.
KATY’S HAIR WAS BLOND CHAOS, HER EYES WET AND RED. MASCARA smeared her lower lids and cheeks.
I rushed forward and drew my daughter to me.
“Sweetheart, what is it?”
Katy stood mute, shoulders hunched, fingers curled into fists.
Urging her to the study and onto the couch, I reengaged my embrace and began stroking her back. She remained rigid, neither resisting nor responding to my touch.
Seconds passed. A minute. Finally, chest heaving, her body collapsed into mine. Tears soon dampened my pajama top.
My stomach knotted as memories kaleidoscoped in my brain. Childhood tragedies that had elicited similar tears. The death of her kitten, Arthur. The relocation to Iowa of her middle school best friend. The news that her father, Pete, and I were separating.
But Katy was twenty-four now. What could have happened to upset her so profoundly? Illness? A clash at work? A crisis involving Lija? Pete?
As with those long-ago heartbreaks, my response was lightning, instinctual.
But I knew. There was nothing I could do.
Feeling helpless, I caressed my daughter’s hair and made calming sounds.
Gran’s clock ticked a steady metronome. I remembered her gnarled old hand on my small head, her voice soothing me through my own childhood misfortunes.
Outside, a dog barked. Others joined in. A horn honked.
At one point, Birdie appeared in the doorway. Sensing high emotion, or perhaps hungry or bored, he moved on.
Slowly, inevitably, Katy’s sobs subsided and her breathing regained a normal rhythm. Pushing off from my chest, she sat up.
Normally perfect, my daughter’s face set a new standard for makeup gone wild. Backhanding her nose, she dragged clumps of long blond hair from her face.
I plucked tissues from a box and handed them to her. She wiped her eyes, blew her nose, then tossed the wad to the floor.
“Coop’s dead.” Barely a whisper.
“Coop’s coming home.” Stupid, but it’s what I said. I’d heard Katy’s words, but my mind had locked down.
“Yeah.” Fighting fresh tears. “In a box.”
I offered more tissues, clasped Katy’s hands. “What happened?”
“You haven’t seen the news?”
“I was in Lumberton all day.”
“Insurgents fired on their convoy. Coop was killed along with an Afghan driver and two women from England.”
“Oh, my God. When?”
“Yesterday.” She drew a tremulous breath. “I heard the story on CNN, never thought anything of it. They didn’t give names, not of the dead people nor the organization they worked for. Then today, they identified the victims. I . . .”
Her lower lip trembled. She bit down hard.
“Oh, Katy,” I said.
Sonofabitch, I thought.
But, yes, that’s how it would work. Identities would be released only after notification of next of kin.
“Have you phoned Coop’s family?”
“Yeah, right.” She gave a derisive snort. “I got some uncle or cousin or something. Basically, he told me to kiss off.”
“What did he say?”
“The guy hadn’t a clue who I was, couldn’t have cared less. Said the memorial service would be private. Thanks for calling. Go screw yourself.”
“Where were they attacked?”
“Some road outside Kabul. Everyone in the convoy worked for the International Rescue Committee. They were taking Coop and one of the Brits to the airport.”
To fly home. She couldn’t say it.
“Two were injured in the second vehicle. All four in the lead car died on the spot.” Katy swallowed. “Of multiple bullet wounds.”
“Oh, sweetie. I am so, so sorry.”
“They were aid workers!” It was almost a shriek. “They dug wells and taught people how to boil water.”
I squeezed Katy’s hands. They trembled.
“The Taliban are claiming responsibility. They say Coop and his colleagues were spies. Spies! Can you believe it?”
Loathing battled sorrow inside me. And mounting fury. It was the Taliban’s usual justification for murder. The victims were always spies or collaborators.
“The assholes described the International Rescue Committee as a hated ally of the foreign invader forces.”
“I wish I knew what to say to you, sweetheart.”
“The people in Coop’s convoy were unarmed, Mom. Their vehicle was plastered with IRC stickers.”
“I am so, so sorry.” Exhausted by my trip to Lumberton, and wary of my own emotions should I unleash them, the response, though lame, was the best I could muster.
“Coop was no spy. He went to Afghanistan because he wanted to help people. It’s totally wrong that he should die.”
“War takes many blameless victims,” I said.
“Coop volunteered.” Fresh tears now flooded Katy’s cheeks. “He didn’t even have to be there.”
I had no answer.
“Is Lija at home?” I asked gently, when several seconds had passed.
“She’s in the mountains.” Katy swiped a wadded tissue under each eye. “Banner Elk, I think.”
“Does she know?”
“I left a message on her mobile.”
“Stay with me tonight?”
Katy’s shoulder shrug zinged straight to my heart. Since babyhood she’d used the gesture when deeply sad.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” I said.
For sixty ticks of Gran’s clock we both sat lost in our separate thoughts.
When Katy spoke again her voice was jagged with anger.
“The fucking Taliban stinks.” A bunched tissue ricocheted off the desk and landed on the rug.
The bitterness in my daughter’s voice sent a chill up my spine. Encircling her shoulders, I drew her to me and rested my head against hers.
Together, we cried softly. She for her lost friend. I for my child whose pain I could not erase.
We opened and made up the sofa bed. While Katy showered, I took supermarket cookie dough from the freezer, placed it on a tray, and shoved it into the oven.
When Katy reappeared, the condo was rich with the sweet smell of baking. With exaggerated Martha Stewart grace, I offered milk and warm chocolate chips.
Reaching for a cookie, my daughter cocked a skeptical, and now spotless, brow. I admitted to using prepared frozen dough, but demanded credit for making the purchase. Katy almost smiled.
I was placing our glasses in the sink when the landline rang.
My eyes darted to the wall clock. Twelve fifteen a.m.
Annoyed, I snatched up the handset.
“First prize! An all-expense-paid trip to Hawaii!” Danny Tandler imitated a game show host.
“Do you know what time it is here?”
Wiggling good-bye fingers, Katy exited the kitchen.
“Our lucky winner receives a coach-class seat by the loo and a low-budget room a zillion miles from the ocean.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You charmed the shorts off Plato Lowery.”
“He’s a very nice gentleman.”
“The very nice gentleman wants you and only you. And his congressman is turning the screws to make sure he gets it.”
Based on our shared photo album moment, I was afraid something like this might unfold.
“O’Hare called again,” I guessed.
“Yep. I don’t know if Lowery phoned the good congressman or vice versa. O’Hare phoned Notter. Notter phoned Merkel. Ain’t modern communication grand?”
“I can’t come to Hawaii right now.”
“Notter thinks otherwise.”
“He’ll get over it.”
“What if we billet you on a really nice beach?”
I told him about Coop.
“Jesus, I saw that story on the news. Katy’s friend was the American?”
“Poor kid. Were they, you know, close?”
I didn’t know. “Close enough.”
“Give Katy a big hug for me. Wait. Better yet, bring her with you. A little Hawaiian sun could be just what she needs.”
“Lowery is adamant that you accompany his son’s body to Honolulu, and that you oversee the entire reanalysis.”
“Have Notter talk him down.”
“Not my problem.”
“When’s the last time you took a vacation?”
“Look, Tempe. We both know the guy you dug up today is not John Lowery.”
“He went by Spider.”
“This thing’s going to skewer old Plato. Do it for him. And for Notter and Merkel. You may need a favor from us sometime.”
I pictured tormented eyes beneath a Korean vet’s cap.
A plastic-wrapped corpse.
A mold-crusted skeleton.
I had no urgent cases in North Carolina or Quebec. Maybe Danny was right. Maybe a trip to Hawaii would be therapeutic for Katy, and Danny’s point about my perhaps needing them in the future wasn’t said entirely in jest. But would Katy go?
“When will action kick off at the CIL?” I asked.
“The remains are being transported on Friday. Lowery insists you travel with them.”
“I’ll ask Katy.”
“That’s not a promise, Danny. Katy needs me right now. It’s her call.”
“I imagine she’s pretty torn up.”
“Will she attend the kid’s funeral?”
“The service will be open to close family only.”
Silence hummed from the South Pacific to the southeastern seaboard. Danny broke it.
“I’ll send flight information as soon as I have it.”
I ROSE EARLY THE NEXT MORNING, BLITZED THE HARRIS TEETER floral department, then returned home to download and print photos from the net. Armed and ready, I made a tippy-toe visit to my study-turned-guest-room.
Katy awoke to orchids and plumeria, a handmade lei, and a thumbtacked Hawaiian panorama.
She appeared in the kitchen shortly after ten, tousled and confused, holding a particularly dazzling shot of Maui’s Kamaole I beach.
I asked how she felt. She shrugged, poured herself coffee.
I conveyed Danny Tandler’s condolences. She slurped.
I launched my pitch. Snorkeling. Diving. Maybe a surfing lesson or two.
Katy listened, eyes on steam rising from her mug.
Interpreting shrugless silence as interest, I continued. Diamond Head. Waikiki. Lanikai Beach.
“So. What do you think, sweetie? Aloha?” I pantomimed a little hula.
Not exactly “Yippee!” But she was willing to go.
By noon, thanks to Charlie Hunt’s intervention, the public defender’s office had granted a “compassionate leave” for its very junior first-year researcher. Two weeks. Unpaid.
After a lunch of tomato soup and tuna sandwiches, Katy and I dug out and organized scuba and snorkeling gear. At least I did. She mostly watched.
I made calls when Katy went home to pack. LaManche had no objection to my two-week absence from the LSJML in Montreal, provided I was reachable by phone. Pete agreed to take Birdie. My neighbor agreed to look after the town house. Tim Larabee, the Mecklenburg County medical examiner, asked that prior to my departure I examine a skull found off Sam Furr Road just north of Charlotte. I promised to do the analysis the following day.
Danny rang around six with flight information. Convinced of the righteousness of his plan, he’d gone ahead and booked a reservation for Katy.
Danny said he’d meet our plane, warned teasingly of a surprise. No amount of cajoling could wangle further information from him. Slightly uneasy, I disconnected.
Thursday night, after wrapping up with the Sam Furr skull, I treated Charlie Hunt to dinner. Partly because I missed him. Partly to thank him for scoring Katy her unearned vacation.
We met at Barrington’s, a tiny bistro buried in a southeast Charlotte retail complex. Unlikely location. Pricey tab. Kick-ass food.
I had the tagliatelle. Charlie had the grouper. For dessert, we shared an order of bread pudding with white chocolate ice cream.
Afterward, leaning on my Mazda, I said mahalo to Charlie in a very big way. His response indicated eagerness to continue the thank-you at his place.
I was tempted. Very tempted.
But not yet.
To Charlie’s dismay, we both went home solo.
Getting to Hawaii from North Carolina is easier now than back in the nineties when I consulted to the CIL. But the trip still takes half your life.
I rose at dawn on Friday and called Katy. She was up, but sounded groggy. Said she couldn’t sleep and had spent all of Thursday and into the wee hours writing about Coop’s death.
My daughter had begun blogging the previous winter. I’d visited her site, ChickWithThoughts.blogpost.com, and been surprised at the eloquence of her posts. And at the serious nature of the subject matter. Topics ranged from presidential politics, to ecoterrorism, to global economics. I’d been astounded at the number of people who read and participated in the discussions.
Flying US Airways from Charlotte via Phoenix, we arrived in Honolulu at two thirty in the afternoon. One gains five hours traveling west, so the outbound leg seemed deceptively painless. But I knew from experience. The return would lay me low.
Though I hadn’t been involved in the official transfer, I was aware of the young man riding below us in the cargo bay. Throughout the journey my thoughts had repeatedly drifted to him. Who was he? What was his story? How had he ended up in Spider Lowery’s grave?
Katy slept through most of the flight. I tried writing reports, gave up. I’m lousy at working on planes. I blame it on altitude. It’s really just lack of discipline.
The movie offerings were approved by censors for both sailors on shore leave and four-year-old Baptists, so I read, alternating between a Hawaiian travel book and a Stephen King novel.
During one of her brief waking periods, I explained the JPAC issue to Katy. No details. The last thing she needed was a reminder of the tragic cost of war. But Katy would be on her own while I was working at the CIL. She’d be curious about where I was and why.
Katy listened without interrupting, a response I found unsettling. Normally my daughter would have posed a thousand questions and offered an equal number of opinions. I understood her listlessness. Though Katy kept it to herself, I’d overheard her rephoning the Coopertons before leaving my house on Thursday. Her side of the conversation indicated another rebuff.
As promised, Danny was waiting in baggage claim, cart at the ready. Upon spotting us, he beamed like a kid who’d just downed a Snickers.
Hugs all around.
While Danny and I collected the luggage, Katy went in search of a john. Danny took the opportunity to query my daughter’s state of mind. I waggled a hand. So-so.
I asked about the remains from Lumberton. He said that Silas Sugarman had delivered the transport container to the Charlotte airport and that it was listed on the manifest of our flight.
I knew the drill. The transport container would be off-loaded and taken to the cargo area, where it would be met by personnel from Borthwick, a local Oahu mortuary. With paperwork completed, the coffin would travel by hearse to Hickam and enter the CIL through a rear door. An accession number would be assigned, and the remains would await processing.
The Avis line moved at the pace of sludge. When I reached the counter, the agent could find no trace of my reservation. After much sighing and head-shaking, a car was finally located, a red Chevrolet Cobalt about the size of my purse.
Danny helped load our suitcases. Then, refusing to divulge any clue concerning our hotel, he insisted I follow his Honda.
In the past, when consulting to the CIL, I was always billeted in a moderately priced hotel on Waikiki Beach. That meant traveling roughly southeast into town.
Danny’s route surprised me. He looped north on the H-1, then cut east on the H-3 toward Kaneohe.
We’d barely cleared the airport when Katy slumped against the window and fell asleep. My little navigator. It would be up to me to keep Danny in sight. Challenging, since the guy had a foot twice the atomic weight of lead.
Twenty minutes out, Danny merged onto Highway 630, Mokapu Boulevard, then turned south on Kalaheo. Eventually we passed Kailua Beach Park.
As my internal GPS engaged, I felt a buzz of excitement. Danny knew that my favorite stretch of Oahu sand was Lanikai Beach. Lanikai lies just south of Kailua. Was that where Danny was going? Was that his surprise?
Forget it, a pessimist neuron scoffed. You’re traveling on the military dime.
Anything’s possible, an optimist fired back.
Once over the bridge at Kailua, it was like driving in Charlotte. At every little jog, the street name changed. Lihiwai. Kawailoa. Alala. Mokulua.
Hawaiian. You gotta love it.
Finally, Danny pulled into an opening barely visible between towering hedges. I followed.
The driveway led through an expanse of lawn to a two-story stucco home with lanais bordering three sides. Beyond the house I could see more grass, white sand, and the glittering turquoise of Kailua Bay.
Danny pulled to a stop, got out, and walked toward my car. I lowered my window.
“Home sweet home.” He swept a theatrical arm.
“We’re staying here?” I admit. It was almost a squeal.
A grin split Danny’s face from ear to ear.
Katy sat up and squinted through the windshield.
“How did you pull this off?” I asked.
“Danny has his ways.” Tapping one temple.
I curled my fingers in a “give me more” gesture.
“The place belongs to a retired colonel. He’s gone a month, visiting his kids on the mainland, and feels more secure with someone in residence.”
Katy climbed from the car and walked toward the house.
“Shall we see if accommodations are up to madam’s high standards?”
Ignoring the faux-British accent, I got out and followed Danny to the front door.
Things were definitely up to standard. A standard about which, given my profession, I had only heard rumors.
The decor was Hawaiian plantation meets modern tech. Arched windows and doorways. Carved woodwork. Luxurious greenery. Stone and Brazilian cherry floors.
The dining and living areas had vaulted wood ceilings and sliding glass doors leading to lanais overlooking a pool. Beyond the pool, thirty yards of lawn swept down to a row of coconut palms and the beach.
The kitchen had every appliance patented in the new millennium and enough stainless steel to outfit an OR. A bedroom and bath, a powder room, a small gym, and an office rounded out the first floor.
Each of the three upstairs suites had a bath with walk-in shower, Jacuzzi, and an acre of marble. King beds. Flat-screen TVs. Ceiling fans. Heart-stopping floor-to-ceiling ocean views.
As Danny gave the tour, Katy trailed mutely behind.
“Which room did you like?” I queried when we’d finished.
“The green one’s OK.”
“It’s yours,” I said.
“Now what?” I asked when Katy had gone to the car for her luggage.
Danny looked at his watch.
“It’s Friday, now almost five. The lab will be emptier than a politician’s heart.”
I couldn’t help smiling at Danny’s metaphor.
“I’ve unearthed some info on Lowery. It’s not much. Forty-plus years is a long time. How about I brief you, then you and Katy relax over the weekend? Monday morning, we’ll meet at the CIL and start the analysis.”
While I was disappointed at the two-day delay, Danny was right. It was almost 10 p.m. East Coast time and I’d been up since 5 a.m. I’d slept little on the plane and was probably beyond my capacity for critical thought. More important, I didn’t want to leave Katy alone right away.
“Sounds like a plan,” I said.
Danny offered to carry my things from the car. I told him I could handle my own suitcase and laptop. He proceeded to get them anyway.
While Danny collected my belongings, I checked the refrigerator. It was packed. Soft drinks. Juice. Cheese. Yogurt. Hummus. Fruit and veggies. Bagels and cream cheese. Trays of prepackaged sushi.
I opened a few cupboards. Same deal.
The generosity was so Danny. Time and again, when I’d been down, he’d sent a silly gift to make me smile. When I’d been buoyant, pleased over some small victory or accomplishment, he’d sent a silly gift to enhance my happiness.
When Danny returned, I thanked him and offered to pay for the groceries. He asked for a brew but declined the dinero.
We argued. Danny finally provided a figure. Knowing it was low, I doubled the amount and wrote a check. Then we both settled into lounge chairs on the lanai.
“Spider’s story isn’t going to please his old man.”
Danny downed a slug of Corona and began.
“In December of nineteen sixty-seven, while stationed in Vietnam, Private John ‘Spider’ Lowery took unauthorized absence from his unit.”
“He just split?”
“Apparently. Six weeks later he was arrested by MPs at the home of a Vietnamese hooker on the outskirts of Saigon.”
“They were ranching?” I used the Vietnam-era term for shacking up.
Danny nodded. “Long story short, Lowery landed in the Long Binh jail, a military stockade on the road between Bien Hoa and Saigon. Eventually he was offered early release from the slammer if he rejoined his unit and went back to duty.”
“Was that standard practice?”
Another nod. “The war was in overdrive and the military needed as many bodies in action as possible, so if the offense was only UA the military would deal.”
1968. The Tet offensive. The Battle of Hue.
I’d been a kid at the time, but association with JPAC had familiarized me with details.
In January of 1968, hoping to spark a national uprising, the North Vietnamese Army, or NVA, and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, or Vietcong, broke the traditional Lunar New Year truce and launched the Tet offensive. Over 100 cities were attacked. So were Westmoreland’s headquarters and the U.S. embassy in Saigon.
During this urban offensive, the combined Vietcong and NVA troops captured Hue. The marines then counterattacked and took the former capital back, inch by bloody inch.
“Spider was released from Long Binh on January 23, 1968, and boarded a Huey to be returned to his unit,” Danny continued. “The passenger manifest listed four crew and Private Lowery. Shortly after takeoff, the Huey crashed and burned with the loss of all on board.
“Three crew members were recovered and identified the next day. Two warrant officers who were the pilot and copilot, and a sergeant who was the crew chief. A fourth badly burned body was discovered near the crash scene several days later. The body was wearing army fatigues but no insignia.”
“Wasn’t that odd?”
“Not given the fact that Lowery was fresh out of jail.” Danny took another pull on his beer. “The burned body was sent to the Tan Son Nhut mortuary, where forensic analysis showed that the victim fit Lowery’s profile, including age, sex, race, and height.”
“What about the fourth crew member?”
Danny shook his head. “A Spec 2 maintenance guy. They ruled him out. Not sure why.”
“Were his remains ever found?”
“I’ll have to ask.” More beer. “Following identification and processing, Lowery’s remains were shipped from Tan Son Nhut to Lumberton, North Carolina, for burial. End of story.”
“Apparently not,” I said.
“Apparently not.” Danny set down his empty bottle and rose. “You and Katy have a nice weekend.”
Despite Katy’s anguish, we did.
KATY WAS STILL SLEEPING WHEN I SET OUT MONDAY MORNING. Her day would be a repeat of both Saturday and Sunday. Reading by the ocean, later by the pool. A bit of snorkeling. A run on the beach. A long nap.
Hawaii hugs the equator, so island weather varies little. Sunny, highs in the eighties, maybe a blink-of-the-eye afternoon shower. In a word, perfect.
That descriptor does not apply to Honolulu’s rush-hour traffic.
Creep and lurch. Creep and lurch.
In addition to JPAC, Hickam Air Force Base is home to the Fifteenth Airlift Wing and sixty-seven partner units, including Pacific Air Forces Headquarters and the Hawaii Air National Guard. As with most military compounds, outsiders don’t just stroll in.
Queuing at the gate took a full ten minutes. When I finally reached the front of the line, an exceedingly spit-and-polished young man saluted me into an office manned by orange-vested security personnel.
Danny had left credentials. Once the car registration and safety-check paperwork were scanned, I was quickly cleared.
After skirting the military airport, I looped the traffic circle and drove past the air wing headquarters. The building’s bullet holes, still visible from the December 7, 1941, attack that pushed the U.S. into World War II, are pointed out to every first-time visitor to the base.
Eventually I made a right, wound past aircraft hangars, turned left, and pulled into a small parking lot. Building 45. The military coins such poetic names.
I dialed Danny on my mobile. He answered and said he’d be right out.
While waiting, I thought about the charge of those working inside the nondescript brown building. About the raison d’être of JPAC.
From 1959 until 1975, North Vietnam, supported by its Communist allies in the south, battled the government and armed forces of South Vietnam, supported by the United States and other members of SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. At its peak, the war kicked the crap out of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Here’s how the conflict played out.
While the lightly armed Vietcong fought a hit-and-run guerrilla war, the NVA employed more conventional tactics, often committing large-sized units to battle. The U.S. relied on its usual trifecta of ground forces, heavy artillery, and gonzo airpower.
The human toll was enormous: 3 to 4 million Vietnamese from both sides; 1.5 to 2 million Laotians and Cambodians; 58,159 Americans.
Eighteen hundred of those Americans never came home and were not accounted for.
Thus the CIL, later JPAC.
Here come the acronyms.
The Central Identification Laboratory Thailand, CIL-THAI for short, was founded in 1973 to locate American military personnel missing in Southeast Asia. Three years later the lab was moved to Honolulu, its mission expanded. The Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii, CILHI, would henceforth search for, recover, and identify Americans missing from all previous conflicts. Today, in addition to Vietnam, that total includes 120 soldiers from the Cold War, 8,100 from the Korean War, and 78,000 from World War II.
Fast-forward almost two decades from the founding of CILHI.
In 1992, the Joint Task Force–Full Accounting, JTF-FA, was established to ensure the fullest possible resolution of questions surrounding Americans missing in Southeast Asia. Another decade and the Department of Defense, DOD, decided that accounting efforts would best be served by a single entity. Thus, in 2003, the two organizations were merged to form the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, JPAC.
As with its predecessor, JPAC’s mission is to find American war dead and bring them home. Core operations involve the pursuit of leads, the recovery of remains and artifacts, and the identification of individual soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.
Every investigation begins with paper. JPAC historians and analysts gather correspondence, maps, photographs, unit histories, and medical and personnel records. JPAC’s research and intelligence section backgrounds history.
Most investigations also utilize sources outside JPAC, including the national archives and record depositories maintained by the U.S. and foreign governments. Veterans, civilian historians, private citizens, families of missing Americans, and amateur researchers also routinely provide information.
Ultimately, JPAC experts combine everything into a “loss incident case file.” At any given time, approximately 700 active files are under investigation at the CIL.
Danny emerged wearing a pink aloha shirt and baggy brown pants. Behind the thick lenses, his eyes blinked in the sunlight.
We entered building 45 through a back door and followed a corridor past the general’s staff offices into the main lobby. On the walls, wood-mounted brass plaques named the fallen ID’ed through JPAC efforts.
Danny swiped his badge at a pair of glass doors and we entered the CIL public area. To the left, a long glass wall provided a view of the main lab. Before it, a folding table held skulls, bones, and military equipment used for demonstration purposes.
Straight ahead a hallway led to offices, a copy center, a small kitchen, a conference room, and an autopsy area used for artifact cleaning and analysis. Ahead and to the right, a counter was manned by a young man in army fatigues. Above his shaved head, analogue clocks indicated the hour in five time zones.
The offices of senior JPAC personnel ringed the perimeter. Only two doors stood open.
Roger Merkel is tall, slightly stooped, and balding. Well north of fifty, his face is tanned and scoured with lines from years in the sun.
Merkel was at his desk. Seeing us, he rose and hugged me so tightly my eyes teared, momentarily blurring my view of his office.
Stepping back, I marveled, as usual, at Merkel’s orderliness. Files and papers sat in neatly squared stacks. Books, photos, and mementos hung and stood in perfect formation.
After a few words with Merkel, Danny and I went in search of coffee. Gus Dimitriadus, a CIL anthropologist, was leaving the kitchen as we entered.
Though similar in age to Danny and me, Dimitriadus is someone with whom I’ve never felt a connection. He’s attractive enough, good hair, good eyes, but the guy acts like he lives on embalming fluid.
Gus Dimitriadus never laughs. Ever. Frankly, I’ve never liked him much.
Apparently others share my view. For as long as I’ve known him, Dimitriadus has lived alone in a small apartment near Waikiki Beach.
Dimitriadus looked up from the fax he was skimming. Seeing me, his perpetually dour face went stiff. With a nod, he continued down the hall.
Surprised, I turned to Danny. “What the hell?”
“Come on. You two have never been soul mates.”
“But we’ve always been cordial.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Danny busied himself setting up mugs, dispensing coffee that resembled liquid asphalt.
I tried to think how long it had been since I’d seen Dimitriadus. Twelve years at least. He’d been deployed on missions the last few times I’d been to the CIL.
“Is Dimitriadus still peeved over the Kingston-Washington fiasco?”
Bernard Kingston died along with three others from a skimmer boat on the Mekong River in ’67. Thirty years later, four partial skeletons arrived at the CIL.
Long story. Short version, locals buried the seamen when they washed ashore, told their story in ’95, hoping for cash.
Dimitriadus caught the files. On review, I bonged his report, suspecting that two of the IDs had been reversed. Turned out I was right.
“Is that it?” I pressed.
“Jesus, that was ages ago.”
“What can I tell you?” Danny proffered a mug. “The guy’s a grudge holder.”
We passed no one else on the way to Danny’s office.
“Seems quiet.” I remembered a lot more hustle and bustle.
“A lot of folks are out in the field.”
Danny referred to workers away on recovery missions.
Quick primer on JPAC operations.
Once a loss incident case file has been opened and a likely body location has been pinpointed, an investigative team, or IT, is deployed to the scene. Could be anywhere—a rice paddy in Southeast Asia, a cliffside in Papua New Guinea, a mountaintop in the Himalayas, an underwater trench off the coast of Tunisia.
An IT is composed of ten to fourteen people, led by a team leader and a forensic anthropologist, the former responsible for the overall safety and success of the mission, the latter for the actual excavation. Other members include a team sergeant, linguist, medic, life-support technician, forensic photographer, and explosive ordnance disposal technician. Additional experts patch in as needed—mountaineering specialists, divers, and such.
Recovery sites range from a few square meters, as with single burials, to areas larger than football fields, as with aircraft crashes. The anthropologist kicks things off by laying out a grid with stakes and string, then, one by one, individual sections are dug. All soil is hand-sifted to maximize retrieval of the tiniest skeletal bits or fragments of associated artifacts. Depending on circumstances, a handful or a hundred local workers may be hired for a project.
Once everything’s back at the CIL, the lab rats gear up, examining bones, teeth, and material evidence and correlating all findings with historical records.
The anthropologist constructs as complete a biological profile as possible, analyzes trauma, and describes pathological conditions such as arthritis or old healed fractures. The odontologist compares recovered dentition to X-rays, handwritten charts, and treatment notes in antemortem records. Each collects a sample for mitochondrial DNA testing.
Material evidence varies from case to case. Aircraft data plates. Ordnance or weapons. Packs, mess kits, uniforms. Life-support equipment. Personal effects, such as rings, watches, or combs. Every shred, splinter, and chip is scrutinized.
As you can imagine, all this research, recovery, and analysis is labor-intensive, and an identification may take years for completion. If mtDNA is obtained from the bones or teeth, the search for family reference samples can add more time to the process.
Even then it’s not over. Every positive ID requires review at multiple levels, including external study by independent experts. That’s where I came in. For years I evaluated dossiers, dissecting the overlapping lines of evidence relevant to a particular set of remains.
Seems like beaucoup bother and bucks, you say? Trust me. The effort and expense pay off. On average, JPAC identifies six individuals each month. To date, more than 1,400 military personnel have been returned to their families. The gratitude of relatives is incalculable.
Bottom line, our troops know: should they march off to war, one way or another, we’re bringing them home.
“How many recovery missions are deployed each year?” No longer affiliated with JPAC, I hadn’t a sense of current numbers.
“At least ten in Southeast Asia, maybe five associated with the Korean War.” Danny twisted his lips in thought. “Ten others wherever, you know, for World War II cases, or the Cold War. Teams are always coming or going.”
Danny’s office was the polar opposite of Merkel’s. Papers and books lay scattered about, files threatened to topple from unsteady stacks. Mementos lay tossed where they’d landed coming through the door. A signed softball. A kite. A photo of Danny digging on a mountain.
The desk held a similar array of memorabilia. A Micronesian sculpture made of what looked like pig tusks. A painted coconut. A miniature skeleton with Danny’s face glued to the skull. A stuffed lizard whose species was a mystery to me.
Danny cleared files from a chair so that I could sit. Before my arrival, he’d laid out Spider Lowery’s file. Though familiar with the contents, we started there.
Working through the documents reminded me how much time I’d spent squinting at smeared carbon copies of forms, faded message traffic, and illegible script. Spider’s record review took an hour.
“You’ve been swabbed?”
Danny referred to the DNA sampling required of anyone entering the lab. No big deal, a Q-tip swipe of the inner cheek. Specimens are kept on file should contamination become an issue with an ID.
We crossed to the glass wall and Danny placed his badge over the sensor. The door clicked. We entered and wove through a maze of tables, some empty, some holding bones, toward a man in a red sweater seated at a desk at the back of the room.
The Lumberton remains had been accessioned as 2010-37. Danny presented his badge and requested the case by number.
Red Sweater rose and pressed a button. Floor-to-ceiling shelving opened and he disappeared down a row. Moments later he reappeared with a long, white cardboard box.
I knew the routine. The remains would be assigned a specific table where they would be allowed to remain for thirty days. The transaction would be entered into the computer tracking system, and the location of the bones would be diagrammed on a blackboard on one wall of the room.
Danny swiped his badge, collected the box, and moved to the designated table. I followed.
We both gloved, then Danny gestured me the honors.
I lifted the cover.
The remains were as I remembered, skull shattered, lower arms and hands and both feet missing, cortical surfaces darkly mottled and covered by pink-white mold and charred muck.
Working silently, Danny and I reassembled what was left of the man so long buried in North Carolina. Skull. Torso. Arms. Legs.
When the skeleton was arranged anatomically, we ran inventory, with Danny naming bones and me recording. Though I’d done a preliminary assessment at Sugarman’s, his would be the analysis of record.
Inventory finished, he went through the same steps I’d followed at the funeral home. With the same findings.
The remains were those of a male who died between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. Race remained elusive.
“Nothing to exclude Spider Lowery,” Danny said.
“And nothing to positively ID him.”
“Teeth are out.”
“We might spot root fragments when we X-ray. Or we could compare alveolar configurations.” I referred to the shape of the tooth sockets.
Danny shook his head. “The Form 603 is strictly narrative.”
Danny meant Lowery’s military dental record, typically containing diagrams, called odontograms, X-rays, and information about the patient’s care, identity of dentist, when, where, et cetera.
“Why no X-rays?” I asked. “Wasn’t every soldier given a dental exam at induction?”
“Theoretically, yes. If not at his or her induction center, maybe in boot camp, maybe in-country, at Bien Hoa Air Base, for example. But it didn’t always happen.”
“You’re suggesting Lowery slipped through the cracks?”
“Maybe. Here’s another possibility. Troops reporting to a new duty station often carried their own records with them. It helped with in-processing if medical and dental information arrived at the same time as the soldier.”
I saw where Danny was going. “But that didn’t always happen either.”
“No. Sometimes paperwork caught up later. Maybe Lowery’s records arrived in Vietnam after he was killed and his body was shipped home.”
“Any way to tell from the file if X-rays ever existed?”
“Not really. Say a soldier had a periapical or a bitewing done. The X-rays might have been attached to the folder using a two-hole punch. Or they might have been placed into a small manila envelope and added to the file loose. Either way, the films could be lost or misplaced.”
Sudden ominous thought. “Or deliberately removed?”
Something flicked in Danny’s eyes, vanished before I could read it.
“Meaning?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I suppose.” Danny lifted and gently scraped at a skull fragment, much as I’d done at Sugarman’s. “Fire damage.”
“Consistent with the reported chopper crash,” I said. “As are the missing hands and feet and the cranial fractures.”
“The biological profile, the trauma, the timing, the body recovery location. It all fit. Thus the ID at Tan Son Nhut back in sixty-eight.”
“Johnson, Dadko, and some writing-challenged medical officer shipped this guy home as Spider Lowery.”
“The medical officer’s name was Weickmann.”
“You could read that scrawl?”
“Years of practice.”
“Whatever. Prints from my Quebec floater say they were wrong.”
“Nam was exploding in sixty-eight. The system was overwhelmed.”
Early in the war, a single facility processed all Americans killed in Southeast Asia. When fatalities soared in the spring of ’67, it became apparent that the status could no longer be quo. Cramped and located in a congested part of the base, the Tan Son Nhut mortuary was inefficient, inadequate, and a hazard to health.
As a result, a second mortuary was opened at the Da Nang Air Base. Beginning in June 1967, remains recovered in the I Corps tactical zone went to Da Nang.
But the Tet offensive shot numbers into the biosphere. In February 1968, the two mortuaries processed roughly three thousand sets of remains, a total greater than for any comparable period to that point.
The upshot was the construction of a modern twenty-table facility on a new patch of ground at Tan Son Nhut. The new facility became operational in August 1968.
Spider Lowery’s Huey crashed at Long Binh in January of that year, shortly after Tet and eight months before the revamped Tan Son Nhut mortuary came online.
In the chaos of war, a mistake had been made.
At a little past one Danny and I took a break. Wanting to accomplish as much as possible that day, we passed up a nice lunch at the Officers Club or the Mamala Bay Golf Course in favor of a quick pizza at the BX. The food hole. There’s a reason for the nickname.
While driving back to the CIL, I called Katy. To describe her as unhappy would be like saying Nixon was a bit bummed by the tapes.
By two fifteen Danny and I were back with 2010-37. For the next two hours we scraped desiccated flesh and fabric from bone, a job I find excruciatingly tedious. And the smell is revolting.
Adipocere is a waxlike substance formed by the hydrolysis of fat during decomposition. I’d about had it when a small chunk of the stuff dropped into the sink from the fragment of upper jaw I was scrubbing. I watched water eddy around it, swirling bits away and down into the drain.
I shifted my gaze to the newly exposed facial architecture. None of the cheekbone survived, and the zygomaxillary suture was unremarkable.
I rotated the fragment.
The upper palate was broad, its intersecting sutures largely unfused.
I inserted my probe into one of the empty tooth sockets. Another crumb of adipocere popped free. My eyes followed its flight path into the sink.
The original chunk had now been reduced by half. I was returning my attention to the maxilla when something caught my attention, more a glint of light than a visual impression.
Reaching down, I scooped the remainder of the original chunk onto my glove. When I poked, the thing split into two halves.
An object lay glistening in my glove.
“WHATCHA GOT?” DANNY NOTICED ME STARING AT MY PALM.
I extended my hand.
Whipping off his glasses, Danny brought his nose to within inches of my find. Seconds passed.
“Flip her over.”
I turned the thing with my probe. “Look familiar?”
“Think it’s something?”
“Looks like metal. Where was it?”
“Enveloped in adipocere packing the basicranium, below the palate.”
“M’lady’s penchant for shiny things pays off. Let’s scope it.”
We did, at increasing powers of magnification.
The object was roughly five millimeters long by three millimeters wide by a millimeter or so thick, and appeared to be made of gold. Its shape was irregular, with a lopsided glob on one side and two tapering projections on the other.
“Looks like a duck with a wide-open beak.”
The image didn’t work for me.
I rotated the thing ninety degrees. Danny took another turn squinting through the eyepiece.
“Now it’s a mushroom with two pointy stems.”
I looked. “I can see that. Any idea what it is?”
“A chip from a filling or crown?”
“Ehhh.” Danny scrunched his face.
“Looks too thin and too flat.”
Danny’s eyes flicked to the wall clock. Mine followed.
Five forty-five. I hadn’t noticed the lab grow quiet. Or realized we were now alone.
“Quitting time?” I asked, knowing the answer.
Though Danny had been married almost twenty years now, he and his wife still coochie-cooed like newlyweds. At times I found their giddy-gooey-bliss act irritating as hell. Mostly I envied them.
“Quitting time.” Sheepish grin. Or horny. Or hungry. “Aggie’s making Salisbury steak.”
Danny sealed the mushroom-duck thing inside a baggy. Back in his office, he locked it in a desk drawer.
“Tomorrow we can pick Craig’s brain.” Craig Brooks was one of the three CIL dentists.
After removing our lab coats we headed out, Danny toward beef and gravy in Waipio, I toward gloom in Lanikai Beach.
Katy was on a lounge chair by the pool. I took a moment to observe her through the sliding glass door.
Katy wasn’t listening to her iPod, talking on her cell phone, surfing or blogging with her laptop. No book or magazine lay in her lap. Dressed in the same tank and drawstring pants she’d worn the night before, she simply sat staring out to sea.
In a word, she looked miserable.
Again I was swept by a feeling of helplessness. I knew only time would ease my daughter’s pain, and that a week had yet to pass since news of Coop’s death. I also knew the delivery of that news had been cold and impersonal.
Steeling myself, I exited to the lanai.
“How you doing, tough stuff?” A childhood endearment.
“Ready for the play-offs.” Flat.
“Where did you go today?” Dropping into the chair beside Katy’s.
“What did you do?”
“Got any thoughts on dinner?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You have to eat.”
“No I don’t.”
Score one for Katy.
“I’m sure there’s something in the kitchen that I could throw together. Danny bought out the market.”
“Or I could drive into Kailua for more sushi.”
“Look, Mom. I know you mean well. But the thought of food revolts me right now.”
You have to eat. I didn’t say it.
“Anything I can do to perk you up? A little Groucho?” I raised my brows and flicked an imaginary cigar.
“Just let me be.”
“I feel so bad.”
“Not bad enough to stay home.”
It felt like a slap. My expression must have said so.
“I’m sorry.” Katy’s hand fluttered to her mouth, froze, as though uncertain of the purpose of its trip. “I didn’t mean that.”
“It’s just . . .” Her fingers curled. “I feel such rage and there’s nowhere to point it.” Her fist pounded one knee. “At dumb-ass Coop for going to Afghanistan? At the Taliban for gunning him down? At God for letting it happen? At myself for giving a shit?”
Katy swiveled toward me. Though dry-eyed, her face was pallid and tight.
“I know anger and self-pity are pointless and counterproductive and self-destructive and blah blah blah. And I’m really trying to pull out of my funk. I am. It’s just that, right now, life sucks.”
“Do you? Have you ever had someone just blasted off the face of the earth? Someone you really cared about?”
I had. My best friend, Gabby. Cops I’d worked with and cared about. Eddie Rinaldi in Charlotte. Ryan’s partner, Jean Bertrand. I didn’t say it.
“Look, Mom. I know you’ve come here to do a job. And I know Coop’s death is not your fault. But you’re gone all day, then you get back all sunshine and Hallmark compassion.” She threw up both hands. “I don’t know. You’re in the zone so you take the hit.”
“I’ve taken worse.”
Turning from me, Katy fidgeted with the tie at her waist, finger twisting and retwisting the string.
Overhead, palm fronds clicked in the breeze. Down at the shore, gulls cawed.
Katy was right. I’d dragged her thousands of miles, then dumped her in a place she knew nothing about. Yes, she was twenty-four, a big girl. But right now she needed me.
The familiar old dilemma knotted my gut. How to balance motherhood and job?
My mind flailed for solutions.
Work alternating days at the CIL? Half days?
Impossible. I’d come to Honolulu at JPAC expense. And Plato Lowery was anxious for an answer.
Take Katy to the CIL with me?
Definitely a bad idea.
I started to speak. “Maybe I could—”
“No, Mom. You have to go to work. I shouldn’t have said what I did.”
“It helps to stay busy.” Gently.
I braced for incoming. Didn’t happen.
“Yes,” Katy said. “It does.”
Suggestions leaped to mind.
No! yipped a wise sector of gray cells. Give her time. Space.
Rising, I hugged Katy’s shoulders. Then I went inside, changed to shorts, and strolled down to the beach.
The sun rode low, streaking the horizon and ocean tangerine and pink. The sand felt warm and soft underfoot, the breeze feathery on my skin.
Walking the water’s edge, childhood memories popped into my brain. Summers at Pawleys Island. My sister, Harry. Gran. My mother, Katherine Daessee Lee.
Triggered by the setting and my recent encounter with Katy, synapses fired images and emotions.
My mother’s eyes, green like my own. Sometimes radiant. Sometimes cool, refusing to engage.
A child’s confusion.
Which mother today?
A woman driven by social pretension? The newest spa, the trendiest restaurant, the charity event receiving current social column ink.
A woman in seclusion? Shades drawn, bedroom door locked, sobbing or silence within.
How I hated Daisy’s frantic party mode. How I hated her withdrawal into her lilac-scented cell.
Gradually, closed doors and distant eyes became the norm.
As a child I’d loved my mother fiercely. As an adult I’d finally posed the raw question to myself: Did my mother ever love me?
And I’d faced the answer.
I didn’t know.
My mother loved my baby brother, Kevin. And my father, Michael Terrence Brennan. I was eight when both died, one of leukemia, one drunk at the wheel. The dual tragedies changed everything.
But did they? Or had Daisy always been mad?
Same answer. I didn’t know.
I wanted a closeness with my daughter that I’d been denied with my mother. No matter the irrationality of Katy’s behavior or the unreasonableness of her need, I’d be there for her.
The cadence of the waves triggered no revelations.
Katy was gone from the lanai when I arrived back at the house. She appeared as I was washing my feet at the outdoor shower.
“You’re right. Moping is stupid.”
“Tomorrow I’ll go parasailing.”
“Sounds good.” It didn’t. I preferred Katy safely grounded, not dangling a hundred feet in the air.
“Or I’ll sign up for one of those helicopter rides over a volcano.”
“Mm.” I turned off the faucet.
“Listen, Mom. I really am grateful for this trip. Hawaii is awesome.”
“And I’m grateful you’re here.”
“I took a dozen shrimp from the freezer.”
“Fire up the barbie?” Delivered in my very best Aussie.
Katie raised a palm. I high-fived it.
One dozen turned into two.
BIRDIE WAS CHASING A VERY LARGE DOG ALONG A VERY WHITE beach. The dog wore an elaborate apparatus with lines rising to a bright red parachute high in the sky.
Katy dangled upside down from the chute, long blond hair waving in the wind. Sunlight glinted from tears on her cheeks.
A gull screeched.
The dog stopped.
Katy’s chute deflated and she drifted earthward.
Fast. Too fast.
The gull’s screeching morphed to a very loud buzzing.
I raised one semiconscious lid.
The room was dark. The bedside table was vibrating.
I fumbled for my BlackBerry and clicked on.
Don Ho was singing “Aloha Oe.”
“How is my sweet rose of Maunawili?” A male voice. Not Don’s.
Another twist to the dream?
No. My eyes were open. One managed to drag the clock face into focus.
“Do you know what time it is here?” Seemingly a frequent opener on calls to Hawaii.
“Redo the math, Ryan.”
“Give me a hint.”
“There’s a five in the answer.” Technically, two. The little green digits said 5:59.
“That means I woke you.”
“I had to get up anyway to answer the phone.”
“That line is ancient.”
“It’s way too early for anything original.”
“Thought you’d want to know. Floating Florence gave up some DNA.”
“Nightingale? As in nurse? The Hemmingford corpse? Your lab pals did STR. Whatever that is.”
“Short. Tandem. Repeat.”
“Sorry. Too. Rarefied.”
“Come on, Ryan. STR has been around since the nineties.”
“So has cloning. Still no one gets it.”
“It’s standard for most forensic DNA labs.”
Ryan was smart, genius at some things. Science was not one of them. Silence meant I was sailing right over his head.
Great. Biology 101 at dawn.
“Each DNA molecule is made up of two long chains of nucleotide units that unite down the middle like rungs on a ladder. Each nucleotide unit is composed of a sugar, a phosphate, and one of four bases, adenine, cytosine, guanine, or thymine. A, C, G, or T. It’s the sequencing of the bases that’s important. For example, one person can be CCTA at a certain position, while another is CGTA. With STR, four or five sequence repeats are analyzed.”
“Shorter repeat sequences can suffer from problems during amplification. Also, some genetic disorders are associated with trinucleotide repeats. Huntington’s disease, for example. Longer repeat sequences are more vulnerable to degradation. And they don’t amplify by PCR as well as shorter sequences.”
“Ten words or less, how does STR work?”
“I’ll go twenty, that’s my top.”
“First, you extract nuclear DNA from your sample. Next, you amplify specific polymorphic regions—”
“Flag on the field. Jargon violation.”
“Regions on the genome where there is variability. You amplify, you know, make more copies. Then you determine how many repeats exist for the STR sequence in question.”
I was oversimplifying for Ryan’s benefit. It seemed to be working.
“Once you’ve got the genetic fingerprint from your suspect or unknown, in this case the Hemmingford floater, you compare it to that of a family member, right?” he asked.
“Even better, you compare a sample from your suspect or unknown to another sample taken from him or her before death. Extracted or saved baby teeth. Saliva from a toothbrush. Mucus on a tissue.”
“So our next step is to swab Plato’s cheek or find Spider’s own snot.”
“You said it.”
“With much more élan.”
“But similar connotation. Think Daddy will agree to open wide and say ahh?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s doubtful he’s going to like the results.”
“Very,” Ryan agreed.
For several seconds empty air hummed across the line. Then Ryan asked about Katy.
“She’s still pretty bummed,” I said.
“You never mentioned a boyfriend. Did you know she was head over heels for the guy?”
Absence? Inattentiveness? Whatever the reason, my ignorance spoke of remoteness.
“She’ll come around.”
“Yes. How’s Lily?”
“Attending group and keeping appointments with her psychologist. Her color’s better and I think she’s gained a little weight.”
“Don’t tell her that.” An attempt at levity. It fell flat.
“The kid’s saying all the right things. But I don’t know.” Ryan drew a deep breath, exhaled. “Sometimes I get the feeling she’s just going through the motions. Telling me what she thinks I want to hear.”
Not good. Ryan’s instincts were usually dead-on.
“And she and her mother are like fire and ice. Lutetia’s trying, but patience is not one of her strengths. Lutetia says something, Lily overreacts, Lutetia comes down hard, they both explode, and I end up dealing with the aftermath.”
“Sounds like they need a break from each other.”
“You’ve got that right. But I can’t have Lily living with me. At this stage of rehab she needs someone around all the time. I’m away most days, often at night. You know.”
“Fly out here.” Spoken before follow-up from the wiser brain cells.
“Bring Lily to Hawaii. Katy’s alone all day. They’re close enough in age to be company for each other.”
Twenty-four. Nineteen. From my perspective it looked like a match.
“You three can play tourist while I work. Then we’ll party at night.”
“You’ve banked, what, ninety years of unused vacation time? All it will cost you is a couple of tickets. There’s plenty of room here.”
I pressed on, though already I was questioning the wisdom of the whole idea.
“A change of climate could help. Lily was born in the Abacos. Maybe Hawaii will remind her of home.”
“Lily’s court agreement prohibits her leaving the province.”
“Puh-leeze. She’d be with you, a sworn officer. Surely you know a judge who would bless that.”
There was a very long pause.
“I’ll call you back.”
Danny wasn’t there when I arrived at the CIL. But Dimitriadus was. With a frosty nod, he disappeared into his office.
Aloha to you, too, sunshine.
Donning a lab coat, I picked up where I’d left off with 2010-37. Under the tap, a fragment grudgingly yielded a suture, a squiggly line where the occipital bone had once met the left parietal bone at the back of the skull.
I scraped gently with my toothbrush. Detail emerged.
Son of a gun.
Remembering the maxilla, I returned to the table.
Son of a gun.
I was back at the sink when Danny’s laugh rang out, an unbridled soprano, infectious as typhoid.
Minutes later, Danny strode toward me. At his side was a giraffe of a man, tall and sinewy, with elephantine ears.
“Good to see you, Tempe.” Craig Brooks, a CIL dentist, shot out a hand.
“Good to see you,” I said as we shook.
“Danny claims you’ve discovered the lost Dutchman mine.”
“Hardly.” Another girly giggle. “Tempe’s find is the size of a mite.”
“Let’s check it out.”
Craig spent a long time at the scope, positioning and repositioning our mushroom-duck thing, adjusting and readjusting the two snake lights. Finally he sat back.
“Danny boy’s right. The material is gold.”
“Part of a filling or cap?” I asked.
“I’ve seen a lot of melted dental work, and this doesn’t fit the pattern. There’s some distortion due to heat exposure, but that’s localized along the rounded edge. The rest of the shape looks original. And it doesn’t track right for either a restoration or crown.”
“First, it’s far too thin. Second, one surface is smooth but has some rounded relief. The other surface is roughened but flat.”
“So what is it?” I asked.
Craig raised and lowered his shoulders. “Beats me.” He rose. “But I’ll think about it.”
When Craig had gone I told Danny I had something to show him. He asked if it could wait ten minutes. He needed to place a call before nine.
I was walking toward the sink when my mobile sounded. I checked the LCD screen, expecting Ryan’s number. The line was local, but not the Lanikai beach house.
Curious, I clicked on.
“ALOHA.” WHEN IN ROME, RIGHT?
“Aloha. Dr. Temperance Brennan, please.” The voice suggested years of unfiltered cigarettes. I was unsure if it was male or female.
“This is she.”
“Hadley Perry here.”
Great. A unisex name. Pulling back a chair beside 2010-37, I sat.
“M.E.” Medical examiner.
That Hadley Perry. Though we’d never met, I knew Perry by reputation. Chief medical examiner for the city and county of Honolulu for over two decades, the woman’s antics were legendary and the press ate them up.
On one occasion Perry rolled blanket-covered bodies into her facility’s parking lot to protest crowding at the morgue. Turned out the gurneys held inflatable dolls. Another time she issued death certificates for two state senators. Said their opposition to increased funding for her office was clear proof of brain death.
“Hope you don’t mind me calling your private number.”
“Of course not.” Actually, I did. But curiosity ruled.
“I’m told you’re the best forensic anthropologist in the Western Hemisphere.”
A warning bell tinkled.
Danny and I have a history of practical jokes running back decades. Five days on his turf, and so far no prank.
OK, buckaroo. Bring it on.
“Yes, ma’am. That would be me.”
A beat. Then, “I have a booger of a case. I’d like your help.”
“A humpback with implants?”
“A transgender ne-ne-?”
“It’s a homicide.”
“A garroted gecko?” I was on a roll.
“I think the victim is young and male, but can’t be sure. Few parts were recovered.” Grim-toned. I had to admit. The woman was good.
“What parts? Gizzard? Wing?”
I was grinning at my own hilarity when Danny appeared.
“Nice try,” I mouthed, pointing at the phone.
“Hadley Perry,” I mouthed again, rolling my eyes.
Danny looked genuinely confused.
“Please hold a second.” I pressed the handset to my chest. “Gosh, there’s a woman on the line claiming to be Hadley Perry.”
“Must be Hadley Perry.”
“It’s not going to work.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Payback for showing that slide at AAFS.” I’d Photoshopped Danny’s head onto an orangutan wearing a Speedo and flippers. “I’m wise to you.”
“I will get you. Take that to the bank. But adequate revenge will require time and intricate planning.”
“Come on, Danny. It bombed.”
“Your little farce.”
“Having a caller pretend to be the chief ME.”
“Wrong guy.” Danny placed spread fingers on his chest. “Perry scares the crap out of me.”
I felt a tiny flame spark in my gut.
“Are you serious?”
“Are you still there, Dr. Perry?”
“We have a terrible connection. May I phone you back?”
She provided the number.
I clicked off and dialed.
“Aloha. Honolulu medical examiner.”
“Dr. Brennan returning Dr. Perry’s call.” Face burning.
Perry picked up right away.
“I’m sorry. What I was hearing didn’t make sense. Lord knows what was coming through on your end.” Nervous laugh. “This phone jumbles sound when the signal gets weak.” Dear God, I was rambling. “How can I help you?”
Perry repeated what she’d said earlier. Homicide, body parts, young male, help.
“Can’t someone local assist you?”
I waited. She didn’t elaborate.
“There are board-certified anthropologists at the CIL.” I glanced at Danny. Though he was trying hard to look focused on 2010-37, I knew he was listening.
“And they often help me out, Dr. Brennan. This time I’m asking you.”
“I’m in Honolulu for only a very short time.”
“I know that.”
Oh? I leaned back in my chair.
“Dr. Perry, I’m committed to resolving a situation at the CIL.”
“That’s military. They quit early. You can work with me after hours.”
Choosing a long bone, Danny moved to the sink.
“You’re the best. You said so yourself.”
“I was joking.”
“I’m asking this as a personal favor.”
Far down the line I heard a barely audible voice, like a ghost speaking in some parallel dimension.
Or a nameless victim crying out for justice.
I glanced at Danny. At 2010-37.
“I’ll come by at five thirty,” I said. “But only for an hour.”
After disconnecting, I glanced at Danny. His shoulders had the tautness of someone who is angry or afraid.
“I assume the two of you don’t get along.”
“Let’s just say Hadley Perry won’t be dining at my house real soon. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help her.”
“Do you want to tell me?”
“I don’t like her, it’s mutual, we’ll leave it at that.”
Danny strode to the table. I followed. He added his freshly scrubbed tibia to the man from Lumberton.
For a moment we both stared at the half-cleaned skeleton.
“What did you want to show me?” Danny asked.
“It may be nothing.” I scooped up the occipital fragment. “Look at the suture.” I pointed to the squiggly line.
“Complex, with lots of accessories.” Danny meant tiny islands of bone trapped within the suture.
I passed him the chunk of maxilla that had produced the mushroom-duck thing.
“Broad palate. Straight transverse suture, not bulging up over the midline.” He viewed the bone face-on. “The zygomaxillary suture is angled, not S-shaped.” He rotated it so the missing nose would have pointed skyward. “Cheekbones probably had some flare.”
Danny’s eyes rolled up to mine.
“You’re thinking this guy might be Vietnamese?”
I shook my head. “You’re right those traits say Mongoloid ancestry. But others suggest Caucasoid. The high nasal bridge, the narrow nasal aperture, the moderately shaped skull, neither long and narrow nor short and broad.”
“So, mixed race?”
“European-Asian or European–Native American.”
“We had troops who would fit that bill. American Indians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Filipinos. Not many, but they were over there fighting for us.”
“What about the missing crew member? Did you learn if the fourth body was ever found?”
“What was the man’s name?”
“I’m still waiting for a response to my inquiry.”
For the rest of that day we teased charred tissue and moldy fabric from bone.
By five a fully cleaned skeleton lay on the table.
The exposed bone produced no breakthrough moment.
Honolulu’s medical examiner operates out of a curvilinear white structure on Iwilei Road just a short walk from Chinatown. Next door is the largest Salvation Army facility I have ever seen.
At precisely five thirty I pulled under an arch and into a small lot beside the building. Hadley Perry answered my buzz in person. The pictures I’d seen in the Honolulu Advertiser hardly prepared me.
Perry was a slim woman with disproportionately large breasts and a penchant for what Katy called “haute hooker” makeup. Her short black hair was gelled into spikes, several of which were fire engine red.
“Hadley Perry.” She shot out a hand.
I offered mine.
Perry’s grip could have molded forged steel.
“Thanks so much for coming.”
“I’m not sure I can help.” Wiggling my fingers to check for fractures.
“But you’ll give it the old one-two, eh?” Perry launched a punch to my biceps that really hurt. “Let’s have at it.”
Good Lord. Who was this woman?
I followed Perry through double doors down a polished tile corridor, resisting the urge to massage my throbbing muscle. Bypassing a large, five-table autopsy room, we entered a small chamber not unlike salle 4 at the LSJML. Glass-fronted cabinets, side counter, dissecting scope, hanging scale.
The stainless steel gurney held a plastic-covered mound. Small and lumpy, the shape looked wrong for a human being.
Wordlessly, we both donned aprons and gloves.
Like a waiter presenting the table d’hôte, Perry whipped off the sheeting.
I SWALLOWED HARD.
The remains consisted of five amorphous lumps and an eighteen-inch segment of human lower limb. The skin was puckered and celery green, the underlying tissue gray and textured like pot roast.
Stepping to the table, I bent for a closer look.
The severed leg was sparsely populated with short, dark hairs. Bones were visible deep in the flesh, a partial femur up, a partial tibia and fibula below. All three shafts terminated in jagged spikes. Bones, skin, and muscle were scored by gouges, cuts, and parallel slashes.
“It’s a knee, right?” Perry asked.
“Left. This came from the ocean?”
“Yeah. Check out the X-rays.”
Perry crossed to a double-tiered illuminator, flipped two switches, and tapped a film lying on the box’s horizontal surface. I joined her.
An object glowed white within a segment of flesh. Bean-sized, it looked like a cartoon whitecap.
“Shark tooth,” I said.
“Yeah. There are others.” A blue-lacquered nail jabbed two more films.
“You’re thinking death by shark attack?”
Perry waggled a hand. Maybe yes, maybe no. “I see no hemorrhage in the tissue.”
Dead hearts don’t pump. Bleeding at a trauma site usually means the victim was alive when injured. No blood usually means the hit was taken postmortem.
“Could the absence of hemorrhage be explained by immersion in salt water?”
“So the dismemberment could have resulted from postmortem scavenging.”
“I’ve seen it before.”
I scanned the films, each taken at a different angle. Like the knee, three other hunks of flesh contained portions of skeleton.
“That’s the pubic bone and a bit of ischium.” I indicated a plate showing part of the pelvic front.
“Good for sex?”
“Hardy fucking har.”
I braced for an arm-punch. Didn’t come.
“The V-shaped subpubic angle, blocky pubic body, and broad ischio-pubic ramus suggest male.”
“That’s a bit of iliac crest.” I pointed to a section of the curving upper border of a left pelvic half. “It’s only partially fused to the iliac blade. Assuming male gender, to be on the safe side, I’d say you’re looking at an age of sixteen to twenty-four.”
“That’s a portion of proximal femoral shaft, from just below the head and neck. Left, like the knee and pelvis.” I was pointing at a plate clipped to the light box’s vertical surface. My finger moved to the one beside it. “And that’s part of the left foot and ankle. Those are remnants of distal tibia, talus, and some smaller foot bones, I’d say the navicular and the third and second cuneiforms.”
“Can you get height from them?”
I considered. “No. I could do a statistical regression off measurements taken from the partial leg bones, but the range would be almost uselessly broad.”
“But you could say if the kid was very big or very small?”
“Yes. The muscle attachments suggest a robust build.”
“What about race?”
“No way. The skin appears pale, but that could be the result of postmortem bleaching or skin sloughing due to immersion in salt water.”
Human pigmentation is contained solely in the epidermis, the skin’s outer layer. Lose the epidermis, we all look Scandinavian, a fact often misinterpreted by those unaccustomed to seeing bodies recovered from water.
Perry knew that. I knew that she knew that. The answer was strictly reflex. My attention was focused on the remains.
Returning to the table, I examined each mass in turn. Then, “Where was this found?” I waved a hand over the grisly assemblage.
“Come on, I’ll loop you in.”
Degloving, Perry led me back up the corridor. We encountered only one person, an elderly Hawaiian with a bucket and mop. The man dropped his eyes when we passed. Perry did not acknowledge his presence.
The chief ME’s office looked like Danny Tandler’s on uppers. Files and papers occupied every horizontal surface—desktop, coffee table, chair seats, windowsill, file cabinets, floor. Books, magazines, and reprints teetered in stacks. Open journals lay with spines cracking under the weight of overlying issues.
The window was covered with cheap metal blinds. The walls were hung with photos of an impressively large black dog, probably a Lab. Other decorative touches included a hanging skeleton, a pair of conch shells, now repositories for rubber bands and paper clips, several ashtrays from Vegas, a fake fern, and a collection of plastic action figures whose getups and weapons meant nothing to me.
Perry gestured to the single uncluttered chair.
Circling the desk, my host dropped into one of those winged-meshy things designed for NASA missions to Mars.
“Nice pooch,” I said. Actually, the dog looked scruffy and mean. But Southern ladies are bred to show interest in strangers. The mechanic, the receptionist, the dry-cleaning lady. Doesn’t matter. Dixie daughters exude warmth to one and all.
Dr. Hadley Perry was not an exuder.
“Day before yesterday a couple of high schoolers were snorkeling in Halona Cove, between the Blowhole and Hanauma Bay. You know it?”
Setting for the famous Lancaster-Kerr kiss, Halona Cove was known to locals as From Here to Eternity Beach. The little inlet has soaring cliffs, killer waves, and very few tourists. Accessed only by a steep, rocky path, the spot is a favorite with local teens hoping to get more sand in their shorts than Deborah and Burt.
“Kids spotted something on the bottom, maybe twelve feet down, in one of the rock cuts. Brought it up, dimed nine-one-one when they realized their prize was a human knee.
“Cops called me. I ordered divers, went out there myself. The girl was still tossing chunks. The boyfriend was trying for macho, not pulling it off.”
Perry worked a way too colorful nail on her blotter, brushed the flotsam with the back of one hand.
“Divers searched for over two hours. What you just saw is what they collected.”
“Got any MPs fitting the profile?”
Perry lifted a printout and read.
“Anthony Simolini, date of birth December fourteenth, nineteen ninety-three. Haole.”
“Sorry. Yeah. Brown hair, brown eyes, five-eleven, a hundred and eighty-five pounds. On February second of this year, at approximately ten p.m., Simolini left a Zippy’s restaurant on the Kamehameha Highway in Pearl City. He was heading home but never showed. Kid’s a high school senior, big-deal athlete. Friends and family say no way he’s a runaway.
“Jason Black, date of birth August twenty-second, nineteen ninety-four. Blond hair, blue eyes, five-nine, a hundred and sixty pounds.”
“Haole,” I said.
“January twenty-seventh of this year, Black had a throw-down with his parents, stormed out of the home, vanished. Kid has a history of drug abuse, problems at school. Friends say he often talks about splitting for the mainland.
“Ethan Motohiro, date of birth May tenth, nineteen ninety-three. Asian, black hair, brown eyes, five-four, a hundred and twenty pounds. Last September Motohiro set off to circle the island by bike. A motorist saw him on the Kalanianaole Highway near the entrance to Makapu’u Point, probably on the seventh. That was the last sighting.”
“Makapu’u Point is close to Halona Cove, right?”
“Yeah. Motohiro had a steady girlfriend, was an A student, planned on attending university.”
“Not the pattern for a runaway. Also, he may be too small. I think this kid was pretty big.”
Back to the printout.
“Isaac Kahunaaiole, date of birth July twenty-second, nineteen eighty-seven. Native Hawaiian, black hair, brown eyes, six-three, two hundred and seventy-five pounds. Worked night security at the Ala Moana Shopping Center, lived at home with his parents and four of six siblings. December twenty-second, two years back, Kahunaaiole boarded a bus for Ala Moana. Never showed up. Coworkers say he was cheerful, well liked, had a good work ethic.”
“Maybe. Size sounds right.”
“Four males sixteen to twenty-two. I suppose I could expand the age range. Or the time frame. I only went back two years.”
“Given the amount of soft tissue, I doubt this kid has been dead that long.”
Perry snorted. The sound was not pretty.
“A body drops deep enough, all rules about decomp fly out the window. Add sharks to the equation, forget it. I had a suicide once, a poet from Perth. People saw him jump off Makapu’u Point. Choppers got there within the hour. Sharks had already opened a soup kitchen. The guys in the chopper watched the bastards strip the body down to bone. A month later, I get a call. A fisherman found a segment of arm inside a shark belly.”
“The dead poet?”
“Yep. Still wearing his engraved watch. In there with him I found seven corn husks, an alarm clock, a Cutty Sark bottle, and the hind leg of a dog.”
Note to self: Research shark digestion.
“Hell, if this is murder, the kid could have been buried for a while. Or stashed in a freezer, then taken out and dumped.”
“Have you queried missing boats and planes?”
“One body was never recovered following the Ehime Maru collision.”
In 2001, a Los Angeles-class fast track submarine, the USS Greeneville, struck a Japanese fishing training boat, the Ehime Maru, just south of Honolulu. Thirty-five students and crew went down with the ship.
Later, the U.S. Navy raised the Ehime Maru from a depth of two thousand feet with most bodies still on board, and divers recovered additional victims. Thanks to the Honolulu ME, all but one crew member were identified.
“Unlikely,” I said.
“I agree,” she said.
I looked at Perry. She looked at me. From the hall, I heard the old man’s mop clank his bucket then smack the floor.
I glanced at my watch.
“Now what?” Perry ignored, or missed, the obvious message.
“When you’ve done all you can, taken photos, collected samples, et cetera, clean the bones. When they’re ready, call me.”
Pointedly, I gripped my briefcase in my right hand and held my keys in my left. Sorry, no fingers available for cracking.
Approaching Kailua Beach, South Kalaheo Avenue doglegs, crosses a bridge over Kaelepulu Stream as Lihiwai, and emerges on the other bank as Kawailoa.
Ryan called as I was entering the bridge. He wasted no time on chitchat.
“Plato Lowery is one obstinate bastard.”
“The old goat refuses to provide a DNA sample.”
“He gave no reason?”
“He says he doesn’t need one.”
Lowery was right. He didn’t.
As my mind groped for ideas, my foot eased off the gas. Behind me, a car horn blared. So much for the aloha attitude.
“Are there any other relatives?” I asked. “I thought Plato mentioned a cousin.”
“Not that we’ve found.”
The horn sounded again. My eyes flicked to the rearview mirror. A big-ass SUV was right on my bumper.
“The Robeson County sheriff was present when I did the exhumation in Lumberton. His name is Beasley. Call him, see if has any suggestions.”
“Worth a try.” Ryan’s tone conveyed little optimism.
I arrived home as the sun was flattening into the sea.
Katy’s mood had improved buckets since the previous day. So had her appetite. In fact, she was starving. Buzz’s Steakhouse was close, so we fired over there.
The Hawaiian gods were smiling. We scored a deck table and dined overlooking Kailua Beach. I ordered mahimahi. Katy chose teriyaki chicken.
As we ate, Katy described her day. She’d spent the morning in a helicopter, the afternoon sunning on Lanikai Beach.
Lots of blocker?
Skin cancer. Wrinkles. Blah. Blah. Blah.
“OK. Start at the beginning. How did you get to the chopper?”
“Took a bus. TheBus, it’s called here. I like that. Direct.”
“What did you see?”
“Downtown Honolulu, the harbor, some tower with a marketplace.”
“The Aloha Tower at Pier 9. One of the premier landmarks of the state of Hawaii.”
“The pilot mentioned that.”
“Since the twenties, that lighthouse has guided ships at sea and welcomed visitors and immigrants to Honolulu.”
“He mentioned that too. Compared it to the Statue of Liberty.”
“Fair analogy. What Lady Liberty does for New York City, the Aloha Tower does for Honolulu. For four decades it was the tallest structure in Hawaii.”
“The pilot also talked about shops and restaurants.”
“The Aloha Tower Marketplace opened in nineteen ninety-four. But that’s just one feature. The Hawaii Maritime Center is there, and the historic vessel Falls of Clyde. I read somewhere that Honolulu Harbor is the only harbor in the nation to combine a visitor attraction, retail and restaurant outlets, and working commercial harbor facilities in a single location.”
“I think they do that in Baltimore. My earphones were pretty buzzy. I missed a lot of the commentary. We also flew over something called the Punchbowl.”
The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. A final resting place for American soldiers. I didn’t say it.
“And we saw another lighthouse.”
“At Makapu’u Point?”
“I think so. And Mount Olomana. Cool name. Easy to remember.”
“That’s over here, on the windward side of the island.”
“The pilot said there was an awesome trail to the summit. I might try hiking it. And we overflew a place where some Hawaiian king won a battle to unite the islands. Didn’t catch his name or who he was fighting. But I’m guessing he won.”
“Nu’uanu Pali. Ready for some history?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“In seventeen ninety-five King Kamehameha I sailed from his home island of Hawaii, leading an army of about ten thousand soldiers. After conquering the islands of Maui and Molokai, he moved on to Oahu. The defenders of Oahu, led by Kalanikupule, became trapped at Nu’uanu Pali. Kamehameha drove more than four hundred of them over the cliff to their deaths.”
“Will that be on the quiz?”
For dessert we shared an order of cocolatta, a vanilla bean ice cream–coconut creation that filled us with awe. Our waiter, Fabio, provided instruction on topping the concoction with juice squeezed from fresh limes.
Yeah. Fabio. Bleached hair, unbuttoned shirt, puka beads and all.
Driving home we laughed until our sides hurt.
WEDNESDAY I WAS BACK AT THE CIL BY NINE.
Danny was in his office, hunched over his desk. He spun a wheelie with his chair when I entered.
“You look like one of those obnoxious smiley-face logos.”
I’d slept badly, awakened with bongos thumping in my head. The drive into Honolulu hadn’t helped.
“I feel happy.” Danny spread both arms and feet.
“And pretty, and witty, and gay?” Shoving aside journals, I dropped onto a love seat many years past its shelf life.
“Are we having a grumpy-pants day?”
“Did the ladies enjoy a hearty night out?”
“Katy downed the ten-gallon mai tai, not me.” Rubbing circles on my temples. “What brings such glee into your world?”
“I finally got the poop on the Huey crash.”
“The chopper transporting Spider Lowery from Long Binh?”
“The very one.”
“According to the REFNO, the fifth body was never recovered.”
Danny used the shortened version of “reference number.” REFNO files contain information on all military misadventures, including the names of those who died, those who survived, the location, the timing, the aircraft type, the artifacts recovered—all known facts concerning an incident.
“The missing crew member?”
“The maintenance specialist.”
“Do you have a name?”
Danny’s grin stretched so wide I thought his head might split and the top fall off, as in one of those Monty Python animation sequences. Maybe I was projecting.
Impatient, I gestured for more.
It took a moment for the import to worm through my pain.
“The guy was Latino?”
I shot upright. “Let me see.”
Danny handed me a fax. “IDPF to follow shortly, I’m told.”
The information was meager but telling.
“Spec 2 Luis Alvarez, maintenance specialist. Date of birth February twenty-eighth, nineteen forty-eight,” I read.
“Alvarez was a month shy of twenty when the chopper went down.”
“Five-nine, a hundred sixty-five pounds. Home of record, Bakersfield, California.”
I looked up.
“Alvarez is listed KIA/BNR.” Killed in action, body not recovered.
Danny nodded. “Here’s my take. Lowery was just out of jail, so the mortuary staff at Tan Son Nhut assumed the victim wearing no uniform insignia was him. The profile fit, the location, it all made sense. But they blew it. The burned corpse was really Alvarez.”
“If Alvarez was still MIA, why do you suppose they ruled him out?”
“You and I agree that 2010-37’s racial architecture is a mixed bag. Given body condition, the guys at Tan Son Nhut probably missed what we saw. Or maybe someone with little knowledge of bone noted only the more Caucasoid craniofacial features. Either way, they concluded that the guy was white.”
“I’ll bet the farm Alvarez’s records say Latino.”
“Dr. Brennan, I think we’ve done it.”
“Dr. Tandler, I think we have.”
“Oh, Cisco.” Danny raised a palm.
“Oh, Pancho.” I high-fived it.
We whooped. It hurt.
“Here’s what I don’t get.” Danny began swiveling his chair from side to side. “Alvarez ends up buried in North Carolina. Lowery ends up diddling himself in Quebec. How’s that roll?”
I had no explanation.
Seconds passed. Watching Danny loop back and forth started making me seasick.
I shifted my gaze to the desk. Remembered the gold whatsit locked in the drawer.
“Has Craig come up with any ideas on the duck-mushroom thing?”
“Not that he’s shared.”
“Now what?” I asked.
“Now we await the Alvarez file.”
“Reconstruct what’s left of the skull.”
That’s what we did. I did. Danny was busy with a case review meeting most of the morning.
As I maneuvered and glued fragments, a maelstrom of emotions swirled inside me. If we were right about the mix-up back in ’68, the Alvarez family would finally have closure. Plato would be forced to accept an altered reality.
So goes life. A positive for one, a negative for another.
Images elbowed for attention in my aching head. Plato leafing through photos in my car. Squinting in the sun at the Lumberton cemetery.
I wondered. I seemed to have his trust. Now, how to tell the old man that the grave at which he’d mourned all those years had never held his son?
I was squeezing Elmer’s on a hunk of frontal when a thought blindsided me.
My hands froze.
Spider Lowery was from Lumberton, North Carolina. Robeson County.
I pictured Plato.
The faces in his album.
The boy in the snapshot in Jean Laurier’s desk.
I returned to Danny’s office and checked Spider’s file.
Wherever a form queried race, a check marked the little box beside the word white. A handwritten note in the dental record described Lowery as “Cauc.” Caucasian.
I looked at the clock. Twelve forty.
I went to the kitchen and downed a yogurt and a granola bar. Popped a Diet Coke. Considered.
Returned to gluing.
Again and again I circled back to one simple truth.
People misrepresent when filling out forms. Men record themselves as taller. Women record themselves as slimmer, younger.
Not too late.
I punched a number into my BlackBerry. Area code 910.
Twelve rings, then the line went dead.
Clicking off, I entered a different set of digits. Though the lab was cool, sweat now beaded my brow.
“Sugarman’s Funeral Home,” a syrupy voice purred.
“Silas Sugarman, please. Temperance Brennan calling.”
“Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Orpheus and Eurydice? Meant to be soothing, the music only agitated me further.
“Dr. Brennan. What a pleasure. You’ve returned from Hawaii?”
“I’m calling from Honolulu.”
“How may I help you?”
“I’m in need of personal information on Spider Lowery.”
“Perhaps you should talk to Spider’s daddy.”
“Plato isn’t answering his phone.”
“I’ll do what I can.” Apprehensive. “Within the bounds of ethical constraints, of course.”
“Of course. Are the Lowerys Native American?”
Sugarman didn’t reply for so long I thought he’d found my question offensive. Or an invasion of privacy.
“You mean Indian?”
“Hell’s bells, little lady, most folks in Robeson County have a papoose or two up the old family tree. My own great-grandma was Indian, God rest her soul.”
“The Lowerys, sir?”
“Course they’ve got blood. Plato’s half Lumbee, his wife too, come from up the road in Pembroke.”
Sugarman referred to the Lumbee, a Native American group taking its name from the Lumber River.
Descended mainly from Cheraw and related Siouan speakers, the Lumbee have occupied what is now Robeson County since the eighteenth century. They’re the largest tribe in North Carolina, the largest east of the Mississippi River, and the ninth largest in the nation.
And perhaps the most disadvantaged.
The Lumbee were granted formal recognition as a tribe by North Carolina in 1885. Three years later they started pressing claims with the federal government for similar recognition. To date, they’d met with limited success.
In 1956, Congress passed a bill acknowledging the Lumbee as Indian, but denying them full status as a tribe. As a result, they are ineligible for the financial support and Bureau of Indian Affairs program services provided to officially recognized groups.
All forty-seven thousand are pretty cheesed off.
“—don’t take my meaning wrong.”
“Of course not.” I couldn’t wait to get off the phone. “Thank you so much.”
Danny was still in his case review meeting.
Damn. I was seriously jazzed.
Back to gluing fragments.
By the time Danny broke free I practically manhandled him into his office.
When I’d explained my misgivings, he checked Spider’s file as I had done.
“Mongoloid features. Alvarez was undoubtedly Latino. Lowery had Native American blood. So probably we’re back to square one. Your boy could be Lowery or Alvarez.”
“Fingerprints say Lowery died in Quebec.”
“Maybe the screwup belongs to the FBI, not to Tan Son Nhut.”
I thought for a moment.
“What if 2010-37 is neither?”
“Alvarez or Lowery.”
Danny’s brows shot up.
“Was anyone else BNR from the region where the Huey went down?”
“I could do a REFNO search using geographic coordinates. What do you think?”
“I think you dazzle,” I said.
“As do you.”
“Don’t forget.” Danny winked. “I’ve seen you naked.”
Heat flared across my face.
“How about I go back a month from the date 2010-37 was recovered?” Danny was once again all business.
“I should think that would do it, given the mortuary officer’s description of decomp.”
“Could take a while.”
“I’ll soldier on with the Elmer’s.”
Danny wasn’t kidding. It was 4:45 when he finally reappeared. One look told me that something was up.
“You got a hit?” I asked.
“No. But I found this.”
Danny waved a paper. I grabbed, but he held it beyond my reach.
“A decomposed body was recovered on August seventeenth, nineteen sixty-eight, less than a quarter mile from the site of the January Huey crash. The remains were processed through Tan Son Nhut. White male, midtwenties to midthirties. The deceased came stateside as case number 1968-979.”
“There is no and.”
“Was he identified?”
“Where are the bones?”
Danny strode toward Red Sweater, who was sitting at his desk. I watched as he requested the case. Red Sweater disappeared into the movable shelving.
Time passed. A lot.
Red Sweater reappeared carrying what looked like a very old box. The color was different and the cardboard corners looked scraped and worn.
Danny accepted the box, swiped his badge, and rejoined me. Together we moved to the designated table.
Questions winged in my brain.
Was Luis Alvarez Latino, as his name implied?
Was 2010-37 Luis Alvarez?
Was 1968-979 Luis Alvarez? If so, why weren’t Alvarez’s remains ID’ed back in August of ’68?
If 1968-979 turned out to be Alvarez, then who was 2010-37? And how did this man end up designated as Spider Lowery and shipped to Lumberton, North Carolina?
The Lowerys had Native American blood. Could 2010-37 be Spider after all?
Clearly the body shipped from Long Binh and the body in the pond in Hemmingford could not both be Spider Lowery.
Danny lifted the cover on the box holding 1968-979.
We both leaned in.
Our eyes met.
Reflected mutual shock.
THE SKULL WAS NESTLED IN ONE CORNER, WITH THE REST OF the skeleton packed above and around it. Every element was dappled yellow and brown. Nothing special. Exposure to sunlight bleaches bone. Contact with soil and vegetation darkens it.
It wasn’t the state of the remains that shocked us.
It was the object wedged behind an infolded flap of cardboard rimming the inside of the box.
“Is that a dog tag?” I asked.
“That shouldn’t be in there.”
“You think not?” Sarcasm not directed at me.
After wiggling the tag free, Danny whipped off his glasses, scrunched his eyes, and brought the small metal rectangle to his nose.
“Can you make out a name?” I asked.
“No.” He thumbnail-scratched one side, flipped the tag, scratched the other.
“There’s a thick accretion covering both surfaces. Let’s try some water.”
At the sink, Danny scrubbed the tag with a hard-bristle brush, then repeated the glasses-squinty-eye thing.
“If the raised lettering is abraded or squashed, usually I can dig out and read the indentation on the back. But this gunk’s like cement. Let’s give it a whirl in the sonicator.”
Sonicators are used to clean jewelry, optical parts, coins, watches, dental, medical, electronic, and automotive equipment. The gizmos rely on ultrasound, usually in the 15–400 kHz range. No rocket science. Using liquid cleanser, you just shake the crap out of whatever is dirty.
Danny placed the tag in the stainless steel basket, added a vinegar-water solution, and closed the cover. Then he set the timer.
We were both staring at the thing, pointlessly, when a thought occurred to me.
“Who was the last person to examine this case?” I asked.
Danny crossed to Red Sweater. He was explaining what he wanted when my BlackBerry pinged an incoming text.
Ants? A marching army?
Home shortly, I texted back.
Great. A new crisis.
???? I was clueless as to the basis of Katy’s current discontent.
Vacation over, she replied.
???? I repeated.
A minute passed with no response.
What the hell?
I called Katy’s cell.
Got voice mail.
Terrific. She’d turned off or was ignoring her phone.
I was clipping the BlackBerry onto my belt when Danny returned, his expression troubled.
“Dimitriadus,” he said. “Back in nineteen ninety-eight.”
“Could Dimitriadus have missed seeing the tag?”
“It might have been jammed way up under the lip of the box. When the cardboard loosened with age, it could have slid into view.” He didn’t sound convinced.
Danny removed the tag from the sonicator and returned to the sink for another go with the brush.
Seconds passed. A full minute.
Agitated by Katy’s texting, I almost snatched the tag from his hand.
At last, the glasses came off and the myopic eyes narrowed.
Danny rarely used profanity.
“What?” I asked.
Danny read aloud.
“Let me see.” I shot out a hand.
Danny yielded the tag.
He was right. The stamped info was easier to discern as an indentation.
I reversed the letters and digits in my mind.
John Charles Lowery
477 38 5923
A pos Bapt
Did Baptists commonly have A positive blood?
Inane, but that’s the first question that formed in my mind.
“That’s a Social Security number, right?”
Danny nodded. “The military made the switch from service numbers sometime in the sixties.”
“This can’t be our John Lowery.” I knew as I said it that I was wrong. But what were the chances?
We hurried to Danny’s office.
Pulled Spider’s file.
The SS number belonged to John Charles Lowery from Lumberton, North Carolina. Spider.
But Spider Lowery died in Quebec.
Forty years after crashing in Long Binh.
Sweet Mother Mary, could the situation possibly grow more confused?
“Shall we lay the guy out?” Danny’s voice held little enthusiasm.
My eyes flicked to my watch.
I was anxious to get home to Katy. And I wanted to learn whether Ryan had found an alternate source of DNA for Spider.
“Let’s do it first thing tomorrow.”
“It’s a date.”
“You’re on, big guy.” I mimicked Danny’s earlier wink. “But we both keep our clothes on.”
I called out, explored.
Katy was not in the house.
At the pool.
On the lanai.
I found no note explaining her whereabouts.
I strolled down to the beach.
I was changing to shorts when a door slammed.
The cadence of conversation drifted to my room. Voices, one male, one female, not my daughter.
Had Katy made friends?
“She’s gone for a bike ride,” the male voice called out.
Katy’s texts now made sense.
Had I asked her opinion?
I was half asleep, had acted on impulse.
Bonehead move, Brennan.
Had I given her a heads-up?
I’d had none myself.
Slipping on sandals, I hurried downstairs.
Ryan’s shirt featured turquoise bananas and lavender palms. His board shorts were apricot and had Billabong scrawled across the bum. Add flip-flops, Maui Jims, a “Hang Loose” cap, and a two-day stubble. You get the picture. Miami Vice meets Hawaii Five-O.
Lily held a string-handled shopping bag in each hand. By joint effort, her miniskirt and tube top covered maybe twenty inches of her torso. Ninety-inch wedge sandals, Lolita shades, maraschino lips.
“Aloha, madame.” Ryan crushed me with a bear hug. “Comment ça va?”
“I’m good.” Freeing myself, I turned to Lily. “How was your flight?”
Lily shrugged one very bare shoulder.
“I hope it’s OK that we just showed up,” Ryan said.
“How did you find us?”
Ryan grinned and flashed his brows.
I knew his meaning. “You’re a detective. You detect.”
“Katy seemed a bit flustered at seeing us,” Ryan said.
“I may have forgotten to mention your arrival.”
Rolling mascara-laden eyes, Lily threw out one hip.
“Everything happened so last-minute, the judge granting permission, booking seats, racing to Dorval,” Ryan said. “In all the rush, I forgot to charge my cell. Damned if it didn’t die at the airport.”
“They do that,” Lily said.
“Did Katy get you settled?” I asked.
“She did. I’m down, Lily’s in the spare bedroom up. This place is killer, by the way.”
“Can I go?” Lily. Not whiny, but close.
Ryan looked an apology my way.
I glanced at my watch. Six thirty. “Katy should be back any minute.” Please, God. “How about we meet at seven thirty and head out for dinner?”
“My treat,” Ryan said.
“No way,” I said.
“I insist,” he said.
“Katy can hurt you,” I said. “I think she checks the right-hand column, then orders the highest-priced item on the menu.”
“That’s why God gave us credit cards.” Ryan smiled and tapped his back pocket.
The choice of restaurant involved stimulating dialogue. Lily wanted steak. Katy was avoiding red meat. Katy craved fish. Lily was over her quota on mercury. Katy suggested Thai. Too spicy. Lily proposed Indian. Katy wasn’t in the mood.
We compromised on Japanese.
During dinner, neither Katy nor Lily was overtly rude, but icicles could have formed on our table. Back at Lanikai, each went straight to her room.
Ryan and I shared a drink on the lanai, Perrier for me, Big Wave Golden Ale for him.
Ryan apologized for Lily’s insolence. She’d resisted making the trip. He’d insisted, gotten no support from Lutetia. He suspected a love interest, perhaps a man from Lily’s drug rehab group. Or, worse, from her past as a user.
I explained that Katy was still dejected over Coop’s death, but that she seemed to be on the mend.
We agreed that our daughters were champs at the use of the sugar-coated dig. And that my sisterhood-bonding therapy did not look promising.
I brought Ryan up to speed on developments at the CIL. The Mongoloid craniofacial traits of 2010-37. Spider Lowery’s Native American ancestry. Luis Alvarez, the maintenance specialist who went down with Spider in ’68. 1968-979, the decomposed body found near Long Binh eight months after the crash. Spider Lowery’s dog tag in 1968-979’s box.
Ryan filled me in on developments in Montreal. And Lumberton. Turned out my suggestion about Beasley, though a good one, was nonproductive. The sheriff was cooperative but, to date, had offered nothing of value.
Listening to Ryan describe his exchange with the sheriff triggered a Ping! moment. A comment of Plato’s during our scrapbook conversation.
“Ryan, listen. Spider’s mother died of kidney failure five years ago. It’s a long shot, but maybe the hospital where she was treated still has some samples on file, you know, a path slide or something. And Spider had a brother who was killed a couple years before that.”
“A long shot is better than no shot at all. I’ll call first thing tomorrow, ask Beasley to poke around.”
Ryan proposed taking Katy and Lily to Pearl Harbor the following day. I wished him luck.
At eleven, we too retired to our separate rooms.
Through my wall, I heard Lily talking on her cell.
THE SUNSHINE SISTERS WERE STILL SLEEPING WHEN I ENTERED the kitchen at eight the following morning. Ryan was lacing on Nikes for a run on the beach. The plan was that he and our daughters would spend the day at Pearl Harbor, visiting the USS Arizona monument and touring the USS Missouri battleship and the USS Bowfin submarine. I wished him luck in dealing with the dim and murky realm of female resentment. Then I was off to the CIL. I thought of the dog tag the whole drive. It just made no sense.
Dimitriadus was on my bumper as I turned in at JPAC. We crossed the lot together. In silence. I wondered how an examiner of unidentified bones could miss a dog tag in a box. Ten feet from the building, he accelerated his pace and shot inside, letting the door slam in my face.
Last night, Lily’s cold shoulder. This morning, Dimitriadus. I was beginning to feel like the class pariah.
Danny was in his office.
“Dimitriadus is acting like I killed his puppy.”
“Come in.” Danny’s smile faded. “Close the door.”
Puzzled, I did.
“We’re cutting Dimitriadus loose.”
“Jesus. The guy’s been here, what, twelve years? Why?”
“A number of reasons. Most recently, he failed his ABFA exam again.” Danny referred to the American Board of Forensic Anthropology examination for certification, a credential essential for qualification in the field.
“The dog tag?”
“The decision was made before that came up, so no.”
“What will he do?”
Danny spread both hands. Who knows?
“That info is for your ears only. So far only Dimitriadus, Merkel, you, and I know.”
A beat passed.
“Today’s good news is that J-2 has Alvarez’s IDPF.”
J-2, the joint command records section, has access to information on deceased personnel going back to World War I.
“I was just about to walk over and pick it up. Jackson asked about you. Come along, make the man’s day.”
“Corporal Jackson? The guy who convinced everyone the phone lines were scheduled for cleaning by a steam blast, and that all handsets had to be sealed in plastic bags for an hour?”
“It’s Sergeant Jackson now.”
“He’s been here a long time.”
“He’s just been reassigned back, actually.”
“I no longer have clearance to J-2.”
“Follow me, little squaw.”
Danny and I took the corridor past the general’s staff offices to a door at the back of the building and entered a large room furnished with cubicles containing desks, most occupied by civilians I knew to be analysts and historians. At the far end, a second door led to a secure area filled with movable shelving similar to that used for bone storage in the CIL lab. Instead of bones, these shelves held hundreds of small gray filing boxes, each identified by a sequence of numbers. The REFNOs.
At the counter, we chatted a moment with Sergeant Dix Jackson, a black man with mulberry splotches on his face and arms the size of sequoias. Needless to say, no one ever mentioned the splotches.
Jackson and I reminisced, each trying to top the other with recollections of practical jokes from the past. He won with a story involving Danny, a toilet stall, a burning bag, and buckets of water raining down from above.
Feigning annoyance, Danny filled out a request for the file on 1968-979, the unknown recovered near Long Binh in ’68.
Jackson read the form. “When you need this, Doc?”
“You got it.”
Danny signed for and scooped up Alvarez’s IDPF.
We started to leave.
We both turned.
“You feel the urge to do your business, relax. We got no fire drills scheduled this month.”
Back in Danny’s office, we cleared the love seat and coffee table. No banter. We were both very focused on learning everything we could about Spec 2 Alvarez.
Work space readied, we sat. Danny unwound the string, spread the file, and extracted the contents.
Throughout my years consulting to CILHI, the photos always distressed me more than anything else. Alvarez’s lay smack on top.
The old black-and-white showed a Latino-looking man in his army uniform. He had dark hair, dark eyes, and lashes that were wasted on a Y-chromosomer.
A second photo captured nine soldiers, hair sweat-pasted to their temples and brows. All wore fatigues with the sleeves rolled up. One sported a Tilley hat, fishing lure pinned to a rakishly flipped brim.
The name Alvarez was scrawled in faded blue ink across the chest of the third man from the right. Third kid from the right.
Alvarez wasn’t big, wasn’t small. Of the group, he alone wasn’t looking at the camera. His face was turned, as though a momentary distraction had caught his attention.
What, I wondered? A bird in flight? A passing dog? Movement in the brush?
Had he been mildly curious? Startled? Afraid for his life?
“¡Ay, caramba!” Danny was looking at Alvarez’s induction record. “The gentleman in question was Mexican-American.”
“That fits our profile for 2010-37. Any medical or dental records?”
Danny viewed the stack side-on. “Yep. Let’s save those for last.”
Danny skimmed a sheet of blue-lined notebook paper, the kind kids use for middle school essays.
“A letter from Fernando Alvarez, Luis’s father,” he said. “You read Spanish?”
Danny handed me the paper.
The letter was written in a neat, almost feminine hand. No header indicated the recipient’s name. The date was July 29, 1969. The English stopped after “Dear Sir.”
The message was poignant in its simplicity.
I’d read many. Every single solitary one had touched me deeply.
“What’s he say?” Danny asked. Knowing.
“My son was a hero. Find him.”
Next came clippings from a Spanish-language newspaper. One announced Luis Alvarez’s graduation from high school. The photo showed a younger version of the man in uniform. Mortarboard. Tassel. Somber grin.
One story announced Alvarez’s departure for Vietnam. Another reported his status as MIA.
Danny picked up a telegram. I felt no need to read it. We regret to inform you. Maria and Fernando Alvarez were being notified that their son was missing.
Next came statements from witnesses who saw the Huey go down. A guard on his way from the Long Binh jail to his barracks. A motorist traveling the road to Saigon. A maintenance worker at the helicopter landing pad. One soldier had provided a hand-drawn map.
The file also contained a standard DD form recording the loss incident, and unclassified documents compiled by analysts attempting to determine what had happened to Alvarez.
An hour after leaving the J-2 shop, Danny and I turned to Luis Alvarez’s medical and dental records.
Only to be disappointed.
Nothing in the antemorts positively linked the missing Spec 2 to the bones accessioned as 2010-37. Either Alvarez had enjoyed the best health on the planet or, like Lowery, his records were incomplete.
“Maria Alvarez died in nineteen eighty-seven,” I read aloud. “No other maternal relative provided a DNA sample.”
“We probably won’t get sequencing on 2010-37, anyway,” Danny said.
I agreed. “Probably not.”
“Nothing excludes Alvarez from being your Lumberton guy.”
I agreed again. “No. Or he could be 1968-979.”
I thought a moment.
“Think it would be worthwhile trying to track down the witnesses? Maybe one saw something that never made the files.”
Danny returned to the statements. Read.
“The maintenance worker was a guy named Harlan Kramer from Abilene, Texas. Kramer was regular army. If he stayed in, it would be fairly easy to find him.”
Danny made a note.
“Ready to hit it?” he asked.
Danny and I moved to the lab.
Though some bones were damaged by erosion, trauma, or animal scavenging, most of 1968-979’s skeleton was in pretty good shape. While Danny opened an anthropology update file, I laid out my usual stick figure man.
Skull. Jaw. Arms. Legs. Sternum. Clavicles. Ribs. Vertebrae. Only the kneecaps and some hand and foot parts were missing.
Didn’t matter. I knew straight off that 1968-979 was neither Spider Lowery nor Luis Alvarez. So did Danny.
“This dude was a tree-topper.”
I nodded agreement. “Lowery and Alvarez were both five-nine. This man was much taller.”
“What the hell is he doing with Spider Lowery’s tag?”
I had no explanation.
“We’ve got dentition.” Danny checked the jaw. “Two molars and a second bicuspid on the right. Two molars on the left.” He rotated the skull to sit palate up. “Two molars on the right, two on the left, and a second bicuspid. Ten teeth. I’ll get X-rays.”
Feeling a vibration at my hip, I checked my BlackBerry.
“Take it. I’ll do inventory.”
“I am so outta here. First flight I can get.”
“Lily is a complete wack job.”
“Where are you?” Anticipating a less than pleasant exchange, I put distance between myself and Danny.
“What’s the problem?”
“Where should I start? First, there’s the trip into town. Ms. Head Case has to ride in front so she won’t get sick. Guess who ends up stuffed in back? Then we get to the park and at least a million people are waiting in line. Guess who has to sit on a bench so her feet won’t hurt? Big surprise, island girl! You’re wearing heels that would kill the average pole dancer. Then—”
“—we have to eat at this totally gross ptomaine haven because Lily can’t handle—”
“She’s going through a rough patch.”
“Is Lily really so bad?”
“She’s a freak show. This was supposed to be our time together.”
“I thought you’d enjoy Lily’s company.”
“Oh, yeah. The bitch is so cool I may vomit from sheer envy.”
“I’m sorry. I should have asked your opinion before inviting them to join us.”
Danny passed me holding the skull and jaw. I assumed he was going for X-rays.
“Where is Ryan?” I asked.
“Paying the bill.”
“I’ll call him.”
I was answered by the silence of unspoken anger.
* * *
After a quick lunch, Danny and I constructed a biological profile for 1968-979.
Age: twenty-seven to thirty-five years.
Height: six-one, plus or minus two inches.
Unique skeletal identifiers: possible healed fractures of the right mandibular ramus, right clavicle, and right scapula.
Unique dental identifiers: fragment of a restoration in the first upper left molar.
By three we’d taken X-rays and confirmed the dental work and the old jaw and shoulder trauma.
Danny was on the phone with J-2 when my BlackBerry buzzed again.
The ME skipped all preliminaries.
“Divers found another hunk of leg.”
“Halona Cove, lying on a coral ledge about twenty feet down.”
I checked the time. Five thirty. I was living the movie Groundhog Day. New day, same scene.
“Have Tuesday’s remains been cleaned?”
“Down to nice shiny bone.”
“Have you contacted a shark expert?”
“The National Marine Fisheries Service has an office on Oahu. I called a guy I know over there. He’s off-island, but a Dr. Dorcas Gearhart is coming by tomorrow at nine.”
“I’ll be there. But—”
“I know. You can’t stay long.”
THAT NIGHT WE OPTED FOR AN EVENING AT HOME. AT LEAST Ryan and I did. Lily and Katy added little but tension to the decision-making process.
Ryan purchased New York strips and tuna fillets, which he grilled to perfection. Amazingly, all dietary obstacles vanished. Both daughters downed bounty of land and sea, along with fingerling potatoes and spinach salad.
To describe the conversation as stiff would be like calling Ahmadinejad’s reelection in Iran a tad contentious. Lily’s favorite group was Cake. Katy found their music sophomoric. Katy loved classic blues, Etta James, Billie Holiday, T-Bone Walker. Lily said that crap put her to sleep. Lily wore Sung by Alfred Sung. Katy found the perfume overly sweet. Katy favored L’eau d’Issey by Issey Miyake. It made Lily sneeze. iPhone. BlackBerry. PC. Mac.
You get the picture.
Ryan and I insisted on courtesy. But one thing was apparent. Not only did our offspring have differing tastes and opinions, they were becoming masters at refining their expressions of contempt for each other.
After dinner I served fresh pineapple wedges. Ryan proposed another outing for the following afternoon. The Punchbowl or, perhaps inspired by my dessert, the Dole Plantation.
Katy said she preferred a day at Waikiki Beach. Lily wanted to go to Ala Moana. Katy said it was stupid to cross the whole frickin’ Pacific just to go shopping. Lily said it was dumb to lie around getting sand up your butt. At that point open battle erupted.
Fortunately, I’d paid the extra insurance and listed Katy as a driver on my rental Cobalt. After much discussion, a compromise was reached. Katy would drop Lily at the mall, spend the afternoon at Waikiki, then collect Lily at a mutually agreed time and location.
When the dishes were cleared, the combatants retreated to their rooms. Ryan and I went for a walk on the beach. I updated him on my two cases at the CIL, and on the one I was doing for the Honolulu ME.
“Hadley Perry?” he asked.
“You know her?”
That surprised me. I didn’t pursue it.
“Perry’s got a shark expert lined up for tomorrow morning,” I said.
“That should be different.”
“That, too.” Ryan paused. “Heard from Sheriff Beasley today.”
“Sometimes you impress me.”
“Some times more than others.”
“What did Beasley say?”
“You slipped in under the wire.”
I waited for Ryan to elaborate. He didn’t.
“Do you get perverse pleasure from messing with my mind?” I asked.
“I definitely get pleasure from messing with your—”
“Southeastern Regional Medical Center. Normally patient slides are kept five years.”
“The hospital had something?” I couldn’t believe it.
“Oui, madame. From Harriet Lowery’s last admission. The material is winging its way to AFDIL as we speak.” The Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory. “Or maybe it’s already there. And I think a sample may have also gone to our DNA boys in Montreal.”
The sand was cool underfoot. Waves pounded the shore. It felt glorious to be outside. To taste salt on my lips and feel wind in my hair.
To be with Ryan?
Yeah. OK. To be with Ryan.
He didn’t reach for my hand. I didn’t take his. Still. We both felt it. An enormous elephant plodding beside us up the beach.
“I wouldn’t mind hearing what he has to say.”
Lost in pachyderm reflection, I missed Ryan’s meaning.
“What who has to say?”
“The shark guy.”
“Who knows what may one day prove professionally useful?”
“You work in Quebec.”
“Sharks are devilishly sly creatures.”
Was Ryan’s interest really in sharks? Or in the quirky but fetching Dr. Hadley Perry?
“Sure,” I said. “Come along.”
Dorcas Gearhart was in the lobby when we arrived at the ME’s office. Ryan had erred. The shark guy turned out to be of my gender.
Gearhart had frizzy gray hair swept from her face by pink plastic barrettes, and wire-rimmed specs resting low on her nose. I guessed her height at five feet, her age at somewhere just south of sixty.
We exchanged alohas, names, shook hands. I wondered what comments Katy and Lily would have made on the good doctor’s muumuu, sneakers, and cardigan sweater. I wondered what comments Katy and Lily had exchanged on their drive into the city.
While waiting for Perry, Ryan asked Gearhart how she’d gotten into the fish business.
Based on the woman’s looks, I’d expected grandmotherly speech and deportment. Not even close.
“Fucking bad luck.” Gearhart’s laugh came from deep within her substantial girth. “Or good. Who knows? I applied for med school, got bonged. A prof I was sleeping with recommended the marine bio grad program. Seemed a better option than marrying and popping out kids.”
“Why sharks?” Ryan didn’t miss a beat.
“Some yank-off beat me out for the dolphin fellowship.”
I was about to ask a question when Perry appeared. Today the hair spikes were emerald, the lids chartreuse.
More greetings, intros. I watched Ryan’s face. Discreetly. Perry’s. Neither gave a hint of past history.
Perry said she’d had the remains pulled from the cooler.
We trooped single file to the same autopsy room I’d visited on Tuesday.
A black plastic bag lay on a stainless steel cart. A small one.
Perry, Gearhart, and I gloved. Ryan watched.
Perry opened the bag, slid a glob of bone and tissue onto the cart.
The smell of salt and decaying flesh filled the room.
I lifted and inspected the soggy mass.
One glance told me I was holding a portion of human calf. I could see a fragment of fibula, the slender outer bone of the lower leg. The tibia, or shinbone, was in better shape. Its ankle end was recognizable within a mass of tangled tendons and rotting muscle.
Both bones were covered with shallow cuts, deep gouges, and long grooves. Both terminated in jagged spikes.
I looked up. To six expectant eyes.
“It’s part of a human lower leg. Decomp is consistent with the remains we examined on Tuesday.”
“So’s the shark damage, right?” Perry.
Stepping to the cart, Gearhart nudged me not so gently aside. I moved back.
“Oh, yeah. This was shark.”
“Can you tell what kind?” Perry asked.
“Got a magnifier?”
Perry produced a hand lens.
We all clustered around Gearhart. Her short stature worked in our favor.
“Look here, inside this groove.” Gearhart positioned the glass. “See how fine and regularly spaced the striations are? That means the teeth were ridged, like a serrated knife. I’d say we’re talking Galeocerdo cuvier or Carcharodon carcharias.”
The collective lack of response was question enough.
“Tiger or white,” Gearhart said.
I couldn’t help it. A few beats of the Jaws theme thrummed in my head.
“White sharks are pretty rare in Hawaiian waters, so I’d put my money on tiger. Based on distance between the striations, I’d say this baby’s probably twelve to fourteen feet long.”
“Hell, that’s nothing. I once met a twenty-two footer, up close and personal. That mother had to weigh nine hundred kilos.”
Quick math. Nineteen hundred pounds. I hoped Gearhart was exaggerating.
“Do tiger sharks really deserve the nasty Hollywood image?” Ryan asked.
“Ooooh, yeah. Tigers are second only to whites in the number of recorded attacks on humans. And they’re not what you’d call discriminating diners. These buggers’ll eat anything, people, birds, sea turtles, plumbing parts. Generally tigers are sluggish, but tweak the old taste buds, they can really move. You see one, it’s best to haul ass.”
“Where might I see one?” I asked.
“They’re mostly active at night.”
Yep. The opening scene from Jaws.
“—reason tigers encounter humans so often is that they like to enter shallow reefs, lagoons, harbors, places like that. To feed. Mostly after dusk.”
Perry interrupted the nature lesson.
“Can you tell if the vic was alive when the shark bellied up?”
Gearhart played her lens over the remains.
“The random nature of the tooth marks suggests the leg was fleshed at the time of feeding. The tiger’s pattern is to bite down then shake, allowing the serrated teeth to rip through the flesh. The jaw muscles are astounding. Strong enough to slice right through bone, or the shell of a tortoise.”
I was really wishing Katy had gone to the mall with Lily.
“So you can’t determine if the shark killed the kid or just scavenged on his body?” Perry pressed.
As Perry and Gearhart spoke I studied the leg.
“Can you tell if the kid was killed at Halona Cove, or elsewhere, then regurgitated there?”
I rotated the sad little hunk of flesh.
“Look, Doc.” Perry’s voice had an edge. “I have to consider whether this presents an issue of public safety. Do I need to close that beach?”
“In my opinion, no. Not based on a single isolated incident.”
Using one finger, I retracted the flesh overlying the distal tibia.
My heart kicked to a tempo that matched the refrain in my head.
“Meaning?” Perry asked.
“You get more than one death, then maybe you’ve got a rogue.”
“An opportunist. A shark who’s developed a taste for people.”
I looked up and met Ryan’s eyes. His brows dipped on seeing my expression.
“Bad news,” I said.
“THIS IS NOT THE SAME KID.”
“What do you mean?” Perry strode to the cart.
“Look.” I pointed to a triangular projection on the lower end of the tibia. “That’s the medial malleolus, the bony lump you feel on the inside of your ankle. The malleolus articulates with the talus in the foot, and provides joint stability.”
I oriented the limb. “That’s correct anatomical position.”
Perry studied the short segment of calf. Then, “Sonofabitch.”
“What?” Ryan and Gearhart asked as one.
“This is from a left leg,” I said. “Parts of a left leg were also recovered on Tuesday, including a portion of medial malleolus.”
“A freakin’ duplication.” Perry shook her head in disbelief.
Gearhart got it. “A human being does not have two left feet. This has to be from a different person.”
I waited for Ryan to make a bad dancer joke. Mercifully, he didn’t.
“Two shark vics from the same bay.” Perry’s voice sounded higher than normal.
“That could change the picture.”
“You think?” Perry rounded on Gearhart. “So. Do I close that beach?”
“That’s your call, Doc.”
“Will this fucking fish strike again?”
Gearhart raised both brows and palms.
“Come on. Best guess.”
Gearhart shifted a hip. Bit her lip. Sighed. “If the shark is feeding, not just scavenging, the bastard bloody well might.”
Perry arm-wrapped her waist. Found the maneuver unsatisfactory. Dropped both hands. Turned to me.
“What can you tell me about this second vic?” Chin-cocking the cart.
“This individual is smaller than the first. Beyond that, zilch. There’s not enough to work with.”
Crossing to a wall phone, Perry punched buttons.
“Hope I didn’t interrupt the poker game.” Sharp.
I heard the buzz of a muffled response. Perry cut it off.
“Get me the Halona Cove bones. ASAP.”
The handset hit the cradle with a loud crack.
Less than one minute later a bald young man rolled a cart through the door.
“Anything else, Dr. Perry?” Baldy avoided eye contact with his boss.
“Stay in touch.”
On the cart lay the following: proximal and distal portions of a left femur; a fragment of proximal left fibula; two fragments of left tibia, one proximal, the other distal, including the mangled malleolus; a portion of left pelvis extending from the pubic bone out into the blade; the talus, navicular, and third and second cuneiforms from a left foot.
Two large brown envelopes occupied the cart’s lower shelf.
“Double-check,” Perry ordered. “Be sure they’re both lefts.”
Despite the raucous hair and makeup, the ME’s face looked pallid.
I could imagine the battle playing out in Perry’s mind. The recession had slammed the Hawaiian economy. Air travel was down, and tourism was in the toilet. Close a beach due to shark attack, hotel bookings would vanish like early morning mist. Go the other way, lose a swimmer, mainlanders would opt for the Shenandoah or Disney World. The consequences would be worse than closing a beach.
Guess right, lose dollars. Guess wrong, lose lives as well as dollars.
And Perry had to act quickly.
My hunch? Honolulu’s flamboyant ME would once again piss people off.
I was rotating the new hunk of leg when I noticed an irregularity centered in the shaft approximately five centimeters above the troublesome malleolus. By scraping back tissue, I was able to see that the defect was a hole with a raised outer rim, too perfectly round to be natural.
“This could be helpful,” I said.
Perry snatched the magnifier and held it where I indicated.
“I’ll be damned. You thinking surgical pin?”
“The placement makes sense. Too bad we don’t have the calcaneous.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“Someone going to educate us nonmedical mopes?” Ryan asked.
I kept my finger in place while Perry handed him the lens.
“That tiny hole?” he asked.
“That tiny hole.”
Ryan passed the lens to Gearhart.
“Everyone familiar with traction?” I asked.
Ryan shrugged. Not really.
“In orthopedics, traction is used for the treatment of fractured bones and for the correction of orthopedic abnormalities,” I explained for Ryan’s benefit. “Traction aligns the broken ends by pulling a limb into a straight position. It also lessens pressure on the bone ends by relaxing the muscles.”
Ryan snapped his fingers. “The old leg-in-the-air trick. Remember the scene in Catch-22? The guy’s in traction, covered with plaster, never moves, never speaks—”
I shot a narrow-eyed warning.
Ryan’s face went all innocent. What?
“My nephew got put in traction when he busted his leg.” Gearhart was again peering through the lens. “They drilled a pin right into his femur.”
“Once the hardware is inserted, pulleys and weights are attached to wires to provide the proper pull. Skeletal traction uses anywhere from twenty-five to forty pounds.”
“How long does the pin remain in place?” Ryan now sounded overly proper.
“Weeks, maybe months. This one was removed years ago.”
Gearhart jabbed at her glasses, which had slipped low on her nose. “What’s your take, Doc?”
“I’d guess an unstable tibial shaft fracture. The distal tibia would have been pinned to the calcaneous.”
“Which we don’t have.” Perry.
“Fractured how?” Gearhart asked.
“Skiing? Cycling? Car crash? Without more of the leg it’s impossible to say.”
“Space shuttle wipeout.” Perry began pacing.
“Look,” I said. “We still have potentially valuable information. The vic underwent treatment, was probably admitted as an in-patient somewhere. The cops or one of your investigators can check hospital records for distal tibia surgical implants.”
Perry stopped. “Time frame?”
“What we’re seeing is merely a scar, the result of bony remodeling at the pin site. The injury wasn’t recent. I’d start at least five years back, work farther into the past from there. A more effective shortcut, if you get lucky, would be to run the names from your MP list through local hospitals for matches, or to contact family members for histories of leg fractures.”
Perry gave a tight nod.
“You get any new leads on the first vic?” I asked.
“No, but we got some new MPs. Last January a college kid washed overboard from one of those Tall Ship things. We’re checking that out. A soap salesman disappeared from a Waikiki Beach hotel last summer. Left all his belongings in the room. Could be a suicide, a drowning, a cut-and-run.”
“I shook my head. “Not likely.”
Perry waggled frustrated hands. “It’s hard to keep the cops interested with thousands of tourists flowing through the islands each year. The medical angle might goose their effort. Or I could just pray for a benevolent god to save us the trouble with a DNA hit.”
Collecting a scalpel from the counter, Perry oriented the leg so that the flesh covering the outer ankle was positioned faceup. We all watched her blade kiss muscle.
Laying the implement aside, Perry shot out a hand.
“Gimme the lens.”
Gearhart offered the magnifier. Perry grabbed it.
A few seconds of observation, then Perry strode to the sink and wet a sponge. Returning to the cart, she gently swabbed the tissue, wiping off any remaining epidermis.
“We may have us a tat.”
Gearhart and I exchanged glances.
A tattoo, I mouthed.
Gearhart’s mouth formed an O.
A bit more cleaning, then Perry gestured us forward with a back-flung arm.
We advanced as one, students gathering around Mr. Wizard.
Perry was magnifying a discoloration barely visible in the glob of flesh I’d retracted from the malleolus. I’d noticed the little blotch earlier, but, distracted by the realization that we had a second victim, I’d ignored it.
“I’ll be damned,” Ryan said
Perry shot photos of the tattoo, then, with intersecting cuts of her scalpel, excised it. Using both palms, she spread and flattened the flap of skin on the stainless steel.
“Get the lights.”
Ryan hit the wall switch.
The room went black.
I heard a drawer open, close. A click.
A blue beam hit the flap of flesh.
Under UV lighting, the tattoo sharpened. I could make out black and red swirls within a half-sickle form. A filigreed strip extended outward from the sickle’s two sides.
“That’s a traditional shark tooth pattern.” Gearhart’s voice came from somewhere to my left.
“You sure?” Perry asked. “We haven’t got much here.”
“Absolutely. I collect shark images. Paintings. Prints. Tattoos. I’ve seen dozens of variations on this theme.”
Perry made a grunting noise in her throat.
“Must be part of a tapuvae,” Gearhart said. “An ankle band. The only unusual elements are these three loopy things.”
Gearhart indicated two backward C’s with a U between them sticking up from the filigreed strip.
A full minute passed, then the lights came on.
Without asking if we’d seen enough, Perry peeled the specimen free and dropped it into a jar of formalin. The tissue looked ghostly pale floating in the clear liquid.
“There we have it, sports fans.” Perry was marking the case number on the jar lid with a Sharpie. “Looks like Señor Shark ate a tattooee with a gimpy left leg.”
Cold, I thought.
“The cops can work the hospitals and tat parlors while I query the MP families.”
“You might try computer image enhancement,” I said. “To tease more detail out of the design.”
“Or high-contrast or infrared photography,” Ryan added.
“Will do.” Perry stripped off her gloves. “So. Not a bad morning’s work. Given our vic is the size of a pork roast.”
Toeing the lever on a bio-waste can, Perry tossed her gloves.
“Mahalo, Dr. Gearhart. I get you a set of photos, you’ll write up your thoughts?”
Perry turned to me.
“You going to spend some time with the first kid?”
To Ryan. “Come with me, champ. I’ll buy you a Danish while I ponder whether to close that beach.”
As the trio filed out, two Viking blues slid my way. Words snapped from my tongue before I could stop them.
“Think shark attack. Champ.”
My testiness surprised me. Was I really feeling threatened by Hadley Perry?
It amused Ryan. The smile that whispered in his eyes only goosed my resentment.
A reexamination of the cleaned bones turned up nothing new.
Thirty minutes later, Ryan and I took our leave. I didn’t bother to monitor his or Perry’s face for hidden meaning.
We were on Iwilei Road when my BlackBerry buzzed.
“You coming in today?”
“Just leaving the ME’s office.”
“Was Perry her usual delightful self?”
Feeling a reply was pointless, I offered none.
“Got some info on 1968-979.”
“Good news or bad?”
I could sense Ryan listening.
“Katy has my car. Detective Ryan was kind enough to give me a ride.”
I’d cleared with Danny that it was OK for Ryan to bunk at the Lanikai house. Knowing our history, he’d responded with a few lines of “Let’s Get It On.” Marvin Gaye he’s not.
“The girls are over the cat phase?” Danny asked.
I’d also told Danny about the friction between Lily and Katy. At that moment, I didn’t want to discuss it.
“Will Ryan have a problem getting past the gate?” I asked.
“Has monsieur le détective got plans for the day?”
“I’ll sponsor him. He can hang here if he wants. We can bounce ideas off him. Fresh perspective, you know.”
Pressing the device to my chest, I queried Ryan’s interest in visiting the CIL. To my surprise he gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
The idea-bouncing proved very useful.
OVERNIGHT, DANNY HAD HAD AN IDEA. THAT MORNING HE’D been busy in the J-2 shop.
“Circle search.” He smiled and leaned back, fingers laced on his chest.
Ryan and I regarded him blankly.
“Civilians.” Danny’s head wagged in mock disgust.
“You’re a civilian,” I pointed out.
“OK.” His palms came up. “Slow and simple. First, I got a topo map and located the grid coordinates for Lowery’s Huey crash. We all good so far?”
Ryan and I nodded.
“Then I had a J-2 analyst search to see how many troops went MIA within a fifteen-kilometer radius of those grid coordinates—air, ground, overwater, whatever. Next I had him narrow to losses occurring January twenty-third, nineteen sixty-seven, through August seventeenth, nineteen sixty-eight.
“From one year prior to the Huey crash up to the date 1968-979 was found,” I said, for Ryan’s benefit.
“Bingo.” Danny arced an arm at folders stacked on the love seat. “Those are the people who remain KIA/BNR.”
Ryan looked to me for translation.
“Killed in action, body not recovered. How many?” I asked.
“Eighteen,” Danny said. “I just signed the files out.”
“On the phone you said you had new info on 1968-979.”
“When the decomposed remains now designated 1968-979 went to Tan Son Nhut in sixty-eight, mortuary personnel found John Lowery’s dog tag inside the body bag. But Lowery had already been identified months earlier and sent stateside.”
“The burned body that ended up buried in North Carolina,” Ryan said.
“Yes,” I said. “Now exhumed and reaccessioned as 2010-37.”
“Since the decomposed remains, 1968-979, couldn’t, in the thinking of the military personnel, be Lowery, and they matched no one else reported MIA in that sector, they remained at Tan Son Nhut as an unknown until nineteen seventy-three. Then they went to CIL-THAI. In nineteen seventy-six they came to Hawaii. They’ve been on our shelves here ever since.”
A smile crawled Danny’s lips.
“What?” I prompted.
“Except for one brief sabbatical. While at Tan Son Nhut, hair and tissue samples were retained and sealed in jars. In 2001, because of similarities to another file open at the time, those samples were pulled for DNA testing.”
“Nuclear or mitochondrial?” I asked, referring to the two human genomes typically sequenced.
“Good old nuclear.” Danny’s grin spread. “The profile for 1968-937 is on file. We just need a relative for comparison.”
I glanced at the folders. Four decades. Was a family out there somewhere, still hoping? Or had everyone long since given up and moved on with their lives?
“Let’s do it,” I said.
With guidance, Ryan quickly became adept at reading files. He found the perfect candidate two hours after lunch.
Alexander Emanuel Lapasa. Xander to friends and family.
Lapasa’s folder was the slimmest of the lot.
Why? Xander Lapasa never served a day in the military.
But everything fit.
Alexander Emanuel Lapasa was a twenty-nine-year-old white male who stood six foot one and weighed two hundred pounds. Lapasa’s mother reported him missing in March 1968, two months after Xander’s weekly letters stopped arriving from Vietnam.
Ryan passed Danny a photo. He passed it to me.
The snapshot showed a tall young man from the waist up. His curly dark hair was tucked behind prominent ears. A mile-wide smile revealed straight white teeth.
Lapasa wore a striped shirt with the top buttons open, a knapsack over one shoulder. His arms elbowed out from hip-planted hands.
“Looks like he’s got the world by the tail,” Ryan said.
“Or believes he soon will,” Danny said.
I returned the photo. Danny studied it a moment.
“Looks like Joseph Perrino,” he said.
“Who?” Ryan and I asked.
“The actor? Appeared on The Sopranos now and then? Never mind.”
“I didn’t think civilians went to Nam in the sixties,” Ryan said.
“Sure,” Danny said. “Civilian employees of the army’s post exchange system, aid workers, missionaries, journalists. Check the wall. Quite a few nonmilitary personnel are listed.”
“Is there anything to indicate why Lapasa was in Nam?” I asked.
Ryan flipped a few pages, read.
“According to the mother, Theresa-Sophia Lapasa, Xander was, quote, pursuing business interests, unquote. That sound kosher?”
“Oh, yeah,” Danny said. “There were plenty of opportunists in-country back then. Knowing the fighting would eventually end, some balls-to-the-wall entrepreneurs went over to establish position for the postwar boom. Several ran bars and restaurants in Saigon.”
“Where was Lapasa from?” Not sure why I asked. Place of residence didn’t really matter. Guess it was my way of personalizing.
Ryan shuffled pages. Read. Shuffled a few more. Then, “Ke aloha nô!”
Danny grinned. I resisted the impulse to roll my eyes.
“Lapasa was a home boy.” Ryan had switched back to English. “Honolulu, Hawaii.”
“Got an address?” I asked.
Ryan read out a street number on Kahala Avenue.
“Cha-ching!” I pantomimed a cash register. Or something.
Ryan looked at me.
“Kahala has some of the priciest real estate in Honolulu.”
Danny’s smile faltered, slowly faded. He looked down, then to his left, as though searching for an answer deep in his memory. Wordlessly, he jotted a note.
“Got antemorts?” I asked.
“Your bailiwick.” Ryan handed me the folder.
The men watched as I leafed through papers.
There were multiple letters from Lapasa’s mother to the army. A couple more photos. Statements from witnesses who’d seen or been with Lapasa before his disappearance. The last was dated January 2, 1968. Lapasa had rung in the New Year at Saigon’s Rex Hotel with one Joseph Prudhomme, a member of the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support Agency.
According to Prudhomme, Lapasa planned to travel to Bien Hoa and Long Binh during the month of January. I assumed that was the reason Lapasa came up in Danny’s circle search.
At the very back of the folder was a manila file. I flipped through the contents. Charts. Narrative. A small brown envelope. I peeked inside and saw the little black squares I was hoping for.
“The dentals are here, including X-rays.” I read the final page of the file. “Lapasa’s last dental appointment was on April twelfth, nineteen sixty-five.”
I backtracked. Skimmed.
“Theresa-Sophia Lapasa states in a letter dated November sixteenth, nineteen seventy-two, that medical records can be provided.” I looked up. “Why wouldn’t she just do it?”
“Makes it too real,” Danny said.
I raised questioning brows.
“It’s a form of denial. Sometimes families can’t face the possibility that their loved one really is dead.”
I read a few more of the letters Theresa-Sophia had written over the years.
“The old gal must have faced reality. In two thousand, Mrs. Lapasa expressed her willingness to provide a DNA sample.”
I looked. Found no lab report. Shook my head.
We all went still, thinking the same sad thought. Had Theresa-Sophia Lapasa died never knowing what happened to her son?
Ryan spoke first.
“Lapasa wasn’t military. How could he have been on that chopper?”
“Civilians hitched rides all the time,” Danny said.
“And your CIL-1968—” Ryan circled a hand in the air.
Ryan nodded. “1968-979 was found a quarter mile from the crash site, seven months later, too decomposed for visual ID or fingerprinting, wearing a dog tag but no insignia?”