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The dense fog slithered up the riverbank, coiling itself around the traffic light ahead of me and partially obscuring the green glow until I was underneath it. With daylight barely peeking over the limestone cliffs on the other bank, the fog was an especially unwanted handicap. I plunged the clutch pedal into the floor and, feeling the ball of the gearshift lever in the palm of my hand, I eased the stick down into second, slid the clutch slowly out of the floor and appreciated the rumble of the downshift and the tug of the engine braking. With my left palm I wheeled the car into a left turn and began my descent down the hill to the low-water bridge below the Tom Miller Dam. They called that machine of mine a Mustang, but it had a roar and rumble more like a wildcat.
I pulled the car over to the edge of the road when I reached the island in the middle of the bridge. Red Bud Isle they called it, but on that morning it was a gray silhouette on gray water shrouded in a thick, gray mist. I was sick of this weather and ready for spring and Texas sunshine.
I could see red and blue strobing lights through the underbelly of the fog. Bones found on the riverbank of Red Bud Isle had attracted a large and serious crowd, and I was about to become part of it. It would be my job to put a face back on the deceased.
As I turned off the key, I saw Malcolm walking toward the car. His uniform looked as if he'd slept in it.
"Well, Toni, I could sure hear those wheels comin' before I ever saw them."
"Wow, what a machine. You know Steve McQueen drove one like this in Bullitt."
"Mine is a '65."
"It's just like the one McQueen drove."
"McQueen's was a '67. Where's Chris, Malcolm?"
"Sorry, Toni, off to the right-hand side of the bridge here, and then down on this side of the island."
I began to walk toward the area to which Malcolm had directed me.
"Toni, can I drive it sometime?"
"Absolutely not, Malcolm," I called over my shoulder, stifling what I really wanted to say. Somehow Malcolm always brought out the worst in me. I should have been more patient and tolerant. Satan sends the simple to make us stumble.
It was cool out and the dampness of the fog added even more of a chill. I was wearing my jeans and black western boots, with the pointy toes like a real Texan, and an old faded yellow T-shirt. Most people would have worn a light jacket in the cool air, but I was enjoying it in my shirtsleeves.
This was the least favorite part of my job as a forensic sculptor, but a necessary part of it nevertheless. Luckily, most of the bodies I saw in my work were devoid of flesha far cry from the sights I had seen in Vietnam as a nurse.
I made my way through the redbuds and other trees that covered the islet. The trees were dense and the underbrush was thick in between them. Boots and jeans were definitely the right gear to be wearing. Straight in front of me, several hundred feet beyond the tip of the island loomed the concrete face of the Tom Miller Dam. The soft rushing of the water from the hydraulic power plant provided backup for the mourning doves cooing their morning song. As I made my way through the foliage, the smell of damp earth, tree buds and tall grasses moistened by dew filled the air. The fog was lifting with the sunrise and thinning to a wispy ribbon overhead and I could see the back of Dr. Christine Nakis, the Travis County medical examiner, near the island's edge. Her short, dark hair curled over the collar of her lab coat and she stood with both hands on her hips overseeing the excavation of Austin's latest John or Jane Doe. Between Chris and the river was a muddy area where the excavation was being carried out by three forensic technicians.
I walked down to the riverbank and stopped several feet to the left of Chris. A finger bone was pointed directly at mewell, not actually "pointing" per se, but it was sticking out of the mud and I happened to be in its path. A few inches down the bank, the curve of a pelvic bone emerged. The mud was sticky reddish-brown clay and the sole of my boots stuck in it and made a sucking sound as I pulled one foot up and stepped next to Chris.
Chris had an extensive background as a forensic anthropologist in addition to her work as a medical examiner. Because of that background, Chris understood why I liked to be in on a case as soon as possible. It helped me get a "feeling" for the victim and how he or she was murdered. She had awakened me at 5:30 a.m., given me the bare particulars and told me where to meet her. She stood there, intent on the riverbank, neatly dressed in a khaki skirt and a white button-down shirt with the white lab coat over her clothes. The sides of her shoes were caked with the red-brown mud that had curled up over the soles as Chris had made her way to the water's edge. At five-seven it seemed that I towered over Chris's five-foot-three stature. She looked over and up at me when I moved next to her.
"Nice outfit," she said sarcastically.
"When you wake me up at five-thirty in the morning tome to dress up."
She smiled. "Actually I'm jealous. If I didn't have to go to the morgue and work a full day after this, I'd dress like that, too."out?"
Chris gave me the eye roll.
"So, any idea of gender yet?"
"The skull is in pieces and there's not enough of the pelvis out of the mud yet. When there is, I can make an educated guessalthough I'd prefer to do all that back in the morgue after I have all the bones."
"How long do you think the victim has been here?"
"Not as long as it has been dead."
"That's interesting, Chris, but I was really looking for something more specific."
Chris sighed, "Sorry. I'd say the person has been dead for years, but the bones have been here less than a couple of weeks. The City was doing some wastewater construction down here about a month ago and this would have been discovered then with all the equipment and digging!"
"So, are you saying this person was killed, buried somewhere else and then reburied here just a couple of weeks ago?"it was definitely not buried here for long."
"Well now, that's a new twist. Not a very pretty twist, but it's new. How can you be so sure? Maybe the sewer crews weren't around this spot."
"It was a fresh grave and shallow. The bones we've uncovered weren't in the proper anatomical arrangement either and it isn't like the victim was dismembered. It's like someone just dumped them here in a hole, in a jumble."
"Nice. So, they dumped bones in the hole, in lieu of a
"Right. Also, I'd say the victim has been dead more than ten yearsjust guessing from the bones I've seen so far."
"Yeah. Oh, as I said, the skull is in a few pieces, but we have it bagged and I'll put it together for you."
"Okay. Do you have most of the teeth?"
"Good, that'll help me with the reconstruct."
"It'll also help us make a positive ID when someone recognizes the victim from your artwork."
I nodded. "So, who are the cops on this one?" "Your son and his partner. They're over on the other side
I decided to go see what Mike and Tommy were doing. I saw them talking to a young man dressed in a wet suit and reloading a kayak onto the top of his SUV. As I walked closer to them, they appeared to be leaving the man to his business and began to walk toward me.
My son, Mike Sullivan, was a homicide detective. He was tall, lean and wore his strawberry-blond hair cut short. Mike always wore a jacket and tie and nice shoes. He was a clean-cut, all-American-looking guy. His round, cherubic face belied his thirty years.
Mike's partner, Tommy Lucero, was a more senior detective and virtually Mike's polar opposite. Tommy always wore khakis with a button-down shirt open at the neck, western boots and no jacket. Tommy didn't wear a tie unless he was at a wedding or a funeral. He had been a rookie detective when my husband, Jack, was alive. He was ten years senior to Mike, but the difference in their appearances went beyond the ten-year age span.
Tommy was tall, but dark and muscular and chiseled intrasted with Mike's mischievous humor, and a directness that counteracted Mike's avoidance of conflict. Mike's blue eyes sparkled with his good nature and Tommy's black eyes flashed with his passions. The things that would seem to make my son and his partner so incompatible were the very things that made them such a great team. Their strengths filled one another's weaknesses. Their friendship had made them the best homicide team in the department.
"So, what's the kayaker's story?" I asked.
"Discovered the bones this morning on his way up to the dam," Tommy said as he greeted me.
"On his way up to the dam?" "Yeah, he and some other kayakers go up there to ride the waters that come through the floodgates," Mike explained.
"All this in spite of a sign right up there near the dam that specifically warns people not to do that."
"Yeah, well, there's nothing we can do to stop them," Tommy said. "Besides, this time one of them did us a favor by finding this person. Otherwise, spring rains come and they crank open three of those gates, and that whole area down there where he found the victimall underwater."
"Bones washing down the river, Mom."
"Thank you for the graphic explanation, son. I was having trouble figuring that out for myself."
Tommy smiled and continued, "The guy was paddling by, saw the bones, got up close, saw they looked human and called 911 on his cell phone."
"We don't consider him to be a suspect," my son added.
"Well, since he looks like he's about twenty-one or twenty-two years old, I'd say you're right."
Mike furrowed his brow at me. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Chris says the victim's been dead at least ten years, so the Crazy Kayaker would have been an adolescent at the time this person died. While it's possible that an adolescent can commit murder, I don't think it's probable under these circumstances."
"Why is it that you get all the good info before I do?"
"Because I ask, and because I hang out with the medical examiner."
"Mom, would you go sculpt something, please."
"You're just bent because you have to admit that Mom still knows something you don't know."
Mike gave me an eye roll and a sigh and Tommy started to laugh.
"Yeah, easy for you to laugh," my son said. "Your mom doesn't show up at crime scenes and bust your chops."
"No," Tommy said. "My mom waits until I come home for a nice Sunday dinner, and then she busts my chops."
"At least she's feeding you those killer tamales while she takes you down. By the way, she hasn't sent me any of those tamales latelyor has she, and you're just eating them all before I get any?"
Tommy smiled slyly and raised an eyebrow. "Hey, if you want any tamales, go see the woman in person and get your own. I'm not your errand boy."
"I haven't been invited. I was being polite."
"You don't need an invitation and you know it. My mom makes a bigger fuss over you than she does me. I have to go to your mom's house to get attention like that."
Mike looked at me. "You're feeding him and not inviting me?"
"Well, if you don't need an invitation at his mother's house, why would you need an invitation to come to your own childhood home? You can come over for dinner anytime you like."
"You're awfully grumpy this morning, young man."
"Some of us had to get up early, shower and actually get dressed before we came down here," he said, giving my casual attire the once-over.
Tommy laughed again. "Hey, man, don't be dissing your mom like that. Toni's totally cool, and a pretty goodlooking chick, if I may say so." "Ick! You may not say so. This is my mom, and you're my partner. Besides, you have a girlfriend."
"I'm not dead, Mike. I may have a girlfriend, but I know a good-looking woman when I see one."
"Thank you, Tommy."
"You're totally welcome, Toni. You raised this guy?"
"Man, I would have thought you and Jack would have whipped more respect into him than this." Tommy smiled, thoroughly enjoying himself.
"He's had issues lately, I guess."
"Yeah, and my issue is, I'm the only guy on the force working homicides with my mom, and taking abuse from my partner simultaneously."
I smiled, patted my son on the arm and said, "You're such an abused child. Such a sad life."
I started walking back to the car.
Tommy laughed out loud. "Later, Toni," Tommy yelled as I walked away. I turned and waved as I got into the Mustang.