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Parking behind the house, I crawled out of the battered SUV, slung my canvas bag of forensic nursing supplies over a shoulder and blinked into the early morning light. Jas ran from the house and jogged over to me. Bending, she kissed me once on the forehead. "Bye, little mama. I haven't fed the dogs."
"You never feed the dogs anymore," I grumbled, feeling the age difference as she loped to her truck, looking lithe and nimble. And skinny in her size-five jeans. Waggling her fingers at me through the driver window, she gunned the motor of her new little GMC truck and spun out of the drive, heading to early class at the University of South Carolina. "And good morning to you, too. How was Sunday night at the hospital, Mama? It was lovely, Jasmine. Thank you for asking," I said to the trail of dust in her wake.
Thinking I was talking to them, Big Dog, Cheeks and Cherry yapped at my hips, thighs and knees according to their height, demanding attention, which I absently gave while I yawned, a pat here, an ear-scratch there. Abandoned dogs needing a home made the best pets, and I took in as many dogs as I could, even adopting some from the county, when K-9 dogs became too old to work. The well-behaved animals romped and writhed in delight as I trudged to the house. They reeked of something they had rolled in, probably dead rabbit or squirrel, and wanted me to play a game of fetch but the shoe they brought was stinky.
"Bring me a stick. That thing is nasty." I nudged it away with my white nurse's shoe.
Big Dog, my half moose, half monster protector nudged it back, his floppy ears dangling, long tail wagging. Cheeks stopped my progress, a wriggling clot of hound-dogmuscle in front of me. Cherry bounced up and down on her front feet, still yapping her high-pitched bark. "Hush. Okay. One toss," I said, "then I bury this thing."
I bent and lifted the shoe. A smell gusted out, sickly, almost sweet. I knew that scent. The scent of old death. The world seemed to slow as I held the small red sneaker. It was no longer than my hand, filthy, laces snarled with leaves and twigs. Reeking of the grave.
A child's shoe.
Turning it over, I looked inside. Tissue. Something soft and rotten. A sycamore leaf twisted into the laces. A deep scuff along one rubber sole, some gummy substance ground into the uneven ridges. Decayed-meat smell. The early morning air shivered along my shoulders.
I returned to the SUV and opened the hatch, placing the shoe on the floor. This was dumb. This wasn't
It couldn't be. I was too tired and not thinking straight. I moved the photocopies of the family genealogy charts to the side so I wouldn't dirty them or contaminate the evidence. If there was evidence.
I dumped out everything from the canvas tote I still carried and dropped the bag beside the spare tire attached to the sidewall. From the pile, I pulled a pair of blue non-latex gloves, tweezers, evidence bags, a tape measure and a sterile plastic sheet on which I set the shoe. I added a small handheld tape recorder and my new digital camera, part of the tools of the trade for a forensic nurse. I checked the time. Then I hesitated. I felt the chill air beneath my scrub shirt as I rested my hands on the rubberized ledge of the hatch. "This can't be what I think it is."
Big Dog huffed at my words and finally brought me a stick, sitting politely, with one paw raised. Though I called him part moose, he was part mongrel and part Great Pyrenees, and his head was higher than my waist. I tossed the stick once and the dogs ran, baying.
Should I call the cops? Stop right here and call the sheriff's office? If I contaminated evidence after graduating with honors from the forensic nursing course, I'd feel like a failure as well as an idiot.
I blew out a breath of air. Okay. I knew how to preserve evidence.
I was too tired to think and my feet hurt and my lower back ached. All I wanted to do was drop the shoe and go to bed. The smell from the shoe permeated the SUV as I stood there, hesitant, staring at the red sneaker.
What if I called the cops and it was just a shoe from the illegal dump near the new development at the back of the farm? And the tissue was an old half-rotten hamburger that had gotten shoved inside, or a dead mouse? I'd feel even more like an idiot. I didn't waste much effort on pride but I'd be embarrassed if I called law enforcement all the way out here to look at trash brought up by the dogs. The guys on the call would never let me live it down. I had worked as a volunteer for the Dawkins County Rescue Squad long enough to know I'd receive a new nickname and it wouldn't be flattering.
It was probably nothing. A mouse. The remains of someone's lunch. My chill subsided. I pulled on the gloves and dated, timed and initialed two evidence bags. I marked one bag FOLIAGE FROM LACES. Just in case. I snapped two shots with the digital camera and checked the viewer, making sure the sneaker would be visible, acceptable in a court of law. Not that I would need it. I was absolutely I was almost sure.
Turning on the tape recorder, volume up high, I set it to the side, gave the time, date, my name, location and a short account of how I came into possession of the shoe. Extending the tape measure, I held it against the bottom of the shoe and took a photograph of the two together so the size could never be lost.
At the same time, I said the dimensions aloud for the recording and noted that it was a left shoe. Somehow that seemed important, though I was certain that was the mother in me reacting, not the forensic nurse.
With the tweezers, I pried apart the shoelaces, putting the leaves and twigs in the first paper bag. Using my fingers, I worked the snarled knot from the laces, gathering the material that fell out and adding it to the evidence bag, even small grains of dirt and grit and what looked like pale yellow sand. When the laces were unknotted, I pushed apart the stiff sides, exposing the tongue curled deep into the toe.
I snapped another photograph and labeled the second evidence bag CONTENTS: SHOE, TONGUE. Prying with the tweezers, I pulled on the cloth tongue, easing it out, gathering the scant granules and vegetable matter that escaped and put them into the second bag. The tongue twisted out, awkward and un-yielding, wrapped around something, and I stepped back, letting the early morning sun touch the thing I had exposed.
Painted a bright, iridescent blue, the nail was separated from the surrounding tissue by decomposition. A lively shade, bright as the Mediterranean Sea. Blackened tissue. It was a child's toe.
In the distance the dogs barked, a horse neighed, a door slammed. A crow called, the sound like mocking laughter, grating.
After a long moment, I found a breath, strident, harsh. The air ripping along my throat. My vision narrowed, darkening around the edges, focusing on the bright blue toenail. I leaned forward, catching my weight on the tailgate. I wanted to throw up. I sat down on the dirt at my feet, landing hard, jarring my spine.
The cool air now felt unexpectedly warm and I broke out in a hot sweat. My breath sped up, hyper-ventilating from shock. A mockingbird song I hadn't heard until now sounded too loud, too coarse. In the distance, a horse tossed her head and snorted. Cherry, the small terrier, nudged my leg and romped around the SUV, yapping. I hadn't been practicing forensic nursing a month yet, and here I had a toe in a shoe. Nothing I had studied told me what to do next.
Where had the dogs found the shoe?
There was no doubt. I had something important, something horrible, in my truck. A part of a little girl I shuddered. A part of a little girl
And I had tampered with evidence. "Well " I said, wanting to say something stronger. I added another, softer, "Well," not knowing any appropriate swear words that might cover this situation. What do you say when your dogs bring you part of a little girl? I fought rising nausea, swallowing down vile-tasting saliva. A shudder gripped me. Part of a little girl I dropped my head and tried to slow my breathing.
When my vision cleared and the faintness passed, I stood again, pulling up on the tail of the truck, my knees popping as they had started to do in the last few months. Nausea rolled through me and faded. "Okay," I said. "Okay. I can do this." I wasn't convinced, but I also knew it was far too late to stop.
With surprisingly steady hands, I rewound the tape in the recorder, found the place where I'd last spoken and took up my narrative. I turned to the shoe, describing what I had discovered. Forcing myself to breathe deeply and slowly, I took digital photos and checked to see that all the shots so far were in focus. That the shoe measurements were clear, that the toe was visible in the tongue of the shoe. I added the length and depth of the toe to my recording, doing the job I had learned in the forensics and evidence-collection class. I pulled a Chain of Custody form out of the pile of my forensic supplies and filled it out, comparing the times with the time on the photos.
Carefully, still narrating, I curled the tongue back into the shoe and placed the shoe into a third evidence bag I labeled SMALL RED SHOE/TOE. I gathered up the plastic sheet and placed it into another bag. I placed all the evidence bags into a large plastic bag labeled EVIDENCE in big red letters.
I pulled my gloves off, one at a time, gripping the wristband of the left, pulling it down and inside out, over my fingers. Holding the left glove in the right fist, I pulled that one down over my fingers and over the other glove, securing it inside the right, to keep the evidence I had touched in place. The scent in place. They went into a final evidence bag with a separate Chain of Custody form. I switched off the tape recorder and repacked my forensic supplies, setting the final bag on the top of the truck.
Closing the SUV hatch with the evidence inside, I took the bagged gloves and COC with me into the house, then washed my hands thoroughly at the kitchen sink, carrying the last bit of evidence with me as I moved.
With Jas already gone for the morning, the house was empty and quiet. Her bowl, smeared with yogurt and blueberry cereal, was in the sink, filled with water, next to her glass. I wasn't interested in eating, though my daughter had left a box of Cheerios on the table with a clean bowl and spoon. My baby taking care of me, as she had since Jack had died, reminding me to eat.
The transition from child to caretaker had come early in Jas's life, forced on her by her daddy's death four years ago and my withdrawal into grief. I had spent the last two years letting her know I was fine now, but the habits learned in fear in the weeks after Jack's funeral had proved impossible to break. I touched the bowl, almost smiling, took a deep breath and let it out slowly, letting my fingers fall away. I breathed again. Stress management. Sure. That would work. I took a third breath and forced it out hard.
There were a lot of things I had to do. The first one was to stop and think clearly. Not an easy task after a twelve-hour shift that had included two gunshot victims from a gang-related shoot-out, a three-car pileup and a near-drowning. But there wasn't a hurry. No one was going to die if I paused and took the time to collect myself.
So I showered, slathered on sunscreen, dressed in jeans and tank top, then pulled one of my husband's old flannel shirts over it, letting the tail hang out. Riding clothes. Things I could wear all day, if needed. I paused once to sniff the fabric. I had washed the few things of Jack's I wanted before packing all the others off to friends and relatives. The shirt no longer smelled of him. I slipped on heavy socks and short-heeled western riding boots, found my hat, grabbed outdoor supplies and went back into the morning, feeling better now that I had decided what to do.
In the sunlight, still carrying the gloves, I made my way to the barn and checked on Johnny Ray to make sure he had done the chores. There were days when the stable hand was so far gone in the bottle that he never woke up, which had happened in a permanent way to his twin brother not so very long ago. Today Johnny Ray was sober, which could mean DTs tomorrow, but he was capable at the moment, and that was all that mattered. I had other constantly sober help, but Johnny had no place else to go. If I fired him, it would toss him down into total ruin faster. And when he was sober, he was an excellent stable hand. "Morning, Johnny Ray," I said. "Saddle Mabel for me, will you?" I asked, choosing an old Friesian Jack had purchased years ago.
"You're gonna ride?" he asked, surprised. "For fun?"
I hated to ride, so the question was legitimate. "Not for fun," I said.
Though huge enough to pull a fully loaded wagon or carry a knight wearing a suit of plate armor and weapons, Mabel was a placid mount and took easily to saddle and bit. She was too old for much work, but I needed her calm nature this morning. When he was done, I told Johnny Ray to lock the other dogs in the tack room with water and food and put a long leash on Cheeks. If he thought my orders peculiar, he didn't say, just moved from task to task with an unrelenting, steady pace. While he worked, I made the first call to law enforcement.
"This is Ashlee Davenport and I'd"
"Hi, Ash. How you doing?"
"'At's me. Miss you at the hospital. Ain't been the same since you left and went to the big city to work. What can we do for you?"
"Thank you, Buzzy. I'm at the farm, and the dogs brought something to me this morning. A child's red sneaker with a part of a human foot inside."
Buzzy went dead quiet. As his silence lengthened, I walked from the barn, cell phone held close to my ear. Buzzy was a paramedic who worked part-time for 911 and in various dispatch jobs for law enforcement. One could call dispatch any time and stand a chance of having Buzzy answer the phone. "You hear me?" I asked.
"Yeah, I hear you. You joking? Something about this new forensic course you took?"
"No joke. I wish it was. I found it at 7:52. The shoe and evidence are in the back of my old SUV in evidence bags, timed and dated, with audio description and a Chain of Custody."
"You got a shoe with part of a foot. No body?"
"Not with me, no," I said, managing to sound wry and jaded instead of near tears. "But I have a couple ideas where it might be."
"How ? Never mind." I could almost see Buzzy scratching his head as he pondered how to investigate and interrogate a toe. "I'll get an investigator out your way ASAP. And maybe a crime-scene crew?" He was still perplexed. I'd had longer than him to figure out what came next and understood that I didn't have a crime scene. All I had was a toe.
"Dogs, Buzzy. The canine team. To find the body. I've got four hundred acres here. There are farms on the east and the south, and an illegal garbage dump nearby. Not to mention I-77 close by, where a body could be tossed."