One of the most exciting crime and mystery series debuts of the year. Think Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell
When a bundle of frozen body parts tumbles out the rear door of a van on a Los Angeles freeway, FBI agent Scott Houston knows just where to go for an off-the-record analysis:Agency 32/1, a non-profit missing persons identification resource center run by forensic anthropologists Jayne Hall and Steelie Lander.Jayne and Steelie quickly determine that the remains are human, though from several women. But Scott’s call has unintended consequences for the two women, putting their lives in jeopardy, as their unique skills uncover evidence leading directly to the killer . . .
|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)|
Read an Excerpt
By Clea Koff
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2011 Clea Koff
All rights reserved.
2005 DAY ONE Tuesday
The tang of warming eucalyptus intensified with the breeze and Jayne took her eyes off the California Highway Patrol officer to locate the shimmering trees half a block away where they flanked the 101 Freeway. She looked back at the officer. He was listening to the static-bound information emanating from his radio while his eyes traveled over the Jeep's roll bar, dipped into the back on to the twin toolboxes, then returned to Steelie's slim frame in the driver's seat, her hand resting casually on the gear stick but her expression hidden by the peak of a faded pink baseball cap.
'You're the scientists?' The CHP officer put the question even as he beckoned their escort.
A motorcycle rumbled to life a few feet away and its driver pulled in front of them, keeping a foot on the ground as he looked back, lower face serious under a helmet and sunglasses. Steelie gave a loose salute and the motorcycle moved forward.
They followed the bike's zigzag around the Highway Patrol sedans that had made a maze of the Sunkist building's parking lot. Near the northwest corner, the CHP bike peeled off, leaving them facing a wall of dark blue Chevrolet Suburbans. Steelie halted the Jeep. The Suburbans were stationary but their engines were humming and their headlights were on. Both women waited, expecting to see some movement from behind the heavily tinted windows. Nothing happened.
Steelie kept her own engine running. 'If this was Buenos Aires circa nineteen seventy-eight, we'd be running for our lives right about now.'
Jayne murmured agreement. After a moment, she pushed her sunglasses into her hair to constrain waves that had been whipped into something unruly when the open-topped Jeep had been bucking over surface joins on the freeway, then she leaned down to put double knots in her bootlaces.
Steelie abruptly turned off the engine. 'I see your man.'
Jayne paused on her second lace but refrained from sitting up. 'He's not my man.'
'Well, he's on his way over and ... looks to me like he's still sporting dark blond hair over a furrowed brow over green eyes over a smirk atop five feet eleven inches of I-don't-know-what's-under-that-suit-but-I'll-take-it.'
Amused, Jayne straightened up, assuming Steelie was exaggerating. She wasn't. At a distance, Special Agent Scott Houston appeared unchanged from when they'd last seen him at Quantico five years earlier. Jayne glanced at Steelie, who was taking off her cap; her short, choppy haircut exposed how the silver amongst the blonde was no longer relegated to the wisps above her ears that had generated the nickname when she was much younger. For her part, Jayne felt sixty-five, not thirty-five and figured she had some of the outward changes to go with it. Suddenly self-conscious, she alighted from the Jeep just as Scott reached its front bumper; close enough for her to catch his quick assessment of her from head to toe. They didn't speak as they shook hands slowly.
'Not bad,' he finally said.
Surprised, she smiled. 'You're not looking so bad yourself.'
His mouth almost twitched into a grin. 'I meant how fast you made it here. Speeding, were you, Steelie?'
He finally released Jayne's hand and turned to Steelie, who was coming around the car.
'You want our help or not, Houston?' She clasped his hand briefly.
He smiled. 'Follow me. I'll introduce you to the team.'
Jayne and Steelie walked behind him with their toolboxes over to the far side of the Suburbans where a huddle of four men broke up, lowering clipboards and clearing throats. Three of them were dressed like commandos and Scott introduced them as the 'Critters' from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Critical Stabilization and Recovery Unit, there to maintain chain of custody for any evidence collected that day. Scott then addressed his team, inclining his head toward the women.
'Jayne Hall and Steelie Lander. They run Agency Thirty-two One, an outfit that does forensic profiles of missing persons, matching them up with unidentified bodies or living Does. I called them in because they're forensic anthropologists and they do dental as well. Steelie here's a triple threat 'cause she's also a lawyer, so watch your P's and Q's. These are the people who're going to tell us if what we've got is human, so we defer to them at the scene. OK?'
There were polite nods all round, then Scott said he would take a minute to brief the newcomers. The Critters cleared the area but the one man Scott hadn't yet introduced kept his stance, feet spread, one hand held over the other in front of his body, causing the fabric of his suit to pull slightly over muscular arms. Jayne noticed his skin was almost as brown as her own, but his hair was dark and straight, and his eyes – she averted her own. He had been looking at her looking at him.
Scott said: 'My partner, Special Agent Ramos.'
Jayne started. 'You're Eric? Eric Ramos?'
He stepped forward to shake her hand. 'Uh-oh, what's he been saying about me?'
'No, I mean ... it's a pleasure to meet you.'
'In that case, Scott,' Eric glanced at him as he turned to greet Steelie. 'I'll get you your money later.'
'All right, let's get started,' Scott said. 'We're dealing with a single vehicle accident around five this a.m. on the One-oh-one right here behind us. A guy's car takes out part of the side railing. Guy tries to get out of a DUI charge by telling Highway Patrol he rear-ended a van, then had to swerve to avoid a body.'
'A body lying on the freeway?' Jayne asked.
'No, that's the thing. Guy says the body came out of the van he hit. Happened to have noticed the van earlier because it had a peach on the license plate and this guy just had a bellyful of peach schnapps.'
'Peach plate,' Steelie mused. 'Georgia?'
'Got it in one. So, there was no sign of a body but CHP reports that the side railing scraped off part of the front of this guy's car. Anything could have dropped down under the freeway because it's one of the sections with a berm sloping off it on the north side. Lots of vegetation, creating a basic ravine situation. They secured the area as soon as their flashlights picked up what they thought were BP's.'
Jayne glanced toward the ravine. 'How many body parts are we talking about?'
Eric answered her. 'We don't know yet.'
'OK,' said Steelie slowly. 'I don't want to seem uninterested but why were you so insistent on calling us in? Why not Rudin or Sweetzer? This is their beat.'
'Coroner's office can't spare Rudin because of the crematorium investigation and they said Sweetzer's on her honeymoon. But ... there's another reason.' Scott crossed his arms and took a deep breath, only to look up at the sky.
Jayne looked to Eric. He was focused on a tarmac fissure at her feet.
Scott exhaled his story like a confession. 'Eric and I have some open cases from Georgia involving body parts. All female, none yet identified. We believe they're related to the disappearance of a number of prostitutes in and around Atlanta. We figured it for one serial killer, not a bunch of Johns who just didn't want to pay the sex workers.'
Jayne scanned Scott's face. 'You never told me about this case.'
He looked away.
Eric took up the slack. 'Look, our boss wasn't convinced by our reading of the facts so he scaled back our investigation. Finding this perp became the Holy Grail for us. Then we got transferred to LA and that killer's still out there.'
Steelie asked, 'What makes you think the material in the ravine is related to your Georgia cases?'
'If the stuff is human, then it's the MO of dismemberment in combination with the type of vehicle: multiple witnesses recalled the missing Atlanta women last being seen getting into a van.'
Scott added, 'When CHP notified us this morning that there was a van wearing Georgia plates involved in this mess, we made it Federal and put on our thinking caps.' He finally met Jayne's eyes. 'Thus the early morning call to you.'
Jayne nodded slowly. 'So you want us to confirm human, non-human, sex? What else? Because this isn't our area anymore. We're dealing with families, not bodies.'
'Ever noticed how the wick goes all the way through a candle?' Scott asked.
She frowned at the apparent non sequitur.
He re-started, 'A candle couldn't burn if the wick didn't go all the way through. That's why you can burn it from either end.'
'Is that supposed to mean something in this context?'
Eric cut in. 'He's trying to say that we're all doing the same thing, just starting at different ends. You're trying to make ID's by starting with missing persons; we're starting with their bodies. And I've heard from Scott that you two have done more than your fair share of body work with the UN. If anyone's qualified to check out this site, it's you guys.'
'So,' Scott said. 'Can we do this?'
Jayne and Steelie nodded and Scott called over one of the Critters who arrived holding some flat nylon straps with clips on the ends. He spoke with a deep voice when he identified himself as Agent Weiss. 'When we get over to the site, you'll see that the best way to get up there is for me to winch you up. Can I get you two fitted out?' He unfurled the straps to show they were fixed into a harness that resembled underpants.
Steelie stepped forward to get into the rig as the others watched and she leaned on Weiss' shoulder for balance. 'Y'know, Scott, you didn't have to go to all this trouble just to see me in some underwear.'
Eric choked back a surprised laugh. 'Hang on. How long have you guys known each other?'
Steelie replied, 'Since Houston here was still in training pants.'
'Not training,' Scott corrected. 'Trainee. And it was a uniform.'
'It was a training gun, though, right?'
Eric looked over at his partner. 'Is she talking about the red ones we use at Quantico?'
'Before your time, Ramos.' He looked at Jayne. 'Can't you rein her in?'
'No,' Jayne said, stepping into her own harness. 'I can't.'
But by now Steelie had Eric's attention. 'When Jayne and I were at Quantico, we watched a classmate of Scott's run a semi-covert op to steal his gun.'
His eyes widened as he looked at Scott. 'From the back of your pants?'
'She didn't succeed,' Scott downplayed. 'And then I stole hers.'
'Yeah!' Steelie rejoined. 'And she yelled at him from the other side of the bar like it was NASA Control. "Houston? We got a problem." So then he —'
'Eric doesn't need the rest of that story,' Scott interrupted. 'You ready, Jayne?'
They followed a CHP officer to the edge of the parking lot and clambered over a low concrete wall to descend into the ravine. They hiked along the bottom for a short distance. Past the Sunkist property line the ravine narrowed and became more overgrown; eucalyptus, vinca, shreds of plastic bags, all sprouting with equal vigor. It was darker and cooler because the sun hadn't filtered down yet. The group fell silent.
The officer slowed and called back to them, pointing to the left where the berm led up to the freeway. 'The material's up there. We marked a wide perimeter with flags. The slope is steep and it is slippery.' He stepped to the side, using the trunk of a small tree as a handhold.
Jayne and Steelie hung back while the Critters moved in to do their work. Then Scott turned to the anthropologists and said, 'OK, Thirty-two One, tell us what we got.'
The two women moved to the front of the group, the clicks of the power buttons on their flashlights echoed by clicks on others' as people followed their lead. Ten seconds passed as they looked up the berm from below. Brown leaves, wet leaves, wet tissue exhibiting pale, red blotches.
'Well, it's human. I can tell you that from here,' declared Jayne.
'In that case,' Scott said, 'I authorize you to take a closer look.'
Weiss clipped their harnesses to a rappelling rope and checked all the connections. Once they were lined up with Jayne in front, he started winching and she and Steelie climbed the slope. As soon as they were parallel to the body parts, they leaned toward them at various angles.
Steelie called down to the others. 'We're not going to touch anything because you guys will have to detail-photo this first, OK?'
'Ten-four, ma'am,' came the reply.
'OK,' Jayne murmured to Steelie. 'I'm seeing two arms, present from the shoulder down, all fingers present. A chunk of thigh and knee ... left. You seeing the same thing?'
'Yeah, plus I've got another chunk of torso down here. Everything's wet.'
'Is it just wet around the BP's? Or is that condensation?' They both looked around. Everything else was dry and dusty, like Southern California should be in the summer.
'What's the deal?' asked Jayne. 'The parts aren't fresh but they don't look like they're decomping either.'
'They're not,' Steelie replied. 'Listen. Do you hear that?' She held her hand up and Jayne stopped moving, cocking her head to the side.
In between the rushes of sound that accompanied the passing traffic on the freeway above them, there was a distinct sound. Sip, sip ... sip ... sip, sip. Then, before their eyes, out of the tissue visible in the cross- section of the exposed left knee, came a droplet. It was a watery red shimmer, hanging, then dropping from the tissue on to the bed of leaves below.
'Not decomping ...' said Steelie. 'Defrosting.'
They straightened up.
Jayne called out, 'Houston.'
'Yo,' came his voice from below.
'We got a problem.' She wasn't smiling.CHAPTER 2
Scott watched Steelie's Jeep leave the Sunkist parking lot as he wrapped up the call on his cell phone. He summoned his team from where they were talking to Highway Patrol.
'OK, we've got the green light from Quantico to process this scene.' He held up his hand as two of the Critters began to move toward the open rear doors of their vehicle. 'Hang on. After we get the material, it's going to the LA County coroner, not Virginia, so bag it for local transport, not shipment.'
Eric looked like he wanted to ask a question but Agent Sparks got in first. 'You want us to stick to the perimeter CHP established?'
Scott asked Weiss, 'What'd you see when you put up the rappelling line?'
'The body parts look like they were thrown down from above. Maybe they've rolled a bit but I didn't see signs that this was the dismemberment site.' Weiss gestured an invitation to the Critter to his left, who was holding a stack of plastic photo markers with surgical-gloved hands.
Lee nodded. 'I haven't seen anything beyond the immediate area where they're dripping. And CHP kept their perimeter well wide of that. I wouldn't go wider.'
'All right,' Scott said. 'Let's use their perimeter line and note that. But Lee, I want you to photo-doc outside the perimeter as well.'
'You got it.'
Scott headed back to the ravine. Eric walked briskly to catch up and fall into step beside him.
'You told Quantico this might be related to the Georgia cases?' 'Yes,' Scott replied.
'So, they're not biting.'
'Did you explain about the cuts?'
Eric continued. 'I think you should climb up and take a look yourself.'
Scott climbed over the wall in a swift movement and carried on toward the ravine. 'I was about to do just that.'
Jayne swore as she unlocked the door of the low-slung brick building while balancing two Styrofoam cups of coffee and the bag of donuts. She'd just registered how bright the sign above the door was: Agency 32/1, emphatically illuminated by both daylight and spotlight.
The Agency wasn't much to look at but it had a good view: the back-end of Dodger Stadium and surrounds – low hills of eucalyptus and oleander sectioned by midsummer's nut-brown scrubland. If you left the stadium and went to the Agency as the crow flies, you'd cross the 5 Freeway, the Los Angeles River, the rail yards, and San Fernando Road before landing in the front parking lot. Just five spaces, two marked Reserved and three marked Visitor. One reserved space was home to Steelie's Jeep, the other, Jayne's old cream-colored Ford truck.
'I forgot to turn off the lights earlier,' Jayne called out to Steelie, who was approaching with their toolboxes.
'The real question is –' Steelie exchanged the boxes for the donut bag and peered inside with a practiced eye – 'did you remember to get me a lemon-filled?'
'Is today Tuesday?'
They went into the building, Jayne crossing in front of the counter where their volunteer receptionist would sit when she arrived at 9 a.m. Carol was a retired grief counselor who claimed she would rather sit all day at the Agency than at home. She dealt with phone calls, incoming and outgoing mail, file creation, petty cash, tea, and the watering of the one plant: a big aloe named Fitzgerald.
Excerpted from Freezing by Clea Koff. Copyright © 2011 Clea Koff. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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