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Texas Ranger captain Claude Groves glanced at the initial report from Terrell County Sheriff Walter Casey, idly wondering how long it had been since a Texas Ranger investigated a scalping. A hundred years? This was 1992, at least a century past an era when Indians scalped white settlers across the west Texas frontier and yet here was a written request for the DPS Crime Lab in Austin to perform an autopsy and attempt identification of a body found in a shallow cave outside of Sanderson with its scalp neatly excised, not merely eaten away by scavengers. And there was more--the penis and testicles had been severed, placed in the victim's mouth as some sort of gruesome signature, along with an opening in the body cavity made by a sharp instrument. Four photographs taken at a Sanderson funeral parlor proved Sheriff Casey was not given to exaggeration. A bloated corpse that looked like something out of a horror movie lay on a mortician's table, only vaguely human in appearance, extremities and some facial features partially missing where feeding ants or scavengers had made a meal of decaying flesh. The dead man's scalp had been removed with almost surgical precision, but it was the sight of his genitals dangling from his lips that gave Claude an eerie feeling, that made him think what had been captured in these photographs was the work of a madman. A killer whose mind would defy all conventional methods to track him.
He looked across his desk at a pretty blond woman. She had been watching him expectantly while he examined the report and he knew she wanted an explanation for his lengthy silence. "This'll be one for the record books," he said, closing the folder as he considered thewisdom of showing her the pictures, deciding against it until they'd had more time to talk. It wasn't as if he didn't know her, or know about her qualifications to examine a case file. She was three days away from certification as a Texas Ranger, the first woman appointed to the state's most reknowned police force. The furor her commission created still hadn't fully died down in the press. To complicate matters for Claude, she was the daughter of his mentor and first training officer with the Texas Rangers, Captain Alfred Jenkins. He'd known Carla Jenkins almost from the day she was born, although he hadn't seen her for a number of years, not since her graduation from high school and a stint with the El Paso Police Department. Carla hadn't been told she was being assigned to Claude as her field training officer. Claude and Alfred had arranged it in secret with Major Tom Elliot weeks ago.
"A tough case?" she asked, a slight frown wrinkling her forehead.
"A little on the gory side, but you see all sorts of blood and guts with this job." He recalled a few odd details from her personnel folder . . . thirty years old, divorced, no children, seven years as a traffic cop in El Paso. He hadn't expected her to be quite so pretty, remembering her as a tomboy who liked to climb trees and ride horses. Her file photo--the one hidden in his desk drawer--did not flatter her. If she wasn't Alfred's daughter he might have . . .
When he made no move to show her the case file she leaned back in the chair with one foot resting on her knee, a foot that twitched unconsciously, showing how nervous she was. Perhaps it was because this was their first meeting after more than a dozen years, or perhaps it was the circumstances, with her appointment as a Texas Ranger. "I've seen plenty of blood, Captain," she said. "I don't think anything can shock me."
It could have been her way of asking to see the case file, but again he opted against it. When she was told of her assignment to Headquarters Company with Claude as her training officer, he'd show it to her. He wondered if she would smell a rat, realize that her assignment had been arranged. And he wondered if this would be the right kind of case to break in a rookie, after looking at the photographs.
"If I'm in town I'll come to your graduation," he said, to turn their discussion in another direction. "Your dad won't be driving to Austin because of his eyes, I suspect."
"I asked him not to come," she said quietly, averting her gaze to an office window. She offered no further explanation and Claude didn't press her. All the public pressure, attention from the newspapers, and several notable resignations by distinguished Rangers with long, outstanding service records had been hard on her.
"I'll be there if I can," he said again.
She looked at him briefly. "There's no need, Captain. I'd just as soon go through it alone. Thanks anyway."
"I guess the boys have made it a little rough on you. It'll pass."
Her face darkened. "I can handle it," she said, coming to her feet abruptly. She offered her hand. "Thanks for seeing me, Captain Groves. They haven't given me a company assignment yet so I don't know where I'll be going. I promised Dad I'd drop by before I left Austin. For old time's sake."
Claude hoped his blush didn't show when he stood up to take her handshake, or that the truth--that he knew where, and to whom, she was being assigned--wouldn't show in his eyes. "Good to see you again, Carla. The next time I talk to Alfred I'll tell him you came to see me. If I can ever do anything to help, let me know."
Her emerald eyes betrayed a moment of suspicion before she turned for the door, then she smiled and it was a pretty smile, full of sparkling white teeth in an oval, suntanned face with high cheekbones. Her badge was pinned to a white short-sleeve shirt that did little to hide a generous bosom, but Claude was quick to avoid more than a passing glance at her body. She was, after all, Alfred's daughter.
She closed the door behind her, leaving him with several impressions. Some problem existed between Carla and her father, one she didn't care to talk about. Nor had Alfred ever mentioned it, other than to vent his disappointment when she entered the police academy in El Paso, married a man he disliked and moved so far away from Brownwood that he seldom saw her. All her life she had been the apple of Alfred's eye and Claude guessed it must have wounded Alfred when she moved away.
He picked up the case file on the Terrell County investigation again, but not before he gave one last thought to how much Carla Jenkins had changed. If only things had been a little different, he might have made an attempt at a slow seduction: a dinner date, perhaps a night of dancing to slow country tunes. He opened the file and dismissed the notion entirely. What kind of man would try to seduce his best friend's daughter? Maybe if he were a little younger. . . .
He shook his head and turned back to the photographs, examining them one at a time. It was abundantly clear the killer meant for his victim to suffer, unless--the man was already dead when the mutilation occurred?
The victim's identity would hold the key to everything. If Claude ferreted out the details of the dead man's activities prior to the killing, who he knew, where he lived, the places he frequented, someone would give him a scrap of information that would lead to the murderer. It worked every time, if you looked closely enough.
Terrell County was a virtual wasteland. Sanderson, the county seat, was a tiny place with only a few thousand residents in a section of Texas bordering both the Rio Grande and Mexico. It seemed an unlikely place for something like this to happen, and a hard place for a killer to hide.
One notation in Sheriff Casey's report surprised him. No one had been reported missing anywhere in Terrell County or in any of the surrounding counties Casey notified. That the victim might be a stranger seemed odd, making a motive harder to figure.
Claude stared at the corpse's face for several minutes, oblivious to the traffic sounds outside his office windows. It almost looked like a Hollywood movie creation, a monster made of wax or gray latex, formed to look like a creature risen from the grave.
The report from DPS Crime Lab would clear up several things, whether the victim was alive or dead when he was mutilated, and how long he'd been dead. Fingerprints and dental records would then put Claude and Carla on the killer's trail, mostly routine investigative work, little real danger for Carla until the killer had a name. Then Claude could devise some excuse for making the actual arrest himself.
Now all that remained was to drive out to Brownwood tomorrow to tell Alfred about his meeting with Carla, and about the first case they'd be working on. It was the sort of thing Claude could have done over the phone, he supposed, but it would be good to see his old friend again--a lonely man after a bullet wound forced his early retirement, and his divorce from Alice. In truth, Claude still missed those years he and Alfred had spent together as Rangers, and he was certain Alfred missed them every bit as much as he did.
Later, in a bathroom down the hall, he glanced at his reflection while washing his hands, thinking about Carla. He was twenty years her senior, showing his age more and more lately, a thick mane of black hair turning gray around the temples, deeper lines around his eyes and mouth. It was foolish to think that she might find him physically attractive. Too much difference in age even though he was still reasonably fit: muscular, six feet two in his socks--a little flabby in places, perhaps. But he stayed in good shape because of the demands placed on him by the nature of his job.
"She's Alfred's daughter," he said to the mirror. But even spoken aloud, the words didn't dismiss the attraction he felt for her.