Lyle walked along the side of the bluff, singing to himself and occasionally kicking a rock to tumble down below. The bottle swinging carelessly from his hand was about two-thirds empty. He was happily mangling a Beatles song when he caught sight of someone laying near the abandoned storage facility.
He swigged another gulp, then started walking over to get a better look. As he came down the path, the bottle fell from his fingers and rolled down, coming to rest by a hubcap. He stumbled over and dropped to his knees, feeling for a pulse. He placed his hands to start doing compressions before realization penetrated his fogged mind. He fumbled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“She’s dead,” he babbled. “She’s dead she’s really dead.”
“Lyle? Is that you?”
“At Mel’s storage. She’s dead. Send somebody, she’s dead she’s really dead,” he kept repeating.
“If this is another paper bag full of leaves…”
Leona’s voice came over the other end of the radio, “Cora, he really did sound upset. He dropped his phone.”
Cora ran her fingers through her close-cropped hair and sighed. “We are on our way. ETA seven minutes.” She glanced over at the dark-haired young man in the passenger seat. “I almost had you.” She restarted the vehicle and threw a quick look over her shoulder before pulling onto the road.
David saved the chess game before putting the tablet back in its case. “I think you are misreading the board.” He tucked the tablet under the passenger seat. “I’m surprised he’s called in again so soon. I thought you put the fear of Cora into him last time.”
“He’s drunk again. Still.” Cora muttered, turning onto the highway. “I’m hauling him in this time.”
“Did he actually say it was a person?” David asked. “That hound of Tammy’s is missing.”
Cora sighed, then nodded. “I hope it’s a bag of leaves. I don’t want to have to tell Tammy it’s her dog.” She turned off onto the side road.
“There he…” David trailed off. “Shit.”
“Blood,” Cora acknowledged, pulling the vehicle into the lot. David was out and moving before she put it in park. By the time she reached them, he had Lyle sitting on an old crate and was gently calming the man down.
“From the bluffs,” Lyle was saying. “Thought… don’t know. Passed out. It was all red.” He looked down at his hands. “She’s all red. Tried to do the CPR but it was all red.”
“Lyle, it’s alright,” David said softly. “Why don’t you come, sit in the back? We’ve got the air conditioner running.”
“Yeah, s’ot out,” Lyle slurred, then let David help him to the car. Cora opened the door for David to get the drunk man in.
“Take it easy,” David said. “Just sit tight. Here,” he said, grabbing the paper from where he’d tucked it that morning. “Check out the funnies. We’ll be right back.” He shut the door, then looked at Cora.
“Let’s go take a look,” she said. David followed her around the storage building. They both stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of the body. “Shit,” Cora said.
“Jenny Benton,” David said. He turned away from the sight and swallowed before adding. “Frank’s daughter.”
Cora nodded, then reached for her phone.
“I can’t even recall the last time I opened this.” Cora looked down at the crime scene kit.
“Want me to do it? I’ve had the class more recently.”
“Knock yourself out.” Cora handed the kit to David. “I’ll get the camera out.” She frowned. “I think most of the carnies have to be fingerprinted for their business licenses.”
“Assuming it’s a carnival worker.” David opened the kit and cursed at the disarray inside. Items had been jostled together as it had banged around in the trunk of the vehicle. The kit wasn’t any kind of official, just something Cora had put together. “What is this brush made of? Mammoth hair?”
“Don’t make me spank you, kiddo.” She grabbed a roll of crime scene tape. “When was the last time we actually had to investigate? Usually we’ve got a dozen witnesses and a confession by this point.”
“We should probably check for DNA.” David frowned as he put on a pair of gloves. Then he tossed his partner another pair.
“That’s the ME’s job.” Cora frowned. She started snapping pictures as she looked around the scene, careful not to disturb anything. “Think she was raped?”
“I hope not.” David swallowed, wincing. Then he nodded toward the corpse. “Her clothing doesn’t look like it was removed and then redressed. Her boyfriend is off at basic training.” David lifted a print from the thrown book. “Doesn’t look right.”
Cora took the print and looked it over. “Leather glove. You know her?”
“Not really. I think she was a member of one of the same after school clubs as Naomi.” David shook his head as he stood up. The contents of Naomi’s small bag had been spilled and a couple items trampled or kicked. There was what looked like the very edge of a boot print on one of the magazines. “I doubt we’ll get a useable print off anything else around here, but I’ll try anyway.”
Cora continued photographing the scene. “She hasn’t been here long. Not many bugs yet.”
“Naomi went to a pool party this morning. Big whole school kind of thing.” David picked up a bit of fabric with the tweezers and put it into a bag. Jenny was only a couple years older than Naomi. “My guess is Jenny was on her way to or from.”
“We’ll check it out. If our backup ever arrives. Heh, backup.” Cora put the camera away, then shielded her eyes to look down the road. “When was the last time we had to call for backup?”
“When Jason and Marcus went on a bender.” Both men were belligerent drunks. David frowned as he looked over the corpse again. He resisted the urge to pick up her hands for a closer look. “I don’t see any defensive wounds.”
“What?” Cora turned back toward him.
“Violence like this, I’d expect bruises on her arms and hands, where she tried to block.”
“So…” Cora’s eyes narrowed, and her fists clenched into fists before she caught herself.
“So most of this is overkill. She was down from the first blow. Probably the one to the back of her…” David shook his head as he surveyed the scene again. “I don’t see a weapon.”
“Killer took it? What is your best guess?”
“Length of pipe I thought, plenty to choose from.” Just none near the body. There were also some bits of lumber, but he didn’t see any splinters or anything on the dead girl. “Maybe a baseball bat?”
“She never saw it coming. I guess that leaves out rape.” Cora shuddered. “Maybe.”
“Warm out, few bugs, she’s only been dead a few hours, and we got the call what, an hour ago?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Didn’t have much time to hide the weapon.” Cora chewed on her lower lip. “Must have taken it with. Drove?”
“Better check for tire prints before the others get here and muck it up.”
“I’ve got the camera, I’ll do it. Hand me one of the mold kits. See any footprints?”
“Too much gravel, not enough dirt.” David took off the gloves he’d been wearing, then grabbed a fresh pair and a couple evidence bags. “I’ll walk a spiral, see if I can’t find any blood drops or anything.”
“No prints, so, looking for a weapon and bloody leather gloves.” She spoke as though she hadn’t dragged him to dozens of training seminars.
“Bloody is right.” David directed an angry look toward the dead girl. “No way the killer walked away from this clean.”
“Somebody had to see something, right?”
“The woods?” He nodded before heading in that direction.
“Okay, I’ll check for tires, you walk the wood line. No way he hoofed it out that messy up the road and didn’t get spotted.”
“Had to get lucky in a car, make it all the way home and into the garage without anybody noticing.”
“Phone lines will let us know who saw what.”
She noted the other vehicles coming in, and waved her partner back over. Cora looked up as Heather approached and stopped a couple feet back from the area Cora and David had cordoned off. “Hey boss.”
“Talk to me,” Heather said, her eyes locked firmly on the corpse.
“Jenny Benton, seventeen,” Cora reported.
“Frank and Margie’s girl?” Heather sighed, then gave a shake of her head. “Shit.”
“Looks like she was cutting through here and someone caught her by surprise.” David apparently hadn’t found anything to put into his evidence bags. Not a good sign.
“Was she…” Heather gritted her teeth.
“No obvious signs,” Cora said. “We’ll need to wait for the ME report to know.”
Heather nodded, then turned to look east. “That carnival is set up only a mile from here.”
David nodded. “A lot of the kids are at Summerland Park. End of school party. Could have been on her way there, or on her way back.”
“Check it out. I’ll break the news to Frank,” Heather said. She looked from Cora to David and back again. “Are you two going to be able to handle this?”
It wasn’t as though there were a lot of options. They didn’t actually have a dedicated crime scene investigation team. They’d never actually needed one before. She’d taken the trainings and seminars because she took the job more seriously than most, and David had been offered up to her as a sacrificial rookie to get her to stop nagging the others about going. She didn’t bother to look at David before responding. He might have been a nepotism hire but he was a smart kid and a solid partner. “We can handle it.”
“Hey, we don’t have any booze visible, right?” Janet elbowed Naomi.
“No, why?” She sat up from where she’d been laying back in the lounge chair, enjoying the sun.
“Sheriffs just pulled in. Your brother,” Janet said.
“Ugh. I’ll go see what he wants,” Naomi grumbled. She grabbed a towel and wrapped it around herself before grabbing her sandals. Just their luck he’d been the one sent to investigate a noise complaint. Not that he’d freak out over her skimpy bikini or anything, but he was still her big brother and occasionally enjoyed embarrassing her.
David met her at the gate. She frowned when he just greeted her with a nod rather than a smile and some kind of smart remark. “Naomi.”
“Get bent.” She glared at him anyway. “Dad said I could come to the party and stay the weekend with Janet.”
“Was Jenny Benton here earlier?” He raised an eyebrow at her.
“Yeah. She was here this morning.” She frowned, then felt a slight chill. David wasn’t here as her brother. He was here as a cop. And his partner was here as well, her face expressionless.
Cora and David exchanged a look. “What time did she leave?” Cora asked.
“Early.” Naomi dropped the attitude. She tilted her head as she tried to remember. “Little before ten, before the party actually got started. She got into an argument with Casey and Lisa over Lisa messing with her iPod and went stomping off…” Naomi swallowed nervously. “Why?”
Cora tapped David’s shoulder. “I’ll get the adults. You round up the kids.”
“Right.” David nodded. “Naomi, I’m going to get everyone gathered over under the awning there, and I’m going to need names and times they got here. Do you know if anyone is keeping a list?”
“David…” Naomi caught his arm before he could get more than a couple steps. “David, what’s going on?”
He took a deep breath, then put his hand on her shoulder and gave her a worried look. “Jenny’s dead.”
Emily, Janet, and Naomi sat together on a chaise lounge, leaning on each other. Someone had turned the radio off. She glanced up at where her partner had pulled a young man aside and was talking to him quietly. The young man was crying.
“Was anyone else here this morning?” Cora raised an eyebrow at the girls.
“A couple people, in and out,” Emily said. She frowned thoughtfully. “Mike and Ollie were here, but they had to go help Ollie’s dad with something. I think they left before Jenny did.”
“Has Jenny mentioned being scared? Anyone bothering her?” As much as she didn’t like the idea that it was a high school dispute turned fatal, it was a possibility she had to acknowledge.
The girls looked at each other. Janet shook her head. “She didn’t say anything.”
“She has a boyfriend?”
“Anthony,” Naomi said. “Joined the marines, left right after graduation. He’s at basic…” Her voice choked a little. “Jenny was showing me pictures…” Anthony had looked good in uniform, and Jenny’s pride had been obvious. Next to her, Emily started crying, and Naomi put her arm around her friend.
“I need to get the names of everyone here,” Cora said. She kept her tape recorder going, but also wrote the names down. David had put the young man in a chair, and an older man was currently sitting with him. “All right,” Cora said after David nodded to her. “If you can think of anything else, call us or come by the station.” She stood and raised her voice. “Everyone have a ride home?”
A couple kids shook their heads, and Cora heard Bianca speak up. “I’ll take them,” she offered.
“Thank you,” Cora replied. She noted David have a few quiet words with Naomi and Emily, then he rejoined her. They headed back to the car. “Carnival?” she asked.
“Let’s go.” He hesitated a moment. “Thanks for talking to Naomi.”
“No problem.” She’d taken that over as much to prevent any conflict of interest as she had knowing he’d have been distracted by the need to comfort his little sister. He wasn’t much older than most of the kids at the party, and they were more likely to talk to him than they were someone old enough to be their mother. “Get anything?”
“She got into an argument with Bret and Lisa. Lisa apparently was fiddling with Jenny’s new iPod, then Bret tackled Lisa into the pool. Jenny got mad when she realized it was wrecked and had a fight with Lisa, then asked Casey to take her home. He and a couple of the others were passing around a joint. He didn’t want to risk getting busted.” He exhaled. “Casey’s kind of in ‘all my fault’ mode right now. We might want to talk with him again after he calms down. He was the last person to see her.”
Cora nodded. “So she left on foot, took a shortcut.”
“Casey was her ride.” David nodded. Anthony and Casey are best friends. He’s…” David sighed. “Not looking forward to telling Anthony.”
Cora pulled off the main road and looked down the hill to where the carnival was setting up. “Opens Thursday, right?”
“Thursday at three,” David replied. “Naomi was planning on going to the carnival with Emily and Janet. Then they were coming back with Naomi.” His eyes narrowed.
She couldn’t exactly blame him. “Kaitlin was taking Amy and Dorothy after music lessons.” The idea of her kids being at a carnival where one of the workers had beaten a young woman to death made her stomach roll. “Let’s go.”