He wanted the skull.
Captain Tom Bridger and the deputies under his command had been gathering bones on the wooded mountaintop for three hours, but snow was rapidly burying the search area and they still didn’t have a complete skeleton.
Tom crouched under the trees and pawed through brush and weeds and leaf litter. Without the skull and teeth they might never put a human name to the bones. If this was Pauline McClure’s skeleton they were reassembling, he had to know.
He couldn’t see a damned thing anymore. At one in the afternoon, the January day was dim as twilight and Tom was afraid the team might overlook dirt-encrusted bones in the deep shadows among the trees. Unhooking his flashlight from his utility belt, he stood and yelled to the other ten deputies in the woods, “Use your flashlights, guys, so you don’t miss anything. Another half-hour, then you can quit.”
From somewhere nearby he heard a groan, loud and drawn out.
Dennis Murray, a lanky sergeant working six yards from Tom, said, “That’s the sound of a man freezing his balls off.”
“Hang in there, guys,” Tom called. “I’ll buy a steak dinner for the man who finds the skull.” Tom’s own fingers and toes had gone numb an hour ago, but he wanted that skull more than he wanted to be warm. Hell, I’m young and strong, he told himself grimly. I’ll survive a little frostbite.
As if to test his resolve, a gust rattled bare tree limbs above him and dumped snow on his head. His high-crowned, flat-brimmed deputy’s hat made Tom feel like Dudley Do-Right, but at the moment he was grateful for its protection. He shook off the snow and settled the hat back over his thick black hair. “You think it’s her, don’t you?” Dennis asked. “The doc was sure that pelvis we found is a woman’s.”
“It could be anybody.” Tom tugged up the collar of his uniform jacket to keep melting snow from snaking down his neck. “Maybe a hiker who didn’t know the area and got lost.” Dropping to a crouch again, he dug through an inch of snow to a fresh patch of ground. The search had begun that morning, after tree-cutters clearing the mountaintop for construction discovered the skeleton of a human hand and alerted the Sheriff’s Department.
“If a hiker got lost anywhere in the mountains,” Dennis said, “we’d know about it. Besides, these bones are old and all chewed up. They’ve been here for years. And we’ve only got one outstanding missing person case.”
“Let’s just wait and see, Denny.” But he was right. Mason County, small and rural and tucked into the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, had a single enduring mystery, the subject of gossip and speculation ten years after the fact: What happened to Pauline McClure? A beautiful, wealthy widow in her forties, she’d vanished from her country estate and no clue to her fate had ever turned up.
Tom glanced over to find Dennis watching him through the falling snow.
“I’d think you’d be real excited about finding her.” Dennis swiped flakes off the lenses of his wire-rimmed glasses. “Considering how long your dad spent on the case.”
Dennis had worked with Tom’s father, John Bridger, but probably had no idea what a toll the unsolved McClure case had taken on him and his family. “Whoever it is,” Tom said, “our job’s the same—find out how she ended up dead on top of a mountain.”
He bent to his work again, scraping away snow and lifting decayed leaves layer by layer. His gloved fingers brushed something solid.
He kept digging, carefully, a little at a time. Definitely something there.
Leaning closer to the ground, he focused the flashlight beam and pushed aside bits of crumbling leaf matter. A set of human teeth grinned up at him.
“Jesus Christ.” He sat back on his heels.
The skull was stained as dark as the earth, and a colony of lichen covered the forehead. Tom cleared off debris until the skull was fully exposed. The mandible was still attached. The lab would have a complete set of teeth to compare with dental records.
“Welcome back to the world,” Tom whispered. In the gaping eye sockets he saw all the lonely seasons the bones had lain here under the trees. “Let’s find out if you can tell us your name.”
He looked over his shoulder toward the clearing, where Dr. Gretchen Lauter, the medical examiner, was tagging and bagging everything the deputies uncovered. “Gretchen,” Tom called, “I’ve found the grand prize.”
The doctor, a small woman in her fifties, picked her way through underbrush to his side. Dennis joined them. Together they stood in silence for a moment, watching snow collect on the skull at their feet.
A sour taste rose in Tom’s throat. This was a hell of a way for anyone to end up. He’d seen bleeding bodies and dead ones, in Richmond and here in Mason County, but nothing had ever gotten to him like this slow gathering of dismembered bones. All of them were darkened by exposure and most bore the marks of wild animals’ teeth.
Gretchen tugged her knit cap lower over her salt-and-pepper curls. “Get some pictures before we move it.”
Dennis retrieved a small digital camera from inside his jacket and stooped to snap a few shots while Tom illuminated the skull with his flashlight.
“Let’s get it up,” Gretchen said, “so I can have a closer look.”
When Tom lifted the skull, the mandible dropped off. “Aw, Christ.”
“Not to worry.” She scooped it up. “The human jaw doesn’t break all that easily.”
Tom’s gaze was riveted to the back of the skull he held. “What about the cranium? What would it take to cause this kind of damage?”
He turned the skull, showing them the long cleft down the back, angled from the top past the right ear opening to the base.
“Holy crap,” Dennis said.
Gretchen pulled in a deep breath. “Oh, my lord. First thing that comes to mind is an ax. It must have gone well into the brain.”
Tom fingered the split and a shudder of horror moved through him. He imagined an ax blade slicing through scalp, cracking bone, coming to rest in the coils of the brain. Obliterating with one blow every thought and emotion that had made the woman who she was. “No chance it’s animal damage? Or maybe it was caused by freezing and thawing.”
Gretchen shook her head. “A break that long, that wide—not likely. I’m very much afraid you’ve got yourself a murder case.”
A knot tightened in Tom’s gut. “But is it Pauline McClure?” “All I can give you is a guess,” Gretchen said. “Let me look at the teeth.” She examined the mandible, then handed the jawbone to Tom in exchange for the skull. “Not many people have as much dental work as Pauline did. I haven’t seen her chart in ten years, but I remember all these bridges and crowns. And you know what this is, don’t you?” She ran a finger around a small bony protrusion a couple inches up from the base of the skull.
Automatically Tom’s hand went to a similar lump of bone at the back of his own head, but when he realized what he was doing he yanked his arm down. “Anatolian bump.”
“The Melungeons are the only people around here who’ve got that, right?” Dennis said.
Gretchen nodded. “And Pauline was Melungeon.”
“So it is her,” Tom said. “She was lying up here all the time, just a few miles from her house.” While my father nearly drove himself crazy trying to find her. If an out-of-state millionaire hadn’t decided to build a vacation home on top of Indian Mountain, Pauline’s bones might never have been found. Now she was Tom’s problem. This wasn’t the end of Pauline’s story, a neat wrap-up of his father’s work. This was the beginning of a murder investigation, and the case was as cold as the victim’s bones.
“I’ll have to check the teeth against her dental records,” Gretchen cautioned, “and the state lab will have to verify it—”
“Good God almighty,” came a voice behind them.
Tom turned to see Sheriff Toby Willingham bracing himself against a tree at the edge of the woods. He breathed in hard gasps and pressed a hand to his chest inside his uniform jacket. His jowly face was blanched as white as the snow.
The old man couldn’t leave them to do their work, he had to huff and puff his way up here to remind everybody who was boss. Tom waded through snow and brush to Willingham’s side and gripped his arm. They were of equal height, six feet, but lately the sheriff had lost a lot of weight and developed a slump to his shoulders that made him look like a little old man to Tom. “You all right?”
“Of course I’m all right. I just need to catch my breath.” The sheriff shook off Tom’s touch, his eyes locked on the jawbone in Tom’s other hand.
“Well, you look awful, Toby,” Gretchen said as she joined them. “A man with your heart condition has no business climbing a mountain.”
When she passed the skull to Tom and tried to take the sheriff ’s pulse, Willingham wrenched his arm away. Irritation brought color to his cheeks. “I’m in charge of these men, in case you forgot. And I’m not a damned invalid, so stop treating me like one.”
Tom almost grinned at Gretchen’s elaborate eye-roll, but he pulled a straight face before the sheriff could take offense and start ranting about insubordination. He should have built up immunity to the sheriff ’s alpha male routine, but it still rankled more than he liked to admit. The only bond between them was the memory of Tom’s father, who had seen qualities in Willingham that eluded Tom’s best efforts at detection.
“Rest a little and catch your breath, Toby,” Gretchen said. She seemed as surprised as Tom was when the sheriff accepted the order and plodded back to the clearing, brushed snow off a tree stump and sat down.
Leaving Dennis to continue searching, Tom and Gretchen followed the sheriff into the clearing. Tom held the skull while Gretchen rummaged through a bin filled with plastic and paper bags for one of the right size. The bones gathered earlier were stowed in a long cardboard box that was collecting snow on the ground next to the sheriff. Everything would be driven to Roanoke for examination at the western laboratory of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science.
“Did you know Pauline well?” Tom asked Gretchen. For most of his adult life he’d despised the ghost who had haunted his father’s last years, but with Pauline’s skull very likely in his hands, her bones piled in a box, he felt a surprising stab of pity for a woman brutally robbed of life.
“Not all that well,” Gretchen said, “but she went to high school with your dad and me, and I saw her a couple of times later on when her own doctor wasn’t available. I gave her Valium once.” She sighed and shook her head. “Pauline went through hell with those in-laws of hers.”
“Yeah, I heard they weren’t crazy about a Melungeon girl marrying into the family.”
Sheriff Willingham muttered, “Damned narrow-minded…” His words trailed off.
Gretchen shook open a plastic bag, placed the mandible in it, and began filling out a tag with the date and location of the discovery and a description of the item. “Do you remember when Pauline disappeared?” she asked Tom. “You were just a kid—”
“I was twenty.”
Gretchen’s smile was indulgent, almost motherly. “Like I said, you were a kid. I thought maybe you were so wrapped up in your own life, you didn’t pay any attention to what your father was working on.”
“I paid attention.” Memory swept Tom off the frigid mountain, back to a time when the countryside lay tired and dusty under the heat of summer. “It was the end of August, right before I left for Charlottesville for junior year.”
Had Pauline been killed and hidden up here the same night she went missing? Looking around, Tom tried to see Indian Mountain the way it was before construction workers gouged a trail to the crest—steep and densely wooded, the foliage nearly impenetrable in late summer.
The killer must have been a man. Tom pictured a tall figure, bent under his burden, fighting his way up the incline through the brush with only moonlight to guide the way. Even a strong man would have stopped every now and then to lay down the body and rest before he slung the stiffening form over his shoulder and resumed the trek to the top.
Tom asked Willingham, “Wasn’t this mountain searched after Mrs. McClure disappeared?”
“Of course it was, and those caves at the bottom too.” Willingham rose and flung his arms wide. “But look what we were dealing with. We couldn’t cover every single inch. Somebody carrying a grown woman’s body to the top through all that underbrush—well, it was so unlikely we didn’t even consider it.”
“Somebody managed it.”
“Your dad was a damned good cop. This was the only case he wasn’t able to close, but I know he did everything right. You gonna start second-guessing him now?”
“He would expect me to second-guess everything about the original investigation. He’d do the same in my shoes.”
“Maybe you ought not to be handling this. I’ll take charge of it myself.”
For a moment Tom was too surprised to answer. The sheriff hadn’t headed up an investigation in years. Tom was chief deputy, lead investigator, and this was his job. If the case was left to Willingham, weakened and distracted by illness, it would never be solved. Tom made an argument that he knew would sway the sheriff. “My dad put a lot of effort into this case, and he’d want me to finish it for him.”
Willingham turned mournful eyes on the leafless trees and blew out a breath that hung in a frosty cloud before dissolving. “I wish John could be here now.”
So do I. God, so do I. Tom didn’t say it aloud because he knew the sheriff wasn’t inviting him to share a mutual grief. Willingham seemed to believe he’d personally suffered the most from the death of his longtime friend and second in command, and he played chief mourner even when John Bridger’s son was standing right in front of him.
His voice level but flinty, Tom said, “You’ll have to make do with me.”
Willingham met his gaze for a moment, and Tom saw accusa- tion and resentment in the sheriff ’s pale blue eyes. In the end, though, Willingham relented grudgingly. “Well, you can’t tie up every man we’ve got on a cold case.”
“Just give me Brandon Connelly. He seems pretty sharp.”
Willingham waved a hand, agreeing, but his face hadn’t lost its belligerence. “You watch your step with Pauline’s family. And I don’t mean the McClures. She was a Turner from Rocky Branch District, and those people don’t like cops poking around in their business. You might be half Melungeon, but they won’t forgive you for wearing a badge. Remember you’re not in—”
“—Richmond anymore. Yeah, I know.”
“And don’t believe everything you hear, either. Well, I’m going on back to town.” As Willingham started down the mountain, he said over his shoulder, “Stop standing around with that woman’s head in your hands.”
Tom kept an eye on the sheriff ’s slip-sliding descent, ready to spring to the rescue if Willingham fell. “What does he mean,” Tom asked Gretchen, “don’t believe everything I hear?”
“Oh, good heavens,” Gretchen said, “don’t ask me to explain Toby.”
She said it a little too lightly, and Tom was about to press her on it when somebody yelled, “Hey, Captain!”
Two young blond deputies, the Blackwood twins, hustled out of the woods into the clearing. In the gloom the brothers’ wide grins made them look like Cheshire cats.
“We found this.” Kevin held one of the cardboard boxes the deputies were using to collect evidence. “We thought it might—”
Before Kevin got all the words out, Tom looked to Keith for the rest of the sentence.
“—tie in somehow,” Keith finished.
Tom handed the skull to Gretchen and pulled an ax head from the box. Thick rust coated the iron wedge, but he thought he detected a darker stain along the cutting edge. No. Not possible after so many years. But his pulse quickened and he barely caught a jubilant laugh before it escaped. “Oh, yeah, it might tie in. Good work, guys.”
Keith and Kevin beamed.
With a glance at the sky, Tom added, “The snow’s getting too heavy to work in. Go string the tape at the foot of the mountain before you take off.”
“Will do,” the twins said in unison.
Gretchen tilted her head to look beyond Tom. “Here comes Brandon. He’s got something too.”
Deputy Brandon Connelly trotted toward them with a cardboard box clutched against his chest. He’d come hatless, and his short sandy hair dripped with melting snow. “Hey, Boss,” he said, holding out the box, “look at this.”
“Good God,” Tom said.
The box contained another skull, stained brown and coated in spots with mud and dark green moss.
Gretchen peered at it and gasped. “Is it human?” Tom asked her. “I’m very much afraid it is.”
Tom glanced at the skull in Gretchen’s hands, looked back at the one in the box. “If that’s Pauline McClure, who the hell is this?”