Running Blind


Chapter 18

 

  THE LOCAL BUREAU team in Spokane had worked hard through the night and gotten good cooperation from a construction business and a crane-hire operation and a trucking crew and an air cargo operator. The construction workers tore Alison Lamarr's bathroom apart and disconnected the plumbing. Bureau crime scene specialists wrapped the whole tub in heavy plastic while the builders took out the window and removed the end wall down to floor level. The crane crew fixed canvas slings under the wrapped tub and brought their hook in through the hole in the end of the building and eased the heavy load out into the night. It swung through the chill air and dropped slowly down to a wooden crate lashed to a flatbed truck idling on the road. The truckers pumped expanding foam into the crate to cushion the cargo and nailed the lid down tight and drove straight to the airport in Spokane. The crate was loaded into a waiting plane and flown direct to Andrews Air Force Base, where a helicopter collected it and took it on down to Quantico. Then it was off-loaded by a forklift and set down gently in a laboratory loading bay and left waiting there for an hour while the Bureau's forensic experts figured out exactly how to proceed.

  "At this point, the cause of death is all I want," Blake said.

  He was sitting on one side of a long table in the pathology conference room, three buildings and five floors away from the Behavioral Science facility. Harper was sitting next to him, and then Poulton next to her, and then Reacher at the end of the row. Opposite them was Quantico's senior pathologist, a doctor called Stavely, which was a name Reacher thought he recognized from somewhere. Clearly the guy had some kind of a famous reputation. Everybody was treating him with deference. He was a large red-faced man, oddly cheerful. His hands were big and red and looked clumsy, although presumably they weren't. Next to him was his chief technician, a quiet thin man who looked preoccupied.

  "We read the stuff from your other cases," Stavely said, and stopped.

  "Meaning?" Blake asked.

  "Meaning I'm not exactly filled with optimism," Stavely said. "New Hampshire is a little remote from the action, I agree, but they see plenty down in Florida and California. I suspect if there was anything to find, you'd know about it by now. Good people, down there. "

  "Better people up here," Blake said.

  Stavely smiled. "Flattery will get you anywhere, right?"

  "It's not flattery. "

  Stavely was still smiling. "If there's nothing to find, what can we do?"

  "Got to be something," Blake said. "He made a mistake this time, with the box. "

  "So?"

  "So maybe he made more than one mistake, left something you'll find. "

  Stavely thought about it. "Well, don't hold your breath, is all I'm saying. "

  Then he stood up abruptly and knitted his thick fingers together and flexed his hands. Turned to his technician. "So are we ready?"

  The thin guy nodded. "We're assuming the paint will be dried hard on the top surface, maybe an inch, inch and a half. If we cut it away from the tub enamel all around we should be able to slide a body bag in and scoop her out. "

  "Good," Stavely said. "Keep as much paint around her as you can. I don't want her disturbed. "

  The technician hurried out and Stavely followed him, evidently assuming the other four would file out behind him, which they did, with Reacher last in line.

  THE PATHOLOGY LAB was no different from the others Reacher had seen. It was a large low space, brightly lit by an illuminated ceiling. The walls and the floor were white tile. In the middle of the room was a large examination table sculpted from gleaming steel. The table had a drain canal pressed into the center. The drain was plumbed straight into a steel pipe running down through the floor. The table was surrounded by a cluster of wheeled carts loaded with tools. Hoses hung from the ceiling. There were cameras on stands, and scales, and extractor hoods. There was a low hum of ventilation and a strong smell of disinfectant. The air was still and cold.

  "Gowns, and gloves," Stavely said.

  He pointed to a steel cupboard filled with folded nylon gowns and boxes of disposable latex gloves. Harper handed them out.

  "Probably won't need masks," Stavely said. "My guess is the paint will be the worst thing we smell. "

  They smelled it as soon as the gurney came in through the door. The technician was pushing it and the body bag lay on it, bloated and slick and smeared with green. Paint seeped from the closure and ran down the steel legs to the wheels and left parallel tracks across the white tile. The technician walked between the tracks. The gurney rattled and the bag rolled and wobbled like a giant balloon filled with oil. The technician's arms were smeared with paint to his shoulders.

  "Take her to X ray first," Stavely said.

  The guy steered the gurney in a new direction and headed for a closed room off the side of the lab. Reacher stepped ahead and pulled the door for him. It felt like it weighed a ton.

  "Lined with lead," Stavely said. "We really zap them in there. Big, big doses, so we can see everything we want to see. Not like we have to worry about their long-term health, is it?"

  The technician was gone for a moment and then he stepped back into the lab and eased the heavy door closed behind him. There was a distant powerful hum which lasted a second and then stopped. He went back and came out pushing the gurney again. It was still making tracks across the tile. He stopped it alongside the examination table.

  "Roll her off," Stavely said. "I want her facedown. "

  The technician stepped beside him and leaned across the table and grasped the nearer edge of the bag with both hands and lifted it half off the gurney, half onto the table. Then he walked around to the other side and took the other edge and flipped it up and over. The bag flopped zipper-side down and the mass inside it sucked and rolled and wobbled and settled. Paint oozed out onto the polished steel. Stavely looked at it and beyond it to the floor, which was all crisscrossed with green tracks.

  "Overshoes, people," he said. "It'll get everywhere. "

  They stepped away and Harper found pairs of plastic footwear in a locker and handed them out. Reacher slipped his on and stepped back and watched the paint. It seeped out through the zipper like a thick slow tide.

  "Get the film," Stavely said.

  The technician ducked back to the X-ray room and came out with large gray squares of film which mapped Alison Lamarr's body. He handed them to Stavely. Stavely fanned through them and held them up against the light from the ceiling.

  "Instant," he said. "Like Polaroid. The benefits of scientific progress. "

  He shuffled them like a dealer and separated one of them and held it up. Ducked away to a light box on the wall and hit the switch and held the film against the light with his big fingers splayed.

  "Look at that," he said.

  It was a photograph of the midsection from just below the sternum to just above the pubic area. Reacher saw the outlines of ghostly gray bones, ribs, spine, pelvis, with a forearm and a hand lying across them at an angle. And another shape, dense and so bright it shone pure white. Metal. Slim and pointed, about as long as the hand.

  "A tool of some sort," Stavely said.

  "The others didn't have anything like that," Poulton said.

  "Doc, we need to see it right away," Blake said. "It's important. "

  Stavely shook his head. "It's underneath her body right now, because she's upside down. We'll get there, but it won't be real soon. "

  "How long?"

  "Long as it takes," Stavely said. "This is going to be messy as hell. "

  He clipped the gray photographs in sequence on the light box. Then he walked the length of the ghostly display and studied them.

  "Her skeleton is relatively undamaged," he said. He pointed to the second panel. "Left wrist was cracked and healed, probably ten years ago. "

  "She was into sports," Reacher said. "Her sister told us. "

  Stavely nodded. "So we'll check the collarbone
. "

  He moved left and studied the first panel. It showed the skull and the neck and the shoulders. The collar-bones gleamed and swooped down toward the sternum.

  "Small crack," Stavely said, pointing. "It's what I'd expect. An athlete with a cracked wrist will usually have a cracked collarbone too. They fall off their bike or their Rollerblades or whatever, throw out their arm to break their fall, end up breaking their bones instead. "

  "But no fresh injuries?" Blake asked.

  Stavely shook his head. "These are ten years old, maybe more. She wasn't killed by blunt trauma, if that's what you mean. "

  He hit the switch and the light behind the X rays went out. He turned back to the examination table and knitted his fingers again and his knuckles clicked in the silence.

  "OK," he said. "Let's go to work. "

  He pulled a hose from a reel mounted on the ceiling and turned a small faucet built into its nozzle. There was a hissing sound and a stream of clear liquid started running. A heavy, slow liquid with a sharp, strong smell.

  "Acetone," Stavely said. "Got to clear this damn paint. "

  He used the acetone sluice on the body bag and on the steel table. The technician used handfuls of kitchen towel, wiping the bag and pushing the thick liquid into the drain. The chemical stink was overpowering.

  "Ventilator," Stavely said.

  The technician ducked away and twisted a switch behind him and the fans in the ceiling changed up from a hum to a louder roar. Stavely held the nozzle closer and the bag began to turn from wet green to wet black. Then he held the hose low down on the table and set up a swirling rinse under the bag straight into the drain.

  "OK, scissors," he said.

  The technician took scissors from a cart and snipped a corner of the bag. Green paint flooded out. The acetone swirl caught it and it eddied sluggishly to the drain. It kept on coming, two minutes, three, five. The bag settled and drooped as it emptied. The room went quieter under the roar of the fan and the hiss of the hose.

  "OK, the fun starts here," Stavely said.

  He handed the hose to the technician and used a scalpel from the cart to slit the bag lengthwise from end to end. He made sideways cuts top and bottom and peeled the rubber back slowly. It lifted and sucked away from skin. He folded it back in two long flaps. Alison Lamarr's body was revealed, lying facedown, slimy and slick with paint.

  Stavely used the scalpel and slit the rubber around the feet, up alongside the legs, around the contours of the hips, up her flanks, close to her elbows, around her shoulders and head. He pulled away the strips of rubber until the bag was gone, all except for the front surface, which was trapped between the crust of paint and the steel of the table.

  The crust of paint was top down to the table, because she was upside down. Its underside was bubbled and jellified. It looked like the surface of a distant alien planet. Stavely started rinsing its edges, where it was stuck to her skin.

  "Won't that damage her?" Blake asked.

  Stavely shook his head. "It's the same stuff as nail polish remover. "

  The skin turned greenish white where the paint washed off. Stavely used his gloved fingertips to peel the crust away. The strength in his hands moved the body. It lifted and fell, slackly. He pushed the hose underneath her, probing for stubborn adhesions. The technician stood next to him and lifted her legs. Stavely reached under them and cut the crust and the rubber together, peeling it away up to her thighs. The acetone ran continuously, rinsing the green stream into the drain.

  Stavely moved up to the head. Placed the hose against the nape of her neck and watched as the chemical flooded her hair. Her hair was a nightmare. It was matted and crusted with paint. It had floated up around her face like a stiff tangled cage.

  "I'm going to have to cut it," he said.

  Blake nodded, somber.

  "I guess so," he said.

  "She had nice hair," Harper said. Her voice was quiet under the noise from the fan. She half turned and backed off a step. Her shoulder touched Reacher's chest. She left it there a second longer than she needed to.

  Stavely took a fresh scalpel from the cart and traced through the hair, as close to the paint crust as he could get. He slid a powerful arm under the shoulders and lifted. The head came free, leaving hair matted into the crust like mangrove roots tangled into a swamp. He cut through the crust and the rubber and pulled another section free.

  "I hope you catch this guy," he said.

  "That's the plan," Blake said back, still somber.

  "Roll her over," Stavely said.

  She moved easily. The acetone mixed with the slick paint was like a lubricant against the dished steel of the table. She slid face up and lay there, ghastly under the lights. Her skin was greenish white and puckered, stained and blotched with paint. Her eyes were open, the lids rimed with green. She wore the last remaining square of the body bag stuck to her skin from her breasts to her thighs, like an old-fashioned bathing suit protecting her modesty.

  Stavely probed with his hand and found the metal implement under the rubber. He cut through the bag and wormed his fingers inside and pulled the object out in a grotesque parody of surgery.

  "A screwdriver," he said.

  The technician washed it in an acetone bath and held it up. It was a quality tool with a heavy plastic handle and a handsome chromed-steel shaft with a crisp blade.

  "Matches the others," Reacher said. "From her kitchen drawer, remember?"

  "She's got scratches on her face," Stavely said suddenly.

  He was using the hose, washing her face. Her left cheek had four parallel incisions running down from the eye to the jaw.

  "Did she have these before?" Blake asked.

  "No," Harper and Reacher said together.

  "So what's that about?" Blake said.

  "Was she right-handed?" Stavely asked.

  "I don't know," Poulton said.

  Harper nodded. "I think so. "

  Reacher closed his eyes and trawled back to her kitchen, watched her pouring coffee from the jug.

  "Right-handed," he said.

  "I agree," Stavely said. He was examining her arms and hands. "Her right hand is larger than the left. The arm is heavier. "

  Blake was leaning over, looking at the damaged face. "So?"

  "I think they're self-inflicted," Stavely said.

  "Are you sure?"

  Stavely was circling the head of the table, looking for the best light. The wounds were swelled by the paint, raw and open. Green, where they should have been red.

  "I can't be sure," he said. "You know that. But probability suggests it. If the guy did them, what are the chances he would have put them in the only place she could have put them herself?"

  "He made her do it," Reacher said.

  "How?" Blake asked.

  "I don't know how. But he makes them do a hell of a lot. I think he makes them put the paint in the tub themselves. "

  "Why?"

  "The screwdriver. It's to get the lids off with. The scratches were an afterthought. If he'd been thinking about the scratches, he'd have made her get a knife from the kitchen instead of the screwdriver. Or as well as the screwdriver. "

  Blake stared at the wall. "Where are the cans right now?"

  "Materials Analysis," Poulton said. "Right here. They're examining them. "

  "So take the screwdriver over there. See if there are any marks that match. "

  The technician put the screwdriver in a clear plastic evidence bag and Poulton shrugged off his gown and kicked off his overshoes and hurried out of the room.

  "But why?" Blake said. "Why make her scratch herself like that?"

  "Anger?" Reacher said. "Punishment? Humiliation? I always wondered why he wasn't more violent. "

  "These wounds are very shallow," Stavely said. "I guess they bled a little, but they didn't hurt much. The depth is absolutely consistent, all the way down each o
f them. So she wasn't flinching. "

  "Maybe ritual," Blake said. "Symbolic, somehow. Four parallel lines mean anything?"

  Reacher shook his head. "Not to me. "

  "How did he kill her?" Blake asked. "That's what we need to know. "

  "Maybe he stabbed her with the screwdriver," Harper said.

  "No sign of it," Stavely said. "No puncture wounds visible anyplace that would kill a person. "

  He had the final section of the body bag peeled back and was washing paint away from her midsection, probing with his gloved fingers under the acetone jet. The technician lifted the rubber square away and then she lay naked under the lights, collapsed and limp and utterly lifeless. Reacher stared at her and remembered the bright vivacious woman who had smiled with her eyes and radiated energy like a tiny sun.

  "Is it possible you can kill somebody and a pathologist can't tell how?" he asked.

  Stavely shook his head.

  "Not this pathologist," he said.

  He shut off the acetone stream and let the hose retract into its reel on the ceiling. Stepped back and turned the ventilation fan back to normal. The room turned quiet again. The body lay on the table, as clean as it was ever going to get. The pores and folds of skin were stained green and the skin itself was lumpy and white like something that lives at the bottom of the sea. The hair was spiky with residue, roughly hacked around the scalp, framing the dead face.

  "Fundamentally two ways to kill a person," Stavely said. "Either you stop the heart, or you stop the flow of oxygen to the brain. But to do either thing without leaving a mark is a hell of a trick. "

  "How would you stop the heart?" Blake asked.

  "Short of firing a bullet through it?" Stavely said. "Air embolism would be the best way. A big bubble of air, injected straight into the bloodstream. Blood circulates surprisingly fast, and an air bubble hits the inside of the heart like a stone, like a tiny internal bullet. The shock is usually fatal. That's why nurses hold up the hypodermic and squirt a little liquid out and flick it with their nail. To be sure there's no air in the mix. "

  "You'd see the hypodermic hole, right?"

  "Maybe, maybe not. And definitely not on a corpse like this. The skin is ruined by the paint. But you'd see the internal damage to the heart. I'll check, of course, when I open her up, but I'm not optimistic. They didn't find anything like that on the other three. And we're assuming a consistent MO here, right?"

  Blake nodded. "What about oxygen to the brain?"

  "Suffocation, in layman's terms," Stavely said. "It can be done without leaving much evidence. Classic thing would be an old person, wasted and weak, gets a pillow held over the face. Pretty much impossible to prove. But this isn't an old person. She's young and strong. "

  Reacher nodded. He had suffocated a man once, way back in his long and checkered career. He had needed all of his considerable strength to hold the guy's face down on a mattress, while he bucked and thrashed and died.

  "She'd have fought like crazy," he said.

  "Yes, I think she would," Stavely said. "And look at her. Look at her musculature. She wouldn't have been a pushover. "

  Reacher looked away instead. The room was silent and cold. The awful green paint was everywhere.

  "I think she was alive," he said. "When she went in the tub. "

  "Reasoning?" Stavely asked.

  "There was no mess," Reacher said. "None at all. The bathroom was immaculate. What was she, one twenty? One twenty-five? Hell of a dead weight to heave into the tub without making some kind of a mess. "

  "Maybe he put the paint in afterward," Blake said. "On top of her. "

  Reacher shook his head. "It would have floated her up, surely. It looks like she slipped right in there, like you get into a bath. You know, you point your toe, you get under the water. "

  "We'd need to experiment," Stavely said. "But I think I agree she died in the tub. The first three, there was no evidence they were touched at all. No bruising, no abrasions, no nothing. No postmortem damage either. Moving a corpse usually damages the ligaments in the joints, because there's no muscle tension there to protect them. At this point, my guess is they did whatever they did strictly under their own power. "

  "Except kill themselves," Harper said.

  Stavely nodded. "Suicide in bathtubs is pretty much limited to drowning while drunk or drugged, or opening your veins into warm water. Obviously, this isn't suicide. "

  "And they weren't drowned," Blake said.

  Stavely nodded again. "The first three weren't. No fluid of any kind in the lungs. We'll know about this one soon as she's opened up, but I would bet against it. "

  "So how the hell did he do it?" Blake said.

  Stavely stared down at the body, something like compassion in his face.

  "Right now, I have no idea," he said. "Give me a couple of hours, maybe three, I might find something. "

  "No idea at all?"

  "Well, I had a theory," Stavely said. "Based on what I read about the other three. Problem is, now I think the theory is absurd. "

  "What theory?"

  Stavely shook his head. "Later, OK? And you need to leave now. I'm going to cut her up, and I don't want you here for that. She needs privacy, time like this. "