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THESE ARE THE THINGS THAT NO ONE TELLS YOU, THAT YOU must experience in order to learn:
It only hurts the first few times. You scream. You scream and you scream and you scream until your throat is raw and your eyes swollen and you taste a curious substance in the back of your throat that is like bile and vomit and tears all rolled into one. You cry for your mother. You beg for God. You don't understand what is happening. You can't believe it is happening.
And yet, it is happening.
And so, bit by bit, you fall silent.
Terror doesn't last forever. It can't. It takes too much energy to sustain. And in truth, terror occurs when you are confronted with the unknown. But once it has happened enough, you have been systematically violated, beaten, cowed, it's not unknown, is it? The same act that once shocked you, hurt you, shamed you with its perversity, becomes the norm. This is your day now. This is the life you lead. This is who you have become.
A specimen in the collection.
"Spiders are always on the lookout for prey, but predators are also on the lookout for spiders. Clever disguises and quick getaways help keep spiders out of trouble."
FROM Spiders and Their Kin,
BY HERBERT W. AND LORNA R. LEVI, A GOLDEN GUIDE FROM ST. MARTIN'S PRESS, 2002
"WE GOT A PROBLEM."
"No kidding. Widespread production of methamphetamines, a middle class that keeps falling further and further behind, not to mention all the ruckus over global warming . . ."
"No, no, no. A real problem."
Kimberly sighed. They'd been working this crime scene for three days now. Long enough that she no longer noticed the smell of burning jet fuel and charcoaled bodies. She was cold, dehydrated, and had a stitch in her side. It would take a lot, in her opinion, to qualify as a real problem at this point.
She finished up the last swig of bottled water, then turned away from the tent city that currently comprised command central, and faced her teammate. "All right, Harold. What's the problem?"
"Uh-uh. Gotta see it to believe it."
Harold didn't wait for her answer, but set off at a half-jog, leaving Kimberly no choice but to follow. He trotted along the outside of the crime scene perimeter that surrounded what had once been a bucolic green field, bordered by thick woodlands. Now, half the treetops had been sheared off, while the pasture contained a deep, jagged scar of earth that ended in a blackened fuselage, crumpled John Deere tractor, and twisted right wing.
As crime scenes went, plane crashes were particularly messy. Sprawling in size, contaminated with biohazards, booby-trapped with jagged bits of metal and shattered glass. The kind of scene that threatened to overwhelm even the most seasoned evidence collector. Mid afternoon of day three, Kimberly's team had finally passed the holy-crap-where-to-begin stage and was now cruising into the job-well-done-be-home-tomorrow-night-for-dinner phase of the documenting process. Everyone was popping less Advil, enjoying longer lunch breaks.
None of which explained why Harold was currently leading Kimberly away from command central, the hum of the generator, the bustle of dozens of investigators simultaneously working a scene . . .
Harold continued to lope along a straight line. Fifty yards, a hundred yards. Half a mile down . . .
"Harold, what the hell?"
"Five more minutes. You can do it."
Harold increased his pace. Kimberly, never one to cry uncle, gritted her teeth and followed. They hit the end of the crime scene perimeter, and Harold turned right into the small grove of trees that had started the whole mess, the taller ones forming jagged white spikes pricking the overcast winter sky.
"Better be good, Harold."
"If this is to show me some kind of rare moss or endangered grass species, I will kill you."
"I don't doubt it."
Harold dashed and ducked around shattered trees. Bobbed and weaved through the thick underbrush. When he finally stopped, Kimberly nearly ran into his back.
"Look up," Harold ordered.
Kimberly looked up. "Ah shit. We have a problem."
* * *
FBI Special Agent Kimberly Quincy was the total package—beautiful, brainy, and pedigreed, right down to a legendary former FBI profiler father whose name was linked to the likes of Douglas and Ressler in Academy halls. She had shoulder-length dusky blond hair, bright blue eyes, and fine patrician features—a gift from her dead mother, who was the source of the second set of rumors that would follow Kimberly for the rest of her career.
At five foot six, with a thin, athletic build, Kimberly was known for her physical endurance, proficiency with firearms, and intense dislike of personal touch. She was not one of those teammates who inspired love at first sight, but she certainly commanded respect.
Now entering her fourth year at the Atlanta Field Office of the FBI, finally assigned to Violent Crimes (VC) and team leader to one of Atlanta's three Evidence Response Teams (ERTs), her career was firmly on track—or at least had been until five months ago. Though that wasn't entirely true, either. She no longer participated in firearms training, but other than that, it was business as usual. After all, today's Bureau considered itself to be an enlightened government organization. All about equity and fairness and gender rights. Or, as the agents liked to quip, it wasn't your father's FBI anymore.
At the moment, Kimberly had larger problems to consider. Starting with the severed leg dangling in a giant rhododendron bush ten feet outside their crime scene perimeter.
"How the hell did you even see that?" Kimberly asked now, as she and Harold Foster hustled back to command central.
"Birds," Harold said. "Kept seeing a flock of them startle from that grove. Which made me think a predator had to be around. Which made me think, what would attract a predator to such an area? And then . . ." He shrugged. "You know how it goes."
Kimberly nodded, though being a city girl herself, she didn't really know how it went. Harold, on the other hand, had grown up in a log cabin and used to work for the Forestry Service. He could track a bobcat, skin a deer, and forecast the weather based on the moss patterns on a tree. At six one and one hundred seventy pounds, he resembled a telephone pole more than a lumberjack, but he considered twenty miles a day-hike, and when the Atlanta ERTs had worked the Rudolph crime scene—the Atlanta Olympic Park bomber—Harold had made it to the remote campsite an hour ahead of the rest of the crew, which had still been struggling up the densely wooded, forty-five-degree incline.
"You gonna tell Rachel?" Harold was asking now. "Or do I have to?"
"Oh, I think you should take all the credit."
"No, no, really, you're the team leader. Besides, she won't hurt you."
He stressed the last sentence more than he needed to. Kimberly understood what he meant. And of course he was right.
She rubbed her side, and pretended she didn't resent it.
The problem had started on Saturday, when a 727 had taken off from the Charlotte, North Carolina, airport at 6:05 a.m. With three crew members and a belly full of mail, it was due to arrive in Atlanta at 7:20 a.m. Conditions were damp and foggy, with potential for ice.
What exactly had gone wrong was left for the NTSB to sort out. But shortly after 7:15 a.m., during the initial approach to the runway, the 727 had descended, clipped the right wing on the top of a dense grove of trees, and careened into a farmer's field, where it did an aviator's version of a cartwheel, nailing one combine, two trucks, and a tractor, while raining metallic debris down a half-mile-long skid that ended with the fuselage bursting into flame.
By the time emergency vehicles had arrived, the crew members had perished and all that was left was the minor detail of processing a mile-long debris field that involved three human remains, one plane, four pieces of farming equipment, and a blizzard's worth of U.S. mail. The NTSB moved in to manage the scene. And per the "Memorandum of Understanding" between the NTSB and the FBI, Atlanta's three ERTs were mobilized to assist with evidence collection.
First thing FBI Senior Team Leader Rachel Childs had done was establish the perimeter. Rule of thumb for explosions and airline crashes—perimeter is set up fifty percent of the distance from the scene of the primary explosion to the farthest piece of evidence. So if the final piece of evidence is a hundred yards out, the perimeter is one hundred and fifty yards out. Or, in this case, the perimeter stretched two and a half miles long and half a mile wide. Not your normal the-butler-did-it-in-the-library-with-a-candlestick-leaving-behind-one-chalk-outline crime scene.
And absolutely perfect for the FBI's latest and greatest toy, the Total Station.
Modified from the standard surveyor's tool used by road crews, the Total Station was a laser-sighted gun, linked to special crime scene software. It turned data collection into literally a pull of a trigger, while spitting out up-to-the-minute 3-D models for death investigators to pore over at the end of each shift.
The process was relatively simple, but labor intensive. First, dozens of crime scene technicians worked the scene, flagging each piece of evidence, then classifying it—plane part, human remain, personal effect. Next, a designated "rod man" placed a glass reflector on each piece of tagged evidence. Finally, the "gun operator" homed in on the reflector and pulled the trigger, entering the evidence into the software's database from distances up to three miles away, while the "spotter/recorder" oversaw the operation, detailing and numbering each item entered into evidence.
Everyone worked hard, and next thing you knew, a sprawling chaos of wreckage had been reduced into a neat computer model that almost made sense out of the vagaries of fate. It was enough to make any anal-retentive control freak happy, and Kimberly was guilty on both counts. She loved being rod man, though this time out, she'd had to content herself with recording duties instead.
The command center came into view. Kimberly spotted a cluster of white shirts and navy blue suits—the NTSB officials, poring over a huge blueprint of the original 727; then a pool of Windex blue—half a dozen crime scene techs, still wearing their hazmat gear; and finally, a pinprick of burnished copper. Rachel Childs, redhead, ERT senior team leader, and rabid perfectionist.
Kimberly and Harold ducked beneath the crime scene tape.
Harold whispered, "Good luck."
Supervisory Special Agent Childs had set out to become a famous Chicago architect. At the last minute, she'd decided to join the FBI instead. She ended up assisting one of Chicago's finest evidence gurus, and that was that, Rachel had found her calling in life. Her attention to detail, ability to sketch to scale, and obsession with paperwork had proven much more valuable to evidence documentation than it had to further beautification of Chicago's skyline.
That had been fifteen years ago, and she'd never looked back. At five foot nothing, one hundred and four pounds, she was one small, dedicated, hell-on-wheels Nancy Drew. Who was about to commit her first murder.
"How the hell could you have missed something as major as a human leg?" she roared.
She, Kimberly, and Harold had stepped away from the gathered masses, to the relative shelter of a noisy generator. Rachel only dressed down her team members in private. Her team was her family. She could know they were fuckups. She could tell them they were fuckups. It was no one's business, however, but their own.
"Well, the leg's in a bush," Harold ventured finally. "Beneath a tree. It's not that easy to see."
"It's February. Leaves are long gone. It should've been visible."
"It's in a grove of pine," Kimberly said. "Harold led me straight to it. I still couldn't see anything until he pointed it out. Frankly, I'm impressed he saw it at all."
Harold shot her a grateful look. Kimberly shrugged. He'd been right, Rachel wouldn't go too hard on Kimberly. She might as well spread the magic around.
"Crap," Rachel grumbled. "Day three, we should be wrapping up this mess, not restarting our efforts. Of all the stupid, amateurish . . ."
"It happens. Oklahoma City, the Nashville crash. These big scenes, it's amazing we can wrap our arms around them at all." Kimberly again.
"Still . . ."
"We adjust the perimeter. We refocus our search on the western side. It'll cost us another day, but with any luck, one random leg is all we missed."
Now, however, Rachel's frown had deepened. "Wait a minute, you're sure it's a human leg?"
"I've seen legs before," Harold said.
"Me, too," Kimberly agreed.
But Rachel was suddenly holding her temples. "Ah crap! We're not missing any body parts! We recovered three sets of human remains from the intact cockpit just this morning. And since I oversaw the effort, I know for a fact we had all six legs."
Harold looked at both of them. "Told you we had a problem."
They took a camera, flashlights, gloves, a rake, and a tarp. A mini evidence kit. Rachel wanted to see the "leg" for herself. Maybe they'd get lucky—it would turn out to be a scrap of fabric, or the torn arm from a life-size dummy, or better yet, the back hock of a deer some hunter had dressed up in clothing just to be funny. In Georgia, stranger things had happened.
With only two hours of daylight left, they moved quickly but efficiently through the copse of trees.
They combed the ground first to make sure they didn't step on anything obvious. Then, adjusting slightly, Harold and Kimberly caught the item in the combined beams of their flashlights, illuminating it within the shadows of the overgrown bushes. Rachel knocked out half a dozen digital photos. Next came the tape measure and compass, recording the approximate size of the bush, relationship to the nearest fixed point, distance from their current perimeter.
Finally, when they had documented everything but the hoot of a barn owl and the way the wind tickled the backs of their necks, like a shiver waiting to slide beneath their Tyvek coveralls, Harold reached up and carefully eased the item onto the cradling teeth of his rake. Rachel quickly unfolded the tarp. Harold lowered his find into the middle of a sea of blue plastic. They studied it.
"Crap," Rachel said.
It was definitely a leg, sheared off above the knee with the top of the femur bone glinting white against the blue tarp. From the size of it, probably male, clad in blue denim.
"You're sure all three remains were intact?" Kimberly asked. She hadn't gotten to do any evidence collection this time out. She liked to think it didn't irk her, but it did. Especially now, when it seemed something obvious had been overlooked. "I mean, the cockpit was badly burned, the condition of the bodies couldn't have been great."