Chapter 1 1
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 5
The kid was dead. No doubt about that. The 911 caller thought so. The ER reported her DOA. The toxicologist showed cause. The ME signed the certificate.
The kid was dead. That wasn’t the question.
The phone rang. I ignored it.
Beyond my window, the sky was a chaos of gunmetal, smoke, and green. The wind was blowing angrier by the second.
I’d have to go soon.
The palette on my screen mirrored the turmoil outside. Within the gray backdrop of flesh, the bones burned white as Arctic snow.
I’d been analyzing the X-rays for almost two hours, my frustration escalating with the storm.
One last glance at the final plate in the series. The hands. Then it was adios.
I forced myself to concentrate. Carpals. Metacarpals. Phalanges.
Suddenly, I sat forward, the gusts and thickening darkness forgotten.
I zoomed in on the right fifth digit. The left.
The phone rang. Again, I paid no attention.
I shifted back to the cranial views.
A theory began to take shape.
I was poking at it, twisting the idea this way and that, when a voice at my back caused me to jump.
Framed in the doorway was a woman not much bigger than the subject of the films I was viewing. Standing maybe five feet tall, she had gray-streaked black hair drawn into a knot at the nape of her neck. Thick bangs brushed the top of tortoiseshell frames not chosen for fashion.
“Dr. Nguyen,” I said. “I didn’t realize you were still here.”
“I was completing an autopsy.” Slight accent, mostly Boston but with an undercurrent of something more exotic.
Nguyen had taken charge at the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s office only recently, so she and I were still testing the waters with each other. Though not exactly effervescent, she seemed organized, fair, and earnest. So far, so good.
“Is that the Deacon case?” Nguyen’s gaze had shifted to my screen.
“You’re advising the family?”
“Yes.” Seeing her raised eyebrows, I added, “The request came from an attorney named Lloyd Thorn. I hope you don’t mind me viewing the films here.”
“Of course not.” Nguyen flicked a wrist, as though to brush away the thought. Maybe to help her change tack. “Inara is now a Cat Three storm and moving faster than predicted. A mandatory evacuation has been ordered for all coastal counties, and it’s expected to sweep inland.”
“Ain’t climate change grand?”
Nguyen ignored my quip. “I’m closing the lab. Mrs. Flowers has already left. She plans to head into the mountains to stay with a cousin.”
Eunice Flowers has been the MCME receptionist since Gutenberg began cranking out Bibles. The first to arrive each day, she is normally the last to depart.
“There’s a woman in the lobby who wishes to see you. Mrs. Flowers told her you were unavailable, but she insists on waiting.”
“Who is she?” A glance at the phone showed the message signal flashing red.
“I’ve no idea. Or why she ventured out in this weather.”
“I’ll talk to her.” Feeling a flicker of guilt for disregarding Mrs. Flowers’s calls.
“Don’t linger too long,” Nguyen warned.
“No worries.” Moving the cursor to close the X-ray file. “My cat is probably dialing a rescue hotline as we speak.”
“I’m certain Charlotte is safe.” Lacking conviction. “We’re much too far from the coast.”
I said nothing, recalling similar thinking back in ’89. And Hurricane Hugo.
Though it was only 3:20 p.m., little light filtered in through the lobby doors or windows. All was quiet inside the building. Save for the security guard, not in evidence but undoubtedly present, I seemed to be the only person left on the premises.
The woman sat in the chair opposite Mrs. Flowers’s command post. Her feet, shod in sensible oxfords, rested primly side by side on the carpet. She appeared to be studying the laces.
My first thought: the woman was the dowdy aunt from Peoria. A ratty shawl wrapped her from shoulder to calf, and a floral print scarf, tied babushka style, covered her hair. A curved-handled umbrella hung from one wrist, and a frayed tweed tote sat centered on her lap.
My second thought: why the cold-weather gear when the thermometer that day had registered an unseasonable eighty degrees?
Upon hearing my footfalls, the woman lifted her chin, and her babushka’d head rotated slowly, tracking my approach. The rest of her body seemed clenched in a knot.
Drawing close, I noted that the woman’s eyes were pale—not the usual blue or green but a shade closer to that of honey in a jar. I estimated her age at sixty-five minimum. Mostly based on the attire. The scarf hid much of her face.
“I’m Temperance Brennan. I apologize for your wait.”
One hand rose to clutch mine. Though blue-veined and knobby, the intensity of its grip took me by surprise.
“Thank you so much. Thank you. I understand. Yes, of course. I’ve waited a long time. I don’t mind a bit more.”
Using the umbrella for support, the woman started to push to her feet. I gestured her back down. “Please. Don’t get up.”
I placed my briefcase on the floor and perched on the adjacent chair, pointedly not settling back.
“So, then. You are…?”
“Oh, dear me. Excuse my rudeness. I should have introduced myself at the outset. My name is Polly Susanne Beecroft.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Ms. Beecroft. I—”
“It’s Miss. Don’t give a patoot about titles.” The breathy “p” fluttered the silk framing her face. “If one never married, what’s the harm in saying so? Don’t you agree?”
“But please, call me Polly.”
“How can I help you, Polly?” I asked, wanting to wrap this up quickly.
“I hope you will excuse my rather cheeky approach.” The honey eyes locked onto mine. “I’ve come to implore your help.”
“I am a forensic anthrop—”
“Yes, yes, of course. That’s why I believe you’re the person I need.”
“It’s a bit of a tale.”
I gestured encouragement I didn’t feel.
Beecroft drew a quick breath, as though to begin. Seconds passed. No words left her lips.
“Don’t be nervous,” I reassured.
Tight nod. Then, “My twin sister died last year, bless her soul. She was seventy-three years old.”
I now knew where this was headed. Still, I didn’t interrupt.
“Harriet married but was widowed young, so she never had children. She began studying art in her thirties, from then on was totally caught up in her painting. I’m afraid she and I were not fruitful like the Bible instructs.” Quick grin. “Following Harriet’s death—”
“I’m very sorry for your loss, Polly. But if you have issues regarding your sister’s passing, you must raise them with the coroner or medical examiner who signed the death certificate.”
“Oh, no. Not at all. Harriet died in hospice of pancreatic cancer.”
OK. I was wrong about the purpose of Beecroft’s visit. Realizing that and, I’ll admit, a tad curious, I said nothing.
“Since I was Harriet’s only kin, it fell to me to clear out her home. She lived in Virginia, in a small town not far from Richmond. But that’s unimportant. While going through her things, I discovered several items that have troubled me greatly.”
The overhead lights wavered, then steadied.
“Oh, my.” One liver-spotted hand fluttered up and hovered, like a moth suddenly free and confused.
“Perhaps this could wait a day or two, until the storm has passed?” I suggested gently.
But Beecroft wasn’t to be dissuaded. “May I show you what I found? I’ll be oh so brief. Then it’s off I go.”
An image fired in my brain. My near-octogenarian mother struggling to control an umbrella in a gale.
“Did you drive here, Polly?” I asked.
“Oh, heavens. No. I came by taxi.”
“Do you live in town?”
“I have a condo at Rosewood. Do you know it?”
I knew it well. Mama had recently moved to Rosewood. I now had an inkling how Beecroft had made her way to me.
I also had an inkling that the frumpy garb was misleading. Rosewood is a nine-acre complex modeled on George Vanderbilt’s nineteenth-century getaway in Asheville. Life in the three-towered extravaganza did not come cheap. Beecroft had means.
“Taxis may be scarce in this storm.” Crap. Crap. “How about you outline your concerns as I drive you home?”
“I couldn’t possibly impose.”
“It’s on my way.” It wasn’t.
“That’s so terribly generous. I knew you would be a kind person. Very well. But first you must see something.”
The kind person watched Beecroft dig an envelope from the tote and draw three photos from it. Withholding two, she offered one to me.
“This was made in 1966. I’m with my sister. We were feeling a bit naughty that afternoon.”
The picture was in color though somewhat faded. A close-up and obviously posed, the shot had been snapped outside on a sunny day. Two teenage girls stood behind a wall with only their heads visible, chins and forearms resting on the top row of bricks. Each had chestnut hair, worn center-parted and ear-tucked. Each had the odd honey-colored eyes.
Both girls grinned mischievously while staring straight into the lens. They looked identical.
I studied the image, feeling a vague sense of unease. Of recognition? But that was impossible.
Beecroft’s words cut into my thoughts. “—didn’t take as many photos back then. Not like today, with young people capturing every second of their lives, posting images of themselves flossing their teeth or cleaning the pantry or torturing the cat, or whatever. Really. Does anyone care about such triviality? But do forgive me. I digress.
“The quality has deteriorated, but our faces are still quite clear. I’m on the left, Harriet is on the right. We were eighteen at the time. We’d just graduated from high school and been admitted to Vassar. But that is also irrelevant. How I do go on.”
Beecroft offered another photo, this one encased in a protective sleeve. I laid the first on the table beside me, took the second, and observed it through the plastic.
The sepia tones and white cracks suggested that this image was considerably older. As did the formal pose and style of clothing.
But the subject matter was similar. Two teenage girls looked straight at the camera, one seated, one standing with her hand on the chair back. Both wore high-necked, long-sleeved dresses with complexly draped ankle-length skirts. Neither smiled.
The resemblance to Polly and Harriet Beecroft was uncanny.
I looked up, seeking explanation.
“That’s my grandmother and her sister,” Beecroft said. “They, too, were twins.”
My eyes dropped back to the picture.
“That portrait was made in 1887. They were seventeen years old.”
“They look exactly—”
“Yes,” Beecroft said. “They do. Did.”
Then Beecroft handed me the final photo.
Hollow silence echoed around us, punctuated by the rumbles of the mounting tempest.
I heard nothing. Saw nothing but the image in my hand.
I swallowed, too shaken to speak.