Die For Me

Excerpt

Chapter One

Philadelphia, Sunday, January 14, 10:25 a.m.

Detective Vito Ciccotelli got out of his truck, his skin still vibrating. The beat up old dirt road that led to the crime scene had only served to further rile his already churning stomach. He sucked in a breath and immediately regretted it. After fourteen years on the force, the odor of death still came as a putrid and unwelcome surprise.

"That shot my shocks to holy hell.” Nick Lawrence grimaced, slamming the door of his sensible sedan. “Shit.” His Carolina drawl drew the curse out to four full syllables.

Two uniforms stood staring down into a hole halfway across the snow covered field. Handkerchiefs covered their faces. A woman was crouched down in the hole, the top of her head barely visible. “I guess CSU's already uncovered the body,” Vito said dryly.

"Y'think?” Nick bent down and shoved the cuffs of his pants into the cowboy boots he kept polished to a spit shine. “Well, Chick, let's get this show on the road.”

“In a minute.” Vito reached behind his seat for his snow boots, then flinched when a thorn jabbed deep into his thumb. “Dammit.” For a few seconds he sucked on the tiny wound, then with care moved the bouquet of roses out of the way to get to his boots. From the corner of his eye he could see Nick sober. But his partner said nothing.

“It's been two years. Today,” Vito added bitterly. “How time flies.”

Nick's voice was quiet. “It's supposed to heal, too.”

And Nick was right. Two years had dulled the edge of Vito's grief. But guilt … that was a different matter entirely. “I'm going out to the cemetery this afternoon.”

“You want me to go with you?”

“Thanks, but no.” Vito shoved his feet into his boots. “Let's go see what they found.”

Six years as a homicide detective had taught Vito that there were no simple murders, just varying degrees of hard ones. As soon as he stopped at the edge of the grave the crime scene unit had just unearthed in the snow-covered field, he knew this would be one of the harder ones.

Neither Vito nor Nick said a word as they studied the victim who may have remained hidden forever were it not for an elderly man and his metal detector. The roses, the cemetery, and everything else was pushed aside as Vito focused on the body in the hole. He dragged his gaze from her hands to what was left of her face.

Their Jane Doe had been small, five-two or five-three, and appeared to have been young. Short dark hair framed a face too decomposed to be easily identifiable and Vito wondered how long she'd been here. He wondered who she belonged to. If anyone had missed her. If anyone still waited for her to come home.

He felt the familiar surge of pity and sadness and pushed it to the edge of his mind along with all the other things he wanted to forget. For now he'd focus on the body, the evidence. Later, he and Nick would consider the woman – who she'd been and who she'd known. They'd do so as a means to catch the sick sonofabitch who'd left her nude body to rot in an unmarked grave in an open field, who'd violated her even after death. Pity shifted to outrage as Vito's gaze returned to the victim's hands.

“He posed her,” Nick murmured beside him and in the soft words Vito heard the same outrage he felt. “He fucking posed her.”

Indeed he had. Her hands were pressed together between her breasts, her fingertips pointing to her chin. “Permanently folded in prayer,” Vito said grimly.

“Religious murderer?” Nick mused.

“God, I hope not.” A buzz of apprehension tickled his spine. “Religious murderers tend not to stop with just one. There could be more.”

“Maybe.” Nick crouched down to peer into the grave which was about three feet deep. “How did he permanently pose her hands, Jen?”

CSU Sergeant Jen McFain looked up, her eyes covered with goggles, her nose and mouth by a mask. “Wire,” she said. “Looks like steel, but very fine. It's wound around her fingers. You'll be able to see it better once the ME cleans her up.”

Vito frowned. “Doesn't seem like wire that thin would be enough to trip the sensor on a metal detector, especially under a couple feet of dirt.”

“You're right, the wire wouldn't have set it off. For that we can thank the rods your perp ran under the victim's arms.” Jen traced one gloved finger along the underside of her own arm, down to her wrist. “They're thin and bendable, but have enough mass to set off a metal detector. It's how he kept her arms fixed in position.”

Vito shook his head. “Why?” he asked and Jen shrugged.

“Maybe we'll get more from the body. I haven't gotten much from the hole so far. Except …”She nimbly climbed from the grave. “The old man uncovered one of her arms using his garden spade. Now, he's in pretty good shape, but even I couldn't have dug that deep with a garden spade this time of year.”

Nick looked into the grave. “The ground must not have been frozen.”

Jen nodded. “Exactly. When he found the arm he stopped digging and called 911. When we got here, we started moving dirt to see what we had. The fill was easy to move until we got to the grave wall, then it was hard as a rock. Look at the corners. They look like they were cut using a T-square. They're frozen solid.”

Vito felt a sick tug at his gut. “He dug the grave before the ground froze. He planned this pretty far in advance.”

Nick was frowning. “And nobody noticed a gaping hole?”

“Perp might've covered it with something,” Jen said. “Also, I don't think the fill dirt came from this field. I'll run the tests to tell you for sure. That's all I got for now. I can't do anything more until the ME gets here.”

“Thanks, Jen,” Vito said. “Let's talk to the property owner,” he said to Nick.

Harlan Winchester was about seventy, but his eyes were clear and sharp. He'd been waiting in the back seat of the police cruiser, and got out when he saw them coming. “I suppose I'll have to tell you detectives the same thing I told the officers.”

Vito put a little sympathy into his nod. “I'm afraid so. I'm Detective Ciccotelli and this is my partner, Detective Lawrence. Can you take us through what happened?"

"Hell, I didn't even want that damn metal detector. It was a present from my wife. She's worried I don't get enough exercise since I retired.”

“So you got out this morning and walked?” Vito prompted and Winchester scowled.

“‘Harlan P. Winchester,' “ he mimicked in a high, nasal voice, “ ‘you've been in that good-for-nothin' chair for the last ten years. Get your moldy butt up and walk.' So I did ‘cause I couldn't stand to listen to her nag me anymore. I thought I might find something interesting to make Ginny shut up. But …I never dreamed I'd find a person.”

“Was the body the first object your detector picked up?” Nick asked.

“Yeah.” His mouth set grimly. “I took out my garden spade. It was then I thought about how hard the ground would be. I didn't think I'd be able to break the surface, much less dig deep. I almost put my spade away before I started, but I'd only been gone fifteen minutes and Ginny would have nagged me some more. So I started digging.” He closed his eyes, swallowed hard, his bravado gone like so much mist. “My spade … it hit her arm. So I stopped digging and called 911.”

“Can you tell us a little more about this land?” Vito asked. “Who has access to it?”

“Anybody with an ATV or four-wheel-drive, I guess. You can't see this field from the highway and the little drive that connects to the main road isn't even paved.”

Vito nodded, grateful he'd driven his truck, leaving his Mustang parked safely in his garage alongside his bike. “It's definitely a rugged road. How do you get back here?”

”Today I walked.” He pointed to the tree line where a single set of footprints emerged. “But this was the first time I've been back here. We only moved in a month ago. This land was my aunt's,” he explained. “She died and left it to me.”

“So, did your aunt come out to this field often?”

“I wouldn't think so. She was a recluse, never left the house. That's all I know.”

“Sir, you've been a big help,” Vito said. “Thank you.”

Winchester's shoulders sagged. “Then I can go home?”

“Sure. The officers will drive you home.”

Winchester got in the cruiser and it headed out, passing a gray Volvo on its way in. The Volvo parked behind Nick's sedan and a trim woman in her mid-fifties got out and started across the field. ME Katherine Bauer was here. It was time to face Jane Doe.

Vito started toward the grave, but Nick didn't move. He was looking at Winchester's metal detector sitting inside the CSU van. “We should check the rest of the field, Chick.”

“You think there are more.”

“I think we can't leave until we know there aren't.”

Another shiver of apprehension raced down Vito's back. In his heart he already knew what they would find. “You're right. Let's see what else is out there.”

************

Copyright © 2007, Karen Rose Books, Inc.