Authors: Kendra Elliot
“Dr. Peres.” The older detective, Mason Callahan, greeted Victoria. His partner, Ray Lusco, nodded at her. Both men had tired eyes and subtle slumps to their shoulders. She hadn’t noticed that they’d been working the scene when she arrived. She’d been focused on the death wheel of beautiful girls. But obviously Mason and Ray had already spent several hours in the woods. She’d worked with the detectives several times, their opposite personalities making them perfect partners. Mason was the blunt-spoken salt-and-pepper-haired senior detective, rarely
seen without his cowboy boots and hat. Ray was the younger family man, who looked like he should be coaching college football.
It wouldn’t take long to get depressed or angry or frustrated at this scene. The absolute futileness of the death of these young women was like a gut punch. It was one of the quieter scenes Victoria had visited, not chatty like some. The tension was thick, and the anger from the cops and workers was palpable.
“No one has reported missing teens tonight?” Lacey was asking, surprise on her face.
Ray shook his head. “Not locally yet. Some males, but no females. It’s only eleven. Calls will start coming in. This gives me the creeps. It’s like the girls all lay down and fell asleep. No evidence of thrashing about or fighting back.”
“What happened?” Lacey asked. “Do you think they drank something?”
Mason tugged on his ever-present cowboy hat. “Possible.” He was tight-lipped. Victoria knew he wouldn’t speculate out loud.
“No cups,” stated Victoria. “Unless you already removed them?”
“Nothing’s been removed,” answered Ray. “Not by us.”
“Ghosts took them,” stated the cop with the log. Victoria shifted to read his name.
The group simply stared at Dixon.
“What?” Dixon met their stares. “Don’t you know where we are?”
Victoria saw a flicker of recognition on Lacey’s face. The forensic odontologist had grown up in the area. Victoria was originally from a tiny coastal town; she didn’t know about Mason and Ray, but judging by their faces, they were clueless about the cop’s reference.
“This part of the woods is haunted,” Dixon stated solemnly. “All the high-school kids around here avoid this area.”
Mason looked disgusted.
Dixon’s brows narrowed. “You do know this isn’t the first ring of suicides here, right?”
The two Major Crimes detectives called for confirmation. Sure enough. In 1968, six female bodies had been found in Forest Park. Only three of the bodies had been identified. Three had remained unclaimed for decades. Victoria rubbed at her arms in the cold, hugging herself.
How come no one had missed them?
“How is that possible?” she asked the detectives. An hour at the scene hadn’t answered any of her questions; it’d only raised more. “How can no one miss three women? I can understand one person who possibly moved here from out of state, living as a transient going unidentified, but three?”
“It was a different era,” commented Mason. “I knew there’d been a mass suicide in Forest Park a long time ago, but didn’t know where. This place is gigantic. You can believe we’ll be looking into it again.”
Dr. Campbell stepped up to the group. “I’m done here. It looks like I’ll be seeing these young women again. With the air temperature here I’d estimate it’s been six to eight hours since death, but I’ll have a more accurate window tomorrow after the lab work.”
Her heart ached at the regret on his face. She knew he didn’t like seeing kids on his table.
“What a case to catch near the end of my career,” he added. “I hope to get a clear answer on this one. Soon.”
“I didn’t realize you were retiring, doctor,” Ray said, raising a brow at Mason, who looked stunned.
“I’m looking forward to sleeping in and not getting phone calls in the middle of the night. Or during my dinner.”
Both detectives nodded in grim agreement. “Holidays are also bad,” said Ray.
“I’ll stick around to help transition in the new chief examiner. We’ve narrowed it down to two applicants. Either will be a good chief.”
“You’re not promoting from within?” Mason asked.
“Not this time. I’ve got fine deputy medical examiners, but none of them want the extra responsibility of the position.” Dr. Campbell turned and looked over the young women in the ferns. “This case will stick with me for a while.”
“Detective Callahan,” came a different voice.
The group spun to see the new arrivals in the forest. Another Portland police officer had spoken as he led two men to the scene. One was a man in a dark green uniform with a baseball cap that read
, and the other was a tall civilian in jeans and a heavy jacket. The civilian’s face was in the shadows, but Victoria stiffened at his approach. Something about the way he carried himself set off alarms in her head.
“This is Bud Rollins.” The police officer gestured at the man in the ranger hat. “He’s one of the park rangers and knows this forest inside and out. He’s the first guy we call when we need help in here.”
Mason shook hands with the slender man. “Sorry to get you out of bed.”
“Not a problem. I like to know what’s going on in my woods.”
The weathered ranger spoke with a soft southern accent, making Victoria blink. The sound was a rarity in the Pacific Northwest. His eyes were kind, and she estimated his age to be in his early fifties. He scanned the scene ahead of him and paled. “Dear Lord. One of them lived?”
“So far,” said Mason. “Doesn’t look good for her, though.”
The second man stepped forward and held his hand out to Detective Callahan.
Victoria couldn’t breathe; her gaze locked on the man’s face. Every coherent thought vanished from her brain.
“This is Seth Rutledge,” said Dr. Campbell as he greeted the man. “Glad you could make it. Dr. Rutledge is one of the applicants for my position. I had the office call him to the scene,” Dr. Campbell told Mason as the men shook hands.
Dr. Rutledge met Victoria’s eyes. “Hello, Tori.”
Everyone looked at Victoria.
Victoria pressed her lips together as she held Dr. Rutledge’s gaze, her spine stiff, her hands crammed in her pockets, her ears ringing. “Seth.”
Seth gave a half smile, and the shield around Victoria’s heart started to crack.
“Been a while, Tori.”
Victoria nodded and all ability to speak abandoned her brain.
Victoria couldn’t believe it.
After a decade of silence, Seth Rutledge was standing in front of her with that familiar cryptic smile—the one that never exposed what he was thinking. Suddenly the years were gone, and she felt like she’d just seen him yesterday. When he’d abruptly dumped her for another woman.
Lacey was watching her with an expectant look on her face, indicating she knew something was up and was patiently waiting for an explanation. Victoria wasn’t in the mood to share. Her past belonged to her. She didn’t need sympathy or more questions from anyone. She scanned the group. Lacey wasn’t the only one with the curious look.
“You two know each other?” Dr. Campbell asked.
Trust Dr. Campbell to ask the question on everyone’s mind. Even the two detectives looked interested in their history. Few people had facts on Victoria Peres. She liked it that way.
“We were at Stanford at the same time,” said Seth. “Haven’t really seen much of each other since then.”
Not since one night at a conference in Denver.
Victoria saw the same thought in his eyes.
He still thinks about it, too.
“I didn’t know you were considering the position here,” she heard herself say. How could she have known? She avoided office politics the same way she avoided office socializing. Her dinner with Lacey and Dr. Campbell tonight had been an anomaly. A result of Lacey pressing her and a bit of guilt that her boss was retiring, and she knew she’d be skipping the formal retirement party. A small dinner had seemed logical.
“I’ve been keeping the process quiet,” said Dr. Campbell. “It was time to bring it out into the open, watching him interact with the staff and get a feel for the office. Come take a look at this one, Seth.” He gestured at the younger man and headed over to the first girl.
Seth met Victoria’s gaze once more and then followed. She watched him walk away, recognizing every distinctive motion of his body. She hadn’t thought about him in years. How could he be so immediately familiar?
Her lower back felt damp. How unfair that the one man in the world she couldn’t have was the only one who made her feel lovely.
“Wow,” murmured Lacey for Victoria’s ears. “How attractive is he? He looks like a younger Pierce Brosnan without the crooked teeth. You’ve got some explaining to do.”
“We barely know each other,” she lied.
Lacey would notice his teeth.
“I haven’t seen him in forever,” Victoria amended.
“Well, he looks ready to renew your friendship.”
“I didn’t see a ring.”
“You looked for a ring?” Victoria eyed the other woman.
“Of course. I’m female.”
“Engaged to the most amazing man in the world. But that doesn’t mean I can’t wonder about other people’s marriage status. I’m not looking for me, but when I see a man who looks like that and is a doctor to boot, I wonder if he’s married. Maybe I want to set him up with a good friend.” She winked at Victoria.
“He’s married,” Victoria repeated. She looked past Lacey’s shoulder to where Seth squatted with Dr. Campbell next to one of the sad bodies, deep in discussion. The tilt of his head set off sparks of memories, as did the width of his shoulders. Years of separation were evaporating every second. Next she’d be asking him to go for a run, forgetting they hadn’t run together in ages.
It’s only been five minutes… after nearly twenty years.
Dr. Campbell’s words about retiring ricocheted in her head. Could Seth be her next boss?
Could she handle that?
Seth gestured at the dead girl’s face, asking a question of the tech at the adjacent body, and Sarah moved over to open the girl’s mouth. Dr. Campbell shone his flashlight in the girl’s mouth.
“What are they doing?” Lacey muttered, her focus on the two men. The medical examiner looked over his shoulder and gestured at Lacey to join them. If there was a question about something in the mouth, Lacey was the woman to ask. Victoria followed her to the body.
“Whatcha got?” Lacey asked as she bent next to her father.
“She’s got something covering her teeth,” Seth said.
Lacey peered into the open mouth. “Looks like clear retainers. Can I have a pair of gloves?” she asked Sarah.
Victoria glanced at Seth and was surprised to find him looking directly at her. She met his look squarely. She couldn’t get a read on his thoughts. He must have known she worked in the Oregon medical examiner’s office, but he couldn’t have known she’d be here tonight. Was he surprised? She broke eye contact in time to see Lacey pry one of the clear retainers off the top teeth with a loud snap.
“Not retainers,” Lacey commented. “Invisalign. Invisible braces.”
Victoria had seen them on TV. The appliances moved teeth into alignment with a series of progressive rigid trays. A feat of dental engineering that hadn’t been available when she went through two years of metal orthodontics. “So she’ll definitely have some dental records somewhere.”
Lacey nodded, her face thoughtful as she studied the two closest girls. “How come they aren’t wearing shoes? They don’t look poor, the makeup and hair is perfect, nails are manicured…” She stopped as Seth abruptly shifted his position to view the soles of the feet.
“Perfectly clean,” he stated. “Where in the hell are their shoes? Or did they fly in here?”
Seth watched Victoria talk with the other forensic specialist. The woman hadn’t changed a bit. Still tall, immaculate, polished long black hair, and all-seeing with those intense brown eyes. Would she have pretended not to know him if he hadn’t said anything?
He didn’t like his answer.
Victoria Peres had every reason to give him the cold shoulder, yet she was being her professional self. Even in college she’d been ahead of the curve in maturity and poise. She’d stood out in her anatomy class with her intelligent questions. He’d known at once that she was a woman going places.
And she had. She’d traveled the world to study anthropology. Either digging for old bones or observing social situations. He’d read her magazine articles and tracked her professional life online. Then he’d heard about the opening at the Oregon medical examiner’s office. His daughter had left for her first year of college, so there was no point in his staying in Sacramento. He applied, hoping to cross paths with the woman he couldn’t forget.
When he’d gotten the call about tonight’s deaths from the medical examiner’s office, he hadn’t expected to see her. He’d anticipated a hike in the dark woods and a depressing crime scene. Both of those assumptions had been accurate. Now, being around Victoria was like being around a moving flame in the clearing. He couldn’t pull his gaze from her; he kept an eye on her at all times. Even when he turned his back, his senses tracked her. After nearly two decades of not seeing her, he felt like she’d never been gone. There was no learning curve to being in her presence; he instinctively knew what to expect.