Alone (A Bone Secrets Novel) (5 page)

Victoria doubted the man was a professional. “Good. The police will need to see it.” She didn’t want to look at the photo. The girls last night were too similar to each other, and they’d blended together in her memory. She was the wrong person to ask if Trinity’s friend was one of the bodies.

She’d let someone else break her young neighbor’s heart.

Victoria passed through the quiet halls of the medical examiner’s building. She wasn’t early, but she’d beat almost everyone else. According to the cars in the parking lot, only the office manager, Anita, and Dr. Campbell were here along with his assistant, Jerry. She’d left Trinity with Anita to wait for the police detectives, writing up what she knew about her friend’s activities last night and a description of Brooke. Usually only a few employees worked the weekends at the ME’s, but more people would show up today. The deaths of kids brought an urgency to the job, driving people to search for answers as quickly as possible. She unlocked the door to her tiny office and flipped on the light
switch with a sigh, appreciating the peace. It wasn’t going to last. Soon the place would be buzzing.

She wouldn’t want to be in Dr. Campbell’s shoes today. It would be a triple P day. Press, police, and parents. He was already hard at work with the victims.

She estimated she’d had four hours of sleep. She, Lacey, and Dr. Campbell had left the eerie scene close to midnight, but she hadn’t crawled into bed until 2
A.M.
And then she’d spent the next hour thinking about Seth Rutledge and those girls. It’d been a difficult night. Anyone who’d seen the circle of girls would never forget that image.

The crime scene tech had been right. It’d looked like a fairy tale.

The beautiful girls waiting to be awakened by a prince. But these girls were never going to wake up.

Six sets of parents would endure the worst day of their lives. Hopefully one pair would have a happy ending if their daughter survived. Victoria knew the sixth girl had virtually no blood pressure or respirations when she’d been discovered in the woods. Something chemical had depressed their systems, slowing them down. Victoria suspected phenobarbital overdose. The heart slows, the breathing slows, everything crawls to a stop. It’d take some fast action to overcome. Possibly the surviving girl had been the last to ingest the drug or not taken as much.

Victoria said a silent prayer for the girl and her family.

Last night she’d Googled mass suicide, wondering what other drugs had been used in suicides. Surprisingly, the episodes with the Heaven’s Gate cult, Waco, and the women long ago in Portland were the only mass suicides on American soil, but she wondered how many deaths it involved to be classified as “mass.” The well-known Jonestown suicides took place in South America, although they involved many Americans.

“Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” she mumbled. She’d learned it hadn’t been Kool-Aid used in Jonestown, but its less popular cousin, Flavor Aid.
How had Kool-Aid become embedded in American memory?

She wasn’t surprised to find that phenobarbital had been used in Heaven’s Gate, but cyanide had been used in Jonestown. Phenobarbital was a little easier to find. It was still widely used worldwide for treating seizures in humans and dogs. And it was low in cost. Unsurprisingly, the main complaint about taking phenobarbital was that it caused sleepiness.

The articles about the long-ago deaths of women in Portland’s Forest Park were scarce. She found some old references in
The Oregonian
’s archives, but it’d never been a national story. Maybe there were other mass suicides that hadn’t become part of the national memory? Her curiosity was piqued. The detectives had mentioned the old suicide case would be looked at again, and Victoria planned to be one of the lookers. She wanted to be hands-on with this case. Looking for clues to identities in deaths this old fell under her umbrella of expertise.

The anticipation of working on the old puzzle gave her brain an electrical surge. Her fingers ached to examine their bones and uncover their stories. And then find out the relationship to the crime of last night. Who would duplicate the old crime?

The first step was to find out what had been done with the remains of the women. Last night Lacey mentioned three had never been identified or claimed, so that implied the remains could be in a few places. They could be skeletal and in storage, cremated and in storage, or buried. As long ago as this event had occurred, Victoria suspected they’d been buried. She crossed her fingers against cremation.

She sent a message to the office manager asking for help to find the remains. If anyone could hunt down the records, Anita could.

She turned away from her computer with a sigh and shuffled through the files on her desk. She had five new requests to examine bones found by the public. Usually these were bones found in people’s backyards or while out on hikes. Ninety-nine percent of the time the bones were from animals. There were eight requests from police departments around the state asking for help with bone identification. Two were highlighted as urgent in relation to missing persons cases. She glanced at the attached photos on one, shaking her head at the close-ups.
Cow?
she scribbled in the margin, eyeing the bulky proximal end of the humerus. Definitely nonhuman, although she could imagine the stocky bone in a hefty troll leg.

Three interoffice cases requested a consultation on open investigations. She scanned through Dr. Campbell’s neat notes and, for the hundredth time, regretted his upcoming retirement.
Please let the next ME be as thorough and organized.
Would that person be Seth Rutledge?

She closed the files and massaged her temples. Every thought had flown from her brain last night at the sight of the tall man. She’d instantly transformed into a nervous college freshman staring at the good-looking teaching assistant. Speechless. It’d taken her a good sixty seconds to recover from the shock of Seth’s appearance at the crime scene.

Could she work with the man on a daily basis?

Where was his wife? Victoria had confirmed Lacey’s observation that Seth didn’t wear a ring. But that meant nothing. Many men didn’t wear wedding rings, especially if they worked with their hands in the way Seth did.

Had he left Jennifer? What about their daughter, Eden?

Or was the whole family moving north to Portland?

Victoria felt a sharp pain in her left temple. Could she spend each day working with Seth and then watch him go home to his family in the evening? She rubbed at her forehead. Stupid. Getting worked up over a situation that might never happen. She exhaled several times, trying to clear her mind of the thought.

Another male face intruded in her mind’s eye. Rory had called her twice this morning. She’d let the calls go to voice mail, but he hadn’t left a message, so she didn’t call back. She wasn’t up to speaking with her ex-husband at the moment, and he could always text if it was important. Issues Rory found important were rarely important to Victoria. And vice versa. Hence the term “ex-husband.”

She resolutely pushed back her chair, stood, and pulled on a lab coat. She was wasting brainpower. Bones were waiting for her analysis, and she wasn’t going to let an old crush or ex-husband disturb her day. She strode out of her office and nearly ran over Seth Rutledge in the hallway.

Victoria barreled out of her office. If Seth hadn’t put out his hands to stop her, she would have plowed into him. Surprised brown eyes met his, and he stood frozen with his hands on her shoulders.

“Hi,” he said as his mind short-circuited.
Hi? That’s all I can say?

She licked her lips, and he dropped his grip.

“Sorry about that. I thought you were going to knock me down,” Seth said.

“I’m on my way to the lab,” she answered.

He watched her throat as she swallowed hard, but she kept her gaze steady with his.

Silence stretched between them.

“You look great, Tori.” His tongue finally working, Seth saw that soft lines and angles of her youth had become polished edges. Not hard edges, but mature edges honed by life events.
How much of her life had he missed?
For all the instant recognition he’d felt when he saw her last night, he was painfully aware that he knew nothing of her current life. The only sign that he’d just surprised her was a brief flutter of her eyelashes behind her librarian glasses. Her chin lifted a fraction and he saw shutters close in her eyes.

They’d once meant something to each other.

But he’d fucked things up.

Had time helped her forgive him?

“Good luck with your job interview,” she said and moved to pass him.

“Wait!” He touched her arm and she halted, a quizzical look in her eyes. “Can we have lunch together today? Or at least grab coffee later?” The cold shadow in her gaze sank his hopeful heart. His answer regarding her forgiveness shone in her eyes. It wasn’t what he’d hoped.

“How is Jennifer?” she asked.

He deserved that. “Fine. We’re getting a divorce.”

“Divorce?”

“We’re getting a divorce,” he repeated. The words were still foreign to his tongue.

Brown eyes studied him, and he felt them judge the weight of his statement. “I’m sorry. I hope Eden is doing well.”

“She’s doing great. She’s in her first year at the University of Washington.”

A small smile touched Victoria’s lips. “I can’t believe she’s that old. Seems like just yesterday…” Her words trailed off, and the smile vanished.

Seth knew what she meant. Seemed like just yesterday his daughter was a toddler, and everything between him and Tori had been swept out from under them. All the dreams and hopes that blossom at the beginning of a fresh relationship. That excitement of something new, something with big potential. Gone in a moment. Taken away without notice.

“Good luck with the job,” she said again. This time she pushed by.

He watched her move down the hall, her footsteps echoing in the silence, lengthening the distance between them. For the briefest moment, he’d felt their old comfortableness surround them. At one time they’d been close. Close enough to start tentatively mapping out a life together. With one sentence, he’d shredded their plans.

He sighed and headed to the autopsy suites. Dr. Campbell had said he’d be starting this morning with the teenage girls. Seth wanted to watch the man in action and give a hand if needed. Parents would want answers soon. If Eden was missing, he’d be tearing down the ME’s door.

He tried to put the encounter with Tori out of his mind, but her face invaded every thought. Every nerve ending in his body was on fire. He hadn’t known that the sight of her would open an avalanche of emotion and memories, knocking him upside the head.

Was it too late to repair the thread he’d severed years ago?

Eighteen years ago

Victoria’s anatomy textbook took up half of the table. Her notes took up the other half. She’d spilled coffee on her notes. It hadn’t been her fault. A jock had jostled her elbow as he’d pushed by her little table in the crowded coffee shop. She’d recognized him as a
Stanford football player. A rowdy group of students had invaded the little store, raising the decibel level several points. The shop was always loud, but she found it easy to study. Somehow tuning out the noise helped her stay focused.

She concentrated on the drawing of the distal end of the femur in her text, committing to memory the differences of the anterior view from the posterior. She wanted to hold one in her hands and feel the actual ridges. She’d slip into the classroom early tomorrow. A traditional wired-together plastic skeleton stood in the corner of the room. Since they’d started the skeletal system, she sat as close as possible to the grinning form, eyeing the bones as the professor lectured. She couldn’t dawdle after class because she immediately had a chemistry class. But going in early was a good option.

She loved college. She loved the independence and the ability to immerse herself in what she found important. High school had so much extracurricular crap that simply didn’t matter. What good would pep rallies do for her career? Or student council? They weren’t going to get her into medical school. Books and her own determination would.

Her adoptive parents had been very nurturing. They valued education and hard work. They’d brought her up in a structured one-child household, teaching her self-discipline and manners.
What if she hadn’t ended up with them? What if she’d ended

A tall male pulled out a chair from her table and sat directly across from her. She stared into intense blue eyes and lost her concentration.

Seth Rutledge was sitting at her table.

She tightened her grip on her pencil, her hands suddenly icy. Seth met her gaze and gave a comfortable half smile as if he sat with her every day.

“How’s it goin’?” He leaned on his forearms on the table and shifted closer so she could hear him over the noisy hum of surrounding conversations.

Victoria froze.

She’d studied him in class as much as she’d studied the skeleton. As a teaching assistant for her anatomy class, Seth usually sat in one of the front corners of the lecture hall, his profile prime for her gaze. Occasionally he would turn her direction, but she’d hastily shift her gaze to the professor. Seth Rutledge was a bit of a distraction. Tall, athletic, dark-haired, with a genuine smile that made most of the girls in the class focus on him instead of the professor. Victoria had noticed that Seth’s line of students with questions during office hours was usually longer than the professor’s. And mostly female.

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