Authors: Kendra Elliot
She’d been guilty of stopping in during office hours with a question or two. Seth had always been polite and spot-on with his answers. It’d been more of a test to see if the brain in his head was as gorgeous as the man. As far as she could tell, Seth Rutledge was the real deal. Blessed with smarts and looks. But he didn’t seem to have the ego that accompanied the looks.
“You having any problems with that?” He nodded at her text.
“No, not at all.”
The silence dragged between them. She continued to study his blue eyes. He had the slightest bit of gold around the pupils and his black lashes created perfect frames for the masterpieces.
“I really like this section of the class. I’d rather study the skeletal system than the respiratory system any day.”
She commanded her lips to give a casual smile. “What are you doing here so late?”
Sometimes Victoria ran down a checklist when she carried on a conversation. Social skills weren’t her specialty. She admired women who could talk on and on about anything under the sun, but for her it was a struggle. She was a private person. She spent a lot of time in her head, studying and analyzing the world around her; that didn’t mean she wanted to share her thoughts with every person she met. To avoid the tongue-tying conversations, she’d formed a mental checklist. First on the list was to turn the topic back to the other person. She didn’t care to talk about herself.
Seth smiled as if he’d recognized her tactic. “I’m usually walking by here about this time of night after using the pool. I live only a block away. I’ve seen you in here at late hours several times.”
He’d noticed her?
“Ah… I haven’t seen you.”
“That’s because you’ve always got your nose buried in a text. No wonder you ace every test.”
Elation bubbled in her chest. He’d noticed her
he’d noticed her scores. The look in his eyes was frank admiration. Was he flirting? Or was he just being polite? What had driven him to sit at her table? She tilted her head. Sincerity rang true in his voice and gaze.
He’s interested in me?
“Do you swim every day?” Victoria repeated rule number one, turning the conversation away from herself.
“Just about. I like to do it in the late evening. The pool isn’t crowded and I can focus and think about other things. Helps me sleep, too. I get a weird sort of energy that I need to burn off in the evenings or else I can’t sleep. It’s a nighttime ritual for me.”
“I like to read,” said Victoria. “I switch to fiction before I go to sleep, otherwise I lay awake thinking about what I was studying.”
Seth nodded. “But what do you like to do for fun?”
fun. You’re not a reader? Fun doesn’t have to be physical.”
His eyes crinkled as his grin grew, and she winced at her words.
“That was funny.”
Victoria’s cheeks heated, but she kept her chin up. Seth continued to grin, and she felt her stomach do a quick series of flips.
“I guess I feel like I read so much for school, the last thing I want to do is read some more,” he said. “Usually I’m dying to get out the door and get moving. Apparently that isn’t a problem for you?”
She shook her head. “I take a yoga class twice a week, but I can’t say I go there with energy to burn.”
“I’d ask if you need any extra help in class, but it’s pretty apparent that you don’t. You could probably do my job.”
She studied his face and mentally dissected his last sentence. Why would he ask if she needed help in class? Because… “Are you asking me out?” she blurted.
“Yes,” he said calmly.
“Isn’t that against some sort of rule?”
“Only if I’m a professor.” He frowned lightly. “Or are you uncomfortable with the idea of going out with a teaching assistant? I’m not going to screw with your grades or help you out. You don’t need help anyway. I don’t know why you’ve asked me the questions you have during office hours. It was pretty clear that you knew the material inside and out.”
Victoria held her breath. And held his gaze.
“You’re smart, you’re gorgeous, you’re going places. Why wouldn’t I ask you out?”
He thought she was gorgeous?
“How many other students from your classes have you asked out?” The question slipped through her lips. It was a bit rude, but she wanted to know. She wasn’t falling for the teacher-boinking-the-student scenario.
She must have looked doubtful. He straightened in his chair and repeated firmly, “None. I dated someone back home for a couple of years. We ended it a while ago. I haven’t dated anyone else since I’ve been here at school.” His gaze touched her lips, then cheeks and went back to her eyes. “You’ve been stuck in my head for weeks. I think it started one of the rainy nights I was passing by here. You were studying at this same table, scowling at the text like you were furious with it, and chewing on your lower lip. Did you know you do that in class too? Mainly during tests but sometimes during the lectures. Anyway, I was passing by, considering grabbing a coffee for the cold walk home, and I recognized you from class. Since then…” He shook his head, that half smile curling up his right cheek. “Yeah, you stuck in my head.”
Victoria stared. If he’d said he was a time traveler, she wouldn’t have been more surprised.
In shock, she agreed to a date.
“What’s a psychological autopsy?” Mason asked as he avoided looking at the young girl on the metal table.
The medical examiner had just mentioned the possible need for an unfamiliar type of autopsy. Dr. Campbell stood back as he watched his assistant stitch together the gaping chest incision that the examiner had created an hour before.
“It’s an investigation to discover the state of mind of these girls before their death. Right now I can’t even classify these deaths. They could be accidental, suicide, or homicide. I know the results of the tox screen will indicate what stopped their hearts and respiration, but it’s not going to tell us how it got in
their system. Did someone else put it there, or did they take it willingly?”
Mason was familiar with the NASH classification for deaths. Natural, accidental, suicide, or homicide. Natural was easy to rule out in this case, but the ME had a good point. They needed more information. As soon as these girls were identified, they’d have a place to start. Dr. Campbell had efficiently sped through the first girl’s autopsy, from the Y incision, to the tissue samples, to peeling back the scalp to remove part of her skull and examine the brain. When the doctor had moved down the table to take a vaginal swab, anger had burned through Mason. The girl was almost a child, defenseless on the metal table. He offered up a prayer that her soul had left the room and wouldn’t witness the indignities her body would suffer. Mason had stared at the light fixture and films through most of the procedure.
Autopsies were impersonal, the essence of the victims departed, but it took a lot of effort for Mason to be present for many of his cases. The autopsy suite was one of his least favorite places in the world. He’d hoped that over the years he would have grown accustomed to the sights and smells; he still waited. Each autopsy rattled him and visually stuck with him. He saw his role in the autopsy suite as honoring the victim. He’d stand at attention, respecting the science that would help bring justice. He was an honor guard starting his work for the victim. Often the victims were alone at their moment of death; they didn’t need to be alone for this final affront.
“Who does the psychological autopsy?” he asked.
“I have a couple of psychologists who I’ve worked with in the past. Usually it’s the type of situation where information is needed to settle estate issues or insurance cases. They do in-depth interviews with family, friends, and witnesses. They’ll look through
social media and emails if they can. Even look at the victim’s preference in books and television shows. They have a list of suicide indicators they look for.”
Doctor Campbell’s definition sounded a lot like Mason and Ray’s job. He raised an eyebrow at the doctor.
“Oh, I know.” The doctor nodded at him. “That’s stuff you’ll be doing. But I’ve got to say, I’ve never had a case so up in the air from the very start. Did they kill themselves? Did someone give them something lethal without them knowing? Or was it an accident? A bunch of girls trying out something cool they didn’t know would take their lives? It’s too early to say we’ll need one for certain, but I’m going to keep it in mind if we struggle to figure out why this happened.” The older man shook his head and Mason sympathized at the sorrow in his eyes. The doctor had four more autopsies to do.
“What’s the word on the sixth girl?” the doctor asked.
“I haven’t heard anything for a while. So I’ll guess ‘no change.’ I asked them to call immediately if something happened.”
Ray stuck his head in the autopsy suite. “I just ran into Dr. Peres,” he said with a nod at both men. “She’s got a teen neighbor who thinks she knows one of the girls.”
“So does half the city,” muttered Mason.
“Dr. Peres’s neighbor says her friend went to Forest Park for a photography session yesterday and now she can’t reach her. Also says the missing girl has long dark hair. The neighbor is out front with Anita.” Ray stepped just in the suite and stared at the hair of the young girl on the table. He didn’t move any closer. “She told Dr. Peres that there’s a photographer who wanted teen girls with long dark hair to model for him.”
“Jesus Christ,” said Mason. “I wonder if that’s who Simon Parker saw with the girls. He didn’t say anything about
photography equipment, but the man was carrying a bag. That’d be a good hook to get teenage girls to go with you. Doesn’t every girl want to be a model at some point?”
Ray nodded. “I know Kirstin loves to watch that model competition show and can’t keep her nose out of fashion magazines. Dr. Peres’s neighbor goes to high school with the missing girl.”
“She ever meet the photographer?”
“No. And Victoria took her to the missing girl’s home, but there’s no one there, and she doesn’t know how to contact the parents. She brought her to the office, so we can talk to her.”
“That’ll be a starting point. I’ll be there as soon as I can,” said Mason.
“We’ve got upset parents starting to arrive,” added Ray. “How do you want to handle this?”
Mason looked to the ME.
“I’ll have Anita write up a quick questionnaire for the parents to fill out so we can make some immediate eliminations. Questions about height, weight, scars, hair, tattoos, and eye color. What they think their kid was wearing. Plus it’ll give these parents something to do. Nothing is worse for them than standing around.”
“What about showing photos?” Ray asked. “They’re already asking out front.”
“Not yet. I’ve taken good face shots, but that step comes later,” Dr. Campbell said. “I want them screened heavily. I won’t show these faces to anybody who walks in here because they know a kid who’s missing. They need to bring in their own pictures, and if they can get their dentist to email digital dental films on a Sunday, that’d help. I want secondary confirmations, either dental or DNA once we get a positive visual ID. As soon
as Lacey gets here, I’ll have her put together some preliminary dental findings.”
Ray nodded. “I’ve already started a list of questions to ask the parents, so I’ll work with Anita and get Victoria’s teen neighbor to fill out a form.”
“Scars and unusual things we can note visually will help. Put moles on there, too,” Dr. Campbell said. “I’ve never had a situation with this many similar victims at once. I won’t have a screwup like that case back east with two similar-looking teen girls a few years ago. One died in a car wreck while the other one lived, but she was hospitalized and in a coma for a while. A set of parents buried the girl they thought was their daughter. Turns out she was unconscious in the hospital.”
Mason faintly remembered the case. “We won’t let that happen.”
The doctor put a hand in the middle of his back and arched it, grimacing. “I’ve got some more girls to take care of. This is going to be handled right.”
Seth Rutledge stepped into the autopsy suite in full scrubs and gown. He acknowledged the detectives with a nod and greeting. “I can give you a hand,” he said to Dr. Campbell.
“Much appreciated,” he said. “I can put you to work.”
Seth followed Dr. Campbell into the next suite and wondered what Tori was doing. Their brief run-in this morning hadn’t gone smoothly. He’d been looking out from a window, waiting for her to arrive. He felt a bit like a stalker, but he’d simply wanted to see her, study her a bit without her knowing. She was still adept at throwing up defenses. It’d been years since they’d crossed paths the last time. A forensics conference in Denver had put them face-to-face for the first time since they split in college.
They’d both been in relationships at the time. Him with Jennifer, and her with Rory. He’d been confident enough to engage her at the conference and suggest dinner. After all, they were both committed to other people. Why couldn’t they have a simple meal to catch up? What could go wrong?