Vultures swirled overhead announcing death to anyone who cared to look above the treetops. Kendal McNally didn’t need them to tell her what lay ahead. The fetid odor of rotting flesh reached her half way across the field. The smell, combined with the hum of flies, made her thankful she hadn’t eaten breakfast before making the hour long drive to Ripley.
She picked her way around cocklebur weeds standing knee high and cow created potholes dotting the abandoned pasture. Her head jerked back as she swatted at the buzzing insects intent on attacking her face. Dry clumps of dirt pushed out of the ground, the handy work of crawdads. Deep ruts from a tractors tire and long blades of intertwining grass acted as nature’s trip wire. A minefield she stumbled through despite wearing sensible shoes and work pants.
The humid summer morning air gave a feeble gust, but didn’t budge the tendrils of chestnut curls stuck to her forehead and neck. The dark blue of her shirt showed signs of heat where damp patches clung to her back and sides.
She glanced up to see how much further. Almost there.
Two local officers stood, hands on their respective gun attached hips, watching her progress across the field. Neither of them called out a greeting or smiled.
She flashed her badge when she got close enough for them to see. “Kendal McNally, FBI crime scene,” she muttered, feeling overheated and irritated.
She ignored the curiosity that lit their faces. Whether from the name or the FBI, she didn’t know or care. She set her scene kit on the ground, unlatched, and opened the lid. Taking out the Vick’s vapor rub, she applied a swipe under each nostril, sighing in appreciation for the hot, minty cover up. Taking pity on the two officers, she handed them her Vicks.
“Didn’t realize they were calling in ID on this. You got here fast.” This came from the younger of the two officers, handsome despite the frown creasing his brow. He wasn’t happy about her presence, the locals usually weren’t, but that wasn’t his or her call. He extended his hand, surprising her. “Kyle Davis, this here’s Haywood.” He gestured toward his older, pudgier sidekick.
“Nice to meet you, Kyle. Haywood.” She shook Kyle’s large, rough worked hand, nodded at Haywood. “Who was first on scene?”
“We came together.” Kyle’s brows lifted in question.
She sighed. “Who found the body and called in the report to you?” She made a quick scan of the area. How much evidence had already been lost due to carelessness and ignorance of the officers who had yet to secure the scene?
The grave lay just at the edge of a wooded area, giving plenty of coverage for someone to hide a body. So why at the edge of woods? Why in the open?
“Hank, the farms owner. Actually, his dog found the body.” Haywood chuckled then appeared to realize the inappropriateness of his response. “Damn dog started digging and tugging at the blanket there.” He pointed.
Kendal refused to look directly at the body. Not yet. She needed to steel herself against the shock. Prepare not to react.
“Who removed the dirt from around the body?” She failed to keep the irritation out of her tone.
“The dog, I guess.” Kyle shrugged his shoulders. “We didn’t touch it.”
It? Kendal wanted to scream. It was a little girl.
“Have you been walking the area?” She gestured to the numerous footprints and trampled weeds.
“Yeah. We looked for evidence.” Haywood glanced at Kyle for confirmation.
“Why is the FBI interested?” Kyle folded his muscled arms across his thick chest.
“We’ll be helping with the collection of all physical evidence,” she stated, moving the strap of her camera so that it hung around her neck rather than off one shoulder.
“We collected evidence the last time and we’ve already searched here. What are you going to do that we can’t?” Haywood sputtered, tossing his hands in the air.
Two grave sights found on the farm in the past year with no person of interest identified seemed answer enough for Kendal. This time someone called in specialists.
She thought about ignoring Haywood’s question, but answered out of courtesy. “We need enough evidence to identify a POI.” Realizing what they needed to hear, she looked up from her camera and flashed what she hoped was a charming smile. “I’m sure you men have enough to deal with without adding a detailed scene investigation to the mix. We’re here to assist you, not take over.”
Haywood took the bait, puffing out his barrel chest with importance. Kyle didn’t sway so easy.
“You’re going to do this on your own?” Kyle asked.
“No. Another team member should be arriving….” At the sound of a car door slamming in the distance, they all glanced in the direction of the barn and farmhouse. “That’s probably her now.”
Kendal wondered how Amy would fair crossing the pasture and hoped she’d heeded her warning about wearing sensible shoes. She couldn’t help but glance over her shoulder until Amy came into view from around the barn on three inch heels and studied the situation.
Kendal smiled as she turned back to the scene and squatted down to remove numbered markers and surgical gloves from her kit, but she would wait for Amy to begin processing the scene. She needed to do a quick sketch of the area and document what she had learned so far. Interviewing the farmer, Hank, was top priority.
Taking a deep steadying breath, she took her first look at the body. Kendal surveyed the grave with the remains of the child lying within its shallow dirt walls. Ignoring the low burning sensation in her stomach, she brought the camera up to her face and focused for the first of many pictures.
The men stood there appearing confused as to what to do next.
“Holy cow shit,” Amy exclaimed, coming to an unsteady stop beside Kendal. “Literally.” Amy grabbed hold of Kyle’s arm to steady herself as she slanted backwards when her spiked heels sunk into the ground.
“I warned you.” Kendal shook her head.
“Yes. Yes you did.” Amy swung her sparkling blue eyes on Kyle and squeezed his meaty arm before letting go. “Nice.” She smiled. Kyle’s face turned beat red.
“Lets get to work.” Kendal pulled on gloves, snapping them against her wrist. She began setting numbers near the young girl’s body. A baby really, six years old at the most. Kendal shut off her thoughts, focusing on the job and let the camera capture the scene. Bruises circled the neck and the arms. Scratches. The tattered clothes. The quilt partially wrapped around the lower half of her body.
How much of what she saw had the dog disturbed with his tugging on the quilt, from digging in the dirt? Had the body been completely covered?
While she worked, Amy opened her own case, put on gloves, grabbed a prepackaged test kit, and waited. When Kendal finished, she replaced the lens cover on her camera and squatted down across the grave from where Amy knelt. A car door slammed.
“Coroner?” Amy questioned while painstakingly brushing dirt off the body, never taking her eyes off the pale, marred flesh.
But it wasn’t the coroner. Kendal stood when the man approached. He was tall and shockingly thin. The police uniform hung on him as if the weight loss were recent and sudden.
“Chief, these two ladies are with the FBI,” Kyle explained as his brows furrowed over a face grown tense.
“I didn’t call in the FBI.” The chief’s gravely voice held contempt.
“Someone did,” Kendal stated. “We’re here to help. My supervisor…”
He stopped her with a harrumph and a shake of his head. “Yeah, I already spoke to him.” Riley’s Chief of Police spit a long steam of brown juice, which touched down inches short of Kyle’s shoe. “Don’t you boys got something better to do?” He snarled at his two officers. Even Kyle seemed to shrink. The chief’s authority giving him more weight than his body demanded.
“We have no problem working with the locals. We can either assist or lead the investigation.” Kendal kept her voice steady, but her insides quivered like the beginnings of a volcanic eruption.
“I don’t think so. I’ll tell you what I told your supervisor. I don’t want you here.” He jammed a finger in her direction. “You’re on your own and when you screw this up, it will all be on your head.” The chief turned and left with his men.
She watched him go, part of her falling back to the nagging insecurities that had been her companions since her teenage years. She screwed everything up just like her mother. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Kendal clenched her jaws to bite off that line of thinking. Her mother had made mistakes, yes, but she’d had help making them. Kendal shoved the thoughts away and noticed Amy staring up at her.
“A friend of yours?” Amy asked.“No.” She glanced again at the retreating figure. “My father.”