Chapter 7

Was there another dead body lying in the woods nearby, out of sight? If so, Eric wondered why Mario had failed to mention it.

Then he remembered, and the detective’s comment made more sense. A girl had been attacked, not three weeks before, in this same stretch of woods. Eric hadn’t been on duty the night it happened, but he’d heard about it. She’d been walking from the art studio to her car, around this same time, if his memory served him, when an assailant had chased her down and thrown her coat over her head. But she had escaped, hadn’t she? Overcome her attacker and punched the emergency button on the squawk box? At least that’s what Eric had been told. They never caught the perpetrator, but it was determined that the motive must have been money, as the victim’s wallet and computer were stolen. If Eric had heard Officer Sparks correctly, the same appeared to be true for this victim. No purse or wallet. Was there a serial mugger loose on campus?

“Where are those damn lights?” Mario grumbled and marched off to do his business.

Left alone, Eric turned his attention to Vince, who remained seated against the tree, staring at the ground. Eric approached gingerly and sat down next to him. “Tough night, huh?”

Vince looked up and gazed at him through dark, unfocused eyes.

Eric sensed his fellow C.S.O. was someplace far away, reliving what must have been a nightmare, or dwelling on his own mortality, as he had briefly done. Slowly, recognition kicked in, and Vince managed a brief, faint smile. “You okay?” Eric asked.

Vince nodded solemnly.

“Want to talk about it?”

The big man shrugged.

Silent as ever. Eric sensed this wasn’t going to be easy. “Did you know her?” he asked tactically, believing if Vince had been acquainted with the victim, the personal aspect might draw him out. Vince shook his head in reply. He was about to fire off another question when Vince sprang to his feet. Eric looked up and saw that Mario had joined them. He stood as well, and the trio formed a tidy triangle.

“I’m sorry, Vince, but I’m afraid I have to ask you some more questions,” Mario began, and Vince nodded his consent. “Did you notice anyone else nearby?”

“No,” Vince replied in a brief baritone note.

“Hear anything?”

Vince’s mind went to work for a minute before he answered. “There was this explosion. Well, more of a loud ‘pop’,” he modified his answer. “I thought at first it might be gunfire, but it was more likely a car engine backfiring. My dad used to own this old pickup truck that made the same type of sound.”

“What time was this?” Mario probed.

“A couple minutes after I found the body. Shortly after eleven.”

“Which direction did the noise come from?” Mario pressed excitedly, seeming eager to pick up the trail.

“I don’t remember off hand, but it’s easy to find out,” he declared cryptically and tilted his head toward the top of the trees. The other two men reflexively followed his gaze.

The three of them stood there, staring up at the sky for nearly a minute, before Eric blurted out, “What are we doing?”

“Shh,” Vince instructed, and Mario admonished Eric with a scowl. Finally, Vince lowered his head and said, “The tops of the trees are bent north, which means the wind is coming from the south.”

“So?” Eric ventured.

“Sound can’t be heard for any great distance outdoors, particularly in a wooded area like this, where it’s liable to be muffled,” explained Vince. “But when the wind blows, as it’s doing tonight, sound waves are carried with the air, or convected.”

“I get where you’re going,” Mario said, grinning and nodding his head in appreciation. “Basic physics.”

Eric remained completely in the dark, literally and now figuratively.

“Sounds can be heard better downwind of the source than upwind,” Vince continued. “I heard that explosion as clear as a bell. Which means the backfiring car, if that’s what it was, must have been south of these woods, which makes sense. There’s a parking lot at the end of this trail.”

Mario didn’t waste a second. ‘D’Amico!” he shouted to a patrol officer passing by, and the cop trotted over. “Grab a couple of men and scour the parking lot down there.”

“Got it, boss,” the junior officer acknowledged and trotted off in the direction the detective had indicated.

Orders given, there was time for acknowledgement. “Good work,” Mario congratulated Vince, giving him an affectionate slap on the back. “Thanks to you, we have our first lead.”

“Yeah, smart thinking,” Eric echoed the praise. Although his appreciation for the other man’s intuition was genuine, he still felt a twinge of jealousy. He wished he had been the one to contribute a clue. So far, he hadn’t justified his presence on the scene one iota.

The celebratory moment was interrupted by the arrival of a pack of newcomers. Five of San Diego’s finest, a trio of technicians in white coats, and two cameramen – one still, the other video – paraded up the trail into the woods behind a man who appeared to be close to Mario’s age and wore a shiny gray suit. His black hair was shorn to mask a receding hairline on a head that was disproportionately small for his gym-bred body. An oily film covered his pale skin. Swaggering up to the group, his dull, gray eyes zeroed in on Mario, and he advanced until they were nearly nose-to-nose. “Mario.” The voice was peculiarly high and raspy.

“Gary,” the UPD detective replied warily.

Eric took an immediate dislike to him, and from the sour expression on Mario’s face, he appeared to feel the same way.

The disagreeable visitor threw out his arms, palms up, and performed dramatic half-turns, left then right. “Well, well, well. It appears your idyllic surroundings are not immune to foul play, my friend.”

Mario’s gaze remained steely. “What can I do for you, Detective Wexler?”

The man shoved his hands in his pockets and kicked the ground. “So, you want to play it the hard way, huh? Fine.” He pivoted around, threw out his chest and announced loudly, for everyone in the immediate area to hear, “San Diego PD is taking over this crime scene. I want everybody to clear out. Pronto!” Then he glared down the tip of his bulbous nose condescendingly at Vince and Eric, and said, “What is this, amateur night? Scram, kids.”

The boys looked to Mario for some sort of validation, but he made no effort to defend them. Instead, he nodded his head gently in approval, and so they shuffled off uncertainly. Passing the newcomer, Eric couldn’t help notice he reeked of cologne.

“You think we could get some lights?” Wexler crabbed, and, miraculously, upon his very words, the feat Mario had been trying to perform for the last half-hour occurred. Floodlights stationed at the four corners of the crime scene illuminated the forest, their beams intersecting on the body lying on the ground. Despite the melancholic reminder of the purpose for this blatant disruption of nature, there were distant cheers from the officers responsible for the electrical achievement.

Wexler smiled with princely satisfaction. “Ah, thank you. I don’t suppose you’ve identified the victim,” he said sardonically to Mario.

“No, not yet.”

Overhearing the two men’s exchange, Eric, shielding his eyes against the blinding white light, glanced one last time at the body in the woods and gave a start. A sense of duty overrode the shock of seeing her face. At last, he had something to contribute. Bounding back to the senior officers, he declared, “I know who she is.”


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