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Authors: Max Allan Collins

finishing school

Table of Contents
 
Title Page
Copyright Page
Dedication
 
Chapter One - Quantico, Virginia
Chapter Two - Bemidji, Minnesota
Chapter Three - Bemidji, Minnesota
Chapter Four - Bemidji, Minnesota
Chapter Five - Bemidji, Minnesota
Chapter Six - Hibbing, Minnesota
Chapter Seven - Jesup, Georgia
Chapter Eight - Bemidji, Minnesota
Chapter Nine - Brunswick, Georgia
Chapter Ten - Brunswick, Georgia
Chapter Eleven - Bemidji, Minnesota
 
Epilogue
Profile in Thanks
About the Author
OBSIDIAN
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I would like to acknowledge my assistant
on this work, co-plotter/researcher
Matthew V. Clemens.
Further acknowledgments appear
at the conclusion of this novel.
 
M.A.C.
For Brad Schwartz—
the Ness kid
PROLOGUE
Bemidji, Minnesota
The first rays of a November sunrise peeked over the horizon as if making sure the coast was clear before the sun gave up its cover. In his deer stand, fifteen feet up and wedged into a triangle of aspen trees, William Kwitcher looked down through the tightly bunched thicket, his breath visible.
A skinny man in his early thirties, Billy Kwitcher was covered head to toe in camouflage for the benefit of the deer that Daniel Abner, their guide, insisted would be here. One hundred yards to Billy's left, Abner occupied the next stand, and one hundred yards beyond Abner perched Billy's friend Logan Tweed. Abner, a balding man in his mid-forties, leased this land from Bassinko Industries, the lumber company that owned literally millions of acres of forest in the United States.
The guide had brought Billy and Tweed to this section of forest because gun season was now open, and Abner knew that the only gun hunters they might meet in these woods would be trespassers. Bow hunters would be in camouflage, while the gun hunters would be in orange. A camouflaged hunter moving around in a forest filled with gun hunters was just asking to be the victim of an accidental shooting.
Though he had practiced hard since last season, Billy was on only his second bow hunt. The first, last year, had proved dangerous chiefly to two pine trees Billy had plunked when he missed his meager two shots at bucks. He was better now, steadier. Working out had helped his strength, pulling the bow string, but had made no evident change to his wiry frame.
Below him, a six-point buck paused, nose in the air, sniffing carefully for signs of danger.
Holding his breath now, Billy willed the steam of his previous breath to dissipate before it reached the wary nostrils of his new target. Bow ready, arrow nocked, Billy tried to not move a single muscle as he waited for the buck to move farther toward the edge line separating the thicker growth that held his stand, and the thinner growth mere yards away.
Though the deer lived in the thicker woods, they fed in the nearby area, harvested about five years ago. In that section, the less dense trees allowed for more ground foliage for the deer to eat. That made the edge line, the border of the two areas, the place to hunt.
The edge line also made the buck more cautious than a field mouse trying to skirt around a sleeping rattlesnake. That was a sight not completely unfamiliar to Billy—once, back in the hills of his native Arkansas, he'd tossed a pebble at a rattler sunning itself on a flat rock. The snake coiled and its head popped up, its tail shaking its warning. A mouse on the nearby ground had frozen, in the vain hope that the snake would not see it. When the rodent finally made a dash for freedom, it got only two steps before the snake struck.
From then on, Billy had spent much more time studying snakes than mice.
‘‘A hunter who can stalk a predator,'' his father had told him, ‘‘is a good hunter, indeed.''
Billy Kwitcher had worked very hard at becoming a good hunter.
The buck beneath his deer stand sniffed the air again. Billy considered his options. From here, he had no shot. The only thing to do was wait. Finally, as if answering Billy's silent pleas, the buck took one step toward the edge line.
He sniffed; he stepped.
He sniffed; he stepped.
The tension was agonizing as Billy waited for the buck to give him an open shot. The passing seconds seemed interminable as the buck did its best to protect itself.
Finally, just as the buck edged into the harvested forest to feed, Billy drew back the stiff string of the bow, his muscles burning. He aimed, and just as the animal lowered his head to feed, Billy loosed the arrow.
He could barely make out the shaft's flight in the shadowy woods, but he heard the satisfying thunk as arrow met buck and passed through the creature before the deer even realized it had been hit.
As the arrow sailed off, the buck shuddered and stumbled, head popping up, eyes locking with Billy's for a split second before it turned away and sprinted off through the new woods, a red blossom visible just behind its shoulder.
When he saw that, Billy knew he'd made his shot. The arrow had pierced both lungs. The buck wouldn't die instantly, but the wound would be mortal.
That did not mean the carcass wouldn't end up half a mile or more away. Billy quelled the urge to climb down and take off in chase of the deer. One turn back this way by the buck could lead Billy right into the firing line of his two companions. That was assuming no other bow or gun hunters were in these woods. They weren't
supposed
to be, but Billy knew that phrase could end up being his epitaph. . . .
He checked his watch. The LED numbers read just after seven a.m. He was scheduled to meet the others at eight at the base of his stand. As the minutes crawled by, Billy checked his watch regularly, trying to will time to move faster.
Billy imagined different scenarios ranging from never finding the buck to poachers gutting his kill and leaving only the rendered carcass for him to find. None of his daydreams ended with him simply tracking down the buck, cleaning it, and hauling home all that meat. Such simply wasn't how Billy Kwitcher's life had worked out up till now.
Even the littlest success for Billy had to be tempered by some sort of serious setback. The unfairness of Billy's lot in life always seemed worse when Billy had time to think about it, and right now he had plenty of time to do just that.
At five until the hour, unable to hold off any longer, Billy sent a text message to his two companions. Right on schedule, Tweed and Abner appeared at the base of Billy's tree just as he got to the ground.
The three men stripped off their camouflage masks and all stretched to relieve the stiffness from being in the stands all morning. Under his mask, Abner—with a fire-hydrant frame and heavier than the others—had a scraggly gray beard, wire-frame glasses and stubbly patches of gray where his skull wasn't bald.
Still, it was Abner who moved easily through the woods. This was a point of contention with Billy, who wanted to be stealthy but usually had to settle for not clumsy.
Tweed had a hawkish nose, green eyes, and stood half a head taller than Billy. Around the same age as Billy, Tweed had an unruly mop of brown hair and a tiny soul patch that looked like dirt he'd missed when washing his face.
Tweed gave Billy a clap on the back. ‘‘Way to go! You got one, buddy.''
Abner, the guide, gave him a thumbs-up. ‘‘Told you we'd bag a deer on this trip.''
Tweed asked, ‘‘Was it a good shot?''
‘‘Punched both damn lungs,'' Billy said, pulling himself up a little straighter.
‘‘Cool,'' Tweed said. ‘‘Means he probably didn't get far.''
But Abner was shaking his head. ‘‘You'd be surprised how far a wounded buck can get. Suckers're fast, and it takes a while for 'em to figure out they're dead.''
Billy led them to the spot in the edge line where he'd nailed the buck.
Looking back toward Billy's stand, Tweed said, ‘‘Damn good shot, Billy boy.''
Nodding, Abner said, ‘‘Not bad. Not bad at all, Billy.'' Kneeling, the guide looked at the blood spot on the ground. ‘‘Frothy.''
‘‘Frothy?'' Tweed asked.
Abner nodded. ‘‘Lung blood.''
Billy wanted to stay cool, but his cheeks burned pink with pride.
They all looked down at the scarlet puddle mixed into the dead weeds and thin layer of snow. Last night's flurries had left an accumulation of less than half an inch. November in Minnesota meant always straddling the possibilities of Indian summer or blizzard conditions.
Abner asked, ‘‘Which way did it take off?''
Billy pointed southeast, back toward the road they had come in on, where they'd left Abner's SUV. The vehicle was a good mile or so away. Still, seemed more likely the buck had veered into the heavier woods and away from the road.
‘‘All right,'' Abner said. ‘‘Let's spread out and find the blood trail.''
Tweed said, ‘‘Quite a bit of blood here. . . .''
‘‘Some,'' Abner allowed. ‘‘But the drops will be smaller and harder to see with the buck in flight. Stay sharp.''
The trio spread out and slowly scanned the ground as they moved through the new growth of trees, in no rush. The forest, aspen trees, naturally grew back after a harvest, and that meant the lumber company did not have to plant new stems. Aspens were the backbone of the Minnesota lumber industry, their white trunks lining the two-lane highways that ran between many of the small towns up here, a good four hours north of Minneapolis.
Around them, the land rolled gently in easy hills, making the walk through the new growth fairly easy. Each man kept his eyes glued to the ground until one spotted a drop and would sing out, ‘‘Got one!''
They combed the terrain for half an hour. The trees in this part of the forest were barely taller than Billy himself and similarly scrawny, the bigger ones only slightly larger in diameter than the hunter's wrist.
No one had said anything for over five minutes, and Billy worried they'd lost track of the buck, and the hunter's stomach knotted as he worried they'd forfeited his prize.
Finally, he had done something right.
He
, Billy Kwitcher, had bagged a deer. Except the goddamned thing had disappeared, and Billy was beginning to wonder if he'd dreamt the whole damn thing. . . .
He bent lower, eyes flitting as he looked for any sign in the patchy snow or on any of the dead gray foliage.
Then his eyes started to burn and Billy had to bite his lip to keep from crying. Nothing had gone right for him since he had moved to this miserable frozen hell two and a half years ago. This deer hunt, this day,
finally
something had gone his way and now, goddamnit, it was turning to vapor. If the poachers he'd imagined earlier had gutted his kill, at least the carcass would be there, so he could have his buddies know that he had actually killed the damn buck. . . .
Now, he knew, they were both thinking that dumb ol' Billy had just winged the thing, then lied about his kill shot. More big talk, just like he always did down at Sully's Tap, Billy always wrapping his insecurities in braggadocio and, even as he knew he was doing it, powerless to stop himself. But this time, this one fricking time, he had actually done something worth
talking
about—except finding the proof was harder than nailing the buck in the
first
place. . . .
A glint of something red caught his eye.
He froze.
His eyes retraced their route and he saw it again:
a spot of blood
. They were still on the trail! He wanted to jump up and shout. He used his sleeve to swipe at his cheek, wiping away the tears. Of joy, this time.
Forcing himself to stay cool, Billy swallowed thickly. Next, he tried out his voice in a whisper, and it seemed to be working. He got up his nerve, took a deep breath and yelled, ‘‘Got a drop!''
‘‘About damn time!'' Tweed yelled back, already narrowing the distance between them.
From the other direction, Abner took a couple of tentative steps closer, then resumed moving forward.
Billy focused long and hard on the scarlet droplet, relishing the feeling of triumph he got from the dot of deer's blood. Then something on the ground next to the drop caught his attention, something sticking up and out of the snow and packed leaves, like a weird mushroom.
No, more like a
stick
. . . except it wasn't a stick—Billy knew that at once. Though the coloring was similar to the bleached bark of the aspen trees, he could tell it wasn't something from one of them.
This looked different.
Kneeling down, looking at the pale little cylinder, Billy realized that whatever it was, it had neighbors: two on the left and one on the right, pudgy little sticks similar to the first one.
Bones.
They were dirty and some of the surface had been scraped clean. Something had, he realized, gnawed the meat off. Stunned, Billy jumped back.
Abner called over, ‘‘What is it?''
‘‘A hand!'' Billy yelled back, as his two companions drew closer to see what all the fuss was about.
‘‘What?'' Abner asked.
‘‘A hand, a goddamn
hand
!'' For all its volume, Billy's voice was quavering, his eyes locked on the bony fingers that seemed to be trying to dig their way out of their isolated grave.
The other two pressed in close around Billy and looked down at his macabre discovery.
‘‘Oooooh, shit,'' Tweed said, turning away.
‘‘What the hell?'' Abner asked. He looked at the fingers. ‘‘No goddamn way! This
can't
be happening
again
.''
Billy blinked. ‘‘What can't be happening?''
Abner and Tweed shared a look, but Billy couldn't read it. The guide's face was as white as the bark on the surrounding aspens, and tears began to dribble down his cheeks. Neither man said a word, their silence speaking volumes to each other, but meaning nothing to Billy.
‘‘
What
can't be happening again?'' he repeated.
Tweed shot him a look. ‘‘Billy, just shut the hell up, okay? For once, just shut the hell up.''
Billy began to respond anyway, but another sharp look from Tweed stopped him.
Not knowing what else to do, Billy sat down on a nearby fallen log and stared at the dead thing sticking out of the ground, as if waiting for the body to climb from the snowy ground and say something.
Tweed squatted and reached for what was left of the hand.
‘‘Whoa up there, Logan,'' Abner said, pulling his cell phone out of a pocket. ‘‘You can't do whoever-it-is any good, at this late date. Best leave this for the cops.''
Cops
.
The word cut through Billy like the arrow he'd fired through the buck. Suddenly, breathing grew difficult, and despite the chill, he could feel sweat popping out on his brow.
Just like everything else in Billy Kwitcher's life, even shooting the buck was going to end up turning to crap.
 
Lewis Garue wore many hats: husband, father of two, member of the Red Lake Band of the Chippewa Nation, and today, detective—driving his own 2003 Toyota Land Cruiser in lieu of a Beltrami County Dodge Durango.
A deputy for nearly twenty-four years, and a detective for the last fifteen, the fifty-year-old Garue was stocky, his neck a short, efficient swivel for a block-sized head. His wavy black hair, worn much longer back on the rez as a kid, had gone mostly gray, and pouches had formed in his cheeks.
But any criminal who ran into Garue would testify that he was still a man not to be trifled with. After a four-year hitch in the Army, where he had been an MP, Garue attended Bemidji State University as a wrestler. He graduated with a degree in criminology and immediately got on as a deputy with Beltrami County. Married to Anna Yellow Hawk, his childhood sweetheart from the nearby Red Lake Indian Reservation, north of Bemidji (where they both grew up), Garue had settled into what was, for him, the ideal life.
The sun was still low in the southern sky, noon at least a couple of hours off. Garue's stomach was already growling. His wife always insisted he and their two kids start each morning with a ‘‘good, healthy'' breakfast. Unfortunately for Garue, over the last twenty years, Anne's idea of a good, healthy breakfast had shifted from bacon, eggs, and pancakes to muesli, yogurt, and fresh fruit. Seemed like the detective was hungry all the time now.
He had been eating breakfast at home when he'd heard the dispatch call over his walkie. Three hunters had found something in Bassinko Industries forest number four, southeast of Bemidji. ‘‘Something'' was as far as the description had gone. . . .
Now, two hours later, the call had come in that the deputies on-site wanted a detective. Sheriff Ewell Preston had naturally wanted his best investigator, and sent Garue.
The detective was supposed to be on comp time today, to make up for the overtime he'd put in on a series of meth lab raids over the last two weeks, but the discovery in the forest had changed that.
Though a plainclothes officer, Garue was not in his usual work attire of shirt and tie and sport coat. Well, the jeans were normal, but the rubber-soled black Rockys he wore on the job were replaced by boots, and his regular button-down shirt had been left on the hanger this morning, in favor of a Minnesota Vikings sweatshirt. Used to the just-above-freezing temperatures this time of year, he wore no coat.
Garue took U.S. 2 south out of Bemidji, then turned east on a county road leading to another two-lane running south through Bassinko's forest number four. The road was wet, the flurries from last night having melted off in this Indian summer day. Ahead, on the right, a service road cut back to the west, and Garue saw three squad cars lined up on it; behind them was a van from the regional office of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension—the state crime lab.
As Garue pulled in, a deputy stepped forward to hold up a hand in ‘‘stop'' fashion. Garue braked to a halt, then powered the window down as the deputy approached—a broad-shouldered blond kid, a rookie named Swenson.
The deputy smiled at Garue. ‘‘Sorry, sir—didn't recognize your car.''
‘‘Just doing your job,'' Garue said. ‘‘These are
my
wheels, son, no reason you should make 'em. . . . You first on the scene?''
‘‘Yup,'' Swenson said with a nod. ‘‘Me and Sergeant Condon. He was right behind me.''
‘‘When did the crime lab get here?''
‘‘About half an hour after us.'' Swenson checked his watch. ‘‘Make that a little over an hour ago.''
‘‘They find anything?''
Shrugging, Swenson said, ‘‘Dunno. I been out here. . . . Park on the side, would you, and you can just follow the crime scene tape. Should take you right to 'em.''
‘‘Thanks, son,'' Garue said.
The detective pulled in behind a squad car, climbed out and started tramping up the service road into the woods. He had gone maybe fifty yards when he saw crime scene tape wrapped around the trunk of an aspen.
The forest wasn't as thick here. This plot had been harvested within the last ten years; the Bassinko outfit cut down plots of forty to eighty acres at a time, then allowed the plot to grow back over the next forty to sixty years before harvesting there again.
Looking deeper into the woods, Garue could see a strip of crime scene tape on another aspen ten yards on, then another, and another.
He was almost a quarter of a mile into the woods when he heard voices on the other side of a small hill. Over the short rise, Garue found a handful of men spread out in a semicircle, backs to him, and off to one side, three men in camouflage, obviously hunters, with a deputy. Those four men turned to see him as he approached.
The deputy, tall, rail-thin with hair as white as Garue's, wore no jacket despite the chilly morning. The tan shirt, with the three-tiered stripes of his rank, and brown uniform pants were freshly ironed, his shiny silver badge reflecting the sunlight.
Craig Condon was old enough, and certainly had enough time in, to retire. He hadn't, though. His wife was ill, and Condon needed the health insurance that came with the job, so he stayed on. Maybe longer than he should have, Garue thought.
Condon bestowed a solitary nod in the detective's direction—more greeting than he gave most people. The deputy's pinched face and long chin made him look serious, even on those rare occasions when the sergeant found something humorous. Today would not likely be one of those rare days.
Next to Condon stood the human cannonball that was Daniel Abner, and seeing Abner gave Garue a sick feeling, damn near a wave of nausea that had nothing to do with the breakfast his wife had served him.
Fifteen years ago, the disappearance of Abner's ten-year-old daughter, Amanda, had been among the first cases Garue had drawn as a detective. Garue and the entire Beltrami County Sheriff's Department, the Bemidji PD, and the regional state crime lab had worked ceaselessly for over a year before the little girl's body had been found buried in the crawl space of a house on the edge of town.
The house was owned by Abner himself, but had been rented to a former mental patient, Herbert Berryman, who had just up and left town about six months after Amanda's disappearance. No one, not even the federal boys, had ever tracked the man down.
Garue nodded toward Abner, but the guide, cigarette dangling absently, was staring into nowhere. Lewis Garue got the sense he wasn't going to like whatever these hunters had found here today.
The semicircle of men hovered around a device that looked like Rube Goldberg's idea of a push mower. Out front was a single tire that might have been appropriated from the BMX bike of Garue's twelve-year-old. A three-foot shaft ran back from the wheel and rode about a foot off the ground. A frame at the rear end attached atop the shaft, and within the frame were two boxes. Running up at an angle from the frame was a T-shaped handle. Garue had seen the contraption before—ground-penetrating radar.
The man running the machine was tall, broad-shouldered and in his mid-thirties—Fletcher Keegan. A graduate of the National Academy at Quantico, Fletch had been at the Bemidji office of the regional crime lab for the last four years. He and Garue were friends as tight as the aspens across the edge line of the forest.
Two of the other guys were also crime lab, though Garue didn't know their names. Two more were deputies, a kid whose name Garue had not learned yet, and Andy Salyard, a seven-year vet of the force.
When Keegan saw him, the crime scene tech waved, then shot Garue a no-rest-for-the-wicked glance, and went back to running his machine. Garue nodded to the rest, then joined Condon, who stepped away from the hunters to meet him.
‘‘Bad day?'' Garue asked Condon.
Nodding, the sergeant said, ‘‘Looks to be.''
‘‘Anybody talk to the hunters yet?''
‘‘I did,'' Condon said.
‘‘Which one found it?''
Jerking his head toward a scrawny-looking hunter, Condon said, ‘‘That one. Name's William Kwitcher. Billy.''
Garue began his interviews with the guide, Daniel Abner. The bald man looked stricken. The murder of Abner's daughter had hit both parents hard. His wife, unable to cope with the loss of their only child, eventually divorced him and moved out of state. The guide had spent years getting his life back together.
Garue asked, ‘‘What did you see?''
Abner told about Kwitcher stumbling onto the skeletal hand. As the guide spoke, Garue couldn't help replaying in his mind the details of the Abner tragedy.
Tweed and Kwitcher echoed Abner's account. Everything seemed to check out, but something about Kwitcher's attitude bothered Garue. The skinny man seemed more nervous than shocked about his grisly discovery, but something else, too—scared? Guilty, even? Garue let it pass, for now; still, something about Kwitcher definitely got a blip going on the lawman's radar. When Garue finally let the trio go, however, Kwitcher was first to split. And the blip-ping increased. . . .
Fletcher Keegan came over to Garue and Condon. He took off his BCA ball cap, ran a hand through the brown stubble that passed for a haircut. Keegan had honest brown eyes, a square jaw, and wide shoulders—near as Garue could tell, an all-American guy.
‘‘What?'' Garue asked, in response to Keegan's frown.
‘‘We've got ourselves a problem.''
All the healthy food that Anna had fed him for breakfast felt like it might actually burn through his stomach lining. ‘‘What, don't tell me it's just the
hand
, nothing else?''
Shaking his head, Keegan said, ‘‘No, it's definitely a grave, all right.''
‘‘Okay,'' Garue said. ‘‘That's the bad news—what's the
really
bad news?''
Plucking his cell phone off his belt, Keegan said, ‘‘The GPR found three graves.''
‘‘Three?''
echoed Garue.
‘‘Oh yeah,'' Keegan said, punching some buttons on his phone. ‘‘Somebody made a personal cemetery out here.''
Garue asked, ‘‘Who you calling?''
‘‘FBI,'' Keegan said. The two men's eyes locked. ‘‘One of my guest instructors at the National Academy? He's with the BAU.''
‘‘The what?''
‘‘Behavioral Analysis Unit.''
‘‘The profilers, you mean?''
‘‘Yeah. Guy I'm calling is kind of the king of the profilers—maybe you heard of him.''
‘‘Yeah, who?''
‘‘David Rossi.''
‘‘When we were children,''
Madeleine L'Engle said,
‘‘we used to think that when we were grown-up,
we would no longer be vulnerable.
But . . . to be alive is to be vulnerable.''
Chapter One
Quantico, Virginia
Jennifer Jareau studied the photos she'd just downloaded to her laptop.
‘‘JJ'' to her friends and colleagues, the long-haired blonde in her late twenties had been with the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Behavioral Analysis Unit for the last five years, and had seen photos far more gruesome than these. But something about these victims—mostly skeletons now because of decomposition—engaged her interest.
Obviously, the three victims had been interred in their shallow graves near Bemidji, Minnesota, for some time. Exhumed over the weekend, the three bodies displayed levels of decomposition indicating burials over the course of at least several months.
She checked her watch, then printed the pictures and loaded them into a file folder with her notes as well as other documents from the investigators in Minnesota. She'd been accumulating information almost since the moment Supervisory Special Agent David Rossi had phoned her to say a call would be coming from a Minnesota investigator named Fletcher Keegan, apparently an old acquaintance of Rossi's.
Her fellow agent's heads-up had come so late that Keegan had called while Jareau was still on the line with Rossi. She spoke at length with Keegan, who in turn put her in touch with Detective Lewis Garue, lead investigator.
Of course, at this point, with the autopsies not done, the crime was the illegal disposition of bodies—a misdemeanor. But everyone on the Minnesota end felt they had a serial killer, and, judging by the strands of blond hair clinging to the skulls of the three corpses, that seemed likely; but the BAU could not get involved in a misdemeanor.
Her team, already in the office, was waiting for a briefing on what their next case would be, but first Jareau wanted confirmation on the causes of death.
Jareau was just about to inform her boss, Special Agent in Charge Aaron Hotchner, that the briefing would have to wait until after lunch, when the phone rang.
The call was from the Beltrami County coroner. Jareau spent half an hour taking down all the information and incorporating it into her briefing materials.
She called Hotchner and brought her boss up to speed.
‘‘Don't rush yourself,'' Hotchner said. ‘‘We can schedule the briefing for after lunch.''
‘‘That would probably be better,'' she admitted.
Better if for no other reason than Jareau could keep working through lunch, which today, like so many other days, would be at her desk. She had long since learned to eat without qualms while perusing the most grotesque write-ups and photographs of forensics evidence.
A PowerBar, a banana, and a container of yogurt from the break-room refrigerator kept her going as she prepared for the presentation. By the time she finished her lunch by downing a bottle of water, Jareau was ready.
When she entered the conference room, the others were already seated around the long, oval table. To the left, windows with venetian blinds let in November sunlight. A copier and fax machine on a sidebar shared the wall with the door. At the far end, a flat-screen monitor dominated.
Seated at the head of the table was team leader Aaron Hotchner, in an immaculate gray suit with a white shirt and striped tie—he might have been the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, not one of the top criminal profilers on the planet. His black hair was parted on the side, his well-carved face stern and businesslike, his eyes locked on the man to his right, David Rossi.
Fiftyish, with black hair showing signs of gray, Rossi was one of the originators of the BAU—along with the retired Max Ryan and Jason Gideon, he'd been among the unit's first superstars. After stepping down himself, then writing a series of true-crime best sellers, Rossi had made a small fortune on the lecture circuit before coming back to the BAU, in part to finish a case he'd walked away from. Today, Rossi wore a gray suit with a blue shirt and a tie with geometric shapes.
Next to Rossi, Derek Morgan, with his killer features and stylish stubbly beard, might have been a model for
GQ
and not a top federal agent. He wore a black mock turtleneck shirt with black slacks, and the only thing spoiling the male-model look was the nine-millimeter pistol holstered on his right hip. The son of an African-American police officer (killed in the line of duty) and a white mother, former college quarterback Morgan had spent time with the ATF, later serving as a hand-to-hand combat instructor here at Quantico.
Across the table from Morgan sat Dr. Spencer Reid, youngest member on the team. Reid had a distracted, little boy lost quality that endeared him to Jareau, the next youngest, and which belied the sharp focus he brought to every case, every moment. The lanky Reid had a mop of long hair, dressed like a prep school student, and was, judging by IQ scores, the smartest person in this or any room. With his eidetic memory, Reid seemed to have every fact in the world ready and waiting.
On Reid's right, SSA Emily Prentiss looked typically crisp in a sharp navy business suit, her black hair perfectly combed. Before the return of Rossi, she'd been the ‘‘newbie'' on the team, but those days were over—Prentiss had long since proved herself a valuable addition. Tough and smart, with a sly, dry sense of humor, she was fitting in with the team on a personal level equally well.
No one said a word as Jareau set her materials down. They would wait patiently for her to start laying out facts. Once she did, however, well, the room would be far from quiet. . . .
Jareau centered herself, then began. ‘‘Saturday, three hunters in the woods outside Bemidji, Minnesota, found this.''
She touched a button on her remote and the first photo appeared on the flat screen. This and subsequent images had been provided by the team's digital intelligence analyst, Penelope Garcia, who had used her considerable computer skills to enable Jareau to display images from her laptop onto the screen in the conference room. (Jareau couldn't have managed this feat herself, but she didn't have to—she, like everyone on the team, was just glad Garcia made all their jobs easier.)
The image was a stark, even grisly one: a skeletal hand sticking out of patchy snow and dead leaves, a small bloodstain nearby.
Reid was the first to interrupt, though there was nothing rude about it—give-and-take was normal here. ‘‘That hand,'' he said, eyes narrowed, ‘‘is far too decomposed to be the source for the blood on the ground.''
Jareau nodded. ‘‘The blood is apparently from a wounded buck the hunters were tracking.''
Reid nodded back.
Jareau continued: ‘‘The hunting guide used his cell to call 911. The Beltrami County Sheriff's Office responded with two squad cars. The county seat is Bemidji. . . .''
Hotchner said, ‘‘They have one of the state's two regional crime labs.''
‘‘That's right,'' Jareau said. ‘‘So investigators from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension were sent out as well.''
The team sat quietly as Jareau switched to a photo that showed police tape outlining the burial site, the hand still visible near one edge. In the background were two more tape outlines.
‘‘This is why they're asking for our help,'' Jareau said. ‘‘When they used ground-penetrating radar to find the parameters of the first grave, they found two more.''
Morgan frowned. ‘‘Two more graves?''
‘‘Total of three,'' Jareau confirmed. ‘‘Here's where it gets interesting—the coroner said they were not buried at the same time, but rather over the course of as much as a year.''
She touched the button and the photo switched again. This one showed the three graves dug up, the bodies next to them each wrapped from head to toe in plastic. Though the shapes were vaguely human, there was no seeing through the plastic shrouds.
‘‘Each of our three bodies is wrapped identically,'' Jareau said, but that was already evident. ‘‘The outer layer is a huge piece of plastic, a paint drop cloth of the sort available for a few dollars at any home improvement store or paint supply store in the United States.''
No one said a word as she brought up the next photo. This one showed a victim without the layer of plastic, a blanket covering the victim from head to toe. This was not the original find, since the hand was not exposed.
‘‘Under the plastic, each victim was wrapped in a blanket,'' Jareau said. ‘‘Then beneath that''—she switched to the next photo—‘‘each victim wore a winter coat and beneath that''—the next photo came up on the screen—‘‘they were all dressed in nice Sunday dresses that were pretty well protected from the elements by the plastic. Still, decomposition didn't leave us much.''
Hotchner asked, ‘‘What
do
we know about the victims?''
‘‘They're all females,'' Jareau said. ‘‘Girls, really. Each between the ages of twelve and fourteen, the coroner thinks.''
‘‘IDs?''
Shaking her head, Jareau said, ‘‘Not yet. If the girls are from Minnesota, they must have disappeared years ago—they don't match any recent missing girls from the area.''
Hotchner asked, ‘‘What other avenues are we exploring to identify the victims? Garcia's on this, I assume?''
‘‘All morning and right now. Beyond her efforts, the state crime lab is contacting nearby states and the coroner is going the DNA route. The county sheriff is even using volunteers to comb through ‘missing kids' Web sites.''
Reid's head was tilted like the old RCA Victor dog. ‘‘Do we know anything at all about the victims, other than age?''
‘‘Caucasian, fair-haired,'' Jareau said. ‘‘They range in height from just under five feet to five-four.''
With a frown of thought, Morgan asked, ‘‘Sexually abused?''
‘‘Decomposition too far along to tell. Closest thing to a sexual component here is that tampons were found in two of the bodies.''
No one said anything for a while.
Then Rossi asked, ‘‘Cause of death?''
‘‘COD, too soon to tell,'' Jareau said. ‘‘They all appeared peaceful in the grave—no apparent signs of violence. The coroner's doing toxicology, but we won't have the results for at least a few days.''
Looking at the screen through slitted eyes, Prentiss said carefully, ‘‘They were laid to rest as if by someone who wanted to protect them from the cold, wanted them to be . . . safe.''
Rossi gave her a humorless smirk. ‘‘Possible—killers have killed to ‘protect' often enough.'' He shrugged. ‘‘But it's just as likely that the killer's a police buff, who knows about fiber evidence and just doesn't want any clues left in his car.''