At 3:45 Monday afternoon, Detective Rob Soliz had a bad feeling when he parked behind the last police cruiser on the lonely street in South Dallas. Hated these meet the detective calls. Never knew what you’d end up with. There were at least half a dozen vehicles already there. Marked patrol units, detectives’ unmarked cars, and two CSU vans with the back doors open. A uniform officer in short sleeves, holding his cap in one hand and a bottle of water in the other, wiped sweat from his brow. He had a bored expression and nudged closer to the shade of a small live oak. To his right, a narrow trail led into the creepy dense woods. Yellow crime scene tape stretched from the street to the dirt path and forest beyond. The officer eyed them as Rob turned off the engine.
“So, this is the Great Trinity Forest, huh?” Rob said as he got out of the car and swatted a mosquito. He stared at the horizon of trees. “What’s so great about it?”
Frank Pierce rose from his slouched riding position, raked both hands through his long brown surfer hair, and took a swallow of water before getting out. He stood beside the passenger door and slipped on a pair of sunglasses. “Largest urban hardwood forest in the country—six thousand acres.” He tore a stick of chewing gum in half, handing a piece to Rob as he walked around to the passenger side. Rob popped the gum in his mouth, carefully folded the silver wrapper a few times, and pocketed it. Frank wadded up his wrapper and tossed it on the floorboard before slamming the door.
Rob loosened his tie and unbuttoned his top button. Frank never wore a tie. A Polo shirt and khaki Dockers served as his business casual. Neither took their jackets. The badges and guns on their belts were all the identification necessary. The August afternoon, with humidity tracking just over eighty percent, left the air rich with earthy loam smells after the passing shower. The high-low chirp of katydids deep in the forest made Rob think of camping as a kid. He didn’t mind the heat as much then, but now…
“Criminal Intelligence,” he said as they ducked under the yellow tape.
The uniform officer changed hands with his cap, wiped his brow, and shot a passing glance as he motioned with his head toward the dirt lane to his right.
Rob led the way into the gloom, following the narrow, winding trail. He ducked under a honeysuckle and caught a whiff of the sweet fragrance. The impenetrable green canopy stretched for miles. Only slim streaks of sunlight found their way to the ground. Felt like they were entering a dark tunnel. A tunnel where tragedy hung in the air. The hum of crickets echoed high in the trees and blended with the katydids, and Rob swatted another mosquito buzzing his ear. Thick air surrounded them like a choking veil.
“Place reminds me of training in Panama during my Marine days.”
Frank said nothing. Not much of a talker—more of a thinker. Bushes and woods weren’t his happy place. Guy didn’t even like stepping off the sidewalk. He walked carefully up the woodland trail, making sure he knew where each footfall landed—had a snake phobia. But the strangest thing about Frank wasn’t his looks, phobias, or miscellaneous idiosyncrasies. The strangest thing was his sex appeal. Women found the guy irresistible. Rob never understood it. Frank was a chick-magnet and didn’t even appear to recognize it—crazy.
The leaves of a Dwarf Palmetto raked the cuffs of Rob’s pants as he maneuvered around a puddle of water in the middle of the trail. Several sets of muddy mountain bike tracks marked the path as they moved through the forest. The lane took a turn and the sound of retching—someone vomiting their guts out—drifted through the trees. When they made the second turn, a uniform officer leaned against a sturdy oak, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. He spotted them and straightened up. A flush crept across his cheeks.
“You okay?” Rob asked.
The officer looked like a rookie—face a little too soft, uniform a little too new. He nodded and cleared his throat. In a weak voice he said, “Yeah, I’m fine.” His sallow complexion gave him a sickened appearance.
“Here,” Frank said, and handed him his half-empty bottle of water before marching further into the abyss.
“Just relax. Get out into the fresh air,” Rob said and followed Frank.
“Hey, mister,” the uniform called.
Rob turned back and faced him.
The rookie’s mouth twisted into a frown. “If you don’t have to see that, don’t.”
Rob felt that tug in his gut he got when he suspected it was going to be a bad scene. He nodded and pulled in a breath. “We were called.”
Rob caught up with Frank and a whiff of cigarette smoke mixed with the woodsy scent. Kelly sat on a fallen log, finishing his smoke.
“Hey, guys,” Kelly said.
He wore his white CSU Tyvek crime-scene coveralls halfway unzipped. A particulate face mask hung around his neck, and perspiration dripped off his nose and chin. Kelly was a big man with a buzz cut. Every time Rob saw him in the white crime-scene coveralls, it reminded him of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters.
“Bad?” Frank asked.
Kelly stood, took one last puff, field-stripped the cigarette, and dropped the filter into his pocket. “Worst I’ve ever seen. Come on, I’ll take you in. Here.” He handed Frank a small jar of Vicks VapoRub. “Do yourself a favor.”
Kelly’s voice had a tired, worn-out quality, and his huge body moved with sloth-like speed. If Rob had seen as many grisly crime scenes as Kelly, he couldn’t sleep nights. Frank dabbed a generous portion of Vicks around his nostrils and between his nose and upper lip. Rob did the same. The assault on Rob’s mucus membranes by the Vicks took him back to childhood, sick, staying home from school. They followed Kelly as he moved up the trail, pushing aside overhanging foliage. Rob braced himself for what might be there. Worst I’ve ever seen. Kelly had seen some pretty bad stuff.
Frank said, “Thought you gave up smoking.”
Kelly grunted. “Did until about an hour ago.”
Muffled voices of several people drifted through the trees up ahead. When the stench hit Rob, it was like walking into a wall of death. That sweet, putrefied odor of decay mixed with the Vicks, and Rob almost gagged. Frank stopped, his sensitive nose twitched, and he swallowed hard.
The crime scene was on the left side of the path. Not exactly a clearing, but an area with less brush. Rob halted and stared. A large Muscatine plant with plump, dark grapes served as a backdrop for the horror. “Madre de Dios,” Rob mumbled.
She was a white female, naked. A rope tossed over a tree limb held her upside-down by her ankles. Her long, black hair shielded most of her face, but the cut along her throat stood out. The arms were free and dangled just above the surface of the hole. Her cheeks had been cut, and that caused the mouth to hang open, allowing the lower jaw to form a macabre, bloody frown. She’d been gutted with a Y shaped incision like a medical examiner uses. The pile of intestines and blood pooled in the pit below her. Hundreds of big, black flies buzzed the corpse and blood-soaked ground.
Rob crossed himself as he choked down the bile.
Frank stared at the woman with an open mouth, eerie expression. Sort of like that of the victim. When Rob worked homicide, he’d seen lots of ugly crime scenes. But nothing could prepare you for this. Frank’s time in Missing Persons and Vice hadn’t hardened him. The color drained from his face as he fought the wave of sickness that threatened to overtake him.
Alton’s familiar voice echoed across the crime scene. No mistaking it. Had that gritty, grinding sound. Alton was a homicide detective in DPD. Being black and heavy set, he and his voice remined Rob of Louis Armstrong.
“Yes, sir,” Alton said into the cell phone. He glanced in Rob’s direction and nodded. “They’re here now. I’ll let you know.”
“How much longer?” Kelly asked the CSU team.
The tall, skinny photographer squatted and adjusted the lens on the camera before snapping another picture. “Just a few more minutes, boss.”
There were four other CSU types in Tyvek coveralls, hoods, and masks searching the area, bagging evidence. A line of squatting, white ghosts covered by the same shroud. Couldn’t tell if they were male or female from their head-to-toe baggy white suits.
Alton dropped the phone in his pocket and strolled to Rob and Frank.
“Why did you call us to something like this?” Frank asked. His voice had an angry or disgusted tone, Rob couldn’t tell which. But he was just about to ask the same question. Criminal Intelligence officers didn’t do homicides unless there was a serious extenuating circumstance.
Alton’s lips stretched into tight lines. He raked his hand across his short hair before saying, “I didn’t. My lieutenant called CIU and requested assistance on this one—blame Edna.”
Alton motioned for Rob and Frank to follow him closer to the victim. She was young, and her slim body had begun taking on a dark, bruised-like color. The oppressive heat had transformed the once pale skin into a palette of large irregular blotches. Her hair shined black and sticky from matted blood. The scene was bad enough, but the thing that caused Rob’s greatest disgust were the flies around the corpse. Just like the thousands of flies that swarmed the dead Iraqi soldiers his unit encountered during their race across the desert in ’91. After initially seeing the corpse, Frank made an effort to ignore it—that was Frank’s way. To the side of the pit, a blue tarp draped over something about two feet tall. Alton pushed back a vine and carefully lifted the tarp, revealing a makeshift spit made of two Y shaped tree branches with a quarter-inch rebar lying across the top. An unusual piece of half-cooked meat with parts sliced off was impaled on the rebar resting above the cold ashes.
Having field dressed his share of deer, Rob identified it first. “Good god,” he said and took a step back.
Frank’s crinkled brow soon gave way to a wide-eyed look. “Is that—?”
“A human heart,” Alton finished the sentence.
In his seventeen years of law enforcement Rob had never seen such a thing. This was a murder so foul it could cause a new officer to resign. Maybe even a veteran officer. Frank closed his eyes, probably wishing he could un-see it.
Alton laid the tarp back over the spit and brushed off his gloved hands. “The reason you were called wasn’t because of the murder, but because of what else we found.” He pointed to the right side of the blue tarp. “We found it in the bushes, over there.” He reached into his jacket and produced a clear plastic evidence envelope sealed with a strip of red tape at the top. Inside was a bloody, crumpled newspaper clipping and photo. Rob had seen the same one in last Sunday’s edition of the Dallas Morning News. The photo was part of a feature article about the city. Four people sat smiling for the camera.
The Mayor of Dallas, his wife, and two children.