“You know, they say Sycamore Canyon is haunted.”
Andrea Sullivan wiped the sweat from her brow, her eyes squinting against the glare of the hot sun. “You don’t really believe that crap, do you?”
“There’s just a lot of weird shit that’s happened in this canyon.”
Andrea pulled her horse to a stop. “Are you going to tell me the UFO story again?”
Randy shook his head, his long blond hair tied back in its usual ponytail as he took a drink of water from the old fashioned canteen fastened to his saddle. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before speaking. “Not just that. The Native Americans thought it was haunted too.”
“So because we find a body with her throat slashed, you assume it’s because of the canyon?”
“Two bodies. A week apart.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions. We don’t know if this second body is for real. Hikers have been known to mistake bear carcasses for humans before. You can’t assume it’s related. Besides, we haven’t found it yet.”
“Haven’t had a murder in the ten years I’ve worked here.”
Andrea urged her horse on. “And you probably still won’t get to work one. She was killed and dumped. That wasn’t the crime scene. Chances are the case will be handed off to someone else.”
“I bet you saw plenty of murders when you were in LA, didn’t you?”
“More than I can remember.” And plenty she couldn’t forget.
“Why won’t you ever talk about it?”
“Being a cop in LA. Must have been exciting.”
“A blast,” she said dryly. “Come on. We’re close. GPS says about two hundred more yards.”
“Hey, Andi. Wait up,” he said, trying to get the mule he led behind his horse to pick up the pace.
She ignored his request and rode on ahead, her horse following the trail without much direction from her. She’d only been on the Rim Trail a handful of times in the two years she’d been working for the sheriff’s department. Never in the middle of summer. She normally hiked the lower Dogie Trail, deep in the canyon. While most people found Sycamore Canyon to have a wildness to it—albeit in a weird sort of way, as Randy had said—she found peace here. With the shadows of the canyon drifting about, the outcroppings and spires seemed almost ghost-like from below. The sandstone walls changed colors with the shadows—orange, then red. Junipers, scrub oaks, mesquites and pinions lined the rocks, taking hold where no tree should ever grow. Deep in the gut of the canyon, where spring water flowed, cypress and sycamore trees flourished. When she hiked alone in the canyon, the quiet was nearly overpowering. The canyon was wild and remote, yet it was where she found some peace.
It all looked different from up here along the rim though. The sun beat down, making the red rocks glow like hot embers in a campfire. There was a quietness in the air, the only sound that of their horses’ hooves as they crunched along the rock, and the occasional call of the ravens as they soared past, inspecting their progress. Rim Trail was an eleven-mile loop, but six miles into it, a side trail veered off that would take hikers farther into the wilderness, the red rock cliffs and canyons a challenge for even the most seasoned individual. That was one reason she suspected the body they were searching for wasn’t a victim of homicide. More likely a hiker who succumbed to the elements.
She was still twenty yards away when she smelled it. She glanced over her shoulder as Randy and mule caught up to her.
“Jesus Christ,” Randy mumbled as he covered his mouth and nose with his shirt.
“Decomp,” she said. “That’s a smell I’d hoped to never encounter again.” She reined in her mount, then slid from the saddle. She didn’t want to spook the animal by walking upon a rotting corpse. Her handheld GPS guided her on and she too covered her mouth and nose. The stench was unbearable.
She stopped when she saw it. It was definitely not a bear.
“What is it?”
She walked closer, seeing the remnants of blond hair, although the face was nearly gone, the skin turned nearly black. The ribcage was exposed, the organs missing as was most of the flesh. What remained was being consumed by maggots and beetles. The arms and legs had been badly gnawed, most likely by coyotes. She took the small, digital camera from her pocket, taking pictures from different angles.
“I’m guessing blond female,” she said. “We’re missing part of a leg here,” she said, pointing where the right lower leg should have been. She took a closer picture of that. “Wild animals probably carried it off.” She looked up. “See if you can find it.”
“Are you serious? You want me to look for her leg?”
“We came up here to retrieve this body. Let’s try to bring all of it back.”
Randy shook his head. “No way. I’m not touching that. We can’t bring it down.”
She turned to him and put her hands on her hips. “So you want to just leave her here? Let the animals finish with her?”
“How the hell are we going to get her down?”
“The aluminum rack we brought.”
“Yeah. For a body. That’s . . . that’ll fall apart if we try to move her.”
“We don’t have a choice. Now put your gloves on.”
She shook her head, seeing the squeamish look on his face. He’d been a sheriff’s deputy for ten years. The other guys on staff had all been here at least six years. Yet they always turned to her for instruction. That wasn’t always the case. She was a woman and she was new to the area, new to the department. But it didn’t take long for them to realize her knowledge of law enforcement far surpassed their own. Sheriff Baker was the only one who didn’t defer to her. Not in public, anyway.
She tried not to think about what they were doing or how the bones were barely intact when they moved her. Not that she suspected this was a crime scene, but she tried to get as much physical evidence as possible. The lab in Phoenix would give them cause of death. If it was a homicide, perhaps there was some usable trace evidence under and around the body.
“This is the grossest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,” Randy said when they’d finished taping up the plastic tarp. The smell was only slightly better.
“Yeah, it ranks pretty high on my list too.” She stripped off the latex gloves she wore, stuffing them into a crease of the tarp. “Put yours there too. I’ll tape them down.” She motioned to the horses. “Go get the mule.”
Andrea led the way back down the trail, pulling the mule behind her. The last thing she wanted was for the mule to get spooked and take off. Not that she didn’t trust Randy, but his history with horses was legendary. They usually did what they wanted and he held on for dear life. She didn’t want the mule—and their body—to take off down the canyon.
“Hey, Andi, why’d you leave LA anyway?”
She looked over her shoulder. It was a question she’d heard numerous times in the last two years. You’d think her evasiveness would have given them a clue she didn’t want to discuss it. “I wanted to,” she said, using the answer she normally gave. Wanted to, needed to, had to.
“Yeah, but who leaves LA to come to Sedona, Arizona? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Why are you here?”
“Crystal’s an artist. This is where she wanted to come.”
“Right. You came from Las Vegas. Who’d leave Las Vegas to come to Sedona?”
He laughed. “Yeah, but I came for a woman. What’s your excuse?”
“Heard back from Phoenix on that first body,” Sheriff Baker said, handing her a note. “Student.”
She skimmed over it. Sandy Reynolds, age twenty-one. University of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff. Reported missing by her roommate. “Last seen at a bar?”
“Yep. I’ve already called Flagstaff and handed it over. Sorry.”
She shrugged. “Oh well. I think Randy was more interested in working a homicide than I was. I’ve done my share.”
“Yeah. But it’s a shame your skills are wasted up here.”
She looked at him affectionately. She’d only known Jim the two years, but he’d become the father figure in her life that had been missing. Her own father would have been a few years younger than Jim. And while they didn’t resemble each other physically—her father had been a large, robust man—Jim was just as straightforward and honest with her as her own father had been. He was willing to hear her story without judgment. In fact, he was the only one here who knew the details of why she left LA.
“I don’t look at it as wasted,” she said. “I’ve loved my time here.”
He nodded and stuck the ever-present toothpick back in his mouth. “So what about this other one? Crawford thinks it might be linked.”
“How the hell would he know? I’m pretty sure he had his eyes closed the whole time we were bagging her. But if it is linked, then our timeline is all wrong. This one’s been out there at least three weeks, I’d guess. Sandy Reynolds was found after two days.”
“Sandy Reynolds was on a well-traveled trail in Oak Creek Canyon,” he reminded her.
“She was dumped. If this new one was dumped as well, the killer would have had a hell of a trek carrying a dead body.”
“So you’re thinking accident?”
“If it’s an accident, why hasn’t somebody missed her? Three weeks?”
“Not everyone leaves an agenda. We’ve learned that.” He shrugged. “Maybe she’s got no one to miss her.”
“Did Phoenix give you a time?”
“They’ll have a preliminary COD in a day or so, they said. Don’t know about ID.” He narrowed his eyes. “What does your gut tell you?”
She met his stare without flinching. “Before we found her, I was convinced it was a hiker who had a bit of bad luck.” She shrugged. “Now, after seeing her, I think they’re linked somehow. She was laid out too perfectly. Even after the animals had their way with her, you could tell she’d been placed there. Just like Sandy Reynolds.”
“But you just said it was too far for a dump.”
“If he was on horseback, just a couple of hours. I suppose he could have disguised the body as gear on the back of a horse.”
“That’d mean he’d have access to a horse.”
“Well, anybody can rent a horse,” she said.
He sat down across from her desk. “Did I ever tell you about Bigfoot being spotted in Sycamore Canyon?”
“Several times.” She smiled at the playful glint in his eyes.
“What about the UFO?”
“A hundred times.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“What? That two hikers shined their flashlights on a spacecraft that was flying over the canyon? Or the part about them being abducted for a day?”
“Yeah. Nobody believed them back then either. But under hypnosis, it all came out. Spacemen with big bald heads and almond shaped eyes.”
“I kid you not,” he said. “True story.” He scooted his chair closer and she waited for the next part of his story, the one about him seeing the UFO. “Lived here my whole life, Andi. I’ve seen all sorts of things coming and going in the canyon. In the mornings, when the sun is just right, you can see it reflecting off of . . . stuff.”
“Like alien spaceships?”
“Exactly. Bright, shiny objects. Seen it myself,” he said. “Several times.”
At first, she’d thought that maybe they were just playing with the newbie when they told their stories. But no, the story of the two hikers being abducted by a UFO was legendary. So was the story of Bigfoot roaming the canyon. That story held more credence to her than the UFO. The Bigfoot legend was enough to scare sheepherders away and even some cattle ranchers back in the day. But she drew the line at UFOs.
“So, on our two dead girls, you want to go with the spacemen story or Bigfoot?”
“Oh, hell, I’m not that dense,” he said as he stood up. “I don’t really believe in Bigfoot.”
She laughed when she saw the twinkle in his eyes as he walked away. Another thing about Jim that reminded her of her own father—his playfulness. Her father used to tease her with his own stories, making up elaborate tales at bedtime. Maybe it had been an outlet for his stress or maybe he just genuinely enjoyed entertaining her, but those were memories she would always hold dear. She glanced at Jim as he filled his coffee cup, his smile still playing on his face. Yes, if he packed on about a hundred pounds and shaved that grey, wiry mustache, he could nearly pass for her father.
Randy Crawford came busting in the door just then, Joey Turner on his heels. He flashed a grin at Andrea, then hurried over to Jim.
“Sheriff? I heard on the radio when Sheila said Phoenix had called. What’s the word? Need me to go out again and—”
“Slow down, Randy. Damn, I never seen someone so excited about a murder before.”
“Well, it’s just that we’ve never had one here.”
“I know. And we still don’t. She was a student up in Flagstaff. She was last seen out at a bar. I’ve already turned it over to the PD up there.”
“Oh, man. You’re kidding? They don’t need us for anything?”
“Nope. She wasn’t killed here, just dumped.”
“Well, maybe we need to go back to the scene and see if there’s some evidence left behind.”
Andrea snorted. “You wouldn’t know trace evidence if it bit you in the ass.”
“No. That’s why I’d take you along. Then I could listen to all that forensic shit you talk about.”
It was true. She did tend to know more about the forensic side of police work than most, mainly because her best friend had worked in the crime lab. It was something she thought she’d want to do and spent nearly a year there, but she soon found she missed the action of being on the streets. Still, even with her limited exposure, forensic science was way over her head.
“Well, I’ve been back to the scene myself, Randy, so you can rest easy,” Jim said. “I didn’t see any of that trace stuff Andi talks about. Just rocks, gravel and sand.”
“Maybe you want to go up Rim Trail,” Andrea suggested. “Take Joey. You can collect some more evidence up there.”
“Hell, no. I’m not going near that spot again.”
“It could be the murder scene you’ve been waiting on,” Andrea teased.
“I’ll pass on that one.”
It was an hour from daybreak and Andrea filled her water bottle, her routine so practiced now, she didn’t even think about it. Up before dawn, a quick fifteen minutes of yoga stretches, then out the door with a full water bottle, her trail runners already laced up and ready. Not that she actually ran the trails. But she liked the lightness of the shoes rather than the heaviness of the hiking boots she normally wore while working.
The Jeep that Jim had issued to her was old and dusty, with dents on both sides. But she loved it. The guys fought over the two new SUVs the county had purchased but she was happy with her Jeep, not even wanting to trade it in for the newer and now discarded trucks Randy and Joey used to drive. No, she was comfortable in this, the top down most days, loving the freedom of the wind, the sun.
She drove up Oak Creek Canyon, not venturing from her route. She parked in the same spot at the trailhead, pausing to stretch out her legs again before hurrying up the trail. The nightmares she’d lived with for so long were finally subsiding, but she didn’t want to jinx it by stopping. Each morning, she’d hike up the trail to the flat outcropping of rocks facing east. She’d stand still, waiting on the sun, her mind blank. As soon as color showed in the sky, she glided into her Tai Chi routine. At first, she was very disciplined in her routine, staying within the Taijiquan form as she’d first learned. As she became more comfortable with her body and her ability, she strayed from the practiced session, incorporating her own positions and movements. She feared a true Tai Chi master would cringe if they saw her now, but it worked for her. It kept her mind free, focusing on her body, the sun, the earth. Her reasons now for practicing it had nothing to do with the purity of the martial art form of Tai Chi and everything to do with her own psyche.
This morning was no different. The summer nighttime sky of a million stars slowly gave way to the brightness of the day. She knew the trail like the back of her hand, knew where every rock would cause her to stumble, knew when to duck from a low hanging branch. She slipped off the main trail, taking the side route to her slab of rock.
She stood still, taking deep, even breaths. Slowly, she spread out her arms as if welcoming the sun. In essence, she was. There were many a night when she was certain she’d never see another sunrise, see another day. But years of healing had gotten her past that. Now, she relished each new day, enjoying the simplicity of nature’s wakeup call. As the sun showed itself, a deep red color filled the canyon. She held her palms up, nodding slowly, her mind drifting away as her body took over. She bent her knees, then started her routine, moving into each position effortlessly, gliding along the surface of the rock, paying homage to the new day and being thankful she was a part of it.
“You’re joking,” she said. “Same COD?”
Jim nodded. “Yep. Throat slashed, just like the other one.”
“Yeah, that’s the scary part.” He took the toothpick out of his mouth. “Maggie O’Brien. College student too. Only this one is Arizona State at the Tempe campus.”
“That means it’s the same killer.”
“And he’s targeting college students.”
“Different colleges, different cities.”
“Jesus. And we’re the dumping ground.”
He put the toothpick back into his mouth. “And I’m too goddamn old for this crap.”
Andrea was already on her computer, pulling up the FBI database. Serial killers normally didn’t invent themselves overnight. Most took years to earn that label. And most weren’t caught after only two murders. She looked up. “This second body wasn’t an easy drop off. He either had help or brought it up on horseback. We should check the stables.”
“I can have Randy check the rentals in the area,” Jim said.
“She’d been up there several weeks. You think anyone is going to remember back that far?”
“Maybe that was his plan. Dump her far enough so that she wouldn’t be stumbled upon right away.”
“Making it less likely people would remember him.” She shook her head. “Still, he leaves Sandy Reynolds right off a trail in Oak Creek Canyon. As if begging for someone to find her.”
“I don’t pretend to understand killers, Andi.” He motioned to her computer. “What’re you looking for?”
“Slashed throat? Or dumped body?”
“Good luck with that.”
“I would imagine there are a lot of throat slashing artists out there,” he said.
“You think so? It’s a messy, nasty way to kill someone. I wouldn’t think too many people have the stomach for it.”
“A killer is a killer, Andi.”
She shook her head. “No. A lot of serial killers use strangulation as the means. No blood. No mess.”
He raised his eyebrows. “So, two bodies and you want to say serial killer?”
“Those words generally cause panic. Maybe we ought to let the experts determine that.”
“Experts? Who? Police in Flagstaff? Tempe?” She shook her head. “They have one body each. No, they’re not thinking serial killer. They’re looking for boyfriends or whoever Sandy Reynolds saw at the bar last.”
“Well, like you said, we’re just the dumping ground. There’s no crime scene here.” He paused. “Thank God.”
She wanted to argue with him, but she let him walk away. Technically, no, it wasn’t the scene of the crime. But it was a scene just the same. She went back to her searching, finding many unsolved murders where the body was dumped. However, not many of those had cause of death as slashed throat. She stored that data, then did a different search. This one for young, college-aged women with no specific cause of death.
“Good Lord,” she murmured. She limited her search to the last ten years and got one hundred and thirty-seven hits. She then went back to her first search, that with dumped bodies. She narrowed that down to rural areas. She played with the data, sorting and resorting, trying to find every possible scenario. After five hours—well after Jim had told her to go home for the night—she found a pattern. An alternating pattern.
Ten years ago, two young women were found in the woods near Pine Knot, Kentucky, not far from the Tennessee border. Both had been strangled and dumped approximately two weeks apart. One year later, three women were killed over a two-month period near the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Two were strangled, one had her throat cut. All three were found at the murder scene. Their bodies had not been moved.
Eleven months later, in the small town of Hillsboro, Georgia, four women were found dumped in the Oconee National Forest. All four were students at the University of Georgia in Athens, some seventy miles north. Three were strangled, one had her throat cut.
Thirteen months later, three women were found murdered in their apartments in Birmingham, Alabama over a stretch of six days. Only one was a college student. All three had their throats slashed.
Then, only five months later, in Pondville, southeast of Tuscaloosa, four bodies were found in the woods, all within a few hundred yards of each other. Again, two were strangled, two had their throats cut. They never found the murder scene.
The pattern continued, alternating between rural areas and cities, moving from state to state. The most recent of the pattern occurred in Dallas. However, it was the only one where DNA was left. Semen was found at each scene, yet no signs of sexual assault. Three victims, all tied, all with throats slashed. The pattern veered here and Andrea thought maybe the detectives got it wrong. A fourth victim, a male, was also attributed to the same killer. A homeless man was found with his throat cut. Fibers at the scene matched fibers at one of the victim’s apartment.
She read the file in more detail. They weren’t certain Patrick was his real name, but that’s what his brother referred to him as. The brother, John Doe, was dead. Shot and killed by Tori Hunter after he’d slashed the throat of her partner. She frowned. He dressed like a woman.
“Jesus, what the hell is this?” she murmured, making a note to call the Dallas PD in the morning. She wanted more information before she lumped these killings in with the others. Leaving semen deviated from the normal pattern. Killing a male also was new. But the overall pattern fit. Rural, city, rural again, then city. The Dallas murders happened eighteen months ago. If it was indeed the same killer, it apparently was the first time Patrick had nearly been caught. None of the other cases even had a suspect.
She read through the notes again, nearly convincing herself the Dallas murders weren’t related to the others she’d been researching. Too much was different. But she wanted to be thorough. She’d still call them, get a better feel.