I whistled appreciatively.
“I was really hoping you’d be impressed.”
Randall shook his head as he turned away, but I saw that flush of pride on his face.
Had he been able to read mine, he would have seen that I wasn’t so much impressed by his discovery or the lengths to which the killer had gone to display the blood, but by the sheer volume the miraculous human body was capable of holding.
At the scene of any murder, the blood told a tale to those who knew how to listen. There were crime scene investigators who could read the various spatters and stains, who could tell you exactly how many blows or shots or slashes a victim had received and from which angle they had been struck and with what velocity they had been delivered. I was not one of those people, nor did I wish to be. I chose to focus on the living and finding a way to hold them accountable for their crimes against the dead. But even I could clearly see that the killer had attacked with great speed and savagery; however, while the victim had obviously suffered, his or her death hadn’t been unnecessarily protracted.
High-velocity spatters climbed the stone wall and streaked the hardscrabble path. They were a seemingly impossible dark red against the rust-colored rock and sand. There were various amoeba shapes where the body had been left to bleed out from at least two distinct wounds, while the unknown subject, or unsub, took his time leaving his calling card on the stone wall.
It had been painted twenty feet tall in the victim’s blood using the paw of a medium-size canine as a brush, as evidenced by the wisps of fur and nail marks around the telltale pad prints, and confirmed by the initial investigatory team.
“Pretty morbid, if you ask me,” Randall said.
I didn’t, but people always let you know when they’re ready to talk and it was generally a good idea to let them.
“Walk me through it.”
“Like I said, I was cutting sign. The coyotes and polleros are essentially just like any other smugglers. When they find a shipping lane that works, they keep using it until we eventually figure out a way to block it off. Traveling through the mountains offers a hell of a lot more cover than wandering across the flat desert and their trails aren’t readily visible from the air. Not to mention the fact that we can’t easily patrol them like we can the drags. But once they’ve been using a route for a while, it starts to get paved with trash. These UDAs just toss off their extra layers of clothing or throw down their food wrappers and water bottles. Thing is, with as little rain and wind as we get through here, all that stuff pretty much stays where they drop it.”
“And you were following one of those trails?”
“Not that day. We’d actually just busted one up on the other side of the mountain, so when word gets back to the coyotes on the other side of the border, they have to alter their shipping lanes on the fly. And considering the risks involved, they generally send their pollero underlings—”
“The wannabe coyotes.”
“Yeah. The chicken wranglers. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy about humanity, doesn’t it?”
“So you were searching for one of these alternate routes.”
“Found one, actually. I couldn’t have been more than four hours behind her, in fact.”
“Her? The crime scene report said it was impossible to conclusively identify the victim without more than a sample of blood. They couldn’t even confirm the sex without the presence of the hCG hormone.”
The CBP agent beamed.
“I was following her tracks. Size six to seven. Canvas Keds knockoffs to be precise.”
“How can you be sure they belonged to the victim and not the killer?”
“Please. I had to have been following them for more than a mile. They led right here and stopped. There’s no way the killer wiped his tracks leading away from the scene but didn’t have the foresight to wash his trail leading up to it.”
“How do you know the killer ‘washed’ his trail?”
“When you’ve been out here for any length of time, these things stand out like neon signs. I could tell the prints I was tracking were roughly four hours old because the soil under the turned gravel was still darker than the ground around it, but not as dark as the stones I turned over myself. That means the walker passed through closer to sunrise than midnight, but before the temperature started to rise again. It was about seven in the morning when I found them and the footprints had been crossed by insect tracks. The bugs only come out right before dawn, before the heat really kicks in. And the generic Keds are a common choice for the female immigrants since they’re cheap, have reasonably durable soles, and they’re available at a huge markup at any of the stores in Altar, where the majority of the UDAs go to hook up with coyotes.
“The exit tracks are even easier. After trying to keep up with all of the new trends, like tying carpet or foam blocks or tire treads or fake animal tracks over their shoes, it’s almost amusing to come across the old tried-and-true brush-off.”
“With a tree branch?”
“Mesquite branches specifically.”
“How can you tell that?”
“Look over there. See where it looks almost like someone raked the sand really softly? That’s from the barbs on the mesquite branches. They generally aren’t quite that clearly defined. They only look like that in this case because—”
“He used them like a sled to simultaneously drag the body away and obliterate his tracks.”
Randall tapped his sunburned nose.
“You’re catching on.”
“So what can you tell me about our unsub?”
Randall’s smile faltered.
“He came across some poor migrant girl out here alone in the desert, saw his opportunity, and took full advantage of it. Happens all the time. You’d be surprised how many women we pick up who claim—”
“This wasn’t a crime of opportunity. The unsub was already waiting out here. He knew exactly what he was going to do. He sat right up there on that ledge where he couldn’t been seen until it was too late, then he jumped down behind her. He grabbed her by the hair, pulled back her head, and cut her throat from right to left. Then he laid her body down on the ground right here and used the wound in her neck to paint the pattern on the stone. When he ran out of blood, he had to cut her lower abdomen open over here to get at the last of the unclotted blood.
“The attack was carefully planned and precisely executed. This man was in control the entire time. He demonstrates the classic signs of a sociopath, the Alienated Type specifically. He shows no remorse for the act of killing. His victim was merely a substrate he utilized to deliver his message. Nor did he deliberately inflict more pain than was absolutely necessary. He killed her with the first cut, and in the quickest manner possible, which demonstrates a measure of compassion.”
“How do you know it was a ‘he’ and not a ‘she’?”
“More than ninety percent of all serial killers are male. That aside, it takes a tremendous amount of force to cut through so many layers of skin, cartilage, and muscle to even get to the great vessels. Far more than you might think. And to do so in one swift motion? We’re talking about a person with significant upper body strength, especially to be able to do it with one hand. Besides, women tend to exhibit less emotional restraint, especially when it comes to an act as intimate as murder. No, the evidence here suggests that the murder itself had absolutely nothing to do with the selection of the victim. He didn’t know her personally. She merely served the purpose of helping to create a message to which we have no choice but to sit up and pay attention.”