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“Breathing?” Sara asked, but he shook his head before she got the word out of her mouth.

Jeffrey worked more slowly, more deliberately, as he pried away another piece of wood. He looked at the underside, then passed it to Sara. She could see scratch marks in the pulp, as if an animal had been trapped. A fingernail about the size of one of her own was embedded in the next piece Jeffrey handed her, and Sara put it faceup on the ground. The next slat was scratched harder, and she put this beside the first, keeping a semblance of the pattern, knowing it was evidence. It could be an animal. A kid’s prank. Some old Indian burial ground. Explanations flashed in and out of her mind, but she could only watch as Jeffrey pried the boards away, each slat feeling like a splinter in Sara’s heart. There were almost twenty pieces in all, but by the twelfth, they could see what was inside.

Jeffrey stared into the coffin, his Adam’s apple moving up and down as he swallowed. Like Sara, he seemed at a loss for words.

The victim was a young woman, probably in her late teens. Her dark hair was long to her waist, blanketing her body. She wore a simple blue dress that fell to mid-calf and white socks but no shoes. Her mouth and eyes were wide open in a panic that Sara could almost taste. One hand reached up, fingers contracted as if the girl was still trying to claw her way out. Tiny dots of petechiae were scattered in the sclera of her eyes, long-dried tears evidenced by the thin red lines breaking through the white. Several empty water bottles were in the box along with a jar that had obviously been used for waste. A flashlight was on her right, a half-eaten piece of bread on her left. Mold grew on the corners, much as mold grew like a fine mustache over the girl’s upper lip. The young woman had not been a remarkable beauty, but she had probably been pretty in her own, unassuming way.

Jeffrey exhaled slowly, sitting back on the ground. Like Sara, he was covered in dirt. Like Sara, he did not seem to care.

They both stared at the girl, watched the breeze from the lake ruffle her thick hair and pick at the long sleeves of her dress. Sara noticed a matching blue ribbon tied in the girl’s hair and wondered who had put it there. Had her mother or sister tied it for her? Had she sat in her room and looked at the mirror, securing the ribbon herself? And then what had happened? What had brought her here?

Jeffrey wiped his hands on his jeans, bloody fingerprints leaving their mark. “They didn’t mean to kill her,” he guessed.

“No,” Sara agreed, enveloped by an overwhelming sadness. “They just wanted to scare her to death.”

CHAPTER TWO

At the clinic, they had asked Lena about the bruises.

“You all right, darlin’?” the older black woman had said, her brows knitted in concern.

Lena had automatically answered yes, waiting for the nurse to leave before she finished getting dressed.

There were bruises that came from being a cop: the rub from where the gun on your hip wore so hard against you that some days it felt like the bone was getting a permanent dent. The thin line of blue like a crayon mark on your forearm from accommodating the lump of steel as you kept your hand as straight to your side as you could, trying not to alert the population at large that you were carrying concealed.

When Lena was a rookie, there were even more problems: back aching, gunbelt chafing, welts from her nightstick slapping her leg as she ran all out to catch up with a perp. Sometimes, by the time she caught them, it felt good to use the stick, let them know what it felt like to chase their sorry ass half a mile in ninety-degree heat with eighty pounds of equipment flogging your body. Then there was the bulletproof vest. Lena had known cops- big, burly men- who had passed out from heat exhaustion. In August, it was so hot that they weighed the odds: get shot in the chest or die from heatstroke.

Yet, when she finally got her gold detective’s shield, gave up her uniform and hat, signed in her portable radio for the last time, she had missed the weight of it all. She missed the heavy reminder that she was a cop. Being a detective meant you worked without props. On the street, you couldn’t let your uniform do the talking, your cruiser making traffic slow even if the cars were already going the speed limit. You had to find other ways to intimidate the bad guys. You only had your brain to let you know you were still a cop.

After the nurse had left her sitting in that room in Atlanta, what the clinic called the recovery room, Lena had looked at the familiar bruises, judging them against the new ones. Finger marks wrapped around her arm like a band. Her wrist was swollen from where it had been twisted. She could not see the fist-shaped welt above her left kidney, but she felt it whenever she moved the wrong way.

Her first year wearing the uniform, she had seen it all. Domestic disputes where women threw rocks at your cruiser, thinking that would help talk you out of carting off their abusive husbands to jail. Neighbors knifing each other over a mulberry tree hanging too low or a missing lawn mower that ended up being in the garage somewhere, usually near a little Baggie of pot or sometimes something harder. Little kids clinging to their fathers, begging not to be taken away from their homes, then you’d get them to the hospital and the doctors would find signs of vaginal or anal tearing. Sometimes, their throats would be torn down deep, little scratch marks inside where they had choked.

The instructors tried to prepare you for this sort of thing in the academy, but you could never be really prepared. You had to see it, taste it, feel it for yourself. No one explained how terrifying it was to do a traffic stop on some out-of-towner, your heart pounding in your chest as you walked up to the driver’s side, hand on your gun, wondering if the guy in the car had his hand on his gun, too. The textbooks had pictures of dead people, and Lena could remember how the guys in class had laughed at some of them. The lady who got drunk and passed out in the bathtub with her panty hose caught around her ankles. The guy who hanged himself getting his nut off, and then you had this moment when you realized the thing he was holding in his hand wasn’t a ripe plum. He had probably been a father, a husband, definitely someone’s son, but to all the cadets, he was “the Plum-Nut Guy.”

None of this got you ready for the sight and smell of the real thing. Your training officer couldn’t describe the feel of death, when you walked into a room and the hairs on the back of your neck stood up, telling you something bad had happened, or- worse- was about to happen. Your chief couldn’t warn you against the habit of smacking your lips, trying to get the taste out of your mouth. No one told you that no matter how many times you scrubbed your body, only time could wear away the smell of death from your skin. Running three miles a day in the hot sun, working the weights in the gym, the sweat pouring off you like rain coming out of dark clouds until finally you got the smell out, and then you went out on a call- to a gas station, an abandoned car, a neighbor’s house where the papers were piled in the driveway and mail was spilling out of the box- and found another grandmother or brother or sister or uncle you had to sweat out of your system again.

No one knew how to help you deal with it when death came into your own life. No one could take away the grief you felt knowing that your own actions had ended a life- no matter how nasty that life was. That was the kicker. As a cop, you learned pretty quickly that there was an “us” and a “them.” Lena never thought she’d mourn the loss of a “them,” but lately, that was all she could think about. And now there was another life taken, another death on her hands.

She had been feeling death inside out for the last few days, and nothing could rid it from her senses. Her mouth tasted sour, every breath she drew fueling what smelled like decay. Her ears heard a constant shrill siren and there was a clamminess to her skin that made her feel as if she had borrowed it from a graveyard. Her body was not her own, her mind something she could no longer control. From the second she had left the clinic through the night they spent in an Atlanta hotel room to the moment she had walked through the door of her uncle’s house, all she could think about was what she had done, the bad decisions that had led her here.