Not far from Walden Pond, a razor-wire-topped fence ringed hundreds of acres that had once been farmland. At a break in the fence, a peeling wood sign read Northeast Correctional Facility.
A man walked past the sign carrying a rucksack, a spiked pole and a trash bag. Compact and wiry, close-cropped blond hair peeking from the under a Red Sox cap, he wore khakis, worn leather boots and a reflective vest over a canvas work jacket.
At the road, a stretch of mown grass edged a two-lane highway heading east to Boston and west toward central Massachusetts. He turned west, unhurried. The alarm wouldn’t be sounded until the work detail reached Leominster, more than seventy miles away.
The grass bordered a thicket of oaks that carpeted the forest floor in red and yellow. To his left, cars sped by, leaves buoyed in their wakes. It was a perfect fall day, smelling of loam and sun-warmed pine tinged with the rotten-egg aroma of automobile exhaust.
The man turned into the brush and scrambled down a culvert, stepping over a trickle of brown water. Behind a stand of pines, he peeled off the vest, balled up the trash bag and stashed both in the rucksack.
He walked on, using the pole to clear vines. Twigs snapped under his boots; traffic droned in the distance.
Startled, he raised the pole like a spear.
A dog bounded out of the brush, tongue lolling. A girl in a plaid peacoat crashed into the clearing behind it clutching a leash, at the end of which a collar jingled with tags. Her long straight hair was almost the same color as the dog’s yellow fur. She half-stumbled, half fell over a fallen branch. "Whoa," she said, regaining her balance. She spotted the man, then caught sight of the dog peeing on a fern. "Grab him!" she shouted at the man.
The man looked at the dog, which lunged into the brush. The sound of its panting and scrabbling grew fainter.
Hours later, the dog, twigs in its fur, returned to the clearing. It ignored the sparrows darting among low branches in the waning light. It sniffed the spot where the wooden pole had lain and sniffed its own leash, snagged and tangled on a vine. The dog spent some time investigating a single, scuffed Doc Martin it found in the tall grass, then circled the clearing, nose quivering, and wandered off.
I was driving, as I often did, with no destination in mind.
Speeding along, tires humming, engine vibrating through my fingertips and soles of my feet, I’d salute the wind, watch the pavement unfurl along the green hood of my ‘75 Nova. The car was the automotive equivalent of a mangy stray I’d adopted and forced into an extended, perhaps unwanted, life.
I’d catch glimpses of beer cans glinting metallic blue in the sun, ribbons of shredded truck tires coiled like snakes. Fur that was once a raccoon or somebody’s cat. At dusk, inanimate objects took on the mantle of the living. I once spotted a limbless torso lolling in the dirt of an exit ramp. The next time I took that exit, I saw it was a plush snowman someone had dressed in a New England Patriots T-shirt and flung out a car window.
I see the macabre in the benign. My mother will tell you it’s one of my biggest flaws. But a sense of the macabre--like a sense of the absurd—can keep you sane.
I was on a scenic stretch north of Boston when my cell buzzed.
Until recently, I’d been covering crime for The Cambridge Citizen. My first thought was that Dominic, a state trooper with a passing resemblance to Dwayne ‘The Rock” Johnson, was phoning in a tip. “Cass, check it out,” he’d bark, and sure enough, a report of a suspicious person or shots fired or a DOA would crackle over the RadioShack police scanner I kept in my cubicle. If Jason, the staff photographer, was around, we’d jump in the Nova and head to the scene.
But when I fished the phone out of the cupholder, I saw it wasn’t Dom.
A trooper whose name I didn’t recognize asked if he was speaking to Cassandra Macklen. I said yes. What he said next made my stomach lurch and my throat tighten.
Driving blindly, I finally said, “I heard you, officer. A rollover. Route 2 westbound. Alec Montgomery is being transported to Whitman Hospital.” More words through the line. I exhaled.
“Yes, I know where Whitman Hospital is. I appreciate the call.” I flung the phone on the passenger seat and stared at my knuckles, white on the wheel.
My boyfriend had been in a horrific crash, but all I could think about was my mother. Her name is Henrietta, Henri to her friends. I called her Hecuba after the vengeful parent of the cursed prophetess Cassandra.
My name was a perfect reminder of what Henri disliked most about me, but this time, she couldn’t call me a Cassandra. Someone else was the bearer of bad news.
I mentally mapped the fastest route to Whitman. With no traffic, I could be there in less than an hour.
I concentrated on the feel of the accelerator, scrutinized every road sign as if for hidden messages, and pictured Alec as I last I saw him: a shock of dark hair skimming his high forehead, blinking like an owl while I stomped around my apartment and bemoaned my derailed career. Alec watched me, mug in hand, in a crisp button-down shirt, tweedy blazer, jeans and loafers, an unselfconscious parody of a high school history teacher.
Last night, seeing him sprawled on my couch, engrossed in an obscure World War I novel, I was torn. He moved through life like he ruled the world, which, in many ways, he and his Boston Brahmin ancestors did. Yet he seemed oblivious to societal inequities--a neat trick for a history teacher.
He’d stumbled into teaching after spending a year volunteering at a one-room schoolhouse in a poor Peruvian village. As Alec tells it, when his father, financier and part owner of the New England Rockets, the region’s beloved soccer franchise, heard that his only son was taking up teaching, he congratulated him on “finding his passion.” He seemed not all piqued that Alec was sidestepping the family business. Douglas Montgomery was, at the time, battling advanced prostate cancer—dying has a way of providing perspective--and I suppose it helped that Alec’s two older sisters were up-and coming execs in the company. Alec had never hid his boredom with finance and with the soccer team, although he occasionally comped tickets to his friends.
Alec claimed to be fine with my apartment’s peeling floors and brazen mice while his Beacon Hill condo furnished in mid-century modern by his interior designer mother often sat empty. But I found Alec’s good nature and almost everything else about his seemingly blessed life hard to fathom. Including the fact that he’d apparently listed me as one of his emergency contacts.
Just that morning, I’d stood looking out at the street from the bay window, chewing a cuticle (note to self, book a manicure) watching Alec maneuver his charcoal-gray Volvo out of a lucky parking spot in front of my Somerville triple-decker. No other cars were in sight, but he crept into the road as hesitantly as an octogenarian. My boyfriend was the only Bostonian who adhered to traffic lights and speed limits. How could he have flipped his car on a country road not far from the bucolic New England prep school where he taught? It made no sense.
A sign for the hospital caught my eye. I signaled, the dashboard arrow blinked and clicked, and I felt lulled, as if by a metronome. But at the last instant before turning onto the exit ramp that would have taken me to where my boyfriend lay injured, perhaps dying, I veered back onto the highway.
As dawn broke over the Green Mountains, a woman in a faded green parka and Crocs maneuvered her considerable bulk past a dumpster that reeked of last night’s bratwurst special. She pulled open the creaky rear door of the Riverview Diner and almost tripped over a gray cat. “Millie LaFleur! You are going to flatten me one of these days. And then who will feed you, huh, missy?” Mary rubbed the cat’s ears, then hauled herself upright with the help of a worn Formica counter and made her way, huffing, to a stainless-steel walk-in fridge.
“Here you go, nuisance.” She slid a plate onto the floor. In the kitchen, a man in a Red Sox cap, T-shirt and jeans was scraping down the griddle. Mary filled the coffee maker, fired up the griddle, set a dented metal bowl of eggs on the counter and loaves of bread next to the toaster.
Brewing coffee began to fill the diner with its burnt caramel smell. Mary walked around the long counter, past wood tables and straight-backed chairs and flipped a cardboard sign dangling from a hook on the glass-paneled front door from “closed” to “open.”
She was turning toward the kitchen when through the plate-glass window she saw a man pushing a wheelchair that looked like it was piled high with old blankets. Poking out the top was a young woman’s pale, sharp-featured face, long black hair tucked under a knit watch cap like a long shoreman’s. Her midsection was swaddled in a length of plaid wool, and her feet, in brown leather, tightly laced workman’s boots, were propped on the wheelchair’s footrest. One foot bent awkwardly at the ankle.
The cat, having finished its breakfast, curled next to a potted geranium on a shelf over a radiator. “Well, well, Millie,” Mary said. “It looks like Lukas Hewitt and that poor girl of his will be joining us this morning.” She flung open the front door, letting in a rush of cold air.
The man, wearing an overcoat a few sizes too big for his rail-thin frame, khakis and work boots like the girl’s edged backward through the door, bouncing the wheelchair over the threshold. The girl’s head bobbed like a rag doll’s.
Mary whisked a chair away from a table and with a small nod, Lukas pushed the wheelchair into the empty spot, unwound a blanket from the girl’s shoulders. Mary caught a glimpse of a brownish-red stain from knee to calf on the man’s left inseam. She started to comment on it, then stopped. She and Lukas Hewitt had exchanged barely a dozen words in the decades they’d both lived in Greensboro. The man seemed incapable of--or uninterested in--the banter Mary engaged in with most diner patrons. But in small towns, you knew things.
She knew he lived in a tiny, ramshackle gray house a mile south of the diner, just off Main Street. She knew Lukas was at one time a long-haul trucker; that the girl in the wheelchair was his daughter, Rosie, and that Rosie’s pretzeled limbs and muteness were due to being deprived of oxygen during her birth in the county hospital twenty-five years earlier. Mary knew that Rosie’s mother had been found frozen and floating in the Conamessett River a few years ago. She knew that since her mother’s death Rosie was at Rutledge, the town’s facility for the infirm, the deranged, the disabled. A place people went who had nowhere else to go.
Rumor had it that Lukas had lost his trucker’s license. Yet he disappeared as regularly as when he was logging thousands of miles a month.
Mary approached the table, carafe in hand. She filled a white ceramic mug, placed a glass of water and a straw in front of the girl and dropped a single menu on the table.
Back in the kitchen, she said, “Roy, don’t look now, but Lukas Hewitt is out there, and he’s got the girl with him. What’s it been, a year?”
“At least,” he said.
“Where does he go?” Mary brushed crumbs off the counter into her palm. She picked up a sponge and swept it over the counter. “Maybe he’s got a second family somewhere in a house with a white picket fence and window boxes. And a sports car in the driveway.” She chuckled. “I’d pay good money to see Lukas Hewitt behind the wheel of a fancy sports car.”
“Couldn’t tell you,” said Roy, unsmiling, prodding sizzling sausage links with a fork. “Don’t know why he leaves, where he disappears to and what he does when he’s gone. But I’d say he comes back because of the girl.”
In the diner, Lukas folded the blanket that had been wrapped around the girl into a compact square. Her face was long and narrow, with a spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose, her eyes gray-green, somber but alert, darting around the room as if searching for something amid the faded muslin curtains, the wall clock set on the wrong time, the Art Deco-style posters of skiers.
The shoulder blades poking through her thin chambray shirt were as sharp and delicate as a bird’s wings. Her arms looked like stiff mannikin arms haphazardly inserted into shoulder sockets. Her fingers curled into claws. In the chair, her legs were splayed, one bent inward at the hip, the other outward. The bent foot looked painfully unnatural.
To Mary, Lukas said, “Two eggs. Toast. No butter. Bowla oatmeal.” He lifted his gaze from the tabletop only after Mary disappeared behind the counter.
He peeled the paper wrapper from the straw and dropped it into the glass in front of the girl. He sipped his coffee, watching her impassively as she leaned forward and, after three tries, caught the straw between her lips. Lukas pulled a spoon out of his pocket--its handle bent at a right angle--and placed it in the girl’s crooked grip. He fashioned a bib out of a napkin and tied it around the girl’s neck.
Mary brought out a bowl and placed it in front of her. The girl laboriously dipped the spoon in the food and, trembling with the effort, brought it to her mouth.
Twenty minutes later, most of the oatmeal was still in the bowl and the girl’s napkin-bib was a mess of goo. Lukas sopped up egg yolk with the last of his toast when a woman in a camel overcoat and brightly patterned scarf, a royal blue beret perched on her ash blond hair, breezed into the diner, a blast of cold air trailing her. “Hi, Mary!” she called out. “Nippy out there, but the sun’s out. Good day to hit the slopes.” Mary waved and laughed, gesturing toward her ample belly. “My skiing days are long over, Liz,” she said.
“Hello, Lukas,” the woman said and approached the table where he sat with the girl. “Hello, Rosie,” she said. “It’s good to see you out and about. How are you doing?” The girl tilted her head and a low whistling sound emerged, as if from deep in her throat. Lukas scowled.
“Can I join you?” Without waiting for an answer, the woman pulled a chair from an empty table and sat down, taking off her beret and unwinding her scarf in one fluid motion. “I’m sorry to interrupt your breakfast.” Lukas’ head snapped up but the woman quickly angled her chair toward the girl. “Rosie, I hope you remember me. My name is Liz Trefethen. I met you and your dad at Rutledge when your mom passed away.
“I’ve been in Boston, but I’ve moved back to town. I’m head of patient services now, and I have what could be a great opportunity for you. For you and for your dad,” she said, nodding at Lukas. His scowl deepened.
“As you know, Rutledge serves a population with a wide range of needs. We haven’t served some residents as well as we should have. But our new director is determined to do better.” Liz tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. Lukas shifted in his seat. Liz kept her gaze fixed on Rosie, who seemed to be following her words intently, one of her eyes slightly narrowed, head tilted like an owl’s. A thin line of drool ran onto her chin. “Can I get that for you?” Liz gestured with a napkin. Rosie nodded, and Liz dabbed gently. She said, “Rosie, as you know, your form of cerebral palsy affects speech and motor control.
“CP makes it hard for some patients to control their facial and tongue muscles. They have difficulty moderating their breathing and vocal cords and a tough time eating.” Liz gestured toward the bent spoon, whose blackened handle looked like it had been doctored with a blowtorch, and the messy bib. “Adapted cutlery helps. But you are capable of so much more. You’re a very bright young woman.”
Liz leaned forward. “I’ve gotten the go-ahead to hire more specialists. I think a speech therapist would work wonders for you, Rosie.” She reached out to rest her hand on the girl’s sleeve, then jerked it back when Lukas abruptly stood. His chair screeched over the pitted floor.
“We’re done here,” he growled, tossing a few bills on the table. He yanked the wet napkin off Rosie’s neck, threw the blanket onto her lap, strode in back of Liz’s chair and pushed the wheelchair and the girl out into the street.
On the call with the state trooper, I heard a voice in the background, likely the dispatcher’s, saying “the rotary.” Alec’s commute took him along a stretch of Route 2 not far from two prisons--one an imposing facility with a gothic concrete gate and sharpshooters peering from a watchtower--and the other, on the opposite side of a rotary, all rolling green hills and clusters of tall pines.
I’d heard that two decades earlier, to the chagrin of some locals, an historic estate once owned by a wealthy eighteenth-century family became a dormitory for a few dozen men from within the New England criminal justice system. These convicts were spared time in gritty hard-core prisons like the one across the rotary. Instead, guinea pigs in a rehabilitation experiment, they attended classes, met with therapists and career counselors.
The program ran only a year. When I’d first been assigned to the crime beat at The Citizen, I resolved to look into what had become of the convicts. A search hadn’t turned up any clues to their identities or whereabouts. Or why the experiment was so short lived. But my editor made it clear The Citizen was paying me to churn out stories on random stabbings, burglaries and the like, not investigative pieces that might take months and not amount to anything.
A mile or so west of the rotary, I pulled into a turnoff that led to a gravel road cordoned off with a chain. Leaving my car, hazard lights flashing, I walked along the shoulder. You can take the reporter off the crime beat but you can’t stop her from worming her way into the action. Besides, part of me still didn’t believe Alec could have crashed so spectacularly. I knew once his car was towed and impounded, I wouldn’t have access to it. Maybe I’d see something the police had missed--something to explain the impossible.
A half-dozen blue cop cars and a tow truck came into view. I spotted a gray Volvo, underbelly skyward like a flipped tortoise.
It lay in a cement culvert separated from the asphalt by a strip of weedy grass. On the far side of the culvert, bushes and wild vines gave way to thickets of bare-branched trees.
Stepping over vines and rotting logs, I made my way through the brush and brambles, my shoes sinking into loamy soil. A hundred feet away, an officer stood in the road, waving on rubberneckers, while another walked toward the tow truck.
From behind a stand of birches, I peered at the Volvo. I thought I saw skid marks but couldn’t be sure they hadn’t been there before the accident. I walked alongside the culvert opposite the skid, my cold hands balled into fists. A truck jounced and rattled along, its payload of leaves open to the sky. A cacophony of chirps came from birds perched on the power lines overhead.
Notice the minutiae, Cassandra, Marty Gottlieb used to say. What really happened here? Thinking of Marty, a veteran crime reporter at The Citizen who’d taken me under his wing, made my cheeks burn. With any luck, news of my demotion hadn’t reached him in Seattle, where he’d just started as editor-in-chief of a well-respected daily. Marty would never forgive me. I could imagine him glaring, bushy unibrow practically meeting graying crewcut, notes of Brooklyn still tinging an almost comically heavy Boston accent: You invented a source? Made up a fucking quote? Cass, what the fuck were you thinking?
I almost walked into a fallen tree. Its trunk was as big around as a drainage pipe; I stepped over it and my foot came down on something soft. It was green; smooth, manmade. It looked like a lumpy bundle in a tarp. A castoff from a landscaper, I thought. A crew at a nearby house must have raked up a pile of leaves, rolled them into a tarp and stashed the tarp in the woods to avoid carrying it to the dump. I climbed back over the tree and reversed my path toward the Volvo, which was clearly Alec’s. Even upside down, I recognized the bumper sticker--”I (heart) Concord Prep” in flowing Gothic burgundy script.
Airbags bulged against the car’s windows like marshmallows. The windshield was webbed with a starburst of cracks orbiting a spot where Alec’s head must have slammed into Tinged red with blood. Alec’s blood. A wave of nausea hit me. Why was I playing Kojak when Alec needed me?
Stumbling over roots, I ran back to my car, climbed in and gunned it down the highway.
I got off the elevator on the third floor of Whitman Hospital and spotted Alec’s mom, who rushed over to me. “Oh, Cassandra. You’re here.”
She clutched my shoulders, and I awkwardly patted the sleeve of her Burberry coat. I’d met Sandra Montgomery once, at a family reunion at an inn with an expansive lawn on Maine’s rocky shore. Alec had assured me the event was casual and my go-to ensemble of black jeans with holes on the knees, Hanes white T-shirt and scuffed Doc Martens
would be fine. His mother and sisters--all three tall, willowy, and blonde--were wearing vintage Moschino in creams and pastels with suede mules. Seeing Sandra, I was reminded of my mortification. Even now I felt like a middle schooler in my navy pea jacket and khakis.
Alec had just been moved upstairs from the ER, Sandra said, and was waiting for tests. Her scent--something subtle and Parisian--wafted over me. “Is he going to be OK?” I asked, but at that moment a man with a salt-and-pepper beard in blue scrubs emerged from the elevator, and she turned to follow him down the hall.
I found Alec’s room, knocked softly. He was in the only bed--of course his mother would have demanded a private room--hooked up to monitors. A thin sheet was pulled up to a tube protruding from his throat. His eyes were closed, both of them edged in purplish bruises. There was a gauze pad on his forehead. I wanted to reach over, run a finger down his pale cheek and tell him he looked as pasty as a Pilgrim, but I didn’t dare. Alec was clearly unconscious, inhabiting a netherworld I couldn’t fathom.
His chest rose and fell. Except for the bruised eyes and what must be a nasty gash on his forehead, he seemed intact. I sunk into a blue chair next to the bed and wrapped my fingers around a cord dangling from a control pad that raised and lowered the bed.
Alec’s mother and the doctor came in. The doctor peeled open Alec’s bruised eyes and shone a light into his pupils. Alec’s mother asked the doctor rapid-fire questions. He slipped the tiny flashlight into his pocket. “We’ll know more after the CAT scan,” he told her. Feeling like an intruder, I slipped out and bought coffee from a vending machine. I went back to Alec’s room, now empty except for Alec. I sat in the chair and picked up the control pad cord. An IV dripped a clear liquid into Alec’s arm. Machines whirred.
An hour passed. Nurses breezed in, held thermometers up to Alec’s poor injured forehead, strapped blood pressure gauges around his limp arm, and breezed out.
For the first time since the call from the state trooper, I remembered why I’d been driving in the middle of a workday. I was on deadline for an obituary of a much-loved trombonist with the Boston Symphonic who’d died of an aneurysm. The orchestra’s creative director cleared his calendar so we could meet. He’d unearthed three decades’ worth of photos and memorabilia about the trombonist he wanted me to see.
I got behind the wheel of the Nova with every intention of heading to the brick performance center downtown. But I’d started thinking about my meeting with the publisher (had it truly been six weeks?) and ended up on the highway, all the Nova’s windows open, a chilly fall wind whipping my hair.
The Citizen once occupied a granite building downtown, its masthead emblazoned on the façade, within strolling distance of three Starbucks. A few years ago, the newspaper succumbed to the financial reality of advertising dollars siphoned off by social media. The building was sold to a developer known for turning historic buildings into upscale condos. The granite facade was now one side of a glass-and-steel monolith called The Inkwell, where young couples pushed aerodynamic baby strollers through the lobby, designer dogs trotting alongside.
Six weeks earlier, I had driven, as usual, to the paper’s new digs, a former warehouse in a largely working-class city north of Boston. The basement was the size of a football field, filled with reporters in cubicles, plugged into headsets and clicking away on keyboards. The HVAC created a continuous, indistinct rumble, like a volcano on the verge of erupting.
My cubicle was near a break room with a Keurig that no one ever refilled, and a refrigerator stocked with Tabasco and Tupperware. The room always smelled of curry and sauerkraut. A conga line of ants trailed from the trash bin to beneath the sink.
“Hey, Cass.” When I arrived, Jada, the music critic, was typing madly in the cubicle next to mine. “Hey, Jada.” I put my Americano on a desk blotter stained with coffee rings and placed Jada’s oat milk latte next to impossibly tiny notepads and Japanese pens lined up just so on her desk. I nudged one of the pens out of position. “OCD much?” I said. Without looking up, Jada raised a middle finger with a perfectly shellacked purple nail in my direction.
Jada’s cubicle was dotted with snapshots of her niece in a tie-dye onesie clutching a stuffed giraffe. Jada’s older sister’s Layla’s voluminous braids were tied back with a ribbon, and her green-eyed, olive-skinned partner, Davide, held the grinning, toothless baby. For the hundredth time, the photos made my throat tighten. My friend’s family reminded me of the existence--somewhere out there--of my half-brother, who I’d never met and probably never would.
It was barely 8am, but the publisher’s assistant had emailed me at 7:44. I was to come to her office as soon as I arrived. I climbed the industrial-looking staircase to the fourth floor--the freight elevator took forever--and tapped on the glass door. Unlike the basement, which had only casement windows looking out on a parking lot, Teagan Gallagher’s office had an enormous expanse of glass with a view of Boston’s skyline.
Inside, Teagan rose from her desk and motioned to a conference table, where most of The Citizen’s editors were already seated. It looked like our weekly editorial meeting, minus the beat reporters. But those happened on Thursdays, not Mondays.
The editor in chief gestured for me to sit.
Teagan and the editor exchanged glances. He adjusted his glasses and leaned on his elbows; fingers interlaced. “So, Cassandra, a serious issue has come to our attention. The piece on police corruption. You know the one?”
Of course, I knew. It was my only page one story, an exhaustively researched and reported six-part series about officers in a special ops unit roughing up suspected drug dealers, pulling service revolvers on them and demanding cash.
The exposé had already resulted in the unit being disbanded. We all hoped the piece would win the Hillman Prize for investigative journalism.
Being newest on the crime beat with the smallest reporting role, my name was the Iast of its six by-lines. I had talked to an older woman--I remembered her smudged glasses and stained housecoat--who lived in the apartment next to one of the dealers, a twenty-year old community college student who supplied pot to his friends. She described cops storming up the stairs to his place after midnight, pounding on the door, kicking someone’s dog across a hallway when it got in their way. A quote I’d ascribed to her was featured prominently in the third installment of the series.
The problem, the editor was saying, was that she claimed she’d never said those things. That some of those things had never happened.
I felt like a defector before a war tribunal. I sat, numb, staring at a scratch in the table’s mahogany finish while the editors and Teagan debated my fate. Marty was already gone, thank God, but an editor I’d considered almost a friend said I should be fired on the spot.
The board eventually decreed that if I admitted making up the quote and wrote a groveling mea culpa, I could remain on staff, albeit in my former role as an obituary writer. For most reporters, obits were a pit stop enroute to covering the school committee or the city council. Or my coveted beat--crime. When I was promoted to the police beat, I thought I’d left the death beat behind for good.
A week after the meeting, I walked into the break room. A couple of reporters and Suki in ad sales sat at round tables. Suki nodded at me and went back to scrolling on her phone.
The reporters clutched coffee mugs, one with a Boston Bruins logo and one that said, “I love my dachshund.” They didn’t look up. I might as well have been wearing a giant red P: the plagiarizing pariah of the death beat.
Out among the cubicles, I grabbed a rolling chair from an unoccupied desk, plopped into it, pushed off with my heels and launched backward down a stretch of dingy carpet. Grabbing the edge of the third partition, I swung around and parked the chair next to a desk where Matt, in a Rathskeller T-shirt, blazer and jeans was hunched over, eyes screwed shut as though in physical pain. A gray plastic rectangle on the side of his cubicle read MATTHEW J. LOUGHTY/CRIME DESK.
“C’mon, Frank, don’t gimme that bullshit,” Matt was saying into a mic on a headset, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I have the numbers right in front of me. A dozen troopers collected overtime last month and didn’t even show up for the shifts. Someone saw Donahue and Kiernan throwing back a few at the pub, for fuck’s sake, when they were supposedly at the bridge construction site on the Mass Pike.” I could hear a man speaking quickly and insistently in response. Matt opened his eyes and smirked at me; I grinned back. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said over the voice. “Just get me Sorensen’s comment by 5. The story’s running with or without him.”
He tossed the headset on the desk and angled his chair toward me. “Well, hello stranger. To what do I owe the pleasure?” Afternoon sun from a casement window caught the gray green of his eyes. He smelled faintly like damp wool and one of those overwrought men’s shower gels.
When Matt came to The Citizen from some small daily in Kansas City, I’d been one of three or four staffers who made a point of introducing the Midwesterner to life in the big city. Looking back, I probably came off as an East Coast snob. I dropped names of clubs I frequented during J-school in New York City, mentioned my internship at Newsday.
Within a year, Matt had ditched the baggy brown corduroys and bought jeans from a basement shop on Newbury Street. He swapped dorky tortoise-shell glasses for contact lenses. He became a regular at the Rat and the Paradise. His by-line got top billing on the series on police corruption. When we crossed paths those days, I was the one who looked away. I didn’t want his sympathy; worse, I was afraid of his scorn. He could have berated me; I could say nothing in my defense. Yet he acted like nothing had happened.
While he was on the phone, I’d decided his nose could stand to be a tad more aquiline, his jawline a bit more defined and his brows shaped by a good aesthetician. I had to concede that he had nice lashes.
“Matt. Something weird. I need your help.” I knew that he’d cultivated sources in the Staties the way I’d cultivated Dom. He could dig up facts that would never make their way to the pages of The Citizen. I started to run through the call from the cops, Alec in the hospital, driving to the scene of the accident. He listened, his eyes flitting across my face. What could I say that would make him understand the dread I’d felt as shadows lengthened, and Alec’s car was loaded onto the tow truck’s metal bed like a body onto a gurney? Speculation wouldn’t fly with Matt. Like Marty, he’d want to know what I’d witnessed, which credible source supplied exactly which facts that led me to believe that Alec’s accident was anything other than what it seemed—a car accident. After all, they happened all the time.
I had no facts. I couldn’t explain why I was so certain that something--or someone--other than Alec was responsible for him lying unconscious in a hospital bed. Suddenly, I shivered. I’d come across a single piece of hard evidence. And I’d left it completely unexplored.
I stood up. “Gotta go, deadline,” I said. Matt took a breath as if to speak, but I was halfway to the door.
The culvert was close to the road. Not good. When he drove the rig, he could take his time finding the perfect place. This often ended up being a certain dirt road west of Eureka, Nevada, just off Highway 50, a stretch of highway spanning remote swaths of Wyoming and Nevada. Route 50 was known as the loneliest road in America.
The first time, Lukas was sitting in the cab of his truck in Elko, parked under a long overhang festooned with a sign reading Flying J.
Driver’s door open, he was filling out his logbook. Sensing eyes on him, he glanced down to see a girl standing on the stained pavement. The side of her head just over one ear was shaved to a blonde stubble. A long thin purple braid hung behind her other ear. She wore a bleached jean vest with frayed armholes. She raised a hand studded with silver rings, looked at him with heavily kohled blue-gray eyes and mimed a drag on a cigarette. He shook one out of his pack and handed it down to her. She fished a plastic lighter out of a pocket in her ripped black jeans.
She stood there taking drags, staring into the distance as though they were companions on some shared journey that had brought them to this patch of filthy concrete, rank with the smell of diesel and fast food. The setting sun had turned a distant mountain range pink.
The girl dropped the cigarette and ground it under her flip-flop, sneaking a look to see if anyone had caught her smoking so close to the pumps. Lukas expected she’d leave then, wander to the next rig to score another cigarette or a bag of chips, but she just shifted her weight from one flimsy sandal to the other as if she’d been on her feet all day, then bent one knee and with her free hand reached down and pulled her foot back and up, tight against her butt, stretching like a yogi or a dancer.
Lukas leaned out of the cab, peering down at her, then down the row of rigs. Unlike the bare sides of his aging rust-orange Peterbilt, names--Swift, JB Hunt, Prime--were painted on each truck. He understood why the girl was still there. Seasoned hitchhikers knew better than to approach a driver of a truck owned by a big national conglomerate. They’d learned that owner operators like him driving nameless rigs weren’t sworn to company policies that forbid them from picking up passengers.
Lukas often saw backpack-toting hitchhikers--most in their early twenties, he guessed, some perhaps still in their teens--hovering at on- or off- ramps near truck stops. Some truck stops didn’t care if drifters hung around, as long as they weren’t obviously hookers or knocking on cab doors, waking exhausted drivers. If the drifters bought a candy bar or a cup of coffee, so much the better.
Some truckers who would never risk a DOT inspector’s wrath by taking on a passenger would even buy a hungry kid a Big Mac or let him sit in the shade of the rig to cool off on a baking-hot day.
That night at the Flying J, the girl had climbed into the cab. She carried nothing, not even a phone. She didn’t exactly remind him of Rosie. She didn’t have Rosie’s hair or freckles or slender hands. This girl’s long thin arms were tattooed with elaborate sleeves of suns and moons and shooting stars, entire solar systems in swirls of faded green, red and yellow ink. Rosie’s pale skin was pristine.
Lukas sometimes wondered what Rosie would have been like as a teenager if she hadn’t been trapped in her contorted body. Would she have been a goody two-shoes? Or would she have partied with the weed-smoking kids the cops chased from the backlot of Home Depot after the mall closed for the night? Instead of thermal henleys and sweatpants, would she have--like some girls at the truck stops--skunk stripes in her long hair and wore tank tops that barely covered her midriff? He’d probably never know.
He drove in silence for a time. He couldn’t stop glancing at the girl’s legs, stretched straight out in front of her. She’d slipped off the cheap plastic sandals and propped her bare feet on the dashboard. He stared at her small even toes covered with chipped pink polish, her lightly muscled calves.
Blind rage bubbled up from his gut and clamped shut his throat. He pictured Rosie as a little girl struggling with metal crutches while other kids ran and kicked balls and rode bikes for hours on the street outside their house. She’d propel herself a few lurching steps, tears of frustration and exhaustion rolling down her cheeks. He thought of her as a toddler, ugly, unwieldy plastic orthotics dwarfing her spindly ankles. He thought of her twig-like arms, so thin he couldn’t bear to look at them, and clawed fingers.
The rage built to a white-hot beat that throbbed behind his eyes. He’d flattened one palm against his thigh as he drove, but the rage shifted and swirled until his hands shook as he steered the rig off the highway and its brakes squealed to a stop.
He looked over to find the girl slumped on the seat beside him, tipped against the passenger door as if overcome with fatigue. But that wouldn’t account for the string of rust-red bruises blooming like rubies around her neck. A trenching tool that he used to dislodge snow and mud from the rig’s tires lay at his feet. One of the girl’s kneecaps was sickeningly off center, angled outward as if she’d fallen from a great height.
Panicked, he’d opened the passenger door and she’d tumbled to the ground. At the next truck stop, he’d thrust the pair of worn flip-flops under someone’s moldy sandwich at the bottom of a trash can. He never knew what became of her. But after that, when other girls would sit smoking in the cab as rain pelted the windows or the night sky raced by overhead, he’d barely register their presence until he’d covered a few hundred miles of Highway 50 and reached a spot of loosely packed dirt and brush dotted with rocks. A place that If a victim called for help, no one would hear her scream.
Route 2 starts out lined with stately brick townhouses within Boston proper. It hugs the Charles River, curves past Harvard Square and mini-estates before spilling into a four-lane highway that climbs and descends through increasingly tony suburbs. After bridging the Interstate, the road shrinks back to two lanes. An offshoot meanders into quaint, historic Concord.
I floored the Nova’s accelerator, the trees a brown-and-green blur at the side of the road while dusk streaked the sky pink. I’d driven this same stretch with Alec, heading to a log cabin fashioned into a roadside dive, filled with bad taxidermy and uncomfortable wooden booths.
We’d settle into our favorite corner booth, and I’d trace the initials carved into the stained wood tabletop with a fingertip and order a dirty martini: the first sip crisp and cold, slivers of ice sliding past my lips. Alec drank shots of bourbon and told me stories about his students. He’d named the lopsided raccoon that sat on a shelf above our table Murgatroid. I called the red fox with the missing eye Hedwig.
“Named in honor of my esteemed ancestor, great uncle Murgatroid,” Alec said with a wink. For all I knew, he really did have a great uncle Murgatroid. I tried not to let on how much it intimidated me that his great- great- great-grandfather had come over on the Mayflower.
Just off the rotary, I caught sight of the prison, partially hidden behind tall brick walls. Within the glass-enclosed watchtower, two small figures were visible.
Past the rotary, traffic thinned, and the road dropped a lane. Pines took the place of strip malls. I parked in the gravel pullout and retraced my steps along the edge of the culvert. Alec’s car was long gone.
I found the fallen tree. The dark green tarp looked almost black in the failing light. The canvas undulated over its contents. Something pliable yet angular inside, like a small deer or a large fawn. It wasn’t too far off hunting season. A hunter might have left his or her kill, planning to retrieve it. Then I thought that hunters didn’t usually bother with tarps. They strapped their bloody prizes on bumpers and roof racks. But the smell--a sickly sweet odor that poked through the woodsy scents of earth and rain--signaled a once living creature of some kind.
On the highway, a horn blared. I turned away from the bundle, certain I didn’t want to know what was inside. I walked toward my car fighting through thorny branches that blocked my way like crossed swords but then, with a sense of inevitability, turned back. Straddling the trunk, I reached down to grab the edge of the tarp. A metal grommet, free of rope or cord, felt icy against my palm. I tugged. The material was stiff with the cold. As it came away, I saw fabric, a filthy blanket in a pattern of black, brown and rust.
The smell was overpowering. I pulled my scarf over my nose and mouth.
The blanket tightly encircled its contents. Under the wool shroud I see the outline of a torso, arms pinned to its sides. And poking from the top, studded with bits of leaves and twigs, a swath of auburn hair.
It was after midnight by the time she was stowed in an ambulance. A dozen vehicles had arrived soon after I called 911. I’d also left a voicemail on Dom’s cell. Local cops, state cops, a Boston TV station and the medical examiner had all shown up, buzzing and urgent, as if for a party, and now they silently drove away on deserted dark roads. No need for sirens. She was past that.
I sat in my car, heat blasting and windows cracked so I didn’t get asphyxiated from the Nova’s rotted undercarriage. I emailed the few details I had gathered about the body to Matt, then went home, pulled off my clothes and stood for a long time under a scalding shower. I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling until it was time to get up and go to work.
Within days, Matt’s brief had been picked up by the wires.
CONCORD, Mass. – A badly decomposed body was discovered in the woods off Route 2 Wednesday.
Just before 7 p.m., the Concord Police received a call about a body concealed in a wooded area less than a mile from xxx Prison. Units responded to the area and located the body, which was recovered by the state medical examiner, State Police Sergeant Dominic La Pena said.
The victim is described as a white female between the ages of 15 and 25, cause of death undetermined.
At the office, reactions to the fact that I’d stumbled on a dead body ranged from pity to horror to something close to envy. Suki in ad sales and Brenda in circulation came to my cubicle, their eyes like saucers. They hugged me and told me how sorry they were for “what I’d been through.” A reporter who’d shunned me for weeks took to hovering in the kitchen while I blearily waited for coffee to chug its way through the Keurig. When I caught her staring, she said, “Was it super decomposed?” She looked expectant, as if I was about to pull out my phone and show her photos.
I’d told myself I was fine, although I clearly wasn’t. Shock and horror were turning into confusion and sadness. No one had yet labeled the young woman a murder victim, but it seemed obvious that’s what she was. All the questions made my temples throb: Who killed her, and why? How long had she been there? And the biggest mystery of all: Who was she?
Matt had promised he’d pass along every detail he could drag out of the cops and the medical examiner, so when I saw him approaching my cubicle three days later, I must have looked like a puppy in a crate who’d spotted his master. I closed my screen so he wouldn’t see Solitaire occupying the place of my latest assignment, an obit of a North End restaurateur.
Matt rubbed his eyes as if his contacts were bothering him. “They’re playing it close to the vest, Cass,” he said, leaning on the divider between Jada’s cubicle and mine. “They should know something by now. Of course, the tox report could take a while. But they can at least tell us if there were any visible signs of trauma. And,” he looked at me. “They could tell us her name.”
I knew from Marty and Dom that cops walked a fine line between doling out and withholding information. I knew there wasn’t much that could be divulged about an active murder investigation. But name, race, age: these were all standard.
Matt’s expression said what I was thinking: the body in the woods was not your typical DOA.
I found Sandra sitting alone by Alec’s bed at Whitman. His latest CAT scan, she said, had revealed something.
In the week since the accident, Sandra and Alec’s sisters had barely left Alec’s side. He lay unmoving while orderlies wheeled him to test after test. As far as I could tell, Alec hadn’t so much as blinked since he’d been in Room 303. I’d come to know every scuff mark on the false-cheery yellow walls. My hair and coat became saturated with the hospital’s sharp, antiseptic smell.
Sandra’s eyes were bloodshot. I’d never seen her with her shoulders--still elegant in a silk suit--so slumped.
“His brain is hurt, Cassie,” she said when I pulled a chair over to Alec’s bed. “They’re saying the impact damaged a network of nerves in his brainstem.”
The doctors told her to imagine that Alec was under general anesthesia. His brain had had a bad shock, they said, and was shutting itself down to heal. Although I didn’t dare say this to Sandra, he was, as far as I could tell, in a coma. One doctor even suggested transferring Alec to a long-term care facility, but Sandra quashed that idea.
Sandra’s cell pinged and she walked out into the hall to answer it. I was sitting alone in the blue chair, staring at Alec’s hands--I’d always admired his long knobby-knuckled fingers, like those of a concert pianist, although he could barely play Chopsticks--when a voice startled me.
“Hello?” A woman in the doorway had one hand raised as if to knock, although the door was ajar. She was wheeling a cart piled high with books. Her short white-blonde hair stuck straight up; clunky tortoise-shell glasses framed bright blue eyes. Her magenta lips were pursed, making her look puckish. She might, I thought, be forty or eighty.
I stood up and almost pitched face-first onto Alec’s bed. “Sorry,” I said, catching myself. “Leg’s asleep.”
“Oh, yes. One gets stiff. Nothing to do in a hospital but sit.” The woman extended her hand. “I’m Quinn Mortimer. With Books for Beds.”
“I’m Cassandra Macklen,” I said. “I’m Alec’s...” I trailed off. My mother says I’m always justifying my existence. I could imagine her look of impatience. You don’t need to explain yourself to a stranger, Cassandra. You have as much right to be there as anyone.
Quinn didn’t seem to notice my aborted introduction. She was bustling around, adjusting blinds, tossing empty coffee cups into the trash. “I’ve been volunteering at Whitman for ten years now. Books for Beds was my own idea. I collect donated books and offer them to patients. The ones awake enough to read, anyway.” She glanced at Alec.
“I also run the hospital reading room,” she went on. “And I’m an amateur genealogist. You wouldn’t believe how many requests for advice I get, when people hear that. Everyone’s on Ancestry.com these days.”
“I use Ancestry. I write obituaries for The Cambridge Citizen. Ancestry comes in handy for locating next of kin,” I said.
“You’re a writer?” Quinn smiled. “That’s so interesting. I write family histories. Of course, I’m strictly an amateur.”
I watched Quinn straighten a few books that had slid out of place. “‘I’ve thought about researching my family history,” I said. “I’m adopted. It was a closed adoption, which was pretty typical in those days, so that makes it challenging.” My mother in my head again: Why are you volunteering personal information to a stranger? Your family situation is none of her business.
Quinn made a sympathetic “ohhhh” sound. A nurse came in to check Alec’s vitals. Quinn spun the cart around, saying she would look up my by-line in The Citizen (Don’t look too closely, I thought) and that she hoped to run into me on her next visit.
I didn’t know myself why I’d told Quinn I was adopted. I didn’t often talk about it. My family dysfunction spanned generations. To say it was complicated was an understatement.
My mother’s mother was not neglectful, at least not in a material sense. The kitchen curtains--even the sheets--were washed and ironed every week. My mother’s clothes were decent enough to forestall teasing. Dinner was prepared and placed in front of my mother and her dad, an insurance agent, at 6pm sharp every weekday. My mother was told to sit with excellent posture. My grandmother herself sat with a ramrod spine at all
my mom’s piano recitals, but she rarely embraced her daughter or even, really, spoke to her.
In high school, my mother won a Rotary Club scholarship to a private university in a leafy New England town. When her first semester resulted in three Bs, one C, and an unplanned pregnancy, her strict Catholic parents sent her to a home for unwed mothers. For six months, she performed clerical duties for nuns in a dank basement office.
When my half-brother was born, my mother gave him up for adoption. Her only request to child services was that he not go to a family that identified as Catholic.
She returned to school, majored in biology, and over the next three decades established herself as a well-respected mycologist. She was one of few women in the field.
I came to my mother late in her life.
Around the time I was born--to an 18-year-old classics major from Cherry Hill, New Jersey--my mother had just married a political pundit she’d met on a TV talk show. They were both scheduled to appear as guests and had bonded in a waiting room over how much they both hated the show’s previous host.
Phineas, sixtyish with shaggy gray hair and salt-and-pepper stubble that he kept neatly razored to look perpetually cool, turned out to be a narcissist and a serial philanderer. At 45, Henri had achieved professional success and financial stability. She decided she didn’t need this Michael Douglas-look alike in her life. My adoption was finalized the same month as the divorce.
I’ve often wondered whether my adoption was driven by the newlyweds’ desire for a child of their own (Phineas had three grown children from two previous marriages) or whether my mother had never gotten over the guilt of abandoning her baby boy. Or maybe she felt an enduring empathy for college girls as naive, inexperienced in love, and challenged in the birth control realm as she had been.
For most of my childhood, it was just my mother and me. We never formed the all encompassing bond as single mothers and daughters sometimes do. Maybe that was because Henri didn’t seem to have nearly as much time or patience for me as she did for fungi.
I puzzled over what drew her to study mushrooms. As a little girl, I tagged along as she led groups in cargo shorts, orthopedic sandals and Coke-bottle glasses into the forest in search of lion’s manes, latticed stinkhorns, or the bleeding tooth, a species that terrified and fascinated me because it looked like a meringue strafed by machine-gun fire. It oozed crimson drops from a dozen punctures. She was animated then, describing the mushrooms’ properties, looking eagerly into the rapt faces of her audience.
Other than those times, she often seemed serious and distracted, raising me joylessly, as if it were her civic duty.
More than once, I was tempted to buy 23-And-Me, upload my DNA and see if there were any hits. I never did, out of fear that my biological mother now had a gaggle of kids who piled onto the couch every evening in matching pajamas to giggle and watch TV and eat popcorn.
I looked up then, glanced at the wall clock and was startled that a half hour had gone by while I’d been in la-la land. “Sorry,” I said to Alec. “Nap time’s over. You need to wake up now and stop me from spiraling.” Silence, except for the machines and monitors. I stroked the back of Alec’s hand, noticing for the first time a spattering of tiny hairs on each finger below the knuckle.
After Alec’s father died, he, his mother and sisters all called one another daily and seemed to know each other’s whereabouts every waking second. I found the thought of that kind of familial closeness stultifying and vaguely terrifying.
That clearly hadn’t been the case for the young woman whose body I’d stumbled upon. She’d been dumped like trash at the side of a road, and no one seemed to be looking for her.
CONCORD, Mass.--Middlesex County authorities have released a physical description of the body found in the woods off Route 2 last week.
The body is that of a 5-foot-5, 120-pound white woman with shoulder length reddish brown hair, said State Police Sergeant Dominic La Pena. Her identity is still unknown. She was wearing a silver-colored necklace embedded with a small green stone.
Investigators are working with surrounding police agencies to see whether any reported missing persons match the description, LaPena said.
The advanced state of decomposition indicates that the body, which a passerby discovered Oct. 14, was likely in the woods for “some time,” La Pena said. The department is investigating the case as a homicide.
Worry wart. Killjoy. Doomsayer. Scaremonger. The synonyms for my name are ugly.
I was 11 the first time my mother called me an alarmist. My biological mother, the classics major, had named me Cassandra, presumably after reading The Iliad in the original Greek. My mother seemed to detest the name, yet she had never changed it. “It makes sense she named you Cassandra,” she’d murmur, peering through a microscope at a mushroom spore.
Years earlier, she’d read me a story about a chicken who believed the sky was falling. To my six-year-old brain, the conveyor of bad news got the raw end of the deal. I resolved never to be the messenger, but clearly, something happened between then and now because like Chicken Little, I’m The Citizen’s purveyor of death. The advance team for the grim reaper.
In ancient Greece, Cassandra was the daughter of the king and queen of Troy. In a painting I once saw in a museum, Cassandra stands tall and stunning and fearless, wearing indigo robes cinched around her breasts with a cream-colored sash. Gold bands circle her biceps, and thin leather soles are laced onto her bare feet. She’s holding hunks of her long red hair in each outstretched hand like she’s about to yank it out. She stares into the distance, so unfocused she’s almost cross-eyed.
The story goes that Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy, but when she wouldn’t sleep with him, he turned the gift into a curse. No one ever believed a word she said. The original Chicken Little--running around squawking that the sky was falling.
In the painting, Cassandra’s brows are straight as arrows, her mouth set in a grim line. And all that wild hair.
Her own family thought she was a liar and a madwoman. Her father ordered her locked up. What must it be like to know what the future holds, but be powerless to act on it?
Catastrophizing. My namesake did it so well--yet in the end, she accomplished nothing.
I googled “Concord missing persons.” A resident of a nursing home had wandered off in his bathrobe and bedroom slippers but was found sitting on a bench eating someone’s abandoned scone. A ten-year-old boy had ridden his bike to the playground without telling his parents but he, too, turned up OK. It seemed that quaint New England towns were immune from all but the most mundane crises.
A few days later, something new popped up when I was searching “unidentified remains:” a website called The Doe Project. I clicked a button and the screen was suddenly filled with black letters on a yellow background. WARNING! THE IMAGES WITHIN ARE PROFOUNDLY DISTURBING TO SOME VIEWERS. DO NOT ENTER THIS SITE IF YOU ARE UNWILLING TO SEE GRAPHIC PORTRAYALS OF DEATH.
On the crime beat, I was no stranger to violence, but I’d never witnessed it firsthand. Other than the body I’d stumbled upon, I’d never seen a dead body before. I clicked ENTER.
The next screen resembled a page from Facebook--if everyone’s head shot on Facebook was unnaturally pale or the color of meat left too long in the sun. Some of the ravaged faces stared at the camera with vacant doll eyes. Others had gaping craters where eyes had been. One woman--I think it had once been a woman--had a fissure that bared her skull like a smashed coconut. Another corpse’s face had collapsed in on itself, a sunken crater where the nose had been. I slammed my laptop shut and sank back in my chair.
After a bit I forced myself to reload the page. The inhabitants of this grisly Facebook had names like Bristol County John Doe, Crystal Creek Jane Doe, Harlan City Doe. When I clicked on these epithets, case histories popped up. These were apparently unidentified remains that someone had come across by accident, just as I had stumbled upon the body in the woods. They’d been discovered in seemingly every locale--in water, in the desert, in abandoned houses, on city streets. I shook my head, hardly able to believe what I was seeing. There were so many of them.
Some of the Jane and John Does had been listed days or weeks ago. But most had been found years earlier. In some cases, decades. How could I have not known about so many lost souls? I’d heard of unidentified remains, of course. But I’d figured an unidentified body meant someone homeless, which meant someone society had given up on or who had given up on society--as unfair and inhumane as I knew that sounded. But these individuals couldn’t all be homeless.
I clicked on image after image, sucked in by them. They didn’t have stories, exactly; just random details of lives abruptly halted, identities snuffed out like candles, tiny clues left behind like wisps of smoke: a tattoo. A scar. A ring.
“Hello. Welcome to the Doe Project.” A chat box popped open on my screen. I was about to click it shut but the next words stopped me. “I’m Trish. I’m a real person, not a bot.” Almost despite myself, I started to type.
Me: “How do I know you’re not a bot?”
Trish: “Ask me a question.”
Me: “What’s the weather like where you are?”
Not convincing. I thought for a bit.
Me: “What color are your eyes?”
Trish: “Shit brown. Like my hair.”
Trish: “Again, welcome to the Doe Project. Are you looking for a missing loved one?” Me: “No.”
Trish: “Do you know anyone who has filed a missing person report?” Me: “No.”
The pictures were making me queasy, but I couldn’t seem to look away. I knew I shouldn’t venture down this rabbit hole. I could hear my mother sneer: A ghoul, that’s what you are. You’ll be watching snuff films next. I sat for a bit, saw dots that meant Trish was typing.
Trish: “Most people come here searching for someone. Or something.”
Before Trish could say more, I closed the chat box. For good measure, I signed out of the browser, cleared my browsing history and powered off my computer. The idea that Trish, who probably was a bot, or anyone associated with that site might learn my name was unnerving.
Whoever was behind The Doe Project, I was certain, was a psycho. Probably a whole slew of death-obsessed lunatics who Photoshopped fake images for their sicko website. Or worse, exploited poor souls who really were unidentified. Where did they get those autopsy photos, anyway? Could they possibly be real?
I had enough to deal with, with Alec, hooked up to machines in his hospital bed; with The Citizen; with my shrew of a mother. I was hanging onto my job by a thread. Another screwup and I’d not only be fired, I’d be blackballed by every newspaper in New England.
I didn’t want to think about The Doe Project. And I resolved not to waste any more time or mental energy on the girl in the tarp. I wrote about people who died all the time. Whatever had happened to them--and to her--had nothing to do with me.
Quinn wheeled her cart, two steaming mugs balanced precariously on a stack of hardcovers, into 301. She transferred one mug to a tray table and pushed it within my reach. I noticed someone had changed Alec into a new, unfamiliar set of pajamas. The ventilator making his chest rise and fall with robotic regularity wheezed and thudded.
“English Breakfast OK?”
Quinn had taken to perching on the second, perpetually vacant, bed in Alec’s room while we sipped tea purloined from the nurses’ break room. She rambled on about a distant cousin in County Cork she’d located on Ancestry. I nodded, turning the mug in my hands, not really following which great great uncle or aunt had moved where in which century.
She was mid-sentence in a long soliloquy about an obituary she’d read in The Irish Times when I interjected, “Uh, hey, Quinn? Ever heard of the Doe Project?”
I thought she hesitated a beat, but I might have imagined that. “Can’t say that I have. Do you have a sudden interest in baby deer?”
“Not doe as in deer. Doe as in Jane Doe. As in unidentified human remains.”
She barely blinked as I described finding the body in the tarp at Alec’s crash site. I talked about Matt being stonewalled by investigators, about how I’d become obsessed with this nameless young woman I was sure had been brutally murdered. About how someone, somewhere, had to be looking for her.
Quinn listened. I couldn’t read her expression. I’d figured that working in a hospital for years had inured Quinn to talk of death and corpses, but from what I took to be her shocked silence, apparently, I was very wrong.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to go all Hannibal Lechter on you. My mother’s always telling me I have no filter.”
Quinn ran a hand through her spiky hair. She had turned a bit and stared out the window. I got up and walked to the glass. It had started to snow, and flakes were accumulating on tall pines edging the hospital parking lot. Alec’s machines provided their background chorus of whirs and whines and beeps. I remembered a time Alec and I had attended a reception for a new exhibition in a student gallery at his school.
A senior sporting a crew cut and a T-shirt with the name of a controversial underground band of hackers had made a contraption that lit up and came to life when you came with a few feet of it. It was a white, round, bald doll head with enormous blue glass eyes and a lower jaw that opened and closed like a marionette. Its throat was a bundle of exposed wires. It made sounds akin to a human language, but as I listened, trying to match the tonal gutterality to anything I’d ever heard, I realized it was generating gibberish made up of actual words in English, Spanish, and something vowel-heavy, like Swedish.
Alec thought it was brilliant. He monopolized the kid for so long, all the other attendees moved on to the wine and cheese.
I found the art, or the robot, or whatever it was, disturbing. There was something about being drawn into what felt like honest communication--only to discover it was a deliberate attempt to confuse and alienate--made me feel like the butt of a mean practical joke.
Alec was often attentive and caring. He listened. He seemed vulnerable. Yet despite Alec’s openness, his almost pathological willingness to share his every thought, there was a part of him I found inscrutable.
And now Alec, it occurred to me, had something in common with the talking robot and even the plush snowman someone had tossed onto the exit ramp. And, for that matter, with the young woman in the tarp. They were incapable of speaking for themselves.
I returned to my chair next to Alec’s still body. I noticed a potted Ficus draped with a red bow in the corner. I hadn’t seen it before. It seemed like something his sisters might buy to counteract the stale air.
I thought Quinn had been badly shaken by my story, but when she turned back to me, her eyes were bright and her mouth a thin line, as if she’d been wrestling with something and had finally arrived at a decision.
“I think I know someone who can help,” she said.
The only thing I knew about Lukas Hewitt was that—like all the men at NCC--he’d committed a crime. We understood that the pilot program was supposed to reform them in a way no other prison program ever had.
Northeast Correctional Center was unlike any prison I’d ever seen. It occupied a former estate surrounded by farmland that dated back to colonial times. Once the home of a prominent Concord deacon, the main building, a sprawling stone structure with black shutters, descended into shabbiness after becoming the property of a local historical society that couldn’t afford its upkeep. Then the state took possession of the entire property—house, barn, outbuildings, hundreds of acres of rolling green lawn dotted with towering oaks—and turned it into a minimum-security prison. A maximum-security facility, MCC Concord, built in the 1960s, was just across the road.
When I was in high school, the historical society still owned the estate. I spent a summer interning there, mostly at the society’s headquarters, a few rooms in a Victorian converted to office space in the town center, but also at the estate’s library, which was open one day a week to students and scholars.
A brochure explained how the original owner, the deacon, had been born around 1630 in England and settled with his parents in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He married a young widow in 1661. The couple had five children, two of which survived to adulthood. The deacon died in 1715 and was buried in a local cemetery, where luminaries such as Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and several of the Allcotts joined him over the next century.
Now I was back at the house he built, officially a librarian employed by NCC. I was to carry out my duties with minimal interaction with the inmates, whom we were supposed to call “participants.” There were twenty-four of them and only six of us—three guards, who carried no visible weapons; a social worker/therapist who wore Birkenstocks and her long gray hair in a braid; a cook; a janitor; a maintenance man; and me, the ink barely dry on my college diploma. The fact that these men were technically convicts made me nervous, but I figured their offenses couldn’t have been too abhorrent or they wouldn’t have been chosen for the program in the first place.
Hewitt wasn’t physically imposing, being shorter and not nearly as bulked up as Ray Demetrio, for instance, who wore his chambray shirt sleeves rolled up over his heavily inked biceps. Ray and four or five of the others spent nearly all their unassigned time in
the courtyard that doubled as an exercise area, doing pushups and what I gathered was a calisthenics regimen followed by the Canadian Mounties.
Hewitt never joined them. I’d see him sitting alone in the library, one of few spaces that had kept a vestige of its former elegance.
The deacon’s library had floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with books bound in stamped leather. They were well-worn popular books from the time--historical novels like the Leatherstocking Tales and The Last of the Mohicans, and classics by Thoreau and Emerson. It was the stuff of high school English required reading and most adults wouldn’t go out of their way to revisit it, but Hewitt always had his nose buried in one as though it were a dime-store thriller.
That library was the reason I’d decided to become a librarian, but the dearth of students at my high school and college who shared my passion made me cocky. I applied to only one program, my top choice.
The rejection letter was a huge blow.
I had a year to kill before I could reapply, but my new official title as prison librarian— however unconventional—would likely improve my chances of getting in next fall. And best of all, I was back in the deacon’s library, licking my wounds but soothed by my dear old friends, sitting on the mahogany shelves exactly where I’d left them four years earlier.
Hewitt, who I’d watch surreptitiously as he sat reading with bad posture in one of the deacon’s severe, unpadded straight-backed chairs, seemed unthreatening. Even the ones with the bulging muscles and uneven jailhouse tattoos appeared generally eager to please, ingratiating themselves with the tradesmen who came to NCC on Wednesdays to teach them electrical wiring, plumbing and basic carpentry. The inmates carried dog eared notebooks in which they dutifully recorded the requirements of the state licensing board. When they passed the social worker in the hall, they nodded, not meeting her eye outside the estate’s one-time dining room, where they met in groups of eight. They were required to attend these sessions three times a week. Therapy wasn’t a thing then, and the same men who walked into the shop rooms juggling textbooks like schoolboys looked sheepish trailing the social worker into the dining room where the chairs were set up in a semi-circle.
I don’t know what, if anything, Hewitt divulged about himself in those sessions. He seemed more guarded than the others; older, perhaps more jaded. I was prepared to be
charmed by this man who liked books. Even though we were forbidden from speaking, I sought to meet his eye, perhaps to exchange a friendly nod, as fellow readers sometimes did when handing volumes back and forth across a library desk. But I soon realized there was turbulence underneath his passive demeanor.
I occasionally caught Hewitt watching me walk from the desk to the stacks as I reshelved. He wasn’t leering or lascivious, and at first, I couldn’t pinpoint why I found his gaze so disturbing. I’d developed a way of balancing hardcovers in the crook of my elbow like a waiter with a heavy tray, and for the most part Lukas peered at me curiously, benignly, as though catching sight of a species of bird he couldn’t quite identify. But when he thought I wasn’t looking, his face folded in on itself, his eyes narrowed, his lips thinned, exposing his small teeth in a self-satisfied smile, and he looked, for want of a better word, feral. A madman exposed, unprovoked, in a reading room where dust motes swirled in the sunlight streaming in through tall windows.
In those moments, encountering the hidden Lukas Hewitt was a little like sighting a viper. You sensed its threat almost before you registered its presence.
I pushed a buzzer next to a metal door labeled CORONER. A man wearing a button-down shirt, tie and jeans under a white lab coat ushered me inside.
Isaac Grenier is a bit shorter than me. He tells me he’s from a long line of French Canadians, the men all on the petite side. His great grandfather had come to New England as part of a mass migration of Quebecois farmers. The locals called them
peasoupers. “Or Canuck, if they were in a benevolent mood,” Grenier tells me over mugs of coffee from a machine in a break room that looks a lot like the one at The Citizen. “He found acres of rich, fertile land, but he was too poor to buy it, so he worked in a textile plant. The machines made him deaf, and the cotton dust fried his lungs. He was only 41 when he died.”
He’d met Quinn at a genealogy conference in Boston. They’d been sitting next to each other during a talk about research tools and then spent a few hours at the hotel bar discussing the strengths and weaknesses of various historical databases. Quinn not being
one to let go of an iota of potentially useful information--or of a potentially useful person--she’d kept in touch with Isaac, she told me, meeting him at the Parker House for drinks whenever he traveled to Boston for work or an annual meeting of medical examiners and coroners.
I trailed after Isaac down hallways lined with metal shelves you’d see in a basement or a garage, stacked with industrial-sized boxes of gauze, syringes and xxx. We walked past rooms, walls tiled in pale green, with linoleum floors and tables the size of a twin bed but made of a silver metal.
As we walked, he tossed off questions: what was the color and texture of the girl’s hair? Did I see any skin--although, he warned, I might not have recognized what I saw as human skin, depending on how long she’d lain there, wrapped in the tarp. Did I see anything that might have been bones? Again, these would not have been white like an anatomy class skeleton but brownish, even xxx. Was she wearing clothes? Was the fabric frayed or threadbare?
“The first thing a reporter does is look,’ Marty’d said so many times I could recite it back to him. “Watch and look and observe. Absorb the scene like you have cameras for eyes.”
Isaac, a few steps ahead, couldn’t see me shaking my head. “It was pretty dark,” I said. “I couldn’t see much of anything.” I described the mane of reddish hair, the detail that had seared itself in my mind’s eye. (For three nights in a row, I’d dreamt that I saw that hair on the person ahead of me in line at the post office. When she turned around, there was a swarm of maggots where her face should be.) I described to Isaac the dawning horror that what I’d stumbled on wasn’t yard waste or animal remains, but he didn’t offer up sympathy. I didn’t expect any. I’d been handed opportunity on a silver platter and I’d squandered it. I could have taken photos on my phone. I could have inspected the bundle closely without laying a finger on it. Instead of looking for details that could have explained what what the fuck I was looking at, I’d huddled in my c ar like a fearful chipmunk, waiting for someone else to show up and take charge.
“There are a handful of scenarios worth considering,” Isaac was saying. I surreptitiously swiped away tears of humiliation. We’d reached what I took to be his office, a small room with even more shelves, these holding boxes scrawled in black marker with some notation of numbers. He peered at the screen of a PC, his fingers tapping out a staccato rhythm on the keyboard. “Here we go,” he said. He turned the screen so I could see. A title on a document read: THE EFFECT OF PLASTIC TARPS ON THE RATE OF HUMAN DECOMPOSITION.
“A thesis project by an enterprising graduate student at the University of xxxxm,” he said, noticing my incredulous--and slightly disgusted--expression. “Chloe worked with pigs at first. Similar in many ways to humans. But then she secured a grant to experiment with donations.” I must have looked confused because Isaac added quickly, “Donated human remains. There are so many people looking to donate their remains to science, sometimes they are turned away. It’s a matter of getting them to the right people.”
Isaac flipped pages and clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth as he read. “Right. It says here that when remains xxxx. Now, this study was done in xxxx. Damp and humid conditions will generate very different results from cold New England winters. But we might be able to discern a general pattern. It’s like xxx, you see. Tissues break down according to a sequence: xxxx, then xxxx.”
Marty’s office was on the twentieth floor of a glass and steel tower next to a deli known for $25 sandwiches bulging with corned beef and pastrami. I smiled, picturing Marty’s disgusted expression every time he walked by. He’d given up meat. “Nitrates and nitrites- -pure evil,” he’d say. “Direct link between heterocyclic amines and cancer. Avoid that stuff like the plague.” I’d remind him that the Fenway Frank vendor in Downtown Crossing once knew him by name. He’d scowl and slice at the air with his hand as if shooing a pesky fly.
I hadn’t seen Marty for a year. We’d emailed and texted almost daily after he left Boston, but that had dwindled to once or twice a week, then to once a month. I figured that building a brand-new section of the paper was keeping him busy. I pictured him editing copy alone in his office at night, finally freed from the day’s endless stream of meetings. At The Citizen, if I was still there after hours, I’d pad into his office in sock feet and leave a package of buttercrunch cookies on his windowsill. After he swore off sugar, I’d leave an apple or a banana. Most nights, he didn’t look up and I’d slip out wordlessly. But occasionally, if I caught him just as he was hitting “send,” he’d tilt his chair onto its back legs, interlace his fingers behind his head and while the janitor’s vacuum whirred in the halls, he’d tell me about stories he’d covered.
There was the time he’d scored a jailhouse interview with the man known as The Cassiopeia Killer. He’d been convicted of seven murders and was suspected of at least two others, striking only when certain constellations were prominent in the night sky. For months, TCK, as he’d become known, had refused all requests for interviews. The tabloids reportedly offered him six figures but got nowhere. Nobody was even sure what he looked like. We were all reduced to running the same ancient mugshot because whenever he had a court appearance, his lawyers shielded him from the paparazzi by draping him in black overcoats like a moving tent. Citing fears of juror prejudice, the
judge banned cameras from the courtroom. Every sketch artist’s rendition of him looked different. The man was a shapeshifter.
For weeks, he rebuffed Marty. Other reporters stopped trying. Marty stopped for a time as well. But then one day Marty was digging through the same xxx when he xxx.
I’d sit in Marty’s office, quiet as a toddler engrossed in a bedtime story. I wanted to be as fearless as Marty, as relentless in my drive for what he called the journalists’ golden ticket: access to a source. That’s one reason I was so excited when a resident in the apartment building where the cops reportedly routinely illegally harassed suspects agreed to meet me.
Her name was Doreen Johnson, and all I knew was where she lived. We’d divided up names we’d found in census records and on the building’s mailboxes, and spent hours in our cubicles, cold-calling residents in the hope that one of them had seen something-- and was willing to talk to a reporter.
Nobody particularly liked the cops, but they didn’t want to go on the record accusing them of abusive behavior, either. People mostly hung up or declined to be interviewed when they heard what we were working on. Late one afternoon after hours of getting nowhere, I was the one who hit pay dirt: Doreen Johnson answered her landline--a listed number--and didn’t hang up on me. She listened patiently as I filled her in on what we’d heard, how we were trying to confirm that a handful of cops were lining their pockets with money they’d extorted from suspected drug dealers.
There was a long pause. I only knew we were still connected because I could hear her breathing--wheezy, asthmatic. She finally said I could come by, and we set a time for the following week.
I checked the date, time and address so many times, the numbers started to lose all meaning. When the day of our meeting finally came, I replaced the batteries in my digital voice recorder--a device the size of a xxx--dug out a new notebook, tucked three pens and a pencil in my shoulder bag. I made my way--a half hour before our agreed-upon meeting time--to the public housing complex where Doreen lived. The buildings were towering brick boxes lining concrete pathways. A few shirtless kids tossed a ball on a basketball court--the baskets were rusty, bare of nets--enclosed by a chain link fence. The windows were all open. There were no air conditioners, only a few had curtains. I waited a long time for an elevator that never came, finally making my way up a staircase dotted with black plastic boxes filled with rat poison.
I was practically hyperventilating by the time I pushed a button next to the door of apartment 678. I couldn’t hear any chimes or buzzing inside, so I knocked. Finally, a wizened lady in a gray hoodie opened the door. She looked me up and down. “You the reporter,” she said in a low voice, speaking to herself more than to me. “Young, ain’t you.” It didn’t sound like a question. She turned and shuffled away from me. She had on a housecoat under the hoodie and wore slippers. She sat on a threadbare sofa, and I trailed after her, babbling something about how grateful I was for her time. She didn’t offer water or tea. She just pointed to a corduroy armchair draped with a brown, yellow and orange afghan that looked hand made. I sat and started rustling through my shoulder bag when a woman around my age emerged from a closed room that I’d figured for a bedroom. “This my granddaughter, Sinead,” Doreen said. “She gonna make sure things go right.”
I was taken aback but tried to look unfazed. It had never occurred to me that anyone else lived in the apartment. “Sure thing,” I said. I wanted to ask Doreen what she meant by go right, but I was afraid she’d suddenly call off the interview. I stood up and stuck out my hand, but Sinead didn’t take it. She was staring at the digital recorder I’d strategically placed on a coffee table, close enough, I hoped, to catch Doreen’s voice, which seemed to never go above a mutter. “No recording,” she said. “It’s just for me,” I said. “I just want to make sure I get…” “No recording,” Sinead repeated evenly, and perched on the couch next to Doreen.
I started asking about the cops. How many times had she been awakened by their late night visits? What exactly did she hear? The pot dealer had claimed the cops had pistol whipped him and struck his shins with clubs. Another resident relayed the incident with the dog. Did that line up with what she’d heard? Staring at a stained bit of rug between
her scuffed bedroom slippers, Doreen muttered one- or two-word responses that I hadn’t bothered writing in my still-pristine reporters’ notebook. I’d started to despair at getting anything usable when Sinead nudged her. “Grandma,” she said, looking at me, “tell her about the night Lawrence come to dinner.”
I didn’t know who Lawrence was, but the mention of his name seemed to loosen Doreen’s tongue. She described sitting down to a late dinner with Sinead and this man, Lawrence, when they heard a commotion in the hallway. She cracked the door, the security chain still in place, and saw white officers running, billy clubs in hand. They pounded on the across-the-hall neighbor’s door, she said, yelling, “Open up!” She didn’t have a full view, but she could hear the man inside begging them to calm down, stop
screaming at him, give him a second. Then she claimed one of them struck the door with his club.
I scribbled madly while trying to maintain eye contact with Doreen. This was exactly the kind of eyewitness account my editors were looking for. All the other neighbors had declined to speak out against the police, and Doreen had initially seemed just as hesitant. But now she was opening up, and I hardly dared breathe for fear of interrupting her.
A few minutes later, I sat in the Nova and typed madly on a tablet. I barely remembered thanking Doreen and Sinead, gathering up my things, or dashing back down the staircase that reeked of xxx. I didn’t trust myself to wait until I got home to transcribe my scrawled notes.
I felt vindicated when the team chose one of Doreen’s quotes for the final piece. I got a by-line and joined Matt and the rest for drinks. We sat at a long, sticky table in the back of the local dive bar for hours, drinking watered-down whiskey sours. Then someone mentioned the Hillman Prize, and I ducked my head in the dim light so no one would see me flush with excitement.
The next day Doreen--or maybe Sinead, I was never sure who--called the paper to complain that The Citizen had misquoted Doreen. That they--or, more precisely, I--had gotten it all wrong. Fabricated the quote. Maybe invented the whole meeting. I never asked for the gory details of the phone call. The only thing that mattered was that after the call, I was no longer a crime reporter.
I spilled the whole sorry tale of woe as I sat in Marty’s office, staring just above his still abundant salt-and-pepper hair so I didn’t have to see myself reflected in his blue-framed hipster glasses. When I stopped talking and finally looked him in the eye, his expression was one of disbelief. And something worse: disgust.
“Why,” Marty said, “did you let them see the recorder? Why didn’t you tape it all on an app on your fucking phone?”
I thought I had proven myself, but in that moment, I knew I’d gotten it all wrong. Part of me had always sought out harder, dirtier challenges. I couldn’t handle the thought that my mother was right about bad shit being solely in my head. Bad shit happened to people. It just did. I wanted to dig so deep into the rotten core of what human beings were capable of doing to one another that I’d hit bottom, because there, I was convinced, dwelled a sort of salvation--a horrible truth that would bring me peace,
finality, closure. Proof that it wasn’t me courting the blackness. It existed--with or without me.
Now, I wasn’t sure what I wanted anymore. I felt like one of those inflatable figures that pops back up no matter how many times a gust flings it to the ground. But I wasn’t sure I’d recover from the look on Marty’s face.
I may have found two possible names for emerald doe.
I wish it could be solved but it’s going to take genetic genealogy and/or the right person seeing her case at the right time.
Theresa Bishop (your find) was last seen in 1981, while WCJD was found in 1980, so that one is out. Theresa Byers (the other person’s find) could be it, but the physical characteristics don’t match up enough imo.
I don’t think it could be either of them unfortunately. They don’t look like the WCJDs post mortem pics
You also need to take into account that anyone listed in Namus that has DNA is out. The auto system would have caught it. Trust me, I get beating your head against a wall. I still have the 6 months of bruises from Mostly Harmless.
Barbara was last seen in 1980 by her family in Rochester. Rumors had her moving to New York City and also California and has not been heard from since.
You should definitely submit if you can!! Great catch, I hope it is a match. If Phillip has been ruled out then that’s a heck of a coincidence with the hernia scar.
It’s a no for me, but if you feel strongly about it, it never hurts to submit. (Although be aware that LE will get tired of submissions by outsider and may not follow up on future suggestions.)
ETA: I will say the heights are quite different. The FBI page for John Doe doesn’t indicate his remains were skeletal, or that his height was estimated...but his remains were severed, so I wonder if that would cause a height difference when trying to measure?
Possibly, they could be off by a few inches depending on how bad a job the killer did with severing the body. Decomp might also change height ever so slightly depending on the level, just thinking in terms of bloating.
Very true. According to OP his head was not found? I must admit I didn’t read the JD profile super thoroughly so I’m sure I missed something. If I’m remembering correctly, JD measured around 5’7"–5’9"...is that how tall he was without a head??? Because if so, he
would be even taller than Phillip, like 6’0"–6’2"??? So if that’s the case, and the fact that Phillip and JD don’t really resemble each other, it seems unlikely that they’re a match. Still, it’s worth a shot.
That’s a really good point, they don’t really specify that. I remember watching a programme years and years ago and the coroner determined height by measuring the length of the legs, then sorta guestimated from there, but this was early 90s.
Head shapes vary, too, which would have an impact on height so it would definitely be a good idea for the OP to check this. I hope it is Phillip so that he can finally be back with his family where he belongs.
Thank you :)
The clothing on the doe was 3x and 4x. The missing person was 5’5" and 175lbs.
I guess the clothing might not belong to the doe, but not sure it’s enough for it to be a match. Lots of people have hernia scars.
Wearing a 3XL and a 4XL at 175 pounds seems like a stretch but worth submitting.
Not if he was homeless. Maybe those clothes were given to him
Definitely submit him! Yesterday, I think a redditor suggested a missing person’s profile to a UID and within the span of a few months, it was a match
mushrooms are more akin to animals than plants
mushrooms can break down the tough lignin in wood
mushrooms can decay wood
Boston Mycological Club
the oldest amateur mycology club in the US
2 million species of fungi, 130,000 named species of fungi, multiple names for many fungi
sexual form and asexual form, look different
FETISHIZE BODY DUMP SPOTS
From a selfie, go online to figure out where pic was taken
Human remains covered or wrapped in a tarp provides an ideal environment for decomposition since the tarp may maintain moisture and temperature while providing insects and bacteria protection from predators and environmental factors. Therefore, it was hypothesized that the plastic tarp would aid in decomposition in two ways: 1) by increasing the activity of necrophagous insects, which prefer a warm, shaded and outdoor environment and 2) by increasing putrefaction caused by bacteria that require an aqueous medium. The increased activity of insects and bacteria should therefore likely increase the rate of decomposition. In other words, require fewer accumulated degree days (ADD) to reach each stage of decomposition.
Lukas pulled a cord and stairs unfolded from the ceiling. He climbed, wincing every time he put weight on his left leg. In the attic, he punched the combination into a small safe and took out a box. He sits on an old steamer trunk and arrays two rings and a necklace on the lid next to him. He sits gazing at the items, then strokes each one with a fingertip.
The simple silver ring with the small blue stone was the girl in Nevada. She’d climbed into the cab of his rig at a truck stop thirty miles outside of Vegas. As always, he tipped his Peterbilt cap, made some comment about the coffee, maybe the weather, although the weather was always the same in Nevada. Asked where she was heading. These exchanges were a critical part of the plan, and they could so easily go wrong. He’d learned this the hard way. There was the girl in Minnesota. He’d only been driving a year or two. Rosie was 10. She was still able to get around on her own then, with the help of crutches. She’d slip her spindly arms into the metal cuffs and lurch from her bedroom-- they’d turned a pantry off the kitchen into a makeshift room for her--into the living room, where she’d somehow fold herself into the worn brown corduroy armchair and read for hours. Lukas would catch himself staring--from a certain angle, she looked just like any little girl. Her thin, pale face was ordinary, even pretty. With her mouth closed, you couldn’t see her bottom teeth, each crowding its neighbor, twisted this way and that, too many teeth for the narrow jaw. On days when Rosie’s mother was able to get out of bed, she bustled around, neatening knick knacks, scrubbing the cracked linoleum floor,
brushing Rosie’s long dark hair. On those days Lukas could almost pretend his was a normal family. Then he’d catch sight of Rosie’s chair at the kitchen table, draped with xxx. He’d turn and walk out, slamming the front door that caught on its swollen frame, down the splintering stairs he was planning to rebuild, and he wouldn’t look back.
In Minnesota, he stopped for coffee and the girl was sitting on a curb outside a gas station convenience store. She had thin limbs and long dark hair, and Lukas thought she looked like an older version of Rosie. Then the girl stood up, and her long legs were straight, with slightly knobby knees and a rose and thorns tattoo around one bony ankle. She wore ripped denim shorts and flip flops studded with fake jewels. She walked toward his rig, and he was filled with blind rage. She was walking, and Rosie couldn’t.
It had been two decades, but I immediately recognized the slumped shoulders, the uneven gait. Lukas hadn’t made much of an effort to disguise himself. It made me think of how brazenly he’d waltzed out of NCC. Stupid, or lucky. Or maybe he knew all the tricks of hiding in plain sight. After all, they’d worked for him for twenty years. But they wouldn’t work any longer. Not if I had any say in the matter.
After blitzkreigbopper’s posts, the chat rooms had lit up. Tips poured in from Nevada, Texas, Minneapolis. Knittykitty compiled them all into one thread. It was eighteen pages long and growing. ShereZZado scored surveillance footage from every Flying J between California and Texas, and ITisme had written a program that analyzed the feeds, picking out the XXX’s fractured logo and license plate before dumping the GPS coordinates into a massive file. Based on that file, The1969Cam whipped up a map of every Lukas sighting between 19xxx and 19xxx.
Spindriftloner scoured The Doe Project database for young women who had gone missing within a 100-mile radius of every one of those sightings. Almost all these women had been considered at one time or another as potential matches for the bodies uncovered at the Killing Fields. I knew it would take a lot of cross-checking to rule out even a few of them from the list of potential victims. But BossyMilady was already on it, rallying the troops to go one by one through the descriptions, searching for clues among the missing that corresponded to the tiniest of known details about the UIDs.
All those years, Lukas had figured nobody was on to him, and he was right. But he’d had no idea that inanimate objects possessed very long memories. And while he’d loved his daughter--in his own twisted way--he’d badly underestimated her.
Rosie pressed a control with her right index finger that made the ergonomic Falcon power wheelchair (in inferno red, the best of the four available colors) glide forward on silent rubber wheels.
She navigated the first-floor hallway at Rutledge, edging around Mrs. Threadway, who was inching at a snail’s pace toward the cafeteria with the help of a walker, and coming up behind Mr. Dambrose, a white-haired man in a checked shirt and bow tie who shuffled along in enormous orthopedic shoes, clutching an oversized candy bar.
The high-tech wheelchair was so noiseless, and Mr. Dambrose was so deaf, he didn’t notice Rosie, clad in jeans, work boots and a faded red Ramones T-shirt, until she had practically run into him. “Well, hey there!” he turned around, his face lighting up. Rosie’s eyes flitted over a device attached to the arm of the wheelchair. “Good morning, Mr. Dambrose. Is that your second or third Snickers bar?” The words came out of a speaker echoey and robotic, but Mr. Dambrose roared and patted Rosie’s arm. “You caught me, young lady! No more sneaking to the vending machine for me.”
Rosie dodged him and accelerated down the linoleum-floored hallway. “Speed demon!” he yelled after her, shaking his fist in mock anger.
One floor up, Liz Trefethen emerged from a door marked Administration. She paused, hitching the strap of her leather briefcase onto her shoulder. The bi-weekly meetings with the director had been a good idea, she thought. He’d argued that their typical monthly meetings had been sufficient, but Liz had persisted. She’d wanted to make sure he knew how much progress some of the residents were making, thanks to the grant. It was odd, Liz recalled, that she’d never come across the J. Chillingsworth Foundation before, but she was glad she found it when she did. The director had been dubious that Rutledge, in such a backwater New Hampshire town, would be in the running for such a prestigious award, and he balked at the amount of time Liz would need to fill out the extensive paperwork. But he’d admitted it had all been worth it. Not only had Rutledge gotten the grant, the foundation’s leads on state-of-the-art technology for individuals with physical limitations had allowed the facility to acquire gee-whiz assistive devices beyond even Liz’s most ambitious dreams.
A year before applying for the grant, as soon as Liz had hired a full-time speech pathologist to work with Rutledge residents, she stood shivering on the porch of the ramshackle house. No one answered her knock. She peered in the window. At the time the house had been built, this front room would have served as the parlor, where the lady of the house would have received callers. Now its windows were grimy, hung with tattered yellowed curtains. Inside, Liz saw only a stained, threadbare couch and a spindly table pitched over on its side.
Liz gingerly followed an icy path to the rear of the house, thinking Lukas was in the kitchen and hadn’t heard her knock. She tapped the frame of the back door, which rattled on its hinges. Chips of paint came off the door and fell to the ground. She tapped again, harder.
She turned to leave when she heard something. A dog giving a half-hearted warning. Or a floorboard protesting the weight of a step.
“Lukas...Rosie? Is anyone home? It’s Liz Trefethen. From Rutledge?” She turned back to the door and gripped the icy handle and pushed. The door creaked ajar. She entered the kitchen and heard it again--a low, gutteral groan. She stepped over a broken floorboard
and surveyed the room. Flies buzzed around bowls of congealed goo on a rickety table. Liz clapped her hand over her nose and mouth; the smell of rot was strong. And an underlying odor that Liz recognized from Rutledge--the ammonia smell of old urine. A wheelchair that Liz recognized as the one Lukas had used to bring Rosie to the diner a
month ago, when she had tried to convince him to re-admit Rosie to Rutledge, sat empty at the table, opposite a straight-backed chair.
Liz heard another groan, and the realization hit her. She dug her phone out of her bag and dialed 911.
Human Services, typically so slow to act that Liz felt like pulling out her hair, for once moved quickly. The evidence of neglect and abuse was clear: the EMTs had found Rosie home alone, curled on a bare mattress, stinking of piss, her jeans soaked to the skin. Lukas was nowhere to be found. In Liz’s estimation, Rosie had been like that for at least two days.
After a few days in the hospital, Rosie was back at Rutledge.
Just below the director’s office, Rosie rolled through an open door. She maneuvered to a desk that held a Macbook and positioned herself within reach of a device that brought the computer to life, its glow illuminating the purple highlights in her long dark hair. Clutching a joystick in her curled fingers, she wiggled the device until a series of links appeared on the screen. She paused on the URL for The Doe Project. The website opened, and one letter at a time, Rosie typed “blitzkreigbopper” to log in.
Dom had gone to New Hampshire
“Those web sleuths did good.”
“High praise from Lieutenant Crankypants,” I said. His iron jaw twitched and he didn’t crack a smile, but as he turned away, I thought I detected the faintest of smirks.
He gave me an awkward hug and patted my shoulder. His service revolver dug into my side. He smelled like drugstore aftershave and, as always, coffee and cigarettes. I thought about burying my face in his midsection and then decided against it. “I’m glad you’re OK,” he said. “I’m not totally OK,” I started to say, but he’d turned to head back into the gray brick building.
Matt broke the story.
CONCORD, Mass.--The body of missing 22-year-old Jessica Tiara Wolcott has been recovered after nearly nineteen years of searching, State Police Sergeant Dominic La Pena said. The remains were found October 14 on public property adjacent to Route 2 in Concord. Aided by input from private citizens, positive identification was made through dental records. Wolcott was last seen alive on surveillance video recorded at a gas station with her dog, xxxx, on xxx, 1997. A suspect in her murder, xxx-year-old Lukas xxx of xxxx, NH, is expected to be arraigned today in Concord District Court.
Like Matt’s first story on xxx Jane Doe, only a handful of media outlets ran it, burying it in a column of briefs on minor or obscure crimes. Not much had changed in the world of the unidentified.
I’d known a few reporters who claimed to love writing obituaries. Obituaries immortalized some lives, that was true. But not all lives.
There was one last obit I needed to write. Jessica deserved that much.
I tossed an envelope on Teagan’s desk. She swiveled her chair toward me, then looked at the envelope. She lifted her hipster glasses and peered at me. “Following in the footsteps of the Unabomber? Abandoning 21st century technology for a pad and pencil?” She hadn’t seemed terribly cut up when The Citizen stopped printing physical copies of the paper and went entirely online. It struck me that I’d inherited a love for the feel of paper from Hecuba--I meant Henri.
“I hear you’re taking a position with a nonprofit,” Teagan said.
One hand on the doorknob, I turned to face her. She’d apparently heard the news all over Twitter and Reddit that the Doe Project had gotten a six-figure infusion of cash from a mystery donor. It was the biggest donation in the--admittedly brief--history of web based groups working on cases of lost identity. Soon afterward the announcement, an email had appeared in my inbox. “I might be taking on national publicity for The Doe Project,” I said. “I’m seeing the director about the job next week.
“It’ll be my first time meeting anyone there in person, actually,” I added. “Good luck with it,” Teagan said.
Journalists, I realized, were Chicken Littles. They warned about climate change; an impending pandemic; neo Nazis. Much of the time, the warnings fell on deaf ears. Their words were considered overblown, alarmist. The trick was getting messages across to the few who would listen. And act, before it was too late.
In The Citizen’s parking lot, sitting in the Nova, I pulled out my cell, scrolled past names until I got to Hecuba. I pictured her beleaguered expression if she saw the nickname. I smiled, tapped “call.”
In one form or another, Chicken Little has been around for centuries. The story doesn’t always start with an acorn clonking a chicken on the head. In Southeast Asia, a quince thudding on a palm leaf startles a hare, but the idea is the same: a frightened creature
sets off in search of help. The creature enlists other creatures--mostly female, but maybe I’m reading into it--who work themselves into a lather about the world ending until a male authority figure--in Chicken Little’s case, the king, and in the hare’s case, Buddha-- assures them that all is well.
There are other endings. Sometimes a fox invites birds into its lair and devours them. Or the last bird, Cocky Locky, survives long enough to warn Chicken Little, who escapes. Or all are rescued and finally get an audience with the king. It’s unclear whether the king addresses their concerns or, like the fox, serves them up for dinner.
The moral: Don’t believe everything you hear, even when you’re the one saying it.
We’re hard-wired to spot unexpected blips in our surroundings--an evolutionary trait that helps us survive surprise attacks from saber-toothed tigers. That might explain my hyper awareness of objects on the side of the road. It doesn’t explain why the sight of trash tugs at me like a magnet. I place that squarely at the feet of the woman who raised me--a woman who looked under rocks to ferret out the delectable from the deadly. One person’s trash is another’s treasure, after all. And sometimes something that looks like trash isn’t trash at all.
When Henri’s voicemail picked up, I said, “You are my mother.” I paused, and the rumble of the Nova’s engine became the longest part of the recording. I hoped she would find it as soothing as I did.
I circled the rotary and drove past the prison. Buildings dropped away and the trees and road and sky unfurled before me: the kind of beautiful early spring day that cruelly tricks winter-weary Bostonians into believing the piles of grime-rimmed snow will soon disappear. I pulled into the turnout, my tires sinking into a slushy mess. I got out of the car and made my way gingerly through pockets of mud and matted grass, walking on my heels so the muck didn’t soak my boots.
An hour ago, I’d arrived at Whitman in time to see Alec, dressed in street clothes, holding a small succulent in a clay pot. Unlike the fica and the many bouquets that had festered on the windowsill in murky green water, this cactus--a gift from s secret admirer?-- seemed to have survived unscathed. I stood silently in the doorway and watched him tuck a faded Patriots T-shirt that I used to wear on lazy Sunday mornings and a shaving kit into a black leather backpack and drop a stack of sympathy cards into a trash bin. “Hey,” I said softly. “Oh, hey,” he said, looking up. “Where’d you come from?” A bit of color rose in his still-sallow cheeks. Maybe he was embarrassed because I’d seen him toss the cards.
“Nowhere,” I said. “Just wanted one last look at 301.”
“Huh. Yeah,” he said. “For old times’ sake.” He smiled a crooked Alec smile. It was as if our months together were a pleasant but unremarkable trip that you know you took but can’t recall much about. We walked to the elevator in silence.
Two weeks earlier, a nurse changing Alec’s feeding tube had noticed his breathing sounded ragged. She called in Dr. Kapoor, who called Sandra, who rushed to the hospital with Alec’s sisters in time to see him blink for the first time in three months. No one thought to call me. Just as well. If no one told Alec about the hours I’d spent by his bedside, he’d never know. If no one told him that for a few hours, his life had hung on the efforts of anonymous strangers--people he didn’t know and who didn’t know him-- he’d never be the wiser. Which was exactly how I wanted it.
The nurses insisted on taking him down in a wheelchair. I followed them into the elevator. In the lobby he stood and we walked outside. I spotted his sister pulling up in a vintage Saab. I hung back. Alec headed toward the car, turned toward me. He looked like he might say something. At that moment his sister, waving and smiling in the driver’s seat, honked the Saab’s horn. He hesitated for a beat before hoisting his backpack into the car and climbing in. I got in my own car, turned the key and listened to the familiar murmurs and splutters of the old engine as it came to life. I waited while it spit and hesitated and complained before settling into a rhythm. I slid the gear shift into drive and let the Nova take me to the spot.
Making my way down the embankment, I saw that the ditch next to the culvert--Jane’s resting place--was gone. Did the cops get someone to fill it in to mask the ugliness, turn the tragic unreal? I walked parallel to the road and suddenly I saw it: a dent in the dirt under a fallen tree branch. The branch, no longer connected to any trunk, was improbably sprouting delicate green buds through a scrum of frost. I clambered over the branch (“You’re dead!” I want to shout at it. “You’re an amputee!”) and saw--too late--
that the culvert was much steeper than I remembered. My right heel skidded and I landed hard on the concrete--a perfect pratfall.
I picked myself up and tiptoed gingerly to the bottom. There was a thin stream, runoff from the snow yielding to the warming sun. I pictured the bundle as I first saw it: a shapeless brown lump that took on the stomach-turning outlines of a human form. Now the woods were just woods again, no longer a crime scene, with their own cycle of rot and decay and renewal separate from the evil that thrusts rot on some before their time. I inhaled, filling my lungs. The damp air, chilled as within a morgue, made me cough. I climbed the bank, grabbing onto the dead-not dead branch.
If hope came in flavors, a child’s hope would be berry, clean and bright and sweet. When you know loss and sadness and disappointment, hope is more nuanced, infused like mushrooms with umami and earthiness. I’ve always hated mushrooms.
I walked back toward the road. The whoosh of passing cars, never completely absent in this stretch of woods, grew louder. Between the trees, flashes of metal glinted in the late-afternoon sun. My car came into view, and I saw that a second car had appeared on the turnoff behind it. Not again. Not more Doe nuts. Surely the girl deserved peace. I walked faster, fury forming a knot in my throat, preparing my tirade. This isn’t a circus sideshow. Move along, nothing to see here.
Where crabgrass and sedge met asphalt, I spotted a slash of crimson.
A few steps closer, I smelled roses--spicy and fruity and sweet as decay. An enormous bouquet of opulent red petals, their long stems tied with a cream-colored ribbon, lay at the spot they’d hoisted her onto a gurney and slid her, still in her shroud, into the ambulance.
Behind me, I heard then saw a car--a black SUV with tinted windows--screech off in a spray of gravel. All I could make out was a dark shape behind the wheel. I stared at the SUV as it sped away, and it struck me that I might know who was inside. I couldn’t be completely certain.
No one would believe me anyway.