Buried Deep

By: Vella Day, Tia Mason

1





Tampa, Florida

Joe Merrick’s worn shirt stuck to his back. He wasn’t sure if it was from sweat or the damn muggy air. Didn’t matter. He was long past caring anyway.

Slurred curses came from behind the dumpster. What the hell was taking Chester so long? A man could only hold so much pee. Even a drunk couldn’t go forever. He took a step to see what was holding up his friend and stumbled over a beer can. Shit. They never should have bought that second bottle of Jack.

Let Chester find his own damn way home—if he ever stopped peeing.

As Joe staggered toward his black pickup wedged between two big ass vans, his fingers fought with the keys in his pocket. They were stuck on a damn thread that seemed as strong as a fishing line. Goddammit.

He was still struggling when the sound of gravel crunching under a pair of heavy boots came up behind him. Chester doesn’t wear no boots.

With his hands still his pocket, something sharp shot into Joe’s lower back. What the fuck? Red hot pain radiated down his legs and up his back, pressing into his heart. It hurt so bad, he couldn’t even take a step.

A forearm clamped hard across his throat, the sleeve scratching his neck. “You filthy Indian.”

Joe gasped for air, but all he got was the hot stinky breath of the prick who’d stuck him.

Shit.

Can’t breathe. A door clicked open, and Joe’s knees gave way. Plastic crinkled under him. Blood soaked his pants, and a bright flame flickered in front of his face. Joe tried to swat at the light, but his arm wouldn’t move.

His brain fogged.

His bowels loosened.

He was going to die.





Burning to death had to be the worst way to go.

With gloved hands, forensic anthropologist Dr. Lara Romano lifted the charred forearm from a pile of bones and remeasured its width. She should have been pleased her two calculations matched. Instead, her belly ached from the image of the victim’s last moments—the heat, the terror, the inability to escape inevitable death.

She squeezed her eyes shut and made herself focus on finding the identities of those in the torched Winnebago and not on their life ending torture. Becoming emotionally involved with the victims would only end in heartache. If she wanted to be a topnotch anthropologist, she needed to leave her heart at home.

As she leaned forward to type the results into her laptop, a blast of cold air burst from the lab’s ceiling vent and ran down the back of her neck. She shivered and drew her white lab coat tight.

Someone touched her arm, and she whipped around, pressing a hand to her chest. “Phil.”

Phil Tedesco backed his wheelchair away from her lighted worktable. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” Her boss’ lips moved, but no sound reached her ears.

“No problem.” She smiled and flipped the switch on her cochlear implant to bring her into the hearing world. “What’s up?”

He tapped the edge of the table. “You draw any conclusions about the bone yard?”

She brushed some of the burnt embers off the stainless steel counter. Of all days for the lab to look a mess, it had to be the day her boss came to visit. Normally, every countertop in the large room gleamed, but today half the surfaces were smeared with ashes, and the floor needed to be swept. She didn’t want him to think she didn’t take pride in her workplace.

“Not yet. I don’t have enough to identify all the charred remains.”

“Can you tell the number of victims at least?”

She inhaled to steady her hands. “I know there are at least five different bodies, three male, two female. There might be more.”

“Looks like you’ve done a great job so far, but time’s up.”

“You’re kidding. I need another few days.” She wanted to have the conclusion correct, not only for the sake of her job but to bring closure to the families involved.

He held his palms outward. “The insurance company is bugging me for the results. Our boss is getting worried you’re taking too much time examining a few bones. You’ve been at it three weeks.”

Try four. “It’s in my nature to be thorough.” She’d done postgraduate research at the University’s lab for three years and no one ever rushed her. “I’ll do my best to finish soon.”

“Perfect.” Phil sat up straighter. “The other reason I’m here is to get your opinion on some bones that just arrived.”

As if he was psychic, the big steel lab door eased open, and he spun his wheelchair away from the entrance. Two men, covered head-to-toe in white protective gear, rolled a pine casket with mud-streaked sides past her workstation into the middle of the expansive room.

The stone-faced technicians lifted the cover and placed it on the bottom shelf of the steel gurney. As a blast of death hit her, she reeled and stepped back. Rotting dead rats baked in the hot sun for days would smell sweeter. The school’s research lab mostly had exposed her to sanitized skeletons, not the foul stench of real dead bodies. The times she’d examined remains, the bodies had been completely decomposed.

Phil covered his nose and waved the two men to the door.

She glanced over at him. “The bodies just keep showing up, don’t they?”

“Yup.” His jaw relaxed. “Hell, when I worked homicide, I often had four cases going simultaneously. I remember when I considered three hours sleep a good night.”

She’d been there many times. “I guess the dead don’t care about our workload.”

He chuckled. “You got that right.”

“Who is it?” she asked, wishing she had some VapoRub to put under her nose to blunt the smell.

“Two John or Jane Does.”

“Two? In the same casket?”

“‘Fraid so.”

She leaned over to look inside. No clothing was visible. One skull had most of the hair intact. Only the second victim, who was hairless, had areas of soft connective tissue, which hopefully would help with the identification.

She stepped back. “Who dug them up? And why?”

He wheeled away from the casket. “One of the workers at the cemetery was preparing a grave when he came across a coffin already in the plot. The parents of the dead girl were quite distraught when they learned the site had been taken over by someone else.”

She grimaced. “I’d be upset too. I’ve never seen two in the same casket before.”

“Maybe the family wanted to save money on the burial.” He pulled out a yellow pad from the side pocket of his wheelchair. “Can you tell me anything about these two?”

Even though he was a seasoned cop, the double burial softened his shoulders, and her respect for him grew.

Two people in the same coffin wasn’t right. She couldn’t imagine being that poor and not finding a way to provide a proper resting place for her loved ones. And why no cement vault around the casket? Did these relatives not respect the dead? If she had her way, she’d start—

“Lara?”

“Oh, sorry.”

She leaned over the casket again. Keeping her hands tucked behind her back to avoid disturbing the evidence, she noted the slight traces of white powder dusting a few of the bones. Definitely lime, which was very caustic. She moved back to the counter, picked up a metal caliper and held it above each skeleton’s hips to get an estimate of the width.

The dimensions fit the standard chart perfectly, and she tried not to smile. “The heart-shaped pelvic inlets and the narrow width tell me you have two males.”

“Good.” Phil made a note on the pad. “Age?”

One of the craniums faced forward, exposing the top of the skull. Her heart turned heavy when she realized this man had died so young. “The cranial sutures,” she said, pointing to the skull nearest to her, “indicate he’s between thirty and forty years old.” Close to her age. “Without digging out the second head, I can’t tell how old the other one is.”

Phil edged closer. Manipulating the gurney’s pedals, she lowered the level to give him a better angle from his chair.

“Thanks.” He peered over the rim of the wooden box. “Race?”

“I’ll need to take accurate measurements and do a few tests before I can be sure. Even though I have an intact cranium, I want to run the information through my computer.”

He gently squeezed her hand. “A guess is all I ask.”

Here goes. Despite the coolness in the room, her armpits began to sweat. And here she thought her exam days had ended four years ago.

“The teeth, which are badly decayed on the top male, are rather crowded together due to the narrow dental arch, and the skull appears smaller than the usual Caucasoid.” She searched her mind for details of differentiating between races. “The forehead is somewhat low and slightly sloped backwards—”

“Lara, just tell me.”

She looked up. He’d gripped the wheelchair’s armrest and tensed his jaw. Not hearing the nuances in people’s tones, she had to use physical clues. She rushed to explain. “From the size of the nasal opening and the rather square shape of the eye sockets, I’m going to say some kind of Mongoloid. Native American most likely, given the Tampa area has a large Seminole Indian population.”

Phil’s fingers relaxed. “Excellent. Can you tell me anything else? When they died? Cause of death?” He kept his gaze on her face.