Police Chief Nalen Storrow found the dead girl lying faceup in a rust-colored runoff pond on the westernmost corner of Old Mo Heppenheimer's cow pasture. Her milky eyes were open to the morning sky, one hand suspended as if brushing away insects. The sun was shining down, warming tiny black tadpoles in the shallows at her feet. A king snake was coiled in the muddy hollow under one arm, and a daddy longlegs crawled across her extended fingers.
"Git." Nalen waved his hand and the king snake slithered into the duckweed. He followed its progress until it vanished, then realized he was biting the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood. He looked away for an instant, heart thudding dully in his chest. A dense forest abutted the pasture, balsam firs releasing their aromatic fragrance from sap blisters on their trunks, leafy ferns thriving along with golden saxifrage and wild iris at the forest's edge. The day was hot, the sun high, and the silence was so thick you'd've thought the sky didn't have any air in it.
Steeling himself, he rolled up his pant legs and waded into the shallow pond, mud sucking at his shoes. He probed the cadaver's scalp, neck, arms, chest and legs, careful not to shift her position before the photographs were taken. A foul smell lingered in the air above the body like smoke in a bar. He could find no entrance or exit wounds, no blunt injuries, no ligature marks, although he detected finger markings around the throat.
Livor mortis had set in, rendering the underside of her body a reddish purple due to the accumulation of blood in the small vessels. Her elbows were blanched, as were the backs of her legs due to compression of the vessels in this area. Rigor mortis was fully developed, pinning the time of death to between twelve and twenty-four hours. The girl's face appeared congested and cyanotic, with fine petechial hemorrhages on her eyelids and across the bridge of her nose. There were also contusions and fingernail abrasions on her neck near the larynx.
Nalen recognized the dead girl from her pictures: Melissa D'Agostino, age fourteen, missing since the previous afternoon. Shy, chubby, mentally retarded. Her left hand, fisted shut, rested on her belly. Her face with its characteristic Down's syndrome eyes, its triangular nose and protruding tongue, was pallid in the strong sunlight, and dark curls as thick as sausages clung to her forehead. She wore laced yellow sneakers and her pink shorts and short-sleeved polka-dot top were bunched up in back from being dragged a short distance.
Nalen took a step back and scanned the horizon, a mild breeze lifting his thinning brown hair. He'd been a Boston patrolman for fifteen years before moving his wife and kids to this sleepy community five years ago to become its chief of police. Flowering Dogwood, Maine. Population eighteen thousand. Nobody locked their doors here. This was a small town, and he was the top man in a small-town police department, and the sight of the dead girl shook him in ways he hadn't been shaken in quite some time.
Here, in this isolated stretch where Old Mo let his Holsteins and Guernseys graze, local teenagers hung out late at night, smoking pot and getting drunk. Across the street was a dead-end dirt road, a lover's lane, and further east was the Triangle, the town's poorest neighborhood, whose cramped streets of dilapidated houses grew weedlike around the industrial section where the old sawmill and ceramic plant were located. Flowering Dogwood had prospered in the early nineteenth century, becoming Maine's sixth-largest municipality. The town's boots and shoes were renowned for their craftsmanship, and the dense, compact, fine-grained wood of the flowering dogwood was unequaled for the making of shuttles for weaving. By the late 1800s, however, Flowering Dogwood's fortunes had begun to decline, and nowadays the town was known mostly for its historical import, its ceramics and handcrafted furniture.
But what really distinguished this little community from other tradition-steeped New England towns was its school for the blind. The sidewalks were wide for pedestrian traffic and the streetlights were outfitted with little alarms that whooped whenever the walk light went on. Seeing-eye dogs were bred and trained locally and the historical society had fought to preserve the eighteenth-century house belonging to the school's founder.
Turning his attention back to the scene, Nalen searched the area for footprints and found a partial in the mud. The toe print was unclear and didn't have any tread, making it virtually useless. Nearby rested a branch the perpetrator must've used to wipe away his other footprints. That was smart. Nalen felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck.
A siren whelped, and Lieutenant Jim McKissack's dusty '72 AMC Javelin pulled onto the field, bumping over furrows. McKissack slammed on the brakes and the car fishtailed, stopping just short of a barbed wire fence where cattle craning their necks toward the sweeter, taller grasses reared back. McKissack and Detective Hughie Boudreau got out and headed across the field toward Nalen, a study in contrasts.
Jim McKissack was tall and good-looking, a ladies' man with a gruff sort of charm, a meticulous dresser--everything Hughie Boudreau was not. Hughie was short and rumpled, fine-boned, almost girlish, with a mustache that looked penciled on. He had a head of prematurely graying hair and reminded Nalen of a kid on his first roller-coaster ride, eyes constantly roving. Hughie was married and considered himself a good Christian, whereas McKissack was the type of guy who'd sell his own grandmother to the cannibals if it would help him solve a case. The kind of cop who smoked a cigar and wore sunglasses at five o'clock in the morning.
"Criminy." Hughie froze a few yards away.
"Our missing person," Nalen said.
"Jesus Cockadoodle Christ." His eyes looked stapled open.
McKissack smirked. "Lemme adjust the hue, Boudreau. You're looking a little green."
"Watch out, there's a partial right in front of you," Nalen said, and Hughie spun around and vomited in the grass.
McKissack radiated vigor as he strode toward the runoff pond. Parting the black-root rushes and broad-leaved cattails, he stood studying the dead girl with the same kind of impatient intensity he brought to every case. "What d'you think, Chief?"
"Strangulation, would be my guess."
McKissack shook his head. "Petechiae could also be present for heart failure or severe vomiting."
"Yeah, but the signs of cyanosis are most striking on the neck. See those contusions and fingernail markings? He used more force than necessary to subdue the victim."
Hughie was making retching sounds like a door being torn off its hinges.
"Who the hell would strangle a retarded kid?"
"Some severely inadequate person," Nalen said softly, since the angrier he got, the gentler his voice grew. He stared at the victim's face. During manual strangulation, the perp commonly altered his grasp of the neck, resulting in intermittent compression of the veins and arteries with waves of blood coursing in and out of the head, accompanying peaks and valleys in blood pressure that resulted in the rupturing of blood vessels. The petechial hemorrhages on the victim's eyelids and over the bridge of her nose were due to ruptured capillaries.
McKissack quickly unlaced his expensive Italian shoes and left them like two footprints on the muddy bank. "You think we've got a pedophile on our hands?"
"I doubt it."
McKissack glanced up. "You don't think this was a sexual homicide?"
"Let's wait for the autopsy."
"Give me your best guess, Chief."
Nalen thought for a moment. "She was strangled in the field, then dragged down to the pond."
"No rape? No molestation?"
"Look at her clothes. Nothing's twisted up or unbuttoned or put on backwards."
"Still . . . I've got a hunch." McKissack lit a cigarette. "She was a very trusting person, according to her mother. She might've done a few things willingly . . . you know, not knowing any better."
"I doubt it," Nalen said.
McKissack picked up the muddy branch and turned it over. "He erased his own footprints?"
"Except for that partial there."
"I was hoping we'd find her alive." Hughie straightened up and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "My wife and I were on our knees last night..."
"Whatever floats your boat," McKissack said, and Hughie spun around, his face an ugly mottled color.
"We were praying, you ignoramus! You should try it sometime, McKissack, it just might do you some good."
"Yeah, well, it didn't do her any good, did it?" He glanced sharply at the corpse.
"Gentlemen." Nalen snapped open his notebook, fingers cramping white around his pen, and started ticking off points on his mental checklist: they'd have to write a description of the scene, make sketches, take pictures. He'd already formed an opinion. The medical examiner was due any minute now, and Nalen was anxious to confirm his suspicions. He figured the girl had been dead for at least fourteen hours, strangled to death by a pair of unforgiving hands. If they were lucky, they'd get fingernail scrapings.
He went to his squad car, opened the trunk and got out a roll of yellow police tape. With measured steps, he cordoned off the area, looping the tape around the swamp rose and cattails, making the perimeter as wide as possible. In the distance, people were already beginning to congregate by the side of the road, some of them crossing into the pasture.
"Keep those rubbernecks back, would you?"
"Sure thing, Chief."
"Take a look at this," McKissack said as they bent over the body together. There was a contusion on the back of the girl's skull, and Nalen wondered how he'd missed it.
"The perp must've struck her from behind," McKissack conjectured, "then raped her. Then strangled her. Then dragged her down here and dumped her."
"Nothing's amiss with her clothes, McKissack. Why rape somebody, then rebutton their shorts?"
"I dunno. Smells like rape to me."
"Let's wait for the autopsy."
"I bet I'm right."
"This isn't about right or wrong." Nalen's head was throbbing, and every shining blade of grass seemed to reflect the full glare of the sun. He took off his hat, mopped his brow. McKissack wasn't a bad cop, just a little arrogant. He tried to macho it. He didn't want help, and because of that, he would fail. They'd argued more than once over procedure. Still, Nalen figured that, with the proper guidance, McKissack could turn out to be one of the best. In the meantime, he spent half his time at the scene playing mind games with McKissack, the other half playing nursemaid to Hughie, when all he wanted was to keep things rolling, keep his team moving, no time to contemplate the tragedy here. No time to acknowledge this was somebody's little girl.
Nalen stooped to pick up a cigarette butt. "Goddammit, McKissack. This yours?"
"Now that's just irresponsible." He pocketed the butt and continued searching the perimeter, where he found a three-inch-long piece of red thread, a matchbook from Dale's Discount Hardware and over a dozen glass shards, beer-bottle green. He sealed these items in evidence bags, then knelt to examine the body again. Stuck to the bottom of the girl's right sneaker, wedged into the tread, was a small piece of yellow lined notepaper. He removed it gingerly and held it in his palm, letting it dry slightly before opening it. Torn haphazardly in the shape of Italy, it was approximately two inches by one inch. He slipped it into an evidence bag, then knelt to take a soil sample.
While he was scraping the mud off a rock, the image of the girl's broken body flashed through his mind, and his stomach lurched. A sharp pain gripped his skull. Nauseated, he rested his head between his knees and took deep, shuddering breaths.
"You okay, Chief?" McKissack took the evidence bags from him. "I'll finish up. Go catch your breath."
Grateful, Nalen raised his head to the light and sat for a while, lost in thought, as if he were waiting for a turkey sandwich. A car horn blared, an oddly comical sound in the bright morning air, and the medical examiner's platinum Mercedes 280CE coupé came cata-humping across the field.
"That guy changes cars the way some people change underwear," McKissack muttered as Archie Fortuna got out and, with a ceremonious flourish, snapped on a pair of latex gloves. He had delicate hands for such a big man. Archie was all dancing belly--a balding, fortyish indoor enthusiast who barreled toward the scene with the kind of eagerness most people reserved for sex or steak dinners.
"Howdy doody, Chief." Archie's breath was infamous for its alleged ability to drop a Doberman at six paces. "Whaddaya got?"
"Looks like she was struck on the head and then strangled," Nalen said. "Possibly dragged from a car, although I think she was killed right here in this field."
Archie clapped his hands with professional zeal. "Let's have a look-see."
They bent over the corpse together, shoes sinking into the muck. Archie had a lover's touch. When he turned the girl's body over, a hundred tiny beads of dew rolled off her skin.
"Petechial hemorrhages," he said.
"Finger markings around the throat. Possible blow to the skull. See this reddish area? Look for a blunt instrument . . . a rock, maybe. You called this one, Chief." Archie grunted as he straightened up and squinted at the sun, dark eyes disappearing behind greasy folds of flesh. "Take any prints?"
"Couldn't. Skin's too wrinkled."
"Not to worry. I'll finish back at the lab."
Nalen tried not to think about the process Archie would use to obtain the girl's prints for identification purposes. He'd seen it done once before; Archie would peel off little ovals of skin, place the flaps over his own fingertips, and then, using an ink pad, press them to the blotter.
Archie let out a muffled belch. "Mongoloid, huh?"
"Down's syndrome, they call it."
"Makes you sick, doesn't it?" He raised the dead girl's fist and delicately pried her fingers apart, and to the astonishment of both of them, a tiny silver bell fell out.
"What the doohickey's this?" Archie held it to the light.
"Looks like a cat bell," Nalen said, and Archie dropped it into his palm, where it rolled to a stop with a little tinkling sound.
Excerpted from Darkness Peering by Alice Blanchard. . Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.