Bone Shadows: Excerpt
A cool March wind held the scent of decayed leaves, moist earth, and the pungent odor of a decomposing body that had been pulled from the Mississippi River. Forensic techs had wrapped it in an unzipped body bag to retain any trace evidence. Then they had carried the body ten yards up a steep, stony riverbank to a level patch of brown grass, where they had placed it on a clean, white sheet under a crime scene tent.
St. Paul Homicide Detective John Santana could see that the man’s ears had been partially chewed away by fish and crustaceans. White foam spilling out of the mouth had formed spongy, cloud-like puffs of mucus on his lips and nostrils. Santana noted the travel abrasions on the forehead, nose, and backs of the hands. The abrasions were consistent with a body that had sunk and drifted along the river bottom in the strong current, remaining submerged until bacteria in the stomach and chest cavity produced enough gas to float it toward the surface. He figured heavy clothing might have delayed but hadn’t prevented the body from rising.
Reiko Tanabe, the Ramsey County Medical Examiner, knelt near the body bag and looked up at Santana through the water-spotted lenses of her round, wire-rimmed glasses. She was clothed in white coveralls detectives called a “bunny suit.” SPPD was printed in large black letters on the back.
“Lividity is fixed,” she said, pointing toward the pooling of blood in the head and neck. “The cyanotic color is due to the cold temperature of the water.”
Santana knew that lividity would be most prominent on the head, neck, and anterior chest because of the semi-fetal position in the water. But the reddish violet marks on the skin appeared blotchy and were irregularly distributed, reflecting movement of the body in the currents.
When Tanabe opened one of the dead man’s lids, the eye glistened, a sign that the vic had died in the water and not beforehand, on land.
She lifted each of the hands and examined them. The skin of the fingers, palms, and backs of the hands was blanched, swollen, and wrinkled, and had started to separate and peel off like a thin glove.
“All of the nails are either broken or torn,” she said. “Probably broke them on the rocks trying to save himself.”
Santana wondered what had happened before the man drowned. Had he somehow fallen into the river and been swept away by the current? Had he decided to take his own life and then changed his mind at the last moment? Had he been conscious when he went into the river, and if so, what had he been thinking in the final desperate seconds of his life as he clawed at the rocks and debris in the river? What thoughts had been racing through his mind as he sank beneath the surface, struggling to hold his breath?
“If he jumped from a bridge into water,” Tanabe said, “I’ll find fractures of the ribs, sternum, and thoracic spine, and lacerations of the heart and lungs when I open him up.”
Santana had seen enough suicides by drowning to know that it was usually an orderly scene, with clothing removed and neatly folded.
“You want to hazard a guess as to how long the vic’s been in the water, Reiko?”
She gazed at the river as though the answers to the puzzle of this man’s death could be found in the swiftly moving current.
Sunlight had fallen victim to dark clouds that rolled across the late morning sky. It was only mid-March, but unseasonably warm weather had melted most of the winter snowfall, leaving flat, lifeless grass the color of a calcified bone.
Fifty yards to the west near a small parking lot, media vans sat behind temporary roadblocks on Shepard Road, while reporters and cameramen swarmed around broadcast equipment. Two news helicopters were circling over the downtown skyline and crime scene, the downdrafts of their blades sounding like scythes cutting through the air.
“Everything slows down in water-immersed bodies, especially when the water is this cold,” Tanabe said. She felt the body and then looked up again. “No rigor. But in his struggle to stay afloat, he probably exhausted the supply of ATP in his muscles. That affects the TOD estimate.”
She was referring to the amount of adenosine triphosphate in the muscles at the time of death. Without a supply of fresh oxygen, the muscles quit producing ATP, which caused the stiffening effect of rigor mortis.
“It’s hard to tell how fat he was because of the bloating,” she said. “And alcohol consumption and meals high in carbs can cause a quicker refloat.” She paused. “Taking everything into consideration, including the decomposition, I’d say the body has been in the water ten days to two weeks. But it’s only an estimate.”
Tanabe removed her glasses and wiped the lenses on her sleeve, a sudden gust of wind snapping the canvas tent above her head as she glanced at the river.
Santana could see a foundry on the opposite riverbank, a tugboat towing a long barge, and the heavy concrete piers holding the Robert Street Bridge high above him. He heard the whine of a corporate jet flying low as it crossed the river and prepared to land at nearby Holman Field, the jet engines momentarily drowning out the buzz and chatter of police radios.
Tanabe looked at Santana again. “Someone could spot the body from the walking path if they were looking toward the water.”
If the vic had not accidentally fallen or chosen to enter the water, he thought, there should be physical evidence proving that he had been forcibly drowned or killed before he was dragged or thrown into the river. But Santana doubted the forensic techs searching the area would find any evidence or witnesses.
“I believe he went into the water somewhere else, Reiko.” He pointed to a rusted cable in the water used to anchor barges along the riverbank. It was hooked to a heavy chain that was fastened to a rusted post encircled with automobile tires. “The cable snagged the body, probably while it was floating down river in the strong current.”
“How’d you know there was a body floating in the river?”
“I received an anonymous tip on my cell.”
“Isn’t that unusual?”
“Very,” he said.
“The caller give you a name?”
Santana shook his head. “Sounded like he’d had quite a bit to drink and hung up when I asked. The ID came up unknown caller.”
A small group of curiosity seekers stood behind a border of yellow crime scene tape strung between the lampposts along a wide asphalt path. Most were dressed in a light jackets and jeans, while others wore jogging outfits and had iPod buds in their ears. One man standing beside a blue metal sculpture of a pez vela, or sailfish—a gift from Manzanillo, Colima, St. Paul’s sister city in Mexico—wore a long, wrinkled raincoat and a fedora, the kind seen in the old Hollywood movies. Santana remembered how popular the hats were in Colombia when he was growing up. The fedora appeared to be making a comeback with some of the younger generation seeking to be different, but the older man standing with the onlookers didn’t appear to be a fashion trendsetter.
Tanabe pulled a water-soaked wallet out of the dead man’s zippered jacket pocket and opened it. “His driver’s license IDs him as Scott Rafferty. Twenty-three years old. St. Paul address.” She handed the wallet to Santana.
The wallet contained twenty-seven dollars in cash, a debit card from Wells Fargo, a VISA credit card, and an auto insurance card from State Farm.
“Hey, John,” she said. “Isn’t there a detective in Narco/Vice named Hank Rafferty?”
Santana peered at the driver’s license for a long time, though he knew that staring at it wouldn’t change the facts or lessen the shock. “Yeah,” he said. “I think the vic is his son.”