The Bone Chamber
Sydney Fitzpatrick pulled out a small scale model of a crime scene from the metal cabinet at the front of the classroom, then eyed the clock by the classroom door. Nine-forty. Twenty more minutes and her Friday was officially kick-starting—once the students left and she completed the final paperwork. This was the last segment of a two-week forensic art course at the FBI Academy with twenty-five law enforcement would-be artists from around the country. "Here," she said, setting the model on the table at the front of the class, "we have an interesting and controversial case. It dates back to the 1970s, before computers were all the rage in re-creating crime scenes, but it offers a good example of how a forensic artist can—"
She stopped when the classroom door opened. Special Agent in Charge Terrance Harcourt poked his head in the doorway. "You have a minute?"
"Sure." She excused herself to the men and women, then stepped from the room. Harcourt, a man in his fifties, gray-haired, dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, sleeves rolled to his forearms, stood next to a man she'd never seen. He was taller than Harcourt, was maybe her age, mid-thirties, with a dark suit, a crisp tie, and a stance that screamed federal agent of the anal sort, she thought, closing the door tightly so that their conversation wouldn't be overheard.
"Sorry to interrupt your class," Harcourt said. "This is Special Agent Zachary Griffin. And this, of course, is our resident forensic artist, Special Agent Sydney Fitzpatrick."
"Good to meet you," Griffin said, shaking her hand.
"A pleasure," Sydney said. "What can I do for you?"
"I heard you were the go-to girl when it comes to recommending forensic anthropologists," Griffin said. "I know there are a few on the east coast, but my case is too important to draw one out of a hat. I was hoping if I gave you a wish list, you could give me a name."
"Depends," she said, glancing into the classroom—not that she expected her students to be throwing spit wads. Cops were, however, notorious pranksters. "What's your wish list?"
"Fast, reliable, the best in his or her field, and experienced in working with forensic artists."
"I know of two offhand. One in Vermont, one in D.C."
"The D.C. area would be more convenient."
"That would be Dr. Natasha Gilbert."
"How well do you know her?"
"We're good friends. I've worked a number of cases with her. If you want experience, she's the one."
"Any chance you can dig up her number?"
"You have pen and paper? I'll write it down for you."
He gave her a pen and small pad from his suit coat pocket. "And when might you be available for the sketch?" he asked, when she gave him the number.
No doubt Harcourt hadn't told him her plans. Or maybe, in typical federal agent style, SA Griffin hadn't asked her boss, just assumed she'd be available. "If you can wait until after Thanksgiving, I'm yours."
"That's two weeks from now. We're on a tight schedule."
"Unfortunately, as much as I'd love to work with Tasha, I'm tied up all day Saturday, then leaving Sunday for San Francisco to visit family for a much needed holiday vacation. If you'd like an artist sooner, my boss can hook you up," she said, nodding toward SAC Harcourt.
"Absolutely," Harcourt said. "We have a full list of artists available at a moment's notice. A number of them on the east coast."
"If there's nothing else," Sydney said, her hand on the door, "I have a class to get back to."
SA Griffin looked as though there was something else, but then he glanced into the classroom, stepped back, and said, "Enjoy your trip home."
"That should do it," Harcourt said. "Thanks."
The two men left, and Sydney returned to her class, not giving the matter another thought. At least not until she received a call at her office from the forensic anthropologist in question about an hour later. "Syd? Tasha. Just wanted to thank you for the job you sent my way."
"Not a problem," Sydney told her as she tucked the phone beneath her ear, balancing it so that she could continue sorting through the course evaluations left by her students in the forensic art class. SAC Harcourt was a stickler for making sure paperwork was completed, and she didn't want anything hanging when she left for vacation. "What sort of case is it?"
"Not sure. Yet. I heard you can't work it with me?"
"Flying to my mom's on Sunday. Too much to do between now and then."
A moment of silence, then Tasha said, "What happened to that workaholic I used to know?"
"Hit with reality on my last case. One that made me take a hard look at priorities," she said, not willing to go into details with her friend. It was one of the reasons she'd ended up back at Quantico. In the past, she would have taken this job in an instant, knowing her family would be there when she finished, no matter how long it took. Back then, she believed in what she was doing, believed that she had something to offer, to help. But she'd lost her edge on that last case and she needed to regroup, and flying home to be with her family for the two weeks preceding Thanksgiving was part of that effort. The sad reality was that the dead would be there for her when she got back. What she'd learned on her last case was that her family might not be. Deciding that she should offer her friend some sort of explanation, she added, "These days, family comes first."
"Don't blame you. Hold on a sec." More silence, then, "Sorry. My secretary's breathing down my neck. Listen, I was thinking that since you sent this forensic job my way, I could buy you dinner. Haven't seen you since—hell, what's it been? Six, seven months since you left here?"
"About that long. But let's catch up when I get back from vacation. Scotty's already asked me to dinner. He's helping me look for an apartment tomorrow and wanted to go over a few he found on the internet. I was hoping to find one before I left."
"You are not going blow me off for an ex-boyfriend. I just got back from a dig and I so need to see a friendly face. Girls' night out for old times' sake."
"I really wish I could."
"You know we'll have fun, and Scotty will understand. Eventually. Ristorante Primavera at seven. I won't take no for an answer."
Tasha hung up before Sydney could object. And she wasn't even sure she wanted to. Scotty was undoubtedly using the apartment search to go out with her, and she didn't need to spend Friday night with him just to look at computer printouts of places they were going to see in person on Saturday. The question was whether to hit him with the truth, or come up with a reasonable lie as to why she was canceling dinner. She punched in his number, deciding that when it came to her ex, a lie was the much better option.
Zachary Griffin hefted the large box to one side as he opened the office door of the Anthropological Division of the National Forensic Institute. The day had started off bad, and now the forensic artist wasn't available because she was taking vacation in the middle of a month he'd just as soon eliminate from the calendar. As a result he was forced to come up with an alternate solution—something he hadn't anticipated—and that was a mistake he shouldn't have made.
He refused to acknowledge that he'd had his mind on other things—this being November—and even if he did admit to that reason, it was not an acceptable excuse. There were no excuses, he thought, as he walked into the office. He nodded at the secretary, a round-faced, middle-aged woman with short blond curly hair, who was busy sorting through a box of papers. She smiled at him, then picked up the phone and called her boss's extension, saying, "Zachary Griffin's here ... Very good. I'll send him in."
The secretary disconnected, whispered, "FYI. She's a bit frazzled from her trip. Something about a curse on the tomb." She angled her head toward the office door. Zach, figuring she was joking about the curse, crossed the reception area as she got back to her filing.
He stepped into the large office, one wall of shelves filled with reference books, the other filled with rows of labeled boxes—each containing bones, each waiting for IDs. Much like the box he now carried. "Your plan backfired, Tasha," he said. She seemed not to hear, intent on whatever it was she was reading on her computer screen, and he crossed the room, then stopped in surprise at her appearance. He hadn't seen her since her return from Egypt, only talked to her on the phone. The secretary's assessment was an understatement. Frazzled was not the word he'd use to describe her, he thought, noting the dark circles beneath her bloodshot blue eyes as she worked at her computer. Usually neat and meticulous, her blond hair was pulled back in a hasty ponytail. Her lab coat was wrinkled, and beneath it she wore a sweatshirt and jeans, also wrinkled, as though she'd grabbed everything from the bottom of some pile in her closet. "You did get my voice mail? Your friend is refusing to do the drawing. I don't suppose you have a Plan B." Because he sure as hell didn't.
"Already in the works. I got off the phone with Sydney not five minutes ago," Tasha said, glancing up from her computer. When she saw the box he held, she sank back in her chair, looking even wearier. "God, please tell me that's not what I think it is?"
"About your friend?"
"We're going to dinner tonight. Trust me. By the second bottle of wine I'll have her convinced to delay her flight to San Francisco and work with me on that drawing, though I think it would have made a hell of a lot more sense just to let her in on some of the details. This whole thing of you and me pretending not to know each other seems a bit much. If you would have let me just pick up the phone, tell her I had a job for—"
"That's not an option. Your work for me stays out of the public eye. Especially on this matter. Besides, it's a little late for that. She thinks I'm another agent, and I don't want the FBI involved beyond the means to complete this drawing." The only reason he even approached Special Agent Fitzpatrick was on Tasha's insistence that she was the best forensic artist on the east coast. And—more importantly—Fitzpatrick had been in San Francisco the last six months, too embroiled in the case involving her father's killer on death row to have paid any attention to what was going on in the capitol with any real interest. Her return to the D.C. area a few weeks ago made her the perfect candidate. She wouldn't be up on the political scandal running in the newspaper a few months back, accusing a congressman of having an affair with a student at the University of Virginia. "For now," he said, "we will continue with things my way."
"Fine," she said, giving him an exasperated look. "As long as you realize you're a bit too paranoid. Surely you can trust the FBI?"
"I don't know who I can trust. And what I need is an identification without recognition." Anyone in this area during that time was bound to recognize Alessandra from those newspaper photos—should Alessandra end up being the victim. His gut told him that it was her skull in the box, though he wanted to believe otherwise. "So no government agencies. The last thing I need is to have Alessandra's name linked to the congressman, which could lead back to me."
Tasha eyed the box, taking a deep breath. "You really believe it's Alessandra in there?"
"I hope not. But until we know... How soon can you get on this?"
"I'd rather wait until I get Sydney on board."
"I'm not sure we have that luxury. Get started on the ID now. At least get me a preliminary report. Whatever it is you can determine from a skull. Tonight, convince your friend to do the sketch for identification, make it out like it's a random murder victim—let's hope that's what it turns out to be—and we'll be that much farther ahead. If you can't get her on board, I'm going to have to take your report elsewhere and find another artist."
Zach set the box on her desk. Her phone rang, and she jumped, then gave a nervous laugh as her secretary picked up the other extension.
"You sure you're okay?" Zach asked.
"Fine. Simple jet lag."
That was when he glanced over, saw what she'd been looking at on the computer screen. Egyptian curses, just as the secretary had mentioned. "Tell me you're not serious?"
"Maybe just a little on edge. I was, after all, digging in an Egyptian tomb reputed to have a two-thousand-year-old curse. Half the time I was there, I felt like someone was watching my every move. The other half was exhaustion over the constant charade while I accompanied a crew who thought me nothing more than an anthropologist associated with an academic research dig."
"Do you think anyone suspected you?"
"Does it even matter? Because of that dig, Alessandra is missing, and now you've found a body and—"
Her secretary poked her head in the door. "Some professor from the American Academy is on line one for you."
"The American Academy?"
"In Rome. Professor Francesca Santarella."
"Do me a favor. Take a message and tell her I'll get back to her."
"You sure you don't want to take it?" Zach asked. "I can wait."
She shook her head. "I contacted so many academic types on that dig that I can't recall if I should know the name. And the way I feel right now, I don't have the energy to keep playing my part."
Definitely stressed. He wondered if perhaps they were asking too much of her. "Tell me again about the Egypt trip."
She glanced at her computer, then back at him. "As I explained on the phone, more dead ends. If Carlo Adami set up that dig to cover for something, then he did a damned fine job. It looked like the real thing to me. Alessandra even thought so."
"You're absolutely sure?"
"Every person on the team was some sort of scholar. Frankly, I think Adami set up the dig as a way to deflect attention from something else. Maybe somewhere else. I was there for two weeks. The only weapons I saw were small-caliber pistols by the night security guards. As for a makeshift lab? Nothing in the vicinity that we could see. They definitely weren't shipping anything in or out. If there were any bioweapons, they were well-hidden among the artifacts being dug up, most of which would fit in the palm of your hand."
"And no idea why Alessandra left the dig for the States?"
Her gaze flicked to the box on her desk as she shook her head. "Alessandra said she wanted to check on some archeological facts."
They'd gone over all this before, but he was worried that maybe they'd missed something that might tell them what had happened to Alessandra. "What sort of facts?"
"I wish I could remember," Tasha said, looking troubled. "Something about three keys... The third key? Whatever it was, she said not to worry, that it was archeological research. Some biblical thing, I thought."
"Third key? You didn't mention that the first time."
"It was just such a strange conversation. At the time it meant nothing. Do you think it's important?"
He gave a shrug, brushing it off. "When did you last hear from her?"
"She called while I was still in Egypt, but I didn't get the message until several days later."
"That's what I don't like. No one's heard from her since." He rested his hand on top of the box. "And now there's this."
She didn't move, simply stared at the box. And even though she was a forensic anthropologist, and she had dozens more boxes like it on the shelves behind her, it was apparent that this one got to her. "Was it really necessary to do this?" she said. "A skull in a box?"
"If you saw her, yes. The pathologist is the one who insisted we had go this route. Bring the skull to you. Trust me, we tried everything else."
"Maybe there's another way. Surely DNA...?"
"She was adopted."
"What about her apartment?"
"Unfortunately, the cover story we thought would buy us time actually created a few problems. In theory, telling everyone that she was sent home to her father's, and wasn't expected to return back to UVA anytime soon, should have worked. We didn't take into account that her roommate, short on cash, figured to make a quick buck by subletting Alessandra's room, or that her new tenant would carefully launder and box up the clothes left behind."
"No toothbrush or hairbrush?"
"Alessandra probably had them with her. In hindsight, we should have created the cover story after we'd searched her room. But at the time, we didn't believe she was dead."
"What about dental records?"
"Still looking. Because of her father's occupation, the majority of her dental history is spread about in countries that don't keep such meticulous records. The records we found were inconclusive. We need a forensic sketch. If it is her, her father will want to—" He stopped, ran his fingers through his hair. "How did I ever let her get involved?"
Tasha looked up at Griffin. "Maybe her disappearance has nothing to do with this? Like I said, it was a legitimate dig. And maybe it's not her in that box."
"The boss wants something a bit more definitive than maybe it is or isn't her. And if it does have to do with Adami, then we need to be careful. You're absolutely sure this friend of yours will come through?"
"Someday you're going to have to learn to trust someone else's judgment."
"I've gone that route. It didn't work."
A loud bang echoed just outside the closed door. Tasha's breath caught, and she paled, even as her secretary called out, "Sorry. Just a box of file folders."
Griffin looked down at Tasha's hands, saw they were shaking. "What the hell is going on?"
"Besides too much caffeine? It's nothing," she said, clasping her hands in her lap. He crossed his arms, looked her right in the eye. "Fine. But don't laugh. It was this curse. I know it sounds odd, but just hearing about the damned thing gave me nightmares, and I haven't been able to sleep."
"Okay, I'll bite," he said. Even though he didn't have time for this, it was clear that Tasha needed to talk about it. "What does this curse do?"
She gave a sigh, then tried to smile, as though she knew how silly it was going to sound. "Allegedly anyone who enters the tomb will be dead within a fortnight. At least that's the rumor according to the locals we hired." She stared at the box containing the skull, as if to say, and Alessandra was in that tomb, so that proves it is true.
"That is not why Alessandra died—if this is her."
"I know you're right."
He wasn't sure what else he could do or say. "Maybe you should start your report on the skull tomorrow. You look tired."
She shook her head. "Trust me. I'll be fine. I'll even put myself together properly before I meet Sydney."
"Call me after your dinner. Let me know how it goes," he said, turning to leave.
"Zach?" He stopped, knowing what she was going to say. "I can go with you, if you like. To the cemetery. I have time."
"I'll be fine." He left, said good-bye to her secretary who was busy sorting through the files she'd dropped. He continued on down the long hallway, his footsteps echoing through the dimly lit corridor. Every office door but the one he'd left was closed. Above him a fluorescent light flickered, then went out. He heard the swish of the elevator door, apparently just missing it, and not wanting to wait, he took the stairs three flights down. Once he'd reached the street he pulled out his cell phone to call his office.
When his boss answered, Zach said, "Did Natasha Gilbert say anything to you when she returned from that dig?"
"I haven't even seen her. Why?"
"She seems on edge." He thought about the ridiculousness of this two-thousand-year-old curse she spoke of. "Whatever it is, I'm not sure she's telling me everything. She did recall that Alessandra spoke of a third key, but that was it."
"You're sure that's what she said?"
"I'm sure that's what Tasha said she heard." He hesitated before adding, "And she thought there was some biblical slant."
"Don't even go there. I don't trust Dumas."
"You don't trust anyone. Since he's the only religious expert we have, I don't see a way around it. We're going to have to contact him."
Zach knew that, but it didn't make things easier. Especially considering what day it was. "One more thing."
"I need a complete dossier on an FBI agent working out of Quantico. Someone named Sydney Fitzpatrick."
"This that forensic artist you're trying to use?"
"Tell me you have a good reason for me to get my hand spanked poking around in Bureau files?"
"Tasha's meeting her for dinner tonight. If she can't convince her to do this drawing, I may have to intervene and I want to know who I'm dealing with."
Griffin disconnected, dropped his phone in his pocket, then looked at his watch. Just enough time to get to the florist before it closed.
A fitting end to an already bad day, and he wondered if it could get any worse.
© Robin Burcell
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