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Authors: Christine Gentry

Tags: #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General

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BOOK: Mesozoic Murder
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Shane sighed. “How are we supposed to do that?”

“Look in a systematic manner. Work the base of slopes and study the natural exposures. Examine the side light striking them. Turn over rock fragments. Get on your hands and knees if you have to. Use back lighting to prevent fossils from becoming translucent so you don't miss them altogether. And if you find something, let me know. All of us should see the fossil as you first found it.”

Ansel glanced at each student. “Before I let you go, I want to tell you about the Beastly Buffet at my father's ranch. It's next Saturday. You're all invited.”

“Isn't that where everyone brings a food dish made from a weird animal?” Lydia asked.

“That's right. The food is made from exotic animals, birds, fish, or other creatures. The weirder the better as long as it's not made from an endangered species.”

“How do we get there?” asked Tim.

Ansel pulled small paper sheets from the back of her field book. “The driving directions are on these.” She handed a flier to each student. “Now let's go fossil hunting.”

Lydia and Shane wandered off in different directions, but Tim remained. “Miss Phoenix, I was wondering if I could talk to you sometime about the Montana State University. I know you went there. I just got my Master's in zoology, and I want to go there for my doctorate.”

“That's wonderful, Tim. Sure, I'd be glad to discuss the university with you. We could meet at my art studio. I'm free Monday afternoon.”

“Great. What time?”

“How about two o'clock?”


“Give me your flier, and I'll write my address.”

Tim passed the paper, and Ansel scribbled across it. “I'll see you then. You'd better get hunting or those two will find something first,” she said with a grin.

Tim nodded and walked off. Ansel took a moment to write site information in her battered field notebook. Thoughts of her missing Iniskim invaded her mind. She'd have to go back to Pitt's homestead and search the ground.

Moments later Ansel closed the notebook and looked around. Lydia was staring into a gully. Shane probed the edge of an interesting rock outcropping, kicking at shale chips littering the prairie. Tim halted on the open grassland and snapped pictures of the terrain and of his fellow searchers.

Ansel loved fieldwork despite its demands as an exacting science, and she really wanted to convey the same sense of excitement and adventure to her students. It appeared that Shane and Tim didn't quite grasp the concept of making fascinating paleontological discoveries. Only Lydia was enjoying this excursion. The geology student had hopped into the gully and was examining the ground with fierce concentration.

As she walked toward Lydia, Ansel slid the journal into her pocket and pulled out a fossil hammer hanging from the tool belt around her waist. She reached the gully's edge and looked down. “Find anything interesting?”

Lydia brushed a curly lock of brown hair away from her perspiring brow. “I see something in this hole. I think it's a piece of gold, Ms. Phoenix.”

“Let me take a look.”

Ansel jumped into the three-foot-wide wash, then kneeled beside the opening. Natural erosion had loosened the dirt beneath a six-inch-long shale overhang. She could see the flash of gold metal a foot away. An unpleasantly sweet odor wafted outward.

“I see it, Lydia. Stand back.” Ansel got to her feet.

“What are you going to do?”

“I'm going to open up the hole with my pick. This is wild prairie. I know people who've been bitten by poisonous snakes, badgers, and even black widow spiders because they weren't careful.”

Ansel excavated the cavity, loose dirt falling easily away. She took several strikes at the rock overhang. Working the pick deeper into the gully wall, she finally exposed the mysterious object.

Lydia grimaced. “Shoot. It's just a pair of dirty, old glasses.”

Ansel picked them up. The plastic lenses were scratched and dirt-smeared. The left lens had a spiderweb crack radiating from its center. Shane and Tim appeared above them.

“What's going on?” Shane demanded.

Ansel glanced up. “Nothing much. We've uncovered some eyeglasses.”

Shane's face twisted into a smirk. “Great going, Lydia. Which dinosaur wore those?”

“Let's get back to fossil hunting,” Ansel said, trying to avoid any conflict.

Tim started to walk away and then stopped. “Geesh. What's that smell?”

“Pigs,” Shane shot back. “What do you think?”

The rancid odor Ansel smelled earlier had returned full bore. She noticed Lydia's straining effort to walk up the gully side. Her feet kept sinking deep into the loose soil. Curious, Ansel thought.

The wash had been dry since the March thaws, and it hadn't rained in months. The rest of the gully was bone dry and hard-packed. Despite the arid conditions, the flora around the gully flourished in the late June weather. A verdant growth of range grass and prickly pear had claimed most of the wash. Except for the area surrounding the hole. It formed a dead patch.

Ansel stared at the broken glasses. New glasses. And that foul odor of decay. Her head snapped upward.

“Lydia, get off that wall right now.”

Lydia stopped abruptly. Loose dirt shifted beneath her. She began to slide as chert and rock debris gave way in an avalanche of loose ground. Ansel loped to her aid, reaching up a hand so the girl could grab it. She hauled Lydia onto firmer ground at the bottom of the gully.

“You all right?”

“Yeah, Ms. Phoenix.”

“Well, he's not,” said Shane. He stared down at the new depression above Ansel and Lydia.

The dust-laden head of a man had emerged in the center of the collapsed gully wall. His swollen, pitted, and hideously mottled blue-green face protruded through the sandstone grit and gave the disconcerting illusion of being cut from marbled stone. Two angry, feasting sand scorpions scuttled out from the dirt around his chin. The three-inch-long, yellow and black arachnids snapped their pincers and twirled in a disjointed dance of death.

“Oh, my God.” Lydia threw her hands up to her face, shielding her senses from the sight and smell of the corpse.

Tim Shanks lifted his camera and clicked off a rapid succession of shots.

Ansel was too shocked to berate him. Her lungs sucked in rancid air while her mind tried to make sense of the hideous scene. The gold wire glasses. That face. Despite the disfiguring ravages of decay, she knew the man.

The glasses slipped from her fingers and fell with a thud next to the grave of her ex-lover.

Chapter 2

“Everything on the earth has a purpose.
Every disease an herb to cure it,
And every person a mission.”

Mourning Dove, Salish

Lieutenant Reid Dorbandt stared at the male victim decomposing in the gully. He reached to scratch an itch on his nose with a latex-gloved hand. No use. He kept forgetting that he was wearing a painter's half-mask because it did very little to keep foul fumes from entering his nose and mouth.

Bacteria had ballooned and pitted the corpse's flesh inside the jeans and long-sleeved shirt. Resourceful sand scorpions had also done a bang-up job of cutting skin off the exposed parts of the victim's face, neck, and hands, while burrowing beetles had gone for the soft parts. The eyes and lips were almost completely gone.

Dorbandt shook his head. The last thing he needed this morning was a murder that had
America's Most Wanted
potential. His heartburn shot acid up into his throat like a .38 Special loaded with dum-dum bullets, and he was certain that his gray, three-piece suit would never lose the downwind stench of pig feces and rotting man-meat even after drycleaning. He sighed and focused his eyes on the suited Doc Tweedy.

As the witnesses had been escorted to the farm house, the firefighters had cleared the dirt and territorial scorpions away from the corpse so the associate medical examiner could move in. The silver-haired Tweedy was on his knees in the gully, carefully palpating the victim's head. He resembled a giant, bug-eyed fruit fly inspecting a melon at the grocery store. At least he got to wear a full-faced floater's mask, Dorbandt thought with envy.

A small Crime Scene Unit and one other detective had moved into action, too, collecting evidence samples, taking photographs or site measurements, and sketching everything. Later they would collect more forensic clues from the corpse with forceps and vacuums. Yellow crime scene tape isolated a fifty-foot square running parallel to the wash and across the bottom. EMTs waited to bag the body and transport it to the coroner's office.

Murders weren't common in Lacrosse County, and Dorbandt felt like the site had become a freaking petting zoo. The only element missing was the predatory howl of circling reporters. Upon his arrival, he had assigned two uniforms to contain the scene. So far the rookies had done a good job, but with news like this traveling over police bands, it wouldn't last long.

At last Doc Tweedy left the body, stepped over the tape, and tossed his mask onto the ground before gazing at Dorbandt. “He's dead.”

“So my suspicions are confirmed.” It never failed to irk Dorbandt that MEs appeared at homicides to proclaim the obvious so that the real investigative work could begin. What a cushy job. “What killed him?”

Tweedy snapped off his fluid-stained rubber gloves. Then he pushed them into a plastic bag for disposal in a bio-hazard container carried by the CSU. “You're not going to like it.”

“I rarely do.”

“I don't know for sure.”

Dorbandt's eyebrows rose. “No kidding?”

“No kidding.” Tweedy picked up his bag, floater's mask, and clipboard. “Let's move upwind. He stinks worse than sheep shit in July.”

Tweedy walked toward his unmarked car, positioning the clipboard so he could sign the top sheet with a flourish, officially authorizing a post-mortem exam. They stopped twenty yards from the makeshift grave.

“Now where was I?”

Dorbandt pulled off his mask, snapping one ear painfully with the elastic strap. Except for the reek of pig, the air smelled better. “You don't know what killed him.”

Tweedy nodded. “That's right, but I found an ante-mortem puncture on the back of his neck. Looks like a needle hole.”

“Somebody gave him a shot?”

“Yeah. Might have been a sedative or a narcotic to get him out here without a fuss. Might have been something else altogether.” Tweedy gazed back at the victim.

Dorbandt grimaced. “Shit. When you get that faraway stare, I know two and two won't add up to four. What's eating you?”

“He's got anterior and posterior post-mortem insect bites, but he's also got an inordinate number of ante-mortem lacerations and bruises on the head, shoulder blades, back, buttocks, and calves. His fingernails are badly torn, and the palms and elbows took a pummeling. These aren't defensive wounds, and they aren't the result of being beaten or dragged. They came from a sustained trauma. I think they're self-inflicted.”

“You think the drug caused him to thrash around?”

“I can't be that specific. However, given this rocky terrain and his wounds, I do believe he suffered from convulsions or seizures. The toxicology screen will identify the drug.”

“Not much to work with.”

“Well, I know that he didn't have an easy death. Who is he?”

“According to one of the witnesses, his name is Nicholas Capos. He was a botanist from Glasgow. Married. No children.”

“What a waste. Anything else you want to know?”

“How long has he been dead?”

“Hard to tell.” Tweedy spoke with consideration. “More than a couple weeks. The weather's been cool so decomposition has slowed down, and there aren't a lot of bugs. Howdun will have to give you an approximate time of death after his autopsy.”

Howdun was the deputy coroner. Since Sheriff Bucky Combs was also the elected county coroner and on a fishing vacation along the Kootenai River, Howdun had to fill in on this one. Dorbandt suspected Bucky would spit metal sutures when he learned how he'd missed doing the autopsy on one of the most gruesome homicides to pop up in years.

“Hokay. Thanks. One more thing, Doc. Have you got anything in your little black bag that cures heartburn? My stomach is killing me.”

“Sorry. You been eating a lot of chocolate?”

“Yeah. I'm a chocoholic,” Dorbandt admitted, thinking of the malted breakfast drink he had chugged down that morning.

Tweedy chuckled. “Chocolate's the worst thing for a weak esophageal sphincter. It has a chemical in it that relaxes the stomach valve. I've seen plenty of stiffs with a one-way valve that swings like a doggy door. Take it easy, Reid.” The ME hobbled away.

“See you.”

An acid burp propelled past Dorbandt's tonsils with nuclear intensity. That would teach him to share his gastrointestinal ills with a slice-and-dice man. Too much information. He slapped his notebook shut. He'd peruse the area and then get to the next pressing issue: interviewing witnesses.

From his shirt pocket, Dorbandt pulled a slip of paper which a deputy had handed him earlier. It contained preliminary information about the people who found Capos. His eyes immediately locked on the first name. Anselette Phoenix.

No. It couldn't be. He had hoped his luck would change sometime today. Sure, Dorbandt ruminated, and black pigs could fly.


Ansel shifted uncomfortably in the wooden chair at Pitt's kitchen table and tried not to look overly nervous. After all, the detective introducing himself in a deep voice as Lieutenant Reid Dorbandt had to ask questions. The suited cop had nothing to do with the fact that her seat bore an unnerving likeness to a wooden electric chair. Lydia, Shane, and Tim had already been questioned and dismissed.

Three hours after finding the body it was her turn, and she felt sick to her stomach. Pitt's kitchen, though clean and orderly for a widower, smelled of greasy pork sausage. She was totally drained by disbelief, sadness, and worry. Losing her lucky stone had heralded more than just bad luck for herself. Who in the world would want Nick dead?

Dorbandt stared at her from his seat across the table. Ansel had seen that speculative gaze a hundred times. Her mixed Blackfoot heritage, evident in her high cheekbones, caramel skin, and raven hair, often evoked curiosity. Dorbandt was sizing her up, and she met his blue eyes without hesitation.

Ansel gave Dorbandt the once over, too. When standing, he looked over six feet. Early thirties with brown hair clipped into a short, squeaky-clean professional cut. He looked hot and tired. A brown holster strapped beneath his right shoulder told Ansel that he was a lefty. It was also a grim reminder of the seriousness of the situation.

Dorbandt fixed her with an unblinking stare. “Are you related to Chase Phoenix?”

Ansel tensed, surprised by Dorbandt's first question. “I'm his daughter. Do you know my father?”

“I've never met the guy. Just heard of him. He owns a big cattle ranch, doesn't he?”

“Yes. The Arrowhead. Who mentioned his name?”

“My supervisor. Captain Ed McKenzie.”

“McKenzie is my father's friend?”

“I don't think so.” A strange smile softened the edges of Dorbandt's square jaw line. “I didn't know he had a daughter.”

“I went to college and worked out of state, but I've been back in Big Toe for two years.”

Dorbandt pulled out a pen and leather pad. “I need to verify information. You don't mind if I make notes, do you?”


“You're Anselette Sarcee Phoenix. Home address is 77 Platte Road. Born December 14th, 1973?”


“What's your occupation?”

“I'm a freelance paleoartist doing fossil artwork for magazines, books, and museums.”

“I'm curious. Where'd you go to school to learn all this?”

“Montana State University in Bozeman.”

Dorbandt scribbled in his notebook. “Bozeman. Isn't that where that famous fossil hunter works? The guy who dug up all those dinosaur nests.”

“Jack Horner?”

“Yeah. You ever meet him?”

“Yes. He's the curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies. It's affiliated with the university.”

“Hokay. What were you doing in Pitt's field this morning, Miss Phoenix?”

“I was conducting a field seminar in fossil hunting for the Pangaea Society. I'm the president.”

“What does this society do?”

“We're a non-profit, community-based organization devoted to the study of fossils. We try to advance the state of the science, educate the public, and collect and identify fossil specimens.”

“Can anyone join this society?”

“Yes. It's open to any interested amateurs or professionals. Even children.”

Ansel continued to answer as Dorbandt's questions led her up to Lydia's discovery of the hole in the gully, and she began to shiver inside the stuffy little room. “Lydia saw something gold inside the hole. I saw it, too, but couldn't tell what it was so I used my pick hammer to open the entrance. There was an unpleasant smell.”

Dorbandt looked at her with new intensity. “Go on.”

“I found a pair of broken glasses.”

“Then what happened?”

“Lydia walked up the side of the wash. The dirt kept moving under her. That's when I knew something was wrong.”


“The smell got worse, and I noticed that the rest of the gully was hard-packed and choked with vegetation. I wondered about this barren patch above the hole. On my father's ranch we called circular, dead spots like that beef cakes.”

“Why is that?”

“Because it's the spot where a cow dies and decomposes for a couple weeks. The body fat liquefies and leaches into the ground. This causes the soil to become so acid that nothing will grow there. The same happens if you bury a cow close to the surface. I realized it was a grave.”

“How did you discover the body?”

“The dirt wall collapsed, and we saw Nick's face. I couldn't believe it. I still don't.”

“You called 911?”

Ansel nodded. “I went back to my truck and used the cell phone. A sheriff's officer arrived twenty minutes later.”

Changing tracks efficiently, Dorbandt asked, “You told this officer that Capos was a botanist. Do you know where he worked?”

“ Yes. He worked at the Montana Monitoring Cooperative in Glasgow.”

Dorbandt scribbled. “Did Capos belong to your society?”

“Yes. He was the vice president.”

“How long was he a member?”

“About four years.”

“And what was your relationship with Capos, Miss Phoenix?”

Ansel's mouth went dry. Now what she going to say? She'd only slept with Nick one night. He had simply caught her at a weak moment, and she'd been drinking. After that one lapse of good sense, they had returned to being just friends.

“I was a friend and colleague.”

“When did you last see or talk to him?”

“About three weeks ago. At the last board meeting for society officers held at my workshop. June second. Eight to ten in the evening.”

“How did Capos act?”

“What do you mean?”

“Was he unusually sad, excited, or angry about anything?”

“Perfectly normal as far as I can remember,” Ansel said honestly.

“Did Capos have any problems with other members?”

Ansel tensed again. Police interview or not, she didn't like spreading gossip. She wanted to go home. Her stomach felt better, but a dull ache pounded in her left temple.

“Nick didn't get along with Dr. Cameron Bieselmore, but Cam isn't an easy person to deal with.”

“Spell that last name for me, please.” When she did, he asked, “What was the problem between them?”

“Cameron is the director of the Big Toe Natural History Museum. He hired Nick to design the plant displays surrounding some dinosaur models. Nick wanted to include some ideas in the dioramas Cameron didn't like. They argued, and Nick walked off the project. The delay cost a lot of extra time and money.”

“When did this happen?”

“June of last year.”

“Who else did Capos have a problem with?”

“I don't know. He rarely discussed his problems with me.”

“And his wife's name is Karen?”

Karen. She hadn't thought much about her. What would she do now that Nick was dead? “That's right.”

BOOK: Mesozoic Murder
6.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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