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Authors: Curt Autry

Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General

The Reunion (4 page)

BOOK: The Reunion
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6

Carolyn navigated the collapsible stroller through the oncoming horde of senior citizens. They smiled and waved at Kenny as they continued their daily constitutional down the long corridors of Penn Square mall. The baby raised his little fist and waggled his chubby fingers at the old people. Kenny screeched and gurgled loudly when an old woman blew him kisses. He was such a happy baby.

She followed her biological mother past the Waldenbooks and through the long lines at the movie theater. She peered out the display window of a pet store and watched as Stephanie Cooper-Thomas strolled to the food court, placed an order at a concession window, and sat down with a foamy latte and a bagel.

They had made eye contact thirty minutes earlier in the lingerie department at Foley's. But there was no magical moment, no spark of recognition, when they gazed into each other's eyes while picking over bras and panties at the sale table.

Carolyn did, however, recognize the woman's walk. The swinging arms, the swift, confident stride was her walk as well. Carolyn smiled as she studied her mannerisms, the way she sipped the hot cup of latte and cocked her head as she flipped through a magazine. She was older and more refined, yet it was like looking in a mirror. At that moment, she knew her policeman had found the right woman.

Her blonde hair was stylish and short but soft and loose, not overly coifed like many women her age. And the fine lines around her eyes and mouth were barely detectable. A little touch-up from a good plastic surgeon, Carolyn surmised.

Impulsively, Carolyn darted out of the store and headed for the food court. Kenny was asleep in the stroller and didn't budge as the wheels clacked loudly over the large ceramic tiles. She ordered a large coffee and cinnamon bun and then pushed the stroller to the table adjacent to her mother's.

Carolyn nervously flopped down onto the wooden chair, placing the heavy diaper bag and her snack on the table. She strategically positioned the stroller where she could, for strength, catch a glimpse of her sleeping child. Kenny wrinkled up his little nose and let out a sigh of annoyance as his mother tucked the blanket under his head.

“He's a handsome boy,” Stephanie said.

“I'm sorry?” gasped Carolyn, startled that her biological mother had initiated a conversation. She noticed her warm smile.

Stephanie bent over to examine the child more closely. “Your son is a good-looking young man, and such a good little shopper too. My nephews would never sit still in a stroller for more than ten minutes.”

Carolyn couldn't resist. “Really? No little boys of your own?”

“No, never that lucky,” she replied. The woman flailed her arms. “But believe me, I got plenty of exercise chasing after my sister's kids. Run, run, run, that's all they ever did. Neither of them could sit still for a minute. They still can't.”

Carolyn's eyes shone. “Oh believe me, this one can be a handful. He's almost sixteen months old, and already is into everything.”

“He's a good boy, though. I can tell. I saw him in Foley's looking up at his mommy. Not a peep.”

Carolyn eyed the woman suspiciously. Did this woman know she was being followed? “You saw us in Foley's?” she asked.

“Oh yes. I never miss a man as handsome as that,” she laughed, pointing toward the child.

Carolyn extended her hand. “I'm Carolyn Baker.”

Her mother had a firm grasp. “Stephanie Thomas. Nice to meet you. What's his name?”

“That's Mr. Kenny Baker.”

Stephanie had made enough polite small talk. She smiled at them a last time and glanced back down at her magazine. “Well, you're a lucky young woman.”

“Yes I am,” she said, her eyes misting over. “Thank you.” Carolyn decided at that moment to toss aside any thoughts of confronting her. She just wasn't able. She turned her back and pretended to nibble on the cinnamon bun, secretly blotting her eyes with a napkin. She didn't want her birth mother to see her crying.

***

Stephanie didn't take long to breeze through her stack of decorating magazines. The articles held no appeal. She only stopped flipping when a particular photograph caught her eye. She was giving some thought to remodeling again. She did so every few years when the boredom became overpowering.

Stephanie eyed the line at Starbucks as she considered a second double latte. That's when she noticed that the young mother at the next table had repositioned her chair to face the escalator. It struck her as odd. She gazed at the girl's angular back. It seemed to heave and shudder every few seconds. Was she crying?

Instinctively, she reached for her purse. Stephanie always carried Kleenex. She also fingered her billfold to see how much cash she had on hand. Different scenarios played out in her mind. Maybe the baby needs something she couldn't afford, or maybe her car had broken down, stranding them at the mall.

Stephanie was an easy mark. She couldn't stand to see anyone or anything in distress. She clutched a handful of the tissues and eased into the chair next to Carolyn's.

“Honey, are you all right?” she asked.

Carolyn took the tissues and buried her face in them. She started to sob harder.

Stephanie slid closer, moving a hand to the small of her back. Carolyn could smell her expensive perfume. “Come on now,” her mother whispered. “If that beautiful boy wakes up and sees him mom crying he'll start crying too.”

Carolyn tried to compose herself, but the tears wouldn't subside.

“Is there someone I can call for you?” Stephanie asked, still rubbing her back.

Carolyn shook her head. She opened her mouth but couldn't form any words. Her chest heaved as she gasped for air.

“Then tell me, dear. What is it? What's the matter?” she pleaded.

Carolyn pulled the tissue from her puffy eyes but didn't have the nerve to look into hers. She turned her head away and blindly reached for Stephanie's shoulder.

The older woman didn't hesitate to take her into her arms. She smiled. It made her feel warm to be needed again. “That's okay, honey. I know, I know,” she said, letting a nervous giggle escape. “A new baby throws your system out of whack for a while, but it'll pass. I promise. It's all hormonal.”

“No,” Carolyn whispered in her ear. “I'm your daughter.”

7

The smell was overwhelming. Martin Dunlevy swallowed hard, fighting back the involuntary gagging spasm in the back of his throat. Typically, carnage was no problem for Agent Dunlevy. He had seen plenty of bodies in his seventeen years with the FBI, but the stench of burning flesh had become his weakness. He detected the nauseating odor two blocks away. By the time he reached the perimeter of the crime scene, even a handkerchief over his nose couldn't keep the smell of death from seeping into his pores.

Dunlevy was an expert in explosives, or he
had
been prior to the Atlanta fiasco. The agent had put together an all-star counter-terrorist team in the two years prior to the summer Olympics. When the call came, his men had covered Centennial Park with military precision. The lone casualty died of a heart attack, not from bomb shrapnel. There were three other devices his team uncovered and disarmed that month, details the suits would never release to the press. Had those bombs exploded there would have been more than a hundred killed and many more wounded.

During his stint in Atlanta, Dunlevy had never even been in the same room with Richard Jewell, yet the bureau made victims of both men. Barely ten days after the Olympic torch was doused, you could almost hear the careers of some two dozen agents start to fizzle. Dunlevy was reassigned to the Wilmington, North Carolina, field office, not exactly a region in need of an agent with his years of experience and specialized expertise.

“Give me the numbers,” he ordered, still holding the white handkerchief over his nose.

Franklin was short, no taller than five foot seven, well muscled to compensate for his height, and had a crew cut that he thought made him look menacing. “Twenty-six dead, eleven unaccounted for is where it stands now, but those figures will be changing quickly.”

Franklin had been in Beaufort since daybreak. He was only twenty-six years old, but very thorough. Dunlevy would never admit it, but he drew energy from the youngster's enthusiasm and often wondered if he had ever been that eager.

Local authorities had control of the crime scene for most of the night, but daylight brought agents from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, the ATF, and the FBI. A high-profile case like this would not be left to the Carteret County Sheriff's Department.

“How are my two survivors holding up?”

“They lost one of them since we talked last. The other has burns over ninety percent of his body. It doesn't look good.”

“Jesus Christ,” Dunlevy sighed. “What about ATF? They got anything yet?”

“They've only been here about three hours. They're in the preliminary stages. They
do
know it's a natural gas explosion and certainly no accident. Somebody spent a while under the building doctoring the gas pipes. Hell, there's even evidence the perp may have messed with the gas main under the street.”

There was no love lost between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, yet Dunlevy was regarded among the ATF's rank and file as one of the good guys. He knew their trade and talked their language.

“Who's the ATF agent in charge?”

Franklin flipped through his legal pad. “A real pain in the ass. He didn't want to tell me anything. Told me to send you over when you arrived and that he'd brief you personally.” Franklin continued to scan his notes. “Here it is. Anderson. You know the name?”

Dunlevy thought for a moment and shook his head. “Doesn't sound familiar.”

Franklin's eyes dropped. “Don't look now, but he's coming up behind you,” he whispered.

Dunlevy turned and extended his hand. “Agent Anderson, right?”

The short, stocky ATF veteran had the look of ex-military. He simply nodded.

“Franklin was just filling me in. What do we know at this point?”

He shrugged. “Not a lot. Natural gas is definitely the accelerant. And since we've confirmed the explosion hit at eleven o'clock straight up, it's a pretty good bet the ignitor was on some kind of timing device, maybe a simple alarm clock.”

“What's this about the gas main under the street?”

Anderson pointed toward Front Street. “There's a manhole almost directly in front of the building. Someone has been playing with the pipes. How about you guys? You have anything?”

“Not at this point, but since some of the victims were foreign nationals, we'll be pursuing this as a hate crime,” he said, subtly letting Anderson know the FBI would take lead jurisdiction. Dunlevy disliked the legislation designating some federal offenses as hate crimes; hate was the motivation for most murders.

“Keep me posted, would you?” Dunlevy asked. It was an order politely couched as a request.

“Definitely,” the ATF agent promised.

Franklin and Dunlevy moved on to the remnants of the structure's foundation. They jumped from one piece of charred wood to another, trying to avoid falling knee-deep in sodden ash. From a distance it appeared as if the two grown men were playing hopscotch in the rubble.

“Holy shit!” Dunlevy shouted as he lurched backward and landed in the soot.

“What?” yelled the startled Franklin as he instinctively placed his hand over his service revolver.

“I almost stepped in that,” he said, pointing to a badly charred torso and what appeared to be a second body immediately underneath it. Their limbs were entwined and indistinguishable. He had mistaken the corpses for a piece of debris. The bodies were wedged up against a stainless steel box, the remnants of the ice machine behind the bar.

“Oh Christ!” Dunlevy said, covering his mouth with his hand.

There were no recognizable human features—no hair, fingers, toes, or clothes. The only hints there had once been life in the heap of charred flesh were the shards of tooth fragments catching the light along an otherwise charcoal jawbone.

Dunlevy recognized one of the men on the coroner's team and yelled for him to bring over two red flags. The flags dotted the crime scene—macabre little reminders for the medical examiner as to the exact location where remains had been discovered.

A thin young man with thick glasses and a ponytail handed the markers to Dunlevy. He glanced, seemingly unfazed, at the grotesque bodies. “Husband and wife,” he mumbled.

Franklin looked puzzled. He leaned closer to get a better look. “How in the hell could you possibly know that?” he asked, amazed.

The young man let out a sigh and pointed to the top torso. “A man instinctively throws himself over his wife or children. Never a stranger or even a friend, just the wife and kids. Not that it ever does any good,” he said, letting out an inappropriate chuckle. “Since they both appear to be the right size and weight, my guess is husband and wife.”

The agents shook their heads in unison. The coroner's assistant was right. The husband's body had offered little protection. Death by fire had made them one.

***

It pained Dr. Ida Mosby to bend over to sort the bones from the embers. North Carolina's Chief Medical Examiner was at least one hundred pounds overweight. Dunlevy could hear her heavy breathing as he walked up behind her. Ida's girth was a wall she had built around herself as a little girl and, despite constant pleas from friends and family, the forty-year-old doctor never found the time or willpower to tear it down.

The people who berated Ida most about her size tended to be her best facilitators. Dunlevy had been guilty on more than one occasion, bringing back a cheesecake from one of her favorite delis when business took him to New York. Ida was well known for her caustic behavior and foul mouth, yet the weight and rancor certainly didn't define her. Most considered Dr. Mosby a brilliant woman.

“You're gonna be here a while, Ida,” he said with genuine pity.

Still on her knees, the M.E. didn't even bother to look up. “It's Dr. Mosby, big shot,” she snapped. “Actually, we got a break on this one, smart-ass.”

“Yeah, how's that?” he asked as he stood over her and listened to her pant.

“Most of these folks are veterans. That means I'll have dental records out the butt. The military loves to drill teeth, Marty,” she said, pulling a piece of charred clothing from an unidentifiable chunk of blackened flesh. “I'll have everybody identified, bagged and tagged in thirty days, at the most. I'll wash my hands of this case long before you do.”

“Most of these corpses are German, Ida,” he reminded her.

“Even better,” she said. “They're a meticulous race of people. They'll have even better dental records.”

Dunlevy didn't answer; he was mentally making a list of all the things he needed to do. He wanted his laptop. There were a dozen hate groups that needed to be researched. He received all the monthly postings and FBI memoranda on various paramilitary nut cases. Since the Oklahoma City bombing, the paperwork had become more frequent, but when you're the agent in charge of the Wilmington office you don't pay much attention.

The M.E. shifted her weight from one huge leg to the other as she dusted away ash that clung to the bodies. “What kind of fucking loon we got here?”

“Who knows, Ida. There's nothing intricate about the explosion. Some kind of simple detonator to trigger a big pocket of gas under the house. Nothing you couldn't buy at K-Mart.”

“Political extremists,” she grunted, still not looking up from her work.

Dunlevy shrugged his shoulders in exasperation. “Or maybe just a bereaved old man here in town who lost a brother or father in the Second World War.”

Ida sniffed hard and dug back into the work at hand. She didn't feel like playing detective. She had enough on her plate. “Good luck, Marty,” she offered, her concern genuine.

“Fax me your paperwork on this one, would ya?” he asked.

“Sure, but it'll be a while.”

Dunlevy turned to the west to see a caravan of satellite trucks in silhouette, their big round dishes pointed toward the heavens like flower petals opening to the morning sun. Just about every network affiliate with satellite capability within five hundred miles had arrived on the scene.

“Hey Franklin,” Dunlevy yelled. “Did you say there was a TV crew here before the explosion?”

“Yeah, a reporter and photographer from NBC. They barely made it to their car when the place went up. In fact, an EMT said the reporter passed out in the heat. I haven't talked to her yet. I've seen her, though. Sweet!”

Dunlevy rolled his eyes. “I assume they got some nice flame shots and all the firemen arriving. Maybe they'll give you a dub.”

“Why?”

“Because firebugs get a hard-on hanging around and watching their handiwork. Maybe the photographer inadvertently got a shot of our perp.”

“Okay,” Franklin said as he turned and headed toward the line of sat-trucks.

Dunlevy glanced toward the press area and then back at Franklin. “Hold up!” the senior agent yelled out. “You should hang here. I think I'd like to meet this reporter,” he said with a wink.

BOOK: The Reunion
6.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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