Home > Secrets Never Die (Morgan Dane #5)(15)

Secrets Never Die (Morgan Dane #5)(15)
Author: Melinda Leigh

The Randolph County Medical Examiner’s Office sat in the middle of the county municipal complex. Twenty minutes later, Lance paced the commercial gray carpet in the waiting area. The smell of burned coffee soured his stomach. Morgan leaned on the reception counter, trying to get information from someone on the ME’s staff.

“Conference room two,” the woman behind the counter said.

A few minutes later, the door opened. Tina and Sheriff Colgate entered. The sheriff walked close to her. One hand hovered near her elbow, as if he were afraid she would fall down at any moment, with good reason. Tina’s face had drained to the color of skim milk. Her hands trembled, and her steps were shaky. She looked like she was walking to the gallows.

Morgan went to her side, took her elbow in one hand, and wrapped the other around her shoulders. Without speaking—no words could possibly bring Tina any comfort at the moment—Morgan led her down the hall.

Following, Lance nearly gagged. The air felt syrupy enough to choke him. The staff tried to contain the scents of decomposition and formalin to the autopsy suites, but they seemed to permeate the walls. Lance could smell death, although maybe that was all in his head.

They stopped in front of a door marked with the numeral 2. Lance and the sheriff followed close behind. They filed into the room, the silence as thick as the odors that wafted down the corridor.

Dr. Frank Jenkins came in dressed in clean scrubs. “Please sit down.” He waited for Tina to ease into a chair, her hands clenching the armrests. Then Frank angled another chair to face her. When he was at her level, he gave her his full attention. “First, let me say that I knew Paul. He was a good man. I’m very sorry for your loss.”

Tina nodded. “What about—” She choked on the words, but they all knew what she’d been about to ask.

Frank nodded. “I’m trying to identify the body that came in a few hours ago. I can confirm that it is a young man in his late teens with short dark hair. He came in wearing jeans, Converse sneakers, and a black T-shirt.”

Tina’s breath hitched in her throat. “Just show me,” she croaked. “I’ll know if it’s my son.”

“I’m not sure you would,” Frank said gravely. “And I don’t want you to see him like this.”

When Lance had been on the SFPD, he’d worked with Frank. Lance had always thought the ME was a cold fish, but Frank had surprised him a few times lately. There was plenty of empathy on his face today. Maybe Lance hadn’t given Frank enough credit. Everyone in law enforcement became hardened as a survival technique. It was impossible to work with death on a daily basis without distancing oneself from it.

“I don’t understand.” Tina’s voice was as soft as a child’s.

Frank gritted his teeth. The ME needed to say something very unpleasant. “The young man’s face is not recognizable.” Frank paused, then finished in a soothing voice. “I believe he was hit by a car. We don’t have his fingerprints for a match, but we should be able to identify him by medical and dental records, which are on the way, and DNA.”

Tina gasped, a desperate sound. She collapsed into herself, weeping.

Morgan wrapped an arm around Tina’s shoulders and spoke to her in a low tone.

Lance jumped in. “Do you know how he died?”

“He had internal injuries but also a single GSW to the head.” Frank tapped his forehead.

Shot in the head, just like Paul. Grief pierced Lance right through the heart. He pictured Evan, his cheeks red with exertion, practicing slap shots on the ice, arguing about Game of Thrones in the locker room with his teammates, smiling when the team had won their first game. The memories overwhelmed him. Lance couldn’t reconcile the teenager he knew with a body on Frank’s table. His throat filled with a sadness so acute that he felt like he was swallowing sand.

Tina shook herself, straightened, and wiped her cheeks with her palms. Her eyes were bright with pain. “I can do it. I’ll still recognize my son without . . .” A sob cut off her words. Her lips flattened, and she took two long, steadying breaths through her nose. “I need to know.”

Lance couldn’t take it anymore. Tina deserved better than being left hanging about her son’s death.

He pushed off the wall. “I’ll go in. I know him.” He’d coached the teen three times a week for the last year. He’d seen him shirtless in the locker room a hundred times. The last thing Lance wanted to do was identify his dead body, but no mother should have to see her son in such a condition.

Frank got up. “OK.”

The sheriff stood. “Ms. Dane, if you’ll stay here with Mrs. Knox, I’ll go with Lance.” The body had been discovered in Redhaven, but if it was positively identified as Evan, the case would be officially related to Paul’s murder and transferred to Colgate.

Nodding, Morgan took Tina’s hand and held it tightly.

Lance’s feet seemed to weigh a hundred pounds each as he followed Frank down the hall to the autopsy suite antechamber. Lance and Colgate donned gowns, booties, and gloves. Lance carried the face shield in his hand. He’d always found the damned things claustrophobic. He wouldn’t put it on unless he had to.

Paul’s body was back here somewhere, he thought with a sick feeling, probably still bagged in the cooler. Was he still waiting his turn on the table?

The smells that had been faint in the waiting area exploded in Lance’s nose as he entered the autopsy suite. Bodies on stainless steel tables lined up in bays. The morgue had had a busy weekend. Acid churned in Lance’s belly.

Frank led them to the last table. “He came in about three hours ago, but we’ve been so swamped, we didn’t match him with the description of Evan Meade right away.”

The clothes had been removed. Lance saw them laid out on a nearby counter. A white sheet was spread out under them to catch any trace evidence that might fall off the clothing. Evan had been wearing a Game of Thrones T-shirt when his mother had last seen him. The shirt on the counter was a concert tee, but he could have changed before he went out.

Lance turned back to the body. A morgue assistant was photographing injuries. The body was long and lean, with the muscle tone of an athlete. Contusions on top of contusions covered the left side of the body.

“Damn,” Colgate muttered under his breath.

Lance had no words. Even if his brain could articulate what he felt staring at the young man’s corpse, his throat was too dry and clogged with emotion to allow him to speak. The corpse’s face was bruised and swollen beyond recognition. Lance stared at the ruined face, trying to match it to Evan’s. The shape of the head didn’t seem right, but the swelling had definitely distorted the features. And maybe Lance just didn’t want to believe it was Evan lying in the morgue.

Lance squeezed his eyelids shut for a second. He was no stranger to death, but he had to do this for Tina. He opened his eyes and scanned the rest of the body.

Frank pointed to the corpse’s forehead. “It’s hard to see, but there’s a bullet hole in the forehead here.” He moved down to the chest. “In addition to the facial bruising, the torso suffered serious damage. There’s significant bruising to the ribs and kidneys. His external injuries are consistent with being struck by a car.”

The sheriff cocked his head. “Someone ran him down with a vehicle, then shot him in the head?”

“We’re just getting started on the autopsy, but that’s what it looks like to me. I’ll call you immediately if the autopsy produces different answers.”

“How long has he been dead?” Lance asked.

Frank pursed his lips. “My preliminary window of death is between two and six o’clock this morning, but I’ll have to confirm that after I complete the autopsy.”

The hours fit the previous night’s timeline, and Lance couldn’t help but wonder, if he hadn’t waited for the police to arrive, if he had gone after Evan immediately, could he have caught up and saved him?

Sheriff Colgate shifted his weight. “Do you think it’s him?”

The hair was dark and short like Evan’s, although it was coated with mud and lake debris. The skin was pale, and like Evan, freckles dotted the neck and arms, areas where the sun had the most impact. Wait. Lance squinted at the belly. Most of the bruising was along the left side. The right was relatively clear. “Evan had an appendectomy over the winter. I don’t see his scar.”

“Are you sure it was visible?” Frank asked.

Lance pointed to the corpse’s abdomen, just below and to the right of the navel. “It was right about there last week.”

Frank moved to the table, adjusted the overhead light, and examined the right side of the abdomen. “No appendectomy scar.”

“Then this is not Evan.” Lance put a hand out to lean on the wall. His gaze returned to the clothing on the counter. Lance moved closer, noticing new details. The sneakers were high-tops, which Evan didn’t wear. Lance read the name of the band on the front of the T-shirt. Panic! at the Disco. Evan was all classic rock. He would never wear an emo band shirt. It was definitely not him. Relief weakened his leg muscles for a few seconds.

“I need to go out and tell Tina.” Lance turned and fled the room through the swinging door. He ripped off the PPEs and tossed them in a hamper without breaking stride. The sheriff followed, but the much older man couldn’t keep pace with Lance.

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