Greg knew he should have called the police right away, but there didn’t appear to be any immediate danger. The body was definitely dead – cold and stiff to the touch, and already appearing a sickening shade of gray in the dim light that filtered through the remaining autumn leaves.
He looked back in the direction of his house in the new subdivision. Only half a dozen homes were completed so far, and he loved the peace and quiet of a nighttime walk through these woods. He knew it was only a matter of months before he truly lived in a neighborhood, with traffic and meetings about drainage and all that, but for now he could almost imagine that he lived in a remote cabin in the Smoky Mountains. Only the faintest glow from the carriage lights by his garage door told him how far he’d walked.
Farther than usual, he thought. Actually, I don’t know if I’ve ever come this far before. I wonder how long this body has been here.
He considered it for a moment, impressed with himself for not having a more emotional reaction. He wasn’t worried about having walked too far; he had a great sense of direction. And the body? Well, he loved all those forensic investigation shows, and read lots of books about crime. He considered himself a bit of an amateur expert. Sure, he didn’t exactly know how to run the experiments and the official methods for collecting and preserving evidence, but those were technicalities. He could learn those things if he had to. He understood the concepts, which made him more knowledgeable than most.
For example, he knew the phrase “every contact leaves a trace,” which was so fundamental to the forensic investigator’s trade that it went deeper than a motto or even a mantra. It was a given.
He knew that he had touched the body to check for a pulse, and a good forensic investigator might be able to prove it. Even if he had touched a spot that wouldn’t pick up a fingerprint – some of the clothes on the body would never get a viable print, thanks to the fabric and the weave of the cloth – but if even one nearly-microscopic fiber of that cloth got snagged on a rough spot on his callused fingers, a match could be made. Or maybe he’d leave some… what was the word?… epithelials. Dead skin cells that might slough off.
However, he also knew that the television shows weren’t exactly realistic. People often got the idea that police could take an item of clothing and simply look at every square inch of it under a microscope to see if any of those epithelials were on there. Greg knew that the police rarely had enough reason to expend that kind of time and money. He always marveled at how easily the TV crime labs seemed able to fund their investigations. Some of the chemicals needed to process those scenes were really expensive, and they were reserved for particularly big or difficult cases.
Greg wondered if this case would be big or difficult enough. After all, it was one dead body, lying in a small wooded area in what was, basically, the outskirts of nowhere. They were only half a mile from the highway, but there was nothing else here but those six houses. This guy definitely wasn’t one of Greg’s neighbors. When there are only twenty people living on a street, and half of them are kids, it’s easy to keep track of everyone.
Greg carefully circled the body at what he thought was a reasonable distance of three feet. He knew his shoeprints were probably already left in the slightly muddy ground next to the body, but he was already going to have to explain his presence to the police. He figured if they were able to discern that he had walked around the body, he could just explain that he was in a bit of shock.
And if they ask why I didn’t call immediately, I’ll claim I left my cell phone at home, so I had to walk all the way back, he thought.
The body had no readily apparent wounds. No gunshot or stab wounds, which was simultaneously disappointing and a relief. Greg sometimes had to turn away from the gorier scenes on TV.
No obvious bruises. No obvious cuts. It seemed like the man had simply lay down and died. Maybe a heart attack or a stroke?
Except there was another thing Greg had learned from those forensic shows – and that’s how murderers dispose of the bodies after they’ve killed someone.
Some murderers simply find a place to hide a body. That could run the gamut from simply dumping the body in a river to hacking up the corpse, putting the pieces in a garbage can, filling it with cement, and burying it six feet deep in a remote plot of wild land. The more determined a person is to hide a body, ironically, the more evidence there usually is. And the harder someone tries to hide a body, the guiltier they usually feel.
Some murderers simply leave the body as it is and walk away. These killers are either far too frightened to stick around, or so apathetic to the life of the victim that they feel any fallout doesn’t concern them.
Some murderers try to disguise the scene to present misleading facts to investigators. Wives who kill their husbands might try to make the scene look like self-defense. Husbands who kill their wives might try to make the scene look like a burglary gone bad. Businessmen who kill their partners might try to make it look like a suicide.
But then there were the ones who posed their victims in some ritualistic way… and that’s what had Greg so fascinated by the scene.
The body itself was unremarkable – a bald white man with a long jaw and a pointy chin, physically fit without being too muscular, dressed in a nondescript black shirt, black pants, and black shoes, a dull gold belt buckle and a thin chain around his neck the only real spots of color. In fact, it was the glint of moonlight sneaking through the branches above and glinting off the buckle that first made Greg notice it.
But underneath the body were several rocks that were clearly laid out in a pattern. It reminded Greg vaguely of a bed of nails, in that the rocks were squarely aligned with one another. Each rock was no bigger than a pineapple, all were about the same size, and they were positioned about two feet across and about six feet long, supporting the body completely.
At first, Greg hadn’t even noticed them; they were so dull and non-reflective that it had taken his eyes a moment to even register their presence.
And now, looking around, he noticed even more rocks hidden in the shadows among the trees. Many of them appeared to be placed deliberately. Slowly he turned around, squinting into the darkness, trying to see if there was a regular pattern to these stones. Instead of being a grid like the one under the man, they were in a line. As he completed his rotation, he recognized that they seemed to be inscribing a circle around the body.
Okay, this is getting creepy as hell, he thought.
He looked back at the body, trying to carve the image into his brain for when he spoke to police… and probably the news, too, he smiled.
A small wind picked up, rustling the remaining leaves on the trees and sending a number of them floating down to the ground. Greg closed his eyes and breathed deeply to calm himself; despite the morbid situation, he reminded himself of how pleasant it was to be out in the woods on a quiet night like this, listening to the breeze and the sounds of insects.
His eyes popped open.
He wasn’t hearing any insects. No cicadas, no general low thrum of clouds of mosquitoes that populated these woods, and no crickets.
In fact, when the wind died down, the only sound at all was his own breathing and the chorus of tiny noises made by the fabric of his clothes and the creaking of his joints.
There shouldn’t be this silence, he thought. Especially if this body is cold… there should already be bugs investigating.
He racked his brain for everything he could remember, feeling more and more unease as he stared at the body.
The “fresh” stage of decomposition…
Pallor mortis, the body turns pale because the capillaries near the surface aren’t getting blood any more. Happens within half an hour.
Livor mortis, the blood drains to the lowest spot, leaving apparent bruises… well, I can’t see that, but it’s dark and I’m not moving the body… maximum lividity within six to twelve hours.
Algor mortis, the body temperature eventually evens out to match the surroundings. Usually it drops two degrees Celsius during the first hour, one degree Celsius after the first hour… damn it! I have no idea what the temperature is or how to convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit… but he’s cold. It has to have been several hours. As much as a day? What’s the other method… regular body temperature minus current temperature divided by something… Damn it.
Rigor mortis, the body stiffens… starts within three hours and is complete within twelve, goes away after three days. Definitely complete. Between three hours and three days…
But the bugs! Blowflies show up during rigor mortis. They can smell death from up to ten miles away. This place should have blowflies everywhere. There should be all sorts of nasty creepy-crawlies near every tender spot on his face…
Greg’s heart began to race as he glanced back to his house in the distance. Suddenly he wanted very badly to get back within the confines of his bedroom, and to call the police and let someone else deal with this. Being a forensic investigator wasn’t nearly as appealing as he’d always imagined.
The sudden pressure he felt seemed to be internal, as if all his muscles had decided to tense simultaneously. He turned back around to face the body, as if compelled.
The body, which was now six inches from his face and very much standing under its own power, smiled darkly at him. Its hand reached for his throat.