The dead woman lay in the clearing like a macabre version of Sleeping Beauty. She wore a modest, long-sleeved ivory gown, set off by luminescent pearl drop earrings and a matching necklace that almost hid the dried blood around her throat. Her head rested on a satin pillow, her silky walnut hair spread behind her like a fan. The right hand held a bouquet of wilted flowers and rested on her chest underneath the left, absent the fourth finger. The ring finger.
Sheriff Sam Tate stood to one side of the grim tableau, arms folded, and took it all in: the victim; the tall white-haired man who knelt by the body; the deputy who walked the scene in throwaway boots, snapping pictures; the pale young man in running gear sitting on a rock, head almost to his knees; the uniformed officer who squatted beside him.
Sam had dressed in her standard uniform of pressed black slacks and a spotless white shirt. A shaft of early-morning sun bounced off the polished badge at her left breast pocket. On her right wrist, she wore a utilitarian watch. Three small studs twinkled along one earlobe, her single visible concession to a rebellious streak. She’d pulled her unruly dark locks into a tight braid. Ray-Bans shielded her green eyes, though not the line that formed between her brows.
One of the victim’s low-heeled white pumps had dropped off to reveal a slim ankle in hosiery. Stockings, not pantyhose, held up by an old-fashioned garter. Sam didn’t need to look.
She lifted her eyes to the stately trees that hovered over the victim. Quercus alba. White oak, sturdy, long-lived, common to most of eastern Tennessee. These trees stood inside the Cordell Hull Birthplace State Historic Park, named for the native son who served as FDR's secretary of state. Hull, who authored both the income and the inheritance tax laws, wasn’t all that popular with the locals. His daddy, though, enjoyed a solid reputation as the owner of a thriving moonshine enterprise. The park even featured a visit to Bunkum Cave, site of Hull Senior’s former distillery.
I could use a drink right about now, Sam thought.
“Morning, Sheriff Tate.” Detective Abdi Issen’s slow drawl rolled across the clearing. He rose from his crouch, put a reassuring hand on the runner’s shoulder, and walked over. Though he’d likely been a half hour at the scene, he looked as crisp and pressed as she did. He favored his boss with a wide smile that lightened her mood.
Sam routinely thanked the fates that Abdi had agreed to move up to Pickett County from Nashville to help her out. In the process, he’d left a promising career and his close-knit family. It couldn’t have been easy being a dark face in a light community. Yet Abdi made it work.
“Morning, Abdi. What do we have so far?”
“Our Good Samaritan over there is Rich Deckler.” Abdi indicated the young man on the rock dressed in shorts and a sweat-stained T-shirt. “He ran by the body, stopped, called us, and upchucked, in that order.”
“Understandable. Might as well send him home. Any idea who she is?”
“Not yet. I took a digital scan of her fingerprints, but DOJ is slow to respond and not everyone is in the system. Seemed like a visual ID might be faster. Sent an image out to see if it connects to a recent missing persons report.”
His phone pinged. “Well, what do you know? Hold on here. Missing persons report was filed at the Madison precinct an hour ago. The woman is tentatively identified as Elizabeth Newsome, aka Bitsy, a Nashville real estate agent specializing in commercial properties.”
“Huh. Nashville is more’n two hours away. How’d she end up here?”
“No idea.” Abdi swiped at the screen. “The report was filed by a Mark Talcott, a lawyer who says he’s her fiancé. Their wedding was scheduled for mid-May. Ah, damn.”
They both took a couple seconds of silence.
“Abdi, I want you to call over there and let the officer who took the report know what we’ve found. They’ll assign a homicide detective. You know the drill. Make that person your best buddy. We need information on Ms. Newsome’s movements over the past few days. Everything from GPS and cell phone data to street cameras, if possible. Be cooperative, but make sure the detective on the case knows we own it.”
“You got it. What about TBI?”
Rural counties partnered with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for help with serious crimes such as drug or sex trafficking, kidnapping, and homicide. Sometimes the request ran through the district attorney general’s office. Other times a local officer would call directly to an agent they knew within the Criminal Investigative Division. Sam’s contact was Nate Fillmore.
“We will need their expertise,” she said. “I’ll call Nate as soon as I speak with Doc Holloway. Meanwhile, keep an eye on Ken.” She tilted her head in the direction of the focused young deputy. “I’m sure he’s being thorough. Still, you’re going to do some mentoring on this one, Abdi. We both are.”
Abdi nodded. He’d come up five years behind Sam at Metropolitan Nashville Police Department (MNPD), the last three as a homicide detective. Pickett County deputies, on the other hand, had little need to know much about murder investigations. Until recently.
Dr. Jedediah Holloway rose stiffly at Sam’s approach. Tall and silver-haired with a slight stoop, he appeared every inch a courtly country doctor, albeit one with emergency room experience and a stint as an army medic. The man had seen all manner of mayhem.
“Good morning, Samantha.” Doc Holloway was the only one who didn’t call her Sam or Sheriff. She found it rather sweet. “Although not good for this young woman,” he continued. “If you're expecting me to provide details at this juncture, expect to be disappointed. I won’t speculate.”
“I understand. We believe her name is Elizabeth Newsome.”
“Good to know. Ms. Newsome wore nail extensions and false lashes, both removed. Her face is makeup-free, her hair freshly washed, all things being relative. Based on lividity and temperature, she’s been dead more than a day but less than three. That’s all I know. Well, except what might appear obvious, which is that this is a homicide.”
Sam waited. She knew Holloway’s routine.
“Preliminary evidence indicates she died from a cut on each side of her neck. We’d call that sharp force trauma. The killer knew quite a bit about human anatomy.”
“The cuts are neat and deep, one across each carotid artery. The killer didn’t bother to slice across the throat. That way is messy but not always fatal. Hit the carotid arteries, you can count on exsanguination in less than a minute.”
“Wouldn’t a person have to saw through the upper layers to cut the deeper arteries?”
“Depends on the instrument used and the user’s skill. This killer earns high marks for expertise. An optimal stroke would require the victim’s head be pushed forward. The muscles become looser, which make them easier to slice. None of this head-thrown-back business like you see in the movies. Dramatic but unproductive.”
Holloway rubbed his neck. “Still, a set of cuts like this should generate a lot of blood. We have nothing. Wherever this happened, the perpetrator cleaned up thoroughly. Which suggests a working knowledge of forensic investigation or a neatness pathology.”
“Or both.” Sam bent down to look more closely at the victim’s throat. “Weapon?”
“Perhaps a knife. The Internet is filled with ads for military-style weapons. The forensic pathologist can tell us more, no doubt.”
“What about the ring finger?”
“If I had to guess, I’d say a cleaver. As you may have surmised, Samantha”—Holloway leaned over with a grunt and lifted the dress—“Elizabeth Newsome is wearing stockings with blue garters.” He dropped the hem.
“Just like the other four.”
“Including our own Claire Hooper, I’m afraid.”
Sam recalled an April day much like this one, the seasons suspended between spring’s promise and summer’s heat. A body under an oak tree in the corner of a park just inside Pickett County. Brown hair, mid-twenties, pretty, dressed like a bride. A local girl named Claire Hooper who looked forward to a June wedding.
Hooper followed three other victims, two in Florida and one in Georgia. All were twenty-something brunettes with only their premarital status and the details of their murders in common. The FBI came on board after victim three. The lead case agent, Terry Sloan, remained in pursuit of a serial killer his agency dubbed the Wedding Crasher.
Despite the involvement of multiple agencies, the investigation stalled. Four years, four ritualistic murders, no leads. No who or why, only when: at the top of the fourth month of the year.
Then last April passed without incident.
“Maybe the killer quit,” Abdi observed back then.
“Or he paused for personal reasons,” Sam suggested. “He might be staking out new territory. Either way, it’s not our problem. I’m not about to quarrel with fortune.”
Fortune was apparently not done with Pickett County. How else to explain another dead young woman dressed like a bride and laid out like a damned sacrifice?
“I’m guessing our victim was knocked out before her throat was slit.” Sam made a statement, not an inquiry.
“An autopsy will confirm,” Holloway replied.
“That’s your call, Samantha.”
“Goddamn it all to hell.”
Holloway looked at her, his eyes narrowed. “Has the Wedding Crasher returned to Pickett County?”
“You know me, Doc. I hate to speculate.” She intended it as a joke, but neither of them so much as cracked a smile. “Excuse me. I need to make a call.”
Sam had Nate Fillmore on speed dial. She’d met the agent when they worked the Hooper murder. A droll man with a supremely dry wit, he was married with two kids and a mortgage. He reported to the TBI offices in Nashville but lived in Algood, which put him closer to the region he served. Sam remembered he worked from home on certain days. She hoped today was one of them.
A child answered his phone. A little boy or girl. Sam couldn’t tell.
“Hey, there.” She spoke with the forced cheeriness of someone inexperienced at dealing with children. “Can I talk to your dad?”
Sam briefly closed her eyes. “I should have asked if you’d let me talk with him. Will you?”
Sam didn’t have the time or the inclination to deal with a deliberately oppositional young human. She debated whether to get into a lengthy discussion with this small creature about the responsibilities and obligations of a citizen of any age to help serve justice and the greater good. Then she heard Nate’s voice in the background.
“JoEllen, what did I tell you about answering Daddy’s cell phone?”
“This lady wants to talk with you.”
“Thank you, sweetie. I’ll talk and you get ready for school. Don’t forget your pink sweater.” The phone transferred hands. “Sam Tate, didn’t expect your name to pop up on my cell phone this morning. What’s going on?”
“I’m afraid I may be needing your services, Nate. We’ve got a body in the woods. Female. Mid-twenties. Throat slit. Laid out under the trees and dressed—”
“Like a bride. Ah, shit.”
“And then some.”
“You gonna make some other calls?”
“I’ll probably reach out to Cookeville.” The nearest FBI field office was a satellite of the larger one in Memphis.
“And our mutual friend in Tampa.”
Sam almost faltered. “Of course.”
“Because this may be a repeat performance.”
“Or a copycat.”
“Come on, Sam. What’s your gut telling you?”
How she hated that question. “I can’t afford to guess, Nate. The evidence as of this moment, evidence I need your people to review, suggests an MO identical to that used by Claire Hooper’s killer. It likely matches the three other open homicides as well.”
“So, the Wedding Crasher has returned to our fair county. Or never left.”
Sam didn’t answer. She swallowed the bile that rose in her throat and looked up again, hoping the old trees would deny the obvious. Instead, they stood as silent witnesses to an incontrovertible truth.