That Darkness: New Excerpt

In her first Gardiner and Renner novel, That Darkness, bestselling author Lisa Black draws from her experience as a forensic investigator to create two fascinating characters in crime fiction: a killer with a unique sense of justice and a woman in a lifelong relationship with death.

As a forensic investigator for the Cleveland Police Department, Maggie Gardiner has seen her share of Jane Does. The latest is an unidentified female in her early teens, discovered in a local cemetery. More shocking than the girl's injuries—for Maggie at least—is the fact that no one has reported her missing. She and the detectives assigned to the case (including her cop ex-husband) are determined to follow every lead, run down every scrap of evidence. But the monster they seek is watching every move, closer to them than they could possibly imagine.

Jack Renner is a killer. He doesn't murder because he enjoys it, or because he believes himself omnipotent, or for any reason other than to make the world a safer place. When he follows the trail of this Jane Doe to a locked room in a small apartment where eighteen teenaged girls are anything but safe, he knows something must be done. But his pursuit of their captor takes an unexpected turn.

Maggie Gardiner finds another body waiting for her in the autopsy room—and a host of questions that will challenge everything she believes about justice, morality, and the true nature of evil…

CHAPTER TWO

Monday, 4:15 p.m.

Maggie Gardiner’s neck had started to ache about an hour before, and now protested with quick tremors that shot past her shoulder blades and raced along her spine. She didn’t move. Two more of the blasted things and she’d be done. Not done for the day, of course, just for that case.

“Unidentified female,” Denny announced as he walked into the lab. She could hear his footsteps wading through the two counters filled with sinks and gas nozzles and microscopes in order to reach her desk. “Down at the morgue. She was found this afternoon. I know it’s late, but can you run over there and get her prints?”

Maggie didn’t look up, but kept her eyes hovering above the two round magnifying glasses on their squat legs, side by side above two different inked fingerprints. Below the lenses she used two evil-looking metal spikes, slightly thicker than syringe needles, to keep her place as she moved along the tiny ridges of the skin patterns. “Twenty-three pawn slips. This guy pawned his ill-gotten gains in twenty-three different places, like he thought that would help. It only means they can charge him with twenty-three counts. If they charge him at all, of course.”

“The purpose of the justice system is to pursue all wrongdoing,” he agreed piously. “Problem is, there’s too little justice system and too much wrongdoing.”

“And he’s got some of the worst prints I’ve ever seen. I think he washes his hands in battery acid,” Maggie continued to whine as she finished up the comparison and put down her pointers.

“Or he’s a roofer, or a bricklayer,” her boss answered absently, citing two of the professions that are hardest on the skin’s surface. “If you can’t go, I’ll stop there on a roundabout route home.”

She took the sheet of paper he handed her, straining her already pained neck to look up at him. Denny stood well over six feet, his black skin glistening, a worried wrinkle appearing between his eyebrows that had nothing to do with either the unidentified body or Maggie. His wife was about to produce their third child . . . but truthfully Denny always looked like that. He was a worrier.
And the coroner’s office really hated to have their hallways crowded with gurneys while they waited on a fingerprint officer to collect prints.

Maggie shoved aside the twenty-three pawn slips without reluctance. “I’ll take care of Jane Doe. You go home and get some sleep. Save some up for after the baby comes.”

“I wish it could work like that,” her boss muttered.

“Picked out a name yet?”

“My wife’s leaning toward Jessica but I like Angel. What do you think?”

“Angel sounds . . . optimistic.”

“Given what I’ve experienced of fatherhood so far,” he said, “it’s more like delusional.”

 * * *

She took Chester Avenue down to University Circle, driving a Taurus she had checked out of the city vehicle pool. She had sold her own car when she moved into a loft downtown, within walking distance of the huge Justice Center complex that housed the police department—including the labs—the courtrooms, and all the offices for the attorneys, judges, clerks, civil division, and records that accompanied them. Parking a car cost too much and she never seemed to go anywhere else, anyway.

Cleveland looked good as the sun slipped toward the horizon, one of those spring days with a cobalt-blue sky and fluffy clouds making the reckless promise of a summer to match. Well, the sky looked good; parts of Chester were not exactly picturesque.

Maggie had worked as a civilian criminalist for the police department for fifteen years; she’d started in serology, did some DNA, but they kept threatening to hire only people with doctorates for DNA and even if she had one it meant she’d be stuck in the lab pipetting liquid into tiny test tubes for eight hours a day. Instead she went into crime scene. She began to work with fingerprints (cross training, Denny said innocently), which then became an increasingly large chunk of her job over the years. Maggie didn’t fight this; as she passed thirty she learned to avoid the unpredictable hours and late-night wake-ups of crime scene work as much as possible.

Fingerprint examination was comfortable—comfortable hours, comfortable surroundings, comfortable coworkers. She couldn’t say she enjoyed it because there was little to enjoy about fingerprints; they were pretty much pure tedium. Maggie drew herself to routine even as it oppressed her, like piling on the blankets because the bed is cold, knowing all the while that you’ll wake up at 2 a.m. sweating your ass off. But the next night you feel cold and pile them on again.

So when she needed a break she would double as the lab’s microscopist, an outdated term for the outdated art of looking at really tiny things under a microscope. It gave her eyes a chance to strain in a different way and could be equally peaceful, just Maggie and an ancient Zeiss comparison scope that she wouldn’t let Denny replace because anything the city could afford to purchase in this day and age wouldn’t be as good. And of course she still had to do her rotation on crime scene duty. All this kept her busy. Busy felt good.

She pulled into the tiny lot behind the battered, three-story building, searching carefully for a parking space; parking next door at the medical school would require the rigmarole of getting reimbursed for the two or three dollars it cost. Maggie wouldn’t be there that long.

A guy in a white coat pulled out of a skinny space at the end of the row, grabbing an early end to his workday, and Maggie wedged the pool car into it. A few more clouds had joined the last and the sunlight dimmed that much more. The air was cool but not crisp, already debating how much humidity it might drop on the city during the summer months.

Maggie knew she had to be the only person at her lab who actually liked going to the coroner’s office, and not because she harbored a tendency toward necrophilia. First, it got her out of the lab without requiring great exertion or getting dirty, as when dusting an entire house with fingerprint powder. Second, the coroner’s office was a bright, bustling place with remarkably cheery people. They had pressure, certainly, were as overworked and underpaid as any other government office with no control over their work flow—when people die, they die, and on some days more die than others. But unlike a hospital the patients here were already dead and no worse fate could befall them, and unlike a police department they weren’t on the front lines for the public’s wrath.

All in all, it seemed a pretty cool place to work. Maggie often thought she would apply for an opening there herself, except they rarely came up and she would feel like a skunk if she left Denny.

Maggie wore a uniform of sorts, baggy pants with lots of pockets and an unflattering polo shirt with the police department’s logo embroidered over one breast, so the intake person standing on the dock having a smoke felt no qualms about opening the door for her. She thanked him by name and went inside.

The smell promptly hit her—another reason she had never actually applied for a job there—a combined miasma of slaughterhouse and disinfectant. She tried to keep her breaths shallow and strode up the back hallway, tiled halfway up in burgundy ceramic with light from various doorways spilling into it. She could have been strolling through an old school building if not for the gurneys lined up along one wall. The corpses lay still under their white sheets. Maggie did not look at them and hoped they did not look at her.

Despite the relatively late hour the autopsy suite was in full swing—suite being a bit of an overstatement for a thirty-by-twenty room with three tables and one long counter. Three victims rested on the tables, with one doctor and one assistant working on each. The smell intensified.

Maggie gravitated to the lone female victim, hoping this would be her Jane Doe. If not she would have to go looking for the victim in the cooler. The cold would make the fingertips that less malleable and the walk-in cooler gave her the creeps. She was fine with the bodies; she just hated the cooler.

Maggie greeted the doctor, consulted her sheet, and confirmed that this was indeed their unidentified white female, approximately twelve to fifteen years of age, pale blond hair that appeared to be natural, blue eyes that now stared through Maggie with a mute, startled horror. Her autopsy had nearly reached its end. The chest cavity had been flayed open and emptied so that when Maggie looked inside she could see the girl’s spine. The remains of her dissected internal organs rested in a red plastic biohazard bag settled between her legs.

It seemed a horrible violation to someone so young and small—but it was also the only way to find out exactly what had happened to her. Maggie had seen plenty of autopsies in her time. She pushed any qualms, any stabs of sympathy, to the back of her mind where she could deal with them later.

“I’d guess fourteen, if pressed,” confided the pathologist, a portly guy about her age. “But the dentist can probably tell you better. Five-three, sorta normal weight for her size in this day when all teenage girls think they have to be anorexic.”

“Empty stomach,” the deiner put in, sweat turning his black skin glossy. It had been a long day indeed; usually autopsies had been completed by two or three in the afternoon, and anyone new who came in after the room had been cleaned would wait until the following morning. He used a scalpel to slit the girl’s scalp across the crown from ear to ear, preparing to take out the brain. “Maybe she was hungry instead of fashionable.”

The doctor nodded. “Could be. Certainly she hadn’t had a lot of dental care in her life. And the few fillings she does have look—weird.”

“Weird?” Maggie repeated.

Shouting to be heard over the bone saw, the doctor said, “Can’t put my finger on it, just not like what I normally see. I’ll have the odontologist take a look at them.”

“And no one has reported her missing,” Maggie muttered to herself, the words lost among the chatter of the doctors and deiners, the hiss of the sinks, the clatter of the scales and the scalpels as disembodied organs were dissected and weighed. Autopsies were a lot of work, and she didn’t offer to help with any of it. Maggie wasn’t there to assist, only to observe.

The girl was probably a runaway. Parents who cared would have realized by now that their child hadn’t come home from school or her friend’s house or wherever and would have called the cops, but kids living on the street didn’t have this backup system. Still, very few of them wound up on an autopsy table. Babies died often, either from abuse or accident or SIDS, but children remained largely absent from the coroner’s office until they reached their mid-teens and entered the drug trade.

Maggie took a moment to read the rest of her sheet, which gave the vitals of the crime. The girl had been found by a secretary returning from lunch, taking the scenic route through the Erie Street cemetery. The victim had been stretched across the spring grass, wearing nothing but a long T-shirt.

“She was killed in a cemetery?” Maggie asked.

The doctor prodded a hematoma that had formed on the brain beneath a skull fracture. “Yeah. I can’t figure out what that is—ironic? Poignant? Symbolic?”

“Got a guestimate time?”

“From rigor, I’d say last night. Insect activity starting up, as well, so she was there for some time before someone finally saw her.”

“Not surprising. That cemetery is a historical site—there are graves there of Revolutionary War veterans. It’s not like there’s going to be a lot of family members visiting every day. What’s the actual cause of death?”

“Internal trauma. Massive,” he added, then went on to explain that “massive internal trauma” in this case meant that five of her ribs had been broken until the jagged bones pierced her liver and stomach, one of her hands had been stomped on until each finger had snapped, and—he held up the cap of cranium the deiner had just removed from her head—her skull had been fractured in two places. Maggie could also see massive bruising to her genital areas. From kicks, the doctor theorized.

“Raped?” Maggie assumed out loud, loathing the very sound of the word.

“Probably. There’s some damage, but the serologist says no sperm on the swabs. The guy was smart enough to use a condom.”

Maggie cursed silently to herself; some DNA would have been helpful. She walked around the body, examining the areas of skin that had not been sliced and opened. Then she helped herself to some latex gloves and a paper towel and dried the hands.

The body had been washed before the autopsy but more water and blood and other fluids could get on them during the process. The absence of rigor made the fingers easier to manipulate but not easy and even with the broken ones Maggie struggled to get the pads of the fingertips—broken nails neatly painted with glittery red polish—inked and then smoothly rolled on the stiff card. The back of the hand had been deeply bruised, with some marks forming a small circle-within-a-circle pattern about half a centimeter wide. As if someone had been wearing shoes with cleats or studs when he stomped the life out of the girl. “Can I see her clothing?”

“Her parents will probably report her missing in a day or two,” the doctor said. “No need to go overboard.”

“I know. But we’ll still need to find out who killed her, and you never know what might help.”

“Ask in Trace.”

“What’s this?” Maggie pointed to a tiny red mark just below the girl’s left knee.

The deiner said, “She’s got a bunch of them. Some kind of bug. I’m guessing fleas.”

“Great.”

“Yeah. No food, bad teeth, and fleas. If you do find this kid’s parents, call me over so I can slap them silly.”

Maggie smiled for the first time that day. “You and me both.”

From the autopsy room Maggie moved on to the Trace Evidence department, where the lab tech showed her the victim’s oversize T-shirt, made with thin material in an odd purplish shade. Maggie snapped a few photos. The coroner’s lab had recently lost their hair and fiber expert and weren’t sure they would be hiring another; it had become something of a dead art during the past two decades. But the tech had “taped” the victim’s T-shirt anyway, collected the debris that clung to the fabric on clear packaging tape, and stuck the strips to sheets of transparent acetate. He signed them over to her with a sigh of relief that the tapings wouldn’t hang around, unanalyzed, on his books. Unanalyzed items never looked good in a final report.

Barely more than a child, Maggie found herself thinking as she drove out of the lot. The dead girl hadn’t had a meal in a while, but wore glittered polish on her nails. Kids find joy wherever they can.

Maggie doubted it had been enough.

Copyright © 2016 Lisa Black.

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New York Times bestselling author Lisa Black is the author of seven novels in the Theresa MacLean mystery series and two novels written as Elizabeth Becka. As a forensic scientist at the Cuyahoga County Coroner's Office, she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she is a latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department in Florida, working mostly with fingerprints and crime scenes.

Lisa has lectured at writers' conventions and appeared on panels, and is a member of Sisters In Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers. As a forensic specialist, she is a member of the American Academy of Forensic Scientists, the International Association for Identification, the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts and is a Certified Latent Print Examiner. She has testified in court as an expert witness over 65 times. Her books have been translated into six languages. She lives near Fort Myers, Florida. Visit her on Facebook, Twitter, or at www.lisa-black.com.

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