AS I WAS PACKAGING WHAT REMAINED OF THE DEAD BABY, THE man I would kill was burning pavement north toward Charlotte.
I didn’t know that at the time. I’d never heard the man’s name, knew nothing of the grisly game in which he was a player.
At that moment I was focused on what I would say to Gideon Banks. How would I break the news that his grandchild was dead, his youngest daughter on the run?
My brain cells had been bickering all morning. You’re a forensic anthropologist, the logic guys would say. Visiting the family is not your responsibility. The medical examiner will report your findings. The homicide detective will deliver the news. A phone call.
All valid points, the conscience guys would counter. But this case is different. You know Gideon Banks.
I felt a deep sadness as I tucked the tiny bundle of bones into its container, fastened the lid, and wrote a file number across the plastic. So little to examine. Such a short life.
As I secured the tub in an evidence locker, the memory cells floated an image of Gideon Banks. Wrinkled brown face, fuzzy gray hair, voice like ripping duct tape.
Expand the image.
A small man in a plaid flannel shirt arcing a string mop across a tile floor.
The memory cells had been offering the same image all morning. Though I’d tried to conjure up others, this one kept reappearing.
Gideon Banks and I had worked together at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for almost two decades until his retirement three years back. I’d periodically thanked him for keeping my office and lab clean, given him birthday cards and a small gift each Christmas. I knew he was conscientious, polite, deeply religious, and devoted to his kids.
And he kept the corridors spotless.
That was it. Beyond the workplace, our lives did not connect.
Until Tamela Banks placed her newborn in a woodstove and vanished.
Crossing to my office, I booted up my laptop and spread my notes across the desktop. I’d barely begun my report when a form filled the open doorway.
“A home visit really is above and beyond.”
I hit “save” and looked up.
The Mecklenburg County medical examiner was wearing green surgical scrubs. A stain on his right shoulder mimicked the shape of Massachusetts in dull red.
“I don’t mind.” Like I didn’t mind suppurating boils on my buttocks.
“I’ll be glad to speak to him.”
Tim Larabee might have been handsome were it not for his addiction to running. The daily marathon training had wizened his body, thinned his hair, and leatherized his face. The perpetual tan seemed to gather in the hollows of his cheeks, and to pool around eyes set way too deep. Eyes that were now crimped with concern.
“Next to God and the Baptist church, family has been the cornerstone of Gideon Banks’s life,” I said. “This will shake him.”
“Perhaps it’s not as bad as it seems.”
I gave Larabee the Look. We’d had this conversation an hour earlier.
“All right.” He raised a sinewy hand. “It seems bad. I’m sure Mr. Banks will appreciate the personal input. Who’s driving you?”
“Your lucky day.”
“I wanted to go alone, but Slidell refused to take no for an answer.”
“Not Skinny?” Mock surprise.
“I think Skinny’s hoping for some kind of lifetime achievement award.”
“I think Skinny’s hoping to get laid.”
I pegged a pen at him. He batted it down.
Larabee withdrew. I heard the autopsy room door click open, then shut.
I checked my watch. Three forty-two. Slidell would be here in twenty minutes. The brain cells did a collective cringe. On Skinny there was cerebral agreement.
I shut the computer down and leaned back in my chair.
What would I say to Gideon Banks?
Bad luck, Mr. Banks. Looks like your youngest gave birth, wrapped the tyke in a blanket, and used him as kindling.
Wham-o! The visual cells sent up a new mental image. Banks pulling a Kodak print from a cracked leather wallet. Six brown faces. Close haircuts for the boys, pigtails for the girls. All with teeth too big for the smiles.
The old man beaming over the photo, adamant that each child would go to college.
I slipped off my lab coat and hung it on the hook behind my door.
If the Banks kids had attended UNC–Charlotte while I was on the faculty, they’d shown little interest in anthropology. I’d met only one. Reggie, a son midrange in the offspring chronology, had taken my human evolution course.
The memory cells offered a gangly kid in a baseball cap, brim low over razor-blade brows. Last row in the lecture hall. A intellect, C+ effort.
How long ago? Fifteen years? Eighteen?
I’d worked with a lot of students back then. In those days my research focused on the ancient dead, and I’d taught several undergraduate classes. Bioarchaeology. Osteology. Primate ecology.
One morning an anthro grad showed up at my lab. A homicide detective with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD, she’d brought bones recovered from a shallow grave. Could her former prof determine if the remains were those of a missing child?
I could. They were.
That case was my first encounter with coroner work. Today the only seminar I teach is in forensic anthropology, and I commute between Charlotte and Montreal serving as forensic anthropologist to each jurisdiction.
The geography had been difficult when I’d taught full-time, requiring complex choreography within the academic calendar. Now, save for the duration of that single seminar, I shift as needed. A few weeks north, a few weeks south, longer when casework or court testimony requires.
North Carolina and Quebec? Long story.
My academic colleagues call what I do “applied.” Using my knowledge of bones, I tease details from cadavers and skeletons, or parts thereof, too compromised for autopsy. I give names to the skeletal, the decomposed, the mummified, the burned, and the mutilated, who might otherwise go to anonymous graves. For some, I determine the manner and time of their passing.
With Tamela’s baby there’d been but a cup of charred fragments. A newborn is chump change to a woodstove.
Mr. Banks, I’m so sorry to have to tell you, but—
My cell phone sounded.
“Yo, Doc. I’m parked out front.” Skinny Slidell. Of the twenty-four detectives in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD Felony Investigative Bureau/Homicide Unit, perhaps my least favorite.
“Be right there.”
I’d been in Charlotte several weeks when an informant’s tip led to the shocking discovery in the woodstove. The bones had come to me. Slidell and his partner had caught the case as a homicide. They’d tossed the scene, tracked down witnesses, taken statements. Everything led to Tamela Banks.
I shouldered my purse and laptop and headed out. In passing, I stuck my head into the autopsy room. Larabee looked up from his gunshot victim and waggled a gloved finger in warning.
My reply was an exaggerated eye roll.
The Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner facility occupies one end of a featureless brick shoebox that entered life as a Sears Garden Center. The other end of the shoebox houses satellite offices of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. Devoid of architectural
charm save a slight rounding of the edges, the building is surrounded by enough asphalt to pave Rhode Island.
As I exited the double glass doors, my nostrils drank in an olfactory cocktail of exhaust, smog, and hot pavement. Heat radiated from the building walls, and from the brick steps connecting it to a small tentacle of the parking lot.
Hot town. Summer in the city.
A black woman sat in the vacant lot across College Street, back to a sycamore, elephant legs stretched full length on the grass. The woman was fanning herself with a newspaper, animatedly arguing some point with a nonexistent adversary.
A man in a Hornets jersey was muscling a shopping cart up the sidewalk in the direction of the county services building. He stopped just past the woman, wiped his forehead with the crook of his arm, and checked his cargo of plastic bags.
Noticing my gaze, the cart man waved. I waved back.
Slidell’s Ford Taurus idled at the bottom of the stairs, AC blasting, tinted windows full up. Descending, I opened the back door, shoved aside file folders, a pair of golf shoes stuffed with audiotapes, two Burger King bags, and a squeeze tube of suntan lotion, and wedged my computer into the newly created space.
Erskine “Skinny” Slidell undoubtedly thought of himself as “old school,” though God alone knew what institution would claim him. With his knockoff Ray-Bans, Camel breath, and four-letter speech, Slidell was an unwittingly self-created caricature of a Hollywood cop. People told me he was good at his job. I found it hard to believe.
At the moment of my approach Dirty Harry was checking his lower incisors in the rearview mirror, lips curled back in a monkey-fear grimace.
Hearing the rear door open, Slidell jumped, and his hand shot to the mirror. As I slid into the passenger seat, he was fine-tuning the rearview with the diligence of an astronaut adjusting Hubble.
“Doc.” Slidell kept his faux Ray-Bans pointed at the mirror.
“Detective.” I nodded, placed my purse at my feet, and closed the door.
At last satisfied with the angle of reflection, Slidell abandoned the mirror, shifted into gear, crossed the lot, and shot across College onto Phifer.
We rode in silence. Though the temperature in the car was thirty degrees lower than that outside, the air was thick with its own blend of odors. Old Whoppers and fries. Sweat. Bain de Soleil. The bamboo mat on which Slidell parked his ample backside.
Skinny Slidell himself. The man smelled and looked like an “after” shot for an antismoking poster. During the decade and a half I’d been consulting for the Mecklenburg County ME, I’d had the pleasure of working with Slidell on several occasions. Each had been a trip to Aggravation Row. This case promised to be another.
The Bankses’ home was in the Cherry neighborhood, just southeast of I-277, Charlotte’s version of an inner beltway. Cherry, unlike many inner-city quartiers, had not enjoyed the renaissance experienced in recent years by Dilworth and Elizabeth to the west and north. While those neighborhoods had integrated and yuppified, Cherry’s fortunes had headed south. But the community held true to its ethnic roots. It started out black and remained so today.
Within minutes Slidell passed an Autobell car wash, turned left off Independence Boulevard onto a narrow street, then right onto another. Oaks and magnolias thirty, forty, a hundred years old threw shadows onto modest frame and brick houses. Laundry hung limp on clotheslines. Sprinklers ticked and whirred, or lay silent at the ends of garden hoses. Bicycles and Big Wheels dotted yards and walkways.
Slidell pulled to the curb halfway up the block, and jabbed a thumb at a small bungalow with dormer windows jutting from the roof. The siding was brown, the trim white.
“Beats the hell outta that rat’s nest where the kid got fried. Thought I’d catch scabies tossing that dump.”
“Scabies is caused by mites.” My voice was chillier than the car interior.
“Exactly. You wouldn’t have believed that shithole.”
“You should have worn gloves.”
“You got that right. And a respirator. These people—”
“What people would that be, Detective?”
“Some folks live like pigs.”
“Gideon Banks is a hardworking, decent man who raised six children largely on his own.”
“Wife beat feet?”
“Melba Banks died of breast cancer ten years ago.” There. I did know something about my coworker.
The radio crackled some message that was lost on me.
“Still don’t excuse kids dropping their shorts with no regard for consequences. Get jammed up? No-o-o-o problem. Have an abortion.”
Slidell killed the engine and turned the Ray-Bans on me.
“There may be some explanation for Tamela Banks’s actions.”
I didn’t really believe that, had spent all morning taking the opposite position with Tim Larabee. But Slidell was so irritating I found myself playing devil’s advocate.
“Right. And the chamber of commerce will probably name her mother of the year.”
“Have you met Tamela?” I asked, forcing my voice level.
“No. Have you?”
No. I ignored Slidell’s question.
“Have you met any of the Banks family?”
“No, but I took statements from folks who were snorting lines in the next room while Tamela incinerated her kid.” Slidell pocketed the keys. “Excusez-moi if I haven’t dropped in for tea with the lady and her relations.”
“You’ve never had to deal with any of the Banks kids because they were raised with good, solid values. Gideon Banks is as straitlaced as—”
“The mutt Tamela’s screwing ain’t close to straight up.”
“The baby’s father?”
“Unless Miss Hot Pants was entertaining while Daddy was dealing.”
Easy! The man is a cockroach.
“Who is he?”
“His name is Darryl Tyree. Tamela was shacking up in Tyree’s little piece of heaven out on South Tryon.”
“Tyree sells drugs?”
“And we’re not talking the Eckerd’s pharmacy.” Slidell hit the door handle and got out.
I bit back a response. One hour. It’s over.
A stab of guilt. Over for me, but what about Gideon Banks? What about Tamela and her dead baby?
I joined Slidell on the sidewalk.
“Je-zus. It’s hot enough to burn a polar bear’s butt.”
“I should be at the beach.”
Yes, I thought. Under four tons of sand.
I followed Slidell up a narrow walk littered with fresh-mown grass to a small cement stoop. He pressed a thumb to a rusted button beside the front door, dug a hanky from his back pocket, and wiped his face.
Slidell knocked on a wooden portion of the screen door.
Slidell knocked again. His forehead glistened and his hair was separating into wet clumps.
“Police, Mr. Banks.”
Slidell banged with the heel of his hand. The screen door rattled in its frame.
Condensation dripped from a window AC to the left of the door. A lawn mower whined in the distance. Hip-hop drifted from somewhere up the block.
Slidell banged again. A dark crescent winked from his gray polyester armpit.
The AC’s compressor kicked on. A dog barked.
Slidell yanked the screen.
Pounded on the wooden door.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
Released the screen. Barked his demand.
“Police! Anyone there?”
Across the street, a curtain flicked, dropped back into place.
Had I imagined it?
A drop of perspiration rolled down my back to join the others soaking my bra and waistband.
At that moment my cell phone rang.
That call swept me into a vortex of events that ultimately led to my taking a life.