Talladega Falls, Georgia January 20 6:35 A.M.
The skeleton had been in the ground for a long time. Joe Quinn had seen enough of them to recognize that. But how long? He turned to Sheriff Bosworth. "Who found it?"
"Two hikers. They stumbled on it late last night. Those rains the past few days washed it out of the ground. Hell, that storm slid half the mountain into the falls. A real gully washer." His gaze narrowed on Joe's face. "You must have hotfooted up here from Atlanta as soon as you heard about it."
"You think it's connected to one of the Atlanta PD's cases?"
"Maybe." He paused. "No. This is an adult."
"You're looking for a kid?"
"Yes." Every day. Every night. Always. He shrugged. "The initial report didn't say whether it was an adult or a child."
Bosworth bristled. "So? I never have to make reports like this. We're pretty crime free here. Not like Atlanta."
"You knew enough to recognize possible knife wounds to the skeleton's rib cage. But I do admit our problems are a little different. What's your population?"
"Don't come up here and slam me, Quinn. We've got a strong law enforcement body. We don't need any city cops messing around our jurisdiction."
He'd made a mistake, Joe thought wearily. He hadn't slept in nearly twenty-four hours, but that was no excuse. It was always an error to criticize local police even when they were taking potshots at you. Bosworth was probably a good cop, and he'd been polite until Joe cast aspersions on how he did his job. "I'm sorry. No offense."
"I do take offense. You have no idea what our problems are here. Do you know how many tourists we have every year? And how many get lost or hurt in these mountains? We may not have murderers or drug dealers, but we take care of every one of our citizens besides those tenderfeet who come up from Atlanta and camp in our parks and fall down in gorges and mess up-"
"Okay, okay." Joe held up his hand in surrender. "I said I was sorry. I didn't mean to downplay your problems. I guess I'm a little jealous."
His gaze wandered out over the mountains and the falls. Even with Bosworth's men climbing all over, taping and scouring the area, it was still unbelievably beautiful. "I'd like to live here. It would be nice to wake up every morning to all this peace."
Bosworth was slightly appeased. "It's God's country. The Indians used to call the falls 'the place of tumbling moonlight.'" He scowled. "And we don't find skeletons like this. This must be one of yours. Our people don't kill each other and toss the bodies into the ground."
"Perhaps. It's a long way to transport a body. But in this wilderness, it would be quite a while before a corpse is discovered."
Bosworth nodded. "Hell, if it hadn't been for the rains and the mud slide, we might not have found it for twenty, thirty years."
"Who knows? It might be that long already. I'll get out of your way. I'm sure your medical examiner will want to get at the bones and examine them."
"We have a coroner. He's the local undertaker." Bosworth added quickly, "But Pauley's always willing to ask for help when he needs it."
"He'll need it. If I were you, I'd make a formal request to our pathology department. They're usually willing to cooperate."
"Could you do it for us?"
"I can't. I'll be glad to put in a word, but I'm here in an unofficial capacity."
Bosworth frowned. "You didn't say that. You just flashed your badge and started asking me questions." His eyes suddenly widened. "My God, you're Quinn."
"It's no secret. I told you that."
"But I didn't make the connection. I've been hearing about you for years. The skeleton man. Three years ago you were over in Coweta County checking out two skeletons found there. Then there was that body found in the swamps near Valdosta. You were down there too. And that skeleton up near Chattanooga that you-"
"Word does get around, doesn't it?" Joe smiled sardonically. "I'd think you'd have better things to talk about. So? Do the stories make me some kind of urban legend?"
"No, just a curiosity. You're looking for those kids, aren't you? The ones Fraser killed and then refused to tell where he'd buried them." He frowned. "That was almost ten years ago. I'd think you'd give up."
"Their parents haven't given up. They want their children home for proper burial." He looked down at the skeleton. "Most victims belong to someone somewhere."
"Yeah." Bosworth shook his head. "Kids. I never understand why anyone would kill a kid. It makes me sick."
"I've got three kids. I guess I'd feel the same way those parents do. God, I hope I never find out." Bosworth was silent a moment. "Those cases must have been closed when Fraser was executed. It's mighty decent of you to keep trying to find those children on your own time."
One child. Eve's child. "It's not decent. It's just something I've got to do." He turned away. "Thanks for putting up with me, Sheriff. Call me if I can act as liaison between your coroner and the Atlanta PD."
"I'd appreciate that."
He started down the cliff and then stopped. To hell with not offending another law officer. The sheriff was clearly out of his depth, and by the time someone knowledgeable came on the scene, it might be too late to save the evidence. "Could I make a couple of suggestions?"
Bosworth stared at him warily.
"Get someone out here to photograph the body and entire crime scene."
"I was going to do that."
"Do it now. I know your guys are doing their best to locate evidence, but they're probably destroying more than they're finding. A metal detector should be used in case there's any evidence covered by the mud. And get a forensic archaeologist to excavate the skeleton and an entomologist to examine any dead insects or larvae. It's probably too late for the entomologist, but you can never tell."
"We don't have any of those people on our staff."
"You can hire them from a university. It may save you from having egg on your face later."
Bosworth thought about it and then said slowly, "Maybe I'll do that."
"It's up to you." Joe continued down the hill toward his car parked on the gravel road below.
Another blank; it had been a long shot anyway. But he'd had to check it out. He had to check them all out. Someday he'd get lucky and find Bonnie. He had to find her. He had no choice.
Bosworth stared after Quinn as he walked down the hill. Not a bad guy. A little too cool and contained, but maybe that went with dealing with those scumbags in the city. Thank God, he didn't have any weirdos out here. Just good people trying to lead a good life.
The skeleton man. He hadn't told the truth. Quinn was more of a legend than a curiosity. He had once been an FBI agent but had quit the Bureau after Fraser was executed. He was now a detective with the Atlanta PD and supposedly a good cop. Tough as nails and squeaky clean. These days it was hard for city cops not to give in to temptation. That was one of the reasons Bosworth stayed in Rabun County. He never wanted to experience the cynicism and disillusionment he had seen in Quinn's face. He couldn't be forty yet, but he looked as if he had gone to hell and back.
Bosworth glanced down at the skeleton. This was the kind of thing Quinn faced on a daily basis. Hell, he even went looking for it. Well, let him have it. Bosworth would be glad to get rid of the skeleton. It wasn't fair for his people to be drawn into this nasty-
His walkie-talkie buzzed and he pressed the button. "Bosworth."
Joe looked over his shoulder at Bosworth at the top of the cliff. "What?"
"Come back up here. My deputy just radioed me that my men on the far ridge have found more bodies." He paused. "Well, skeletons."
Joe tensed. "How many?"
Bosworth's plump face had paled in the early morning light, and he looked dazed. "Eight, so far. He thinks one of them is a little kid."
They had found the Talladega bodies.
Dom turned off the television set and leaned back in his chair to consider the ramifications.
As far as he knew, this was the first time any of his kills had been discovered. He had always been very careful and methodical, always going the extra mile. In this case many extra miles. Those had all been Atlanta kills and he had transported the bodies to what had been his favorite graveyard then.
Now they had been found, not through diligent search but by an accident of nature.
Or an act of God?
Any religious fanatic would say that God's hand had uncovered those bodies to bring him to justice.
He smiled. Screw all those holier-than-thou fanatics. If there was a God, he looked forward to taking him on. It might be the challenge he needed just then.
The Talladega skeletons were little threat. By the time of those murders, he had learned enough not to leave a hint of evidence. If there had been any mistakes, the rain and mud had probably erased them.
He hadn't been as careful in the early days. The thrill had been too intense, the fear too vivid. He'd even picked his victims at random to make the kill more uncertain. He was long past such foolishness. But he'd been so methodical lately that the excitement was dwindling. If the excitement went away, then so did his reason for living.
He quickly blocked the thought. He'd gone through this before. He just had to remember that the satisfaction came from the kill itself. Everything else was a plus. If he needed a challenge he'd choose someone harder, someone with ties, someone who was loved and would be missed.
As for the discovery at Talladega, he must look on it only as an interesting development, something to watch with amusement and curiosity as the law struggled to put together the pieces. Who had been the kills at Talladega? He vaguely remembered a blond prostitute, a homeless black man, a teenager selling his body on the streets ... and the little girl.
Funny, but until that moment he'd completely forgotten about the little girl.