“It’s a good thing you got here so quick,” the Richmond police officer says, beckoning for Spencer and Derek to follow him off the bike path. “Forensics is still here, uh, picking things up.”
They only have to take a few steps into the woods for the scene to come into view. Several officers in uniform and CSIs in neon vests stand around the body, and several yards down, another cluster surrounds the head.
“You weren’t kidding,” Derek says. “That’s a lot of activity on one scene.”
“Yeah.” The officer runs his hand through his thinning hair. “We’ve got to get this back under control. Three victims in under a week. Worst time of year for it, too. The media’s already making headless horseman references.”
“Kind of ruins Halloween for you, doesn’t it?” Derek offers.
The officer smiles. “Here. I’ll get these goofs out of your way so you can get a closer look.” He waves away a couple of crime scene techs and leads the way to the body.
The autumn breeze swirls the leaves around Spencer’s feet. It’s almost dizzying to watch. He turns his face into the wind for a moment before looking down at the remains of the victim.
She’s petite, and probably young. Her Virginia Tech sweatshirt reinforces the idea that she’s somewhere between 18 and 22. Her running shorts are dirty and torn, and blood and filth stain her pale hands.
“You have an ID yet?” Derek asks.
“Still working on it,” the officer replies, disappointment coloring his tone.
Spencer bends at the waist to take a closer look at the victim’s nails. His back aches, and he descends into a squat.
“What’re you seeing, kid?” Derek asks.
“Looks like defensive wounds.” Spencer points toward the reddish brown smudges on her hands. “Or at least evidence she was fighting back.” He looks up at Derek, the movement aggravating the throb behind his forehead.
“The first two victims didn’t have marks like that,” Derek says. “So what happened differently this time?”
“Were the first two in college?” Spencer asks.
“I don’t think so,” the officer says, peering down at a notepad.
“If this one was going to school, she might’ve had training on how to resist an attacker.” Spencer pauses to swallow. The pain in his head rises another level, and he does his best not to squint. “A lot of colleges have mandatory seminars for incoming freshmen.”
“It’s definitely something to look into.” The officer puts away his notes. “What do you make of the beheading? Is that like the other victims?”
“The medical examiner would probably have a better opinion,” Derek starts, “But the tool marks do look kind of different to me. What do you think, Reid?”
Spencer takes in the jagged tears in the young woman’s flesh. He opens his mouth to agree with Derek, but suddenly vertigo overtakes him, and it’s all he can do to keep from collapsing forward on top of the body. He hurriedly plants his hands on the ground behind him and falls heavily onto his bottom.
“Hey, you ok?” Derek’s immediately at his shoulder, but he sounds far away. All of Spencer’s senses seem to be dulling as nausea rises, hot and insistent. He heaves himself backward another couple of feet, then turns his head to the side and gives in to the gag hanging in his throat.
“It’s ok,” Derek murmurs, giving Spencer a pat on the back.
“It’s different from just looking at the pictures, isn’t it?” the officer says with a sympathetic smile. “One of your first scenes?”
Spencer retches again, then wipes his mouth on the back of his hand and struggles to find his breath. His head throbs in time with his heartbeat, and it leaves his whole body feeling heavy and weak.
“Sorry…” he chokes. “I’m fine, really. Just a headache.”
“If it’s hitting you this hard, it’s not just a headache,” Derek says.
“Doesn’t matter.” Spencer takes a slow breath through his nose, willing his stomach to settle. “We have…stuff to do. Things to compare—“ He cuts himself off with another gag.
“Alright, take it easy.” Derek shakes his head. “Somebody else can start on it. You can pick it up later, once you feel better.” He looks up at the officer. “Right? Your office can get comparison photos of all the wounds?”
“Yeah, of course,” the officer says.
“See? We got your back.” Derek gets to his feet and extends his hand down to Spencer.
“Yeah,” Spencer reluctantly agrees. He lets Derek pull him upright, and he doesn’t protest as Derek slips an arm around his shoulders and leads him back toward the path.