The dead branches of a tree; dead branches or trees.
Useless or burdensome people or things.
Two men dressed in dark slacks, pressed white shirts, scuffless black shoes shinier than a new penny, and aviator shades pushed above their foreheads examined the crime scene. Their suit jackets remained across the backseat of the black Chevy Suburban parked behind them on the shoulder of the interstate. Sweat layered their backs and pooled in droplets at the temples, soaked their armpits. Swatting at the insects swarming about proved useless.
The Georgia heat this day was stifling, the air thick with humidity, and enlaced with a putrid odor familiar to homicide investigators and most cops. They stared at the nude body about fifteen feet away, a male corpse lying face up on damp, decaying leaves. The skin of the cadaver was grayish and mottled; blood dried a Moorish brown. The eyes of the victim had been eaten away by the scavengers of the forest.
A trio of sheriff’s deputies and a couple of attendants clad in white jumpsuits from the county coroner’s office stood on the perimeter. Forensic pathologists, the medical doctors who performed autopsies, rarely left the morgue. The professionals watched both FBI investigators intently, awaiting their turn with the body. No doubt they were cursing from having to wait in the stifling heat. One consolation, however, was the Feds appeared as miserable as everyone else on this blistering day in mid-July, a record ninety-degrees or better twenty-one days straight and counting.
The sheriff, a fiftyish gray-headed man with a round belly, tie askew, top button of his dress shirt open to reveal a tuft of graying hair, stood a couple of paces off to the side of the tall agents. He had placed the call to the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Atlanta upon notification of the horrific discovery. He had referenced a BOLO alert disseminated to statewide law enforcement agencies the previous month mentioning a string of linked and unsolved homicides.
“Who found the victim?” asked Special Agent Hales without looking away from the body.
“Georgia Department of Transportation mowing crew,” Sheriff Hinson said. “One of their men walked up into the wooded area a hundred feet that way to take a leak. Claims he caught a foul stench and noticed buzzards circling overhead. Figured it was a dead animal, a wild hog or such, and though he’d take a peek. Made his way ‘round that ravine over yonder and saw something curious. Thought it might be a decomposing animal carcass, but it looked strange to him from a distance, so he decided to get a better look-see. Curiosity got the best of him, I guess. It always does.” Hinson chuckled, but lost his grin when the agents remained stoic.
Hales snorted as his partner, Special Agent Delvecchio, spoke up, obviously frustrated with the man’s slow, winding drawl as evidenced by the scowl ripped across his red face. “Go on sir.”
“When the worker got closer, he ain’t seen no dead hog at all, but a body. He told his supervisor and 911 Dispatch got the call from GDOT’s office in Macon. A couple deputies called out here to check.”
“Thanks, Sheriff Hinson,” said Delvecchio. “That’ll be all for now.” He motioned the official to step away and give them room. “We’ll call you over after an initial walk-through. Inform the photographer and techs they can get to work afterward.”
Hinson opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it and slunk away with his head bowed like a banished child. They took the cue and snapped on nitrile gloves and microfiber booties before moving closer to the body, careful not to disturb the scene.
“Give me the rundown,” said Delvecchio.
Hales bent at the knees. After a thorough once over, he began reciting what he observed. Delvecchio took notes: “White male, twenty-five to thirty-five, one-seventy to one eighty-five pounds alive. Height about six feet. Dark hair cut short to the scalp, hairless torso. Signs of trauma to the neck and chest. Bruising, ligature marks visible on both wrists, ankles, and neck.” Hales lifted a stiff arm and portion of the right shoulder. “Dark patches beneath the arms, shoulders, legs and buttocks appear to be livor mortis caused by hypostasis. Abrasions caused by some ligature device; rope, twine, or a type of cord perhaps. Hard to determine without a more thorough examination.”
The younger agent swatted the gnats and flies swarming around, then shifted his eyes lower.” Significant defects noted to the pelvic region. Victim’s penis, scrotum and a portion of the abdomen incised.” Hales cleared his throat and continued in a gravely tone. “No clothing or personal identification present on scene, same with any visible tattoos, scars or other identifying marks. Autopsy will determine the length of exposure to the elements and possible cause of death, but my best guess is the victim has been here four or five days at most.”
Delvecchio spotted something at the base of a thick tree-trunk approximately three feet away and moved off, calling back over his shoulder. “No drag marks or foot impressions I can see, but damn weather could have erased any evidence therein by now.”
Hales followed his partner’s movements. Delvecchio bent at the waist and retrieved something from the ground. He stood, holding an object midair for closer inspection. “Looks like a piece of leather, a shoelace,” he said. “The kind found on work-boots. Might be the ligature used on the DB.” Delvecchio inspected the area around the barnacled trunk, circling to the backside of the tree. “Hales, you need to see this.”
The agent joined Delvecchio after making a wide arc around any potential evidence on the ground before cutting back to where his colleague stood. On the lower portion of the trunk Hales saw the bark gouged, like a wedge or deep notch. Inspecting farther up the tree he spotted numerous, much thinner marks scored into the rough crust. Rope burns, perhaps from the portion of shoelace Delvecchio held aloft.
“Victim was either tied to or propped against this tree, strangled with some sort of ligature device, perhaps some of that shoelace you found,” Hales said, bending at the knees. “The scars in the tree’s bark would suggest the UNSUB braced a foot against the trunk for leverage to garrote his victim, but the binding broke, so another device was substituted.” Hales looked around the base of the tree. “Body was either cut down or the bindings broke.”
Hales stood after inspecting the lower impression further, then retraced his steps to the body.
“This our guy’s work?” Delvecchio asked, following close behind, but his tone suggested he knew the answer.
“MO appears the same, but I cannot be sure until getting a closer inspection of the body, more specifically the throat.” Hales motioned for the crime scene photographer. A gangly shutterbug with billowing white shoe coverings joined them at once. “Get your prelims before we inspect the body. You can finish your evidence-quality shots once we’ve stepped away.”
The photographer nodded and began snapping away with a fancy digital camera, bending, squatting, and contorting his lithe frame in a kind of hushed, bizarre dance around the corpse, positioning himself near enough, but not too close in order to avoid contamination. When satisfied, he stepped away from the body to reclaim his spot at the perimeter where he began fussing with his equipment and unpacking a tripod.
Hales withdrew a pair of chrome-plated micro tissue forceps from his shirt pocket and stepped next to the corpse. Lowering his solid frame to one knee, he leaned over the body. “Let’s determine for sure.” He used the thin instrument to pry open the purple lips, and probed the interior of the mouth, removing some dead leaves and earth. The steel prongs of the tool snagged something solid, lodged deep within the throat. Hales withdrew the forceps and held the foreign object aloft for closer inspection. “Piece of deadwood,” he said, scowling. “Like all the others.”
“Where to next?” asked Delvecchio, wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his meaty hand. The gnats were relentless; the heat insufferable.
Hales glanced at the interstate and sighed. Motorized vehicles whipped past at breakneck speed; their occupants oblivious to the horrific discovery a few yards away. “Based on the UNSUB’s previous pattern and northern trajectory these past few months, and considering the body’s been here a few days, I’d say he’s already arrived at his next destination.”