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Distemper (Alex Bernier Series #2)

Distemper (Alex Bernier Series #2)

by Beth Saulnier

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A serial killer declares hunting season in an upstate New York university town. The killer wants to keep the young reporter, Alex Bernier, well-informed, both as a journalist and as a potential victim.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780446608619
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 06/01/2000
Series: Alex Bernier Series , #2
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.82(d)

About the Author

Saulnier is a writer for the Ithaca Journal and is an associate editor and staff writer for Cornell Magazine. She is also a film commentator on local television.

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Chapter One

THEY FOUND THE FIRST BODY IN APRIL, which is when things tend to turn up around here. The sun came out for the first time in six months, the top crust started to melt, and some poor bastard cross-country skiing in his shirtsleeves saw her foot sticking out of the snow. He'd practically skied right over her, he told the newspaper later, and that seemed to upset him most of all—the thought that if he'd looked away for a second, he might have run her down, and desecrated her more than she'd been already.

But he didn't. He caught sight of her two yards in front of him, and he said that he never thought it was anything other than a corpse. He didn't think it was a doll, or an animal—whatever it is people usually say. He was just skiing along, minding his own business and thinking it was a great day to be alive, and the next thing he knew he had to make himself fall over sideways to avoid running over a dead girl.

The man was a scientist, an associate professor of chemistry with a cool head and a woolly beard, and he had the presence of mind not to touch anything. He just picked himself up out of the snow, hustled back to his Volvo, and called the cops on his cell phone. He waited for them, because he knew he'd have to show them where the body was, and by the time the police got through interviewing him six hours later he was wishing to holy hell he'd gone rock climbing instead.

But for that first few minutes, as he was watching the police stretch yellow tape for fifty feet in each direction, he felt like he ought to stay, as though he owed her that much. He'd found her, and finders were keepers, andalthough his wet socks were telling him to get into the squad car, something else made him stand there in the trampled slush until he saw her face.

He never did see it, in the end. First the cops had to wait for the ambulance, then the detectives, then the medical examiner. At some point a sergeant noticed him standing around and told him he'd better go downtown and make a statement. By the time the skewing sunlight hit the body, the chemistry professor was down at the police station, and the cops were impounding his skis.

It was just as well, he'd say whenever someone asked, because he wouldn't have wanted to see her after all. There was a reason he hadn't gone to medical school, had gone into academia instead, and it had a lot to do with not having to look at women left under the snow for three months, naked and nearly frozen solid. It had been a bad winter, nasty even for upstate New York, and judging from how much snow was under her and how much was on top they figured she'd been there at least since February. They found her clothes folded nearby: blue jeans lined with polar fleece, dark green turtleneck, wool sweater with pewter buttons, homemade mittens, red rag socks, calf-high work boots, panties, underwire bra sized 32-B. It was all there, nothing missing, nothing even torn.

The first thing they noticed about the body itself was that the knees were scraped and bloody, as though she'd been praying on cement. Then they saw that the palms of her hands were the same, bruised and raw, and they wondered if maybe she'd tried to crawl for her life. There was no purse, no jewelry, no identification at all. She was a girl in her late teens or early twenties, with straight teeth and good skin. She was apparently healthy, until someone intervened. She was naked, and she was dead, and she was found outside a town where there are fifteen thousand others just like her.

She didn't belong here, though, at least not officially. Benson University likes to keep track of its undergraduates, since having them drop dead is bad for business, and nobody anywhere near her description had gone missing. A sophomore had wigged out in the middle of a chemical engineering exam—just started screaming and bolted—but he was male, and anyway they found him living in a yurt outside Buffalo a couple of weeks before the girl's body turned up. There was a junior whose sorority sisters called the police when she didn't come back after winter break—but she was black, and the dead girl was white. No one from the town had been reported missing. So the conventional wisdom around here (or at least the gossip) was that she must have come from somewhere else, willingly or otherwise.

It's hard to describe what happens to a place when a dead girl is found. You know somebody had to put her there, and to do it that somebody must have been among us, if only briefly, and for that space of time no one was safe. You start to wonder if maybe you had passed this person in the hardware store while he was buying duct tape; if you were behind his Chevy while she was tied up in the trunk. You go to the supermarket and the contents of every man's shopping cart feels like physical evidence. (Is that Diet Pepsi for him or his prisoner? Is buying eight dozen Ring-Dings legal proof of insanity in New York State?)

If you're a woman, you realize that but for a bit of blind luck it could have been you. It could have been one of your friends, or your mother, or the lady who does your manicure, or the girl in your class you can't stand but wouldn't want that to happen to; you realize you really wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy. You wonder what you would've done if it had been you, whether you would have been able to use your brains or your muscles or some other edge to save yourself, and in the end you figure that you would, since anything else is unthinkable. You fantasize about interceding when the dead girl was dying, imagine yourself saving her and killing him, and going on the TV news to say you're no hero, you're just glad you got there in time. You think about buying a gun.

When they found that first body up on Connecticut Hill, the town didn't actually panic, not yet. People tend to believe just what they want to, and we wanted to believe it was a one-shot deal. Back then it was easy to think that maybe the girl had a fight with her boyfriend that turned ugly, and he'd panicked and left her body in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe she'd been responsible for her own death—had crossed the wrong person, or threatened to tell some guy's wife that they were having an affair, and he killed her to shut her up.

That's what we said when we talked about it, which was just about constantly. No one really bought the stories, though; they were all too easy, and not nearly horrible enough to fit the evidence. The police didn't say a whole lot, but the rumors started soon enough, and within a few days everyone in town knew what clothes she'd been wearing, and how they'd been folded neatly beside her, and how her hands and knees were all scraped up, and that there were strange marks on her neck shaped like diamonds. It was hard to think that could have been done to her by a boyfriend, or anyone who'd ever cared about her at all.

If we'd been in a different sort of place, one that didn't have social consciousness hemorrhaging from every crack in the pavement, everyone might have been satisfied with gossip and low-grade fear. But folks around here believe in action, because it's the only thing that keeps us warm in the winter, and sure enough someone up on campus organized a meeting. As is the tradition here, they advertised it by chalking rally for women's lives on various spots on the sidewalk, and before you could blink someone else went around and turned all the Es in women into Ys.

"Do you think they'll ever catch him?" my roommate Emma asked in her Masterpiece Theatre accent. "Or will it remain un crime insoluble?"

We were stretched out in the living room of our house on the outskirts of downtown, a Victorian of the dubious structural quality that landlords are willing to rent to three veterinary students, one ornithologist, and an underpaid reporter. There were twelve of us altogether, if you count the three dogs and four cats. Marci is from San Diego and all of four-foot-eleven in her Keds; C.A. is an army brat who has, on more than one occasion, made good on her threat to bench-press Marci. They're both third-year vet students and the workload means they're hardly ever home. Emma, who comes from London and never lets anyone forget it, did vet school in the U.K. and is here for a fellowship in radiology. Steve, our token guy, is an ornithologist who studies night migration. I'm still not clear on what this is, but it seems to involve lots of time in the woods, freezing his butt off and wearing headphones.

I'd only lived with them since January, when their fifth roommate took off for a research job down South. I'd been looking for a place since my housemate Dirk and his boyfriend Helmut had their commitment ceremony and moved in together. I know they felt guilty about kicking me out, but it was really Dirk's place, and besides it's bad karma to get in the way of true love. (I even let him have custody of our cats.) They found me my new spot through Steve, who's Helmut's ex, so it's all very symmetrical. I didn't even have to carry a box. I just threw my dog Shakespeare in the car, and three hunky guys moved all my stuff. Life could be worse.

"Of course they'll catch him," C.A. said. "What else have the cops got to do all day? They'll solve it, they'll convict him, and ten years from now after he's been living like Bill Gates on the taxpayers' dime, they'll finally get around to frying the son of a bitch."

"Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?" Marci said. "And you know they don't fry them anymore. They give them the needle, like a schnauzer. It's veterinary science's contribution to the justice system."

"You Yanks do cherish your capital punishment," Emma said from my BarcaLounger, where she was letting her dog Tipsy lick gin and tonic off her fingers. He's a standard poodle she got from the animal shelter when she moved here, and named him in honor of her lush of an ex-husband.

"You know, Ems, I seem to recall that at the end of all those Agatha Christie mysteries, they took the killer out and hanged him by the neck 'til he was dead, so there's no need to go all civilized," Steve said.

Emma tossed back the rest of her drink. The dog looked depressed.

"So has anybody heard anything else about the murder?" C.A. asked, sounding like she was enjoying it more than decency allowed. "How about you, Alex? You read the newspaper. Come on, you are the newspaper. What's the scoop?"

"Nothing new," I said. "Just a rehash. City editor's going nuts. They still haven't ID'ed her. They're checking missing persons for the whole Northeast. Ontario too."

"I can't believe they don't even know who she is," C.A. said. "Wouldn't you think they'd at least have figured out that much by now? She was out there for months. Someone must have missed her."

"You'd think," I said. "But maybe she wasn't from anywhere around here. The cops said they have to keep widening their investigation, which means exactly nothing."

Emma plucked the newspaper from the coffee table. "She was rather pretty too. Pity." After the body was found, a police artist did a color sketch of the girl. She stared out from beneath the Gabriel Monitor's masthead like something not quite dead but not really alive either, as though whoever drew her didn't dare add any sort of expression that might have confused someone who could identify her. She had long, straight brown hair with bangs just above her eyebrows, a smallish mouth over a pointy jaw, indistinct cheekbones, very large brown eyes. None of the features were particularly remarkable, but they added up to a kind of sweetness. The description said she was five feet tall and 105 pounds. When she was alive, people probably called her "perky."

"She remind you guys of anybody?" C.A. asked.

"You think you know her?" I asked.

"Damn straight."

"For real?" I was halfway out of my chair to call my editor. If we broke the ID of the girl, Bill would give me his firstborn.

"Look at those eyes. The totally vacant expression. Dye the hair blond, add a couple of pounds, age her a little, and who've you got?" C.A. jumped off the couch with her brassy brown curls waving around like garter snakes and snatched the paper from Emma. We stared back at her. "Hello. Hell-o, guys. Are you guys out to lunch or what? Take a look at her. It's our very own girlie girl. It's Marci all over again."

Marci opened her mouth, let it stay like that for a minute, then shut it again.

"Christ, C.," Steve said. "One of these days you're gonna make me forget I'm a fuckin' gentleman."

"What? What'd I say?"

"Really, Cathy Ann," Emma said. "That was quite uncalled for. Particularly the crack about the weight."

"But just look at the..."

"Quit it," Steve said. "I'm serious. She's about to bawl."

"OK, kids," I said. "Can we calm down? She didn't mean it. She's just being a smart-ass. Come on, let's have another drink and..."

"She's right." The four of us stopped and stared at Marci, who was nose to nose with the newspaper.

"Who's right?" Steve said. "Not C.A. C.A.'s never right. Trust me on this. I've done studies."

Marci shook her head hard. "No, she's right. Look at the drawing. Look at it..."

"Nonsense," Emma said, taking back the paper. "It doesn't look a thing like...Oh, dear."

"Well, so what?" I said, plopping down on the couch next to Marci. "So you look like her. So what? I mean, clearly it's creepy and all..."

"Don't you get it?" Marci said with a little croaking sound. "These people, they have types. What if whoever killed her is still around here? What if he likes girls who look us?"

"Whoever did it is long gone by now," I said. "And besides, maybe that drawing doesn't really look like her. It could be a bad likeness, right?"

"You know, maybe you're..." Marci started just as the phone rang and sent us hunting for the cordless. Emma found it first.

"Ahoy-hoy," she said, and listened for a minute. "I beg your pardon? Oh, no. Certainly not...Yes, I see. But I assure you...But really, there's no need. She's very much safe and sound. She's right here in this room, so you see...Really, sir, there's no need to take that sort of tone...Oh, very well." She put her thin white hand over the receiver. "Marci, it's, um, it's for you."

"Who is it?"

"It's, well, it's...the police."

She shot up off the couch but didn't take a step forward. "What do they want?"

"Hmm...How to put this? Well, darling, the fact is they want to make sure you're alive."

"Oh, my."

"Just as you say. Apparently, they have received eight phone calls in the past three hours identifying you as the body in the woods based on that dreadful sketch. I told them you still have a pulse, but they remain unconvinced. So you tell them." She crossed the room and delivered the phone.

"Uh, hello? Yes, this is Marci Simmons. Detective who...?" She walked off to the kitchen with her finger in one ear and the phone in the other.

"So what did I tell you?" C.A. said. "If I'm lyin', I'm dyin'."

"Do you think there's any way she might be right?" Steve asked. "Do you think there's some guy out there who likes..."

"Look," I said. "If I were Marci, I'd be creeped out too, and so would anybody else. But I'm sure the truth is a hell of a lot less interesting."

"Don't you wonder what she went through?" C.A. said, apropos of nothing. "I mean, don't you think about it? What exactly happened to her?"

"I try not to," Emma said.

"Well I've been thinking about it a lot, wondering how he grabbed her or whatever, you know."

"How very morbid."

"No, I know what she means," I said. "I've been thinking about it too—trying to decide whether she did something stupid, drove around with her car doors unlocked maybe."

"Or hitchhiked," C.A. said. "Or let the wrong guy into her apartment to read the meter."

"Or parked next to a van," I said.

"Good God," Emma said. "Do they teach this sort of thing in high school?"

"Try sixth grade," C.A. said.

"Dreadful country."

"So you've remarked," I said as Marci came back in. "What'd the cops say?"

"Half my first-year anatomy class called to ID me. A couple of people from tap class too. Which is pretty stupid since they know I was alive and well as of last Sunday."

"Are you okay?"

"No." She sat back down on the couch and one of her three cats jumped heavily from the arm onto her lap. Marci didn't even notice, which is quite an accomplishment since Frank—a black-and-white tuxedo cat named after Sinatra—is fifteen pounds if he's an ounce.

"Come on, what did the cops say?" Steve prodded.

"That there's nothing to worry about."

"So there you go."

"They said there was no reason to believe it wasn't...what did they call it? ?An isolated incident.' And her looking like me was just a coincidence, and I'm not in any danger, and anyway I wasn't the only girl on campus who got misidentified."

"That should make you feel better," I said.

"Yeah, but it doesn't. I guess I...I don't know. Sympathize with her more."

"Perfectly natural. You'd be crazy if you didn't. But you know what? Pretty soon they're going to catch the guy and send him someplace where he's dating guys named Spike. You'll see. It'll all be over in a couple of days."

I was trying—and let's face it, failing—to sound tough. But the truth was that the whole situation got to me, like it got to all of us. I'd seen death before, up close and personal, but it didn't make it any less frightening. The dead girl in the snow was about our age, could have fit right there in our living room. The thought of her made us feel both stronger and more fragile. More than anything, she made us think about how lucky we were just not to be her.

We stayed up absurdly late that night talking about it, maybe a little bit scared to go to sleep because of what we might dream. And we might have stayed just a little bit scared if there hadn't been another dead girl, then another and another. And we might have had more midnight talks, thinking of the whole business in the third person, if I hadn't found the second body myself.

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