The Bone Riddle

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Chapter 1

Alexa Glock had the two things she needed: an Instagram selfie and an X-ray of a skull. She manipulated the two images on the computer screen. The young woman in the selfie—wide, pale eyes, bulbous cheeks, expectant smile —deserved her full concentration.

Three days ago, adult female skeletal remains had been found in a gully in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. Her death was probably the result of a rockslide. Alexa had X-rayed the skull yesterday at the morgue. The selfie was of twenty-year-old Karin Johansson, who had last been active on social media six months ago. Her distraught parents, from the west coast of Sweden, had shared her social media accounts with the New Zealand police after their daughter stopped responding to texts and emails.

The onset of a nightmare.

Alexa ignored her coffee and positioned the two images atop each other as if they were on tracing paper. She moved the X-ray forward and backward, up and down, left and right, orienting the cheekbone without flesh to the cheekbone with flesh. When she had them aligned, the skull was consistent with the selfie face. Not that that was a clincher. Another skull of similar size and contours could be consistent too.

Smiling selfies were valuable postmortem investigative resources when dental records weren’t available. Alexa didn’t do Instagram, but Karin had been fond of posing and posting. Alexa imagined she was confident and boisterous—having an adventure in a foreign country, on the cusp of adulthood. She zoomed in on a space between the top incisors and clicked Adjust Image Transparency. A sudden voice made her jiggle the adjustment.

“We have a bunker body.”

She looked up from the screen at her bespectacled boss. “A what?”

Dan Goddard, in his signature red Converse tennis shoes, was Alexa’s age, thirty-seven, and director of Auckland’s Forensic Service Center, where she worked. They had a running Converse versus Keds shtick.

“A bunker body. A dead man in a bolt-hole. Has probably been dead a few days.”

She studied Dan’s sober face, not grasping the situation.

“A lot of rich Americans have bought up Kiwi land and built compounds with bunkers, I guess for when the apocalypse comes,” he explained. “They’ll pop into their private jets, fly to the southern hemisphere, and hole up like hobbits.”

Alexa wasn’t a Tolkien fan.

“This bunker is in Cape Kidnappers,” he said.

Her eyes jumped to the map she had tacked to her cubicle wall to become familiar with her home away from home. “Where’s that?”

New Zealand is divided into two major islands and many smaller islands. Dan ran his finger along the east coast of the North Island and tapped a spot. “Four hours south.”

Alexa squinted; she wondered if she needed to have her eyes checked. The North Island was a bottom-heavy figure eight. Auckland is where the two ovals join together, as fragile a connection as the neck is to the spine. Dan tapped farther below, where the coast indented like a bite mark.“A Silicon Valley CEO named Harlan Quinn owns the estate,” Dan said.

She thought of Apple and Facebook and Google.

“The estate has a name: Black Reef.”

The name sounded ominous.

“There’s a big house and a cottage. Plus the bunker. The housekeeper cleans the bunker once a month. She showed up this morning and the bunker was locked from inside. Her husband, the caretaker, got in through a back door. He found a nasty surprise.”

“Jeez. The CEO locked himself in his bunker? You suspect suicide?”

“We don’t even know if it’s him.”

“Has he been reported missing?”

“That hasn’t been confirmed.” Dan bent over to tie his shoelace. “Facial recognition isn’t possible. All that’s known is the deceased is an adult male. If it’s the billionaire, this will be big international news. We don’t want to spare any expense in identifying the deceased.”

Alexa’s mind cartwheeled. “Are there signs of foul play?”

“I don’t know. I told the police you’d be there this afternoon.”

She nodded. In suspicious circumstances, a forensic examiner should visit the death scene before the body is removed. This is a critical component in the success of an investigation, and this scene sounded plenty suspicious.

Dan straightened. “The closest police station is thirty minutes away. Hastings is a city of maybe fifty thousand. The DI is Mic Steele. Follow all orders, right? No coloring outside the lines?”

Alexa stiffened. There had been a time or two recently when she’d had to think for herself and do what needed to be done— for the good of the case. Some sergeant or constable must have complained. Not DI Bruce Horne, with whom she occasionally worked and was seeing regularly. She thought of his steady gaze, his honesty, his imperturbability. He would never betray her. She was about to defend herself but bit her tongue. Keeping her job as a traveling forensic investigator allowed her to stay in New Zealand on a work visa. There was no point in returning to North Carolina. No one waited with open or closed arms. “No scribbling, I promise. Should I drive the Batmobile?”

“No need. The Hastings Police Department has a good lab.”

Alexa hid her disappointment. The forensic van had all kinds of cool gadgets she wanted to play with. When Dan left, she realigned the images and zoomed in on the teeth. Her specialty was odontology, and it was the rotated incisor on both the selfie and X-ray that clenched—well, clinched—the ID. The computer would use objective and numerical data for evaluating matches and confirm Alexa’s finding.

Karin’s parents’ nightmare exploded into reality.

That was the dichotomy of her work. Results could cause heartbreak. Knowing is better than not knowing, she reminded herself. She grabbed the phone to report her findings. When one riddle was solved, another opened wide.