Buffalo City, tucked away two dusty miles off US 64 on the mainland in Dare County, used to be known as the moonshine capital of North Carolina.
Then it became a great place to launch a kayak into the Alligator River.
Or a place to dump a body.
A young female body.
Shortly after dawn on that Saturday morning in May, I drove to Buffalo City to explore the backwaters in my kayak. I had pulled my Subaru Outback to the end of the dirt road, kayak affixed on top with bungee cords, and parked at the side of the little turnaround. From there I could ease the kayak into the shallow waters at the edge of the river.
I had just released the last bungee cord so I could drag my kayak a short distance for launching, when I suddenly sucked in my breath: not ten yards away, a woman’s bare legs protruded from the brush at the edge of the water. The legs were attached to a body partially obscured by low, dusty vegetation. My heart picked up beats, and I dropped the cord. Taking quick, shallow breaths, I glanced around, warily. Whether I actually expected to see someone else, I don’t know. Maybe I thought I might be pounced upon at any moment. Everything was silent, except for a bird chirping happily in a pine tree. This had to be a dream, but if it was, it was a bad one.
I took a few unsteady steps toward the body.
I got closer, confirming it was a woman and she was nude. Her wrists and ankles were tied and there was a loop of rope around her neck that led back to her ankles. Her back was arched. Hogtied. A person could stay alive as long as they could keep their back arched. When fatigue took over, the person strangled from the noose. A tortuous way to kill someone. It would take a sadistic sonofabitch to do this, and to a pretty young woman.
She looked to be in her twenties, with light brown hair, a trim body. There was a small tattoo of an angel on her left ankle. An angel. To look after her, watch over her. Sure, hell yes.
It was not that warm, but I felt the beginnings of perspiration running down my sides. I tried deliberately to slow my breathing.
Standing there by the body, I flipped open my cell phone and punched in the sheriff’s office in Manteo, a number I knew by heart. I realized I was trembling.
The dispatcher at the sheriff’s office answered on the first ring and identified himself. I didn’t recognize his name. I told him who I was and that I had found the body of a young woman at the kayak launching area in Buffalo City.
“Is she dead?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s a body. The nude body of a young woman.”
“Do you suspect foul play?”
“She’s been hogtied, deputy.”
“Give me your name again, and hold a minute.”
When he came back on a few seconds later, he said that Deputy Dorsey was over in East Lake serving papers and he would be on the scene in just a few minutes.”
“Don’t leave the area.”
I moved mechanically back a few steps, turned and walked with jerky steps to my Subaru. Leaning against the front fender, forcing myself to take even breaths, I stared toward the woman’s body. From this point, her body was not that visible. In the sand and gravel parking area between the body and me, the only footprints were those of mine when I’d walked to the launching area and saw the body, and then my returning footprints to the car. The ground appeared to have been swept clean of any other markings. Maybe the night breeze had done that. Perspiration ran down my chest underneath my loose-fitting T-shirt. I had on somewhat ragged khaki shorts and sandals.
My name is Harrison Weaver, a crime writer, and I live on the Outer Banks, those thin barrier islands along the coast of North Carolina, only thirty-some miles from here. And as a crime writer, I’ve seen my share of dead bodies, but never one I could literally have almost stepped on. And what made this discovery even more eerie is that it was so similar to an unsolved case I’d been assigned to write about a month earlier up in the mountains of North Carolina at a place called Bloody Mattaskeet County. A young woman was found nude and hogtied in the backseat of her car.
Four hundred miles away and there’s another beautiful nude woman, done in the same way.
Slowly, and trying to step in mostly my same footprints, I made my way back toward the woman’s body. Maybe partly out of curiosity and partly because it was my training, I knew I needed to take a closer look at her while I waited for Deputy Dorsey. Too, in the first sighting of her up close there was something about her facial features that struck me as odd. Bending over from the waist and being careful not to contaminate the crime scene, I peered at the woman’s face. The noose was around her neck, but her face didn’t look as if she had been strangled. The characteristics apparent when someone has been strangled—swollen, protruding tongue; bugged-out almost exploded eyes; deep impression into her throat from the rope—were not visible. She looked strangely peaceful. Her face was not distorted. I didn’t see any obvious wounds on her body, and no bruises. Her lips were slightly parted; her eyes open only a slit. I didn’t touch her, but no visible decomposition had begun. She couldn’t have been there long. A fly landed on her lower lip, and I waved the fly away. There were other insects that had begun to climb along her bare feet. I wanted to shoo them away as well, but I knew that was futile. She wasn’t feeling anything, ever again. Studying her face, I realized there was something vaguely familiar about her appearance. Had I ever seen her before? I couldn’t be sure. Death, whether from natural causes or murder, does subtly—and sometimes not so subtly—change a person’s appearance. She was definitely not someone I knew, but something familiar about her nagged at me.
My mind flashed back to the picture of the body I had seen of the victim in Mattaskeet County. The woman looked much the same, almost like she was posed–and not strangled. One of the few observant things the sheriff there had said was that it appeared she may have been killed before she was tied up.
I heard the sound of an approaching vehicle. A cloud of white dust from the sand and gravel road became visible before I could actually see the car.
I didn’t think Deputy Dorsey could have arrived that fast. I backtracked to my Subaru. Then the car came into view. It was not the sheriff’s deputy. It was a Dodge SUV with two kayaks strapped to the roof, and Maryland license tags. A man and woman pulled their Dodge up a short distance from my car, the dust still hanging in the air from their approach. I turned my head away from the mushrooming white dust and coughed once. The sun was getting warmer and the humidity rising. I could smell the dust, mixed with the scent of the warmed pine trees.
Getting out of their Dodge, the couple waved hands in greeting. I walked toward them.
“I’m afraid there’ll be no kayaking this morning.”
The man’s smile vanished and his face took on a mixture of disappointment overridden with aggressiveness. “Yeah? And why not?” A muscular, fit man, he was dressed in what looked like brand new Spandex bicycle-type shorts and a tank top. Both of them appeared to be in their early thirties. She was dressed much the same as the man, only her braless tank top was more amply filled out.
“This has become a crime scene,” I said. “There’s a woman’s body over there.” I inclined my head in the direction of the launching area.
They stared in that direction. He started to say, “I don’t–”
I heard the woman’s sharp intake of breath. “Oh my god…” She shrank against their SUV. “There,” she said, nodding toward the launch area. Automatically, I glanced over my shoulder. From where we stood, only the woman’s bare lower legs were visible.
The man stepped back from me. “Who are you?” he said. “Are you a cop?” The aggressiveness was gone from his voice, replaced by maybe just a touch of fear.
“No,” I said. “I came here to go kayaking, too. I walked up on the body. I’ve called the sheriff’s office. A deputy is on his way…and more officers, too, I’m sure, very shortly.”
He watched my face. “All right if we stay here?”
She said, “Oh, I don’t know, Brad…”
“Sure you can stay,” I said. “But there’ll be a lot of activity shortly and you’ll want to stay out of the way.”
I could tell he mulled something over in his mind before he spoke. “You said a ‘crime scene.’ Does that mean, you know, that it’s not natural causes?” He hesitated a moment, apparently weighing his thoughts carefully. “I mean, how do you know?”
“She’s tied up. Nude.” I couldn’t help but add, well with maybe a tad of unjustified and rather juvenile sarcasm, “Makes you think right off that it’s not from natural causes.”
Then we heard the piercing wail of a siren. I saw another dust cloud rising beyond the pine and live oak trees before I saw a Dare County sheriff’s department cruiser coming up on us hell-bent-for-leather. The cruiser stopped abruptly, the plume of white dust roiling back on it and on to us. I covered my nose and eyes with my hands. Deputy Dorsey got out of the cruiser and met me halfway between his car and the Maryland SUV. He has blondish red hair, close cropped, and is edging toward being portly. I’ve known him for almost a year.
“What’s going on, Mr. Weaver?”
I pointed toward the body, and told him what I had discovered when I arrived.
“Who are those people?” he asked, nodding toward the couple standing close to each other beside their SUV.
“They came up a short while ago, right after I called the sheriff’s office, to go kayaking. They haven’t approached the body. I’m the only one who has—I mean since she was deposited here.”
Dorsey nodded. “Let’s take a look.”
We used my footprints again to get close to the body. Dorsey leaned forward to get a look. His face was drawn and much of the color appeared to have vanished from his usual ruddy complexion. “Jesus,” he whispered. He puffed out a long sigh of breath. “I’m calling it in. Get more help. Better get rescue folks out here, too.”
“The coroner and a hearse, you mean,” I said softly.
“Yeah.” He looked around. “I’ve got a roll of crime scene tape in the vehicle. Help me string it around?”
“Sure.” Then I said, “We’ll probably have some more kayakers arriving soon and we want to keep them away.”
He swallowed audibly, took another quick look at the body and we retraced our steps back to his cruiser. I don’t know, but I figured this was probably the first time young Deputy Dorsey had come up on a murder scene.
Watching Dorsey’s reaction to seeing the body brought an abrupt realization to me about my own attitude. What was it? Had I become hardened to death and murder? Although I’d never discovered a body before, as I did this morning, I had years ago been one of two of us who were the first ones on a scene where two police officers had been slain. And I had written about death and mayhem extensively. But I didn’t want to become hardened and uncaring. Perhaps it was a bit of rationalization on my part, but I attributed my momentary lack of real emotion to my instincts of what needed to be done, and done quickly—notifying the authorities and securing the area. Then for the first time since I’d come upon the body, I permitted myself to think about the victim as a person, whoever she was. A short time earlier, probably much less than twenty-four hours, she’d been vibrant and alive, with dreams and hopes. Now that was ended forever. I could imagine her as woman walking happily down the streets of Manteo or sunning on one of the nearby beaches, a woman I could have seen and spoken to, not a victim. Not just a body.
Dorsey had popped the trunk to his cruiser and handed me the roll of crime scene tape. I was back acting mechanically. Dorsey got on his radio, calling in. We’d have a slew of activity here shortly. I affixed one end of the crime scene tape to the railing of a footbridge that spanned the launching area. We picked up a broken limb we placed in the cul-de-sac at the center of the semicircle, securing the tape to it; the end of the tape we tied to a low bush several yards from the body. So a good section of the area was roped off.
Just as we finished, another kayaker arrived. He had a double-seated kayak on a small trailer. A more mature couple, sun-tanned and looking healthy, got out of their Jeep, quizzical expressions on their faces.
I gave them a quick rundown while Dorsey went back to his radio. The couple carefully pulled their Jeep around in the cul-de-sac, avoiding the tape, and parked on the right side of the road in an area designated for vehicles with trailers. “I’m not sure how long we’ll stay,” the man said. “My wife, you know…”
I went back to speak to Dorsey, who had signed off on his radio. He stood beside his cruiser, chewing his lower lip and rubbing the palms of his hands on his trouser legs. “Jesus,” he said again. “What a way to do somebody.”
I didn’t say anything.
In just a few minutes, here came another sheriff’s department cruiser; then a State Trooper; and another deputy. I heard a siren. It was a unit from Dare County rescue squad. The place was rapidly getting populated. A third Dare County sheriff’s cruiser pulled up. It was Chief Deputy Odell Wright, a good friend who had recently been promoted to chief deputy. Another kayaker arrived, saw all of the activity. The driver spoke to one of the deputies and then turned around and left. Deputy Wright told the second deputy who had arrived to go back to US 64 and block off the road except for official vehicles.
Wright came over to speak to me. “You were the first one here?”
“Yeah…not counting whoever put the woman there.”
He gave me one of his looks, like don’t-get-smart. But then he shook his head and gave just a trace of a smile. Wright has a wicked sense of humor. He’s black and he will, from time to time, point to his silver nametag that says O. Wright and tell a stranger that he is one of the original Wright Brothers. He may even add that his crazy brother is working on a flying machine.
Except for the State Trooper, Wright kept everyone away from the body. The wind had picked up a bit and blew some of the sand over my original tracks, but more were being made following the same path I had taken. Wright fanned a hand at the dust. “We need rain,” he muttered. He went back to his cruiser and used his radio. I stood beside him. He signed off on the radio and turned to me. “Deputy Sellers will be here shortly with his camera. We need to record as much of this as we can.” He wrinkled his brow, staring toward the place where the body lay. “Also, Dr. Willis.” Willis was the acting coroner.
More to himself than to me, Wright said, “We’re going to need to get the state boys, SBI, involved in this.”
“Yeah,” I said. I figured that my friend SBI Agent T. (for Thomas) Ballsford Twiddy would undoubtedly get involved. This was his general area for investigations. He lived now near Elizabeth City.
Agent Twiddy, or Balls as all of his friends called him, knew that I had gone up to Bloody Mattaskeet on assignment to write about that unsolved murder. Thinking about that, and the similarity with this one, sent a fresh and chilling bit of perspiration running down my chest. I wasn’t about to mention my thoughts to anyone other than Balls, even to Odell Wright. After all, the murders were four hundred miles apart.
Yet, I had that gut feeling—heck, more than just a gut feeling—that they were somehow linked. They had to be. Bizarre, I know. But this was too similar.
And I don’t believe in coincidences—only messages that we may not understand at first, messages that have to be deciphered.
copyright©2013 Joseph L.S. Terrell