During the dark hours of morning, dense fog laced with heavy threads of icy, wet drizzle crept in off the Pacific Ocean. Six hours later, with it closing on noon, the heavy weather showed not the slightest sign of lifting. I trudged across sludgy sand, water sluicing off my old canvas hat and coat and pearling in my beard. The strong smell of salt off the chuck was overwhelmed in places by the rotting sulphurous odour emanating from great tangled balls of bull kelp and other seaweed cast ashore during the most recent storm. Slate grey surf, frothed with angry foam, sloshed against the beach. There was no horizon, just the press of fog against the tree- and shrub-dressed headlands upon which the shadowy presence of glass slab and cedar-walled beachfront houses could be detected but not defined. I walked cocooned in a grey world seemingly devoid of life. The only sound was the long, eternal drumbeat roll of the inward washing waves followed by the slow sucking hiss as each receded in turn. Gravel and sand sighed outward in a mournful, timeless operatic lament. No gulls shrilled, no shorebirds flushed from the surf line in chittering flocks. Even the ravens normally perched amid the twisted branches of storm-battered firs and hemlocks held silent. I walked down the middle of a track marked on the sand by two sets of tires—one the wide rough tread of a Sport Utility Vehicle or truck, the other a car’s narrower smoother print. It was a trail that ran straight and true to the far end of the beach, where death waited.
The dead are always patient, so although my pace was purposeful, I did not hasten toward this meeting. Service as Tofino’s coroner has as yet failed to harden my spirit and stomach to the realities that accompany sudden mortality. Each time, I must steel myself anew before entering the presence of the dead. It was this reluctance to approach the death scene that had prompted me to leave the old 1967 Land Rover in the beach access parking lot rather than using the excuse of official duties to disobey the “No Motorized Vehicles Beyond This Point” sign. I walked and let the mist cleanse me.
As I drew closer to the southern end of the beach, the red and blue flash of a rack of emergency lights materialized out of the fog. The nose of Sergeant Gary Danchuk’s RCMP Blazer canted inland, its bumper facing seaward. Lined up alongside the Blazer was a police cruiser, lights also flashing. Next to the vehicles a small crowd had gathered, everyone protected from the elements by varying forms of rain gear that ranged from old rubber slickers to state-of-the-art Gore-Tex coats with matching pants. A couple of dogs squatted on their haunches next to two of the people. Constable Anne Monaghan, wearing a yellow police slicker, faced the group. Passing through the cluster, I nodded a greeting to Bess Witherspoon while brushing a finger across the tip of her Labrador’s muzzle. Bess met my eyes bleakly and so too did Charlie, the dog.
I wondered why Bess was here. Although she lived in a house just inland from the ridge overlooking the beach, it seemed out of character for her to join a congregation of onlookers at a death scene. None of the others were familiar to me. But most of the houses fronting this beach had been bought or built by people who made their money far removed from Tofino, so this did not surprise me as it might have been a few years back. The turbulent beauty of the landscape surrounding Tofino and its deceptive small town ambience has drawn an ever-increasing number of people to build seasonal recreational homes or even to move here permanently. Most waterfront areas suitable for housing development are chock-a-block full of oversized homes lived in by people with more money than three or four normal Tofinoites might see in a lifetime. But I can hardly cast aspersions on these outlanders, for in many ways I am one of them.
“It’s a bad business, Elias,” Monaghan announced wearily. Stray strands of blonde hair straggled lankly out from beneath her ball cap and water dribbled down her cheeks. She looked cold and pale. I suspected, however, that the paleness had little to do with the discomfort caused by the foul weather. “Never seen anything like it.” I thought she shuddered and a responsive chill ran up my spine. “It was Bess who found her. Out walking Charlie. Just about tripped over her in the fog.”
“Other side of the cars. You’ll find Danchuk and the others there. Better go and take a look. See if you can get the okay to cover her up with something, will you?”
Leaving Monaghan to maintain the scene’s security, I approached the three figures that formed a rough semicircle around a still indistinct object. Scattered out behind the object were what appeared to be a series of strange structures resembling some crude and misshapen Stonehenge. Drawing closer I realized the structures were nothing more than jumbles of drift logs and bits of lumber roughly piled together to construct a semblance of protection against the worst of the rain and wind, but would never keep anybody completely dry. Not even the addition of various torn orange and blue plastic tarps tied this way and that to create roofs and seaward-facing walls added much weatherproofing.
Like probably everybody else in Tofino, I knew this place as The One Earth Family’s crude campsite. They called themselves The Family for short and had come from down island late in the spring. Surprisingly they had stayed on even as fall hardened its grip with ever more frequent rains and storms that lashed hard upon the backs of those lacking dry, heated shelter. I joined the three officers, who like Monaghan all sported garish orange, yellow, and black slickers favoured by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers fearful of being struck down by motorists while conducting roadside checks. Sergeant Danchuk offered a scowl and jerky nod by way of greeting before turning his gaze toward the body lying on the sand. Constable Josinder Singh touched the brim of his cap in a two-fingered salute, while Constable Norman Tom merely offered a sad smile that showed no flash of white teeth from within his round, brown face.
Stepping in between Singh and Tom, I glanced down and reflexively sucked in a hard breath at the horror to be found there. I looked upon the body of a young woman lying face up. She was naked. Eyes wide open, staring sightlessly up into the foggy sky, unmindful of the drops of water forming on her face and running across the brown pupils to trail like tears down her cheeks onto the sand. Her long blonde hair, plaited into cornrows into which multi-coloured wooden and glass beads had been woven, fanned out around her head and was thickly matted with sand. There was no horror in how she looked in death. For she had been an attractive woman despite the gauntness brought on by hunger that had stretched her skin as tight across her ribcage as a drum hide. No the horror lay in the bands of barbed wire wrapped tightly around her from ankles to shoulders and in the brutally deep gash that encircled the precise centrepoint of her neck.
“Jesus,” I hissed.
From where he stood on the opposite side of the young woman’s corpse Danchuk growled, “You up to this or not, McCann?”
I took another long breath and raised my face to the drizzle for a moment, letting its icy bite help stave off the lurking nausea. Then I forced myself to look again at the woman. “Is this how you found her?”
“We ain’t about to move her,” Danchuk retorted. “Call’s already in. Forensic team is on the way from Nanaimo. Damned fog meant they couldn’t fly in. So they’re coming by car.” He made a show of pushing back a jacket sleeve to consult his watch, twisted his mouth in thoughtful consideration. “Should be here in ninety minutes or less.”
I considered the scene before me, trying to think clearly, to notice everything that mattered and then to remember it. There was the way she lay on her back, legs locked hard together by the encircling wire. Her arms were bound tight to her sides, forcing her into a stance akin to a soldier standing at attention. Then there was the terrible throat wound. Her mouth was open, as if frozen in a scream. Between her body and the three police officers the damp sand was surprisingly devoid of footprints or other tracks. A line of large paw prints that were undoubtedly Charlie’s approached the body on the right and then milled about uncertainly until being joined by footprints that looked to match Bess’ gumbooted tread. Both these prints retreated in a direct line that ran off and disappeared under the two police cars. The stride leaving was far longer than that of the approach. I pictured Bess and her dog sprinting down the beach toward the nearest stairway or trail leading up to a house and a phone being used there to report her discovery. Bess was a retired elementary school teacher. A calm, serious sort, little given to panic.
There was one other set of footprints that approached almost to the body from where Danchuk stood, executed an about face, and then retreated back by virtually the same route. Next to the body was an imprint likely left when the person crouched down on a knee for a closer look. “Your footprints, Gary?” I asked in as civil a voice as I could muster. There was a job to do and a duty to perform, so I determined to try and set aside mutual animosities.
“Yeah, went in close to confirm she was dead. Not that there was much chance she wouldn’t be, having her throat slit like that. Bastards.”
Although I wondered what bastards he referred to, this didn’t seem the time to pursue the matter. I looked again at the woman’s body and realized a familiarity. “I’ve seen her before. She’s one of the street kids who panhandled outside the liquor store or Co-op. One of the drummers.”
“We made her, too,” Singh said. “Not that we have a name. She never gave us that whenever we moved them along. I think she went by Sparrow or something. Move them from one place and they just set up in another.”
“Wanted to put them on a bus out of here but everyone kept sweating about not violating their civil rights and constitutional freedoms. Malarkey.”
“Okay if I take a closer look?” I asked Danchuk.
He shrugged disinterestedly. “Step where I did and don’t disturb the body. Should be okay then. Don’t see what you’re going to learn. Ain’t like you’ve got any training.”
Choosing to ignore the jibe, I walked around to where Danchuk was and then tried to place my larger foot into his almost dainty little footprints to not further disturb the scene. He was right, of course. For I am a coroner with no medical or forensic expertise at all. Rather peculiarly such knowledge is unnecessary in British Columbia for a community coroner. The Coroner’s Act merely cites that a community member in good standing must fill such a position. There is also the inherent requirement that said person have sufficient time on their hands to attend death scenes at any time and on any day and be willing to engage in such grim work for relatively meager remuneration. Still, lack of training aside, my job is to ascertain the cause of sudden deaths in the Tofino area and I am not one to shirk a duty assumed. And since becoming Tofino’s community coroner almost three years ago, I have learned far more than I ever desired about the nature of such deaths.
So I knelt beside the woman who may have assumed the street name Sparrow and considered her corpse. While I did so, Singh, and Tom got busy erecting strands of yellow RCMP crime scene tape in a wide square around Sparrow’s body, using bits of driftwood stabbed into the sand for posts to elevate the tape to waist height. Danchuk let his minions apply themselves to this task unsupervised, preferring instead to take up a position about five feet away from the body, from where he could closely watch my every move. Always suspicious of me, he apparently feared I would somehow tamper with his crime scene.
Digging into the game pouch on the inside of my Filson jacket I extracted the small palm-sized micro-cassette tape recorder that Vhanna had decided this past Christmas was an absolute necessity for one entrusted with a job such as mine. Until now I had seen no use for it in the various straightforward death investigations lately attended, but this was anything but routine. I had a murder and no shortage of significant and complex details. Remembering them all unaided would be impossible. And the heavy drizzle would quickly reduce any ink scrawled into a notebook to an indecipherable smear on so much soggy pulp. Palming the recorder to screen it from the worst of the moisture, I clumsily keyed the record button and then engaged the pause button until I had something worth saying.
Looking past the glistening galvanized barbed wire entangling the woman, I considered her closely despite feeling a creeping unease at her nakedness. Although malnourishment had eaten the flesh off Sparrow’s body, she had fairly heavy bone structure. Given a normal North American diet she would have been prone to plumpness. I noted small purple stretch marks around her stomach and waist, and on her breasts that indicated she had once carried significantly more weight than had been recently the case.
Like many young people, her body had served as a personalized canvas upon which she had spattered tattoos and various tender points of flesh were pierced with bits of jewelry and steel. Thin metal rings adorned the outside corners of both eyebrows, a diamond-coloured stud pierced her left nostril, while a silver bud was centred in the flesh below her lower lip, and a red drop-earring dangled from her navel. Crescents of studs and rings marched up the length of each ear from lower lobe to the rounding of the helix cartilage at the very top. Perched high on her left breast, the tracing of a thin black needle stabbed right through a dusky red heart and tiny red drops of blood sprayed off the needlepoint down toward her nipple. Just above the upper line of her pubic hair, a dove with a strand of thorns gripped in its beak flew in the direction of her navel. In grim irony, tattooed strands of black barbed wire encircled both biceps. But the barbs there had only two prongs, one each side of the thick weave of the tattoo wire. They lay gently on the skin, wicked in appearance but mundanely benign when compared to the brutal reality of the gashes the four-pronged barbs of real wire had carved into Sparrow’s tender flesh.
When once a soldier, I had worked often enough with military wire, both the standard barbed variety similar to what cowpunchers string on fence lines to pen in cattle and the razor-edged concertina wire commonly used to confine inmates inside government penitentiaries. The former had been used to create perimeters around positions where the threat from the outside world was deemed minimal and the wire intended only to deter thieves or errant children. The latter had served as a front line defensive obstacle at roadblocks and for bunkered gun positions. Both types of wire were vicious in their own ways, difficult to work with and required the use of heavy gloves to avoid painful lacerations.
The wire encircling Sparrow’s body was of a standard type I had seen during those days. Two galvanized strands of thick iron wound together and interspersed with half-inch long barbs in a twisted four-prong pattern spaced at intervals of about three inches. The wire was supplied in rolls that increased in length by increments of fifty feet. Even a fifty-foot roll was almost too heavy for a single man to lift. Barbed wire is hard to stretch out or wrap around a post for it inclines to go its own way, constantly seeking to twist into coils of its own design. How anyone could wrap another person so methodically and completely without ending up almost as savaged as the victim puzzled me. Yet there was no sign on the surrounding ground that the killer had been dripping blood or having flesh flayed from his body as he carried out the crime.
Tripping off the pause button, I murmured a brief description of the barbed wire and the manner in which it was wrapped about Sparrow’s body into the recorder’s built in mike. I kept the player close to my lips and my voice at little more than a whisper in order to prevent Danchuk overhearing. Finished describing the physical characteristics of the wire, I added that each barb appeared to have been dragged back and forth approximately an inch or so diagonally across her flesh with the result that her body bore multiple superficial gashes. Each gash had drawn some degree of blood, so her body was smeared erratically with red splotches from ankles to shoulders. I noted how the blood had dribbled in thick strands down her sides and yet the sand upon which she lay was barely stained.
When I had first bent over Sparrow’s body the stench of rotting meat that quickly starts emanating off a corpse had been almost overwhelming and I had considered asking Danchuk to fetch a surgical mask to help filter out the worst of it. But such a request would surely have been met by some scathing sarcasm and a delay in my being able to inspect the corpse. Besides, I no longer even noticed the odour, for after about three minutes exposure to the stench of death my olfactory nerves had simply gone numb. As long as I remained in close proximity to Sparrow’s body this would remain the case. If I walked away and cleared my head, then returned, another three-minute endurance test would ensue until the nerves again shut down.
I wondered how long ago Sparrow had been murdered, but there were no conclusive surface clues to go by. Her face and jaw were stiffened by rigor mortis, but it did not appear to be present elsewhere. As this process extends from head to toe in a basically sequential process, this could indicate that she had been killed only a few hours ago. Normally rigor sets in somewhere between two to six hours after death. But there are a host of variables that render it a very poor time indicator. The person’s weight, physical condition, and the climatic conditions in which the death occurs are among factors that influence when rigor begins and for how long it persists.
One thing that seemed decidedly odd was the manner in which postmortem lividity had set in. Sparrow lay on her back, arms trussed at her sides. The moment she died, her heart would have stopped beating and arterial and veinal blood flow ceased. Slowly the blood should have begun settling and pooling along her back from head to shoulders and down the length of the back of her legs and arms, turning the skin in these areas an increasingly deep purplish-red. Because she was lying on her back, this lividity would not be visible except where the lower parts of her body just edged free of the sand. Yet Sparrow’s feet and ankles were coloured entirely purplish, as were her hands and wrists. There was also a sharp purpling of the skin around her pelvis, buttocks, and thighs.
I recalled Doc Tully’s autopsy report on Margaret James, one of my first investigations. The poor old soul had passed on sitting in her easy chair watching a television cranked up to almost full volume. And so she had remained undisturbed until a frustrated neighbour knocked on her door nearly a week later to register a complaint. Tully had noted that postmortem lividity was present in her buttocks, pelvis, thighs, feet and ankles. This was entirely consistent with someone who died sitting in a chair. Sparrow’s body showed very much the same symptoms, but she lay on her back.
Having finished recording these observations, I turned my attention unwillingly to Sparrow’s throat, forcing back the bile that threatened to rise in my own. Despite having seen many types of violent death as a coroner and having in my soldiering past witnessed more horrific combat-inflicted casualties than should have been the lot of a supposed peacekeeper, Sparrow’s death wound was the worst I had ever encountered. Not because of the nature of the gash, for this was remarkably thin and precise, almost surgical in how it formed a narrow line circling her throat. Whatever weapon the killer had used to inflict the wound had sliced deeply into her neck to create a distinct groove. Surprisingly little blood had drained out of the gash, more a gentle weep than a steady flow. Looking more closely, I noted that a very slight trickle of blood was still escaping from the wound.
It was only when I bent closer to the body that I saw a peculiar irregularity in the preciseness of the gash. This came in the form of regular points slicing either upward or downward from the edges of the wound and matching it in depth of penetration. Leaning in more closely I looked this time not at the throat wound but at Sparrow’s face. Perhaps it had been the fog or more likely the presence of so many red splotches of blood on her body that had prevented my seeing how her face and the part of her neck above the wound were as florid as that of a binge drinker.
Slipping the tape recorder back into a pocket, I extracted a pair of surgical gloves and tugged them on. “What you think you’re doing, McCann?” Danchuk barked suddenly. “Don’t go disturbing the body, hear.”
Shaking my head, I replied, “Don’t worry, I’m not about to.” Then without waiting for a response I gently reached out and tugged down slightly on the lower lids of Sparrow’s eyes. Just as I had expected, the lower whites of each eye were webbed with lines of blood where the capillaries had ruptured.
Pulse quickening, I turned my body so it masked my actions from Danchuk’s increasingly dithering bulk. Then I formed my hand into a loose fist and carefully slipped it under the back of Sparrow’s neck. Slowly I extended my index finger out of the fist and was not surprised to feel it contact something thin and metallic. Wiggling the finger to one side I touched a barb and released my breath as I extracted my hand from under her neck and rocked back onto my heels.
Standing up, I turned to Danchuk. “Nobody slit this girl’s throat. Whoever did this strangled her with a strip of barbed wire.” Looking past the sergeant, I gazed at the surf slowly rolling in great grey swells up onto the beach, and the grey fog that hung above them. There was no malice there, just nature’s implacability. “Gary,” I said, “whoever did this stripped her, coiled her in the wire, and then while she fought to get free, garroted her.”
Danchuk looked at me hard and then lowered his eyes to the nude woman’s body. I saw his jaw grind. Having completed the stringing of crime scene tape, the two constables were drifting back toward us. “It gets worse,” I continued. “They moved her here. She was murdered somewhere else.”