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Rita Todacheene is a forensic photographer. Her excellent photography skills have cracked many cases – she is almost supernaturally good at capturing details. In fact, Rita has been hiding a secret: she sees the ghosts of crime victims who point her toward clues other investigators overlook. Rita’s taboo ability was what drove her away from the Navajo reservation, where she was raised. It has isolated her from friends and gotten her in trouble with the law. And now it might be what gets her killed, when a furious ghost lands her in the crosshairs of Albuquerque s most dangerous cartel.



Nikon D50 18-55mmDX

SOULS DON’T SCATTER like the rest of the body. They latch on for as long as they can, their legs pulled to the sky, fingertips white in desperation. Souls are grasping for us, for the ones they left behind, and for the truth only they can see. They are the best witnesses to their last breaths.

I stand in that bitter, cold wind with that ghost and take its picture.

Tonight, nothing was left. After two hours of metal on bone and flesh on asphalt, there were only yellow plastic forensic markers lined up like soldiers on the darkened freeway, all seventy-five of them marking the resting place of this soul, who was now merged with the blacktop, the blood and tissue part of its earth and chemicals. I watched the lead investigator lay another marker in the distance. Seventy-six.

Static crackled through the radio.

“We have OMI en route.” Office of the Medical Investigator. “DB I-40 westbound at Louisiana walkover. A body on the highway. Respond. Photo One? Are you there?”

“Photo One. I’m here.”

I knew then that I would be out here for hours. I clawed into my last pack of nicotine gum, pulling two pieces from the foil, and jerked myself into my paper suit and latex skin. Neither did anything to cut the cold. I ducked beneath the tape. We were always the first on the scene, the photographers. Next month would be sixty-six months for me. Five and a half years of taking pictures of dead people.

This person had been scattered—muscles and flesh torn by the push and pull of steel, by hot rubber and propulsion, speed and physics. The markers stretched out farther than I could see, a serpent of reflective yellow slithering into sky and tar. Too many people were on scene, mostly cops surveying the carnage, telling stories in huddles, pulled together by whispers.

I walked to marker one. Surrounded by the night sky, I took the first overall photo. I perched above; the wide angle lens was just wide enough. A galaxy of shimmering light set off every marker, every piece of flesh bound in yellow haze. The first ten pieces were small and unrecognizable, splinters of bone and chunks of tissue. By marker twenty-one, the pieces were bigger. A waxy, oily section of skin lay before me, the photo catching every detail of newly shaven legs, of the nick she gave herself probably that morning, of a faded tattoo saying “Forever.” I could tell it was a leg by the ghostly white bone that protruded from the flesh. A femur. Twenty-two was a piece of ankle; twentythree was a left foot with two toes missing—a snake and tree tattoo twisting out of the hole they left. When I found the toes about a foot away, they were still attached to each other by a thin rope of dry skin. Twenty-four.

The other leg was complete, torn low in the thigh. The kneecap faced north, scuffed to the bone, but the rest of the leg twisted south. The bones in the legs were cleanly snapped, the exposed flesh like outstretched hands. Every single bone in the right foot looked like it was broken. The pinky toe was missing. Marker thirty.

The hip bones were still intact, held together by the seams of the pants. About six inches of left leg remained, with no bone visible. My camera focused in on the partial tire track above the break. A breeze moved through and pushed the heavy iron scent of blood into my nose, a hint of decay catching in my throat.

The iliac crest overhung the torn flesh right above ripped, blood-soaked pants. Glittery sequins shimmered when I used my primary flash, shredded backbone pulling white into the camera frame. I used my slave flash and hot shoe attachment and tried the image again. On the rear viewfinder, I saw a twenty-dollar bill sticking out of the pocket. I hadn’t noticed it on my first glance. Image count: 175.

I moved along the side of the road, approaching the shoulder in a grid, carefully measuring the length of each piece of debris and the distance between various fragments of the body. The liver, intestines, kidneys, and uterus had not fared well: the tissue flattened by tires and caked with debris. I found her heart at number thirty-four, in the grass away from the asphalt, as if an invisible angel had laid it in place. I had never seen a heart like this, so pristine I almost waited for it to beat. It was like a sacred heart of Jesus postcard.

By the time I got to number forty-seven, I had photographed half of her body, including most of her internal organs. But fortyseven was her torso. It measured about fifteen inches, according to my scale. The woman was petite. She had lots of detailed and beautiful tattoos, the stories behind them now silenced, the ink unchained. The skid marks, ten and a half feet long, lined up with her rib cage, jagged back roads that cut through the landscape of her remains.

Around the edges of a frayed six inches of bicep, a tattered heather-gray T-shirt was rolled into a tight cylinder, cinching the skin. Two shimmering strips of nylon still rested lightly along her shoulder blade, the remnants of her bra. The rest of it was next to the torso, balled up and streaked with black tar. The scream of the charging flash orbited the night air. Image number 231.

A mist of condensation hung in the night sky. Even out in the cold, my hat and scarf were soaked with sweat. I peeled them away. I lifted my eyes to see how much was left. As I continued to shoot, I could hear the conversation between an investigator and a truck driver, the only driver who had bothered to stop.

“I didn’t see anything out there. Just the thud. Just the thud like I’ve been telling you.”

“I understand, sir. Where did the thud come from?”

“From the front left side, then way back on the left tires. I could feel the back ones roll over something, so I stopped.”

“And then what did you do?”

“Jumped out of the cab.” The man hesitated and grabbed the bill of his blue hat, the kind with the plastic mesh on the back. “Then I saw pieces, and I called it in.”

Hundreds of cars had passed her, unknowingly carrying her flesh beyond the boundaries of the city. I was sure there would be pieces we would never find. It was only us now, five investigators, fifteen cops, and my camera, visible only by the turning, cherryred lights of patrol cars. There was no moon out tonight; the sky was the color of indigo ink. I moved on. I was about halfway there and my fingertips were numb.

Number forty-eight began with pieces of arms and fingers. Her thumb was alone, the fingernail bit down to the nail bed, flecked with red polish. On the yellow line of the highway, we found her little toe, polished the same color as her fingernails. It was over twenty feet from the rest of her feet and legs. Image 456.

The largest piece of the skull was her jawbone, two bottom teeth missing, gums still bloody. Number sixty-eight. Even after the few hours she had spent on the road, her skin was soft. A delicate covering of fine hair lined the condyle of her jaw, the joint where the bones meet beneath the ear. It sat on the road at a forty-five-degree angle. There wasn’t even a drop of blood on the skin. I pressed my finger to the shutter release and raised the viewfinder. My eye stung from the flash.

One of the scene investigators walked behind me with the medical examiner, Dr. Blaser, who carried a box of red biohazard bags under his arm. He reached out and touched my shoulder. I turned to see his awkward smile and his nod.


I returned the nod. They kept walking.

“So how long do you think she’s been out there?” An officer scribbled on a report. Dr. Blaser stopped and looked at the sky.

“A couple of hours. When does the sun set again?”

My eavesdropping was interrupted by the shouts of officers chasing someone off the overpass. I watched as three onlookers ran into the shadows, followed by the beams of the officers’ flashlights. I’d need to get up on that overpass to photograph anything that looked out of the ordinary. Officers in paper suits fanned their flashlights through fence lines and over handrails. I watched one lay down a marker. My feet began to ache. I needed to focus. It had been fifty-two hours since I last slept.

Her nasal bones and suborbital ridge were crushed into a chalky white puzzle immersed in crimson. Marker seventy-seven. The insides of the skull began to appear in various fragments, broken at the skeletal sutures. The yellow markers stood at attention: eighty-eight, eighty-nine, ninety. I photographed one of the eyeballs, free from its bone and muscle, lying between a crushed beer can and the remnants of broken windshield glass. Number ninety-three. The pieces of teeth were five inches from a pile of ash and cigarette butts—what remained of a two-day snowstorm. Some travelers along this highway had passed this way over two weeks ago and dumped their ashtray onto the road. It had frozen there, strangely protected from the elements by the melt and freeze of ice. Number ninety-eight.

I walked onto the overpass, a two-lane bridge with walkways on the sides. The cement moved beneath my feet as police directed traffic through one lane of the bridge. A small section of the walkway was cordoned off with yellow tape; a lonely yellow marker reflected in the passing headlights. Two detectives waited impatiently for me to photograph a purse that sat on the curbside. The fat, ugly one was Detective Martin Garcia. The other was his completely silent new partner, Detective Vargas. His longtime partner, Detective Armenta, had a heart attack last month and had officially retired. The marker: M2—Miscellaneous.

“We need to see if we can find some ID in this bag, Rita,” Garcia said.

No one could touch anything until I took a picture of it. The two of them were antsy. Garcia’s hands were on his hips; his greasy skin bounced back the rosy orange light of the bridge lanterns.

“Can you?” He brought an imaginary camera up to his face and pressed the button.

“Where’s M1?”

“Over here. On the other side of the railing.” He pulled skyblue gloves over his fat, hairy hands.

I walked up to the railing, shining my flashlight down below. A pair of red stiletto heels hung from a steel beam that jutted from the overpass, the ankle straps caught on the jagged edge. Garcia peered over with me.

“Guess she didn’t like ’em, huh?”

Above the red stilettos, a technician covered the rails of the bridge in powdery black. A trail of smudges led to the black outline where they tried to lift prints. It was the last place our victim had touched the overpass. Two sets of finger groups, four fingers on each side, had gripped the metal in desperation. She had not wanted to jump. The two partial handprints showed a larger presence, someone with strong, thick hands and deep lines in their skin. The left print was smeared, but the right one was clear and showed that whoever had helped her to the edge had been wearing rubber gloves. Forensics pulled the tape anyway and transferred them to the evidence cards.

The flash lit up the bridge and filled the camera frame with the red shoes, size seven. I dangled myself over the railing, balancing with the weight of my boots. Flash. The viewfinder read 965 of 1,000 images.

Back at M2, I hovered above the bag and dropped my scale on the concrete. The bag was ten inches long and six inches across. The white leather was soft, worn, and scuffed underneath, the brown leather handles darkened with oil and dirt. The zipper was open. I raised the camera and framed the purse, the only witness here to what had really happened. On the right side of the bag, there was a shoe print pressed into the leather. It looked like a work boot. One of the investigators pulled a wallet from the bag and opened it, sending a tattered photograph to the ground. A young woman with long, full, and slightly curled hair, smiling, her right arm around the neck of another woman with a glowing white halo of hair. The young woman had an electric smile and wore a red tank top, a tattoo of a baby’s face on the right side of her chest. I had seen that tattoo before—well, what was left of it. They found her driver’s license and laid it on top of the wallet. I snapped a photo of the ID: Erma Singleton. Size 7 shoes. Thought it would last forever. I pressed the shutter down. Image number 1,000.

As I made my way off the bridge and back to the highway, the sky was turning from black to blue, the stars disappearing from bottom to top. The new light revealed the uneven strip of aged blood that skittered left, right, and in spirals on the highway— the path of her body’s final movements. I changed memory cards. The light allowed me to frame the scene from above as it unfurled beneath the red shoes, the first splash of blood directly below the dangling, stained leather.

The Office of the Medical Investigator had collected and sealed nearly all the body. Only a few yellow evidence markers remained. The haggard-faced investigators were eager to crawl back to their homes and bury their heads beneath the pillows. I could only hope that I would be able to fall asleep when I got home.

I followed the blood and searched for anything we might have missed. The lingering smell of death was developing.

I saw it then. A small hunk of flesh hadn’t been spotted by any officer or investigator. We all had walked this path before, more than two or three times, but we had missed it. The skin matched the color of the slightly reddened clay on the roadside, drawn into the earth, the pull of death’s process.

“Over here!” I called.

I took a few pictures before they had a chance to contaminate the scene. The beams of the flashlights dropped, the hollow light fixed on my boots. A piece of face, the ear and the eye still intact, the lid partially open. The eye was green, turning iridescent as they watched.

“Can you go ahead and make a marker for this one, Officer?”



“Oh. I’m sorry.” Officer Branson was three days on the job. He laid down a yellow marker.

One hundred.

I took the picture. I had taken 1,015 pictures of over a hundred separate pieces of a human being and her belongings. I had five scrapes on my own hands and knees and one filthy white paper suit.

I sat in my car for fifteen minutes and labeled three photo cards and five pages of notes.

The pain started somewhere in my temple, I closed my eyes, hoping to escape it, but it stayed—the pain, and the heavy yellow light that was sitting in my front seat.


Exakta VX 1000

THESE LIGHTS HAVE been with me for as long as I can remember. And even now, I remember almost everything.

I was a quiet baby. My grandmother told stories about how I would stay silent for twenty-four-hour periods, depriving her and my mother, Anne, of sleep because they wondered if I was dead. But there I would be every morning, eyes wide, looking to the sky, where there was a ray of light only I could see. I didn’t cry. I was just awake. All the time.

“I think something is wrong with her, Mom.” My worried mother would watch me stare into space, letting out a giddy laugh.

“There is nothing wrong with her,” my grandmother would say. “She’s just talking to someone out there, and it’s none of our business.”

I remember my grandmother saying this. She looked over her shoulders all the time, trying to glimpse what I was staring at. Now I know there was nothing there.

For me, there was a collection of lights and smiling faces— high-pitched giggles and highlighted silhouettes. The lights played with me like parents play with their newborns. They would pull close to me, enough that I could smell their sweetness. I learned to love them and the honey drops on their whispers. They never hurt me or brought darkness to me, so I always smiled back.

As an infant, I watched my mother sneak over my cradle railings at night, her creaking camera shutter snapping pictures of me while I lay awake. Her eyes were a distant abstraction of brown fragments through the elongated viewfinder. I remember her Exakta with the left-handed shutter button, her chipped fingernails, her deep-set brown eyes, just like mine—I remember all of us sitting under the golden light of my mother’s bedroom and marveling, awake.

I felt the expanse between us as my mother would take frame after frame, pulling the camera away from her face only to look at me like a specimen, a jagged piece of a puzzle that she couldn’t finish. My mother was beautiful. She was too young to be my mother. Her face was soft and naive, with the easy, gentle hint of an unrecognized future. When she held me, I was afraid of falling. Her arms were small, bony, and inexperienced, rocking from side to side unsteadily, drawing me closer and looking at me with blurry, watering eyes. When I was hungry, she fed me. But her gaze moved past me and into a future that I could not be a part of.

How obvious it was that poor Anne had no idea what she was doing with a baby. The conception had been a hurried affair, and I was a haunting reminder of Anne’s bad decisions. After two and a half drinks and a two-block walk back to her small, cold college apartment, she had finally surrendered to my father, a boy named Abel who had pestered her for months with smiles and dimples. She’d tried to take his picture, but he always refused. She pressed the button anyway, collecting photographs of fragmented faces, eyes and lips segmented by his intruding hand in frame.

The morning after she finally gave in, Abel kissed her and said he would be back; she never saw him again. Never in class, never on the street. Her friends remembered him with curly hair and light eyes. But Anne remembered his black hair, straight and shiny, and his eyes, dark brown and mysterious. He had a small mole right above his left cheekbone.

Anne has never forgiven me for coming into her life and yanking the brake on her future in the most unforgiving way. Here she was again, living with her mother, me at her breast, my eyes wide open. And what of Abel, this ghost that was my father? She screamed his name as she packed to return home, me in her stomach. She would shout his name in desperation as she walked alone outside my grandmother’s house. And for this I was sorry.

Three years after she had come home to the reservation, on the anniversary, she left us. The house was quiet except for the slow stir of coffee in the kitchen. My grandma sat in the blue of morning, the cresting sun hauling light from her white cabinets. She lifted me on her knee and smiled. We both knew that it was better this way. Grandma’s arms were strong and able and experienced. I knew she wouldn’t drop me.

That was all I saw of my mother for a few years, except for a picture that my grandmother had pinned to her bedroom wall. My mother, wearing a light pink sweater, stood in the rain, her moist hair forming into ringlets. She grinned with her eyes straight ahead. When I made my way into my grandma’s room and stared at the photograph, Mom’s eyes followed me. I would run from left to right, right to left, and her eyes turned with me. Sometimes I would just sit and talk to the picture, imagining our conversations.

After Mom left, my grandma took me to the medicine man, and he sang for me. His hands were strong and thick but soft. When we came into his house, he spun me in circles. He blew smoke and said prayers; his bone whistle echoed in my head for hours. I finally started to sleep, an hour here and there, eventually in blocks of three and four.

I learned early that no amount of prayer or smoke or love was ever going to change the fact that these lights wanted to talk to me. Even at three years old, I knew it was something that deeply terrified my grandma and our medicine man. It was something that I was going to have to hide from them.

As I got older, I taught myself how to look beyond the ghosts and mute their voices. I learned to listen to the world in ways no one could imagine. My ears focused on the sounds in Grandma’s house: the creaking door hinges, the high-pitched scream of Grandma’s tea kettle, the tick of her scarecrow clock. I integrated their voices with these sounds, with the songs of birds at my grandma’s bedroom window, the constant drone of Highway 666 to our east, and the whispers of the wind coming through the valley beside the Chuska Mountains. I learned to listen for wild horses running in the wash below the house and the herds of sheep grazing in the valley. Anything to keep the sight and sound of ghosts from taking over my every waking moment.

But no matter how strong I think I am, this thing—call it a gift or a curse—is still a part of me, just like my veins, heart, and hands. It is attached. It is a part of my voice and vision—this visually enhanced speakerphone from some other place. I can’t turn it off.


Nikon D50 l8-55mmDX Revisited

I DIDN’T KNOW how long the detective had been tapping on my window. Droplets of water covered my windshield.

“Are you okay in there?” I watched his lips move, only half hearing the words. I rolled down the window.

“I’m fine. Long night.”

“Shall I get one of the guys to drive you home? You look tired.”

My head throbbed. “I’ll be fine. Just needed some rest.” I turned the key, surprised that I’d fallen asleep at the scene. I could see my breath. My skin felt thin and brittle in the morning sun. The office was only a few miles from here—I could bag things up there and move on home to bury myself in some blankets.

The APD crime lab building was shaped like a giant adobe cube. The small, square windows floating six feet above the ground let light in for about two hours a day during the steely gray Albuquerque winter. The building sat between I-25 and the Rio Grande, flanked on one side by a city recycling plant and, on the other, an emissions testing center. Sometimes, in the morning, if you were there early enough, you could smell the sweet dough and heated yeast of the bakery on the corner, but only if the wind blew in the right direction.

The photo and video offices were empty, with one last fluorescent light in the corner blinking toward extinction. Duplicated DVDs and CDs sat out, waiting for cases. I pulled the cards from my camera and began the download, the computer spinning in time and my brain along with it. The download bar ticked slowly. I hoped it would finish before my boss, Samuels, arrived. With only 35 percent of it downloaded at 8:26 A.M., I wasn’t going to make it. The thought hadn’t finished before the front doorbell began to chime.

“Rita! Are you in here?” Samuels’s horrible voice boomed through the building.

I stood up in my cubicle with 45 percent of the job downloaded. “Right here.”

“I hear you guys had quite a mess last night. I thought you all would be there for a few more hours.”

Samuels breathed heavily as he moved toward me, his forehead glistening with sweat even in the frigid morning air. Spearmint gum, Windex, and pipe tobacco. The man’s smell reminded me of the parking arcade in the Old Town Hotel, where the bums slept in the elevator’s glass enclosure. Last time I was there, one of the bums was dead, his eyes still looking toward the opening and closing elevator doors as tourists walked past him all night, some tossing pennies into his empty coffee cup. No one knew he was dead until security poked him with a stick. He was as stiff as the concrete he rested on, sitting up with knees bent. I thought of him as Samuels approached, his smell following. I breathed through my mouth.

“I just got here. I thought I would download before I went home. I need to get some sleep.”

“You’re on call for the next two days. You know that, right?”

“I’m already working on my days off. Can’t anyone else take pictures? There are ten people in this office who can.”

“You can always go work at the bakery. I hear they’re hiring.” Samuels closed his office door. I dug my nails into my chair.

I knew the drill. Car accidents, petty crimes, property crimes took place every day, every night. Samuels sent out one of the scene investigators to snap a few photos, take a few measurements, help put things in bags. But I was there in case there was something that couldn’t be messed up, where protocol had to be followed, where not one detail could be overlooked. In the five years since I had been with the Crime Scene Unit, I had developed a reputation as an asset, seeing things through my lens that analysts sometimes missed. Samuels knew I wanted the overtime, that I couldn’t say no. The man depended on me like the oxygen, sugar, and tobacco that coursed through his muddled veins.

Samuels’s white beard was a drugstore Santa’s, his stark, white hair stained putrid hues of yellow and brown from years of smoking out of the same mahogany Calabash pipe—a naked woman entwined in a web of vines and flowers. His fat fingers displayed a huge maze of blackened veins where the brown resin of his pipe had dug deep into the smallest crevice. His desk, however, was miraculously clean and organized: well-filed documents filled yellow correspondence folders alphabetically and by topic. His photography was the finest example of forensic images— never out of focus, always to specifications.

He reminded me often about his credentials, his licenses, his degrees, and his years of experience. He never ceased pointing out my inadequacies, accusing me of lacking a true eye, or of soft focus on one of the sharpest photos I had ever taken. I didn’t know whether it was his ego or his lectures that got under my skin, but I knew I was irritated, mostly by the fact that when I took that image home and blew it up hundreds of times its size, I finally saw my soft focus. Samuels had seen it through his thick, acetate glasses, stained ochre by his pudgy finger pushing on the bridge of the frame. He was the best and was willing to hire me with no experience. And I was doing what I loved—taking pictures. What more could I ask?

My training had gone quickly. Two years before I moved to the crime lab, Samuels took me to my first job—“A sensitive issue,” he’d explained. His clients had brought a case against a youth home where their son had been living for two days. On day two, he’d had “an accident” and ended up in the morgue.

“The police department sent two blind officers to this investigation.” Samuels scoffed.

On Sale
Aug 2, 2022
Page Count
312 pages