Tainted Evidence by Rachel Grant

 

1

Troutdale, Oregon

July

Some people might freak out at the prospect of being alone in a crypt with over two hundred skeletons—remains of people who had good reason to be pissed off at the living, no less—but not Madeline Foster. No. Maddie would give anything to be alone in this spooky, hellish basement right this very minute.

Bring on the haunting of angry bones if it meant peace from the living, breathing, flesh-covered Troy Kocher.

She took a deep breath and tried to quell the shaking of her hands as she opened another vault, knowing Troy was watching her every move. Inside the vault were bones identified as B-14, collected from a rockshelter in the Palouse Canyons region in 1923, according to the yellowed note card in the vault with the remains.

The skull had wispy hair and an open mouth with yellow teeth. Hair was extremely rare on skeletons, but rockshelters offered excellent preservation, so this wasn’t surprising. Now, if the note card said “Painted Hills,” she’d have questions about the accuracy of the card’s information.

A DNA test—the kind that didn’t destroy bones—would be possible thanks to the intact hair roots, but that wouldn’t be necessary in this circumstance. It was obvious these remains were ancient and indigenous.

From the slope of the forehead, she guessed this person was male, and from the closure of the cranial sutures, he was probably over thirty-five at the time of death, but she wasn’t skilled enough in that area to make more than basic guesses. Her job was to inventory the collection and research the remains to determine where they’d been originally buried. If she could show the remains had been removed from federal land, these bones and any associated funerary objects would be repatriated to one of several Native American tribes. Not all the remains had a handy note card like this one, but there were file cabinets upstairs full of field notes that would aid her research and—even better—piss off Troy.

The actual physical remains wouldn’t be analyzed for anything beyond trying to determine which tribe had the right to repatriation of the bones so they could be laid to rest again, after having been looted by the Kocher family patriarch, Otto Kocher, eighty to a hundred years ago. The jury was still out on which Kocher was the more vile, Otto or Troy.

Maddie was betting on a hung jury on that score as Troy, who happened to be Otto’s great-grandson, was now acting as security guard, supposedly protecting his great-grandfather’s legacy, but the only threat that concerned him was clearly Madeline herself, who, thankfully, had federal law on her side as she dismantled Otto’s legacy and collection bone by bone, artifact by artifact.

Troy wore a full utility belt—gun, Taser, big-ass flashlight—all to guard a museum that had closed to the public a year ago. She knew exactly who he’d donned the belt to intimidate, and it wasn’t the bones in the crypt. He wanted to scare Maddie, and, unfortunately, he was doing a damn good job.

Troy, his sister Anne, and a half dozen Kocher cousins Maddie hadn’t met yet, were angry, first at the closure of their inherited privately owned museum, and then at the fact they were subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act at long last.

In Oregon, it was illegal for human remains to be put on display. The Kochers had circumvented that law by storing all the skeletons in these vaults and claiming they never used human remains in the upstairs exhibits. But everyone knew they rotated exhibits in the back room, which was always magically closed when tribal members or other authorities showed up. But with the advent of social media, tourists couldn’t resist the skeleton selfie—horrifying photos of museum visitors playing with the bones as if they were movie props and not human beings who’d been stolen from their final resting place.

Enough photos appeared online that the state of Oregon could no longer look the other way. After more than six decades of operation, the museum closed for good.

Now the family wanted to sell the house, but they couldn’t sell a house with a basement full of human remains that weren’t part of an historic or otherwise legal cemetery, burial ground, or crypt. So they’d decided to donate the entire collection of artifacts and remains to the Columbia Legacy Museum, another small, privately owned museum, but on the Washington side of the river. Conveniently, Washington didn’t have a law on the books that prevented displaying of human remains.

The Kochers had managed to avoid a NAGPRA reckoning when the federal law was enacted in 1990, but once the papers were signed with CLM, they discovered that the donation made the collection subject to a NAGPRA inventory because CLM had just been awarded a federal grant to upgrade their climate control system. Once federal dollars were in play, museums—even privately owned ones like CLM and the Kocher Collection—became subject to federal law.

Hello, NAGPRA. Goodbye displaying human remains like trophies for tourists. At least she hoped that would be the case. If she could show the remains had been collected from federal land, then federal agencies—in this case likely the Bureau of Land Management—would be forced to repatriate the remains to culturally affiliated tribes.

Oregon and Washington tribes had been trying for decades to reclaim the remains of their ancestors from the Kocher family, but NAGPRA had no bearing on private collections. Now, at last, Maddie could help see justice was done.

Ironically, it was the Kochers themselves who’d hired her. They’d had no choice and were paying a hefty price for the inventory that would dismantle the collection. To say the Kocher family was not pleased was putting it mildly. They felt they owned the bones—to which they had no genetic tie—and returning them to the tribes was theft of their property. Bones Otto had stolen from the ground.

So yeah, Maddie wasn’t a fan of Troy, or any of his klan with a K. And now, on day one of her inventory, he was doing his best to scare her, even to the point of wearing a gun and Taser and sneaking up on her in the quiet crypt.

She’d be working in this house alone with him for at least ten more days, and the hell of it was, she was scared. Any guy who’d wear that kind of weaponry in this situation probably wouldn’t hesitate to use them and claim his actions were justified.

He hovered over her shoulder. She could feel his breath on her neck. “You get nightmares after handling so many bones all day?” he asked.

While instinct would have her stepping to the side and ceding the territory to him, she wouldn’t retreat or he’d end up backing her into a corner. She elbowed him as if by accident and ran the note card through her portable document scanner, annotating the file with a quick count of how many bones were in the vault and a checklist of which elements were present.

Her goal today was to have a look inside every vault and scan any documentation. She wouldn’t put it past the family to have removed remains if they thought they could get away with it, so she needed a baseline inventory.

Starting tomorrow, she’d do a more detailed catalogue, with a goal of recording the contents of at least twenty-five vaults a day. She would record every last button and bead in this museum.

Troy moved too close again as she scanned another card from another vault. She stepped on his foot, not accidently.

“Ouch.”

“Sorry,” she lied. “You’re standing too close. I need room to do my job.” He didn’t move or say a word, so she turned to face him and held his gaze. She didn’t smile or pretend she didn’t know exactly what he was doing. “You need to step back and let me work.”

He glared at her, then finally stepped back. He looped his fingers through his utility belt, one hand close to the gun, the other by the Taser. “You didn’t answer my question. You get nightmares?”

“No. I don’t scare easily, Mr. Kocher.” That was a damn lie. She was scared of Troy, and he’d likely seen her shaking hands. She’d claim it was due to hunger—which was partially true. She had at least forty more vaults to open before she’d be done and could get out of here. She wouldn’t stop to eat a protein bar. Anything that prolonged this time with Troy looming over her wasn’t worth it.

“We’ll see about that,” Troy said.

She set down her tablet and faced him again. “Are you threatening me?”

His eyes went wide and fake innocent. “What? No. Of course not. I just meant you might get nightmares tonight.”

“Mr. Kocher, this will go much faster if you leave me alone.”

“Why do you care if this goes fast? Aren’t you paid hourly? Take your time.”

“I’d think you’d be eager for me to finish for the day so you can go home.”

“Darlin’, this is my home.” His gaze raked her from head to toe. “And I like having you here.” He gave her a mocking grin. “Usually, it’s just me and the stiffs.”

Her scalp tingled as her fear ratcheted up a notch. “Well, my boyfriend will be upset if I’m late for our date tonight.” The lie came easily. Anything to let the guy know there was someone out there who knew where she was and who expected her at a particular time.

He cocked his head. “Boyfriend? Too bad.”

What did he mean by that? Too bad that she had a boyfriend? Or too bad that she would never leave this crypt alive?

She pulled out her cell phone. Given that this was a real, underground crypt beneath the 1890s-era Victorian mansion in a rural area with spotty cell phone service, she had zero bars down here. “Speaking of, I’d better call him and check in. He’s eager to hear how my first day is going.”

She headed for the stairwell to the exterior exit before Troy could stop her and hurried up into the sunlight. Her mind raced as she tried to figure out who she should call besides her boss. She didn’t want to freak out Sienna Aubrey Vaughn, co-owner of Aubrey Sisters Heritage Preservation, because the woman was on bed rest for the last weeks of her pregnancy. This stress wouldn’t be good for mother or baby.

Unfortunately, Larkspur Aubrey, Sienna’s sister and co-owner, was out of the country for the next month. Maddie needed to handle this herself.

She stepped outside and held out her phone, divining for cell service bars. She glanced to the north, toward the driveway, shaded with giant trees that predated the house by fifty years, and the high riverbank to the east. She opted for the river in hopes that the lack of trees would deliver a stronger signal. She glanced back and saw Troy had followed her outside and now stood watching her from the porch of the old house.

At least he was too far away to overhear.

She scrolled through her contacts list. She considered calling her brother. He probably had a staffer he could send to play boyfriend. But she’d never asked Alan for a favor like this before and didn’t like the idea of starting now. The rift might be new, but it was wide and deep.

Inspiration struck when she saw Trina’s name. She quickly hit the call button and turned her back to the house so Troy couldn’t read her lips. It was seven p.m. in DC. She prayed Trina would answer. Leaving a message wouldn’t be enough.

Relief rippled through her when she heard her old college friend say, “Hey, Madds! What’s up?”

Maddie wasn’t a casual caller, so the concern in Trina’s voice was warranted. “Hey, Treen. I’m in a bit of a bind.” She glanced over her shoulder and confirmed that Troy remained on the porch, watching her. “You know that Raptor operative who just moved to Portland, the one you were hoping to fix me up with?”

“I wasn’t—”

Maddie shook her head and smiled. “Yes, you were, but it’s cool. I sort of need him, if he’s available, to show up at this place where I’m working and pretend to be my boyfriend. I’ve got a security guard slash angry looter’s descendant who’s giving me the creeps.”

“Is this that NAGPRA project for the looter museum?”

“Yep. The security guard is Troy Kocher, Otto’s creepy great-grandson. Today is my first day, and he’s setting off all sorts of alarm bells. I’m stuck working here for the next ten days and then have months of follow-up work, so I need to shut him down now. I’ll pay whatever Raptor’s rate is for this kind of thing.”

A few weeks ago, Trina had told her the guy had moved to Portland because he was opening a Raptor office in the city. She’d never be able to afford an actual bodyguard, but surely she could cover a one-hour fake-boyfriend drive-by?

“If Josh isn’t busy, I’m sure he’ll do it for free.”

“No way. This is business. Aubrey Sisters will reimburse me.” She was fairly certain this was true, but Maddie really didn’t want to worry Sienna to confirm. She’d tell Larkspur as soon as she was back on the grid, and if the cost wasn’t authorized, so be it.

“I’ll call Josh and tell him the situation, see if he’s available. You need him tonight?”

“If he could, yes. Otherwise, tomorrow or Friday? The sooner the better.”

“Got it.”

“Give him my number, but tell him I’ve got no reception in the crypt, so I won’t get calls or messages while I’m down below.”

“What’s the address?”

She gave Trina the address and described the exterior basement entrance so he could find her if he was able to stop by tonight. Even if he couldn’t stop by, she’d told someone she was uncomfortable with Troy. It gave her a sense of security.

She watched the man as she tucked away her phone. He stared at her, his gaze unwavering. The back of her neck tingled, as if she could feel his anger across the long expanse of lawn.

He knew she’d shared her concerns, and he didn’t like it.

Her phone vibrated, and she smiled at the creep as she pulled it out to see the message. Trina had sent Josh Warner’s cell number. Maddie saved him in her address book.

Josh. My boyfriend’s name is Josh.

She added a heart emoji next to his name and deleted Trina’s message, in case Troy should get a look at her phone.

Too bad she didn’t know anything else about Josh other than that he worked for Trina’s husband, CEO of Raptor, a private security and military training company. Well, that and Trina had wanted to fix them up—which meant he was single.

Maddie hadn’t been keen on the fix up because she’d been through too many excruciating blind dates after a nasty breakup. Her friends were determined to help her by forcing her back on the horse. And while their hearts might be in the right place, their screening methods were for shit.

Until a few weeks ago, Trina hadn’t been on the fix-up bandwagon, but then, they hadn’t lived in the same city since they were roommates at Ohio State, so the woman hadn’t had any prospects to throw at Maddie to see if they would stick. That changed when Josh Warner moved to Portland several weeks ago.

After a year of crappy dates with men and women who were equally unhappy to be roped into a fix up, Maddie had shot Trina down without breaking a sweat. No, thank you.

Except today. Today, she’d take Josh and be grateful. She tucked her phone in her pocket, silently praying he was available to play white knight. The tribes had literally been waiting a hundred years for this day. She wasn’t about to fail them because one slimeball made her nervous.

* * *

Josh pulled into the horseshoe driveway and stared at the huge gothic mansion and museum with a FOR SALE BY OWNER sign out front. The house would be stunning if he didn’t know there was a crypt full of stolen Native American remains beneath it. With that knowledge, it looked creepy as hell.

Seeing Trina’s number in caller ID had sent him for a loop, but Keith was fine. Owen was fine. Trina needed a favor, and it was business. Not that he’d expected anything else coming from her. Her friend, Madeline Foster, felt threatened, and there was no way Josh could say no to Trina.

He’d spent an hour getting up to speed before driving east. He’d checked out both the museum website and real estate listing and ran a financial and criminal background check on the Kocher family and museum.

No doubt the mansion would sell for several million, creepy or not. Over five thousand square feet, southern exposure, situated on five acres above the Sandy River a few miles from the confluence with the Columbia. Even though it was on the river, the valley was deep here, and the house was well above the hundred-year floodplain—which was why it stood in pristine condition nearly a hundred and thirty years after it was built by a logger baron whose son was a grave robber.

Josh had grown up in a small town in eastern Oregon. He’d gone to school on a reservation with Umatilla and Cayuse tribal members. He knew what looting meant to Native Americans on a personal level, but it didn’t take growing up with tribal members to know that grave robbing was bad. And this museum had operated without consequences for the last sixty years.

He’d had to rearrange his schedule to make this field trip, but Trina had made the request, and when she’d told him why her friend was here, he couldn’t say no.

He texted Madeline to let her know he was here, but Trina had explained it was unlikely she’d receive it. He circled the building and found the open door with brick steps leading down into darkness, as described.

Josh descended the stairs, being careful to make no sound. He reached a landing where the steps made a ninety-degree turn and paused, staying out of sight of those in the crypt below. A man’s voice carried up to him. “You don’t have permission to do that.”

“My job is to inspect the entire collection, Mr. Kocher. You’re permitted to be here as security guard, as this is your home, but you’re not to impede me or my research. This collection no longer belongs to you, and the Columbia Legacy Museum cannot accession any artifacts until after repatriation of all human remains and associated funerary objects has occurred.”

“You’ll damage the brick.”

“I don’t care about the brick. I care about the human remains inside.”

“This house is on the National Register—”

“I promise, prying open a vault won’t alter the exterior of the house or in any way mar the integrity of the historical nature of the property. I can assure you I know the National Historic Preservation Act chapter and verse, and there is no adverse effect. I’m working within the parameters of the agreement. You were informed that every vault was to be accessible today.”

“I won’t let you.”

“Get your hands off me, Mr. Kocher.” The woman’s voice sounded more angry than alarmed, but still, adrenaline surged through Josh.

Josh hurried down the last flight of stairs. The rectangular room was about fifteen feet wide and at least fifty feet long, lined with brick on either side. Small metal doors—each one slightly larger than a license plate—were mounted in the bricks at regular intervals. Presumably, these were the vaults. Dozens of doors. More than a hundred. More than two hundred?

Midway down the length of the room, a large man—several inches above six feet and thick with muscle—had his back to Josh. The guy wore a tricked-out belt, like he expected a riot any moment. He gripped something—or rather someone—blocked from Josh’s view.

“Madeline?” Josh said. “You down here?” He was careful to pronounce her name Mada-lynn, not line, as Trina had instructed. A boyfriend would know these things.

The guy jerked around, dropping his grip on her.

“Josh!” She darted around the guard and ran to meet him at the base of the stairs. He found his arms full of woman as she threw herself at him.

He leaned down as any boyfriend would and kissed her, brushing his lips over hers, pausing with their mouths pressed together a beat longer than necessary to sell the boyfriend charade. He raised his head and got his first look at her. He usually tried to see a woman’s face before he kissed her for the first time, but apparently, that wasn’t always possible.

He smiled as he met her relieved gaze.

Thank you,she mouthed.

Trina had said Madeline was gorgeous—which he’d taken with a grain of salt given that she’d been angling for a fix up—but Keith’s wife hadn’t been exaggerating. In fact, Madeline reminded him a bit of Trina in that she was nearly a foot shorter than him and had big eyes—blue, not hazel like Trina’s—framed in purple metal-rimmed glasses. She had delicate features, high cheekbones, a button nose, soft pink lips, and flawless skin. In another life, Madeline Foster would catch and hold his attention.

In this life, he didn’t have time or attention to give.

But still, her short, light brown hair was pulled back in a bright orange headband that made her look younger than thirty-four or thirty-five, which was how old she’d be if she were close to Trina’s age. She had a sexy Velma-from-Scooby-Doo kind of vibe, and Josh had always been a Velma fan.

And here they were, in a haunted crypt. All that was missing was the Great Dane jonesing for treats. He smiled down at her and wondered why he’d resisted the fix up when he had the chance.

But he knew why, and it wasn’t just because he was here to open a new Raptor office, get Owen settled in at the wounded warrior retreat center, and provide a stable home for his teenage niece. He didn’t have time for big blue-eyed distractions, superficial flings, or meddling crime-solving kids, dog or no dog.

“You ready to go, sweetheart?” he asked as he cupped her nape in one palm, like he held her this way all the time.

She gave him a crooked smile. “Twenty minutes? I’ve got a few more vaults to inventory before I can quit for the night.” She blinked rapidly, not in a batting-eyelashes sort of way, but in a way that telegraphed alarm or annoyance.

He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Sure thing. I thought you’d be done by now.”

She glanced over her shoulder. “Several vaults aren’t accessible. I was about to use the flat end of my tire iron to pry them open.”

She nodded to a table set up to one side of the room. On top was a laptop, a portable scanner, a camera, a heavy-based magnifying glass with light, and a stack of papers and notebooks. Next to that was a tire iron and an assortment of other tools: flathead screwdrivers, hammer, a pointed flat trowel, a thick file.

“I raided my car toolbox and dig kit for anything that might work, I think the tire iron is the best bet. The latches won’t budge.”

“Maybe I can help. If your tire iron doesn’t work, I’ve got a beefier one in my SUV.”

He waited for Kocher to object, but the man said nothing, which was telling. He was only willing to block her from opening the vaults when she didn’t have a witness.

He met the man’s gaze. “Josh Warner.” He didn’t offer his hand, he just cocked his head and waited for the man to offer up his name.

He was bigger than Josh, and his posture—and belt full of weapons—was meant to intimidate, but Josh didn’t scare easily after a decade in the military and another five in high-end private security and paramilitary operations.

After a long pause, he said, “Troy Kocher. This is my house.”

“Yours and about a half dozen other people, right?” After looking at the real estate listing, he’d checked out the museum’s website. It was officially down, but he’d managed to find a cached version. The “About” page had described the Kocher cousins, who shared ownership of the museum, house, and grounds.

Kocher’s eyes flattened as he crossed his arms. “Yeah. I’m the caretaker. The one who does all the work.”

The way he said it made Josh wonder if this guy was stealing from his relatives as well, considering it his due. Not Josh’s problem. The entire Kocher family had happily profited from putting human remains on display. Screw them and their internal disagreements. He only cared if he could use Troy Kocher’s dishonesty with his cousins to Madeline’s advantage and for her protection.

Josh crossed to the table and picked up the tire iron. He scanned the vaults. “Which one?” he asked Madeline. Or Maddie. Trina had used both names; he needed to find out what she preferred. Seemed like a boyfriend ought to know that, and from the vibe in this nightmare of a room, this wasn’t going to be a one-time gig.

How long would she be working here? Given the number of crypts, he guessed weeks. Maybe even months?

None of the archaeologists he’d met through Trina did NAGPRA work, so he had no clue what a project like this entailed. All he knew was he probably didn’t have time for this. Ava would start her junior year in a month. Owen was flying in tomorrow. He needed to get the office off the ground, and today’s meeting had been a bust.

His priority list was full before he added a charity case in the form of Madeline Foster. It was extremely unlikely the woman could afford Raptor’s base fee, let alone the undercover boyfriend experience. But here he was.

The vault popped open easily once he applied pressure in the right spot. No damage to the bricks; only the rusted latch paid the price.

“Thank you,” Madeline said.

Josh studied the dark void. “It’s empty.”

She frowned, then cast a glance over her shoulder. “Where are the remains?”

The security guard shrugged. “Don’t know.”

“The donation form you filled out stated there were remains in every vault, some containing more than one individual.”

He shrugged again. “It was probably on display in the museum at some point, then put in the wrong vault afterward.”

From what Josh could find on the internet, the fact that human remains had been on display in the first place was the reason the museum closed last year. Guess there was no point in Kocher denying it now.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath as if her patience neared an end. “It had better turn up.” She then pointed to five other vaults and asked Josh to open them. He made quick work of their rusted latches, and thankfully, each one contained a skeleton inside.

He set the bar on the table and grabbed a seat so he could watch as she did her thing, scanning any papers in the vault, taking photos of any objects that weren’t bones, and writing notes on the contents of each one.

Twenty minutes came and went, and it was clear to Josh they wouldn’t be leaving any time soon. He spent the time counting vaults.

Two hundred and thirty. And all but one held at least one skeleton. Had this creepy basement been designed this way from the start, or were the vaults added later?

He studied the brickwork and tried to guess if it had been done in phases, or all at once. He didn’t know much about Victorian mansions, but it seemed as if wealthy families would have their crypts in a separate building, not in their own basement. It’s not like this was Winterfell.

But…these also weren’t the remains of Kocher family ancestors. These were the bones of indigenous people, kept as trophies.

From the website, he gathered that Troy was the grandson or great-grandson of the looter. He studied the man, then nodded toward the vaults. “How would you feel if someone dug up Grandpa Otto and kept him as a trophy?”

“My great-grandfather was cremated.”

Yeah, the old man probably insisted on that to make sure he didn’t suffer the same fate he’d inflicted on so many others.

Josh watched Kocher watch Madeline. This part was familiar. He’d done bodyguard duty for the last few years for Raptor. Prior to that, he’d been a SEAL, on the same team with Raptor CEO Keith Hatcher. Trina’s husband. His best friend.

A few months ago, Josh had submitted his resignation—he needed to move to Portland to take guardianship of his niece while she finished high school. He wouldn’t make the girl move to a new school because her dad was an asshole. But Keith had a better idea. He’d long wanted a West Coast office and had been looking at LA, but Portland would be a lot cheaper to get up and running, and there was a chance they could develop a new training compound on the east side of the state. Cheap land and a desert environment, filling gaps in their existing training facilities.

Josh had two years to make it happen, and his best friend to thank for the opportunity. He was a lucky man, but there was guilt in accepting Keith’s offer that weighed on him.

Madeline closed the last vault door and returned to the table and began packing up her laptop. Josh joined her, gathering the tools strewn across one end of the table.

“Sorry that took so long,” she said.

He shrugged and dropped a kiss on her cheek, deep in the role of relaxed, indifferent boyfriend. Usually, he met the client first, and, if it was warranted, they’d plan body language and kiss/touch boundaries. But given that he wouldn’t be able to be around much as she worked this job, it was a good idea to lay it on thick. She played her part well, reacting as if his kisses were natural and welcome.

Madeline headed for the stairs without a word to Kocher. Josh made a point of meeting the security guard’s gaze before following. “I watch out for what’s mine,” he said in a quiet voice.

The man’s gaze hardened, but he didn’t say a word.

“I know you can’t sell this property as long as the bones are here. They aren’t your ancestors, and this isn’t your family crypt. This isn’t a graveyard or a cemetery. It’s not sacred ground in any way, shape, or form. And this place is costing you a fortune in taxes. You interfere or hinder Madeline’s work again, and she can drag this into the next tax year. And I know for a fact you can’t pay last year’s tax bill, let alone this one or the next. I recommend you back off and leave the rent-a-cop utility belt upstairs in your playroom. Attempting to intimidate Madeline will only hurt you in the long run. I will make sure of it.”

Josh turned before Kocher could respond and ascended the stairs. He caught up with Madeline on the central landing, her eyes wide with surprise. Guess she hadn’t known about the tax issue and how very desperate the Kochers were for cash.

It felt good to be on the job. Helping someone. Doing what he did best. Plus, she was pretty, and it had been years since he’d looked at another woman and thought that.

He shook his head. He was done with impossible, destructive fantasies.

He took her hand and squeezed it, then they climbed from the crypt together.