Authors: Kendra Elliot
It matched what Trinity had said about Brooke. These were girls looking forward to dates next week and college next year.
Someone poisoned them.
Someone deliberately destroyed that beauty and vivaciousness and put it on display for the world.
Victoria was determined to help find out who.
Today she’d woken up with excess energy to burn. She’d been lucky this morning. The sky had been clear for rowing practice, and she hadn’t felt a drop of moisture. Well, except from the paddles of the other rowers. Late fall was a crazy time for dragon boat drills, but she loved it. The rowing workout was exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. When the days were clear, like it had been this morning, there was no better place to be than on the Willamette River.
It helped clear her head of sorrow. And anger.
For the past two years, she’d been a part of various dragon boat teams. Occasionally she went out of town for a competition if someone begged her, but she didn’t do it to compete; she did it to get out of the house and morgue and be on the water. This morning’s two-hour practice had flown by. The air was crisp and cold, and the river was high with the heavy rains from the last two weeks. Lots of rain meant debris on the river, and it stirred
up the water into a muddy brown no matter how blue the sky was. When ample rain worked its way from streams and tiny rivers into the Willamette River on its way to the Columbia River and then the Pacific Ocean, it made for treacherous rowing.
Victoria loved the challenge. There was something about being at the water’s level and seeing the city and riverbanks from a turtle’s-eye view. Mount Hood seemed taller, city skyscrapers seemed mightier, and she simply felt vulnerable and alive. When you spend every day studying the remains of death, getting out into the living elements of the world was essential.
Her next-door neighbor had introduced her to the dragon boats. She and Jeremy had bonded over local wines and his golden retriever when she’d moved into the neighborhood after her split with Rory. Victoria wasn’t one to get to know her neighbors, but Jeremy had inserted himself in her life and she’d meekly acquiesced. The seventy-year-old was a force to be reckoned with. Gray-haired, marathoner-lean, and proudly flaming gay. She’d never met anyone like him and had instantly adored him.
He’d dragged her to the dragon boat practices one year when she’d been running herself ragged at work. She’d weakly protested, not wanting to hurt the kind man’s feelings, but he’d overruled her. It’d been exactly what she needed. She’d always been a work-out-at-home type of exerciser. She had an elliptical and a treadmill and ran outside when weather permitted. But getting her out on the river in a boat with nineteen other excited rowers had created an addiction.
“Hey, how was the water today?” Jeremy’s voice sounded behind her.
Victoria hit the automatic close button on her X5 and faced the man, studying him for signs of worsening health. Jeremy hadn’t rowed at all this season. He’d struggled with bronchitis
and pneumonia, and she hated to see him as a shell of the vigorous man he’d been six months before. His face was thinner, his movements slower, but his eyes sparkled with life. It was that life that had drawn her to him. He shared it with everyone.
He looks a little better.
Jeremy was usually so spirited; it killed her to see him struggle. She’d never known a grandfather, but she wished she’d had one like Jeremy. He shared his positive energy; he didn’t suck it out of others. Victoria had spent too much time with people who left her drained. Jeremy did the opposite.
“Clear and cold,” she answered.
His eyes lit up. “In other words, perfect.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Fabulous. I’m going to try to get out there next week.”
Victoria shook her head. “No. That’s too soon. I don’t want to see you relapse.”
Gray eyebrows narrowed in a playful glare. “You’re not my doctor. And I really am feeling better. Was out running errands all day yesterday and even took in a concert the evening before.”
Victoria smiled. “Good! I’m glad to see you’re coming around. Everyone misses you on the water.”
“Ah, they just want someone who does all the work for them. You’ve been busy, I see. Those girls were all over the television yesterday, and you’re all over the paper today.”
“What?” Victoria froze.
“Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration.” He held up the newspaper. “You’re on the front page of the metro section.”
Victoria tried not to snatch the paper from his hand. She hated publicity. And the thought of herself in the paper was making her stomach spin. She unfolded the paper and stared at an old photo of herself. It was from a lecture she’d given a few
years back at Portland State University. She breathed a small sigh of relief.
had used the photo before. That meant they didn’t have anything fresh from the current investigation. The headline read
BONE LADY TACKLES OLD MYSTERY
Not the Bone Lady moniker again
Surely the papers could come up with a better name. She skimmed the article. It stated that she was taking a fresh look at the old bones from the original circle of women and briefly rehashed the story. She glanced at the byline. Not Michael Brody. Brody wrote better articles than this; this article said nothing. Brody wrote in-depth investigative articles. She wondered if he was examining the case for the paper. He was a close friend of Lacey Campbell’s, and had crossed paths with Victoria a few times. He knew how to push her buttons in a highly irritating way and seemed to enjoy it.
“So you’re looking into that old case, eh?”
She looked up. Jeremy studied her closely, and she wondered what her face had revealed. Irritation? Annoyance?
“Yes. I’m hoping to find something that will indicate who those unidentified three women were.”
“I remember when that happened. I always thought it was odd that no one stepped forward.”
She looked at him with new interest. “You lived in the city back then?”
“Sure. Lived right downtown. It was a different era, you know. Men like me did our best to stay out of the limelight, but we knew where to go to socialize with others like us.”
Victoria studied his face. They’d had a few conversations about what it was like to be a gay man in today’s society, but Jeremy rarely talked about the old days. Her heart winced in sympathy for the hidden life he’d led.
“We used to talk about that case a lot. Who would murder a bunch of women? Rumors swirled about white slaves and prostitution rings. I always thought it seemed like it had a personal touch. Like someone had arranged them in that circle, you know, put them on display for others to see.”
“But why weren’t all of them claimed?”
“Maybe folks were too scared to do so. It had that cult-like feeling about it, you know? Something about them being found in a pattern and dressed the same.”
Victoria shook her head. Could a cult have hid underground for that many decades in the city?
“I see all the recent girls have been identified.” Jeremy nodded at the paper still in Victoria’s hands. She handed it back to him, gladly closing the paper on her own photo. “All local girls, but different schools, eh?”
Victoria nodded. “You know Trinity, right? The girl who ended up in the hospital is a close friend of hers.”
“Ah, she’s a good one, that girl. How’s Trinity holding up?”
“She was relieved Brooke lived, but now is terrified she’ll die. She spent most of yesterday believing she’d already died.”
“It says they didn’t figure out who was who until late last night. Were you down there?”
“For a while. It was a nightmare. Lots of parents searching for their kids. Dr. Campbell narrowed it down pretty fast.”
“All this new technology, but teenagers still learn the quickest way to hide crap from their parents.” Jeremy snorted. “Some things never change. And they’re always willing to follow the person who seizes control of their crowd, applying the peer pressure. Usually to their detriment.”
“No word on a cult yet,” she added with a small smile.
“We’ll see,” Jeremy said with all seriousness. “There’s something that tied all these girls together. And something that ties them to those deaths decades ago. Convincing people to kill themselves takes some sort of brainwashing. Cults know how to do that.”
Victoria stiffened. “Who says they killed themselves?”
Jeremy shrugged, rolling his paper into a tight spiral. He tapped his palm with it. “Just speculating. Like they did in the article here.” He didn’t meet her gaze, his eyes focused down their street. “They’ll uncover this mystery. This one and the old one. You’ll help them get to the bottom of it.”
She hated speculation. She understood its use to form theories to help search for motive and answers, but she didn’t care for it being spread around until there was proof. And there was no proof that these girls had taken their own lives. Trinity’s tear-streaked face filled her mind.
She was going to figure out who killed these women. All of them.
Trinity sat in another waiting room. Twenty-four hours before, she’d been in the waiting room at the medical examiner’s office. This one was better. At least now she knew Brooke was alive. Barely.
Trinity’s foster mom, Katy, had disappeared in search of coffee. Trinity thumbed through last week’s
magazine, its cover shredded and wrinkled, her mind retaining nothing. She’d been given one minute to see her friend. Brooke hadn’t opened her eyes. The doctors said they didn’t know if she ever would. She’d gone a long time without oxygen. Her body had been in the process of turning itself off when she’d been found. Trinity
had heard them talking about a drug that slowed down everything in her body until it simply stopped.
Had it been like falling asleep? Did Brooke know what she’d done?
The cops had asked her if Brooke was suicidal. And her foster mother had asked. And Brooke’s parents had asked. Didn’t anyone but her know the type of person Brooke was? She’d never do that. She loved her life. She knew she was getting a new pair of UGGs for Christmas; she talked about going to college in California.
Brooke had plans for her life.
Dying in the middle of a forest with a bunch of other girls wasn’t one of them. Trinity was positive of that fact.
Brooke’s parents had been in meltdown mode since they’d discovered their daughter was missing. Trinity hadn’t been in the medical examiner’s office when Brooke’s parents had shown up.
. Brooke’s mom’s hysterics would have been unbearable. Not that her mom didn’t have good reason to be upset, but seeing her hang on her husband and crying nonstop at the hospital freaked Trinity out.
Brooke’s father escorted her mother everywhere, holding her up like she had legs of Jell-O.
Jeez, get it together, would you?
Instant guilt flooded her.
How would you feel if your daughter was dying in the next room?
She asked a short prayer for forgiveness. She talked to God occasionally. She figured it didn’t hurt. Better to be safe than sorry, right?
Brooke was an only child. If she died her parents had no one.
Trinity’s chin lifted. She was an only child and had no one. She’d survived.
Her cell phone vibrated in her back pocket. She studied the text on the screen, her chest tightening.
IS B GOING TO BE OK?
She waited and waited for his reply but nothing came. She finally slid the phone back in her pocket, feeling let down. Jason had texted her a few times in the month she’d known him. And all those texts had been questions about Brooke. He was good-looking but clearly not interested in her; he’d wanted to know about her friend. Trinity slumped in her chair and flipped the pages of the magazine. The text had sent her heart pounding one minute and dragging the next.
Why was she interested in a guy who was clearly not interested in her?
Katy sighed as she sat in the chair next to Trinity. “Coffee?” She held a little cup out to Trinity, who nodded and took the cup. Katy moved with quick gestures, reminding Trinity of a sharp-eyed bird. A high-energy, petite woman, her dark eyes missed nothing. Besides fostering, she worked with high-risk women, counseling them on how to get out of abusive relationships. More than once she’d had to leave in the middle of the night to respond to a terrified call from a woman. Trinity sipped, silently gagging at the papery chemical taste of the coffee. She didn’t want the coffee; she took it because Katy had been kind enough to think of her. Katy was like that.
Trinity tried to let her know when the small gestures were appreciated.
“Thanks,” she mumbled into her coffee.
“Who was texting you?”
Katy saw things. Things a typical teen hoped a parent wouldn’t notice. And she had no qualms asking about what she’d seen. Katy had learned to be blunt with her fosters and abuse cases.
“Jason. A friend of Brooke’s.”
“Friend of yours too? I haven’t heard you mention him before.”
“Her friend. I’ve met him once or twice. He doesn’t go to our school. I’m surprised he has my number to text me,” she lied.
Why was she lying? Was it because it was about a boy she barely knew?
“Well, that makes no sense,” Katy logically pointed out. “You gave him your number or Brooke did for a particular reason. Which is it?”
Once again, Katy wasn’t one to let the little details slide.
I should have admitted it in the first place.
“I think he got it when we were arranging a ride to meet at the mall a few weeks ago. I’d forgot about that.”
That was better. And the truth.
“Uh-huh.” Katy didn’t question any more. In a roundabout way, she’d pointed out that Trinity was lying. And in a roundabout way, Trinity admitted it. Case closed.
A nurse bolted by the waiting area, and two other medical staffers followed within seconds.
Trinity’s heart stopped, and she stood to see where they’d gone.