Authors: Kendra Elliot
The onsite professionals appeared to know her and respect her. The two police detectives had treated her with the utmost courtesy. He wasn’t surprised. Victoria was one of those determined
people who worked her butt off to achieve her goals. She didn’t believe in shortcuts. She’d always succeeded at what she put her mind to.
He turned his attention back to the dead girls.
A fucking waste.
The scene reminded him a bit of the Heaven’s Gate cult. In the late nineties nearly forty people had committed suicide together, hoping to catch a ride on a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet. He remembered photos of rows of neatly arranged bodies in beds, their faces covered with purple cloths and brand-new Nikes on their feet. There’d been a master planner at work who’d brainwashed the group.
Who would do this? Someone was involved. Someone who was still alive, because the girls’ shoes didn’t walk away by themselves. He had every intention of attending the examinations of these girls.
They were close to Eden’s age.
He fought the anger crawling up the back of his throat.
Working on the endless stream of autopsies at the coroner’s office in California felt different when the victim was from a crime scene he’d attended. Every body he worked on, he gave his best. But when he’d been present to see the setting of the atrocity, it sparked something inside of him, driving him harder to find justice for the dead.
He’d seen his share of bodies from crimes. It was a factor in what made his job so engrossing. Science meets crime. Science kicks crime’s butt. It was a thrill to know he’d helped to bring justice to the assholes of the world who’d believed they’d gotten away with murder. It wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t fun. But it was damned interesting, and he saw and learned something fascinating every day.
These girls didn’t decide to lie down and die. There was a more powerful hand at work here; he could feel it. And that hand had cleaned up the scene.
“Dr. Rutledge?” Detective Lusco approached him. “Callahan and I are headed out. I just wanted to say good luck with the job selection process.” The detective was a big guy, clean cut. He looked like a pro football player turned cop, and Seth estimated the detective’s age to be a bit younger than his own. Even though it was the middle of the night, the detective looked as pressed and fresh as someone who’d just arrived at work. Seth looked he’d just rolled out of bed.
“Thanks. Maybe we’ll cross paths again.”
“You’ll have big shoes to fill. Dr. Campbell has an amazing reputation around here. Hate to see the guy go.”
“He’s done it longer than a lot of MEs. Wears away at your soul after a while. Probably like being a cop.”
“This is the kind of case that does it,” said Lusco, taking in the dead girls with a wave of his hand. “The young ones. Always pointless.”
“Still no reports of missing teens?”
Lusco shook his head and glanced at his watch. “Shouldn’t be much longer. Worried parents are gonna start calling.”
Victoria spoke from behind him. “Unless it was one of those organized ‘Tell your mom you’re sleeping at my house, and I’ll tell mine that I’m at your house’ type setups.” She stepped closer to join their conversation.
Seth studied her profile as she looked at Lusco. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, her chin raised and stubborn. Victoria Peres was a woman to be reckoned with. Still.
“Christ. I didn’t think of that,” said Lusco.
Victoria nodded. “That’s because you were never a teen girl. They all did that.”
Seth noted she didn’t say “We all did that.” It was hard to imagine Tori as a teen girl. Even though she’d been nineteen when they first met, she’d always been an adult. Lying to her parents about sleeping at a friend’s house wasn’t something she’d do.
“You might not get any leads until tomorrow, when the parents start calling each other,” she added.
“Tomorrow is really gonna suck,” stated Lusco.
Seth silently agreed.
Mason Callahan watched Lacey move away from the bright lights, still bodies, and low conversations into the shadows of the forest. Someone needed a break after the scent of death, he figured. Dr. Campbell often wore her heart on her sleeve. Not like Victoria Peres. You never could tell what she was thinking.
He nearly fell over when Dr. Rutledge called her Tori.
Mason had heard the forensic anthropologist called a lot of things, usually along the lines of Ice Princess and Bone Woman. Hard, unforgiving names. Dr. Peres had a knack for reading bones. Watching her handle the dry bones, scanning them with her fingertips as she felt every bump and valley. The woman knew what she was doing.
Cold was what his fellow officers called the Bone Lady. Antisocial and rigid. Officers who’d stepped a wrong foot in a one of her scenes called her Bitch.
Private, was Mason’s assessment.
“Tori” sounded tender coming from Dr. Rutledge.
Holy crap. The Ice Princess had a past.
He shook his head. Victoria Peres was a tall and attractive woman, but there was something very off-putting about the way she interacted with people. Had she been different when she was younger? Dr. Rutledge seemed to know. Mason’d seen the way the doctor’s gaze followed Victoria. Yes, there was certainly a history there. Mason cringed. Thinking about getting close to the Ice Princess made him uncomfortable; they had a good working relationship.
He also had a good rapport with Lacey Campbell, but it was different. They were connected beyond a social level. He’d met her briefly a decade ago after she’d nearly become a victim of the Co-Ed Slayer in her college years. Their paths crossed again last winter when she’d identified the remains of the Slayer’s last victim and then was targeted by a copycat killer.
Mason followed the path Lacey had made into the forest. Away from the bright lights of the crime scene, it was peaceful. He spotted her leaning against a fir, brushing at her eyes as she tucked a cell phone in her purse.
“You okay?” he asked.
She started, gripping at her purse, then visibly relaxed as she made out his face. “Yes. I’m just getting a breath of fresh air.”
Mason nodded. “Not your usual type of scene.”
Lacey forced a smile. “True. I probably shouldn’t have come. I do better in the sterile environment of the medical examiner’s office.”
“How is Jack?”
“Good. He’s in Japan for work. I was just trying to reach him.” Her smile faltered.
“No luck?” His heart ached a bit for the young dentist. She was petite and fragile in appearance, but he knew she had a spine of steel. He’d seen her cry as she held the hand of a parent of a
dead child, and he’d seen her focused and training at the gun range, struggling to calm the demons a serial killer had left in her soul.
She’d twice lived through a nightmare. The type that would put most people in a mental ward the first time.
“No,” she said.
“What are your thoughts on girls this age? What would drive a teen to do this?”
Lacey blinked at his question, her eyes wide in the dim light.
“You’re the youngest female here,” Mason expanded. “And you’ve worked with kids this age, right? In gymnastics lessons? I’m picking your brain for some insight. I’ve got a son about this age, but girls think differently.”
“It’s been a few years since I’ve read
magazine. But I think kids today have the same pressures. Their looks, their friends, being with the right crowd, saying and doing the cool things, wearing the right clothes.”
Mason nodded. “But there’s more in their lives now. Instant communication. Instant worldwide knowledge. Pictures from around the world show up on their phones to share with their friends. The need to know about everything first.”
Lacey drew in a sharp breath. “Do you think someone took pictures? Someone had to have walked away from here. Christ! Do you think there’re already pictures circulating of this scene? Do you have someone monitoring social media? Looking for anything macabre?”
Mason knew that once a picture was on the Internet, it would never completely disappear. The source could be taken down, but shares could spread uncontrollably.
“We thought of that. We’ve got people on it.”
She exhaled. “What a mess.”
“It could get really ugly. We used to just worry about photographers selling pictures to the media. Now, everyone can be their own media site. Although we definitely would trace where it started.”
“I hope no one did that here. Those poor girls. Their families… How horrible to know images of your dead daughter were floating around the Internet.”
“I’d kill someone if they posted pictures with my kid,” Mason stated. And he would. He didn’t see much of his son, Jake, because he lived with his mom and stepdad. But Mason did everything he could to keep in close contact with the teen. Some days the hardest thing he did was get that kid to have a conversation with him on the phone. It’d be easy to let him drift away. Mason fought to keep that communication open.
Mason looked back at the white circle in the ferns. Lacey followed his gaze.
“Some parents are about to have the worst day of their lives.”
The TV droned in the background as Trinity poured her bowl of cereal. Her upset stomach from the day before was gone, and she’d woken up starving. She sniffed at her cup of coffee and felt her stomach spin a bit. Okay. Maybe she wasn’t totally better. She set it aside. Coffee wasn’t really her thing anyway.
Maybe she’d try again tomorrow before school. Today was Sunday, and she didn’t need caffeine. In fact, once she finished her cereal, she was headed back to bed. She caught the high-school bus at 7
each weekday, so she rarely passed up a chance for extra sleep.
Her homework load was insane. Trinity took every advanced class she could, wanting that cheap college credit. Money was
tight. It’d always been tight. She was a master at stretching out the life of drugstore makeup and punching up the look of her own clothes. In fact, she had a sweatshirt from Goodwill to alter. She’d spotted the almost-new Hollister hoodie on the men’s rack yesterday. It was big and needed to be taken in just a bit. If she got it done today, she could wear it tomorrow. Happier, she plunged her spoon back in her cereal.
The phrase “Forest Park” caught her attention, and she focused on the TV. Black body bags on stretchers were being wheeled out of a trailhead and into waiting ambulances.
Her vision tunneled and sweat started under her arms.
Doors slammed on the back of an ambulance and it drove off. Its lights weren’t flashing and its siren was off; it wasn’t in a hurry.
Trinity couldn’t breathe.
The camera swung back to the trailhead. More stretchers. More bags of death.
“… the five teenage girls haven’t been identified and the sixth in the hospital may not make it,” said the broadcaster over the images.
Trinity’s hand shook and she dropped her spoon in her cereal. She grabbed her cell phone and fired off a text to Brooke. She waited, heart pounding, lungs tight. Her cereal burned in her gut. Her phone was quiet.
Please, God, no. Please, please, please!
Over the next ten minutes she sent two more texts. Still no answer. That wasn’t like Brooke. She was an extremely social high-school senior; the girl took her phone everywhere except into the shower. Not like Trinity. She considered herself to be on the high end of the shy scale. She almost felt honored to be one
of Brooke’s closest friends. Trinity’s friends were few but very tight. Brooke mingled with everyone, but Trinity was part of her inner circle.
Brooke should have texted back by now.
What had happened?
The calls started pouring in during the morning news broadcast. Making his own calls about the dead girls, Detective Mason Callahan was thankful he didn’t work at the call center. All night no parents had called, looking for missing kids, but once the body bags appeared on the news, the county’s emergency network had been flooded.
Ray hung up his desk phone. “That park ranger from last night showed up downstairs a few minutes ago. He’s got a guy with him who saw the girls last night in the forest while they were still alive. The desk sergeant stuck them in an interview room.”
Mason stood up and pushed in his chair, grabbing a notepad from the stack on his desk. Finally. Someone who’d seen something. So far the morning had brought empty leads, frustration, and an acid stomach. “Let’s get on it.” He headed to the door with Ray at his heels, passing a television tuned to local news. Mason caught a glimpse of a reporter in front of the trailhead he’d entered last night.
“… parents are flooding nine-one-one saying their kids haven’t answered their cells…”
“Holy crap. There’re only six girls.” Ray Lusco ran a hand through his hair. “How come all these parents don’t know where their kids are?”
“Don’t your kids spend the night with friends?”
“Well, sure. But if my kids don’t answer their cell phones, you better damn well believe I’ll be calling the parents.”
“Both have cells now?” Mason asked. He knew Ray’s daughter had made a big deal out of wanting one a year ago, but his son was two years younger, barely in his teens. What would the boy need with a cell?