May 7, 2012 - Westbury, Ontario
Twenty minutes before midnight, Savanna Jones stood under a dark satin sky. A few stars glimmered from the inky blackness despite some moving cloud patches.
She shivered when a swift breeze tickled the loose hairs beneath her ponytail. The dark blue forensic jacket she slipped on before leaving the lab hardly kept her warm.
She pulled the zipper to her throat and double checked that she had locked the door to her Volkswagen. Her messenger bag slung easily over one shoulder. A quick glance to either side confirmed that she was alone on the street. BlackBerry in hand, she crossed the quiet boulevard.
Cuddling at home in a warm bed, exhausted from long and delicious lovemaking would be her choice. But not tonight. With Richard, her husband out of town for the next six months, her only action were a weekly kickboxing class and her forensics job.
She mentally shook her head. Focus, she scolded and pushed the unsettling thoughts away. The house she headed toward seemed to stand alone in the corner. In fact, it was the last in the row of dormer-style bungalows, built a quarter century ago in a community of mostly law-abiding citizens.
She lifted the cellphone and tapped redial then placed the phone to her ear.
After two rings her partner, Mathew Quinn answered. “Yeah.” Sleep still muzzled the normal timbre in his voice.
“How far away are you with those keys?” She asked.
They had been covering each other for eight years. He the police officer, she the civilian forensic scientist. The midnight summons had always been a part of their routine. Half an hour ago when she called, he was already asleep, but promised to bring the keys she’d forgotten. Though she loathed dragging him from bed, she needed him out here.
A third look, this time into the unfamiliar corners of the house could turn up the necklace that would make all the difference. The investigating team had searched the place last April when the police arrested the owner, Colton Moore, on charges of kidnap, false imprisonment and rape. Forensics had even gone over the place again in July just before the trial started. The house had been vacant since then. It was possible the necklace was still here.
“So where are you now?” she asked Quinn.
Before he could respond, a scream cracked the dark silence with the energy of a newborn.
Savanna froze on the spot. “What was that?” she said into the phone.
“Something going on out there?” her partner asked.
“I heard a scream.” Savanna grabbed the flashlight sticking out from her messenger bag and ran toward the house with the phone still to her ear. She flicked the beam around the tiny square house, focusing on the two small front windows. Nothing. She hurried to the side. Her torch light trailed along the scaling grey siding.
“See anything?” Quinn’s voice was awake now.
“Nothing yet.” She continued to the other side and around to the front again. Her heavy breathing and a dog barking in the distance were the only sounds now.
“I’m here,” she said. “I think the sound came from inside.”
“Okay. I’ll be there soon.”
She kept moving the light, her ears pricked. Maybe the noise was more distant than she first thought.
A cry whimpered from below her.
Savanna jerked to a stop. She peered closer at the two-brick wall surrounding the basement window. Three small shoe soles imprinted in mud. She stooped, keeping out of sight from anyone inside. The windowpane was broken.
“Someone’s here,” she said to Quinn. “Looks like a 10-84.”
“Wait for me.” He hissed as though he too needed to conceal his voice.
“I’ll take a quick look.”
“Not without a key, Savanna. Wait.”
She leaned closer to the broken window. A loud bang followed by whimpers echoed from inside.
“It sounds like someone is hurt,” she whispered into the phone. Hopefully it wasn’t another woman. Considering what went on out here last year, this house was bad news for unsuspecting females. “I’m going in.” She clicked off the call.
Savanna carefully mounted the three broken steps. The hinges on the screen panel squeaked when she pulled the metal frame. She held it open with one foot and grasped the front door knob.
On the off chance that it was unlocked, she twisted. The cool nickel chilled her already sweaty palm, but the door wouldn’t budge. Determined to get inside, she shoved her shoulder against the wooden panel. It bounced her onto the lower step again.
There must be another way in.
She shifted the torch light to the crumbling cement at her feet. It had disintegrated into sand and pebbles. To the right, her torch illuminated a pile of small stones forming weeping tiles against the window wall. They provided the only solution left to her. The rock she grasped fitted perfectly into her palm. With a single smack, it shattered the plate glass window next to the door.
Savanna used the rock to clear the sharp edges then reached in and twisted the lock on the door. She poked her head inside and shifted the torchlight around. Nothing moved.
She crept into the small living room. The narrow light above her shoulder reflected from a large wall mirror hanging over a worn sofa. The matching chair faced a dark laminated stand that supported an oversize flat-screen TV. Its remote control lay askew on top of a coffee table covered with dog-eared pornographic magazines.
No question someone was squatting in the house. Savanna tiptoed further into the room but halted when a small voice whimpered.
“Shh,” someone else warned. The tense conversation rose from the basement. Definitely children.
“Hello,” Savanna said. “I’m with the police. I need to see you out here.” Her forensics crime scene jacket came with a badge. Hopefully, it was enough to hold any potential suspects until Quinn arrived.
She followed the whispers but froze when she thought a shadow moved in the open doorway leading to the kitchen. She whipped the light in that direction, but it was her own reflection in another large mirror. She’d forgotten about the mirrors. They hung throughout the house. Still, she entered the kitchen and flicked the switch. The room flooded with a yellow glow. It smelled of stale takeout food. The countertop had seen better days. A banged-up wooden block with two knives and a pair of shears stood next to a white-ish plastic drain tray.
Savanna left the room and crossed the hallway to the half-opened door leading to the basement. A damp, mouldy scent floated up from below. She peered into the darkness, recalling that the light switch dangled from a bulb in the ceiling halfway down the steps.
Thirteen months ago, when they investigated the house, the stairs creaked and shook under the trampling weight of the investigating team. As she descended now, each step seemed even weaker.
Scrambling feet scurried around before she reached the bottom. Soft cries whined and hissed from the right of the stairs.
Her pulse quickened as she listened.
“Shh,” a voice said. “They’ll hear us.”
“Hello,” Savanna spoke into the silence. “Is someone hurt?”
She poked her head around the corner. The stair light didn’t cover the entire space, but a standing mirror reflected the other side of the room. She made out the edge of a laundry tub and a white washer-dryer set next to it. Nothing moved back there.
“You shouldn’t be in here right now,” she said. “I’m sure you know that. This place is private property and unsafe.”
“It hurts,” one of the voices cried again.
“I told you to shut your mouth,” said another.
“I want to go home.”
Two boys, Savanna guessed. And the younger was injured.
She guided her hand up the wall and found the switch she knew was there. A dull light illuminated the small basement. When she pulled the door closing off the area under the stairs, two pairs of eyes stared up at her. Their pupils enlarged under the glare of her searchlight like frightened refugees.
The taller boy raised a hand to shade his eyes. The other one dropped his chin and cradled a bleeding hand to his chest. The wound looked bad.
“Come on out.” Savanna forced a bit of steel into her voice. Without a police uniform, she needed instant obedience. She stepped back and waited.
The older one leapt to his feet first. Just as Savanna thought, he tried to dash past her.
“Not just yet, sir.” She caught him by his jacket.
He struggled and pulled to escape.
“Do you really mean to run and leave him here when this was your idea?” She had no way of knowing who cooked up the scheme that landed them in an abandoned house in the middle of the night, but her accusation settled the boy.
He frowned and turned his face away from her.
“I’m Savanna. What’s your name?” she asked.
He turned to look at her again, his little mouth pouting. “Elvis.”
“And you?” She turned to the younger boy.
He hiccupped, then said, “Eric.”
Something sharp had sliced opened the meaty part of Eric’s palm, just under his thumb. A steady stream of blood leaked from the wound.
“Let’s go upstairs,” she said. “Elvis, I’ll need your help while I call an ambulance. Okay?”
Once upstairs and secured on the worn couch, she gingerly took the injured hand and glanced at Eric’s tear-stained face. He had stopped whimpering, but fresh tears leaked from his wide brown eyes.
“That must really hurt,” she said, “but I can see you're brave. Can you tell me what brought you guys out here so late?”
Elvis turned his head away, but Eric spoke up. “We wanted to see it,” he managed through his tears.
“Don’t tell her,” Elvis said and shoved an elbow into the younger boy’s ribs. “She’ll tell the police that we did it.”
“Did what?” Savanna kept her eyes on Eric’s wound as she inspected it for a foreign object.
“Nothing.” Elvis was adamant about keeping their secret.
“If you did nothing wrong, no one will blame you,” Savanna said.
Elvis assumed his signature pout and sharpened his gaze on her. “You wouldn’t believe us anyways.”
Right. He saw an adult stranger. Not the most trustworthy person in an eleven-year-old’s view.
“Okay,” she said. “There’s too much blood to see what’s going on inside. We need to clean it up. Can you help me with that?”
Elvis nodded again.
“Good. Help Eric to the sink, and we can start washing the blood away.” To keep Elvis from bolting again, Savanna kept him talking. “If you tell me what happened,” she said, “I’ll let my partner know how helpful you were.”
The boys looked at each other and then at her. “We came to see…” Eric spoke first, then they both blurted out, “The dead body.”
Savanna stared speechless for a moment. “A dead body? Here?” she finally asked. “Are you sure?”
“See, I told you she wouldn’t believe us,” Elvis said. “We heard his brother talking about it.” He pointed to Eric.
“Okay. Have you seen it?”
They both shook their heads.
“Did you come out here on your own?”
Elvis glanced away from her. “Yes.” He sounded offended, but she still wasn’t sure about the veracity of his claim.
“Did your brother say where—”
A noise clattered from the front of the house and startled them. They all turned to look at the same time. Though they saw nothing, Savanna motioned with an index finger on her lips for the boys to stay quiet.
She hurried to the living room and caught someone disappearing out the door. The broad back looked like a man’s.
“Hey. Stop,” she yelled. “Who are you? Wait.”
She followed, but the figure disappeared behind the house. Savanna pursued him. Just as she cleared the side of the small building, she tripped over something and went down. What was that? She scrambled to her feet again and fumbled her cellphone from her pocket. She found the searchlight app and zipped the phone around on the grass.
What looked like human fingers stuck out from a blanket. Savanna gasped and hopped back. The darkness surrounding her had swallowed up the person who ran from the house. Not a sound emanated from the shadows. For all she knew, someone stood only a few feet away, watching her.
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