Riley fell into the nearest chair and gently pulled out the scrunchy holding her hair in place. She leaned forward, dropping her head between her knees, and her hair cascaded over her face. If someone invented a delete forever app for the brain, she’d sign over the rights to her firstborn to download. No. No. She was never having children, not after everything they’d seen this past week. A depravity that went to another level of sick and twisted. A level she’d not yet experienced in her five years on the job. Riley wasn’t one to lose her lunch, but she could understand why someone might. Even a seasoned detective such as Captain Williams had turned a shade of green. Riley massaged her temples, trying to erase the horrible images.
The entire week had been like an F5 tornado, beginning with the 9-1-1 calls on Monday afternoon. The calls were the first rumblings of what was about to roll over them though at the time they’d had no idea it was coming. Multiple people had called to report seeing a young girl wandering the street covered in blood. It wasn’t a typical call for Riley’s unit, which specialized in high profile murder cases, but they were in the area. Riley and her partner, Liam Silverman, arrived on the scene just as the medics were placing the girl in the ambulance. Riley had a hunch, so they followed the ambulance to the hospital. After several hours, the doctor reported that the girl would be fine. A rape kit was completed and came back negative. Other than dehydration and missing a fingertip, they’d found no other injuries. The nurse told the detectives the girl mentioned a monster and something about eating all the fingers before falling asleep.
By late Wednesday afternoon, they were no closer to identifying her, or the finger eating monster, but the hospital had called saying she was alert enough to speak to the detectives. Riley convinced Williams to let them see the case through. She knew in her gut this case was not anything run of the mill and would end up in their court.
“Hey Silverman, I’m going to the hospital, our little Jane Doe is awake.”
“Want me to go with?” Silverman asked, waiting to see which way she would go. He’d heard two things about Riley; one, she was a little weird, and two she was a damn good detective. Within the first week, he knew the first rumor was true. After three months he knew the second was true and somehow directly related to the first.
Riley glanced at him and was about to say no.
“Yes, you should go with her,” Captain Williams answered for Riley. “Yes, Detective Finn, Detective Silverman is your partner. Partners ride together.”
“Come on then.” She grabbed her jacket and didn’t wait for him.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like Liam, he was a nice enough guy, but he was new. New meant questions she didn’t want to or couldn’t answer. She missed her old partner, Frank. He’d been well seasoned and truly little surprised him, including Riley’s uncanny ability to find the bad guys. Liam was only twenty-three, barely out of the academy and younger than she’d been starting in her career. A rookie in every sense of the word. Complaints to Paul fell on deaf ears. He was having to deal with citywide cutbacks, and they were all making sacrifices. Riley had to suffer the same as everyone else.
“You drive,” Riley said, tossing Liam the keys. He could at least be useful as her chauffeur, anything else remained to be seen.
At the hospital, the nurse told them their victim had said her name was Sara. She cautioned Riley to go slow. Sara was skittish and if frightened might disappear under the bed or worse start screaming. Sara also seemed to be uncomfortable around men, so the nurse suggested Liam might wait outside the room. Riley concealed her weapon under her jacket and opened the door.
“Hello,” Riley said, pulling a chair up to the bed using slow and cautious movements. “I’m Detective Riley Finn. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
She stared at Riley with big green doe-like eyes. After a moment she nodded.
“Is your name Sara?”
“Sara. That’s a pretty name.”
Sara shook her head and seemed to shrink back into her pillow.
Riley wondered if Sara’s attacker had also told her she had a pretty name. “I know you’re frightened, Sara. But we’re not going to let anyone hurt you. Ok?”
She nodded but stayed pressed against her pillow.
“How old are you?”
She held up her right hand, covered in a full bandage, and laid it back down, wincing a bit. She held up her left hand.
“Five. You’re five. Ok. And do you have a last name?”
“Cappeletti. C -A- two Ps, E - one L, E, two Ts and an I.”
Riley smiled. She hated to go on but had to ask the tough questions. Once the parents were located, she might not have another chance to talk to Sara. Given her tender age, it was best to find out what she remembered as soon as possible. The longer she waited the more likely Sara’s recollection would falter and change.
“Sara, I need to ask you some questions about what happened to you ok?”
“If you get scared you just squeeze my hand.” Riley held out her hand.
Sara took Riley’s hand and squeezed.
Riley’s heart jumped into her throat and she swallowed back the unexpected reaction. “I know you’re scared sweetie, but I promise no one can hurt you here.”
Sara stared at Riley, trying to decide if she could trust her. She tugged on a piece of hair and suddenly stopped. “The man liked my hair. He liked red things. Blue is my favorite color. Momma wouldn’t let me color my hair blue.” She looked at Riley. “You have pretty red hair, like a ripe tomato.”
“You have very pretty hair, Sara.”
“My brother says I look like a pumpkin head.”
“You know, brothers can sometimes say stupid things.”
Sara scowled and nodded. “Taylor’s always teasing me.”
“Is Taylor your older brother?”
“I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you. Now, can you tell me who hurt your hand?”
An expression of distress filled Sara’s face. “The monster got mad at me. I broke the teacup. He got mad when I cried, and he cut my finger. It hurt and I cried a lot and then, and then I fell asleep.”
“Did the monster have a name?”
She shook her head.
“Ok. That’s ok. Do you remember what he looked like?”
“He had no hair on his head and his face was all marked up,” she scrunched up her nose. “He was stinky, like mommy’s garden.”
“He was all marked up. Do you mean he had scars on his face?”
Sara shrugged and then nodded. “He had lots of scars all over his body. His legs and back and arms and face.”
“Good Sara, you’re doing great.” Riley stood up. “Was the man as tall as me?”
She slowly shook her head. “He was a little taller, and his fingernails were really clean. Mommy makes me clean my fingernails if I get dirt under them.”
“Did you go for a ride with the man?”
Sara fiddled with her hair again. “I stayed in the bedroom. It was nice. There was a big bed with a tent on top. My bed doesn’t have a tent. And a dollhouse. A big dollhouse with tiny little people and tiny little furniture. I broke the teacup… that’s when we went to the bad place.” She pulled the blanket closer to her chin.
“Did he drive a car or a truck?”
“It was a big car, but, but he didn’t know how to drive.” She looked up; her eyes brightened. “My brother’s going to drive me to school when I go to first grade. He doesn’t have his license yet but he’s getting it, like next week or something. I won’t take the bus anymore.” She smiled, seeming happy about this.
Riley smiled. “That will be nice. Do you remember anything else about the man?”
Sara thought about it, her eyes grew wide and she squeezed Riley’s hand hard. “The monster gave Max the fingers. Max ate the fingers. Max ate all the fingers and hands.” She began to rock back and forth, squeezing Riley’s hand.
The nurse came forward, but Riley waved her back.
Riley pulled her hand free but held on to Sara. “Who is Max?”
“He was at the bad place. The monster chopped up all the fingers and fed them to Max. He had giant scissors and he cut up everything. And they were all hurt.”
The nurse pulled on Riley’s arm. “You need to let her rest now. She’s been through enough.”
“One more minute, please, there might be more victims,” Riley pleaded with the nurse.
“Ok, but only another minute, and then she has to rest. It’s been hard enough trying to keep her calm.”
Riley turned back to Sara and stroked her arm, trying to soothe her. “Sara, is Max a dog?”
Sara nodded. “His fur was red and dirty, and he was mean and big like a pony.”
“You’re doing great Sara. Now one more question and then you won’t have to think about this anymore, ok?”
“Do you remember anything about the bad place where you were with the monster and Max?”
Sara pursed her lips. Her eyebrows furrowed as if she was trying hard to recall. “It was stinky like Shasta’s cat food. Shasta’s my cat at home. I couldn’t sleep because the horns were loud, and it was cold and smelly. And the train would come and blow its horn. Kelly cried a lot. She was afraid of the train. I wasn’t afraid of the train. I was afraid of Max though.”
Riley wanted to ask who Kelly was, but the nurse pulled the curtain around and made Riley step away. Sara started yelling for Riley not to leave her. Riley took her hand. “It’s ok honey. It’s ok. Don’t be scared. Officer Santiago is going to be right here in this chair, by your bed until your parents get here. Ok?”
Sara glanced at Santiago and back to Riley. “Are you coming back?” Sara asked.
“Absolutely. And your parents are on their way. They’ll be here soon. Everything is going to be ok. You trust me, don’t you?”
“Good. Now do as the nurse says and rest, ok?”
“Ok,” Sara replied, laying back on her pillows.
Riley pulled Santiago aside. “You don’t move from that chair unless someone else is here to relieve you. Understand?”
“Understood. Don’t worry detective, I have one her age. I’m not going to let anything happen to that little girl.”
Riley nodded. “Call me if you need anything.”
Santiago’s aura was a bright turquoise with swirls of red, making her a fierce protector. She meant what she said with every ounce of her being giving Riley some comfort that Sara would be safe.
Back at the precinct, they’d scrambled to decipher Sara’s information. After ten hours of guessing they decided the blowing horns might be from boats, the cat food smell might be fish, and the train, well, train tracks did run down by the old docks. It all seemed to fit, and it was all they had to go on. Four days had passed since finding Sara and more victims might be out there. Results from the lab would take too long. They couldn’t wait any longer, so Williams called for SWAT to meet them down at the old docks. They geared up and raced to the docks. Riley knew they would find at least one more victim, the girl Kelly that Sara had mentioned. She was close to one hundred percent certain of this. However, after four days, Riley doubted Kelly would be as lucky as Sara.
At the docks, they found the usual vagrants and a few private fishing boats. No one knew about Sara or had seen anything unusual. Riley didn’t give up. Her instincts were tingling, this was the place. They kept searching. At the far end of the property out past the docks, hidden behind overgrown trees and brush, stood a rundown metal building. Perhaps the old train depot. Riley walked over to the building. On one side someone had built what appeared to be a garden. Riley heard a dog barking from inside and waved everyone over. They surrounded the building and SWAT kicked in the door. A dog the size of a pony charged out snarling and snapping. It was immediately put down. The dog’s fur was a red-stained color.
They entered the structure and were knocked over by the smell. Riley covered her nose and pressed forward. A few gardening tools were neatly laid out on a folding table. An old mattress with a large red stain in the center was propped up near a wall. Over to the side of the mattress forming somewhat of a wall-like barrier were full burlap bags stacked five high. Beyond the burlap bags, at the back of the shed, they found the source of the smell; multiple body parts piled on top of each other as if they’d been discarded there. If the smell wasn’t enough to force you back outside, the sight of those body parts did the trick. Riley stood in the middle of the room staring at the pile. It took Captain Williams pulling her away to break the spell. She exited the building with Williams.
“There were no heads,” Silverman muttered, feeling sick from the smell and shocked by what he’d just seen. He didn’t need the medical examiner to tell him those body parts belonged to tender aged children.
Detective Finn’s phone rang. Unknown caller. She muted it, dropping it back in her pocket. “The heads might be nearby. Buried in that garden on the side.”
“Yeah, maybe so,” Paul answered, waving one of the uniforms over. “Get this area taped off. I want everything bagged and tagged. Have someone interview every single person that’s here. Understand?”
“Yes sir, we’ll take care of it.”
Riley’s phone was vibrating again. She glanced at the screen. Unknown caller again. This time she blocked the number, annoyed with the interruption. The medical examiners had arrived. Captain had called for three, they sent two. She watched as Paul walked with them up to the door of the shed, stopping at the threshold and pointing. Riley understood. She didn’t want to go back inside either.
Riley turned as a young uniform officer approached her. “Yes?”
“Some guy on the phone, says he needs to speak to you. Says it’s urgent.”
“He wouldn’t say.”
Riley was tempted to walk away but reconsidered and held out her hand for the phone. “Hello, this is Detective Finn.”
“Hello yes, Detective Finn. Um, yeah, so, this guy, uh, paid me a hundred dollars to call you. Uh, he says you, um, should go to the… to um, this address.”
“And what is your name?” She looked around, at least twenty people were walking around the crime scene. A few vagrants had wandered over up to the tape to see what all the commotion was about. She saw orange and yellow auras. None were Voids.
“I’m not supposed to give my name. I’m just supposed to give you the address and then throw away this phone.”
“Address for what?”
“I don’t know, um, I’m not supposed to talk to you. Um, here it is, the address. Ten eleven Kellen Street. And…he says you should go there, soon. I mean tonight. I mean now.”
“Who is he? Is he there with you now? Can I speak to him?”
The phone went dead. Riley handed the phone back to the uniform and went to find Williams and Silverman. They were near the garden plot watching CSI sift through the dirt. So far, they’d only found what looked like bone fragments but no heads.
Riley relayed the phone call to Paul.
“Send two uniforms,” Williams said.
“I should go, Captain. Something wasn’t right about the caller. I got the sense he was being coached. And given what we are dealing with here, I don’t think it’s a coincidence him calling me.”
Williams paused but only for a moment. If Detective Finn’s senses were tingling, he wasn’t standing in her way. “Fine, take Silverman. And call for back-up if anything looks hinky.”
Riley raised a brow. “Hinky?”
“Go, before I change my mind detective,” Williams said.
They rode over to the address. It was a two-story house in a rundown part of town. An old rusted out car sat on its frame at the end of the street. Silverman parked and turned off the car. Riley got out. A shiver ran down her spine. She’d never experienced a bad aura from an inanimate object, but this house seemed to ooze darkness.
“Come on,” she said and walked across to the sidewalk leading to the front door.
Liam eyed the house. Everything about it was off. While the other houses had plywood windows and doors tagged with graffiti, this house had been left untouched. The windows weren’t covered over or busted out like the rest of the homes. He glanced around the area. Not even a stray cat lurked about. Probably knew better than to look for food in an abandoned neighborhood.
“What do you think,” Liam asked, not liking how quiet the street seemed. It wasn’t normal.
Riley didn’t answer. She was busy staring at the front of the house. She shook her head as if answering unspoken questions. Whatever they were supposed to find here, she hoped it wasn’t inside the house. She walked around to the side fence and pushed on the gate with her foot. It creaked open a few inches. Riley pushed it farther open, pulling her sidearm at the same time. She waved for Silverman to follow her. She heard him draw his weapon as he came up behind her. They walked around to the back clearing the area as they went.
“Holy shit!” Silverman said.
After finishing clearing the area, Riley lowered her weapon. “Son of a bitch.” She fished her phone from her pocket and called Williams. “Captain, I think we’ve located the heads. Um, yeah, appears to be seven.” They talked for a minute and she hung up. “As soon as they finish at the docks, they’ll come over here,” Riley informed Silverman.
“What do we do until then?”
“Make sure nothing happens to the evidence,” Riley said, sitting on the bottom step of the back porch.
Liam joined her but didn’t sit. He hadn’t holstered his weapon yet, preferring to hold it down by his side. That the killer had called Riley and sent her here to find the heads, had him on edge. For all, they knew he was inside the house watching them right now.
Riley stared at the morbid garden only ten feet from the tip of her toe. The heads were lined up like a row of lettuce. The eyes were open. She felt her phone vibrate and checked the screen. Unknown Caller. Was he calling to gloat?
She answered. “Hello.”
“Hello, Detective Finn. How does my garden grow?”
Riley heard the amusement in his voice. She wondered if he had placed cameras at the house and watched them. “I don’t believe it’s growing well at all.”
“It’s early yet. Beautiful things take time to blossom. Patience is always a virtue when gardening.”
“Maybe you can tell me your name?”
“The mix of soil and nutrients is so very important if you want your garden to cultivate a healthy crop.”
“Why don’t you come by the precinct. We can talk about it in person.”
“I’d love to come by, to chat, but I’m afraid I have much work to do.”
The phone went dead. Riley stood and walked up the steps to the door and turned the knob. It was not locked. He wanted them to go inside.
“Shouldn’t we wait for back-up?” Liam asked.
“You can wait out here,” Riley offered, but without malice.
She understood his reluctance to go in. He sensed the horrors that awaited them inside the house the same as she did. None the less, she opened the door and walked into a mudroom. Past the mudroom was like stepping back in time. The floorplan belonged to a different era when every room had a distinct purpose. Layers of dust indicated much of the place had been uninhabited and undisturbed for a while. They moved through, clearing each room until they came to a closed door. They flanked the door and opened it. It led to a basement.
“I hate basements,” Liam muttered.
“Me too,” Riley said, clicking on her flashlight.
The stairs were open. The kind you had to worry about someone reaching through and grabbing your foot. They proceeded slowly and with caution. At the bottom, Liam found a light switch. A single bulb cast an eerie glow onto what could only be described as a kill room. Riley swept the room with her flashlight landing on the floor. She grabbed Liam’s arm, preventing him from moving forward.
“Blood,” she said, pointing downward.
Liam flashed his light and backed up to the steps. “Damn.”
Riley focused her light on the back wall. “Are those guillotines?”
“I think so.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
That had been their week. The F5 tornado had roared through leaving behind massive carnage, literally. It was Friday evening and they were still sorting through the evidence. They had tentative confirmation of seven female victims found at the house crime scene. The ME determined the heads were cut off while the victims were alive but most likely heavily sedated. The soil in the garden at the house contained a similar mix to what they’d found in the burlap bags at the train shed.
Inside the kill room, they recovered a saw-saw and another pair of garden shears. Everything had been covered in blood. The electric saw still had bits of flesh stuck in its teeth. The garden outside the train shed contained human remains. The burlap bags also contained human remains. The tox screens wouldn’t be back for several days. The count right now might be seven, but they suspected it would grow much higher.
They had no leads on the bald man with marks all over his body and clean fingernails. The dog had been taken to the medical examiner, who quickly determined the red stains on the fur was blood. They had to assume it was from the victims, but lab results would take a few days to confirm. Everything would take days or weeks to confirm. This case was unlike anything they’d processed before, and Riley expected the FBI would be knocking on their door any day now. Coming to save the day.
“Go home detective.”
Riley looked up at her captain. “Hey, Paul. I was just trying to delete and erase, but my processor seems to be frozen.”
Captain Williams rolled up a chair and sat down. He didn’t say anything, just sat there.
Riley sat back in her chair and pushed her hair from her face. She knew she looked horrid and didn’t care. Paul had seen her at much worse.
“You ok?” she asked. His aura, usually a healthy blue and yellow, appeared a shade lighter. Riley could have leaned forward, touched his knee, absorbed his feelings, but she didn’t need to, his expression said it all.
“I’ll be forty-nine in two months and have six years before I’ll throw in the towel. I’ve seen some pretty nasty cases in my career, but I’ve been able to pack them away in the old storage unit.” He tapped his head. “However, the unit is full. I have no room left for this one.”
Riley nodded. Something like this would stay with them for ten lifetimes.
“The sad thing is, if the victims had been anyone other than children, I probably could have found the room to store it away. But not this. Not this.”
“How’d the press get to the house so fast?” Riley asked.
“That would be my guess.”
“Great. We have a serial killer who’s also an attention whore.”
“They’re already calling him the Gardener.”
“Gotta love the media and their witty names,” Riley replied. “You want to get a drink?”
He laughed. “Thought you’d never ask. But only if I’m buying.”
Paul smiled. “Absolutely.”
They grabbed their jackets, turned out the lights, and headed out the door. She would end up sleeping in Paul’s spare bedroom tonight and didn’t care. Anything would be preferable to being at home alone with those images in her head.
Outside the air had a chill. Although it was May, winter was clinging on to the city. Riley pulled her coat closed and waited for Paul to bring the car around. As she danced from one foot to the other, Riley watched the figure standing across the street. Other than being male, there wasn’t much she could tell about him under the parka he wore. The hood was pulled forward hiding his face. Paul pulled up and Riley hurried to his car. She looked across the street, but the man was gone. She checked both directions but couldn’t pick him out from the other pedestrians. Had she imagined him? She got into the car, wanting to forget about the man in the parka, but couldn’t. He had an aura like she’d never seen before, a brilliant electric white. What did it mean? And how was she able to see it so clearly given the distance between them?