"Bella Swan, Criminal Investigations Division," I said, grabbing the badge that hung on a lanyard around my neck and showing my credentials to the officer standing in front of the yellow crime tape. Sweat beaded on his forehead, dampening and darkening his hair. Rookie. He couldn't even handle a crime scene. He looked even paler in the moonlight with the blue lights from the squad car flickering over his baby face.
I ducked under the garish tape that alerted the entire neighborhood that a crime had taken place beyond this dead end road. Locals stood huddled together behind "Officer Greenhorn's cruiser, gossiping, wondering if anyone was unaccounted for. It was the fourth homicide I'd investigated in the last month—and they all bore similar details. We had a serial killer on the loose in Rochester, New York.
I stumbled through the darkness, leaves and twigs snapping under my feet as I made my way through the thicket. The bright, white work lights illuminated the way to the scene of the crime. Or dump site, more appropriately. We never found any clues or evidence with the body itself. No DNA, no tire tracks, no stray hairs, or carpet fibers or anything else.
Just a body.
Drained of blood.
That was one detail we'd kept from the media at all costs. I could imagine the headlines: Vampire Killer Loose In Rochester! The less reputable papers would have headlines that said Chupacabras Kill Four in NY!
The terrain abruptly began to slope downward, and I stumbled, barely catching myself on a nearby tree. It was going to be a long night. The trees gave way to tall grass, and the ground opened up in a narrow gash, like a wound. A trickle of water ran through the ditch like blood.
I could hear the low murmurs of the investigators of the Major Crime Unit and see the flash of the cameras from the Technicians Unit. I noticed there were few numbered yellow markers signifying evidence, and the other officers from the unit stood idly by, helpless.
I was late, and the sound of the dry, brittle grass of late summer crunching under my feet gave my stealthy entrance away.
"Hey, Swan, nice of you to join us."
The smartass who was occasionally my partner couldn't resist saying something. He always had something to snark about, usually overstating the obvious. I think he was just in love with the sound of his own voice.
"Yeah, thanks for noticing, Newton. Never mind that I was covering your ass back at the station and faxed in a report to the DA's Office. They said they asked for it three days ago."
"Oops," he replied with a sarcastic chuckle.
A few of the boys laughed in response. Yeah, murder was real funny.
"What've we got?" I asked, getting my first look at the body.
This one wasn't a prostitute or a transient. The remaining pieces of clothing on the body were too nice. The corpse lay face down in the gully, shirt removed. Deep claw marks sliced across his back. The surrounding flesh was dark purple, indicating there had been some kind of violent attack. A putrid smell filled the air—this one had been here a while.
"Male, approximately eighteen to twenty five. No ID, but a wallet was in his back pocket," someone answered. I didn't look up to see who had spoken.
"Let me guess, money was still inside, right?" I suggested. Robbery clearly hadn't been a motive. The prostitute we found last week had $150 in her bra, the homeless guy ten days ago had $13 in his coat pocket, and there wasn't enough of the first body left to ascertain that kind of information.
"You got it," Mike Newton said, tossing me a pair of latex gloves.
I caught one, but the other fell at my feet. I wriggled my right hand into the glove and stooped to pick up the other, tucking it in the pocket of my jacket.
"Hey, Angela, anything?" I asked the Tech photographing the body. I hoped she could give me some good news—my job and the residents of Rochester depended on it.
"Hey, Bella," she replied, snapping a picture of a clear, glass Mason Jar next to evidence marker number three. "Sorry, I've got nothing. No prints, spatter, or fibers. Just the body and this jar."
If this was a dump site, how could there be no footprints? Did they fly over and dump the body? The long grass wasn't even broken or disturbed. I clutched my hair and looked up through the trees at the sky in frustration.
The wind picked up and the branches creaked overhead. I caught a foul breath of air. Yep, he had been here at least ten days.
"Did you photograph the body?" I asked, crouching next to it.
Angela nodded, turning to capture a picture of the water running downstream toward a simple sewer drain. "Yeah, go ahead and move him. Medical Examiner is on the way."
I did a rudimentary examination, ascertaining that there were more scratches and bruises across the torso and that his throat had been ripped out. I was sure the Medical Examiner would find some broken bones too. We had no idea what could do this level of damage to a human. The injuries were completely animalistic and similar to those found in nature, but the flesh hadn't been consumed, and there was no saliva or hair left behind. A human being couldn't inflict this kind of damage on another human without some kind of weapon—and there was no sign of one. What would the motive be anyhow? We were stumped. Even the Medical Examiner's office had no idea how to categorize the crimes. We didn't know if we had a rabid animal or a sick human on the loose.
There were no stab wounds, no bullet wounds, nothing to indicate blunt force trauma—just a seriously violent battle between our vic and… something else.
"Anyone check the drain?"
Newton moved closer. "It's clean. Nothing."
By the time the body got here, it was already drained dry. I didn't need the ME to tell me that. There was no evidence left to transfer.
"Who found the body?" I questioned, rising from my crouch.
Mike shrugged. "Some kid."
His lackadaisical tone was appalling.
"Anyone talk to him?" I snapped, looking around at the small crowd of detectives.
"No, a Social Worker is with him now. He wasn't in any shape to talk."
I nodded. I could empathize.
I tore the glove off, turning it inside out, tossing it and the fallen one into one of the trash bags the Tech Unit brought. I turned away from the scene and slowly climbed the slope again, returning to the road.
As I crested the hill, I could see another squad car parked near the yellow dead end sign. A larger crowd had amassed, and the news vans had arrived. One was already doing a live broadcast.
Near the corner, a small boy clung desperately to a woman's hand, and next to them stood a social worker from the Impact Team. My throat clenched uncomfortably at the sight of the fearful child. I wished someone had been there to hold my hand so many years ago. I reached blindly for my badge and presented it as I stepped up.
"Hi, I'm Detective Swan from the Major Crime Unit."
The boy said nothing, and the mother's face was red and streaked with tear stains. She pressed her lips together and nodded. Brenda, the social worker, spoke up.
"Detective Swan will be on the team investigating the case."
My eyes darted between the boy and his mother. "Did he say anything?"
She sniffled. "Henry came down to look for fireflies," she said, wiping her tears. "I heard him scream a few minutes later. We just live down there." She pointed to the nearest house before the road hit a dead end. "He told me there was a man in the ditch. I thought it was a joke at first, but then I wondered if there was some kind of predator or something. I asked what the man said, and that's when he told me he was laying down and not moving. I called 9-1-1 and locked us inside the house."
My gaze shifted to the dark-haired boy at her side. His shoe was untied, but he bore no obvious signs of touching anything at the scene. His shoes weren't muddied and his hands were clean. He still clung to his trusty bug net. Poor, innocent thing would never forget this day.
"May I?" I asked his mother, indicating I wished to speak to the boy.
Her fingers raked gently through his dark curls in a comforting gesture. "Sure," she answered. "He's very brave."
I squatted down next to him, wobbling slightly, my hand darting out to steady myself on the ruddy, dirt road.
"Did you find any lightning bugs?" I asked, pointing at the net resting against his leg.
"Nuh-uh," he replied, shaking his head.
I made a face. "Bummer."
"Can I have my bug jar back?" he asked, wiping his nose on the sleeve of his dinosaur t-shirt.
I highly doubted any evidence clung to the canning jar, but my luck would be that one drop of blood or random hair was attached to it. I shook my head slowly. "Sorry. Your jar is very important now—maybe the most important jar in Monroe County. That's pretty cool, huh? The Police Department needs it now. It might help us."
A fat tear leaked from his brown eyes and he quickly wiped it away. "Okay."
I swallowed, planning out how to direct the course of the conversation with minimal trauma. "When you found the man in the ditch, did you see anybody or anything else? A person, an animal maybe?"
He shook his head emphatically. "Nuh-uh. Just me."
As I suspected. Maybe my crack-theory about the bodies dropping out of planes wasn't far off. "Did you touch anything? I won't be mad." I let the corners of my lips uplift, hinting at a smile. I didn't want him to be any more afraid than he already was.
He shook his head again, more insistently this time, his mahogany curls bouncing against his forehead. "No, nuh-uh. I saw…that man, and I dropped my jar. I ran home." There was a pause and his hands fidgeted on the handle of his butterfly net. "Is—is that guy dead?"
I nodded soberly. "Yes, Henry. I'm afraid so, but you were very brave to tell your mom and talk to me."
I didn't think the boy could be any further help, and I didn't want to force him to relive the ugliness any longer. At least he had a mother or a family to look after him, which is more than I really had. He would have someone to hold him and soothe him at night when the nightmares came.
I motioned to the officer who drove the car we were standing by and shared a quiet conversation with him. The small token he retrieved from his trunk would do nothing to heal the boy's soul, but it was the best I could offer.
The officer dropped a piece of molded plastic in my hand before I returned to Henry, who stood alone while the social worker spoke with his mother about post traumatic stress disorder and counseling. '
"Here, Henry, I want you to have this, okay? You did a great job today."
I kneeled down, slipping the little, plastic, gold badge into his hand. An involuntary flashback flooded my memory when our hands touched. I could clearly remember the face of the officer who gave me my own star-shaped 'police badge' remarkably like this one. It was such an empty, unhelpful gesture. I can remember dropping mine in the muddy parking lot at the boat launch.
I tied his shoelace while I was crouched down and rose as Mike and another officer, Tyler Crowley, approached.
"Get anything from the kid?"
He really had a knack for sounding like a careless ass.
"Damn. Going to talk to the media?"
I grunted affirmatively. "Now, before they make up their own mind about what happened."
As we approached the cordoned-off section of reporters, they began clamoring, calling Mike, Tyler, and myself by name. Each reporter stood with a notebook or iPhone, a camera over their shoulder. I inclined my head at Ben, Angela's boyfriend, a reporter with the local newspaper. How they made their relationship work was amazing—they refused to let the semantics of their jobs interfere in their personal connection.
We answered a barrage of questions, most of which were answered with the standard "No comment" reply, but the media already had a good insight about what went on behind the crime scene tape.
"Officer Swan, is it true a homicide is fifty percent less likely to be solved if there's no lead within the first forty-eight hours?"
Microphones from each of the local news channels were abruptly shoved in my face, print reporters leaned in with their phones to record the statement, and the bright lights from the cameras was blinding.
I blinked, uncomfortable with the attention and prepared my statement in my head while the reporters waited impatiently. That was a stat every homicide detective knew and tried to prevent. "Yes, that's true. The Major Crime Unit is doing all we can to solve this recent rash of crimes. We've carefully worked each scene, identified three of the four victims, and followed up on every minor lead we had. The department is doing its best. We hate thinking any Rochesterian is a potential victim or suspect." We don't even know who or what is the source of the attacks, I thought to myself. "We will solve this case. That's all for tonight. If anything is processed at the crime scene, it will be released to the media."
I'd had enough for one day. I was an investigator with nothing to do. I was literally clueless. We'd try and see if we could find something all the victims had it common—public library cards, all law clerks, or all went to the same Podunk high school, because most serial killers weren't random, they targeted people with the same jobs, race, sex, something!
I bid my fellow detectives goodnight and drove home, stopping at the corner liquor store on the way. I bought an inexpensive bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.
I parked my car under the same busted light I'd parked under for the last eighteen months and climbed the outdoor stairwell to my apartment. I'd recently moved from an apartment in the middle of the building to one on the outside wall. I was afraid my crazy hours and hectic schedule was keeping my neighbors awake, and I tried to be respectful and considerate of them.
I jiggled the key in the lock and stepped inside my apartment, tossing my briefcase on the couch. I stepped out of my shoes and removed my badge and gun belt, hanging them on the same rack that had hung in my childhood home.
I slouched into the chair nearest the TV and popped open the wine, drowning my frustration in the bottle. I hoped the nightmares wouldn't come tonight.
Author's Note: Many thanks to Scorp112 and Duskwater from Project Team Beta for looking over this chapter and offering their suggestions.
And thanks to anyone who reads this, please review!