Tuesday, September 3, 1:15 p.m.
Too young for this investigation, Wade Jackson thought. “$125,540.”
A flicker of disbelief. “Who took possession of the money?” The man asking questions sat across from him in a conference room at the Eugene Police Department. At least they’d come to him.
“Ethan Young.” One of three officers at the evidence lab under investigation for misplacing thousands of items of evidence, including drugs, guns, and money. Jackson shifted, not used to being on this side of an interrogation.
“The evidence log says only $100,540 in cash was submitted.”
Thieves and idiots! “The log was altered. You can ask my partner, Rob Schakowski. He was with me.” They’d taken the money from the old-robbery case in together—to avoid this potential scenario. He hated the pall of suspicion, but he expected to be cleared. His phone beeped, and the other man nodded. The detective understood the nature of his job.
The personal text was from Kera: I need you at the hospital. There’s been a car accident. A shiver shot up Jackson’s spine. Had she been hurt? Even if she hadn’t, his girlfriend was a strong woman who rarely asked for anything. This had to be bad. “I have to go.” He didn’t bother to explain.
Jackson charged from the room and almost bumped into Lara Evans.
“What’s wrong?” Evans, the only woman in the Violent Crimes Unit, grabbed his arm.
“Family emergency.” Jackson paused. “An accident.”
“Is it Katie?” No one else in the department knew his fifteen-year-old daughter had run away from home months earlier.
“The text was from Kera. I have to go to the hospital.”
“Is she okay?” Evans’ blue eyes filled with compassion, and her heart-shaped face pulled him in. She was often the best part of his workday.
“I think so.” He moved toward the wide hallway and the door leading out to the back parking lot.
Twenty minutes later, he found Kera pacing the emergency waiting room. Even from a distance, she was striking—tall and broad-shouldered, with wide cheekbones, full lips, and a long copper braid. Micah, her toddler grandson, played on a blanket with colorful blocks. Another family huddled in the opposite corner, but most of the seats were empty.
She heard his footsteps and turned. Wordlessly, she fell into his arms and he held her tight. When she was ready, she would tell him. After a long moment, Kera pulled back and glanced at the boy on the floor. Micah grinned, drool running down his chin.
“It’s Danette. She and Trey crossed the center line on Highway 58 and smashed into a truck. Trey was driving and he’s critical, but—” Kera choked back a sob. “Danette might die. They’ve given her six pints of blood, and she’s still in shock.”
Jackson wanted to comfort her, but his cop mode kicked in instead. “Why were they on Highway 58?” It was a dangerous road, even in daylight.
“They were coming back from the Cougar hot springs.” Kera’s eyes flooded with tears.
They’d probably been drinking. If Danette died and the driver was drunk… “Is Trey conscious?”
“I don’t know. They said he was critical but would probably pull through.”
“Are his parents here?”
Kera shook her head. “He’s a UO football player. I didn’t want Danette to date him, but what could I say?” Danette wasn’t Kera’s daughter, just the mother of her grandson. Kera’s son Tate had been killed in Iraq and had never known he was a father. Danette and the baby lived with Kera, one of the reasons Jackson and his girlfriend hadn’t moved in together yet. A new worry wormed into his gut. If Danette died, Kera would become the baby’s full-time parent. They’d faced this before, and he was no more ready now. He squeezed Kera’s hand. “It’s gonna be okay.”
Jackson felt a tug on his pant leg and picked up Micah. The boy hugged him, and little pangs of joy—or maybe pain—tingled in his chest. He’d always wanted a boy, someone to share his love of muscle cars and rebuilding engines, the way he and his father had shared the hobby. A few years earlier, his daughter had helped him build a three-wheeled motorcycle, but she’d only been humoring him.
He turned to Kera. “Have you eaten? Should we head to the cafeteria?”
“I need to stay here. A doctor said he would be back soon with an update.”
The worry in her eyes made him feel helpless. Jackson sat, keeping the boy in his lap. “Then I guess we wait.”
While they talked about all the young people in their lives, his phone rang. He glanced and saw that it was his boss. Sergeant Lammers only called when she had a new assignment; otherwise she texted or emailed. He let it ring. Kera needed him. But how long could he sit in the hospital? What good did it do? He felt Kera staring to see if he would answer. He couldn’t meet her eyes.
“Take it if you need to,” she finally said, her voice resigned.
Guilt stabbed at his gut. Little Micah reached for the phone, and as Jackson pulled it away, the call connected. Lammers’ voice boomed even with the cell at a distance. “Jackson? Are you there?”
He stood. “Yes, hold on.” The ER waiting room had filled in the last hour, and there wasn’t anyplace private. He looked back at Kera, mouthed I’m sorry, and headed outside. “What’s going on?”
“A possible homicide. A young female in a house in the Bethel area. Probably dead since yesterday.”
Damn. Why had he answered? Dead young women triggered emotions he’d rather not feel. “I’m at the hospital with Kera. Her daughter-in-law was in an accident. Can someone else take the lead? I’ll join the task force when I can.”
An exasperated sigh. “I can’t spare you. Schak is in court, and Evans is still too green for this kind of case.”
Jackson was silent. Budget cuts had shrunk their division, and his boss didn’t have many options.
Lammers pressed. “If Katie was in the hospital, that would be different and we’d find a work-around.”
He couldn’t argue. He also hated hospitals and dreaded the possibility of being here for days. “Who called it in?”
“We’re tracking the cell phone now. The caller refused to give his name.”
A guy. The killer? “What’s the location?”
She gave him the street address and he cringed. A pocket of low-rent houses near the tracks, where transients came into town on boxcars, hopped off when they slowed in the train yard, then trotted down Roosevelt on their way to the Catholic social-service center. The victim could have been killed by a drifter. But the area was also filled with drug houses and addicts, so her death could just as easily have been an overdose.
“I’m on my way. I want Evans out there too. And Schak on the task force as soon as he’s out of court.”
“I’ll make the calls.”
Jackson went inside to apologize to Kera, but she wasn’t in the waiting room. Had they taken her to see Danette? That could be a good sign. He called, but Kera didn’t answer, so he left a message: “I’m sorry, but I was called out to a homicide. Please keep me posted. I love you.”
Back outside, a late summer sun beat down, so he pulled off his jacket for the trip across town. He was ready for the cooler weather that was coming. His girlfriend and daughter both loved summer and would be sad to see it go. An unexpected loneliness made his ribs ache. He missed Katie and her silly sense of humor. Would his daughter ever come home? The longer she stayed out there on her own, the less likely it seemed. And now he’d hurt Kera’s feelings as well. No matter how hard he tried to be supportive, he kept disappointing the women in his life.
The drive to the crime scene was short, as were most trips in Eugene, Oregon. The small city spread out around the river, lush with tree-lined streets and busy with bicycles. It was also the only home he’d ever had, and protecting it had been his only real job.
Jackson parked behind one of the patrol cars, climbed from his city-issued sedan, and started up the walkway. The house on Pershing Street was larger than most others in the neighborhood, which had been built in the forties to house railroad workers. But the building still had the faded paint, dried-up landscaping, and dirty windows that marked it as a low-end rental. A green Ford Focus sat in the driveway. To the left, a uniformed officer interviewed a neighbor and a second officer stood on the cement front step. Jackson didn’t know him.
“We cleared the house,” the officer said, “but I needed to come out for a minute.”
“Anything I need to know?” Jackson hated surprises—like loose dogs or unexpected objects in the corpse.
The officer shifted, uncertain. “No suspects or obvious weapons, but I had to bust open one of the bedroom doors because it was locked. And it was empty.”
Weird. Why would someone lock an empty room? “We’ll see what that means.”
Jackson reached in his carryall for peppermint gum, in case the body had started to decompose. He pulled on latex gloves and slipped a camera out of his carryall bag. Photos would be his first order of business. The patrol officers had likely taken some, but he needed his own set.
Bracing himself, he pulled on paper booties and stepped inside. A glance at the dirty gray carpet revealed no blood and little hope of a footprint. He crossed the living room, noting it was minimalist: only a couch, coffee table, TV, and a crate of books. Had she just moved in? Across a short hallway, the bedroom door stood open and the woman’s feet hung off the end of a thin mattress. Jackson’s stomach felt heavy, and a flash of pain tweaked his intestines, surprising him. His last CAT scan had showed the fibrosis shrinking. Was it growing again? He shoved the thought aside. It was more likely an ulcer from worrying about his daughter.
From the foot of the bed, he snapped several photos of the body, seeing it through the camera lens. A small lean woman, younger than twenty-five, with reddish-blond hair and a butterfly tattoo on her left hip. A tank top covered her upper body, but her shorts were on the floor. No obvious wounds or blood. A life cut far too short! The sight of her shaved pubic area made him turn away to take quick photos of the room. Also minimalist. A thin foam mattress, three crates of clothes stacked against the wall, and a shelf with a few personal items. She obviously hadn’t lived here long and traveled light. Who was she? He pocketed her cell phone from the shelf, planning to search it soon.
Before he could spend time locating her ID, he had to mentally process the scene and try to visualize what had happened here—before everyone else crowded into the space. That meant getting up close and searching for bruises and obvious trace evidence. The medical examiner and evidence technicians would soon take over the detailed extraction of hairs, fibers, and fluids, so this was his chance to view the scene—as the killer had left it.
He reminded himself that she could have overdosed, or died of a snakebite for all he knew, but instinct—and a half-naked body—told him this girl had been victimized. His brain filled with an image of his own teenage daughter dead in some seedy hotel. Another flare of pain in his gut. He shut down the thought and kneeled on the sheet-covered foam. Jackson lifted her left hand. No wedding ring and no defense wounds he could see. But her arm was stiff. Full rigor mortis had set in. She’d been dead for at least twelve hours, possibly longer. It took up to three days for the muscles to relax again after death. But by then, her corpse would have begun to smell, so she’d probably died the night before.
Taking photos as he went along, Jackson examined her body, finding no abrasions. Tiny broken blood vessels under her eyes signaled his first real clue. He reached for the hair draped across her neck and pushed it aside, expecting to find bruises or red marks. They weren’t there.
Footsteps in the hall made him turn. Evans had arrived.
“What have we got?” She pulled on gloves as she moved toward the mattress and kneeled on the other side. Her dress pants and light-blue blazer looked out of place in the dingy room with the stained curtains.
“I’m not sure. There are no obvious signs of trauma, except broken blood vessels under her eyes.”
“You can get those from a dental appointment.” Evans reached out and touched a faint line on the victim’s hip. “A stretch mark, probably from gaining weight. But the cast-aside shorts indicate—”
“What the hell are you doing with the body?” Rich Gunderson yelled from the doorway. The medical examiner was fifty-something and had barely survived a recent round of budget cuts. Marginally clinging to his job hadn’t motivated him to cut off his gray ponytail or wear anything but his usual black-on-black. It hadn’t improved his crime-scene nature either.
“Just doing our job.” Evans stood and looked at Jackson. “Where do you want me to start?”
“Find her ID. I need to check out the rest of the house. Something isn’t right here.”
Another glance around the bedroom told him there wasn’t an adjoining master bath, only a closet with no doors. No surprise in a rental. A few dresses and shirts hung in the recessed space. Jackson headed into the hallway and noticed three other doors. Likely a bathroom and two more bedrooms. Where were her roommates?
The smaller bedroom gave him pause. Clothes and toys belonging to a young child, likely a boy, covered the floor, and a small foam mattress nestled into a corner. Where was the kid? His pulse picked up as he rushed into the third bedroom.
Empty, except for the faint smell of cigarette smoke and mold. His mind jumped from one thought to another. Why would she rent a three-bedroom house if she had so few possessions? Or had she not finished moving in? And where the hell was the kid? Maybe someone else with a child had planned to move in, then changed their mind. Or the killer had a child and had fled after assaulting his new roommate. Or maybe the boy had wandered off.
Jackson hurried back to the small bedroom and glanced at the closet. The doors were missing there too, and the closet was empty, including the overhead shelf. He grabbed his cell phone and called dispatch. “Detective Jackson here. Have you had any reports of a lost or found child? Maybe a boy about three or four years old, picked up in the Bethel train-song area?”
“Do you have a description?”
Jackson looked around for a photo. “Not yet. Will you alert officers to be on the lookout?”
“Right away. Call back if you get more information.”
Maybe the victim had a photo of the child. Jackson took a step toward the hallway. A small sound caught his attention. He spun back, listening hard. Had it been a thump? A dog or something brushing against the house? Another small sound. A whimper? He moved toward the closet and kicked a cardboard box of shoes out of his way. Maybe a dog or animal was stuck under the house. Or a frightened little boy.
Jackson kneeled in the closet doorway and spotted the seam in the carpet. A plastic handle pressed against the dirty fabric, blending in. He lifted the access door and let it rest against the back wall. Cool dusty air rose from the dark space. He dug in his carryall bag for a flashlight and softly called, “I’m a police officer. I’m here to help.”
Silence for a moment, then another whimper. He shone the light into the dirt under the house. “Can you crawl toward the light? Don’t be scared. I’m here to help.”
A little sob made his heart lurch. The boy was down there! “You must be hungry. Come out and I’ll get you something to eat.” Evans would have a snack bar in her shoulder bag. She prepared for everything.
Something moved directly under him, so Jackson froze. The top of a small head came into view, then the boy looked up. His eyes widened and he quickly retreated out of sight.
What had scared him? Jackson was a big man with a rugged face and nearly black eyes, but he’d never frightened a child before—that he knew of. “Hey. Don’t be scared. I’m a police officer.” Then it hit him. No uniform. Jackson pulled out his badge and held it down into the hole with the light on it. “Here’s my badge. I don’t wear a uniform because I’m a detective.”
Should he call in one of the patrol officers? Or maybe the boy would respond better to a woman.
The little head came into view again and his hand reached for the badge.
“I’ll let you hold it if you come out.”
The boy crawled into the space under the access and stood, his head sticking above the opening. Tear-streaked dirt covered his face, and curly ash-brown hair hung in his eyes. Even so, his face was sweet.
“I’m Jackson. What’s your name?”
The boy silently reached for Jackson’s badge. He reluctantly let go, and the kid clutched it like a security blanket.
“I’m going to help you out of there now.”
More silence. But the kid didn’t retreat, so he lifted him out of the hole. Before he could set him down on the carpet, the child threw his arms around Jackson’s neck in a tight grip. The sweetness of it soon gave way to a mild sense of panic. He had a job to do.
“This must be Benjie.” Evans came into the room. “Where was he? The patrol officers should have found him.”
“Under the house.”
Evans stayed near the door. “His mother’s name is Amanda Carter. I found this little guy’s picture in her wallet with his name on the back.”
“Do you have anything to eat in your bag? I promised him something.” Jackson hoped to trade food for his badge.
“I have half a protein bar.”
While she rummaged in her bag for it, Jackson negotiated with the boy, whose head was on his shoulder. “Evans is a detective too. She’s going to give you a snack, and I need you to give me my badge.”
Benjie took the snack but held firmly to the badge.
“Evans, will you call social services while I try to get some information from Benjie?” Jackson wasn’t optimistic the boy would answer questions yet, but he had to try. “After you call, search the house for personal documents. A computer, family contacts, a rental agreement. Our victim hasn’t lived here long.”
“I’m on it.”
They both headed out of the room.
“What have you got for me?” Rob Schakowski was in the hall. Barrel-shaped with a buzz-cut, the detective had been his partner at crime scenes for two decades.
Jackson was relieved to see him. “How was court?”
“The usual. The defense lawyer tried to make me look incompetent.”
They all hated testifying in court more than filling out reports. “I’m glad you’re here. I need you to find out who owns this house, then search the car out there.”
“Will do.” Schak headed back to the living room.
His arms started to ache, so Jackson sat down against a wall, the boy still gripping him tightly. The weight of the small body, the tiny hands locked behind his neck, the absolute dependence—he couldn’t remember the last time he’d held a child this way. A decade had passed since Katie had clung to him like this after a nightmare. What had the poor boy witnessed? How long had he been under the house?
“You’re safe now,” Jackson whispered against Benjie’s soft hair. “You’ll be fine.” The boy’s mother would not, but he’d leave that difficult conversation to a social worker with the right skills. The memory of having to tell Katie her mother was dead made his eyes grow warm. The worst day of his life. This one was shaping up to give it some competition.
“Why don’t you sit and relax.” He encouraged the boy to loosen his grip, and the kid finally did, sliding into Jackson’s lap. “You’re a brave boy. It must have been hard to crawl into that dark space.”
The boy glanced up with a tiny smile but didn’t speak.
The trap door would have been heavy for him to lift. Or had his mother put him down there to keep him safe? “How old are you, Benjie?” The boy looked tall enough to be four, but his dimpled face made Jackson think he might be younger.
The boy held up three fingers, then took a bite of the snack bar.
“What made you go under the house? Did your mother tell you to?”
Benjie shook his head.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
The boy buried his face in Jackson’s chest.
He stroked Benjie’s hair and told him not to worry, that everything would be okay. Liar. His mother was dead, and his life was about to radically change. But at least he was young enough to bond with a new care provider. Losing a parent at age three was less devastating than losing a parent at fifteen. Just ask his daughter.
Evans came back into the hall. “Social services can’t send anyone for a few hours. They suggested taking him to the department.”
“Typical.” He wanted to curse the devastating budget cuts that had affected every office of city and state government—but he wouldn’t do it in front of the boy. Still, it was time to do his job and process the crime scene. Jackson stood, knowing better than to ask Evans to take the child.
He carried Benjie across the house, hoping to hand him over to a patrol officer. Jasmine Parker, a crime scene tech, was taking fingerprints from the front doorknob. Her work was too important to interrupt. They nodded at each other, and Jackson stepped outside. The patrol officer who’d been on the porch was knocking on a door across the street. No one answered, and the officer turned and headed down the walk. Jackson gestured for him to come back over.
As he waited, he tried to reassure the boy. “Another policeman will take you to our office. You’ll be safe there. I need to work.”
Benjie whimpered and clung more tightly. Damn. This wouldn’t be easy.