Authors: Patrick Lee
Thank you for buying this
St. Martin’s Press ebook.
To receive special offers, bonus content,
and info on new releases and other great reads,
sign up for our newsletters.
Or visit us online at
For email updates on the author, click
The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way.
Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at:
FOR THOM AND JUDY SHARP
The smell hit Marnie Calvert even before she got out of the car. The vents sucked it in from outside: a mix of charred wood and oxidized metal and melted plastic—maybe from linoleum or carpet backing. Then there was the other smell, beneath all those. That smell reminded her of backyard gatherings and nice days at the park. It made her want to throw up.
She wasn’t going to throw up. She never had, in eight years with the Bureau. She killed the engine and shoved open the door and stood up into the desert night.
There were already ten or twelve vehicles at the crime scene. State Police, San Bernardino County sheriff’s cruisers, three fire trucks out of Palmdale. Most of the units were idling, their flashers strobing and their headlights aimed inward on a focal point: the burned-out husk of a mobile home, all by itself next to a gravel road in the middle of the Mojave.
Outside the car, the smells were all stronger. Marnie gave her stomach ten seconds to relax; she turned in place and took in the landscape. Far to the west, the lights of Edwards Air Force Base dotted the plain before the foothills of the San Gabriels. The mountains stood in faint contrast against the lit-up haze above Los Angeles, maybe seventy miles away. The only nearer light was Barstow, a dim smudge off to the north. Everywhere else, the desert was black and empty and baking hot—four in the morning, early August.
Marnie turned. A sheriff’s deputy came toward her, out of the glare of the scene. He was fifty, give or take, a stocky guy just going soft. The nameplate above his badge read
. Marnie had spoken to him on the phone.
She shut the door of her Crown Vic and crossed to him. Her shoes crunched on the hardpan.
“My forensics people are on their way,” she said.
Hiller nodded and led her between the nearest cruisers. Past their stabbing light, Marnie got her first full look at the ruin of the trailer. The hand she’d been shielding her eyes with fell away, and she stood staring.
There was almost nothing left of the thing. The walls and roof were gone, and even much of the base had collapsed between the cinder-block stacks that’d supported the place. A few structural metal uprights still stood, connected by shallow roof arches, like blackened ribs.
There were four body bags arrayed on the ground beside one of the fire trucks. Nothing in them yet.
Marnie knew the whole story already. She’d heard the first details in her office, at the federal building in Santa Monica. The rest had come by phone while she’d driven out here, including an audio file sent to her by e-mail: a recording of a 9-1-1 call that had come from this trailer, just about two hours ago now. She had listened to it three times, then opened the Crown Vic’s windows and let the oven air of the desert rush in around her. As far as she could remember, her thoughts had simply gone blank for the few minutes after that.
Can you trace this?
A girl’s voice. Almost whispering.
What’s the nature of the emergency—
I’m on a cell phone. Can you trace where I am?
Are you in danger right now?
Miss, are you in danger?
Three more seconds of silence.
My name is Leah Swain. I’m here with three other—
The girl cut herself off with a rush of breath, high-pitched and scared.
We didn’t call anyone!
the girl screamed. It sounded like she had the phone away from her mouth, her voice aimed at someone in the room.
We didn’t call anyone! I promise—
That was it. The line went dead on that word, at 2:04
and 20 seconds, by the time stamp on the dispatcher’s computer screen. Also on the screen were the caller’s GPS coordinates; the phone had sent them by default, in response to 9-1-1 being dialed. Within the next thirty seconds, a state patrol unit on I-15 had been routed toward the location. Five minutes later, when the trooper was still two miles out, he reported seeing the flames. The trailer was an inferno by the time he arrived, and its listed owner, Harold Heeley Shannon, white male, age sixty-two, history of criminal sexual misconduct, was nowhere to be seen. Only tire impressions remained where his car, a red Ford Fiesta, had been.
Marnie crossed the empty space of the trailer’s dirt yard. She tracked around the wreckage clockwise until she was no longer downwind. She was close enough now to see the collapsed debris that had settled into the structure’s footprint. The soggy remnants of the walls and ceiling and floor, and all that they’d enclosed.
Only one thing had held its shape: a cage with thick metal bars, forming a cube maybe six feet on each side. Marnie covered the last few yards and stopped at the boundary where the trailer’s end wall had been. The cage stood just inside, canted atop the burned rubble of the floor it had rested on.
Marnie had been to bad scenes before. She’d found a body in a plastic drum once, decomposed after being sealed inside for two years. The bones had lain cluttered like discarded hand tools, submerged in a soup of fluids that’d leaked and separated and settled. Another time she’d seen a crawl space where a woman, thirty-one years old, had been kept for a weekend before her captor strangled and buried her. On a pine beam in the corner, where she must’ve hoped the police would someday see it, the woman had written with her fingernail,
Becca I love you, grow up to be happy no matter what happens.
With a child counselor’s help, Marnie had delivered that message in person. Days like that one usually ended in her basement in West Hills. She had an old catcher’s mitt from her days in Little League, twenty years back, and she would sit in the dark down there for an hour or more, feeling the stitching and the worn-smooth leather. She didn’t know why she did it. Didn’t care why, either, on those kinds of nights.
There were four bodies in the metal cage. They were blackened, with only shreds of clothing stuck to them. All lay pressed flat to the barred floor of the cage, positioned the way they’d died: trying to breathe the last air in the room.
Marnie became aware of Hiller standing next to her.
“All kids,” he said softly. “Not even in their teens, that size.”
The wind shifted, just for a second. It was long enough to send the smell at Marnie again before she could think to exhale—the smell that was awful because it was familiar, even pleasant. The smell of cooked meat.
Leah Swain had disappeared from a playground in Irvine just over three years ago, when she was eight. Marnie had put in time on the case back then, along with a dozen other agents in L.A. and San Diego. The girl’s parents had done interviews on local and national news, begging whoever had their daughter to return her. Maybe those interviews had played on a TV set here in this trailer, where Leah had sat in her cage. Where she had lived for these past three years. Where, tonight, she had somehow gotten hold of Harold Shannon’s cell phone. Where she had burned.
“We’ve got the plate and vehicle description out to every cruiser in California and Nevada,” Hiller said. “Shannon’s DMV photo, too.”
Marnie had seen the man’s picture herself, on her phone. It looked like a mug shot. Gaunt face, sunk-in eyes, long hair and beard the texture of steel wool.
At the edge of Marnie’s vision, distant headlights appeared. She watched them come in. They were half a mile out, taking it slow on the washboard ruts of the gravel road. Probably her forensics guys. She walked back to her car to wait for them, but by the time she got there she saw that it wasn’t an FBI vehicle arriving. Just an uplink truck for ABC7 News out of L.A.
She leaned against her Crown Vic and rubbed her eyes. When she opened them again, some of the cops nearby were watching her. Maybe they thought she was crying. Maybe they thought she looked too soft for the job. That was fine. Their thoughts were their business. She stood upright again and walked away from the scene, out into the pitch black, where it would be okay to let her hands shake. She wasn’t going to throw up, wasn’t going to cry, either, but her hands were going to shake like hell as soon as she let them. The rage had to go somewhere, that was all.
A hundred yards west of the trailer, she stopped—there was a deep, wide arroyo channel carved into the desert floor there, running south from a culvert under the road. The arroyo’s depth was filled with years’ worth of trash: jagged metal engine parts, broken appliances, plastic garbage bags torn open by animals. All of it lay in shadow beneath the plane of the surface, leaving the arroyo nearly invisible in the dark. Even with the lit-up crime scene casting its glow over the desert, Marnie had almost walked right into it.
She sank to a crouch and sat on the channel’s edge. In the faint light, the strewn trash made her think of a lion’s den scattered with bones. Leah Swain had ended up in a lion’s den because she’d gone to a playground during the wrong ten minutes. There would never be any better answer than that.
Marnie turned her gaze up to the horizon and watched for the forensics team, and felt the first tremors in her hands coming on.
Four hours earlier, when Leah Swain was alive and waiting for Harold Shannon to go to bed, when she was staring at the cell phone he’d left on the coffee table, just reachable with the strip of quarter-round wood molding she’d pried off the base of the wall behind the cage, Sam Dryden was staring at the ocean.
He was two miles inland, in the hills above El Sedero, California. He could see the lights of the shore road and the marina; beyond those, the ocean was a vast black nothing. Closer in, the town was buttoned down and quiet, a few minutes after midnight at the end of a Friday.
Dryden stood on the balcony of a cottage, its yard boxed in on the sides by hundred-year-old evergreens. The air was saturated with the smells of pine and cedar, the boughs wet from the rain shower that had come through an hour before. Now the stars were showing, sharp as pinpricks on the black sky.