She must keep running. Rounding the corner of the dingy stairwell she faces yet another flight of stairs. Thighs are burning and her heart is thumping so hard she feels her ribs will crack. She grasps at the paint-flecked handrail. It rocks loosely from its socket. Her foot misses a step. Her shoulder wrenches as her body tumbles forwards. She bites down on her bottom lip to hold in a cry of pain. She doesn’t stop.
"Where the hell is Mayflower?" She had called his cell the second she had seen the face at the window. He hadn’t answered. He’s probably screwing that skinny blond from forensics. Jesus, she could kill him sometimes. What bugs her most is that he’s turning into a damn good cop, sharp as a steak knife and tougher than a back alley boxer. She just wishes he would answer his phone, mid-coitus or not.
Weeks of the investigation run through Claire’s head. Flash images of the whiteboard at the precinct, gruesome pictures pinned next to pretty faces, names of dead girls written beneath. Libby Harper is only fifteen and looks more like twelve. Her face is seared into Claire’s memory like a brand. She can’t be mistaken. It was her she saw, peering out of the top floor window.
The stench of stale urine in the stairwell sours her stomach. She may be as fit as an athlete but six flights of stairs after a ten-mile run were taking their toll. Thank God she was out though. She would never have seen the girl if she had stayed at home with a takeout Chinese and pay-per-view as planned.
The seventh floor. The stairs stop. She was sure there were eight levels. She glances at the elevator, rusty gate chained shut. Eight buttons. There must be another stairwell.
Ultraviolet light flickers overhead. She turns into the hallway. The grizzled carpet is sticky beneath her feet. A baseline thumps through the floor from a nearby apartment, the TV blares through the walls of another. She catches her breath for a second.
A woman opens her door and spots Claire. She is wearing a worn velour tracksuit with spit-up on the shoulder. The woman looks old in the insipid glare but as Claire slows down and passes her by she sees that she is actually young, very young. The woman nods at her with wary eyes. Claire returns the gesture with barely a second glance, but she has noted the apartment number. She might need to talk to her later.
Three abductions in ten weeks and three mutilated corpses have been thrown away like broken toys into rancid dumpsters. Aside from attractive youth, there was nothing to tie the girl’s together. Motiveless means serial killer. And now there is another. Little Libby, as the papers are calling her, never made it home from school last Tuesday. She and Mayflower had interviewed the parents. Mother, tear-stained, barely able to breathe and a hand gripped her husband’s arm. The father had spoken for them both in stilted monotone, hands clenched and eyes staring out as though his face were a mask. She had seen those expressions too often of late.
Her hand quivers over the Glock beneath her sweater. Claire reaches the end of the hallway. And there it is; the second stairwell. There are no lights here. She feels along the wall for a switch and finds one. She flicks it but nothing happens, ‘Great.’
Creeping along she climbs, feet steady on bare concrete. Sneakers squeak, defying their name. She pauses, breath held. No sound. Keep going.
MO always the same; young woman, starved for a week or more, nails bitten to the quick, swollen wrists and ankles where the ropes had and cut off circulation, eyes bulging from strangulation and neck snapped to finish the job. Then there were the markings, gauged out with a penknife over their breasts, a five-point star on the left and a circle on the right. They have been through a hundred reasons for these symbols. A Star of David, something to do with astronomy, they had even looked into the occult for a while.
She’s on the top floor now. The only window is boarded up and the walls are painted camouflage green. She slinks along the corridor swiftly and silently with one hand trailing along the wall as a guide.
A fleeting glance from a window and her gut instinct was all she needed. Perhaps she should have called the precinct. It doesn’t matter now.
A baby is screaming somewhere below. Light chinks under the door at the far end of the corridor. Something scuffles from behind it. Beneath the musty damp Claire can smell stale air and cigarettes.
She considers her state. Running gear, tracksuit pants and sweater drenched with perspiration, Glock strapped beneath. Camel-pack on her back with house keys and cell in the pocket. She slips her hand under her sweater and draws her gun.
Melinda, victim one; found behind a restaurant on the south edge of The Loop, stripped, beaten and tossed in the trash. They had interviewed the boyfriend at first, a nineteen-year-old student at Roosevelt, no alibi. Poor kid was totally traumatised. Claire had written him off in five minutes. Then came the others, one by one like sequels to a bad horror movie.
She listens now for signs of movement inside the apartment. She can feel someone watching her. She glances over her shoulder but no one is there.
When she reaches it the door is ajar. Slowly she pushes it open. 9mm cocked, fingers itching over the trigger. She steps through. Light glares in her face. She can see nothing but bright white. Something moves to her left. She turns, gun held firm and ready to blast. From a room inside comes a scream, a girl’s voice, pained and desperate. A chair scrapes on concrete. ‘Where from?’ Claire is about to call out when something brushes through her hair. She fires but the bullet embeds into the wall. The light vanishes, leaving flashes over her eyes. Her breathing is audible. She tries to keep quiet.
Someone is right there, beside her. She tries to focus, spinning around and gun reloaded. A searing cold pain cuts into her neck. She fires again. A sharp spike dug deep, retracts. Something’s wrong. She staggers. Thought fusses. As she sinks to her knees she is sure she can hear someone laugh.
Claire’s head is thumping hard. She tries to lift her arms but they feel like lead. She attempts to roll over but finds her legs are held fast. She prises open heavy eyelids. The room is pitch-black. As she lifts her head a wave of nausea rushes through her, prickling her face with sweat and flushing her cheeks. Gently she lowers her head back down. A moment passes as the room spins. ‘Bastard drugged me.’ She opens her mouth and rasps.
Throat like sandpaper she chews on the inside of her cheeks to make saliva, then swallows. A little better, she tries again,
The sound reverberates as though the apartment were completely empty. But Claire can sense that she’s not alone.
“Lay still.” The voice sounds automated like Steven Hawkins.
Squinting through the brightness she ignores the instruction and attempts to sit up but a hand on her shoulder pushes her back. She has no strength to resist. Eyes flutter closed.
Claire is dreaming. Fragmented images of battered bodyparts bloodstained and bruised to hell. Mayflower’s hand on her shoulder, keen as mustard, like all new recruits. She informs a mother her daughter is dead. Her badge glints in sunlight as she flashes it at a suspect. Something stirs in the back of her mind.
Eyes wide open. Sunlight is streaming through blinds. The light hurts but her headache is gone. Claire sits up. Her arms feel like cotton wool now, but mobile, or would be if they weren’t tied together. It takes her an age but she loosens the binds enough to pull them off. She feels for her gun. It’s not there. Blinking she looks around the room. It might have been a nice apartment once. A large window almost fills the far wall, a wooden chair chained to the floor in front of it, where Libby must have been when she saw her from the street. Nothing else. No Libby. No gun. ‘Camel pack?’ No. ‘Shit.’ She assumes she’s in a bedroom. Peeling white paint has turned yellow over the walls, mould coating it in patches like moss clumps on a patio. The door is hanging from its hinges, wood bowed as though it has been soaked in water. Everything smells of tobacco and damp plaster. Blue tinged hands throbbing she reaches down to her ankles. The rope is biting into her skin.
Ears like hawks she listens for any sound. Nothing. At last, the rope gives. Claire rubs her feet until the pain subsides and some of the colour returns. She stumbles from the bed and gently drags back the door a little and slips through.
The living room is sparser still. There is nothing but a tattered lazy boy, stuffing bursting through its rotting striped cloth and a massive lamp pointing at the door like something from a spy thriller. On the floor beside it is an ashtray, piled with orange stubs and grey ash. Water is running in the next room. Unarmed she edges over and places a nervous hand on the door handle.
First horror, then utter relief. Paler than a TV vampire, ribs like a xylophone beneath her bruised skin, Little Libby is chained to a sink, naked and shivering. She looks younger than ever. If it weren’t for the triangle of hair between her legs and the small round breasts pressed behind folded arms, Claire would have sworn the girl was a pre-teen. They are in a kitchen. All cupboards have been stripped away leaving empty brown marks on the walls. There is a camping stove on the floor and a small stool perched next to it. The faucet is still running and Libby’s hands are wet. Claire reaches out to touch her but the girl backs off.
“Libby, it’s OK. I’m Detective Claire Lang of the Chicago Police Department. I came to help you.” Claire rubs her eyes and thinks for a moment.
“He caught you last night, I heard you.” Libby offers.
Claire nods and leans forward to the faucet, her throat is so dry she could choke. She puts her mouth to the stream of water and takes a few gulps before shutting it off.
“I have to be honest with you Libby,” she turns her face to the girl, “my department don’t know I’m here, but they’ll be looking for me.” ‘Just as soon as they realise I’m missing,’ she adds in her head as she glances at her watch: 09:42
Libby is looking guiltily at the sink.
“I had to pee,” she apologizes, eyes to the floor. “I climbed up.”
Claire admires the girl’s skill, the sink is barely attached to the wall and no unit surrounds it for support. Still, at least there’s water. Libby is looking over Claire’s running clothes with suspicion.
“I saw you by chance,” she tells her. “I was running past the building...” she stops and decides the explanation is unnecessary. “We need to get out of here.” Claire looks around for anything that could cut through the metal chain that holds Libby to the sink.
“There isn’t anything, I’ve looked.”
“Of course you have. But I’m just gonna take a quick glance around the other rooms, maybe there’s something out there.” Claire cringes at the pitiful expression of hope that flashes over the girl’s eyes.
“We have time. He won’t be back for hours. He never comes during the day.” Libby is clearly as bright as her parents described her. Not some silly little thing that would have gone off with a strange man or taken a shortcut down a seedy back alley.
Seven minutes later Claire is back in the kitchen with Libby, empty-handed. She has tried using the prongs of the fork in the lock but to no avail. Claire has taken off her sweater and given it to the naked girl. It’s pretty skanky from her run but better than nothing. Libby, sweater around her shoulders, is trying to contort herself in an attempt to extract her wrists, but it isn’t going to work. Claire decides wrenching the pipes from the wall are the only option. She sits herself down on the grim orange linoleum and places her feet firmly against the wall. She is about to grasp the pipes where there is a gentle clunk of a door. Two heads instantly turn to face the sound.
Claire holds her finger up to her lips warning Libby to stay silent. Libby nods and crouches down. She pulls the sleeves of Claire’s sweater tighter around her shoulders and shivers. Claire is cold herself, wearing only a sports bra and tracksuit pants. She slips across the room and flattens herself to the wall behind where the door will open. Heartbeat pounds in her head. The sight of Libby’s petrified face cuts her in half. She closes her eyes.
Someone is moving about, stealthy and light-footed as a kitten but they know he’s there. Claire realises she’s holding her breath. Footsteps reach the kitchen door then falter. They move away again.
Her hands are shaking. Libby has her head leaning against the under bowl of the sink. Something rattles. It sounds like a blind rolling up too fast. Silence, then the click of a lighter and the smell of cigarette smoke drifts beneath the door. The tap drips. A cloud moves over the sun and darkens the room. Libby is crying quietly.
Claire strains to hear. He’s on the move. ‘Shit, he’s gone to the bedroom.’
Running feet, coming towards them, a split second feels like an hour.
The door bursts open.
She stares. Gun in hand, lips twisted and grey eyes glaring, the man is lunging at Libby. Claire is paralyzed.
“Where is she bitch?”
‘Jesus mother of God,’ how could she not have seen it? Libby is watching Claire’s reaction, more terrified than ever. The girl doesn’t answer. His fist swings. She ducks. The fist cracks against stainless steel. He yells and shoots. Libby is down, slumped in a heap, gasping. Claire is scrambling across the room, screaming obscenities. Tackling him like a football player, she grapples him to the ground. The gun is on the floor, standard-issue Glock. She reaches for it but he’s faster. Her nails scratch at lino. He’s on her. He flips her over like a wrestler and pins her, crushing her chest into the floor. Libby’s blood is flooding the room and racing towards Claire’s face. She tries to call out but hasn’t the breath. From the corner of her eyes, she can see the girl, a child, lying next to her, eyes glazed and staring at the ceiling. Libby’s hand twitches and there is a last gasp. Claire fights for freedom. He is sitting on her, his full-body weight pressing down. Her throat gripped in strong hands like a vice. She is trying to scream. No sound. She flays her arms and kicks hard but he’s overpowering. He shoves his badge in her face, the circle inside a star. How could she have been so blind? No air left in her lungs now. Everything is fading out. One last kick and she thinks she has him.
“Mayflower, you bastard! You’ll die for this.”
“Not in this state, not anymore.” Her partner’s mouth is at her ear, she can feel his breath warming her skin. She wants to ask him why but she’s losing consciousness. As though he can read her mind he whispers,
“Because they were pretty. Because you found me, and because I can.”
Crunch, pop, bursting in her head. Claire’s neck snaps.
(C) 2011 Liah S Thorley, all rights reserved