Iron Angels – Snippet 05

Chapter 3

As he approached the back, what he thought was the back wall appeared to separate, almost like one of those pictures that used to be popular way back when — the ones where if you stared at them in a certain way a different sort of picture or image would emerge. In this case, the wall was a partition, but blended in so well with the cinder blocks of the rest of the basement. The subdued lighting, mixed with the smoke, added to the illusion. So did the image of human sparklers indelibly stamped upon his mind’s eye.

Jasper reached the wall, its function as a partition now obvious. A five-foot gap on either end of the wall provided access to whatever lay behind. Jasper and Pete pressed against the wall near the right side gap. The familiar pressure of Pete’s hand fell on Jasper’s shoulder. He took a deep breath and poked his head around the wall for a quick peek.

The quick peek revealed a rectangular room, not as large as expected, but of the same dark gray rock comprising the rest of the basement. In the center of the room, upon a bleached stone slab, lay the girl, her extremities lashed to metal stakes punching through the slab. The slab itself rested upon what appeared to be a bed of smoldering coals. The room was thick with the smell of incense.

He pulled his head back. The quick peek hadn’t been quite as rapid, but no one else was in the room.

“She’s in there,” Jasper said.

Without a word, Pete moved. Before Jasper could react and depress his weapon, he was already around the wall and through the gap.

“So much for avoiding traps,” Jasper muttered. He didn’t believe there were any, but with the strange basins filled with a strange substance, and two men igniting like a fourth of July show… anything was possible.

Jasper entered the room, gun at low ready, and scanning for any other threats. Another basin stood in the back left corner. Scorch marks crisscrossed the back wall, and the stones there had odd shapes, as if they’d been warped. Had someone else lit themselves up like a sparkler too close to that wall?

Jasper’s gaze fell upon the girl. Pete was there, listening for a breath or a heartbeat. The girl’s black hair lay matted to her head, a few strings plastered to her face, the extreme paleness almost a denial of her Hispanic heritage. Her eyes fluttered, but she didn’t wake.

Pete lifted his head and turned toward Jasper. His eyes watered, and deep lines suffused his face. The East Chicago police officer looked as if he’d aged a decade in a few minutes.

“At least she’s alive,” Jasper said.

“But what evil lurks in the world today. Who would do such a thing?”

Jasper sighed, not out of impatience, but of weariness and agreement. “Two men who didn’t want to go to jail apparently.”

The girl’s knee length skirt, at one time white but now smeared with ash and dirt and grime and soaked through with sweat, clung to her legs. Her top had once been light blue, and it too clung to the unconscious girl. No outward or obvious signs of abuse presented themselves, but depending on her memories, she could be scarred for life after this sort of ordeal.

Wailing and yelping sirens reached into the basement.

“Pete,” Jasper said, but he remained focused on the little girl. “Pete,” he said again with a little more force.

Pete raised his head.

“Does she appear to have any wounds?” Jasper asked.

“None that I can see.”

The girl’s eyes fluttered and opened. Confusion filled her eyes, which flicked back and forth as she tried moving her arms and legs.

“Shhh,” Pete said, pulling out a knife and cutting her bonds.

The girl’s eyes widened and her mouth opened in a large circle, but no scream issued. She sat straight up as if some puppet master had yanked her strings.

“We’re police,” Jasper said, displaying his badge. Most people didn’t recognize the tiny gold FBI shield. Pete displayed his large silver badge to the girl and she collapsed back onto the slab, though her chest rose and fell both rapidly and shallowly.

“Are you hurt?” Pete asked.

The girl shook her head. She opened her mouth, but then swallowed and licked her lips. “My head hurts.”

“But your back and neck are okay?” Jasper asked.

The girl turned her head and gazed up at him.

“I guess that is a ‘yes’,” Jasper said, and smiled. “Do you remember anything? Anything at all? Even the smallest detail or most insignificant tidbit could mean something.”

“I want to go home,” the little girl said.

“Soon. But a doctor will have to see you first,” Pete said.

She grimaced. “Do I have to?”

Pete nodded. “Do you remember your name?”

“Teresa. Teresa Ramirez.”

“Where do you live?”

She recited her address, phone number, and not only her parents’ names, but also her brothers’ and sisters’ names. But she could not recall any details of how she ended up in the basement of the Euclid Hotel. Perhaps after she’d had some water and food in more comforting surroundings she’d remember something. Though, at this stage, it appeared as if the two men who had abducted her had been the only men involved. Jasper would have to meet with the informant as soon as he could to see if there was any more information to be gleaned. Why had they killed themselves, and in such a spectacular manner? Too many questions, but they’d likely never be answered since the girl had been rescued and the perpetrators were dead by their own hands, or rather — he shook his head — by their own feet. Feet coated with whatever had drenched the mats. They’d have to get an evidence team in here, but since the girl was saved, it’d wait until tomorrow if it ever happened. Maybe the CSIs of Pete’s department would be better suited. Honestly, he didn’t want to call in Morris Chan and the FBI’s ERT for this.

Pete carried the girl out of the basement as uniformed police flooded the place. The Euclid hadn’t seen this much activity in decades. Hopefully, Teresa would see a victim witness specialist in a few minutes. They’d had one on standby ever since the search began. The specialist was likely racing toward the hotel or already outside.

Jasper decided on one more look around the basement for any random evidence. The little girl would be taken to the emergency room and examined for signs of abuse, both physical and sexual, and then referred to child protective services. Jasper leaned over the third basin, the one he’d seen as they entered the back room of the basement, and saw that it contained the same substance as the two used by the men when they committed suicide. Or something that looked like it, at any rate.

More police entered. He told them to steer clear of the basins and the slab upon which the girl had been lashed — and the bath mats the men had stepped on. As far as he was concerned, the police could ransack the rest of the place searching for evidence, but he simply knew that the crimes had taken place down here, in seclusion and away from prying eyes.

His eyes went once more upon the back wall of the basement and the scorch marks there. He stepped toward the wall and ran his fingers down the stone. Rippled and charred, distorted — and surprisingly hot. He pulled back his hand. Odd. His fingers tingled. But then, his entire body was shaking a little, probably from the adrenaline.

Jasper ascended from the dungeon, trading the foul stench of the incense mixed with the thermite reaction and a hint of burnt flesh for the heavy chemical-laden air of the streets. Even in the dark, with street lamps casting their sharp stare, the tank farm’s big white cylinders to the southeast were easily visible. He sucked in a lungful of air, attempting to cleanse the Euclid’s death smell from his lungs with a less offensive odor.

During his first few years in the area, he’d worried about cancer and respiratory issues, and he’d actively sought a transfer. But one good case led to another and he’d never escaped northwestern Indiana, and now he wasn’t sure he ever would. Chicago loomed, and that’d be a fairly easy transfer to pull off, but there was something about working in a smaller office and the variety of hats forced upon agents working in them that he really liked. And as time passed, he’d grown fond of the people who lived there. Well, most of them. Northern Lake County was a working-class area, a lot like the one he’d grown up in except this area was racially mixed. But once he’d gotten used to that he’d come to like it also.

Police cruisers and unmarked cars lined Euclid and Chicago Avenues, and in their midst, an idling ambulance. Jasper hadn’t heard it roll up amidst the racket the police inflicted on his eardrums. A few onlookers stood around, curious over the scene, but it was by no means a mob. There just weren’t that many people who lived in the area.