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All the little pieces, p.22
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       All the Little Pieces, p.22

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  He stood up and shook his head. The idea that a young girl might be out here somewhere, alive, strung up, caged or shackled, maybe being tortured or raped at this very moment was too much. By the time Homicide was called in on a missing persons case, the search parties had been organized and found what they were looking for. Noelle Langtry’s name had been entered into NCIC/FCIC – the federal and state criminal information databases – as a missing person, but there were no search parties combing the back alleys and tenements near Sugar Daddy’s, or the streets near the trailer home where she lived. And there was certainly no army of volunteers walking the 180,000 acres of sugar cane out here.

  The hint of sunrise began to warm the black skies to deep purple. The nocturnal wildlife, sensing dawn, had scurried off to find a safe place to lay low. Nothing had attacked him. He went back to his car, scratching at his legs, which itched like a bitch, probably from the hordes of mosquitos that had been feasting on them. Blech. At least he hoped it was from mosquitos.

  He got back in his car, popped three more Advil and headed for home, winding his way down dirt roads with the spotlight still pointing into the cane fields. He was about to turn onto Lucky Bottom Road when he spotted the rooftop of what looked like a barn set back off the road. It was buried under a mop of foliage. Like the Everglades Regional hospital and what remained of the tourist attraction Gatorland in South Bay off of US 27, the existence of long-abandoned structures was not uncommon out here. He wouldn’t have seen it in the dark. And if he hadn’t been looking, he wouldn’t have seen it at all. Something told him to stop.

  He pulled over and up a long dirt drive that led into what looked like it was once a parking lot, made impassable now by shrubs and underbrush. At the mouth of the lot was a metal swing-arm gate with a rusted NO TRESPASSING sign attached to it. The lock on the gate was broken. He pushed it and it opened with a groan. He aimed his spotlight at what he saw was not a barn, but a deceptively large one-story cement-and-wood building that was deeper than it was wide. The light caught on a faded painted sign that hung above a front door. The wood had broken and fallen off, so only part of the sign was visible:

  IVE GATOR WRESTL

  The adrenaline rush he’d experienced talking to Amber Kurtz at the Animal was back. He wasn’t exactly sure what he’d stumbled on, but he just knew that it would prove important. His blood turned as cold as the plastic bag of ice water sitting on his passenger seat and he shook off the ominous feeling that was making his knees shake as he pushed past the metal gate and waded into the thick tangle of underbrush that threatened to swallow him whole.

  48

  The windows and doors were shuttered with plywood. The railing on the front porch had fallen off. A battered screen-door frame, long missing its screen, lay on the ground beside the railing. Another sign was next to it. This one was metal. He wiped the dirt off with the sole of his shoe and shone his light on it:

  FRESH STRAWBERRIES, SUGAR CANE

  SOUVENIRS

  It had been a store of some kind – a souvenir stand. Judging from the sign above the door, they probably had alligator-wrestling shows in the back, like Gatorland used to. Or maybe panther exhibits. Indian artifact archeological ‘digs’ in piles of sand for the kids. Guessing from the look of the building, it was built in the forties or fifties – back when people took road trips to Florida for their honeymoons and airboat rides through the Everglades. Mom and pop stands sold what they could: pies and fresh fruit, pink flamingo ashtrays and preserved alligator jaws. Bryan could practically hear the tinkle of wind chimes and groan of the wood planks on the porch as rambunctious kids – happy to finally get the hell out of the family station wagon – raced inside to see what fifty cents in souvenir money would buy them. There were a lot of those establishments surviving around the state, but this one evidently had suffered the same fate as Gatorland: a lack of honeymooning tourists who gave a shit about airboat rides through the Everglades and took the kids to Disney instead.

  There was a rusted padlock on the faded red door. He tried it, but it was locked. He went back to the car and got a crowbar and a hammer. He probably should get a warrant, but for what? A creepy building giving him a creepy feeling in the pit of his large stomach? That was grounds for a case of heartburn, not probable cause for a search warrant. Obviously the place was abandoned. Tracking down an owner would be near impossible. He stuck the crowbar in between the lock and the loop and whacked it with the hammer. The lock broke open and fell to the floor.

  He pushed open the door. It creaked like a haunted house. Inside, it was completely black. Outside, the sun was struggling to make an appearance, but the shuttered windows were going to keep the daylight out anyway. He could feel his heartbeat pulsing in his temples now. His daughter, Hilary, was a fan of The Walking Dead; they watched it together on Sunday nights when it was his weekend. All he saw in his head right now were zombies – smelling him in the dark and searching out a snack. Waiting for him inside could be a colony of crack addicts. Or rats. Or snakes. Or nothing – just the remains of an old-fashioned business that had died a slow death thirty years earlier, after Walt Disney and his princesses had replaced alligator-wrestling and live mermaid shows at the WeekiWachee.

  The door closed behind him with a bang. He was in a tight hallway that smelled old and awful – like mildew and dirt and old house and fermented skunk. He waved his flashlight about, trying to orientate himself, one slice of room at a time. His hand hurt like a bitch – he’d aggravated it whacking on the crowbar, even though he’d hammered using his left hand. He stepped out of the hall, and shone the light on a wood counter, behind which was a large pot-rack-thing suspended from the beam above with a couple of empty hooks still attached. He unsnapped the Glock strapped to his side. If he had to shoot, he’d have to use his left hand. Fuck. And in the dark, no less. Sweat poured down his face and back. He ignored the voice in his head telling him to go back.

  He turned a corner into what felt like an open, spacious room. He took a step and fell about two feet, landing, thank God, on his ass. But everything hurt. His legs felt like they had knives in them. Before he could appreciate what he’d fallen into, or how badly he was hurt, he smelled it: a horrible, putrid, rotting stench. He recognized right away what it was. It was death.

  He scrambled to find his footing and stand. His right hand was throbbing, but now he felt a sharp pain in his left and looked down, flashing his light. The cement floor glittered with broken glass. Blood ran down his palm. He shone the light around him – he had fallen into a short, wide pit of some sort, which was carpeted in broken glass. What remained of a metal railing surrounded it. He moved his flashlight around the walls of the pit and sucked in a breath.

  He jumped up and reached for his cell with shaking hands. He hit the button – no service. Then he dropped the phone. He could feel blood running down his ass and his legs. He must have cut himself on the glass shards, even through his pants.

  He heard something scurry by, felt the presence of something near him. He turned his head so fast his neck cracked. He scanned the room with the flashlight. It caught on one fat rat running through the zigzagging beam of light, disappearing into a corner. Another sat there staring at him defiantly. He turned it on the walls. Then the ceiling. The horror was everywhere.

  He found the wood steps that led into the pit he was standing in and climbed out, trying to remember where he’d entered the room. There were different halls leading off the main room – choosing the wrong one in the dark could lead him somewhere far worse than a pit of broken glass. He buried his nose and mouth in the sleeve of his shirt to stop from breathing in the stench. His radio was in the car, if he could get to it. Why hadn’t he told anyone where he was? Mel Gibson he wasn’t. He was a fool, was what he was.

  He found the hallway by the pot-rack, rushed down the hall and pushed open the door, almost falling off the broken porch. Dawn had arrived in glorious splendor; slices of orange and gold erupted in the east. He kept blinking as
his eyes adjusted to the light. He breathed in the fresh air. Earth had never smelled so good before. He wanted to kiss the ground.

  He hobbled over to the car and grabbed his radio. ‘Palm Beach 1642.’ He touched the back of his pants – they were wet with blood.

  ‘Go ahead 1642,’ replied dispatch.

  ‘I’m out here by, um, by … Pelican Lake, no – off Muck City and, Jesus, I don’t know what street. I don’t know the cross street …’ His voice trailed off as he looked back at the building where he had just been, seconds before. Even in the warming light it was almost impossible to see, swallowed whole by trees and brush. It was hard to think.

  ‘1642, are you requesting units to respond?’

  ‘Yes, yes. I am requesting backup.’

  ‘What’s your 10-20?’

  ‘Off State Road seven-one-seven – Muck City Road – east of Barfield by maybe a mile and a half, two miles. I don’t have a cross street, Palm Beach. It’s off the road a bit. It’s a building, obscured by foliage and overgrowth. I’m gonna put my lights on so you can see me out here.’ He flipped on his blue lights as he said it.

  ‘10-4. Dispatching a unit to respond. What is your situation, 1642?’

  Bryan wiped his face with his sleeve. Blood ran off his hand from his sliced palm and dripped onto his face. He searched the Taurus for a paper towel or napkin. ‘Not a unit, Palm Beach. Units. I need units to secure the area. And Crime Scene. I need Crime Scene. It’s a mess out here, Palm Beach. I have a mess on my hands.’

  ‘Are you requesting fire/rescue, 1642?’

  He shook his head. For anyone who had been in that shack it was far too late for an ambulance. ‘No.’

  ‘10-4, 1642. All available units are responding.’

  The radio began to crackle with police jargon as units reported they were en route and their ETA.

  He looked back at the shack he’d walked out of. He’d found what he had set out to find tonight.

  He’d just stood in the heart of the kill spot.

  49

  Faith spotted the black Taurus in the driveway as soon as Jarrod made the turn onto Greenview Terrace. If she’d been driving, she probably would’ve turned around and headed back out the gates of Heron Bay. The guardhouse – that they’d just passed, complete with a guard who had waved at them – was supposed to let you know when you had a guest. That rule must not apply when the guests are cops.

  ‘Were you expecting them?’ Jarrod asked quietly, looking over at her.

  She shook her head.

  After Jarrod had bonded her out of jail Wednesday morning, they’d headed to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving as planned at his sister’s with the rest of his family. It was a difficult trip and a difficult three days, even though they’d said nothing the whole plane ride up or back. Surrounded by family they hadn’t seen since last Thanksgiving, they hadn’t said much at Birgitte’s, either. Faith wasn’t exactly sure what Jarrod had told any of them about anything that had happened over the past year: the affair; the ‘incident’; and now, the DUI. So she’d spent most of her time upstairs in Birgitte’s guest room playing with Maggie when the teenage cousins tired of entertaining her, or going out for long walks by herself, trying to figure out how the hell she was going to fix the spiraling-out-of-control-mess that was her life.

  While the absolute last thing she wanted to do after getting arrested, being strip-searched at the jail and completely humiliating herself, was go on a holiday trip to visit Jarrod’s family and pretend everything was great, she wasn’t in a position to tell him she didn’t want to go. So she threw her stuff in a bag, got in the car and drove to the airport. The positive was the trip had given her a few days’ reprieve from having to discuss what had happened and having to defend herself against the accusations she knew were coming about her drinking. And she would be a thousand miles away from Derrick Poole and the continuously degenerating turmoil happening in South Florida.

  With the exception of Jarrod’s curmudgeonly dad who only mumbled in German around her, Faith got along well enough with the rest of the family: Jarrod’s mom, his sister, Birgitte and her husband Glen, and his brother Steffen and his wife, Sherry. Living thousands of miles away helped relationships stay superficial and friendly and inhibited them from developing into anything more. She helped set the table and decorate the Christmas tree Birgitte had already put up, made sure everyone’s wine glasses were full at the table, and drank her own glass when no one was looking. And she tried not to worry that the hushed conversations that suddenly stopped when she came into a room were about her.

  Conversation was pleasant and generic and centered around the kids and the holidays until Friday night’s post-Black Friday dinner at Volare when Steffen brought up a developing story out of Palm Beach that he had seen on CNN that morning: A ‘Little Shack of Horrors’ had been found out by the Everglades with ties to a serial murder investigation. Apparently, a little girl and her mother from Parkland, Florida had somehow stumbled upon the killer with his last victim and were now primary witnesses in the case. Isn’t Parkland where you guys live? Have you heard of this case? As Jarrod carefully dodged the questions, Faith had excused herself to go to the bathroom and pulled up the story on her phone. Then she’d thrown up. They left after breakfast the next day. As the plane began its descent into Fort Lauderdale she could feel the pressure change, and not just in the cabin. With each mile they drove home the clock ticked down on her mini-vacation from dealing with the fucked-up reality of it all, officially and fittingly ending as soon as they pulled in the driveway and Detectives Nill and Maldonado met them at the car door.

  Jarrod ushered both detectives inside and took Maggie upstairs to her room to watch a video. Everyone took a seat at the dining-room table.

  This was it. Faith’s stomach churned.

  Detective Nill wasted no time. ‘There’s been a new development,’ he said as Jarrod came back into the room.

  She looked down at her lap and nodded. ‘I heard,’ she said faintly. ‘It’s on CNN, Fox. It’s … everywhere.’

  ‘Yes. We have found a crime scene. I didn’t want it to get out like that; the media picked it up on the scanners. Now we’re trying to control the flow of information, because there’ve been a lot of calls, a lot of interest. Like you already know, we found forensic evidence in this abandoned shack that leads us to believe it was used in the homicides of Angelina Santri and possibly three other women. Maybe a fourth. There’s a missing girl who we fear may also be linked to this location.’

  She nodded and took a deep breath, but said nothing.

  ‘I also heard about your arrest on Tuesday. You were double the limit. That’s tough.’

  The tears started. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered.

  ‘You’ve been under a lot of stress.’

  She nodded again.

  The detective tapped his pen on the table. ‘I’m gonna be honest with you here, Faith. I’m gonna fill you in on some of the evidence we found out there, so you know what we got, what we’re dealing with, and you understand where it is I’m coming from. We found fibers in this place: red and black fibers. They match the fiber patch we found in the wooded lot in Pahokee and the fibers in Poole’s trunk and the passenger seat of his car. We found a lot of blood on the walls and floor that we’re running tests on, but we believe it will match DNA samples we have from the dead women and missing teenage dancer. We found body parts in buckets, and we found Angelina’s black boots.’

  Faith covered her mouth, her eyes still locked on a spot on her jeans. It was getting hard to breathe. She knew there was no way to adequately prepare herself for what was coming.

  ‘The building dates back to the early fifties,’ Detective Nill continued. ‘It was a lot of things over the years, including a restaurant, but through the seventies and eighties it was a storage facility for sugar cane, with the front room being a sort of makeshift souvenir shack. There used to be alligator-wrestling on site, cockfighting and gambling in the late seventies.
The property has been abandoned since 1994. The owners picked up and moved to Wisconsin and never looked back and the place fell apart. Inside we found restraints, and a trap room that at one point in the building’s history may have been used to house the alligators or roosters for cockfighting. We think it was used to hold these women before they were murdered.’

  ‘Jesus,’ said Jarrod, his head in his hands.

  ‘I have a theory that I want to try on you, Faith. Stop me if you think I’m wrong. I believe Angelina Santri was beaten in that wooded lot across from where your car was parked that night. She fought with her attacker and ripped a piece of his shirt that was likely sprayed or smeared with her blood. She was then taken to Poole’s Honda Accord and placed in the trunk, alive, but likely unconscious. As you know, we found several strands of her hair in that trunk. To prevent the transfer of blood or bodily fluids, she was likely wrapped in tarp or plastic sheeting. The person whose shirt she ripped then got into the passenger side of Poole’s car, where Poole and this person drove to the abandoned shack that we found yesterday. Angelina was once again restrained, then tortured, and ultimately murdered. I’m thinking that since she was missing for over a day when you saw her, maybe she was being held there after she was abducted from the parking lot of the Animal and somehow escaped, running off barefoot into the cane fields, which explains her dirty feet. Then she found you, Faith, asleep in your car.’

  Faith nodded.

  Jarrod looked at her, then back at the detective. ‘Wait, you said someone got into the passenger side of Poole’s car. You think there’s a second suspect? There’re two of them?’

  Nill didn’t take his eyes off Faith. ‘We were able to get DNA off the fabric patch. That DNA came from the blood spatter of Angelina Santri and from the sweat deposits of an unknown male who is not Derrick Poole. We’re planning to execute another search warrant on Poole’s house. That’s why we’re here: I want to know what else we should be looking for once we get back inside.’

 
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