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Pretty little things, p.31
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       Pretty Little Things, p.31

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  He left the park and drove down the winding two-lane roads that wrapped around cane field after cane field, looking for exactly what he still didn’t know. Down US 27 and through South Bay – another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it migrant town, population 3,859 – and then swinging back north via 827 and Okeelanta, and then back through Belle Glade.

  By four p.m. the sun had begun its slow descent over the fields, bathing the sky in a smoky purple hue that was tinged with streaks of tangerine. Pick-up trucks filled with dirty, sweaty men and women passed him on their way home to their cramped shanties and families. A few smiled and chatted, but most looked straight ahead at nothing and no one, a completely blank expression on their tired faces. Harvesting the sugar cane would begin in earnest after December, although some farms had begun already. Bobby started back up Main Street, heading toward 441 and, eventually, to civilization. Hopefully the EPA would call him in the morning with more information. Hopefully Zo would call him tonight to tell him that they’d found something at James Roller’s house. Something incriminating. Something damning. Something that would confirm that it was this guy Roller all along. Something that would dismiss the nagging, heavy feeling in his gut that told him the nightmare was far from over. He’d tried Zo all day, but he wasn’t picking up and he wasn’t calling back – probably because there was still nothing to report. Probably because nothing besides a sex-offender past and a job in an art supply store screamed ‘Picasso’ yet, and he couldn’t bear to tell Bobby that. For his part, Bobby had yet to share Dr Lynch’s findings with him, but that was because he knew Zo would have forbidden him to come out here, just as he had banned him from Roller’s house.

  He pulled over to find the bottle of Advil in the glove compartment. In addition to the throbbing headache he was now sporting, his hand had swelled considerably. Damn. He’d probably hair-lined something. He downed three caplets dry. When he pulled back on the road, a rusted tin LODGING sign caught his eye just a few yards ahead with an oversized arrow directing him to turn right. His first thought as he passed was that it was strange to have a hotel right out here in the middle of absolutely nowhere and absolutely nothing. It must have been a leftover from the heyday, because who the hell would stay all the way out here?

  Then he saw the name of the hotel, partially hidden from view by a sea of waving green sugar-cane stalks, and he slammed on his brakes.

  83

  Bobby turned down Curlee Road but saw nothing, just acres and acres of lush green. He followed it for a few miles. There were no other signs. So he turned back and then turned down another road, then another, frantically driving through a towering cane maze in the fading light of day, heading deeper and deeper into the heart of nowhere.

  Then he saw it, about a mile or so up from the last turn, which, if he remembered right, had put him on Sugarland Road. He stopped the car and got out, staring up at a ramshackle, two-storied Victorian-style house that was set back maybe five hundred feet from the road by a long, winding dirt drive that was overgrown with weeds and brush. Surrounding the home on all three sides were acres and acres of sugar cane. In fact, cane stalks had crept up on the house itself, almost completely overtaking the yard, like in, appropriately enough, some freaky, sci-fi horror flick. In the light breeze, their rustling leaves sounded like soft, gossipy whispers. There were no lights on, no rockers on the warped wooden wrap-around porch, no pitchers of home-made lemonade set up around a late afternoon checkers game. From all appearances, including the boards that covered a couple of the home’s many windows, the house had been shuttered for years.

  It was like having déjà-vu. A cold chill ran up Bobby’s spine. He had seen this same house before. A simple black-and-white sign dangled by a single hook, mounted on a post that at one time had been stuck in the middle of a front lawn. It swung with a creak in the wind.

  THE HOME SWEET HOME INN

  Bobby’s mouth went dry and his heartbeat sped up. The matches. In the bar that night after Gale Sampson’s body was found at the Regal All-Suites, the matches on the table that Mark Felding was spinning said THE HOME SWEET HOME INN. The picture on them was of this house. The matches had made Bobby think about his honeymoon in Vermont with LuAnn.

  Mark Felding.

  Bobby’s chest grew tight and right then and there he knew. He knew what was in that house. He knew what had happened in that house.

  He speed-dialed Zo. This time he picked up.

  ‘It’s not five yet. Stop calling me,’ Zo said.

  ‘I found him.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘I found him,’ Bobby repeated. ‘It’s Felding. He’s our Picasso.’

  ‘What the hell? What are you talking about?’

  ‘I’m at a deserted bed and breakfast out in Belle Glade –’

  ‘Belle Glade?’

  ‘Yeah, Belle Glade. I got a call from Lynch at the Broward MEs this morning. Toxicology traced soil found under Jane Doe’s nails to sugar-cane fields. Pesticide tests narrowed those fields down to Belle Glade, Clewiston, South Bay, Vaughn and Okeelanta. I came out here to see what I could find.’

  ‘Thanks for telling me.’

  ‘You didn’t pick up your phone.’

  ‘I told you to stay put,’ Zo said with a frustrated sigh.

  ‘No, you told me to stay away from your scene, so I did.’

  ‘You’re off this.’

  ‘That doesn’t matter any more. I need you and the boys out here now. Are you still in Royal Palm?’

  ‘Yeah.’

  ‘It’s only thirty-five minutes. You can do it in twenty with lights on.’

  ‘How the hell do you know it’s Felding?’

  ‘I just do. Do a records check on The Home Sweet Home Inn on Sugarland. There’ll be a connection to Felding somehow, I’m sure. Do you have press there now? Is Felding there?’

  ‘We have some stragglers, but most picked up camp and went home after they realized we weren’t finding nothing. Felding was here earlier, but I don’t see him now. Everyone’s shutting it down ’cause of the holiday.’

  Bobby looked up and down the block, which was defined by sugar-cane stalks. No cars in sight. ‘He’s probably back at the Channel Six studio in Miramar. He’s on at six, right? Have BSO pick him up there.’

  ‘On what?’ Zo asked. ‘What the hell do we have on him but your gut instinct that he’s gonna be connected to this house? You haven’t explained to me how this house you’re watching is even remotely related to this case you’re not supposed to be working any more!’

  ‘Just pick him up,’ Bobby replied. ‘Ask him to come in and talk. Tell him we have some things from Roller’s apartment we’d like him to look at. That will get his narcissistic reporter chops drooling. Whatever you do, get him before he runs. I think you’ll have all the connections you need once we get in this house.’

  ‘All right, all right. I’m on my way. I’ll have Stephanie start on the warrants. You’ll have to tell her how you know so much so she can actually get you one.’

  ‘Fuck a warrant. If he’s got missing girls in there, we don’t need a warrant. I’m certainly not waiting around six hours.’

  ‘Don’t do shit, Shep. Just sit tight and wait. We’re on our way. And unless you have a good faith reason to believe someone’s in that house and that someone is in danger, we’re gonna need a warrant.’

  Bobby hung up the phone, cut the engine and stared up at the house. He tapped impatiently on the steering wheel, his mind racing. It made perfect sense now. Felding was sending himself the portraits – any trace evidence that did come back to him would be expected, since he handled the paintings. Felding was the first reporter on the Boganes sisters’ murder scene in Fort Lauderdale, arriving at either the same time or right after the cops did. Felding was waiting at the McDonald’s for Janizz because he had set up the meet. He was The Captain. He was Picasso. It was Felding who had received as much national attention in the press as the killer himself, making a name for himself on the cable news shows as t
he shocked messenger boy for a madman. Move over Nancy Grace. The faces of the missing runaways that filled the corkboard in Bobby’s office flipped through his brain like a card catalogue in a windstorm. Allegra Villenueva. Nikole Krupa. Adrianna Sweet. Eva Wackett. Lainey Emerson. So many missing girls. Too many that weren’t even missed.

  Was Katy in there?

  Zo and the boys would be here in twenty minutes. All he had to do was sit tight for twenty more minutes. Much as he wanted to rush the door right that second, he knew that it would be foolish to go into the house alone. If the girls were being held in there, there could be booby traps set to prevent them from getting out, or to stop someone else from getting in. There was also a chance that Felding worked with a partner or partners, and even though he might be down at the station working off his fifteen minutes of fame, his buddy could be waiting somewhere in the dark house with a meat cleaver to greet any unwelcome visitors. Serial partnerships were rare, but they notoriously did happen. The Hillside Stranglers. The Chicago Rippers. Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole.

  He watched the sign creak in the strong breeze that had kicked up. Dark clouds were forming in the not so far distance over the unending fields of sugar cane. A storm was coming. If he couldn’t go in the house yet, he could certainly look around the outside. Twenty minutes was a lifetime. While he had no intention of waiting for a warrant, he knew Zo was going to want more reasons to justify them knocking down the front door. At least for the report he was gonna have to file. Maybe he could see something through the windows or around the back.

  Bobby stepped out of the car and started up the dirt and gravel driveway, pushing aside scattered brush and weeds that in some places had grown almost three feet tall. Tire tracks carved a swathe through the mangy growth, ending on the side of the house. Someone had been here recently. Then his eyes caught on something in an upstairs window. A quick flicker of orange.

  The waiting was over. Bobby bolted as fast as he could for the front door.

  84

  By the time he’d called 911 and kicked in the front door, flames were licking at the top of the staircase on the second floor. Smoke had started to fill the old house.

  Bobby drew his gun, cautiously stepping into the foyer, wincing at the sharp pain in his right hand. An accidental fire while he was sitting in the driveway waiting for the cavalry to arrive was no accident. Felding was here. Somewhere. Or his partner. And while Bobby didn’t want to give away his position for his own safety, if girls were locked away or hidden in the house and they were still alive, the quickest way to find them would be to have them call back to him. That meant they had to know he was here.

  ‘Police!’ he shouted, almost tripping over the two- and three-foot stacks of old newspapers and cardboard boxes filled with what looked like junk that lined the dark hallway leading to the stairs. The sun was almost down, there were no streetlights and a noxious gray haze was quickly filling the house. ‘This is the police! Call out if you can hear me! Police!’ An old wood-frame Victorian was a tinderbox. Bobby knew it would not take long before the whole place went up. Maybe he could get the fire under control himself. Buy a little time till the fire department – which was God knows how many miles away – finally arrived. He raced up the stairs.

  The fire had obviously started in a front bedroom on the second floor, which was now engulfed in flames. If there had been anyone in there, he or she was no more. The door had been left open, and the fire was quickly spreading into the hall. In fact, the pink flowered draperies that decorated the picture window were already lit on one side, the flames feeding on the wall. Once it ignited the hall ceiling, flames would roll over the heavy old plaster like the wave at a baseball game. There was no way to put it out. And once it entered the walls, it would shoot up into the attic, and it would be over in minutes. He didn’t have much time.

  ‘Police!’ he yelled again. Three more rooms shot off the upstairs hallway, but those doors were all closed. The smoke was thick and it was almost impossible to see more than a few feet in front of him. He dropped to his knees and crawled to the first closed door. He heard the crack and pop of glass behind him in the front bedroom, followed by a whoosh as the fire welcomed in the oxygen from outside. Visibility on the floor below the rising smoke was better – at least he could see where he was going. He had to take his chances that either Felding or his possible partner weren’t waiting for him behind one of the doors, sitting on a bed with an AK47 and a twisted smile. He reached up and flung open door number one, rolling into the room quickly to dodge a bullet, if necessary.

  There was no Felding. No deadly cohort lying in ambush. But the bedroom itself looked like a scene from out of a horror movie. Even through the heavy smoke he could make out the long chains, suspended from the ceiling like chandeliers. Iron shackles were secured to metal bedposts. It was either a torture chamber or a masochist’s playroom. He checked everywhere – no bodies, alive or dead.

  He crawled back out into the hallway and over to door number two, reaching up again and praying as he turned the knob that the wrong person wouldn’t be there to greet him on the other side. Again he found the same macabre ceiling fixtures, plus a medieval-looking high-back chair with metal clamps fastened to a headrest and spiked shackles to lock in the arms. No bad guys. No bodies.

  The third bedroom was completely empty.

  ‘Police!’ he shouted as he crawled out into the hall and back to the stairs. ‘Shout if you’re here!’

  And just like in a movie under the hand of a skilled director, right on cue, Bobby got his response – the deafening, unmistakable blast of a shotgun.

  85

  Where had the shot come from? Where the hell was the guy? Had it been aimed at him?

  Bobby’s head jerked in a hundred directions. In the thick smoke he lost his bearings and half stumbled, half fell down the stairs and back into the foyer. He recovered quickly, his Glock still clutched firmly in his hand, which was throbbing. He squinted into the smoke that was growing heavy on the first floor, and looked everywhere, all at once.

  Where the hell was he?

  There was no time to sit around and strategize. No time to worry about himself. Once the fire got into the attic, the roof would likely collapse. Floor by floor, the layers of the house would fail. He wiped the smoke from his stinging eyes.

  Think, Bobby, think. Where would he have put them? Where the hell would they be?

  He thought of Jane Doe’s hands, the dirt pushed so far up her nail beds it was embedded in her skin. She had been clawing her way out of her own tomb …

  WELCOME TO BELLE GLADE. HER SOIL IS HER FORTUNE.

  Downstairs.

  A basement.

  But Florida didn’t have basements, right? They had crawl spaces. Where the hell would the crawl space be?

  He stood up and, hugging the wall, followed it into what looked like a round reception parlor. More cardboard boxes of junk and bundled newspaper stacks cluttered the floor. His head darted everywhere, searching for a madman through smoke that was growing increasingly thick. His eyes were tearing, his throat closing. Through the parlor he exited into what had at one time probably been the dining room for the B & B’s guests. Several small tables had been pushed to the far wall. Chairs were stacked on top of them. A tremendous red-velvet Chippendale wing chair sat facing the room’s dark oak fireplace, its worn back to Bobby and the room’s entrance off the parlor. Flanking the fireplace on display easels were three paintings. Portraits. Macabre renderings of death, styled like Gale Sampson, Rosalie and Roseanne Boganes, and Jane Doe’s final moments.

  Bobby edged closer. He could see the milky white flesh of a hand on the armrest. The tip of a loafer on the carpet. With his gun aimed in front of him, he came upon the chair.

  Sitting there, like some ghoulish greeter at the Haunted Mansion, was Mark Felding, dressed in a suit and tie, his WTVJ 6 press credentials around his neck, a Bible on his lap. Atop the Bible was a shotgun. Felding’s gloved finger was still on the
trigger.

  He was missing his face.

  Fucking coward got off way too easy, Bobby thought in disgust, kicking the bastard’s foot to make sure he was dead. The body slumped over.

  He rushed past what was left of Felding and into an enormous kitchen. A bed and breakfast would have to have extra room for food storage, he thought. Perhaps a root cellar or a wine cellar. Or a canning room. He only had time for one guess, and this was it. The fire was probably already in the attic. He thought of his daughter.

  Look, Daddy, you’re famous! You’re a hero!

  But am I your hero, Kit-Kat?

  Always, Daddy …

  He hoped for her sake he was right.

  There was a door next to the refrigerator. He ran over and pulled it open.

  It was a pantry. Still filled with tons of canned goods and gross-looking glass jars filled with what he hoped was just old fruit that no one had thrown out after a few years. Damn. He desperately looked around the kitchen. Where would the crawl-space door be?

  ‘Police! This is the police!’ he shouted again, circling the room like a caged animal. They were almost out of time. ‘Is there anybody here? Elaine Emerson? Lainey? Katy? Katy, are you here? Can anybody hear me? Anybody? Damnit! Answer me, somebody!’ he pleaded.

 
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