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Pretty little things, p.32
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       Pretty Little Things, p.32

           Jilliane Hoffman

  And to his surprise, someone did.


  ‘Police! This is the police!’

  It was very, very faint. The voice. But it grew just a little closer.

  ‘Call out if you hear me!’

  Almost simultaneous to hearing the voice, Lainey smelled the smoke. It, too, was very, very faint. But getting stronger.

  Footsteps walked somewhere above her and Lainey started to shake. She was petrified. Literally paralyzed by this cold fear that gripped her body where she sat. She thought of that time with Katy when they were convinced they were being rescued, but it was really just The Devil back from a long holiday. He had taken Katy after that. And Lainey had vowed she would always be a good girl. She had promised him. She didn’t want to be taken away. No matter how much she wanted to go home, she didn’t want to go away screaming like Katy.


  It was probably a trick. A test, was all. The Devil was testing her to see if she would be good. If she was true to her word. That was it.

  But then there was the smoke. It was definitely smoke. And not cigarette smoke. Or burning leaves smoke. It was heavy, noxious-smelling smoke, like the Easter when her brother had set an oven mitt on fire. It wasn’t overpowering, but it was definitely there.

  Her fingers went to her bandaged eyes. What should she do? What if it really was the police and she never spoke up?

  She heard Katy’s voice in her head. Her words sounded loud and clear, like the day she had excitedly uttered them, a few months or weeks or days back.

  Maybe someone’s here to save us! And if we don’t make noise, they’ll leave and we’ll never be found. Yell! Yell with me, Lainey, so they can hear us! We’re underground somewhere, they won’t find us unless we yell!

  Lainey fingered the thick tape. Her panic was growing. What if the smoke was bad? What if there was a fire? Worse than starving to death would be burning to death …

  She moved over to the door, pressing her hand against it to see if it was hot, like the firefighter who visited her class in fifth grade had taught them. It wasn’t. But the smoke smell was unmistakable. She put her head on the floor, near the door jamb, and breathed in.

  It was definitely coming under the door.

  Yell! Yell with me, Lainey!

  ‘I’m here …’ Lainey yelled, but at half the level she could have. She held her breath to see if she could hear The Devil, breathing at the door. Snorting at the cleverness of his trickery. She braced herself, waiting for the door to open.

  But it didn’t. And she didn’t hear any snorty chuckles, either.

  Yell! Yell with me, Lainey, so they can hear us! They won’t find us unless we yell!

  The worst she could do would be to do something half-assed. Either she’d get caught and punished anyway, or she might not ever get found. ‘You can’t go swimming and not get wet,’ her grandma used to say. ‘Dive in and do it right.’

  ‘I’m in here! Help me!’ she yelled as loud as she possibly could. As loud as she ever had. ‘I’m underground. I’m down here!’

  And if we don’t make noise, they’ll leave and we’ll never be found!

  ‘I’m in here! Help me!’ she screamed again, this time banging on the door with two fists as hard as she could.

  Then the door flung open and she tumbled out into the darkness.


  She landed flat on her face on the dirt floor. She cringed, her hands protectively covering her head, waiting for the Devil to chuckle. Or whisper. Or do something terrible. But nothing happened. Nothing at all.

  There was no Devil. But there was also no police officer. No rescue team. There was nobody. The door had just opened when she pounded on it. Either someone had unlocked it, or her banging had maybe jostled it open. Or Katy – wherever she was – had lent her a hand and sent her a message. The last thought made her smile.

  The smell of smoke was really strong now. She had to get out of here. Instinctively, that much she knew. And she wasn’t going to be able to do that without seeing where she was going. Her hands went to her face and with one quick tug she pulled at the bandages and plastic discs that he had, like Katy had warned, glued on to her face after she disobeyed him. She felt the soft, delicate skin around her eyes and eyelids peeling away with the bandages. It hurt, like the rip of a thousand Band-Aids off the worst boo-boo. But there was no time to cry. If she didn’t get out of here, bloody eyelids would be the least of her problems.

  She squinted and opened her eyes slowly, blinking a few times, like a newborn puppy. Her fingers gingerly explored her face – she did have her eyelids. That was a good thing. And although she could only see lumpy shadows, she still had her eyes. And that was a really good thing.

  ‘Police! This is the police!’

  The voice was back. And it sounded like it was right above her.

  ‘Elaine Emerson? Lainey?’

  ‘That’s me! I’m Lainey!’ The tears were already spilling. Her screams were now hoarse whispers.

  ‘Katy? Katy are you here?’

  Katy! He was looking for Katy, too!

  ‘Is there anybody here? Can anybody hear me? Anybody?’

  She wiped her face and took a deep breath. Don’t screw this up now, Lainey. ‘Me! I hear you! I’m down here!’ she shouted. ‘I’m down here! Help!’

  There was a slight pause that to Lainey felt like a lifetime.

  ‘I hear you! This is the police! We’re here! Let me follow your voice. Keep yelling!’

  ‘Help me, please!’ Lainey screamed, crawling on her hands and knees. She felt her way to a wall and followed it along with her hands. There was a faint, blurry light coming from somewhere. ‘Oh God! There’s smoke down here!’

  Then the voice stopped. It just stopped.

  ‘Hello? Are you still there? Officer! Sir! Help me!’

  No response.

  She started to cry. ‘I’m down here!’ The wall ended. She crawled through a doorway. It was no use. She couldn’t see anything, and the smoke was burning her throat. Then her hands fell on a pair of shoes. She reached up, feeling legs. She grabbed them and held tight. ‘Help me!’ she cried. Relief washed over her. It had never felt so good to hug another human being. ‘Please help me!’ she whispered, both her voice and her fight gone.

  ‘Of course,’ came the whisper back. ‘Of course I’m going to help you.’

  Then the Devil squatted down beside her and patted her head.


  He tossed the jars of what he hoped were just preserves on the floor and felt his way along the back of the pantry. Bobby was never really a religious man, but he prayed now as his fingers felt for any opening, any crack, any mystery panel. He got down on his knees and felt along the floor. There was no more time. He could hear the faint voice, yelling below him somewhere. Yelling for help.

  ‘Please God, let me find her!’ he screamed out loud. ‘Don’t let it end this way! It can’t end this way!’

  Whether it was Divine Intervention or just plain luck that led his fingers to the dent in the floor, he couldn’t say. But he wasn’t taking anything for granted. ‘Thank you,’ he whispered. ‘Thank you, God …’ as he pulled up the floorboard. It was a trap door. He looked down into the pitch black. The stink of mildew and decay overwhelmed even the acrid smoke. It smelled like death.

  ‘Are you still there? Officer? Sir?’

  The voice was still a little far off, but it was definitely down there. He slid feet first into the opening, not knowing how deep the drop was or what might be waiting down there in the darkness for him. All he heard were the whimperings of a child and he knew he had to go.

  He landed on his feet on hard dirt, rolling off to the side, his shoulder hitting against a wooden piling. He was underneath the house. He looked around. A pull-down staircase was mounted on the ceiling next to the trap-door opening. Small orange light bulbs were strung up on electric wires and tacked sporadically along sheet-rocked walls that wound like a maze off into the darkness. Tun
nels. Someone had built tunnels down here. Jesus Christ …

  Bobby felt his way along the wall, in the smoky, dimly lit haze, ducking as he moved forward because the ceiling height dropped. There were too many offshoots, too many turns. How many rooms were down here?

  Then he heard the scream that made his heart stop and he raced forward into the black claustrophobic maze, praying once again for a miracle to guide him to the right place.


  Lainey screamed.

  ‘Can you see me now?’ The Devil asked, his sweaty fingers crawling over her face, pulling it closer to his own. ‘Take a good look now. I am eyes to the blind and feet to the lame …’

  Bobby raised the muzzle to the back of Mark Felding’s head. ‘Move away from her,’ he commanded. The ceiling in the cramped, cave-like room was very low. In some places it sloped even lower than six feet, where the first floor above had sunk and settled.

  ‘Or you’ll do what?’ came the controlled, but excited response.

  ‘I won’t ask a second time.’

  ‘Sure you will. Because you want to know what I’ve done with your daughter.’

  Bobby moved the muzzle down and fired a single shot into Felding’s shoulder at point-blank range. The reporter yelped in both pain and surprise as bone and muscle exploded. He fell back on to the floor, grabbing his spurting arm, rolling in pain on the dirt.

  ‘No, I won’t,’ Bobby replied. The small figure on the floor held her arms over her head and screamed. Felding tried to get back up, but Bobby pushed him against a cement wall, placing himself between the reporter and the girl. Metal chains rattled like wind chimes. Felding slammed his head into a low beam with a thud.

  ‘Stay down,’ Bobby commanded Lainey. ‘And keep your head covered.’ Then he turned his attention back to the animal against the wall. ‘Where is she?’

  Felding squealed.

  Bobby raised his Glock again and fired another shot into Felding’s other shoulder. ‘I told you, I won’t ask twice.’

  The reporter flopped about like a fish out of water, howling in pain, bouncing on and off the wall and back and forth into the beam. ‘Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!’ he screamed.

  The wail of sirens was fast approaching. The fire department was finally here.

  ‘Where’s my daughter?’ Bobby demanded.

  ‘You mean sweet baby Katy?’ Felding cackled, finally collapsing against the wall, his body wrapped in chains. ‘The little girl you never did bring home, did you, Daddy?’

  Bobby fired again. This time he took out a knee. ‘I’m running out of body parts. Where is she?’

  ‘He took her!’ cried Lainey in a small, trembling voice. ‘He took Katy!’

  The wood walls above them suddenly creaked with a huge heaving sigh, followed by a thunderous crash. The attic had just collapsed. The single-bulb ceiling fixtures that had dimly lit the maze of tunnels in the crawl-space flickered and went out. It was now pitch-black.

  ‘Ask me another question,’ Felding croaked in the darkness. Bobby could hear him squirming and writhing on the floor. ‘Anything. Ask me anything. G’head! Ask me!’

  ‘Come on, up! Let’s go, honey!’ Bobby holstered the Glock, reached down and picked the small girl up in his arms. She wrapped her arms in a death grip around his neck and buried her face in his chest.

  ‘I’m Lainey,’ she said softly.

  ‘I know. I’ve been looking for you,’ Bobby replied.

  ‘Looks like you’re out of time, Super Special Agent Dees,’ Felding mumbled in the dark.

  ‘Not yet,’ Bobby answered as he felt his way back along the wall. He remembered to duck when he went inside the four-foot-tall tunnel that led back to the trap door and a pulldown staircase. ‘But you are. Welcome to hell,’ he called out behind him. ‘Hope it’s hot enough for you.’


  He wanted to turn back. He wanted to check every inch of the sprawling, damp, mildewed crawl space that Felding had outfitted into a dungeon. He knew there were more rooms. More secrets. More victims.

  But there was no more time.

  Where the wall finally ended, he reached up, felt around for the rope, and pulled down the staircase. With Lainey still in his arms, he scrambled up the steps that led back to the pull-out pantry. He could see through the 12 × 12 square floor cut-out above that there was still a kitchen. The second floor had yet to fall on the first. He had only seconds.

  He pushed Lainey up and out first. ‘Go to the window! Hurry!’ he yelled. It was impossible to breathe.

  ‘I can’t see!’ she screamed.

  Neither could he. The smoke was black, the heat intense. He climbed out behind her and grabbed her hand in his. He pushed her down. ‘Close to the floor! Follow me!’ On his hands and knees, he worked his way like a soldier to the back of the house, dragging Lainey along behind him. In the breakfast nook area off the kitchen he had seen a bay window. He reached out in front of him into the blackness and felt glass.

  ‘Jesus!’ a fireman at the window yelled. ‘Back! Get back!’ he commanded, breaking out the window with his axe. Glass rained down on Bobby’s head, followed by a deafening whoosh as more oxygen rushed in and smoke poured out.

  ‘Get them out!’ yelled another firefighter from somewhere. Bobby saw a figure waving at him to come on. To hurry. The firefighter at the window reached through the shattered glass and plucked Lainey’s limp body from Bobby’s hands. It took everything to just get to his knees. Then hands reached in and pulled him out, too.

  Two more firefighters rushed up. One grabbed Bobby, the other Lainey. Slinging their bodies over their shoulders like rag dolls, they carried them through the thick cane fields to the front of the house. Fire trucks were everywhere, it seemed. The evening sky was awash in red and blue lights.

  And bright orange flames.

  Bobby looked back one more time at the inferno that lit up the night. All around it, rustling rows of sugar cane whispered and gossiped excitedly in the gusty breeze. The storm that Bobby had thought was headed this way was finally here. Lightning bolts crackled, zig-zagging haphazardly in the not-so-far distance.

  He took her! He took Katy!

  Bobby closed his eyes just as the House of Horrors collapsed in on itself.


  ‘How you feeling there, Shep?’

  Zo Dias stood over his hospital bed in a charcoal gray suit and black silk tie, a bouquet of flowers in his oversized hands. It was such a surreal sight, Bobby thought for a second he must have died. He wanted to snap off a witty comeback, but talking would be way too painful – even with all the drugs they had him on. He’d just been taken off the ventilator last night and moved from the Burn Intensive Care Unit. All he could do was nod.

  ‘Gotta love this, LuAnn.’ Zo laughed. ‘He can’t talk. Isn’t that a wife’s wish come true?’

  LuAnn took the flowers and moved to the nightstand to put them in one of the extra plastic pitchers the nurses had brought over. The room was filled with flower baskets, plants, and balloons – more than one of which already had Zo’s name on it. ‘I think that’s a husband’s fantasy, Zo,’ LuAnn returned with a slow, tired smile. ‘We want our men to talk more. Tell us what’s on their mind. You need to watch Oprah.’

  ‘Hmmm … so yapping more will make Camilla happy? I always thought she meant it when she told me to shut up.’ He pulled up a chair next to the bed and his face grew serious. ‘You are one lucky son-of-a-bitch, let me tell you. You should be dead, pal.’

  LuAnn reached over and clutched his hand. Bobby squeezed it back. ‘Another minute in that place and he would have been,’ LuAnn said, her voice cracking.

  ‘How long before you can start back jogging?’

  ‘The doctor says his lungs were pretty bad,’ she answered. ‘He took in a lot of carbon monoxide, too. No marathons for a while, that’s for sure.’

  ‘Speaking of should be dead but isn’t, so is that little girl you saved. I think she’s getting released from Joe DiMaggio tomorrow.
Joe DiMaggio was the children’s hospital in Broward County that Lainey had been airlifted to for severe smoke inhalation. ‘I had Larry and Ciro go talk to her yesterday. It’ll take years to get over what she went through. When you’re feeling up to it, she wants to see you again.’

  Bobby nodded.

  ‘Thought you’d want to know her crazy mom says thanks. Don’t get too excited, though. Before you can say “You’re welcome,” she’ll probably follow that up with a loss of consortium lawsuit because her pedophile husband’s going upstate for the next twenty years. LaManna’s taking the plea on Friday, and that doesn’t include any charges that are coming from messing with his stepdaughters.’

  ‘Bastard,’ LuAnn said.

  Bobby nodded. ‘Felding?’ he mouthed.

  Zo paused. ‘We pulled two bodies out of the ashes. Felding’s dentals matched the one found in the basement. The other was found in what the Fire Inspector tells us was once the dining or living room. It was a female. ME says the cause of death wasn’t smoke inhalation – it was the buckshot that filled her head. We found the melted remains of a Winchester 12 gauge under her body.’

  ‘Who?’ Bobby mouthed.

  Zo didn’t answer.

  ‘Who is she?’ Bobby mouthed again.

  ‘We don’t know yet,’ he said finally.

  ‘Katy?’ Bobby managed to whisper.

  ‘Get me her dentals,’ Zo quietly replied.

  LuAnn sucked in a sniffle and closed her eyes. ‘I’ll have her orthodontist send them to the Medical Examiner,’ she said with a nod. ‘I’ll do it.’

  Painful silence filled the room for too long.

  ‘What else?’ Bobby mouthed.

  ‘What else? OK, while you were snoozing the past couple of days, the rest of us have been working. You were right. The house on Sugarland was owned by Felding’s grandmother, Mildred Bolger. She died twenty years ago in a farming accident. The house then went to his mom, Loretta Felding, who lived there before she went nuts and died in a nursing home in 2003. When she passed, it went to Felding, her only child. The last time it was used as a B & B, according to the locals, was in 1990, almost nineteen years ago. Local gossip has it that for the seven years before Mama Felding went into the nursing home, no one actually stayed there, though. Not a single solitary soul. But the signs stayed up. Talk about creepy.

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