Exact date and time unknown
Somewhere in rural Washington State
“Quiet, bitch,” he said. “Be a good girl and do as I say.”
His words came at her with the smell of sweat and motor oil. They were delivered in a strangely calm, almost soothing, cadence.
The young woman was terrified, her body, her very presence, shrinking under his power.
“Don’t!” she said, the words falling from her trembling lips.
“Good girl,” he repeated.
Tears rolled. A coppery flavor filled her mouth. It was as if she tasted spare change, yet her mouth was empty. She was bleeding where he had struck her.
And her pleas for help were called out only in her head, God, help me!
No answer. Just a slow fade. A curtain pulled. A moon eclipsed. Then absolutely nothing at all.
That was before. Just how long ago, she couldn’t be sure.
Her memories were a mosaic. They came to her, not the seamless movie reel she had imagined people saw in their mind’s eye when their final moments came and their life flashed before their eyes, but in tiny shards and splinters: Her high school graduation. How she and her best friend Danita had bought a bottle of screw-top wine from a mini-mart near the Tacoma Dome, where the ceremonies were held. They’d guzzled it in Danita’s old car. Real tough, she’d thought. The only bad thing she’d ever done in a childhood of helping her mother raise her siblings, making solid-B grades, and working part-time jobs when she could fit them in between her household chores.
What did I do to deserve this? she asked herself in a blip of lucidity.
Her mind jumped to how her mother had sat her, her brother, and her sister in a neat row on the old floral davenport that faced the relic that was their TV. Mom snapped off a soap opera and fought back tears. The other kids were younger, but she knew right away before she opened her mouth what this little family meeting was about.
“Your papa and I...”
Another splinter drove into her. She recalled how she’d stolen a handful of candy corn from a bin in the produce section in the market when she was seven. She never told anyone that she’d done so, but to that very day the sight of the triangular orange, yellow, and white Halloween confection made her stomach churn with guilt. She never stole anything again, never broke any law. One time when she was stopped by a state trooper, she cried because she thought she’d been speeding and was going to get a ticket. Instead, the affable cop with a soup strainer of a mustache told her that her taillight was out, flashed a smile, and waved her on to the nearest repair shop.
“Need to be safe,” he said. “Have a daughter of my own and wouldn’t want her driving with a winking tail light.”
Some thoughts materialized as if underscored by the divine, reminding her not to steal, that parents don’t always stay together, that there are good men out there too. Some were more random. Things that came to her that felt like filler, a recap of moments that had never been important. She lost her car keys the week before. She threw up on a merry-go-round when she was four. She hated ravioli from the can and could remember the slap she got from her aunt when she told her so at the dinner table.
Shutting her eyes did nothing. The images still bombarded her.
Stop, she thought. Think. Think. You don’t want to die. Not here, not in this place.
The man on the other side of the wall that separated them had his own flood of recollections. He steadied himself by leaning against the small doorway. The rumble of an old refrigerator’s ice machine soothed him like one of those cheap motels with Magic Fingers attached to the bed frame. Drop in a quarter, ride the pulsating massage. Feel good. He thought of her begging for mercy.
“Don’t do this. You don’t want to do this!”
But he did want to. So very, very much.
He remembered how, after that, everything had been about the killing.
Even when he’d watch TV and a potato chip commercial would come on, he’d rewrite the familiar tagline in his head: Nobody can kill just one.
In the shadows, the young woman was growing a little stronger, a touch more coherent. She felt the rumbling of something outside the space that held her prisoner. She was on her stomach. Her hands had been bound by tape. Her feet too.
She realized that she was breathing hard. Fast, out of fear. She told herself to slow down. She didn’t want to pass out. Not like before.
She remembered his hand reaching around her as he held her from behind. He’d had what looked like a dirty T-shirt balled up in his fist. At that moment she had known she was probably going to die.
He had pinched her neck and pressed the fetid cloth to her mouth and nose. Tequila? Cleaning fluid? Acetone? She felt the wooziness that comes with too much to drink and maybe too little sleep. She felt her knees starting to bend, although she commanded them to stay locked. The world around her started to grow faint. She couldn’t even hear his breathing, at once so labored and hot against the back of her neck.
I don’t want to die. Why are you doing this to me? Who... what are you?
Of course, no words came from her bruised and bloodied lips. Her interior monologue was screamed through the fear in her eyes only. She was falling. The lights were going out.
Help me. Please, someone.
Her last thoughts were the darkest that had ever gone through her mind.
I hope he only rapes me. Yes, only rapes me.
Her wits were nearly gone, but she knew the ridiculousness of her thoughts. She had a friend who’d been raped in a restaurant parking lot. It was nothing to wish for, but in that moment it was the only hope that she had.
She wanted to live.
Doing what I do is hard enough… Finding the right girl, the one who knows her place, that’s damn near impossible these days.
--- FROM AN E-MAIL RECOVERED FROM THE SUSPECT’S COMPUTER
March 29, 8 a.m. Near Sunnyslope, west of Port Orchard, Washington
The early mornings in the woods of Kitsap County, Washington, were wrapped in a shiver, no matter the season. The job required layers and tools. The smartest and best-prepared brush pickers started with an undershirt, another shirt on top of that, a sweater or sweatshirt, and a jacket. Gloves were essential too. Some were fashioned with a sewn-in cutting hook to expedite the cutting of thinner-stemmed plants like ferns. A sharp knife or a pair of good-quality loppers made easier the business of cutting woody stems like evergreen huckleberry, salal, and in the Christmas-wreath season, fir and cedar boughs. As the day wore on, pickers shed their clothing, a layer at a time. Picking was hard work, and a good picker was a blur, cutting, fanning, and bundling, before bagging floral gleanings in thick plastic bags.
Instead of garbage in those bags, of course, there was money.
Pickers often left indicators they’d been through an area.
Empty bags of chips emblazoned with Spanish words that touted the snack’s flavor. Sometimes they left torn gloves or leaky boots in the forest. Some left nothing at all.
Sunday morning Celesta Delgado --- along with her boyfriend, Tulio Pena, and his two younger brothers, Leon and Reno --- left the mobile home they were renting in Kitsap West, a mobile home park outside the city limits of Port Orchard, just before first light. Behind the wheel of their silver and green 1987 Chevy Astro van, Tulio drove northeast toward state-owned property near Sunnyslope where they held permits for brush picking. Celesta and Tulio also worked at a Mexican restaurant in Bremerton, but this being Sunday, they had the time to earn --- they hoped --- about $60 apiece for a day’s work in the woods. The center seats of the van had been excised so they’d be able to haul their gleanings back to the brush shed, or processing plant, off the highway to Belfair. The two younger ones sat in the backseat amid supplies and the cooler that held lunch.
Celesta, at just five feet tall, was a fine-boned woman with sculpted cheeks and wavy black hair that she wore parted down the middle and, only at the restaurant, clipped back because it was required. She adored Tulio and tolerated his younger brothers with the kind of teasing repartee that comes with both love and annoyance.
“You boys are lazy! Help your brother fix the van.”
“Hey, Celesta, you take longer with your hair than Shakira!”
At twenty-seven, Tulio was five years older than the love of his life. He was a compact man with the kind of symmetrical muscular build that suggested he worked out to look good, rather than worked hard with his body. The opposite, of course, was the truth.
Tulio parked the van adjacent to a little crease of pathway into the forest, the entrance to Washington State Department of Natural Resources land that had been cleared by loggers in the 1970s. The second growth provided the ideal growing conditions for the foliage that serves as filler for market bouquets. Anyone who’s ever purchased a bunch of flowers from a grocer has held in his hands the gleanings of dark green to accent gerbera daisies, tulips, delphinium, and other floral showstoppers. They’ve held the work of those who labor in the forests of Washington and Oregon.
The small group all put on thick-soled rubber boots and retrieved their cutting tools, rubber bands, and hauling bags from the back of the van. Then the quartet started out, their Forest Service tags flapping from their jacket zippers. They could hear the voices of Vietnamese pickers, so they turned in the opposite direction and followed a creek to a narrow valley. Stumps of massive trees long since turned into houses, fences, and barns protruded from mounds of dark, glossy greens. The area had not been over-picked, which was good. It was getting harder to find places that didn’t require a three-hour hike. Tulio had been assured that the area was regulated and in good condition. It was good, though, not to have been misled. He valued their permits and foraged with care rather than with the bushwhacker mentality that denuded sections of the forest. Tulio saw it as a renewable resource --- that is, renewing and filling the usually empty fold of his wallet.
“Don’t cut all the moss, bros,” Tulio told Leon and Reno. “There won’t be any to come back and get later.”
“Sí!” they chimed back, looking at Celesta.
Celesta shrugged a sly grin. She’d been the one who overharvested the moss from the trunk of a big-leaf maple the last time they went out to work in the forest.
Fog shrouded patches of the valley as the four fanned out to cut and bundle. They set to work. Celesta was the slowest of the four because she sought out sprigs that were of a higher quality. No wormholes. No torn edges. Just beautiful shiny leaves that were often mistaken for lemon leaves by those who didn’t know botany and sought a more romantic origin for their floral displays than the sodden forests of the Pacific Northwest. Bunches of salad were pressed flat and stacked before being bagged.
The morning moved toward the afternoon, with three trips to the van and then back into the woods. No one saw the Vietnamese pickers they’d heard talking in the woods at the beginning of the day. At the van, Reno and Leon heard the sound of car doors slamming somewhere nearby. They assumed more competitors were on the way, but they never saw anyone.
Around 2 P.M., Celesta decided she had to use the bathroom. She loathed squatting in the woods. She told Tulio she was going back in the direction of the van, where she’d seen the remnants of a shed that would provide some kind of privacy.
“All right,” he said. “Two more loads, and the day is done.”
“Good, because I’m tired.” Celesta lugged her latest batch of greens over her petite shoulder and disappeared down the same deer trail they had followed into the clearing.
Even in the midst of a spring or summer’s day with a cloudless sky marred only by the contrails of a jet overhead, the woods of Kitsap County were always blindfold dark. It had been more than eighty years since the region was first logged by lumberjacks culling the forest for income; now it was developers who were clearing land for new tracts of tickytacky homes. Quiet. Dark. Secluded. The woods heaved quietly in a darkness that hid the fawn or the old refrigerator that someone had unceremoniously discarded. Patches of soil were so heavy with moisture that a person stepping off the nearly imperceptible pathway would feel his shoes being nearly sucked from his feet.
The woods were full of dark secrets, which is exactly what had attracted him in the first place. He’d noticed the brush pickers when he’d been out on the hunt several weeks before, when he had an urge to do something. A crammed-full station wagon was parked on the side of the road as close to the edge as possible without going into the ditch. They poured from their vehicle, talking and laughing, as if what they were about to do was some kind of fun adventure.
He sized up the women.
Most were small.
Most were thin, reasonably pretty, and young.
Some didn’t know English --- at least not enough to speak it with any real fluency.
He took it to mean that they were likely illegals.
Excellent. Who would care if one of those went missing?
A few days later, he returned to the place where he knew more of them would come. From across the road, he watched the pretty dark-haired girl get out of the van, flanked by three young men.
He liked that too. Later, when he felt her body go limp in his arms, he smiled. Good girl, he thought. Give yourself to me.
A half hour or more passed, and Tulio wondered why Celesta hadn’t returned. The air had warmed up considerably, and he’d stripped down to a sleeveless T-shirt. He called out for his brothers, and the three of them gathered up their impressive haul of cuttings.
“She must be waiting back at the van,” he said.
An hour had elapsed by the time they made it to the clearing.
Tulio put his bag down and unlocked the Astro van.
“Where are you?”
Leon, the youngest, hurried over to the vehicle, waving a pair of gloves and a cutter that were obviously Celesta’s because she’d used pink nail polish to apply her initials and a tiny rendering of a daisy.
“Look, I found these. She left them there,” he said, indicating an area of gravel near the path into the woods.
Tulio took the gloves and stared into his brother’s worried eyes. “What happened? This doesn’t make sense. Something’s wrong. Something has happened to Celesta.”
March 30, 10 a.m.
South Colby, Washington
“Now, that’s attractive,” she thought.
Kendall Stark sat in her white Ford SUV in the school parking lot and fumbled in her purse for a toothpick. Nothing. She checked the glove box. Again nada. A sesame seed from a morning bagel had lodged between her front teeth. Coming up empty-handed, she used the corner of one of her Kitsap County sheriff’s detective business cards. Tacky as she knew it was, mission accomplished. She reset her rearview mirror and got out of her car, proceeding toward the front office of South Colby Elementary School. She said hello to Mattie Jonas, the school secretary, who in turn handed her a clipboard with a signup sheet.
Son’s spring conference, she wrote for the reason of her visit.
Mattie nodded. “You know the drill. Gun-free zone. No exceptions, even for Kitsap County’s finest.”
With her mind on the meeting, Kendall had forgotten to remove and store her Glock in her car’s gun safe, something procedure called her to do. While the school secretary looked on, she removed the magazine, set the safety, and put the gun into a metal lockbox that the secretary had provided for that purpose.
“We don’t worry about you,” Mattie said, locking the box with a key she kept on a chain around her slender wrists. “I mean, you and the other cops are on the side of right, but a rule’s a rule.”
“Of course,” Kendall said.
“How’s your mom?”
Kendall sighed. “Good days and bad days. More bad days lately, I’m afraid.”
Mattie didn’t press for details. It was clear Kendall didn’t want to go into it. It was a question that came at least once a day. Most people in town knew her mother. Port Orchard was small enough that on any given day, paths would cross with those who shared histories. Mattie had been an assistant in Kendall’s mother’s fifth-grade classroom many years ago. Mrs. Maguire --- never Ms. --- was a favorite of anyone who had her. Bettina Maguire was a marmalade-colored redhead who taught her pupils with the fervor of a preacher and the kind of self-deprecating humor that made other teachers standoffish and jealous.
Kendall walked the familiar corridor to Classroom 18 and turned the knob, her heart beating a little faster as she went inside. Lori Bertram’s classroom was a riot of construction-paper cutouts and the smells of all things that seven-year-olds live for: Paste. Sour green-apple candy. Guinea pigs. Lori Bertram had been teaching at South Colby for the past six years, but she still carried the enthusiasm of a first-year teacher. Ms. Bertram was a brunette with pointed features and a splatter of freckles over the bridge of her nose. A charm bracelet with all fifty states, something she used as a teaching tool, jangled whenever she moved her arm.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Stark,” she said, motioning toward one of those impossibly small chairs. Green eyes sparkled through wireless frames.
Kendall Stark was there about her son Cody, an autistic boy who was easy to love but a challenge nonetheless. He was blond-haired and blue-eyed, like his mother. His head was like a small pumpkin, so round and perfect. In photographs, he was the ideal. A cherub. The Gerber baby. The image of the child that young women always dreamed would find their way into a perfectly appointed nursery. He was almost one when the doctors first diagnosed the possibility of “delayed development.” If only. At two, the autism was confirmed. The diagnosis, at first, was a torpedo speeding toward every dream Kendall had for her son. It would never change her love, of course, but in her darkest hours she knew that her son was born to suffer in some way. It broke her heart.
To outsiders, at least, it appeared to take longer for Steven Stark to come to terms with the idea that their son was “different from the others.” An advertising salesman for a hunting and fishing magazine out of Seattle, Steven used to be the kind of man who was all biceps and bravado. Snowboarding. Bungee jumping. Driving fast cars. He was drawn to whatever gave him a challenge, a rush. He had assumed that when he became a father, he’d be able to relive the excitement of the things that didn’t seem to be in the dignified realm of adulthood. He loved his son too. But the cruelty of autism was a chasm between father and son. Steven’s love, it seemed, was seldom returned. There would be no playing catch. No baseball games. No deer hunting.
“This may not be the son you’ve dreamed of,” Kendall said on the way home from one of their first consultations with an autism specialist. “But in time you’ll see. He will be the boy of your dreams.”
Steven put on his game face. “I’m sure you’re right, babe.”
“God gave us a special son because we’re the right parents for him.”
“I know,” he said, his tone more rueful than he’d wanted.
Later, when she played back the conversation, she wondered who had said what.
Kendall Stark knew no speeches could change what Lori Bertram was about to tell her. She knew that the second-grade teacher cared for her little boy. She’d said so many, many times. She’d arranged for special testing, more hours from the support staff than were required to help him stay in the same class as the kids he’d known since preschool.
“Kendall,” the teacher she said, lowering her glasses to view a printout, “I’m sorry to report that things aren’t working out for Cody here at South Colby as we’d all hoped.”
The words were not a surprise. Ms. Bertram had sent several missives home, as had the special education teacher, Ms. Dawson. All seemed to agree that Cody was not a candidate for mainstreaming.
“Cody’s needs and challenges are too great for a standard classroom,” she said.
As a detective, Kendall knew the kinds of questions to ask in order to get the kind of result she wanted. But not now. She was powerless.
“I can get him more help,” Kendall said. “Another specialist.”
The teacher looked away. The moment was awkward. “Look, you already have. You have done an exemplary job, and I know whatever avenue you choose to pursue will be the right one. But the truth is, having him in the classroom is too disruptive to the education process.”
Kendall thought about fighting back. She wanted to tell the teacher that what was best for Cody was that he’d stay with the other children. But she held her tongue. There had been enough warning that this was coming.
“I’ve told Inverness about Cody,” Ms. Bertram went on. “They might have room for him in the fall.”
“I see,” was all Kendall could come up with. The teacher’s words were meant to offer hope, but they stung.
The Inverness School was in Bremerton. Reviews on the institution were mixed. Some kids were boarded there, which Kendall considered no better than warehousing the disabled. The school itself earned decent marks from educational advocates for the disabled. It was probably the best place for Cody in Kitsap County.
The only place.
“Can I see him before I leave?” Kendall asked.
Ms. Bertram nodded. “He’s in music now. Follow me.”
The two women walked down a polished-aggregate corridor to a small classroom filled with the sound of children singing “Baby Beluga.” Only one little boy remained silent, the flicker of recognition that something was going on around him barely discernible. Yet, like a flipped switch, when he saw his mother, he rushed over, nearly knocking down a little girl.
She scooped him up and gave him a loving embrace, kissing the top of his beautiful blond head.
“I was here to see your teacher,” she told him.
She gave him another peck on his forehead and told him she’d see him at home after school.
“I love you!” the boy said.
Cody was a child who didn’t say much. Unsurprisingly, the words he did utter went straight to his mother’s soul.
“I love you, Cody.”
Her gun secure in her holster, Kendall returned to her car feeling the heaviness of her son’s complicated future on her shoulders. Steven was at home, asleep --- his routine on the day back from a three-day trip to a sportsmen’s show in Louisville. She could feel the tears start to come, but she willed them to stop. The tears were for Cody.
Inside, she knew that Cody’s heart would be broken when he found out that he’d have to leave the children that he’d known until now. Kendall recognized that he had some understanding that he was different than his friends, Adam and Tristan. She saw his frustration when he tried to play a video game. He saw how the others could read. He saw that the monkey bars at school were for those with the dexterity to hold on tight and swing. Kendall and Steven had vowed they’d raise their son with the advantages of knowing that, while he was indeed different than others, his future was full of promise. They knew there might someday be a day of reckoning.
Which just came in the form of the conference with Ms. Bertram.
Kendall turned on her cell and noticed that there’d been a call from Josh Anderson, one of the nine others who carried a gold Kitsap County sheriff’s detective star.
“Kendall, the lieutenant wants us to work a missing brush picker’s case. Don’t ask me why. She probably ran back to wherever the hell she came from. Celesta Delgado’s the name. Hope things went well with Cody’s teacher. Get your ass in here so we can get to work.”
In the room made just for her misery, Celesta Delgado woke once more. By then she’d figured out that she was not in a car trunk, as she first had imagined. There would be no way she could fiddle with the emergency latch as she’d seen a young woman do on the Today show when she reenacted her own escape from a would-be rapist.
Or a killer.
Her eyes traced a pinprick of light that bored through the wall, which was weeping with condensation.
Celesta wriggled some more, panting, pushing, trying to break the tape that kept her strong body constricted. She did not want to be raped. She wanted to get the hell out of there. She twisted with all of her strength and somehow rolled herself on her side, her hands still behind her back. She wanted to scream from the pain emanating from her shoulders, but it wouldn’t matter.
Her mouth was bound too.
Again she followed the light. She could see better now, both eyes in play.
If only she could shout. At no time in her life did she ever think she would die like this. Die --- yes, die. No rape. No way out.
Tears rolled down her sticky cheeks. Celesta needed to pull herself up and get out of there.
The door swung open, and a blast of light came at her all at once. A shadowy figure moved toward where she’d pinned herself against the wall, screw tips clawing at her back. She pushed away from him as he moved forward.
Yet, there was nowhere to go.
“Please, God,” she said. “Can’t you hear me?”
Excerpted from VICTIM SIX © Copyright 2011 by Gregg Olsen. Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights reserved.