Authors: April Henry
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FOR JAKE KELLER,
WHO WOULDN'T LET ME DEDICATE
THE LAST BOOK TO HIM
Whatever [the criminal] touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as silent evidence against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibres from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen he deposits or collectsâall these and more bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are.
It is factual evidence.
Physical evidence cannot be wrong; it cannot perjure itself; it cannot be wholly absent.â¦ Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value.
BLOOD AND BONES
Freshly spilled blood is wet, shiny, and startlingly crimson. Newly exposed bone is a pearly, glowing white.
Blood and bones. Before the night was out, Nick Walker would see things that would drop him to his knees. Before the week was out, he would do things he would have said were impossible. And he would learn truths that he would desperately wish were lies.
A GOOD GIRL
In a little over an hour, seven-year-old Mariana Chavez would be lying in a ditch, her unseeing eyes staring at the stars.
But for now, Mariana lay on her back looking up at the lights on Home Depot's faraway ceiling. She was stretched out on a low, flat cart topped with curved bars that looked like an orange jungle gym. She lifted one of her legs so she could admire her new rain boot, red with black dots. The best part were the toes, decorated with eyes and antennae. The boots looked just like ladybugs.
“Why is this so confusing?” Mariana's mom muttered as she scanned the rows of little round pieces of shiny metal and black rubber that would somehow fix the drippy kitchen faucet. “And why must Mr. Edmonds be so”âshe paused and Mariana knew she was skipping over a swear wordâ“so useless?”
Mr. Edmonds was their apartment manager. He was the one who was supposed to fix things. Only two years ago he had tried to fix the leaking toilet and just made it worse. And after that, Mariana's mom had started just trying to fix anything that broke herself.
Mariana also didn't like Mr. Edmonds, but for different reasons. When her mom wasn't watching, he sometimes stared at her. And said things to her, too, about how pretty she was, about how she seemed older than seven. It wasn't that she minded being told those things. She just didn't like to hear them from Mr. Edmonds, who looked a little like a tanned lizard.
Finally her mom picked something and paid for it. When they drove home, it was already growing dark. Mariana helped carry in the groceries they had bought before going to Home Depot, staggering a little under the weight of the bags.
“You're a good girl, Mariana,” her mom said, resting her hand briefly on her shoulder. “You're a good helper.”
reminded Mariana of what would come next. Putting away the groceries and then holding a flashlight while her mom swore at the wrench and the faucet and Mr. Edmonds and complained that Mariana wasn't holding the light still.
“Can I go over to Hector's to play?” Hector was her best friend. He lived in the next apartment building.
Her mom was already shaking her head. “I don't think so, honey.”
“Pleaseâ¦” Mariana drew the word out.
Her mom relented. “Okay. I guess you've earned it.”
But when Mariana knocked on the door to Hector's apartment, no one answered. It was fully dark now. She knocked again, but there were no sounds from inside. She was dragging her feet back down the walk, not at all eager to go home and hold the flashlight, when she spotted something that made her stop.
A kitten. A little black-and-gray-striped kitten. It took one startled glance at her and then ran around the corner.
Mariana loved kittens. And if she brought this one home, maybe this time her mom wouldn't say no. Not when it was right there in their apartment and already best friends with Mariana.
Hands outstretched, Mariana ran around the corner and into the darkness.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Ninety minutes later, Mariana's mom called Hector's mom to say it was time for her daughter to come back. And learned that the family had only been home for fifteen minutesâand that they had not seen Mariana.
AGAINST HER WILL
When the text lit up his phone, Nick was doing his homework. Or, to be more accurate, he had his history textbook open while he watched YouTube music videos on his laptop.
911 Assist near GreshamâMissing 7 yoâMeet @ 2100
The text was from Mitchell Wiggins, Nick's team leader in the Portland County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue team.
Homework now completely forgotten, Nick texted Ruby McClure. “Any chance I can get a ride?” He, Ruby, and a girl named Alexis Frost had all joined SAR at the same time and become friends. Ruby was the only one with a car. Once you were notified, SAR gave you just an hour to get your gear and assemble at the sheriff's office. On a Sunday night, TriMet buses were few and far between.
Ruby texted back a second later. “Sorry. At chamber music concert with parents. Already cutting it close.”
Nick jumped to his feet. He needed to change into outdoor gear and grab his SAR backpack and red helmet. And to persuade his mom to let him borrow her car. There was no sense in asking to use his brother's car. If Nick needed to borrow the car to drive to the emergency room or he would die from a collapsed lung or something, Kyle would probably still say no.
Every time he was called out on a SAR mission, he felt closer to his dad, a soldier who had died a hero in Iraq when Nick was only four. His mom was dead set against him ever joining up, but she had agreed to let him be part of SAR.
What he hadn't told her was that SAR was a stepping-stone, a place to acquire skills that would come in handy once he turned eighteen and could enlist. In liberal Portland, there were no high-school-based ROTC programs, but SAR would teach Nick how to track, use knives, give first aid, survive in the wilderness, navigate with a topo map and GPS, and even collect crime scene evidence. He figured that any and all of those would look good to a recruiter.
Ninety minutes later, Nick and twelve other members of SAR's Alpha Team clambered out of the sheriff's white fifteen-passenger van and into the parking lot of a large apartment complex. Jon Partridge, an adult adviser, had driven them to this spot in outer Southeast Portland, past used car lots, strip joints, and fast-food places Nick had never heard of.
In the two months since Nick had joined SAR, he had taken part in five searches for lost hikers and hunters, and two for crime scene evidence. But this was the first time he had been called out for an urban search. When it came to finding people, SAR usually concentrated on the great outdoors. But law enforcement could also mobilize them to search for the vulnerable who might have wandered away: the disabled, the elderly, and children.
Chris Nagle, a sheriff's deputy, was already waiting for them. Aside from Chris and Jon, everyone else standing in the darkened parking lot was a teenager. Most of the other teens were certifieds who had been called out on dozens of searches. Nick, Ruby, and Alexis were allowed to participate in searches, but before they were certified, they needed to complete nine months of training. That included mandatory classes every Wednesday evening and practice outings one weekend a month.
“How could you even remember which apartment was yours?” Alexis asked, turning in a slow circle. The low light made her high cheekbones even more pronounced. Nick tore his gaze away and saw what she meant. They were surrounded by about twenty identical beige buildings, each with three apartments above and three below. All the apartments had dark-gray doors, and matching white drapes hung in every window.
“There are myriad minor differences.” Ruby's breath clouded the air in front of her fox-like face. “There's the cardinal orientation, the possessions stored on porches, the door decorationsâ¦”
Nick and Alexis exchanged a look that mingled exasperation, amusement, and an odd kind of pride. Ruby didn't notice.
Mitchell Wiggins called out, “Huddle up, team!” His long pale hands waved them in. He was already wearing the yellow climbing helmet that marked him as team leader. “Today we will be conducting a hasty search for a seven-year-old girl named Mariana Chavez, who went to play with another child in this complex nearly four hours ago. But the other family wasn't home and she never returned to her own apartment.”
Next to Nick, Alexis shivered.
“We'll go door-to-door first,” Mitchell continued. “Then we'll clear the grounds. If that fails, we'll check nearby houses, walk roadsides, and clear fields. Remember, we are not only looking for the girl, but we're also looking for any sort of evidence as to her whereabouts.”
If Mariana were an adult, this might turn out to be what was known in SAR circles as “a bastard search,” when you went looking for someone who had never really been lost at all. But it wasn't nearly as likely that a missing little kid was a false alarm.
“Mariana has shoulder-length black hair,” Mitchell continued. “She's wearing black pants, a pink top, a dark blue puffer jacket, and red-and-black rain boots that look like ladybugs. She is in good health and normally not much of a risk taker.”
Nick reviewed what they had learned in class about “lost person behavior.” Seven was old enough to travel quite a bit farther than even a slightly younger child. But seven was still young enough to be impulsive, or to give in to a desire to explore. Mariana was old enough to have been taught to avoid strangers and yet too young to realize that some strangers meant no harm. So this girl might even hear them calling her name and choose to stay hidden and quiet. Sometimes little kids even fell asleep and slept so deeply they didn't hear searchers calling for them.