Circle Of Friends
Circle of Friends - Chapter One - Sample

A white-hot explosion of light brought Kendra Jenkins back from the depths of her dreams; the only solace she had known in what seemed an eternity. In fact, God only knew how long she had been held captive. She had been a prisoner for long enough to have almost completely forgotten what freedom was like. What it felt like to take a lung full of crisp morning air. What it felt like to scream just to hear her own voice. Or what it felt like to move so much as even a muscle.
Kendra's eyes adjusted to the intrusive lighting and she slowly became more aware of her bleak surroundings. The same surroundings that had greeted her morning after morning, or quite possibly it were night after night, for as long as she could remember. A thick plastic tube forced its way passed her teeth and into her mouth. A familiar, warm sensation quickly began invading her mouth. It was mealtime. She sucked at the gruel, not from a sense of obedience, nor from pangs of hunger, but from a survival standpoint. Kendra was convinced that if she didn't suck and swallow the oozing mass it would surely drown her. The texture of the iron-enriched substance was not unlike the mucky sludge of decayed leaves and silt found on the bottom of a swampy river. She forced herself to swallow the repulsive goo, gagging to get it to go down. 
The young woman struggled to focus her eyes and tried to clear her head of the fog that had taken up permanent residence in her brain. She couldn't remember where she was or how she had come to be there, wherever the hell there was. Her vision was blurry around the edges like looking through a kaleidoscope filled with cotton balls. Everything within her line of sight was a milky white hue with mysterious shrouds cast upon anything solid. Her chest began to pound with excitement and fear and she could taste the tinny taste of bile rising up in her throat as it had done for days on end. She tried to raise her hand and wipe her eyes but she couldn't move. Panicked, Kendra wriggled from side to side against her restraints. 
The girl screamed, but the sound was muffled, as if it had come from within the recesses of her own mind. The more her eyes focused, the more the milky white shroud seemed to penetrate them. Her eyes began to sting terribly. Kendra blinked to try and ease the dry grittiness, but her eyelids wouldn't close.
The girl could feel herself hyperventilating and tried to take slow, deliberate sips of air. It must be a dream. That was a statement she made to herself every time she was rudely awakened by the intrusive lights, which seemed to happen day after day for an eternity. Kendra had lost count of the days after the first several months. 
As the mental fog lifted even more, Kendra's memories flooded back to her, albeit still void of any recollection of time. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Memories of her baby sister's cherubic face smiled back at her as warm and inviting as a mug of hot cocoa in the wintertime. Her little pink tongue danced across her pudgy lips as she giggled with glee over her big sister's loving attention. Kendra could smell her mother's Obsession and her father's Brut. A brand of cologne he always wore because his daughter had given it to him. Neither one of them really cared for the scent, but it was all she had been able to afford when she was five years old and over time it evolved into a traditional birthday gift. Kendra was sure her daddy would wash it off and put on something a little more elegant and expensive once he had gotten to his office. But she was quite mistaken. Her father wore Brut every day, all day. He had even begun reapplying it several times throughout the day since her disappearance a year earlier.
Like a creeping itch that you just can’t seem find the right place to scratch, pain slowly clawed its way up her face. At first it felt like a radiant glow, somewhat comfortable and not at all frightening. But then it burrowed deeper and deeper into her skin, down into the meat of her lips, cheeks and forehead. There seemed to be a concentrated center of heat directly in the middle of her face. The tip of her nose felt as though it were on fire. She struggled to move her head from side to side in order to escape the relentless, fiery hot pain. 
Growing in intensity the heat became unbearable, yet inescapable. Random thoughts bounced around in her head, one thought blending into the next before she had a chance to focus on what it was she was thinking about. She felt as though the pain were driving her to the brink of insanity. Opening her eyes to try and understand what was happening to her, Kendra immediately clamped them closed and found herself thanking this monster for gifting her the small morsel of kindness of removing the clamps that had been holding her eyes open. Her eyeballs felt dry and gritty, as though the soft tissue itself were cracking like the paint of an antique portrait.
She curled her toes and squeezed her hands closed into tight fists, digging her fingernails into her palms until the already tender flesh bled. Tiny streams of warm, sticky blood trickled between her fingers. The dull throbbing pain of her hands was no match for the relentless pain invading her face. 
An indeterminate amount of time later the agonizing heat began to slowly subside, although the intense pain took much, much longer to dissipate. Every nerve in her face twitched and throbbed. Goosebumps spread across her cooling skin like a wildfire sweeping up a canyon. Although her eyes were closed she could still see that she was bathed in a bright, white light. She desperately wanted to open her eyes and look around but she remembered the pain from her last attempt and settled for the unknown. Exhausted from fighting the months of agonizing pain her mind whimpered, she was much too tired to cry.   
All at once Kendra's world was plunged back into darkness. It took her several minutes to gather the nerve to open her eyes and then several more for them to adjust to the abrupt change in lighting. Slowly, like a reverse fade to black movie screen, her world came sharply into view. She grasped at the harshness of her newly given sight and the information it provided her. She wanted the lights back. She wanted to be back in the darkness of not knowing. She was suddenly faced with her reality and it scared the hell out of her.
Kendra glanced around her tiny world, now illuminated in a different light than she had grown accustomed to. She could now see her tomb, some sort of rectangular container. A see through box constructed from clear plastic or Plexiglas. She watched the feeder tube as it retracted away from her mouth and disappeared obscenely into a hole in the Plexiglas about an inch in diameter. Oddly, now that she could see the gruel dripping from the tube she could smell it for what she believed was the first time. Her stomach lurched at the malodorous air invading her chamber. It smelled strongly of liver and stale bread. 
Kendra heard a familiar sound surrounding her and strained to focus her eyes at her feet. A wounded, animalistic cry escaped her lips when she caught a glimpse of her shriveled, drooping breasts and sunken in stomach. Her leathery skin reminded her of a flattened football. This was not her body. As soon as she saw the water beginning to ooze up from the floor and start covering her toes she understood what the sound had been all those passing months, or years. She watched the rising water, entranced, fascinated by its fluidity as it crept up her metamorphosed body. Inch by inch the water, while invasive it was still quite comfortably warm, slithered up her legs. As the water lapped and tickled her buttocks she began to panic. When would it stop? Would it even stop at all? Was she going to drown in this chamber of horrors? Who was doing this to her?
But the water stopped as soon as it reached her waist. Then Kendra felt something familiar moving inside her and realized what she was supposed to do. It had been so long since she had consciously evacuated herself that she had almost forgotten how. However, neither her instincts nor her muscles had forgotten the daily chore. Her bowels let loose, followed quickly by her bladder. She felt a strange sense of relief wash over her. And then there was another familiar sound. The water tickled as it receded down the sides of her body. A familiar sucking sound announced that the chamber had emptied itself. A loud clang startled her and then the sound of water flooding into the chamber was all that she heard once more. And once more it submerged her for cleansing and once more it drained away. 
Goosebumps erupted over the surface of her skin and she shuddered uncontrollably. As if in considerate response to her chill, a warm, gentle breath of air surrounded her body. She could feel the water evaporating from her skin and the chill subsided. 
Out of the corner of her eye, Kendra caught a butterfly's shadow of movement flutter across her scope of vision. She tried to rotate her head to follow the vision but her range of motion was severely limited. Because of her restraints she could only turn her head about an inch to either side. She strained her eyes until she was able to focus on a shadow just off to her left. Kendra was taken aback. It was another Plexiglas chamber just like hers. As quickly as her restraints would allow she pivoted her head to the right and strained her eyes once more. Prisms of reflected light danced in front of her eyes. There was a chamber to her right as well. 
Kendra turned her attention back to the left and began to scan the chamber up and down. Although the details were sketchy at best, she could make out what she believed to be another human to the left of her. As she scanned up the legs and past the pelvic region she noticed the gentle slope of a woman's breast begin to lift and rise away from her breastbone. The woman's skin was lighter than her own. Much lighter. She pivoted her head to the right and scanned that chamber up and down, quickly deducing that there was yet another woman held captive in that chamber as well. This woman's skin was also lighter than her own, but darker than the girl's to the left of her. Kendra tried to bring their faces into focus but there was a rack of bright white lights burning just above the chambers that obscured their forms from the neck up. 
Kendra focused her eyes forward again and scanned the room outside her chamber slowly. A ring of white lights surrounded the perimeter. In fact, the only area not lit up like the North Pole at Christmas was right directly in front of her. How many others were there? She knew of two at least. Was this some alien spacecraft picking up specimens from across the universe? The young woman's brain was aflame with questions. And then a much more enlightening question struck terror in her heart. Why was she suddenly able to think clearly? Why, after all this time, was she able to see her surroundings? She suppressed a feeling of relief the moment it tried to edge its way into her brain. Although she truly wanted to believe the contrary, she was certain these changes didn't mean that her captors had any inclination of setting her free.
Her mind flooded with memories and she began to weep. She remembered her life, which seemed eons ago, a life where she was a budding princess on her way to becoming a queen. Everybody loved her. The media. Her fans. It was then that Kendra recalled her past life in all its glory. She flicked her head to the left and began scanning the poor creature trapped next to her once again. She struggled to see the detail in the girl's face but found it useless. She blinked rapidly, trying to lubricate her dry, stinging eyes, but nothing happened, her eyelids wouldn’t move. She flipped memories through her brain like cards in a Rolodex, searching for something, anything to give her a clue as to what was happening to her. 
She remembered being an actress, but was that only in her dreams? She remembered having perfectly round, firm breasts and delicate chocolate skin with not a blemish to be seen. But now, when she looked down at herself she saw the body of an old woman, one who hadn't bothered to take care of herself. Her once voluptuous breasts now looked like a failed experiment to make kiwi fruit raisins. 
Teary eyed and trapped in a cage with her reveries, Kendra looked to the girl on her left again. She seemed tall, lithe and well built. Her skin tone clouded by the Plexiglas coffin, but she could tell that the girl was white and probably a redhead. A sprig of color captured Kendra's scrupulous eye. The girl had a tattoo on her right thigh of a dolphin leaping from a small wave. If Kendra's memories were right, there was another one, exactly the same, on the girl's other thigh. She knew the girl. They had worked together. They had even had lunch together the day Kendra's memories of a normal life stopped. 
The girl's name was on the very tip of Kendra's brain, along with a slew of memories she wished she could now forget. There was no longer any question that this was not some long, unending nightmare. Nor was her predicament a result of some alien abduction. No, her situation was much grimmer than that. 
The lights came on again above Kendra's plastic sarcophagus, plunging the poor girl back into blindness with their brightness. She struggled with the contrasts between the darkness of the room beyond her tomb and the lights bathing her in an almost angelic glow. She saw movement in front of her, but it was slight and indiscernible. A flick here. A shadow there. And there was sound. A strange sort of squeaking, but it was muffled and dull. Kendra tried to concentrate hard on the motion in front of her but was confused by the lack of details. The slurry of movement continued for several minutes and then as suddenly as it had started, it stopped.
There was a startling pop to the lights and they went out. She was in the dark and alone once again. Not completely alone, she had her cellmates beside her, but they were hardly any comfort. 
Once her eyes had adjusted to her surroundings she saw what the movement had been. There was something drawn in black on the front of her Plexiglas chamber. A rectangle filled with dozens of squares, each with two fresh, large red slashes running diagonally from top to bottom. She studied it for a few minutes when it finally dawned on her that it was a calendar with the word December reading backwards in big block letters in the header. It was obviously New Year’s Eve because there was a big red X slashed through the last day’s box. The red slashes induced a shiver of fear that ran through her with the force of a hurricane. The countdown was finally over, but a countdown to what? Her pain and delirium allowed only brief moments of conscious fear to overwhelm her. In one of those moments she found herself dreading the turn of the next page in her life.

*        *       *

Detective Vito Lorenz sat on the toilet cursing the world. Currently he was wallowing knee deep in regret over eating too much of his sister's Chile's Rellenos and homemade black bean salsa. But on the bright side, at least his bowels were in fine working condition this morning, a deviation from the norm. He gave a slight belch and his mouth was immediately coated with the lingering flavor of spicy sausage, jalapeno peppers and cumin. He swallowed hard and hoped the next one didn’t bring up anything worse than gas.
Puffs of steam from the shower began filling up the bathroom slowly like an eerie fog chewing its way across a cemetery lawn. Vito half expected some Hollywood creation to come bounding through the fog and rip his head off, but was comforted by the knowledge that the monster would never be able to brave the smell saturating every square inch of the tiny cubicle. He gave himself a courtesy flush and prayed that the next round wasn't quite as fiery. 
A rattling on the counter startled him back to reality. He picked up his Motorola pager, a dinosaur he refused to retire in this age of cell phones and wiped off the miniature view window. It was the department again. He felt like flushing the annoying beast along with his sister's retribution. Vito was constantly apologizing for beating and picking on her when they were kids and she was constantly getting even by slipping more jalapenos and cumin into his food. He wondered if he would ever learn to quit eating at her place. He would, right about the time he would learn to cook for himself, which was never. He was already damned near fifty and couldn't even boil water without written instructions and fire department back up. 
"Lorenz," he half-grunted into the mouthpiece of his cell phone. He had ignored his pager as long as he dared. It had been going off every five minutes since six am and it was more than half past that now. 
"Rise and shine sunshine," a familiar voice chimed.
"What do you want, Davenport?" he lashed out at the dispatcher.
"Don't get pissy with me, honey," she responded, snapping her fingers and taking on an air of attitude and even though the detective couldn't see her, he could still visualize her every movement.
"I'm not getting pissy, I hurt, all right. Christ, you know I don't function at this hour."
"Well you had better start to function. Lieutenant Stoddard wants to see you and Haskell at County General ASAP."
"What for?"
"Don’t know sugar, but she said it was hot. I strongly suggest you pick her up something sweet to take her edge off, you know she doesn't like mornings too well either. Especially since she's been at the hospital since four AM," the dispatcher's voice taunted him. 
"What in the hell took you so long to call me?" Lorenz screamed over the shower, which wasn't turning out to be quite as therapeutic as he had hoped.
"I've been trying since quarter after four. Damn, boy, she's pissed," the dispatcher laughed. Lorenz could almost see her jiggling as she laughed. Lucy Davenport was a big woman, big and jiggly.
"Call Lieutenant Stoddard back and tell her something, I was out of town or at my sister's, just something to get me off the top of her shit list."
"Top? Honey, you're not only at the top, you're the only one on it right now. But, I'll see what I can do," she replied, but not before he had to suffer through another round of her acerbic laughter.
Vito turned off the water and stepped out of the shower. He wiped his hand across the mirror and peered at his steamy reflection. Even the fog couldn't hide his body's deterioration. He wiped the mirror once more and combed his hair. The patches of gray on the sides made him look like Grampa Munster. Vito reached into the drawer and pulled out an abused tube of Alberto VO5, squirted a dab in his palm and ruffled it through his hair. Using his fingers as a comb, he ran both hands through his hair. Even though his head look like the loser in a fight between a wolverine and a feather duster it showed less gray so he left it the way it was.
After making his way to his closet the only shirt that Vito could find clean was a Raiders T-shirt back when they won their last AFC championship. He couldn't remember if they were the Oakland Raiders or the L.A. Raiders then and the writing was so faded that reading it was out of the question. Several sniff checks later and he settled for a pale blue shirt that was at least two sizes too small. He rolled up the sleeves before digging his jacket out from beneath his blankets and throwing it on. He ironed out the wrinkles with the palms of his hands and called himself fit for the street.
In the darkest hour of dawn Vito stepped out onto his porch. The world was deathly quiet, having just gone to bed after a long night of ringing in the New Year. Christmas lights blinked in the windows of nearly every house up and down the slumbering street. His porch was dark and gloomy, the bulbs and holiday cheer had burned out many seasons ago.  
Vito struggled to keep four Styrofoam cups of steaming liquid life balanced while driving through rush hour traffic. He hoped the crullers and danish were fresh enough to appease his boss. Normally he would have just settled for a Bavarian crème long john for himself and a cinnamon powdered doughnut for his new partner, but he thought he had better take Davenport's warnings to heart. He laughed aloud as he recalled watching his partner trying to eat his doughnut without getting powdered sugar all over himself. The man probably didn't even like powdered sugar doughnuts, but because he was still fresh and trying to make a good impression, he ate them without complaint. Vito wondered what Haskell's reaction would be once he found out his senior partner had been jerking his chain all along.
One cup of coffee became a casualty as Vito came to a jerking stop in front of his partner's house. He had learned a long time ago to buy one more cup than he needed due to such mishaps. His partner’s front lawn was immaculately groomed and the landscaping professionally done, a far cry from the digs Lorenz called home. Irritated, he gave the horn three short blasts before realizing that Haskell was already coming down the walkway. The man was the epitome of everything Vito had grown to hate, not so much out of spite rather than jealousy. He was tall, athletic, smart and boyishly good-looking. Not to mention, quite capable of dressing himself in the morning without his mother's help.
Vito had been partnered with the man less than six months and had yet to make up his mind whether or not he liked him. Haskell was too quiet and stiff-lipped for his tastes, not to mention he was better than ten years Vito's junior. But then again, the man didn't constantly fill his head with mindless drivel either. And as far as Lorenz could tell, the man had some intelligence, which was more than he could say for his last partner. 
Greg Sizemore's face flashed through the detective's mind. It was the last time they had seen each other. It was the day that Sizemore had been indicted on suspicion of trafficking, extortion and murder. Vito felt a wave of cold chills run over him and gave a sigh of relief. He was damned lucky he had been able to distance himself enough from the man to have been exonerated of all charges without having to testify. There was only one thing worse than a bad cop and that was a cop who turned on his partner. The last good thing Sizemore had ever done with his life was to make sure that Lorenz didn't go down with him. He dotted his fingers across his chest and forehead and kissed his fingers in remembrance. He made a mental note to visit Mary Sizemore. He hadn’t seen her since the funeral.    
Haskell interrupted Vito's daydream by opening the car door. He bent to pick up the dead soldier off the floor and put the empty cup back into the carrier. He sat down and put the cup carrier and bag of doughnuts on his lap. 
"There's one in the bag for you, but not the fancy one, that one's for Stoddard," Vito said, nodding toward the bag on the man's lap.
"Thanks," he replied, cautiously unfolding the top of the white paper sack and peering inside as if expecting some horrific beast to jump out of the bag and rip open his jugular. 
Vito almost broke out into laughter when the man's face scrunched up immediately upon spying the powdered sugar doughnut and of course, no napkins. Haskell commenced going about his morning routine of balancing hot coffee while trying to negotiate with an unruly pastry.
"Any clue what this is about?" Vito asked.
"None. I just got a call from Davenport telling me that you were on your way. What's up?" Haskell asked, losing the battle with the doughnut and wiping little brown and white flecks off his black tie.
"I don't have a clue either. All I know is that Stoddard is at the hospital and has been since four am."
"I wondered about the pastry, but I just thought you were sweet on her," Haskell smirked. Stoddard and Lorenz got along together as well as Punch and Judy. Haskell was certain there was some sort of history between the two of them, but wasn't too clear if it was a good thing that had gone bad or a bad thing that just kept getting worse.
Gregg Haskell was a quiet man, but when he did speak it was usually a one liner good for a laugh. It was his sense of humor alone that had kept Lorenz from being a complete ass to his new partner. He might be quiet, uptight, stuffy, and a little too pretty, but damn it, at least he knew how to laugh. Lorenz suppressed a patented "Fuck You" and concentrated on his driving.
"Aw, Christ, did you eat at your sister's again?" Haskell asked, rapidly rolling down the window and thrusting his head out into the somewhat fresh air. The smog outside was much easier to live with than the smog inside of the car.
Vito just laughed and tried to contain his embarrassment, which was minimal at best.
"What was it this time?"
"Chiles Rellenos."
"When are you going to tell that girl that your lineage is Italian, not Mexican?"
"There's actually some Mexican in our blood, we're jut not certain where." He laughed and thought of rolling down his window for some fresh air of his own.
"Well, I know what part of you isn't Mexican," Gregg said, disgustedly fanning the vile air away from his face.
"I could always go on a steamed broccoli diet."
"You do and I'll shoot you. Man, I should get hazardous duty pay for this shit," he said, jamming his head out of the window once more.
Vito pulled his decade old Plymouth Reliant into the emergency room parking lot and both men made their way into the hospital. He had made certain to take custody of the coffee and cruller away from Haskell so that he would get the credit. As they walked through the sliding glass doors, Gregg tried in vain to wipe the remnants of his doughnut from the front of his tie and suit jacket. They spied their lieutenant and made a beeline toward the scowling woman.
"Lorenz, when are you going to grow up?" She raised her voice and glanced at his partner. "And wipe that innocent look off your face, you know exactly what I am talking about. And Haskell, next time this man buys you one of those damned powdered doughnuts make sure you accidentally drop it in his lap. Wait, on second thought, he might enjoy wiping that off too much," she quipped dryly.
"Good morning to you too, Lieutenant," Lorenz said.
"I don't have time to argue with you about anything this morning, Vito, so just give the damned sarcasm a rest."
"Yes, ma'am," he replied, knowing all too well when to back off with his jabs.
"What have you got?" Haskell interjected, trying to get back their discussion to business.
"What we've got is not pretty. Follow me," she said, turning and walking down the long, highly polished corridor. Both men couldn’t help themselves, their animal instincts took control of their better judgment and they studied her as she sashayed in front of them. Subconsciously they hung back a half step, a move that didn’t go unnoticed. Karen Stoddard knew she came in a mighty fine package and didn’t mind being admired once in a while. Lord knows her husband sure as hell didn’t notice anymore. She let her award winning smile slip away and brought her persona back to that of a hard-assed police lieutenant.
The detectives followed their boss passed the nurse's station where several of the women shot them empathetic glances unnerving Lorenz. He knew when something was bad enough to visibly shake up nurses the situation was usually not very good and usually it involved children. They passed through a set of swinging double doors into the ICU and were immediately led into a scrub room by the charge nurse. Silently the three of them scrubbed up, their insides churning. The detectives because although they were unaware of the details, knew the situation must be terrible if they were disinfecting themselves before being allowed in the victim’s room and Stoddard because she had already seen first hand the carnage hidden behind the wispy white veils in room 407. 
"Lieutenant, why are we here, we're homicide?" Haskell asked with an apprehensive tremble in his voice. 
"Because Lorenz is the best detective I've got and you just happen to be his partner. And Lorenz, don't let that last comment go to your head. You might be my best detective, but you're still a slob."
"Thanks for the compliment, can't wait to see my eval," he droned in monotone. 
Haskell snickered.
"You don't want to end up on my shit list too, do you?" Stoddard turned on the young detective like a school of piranha on a wounded capybara.
He just shook his head, unable to respond. Haskell was about as blonde as a person could be without the hair color being considered white. With his fair hair came a fair complexion and it was apparent to everyone that the lieutenant had embarrassed him. He could feel the heat radiating from his cheeks like they were sunburned. The confrontation caused him to retract back into his shell, secretly vowing to never again speak in the woman's presence. Detective Lorenz fought the urge to come to his partner's defense knowing it would accomplish nothing more than putting the young man a few notches higher on the bitch’s whipping post. 
In her thoughts Karen Stoddard cursed her cheating, lying husband. The bastard had gotten to her again. She made a mental note to apologize to Haskell, later, when Lorenz was out of earshot of course. She knew she had had no right to lash out at the junior detective the way she had. 
And damn it, Lorenz, can't you do that outside?" she asked, her face contorting in disgust.
"I did," he replied weakly, trying desperately to suppress a growing smirk. In fact, he had inched closer to her before letting her feel the brunt of his sinister power.
"And teach your sister to cook lasagna or something." 
"Are we going in?" Lorenz asked cautiously.
"Yes, I just needed to gather my thoughts," she responded and pushed the door open gently. 
The room reeked of antiseptics, medicines and something else that Vito couldn't quite put his finger on, at least not until he caught a glimpse of the patient lying in the hospital bed. He heard an audible gasp escape from Haskell and his own stomach whirled like a carousel on all-you-can-ride-for-free day. The smell of cooked flesh permeated the air. Quickly he reached into his pocket and took out a container of Vick's VapoRub mentholated rub and dabbed two fingers under each nose. He handed the royal blue jar to his partner who wordlessly thanked him and followed his lead. The label on the jar was tattered and illegible and most of the paint had been worn of the jar's lid. Normally the Vick's only came out during autopsies and cases where the corpse was well into its decomposition, but this was terrible enough in its own right. Burnt flesh had a distinctive smell and Lorenz was relieved to say he had only limited experience with the rancorous odor. 
After the initial wave of nausea passed due to the stench, the detectives and their lieutenant had to fight off a second wave brought on by what they were seeing. The human shaped lump lying in the hospital bed was horrifying at best. They were unable to discern the person's race or gender due to the blackness of the charred skin. The three of them could do nothing but stare in disbelief.
After several moments Haskell choked, "Lieutenant, can you please explain this?" 
"Not in any great detail I can’t, I don't know much. What I do know is that a person or persons unknown brought her in here at about three this morning. A janitor found her propped in a waiting room chair outside the emergency room."
"Who is she?" Haskell asked.
"I don't know. She had no personal effects on her. She was as naked as the day she was born."
"Was this an accident?" Vito asked.
"It was believed to be until the hospital staff found this," she gently pulled the sheet down, exposing the girl's abdomen. There were crimson letters screaming out a message carved into her flesh. "Evangelique Martens will see you February first," screamed the blood-lined lettering.
"What in the hell does that mean?" Vito asked, watching the nurse pull the sheet back up over the girl's exposed breasts. He made a note of the fact that she was only burned from the neck up. Her arms had seemed to be an odd color compared to the rest of her complexion. They were deeper brown, almost black. Vito realized that the discoloration was due to bruising. 
"I'm afraid I am going to leave that up to you to find out," Stoddard said.
"Pardon me for interrupting," Haskell said, fighting back the flurry of activity in his stomach. "But was her head the only part of her body that was burned?"
"I'm afraid so. There was a little tissue damage at her neckline, but it was only residual heat damage," the doctor interjected as he stepped into the room.
"How old is she? She seems to be around fiftyish and suffering from the effects of severe malnutrition?" Vito asked.
"I'd have to estimate at early twenties," the doctor's voice was somber, yet, Vito easily detected the disgusted anger he was trying to mask.
Everyone in the room fell into an unsettling silence, each reflecting upon the girl's tragic situation and mourning her in their own way. Several moments passed before they were able to digest the poor woman’s tragic situation enough that their sympathies gave way and allowed their anger to shine through. Vito, of course, was the first.
"What in the hell happened to her, doc?" he asked, spinning to face the man, more as an excuse to turn away from the dying girl than anything else. 
"In a nutshell?"
"Yeah, in a nutshell. Give it to me straight so I can understand it in one pass."
"She was slowly cooked," he replied. Instantly he realized he was going to have to explain the situation further just by their disbelieving expressions.
"I guess you better give us the technical version too," Stoddard said, swallowing hard to force back her rising nausea.
"Let's go out in the hall."
"Give me a second," Lorenz said, digging a disposable camera out of his pocket and snapping a few pictures. He gestured for the nurse to pull the sheets back one more time so he could take a few shots of the grim message. Once he was finished he nodded to her and she pulled the sheet back up and tended to the girl as best she could. Although the nurse’s expression was stoic and unemotional the tears in her eyes betrayed a chink in her armor.
The four of them made their way out of the ICU and down to the chapel where they hoped their conversation could be a little more private. White candles flickered flames of undying resolution in the sanctified cubicle. An oaken cross with a carved bronze image of Christ in all his glorious anguish rose elegantly from the surface of a modest kneeler. Its rosewood finish shimmered in the flickering candlelight. The doleful entourage felt a sudden sense of the Almighty wash over them, as if to say He was counting on them to solve this one. Vito didn't like the feeling. What if he failed? Who was this Evangelique and what if he let her suffer the same fate as the pathetic soul dying in room 407? Vito trembled visibly. 
Karen Stoddard saw her detective's reaction and wished she could reach out to him. To comfort him. To touch him and let him know that she cared. But there had been too much bad blood between them for her to ever be able to let him know how she truly felt about him. So instead, she overcompensated with hatred. Her shrink had told her it was a classic case. The boy who picks on little girls in the schoolyard kind of thing. Karen both dearly loved and deeply hated this man at the same time. 
"What did you mean by slowly cooked?" Vito asked, turning to face the doctor.
"In most cases when a person is burned this badly the flesh is seared deeply. But in this girl's case, the flesh beneath the epidermis is interlaced with scar tissue, which means that her skin has been damaged repeatedly over a prolonged period of time. It is my professional opinion that there is no possible way for this much damage to have been cause from tanning, even to the extreme of over tanning."
"What are you trying to say?" Karen asked with a panic stricken voice. She knew the answer but didn't want to hear it.
"In short, she was tortured. In my opinion, some sort of very high output ultraviolet lamp was used to burn her repeatedly. Something with more than a five thousand watt output I'd have to say. Not only was she allowed to heal, but she was medically administered to as well. Whoever did this to her went to great pains to keep her alive."
"How long?" The question came out in the form of a low growl, not unlike a guard dog issuing its first warning.
"Excuse me?" 
"How long had she been tortured?" Vito asked through his teeth.
"I don't know really, but it would be safe to assume it had been for quite some time. Her arms have a lot of scar tissue built up which looks to me like it was most likely caused by IV's."
"Why the IV's?" Haskell asked, still gagging every so often like a cat trying to work up a stubborn hairball.
"I'd have to say that whomever is responsible for this has been administering medication, food and water to her through intravenous procedure."
"Medication, so is there a chance he gave her pain medication?" Stoddard asked.
"Not much. There was nothing to indicate any sense of mercy in her blood work up. No, I'd say her captor was administering antibiotics, vitamins, mild anesthetics, that sort of thing, but as for analgesics or narcotics, there was nothing of that sort. But my tests are only preliminary, I will know more about what went on with her as time goes on," the doctor explained.
"She looks pretty wasted away, how much would you say she weighs?" Haskell asked.
"Sixty, maybe seventy pounds," the doctor replied, fighting back the urge to be sick. He wanted nothing more than for the detectives to leave him alone so he could do the only thing that he could do for the girl; comfort her as she died.
"Is she going to make it?"
"Highly doubtful," the doctor sighed. "Now, please, you must excuse me so I can get back to caring for her. And detectives, do me two favors."
"Name them," Vito seethed.
"Find who ever did this to her and don't give them opportunity to do this to anyone else, if you get my meaning. And get me a name of a loved one. Find out who this poor girl is so I can send her into the afterlife at peace and maybe give her family some closure."
The three of them nodded and watched the doctor as he walked out of the chapel. Vito turned and faced the image of Christ and knelt down. He crossed his chest and said a prayer not only for the tortured young woman, but for himself as well. He turned his head back at Lieutenant Stoddard and said, "thank you."
"For what?"
"For the compliment. You really must think I'm the best you've got if you want me on this case. I just hope that I don't let you down."
"I appreciate that, Vito, I really do. And don't worry about letting me down, I know that you'll do your best."
He was slightly stunned. This was the first time she had called him by his first name in longer than he could remember. 
"I've got to admit something though," she said.
"It's going to be bad, isn't it?" He replied, knowing the tone of her voice all too well.
"Yes, it's bad. I think I might know who that girl is. Or at least I think I have an idea."
Both men stared at her waiting for an explanation.
“One month ago today the department received a warning, just like the one carved into the girl's chest, only this was written on a postcard from a train museum in Vancouver. When I saw the note on the postcard, I took it to missing persons and gave it to them for analysis. The only information they were able to come up with was that the girl, Kendra Jenkins, had been abducted January first of last year from a movie set in Hollywood. But damn, we had no idea that the note was serious, we assumed it was a prank or someone starting to get brave enough to ask for ransom. No ransom had ever been demanded up until we received this note."
"I've got a feeling there's more."
"I had already looked into the case a little while waiting for you and Haskell to show up. I found out that Evangelique Martens had been working on the same movie set as Kendra Jenkins. In fact, it turns out the two of them were friends."
"So this note is not a hoax?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Which means it is quite possible that we only have thirty days to find this bastard before we have another cooked young girl on our hands," Vito stated in disgust.

*       *        *

Lorenz, Stoddard and Haskell pored over what little evidence they had, which was very little at best. Lieutenant Stoddard had called the precinct and ordered an interview room cleared out and any and all evidence from the missing person's case involving Kendra Jenkins and Evangelique Martens be placed on the table inside. Everything was perfectly cozy when the detectives arrived, right down to a fresh pot of coffee on the Bunn. Stoddard didn't like throwing her weight around very often but she had no qualms about it at the present time. This case was going to take priority over everything else, including bruised egos. She felt another sea of acid beginning to get ugly in the pit of her stomach. She knew that sooner or later she was going to have to present all of this to the Deputy Chief, then to the Chief, and eventually to the press, a task she wasn't relishing in the least.
"Witness statements are pretty vague," Vito broke the silence.
"I can't find anyone who claims to have actually seen either of the two girls taken. There are plenty of references to them being together. Of them being at the set cafeteria together for lunch that day. Of them being on the set together. They were always together," Haskell said.
"What's your point?" Stoddard asked, a little more gruffly than she would have liked.
"My point is this, if they were always together, why was one kidnapped a month to the very day after the other? And how could someone have abducted one without the other noticing?"
"Okay, so he took Kendra when the two girls were apart, that at least narrows things down."
"But if they were always together?"
"There had to be some time during that day when they were apart. It was New Year’s Day, maybe they partied hard the night before? Went home with boyfriends, girlfriends, hell one night stands for that matter?"
"But why did he wait a month to take Evangelique?" Haskell asked.
"Who knows? He's obviously a crazy bastard." Stoddard said with an impatient sigh.
"True, but I think there must be a reason for it. What I am saying is this, Kendra showed up at the hospital exactly one year to the day from when she was abducted and Evangelique is supposedly going to suffer the same fate on February first, which would be exactly one year to the day that she was kidnapped as well. It seems as though our perp took her one month after Kendra Jenkins for no other reason than he wanted to," Haskell observed.
"Well, at least that establishes the fact he has some sort of pattern in his sick, twisted mind," Lorenz stated, trying to be optimistic in light of the skimpy evidence.
"Okay, but that still leaves us with not knowing how he was able to take Kendra without Evangelique being there with her. If we could find a time when the two of them were apart then that could narrow things down considerably," Stoddard said. "Which of the witnesses reported her missing?" she asked.
Vito flipped through the files before answering. "None of them. Not the day she disappeared anyway. Someone from the film crew's administrative staff called us after the second day she failed to show up for filming."
"Her parents didn't know?"
"They don't live here in Los Angeles. She's originally from Philadelphia. According to statements from Evangelique, Kendra had only been out here in Los Angeles about a year," Haskell read off the report.
"See if you can find an address or phone number in that file for her parents, Gregg." 
"Yes, Ma'am."
"And the only contact the department has had from her kidnapper was this postcard delivered to you a month ago?" Vito asked, holding a postcard with a picture of a museum diorama featuring a train speeding around a mountain trestle one side and the message, Kendra Jenkins has until New Year’s Day! Written in red felt tip marker on the back. 
"I'm afraid to say none. No ransom demands. No threats, hints or allegations. Nothing," Stoddard replied with a sigh.
"Maybe we need to ask her parents about this," Haskell interjected. "I mean, maybe there were demands and they were told not to deal with the police so they kept quiet about it," he added after seeing the looks on their faces. 
"He's got a point," Vito said.
"Yes, I'm afraid he does. This isn't going to be pretty. I have to inform the parents of her critical condition and then accuse them of causing it by not coming to the police. Great, just great."
"I can help you if you'd like," Vito said.
"No, don't worry about me. What I really need for you two to do is to find me Evangelique's parents. If the kidnapper is demanding money from them without our knowledge, we need to know this and in a hurry."
"I'll send a hot sheet to motor vehicles and see if we can get an address on them."
"I'll start with the production company, see if they can give me any updated information," Haskell said, the two of them closing the door to the interrogation room on their way out. Both of them could see the pressure written all over their boss's face and knew she needed a few minutes to be alone. Making the phone calls she needed to make was never an easy task and neither detective envied her in the least.
"Lorenz," a detective called from his desk.
"Yeah, what is it Smitty?" He asked the man whose last name was actually Smitty and not a just bastardized version of Smith. 
"The hospital just called. The Jenkins girl coded, they couldn't bring her back."
"It's probably just as well," he responded under his breath. 
"Thanks Smitty," Haskell added as an afterthought. The man nodded and went back to whatever tragic story he was working on.
Vito sighed as he dropped down into his chair and spun around for the phone. He punched in a series of numbers and waited impatiently while the phone rang and rang in his ear. 
"ME's office," a familiar voice chimed in his ear after seventeen rings.
"Running the saw again I see," he said, a little disgusted with having to wait for someone to answer the phone. It was an inconvenience Vito had learned to live with. The county was always understaffed and making cuts and it always seemed that the coroner's office and forensics always took the hardest hits.
"Hey, Vito, what's going on?"
"More shit than I care to shake a stick at actually, Morty."
He laughed, "I'll bet. Is there anything in particular I can do for you, or is this a social call?"
"I honestly wish it were a social call, but it's work as usual."
"What have you got?"
"I caught a case today and I need her processed ASAP."
"What's the name?"
"I believe we’ve listed her as Jenkins, but I don't think you have her yet. She’s still at County General."
"I've got her here on my charts. Kendra, correct?"
"Yes, Kendra Jenkins. I would like forensics to go over her with a fine-toothed comb before you start to slice and dice her though, please. Can you hold off until they get finished? And make sure we get a positive ID on this girl, we’re only going on assumptions right now."
"Sure, thing, that's not a problem. I'm up to my elbows in work here anyway, and I mean that literally. I've got a GSW to the chest, the perp used buckshot."
"That's way more information than I needed, Morty, and a lot more than I wanted."
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