It was dark for ages before she had the courage to leave. She didn’t know what time it was, but she waited until the lights went off and the ice maker stopped churning. She didn’t have a clock, a radio, a cell phone—nothing showing the time was allowed. Her head hurt so much that she couldn’t keep track. She was hungry. She shivered. She wished she had some clothes. A blanket. A towel, even. She had undressed when she went into the room, folded her dress and left it on top of her shoes like she always did. He had come and taken everything.
Her legs were cramped and numb but at least they didn’t hurt. She sat there, crisscross applesauce, for hours, waiting. She was good at waiting. She could leave her body and watch herself, waiting until it was time to go back inside. She played games while she waited. Sometimes she played Count The Holes In The Ceiling Tiles. Sometimes she played Count The Hairs On His Head. She was good at counting. There were fourteen thousand three hundred and twelve holes in the ceiling tiles. Sometimes she played possum. When she learned that phrase, years earlier, she realized that she already knew what it meant. She did it all the time. She stayed very still to see how long she could go without breathing or moving. Sometimes she played pretend. She pretended that she was a princess and he was a dragon. She pretended that he could breathe fire. She pretended that she could slay dragons. Sometimes it felt like he could breathe fire—his breath scorched her pale skin. She could wait out the pain, though. She was good at waiting.
She thought back to the first time. She didn’t remember when it started, couldn’t be sure how old she was. She wasn’t good at waiting then—didn’t know how to play the waiting games. The first time, she stayed inside herself and felt every burning breath. She learned to leave quickly, and soon she could wait outside herself instead of feeling anything at all. Now, sometimes she waited outside during school or piano lessons or family dinners. Sometimes she waited outside for no reason at all. She was so good at waiting, she couldn’t help it.
She waited for him to come back. He always came back. After several hours, though, she thought maybe he had fallen asleep. She picked at a scab on one bony knee and hissed when it started to bleed. Maybe he had forgotten to come back. He had never forgotten before, but maybe she had finally waited long enough. Sometimes she played How Will I Ever Get Out Of This? so she knew just what to do. She could find the window, even in the dark, and she knew exactly how far to open it so it didn’t creak and wake anyone. He had very good hearing, but he never heard the games she played. He didn’t know how good at waiting she was.
It was time to go. She wished she had something to eat. Something to wear. Shoes. She knew she couldn’t wait any longer, though. Last time, she had screamed, and he had breathed fire with his hands and his belt. She wouldn’t make that mistake again. Couldn’t wait for next time. She had to go.
She eased the window open and slipped outside, shivering anew in the cold night air. She glanced back to make sure the lights were still off. Good. She had waited long enough this time. She turned left and tried to run. Her bare feet hurt too much when they hit the pavement. He was good at breathing fire on places no one looked. She tried walking, and that came easier. She didn’t look back again.
When Mackenzie Wilson’s work phone rang at 2:00 a.m. that Tuesday, the lithe blonde was fitfully awake. She was stretched out on the couch, making her way through a three-week buildup of reality programs on the TiVo and sipping an Angry Orchard hard cider. She had finished a big trial the previous Thursday, and the Tucson jury was still deliberating. After seven years, the assistant district attorney still couldn’t get a full night’s sleep while waiting for a verdict. That night was no different.
While watching TV, Mack had been idly flipping through a police report on a pair of home invasions in a neighborhood less than a mile from her condo. The police suspected the burglaries were sexually motivated, but as far as Mack could tell, they had no hard evidence to support that theory. They certainly didn’t have a suspect, and she wasn’t even sure why they’d bothered to send her the report this early in the investigation.
The phone rang again.
She sighed, hit the pause button on the TiVo, pulled the phone out of her gray Arizona State sweatpants pocket and tossed the reports onto her table. “No Caller ID” showed on the screen, which meant it was probably a cop. Unfortunately, she had drawn the short straw and was the on-call sex-crimes attorney that week. In addition to waiting out her deliberating jury, she could get called at any moment on a breaking case.
“This is Sex Crimes. ADA Wilson.”
“Hey, Mack,” a familiar baritone voice said. “This is David Barton.”
She had known and worked with Dave, a sergeant with Tucson Police Department’s special victim squads, since she had started working sex crimes five years ago. Mack liked and respected him and his detectives. If Dave was calling at 2:00 a.m., it was serious.
“Hey, Dave. What’s up?”
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he said, sounding tired, “but I need you to come out to a scene I’ve got going.”
Mack was surprised. One of the few advantages to working sex crimes, as opposed to homicides or gang cases, was that there were almost never active scenes. It was extremely rare for police to ask for a prosecutor’s presence during a new investigation—especially so late at night. This was the first time she’d gotten such a request. The fact that it came from a trusted colleague, a big and gruff long timer who hated these calls himself, caused her to shiver involuntarily.
“About two hours ago,” he continued in a monotone, “we got a call that a naked kid had wandered into this Circle K.” Mack heard someone asking the officer something. “Sorry, hang on a second, Mack.”
It was hard to hear Dave clearly, but there was excited conversation in the background. Within seconds, she heard a car door slam and the noise died down.
“That’s better,” he said. He coughed. “The clerk thought the girl looked to be about eleven or twelve. She tried asking for her name, phone number, anything, but the kid wouldn’t say jack.”
Mack had a hundred questions already but tried to be patient.
After another pause, she heard Dave sigh. When he spoke again, he sounded sad. “She’s dirty and bloody, so we’re going to take her in for an exam and try to interview her.”
“Try?” she asked. Tucson’s forensic interviewers were known as some of the best in the country, and Mack had never seen a kid they couldn’t get talking.
“Mack,” he said, a tremor in his voice, “she hasn’t said one word since we got here. Not to anyone. This is totally beyond anything I’ve ever seen. That’s why I want you in on the ground floor on this one. I didn’t just call the on-call phone—I called you.”
She sighed. Her couch was warm and her sweats were comfortable, but Dave was appealing to her professional instincts. She promised to meet him in twenty minutes, as she shuffled toward her bedroom. The convenience store wasn’t far from her condo in the foothills north of the city, and there was unlikely to be traffic at that hour.
Mack traded her sweats for jeans, an Oxford shirt, a sweater, and a fleece jacket. In the first week in January, Mack shivered every time she left the house. After years in Tucson, her blood had warmed, and Mack didn’t know how she’d ever survived living in New Hampshire during her undergrad years at Dartmouth. She swept her blond hair into a messy ponytail and grabbed a Burberry scarf from the hook near the door. She shoved on a pair of battered black Converse All Stars. She didn’t bother with makeup or checking the mirror—even barefaced she would be the freshest-looking person on the scene.
When she eased her beat-up old Saab 93 into the parking lot of the Circle K and saw the flashing red and blue lights, she knew she had the right place. There were three marked and two unmarked police cars and an ambulance. Before she could get the door open, Dave appeared at her window. He wore a standard-issue bulletproof vest over a hooded sweatshirt and black cargo pants, and a Tucson Police baseball cap covered his shaved head.
“There’s something else, too, Mack,” he said, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet, as she hauled herself out of the bucket seat.
Mack groaned. She took her glasses off and rubbed her eyes. There was always something else with cops, and it was never good.
Dave led her across the lot to the ambulance, its open doors revealing a female EMT sitting next to a stretcher on which a little girl sat, pale face streaked with dirt and lined with tear tracks. Her short blond hair was in disarray, matted with twigs. She looked like she couldn’t have been older than nine or ten. Certainly not twelve, as Dave had said. She was draped in a sterile blanket, so Mack couldn’t tell if she was still naked, but at least she knew that any evidence on the kid’s body would be preserved for collection during the medical exam. Dave hung back as Mack walked closer, and the girl looked at her inquisitively with large hazel eyes. Mack smiled at her.
“Hi,” she said softly. “My name’s Mack. What’s your name?”
The kid continued to stare without speaking.
“Where are your mommy and daddy?” Mack asked.
Gently, Mack tried a couple more times, asking how she got there, where she went to school, and when was her birthday. Each attempt was met with the same silent stare, and finally she gave up and walked back to Dave.
“So what’s the deal?” Mack asked. “She’s mute? Deaf?”
“We don’t know yet,” he said, taking his cap off and rubbing his head, “but watch this.”
He walked toward the ambulance. As he approached, it was like he’d flipped an invisible switch. As soon as he got within five feet, the kid started screaming. When he backed up, she stopped. He walked back to Mack.
“She does that whenever a man gets close. Women can get right up next to her, can touch her, even, no problem. But a man so much as comes near her and she wails like a banshee.”
Between the silence and the shriek, Mack fully understood Dave’s earlier comment about how hard it would be to interview the girl. Whatever had happened to this kid, she was badly traumatized.
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