Chapter 1: Keila is Missing.
They don’t know anything, her mind reassures, and they never will.
In the Braidwood Police Department, Mia Trinket shifts restlessly on the visitor’s seat. She tries to restrain her shudders but her body denies her instruction. Powerless in anxiety’s grip. Fear doesn’t need doors and windows. It works from the inside. It’s not her first time at a police precinct, and she knew it wouldn’t be her last.
Mia’s heart caves into her chest. The door behind her whines and her gaze remains in her lap. Heavy footsteps thunder into the office until Detective Russo appears in her peripheral view. He makes his way around his desk before sinking into the leather chair.
“I apologise for the wait. How are you, Miss Trinket?”
He reaches for his memo pad. After placing it in front of him, he retrieves one of the black pens held in a silver beaker.
He gives her a long, appraising look. “How are you doing, Miss Trinket?”
He repeats his question again, this time reuniting her with reality.
“I’m fine, just agitated.” Fear pulsing within like it has a life of its own. Her tongue sapped of all its moisture. “Since I’m going to be late for my first day back at school. Not a great start.”
Detective Russo nods understandably. “You’re a senior, correct? This year is your last at Braidwood High before you graduate?” he asks, pen in hand.
“Do you know Keila Venus?”
Her brows clash together, and she nods a stiff yes.
“Are you two friends?”
Mia’s resolve wavers. “We... were.”
Detective Russo straightens in his seat, assessing her with a cold, calculating look. “All students will be back at school today. Except for one. Keila Venus.”
Her blood runs cold, turning into ice.
The detective observes her blanching face that goes from pale to bone-white. “You were not aware of this? That in the latter days of summer break, Keila went missing and until this day. No one has seen her.”
He spares her a moment to digest the new information.
Mia freezes. Perplexed. Shocked, yet somehow, not surprised.
“So, you said that you were friends with Keila Venus? Did you two have a falling out?”
Mia’s eyes widen, slowly raising her gaze to meet with his. “No. We just—we just grew apart,” she stammers. “We haven’t hung out or even spoken to each other in years.”
Detective Russo nods and looks down to scribble a few words on the pad that Mia deems illegible from her line of sight.
“Interesting, because her mother said the same thing. But when the forensic team cased her room. They found a whole photo album and scrapbooks of you guys. Pictures of you, Keila Venus, Aries Black, Opal Chiang, Akin Ballo and Erin Lockwood. Together. But much younger.”
The fear within her is like a poison, virulent and incurable.
“We all have our histories, detective, but—uh.” The words splutter out. “How did she go missing? Who was the last person to see her? And where was she seen last?”
Detective Russo flares a brow at the queue of questions.
“According to her mother, she left abruptly in the night. She assumed at the time that it was for a night run. However, when she awoke, Keila had not returned and her running gear was still in her room.”
Mia clenches her hands to cease the trembles.
“Once the news is made public, a town-wide search will be on the way with police dogs and the entire BPD to canvas the woods—”
“She’s not there,” Mia interjects.
Detective Russo slants forward, and the pen drops onto the pad so he can interlock his fingers, staring back at her quizzically.
“Look,” she begins. “Keila and I knew each other when we were kids, yes. But a lot can change in seven years, although one thing will not, and that is Keila’s fear of the woods. If she was abducted. Search away but if Keila willingly ran away. She’d rather spend a day in hell than a minute in those woods.”
An unreadable look flits across Detective Russo’s face. And without breaking eye-contact, he tilts to the side to pull open the second draw of his desk, picks up a case file from the top pile and slaps it down in front of him. He pushes the draw back close and tents his fingers above the file.
“Could you be referring to the trauma she faced, including yourself, seven years ago? When Erin Lockwood disappeared in the woods, too?” His eyes darken with suspicion. “Except she had witnesses to her disappearance. You, Keila Venus, Aries Black, Opal Chiang and Akin Ballo. If I did not know any better... I’m detecting a bit of a... pattern," he emphasizes, his voice edged with distrust.
Mia clings to her composure, jaw tightening. “What? Do you honestly think that we had something to do with that?”
Maddened, Mia shoves her hand down the neckline of her long-sleeved jersey, reaching for her gold necklace. She pulls out the pendant that hangs at the bottom—half a heart with a jagged broken line on its flank and the word, Best, written on the one half of the heart she wears.
"We were kids. Erin Lockwood was one of my best friends and Keila was a part of that. We would never harm each other. I admit...” Mia straggles off, and she forces the words from beneath her tautened teeth. “After what happened with Erin...we all went our separate ways. Not because of each other, but because we didn’t know how to deal with—” she cuts herself off, choosing her next words carefully. “I don’t know what happened to Keila, but I want to do anything that I can to help you find her.” Mia’s thumb caresses the pendant, its edges rusted. “Anything...”
Detective Russo eyes her down and inclines his head. “You are free to go, Miss Trinket. The school has already been informed and they will declare her, officially, as a missing person in the assembly.”
Mia bops her head and leans down to scoop up the strap of her backpack with her forearm. She rises to her feet and slides the strap over her shoulder. She swivels and makes a brisk start towards the exit. Once at the door, she sneaks a glance behind her.
Detective Russo flips the case file open and starts to review it.
She resumes her departure, leaving the door wide open in her haste.
Mia manages a few steps forward in the dimly lit corridor. And suddenly, something tight clenches her chest, suffocating her under an avalanche of guilt. Her arm shoots out to press her hand against the wall for stability.
Detective Russo observes Mia from her rear, watching with half of his frame peeking out of the doorway. Mia drops her head for a second, her breathing laboured before her head shoots back up again. She takes a moment to assemble her emotions, quelling her panic. Unsteady, she continues her journey to the staircase, passing a blue and black haze of policemen and women to make her way out of the precinct.
Russo returns to his office, scattered thoughts congeal into a theory. Soon he settles behind his desk and begins to review all the gathered intelligence on the Erin Lockwood case.
I never knew then how a teenage girl could rupture my whole world from the inside. I have endured many dangers during different cases but no peril like the Erin Lockwood case. No greater peril than her, than them all. I presumed the task would be difficult to execute but simple in its concept; find the missing girls and capture the perpetrator. But what unfolded next pushed me from the brink of insanity and plunged Braidwood into pandemonium.
Keila’s vanishing was death’s summoning.
Erin’s disappearance was the true catalyst of destruction.