Six Months Earlier
The air was thick with an eeriness he had not felt for years. There were two squad cars parked outside the perimeter of what was now an official crime scene, their occupants sitting inside, talking frantically into their radios. His cell phone rang at 5 AM, interrupting his morning jog. Captain Aguirre was not one to call; especially not on a Sunday morning and never on his number. After his reinstatement to the force, his relationship with the gray-haired, 50-year-old he used to consider a close friend had become strained and strictly professional.
“What do you have, Ramirez?” he said, walking up to the cop standing guard outside the cordoned area.
“Good morning, lieutenant. I hope you had a light breakfast today,” Ramirez answered with a grimace.
“That bad, huh?” he replied, not breaking stride. Ramirez had been on the force for ten years. He’d seen his share of blood and gore. Nothing seemed to faze him anymore, yet here he was turning green at the collar.
“Just brace yourself, sir. You don’t see this every day.”
Police Lieutenant Lance Chavez nodded, taking a deep breath as he reached for the gum inside the front pocket of his hoodie. He took a stick, tore its wrapping, and popped it into his mouth. There was nothing scientific behind this habit, but he found that chewing gum while inspecting a crime scene helped keep the bile down. He was almost at the top of the ridge when he noticed something strange. In his experience, one portent of a crime scene was the undeniable stench of blood. Some of his colleagues put Vicks on their nostrils to block it out. Lance never adhered to the practice, preferring all his faculties at full potential during an investigation. He wouldn’t have needed it now, even if he used the ointment. The scent of blood here was faint, barely noticeable.
Still, nothing could’ve prepared him for the scene that greeted him when he finished his trek. Deja vu hit him like a runaway train. The top was a flat and dry plateau, unusually cold and foggy, hemmed in by several luscious mango trees. It was the middle of summer. Those trees should’ve been thick with low-hanging fruit. Yet the only things swaying from their branches were five emaciated bodies. All naked, all bone-thin with papery white skin. All were female. Chavez strode forward with trepidation, picturing a similar scenario from the distant past. Seven years ago, to be exact. It was his first time assisting in a major case. It was also his first failure.
He stopped in front of the bodies, looking for similarities and differences. Just like before, the women were hanging upside down, their fingers touching the ground. Unlike before, though, someone had beaten and tortured these women before killing them, as evidenced by the vicious gashes and dried-up wounds on various parts of their bodies. In the previous case, except for having their throat slashed, the bodies were practically unmarked. Could this be the work of a different perpetrator? Aguirre didn’t think so. His exact words that morning were: it’s happening again.
Yet something about this was different. Their throats were not slashed. And upon closer inspection, Chavez noted that the wounds on the neck, arms, breasts, and legs of all five victims were tiny pinprick marks. One body had more of these marks than the others. They all appeared to be in groups of two, equally spaced and precisely rounded. What weapon could have been used to make them with such precision?
“Poor girls,” a feminine voice behind him said. Chavez glanced back, immediately recognizing the owner of the voice. He’d met her before, the lead SOCO agent in this area. Garcia, if he remembered right. She was a tall woman with somber eyes and a no-nonsense attitude.
“Have you inspected the bodies?” he asked.
“Yes, before you arrived. Preliminary only. We were just waiting for you. Capt. Aguirre called. He wanted you to have a look before we take them down to the morgue,” she said, motioning to the three men with the same emblem on their jackets trudging up the ridge with body bags and stretchers.
“Do you have any idea regarding the cause of death?”
“For now, I’d say, hemorrhagic shock,” she replied, swiftly putting on a fresh pair of gloves.
“But I don’t see any major wounds on the bodies that could cause them to bleed out. And there doesn’t seem to be any pools of blood anywhere.”
“Yes, but these girls somehow still bled out. It didn’t happen here, either. This is just a stage.”
Another thing in common with the previous case, Chavez thought.
“They look emaciated, don’t they?” Garcia continued. “Like they starved to death? I don’t think they did. They’re skin and bones because they don’t have any blood left. Whoever did this sucked it all out.”
“Sucked out?” Chavez said, his throat going dry.
The other girls had lost a lot of blood, too.
“Yes, in a manner of speaking. I’d have to do a more thorough analysis to be sure. All I can say is that these girls don’t have a single drop of blood in their bodies,” Garcia said before walking away to rejoin her team.
Chavez’s eyes went back to the unfortunate women being taken down by Garcia’s team, a familiar horror dawning upon him as his fingers instinctively felt for the wooden cross hidden underneath his shirt, protecting his heart.
And his sanity.