The girl called Worm wrapped her arms around her knees and shivered, listening to the storm. Wind shuddered the walls of the shed and whistled through the cracks. Rain hammered on the metal roof and seeped in through the seams where the steel walls met the concrete floor.
In another life, she had been Tuyet, and she clung to the name now, lips moving in a silent recitation: My name is Tuyet. No matter what they call me, I will always be Tuyet.
She blew on her hands to warm them, then rubbed her upper arms. Her nylon slip shifted, clammy against her skin.
From a window in the ceiling, too high for her or the other women to reach, a wash of sooty light spread downward and was swallowed by shadows. The glass was gray with night and rain, but if she squinted, she could make out the others in the dim light. She would have known them even without the light—by their shapes and by their voices, even by their smells. Fear and self-preservation might turn them against each other in time, but for now, this dank shed that smelled of sweat and shit and sex had made them sisters.
The youngest and newest, a Chinese girl known only as Grub pressed her forehead against the shoulder of a young Japanese woman called Maggot. Maggot, who had suffered a beating for sharing that her true name was Hong, wrapped an arm around the younger girl and rocked her as if she were a small child. The gesture made Tuyet think of her mother, and that made her chest tighten and her eyes burn.
She closed her eyes and let herself feel the touch of her mother’s hand on her cheek, let herself remember the smell of her grandmother’s coffee shop and the taste of pho soup—the savory broth, the tang of fish paste. She gave herself a few minutes to remember that other life. Then she pushed the thoughts away. A little memory could give you courage. Too much could make you weak.
A Thai girl with barbed-wire tattooed around her neck ran her fingers around the rim of her plastic dinner bowl as if a grain of rice or a sliver of fish might, by some miracle, have appeared there. She was called Weasel, and while she too must have had another name, Tuyet had never heard it.
A crash of thunder rattled the walls. Weasel moaned and pounded her thin mattress. Grub pressed her face to Hong’s shoulder and whimpered like a child. Someone groped in the shadows for the chamber pot, and a few moments later, the air grew sharp with the smell of urine.
Weasel coughed. Hong began to hum. There was a lightness in the room that came, not from the rain, but because of it.
The men would not come out in this weather.
Hands outstretched, Tuyet made her way to the back corner of the shed. The rain had seeped in, and a puddle of rainwater chilled her bare feet. Where the two walls met the floor, there was a small gap. If she put her face close to it, she could smell the outdoors. She knelt on the damp concrete and sucked in the smells of earth and rain, then laid her palm flat against the metal and pressed hard. With a tiny shriek, the gap widened. Moonlight and rainwater poured in.
“You make trouble,” a reedy voice behind her said in fractured English. Tuyet looked up to see a flat-faced Thai girl called Beetle, arms crossed, legs splayed. Like Hong and Weasel, Beetle knew even less Vietnamese than she did English, so by default, English was the language they used among each other. “Boss man catch you, he make everybody unhappy.”
A few feet away, a Vietnamese girl called Dung huddled on her filthy mattress, scrawny arms curled around her stomach. Her magenta hair, now black at the roots, hid most of her bruised and swollen face. She was the smallest of them, but she had fought the hardest and the longest. Just this morning, she had raked her nails across the boss man’s neck and, without even flinching, he had caught her hand and snapped two of her fingers. The broken fingers and the bruises were partly punishment and partly an example for the rest of them: See what happens when you disobey?
Tuyet thought they would kill the girl soon. Or maybe she would kill herself. Surely no one could take so much abuse for so long. The girl’s eyes, fixed on the gap in the wall, shone in the dim light.
Tuyet said, “He make everybody unhappy anyway.” She pushed again, and more water washed through. Did they have monsoon season in America? If it rained like this for weeks, would the men stay away? How long before, half-starved, she and the other women fell on each other? As much as she hated the men, she hated her dependence on them more. “Anyway, I only looking. See what see.”
“See nothing,” Beetle said. “Nobody get through there. Even if can, too sharp glass, too high wall. Too many ghost.”
Tuyet shivered. She had never seen the shallow graves behind the shed, but she knew from the fear in the long-timers’ eyes that they were there. “I know. But maybe. . .”
“You think maybe hope? Is no hope. You go sleep now, forget this foolish.” Beetle stomped back to her own mattress, her lips a thin line in her flat face.
Tuyet looked back at the gap. Forget this foolish.
Another flash of lightning lit the room. Then a loud crack, followed by the sounds of breaking wood and the crunch of glass. Tuyet lay down on her stomach, heedless of the water soaking through her slip, chilling her breasts. She pressed the wall outward with her palm and peered out through the gap.
Rain pelted her face and chilled her skin, but she didn’t care. She would never get her fill of that smell.
Across the grass, rain sparkled on a river of shattered glass. Beyond that stood a high stone wall, also topped with glass, if the long-timers told the truth. But who would know? Who could cross the river of shards to find out?
Tuyet blinked. Wiped rainwater from her eyes and looked again. A tree, split by lightning, lay across the wall, its trunk and branches making a bridge across the glass. Only four or five feet separated the trunk from the grassy turf. Four or five feet across the shards. It would hurt, it would hurt a lot, but it could be done.
She looked over at Dung. The smallest of them.
Tuyet climbed to her feet and brushed water and grime from the front of her slip. Then she pressed her shoulder against the wall and pushed as hard as she could. The metal squealed. The gap widened.
Beetle looked up and wailed.
Shoulder still pressed to the wall, Tuyet gestured for the other women to help. She explained about the fallen tree, that there was a way out.
Beetle moaned. “They catch us.”
“No one come tonight. Too much storm. We hurry, have plenty time.”
Hong looked pointedly away, then buried her face between Grub’s shoulder blades. Beetle covered her face with her arms and keened, while Weasel turned her back and lay down on her mattress. The others were as still as stone.
“I do it myself,” Tuyet said. She pushed, pushed harder. The gap widened to the size of a pumpkin, then held. Was it enough? She had lost weight since she’d been here. If the gap would stay open . . .
She shifted her weight backward, and the metal popped back into place, just a small gap at the bottom.
She pushed again. Pushed until her muscles trembled and sweat popped out on her upper lip. She pushed until her shoulders ached and her eyes stung and her breath came in ragged gasps and whimpers. She pounded a fist against the ungiving metal, then flung herself against it.
Again. And again. Until she had no more strength. Panting, she laid her cheek against the cool metal.
“Please,” she whispered. She turned her face toward her sisters and made her voice louder. “Please.”
No one moved. Fear held them in place, and how could she blame them? There had been so many tricks, so many false hopes offered and then snatched away. But not even the boss man could call lightning from the sky.
No, God or her ancestors, or whatever benevolent spirits there were, had given her this one small chance. She would not let her sisters’ fear steal it from her.
She looked at Dung.
“You can do it,” Tuyet whispered. “Only you.”
“They kill you,” Beetle said, from across the shed. “They kill you both. Then kill rest of us.”
Tuyet said, “They kill us anyway.” She looked back at Dung. “But I think they kill you first.”
Dung looked at the gap in the corner. Such a small gap. Tuyet knew what Dung was thinking—what she herself would be thinking, in Dung’s place. What if Tuyet had exhausted herself and the gap closed before Dung was through? The metal was heavy, the edge sharp. Would it slice through a leg? A spine? Would the next grave behind the shed be hers? Tuyet imagined a long line of dead women, a field of ghosts between the shed and the river of glass. She wrapped her arms around herself to keep herself from shivering.
Dung’s lips moved, but no sound came out. She licked her lips and tried again. “I hear the dead.”
“Only the wind.”
Tuyet waited. What could she say? The dead were there beneath the grass. Maybe they walked, and maybe the wind carried their voices. Maybe one day soon Dung would be one of them. Maybe they all would.
After a moment, Dung pushed herself up and scooted to the edge of her mattress. She moved like she had something broken inside.
“Wait.” Tuyet lifted her mattress and slipped a creased photograph from a slit in the bottom. She pressed the photograph into Dung’s hand and said in Vietnamese, “Go to this address. Tell the man you find there about us. Bring help.”
She made the girl repeat the address three times. Then Tuyet pressed her shoulder to the wall again and said, “Go.”
“I bring help,” Dung said. “Thank you.”
Dung pressed herself flat against the concrete and inched into the gap headfirst. She was small, and starvation had made her smaller still. Even so, she cried out as the metal scraped her shoulder blades, then her buttocks, and finally the backs of her thighs.
Tuyet held the gap open until she thought her back might break. She watched Dung disappear inch by inch. Knees. Calves. Ankles. By the time Dung’s feet passed through the gap, Tuyet was trembling with exertion.
She stumbled backward, and the metal sprang back into place, leaving only a small gap at the bottom where the metal had bent.
She sank to her knees, then lay down on her stomach and pressed the metal outward with her palm so she could watch Dung push herself to her feet and stumble toward the fallen tree. Rain lashed Dung’s face, and the wind caught her small cries as the glass bit into her feet.
“Run,” Tuyet whispered. Tears stung her eyes and ran down her cheeks, mingling with the rain. “Run far from this place.”
She tried not to think of what the men would do when they learned what she had done. If there was anything she had learned since the day a man she’d trusted had brought her to this place, it was that there were so very many ways to be hurt.
The storm blew itself out around four in the morning, and by dawn, a new bank of clouds had rolled in. They filled the sky from horizon to horizon, gray and roiling, swollen with rain. A few scattered drops fell throughout the day, as if God were spitting on us.
That afternoon, I put on my father’s leather bomber jacket, locked my elderly quarter horse in the paddock, saddled my Tennessee Walker, and rode out into the woods behind the house. The air was cool and damp, thick with the smells of mud and moss, the mulchy scent of deadwood, and the occasional far-off whiff of skunk. The trail twisted like a copperhead, littered with broken branches and mottled with gray light.
The wind rose and rattled through the leaves, and Crockett tossed his head and picked up his pace, hoof beats muted by the rain-softened earth. I gave him his head, and he slipped into a running walk, hips lifting and falling as his hind legs stretched beneath him in a smooth, ground-covering gait. We passed a side trail, and my gut clenched in a familiar knot. A long breath, and the feeling passed. Five months after my nephew’s murder, I no longer felt compelled to either visit or avoid the place where my brother and I had ended the man who had killed him.
The saddle creaked as I shifted my weight and squeezed with my lower leg. I closed my eyes and felt the wind on my cheeks as the black gelding broke into the rocking horse canter typical of his breed. I opened my eyes as the trail bent sharply to the right and had a moment to register the downed maple across the trail. No time to pull up. I lifted my weight from the saddle, wrapped both fists in Crockett’s mane to keep from pulling on the reins, and squeezed his sides again. Another burst of speed, then his muscles bunched, and we were in the air, a moment of suspension that felt as close to flight as I had ever been.
One rear hoof skimmed the trunk as we sailed over. His hooves struck the ground, and we skidded sideways, hurtling toward a wall of green. He scrabbled for a moment, then got his legs beneath him and veered back onto the trail.
Grinning, heart pounding, I sank into the saddle and lifted the reins. Crockett slowed, then drifted to a stop and lowered his head to pluck a few blades of grass from the side of the trail. I leaned back let him graze. Tilted my head back into a shaft of muted light and listened to the quiet sounds of afternoon—the riffle of wind through branches, the trill of a bird and the answering call of its mate, the sound of grass between my horse’s teeth.
Somewhere to my right, the wheeze of Frank Campanella’s Crown Vic broke the stillness like a chainsaw in the wilderness. I knew it was Frank, even without benefit of sight. He’d had the Vic long before he and I had worked homicides for Metro Nashville’s now-defunct Murder Squad, probably before I’d graduated from the academy at nineteen, possibly since before I was born.
A thousand scenarios flashed through my mind—car crashes and drownings and God-knew-what-else involving my son, my ex-wife, my nieces, my brother and his estranged wife . . . Frank was my friend, but there was no good reason for him to show up at my home unannounced.
Dread closing my throat, I got off and walked my horse around the fallen tree, then climbed back on and urged him toward the house.
When I rode out of the woods, Frank was on the porch, a glass of lemonade in his hand, my friend and housemate, Jay Renfield hovering anxiously beside him. I’d known Jay since kindergarten, and our friendship had survived both his revelation that he was gay and his battle with AIDS.
Frank looked up as I bent to open the pasture gate. He said something to Jay, set his glass down on the porch railing, and started down the steps. By the time I led Crockett across the pasture and into the barn, Frank was waiting for me.
He was a cinder block of a man, shoulders straining against his regulation suit. Square jaw, bristling eyebrows, silvering hair. He ran a hand through it, leaving a ruffled patch above one ear. Then he gave me an awkward man-hug and said, “How you doing, Cowboy?”
I gave his back a thump and turned back to loosen the latigo of Crockett’s saddle. “You didn’t come here to ask me how I’m doing.”
“No, but now that I’m here, the question has crossed my mind.”
“I’m fine,” I said. “Or was, until you stopped by.”
“I’ll try not to take that personally.”
“It’s not personal. You know what they say about shooting the messenger. You have your bad news face on.”
“I have a bad news face?”
“It’s like your regular face, but squintier.”
He let that pass. “Did you go to the office today?”
“What are you, the office police?” I tugged the cinch loose and lifted the saddle and pad from Crockett’s back. There was a saddle-shaped patch of sweat beneath. I ran my hand over it, checking for tenderness, and found none. “I did a skip trace and a couple of background checks. Nothing I couldn’t do from here.”
He cocked his head. Gave me a narrow look.
“Something on your mind?”
“Skip traces. Background checks.”
“It’s honest work.”
“You’re wasted on it.” He waved a hand. “But . . . it’s not my business. A situation’s come up. Malone asked me to come by and ask you to take a look at a crime scene. A courtesy.”
“From me to her, or from her to me?”
“From the department to you,” he said. “And vice versa.”
“Paul has a Cub Scout meeting tonight.” I slung the saddle over the saddle rack and looked pointedly at my watch. “I’m just about to go pick him up.”
Frank shook his head, his lips pressed tight.
“Aw, shit,” I said.
He held out a clear plastic evidence bag, and in it was a sepia-toned Vietnam-era photo of a young guy in fatigues, a small Asian girl on his shoulders and an infant in his arms. The photo was creased, as if it had been crumpled in a fist, and there was a rust-colored stain on one corner. He flipped it over, and I saw another stain, like a bloody thumbprint, across the back. Scrawled in pencil beneath the thumbprint was a phone number and address. My office number and address.
“What’s this?” I said.
“You know who this is?”
“Of course I know who it is.” The crooked grin, the shock of fair hair, the slant of the jaw . . . I saw them every day in the photo on my bedside table, saw similar features in the mirror every morning. So like him, my mother used to say, and trace my cheekbones with her thumbs.
I reached for the bag, as if a closer look might prove me wrong, and after a moment he handed it over.
“You know the routine,” he said. “Don’t open it.”
I knew the routine. I looked at the picture, smoothing the plastic over the photo with my thumb to reduce the glare. “Where’d you get it?”
“We got a call, one of those Strip-o-Gram girls works downstairs in your building.”
I worked out of an office on the top floor of a former boarding house. One of the downstairs offices was owned by a grandmotherly type who ran a call-out strip business. Bachelor parties. Birthday parties. Boys’ night at the office.
“They prefer to be called women now,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Or so I’m told.”
“This one looked like a girl,” Frank said. “Eighteen, nineteen, maybe. But then, they all look young to me these days. She went out to toss a trash bag in the dumpster—guy who works on the second floor carried it out for her—and when they opened it, there was a dead woman inside. Asian.” He nodded toward the photo in the evidence bag. “That was in her hand.”
“That’s not possible.”
“And yet, there it is. So what we need to know—what I came here to ask you—is why this dead girl in your dumpster had a picture of your father in her hand?”
I studied the photograph. It was my dad, all right. Late teens, early twenties. Tall and rangy, like my brother and me. A few years younger than in the photo I had on my dresser. In that one, he was standing on our front porch, staring out toward a coming storm. In this one, he stood in front of a reed shack with a sloped roof and stilts that raised it a few feet off the ground. An attractive Asian woman in a white blouse and a long dark skirt leaned against him, one hand on his forearm, the forefinger of the other hand clutched in the baby’s fist.
“Maybe it’s an orphanage,” I said, a queasy feeling settling in my stomach. “Didn’t a lot of soldiers volunteer in orphanages?”
“I’ve never seen this picture, and I don’t know your dead girl.”
“How do you know?”
Crockett nuzzled my shirt pocket, and I reached inside it for a peppermint. “I don’t know any Asian women. Not to speak of.”
“Could be she’s one of the kids in the photo. One of those . . . orphans.”
“I wouldn’t know. So why are you here?” I asked. “Why you?”
“Dispatch gets a call. Dead body in a dumpster. A couple of uniforms go in, check it out. One of ‘em sees the photo and dials the number on the back. Gets your office. Calls Malone, who sends Harry to the crime scene and calls me in to—”
“You and Harry are back on homicide?”
A new commissioner had broken up the Homicide and Murder Squads, leaving only a small core of cold-case investigators in the downtown detectives’ offices. The rest, he’d spread out among the precincts with the idea that generalization was preferable to specialization. It sounded good on paper but had sent the homicide solve rate plummeting. Homicide investigation requires a special skill set, not the least of which are the abilities to compartmentalize and detach.
Frank said, “The Squad’s still defunct, but most of the precinct commanders are starting to wise up and let us do what we do best. Unofficially, at least. Anyway, we get there and I take a look at the photo and whattaya know, it’s a picture of your dad.”
He’d have recognized it. For the seven years we’d been partners, I’d kept a picture of my father on my desk to remind me of the kind of cop I’d hoped to be.
“So Malone sends you to sweet talk me into coming in. I told you, I have a Scout meeting. Paul’s getting a progress bead tonight. One more, and he gets his Wolf patch.”
“Mac,” Frank said. “The scene’s being processed even as we speak. You know how important that first 48 hours are. We need you to come down there and take a look at this girl.”
“I’ve been down this road before, Frank. Am I a suspect?”
“Not in my book.”
“In anybody’s book?”
He shrugged. “Dead girl found in a dumpster behind your office with a picture of your father and your phone number in her hand. Somebody’s gonna think you’re a suspect.”
I cued Crockett to step back, and when he did, I fed him the mint from the flat of my palm. Then I shoved my hands into the pockets of the jacket my father had worn in the war. I wanted to feel angry or indignant, but all I could manage was tired. After a minute, I sighed and said, “Guess I’d better call Maria and tell her I’ll be late to the meeting.”
Frank said, “There’ll be other meetings.”
“That’s not the point.”
He didn’t answer, just nodded and put his hands in his pockets, waiting. I sighed again and said, “Am I riding with you, or can I take the truck?”
“Whatever you want.”
He wasn’t treating me like a suspect, which made me feel marginally better. I put Crockett into the paddock with Tex, stepped inside to tell Jay I was going out, then climbed into my black and silver Silverado. Frank climbed into the Crown Vic.
As I followed him down the driveway and past the mailbox, I heard the first, distant rumble of thunder.