Eve Duncan shuddered as she looked down at the pitiful remains of the little girl’s skull that she’d carefully spread on the special tarp on her desk.
The child’s skull was shattered, and the cheekbones and nasal and orbital bones were only unidentifiable splinters. The Detroit Police Department thought that the child had been beaten to death with a hammer. How the hell was she going to put that little girl’s face together again?
Eve glanced at Joe Quinn sitting on the couch across the room. “You’re damn right I am.” She reached out and gently touched one of the little girl’s remaining facial bones still left intact. “Whoever killed this child had to be insane. Who would think it necessary to do this . . . this monstrosity? She couldn’t have been more than eight years old.”
“And after hundreds of these reconstructions, it still makes you furious.” His lips tightened. “Me, too. You’d think we’d get used to it. But that never happens, does it?”
Yes, Joe might be a tough, experienced police detective, but he could be as emotional as Eve when the victims were helpless children. “Sometimes I can block it. But this savagery . . . A hammer, Joe. He used a hammer . . .”
“Son of a bitch.” Joe got up and moved across the room to stand behind her. “Have you given her a name yet?”
Eve always gave her reconstructions names while she worked on them. It made her feel a connection while she strove desperately to give a name and identity to those poor, murdered children who had been thrown away. She shook her head. “Not yet. I just got the skull by FedEx this afternoon. Detroit forensics warned me to expect this, but it still came as a shock.”
“It looks like a lost cause.” Joe was gazing down at the splintered bones. “It’s going to be a nightmare putting her back together. How do you know you’ve got all the pieces?”
“I don’t. But there’s a good chance. Forensics thinks that she was already completely wrapped in the yellow plastic raincoat in which he buried her when her murderer started this carnage. Maybe he just wanted to make sure that she was dead or that no one would ever recognize her.”
“This one is going to tear you up.” Joe reached out and began to massage her neck. “You’re already tense, and you haven’t even started.”
“I’ve started.” She closed her eyes as his thumbs dug gently into exactly the right spot on the center of her neck. After all of these years of living together, he knew every muscle, every pleasure point of her body. He was right, she was tense. She would take this brief moment before she began to work. Joe’s touch, Joe’s support. It was a soothing song that helped to drown out the ugliness of the world. Once she actually began the reconstruction, there would be only her and this child, who had lost her life over ten years ago. They would be bound together in darkness until Eve could finish working and shine a light that would bring the little girl home. And she would bring her home. She’d give her back her face, then let the media publish a photo and surely someone would recognize her. “I started the moment I saw what that bastard had done to her.”
“You haven’t given her a name yet,” Joe said. “Tell Detroit to give her to Josephson to do the reconstruction. You may be the best, but you’re not the only forensic sculptor in the country. You’ve got a backlog of requests that will keep you slaving for the next six months. You don’t need this kind of pressure.”
“She didn’t need for some creep to do this to her.” She opened her eyes and gazed down at the broken skull. “She’s my job, Joe.” She thought for a moment. “And her name is Cindy.” She straightened in her chair. “Now let me get to work.”
“Dammit.” He stepped back, and his hands dropped away from her. “I knew it was a long shot, but I thought I’d give it a try. You’ve been working yourself to exhaustion for the last few months.” He wheeled and went back to the couch. “Go ahead. Break your heart trying to put that kid back together again. Why should I care?”
“I don’t know, Joe.” She smiled. “But I thank God you do.” She looked down at the bone splinters that might belong to the nasal cavity . . . or might not. “And Cindy will forgive you for trying to push her off on Josephson.”
“I’m relieved,” he said dryly. “But I’ll take my chances on being in her bad graces. After all, she’s been dead ten years. At the moment, you’re the only one I care about. I don’t want—”
Eve’s cell phone rang.
She glanced at the ID.
“Who is it?” Joe asked.
He frowned. “Not good.”
That was Eve’s reaction. They had dealt with Venable and the CIA on several occasions, and it usually ended with her being pulled away from her work and into deep trouble. Not this time.
She punched the button on her cell. “What do you want, Venable?”
“Why are you on the defensive?” Venable asked. “Maybe I only want to check in and see if you’re okay. You were in a hospital in Damascus recovering from a gunshot wound the last time I saw you.”
“That was six months ago, and I’m sure that you know I’m fully recovered. You make it your business to know everything.”
“I’m not the NSA. I’m only interested in specific subjects . . . and people. I feel a certain attachment for you and Joe.”
“What do you want, Venable?”
He hesitated. “A favor.”
“What kind of favor?”
“Nothing that’s dangerous or out of your realm of expertise. I’d like you to do a computer age progression.”
“It wouldn’t take you that long, and I’d appreciate it.”
“I’m swamped, and even if I weren’t, you know I won’t work for the CIA. Get one of your own experts to do the job. You have qualified people. Some of them are far more experienced than I am with computer age progression. I don’t even know why you’re bothering to ask me.”
“Because I have to ask you, dammit,” he said sourly. “It has to be you.”
“Because like everything else in my life, it’s a question of bargaining and balancing. I need you to do this, Eve.”
“Then you’re going to be disappointed. I just started a new reconstruction, and I won’t drop it for one of your twisted little jobs. I’m not going to help you identify someone so that you can track him down. I’m never sure whether the prey you’re stalking is a saint or a slimeball. Or if he’s a saint, that you’re not using him in ways that I’d never go along with. You’re capable of manipulating anyone to shape a deal.”
“Yes, I am,” he said wearily. “And some of those deals keep you and your friends from being blown to kingdom come by the bad guys. Someone has to stand guard, and I do a damn good job of it. Dirty sometimes, but effective.”
She supposed he did, but she didn’t want to be involved in that morass even on a purely scientific level. “Let your own agents do it, Venable.”
“What can I offer you to do the job?”
“Nothing that I can’t refuse,” she said softly but emphatically. “Take no for an answer. It’s all you’re going to get from me.”
“I’ll try, but I may have to come back. You’re a prime bargaining chip in this one, Eve.”
“Listen, you’re beginning to annoy me. I’m not a chip, and I’m not a chess piece for you to manipulate.”
“We can all be manipulated. It depends on the determination factor.” He paused. “You’d be safer if I’m the one who does it. I’m trying to avoid throwing you to the wolf.”
“Are you threatening me?”
She put up her hand as she saw Joe straighten at her words.
“I wouldn’t be that stupid. I’m just trying to keep you from making a mistake. I’ve always liked you.”
He probably believed he was telling the truth, but it wouldn’t keep him from using her. She was tired of arguing with him. “I’m hanging up now, Venable.”
“Change your mind, Eve.”
She pressed the disconnect button.
“The bastard threatened you?” Joe was frowning, his tone grim. “I believe I need to pay a visit to Venable.”
“He said it wasn’t a threat. More like a warning.”
“That’s a fine line where Venable is concerned. I take it he wanted you to do a reconstruction?”
“No, that would make more sense.” Her brow knitted. “I won’t deny I’m one of the best forensic sculptors around.” After her own little girl, Bonnie, had been kidnapped and murdered all those years ago, she had gone back to school and made sure that she had the skill to help bring final resolution and solace to other parents. Out of that nightmare of torment, when she had come close to madness and death, had emerged at least one decent thing from the agony. She could recreate the faces of those lost, murdered children. But not her little Bonnie. Search as she would, she had not found her child. What good was all her fine skill if she couldn’t use it to bring her daughter home to rest, she thought bitterly. Her Bonnie was still lost, and so was her killer.
She jerked her attention back to the subject at hand. “But Venable doesn’t want me to sculpt a reconstruction, he wants a computer age progression. I’m good at that, but I don’t do enough to be called an expert. He could find someone faster and possibly more accurate just by making a few phone calls. I know the CIA has good technicians.”
“But maybe he doesn’t want to go through the agency,” Joe said slowly. “He’s paranoid about leaks, and he could trust you. Venable doesn’t trust many people.”
“Too bad. I’m not volunteering.”
“You’d be crazy if you did.” His lips tightened. “You’re better off working yourself to the bone than playing in his ballpark. Who’s the subject of this age progression?”
“I didn’t ask. Maybe some war criminal they’re trying to trace? For all I know, it could be Bin Laden. I don’t want to know. It’s not my job.” She gazed down at the bones in front of her. “This is my job.”
“Then do it.” He flipped open his computer. “Let Venable pull his own chestnuts out of the fire.”
At least the call from Venable had made Joe more reconciled to her accepting the reconstruction on Cindy, Eve thought. He was willing to admit that the long, painstaking hours she’d have to spend on piecing the little girl back together was the lesser of two evils.
You’d be safer if I’m the one who does it. I’m trying to avoid throwing you to the wolf.
Wolf. Singular. Not wolves.
Who was the wolf Venable was trying to save her from?
And she was still thinking about Venable’s words, she realized impatiently. Forget him. Forget everything but the little girl who must become something more than this pitiful heap of bones. She had been someone’s child. Long ago, someone had heard her prayers and tucked her into bed for the night. She deserved to go home to her parents and have them tuck her into her resting place one last time.
She reached out and gently touched the cranial bone. It will take a little while, but we’ll get there, Cindy. We’ll bring you home and find the bastard who did this to you.
She felt a wave of sickness wash over her. No matter how many times that she was brought face-to-face with this savagery, she never became calloused. But the sight of these shattered bones was particularly painful.
She couldn’t imagine the barbaric mind-set that would allow someone to smash the bones of another human being. . . .
* * *
SHE’D HAVE TO BREAK THE sentry’s neck.
Catherine Ling moved silently down the path of the rain forest.
She couldn’t risk using even a knife. He mustn’t cry out.
No sound. Every movement had to have purpose and deadly intent.
The phone in her pocket vibrated.
The other outer sentries had to be eliminated to clear the way back to the helicopter.
She was a yard from the sentry. Now she could see that he was bearded and close to middle age. Good. She hated to kill those fresh-faced kids even though they could sometimes be more lethal. Anyone who worked for Munoz was dirty, but she always had to work to get past that element of youth. Stupid. She should know better. As a teenager, she had made sure that no one performed with more deadly precision than she did.
He was tensing. He was sensing danger.
He was a good six inches taller. Bring him down to her level. Her booted foot sliced between his legs and hit the side of his right kneecap. He lost his balance. Before he could regain it, her arm encircled his neck.
She jerked back and twisted. His neck snapped.
He went limp.
She let him fall to the ground, then dragged him deep into the shrubs. She’d already disposed of the other sentry guarding the path along the brook. Her way should be clear the three miles to Munoz’s encampment.
Maybe. She had learned there was nothing certain where Munoz was concerned. She had been assigned to this hellhole for the last three years and made a study of the drug dealer. He was sadistic, volatile, and unpredictable. The stories that circulated about his brutality were sickening. His vicious profile was the major contributor to the storm of anxiety surrounding his kidnapping of coffee executive Ned Winters and his fourteen-year-old daughter Kelly. He was holding them hostage until the Colombian government released his brother Manuel from prison and every day a new and bloody threat was issued.
Her phone was vibrating again.
She glanced at the ID. Venable.
She punched the button, and whispered, “I’ve nothing to report. I’m on my way, but I won’t be at the Munoz camp for another fifteen minutes.”
“Call it off. Now that you’ve located him, we’ll send in the Special Forces to get Winters and his daughter out.”
“And get them killed. They don’t have my contacts and they don’t know this terrain and, by the time they do, it may be too late. Munoz has promised he’ll kill Winters and his daughter unless his brother’s released. Those idiots in the Colombian government are stalling. I think they want Winters killed so they can get U.S. help to stage a full-scale attack on Munoz and the rebels.”
“I don’t give a damn what you think. Back off.”
“No, we made a deal. You agreed to give me what I wanted if I managed to locate and free the Winterses. I can do this. I’ve been watching the Munoz camp since yesterday, and I know exactly how I can pull it off.”
“It’s too dangerous.”
She stiffened. She caught a note in his voice that made her uneasy. “You didn’t give a damn about that when I called you and told you that I’d find a way of getting Winters and his daughter away from Munoz. All you cared about was that it was going to get the heat off the director.”
“No, that’s not all I cared about. Two American citizens are at risk. That matters to me.”
“Then you back off. Let me get them out.”
“No, Ron Timbers is going to be on watch outside the camp. There’s only one guard at the tent where they’re keeping the hostages. I can slice through the back of the tent and get them out that way. Ron will warn me if there’s any move from the guard. Bill Neely is bringing in the helicopter at a glade four miles from the camp. Why are you questioning me? I’m good. You know I can do this.”
“I know you have a decent chance.” He paused. “But I thought I should tell you that I may not be able to give you everything you want in exchange. I’ll give you access to the Rakovac file. I can’t promise you Eve Duncan. She turned me down.”
Catherine muttered a curse. “Then go back and find a way to make her do it. I have to have her.”
“I can get you someone better. Technically, this isn’t Eve Duncan’s area of expertise.”
“I want Eve Duncan. Persuade her.”
“You can have the file, but I can’t promise Duncan. She walks her own path. Like you, Catherine.”
“Bullshit. I stopped walking my own path when you pulled me into working for the Company when I was seventeen. Since then, I’ve worked every dirty assignment you chose to toss me.”
“True. But how could I resist? You were a natural. Clever, lethal, and with a survival instinct that made you almost unstoppable. I considered it a recruiting masterpiece. After twelve years, I still do, Catherine.”
“I’m not complaining. I knew what I was getting into. I never expected anything else.” She’d grown up on the streets of Hong Kong and barely managed to exist without starving for her first six years. All her life she’d had to fight for what she wanted, and Venable was no worse than other men who had tried to use her. Sometimes, she even liked him. He was totally dedicated to his work with the CIA and would let nothing stand in his way. It was surprising that she’d managed to work a deal with him about releasing that top secret restricted file. If the director hadn’t been getting so much heat from the media about the Winters kidnapping, she might not have fared so well. But the file wasn’t enough. She had to have more. “Eve Duncan. You know where the bodies are buried on every continent in the world. Bribe her, blackmail her, make her an offer she can’t refuse. I don’t care how you do it. Just get her for me.”
CHASING THE NIGHT Copyright © 2010 by Johansen Publishing LLLP