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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Darkest Night

Two Sisters, a Brutal Murder, and the Loss of Innocence in a Small Town

Ron Franscell

St. Martin's True Crime


Chapter 1

The cold and the dark and the fear of death kept her awake, praying for first light, for another morning.

Just one.

The long plunge into the black river had crippled her somehow. Her legs didn't work. Maybe when she'd hit the rocks. Even at eighteen, she'd never had a broken bone, but she now believed her legs were broken. They protruded from her frozen hips, useless and thick with pain.

They hadn't let her put her panties and brassiere back on, just her light sweater and jeans. When they dumped her off the bridge into the infinite darkness, she slammed hard into a stone ledge, but not the bottom. Her long, lithe body caromed off the wall and spiraled down again, seconds that seemed like forever, not knowing what was below. Then she hit the water, in the eye of a liquid detonation that embraced her rather than vaporized her.

Her body plunged deep into the river, like a knife through soft flesh. Her lungs smoldered, and water filled her sinuses and mouth, crashed against her eardrums, and trickled into her lungs. She wanted to scream, to exhale, to inhale, to know she was alive, but in the water down there in the dark, half blinded already by the beating she'd suffered before the fall, she couldn't know the way to the surface. She sank farther, but there was no bottom.

Then she stopped. She clawed against the water with her hands, unable to make her legs obey. The weight of water pulled her down, and she fought against it so hard her pants slipped off her useless legs. She felt she might be a hundred, a thousand, feet below the surface, and her lungs would burst before she found air, but she clawed at it, raged against it.

When she burst through the placid surface of the deep river, the night air swept into and over her. It was near freezing but still warmer than the water and felt like her mother's hand on her face . . . It's all right, baby, breathe, breathe . . . but her mother wasn't there.

She was alive. She managed to paddle to the rocky granite slabs beside the river, where they formed not a soft shore, but an insurmountable curb. Dragging her deadened legs out of the black water into the black night, she wormed across the sharp stones, naked below the waist, beaten and bruised, in shock. What blood remained in her kept her heart beating and served only the most primitive part of her brain, where survival came before all else.

She grasped for purchase among the river stones, and a water rat skittered across her arm. She stifled a shriek, but she worried more about the two men who might be waiting above than any other vermin below. The autumn wind swirled in the bottom of the canyon, trapped like she was, chilling her naked skin. Silent.

Stones carved her flesh as she dragged herself toward softer, flatter earth. She collapsed in a clump of river brush rooted in the loose talus between two boulders, protected from the churning wind, from the Wyoming temperatures that fell abruptly after midnight, from the view of anyone who might come looking for her—even in the dark.

She folded herself into her stone womb, pulling her dead legs against her body with her hands until she was balled tightly in a fetal position. She draped her long brown hair across them, then covered herself with uprooted bushes, and waited.

Don't fall asleep. Her mind flashed out some ancient wisdom of warm-blooded humans in desperately cold climates. I won't wake up. Fall asleep and die.

Then she heard the voices from the lip of the canyon, more than a hundred feet above. Two men talking and laughing. It was them, she knew. All was black. Even if her left eye hadn't been swollen shut and throbbing, she couldn't see her own hand in front of her face, and they would not be able to see her, but she knew they were there and they were trying to see her. She made herself smaller and wished she were invisible, part of the earth itself. Unseeable. While it was dark, she was as close to invisible as she could be, but at dawn . . . would they still be up there, watching?

Don't fall asleep.

As the analgesic shock trickled away, pain seeped through her like some poisonous liquid. Her hips pulsed and oozed with a deep-down ache, and her stunned heart pumped pain into the rest of her. She wanted to cry, but dared not, for fear of them hearing. The more it hurt, the more she wanted to slip into unconsciousness, but not to die. To be freed from the unknowable pain that was slowly saturating her, from the fear and from the thought that her little sister might be there, within a few feet.

Maybe alive.

Maybe a corpse.

I love you, Becky, was the last thing Amy had said. Becky bit her lip to keep from crying as a deeper hurt rose in her chest.

She tasted blood in her mouth, and wild, algae-fouled river water. She began to tremble, and the trembling constricted her breathing. She tried to pray, but she'd never done it much, and she didn't know what to ask for. Her mind just played and replayed the endless loop of what had happened, and what might happen still.

Only stars shone. The slivered moon kept low to the horizon, never appearing in the open gash above the canyon. All else was black, without form, detail or depth. Just black.

Suddenly, high above, headlights reflected off the steel buttresses of the bridge as a car passed over it. Were they leaving? Was it some other peculiar traveler out here in the middle of the night? Was it a trick to get her to reveal herself? Or were they satisfied she was dead? She couldn't know.

No matter. Dawn was a few hours away. She'd wait for the first light. Maybe she'd gather enough energy to find a way out. First light.

Just don't fall asleep.

First light.

As if she had not been betrayed enough, the heavens deceived Becky, too.

First light was an illusion.

Fremont Canyon is as narrow and profound as a grave. And in the hours before dawn, deep inside the slow-green guts of the gorge, the night sky is as black as the inside of a coffin lid. To look up from its depths is to glimpse infinity through the slender, claustrophobic frame of towering canyon walls.

At night, when a full moon is directly overhead, the gorge is illuminated in eerie blue like a boxful of moonlight. In winter, when the sun slants in from its lowest point in the sky, light might only hit the bottom for a few minutes every day.

But long before sunrise in the heart of Wyoming's autumn, false dawn appears. False dawn is not the first vestige of morning twilight, a glow that precedes the sunrise. It's different. Sometimes known as "zodiacal light," it can be seen two or three hours before the sun comes up, a faint and eerie cone of light in the predawn sky. It manifests briefly only in the eastern sky in autumn, the west in spring.

At its zenith, false dawn rivals the Milky Way in brightness, but it usually remains the sky's secret, hidden by the haze in our own atmosphere. Nonetheless, Fremont Canyon—far removed from city lights and all the rest that civilization entails—acts like an enormous camera obscura, focusing the light on its floor, blocking the light pollution from all other sources, even most of the stars in the sky.

And what is almost never seen—because human eyes are drawn to the light in a dark sky, not away from it—is false dawn's counterglow. It appears at the dark end of the sky, the west, as a faint oval of light amid a streak of bright stardust. But it is almost always camouflaged by that stardust, the Milky Way, thirty-thousand light years away.

Thirty years.

She'd fought off sleep and pain and fear and the terrifying, endless replays of what had happened a few hours before. She avoided imagining that Amy might be down there with her, unseen, perhaps within reach. She tried in vain to sort the lies from reality. But she couldn't stop the second-guessing, going back and trying to make it end differently. Oh, God, how could I have stopped it?

In the night, although the black hole absorbed most sounds, she heard otherworldly noises. Not just the coyotes howling far away, stones falling from the cliffs, or fish splashing in the unhurried river. When the night was darkest, she heard a low moan, a sound like someone blowing across the open neck of a bottle, somewhere up the river. She didn't know if it was an animal, the wind swirling inside the canyon, or one of her tormentors trying to frighten her. She wasn't even sure it was real. There in the dark, alone and gravely injured, she had too little to believe.

Then a fragile light rose in the east, a delicate glow above the black canyon wall. The foretelling of dawn. Twilight in the morning. Light like the cavalry coming to the rescue, still distant, but coming. A pale triangle of the coming day hovered above the canyon, and she imagined dawn was less than an hour away. It was not yet enough to illuminate a path out of the canyon, but she took it as a promise that, from this moment, there would be more light, not less. Yes, the light would disperse whatever demons hovered above, she was certain.

She was wrong. The light was false dawn, a trick of the season. The sun wouldn't rise for at least two hours, and after that, the canyon would remain dark and cold for another two. And no amount of light would scatter her demons, ever.

Barefoot and naked below the waist, she gathered herself for the most difficult journey of her life, harder even than falling one hundred and twenty feet into a black, bottomless river. A few seconds. No, this journey would be longer and harder.

good open-water days were dwindling as Wyoming's brief autumn exhaled its last relatively temperate breaths, so Carl and Dorothy Strasser rose at dawn on a cold but clear Tuesday morning to go fishing.

It wasn't the elderly couple's habit to escape their quiet life in town on a weekday, but they had the day off, and as the days grew shorter for them and for the season, they stole such moments to be together in the open air. They left Casper just after sun-up.

Although the state highway was faster, they drove the more scenic "lower road" to Pathfinder Reservoir, past Alcova. The blacktop ambled through the rocky, dun-colored landscape pocked by scrub cedar and ruddy buttes that both absorbed and reflected the sweet morning light.

In the morning light, the magnificent landscape unfurled before them, horizon to horizon. The deceptive emptiness contained a kind of beauty that was both alluring and vicious. Without so much as a stone being moved, the perfect design of this ancient landscape could be tranquil one morning, horrific the next.

The road rose slowly and curled through the highlands, skirting the edge of the Fremont Canyon until it crossed the narrow but deep gorge on an old, sixty-foot-long steel bridge.

As the Strassers' Ford rumbled over the bridge a little after eight o'clock, they saw a flicker of color at the other end, a scrap of bright crimson out of place in this severe landscape.

And it was moving.

A brown-haired girl lay in the dirt at the end of the bridge, waving her arms. Her bright red pullover was torn and dirty, but she was nude from the waist down. Carl Strasser hit his brakes, leapt from the car and ran to her. The girl was pale, dirty, cold, exhausted and bloody. He could see the traces where she'd dragged herself across the gravel from the edge of the canyon.

It was near freezing. Dorothy retrieved an old blanket from the trunk and covered her, but she needed more help than a little warmth. Her face was caked with dried blood. Her left eye was swollen shut, the side of her head engorged and purple. White strips of fat and blood congealed around a ghastly gash on her left hip. The lower half of her body was badly flayed, and her dust- and blood-spattered legs didn't work at all.

"My God, what happened to you?" Carl asked, astonished.

"I was raped and thrown off the bridge and my little sister, too. She's down there someplace and I think she's dead. And I'm sorry for . . ." the girl covered her exposed genitals with dirty hands. Carl took off his Pendleton jacket and tied the arms around the girl's waist, to cover her nakedness.

"Can you walk?" he asked. She couldn't.

The Strassers lifted her into the back seat of their car and turned the heater up full blast.

"Are you sure," Carl asked her, "your sister is down there someplace?"

The girl said she was, so Carl ran to the bridge railing and leaned way out, looking down. He didn't want to waste time looking for a body that might not be there, but he didn't want to leave the young girl if she needed help, too. He saw nothing.

Back in the car, he sped toward Sloane's store, a one-room roadside market about ten miles back down the road, where weekend fishermen usually filled their trucks with beer, bait and gas.

On the way, shivering and crying, the girl asked for water and drank some hot coffee, which the Strassers always carried on their fishing outings. She told them more of the story, details about the abduction, the rape and plunge from the bridge. Down there in the dark canyon and the frigid water, she'd called out to Amy, but got no answers. As she crawled up the sheer rock face, she remembered seeing a splash of blood on a rock near the water. She feared it was Amy's.

"I'm not worried about me anymore," she said. "Just Amy and my poor mother."

Not knowing who this Amy was and in shock herself, Dorothy tried to comfort the girl, but couldn't find the words. She was a mother, too. From the front seat, she caressed the young girl's tangled brown hair and tried to keep her warm.

At the store, Carl ran inside to call the sheriff's office while Dorothy tended to the injured girl in the Ford.

About twenty minutes later, the ambulance arrived, just behind Sheriff Bill Estes. The sheriff himself quickly questioned the girl—her name was Becky Thomson—to confirm if she was one of the two girls reported missing the night before. While paramedics prepared her for the thirty-mile ride back to town, she repeated her story. Then Becky turned angry. She burned to get the men who killed Amy, she told the sheriff, and it was all she'd thought about as she lay in the bottom of the canyon all night, protected from the cold only by her long brown hair and some sagebrush.

It was her only thought as she dragged her broken body, inch after inch, out of that evil place.

They'll pay for this, she thought, those animals will pay . . . but only if I survive.

Copyright © 2007 by Ron Franscell. All rights reserved.