The Fallen Girls
Sixteen brothers and sisters perched on chairs and table edges, sat hip to hip on the cramped floor: the girls in long-sleeved prairie dresses that swept to their ankles, the boys in pants and collared shirts. All heads bowed and hands clasped, as twelve-year-old Delilah whispered, "Heavenly Father, thank thee for this day. For the rain that fell this morning and watered our crops. Please send more. Thank thee for the well the men are digging and the water it will bring."
Evening prayers. Delilah had always cherished the ritual, the calm before the chaos of helping prepare the little ones for bed. Yet she dreaded what followed. The prospect of leaving the family's mobile home and walking into the night terrified her.
The double-wide trailer smelled of the coming day's bread baking in the oven. On the couch, the women of the household huddled together, serene yet attentive, hands folded piously on laps. Delilah's smooth brow wrinkled in worry as she focused on her mother. The girl looked so like Sariah that townsfolk who saw them together remarked on the resemblance. From her mother, Delilah inherited her thick auburn curls, her startling blue eyes, and the sprinkle of pale freckles that arched across her upturned nose. Sensing her daughter's gaze, Sariah formed a cup of her palm and drew it toward her chest, a signal the children understood meant "more."
As instructed, the youngster resumed her posture, pinning her chin to her chest. "Thank thee, Lord, for my brothers and sisters, for our mothers. Bless our father and Mother Constance, who have left us to live with you in heaven." Delilah paused, and then murmured, "Oh, and if you could please tell Sadie—"
"Amen!" Mother Ardeth roared.
A snicker flitted through those gathered, the scattered teenagers rolling eyes, the adolescents glancing nervously from Delilah to Ardeth, while the youngest sensed something significant had happened but didn't understand what. Fourteen-year-old Lily leaned into Delilah and whispered, "Sis, you know my mom doesn't like any talk of Sadie. You shouldn't—"
"Enough, daughter!" Mother Ardeth snapped at Lily. A staunch woman with arched black eyebrows, Ardeth held a special place in the household. As first wife, she functioned as the family matriarch. But she'd also taken on her dead husband's roles, and these responsibilities weighed on her, in the past year turning her long black hair a steel gray.
Seated between Ardeth and Sariah, Mother Naomi made certain no one misunderstood. A softly round woman with wire-rimmed glasses, a slender nose and a pile of fading brown hair, Naomi tilted her head back. "Thank you, Heavenly Father!" she cried, as enraptured as if she gazed on heaven's gate rather than stained ceiling tiles. "Evening prayer has ended."
At that, Mother Sariah rose and clapped her hands. "It's time, children. Lily and Delilah, take the young ones out, then pajamas."
"Mom, I…" Delilah pleaded. Her stomach churned dinner's beans and tortillas, perhaps a physical manifestation of her fears. To quiet it, she pressed her hand against the wide white sash that belted her worn blue cotton dress.
Bending down, Sariah whispered in her daughter's ear, "No more, Delilah. Please, stop. You'll frighten the little ones."
The girl's bow-shaped lips melted into a frown. "Yes, Mother."
The battered aluminum door squeaked in harsh complaint as it scraped the concrete stoop. Lily and the children jostled behind her as Delilah stepped out into the night. All around her, insects chirped and burred. The double-wide rested on concrete blocks on the edge of the community cornfield, acres of pencil-straight stalks heavy with the year's harvest. In the near distance, a mountain ridge formed a solid black wave between the shadowy valley and a cloudless, navy-blue sky speckled with pinpoint stars. A golden oval, a nearly full moon hung high above Samuel's Peak. A hundred years earlier, the leaders of Elijah's People, a small fundamentalist Mormon sect that settled the valley, named the precipice in honor of its great prophet, the saint who led its people to Utah's Alber Valley.
A soft breeze carried the scent of fresh-cut alfalfa drying in the fields. As Delilah clomped down the five stairs to the dirt path, eight little ones followed like a brood of chicks trailing a hen.
Each step as loath as a prisoner's to a cell, Delilah marched forward. Wielding a neon-orange plastic flashlight thicker than her arm, she pointed a wide funnel of light ahead and followed it. The short procession turned a corner, and Delilah could no longer see the trailer.
Hastening to catch up, Lily shuffled beside her. "You need to stop talking about Sadie, Delilah. You know my mom—"
"I know!" Delilah came to an abrupt stop that left the younger children bumping into one another like dominoes behind her.
"Lily, can you feel it?"
"Someone," Delilah said, a catch in her throat. "Watching."
Lily's black hair was gathered in a topknot and puffed to frame her coffee-colored eyes. An analytical girl often in trouble for questioning her elders, she appeared doubtful. Why would anyone watch them? They took the young ones out every night, and no one ever bothered them. But as she nudged her sister forward, Lily trained her own flashlight, a twin to Delilah's, on the cornfield and searched between the rows. When satisfied, she proclaimed, "This is silly. I don't see anything. Why do you think someone is—"
"I can feel him."
Delilah gulped back the bile rising in her chest. "I don't know."
"Delilah, no one is—"
"He is, Lily. He watches me." She repeated, "I can feel him."
Again skimming the field, Lily craned her neck to peek between the rigid stalks. Nothing moved save the ruffle of leaves in a draft off the mountain, beginning to turn cool after a blistering late-summer day.
Impatient, Lily scowled at her younger sister. She wanted to put the little ones to bed, so she and Delilah could finish the checkers game they started before dinner. Lily felt pretty sure she had Delilah outmaneuvered.
"There's no one out there," Lily insisted. "Let's just—"
"You sure?" Three inches shorter than her sister, Delilah looked up to Lily not just literally but figuratively. She was the closest to Delilah in age, and the sisters had consoled each other through their father's death and shared the difficult days when they were evicted from their big house in town. In the past year, their lives had become increasingly difficult. Even with Father and Mother Constance gone, and the oldest of their siblings married off, that left nineteen living in a three-bedroom trailer without indoor plumbing. At night, every inch of floor became a bed.
"Yeah," Lily said. "I'm sure no one's out there."
Delilah swallowed hard.
At the metal-sided outhouse, the children took turns entering through doors marked 'MEN' and 'WOMEN'. They fidgeted and snickered in line, whispered in each other's ears. A ten-year-old girl picked a nearly closed buttercup from the weeds at the edge of the path and held it under a younger girl's chin. "If I see a reflection, you have a boyfriend."
The other children clustered around.
Wide-eyed, the smaller girl asked, "Do you see one?"
The older girl nodded yes.
Clapping her hands, the little girl bounced up and down. "Who is it? Who is it? Who's my boyfriend?"
The other children hooted, as the girl holding the buttercup giggled. "It's too dark!" she teased. "Silly, silly. No reflections in the dark!"
The minutes ticked past until all but one straggler finished in the outhouse. Four-year-old Kaylynn habitually dawdled.
Growing impatient, weary and ready to end the day, the youngsters squabbled. Two boys shoved one another, and Lily ordered them to be still.
Watching her older sister, Delilah felt ashamed. For days, her mother had assured her no one hid in the corn. I'm not a little girl anymore. I need to be strong. I need to grow up.
"Sis, take the children into the house," she told Lily. "I'll wait for Kaylynn."
"You sure?" Again Lily focused her big orange flashlight on the brittle stalks, heavy with ripening corn. In days, it would be ready for harvest. Then there would be canning for the girls to do and cornbread to bake for dinners. A pale moth fluttered lazily by, weaving through the beam.
"I'm sure," Delilah said, pulling up her shoulders, standing up straighter.
"Good! Hurry up and we can get back to our game." Lily waved at the children. "Let's go. Pajamas and bed." The little ones padded off toward the trailer, twittering and talking.
Moments later, Delilah stood alone in the night, regretting sending Lily away. In the moonlight, the shadows grew ever longer. The incessant hum of the insects swelled.
"Kaylynn, hurry up," Delilah shouted through the outhouse door.
"I'm trying," the little one called back.
Fighting a mounting disquiet, Delilah sought comfort by murmuring the verse of a familiar children's song. "God watch over me…"
At the far side of the outhouse, a patch of stalks shimmered. Delilah stiffened. The flashlight beam searched. Nothing.
"When are you coming out?" she yelled at Kaylynn.
From inside the outhouse, the little one shouted, "In a minute."
"Please hurry!" Holding the flashlight with both hands, Delilah scanned the hard dirt visible between the rows and continued her song. "God watch over me and keep me—"
Something moved. Something unseen disturbed a clump of stalks.
The flashlight held before her, Delilah crept toward the corn. Peering between the stiff green shoots and their long slender leaves, she searched. She heard a throaty purr. The flashlight's beam skimmed low. From the darkness, two iridescent gold eyes emerged.
A scrawny gray tabby inched forward. Relief flooded through Delilah. "You're the one watching me?" Holding the flashlight tight, she leaned into the corn. "Don't tell anyone how scared I was, okay?"
Crouching to pet the cat, Delilah didn't notice the stalks shiver a few feet to her right. She never saw the man shuffle out of the corn. By the time she looked up, he towered above her. In a single movement, he wrapped one thick arm around her waist and clamped his other hand over her mouth, muffling her screams.
I stared at the guy, not blinking. He said nothing, just squirmed off and on in the rickety metal chair, his handcuffed wrists resting on the battered gray metal table between us. I wished, not for the first time, that I had X-rays coming out of my eyes like the ones they show in comic books, the kind artists draw with pulsing heat rays. The truth? I wanted the guy to fry. Right there in the interrogation room.
While I watched.
The waste of DNA that held my attention was on camera at a local drinking establishment nine hours earlier, a cowboy bar on Dallas's city limits. He'd liquored up and gotten into an argument with the bartender, who cut him off. The bartender picked up a phone and started to call someone, I figured a cab for his drunken customer. The guy stood up and shouted at him, something I couldn't hear on the surveillance tape. In a final effort, the bartender made a move to grab the perp's car keys off the bar. The drunk beat him to them. Shouting back over his shoulder, the guy staggered out the door.
Ninety seconds later, he moseyed back in, this time with a pistol in each hand.
The only good news: near closing, the joint was almost empty. An hour earlier, five times the number of people could have died. As it was, we had four victims: one dead bartender; one dead waitress; one dead twenty-two-year-old college student who'd pulled an all-nighter and stopped in for a drink to unwind; and a regular at the bar, a guy from the neighborhood who spent most nights drowning his sorrows with shots and beers. That guy, lucky stiff, lived. At least so far. He was in the ICU, holding on by his fingernails.
While I stared down the guy across from me, I thought about the squad of cops spreading out over the city, ringing doorbells. Family members would answer, little suspecting that they'd receive the worst news of their lives. One family would head to the hospital, perhaps arriving too late to say goodbye. The other three vics were never coming home. Last I heard we were still looking for next of kin for the college student. His family would never see him walk across the stage at graduation, never celebrate when he landed his first real job, never dance at his wedding. The waitress? The bartender? That's where it got really sad. A total of five kids between them, the oldest twelve. What would happen to them?
I thought about the three bodies on the way to the morgue. Such a waste. Those folks woke up yesterday morning never considering that it would be their last. Life? Well, it's not always fair.
In my world, events make that clear entirely too often.
Our office door reads: CRIMES AGAINST PERSONS. Although fairly new, only a detective for the past three years, I pull the toughest cases—murders and sexual assaults. At Dallas PD, I have something of a jacket, a reputation. I work leads to death, no pun intended. The truth is, I have a lot of time on my hands, since I don't have a life outside the job.
That's how this particular shooter became the focus of my undivided attention.
My shift didn't start until eleven, but I arrived early. My calendar empty, I didn't have anything else to do on a Saturday morning. So I was at my desk dissecting a case folder when this guy shuffled through the door in leg irons and cuffs at 8 a.m., two beat cops piloting him by his elbows. Somebody heard shots and called it in. They found my companion passed out with his head on the bar, his hand curled around a half-empty beer mug.
Guns don't mix well with stupid. Guns and stupid are even more dangerous when paired with crazy drunk.
"You know, booze can make you do things you wouldn't otherwise," I said to the guy. I gave him a sociable smile. As much as I wanted to vaporize him, I needed him to cooperate and talk. "I'm sure you didn't mean to hurt those folks. Really the alcohol is to blame, don't you think?"
We had an open-and-shut case, no doubt about it. But the DA's office always appreciated not only a wrapped package but one with a well-fluffed bow. I wanted to tie the guy up with a confession on the wall-mounted video camera focused on his face. I also had a rep in the department for being able to draw confessions out of perps. As serious as the cases were, and this one certainly was, I saw it as something of a chess game. I enjoyed the challenge of working angles to convince the bad guys to talk.
In particular, I wanted no wiggle room for this one. He was going down.
"Damn it. I told you. I didn't kill those people," he said. Not a bad-looking guy—he had a mop of curly blond hair and a beard to match, deep-set smoky brown eyes and a muscular neck that spread into well-developed shoulders. I figured he worked out. He'd have a lot of time to firm up his pecs in a prison cell.
"You have someone else we should investigate for the killings? You were the only one there. Just you and the four victims in the bar," I told him. "And we have you on camera, holding up your guns like Rambo."
At that, he twisted his mouth far to the side, digesting my words.
"I don't remember nothin' about shootin' no one. I didn't do it."
"You want to see the video again?" I offered. "Happy to cue it up on my iPad. We can even order in some popcorn."
At that, the guy's eyes turned to suspicious slits. "Videos can be doctored. I see it all the time on the Internet."
I let loose a long sigh and leaned across the table toward him. He looked uncertain, but I smiled like he was my new best friend. "I really think you need to get in front of this," I advised, dropping my voice low to pull him in. "I mean, you killed those folks, and it's memorialized on a video. You're not walking out of here."
The guy scooted back, putting distance between us. "I didn't—"
"Don't give me that!" I brought my hand down flat with a bang. The table shook. The guy jumped, eyeing me like I was the crazy one.
"Lady," he said. "I don't—"
"Detective," I corrected him. "Detective Clara Jefferies."
"Detective Jefferies, I…"
He stopped talking, I figured unsure of what to say. I waited a bit, let him stew, and then I offered, "Let's figure out your best option." I sat back in the chair, appearing to relax. "Like I said, my bet is that the booze made you do it."
The guy thought about that. "Well, I guess…"
Almost have him, I thought. Almost there.
"If you hadn't been drinking, you wouldn't have killed those folks, right?"
At first nothing, but then, just as hope faded, he nodded.
The prosecutor, judge and jury wouldn't care that he was drunk. It wasn't an excuse. But if he thought it might give him any advantage, he might open up.
"Tell me how it happened."
The guy blew out a raspy breath. I smelled sour booze and stale cigarettes. "Well, I—"
"All I want is the truth."
The guy bobbed his head. "Okay, well, I had a fight with my old lady about our kids. She got riled up, and when she's like that, you can't argue with her."
To keep him talking, I made my face sympathetic.
"I decided I'd leave and let the bitch cool down. I was at the bar for a couple of hours. No problems. But then the bartender pissed me off, told me I couldn't have another drink." The guy's voice rose, still angry at the bartender's audacity. "I wasn't done drinking, you know?"
"I understand," I assured him. "You needed another one. The bartender really didn't have a reason to—"
"That's what I told that asswipe!" the guy shouted, grinning at me as if grateful that I understood. "I wasn't drunk. I didn't need a damn cab."
"What happened next?"
"I go outside. I'm thinking I'll go home. But then I remember that the wife was pissed. Probably still is. Probably waiting to holler at me some more. I could picture her there, sitting in a chair, mad as a loon, hoping I'd come home so she could let loose."
"So what did you do?"
"I opened the car door."
"I remembered the guns were in the trunk."
"I popped the trunk, grabbed the guns, checked to make sure they were loaded, and then I walked back inside the bar…"
Hours later, I left the interrogation room rubbing the back of my sore neck. The chief and one of the assistant district attorneys waited. They'd been watching on a monitor. "Thanks," the prosecutor said. A short guy in a pinstripe suit, he had a red silk handkerchief in his breast pocket. Around the cop shop he was known as Dandy. In the courtroom he put on quite a show, and juries loved him. "Great confession. When he said he checked to make sure the guns were loaded? Clear evidence of premeditation. You got everything on tape? Including reading him his rights?"
"It's all on the video, including Miranda," I said. I ran my hand through my hair. A few black strands had worked their way out of the tight bun at my nape. I tucked the stragglers in. "Do you need anything else?"
"Nah," Chief Nevil Thompson said. A wiry man with shoulders habitually pulled up to his ears and a long, narrow face, he'd ruled over Dallas PD for my entire nine years with the department. I started as a dispatcher and got my criminal justice degree in night school. I admired the chief. He'd been good to me, promoting me up the chain. Sure I worked hard and gave it my all, but it meant a lot that he noticed. Usually he'd be home on a Saturday, but the media was all over the bar shooting. "Good work, Detective."
"Thanks, Chief." I'd been in the interview room so long my morning Egg McMuffin had worn off. Emphasizing the point, my stomach growled. "Since we're all set, I'm going to grab a late lunch before I type this up."
"Make it dinner," the chief advised. When I shot him a questioning glance, he explained, "Check the time."
I looked at my watch, the brown leather strap cracked and creased. The scratched face distorted the dial, but it looked like 7 p.m. "Guess you're right."
The chief shot me a sympathetic glance. "Clara, go home. We've got the video of the confession. Someone else can write the warrant. You can file your full report on Monday."
"I've got to—"
"You've done enough. Get out of here. Unwind. Make yourself some kind of a life away from this place."
I had to admit I was tired, but nothing waited for me at home. Actually, I didn't think of my studio apartment in those terms. The space was barely furnished, my refrigerator embarrassingly empty. I'd been meaning to go grocery shopping, swear off fast food and take up cooking. Somehow that never happened. "I could put in a few more hours, finish my report and hang around. Saturday nights get busy, and—"
"We have a full shift on. They'll do just fine. Go home," the chief repeated. "That's an order."
I took a deep breath. "Okay, I'll leave. But first I'm going to type up my report."
The chief's eyebrows bunched together. "I give up. File your report."
"Thanks, Chief, I—"
"But then get the hell out of here and go somewhere. Home. A restaurant. A bar. A movie. Visit friends, if you have any," he growled.
"Clara, tomorrow's your day off. Take it!"
My cubicle had a view of Dallas's glass-and-granite skyline, with the Chase Tower in the distance. As I finished my report on the bar killings, the city lights came on. I stood at the window and peered down at the streets. Folks drove by on their way to a Saturday night out. On the sidewalks, couples walked arm in arm. The city looked peaceful, and I considered how most people just wanted to live their lives with a bit of happiness and a minimum of pain. I thought about the small but dangerous minority who wouldn't let that happen, the ones who had no second thoughts about taking what belonged to someone else, even a life.
My neck was still sore, my lower back felt tight. At thirty-four that shouldn't happen. For the most part, I was in good shape, and I was too young for aches and pains. I considered the fine wrinkles webbing my eyes. One of my fellow detectives described them as laugh lines, but then noted that he'd never actually seen me crack a smile.
"Probably stress," I muttered. I considered the next day, Sunday, and decided I would listen to the chief and try to sleep in. I couldn't remember the last time I'd had an entire day to myself. I grabbed my suit jacket and slipped it on over my white cotton shirt. I unpinned the leather sash with my badge from my belt, stuffed it in my old black bag, the leather scratched and the strap frayed. Maybe I should go shopping and buy a new one, I thought. I entertained the idea for mere seconds before I decided, Nah. This one's fine.
Shopping malls and grocery stores made me nervous. I had a hard time with big buildings and crammed aisles. Too many options and I felt paralyzed. Maybe because I'd grown up in a world where I was never allowed to choose anything for myself.
I'd taken four steps from my chair on my way to the elevator when my desk phone rang. I stopped and looked at it. The phone kept ringing. For once, I considered not answering.
"Detective Jefferies here," I said into the receiver a moment later.
"This is Detective Jefferies, Dallas PD. Who's calling?"
On the other end, someone cleared his throat. In a low, deep voice, he said, "Clara, it's Max."
"Max Anderson. From Alber."
"Alber…" It felt like a lifetime ago. It felt like someone else's life.
"Clara, it's me," the man said. "Max, from home. I need your help."
"Clara. A detective. Working homicides, no less. I've seen your name in the newspapers. You've handled some big cases." Max had recounted the condensed version of his own story: how he'd been a cop, worked his way up to major crimes in Salt Lake City, before he hired on as chief deputy at the sheriff's department in Smith County, Utah, where we grew up. I remembered his soft laugh from when we were kids. "Heck of a coincidence, both of us in law enforcement. Don't you think?"
At first, I did. But then I reconsidered.
"With the way we grew up, maybe we just want to bring a little sanity to the world," I said, conjuring up an image of him from long ago, a shy, lanky teenager with a thatch of hair the light brown of hay, hazel eyes that nip down in the corners.
Silent at first, as if mulling over my theory, he said, "Could be."
Our shared history aside, this wasn't a social call, and Max quickly got to the point. "Clara, I need you in Alber for a day or two."
The strength of my reaction surprised me. I reared back, and said louder than I'd intended, "No. I can't."
I blamed it on work. I had obligations. Yet I sensed that Max understood the real reason. The prospect of returning to Alber flooded me with dread. I'd left a life behind there, painful memories that haunted me. A decade ago, I promised myself that I'd never return. And the day I left, I knew that I'd never be welcomed back.
"Let me tell you about the case," he said. In that morning's mail, Max's boss, Sheriff Virgil Holmes, had received an anonymous note that claimed a young girl had disappeared two nights earlier. "I tried to talk to the family. They refused to cooperate. The Alber police chief gave it a shot after I did and he got the same result. We're making no ground."
The day ended without a lead, without any confirmation that the note was genuine. "I need someone the family will talk to, Clara. To find out the truth. That's you. You're the only one."
"Me? Why would they talk to me?"
"I'm not part of that world anymore. I'm an outsider," I pointed out, my voice high and strained. "Max, I'm sorry. I'd like to help you, but…" I lowered my voice and tried to regain control. "You can't ask me to go back there. You just can't."
For a moment, he was silent. Then Max said, "Clara, the missing girl is Delilah."
In a whirl, my memory played a reel from my past, snippets of little girls in prairie dresses running through the fields. One had red-gold hair and a smile that tugged at my heart. "Delilah?"
I pictured her, little more than a toddler when I'd left Alber, jumping on still-bowed legs when she tried to play hopscotch with the older children, her bulky skirt bunching around her knees when she barreled head-first down the slide. The family Max had gone to see, the one that turned him away, was my own.
Delilah Jefferies was my half-sister, the oldest daughter of Sariah, my father's fourth wife.
"Delilah must be a teenager now."
"Almost. She's twelve," Max said.
"You think she's been taken?"
"No one has filed a missing person report," Max admitted. "But yes, I do."
I didn't ask any more questions. "I'm on my way."