Jennifer woke up with a start, feeling sick to her stomach, shaking all over. Without getting out of bed, she reached for the pad on the bedside table, and her pencil, holding on to the memories of her dream before it disappeared.
Turning on the bedside lamp at its lowest setting, in the almost dark, she started drawing the images in her mind from the dream. A new torture chamber, with cages, two which held girls dressed up, and huddled in the corners, exhausted, yet too scared to sleep. One girl hanging in the middle of the rooms, hands tied above her head, sobbing deeply in fear.
He’d come back angry, rough and wanting to kill. But, somehow, he’d managed to pull himself back under control, leaving her alive, to continue the torture for another day. But for how much longer? The girls were terrified.
The whisper “It’s too late” still ringing in her ears as she had woken.
But there had been another image… another scene from the dream. She sat, trying to reach back into the subconsciousness of sleep. But the tendrils had withered and dissolved as she had come back into consciousness.
She looked at her phone: 3.06 a.m. The most sleep she’d had in weeks.
She turned the bedside lamp up brighter, and sat working on the drawing, pulling in more details as it clarified in her mind, as her hand seemed to work with a muscle memory of its own. She plumped up her pillows, sitting up more in the bed, and allowed herself to relax and almost close her eyes as she sketched.
Finished, she sat looking at the sketch. Where was this place? She felt like she knew how to get there… but it was gone. In the recesses of her memory, but just beyond reach.
Frustrated with herself, she looked at her phone again: 3.41 a.m.
Late enough to kiss sleep goodbye and make a coffee. She would sit by the window and watch the sunrise.
It was before 7.00 when she pulled into the diner, surprised to see David’s car already outside. As she walked in, she caught sight of the back of Mike’s head, realising that he must have left his truck at the station.
The two men stood the moment they realised she had arrived, scraping their chairs gently as they pushed back from the table.
“Sorry I’m late,” she mumbled, feeling self-conscious.
Mike checked his watch, “No, we’re just early. How’d you sleep?”
As she sat down, she laid the sketch pad on the table, opening it to the morning’s drawing. Jennifer pushed it gently across the table to Mike, who looked at it with new concern.
“Best night’s sleep I’ve had in months,” she grinned. “But still got a rude awakening.”
“There was something more, but it dissolved in my mind as I woke up.”
She looked at them both in frustration “It’s just there, beyond my reach. I feel like I could reach through the veil and touch it, but I can’t quite grasp it and bring it over this side.”
The waitress showed up with the coffee pot, and Jennifer handed her the mug. “Ready to order?”
Jennifer nodded. “Pancakes, lots and lots, and butter. And maple syrup.”
“Same for me,” responded David.
Mike looked again at the menu: “I’ll have the buckwheat pancakes with caramel apples.”
The waitress looked back at him quizzically. “You know those are vegan, right?”.
“Yes, ma’am. They’ll be perfect. Oh, and better top my coffee up,” pushing his mug towards her.
As soon as she was gone, Mike went back to the sketch pad and Jennifer’s drawing. “How long do we have?” he asked, with some concern.
“A day or two. Something happened last night. He was angry and bloodthirsty. Wanted to rip someone’s throat out. But somehow he held back…” her voice dwindled off as she signed.
“So, then, the plan for today,” Mike countered. “Do you want to come with David and I up to visit the old man, or stay back at the house and help Ashley & Frank?”
Jennifer glanced at David, like an exam student hoping to get a clue just by looking at the student next to them. Help was not forthcoming, as David was busy stirring the sugar into his coffee, lost in thought.
“I think I’d prefer to go with you,” Jennifer ventured. “The house makes me sick.”
“Alright, then. We’ll head over to the house, and I’ll check in with Frank and Ashley, make sure Bob’s arrived from Atlanta and has everything he needs, see what else has come up overnight, and then we’ll head north with David and pay Landry a visit. Maybe you’ll be able to make more sense of his tales than we ever could.”
David came out of his reverie with a start, “What did I miss?”
“You’re staying at the house today,” responded Jennifer with a grin, “and Mike and I are taking your car to visit Landry.”
“Not likely,” growled David, chuckling. “You’d get lost or worse. Can’t have you city-folks driving my truck into the swamp, now, can we? Anyhow, I doubt Landry would talk to either of you if I don’t show.”
As they ate their breakfast, Jennifer asked about the history of the house and family it had belonged to.
It had been abandoned more than fifty years ago, when a hurricane had brought down a tree into the back part of the house, killing the mother and the youngest daughter who were in the back bedroom.
Eventually, the father had built a new home, on a different part of the property, where he’d moved with his sons and remaining daughter. They had never returned to the house again, leaving it abandoned and neglected, an icon to days past.
The father had died close to twenty years ago, the daughter – Betty – married and moved to New York, never to return. The eldest son, Franklin, returned from Vietnam shortly after the hurricane, an angry young man, but eventually married and had kids, built a good business. They all lived in the house with his old man. They had a bit of a competition, him and his old man, as to who was a worse asshole.
There was another son, Dwight. He was about 17 at the time the hurricane hit. They said he broke his leg when the tree fell on the house, but some say it was the father that broke it, to make sure he never got drafted. He eventually went on to University and got a job, moved up to Saint Louis, then kind of disappeared. No one’s ever heard from him again.
David continued, “Franklin went on to get married, probably about 1976 or so. I think her name was Annie. They had kids. And more tragedies. The eldest – Johnson – would be about 41, and now he’s living in the house with Franklin, a new asshole competition.” He grinned. “Franklin and his wife had a little girl, probably about 1980 or so, but she died in an accident when she was about 2 years old. The mother was distraught, and always blamed Franklin for it. But, they must has patched things up, because they went on to have another boy, Franklin, Jr., who’s about 36 now. Then, another daughter, Missy, who had an accident when she was 13 or so. Must have hit her head or something, because she never recovered and she’s lived in an asylum ever since. All she talks about is death. And finally another daughter, Pat, who should be about 32 now. I think she’s the only normal one. She’s studied medicine, and then specialised in forensics in Houston, and has never come back home again.”
“In 1997, shortly after Missy’s accident, the mother left and abandoned them all, leaving 10-year-old Pat to clean and cook for the men of the house. I don’t really know how Pat managed to hold herself together.”
Jennifer sat in silence, looking at her sketch pad. She gently opened it up, flipping through the pages, looking for something. Finally, she found it. A sketch from the very beginning of her dreams. A young girl sitting on her bed, feet strapped to the foot of the bed, staring out the window into space.
She gently pushed the sketch pad over to David. “Let’s add Missy to the list of people we need to talk to.”
Mike looked at the picture sombrely, nodding as he pulled out his phone. He called Frank to track down which home Missy was being cared for in, letting him know that they were on the way over to the house, confirming that Bob had already arrived and was starting on the bodies.
When David, Mike & Jennifer arrived on site at the house, Frank already had the team together assigning tasks for the day. Before nightfall, they had pulled another five bodies off the island, all in remnants of ball gowns of days gone by. The team expected to find more as they returned to the island in the swamp. Bob was going to run the team on the island and transporting the remains to Gulfport for examination. Two extra photographers had been pulled in from the local police departments to assist with documentation of the their findings.
Frank would lead the team that was combing through the house, especially the front attic and the basement. The fire brigade had sent in a team on standby to add structural support to the back of the house, while they finished in the attic. For now, they would ignore the back side of the house, as it was unsafe to search.
Ashley had been called back to work in Jackson on a profiling case, as a human trafficking ring had been taken down the night before across Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and up to Ohio. Overnight, she’d flown back to Jackson to coordinate with other offices. She’d seemed quite relieved to get back to the office, rather than being in the humidity the swamps.
Mike, Frank & Bob took twenty minutes or so to confer, asking Jennifer once more for her sketch book, paying particular note of her drawings in the basement and the girls who were hanging there. Bob asked her for more details about one of the girls and her dress, pressing for information about when she’d had the dream. Momentarily, Jennifer was relieved she’d dated her sketches.
Finally, she plucked up the courage to ask, “Why are you so interested in this sketch and this woman?”
Bob looked at her, and grinned. “Because we found her buried out on the island, not hanging in the basement. And this helps me build a timeline on her. Maybe even on some of the others that we dig up from the island. You look at these sketches, and you just see nightmares. I look at your sketches, and I see the best clues I have to putting this jigsaw puzzle together.”
Frank handed her a new sketch pad. “We’re going to keep this one, so that we can work with it. And here’s a new one in case you need it.”
She flipped over the old sketch pad to the last drawing – the words “It’s too late” ripped into the page, from retracing them too many times.
“These girls are running out of time. I don’t care about the bodies, can we focus on finding the live ones?” she begged.
Mike looked at her, grimly. “The clues to finding the live ones are unfortunately in the graves of the dead ones. We have to identify these girls to work out where he finds them, how he chooses them, and then hope we get lucky. Unless you manage to give us something new to go on about where these girls are being held.
He can’t bury any more here, so now he’s going to have to find a new burial site. Hopefully that will slow him down and give these girls a few more days or weeks.” He sighed. “This weighs on us, just as much as it’s weighing on you.”
“Maybe we’ve just seen more evil than you have,” Bob said gently. “But it doesn’t make it any easier. I’ll do my best to identify the girls we have as quickly as possible, and maybe we’ll get lucky today.”
As they were getting ready to leave and visit Landry, Frank’s phone rang. The agents had located Missy, in a home in Jackson, and were coordinating agents to go and visit her. Mike conferred with Frank a moment, before asking them to include Ashley in the visit and to ensure that the other agent was also a woman. “Just call it a gut feeling,” Mike suggested.
Jennifer, sitting in the back of the Explorer waiting for Mike and David had drifted off in the mix of humidity and mental exhaustion.
Suddenly, she was back down in the basement, coming through a doorway, with the five bodies hanging before her. She was being lead up the steps, and through the house, out to the island, knowing that this was her last view of life. Her last breaths. The last sunrise. The birds singing so cheerfully in the eerie early morning. And she stumbled along, barefooted, crying as her foot was cut on a small rock. And yet on she walked, through the swamp, the shallow water just over her toes as she wended her way to death.
With a start, she woke up when David started the car, Mike slamming the door as he hopped in.
“Stop! I know how to find them! There’s a tunnel from the basement.”
Mike and David looked at her, perplexed. “There’s no tunnel down there, we’ve all been down there.”
“No, we have to go back down again, I know there has to be a way in,” she insisted. “Emily was there! She walked past the girls from the back of the basement, before heading up the stairs. Where was she coming from?” Jennifer was almost losing herself in the anxiety, struggling to breathe, when Mike whistled loudly, snapping her out of it.
“Now, tell me five blue things you can see right now.”
She looked around the interior of the car, towards the house and at the various vehicles parked under the trees. Finding five blue things to repeat back to Mike. “Now, four things you can touch,” Mike prodded. She gently touched her purse, the seat in front of her, the window beside her and the roof of the car. “Three things you can hear,” he continued.
“I’m good.” She looked at him gratefully. “Thanks,” she whispered, as her breathing returned to normal.
David continued eyeing her, for a moment, “You sure? We can take a moment longer if you need more time.”
“No, I’m fine. The panic attacks are usually directly related to the dreams. I can’t believe I drifted off!”
“It’s probably a good thing you did,” Mike countered. “Don’t be sorry. Unless there’s no back door in the basement and you make us all look like fools.” He chuckled.
She looked at him with her best resting bitch face, well practised from years of law. “I don’t waste anyone’s time.” The effect was ruined when all three burst out laughing, and then she started to cry.
“It’s alright not to have it all together,” Mike reminded her. “You just do the best you can to process all the emotions and not let it overwhelm you. If you want to quit any time and just walk away, no one will judge you.”
Jennifer looked at him through the tears. “The dreams won’t stop even if I walk away, so I might as well use them for something good.”
She got out of the car shakily, surprised when Mike gave her a bear hug. “It’s okay to not be okay,” he reminded her.
For just a moment, she rested on someone else’s strength. “Okay, I’ve got this.” She pulled herself back together, straightening back up. David joined them to walk back to Frank and the team, ready to return to the house.
“Change of plans,” Mike growled. “I want you to focus on the basement. Check every last inch of those walls, I want to know if there’s a door or any kind of entrance in the back leading into any tunnels. Do any of the walls look different or closed off. Is there somewhere that the wood doesn’t match? I want to know what this house connects to.”
“I want one of you looking for blueprints on this house, see if there were any other buildings that used to be on this property that might have been somehow connected. And I want a small group fanning out over the property, looking for any other structure that might have been here, even if it fell down. Stick to higher ground, staying away from the swamp. No one’s going to tunnel under the swamp. Find me his other hiding place.”