As the morning heated up, an FBI team rolled in from Gulfport, with a mobile unit borrowed from Jackson. This bus, with its extensions, would serve as the temporary headquarters on the property. They extended the canvas, fastening the poles of the awning, creating an outer work space, setting up tables and chairs on the grass in the shade.
A second bus pulled in shortly after, with the coroner’s mobile unit following closely behind.
The helicopter arrived back on it’s second trip, with a lone woman hopping out and joining the FBI team. Her clothes and style didn’t quite seem to match that of the other team members, and Jennifer watched her fidgeting uncomfortably as she was brought up to speed.
Moments later, the team was pointing her across the grass to where Jennifer sat with her sketch book, still looking at the house and the boathouse that she had drawn and the actual sight before her eyes. Nothing could have prepared her for this.
She looked up at the woman as she approached, and while her clothes were more appropriate of a woman in her forties, Jennifer doubted she had even reached thirty.
“Hi, Ashley Lee, Special Agent.”
Jennifer met her outstretched hand, that luckily helped her balance as she had stood up too quickly and realised she’d spent the day on an empty stomach. The handshake was firmer than she’d expected, and Jennifer corrected her previous assessment. The voluptuous curves should not be mistaken for a lack of fitness.
“So Jennifer, I understand that you have some sketches and a rather interesting history with this case,” Ashley searched her face for a response.
“I’ve been having these dreams,” she started.
“And you can draw,” replied Ashley, motioning to the sketch book.
Jennifer reluctantly handed over her pad, with a new sketch she’d started as she’d dozed in the Mississippi heat under the tree. This latest sketch was a mess, swamp marsh, bones and skulls, dirt, mud and shovels. And the girl. The one that had escaped. Dressed in the beautiful gown, before it had been ripped to shreds as she fled.
Ashley sat looking through the sketch pad in silence. Then she asked Jennifer about the dates on the sketches.
“I started noting the dates of the dreams, keeping this as a dream journal,” she replied.
“Tell me about how they started,” Ashley pried.
“I’m not sure if the events are related,” she hesitated, “but I was at a wedding in Alton, Illinois. I accidentally brushed one of the waitresses. It felt like I’d been hit with an electric shock. You know like when you rub your feet in carpet to build up static and then touch metal? But a lot stronger. There was no carpet. But the girl… she looked at me with empty eyes, as if someone had stolen her soul. That night, I had the first nightmare.”
She breathed to calm herself and took a sip of water.
“I didn’t start sketching then. I just thought it was the hotel we were staying in. They’d said it was across the river from a haunted property. I’d had a few drinks too many,” she grimaced.
Ashley’s smile didn’t reach her eyes, as she attempted to empathise. “And then…”
“Well, at the beginning, the nightmares weren’t very frequent. It was a couple of months before I had another nightmare. But it was the same house, again. A different girl. Different instruments. He accidentally killed her, before he was done with her,” she trailed off, remembering as the nausea returned.
She swallowed and looked up. Ashley was looking at her, still not buying into her story or explanation, “I’m going to need the sketch book for now.”
Jennifer watched as Special Agent Lee walked over to the makeshift office, her heels sinking into the grass as she walked.
As she sat back down in the grass, Jennifer looked at her boots, glad she’d thought to wear them as she dressed that morning. “It’ll be interesting to see her choice of shoes tomorrow,” she thought to herself with a grin.
Mike walked over to her at that moment, followed by two other agents. “We’re going up into the attic and other places in the house,” he said. “Are you game to join us? Maybe help us find hidden spaces that we don’t know to look for?”
She looked at the house with dread, then steeled herself. “It couldn’t be any worse than the basement,” she replied as she stood once again, this time slowly to avoid getting lightheaded. She took another small sip of water, closing the bottle carefully and putting it back in the cooler in the back of the Explorer.
As they neared the house, Ashley joined them and asked if she could come with them.
Silently they entered and headed up the majestic staircase, no longer with resplendent beauty, but still inspiring awe. Mike motioned them down a hallway, and then up a back stairs.
As they searched the attic, Jennifer sensed the hairs on her arms standing on end and a jarring pain in her lower back. She winced, and Ashley noticed. “What is it?”
“I don’t know,” she gasped and found herself suddenly unable to breathe. She struggled for air, feeling as if she was being strangled, and trying to remove the invisible hands from her throat in horror. As suddenly as it started, it was over.
Just like in her dreams.
She sat on the floor. Almost sobbing, drawing in each breath with relief. When she looked in the mirror, she didn’t see herself, but one of them – dressed in a ball gown, hair perfectly arranged, blindfolded.
She turned around, to the wall behind her. “It’s in there,” she choked, pointing to the wall, before running down the stairs, and escaping the horror of the house.
A supporting friend
She collapsed under the safety of the giant tree, looking around for David. As much as she had been reluctant to leave earlier, all she wanted now was to get away, back into town. Hungry enough to have something to eat, even if she did throw it up later.
She considered asking permission to ditch this and go home. If she left now, she could be home in Chicago in the early hours of tomorrow.
As if called, David appeared with a peace offering.
“It’s the best I could do,” he offered, handing her a sub and pack of chips, as well as a soda. She was grateful for the food and the company.
“What happens now?” she asked him. “Why are they treating me as if I’m a suspect or somehow involved? I realise I’m not cuffed and sitting in a jail cell, but feeling like a leper here!”
David scoffed. “They have no scientific or rational explanation, and it bugs the hell out of them. But, they’ve got bodies and a whole house of evidence to process and they’ll have to see where it leads them.”
Jennifer sat, staring at the house and then over towards the boathouse.
“Those bodies are all out there, buried in the islands in the swamp,” she offered. “But we can’t get there until low tide.”
David looked at her in shock. “More bodies?”
“Yeah. About thirteen of them. Maybe more. There was an island he would walk them out to when he was done with them. And have them dig each other’s graves.”
David looked at her, sadly, slowly making sense of the girl’s story. “Have you told anyone?”
“No, no one seems very interested in talking to me right now, since I ran out of the house.”
He chuckled. “It’s all a bit much, eh?”
“What did I sign up for?”
“To prove to yourself that you’re not going crazy and that all of this means something.”
“But what could it possibly mean? If I walk away now, can they follow the evidence and that just be enough?”
“Depends,” he responded. “What else have you seen?”
“There’s a girl. I think she’s still alive. But I keep hearing it’s too late.”
“Well, in that case, we’d better make sure that they speed up and pick up the pace on their investigation,” David responded. “Let’s make sure it’s not too late.”
He opened his phone and checked the tide charts. “We’ll need to wait at least another hour, if we don’t want to be knee deep in crocs. But I guess I should let them know, so that they can put a team together.”
He stood up and strode across the grass towards the makeshift site. At that moment, Mike, Ashley and the others poured out of the house with evidence bags.
Jennifer looked down at her half eaten sub, and decided that rather than joining them and losing her lunch, she was just going to let them deal with it and she was going to eat.
Mike walked over to her, while Ashley walked over to the makeshift tent and pulled a pair of sneakers out of her bag. Jennifer grinned to herself.
Mike looked at her quizzically and asked “So, 25 blindfolds, most covered with blood. Each placed carefully inside it’s own little bag and case. Stored in a drawer, with compartments. What do you think you know?”.
She swallowed, and looked at what was left of her lunch.
Then, holding his gaze, stated matter-of-fact-ly “First, I’m finishing my lunch.”
He roared and dropped to the ground. “Where did you find those?”
“David brought them over.” She offered him some chips.
“I’ll be right back,” Mike said, getting up as he located the lunch service out of the back of one of the vans.
As he walked over, Jennifer noticed for the first time a slight limp in his left leg. She wondered how she’d missed it earlier, and then realised that she’d never had a moment to watch him walking.
Lost in thought, watching him, Jennifer was startled by Ashley, David and the head of the team that were coming to discuss her new revelation.
“So, how do we find this island,” Jason – the team leader – asked.
“I don’t know. I just know that in low tide we can walk there without getting our feet too wet. In high tide, it’s all under water. But the path, if you can call it a path, is somewhere over there behind the boathouse and in the swamp.”
Within the hour, a busload of police cadets had arrived and were being organised by the FBI and local police force for the search of the swamp. Each team was being assigned to boats that were arriving, with locals to run them around and keep an eye out for predators in the water.
With a full stomach, the heat and humidity, and the events of the day so far, Jennifer dozed off, only to wake up moments later screaming! David came running, as she sat on the grass, rocking herself, catching her breath and calming herself.
In tears, she she asked for her sketch pad and Ashley appeared with a brand new one.
In silence, she sat and sketched, while Ashley watched her, fidgeting. She looked up at Ashley and said harshly “I’ll let you know when I’m done, but find somewhere else to go fidget.”
The moment the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them. “Sorry,” she stammered, “I just need a few moments before this disappears from memory. I’m not doing well with all of this being real.”
She turned her attention back to her drawing and finished off the details of the two girls on the island, their dresses, the shovels, and the man that had walked them out there, chained together. She still couldn’t see his face, only feel his presence.
But, as horrific as falling asleep had been, she now knew where the trail started into the swamp that lead to the shallow graves.
She lead the main search team over to the brush to the left of the boathouse, down into the rushes and brush. While not easily seen, a path could be made out, cleared of heavy branches, trees and with soft sand below. It wasn’t the mud of the swamp, even if overgrown with weeds. It was obvious it hadn’t been used in years, probably since Emily had escaped.
As they were about to start out on the search, Mike looked at her. “Will you be joining us?” he asked gently.
“No, I’ve seen more than I want to see,” she responded. “You’ll know you’ve arrived when you find the crocodile with a shovel stuck in its mouth.”
His eyes widened, as he remembered the garbled story Emily told the night she’d been rescued from the swamp. A heroic crocodile that had come out to save her.
“Just keep to the sand, rather than the mud, and you should be fine,” Jennifer offered. “It’s probably about a mile into the swamp, maybe less. I don’t know.”
“If the tides haven’t moved everything,” one of the cadets muttered. Luckily, Hurricane Isaac had happened before Emily had been kidnapped and not after, so they had hopes that major changes hadn’t happened in the swampland.
Checking with David, Jennifer asked to be driven back to town and her hotel room. They weren’t done. But she was. At least for now.
Some of the search and rescue team members moved out first, clearing the way through the brush so that those coming behind could see where they were walking, more or less.
But, as promised, there was a sandy floor, even if the brush was growing more thickly inside the swamp.
As he made his way through the swamp, Mike remembered his nonsensical interview with Emily, the 22-year-old that he’d helped on her first night out. He remembered her tattered dress, now packed away in some evidence box, and the terror in her eyes as he tried to make sense of the story she told.
After she’d left the interrogation room, they’d had her sedated in the hospital for a couple of days. But, the moment she had been taken off sedation, she had bolted, leaving a cold case behind her. Without a victim and witness, and without anything more to follow than garbled stories of an incoherent witness, the case had been dropped.
He considered what they knew. She’d been twenty-two, living it up with her friends in Illinois, walking home drunk – again – after a night out with friends. She said she felt she was being watched. But lately, every time she’d walked home after work or partying, she’d felt she was being watched. And so, she’d started to ignore it. A great night out, and a little paranoid.
On the night she’d been abducted, she’d had more than few too many and considered getting a cab. But as her apartment was only two blocks from the bar, she had chosen to walk home alone. The last thing she’d remembered was stopping to pull her keys from her purse before she reached her front door.
When she woke up, she was in a van, blindfolded, hands tied, lying on her side. After what had felt like hours, they had arrived, and this was where the real terror had started.
She’d been gagged, stripped and then forced into a corset and dress. The corset made it almost impossible to breathe, and she felt herself constantly light-headed, if not drugged. Of course, the blood work had found nothing conclusive.
She’d failed to cooperate with her captor or his “friends”, and he’d decided to give her an early end, when he took out one of the other girls who was no longer in any shape to please the “clients”.
That night, he’d chained the two girls together, marched them through the swamp and up the knoll to dig their own graves. As they were digging, they’d happened upon a crocodile, who conveniently attempted to attack him, rather than the girls. He’d wasted his bullets, trying to shoot it!
The girls had struggled to get free, while he put one of the shovels into the croc’s mouth.
And Emily had run through the swamp, while he chased down the other girl. She’d heard the sound of the shovel hitting the other girl’s skull as she’d jumped into the deeper water in her bid to get free.
She had no idea how she’d made it through the swamp to the road, and could give no indication of where she’d been held. Emily didn’t know how far she’d walked along the road before she’d walked out in front of the bus that had rescued her and called 911.
Bones and bodies
Mike came out of his reverie finding himself looking at a broken skull in the brush off to his right. He stopped everyone, and asked the guys to photograph, then “bag and tag” it. The skull had been chewed on by wildlife. Possibly even moved there by an animal, not necessarily by the water.
It was the first of many partial remains to be found as they walked through the swamp. At one moment, Mike noticed phalanges in the shallow water, and pulled another cadet to photograph, bag and tag it.
It was then he realised they were in way over their heads.
Miles of swamp and brush. Tides and water moving the bodies, not to mention the animals. What hope might they have of recovering evidence in this mess?
In less than a mile, they came upon the rise, a virtual island in the swamp. There, as promised, the remains of a crocodile with a shovel in its lower jaw and another shovel down its throat! An unlikely hero, sacrificing his life so a girl could escape.
One of the cadets soon found the grave the girls had begun digging, filled with stale water and mosquito larva, the pile of dirt to the side. Not far off, they found the decayed body of the girl and the wood presumably used to hit her over the head with. Not a shovel after all, he thought to himself.
Like the others, she was dressed in a fancy antique ballgown, now tattered and torn by the elements.
As crazy as Emily’s story had sounded, she’d been saved by a feisty crocodile! Her crazy addled brain making the crocodile out to be a friendly saviour, rather than a hungry predator.
And so began the search for the bones and bodies of the departed, killed by another predator that they were now starting to hunt.