The terrain to her right had gained definition, sloping up in the darkness and she could smell the pine trees that grew in the lower ravines around Monastery Peak. Bev was almost home.
And then the unthinkable happened: With a sickening shudder, the engine faltered. She was stupefied. It couldn’t be possible. Bev worked the accelerator, pumping it hard. The engine caught again and momentarily, she clung to the hope that the problem had been short-lived, a bit of water in the fuel perhaps. But no– the engine coughed once, and died. Her car, as lifeless as a tin coffin, rolled to the side of the road and the foreboding silence of the desert descended about her slim shoulders.
With her stomach tuning knots, she fought the panic: First turn on the flashers. Check the fuel gauge. Fine. Try the key again. Not so fine… Okay. Call dad.
Bev was just reaching for her bag when the pulsating yellow lit up the interior of her car. That was quick, she thought. The light-bar was mounted on the roof of a truck and, squinting into the cascade of bright light, she watched a guy in a red checked shirt step down. He walked alongside her car, hunched as if it were raining.
“Where did you come from?” she asked through her open window. “I was just about to call my dad.”
“I’m outta Avondale. Patrol this stretch of road all the way to the border and back, most nights. It’s not the place to breakdown, Miss, fer sure. You outta gas? I gotta a can in the truck.”
“I wish it were that simple. I filled up yesterday and the gauge shows three-quarters.”
“Humph. Probably electrics, then. Here, let me pop the hood.”
With a sense of dread, Bev realized her mistake far too late: Before she could protest he pulled back on the car door and squatted to reach for the hood release under the dash.
Bev had pretty legs; a fact she emphasized in short skirts and by wearing four-inch pumps.
He ran his eyes along the calf muscle, up to where her dress was hiked, held back by the seat cushion. Bev watched his hand snake toward the hood release but a moment later, his fingers diverted. He touched the softness behind her left knee and ran his hand up the curve along the bottom of a bare thigh. Bev was so shocked she made no cry nor offered any protest. Not until his hand forced up the hemline of her dress.
Her chest caved. “Don’t,” she threatened and tried to get an arm up. But he just laughed and reached in to get a grip on her throat. He dragged her scrambling body from the driver’s seat, bucking and kicking. He lifted her clear off the ground by the neck. Suddenly there was a second man. Bev was aware of his hands, first running across her breasts and then, reaching around, he cupped and squeezed her buttocks. He clamped his arms around her waist and hauled her bodily toward the truck.
“No,” Bev screamed, knowing there would be no saving herself if they got her inside the cab. She kicked harder. Someone hit her across the face.
“Now you just do as you’re told, Miss, and everything’s gonna be fine,” the man in the red shirt hissed in her ear. He pulled her up by the neck again and gave her a shake. “You hear me?”
Bev nodded. He shook her some more before setting her down.
She stood by the truck, her nerves lacerated and her bowels feeling loose.
“You’re a nice little piece,” the man said, running a hand along her bare arm. “A bit of City ass for some good ol’ country boys. What’dya say, sweetie? You gonna help us out?”
He was much younger than she first suspected, but his hard-planed features were weathered and his eyes unforgiving. “You’re going to rape me?” Her voice was small.
“Not just me. There’s three of us, sweetie. You’re in for a busy night.”
The strength drained from her legs and Bev reached for the truck fender to stop from dropping to her knees. “Please,” she managed. “Please don’t do this. You can’t.”
The man in the red shirt just laughed and turned back toward her car. “Get a hook on this thing,” he called out. “Let’s get the fuck outta here.” There was movement inside the cab and the gears ground as the truck was expertly backed up to the front of her car. She gasped as a third man piled out to attach the chains.
Oh God, all three, she turned her face away and wiped the tears on the back of a hand.
Bev was herded up onto the front seat of the truck cab. Standing a mere five-foot tall, Bev’s feet didn’t even touch the floor mat and, squeezed between the men, she had the sensation of being very very small. With her mind clouded with apprehension and her pulse thundering, she tried to be brave. Bev decided not to resist. She would just do her best to please them, let them have what they wanted and she hoped that, in return, they would be gentle with her. So when the driver slid a hand up and cupped the bulge of her inner thigh, Bev offered him a little something: She opened her legs. And she made no protest when the man on the opposite side lazily stroked her right breast.
They drove a mile further on with her car swaying in the chains and turned onto what appeared to be a logging road; just a dirt track winding between the pine trees. They ground to a halt in a clearing and the headlights picked out a trestle where hunters had hung deer to be gutted. She saw the leather straps.
This is it, she tried to focus. This is where it will happen.
Bev offered him money, her car, anything to make him stop. By the time he was finished, blood was smeared across her buttocks. She heard the sound of a rope being thrown. A not unfamiliar sound to a woman who had spent her life around horses. “No,” she hissed as she began to comprehend. “I’ve done everything you asked. It’s not fair.”
Two of the men came to stand either side of her shoulders. They bent Bev forward and held her steady as the third stepped behind.
The pressure built and Bev screamed as she fell forward, her arms waving frantically to break her fall. As she swung, head down, she realized she had lost one of her shoes– just before she was hoisted high into the pine boughs overhead and earning herself the dubious distinction of becoming Victim No.7 in Boyko’s murder book.
He seemed young to be a Medical Examiner. Doctor Rose was close to her own age, tall and well dressed. Lieutenant Boyko did the introductions and everyone got positioned around Rose’s metal desk at the City Morgue. In the room behind, seven women lay naked, stretched out on the steel rails of the refrigerated compartments. There was no room for modesty in a morgue.
Tzivia Azaria took note of the man’s thick wedding band and the photograph of a perky blonde, her arms around two adorable youngsters; boy and a girl. Perfect little family. Taz wondered if the kids knew what their old man did with his hands during daylight hours.
Boyko started the questioning: “Can you give us a time-frame for the deaths?”
Rose leaned back and smiled, showing off his caps, clearly enjoying the notoriety. “Well everything is preliminary at this point, of course. We’ll begin the autopsies this afternoon but my guess is that several of the women have been hanging in the trees for as long as three months. The last victim, the young girl, died sometime yesterday morning, before noon.”
Taz felt she had been knifed in the gut. “Yesterday! But she was abducted the day before!”
Rose turned and regarded her carefully. Her outburst had stepped all over his sermon. “Yes officer, she was still alive when she was hung from the tree.”
“Oh fucking Jesus. She was hanging, alive– all night?”
Boyko struggled to get things back on track. “Any signs of sexual abuse, doc?”
Doctor Rose diverted his attention to Boyko. “I’m learning the most from the last three victims. The ones least decomposed, you understand. And particularly the most recent girl. I found traces of semen in her mouth, vaginal cavity and rectum. That would suggest to me that there are three perpetrators involved in the killings. And that would be consistent with abducting a struggling victim from a car. It would take some muscle. We’re running the DNA on the samples and I’ll be able to confirm my hunch in a couple of days.”
“Cause of death?” Taz couldn’t shake the image of the girl hanging in the tree all night; hanging and waiting.
“Shock, dehydration, exposure… there was some bleeding but not enough to cause death.”
Boyko perked up. “Lacerations or knife wounds?”
Doctor Rose went all smug with self-importance and opened his desk drawer. “Know what this is?” He produced a plastic evidence bag and passed it across.
Boyko looked at the ring of steel which lay on his open palm and extended out past his fingertips. “A fuckin’ fish hook. But look at the size of the mother. Who fishes for whales in the desert?”
Taz felt her insides drop. She plucked the plastic bag from Boyko’s hand and gauged the size of the hook: If she stuck her foot through it she could have pulled the steel up to encircle her thigh. “A shark-hook.”
“Very good,” Rose muttered. “A circle hook to be exact, used for shark or tuna fishing. You ever do any fishing Boyko?”
“Sure. As a kid. Used to pull the odd bass from the pond.”
“You cast out,” Rose said, “and when you get a nibble, you set the hook?”
“That’s right. What’s your point?”
Rose started in again, loving the sound of his own voice. “The round design of the circle hook is so you don’t set the hook. When the fish pulls, the hook naturally rotates up into the roof of the mouth.”
“Thanks for the fishin’ lesson, doc. But what has this got to do with our case?” Boyko heard the scrap of a chair and glanced around. He saw Taz stand and turn away, the monstrous fish hook still gripped in her hand. She had gone pale and was unsteady on her feet. “Wha’da I miss?” Boyko looked up, bewildered.
Doctor Rose spoke again. “The women were taken into the woods and forced to undress. They were tied to that deer trestle you found and raped. After, the hook was slung from a rope over a pine bough. The hook was inserted into the anus of the victim. And then the girl was hoisted up. As she falls forward, the hook rotates as it is designed to do. It punctures the rectal wall, wraps around the pelvic bone and protrudes through the skin, exiting the body somewhere above the region of the coccyx, the tailbone. Thus secured, the girl is hoisted up into the tree.”
“Yes.” Doctor Rose turned to Taz. “The woman is actually lifted by the pelvic cradle. It’s a well thought-out maneuver that requires some rudimentary knowledge of anatomy. You see, if the hook doesn’t encircle the pelvic bone, it will just tear out. Simple muscle and tissue are not enough to support the victim’s weight. The killer has to catch the bone, or the hook will simply, rip out.”
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