The front door stood ajar. It bumped gently against the jamb in rhythm with the evening breeze. The screen remained wide open and was bent precariously around the aluminum frame. Pieces of broken glass from a shattered light bulb above had scattered across the porch, leaving behind a shadowy darkness draped across the front of the small house.
The neighborhood remained quiet; the light blue one-story cottage eerily so. No outside illumination or motion lights flooded the front area. The blooming climbing vines and perfectly manicured bushes were eclipsed by the darkness.
A small, dark vehicle pulled into the driveway. Waiting a moment before turning off the engine, a woman pushed open the car door and stepped out. The young redhead was dressed for the evening, in a sparkly blouse and tight black pants. Wavering a moment in her spiked sandals, she looked at the house in curiosity—and then in disappointment. Quickly grabbing a warm jacket from inside the car and slipping it on, she walked up the driveway.
“Jeanine, where are you?” she whispered and headed to the front door, ignoring the shattered light bulb on the step crunching under her feet. She knocked on the door. “Jeanine,” she said, more loudly, leaning closer to the opening. “We waited for you… you missed a great party.”
The front door pushed open, revealing a darkened interior.
The woman hesitated but seemed to be pulled by an unknown force. She stepped over the threshold, not bothering to close the door, and moved through the living room. Confused by the darkness, she turned on a lamp sitting on a small table. The room lit up instantly. Everything seemed in place. The oversized beige couches with brightly colored throw pillows, the dark mahogany coffee table with neatly stacked magazines and books precisely centered appeared usual for Jeanine’s house. It was always neat and organized.
“Jeanine?” the woman said again. “Are you here?”
The woman walked around and checked the kitchen and small bedroom, but there wasn’t any sign of her friend. She eyed a piece of paper on the counter and decided to leave a quick note, scratching out that she had stopped by and asking Jeanine to call her when she got the message.
She suddenly noticed a strange high-pitched whistling noise coming from the other side of the living room. Curious, the woman moved closer to the sound. The back sliding door was slightly open. The crack was enough for the wind to invade and make a strange noise.
Her foot touched something. A tall turquoise vase that had been sitting on a shelf nearby was now lying on the carpet. It seemed strange to her that it had been knocked over. She bent down and picked up the vase, replacing it on the shelf.
She retrieved her cell phone from her pocket and tried calling Jeanine again. It rang numerous times and then went to voicemail where Jeanine’s upbeat voice said, “Hi, sorry I missed your call but please don’t hang up. Leave a message and I’ll get right back to you.”
The greeting was followed by a quick beep.
“Jeanine, it’s Mandy again and now I’m standing in your living room. Where are you, girl? Everyone was asking about you tonight. Hey, and you left your front door open. Call me.” She ended the call.
Mandy was about to head back to the front door to leave, but something stopped her—it didn’t feel right—and instead, she stood at the sliding door staring out into the large backyard where dense rows of pine trees and acacia bushes huddled around the house’s boundary. During the day, the property appeared green and lush, but now it looked gloomy and foreboding.
Mandy flipped on the outside light, but it only lit up the patio areas directly outside the house, and the extended wooded region still looked dark.
She pulled open the sliding door and the wind whipped through the house. It chilled her. Goosebumps scuttled up her arms. Worry now set in and she didn’t know what to do. Redialing Jeanine’s number, Mandy listened to it sound again and in unison heard the faint, far-off ringing of a phone somewhere in the distance.
She stepped outside, trying to decipher where the ringing was coming from. “Jeanine?” she said, noticing that one of the outside chairs had been toppled over and lay precariously on its side.
Moving off the stone patio and pulling her jacket more tightly around her, Mandy slowly trudged toward the trees, a bit wobbly in her shoes. She turned on the flashlight mode on her cell phone and moved forward.
She dialed Jeanine again. This time, she heard the distinct ringing of the cell phone coming from the trees—low at first and then it rang louder.
“Jeanine,” she said, with barely a whisper. Her voice sounded oddly distant.
Looking down, she saw where there were crushed weeds and small broken branches as if someone had walked back and forth recently. Still, she kept moving forward, into the trees, swinging her cell phone back and forth which only illuminated a tiny patch of ground in front of her, creating dense shadows outside its beam.
Her pulse quickened.
Something fluttering on a bush caught her eye. She leaned closer, focusing. As she moved the cell light beam nearer, it revealed a piece of white fabric with a mother-of-pearl button still attached.
It wasn’t the fact that she had seen Jeanine wear that pretty white blouse on so many occasions, it was the droplets of crimson spattered across the fabric that shoved a spear of fear into her gut.
Thoughts of dread and horror-filled scenarios ran through Mandy’s mind. Urgently, she pushed the redial button on her phone again.
The sound of Jeanine’s ringtone rang in the darkness. This time it kept ringing and there was no cheerful message.
Mandy walked further into the dark realm of the trees, still hoping that there was a logical explanation. Stepping over old branches with loud crunching noises and sidestepping bushes just before reaching the back fence of the property, she managed to make her way to the sound of the ringing phone.
Everything went quiet.
Mandy stood a foot from the phone lying on the ground. It mesmerized her. She slowly bent down to pick it up. With a startled gasp, she stepped back, dropping the phone as she stared at her hand. It was covered in blood.
In a frenzied panic, Mandy ran past the phone and continued along the low wrought-iron fence. The flashlight feature dimmed and she couldn’t see where she was going. Slowing her pace, she glimpsed something white and moving slightly.
“Jeanine? What’s going on?” She spoke in a strained whisper.
Trying to catch her breath and calm her hammering pulse, Mandy approached. Her cell phone flashlight surged and shone brightly on the blood-soaked white silk blouse, now shredded from Jeanine’s right shoulder. She reeled back at the sight of her friend.
Mandy couldn’t tear her eyes away from the horror. Her throat constricted as her breath trapped in her chest. She staggered backwards, taking in the entire scene—unable to turn her focus away.
Her friend’s upper body was impaled on the iron fence penetrating from her back through her ribs, and her throat was slit open. Her head flopped down, lifeless eyes trained on the ground. Her long brown hair fell forward, some strands sticking to the blood seeping from her chest. Her arms hung at her sides, legs crooked, like a marionette waiting for someone to pull the strings. Blood still dripped from her body, sliding down her arms to her fingertips before collecting on the ground—the wet crimson almost matching her fingernail polish. The body was shoeless and Jeanine’s feet were dirty and bloody—as if she had been running through the woods barefoot.
It was the sight of Jeanine’s face that made her sob in terror. Caked in grotesque makeup, making her look like a caricature of herself—a hideous broken doll. Red lipstick drawn heavy around her lips, dark purples for blush on her cheeks, and dark blues for eye shadow made her look like a circus clown instead of her friend.
Beside Jeanine’s body, a necklace hung on the fence. It was a small locket that she always wore, which her mother had given her when she turned sixteen.
Mandy mouthed the word “Jeanine” but no sound escaped her lips. Realizing she still had her cell phone in her hand, she tried to dial 911 but fumbled a few times with the buttons before she heard the words, “Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
Friday 1000 hours
Detective Katie Scott and Deputy Sean McGaven managed to get the search warrants they needed, along with a crew of police officers, to search the entire property including the Stantons’ house, cars, barn, and storage areas. There were additional search warrants for the adjacent pond next to the Stantons’ property and a large nearby pond owned by the state where many locals gathered to swim and fish and picnic on sunny days.
As Katie stood on the property watching the police and forensic personnel descend and fan out in search formation, she wondered if she had overstepped her authority—or her enthusiasm for such a huge search—but eighteen-year-old Jared Stanton was still missing after six months and she knew she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she didn’t do all she could to find him.
She had her reasons for instructing the search, but what if it was just a hunch and he wasn’t found?
What if this was just a waste of time and resources?
But her instincts screamed that Jared was dead, and that his body had been disposed of in a local pond; there would be no other way to get rid of a body that quickly and quietly before claiming that he had run away.
Katie and McGaven had constructed this theory based on evidence from their own examination, and the original investigation by Detective Alvarez six months ago when Jared Stanton was first reported missing. They knew that Jared and his parents had had an argument early in the weekend on Friday or Saturday. The reason for the argument wasn’t entirely known. The fact that Jared’s keys, phone, wallet, and his car were found at the property were indications that this wasn’t a runaway teenager. It was highly likely he had been killed, either accidentally or out of rage, and his body disposed of nearby.
There was evidence of recent repairs, fresh paint, and alterations to the siding at one end of the barn, and two ATVs were missing. Things didn’t add up.
The afternoon was cold and overcast, the grim sky lending an ominous weight to the scene, as the police worked their duties. Feeling the chill, Katie had gone back to the car and retrieved her warmer leather jacket and gloves. She zipped the coat up close to her neck to keep the cold away, but still felt shivers slide down her spine in anticipation of what they might find.
She knew that everyone from the department was watching her closely—she was still considered a rookie detective despite her accomplishments, and there were those who whispered about nepotism, which made her uncomfortable. If only they knew that her uncle, Sheriff Scott, was harder on her than anyone.
Katie walked down the same path she had taken with Amy, Jared’s sister, only a couple of days ago and glanced up at Amy’s bedroom window to see her in place again, looking down. Katie gave a wave but Amy didn’t move from her position. Mr. and Mrs. Stanton were inside the house with a police officer and their attorney. They chose not to watch the search.
The walk around the picturesque property didn’t have the same tranquil feeling it had a couple of days ago. The horses were grazing, but the darkness of the early afternoon made it appear more like the end of the day.
Over by the pond, McGaven was coordinating the dive team which consisted of two sheriff’s deputies and Katie’s fiancé Chad from the fire department, who navigated the motorized inflatable boat across the water. Chad was the dive and scuba instructor for the county, so he led the expedition while several uniformed officers stood around the perimeter and waited for instruction. A large police SUV retrofitted with a hoist winch was parked nearby in case it was needed.
The boat navigated slowly, chugging a few feet at a time, gently moving in a clockwise rotation, and stopping to let two of the divers search in each area for a minute or two before moving on. Bubbles from their respirators rippled the murky surface of the tranquil pond, which otherwise was smooth and glassy, reflecting the looming pine and eucalyptus trees surrounding it.
One diver would surface in his full scuba suit, bobbing like a seal in the ocean, and give the negative sign. A minute later, the other diver would surface and repeated the same signal—negative.
Katie kept her distance. Even though there were so many people surrounding her, supporting her, she felt isolated and detached. She kept her wits but her anxiety was always waiting in the shadows. Struggling with a sense of urgency welling up inside her, she took deep breaths and counted slowly, trying to relax her tight jaw and clenched fists. There was a fine line between anxiety and panic—more specifically, PTSD; something that had come home with her from the army barely more than a year ago, which had deeply impacted her life.
When she was first discharged, Katie didn’t know whether to go back to police patrol at the Sacramento Police Department or stay at the Pine Valley Sheriff’s Department headed up by Sheriff Wayne Scott—or Uncle Wayne, as she knew him. Katie decided on Pine Valley and was now heading up the cold case unit. She loved the work and the diversity of cases—and working with her strong and capable partner, Deputy McGaven.
The reality of watching a murder victim fished out of the family’s large pond would be deeply disturbing, even to a seasoned professional. All Katie could do was wait and hope that her colleagues proved her instincts and experience correct.
She kept moving, hoping to keep her body warm. Glancing up at the top of the driveway, she saw a dark gray sedan parked on the street. She had noticed the vehicle earlier, and this time there was a man leaning against the side. Of medium build with blond hair and sunglasses, he appeared to be in his forties or fifties, and was distinguished-looking, despite his casual outfit of heavy navy windbreaker jacket and jeans. He stood like a statue, unmoving, watching the entire search take place.
Katie began to approach him, wanting to confront him about what he was doing there. She picked up her pace, but the man didn’t make a move.
That’s when she heard the commotion. Looking back, she saw one of the divers giving a thumbs-up sign. Chad yelled that they had found something, and a sense that was partial dread mixed with a strange relief flooded her body.
McGaven yelled across the pond to the men. “What do you have?” He then turned and called up to Katie, “They found an ATV!”
Katie felt a momentary sense of reprieve that it wasn’t a body, and hurried to meet up with McGaven.
“They found it?” she said breathlessly.
“Yep. You were right,” he said with a half-smile on his face.
“I knew it had to be close.” She shivered.
“Those damn instincts of yours…”
They watched patiently as the crew prepared to pull the all-terrain vehicle from the deep, murky water. One of the search and rescue officers unwound the winch and tossed the heavy-duty hooks into the water. Then the diver disappeared underwater again to secure the hooks to reinforced places on the sporting vehicle.
As the churning winch began to pull, the ATV slowly emerged like a prehistoric animal out of the lake. One of the wheels was bent, so once it was dragged completely out, it was lopsided, dripping with muddy water. It appeared there were several dents in the side, and the top roll bar that was supposed to keep you safe was crushed inward and would probably have killed the driver—but there was no driver.
Katie shuddered as she immediately recognized the vehicle from several framed photos inside the house. She wasn’t certain if she was happy or sad—perhaps a bit of both.
But the recovery crews weren’t done yet—there was still more of the pond to search. Chad switched places with a teammate and they began the painstaking process once again.
“I think there’s an umbrella in the car,” said McGaven as drizzle started to fall around them.
“I’m fine,” Katie said and pulled her hood around her head to keep her ears warm.
They heard several car doors open and close in the Stanton driveway and turned to see Detectives Hamilton and Alvarez exit a vehicle and walk down the path to meet them.
“Who called Hamilton?” said McGaven.
Hamilton was the detective in charge of any new homicide investigations. Katie had had some tense moments with him, but they had managed to keep their investigative relationship on a professional and friendly basis.
“Well, technically the sheriff did, but I requested it.”
“Because I knew if there was a body found, we would need the help,” Katie said.
“If Jared’s body is in the pond, I think this is an open-and-shut investigation,” he said.
“Hi, Detective McGaven,” said Hamilton, nodding his greetings. “I see they found an ATV.”
“So far,” said McGaven.
“They still have almost half the pond to explore,” said Katie, trying not to let her teeth chatter in the cold. The four of them stood watching the pond. They didn’t speak for moment, keeping their eyes fixed on the divers and what they might pull up.
The rain gathered speed as a soft rolling thunder sounded in the distance. Clouds propagated in several shades of gray, pushing forward and gathering across the sky.
Chad’s head popped up from the water suddenly and he gave the signal that he had found something, but not what it was.
Another ATV? Belonging to his dad?
The other diver conferred with him a moment. Katie strained to hear the conversation and tried to read the body language. She waited anxiously.
Was it something?
Chad swiveled toward the shoreline and made a gesture at one of the police officers, who in turn hurried away to his patrol car.
Katie stepped forward to get closer to the pond, mesmerized by how gracefully Chad moved. She didn’t care how wet she was going to get as the rain picked up momentum: she was chilled to the core anyway and more water wasn’t going to make a bit of difference.
Chad made eye contact with her and he subtly nodded. Even in this terrible situation, she still felt the strong connection of love for him—her fiancé. She waited to make absolutely sure what he was implying was correct and he confirmed it with a grim expression. She knew what it meant.
Turning around, she spoke to the rest of the crew in a hushed tone. “Looks like we have a body.”
McGaven confronted her. “You sure?”
Hamilton walked up. “Okay, we’ll get the coroner, but for now let’s pull the body up and out of this rain.” Turning to Katie, he said, “Your crime scene awaits.”
Katie looked at him, a bit confused—she wasn’t sure if she had heard him correctly.
“That means you’re working the crime scene—what there is of it,” he stated. “You haven’t let me down yet.” Hamilton corrected himself, “You haven’t let us down.” He gave her a genuine smile, looking much more likeable as he relaxed his face.
Katie nodded and then looked at McGaven. “Back me up,” she said as they walked to the south side of the pond—the closest to the recovery area—and waited.