Human Phoenix
Chapter 1

Copyright© 2012 by Refusenik

Author's note: This is fiction. Both real and fake place names are used. Details of locations, the institutions that serve those areas, and the procedures that govern them may have been altered, or created from whole cloth to suit the needs of the story.

Tuesday, September 2, 1997, North of Barstow, California

Deputy Sheriff Tom Nettle kept a firm foot on the brake pedal of his San Bernardino County Blazer. The unpaved trail road he was on was punishing his kidneys. This area located a few miles from Barstow was desolate California desert, and at night even the experienced could get lost or stuck. He rechecked his map and tried to peer past the billowing dust and silt lit up by the powerful roof mounted light bar.

A call about strange lights in the area could mean anything. It was probably nothing, but it had to be checked out. The off roaders had moved onto better trails so he discounted that. Early morning hours, suspicious lights, a remote location - it could be drug activity. He'd recently spent two weeks in Sacramento training with state and federal agencies. The California State Hazardous Materials Unit demonstration on the dangers posed by mobile drug labs had certainly gotten his attention.

Dispatch had already contacted the nearby Army post and they reported no scheduled or unscheduled activity.

Twenty minutes later, Deputy Nettle decided that he had done his due diligence.

With his spot light on the trail shoulder, he began looking for a place to turn around. Radioing dispatch he started to report. "Dispatch? Unit thirteen. Did the reporting party make any further ... standby!"

Braking to a hard stop, Nettle focused the spotlight on a ghostly figure. He was already grabbing the microphone for his portable radio as he exited the vehicle.

"Dispatch, this is unit thirteen. I'm code six at this location, three or four miles north of the abandoned gas depot off Forgotten Mine road."

The blowing silt was lit up like a dense fog by his lights, swirling around the vehicle and the small child standing in the middle of the trail.

"I'm a police officer, can you tell me your name?" he announced as he moved toward the child. Years of experience had taught him that small children knew what a police officer was, but 'deputy sheriff' just confused them.

The nearly naked child was covered from head to foot in what looked to be oily sand and dirt. As he moved closer, careful not to frighten the child, the details of what he was seeing concerned him. A pair of blue eyes stared out from the dirt encrusted face, focused on nothing. He, or she, was panting for breath in quick shallow little gasps.

"Dispatch? Unit thirteen, how quickly can an RA unit respond to this location?"

"Unit thirteen, at least forty minutes if they don't get stuck. What's your status?"

"Dispatch, I've found a small child in need of immediate attention." Several seconds passed, "Oh God."

In the dispatch center, that tone of voice, and the unusual radio procedure from an experienced deputy got immediate action.

"Dispatch, we need Air Medical immediately. I need backup, K-9 if possible, and a supervisor to this location. Have the Third Floor duty officer contact me."

The dispatch center kicked into high gear. A coded alert with the deputy's general location was sent to the Air Medic office. The nearest patrol units were redirected toward unit thirteen. The area supervisor had monitored the call and was already rolling. At the Barstow Courier, the overnight editor perked up when she heard 'third floor' over the paper's scanner. Third Floor was local code for homicide and specialized investigations. She knew that they would use a cell phone to keep the juicy stuff off of the public airwaves, but a story was brewing in the desert.

Tom Nettle was fighting rising nausea. He'd been with the department for twelve years. He'd seen some pretty terrible things in Kuwait back in '91 when he was in the service. Kids were every officer's weak spot, or they weren't very good at the job.

"Unit thirteen this is Dispatch. Air Medical is getting airborne and needs details."

"Dispatch, there should be plenty of landing room. There's nothing out here. Some terrain issues to the west. No hazards. I'm the only thing lit up for miles."

"Unit thirteen, they're requesting patient info."

"Dispatch, patch them through to my phone."

"Unit thirteen, standby one."

Nettle answered his phone on the first ring.

"Deputy, this is Flight Nurse Anderson, what have you got? We're ten to fifteen minutes out."

The noise of the helicopter was muted by her microphone.

"A child, male I think. I'd guess between four and six years old. The child is non-responsive, but conscious. Breaths are rapid and shallow. He's covered in sand and dirt, and soaked in old blood, lots of it. There's a kitchen knife stuck in his chest."

"Say again?"

"A kitchen knife. The handle is behind his right arm, just below the armpit." The deputy tried not to look at the knife handle jerking with each rapid breath that the child made.

"How is the patient positioned, and how large do you think the blade is?"

"He's standing. I'm not sure if I should try to sit him down or not? The blade is buried to the hilt, and it must be three inches wide at the base. I don't know how long it could be. I hate to think about it."

"Copy that deputy. Don't try and move the knife. We'll be there shortly. If you can keep the patient upright please do so, or lay him down on the opposite side if you have to. The less movement the better. I'll let Regional Memorial know the situation. Air Medical out."

In the distance, Deputy Sheriff Nettle could hear the faint siren of another patrol vehicle working its way up the valley.

His phone rang again.

"Tom, it's John Alvarez. What have you got out there?"

"Sergeant, I've got a four to six year old child, I believe it's a boy. He's been stabbed."

"Ah, man," said Alvarez.

"He's caked in dirt and blood. It's in his ears and nose, head to toe. He's naked except for some underpants." In almost a whisper, "I think somebody buried him out here. His fingers look real bad, they're all torn up. His feet aren't much better. I don't know how far he's walked, or for how long."

"You think there's more?"

"I think there has to be. This blood can't all be his," replied the deputy.

"I'll call in another K-9 unit," the sergeant said. "At first light we can get some people on horseback out searching. I'll call over to China Lake and see if they can put something up to help. The Navy has some pretty good night/thermal gear. We'll see what the Army guys can kick in. Lieutenant Moore is the duty supervisor and is en route. He may call in the state boys."

"Thanks, Sergeant."

"Keep me posted, Deputy."

A short eternity later it was all routine, but with an edge. There were procedures to follow. Tape was strung where Deputy Nettle indicated that he had first spotted the boy. It was a known point the dogs could work from. The first responding unit laid out flares for the landing zone. Air Medical was on scene and they were attempting to stabilize the knife so that it wouldn't shift during transport.

Nettle could tell that they were having trouble with all the dirt. They'd placed foam blocks around the knife handle, and were trying to tie it all down. The experienced crew had carefully moved him to the gurney, wound side up, using purpose built cushions to keep him fixed in place. They had trouble getting the IVs started, but the flight nurse was good. This crew knew trauma. They were moving quickly.

Lieutenant Moore was on scene with a phone stuck to his ear. There was a lot to coordinate. Reserve personnel were being called in to help with the search. The undersheriff, or even the sheriff himself needed to be kept apprised. The case was certain to have profile.

Other deputies waiting for assignments were standing around watching the medical team load up the patient. It was a familiar routine except for the grim faces.

Later, as the sounds of the helicopter started to fade, Lieutenant Moore walked over.

"It's a hell of a thing, Tom."

"Yeah," he rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm not going to forget this one."

"What did you notice first?" the lieutenant asked.

"Scared the hell out of me popping up on the road like that. When I got up close I could see that his hands were all torn up. With all that dirt, and what I figured out was blood, it was hard to see if he had other injuries. He wasn't talking, or reacting, and I didn't want to scare him further. I started walking around him with my flashlight checking. Finding the knife like that, I just knew it was bad."

Lieutenant Moore carefully put a hand on Tom's shoulder, "Yeah, that's rough stuff, but he's survived this long so he has a chance. Where do you think he came from?"

"Somewhere out there," the deputy pointed into the dark. "We've got to find where."

"I think the K-9 crew brought in some coffee and rolls. Let's get you warmed up." Lieutenant Moore patted him on the shoulder. He knew a veteran deputy like Nettle would be okay once he got him refocused. A case like this would stick with you no matter what, but it would eat at you if you let it.

Moore gathered his team together and started prioritizing; it was going to be a long day. One thought was shared by all, "Where are the parents?"

Late Afternoon

Detective Sergeant John Alvarez and his newly assigned deputy, Detective Susan Miller, sat in their department issued sedan parked outside of the county crime lab.

"The Bureau offered to expedite any lab work we needed," he explained to the detective as he plugged the cell phone back into the charger. "What I want to do now is get back to the office and find out where we're at with missing persons."

Their time with the lab director had been frustrating. Forensic examination of the kitchen knife revealed little. It was a common type sold in stores all over the state. There were no finger prints. Soil samples gathered from the victim's body and underwear were consistent with what you expected to find in the area. Even with being moved to the head of the line, tests on the blood evidence would take days. The DNA would take weeks.

Their best information had come from Dr. Patel at the hospital. He reported that the child was well nourished, and had access to regular health and dental care. There were no signs of prior abuse or sexual assault. Somebody had cared for this child. They'd had a quick look at him in the critical care ward. There seemed to be more medical equipment than patient.

Alvarez had asked what the prognosis was.

Dr. Patel paused, and then replied, "He's critical. Cross your fingers for the next forty-eight hours because we are. If he makes it past this crisis then I'll be guardedly optimistic. I can tell you that the consulting neurologist says that all the tests he looked at were good. However, we won't really know until we try to wake him up.

It was a quiet drive back to the office, each detective wrapped up in their own thoughts.

Deputy Miller turned to her sergeant, "So what's your theory?"

"I've just been going over it again. Somebody stuck a knife in this kid, took him out to the desert and buried him. He might not have been found for years, if ever. No abuse. No rape. What's the motive? And I don't think we can just assume the doer was familiar with the area."

"I couldn't find it," Miller said.

"You could end up there, but I agree that getting back out would be very tricky. It suggests familiarity, but we can't get locked into that."

"Somebody is missing this kid," she stated.

"Unless they're out there too," replied the sergeant. "After the evening news the pressure is going to be on."

"You've handled high profile cases before."

"Yes, of course there's pressure on us, but I meant pressure on our would-be murderer. His, or her, big secret didn't stay buried. That may force the mistake that we need to break this."

Back at the Specialized Crimes Division office a new white board had been set up. The few, known facts were highlighted, and a brief time line was listed; time of the original call about strange lights, time of initial contact between Deputy Nettle and the victim, time of victim's arrival at Memorial, confirmation of the delivery of physical evidence to the county crime lab, and so on.

There wasn't much to go on.

Deputies dispatched that morning to the home of the caller learned little. Standing in front of a rundown airstream trailer located out in the middle of nowhere the aging alcoholic had not seen a vehicle. Solemnly declaring, "I seen strange lights, so I called. Don't like those damn aliens out here." The deputies remarked that a follow up welfare check by county services would be a good idea.

Somebody had transferred a portion of Miller's notes from their interview with the doctor to the board.

'Penetrating chest trauma, thoracic injuries, combined with blood loss, shock, and exposure. Self inflicted abrasions to the extremities.'

It didn't really belong up there, but the sergeant understood why it had been written. They were professionals, but motivation never hurt. A stark picture of the kitchen knife had been added. One corner of the board had a detailed survey map taped to it. Colored flag post-it notes indicated where the boy had been found, and what the search team had been doing. Clipped to the top of the board was a transcript of the callout from the dispatch center.

Word from the K-9 units was disappointing. They'd tracked the boy for several hundred yards, but it was clear that he had been stumbling aimlessly around. The dogs were confused doubling back on the same tracks.

A thermal survey by a specially equipped Navy helicopter revealed only a few coyotes or wild dogs. A daylight search confirmed what Alvarez already knew. There were vehicle tracks all over that part of the desert and most were years old.

Out at the scene, Lieutenant Moore had pulled Tom Nettle to one side and whispered that if there were other victims, the investigators' best bet might be to start looking for vultures.

A quick briefing was held to make sure that the entire office was up to speed and operating on the same page. The California Department of Justice was coordinating the missing persons angle, and their equivalent partners in Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado had been notified.

"We're going to need all hands on deck after the evening news. The county call center is going to screen calls, but anything with potential is going to get forwarded here," announced Alvarez.

"Let's get that TV turned on. We can see what the brass have been up to."

Regional Memorial Hospital

The hospital administrator was nervous which was making the chief of surgery nervous. There had been press conferences at Regional Memorial in the past, but none that caused such a buzz in the air. Satellite trucks were parked up and down the street outside of the hospital. The surgeon had never gotten one phone call from a hospital board member before, let alone five. The administrator told him as they sat down that the governor had personally called the sheriff of San Bernardino County while the two men were waiting together outside of the conference room.

After some perfunctory remarks by a member of the hospital's public relations department, the microphone was turned over to the administrator.

"I'll make a brief statement. Our chief of surgery will make a statement, and then we'll take questions. The sheriff and his people are waiting here patiently. I want to say that there are many questions that I will not answer. The patient is a minor, please keep that in mind."

Reporters simultaneously shouted questions.

Ignoring them he continued, "Our surgical team received the patient at 3:22 a.m. from San Bernardino County Air Medical. Surgery lasted just over two hours. I want to thank our trauma team, the surgical staff, the thoracic and cardiovascular group that consulted, and our critical care unit. Barring setbacks, the team here at Regional Memorial is cautiously optimistic about the patient's recovery. Chief do you want to say a few words?"

The chief of surgery, master of the operating room, top dog of the surgical wards looked out at the hungry pack of reporters and punted. "No sir, I think you said what I would have, I'll just wait for questions."

The surprised administrator turned and pointed at the KABC reporter.

She shouted, "Is he conscious and has he said anything?"

"Please wait for the microphone so that we all can hear the questions," the administrator admonished. "Chief, why don't you answer this one?"

"The patient is being kept unconscious, medically. That decision was made by the surgical staff and the post op care team. Recovery will be delicate, and the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours are critical," replied the surgeon, licking his suddenly dry lips.

"Has he said anything?" shouted another reporter.

"That's best addressed to law enforcement."

"—from KTLA, were there any surgical complications?" he only caught the end of the question.

The questions continued for another fifteen minutes. The hospital administrator once again took the microphone.

"I'm going to wrap up our portion of this press conference and turn you over to the sheriff and his people. Before I go I want to remind all members of the media about where you can, and cannot go here on hospital property. Please stay within those established media areas. I especially want to thank our local police department for sending extra personnel to help remind you of that if needed," the administrator said sliding out of his chair.

"Sheriff, they're all yours."

"Thanks," muttered the Sheriff of San Bernardino County.

Taking his seat the sheriff waited for the rest of the new participants to find theirs. Past the glare of the television lights he could see reporters shifting in anticipation. Remember to smile, he thought. His wife nagged that if he'd smile more, then reporters wouldn't be so hostile. They'd be a lot more respectful if I shot a couple, he laughed at the notion.

Smiling, the sheriff adjusted his microphone and began to speak.

"I'd like to thank the staff of Regional Memorial, and the administrator in particular, for hosting us. I hope you'll agree that it was easier for all of us to come here than to have two different press conferences?"

He could see a few reporters nodding. The camera and sound crews seemed more enthusiastic on that point.

"To my left is Captain Parsons, head of our Specialized Investigations division. To his left is Lieutenant Moore who was the initial on scene supervisor. To my right is Lieutenant Rodriguez representing the Highway Patrol, and to his right is Commander Jansen representing the U.S. Navy which has been helping us with the search."

"Why is homicide the lead on this investigation?" shouted a balding, middle aged reporter from the second row.

Because it will save time you idiot, thought the sheriff.

Smiling a second time he replied, "We wanted our best investigators. Given the facts and the nature of the case, Captain Parsons and I agreed that this was the best course to follow. As you can see we're making every effort and we have tremendous support from the entire law enforcement community. Let me say that departments all across our state coordinate like this on a daily basis, but we don't usually have you fine folks dropping by to steal our donuts."

There were appreciative chuckles from the assembled reporters.

Another reporter, "Why can't we hear from the lead investigator?"

"We could arrange that at a future date. Right now, we're here to answer your questions while our investigative team works the case. You can appreciate, I hope, that time is of the essence?"

Another voice from further back in the room, "Can you recall any similar cases where the victim was buried alive?"

That one disturbing fact explained all of the satellite trucks.

Friday, September 5th

The investigators were anxious, the first forty-eight hours has passed without any new leads. The volume of phone calls had quickly fallen off without new details for the public to feed upon. If it bleeds, it leads, and once it stopped bleeding the press was off to the next story.

They'd gotten the usual rash of crazies. Enterprising psychics called and told them to look, "close to water." Sergeant Alvarez was thinking about taking his kids to the beach on Sunday.

The worst calls were the ones from desperate parents. Several dozen leads were checked, but none fit the right time frame, or the details of their victim.

While the investigation floundered, news from the hospital kept their spirits up. The victim had stabilized. Vitals were strong, Dr. Patel reported. If he had a good weekend they wanted to start letting him wake up. Patel passed along another tidbit of information that made the whiteboard. Blood work by the hospital had shown that the victim had all of the state's required inoculations. That ruled out a recent immigrant who had bypassed traditional screening measures. It was a worry that the investigation team had raised, one that might explain the lack of any missing persons reports.

In exchange for that detail, Alvarez had gotten a lecture about, "A century of public health policy and medical research spent wiping out third world diseases only to be ruined by a decade of yuppie knows better. Clusters of whooping cough and measles could be found with increasing regularity in California," Patel practically shouted. He'd only gotten the good doctor off of the phone by reassuring him that all his children had gotten their shots.

The desert search had been scaled back, but a new volunteer effort was going to kick off Saturday morning. Volunteers were bringing horses, ATVs, and dirt bikes. Several local off road racing crews were going to lend a hand and try to keep the amateurs from getting lost.

In a quiet neighborhood north of Los Angeles called Altadena, Marty Rothstein was going to get his wife, Miriam, off of his back one item at a time. His 'honey do' list had gotten too long to be tolerated, or so she told him. First on the list was cleaning up the garage. After thirty-five years of marriage Marty knew that the secret to a happy union was doing what Miriam wanted.

Well, I can finally return this chainsaw to the Van Pelts, Marty decided. He's used the little electric chain saw to cut up a dead crape myrtle before Thanksgiving. It hadn't even been a year yet he grumbled.

Typical of the new families that had moved into the neighborhood over the last ten years, the Van Pelts were always on the go. While they often exchanged pleasantries over their adjoining back fences, Marty thought he should walk around the corner to their front door and express his thanks properly. "Miriam, I'm going next door to the Van Pelt's," he shouted.

"It's about time!" she screeched.

They're not home, he decided as he got a look at David Van Pelt's uncut grass, and at the last few days' worth of the local paper scattered around the front door. Taking in the accumulated lawn service and food delivery door hangers Marty decided he could use one to leave a note. Wedging the note into the door, Marty glanced through the side window.

"Miriam! Miriam call the police!"

John Alvarez had just relaxed into his seat for Friday night dinner when the phone rang. He exchanged the look with his wife. They didn't need the words after this much time together.

"Sorry to disturb you, Sergeant," he heard as he answered the phone.

"What have you got?"

"LA County has something on the Johnny Doe case, it looks good," the deputy relayed.

"I thought we agreed we weren't going to call it that?"

"Come on, Sergeant," the deputy protested.

"Did you get a hold of Detective Miller?" Alvarez asked deciding that he couldn't win that argument.

"She's on her way in."

"Alright, I'm out the door."

John Alvarez clipped his duty weapon over his belt, and put the wrinkled sports jacket back on with the tired ease of long practice. His children barely looked up as he walked out the kitchen door. They knew weekends with dad were a long shot anyway.

Alvarez and Miller were both excited in the professional sense as they sped along the freeway toward Pasadena, the sedan's hidden grill lights flashing. The thrill of the hunt was part of detective work.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department did have something good. A nosy neighbor, a key component of many law enforcement investigations, had spied blood splattered all over his neighbors' living room couch. Officers made entry and discovered lots of blood, but no bodies. A husband, wife, and five year old boy were all missing.

"It's odd isn't it?" Miller gestured to the print out of her map to the house. "Why wouldn't he have taken them up into the hills?"

The house was located right at the foot of the Angeles National Forest.

"If his vehicle could handle the desert terrain north of Barstow, why not just head up into the hills and find an isolated spot?" she wondered.

"Psychology," replied Alvarez.

Miller was interested, 'give me more' she indicated with her hands.

"Sometimes they don't want to spoil the nest. They take this dirty thing that they've done and put it as far away from them as they can. It leaves the nest clean, gives them psychological room to breathe in their comfort zone," he explained.

"That's on the level?"

"A guy I met from Quantico went on about it in great detail at one of the courses I attended. He used a lot more jargon, but that's the essence of it. There's an entirely different discussion that we could have about that the type that likes to keep reminders with them."

They both thought about their suspect, or the doer in detective's short hand. He was male in their minds. This type of crime did not have a feminine hand. What motivated him and what was he doing now?

Arriving in the normally quiet Altadena neighborhood they took note of the activity surrounding the crime scene. So far, there didn't appear to be much media. Perhaps a print reporter or two were standing by the tape. That wouldn't last if word of their presence got out.

Shaking hands with their LA counterparts Alvarez asked if they could get out of sight, "I don't want to get the fourth estate stirred up yet."

"Let's go around back," said the taller detective.

Alvarez introduced Miller as they walked. Their LA County brethren were Morse, a tall, slightly ascetic looking man, while Jones was short and darker.

"Jones?" Alvarez queried as they showed their IDs to the recording officer stationed on the back patio.

"You'd prefer 'Chokroborti?' My father changed it after we emigrated from Bangladesh," Jones explained with a smile.

"Tell us about the scene?"

"Forensics has got the bulk of the work completed. Three separate attacks. One looks like it starts in the home office and continues into the front living room. That's what our witness got a look at. The second is in the first floor laundry area off of the mud room. The third is upstairs, the child's room," he explained for emphasis stepping through the sliding glass doorway and into the stale, sour air of the house.

"The Van Pelts; David Alan, twenty-eight, Andrea Leanne, twenty-five, and Scotty, no middle initial, age five."

"What are you thinking?" Miller asked.

Morse nodded at Jones to continue.

He guided them toward the home office, pointing out the drag marks and evidence tags as they stepped around them. The smell was stronger.

"Our working theory?" Jones asked.

Miller and Alvarez both nodded.

"Somebody they knew. No forced entry. It starts here in the office, out the other doorway into the living room, ending there. Quick, but violent. They've bagged and removed a cushion with two clear marks where a knife blade was wiped clean. A hunting knife from the impression. Later, the vic was dragged out and through the garage on a sheet."

"The sheets were taken from upstairs," he explained to the unasked question.

Walking carefully toward the mud room, "She was doing laundry and listening to one of those personal CD players. It's smashed on the floor besides the washer. I don't think she heard what happened in the other room. This attack was frenzied. Cast off in every direction, the ceiling, and so on. Our people say we'll find a number of stab wounds on the body. Then she's dragged out to the garage. The head geek says with some lab work, they'll be able to prove in court which drag mark came first."

Sergeant Alvarez traded raised eyebrows with the forensic tech working in the laundry room at hearing, "head geek."

There was a lot more blood here. Liquid laundry soap had spilled onto a section of the floor making strange patterns with the blackened blood.

"Upstairs?" asked Alvarez, wanting to see the room and know once and for all.

"Kitchen first, there's something I want to show you." Jones replied.

"He came in here and washed up in the sink." Dried blood was smeared all around the sink, and the island counter. "He wiped it down with a sponge, but didn't do a very good job of it. He had to be covered in blood. Sponge is missing by the way."

Then he silently pointed at the cheap butcher block knife set. A hole from a missing blade was staring back at them.

"Oh, and take a look at this," he pointed to some faint powdery striations on the counter top.

"Cocaine?" asked Miller.

"Tested positive," said Morse, picking up the story, "but they weren't users, not a sign of it in the place. It has to be the doer. He stopped and did a couple of lines before going upstairs. Then he took a new knife with him."

Drugs complicated the picture. If the Van Pelt's weren't users, maybe it was about dope money. There were so many variables when a case went this route.

Morse got their attention again, "Narcotics has checked. They've got nothing on the family. Not a hint."

An estranged family member, Alvarez wondered?

"John," Detective Miller said softly as she placed a hand on his arm, "the refrigerator."

They all turned to look. Jones bobbed his head.

Sergeant Alvarez pulled the picture from his jacket pocket and held it up to the others stuck to the refrigerator. The eyes were taped shut in the hospital photograph. Faint impressions from an oxygen mask were still visible on the victim's face where it had been removed for the photo.

The chin was the same, cheek bones, ears, hair color – the photo matched.

"That's him," he stated. "Can we get prints from the bedroom? We'll have to confirm, but it's him."

"Of course."

They shook hands in a strangely formal ritual. The case was not solved, but this was a big step. The two cases were coming together as one, joining forces.

"Do you still want to see upstairs?" Jones asked this time.

"I think we have to," said Alvarez.

Moving up the central staircase, avoiding evidence markers as they went, Detective Miller observed, "No drag marks."

"Probably just carried him," Jones replied stopping to point out where the central air had been shut off for some unknown reason. Dried smears, proof of the failed clean up attempt, were on the thermostat and wall.

They crowded into the child's bedroom. It would have been a cheerful room. Rocket ships adorned one wall, and 'Scotty's Room' had been painted in a grand curve on the opposite.

"He took the top cover," Morse started, and then stopped to gather his thoughts.

"We've read the file you sent out." He continued, "This is what we think fits your forensics. The child was asleep, face down on the bed. Killer comes in, grabs the pillow using it to hold the back of his head down. A single thrust into the side of his chest. The wide blade wedged into his ribs so he can't pull it out. The angle behind the arm, right handed attack, it fits. Then he thinks he's done. Takes the bodies to the vehicle through the garage and drives up to your desert.

"Not into the hills?" Miller asked.

Morse and Jones look at each other and shrug, they can't explain it either.

"Lieutenant?" Alvarez questioned into his cell phone, as he walked around enjoying the fresh air on the patio. The detectives had quickly reconvened outside. "Sergeant Alvarez here sir. Yes, we're at the scene. LA has a good case. We've got a solid ID on the boy." He listened for a moment, "Yes. They're going to run prints up to our lab tonight."

Miller was only half listening.

"We'll get hotel rooms, and then head back tomorrow afternoon. Yes, sir, I'll pass that along," he said hanging up.

"Kudos from our lieutenant to yours. Can you recommend a good hotel for the night?"

Later that night the two detectives ambled toward their respective hotel rooms, relieved at identifying their victim, but physically and emotionally exhausted by the crime scene.

"Wanna get lucky?" Alvarez asked.

Pausing to open her door Miller said, "Your wife would kill you."

"Yeah, but would it be worth it?"

"You'll never know," she said passing the test. With an exaggerated bump of her hip she entered her room and closed the door.

Regional Memorial Hospital, Wednesday, September 10th

The boy was having a nightmare. In the dream he woke up when somebody punched him in the side, but he couldn't hit back. There was a long bumpy car ride. The car had a really lumpy floor, and there was a heavy blanket over his head. He wanted to cry because his side ached, but he couldn't move or even blink. When the car stopped it was quiet for a long time. Suddenly the door opened and a man picked him up. The man carried him over to a hole in the ground and dropped him by the edge. The man came back dragging a heavy sack, and then another. The man kicked him into the hole, and then dropped the heavy sacks down on top of him. He heard digging and it started to get dark again. The last thing he saw was Mommy's hand.

The dream changed. He was alone and lost in a strange place. A space ship landed with really bright flashing lights. A tall figure got out of the space ship wearing a cowboy hat and reached its hand out to him. The boy couldn't wake up.

The weekend volunteer effort to locate the desert burial location paid off. The coroner's office, in conjunction with the forensic lab, conducted a careful exhumation and examination of the new crime scene. The bodies of David and Andrea Van Pelt were recovered, along with a lot of significant physical evidence.

In Altadena, Los Angeles County forensic work had identified multiple fingerprints throughout the Van Pelt's house as belonging to Craig Carson, David Van Pelt's business partner. His fingerprints were also identified on items recovered from the San Bernardino County crime scene.

An arrest warrant was issued, but Craig Carson was nowhere to be found. Investigators believed he may have fled across the border to Mexico.

An exhaustive background investigation into the Van Pelts cleared them of any involvement in narcotics. The Van Pelts, it was learned, met in Lubbock, Texas, where David and Andrea both attended Texas Tech University. They married after David graduated with a degree in International Business. The couple stayed in Lubbock while David did graduate work toward a masters in Business Administration.

The couple left Texas for California shortly after the birth of their son. A year after arriving in California, David Van Pelt formed a small company with a lawyer named Craig Carson. Investigators could not discover what had brought the two men together. Their company acted as an agent for domestic manufacturers and prospective international purchasers. They handled the complex licensing and documentation required by the State Department for certain export products. Many companies lacked the expertise to deal with the byzantine rules and paperwork imposed on them by ever expanding federal regulations. It was a decent business, but finances were tight.

It was apparent to investigators that David Van Pelt had no idea what kind of lawyer he had gone into business with. Craig Carson came from a wealthy family, but had been run out of a law firm in northern California for a series of irregularities in their estate and trust division. He had two arrests, but no convictions, for driving under the influence.

In Los Angeles he was living far beyond his apparent means while fueling a growing cocaine addiction. Either the addiction was new, or he kept it well hidden. Investigators suspected that David Van Pelt might simply not have recognized the lawyer's behavior for what it was.

An audit of the partners' finances showed that Carson had been bleeding the company dry in the months before the Van Pelt murders. This was the apparent motive for the murders although it made little sense. If Carson wanted to cover up his financial crimes the disappearance of the Van Pelts could only bring attention to their partnership. The excessive amounts of cocaine that Carson was believed to be consuming probably accounted for this disconnect from reality. The narcotics squad had caught up to Carson's dealer. When interviewed the dealer said, with absolutely no sense of irony, that he had been "very worried" about the lawyer's behavior.

Monday, September 22nd

Detectives John Alvarez and Susan Miller left a meeting at the district attorney's office and were headed to Regional Memorial Hospital.

"Dr. Patel would have mentioned something if the boy had started talking," Detective Miller said.

Scott Van Pelt had woken up several days earlier, but seemed unable to communicate or understand the world around him.

"He did seem a little evasive," agreed Sergeant Alvarez.

Miller went back over their meeting with the district attorney. It was her first case as a homicide detective and she was apprehensive, "What will they decide about jurisdiction?"

Alvarez understood where the question was coming from. "We have no control over that. We just keep working the case. The court will decide jurisdiction. We've got the bodies and the burial location. They've got the murder scene, but more importantly we've got the boy."

A half hour later the detectives were seated in front of Dr. Patel's desk. The doctor liked these detectives. They seemed genuinely concerned for the patient.

"Thanks for coming in," said the doctor.

"What can we do for you?" asked Sergeant Alvarez.

"I wanted to give you an update on our patient, but I called because of something else" he confessed. "A rude woman from Children and Family Services was here demanding access to his records. She didn't even have a court order. I'd really like to know what's going on."

The detectives exchanged a look.

"There aren't any surviving family members," Detective Miller explained. "The father, David Van Pelt was the only child of elderly parents who died years ago. The mother's parents died in a private plane crash shortly after she graduated from high school. There are no siblings, distant aunts or uncles, or even cousins. It looks like he'll have to go into care."

Dr. Patel was tapping a pen against his thigh, "No family? That's going to make things difficult."

Standing up he announced, "Let's walk. He's still not responding to us. Call it a catatonic mute state or even selective mutism. All the neurological tests show a healthy, but agitated brain. There's a lot going on in that head of his, but it's not making it to the outside. There's no physiological reason for him not to be talking. In fact his wounds are healing much better than expected."

Stopping them outside of the boy's room he continued, "Records from his pediatrician tell us that he was a bright, active child before all of this. He responds to stimuli; pain, bright light, he'll chew and swallow food and liquids. Unfortunately, he's still completely disengaged from the world around him."

The detectives had seen it for themselves. The boy was awake, but he wasn't there. You could stare at him, but nobody stared back. His head would turn, but the eyes focused on nothing. He ignored the television. Nurses would sit and read to him with no response. They were feeding him solid food, but the process seemed purely automatic.

The treatment plan was to try and provide normal stimulus activities. Eventually the psychologist explained he should come out of this 'locked in' state. If not, the psychologist conceded that he'd have to be institutionalized. No foster care family would be able to provide for such a child.

Sergeant Alvarez hid a smile as he spotted Deputy Sheriff Tom Nettle coming up the hallway. The hot rumor around the division was that there was a serious romance blooming between Detective Miller and the handsome veteran deputy.

"Deputy Nettle, what brings you down on your day off?" Alvarez asked.

Detective Miller's head turned quickly at the question.

"A group of us volunteered to come down and read on different days," Deputy Nettle replied as he tried to make eye contact with the suddenly shy female detective.

"That's very thoughtful of you," she offered in her most professional voice.

The doctor and the sergeant ignored the flirting as they moved toward the door. Entering the room they were surprised to see the bed empty, one sheet hanging over the edge, monitor wires discarded. The alarms were silent, or not functioning.

The doctor moved to the patient's chart to see where the boy was supposed to be. He shook his head, no tests scheduled.

Sergeant Alvarez pointed to the far side of the bed, and Miller hurried around to check.

Deputy Nettle opened the bathroom door and came back out. "Not here," he announced.

Detective Miller checked behind the curtain and around the bed shaking her head, "No."

Doctor Patel walked to a phone mounted right beside the door. Picking it up he pushed two buttons, and started issuing a series of rapid-fire instructions. Seconds later they heard, "Code Purple," announced over the hospital's speaker system.

A nurse supervisor rushed to the door as Sergeant Alvarez, and Deputies Miller and Nettle were hanging their badges visibly from their jacket pockets. Conferring quickly with Doctor Patel, the supervisor agreed and said, "Eight minutes. He was checked on just eight minutes ago."

Doctor Patel had a thoughtful look on his face. "This is either really good or really bad."

Detective Miller looked at him incredulously.

"Somebody took him," waggling his hand, in a maybe yes or maybe no gesture, "or, he got up and started walking around on his own."

Sergeant Alvarez was nodding, "Let's hope for the latter. Nettle, you take this floor. Miller check the third. I'll head down to the first floor and check in with security. Let's move."

The Code Purple call put a well honed emergency plan into action. All exits were now guarded by hospital security employees who would check every individual attempting to enter or exit. Staff reported to their designated stations. Patient lists were being checked against each hospital bed. Maintenance personnel brought each of the hospital's elevators to the ground floor where they were secured. Patient transfers were temporarily suspended.

In the hospital offices the assistant administrator sat at her desk and prayed that this was all a big mistake. She desperately wished that the administrator wasn't away at a conference. A missing child was horrible, but this child with all the associated media coverage? She groaned and rested her head on the desk with a soft thump.

On the first floor Sergeant Alvarez was discussing video coverage of the hospital exits with the head of security. Up on the third floor Detective Miller had first run to the roof exit making sure that it was locked, then began checking room to room.

On the second floor Deputy Tom Nettle had already checked the pediatric critical care unit since it wasn't very large. He was moving on to the pediatric cancer ward. The brightly painted and cheerful hallways worked hard to compensate for the serious nature of the care given here.

In a playroom, a volunteer candy striper was reading to a group of children. Several of the children were wearing tightly fitted knit caps of differing colors. Ladybugs appeared to be a popular choice in this crowd. Perhaps it was a character from some cartoon that he didn't know about. He almost missed the boy standing in the back.

Putting a smile on his face he opened the door and walked in. Motioning for the volunteer to continue he approached the boy.

The boy looked up at him and then held out his hand.

"Remember me?" the deputy asked, gently taking hold of the hand. The fingers were individually wrapped in gauze.

Together they walked into the hallway after the candy striper took careful note of the deputy's badge. At the nearby desk Deputy Nettle caught a nurse's attention. "Could you call Doctor Patel and have him cancel the code?" he cut his eyes toward the child while holding his free index finger to his lips.

"Oh I'd be happy to," she said as she picked up the phone. Speaking quietly she cocked her head to one side taking in the scene.

"We're going to walk back to our room," announced the deputy, looking for agreement from his new partner.

The nurse nodded her head and passed the information on as they turned and slowly headed back to the pediatric critical care center. By the time they got to the end of the hallway, a nurse was holding the door open for them.

Tom Nettle was thinking serious, but happy thoughts. The incident in the desert had changed his life. During the early days of the investigation he'd met Susan or 'Detective Miller' as he wryly reminded himself. He couldn't explain it, but he was pretty sure this was going to be the one.

As they approached the child's hospital room, Dr. Patel hurried to meet them.

"There you are. Isn't this the second time you've rescued our little miracle?" he kidded with a quirk of his eyebrow.

"All yours, Doc," the deputy announced trying turn the child's hand over to the doctor.

The child ignored the attempt.

"No problem," the doctor said. "Why don't you both take a seat up on this bed, and we'll give you a quick check up. Agreed?"

Dr. Patel examined the patient with a professional eye. He turned the child's palms up and flexed a finger experimentally. "I think we could probably take these bandages off this afternoon. Won't that be nice?" he casually asked the child.

No response.

"Okay your turn," the doctor said as he poked the deputy in the stomach. "Maybe this one's funny bone needs a tune up?"

The boy looked up at Deputy Nettle sitting next to him and tugged on his hand.

"Hey buddy, what do you need?" the deputy asked.

The boy pulled him closer. "I'm hungry," he whispered into the deputy's ear.

Looking at Doctor Patel, Deputy Nettle announced, "He's hungry!"

There were smiles all around. Scotty Van Pelt had come back to the world.

Outside the room a greatly relieved sergeant turned to his partner. She had a slightly awed look on her face as she watched the doctor's playful examination of the deputy. "You stay here and keep an eye on things for me," he said with grin. "I'm going to down to talk with security again. This was good practice for the real thing."

Chapter 2 »