Aberdeen, Maryland July 13, 2008, 11:20PM
FBI agent Megan McKenna knew something about being treated like garbage, and she knew what it felt like to be placed inside a hole in the ground. Her father had seen to that; he used a well out back of the house to discipline her, leaving her to shiver in the dark—sometimes for hours. But she was an adult now with a job to do, and she needed to keep her head in the game.
Rain pounded her drenched coat and gear. The soggy ground sank beneath Megan’s hiking boots, which she’d earlier dug from her car trunk. For two days and nights, a continuous downpour had pummeled the Baltimore area. Mud flowed everywhere, yet somehow the dogs had picked up the scent. The animals and handlers quickened their pace to the edge of the woods. After two days of searching, Megan feared she and Phil Jenkins had accomplished their goal—a goal with a doubled-edge. One they needed—for more information about this killer, but also one that meant more death bundled in a horrible package and dumped down this remote well.
Yes, here it is, and it feels inevitable, imminent, and quite disconcerting.
As the German Shepherds frantically thrashed around the abandoned well, their barking increased. This was no drainpipe hole in the ground, but an old-fashioned fieldstone structure, covered in lichen and mold and tenacious weeds at its base. It hadn’t the overhanging bucket or canopy of a storybook well but rather a crude, falling apart rustic wooden lid that’d been snatched from its moorings and pushed to one side. Here it leaned awkwardly away in a mocking gesture of a child’s slide. The ugly, weathered lid, braided together by two bands of iron, had gone to rot, soaked through from years of rain damage. Small sections had broken away where Detective Phil Jenkins and some of the others had hefted the monstrosity, dirt and weeds clinging to it. The men of the Baltimore Police Department stood staring down into the black hole they’d uncovered, curious, muttering to one another, all soaked through to their BVDs, but no one was climbing down into the well; no one but Phil had volunteered when Megan piped up, shouting, “Back off, gentlemen. This is where being a size six is needed.”No one on the Baltimore Aggravated Assault Taskforce, BAAT, expected to find the victim alive. Both the Baltimore Police Department and Megan McKenna, an FBI behavioral scientist, had by now bellied up to the well, which had become the central focus since the body-sniffing dogs had surrounded it. They’d all been standing and staring down into the black interior, all waiting to be told by lead investigator, Jenkins ‘what next’ before making a move.
Baltimore detective Phil Jenkins handed Megan a flashlight and a rappelling harness. Without a word, Megan quickly and expertly attached the harness and started down the well. Actions speak louder than words, she recalled from her training officer at Quantico, Marcela Hiesling, who’d drilled it into her. Earlier, she and Phil had discussed who’d be dropping down into the abyss; they’d early on decided that there wasn’t a man among them small enough in the shoulder-width to manage the area offered by that hole in the ground. Phil had argued that he could manage it with his thin frame, but Megan had cut him short with, “I can get in, eyeball it, and be out quickly, Phil, whereas you or Grogan over there’d be stuck halfway down, and no one wants to call in the fire department.” She now inched downward into the black interior, feeling the small space at each shoulder knock grabbing at her petite body. Small particles of moss and plant life, crumbling stone, and spindly naked roots conspired with an overwhelming odor of dampness, earth, and decay. All crowding in on me. It felt like being buried alive, and even more so when Grogan and some of the other fools above threatened to place the lid over her as a sick joke. She heard Phil overhead putting an end to the tomfoolery before it’d gone too far. Megan breathed deeply and paid for it, as the odors here choked her and permeated every pore. She already wanted out of here, wanted soap, a shower, elbow space…but instead she focused on the task as difficult as it was. She suppressed all personal memories, hoping against hope that her instinct about what they’d find at the bottom was wrong.
She concentrated the light on the darkness below, seeing an ominous reflection that struck her full force. The light had caressed a slick black Hefty trash bag. Something in the bag created a bulge. Something wicked indeed lay here at the bottom of the well. Grabbing hold of the black bag, she felt its weight tug back. Resistance. She tightened her grip and hefted it, fearful she’d not have the strength necessary. But she won the struggle, gaining on the awkward cargo. “Phill! Get me the hell outta here!” Her voice echoed up the well, sounding more distressed than she’d meant it to. With the men assisting, it was an easy ascent, yet too slow for Megan, who felt anxious for solid ground.
Overhead, it’d begun to rain again. As she emerged with the evidence, Phil rushed to help her over the lip of the well. No one said a word, but the search team moved in as McKenna untied the bag. Mottled flesh stared back at them, the stench unbearable. The skin appeared intact, the stomach distended. The young victim’s head, covered with a plastic bag and secured with duct tape, proved all too sickeningly familiar. Unfortunately, the same MO as the last two victims had suffered within a three-week span, and still no clue to the sick monster behind these merciless killings. Megan looked up at Jenkins and the others, and with a weary sigh, shook her head. She could feel the heat of everyone’s stare…waiting for her to freak out or have a breakdown, given her recent history with cases of this nature, all involving wells in the Virginia-DC area.
Phil tugged at Megan’s elbow, pulling her close so others wouldn’t hear. “Just let it be, kiddo. Don’t even go there.” “Like that’s possible, Phil?” A few weeks before, Jenkins could not have imagined saying any kind or consoling word to Megan. No cop liked the Federal Bureau of “Incompetence” moving in on his case, let alone a know-it-all, strong-willed redhead with a hair-trigger temper. Jenkins had overheard others at the precinct gossiping about McKenna’s leave of absence and questionable mental status. In other words, the FBI hadn’t sent their finest. The story he’d heard went along the lines of McKenna’s having lost it after being unable to save some kid over in D.C. from a real whack job like the one they now faced.
A shout from someone on the team to get more amps on site echoed about the woods, and this, along with wildly flashing lights from a cadre of squad cars disturbed Jenkins’ train of thought. Phil frowned to see Megan step away from him. She now worked her way through the heavy mud and rain, returning to the road where the ambulance and attendants waited for the go-ahead. “You can stand down, have a smoke,” she told the jacketed male and female paramedics. “No one’s in need of life support or attention from anyone but Dr. Massey.” The mention of the medical examiner’s name said it all, and the medics nodded appreciatively. Jenkins shouted for a uniformed officer to accompany the body to the morgue while Megan studied the chaos he was in charge of, knowing the choreography of their murder scene was already badly staged, at the whim of nature, and shaky at best. Too many footprints going in and out, and no chance of tire prints as they had been destroyed by the rains. Any chance of finding a useful clue sat at zero percent. And she knew the killer would have left no trace of himself on the victims.
And damn Phil Jenkins for taking me aside to calm me down before the others, like I’m his assistant…like I’m some grade school child in need of milk and cookies.
The forensic team remained busy securing the crime scene. The sound of mud sloshing became a mantra, growing louder as the CSI people moved in to take photos and search for trace evidence that Megan knew would not be found. Just then Phil joined her, standing alongside, soaked, arms crossed as he watched the organized chaos. She sensed he was about to give her more advice, so she spoke first. “Hardly seems a likely possibility that CSI’ll find anything useful in this soupy marsh.” “Still gotta go through the motions.” He rubbed his hands into one another.
“Cold?” she asked. “This kinda thing always makes me cold to the bone.”
She nodded appreciatively, staring at the CSI force. They had their orders straight from Dr. Massey.
“Gonna be damn impossible to triangulate the position of the body,” complained Phil in her ear.
“Not so hard, really. Use the well.” “The well?”
“Just state the body was found in the well. Triangulate the damn well.”
“Ahhh…gotcha, right. I’m sure our guys can figure it out. The Baltimore PD maintains an excellent crime scene unit. If anyone can find any—”
“Assume nothing, detective. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in law enforcement it’s that. Assume nothing.”
Phil nodded unappreciatively and grunted.
Megan said a silent prayer for the young person in the bag as the rest of the world—like gray shadows—worked at the evidence gathering.
The Chief Medical Examiner for the Greater Baltimore area, Dr. Joseph A. Massey, joined Megan and Phil. Massey gave his cursory opinion from having spent a few minutes with the young female victim. “I’d say an autopsy will pretty much confirm it’s him again.” “Which doesn’t help us a whole hell of a lot, Doctor,” replied Jenkins. Massey’s features pinched, reflecting his own pain. “Just wanted you to know as lead detective on the case, and you, Agent McKenna.”
“Then you’ve no doubt that it’s his handiwork?” pressed Phil.
“I don’t imagine there’re two nutcases stuffing young people down wells, do you?”
Megan inwardly smiled at hearing Massey say aloud precisely what she was thinking. “Third victim in as many weeks.” With her hair plastered against her head, she was as soaked through as Phil. “Let us know when you schedule the autopsy.”
Massey nodded, staring at her. “Will do, of course. Meantime, Agent McKenna, are you OK?”
Megan’s jaw was set so hard that her teeth were grinding below her cheeks, and her eyes must have shone her disappointment. Still she hammered Massey. “I’m fine, damn it, fine! And I wish people would stop asking.”