The Innocents: Part One

Innocents600x900Today we begin the serialization of Richard Barre’s novel, THE INNOCENTS. Thanks to Down & Out Books for sharing this fantastic novel with Crimespree readers!

A new segment will be published on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.

Here’s a description of the book:

There are seven of them. Children — innocents — whose long-buried remains are uncovered by a flash-flood. No one knows who could have committed such a crime. Clues are scarce, and with the media turning the story into a law enforcement nightmare, time is short. Only Wil Hardesty, a private eye who has more in common with the case than anyone knows, is willing to push hard enough — and dig deep enough — to find the cruelest of killers. The killer of The Innocents…

And now, on with the show…

 

PROLOGUE

 

Mexico, 1967

The man’s hand was hurting his—he wanted to pull away, to run. He said he was sorry about the medal. Why couldn’t they understand?

Papa must know that Gilberto had put him up to it. Gilberto was jealous. Gilberto fooled him, and now look what happened. First the beating from Papa and now the man taking him away. Sad faces, his brother not looking at him, Mama crying.

Yesterday had been so happy. He wanted to go back to the bright time with the shouts and the blindfold and the clay rooster he’d whacked with the long stick. Even getting up at dawn had been exciting—before the church bells, before anyone. All winter they’d coughed in the chill wind off the mountains. But it was warmer now, and night rain had washed the sky leaving pinks and golds.

Finally he couldn’t stand it, so he woke them, all but Mama, who stayed behind. How could they have been so slow? Hanging back to tease him, laughing as he tried to hurry them along. In church, with Papa watching, he’d been good the whole time. Even the old priest went to sleep, but not him. Next year he would join his brothers at the rail, receive the wafer, feel the shiny disk touch his throat before it moved on. Then he would close his eyes and taste the Bodyblood. Made him want to make a face, but he’d be brave.

Mass was endless, his toes jumping beans—and then it was over. Skipping home in the sunshine, ahead of Papa and the rest. The door opening suddenly. Mama there and the flowers and the piñata and the singing: Happy Birthday to him! As they sucked on little sugar cones, Papa gave it to him, the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, silver with his name on it and everything. It was only later, when he and Gilberto were alone examining the medal, that Gilberto dared him. “Pretend it’s First Communion. Go on, don’t be a baby.” He was no baby. He showed Gilberto.

Papa’s willow switch had stung like fire through his thin pants. Never had he seen his father so angry. At least he knew Gilberto hurt just as much.

But that was yesterday. Now the man’s hand was tightening on his, pulling him toward the door. Papa met his eyes and looked down, then Gilberto. Was the man going to take Gilberto away because of the medal, too? Mama was crying again, Papa holding her now.

He didn’t like the man, didn’t want to go. Would God know where to find him? Couldn’t they give him another chance?

He would never do it again.

 

ONE

 

California, l990

Dawn was bringing shape to the greasewood by the time they unearthed the skeleton and sifted for clues. Montoya, part of the initial wave of law, watched as first light touched Saddleback Butte and the Tehachapis. It had been a long night, wind off the Angeles Crest dogging them for most of it, rising again with the sun.

Soon they’d kill the generator-powered kliegs.

Montoya slugged down the last of the coffee, raised the fur collar of his jacket as a gust stung him. Still snow up there, obviously; months before the warm desert evenings, the kids laughing in the backyard pool.

He wondered if the kid they’d found liked to swim. All kids liked to swim, certainly his did. Jesus, what next, he thought, rubbing his eyes. In fourteen years he’d seen children die in smash-ups, a baby electrocuted, a family of five wiped out in a fire. This one was different, though, put in the ground with intent; chilling beyond the sadness of it. Montoya recalled his first glimpse of the skull, multicolored quartz chips embedded in the small eye sockets.

He scratched his scalp under the L.A. County Sheriff’s cap. From the looks, this one was about his daughter’s age. Hard not to think it.

The coroner and crime scene people were nearly finished, the gravesite photographed, evidence bagged. Montoya, who’d supervised until the Homicide team from downtown arrived, tossed the thermos in the 4WD then crunched over coarse gravel defining the flash flood channel.

“Can’t tell much yet from the bones.” Weiss the name tag read; Montoya remembered her from a Palmdale rape-murder she and her partner drew a couple of years ago. Her breath showed in the morning cold.

“We maybe got lucky, though.” She held up a clear plastic bag, something small and round inside.

Montoya took the bag, felt the Saint Christopher medal. It was a cheap plated one, with some of the silver around the staff and the Christchild stripped away. He turned the bag over. The engraving was worn but deep enough to read: Vaya con Dios, Benito. Papa, 1967.

Montoya puzzled a moment; something clicked. “What about a chain? One turn up?”

She exhaled. “Not so far. Kind of expect one, wouldn’t you, Sergeant? Would have lasted as long as the medal.”

“Detective Weiss,” a voice called. “Over here.”

One of the Lancaster deputies was hunched over something several feet from the area they’d combed. “More bones,” he said. “Spotted ’em as it got lighter. Look there.”

They looked. Barely visible outside the circle of artificial light, beside the exposed roots of a mesquite bush, white finger bones poked up from gray gravel. Like the others they were small, perfect. A child’s hand.

There was a moan of wind, a crackle from one of the radios.

Weiss spoke first. “Merry Christmas,” she said.

“Son of a bitch,” Montoya added.

 

 

“Slow it down, Patty, how many?”

The news director was trying to open his eyes and find his glasses at the same time. From the floor where he’d knocked the alarm, the hour glowed early, too early for somebody who worked as late as he did.

“What’s the source?” he mumbled. She was calling mobile, he could hear truck sounds and a car radio in the background. McGann wasn’t the best field jockey on his news team, but she was young and ambitious and covered a lot of ground. Things he liked.

“Scanner, Chief, heard it coming home from a date. At first it was a single, kid’s remains out near Saddleback Butte—some man and his son shooting at cans found ’em. I got curious, made coffee, and sat with it. After a while they came on again and upped it to three. Figured I’d get rolling.”

The news director grunted, sat up, fumbled on bifocals; he’d crossed the line now, more awake than asleep. “Okay. How quick can you get there?”

“I’m on the Golden State near Burbank,” she said. “Traffic’s a bitch. An hour if I step on it.”

“Step on it, then. Any idea about the three?”

“Not yet.”

The news director heard a horn and a muffled curse, half-smiled, reached for his cigarettes. He’d spent twelve years in the field, knew the pressure the kid was under. Delays were slow death.

“Too early to tell, I guess,” she said. “Scanner’s been pretty sketchy. I just hope I got the jump.”

“Stay with it, you’ll be fine. You got a shooter yet?”

“Lombardi’s a mile or so back.” Gears shifted. “Here we go,” she said. “Might scoop this one yet, Chief.”

“Just get there in one piece, okay?”

“Rodge.”

He was about to hang up and put the department on alert when he heard Patty McGann swear again, only this time it was full of wonder. A little prickle went up the news director’s spine. He’d heard a CBS correspondent swear much the same way passing a shot-up rifle company near Hue, 1968. It had been him.

McGann came back, but her voice sounded far away.

“Scanner just updated. They’ve got five so far.” There was a pause. “My God, they’re still counting.”