Breakdown Chapter One
Rain had turned the streets a shiny black. It coated windshields with a film that cut visibility to inches, and turned potholes into lakes that trapped unwary drivers. All month long, Chicago had been hit by storms that put as much as three inches of water on the ground in an hour, but left the air as thick and heavy as a wet parka. Tonight’s storm was one of the worst of the summer.
I’d come up empty in all the likely spots: bus stops, coffee shops, even the sleazier nightclubs that might not have carded a bunch of tweens. I was about to give up when I saw lights flashing in the cemetery to my right. I pulled over and rolled down my window. Above the rumble of rain on my rooftop I could hear high-pitched chatter and bursts of nervous laughter.
I zipped up my rain jacket and walked down the street, looking for the cemetery gates. They were padlocked. A notice board read that Mount Moriah was permanently closed. Trespassers would be violated, but if you had a graveyard to tend, you could call the number on the board.
I went back up Leavitt until I found a gap in the fence big enough for me to slip through. By then, the girls had disappeared.
Grasses and weeds had taken over the grounds, obliterating paths, covering up the grave markers. The remains of the paths had turned to a mud that sucked at my running shoes. Bits of old gravel wedged themselves inside my shoes. Water seeped under the hood of my rain jacket. I tripped over a marble slab that had fallen on its back, and landed hard on my tailbone. The only good thing about the weather was that it masked the sound of my fall, as well as the curse I couldn’t hold back—I was in my favorite party dress, which was now smeared with mud underneath my jacket.
While I was on the ground I made out winking lights—cell phones, or flashlights—to my right. The rain stopped suddenly; I caught the girls’ nervous laughter again and worked my way toward it.
As I got closer, I heard a stifled shriek. “Did you see? The vampire—he was here; I saw him going into the woods.”
“Yeah, right, like we believe you, Tyler—you haven’t even been initiated.”
“I did too see him. Kira, didn’t you? You grabbed my arm.”
“That wasn’t Kira, dummy, that was Arielle. She screamed louder than you.”
“Did not. I’m not afraid of vampires, I’ve got an amulet from Carmilla!”
“But why do we have to do this in the middle of the rain, anyway? Why can’t we stay in Kira’s apartment?” a new speaker demanded.
An authoritative voice answered. “We have to be under the full moon for the power to work.”
“But it’s wet, you can’t even see the moon.” This was Tyler again, the one who’d seen the vampire.
“We tried to do it inside last time, but Kira’s little sister saw us and freaked out. You could hear her scream all the way to Wisconsin.”
“I think that was a sign from Carmilla,” the girl with the authoritative voice said. “We need to be as brave as the girls in the book, when they went outside the town gates. See—we’re outside the town gates, kind of—we went away from the city when we climbed over the cemetery gates, and that temple thingy, it’s like Carmilla’s cottage.”
Vampires. In a way, it was refreshing that a bunch of tweens had sneaked out to see a vampire—when my cousin Petra called me, desperate for help, I’d assumed the kids had gone clubbing.
Petra told me she’d gotten a frantic call from Kira Dudek’s little sister.
“Kira Dudek?” I’d repeated, bewildered.
“You know, Vic,” my cousin said impatiently,. “Kira’s in one of my book groups, the ones I’m running for the Malina Foundation. Her and Lucy’s mom work a night shift as a hotel maid, and little Lucy says all the big girls come over to their place, only tonight, they all went out in the rain and left Lucy by herself. She’s only seven, Vic, she’s hysterical, and I can’t leave her here by herself. I know I said I wouldn’t keep calling you for help, but, gosh, Kira and her friends, they’re just twelve or thirteen, I can’t let them just run around the city on their own.”
In the two years my cousin has been in Chicago, she’s had five jobs, if you counted the three weeks she’d worked for me last winter. Most recently, she’d been taken on by the Malina Foundation, which serves immigrants and refugees. My old friend Lotty Herschel, who sits on Malina’s board, had recommended Petra for the position. My cousin’s boundless energy made her popular with the foundation’s youth programs. I’d been impressed with the job Petra was doing, but teen curfew breakers were more than she could handle on her own.
I’d been at a particularly annoying event with Murray Ryerson and was just as happy for an excuse to leave—until, of course, I landed in the mud in my scarlet party frock. I’d changed from high heels into running shoes in my car, and I had my waterproof slicker, but I hadn’t packed a backup outfit. I hadn’t been expecting to go from black tie to black mud this evening.
The wind had picked up while I was listening to the girls. The full moon began to shine through the last thready shroud of clouds and I could make out the shapes of uncut shrubs and tombstones. My view of the girls was blocked by a big monument, the “temple thingy” one of them had mentioned. It had a bunch of columns supporting a dome, and a dark figure draped realistically on a slab in the middle. The whole structure was missing chunks of marble, as if a giant had chewed off slabs at random.
When I worked my way around to the front of the monument, I found the girls in a kind of clearing—at least, it was free of the tangling bushes that had overgrown most of the cemetery paths. The ground was marked with a concrete border that had crumbled, exposing pieces of rebar. Gravestones around the perimeter were tilted at drunken angles.
The girls had stopped arguing. They were passing around a bottle of something that made them laugh more raucously. I didn’t know if they were drunk or just thought they ought to act that way, but their wildness was disturbing.
There were seven in all. Several were videoing one another with their cell phones. Tomorrow their friends and relations would be able to admire their antics on Facebook.
“We’d better get started.” It was the girl with the authoritative voice. In the moonlight, she looked like a sprite, as if she herself had come out of elf land. She was shorter than the others, her silhouette topped by a mop of dark curls.
“Get your phones out and set and we’ll go on three.” She counted, and on “three,” the girls all pressed the music buttons on their devices so that a kind of tinny rap concert began.
“Tyler, stand in the middle.” This was the tallest girl in the group. “Everyone else get in a circle and hold hands. We’ll feel the power while the moon is full.”
“Yeah, before Kira’s mother gets off work and we’re all busted,” someone else chimed in.
I was going to bust them myself, but I was curious enough about the ritual to let it run for another few minutes.
“Close your eyes,” the tallest girl said. “Put the phones away and hold hands. Tyler, are you ready?”
“I guess so, Nia.” Tyler’s voice was a barely audible whisper.
The tallest and the shortest were running the show. They bowed to each other, then the tall one intoned, “Carmilla, bless Arielle so that her hand is guided right, and help me, so the ritual is chanted right. Amen.”
“Amen!” The other girls tried to sound solemn, as if in church, but two were so excited that they giggled instead.
The tall girl pulled something from her pocket, an object too small for me to make out, and gave it to Arielle with another bow. Arielle took Tyler’s hand and led her to the middle of the clearing, where the two knelt. The other five gathered around them in a tight circle, blocking my view.
The tall girl began a chant, which the rest of them joined. “Under the full moon, we call on Carmilla. Carmilla, give us power, and let us send your power into Tyler! Carmilla, give us wisdom, and let us send your wisdom into Tyler! Carmilla, give us immortality, and let us share it with Tyler!”
Tyler screamed. I broke through the circle of girls and pulled the sprite away from Tyler.
My abrupt arrival terrified all the girls. They shrieked and backed away from me, huddling in a frightened group at the edge of the clearing, clutching one another’s hands—except for Tyler, the sacrifice in the middle of the circle, who cried, “I hate you, I hate all of you and your stupid club, I don’t care if you don’t speak to me for the next five years.” She ran away from them, up the shallow steps of the miniature temple.
“Just what’s going on here?” I demanded.
“Who are you?” the tall girl gasped. Her voice shook, but she was brave enough to step forward to look at me.
“I’m a detective, and, incidentally, Petra Warshawski’s cousin. She called me to find you. All of you are in violation of curfew. Time for this party to break up. I’m going to take you home.”
Like many U.S. cities, Chicago has a curfew for kids under seventeen. A group of shrieking twelve-year-olds would get police attention, maybe not a bad thing for this group’s ringleaders, but not so good for any of the immigrant girls whose families might be here illegally.
Petra’s name reassured them; they let go of one another’s hands, their shoulders relaxing.
Arielle said, “This isn’t a party, this is serious.”
“I know it’s serious: your friend Tyler didn’t like it one little bit.”
“We told her it would hurt, but she wanted to do it anyway,” Arielle said. “Everyone else did it, including me and Nia; we did it first to each other, so it’s not like we were attacking her!”
The tall girl, Nia, apparently, nodded agreement. “She begged us to let—”
Tyler screamed again before Nia could finish her explanation, a cry of terror so horrible that everyone, even Arielle and Nia, shrank into silence and clustered near me.
I ran back to the temple and joined Tyler at the top of the shallow set of steps. Her mouth was opening and shutting in a mime of horror. She didn’t move, just pointed at the figure on the slab.
It wasn’t a statue, as I’d idly thought when I’d glanced inside earlier, but a man. He was laid on a slab in a parody of a crucifixion, arms wide at his sides, feet together. In the dim light from my cell phone I saw something sticking out of his chest.
I stepped between Tyler and the figure and knelt to feel his neck. His skin was cool and the carotid pulses were still, but when I stuck a gingerly hand underneath his Windbreaker, I could feel the wet flood of fresh blood. He hadn’t died much before we’d arrived on the scene.
While I was kneeling I squinted at the stick in his chest. I couldn’t tell much, but it looked like a metal rod, perhaps a foot long. Behind me I could hear Tyler starting to give way to sobs. I got up and guided her down the stairs. She was trembling and she clung to me convulsively.
The man had died a terrible death, but I had learned from years of experience with violence to suction off my feelings, to keep the outer shell of my self smooth and dry. A twelve-year-old didn’t need this experience, and shouldn’t have to acquire my patina.
The other girls were huddled at the foot of the steps. “What happened?” “What’s up there?”
I started to say, “There’s a dead man in that tomb,” but that sounded ludicrous. “A man has been murdered up there. And not very long ago. I have to call the police. I’d like to protect you ladies from a police investigation, at least until you’ve gone home and talked to your parents about what you were doing here tonight. However, before I can let you go, you need to answer a few questions. You claimed that you saw someone right before you began your ritual. I believe it was Tyler who said there was a vampire nearby?”
The girls sucked in a collective breath and looked furtively into the thick shrubbery beyond the clearing.
“So she really did see one, even though she wasn’t initiated?” one of the girls who hadn’t spoken before said.
“No, she didn’t see a vampire, she saw a person.” I pushed Tyler shoulder distance from me so I could look into her eyes. “Was it the man on the tomb up there?”
“I don’t know why I said what I did, about seeing a vampire, I mean. I didn’t see anyone,” Tyler whispered.
“What about the rest of you? Did any of you see someone in the shrubbery when you got here?”
They all stared at me dumbly. Finally, Nia said, “Tyler was really excited about the ceremony, so maybe she thought she saw something.”
Lightning flashed in the eastern sky and clouds began to thicken across the moon again, a warning that Mother Nature hadn’t finished with us for the night. I didn’t want to stand arguing with these kids in a rainstorm, and I needed to call the cops to report the murder. I told the girls I would take them to the apartment where they’d met up, and leave them in my cousin Petra’s charge while I talked to the police.
“You can call your folks from there, but none of you is to go home unless Petra sees who’s escorting you.”
Arielle started to object, but I overrode her. “You are not in charge of this expedition; I am. If you try to leave the Dudek apartment with anyone besides your parents or guardian, Petra will sit on you until I get back.”
“They can’t sleep there.” A girl with long, pale hair spoke for the first time. “We only have three beds.”
“You’re Kira Dudek, right? Lucy’s big sister? I don’t care if your friends stand on their heads all night, as long as they don’t leave without an adult. Let’s get going.”
“But my mother—” Kira started to say.
“This is known as education,” I said. “You are learning, all seven of you, that actions have consequences.”
I corralled them into an ungainly bundle and started pushing them toward Leavitt Street. As we got closer, blue lights flashed beyond the fence. Someone must have heard Tyler’s screams and called the police.
“Cops on Leavitt,” I said. “I want you girls to be with your parents before you have to deal with the police. We’re going to turn around and try to find a way out on the street at the back of the cemetery. It’s going to be rough going because I don’t want to use a flashlight, so stay close together, and close behind me.”
I turned around, made sure my team—if that’s what they were—was with me, and started picking my way back toward the clearing, the temple, the thicket of briars.
Tyler insisted on holding my hand. This made it harder for me to stay on a path, but I didn’t have the heart to detach her. Behind us we heard the bullhorns: This is the Chicago police; stay where you are; we know you’re in there. We could see the glow from their searchlights as the cops began to work their way into the cemetery. Tyler grabbed me more tightly and one of the girls whimpered in fear. The lightning intensified and thunder began to rumble among the clouds like a moody drummer.
“It’s okay,” I said softly, under the cover of the thunder. “They’re just guessing; they don’t really know we’re here. The important thing is to keep as quiet as possible.”
More than once the girls or I stumbled against a piece of broken marble as we threaded our way east. Rain began to fall again, fat, greasy drops that slipped through the tree branches and down our necks. The storm broke in earnest as we reached a wall that marked the cemetery’s eastern edge.
As the rain swept down, I turned to Arielle, the sprite. “I’m going to give you a leg up to the top. Look over, and if there’re no cops or prowlers on the street, you climb over and jump down. And all of you: go to Kira Dudek’s apartment and stay there. I will join you as fast as I can, but I have to talk to the cops. And please don’t imagine you can just run away: Petra will be able to give me all your names, and I will talk to all of your parents tomorrow.”
Nia started to protest, but Arielle cut her short. “My mom will handle it; don’t try arguing with her.”
I decided to pretend I hadn’t heard that and made a cup of my hands for Arielle. She sprang up lightly to grab the top of the wall, where she bent over and looked around before giving me an “all clear.” I hoisted the others over as fast as I could, even Tyler, who said she’d rather stay with me.
“Right now, it doesn’t matter what happened to you in the middle of that circle back there,” I said. “Being with Arielle and the others is going to be way better than a police interrogation. Why were you out after curfew? Did you know the dead man? Did you and your friends put a spike through his chest?”
She gasped. “We didn’t kill him; we didn’t know he was there!”
“Those are the kinds of questions the police will ask, and they won’t believe your answers. They’ll keep talking to you all night long, until you say something they want to hear. So get over that wall.”
She nodded bleakly and let me push her to the top. I waited a minute but didn’t hear any sounds of pursuit from the other side.
As I stood there, rain pouring under the hood of my jacket, I wondered about the girls. Tyler and her friends were twelve and thirteen, but it didn’t take much imagination to figure out how a girl that young could persuade a man to lie on his back, arms outstretched, waiting passively for a blow to the heart.
I didn’t really believe these girls had killed the man in the temple. It was far more likely that they hadn’t been aware of the violence taking place just steps from where they were dancing and preening. But why was Tyler unwilling to admit she’d seen someone earlier? She’d cried out that she’d seen a vampire—but perhaps, on reflection, she’d recognized the figure, and didn’t want to identify him. Or her.
I’d have to talk to all the girls in depth, which sounded exhausting. Or turn them over to the police, which seemed callous. In the meantime, I needed to talk to the police myself. There were risks inherent in presenting myself to them, but there were bigger risks in staying away. I turned around and started working my way west again.