Crouching next to his truck, Pat scanned the front of the building. The place had more the feel of a house in the suburbs than a cabin in the woods. It was packed between houses in a neighborhood that shouted that same suburban feel. If it weren’t for the lake they surrounded, there would be no way to tell that there was nothing but woods, farm fields, and incredibly small towns for miles in any direction. Some of the residents even lived there year round. Luckily for Pat, neither of the Valentino’s next door neighbors fit that description. Even still, he didn’t waste any time on nostalgia. There wasn’t much light for him to work with, but it was enough to know that nothing looked out of place. Nothing except for… Something caught his eye as his gaze slowly moved along the porch that ran the length of the place and wrapped around it to his left. Even though heavy shades were drawn on the inside of the big, bay window that overlooked the porch, the faintest glow alerted him to the fact that a light was on inside the place. Somebody was definitely in there.
Pat crouched there for a solid five minutes contemplating how he was going to handle the situation. Walk up to the front door and knock? He had known Vinny since he was a small boy. The kid would come over to chat on occasion when Pat was working in the yard. They shared many a lemonade or plate of Suzy’s magnificent, chocolate chip cookies splashed down with some milk. Would that be enough to keep Vinny from doing something stupid? Pat had never dealt with a killer before, not to mention one that he knew so well. He had, however, spent plenty of time dealing with domestic disturbances. Of course, the two things were totally different. However, he had seen plenty of otherwise respectable, rational people lash out when cornered and confronted. How would Vinny respond? He knew Pat was a cop. After remaining crouched next his truck for a few more minutes, Pat decided that walking around the place and trying to get a look inside at the situation first was a better idea.
Pat slipped around the back of his truck and crouched through a slow jog up the right side of the gravel drive next to the vehicles parked there. A detached, three car garage sat six feet from the house to Pat’s right. A stone walkway ran between them. Pat followed it toward the back of the place. Every window was covered by blinds or shades until he made it almost back to the front of the house on the other side, where the porch wrapped around and ended at a door that led into the kitchen. That door was opened slightly and the frilly drapes covering the window near the top of it didn’t cover the entire opening.
Each creak of each of the four stairs that Pat had to step on to reach that door set alarms off in his head. He took them slowly. That only seemed to make it worse, drawing out the sound and making the old cop cringe. His gun was in his right hand as he stepped sideways up to the door and peeked in through the crack. There wasn’t any space between the door and the jam. It wasn’t closed completely, but it wasn’t really open at all either. Pat brought his gun up next to his face as he slowly leaned his head toward the window. He knew that he would be looking into the kitchen. He didn’t expect anybody to be sitting in that kitchen staring at that window. He quickly dropped back down to a crouch as adrenaline flooded his veins. Had he been spotted? It was still dark enough outside that the person watching the door may not have seen him with all of the light inside. After several moments with no response, he closed his eyes, drew in a slow, deep breath to try calming his trembling hands, and thought ‘Okay Pat, time to be a cop.’
The door slammed into the wall providing far less resistance than Pat was expecting. His momentum carried him to the stairway across from the doorway that led down into the basement. His feet managed to awkwardly hit the first four steps before he tumbled down the rest, mostly on his rump. When he landed face down on the basement floor, dead eyes were staring at him from barely six inches away. The shock startled him enough that he leapt backwards to his feet and slammed into the wall next to the stairway he had just fallen down. It also startled him enough that he nearly fired his weapon. Luckily, his mind registered that the owner of those eyes was a corpse with a ripped up shoulder. Based on all of the blood, it looked like the poor sucker had dragged himself all over the basement before finally bleeding out.
Pat leaned against the wall in silence, staring at the bloody carcass on the floor, while aiming his gun in front of him. His entry had made quite a bit of noise. Not to mention that the guy sitting in that chair in the kitchen must have seen him when he busted through the door. He waited patiently for the sound of feet coming down the stairs. There was nothing though. Everything was completely silent. How many minutes passed staring at those wide, dead eyes before he was finally able to pull himself off of that wall? He couldn’t be sure. The fear had him frozen though. He shook his head as his cheeks expanded and he forced out a short but strong breath. Nobody was coming.
The basement stretched out before Pat’s eyes. He knew the place well enough to know all of the places that would need checking. Most of it consisted of one big room. Aside from that, there were two small closets, a bathroom, a laundry room, and another closet with a tiny workbench in it that Neil referred to as his workroom. Aside from the corpse, the basement didn’t yield much else. One of the closets was full of blood and had a trail of blood leading up to and away from it. The dead guy must have hid there for a bit or something. There were a couple of chairs that had torn up duct tape on and around them. That confirmed that the kids had at least been there. That didn’t surprise him. Whether or not they were still somewhere in the cabin was an entirely different story. The only other thing of any value was a wallet sitting next to the corpse, and a driver’s license sitting next to that. The idiot had his I.D. on him.
Pat stowed his gun and fished a pair of surgical gloves out of his coat pocket. Then he picked the card up off the floor and turned it over a few times in his hands as he whispered, “Why the hell would you kidnap somebody with identification on you, Danny?”
A quick rifling of the wallet didn’t offer anything else of interest aside from a handful of small bits of paper with phone numbers on them. Some of them had names, some didn’t. Pat stuffed them in his pocket. They might have value and when the cavalry arrived, they wouldn’t know to miss them. Pat held the wallet in his hand for a moment and looked back toward the stairway. There hadn’t been any sign of movement. Still, he didn’t want to take any chances. Somebody could be waiting to ambush him at the top of the stairs. He closed his eyes, counted to ten, let out a deep sigh, and dropped Danny’s wallet back onto the floor next to his dead body. Then he reached under his coat and pulled his gun back out, time to search the first floor.
The steps were significantly noisier than Pat remembered. Despite his efforts at stealth, each step screamed its disapproval, cutting through the silence and announcing his approach to any that might be listening. There were fourteen of them all together, and they each sang the same tune. Pat thought about the number of steps for a moment. It didn’t seem right. He wasn’t sure at that moment how many he thought there should be, but fourteen just didn’t seem right. Or maybe it did and he just needed something to take his mind off whatever terrors might be lurking around the corner at the top of the stairs. Perhaps he just didn’t want to think about what that bloke sitting in that chair in the kitchen was doing. Maybe he was sitting in that chair with a gun pointed at the stairway, just waiting for Pat to jump out from behind the wall he had his back pressed against so he could pump him full of lead and send him flopping back down the stairway.
‘Now or never,’ he thought, as he spun around the wall and aimed his gun at the spot where the guy had been sitting and yelled, “Freeze, Brookfield P.D.!”
The wide gash on the dead man’s throat smiled back at him like the grin of some asshole that had just told a joke that he knew was terrible but couldn’t help telling anyway. The fact that he had several new bruises due to his fall down the stairs didn’t register as he sat, frozen, aiming his gun at the corpse that had scared him enough to throw himself down that stairway. After a few seconds of staring at the dead guy, Pat realized that he was handcuffed to the chair he was sitting in. As Pat walked over to the guy with the big smile carved into his throat, scanning the room as he aimed his gun in every direction, he noticed a couple more corpses on the floor.
One of the bodies was face down immediately behind the chair happy throat was cuffed to. This one had a large chunk missing from the back of his head. Based on the way he was laying, it appeared that he had been kneeling and done execution style. That would fit with the blood patterns on the counter, sink, and wall behind him. What didn’t fit with the blood patterns was the idea that they all came from the same individual. There must have been someone kneeling next to him. Where was he? In any event, the shooting must have happened hours prior. The blood was already looking pretty dry. Before Pat looked away, he noticed that this one had an open wallet sitting on his back with an I.D. card on top of it just like the one in the basement had. He resisted the urge to check it, deciding that it would be better to make sure the house was clear before trying to figure out who that body used to be.
A few feet to the right of the corpse with its brains splattered all over the sink, another body lay sprawled out on the tiles. This one was face up and had a pair of scissors stuck deep into its right eye. After considering the gruesome carcass for as long as he could stand, his eyes moved into the hallway beyond the kitchen and caught sight of a hand. It had to belong to yet another victim of whatever happened in the joint. The fingers of that hand were gnarled in too unnatural a manner to belong to someone that was still among the ranks of the living. Pat did a quick tally in his head. That made five dead, six if he considered that there may have been a corpse removed from the kitchen. Based on the way the bodies were scattered about, it seemed they weren’t all playing for the same team. Digging deeper into that would have to wait. He had a few more rooms to check first.
The blood and chunks of carnage scattered about the place became easier to look at as Pat’s instincts began to take control. It became increasingly harder to will his feet to move though. His steps were slow, each a victory of an inner battle going on in Pat’s head about whether or not he should continue deeper into the house or run like hell. Those ginger, hard-earned steps carried him quietly around the kitchen table, as he carefully avoided the puddles of blood and bits of skin and bones that surrounded the two dead bodies as he passed them. He would definitely take some heat for being there. Mucking up the evidence would only make it worse. When he finally made the hallway, the fifth body – or sixth, depending how he counted them – stretched out in front of him. The kid looked to be mid-twenties with a severe acne problem. A quick scan of the carcass told him that there were at least three bullet holes in the victim’s chest. Two appeared to be exit wounds while the third looked to have entered there. The kid must have been shot in the back twice before turning and taking one in the chest. Either that or he took one in the chest and tried to run. None of that really mattered much at that point. The wallet and I.D. card sitting on his stomach were far more interesting. That made three bodies that had definitely been checked by somebody.
The rest of the house was clean. Pat’s methodical search took all of an hour. Once it was over any fear that he had, was gone. It was time to get to work. He did a thorough search of all of the bodies. The ones that had wallets on them were the only ones with any form of identification. The other two were clean. The kid in the hallway with the three bullet holes in his torso was Lenny Weston. Had he not been killed, he would have turned twenty-five in three days. Pat thought the kid had way too much acne for twenty-five, but the idea didn’t keep his attention very long. The kid in the kitchen with the back of his head missing was apparently a twin of the kid in the basement. It was difficult to determine that by looking at them. The one in the kitchen was missing some of his face. None of the bodies were Vinny. Maybe he got away. That idea had only moments to grow before Pat remembered the white van in the driveway. It did appear that a body was missing. Maybe the job was botched in the middle of the cleanup. There was obviously some kind of failure in the mission. With the meager bits of info Pat had to work with, he couldn’t quite put anything together at that point.
Body number six was in the van. Pat knew before he even saw the body. The smell blasted him when he slid open the cargo door on the passenger’s side. When he finally did see the corpse, Vinny’s face stared back at him. Even with a big hole where the right eye should have been, Pat could tell it was Vinny, the kid he watched grow up. He barely suppressed the urge to vomit, instead saying, “God damn it Vinny, what the hell did you do?”
Pat didn’t need to search the body that had at one point been wrapped in plastic. Someone had cut the plastic open and left Vinny’s wallet and identification card on his chest in the same fashion as Lenny Weston and Jimmy and Danny Pappalardo. Pat didn’t have any experience dealing with homicide, but it was pretty obvious that one of the corpses in that house was cleaning up when his job was interrupted. That was as far as Pat could get. He would have to call Cheeks.
Pat closed the door to the van, leaned his back against it, and pulled his cell phone out. It rang several times, enough that Pat had the message he was going to leave on Cheeks’ voicemail all prepared when he finally heard his old friend’s voice on the other end, “Good morning, this is Detective Cheeks. How can I help you?”
“Hey Cheeks,” Pat’s tone had no force behind it at all. It was as if the words were dropping from his bottom lip into the phone rather than being spoken into it.
“Pat?” Cheeks asked.
“Yeah, it’s Pat. I found Vinny,” Pat paused for a few moments. Then he added, “And five other corpses.”
“What?” Cheeks’ asked. “Where the hell are you?”
“Coleman? What on earth are you doing in Coleman? And why the fuck are you keeping information from me? If you had a lead, you should have shared it.”
Pat sighed, “I know. I was hoping to get to Vinny first. I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe I was going to try getting him to turn himself in. It’s too late for that now.”
“That still doesn’t explain what led you to Coleman,” Cheeks continued to press.
“Vinny’s parents have a cabin up here,” Pat replied. “Suzy and I have spent a few lost weekends in this place. When it became apparent that Vinny had been and gone from their house, this seemed the next logical place to look.”
“You should have called me first. I could have…” a muffled voice in the background interrupted him. After a long pause, Pat heard his voice again. It sounded muffled and far away, “Yeah,” he said. “I’ve got another lead.” There was another pause. “Vinny’s parents have a place in Coleman. There are a bunch of bodies up there. Vincent Valentino is one of them.”
The other voice had grown clearer. “Who the fuck are you talking to?”
“It’s a friend from way back, Pat O’Malley. He’s Brookfield P.D.,” Cheeks’ voice still sounded distant.
“Are you kidding me? What the fuck does Brookfield have to do with this?” Pat figured that the other voice must belong to Steve Huft. He had never met the guy, but Cheeks complained about him enough that he felt like he knew him.
“He lives next to Valentino’s parent’s house. They’re friends. He said…” Cheeks was cut off by a bunch of noise that sounded like a radio that was stuck in between stations.
The other voice was loud and clear, “Hi Pat. This is Detective Steve Huft, West Allis P.D. Why the fuck are you monkeying around with my case? I’m at the Valentino house, apparently next door to your house. You’re not there though, are you? You’re in Coleman right now, aren’t you Pat? What the fuck are you doing in Coleman?”
Pat closed his eyes and shook his head. As much as he wanted to tear into this jack ass, he was in a relatively precarious spot. What was his story? It came together slowly as he spoke, “It’s a pleasure to meet you too, Detective Huft. I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m sorry for the confusion. I didn’t realize there was a case at all. The Valentino’s are old friends. They winter in Miami. They let me use the place while they’re down there. In return, I winterize it for them.” The shakiness of his voice wasn’t completely an act as he added, “I can’t believe little Vinny is gone…and in such a grizzly fashion.”
“Nice story,” Huft replied. “It’s total bullshit. I’m fairly certain that you were Cheeks’ anonymous tip, so you can save that shit. You can say whatever you want about that. We’ll both know you’re lying to me. I guess that doesn’t matter now. It won’t go farther than the three of us. You’ve really fucked me on this though. I can’t just roll up to Coleman and investigate on the level. I’m going to have to get a warrant and then I’ll have to explain where these leads came from. All of that is going to be a real pain in my ass. I don’t have time for all that shit, Pat. I’ll tell you what you’re going to do. You’re going to call 9-1-1. The fucking State Patrol – Jesus Christ I can’t believe I’m saying this – is going to come out and investigate…”
Pat cut him off, “No way. I know the guy that owns this area. He’s a total ass wipe, redneck, dumb shit. He’ll screw all the evidence up before anybody with a brain has a chance to examine it.”
Huft’s voice rose, “You’re fuckin’ A right he will. State cops in those sparsely populated areas are normally no better than the backwards ass rednecks that live in their jurisdictions.” Huft paused. His tone mellowed as he continued, “Hell, maybe we’ll get lucky and draw a Sherriff. That would be a hair better. Not much, but anything would be better than the State Patrol.”
Pat sighed, “Fine, I’ll call 9-1-1. This sucks.”
“It sure does,” Huft agreed. “I just hope I can clean this mess up. You should have kept your nose out of it.”
After some more fumbling around, Cheeks’ voice was back on the other end of the phone, “Hi Pat. I’m sorry about that.”
“It’s not your fault,” Pat replied. “He’s right. I should have told you about the place in Coleman and let you guys handle it.” He paused for a moment and then added, “Don’t reply, but you know I’m not walking away from this. It hits too close to home for me, for a lot of reasons. I’ll do my best to stay out of your way, but I’m on this case.”
Cheeks’ replied, “I know, buddy. I’ll talk to you soon.”
Pat had pulled the phone away from his ear and was about to hang up when he heard Cheeks’ voice again. He couldn’t hear what his old friend had said. He put the phone back up to his ear and asked, “What was that? I didn’t hear you.”
“Just a sec,” Cheeks replied.
A moment later, Huft was back on the other end. “Change of plans, Brookfield. Find a place to grab some breakfast and sit tight. Cheeks and I will be up there within an hour and a half.”
“You’ll never make it that quick,” Pat’s reply was automatic. “It’s a three hour drive.”
“The fuck it is,” Huft replied. “I have a light and a siren. I might even get there quicker. Anyway, we’ll call you when we’re close. We’ll meet you wherever you end up and you can lead us there. We’ll get all of the evidence we can and then you’ll call 9-1-1. Once we’ve had a chance to comb the place, I don’t give a rat’s ass what the state patrol or the county mounties do to it.”
“I can do that,” Pat replied.
“Don’t fuck me over on this, Pat. It’s going to be like Cheeks and I were never there. You’re going to give them the bullshit story that you gave me and stick to it.” After a brief pause, he added, “Are we clear on this?”
“Yeah,” Pat scratched his head, “crystal.”
The phone went dead. Apparently Huft had said all he had to say.
Pat let his head fall back onto the van he was still leaning against. Then he looked up at the sky and thought, ‘What the hell did I get myself into?’T he first hints of dawn were just beginning to paint the sky when Pat pulled up the long, gravel drive in front of the Valentino’s summer cottage and parked behind a white, Chevy van with no windows behind the driver’s and passenger’s doors. The radio was off, but Pat’s heart pounding against his chest provided plenty of bass. What if Vinny had the kids in there? According to the newspaper article, witnesses reported that four men had participated in the murder of Mark Ramsey and the abduction of his children. Vinny was one of those. The other three would probably still be with him. Hopefully they hadn’t picked up anybody else along the way. Four – possibly armed – men were enough. He couldn’t call for backup. He could call Cheeks, but Cheeks would just tell him what he already knew, that he should pull out of that driveway, call 9-1-1, and find a heavily populated place to wait for local law enforcement to show up. That wasn’t going to happen. He threw his Expedition in park, slipped out of the big SUV, and pulled his .45 out of the small holster concealed under his jacket in the small of his back.