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The Butterfly Garden (The Collector #1)
Author:Dot Hutchison

The Butterfly Garden (The Collector #1)

Dot Hutchison





I





The techs tell him the girl on the other side of the glass hasn’t said a word since they brought her in. It doesn’t surprise him at first, not with the traumas she’s been through, but watching her now from behind the one-way mirror, he starts to question that assessment. She sits slumped in the hard metal chair, chin resting on one bandaged hand as the other traces nonsense symbols onto the surface of the stainless steel table. Her eyes are half-closed, deep shadows bruising the skin beneath, and her black hair is dull and unwashed, scraped back into a messy knot. She’s exhausted, clearly.

But he wouldn’t call her traumatized.

Sipping his coffee, FBI Special Agent Victor Hanoverian studies the girl and waits for his team members to arrive. At least his partner, anyway. The third core member of their team is at the hospital with the other girls, trying to get updates on their conditions and—when possible—their names and fingerprints. Other agents and techs are at the property, and what little he’s heard from them makes him want to call home and talk to his own daughters, make sure they’re well. But he has a way with people, especially traumatized children, so it’s the sensible choice for him to be here, waiting to go in and talk to this particular victim.

He can see the faint pink lines around her nose and mouth from an oxygen mask, smudges of dirt and soot across her face and borrowed clothing. Bandages wrap around her hands and her upper left arm, and he can trace the bulky line of others beneath the thin undershirt someone at the hospital gave her to wear. She shivers in the off-green scrub pants, her bare feet pulled away from the cold floor, but doesn’t complain.

He doesn’t even know her name.

He doesn’t know the names of most of the girls they rescued, or the ones they were far, far too late to save. This one hasn’t talked to anyone but the other girls, and even then there were no names, no information. Just . . . well, he can’t really call it comfort. “You’ll die or you won’t, now relax for the doctors so they can work” wasn’t exactly reassuring, but that’s exactly how the other girls seemed to take it.

She sits up in the chair, her arms extending slowly over her head until her entire back is curved like a bowstring. The mics pick up the painful pop of vertebrae. Shaking her head, she slumps back over the table, her cheek pressed against the metal, her palms flat against the surface. She’s facing away from the glass, away from him and the others she knows must be there, but the angle offers another piece of interest: the lines.

The hospital gave him a picture of it; he can see just the edges of those brilliant colors peeking out against the back of her shoulder. The rest of the design is harder to see, but the undershirt isn’t thick enough to obscure it completely. He pulls the picture from his pocket and holds it up against the glass, looking between the glossy paper and what he can see of the design on the girl’s back. It wouldn’t be significant except that all but one of the girls have them. Different colors, different designs, but all the same in essentials.

“You think he did that to them, sir?” asks one of the techs, watching the girl on the monitor. That camera is aimed from the other side of the interview room, showing an enlarged view of her face, her eyes closed, her breaths slow and deep.

“I guess we’ll find out.” He doesn’t like to make suppositions, especially when they know so little yet. This is one of the very few times in his career where what they found is so much worse than they could have envisioned. He’s accustomed to thinking the worst. When a child goes missing, you work your ass off but don’t expect to find the poor thing alive at the end of it. Maybe you hope. You don’t expect. He’s seen bodies so small it’s a wonder there are even coffins to fit them, seen children raped before they know the meaning of the word, but somehow this case is so unexpected he isn’t quite sure where his footing is.

He doesn’t even know how old she is. The doctors guessed sixteen to twenty-two, but that doesn’t help him much. As young as sixteen, she should probably have a representative from child services, but they’ve already swarmed the hospital and made things difficult. They have valuable and necessary services to provide—but that doesn’t get them out of his way. He tries to think of his daughters, what they would do if they were locked in a room like this girl, but none of them are this self-contained. Does that mean she’s older? Or just that she’s had more practice seeming unaffected?

“Have we heard more from Eddison or Ramirez yet?” he asks the techs, not taking his eyes off the girl.

“Eddison’s on his way up; Ramirez is still at the hospital with the parents of the youngest girl,” one of the women reports. Yvonne doesn’t look at the girl in the room, not even at the monitors. She has an infant daughter at home. Victor wonders if he should pull her off—this is only her first day back—but decides she’ll say something if she can’t handle it.

“She was the one who triggered the search?”

“Only been gone a couple of days. Disappeared from the mall while shopping with her friends. They said she went out of the dressing room area to switch sizes and never came back.”

One less person to find.

They’d taken pictures at the hospital of all the girls, even the ones who’d died en route or on arrival, and were running them through the missing persons database. It will take time for results to come up, though. When agents or doctors asked the ones in better shape for their names, they turned to look at this girl, clearly a leader among them, and most said nothing. A few seemed to think about it before dissolving into sobs that brought the nurses running.

But not this girl in the interview room. When they asked her, she just turned away. As far as anyone can tell, this is one girl with no interest in being found.

Which makes some of them wonder if she’s a victim at all.

Victor sighs and drains the last of his coffee, crushing the cup before tossing it in the trash bucket by the door. He’d prefer to wait for Ramirez; another female in the room is always helpful in circumstances like this. Can he wait for her? There’s no telling how long she’ll be with the parents, or if other parents will flock to the hospital once the photos are released to the media. If they’re released to the media, he amends with a frown. He hates that part, hates plastering the pictures of victims across television screens and newspapers so there’s never a way for them to forget what happened to them. At least they can wait until they get the missing persons data.

The door opens and slams shut again behind him. The room is soundproof but the glass rattles slightly and the girl sits up quickly, eyes narrowed at the mirror. And, presumably, the ones she has to know are behind it.

Victor doesn’t turn around. No one slams a door quite like Brandon Eddison. “Anything?”

“They’ve matched a couple of fairly recent reports, and the parents are on their way. So far it’s all East Coast.”

Victor pulls the picture from the glass and puts it back into the pocket of his jacket. “Anything else on our girl?”

“Some of the others called her Maya after she was brought here. No last name.”

“Real name?”

Eddison snorts. “Doubtful.” He struggles to zip his jacket over his Redskins T-shirt. Once the response team found the survivors, Victor’s team was called in from off duty to handle it. Given Eddison’s tastes, Victor’s mostly grateful there are no naked women on the shirt. “We’ve got a team going through the main house to see if the bastard kept anything personal.”