I looked back over my shoulder in time to see Evita windmilling wildly and teetering down the branch until it was too narrow to support her weight. The branch snapped and Evita shrieked as she dropped. Everyone rushed from their hiding places to try to help, but then her head struck a lower branch with a sickening crack and her screams abruptly stopped.
She fell into the pond with a great splash, and was still.
I shimmied down the tree as quickly as I could, scraping my legs and arms on the bark, but no one else moved, not even the Gardener. They all stared at the girl in the pond, at the blood floating away from her pale blonde hair. Wading into the stream, I grabbed her ankle and pulled her closer to me.
Finally the Gardener came running, and heedless of his fine clothing, he helped me get her out of the water onto dry land. Evita’s lovely blue eyes were frozen open, but there wasn’t any sense in trying to make her breathe.
Part of that crack had been her neck breaking.
Death was a strange thing in the Garden, an omnipresent threat but not something we actually saw. Girls were simply taken away and a pair of wings in a display case in the halls took their place. For most of the girls, this was their first time seeing death firsthand.
The Gardener’s hands shook as he smoothed Evita’s wet hair back from her face and cradled the wet mess on the back of her skull where she’d hit the branch. Then we were all staring at him rather than Evita because he was weeping. His entire body moved with the strength of his sobs, his eyes screwing shut against this unexpected pain, and he rocked back and forth with Evita’s body clasped to his chest, blood staining his sleeve and water soaking through his shirt and trousers.
It was like he’d taken even our tears from us, then. Alerted by the screams, the other girls had come running from their rooms or elsewhere in the Garden, and together all twenty-two of us stood in dry-eyed silence as our captor wept for the death of the one girl he hadn’t killed.
She takes the stack of hallway photos and flicks through them until she finds the one she wants. “He arranged her hair so the damage wouldn’t show,” she tells Victor, laying it out for him to see. “He spent the rest of that day and night doing something, off where we couldn’t see him, and the walls came down, and the next day she was up in the glass and he was asleep in front of her, his eyes red and swollen. He stayed there the rest of the day, right in front of her. Right up until a couple of days ago, he touched the glass every time he passed it, until he didn’t even seem to realize he was doing it. Even when the glass was covered, he touched the wall.”
“She wasn’t the only accidental death though, was she?”
She shakes her head. “No, not by a long shot. But Evita was . . . well, she was sweet. Utterly innocent, incapable of comprehending the bad things. When they happened to her, they touched her lightly and then let her go. In a way, I think she was the happiest of us, purely because she didn’t know any other way to be.”
Eddison bursts in with a groan of cheap metal, dragging a cot behind him with the other arm full of blankets and thin pillows. He drops them in the far corner and, panting, turns to his partner. “Just got a call from Ramirez; the son is dead.”
The words are said so softly, so full of air and some indefinable emotion, Victor isn’t entirely sure he even heard it. He looks at the girl, but her eyes are fixed on Eddison, one fingernail digging under the gauze until scarlet blooms along her finger.
Eddison is equally taken aback. He glances at Victor, who shrugs. “Avery,” Eddison answers, nonplussed.
She folds in on herself, hiding her face in her arms. Victor wonders if she’s crying, but when she lifts her head a minute or so later, she’s dry-eyed. Haunted, in some new and inexplicable way, but dry-eyed.
Eddison gives Victor a significant look, but Victor can’t begin to guess what’s running through this girl’s head. Shouldn’t she be happy her tormentor is dead? Or, at the least, relieved? And maybe that is there, buried in her complexity, but she seems more resigned than anything else.
Her pale brown eyes flick over to the cot, her fingers digging under the gauze on both hands now. “Does this mean I can sleep?” she asks dully.
Victor stands and motions for Eddison to give him the room. He does so without comment, taking the pictures and evidence bags, and in less than a minute, Victor is alone with the broken child he may never understand. Without speaking, he unfolds the squeaking legs of the cot and stands it up in the farthest corner from the door, where the table can be between the girl and anyone entering, and wraps one of the blankets around it like a sheet. The other he drapes at the foot, with the pillows piled near the head.
When he’s done, he takes a knee next to her chair and gently lays a hand against her back. “Inara, I know you’re tired, so we’ll let you sleep now. We’ll be back in the morning with breakfast and more questions, and hopefully an update for you on the other girls. But. Before I go—”
“Does it have to be tonight?”
“Did the younger son already know about the Garden?”
She bites her lip until blood dribbles down her chin.
With a deep sigh, he hands her a tissue from his pocket and walks to the door.
He looks back at her, still with one hand on the door, but her eyes are closed and her face is written over with a pain he can’t begin to name. “I’m sorry?”
“His name is Des. Desmond. And yes, he knew about the Garden. About us.”
Her voice breaks and even though he knows a good agent should take advantage of this crack, this vulnerability, he sees his daughters sitting there with that pain and he just can’t do it. “There’ll be someone watching from the tech room,” he says softly. “If you need anything, they’ll help you. Sleep well.”
That fractured sound might be a laugh, but it’s not one he wants to hear again.
He pulls the door closed with a quiet click behind him.
The girl—strange to call her Inara, when he knows it isn’t her real name—is still asleep, her face buried in the collar of his jacket, when Victor arrives and checks in with the yawning night-shift tech analysts. One of the techs hands him a stack of messages: reports from the hospital throughout the night, from the agents out at the property, background on as many of the players as possible. He sorts through them as he drinks his cafeteria coffee—marginally better than the questionable swill left standing in the pot in the team kitchen—trying to match the pictures to the names in the girl’s stories.
It’s barely six o’clock when Yvonne enters, her eyes puffy from lack of sleep. “Good morning, Agent Hanoverian.”
“Your shift doesn’t start till eight; why aren’t you sleeping?”
The tech analyst just shakes her head. “Couldn’t sleep. I sat up all night in my daughter’s room, rocking in the chair and staring at her. If someone ever . . .” She shakes her head again, more sharply this time, as if sloughing off the bad thoughts. “I left as soon as my mother-in-law was awake enough to deal with the baby.”
He considers telling her to find an office and take a nap, but then, he doubts anyone on the team slept well last night. He certainly didn’t, plagued by the hallway photos and the distant memories of his daughters running around the yard wearing costume butterfly wings. It’s easier for the horrors to catch up once you have nothing to do.
Victor hefts the canvas bag at his feet. “I have a fresh-made cinnamon roll for you if you do me a favor,” he says, and watches her stand straight with sudden energy. “Holly gave me clothes for Inara; think you could walk her down to the lockers and let her shower?”
“Your daughter is an angel.” She glances through the glass at the sleeping girl. “I hate to wake her up, though.”
“Better you than Eddison.”
She walks out of the tech room without another word, and a moment later the door to the interview room opens with the slightest squeak.