Lauren tightened her coat as she stepped out of her car.
The weather was unseasonably cold for April, but that wasn’t what was giving her the chills.
It was the keening coming from the squad car across the street—the piercing, inarticulate wailing punctuated with “No! No! My baby!”—that echoed through Hell’s Kitchen Park.
Lauren spotted Phillips as the door of his car thudded shut.
“Morning. You ready?” she asked.
He winked at her like he always did when they were about to enter an unsettling situation, as if to say “I got your back.” She was glad he was there.
Lauren and Phillips flashed their badges at the uniformed officers who were blocking the scene, and ducked under the yellow tape that encircled the playground.
I don’t like where this is going, Lauren thought.
Lauren spotted Dr. Mark Lennox, the precinct’s chief medical examiner, standing next to the roundabout, notepad in hand.
The morning sun was just breaking through the darkness, and as Lauren reached Lennox’s side, it cast a faint light on the most gruesome image she had ever seen.
“Isabelle Mackintosh,” Lennox said.
She looks like Emma.
“How old?” Lauren asked.
“Six,” Lennox said, confirming what Lauren suspected.
The girl’s lifeless body sat in a white nightgown, the lacy neck stained red with blood. She was posed on the roundabout as if she were riding it.
Her eyes were wrenched open.
Her mouth was manipulated into a crooked smile.
Lauren had seen a lot of horrors in her time on the force, but this was different. This was the stuff of nightmares.
I’ve actually never even had a nightmare this bad.
“Cause of death?” Lauren asked Lennox in the steadiest voice she could muster.
“Gunshot wound to the back of the skull. Severed the brain stem. She would have died instantly if that’s any comfort.”
Lauren slowly crouched down next to Isabelle’s form, careful not to touch anything that could prove useful to the case.
She looked deeper into the face of pure innocence, a face that would never mature beyond this exact moment.
Never another birthday.
Was she “almost six”?
Lauren straightened and swallowed, only with effort hiding how upset she was.
Isabelle had been robbed of her future.
I will find who did this, Lauren vowed to the little girl. And to herself.
She observed what appeared to be bruising on the child’s legs, arms, and face.
Could it be postmortem, or did that monster beat her while she was alive?
“The patchy lividity indicates that her body was moved around quite a bit after death,” Lennox said, as if reading her mind. “At least that’s my suspicion. I’ll know for sure once I get her back to the lab.”
Postmortem bruising…still not a comfort.
“So she was probably killed somewhere else and then transported here,” Lauren replied, trying to ignore the knot that was forming in her throat.
As she continued to study the scene, she heard Phillips talking to Lennox.
“This is so messed up, man. We gotta clean this up and get her in for an autopsy as soon as possible. There are gonna be kids walking across this park to get to school in like an hour.”
“I’ll tell my team to start packing it all in,” Lennox replied, nodding to John Patel, his assistant.
“We’ll meet you at the lab in a bit,” Phillips said.
With dread, Lauren said to Phillips, “We should go talk to Mrs. Mackintosh.”
“You want me to take the lead?” Phillips asked.
“No, I got this one,” Lauren replied, turning her back on the gruesome scene. Phillips followed after her closely.
As she walked, Lauren cracked her knuckles, stretched out her arms, wiggled her toes—anything to send energy to her extremities and away from the knot that was moving from her throat to her stomach.
She approached Officer Davis’s squad car, where the young officer was comforting Isabelle’s mother.
She had stopped screaming, but now her face was buried in her palms and her whole body was shaking uncontrollably.
“Mrs. Mackintosh?” Lauren asked, reaching out a hand and gingerly placing it on the woman’s shoulder.
Isabelle’s mother looked up at her with wet, wide eyes.
“My name is Lauren Ryder. I’m a detective on your daughter’s case. And this is my partner Steven Phillips.”
“Hi,” Mrs. Mackintosh replied, wiping away tears with the back of her sleeve. “Angela, please.”
“Angela. We’re so sorry for your loss. I understand how devastated you must be,” Lauren said, although she was sure she couldn’t possibly comprehend the mother’s agony in this moment.
And she hoped she never would.
“The thing is,” Lauren continued, “to catch the monster who did this, we need to move fast. Would you mind coming back to the station with us so we can ask you a few questions?”
“Do you have a husband? A partner? Someone else who was in the house with you last night?”
“Husband. He’s back at home with our other baby. He couldn’t take it—being here—it’s too much—”
“I understand. We’ll talk to him later. But let’s start with you.”
Angela slid into the back of the police car, and Davis’s partner, Matthews, started driving toward the station. Lauren and Phillips followed.
Phillips, Lauren, and Angela sat in the detectives’ office. Angela had her hands cocooned around a Styrofoam cup filled with steaming green tea.
She took a sip, exhaled, and looked up at Lauren.
“Take all the time you need,” Lauren said gently.
“If you don’t mind, I’m going to take some notes,” Phillips said, pulling a pad from his jacket pocket. He smiled softly as Angela nodded in approval.
Angela took another deep breath before launching into her story. “I woke up sometime in the night. Around four, because that’s when Bethany usually wakes up hungry.”
“Bethany?” Lauren cut in.
“Our youngest. She turned six months last week.”
“I fed her, put her back to sleep and—”
Angela choked back a sob.
Phillips glanced at Lauren, knowing that though she didn’t let on, this whole thing was agonizing for her.
But Lauren was great at her job. She reached out a hand for Angela to hold. Angela took it and then continued.
“Well, I never usually check on Izzy. She’s such a good sleeper. But I just decided to pop my head in and—I don’t know, I had some feeling, I guess—and her bed…it was…”
She couldn’t hold back anymore—tears spilled down her cheeks.
“Empty,” she managed to say. “I looked everywhere. I woke up Mike. He looked with me. She was g-gone. That’s when we called the police.”
“Do you know someone who would do this? Someone who might want to target your family?” Lauren asked.
“How could anyone do this to a baby? To my baby?”
Angela suddenly shot up from her seat. “I need to go home. Mike’s alone with Beth. I need to be with my family.”
“Of course. Just one more question,” Lauren said calmly. “Were you the one who found your daughter this morning?”
“Yes,” she replied. “Me and Mike…we couldn’t sleep. We decided to take turns searching the neighborhood. I had already scanned that park a million times. But when I went back, she was…she was…”
Angela wailed and crashed into Lauren’s arms.
Remaining where he sat, Phillips watched as Lauren held her, a muscle jumping in Lauren’s cheek.
She pulled away from Angela. “You should definitely go be with your family. Officers Davis and Matthews will drive you back home.”
Lauren handed Angela her business card. “Don’t hesitate to call me if you have any questions. Or any ideas at all. Day or night.”
Angela took the card and stumbled out of the room to Davis and Matthews.
Phillips felt his cell go off and plucked it out of his pocket.
As Angela disappeared, Phillips turned to Lauren. “We gotta go too,” he said.
Lauren looked at him questioningly, and he shoved his phone screen into her face.
They bolted out of her office and toward the medical lab.
It would only take a couple of minutes to get to the lab. Lauren rarely stopped to socialize, and no one expected it of her. They knew she was all business.
Before the detectives got there though, Lauren's phone started buzzing.
She didn’t want to let Liam down over text, but with this kind of case, there was no way she was going to make it to Emma’s birthday party.
She dialed Liam.
“Uh oh,” was the first thing he said when he answered.
“Nobody answers a text with a call unless they’re confused about the plan or they’re canceling. And you’re never confused.”
“I’m so, so, so sorry Liam. I want to be there more than anything, but—”
“—but you can’t pull yourself away. I know, I know. I’ll tell Emma.”
“Make sure she hears that I’m sorry and I’ll come over—”
But Liam had already hung up the phone.
Lauren weakened at the thought of her niece’s disappointed face when she learned that, yet again, her aunt had decided to stay at work instead of coming over.
A six-year-old girl was dead, and Lauren had to find out who’d done it.
They arrived at the lab; Lennox was clearly awaiting them. He had a pained look on his face.
“What’s so urgent?” Phillips asked. “You find DNA?”
“Not yet,” Lennox replied. “But you need to see this.”
He walked over to the table where Patel was waiting alongside Isabelle’s body.
With her eyes closed and her face cleaned, she almost looked like she could have been sleeping.
“Prepare yourself,” the young assistant said as he pulled back the white blanket that was covering her tiny, limp form.
Carved—yes, carved—into the flesh of her stomach were two words:
Lauren had only taken one year of Latin in college, but it was enough to know what that phrase meant—enough to realize that if they didn’t catch the killer soon, there would surely be another body.
She held her breath as she looked up the words just to be sure. Her worst fears were confirmed.
Latin: Prima Hostia.
English: First Victim.