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Iron Angels: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Monday, July 10, 2017 21:08 EDT



    As he approached the back, what he thought was the back wall appeared to separate, almost like one of those pictures that used to be popular way back when — the ones where if you stared at them in a certain way a different sort of picture or image would emerge. In this case, the wall was a partition, but blended in so well with the cinder blocks of the rest of the basement. The subdued lighting, mixed with the smoke, added to the illusion. So did the image of human sparklers indelibly stamped upon his mind’s eye.

    Jasper reached the wall, its function as a partition now obvious. A five-foot gap on either end of the wall provided access to whatever lay behind. Jasper and Pete pressed against the wall near the right side gap. The familiar pressure of Pete’s hand fell on Jasper’s shoulder. He took a deep breath and poked his head around the wall for a quick peek.

    The quick peek revealed a rectangular room, not as large as expected, but of the same dark gray rock comprising the rest of the basement. In the center of the room, upon a bleached stone slab, lay the girl, her extremities lashed to metal stakes punching through the slab. The slab itself rested upon what appeared to be a bed of smoldering coals. The room was thick with the smell of incense.

    He pulled his head back. The quick peek hadn’t been quite as rapid, but no one else was in the room.

    “She’s in there,” Jasper said.

    Without a word, Pete moved. Before Jasper could react and depress his weapon, he was already around the wall and through the gap.

    “So much for avoiding traps,” Jasper muttered. He didn’t believe there were any, but with the strange basins filled with a strange substance, and two men igniting like a fourth of July show… anything was possible.

    Jasper entered the room, gun at low ready, and scanning for any other threats. Another basin stood in the back left corner. Scorch marks crisscrossed the back wall, and the stones there had odd shapes, as if they’d been warped. Had someone else lit themselves up like a sparkler too close to that wall?

    Jasper’s gaze fell upon the girl. Pete was there, listening for a breath or a heartbeat. The girl’s black hair lay matted to her head, a few strings plastered to her face, the extreme paleness almost a denial of her Hispanic heritage. Her eyes fluttered, but she didn’t wake.

    Pete lifted his head and turned toward Jasper. His eyes watered, and deep lines suffused his face. The East Chicago police officer looked as if he’d aged a decade in a few minutes.

    “At least she’s alive,” Jasper said.

    “But what evil lurks in the world today. Who would do such a thing?”

    Jasper sighed, not out of impatience, but of weariness and agreement. “Two men who didn’t want to go to jail apparently.”

    The girl’s knee length skirt, at one time white but now smeared with ash and dirt and grime and soaked through with sweat, clung to her legs. Her top had once been light blue, and it too clung to the unconscious girl. No outward or obvious signs of abuse presented themselves, but depending on her memories, she could be scarred for life after this sort of ordeal.

    Wailing and yelping sirens reached into the basement.

    “Pete,” Jasper said, but he remained focused on the little girl. “Pete,” he said again with a little more force.

    Pete raised his head.

    “Does she appear to have any wounds?” Jasper asked.

    “None that I can see.”

    The girl’s eyes fluttered and opened. Confusion filled her eyes, which flicked back and forth as she tried moving her arms and legs.

    “Shhh,” Pete said, pulling out a knife and cutting her bonds.

    The girl’s eyes widened and her mouth opened in a large circle, but no scream issued. She sat straight up as if some puppet master had yanked her strings.

    “We’re police,” Jasper said, displaying his badge. Most people didn’t recognize the tiny gold FBI shield. Pete displayed his large silver badge to the girl and she collapsed back onto the slab, though her chest rose and fell both rapidly and shallowly.

    “Are you hurt?” Pete asked.

    The girl shook her head. She opened her mouth, but then swallowed and licked her lips. “My head hurts.”

    “But your back and neck are okay?” Jasper asked.

    The girl turned her head and gazed up at him.

    “I guess that is a ‘yes’,R#8221; Jasper said, and smiled. “Do you remember anything? Anything at all? Even the smallest detail or most insignificant tidbit could mean something.”

    “I want to go home,” the little girl said.

    “Soon. But a doctor will have to see you first,” Pete said.

    She grimaced. “Do I have to?”

    Pete nodded. “Do you remember your name?”

    “Teresa. Teresa Ramirez.”

    “Where do you live?”

    She recited her address, phone number, and not only her parents’ names, but also her brothers’ and sisters’ names. But she could not recall any details of how she ended up in the basement of the Euclid Hotel. Perhaps after she’d had some water and food in more comforting surroundings she’d remember something. Though, at this stage, it appeared as if the two men who had abducted her had been the only men involved. Jasper would have to meet with the informant as soon as he could to see if there was any more information to be gleaned. Why had they killed themselves, and in such a spectacular manner? Too many questions, but they’d likely never be answered since the girl had been rescued and the perpetrators were dead by their own hands, or rather — he shook his head — by their own feet. Feet coated with whatever had drenched the mats. They’d have to get an evidence team in here, but since the girl was saved, it’d wait until tomorrow if it ever happened. Maybe the CSIs of Pete’s department would be better suited. Honestly, he didn’t want to call in Morris Chan and the FBI’s ERT for this.

    Pete carried the girl out of the basement as uniformed police flooded the place. The Euclid hadn’t seen this much activity in decades. Hopefully, Teresa would see a victim witness specialist in a few minutes. They’d had one on standby ever since the search began. The specialist was likely racing toward the hotel or already outside.

    Jasper decided on one more look around the basement for any random evidence. The little girl would be taken to the emergency room and examined for signs of abuse, both physical and sexual, and then referred to child protective services. Jasper leaned over the third basin, the one he’d seen as they entered the back room of the basement, and saw that it contained the same substance as the two used by the men when they committed suicide. Or something that looked like it, at any rate.

    More police entered. He told them to steer clear of the basins and the slab upon which the girl had been lashed — and the bath mats the men had stepped on. As far as he was concerned, the police could ransack the rest of the place searching for evidence, but he simply knew that the crimes had taken place down here, in seclusion and away from prying eyes.

    His eyes went once more upon the back wall of the basement and the scorch marks there. He stepped toward the wall and ran his fingers down the stone. Rippled and charred, distorted — and surprisingly hot. He pulled back his hand. Odd. His fingers tingled. But then, his entire body was shaking a little, probably from the adrenaline.

    Jasper ascended from the dungeon, trading the foul stench of the incense mixed with the thermite reaction and a hint of burnt flesh for the heavy chemical-laden air of the streets. Even in the dark, with street lamps casting their sharp stare, the tank farm’s big white cylinders to the southeast were easily visible. He sucked in a lungful of air, attempting to cleanse the Euclid’s death smell from his lungs with a less offensive odor.

    During his first few years in the area, he’d worried about cancer and respiratory issues, and he’d actively sought a transfer. But one good case led to another and he’d never escaped northwestern Indiana, and now he wasn’t sure he ever would. Chicago loomed, and that’d be a fairly easy transfer to pull off, but there was something about working in a smaller office and the variety of hats forced upon agents working in them that he really liked. And as time passed, he’d grown fond of the people who lived there. Well, most of them. Northern Lake County was a working-class area, a lot like the one he’d grown up in except this area was racially mixed. But once he’d gotten used to that he’d come to like it also.

    Police cruisers and unmarked cars lined Euclid and Chicago Avenues, and in their midst, an idling ambulance. Jasper hadn’t heard it roll up amidst the racket the police inflicted on his eardrums. A few onlookers stood around, curious over the scene, but it was by no means a mob. There just weren’t that many people who lived in the area.



    “What’s going on?” Jasper asked.

    Pete stood with his arms crossed, leaning against the Euclid’s brick wall. “Looks like your victim specialist is here, she’s speaking with the girl now. You know her well?”

    Jasper shook his head. “No. She transferred in a couple of months ago. She’s a contract employee, not full Bureau.”

    Pete grinned. “She single?”

    “I don’t know. I don’t care. Not right now. Not after what we’ve seen tonight.” Jasper took a deep breath. “And I’m not ready, not after, well, you know. It wouldn’t be fair to Shelly, even assuming she was interested herself.”

    “Who’s Shelly?”

    “The victim specialist.”

    “So you know her name.” Pete rocked on his heels. “It’s a start.”

    Jasper tilted his head and stared at Pete until his grin faded.

    “All right. All right,” Pete said, holding up his hands with the forefingers and middle fingers spread into a V. “Peace, brother. Don’t get upset. Just trying to give us something else to think about is all.” He rubbed the top of his head, the short graying hair poking through his fingers. “All that shit down there, a fireworks display and that poor girl. I’m a little shook up and not afraid to admit it.”

    “Me too.” Jasper let the words hang, and sighed. “How long’s Shelly been with the girl?”

    “Ten minutes, maybe?” Pete shrugged. “Ambulance is waiting. The EMTs gave her a quick once over, but they still need to take her to St. Catherine’s for the usual workup.”

    St. Catherine Hospital was nearby, just a few blocks away. Jasper leaned against the nearest police cruiser, facing Pete and the Euclid Hotel. A block to the north, barricades came down to block Euclid, flashing their red lamps. A train was coming.

    That happened so regularly that Jasper paid little attention. It was often said that Chicago was the nation’s rail hub, but most of that constant freight traffic passed south of the city — and just about all of it came through the northern Lake County towns of Hammond, East Chicago and Gary.

    A line of police emerged from the alley. The one in front announced they’d cleared the building and buttoned it up for later evidence collection.

    “They’re calling it early, don’t you think?” Jasper asked. Bureau personnel would have been more thorough during the initial examination.

    “We caught the bad guys, so what else is there to do?” Pete asked.

    “What if there are others out there?” Jasper spoke more loudly because the train was passing through the intersection now. It was moving slowly; not more than twenty miles an hour, but a mile-long freight train makes a lot of noise.

    Pete frowned.

    “Just saying.” Jasper tilted his head back and gazed at the night sky. Haze and light pollution obscured all but the brightest stars and the crescent of the waning moon. “The vastness of space is out there, countless worlds, countless stars, and here we are dealing with dirt bags as if we’re making some kind of difference in the grand scheme of things.”

    “Thought for a moment you were philosophizing, and then you said dirt bags.” Pete shrugged. “If we don’t deal with ’em, who will? Every one we take off the street makes things a little better.”

    “Yeah,” Jasper said, and dropped his gaze from the murky heavens, “but they just get replaced by… That’s odd.”


    Jasper pointed toward the alley behind the Euclid Hotel. “That. What the hell is it?”


    Tendrils wafted from the alley, dark gray and silver followed by an oddly shaped body of mist strobed by the blue and red flashes of the police cruisers. A slow hiss escaped from between the buildings as if the mist was a real, corporeal monster. The tendrils poked and prodded, feeling their way about as if attached to a blind person. The mist changed shape and for the briefest of moments, congealed, forming a head like that of a beast, a lion perhaps.

    No. The head of a dragon with large eyes and tendril-like whiskers, danced about as if submerged in water.

    Jasper blinked. The form reminded him of Chinese-style dragons like the ones on an educational channel showing a Chinese festival; only this thing wasn’t a bunch of people in a costume tossing firecrackers. The resemblance was only a vague one, anyway. Rather than scales, this “dragon” sported patches of mist. Jasper closed his eyes, hoping the image would be gone upon opening them. A negative afterimage persisted in Jasper’s vision from the intense light of the men burning.

    The mist dragon had to be an illusion, due to being tired and that horrid afterimage. He opened his eyes, and blinked a few times.

    It was still there.

    “Pete, are you seeing this?”


    “Pete?” Jasper glanced over. Pete had gone down on one knee and covered his eyes with his forearm. “You okay?” Jasper turned back for another glimpse of the mist dragon. The gurgling hiss continued, now morphing into a faint whistle, as if a distant gas line had been punctured.

    The mist swirled and what had once been similar to a Chinese dragon was now a ragged cloud suspended above the Euclid Hotel.

    “Could that be gas?” Jasper asked, but Pete still covered his eyes. “This some sort of religious experience, Pete? I’m not being funny.”

    “I — I can’t explain it,” Pete said. “I can’t look, and I don’t know why.”

    The raggedness of the mist smoothed and pulsed. Silver shot through the dark gray portion of the cloud like veins, a complete respiratory system. The hiss rolled into a thunder-like grumble, also sounding like it was far away. The cloud solidified, once more taking the appearance of a great beast — more like a dragonfly than a dragon, now. And then it was simply gone. Gone completely, as if it had never existed.

    “Where in the hell did that thing come from? It had to be some strange atmospheric condition, right?” Jasper helped Pete to his feet. “I don’t smell any gas, but it certainly could have been. I mean, not all gas has an odor.”

    “Thing? It was a weird cloud is all,” Pete said. “It’s easy to see what we want to see. Believe what we want to believe.” His face had gone white, even in the subdued lighting and the dwindling number of cruiser strobes flashing red and blue across the scene.

    “I’m heading back to the office,” Jasper said. “If I don’t write this up tonight I won’t get to it until Monday.”

    “Working tomorrow?”

    “Maybe. I’m thinking about coming back here during the day.”

    Pete nodded.



    No further information had been gleaned from Teresa Sanchez. The ambulance finally pulled away, carrying her off to the hospital for a full examination. Her parents had been told to head directly there and they’d be reunited. Jasper departed before all the police had dispersed and grabbed a cup of coffee to help keep him wired for report writing — just one of many cogs adding to the administrative burden ushered in by a reliance on computers that was supposed to help eliminate paperwork. The irony was old and stale by now, though.



    En route, Jasper informed his boss, the Agent in charge of the Merrillville office, who then informed his boss, so the Special Agent in Charge of the entire Indianapolis division could appear on the news at some point with the East Chicago Chief of Police and claim Teresa Sanchez’s recovery was a joint operation and everyone could slap each other on the back and be happy they busted a human trafficking ring or some other nonsense they made up to make the public feel better and feel safer. Someone would be receiving an award for the actions Pete and he had taken earlier, but it’d likely be some muckety-muck who had nothing to do with the girl’s rescue.

    The Merrillville FBI office was a stand-alone building at the end of a cul-de-sac. At this time of night, it presented a half-lit face and stood deserted save for a lone person working the radio and phones. Jasper entered a narrative of the events and would finalize the draft in the morning. He then went to his sparsely furnished bungalow in Hammond and collapsed on his bed.

    He lived alone. No pets. No family. No wife. Lucy had left two years earlier and he hadn’t seen her since. The divorce had been swift. Lucy hadn’t wanted anything from him, not even a portion of his pension upon his retirement. She probably didn’t want to wait that long.

    Jasper stared at the ceiling. Light from a streetlamp penetrated his window and in that cone of light were two men ablaze and dying in the basement of an abandoned hotel. The negative afterimage remained emblazoned, on his mind if not his retinas.

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