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The terror began, prosaically enough, with casual rudeness spurred by a misunderstanding.
Twenty-year-old Ling Hu opened the cooler door, took a bottle of flavored water from the bottom shelf, and walked sideways down the narrow aisle to the checkout counter. The place had all the accoutrements of a standard convenience store crammed into roughly two-thirds the usual space. It was a neighborhood institution, though, and the owner had never considered remodeling.
As the college student paid for the water, a voice behind her said, "Love your ink. The design is gorgeous. Who did it?"
She turned. A man with long gray hair, balding on top, and a pasty complexion stood behind her with a six-pack in his hand. He had to be referring to the elaborate dragon's foot design across the small of her backthe only one of her tattoos her clothes didn't completely cover. And that tat showed only when she squatted and her jeans rode down, which meant he'd been staring at her ass while she got her drink.
"Fuck you, creep," she said, scowling. And he was creepy. Not only was he at least forty years old, but his skin was unhealthily pale and gleamed with sweat. She rushed out the door and into the twilight after paying, glad to get away from him. Then she put in her earbuds and cranked up the music as she headed off down Willie Street.
"Girls," the clerk said disdainfully as he rang up the sweaty man's beer. The open books and laptop behind the counter marked him as another student in the man's eyes. "They dress to say, 'Stare at me,' and when you do they say, 'What're you looking at, asshole?' You wouldn't believe some of the shit I see in here. And the ones that stay for summer classes are the worst. Must be the heat."
The man took his beer outside and gazed down the street. He spotted Ling Hu several blocks away, flouncing along to her music, the moment in the store no doubt already forgotten.
Two contradictory emotions battled for supremacy in him. One was outrage at her cavalier arrogance, while the other was wonder at the certainty that she had not recognized him.
Then an idea formed. It was a terrible idea, and a wonderful one. For the first time in weeks, his despair began to lift. After all, what did he have to lose?
He quickly went to his truck.
An hour later, Ling Hu stood naked in the bathtub with her latest boyfriend, Ken, making out as the shower sprayed down around them. They'd just had sex on the rickety balcony of his apartment, despite the summer mosquitoes drawn to their sweat. After, she'd immediately hopped into the shower. He had followed. She might be late for her study session, though, since her soapy writhing against him had brought Kenor, at least, parts of himback to life.
"No, I have to go, seriously," she said, and pushed him lightly away.
"Are you seeing that other guy, the football player?" he said, cupping her behind.
She was seeing Tyler after her study session, but she didn't feel it was any of Ken's business. "No, I have to study. I can't afford to blow that test tomorrow."
"Can you afford to blow anything else?" Ken said with a wicked grin. He was more than a foot taller than her, skinny and pale, with a nipple-piercing and a Celtic rope design around one biceps.
She giggled and playfully slapped him. "You've got to be kidding."
He put her hand on his hardness. "Do I feel like I'm kidding?"
She felt a rush of response and looked up into the spray. "Okay, but if you're not done by the time the hot water runs out, it's you and your hand tonight."
"Fair enough," he said. He braced his arms against the damp wall as she slid sinuously to her knees.
Twenty minutes later, her black hair still wet, Ling Hu emerged into the humid Wisconsin night. Madison was the state capital and a city of 200,000, but, because of an odd quirk of geography, its downtown area was confined to a four-mile-long isthmus between Lakes Monona and Mendota. With the state capitol as its center and the University of Wisconsin at the far west end, the isthmus was the city's hub, especially for the thousands of students who inhabited its packed, iconoclastic residential neighborhoods.
Ling Hu rushed down the sidewalk of one of these neighborhoods, backpack across her shoulders, mentally trying to shift into study mode and not anticipate her tryst with Tyler. It was not yet ten o'clock, and most of the houses were lit up with activity. She was completely unafraid for her safety.
So she did not see the old truck parked beneath the shadow of a large tree.
She was yanked into the pickup so fast that she had no chance to scream, and duct tape was immediately slapped over her mouth. Her assailant muscled her facefirst into the passenger floorboard and put one foot on her backpack to hold her down. "Sit still or I'll fucking kill you," he rasped breathlessly as the truck pulled away from the curb.
She did as ordered, curling into a terrified ball. She smelled oil, gas, and some sort of mold. Oh, my God, she thought, I've been kidnapped! Surely someone had seen what happened and would call the police. Surely.
Her chest began to ache as her asthma threatened to kick in. Her inhaler was in the outer pocket of her book bag, but it might as well have been on Mars. She closed her eyes and concentrated on slow, even breathing through her nose.
They drove for what felt like an eternity. Finally the truck stopped, and her abductor yanked her up by the hair. He pushed her out the passenger door ahead of him. When she tried to look back at him, he slapped her over one ear.
She saw no lights from houses or other cars, only the dark shapes of trees. After an awkward march downhill, she heard water lapping against rocks. The hand released her and a flashlight blazed in her face, blinding her.
"Try to run, try to hurt me, try to do anything other than exactly what I tell you, and I'll kill you," her captor said, his own voice wheezy with exertion. "Understand me?"
Then she heard the command that she was certain meant her death was near.
"Now, undress. Or I'll undress you."
Detective Martin Walker stood inside the big rectangle of yellow police tape. Behind him stretched 1,200 acres of untouched wilderness known as the Arboretum, located on Madison's west side. Although he saw no sign of life in any direction, the soft hum of traffic reminded him he was still inside the city.
He looked down the hill at the swampy, overgrown shore of Lake Wingra before him. It was the smallest of the three lakes within the city limits and the only one not connected to the Yahara River. The waterlogged trees and weeds stretched out from the bank for fifty feet, blurring the actual edge of the lake. From this spot on shore, though, the effluent from a natural spring cut through the marshy obstructions and made a shallow clear channel out to the open water. He could just make out the surface of Wingra at the far end, rippling in the summer breeze as the sunrise twinkled off the waves.
Of the three lakes, Wingra was the one that always made the hackles rise on his neck. Strange stories clung to it. It once housed a lake monster that wildlife officials debunked as a large sturgeon. Divers supposedly found a submerged stone pyramid that experts insisted was just a pile of rocks left behind by retreating glaciers. And although people died in all the lakes, usually from alcohol-related foolishness, only the bodies pulled from Wingra consistently gave him the willies.
Two officers stood guard while technicians from the crime lab took photos and samples. A few people out for their morning hikes had paused on the trail at the top of the hill, then gone back the way they'd come. Other-wise, the police had the area to themselves.
Marty was descended from the Hmongthe indigenous people of Laoswhich meant he was a smallish, -darkskinned Asian. He'd been adopted as an infant by a white family, though, so his behavior bore no trace of his racial ancestry. But he hoped being slant-eyed wasn't the reason he'd been assigned to this particular casethough he wouldn't have bet against it. To some of his superiors, all Asians were the same and functioned almost as a different species.
Once more he looked over the pile of clothes: tank top, brassiere, jeans, socks, shoes, and a book bag. Con-spicuously missing were panties, which, if they matched the bra, were black and lacy.
"Good morning, Detective Walker," a woman's voice called. "Hell of a way to start the week, isn't it?"
He turned to see a tall, professionally dressed blonde descending the hill toward him. She ignored the marked trail and cut straight through the trees, her white running shoes a sharp contrast to her business attire.
"Hey, Julie," Marty said. "Watch out for that"
She slipped on a patch of wet leaves but caught herself on her hands before she hit the ground.
"slick spot," he finished.
She wiped her hands against the trunk of the nearest tree and finished her descent. She held up a digital camera. "Want to be in the picture?"
She nodded and obligingly took a photo of the crime scene that left Marty out of the frame. "So, any sign of foul play?"
"Any information will be given out by the press liaison officer whenever there's something to actually say," Marty said. "How'd you find out about this?"
"I have my sources."
"The Lady of the Lakes?"
He watched a simmering annoyance replace her casual professionalism. "I only use that stupid fucking blog as a last resort. Unlike you cops."
"A tip is a tip. The source isn't important."
"Is that who tipped you off?"
"I can't discuss an ongoing investigation, you know that. All statements come through the liaison officer."
Julie smiled sarcastically. She was a rising reporter for the Wisconsin Capital Journal, just as Marty was an up-and-comer in the police department; they both knew the rules. She put away her camera and reporter's notebook and said, "Yeah, I know that. But can you give me a sneak preview? I did come all the way down here in my best slacks."
Marty arched an eyebrow. "Those are your best?"
"You're mocking my fashion sense?" She shook her head. "Marty, you may be gay, but I don't think you'll ever be able to act gay."
"All right, but this is all off the record." He gestured at the clothes on the ground. "A jogger reported finding these just before sunrise. Just a book bag and a suit of clothes belonging to a UW student named Ling Hu. Two sets of tracks leading down here from the road, and only one leading up. I figure boyfriend and girlfriend. They might have gone down the channel to skinny-dip in the open water. Probably drunk. Either way, it looks like only one of them came back."
"And you're assuming the worst."
"I always do."
"I guess you'll have to drag the lake to look for her body?"
"Nah, some fisherman will probably find her floating by the time we check with all her family and friends to make sure she's not just sleeping off a binge. Unless The Lady of the Lakes tells us where she is, of course."
Again Julie's eyes blazed with fury. "I wouldn't spend my time worrying about what those amateur gossip-mongers have to say about anything."
"Whoever runs it may be an amateur, but they get the scoop on you guys a lot."
"Marty, are you trying to piss me off? I've only had one cup of coffee and half a bagel, so it wouldn't be difficult."
He sighed. "I'm sorry. I just have a bad feeling about this one."
"Well . . . I don't think it's personal."
"What does that mean?"
"It means that if anything bad did happen to the girl, it's not due to a boyfriend, a husband, or an unrequited crush. It's a stranger who either picked Ling Hu at random or used some criteria we don't know about. And if I'm right . . ." He trailed off and looked back out at the lake.
She finished for him. "She won't be the last one."
The disappearance of Ling Hu was duly noted in Tuesday's paper, then almost immediately forgotten by the predominantly white, entirely Midwestern Madison. After all, she was foreign, and foreign people were always getting themselves into trouble.
That was not the case with Faith Lucas.
From the WISCONSIN CAPITAL JOURNAL:
UW HONOR STUDENT DISAPPEARS.
By Julie Schutes, staff reporter
MADISON, Wis.Madison police detectives are investigating the disappearance late Wednesday or early Thursday of a University of Wisconsin-Madison student whose discarded clothes were found near the zoo Thursday morning.
The woman has been identified as Faith Evangeline Lucas, 21, of Green Bay. The family allowed police to release her name and picture in hopes that it will prompt people to come forward with more information about her disappearance.
According to police, it is too early in the investigation to tell if Lucas's disappearance is connected to that of fellow UW student Ling Hu.
Posted by The Lady
to The Lady of the Lakes blog:
According to the official police party line, there might be no connection between the recent disappearances of two UW students. As if we're supposed to believe that their clothes jumped off by themselves.
A sexual predator is on the loose, people. The street cops who work on the isthmus know this, but their bosses don't listen. So, until they do, don't go out alone, don't go into strange places at night, and don't trust anyone you don't know.
Carrie Kimmell's bare feet slipped on the erosion-blocking stones lining this section of Lake Monona's shoreline. She stumbled, off balance because of the duct tape that bound her wrists behind her back. The same tape covered her mouth, muffling her cries.
Her foot slid into the water and sank ankle-deep into the mud. No doubt due to her panic, it felt as if something in the water grabbed her, encircling her ankle in a gentle but unbreakable grip. As it began to pull her into the water, she managed to wrench free, then fell facefirst onto the rocks. Since she was nude except for her panties, the impact was especially painful. She knew that this late at night she would find no help, even in the middle of downtown Madison, and that certainty only terrified her more.