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Rampart, New York
The old burial grounds.
Nobody ever goes out there.
Chrissie was uneasy about her boyfriend's birthday wish to "do it" there.
"That place gives me the creeps, Robbie."
"Come on, babe. Think of it as your first time with an eighteen-year-old man, and our first time in a graveyard. How cool is that?" Robbie sucked the last of his soda through his straw, then belched. "Besides, we've done it everywhere else in this dog-ass town."
Sad but true. There was not much else to do here.
Rampart was a tired little city in Riverview County, at the northern border of New York. It was home to small-town Americaflag-on-the-porch patriots, fading mom-and-pop shops, a call center for a big credit card company, a small Amish community and a prison.
The way Chrissie saw it, all people in Rampart did was work, get drunk, have sex, bitch about life and dream of leaving town.
Except maybe the Amish, she thoughtthey seemed content.
Chrissie and Robbie had been together for two-and-a-half years. Now, as they sat in his father's Ford Taurus waiting for the light, she contemplated the dilemma facing them.
She'd been accepted at a college in Florida. Robbie didn't want her to go. He was getting a job at the prison and was talking about marriage. Chrissie loved Robbie but told him she was not going to stay and be a Rampart prison guard's wife, working at the mall, driving her kids everywhere while trying not to hit the Amish buggies.
Chrissie wouldn't be leaving for a couple of months, but Robbie avoided talking about it. He lived in the moment. That was fine, but sooner or later she would have to end it with him.
But not tonight. Not on his birthday.
The light changed and they rolled by the Riverview Mall. Its vast parking lot was deserted and dark.
"So, are you up for the boneyard, babe?"
Robbie was already guiding the Taurus along the highway out of town. The white lines rushed under them and she made a suggestion.
"Why don't we go to Rose Hill?"
"Naw, we go there all the time."
Chrissie felt Robbie's hand on her leg.
"Come on. It's my birthday."
"But it's so freakin' creepy. Nobody goes out there."
"That's what makes it fun." He rubbed her inner thigh. "I got the sleeping bag in the trunk."
Chrissie sighed and looked out her window at the summer night.
The headlights reached into the darkness as they drove beyond town. The Ford's high beams captured the luminescent eyes of animals watching from the forests along the lonely drive.
After several miles, Robbie slowed to a stop and turned off the road onto an overgrown pathway. It was marked with an old weather-beaten sign that was easy to miss and bore two words: Burial Grounds.
The car swayed and dipped as he drove slowly over worn ruts until they stopped at a no-trespassing sign wired to a gate that was secured with a chain and lock.
"There, see." Chrissie pointed. "We can't get in."
Robbie slipped the transmission into Park.
"Yes we can."
He got out and went to the gate, his T-shirt glowing against the blackness. Moths fluttered around the headlights as he worked on the lock, and the only sound was the chorus of crickets.
Chrissie knew the area's history. She'd written about it for a ninth-grade paper.
In the late 1800s, the state built a large insane asylum in Rampart. It had its own cemetery because locals didn't want patients buried next to their loved ones. When the asylum was closed down forty years ago, all the headstones had been removed and grave sites kept secret to protect the families' privacy. There was nothing there now but a stretch of green grass bordered by lush woods.
Robbie unlocked the lock, the chain jingling as he removed it and opened the gate. After edging the car through, he closed it.
"How did you open that lock?"
"Trev's dad works with DOT and he told me that if you give that old lock the right twist, it'll open."
Robbie drove slowly along the wooded border of the graveyard, cut the engine and killed the lights.
Stars blazed above.
Guided by the light of Robbie's phone, they walked to a remote section where the grass was like thick carpet. They unrolled the sleeping bag.
"Nothing around but the crazy dead under us."
"Shh, birthday boy."
Robbie slipped his hands around Chrissie's waist then under her shirt and jeans. They kissed and as her fingers found his zipper she froze, pulled away and looked into the pitch-black forest.
"What is it?"
"Something's out there!"
Robbie followed her gaze to flames, flickering deep in the woods.
"What's that?" Chrissie held Robbie tighter.
"I don't know. There's nothing there for acres."
"There's an old barn the asylum used years ago, but"
A faint, distant screama woman's screamcarried from the fire.
"Oh, God, Robbie!"
"What the hell?"
More screaming, this time louder, pierced the night, raising gooseflesh on Chrissie's skin.
"Help me! Please! Help me!"
Robbie grabbed Chrissie's hand and started for the woods leading to the firebut she yanked him back.
"Let's take the car!"
"I don't know if we can get through!"
"We'll be safer in the car, Robbie!"
They ran to the car, dragging the sleeping bag.
Robbie fumbled for his keys, turned the ignition and headed the car down the path that seemed to vanish into the woods ahead.
The flames were growing.
Chrissie called 911.
"I want to report a fire and a woman screaming for help!"
As they followed the trail, knifing into a thick wall of trees and undergrowth, Chrissie guessed they were about one hundred yards from the fire. She gave the dispatcher directions and was assured that fire, paramedics and police were on the way.
Leafy branches continued scraping and slapping at the car. Robbie drove carefully over the rugged road.
"My old man will kill me if I scratch the Taurus!"
Underbrush and stones smacked at the undercarriage as they came to a clearing, gasping at the sight before them.
The old barn was engulfed in flames, the fire raging against the night sky.
A woman ran from it shrieking, trailing smoke and sparks. The flames that were devouring her entire body flapped like horrific flags as she staggered and collapsed into a burning heap in front of the car.
Robbie grabbed the sleeping bag, rushed to the woman and smothered the flames. While the inferno of the barn crackled and roared, Chrissie's screams were soon overtaken by the approaching sirens.
The woman groaned in agony.
As Robbie tried to take her hand, which was now a blackened hook, they saw charred ropes tied to her wrists.
* * *
Rampart, New York
Oxygen flowed in a soft, calibrated rhythm through the ventilator tube connected to the burn victim in the intensive-care unit of Rampart General.
The small screen above her bed monitored her heart, her blood pressure and her other vital signs.
An IV pole with a drip stood beside her bed.
She was wrapped from her head to her ankles in gauze and was heavily sedated to alleviate the excruciating pain of third-degree burns to over 85 percent of her body.
She'd lost her hair, ears, face, nearly all of her skin. Her feet were charred stumps, her hands charred claws.
Her injuries were fatal. She would not live through the night, the doctor had told Detective Ed Brennan of Rampart Police Department.
Since then Brennan had waited with the ICU nurse by the woman's bedside, never leaving it.
He'd been home when he got the call.
His wife had put their son to bed. He'd made popcorn and they were watching the end of The Searchers, when his cell phone rang.
"White female, mid-twenties," Officer Martin had told him over blaring sirens. "Found her near the old burial grounds. Burned bad. They're taking her to the Generalthey don't think she'll make it. Looks like she was tied up, Ed."
Brennan rushed to the hospital in the hopes of obtaining a dying declaration from the victim.
The doctor took Brennan aside after emergency staff had done what they could for her.
"There's no guarantee she'll regain consciousness."
Brennan needed her to help him solve what would soon be her murder.
In the hours he waited, he'd gotten used to the room's smell. They had no ID for her. There was no chance of fingerprints and no indication she'd had any clothing or jewelry. If so, it had been burned away. They'd have to review local, state and national missing persons cases.
The most disturbing aspect was the ropes.
Again, Brennan looked at the pictures on his phone that Martin had sent from the scene.
Again, he winced.
Then he concentrated on the charred ropes. She appeared to have been be bound by ropes.
The fire could've allowed her to escape from the building.
Escape from what and from whom? Once they doused the fire and things cooled off they needed to get the forensic people in there. "Detective?" the nurse said.
The charred remnants of what was once the woman's right hand moved.
The nurse pressed a button above the bed and the doctor arrived, checked the monitor and bent over the woman.
"She's regaining consciousness," the doctor said. "We'll remove the airway so she can talk, but remember, her throat and lungs are damaged."
This may be his only shot.
Once the tube was removed, the monitor started beeping as the woman gasped. They took a moment to tend to her and the beeping slowed. Then the doctor nodded to Brennan, who stepped close and prepared to make a video recording with his phone.
"Ma'am, I'm Detective Ed Brennan. Can you tell me your name?"
A long moment of silence passed punctuated with a gurgle.
Brennan took a breath and looked at the doctor before he continued.
"Ma'am, can you tell me a name, or tell me where you live?"
A rasping sigh sounded, then nothing.
"Ma'am, is there anything you can tell me?'
A liquidy, coarse utterance began to form a word.
"I'm sorry, ma'am. Try again."
Brennan glanced at the doctor and nurse, blinking to concentrate as the woman tried to raise her blackened hand as if she wanted to pull Brennan to her.
there are others." The woman lowered her arm. The monitors sounded alerts and the tracking lines flattened.