The body of fifteen-year-old Rachael Donahue—abandoned by society, raised in foster homes, and violently unapproachable—has been discovered at the bottom of a stairwell at Firebird, the secure facility for juvenile offenders in Cleveland. For Maggie and Jack, Rachael’s death comes with a disturbing twist—the girl may have been involved with a much older man.
But Rachael’s not the only resident at the center to come to a dead end. Firebird’s ten-year-old “wild child” has overdosed in the infirmary—back-to-back tragedies that appear to be terrible accidents. As a forensic investigator, Maggie knows appearances can be deceiving. And Jack knows all about deceit. That’s why they both suspect a cold-blooded murderer is carrying out a deadly agenda.
As Maggie’s ex-husband gets nearer to uncovering the secrets that Maggie and Jack must hide, it becomes increasingly harder for them to protect a new and vulnerable victim from a killer with unfathomable demons.
About the Author
Lisa is a member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the International Association for Identification, and the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts, and she is a Certified Crime Scene Analyst and Certified Latent Print Examiner. She has testified in court as an expert witness more than sixty-five times. Her books have been translated into six languages. She lives near Fort Myers, Florida. Visit her on Facebook, Twitter, or at www.lisa-black.com.
Read an Excerpt
It was an old-fashioned stairwell, with wide steps, painted iron pipes for railings, and a rectangle of wasted space down the center. Plenty of room for the body to fall, perhaps the entire three stories. The final impact left a spray of blood from the girl's head across the worn terrazzo tile.
Maggie Gardiner stood with a camera in one hand and a crime scene kit in the other, surveying the lifeless body and the hallway around it. Simple, as crime scenes went. No furniture, no wet grass or old clothes, no useless debris to be sorted from vital clues. Empty steps and what remained of a child who had suffered the misfortune to land on her head instead of her feet.
Around this very ordinary stairwell sat the Firebird Center for Children and Adolescents, otherwise known as the city's juvenile detention facility — only six or seven blocks from Maggie's lab in Cleveland's Justice Center complex. She had never been there before. It smelled of disinfectant and Pine-Sol and years of mass-produced food, and the fluorescent fixtures kept it thoroughly bathed with a yellowish light. Maggie had been there for ten minutes and hadn't seen a child yet, but the air hummed with ambient noise. The various floors bulged with classrooms and restrooms and dormitories for juveniles ranging from under ten years of age up to seventeen.
The staggered bedtimes for the various dorms had not yet arrived and, freed from classes, the young people had a precious hour or two to amuse themselves at high decibels. With the doors closed it sounded as if she were in the center of a beehive. Maggie hated bees.
She also hated prisons. She'd been in plenty, processing the occasional death in custody or more often collecting hair and saliva swabs from arrested suspects, but had never reconciled herself to getting locked in with a teeming mass of dangerous and angry people. And now — even worse — a teeming mass of teenagers.
"Her name is Rachael Donahue," the director said, Mark Palmer, PhD. He stood to Maggie's left, not rushing her. He looked about sixty, was gray haired and a few inches shorter than herself, and seemed genuinely saddened over the death of a child who had been put in his care.
The Firebird Center, he had told her upon her arrival, was a care facility for children in crisis. Every resident (not inmate, he made clear) had been the victim of physical or sexual abuse at worst or extreme neglect at best. Some had not committed a crime, only run away from the abuse, though most had. The center strove to counsel both the resident child and their families until the child could return home, or until the child could be matched with a foster family in cases where their home situation could not be rehabilitated. At the same time their educational requirements were maintained, since schoolwork usually became the first fatality of crisis. Getting back on the track toward college or vocational training would get more difficult with every day lost.
Maggie steered him back to the physical layout of the building. They would need to know how Rachael came to be in the stairwell in the first place.
Along with the dorms and classrooms the center had meeting areas for legal representatives and family members, areas for intake, as well as areas for the staff to write reports and eat lunch and for the live-in dorm "mothers" and "fathers" to sleep.
Doors were locked. Some residents could leave, but only for certain reasons, and the times were strictly monitored. The children weren't prisoners ... and yet they were.
And so, temporarily at least, was she.
Maggie hefted the camera with the large lens and heavy detachable flash and began to document the scene. She would photograph and measure and collect and the detectives, when they arrived, would ask the questions — yet she inquired, "How long has she been here?" of director Palmer, simply to keep him from getting bored and wandering away. After all, he had the keys to those locked doors.
She had actually meant to ask how long Rachael Donahue had been at the facility, but he said, "It couldn't have been more than ten minutes. The kitchen had brought dessert to the under-ten group and returned with the empty trays, through this door here. They had loaded up dinners for the next group into the dumbwaiter and one of the staff came out to go up and unload, and found her."
Maggie began close-ups of the still form. The inmates — residents, she corrected herself — apparently didn't wear uniforms. Rachael was dressed in tight jeans, black hi-tops, a pink tee, and an oversized red and purple flannel shirt. She had three rings on each hand and three earrings in each ear, with dark purple polish on her bitten nails. Dark chestnut hair — the same color as Maggie's — appeared to be shoulder length and layered into unruly waves, now soaked with blood. It had begun to thicken and clot. Her clean face was turned toward the ceiling, forty feet overhead, with eyes closed, long lashes against creamy skin.
"She was fifteen," the director said, answering a question Maggie hadn't wanted to ask.
In another world, a more just world, the girl would have been the apple of some parent's eye, instead of dying alone behind locked doors in a government facility.
Maggie looked up through the spiraling steps. "Where would she have come from?" "Fourteen to fifteen girls are on third-floor north. She should have been in the common room or her bedroom. Erica — Ms. Washington — released her to report for kitchen duty. She must have fallen right after that. We have outdoor rec on the roof but I've already asked Justin and he said he didn't see her, and she wouldn't have been able to get into the other units, the other age groups."
A pained look crossed the director's face. "The doors to the units are locked, of course, from both inside and outside."
But it's not a prison, Maggie thought.
"Else we'd have chaos. They're children, after all, made to go through doors they're not supposed to go through. All our dorm mothers and fathers have a clunky set of keys at the moment, but eventually we'll go to key cards. Then the doors will open automatically if a fire alarm goes off, lock automatically if there's an active shooter situation or something like that, but the system is under construction. The whole building is under construction. I'm sure you noticed all the scaffolding and new drywall on your way in."
"We're a work in progress, in more ways than one. But only for a few more months. Then we'll be the most secure juvenile facility in the country as well as the most therapeutic." He rubbed one rheumy blue eye. Then as if avoiding the sin of hubris, added, "Not taking anything away from my colleagues in other states, of course."
"Of course," Maggie said.
"I'm pushing hard. We're having an open house next week for the state budget committee. The federal system is finally throwing money at the mental health care crisis and we have to grab every dollar we can before their attention fades. You know how that goes."
His fellow government employee said, "Sure. Can we take a look at the video?" Director Palmer followed her gaze to the dark half-bubbles embedded in the ceilings at each landing and winced.
Maggie did too. "They're not recording?"
"They don't even have cameras in them. Those are supposed to be installed next week, and the control panel the week after that. The manufacturer tells me that in these increasingly paranoid times, surveillance systems are selling like a cure for baldness — that's their excuse for taking so long to get all the components on-site."
Maggie couldn't imagine any kind of detention facility operating for five minutes without comprehensive surveillance, but then juvenile justice programs seemed to exist in a permanent state of experimentation.
She took close-up photos of the girl's hands, as best she could without touching them — Maggie could not move or "molest" the body in any way until the Medical Examiner's office investigator arrived. But the backs of the girl's fingers gave no signs of defensive wounds, blood, or hair. If Rachael Donahue had struggled with anyone before plunging over the railing she had done it without chipping the purple polish on her nails. She might have jumped. Three flights of steps seemed an iffy method of suicide, but would that calculation have occurred to a teen? Surely fifteen was young enough to play, perhaps try to walk on the railing or jump from one landing to another. And, of course, perhaps she had been under the influence of drugs and thought she could fly.
"Why was she here? At the facility, I mean," Maggie asked.
The director fumbled with a lifetime of protecting the civil rights of his underage charges. "Rachael? I don't think I can ... I mean, I know you'll have to ... I've never had an accident like this in our history." This realization brought him up short. "Never. I've lost a great many clients outside our walls, of course — the world is a dangerous place for a child — but under our care, no."
Rachael had ruined his perfect record, and he seemed to allow himself one fleeting moment of self-pity before admitting, "Rachael had anger issues."
"Oh." Maggie didn't ask anything more. She had already done more of the detective's job than she should, and if Rachael had been fighting with someone, that would be their job to discover. Detectives, as a group, could get pretty persnickety when someone ducked past the crime scene tape into their territory.
Instead Maggie began to walk the stairwell, photographing as she went. At first she used a flashlight to examine each riser for shoeprints and disturbances in the dust, but quickly surmised that a great many people used the stairwell every day with marks on top of other marks from one end of the tread to the other. Maggie gave up, telling herself that any particular set of prints wouldn't prove much.
So she took pictures of the steps. She took pictures of each door she encountered, without attempting to open them. Some had a great deal of noise and movement behind them, some — such as the one labeled MAINT. — dead silent. She closed her fingers around the handle to 12–13 BOYS but it didn't budge. What she guessed to be the twelve- to thirteen-year-old males' dorm could not be entered from the hallway, only by pressing the button to the left of the door and having someone inside allow admittance. She didn't push the button.
Maggie took pictures of a long, dark hair caught where the pipe that formed the upper rail on the second landing screwed into its stanchion, the threads still rough after decades of repainting. She tucked the hair into an envelope, but the resolutely bare tile and solid barrier of the railing refused to give her any clue as to whether the girl had fallen over here, had hit her head on the railing during a fall from the third floor, or the hair had been clinging there for months.
Maggie continued upward. The third-floor landing proved equally unhelpful.
She leaned over the railing to take a photo of Rachael's body at the bottom, lying perfectly centered in the rectangle of open space. It could have been the promo shot for a horror movie, the teen star flush with the beauty of youth cut short to be resurrected in the sequel. But this was all too real, and there would be no resurrection for Rachael Donahue.
The final door felt cool to the touch and the voices beyond it seemed distant enough. The plaque read REC. 12–15. This latch turned with a light application of gloved fingers and Maggie peeked out. Cool September air brushed over a group of six boys playing basketball, their forms visible against the lit windows of the office buildings across the street. A trim young man with a sweatshirt and goatee watched them, shouting a word of either advice or encouragement. Three boys lounged around a table, also watching. It would have been a peaceful picture of youth at play if not for the razor wire atop the chain-link fence, which in turn topped the knee-high brick wall ringing the roof. If Rachael Donahue had wanted to commit suicide, Maggie now saw why she chose the interior stairwell over the outside roof. She wouldn't have been able to get over that.
"That's the younger kids' roof," Dr. Palmer said. He stood at her elbow when she had thought he had stayed at the bottom of the stairwell. When her heart receded from her throat she told him she could see that.
"Sixteen to seventeen have a separate court and roof area behind the classrooms. Under twelve have our little patch of grass below this." He added, "Children need to be outdoors — it's a very basic desire and it's good for them. Burns off extra energy and they learn to appreciate fresh air. But it's so hard to find outdoor spaces in the middle of a city, and even harder to make them truly secure — so we converted the roof. No trees, but after the reno we're going to ring the patio area, where those boys are sitting, with potted shrubs. Same thing on the other roof." He looked at her expectantly.
"That will be nice," Maggie said. She let the door shut with a heavy clang that echoed down the stairwell and seemed to reverberate in her ears.
"It's not much, but ... And in a city where it's cold six months out of the year the weather creates a problem. Residents have to have warm clothing, bulkier stuff, boots, rain gear and we don't have storage space for all that. It would be easier to keep them inside all the time, but ..." His voice trailed off as they crossed the second-floor landing.
"Are the boys and girls always separate?"
"Not in classes. Co-ed classes are normal, and it's important to keep the surroundings as normal as possible. Otherwise we keep them segregated even during recreation, except for the under-twelve group. We have to be practical."
And unexpected pregnancies would be anything but.
He went on: "It's difficult to make a facility this large homelike, so we went the other route and made it school-like. Kids are used to school, and keeping them in that sort of mind-set will make reentry easier."
"When they go back to their actual home, their regular school. Their 'normal' life. Unfortunately, for so many of them, their lives have never been what we'd call normal. That's why we always work from the basis of 'what happened to you?' rather than 'what did you do?' Frankly, America locks up far too many juveniles, especially considering that the majority of them have committed nonviolent infractions, like truancy and running away. Violating probation and such."
Maggie said, "And the children here?"
He blinked at her. "Here?"
She glanced at him as they reached the ground floor.
"This facility specializes in high-risk clients. The kids who have resisted more community-based interventions."
She tried to sort out that verbiage. "So —"
The doctor sighed. "Some of their crimes have been violent, yes. But it has been shown over and over that with an intensive yet secure program their lives can still be turned around. I can personally attest to amazing strides with a number of our charges."
They stood in front of the girl's body at the bottom of the steps, frozen into her final and hopeless position. "And Rachael? Her crime was —?"
Maggie blinked. "She killed somebody?"
He nodded, shaggy graying hair falling around his downturned face. "Two people, actually."
Loud footsteps abruptly sounded behind them, causing Maggie's heart to pound again. She really hated prisons.
But a middle-aged black woman led in two detectives she knew, and well. The red-headed Riley and his partner, Jack Renner. Maggie knew more about Jack Renner than she would have ever wanted to, and her life had been turned inside out because of it. In the span of a few months they had accumulated a number of experiences together, all of them bad.
Well, nearly all.
But for once she didn't cringe at the memories he brought into the space with him. For once she felt just a little glad to see him.
Jack might have a lot of issues, but should they be suddenly set upon by a teeming band of wilding teenagers she felt fairly sure he would do his job and at least attempt to protect her. Even though her death would remove a serious complication from his life.
Excerpted from "Suffer the Children"
Copyright © 2018 Lisa Black.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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