“I think they’ve changed for you, too.”
His jaw tenses, but he nods once.
“Are we on the same page, then?” I ask.
“You mean are we keeping her because we want her for ourselves?”
I nod. It’s confronting when it’s so blatantly spelled out.
“Yeah, brother, same page, same sentence, same word.”
“Not sure where Dandelion’s head is but, well, one step at a time.”
Silence again fills the space and for the next ten minutes we are each lost in our own thoughts.
“First property is coming up here on the right.” The energy in the SUV shifts as we near the fenced off property with the big Russo Properties & Holdings sign in front.
Bastian pulls up in front. “This isn’t the one,” he says as he kills the engine, and we climb out.
“Too busy. Too public.” The neighborhood is bustling. I use the key Brady gave me to unlock the gate. We need to be sure. We walk through the fencing, then onto the site, which consists of a trailer containing a desk, a drip coffee machine with a burnt pot on it, and an ashtray with cigarette butts still inside. And dust about an inch thick. What was here has been torn down, so if there was a basement, it’s gone now.
“Let’s go,” Bastian says. “We’re wasting our time here.”
The second property is similar to the first although a little farther out of town. It has more privacy, and the structure hasn’t been demolished yet, but the basement is more of a crawl space, so we head to the third. This one is the farthest way but still not too far. It’s also the most private with a large, fenced-off lot. Just behind the fence is a run-down row of houses that reminds me of old horror movies.
We’re quiet as we walk toward the open door of the center house. There’s no trailer here. No office setup. The property had been bought eight years ago but never got as far as that. The lot itself is overgrown with weeds, and all that can be heard from the nearest neighborhood are muffled car horns and the occasional shout of someone. In other words, no one will be walking past this site unless they have reason to be here.
I glance at my brother as we enter. We split up—I go right, he goes left—and walk through the first floor. We don’t need to go upstairs. There are three basements, one for each of the houses. I use my phone to light the way down to one, but it’s small and crammed with old furniture that I can’t imagine anybody would have space to move in there.
Bastian and I meet in the middle. He shakes his head and our gazes fall on the entrance of the basement of this last house. The door here is intact, and although the deadbolt has been broken, it is about the only thing that hasn’t rusted in the place.
Without a word, I switch on the flashlight of my phone and shine it down the stairs.
“This is it,” Bastian says. “I feel it.”
I know what he’s feeling. A dark thing. I think you could keep bars of gold unlocked down here and they’d be safe. My skin is crawling, and if I didn’t have to go down there, I wouldn’t.
Bastian switches on his flashlight and follows me down the rickety stairs.
“Careful,” I tell him about a step that’s broken. We get down to the concrete floor and I shine my light over the bare walls, the boxing bag hanging from a beam at the far end, the small outdoor table that’s rusted, the empty beer bottles on top and broken glass on the floor. I walk to the cooler and find more bottles of beer inside, these unopened. I check the date on one. It’s long expired. I assume there was ice in there once, but that water has long since evaporated.
But apart from that, I don’t see more.
A large flashlight sits on the floor by the chair. I pick it up and switch it on. It blinks, then, to my surprise, goes on. I shine the brighter light over what I’ve found, but there’s nothing more.
“Brother,” comes Bastian’s voice from behind the boxing bag. I know from his tone that he’s found something. I walk over and duck my head to follow him into this second room. It’s as large as the first but even more isolated. No small windows, no nothing. Just black. But I turn the flashlight onto the room, and my blood turns to ice.
Along the far wall is a grimy mattress on a cot with a missing leg leaning half on the filthy floor. Chains hang from the ceiling, the cuffs empty now. A bucket lies on its side by the cot, and another table, chair, and more cans of beer are in here, too. In the farthest corner is a cage like you’d use for a big dog. Inside it is a dog dish. And attached to one of the bars of the cage is a set of handcuffs. On the wall over the cage is an old clock with a bullet hole through the center of it.
“They kept her here for six days,” I say, remembering the image of Vittoria on that screen, the look in her eyes, the senseless muttering, her asking for bleach to clean her hands. To clean the blood of the bastards who hurt her off her hands.
“Blood,” Bastian says. He’s got the light from his phone’s flashlight on a spot on the mattress. I go to him and see it, that deep almost black of old blood. I shine the light over the walls and see what looks like spray paint there, but it’s blood, too. “Why wouldn’t he burn this place to the ground?”
I shake my head. “No fucking clue. Let’s go. There’s nothing more down here.”
When we get back out into the light of the afternoon sun, we both stop to take a deep breath in. But that stench of basement clings to my nostrils.