“Between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the US each year.”
I hesitantly look over the side of a dirt grave as it is being excavated, instinctively knowing that I’m looking at the decaying body of a child. I stare at the reverent brushstrokes slowly removing earth from bones and tissue, lost in the horror of what I see. Tiny, frail arms are folded across a sunken torso, neck turned at an impossible angle, knees bent to fit into the rudimentary shallow grave. A child was thrown into a dark pit by a perpetrator with little care and certainly no pity.
Another young child murdered. A familiar feeling of disgust and fear washes over me at the potential identity of the body. Could it be her?
“Looks to be male by the width of the pelvis, but it’s hard to say with prepubescent children. We can assume no more than twelve,” Quinn declares.
I breathe a little easier but just barely. My partner, Quinn, looks up at me from where she kneels with respect beside a body revealing more bones than flesh.
I inhale a pained breath, knowing that the last few hours of this child’s life were probably filled with hellish torment and suffering. “Presumable cause of death?”
Her onyx eyes fill with remorse as she returns to her examination. “Nothing substantial yet, and with this much decay, it might be difficult to tell. By the angle of the neck and head, it’s likely asphyxiation that led to a possible fractured spinal column. However, that could have been done postmortem in order to fit the body in the grave.” Quinn’s hands tremble slightly as she removes dirt from the prone figure’s eye socket. “Considering the rate of decomposition, the child has most likely been dead for some time, but we’ll have to wait for forensics to be sure.” She pauses, as if expecting an immediate response, but seconds crawl by in silence.
Missing for God only knows how long, and this child is finally found as a decomposing corpse. A mangled baby bird, heaped under dirt, left to decay alone.
“Rousseau?” She looks at me again. This time, her concern is directed toward me as I struggle to compose the trepidation caused by the crime scene before me.
I turn my face to deflect her unnecessary concern. “What are you doing in the muck, Quinn? You’re a criminal psychologist, not a forensic pathologist, osti câlisse! You’re not even wearing a bunny suit.”
I notice her soiled clothes while the forensic team is covered head to toe in appropriate forensic coveralls. She dismisses my request with an offhanded wave and silence.
“And how the hell did you get to the scene so quickly from the city?” I scan our remote surroundings.
She ignores my condescension and obvious change of subject. “I was in the area.” Her vague answer isn’t an answer at all. Turning back to her work, she resumes her gentle brushing, a small act of compassion for the murdered child.
I look away from the depth of emotion on my partner’s face as she lowers herself closer to the broken body, whispering a prayer for the child’s spirit, undoubtedly in her native tongue. I turn toward the swarm of forensic pathologists as the local authorities fervently attempt to keep curious onlookers and reporters at bay, failing to do so successfully. Nevertheless, the eerie morbidity of any crime scene is always the same, no matter who has been murdered or where; death permeates all other facets of its surroundings, drawing interested onlookers like flies to shit. This scene is no different.
Assuming that I’m waiting for further explanation of her early arrival, Quinn continues her work as she considerers her response. “I was following a hunch when I heard a call over the radio, stating that a body had been found in the woods. So, I came straightaway.”
I frown. What does she mean by hunch? We’ve been following the same ring for almost a year, and there hasn’t been any substantial new evidence in months. Has Quinn been keeping new leads to herself?
Wouldn’t be the first time.
“Just in the area?” I say under my breath as I pinch the bridge of my nose between my eyes, staving off an impending headache due to a lack of sleep and caffeine.
The day began too early, as I received a call from homicide that a child’s body was found hours outside of Vancouver, British Columbia, after hikers from a nearby campsite found the grave. The body was found within the greater Vancouver area, converging within the known hunting range of a ring of perpetrators we, a Special Investigation Unit, are currently pursuing. Furthermore, as multiple factions within Canadian law enforcement are now currently overlapping—Provincial Division E-British Colombia, our Special Investigation Unit, and Municipal Authorities—the crime scene is overrun with forensics, inspectors, municipal police, and RCMP officers, the whole of which points to an impending pile of paperwork.
Ignoring my frustration, I contemplate Quinn’s explanation—or lack thereof. I take a moment to consider the situation, cutting off our conversation, and instead begin to walk the perimeter of the crime scene, looking for anything that might give us some sort of clue after all this time. British Columbia is just north of Washington state, and if Americans think Washington rains a lot, they should take a drive north of the border. It’s colder and wetter here by far, but it’s also full of lush and open woods, a crisis for any cop and a breeding ground for secrets—secrets such as stolen children, a growing epidemic in BC.
I glance over my shoulder, keeping one keen eye on the body being excavated and the other on Quinn as she continues to exhume the bones of the child. Quinn has been a lifelong friend, having grown up in the same small town north of the city. We were brought together as the only two oddballs in our school—myself being born to a Quebecois family in a predominantly English-speaking Canadian community and Quinn being the only Indigenous Haida girl in a relatively White suburban town. We’ve stuck together over the years, both lonely outsiders, as our relationships evolved from childhood friends to law enforcement partners. Quinn is a friend, a colleague, and the closest thing to family I have left. Nevertheless, every time we find another child, she grows more and more isolated, even from me.
At the end of the day, I acknowledge that the Crimes Against Children Division (CACD) of Vancouver’s Special Investigation Unit has worn her down in many ways. Then again, the job has worn down all of us who follow the trail of pedophiles as they hunt children within our province. It’s our job to catch them before it comes to this—a dirt hole with the body of a child unceremoniously discarded—but we don’t always make it in time. We don’t always save someone’s daughter or son. How the world has come to this sort of depravity is beyond me, but it’s our job—our calling, our curse—to keep hunting predators. We follow evidence in an elusive hope of finding children we can save. Fortunately for our team at the CACD, Quinn has a peculiar instinct in knowing what a criminal is not only thinking, but also what they are feeling and why; she is marked by her forethought and by her intuition, which sets her apart as an exceptional agent. This sort of work is a burden to anyone who carries a shield but most especially for those who have dedicated their lives to uncover groups of serial pedophiles and their underground trades, such as Quinn and myself.
Our specialty—as we are uniquely qualified for the job, as it makes us damaged—is segregated from all other fields of law enforcement.
I carefully watch my partner with concern as she wipes the dirt from herself—taking a moment, I assume, to gather her thoughts—before following me to walk the grounds. Ignoring the slow descent of rain that begins to ruin our crime scene, we pick up the pace and our urgency.
What a nightmare this day has become.
Breaking the silence, I ask the inevitable question Quinn has, for reasons unknown, failed to avoid, “What particular lead were you following here?” My tone leaves little room for her to avoid this question once again.
She avoids eye contact. “I was driving the highway, trying to get into, I don’t know, the mindset. There is a reason BC has the highest rate of kidnapped and murdered children than any other province in Canada, and I believe it’s because of the convenience of the terrain. Forests make for effective graveyards.” She looks around at the dense green woods we happen to be walking through. “I needed to drive the highway, drive along the forested areas, to see it the way they do. I’m hoping the land will lead us to our perpetrators.”
I nod and take a deep breath, knowing the cost of such a mindset—an unfortunately necessary method of criminology—and as a forensic psychologist, Quinn would need to see through the eyes of the perpetrators we are hunting. “And what is it you think they see?”
She looks at me ominously. “Opportunity.”
I nod as we continue our search in silence. Quinn’s right. BC has the perfect environment for the kinds of criminals we track. I begin to scrutinize my surroundings—both new growth and old, shrouded in mist, shadowed under a canopy of trees—staring with accusation at the secrets lying within. We walk in silence before looping around back toward the body.
I pause. “Here.” I tilt my head slightly. “What does this look like to you?” I point to the lower half of a young tree as I back up to get a better view.
Quinn’s eyes widen in surprise. “The tree is damaged.”
I notice most of the trees in the area are differing kinds of pine with low brush, covering the ground in lush foliage, but this particular tree seems to be leaning awkwardly, as if hit by something large enough or heavy enough to significantly affect the direction of its growth. The small pine must have been hit a number of years ago by the looks of the foliage regrowth at the base, though it was recent enough because moss is still missing from the first four feet of the tree’s height on one side. Anyone who knows even the basics of the outdoors is aware that moss grows on the north side of forested trees in the northern hemisphere. Such information is priceless in case of a lost compass or broken GPS on a hiking trail, and most British Columbians are hikers. What most are unaware of—because it is not considered a necessity—is that moss takes a few years to grow back when damaged, two to five years max.
I look at the open grave and then back in the direction of the tree, gauging the distance. No more than three meters. A good distance for a truck, van, or large SUV. “I think we can presume that the damage to the tree was caused by a vehicle running into it or backing into it, and we can approximate what vehicle was used by the height of the visible damage.”
Quinn nods. “We should also look for possible damaged vehicles or tow truck calls that caused suspicion and cross-reference the vehicle type.”
“No pedophile burying the body of a child is going to call a tow truck.” That’s far-fetched, at best.
She agrees with a noncommittal shrug. “It’s worth a try. Maybe we’ll get lucky on the traffic cameras?”
“This happened years ago, Quinn. Any evidence will likely be long gone by now.” I know I’m being negative, but I can’t get my hopes up, and neither can she. Not again.
I morosely look at the tree. Both of us are momentarily lost in thought as wheels begin to turn and possible clues become plans.
We both turn in the direction of someone’s shout from over our shoulders.
“What is it?” I walk up to a man in the light-blue forensics uniform as he photographs something on the body.
He lifts up the camera, having zoomed in on a disintegrating article of clothing. A logo barely visible after so much time in the elements.
“What does that symbol mean? What does it say?” I hand it over to my partner, who has better eyes and a memory for detail.
“There’s a label—Wood Lake Little League. Where’s that team from?” She looks at the forensic pathologist as she hands him back his camera.
“Looks local. Wood Lake’s not too far, but I can’t be certain.”
Quinn and I look at each other at the same time, reading the other with years of shared experience and practice, as a question begins to form.
Is this them?
I clear my throat and mutter, “Thanks. We’ll look into it.” I turn back, stepping in the direction of the tree, distancing myself from the team of officers whose jurisdiction we were infringing upon, as Quinn follows. I say what unfortunately needs to be addressed, “We can’t be sure it’s them. This is likely the work of an individual, not the ring.”
“His body is within their hunting ground, along Highway 97, and within their preferred age range.” She squares her shoulders, as if she is anticipating to fight me for the sake of the child in a shallow grave, who will undoubtedly be passed in a file to someone less experienced than us, but this child is beyond our investigative responsibility.
I’m prepared. “We can’t be certain. They’ve never left a body before, so why now? Why this child? It simply doesn’t fit their MO. I’m sorry.”
Quinn looks around the crime scene with a critical eye and deflates a little.
We have been tracking the same trafficking ring, following missing children, but never once have we found so much evidence in one location.
Why would they risk leaving the evidence a body provides? Why has this child been discarded while the others were sold or traded?
It’s more likely that this is a single offender, having nothing to do with trafficking and exporting children, merely the work of one sick individual. Unfortunately, if that is the case, then our division won’t be investigating this murder, and it will be turned over to the local authorities.
Quinn runs a hand along her long braid in silence—a familiar tell that she is battling to keep her frustration in check. Quinn and I disagree on one thing: not allowing emotions to affect or cloud our judgment on the job. Not under any circumstances. Emotions distort an inspector’s objectivity, making a person see what they want to see, causing a person to overlook vital details of an investigation. Emotions create a distraction we simply cannot afford. Quinn agrees in theory, yet she also believes her emotions and instincts give her strength in the form of intuition, a sixth sense of sorts.
Not ready to let go of her objections, Quinn finally raises her voice. “Rousseau, this is their territory. It’s the same highway as all the others who have gone missing. It’s too damn convenient to be coincidental.”
I patiently nod in begrudged agreement. She’s right, but she can still be wrong too.
All the other victims traded by this particular ring lived in small towns alongside Highway 97 in BC. That still doesn’t mean this one is connected to the others, especially if the evidence is strikingly dissimilar.
“Find me something that connects them, and we’ll run it past Sergeant.” Superintendent Frank Porter, commonly known as Sergeant by way of an inside joke, can be an imposing figure of authority, but is the head of our Special Investigation Unit.
Quinn looks unhappy, but she eventually nods.
My phone immediately goes off, and I answer curtly, “Rousseau.”
“We’ve just got a call from Kelowna authorities,” Sergeant barks. “They’ve found a boy.”
I gesture to Quinn for her to stay with the body as I head quickly toward my vehicle.
“A body in Kelowna?”
“Not a body. A boy. The boy’s alive.”
My heart stops.