Overboard Excerpt

1

The Girl in the Rocks

It was Mitch who found the girl. I’d stopped at a cemetery on the Chicago-Evanston border to let him and Peppy stretch their legs, and he took off. I ran after him, but I’d left the dogs in the car too long: he was out to prove I wasn’t the boss of him. Cars swerved, honked, brakes squealed as he bolted across Sheridan Road and disappeared down a boulder-covered hill to the lake.

I managed to hang onto Peppy’s leash, but she was pulling my arms almost from their sockets, trying to catch him. We managed to cross the road, but almost toppled a cyclist on the other side.

I ignored his curses, peering anxiously down the rocky hillside, trying to see Mitch.. He had disappeared into the rocks. He still had his leash on, at risk for a broken leg or worse if it caught on an outcropping. There were too many crevices in the rocks and the concrete blocks the city had dropped there. I called his name, strained to hear a bark or a cry that signaled trouble, but the lake was crashing into the rocks in front of me; cars on Sheridan kept up a steady roar behind me.

Peppy was still straining to follow him. I reluctantly unhooked her leash; she’d find him. She began sliding and clawing her way down the wet rocks, stopped at a spot about twenty feet in front of me.

An autumn wind had whipped up the waves. They were slapping the rocks, sending spray high enough to wet my legs as I backed down, crablike, holding the rocks to keep from sliding into the froth.

When I finally reached Peppy, she was barking at Mitch’s hind quarters. His head and shoulders were wedged between two slabs of concrete. I knelt and grabbed his harness at the chest and pulled him out.

He started whining, lunging, trying to get back into the opening. I edged in front of him, released my hold on his harness to get my phone from my hip pocket. The light shone on a figure slumped against the back of the opening.

Young, wearing a thin t-shirt that revealed small breasts. I managed to get my fingers on her neck. A faint pulse.

I backed out. Mitch instantly ran in again, Peppy slithering next to him. I tried calling 911 but couldn’t a signal down here. There was no place to tie the dogs’ leashes. It would be impossible for me to force them up the rocks, not when they had a mission and I was in slip-sliding shoes. I left them and worked my way back up to the edge of the road and called 911.

A squad car appeared almost immediately. The driver got out and demanded an ID.

“My ID?” I repeated. “A girl is stuck in the rocks down there. She needs help – I can’t manage –“

“I got a complaint about a lady and her dogs. You can’t let them run around off-leash. Let’s see some ID.”

“Please! Look! There’s a girl trapped down there. I came up to call for help. She needs an emergency crew with ropes and a stretcher!”

He pressed his lips together, called into his lapel phone that he was investigating a possible emergency. He came to the barrier between the road and the rocks, gripping my arm, as if I might run away, but he looked down and saw Mitch’s tail. Peppy was smaller; she must have squirmed in front of him.

“That your dog?”

“She’s barely alive,” I said, frantic. “Please! You can see for yourself if you climb down.”

He looked sourly at the rocks, but was saved by his lapel phone. He exchanged a few sentences, then turned to me. “Someone called in a complaint from the high rise there.” He jerked his head at a building on the other side of the road. “Said a woman was taking her dogs down the rocks here. I guess that was you. Can you call the dogs, get them to come up?”

“They won’t leave the girl and I’m not strong enough to carry them up these boulders.”

He looked over the side again, communed again with his lapel phone. “We’re locating a rescue team, but if this is a false alarm, it’s a class 4 felony.”

“It’s not a false alarm,” I said through thin lips. “How long until they get here?”

“Fifteen-twenty minutes. You go down and leash up those dogs. You cannot let them run wild in the park.”

I maneuvered my way back down the rocks. I attached the dogs’ leashes to their harnesses and managed to hook the ends around a crack in a neighboring rock so that I could check on the girl. There was still a faint fluttering in her neck pulses. Her face still had some of the softness of childhood. She seemed to have fresh welts in her cheeks, but they were so grimy I wasn’t sure. I was wearing a new jacket, red basket-weave, not cheap, but I draped it across her front, tucking the sleeves behind her shoulders.

“It’s okay, baby,” I crooned. “Help is on the way. Hang on. We’ll keep you warm and get you safe.”

I took some pictures. When the flash went off in her face, her eyes fluttered open. “Nagyi?” she asked, and then repeated, “Nagyi,” with a little sigh, relief, it sounded like, and closed her eyes again.

My phone light showed up holes in her jeans, the edges scorched. They were caused by fire, not scissors. Pus was oozing from her wounds. An extreme form of self-mutilation, or a hideous form of torture. Either way, she needed medical attention.

Mitch and Peppy were pawing at my legs, desperate to return to the girl. I scooted out out of the opening and let them go in: perhaps not hygienic, but they would keep her warmer than I could.

It was almost half an hour before the rescue team appeared. They dropped ropes down and jumped to meet us. They pulled the dogs out, handed the leashes to me. Keeping them away from the team took my last bit of strength.

“She has burns on her legs,” I warned the rescue team. “Maybe on her face, too.”

The team set up a rope sledge and slid the girl out, wrapped her in blankets. The crew moved quickly.

“She’s still alive, isn’t she?” I said.

“Barely.” The speaker didn’t look up from the stretcher where she was helping strap in the girl. “Good thing you and your pooches came when you did.” She and her partner tugged on their ropes to let the team up above know they were climbing back up.

The dogs were frantic at the girl’s disappearance, barking and lunging as the stretcher was raised to the street. I watched the crew disappear over the barrier next to the road, waited until I heard a siren wail before crawling back up the rocky hill. I went on my hands and knees, still clutching the leashes: Mitch and Peppy could easily jump the barrier between rocks and road and fling themselves into traffic in an effort to reach the girl.

When we emerged at the top, my legs were shaking and the skin in my palms was rubbed raw. I leaned against a tree to catch my breath. Now that the rescue had succeeded, I felt the cold. My clothes were damp from the spray, and I was wishing I’d grabbed my jacket before the EMT’s wrapped the girl in their blankets.

The cop who’d arrived first was still there, directing traffic around a series of TV vans. Of course. Newsrooms monitor police frequencies and show up, eager for gore.

Beth Blacksin was there from Global Entertainment. “Vic! When I looked over the edge, I was sure that was you down there. And your dogs. What happened? What can you tell us about the girl they brought up? Is it true she was in a cave? We tried to get our GlobalCam in play, but it crashed into the rocks.”

“GlobalCam?” I echoed.

“Our camera drone. Costs a fortune. They’re going to try to find it.”

“What, the CPD’s rescue team will rappel down for you?”

“No, we have some divers.”

“On the payroll just to rescue errant drones?” I asked.

“Oh, Vic, you’re so literal-minded. We have a couple of guys in production who scuba dive for fun. They’ll take care of it. I hope – I didn’t exactly have permission to authorize the launch, but it would have been great footage.”

I bit back another snarky comeback. I was wet to the skin, my clothes were covered in dirt and whatever slime grew on the rocks, the heel had come loose from my right shoe and my car was at least a mile away. I decided to play nice in exchange for a lift in the Global news van.

Beth agreed, if I gave her an exclusive. I’d lost my mask sliding up and down the rocks, but the camera crew had a spare. Beth and I spoke with the wind whipping our hair into our faces and the camera getting nice footage of the waves and the spray. Also of the dogs, who were whining loudly.

“Most Chicagoans know V.I. Warshawski as the go-to detective when life or the law have trapped them between a hard place and a rock. Today she found someone trapped literally in a hard place in the rocks. V.I., we watched the Chicago Police Search and Rescue Team bring a teenaged girl up on a stretcher. We understand they got her out, probably in the nick of time, thanks to you. Tell us how you came on her – no sane person would climb these rocks for fun.”

I stepped her through Mitch and Peppy’s heroic work, omitting the fact that Mitch was a hero because I’d lost control of him.

“And you know this girl?”

“I never saw her before,” I said. “The rescue team said she’s alive, barely. I’m sure her parents must be scared sick – did you get a picture of her face to put out on your site?”

The cameraman gave a thumbs up for that. Beth had him take more footage of Mitch and Peppy, some B-footage of the lake and the rocks, and then the heroic dogs were bundled into the van – which had “Global Mobal” etched on the side – and the crew drove us into Evanston to my car.

I didn’t tell Beth about the burn holes in the girl’s jeans, or the strange word she’d said. I didn’t say I hadn’t seen signs of food or water. Nor did I add my own private concern: had the girl been seeking refuge, or had she crawled down the rocks to die?