The detail was so innocuous that the Palatine police officer with Emmanuel Castro looked right past it: A mop, propped against a wall.
Primed by five hours of worry because his teenage son, Michael, had not come home from work, Castro made a chilling leap in logic. The cleanup crew wouldn't have left the mop out.
Brown's Chicken & Pasta. Castro didn't get the chance to follow.
"Back off!" the officer commanded. "There's been a crime committed here."
In that moment, police closed the door on public view of the horror, and since then only a few puzzling details have escaped from the guarded crime scene. Among them: A blood-stained mop, a burgled safe and a wall clock stopped at 9:50 p.m.
But rather than illuminate the night that left seven dead, those few facts show how little is known about the events of Jan. 8.
Police attention has veered from an Elgin man, to a blotter of common suburban stickups, to the arrest of a Schaumburg man on unrelated charges. Victims' families charge that Palatine police ignored their anguished calls the night of the massacre and potential witnesses in the area say days elapsed before police tried to interview them.
As the probe heads into its second week with no named suspects, the public is left to wonder: Is the investigation now closer to breakthrough or breakdown?
The day begins
Jan. 8 was payday at Brown's and several workers came by to pick up checks.
Bill Valente, 17, was one of those. He wasn't scheduled to work, but Lynn Ehlenfeldt, the restaurant's co-owner, asked if he could. He declined, saying he had plans to go sledding, and left the restaurant.
Standing squat and sturdy on a patch of pavement 10 miles northwest of O'Hare International Airport, the Brown's Chicken & Pasta in many ways defied the outsider's stereotype of a middle class suburb like Palatine.
There were Lynn and Richard Ehlenfeldt, the Arlington Heights couple who sank their savings into the restaurant after Richard lost his executive post at a cable TV company during a corporate buyout.
There was Guadalupe Maldonado, the Mexican cook on the night shift, a father of three who struggled just to buy Christmas gifts for his children.
There was Thomas Mennes, 32, of Palatine, who landed at Brown's after trying a series of jobs, lived with his twin brother, Jerry, liked TV and bowled on Tuesday nights.
There was Marcus Nellsen, 31, a Navy veteran and drifter who had once called the YMCA home but seemed to have found himself at Brown's, where he started work in November. He told friends he liked working for the Ehlenfeldts so much he wanted to become an assistant manager.
And there were Rico Solis and Mike Castro, close friends at Palatine High School, and the youngest of the crew at Brown's that night. Solis, 17, had moved to Palatine from the Philippines in May, and relied on Castro, a 16-year-old Filipino-American, to smooth the transition into American teen society. Castro helped polish Solis' English and got him the job at Brown's.
Security was never a real worry for the Ehlenfeldts. A back door was typically left open during closing time to accommodate the employee traffic in and out, emptying garbage.
A safe sat about eight feet from the door.