The Snowdon State Snoops: Invasion
1 Out of the Blue
Paula Ryan had made many discoveries in the months she had spent in her new home, Snoop Towers on Schaefer Street in Snowden, her new home base for her brand-new career as a student at Snowden State University. She had discovered a new sense of self-reliance in her new job at the Snowden Town Library. She had discovered an amatory freedom with her unofficial fiancé Richie Dwight in a setting without parent-imposed curfews. She had discovered a pure joy in education now that she was away from the cliquishness and puerility of Darius Allen High School and could enjoy learning for learning’s sake, without worrying about being seen as déclassé for liking learning. She had discovered kindred spirits and new friends in the Gamma Kappa Epsilon sorority she had joined along with Darius Allen classmates and new Chateau Snoop roommates Felicity Mabrey and Chelsea Parker.
And she had also discovered that when her new roommate Tricia Dwight was on a studying jag, the best place to sleep was on the living-room sofa of Snoop Towers. The downstairs “guest bedroom” their landlord Dave Miyazaki had built in the basement off the laundry would have been an equally comfortable place to sleep while Trish paced the bedroom drilling interminable sets of base pairs and chromosome locations into her memory, but a former Snoop Towers resident, Missy Bonhart, was borrowing it that weekend while the exterminators worked over the house she shared with her grandmother Grace Mason, whose care was Missy’s rent but was staying with an old Snowden friend while her worn-down old house was de-bugged. Missy was still out at the ungodly hour at which Paula finally fell asleep on the pulled-out sofa-bed—
A sudden noise—quiet, outside—bolted Paula immediately upright in the improvised bed. She blinked herself fully awake—the porch!—listened again, keeping even her breath stilled as she tried to pick out the noises—yes, soft, stealthy—as they eased onto and across the porch—
Paula tensed, tried to settle the racing of her heart as the noises made their way to the front door—my phone! Get my phone! Call 911! But the phone was nowhere to be seen—can’t find a weapon—what do I—and the door burst open—
“Hannah?” said Paula, her voice a squeak as her staring eye recognized the tall, slender, bespectacled blonde form appearing in the Snoop Towers front door as that of her housemate Hannah O’Hara. But the hazel eyes behind the glasses seemed somehow not right—“Hannah, are you”—
“I’m not as think as you drunk I am!” said Hannah, a dazed, inebriately contented smile on her face. “Forgot you’re sleeping downstairs.” She reeled into the living room.
“It’s past three in the morning! Where have you”—and an eye which had been living around a gaggle of criminal-sciences majors detected a distinct mis-buttoning of her blouse—“You spent all night at DRK House?” Where Tristan Shulbert lived, of course.
“We were talkin’,” said Hannah in a contented slur as she squinted her way toward a seat. “Lost track of time.”
“I’d say you did!” Paula said with an amused smirk on her face, a smirk which became a pointed glance at Hannah’s shirt. “Umm…Hannah…” Hannah stared blindly—“Your top is buttoned wrong.”
Hannah blushed. “It was hot, and”—her eyes seemed to start with a remembrance—“uh-oh.”
“I think—I think I”—and from nowhere, another set of footsteps blustered across the porch and through the door—
“Hannah!” Missy Bonhart called with inebriate glee from the doorway when her milky eye located Hannah. “You left Tristan tied to his bed!” To which Hannah clamped her hand to her head with a that’s-what-I-forgot cringe.
A Paula still getting used to life at Chateau Snoop stared. “Wait what? You were both at DRK House with Tristan?”
Missy reeled into the room with an inebriate amusement on her full face. “We played rock-paper-scissors for him tonight, and we both picked scissors. Decided to call it a tie.” She snorted out a giggle as her mind caught up to her own double-entendre. “So Tristan got tied.”
“I’ll bet he wished he had some of those scissors,” said Paula with a mordant grin. A girl who a year ago would have been shocked and embarrassed at a conversation that had taken such a turn as this one was now, in her eighteen-year-old wisdom and freedom, merely amusedly titillated. After all, some of her own adventures with Richie that fall semester would have been no less shocking to the high-schooler Paula had been.
“You did untie him, didn’t you Missy?” Hannah asked. Missy stared—more footsteps—
“I did,” Ginger proclaimed as she sauntered through the door, perfectly sober yet naughtily contented. “Eventually!”
“You were supposed to be over there with Carson McSwain!” Hannah and Missy objected in unison—
“And there was poor Tristan Shulbert lying there tied to his bed!” Ginger snickered. “I had to do something!”
“Like what?” Paula heard herself ask. There’s entertaining, and then there’s just sick—
“Oh come on,” said Ginger with a theatrical wink as she steered herself toward the stairs, “this is me you’re talking to! What do you think I did?” Leaving three housemates staring aghast at Ginger as she started up the stairs—“I untied him!” Another couple pattering steps—“Plus a few other things,” she muttered as she ran the rest of the way…
Between sleep cycles, so the experts tell us, the sleeper does not dream. Neither was she dreaming in the deadest hour of the deadest watch of the night. Absolutely still in her bed, a long day yielding to a languid night, and now, for the last five hours, perfect sleep. She had had a couple hours to herself that night after the usual evening routine, and not having him in the bed that night gave her just enough space to sleep with a comfort she hadn’t known this completely in—how many years had it been?
But nothing of such thoughts were in her head as her mind plumbed the deepest depths of human sleep. Nothing but rest, a body drinking in rest it surely needed—
Until a hand suddenly clamped over her mouth—only after a split-second did her mind, still in dreamless sleep, rouse itself—
“Be good and no one gets hurt.”
Saturday morning meant no classes, which left Paula a slow languid morning before having to prepare for an afternoon working at the library. The rest offered by the sofa bed was not ideal, but she was fairly fresh after a brisk shower—just after Trish, who had gotten first dibs—and a change of clothes into a comfortable old Jack Skellington tee shirt, black denim pedal-pushers, and matching black Vans. Her short, pageboy-cut brunette locks were clean and conditioned, her round wire-frame glasses polished to a sparkle as she descended into the kitchen for a ten-in-the-morning breakfast—
“Little Sister Paula, if you even think about saying ‘good morning,’ I’ll personally give you the Rite of Correction until you could use your ass for a stop light.” Hannah’s admonition was a whimpering grumble delivered from the head lying under a tangle of straying blonde tresses on the kitchen table, behind which the rest of Hannah O’Hara sat sprawled in one of the kitchen chairs. Paula cringed for a moment at Hannah’s hung-over warning; she had been the first pledge that semester to receive the GKE sorority’s ritual punishment for minor infractions, and despite the compliments she had received from all the sisterhood for the relative stoicism with which she had faced it, the remembrance of having been tied in a naked spreadeagle to the basement wall of what the sorority called the Temple of Correction and paddled for the first time in her life still provoked blushes and an uncomfortable tingle across the flesh of her backside. “At least when I can move again.”
Paula’s native quiet solicitude saved her life. “Could I get you anything? An aspirin, or do you take acetaminophen or naproxen?”
A reddened hazel eye peeked up from behind splayed arms. “If you really want to help, just chop my head off.”
Another voice broke in, its tone a pained wince. “Would you two mind keeping it down? I’m trying to be dead here!” With glacial steps, Missy oozed into the kitchen in the general direction of the refrigerator. She was just as dissolute as Hannah, her wavy raven locks half covering her face, her pajamas of fleece shorts and Snowden State tee pulled and twisted on her robust frame. A glazed blue eye glared at Paula. “Some people are so sober they’re disgusting!”
“You’re just jealous, Missy!” The three Snoop Towers denizens flicked their eyes to the kitchen archway, where Tricia Dwight herself stood with a crooked grin on her face. She too was fresh with the morning; a crisp white blouse—long one of her favorite fashion choices—strained over her generous bust, while new jeans accentuated the buxom curves of her hips and backside. Shoulder-length brown hair was parted over her right eye, pinned back behind her ears, and her sleek glasses only slightly muted the amused glimmer in her big brown eyes. “She doesn’t have to rape her boyfriend like you two do! By the way, did you two drunks remember to untie him this time?”
“Oh shut up, Mrs. Mommy Jeans,” was Missy’s slurred rejoinder as she rummaged in the fridge. “Go to your precious forensics lab and leave the rest of us here to die!” The assembled girls heard a voice serenely humming a tune that may or may not have been “How Great Thou Art”—“And that goes for you, too, Krysten!” she added irritably even before the diminutive, petite redhead emerged into the kitchen, which she did presently, dressed carelessly in a loose pink top and light linen trousers accented with white Vans. “Don’t you two have actual living people to annoy?”
“Yes,” came Krysten’s mincing reply, her china-blue eyes both teasing and maternally scolding. “But Chelsea and Felicity are off to Misery Hall for breakfast, so I have to settle for annoying you two!”
“Those two haven’t figured out yet that meal plans aren’t for using unless you’re dying of starvation or suicidal,” Trish said with a titter. “And we’ll leave you two drunks to call AA or something! Come on over to the lab with us, Paula; you don’t have anything to do until the library this afternoon, so why not hang out with us there and let us propagandize you into majoring forensic sciences? Dr. McNeil can get you into the program, no problem.”
Trish, as usual, was spot on as regarded her prospective future sister-in-law. Paula, rummaging in a box of Lucky Charms—forbidden fruit when she lived at home in Wiltontown, thus her favorite food at Chateau Snoop— shrugged. “Well, Richie’s busy until this evening, so I guess I can wallow in the depths of human depravity and evil for a few hours!” A sly glint flickered in her eyes—“Until Richie and I are off tonight and we can wallow in some depravity of our own!”
“Which means I get the sofa-bed tonight, don’t I?” said Trish with a giggle. No one would ever think it of gentle little literary Paula Ryan, would they?
State Police Detective Janet O’Malley was a stocky, direct, no-nonsense woman. There were no frills to her presentation, even on a casual Saturday late morning; a dark-blue, long-sleeved state police polo shirt with tail tucked into clean but unpretentious khaki slacks decorated only with her badge, sensible black flats on her feet. Coarse brown hair pulled into a simple low ponytail. No makeup on the mid-thirtyish face, the brown eyes forthright and blunt. But she was amiable in her businesslike way, especially in the Snowden State crime lab with her best Snowden friend, Dr. Jennifer McNeil. That woman, still energetic in her early sixties, valued forthrightness and honesty more than she did pretension, thus found Janet refreshing company. When that company was augmented with her two favorite juniors, Trish Dwight and Krysten Parker, with her newest project Paula Ryan as a plus-one, “Calico” was content in her familiar lab surroundings.
“This particular methamphetamine,” she said, pointing out the relevant lines on the document projected on the lab’s screen, “ is from an old friend of ours. Check out the percentages of HCl, ephedrine, and iodine; we’ve seen this stuff before.”
“Mm-hmm. Old Bubba’s back at it again, no doubt. I’d bet cash money he’s hiding back up in the hills south of Wiltontown cooking it up. Some people just don’t learn.”
“I’ll get hold of my old friend,” Trish said. “Old Earl Lamm’s still up there somewhere, and if Bubba’s up there too Earl will know about it. He hates the guy’s guts—he thinks meth cooks are dirty slobs.” The assembled ladies laughed; Earl Lamm was Allen County’s most notorious ‘shine distiller.
“The honest moonshiner!” Calico finally said once her giggles faded. “Peoples’ morals are strange sometimes. Even a serial killer”—
The message tone on Janet’s phone—the tone that came from “business” callers—went off, interrupting the discussion. As her eyes scanned the screen, her expression twisted from dry amusement into cool sobriety—she quickly typed a terse reply—
“Bad news,” Calico said presciently.
Janet looked up with somber eyes. “Yeah, that.” A long sigh—“Home invasion. Just reported. Crawford Street, out at the edge of town here. 18921 Crawford Road.”
Trish was instantly on the nearest computer. While she wasn’t as devilishly talented at database hacking as the recently departed-for-marriage Alyson DeRozier, Trish had developed enough skills in that regard to quickly dig up plenty of information about that house and household—and her sharp breath and dropped lip told the rest that what she had found was particularly bad. “What?” Calico’s voice was more tense than she wanted to display—
“Oh crap,” breathed Tricia. “You have that address right, Detective? 18921?” Janet nodded tightly—Trish shook her head, despair in her big brown eyes—“Jesus…you gotta get there. Right now!”
2 These My
Tricia Dwight did not rattle easily anymore. She had survived, but only by the hardest, Darrell Holman’s murderous spree of the previous year; she had helped Dr. McNeil perform the post-mortem on her own friend Shandi Duggan—even discovering the crucial evidence which turned the case—and physically survived being abducted by Holman himself. Since then, her shell had hardened enough that the reaction now on her face was enough to startle her professor and adviser, not to mention the detective. Krysten hurried to look at the screen at Trish’s fingertips, and her horrified gasp confirmed Janet and Calico’s suspicions that something about 18921 Crawford Road was particularly ominous. “What is it?” demanded Detective O’Malley.
Krysten looked up at them with eyes already moist. She too had survived Holman, but the scars of her torture at his hands could still be seen a year later. “A family. Jeremy and Kimberly McBride. Two children, Samantha and Caleb.”
Janet checked her phone screen. “That adds up. Husband was out last night, mother alone with the kids. Time…” Her brow furrowed. “You’re right, girls—we need to get there. You three have just been drafted as the response team.” Paula started—“You too, Paula. It’s what you get for being in that detective club at the high school.” Paula had been a founding member of the Darius Allen High School Detective Club until her graduation last May. “Trish, you and Krys be ready to examine for trace.” The two coeds shared a dark glance; they hoped that their work would not involve certain types of trace evidence…
From the back seat of Detective O’Malley’s cruiser, Trish immediately spotted Jeremy McBride as he stood trembling on his front porch, trying to speak to a uniformed officer. The house itself was a well-lived-in frame house with a small addition and a detached garage, in need of a few roof shingles and some driveway patch but otherwise in very livable shape. Trish had spotted him because she had quickly rousted up his and his wife’s driver’s license photos on the state DMV database. Jeremy was a maintenance technician at the Miller Lake electric power station, Kimberly a rare example of a stay-at-home mother. A quick check had also provided some basic background on the two children: Samantha, eleven, was starting out at Snowden Middle School; Caleb, two years younger, went to Snowden Elementary. Withal, a young family desperately trying to hold onto a dream from an earlier generation. A dream Trish suspected was in shattered ruins at that moment. The man’s expression, woe barely controlled by the last limits of his self-control, was evidence in itself that the scene inside would not be in any way pleasant.
As soon as Janet shut off her cruiser, one of the loitering uniforms moved out crisply toward it, at the detective’s door as she emerged from it. The look on his face as he glanced at the three young coeds itself questioned their presence. “From Snowden State, Dr. McNeil’s team.” Dr. McNeil’s nod confirmed Janet’s not-completely-accurate affirmation. “They’re briefed to get reports on the call.” The man was still uncertain—another bad sign, Trish knew. His thoughts were clear to her—three young women, perhaps not strong enough to hear the details. “Tricia Dwight and Krysten Parker,” Calico indicated with quick gestures, “and a new intern. I’m sure you know the names, officer; they dealt with the Darrell Holman case.” He nodded, but his eyes were still dubious. “Tell us what we have so far.”
The officer cleared his throat and drew a deep breath, and Trish and Krysten both knew calamity awaited inside. “From what we can get from Mrs. McBride, the break-in was about three this morning. Mr. McBride was on his first night working cat-eye at the power plant, stayed a little after his shift to talk to a supervisor. Came home and discovered the scene; he called it in to us about an hour ago. Prior to that, he…well, tried to take care of the situation himself. Can’t blame him that.”
Detective O’Malley’s eyes narrowed. “Fatalities?”
“None, ma’am. But it’s still…well, pretty rough. We might need some counseling here.”
“We’ll take care of it, Jack. Give us what you know.”
He sighed again. “Like I said, ma’am, best guess on the break-in time is about three. A man woke Mrs. McBride and forced her into the hall; another one had woken the children and also forced them into the hall. From there, the two men forced the three of them into the basement. It’s half built-up, a little bit of a workshop and a TV room. Some old furnishings and a TV set. Once they were in the TV room, the invaders restrained the family and…” He hesitated. “You’re sure these girls are cleared, ma’am?”
“I already told you that, Jack.” But she too had read his eyes, and knew he himself was in no condition to tell what she already could tell was a horrifying story. No point in making him rehash it, she decided. “We’ll take it from here. Clear the scene so my trace people here can get to work.”
The officer nodded, obviously relieved. “The house is clear and secure, ma’am. Rescue squad took the mother and kids to Center City General. It’s all yours.” He gestured to the other troopers on the porch; one put her head inside, and another pair of uniforms emerged and headed for their cruisers, leaving only one out front to supervise the taped-off crime scene.
“You and me to the hospital,” said Detective O’Malley to Dr. McNeil. “We’ll conduct the interviews and get the medical reports.”
Calico nodded curtly. “I’ll get Ginger and Missy over here”—
Trish cringed. “Umm, Missy isn’t doing anyone much good right now. Overindulged last night. Is Mrs. DeRozier still on your Rolodex, Doc? She could probably use a break from her extended honeymoon!”
Dr. McNeil cast Trish a quick smile. “Good call. We could use a certified evidence tech running the scene. I think I‘ll bring in your sister Meg, too. She’s getting good, and with Ginger here she might see things here on-site that could help with a profile.” A firm nod, and after a few words to Mr. McBride which brought him into the car, the detective and the professor were back into the cruiser, leaving the three Snoop Towers girls to their work.
“What are we looking for?” said Paula timorously. It was her first crime scene, and from what she had already heard, a very bad one.
“You heard the doc,” said Trish. “Trace. Document blood, hair, fibers, anything obvious. She’ll want us to document the scene with video and pictures, and genius that I am, I was in such a hurry that”—
“That you left me to save the day!” said Krysten, producing two cameras out of her voluminous bag. “l get video, you take the stills. Just stay with us, Paula, and if you see anything out of place, let us know.”
Their steps were cautious even outside as they approached the house. “Too many footprints to see anything,” said Trish. “Let’s try the front door.” Up to the porch, and she stared hard at the opened front door. “Nothing. No forced entry here. Either they had a key or”—
“Or they used a different door,” said Paula uncertainly. “Maybe in the back.”
Trish tossed Krysten a surprised glance, then smiled at Paula. “Not bad! Even at three in the morning, there was a chance that someone could see them from the road if they went in the front. Okay, so let’s try the back.” Trish led the way, careful steps to avoid any footprints which might have been left. But a narrow concrete-paved walkway led around the house to the kitchen door, and with no other footmarks visible to the three girls, the invaders’ path seemed obvious. A small wooden porch awaited them in the back, painted in faux redwood stain. And behind the closed screen door—“Score one for Paula,” and Trish pointed out the scratched and gouged lock plate on the door frame, from which the door itself stood jarred open. “Entry point,” said Trish as she snapped pictures of the frame and door. “Be careful, we don’t want to disturb trace.” But the kitchen itself seemed to offer no obvious evidence; everything was in a sort of lived-in order, from the scattering of dishes still awaiting washing in the sink to the boxes of kids’ cereal lined up on the counter beside the small pantry—
“Missing knives in the knife rack.” Krysten’s voice was a whisper, as if the house was still asleep and she did not want to wake them.
Trish spared a glance. “Maybe they just lost them. Those are pretty cheap knives. Dollar-store class, I’d say. But keep an eye out anyway.” The kitchen opened on a small central hallway; across the hall was a living room walled up with painted drywall and carpeted inexpensively, at the far end a door which hung ajar, a staircase to the second floor just inside the front door. Trish, leading the way, glanced into the living room. “Cable box but no TV,” she said, pointing out the faux-wood entertainment center. Near the door was a small side table on which sat two remotes. “Sceptre remote. Cheap. They didn’t have anything top-end here, did they? The whole house is furnished in Early American Particleboard!” Despite the quip, both her friends could sense the tension in Trish’s voice, and both knew enough of Trish’s family history to know that she was very familiar with the inexpensive style Trish had labeled Early American Particleboard.
“Nothing looks disturbed here,” said Krysten, still half-whispering. “We can come back to it. Let’s try the upstairs. That was where the family was.” Trish ceded the lead to her redheaded friend, who picked her way up the stairs along a wall, the better to not disturb any footprints on the bare wood treads. The trio emerged into a hallway much like the lower one, two rooms giving off each side of the hall. The doors were all open. “Parents’ room here on the right, and that on the other side…some kind of play room,” said Krysten, her voice even lower. Paula sensed that the lowering of Krysten’s voice correlated with a rise in the tension in her face and shoulders. “The kids’ rooms down the hall.” The two far doors had small decorative placards wrought in carved wood; the one with the baseball glove labeled “Caleb’s Room,” the one carved into ballet slippers “Samantha’s Room.”
“One woke the mother, the other one woke the children,” said Paula, drawing glances from her two more experienced friends. “One of them had to go past the parents’ room. Isn’t that taking a risk?”
“What better way to control the mother than through the kids?” said Krysten, her eye still on the eyepiece of the video camera. “Threaten the kids to make the mother cooperate.”
Trish nodded, edging down the wall of the hallway to reach the far end in order to avoid any unnoticed but potentially valuable footprints. “One man to control a nine-year-old and an eleven-year-old. He has to get them one at a time, so which one first? The older girl or the younger boy?” She peered inside Caleb’s room; Paula, following Trish’s lead on the opposite wall, did the same into Samantha’s room. “The boy is younger, but boys are more prone to acting out. Let’s face it, girls, we’re taught to be good and obey. We’re not all that liberated, are we?”
“Samantha’s bed is partly made,” said Paula. “Would the man take the time to let her do that if he still had to control the boy?”
Trish gave Paula another impressed smile. “Probably not. I don’t see anything to prove it one way or the other, but it makes sense. When they interview the family, we’ll get the details. So…from here to the basement.”
None wanted to make the trip, but the job demanded it. They descended carefully, the same way they had ascended, down into the first-floor hallway and to the basement door at its end. Trish, still in the lead, opened and led the way down. A landing inside the door took a left turn, descending into the middle of the basement. At the foot of the stairs, an open doorway to the left revealed a small concrete-floored workshop; the one on the right opened into the TV room mentioned by the officer. No light was on inside; the only light was from sunlight filtering through thin curtains set over small windows near the low tiled ceiling of the room. Trish saw, from her vantage point in the doorway, the same inexpensive carpet as in the living room. An old stuffed chair a few feet into the room, a cheap self-assembled futon on the opposite wall askew behind a cheap coffee table. A TV stand with no TV, merely abandoned cables. The remote, on a small table beside the stuffed chair, was another off-brand. Trish did not have to say what Paula and Krysten both knew she was thinking—Early American Particleboard. No ceiling light was set, but a stand lamp stood beside the futon, and a smaller one on the table by the chair. Trish cast a glance around the room, her gaze settling finally on the far wall—
“Oh holy Christ!” Her squeaked interjection brought Paula and Krysten over her shoulder, following Trish’s stricken gaze—
To a small pile of children’s clothing lying abandoned on the floor. Two gasps behind her told Trish that Krysten and Paula had just seen what she had—and understood its meaning.
“Pajamas!” gasped from Paula’s lips—
None could speak for long moments; none could even see the rest of the night’s evidence lying pooled around the room. A horrified trance drew Trish a few steps into the room, followed by Krysten and Paula. With an effort, Trish raised the camera to take stills of the woeful little pile of evidence—“Tricia,” said Paula in a still whisper, “look around. Rope on the floor.”
Trish shook away the horror gathering in her imagination, spying the three piles of rope. One was draped on the futon, one at the far end of the coffee table, and one at the foot of the stuffed chair atop an abandoned nightgown. Near them, abandoned strips of gray duct tape. “Restrained,” Trish muttered, her voice a strained squeak. “And the children were moved after their clothes were…” She found she could not speak further. Her hands trembled as she took a fast set of snaps of the clothes and the ropes and the tape. Beside her, Krysten recorded to scene on video.
Paula, with nothing to do but gaze at the evidence, was the first to see—“Blood. Blood on the coffee table.” Trish and Krysten started, turned stricken eyes toward the spot pointed out by Paula’s hand. “Just a little. A few drops. But from what?”
Trish eyeballed the distance from the end of the table to the spot where the small smear of blood lay dry. About the length of a child’s torso. But which one? She cast her eyes around the dim room. “We need light.” She fully entered the room—“More spots. Headed…” She followed the small trail of blood spots—“Here,” she said, her voice strangled. “The boy’s clothes.” She squatted over the pile. Two piles lay at her feet, mingled at their edges as if disturbed by feet, but distinct at the range Trish gazed upon it. One pajama set was pink and powder blue, decorated with hearts and butterflies; the other, smaller, a dark blue set decorated with Power Rangers. Trish peered closely, unwilling to disturb the pile and dislodge evidence, then—“There. The collar of the boy’s top. Blood on the collar, dripped down the front.” She examined the drops as closely as the dim light allowed. “Nosebleed. Either stress, or he was hit. It was the boy on the coffee table. From here, they brought him to the table there, and”—
Krysten squeaked, and Trish saw that her friend stooped above the end of the table, her blue eyes wide with horror. “Trish…over here…the floor…more blood.” Trish followed Krysten’s gaze, and indeed saw a small puddle of blood drops on the floor just at the end of the table. Paula, quivering, had edged into the room, and with a tissue over her hand switched on the futon lamp—which revealed two small depressions in the old carpet between the small puddle. Trish felt her heart squeeze and tumble, felt her stomach sicken. Her ugly surmise was confirmed by another pair of indentations, larger and deeper, straddling the smaller ones—and she fought back a sudden heave of her stomach—
“Holy fucking Christ.” The voice at the doorway, distinctly sharp and ironic even with its tone muted in horror, was unequivocally Ginger’s. Tricia—Paula and Krysten too—glanced back to the door to see Ginger in the doorway, flanked behind her shoulders by a tall, slender brunette and a taller, statuesque, bespectacled blonde. Megan Dwight and Alyson DeRozier, nee Carson. All three stared soul-struck at the scene they surveyed. “It’s a fucking torture chamber.” None could disagree…
Alyson Carson DeRozier was as horror-struck as her friends on the scene, but as the senior person on the scene, and certified in evidence-handling, she nevertheless took charge. Tricia and Krysten would continue to document the scene with stills and video. Megan and Ginger, both training in criminal profiling, would head down to Center City General to help with victimology. As for Paula, as someone still a civilian, it was time for her to go back home to Snoop Towers; Megan and Ginger would drop her off on the way to Center City. Young Mrs. DeRozier herself would gather as much trace as she could.
Paula was as shaken as ever she had felt as Megan and Ginger drove her back to Chateau Snoop. Not even the shattering morning almost a year ago when she had learned of her friend Kellie Kirk’s suicide had struck her with the force of the scene in the McBride basement. She forced herself to not cry in front of the other two; it would wait until she was dressing for work at the library. Even that plan was delayed when the traveling party discovered Felicity Mabrey and Chelsea Parker at the house when they arrived. Megan had been in contact with Dr. McNeil on the way to the house, and the news that counseling-major Felicity was available was welcomed by the professor. On a weekend noontime, there was no counselor on staff at the hospital, and she had made clear to Megan and Alyson that one was very badly needed. Felicity, upon hearing a precis of the events on Crawford Road, volunteered to speak to the victims; Chelsea tagged along as moral support.
Even alone, Paula found herself too shaken to cry. It was a scene she had hardly imagined could be real; it seemed like something out of one of Ginger’s Criminal Minds episodes. The idea that someone could attack children in the ways the forlorn evidence in that basement had hinted was beyond her power to comprehend—until she thought back to her lost friend Kellie. What had been visited upon Caleb and Samantha McBride had also been visited upon her friend; what had been the cataclysm of one monstrous night for the two McBride children and their mother at the hands of strangers had been a years-long secret torture for Kellie at the hands of the man she had known as her father. Only then did Paula cry, as much for Kellie as for Caleb and Samantha. It was a mourning she carried to the library at the end of a ten-block walk to the big new library building on Main Street, and one the assistant librarian, a pale middle-aged woman with dyed-blonde hair done up like a 1980s housewife and clothes like a 1990s soccer mom, could not help but notice and inquire after; Paula could do nothing but shake her head and wander toward a pile of un-shelved books. The soccer-mom librarian followed her. “Something happened, Paula, I can tell. Is it something at home? You can tell me.”
The eyes Paula turned toward her sowed consternation on her face. “No, Mrs. Livermore. Not from home. And I can’t tell you. It’s…well, police business. Tricia—my roommate, you know—they got a call from Detective O’Malley and…” She blinked hard, sill trying to erase the scene in the McBride basement from her memory. “It was just bad.”
“A murder? Like last year, Darrell Holman and those poor girls he”—
Paula shook her head. “No, Mrs. Livermore. Worse.”
“Worse than murder? What’s worse than that?” The woe in Paula’s eyes began to stir understanding in the librarian’s eyes…
Even before the very first day, far back in middle school, that Felicity Mabrey deliberately tousled her raven-black hair into a carefully messy-looking coif, spiced it up with a red flower stuck over her right ear, and donned the piratey black and white stripes that had been her prime fashion choice ever since, she had been known for her imagination. In social studies, she was far better at picturing the lives of the people she studied than she was at memorizing trite places and dates; in math, her success was much more from intuitively understanding the language of numbers than from memorizing formulae and equations from rote drill and practice; her talent for understanding the characters and times in the stories she read had made her the darling of her English teachers. Imagination had grown in her teens into a talent for empathy; she was famous among the troubled at Darius Allen High for her intuitive understanding of others’ troubles, and therefore had become her class’s “advice columnist,” even to the point of having her own column in the school’s newspaper, the Darius Allen High Vista.
Now, that imagination betrayed her by its persistence. All she had needed was the handful of words which had stuck in her head during the drive from Snowden to the Center City hospital; McBride. Home invasion. Rape. Ginger, the young woman with whom Felicity shared a bedroom, had been unusually reticent as she described the scene she had witnessed in the McBride basement, but all Felicity’s imagination had required to run onto its own tangent were those few words.
McBride. Samantha McBride. It was a name which carried a face. A soft oval, a smattering of freckles over a small pointed nose, shy brown eyes whose color matched that of the hair the child kept back in a topknot ponytail decorated with a simple, plebeian ribbon. Eyes which seemed to keep to themselves as she warmed up at the barre of the dance academy, seemingly ashamed of her second-hand leotard among a ten-to-twelve class seemingly filled with classmates decked out in the latest, finest, most exquisite outfits, always-pristine slippers, stylish hair clips, fancifully primped hair extensions. And nearby, always, Felicity’s own youngest sister Charity. A certain odd simpatico had developed between the eleven-year-old Samantha and her classmate Charity; neither went in for finery rampant among the darlings of their upper-middle-class mothers. Even though in Jerkface’s case the simplicity of her plain leotard and unpretentious pigtails had come from a nature which disdained girlish extravagance rather than the austerity which was the only means by which the McBrides could afford to allow Samantha her dream of dance studies, the two tended to stick close to each other. Seeing Samantha in her sense memory entailed seeing Jerkface too, the two plain Janes stretching out long legs at the barre before the class began. More bits and pieces arranged themselves about the trim little brunette girl—Samantha. There were two other Samanthas in the class, one answering to Sam, the other to Sammi—but Samantha McBride insisted on her full name. She accepted no diminutions, no nicknames; her name was Samantha, and she insisted in being called that name. It was, Felicity mused, perhaps one tiny bit of pride Samantha could muster about herself. What must she be feeling now?
And the thought of Samantha brought up the other, Caleb. The ash-blond, brown-eyed crew-cut head, the small trim form draped fidgeting over one of the chairs surrounding the polished-wood floor, a little boy bored in his sister’s world. The girls practicing on the floor were of no interest to him, the book Mrs. McBride invariably brought to distract him dulled quickly, and so he would end up wriggling on and around his chair, his sneaker-clad feet bouncing beneath him, his eyes flicking all around him until the blessed surcease of the end of dance class. Sometimes, in the spring, he had a baseball glove, and he would toss himself imaginary pop flies while his sister practiced with her class. As soon as the class ended, he scampered out the door well ahead of both mother and sister, celebrating a blessed release from his enforced quietude. The sporting little brother—and he had endured something last night far worse than anything he had ever faced. How can that little boy endure that? What must he be feeling after—
“We’re here, Liss.” Chelsea, sitting beside her in the back seat of Megan’s car, nudged Felicity’s elbow, and Felicity started as the white-concrete edifice of Center City General Hospital loomed above her. She tried to shake off the thoughts consuming her as Megan Dwight slipped her well-used Hyundai into the parking spot nearest the emergency-department entrance. The ponytailed figure of Detective O’Malley herself greeted them as the small group approached the wide glass doors, but the imminence of the case only served to deepen the oppression of Felicity’s imaginative spirit.
“Meg, Ginger, Felicity. Hello, Chelsea.” There was no casualness in the detective’s greeting. “Dr. McNeil is conferring with the doctors. The boy is in surgery, and she talked them into letting her help; evidence, you know. Mr. McBride is with his wife; they have her sedated. Heavily sedated. I tried to interview her, but she’s not really coherent. The girl, Samantha…they need to do a kit, but she’s too upset. That’s where we need you, Felicity; you know her, so she might respond to you. Megan, you and Ginger can help me with Mr. McBride. Victimology might give us some clues for a profile. When the boy is in recovery, you can talk to him, Felicity; there wasn’t enough damage to put him in serious danger, so it shouldn’t be long. Let’s get to it, ladies.” Phantasms infected Felicity’s imagination as she followed Detective O’Malley inside…
Re-shelving books had been no comfort to Paula. Usually the quiet task soothed any irritations arising from the average day—but today was nothing even vaguely resembling average. Mrs. Livermore could see plainly that Paula’s regular activities were leaving her still unstrung, so she readily acquiesced in Paula’s request that she be allowed to do a little research. Research on local home invasions, she knew. Paula was a good researcher, Mrs. Livermore knew, and would find out whatever was available in the public records.
Paula herself wished that Tricia or the young Mrs. DeRozier were there to help her. Paula had already witnessed Trish’s skill at calling up the records of the McBride family, and had heard stories of Alyson DeRozier’s prowess at hacking; that the young bride was a taller, even more statuesque version of Criminal Minds’ Penelope Garcia was quite a joke to Tricia and the older Snoop Towers residents. They would be able to do more than simply troll the electronic back issues of the Center City Intelligencer, which was all Paula was capable of. But limited as her skills were, Paula was determined to ply them as usefully as possible.
She had three parameters she could use for her search; home invasion, two men, children. The first search of the Intelligencer web site was a failure; no matches. She reduced the search terms; home invasion and two men. Now, she was rewarded with three hits; a home in Mapleton, in Shawnee County near Cold Water Lake, a year ago; a home in Sunny Hill, in the eastern part of Allen County, six years ago; and a home in Snowden itself ten years ago. The Mapleton case had little in common with the nascent McBride case but the number of assailants; an elderly couple was menaced in their own home by two young men ransacking their house for money. No actual violence, sexual or not; no restraint. Of course, she told herself; it was a robbery plain and simple. She had read Capote’s famous In Cold Blood and understood perfectly well that even simple robberies could go horribly wrong, but that had not happened to the old couple in Mapleton. One case to not concern herself about.
The Sunny Hill case was more recent. A Dr. Robert Taylor, his wife Laura, daughters Corey and Candi, the house broken into and robbed by—and Paula realized she knew the case. Tricia was never taciturn about anything, especially old Snoop cases, and this was a case with which Trish had regaled her more than once. Trish had named it “the deadly-dossier case”; her sister Megan and friend Alyson Carson had stumbled upon the old file her dad had kept about mine-safety violations at his old job, and the owner of the mine—who, it had turned out, had had Trish’s dad murdered for it—had struck out at the entire Dwight family, abducting them to their old house trailer to burn them all alive. And Paula remembered exactly what had decoyed them to the trailer—calls by the Taylors to the Dwights about new information in the case, calls forced upon them by the home invaders. Their repayment was to have had their own home burned with them inside, but prompt action by other of the Snoops—and Professor Bentley from the criminal-sciences department—stopped them. Paula found herself looking askance at the article; most of this thing is outright bogus! She thought back to Trish’s recounting of the case; there were many friends of Jim Alton, the murderous owner, and many of his employees who were not ready to hear the truth about the case. So the reporter fudged a number of details and suppressed the real reason for the invasion. For a moment she was tempted to revisit the Mapleton article, but decided to press on and save further Mapleton inquiries for later.
One case left. Snowden, ten years ago. Dr. Fred Howland’s home on Baxter Road on the outskirts of Snowden. Home invaders burglarized the home, but the occupants—Dr. Howland, at work at his animal hospital; Mrs. Carolyn Howland his wife; daughter Bethany; and son Christopher—were not home when the two invaders ransacked the house in a daylight burglary. She re-read the article—home invaders burglarized a house with the occupants away. The literary scholar in Paula rebelled at the odd contradiction in the terms of the article; “burglary” by its traditional use involved empty houses, “home invasion” implied an occupied home. Why use the two terms together in the one article?—
And inspiration struck. Among the many topics freely noised about Snoop Towers, old romances and other amatory adventures were popular fare; and Paula had heard one of her Chateau Snoop roomies—Maggie O’Hara—speak often about dating Chris Howland through high school. A year behind Trish and Maggie’s class, he had to everyone’s surprise gotten a hockey scholarship to Princeton University after a stint in major junior hockey, finagled by a Snowden family who had connections in that area. But Bethany, she knew from her parents’ dealing with the Hillside Animal Hospital that Bethany was still a student at Snowden State. Maybe she could fill in the details of a case which seemed to be left incomplete—or worse, misstated—by the article.
The thought that a path of action lay open to her energized Paula enough to face the rest of her shift in the library. Surely Maggie, as Chris Howland’s ex, would be able to fill in details about the case, and of course the rest of the family was available to add truthful details. She wasn’t yet smiling as she left for home at closing time, but she had rallied from the despair of the morning…
Felicity had held herself together from start to finish. She had entered the emergency room with a gentle, sympathetic, encouraging smile for the shattered girl curled up on the hospital bed; she had sweetly coaxed the girl into facing the ordeal of the kit, holding her hand the entire time while the traumatized child slowly loosened her tongue to speak of the night. When it was all finished, with the sun setting past the mountain ridge and her still-distraught father entering the room, Felicity had left a finally dry-eyed Samantha with a sisterly hug, and walked out of the hospital to the waiting car—
And no sooner had she fallen into her seat in the back than she crumpled against the back of the passenger seat, a faint squeak heralding a earthquake of sobs into arms folded against the seat back. Beside her, Chelsea could do nothing but caress Felicity’s shuddering back while she sobbed out the anguish of the day, rubbing solace between her friend’s quaking shoulder blades with soft fingertips. In front, Megan and Ginger looked on while Felicity wrung out the horrors she had supped full of in the company of Samantha. Forthwith, her shoulders gradually stopped shuddering, the gasping sobs trailed off breathily, and with a shaky gulp she raised a wet face to her friends. Before she could speak, she shook her head, still overwhelmed by what Samantha had told her. Chelsea moved to speak to Felicity, encourage her to talk—but Ginger shook her head at her. No, was the message in her black eyes. Give her space. Let her say what she can in her own time and way. Felicity blinked hard, more tears springing into gray eyes already saturated with horror—
“They…they made her—made her mom watch. Made her watch while they…they made them…made them…” and the horror drowned her again, her face falling into her hands as the earthquake again shook Felicity’s shoulders…
Alyson had finally been relieved by Detective O’Malley returning to the scene at the McBride house, reinforced with more evidence technicians. She had already gathered blood samples from the spots on the floor and coffee table and futon, swabbed up hair samples, and organized the photos and video Trish and Krysten had taken. She had identified the cuts on the ropes as coming from a kitchen knife from the house—clearly done by a horrified Mr. McBride upon discovering his ravaged family—and gotten swabs from the abandoned duct tape. And catalogued the impressions and indentations in the carpet, which along with a shift in the chair’s position betrayed by more indentations in the carpet, made clear that… “They arranged the scene,” she had told the detective. “Turned the chair and the futon so Mrs. McBride was looking straight at…what they did. They forced her to watch.” Words which clung to her memory as she drove back to the estate on the low summit of Turkey Knob on the northern fringe of Center City, the ancestral home of the DeRoziers.
Alyson and Channing had planned on renting their own place after the wedding that summer, but Channing’s parents had insisted that they set up housekeeping in the small, otherwise unoccupied guest house near the tree line surrounding the DeRozier estate. Only on occupying the house did the family realize that the long-empty place was in bad need of maintenance, which led to the young couple being relocated into their own little suite of rooms in the main house. No doubt, Alyson had theorized, to keep Channing under Mrs. DeRozier’s thumb until he got over his temporary insanity (as the elder Mrs. DeRozier saw it) of being married to the déclassé gold-digger Alyson Carson. Alyson did her best to steer clear of her mother-in-law—
But the face which greeted her in the front hall of the expansive house was one she did not at all steer clear of. Marnie, Channing’s elder sister, also lived in the house despite having just finished her law degree and entered employment with a local law firm. Marnie had been blackballed from the Sigma Chi sorority in which her mother had been enrolled, further blackening the family escutcheon by joining their rival Gamma Kappa Epsilon sorority, which sisterhood Alyson herself had joined. It had made the two young women sisters of a sort, and Alyson always enjoyed Marnie’s intelligent, modest company. “It was a bad one, I see,” the young, elegant brunette said gently to Alyson as she opened the front door. “Want to talk about it?” Alyson shook her head and edged past her sister-in-law, in search of her husband…
“It was good last night.”
The other nodded. “Yeah, good. Real good.”
“I want to do it again. It’s comin’ up inside me. I want to do it again.”
“Yeah, me too.”
4 My More
Richie Dwight was very good at reading his girlfriend Paula’s moods, and the news from his sister Trish that she and the rest of the Snoop Towers Snoops had been investigating a particularly nasty home invasion, only made the more clear to him that Paula needed moral support that night more than romance.
And most of the rest of Snoop Towers also needed that support. Drinking-age laws notwithstanding, Trish and Krysten, with the full assent of Ginger, had decided that the denizens of Chateau Snoop needed a bit of the grape to settle their nerves. Or at least they did, and the rest could come along for the ride, Paula included. After a few hours cataloguing the trace samples for the local and state police and working up the DNA fingerprint for the two men on the university’s old but serviceable RFLP equipment, Trish easily convinced Ginger to put her freshly-legal ID to use at the Beer ‘N Wine Barn at the far end of Schaefer Street for a clutch of large bottles of Arbor Mist sangria. Sweet wine seemed to her to be the best choice for three traumatized freshmen who legally weren’t quite allowed to drink but needed it.
Trish, seated beside her fiancé Bobby Martin on the Chateau Snoop sofa, his arm around her shoulders, stared down into the dark red filling her wineglass, crusted with a few crystals of the extra sugar with which she had charged her drink. “You know what kills me?” The other girls, reinforced with Richie, gazed somberly at the most devoted investigator of the group. “We have them right in that DNA. Everything about them is there—hair color, eye color, ethnicity, everything. If they’re right about telomerase strings, we even have their approximate age. And I can’t get at it! They’re right there, so completely I could pick them out of a lineup, and I can’t get at them! Just…to know the right codings on the right chromosomes for all the identifiable things, and we could practically put out wanted posters, but…”
Bobby squeezed his fiancée’s shoulders. “Yeah, we know.” It was Trish’s regular jeremiad; if only the genetic codings for physical traits could be mapped out, unidentified suspects could be accurately described using nothing but DNA. It was her young professional obsession, and she tracked every development in the study of DNA and human traits, even getting herself invited by Dr. McNeil to a number of genetic conferences. “But it seems to me that for now your business is to figure out who these two guys are with what you have.”
From her seat on the overstuffed chair beside the sofa, Krysten smirked. “Which pretty much doesn’t amount to anything unless the DNA fingerprint comes up with a match in the databases. And by the time we find that out, who knows where they’ll be? All we’re really able to do right now is catalogue all the trace evidence for the police, and just wait. It’s all we have.” Nods from Missy and Ginger affirmed miserable agreement.
“You’re saying all we have is one family ripped apart by a couple monsters,” said Felicity, cross-legged on the floor across from the sofa, her wine glass already empty. Beside her, Chelsea, still caressing her friend’s shoulder encouragingly, eyed the wine bottles and considered pouring more for her.
Paula sat cradled in Richie’s lap where he lounged against the edge of the weighty old used-furniture-store-refugee coffee table in front of the sofa. His big soft embrace had rallied her, and between his embrace, the wine, and the information she had found in the library that day, she nerved herself to speak what had stirred her thoughts ever since the library shift. “Maybe not. There might be more.” Every Snoop eyes turned toward her, and her native shyness trembled a little at the attention. Richie didn’t know what Paula had to contribute to the discussion, but he could tell she needed his moral support—he squeezed her a little bit more—“I…was doing a little research at the library. Mrs. Livermore saw I was upset, and so she let me do a little research when I asked, and”—she gulped at the get-on-with-it glimmer in Trish’s bespectacled brown eyes, and refocused—“well, anyway…there was an article in the paper about ten years ago about another home invasion here in Snowden. Dr. Howland’s house. It was confusing, because the article called it a home invasion but said that no one was home at the time. And when I looked up the article about James Alton’s men who attacked your friend’s family, Tricia, I saw that the article”—
“Yeah, they faked a lot of it,” said Trish. “Jim Alton had a lot of weight in the county, and they didn’t want to make it sound like he was…well, what he was actually doing. They don’t treat him so nicely since everything came out at his trial.”
“And you’re thinking Maggie knows something about the Howlands,” said Krysten, returning to Paula’s point. “There’s not much to it. It was the summer before you moved to Snowden, Trish, going into sixth grade. The whole thing upset them, of course—they went away for a few weeks, as I remember—but when they came back they never really talked about it. He might never have said anything to Maggie about it.”
Trish murmured. “And ten years ago. That’s a long time.”
Missy reached for the wine, then stopped, seeming to wince at the thought of another hangover. “But still…you know, that was about when Bethany started…” She hesitated, seeing all eyes on her. “She was always quiet, kind of a bookworm, but…now that I think about it, she really started withdrawing from people, I guess you’d say. We know how that turned out.” The older Snoops certainly did; their classmate Bethany Howland, by the end of their school years, had become a hard-shelled introvert, with no social life they could recall. No close friends. Absolutely no romances. Hair dyed a deep reddish-black hue and a heavy frame dressed in absolutely nothing stylish or creative. An impenetrable barrier between her and the rest of the world beyond her family. A Snowden State major in historical research, a major perfect for a social recluse. Bethany Howland had tuned out the world.
“Lots of people change about that age, though,” said Felicity, reaching for more wine for herself. “Puberty does that to a lot of people.”
Krysten had been struck by Missy’s recollection. She stared into her sangria, her brow knitted. “Mrs. Howland was my Girl Scout leader. She still runs the troop. I remember after the burglary she started doing a lot of things about safety. Stranger awareness, things like that.”
Ginger shrugged. “That doesn’t tell much. She’d do that even if it was just a regular burglary. The same with Bethany; a burglary right at that age—what, eleven, twelve?—might have really affected her. And ten years ago. We’d have to just come right out and ask her.”
“Well, it’s worth a try,” said Trish. “We really don’t have any other evidence to go on, do we?”
He had hardly had to travel. The house was a brisk walk away, bordering the edge of Independence Park. His research told him the place would be almost perfect; quiet and detached, and the right kind of people inside. In fact, from his quiet place across the street from the 60’s-vintage rancher, he watched one of them enter.
His face was younger than the age on the ID photo the research had dug up from the Allen County Community College server, a slim frame accentuating the smooth, large-eyed face. Nothing robust about him, light and lean. And inside, the other…yes, he decided, a smile on his face. He’ll like this one. He’ll like this one a lot. And we can even get an earlier start, have hours to play. The door closed on the slim young man; as soon as it did, he walked away, already making plans…
Richie had finally taken Paula upstairs, leaving Tricia to the living-room sofa-bed. Bobby had left not long after midnight, leaving Tricia still keyed up about the McBride case but unable to take any steps. Solace for her was in her study, as always—the stroke of one found her pacing the living room working on her chromosome locations for various disorders, distracted only by thoughts of what a strand of DNA could reveal about an unknown criminal. Her mind swirled around cytosine, adenine, guanine, and thymine—“Paula throw you out of your room? Or is your brother up there entertaining her?” Trish’s concentration was broken by Maggie’s wry observation—
And Trish remembered the other reason she was so willing to take the living-room bed. “Just thinking through a case from today. A home invasion out on Crawford Road. A mom and her kids.” And even had Paula’s research not suggested hypotheses to Tricia, the quickly-smothered consternation in Maggie O’Hara’s eyes would have drawn Trish’s attention. Maggie’s hurried turn back to the coat rack to deposit her jacket, in Trish’s eyes, fairly screamed evasion, raising Tricia’s uneasy suspicions even higher. She nerved herself to ask—
“I’m beat. I think I had a few too many. Hannah’s even worse off—she’s staying over at GKE House. She’ll be hung over even worse tomorrow than she was today. ‘Night.” And before Trish could ask, Maggie was up the stairs in a most suspicious hurry…
She didn’t mind having the early-morning breakfast shift at the Denny’s. She was a natural early riser, and liked making money while having her afternoons free for classes and her own relaxation and entertainment. Her brother might be content to part-time at ACCC and work at the Staples—no, she would remind herself, that was uncharitable; he was serious about his IT studies, and helping the service techs at the big-box office house was as useful an entré to the field as any other—but she had bigger aspirations. Two years at ACCC, then finish her elementary-education degree work at Snowden State. Waiting tables for the early-morning breakfast crowd at Denny’s was a valuable exercise in human relations, helpful for learning how to deal with the parents she would face in her future career. And the busy pace was already helping to shed a few pounds; she had already had to reduce her uniform a size, with prospects of yet another. The regulars—mostly older couples, old enough to be her grandparents in many cases—often complimented her on her weight loss, and she had even drawn the eye of a couple boys in the ACCC student union, one of whom had gone out of his way to speak to her in the school’s canteen. Maybe he’ll get up the nerve to ask me out, she again wondered with a smile as she brushed her reddish-brown hair back into a sleek little ponytail appropriate for her shift at the restaurant. No, she teased herself with a smile as she secured her ponytail in place with a pair of demure hair clips behind her ears and brushed down the shoulders of her uniform shirt, maybe I should ask him out! Something simple at first—a lunch downtown in Center City, a stroll around Independence Park afterward, and then—
The doorbell struck away her reverie, and she involuntarily checked the small Timex watch already strapped to her right wrist. Who would be at the door at five-thirty in the morning? Maybe Dad—no, he’s not due for two more days, and why would he ring his own doorbell anyway? Nothing happened to him on his trip, could it? No, he or Mr. Barnaby would call us. The bell rang again, a quick punch. She smirked at her reflection in the mirror—well, no one else is awake, so I guess it’s up to me to answer. Mom would sleep in an extra hour and still have time to go to church, and Spence will be dead to the world until almost noon after such a late night with his friends last night. She sighed and padded through the dark hallway, peeked out the small window in the front door into the dim pre-morning—
No one there. If this is some prank by those little twerps down the road, they’re going to be sorry! I’ll—and she saw a small box on the front stoop. Does FedEx deliver at this time in the morning? A long moment of deliberation, and she stepped onto the stoop—leaned down to pick up the package—
She didn’t even have time to gather a breath to scream—
Krysten was unfazed by the pre-dawn darkness which presented itself to her through the basement windows. She was the earliest riser in Chateau Snoop, comfortable with waking to darkness; she glanced at Missy, with whom she had shared the basement “guest room” bed to allow Paula and Richie their private time, and smiled at her stone-asleep old friend. It was like the old times of their childhood, sleepovers finished off in Missy’s bed, Krysten always awake long before Missy would stir. She had spent many a post-sleepover morning chatting with Ms. Bonhart in the kitchen, helping make breakfast, until Missy awoke to begin her day. But the kitchen upstairs in Snoop Towers was still and dark; no friends’ mothers to welcome her awake. She passed the living room, and saw that other best friend in the world Tricia also stretched in perfect slumber. She knew exactly why Trish had taken the sofa-bed, and wondered idly whether she had gotten to talk to Maggie about the Howland burglary/invasion. For a moment she considered waking Trish to ask, but she had also had far too much experience with Trish in a semi-conscious state to bother with the effort. No, she decided, she would shower and dress, grab a bite for breakfast, and when Trish finally woke up, she would find out what if anything Trish had discovered. It would make for a smoother-run morning…
Her heart was pounding so loudly that she could barely hear the words whispered into her ear at her brother’s bedroom door. Only the knife blade at her throat kept her able to hear and respond to the man’s threats—“Get him out here, bitch. And if you try anything to warn him, I’ll cut your fuckin’ head off.” The other man—taller, leaner, but with his features hidden by the ski mask—waited at the door, his own knife in his hand. “And I’ll cut him and your mom up into dog food, so mind what you do.”
Sarah tried to steady a voice she knew she would not be able to control, the knife and the words and the two masked invaders leaving her in a state on blank terror. Her hesitation provoked the man to dig the knife blade a millimeter deeper into the flesh of her throat—she fought back a whimper—“Spence? Spencer, are you awake?” The knife edge changed its angle a degree—“Spencer?” She heard him shift on his bed, as if he had heard his name but was too sleepy to immediately respond—“Spence, I need you for a second.” A somnolent grumble from behind the door, the sleepy protest at having his sleep disturbed once again by his insistent sister. “Please?” and she knew her plea was as much for the two invaders as it was for her brother. Another whimper boiled up in her throat as she heard sleepy feet scuffle along the floor behind his door…
Chelsea had remained in her own rock-like sleep as Krysten had gathered her toiletries for her morning shower. After the luxuriantly long shower that was the regular reward for her early-rising habits, she returned to her bedroom in the first translucence of gray morning light to see her younger sister shifting on her bed, sleep loosening its grip on her but not yet vanquished by wakefulness. Morning carried a hint of chill in the air which teased Krysten’s bare flesh as she replaced her bathrobe on its hook inside the door, so she hurried to her dresser and selected her outfit for morning. Services at the First United Methodist Church were the usual centerpiece of her Sunday routine, and the morning chill suggested an outfit a bit warmer than she had been selecting through summer and early autumn; a modest calf-length half-sleeve dress in an earthy brownish-red hue, heavier cotton than the dresses she wore for services during the warmer months. Sheer hose and red flats which matched her dress. The lustrous gold cross on its heavy gold chain which Tyler had bought for her when he moved west for the show. As she dressed, starting with her most modest underwear for the occasion, she smiled at her sister, slowly rising from the depths of her sleep. She usually knew better than to try to bug Chelsea into going to church with her; worship services were something she had left behind when she moved into Snoop Towers. For Krysten, however, services were a touchstone for her, calming and re-focusing her after a long hectic week—and yesterday had left her more unsettled than she would be after any normal week. It was so for Chelsea too, and as she wriggled into her unmentionables, Krysten wondered whether this morning was one in which she might actually succeed at convincing her sister to try church again…
The men wasted no subtlety on the business of waking Mrs. Merritt; with both of her children under control, knives at both their throats, there was no need to decoy or coax the woman out of her room. With Sarah held immobile, tight against the older man—as her panicked reason suggested to her that he was—Spencer was allowed only enough motion to reach down and open his mother’s unlocked door, even that digging his throat against the knife the leaner, younger man held to him. “Get up, bitch.” The older one glanced at the younger one as the woman—wavy brown hair with a scattering of gray, soft round face with only a few nascent lines gathering at the corners of the eyes and lips, a soft maternal frame draped with a modest, simple nightie—stirred against her pillow, far from wakefulness. “Get the fuck up!” louder and rougher, but still no open eyes—and he wrenched the tip of his knife blade down into Sarah’s flesh—she squealed as the tip nicked into her—and the woman’s eyes flicked open—started—blinked away her sleep—then lit upon the sight of her two children with knives at their throats held by two ski-masked men—
Pre-dawn gray had begun resolving into blue clarity as Krysten slipped her feet into her red flats, the last bit of her morning preparations. Her clothes were immaculate, her hair pinned back neatly without a single stray strand, her makeup—conservative but smart—smooth and perfect. She would, as usual for Sunday, eschew breakfast until after the early service; she found her appetite was all the sharper after church—and besides, her mother would almost certainly have sent her traditional Sunday invitation to her daughters to breakfast at home. The invitation would of course be for everyone in the Chateau, which meant that the only issue Krysten would have would be keeping Ginger from flirting with her mother. It was an old Ginger O’Day routine, her way of rallying the newly-abandoned and –divorced Mrs. Parker into renewing her social and romantic life, kept up even after her efforts had borne fruit in the guide of the much younger Shaun Walker. But Ginger O’Day hitting on Mom would be a small annoyance beside a comforting church service and a home-cooked meal which she did not have to cook…
“Please, Sarah’s cut, she’s hurt”—but Mrs. Merritt had barely moved a foot to go to her daughter’s aid before the younger man, between the two, nearly felled her with a vicious backhand slap to her face with the hand which still clutched his knife; the clenched hand and the handle of the knife made the slap into a short heavy punch.
“You just shut the fuck up and do what we tell you,” said the older man, again angling the edge of the knife against Sarah’s throat. “You got a basement, don’t you? Well?”
The woman tried to steady her feet beneath her, one hand caressing her already-bruised jaw, her eyes stinging with pain-driven tears. “D-downstairs, just a small sitting room, just a few”—
“Shut the fuck up and take us down there. Don’t try any stupid shit.”
She had finally steadied herself, stricken expressions on her children’s faces steeling her to maintain control. “I’ll take you there. But please, just take what you want and I promise we won’t”—and the younger man’s raised hand stopped her plea—
“Don’t you fuckin’ worry about what we want, bitch. You just worry about doing what we tell you. Now show us this basement, and don’t try any stupid shit.” Propelled to the door by the young man’s sudden grip on her elbow, Mrs. Merritt stumbled into the hallway, her mind racing in a search for a way to placate the burglars…
Trish, despite her stone-like sleep, had been vaguely aware of activity beginning to stir in the Chateau. Her eyes opened to morning light filtering through the window curtains, and knew that Krysten would be off to early services at church. How the heck can she be awake at this time on a Sunday? I’m not functional this early, even on Sundays I’m cantoring! But wakefulness would not be denied, so she surrendered to it enough to squint at her phone screen to find the time. Seven in the morning. I don’t want to hear anybody here tease me about sleeping all day! She rolled to the edge of the sofa-bed, tentatively sought the floor with a bare foot. Yes, the floor is still there. I ought to kill Krys for waking me up this early. She wandered toward the main downstairs hallway, and by chance her eye fell on the coat rack—hey, where’s Maggie’s jacket? She left it there last night! There’s no way she’s awake and out of here this early on a Sunday! Not even the one Sunday every month she makes it to Mass gets her up this early! What the heck is with her?
Breakfast in a quiet kitchen. Cooking was far too much work for her when semi-conscious; she couldn’t even rally herself to fix a bowl of cereal. Yeah, a banana. That’ll do. It’s still mostly yellow, even, and no gnats flying around it. Yeah, fresh enough for too early on a Sunday. Where the heck could you have gone to, Maggie?
A quick stop at her bedroom door, cracked open. She peeked inside—Paula and Richie sound asleep. You wore each other out, didn’t you? You could at least put on a nightie when you and my brother are finished, you know, Paula. At least you didn’t leave any of your toys on the floor; I’d have made you clean the whole room! She retrieved her small basket of toiletries and picked fresh underwear from her dresser, cast an eye toward her wardrobe. I really ought to go to Mass this morning—no, Doc McNeil might need me in the lab if they get any more trace. It might even give me time to wake up. For the love of God, Krys, why aren’t you ever happy unless you’re waking me up too early?
Hannah and Maggie’s room half-open as Trish passed on her way to the bathroom. Could Maggie really be—yeah, she really is out of here! What’s up with that? I’m usually the one waking her up! Maybe she went out to the Cook Pot to grab breakfast? No, she wouldn’t bother. Maybe a shower will wake up my brain.
Empty bathroom. Thank God. I get most of the hot water. She adjusted the water in the shower, slumped out of her nightie and dragged herself inside, closed the curtain behind her. Darn you, Krysten…
The older invader gave a satisfied nod. “Yeah, this one’s nice. Real nice.” The carpet was thick dark blue, the sofas—two of them, one rather outdated, the other not as much—plush and comfortable, the two overstuffed chairs matching one of the sofas. The walls were faux brick, the drop ceiling relatively new, straight and level and pierced with a modestly ornate lighted ceiling fan. A modest fireplace at the far end, accoutered with workmanlike tools and a small stack of firewood. Solidly middle-class, as was the 50-inch Sony TV set in a well-assembled store-bought entertainment center. There was some money in the household; perhaps not a lot, but the Merritts were clearly comfortable. Dad on some kind of business trip, no doubt. Perfect. He scanned the room, the sofas, the chairs. We can make it work. The mother and daughter cowered together in the younger man’s grip, the son trembled in his. You know, unless I’m mistaken, this kid might be… “Over there, you little fuckin’ wiener,” and he flung the young man toward the fireplace. The morning carried only a slight chill, which could not account for the tremor which seized Spencer in his tee-shirt-and-shorts sleepwear; as the younger man flung Sarah beside her brother, clad in her work uniform, she too trembled the same way. Terror. Perfect. And now to start—
“Hold still, bitch,” said he as he dragged Mrs. Merritt in front of him with one hand, the other hand digging into the bag his younger colleague wore on his shoulder. The hand emerged with a neatly-cut length of sisal rope, which made the two youths who saw it gape and shudder even more. The cord, as with all sisal rope, was wiry and rough, furred with loose fibers which promised much scraping and digging into bare flesh. The mother, turned away from him, as yet did not see what was intended for her bindings, even as her captor yanked her arms behind her and pinned her wrists together.
But she at the very least understood his immediate intention for her; she was to be tied up. We won’t be able to fight them as they burglarize the house. Stay calm and don’t resist. Let them get their business done so they won’t hurt us. It’s only property, we can replace it. The most important thing is Spencer and Sarah, keep them from coming to harm. Cooperate for their sakes. Even as the man began tying her hands, she kept her voice as even and calm as she could in the frightening situation. “Please…just take whatever you want. We won’t try to stop you, we won’t even call the police. We don’t have all that much, but you’re welcome to take whatever you want. Please.” He remained silent behind her as he continue to play the rough rope on her wrists. “Just don’t hurt us. We aren’t dangerous. Just take what you want and we won’t make any trouble.”
The younger man, behind her shoulder, giggled, a laugh which for the first time hinted to Mrs. Merritt that something other than burglary was in the minds of her captors. “Oh, we’ll take what we want, bitch, you count on that. We’ll take everything we want. From all of you!” He took a step forward, his knife brandished toward Mrs. Merritt’s cowering son and daughter, still fully in her sight as the other man forced her to her knees. “First thing is your clothes, kids. Take ‘em off. All of ‘em. Get naked!” Mrs. Merritt gasped as the enormity of what was intended for her children started to resolve in her imagination—but her protest was choked by a knife blade at her throat—
“You just keep your fuckin’ mouth shut, bitch. Just do what we tell you and watch. Here, I’ll help you do that!” From behind, the knife disappeared, but the gloved hand pried open her mouth while the other rammed a thick cloth between her lips. She could not cry out or protest while the older man finished tying off her gag and the younger man menaced Spencer and Sarah into starting to strip off their clothes…
Felicity blinked herself awake in the cool darkness of her well-curtained bedroom, picked out Ginger’s sleeping form still in her bed. Quarter to eight. Don’t you work today, Ginger? You need to get up out of bed! Felicity herself had rolled herself to a seat on the edge of her bed, ran her hands through her tousled black locks, smacked her lips against the rank taste of her night’s sleep. The previous night’s sangria nagged a little at her head, a smidgen of headache behind her bleared eyes. And people actually think spending a night drinking their asses silly is somehow fun. Idiots.
And if it was supposed to make me feel better about yesterday—yeah, not so much. Her dreams had centered on that chill, antiseptic emergency-room cubicle, Samantha McBride curled up and trembling on the bed in a skimpy hospital gown, unable to look straight at Felicity, blinking at her through shaking fingers. But her dreams merged into a Sherlock-style scene, each horrid act perpetrated on the child hovering over her in legible words, words which stabbed at her stomach even as she rose from the bed to gather her shower materials. And her imagination reeled again at the thought of what had been done to her little brother—
“When you finally pry Trish out of the shower, get dressed and go down to the hospital. Samantha needs to know you’re still there to help her.” Felicity had started for a moment, then located Ginger’s eye glimmering up at her from her pillow. How did she—“And you need to see that she’s going to be okay.” Felicity nodded as she gathered her bathrobe…
Mrs. Merritt could not voice the scream that gathered in her throat; her gag choked off her voice, filled her mouth so that she had to fight to keep from choking on the cloth which stifled her. A scream was the only protest she could make at the scene searing her sight; she knelt bound on the floor, her bound hands tied to her bound ankles in a kneeling hogtie. Even though she had nearly torn her arms out of their sockets with the desperation of her struggles against her bonds, she was helpless to fight what she saw before her—
“Panties too, you fat little bitch.” Sarah, her mind all but effaced by the knife and the humiliating orders from the younger invader, gibbered an unsteady whimper as she bent to remove the last of her clothes, which she had desperately hoped to preserve. “Quit covering yourself up, you fat little fucking cow. Hands behind you. You too, you skinny-ass fucking wiener.” A quick terrified glance at his sister timorously putting her hands behind her, and Spencer too obeyed, clutching his hands behind his back as the younger man reached into his bag again…
Cistern of my Lust
Krysten was always early for the first morning service, her little red Escort in the lot even before the pastor’s. The sun warmed the interior of the car as she waited for Mom and her baby sister Ginny to arrive. Usually, she was first into the sanctuary, able to pick her favorite seat and hold it for Mom and Ginny. But as much a touchstone as Sunday services were for her, there was also case business to take care of this morning, for the Howlands—at least the parents and the youngest, Merri—were regular attendees as well. The question had percolated through her mind all the previous night after it had been brought up; why did Mrs. Howland get so concerned about safety after the burglary so long ago? Sure, Ginger’s thesis that it was a natural outgrowth of the burglary was most likely, but something about the case would not let her go. Not just the sudden interest in personal safety; Mrs. Howland herself had changed. She was still sunny and pleasant, but ever since the burglary there was sometimes something forced about it, a persona that Mrs. Howland seemed to play sometimes for the benefit of her Girl Scout charges. Chris had always been shy, Bethany backward, and both had only gotten more so afterwards. It was Merri who most resembled the old Mrs. Howland nature, bright and open and generous and unconquerably nice. Could a mere burglary change the others so much?
The big old Ford Expedition with the Mountaintop Veterinary Hospital logo on the side, picking its way into the old parking lot after a few other cars before it, heralded the possible answer to her question. The passenger door opened slowly, the door behind it popping open quickly. Mrs. Howland stepped out carefully, short plump legs descending from the high perch of the big vehicle requiring caution; behind her, ‘tween-aged Meredith, plump like her mother but much younger, was much less concerned with caution. While Carolyn Howland edged down from her high perch in a slacks-and-blouse set just dark-blue enough to hide any accidental stains, Merri, as she was called by all and sundry, plopped to earth in a princess-waisted pink dress voluminous enough to conceal her chubby frame and allow her to move comfortably on her matching pink flats. Both mother and daughter, like Krysten herself, were redheads, their hair rather more orange than Krys’ fiery, wavy tresses, and the old connection of Girl Scouting was a common ground which steered both Howland girls straight to Krysten as soon as they saw her. “Hey Krysten!” was Merri’s piping-bright greeting as soon as she saw her friend, and Merri fairly ran to her former fellow scout, Mom trailing in her wake with a welcoming smile for an old friend. “How’s it been? I miss you at Scouts! It’d be cool if you came out to a meeting again! I”—
“She’s still the same Merri, isn’t she?” Carolyn’s smile was that of a loving aunt to a beloved niece, much the same smile she lavished on all her scouts, past and present. “But I did want to ask you about that Campus Scouts idea I told you about. You and Trish could get it started, and now your sister and Felicity are going to State, so”—
Krysten’s smile interrupted Mrs. Howland’s renewed sales pitch. “I think Chelsea might like to, maybe Lissy too. But I was hoping to see you this morning about something else, Mrs. H. I wanted to ask you about”—but the chirp of Mom’s car horn interrupted Krysten’s inquiry, Mom gliding her new-used Beetle between the Howland Expedition and Krysten’s Escort. It can wait, Krysten decided as she caught a glimpse of her baby sister Ginny wiggling happily in her car seat…
Sarah’s squeal of pain as the taller, younger invader tightened the sisal rope around her wrists only prodded him to laugh. The cord dug into her soft plump flesh, its rough wiry texture dug tightly into wrists crossed in the small of her back. Her fists had been clenched as the rope was looped around her wrists, but the deep cutting grip loosened them, leaving fingers already tingling with slowed circulation to hang limply—“Aww, does that hurt?” he said as he knotted off her bindings, and Sarah felt her stomach turn as the irony in his voice cut into her. Is he going to hurt me even more than this?
“P-please, it’s too tight. You don’t have to tie my hands so tight, I promise I won’t”—and the sudden short backhanded slap from behind snapped her face to her right shoulder, her cheek suddenly afire.
“Just shut the fuck up, or I’ll make you shut up.” Her pained whimper, blending from Mom’s gag-muffled shriek from the floor where she knelt, brought forth another giggle. “See your mom there? We can stuff the same kind of shit down your throat!”
Sarah glanced up at her elder brother beside her, who winced as his own wrists were bound by the other invader in the same manner Sarah’s had been. We’re all tied up now, all of us, and we can’t fight back against them. We have to keep them calm, do what they tell us. We have to—“No, please, I’ll be quiet, sir,” said Sarah softly, her words slurred by the pain of a cheek mashed against her teeth, already starting to swell. “We all will, won’t we, Spence?” Spencer nodded, his eyes wide, his lip trembling.
His heart was racing, his mind swirling not just with the terror of the two masked invaders, but also the shame of not having protected his mother and sister. With Dad away, he was acutely aware that, as inadequate as he was, he was the “man of the house,” and he had failed to protect Mom and Sarah. Now there was no fighting back, merely the need to do what was necessary to placate the two men. “Yes,” he said, his voice a defeated, ashamed murmur. “We’ll do whatever you want.” And the giggle which escaped the tall young invader at Spencer’s humiliated acquiescence struck horror into the hearts of all three Merritts…
Chelsea Parker had been fully awake while Krysten had dressed for church in their room, but had kept herself perfectly somnolent, the better to keep Krys from pestering her about church. Ever since Dad had skipped out on Mom, she had turned her back on anything even vaguely suggesting worship; Dad was well-known as one of the most pious of men in Snowden, and the hypocrisy of cheating on Mom, then leaving her pregnant with Ginny while he skipped off with that hospital receptionist made the very thought of church repulsive to her. Most of their Wednesday-night acquaintances at Dad’s beloved Pure Faith Baptist Temple blamed the breakup on Mrs. Parker—she should have been more attentive to his needs, many of them declared—and the rest seemed indifferent. While the friends at Mom’s First United Methodist were more sympathetic to Diane’s cause, and many rallied to help her move on from the breakup, Chelsea still could not reconcile herself with darkening the door of any church. Krysten could keep up family appearances, but Chelsea herself was having none of it. Instead, after enough time that she was sure her sister was out of the house, she rolled out of bed in her skimpy gray-fleece tee-shirt nightie, gave herself a cursory glance in Krysten’s vanity mirror, tousled her short-trimmed red locks, and decided on a bit of breakfast. She was off work that day—usual for a Sunday—and was perfectly content to give herself a day of absolute relaxation after the harrowing Saturday she had endured. She blinked her eyes fully open, debated for a moment whether she needed slippers to go downstairs—
And her phone went off. A glance at the screen—oh shit. Courtney. Yeah, she manages day shift on the weekends now that she’s going back to college herself. What the hell does she want from me? Somebody called off, I bet. Somebody decided to play sick, and of course I’m the first person Courtney thinks to—“‘Sup, Courtney?” She listened sleepily to her manager—“Sarah? Sarah Merritt didn’t show up? Little Miss Sunshine? Didn’t even call in to…that’s weird, she’s not the type to ignore her phone. Did you…Oh, come on, Courtney! Do you know how long it’ll take me to stop over there and check? I live in Snowden, you know, and it’ll take me long enough just to get to the restaurant to cover for…It’s not that slow before eleven, you have all the early-bird people who go to sunrise services like my sister, and…Well, okay, whatever. It’s your problem if you get swamped before I get there, but I can check over at her place for you. Why can’t anyone else from down there…yeah, whatever. It’s what I get for being your frickin’ favorite! See you at quarter ‘til, then.” Great. Just fucking great. Just the way I wanted to spend my Sunday. The tips better be fucking good today! But of course they won’t; the Sunday-brunch-after-church crowd are the cheapest fucking tippers of all! It doesn’t matter to Sarah, of course; she just loves talking to people like that. But it is weird that Miss Sarah Sunshine is ditching a day. Not even answering her phone. Maybe she finally went out with that guy she always talks about from ACCC and slept in. That’d be funny as hell…
From her knees where she had been flung in front of Spencer, Sarah blinked in nauseous horror at the command the younger man giggled at her. How can I do that? How can you even ask me to do that? My own brother! My God—“What the hell?” said the older man, his voice an acidic scoff. “You never had a boyfriend to know what the fuck to do? Hell, even fat cows like you get boyfriends! You some kind of nun or something? Or don’t you play with boys?” She wanted with all her soul to protest—but he’s my brother! I can’t do that to my brother! Why are you making me—but a squeal from her mother, over her shoulder, caught her attention. Mom’s face was ashen and blank with horror at what the invaders were demanding of her daughter, her eyes wide and round and wet—but Sarah, in her one glance, caught a message, perhaps in the glimmer of her eyes, or the angle of her head, or the tone of the whimper the gag allowed her. Our first job is to survive. We have to do what they tell us. We have to placate them—and suddenly her scalp was afire as the younger invader dragged her head facing Spencer again with a vicious tug on her straying ponytail. “Or are you just fucking stupid? Do what he fucking tells you, you stupid fucking fat cunt!” The younger man took away any choice she had in the matter; he yanked on her ponytail again as if it was a joystick, lowering her face, while with the other hand he pinched her mouth open, dragging her lower jaw down—she squealed, her stomach heaving at the monstrousness of what she was being forced to do—
“What are you doing up so early?”
Felicity, just outside the bathroom door just opened by Trish, replied with a dry, smiling smirk. “Says the girl who eats breakfast at one in the afternoon!”
“You know, you’re not done pledging the sorority, Little Sister. I can arrange a nice little Rite of Correction for you!” Trish’s smile hinted that she was mostly kidding. “No, seriously, what gets you up this early? Krysten woke me up with her running around getting ready for church, so I decided to go hang out at the lab to keep working on the trace from yesterday.”
The subject of yesterday sobered Felicity as well. “Going down to visit Samantha before I’m on at work. I can’t just leave her down there, you know.” A door opening down the hall started the two—“You too, Chell? What’s with everyone getting up so early?” Chelsea explained her predicament from work—“That’s weird. Sarah Merritt didn’t strike me as the type who ditches work.” She had met Sarah Merritt during the spring, when car trouble meant that Chelsea and Felicity—whose jobs were close to each other, Felicity in the Deb clothing store in the Allen Valley Mall, Chelsea in the Denny’s built just beside it—car-pooled to Center City while Chelsea got her disabled old Cavalier back into running shape.
Chelsea grunted affirmation. “Everyone’s up too early this morning. I heard Maggie blowing out of here even before Krys did. It’s entirely unnatural. And I’m going to spend the day getting shitty tips from the holy-roller crowd.”
Felicity snorted a chuckle. “Sweet. And I get to stand around and talk with ‘Ren. Sunday evening is always slow. So who gets the next shower? I want to get down to the hospital and see Samantha, and you have to go check up on Sarah.”
“You go ahead,” said Chelsea. “That poor kid was in a really bad way, and I only have to be at work at eleven. If I find Sarah sleeping in, I’m dragging her with me!” And Chelsea was almost capable of doing that…
Sarah had been dragged away from Spencer, thrown toward a sofa, draped face-first over it. From where she had been forced, she could look over her shoulder and see the younger man dragging Spencer toward her—“Now let’s see you do something with it, you wiener! Make this little pig squeal! Here she is for you, just waiting for it!” Her stomach flipped inside her as she understood what the man was forcing Spencer to do to her—please, no—“The fuck? What’s wrong with you, wiener?”
Maggie O’Hara was surprised at how well she could function on an early Sunday morning. Usually—except for the one Sunday per month or so that Trish managed to guilt-trip her into going to Mass at St. Ignatius—Sunday was for sleeping in, casual reading or practice at the university dance studio, and occasionally doing some classwork. A day of lazy snacking, and as much slacking as her schedule allowed.
But then Tricia mentioned a home invasion on Crawford Road, a mother and kids. She was up and around the living room, and even at her most obtuse, Maggie knew that Trish was waiting for her. And there was only one reason Trish would be doing that after a home invasion involving a mother and kids.
Hence her early-morning brisk walk toward the Snowden Commons Apartments. As soon as she had escaped up the stairs to her room, she had sent a text, but had received no answers. Another text, and another. No answer. Maggie knew that she often didn’t answer texts; her friend very often made herself deliberately incommunicado to the rest of the world. The young woman could easily curl up with a book and bury herself in it for hours, if not days, and would seal herself off from all contact with humanity until she was ready to re-emerge. It must be a good thing for a historical-research major to do that. On the other hand, it was a trait which made Maggie rise at an ungodly hour to actually go meet with her face-to-face. At least the weather isn’t bad. It would have been a real witch to walk over there in the rain.
The sun was fully up by the time Maggie reached the Snowden Commons Apartments lobby. She needed only a moment to spot the correct intercom switch, punched the button—punched again—one more time—“Beth, it’s me, Maggie. Are you up yet? Good. I need to talk to you—unless I’m very mistaken, Trish Dwight is going to be looking you up this morning. A case she’s working on. No, I’d better wait until I’m up there to explain. Please? It’s important.” Bethany Howland agreed to let Maggie enter…
Spencer had seen the same warning in Mom’s eyes as Sarah had. Do what they want. Keep them placated. Don’t give them cause to be even more violent. He had kept quiet as Sarah had been forced upon him, his heart riving at the sickened horror on her face as she did as she was forced, even as his body responded. But now the younger man dragged him across to where Sarah had been draped face-first over the sofa, her backside defenselessly in the air, her bound hands ineffectually grasping at nothing. “Make this little pig squeal!” No. No! I can’t do this! Not to my sister—not to a girl! He went limp—“The fuck? What’s wrong with you, wiener? Don’t you like girls or something?” And his stomach curled up inside him…
“I knew you would be here. When I saw you weren’t cantoring, I knew I’d see you here.” As a St. Ignatius parishioner herself, she knew who would be the cantor on any given Mass.
“And a nice big Good Morning to you too, Doc,” Trish greeted Dr. McNeil as they both strode from the front doors toward the biological-trace lab. “I just thought I’d get in a little more work on the trace from the McBrides.”
“Your nose is brown enough, Ms. Dwight! You don’t have to keep it up for my sake.”
“Well, there’s a little more I wanted to ask you about. Paula reminded us of an old case, the Howlands, ten years ago. It sounds like it might have some parallels. Yeah, I know, before your time here, Doc, but I thought maybe you could pull a few strings and get us whatever evidence they might still have.”
Calico allowed herself a chuckle as she unlocked the lab doors. “You’re still not awake, I see. No, I wasn’t here back then, but you know who was. Your old buddy Detective Klasko. Why he hasn’t moved to Florida yet, I don’t know, but he’d be the one to talk to about that case.”
Trish rolled her eyes in self-disgust. “I blame it on the…well, I had a little help sleeping last night.” She picked out her phone and checked the time. “He might be over at the Cook Pot getting lunch. Patty melt with fries, a slice of peach cobbler, and coffee black.” During her stint as a waitress there, she had taken Dennis Klasko’s lunchtime order enough times to still have it memorized.
“If you go past Bauman’s Bakery, bring back cinnamon rolls!” They would be sold out, Trish said to herself as Calico’s sendoff echoed in her head…
The younger invader’s face blanched, and Spencer quivered. He knows! Oh God, he knows—“Shit. Holy fucking shit! You are! You’re a fucking faggot! Some skinny fudge-packing homo!” And it seemed to a terrified Spencer that the young man’s eyes boiled into red fury—
The older invader, for just an instant, thought to intervene when the other lost it—not a good idea, dude—but in the end let him have his way. Yeah, I get it. Can’t blame him, really. I should have guessed about this kid Spencer that he was a queer. Just something about him. Hell, he might just kill that skinny-ass fudge-packer. I guess I can’t blame him for that, either. And as the other poured out savage blows on the defenseless young man Spencer, savage fists to his defenseless face, his body, knees to his groin—as the mother and sister shrieked and writhed in horror at the scene, as Spencer himself slumped unconscious to the floor, gushing blood from his head—he felt his arousal stirring in him. Sarah had been left ungagged, and he knew her screams might rouse attention from the neighboring houses, so he could add necessity to the motivatior of his rising lust—and he dragged Sarah to her knees by her ponytail. Her face turned again toward the beating her brother was enduring, the blows raining down on his face, his body—until her face was yanked back to look up at the older invader—“You just shut the fuck up, little pig,” said the man as he undid his black jeans—
“No, please, not again,” she whimpered as she tried feebly to pull away from him, revulsed by what she had already been forced to do to Spencer, horrified that she was going to be forced again—
“Just shut the fuck up and do what you’re told,” and Sarah’s stomach turned inside her as she was forced down again—
The interstate to Center City was only lightly-traveled on a Sunday morning, and Felicity had her Intrepid pacing at a comfortably fun clip on nearly-empty lanes. The brisk pace made her focus on the driving more than on what awaited her at the end of the trip, the broken daughter of the broken McBride family. Maybe Caleb would be awake too, and he would need so much help to face what had been done to him, to deal with damage that should never have been afflicted on such a little boy. The thought made Felicity shrink again, and she forced her attention back onto the road, made herself focus on the driving, Chelsea’s amusing irritability, anything that would take her mind for a moment off what awaited her in those small rooms at Center City General…
Chelsea knew she cut a fair figure, even in her Denny’s uniform. Despite her diminutive frame and her freckles and her short-trimmed red hair, there was no mistaking Chelsea Parker for anything other than a pretty young woman, evidenced by her talent for nice tips from the male customers. No, that’s not all looks; Sarah gets nice tips too, mostly because of that charming little girl-next-door friendliness of hers. And she’s got a pleasant face, too. A little plump, but there are plenty fatter. I wonder what could have gotten into her for her to ditch work?
A last tug into place for her uniform shirt, a last quick comb through her hair. Makeup was frowned upon by the management, and she didn’t particularly care for it anyhow. A last glance into the mirror—“You’re up early, Paula. I thought Richie wore you out more than that!”
The petite girl in the bathroom doorway blushed, eliciting a chuckle from Chelsea. So many contradictions to Paula Ryan. Quiet shyness and a gift for written words. Corporeal fastidiousness and a kinky, voracious sexual appetite. And after a night of wild sex which everyone in the house could hear, the tiny girl in the oversized black tee, still owlishly blinking away sleep from her bespectacled brown eyes, blushed. Another contradiction—such a small, delicate young woman could so have big bluff Richie Dwight so completely whipped. “Actually, I rather think I wore him out,” said Paula, a hint of wantonness in her sleepy smile.
“God, he is so whipped!”
The wantonness in Paula’s smile deepened. “Not last night. I couldn’t find my riding crop!” Which remark floored Chelsea; the literary little nerd who Paula had been in high school could have never said what the Snowden State coed just said. “I think Ginger stole it! Well, at least I didn’t leave any rope burn!” She knew she was shocking Chelsea, and found herself enjoying it, but let the repartee go. With wakefulness, the memory of the previous day sobered her. “I’m glad I don’t have anything to do today. I might just read, write a little, maybe. I still have one response to do for Intro to Lit. You have to work?” Chelsea’s explanation was short; Paula did not know Sarah Merritt as Felicity did. “I hope everything turns out for you today. Plenty of tips, I guess,” and Paula left Chelsea to finish up before taking over the bathroom. So strange that we’ve become such good friends so quickly, Chelsea mused; we really didn’t have anything in common in high school—me with the jocks, Paula with the nerds—but here, that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s strange what you learn about people sometimes…
Mom’s shrieks and the ongoing storm of blows on Spencer’s crumpled body had become mere white noise in Sarah’s mind. Her own face and body crackled with pain from the older man’s blows—“you don’t know how to do a fucking thing, do you, you useless little fat cunt!”—and now she lay splayed on the sofa, her ears filled with the man’s grunts as he violated her. She was beyond response now; her mouth had been filled with her own underwear taped into place, but the horrors had overwhelmed her into silence even without the gag. Not even Mom’s renewed cries—at the fringe of her vision, she saw the younger invader cutting her legs free and throwing her supine onto the floor—roused her to any resistance. For only an instant, an appeal flickered in Sarah’s mind, but its futility squelched it before it could take full form. No, this is never going to end, this is all there is ever going to be. Please, please, just get it over with…
The substance of the service was less important to Krysten than the familiar comfort of it. Mom and Ginny at one side, Dr. and Mrs. Howland and charming little Merri on the other, the choir and the pastor and the glittering stained glass in morning sunlight. That comfort, though, was fighting against the question which still shifted uncomfortably in her mind—Paula’s strange observation about the Intelligencer article about the Howland burglary—the way Mrs. Howland changed—how old would Merri have been if—“Krysten Allyse!” Mom’s voice hid a reproof in a titter, and Krysten realized that parishioners were beginning to filter out of the sanctuary. “I think someone didn’t get enough sleep last night, did she!”
Dr. Howland chuckled. “A college Saturday night! There are so many things to do, aren’t there, Krysten?” The twinkle in his eyes—something rare, Krysten realized—intimated of parties and drink. And to Krysten, the reason she had drunk last night. But how do I ask?—
“I’m stopping in the little girls’ room, dear,” said Mrs. Howland to her husband as the little group made its way to the foyer. Merri started a moment, then settled beside her Dad—yes, my chance!—
“I think me too.” She left Mom and Ginny talking to Dr. Howland and Merri as she followed Mrs. Howland to the downstairs rest room…
Just like always. Just as if I’d never left. The seat at the dinner bar closest to the door, the short, stocky body turned about a quarter-turn toward it as if ready to spring into action. The balding head, a fleshy dome surrounded by a fringe of graying hair, half-tilted down toward his plate—yep, a patty melt and fries. I’d bet your coronary arteries are a real sight, Detective! A seat open beside him—her appetite suggested patty melt, her hips countered with salad—and after only a momentary hesitation, Trish took the open seat. For long moments as Trish disinterestedly perused the menu she took from between the napkin holder and the sugar jar, her mind working on the question of how to frame her request, he gnawed at his patty melt just as if he hadn’t noticed her—“I know what you’re after, kid.” Even knowing Detective Klasko (retired)’s proclivities, the perpetual sardonic grumble of his voice started her—she again hastily gathered her thoughts—“I still have ears at the barracks, you know, and Janet still keeps me in the loop. She’s a good egg.” He turned his attention to his fries, smearing a few through the puddle of ketchup at the fringe of the plate. The waitress—frayed old Connie, who had been there when Trish had started, remained after she’d quit, and would probably be there forever—greeted Trish as a big sister would a younger one returning home, knowing instinctively that Trish would decide for the patty melt over the salad, as she always did. Trish too had her routines—Connie headed back to put in Trish’s order—“This whole McBride thing from yesterday. And you want to know about the Howland thing.”
“How did you”—
“Janet said she had you and little Carrot-Top working trace at the scene, gave me the short version of what went on there. Said she threw up for fifteen minutes as soon as she got away from you kids. She’s still growing her hide, I guess. For some people it takes a while.” He gnawed another bite from the patty melt, gulped a swallow of black coffee. “I knew you kids would do background on local burglaries, and I knew damn well you’d come across the Howland thing. A little before your time here, but Carrot-Top and Missy would remember it, and I knew you’d be the one to pester me about it when they did.” Trish replied that it had been Paula who had made the connection. “God Almighty, is there any girl in this town you haven’t turned into Nancy Drew? But anyway, I decided I might as well have myself a patty melt for old times’ sake and get it over with you. Yeah,” he said with a grin at Trish’s gape, “I’ve put ‘em behind me. Boneless, skinless chicken and fish and leafy green vegetables, that’s me, kid! Diet and exercise! I’m making myself the picture of health. Even if it frickin’ kills me.”
He knew his prevarication wouldn’t put Trish off. He had been there the very first time she had thrown herself into a mystery, a spunky brand-new twelve-year-old child dragooning her new friends into investigating the fake hauntings around old Snowden High School and Snowden Middle School. Got herself in a heap of trouble with that dirtbag Paul Wormley and his employee-turned-accomplice Chuck Wood, but damn if she and her little Snoop buddies hadn’t figured out the whole thing by the time I got myself and some uniforms out there! Even then he had wondered if someday he wouldn’t be working for the bright-eyed little brunette with the big ideas about catching bad guys, and while retirement had put that image away, he was completely unsurprised that Tricia Dwight, now a comely young twentysomething woman with a mind that managed to amaze even tough old birds like Calico McNeil and good cops like Janet O’Malley, would have made herself into the relentless investigator she had become. A sidelong glance at her sipping her glass of water—the Cook Pot still served ice water to every customer before their order—and he recognized that implacability in her brown eyes, now hiding behind sleek glasses, that he had first seen that night long ago in the dark hallways of Snowden High. Nope, old man, she’s not going to let you off the hook on this. Not that she ever did. He sighed, swallowed another mouthful of coffee—
“It wasn’t just a burglary, was it?” Now it was Klasko’s turn to be startled. “It was a home invasion. Like the McBrides’.” She had turned fully toward him, and she had read the start on his face—“You wouldn’t have bothered to let me find you if it hadn’t been. And you’ve never hesitated like that in your life, I’d bet.” Her eyes, usually so quick and sardonic, now bored in on him, an interrogator closing in for the kill. He knew what that felt like and looked like too. “And it sickened you just like yesterday did Detective O’Malley. You wouldn’t have mentioned it otherwise.” The implacability faded from her eyes, and she sagged in her seat. “And you fed a bogus story to the paper.” Another sigh from the old man, and he nerved himself to speak again…
Felicity hadn’t been certain how she would be received by the hospital staff when she arrived at the pediatrics floor, but a nurse who had been on the floor the previous day greeted her with silent gratitude in her eyes that was more than sufficient welcome, her eyes flicking toward a door at the angle in the hallway. McBride, S. A placard below the first one—McBride, C. At least they put them together. Caleb must have done okay in surgery. She couldn’t see through the closed door, but shadows on the curtained inside window suggested that the two children weren’t alone. She hesitated at the door—what do I say to her? How do I?—but her hand knocked before her mind could catch up to it. A long moment—the door opened, the drawn face of Jeremy McBride, tired red eyes and straying whiskers at the fringe of his otherwise neat beard—“Thank God you’re here, Felicity,” and he stood aside to let her into the room. The room was full; Samantha on the near bed, Caleb prone on the other. Between the two beds, two chairs. One, vacant, was beside Samantha’s bed; the other, beside the unconscious form of Caleb, held Mrs. McBride, rocking slowly, idiotically, in the stationary chair, her arms wrapped around herself. Her eyes flickered up at Felicity only for a moment before receding back toward her son, but in that moment Felicity saw a vast void in the face, the eyes, as if Kimberly McBride’s mind had been erased or excised, leaving only a body to rock in its place and gaze down at its ruined fruit. Samantha lay on her bed in loose pajamas, obviously brand-new out of the packaging, turned toward the door, away from her father’s chair. Much of the vacancy in the mother’s eyes was visible in the daughter’s as well, but Felicity, as she saw the eyes gazing up at her, detected a stir of life remaining. Samantha glanced at her father—only the briefest moment, and even then not fully at him so much as around him—then again at Felicity.
“Can we go for a walk?” The question was vaguely directed not at either Felicity or her father, but somehow between the two of them, but finally settling on Felicity herself. Her father nodded silently, and Felicity saw that as Samantha could not look fully at her father, so he too could not look directly at his daughter. And Samantha’s eyes seemed to swallow up Felicity as she sprang from the bed and seized Felicity’s hand even before Felicity could completely enter the room. Samantha’s grip was insistent, a force which impelled her down the hallway in Samantha’s wake. She wants to talk, but not in front of her family. She wants to talk to me. And the weight of the previous day lowered onto Felicity’s shoulders again as Samantha pulled her toward a small dim room at the end of the hallway…
Krysten had no qualms about entering the ladies’ room attached to the downstairs meeting hall. The room was big and comfortable, able to hold three or four women easily, so she could have yet another layer of concealment between them and the world. She opened the door—
And found Mrs. Howland sitting slumped in one of the two chairs, her face sunk into her hands, her shoulders shuddering. “I heard about the McBrides,” her voice seeped up toward Krysten from behind the quivering hands. “Samantha is in the troop, you know. A sweet little girl. And her brother…I knew what you wanted to ask, Krysten. I knew that look in your face when I saw it this morning. I knew you’d remember…such a little detective. Trish has such an influence on you. You’ve gotten so strong since you’ve known her.” With an effort, she raised her face, red and streaked, up to Krysten. “The one thing I’d hoped was that they never came back. They were never found, and…after so long, I thought they were gone, arrested somewhere else, for something else, and they’d never come back. And they’re here again. I know it. They came back and went to Jeremy and Kim’s. They went to Samantha and Caleb. They’re back. And Merri…she was a baby. I heard…heard them downstairs, Bethany and Christopher crying…Merri was just dozing off, and I had her children’s Benadryl…I hid her in the closet, prayed she stayed asleep…”
Bethany Howland, corpulent as her frame was, seemed like a head atop a heavy, blanket-covered ball sunk deep into the one comfortable chair in the apartment. The blue eyes sunk deep in the fleshy face were cast down toward knees hidden somewhere in the chair under the blanket, her dark-dyed hair unkempt over her shoulders. From beneath the blanket, a pink hand reached for the steaming mug which Maggie herself had prepared in Bethany’s kitchenette. “I would have nightmares about them coming back. I’d be there in the kitchen again, and the door opens, and…” She gulped her tea.
“And moving out didn’t help it. I know.” Bethany had told her the stories long ago, well back in high school, when Maggie and Chris had started seriously seeing each other. Bethany had felt impelled to explain her brother, the eccentricities she was sure Maggie O’Hara had noticed, and had finally told someone everything that had happened that day. Maggie had sworn that night to tell no one, would protect Christopher as his sister had done. But that would not obtain anymore, not after the disaster at Crawford Road. “I guess that’s why he stays in New Haven even between semesters.”
“He pretends it’s about conditioning. He needs to add weight if he’s going to stick with the team next training camp. He’s probably not wrong about that.” He carried only 185 pounds on a six-foot-eight-and-a-half frame, thin for a defenseman, especially one already drafted into the NHL and hoping to make his team the next year. “But you’re right. He just can’t come back. He can’t face home any more than I can.” Another sip of tea. “Merri thinks I’m just being a cool big sister inviting her over here so much. We…”
“You’ve never told her.”
The little eyes filled up, tears spilling onto the plump florid cheeks. “She’s the only thing that hasn’t been contaminated by it. The one thing that lets me remember what I used to be. One little bit of purity.” She saw a sardonic smile begin to animate Maggie’s face—“Not like that. Yeah, she’s really into Tess Vandiver. I mean pure as in not having her soul ripped apart by it. Innocent. I don’t care if she and Tess turn out to be the fruitiest lesbians ever, just so long as she still can be innocent of what they did to us.” Maggie nodded…
Chelsea and Krysten each had her own car, reparations from their divorced, cheating father. Chelsea’s little yellow Cavalier was far from fashionable, but she prided herself on her ability to keep it in good running trim. She wasn’t about to play the helpless-about-cars-girl role that Krysten still tended to affect; she wasn’t about to be dependent on anyone else to keep her car going. And the car was going very nicely this late morning, smooth and tight as she ducked off the exit for south Center City. She had Google-Mapped Sarah’s house—next-door Independence Park was an excellent marker—and a quick turn past the ancient but still functioning rail yard and the Giant shopping plaza led her to the quiet street bordering the park. A white rancher, a little old-fashioned but nicely kept. Yep—their name on the mailbox! Got it the first time! Who says girls have no sense of direction? But…she was sure that the medium-blue Cobalt in the short driveway was Sarah’s car; she had seen it in the employees’ lot any time Sarah was working. So…you did ditch work, didn’t you? Or took sick and forgot to call in? No, that’s not you, either, Sarah—you don’t forget anything! You better have a good excuse, Chelsea grumbled to herself as she flipped her door shut and strode toward the front door…
The two men had switched. The older man was now sating himself on the mother, lying catatonic beneath him; the younger intruder had thrown Sarah to her knees on the floor, her face driven into the carpet hard enough to bruise her previously-unwounded cheek. But the pain of the impact, the pain of the rug burn being driven into her cheek by his angry thrusts, even the pain of being torn by his savagery upon her, had been dulled by the relentlessness of her defilement—and now, by the terrifying stillness of her brother, lying mere inches away from her face. His own face was little more than a gout of blood, trickling thickly onto the carpet; his body a mass of already-deepening bruises from his chest to his groin. His eyes were swollen shut, his mouth nothing but a smear of blood, his bound hands inert behind his back. The shut eyes were not moving beneath the puffy lids, and Sarah’s whole attention was locked onto her brother’s chest, desperately trying to see even the least movement, the least breath, the smallest throb of a blood vessel. Please, Spence, please, please breathe, please live, please don’t leave me and Mom to—and suddenly her ravagement paused—
“Listen! You hear?” Her assailant’s voice was a hard whisper—
“Yeah, I do,” came the whispered reply from the older man, pausing atop Mrs. Merritt. He strained to listen—“Damn! Someone’s here!” The two invaders exchanged a cold look—strained to listen—