The Snowden State Snoops: Invasions
8 Stepped in Blood
Chelsea heard the doorbell ring inside the Merritt home. Once, then twice, yet again a third time. Oh, come on, dammit, Sarah—I know you’re home, so get the hell up and answer your door! Another punch of the bell, and another—still no answer. She stood back, nonplused by the lack of response. I don’t know her family, but Sarah’s not the type to just ignore someone! A waft of breeze brushed over her, leaving a quick chill over her uniform-clad frame. Maybe…yeah, it’s cool enough that they might have started their furnace. Maybe something like a furnace problem—you know, carbon monoxide poisoning or something. Maybe a gas leak. Geez, the last thing I need is to be blown sky-high or something! A Chelsea Parker inured to dark surmises, more so since Dad skipped out on Mom, found herself more and more concerned that something untoward was happening that would explain Sarah’s home being unresponsive even as her car sat in the driveway. She sniffed—no gas, but maybe that’s just because the front door is shut so tight. If the house is sealed up too well, it could explain why the family might have gotten poisoned. Well, at least we don’t have that worry at Chateau Snoop! She stood back with her weight on one foot and her arms folded—her pondering pose—and thought through the next move. There’s no getting in this way. Maybe there’s a back door to the kitchen or something. Maybe a basement door in back. They might not be sealed as tight. She checked her watch—yeah, plenty of time. The things I go through to get you to work, Sarah…
Trish had wasted no time. As soon as Klasko admitted the truth of the Howland case, she was on the phone to Dr. McNeil, who in her turn was on her phone to Detective O’Malley, the one most easily able to access evidence from old cases. Her patty melt was packed up in a take-out foam box, and Trish fairly ran to the campus and the forensics lab. “No cinnamon rolls?” was Doc’s greeting, but her face failed to reflect the levity of her rejoinder. She clearly had been thinking in the same vein as Trish had on her brisk walk back to the lab; was it the same pair of criminals now as before? Was it a copycat? How can someone copycat a crime that had been covered up the way the Howland case was? The sobriety on Trish’s face brooked no levity on her part, either, so Calico dropped any further attempts at gallows humor. “I’ve got the evidence from the Howland case on the way up here. How good are you at extracting DNA from ten-year-old samples?”
“We’ll find out.”
Chelsea stood at the upper corner in the back of the house. A patio extended back from what looked like a dining room, a sliding glass door the only access. The patio furniture—perhaps five years old—had snagged a few fallen yellow leaves from the trees on the upper side of the house, the remainder of the leaves on the trees just entering their final turn of color before following their fellows to the ground. She noticed that the house was a full lot separated from the next house down the hill; above, a hurricane fence a few yards into the tree line set the lower boundary of Independence Park. The Merritt house was in the neighborhood, but not completely of it; close enough that the other homes were those of neighbors, far enough away to be slightly detached from them. She peeked into the door, tried to see around the curtains which shrouded the inside of the door. The room was dark, and the living room she thought she saw beyond that room darker still. The curtains and blinds were all drawn as if the house was still asleep; maybe they all went somewhere? But why is Sarah’s car still here then? Is there another car? She trotted back around the front of the house, where a garage door stood at the end of the short drive. The inside was dark, but light enough to show the back of a car, a clean new Buick. She stared hard down at the bumper, saw the registration sticker on the tag—it’s being used. Maybe it belongs to her parents? If so, how could they be out? She circled again to the front door, idly tried it again, punched the doorbell another futile pair of tries. No response. The cars are here, the house is dark, no one is answering—it’s way too late for everyone to still be asleep. Something’s not right here, that’s fricking sure! Back around to the glass back door, another tug and look inside. Nothing stirring at all. She stepped back, allowed herself a thoughtful sigh. What to try next? How do I—and she noticed another door, a screen door well below, a basement door. Well, it’s the last way to get inside…
The light in the small room into which Samantha had pulled Felicity was dim, a bulbous table lamp the only illumination among the reddish-brown-upholstered, institutional stuffed chairs and brochure-and-book-laden side tables in tan wood. Even as dim as the room was with only the one source of light, Felicity could see that Samantha’s eyes were red, the circles around the eyes accentuated by the dimness. Tears and no sleep. Eyes Felicity already knew well. “I…can’t even look at him!” Samantha’s voice was a tiny whimper, her hands kneading each other in her lap. “Caleb’s hurt so bad, but…but I look at him and…I remember what…the dirty stuff they made me do… Why can’t I look at him? Why can’t Dad look at me? I…feel like it’s all my fault, like if I’d…maybe if I’d been better at what they made me do, that”—
“Don’t you dare tell yourself that, Samantha!” Felicity startled herself by the ferocity of her voice, and indeed, Samantha herself instantly retreated to the far side of the too-big-for-her stuffed chair. Felicity caught herself, cleared away the memory that had disabled her verbal filter, drew a deliberate sigh, leaned over the arm of the chair in which she herself sat. “Samantha, what I mean is that none of this is your fault. What they made you do to Caleb was wrong. What they did to you and him and your mom was wrong. They’re the only ones who did anything wrong.” A protest boiled up in Samantha’s red eyes—“Everything you did, they made you do. You didn’t have a choice. You were afraid, and you were trying to not get hurt. They knew you’d be afraid of getting hurt because they were so much bigger then you, and they took advantage of that to do stuff to you that hurt even worse, that hurt you inside. That’s not your fault.” The protest had faded, but not left Samantha’s face. “You’re not the only one, you know. Lots of bad people do the same kinds of things to other people. They take advantage of you to hurt you.”
Samantha’s eyes seemed to widen, then soften. “You mean…somebody did that to you, too, didn’t they? Somebody hurt you that way.”
Felicity’s face fell, her eyes grew bitter. “Yes. Someone who I thought loved me, but…” She raised her gaze back up to the child. “That’s why I know you didn’t do anything wrong. None of this is your fault.”
“But…Daddy won’t even look at me! He sits there beside me when I’m in the bed, but…but he never really looks at me! It’s like…like he’s ashamed of me or something! Like…”
“Samantha…sometimes…sometimes daddies don’t know what to do when their kids are hurt. They get taught that they’re supposed to always protect their families, and when they can’t…well, they don’t know what to do. Sometimes they get mad, sometimes...sometimes they get mad at themselves and don’t know how to get it out of them. They feel like they failed their family, and they’re mad about that, and they think they’re no good anymore. Boys are like that sometimes.”
A sudden moisture sprang up in Samantha’s eyes, understanding like tears filling them. “Caleb…we were laying there…down in the basement after they left, before Daddy came home…he was bleeding so bad down there, he was crying and couldn’t wipe his eyes ‘cause our hands were still all tied up…he was…he kept saying ‘I’m sorry, Dad’. Over and over, ‘I’m sorry, Dad’… Right before we went to bed, Daddy was tucking Caleb in. Caleb still likes being tucked in bed, but he don’t like anyone to know about it. Daddy was…kind of teasing him a little. He told him ‘I guess you’ll be the man of the house when I’m out working tonight.’ Caleb thought that was funny, and they both laughed at it…that’s what he was thinking! He was thinking he was supposed to protect us! But…but he’s still just a little boy…” Samantha face twisted into a sob. “And I can’t even look at him! He thinks…what if he…”
Felicity reached over and wrapped Samantha up in her arms. “He’ll understand, Samantha. He’s just little too, it wasn’t his fault either. And you were trying to protect him too, weren’t you? You did what they told you not just to keep yourself from getting hurt, but to keep them from hurting him. You were a good big sister to him. Don’t forget that.”
Samantha’s sobs shuddered into Felicity’s shoulder. “But it didn’t work…”
Mrs. Howland’s eyes had run out of tears, her face all but empty. “…they kept quiet, Bethany and Christopher both. What they did, it was literally tearing them apart, they were both bleeding…but they didn’t make a sound. I could tell they wanted to scream, both of them, it hurt so bad…I asked Bethany afterward, after Freddie found us…she… ‘I didn’t want to wake up Merri. I didn’t want them to find her.’ Christopher…he said the same thing. He was afraid of what they would do to Merri if they found her. They…they tore him up, Krysten! We…we were lucky he wasn’t hurt as bad as he could have been, just a few tears…but it was what they said to him while…while they… ‘You make a better girl than a boy!’ The things they made him do… ‘We ought to just cut it off and make you a real girl!’ It wasn’t enough what they…they did to him…they had to tear up his heart… He was so hurt, so confused for so long…and all he was afraid of was that they not get to Meredith! They let themselves be ripped apart in silence, all for her…”
Krysten took Mrs. Howland’s hand. “They love Merri, they always have. That’s why they’ve always protected her from it. And”—a small squeak from the doorway startled both women—their eyes darted toward the door—
Where Merri stood with saucer-big eyes, her pink mouth dropped, her chest heaving with barely-contained emotion…
Chelsea saw that the screen door hung not quite shut in the door frame, as if someone had shut it but not seen to making sure it closed fully. The wood door behind was white and solid, the brass knob a little dull. Not a usual entrance for them, I see. A small concrete walkway led off from the door down to the lowest corner of the house, turning up the side of the house for the front. She sniffed at the door, the idea of a gas leak not quite disabused in her imagination—nothing to smell. She raised her hand to knock—what’s the point? If they’re not answering the doorbell, why would they answer a knock? She reached down, took the dulled knob in hand, idly twisted—and the knob turned, the bolt slid back—clicked open—
A hard grip clenched in her chest. Unlocked door in a house where no one is answering. Not right at all. No, very wrong. Very fucking wrong. What could—a noise reached her ears, a shuffling, a cry, muffled—she pushed the door open—I must be fucking crazy!—threw herself inside—
Oh my god. Oh, my fucking God!
9 Dagger of the Mind
Blood everywhere. And lying in the spilled gouts, Sarah. Mrs. Merritt. Sarah’s brother. All three bound, gagged. Mrs. Merritt lying supine, her legs obscenely splayed apart, the shuddering of her body the only life apparent in her. Sarah on her knees, feebly trying to wriggle upright. And Spencer, hardly recognizable, lying inert with a face almost erased in blood—Shit. Oh shit. Chelsea’s eyes scanned the room—the inside door—are they waiting for me?—what do I—Sarah’s squealing grunt drew Chelsea’s eyes back into the room—“Nnnnn!” Sarah’s eyes implored as her head, a mass of bruises, shook. What does she mean? Keeping her eyes on the door to the rest of the basement, she edged toward Sarah, around Mrs. Merritt, inert except for her shuddering and a weak, barely audible whimper. Were they hiding outside? Were they waiting for me to come in to take me too?—she was at Sarah’s side, lifted her upright on her knees, picked the tape from Sarah’s lips, helped her expel the wadded cloth inside—“Gone…they’re gone…heard someone…you…ran out the basement door…” Which explains why the screen was askew—“Spencer, they…Spencer! Spence! Wake up! Please wake up!” Chelsea finally looked fully at Spencer, hardly saw a face at all. A pulse! Does he have one? How do I tell? Is he even breathing? I think maybe—she raced upstairs for a knife, cut his hands free, pressed her fingers deep into his wrist in search of a pulse. “I think…just barely, just a little bit of a pulse. I think he’s alive. Is he breathing? I don’t…” She rose, seized her phone—first things first—
Janet O’Malley had trusted no one else, no mere uniform, to deliver the evidence from the Howland case to the Snowden State lab. The plastic evidence bags held some cut lengths of rope, strips of tape, smaller bags containing shreds of carpet. Larger bags containing clothes; a boy’s and a girls’ tee shirt, pairs of shorts, socks. A large bag with a woman’s tank top and large shorts. And in one last bag, three pairs of underwear, like the other clothing all individually bagged in the larger bags; a woman’s pair of white panties, boys’ whities and girls’ blue briefs. What the Howlands were wearing when their home had been invaded. Like the McBrides. Trish tried vainly to not remember the sad, straying pile of children’s clothes she had discovered just a day ago. Were these clothes lying just like Samantha and Caleb’s? “Photos here, Trish. The doc will try to harvest the DNA. Preserves the chain of evidence. But I also found the old DNA fingerprints that had been developed. We apparently weren’t completely in the Stone Age ten years ago.” Dr. McNeil started—“But I knew you’d want your own trace, Doc. You don’t trust anyone’s work but your own. Not even the little genius’s here.”
“Show me your photo analysis skills, Trish,” said the professor, taking the bags and heading for a lab table, leaving Trish to get the envelope full of old photographs.
“I might as well just be an office go-fer, fetch coffee for you two.” Trish had learned much of her confidence in her own abilities from her professor and adviser. She sat at the big desk in the lab, extracted a folder from the big manila envelope—the “business” ringtone rang from Detective O’Malley’s phone—
Wordlessly, her only sound the heartbroken squeak that drew Krysten and her mother’s attention, Merri fled from the doorway—but only as far as her father, who had descended to the door of the meeting hall, concerned for what had so delayed his wife. Carolyn and Krysten followed stunned in her wake, finding Meredith buried face-first in her father’s chest, squealing and shuddering, Freddie patting her back helplessly. The Howland parents exchanged a hopeless glance—“I’m sorry,” said Carolyn to her husband. “I…I didn’t know she was there…”
Dr. Howland extricated himself from Merri’s grip, steered her to the closest chair, one of many metal folding chairs arrayed around long tables in the hall, sat down and placed his shuddering youngest child before him. Not for one moment had she looked at any of them. “Punkin, there were reasons we never told you. Good reasons.”
Merri’s pink lips set in an angry pout. “Like what? What could possibly be a good reason for lying to me?” Her parents exchanged another helpless glance—and Krysten’s phone went off, announcing a text. She took it up—Trish. And she squeaked when she read the text itself—drew startled glances from all three Howlands—
“Another one.” Her hands were shaking. “Center City. My sister found them.” She hurried out, leaving three blood-drained faces behind her…
There was nothing Samantha had left to say, could do nothing but weep in Felicity’s arms. Her world had collapsed, and she saw no way to mend it, could find nothing in her friend’s reassurances that could help her regain what she had lost. Then Felicity’s phone went off—she silently picked it out of her pocket and read the message. She thought she had hidden the screen from her young friend—
“It happened again, didn’t it? They did it to somebody else.”
Felicity nodded hopelessly. “My friend found them. It was a friend of hers from work. It’s bad.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Samantha’s words were the first hope Felicity had felt all that day…
Bethany too had seen a phone screen she was not supposed to see—and she sank deeper into her blanket. “It’s happening again. They came back. They came back and”—and her own phone went off, a text labeled from her mother…
No sooner had Chelsea cut the bonds from Sarah’s wrists than she fell to her brother’s side, frantically trying to descry a breath from his lungs—she reached out for his face—
“We have to be careful,” said Chelsea, staying Sarah’s hand. “All the head injuries—there might be a neck injury too”—and the sound of sirens brought even Mrs. Merritt, cut free but still lying crumpled against the front of the big chair, back to life…
Ginger O’Day had never before been hesitant to leap into a case. But she had never witnessed a crime scene like the one she had witnessed in the McBride basement. Still, she nerved herself to rise to the call she had gotten from Dr. McNeil and Tricia; another invasion, another family shredded. Just like another one a decade ago. Her orders were simple; meet Dr. McNeil at the lab along with Megan, get her marching orders, get to Center City General, talk with the victims. She was uncharacteristically subdued as Megan—who had gotten the same call—drove to the hospital.
It was Megan who felt energized. Perhaps the task of driving had done the trick, perhaps the urgency of a second case in as many days. And Tricia had already texted her the details. “Older brother and younger sister. Why the inconsistency?”
Ginger still slumped in the passenger seat. She had gotten an added text from Krysten. Despite the occasional contention between the two young women, they had developed a trust in each other’s skills in each other’s specialty, and now was no exception. Perhaps the contention between them over Mrs. Parker somehow sparked a professional respect. “And the Howland case. The same kind of attack ten years ago. Bethany and Chris. And then a ten-year break.”
“Unless they were somewhere else during that time. We need to search for similar attacks elsewhere in the last decade.” She tossed Ginger her phone. “Text Alyson for me; she’s the top of my contacts. Tell her what we know. We might as well put our Penelope Garcia to use!”
“And in the new case,” Ginger said, slowly reviving as she texted the young Mrs. DeRozier, “the brother was beaten. Badly beaten, according to Doc. They’re not sure he’ll survive. That’s another inconsistency.” Megan sighed tightly and accelerated. There could be time pressure on this case…
They were both quiet, both scanning for any pursuit as they made their way back, trying their best to be casual during the late-morning walk back. Damn the interruptions! Sarah Merritt had been delicious—he had always had a partiality for the plump ones. Soft, jiggling…and so easy to wound. Cow. Pig. Mess with their minds while you mess with their bodies. No more fun than that. And Sarah Merritt—a plump little virgin. Damn fun. But…and he glanced at the other now that they were safe inside, no pursuit. Yeah, he sure went off, didn’t he? I never even thought about the chance that the brother was a for-real homo. Yeah, that really would set him off, wouldn’t it? But still, if that kid’s as fucked up as he looked afterwards…
“Fuckin’ queers.” His companion’s voice was low, quiet, but still angry. “Skinny-ass fuckin’ homo.” His eyes were still stormy.
“Just the luck of the draw, guy. It happens sometimes.”
“You could have checked ‘em out enough to find that shit out!” Which stung at his own temper—
“Then how about you do the checking-out next time, dumbfuck? They don’t fucking walk around wearing signs, you know! It just happens.” He drew a breath, hated to bring up the subject. “If that kid kicks off, it’s gonna start a real shitstorm, you know. And”—
“Couldn’t help it,” and the anger had started to fade from the younger one’s eyes. “It’s just…a real fuckin’ homo, you know.” He started for the hallway—“I gotta wash off. Wash the fuckin’ homo off me.”
He also let his temper go. “I’ll make it up to you. We’ll make sure next time.” They nodded curtly to each other, the matter dropped. Two against the world, just like always…
Janet O’Malley considered herself to be a very good cop, a solid detective…but as with any human being, she had her limits. Walking into the Center City General emergency ward—a second day in a row, no less—she was facing what she was quite certain was her greatest weakness. Talking to victims. Analyzing evidence was one thing, interrogating suspects, coordinating the work of the uniforms, but actually facing the victims of crime—it left her uncertain, delicate, unsure what to say to someone who had been waylaid by lawbreakers. She over-analyzed everything, even before she said it, with the ironic result that she—at least in her own estimation—seemingly always managed to find just the wrong thing to say.
Which was why she thanked God for the two young women walking into the ward behind her. On her left shoulder, Megan Dwight, dressed professionally—even on a Sunday—in slacks, flats, and a pale red open-collared blouse. On her right, Ginger O’Day, as professional as she cared to dress in a Gamma Kappa Epsilon polo shirt and jeans, and clean Vans. At the visitors’/ambulatory patient door, waiting for them as she had expected, Felicity. The door slid open—
And inside, in a baggy sweatshirt and baggy jeans, a young girl. Samantha McBride. O’Malley’s gaze locked on the child—back to Felicity—“She saw your text,” said Felicity. “She wants to help.”
“It happened to somebody else, she said,” said Samantha. “Another boy and girl.”
The detective nodded gravely, impressed with Samantha’s resilience, glanced over at Felicity, who took Samantha’s hand and drew the child close to her side. “They’re not here yet, Detective. Chelsea texted me that the rescue squad was being very careful with Spencer, the brother. He’s”—and the rumble of a quickly-slowing Center City ambulance pulling up to the ambulance entrance. The rear door of the ambulance swung open even before the ambulance itself shuddered to a stop—the technicians inside spilled out post-haste, hurriedly extracting a gurney whose wheels clattered down as hastily as the techs themselves hustled—a body lay on it, nothing but a bloody smear of a face visible, an IV bag swinging from a narrow post at one corner. In its onrushing wake into the ward, two bruised women wrapped in blankets emerged; an older woman moving as if in a catatonic trance, the younger one trembling and weeping—with Chelsea helping them to the doors where nurses immediately descended upon them. Chelsea tried to extricate her hand from the younger woman’s, but the young woman still tugged at Chelsea’s hand, unwilling to let it go. The Merritt family had arrived. The young woman seemed to want to drag Chelsea behind the rushing gurney which bore her brother—
“Her brother’s bad,” said Chelsea to Felicity as the small group approached. “His heart stopped in the ambulance. They got it started again, but”—
Janet brushed aside a nurse with a wave of her badge while another took Sarah and Mrs. Merritt in hand. “Sarah, Mrs. Merritt, I need to”—
“Have to stay with Spence,” whimpered Sarah, still feebly trying to pull Chelsea after him even as the nurse tried to take her pulse. “He…he shook, and then his heart stopped, and…”
“And the doctors will do their best for him,” said Chelsea, squeezing Sarah’s hand. “Right now, they need to take care of you and your mom too, and you need to tell us everything that happened.”
“We have to help find the men who did this to us,” spoke up Samantha, edging before Sarah. “That’s the best thing we can do right now to help our brothers.” Sarah hesitated, her eyes wide and wet—“We have to help stop them, whoever they are. Before they hurt any more boys and girls.”
Ginger had dreaded the trip, but Samantha’s words, her calm courage, evaporated the fear, which distilled inconveniently in her eyes. Such courage… “She’s right, Sarah. Let the nurse get you settled, and then tell us everything that happened.”
Sarah’s eyes appealed toward Chelsea—“I won’t leave you, Sarah. I told Courtney I couldn’t make it, there had been a break-in. I didn’t go into any detail. And I’m not leaving you.” And finally Sarah let herself be led to an ER cubicle…
The “Penelope Garcia” of the Snoops had leaped into the task at hand. First, search parameters. Home invasion. That was obvious. What else is common to the three cases we know? Father out of the house. In the Howlands’ case, Dr. Howland was at work in his animal hospital. McBrides—Jeremy McBride on his first cat-eye shift at the power plant. Merritts—Scott Merritt on a business trip for—interesting. One of my father-in-law’s companies. That hits a little bit home, doesn’t it? Okay, fathers not at home. Time of day. Howlands were hit at midday, McBrides in the middle of the night, Merritts in the early morning. No consistency there. Victims…mother and two kids. No, be specific, “Garcia.” One brother and one sister. Bethany Howland older than Christopher, Samantha McBride older than Caleb—and Spencer Merritt older than Sarah. Inconsistent again. Ages of the victims. Carolyn Howland was…thirty-three. Only forty-three now. She married young, then. Only twenty when Bethany was born. Bethany almost thirteen, Christopher ten. Kimberly McBride…thirty-five. Waited a little longer than Mrs. Howland, I see. Samantha eleven, Caleb nine. Not too inconsistent. Merritts, though…Renee Merritt is forty-eight. Spencer nineteen, Sarah eighteen. Another break in the pattern. A pattern that’s not a complete pattern. Woo-hoo. Just great. The specific acts…she glanced at the report on the McBride invasion emailed to her by Doctor McNeil and Detective O’Malley, shuddered. Sick. Monstrous. And that’s only what they did to Kimberly. Those kids… Alyson’s stomach turned. Perverted doesn’t even begin to describe it. I need the reports on the Howland case and the details of what just happened to the Merritts. Then a sedative after reading them! Aftermaths…neither Chris Howland nor Caleb McBride had been beaten, and from what I’m hearing Spencer Merritt was beaten badly. Dammit, half-patterns! I need more information!…
Chelsea emerged from the ER cubicle which held Sarah Merritt, the curtains drawn after a nurse and Dr. McNeil entered. She spotted her Snoop friends clustered in a corner of the ER waiting room; they noticed her arrival. “Sarah finally let me go. She’s a wreck. Samantha…she’s in there holding Sarah’s hand while the nurse…well…
“The kit.” Felicity drew a deep sigh, remembering the day before, and remembering her own. “I was there with Samantha. Now she’s staying with Sarah. She’s strong. God knows she’ll need it.”
“Her mom’s no help,” said Ginger, recently returned from her interview with Kimberly McBride. “Still traumatized. Still sedated. And the dad…he’d kill them if he could find them, but he’s pulling away. He never once set eyes on his wife or his kid. I don’t know if that’s shame at himself…or at…someone else.”
“I talked to Mrs. Merritt. At least as much as she could be talked to,” said Megan. “The one man, ‘the younger one,’ she called him, was the one who beat Spencer. As hard as he could. Was screaming at him the whole time, about”—
“Being a ‘homo,’” Chelsea said, having heard the same from Sarah, and knowing what she did of the Merritt family. “Yeah, Spence is gay. His parents aren’t thrilled about that. At all. Sarah’s the only one who really supports him. And that fricking lunatic beat him to pieces. Went wild about it, according to Sarah.”
Felicity’s eyes narrowed. “But then, what he does to the boys…” She and Krysten, a late arrival, exchanged an emetic glance. “Chris and Caleb both. Why would he go off on a boy who really is gay? It seems to me that”—
“Psychodrama.” Ginger’s pronouncement started all of them at once. “They’re playing out some kind of scene. They need a mom, a brother, a sister, and a dad out of the house. And the boy can’t be gay, that much we can tell just from the way he went off on Spencer Merritt. In the first two cases it wouldn’t matter, they were both young boys. But something about being gay set the one off. They’re playing some kind of scene, and Spencer messed it up somehow by being gay.”
“You need to get in touch with Alyson DeRozier.” Detective O’Malley’s comment started the girls, who had not noticed her arrival. “She’s screaming for more details, and I think you just came up with some good ones.” She cast a whimsical glance at Ginger. “FBI Academy, right?”
“First chance I get,” Ginger said with her first smile since the new case had broken. “You can thank me later. Meg, you’re giving me a lift. You’re welcome, by the way.” They all stared at her; Ginger was reviving quickly. “For getting this investigation out of the mud!”
10 Thick-Coming Fancies
Ginger O’Day was thoroughly impressed with the DeRozier estate above Center City. A life as the daughter of a cop was hardly an entré into a world of mansions. Megan too was impressed—her best Snowden friend had married very nicely into the one percent—as they were met at the carved-wood front door by their sorority sister Marnie. “Alyson’s waiting for you. With bated breath.”
Ginger, feeling alive again, could not resist a smart remark. “Should we wait for the butler to announce us? I came out without my calling cards.” Marnie’s smirk conveyed her amusement; she had known to expect Ginger O’Day’s attitude.
“You can dress her up, but you can’t take her anywhere,” said Megan with her own amused smirk. “Sort of like Trish.” Finally eliciting the laugh that had been simmering on Marnie’s lips. “I know the way. I’ll try to make her behave.”
Marnie winked. “I hope you have better luck with Ginger than you had with Trish!” Which was worth a desperately-needed laugh for all of them as Megan led Alyson deeper into the mansion.
“You’re on, Tricia.” Dr. McNeil’s voice cut through Trish’s concentration—she hadn’t even noticed Detective O’Malley’s abrupt departure earlier—“What can you tell us from the photos?”
Exam time. That was the feeling swirling in the pit of her stomach as Doc gazed down upon her. Only in this exam, the testing materials were photos of real-life calamity, monstrousness perpetrated on people she actually knew. She knew Carolyn Howland, her old scout leader; Bethany, classmate and acquaintance; Chris, friend Maggie’s former boyfriend. Pictures commemorating the most horrible experience of their lives. And… “Pretty much the same as at the McBride house. A staged scene in the basement. The kids lined up…here. If this was the chair Mrs. Howland was sat in, it wasn’t moved like the one in the McBride case. She was looking at them from an angle, Mrs. McBride was forced to look straight at her kids while they undressed. Here…the angle of the chair points it straight at the sofa on the other side. According to the data on blood and semen trace, its locations…Bethany was raped on the sofa by Subject One. Chris was in front of the sofa, according to trace. He was raped there by Subject Two. Then…trail of blood droplets. He was moved over…here, back to where their clothes were left. Semen stains here in the middle of the room, where Mrs. Howland was raped. They deliberately placed her in the middle of the room. Maybe they moved Chris where they would both be able to watch. They took turns on Mrs. Howland, One and Two both.” A shuddering sigh—she reached for a sheet of paper printed over with dot-matrix characters—“Seminal fluid was recovered from all three. Subject One’s…” She hesitated, her revulsion at what had been done bringing her voice to a shuddering halt; she handed the sheet to Dr. McNeil. “Well, you can see what the trace says they did. One preferred Bethany and Mrs. Howland, Two...had his way with all three of them. Identical to the results we got from the McBrides.”
Dr. McNeil nodded approvingly at her prize student—the scene Tricia had described crushed actual smiles out of her—and put down the Howland file, took up a second folder, glanced over its contents. “And identical DNA. This is no copycat—the same two subjects. Ten years’ time difference.”
“And no record of either subject’s DNA on any database,” said O’Malley over Dr. McNeil’s phone, set on speaker. Her uniforms and Center City Police techs were working the Merritt home, and she could spare a few moments. “If they had been arrested or convicted, it would have come up somewhere.”
Trish had nerved herself to look at the McBride photos. “They moved Chris, but didn’t move Caleb. No trail of blood from here at the coffee table.” She put the two sets of pictures side-by-side. “No blood where Chris’ face would be on the floor. But in Caleb’s case…I’d guess they were more violent with Caleb. Let me see…” A glance at more papers. “Chris was ten, Caleb nine…Chris was a little bigger than Caleb at the time, but not that much bigger.” Another paper, then another—“Chris wasn’t as damaged as Caleb. Subject Two in both cases…yeah, he was definitely more violent with Caleb than Chris. Evolution?”
“Or maybe Caleb fought back,” said Dr. McNeil. “That would explain hitting Caleb in the face. He got a pretty nasty shiner and a bloody nose.”
Janet spoke up over the phone. “And Spencer Merritt…beaten into critical condition, massive head injuries, probable internal injuries too. According to our witness, he was ranting about Spencer being gay. He didn’t use that exact term, of course. There’s blood all over the place where he’d been put.”
“Maybe…” Trish pulled up a school picture of Caleb McBride, compared it to an old school picture of Chris Howland. “A little softer face, a little more baby fat on Caleb…maybe…yeah, he’s smaller than Chris was…” Her eyes flickered back and forth over the two photos. “Maybe Two thought Caleb was too effeminate somehow.”
“Which would fit what we know,” said O’Malley. “As incomplete as that is. We’ll still have to talk to Caleb, maybe another interview with his sister or mother. No, her mother’s useless right now, according to Felicity and Ginger. Were there interview transcripts with the Howland file?”
“Nope,” said Trish, scanning the contents again. “No formal interviews. Mrs. Howland was…well, she didn’t want Bethany and Chris to have to relive it, according to Detective Klasko; she just wanted it over. It was hard enough work for him to get her to agree to collecting trace. She just wanted to”—and Trish stopped in mid-sentence with a sudden spark in her eyes. Dr. McNeil had seen that expression many times; Trish had just thought of something. She moved to ask Trish to explain, but Trish herself went on, discovery on her face as she gazed hard at her professor and adviser. “Protect her other daughter. Meredith. Merri. Krysten knows them from her church. That’s way inconsistent! In both other cases, the victims were a mother, a son, and a daughter. One daughter. Mrs. Howland has two.” The sudden flush to Tricia’s face was something else Calico McNeil had seen many times; the certain sign that Trish was fully engaged in the hunt. The inconsistency. The second daughter. Meredith Howland, and how she tied into the case.
Merri had fled once again, clattering up the stairs from the meeting hall to the sanctuary, searching wildly for any sympathetic ear, for escape from the reality which had just crashed upon her. But the church was empty, even Reverend Fletcher gone. She tore through the oak-pewed sanctuary, her insides seeming to boil up so that she wanted to tear herself apart. Mom and Dad had tried to explain, tried to excuse themselves for not telling her what she had heard Mom tell Krysten Parker. It was betrayal, nothing less, which boiled up inside her, trying to force its way out. She wanted to scream, tear apart the sanctuary, run and run and run until everything had fallen away, take the whole world and tear it into shreds until—
Until a thought struck her unexpectedly. Last Christmas. Tess’s secret. Then, too, a secret had been kept, a secret which nearly destroyed her friendship with Tess Vandiver. Merri had been outraged, furious, but her friend Charity Mabrey had finally gotten through to her that Tess’s secret, and Charity’s complicity in it, had been nothing malicious, nothing condescending, merely a mistake born of Tess’s fear of losing Merri. But why this? Why wouldn’t Mom and Dad tell me? It’s like my whole life is nothing but a lie! My whole family is nothing but lies! Those terrible people, the horrible things they did, and I wasn’t supposed to know? Like somehow I don’t even count? Like I’m nobody to them? Why?
“What could you have done if you’d known, punkin?” Dad’s voice came from a distance, and Merri discovered herself curled up at the side of the old shiny-oak altar, Dad standing in the main entrance at the foyer. He looked old, ancient, as if he had aged a hundred years in the moments since she had run from the meeting hall. She looked up, only then feeling the wetness on her face—“What would knowing what had happened help? It would have only hurt you for no reason.”
“I had a right to know! It’s not fair! Ain’t I a part of the family too?”
Dad seemed to shrink even more as he shuffled down the aisle toward the altar, his hands in his pockets as usual, but his shoulders stooped, his face mournful, his tall spare frame seeming to totter as he walked. “You know the answer to that, punkin. And that’s why we never told you. It would have hurt you for no reason. What could you have done to help anything? Your mother hid you to keep you away from those monsters; she knew they were hurting Bethany and Christopher, and she didn’t want them to hurt you too, not even afterwards. Telling you would just mean that they got to you, too, and none of us wanted that. You’re the last little bit of us that they didn’t get to hurt.”
“Do you know why your sister has you over to her place so often?” Merri blinked hard and finally looked up at her father, now sitting beside her at the altar. “Besides that she loves you to pieces, punkin. You remind her of how she used to be. You’re…a sort of link to what she was before…”
“They hurt you too?”
Dad’s eyes welled up. “I found them afterwards, punkin. Can you imagine how that hurt me? That…” and tears began to fall—“that they’d been…been hurt, and I wasn’t there to protect them? To protect you?”
Her father’s tears reached Merri where nothing else could. She turned, wrapped her plump arms around his neck, leaned her head on his shoulder. The truth of that day, refracted through the tears of a daddy who had not been there when he was most needed, now was clear in Merri’s mind. Those two evil men had hurt them so badly, and the hurt had never ever gone away. And she herself was the only one who hadn’t been wounded—the one they apparently hadn’t even known was there that horrible day. “I’m sorry, Daddy,” she whispered, hugging him tight. “Please don’t cry. You aren’t a bad daddy, you weren’t a bad daddy then either. You were running the animal hospital like you always did, making money for the family. You have to do that, you know. We have to live. It ain’t your fault. It hurts everybody bad, but you weren’t the one to hurt anybody. You did the best you could. And I’m sorry I got mad. I just…it hurts, and I don’t know how to fix it for you! I don’t know what to do!”
“Just be you, punkin,” and Daddy wrapped her up in his arms, easing her up to her feet and leading her back up the aisle to where Mom waited in her own tears. But that can’t be enough, Merri told herself through her own tears…
News of Chelsea’s discovery of the ruined Merritt family almost immediately found its way to Chateau Snoop. Missy and Hannah had wandered in during the morning—Missy from her regular check-ins with Grandma Bonhart, Hannah from another overnight at DRK House—not long before Chelsea, then Trish, then Krysten and Felicity and Ginger, called to update anyone who was still at home with the news not only of the Merritts, but of Trish’s and Krysten’s discovery of the Howland case from a decade ago. The anyone who had taken all the calls and texts was, of course, Paula. She had been struggling through an Intro to Lit assignment on symbology in Murder in the Cathedral, only to have any concern about symbology or anything else erased by the news that a second family in as many days had been assaulted in their own home. She threw aside her literature assignment, and, unsure whether she would be welcome at the Snowden State forensics lab, paced the house as her mind raced through the evidence she had gleaned of the new invasion. Another family. Older brother and younger sister, the gay brother beaten to the very edge of life, another father out of the house—and a thought stilled her pacing.
The father was out. A business trip, Chelsea said. And the Howlands…of course Dr. Howland would have been at his animal hospital during the day. Jeremy McBride was working his first overnight cat-eye shift at the power plant.
That’s not a coincidence.
Her mind clung to those three facts. One father out at work during the day. One father on a business trip. One father on his first overnight shift at…Jolted as by a shock, she tore out her phone—who do I call? Trish—the best one of us, my roommate—“Trish! I just thought of something!…yes, it’s me, Paula! I—I just thought of something! Listen! The fathers in all those invasions were out of the house when their families were attacked. One at his animal hospital, one on a business trip, and one on his first cat-eye shift. How can that be a coincidence? That they just happened to hit all three families when their fathers…yes! Right! That’s exactly what I was going to say, Tricia—they had to know the fathers would have been out! They had to do some kind of research! They not only knew the dads would be out, they knew when they would be out! The attacks were all different times of day! I”—and a sudden noise on the other end told Paula the phone had been moved or dropped—
“Get your fanny over here right now, Ms. Ryan!” Dr. McNeil! “And if you don’t change your major, I’m changing it for you! You’re the first one of us to figure that out! Here! Now!” And the phone went dead, leaving Paula with no choice but to hurry to the campus and the very place she hadn’t been certain she would be welcome. Could I have been the first to…no, that’s not possible! Just luck on my part! In any case, one does not leave someone like Dr. McNeil waiting!
“She’s my roomie. I’m rubbing off on her.”
“Whatever helps you sleep at night, Trish,” said Dr. McNeil with an arched brow. “Or me. How the hell could we have missed that? Three times a home is invaded, three times the father is out. They had to have researched that! McBride was on his very first cat-eye shift; that’s too much of a coincidence! They knew he would be out, and struck at their first opportunity. They knew Scott Merritt was in the middle of a business trip; otherwise they ran the chance of him coming home unexpectedly. And Fred Howland was always at the animal hospital during the day, so”—
Trish’s eyes lit again. “Ten years ago. It would be easy to…Doc, I’d bet the Howland invasion was their first! So…something ten years ago set this all off, some kind of stressor that pushed them over the edge. And it had to be someone local; they wouldn’t go all over heck looking for families to hit! And…think! It would be easy to hit the Howlands, because they would know Dr. Howland would be out! The easiest research of all!”
“Psychodrama,” muttered Dr. McNeil, pacing the lab, her mind racing through scenarios and decision trees. “The Howlands were the first people they played their scene with, and”—
“And they didn’t know Merri would be there! Every other time they hit homes with one son and one daughter…they found out later that Merri was there, and…I’d bet that ruined their psychodrama! After that, they’d make sure to have just exactly the right people in the house!” She felt her face flush with triumph—
“Now you’re trying to be a profiler, Tricia. But I have to admit that you scored one on Ginger with that one. Speaking of, we’d better get this to Ginger and Megan over at Alyson DeRozier’s place. You do the honors.” Trish picked up the phone with the first smile she’d had in days…
“What can I say?” said Ginger, her brow cocked at Megan as Alyson tried to find a link between Scott Merritt and Jeremy McBride which would allow someone to know about their absences from home. “Trish is a genius! And I’m getting her for it if it’s the last thing I do!”
“And we need to figure out the stressor that set them off to do the Howland invasion,” Megan said to Alyson from her shoulder, doing her best to ignore Ginger. “Something along the lines of sexual abuse, I’d be willing to bet.”
“We might be looking for another stressor too,” said Alyson, her fingers busily working the keyboard. “If they’ve both been back in the area for any length of time, something would have set them off to start up again. If they haven’t both been here, we need to know where they’ve been.” She cast a glance back to her friends. “And has anyone here considered interviewing the Howlands? It might help us figure out that stressor, you know."
“Krys is on it,” said Ginger. “If we’re lucky, she hasn’t made a mess of things.” Krysten’s delicacies sometimes did that sort of thing…
The news which Merri had stumbled upon in the meeting hall was only the first horror of the day. Before Krysten had departed, leaving her to Mom and Dad on a silent way home, she knew that her own classmate Samantha McBride and her family had been attacked just as her own family had been. The horror of that news—that sweet, quiet Samantha had faced the very same assault her own siblings and mother had faced—tore at her soul, leaving her to silently pace her house, avoiding her parents’ explanations as her anger rebuilt itself. If only they’d spoken up, maybe the bad guys would have been caught before they got to do it to Samantha and Caleb! Why wouldn’t they—but her native sense of mercy stopped her as she paced away from her parents in a too-quiet Howland home. It hurt them all so bad. They didn’t just hurt their bodies, they hurt their hearts. “You’d make a better girl than a boy,” they told Chris while they were doing all that to him. About the worst thing they could say to a little boy! How many ways did that hurt him, hurt him so bad he won’t come home? And Beth, and Mom…
Suddenly Merri found that she had wandered into the basement, and the room loomed up before her. Much of the basement was Dad’s work space, a workshop where he worked on the animal hospital’s equipment as well as the house’s, and a few spacious pens for sick and injured animals he wanted to keep close watch on and could not be left in the shelter in the backyard. Another space filled with various household junk, old bikes and toys, beside the furnace. But there was that one room, paneled walls and carpeted floor, which for as long as Merri’s memory reached back had been filled from wall to wall with boxes of files, old equipment, billing records and ledgers and untold things back in the back of the room Merri had never seen. She had often wondered why the old room had always been filled up with such things, and why her innocent suggestions that it would make a nice downstairs lounge or playroom had always been rebuffed; now she had her answer. It had been in there. Where the bad men had driven Mom and Bethany and Chris. Where they had—the word tore at her gut—raped them. Where they had left them ruined for Dad to find. Her face was hot red at the memory of those innocent requests to fix up the room for her own playroom; what must Mom and Dad have thought about me wanting to use it again? How could they ever imagine letting me play in the same room where…and where Daddy found them, tied up and gagged and so badly hurt. How it had hurt him to find them like that. They suffered in silence, just to make sure I didn’t wake up. Lay there torn and helpless for Daddy to find them. Did those horrible men do that on purpose, just to hurt Daddy as much as they hurt Mom and Bethany and Chris?
She could not look at the room another moment, felt her insides churning. And it had all happened again. Samantha and Caleb. Another room they won’t ever be able to look at. Another daddy who found his family hurt. She had to know—was it all to hurt their daddy like they hurt mine? Why would anyone want to do that? Her curiosity overtook her—and she slipped past two distraught, unseeing parents and one solicitous friend, slipped into her jacket, and set herself a brisk walking pace toward the Snowden Commons Apartments. Maybe Bethany can help me…
Paula had resisted Tricia’s siren call to change her major to criminal sciences, had even held out against Dr. McNeil’s entreaties that she would fit well into the Snowden State forensics program. But she had to admit to herself, as she walked briskly toward the criminal-sciences building, that the call to come help the case had come as a relief, a sort of escape from the wearisome burden of T. S. Eliot and his turgid literature into the real and alive. She in fact felt a swell of pride as she walked—I was the one to realize they had to research their victims! Trish with her scientific expertise, Ginger with her psychological knowledge, even Dr. McNeil with her long outstanding service had not realized what I realized! And it is something somehow more real than discovering mere wordplay in a manuscript, something that has real value to real people, horrid as its reality is. The men who attacked the McBrides and the Merritts and the Howlands had researched the families they planned to ravage, seeking the absent father so they could swoop in on unprotected victims. Always a boy and a girl and a mother. Ginger would make much of that, no doubt. And now everyone seeking the two monsters will make something of what I discovered. Maybe…
“So…there’s some sort of nexus between…at least Scott Merritt and Jeremy McBride.” Alyson gazed at her computer screen and tried to think. “A sales executive and a power-plant maintenance technician. Some way that one or two people can find out that they will be out of the house at a particular time. And Paula Ryan thought of this before any of us did.”
“That’s my roomie!” Ginger’s smile had gone crooked, a sure sign she was fully into the hunt for the criminals, and proud of her Snoop Towers roommate. “Takes after me!” In more ways than her detective skills, she did not say.
“Two men, two families,” said Megan. “Maybe one works at the power plant and one at…what’s the name of that company?”
“Specialty Fabrications, Inc.,” Alyson answered. “It’s one of the companies my father-in-law owns. They specialize in fabricating parts for out-of-production machinery. They do pretty well.” She glanced around the room, well-furnished and tastefully decorated. “For all of us.”
“So maybe the connection isn’t based on their work,” said Megan. “Social connections, common likes, something like that. Maybe they go to the same bar or something.”
Alyson replied with a grim smile. “You like making my life difficult, don’t you? That would take a while to investigate. Unless you two want to help out.”
“Did I mention we were just leaving?” Ginger’s winking remark got another badly-needed laugh. “But you’re right. Like I said, Krys is talking to the Howlands, so we can be on any connections between Scott Merritt and Jeremy McBride. But I’m not putting any bets on it.”
Mrs. Howland’s description of that afternoon ten years before had spread like a sickness in Krysten’s soul, even into her body. She could have vomited, had she taken food. Her flesh was clammy as Fred Howland described his return home that evening to find his family in the basement playroom, the scene he described chilling her very heart. So much about Chris and Bethany was now clear. Chris’ uncertainties, Bethany’s withdrawal. What could we have done for them had we only known? But there was one who could still be helped, the one who had been hidden all that day—
But was also hidden now. Mrs. Howland’s calls for Merri went unanswered, and a quick search found her and her jacket missing. In a chilly panic, she and Dr. Howland called back Krysten and set out to seek the missing daughter. The Howlands drove toward Wiltontown, Krysten toward Snowden itself—
And she spotted the pink-clad figure walking purposefully onto the edge of the Snowden State campus, where the Snowden Commons stood in distant view. Krysten understood immediately what Merri intended. She wanted to talk to her sister, for what purpose Krysten did not yet know. But she did know she could not let the brokenhearted child walk alone, and pulled the car to the shoulder. Her most earnest entreaties finally enticed Merri into the passenger seat—“If you wanted a ride, I could have taken you to see Beth,” she said in her most gentle tones as she texted the Howlands that she had found Merri.
“How did you”—
“We’re both detectives, Merri,” said Krysten with a moist, naturally sympathetic smile. “Think about it. Why else would you be walking out this way?” For the briefest of moments, Merri nearly smiled back—“She was thinking about you, you know. Your mom told you. They didn’t want them to find you and hurt you too.”
“I know.” Merri sank deep into Krysten’s passenger seat. “It just…I feel like I…I don’t know, cheated or something. It wasn’t fair. They got hurt…and I didn’t. All that horrible stuff, and I slept through it! Then Daddy, he came home, and…did they do that on purpose? Mom said they tied them all up tight after they were done—was that so Dad would find them? Was it all just to hurt his feelings?”
Krysten let her eyes go even softer as she gazed over at Merri in the passenger seat. So like Merri to think of others instead of—and then a start shook her. Just to hurt his feelings... Could it be? Could that be the secret to their depredations? “I don’t know, Merri. Maybe your sister can tell us something that will make it clearer.” She handed Merri her phone. “Call your parents, they're worried sick about you. Tell them where we’re going.” Merri complied as Krysten swung her Escort back onto the road for the last few hundred yards to Snowden Commons, and Bethany therein.
“So much for finding them right away.” Dr. McNeil was pinching at the bridge of her nose, her instinctive reaction to the headache blooming behind her eyes. “All we have is matching DNA fingerprints that don’t come up in any known database. A pair of subjects who research their targets and hit them when the father is out. And some sort of psychodrama they’re playing out.”
Trish lowered her phone; Krysten had called while she and Dr. McNeil had been sifting the photographs of the Howland crime scene. “And just maybe, they were attacking the father. Krys got it from something Merri Howland told her; the men made sure to tie them up tight before they left. It’s just a theory, but maybe a good one. Merri’s smarter than people make her out to be.”
“Until we get some more data, we’re stuck. Even if it’s some sort of revenge fantasy on father figures, until we have more to go on we’re just shooting in the dark. Maybe we could start sifting local cases of child abuse by fathers, but even in a little place like this, that’s a huge database. Not to mention that if that’s the stressor, it might not have shown up in any records. Plenty of victims never report the abuse in the first place.”
“It’s got to be something sexual, so that’s a parameter. Considering what he did to the families. One of them has really bad issues with homosexuality, based on what we got from the Merritts.”
“Still too broad, Trish. In a psychodrama, every detail is important, but we don’t have all those details yet.”
“Krys and Merri are working on that as we speak, doc.” Trish managed her first smile in what felt to her like lifetimes. “Maybe Detective Janet should just hire us out to solve her cases for her!”
And got a smile from Dr. McNeil in return. “You’re getting too big for your britches, young lady!” She even managed a sly wink. “Maybe I ought to talk to your fiance about a little discipline!”
“He already behaves well enough, thank you!” The pause forced by the lack of data was already allowing Tricia to relax a little. She was sure that the case would be oppressing her again soon enough.
Bethany Howland had needed nothing more than to hear the waver in her sister’s voice on the Snowden Commons intercom to know that Merri knew. The one thing she and Mom and Chris had hoped to keep from happening—the thing which kept them silent while they were being tortured in ways which still brought nightmares a decade later—had happened. Merri knew. And the murmured voice behind Merri’s was how she had learned. Krysten. Krysten...and Trish too, no doubt. They couldn’t leave things alone, just as Maggie had warned. And now...she knew Merri had been shattered, the shards were evident in her very voice. They had gotten to Merri, thanks to Krysten and Trish. What was there to do but gather up the wreckage of her sister? “Beth, they meant well,” said Maggie as soon as Bethany, red-faced with wrath, had clicked off the intercom. “They want to catch who did this last night. It’s not about hurting Merri, it’s about stopping criminals. They did it again, you know! Right here in town, two other kids!” Maggie sighed herself silent as Bethany threw herself at the door, where the bell had just rung. The door was open—
“They did it to Samantha and Caleb!” Merri’s woeful cry was out even before Bethany had fully opened the door. “My own classmate! And Krysten said there’s somebody else down in Center City this morning! Beth, we have to help them!”
“They had no right doing this to you!”
“I overheard Mom and Krysten. I know everything, Beth, everything they did to you. And they went and did it to Samantha and Caleb last night, and a whole other family this morning. They think it’s the same people! We can help stop them before they do it to anybody else! That’s more important than me!” If anything could have brought Bethany’s anger to heel, it was Merri, and her plea struck straight at her sister’s heart. “Beth, they think the bad guys are trying to play some kind of scene, that’s what Trish told Krysten here. Like some kind of play. They have to know what happened.” Bethany wavered, and Merri took her by the hand and led her back to her favorite chair.
“Merri...you only think you know everything. You weren’t there...we didn’t want them to find you. You don’t know...how could...I can’t even think about what they did, Merri!”
“But they did it again! They did it to my friend! Samantha...what did they do to her? You do know it, it was the same people and they probably did the same thing to her! Don’t you want to help Samantha?”
“And Chelsea’s friend from work, Bethany,” said Krysten, soft and humble but implacable. “Sarah Merritt and her brother. They beat him so bad he might not even live.” Bethany fell limp back into her seat. “It’s not fair to ask you, Bethany, I know that. It’s not fair to make you go back to it. But now they’ve done it to others, and you know they’ll keep doing it until they’re stopped. They might even be escalating to killing people!”
“I know they told Chris he would make a better girl than a boy,” said Merri, prompting her sister to speak, her hands wrapped around Bethany’s. “Like they wanted to hurt his feelings just as much as they hurt his body. And they tied you up afterwards so Daddy could find you. Just like they wanted to hurt him, too.”
Bethany curled up in her chair at Merri’s words, covering herself up from the urgency in her sister and Krysten’s voices, burying her face in her arms. “Please...just stop!...stop...I can’t...”
Krysten and Merri and Maggie all gazed down at Bethany, curled up inside herself against the memory of that day, the memory she knew had now been forced upon others as it had been forced upon her. What do we do?
Merri, the youngest of them, surmised what had to be done, and, perching on the arm of the chair, wrapped her sister up in her arms. “Krysten is right, Beth. It’s not fair, not fair at all. You didn’t deserve this to happen to you, Chris neither. But it did, you know, and now it happened to Samantha and that other girl Sarah. Maybe you can remember something that will stop them from hurting anybody else. You want to help them, Beth, I know you do. You wouldn’t want anybody else to hurt like you do. That’s why you never told me, that’s what you said, Beth. You didn’t want them to hurt me too. You don’t want them to hurt anybody else either. But now you can’t help by keeping quiet, you help by remembering it and talking about it. I know it hurts, but I’ll be here with you, Krysten and Maggie and anybody else you need. We’ll help you.” And now Bethany was encircled closely round, Krysten and Maggie following Merri’s lead and wrapping her up in their own arms.
And beneath her hand, Krysten felt the shudder of Bethany’s shoulders, soft quivering she recognized instantly. Sobbing. Bethany was weeping, the wavering, catching breath more proof that inside the palisade of her heavy arms, Bethany was crying as hard as Krysten could ever remember Bethany cry. But silent. Absolutely silently. Just like that day. That day too, she had been silent, had cried silent tears as the two men—the same two she and the rest were even then pursuing—had violated her, violated her brother and her mother, tortured all of them and left them for Dr. Howland to discover. They had stayed silent, all so that Merri would not awaken and reveal herself to the invaders. Even now, a decade past, she cries in silence. The trace of resentment Krysten had felt that Bethany’s silence might have enabled the new attacks dissolved in Bethany’s silent tears. No one could blame her from shrinking away from a wound so deep. But then, beneath her touch, she felt Bethany stir, felt the shuddering slow just a little bit—
“They said that Dad was probably a fairy too.” Bethany’s voice was a faint mewl from behind the protection of her arms, a voice from far away, from a decade past. “A fairy...so he didn’t care what happened to his family. Said that was what made Chris into...into a little f...made me into a little slut...that Dad was just a fairy...”
Krysten, her own heart pounding in her chest as Bethany wept out the words of the invaders, happened to see Merri, the blanched horror there on the freckled face, and knew it reflected her own expression. You were right, Merri. If your dad wasn’t the target, he was most certainly a target. Did they say these same things to Samantha and Caleb, to Sarah and Spencer? Is this as important as it seems?
“You gotta be patient, guy. This shit all happened because you got impatient.”
“You know what’s going down, man. Today was fucked up. I still gotta get it out of me.”
“You gotta be patient, dammit. It’s gotta wait ‘til we get another chance. Give me some time. I’ll find just the right ones, okay? Just a few days, and we’ll get another chance and get it right. Just be patient.”
“It’s tough, man! It’s still going on inside me! We still gotta get it out!”
“We’ll get it out, guy. Just lie low and be patient.”
Everyone needed to regroup. Krysten knew she and Merri had discovered a necessary fact, but needed to fit the new piece into the jigsaw puzzle that was starting to fill out. Alyson needed to sift out the connections between Scott Merritt and Jeremy McBride that allowed the invaders to track them both. Merri and Maggie needed to help Bethany reassemble the shattered pieces of her own psyche. Ginger and Megan needed to discover the premise of the invaders’ rapacious psychodrama. Trish and Dr. McNeil—and now, Paula too—needed to examine the links between the three crimes. And life itself would not go away.
Not least of which was the fact that Samantha McBride was being released from the hospital. With Caleb still admitted for some days in the wake of the surgery needed to repair the damage done to his anatomy, with her parents still distraught—Mrs. McBride still sedated, unable to care for herself, much less her family—and with little other recourse, she needed a place to stay until her family had recovered sufficiently to function again. It was Merri Howland who moved to take in her classmate, convinced her parents to make the offer, persuaded Bethany to direct her anguish toward helping another young victim. Bethany’s rarely-used car had taken them both to Center City, where they found Samantha unwilling to leave Sarah Merritt’s side, but exhausted by an ordeal followed by the vigil with Sarah, whose brother remained unresponsive, Samantha had been sent with the Howlands by Sarah’s own insistence. In those hours, with one sibling still in peril of his life, Sarah Merritt had seemed to discover a new one.
That new sibling had bathed cautiously, still wounded and tender from the assault, and sat in Merri’s bedroom wrapped up in a new bathrobe and new pajamas. Merri sat on the bed beside her—and Bethany had nerved herself to go back into a home she had not entered in years, all for the sake of a fellow victim of the invaders. For hours, her new friend Felicity Mabrey—sister to another classmate, Charity—had also sat, talked earnestly with Dr. and Mrs. Howland, with Bethany, succoring them as she had tried with Samantha, but was now back at Chateau Snoop. But even with her new friend departed, an energized Samantha still talked, not least about the similarities between what had happened in her home and what had happened so long ago at Merri and Bethany’s. “He said that to him!” she said, her voice wavering, tears brewing again in her eyes which she could hardly wipe away fast enough. “‘Are you a f...’ a...a...one of them...‘like your dad?’ He called him that! He called Dad that!” Now the other inmates of the room gathered around her; with Merri, inevitably Tess Vandiver would come, and with her the other Junior Snoops Charity Mabrey, Jillian Burton, and Alyssa Anthony, all of whom now surrounded Samantha on the bed.
Alyssa in particular understood what had been done to her classmate. “They like to hurt people. It’s fun to them.” As she herself had endured, only a few years ago.
“He laughed! He said those things to Caleb, and he laughed! He thought it was funny! And...me and Mom...the other one...he called Mom a...a whore, and...and...” She shuddered again as the words poured down on her came back—
“I know,” said Bethany, squeezing Samantha’s hand. “He called me the same things. But it’s not true, Samantha. It’s a lie. He just says those things because he knows they hurt. They think their names will hurt you as bad as what they did to you.”
It was Charity’s turn to plunge into the talk; she wedged her long, lean self, so like her sister and Samantha’s new friend Felicity, onto the bed behind Samantha and wrapped a long slender arm around her shoulders. “But it’s not going to work, Samantha. You won’t let it work. You’re strong, you know. Stronger than they think. I bet you kept Caleb from breaking down. You sat with that other girl for so long! You’re stronger than even I am!” A compliment indeed from the best athlete in the class, whose freckled, raven-pigtailed face grew pensive, her sea-green eyes thoughtful. “We all are, you know. Girls, I mean. Boys...they think we’re all so soft...girly, you know. I mean, because, well, we cry sometimes, and...but it’s not true, you know. All the stuff we have to put up with, all the things that happen to us, and we deal with it.”
Alyssa patted Samantha’s shoulder, nodding at Charity’s thoughts. “When I was taken...afterwards, Dad left. He didn’t come back for like a year. I heard him, that one night after I got brought back...he said he couldn’t deal with it, he had to have time and space to think. But Mom didn’t run away. She couldn’t. I was such a mess...she had to be strong for me. And I had to be strong for her, too.”
Jillian put down her Kindle and spoke up. “When my brother Grayson or I get sick, it’s always Mom who takes care of us. Dad runs for medicine or ginger ale, and Mom does the rest. Being strong isn’t just about lifting weights and stuff. It’s facing stuff you don’t want to face. When the boys run, we stay.” A sly smile lit her face. “Girls rule, boys drool.”
For the briefest of moments, Bethany saw a faint trace of smile on Samantha’s face, and she knew Samantha would win. Strong. Stronger than the boys. Stronger than...and she knew where she had to be. She excused herself graciously, stopped to bid hugs-and-kisses goodnights to Mom and Dad, and fired up the old car for a short trip into town. She knew the street, and after a few turns within the town limits, saw the sign. Schaefer Street. A few houses up the low hill, and there was the house; Krysten’s car was parked in front, if any proof was needed she was in the right place. Now, the hard part—leaving the car. Her pulse had risen with each turn in the road, and now with the house itself just across the dark street, her pulse was whooshing in her ears, her fingers cold and clammy from the same flight instinct she always fought every time she left her apartment in the Commons. She had been shy even before that day; ever after, every human being was a potential threat, a source of danger from which Bethany would fly. She had flown away from family, from home, from friends. She had flown so far she had isolated herself from as much of humanity as she could. But now, there could be no more flight, and she had no knowledge of how to stand and face the world. Every cell in her body craved flight, the reassurance of her little apartment and its solitude, but she knew she could no longer accept that false comfort. But how to face what she had not faced for a decade?
She stopped the car, shut down the ignition and lowered her face to the wheel, hiding again in her arms. She had long given up church, a community of believers as threatening as any other group of humans, and given up on prayer as any help for anything. She had prayed that day, prayed that they would stop, that they would leave, but only after sating themselves on her and her family’s bodies did they leave, an obscene reply to her desperate prayers. But how else to get the strength to leave the car, to actually walk to that door and enter? How can I find the strength? I can’t. I can’t do this. I’m a coward, more now than ever, but I can’t do this. Samantha can help them, that Sarah Merritt girl. I can’t. I simply can’t—
“Bethany.” She heard the voice, muffled through her window, and now she realized that a hand had been knocking at her driver’s-side window, a knocking she only then had heard. She raised her face, and found herself looking up at Trish, gazing down solicitously at her. “Bethany, come on in.”
“Bethany, it’s okay. We were hoping you’d come over. Maggie’s here.”
“I really can’t, Tricia! “You know I can’t!”
“Okay.” Bethany sighed, let her face fall back to the wheel—only to hear the passenger door open—she started—and now Tricia was in the car, sitting beside her—“Then we’ll talk here.”
Tricia reached up and seized Bethany’s hand, squeezed it. “Bethany, we’re trying to stop those guys. Stop both of them before they can hurt anybody else. You know what we’re trying to do. And you know what they did. What they did to you, and to Sarah, and to Samantha, and to Caleb and Spencer. And Chris. And they’ll keep doing it until someone stops them. You can do this, Bethany. You won’t be alone. Please, come on in and help us. We need you.”
A last sob of despair chirped from her throat, and she raised her head. “Okay.” And she let Trish lead her into the house, where Maggie awaited even on the stoop.
The night had reclaimed Merri’s Snoop friends, leaving her alone with Samantha to talk. The next day was a school day, which meant that Mrs. Howland was insistent that the two girls go to bed. Samantha was still unsure whether she wanted to go back to school, but she already knew that Merri and her friends—Tess, Jillian, Alyssa, and especially Charity—would be a vanguard to protect her from any inconsiderateness from anyone at school. Part of the issue for Samantha was being away from her family, especially Caleb, and Mrs. Howland assured her that she herself would take her down to the hospital as soon as the dismissal bell rang. Long soft words, gentle persuasion from both her hosts, and finally Samantha agreed to go to school, and finally laid down her head on Merri’s pillow, Merri herself borrowing an air mattress put down beside the bed, readily to hand in case her friend faced any nightmares. So like Merri, Mrs. Howland told herself with silent pride as she ventured to her own room for bed—
Where she found her husband with his hands in a very old box—her chest tightened—“Freddie, why do you have that out?”
With a tight sigh, he placed the pistol—a small Smith and Wesson Model 60—back in the box. “They’re still out there, hon. We know they’re out there again, and I can’t take a chance about them coming back here.”
“We agreed it wouldn’t do any good.” At least I did, Carolyn told herself. Freddy, consumed by guilt, had pictured a scenario; Carolyn would hear the commotion downstairs, take the gun, stop the assault before it happened. It was a fantasy that lasted only until Carolyn pointed out that she was just as likely to have hit Bethany or Christopher as she was to have hit one of the invaders. But Freddy had never gotten rid of the pistol, never having relieved himself of the fantasy. Carolyn had not objected, because it still tugged at her soul as well. Over the years, Carolyn had believed the fantasy had faded, become little more than a scene from fragmentary nightmares. She too indulged that fantasy at times; the invaders would come, she would put Meredith down, and kill the intruders where they stood. But it was a mere dream, something to imagine in the dark of an occasional long night. The wakeful Mrs. Howland knew better.
And then the McBrides had been hit.
In her dreams that night, she had relived that horrible day, with no comforting fantasies of a gun to redeem it. She relived it, every sense vivid and alive. The pungent fresh sweat of the smaller, older man as he pushed her into the room, sweat and old wool from the ski mask. The bite of the sisal rope into the flesh of her wrists as he tied her hands behind her back, each scratchy fiber of the cord scraping her skin as it was tightened deeply enough to draw a chill into her helpless fingers. The timorous whimper, unformed into words, from Bethany’s throat as she undressed herself with trembling hands. The dusty, oily taste of the rag thrust deep into her mouth. The prickly stickiness of the tape plastered over her lips. The pulsing thunder of her heartbeat in her ears as her children were bound before her eyes. The sting of torn-away tape, the sweaty pungency of the man as he forced himself into her.
Some images would not resolve themselves in her memory. Her own cries as she was violated. The fire of the rug burn driven into her knees and her back by the relentless assaults. The dry, tearing fullness as he penetrated her. But some images had driven themselves into her so deeply that she needed no dream nor nightmare to recall them. The spasm of agony on Christopher’s face as his body was torn. The anguished, silent question on Bethany’s face; why. Why us? Why me? Why do they laugh? Why do they like this? Even had she been able to speak to her daughter, Carolyn had no answer for her, even as she had read it in Bethany’s eyes yet again that very evening, the question that had never left her daughter’s eyes. I don’t know why, Bethany dear. I don’t think I’ll ever know why. I can’t answer it for you, and I can’t answer it for Christopher, and I can’t answer it for Merri either. And now I can’t answer it for Samantha, nor for Caleb. Is there an answer at all?
Ginger shook her head, taking very good care to not notice the tremor in Bethany’s hands as she tried to hold the mug. “Look, I can go on all night about the psychopathy, the factors we know, they way it tends to play out in general. I even think I have a handle on the basics of these guys’ scene, but I don’t know yet why they’re doing it. There’s some kind of psychological need these guys are trying to fulfill by...well, this, but what it is, I don’t know.” The sudden despair in Bethany’s eyes stung her, forcing out one more word. “Yet.”
Trish took up the word. “We’ll figure it out, Beth. Once we know why they’re doing what they’re doing, we can get ahead of them and stop all this.” At least if that’s possible. What do we even know about them?
What do I really know? The computer screen reflecting back in the young Mrs. DeRozier’s eyes had no answers in itself, a frustration to which she was quite unaccustomed. Alyson was the unquestioned mistress of the keyboard; her “Penelope Garcia” nickname well earned by much more than her blonde tresses or her statuesque frame. Nothing was her answer; nothing, that is, which suggested any sort of connection between Scott Merritt and Jeremy McBride. And it has to be there. She had been thoroughly updated on the case by Tricia and Krysten, and drew the same conclusion that the fathers were just as important to the case as the families the invaders had tortured. But what is it? So far...
“Nothing?” Alyson gasped and jumped in her seat as arms wrapped around her from behind; then the reality of Channing settled her. She settled back into her seat, snugging herself into her husband’s embrace.
“Nothing. And there has to be some kind of connection! Not their church; the Merritts go to St. Paul’s Lutheran here in town, the McBrides go to Snowden Church of Christ. Merritt belongs to Center City Lions and the Knights of Pythias. McBride doesn’t belong to any service clubs. Merritt’s purchases are mostly books, auto electronics, and music. McBride buys mostly hunting and fishing supplies. From their accounts, these two don’t interact at all. Merritt does Red Lobster and Applebee’s, McBride takes the kids to McDonald’s once or twice a month. They live in two different worlds. And somehow those invaders knew when the men would be out of the house. That takes research.”
“But for how long? For all you know, they’ve been checking these families out for months, if not years. After all, it’s been ten years since the Howlands. And there’s probably no connection between them and the others.”
“I don’t think so. If they’d had that kind of time, they’d have known that Spencer Merritt is gay. They didn’t know that until they had the family down in their basement, according to Chelsea Parker. She’s the one who found them. The girl says it made the younger one really crazy. So...I’ve got nothing.”
“Until they hit again.” Which thought struck at the pit of Alyson’s stomach...
Sunday night found few Snoops sleeping soundly. Every hour of the night, they expected another alarm, another invasion, another family ruined.
No such reports came.
All day Monday—from Snowden Middle, where Charity Mabrey and her Junior Snoop crew hovered around Samantha McBride like a praetorian guard, to the Snowden State campus itself, where Paula sat inattentive to her classes and Trish, Krysten, Missy, and Ginger kept vigil in the criminal-sciences building, and Alyson puttered at the DeRozier mansion awaiting a dreaded call—everyone had anticipated news of another chapter to the spree. Charity Mabrey informed Tabitha Bell, the chief gossip of the sixth grade—already whispering wild, cruel rumors about what Samantha McBride had done that weekend—that if Charity or any of her friends heard even a single syllable about Samantha from anyone, she would personally make sure that Tabitha would never be able to show her face in public again. After taking her apart limb from limb and putting her back together again differently, of course. After such a warning from the most robust of Snowden Middle sixth-graders, all gossip about Samantha McBride was silenced. In Center City General, Sarah Merritt, herself still badly bruised and torn, sat by her brother’s bedside in the ICU, but no sign of consciousness returned to him, and she heard the ICU physician muttering ominously about intra-cranial pressure. On the floor above, Caleb McBride was slowly weaned from his sedation, as was his mother, while Mr. McBride barraged his at-school daughter with texted queries about her day. But no news of another attack was heard.
Tricia gnawed disconsolately at a slice of Big Mama’s pizza, pepperoni, sausage, and onion, her favorite pie for bad moods. “It’s been ten years between the Howlands and this past weekend. They might just submerge again for another ten years, and we won’t have a clue who they are.”
“As opposed to another attack,” said Krysten, handing a slice to Bethany, who had managed to nerve herself to return to Snoop Towers that evening to find out the latest on the case.
“And no new evidence,” said Ginger in her own turn. “Which is better, no victims or no evidence?”
“Oh, we’ll have some new evidence,” said Trish, cocking a sardonic brown eye straight at Felicity, whose sigh and eyeroll showed she knew exactly what was expected of her. “Direct from Dr. McNeil.”
“It was bad enough interviewing Samantha. Now Caleb too?”
Trish twinkled a been-there-done-that half-smile at her housemate. “It’s what you get for being good at what you do.”
Twenty-four hours later, Felicity had little enough to report to that evening’s Canton Palace-bought skull-session feast. Caleb remembered nothing after the “bad men” made them go to the basement. Mrs. McBride descended into new hysterics as soon as she was asked about that night. Ginger, tasked to speak to Mr. McBride, fared little better. She learned nothing but that he was a member of a skeet-shooting club which met at a range on the Shawnee County side of Zed’s Mountain, took the family to services at the Church of Christ every Sunday morning, then lunch at McDonald’s on alternating Sunday afternoons, and did little else but work and spend time with his wife and kids. “Unless Scott Merritt likes hunting and shooting skeet, we can forget any idea of social contact between these two.” Kung pao chicken was her bad-mood dish of choice.
Bethany had returned to Chateau Snoop with much less trepidation than she had felt each of the previous two days. “Dad is all about work, always has been,” she said between bites of pepper steak. “Our only social life came from Mom.” Trish’s eyes lit—
“Great,” said Ginger, noting Trish’s brightening, “now we look for connections between the mothers. How about you do a little of the legwork yourself this time, Boss Trish?”
Wednesday, Tricia followed Ginger’s advice. Still no new invasion. “Kim McBride is a stay-at-home mom. Mrs. Merritt part-times at a real-estate office in Center City. No connections I could find, Alyson neither.”
Bethany nodded, looked up from her tablet. “Mom knows Kim McBride from Girl Scouts. Is Mrs. Merritt”—
“Nope. Sarah was never in Scouts. Heard it straight from Mrs. Merritt herself. Already ahead of you, Ginger!” Bethany almost managed a smile in reply.
Krysten threw back her head, put down her plate of her mother’s homemade chicken pot pie. “So how are those two finding their targets?”
He double-checked the records he had collected. Perfect. They should be just perfect! Another look at the pictures—yes. These should be perfect. No unfortunate surprises like last time. “Yeah.” He turned, saw him watching over his shoulder—
“I thought you might like these, dude. Just the right look.”
“And the age...”
“Twins, according to what I dug up.”
“Yeah.” It was an absolute go. “These should really help, you know?”
Caleb McBride was discharged from Center City General on Thursday, special dietary orders. No solid food yet, but progressing nicely. Lots of ice cream and jello. Spencer Merritt’s intracranial pressure spiked dangerously, and he spent Thursday in emergency surgery to relieve the pressure. Mr. Merritt, home from his sales trip, kept a chilly vigil at his son’s bedside while Mrs. Merritt and Sarah spent hours with counselors and friends, including a harried Felicity. The McBrides found that night that they could not stay in their house, chased from hence by screaming nightmares from all three who had been wrecked in the basement; an aunt in town came to the rescue and let them stay with her. And still no new invasion.
Friday, and autumn was finally taking its grip, chilly air and a cascade of brittle leaves. Last round of classes for the week. Caleb was frightened to go to school, slowly-reviving memories of that night chilling him; his parents let him stay home. Samantha had an invitation to sleep over at Charity Mabrey’s house after dance class, and leaped at it not so much for the activities as the chance to sleep in a safe bed with no nightmares. Trish’s regular Friday lunch with her fiance Bobby Martin found him grousing—“...so until they rebuild the plumbing in DRK House, I’m stuck back home. Stupid-ass pre-engineering majors.” Bobby, of course, was also a pre-engineering major, but one who disclaimed any responsibility for the re-engineered plumbing which left DRK House with a detonated water heater and two floors’ worth of burst pipes. “Mom’s curfews and putting up with Bobbi. At least Dad’s out of the way. Some kind of health department conference downstate. Bobbi probably was rooting for Mom to go with him so she could have a party with her ditzy friends Taylor and Aisha. Maybe they could fix her up with another boyfriend.” Her breakup with Tommy Mooney over the last Camp Evergreen session was relatively amicable, but left Roberta disappointed and lonely. “Or I could crash at your place!”
“You. Wish.” Bobby shrugged; it was worth a try. “We’re having another sit-down about the case. Bethany’s starting to loosen up. She’s practically helpful now.”
“Especially when free food’s involved.” Trish glared; she had no use for her fiance cracking weight jokes when she had her own weight issues. “Just saying.”
“‘Just saying’ clean up your mind, or I’ll have my mother-in-law wash your brain out with soap, you rodent.” Rather a typical Friday-afternoon lunch date at Pietro’s for the couple. Take-out for the evening’s skull session was not.
Channing DeRozier and father were at a Rotary Club dinner meeting that night, which allowed Alyson to join the crowd at Chateau Snoop with herself and a gift of assorted Thai take-out. “There really is nothing new. There’s no connections between any of the families that holds up except for the absence of the father at the time of the attack. Nothing else from Sarah or Samantha? Caleb?”
Felicity washed down a nibble of Pietro’s bruschetta with a long draft of Monster. “No. Samantha’s staying over with Jerkface, and Sarah is staying at the hospital. Spencer’s cranial pressure keeps going up, no matter the surgery. His frickin’ prince of a dad doesn’t seem to care.”
Bethany shook her head. Alyson's arrival had shaken her, but she calmed herself with remarkable ease. “I can’t understand that. How could a parent not care about their child, no matter what?” A stab of guilt; she wanted to check in with Mom and Dad and Merri to make sure everyone was all right. I really should do that more often, you know.
Ginger, scarfing down Hunan chicken, smirked. “Not every family actually functions, Beth.”
Dad had come back to the house only a few minutes after leaving, to retrieve the lunch he had forgotten. She chuckled at the thought of Dad eating lunch—probably in his backhoe cab—in the middle of the night. You’d think the mine could take a break at night. Dad, of course, had explained the why behind his cat-eye shift; the company who owned the mine, Eastar Energy, supplied coal to the Miller Lake electric-power plant, and power plants couldn’t just shut down overnight, hence his cat-eye shift working one of the backhoes. So Dad gets to munch on a turkey sandwich as his lunch in the middle of the night. Weird, but I guess it pays the bills. As usual after Dad’s usual 10:00 departure, the house was quiet; Mom lost in her TV shows, Jake upstairs playing games on his phone. Maybe I’ll finally have enough privacy to send Ollie a nice little text, or even a phone call—and the doorbell rang...
Pietro’s fettucine with white clam sauce was a noodly carbohydrate bomb, but Trish still felt like curling up on the Snoop Towers living-room sofa and sleeping. Of course, the culprit might also have been the beef with snow peas from the Canton Palace. Or the half-dozen Big Mama’s honey-barbecue wings. Or of course the glass of Riunite sangria with which she washed it all down. No wonder I can’t get any weight off. “Maybe...profile the fathers. Maybe there’s some trait about them that gets these guys’ attention, since we pretty much agree they’re probably targets.”
Paula too stretched back a yawn. She had claimed the Big Mama’s taco pizza for her own; she paid no attention to the jealousy from Trish that Paula could eat a whole Big Mama’s pizza and still weigh under a hundred pounds. More than once, Trish—mostly kidding—threatened to beat her secret out of her. “A veterinarian, a maintenance worker, and a salesman. No connections, and three very different personalities.”
“Same with the moms,” said Krysten, delicately wiping her lips after finishing her curry chicken. “Kim McBride is a little bit shy, Mrs. Merritt is social, and your mom, Beth, is...well, our Scout leader.” Everyone knew that Carolyn Howland was a friend to all; it was, after all, where Merri got it from.
“And yet, it’s still a psychodrama,” said Trish, fighting back another yawn, “and psychodramas need”—she stopped at the Sherlock-theme ringtone of her phone. “If it’s The Rodent bothering me about crashing here again, I swear to God I’ll”—then she saw the name on her phone screen. “Doc? What’s...” And after one look at the expression on Trish’s face, all present knew that the hiatus was over.
Channing’s wedding gift to his new bride Alyson had been a BMW 3-series. Very useful to be pushed to its limit on Interstate 86 toward the address Dr. McNeil had forwarded from Detective O’Malley. Ginger and Felicity in the back seat appreciated not only the speed, but the luxury of the ride. Behind, Trish struggled to keep her poor old Kia, laden only with Krysten and Paula, nearly abreast of Mrs. DeRozier’s Beemer. Missy, Hannah, and Maggie stayed behind at Snoop Towers with Bethany awaiting developments, ready to jump into whatever action was to ensue. “Jacob and Julie Bruce, 18246 Pinewood Way, Sunny Hill.”
Trish broke in on the open-mic call between the two cars. She had been born in, and spent the first eleven years of her life in Sunny Hill, and the memories were far from all happy. “The Bruce family. They’ve worked the mines for as long as they’ve been there. Another salt-of-the-earth sort of family. And if I’m not mistaken”—
“Two children, Jacob Junior and Jessica, twins, age thirteen.” Ginger’s reply over the phone was terse and tense.
“I helped Megan sit them once, right before we moved to Snowden. They were four years old then.” She involuntarily pictured the intruders assaulting the four-year-old Junior and Jessie, shuddered at the thought. Two little mops of straw-blonde hair. Two round, ruddy little blue-eyed cherub faces, both taking after their mom Julie. And unless I’m mistaken...
“Pinewood Way. So where is that, Sunny Hiller?” Ginger punched up her map app—
“It runs parallel to Woodchuck Lane, Alyson,” said Trish directly to the driver of the Beemer. If I owned a BMW, I wouldn’t let anyone else drive it either. “Where Polly Baldwin used to live.” At least until Jim Alton, murderer of the Dwight family patriarch, blew the place up with the Baldwin family trapped inside during the deadly-dossier case a half-decade ago. “Down near the lake.” Evergreen Lake, of course, which gave its name to Camp Evergreen nearby.
Ginger checked her app. “Seven minutes out. If it’s the same guys, apparently the psychodrama got messed up again.” The Sunny Hill exit loomed just ahead...
“...and...and he had me down on the floor, all bent over...” The boy, trembling and stammering, wrapped the police blanket even more tightly around his bare shoulders, twisted his body instinctively away from his interlocutor Krysten, shyness and modesty. He rubbed the angry red marks on his wrists, swallowed hard, trying to speak the unspeakable. Krysten decorously deflected her gaze; he’s had enough humiliation for one night. “...he...he was behind me, you know...about to stick it in me...” Another shudder, another tightening of his blanket. He glanced across the crowded living room at his sister. “Then...then the old guy...he...he went nuts, you know? Started screaming at Jessie. He...he was making her...well...well anyway, he starts flipping out, you know? Calling Jessie all sorts of dirty names. That’s when he...he...”
Curled up in the opposite corner of the room, wrapped in an identical blanket, Felicity and Ginger kneeling solicitously on either side while an EMT gingerly examined the girl’s purple-bruised face, Jessie Bruce tried to gather her thoughts. The EMT had already checked the young girl’s eye responses (with the one eye that was left open; the other was already swollen shut), and declared that she had at least a grade one, if not a grade two, concussion. “...and your cheekbone might be cracked, baby. But don’t worry, when this all clears up, you’ll be just as pretty as ever.” Even beneath the swollen, red-purple cheeks and bruised, bloodied mouth, Felicity and Ginger could see a ruddy, apple-cheeked, prettiness, her casual pigtails giving her a certain country-girl charm which even her cuts and bruises could not entirely erase. “We’ll all be dancing on your wedding day!” She glanced at Felicity and Ginger flanking her patient, then gazed again at Jessie. “Are you sure you’re okay to talk to these ladies?” Jessie nodded for a moment before her wounded cheek stopped her with a gasp.
“Y-yeah,” murmured Jessie through mashed lips. Neither Ginger nor Felicity could miss the obvious gaps where teeth had been beaten out of her jaw. She tried to straighten herself, but stopped with a sharp gasp, tugged at the blanket which covered her; for a moment, the two Snoops could see ripening bruises on her ribs and abdomen. “I can do it. I’ll be okay.”
Felicity and Ginger glanced at each other as Jessie put herself in order with a pathetic shudder. This is something new. The older unsub had not struck Samantha McBride, and had only struck Sarah Merritt once to shut her up. This was not a mere lash-out from irritation; this was an assault, brutal and utterly deliberate. Beaten about the face, kicked in the ribs and gut repeatedly. “Okay then,” said Felicity, taking the lead. “What happened after he got you all in here?”
“They...well, I was going out to the kitchen to get something to eat an’ text my...well, Ollie Lavery is sorta my boyfriend, you know, an’ Mom was all wrapped up in her TV show, an’ Jake was upstairs playing on his phone when there was this knock on the door, you know. Well, I went out to get it, ‘cause I thought it mighta been Dad forgetting something for work again—he already forgot his lunch—an’ I thought I’d locked the door behind him like always. Well, I started to open it, but I barely cracked it open before they busted it wide open! I seen right away they had ski masks on, an’ I started running up the hall, but they busted in an’ tackled me an’ dragged me into the living room. Mom was there an’ they scared the crap out of her. The old one threw me over there beside the wood-burner an’ made me kneel down with my hands on my head, like when you surrender, you know? The tall young one grabbed Mom an’ made her go out of the room, an’ I heard her calling Jake out of his room. Then I heard the young guy hit Jake, an’ in a minute he dragged ‘em both in here with me. He threw Jake over to where I was still kneeling down, an’ they both held hold of Mom an’ made me stand up beside Jake. They...” Now, even on her battered face, Felicity and Ginger saw a blush brew up on Jessie’s face. “They made us take all our clothes off, you know, me and Jake an’ Mom, an’ then they took out rope an’ tied all our hands behind our backs. I...I sorta knew what they was gonna do to us, you know, and then the tall young one made Jake kneel down on the floor in front of the couch. I was scared as all heck, ‘specially since I knew what they was gonna do to us, but...but...well...” she said, and her blush deepened, her eyes deflected away from her interlocutors. “Well, when the old guy threw me down on my knees in front of the young guy, an’ the guy unzipped his pants, I knew just what they was gonna make me do. I...well, I figured that if I...well, if I was really good at it, maybe they wouldn’t go so hard on us, take it easy on us, you know. An’...well....” Her blush was fairly incandescent now, and she glanced—guiltily?—at her mother, wrapped in her own blanket and talking shakily with the thick-bodied woman detective in the head of the hallway. Jessie’s voice dropped to a slurred whisper—“Don’t tell Mama, but...well, Ollie being my boyfriend an’ all...I...I sorta know a few things, you know, to make it really extra nice for him, you know? Stuff like...well, anyway, I did that on the young guy, an’ it really worked real good, you know? But then he makes me stop, an’ he pushed me over to the fat old guy. I saw the young guy bend Jake over on his face, an’ that scared the crap outta me ‘cause I pretty much knew what he was gonna do to him, so I decided I’d be even better to the old guy than I was to the young one, so maybe he might talk the young guy outta doin’ Jake, an’...” Now Jessie’s blue eye filled, she blinked hard. “I don’t understand! I...I started in on the old guy, just as good as I could make it, you know, an’...an’ he just went crazy on me! Started calling me a slut an’ a whore an’ all sorts of dirty stuff...pushed me away...started beating on me, yelling all sorts of awful crap at me! He punched me right in the face until I fell down, an’ then he started kicking me all over, an’ I couldn’t stop him ‘cause my hands were tied, you know? He just kept kicking and screaming until...until the young guy come over and pulled him off me, I guess. I...I don’t really know anything much after...”
“Well, one thing, Jessie,” said Ginger, reaching out to squeeze Jessie’s hand. “When the younger unsub came over to get the other one off you, it kept him from...from ‘doing’ your brother. Between that and the police arriving, it kept them from doing worse.”
“Police?” asked Felicity of Ginger.
Trish, at the periphery of the conversation with Detective O’Malley and Dr. McNeil, answered. “Jake got off a 911 call before Two got him out of his room. One and Two bolted, just like they did at the Merritts when Chelsea dropped in on them. Cops just missed them. They could be anywhere, all sorts of places to hide out down along the lake, and woods all over. Just two more minutes and they would have had them!”
“Jesus, dude! Calm down, will ya? Stop the car and cool down! I ain’t seen no cops, so you can stop and settle down! What the fuck is up with you all of a sudden?”
He slid the car into a small spot between two old trees, mashed the brake and slammed the shift into park. “Whores. Fuckin’ whores! She’s no older than...fuck sakes, what the hell are they teaching girls, huh? Teaching them how to be sluts? Letting them watch pornoes or something? You know what that little fucking whore was doing to me?” Two grinned—“Yeah, of course you do. You fucking liked it! Some little fucking slut acting like a whore! That’s what they all are anymore, you know, just a bunch of fucking slut whores!”
“Not all of them, dude. There are still some nice girls out there, you know. Just...damn, man, that kid was fuckin’ perfect, and I had to waste my time settling your ass down! Listen, dude, we’ll just...well, try again, you know? You said you could find us a bunch, so just find us another one!”
“Yeah, it’s that fucking easy, bud.” But he had settled enough to drive calmly, and with a last grumble, he backed out of the parking spot and pulled onto the deserted road.