Krysten was far too delicate to tell Tricia that her cringing pinch between her eyes was the very same I-have-so-got-a-headache gesture her mother Nancy would do. Like mother, like daughter. “She is thirteen freaking years old,” said Tricia, still massaging the bridge of her nose. “Ollie Lavery was two classes behind Richie, which makes him...geez, sixteen! Sweet little Jessie Bruce, doing...God, what is the world coming to?”
Ginger stifled a chortle by stuffing another bite of hash browns into her mouth. Center City had franchises of most of the major restaurant chains, and its Denny’s, like the rest, was open twenty-four hours. For Detective O’Malley, it was dinner. For Ginger, it was a past-midnight snack. The only thing that would make it more perfect was if Chelsea was their waitress, but her shift had ended at eleven. She swallowed her bite, but not her laugh. “And you walked to school barefoot through the snow every day, Trish. Uphill both ways!”
Trish sat back and glared at her Snoop Towers roomie. “At thirteen, I wasn’t...well, doing that to any boys!” Another laugh boiled up on Ginger’s face—“And just shut up right now, Ginger! I know what you’re thinking, so just shut up!”
“Aw, Trish, do you think I’d say anything about you being the only virgin I know over the age of twenty?”
Krysten caught a glimpse of Paula grinning covertly over her strawberry shortcake a la mode and decided to give her own touch of the needle to Paula’s roommate. “At thirteen, you were trying to peel your fiance off of you, Trish!”
“And The Rodent wasn’t sixteen to my thirteen, Krys! And anyway...” A blush erupted on her face—“And anyway, it’s not like I...like we don’t...well anyway, this isn’t even about me! This about little Jessie Bruce and...my god, Ollie Lavery!”
Paula scooped up the last bite of her ice cream, her eyes twinkling as she mused. Trish can be such a prude sometimes! “Well, anyway, whatever we think about what she was trying to do, it did buy them time for the police to arrive. If One hadn’t lost his temper like that, Two would have had enough time to rape Jake. She actually saved him, her mother too. It wasn’t the way she intended, but she did what she wanted to do.” Keep further harm from her family.
Megan had gotten the call while she was out on a date, and had met the group at the Denny’s after sending off her swain Anthony Scott, a system admin at Ascendant Tech Systems near the Snowden State campus. “And anyway,” she said after a sip of her sweet tea and a glance at Alyson beside her at the big table, “we have another data point now. Two has issues with sexually knowledgeable females. Jessie’s little...uh, techniques were what set him off, apparently. As sickening as the thought of that really is.” She had babysat Jessie and Jake Bruce as literal babies, and the idea that the sweet little cherub she had once diapered had saved her family by inadvertently triggering Two’s violent reaction to her skill at fellatio was making her feel more than a little ancient.
Alyson sighed and scooped up another bite of cherry pie. I really need to cut down on the snacks, or I’ll be the size of the mansion! I know Channing likes lots of me to love, but this could get ridiculous! Not that his leering little smile beside her—he had met them after going home from the Rotary meeting—betrayed any such thought. She focused on Megan’s point. “So...both One and Two have serious sexual issues. Two and his revulsion to homosexuality, and One with a hatred of sexually skilled females.”
“It checks out,” said Felicity, nibbling on french toast. “Bethany Howland was twelve and hadn’t yet had a boyfriend at the time, Samantha is eleven, Sarah is...well, not very experienced at dating. The pattern fits. He expected Jessie to be innocent, and when it turned out she wasn’t...”
“But Two didn’t seem to mind,” said Ginger. “According to Jessie, he really liked it.” She smothered a smirk. “Liked it enough to be ready to do her brother.”
“Maybe they’re living out different fantasies.” Paula’s mild remark stopped everyone at the table. She noticed, and suddenly her heart was quivering inside her as it always did when she felt singled out. She tried to make her mouth work—
“Explain, Paula,” said the heretofore-silent Dr. McNeil, sipping from a mug of hot tea. She would have had the coffee, but the hour was much too late for her sixtyish self to handle so much caffeine. “What do you mean?” Paula stammered—“You have a theory, Ms. Ryan. Spit it out. Your input is just as valuable as anyone else’s at this table.”
She gathered her thoughts, tried to steady her nerves. We’re all friends here. No one will judge you, Paula. Unless you say something stupid to a table full of police detectives and professors and criminal-sciences majors. Just spit it out. Finally her heart started to slow down. “I...um...” She saw the impatience growing in Dr. McNeil’s eyes. “I...was...just thinking that...well, if Two was enraged at what Jessie did but One liked it, that maybe...well, maybe they have different fanta—I mean, um...”
Ginger took up Paula’s fraying thread. “Not one psychodrama, but two. They’re both playing out different scenarios.” Paula nodded fervently, grateful that Ginger had articulated what she had been thinking.
Channing, owner of the only Y chromosomes at the table, was feeling distinctly left out. “You mean that a couple guys just got together and decided to play out their favorite rape fantasies together?” Alyson smiled and squeezed her husband’s hand. And you have a few of those yourself, love. Lucky for you I like playing along with them!
“That would be a very weird personal ad,” said Krysten, thankful for the grim humor in the midst of the nightmare of the new invasion. “‘Rape fetishist seeks fellow heterosexual to rape families full of mothers and children.’ Maybe we should be checking Craigslist.” She scolded herself that she had been hanging around Trish Dwight for far too long; she was beginning to wisecrack like her.
Trish stirred, and a glance showed her eyes suddenly flashing. Flashing like those brown eyes always did when she had struck on an idea. Suddenly the eyes were off Paula and Ginger and Krysten, and firmly on Trish. “No. They’re related.” She seemed to rise up in her seat; she pushed aside her banana split. Nobody does a banana split like the Cook Pot’s Big Gorilla, anyhow. “Close relatives, brothers or cousins. Tell me, Channing, do guys generally sit around talking about their sexual issues?”
“No, we usually just sit around and talk about the girls we’d like to...” He caught a glimpse of his bride’s mock-reproof. “Well, I’m sort of out of practice. I got mine, so I don’t have to go into it.”
“Very good answer,” said Alyson, squeezing his hand again. I’ll have a nice reward for you when we get home.
“That’s my point!” said Trish, seeming to boil over, subdued but roiling with energy. “Guys don’t talk about sexual hang-ups, so how do two guys with serious squirrels running around in their heads put their sex-predator fantasies together?” Entirely rhetorical, as all at the table knew. “Because they’re relatives! Even buddies wouldn’t share the kind of stuff they’re playing out, but really close relatives might already know what’s up with each other.”
Paula started again—another idea. Like...yes, it is! It had, after all, been only a few months since... “So maybe the reason they stopped for ten years was that they were split apart somehow. Like our big detective-club case last year.” Dick Boggs had plotted to blow up Darius Allen High School in order to get back his beloved old Wiltontown High, but he had needed the help of his secret, illegitimate daughter Wanda Zurlich, whose mania for avenging the imaginary wrongs Leah Pillsberry had supposedly perpetrated on her back in college at what was then Snowden State College, to put the steam in the engine of his plot. Only when she had been released from Allenbrook House, the area’s primary mental-health facility, did Boggs’s plan go forward, to a nearly calamitous outcome but for the quick sagacity of her friend Serenity Mabrey and the vice-principal Marcy Rundren. Suddenly she felt the pressure of eyes on her again. “I mean...well...”
“I think you’re on to something, Paula!” Detective O’Malley, to that point merely observing the conversation over a cream-and-sugar coffee to see where it might lead, now entered the conversation. “A relative would know another relative’s hang-ups, especially if...” Yes. “If they shared them somehow. Perhaps even witnessed them. Like...”
“Like they were both victimized too.” All levity had been erased from Ginger’s face as she posited her theory. She spoke from experience. “They both witnessed what was done to the other, and now they’re together to help each other play out their scenarios. Two psychodramas.”
“Which still leaves us with the question of how they research their targets,” said Alyson. “There still has to be some point of commonality we haven’t found yet.”
Trish turned sententious. “The more we know about both the unsubs and the victims, the better chance we have of”—and her text tone, the chase music from Sherlock, went off. A glance at the screen—“You. Have got. To be. Kidding me!”
Paula blanched. “Is it another”—
Trish rolled her eyes. “Another stupid text from The Rodent! He wants me to bring him a slice of cheesecake!” She began to type furiously on her screen. “I’ll bring him a slice of cheesecake, and shove it down his stupid”—
Krysten burst out in giggles. “Now, Trish! Be nice! After all, he is your fiance!”
“Where’s he crashing now that the geniuses made DRK House uninhabitable?” asked Ginger, glad for the laugh. Too many memories of stuff I’d rather forget. “One of the guys off-campus? A couple of them have a place down on”—
“No, he’s back at home, at least for a while,” said Trish with a grumble as she finished her text to Bobby. “Probably driving Terri and Bobbi crazy by now. Cheesecake at one in the fricking morning! He’s not at DRK House, the idiot! Out in the real world, people like to sleep at a decent”—and in an instant, she stopped with a sudden gasp and a wave of consternation on her face.
Megan was first to notice. “What, Trish?”
Trish tried to steady a racing heart. No, it’s not likely. They just hit the Bruces down in Sunny Hill. Bobby’s not really effeminate, just looks like a rodent. Bobbi-Jean has a boyfriend. Had. Just broke up with him. I don’t really want to know what she and Tommy Mooney would do on dates. But Mr. Martin is away on conference. Terri and Bobby and Bobbi-Jean alone. Too soon. But my God, if I’m wrong... “Tricia?” Krysten’s voice betrayed a sudden concern. Breathe, Trish. You’re just being paranoid. But what if I’m wrong?
“I’ve got to go. Right now!”
He had calmed by the time they ditched the car and slumped inside. Damn her! Is that what all girls are like nowadays? Complete sluts? No, he’s right. There are nice girls out there, the right type. Sort of like what happened with that Spencer Merritt kid; just the luck of the draw. And I did sort of blow it for him by going off on that kid tonight. Lucky, though. The cops might have caught us if he hadn’t stopped me. The boy must have got off a 911. Can’t let that happen again. And I owe him another shot.
“How about this one?” Damn, he’s not letting me off the hook, is he? He ambled over to the computer; yep, he’s looking over the list! You may be nuts, dude, but you’re not crazy! And not stupid, either. “Check out the address.” He had called up Google Maps, pulled down the overhead view. “We could get in there easy.”
“Dude, I don’t even know why I put them on the list. He doesn’t have a regular schedule or anything. No, I do. His kids. He has their pictures on his desk. The girl’s a cutie, and...yeah, you’d like that boy. Right up your alley. Let me show you.” A few clicks, and—
“Dude! Absolutely perfect! Even better than that one tonight! But you say he don’t”—
“Just thought of something!” he said, brightening. “Yeah...big WVU guy. Never misses a home game. And...” A few more clicks—“Hot damn, a home game. K-State. He never misses an ‘Eers home game!” His grin widened. “I’d pay money to see his face afterwards. Fucking prick.”
“I’m ready right now!”
“I’ll bet you are, dude!” And so am I!
Tricia would have ditched the tab—beyond the pale for a former waitress—had not the rest of the gathered Snoops corralled her and settled her enough to respectably leave the establishment. Megan as her older sister, was most attuned to Trish’s anxiety, and talked her into a long phone call to Bobby while Krysten drove them back home; she would have nothing of Trish trying to drive in that agitated state. Trish would not leave her fiance’s family vulnerable and exposed to an invasion, no matter how unlikely the others—nor her own reason—felt it would be; thus, as one a.m. faded past the clock face, Trish was walking up the front walk of the Martin home in Oak Run acres with four slices of cheesecake in hand, to be met by an overwrought Martin matriarch, the small round fortysomething woman rushing onto her stoop in a hastily-wrapped bathrobe, her raven-black locks tousled as if she had been awakened only moments before. “Tricia Marie! Roberta’s terrified! Is what you told Robert true? Are we in danger? Should I call Ryan? The police? What should we do?”
A long trip as a passenger in her own car and the lateness of the hour—not to mention the calm reassurances of Dr. McNeil and Detective O’Malley—had reined in her anxiety, leaving her with a flush of embarrassment on her face. “Look, Mom”—her engagement to Bobby had led her to start calling Theresa Martin “Mom,” at least to her face—“I’m probably wrong about this, but I just don’t want to take any chances. They hit down in Sunny Hill tonight, and...well, it might have frustrated them enough to want to try again soon.” She followed “Mom” into the house, and immediately saw her fiance lounging in the chair of state in pajama pants and a tee shirt—and Bobbi-Jean curled up on the sofa wrapped up in a voluminous robe which covered her plaid pajamas, peeking up at her with frightened, bespectacled blue eyes from the comforting protection of her folded arms. Oh crap. Of course The Rodent couldn’t keep his stupid gob shut for once in his idiotic life. Probably trying to scare Bobbi-Jean, the little moron—and he sure as hell succeeded! Bobbi-Jean might have been the top scholar in her freshman class at St. Swithin’s Academy freshman class, but Roberta Martin was still timid and easily frightened, even by things much less monstrous than a string of rapacious home invasions. Good fricking job, you rodent! “Bobbi-Jean, if things were really that bad, would I be bringing food? Denny’s cheesecake!” Trish played the gracious guest, passing out cheesecake, but not without a pointed little glare at The Rodent reproving him for getting his sister into her current state. “I...well, okay, I’m being a little paranoid, but you fit the victimology profile. Mom, son, daughter, and Dad away.”
Bobby, unfazed by his fiancee’s glare, happily gobbled cheesecake. “Dad was as pissed as”—he checked his language under Mom’s glare—“He wasn’t happy about the meeting this weekend. K-State is up in Morgantown, and he never misses a home game. You’d have thought he’d actually graduated from the place!” Something that was Robert’s intention once done at Snowden State.
Bobbi tried on some of her brother’s levity. “We’ll all be useless at four o’clock Mass tomorrow—I mean, today. You cantor, Mom lectors, and I’m altar server. We’ll all be falling asleep on Father Patrick!” St. Ignatius in Snowden had no issue with female altar servers; there was a shortage of them in general. “The cheesecake is good, though.” The game smile quickly failed her. “Are you really sure it’s all right, or are you just trying to”—
“I’m just being paranoid, Bobbi-Jean. Your dad’s out, and they just hit Sunny Hill, like I said. Last weekend it was the McBrides and then the Merritts the next day.”
Bobbi’s eyes were guarded. “And you think staying here breaks their pattern or whatever. A extra person would mess it up enough that they wouldn’t hit here.” Trish began to nod—“Except they wouldn’t know you’re here until they broke in. I don’t think they would just apologize and leave.” You’re too smart, Bobbi-Jean, Trish told herself.
A few hours’ sleep and they were both ready. They had put themselves in the perfect place, well before dawn, where they could observe without being seen. Easy, because the house was a quarter-mile into the woods in its own clearing. Just the way Mom and Dad wanted it when they built the place. They could monitor the front and the back of the house, and the correct car was gone. Yep, getting an early start on the tailgating, I’d bet. I wonder how many couches will get torched tonight if the ‘Eers pull off the upset?
He turned toward the whispered voice, noted the first sparkle of pre-dawn light tickling the tops of the trees on the opposite hill. “You’re too anxious, bud. He’s gone, but let’s let ‘em wake up a little. It’s more fun when they’re wide awake, you know.” A sharp nod of agreement in reply, spiked with an eager grin.
Even in dreams, Trish was in the Snowden State forensics lab. She was picking through the AFIS database, and behind her four electrophoresis trays were processing DNA fingerprints. She raised a bleary eye from her computer screen, glanced back at the trays, noticed the labels she had affixed to the pipetted samples. McBride. Merritt. Bruce. And another her tired eyes could not descry—it started with M—
A squeal and a racking shake of her shoulder—what—what’s up?—“Trish! Trish!” Bobbi-Jean? What is—“Trish! Someone’s coming in the house!”
When the dude’s right, the dude’s right! It’s way better when they’re awake! Not like last night, lazy and dozing off. Not like the Merritts and that fucking homo. Not like the McBrides, having to wake them up before starting the fun. Wide awake and terrified, just like the Howlands way long ago. Even better, in fact. Man, this family is just fucking perfect!
“If you ever scare us like that again, you rodent, I’ll widow myself before I even get married!” Trish’s hands had stopped shaking enough to hold onto her morning meal, but her voice was still just a little too strident for her to be quite calm.
“Is this any way to thank the fiance who brought you Bauman’s cinnamon rolls? Such ingratitude!”
Mrs. Martin pushed her blossoming headache back behind her eyes. “Robert, you knew we were worried about those burglars breaking in here! You spent all night terrorizing your sister about it—how did you think we were going to react?”
“Yeah, well, see if I ever try to do you a favor again!”
Trish managed to master her hands and her voice. “Right now, the only favor I want from you involves you drinking a bucket of cyanide!” She was kidding, mostly. “Then I can cash in all those insurance policies I took out on you!” She had finally regained her nerve.
Mrs. Martin knew her future daughter-in-law was kidding. “Tricia, you are sick.”
“And you love me that way!”
Nine o’clock on a Saturday morning. Yeah, Mom Martin, I guess I am sick. Who’s actually awake at nine on Saturday morning? Mom Martin had loaned her a sweater, and she wrapped it tightly around herself as she walked at her most brisk pace toward Schaefer Street and Chateau Snoop. Great. I already fit in her clothes. What’s that they say about boys falling for girls who remind them of their mothers? Great. What does that say about how I’m going to turn out? A fat, scolding little Catholic-Daughters helicopter parent with a waistline equal to my bust and hips? Wonderful. On the other hand, Mom Martin certainly loves Bobbi-Jean and The Rodent. And she’s fairly intelligent. A good sense of humor too, at least when she’s not yelling at everyone around her. Four o’clock Mass today. Sleep, shower, cantor. A perfect weekend, at least if you’re as crazy as I am...
For I have supped full with horrors...
Danielle Small had had a literary turn all her life. An avid reader, as befitted a reading teacher. Books and stories had been her refuge and comfort all her life, inspiration and solace and guidance and hope, all from the books, the short stories and novels and plays. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had helped a young Danielle Higgins fall in love with Craig Small. Max Lucado gave her solace and strength when her baby son Garrett faced the loss of an eye to retinoblastoma. Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary helped both her and her daughter Makayla face the stresses of growing up.
And watching the two creatures in her basement torturing both Garrett and Makayla had left her nothing but Shakespeare. Her own body was numb as they violated her, her rational mind effaced as she was forced to witness tortures perpetrated on her children she could not stop, those words from Macbeth the mad assassin-king echoing in her shattered mind. Give to the edge of the sword his wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls that trace him in his line... With the two men now panting above her, winded from their ravages upon her and her children, Danielle Small would have welcomed that edge of the sword to her throat, to her heart, to her life. Garrett and Makayla lay on their sides, full in her sight, limbs bound behind them, mouths slathered over with duct tape. Garrett’s brow was creased with physical pain after the younger one had violated him, but the diminutive ash-blond young man had stayed silent throughout, through the assault, through the taunts and insults, his fifteen years of life insisting that a man did not cry, nor cry out. His gaze fixed on Mom, reassuring her he was all right, trying to be strong for her in the midst of his distress. Beside him, similarly bound, Makayla’s soft oval face was half-hidden in a tangle of glossy brown hair, but her eyes, also fixed on Mom, were deranged from horrors her thirteen years of life had not prepared her to face. She had wept and whimpered through the attacks, not knowing that her innocent distress had saved her from an even more savage assault. Danielle’s children, lying ruined, destroyed before her eyes. What had been done to Danielle herself seemed trivial, a mere nothing, a postscript to the destruction of her children’s innocence. Nothing in her life would be the same, and as the men rose from her, she would have welcomed a knife to slit her throat.
Instead, the two men yanked her to her side, one tying her ankles then hogtying her limbs as they had done to Garrett and Makayla, the other stuffing and taping her gag back into her mouth. “Perfect!” she heard the younger one say to the older. “Just absolutely fuckin’ perfect.” For a moment she bridled at the word he used in front of her children, but almost laughed. The word meant nothing now that the act had been perpetrated upon them all. No point to it. No point to anything.
“Then let’s go ahead and take care of the grab, guy,” said the older man, to Danielle’s utter indifference. After what had already been done, a robbery was nothing at all. “Lots of nice shit here. I told you they have bucks. Both of ‘em come from money.” He glanced at the clock above the archway to the spacious, beautifully-appointed basement lounge. “We could even take our time and get a bite to eat from them. A nice breakfast. It’s still only nine, and the game’s not ‘til noon. Three hours for the game, and hell only knows how long he’ll stay up there afterwards. And hell only knows that nobody is sneaking up on us here!” Chuckling, the two invaders eased to the stairs, leaving a torn and helpless Danielle Small to survey the ruins of her family.
Trish’s voice was a low grumble from the just-opened door of Snoop Towers. “All of you can just shut the heck up right now. Yes, I’m a paranoid white knight who”—but she was met with a sharp shush—
And saw Bethany asleep on the sofa, her stout form sinking deep into the cushions, a sheet draped loosely over her. Ginger, sitting in the overstuffed chair and looking up from her phone at Trish, had been the one to shush her. In the other chair, Krysten dozed fitfully, still in her clothes from last night. “Save the martyrdom, Trish,” said Ginger, her voice dry and sardonic as ever, but with a note of sympathy in it seemingly directed at the sleeping Bethany on the couch. “She stayed up almost all night with Hannah and Maggie waiting for news from us. She’s still scared as hell of being out of her comfort zone over at Snowden Commons, you know. Every little bit of her wants to run back to that little apartment and never come out again, but she stuck it like a trooper. She just fell asleep a couple hours ago. Totally wiped out.” She spared another smiling glance at Bethany, then a smile for Trish. “You must have had some effect on her!”
“I just opened up the door for her,” said Trish, tossing her borrowed sweater mostly onto the back of Krysten’s chair. “She wants to bag those animals just as much as we do. It’s personal for her. I’d have rather stayed here with her than sit all night listening to Bobbi-Jean’s troubles!”
“No you wouldn’t, you liar.” Ginger’s black eyes sparkled at Trish. “They’re family to you, and you’d do anything for them. Especially Bobbi-Jean. You’d listen to her for days if you had to.” Trish didn’t disagree.
Quite a feast. Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches and toaster strudel, washed down with a carton of Tropicana. A really good four-slice toaster already picked for the grab. A 65-inch Samsung OLED TV was already packed and moved—the McBrides’ old TV could be unceremoniously trashed—and the top-of-the-line Keurig with it. Nice shit indeed. The younger one was in an expansive, loquacious mood as he chomped another Jimmy Dean sandwich. “Man, I’m telling you, just fuckin’ perfect. You were right about those kids, dude. Especially that boy whatshisname”—
“Whatever. Damn, dude, just perfect! The look on his face when I made him go down! Then down on his face...damn sweet! I could hear him wanting to squall some, but damn if he didn’t keep quiet the whole fuckin’ time!” He laughed at his joke.
“And Makayla,” said the elder. “I was pretty sure she’d be right. Shouldn’t have even bothered with that Jessie Bruce slut. Makayla was just perfect, just the way she should have been. Watching her fall apart like that. A real good girl. Yeah, perfect.”
“Damn shame we gotta get going.” His tone was full of insinuation.
“Yeah, damn shame. Dani...well, you know, she was perfect too. Nicest piece of ass in the whole bunch. Just the right age, too. I’d love to hear her tell Craig just what she did down there to us.”
Younger bolted the rest of his sandwich, chuckled. “Damn, the way that bitch begged! She woulda humped an elephant to keep us off her kids!”
Elder nodded, still feeling the satisfied glow of a perfect scene. “Yep. You gotta love it when a mom actually gives a shit about her kids. Too many of ‘em, if their kids were on fire, they wouldn’t move their lazy fat asses off their couches to piss on them.” A frown tugged at his satisfaction. “We know that from experience, guy.” A sigh. “But then you find the ones like Dani who’d eat a grenade to save her kids. A good mom. Makes you wonder.” The two pondered a moment, digesting their unexpected breakfast.
“Why not ask her, dude?” Younger asked suddenly. “We have hells of time. Hell, we could do it all again right from the beginning. Do it even better.”
Elder grinned. “You ain’t as stupid as you look, cuz!” They lurched off their stools, strolled toward the stairs, lowering the ski masks from atop their heads. “Yeah, a hell of an idea.”
Mrs. Alyson DeRozier’s traditional chipper morning energy had nothing to do—directly, at least—with the sleep she had not gotten the night before. She and Channing had been very wakeful after their departure from Denny’s. The sequel had been very energetic, and distinctly ironic considering the event which had drawn them out that night. She had hardly dozed even after an exhausted Channing had dropped into a profound slumber, and a long dawn bath left her relaxed and fulfilled and wrapped in her favorite robe as she sat at her computer. And the rope marks had mostly left her wrists and ankles.
Jacob Bruce. Mine worker for Eastar Energy. In the afterglow with a fading Channing, she had mentioned the fact to her husband—“Our biggest division,” he had said, proud and masterful despite his Alyson-generated fatigue,as he usually was after such interludes. “It’s a partnership with Piedmont Power Group. The Eastar mine is the coal supplier to the Miller Lake power plant. Piedmont built Miller Lake, and we run it.” The fact had only partially registered in Alyson’s mind until her long languid bath let her mind wander back to the case—
Then Jacob Bruce works for us. DeRozier Enterprises. Just like Scott Merritt, salesman for Specialty Fabrications. Interesting coincidence. And an older fact struck her.
Around here, there is no such thing as a coincidence.
And Jeremy McBride is a maintenance worker at Miller Lake. Run by DeRozier Enterprises. Her mind went back to an old lesson from Dr. McNeil. Anything can happen once. Something happening two times is something to notice. Three times is an established pattern. Jeremy McBride. Scott Merritt. Jacob Bruce. Three. A pattern.
DeRozier Enterprises. Are we the source of targets for these invaders?
Danielle Small would have willingly simply lay where she had been left and died. Makayla, a few feet away, lay utterly inert; the only signs of life in her were her breathing and the occasional blink. But Garrett would not lie still and defeated; as soon as the men had left, he began to wriggle against his bonds, his shoulders working as he tried to extricate his wrists from the rope bound them. Now the muscles in his slim thighs began to work as he tugged at the bonds which bound his arms to his legs. His face reddened as he strained, and finally Danielle began feebly to struggle, inspired by her son. The ropes were tight, but she would not surrender to them while her boy still had fight left in him. Sweat had seeped into the ropes around her wrists, and as she twisted and tugged her hands, she began to feel the cords give ever so slightly. I can do this. I can get untied, and I can free my son and daughter. I can hold Makayla and tell her that everything will be all right, that the worst is over. I can—
Then the sound of feet on the stairs froze her. Two sets of feet. And I never heard the front door close. But maybe it’s Craig. Maybe he decided to not watch the game. Maybe he and his brother decided to come home and watch the game in the lounge, and—
Then she heard the chuckling. Them. They had never left. A gust of frustrated tears escaped her with a defeated sob. More torture. Please, just kill me. The throat, the heart, anything quick. Just not more torture. Despite her wishes, the two now stood in their midst, long cloths in their hands. Her own bandannas that she used to cover her ash-blonde tresses whenever she worked in her garden. What torture next?
“We’re playing a new game,” the older one said, flaunting her black bandanna, then folding it into a long, wide strip. “Blindman’s bluff. Up on your knees.” One hand under her shoulder, the other dragging her hair, Danielle was hefted to her knees; she watched in hollow despair as the younger one did the same to Garrett and Makayla. “Nothin’ to see here, folks!” and a chuckle as the younger one blindfolded first Garrett, then Makayla. Danielle was last; she stared hopelessly at her blindfolded, bound children until her own eyes were covered. Garrett grunted in the darkness beyond the blindfold, Makayla squealed faintly. What are they doing to them? And she had found something even worse than what she had seen, for she had no idea what was being done to them. Now a blade cut loose her feet. Of course, that again. But now she was yanked upright, standing again. She pulled back; no! Don’t take me away from Garrett and Makayla! “We’re going to go for a little walk, Mrs. Small,” said the older one in her ear, and now she was dragged away, blind steps taking her from her family.
Alyson’s call had roused the entire Snoop contingent. The pattern they had sought. Employees of DeRozier Enterprises. “And all of them from different divisions, too," said Alyson over the Skype call now playing on the Snoop Towers living-room TV. Detective O’Malley and Dr. McNeil themselves now also congregated the Chateau. “The closest connection is between Bruce and McBride, both of them involved in the power plant. One mining the coal, one working at the plant itself. And no, Trish, in this case the mine owner isn’t doing it; we own the mine, apparently. At least the corporation does.”
Trish chuckled mirthlessly, thinking of her murdered dad’s boss. Jim Alton had owned the Sunny Hill mine before Eastar had bought it as part of his desperate fire sale to build funds for his trial for the murders not only of Tricia’s dad, but also the Baldwins and the attempted murder of the Taylor family during the deadly-dossier case. And of course, the attempted murder of her and her own family. “Of course not. That would have been too easy.” At the very least, she would have energy enough to cantor that afternoon after this new revelation.
“And none of that includes my family, Mrs. DeRozier,” said Bethany from her seat on the sofa. “We have nothing to do with DeRozier Enterprises.”
“That was the practice run,” said Krysten, sitting beside Bethany, squeezing her shoulder. “You were easy targets for them.”
“Maybe,” said Detective O’Malley, savoring a spiced tea served her by Ginger O’Day. A young woman of many talents. “There might be a connection we’re not finding yet. Does your clinic do any particular business with DeRozier Enterprises, Bethany?”
Bethany shook her head. “No. I’ve looked at our old records, and we’ve never done any business with them.”
“Not surprising,” said Alyson over the link. “The only animals we would be dealing with are service animals for security, and we farm that operation out. They would handle that work themselves.”
“It’s still worth investigating, girls,” said Dr. McNeil. She had brought her own coffee, having been inside Chateau Snoop before. “There are four veterinary clinics in this area; why yours?”
“Because the family fit the profile they wanted, that’s why,” said Trish with a shrug. “Dad away at work, Mom home with a son and daughter. That’s not that hard.”
“Don’t get cocky, Ms. Dwight,” said Dr. McNeil in reply. “Not everything is obvious, even for you.”
Danielle tried to identify where she was being taken. Up the stairs. To the right. The sun room. Yes, I can smell the flowers. Now, another right. His footsteps echo. The front room. To the left. Toward the bedroom hallway. Of course. But why? He had no problem raping me in front of the kids. Why the need for privacy now?Another right turn. Either our room or Makayla’s; Garrett’s is on the other side of the hall. Bare feet met deep plush carpeting. Our room. Of course. Defile me in Craig’s bed. Stop, then another tug. She started to fall; the mattress stopped her. Sitting on the edge of our bed. Just get it over with and kill me. A weight beside her; he’s sitting beside me. For what? Just do it. A tug on the tape over her mouth. Taking off my gag. That’s how he means to start on me. Like before. I would have done that as much as you wanted, if only you would have left Garrett and Makayla alone.
“You would, wouldn’t you, Danielle?” he asked, and she realized she had spoken what she believed she had only thought. “Done anything we might have asked, I mean. Break your marriage vows just to save your kids.” His hands were on her, kneading a breast.
“They’re my children. And it’s by force,” she said, her voice low and bitter. “It’s not really a choice.”
“Sure it is. You didn’t have to beg. After we made them strip, you had to know what was coming.” His voice was easy, almost conversational. I’ve heard it before. I know I have.
“I had to do what I could. I have to protect my children. And Craig will understand.”
“You love your kids that much.” Now his other hand was between her thighs.
“It’s what a mother does.” Yeah, a good mother. Ain’t that many out there. Let’s see just how good a mom she is...
“So, how many employees of DeRozier Enterprises?” asked Krysten.
“Around here, I’d say at least a thousand. We’re one of the biggest employers in the region.”
“Wow, that really narrows the search, doesn’t it?” said Trish, her sarcasm in full bloom.
Paula’s eyes lit up. “More than you think, Tricia. It can’t be just any one of them; it has to be someone who knows all the employees, or at least has access to the employee records. He’s hit workers from three separate divisions. He would have to be someone who can access records from at least all of those divisions.”
“The main office!” said Trish. I’m really rubbing off on Paula!
“Someone in the main office. How many people is that?” asked Detective O’Malley.
“About a hundred,” said Alyson, already searching her records.
“At least one of which is a psychopathic rapist,” said Ginger, and her black eyes lit up like Trish’s had. “And works with a close family member, like we said. Probably someone who’s been apart from him for at least most of the last ten years. Possibly with a family-services record. You have to think that someone with a family background like that would be in the system somehow.”
Dr. McNeil shook her head. “I don’t think so. If this is a psychodrama, those two were pretty obviously badly victimized as children, probably over an extended period of time. The two aren’t the same age, you know. If both were abused, at least one has been abused longer.”
“Determine the age difference,” said Krysten. And eyes fell on Felicity. She’s the one to find out. Talk to the victims again. You guys seriously owe me after this!
At first, Garrett fought against the younger one as he cut loose his legs and dragged him out of the basement, but then thought better of it. They might be about to kill us, and they’re leaving Makayla alone. Maybe she can get loose and escape. At least she’ll survive. Don’t give up, sis! But soon he found himself in an upstairs room, flung to a bed. He recognized the scent of powder—Makayla’s room. Why here? He staggered blindly as he was yanked to a seat on the edge of his sister’s bad. Keep him busy for long enough to let Makayla escape. The tape was ripped off his mouth; hot words boiled up in his mind. You won’t get away with this! I’ll see you dead! You’re not so tough! You sick freak—“Please don’t hurt my sister. Don’t hurt my mom. If you have to hurt somebody, just hurt me.”
“So you’re some little tough dude, huh? Not a little fucking fairy like your dad? You’re sitting there asking for me to fuck you again, you know that? Who else but a fairy would ask to be fucked?”
“Somebody who loves his sister and his mom, that’s who! It’s only to keep you off Mom and Makayla!”
“Which is why you got wood when I did you, little fucking fairy.”
Garrett hesitated; that was true. It did happen that way. I couldn’t believe it. Is there something wrong with me?...
“Even if it’s just the men in the office, we’re talking about sixty-one investigations,” said Alyson as she worked up a list of every man who worked in the DeRozier Enterprises head office. “That might take time.”
“Unless we can narrow down our search.” Felicity had hurried through her toilette to go visit the McBrides, and was throwing on a jacket. After that, the Merritts.
“I couldn’t tell,” said Bethany, knowing what Felicity was going to ask. “One was older, but they were both young. It was ten years ago.” She pondered a moment that she could speak so easily about that day. “Maybe I could help you, Felicity. I’ll come along.” Trish stared—this was something she could have never expected from the most reclusive of the circle.
“What can I say, Paula? No good deed goes unpunished!”
Chelsea’s remark gained her a passive-aggressive glare from Paula on the far end of the bathroom mirror beside her. Chelsea was prepping quickly for a lunch shift at Denny’s; Sarah had believed she could rally herself to work the shift, but Spencer’s worsening condition intervened, so Chelsea herself got the call to cover. For Paula, the need to put herself together was also part of the home-invaders case; Dr. McNeil and Detective O’Malley fairly ordered Paula to go to the DeRozier estate and help Alyson vet the list of home-office employees as a start to winnowing the list of possible suspects. Chelsea could see Paula dithering over even as simple a task of cleaning herself up for a day at Alyson’s place. Yeah, social-phobic Paula. She gets nervous even about hanging out with Alyson. Almost as bad as Bethany! “On the other hand,” she said, “lunch at the mansion is probably foie gras and caviar. I’ll be lucky to get a Moons Over My Hammy over my lunch break!”
“I’m not there to socialize, Chelsea.” Much to Paula’s relief.
“Lighten up, Paula! You’re hanging out with Penelope Garcia, but after I’m done with my shift I’m sitting over at the hospital with Sarah. They can’t figure out what’s wrong with Spencer that his cranial pressure keeps going up.” Which put things quickly in perspective for Paula.
In the basement, under the horrified gaze of her children, Danielle Small had felt the need to stay as calm as possible, the need to protect her children. But now, she was alone with the older one in her and Craig’s bedroom, tortured and raped alone, and she writhed and wailed under Elder’s clutches as he ravaged her body all over again. Still helpless, able to do little more than clutch at air with her bound hands as she was torn again. Please, just kill me! Why are you doing this to us? Please just kill me and get it over with!
Above and behind her, Elder considered just that. He remembered those interludes, the blushing humiliation—she was a blonde too, the bitch—and imagined how easy it would be, how much he had wanted it back then. Yank her head back and slit her worthless fucking throat. Crush his thumbs over her windpipe and squeeze the life out of her. Ram a knife up under her ribs and shower in her blood spilling down on him. Yeah, and it would be so easy now. Pull her hair back just a little, rip the knife right across Dani’s throat. No, Dani isn’t her. Dani’s innocent. But damn, if I’d only had the chance! The anger of those ugly days rose, sublimating itself in violent thrusts which tore screams from Danielle while he imagined her in Mrs. Small’s place.
The front door of Anita Stevenson’s house—the temporary domicile of her brother Jeremy McBride and his family—was not the main entrance into the house; like many of the rest of the houses on Carey Street, plebeian frame houses which fronted on a tiny sidestreet with the rear on an alleyway, the main entrance was the back kitchen door. As Felicity and Bethany walked up the alleyway to the low white bungalow, they spotted a young boy sitting on a old wooden swing set, a swing too low for his size. Caleb McBride. Felicity and Bethany exchanged a glance; should we talk to him first? Bethany’s answer was a short shake of her head. She saw the anguish that had been on her brother’s face when Dad burst into their basement and beheld his ruined family, the shame on Chris’s face that he had failed to protect his mom and his sister. No, we can’t do that to poor little Caleb. Physical wounds and emotional devastation. We can’t add to that, Felicity. Boys are fragile, especially little ones like Caleb. And Chris. They sighed, reached the low paint-peeled gate—
“You’re Samantha’s friend,” said Caleb, looking sidelong at Felicity, a quick flush on his cheek. “I remember you. You came to the hospital to talk to me.”
“Do you think you want to talk now?” Caleb glanced to the unfamiliar face with Miss Felicity, dropped his eyes. “This is Miss Bethany, one of my friends. The same thing happened to her and her brother, like you and Samantha.” Now Caleb eyed Bethany closely, looking for some sort of evidence.
“It was a long time ago, Caleb,” said Bethany with the most friendly voice she could muster, a supreme effort for her, “but the same people who hurt you and Samantha hurt my brother and me. But a lot of people helped him get better, and he’s off to college now. He even plays hockey! I know how awful you have to feel. If you want to talk, we’ll listen. If you don’t, you don’t have to.”
He gazed at Bethany a long time. “Samantha is inside. I can take you to her.”
It had happened again to Garrett, the inexplicable reaction as Younger violated him again, much more brutally this time, his flesh barely holding together under the assault. “You fucking fairy!” Younger had taunted Garrett throughout the attack, cackling and pouring disdainful insults down on the young man, even as he finished on him. “Again! Admit it—you’re a fairy! You like this!”
Nothing was further than the truth to Garrett. The whole nightmare had been physical and emotional torture, an assault that seemed to destroy everything in his life with every stroke—but his body had betrayed him even as it writhed in tearing agony. It can’t be true—it can’t! How can this be happening to me? “N-n-no...no, can’t be...”
“There’s the proof, fairy! All that wood!” He laughed as Garrett shuddered. Yeah, that’s how it is, ain’t it, fairy? You can’t be sure, can you? You think you’re a fairy, just like your sick fucking dad! He wants you to think that! “I bet a girl can’t make you do that! She didn’t before, did she? Bet she don’t this time either!” He pulled away, yanked Garrett to his feet. “But you’re just a fucking fairy!” Garrett was in a haze of horror—at not only the situation, but also at himself—as Younger dragged him down the hall, to the basement stairs, Mom’s screams beyond his blindfold ringing in his ears...
Paula had felt more and more uneasy with every step she had taken to the imposing front edifice of the DeRozier mansion. I should have had Ginger come with me. She would know how to talk to her. Mrs. DeRozier. Trish and Krysten and Ginger and Hannah and Maggie had talked casually about her, as if she was one of the gang, but Paula had seen her the night before at Denny’s, statuesque, regal almost, and the thought of her living in a real-life mansion only prodded the more at Paula’s trepidation. Little Paula. Little Paula. What am I doing here? All I did was have a theory that anyone can prove or disprove! Why am I the one to—
A young woman in her late twenties opened the door, neatly-coiffed brown hair, casual clothes that looked more expensive than Paula’s entire wardrobe. Expertly-done makeup—but then she saw the insignia. The Owl of Athena, wrought in fine gold on her breast. Is this—“Alyson said you would be coming, Little Sister Paula. Welcome in the name of our protectress and patron Pallas Athena.” The Gamma Kappa Epsilon greeting startled Paula—“Hi, Paula. I’m Marni, Alyson’s sister-in-law. And a Gamma alumna. Come on in and don’t be shy. You’re among friends.” Paula nodded and stepped inside the door; how could you know that—“We Gammas are shy by nature, at least most of us, Paula. No need to be ashamed of it. But Alyson is waiting for you. She says you’ll make a great sister when you complete your pledging.”
“And of course I’m never wrong!” said Alyson from across an expansive entry hallway. “Dr. McNeil says you have a good idea of who to look for on these employee rosters. And don’t be modest about it; Doc said you would be.”
Paula shrugged her shoulders as Marni escorted her inside toward the waiting Alyson. “It was just an idea.”
“But a good one. The only place where all the divisions come together. Has Doc been pushing you to change majors yet? I’ll take that as a yes,” she said with a smiling wink in reply to Paula’s answering blush. “So let’s go over these employment records. After all, you’re the one who first put together the whole string of invasions!” Actually, I did, didn’t I?
“Please...just kill me...just...be quick...” Elder knelt above Danielle, who lay crumpled beneath him, twisted supine, her arms pinioned beneath her. Glistening sweat on her face was coursed by tears which had soaked through her blindfold; her chin shuddered along with her lip. “Please...”
“I could, you know,” and he leaned down to toy with her nipples, catching his breath after another go-round on Mrs. Small. “I even thought about it in the middle. Just yank back your head and slice it off.” She still shuddered, but gave no sign of horror at the suggestion of being decapitated. Yeah, I really fucked her up, didn’t I? Like I should have fucked her up. As if she was even capable of it, the man-eating bitch. “But you ain’t the one I’d do that to, Dani. You favor her a lot, you know, but you ain’t her.” He considered the matter a second. “You don’t happen to have an older sister, do you? Or an older cousin? You do look like her.”
“Oldest in my family. No girl cousins.”
“Just the luck of the draw then. But I could have done it. I still could, you know. Not like you can fight back at me with your hands tied, and wiped out like you are. I could strangle you and you wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it.” Still she lay inert. She doesn’t even care. “Then I could just go down and do the same thing to those two kids of yours. Hell, my”—and she stiffened beneath him, a gasp bursting from her swollen lips.
“No! Please, not them! Haven’t they suffered enough? Please, please, leave them alone finally! They’re just children! If you have to kill anyone, make it me!” He smiled. Yes, a good mom. She’d die for them. Literally die. If I cut her loose and told her to off herself to save them, she’s do it without even hesitating. They all need to be like her.
“Well,” and he yanked her up out of the bed and onto her feet, “then maybe we better go see what’s going on downstairs. Dude can get antsy when he’s having fun. He might off them himself if I ain’t there.” Which had Dani hurrying as fast as her covered eyes allowed her in his grip.
Mrs. Stevenson had been gracious to the two young women her nephew led into the house, even thanked Felicity for her help with Samantha and Caleb. Caleb led Felicity and Bethany down a narrow hallway done in thirty-year-old paneling, stopped at a half-open door through which Felicity could see an old carpet, faded blue wall paint, a trio of suitcases near the door, and a sliver of bed on which a girl was lying. Caleb cleared his throat as he pushed the door open, revealing Samantha lying on her side, turned away from the door, her brown hair straying and unkempt. The squeak of the hinges made her start and roll toward the door, which motion elicited a gasp from Caleb and a hasty step down the hallway. Bethany felt the pang in Caleb’s heart; she had lived it. Never able to look at Chris. Chris blushing whenever he saw her. The knowledge of what they had been made to do to each other a magnetic aversion neither could overcome. Why Chris never came home even after semesters. Weight training was an excuse; he simply couldn’t face her, and she could not face him. And now Caleb can’t face Samantha. Samantha uncoiled from the bed, swaddled in gray sweat pants and a sweater over a tee shirt, dusty white socks on her feet. Resignation on her face. “You’re going to ask me more about it. I don’t know any more than what I told you before.”
“We’re trying to figure out how old they are. We think we might have a way to figure out who they are, but knowing how old they are would help that.”
Samantha’s hands fluttered over her straying hair, trying to straighten herself. “They wore masks, like I told you before, Felicity. I couldn’t see their faces except for their eyes.” She scooted up the side of the bed toward her pillow, an invitation for Felicity to sit beside her, an invitation Felicity accepted. “I...I don’t know what else to say. And I don’t think Caleb knows any more.”
Felicity settled close to Samantha. “But there are ways to judge their age other than faces. If you saw their hands, you could”—
But now Bethany interrupted, reaching down and taking her hands. “Caleb loves you, you do know that, don’t you, Samantha? It’s not your fault he can’t stay around you. He’s just ashamed of what they made you do to each other. He’s embarrassed. And it’s okay if you can’t be around him; I know how it feels. You have to give it time.”
Samantha gazed up at Bethany with full wet eyes. “You still don’t see him, do you? Merri said he doesn’t come home, and you don’t go up to see him. Is that going to be forever? I hate thinking I’ll never be able to be around my brother again.”
“You’re stronger than I am, Samantha. I’ve seen it. You won’t let it get that bad, I can tell. You’ll let him know that it wasn’t either of your faults and that you won’t let it stop you from being together.” Bethany could say no more, her throat constricting on all the things she wanted to say to Chris but never had.
Which Samantha saw. She hurried out, to quiet consternation from Felicity. But Bethany knew what Samantha was doing. They followed her out into the hallway, the kitchen, and Mrs. Stevenson’s eyes guided them back to the small back yard. Both swings were occupied now. Neither McBride child could look at the other, but both were there, both in each other’s presence. Samantha reached out toward Caleb with his face averted; her reach came short before she withdrew it, but still Bethany knew what Samantha intended. She wasn’t going to let the monsters keep them apart. A sidelong glance back up at Felicity and Bethany. “The older one...his hands were kind of dry. Not wrinkly, but...like older. The younger one’s were...kind of rough, but not old.” Beside her, Caleb nodded. He had heard his sister, and agreed. Dry. Bethany and Felicity glanced at each other; both had parents well into their forties, and could perfectly picture what Samantha meant. Older one in his forties. Younger one in his thirties? It was little to go on, but another piece of information on which to build an identity. “Thanks, Samantha. Caleb. Thank you both.” And Bethany led Felicity out the gate back onto the alley. Samantha and Caleb had more important work to do now besides talking to them.
Garrett Small and Veronica Daly had a nickname. The Perfect Imperfect Couple. They had met at Camp Evergreen, two young junior counselors brought together by crisis. Bobbi Martin had come up with the nickname. Veronica had been St. Swithin’s royalty brought low when her secret had been revealed and flourished over her in typical middle-school fashion; Veronica One-Boob, carefully concealed by the best disguises Daly money could buy all rendered futile. Garrett Small, from his infancy with only one eye, the prostheses never able to quite match the blue of his one good eye. The “battle for Camp Evergreen” had brought them together; in the aftermath, shy Garrett had approached the humbled Veronica, and one dance at the end-of-camp counselors’ party had turned into a romance. Facing each other, Garrett’s bad eye faced Veronica’s deformed breast, and both understood the irony of that. Thus, Veronica’s favorite old target of abuse turned best friend after the humiliation, Bobbi-Jean, bestowed the name on the couple. The Perfect Imperfect Couple.
This was all supposed to be with her. He was a young man in the exact middle of his teens, and imperfect as she was, Veronica had long figured in his fevered imaginings. Neither was perfect, neither had been experienced, but they would teach each other how to act out their passions, they would be each other’s experience. The Perfect Imperfect Couple would make perfect passion and initiate each other in a perfect scene.
Until the invaders. Until Garrett had been dragged blind back into the basement. Until he heard Makayla’s squeal and felt her hoisted to her knees before him. And now the perfect scene for the Perfect Imperfect Couple had been erased. He had tried to stop, but could not. He tried to replace the gasping whimpers in his ears with Veronica’s warm-cool voice, but could not. He tried to substitute the flesh he felt with Veronica’s, but could do that neither. No scene could ever replace what he and his body were being forced into doing. And then Mom’s voice, Mom’s pained squeal. And a cry from Makayla’s ungagged throat that swept away the last of any perfection, any normalcy, a wailing fanfare into a kingdom of eternal madness.
The laptop hadn’t actually been an actual gift for Paula, but her own tool to help Alyson narrow the search. An employee with a male relative, a brother or cousin. One in his forties, the other younger, as Bethany and Felicity’s intelligence had informed them. Sixty-one possibilities. “Like sifting all of Ocean City for one earring.” Only after a second did Paula realize she had actually spoken the words.
Alyson leaned back from her keyboard, saw the frustration on her young colleague’s face. “Well, we can eliminate a couple. Four guys in their twenties, the IT guys. Fifty-seven left.”
Paula allowed herself a mirthless chuckle. “Fifty-seven varieties. This will take forever.”
“You’re right. We need more details. Two males and some unknown relationship. It’s not enough to narrow it down.”
Paula slumped, rubbed her face. More details. Two vague males with vague ages. If we could figure out as much about them as we know about—and a realization yet again hit her with physical force.
“We’re looking for the wrong people!”
Earning her a stare from Alyson. “The wrong people? What do you mean? Do you think our profile is off? I’m not going to be the one to tell Ginger O’Day that”—
“No, you don’t understand!” Paula was up now, the laptop abandoned on the tabletop, the energy of the realization animating her like a surge of electricity throughout her body. “We’ll never be able to pick the perpetrators out of all these people, not with the little bit of detail we can get. For all we know, what we have on them could apply to half the names on this list! How could we ever investigate that many people before they hit again?”
“Then what’s the point of even looking at this list?”
Paula felt an exultation she had never felt in her life. Quiet demure Paula Ryan. The little quiet girl in the back of the room. The mousy wallflower who never spoke up. I have it! I know just what to do! I have the key to this whole thing! She felt like taking Alyson by the shoulders and shaking her, screaming it out through the window for the whole world to hear. I have it! “Because the perpetrators aren’t the only ones here! Don’t you see, Alyson? The victims are here, too!” A moment—and Alyson’s eyes grew large and astonished—
Alyson counseled caution to herself even as Paula paced the room. Careful. Don’t be led down a blind alley, not when there’s likely time pressure involved. But Paula’s right. All the victims are employees in some way or other of DeRozier Enterprises. Careful. Over a thousand. Yes, that’s the trap. “It expands our search by about tenfold, Paula. We have to investigate over a thousand people.”
The Paula Ryan of even the day before—even the night before—would have hesitated, would have denied herself the benefit of the doubt. She would have told herself she had had a foolish idea, would have denigrated her own contribution. But the day was new, and so was the feeling of utter certainty she had rarely felt in her life. “But we know more about the victims than we do the perpetrators, Alyson! A father, a mother, a daughter, and a son. Every family so far except the Howlands have fit that pattern. The McBrides, the Merritts, and the Bruces, all three families fit that pattern. No divorces, no single parents, and except for the Howlands, no third children! If there’s a way we can identify which employees have that kind of family, we can predict who their likely targets will be!”
Alyson was beginning to be convinced. She’s right! Except for the Howlands, every victim family has come from a DeRozier Enterprises employee! And... “And all the employees are the fathers, Paula! That narrows our search! Eliminate any female employees, at least provisionally. Now, as to figuring out their families...”
“What about tax documents, W-4s? Every employee would have one on file.”
Alyson shook her head. “It would only point out the number of dependents. Think about it, Paula. The Merritts...both their kids are over eighteen, so they wouldn’t appear as dependents on a W-4. I don’t think the employee applications have the employee list family members.”
“Maybe we need to recruit a little help.”
Alyson’s smile was radiant. “Think you’d like a ride in a BMW?” Paula liked that very much.
From beyond the boundary of his blindfold, Garrett heard Younger giggle. Garrett lay supine, exhausted, unable to move off his hands bound and pinned beneath his back, unwilling to think of what had happened, what he had been made to do. And now that manic giggle from his assailant. “Hoo boy, I guess he ain’t a fairy! Sure put that wood to good use, didn’t he?” And Elder joined in the laugh.
“Nothing like some family bonding, eh cuz?” His laugh became a cackle. “Bet you wish you were a fairy about now, don’t you, Garrett? Get to spend the rest of your life thinking about what you just did.” The cackle again. “And about who you did! Maybe I ought to do you a favor and just slit your throat right where you’re laying, huh?” Garrett, his mother’s son, did not stir at the thought of that, in fact welcomed it as his mother’s protesting wail reached his ears. Mom shrieking, Makayla whimpering right beside me. I wouldn’t even care. I’ll never be able to look at them again. Not without remembering this. You could do it, and I wouldn’t even care. “What do you think, Dani? Wouldn’t it be a favor to him to kill him so he wouldn’t have to think about today?”
Mom was wailing, squealing. “No...my son...so young...don’t hurt him...
“What hurts him more, Dani? A quick kill or a lifetime of thinking about all this? And I bet Makayla wouldn’t mind having her throat slit either, right about now.” Garrett knew Mom would not want to see him or Makayla killed, but he himself was utterly indifferent to it, even as Mom screamed out pleas to spare them.
Dani should have been answering her phone. Especially with Craig away in Morgantown. Dani was hardly a football person—she had never been into sports of any kind—and for her, Saturday afternoon was time for family. Makayla, Garrett, and her sister. Carly Higgins was a year younger than her sister, and a kindred spirit in all things, right down to their shared love of reading. Dani was a reading specialist; Carly the head of the Center City home branch of the Allen County Library. Many a Saturday and Sunday was spent in their own two-sister reading club, talking over favorite books while making lunch or dinner or simply curling up in a nice quiet room. Sometimes Makayla would join them with her own books, introducing her mother and her aunt to literary voices they did not follow. But no answer from Dani. No answer from Makayla. And no answer from Garrett. She thought of calling Craig, but decided against it. No, he’s up in Morgantown enjoying his ball game. I just don’t get that whole thing about cheering for men chasing some kind of ball around a field. Dani should be answering. I think I’ll go over just to see if everything is all right. And yes, bring my latest book. I always enjoy a good Patricia Cornwell. Ten minutes and I’ll know if anything is wrong.
Center City to Snowden was a quick run, no more than fifteen minutes at BMW-3-series speeds, and Paula’s call ahead to her Snoop friends served not only to get them moving, but to keep Paula’s mind away from imagining just how many pieces she would be left in should young Mrs. DeRozier get in a wreck at the speeds she was driving. But surcease came in the form of the University Road and the criminal-sciences building into whose lot Alyson dove the car with a squeal of brakes at the closest open spot to the front doors. Dr. McNeil’s Buick and Trish’s old Kia were proof that Paula had successfully roused them to action. Alyson’s stride was purposeful, belying her statuesque build as she led Paula into the building toward the labs. I guess I might as well get used to this building at this rate. I might actually enjoy it! Mrs. DeRozier sure seems to.
Dr. McNeil was awaiting the pair as soon as they crossed the threshold to Lab 1. “I see you can’t get enough of us, Alyson. And Paula, I’ll have the registrar send you a change-of-major form. This is where you belong.” Paula wasn’t disposed to disagree.
Trish, already dressed for cantoring at St. Ignatius Mass in a neat navy-blue blouse and a knee-length gray skirt, was already at a computer terminal, most conspicuously not the one which had been Alyson’s traditional favorite. “Okay, so our job is to figure out the families of all the fathers who work for DeRozier Enterprises, am I right? Care to hack the IRS? I’m sure you can do that without even waking up!”
Krysten also sat at a terminal, dressed in a robin’s-egg-blue casual day dress. “The best time to go do something illegal is the day before church, don’t you think?”
Ginger, in black leggings and a Snowden State blue rugby sweater, lounged at a lab table with a laptop already fired up. “I wanna learn how to be a hacker, Mommy!”
And there was Bethany, fresh from the Chateau. Eyes still haunted and hunted, still timid and exposed, her corpulence bundled up in a heavy burgundy sweater and fleece pants, but present and willing. Her desire to be back home in her apartment and away from the world was vivid on her face, but she was there in the lab nonetheless. “Anything I can do to help, Mrs. DeRozier.”
And even Dr. McNeil had a laptop at hand. “Let’s see if an old dog can learn a few new tricks, Alyson. You’re the boss right now. You and Paula.” Which made Paula’s jaw drop in consternation.
Alyson felt the hunt stirring inside her. “Okay, let’s get at it. How do we identify those families that fit the profile?” Trish instantly volunteered to help hack the IRS again, and Alyson giggled. You guys really do think I’m Penelope Garcia, don’t you?
He couldn’t help but smile at Danielle’s trembling, weeping ruin. Yeah, you get it now, don’t you? Which is better? Your kids fucked up for life, or your kids dead? You wouldn’t have the guts to do it, Dani. Too tenderhearted, or too selfish? You would die for them, but you wouldn’t let them escape what we did to them. Even if the rest of their lives are torture, you’d keep them alive. Just like she wanted to keep me alive. She wanted her little plaything, you want your little living dolls. Well, good luck with that. Garrett’s mind is fucked up forever, and Makayla’s nothing but a little fucking vegetable. He won’t be able to look at either one of you for the rest of his life, and if she doesn’t end up in some kind of lunatic asylum, it’ll be a miracle. But still you would keep them alive. What good are they going to be now? But hey, you made your choice, Dani. Spare them. Spare them because you’re too fucking selfish to let them go. You’re not as good a mom as you might have been. He and Younger left the destroyed family bound in the basement, and finally departed. Plenty of time to be far away.
“You were gonna do it, weren’t you?” Younger asked. “You were gonna off those kids. Damn, I thought I was a hard ass!”
He glared back at him. “You can’t tell me you never thought about it. There were times I could have done myself and smiled while I did it. Maybe I should have.”
Which sobered Younger. “Yeah. I coulda cut his fuckin’ heart out, but I still would have blown my own fuckin’ brains out if I’d had a chance. Those kids are just that way, now. That girl...before she’s done, she’ll swallow a bottle pills or something just to make it stop hurting.”
And Younger smiled. “And you want to do it next time, don’t you? You couldn’t do it to somebody you know, but you could to somebody else. Do what we felt like doing to ourselves.”
Elder’s smile was beatific. “Yep.”
“Insurance forms. That should work,” said Alyson as her little squad of hackers put themselves to work. “Doc is right, Paula. This is where you belong.” For it had been Paula who suggested that a search of health- and life-insurance records would reveal the names of families. Trish still wanted to hack the IRS. “And since the DeRoziers use the same insurer for all their full-timers, we can knock through this pretty quickly. Each one of us can cover a different division. Remember, we’re looking for a father, a mother, one son, and one daughter.”
“Is there a prize for the one of us who finds the most?” asked Trish with a crooked grin.
Alyson returned the grin. “Well if you win, I’ll tell Bobby to not spank you on your next date!”
And Ginger chuckled. “I thought a prize was something you wanted!” Even while delivering her replying gesture, Trish also grinned. “I thought you were saving that for Bobby!” Gibes aside, it was time to work.
Carly Higgins found the house quiet as she emerged from the long, serpentine driveway onto the paved parking space in front of the garage. No surprise there, but for the fact that Dani liked to take advantage of sunny and still seasonably comfortable days like this to do what little yard work was left in October and decorate the house. Not many got to see the Small house decorated for the long snaking driveway, but Dani enjoyed taking pictures of her handiwork and posting them to Facebook and Pinterest. She was always the crafty one, making her own decorations, while Carly got what few seasonal home décor items she wanted from Wal-Mart and Jo-Ann. Today would have been just the day for Dani to dragoon Garrett and Makayla into helping her decorate for Halloween. She usually doesn’t let a day like this go to waste. She parked in Craig’s usual space, beside Dani’s shiny white Jeep Compass, and tried to see through the closest window, the one to Dani’s favorite little reading and crafting room. No movement. Surely they wouldn’t be sleeping in. Strange. No sound but the squawk of decamping birds as she ascended from the parking lot to the front porch stairs. They have to still be here, there’s Dani’s car. The front door locked. Not like Dani; on a day like this, she would be in and out so much she wouldn’t bother to lock the door. The doorbell chimed inside, the echo died away. No answer, no called-out “Coming!” Ring again. Still nothing in reply. Not even Garrett or Makayla. This definitely doesn’t feel right. She fumbled through her keys on her keyring, located the house key Dani had given her. Craig had given one to his sister also. Maybe that’s it; maybe Connie came over and they all went out somewhere with her. They do that sometimes. But Dani would have answered her phone. No answer from Dani or Garrett or Makayla. The door unlocked, yielded silently to her hand. A silent house. No TV, no sign of life. “Dani? It’s me, Carly. Where are you hiding?” Her light tone belied the rising tension gripping her throat. “Daaaannni! Garrett! Makayyyla! It’s me, Carly! Where are you!” She peeked into the living room—saw an empty space where the TV should have been, an obscene tangle of wires and cables—and the grip on her throat choked her voice silent. No, this is bad, Carly. Very bad. “Dani!” Her voice was a nervous squeak. But through her squeaked-out call she felt the suggestion on noise somewhere. Toward the kitchen. “Dani! Garrett! Makayla!” Now the noise became clearer—down the kitchen stairs into the basement—a sound, no words, muffled, frightened. God, oh God...She dashed down the stairs, through the laundry and Craig’s workshop.
And was the first to see the ruins of the Small family.
“And don’t forget,” said Alyson as she quickly scanned a lab dotted with friends, professors, and acquaintances tapping on computer keyboards, “the invaders know the father’s work schedule. Remember the McBrides.”
“So workers with a steady schedule are more likely targets, right?” said Trish, delving into a set of insurance forms for the Eastar mine. No need to go deeply into the Bruces—they had already been hit—but seeing the information focused her. Working husband, wife, son, daughter. Keep that in mind.
“Would we get anything from a geographical profile?” asked Ginger, pecking diffidently at her own keyboard. Computers to her were a necessary but unwelcome tool. Leave it to other beings to slave over a stupid keyboard. But there’s work to be done. “Map the invasions?”
“Snowden, then Center City, then Sunny Hill,” said Dr. McNeil reflexively, narrowly eyeing her screen. This is killing my eyes. “Heading east, it seems."
“Eastar is our easternmost holding,” said Alyson, fairly racing through the online forms. “Where do they go from there?”
And as if in answer, Dr. McNeil’s phone went off. A glance at the screen showed Janet’s name. Janet was not the type to just call to chat. Which almost certainly meant one thing. “Yeah, Jan...” and the hand that went to her eyes confirmed to everyone in the lab what the call was about. All fell silent as Dr. McNeil finally spoke. “Okay...that’s, what? A little east of Center City. When did...” They all saw Dr. McNeil’s eyes widen in consternation. Something particularly horrible about this one, they all knew. “Wow. Good God. Should I...yes, Jan, they’re all here, doing some research on...yes, sure. I’d like to keep a few here to...We’ll be there. Tell the troopers to put their radar guns away!” A long look at the phone, and Dr. McNeil closed the call. A sigh, and she nerved herself to look at her young colleagues.
She did not have to speak. “Another one in less than twenty-four hours.” Trish’s voice was taut and chilled. “They’re accelerating their attacks.”
Dr. McNeil cast a dark glare at her top student. “It’s worse than that, Trish. You’re coming with me to find out. Someone get hold of Felicity and get her down there. They’ll need her.” Which carried its own connotation. “Ginger, you too. The rest, stay here and keep up your search. We need to figure out their next victims. Yesterday, if at all possible.” She quickly gathered herself—noticed an ashen-faced Bethany—“Would you come along too, please? I have no right to ask, but you’ve been in their shoes. In case Felicity can’t get there quickly.”
Bethany nodded. “I brought my own car, Dr. McNeil. I’ll follow you.” Social-phobic to the last, but Dr. McNeil willingly made the concession. It’s enough that she’s coming along. She nodded in return, strode toward the door—
“Who is it, Doc?” asked Trish, quickly gathering her bag and following.
“Craig and Danielle Small. Isolated house just east of Center City. Mrs. Small alone with Garrett and”—
Paula started. “Makayla. From Camp Evergreen, a junior counselor last year. I know her from camp. Quiet, and...my God, Makayla?”
Dr. McNeil paused at the door. “Yes. Makayla. You put us on this new track, Ms. Ryan—find me the next family they plan to hit. And fast. There’s time pressure on this.” And before Paula could answer, Dr. McNeil and her small entourage was out the door.
A cold beer glistened in Younger’s hand as the WVU vs. K-State game played live on the Small family’s TV, now wired up in their own living room. But his mind was not on the football game. “So how would you have done it? Strangle the bitch? Cut her?” He chuckled. “Slice her up and plant her in her own fucking garden. It’s what she woulda had coming to her.” Another deep draught of the beer.
Elder could not avoid a small stare at Younger. Damn, that’s cold, considering she was...well, he had his issues with her, too. She had to know what was going on with him. Knew and did nothing. Her own son, the sick bitch. Let it happen. Too fucking lazy to protect her own kid. Well, too busy fucking around. Too busy fucking me up, more like it. And now he can chuckle at the idea of me killing her. Yeah, we’re both way fucked up. Well, we earned it. What a fucked-up family. “If I could have...hell, any way that would have come to hand, I guess.” He stared unseeing at the TV screen. That stupid fuck Craig is sitting in that very stadium somewhere. Doesn’t know a fucking thing. Just like my own family didn’t. “This one fantasy I had...I’d hide me a knife somewhere. Hell, I don’t know where, I don’t even know how I could have done it. Then, right in the middle of the game, I’d get myself loose. Some way she couldn’t have noticed, you know. Pulled that knife out from behind me, and bam! I’d stick it right up her gut. That’d drop her, you know, and then...I’d be over top of her giving her hell for every fucking thing she did to me, and right before she passed out, I’d cut her throat ear-to-ear.” he glanced over at him. “Sorry, dude. I mean, considering she was...”
Younger shrugged, another sip. “Naw, dude, no prob, you know that. Hell, I might have even helped you.”
Elder chuckled, a faint blush on his cheek. “When I was done, I’d slice her head off, take it back to my house. Throw it right at Mom’s stupid fucking head. ‘Do you believe me now?’ Ask Dad the same thing when he finally drags his ass home. That was how it always ended, the dream, you know. Throw her fucking head at Mom, ask them if they believed me now.”
Younger grinned. “So let’s do it. You want to, and you know it. The way you went on at that bitch about offing them. So let’s go ahead and do it.”
“It’d be a different ball game, you know. What we’re doing now...they keep it quiet. Too humiliated to say anything. Just like the Howlands. Dead bodies are a different game. That won’t stay quiet.”
“On the other hand, no witnesses left to testify, dude. Nobody to say anything.”
Elder sighed hard, a strange light in his eyes, a smile brewing up again on his face.
Makayla sat utterly inert. The blanket had slipped down from her shoulders, pooling in her lap, yet she had made no move to cover herself back up. Indeed, had made no move at all. Her eyes were dry, but unmoving, staring at far-away nothing. Her lip hung slack, her hair straying unheeded around her face. In the farthest corner, Garrett sat curled beneath his own blanket, not looking at anyone, not even the sympathetic Asian young woman who spoke in low murmurs to him. “What do you want from me?” he asked, his voice a bitter mumble. “They made me...made me...you heard the cop! Why do you need me to tell you what they made me do to...” and his bitterness collapsed, his face falling into his curled knees in a cascade of sobs. “...Makayla...Mom...”
“The operant word, Garrett, is made you. You wouldn’t have done any of it of your own free will.”
Garrett’s sobs softened. “...said...said they...they wanted to...to kill us...asked Mom if...if she wanted...”
“It’s a choice no mother could make, Mrs. Small,” said Trish, seated beside Mrs. Small on the sofa, her hand on Danielle’s blanket-clad shoulder. On the other side, her sister chafed her hand. “You couldn’t allow them to kill Garrett and Makayla. While there’s life, there’s hope.”
Danielle gazed helplessly as Makayla inanimate in the love seat. “Is there any life there? What they did to her...made Garrett do...she won’t talk, won’t move...it’s like she isn’t even there! Maybe he’s right. Maybe it would be better if...if...”
Dr. McNeil and Detective O’Malley gazed at Tricia trying to soothe Mrs. Small, Bethany sitting beside Makayla’s chair quietly talking, trying to rouse the young girl’s consciousness. Felicity had sent a text; she was coming down as fast as her wheels could bring her. Tricia and Ginger trying to piece together what had happened from three broken human beings. Two real troopers. The uniforms who had arrived on-scene had done the initial interviews, and now two of their best were digging deeper. They already knew one important detail; the assailants are accelerating. Two attacks in less that twelve hours. The Bruces in Sunny Hill were still gathering up the pieces of their invasion, and the pair had struck again just east of Center City. And now, a new wrinkle her students were only then discovering.
Death threats. No, offers. Look how damaged your kids are; wouldn’t it be mercy to let us kill them? They’d put the question to Mrs. Small at the end of their longest, most violent debauch, depraved in ways none of the other assaults were. She had refused, and they had left. Left a mother wondering whether she was hurting her children more by letting them live than she would have by letting them die. A son drowned in shame. A daughter’s soul extinguished. Ruin more profound than any they had left behind yet. Psychodrama indeed. The two were playing out what had been done to them, so much had they gleaned from Danielle Small’s testimony. Compared her to another woman who looked like her. Desires to kill the other transferred to Mrs. Small. Taunts about children so ruined they would be better off dead. Ginger had nailed all of that. “Well, we have an explanation of the younger one’s homophobia,” said Dr. McNeil to Detective O’Malley, her voice a discreet murmur. “If what we know about what he did to Garrett is any indication, he was sexually assaulted as a boy, probably frequently, definitely through puberty. He became aroused during the rapes; it’s a basic physiological reaction, stimulation of the prostate gland during the process. He gets confused by that, and confusion turns to rage. He’s reliving his experiences through his assaults on the boys. I’d even be able to guess the approximate age he was first assaulted from the ages of the boys in this spree. The youngest was nine, a little prior to puberty, the oldest at the end of his teens. I’d say he was abused for a goodly decade. That’s a lot of rage. Then, when he finds a victim who really is gay, it cuts too close to the bone for him and he acts out the rage.” Spencer Merritt had never regained consciousness, indeed was showing badly reduced brain function.
“The elder one was victimized by an older woman,” said O’Malley in reply. “Sexually experienced. Forced him into a submissive role, possibly including bondage games. I’d definitely say sexual humiliation of some kind was involved. We know the guy is on the heavy side; maybe she humiliated him on that basis. Another long-term deal. They heard him call the other one ‘cuz.’ Cousins. First cousins, I’m fairly sure. Growing up in a family of perverts. I’d bet they were dealing with siblings who were deviant themselves, and took it out on these sons. Assaulting the girls might be revenge, maybe a way of reestablishing what he considers the proper role of females. Might explain why he got so violent with Jessie Bruce; she was too experienced.”
“Impressive analysis, Jan.”
O’Malley scoffed. “Ginger came up with it, but I’ll take the credit anyway!”
McNeil grinned covertly. “That’s all right. Trish came up with the profile on the other one. We might make her more than just a DNA expert yet!”
“Two profilers together. If that thought doesn’t terrify you, nothing will!” And they turned to give instructions to the uniforms still working on the scene.
The third still sat with Makayla, chafing her inert hand, speaking low and gentle. None of this was your fault. You were forced. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You did what you had to do to survive. Still no response, nothing but a pendulous jaw and dry eyes which saw nothing. “Makayla? Can you hear me?” Still no response. Bethany remembered her own aftermath, the wish that everything would go away, that nobody would ever look at her again. Unable to look at Mom for what she had been forced to watch her daughter do. Unable to look at Chris for the things she had been made to do to him. Drained of life for what they had both done to her. You want the whole world to go away, Makayla. I wished the same thing. But it doesn’t, it still forces itself on you, still makes you live. If they had offered to cut my throat that day, I would have said yes. I was still just a child, but I knew then that nothing could ever be okay again. I just wanted the whole world to go away. I—
“They knew who I was.” Makayla’s voice, dry and small, jarred Bethany’s ear. “They knew my name. He said he knew everything about me. He said I like kittens. He said I’d never been with a boy. He said I got good grades in school. He said he knew I liked to read. He knew all about me. He said I was what a girl was supposed to be. He said I’m supposed to be innocent until the right time. I guess I’m not anymore.”
Bethany could not look away. She saw herself in Makayla’s empty face, heard his voice as he stood above Bethany herself and said those same things. The best thing about fat little pigs is that they ain’t sluts. You love to stick your nose in those books, don’t you, fat little pig. I get to show you what a girl is for. I get to break you in, little piggy. Show you how all those puppies you love so much got made. Get to teach you how to—
Her thoughts stopped. He’d been there. He’d been in the animal hospital. He saw me. He knew who I was. Just like he knew who Makayla was. He’d seen me. He knew me. She roused herself from her thoughts, saw Felicity hurrying in, worry creasing her freckled face, not just for Makayla.
“Beth, I think you need to get away. This is too much for you. I’ll stay with Makayla. See her through everything.”
I know what I have to do. Somewhere in those old records, he really is there. He’d been to the animal hospital. He knew me. He knew Chris. Just like he knew Makayla and Garrett. A name on that employee list that will show up in our records.
“Thanks, Felicity.” Heart pounding, Bethany hurried out to her car. She knew now what she was looking for.