“Tonight? So soon? Damn, I thought you were getting too old for this shit!”
Elder sighed, shook his head in amusement at himself. “Damn, I didn’t think it would get this crazy. You got me thinking about it, and damn...you don’t get it out of your head, do you? I have to do it. Do what should have been done before.”
“You can come up with somebody that quick?”
Elder took his seat at the computer, clicked up a screen. “I think so. Got a couple right here. This time I think we ought to steer clear of Center City. They’ll be expecting that.” He scrolled a few pages, found a likely one. “Yeah, they might be just the ones. And with the last three well east, they might not be looking here anymore.”
Younger pointed at one. “What about him?”
Elder grimaced. “Meh. The girl’s too old, I think. Another Jessie Bruce, probably.” He clicked up another page. “How about this one?” Another few clicks—
Younger seemed dubious. “What about the boy?”
Another few clicks. “Turning twelve. All sorts of shit’s possible with him. They might be the ones. The girl will be good, too.” Another few clicks—“And check out the mom. Cutie. And Dad...legal counsel. If he’s awake, he’s at work. And every Monday night, a business dinner with The Man himself. We’ll make it then. And their house...”
“Snowden Place Village. If he had more ambition he could do a little better, but not much. About as nice as Oak Run Acres, a notch below Valleyview Estates. A nice place to raise kids.” Another click—“And no game or practice for the boy Monday night. They’ll all be home.”
“Sounds like a plan, dude.”
“Bet your ass, cuz.”
Krysten was all sympathy for Bethany. “Look, Beth, you’ve gone way above and beyond the call. Nobody could blame you for taking a break.”
Bethany clicked a command. She had rushed back to the lab and resumed her place with a flush on her face the rest of the girls took to be horror at the scene she had found at the Small home. The printer in the corner began to spit pages; Bethany rose to collect them. “No, not a break, not really. I just...I’d be more comfortable at home for a while.” On the way to the lab, an idea had tugged at her conscience, an idea she decided to take up. It would be just a burden on the others anyway. And it might find these monsters all that much faster. Dr. McNeil said there was time pressure, after all.
Krysten smiled. “You’re a real trooper, Beth. If you find something, let us know. We’ll all drop in for tea.”
“Sure thing, Krys.” And Bethany hurried out. None of the other girls saw her face.
None of the three Small victims, despite the ruin of their family’s life, seemed badly damaged physically. No need for emergency surgery. Trish, Ginger, and Felicity were relieved to escape for Snowden, Felicity following Tricia’s old Kia up the interstate for the campus. “Something about this scene set them off,” said Ginger half to herself as Trish navigated the highway behind Detective O’Malley’s unmarked car. “Three hours. Dragged them all over the house. And all of a sudden they’re talking about murder.”
“They found their perfect victims,” said Trish, letting her focus on the road mitigate the horror she still felt about the scene. She had felt the horror in the McBride basement, seen the violence of the scenes with the Merritts and Bruces, but something about this one was more than she could quite handle. Idle chats about death. A young woman stripped of her very humanity, left insensate. But for the few words she had said to Bethany, Makayla Small was unreachable, even for Felicity. And yes, a three-hour festival of torture and rape. But even through her horror, Trish understood that this last assault, prolonged as it was, had been a treasure trove of information. “And there’s no doubt about that whole sex-abuse angle you had. And we have a fair idea of at least one of the perpetrators. The older guy thought Mrs. Small looked like her.”
“No doubt about what the younger one went through, either. He made Garrett relive his whole experience in three hours. Those are two seriously fucked up people, and now we know how they got that way. Doc was right before about not finding this case in the CPS files; these guys are way too fucked up for the case to have gotten anyone’s attention; someone would have stopped it before it got this bad. It went on for a decade, you know, you can figure that out from the victimology of the boys. That’s a lot of fucking up.”
“And the time pressure. There wasn’t any talk about killing with the McBrides or the Bruces, and only the younger one going off on Spencer Merritt. They’ve been building up to this talk about killing, and with them accelerating the attacks...the next scene we go to, all we’ll find are dead bodies. They’re whipping themselves up for it.”
“Escalation. So we can’t just wait for their next hit. We have to get in front of them. Thank God for Paula. She had the right idea.”
Trish managed a scoffing little chuckle. “Looks like Doc has her new prize student already, and she hasn’t even changed majors yet!” She flicked a wink at Ginger. “She’s my roomie, so I’ll take the credit, thank you!” And laughed at Ginger’s completely inappropriate yet mercifully perfect replying gesture. “Sorry, the Rodent has first dibbs!” And the exit ramp for Snowden was a relief for the car, too.
“How many so far?” asked Paula. Her idea seemed much less brilliant after hours sifting various online documents.
Alyson rubbed her eyes. “I see...five possibilities from the home office not counting the Smalls. Eight from Eastar not counting the Bruces. Ten from the power plant, not counting the McBrides. Four from DeRozier/Allen Financial Services. And three from Specialty Fabrications, not counting the Merritts. Thirty possible victims. And unsubs accelerating their attacks. Probably nerving themselves to murder their next victims. Maybe as early as tonight. They would want to act on the impulse before it fades, I’m guessing.”
“We have to narrow the profile,” said Dr. McNeil, closing her laptop. “How do we do that?”
Krysten sighed. “I’m not the best at victimology, but maybe there’s something there. What made these victims so different that it has the invaders thinking of escalation?”
“What went differently in this attack, you mean,” said Dr. McNeil. “Length of time had to be a factor. Three hours, according to the response team. Lots of time to explore their fantasies. Maybe they’ve played out those fantasies as far as they could without actual killing.”
Alyson was already clicking up old case files. “Maybe not. They went about two hours with the McBrides, an hour with the Merritts even after Spencer had been knocked out of the scenario. Much shorter with the Bruces, but that was after Jessie had been beaten.”
Krysten’s gaze faltered. “They went about as long with the Howlands as they did with the Smalls. From what Bethany has said, they struck in the early afternoon, and it wasn’t long after they left that Dr. Howland came back home. Maybe even three hours.”
“And no escalation,” said Alyson, poring through the Howland file. “The call went to the police at...you’re probably about right, Krys. Somewhere around three hours. And not only no escalation, but no attacks for a decade afterwards.”
“Time of day?” asked Dr. McNeil. “No, probably not. They’ve hit in early morning, late at night, evening, and overnight. Afternoon too, including the Howlands. That seems dictated by the father’s schedule.”
“Which reminds us,” said Ginger from the doors to the lab, where she and Trish had just arrived and heard the last colloquy, “that at least one of our sickoes knows the fathers’ schedules. That still means home office. This with the Smalls nails that down. Craig Small is assistant CFO to the corporation, and works out of the head office. And according to the family, these guys knew them pretty well. Told details about Garrett and Makayla especially that they couldn’t have known from any other source but the dad. And Danielle swore up and down she knew the voice of the older guy. He’s our link to the head office.”
“Which narrows that end of the investigation,” said Trish, gathering her things. Investigation or no, she was due to cantor at St. Ignatius for the Saturday Mass. “Someone who would be comfortable conversing with corporate officers.” She shrugged. “I’ll pick up that end of it when I’m done Mass. The Rodent will just have to settle for a cold shower tonight.”
Ginger could not resist a gibe. “Doesn’t he do that all the time anyway?”
“We don’t just peck each other on the cheek, you pervert.” The grin on Trish’s face kept the lab peaceful. “We have our ways of entertaining ourselves. Which you don’t need to know the details of! And now I need to go to confession again, thanks to you!” And Trish was off to salve her soul with the Saturday evening Mass.
“But the victimology, still,” said Krysten, decorously changing the subject from her best friend’s sex life. “What was different this time than all the others?”
“Social class, maybe,” said Dr. McNeil. “Howland’s a veterinarian, a professional lifestyle. McBride and Bruce, working class. Merritts, middle class. Smalls, professional. They’ve taken their longest with victims from professional-class families.”
“Except for the Merritts,” said Alyson, busily surfing. “They stayed after assaulting Spencer, but only for a short time. Enough for One to rape the females.”
“No.” Ginger’s tone, dark and chill, drew everyone’s eyes. “I just thought about it. Trish’s rodent...tell me, what was the high point with the Smalls?” Faces reddened around the lab. They all knew. “Forcing Garrett to copulate with Danielle and Makayla. Two’s endgame. Proof that he himself isn’t gay. Garrett was playing out Two’s worries about his sexuality.” She dropped her chin and drilled a sardonic gaze at her colleagues. “What do you need for that to happen?” Stares in reply. “You’re thinking it. I’ll say it. A sexually functional male. One capable of consummating Two’s endgame. One capable of an e”—
“We get it, Ginger!” said Krysten, reddening even more deeply. “But how does that explain the McBrides? Caleb isn’t anywhere near puberty; he couldn’t consummate anything!”
Ginger’s obsidian eyes were glowing; she rose and paced. “First hit after a decade off. An easy mark. Middle of the night—you take them completely by surprise. Two kids too small to be able to effectively fight back. A mother of small children who will do anything to protect them. Just to make sure, capture the two kids first before taking the mother. They were a warm-up.”
Now Dr. McNeil was up, gazing at her fractious advisee Ginger with a new bloom of respect. “Which also explains the violence of the attack on Spencer Merritt. They were the next step, a sexually mature male to play out the psychodrama—but that male is gay, which wrecks Two’s ‘endgame,’ to use your term, Ms. O’Day. Next were the Bruces, but Jessie’s sexual experience short-circuits One’s fantasy, so they abandon the invasion. That also tells us that One is the dominant partner, the elder cousin. When Two’s fantasy is interrupted the invasion continues, when One’s is interrupted, the invasion is canceled. Sexually abused by Two’s mother, we’re theorizing, which would make her his aunt, younger than his mother. Hence the questions he asked Mrs. Small.” Janet had already sent a text briefing to Dr. McNeil on the high points of the investigation. “They were too close to fulfilling both their fantasies, so they accelerated to get their fulfillment. Ages of the kids were close to the Bruces.”
“In fact,” said Alyson from her terminal, “Jessie Bruce and Makayla Small are classmates at Jefferson Middle School. Eighth grade. Jake Bruce and Garrett Small are separated by two classes; Jake is Jessie’s twin, so he’s eighth grade at Jefferson, Garrett’s a sophomore at Center City South.”
Paula felt discovery boiling inside again. “So we can narrow our search of potential victims. About the same age as the Bruces and Smalls.”
Dr. McNeil drew a hard breath. “Maybe, Ms. Ryan. But escalation to murder might make them fall back a little, especially in the age of the boy. Like they did with the McBrides. Victims that are less able to fight back, since their endgame this time is probably to kill them at the end of the scenario.”
“You can’t go much younger on the boy, Doc,” said Ginger, resuming her seat at her laptop. “Jake’s thirteen, Garrett’s fifteen. Puberty in boys usually waits until 11 or 12, maybe even later.”
“The bottom end of puberty, Ms. O’Day. Old enough to be able to reliably give the invaders the responses they need, young enough to not be a serious physical threat to mature men.”
Paula and Alyson exchanged a glance. Two friends forged in crisis. “That still limits the search, Dr. McNeil,” said Paula, plunging again into her computer. “We can eliminate any potential victims with a clearly prepubescent son.”
Dr. McNeil smiled at Paula. “Starting Monday, you’re my advisee, Ms. Ryan.” She glanced at the clock. “And since you have names of families, you probably can afford a small break. I get the feeling we’re starting to close in.”
Paula rose, unfamiliar confidence radiating inside her. “I’ll go check on Bethany Howland. This has been tough on her.”
Krysten too rose. “I’ll go with you.”
Bethany felt the cool metal of the key in her hand. She did not keep it on her keyring, too close, too reminiscent of that afternoon. But the key to the house was always close at hand in the top drawer of her dresser. Mom always wants me to come visit. So does Merri. I think Dad too, but...he sees me, he sees that afternoon too, sees us the way those two left us. Saw us there, naked and tied, their fluids dripped all over us. Saw us the way they wanted him to see us. Even now, he can’t look at me without seeing me as I was that afternoon. His little daisy, torn and bloodied and raped and ravaged. The same done to his son and his wife. Staged to show him what a failure he was. He’ll never be able to look straight at me as long as he lives.
Saturday night. Mom and Dad will go out, maybe dinner at Pietro’s, maybe a movie. Chris’s season in New Haven will start soon, later than the other NCAA conferences, and they won’t miss any of his home games. Hundreds of gallons of gas and thousands of frequent-flier miles to go up and cheer for him. Merri too when she can. I wish I could look at him. I wish he could look at me. But tonight, just a dinner out and a movie, maybe a drive somewhere. And Merri...it’ll either be another sleepover with her buddies—Charity Mabrey’s place or Jill Burton’s place, or even Alyssa Anthony’s—or something a little more all-alone with Tess. Lucky you, Merr. Never thought I’d be happy my kid sister is gay. Tess Vandiver has good taste in sweethearts. Merri will be out tonight too. That big empty house all to myself. The only way I can face it, maybe.
She put away her scanty meal, Lean Cuisine frozen dinners not satisfying but also not helping her lose the weight. Nothing changes. Unless I find what I think I might find in that empty house. She shrugged into her jacket and slipped the old house key into her pocket, slipped the folded papers from the lab into the jacket. A house empty of anything, except maybe the answer I’ve always wanted.
The flowing beer loosened their tongues even more. Evening brought more football, a Mountain West Conference game on ESPN which would finish in time for a late Pac-12 game. “So...how you gonna do it, cuz?” Younger asked, a crooked grin on his face. “The mom. How you gonna off her?”
“Just like I said, cuz. Cut her open. Maybe split her guts right down the middle, then slit her throat while she’s still conscious. But the girl’s got to go first, you know. Make Mommy watch. This one’s little enough I’d only need a thumb on her windpipe to do it. Maybe ram a knife right up her beforehand. The bitch will be glad to watch me strangle her after that.”
“Boy’s got to go before the mom, too. I’d let you cut his junk off and ram it down his mom’s throat, then I’d cut his heart out, something like that. Let their dad find ‘em that way.”
Elder laughed. “Cuz, you are one cold fuck.” Another long draught, the beer going tepid. “Yeah, I’m slicing her fucking head off. Take it to Mom’s grave. Maybe even bury it in there with her.”
“And all on Monday night.”
“It’ll beat the football game, cuz.” They both agreed on that.
Krysten sagged away from the intercom. Another no-answer. “I thought Bethany was going home.” Her car was not in the Snowden Commons lot, nor was Bethany herself answering the intercom.
“Maybe she stopped somewhere. Maybe groceries, or visiting someone.”
Krysten shook her head. “You don’t know her, Paula. She doesn’t visit with anyone. The only visits she has are with her little sister, and that’s Merri coming to visit her. Bethany is just about as social-phobic as it’s possible to be. Her going around to the McBrides with Felicity took every bit of nerve she has, I’m sure. She was always shy, and after those two attacked them...she’s afraid of everyone. You’ve seen her, Paula; she’s even afraid of us. This whole thing is killing her.”
Paula thought for a long moment. “Then I think I might know where she is.”
Krysten listened, agreed. “She needs it. Like I said, this all is killing her. Maybe she needs that sort of break.”
“I’ll send her a text. Just to let her know what we’ve figured out. Maybe that will comfort her too, now that we might be closing in on them.”
Bethany was not surprised at the light in the living-room picture window. Everything was on a timer; Mom and Dad would make sure to leave some lights on just to fool any other possible intruders into thinking someone was home. I’ll have the house to myself. No one to ask what I’m doing. Find the match, find the name on the patient records which matches a name on this list. Then...
The lock resisted as she turned, but only for a moment; the key had hardly been used since Mom had given it her as she went off to Snowden State just down the road, and the minute edges of cut-outs on the key had not been worn down through use. But eventually the plungers gave way, the barrel turned, and Bethany’s chill hand pushed the front door open—
And in the small foyer, Merri stood with a old hockey stick in hand, cocked back over her shoulder as if she would strike had she not known the face she had just then seen through the small window. “Beth? What are you doing here?” She dropped the stick back into the corner of the foyer. It had belonged to Chris, but he had long since outgrown it, leaving it as a memento and possible last-ditch weapon. Unneeded against Bethany.
Bethany blinked at the sight of her little sister, casual in woolly pink pajama pants and a pink sweater which concealed her plump form. “What are you doing here? I thought you’d be out.”
Merri smirked and receded back into the living room. “Tess and her mom went out to the West Coast this weekend to see Mr. Altamont. I’d just as soon not deal with Tess’s old friends again.” She had met Tess Vandiver’s old circle of friends, and would have nothing to do with them unless under severe duress. For the Vandivers, a West Coast weekend trip was little more than a day trip.
Bethany discarded her jacket on the rack and followed Merri inside, the smell of buttered popcorn ahead. “But Charity and Jill? Alyssa? You spend time with them too.”
“Alyssa and her parents are up in Pittsburgh. Steelers game, and they go up the night before just to look around when they go. Jillian has to sit her baby brother.” She giggled faintly. “He drives her crazy because he’s smarter than she is and she can’t handle that.” The Bookworm Diva had met her intellectual match, in the form of her own baby brother. Reading at the age of three. Humiliating to a girl who only learned to read at the age of four. “And Charity...she actually has a real date tonight. Her sister Serenity is driving her and Clinton to the mall so they can watch a movie. God only knows what Charity’s going to have to pay her to give up being with Joey Housely tonight.”
Bethany followed Merri to the big old sofa, found a paused Netflix screen in the TV. The smell of the fresh popcorn enticed her. “Charity’s too young to have a boyfriend. I mean, sixth grade, come on.” She stole a handful of popcorn from Merri’s bowl.
Merri followed suit. “I have a girlfriend, Beth. One that’s out on the Coast putting up with that little witch-with-a-capital-B Reine DeLar and those two psychopaths Halle and Katte, but still...” She flicked a teasing wink at her sister. “You’re getting too old! There are girls still in elementary school who have boyfriends nowadays. Mostly just to say they have them, but still.” Another giggle. Merri had always had a charming giggle. “Clinton’s own baby sister Ciara. She’s only in first grade, but she calls Zack Carruthers her boyfriend.” The giggle chirped out as a full-blown laugh. “That was Charity. She figured Ciara would be less of a pest to her and Clinton if Ciara had her own sweetheart. If nothing else, they could tease her back about him.”
Bethany snitched the remote, started scrolling through the on-screen menus. Merri’s taste for sci-fi and horror never had sat well with her. Bethany preferred light comedy as an anesthetic. “So what do first-grade couples do for dates? Chuck E. Cheese?”
Another laugh. Bethany had always been soothed by her baby sister’s laugh. “They actually have, Charity says. They had to go along, and she beat Clinton’s pants off him at the hoop-shoot game. He’s so whipped!” The laugh again, and Bethany settled down beside her sister with a calming heart. “No, usually their mom just has him over for like play dates. Mondays their dad stays out late, something about work, so they have Zack over to play and have dinner sometimes. Clinton says he takes pics and video just so he can blackmail her later. He got one of her kissing his cheek, and he says he’s going to have it printed out just to tease her!”
Bethany actually smiled. “I really am getting too old! First-graders making out!”
Merri cast her big sister a sidelong, naughtily smiling gaze. “Don’t you wish you knew what Tess and me do!”
“Meredith!” And again Merri’s laugh cackled out, warming Bethany’s heart another few degrees. Nothing in the world now but she and her sister, sharing laughs and popcorn. No invaders, no broken victims, just she and Merri forgetting everything else. Even the text that chirped up on Bethany’s phone screen.
19 The Porter of Hell Gate
Saturday Mass had become a dinner at the Martins—both Mrs. Martin and Bobbi were still shaken from The Rodent's early-morning prank—and a long walk to the Chateau with him. A long hot shower, a change of clothes into her most casual top and jeans, and the sun had well and truly set by the time she had made her way back to Lab 1 in the criminal-sciences building. Only Alyson and Ginger remained in the lab, Mrs. DeRozier typing and clicking at her usual fevered pace, Ginger picking diffidently at the keys. Her mind had not been inactive for that time; even during Mass, between her musical interludes, Trish had found herself thinking through her search criteria. Works at the home office. Middle-aged. Conversant enough with corporate brass that they share family news with him. Okay, think about Mom. Facilities director here at State. She chats with Evelyn the secretary; Evelyn always sends a card for my birthday, and always makes sure they’re not Christmas-themed so I don’t feel like she’s skimping out on me because my birthday is Christmas Eve. But not really anyone else; none of the crew chiefs, certainly not the crew members, at least not serious family details. So...not just the office help. This guy’s an officer, or an assistant officer. Craig Small the assistant chief financial officer. He and a cousin torture the Howlands, then take a break for a decade, and now come back and go on a spree. Working themselves up to murder. And has access to the personnel directories of all the different DeRozier Enterprises divisions. Personnel department. It has to be. “So, Mrs. DeRozier, have you tried the personnel department?” Alyson’s replying gaze was heavy-lidded, tired. “One knows assistant department heads well enough to chat with them about their families, after all.”
“Human resources.” Alyson stifled a yawn.
“He has access to the personnel files for every department. Sort of suggests HR, doesn’t it?”
“Biggest department in the home office, Trish. And you’ve never seen a chattier bunch than them. They still send me congratulation notes on marrying Channing. Channing brings me leftovers from all the things they leave in the conference room every day. There’s no way I’m losing weight as long as we’re married!”
“So they’re one big happy family, you’re saying.”
“I’m saying that our unsub doesn’t have to be a head or assistant head.” Trish stared at Alyson, shocked that she could have read her mind about—“You compared HR at DeRozier to your mom and her department here at the university, didn’t you? You don’t want to make that kind of mistake. You’re looking for a shortcut, and there isn’t any.” Trish folded her arms and pushed out her lip. “And you know Doc would tell you the same thing.”
“Naughty girl!” said Ginger, also weary but still wisecracking. “I’ll just have to take you over my knee for that!” Trish returned one of Ginger’s favorite gestures. “Or I’ll just hire your fiance to do it for me!”
Trish fought back her own yawn. “But it’s still someone in HR. Has to be. We even have the beginnings of a physical profile. Fortyish, white.”
Alyson replied with a smirk. “That leaves us about ten to choose from. And if you get it wrong, you get sued up one side and down the other. You have to get something like this right the first time. And over a weekend, you don’t have everything at your fingertips to investigate.”
“Give them to Detective O’Malley, then.”
“Already have, Trish. See, I know how to be nice to people.”
“So maybe Paula really was right. Find their next victims.”
Krysten slowed her Escort as the Howland house emerged on the far side of the road, lonely in its niche cut out of the woods just outside town. The front porch was lit—no surprise, ever since that ten-year-old invasion—and the driveway had only one car, a round old Camry of a color indeterminate in the night. “Bethany,” said Krysten, putting on her signal to turn into the Howland place. “Looks like her mom and dad are out. Maybe Merri too. She has a lot of friends in town.” She hesitated before turning off the road—
Which Paula noticed. “She might want to know what we found out. Like you said, she’s put herself in a lot of distress to work with us. I’d think she’d want to know.”
“She didn’t answer your text, Paula. And this whole thing has made her face a lot of things she hasn’t let herself face for so long. We have to treat her gently, we always have, ever since...she’s hurting badly, and she’s tortured herself with this whole thing. I think maybe we need to give her some space to recover. At least we know where she’s at. Let’s just leave her alone.” She turned hard, a U-turn back to town. Let poor Bethany recover after all the torture she’s put herself through.
Saturday night, and Janet O’Malley was still dressed for work, her customary khaki slacks, her conservative blouse, her comfortable flats, her coarse brown hair still in its workaday low ponytail. Perfect evidence that Janet, though still young enough in her thirties, had little social life; her work was her social life. Her presence in Jennifer McNeil’s Snowden Place apartment, hot chamomile steaming in front of her, was not social, but business. Ten people. Ten men given to her through Calico by Alyson DeRozier. One of whom is One, the dominant partner as Calico described him to her. Maybe is One. Alyson was Calico’s golden child of the recent criminal-sciences graduates, so maybe she’s too confident in young Mrs. DeRozier’s talents. Too much faith in someone still too young to have an absolute grasp of her professional abilities. But the reasoning behind the names was solid. All of them potentially fit the profile. No flaw in any of the arguments presented. “Is there anything she—we—could have missed, Calico? If I collar one of these men and I’m wrong, it’s my rear end in a very big sling. They would have a lot of backing from Carlton DeRozier if I took one down and he turned out to not be One.”
“We can narrow it some more, I suppose, Jan.” A long sip of the chamomile. Warm tea was balm to Calico’s early-sixties self, no matter how much effort she put into keeping fit. Fit enough that a couple certain gentlemen were disappointed that she was not available to play that cool autumn night. “We suspect a cousin is Two, someone he would be very close to, close enough to share violent sexual fantasies with him. The variety of times for the invasions suggests that he has no wife or other relative in his home, so he can vary the times of the attacks. Works through the week, because the invasions take place on weekends. And is social enough within the home office that Danielle Small recognized his voice.”
Jan sighed. “All of which eliminates none of the ten. All except the cousin angle. Which means we have to investigate each of the ten’s immediate families to identify a cousin that might fit. So close and yet so damned far.” The chamomile didn’t help the frustration.
“I know just the student to go cousin-hunting. And I’d bet she’s in the lab right now.” Calico smiled and took up her phone.
Trish had been feeling rootless as the investigation delved deeper and deeper online. Alyson Carson—okay, Alyson DeRozier—playing Penelope Garcia. Not much for me to do—and then the call from her advisor Dr. McNeil. Confirm the familial relationship. Take your time and get it right, Ms. Dwight. She knew just what Dr. McNeil expected. Autosomal DNA. We can confirm that One and Two are cousins, and use that as a way to narrow down these ten names to one. To One. Okay, what’s the percentage share? First cousins...12.5%. Compare the autosomal DNA of the two samples. 12.5% or higher, and our theory is confirmed. All it takes is time. Something we might not have if they stay with their pattern of weekend attacks. Unless they’re saving up their energy for their big murder fest next weekend. We could only be so lucky. And Trish disappeared into the DNA lab.
Merri was not a fan of light comedy. Bethany’s forays into The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother got a few giggles from her kid sister, but many more yawns than laughs. The Nicest Girl in the World had a taste for macabre and horror. She had discovered The Twilight Zone with Dad’s help, and was an addict for the episodes; silly comedy simply could not hold her interest. Midnight was still more than an hour away by the time Merri slumped against Bethany’s side, happily asleep beside her big sister. I couldn’t face anything without her. Maybe she’s who I could have been if only...but what happened, happened. It’s happening again, and I have to stop it. She edged herself free from her sister, settling her on her side on the sofa, slipping the afghan from Mom’s chair over her sister’s frame. Sleep tight, Merr. Have nice dreams about Tess. I have work to do.
The basement stairs were pitch dark beyond the opened door, only a faint light from the far basement corner where Dad kept a few animal patients who needed closer care than others. The far corner opposite her objective. That room stuffed with commonplaces in hopes of crushing, drowning out what had happened there. A place she had to return to.
Clamminess in the air as Bethany descended the stairs. No. The furnace was blowing, air trickling down from the overhead trunks. The clamminess of that day. A warm day and she was chilled to the bone, Chris beside her trembling as they were forced down the stairs. Mom pleading, just take what you want and leave. Mom’s hand on her shoulder, a scent of the Benadryl with which she had dosed Merri before coming downstairs to confront the invaders. At bay at the far end of the room. Just a burglary. Do what they want and they’ll leave soon enough. And then, the command. Strip. Take off your clothes.
Bethany closed her eyes, opened them again, found the light switch. File boxes. Find those. Don’t think of what was done to you in this room. What they made you do to Chris, what they made Mom do. Just find the file boxes. Each one with a label, the year’s records each in their own box. Yes, that year. I can’t stay here. Can’t stay here another minute. Her breath choked off in her throat. Hands behind your back. Quit covering yourself up, you little porker. Hands behind your back, you skinny little fag. No, I can’t stay down here. Bethany grabbed the box and raced up the stairs as fast as heavy legs would let her. Her breath came back, raspy above a pounding pulse. Merri still asleep on the sofa. She slept through the whole thing. Stay quiet so Merri won’t wake up. My flesh tearing, and I still kept quiet. Chris violated, and still he kept quiet. Mom watching us ravaged, and she too stayed quiet. We wouldn’t let them get Merri, so we let ourselves be raped in silence. Bethany glanced at the staircase to upstairs and remembered. She walked up in silence now too, lest Merri wake up.
Richie Dwight was big and burly, a neat blond beard on a florid face, a stout frame. And all he was at that stroke of midnight was a waiter for Paula. He watched as Paula, radiating an energy he had never seen in her, raced through sites and pages on her computer in Lab 1. A long sigh now, and she leaned back in her seat beside Alyson. “Still fourteen possibilities. Fourteen families.” She glanced at her watch. “And for all we know, one of them is being murdered even as we speak.” A long dissatisfied sip of the Big Mama’s vanilla coke Richie had brought. “We have to narrow it down more!”
“Fourteen families with a son in the right age range,” said Alyson. “You’re right. By the time we go through fourteen families, we’ll be down to thirteen. We might be already. They’ve only hit on weekends.” A deep yawn, a glance at her watch. “And we’re down to Sunday already. I can’t even focus, I’m so tired.”
Alyson’s yawn was catching; now Paula and Richie were both yawning, Ginger and Krysten as well. “We’ve burned ourselves out,” said Ginger, rubbing her eyes. “Usually the night is just starting for me, but, damn...I guess I’m not used to this.”
“I’ll have to have Channing pick me up,” said Alyson. “I’m not safe to drive.” She cast a glance at Paula and Richie. “I hope you two can make it back home!”
Richie grinned. “I can carry her if it comes down to it. I ain’t even trying to get Trish out of the DNA lab. She’s in for the night.”
“First thing in the morning, then?” asked Ginger as Alyson dialed up her husband at home.
“With bright shiny faces,” said Krysten. She had even considered skipping church.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Bethany at the house past midnight was a surprise for the Howland parents.
Bethany smiled. A real smile as she glanced from her seat in Dad’s old chair to Merri still asleep on the sofa. “I’m fine.”
“This case is bothering you, daisy,” said Dad, hanging up his jacket, noticing the old file box. “You’re pushing yourself too hard.”
Bethany cocked her head. She had finally seen Paula’s text to her, and felt energized. Something we can search for. They find the next victims, I find the perpetrators. And then it will be over. “I think we can figure it out, Dad. I might be able to find the right name. He had to have been in the animal hospital before. The last victims recognized the voice, and that sort of reminded me. He knew things about me he could only have picked up at the animal hospital.”
Carolyn was puzzled at Bethany’s presence, but pleased at seeing an energy in her eldest she hadn’t seen in years. But it was also very late. “Well...you could stay here tonight, and we could help you in the morning.”
Bethany shook her head. “I’m okay to drive. I don’t want to bother Merri with it anyway. I’ll take the file back to my place, maybe get some of the others to help me with it tomorrow.”
“You’re always welcome. This is your home.”
“I know. And if we stop this, it might even be home again.” Hugs, and Bethany was out the door with her precious cargo.
The walk had tired out Richie as much as the work has exhausted Paula. She had tried to get back onto her computer to do more research on the fourteen families, but her eyes failed her, and soon she was slumped in the big Snoop Towers couch against Richie’s shoulder. He knew she would change majors. Welcome to the family, Paula. You love mysteries as much as the rest of the girls. Even he found himself thinking through what he had heard. Fourteen families. One of which was almost certainly those bastards’ next target. But unlike the McBrides and Merritts and Bruces and Smalls, they were probably going to finish up their sick games with murder. How to tell which of those fourteen was going to be next? How to narrow it down? He cast a weary eye out of a window, saw the darkness—
“How about places where they won’t be disturbed?” Richie’s voice startled Paula awake. He cringed, sorry he had awoken her.
“How to narrow down the next victims. All of them were where it wasn’t easy to see or hear anything. The McBrides are out on the edge of town, the Smalls were way out on their own lot, you say. The Bruces were down near the lake, and the Merritts, well...”
“Had an empty lot beside them!” Paula’s deep brown eyes flashed, and she was suddenly awake. “That might be it! Look for any houses that are isolated first!” His reward was a sloppy kiss that promised even more rewards for his smart call.
Dr. McNeil had been merciful. Just get the CODIS markers. I’ll send them for comparison. Maybe I’ll try it myself, Ms. Dwight. Now get your fanny home and get some sleep. We all need rest. And we’ll just pray we don’t wake up to a dead family.
Younger awoke to early-morning sunshine, plodded downstairs to find Elder in the living room, working an opened switchblade knife over a sharpening stone. “You’re really into this, cuz! Arming up already.” The grin on his cousin’s face as ample confirmation. “Except you’ll have a bitch of a time getting her head off with that puny thing.”
“They’ll have something there I can use.” Elder was the picture of placidity. “A good saw. They live out on the edge of Snowden Place, trees all around. I know he bitches about pruning trees all the damn time. No, this is just for their throats. And the other shit we were talking about.” A crooked smile on Younger’s face. “Don’t worry, cuz. I’ll let you borrow it for the boy.”
“Damn. Tomorrow can’t get here fast enough!”
Calico McNeil was awakened in the same manner as all other mornings; her tan tabby, Miss Lady, hopping up on her human’s shoulder and nesting at the blanket with her front claws. Calico paid quite an extra amount on her Snowden Place Apartments rent for her four cats, and took a strange pleasure from being perceived as the “old cat lady” of the apartment building. Miss Lady served a practical purpose; her existence meant that Dr. Jennifer McNeil would never need an alarm clock. “I’m awake, Lady,” and Calico shrugged the cat off her shoulder. Jennifer was slow swinging her feet down to the floor; sleep had not been particularly restful that night. The case still pressed upon her, and her first considered action of that morning was a phone call to Janet O’Malley. No news to report, the detective replied to her query; either no invasion had happened, or it had not yet been discovered. The news prodded Jennifer. Yes, that one detail. The father comes home to make the discovery. Look what we’ve done, Dad. Look at what we did to your family. Have to remind the girls of that. “I’ll get my girls going again, Jan. I”—and her text tone interrupted. A glance. “Well, I get the feeling our Miss Tricia pulled an all-nighter. She has the CODIS markers for the perps’ DNA. I’ll get that sent out as soon as I wake up here. I’ll give her a pat on the head and send her home.” As for Jennifer, she finally managed to make her way out of bed to start her day.
Richie was thankful for his sister’s absence from the Chateau the previous night; with Tricia out, the way had been clear for he and Paula to celebrate their investigative discovery in a distinctly physical way. Richie, less heavily burdened by the case than Paula, had slept well, and managed a chuckle when he discovered his sister’s bed empty. She’d walked in on them once already, an embarrassment he never wanted to repeat, so he woke himself promptly, deciding to let Paula stay asleep, smoothing the coverlet over her shoulder. She worked hard last night. Then played even harder. You earned a nice long nap, bunny. I just wish you’d have slept better. I figure that professor’s going to drag you all out to keep working on this case of yours.
He felt the stir of the case even as he dressed in his clothes from the previous night. It’s no surprise Trish has always been into this stuff, and now Paula too. It does fire you up. Fourteen houses to check out. Maybe not fourteen; maybe some of these possible victims live in apartments. That would rule out a few. Damn, this mystery thing is catching! No wonder Paula caught it! But let her sleep for the moment. She sure as hell earned it. I think I’ll play with Google Earth a little bit. But first, a pit stop.
The door to Ginger’s room opened as he passed, revealing Ginger passed out asleep on her bed without having even gotten under the covers. The doorway itself was filled with Felicity, a tee-shirt nightie hanging askew on her lean frame, her raven-black hair even more disarrayed than usual. “Did you even sleep last night?” Richie was never at a loss for conversation.
A crooked smile from Felicity, a gallows-humor sort of smile that was a native attribute of Mabrey girls. “For one thing, you and Paula made too much noise!” The smile collapsed. “I was late getting back from the hospital, me and Chell. We sat with Sarah Merritt. Spencer’s getting worse, his brain function is way down. They can’t figure it out, or at least do anything about it.” A hint of the smile returned. “And I was on the phone with Samantha. She and Caleb sat and talked all night. At least maybe they’ll get better. At least maybe someone won’t be totally wrecked when this is done. I talked with Danielle Small...Makayla still hasn’t said anything except that little bit in the basement when we got there. She’s totally lost. Garrett’s not much better.”
“You’ve been busy.”
The smile filled out. “I heard about Dr. McNeil getting Paula to change her major. I think I’m pretty sure about mine. This whole string of tragedies...and I just, well, fed off of it, you know? I felt like I had to be there to help. If Samantha calls, or Sarah, or Jessie, I’d be out of here without even thinking about it. I only wish Makayla would call.”
“You need to rest. All of you do. And if what I’ve heard is right, you probably have a chance for that.”
Morning had lengthened out with no word of another invasion. Alyson had woken betimes to return to her work, heart considerably lightened by the lack of another invasion. But Sunday was still young, and...yes, what Dr. McNeil had called to remind me about. The father discovering his family. She scanned the work schedules of the fourteen families. No fathers out today. No one to come home to a ruined family. A day of rest indeed. Just check the work schedules to see when the fathers in our target families are scheduled to work, and concentrate on those times. Weekend attacks, which means a week to refine our search. And a day to rest and prepare to take up the fight.
The football was especially hard-hitting that day, an early game between Baltimore and Pittsburgh as vicious as any game between those rivals ever was. Three injuries from high tackles, and already two on-field scuffles between a pair of squads who hated each other. Just the thing to get the blood moving, to stir up energy for what lay ahead in not much more than twenty-four hours. “So when do we go?” asked Younger.
“He usually runs back to his house right after work,” said Elder. “Brings them take-out to make up for not being at dinner with them. He has a hell of a lot of conscience for a lawyer! The boy likes Hunan chicken, the mom likes beef with snow peas, and the girl just eats wonton soup and egg rolls. Their Chinese place up there is pretty decent.”
“Wait ‘til he drops off their dinner, and we can get some free Chinese too.”
“I like the way you think, cuz.”
“We’ll be down two, Doc.” Ginger, still in nothing but a short silky-red robe, glanced in on the bedroom down the hall. Trish and Paula, both out like lights. Okay, actually three down. Krysten won’t miss her church now that we’ve caught a break for once. “Yeah, just what you said. Trish pulled an all-nighter, and Paula...well, she worked late and played kind of...oh, come on, Doc! Paula’s not some kid, she’s a big girl now! We can almost let her stay home without a sitter!” Ginger could not feel her shoulders release tension she hadn’t known she was bearing. “Yeah, well, thank God for small favors. It gives us...today...Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday, until Friday night to nail those two creeps. Most of a whole week. I heard Richie telling Paula about some geographical profiling before they...I said before, Doc! Not even I make profiling into pillow-talk!” It was the first fully-alive laugh she had had in two weeks, had she been keeping track. “Well Doc, what can I say? He’s a Dwight! Maybe you can get him to switch majors too. That way I have plenty of time to play with him!” Yes, I have a dirty mind, Doc. You know this. “See you in a few.”
The name “Dr. Jennifer McNeil” on a package sent to anyone in the criminal-forensics world guaranteed instant attention. So it was with her delivery of the CODIS markers Trish had spent most of the night developing; one text, one email, one submission of the markers, and friends in the Bureau had rush-jobbed the analysis for her. Jennifer got the email as she sat down at the Cook Pot for a post-Mass lunch. 17.8% match. First cousins, no doubt. We have that much right at least. Trish deserved a text back for all the work she put in. The lab’s her place. She knows it now. After the trauma of the Darrell Holman case, she learned she was not field personnel. Dreams of Nancy Drew gone a-glimmering, replaced by the reality of lab work. She had blossomed there, and the urges to go out a la Nancy and save the day had faded. Good. The girl is finally growing up. No limit to what she can achieve if she can just stay focused.
Speaking of...we know they’re cousins. Close friends who are comfortable sharing each other’s victimization, and from that, sharing their psychodrama. What about the possibility that they live together? The younger cousin perhaps boarding with the elder one, perhaps. That would make sense. They had to do a quick turnaround to go from the Bruces to the Smalls in one night, and separate addresses might make that easier. I’ll put Paula on that if she wakes up in time. A sweet little girl like that, playing the “games” Ginger had suggested. More information than I want to know. Or maybe I’m too old after all. So how come I’m the one awake before them?
The usual nightmares that littered Bethany’s sleep had altered. Still the gasp of shock when they emerged into the kitchen with a terrified Chris in their grip, still the queasy disbelief as she and her family were corralled into the basement and made to strip, but now she saw things, saw hints that seemed to slip out from under the invaders’ masks. She could see the wrinkles of an older face beneath one of the masks. She could sense the sexual nervousness of the younger one, and the dream gasped awake with the masks slipping off their faces as they ravaged her. She found herself awake in her overstuffed chair, the hand-me-down from Mom, and the wakefulness had come from her apartment intercom. It chirped again, and she struggled up out of her chair. “Yes?”
“Are you going to sleep all day?” Merri! Last night with her on the sofa had been restfulness she hadn’t felt almost since that day; two sisters and a bowl of popcorn in front of a TV show. All I need.
“Not with you waking me up! I’m buzzing you in, Merr.” Moments later, almost before Bethany could get the door open, Merri was in the apartment, frilly in a pink princess-waisted dress which was one of her church favorites, particularly when matched with matching tights and maryjanes. My sister the lesbian. Lipstick lesbian, it seems. Or a Princess-Dress Lesbian. “You can tell Mom and Dad I’m fine, by the way.”
Merri was amused, the girl detective in her piqued by her big sister’s deduction. “How could you tell?”
“You haven’t changed from church, Merr. Don’t you know lesbians are supposed to dress butch? Flannel shirts and jeans!”
“I don’t like flannel,” she said, lifting up the styrofoam take-out box. “And Tess likes me in pink. Her mom designed this dress just for me. Mom got you a sausage gravy and biscuit too. Which proves we were at the Cook Pot, right? You’re turning out to be a heck of a detective!” She pushed the box into her sister’s hand and passed her into the living space. “So, did you find what you wanted last night?”
It was Bethany’s turn to be impressed. “How could you tell?”
“You never come over to the house, Beth, except since what happened to Samantha. You came over looking for stuff because you thought I’d be out with Tess or over at Charity’s. I guess you found it, whatever it is.”
“Just trying to figure out who it was.”
Merri settled into her sister’s threadbare love seat, found the TV and Roku remotes. “It’d be great if you could. Samantha tries to be so strong about it, but it’s been awful for her. For Caleb too. Word kind of got out what happened, and the boys in his class are picking on him. You know that kind of stuff. Samantha hates that for him because she’s not there to protect him. Of course, at school Charity protects Samantha from the witches.” Merri spied the file box beside Bethany’s chair of state. “So, have you found anything out?”
“I haven’t really looked. Paula Ryan says they wait to strike on weekends, and they haven’t found anyone this morning, so I have some time. Sort of nerve myself to finally look into it.”
“I can help you. I’d like to be able to tell Samantha I helped catch the guys who did that to her and Caleb and her mom.” The special guilty softness in Merri’s eyes again. “And you and Mom and Chris. Maybe I’d finally stop feeling like I cheated you.” Bethany glanced uncertainly at the box. “We can do it together.” Anything to share her big sister’s nightmare.
Another nervous glance at the file box, back at Merri’s eager face. “Umm...maybe...we could split my sausage gravy. Maybe then. I am kind of hungry.”
Merri could not miss the sudden flush of nerves on her big sister’s face. “Or...we don’t have to, Beth. Like you said, these guys only attack on weekends. You could probably take an extra day or two to sort of get ready to look. Whatever you need me to do.” My sister, The Nicest Girl in the World.
Bethany shared her breakfast.
Once upon a time, Paula Ryan was a morning person. Up at six every morning, her toilette done well before the school bus was due. She had valiantly tried to maintain that schedule during her first days of college, but the temptation offered by a class day that started at ten had chipped away at her resolve. But seeing the 2:21 on her clock, and an afternoon sky outside her window, sent her into unprecedented self-reproach. The lab! I’d bet everyone’s down there again! She fled to the bathroom, raced through a shower, ran a toothbrush over her teeth and a hairbrush through her hair, pulled on the closest clothes she could find—raced downstairs—“Richie! Why didn’t you wake me up?”
Richie, his big feet planted on the coffee table and his eyes planted on the game on the TV screen, spared the Steelers and Ravens a moment to smile up at his disheveled girlfriend. “You needed the rest. And you’ve never been much into football anyway.”
“But the lab! Dr. McNeil wanted us all down there! We’re the only people in the house!”
A roguish smile. “Which means nobody for us to disturb.”
“Cool down, bunny. Ginger and the rest told the Doc you were kind of beat. And they were nice and didn’t say how.” He lifted up Paula’s laptop, Google Maps on the screen. “And I did a little work for you. I ran those fourteen families to see which ones live somewhere isolated. You can cross off six of them that live here or in Center City. Of the rest...two live around here, one out in Snowden Place by the woods and one down in Oak Run Acres. Two up on Turkey Knob with the rich folks. Four around Sunny Hill who work the mines. Lots of isolated places down that way. A couple of my old buddies lived in places that weren’t close to anybody.”
A blushing smirk on Paula’s face as she pointed at the laptop screen. “I should have done that myself.”
“Take the credit yourself. I won’t tell.” He offered her back her laptop. “In fact, we could have ourselves a field trip. Run down to Sunny Hill. You could check out the houses, and I could drop in on a few of my old buds.”
“We probably should start around town.”
“Meh. Get the farthest-away ones done first, then work our way back. Besides, I like the lake.”
Paula’s face flushed pink. “And of course you could run out of gas somewhere along the lake. Just by accident, the two of us.”
“Would you object?” Her smile said she wouldn’t object.
Cherie Maser huffed in the doorway, wry and entirely phony disgust on her face, her trim mid-thirtyish frame leaning against one side of the wide, white-painted opening. A quick blow flicked a strand of her rich brown bangs out of her face, sunlight from the kitchen window highlighting the rest of her shoulder-length brunette locks. “I thought you were supposed to be civilized, Andy! I tell you to take your feet off the furniture more than I tell your son to!”
Andrew Maser flicked a grin up at his wife. “I’m taking a well-earned rest before the usual Monday grind. Mr. DeRozier’s already called to remind me of the dinner meeting, so I imagine he’s got a lot on his mind. So I’m just sitting back and enjoying the Ravens kicking the Steelers’ as”—
“Andy!” Her disgust was a shade less phony. “Your language! In front of the kids!” Even though none were in the room.
“Ciara’s in her room playing with her Barbies, and Clinton…” A smiling roll of his eyes. “Is up in Valleyview playing with his.”
Which gained a titter from his wife. Clinton had spent most of his now-twelve years of life in a dizzy crush over Charity Mabrey, and now that his fantasy had been realized, he spent as many hours as he could with his dream girlfriend. And Charity Mabrey was tall and slim enough that a Barbie comparison was not terribly inapt. Or at least a Skipper comparison. And of course Clinton was maturing enough that “playing with his doll” was beginning to carry certain worrying connotations. “I’ll bet Ken Mabrey has the cleanest shotgun in Valleyview Estates.” A reflective smile. “Lucky for us that Charity won’t put up with any stuff from him.” Charity was nothing if not in charge of the budding little romance.
“They’ll be watching the game. She knows almost as much about it as Clint does.” He adjusted his feet on the coffee table where they still lay. “And is Ciara’s little boyfriend coming up tomorrow? I’ll have to get extra wonton soup if he is.”
“Not tomorrow.” She sat down to watch with her husband. “Zack has a doctor’s appointment after school, so it’ll be just the three of us, as usual.” She snuggled close. “And my Steelers will kick your Ravens’ asses, Andy!”
Merri Howland knew enough of her big sister’s moods to know when to back off and let Bethany settle herself, and her sense declared that today was one such day. Understandable, I guess. This whole case has her upset. Poor Samantha is still a mess, and she says her little brother’s even worse. And those other kids too. This has to be terrible for Beth. Just let her deal with it at her own pace. No need to rush her if those guys only do their break-ins on weekends. She can take her time. “Merr,” said Bethany, wriggling some change out of her pocket, “I’m parched. Want to run down to the lobby and get us a couple drinks? You know what I like, and I’m still tired.”
It was a routine errand for Merri. “Same as always?”
“Same as always.” Merri was happy to run the errand. Little bits and pieces of Bethany’s normal life starting up again. A Mountain Dew for me, a Diet Pepsi for Beth. Eww, that stuff’s nasty. How can she even drink it? No one at the vending machine, so Merri’s trip was quick and uneventful. Beth unlocked the door, and Merri was further gratified to see a contented smile on her sister’s face. “You’re getting quick, Merr. Were you that thirsty?” Merri saw that Bethany had moved the file box to the front of the sofa.
“Losing weight for Tess. I don’t want her to think I’m some kind of slob or something. Are you ready to look at that file box now?”
“If you help me. It’s still…if I’m right, the name of one of those two is in here. He came to the animal hospital, he had to.”
“Creepy.” Merri and Bethany descended upon the file box, sitting on either side of it on the floor. “He came to the animal hospital, and then he and his brother”—
“His cousin, they say now. First cousins. Dr. McNeil told Tricia, and Tricia texted me. They found out a few things last night about what they do and what kind of families they go after.”
“Eww.” Merri watched Bethany open the lid, nervous fingers pale and unsteady. “I like Tricia. She’s smart and funny. You went to school with her, didn’t you?”
Bethany stared into the open file box. “Winter of sixth grade, when she moved here. That winter after… She always tried to be a friend, but I wasn’t ready, not after summer. I like that she’s still trying even now.”
“And Krysten too. Krysten’s always been nice.” The Nicest Girl in the World naturally valued niceness highly. “You wonder if those guys would go after any of our families. Again, if it’s us.” The thought prompted a shiver in her shoulders.
“No. According to Paula and Krysten, they’re looking for a family with one sister and a brother old enough to…” A blush on Bethany’s cheeks. “Well…that can…”
Merri’s nose crinkled. “Eww. That’s disgusting.”
“I’ve seen you watch the animals, Merr! Don’t get prissy with me!” The smile on Bethany’s lips was worth the gibe to Merri.
“Yeah, but…you know the way Colton was always after me, Beth. Always chasing me. And Clinton with Charity, too. Just thinking about them, doing…eww!” She caught a twinkle in Bethany’s eye. “And no, it ain’t the same with me and Tess! I mean, with us we, well, hold hands, and sneak a kiss or two sometimes, snuggle sometimes… Does Colton want to do that with Alyssa, I wonder. After the way that guy who kidnapped her hurt her.” A sickly light dawned in Merri’s blue eyes. “And…you said they wanted one sister and a boy old enough to…that could be Colton and Emma! Emma Walters from our Scout troop! They’re one brother and one sister, and he’s kind of…” She suddenly clamped a hand over her mouth; her chest heaved. “What if it’s them? What if those guys want to do that to Colton and Emma?”
Bethany’s brow furrowed at her little sister’s distress, reached out to lay a hand on the pink trembling shoulder. “I don’t think so, Merr. We found out they only go after families whose dads work for DeRozier Enterprises. Colton’s dad is still the janitor at the middle school, right?”
Merri sighed, relieved. “Yeah. Still cleaning up messes all day! I hear Mrs. Walters is going to take over Bauman’s Bakery. She’s a really great baker, always brings nice stuff to all the big events for Scouts. I bet the cinnamon rolls get even better when she’s making them!” Bauman’s cinnamon rolls had been the essential Snowden delicacy for seven decades and more.
“We don’t want to look at these yet, do we?” Bethany closed the lid. “You really care about everybody, Merr. It’s the best thing about you. But Emma and Colton are going to be okay, those guys won’t come after them. Maybe we should go visit Samantha.”
Merri glanced distastefully at the now-closed file box. “That would be good. For her and you, and…and for me too. I hate what they did to her and Caleb.” She was up and pulling at Bethany’s hand. “It beats sitting here being scared.” Bethany agreed completely.
“A field trip.” Dr. McNeil rolled her eyes.
“Field research, that’s what my brother called it,” said Trish with a comic eyeroll. “Researching where they can stop along the lake to have wild monkey sex, if I know my brother. And Paula.” She cast a dry smile at Ginger. “See? You corrupted her already.”
“She was already corrupted,” said Ginger. “I only provided the sex toys!” She giggled at Dr. McNeil. “I know, too much information!” She settled down again behind her Google Maps. “But he had the right idea. Geographical profile. They only hit places where they can be isolated. The Smalls were the absolute frickin’ jackpot for them. Away from everything, so they took their good old time. They don’t like surprises.”
“Like I gave them with the Merritts,” said Chelsea, using her off day to hang around the lab with her Snoop Towers colleagues. “I showed up and they ran like hell. I could have ended up their extra plaything!” A thought that had already set off a nightmare or two in her head.
“No, you’d spoil the psychodrama,” said Krysten, still dressed for church. “It has to be the mother, the one boy, and the one girl. And the dad coming home to find them.”
“Eight possible victims,” said Dr. McNeil, refocusing he discussion. “Paula and Lover Boy are right. We know they like seclusion, and run from any disturbance, thank you Chelsea Parker. If their intent is to end with murder, they’ll want as much isolation and seclusion as possible.”
“That’s Sunny Hill, all right,” said Trish, fighting off a yawn. An all-nighter after cantoring Saturday-evening Mass had her barely functional. “Those houses are way out of the way.”
Mrs. DeRozier’s voice chimed in through the Skype on Dr. McNeil’s screen. “And Turkey Knob here is unlikely. Everyone up here has a serious security system.” A wry smile. “I still would like the guest house done quick to get Channing away from Marnie. They fit the profile too. And I’d like a little more…ahem! privacy with him.”
“Leaving only the two in Snowden,” said Krysten, pecking away at her keyboard. “Mason Abbott and family, manager of Specialty Fabrications, out in Oak Run Acres, the oldest part toward the backwoods. The values in that part are lower because they’re older, but still nice houses.” More typing. “The other…Andrew Maser, general counsel for DeRozier Enterprises, one of those new places in Snowden Place Village. One of the newest places they had to cut into the woods at the foot of Zed’s Mountain. Both places are definitely more upscale than Sunny Hill. Probably both have security systems too.”
A dry grin from Dr. McNeil. “So our newest student got another one on us. We must be losing our edge! Which means we need to take a break and get a rest. We need sharp minds, and right now we’re about as sharp as a bunch of bananas.” She cast a glance at Ginger. “And clean up your mind, Ms. O’Day. I know what you’re thinking!”
“So it’s gonna be that easy? Just walk right in?”
“Has to be, cuz.” Another sip of beer, a glance at a setting sun outside. “They’ve got the best security system money can buy. He brags up all the time about how brand-new everything there is.” Elder paced the room, picked up the knife, surgically sharp now. “You just follow my lead. Let him take off for that dinner, get in, and let it fly.” Everything now was measured in hours.
21 One Fell Swoop
All of Snoop Towers had gone early to bed gratefully after a nightfall with still no more victims. A blessed week to refocus, reenergize, and nail the two freaks before they struck again. Every bed in the old house had filled with sleepers, even Ginger. Paula had returned home from her trip with Richie exhausted enough for everyone to know what most of her business at Evergreen Lake had been. Tricia, enervated from her all-nighter, slept like the dead in the same room.
Monday morning found them all still sluggish at the prospect of another week of classes and work. The minutiae of life—and with the invaders still not apprehended, classes and work seemed minutiae to the denizens of Chateau Snoop—still insisted on its share of attention. Chelsea still had her classes and her shift at the Denny’s atop a frantic midwatch call from Sarah Merritt that Spencer’s condition had suddenly seemed to crash even worse than it had been. Felicity had spent the night texting with Samantha McBride and Garrett Small, and now faced an eight o’clock class with nearly perfect somnolence. Paula’s enthusiasm for the case was tempered with her own classes, a trip to the registrar to complete her major change, and her own library work. For Krysten and Tricia, the lab again beckoned. Only Ginger seemed fully awake as a chill morning lit Snoop Towers, animating her giggle at the sight of Paula nearly face-down in a bowl of Lucky Charms. “How did he love thee? Let me count the ways. Position Number One, Position Number Two...”
Paula stirred a little, enough to cast a bleary yet amused eye up at her housemate. “You’ll be standing there counting for a while, Ginger!” The bleary brown eye quickly faded. “We’ll name her after you.”
Ginger savored her laugh as a finis to a nightmarish weekend. “Oh, where did we ever go wrong with you, Paula? You were so sweet and innocent, and now, just look at you! Drooling into your cereal after a whole day of wild sex!” Paula’s replying titter seeped up to Ginger’s ears from the table top. “I ought to take you on my own field trip down there and let you experience a few more positions!” She felt more than saw the tongue Paula stuck out at her. “But really, I think you and Richie were right about checking out the lake. The most likely next victims are down there. Isolation and poor home security. We can maybe narrow down the choices to a place or two they’re most likely to hit, and be ready for them. Finally end this shit. And then I can take you out on the lake and show you those positions!”
“Richie would have objections.”
“Not if I invited him along!” This time, Ginger actually saw the tongue sticking out through Paula’s sleepy smile.
“Clinton James, you’ll be seeing the girl in less than a half hour! Why do you have to text her now?”
Clinton Maser spared a moment from his Golden Grahams and his outdated but still serviceable Galaxy phone to grin up at Mom, but his planned answer was cut off by his giggling sister noshing her Fruity Pebbles. “Clinton wants to talk dirty to his girlfriend!”
“I do not!” and Clinton was answered by his sister Ciara screwing her wan blonde head into a comic kissy-face, with a rasping faux smooch just to irritate her big brother. “And what about you and Zack Carruthers, huh Ciara? You gonna get kissy-face with him?”
“Stop it, kids, both of you!” Cherie Maser was by nature a pleasant sort, not quite a people-pleaser but amiable enough to pass for one, but put up with no sibling rivalry between Clinton and Ciara. “Ciara, leave your brother alone. And Clinton, don’t tease your sister. Zachary behaves himself like a gentleman, and I hope you’re just as much a gentleman with Charity.”
“We’re just kidding each other, Mom.” Clinton and Ciara shared a our-mom-is-such-a-dork eyeroll. Mom just doesn’t get it, does she? “We don’t mean anything by it.”
Ciara was in perfect agreement with her big brother. “We just like to tease.”
“Well, still, give your mom a break once in a while!” said Andy Maser, half-dressed in suit slacks and dress shirt still not tucked in, his deep-blue necktie draped around a still-open collar. “You two can be nice to each other once in a while, you know!”
“Daddy!” Ciara gave Daddy her best winsome smile. From Ciara Maser, that meant a great deal of winsomeness. “I love my brother! I just like to embarrass him in front of Charity!” For a first-grader, Ciara already had an impressive vocabulary.
“You love anyone else here, sugar bunny?” It was a setup line, and Ciara responded as she always did, jumping up into Daddy’s arms and planting a sloppy kiss on his cheek.
“You and Mommy too!” But Ciara was well-established as a daddy’s girl.
“Then be nice for Mommy and don’t tease your brother. Until later! Speaking of,” said he as he shucked Ciara off him and buttoned his top button, “the usual order for tonight?”
“That and two pork egg rolls for me, Dad!” Clinton felt a certain pride in showing off his adolescent appetite. He had recently sprouted his first three chest hairs, and his masculinity was on a definite roll. At least if he could catch up to Charity in height.
“Got it. Now get to the bus and give your mother a break before she has to take off!” The kids followed Dad’s instructions for once.
“Sure, Beth,” said Merri in her best chatty tones as the bus rumbled into Snowden. Clinton, in the seat ahead of her, was chatting on his phone, too, and Merri, not by nature nosy, could catch snippets of his conversation. With Charity, of course. No one else could get Clinton to actually talk, rather than text, on his phone. “I can come over straight after school and help you with that file box. I’ll get Mom to send them a note to drop me off at the Commons. Maybe we could stop and get something to eat at the student union.” The Snowden State Starbucks now had a neighbor in the student union, an actual Panera Bread, which was doing land-office business. “See you tonight then.” Merri switched off contentedly—
“Do you think Charity would like that place?” and Merri found Clinton facing her, turned around in his seat. Unlike Merri Howland, Clinton Maser was in fact very nosy. “That Panera Bread. Mom gets her lunch there every day and she says it’s good. She’s giving me a few dollars to take Charity to lunch tomorrow.” Mrs. Maser got a generous lunch hour from her superior the director of student services at Snowden State, and usually spent it now at the new Panera.
“If it’s good I can take Charity there tomorrow. No school tomorrow for the parent-teacher meetings, remember.”
“She likes Chinese. Take her to the Canton Palace, they have a buffet.” Charity Mabrey could eat like a Hoover and stay rail-thin, and yes, Merri was jealous. A little.
“Nah, Dad gets us that every Monday night because of his dinner meetings with Mr. DeRozier. I don’t want it two days in a row. I end up eating half of my sister Ciara’s soup and egg rolls anyway. So, is Panera any good?”
“I’ll find out tonight. Me and Bethany are going there for dinner. I’m helping her out with this case about the homes that are getting invaded. I’ll text you or something.”
“Don’t forget.” She knew Clinton would bug her all day about it.
Elder knotted his tie. Yeah, wear my suit to visit Cherie and her kids tonight. That’ll disarm her. She won’t suspect anything. “I’ll pick you up out back, cuz. Have everything ready.”
Younger was much more casual than his cousin; working the delivery route meant a company jacket, and shirt, and work pants and boots. “I’ll be ready. I’m skipping my lunch so I can be done early. Five-thirty, you said?”
“Quarter ‘til six. Andy stops and gets their Chinese first. I want to be there right after he leaves for dinner with the Big Guy. Give us as much time as we can get.”
“Looking forward to it, cuz!”
By mid-morning, most of Dr. McNeil’s young team was awake and somewhat functional. Jan O’Malley sat in on the lab meeting. “So, did you actually get a look at any of these homes, Ms. Ryan?”
Paula could not suppress a blush at the thought of what she had mostly done around the lake. Ginger grinned, which made the blush all the more vivid. “Yes, Dr. McNeil. We saw all four of them. One is at the edge of town, one is on a side road to the state park, and two well into the woods. We didn’t get a good look at them, the owners seemed suspicious of us. But they were kind of old bungalows, kept up, but not really nice. They’re very isolated.”
“I’ll send some uniforms out there to interview them,” said Janet. “That’ll impress them. If we can get someone to spot them and report them, that could end this quick. They have to be doing some kind of reconnaissance, after all.”
“They’re perfect targets,” said Paula. “I did see that much. They’re well back in the woods with no neighbors around. Richie said some of the families down there are like that.”
“They sure are,” said Trish, nursing a tall latte. Caffeine was all that was keeping her alive at that moment. “People out that way don’t want bothered by anyone. Not even uniformed officers, Detective O’Malley. Your people will need to be really delicate with them. They love them some Second Amendment.”
“Would the invaders know that?” asked Krysten, who had a distinct distaste for guns. “If they do, they might not be as perfect targets as we think.”
“Remember, the husbands are always out at work,” said Alyson over the Skype, still in her dressing gown. All agreed that red silk looked good on the statuesque Mrs. DeRozier.
“That has to figure in, too,” said Trish. “Some husbands are as jealous of their guns as they are of their womenfolk.” Trish did not particularly care if her sentiment made her sound petty; she had been done with her old hometown ever since the deadly-dossier case from her middle-school years, when so many had turned against her and her family as they pursued Jim Alton. “Especially some of the ones from the backwoods.” She shrugged. “Of course, some of the wives out there are as doomsday-prepper as their husbands.” Trish was pleased to slander Sunny Hillers.
Sleep was never quiet for Bethany, the nightmares always poisoning her dreams, even a quick late-morning nap before her first class of the day. Not always of the actual invasion, but always some hint, some connection with it. There they were creeping up on Merri, herself sleeping easily in her bed, and Bethany tried to cry out to her sister, tried to wake her so she could run. But her cries had been muffled, and Bethany realized that she lay bound and gagged in Merri’s closet, was helpless to stop what the invaders made ready to do to her sister. They crept over to her—poised above her, hands ready to grab—
Wakefulness with a gasp, as always. Always a nightmare to wake her up. Late. Have to hurry, or I’ll be late for class. And then at least four hours in the library. Busy all day. Hurry and get done, so you have this evening with Merri. A hurried shower, her clothes a blind grab from her drawers. No one cares what I look like. Least of all me. A sweater and pants is fine. If I finally lose the weight, I’ll need new clothes. Merri will want to dress me up. Her girlfriend Tess likes to dress up Merri, and Merri likes to dress me up. Maybe I’ll let her. Once all this is over. I have to make myself look at those files. The invaders are there. Merri will help with that, the only one of us who hasn’t had her soul maimed by it.
Speak of the devil! Bethany clicked up the text with one hand while she brushed her teeth. Is Panera good? Clinton bugging me. Wants 2 take out Charity. Charity Mabrey with a boyfriend. Almost as strange as Merri with a girlfriend. And everyone knows Charity’s favorite food.
Y not chinese? Isnt that her favorite?
Clinton wants sumthin difrent, dad getting them chinese tonite b4 dinner with boss. Wants 2 take Charity 2 Panera n bugging me abt it.
Bethany smiled. If it’s Clinton buying, she’ll like it. She will like it, she likes all food.
C ya 2nite, Merr. Luvya. And Bethany hurried to the library for class.
“So where’s the big boss taking you to dinner tonight, Andy? The Riverside Club?” The Riverside had the most exclusive dining in Center City.
Andy Maser started. He had been juggling a patent-infringement claim against Specialty Fabrications with Mr. DeRozier’s concerns about his daughter-in-law and her friends investigating the home invasions based on the DeRozier employment rolls. “Not tonight, Marv. Wants something a little quieter, he says. I think he mentioned the Pomme Verte.”
“Swanky place, I hear. Up in Snowden, right?” Which could cause complications. Keep that in mind.
“Yeah, a new place, just opened last year. Mr. D says it’s really good. Channing takes his wife there a lot. If it lives up to what Mr. D says, I might take Cherie there some night when the kids are out. Ciara in a fancy restaurant scares the hell out of me!” Sitting still and indoor voice were two concepts his daughter had not yet mastered.
“Well, let me know how it is, Andy. Might try it myself some time. If Nick ever gets another girlfriend, he can take her there for a first date and really impress her.”
“So how’s he doing, anyway? Adjusting to being back home?”
Marvin Bannock chuckled. “There’s no place like home, I guess, Andy. He gave up big rigs for driving a delivery truck just to come back here. He’s crashing at my place until he gets set up on his own. He’ll be okay.”
“He always lands on his feet, Marv. He has a talent!” And some you don’t know, Andy.
“Well, you and the big boss have a fancy time, old man!” Which earned a chuckle from Andy.
Felicity and Chelsea rushed out after another desperate call from Sarah Merritt. Spencer had collapsed, was on life support, his brain function zeroing out. Leaving Paula in Chateau Snoop dressed for work at the library—a dark gray sweater and a calf-length black skirt against a chilly day—thinking over the case. Who should we focus on? The next victims, or the identity of the invaders? She looked at her copy of the DeRozier Enterprises HR roster again, sipping at a hot tea. One cousin, possibly living with him. We need more data. No, I was right before. Find the next victims. We have time to get it right.
Clinton and his mother met at the front door. No coincidence; Cherie Maser always timed her work to be home in time for the kids. “So, is Charity looking forward to her date with you tomorrow?”
“Maybe you’ll know, Mom, because Merri Howland won’t give me an answer. Is Panera any good? She says she doesn’t know!” Book bag in the corner of the hallway, shoes beside it like always. He would be first to the remote so Ciara wouldn’t make him watch anything stupid. Another session of Dora the Explorer would be enough to fry his brain permanently.
“Well, I like it, Clinton. I’m sure Charity will too.” As if Mom would actually know what Charity likes. Maybe Merri finally found something out. So, another text.
Snowden Commons was a frequent drop-off site for Merri, and she was buzzed into her sister’s apartment in moments, to find that Bethany had arrived scant minutes before her. “Professor Neal was nice and let me come over for a minute so I could let you in, Merr. We have to stop meeting like this!” It was a lame attempt at a laugh, but Merri conscientiously giggled anyway. “So I got you a present. Just keep it between ourselves.” And from her pants pocket, a shiny key. “So I don’t have to always run back and buzz you in.”
“You have to go back?” And another Clinton Maser text provoked a glare at her phone. “He’s making me crazy! Still bugging me about Panera!”
“Why the big deal? I still think he should take her to the Canton Palace.”
“His dad and his dinner meeting with his boss Mr. DeRozier. He buys them Chinese and Clinton doesn’t want it two days in a row. I thought boys weren’t supposed to be such picky eaters! I bet his mom wouldn’t mind Chinese take-out two days in a row!” Mrs. Maser was always a good sport about such things.
Bethany paused, shrugging back into her jacket for the trip back to the library. A thought had struck her. “He has a sister, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah, Ciara, in first grade. A pain in the butt, at least according to him.”
“We’ll have to check on them, then, before this weekend. Those guys like to attack on the weekends.”
“I’ll mention it to him at school tomorrow. You want me to go get our dinner while you finish at the library? Now that I have a key, I can get back in.”
“Sure.” Bethany plied Merri’s palm with a twenty and a ten, and the two sisters went each on her individual way.
“It’s not fair! Clinton always gets the TV! Just because I have the late bus...”
“Tell you what,” Mom said as she shucked her jacket and followed a sour Ciara into the living room. “After dinner, you get to pick a show for us to watch while we have dessert.” Ice cream and fortune cookies.
Clinton scowled. “Just not Dora the Explorer again!” Ciara stuck her tongue out at her brother.
“Out of here?”
Andy paused only a moment in closing up his briefcase. “Sure am, Marv. Gotta pick up dinner, and the Canton Palace gets slow sometimes.”
“Think I’ll knock off too. Might talk Nick into wings at Dunnigan’s and Monday Night Football.” Or not.
“Sometimes I envy you, Marv.” He wouldn’t trade Cherie and the kids for the whole world, but he still remembered the bachelor life with nostalgia. And both men headed out of the office.
Dr. Neal had been gracious again and given Bethany an early exit. Still blue sky above an orange fringe in the west above Zed’s Mountain to light Bethany’s walk home from the library reserve collection. The student union was very busy, and she imagined Merri in there making instant friends with all of them. Such a talent she has. The Nicest Girl in the World. I wish she could teach me how she manages that.
The apartment was still locked and dark when Bethany let herself in, testament to the crowd in the student union. She thought about going to meet her kid sister there, but recoiled; no, I can do without those crowds. Merri will be just fine. A long look at the waiting file case. You have to face it, Beth. You can’t run away from it forever. It was the weight of an anchor as she carried it to her small table in the kitchenette. Seeing the name would feel, she knew, like seeing the face, the eyes behind the mask. Spare Merri the reaction you know you’ll have, Beth. Show a little backbone for once. Stop being a coward. Her hands were cold, fingers trembling as she opened the lid and looked inside.
The case was mostly full, twelve hanging-file folders filled with invoices and case files. Each file folder was labeled by month, January followed by the rest. Lots to look through, Beth. Maybe I should wait for Merri to come back.
No, Beth. You’re chickening out again. They came to check out Dad, learn his schedule. Reconnaissance, they said. He wouldn’t have waited long after his visit to strike us. He couldn’t wait too long, or Dad’s schedule might have changed without him noticing. So...July. That’s when he was there. She tried to force her fingers to not tremble as she lifted out the hanging file. He’s in here. Right here.
She placed the DeRozier Enterprises personnel list beside the folder, the names of the likely suspects highlighted. The stack of files from the animal hospital beside. Each file in the stack had a customer name at the top, along with the name of the animal if it had one. The names. She put aside each file as she glanced at the name and compared it to the personnel list. A dozen, another dozen, another dozen still. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he just guessed about Dad’s schedule. Maybe—
Marvin Bannock. July 18. Shots for a puppy adoption from the county animal shelter. Marvin Bannock. Supervisor of personnel records at DeRozier Enterprises.
Her pulse swished in her ears as she typed the name into Google. Him. Him. Articles came up, the Intelligencer. One with a picture, corporate officers posing at a charity function.
Oh God. It’s him. Him. Those eyes could only be him. Aside from those parts shoved into her during the invasion, she had seen nothing of him but those eyes. She had seen those eyes every time she slept now, and those were the eyes. Those eyes had struck terror in her, devouring her as she lay naked and bound beneath him, but now rose an exultation, a sunflash of raw power. I know who you are! She found a genealogy site, typed in the name. Marvin Bannock, son of Ben and Marjorie Bannock. Now, the cousin. Ben Bannock. One elder brother, childless, unmarried. One younger sister, Connie, married to Steven Treadwell. One son, Nicholas. Cousin to Marvin Bannock. Back to Google, more articles—and she saw him. That lean frame, and those cruel eyes. Eyes which sparkled with malevolence as she watched him rape Chris. Marvin Bannock and Nicholas Treadwell. 1134 Porter Place, Center City. Home address for both of them. I have you. The thought stormed through her, nearly raising a laugh. I have you, you bastards! Quickly, a map reference, 1134 Porter Place. I know who you are, I know where you live, and you don’t know I know.
I could wait. Call the police. And then what? See them arrested? See them lawyered up to defend themselves? Watch them excuse themselves by damning Mom, by casting aspersion on me? On Chris?
BRB, Merr. Hav 2 go out a minute. Luvya, sis. Yes, Merr. Stay asleep for this, too. And stopping only for a moment, Bethany hustled from her apartment.
Cherie straightened her husband’s tie as he brushed the day’s lint off his shoulders. “You could be nice and bring me some takeout from there. I’ve never had take-out French cuisine!”
“You’re just jealous.” What she was, was kidding, as her quick kiss intimated. With a smile, she sent him off to his dinner meeting. She started down the hallway to the dining room, where Clinton and Ciara were already dividing up the evening’s fare. The doorbell—what now, Andy? She opened up—
“Marvin! What brings you here?” Marvin Bannock was a familiar face from company picnics and other functions. “You just missed Andy. The usual dinner meeting, you know.” She noticed the younger man behind the family friend.
Marvin saw the puzzlement on Cherie’s face. “My cousin Nick. We were headed out to Dunnigan’s, but the office sent me some stuff to give Andy. Could I drop it off?”
“Sure, Marv. No problem.” He reached into his suit jacket—
22 Untimely Ripped
Merri Howland loved crowds, much unlike her social-phobic sister Bethany. She was gratified that Bethany had not come with her, for the Panera was much busier on a Monday night than Merri could have anticipated. But Merri was still Merri, and had made at least two college friends before she had left with her and Bethany’s order. Bethany had never understood how Merri made friends as easily as breathing, while Merri had never understood Bethany’s fear of people. Well, now I guess I do understand, at least a bit. After what they did to her—did to Mom, did to Chris—how could she ever trust people again? How could she ever not think that every knock on her door would be them again, someone else out to hurt her? And it’s the same with Chris. He can’t trust anybody, not after that. And he can’t be around Beth, or Mom. They made him be all alone, put him on a little island where he could only be safe by not trusting anybody. At least Mom and Beth have me. Who could Chris have?
Such thoughts oppressed her usually-outgoing nature as she strolled back to the Commons with dinner. She put down the bag at the door, pulled her new key out of her pocket. Beth trusts me this much, to let me into her place by myself. I wonder where she had to go out to? I bet it’s that Professor Neal again. He makes her do half his work for him. I bet he likes her. I know she’s not skinny, but she has a nice face, and she’s nice and gentle once you get to know her. I bet that—and with the flip of the light switch, she saw the dishevelment on the kitchenette table. Hmm, she started without me. She’s getting stronger. I’m so proud of her. Merri put up the Panera bag on the counter, looked over the scattered papers. Maybe she found something important. She straightened the papers and sat down to give them her own examination. I wonder what she found?
Most of the interstate trip from Snowden to Center City was downhill, leaving a trip of less barely ten minutes to the edge of the county seat. Before tearing out of the Snowden Commons lot, she had programmed her phone’s map feature to steer her to—
There it is. 1134 Porter Place. A neat little brick house, detached from a nearby set of rowhouses also of brick. A neatly-manicured lawn. Torture me and then mow the grass, you sick bastard. Paint your porch and trim your hedges while thinking of ways to torture boys and girls and moms. She grabbed her bag, which she had hastily stuffed before plunging out of her apartment, threw it onto her shoulder—
A pounded doorbell and a pounded door knocker yielded no results. She stormed around to the back, heedless of what or who she might find. I don’t care about any of that. Just find him, and then—
Darkness inside, no car in the driveway at the rear of the house. He’s gone. His cousin with him? Where is there to go on a Monday night? A bar to watch football? Somewhere to eat and drink and plan the murder Trish and her criminal-sciences friends said is their next plan? She sat back down in her still-percolating old Camry. I can just sit right here and wait for him. Wait for him and his perverted cousin to stumble home buzzed from Budweiser and football. Where else could they possibly—
His dad and his dinner meeting with his boss Mr. DeRozier. A dinner meeting. Out of the house. Clinton and his sister and his mom alone. Dad with Mr.DeRozier himself. God no. The Camry’s wheels barked as Bethany tore back onto the street. Oh God no.
Stay calm. Stay calm. For the kids’ sake, stay calm. Cherie’s mind kept swerving into panic as Marvin and his cousin steered her down the hallway toward the dining room—and toward Clinton and Ciara—but the mantra kept her functional. Stay calm, Cherie. Give them what they want so they don’t hurt the kids. “Marvin, you don’t have to do this. You don’t want to do this. If there’s something you want, I’ll give it to you.”
He wanted to tell her she had no idea what they wanted. No. Don’t spook her. Let her think this is just a robbery, until we get them all under control. Down in the basement and helpless, and then let her realize what’s really happening. “That’s what we’re doing, Cherie,” he said, his knife still in the small of her back as he prodded her toward her children. “You just cooperate and we’ll be done soon.” And so will you.
Cherie was still trying to think as the dining room loomed ahead. I should have hit the panic button. He would have hurt me, but the kids would have been warned, and the police notified. Did I leave the door unlocked? Leave us an escape route in case we get the chance? Stay calm, Cherie. Stay calm. Protect the kids.
Ciara called out before she realized the expression on Mom’s face. “Mom, Clinton won’t give me my”—and only then did she and Clinton see the knife in the taller man’s hand, and the fear on Mom’s face.
Belatedly, Merri saw the name on the website still up on Beth’s laptop. Nicholas Treadwell. She traced the family tree on the screen, leafed through the paper on the desk. Marvin Bannock.
Oh my God. It’s them. Them. Beth found them! She saw the address, 1134 Porter Place. She found them! And the import of her text now struck the breath from Merri’s lips—Hav 2 go out a minute. No. No, Beth, no. You can’t do that. You can’t go after them by yourself!
What do I do? Beth going after those two monsters—what do I do? Hav 2 go. Yes! The phone! Call...who? 911?
Her fingers trembled as she placed the call. “Hello, 911? This is Merri Howland! My sister is in trouble! She figured out who the home invaders are and she...I need the police! My sister Bethany Howland figured out who the...no, they’re not in our house, she figured out who they are, and...you don’t understand! The two people who have been breaking into houses, hurting the families inside...no, I just said they’re not here! Bethany figured out who they are, and now she’s...no, not here! She went to where they live to go get them, and...Yes, ma’am, that’s what I mean! The ones who broke into the McBrides and...I think his name is Marvin Bannock ma’am, and he lives at 1134 Porter Place in Center City, and my sister is going down there to face them! The police have to stop her because they’re dangerous! They’ll hurt her!...No, ma’am, this isn’t a joke! I know that my sister has been working with Detective Janet—I mean, Detective O’Malley, and...just ask Detective O’Malley, ma’am! She’ll tell you! And now my sister is going after these guys, and...that’s all I’m asking, ma’am, that you send the police to that house to stop Beth from getting hurt! Please!” The operator clicked off—what do I do now? I can’t just stay here like she told me to do!
Quizzical calls from 911 operators were usually an irritant to Janet O’Malley, but the name Merri Howland instantly removed the irritation. One of her Junior Snoop protegees—and Bethany Howland’s little sister. She had asked the operator for details of the call, and the operator had obliged, even to having the supervisor play back the recording of the call. Holy crap. Beth Howland figured them out. Maybe. In any case, Bethany Howland had to be prevented from going off half-cocked, especially if this Marvin Bannock was not the right man. So put out the call to Center City police. Send a unit to 1134 Porter Place, and if necessary, put one Bethany Howland into protective custody. If Bannock isn’t our guy, it saves Bethany from a lot of bad stuff that could happen to her legally; if he is our guy, it might save her life. At least if Center City PD got off its collective ass and sent someone quickly. Meanwhile, she kicked the name over to her officers, and to Dr. McNeil and her cadre. Marvin Bannock.
And in minutes, Alyson DeRozier had the name of the cousin. “Nicholas Treadwell lives at the same address, Doc. Just as we suspected. Everything fits, and I mean everything.”
“And Bethany goes off trying to hunt them down,” said Trish, still in the lab along with Krysten and Ginger, Paula just arriving after her shift at the library. “Going onto their turf...to do what? Yell at them? What the heck is she thinking?”
“She’s not,” said Ginger, searching the names. “Her pain is doing her thinking for her. If she’s lucky, the cops will get to her before she can get to this Bannock character.” Of course, that depended on Center City PD, which was itself a forlorn hope.
“I can ask my father-in-law about him,” said Alyson over the Skype. “At least when he’s home. He has a dinner meeting with the general counsel. Every Monday night, a regular date.”
Clinton had had to struggle to make his mind work as the two men herded him and his family into the basement, a knife at Ciara’s back as one was at Mom’s. Fear kept him from thinking clearly, Mom’s shaky voice instructing him and his sister to obey the men the only grip on functionality he had. Do what they say, and maybe—
And a name burst through the fear. Samantha McBride. Charity’s friend. Their home broken into, and—oh my god. Oh my God. Charity had tried to be confidential about what had happened to the McBrides, but he had heard the word when she thought he wasn’t listening. Rape. Samantha and Mrs. McBride. And Caleb? He had gone to the hospital, had had to have some kind of surgery—and fear was now desperation. They’re going to rape all of us! His body convulsed at the thought—have to do something! Now they were at bay against a wall, Ciara thrown beside him, Mom held back by the older guy, Mr. Bannock’s knife jabbed against her side—“Now, the three of you are going to do just what we say. If you behave yourselves”—and beyond thought, Clinton charged, lowered his head and charged at Mr. Bannock as if he was a ball carrier in a football game and Clinton was the defender taking him down. Knock him down—give Mom and Ciara a chance to—and before the thought or the action could finish, his world spun crazily as an unseen crash crackled on his jaw—he spun to the floor, barely stopping his thundering face from hitting the carpet—he was grabbed by the collar, his legs rubbery, and thrown back against the wall beside Ciara, her eyes wide and wet with fear—“Now that you’ve got the piss and vinegar knocked out of you, Clint, maybe you’ll do what you’re fucking told!” And Mr. Bannock’s next words shattered any illusions any Maser may have had left.
Merri’s calls to her sister were going straight to voicemail; either she was ignoring Merri—unthinkable—or for some reason, she was unable to answer. They might have her! They might have hurt her! Who do I call? The police again? Mom? Dad? What do I do what do I do what do I—They strike when the father is out so he can find them and be hurt. Clinton’s dad has a dinner meeting with Mr. DeRozier. His dad is out.
She had Clinton’s phone number, mostly in case Charity was with him and wasn’t answering her phone. Besides, Ciara was a Brownie in the Scout troop. She dialed—no answer. Dialed again—straight to voicemail. He’s not answering. And his dad is out.
She ran out the door, knowing nothing but that she had to get to Clinton’s house to stop something unspeakably horrible.
Detective O’Malley was thankful for the hands-free device; it allowed her to be in touch with Dr. McNeil and her officers at the same time. So that when, less than a minute away from 1134 Porter Place, she got a call from one of her own staties (who had as little use for the clowns at CCPD as she did) that the house was deserted and that Bethany Howland’s Camry was nowhere to be found, Dr. McNeil and her hastily-assembling Snoops knew immediately. “You know the girl better than I do, kids; where would she go?”
“If she’s willing to go running out to that guy’s place,” said Trish, anxiously pacing the lab, “she’s probably trying to find him. So where does this guy go on Monday nights?” No one had any clue—
And a gasp from the Skype connection. “I just remembered who my father-in-law meets with on Monday nights! It’s”—and Krysten’s phone suddenly rang—
Merri Howland was many things, especially for a dozen-year-old young lady, but physically fit was not one. She had fled along the lonely road between Snowden Commons and Snowden Place Village, only to have her breath drained from her plump frame well before she had reached Snowden Place. Mom and Dad were still at the animal hospital, well up on the mountain, and would never get to her in time. But the campus—and a certain ginger friend—was nearby. “Krysten...Merri! I...Clinton’s in trouble...Dad out...meeting...alone...Clinton Maser, Ciara...can’t make it there! In trouble! Ain’t answering his phone...trying to get there...”
The name spilled out from Merri’s heaving voice on the phone was the same surname gasped out by Alyson DeRozier over the Skype. Maser. Andrew Maser. The air evaporated from the room for a dumbstruck moment—
Janet O’Malley’s voice over Dr. McNeil’s phone speaker started them all. “Got it! Andrew Maser...416 Bishop Court, Snowden Place Village! I’m sending all units!” One more unit raced from the lab—Krysten Parker, racing toward the sound of Merri’s voice on the phone, obviously on the route to Snowden Place.
Cherie’s tenuous hold on calmness was cracking as she obeyed Marvin’s order, shaking fingers dropping the last of her clothes to the floor at her feet. “Please, Marvin, I don’t understand. Why are you making us do this?” Before her half-averted eyes, Clinton—his mouth bleeding from Nick’s sucker punch—dizzily stumbled out of his pants; Ciara, sobbing in unknowing terror, tried to cover herself with her hands.
Marvin punctuated his answer by yanking Cherie’s arms behind her back, pinioning her wrists over each other. The rope was already out. “You wouldn’t get it, Cherie. You don’t understand anything. Just do what we tell you if you want us to leave.” He had spun the rope around Cherie’s wrists as he spoke, and now provoked a pained gasp from Mrs. Maser with a tightening yank on the cords binding her. He nodded sharply at Nick, pulling more rope out of his bag. “Take care of those kids, cuz.”
Ciara was a gibbering ruin, already effectively helpless, so Nick concentrated on her reeling brother, who might still be disposed to try more adolescent heroics. Even so, as he spun Clinton facing away from him and yanked his hands behind him, he found time to snap at the weeping girl. “Knock off the fuckin’ crying, bitch, and put your hands behind your back!”
Clinton’s grunt as the ropes tore into his wrists drove a cry from Ciara’s convulsing throat. “M-m-Mommy”—
Cherie had no control left; her eyes gushed like her daughter’s. Nothing else to do—“Do as he says, honey. Be a good girl and do what we’re told.” It’s our only hope now. She could offer no more comfort; as soon as she had spoken, Marvin stuffed her mouth with a cloth as her gag.
Ciara had no time to obey; even as Mommy told her to obey them, Nick had finished binding Clinton, and yanked his sister into his clutches, dragging her hands behind her—
The needle on the Camry’s temperature gauge seemed to rise with the altitude. Bethany kept her accelerator mashed to the floor as the Snowden exit ramp loomed ahead.
Merri had made a miraculous discovery; a second wind. It was the sight of Samantha’s face that first day at school after the invasion that drove her, the brokenness of her classmate transposed to little Ciara’s face. The thought of what had been done to Samantha, what had been done to Caleb, perhaps being done to Ciara and Clinton even at that moment, propelled her forward again. And the miracle of the sign for Snowden Place Village resolved itself into her sight—
The high-temperature warning chimed in her ear until she shut it off with the turn of the key. She threw her bag over her shoulder and ran.
She’s just a child, Marvin. A child!
Marvin glared at Cherie, weeping where she stood forced to watch the scene play out, naked and bound, knew from her frantic wet eyes what she was thinking just as if she could speak. “She’s a cunt, Cherie. A cunt just like the rest of you. She’s just learning what she’s all about.” Ciara tried to wriggle up from her knees where Mr. Bannock had thrown her—he drove her back down with a ruthless hand—“Do what my cousin told you to do, you little cunt.” He rose, stood beside Nick, who held Cherie in place with a hand clamped over her elbow, grinning at Ciara weeping as she edged closer to her brother, on her knees, her bound hands clenching into tiny fists in the small of her back—
Her gasping sobs did not conceal a sudden click behind them all, not as loud as it seemed in that basement.
“Just like you taught me what I was all about, is that right?”
They all spun about and saw what Clinton, his own eyes wet with helpless shame, had seen just a moment before. A corpulent young woman standing inside the doorway of the comfortable lounge, with short dark-red hair highlighting a stony round face. And a stainless-steel pistol pointed in the direction of Marvin Bannock and Nick Treadwell. Clinton had not dared to believe in the reality of the young woman—only now did his mind recall she was Merri Howland’s big sister, but still could not dredge up a name from the swirling miasma of his consciousness—until she spoke. Is this rescue, or false hope?
Neither Bannock nor Treadwell could place the name either, but the face itself was suggestive, round and plump, like her body. And her age allowed her to be only one girl. Bannock himself, startled by the sudden intrusion, recovered, stepping toward a staggered Mrs. Maser; so too did Nick. “So...came back for more, right, Bethany?” His voice was all bravado, but Bethany could see a hint of uncertainty in his eyes. Uncertainty absolutely unlike the taunting condescension in those eyes that day ten years before. An uncertainty that stoked her own condescension. “Bethany Howland, that is your name, isn’t it? Remember how much fun we had and wanted some more, maybe?”
The uncertainty turned the corners of her lips upward. Uncertain, squirming. Not knowing their fate. Just what I felt that day. “No, my fun is now, Marvin Bannock. My fun is knowing you won’t hurt anyone ever again because of me.”
Treadwell forced a cheeky grin onto his face. “You ain’t got the guts, little piggy. You’ll stand there and bawl like you did before, just like this little cunt is right now.” Indeed, Ciara still sobbed on her knees. “Remember how you bawled when we did you? I sure as fuck do! You want to bawl right now, don’t you? I can see it in your eyes, you fucking hog.” Indeed, tears were prodding at her even as her lips curled upwards. Seeing the tears, he shoved Mrs. Maser aside, stepped boldly toward Bethany—“So I ought to just”—and Bethany’s hands on the trigger tightened—
Merri had outrun Krysten, her second wind carrying her to Snowden Place Village. There was Bethany’s car, stopped with an open door at the intersection with a small road leading toward the woods—Bishop Court. Steam and smoke gushed out from under the hood, but Merri paid no heed to anything besides the fact that Bethany was close. Bishop Court. Clinton lives somewhere here—but where? What house? She dithered, looking down the row of beautiful houses on the street, wondering what to do—
A sudden burst of thunder pealed from one of the houses, and she knew where to go—
Not only the trigger of the Model 60 broke under Bethany’s hand, but something inside her. Something like power surged inside her as a circle of deep red materialized on Treadwell’s shoulder, throwing him backward against a side wall. Now Bannock spun toward Nick, uncertain in the wake of seeing his cousin shot—but only for as it took for Bethany’s hands to squeeze again—
A spray of red from Bannock’s shoulder, spinning him to the floor between the fallen Treadwell and the still-kneeling, still-sobbing Ciara. Bethany stepped past the reeling Mrs. Maser, clearing her two fallen targets, both struggling to rise. No. You’ re staying here—
Three more shots. The firing of the first shots had startled Bethany, jolted her somehow back to reality, a realty that was two wounded men lying crumpled against the side wall of the basement lounge. Her rapists lying wounded at her feet. She had long been delicate enough to be repulsed by the sight of blood, just one reason she would never continue the family business at the animal shelter. She should have been revulsed by the blood gushing from their wounds, but was not; indeed, as the wounded men tried to rise, she fired again, the last three rounds in the cylinder gouging into the legs, dropping them supine to the floor at her feet. Mrs. Maser had screamed through her gag at the sight, Ciara squealed with a new horror, but Clinton stood staring coldly at the fallen men. But for his hands tied behind him, he would have leaped upon them and slaughtered them.
Bethany, of course, had heard the old wives’ tales about dogs tasting blood and losing all control, but the rage inside her, now released and given voice through the five bullets fired, felt to her as if the old legend was true; watching her rapists’ blood gushing made her want to see more. And she knew from long ago how she wanted them to bleed. She reached back into the bag from whence she had produced the Smith and Wesson she had filched from Dad on Saturday night as Merri slept, and pulled out a handful of glittering copper cartridges. She freed the cylinder, and began slowly, even tauntingly, to reload the pistol—
“Bethany, you don’t have to do this.” For a moment Bethany fancied it was her own imagination she had heard—“You stopped them. They can’t hurt anybody anymore. Don’t let them turn you.” No, the voice, low and pleading, was not inside her.
It was Merri. My baby sister. My smart baby sister, who had to have figured all this out just from what I left behind in the apartment. The Nicest Girl in the World. The innocent soul who cannot harm another. The one we kept silent for, so she would not be woken and ruined like the rest of us. “Beth, the police are coming. Let them take care of it. Don’t let them turn you!” Only now did tears distill in Bethany’s eyes.
Bethany kept loading the chambers. “They already have. Ten years ago.” While you slept, Merri.
“Go back to sleep, Merr!” Go back and sleep, and dream of innocence. I can’t anymore.
“Take Mrs. Maser and the kids upstairs, Merr. Untie them and help them get dressed.” Bethany rarely commanded, but her words brooked no argument. And told Merri her pleas were in vain. It didn’t have to end this way. But it does.
The men still tried to rise, spitting out curses wrenched from them by their wounds, as Merri led the family out of the room. Ciara still wept, not able to understand what had been happening, and Mrs. Maser shuddered out the horror of the last minutes. Clinton, for his part, hid a scarlet face from his rescuer and classmate as she steered him away. He would never be able to look straight at Merri Howland again. Merri looked up again at her sister. “Don’t lose yourself, Beth.” But, knowing that part of Bethany had been lost long ago, Merri edged away, upstairs to aid the Masers.
Both men had tried to rise as Merri took the Masers upstairs, but their pierced legs kept them curled supine at Bethany’s feet. For her part, Bethany fed the fifth round into the cylinder, and clicked it back into its place in the frame. “Bitch,” Bannock muttered, still trying to intimidate Bethany. “Fucking bitch!” Another attempt to rise, foiled by a knee shattered by one of the shots—Bethany aimed, just out of his reach—
Four blasts. Four obscene red gouts in the groin of Bannock’s suit slacks wrenched a howl from his lips, drained his face white. Blood poured out of the wounds—Treadwell tried to rise again, to aid his elder cousin—and a gut shot leveled him again. Her rapists, Mom’s rapists, Chris’s rapists lay crumpled and helpless, writhing ever weaker and weaker as they bled. And Bethany reached into her bag again, dredged up more bullets for her pistol.
And she smiled through tears which finally began to fall down plump cheeks. A weird, lachrymose giggle seeped from her lips as she again reloaded the Smith and Wesson, slowly, caressingly filling the chambers. “I...read a book. Joseph Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, I think. Yes, Lazzaro. He told Billy Pilgrim he was going to send someone to kill him. He told him his assassin would shoot off his dick first, then let him think about spending the rest of his life without it before shooting him in the head.” She glanced again at the filled chamber, clicked it back into place. Bannock still writhed, weaker and weaker every second as his blood gushed out of a ruined body. “I’ve thought about that scene every day since I read it. Shooting it off, you know. Your penis, your testicles, everything.” She aimed again—four more blasts, gouging an already-destroyed groin—“Everything you forced into me, all gone.” The teary giggle percolated again from her lips—“I begged you to stop, it hurt so bad. All you did was laugh. You turned me over and raped me again, from behind. You made it hurt even worse, just because you wanted to. You raped Mom and made me watch. And now you can’t anymore, can you? You don’t have a dick to do it with, do you? All gone.” Bannock’s struggles had all but stopped, only a trace of consciousness left in his eyes. Bethany leaned close. “Are you thinking about it, Marvin? Are you thinking about spending the rest of your life without a dick?” His lips moved, but no sound emerged. No matter, Bethany still smiled through tears. “You are. I can tell you are. You can’t touch a woman anymore. You can’t rape little girls anymore. That’s exactly what you’re thinking.” She stood upright again—aimed—and Bannock’s struggle was over, a bullet between eyes which instantly stopped moving. And now she turned to Treadwell, still feebly trying to rise, his face vacant with horror.
Treadwell dissolved into frantic gibbering as Bethany stood over him, again carefully loading her pistol. His hands flew to cover his groin—“Look, I’m fucked up! I get it! I’m fucked up! I—I can get help! I can stop! I—I’d take it back if I could, but I can’t! I swear to God, I’ll”—but his frantic plea was drowned in five thunderbolts tearing through his hands and destroying his own groin. Useless hands, no groin, and his contorted face was as white as his slaughtered cousin. And again Bethany freed the cylinder—pulled out another handful of cartridges—loaded with a sudden alacrity—
“You laughed when you raped me. Over and over, and you laughed. You made me watch you rape Mom, and you laughed. Every way you could rape us, you raped us. And you laughed! You thought it was funny!” She aimed—five more shots turned his groin into a blood-gouted cavern between his legs—“You can’t laugh now, can you?—more cartridges—she opened the cylinder slowly, goring him with wet eyes—
“Chris can’t even be around me anymore. He couldn’t even look at me without remembering what you made me do to him. I love my brother so much, and I can’t even think of him without remembering. My heart broke every time I looked at him, and now he can’t even be around me.” One round was slipped into place. “He was so ruined. He wasn’t sure if he was gay, wasn’t even sure he was a real boy. ‘I ought to cut it off you and make you a girl for real, little bitch.’ I hear you tell him that every time I fall asleep.” A second round in place. “I had to watch you bend him over and ram yourself into him.” Her chin quavered as she loaded the third round. “I couldn’t help him, I couldn’t save him, I had to watch you laugh while you raped my little brother.” The fourth round was in its place. “I want my baby brother back.” The last round was loaded—the cylinder closed—
One shot, then a second, a third, a fourth into the mangled heap of ground meat that had been Treadwell’s genitalia. As the echoes of the shots evaporated and their tinny residue faded in Bethany’s ears, she heard the warbling of police sirens seeping into the basement, and she smiled as she saw the recognition of the sound in Treadwell’s eyes. “Yes, Merri was right, the police are coming. They’re on their way to rescue you, aren’t they? Save you from me. Just like that day. I prayed that Daddy would come and save us, save me and Mom...Chris...” A sob escaped her smile. “You raped Dad too, you know. Left him ashamed of himself for not being there for us. I can’t tell him how much I prayed for him to come and save us because he’s so ashamed already. I can’t even tell him how much I love him without making him ashamed.” The sirens were louder, clearer. “Yeah, they’re almost here. Here to save you from the crazy bitch you made out of me.” She straightened herself, aimed with deliberation. “But they’re going to be too late.” One more pull of the trigger—
23 Our Several Loves
Janet O’Malley, as a uniformed officer years ago, had trained in evasive and tactical driving, and the skills had been put to good use as she pushed her unmarked car to Snowden, thence to Snowden Place Village, past a steaming, smoking Camry sitting immobile on the shoulder—
And slid the car to a stop just ahead of a red Ford Escort, from which spilled a diminutive redhead, a young brunette woman, and a graying yet lithe woman who served very good herbal tea. A cascade of sirens came from the direction of the interstate ramp—“Keep them back, Calico!” And a stream of marked cars emerged around the corner to Bishop’s Court—fanned out to a stop—
And one shot rang out from the surrounded Maser house; a plump little strawberry-blonde girl flustered from the front door. “Bethany! She’s down there—got the family away—in the basement with them”—
“Move, Merri!” Janet already had her service pistol drawn, a half-dozen uniforms spilling out of cars in her wake and racing toward the Maser front door. “Dammit, Calico, keep them back!” because Krysten and Tricia—with Ginger also following now—raced in the wake of the officers. It was an active scene, and Janet cursed herself for her rashness, but an instinct—no, one fact—Bannock and Treadwell only armed themselves with knives—which meant that—
She plunged through the door, a uniformed officer and Merri’s frightened whimpers behind. No one in the doorway. An aggressive turn into the living-room archway, pistol leveled—
A woman and two children, a boy and girl, wrapped in blankets, trembling and weeping. Cherie Maser, Clinton Maser, Ciara Maser. Rescued. Safe. Clear. “Downstairs, the end of the hallway.” Cherie Maser’s voice was a wavering squeak. “Down there, all of them.” Pistol still at the ready, Janet found the stairway door—clattered downstairs, seeing her way through the pistol sights—
Two crumpled, gouted bodies lying supine against a wall. A pistol lying on the floor in a fallen blizzard of shell casings.
And a corpulent young woman gazing emptily down at her handiwork, her hands already laced into each other on the back of her head. Her face turned a few degrees toward Janet, and the glisten of falling tears caught the light. Janet still had her service weapon leveled at the ready, but Bethany Howland did not flinch at the muzzle pointed at her. “Stay still, Bethany. It’s over.” She lowered her weapon, hoped her officer did the same.
With an effort, the lips above Bethany’s quivering chin moved, words formed. “I don’t feel any different, Detective. I...isn’t it supposed to feel different? I...killed them, and...it’s supposed to make me feel better, but it doesn’t. I still hurt. Why do I still hurt? It’s supposed to feel different now.”
“It’s complicated, Bethany. But it’s done.” Bethany nodded, turning back again to face her handiwork on the Maser basement floor. “It’s time to go.” The officer, now beside Janet, reached to his waist, produced a pair of handcuffs—only to have Janet’s sharp head-shake and pointed stare stop him. “We won’t need that, Corporal.” She looked again at Bethany, still weeping silently. “Will we, Bethany? You’re finished.”
Bethany’s face declined. “I’m finished.”
Janet heard Merri’s worried whimpers at the lounge archway. No, there was no way anyone would have kept her away from this. Not from her sister. Yes, that’s the way to handle this. You have a gift, Meredith, including a gift for being where you need to be, sweetheart. “Merri.”
“Detective Janet?” Merri’s voice was as Cherie Maser’s, a timorous squeak.
“Your sister needs you. Take her upstairs with you, and sit with her in the back of Corporal Carroll’s cruiser.” To Carroll’s quizzical glance, she replied, “Take them there. Ms. Howland is all right. It’s pretty evident what went on here.” Carroll nodded, stepping aside to let Merri flutter toward her sister.
Only one short gasp upon beholding what her sister had wrought, then Merri pulled Bethany’s hands down into her own, her eyes locked into her big sister’s. “Come back to me, Beth. Turn back, okay?” The faintest of nods, still woebegone and lost, from Bethany’s wet face, and with small steps Merri led Bethany out of the basement. In their wake, an EMT pattered into the room, but a quick check was sufficient to tell her she was far too late. She sighed tightly and went back upstairs, where she would spend ten minutes vomiting onto the back wheels of the ambulance.
Her evacuation was immediately followed by Dr. McNeil, Tricia at her adviser’s heels. Krysten had stayed upstairs with Merri and Bethany. Hardened as she had been by four decades of forensics, Calico McNeil still gasped at what Bethany Howland had left behind her. “Go ahead and let your people process the scene, Calico, but it’s pretty clear what happened. Bethany Howland figured out these guys, followed them here from Center City...and stopped them from assaulting the Masers.” Nothing more needed said, and Dr. McNeil said nothing. Detective O’Malley withdrew, leaving Dr. McNeil and Tricia alone with the two slaughtered invaders. Behind them, Paula, late to arrive, slipped into the slaughterhouse.
Tricia had counted the dropped casings as soon as she entered the room. Thirty. Thirty empty shell casings on the carpeted floor. She fought back a wave of nausea and counted the wounds on the bodies. Two shoulders, three legs. One gut shot. Two coups-de-grace to their heads. Eight. When meant twenty-two rounds into their crotches. Bannock’s groin had eight distinct holes, eight of the twenty-two destroying his genitals before Bethany finished him. Eight from twenty-two—fourteen. Fourteen rounds into Nicholas Treadwell’s loins. Treadwell had been Two, the younger one. The one who had raped Bethany’s little brother. No doubt what Bethany was thinking. Avenging her baby brother.
Quiet, shy Chris. Backward and uncertain, Maggie’s high-school boy-toy. No, Maggie’s project. She took him in hand and did what she could to make him feel like a man. Her body had been his recovery. Never let it be said that Maggie O’Hara didn’t go the extra mile for her boyfriend. And Bethany mutilated his rapist’s body. Eleven rounds had been enough to dispatch her own rapist, but for her brother’s rapist, nineteen shots. Massive overkill. The utter destruction of the weapon Treadwell had used on her brother. Rage that had spent a decade boiling up inside poor social-phobic Bethany, waiting for the moment to burst out, ten years of torment which turned Bethany into—
“Ms. Dwight, I know what you’re thinking.” Dr. McNeil’s voice was firm, flinty, but still with a maternal strength supporting it. “I know you’ve heard the term 'public-service murder.'” Trish spun back to her professor, her lips and eyes agape. “You know what happened to her, Tricia. You saw the very clothes she and her brother were wearing that day just before these two spent several hours raping them and their mother.” In the corner of her eye, Trish spied the clothes Clinton and Ciara and Mrs. Maser had been forced to take off, lying in heaps like the clothes in the McBride basement. Just like Bethany and Chris. “Tell me, Ms. Dwight—what prosecutor would dare bring charges against her? After what she went through? After what she stopped down here? And even if you could find a D. A. with a professional death wish, how long would a jury stay out after hearing Bethany Howland tell them what these two animals did to her and her brother? They’d vote for acquittal right there in the jury box, and you know it.”
Trish shook her head faintly. “The overkill...fourteen rounds just in the crotch...she needs help, Doc. That kind of rage doesn’t go away that easily.”
“No, Ms. Dwight, it doesn’t go away that easily. We both know that.” Her eyes, tenderly hard, bored in on her student, her protegee, the girl who, with Krysten, reminded her so much of her own lost daughter. “If that was Jim Alton here in this room, after having your father murdered, would you have done any different?” She saw Tricia’s eyes mist and flinch. “I know if that had been the man who murdered Michelle, my daughter...I would have shot him until his body was in pieces.” She had identified her daughter’s tortured body in her very own examining room nearly twenty years ago. “Bethany will get help now.” A glint of her old hard humor slowed again in her eyes, warming Trish’s heart. “Thirty rounds of .38 caliber are a pretty loud cry for help!” And now it was time to help her students, her able team, now wondering what they themselves had wrought.
The communion wine at St. Ignatius, as Calico had long discovered, was an inexpensive Livingston red rose, and as she had somehow decided she liked it, kept a large jug of it in her refrigerator in her Snowden Place apartment. The jug in the middle of her living room that had been full only last night, was barely a quarter full. A hand reached for it—“You’re too young to drink, Ms. Ryan.” Calico bethought herself. “Oh, what the hell. I didn’t see anything.”
Trish, sitting curled up on one end of the old sofa, swirled her own wine in its glass. She had her own bottle of Livingston. She had learned to like it in the same way as her adviser. “You weren’t the only one, Doc. Today, none of us did.” She glanced at her watch—“Well, yesterday none of us did.”
“Actually, we saw too much.” Alyson, Channing by her side taking up the rest of the sofa, took another sip of the Livingston. She was getting used to much fancier vintages as a DeRozier, but inexpensive wines were a welcome reminder of college days not so long past. “Once we picked up on the pattern of weekend attacks, we got blinded by it.” She glanced out the venetian-blinded window of Dr. McNeil’s apartment, where police bubble-gum lights had been flashing for hours, only extinguished within the past half-hour. The Masers were staying at the local Fairfield until the police were done. And perhaps until the children could bear being inside their house again. Zack Carruthers’ mom and Charity Mabrey’s parents were helping the family set up in the hotel, and Zack and Charity were comforting Ciara and Clinton. “We didn’t account for the possibility of a weekday attack.”
“That’s understandable,” said Paula, sharing her glass of wine with Richie, in whose arms she reposed again on the floor. “All the attacks were on the weekend, so we couldn’t have known better.”
Krysten, alone in the second-best chair, shook her head. She was the last arrival, having spent hours calming down a distraught Merri who had borne up well until Bethany had been checked into the Center City General mental-health ward for observation, then collapsed into shuddering tears. “We should have known better. Once we knew the Howlands were their first invasion, we should have investigated that case more closely. We would have come up with what Bethany found, and all the rest of this wouldn’t have happened. We would have known that they were capable of attacking on weekdays too.”
Ginger, already on her second glass, nodded. “We made too many allowances for it being a practice run.” She favored Krysten with a smile; they didn’t often agree on much. “I think we chalk this whole thing up as a cluster-fuck for us.” She noted the arch glance from Dr. McNeil. “Sorry about the language.”
“Not for all of us, Ms. O’Day.” She had seen the flash in Felicity’s eyes where she stood inside the door, no drink in hand.
“She’s right,” said Felicity handsomely. “Paula nailed the victim profile perfectly, and the rest of you guys had the cousin relationship down pat. Paula even got the connection to DeRozier Enterprises. I’d say she did great, especially for being so new at it!”
Trish finally chuckled. “So I guess you really are a part of the family, Paula!”
Paula smiled and blushed; Richie squeezed her from behind. “Well, with Richie’s help spotting the isolated houses.” Her blush deepened. “I shouldn’t say this...but it was...well, it was...sort of fun. As a puzzle, you understand, not all the awful things they did to...well...”
“We get it,” said Chelsea, just back from her shift at Denny’s standing beside Felicity. “Trish is right, you know—if you’re not a Dwight, nobody is!”
“In any case,” said Channing, squeezing his wife’s hand, “at least it’s all over now. No charges or anything for Bethany. It’s done with.” He felt more than he saw Felicity’s start.
“No it isn’t.” The room seemed to chill. “Something like this doesn’t just go away. It’s been three years since Dunleavy raped me, and I still feel it. Ginger, you know how it is.”
Chelsea nodded soberly. “And there’s still Sarah.”
Two days of observation and a prescription for Xanax sent Bethany Howland—cleared of any wrongdoing in the killing of Marvin Bannock and Nicholas Treadwell—to discharge from Center City General, albeit with a heavy schedule of counseling and psychiatric therapy, but she did not immediately leave. She had been visited by Trish, by Krysten, by Felicity, and had made a new friend who had been staying at the hospital in an entirely different capacity. Now it was her turn to stand by that new friend. She would be strong, especially with Felicity and Chelsea in the room nearby.
“He doesn’t even know I’m here. His brain is dead.”
“I think he might, you know.” Bethany, whose soft words started Sarah, still standing over what was about to be her brother Spencer’s deathbed, edged closer, tentatively reached out a hand to Sarah’s shoulder. “I’ve seen it even at the animal hospital, how the pets...well, they sort of stay with the family even after Dad would put them down. I think maybe Spencer is here too, somehow, and he knows you stayed.”
Sarah’s eyes reached out to Bethany. “Do you think so?”
“I think there’s more to life then just a brainwave. And I think he knows how much you love him. It’s okay to let him go.”
“I’ll be alone.” She had already told her parents she could not stay in their house, not after their rejection of her brother.
“You’ll be with me, Sarah.” Her father had made arrangements for Bethany’s Snowden Commons lease to be modified to add Sarah Merritt; Dr. Mabrey, upon hearing that Sarah wanted to teach young children, had pulled strings with the university to get her enough scholarship money to pay her way into Snowden State. “Just like you are now.” Bethany had been drawn instantly to Sarah Merritt; no matter how damaged Chris still was at Treadwell’s hands, he was still alive for her to find. Sarah had lost hers, and now was the time for the girl who still had a brother to stand with the one about to lose hers. “It’s okay to let him go.”
Her hand was in Sarah’s; Sarah saw comfort in the eyes of her newest friend. Her own eyes spilling, she turned to the only other occupant of the room. “I’m ready now.”
The doctor nodded, punched commands into a small keyboard from which Spencer Merritt’s life support extended. The alarms were turned off; the only sound was the soft hiss of the ventilator which breathed for Sarah’s brother. A few keystrokes, and the hiss stopped. The multicolored lines on the monitor, which had been orderly only a second before, went immediately deranged. The pulse rate slowed, then rushed; the blood pressure numbers surged, then dropped. The breathing rate fell to 0, preceded by a question mark. O2 saturation immediately followed, showing nothing but the same ?0 as the breathing rate. Finally, the pulse and the blood pressure followed, leaving only flat lines and ?0s on the screen. Spencer Merritt was dead. The silent question marks taunted Sarah; why did this happen? Why have I lost my brother?
The only possible answer which would not wreck her soul put her arms around her, squeezed, whispered, “You’re not alone, Sarah. I’m here.”
“Thank you, Bethany.”
The new dental implants were finally in Jessie Bruce’s mouth, white and new. The bruises had long since faded, and she was her old pigtailed self as the long bus ride to Jefferson Middle School deposited her at the front doors. Jake rode on to Center City South High. Even Center City was cold as October ended—a forecast of snow flurries had students chattering about early dismissals which had no chance of actually happening—and Jessie wore a sweater under her Center City hoodie, her jeans the pair without the fashionable holes in the knees. Old friends waved as she wedged herself into the lobby, stuffed with middle-schoolers awaiting the bell to go to class; she called out genial greetings and exchanged waves. Some of those friends were a bit nonplussed at Jessie’s failure to congregate with them, but she had attached herself to someone else, whom she knew would be standing alone at the doorway to the health room. There—a calf-length wool tartan skirt, dark woolen tights and ankle-high boots, a turtleneck peeping up above the collar of a snow-blue ski jacket, brunette tresses restrained only by a barrette guiding them over her ears.
“Hey Makayla!” and Jessie flashed her new friend her newly-repaired smile. Makayla Small had her arms wrapped around her book bag, clutched in front of her, and her eyes met Jessie’s for only a moment before retreating. Jessie had been put out by the reaction at first, but quickly came to understand that the timid glance was for Makayla Small the same as Jessie’s most effusive greeting. Jessie plopped her book bag down beside Makayla; Makayla moved over an inch to accommodate the bag’s owner. It was that gesture that had first hinted to Jessie that her shattered classmate liked her company. Jessie took her accustomed place. “Like my new teeth? Next time Ollie wants me to bite him, he’ll get a big surprise!” Makayla glanced at her again, no other reaction visible—except for a nanosecond pull at the corner of Makayla’s lip. Yeah, you think that’s funny too, ‘Kayla. “I like your outfit,” said Jessie breezily, encouraged by Makayla’s glance. “I couldn’t wear fancy stuff like that. Redneck Girl, you know, that’s me! Of course, I bet it don’t take me as long to get dressed in the morning as you do.” A momentary lift of Makayla’s eyelid, and Jessie read the amusement that otherwise had not moved Makayla’s expression. “Of course, I sure as heck learned how to do makeup until my face cleared up. Maybe I ought to go fight Ronda Rousey or Holly Holm or something!” And for an instant—so quickly Jessie would have missed it if she hadn’t been watching—Makayla actually smiled. To Jessie, it was a laugh as loud as the entire din of the Jefferson Middle School lobby—and a win for her cause to revive her old classmate and new friend. Before she could react, though, the class bell rattled above them, and a tsunami of middle-schoolers rushed toward them—Jessie scooped up her book bag—
“See you in advisory class, Jessie.” Spoken words. Makayla had said them straight at Jessie, the first she had ever spoken to her. And a smile that lasted a full second, in that second full of anticipation of more time with her new friend.
“You bet!” Jessie’s smile, on the other hand, would last all day.
November was the end of pee-wee football season, and since only the previous Wednesday had Caleb McBride been allowed to fully participate in strenuous activity—fully healed from the assault—it was assumed that he would not be able to play in his C-team’s last game against the Wiltontown Bombers. But one of the A-team players—and his Patriots-cheerleader girlfriend—had prevailed upon the coach to let the little boy dress in his old uniform and join the team. Caleb had grown thin, and the blue-and-silver uniform was baggy on his hips and legs, his pads more oversized than usual. The coach hadn’t played him all game long, an easy blowout against a badly undermanned Bombers team; Caleb was out of practice, Coach claimed, and didn’t want to see him get hurt. After all, he was still fragile. Caleb stood beside the bench all game long, seeming to droop more and more as his friends—many of whom had perpetrated the teasing and taunts about the invasion that had so damaged him—ran up the score on the Bombers. Twenty points, thirty, even forty, and still Caleb was allowed only to watch. Mr. and Mrs. McBride in the stands—Mrs. McBride out of the house for the first time since the invasion—and Samantha grew more and more dismayed as the clock ticked and Caleb drooped. A desperate glance from Samantha to a friend in the A cheerleaders—please do something—led to a glance from Charity Mabrey to her A-team boyfriend Clinton, himself increasingly bothered by Caleb’s inaction. The clock was under two minutes—Clinton went over to the coach, begging in his eyes—
And a quick gesture brought Caleb running to the coach. An arm around his shoulders—a fervent nod, a quick donning of the helmet—and Caleb ran out to the huddle. His teammates seemed to be surprised at his arrival, some obviously disdainful but glances back at the coaches brought only nodding confirmation—yes, that’s the play—and the boys lined up, Caleb behind the quarterback. A piping voice called signals, the center snapped the ball into the quarterback’s hands. As two lines of boys struggled against each other, the quarterback ran back as Caleb ran forward; handed the ball to Caleb—
He ran, not as fast as before, but still ran. A boy detached from the Bombers line and chased him, running Caleb to earth three yards past the line of scrimmage—pulled him down—
And the A cheerleaders, led by a Charity Mabrey who made certain all the cheerleaders were with her—or else—let out a bright cheer for Caleb as he hopped back to his feet and ran back to the huddle. A cheer for the boy who got back up on his feet.
Janet was in casual khaki slacks, matched with a serviceable medium-blue blouse and practical flats, still working-casual as she settled back into Calico McNeil’s loveseat with a mug of Calico’s favorite Earl Grey blend, snow flurries dotting the space between Calico’s Snowden Place apartment and the Maser home, which now sported a brand-new basement, offices for Andrew and Cherie, and homework desks for Clinton and Ciara. She bore news for her friend, who cast a chuckle at her young detective friend. Janet took a long sip. “For your sake, Calico, don’t tell this to Ginger O’Day—her head wouldn’t fit through doorways if you did.”
“The sister corroborated her profile.”
Janet chuckled. “For a while, I wondered whether Ginger had managed to interview her during the case. Yes, in pretty solid detail. Treadwell’s mother had sexually abused Bannock from the time he was about ten years old, well into his teens. Bondage games, roleplaying, you name it; Marvin was her boy toy. Treadwell’s dad sexually abused Treadwell. According to the sister, Bannock had gone to his mom with the story, Mom blew him off, and Dad spent so little time at home he was completely oblivious. Pretty much explains the psychodrama in detail. Treadwell playing out his sexual confusion on the boys, Bannock avenging himself on the girls and the mothers, and leaving the families restrained for the dads to find. Like I said, if Ginger finds out she nailed all that, her head will swell like nobody’s business!”
“I’ll wait until the semester break. I won’t have to listen to her so much that way!” Some peace for the holidays suited Calico just fine.
Ingalls Rink in New Haven was sometimes called “The Yale Whale;” from the outside, the long, arched roof resembled a breaching humpback whale. The roofline gave the relatively small arena a spacious feel, especially with the wide expanse of windowpanes at one end of the building. It felt like it should have been an ultra-modern facility, designed for art’s sake as much as sports’ sake, but in fact dated from the 1950s. It was also an oddity in that the teams’ players’ benches were on opposite sides of the rink, allowing the fans to sit up very close to the players. Behind the home bench, in fact, one such group of fans—who had made a very long trip to New Haven to watch the Bulldogs take on their rivals—had cheered themselves hoarse by the time the game had run down to the final minute of the third and concluding period. In fact, only the hot cocoa with which Merri had doused her throat all game long allowed her any voice at all.
The traveling party, usually only three—Mom, Dad, Merri—who traveled to New Haven for home-ice weekends, was one person larger this weekend, an extra seat bought from a neighbor in the row. Once he had heard of what had happened in Snowden, he sold it at a steep discount, and picked up another, cheaper, seat from StubHub. As the clock rolled under one minute with the announcement from the rink announcer, the fourth member of the traveling party remained quiet, but riveted to the action now to the right where the Bulldogs were defending a one-goal lead against their Crimson opponents. Merri cheered through a hoarse throat as a long clear against the Crimson’s six-man attack brought her brother back onto the ice. He had had himself a strong game—a power-play goal from the right point, an assist, four blocked shots, and five heavy body checks (each of which sent Mom’s hands anxiously into her eyes as always)—and was out to protect the tenuous lead in the last moments of the game.
The Crimson opponents, wary of Chris Howland’s ability to clear his side of the ice, dumped the puck into the opposite corner, their man advantage gaining them possession of the puck, now thrown back to their point, where the defenseman carrying the puck sought a screen to keep the Bulldog goalie from seeing his shot. In front of the net, Chris struggled with a Crimson forward, jostling for position while trying to use his stick to control his opponent’s while the Crimson defensemen passed the puck back and forth at the blueline, seeking a shot on the Bulldog net. Ten seconds left, and the puckcarrier fired from the left point—the puck pinballed in front of the Bulldog net—Chris and his check both spun for the puck—
Chris was there first, flipping the puck out of the zone just before the Crimson could stick-check him. A moment of hushed enthusiasm as the puck spun high, just below the curved boat-keel of the roof—and lusty cheers as the puck landed on a clear path to an unguarded net. The last Crimson defender gave up the chase after the cleared puck just before it crossed the goal line into the empty net with two seconds left. Two-goal night for Chris Howland. A quick formality of a face-off later, and the game was over to the tune of a 5-3 Yale win. After the post-game formalities of handshakes and three stars—Chris was second star—the teams filed off to their rooms, the Bulldogs walking down the aisle behind their bench toward the dressing rooms well behind. Helping hands had assisted a four-person traveling party down into the tunnel, where Chris was arrested by the sight.
Not by Merri; she was a regular on the family road trips, and indeed had already made friends with half the Bulldog roster. Nor Mom nor Dad; they were always a welcome sight, but also familiar ones. It was the fourth who stopped Chris in his tracks.
“Beth.” He put down his helmet on a bench along the wall, where players often waited out a skate-sharpening, deposited his gloves alongside. The other three Howlands knew to back away, for this was a meeting that had not happened before. “You came.”
A small shrug, a shy smile. “The semester’s over back home...and Sarah’s house-sitting the apartment. Mom and Dad—well, actually Merri—talked me into it finally.”
“Sarah...the girl who’s moving in with you.” Bethany nodded. “The one you sent me her picture.” Despite a long hard game, Beth saw a blush on her brother’s face. Boys go for girls who remind them of their mothers, so she had been told. It seems like that was right.
“You know where to get hold of her...if you’d like to meet.”
Mom knew what her eldest kids were waiting for. She waved Merri to follow, and the remaining Howlands went back up the tunnel to find a way to the lobby. Chris and Bethany needed this moment alone.
Only when the footsteps of their family had faded, and the path to the dressing room had stilled, did either one speak. Chris swallowed hard. “So...you’re okay now.”
“I...have medicine for my nerves. Xanax. But I don’t have to use it much. Mostly just on the bad days.” She saw him about to speak—“Today was a very good day.”
“You’re not in trouble now.”
“They said it was justified. I stopped an attack, which justified use of deadly force. They were going to kill them when they were done.”
“So...you’re okay, then?” He did not know how to ask what he wanted to ask.
And she knew. He wanted to ask, she wanted to tell, but they both had been so smothered in shame for so long that neither quite knew how to begin. But Bethany could not leave the unsaid silent anymore. Silence had built the rage that had mutilated Bannock and Treadwell far beyond what had been needed to stop them. Silence could no longer hold sway. She wandered to the bench, sat down beside her brother’s cast-off equipment.
“It...wasn’t what I thought it would be. I thought if I stopped them...killed them...I...I’d feel right, I’d know what to do. But I don’t, though. It still hurts. I still feel ashamed of what they made me do to you. It didn’t go away.”
Chris nerved himself to sit beside his big sister. They hadn’t been physically so close since that day. “I suppose it wouldn’t. It doesn’t take back what...what happened.”
“Then what does?” Bethany’s voice was an agonized squeak. “What makes it end? What takes away the hurt, Chris?”
Chris sighed, leaned forward, elbows on knees, face lowered. Ashamed of what she did to me. What she was made to do to me. She didn’t hurt me. Mom didn’t hurt me. They hurt me. This Bannock, this Treadwell. They hurt me, and Bethany did everything she could to protect me, even to slaughter. And still she agonizes. Still ashamed.
“Beth...I don’t know. I don’t know what to do to make it go away.” Sidelong, he glanced at her. My sister. We want the same thing, Beth. We want each other back. She hides from the world...and I hide from her. I shouldn’t have hid. Maybe she wouldn’t have become so ashamed. “But...I think...whatever it is, it has to be from us.” He edged toward her on the bench; she edged away, stood away from him. “From me. I hid away from you, and I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry I did that to you.”
Bethany held down a sob. “You were a little boy. It wasn’t your fault. You...who wouldn’t want to run away from what they did to you?”
“But I ran away from you, too.” He rose, stood at his sister’s side. She didn’t move away. “And by now, I don’t know how to come back to you.”
Bethany turned toward him again. She remembered Caleb and Samantha, the two wounded, violated siblings sitting on the swing set talking. Maybe that’s all it is. “Maybe...” and she reached out, took his hand. “Maybe we just go back.” He nodded; she squeezed his hand, felt no shame, felt only his desire to come back to his sister. He finally looked full on her—sighed hard—
And she was wrapped up in his long arms, her head against his chest, and she fancied she could hear her brother’s heartbeat through the hard shell and soft padding of his shoulder pads between them. Not quite all the way back, but close enough to touch.