The sixth book in the D.D. Warren series, 2012
THE LITTLE GIRL WOKE UP the way she’d been trained: quickly and quietly. She inhaled once, a hushed gasp in the still night, then her eyes fixed on her mother’s drawn face.
“Shhh,” her mother whispered, finger to her lips. “They’re coming. It’s time, child. Move.”
The girl threw back her covers and sat up. The winter night was cold; she could see her breath as a frosty mist in the glowing moonlight. The little girl was prepared, however. She and her older sister always slept fully dressed, layering T-shirts, sweatshirts, and coats regardless of season. You never knew when They might come, flushing their prey from warm sanctuary into the treacherous wild. Unprepared children would fail quickly, succumbing to exposure, dehydration, fear.
Not the little girl and her sister. They’d planned for such events. Their mother, from the time they could walk, had trained them to survive.
Now the little girl grabbed her backpack from the foot of her bed. She slipped the wide straps over her shoulders while sliding her small feet into her loosely laced sneakers. Then she followed her mother onto the darkened second-story landing. Her mother paused at the top of the stairs, finger on her lips, as she peered down into the gloom.
The little girl halted a step behind her mother. She glanced toward the back of the hall, where her sister usually slept. The tiny rental didn’t allow for her older sister to have her own room, or even her own bed. Instead, her sister slept on the floor, with her coat as a mattress and her backpack as a pillow. As a good soldier should, their mother said.
But the spot against the far wall was empty-no sister, no coat, no frayed red pack. Fully awake now, the little girl felt the first tingle of fear and had to resist the urge to call out her older sister’s name.
Her mother’s instructions on this subject were firm: They were not to worry about each other, they were not to wait for one another. Instead, they were to get out of the house and into the woods. Immediately. Once they’d managed to safely evac and evade, then they would meet up at the predetermined rendezvous points. But first priority, get out of the house, elude capture.
And if they did not…
As their mother had told them many times, thin features pinched, face too old for her years: Be brave. Everyone has to die sometime.
The little girl’s mother descended the first step, staying to the far right, where the riser was less likely to groan. Her oversized wool coat swirled around her legs as she moved, like a black cat weaving around her ankles.
The little girl followed in her mother’s wake, placing each foot with similar care while she strained her ears for sounds from the darkness below. Their tiny two-story rental used to be a farmhouse. It was located away from town, down a long dirt road on a dusty brown patch of land at the edge of the woods. They had no roots in the community, no ties to their neighbors.
Everything the girl owned, she wore on her back. From clothing to water bottle to dried fruit and almonds to one battered Nancy Drew novel she’d bought for ten cents at a garage sale to a quartz rock she’d found two years ago along another road in another town where her mother had also woken her and her sister in the middle of the night and they’d never seen that house again.
Maybe other children had toys. Pets. TVs. Computers. School. Friends.
The little girl had her backpack, her older sister, her mother, and this.
Her mother had reached the first floor. She held up her hand, and wordlessly, the little girl halted. She still heard nothing, but watched silvery dust motes swirl around her mother’s boot-clad feet.
Now the little girl could hear a noise. A rattle, followed by two thumps. The old furnace, finally registering the chill and kicking to life. After another moment, the distant thumping ceased and the midnight hush returned. The little girl looked. The little girl listened. Then, unable to determine any sign of danger, she peered up solemnly at her mother’s pale face.
Sometimes, the little girl knew, they didn’t flee in the middle of the night because of the infamous evildoers, the nameless threat lurking in the shadows.
Sometimes, they fled because training didn’t allow time for working, which didn’t allow for money to pay for rent, or heat, or food. “They” had a lot of strategies, and keeping the little girl’s family hungry, cold, and tired was the most effective of all.
At this stage of her life, the little girl could drift as soundlessly as a shadow and see as keenly as a cat in the dark. But maybe her stomach would growl, or her body would shiver. Maybe, in the end, being too hungry, too cold, and too tired was all it would take for her to give her family away.
Her mother seemed to register her thoughts. She half turned, taking the little girl’s hand.
“Be brave,” her mother whispered. “Child…”
Her mother’s voice broke. The rare and unexpected show of emotion scared the little girl far more than the dark, the cold, the too quiet house. Now she clutched her mother’s hand as tightly as her mother held hers, realizing this wasn’t a drill. They were not practicing. They were not planning.
Something had happened.
They had found them. This was the real deal.
Her mother moved. Pulled the little girl toward the small kitchen, where the bank of windows allowed the moon to pool on the floor and cast rows of finger-thin shadows around the edges.
The girl didn’t want to go anymore. She wanted to dig in her heels. Stop the madness. Rush upstairs and bury herself beneath the blankets on her bed.
Or bolt out the door. Flee from her home, the tension, her mother’s harshly lined face. She could race to the old white house on the other side of the woods. A young boy lived there. She watched him sometimes, spied on him from the sprawling oak tree. Twice, she caught him watching her back, expression thoughtful. She never said a word, though. Good girls didn’t speak to boys. Soldiers did not consort with the enemy.
SisSis. She needed her older sister. Where was SisSis?
“Everyone must die sometime,” her mother was muttering. She’d reached the middle of the kitchen, stopping abruptly. She seemed to be studying the moonlight, maybe listening for sounds of further danger.
The little girl spoke for the first time. “Mommy…”
“Hush, child! They could be right outside the kitchen. Did you think of that? Right there. Outside that window. Backs resting against that wall, listening to our every footstep. Already getting hard and hungry with the thought of what they’ll do to us.”
“We should light it on fire. Torch the wall. Listen to them yowl in fury, watch them dance in pain.”
The girl’s mother turned abruptly toward the windows. The moonlight caught her fully in the face, revealing eyes that were huge, dark pools. Then her mother smiled.
The girl shrank back, letting go of her mother’s hand, but it was too late. Her mother still clutched the little girl’s wrist. She wasn’t letting go. She was going to do something. Something horrible. Something terrible.
Something that was supposed to get Them, but that the little girl already knew, from past experience, would hurt her or her big sister instead.
The little girl whimpered. “Mommy,” she tried again, searching those too dark eyes, trying to find a flicker of familiarity.
“Matches!” her mother cried now. Voice no longer hushed, but booming, nearly gay. They could be at a birthday party, lighting candles on a cake. What a grand time! What a great adventure!
The little girl whimpered again. She tugged on her arm, trying to pull her wrist out of her mother’s grasp, struggling more forcibly.
But it was no use. At times like these, her mother’s fingers were talons, her entire body radiating a taut, wiry strength that was impossible to break. She would have her way.
Her mother yanked open the first kitchen drawer. Her left hand still clutched the little girl’s wrist, while her right hand raked through miscellaneous contents. A glossy white shower of plastic silverware rained down on the peeling linoleum floor. Sprays of ketchup packets, mustard pouches, bags of free croutons the little girl sometimes crept out of bed to eat, because her mother believed hunger would make them stronger, but mostly it made the little girl’s stomach ache, so she would pop croutons and suck on ketchup, before stuffing her coat pockets with mustard for her older sister, whom she knew was also starving but couldn’t move nearly as quietly through the house.
Soy sauce. Chopsticks. Paper napkins. Wet wipes. Her mother pawing her way furiously through drawer after drawer, dragging the little girl in her wake.
“Mommy. Please, Mommy.”
“This will teach the fuckers!” Her mother held up a matchbook. Shiny silver cover, fresh black strike stripe.
“Mommy!” the girl tried again, desperate. “The front door. We can go through the front door. Into the woods. We’re fast, we can make it.”
“No!” her mother declared, voice righteous. “They’ll be expecting that. No doubt have three, six, a dozen men already waiting. This is it. We’ll torch the curtains. Minute the wall’s fully engulfed, they’ll flee the property. Fucking cowards.”
“Christine!” The little girl cracked her voice, changing tactics. She planted her feet, drew herself up as tall as her six-year-old frame would allow. “Christine! Stop it! This is no time to play with matches!”
For a moment, the little girl thought it might work. Her mother blinked, her face losing some of its overbright luster. She stared at her daughter, right arm falling lax to her side.
“The furnace shut off,” the little girl declared boldly. “But I fixed it. Now go to bed. Everything’s all right. Go to bed.”
Her mother stared at her. Seemed confused, which was better than crazy. The little girl held her breath, chin up, shoulders back.
She did not know about Them. But she and her older sister had been preparing, planning, and strategizing to survive their mother for their entire young lives. Sometimes, you had to play along. But other times, you had to seize control. Before their mother went too far. Before they really were running for their lives, their mother having done the unspeakable in order to combat the unseeable in her mind.
Years ago, the little girl had suffered from bad dreams. She would hear a baby crying, and the sound haunted her. Her mother, calmer then, softer, rounder, would come into her room to comfort her. She would brush back the little girl’s hair and sing, in a sad, pretty voice, of green grass and sunny skies and faraway places where little girls slept through the night in big soft beds with warm, full tummies.
The little girl had loved her mother during those moments. Sometimes, she wished she would have bad dreams just to hear her mother sing, feel the gentleness of her mother’s fingertips tracing across her cheek.
But the little girl and her older sister didn’t have nightmares anymore. They lived them instead.
The boy, in the woods. Maybe, if she jerked from her mother’s grasp hard enough, ran fast enough…
The little girl drew herself up. She didn’t really believe a boy could save her. Never had. Never would.
“Christine, go to bed,” the little girl ordered.
Her mother didn’t move. She let go of the little girl’s wrist, but her right hand still clutched the matches. “I’m sorry, Abby,” she said.
The little girl’s voice softened. “Go to bed. It’s okay. I’ll help you.”
“Too late.” Her mother didn’t move. Her voice was quiet, sad. “You don’t know what I did.”
“I had to. You’ll understand someday, child. I had to.”
The little girl reached out a hand. But it was too late. Her mother was already moving. Dashing to the yellowed lace curtains. Match cover popping open, flipping back. First match ripped from the cardboard prison.
“No, no, no!” The little girl gave chase, clutching at her mother’s oversized coat, trying to grab the thick wool fabric and yank her mother back.
They were dancing, whirling around in beams of moonlight, twirling around long, quivering shadows, except her mother was bigger, faster, stronger. Her mother was powered by madness, and the little girl had only desperation on her side.
The first match flared to life, a beautiful lick of orange in the dark.
Her mother paused as if to admire her accomplishment.
“Isn’t it gorgeous,” she whispered.
Then she tossed the match at the dangling curtain. Just as the little girl’s older sister stepped out of the shadows of the family room and swung a brass candlestick lamp into the back of their mother’s head.
Their mother stumbled. Looked up. SisSis struck her again, this time across the left temple. Their mother dropped like a rock.
The ancient candlestick lamp fell to the floor beside her, while with a faint whoosh, the hem of the lace curtain burst into flame.
The little girl got to the curtain first. She beat it out with her bare hands, flattening the flames against the dirty wall, smacking it until, with a charred sputter, the fire was extinguished and only the palms of her hands burned.
Breathing hard, the little girl turned at last to her sister, the two of them on either side of their mother’s fallen form. The little girl looked up at her older sister. Her older sister looked down at the little girl.
“Where were you?” the little girl spoke first.
Her sister didn’t answer, and for the first time, the little girl noticed something else. The way her sister studied her left side. The way the gray nylon of her winter coat bloomed with a dark flowering stain.
The little girl’s sister clutched her side. She splayed the fingers of her hand, and the dark rushed out, racing across the gray of the jacket, stealing the moonlight from the room.
The little girl realized now why her sister hadn’t met her on the upstairs landing. Because their mother had woken her first. Brought her downstairs first. Listened to the voices telling her what to do to her older daughter, first.
The little girl didn’t speak anymore. She held out her hand. Her older sister took it, swaying, falling to her knees. The little girl went with her, down onto the grimy kitchen floor. They held hands, across their mother’s still form. How many times they had crept into this kitchen together, scrounging for food, hiding from their mother, just meeting, just being together, because everyone needed an ally in war.
The little girl was not dumb. She knew their mother hurt SisSis worse and more often. She knew that SisSis accepted the punishment, because when her mother was in one of her moods, someone had to pay. So SisSis was the good soldier, who kept her little sister safe.
“Sorry,” SisSis whispered now, a single world of apology, a single sigh of regret.
“Please, SisSis, please,” the little girl begged. “Don’t leave me…I’ll call nine-one-one. Help will come. Just wait. Wait for me.”
In response, her older sister tightened her grip. “It’s okay.” Her breath left her in a soft, hiccuping rush. “Everyone has to die sometime, right? Be brave. I love you. Be brave…”
Her older sister’s grip weakened. Her hand fell to the floor and the little girl sprang for the phone, dialing 911 just as SisSis had taught her, because they’d known it might someday come to this. They just hadn’t thought it would be so soon.
The little girl gave her mother’s name and address. She requested an ambulance. She spoke clearly and without emotion, because she had practiced for this, too. Together, she and her older sister had prepared, planned, and strategized.
Their mother wasn’t crazy about everything: Everyone did have to die sometime, and you always had to be brave.
Task completed, the little girl released the phone and raced back to her sister. But by the time she returned, SisSis didn’t need her anymore. Her eyes were closed, and nothing the little girl did made them open again.
Her mother stirred on the floor.
The little girl looked at her, then at the old brass lamp.
She lifted up the heavy lamp, thin arms straining, eyes watching how the silvery beams of moonlight gleamed across its dull surface.
Her mother moaned again, regaining consciousness.
The little girl thought of lullabies and matches; she recalled soft hugs and hungry nights. She remembered her older sister, who had genuinely loved her. Then the little girl clutched the top part of the shadeless lamp, stood above her mother’s body, and one final time, hefted its weight into the air.
MY NAME IS CHARLENE ROSALIND CARTER GRANT.
I live in Boston, work in Boston, and in four days, will probably die here.
I’m twenty-eight years old.
And I don’t feel like dying just yet.
IT STARTED TWO YEARS AGO, with the murder of my best friend, Randi Menke, in Providence. She was strangled in her living room. No sign of a struggle, no sign of forced entry. For a while the Rhode Island cops thought maybe her ex had done it. I guess there’d been a history of domestic assaults. Nothing she’d ever told me, or our other best friend, Jackie, about. Jackie and I tried to console ourselves with that, as we wept together at Randi’s funeral. We hadn’t known. We just hadn’t known or of course we would’ve done…something. Anything.
That’s what we told ourselves.
Fast forward one year. January 21. The anniversary. I’m at home with Aunt Nancy in the mountains of northern New Hampshire, Jackie’s returned to her corporate life as a VP for Coca-Cola in Atlanta. Jackie doesn’t want to mark the occasion of Randi’s murder. Too morbid, she tells me. Later, in the summer, we’ll get together and celebrate Randi’s birthday. Maybe we’ll hike to the top of Mount Washington, bring a bottle of single malt. We’ll have a good drink, have a good cry, then sleep it off at the Lake of the Clouds AMC hut.
I still call Jackie on the twenty-first. Can’t help myself. Except she doesn’t answer. Not her landline, not her work line, not her mobile. Nothing.
In the morning, when she doesn’t show up for work, the police finally give in to my pleas and drive by her house.
No sign of a struggle, I will read later in the police report. No sign of forced entry. Just a lone female, strangled to death in the middle of her home on January 21.
TWO BEST FRIENDS, murdered, exactly one year and roughly one thousand miles apart.
The locals investigated. Even the FBI gave it a whirl. They couldn’t find anything definitive to link the two homicides, mostly because they couldn’t find anything that was definitive.
Bad luck, one of the guys actually told me. Sheer bad luck.
Today is January 17 of the third year.
How much bad luck do you think I’m going to have on the twenty-first? And if you were me, what would you do?
I MET RANDI AND JACKIE when I was eight years old. After that final incident with my mother, I was sent to live with my aunt Nancy in the wilds of New Hampshire. She came to fetch me from a hospital in upstate New York, two relatives, two strangers, meeting for the first time. Aunt Nancy took one look at me and started to cry.
“I didn’t know,” she told me that first day. “Trust me, child, I didn’t know or I would’ve taken you years ago.”
I didn’t cry. Saw no purpose for the tears and didn’t know if I believed her anyway. If I was supposed to live with this woman, then I’d live with this woman. Not like I had anyplace else to go.
Aunt Nancy ran a B &B in a quaint resort town in the Mount Washington Valley, where rich Bostonians and privileged New Yorkers came to ski during the winter, hike in the summer, and “leaf-peep” in the fall. She had one part-time helper, but mostly my aunt relied on herself to greet guests, clean rooms, set up tea, cook breakfast, provide directions, and all the other million little odd jobs that go into the hospitality trade. When I came along, I took over dusting and vacuuming. I could spend hours cleaning. I loved the scent of Pine-Sol. I loved the feel of freshly polished wood. I loved the way I scrubbed the floor again and again, and each time, it looked pretty and fresh and new.
Cleaning meant controlling. Cleaning kept the shadows at bay.
First day of school, Aunt Nancy personally walked me down the street. I wore stiff new clothes, including black patent Mary Janes I polished obsessively for the next six months. I felt conspicuous. Too new. Too fresh out of the box.
I still wasn’t used to all the noise and clamor that came with “village” life. Neighbors, everywhere I looked. People who made eye contact and smiled.
“Your tea set is tarnished,” I informed my aunt, one block from my first ever school. “I’ll go home and polish it for you.”
“You’re a funny child, Charlene.”
I stopped walking, my hand rubbing my side and the scar that still itched sometimes. I had more scars, spiderweb fine, on the back of my left hand, let alone the ugly surgical mark on my right elbow, burn marks on my right thigh. I was pretty sure other kids didn’t have such blemishes on their bodies. I was pretty sure other children’s mothers didn’t “love” them as much as mine had sworn she loved me. “I don’t want to go.”
My aunt stopped walking. “Charlie, it is time to go to school. Now, I want you to march through those front doors. I want you to hold your head high. And I want you to know, you are the bravest, toughest little girl I know, and none of those kids have anything on you. Do you hear me? None of those kids have anything on you.”
So I did what my aunt said. I walked through those doors. I kept my head high. I slid into a desk at the back of a room. Where the little girl on my left turned and said. “Hi, I’m Jackie.” And the little girl on my right turned and said, “I’m Randi.”
And just like that, we were friends.
* * *
BUT I NEVER TOLD THEM EVERYTHING.
You know what I mean, don’t you?
How sometimes, even with best friends, even with the sisters of your heart who laugh with you and cry with you and know every single minuscule detail of your first crush and final heartbreak, you still can’t tell them everything.
Even best friends have secrets.
Take it from me, the last one standing, who’s spent the past two years learning most of our secrets the hard way.
WE GREW UP IN THE LAST DAYS of real childhood. Spending our summers running wild in the woods, where we built tree forts out of downed limbs and had tea parties featuring acorn soup and pinecone parfaits. We raced leaf boats down eddying streams. We discovered secret swimming holes. We wired soup cans with twine in lieu of cell phones.
I’d help Aunt Nancy every morning and every evening during the summer. But afternoons were mine, and I spent every minute with my two best friends. Even back then, Jackie was the organizer. She’d have our afternoons all mapped out, probably would’ve developed a marketing plan and forecasted future opportunities for play if we’d let her. Randi was quieter. She had beautiful wheat blond hair she wore tucked behind her ears. She preferred playing house in the tree fort, where she always had the perfect finishing touch for her tree stump, maybe some creative combination of berries and leaves that made a random pile of decaying limbs feel just like home.
I recommended her skills to Aunt Nancy, and for much of our high school years Randi helped out in the B &B on the weekends, hanging holiday ornaments, preparing fresh centerpieces for the dining room, decorating the front parlor. Jackie would come along as well, hooking up Aunt Nancy’s first computer and, when the time came, introducing my aunt to the Internet.
I didn’t have Jackie’s drive, or Randi’s artistic skills. I thought of myself as the glue. Whatever they wanted to do, I did. Whatever hobby they had, I took up. I’d been raised at an early age to go along, so going along was what I did best.
But I meant it. I loved them. I’d grown up in the dark, then I’d come to the mountains of New Hampshire and found the light. Randi and Jackie laughed. They asked my opinions, they complimented my efforts, they smiled when I walked into a room.
I didn’t care what we did. I just wanted to do it with them.
Of course, small town kids inevitably have big city dreams. Jackie started the countdown our junior year in high school. She was sick of nosy neighbors, community theater, and a post office that doubled as the biggest gossip center in town. She had her sights on Boston College, gonna hit the big city and live the glamorous life.
Randi, in her quiet way, upstaged Jackie. One snowy weekend in January, she met a Brown University med student on the ski slopes. We graduated high school in June, and she was married July 1, packing her childhood into four cardboard boxes and heading for Providence, content to spend the rest of her life as a doctor’s wife.
Jackie got her scholarship. She was gone by September, and for the first time in ten years I didn’t know what to do with myself. I stripped, sanded, and refinished Aunt Nancy’s hardwood floors. Steam cleaned all the drapes. Shampooed all the furniture. Started organizing the bookshelves.
End of September, Aunt Nancy took me by the hand.
“Go,” she said, firmly, gently. “Spread your wings, and then, when you’re ready, come home to me.”
I ended up in Arvada, Colorado. Followed some guy I never should’ve followed. Did some things it’s best that Aunt Nancy never knows about. I learned the hard way, you can’t always just go along. Sooner or later, you have to find yourself, even without your beloved aunt and two best friends to help show the way.
After the breakup, determined not to slink home with my tail between my legs, I applied for a job as a 911 operator. Biggest attraction of the job: You didn’t need a college degree, just a high-school diploma, fast typing fingers, and an innate ability to think on your feet. Given those were about the only skills I possessed, I decided to give it a whirl. For thirty thousand dollars a year, I worked long hours, surrendered any hope of having a personal life, and actually discovered a calling.
I worked at a command center with twenty-two phone lines, four radios, and nearly two hundred thousand calls a year. Requests for police, fire, emergency services, animal control-it all came to us. We transferred the calls for emergency services and fire to a second dispatch service, but animal control, police, the prank calls, the incoherent calls, the genuinely panicked and hysterical calls were all ours.
I once worked a shift where my fellow dispatch officer saved a woman’s life by having her scream until the home invaders panicked and ran away. Another shift, my colleague got a terribly injured teenage girl to describe the car that ran her down. The girl died before the police got there, but her statement was recorded on our call lines and became the evidence that put the drunk driver away. I cried with people. I screamed with people. Once, I sang lullabies to a five-year-old boy while his parents shattered glass and hurled insults just outside the closet door.
I don’t know what happened to the boy. I think about him sometimes, though. More than I should.
Which is why after six years, I left Arvada and returned to the mountains. I guess I’d lost some weight. I guess I didn’t look so good.
“Oh, Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant,” my aunt Nancy said quietly when I got off the plane.
She took me in her arms. I stood in the middle of the airport and cried.
My aunt had been right: I’d needed to go away, and now it was good to be back. I embraced the mountains; I welcomed my community, where I was surrounded by neighbors and everyone looked you in the eye and smiled. Aunt Nancy had become my family, and this one town, had, finally, become my home.
I didn’t plan on leaving again. But I guess someone else had other ideas.
* * *
STANDING AT RANDI’S FUNERAL, I didn’t feel any sense of danger. My childhood friend was dead, but the more Jackie and I learned about her rat bastard ex, the more we thought we knew the perpetrator. Just because the police couldn’t charge him, didn’t mean her abusive, alcoholic ex hadn’t done the deed. Doctors are probably wise enough in the general workings of forensic science to cover their tracks. Plus, Randi was softhearted. We could see her letting her ex through the front door, despite her best judgment.
I spent some time with the Providence detectives, trying to advocate on my friend’s behalf. Jackie sprung for a private consultant from Oregon, some retired FBI agent to analyze the scene. Neither one of us got anything to show for our efforts.
Then, one year later, Jackie…Who lived in downtown Atlanta, who was city-smart and corporate battle-hardened, and, in many ways, forewarned. Who would she have welcomed into her home that night? Who would she have stood quietly and allowed to strangle her in her own living room, without putting up a fight?
Certainly not Randi’s ex-husband.
Meaning, maybe the abusive ex didn’t do it. Meaning, maybe it was someone else.
Someone who knew Randi and knew Jackie. Someone they knew and trusted.
Someone who, by definition, would have to know me, too. Because there were no such things as Randi and Jackie. For ten years, in our town, it had always been Randi Jackie Charlie. Just like that. One name for one entity. The three amigos. All for one, one for all.
With two dead, did that mean there was now one left to go?
In contrast to Randi’s memorial service, I stood dry-eyed next to Jackie’s cherrywood coffin, searching the crowd in the tiny, tastefully decorated Victorian funeral parlor. I peered into the faces of my grieving neighbors, community members, friends.
I wondered if someone standing beside me right now was already counting down until the next January 21. Except why and how and who? So many questions. I figured I had 362 days left to find answers.
We concluded Jackie’s service at 9 P.M. I was in my car by 9:15. Luggage in the trunk, the feel of Aunt Nancy’s dry kiss fresh on my cheek.
I drove to Boston. Ditched the car, tossed my cell phone, and turned my back on Aunt Nancy, my community, the mountains, and the only shot I’d had at a real life. As the saying goes, hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
So that’s what I’m doing. Hoping for the police to do their thing, and catch the bastard who murdered my best friends. But planning on January 21 rolling around, when sometime around 8 P.M., according to the police reports, someone may come looking for me. Because once there’d been Randi Jackie Charlie, then Jackie Charlie, then just Charlie. And soon maybe none of us at all.
I don’t have friends anymore. I don’t encourage acquaintances. I live in Cambridge, where I rent a single room from a retired widow who needs the income. I work a solo graveyard shift as a dispatch officer for a thirty-man PD outside of Boston. I work all night, sleep all morning.
I run ten miles four times a week. I attend firearms training courses. I box. I lift weights. I prepare, I plan, I strategize.
In four days, I believe someone’s going to try to kill me.
But the son of a bitch has gotta catch me first.
BOSTON SERGEANT DETECTIVE D. D. WARREN was on the case. And she was not happy about it.
This was unusual. A born workaholic, D.D. lived and breathed her job. Nothing made her happier than a high-profile homicide case that demanded endless nights of cold pizza as she and her squad racked up round-the-clock hours, targeting their prey.
Granted, she was a mother now, and baby Jack was proving as big an insomniac as his mom. Teething? Probably not at ten weeks. Colic? Maybe. It’s not like babies came with an instruction manual. D.D. had tried singing to him last night. He’d cried harder. Finally, she’d rocked and cried with him. They’d both fallen asleep around four; her alarm had woken her at six. But two hours of sleep wasn’t the reason D.D. was cranky.
True, her life had undergone another major sea change: Given the unexpected news that she was forty and pregnant, she’d decided to roll the dice toward domestic bliss and actually move in with the baby’s father. She’d sold her North End condo, said sayonara to the four pieces of furniture she’d managed to acquire over the years, and moved into Alex’s tiny suburban ranch. He’d graciously given her the entire closet. She was trying to stop hogging the covers. They both loved the nursery.
Alex was supportive, caring, and most importantly, as a crime scene expert who taught courses at the police academy, wise enough to allow her plenty of space to do her job. He’d spent the previous night taking his turn being up all hours with the baby, so Alex definitely wasn’t the reason she was cranky.
Granted, this was also her first major case after her eight-week maternity leave, but given the past two weeks of office paperwork, fieldwork seemed a great idea and definitely was not the reason she was cranky.
Frankly, she didn’t want to talk about it. She just wanted others to feel her pain.
D.D. pushed her way through the growing crowd of gawkers piling up on the sidewalk, then flashed her shield at the uniformed officer standing outside the crime scene tape. He dutifully entered her name and badge number in the murder book. Then she was ducking under the yellow tape and slipping on shoe booties and a hair net, before finally mounting the peeling wooden steps of the faded gray tenement building.
Scene was on the second floor. One-bedroom unit of the low-income housing project. Victim was a forty-something Caucasian male, which from what D.D. could tell, made him the only white guy in an eight-block radius. Apparently, he lived alone, and they’d only gotten the call when neighbors had complained of the smell.
D.D. hated tenement houses. If you could take despair, give it four walls, leaking ceilings, and very few windows, this is what it would look like. She hated the punk ass teenagers that eyed her boldly as she approached, already so grim they might as well piss off a Boston cop, because what else did they have to lose? She fretted over the shrunken, eighty-year-old grandmothers, forced to carry heavy bags of groceries up three flights of stairs to a bone-cold efficiency unit in the winter, or a 120-degree boiling kettle in the summer. She despaired over the packs of feral kids gazing distrustfully out of doorways, because at the ripe old ages of four, five, six, they’d already been taught to hate all authority figures.
Race relations in Boston. Inner-city socioeconomics. Label it whatever you wanted; tenement buildings stood as a constant reminder to D.D. of all the ways her job was still failing a significant portion of Boston’s population.
Guy here had been murdered. D.D. and her squad would investigate. D.D. and her squad would arrest the killer. And life for everyone in this building would suck just as much tomorrow as it did today.
Sergeant Detective D. D. Warren was cranky. But she did not want to talk about it.
D.D.’s squadmate, Neil, met her on the second-floor landing. The thirty-two-year-old lanky redhead used to work as an EMT before joining the BPD, and was their go-to man for all things gory. Currently, he was holding a handkerchief over his mouth and nose, which D.D. took as a bad sign.
He took one look at the expression on her face and recoiled slightly.
“The baby?” he asked tentatively.
“Not why I’m cranky,” she snapped.
He had to think about it. “Alex left you?”
“Oh for heaven’s sake…” She loved her squad and her squad loved her. But just working with her was enough for them to believe that Alex, who lived with her, must be a saint. “Not why I’m cranky.”
“You don’t have to go inside,” Neil ventured. “I mean, if you’re worried about the smell, or, or…” His voice trailed off. The warning look in her eyes was enough; he stopped talking.
“My parents are coming!” D.D. blurted out.
“You have parents?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Florida,” she muttered. “They live in Florida. Where they play golf and bridge and do all the things old people do. They like being in Florida. I like them being in Florida. Just because I have a baby is no reason to mess with a good thing.”
Neil nodded, then waited. When it became clear she was done speaking, he leaned forward slightly. “Do they have names?”
“Patsy and Roy.”
“Oh. Well, that explains it. Can we talk about the murder vic now? Please.”
“Thought you’d never ask. What do we got?”
“Two GSWs to the head. Probably three to four days dead.”
D.D. raised a brow. “Bloated, gassy?” she asked, meaning the corpse.
“Well, been brutally cold, which helped,” Neil offered.
True. A four-day old corpse in the heat and humidity of August D.D. would’ve smelled a block away. As it was, standing three yards from the door of the apartment, she caught only the dull undertones of something rancid. Thank heavens for the mid-January deep freeze in Boston.
Then she thought of something. “What about the apartment’s heating unit?” she asked with a frown.
She arched a brow. “By the victim, or the killer?”
Neil shrugged, because of course he couldn’t know that yet, which didn’t mean he hadn’t wondered himself. D.D. often thought out loud, which, out of sheer self-preservation, her squad had learned not to take personally.
“Who’s here?” D.D. asked now, meaning the other investigators.
Neil rattled off several names. Their other squadmate, Phil, the family man. A couple of crime scene techs, latent prints, photographer, the ME’s office. Not too big a party, which D.D. preferred. Space was small, and extra officers, even so-called experts, had a tendency to mess things up. D.D. liked her crime scenes tight and controlled. Later, if things went wrong, that meant it would be on her head. But D.D. would rather shoulder the blame than ride herd on a bunch of uniforms.
“What else do I need to know?” she asked Neil.
“Won’t tell you,” Neil announced stubbornly.
She glanced at him, startled. Their other squadmate, Phil, was known to go toe-to-toe with her. Neil not so much.
“If I tell you and I’m wrong, you’re gonna be pissed,” Neil muttered, no longer looking at her. “I don’t tell you, and I’m right, you can feel good about yourself later-and take the credit.”
D.D. shook her head. Neil would be an excellent detective, if only he didn’t hide behind her and Phil so much. He seemed content to let them be the forward members of the crew, while he spent his days overseeing autopsies at the morgue.
She wondered if the medical examiner, Ben Whitley, was here. Neil and Ben had been dating for a little over a year now. Not an office romance, per se, but an industry one. Made D.D. uneasy about what might happen in the event of a breakup. On the other hand, given that she was forty, unwed, and now mother to a ten-week-old baby boy, she figured she wasn’t in any position to give personal advice.
Life happened. All you could do was ride the ride.
She sighed, pinched the bridge of her nose, and felt the full weight of her ride’s current sleeplessness. Jack had been snuggled into his carrier when she’d left him this morning. All wide blue eyes and fat red cheeks. When she’d kissed the top of his head, he’d waved his pudgy little fists at her.
Did a ten-week-old baby know enough to miss his mommy, because a ten-week mommy sure knew enough to miss her baby.
D.D. sighed one last time, squared her shoulders, and got on with it.
FIRST SCENT THAT HIT D.D.’S NOSTRILS WAS the overwhelmingly astringent odor of ammonia. She recoiled as if she’d hit a wall, her eyes already tearing up as she frantically waved at the air in front of her, an instinctive motion that made no difference.
She glanced down and noticed the rest of the story: piles and piles of animal feces, which accompanied at least a dozen pools of urine.
“What the hell?” she demanded.
“Puppy,” Neil supplied. “Cute floppy-eared yellow lab. Was shut up for multiple days with the body. Obviously, not good for housebreaking. Puppy survived on toilet water and a box of crackers it chewed its way into. Animal control already took her away, if you want a puppy for Jack.”
“Jack sleeps, eats, and poops. What’s he gonna do with a puppy?”
“Hmm,” Neil said, nodding sagely. “It’s probably just a phase.”
D.D. stepped carefully over the puppy piles and followed Neil through the tiny living area into the even tinier kitchen. She waved to a couple of crime scene techs as she went, easing around them in the tight space. Each nodded in greeting but kept working. Given the smell, she couldn’t blame their desire to get in, out, and done.
Off the kitchen was an open doorway that appeared to lead to the single bedroom. Inside, D.D. spotted her other squadmate, Phil, sitting at a tiny desk with his back to the kitchen. He was wearing gloves, his fingers flying over the keyboard of the vic’s laptop. As their technical expert, he was the most qualified for preliminary data mining. Later, of course, he’d deliver the laptop to the techies for a full-scale forensic eval. But in any investigation, time was of the essence, so Phil liked to see what he could learn sooner, rather than waiting for the full forensic analysis, which would follow weeks later.
“Hey, Phil,” she called out to her older squadmate.
He glanced over his shoulder at her, raising one arm absently in greeting, then, spotting her face, performed a double take.
“Is it Jack?” he asked. Phil had four kids.
“Not why I’m cranky,” she gritted out.
“Not why I’m cranky!”
“Her parents are coming,” Neil supplied from behind her.
“You have parents?”
D.D. glared at Phil. He quickly returned his attention to the victim’s computer, which allowed her to return her attention to the kitchenette, where a small wooden table had been shoved against the far wall. It featured two rickety wooden chairs, one of which was currently occupied by a corpse.
The ME, Ben Whitley, was leaning over the body. He looked up at D.D. as she approached, but she noticed he was careful to keep his gaze away from Neil.
Hmm, she felt like saying. It’s probably just a phase.
She switched her attention to the vic, an either really fat or really bloated white guy with greasy brown hair and twin bullet holes through the left side of his forehead.
“No one heard the shots?” she asked. Her eyes still stung from the stench of urine. She understood Neil’s handkerchief now and resiliently forced herself not to gag.
“In this neighborhood?” Neil replied wryly.
D.D. pursed her lips, acknowledging his point.
Dead guy’s considerable mass was just beginning to contort inside the sausage-like casings of his jeans and button-down red flannel shirt. The force of the shots had sent his head back, where his features had probably locked in the first two to six hours due to rigor mortis. Within two to three days, however, rigor had passed, the muscles slackening, the flesh of his jowls seeming to slide down his face like wax melting from a candle. Next step in the decomp process: putrefaction. Within twenty-four hours, bacterial action inside the body produced gases, leading to swelling and a very distinct odor known to homicide detectives and MEs the world over. Skin around the lower abdomen and groin turned blue-green, while stomach contents started to leak out through the mouth, nose, and anus.
Nothing pretty about decomp, which meant that all in all, D.D. was pleasantly surprised by the corpse’s intact condition. Bacterial action was just starting up, versus already running amok through the dead guy’s intestines. Made the scene more bearable, though she still wouldn’t want to be standing as close to the body as the ME was.
“So you’re thinking three to four days?” she asked Ben now, the doubt obvious in her voice.
He pursed his lips, considering. “Cold temperatures impede decomp. Given the apartment’s chilly ambience, I think that explains the slow putrefaction process. But won’t know for sure until I open him up.”
“Cause of death is most likely twin GSWs to the left side of the forehead,” he stated. “Double tap, up close and personal. Notice the powder burn ringing the entry wounds, as well as the tight pairing. GSW one and GSW two are not even half an inch apart.”
“Execution style?” D.D. asked with a frown, venturing closer in spite of herself. “Any defensive wounds?”
D.D. trusted Ben implicitly-he was one of the best ME’s the city ever had. But she couldn’t stop from glancing at the vic’s hands because the lack of defensive wounds didn’t make any sense. Who sat at his kitchen table and just let himself be shot?
“You’re sure it’s not suicide?” she asked Ben.
“No gun at the scene. No GSR on his hands,” the ME reported, then added, as a slight rebuke for her questioning his findings, “Unless, of course, he was wearing gloves which he kindly removed after shooting himself to death and hiding the murder weapon.”
D.D. got his point. She glanced back at Neil. “Forced entry?”
The lanky redhead shook his head. He appeared smug. “First responders had the building manager let them in. No sign of tampering with the lock. Windows are intact, not to mention too warped to open.”
D.D. eyed her squadmate. “You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
“All right, all right,” she muttered. “Game on.”
She continued her analysis of the scene. Entry wounds to vic’s forehead appeared tight and round. Given the lack of exit wound, she assumed a small-caliber weapon, such as a. 22. Easy enough handgun to conceal until the last minute, especially this time of year when everyone was bulked up in winter jackets. But also a questionable choice for a murder weapon-not much bang in a. 22. Gun aficionados generally referred to such handguns as “plinking” guns. Good for shooting at cans and squirrels, or maybe hurling at an opponent if all else failed. But plenty of people got shot by. 22s and lived, making the small-caliber handgun a dubious choice for an execution-style homicide.
D.D. moved on with her analysis: Shooter was most likely someone the victim knew. Victim not only opened the door, but let the unknown subject into his apartment. Furthermore, sitting at the kitchen table implied hospitality. Would you like something to drink, that sort of thing.
D.D. crossed to the kitchen sink. Sure enough, two chipped blue mugs sat inside the grimy stainless steel basin. With gloved hands, she lifted the first mug and peered inside. No noticeable dried residue, so either a clear liquid or the mugs were rinsed.
She returned the mugs, which would be bagged and tagged by the evidence techs, then did a double take.
Mugs had been rinsed, then placed in the sink? Because nothing else inside the apartment looked like it had been rinsed, wiped, or otherwise tended in at least six months. The countertops were sticky and grungy. Ditto with the urine-splattered floor, grime-covered floorboards, and stained walls.
She glanced back at the wooden table, which also appeared suspiciously pristine. She ran a gloved finger along the battered surface. Old yes, battle-scarred definitely, but clean. So two mugs rinsed, one wooden table wiped.
She looked up at Neil, who was smiling even more broadly now.
“Shooter cleaned up after himself,” she murmured.
He wouldn’t reply, but given his terrible poker face, he didn’t have to.
Next up, D.D. wrenched open the refrigerator door. She discovered an opened can of dog food that smelled even worse than the rest of the apartment, a six-pack of beer, wine coolers, Hostess Twinkies, containers of leftover Chinese, half a dozen condiments, and the remains of a rotisserie chicken dated ten days prior.
So the victim liked fast food and had a sweet tooth.
D.D. tried some of the cupboards, discovering paper products in lieu of plates, plastic products in lieu of silverware, as well as multiple shelves of chips, crackers, cereals, and store-bought cookies. Last cupboard seemed to be for the dog-bags of dry puppy food, plus more canned food.
D.D. continued to build her mental profile. Middle-aged single white male, living a bachelor life in a low-income housing project.
Why this building? White guy had to stand out, feel uncomfortable. Lonely? Was that why he got a puppy? But he entertained. Had someone here, whom he invited in for a drink, perhaps, maybe come over, see my new puppy. Have a drink, have a snack.
D.D. got that feeling. It was a distinct physical sensation that started at the base of a good detective’s spine, before zipping straight up the vertebrae to the back of her neck, where the tiny hairs stood up and made her shiver.
She glanced at Neil, who beamed larger.
“No fucking way!” she said.
“What’s Phil found?”
“Don’t know about the computer, but we already discovered two shoeboxes of photos tucked beneath the bed.”
“Is the vic in the system?”
“No hits thus far, though we’re still running his name and prints through the national database.”
“But the photos?”
“All boys, all under the age of twelve, mostly black, but other ethnicities as well. I’d say he selected his victims based on opportunity, rather than race.”
“Son of a bitch!” D.D. exclaimed. “He’s a pedophile. Set up shop right in the middle of his target population-unloved, unsupervised, highly vulnerable kids. Gets their attention when he’s walking his puppy, then invites them up for a cookie, chips, a bottle of beer. Son of a bitch.”
She glared at the dead guy, the twin holes in his forehead, the melted wax face. “Kid struck back,” she muttered, then considered the carefully wiped down surfaces. “Or maybe a parent or an older sibling or a friend. Someone got wise, then he got dead. Good.”
“It gets better.”
“What’s better than one less pervert in the city?”
Phil came walking out of the bedroom, snapping off his gloves. “You tell her yet?” he asked Neil.
“Tell me what?”
“You were on maternity leave,” Phil said, as if that explained everything.
“Tell me what!”
“Not one less pervert in the city,” Neil said happily. “Mr. Wanna See My Puppy over there makes two.”
PHIL AND NEIL HAD TO WALK HER THROUGH IT. It was four weeks back, meaning Jack had been six weeks old, a plump little form that spent his days curled up on her chest, feeling like a hot water bottle except fragile and in need of constant diligence, so she’d spent hours just sitting in the rocking chair with him, counting fingers and toes and touching the impossibly soft wisps of hair that cradled his skull-so she’d definitely not been watching the news, because she’d been being with her baby in a way she’d never been in any moment before. Totally. Completely. Without word or thought or interest in anything else. Alex would come home from work each day, glance at her and Jack in the rocking chair and smile at her in a way no man had ever smiled at her before. Then she’d get a strange feeling in her chest. Of belonging. Of being. Contentment maybe.
For her eight weeks of maternity leave, she’d reveled in it.
So, four weeks prior, D.D. had been nesting with her baby in Waltham, while a level 3 sex offender had been shot in his apartment near the Suffolk County hospital. Not in his kitchen, Phil was quick to add. In the entry. As if he’d answered the door, and boom. Double tap from a. 22, expertly placed.
No witnesses, though a couple of neighbors reported having seen a young man, maybe a teenage boy, loitering about. Further search of the vic’s home had revealed pornographic videotapes as well as an extensive collection of photos on the vic’s computers, all showing boys and girl between the ages of six and twelve involved in various sex acts.
Just owning the computer was a violation of the victim’s, Douglas Antiholde’s, parole, so investigators felt it was safe to assume the vic had gone off the straight and narrow and was back in the business of destroying young lives.
“Leads?” D.D. asked now.
Phil shrugged. “If you see a white male between the age of sixteen and twenty-five in a dark winter coat with a navy blue knit cap, let us know.”
“Bet the hotline’s ringing off the phone with that one.”
“Please, the neighbors are just doing the happy dance he’s dead. No love lost there, and that was before they heard what was on his computer.”
D.D. pursed her lips. “Did he have a puppy?”
Phil shook his head.
“We’ll have to cross-reference the photos of the victims,” she mused out loud, and immediately felt something inside her recoil. To go from Jack to those images…
She hesitated. Beside her, Phil, father of four, appeared equally queasy.
Neil spoke up. “I’ll do it.”
Phil and D.D. looked at him.
“It’s not like I want to,” he said, shrugging awkwardly. “But I don’t have kids. And both of you…So, you know, it’d probably be easier for me to study them. ’Sides, I handle the bodies all the time. How much harder can this be?”
“Way harder,” Phil said immediately. “Dead people…worst has already happened. These kids…”
Neil shrugged again. “Somebody’s gotta do it, right? Better me than you.”
Phil nodded slowly. “I think he’s growing up nicely,” he told D.D.
“Obviously we’ve raised him right,” she concurred.
Neil rolled his eyes at both of them. “Since it’s my first time through, any advice?”
“Don’t just look at the people,” D.D. informed him. “Cross-referencing the victims is step one, but you also want to examine the backgrounds of each photo-look for patterns in curtains, carpets, bedding. Sometimes, it’s not the who that matches, it’s the where. Either one gives us a link between our dead pervs. When you’re done, we’ll send the photos to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, where they have trained experts who will do the same thing all over again, except comparing them against a national database. They also have some facial recognition software, which helps them get the job done.”
Neil looked at her.
“We gotta get you to the National Academy,” she informed her younger partner, as she did at least once every six months. The National Academy was a ten-week course in advanced police training offered at Quantico, considered de rigueur for any up and coming cop. When D.D. had attended, she’d spent an entire day with the folks at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which not only helped her understand the resources they had to offer for local law enforcement agencies such as the BPD, but also made her grateful she was a city detective and not a criminologist swimming against the tide to rescue sexually abused children.
She stared at Neil now. He looked away, as he did every time the subject of the National Academy came up.
“Perpetrator’s right-handed,” he mumbled, changing the subject. “Given the angle of the gunshot.”
“Doesn’t limit our suspect pool that much,” D.D. retorted with a shrug.
“Daytime shootings,” Neil offered next.
“How do you figure?”
“Because in both neighborhoods, nobody would open their doors after dark.”
“But no witnesses,” D.D. pushed back.
“Because in both neighborhoods,” Neil repeated, “people are trained not to see anything. And they certainly aren’t gonna tell us about it if they do.”
“True.” D.D. turned to Phil. “While Neil handles the photos, I need you to oversee both victims’ computers. Pedophiles are networkers. They visit chat rooms, post blogs, seek out others like themselves. Even if our two victims never met each other in person, doesn’t mean they haven’t crossed paths online. Find that common denominator, and maybe we can get some traction.”
“The Antiholde computer has already been processed,” Phil informed her. “Meaning we just gotta dissect this one, and I’m ready to rock and roll.”
“We’ll pull local video,” D.D. mused out loud, referring to the various video cameras that dotted any Boston city block, whether owned by the city or an area business, or even in some cases by a concerned citizen trying to protect him- or herself against crime. “You never know, maybe we can find footage of a sixteen- to twenty-five-year-old white male in a black winter coat with a navy blue knit hat.”
Phil and Neil smiled at that, but D.D. wagged her finger at them. “Seriously! Forget the wardrobe and age range. Think white kid. How many of them do you see outside? In this neighborhood, Caucasians stand out. Let’s use that to our advantage.”
“Gonna get the media involved?” Phil wanted to know.
She had to think about it. “Maybe, if we can get a better profile of the shooter. Until then, I don’t see the point.”
Neil seemed surprised. “But there have been two shootings, second one already half a week old. Meaning, maybe even now, we got a perpetrator out there, targeting a third victim.”
“Third pedophile, you mean,” Phil muttered.
D.D. was more circumspect. “Two homicides performed by the same shooter? Are you sure? Do you have a witness telling you he or she absolutely saw the same person here and there? Do you have a report from ballistics stating the slugs recovered from this crime scene absolutely positively match the slugs recovered from the Antiholde crime scene?”
Neil shook his head.
“Well then,” D.D. declared briskly. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I wouldn’t want to panic the good citizens of Boston unnecessarily. And…maybe I wouldn’t want to encourage the city’s pervert population to practice undo caution either.”
Neil’s eyes rounded slightly. He got the implication of D.D.’s decision, glancing quickly at Phil, whose face was just as stony as D.D.’s.
“Wow,” Neil murmured. “And I wondered if motherhood would make her soft…”
His voice trailed off. At the last minute, the youngest member of the squad seemed to realize he probably should’ve kept that thought to himself.
But D.D. just clapped him on the back. “Missed you, too,” she informed him, cheerfully. “Now then. Nothing personal, but I gotta be home by five, which gives us,” she glanced at her watch. “About six more hours to catch a killer. Let’s do it.”
HOURS LATER, D.D. finished overseeing the processing of the murder scene. She’d long stopped registering the ammonia-like scent of urine, let alone the rank odor of puppy poo. Instead, she clambered back down the stairs of the tenement building and out the front doors contemplating many thoughts at once: She should get home soon, she should contact the lead investigator from the first shooting, she should order a rush on the ballistics test from this shooting to compare with the previous shooting. What were the odds of her boss, Cal Horgan, letting her have an extra body to help view all the video footage? Or maybe she’d just have to do that herself. Phil, after all, would need days to pour through all the computer data. Neil would probably soon be in a state of depression going through all those photos, the kind of work D.D. and Phil had done before and would probably do again, but not any sooner than they had to. Didn’t matter how objective and analytic you made yourself, photos of kids hurt. So adding to her mental list, check on Neil, see how he was coping with his assignment; did he require any mental health resources, or even a therapeutic night out over beers? Sergeants managed their people as much as their cases, and D.D. prided herself on both.
She cleared the building steps and hit fresh air, inhaling several deep breaths. No flash of media cameras awaited her; a shooting in a Boston tenement hardly rated coverage. Of course, once the media caught wind of what they’d found in the vic’s photo boxes and, not being dumb bunnies, connected this incident with another shooting four weeks prior…
But for now, all was quiet, and D.D. was gonna enjoy it while she could.
She pushed through the last of the gawkers, most of them looking bored, an actual murder investigation not being nearly as exciting as what they’d seen on TV. D.D. buried her hands in her pockets, ducked her head against the biting January chill, and headed down the block to her car.
Fifty yards away, she spotted it. White, like a blot of snow, at the bottom of her windshield. Except when the wind caught it, it started flapping, and she realized it was half a piece of paper, shoved under the left wiper.
Maybe an advertisement or flier. She didn’t pick up her pace, just kept walking, huddling inside her BPD field coat for warmth.
As she hit the hood of her car, she could see enough to realize it wasn’t a flier-the letters were handwritten script, not block printed. She faltered, footsteps slowing. Keeping her hands in her pockets, she leaned forward, studying the half sheet of paper more closely.
The script letters were thin, almost spidery looking but curiously flat at the bottom, as if the person had used a ruler to set an edge. The note wasn’t addressed or signed. It contained two sentences:
Everyone has to die sometime.
Immediately, D.D. glanced up, looked around. There, across the street, a figure disappearing around the corner in a black down coat.
D.D. started to run.
AS SHE SPRINTED ACROSS THE STREET, D.D. had two thoughts at once: Running was not a good idea for a woman who’d given birth ten weeks ago; things bounced that had not bounced a year ago and none of it was comfortable. Second, chasing a potential suspect all alone was not a good idea for a new mom who hoped to kiss her baby boy on the cheek in approximately three hours.
Bad news: Uniformed officers might carry radios, but detectives did not. Meaning she should’ve stopped at her car for the radio, yelled over her shoulder at another officer, something.
Ah fuck it. D.D. rounded the corner, saw the fast-moving figure in black preparing to cross the next street, and yelled out her Hail Mary pass: “Boston Police. Stop or I’ll shoot.”
Not even remotely close to appropriate use of force, but given that most of the public grew up on Dirty Harry, who were they to question such a threat? The figure in black obediently halted and turned around.
“Keep your hands where I can see them!” D.D. boomed, slowing to a jog, right hand inside her coat, on the butt of her handgun, still nestled in her shoulder holster.
The person of interest stuck his arms out, splaying black gloved fingers in a comic parody of I didn’t do it.
D.D. settled into a walk, approaching more carefully. She homed in on the pale oval face she could just make out between the high collar of the black down coat and the low brim of the black wool hat. This close, she could see that the features were too small, too delicate to be male. In fact, once she adjusted for the bulky winter coat, she realized that the person in front of her was probably only five one, maybe a hundred, hundred and ten pounds.
Female. Young, early to mid-twenties would be her guess. Caucasian, with dark hair and hollowed out blue eyes that currently looked simultaneously wary, fearful, and defiant. Basic response of most of the general population when being confronted by a cop. The initial I didn’t do it warring with the deeper knowledge of but I have done something.
D.D. came to a halt three paces back from the lone female. She kept her gaze hard, right hand still resting on the butt of her gun.
“Name,” she asked crisply.
D.D. narrowed her eyes. “You always talk back to cops?”
“I’d like to see your badge,” the woman said firmly, but her voice wavered at the end. Tough, but not that tough.
D.D. said nothing, did nothing. Always the best offense.
In response, the girl sighed and seemed to settle in herself. A woman of experience.
D.D. let an entire minute drag out. Then, slowly, deliberately, she unclipped her badge from the waistband of her jeans with her left hand and held it out. “Sergeant Detective D. D. Warren, Boston PD. I’ve told you mine, now you tell me yours.”
“Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant.”
“Say what?” D.D. blinked a few times at the long string. “Rosalynn Carter…You’re a former First Lady?”
“Rosalind Carter. Charlene. Rosalind. Carter. Grant. But you can call me Charlie.”
D.D. stared at her harder. “You’re not from around here, are you, Charlie?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Then what are you doing at my crime scene?”
The young woman stared at her. Her expression seemed to waver then, all at once, harden in resolve. “I’m checking you out.”
“Four days from now, I’m expecting to be murdered. I’ve read that you’re one of the best homicide detectives in the city, so I’d like you to handle the investigation. I figure you’re the only shot at justice I’ll have left.”
D.D. TOOK CHARLIE DOWN TO BPD HEADQUARTERS. One, because that was the craziest damn story she’d ever heard, and that made D.D. deeply suspicious right there. Two, Charlie happened to match the very general description of the shooter from the first dead pervert scene, not to mention she’d been walking away from D.D.’s car at about the same time D.D. had spotted the windshield note. Finally, it’s not like D.D. had any better leads to pursue, so one lone female in a bulky black winter coat it was.
D.D. patted down her suspect, then made her remove her hat before dumping her in the backseat of D.D.’s Crown Vic. Policing 101. Eye contact and facial expressions were everything, meaning D.D. never let suspects, interview subjects, or witnesses hide beneath hats and scarves.
D.D. bagged and tagged the note on her front windshield. She placed that on the seat beside her. Then, with Charlie in the back, D.D headed to HQ while working her phone in the front. In a matter of minutes, she was able to establish that Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant worked the comm center for the Grovesnor PD and was not listed on any outstanding warrants. Two points in the girl’s favor, she supposed.
Next up, she checked her messages. One from Alex, just seeing about her day. Second was her mother, and D.D. instinctively cringed. Her parents would be arriving in just two days, Thursday night. Her mother wanted to know if D.D. planned on meeting their plane or was going to force them to find their way to Alex’s house on their own. Her voice made her opinion on the subject clear. Also, the way she said “Alex’s house.”
D.D. cleared the message, didn’t immediately call back.
Not too late to panic, she thought idly. Maybe she, Alex, and baby Jack could all run away and join the circus. Personally, she thought Alex would look handsome in clown stripes, and Jack would be adorable in polka dots. And given the choice between confronting her clearly disapproving You had a baby out of wedlock mother and wearing a red clown nose for the rest of her life…well, D.D. thought that choice was clear.
D.D. sighed. Her parents hated coming north. No doubt, they’d been waiting for her to be a dutiful only child and bring their first grandchild to Florida. But Jack had been born almost four weeks premature, in mid-November versus mid-December. He’d had to spend his first week of life in neonatal intensive care, finishing baking, as her obstetrician had said. D.D. hadn’t been capable of dealing with her parents at that time. She hadn’t even called them until ten days after her own son’s birth, a fairly unforgivable sin, she was informed later. But during those first few days…
By the time the crisis had passed, and D.D. had connected with her parents, it had been Thanksgiving. Too chaotic for travel, her mother informed her, voice filled with disapproval and dismay. D.D.’s selfishness had already cost them the first two weeks of their grandson’s life, and now they’d be forced to delay even longer…
More phone calls, more holiday season churn, more guilt. Until here D.D. was, counting down to her parents’ January 19 Boston flight.
Then her parents, who’d never planned on having kids but late in life ended up with her, and herself, who never planned on having a family but late in life ended up with Jack, could all sit together in one room.
If Alex had any sense at all, he’d start running now.
D.D. neared headquarters, started the search for parking. BPD headquarters was situated in the middle of inner-city Roxbury, where parking spots and drug-free neighborhoods were equally difficult to find. She performed her usual loop. Third time was the charm.
She parked, got out, opened the back door, and contemplated the girl again.
Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant simply climbed out and stood up.
“You don’t talk much,” D.D. said.
“You don’t believe me. What’s there to say?”
D.D. nodded. “Fair enough. Want coffee?” She strode across the street, keeping the girl beside her.
“Yes please. Are you charging me with something?”
“Should I be charging you with something?”
The girl sighed. “Have you spoken to the Grovesnor PD?”
“Then you know I’m not a total fruitcake.”
“Why’d you leave a note on my windshield?” D.D. asked.
“What note? I didn’t leave a note.”
“Note you watched me bag and tag.”
“Not my note,” the girl said. “Didn’t even see it, let alone know that car was your vehicle. Trust me, to us non-law-enforcement types, all Crown Vics look alike.”
D.D. didn’t comment, but thought it was a fair observation. In a street chock-full of police cruisers and Crown Vics, had the author of the note known enough to target D.D.’s car specifically, or a detective’s vehicle generally? Something to consider for later.
D.D. escorted Charlie inside HQ, then upstairs to homicide. The homicide department was a nice space, D.D. always thought. More business suite than gritty cop show set. As a squad leader, D.D. had her own tiny office, complete with a laminated wood desk, laptop, and plush black leather desk chair. Very civilized.
D.D. didn’t take her charge there, but instead led Charlie to a small interview room, where she took the girl’s coat, then plunked her down at the table. D.D. went off in pursuit of beverages. Coffee for the girl, which made D.D. waver, eye the pot. But no, she’d been decaffeinated this long, she could make it another hour.
She’d initially given up coffee during her pregnancy, or rather, Jack had rebelled so insistently she couldn’t stomach the dark brew. Then, she’d stayed off the caffeine as she’d breast-fed for the first six weeks, surprising herself by desperately wanting to nurse, and had only weaned Jack at the six-week mark because she had to return to work and no way her schedule allowed for all that pumping and stuff other working moms heroically endured.
She missed it. Didn’t talk about it, not even to Alex, because what could she say? She had to return to work. So her baby took a bottle and was now being watched eight hours a day by a nice lady down the street. That was life. If D.D. could walk a homicide scene, surely she could handle parenthood.
D.D. poured a cup of coffee for Charlie, grabbed a bottle of water for herself.
Ninety-three minutes before she went home.
She reentered the interview room, took a seat across from her person of interest, and got down to business.
“WHERE YOU FROM, CHARLIE?”
“J-Town, New Hampshire.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Three hours north, near Mount Washington. Small town. One of those places where everybody knows your name.”
“Why’d you leave?”
“Because I believe the person who will try to kill me on January twenty-first will be someone I know. So, first line of defense is to run away from everyone I know.”
The girl grimaced. She’d taken the coffee from D.D. but wasn’t drinking it. Just holding it between her hands as if for warmth.
According to the preliminary background report, Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant was twenty-eight years old. In person, with her long brown hair scraped tightly into a ponytail, she appeared even younger. She had a slight frame, D.D. decided, further hollowed out by nerves or stress or something. The girl’s pale cheeks were gaunt, her blue eyes bruised from sleepless nights. She wore an oversized shapeless black sweatshirt, the kind favored by street thugs and vandals, paired with broken-down jeans and cheap snow boots. An outfit guaranteed to blend into almost any urban landscape.
A good ensemble, D.D. figured, to be either predator or prey.
“Why January twenty-one? And why do you think you’ll know your killer?”
The girl started talking then. It was impressive really. About her first childhood friend murdered two years ago on the twenty-first, then her second friend murdered one year later on the exact same date, leaving Charlie as the last man standing. Charlie had names of lead detectives, even volunteered a report written up by a retired FBI profiler, Pierce Quincy, analyzing the crime scenes.
“Findings?” D.D. had to ask, not that she trusted some Feebie’s report, but, then again…She took some notes. One of the investigators, Rhode Island State Detective Roan Griffin, she knew from training exercises. Maybe she’d give him a call.
“Given the lack of physical evidence,” the girl said, “no forced entry, no sign of struggle, Quincy theorizes the killer is of above-average intelligence, methodical in thought and appearance. Perhaps someone known to the victims, but at least someone who would initially appear nonthreatening. Probably above-average verbal skills, hence the killer’s ability to talk his way into the home and control his victim’s responses until the last possible moment.”
The girl recited the sentences flatly. Someone who’d read the crime scene analysis so many times, the words had ceased to refer to people she once knew and loved, and instead had become stock phrases repeated to trained professionals over and over again. D.D. had worked with family members from other cold cases. She knew how this drill went. The slow migration from wounded loved one to staunch advocate. How some family members ended up knowing more about forensics than the experts involved.
“Sexual assault?” D.D. asked.
D.D. frowned. That surprised her. Most murderers were sexual predators at heart. Particularly given these dynamics, a crime that involved intimate stalking, then occurred up close and personal. Now, in cases of murder-for-hire, or a homicide for personal gain, lack of sexual assault was more typical. Motivation then was materialistic in nature, not sexually driven.
“Signs of robbery?” she asked now.
“Anything missing at all? Even a special artifact, something meaningful to each victim?”
Charlie shook her head. “But hard to be definitive,” she supplied. “My friends lived alone, meaning it’s hard to confirm every item in each household. If something small were taken, it could be easily overlooked.”
“What about inheritance?” D.D. asked. “Anyone obviously better off from your friends’ deaths?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t think Randi had much, being recently divorced. I guess it went to her parents, maybe? Probably the same for Jackie. She was doing very well for Coca-Cola, but even then, I wouldn’t call her rich. She probably had some equity in her house, her car, a retirement account. But tens of thousands, I’d guess, not hundreds of thousands.”
“You get anything?” D.D. asked her bluntly.
The girl shook her head.
“I never heard of anything. Though,” Charlie caught herself, “it wouldn’t surprise me if Jackie had a policy. She liked to plan ahead. I would guess, however, that her parents or her brother were the beneficiaries.”
“No partner,” Charlie corrected.
D.D. stared at her. “You ever get involved with her?”
“We were best friends,” Charlie said evenly. “Lesbians can have female friends you know, just like guys can have female friends.”
“Gotta ask the question,” D.D. said mildly. “It’s what I do.” D.D. pursed her lips, continuing to mull the matter. Two homicides, a thousand miles apart. Link between the victims, the methodology, and the date, but not enough evidence to provide traction. Hell of a story, she had to admit. Interesting. Intriguing. The kind of thing to tickle a workaholic detective’s crime bone.
“So what do you want?” D.D. asked finally.
Charlie blinked. Stared at D.D., held her coffee cup again. “What do you mean?”
“You came to me, remember? Lurked outside an active crime scene. Why?”
The girl hesitated. Her gaze flickered away.
D.D. took a swig of water. She enjoyed obvious liars. Made her job easier.
“I wanted to see you,” Charlie said at last.
“How’d you know where I’d be?”
“Police scanner. I’m a dispatch officer, right? I hear all the calls come in. Heard about the shooting, gambled you’d be there.”
“Because I Googled you.”
“I Googled you. I searched for homicide detectives in Boston and your name was the one that kept coming up. You helped rescue the state trooper’s little girl, solve the string of family annihilations, find the missing wife in South Boston. I did some research, and…” The girl pushed away her coffee mug, looked up at D.D., and shrugged. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in four days. I guess, I just want to meet the person who might handle my murder. And I want you to meet me because maybe that will help. Maybe, having met me, you’ll try harder. And that will finally catch him. Someone has to.”
“Won’t be me,” D.D. said.
“You rent a place in Cambridge, right? Not my jurisdiction.”
“Oh.” Apparently, Charlie hadn’t known this. “Perhaps I won’t be murdered there.”
“Your friends were. In their own homes, right?”
“It’s not really my house,” the girl said. “I just rent a room.”
“Semantics. Your profiler describes these murders as an intimate crime, right? Not stranger-to-stranger. Known perpetrator to known victim.”
“So he’ll strike where you feel comfortable. That’s part of the process, the methodology. Sneaking up on you on the subway won’t do it for him. You gotta see him coming. You gotta welcome him with a smile. It’s part of the drill.”
“Then I guess I won’t go home on the twenty-first.”
D.D. was curious despite herself. “So you left your town, came to the big city. Figured it was easier to get lost here, maybe hide in a crowd?”
The girl nodded. “And I run, and lift weights and box and train with firearms. I’m not defenseless.”
“Licensed to carry?” D.D. asked sharply.
“How’d you manage that?” Unlike other states, where it was legal to have a gun in one’s vehicle, home, or business, Massachusetts required a gun license to even possess a firearm. A license to carry was one step above that, granting the person permission to carry the firearm outside his or her home or business. The license usually required some kind of underlying reason-the person seeking the license worked in security, was a business owner who routinely carried large amounts of cash, that sort of thing. Being young and paranoid probably wasn’t a check mark on the form, D.D. guessed.
The girl, however, had her jaw set in a stubborn line. “I’m legal,” she said, and folded her hands in front of her.
D.D. continued to regard her levelly. “All right. You’re legally armed and training to be dangerous. But you kept your name, Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant. Why take all those steps and not change your name?”
Girl looked away. “I have to work. And the only experience I have is in dispatch, which means I have to pass a background check. Even if I invented a new identity, I don’t know how to create one that would stand up to that level of scrutiny.”
The girl startled, look up at her sharply.
“Come on, don’t waste my time. You lie about one thing, then I gotta worry about you lying about other things and for the record,” D.D. glanced at her watch, “you have only three minutes left, so let’s not waste it on games.”
“I have only three minutes left?”
“Yep. It’s called lifestyle,” D.D. informed her gravely. “Forty years later, I’ve decided to give it a chance. So don’t fuck with me. Look me in the eye, and tell me why you kept your name.”
“I want to go home.” And the way the girl said it, D.D. understood she didn’t mean to a rented room in Cambridge. She meant her town, her people. She meant the place she had belonged in the days before her childhood friends had started dying.
She meant a place that D.D. herself was just starting to identify, and that spooked her a little, made her shiver, because there was a plaintive tone there, a longing that D.D., with three minutes to go, understood.
“You want the killer to find you.”
“I can’t go home until he does.”
“Has he made contact? Notes, phone calls, any kind of warning or threat?”
The girl shook her head. “I understand,” she said, almost kindly, “that there’s nothing you can do. No threat, no assault, no murder, means no crime, means no jurisdiction. I’m just a fairy tale you’re listening to today.”
“You should change your name,” D.D. said. “Or at least tell your story to your own officers. You’re dispatch. You have their backs, they’ll watch yours.”
“It will be someone I know, someone I trust,” Charlie said, and shook her head.
“Ah, but the Grovesnor PD didn’t know your friends. No link, making them your safest bet.”
But, for whatever reason, Charlie still seemed unconvinced. Just because you were paranoid, D.D. thought, didn’t mean they weren’t out to get you.
She glanced at her watch. Three minutes were up. Interview was over. Time for the new and improved D. D. Warren to report home. She stood.
“Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant, what kind of firearm do you carry?”
The girl regarded her mutely.
D.D. returned the stare.
“I carry a Taurus twenty-two LR pistol,” the girl supplied crisply. “I train with J. T. Dillon at the Massachusetts Rifle Association in Woburn.”
“Yeah? How good a shot?”
“I can hit bull’s-eye at fifty feet.”
“Sounds like you’d be really good at a double tap to the forehead.”
“Risky target,” the girl replied levelly. “Center mass is a better bet.”
D.D. digested this, still not sure what she thought of the girl’s presence outside an active homicide scene, and still not liking all her answers to D.D.’s questions. But seeing as gawking at crime scenes still wasn’t considered a criminal offense…
D.D. pushed away from the table. “All right. We’re done.” D.D. paused a beat. “For now.”
The girl blinked a few times. “Meaning?”
“Go home. Take care of yourself. Avoid future crime scenes.”
“Including my own?” Charlie smiled wanly, then rose to standing. “You can’t help me.”
“You were right before. No crime, no jurisdiction.”
“I keep my room spotless. I plan on bleaching the floors, walls, sheets the night before. Know that, on the twenty-second, when there is a crime, when you do have jurisdiction, or can consult with the detective that does. Anything found at the scene is from him. Plus, check my nails. I’ve been growing them out, and you better believe, blood, hair, skin, I’ll be going for all the DNA I can get. I won’t give up. Remember that, on the twenty-second. I’ve been preparing, planning, and strategizing. He catches me, I’m not going down without a fight.”
D.D. stared at the girl. She believed her. At least this much was true.
“I’m gonna die trying,” Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant informed her. “Remember that, Detective Warren. After that…it’s up to you.”
“MOMMY, I’M HOME!” The boy burst through the front door of the apartment, tossing his Red Sox backpack to the left, while kicking his snowy boots to the right. Navy blue snow coat he dropped dead ahead, then amused himself by leaping over it in his stocking feet. He landed with a satisfying thump, then flipped his hat into the air. He didn’t wait to see where it landed, but bolted to the kitchen for a snack.
“Jesse,” his mother chided him from down the hall. “Not so much noise. I’m on the phone.”
Jesse didn’t answer back; he knew his mother didn’t expect him to. His entrance, her response, was as much a part of his after-school ritual as say, grabbing Twinkies for a snack.
Jesse’s mother worked on the phone. Sales stuff. Lucky she had the job, she’d told him many times. Lucky she could work from home, so he didn’t have to do the dreaded after-school program, where they fed you, like, granola bars and not even the good chewy kind, but the hard crunchy kind no self-respecting kid liked, but parents bought ’cause they were cheaper by the box.
In the kitchen, Jesse climbed onto the countertop, opened the top cabinet, and grabbed a blue plastic cup. Cup down, he leapt from the countertop onto the floor-another satisfying thump. This time, the floor thumped back.
Mrs. Flowers, the gazillion-year-old lady who lived beneath them. She didn’t like it when Jesse bounced around. “Sounds like you’re raising an elephant!” she’d complained to his mother many times. His mother would then laugh uncomfortably. “Boys will be boys,” she’d say, while shooting Jesse a look that meant he’d better straighten up his act, or else.
Jesse sighed, tried to use his quiet feet as he padded to the fridge and tugged hard on the door. This was the deal: He could eat Twinkies, but only if he drank a glass of milk.
Good deal. Jesse poured himself a glass of milk, then sucked the cream filling out of his Twinkies.
First after-school ritual completed, he went into the family room. He wasn’t allowed TV or video games after school. TV rots the brain, his mother always said, and Jesse would need his one day if he wanted to have a better life. Plus, TV and video games made noise, which wasn’t good for his mother’s job.
So, another deal. He was allowed on the computer, which sat on the kitchen table in the corner of the family room. The table sat four, but since there was only him and his mom, that left two open spots. The computer occupied one. He was supposed to put his homework and school papers in the second spot. After dinner, his mother would review his school papers, then it was homework time. He’d do his, his mother would do hers.
She was in school, too. Nursing. One more year to go, then she could have a better job, she told him. One with more money and benefits, and maybe they could move to a better apartment in a building with a playground, where boys could run around and be boys, without ancient Mrs. Flowers pounding her ceiling with a broom handle.
Jesse took a seat. Booted up the laptop. It was old, a gift from his mother’s last boyfriend, who’d been okay. He’d liked the Red Sox, would play catch in the park, and had bought Jesse his first stuffed bear (holding a ball and bat), which he’d registered on the AthleteAnimalz site. Homerun Bear, his bear was called, and Jesse liked that. He wanted to be a baseball player, too, some day. Be just like Big Papi.
That boyfriend had lasted a whole year. Then apparently, he’d met someone else and Jesse’s mother had cried and Jesse had stopped liking Mitchell, had started hating him instead. One night Jesse had even taken scissors to Homerun Bear and done his best to destroy him. In the morning, however, he’d felt bad. It wasn’t really the bear’s fault, after all. And Jesse didn’t have that many toys, given the “bad economy” as his mother always said.
Jesse had used silver duct tape to fix Homerun Bear as best he could. Attaching each limb, then the bat, then the ball, then the ears. He thought it made his bear look pretty cool. Zombie Bear, he called him now. A homerun hitter, raised from the dead.
Zombie Bear was currently sitting next to the laptop, waiting for their latest after-school adventures. Under Zombie Bear’s steady gaze, Jesse finally got the old computer booted up and launched the AthleteAnimalz website.
Jesse was only allowed to go to three websites on the computer. His mother had checked out each one before giving her approval. He was not allowed to deviate from the list, and once, when he’d accidentally typed in the wrong Internet address, she’d known and asked him about it the next morning. Jesse had heard a TV commercial talk about spyware. He figured his mother had some.
Jesse liked AthleteAnimalz. He liked the games, especially baseball. Course, in the world of AthleteAnimalz, it was never Jesse online, it was Homerun aka Zombie Bear. So Jesse would log in and magically become his bear. As Homerun Bear, he could then move around the site-make friends, join games, compete to collect the most points.
Jesse wanted a million points. But he was only seven, and some of the games confused him. So far, he had 121 points. Not bad, he thought. When he hit 150, he’d get a trophy. He wanted that trophy. So lately, every day after school, he logged onto AthleteAnimalz.com and played baseball. He got to join a team with other AthleteAnimalz, including some pink poodle with a soccer ball that was the best homerun hitter Jesse had ever seen. He wasn’t sure a pink poodle should be the best one at baseball, but there you had it. The world of AthleteAnimalz.
Today, he found a baseball game already in play. Each team had enough members, but you could “sit on the bench” and wait for a team to draft you. Generally, you were picked based on points. Animals with lots of points got drafted quickly. Animals with fewer points, the “rookies,” had to wait longer.
Jesse checked out both teams. Their rosters revealed a long list of monkeys, dogs, cats, bunnies, two snakes, and one hippo, with a wide range of points. Not too bad then; he’d get drafted sooner versus later, he thought. And if his team won, they’d all score ten bonus points, plus one point for every fifteen minutes they spent online. In two hours, Jesse would get that much closer to his 150-point trophy.
A box opened on the screen. A hippo with a batter’s helmet wanted to know if Jesse would join his team. Staring at the computer screen, Jesse’s eyes widened. Helmet Hippo had like a gazillion points. Like, the grandmaster of AthleteAnimalz. Jesse had played with him a couple of times before. Helmet Hippo knew all the moves. Helmet Hippo never lost.
Jesse couldn’t believe his luck.
He quickly accepted the invitation, and on screen, a little icon of his bear appeared on the baseball field. His team was currently fielding. Homerun Bear appeared in center field. Jesse could “catch” the ball by clicking on the mouse once, and throw it by using the directional arrows to aim, then click again. Catching wasn’t so bad, but throwing was more challenging for him-he had a hard time lining up his throw using the arrows. But for Helmet Hippo, he would do his best.
For Helmet Hippo, Jesse was determined to be a winner.
SOMETIME AFTER FOUR, Jesse’s mother got off the phone. She wandered into the room, but he barely noticed. Pink Poodle had appeared and immediately been drafted by the rival team. She’d already hit two home runs, and now, in the final inning, Jesse’s team was behind, six to seven, and coming up to bat. By virtue of points, Helmet Hippo was their team leader. He was urging them to be strong. They could do this!
Jesse’s mother paused behind him. “AthleteAnimalz?” she asked.
Jesse nodded absently, eyes glued to the screen. Almost his turn to hit. He was nervous. Didn’t want to let his team down.
His mother nodded at the approved website and made her way toward the kitchen. “Dinner in fifteen, Jesse.”
He nodded again, barely registering. His turn. One out, Helmet Hippo on second base. Right hit, and Jesse could drive in the tying run. Better hit, and Jesse and Helmet Hippo would both score, taking the lead.
To hit, Jesse had to watch the ball coming at him and time the click of the mouse. Except sometimes the ball would speed up, sometimes slow down, and sometimes drift wide-a walk. Just like in real baseball, judgment and timing were everything.
First pitch, Jesse clicked too soon. Strike.
Second pitch. Ball drifted wide, but Jesse had already clicked. A swing and a miss, strike two.
A dialogue box opened above Helmet Hippo’s head. Players couldn’t type in anything they wanted-the website didn’t allow that. Security controls, his mother had said approvingly. Instead, you could select from stock expressions-a lot of sporting stuff, basic conversational stuff. The website was also patrolled for bullying. Jesse knew, because his mother had told him that. He didn’t see how the players could bully one another, given that the stock phrases were all Go Team Go kind of stuff, but maybe there were ways around the phrases. Things the other, more experienced kids knew how to do. Jesse didn’t care; he was still learning how to write, so he liked being able to select a whole phrase for his bear to say with a click of the computer mouse.
“Eye on the ball,” Helmet Hippo said now. “You can do it. I know you can.”
Jesse took a deep breath. He would do this. For his team. For Helmet Hippo.
Ball came, a tiny black dot traveling down the computer screen, first slow, then fast, fast, fast…
Jesse clicked his mouse. On the screen, his bear swung a bat, the sound of thwacking came through the speakers, and suddenly, the tiny black dot was moving again, flying away from Jesse’s bear, over Helmet Hippo into the green of the outfield, but still going, going…
The word “GONE” lit up across Jesse’s screen. Virtual confetti rained down, triumphant music blared. Home run. Jesse had done it. Home run!
The graphic explosion cleared, and now Jesse could watch his bear and Helmet Hippo run the bases. Scoring once, scoring twice, as Jesse’s team took the lead, eight to seven.
“Jesse, five more minutes,” his mother called from the kitchen.
Jesse remained glued to the screen. His left hand now clutched Zombie Bear. All his teammates were talking, conversation bubbles appearing everywhere as they congratulated him on his game-winning hit.
But Jesse had eyes for only one teammate: Helmet Hippo.
“Way to go! You are a champion!”
Jesse was still smiling, beaming really, when a new icon lit up on the bottom panel of his screen. The mailbox. His bear had just received mail.
Jesse obediently clicked. Generally mail came from the site itself. Notification of bonus points, presents for Zombie Bear on his birthday, or announcements of weekly specials on the site-play this game, earn this many bonus points!
But the message wasn’t from the website administrator. It was from Helmet Hippo. They could send mail to each other. Jesse hadn’t known that, but now he did.
“Homerun Bear,” the message began (only Jesse called his bear Zombie Bear, after the scissors incident). “Congratulations on your winning hit. I knew you could do it! Want to play again? Tomorrow, 3:30, I’ll be here. I always wear my Red Sox hat for good luck. You?”
There was a button for reply.
Jesse hit reply, watched a fresh window open up. Helmet Hippo’s name automatically appeared, but the rest of the message was blank. No phrases to pick from. He’d have to do it. Type it in all by himself. But he could use the first message to cheat a little, look at those words for spelling.
Jesse’s mother was banging around in the kitchen.
Jesse stuck his tongue between his teeth and began to laboriously type. “Yes. I’ll be here. I like the Red Sox, too.”
* * *
LATER, AFTER DINNER, after homework, after bath and bedtime stories, Jesse curled up beneath his Star Wars sheets and clutched Zombie Bear. He thought again of his homerun hit. He thought again of Helmet Hippo.
And he felt warm all over. Like someone special.
Tomorrow, 3:30. Jesse couldn’t wait.
“THAT DOG THAT’S NOT YOUR DOG is waiting for you on the front porch,” my landlady called through my bedroom door. It was 9 P.M., time for me to start thinking about heading to work.
My bedroom was located in the back ground level of a 120-year-old triple-decker. At first I’d been concerned about this. I would’ve preferred a second- or third-story unit, but those larger apartments were all taken and, frankly, out of my price range. It turned out, however, that my landlady, Frances Beals, was security savvy. She’d been born in this house, she’d told me the day of my interview. Good Irish Catholic family with eleven kids. Half the siblings were now scattered to other states; the other half were already dead.
Having lived her whole life in Cambridge, Frances wasn’t blind to its shortcomings. A university town, Cambridge featured an eclectic mix of multimillion-dollar grand old mansions and barely maintained brick apartment units. There were sprawling green spaces and quaint dining opportunities for upwardly mobile young families, as well as Laundromats, pizza joints, and trendy clothing stores for the college kids. Some of Cambridge’s residents, like Frances, came from families who’d lived here for generations. Most simply passed through for a summer or semester or four-year degree. Meaning the town offered interesting pockets of well-established security, surrounded by other pockets of petty crime, vagrant lifestyles, and drunken debauchery.
Before I could rent the room, I had to pass a two-hour interview with Frances, to determine which of these categories I fell into. When she ascertained I had no pets, no boyfriends, and most likely, no body piercings, I’d passed muster. My only requirement for her was a double-bolt lock on my door, and I asked permission to inspect all door and window locks on the lower level.
She seemed surprised by this request, then pleased. Like maybe that proved I had some common sense after all.
The most Frances and I had ever spoken was during the interview. I figured she was married once, because there was a wedding portrait on the mantel. Next to it was a picture of a baby, but Frances never mentioned kids and no family came for Christmas. Maybe that told its own story. I wondered, but I never asked.
By mutual agreement, Frances came and went through the front entrance, while I accessed my room via the rear, garden door. I tried to keep out of her way, which wasn’t too hard as I worked graveyard four nights a week, then slept till midday.
My room was small, but I liked the battered hardwood floors, the nine-foot ceilings, the historic bull’s-eye molding. A female professor had rented the room before me. She’d left behind an Ikea bookshelf filled with romance novels. So that’s what I did in my free time. I sat in my room and devoured Nora Roberts novels. I figured with everything I had going on in my life, I deserved at least a few hours a day with a happy ending.
Now I pulled on a bulky gray hooded sweatshirt, then reached under my pillow for my. 22. A year ago, I’d never so much as touched a handgun. I couldn’t have told a pistol from a revolver, a rimfire from a centerfire, a. 22 from a. 357 magnum.
Now, I gotta say, I’m a hell of a good shot.
A. 22’s not the best self-defense weapon in the world. Most people choose this gun as a “concealment” weapon-its small size and light weight make it easy to carry. Tuck it in your pocket or belt holster, or, as I’d been told, hang it from a chain around your neck like a true gang banger.
In public, I kept mine in my leather messenger bag, as Massachusetts frowned on citizens being openly armed. In private, however, and certainly on January 21, the semiauto would be in a holster on my left hip. I’d practiced many, many times, drawing it quickly and opening fire. In fact, I practiced that at least thirty minutes twice a week.
My Taurus semiauto had a nickel finish with rosewood grip. It weighed twelve ounces, fit snug in the palm of my hand, and I’d come to welcome the feel of the warm wood against my fingers. It was a pretty gun, if I do say so. But it was also reasonably priced, and inexpensive to arm.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have considered that either. Not just that firearms can be expensive, but so are boxes of ammo. And let me tell you, just because I feared for my life didn’t mean I had unlimited resources.
These days, I was a walking advertisement for safety and security on a working girl’s budget. Hence the real reason I had a two-hundred-dollar. 22, and not something much more commanding, such as a two-thousand-dollar Glock. 45. My instructor, J. T. Dillon, let me fire his one day. I thought the recoil was going to blow off my arm, but the hole in the target was something to behold. SWAT guys and Special Forces commandos often carry. 45s. I wondered how that must feel, confronting an unknown threat while surrounded by buddies you know have got your back and carrying a weapon designed just for a guy like you to get the job done.
For the past two weeks, I’d been trying to picture January 21. J.T. kept walking me through it-visualization as a form of preparation.
I stood in the middle of my charming little bedroom. Twin bed was pushed against the wall to the left, blond Ikea bookshelf behind me, old microwave stand topped with even older twenty-inch TV stationed beside the door. Room to move, fight, defend. Space to fully extend my arms, two-handed grip, my Taurus a natural extension of my body. My pistol was loaded with match-grade. 22-caliber long rifle, or LR, cartridges. The rounds may not pack the biggest boom, but I had nine shots to get it right.
During my twice weekly training sessions, J.T. ordered me to empty my clip every time. Never practice hesitation, he instructed me, over and over again. Evaluate the threat. Make your decision. Commit to defend.
I still couldn’t picture January 21. Mostly, I remembered the police reports-no sign of forced entry, no sign of a struggle.
You gotta see him coming, Detective Warren had said this afternoon. You gotta welcome him with a smile.
I holstered my Taurus, donned my heavy black coat, and headed for work.
THE DOG THAT WAS NOT MY DOG was waiting for me on the front porch. The rear of Frances’s narrow lot was barricaded by a five-foot-high wooden fence; otherwise I was pretty sure the dog would wait at the back door for me. She was that smart.
I called her Tulip. She’d started hanging around six months ago. No collar, no tags. At first she’d just followed me down the street when I went for my afternoon runs. I figured she was hungry, hoping for a treat. But back in those days, I never gave her anything. Not my dog, not my problem. I just wanted to exercise.
So Tulip started to run. All five miles, tongue lolling out, sleek white-and-tan body pounding out the miles. Afterward, it seemed cruel not to provide at least a bowl of water. So we sat together on the front porch. She drank a bowl. I drank a bottle. Then she sprawled beside me and put her head on my lap. Then, I stroked her ears, her graying muzzle.
She looked like some kind of hound. Harrier, Frances had muttered one day. When I looked it up on the library’s computer, the breed turned out to be a small to mid-sized English hound dog. Tulip shared many of the markings-a short tan coat with white stockinged legs and broad white collar. Wire whip tail, floppy ears, broad, handsome face. Tulip was definitely an older dog. A grand dame who’d been there and done that. The stories she could tell, I figured, and knew exactly how she felt.
Tonight, Tulip sat in the middle of the covered porch, away from the snow. She was a very patient dog; Frances said she sometimes sat there for hours waiting for me.
I hadn’t seen her for several days-that’s the problem with a dog that’s not your dog. I didn’t know where she went, or even if she had another home. Sometimes, I saw her daily; sometimes a couple times a week. I guess I got to practice patience, too.
She was shivering when I came around, and immediately I felt bad.
“You can’t keep doing this,” I told her, rounding the corner, watching her rise in greeting and wag her whiplike tail. “January is no time to be homeless in Boston.”
Tulip looked at me, whined a little.
I’d started buying bags of dog food five months back. She was just so skinny, and then when she kept running like that…The first vet visit was two weeks later. No fleas, no ticks, no heartworm. The vet gave her shots, gave me Frontline, then wrote up a bill that made my. 22 semiauto look cheap.
I paid. Worked some overtime. Kept running with the dog that was not my dog. Started pouring dry food into a bowl.
I had a Baggie of food in my pocket, had filled it when Frances had told me Tulip was waiting on the porch. Now I emptied the kibble on the front porch. Tulip advanced gratefully. She looked skinnier to me. I saw a fresh mark near her hindquarters, a tear on her right ear.
I’d put up posters in the fall, trying to see if anyone had lost a dog. I’d even spent precious cash on an ad in the local paper. Once, I’d called animal control, but when the officer started to ask me too many questions, I panicked. I just wanted to know if Tulip had a real home, somewhere where she was loved and missed and needed to get back to. Because I understood that sort of thing, felt it myself.
But I didn’t want her carted off to a pound, then killed, just because somewhere along the way she’d become her own creature instead of someone else’s.
“You need a coat,” I murmured to her now, smoothing back her ears and scratching the heavier folds of skin around her neck. She leaned against me, pressed against my legs, and I could feel her body shiver again. Nineteen degrees and dropping. Couldn’t take her inside, ’cause my landlady would kill us both. But couldn’t leave her outside, quaking with the cold.
I checked to see how much cash I had in my wallet. Enough, I figured.
Then I looked down at the dog that was not my dog, still leaning against me, her eyes closed as she exhaled her exhaustion and worry over some misadventure I’d never know.
“This has to be our secret,” I told her seriously.
I hailed a cab and both of us went to work.
“NINE-ONE-ONE. Please state the nature of your emergency.”
I studied my ANI ALI monitor in front of me, as the information started to scroll. “Nine-one-one,” I repeated, shifting slightly in my desk chair. “Please state the nature of your emergency.”
“I got a big butt,” a male voice said.
I sighed. Like I hadn’t heard that one before. “I see. And this enlarged gluteus maximus resides at ninety-five West Carrington Street?”
“Dude!” the voice said. Laughter in the background. Giggles really. This is what happens, I reminded myself, when you work graveyard shift.
I continued, in a professional manner: “And does this enlarged posterior belong to Mr. Edward Keicht?”
“Man, how did you know?”
“Sir, are you aware that when you dial nine-one-one, your name and address appears on our monitors?”
Awestruck silence. “No way, dude!” Apparently, Mr. Keicht had been imbibing a little more than just beer this evening.
“And are you aware that a prank call to nine-one-one is a felony offense that could land you in jail?”
“Say hi to the nice policeman at your door, Mr. Keicht.”
“And remember, this is your brain on drugs.”
I clicked off line one, then contacted one of my officers to do the deed. All calls to nine-one-one required an officer response. Hence that whole felony offense thing. In approximately three to five minutes, Mr. I Got a Big Butt wasn’t gonna be feeling so grand about life.
One twenty A.M. My twin monitors remained blank, the phone lines quiet. Not too bad a night, but then it was only Wednesday. Call patterns had a tendency to pick up as the week went on. Friday and Saturday were madness, a deluge of domestic assaults, drunken disorderlies, and OUIs. Sunday around five was the second busiest time. The witching hour, we called it: five o’clock being the hour when most noncustodial parents were required to return the 2.2 children to the custodial parent. Except judging purely by call volume, feuding parents enjoyed screwing with each other more than being responsible caretakers. By 5:01, we’d have the first call and the first officer involved in the weekly game of “No, ma’am, you may not shoot off his balls just because he’s two minutes late,” to be followed shortly by “Sir, a visitation agreement is a legal document; I suggest you read it.”
I tried to avoid Sundays. Domestic disputes made everyone cranky-the callers, my officers, me.
Overall, the city of Grovesnor, all twenty-five thousand people, was tame compared to my time in Arvada. There, I’d worked in a major call center, handling hundreds of calls an hour. These days, it was me, sitting alone in a darkened room with the dog that was not my dog. I generally received between ten and forty calls a shift. Ten on a night like tonight, forty on a weekend.
Number one call I handled every night-wrong number. Number two call-Mr. Big Butt, or Mr. Pepperoni Pizza to Go, or whatever latest thing a bunch of bored kids thought was funny. And yeah, I dispatched a uniformed officer to each and every address. Hey, I didn’t make the rules.
Only a third of the calls to 911 are for actual emergencies. More typically, I got reports of reckless driving, a dead or injured animal in the road, the occasional complaint against noisy neighbors. Information came in on my ANI ALI screen-ANI standing for Automatic Number Identification, ALI for Automatic Local Identification. Landlines were the easiest calls, with name, phone number, and address winking across my screen. Cell phone calls and Internet-based phone carriers (think Vonage) automatically went to the state police for them to sort out location, as such numbers weren’t linked to a physical address, making it difficult for me to dispatch an officer.
In addition to my ANI ALI monitor, I had a second system, the Dispatcher Event Mask. I entered all the information from the call into this system-details of an accident, description of an intruder, whatever. Then, I could shoot this information straight from my computer to an officer’s Mobile Data Computer in his police cruiser. Push of a button and ping, we were all on the same virtual page.
Assuming the system didn’t crash. Assuming I had the wherewithal to multitask between two monitors while simultaneously soothing a distressed caller, asking all pertinent questions, and typing in all relevant answers.
But other than that, easy breezy.
My ANI ALI monitor blazed to life. Name, phone number, street address appearing on the screen. I put on my headset and hit the button.
“Nine-one-one. Please state the nature of your emergency.”
“I…I don’t know.” Female voice this time. Quivering.
“Ma’am? Do you need assistance?”
“My husband is angry.”
“I see. Are you at home, ma’am?” I rattled off the street address from my screen; she confirmed. “And your name, ma’am?”
“Dawn.” She didn’t offer a last name. My screen listed the number as belonging to Vincent Heinen. For the time being, I didn’t press her.
“Dawn, nice to meet you. I’m Charlie. Is your husband at home?”
“Yes.” Her voice had dropped to nearly a whisper. I took that to mean he was someplace close.
“Are there kids in the house?”
“Pets, dogs?” Officers like to know about dogs.
I settled in, got down to it. “Has he been drinking?”
“Yes.” Very soft now.
“Dawn, is he in the room?” Then, when she didn’t immediately answer, my own voice dropping low: “Are you hiding from him? You can hit a button on the phone. One beep for yes. Two beeps for no.”
I heard a beep, and I took a deep breath. Okay, so the makings of a genuine call. At my feet, Tulip stirred. She seemed to sense my tension, sitting up.
“Dawn, are you afraid of him?”
Still monitoring the call, I got on the radio. “Four sixty-one to nine twenty-six,” I said into the radio.
Nine twenty-six, aka Officer Tom Mackereth, tagged back. “Nine twenty-six to four sixty-one.”
“Four sixty-one to nine twenty-six, I have a female party online,” I informed him crisply. “States husband is angry. States husband has been drinking. States she’s afraid of him.”
“Nine twenty-six to four sixty-one, location of caller?”
“Four sixty-one to nine twenty-six, sending through.” I updated my Dispatcher Event Mask with the extremely limited data I’d collected thus far and shot it through to Officer Mackereth’s mobile computer. “Four sixty-one to nine twenty-six, caller states they are at home, no kids or animals present.”
“Nine twenty-six to four sixty-one, can you get more details? Description of both parties, is the male party armed, are we talking alcohol, or also drugs?”
No shit Sherlock, I felt like saying. But our radio dialogue, plus the 911 call, was being recorded for posterity, so I kept to the script.
“Four sixty-one to nine twenty-six, will do.”
Back to my caller, who’d remained disturbingly silent.
“Dawn, it’s Charlie. You there?”
All right, contact reestablished. I leaned closer to my event monitor, adjusting my headset. I could hear the woman better now, the rapid sounds of her distressed breathing as she tried desperately not to make a sound.
“Dawn, are you in the bedroom?” I asked quietly, wanting to keep her communicating.
“Are you locked in the bathroom?”
Two beeps meant no. I pictured a bedroom, tried again. “The closet?”
I played the odds in New England colonial architecture: “Dawn, is your bedroom upstairs?”
I added the details to the call profile, moving along. “Dawn, is your husband armed?”
Silence. Not a yes, not a no. Did that mean maybe?
I worked to clarify: “Dawn, Mrs. Heinen, is it you don’t know if your husband is carrying a weapon?”
“Officer Mackereth is gonna love that,” I murmured to Tulip, who was sitting straight up and staring at me now. Situation unknown-an officer’s most typical and most dangerous kind of call.
I got back on the radio, summoned 926 and provided the short update: Caller was in the upstairs bedroom. Husband was within listening distance and may or may not be armed.
“Drugs?” Officer Mackereth wanted to know, because a drunk husband was bad enough, but a cokehead or meth addict was even worse-beyond the reach of logic and pain. Officers got tense about that.
I returned to Dawn Heinen.
“Dawn, does your husband do drugs?”
I wasn’t surprised. I added to the profile.
“Dawn, has he done drugs tonight?”
“You don’t know if your husband has done drugs tonight?”
My fingers stilled on the keyboard and I closed my eyes, starting to feel the pressure. My job was to get information. I was Officer Mackereth’s eyes and ears. If I did my job right, he walked into a situation forewarned and forearmed. If I failed at my job, a lone officer got to approach a darkened house at one thirty in the morning, with nothing but his quick wits to save him.
I got back on the radio. “Four sixty-one to nine twenty-six. Caller states she doesn’t know if husband is armed. Caller states she doesn’t know if husband has done drugs tonight, but states he has done drugs in the past.”
“Nine twenty-six to four sixty-one, roger that,” Officer Mackereth replied. I felt the weight of his disappointment in those words. He was counting on me, and I was letting him down. He notified me that his position was one block from the address. He was cutting his sirens and going dark. Meaning I hadn’t given him enough information. Meaning he was approaching quietly, in order to assess the situation for himself.
“Come on, Dawn,” I murmured under my breath. “We gotta do better. For all of us, we gotta do better.”
I returned to my caller, listening to the sound of her shallow breathing and straining now for other noises in the background. A husband calling a wife’s name? Shattering glass from a man in the throes of a violent rage? Or maybe even a knock on the downstairs front door marking Officer Mackereth’s arrival. I heard nothing.
“Dawn, is your husband still in the room?” I asked now.
“An officer is approaching. He’s almost there, Dawn. Help is on its way.” I hesitated, struggling. My next order of business should be to establish a description of the offending party. That way if he tried to flee the scene, Officer Mackereth could identify him and give pursuit. I didn’t know, however, how to engage in such a conversation with phone beeps.
The tension again, my shoulders creeping up, a low ache developing in the back of my neck. Officer Mackereth should be at the address by now. Opening his door, looking up at the residence, trying to get a bead on the situation.
“Dawn, is your husband still angry?”
Then what’s he doing? I wanted to shout. What kind of enraged man didn’t make a sound?
Then, just like that, I knew. I could picture in my head exactly what kind of angry man could stand so quiet, so still, right outside a closet door.
I grabbed the radio. “Four sixty-one to nine twenty-six,” I nearly shouted. “Don’t ring the doorbell! Do not approach! Stop immediately!”
A pause, I didn’t hear Dawn anymore, just my own ragged breathing.
“Nine twenty-six to four sixty-one,” Officer Mackereth came over the radio, his voice as dry as mine had been heated. “Nine eight two?”
Nine eight two was our own code. The numbers corresponded to the phone digits for WTF. What The Fuck? Hey, in this job, you had to have a sense of humor.
I took a deep breath.
“Four sixty-one to nine twenty-six,” I said. “Please hold.”
“Dawn,” I whispered into my headset, “does your husband like pizza?”
Silence, then beep, then the first noise I’d heard in a while: Dawn, weeping. “One more minute, Dawn,” I promised her. “Hang in there for me. Just one more minute.”
Quickly, I ran Vincent’s name through my system and came up with a second number, a cell phone registered to his name. Keeping my fingers crossed, I picked up my prepaid cell and dialed those numbers. Not a move from the training handbook. One of those things that, in this job, you just knew when to do.
For a surreal moment, I got to hear ringing in stereo. My mobile ringing in my ear. Vincent’s cell phone ringing in the bedroom. One, two, three times.
I was clutching my cell too tight.
Then my radio crackling to life: “Nine twenty-six to four sixty-one-”
“Shut up!” I hissed, just as Dawn’s husband connected with my mobile.
“What?” he said, one word, loaded with menace and threat and the icy cold kind of rage that kept his wife sobbing silently in their bedroom closet.
“Dude,” I shot back. “Want your fucking pizza? ’Cause I’m not standing out here any longer. Been ringing your fuckin’ doorbell for five minutes now. We’re charging your credit card whether you take it or not, so get your fuckin’ pie, or I’m eatin’ it myself!”
I jabbed off my phone, then switched to my headset.
“Ass wipe,” I heard Dawn’s husband mutter, outside the closet door. Then, finally, sounds of movement. A distant door being yanked opened, pounding footsteps.
Belatedly, I grabbed the radio.
“Four sixty-one to nine twenty-six. You are pizza delivery. I repeat. You are pizza delivery. Male subject is most likely armed and coming to you in five four three two-”
“Fuck!” a male voice exploded through the radio.
“Police!” Officer Mackereth shouted. “Hands where I can see them, hands where I can see them!”
Sounds of a scuffle, more banging, another shout.
I stood up, couldn’t help myself. Grabbed my headset, squeezed my eyes shut in the middle of my darkened call center as if that would help my officer, somehow give him the advantage. Tulip started to whine. I bit down on my lower lip.
Then: “Nine twenty-six to four sixty-one.” Officer Mackereth, sounding out of breath. “Male subject subdued. Male subject disarmed.” Then, in a break from script. “He was carrying a Glock nine. How the hell did you know that? Holy shit, Charlie. Holy shit.”
I closed my eyes. That’s what I’d been picturing, what I’d just known. That Dawn’s husband was standing there, on the other side of the closet door, waiting for his wife with a loaded gun. And the moment a third party arrived, sirens at the scene, a uniformed officer, ringing the doorbell…
That’s what he’d been waiting for, good old Vincent. The final provocation to justify pulling the trigger.
Officer Mackereth came in over the radio. He’d pulled it together now, returning to script. I did my best to follow suit. “Nine twenty-six to four sixty-one, is it safe to enter the home?”
I got back on my headphones. “Dawn, it’s Charlie. A uniformed officer is at your front door. He has your husband detained and disarmed. You can come out now, Dawn.”
Then, for the first time since the call began, the sound of her voice. “Is he…is he okay?”
“The police officer or your husband?” Though sadly, I already knew the answer to that.
“My husband,” she said shakily.
“You know, Dawn, why don’t you go downstairs and see for yourself.”
“Okay. Okay. I think I can do that. Charlie…”
I waited. But she didn’t say thank you. Few of them ever did.
Dawn hung up the phone. She went to check on her drunken husband, who five minutes earlier had been prepared to kill her.
And I resumed my seat, my hand now on Tulip’s head, stroking her silky ears.
“Glad to have you here, girl,” I whispered. “Glad to have you here.”
She placed her graying muzzle on my lap, and I kept petting her head, until eventually my hands stopped shaking and both of us sat silently in the dark.
YOU’D THINK THAT WOULD BE ENOUGH for one night, but it wasn’t. Two thirty-three A.M., the other relevant call came in. I saw the info on the ANI ALI screen and was immediately agitated. Then, I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath, and answered.
“Hey,” I said, slightly surprised to be receiving the call through official channels and not on my prepaid cell.
Silence at first, for so long, I thought maybe the caller couldn’t answer. But then, finally, a voice. Small, quivering, scared. The girl then, not the boy. Too young to remember my cell number, so reverting back to the number of first contact: 911.
She was crying and at this stage of the game, I didn’t need her to speak to know why. Dispatch officers…we are more than backup for our men and women in uniform. We are Ma Bell’s version of social services, audio first responders to battered wives, overwhelmed new parents, drunken teens, and terrified children. We hear it all.
Then we transfer the call and walk away. Not our problem. We’re simply the messengers that yeah, life really sucks out there.
Now, here’s a question for you: If you only had four days left to live, what would you do?
Remain on the sidelines? Or get in the game?
And if, say, you’d spent the past year learning how to run, fight, shoot, how to stop being and start doing, would that change the answer? And if, say, you had insider’s knowledge of the kind of crimes the system can’t handle, where the perpetrator wins and the victim loses, would that change the answer?
I’d spent months contemplating this question. Then I’d arrived at a decision.
It helped me now, as I reached out and tapped my keyboard. As I deliberately and consciously broke the law, disconnecting my caller from the recorded dispatch system and picking her up on my prepaid Wal-Mart phone instead.
“Hey,” I said again. “It’s okay. It’s me, Charlie. I’m going to help. One more day, sweetheart, and you will never be hurt again.”
“BAD NEWS,” D.D. informed Alex over dinner. “In the war over sanity in the city, the lunatics are winning.”
She’d done the honors of picking up Jack from day care at five forty-five. By six thirty Alex had made it home, where, being an enthusiastic cook, he’d put the finishing touches on a Crock-Pot version of chicken cacciatore he’d started that morning.
Now they were seated across from each other at the kitchen table. Alex had a glass of red wine; she had a glass of water. Alex had two hands for eating and drinking. She had one hand cradling Jack against her shoulder, the other wielding a fork.
Jack was currently asleep, half of his chubby face smashed into the curve of her neck, where he was making the most ridiculously adorable snoring sounds. This was probably as close to domestic bliss as she was ever gonna get, D.D. figured. Her baby snuggled against her chest, while she and Alex enjoyed a leisurely Italian dinner and talked shop.
“First I was wrapping up a shooting that may or may not be part of a broader vigilante crime spree,” she was telling Alex now. “Then I end up chasing down a suspicious woman, who claims she wants me to investigate her own murder, four days from today.”
Alex paused with a forkful of chicken in a midair. “She’s planning ahead? I don’t remember ever seeing a spot for appointing your own homicide detective on the estate planning forms.”
“Oh, they’re there. The beautiful young trophy wives just white ’em out before having their husbands sign on the bottom line.”
He thought about it. “Makes sense.” He resumed eating, then paused again. “Seriously, this woman is planning on being murdered?”
“Her two best friends were each murdered on January twenty-first. First one died two years ago, second one last year, meaning this year…”
Alex stared at her, clearly perplexed.
D.D. sighed. She set down her own fork and stroked Jack’s plump cheek. “This is the crazy part-I looked it up on the computer when Jack and I came home and she’s right. Randi Menke was murdered in Providence two years ago on the twenty-first, Jacqueline Knowles in Atlanta same date last year. How creepy is that?”
“Creepy,” Alex agreed, and set down his fork. Alex taught crime scene analysis at the police academy and had a tendency to take a cerebral approach to homicide. D.D. appreciated that. Figured it was a good balance for her own shoot-first-question-later style.
“No jurisdiction,” he said now, opening salvo of an ongoing analysis.
“Yep. I asked about threatening letters, phone calls, contact. Nada. Sounds like her life is very quiet, if you exclude the annual funerals. Two murders in two different states complicates matters, as well. She said the FBI gave the homicides a cursory glance, but couldn’t find any obvious connections between the two. Ironically enough, third time has a tendency to be the charm, meaning this year, after the twenty-first…”
Alex nodded. As a former investigator, he understood crime was really a numbers game. Twice was a coincidence, and no one blew their budgets on coincidences. Third murder, however, established a pattern. That got investigators more excited.
“Girl paid for a report from a retired FBI profiler,” D.D. continued now, readjusting Jack’s snuffling form. “I’m thinking of maybe contacting him, or perhaps the Rhode Island detective involved in the first murder. Asking a few questions.”
Alex nodded abruptly, conclusion reached. “I would.”
“You think she’s in danger?”
“Unknown,” he said crisply. “But here’s the second angle to consider-there is a link between the first two murders. The girl herself. Knew both victims.”
“I would assume investigators looked into that…” D.D. began.
Alex shook his head. “Never assume. Also, you found her loitering outside a shooting, which is…odd. Either she’s scared enough to want protection, in which case she’d most logically plead her case at headquarters. Or, she realizes, as she claims, there’s nothing the police can do, and she continues to go at it alone. But stalking a homicide detective outside a crime scene…From a rational point of view, how does that gain her anything?”
“Personal connection,” D.D. informed him. “Now that I’ve met her, I’m supposed to try harder to find her killer.”
Alex arched a brow. “She’s networking?”
“I’m telling you, it was a day defined by fruitcakes.”
“Tell me more about the note on your windshield,” he asked now.
D.D.’s eyes widened. “The note! Crap. It’s still sitting in my car. I totally forgot to deliver it to the crime lab. Oh my God! How do you forget something like that? How could I…How could I…Oh. My. God…!”
D.D.’s voice trailed off. The enormity of her mistake was too large, nearly incomprehensible. She stared at Alex wildly. “That’s homicide one-oh-one. First-year-out-of-the-academy, don’t-get-yourself-fired basics. I’m an idiot. I went on maternity leave, and I came back stupid!”
“You’re not stupid,” Alex stated calmly. “You’re sleep deprived.”
“I failed to deliver evidence. How could I have done such a thing?” Her voice broke. She was less hysterical, more genuinely panicked. Sergeant Detective D. D. Warren didn’t make mistakes. Sergeant Detective D. D. Warren certainly didn’t forget things like evidence handling 101.
Having children did change you; apparently it had made her worse.
“D.D.,” Alex said evenly.
“I’m going to have to quit my job.”
“Maybe I could resign from being sergeant. Put Phil in charge in of the squad. He has four kids, and still, brighter than me.”
“Will the brain cells come back?” she asked Alex plaintively. “I mean, all the baby books mention sleep cycles, so I’m assuming someday Jack will have one. He’ll sleep through the night, and I’ll stop making major mistakes that may or may not allow a murderer to go free.”
“Gee,” Alex interjected more forcefully, “if only the father of your child was an expert on crime scene analysis, who could assist with evidence handling. And, say, even call an expert on forensic handwriting analysis who happens to be a fellow teacher at the academy.”
D.D. stared at him. “Really?”
“Oh.” She looked down at her plate, realized belatedly that she hadn’t eaten much, and picked back up her fork. “Huh, all that and you can cook, too.”
Alex smiled faintly. Done with his dinner, he pushed away from the table, stood, and cleared his plate. “Careful,” he said, his back to her as he crossed to the kitchen sink. “Some girls might be impressed enough to marry me.”
D.D. regarded his retreating form. She said, equally soft, “Yeah, but I think we just established those girls are smarter than me.”
Alex didn’t say anything more. He went to fetch the note from her car.
D.D. remained seated at the table, holding Jack. She kissed the top of his head. “Sorry,” she murmured, though she couldn’t have told either one of them what she was apologizing for.
ALEX RETURNED WITH THE NOTE, encased in clear plastic. With gloved hands, he carefully removed the plain white paper and shot several digital photos. Then he called his fellow academic. They exchanged pleasantries, after which Alex secured permission to e-mail a photo of the note for preliminary analysis.
“He’ll call us back in twenty to thirty minutes,” Alex explained to D.D., sliding the piece of paper back into its plastic cover. “Of course, for a more thorough analysis you’ll want to submit the note to the crime lab in order to fingerprint the paper and run tests on paper and ink type.”
“Thank you,” she said.
Jack was awake now. She sat with him on the sofa, where she had him sprawled on her lap. He peered up at her with wide blue eyes. When Alex came over to join them, Jack turned to his father and waved a pudgy fist.
“Look at that,” D.D. declared triumphantly. “He can already wave hello. Knew he’d be smart.”
“He gets that from me,” Alex said, settling onto the sofa, his right arm around her shoulders. “I’ve always had dynamite greeting skills. Wipe the globe, wipe the globe.” He used his left hand to demonstrate his best Miss America wave. Jack responded by kicking his feet.
“Soccer star,” D.D. said immediately. “Check out the muscle on him!”
“Soccer? Hmm, that must be from you. Given my own coordination skills, I make it a point never to walk and chew gum.”
“My parents were teachers,” D.D. said absently. “College profs before they retired.”
“Then Jack definitely better watch that whole walking and chewing gum thing.” Alex touched her cheek. “They still coming this weekend?”
She finally looked up at him. “It’s not too late to run away,” she said seriously. “Or I could just tell them I buried your body in the backyard. They’ll believe me.”
He grinned, but she could see the gentleness in his eyes. It bothered her that he seemed to think she needed such a look. It bothered her even more that he was probably right, that she had become a woman who required patient smiles and tender glances. Sleep deprivation, she tried to tell herself, but wondered if it wasn’t one of those children-change-you changes, meaning she was doomed to forever be a frazzled, domesticated, slightly more inept version of herself.
“I don’t hate them,” she heard herself say. “I know I don’t have the same relationship with my parents that you have with yours. But I don’t hate them.”
Alex fingered a curly lock of her short blond hair. “How do you feel about them?”
She shrugged, fidgeting with Jack’s tiny fingers in much the same way Alex played with her hair. “I respect them. They’re two intelligent, well-meaning adults leading their own busy lives. They do their thing. I do mine. We’re happy.”
“You didn’t want your mom in the delivery room,” he said quietly.
D.D. shook her head vehemently. “God no. That would’ve been terrible!”
“Because.” She shrugged again, looked down at her plump little baby who smiled back up at her with a big, toothless grin. He had her blue eyes, she thought, but would most likely end up with his father’s dark hair.
“I love him,” she said suddenly. “I love…everything about him. The way he smells, the way he feels, the way he smiles. He is the most perfect baby in the whole entire world. And I can tell you for a fact, my mother never felt that way about me.
“I was an afterthought. A late-in-life oops that happened to two very cerebral people who’d never planned on having kids. And after all that, I wasn’t even a quiet, well-behaved bookish kid. I was a total hellion who climbed trees and crashed bikes and once hit Mikey Davis so hard he lost a tooth.”
“You punched a boy?” Alex asked.
“I was seven,” D.D. said, as if that explained everything. “Split my knuckle, too. My first thought was that I needed boxing lessons. My mother’s first thought was that I should be grounded for the rest of my natural life. We haven’t moved much beyond those positions since.”
“They don’t like you being a detective?” Alex ventured.
“Detective isn’t so bad,” D.D. granted. “Detectives, even in my parents’ universe, command some respect. But when I first became a cop…I believe my mother was just relieved I was on this side of the judicial system.”
Alex smiled at her. “A comment I’ve thought about many of my associates in uniform. Nervous?” he asked evenly.
She looked at him. “Nobody makes me feel as ugly and stupid as my mother does,” she said simply.
“Then we will keep their visit short and focused on Jack. Maybe your mother has never appreciated your right hook, but how can she argue with him, sweetheart?” Alex gestured down to their kicking, gurgling baby. “How can anyone argue with him?”
THE PHONE RANG TEN MINUTES LATER. D.D. put Jack in his bassinet, where he’d hopefully sleep for a bit, then it would be time for his next feeding. She dug out her spiral notepad and minirecorder as she put Alex’s teacher friend on the speaker phone.
“Professor Dembowski? Sergeant Detective D. D. Warren. Thanks for calling me.”
“Ray. Please, call me Ray.”
Dembowski had a pleasant voice. Deep, smooth, maybe fifty to sixty years of age, D.D. thought. She settled in at the kitchen table, the note in its clear plastic sheathing before her.
Everyone has to die sometime.
Alex sat across from her with a fresh glass of wine.
“So my first question,” the forensic expert spoke up, “is do you have more samples? In my line of work, I’m generally comparing an exhibit against several exemplars. This note would be the exhibit. But where are the exemplars?”
D.D.’s eyes widened. She glanced over to Alex, who shrugged, equally perplexed.
“Exemplars?” she ventured.
“Other handwriting samples to be used for comparison. For example, if you suspect this note was written by subject A, you would submit three other handwriting exhibits from suspect A to serve as exemplars for my analysis.”
“Ummm…I don’t have subject A,” D.D. volunteered. “In fact, I was hoping to work the other way-you could analyze the handwriting on this note to help me find subject A.”
“You mean, judging purely by the script, I would provide age, gender, and probable occupation of subject A?”
“That would be perfect,” D.D. assured him.
In the silence that ensued, it occurred to her she might have taken a misstep. “Ummm…assuming such an analysis is possible?” she asked belatedly.
“No,” Dembowski said.
“That’s called graphology, a pseudo-science if you will, where experts claim to read subconscious clues buried in a person’s handwriting. I am not a graphologist. I am a forensic handwriting expert, meaning I scientifically compare documents to determine if the same person authored all the exhibits or not.”
D.D. didn’t know what to say. She glanced across the table at Alex, who shrugged as if to say, Who knew?
“I’m sorry, Ray,” D.D. attempted at last. “I only wish I was far enough along in the investigation to bring you multiple samples. Where things stand right now, however, I have one dead body and this note, left on the windshield of my car outside the shooting. Now, we have reason to believe the shooter is not yet done, so any insights would be greatly appreciated.”
On the other end of the phone line, Dembowski sighed heavily. “You understand, we’re moving beyond the field of science into the realm of conjecture?”
“You prefer to speak off the record?”
“Have to. I’m a forensic handwriting expert, not a graphologist, meaning even if a court of law were willing to entertain the notion of graphology, my analysis still wouldn’t meet standards.”
“Okay.” D.D. nodded, starting to understand how her expert wanted to play it. “Let’s call this a chat between colleagues. I got this fascinating note. Say, what do you make of it?”
Another pause, a deep breath, then Dembowski got down to basics. “As someone who studies handwriting, there are several aspects of this note that strike me. First off, the note is written in cursive, versus the more commonly used print. Furthermore, the letters are fairly large in scale, and looping, with the exception of the bottom of each letter, which has been flattened, as if the writer used a straight edge for guidance.”
“I noticed that myself,” D.D. said. Across from her, Alex craned his neck, reexamining the plastic-covered note. Everyone has to die sometime. Be brave.
“Few other anomalies-the average person creates letters of uneven size. For example, common letters, particularly vowels, have a tendency to be smaller in scale, more rushed in execution. In your exhibit, however, each letter is nearly identical in size and scale. Notice the crossbars on the two t’s. They are exactly the same width, down to the millimeter. This indicates someone with a high degree of attention to detail. The use of a straight edge to set the bottom line further supports a writer with a high need for precision. From a graphology point of view, the author of this note is most likely someone with a significant need for control in every aspect of life, a type A personality, a tightly wound anal-retentive, my first ex-wife,” Dembowski laughed hollowly, “etc., etc.”
D.D. pursed her lips, made a note. Given the scene, that made sense to her. The wiped down kitchen, the two mugs carefully placed in the sink. Even the shooting was direct and clean, double shot to the forehead, precisely placed to ensure instant fatality. So a murderer who possessed above average attention to detail and was a neat freak. Interesting.
“When analyzing handwriting, one of the things I always look for is letter slant. A left-handed person almost always has a backward slant to the letters, a right-handed person a forward slant. These letters are nearly perfectly perpendicular. To play the odds, I’d theorize your letter writer is right-handed, but again, exercising rigid precision in the formation of each letter.”
D.D. made another note.
“Next up, let’s examine the open parts of letters such as m, n, y, h. Some people scrawl with a tight, cramped script that closes up these spaces. But your letter writer has produced full, open shapes, very elegant. Also, looking at the m’s and n’s, each hump is fully formed and rounded on top, while in contrast, the v in the word ‘everyone’ is sharply angled. This level of precision, each letter being fully and accurately formed, doesn’t just imply control, but also a great deal of practice, someone well schooled in penmanship.”
“You mean someone of higher education? Above average intelligence?” D.D. asked.
“I mean Catholic school,” Dembowski said bluntly. “I mean no one learns to write this beautifully without wearing a plaid uniform and being beaten by a nun.”
“Makes sense to me,” said D.D., who was the product of public education and wrote with a tight, cramped scrawl only a doctor could love. Across from her, Alex, who had attended a private Catholic school and regularly teased her about her illegible handwriting, grinned.
“Of course,” Dembowski continued, “the accurate spelling and correct use of punctuation, grammar, and capitalization all indicate a well-educated, intelligent person. Then again, the note consists of only two lines, meaning we have limited material for analysis.”
“Understood.” D.D. was starting to enjoy this. For better or for worse, Dembowski’s pseudoscience was starting to create an image of a killer in her head, and she liked it. The note agreed with her crime scene; her crime scene agreed with the note. That worked for D.D.
“Finally,” Dembowski said, “it’s important to look at the tail of the y and the ending hook of the last letter of each word. These flourishing touches can tell us a bit more about psyche. For example, while the consistent size and accurate form of each letter tells me your letter writer is practiced and precise, the tail of the y gives us the first insight into style. In this case, the y has a distinct loop, above and beyond what is strictly necessary for form. Likewise, each word ends with an upward flourish, a sort of graceful finishing touch.”
“You mean refined,” D.D. said sharply. “As in, I’m not only looking for someone well educated, but also upper class? Higher socioeconomics?”
“Possibly. Attending a private school, however, would seem to indicate that. Overall, my highly unscientific opinion is that the person who wrote this note is right-handed, very neat in appearance, detail-oriented, well educated, possibly Catholic, and of course…”
He paused a beat, as if the last piece of the puzzle should be obvious to D.D.
“Rounded letters,” Dembowski prodded. “Finishing flourishes.”
D.D. finally got it. Her eyes widened. “No way!”
“Oh I’m nearly positive. And when it comes to gender, studies have shown even a layperson can accurately predict the sex of a letter writer nearly 70 percent of the time. Men and women are different, even when it comes to penmanship. So, assuming the person who did the shooting is the same person who wrote this note, then your murderer…”
“Is a woman!” D.D. filled in.
“Yep and, most likely, a tightly wound one at that.”
“THEY ALLOW DOGS IN THE COMM CENTER?”
I looked up from the coffee-stained counter in the tiny kitchenette area to find Officer Mackereth, lounging in the doorway, studying me and Tulip, who sat patiently by my side.
Seven forty-two A.M. My replacement, Sarah Duffy, had done me the courtesy of showing up on time for day shift. She’d logged in, performed roll call, then we’d spent thirty minutes reviewing the dispatch log from the graveyard shift, so she’d have a sense of history to guide the day. It helped particularly with domestic complaints, where maybe two calls from the same residence had already come in during one shift, then a third hit during the next shift. At that point the second dispatcher knew the situation was ongoing, possibly escalating, and probably it was time to get more aggressive with the police response, whether the caller agreed or not.
I’d just clocked out, feeling I’d earned every penny of my $14.50 hourly wage. I was simultaneously exhausted and cranked up on adrenaline, a dangerous combination for anyone, but particularly for me.
One more day down, three more to go until the twenty-first. Randi and Jackie had each been murdered in the evening. For the sake of argument, I’d set my mental deadline at 8 P.M. January 21. Meaning eighty-four hours and counting. Or, assuming I slept six hours each morning, only sixty waking hours left.
Tom pushed away from the doorjamb and walked into the small space. He approached Tulip, held out his hand.
“He got a name?”
“Her name is Tulip.”
“Bring her often?”
“Too cold to leave her outside,” I said, as if that explained everything.
He nodded, so maybe it did.
I finished wiping down the counter with a Clorox wipe, then went to work on the battered stainless steel sink with a scrubber sponge. Nine months ago, I’d started buying all new cleaning supplies for the break room. Trust me, someone had to do it.
Officer Mackereth was scratching Tulip’s ears, but eyeing me. I didn’t return his gaze. I scoured the sink. Coffee and hard water stains everywhere. Drove me nuts.
“Quite the call tonight,” he said presently.
I stilled, noticed a rust stain that would never come out, scrubbed harder.
“Sorry I was slow on the intel,” I said abruptly. “Caller was hiding from her husband and couldn’t really talk.”
“Then how’d you get the information?”
I finished the sink, glanced at him, then turned on the water to rinse the sponge. Officer Mackereth was probably mid-thirties, blue eyes, short-cropped brown hair. Bit burly, but carried it well. Gave him the kind of presence that made subjects give up on the idea of running and surrender instead.
I didn’t like him standing so close. I didn’t like him studying me with cop eyes, trained to ferret out secrets and spot dissembling.
He’d never caught up with me after a shift. Most of them hadn’t. On the one hand, as Detective D. D. Warren had said, I had their backs and they felt like they had mine. On the other hand, dispatchers had a notoriously high burnout rate. Meaning most of my officers were waiting for my one-year anniversary, to see if I was still around, before investing in a personal relationship.
I was like the walk-on part in all those old war movies. The new guy whose name nobody bothered to learn.
Except Officer Mackereth was talking to me now, paying attention to me now. Following war movie logic, he’d just doomed me to blow up in scene two.
The thought made me smile, then made me want to laugh, then made me want to cry.
Exhaustion and adrenaline. A dangerous combination in any person, but particularly in one with only eighty-four hours left.
“What do you mean phone beeps?” Officer Mackereth asked again.
I put away the Clorox wipes. Got out my messenger bag. “I asked questions. The caller responded by using one beep for yes, two beeps for no,” I supplied. “Got the job done.”
I slipped the wide flat strap crossways over my body, black leather bag, with my loaded Taurus, draped at my hip. I picked up Tulip’s leash.
And Officer Mackereth placed his hand on my arm.
I stilled. Maybe sucked in a breath. Tried to think what to feel, how to respond. For a year I’d been training to attack, retaliate, defend. I should drop into boxer’s stance, hands in front of my face. Take a picture, my coach always yelled. I should prepare to deliver jab one to be followed quickly by punch two, left hook three, uppercut four.
No one had touched me in a year. Casually, politely, kindly.
And the sheer vacuum of my isolation suddenly threatened to consume me. Isolation, exhaustion, adrenaline.
I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry.
I wanted to throw myself into Mackereth’s arms and remember what it felt like to be held again.
“Did you learn that in training?” he asked me evenly.
“What about the gun? How’d you know he had a gun?”
His hand was still on my arm, his blue eyes fastened intently on my face. I kept my chin up, my expression neutral. “Just knew.”
His arm finally dropped. Beside me, Tulip whined slightly, as if sensing my discomfort.
“Good work,” he said abruptly. “I think…Thank you, Charlie. I mean it, thanks.”
“I’m glad you’re okay,” I said simply. “And I’m sorry it took me so long to figure out the situation. I’ll do better next time.”
Two more shifts. That’s all she wrote. Two more shifts.
Officer Mackereth switched his attention to Tulip, who was now pressed against my leg. I noticed his hands by his side. No wedding ring, but that didn’t mean anything. Few officers wore them, not wanting to broadcast personal information in their line of work.
“I’ll take you home,” he said abruptly.
“It’s okay-” I started.
He cut me off. “Can’t take her on the T,” he said, gesturing to Tulip. “We might be open-minded,” his tone was wry, calling my bluff, “but Boston mass transit isn’t.”
He had me there. Taxi had cost me thirty bucks, nearly a third of my shift. Take another taxi home, and after taxes, why had I bothered to work at all?
I still hesitated, old instincts dying hard. Detective D. D. Warren had advised me to confide in my officers. They didn’t have ties to Randi or Jackie. They couldn’t be part of the problem, so I should make them part of the solution.
Except…In war movie logic, Officer Mackereth’s use of my name meant I’d die next. But in the story of my life, if I used Officer Mackereth’s name, he’d be the next to go. There was a reason I kept to myself; not just because I was trying to limit the pool of people who could hurt me, but because I was trying to limit the pool of people I might hurt back.
“Come on, Charlie,” Officer Mackereth said gruffly. “Cut a guy a break. You probably saved my life tonight. Least I can do is save you cab fare.”
He turned toward the door. And Tulip and I followed, Tulip with a fresh prance in her step at the unexpected attention.
I wondered what Jackie had been doing this time last year. I wondered what she’d been thinking, who she might have recently met. And I wondered, if she had known, if our trio’s erstwhile planner had foreseen her own death, what would’ve she done differently.
Said no or said yes?
That’s a central life question, don’t you think? Do you regret the things you did, or the things never done?
Eighty-four hours and counting, I followed Officer Mackereth to his vehicle.
I TOLD OFFICER MACKERETH I lived in Cambridge, by Harvard Square. Close enough, I figured. Tulip and I could walk the rest of the way from there.
Officer Mackereth, I learned, lived in Grovesnor. Meaning, given morning rush hour traffic northbound on I-93, he was now driving at least an hour out of his way. I protested again. He led me to his patrol car, which all officers drove home.
I climbed in the front, taking up position in a genuine black leather passenger seat that was quite comfortable. Tulip got the hard vinyl-covered bench in the back. Perfect for hosing down. Not so good for smooth-haired dogs. Tulip slid off twice, then gave up and lay on the floor.
“Where you from?” Officer Mackereth asked me as we hit the on-ramp for 93.
“North, the mountains.”
“A little. Cross-county.”
“Used to downhill in college,” he offered. “Tore my ACL. Cross-country might be better for me. Family?”
I squirmed in my seat, looked out the window. “Not married. You?”
“Never tried it. Seeing anyone?”
“Tulip’s pretty special,” I offered.
He chuckled. “You two been together long?”
“About to celebrate our six-month anniversary. I’m hoping she’ll bring me flowers. You have any pets?”
“No girlfriend, no kids, no pets. Two parents, one pain-in-the-ass older sister, and three adorable nieces and nephews. That’s enough for me.” His turn again: “Hobbies and interests?”
“I like to clean.”
He paused, glanced at me with his left hand on the wheel. “Seriously?”
I shrugged. “I work all night, then sleep all day. Cuts into a girl’s social life, you know.”
“Fair enough.” He glanced down at my hands fisted on my lap, stating shrewdly, “Bet you didn’t get those knuckles cleaning.”
I stared down self-consciously, wishing I’d put on my mittens, or at least tucked my hands beneath my legs. My knuckles were a mess, the valley between the joints of my pinky and ring finger swollen and purple on both hands. The remaining knuckles were abraded in several places, a collection of old and new injuries. Prizefighter hands. Not pretty, not feminine, and yet I valued this new and improved look very much.
“Boxing,” I admitted at last.
Officer Mackereth arched a brow. “Then you do have a hobby. Must be a serious one if you can do that kind of damage wearing gloves.”
I didn’t correct his assumption. Of course I fought bare-knuckled. What good were gloves gonna do me on the twenty-first?
“You seem to work mostly graveyard,” I stated, switching the focus back to him.
He nodded. “Mostly.”
“Why? You must have enough seniority to request a better rotation by now.”
Officer Mackereth shrugged. “I started out with graveyard because that’s what rookies get. And I don’t know. Guess I’ve always been a night person. I don’t mind the hours, while there are plenty of officers with families and kids and dogs, and God knows what, where graveyard would be a real pain in the ass. Seems to make more sense for me to keep the shift.”
“Team player,” I said.
“Most cops are,” he observed. “What about dispatch officers?”
“Loners,” I assured him, which wasn’t exactly true, but I was feeling impulsive. “Being shut up in a darkened room with multiple monitors and a dozen cups of java is our idea of a good time. You know what you get when you cross an air traffic controller with a tightrope walker? A nine-one-one operator.”
He laughed, a rich, easy sound that thrilled me more than it should have.
“What got you into dispatch, anyway?” he asked.
“Tried it out in Colorado. Needed a job, didn’t have a college degree. Call centers will take just about anyone, which fit my qualifications.”
As a student, I’d suffered from chronic memory issues, not to mention a limited ability to focus. It had made for a rough academic ride. Oh, the times Jackie had shaken her head at me as I’d failed yet another test. Turned out, however, that crises brought out the best in me. You don’t want me on your team for a quiz bowl, but if someone’s breaking into your house, I’m the gal to call. I planned on the adrenaline rush being my friend on the twenty-first.
“Not many dispatch officers make it through training,” Officer Mackereth observed now.
My turn to shrug. “Turned out I liked it. Every shift is different, you get to think on your feet. I’m probably painfully ADD, meaning it’s perfect. You?”
“Father’s a cop. Cliché, but there you have it. And I like it. Every shift is different. You get to think on your feet.”
Officer Mackereth exited 93 for Storrow Drive. Almost there now. Through the top of the rear divider, I could just make out Tulip’s head as she sat up in the back.
“You can drop us off in Harvard Square,” I said.
“You don’t live in Harvard Square.”
I looked at him. “How do you know where I live?”
“I’m a cop,” he answered levelly. “I looked it up.”
My hands stilled on my lap. I thought of my loaded Taurus, snug in my bag because they’d never let me wear it holstered at work. “Officer Mackereth,” I began.
“Tom,” he repeated stubbornly.
“You can drop us off at Harvard Square,” I informed him crisply. “Tulip could use the walk.”
“Only if you answer one question.”
I eyed him mutely.
“Is it just me you don’t trust,” he continued evenly, “or is it all men? Because to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never done anything to disrespect you, but if I have, then I’d like to know so I can do better next time.”
He was nearly at Harvard Square. And he wasn’t going to slow down. I could tell that. He knew my address and he had it in his head that he owed Tulip and me a ride home. Maybe that was nefarious, maybe he wanted to prove what he knew, how close he could get.
Or maybe, he was a guy and I was a girl and tonight we’d shared something pretty intense. And I was exhausted and fired up and he was exhausted and fired up, and he had that deep laugh and that broad chest and it would be easy to touch him.
I remembered that. The warm, hard feel of a man’s skin beneath my hand. The coarse rasp of beard, the hungry taste of a man who wanted me as much as I wanted him. It made me feel a little reckless, a little wild.
Maybe what most of us feared wasn’t dying, but dying alone. Without ever really touching. Without ever really connecting. Having inhabited this earth, but without leaving any impression on it.
The thought hollowed me out. Took all my fatigue and restlessness and spiraled it dark and low, until I did want to sleep with a virtual stranger. I just wanted, for one moment, to feel like I mattered.
Officer Mackereth hit Harvard Square. He slowed, allowing for the morning congestion of lights, cars, and college students. He followed the road as it looped around brick buildings, slid under the overpass, took a left at one of the many green spaces, and formed a direct line to my house.
In the back, Tulip whined, sensing we were close. Four blocks. Three, two, one. Officer Mackereth tapped the brakes, turned right, traveled half a block down, then halted right in front of my landlady’s gray triple-decker.
I already had my fingers on the door handle-good news, front seat passengers were allowed to come and go as they pleased from police cruisers. “Thanks for the ride,” I said.
“Dinner?” he asked evenly. “Tonight. Before our shifts. I could pick you up. Cook you dinner at my place if you’d like to bring Tulip. Or take you out if you prefer.”
“Thank you for the ride,” I said again.
He sighed. “You’re a tough nut to crack, Charlie.”
I didn’t disagree, just climbed out and released Tulip from the back. She bounded out gratefully, racing a little circle on the snow-covered sidewalk.
Officer Mackereth didn’t say anything more. Just studied me through the window as I closed the passenger door in his face. A heartbeat later, he put his cruiser in drive and pulled away.
Tulip and I stood side by side, watching him depart.
I waited until the patrol car was out of sight. Then I finally exhaled a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding and turned toward my landlady’s house. At the last second, a movement caught the corner of my eyes. I glanced up sharply, just in time to catch the silhouette of a person standing in the second-story window of the house next to mine.
The second I spotted the figure, he or she stepped back. Blinds came down. The window blanked out, leaving Tulip and me once again alone on the street, with the hairs prickling the back of my neck.
“I WANT IN.”
“What?” D.D. looked up bleary-eyed from the stack of interview statements she’d been skimming. She already felt bewildered, but that didn’t surprise her. Jack, so cute and peaceful over dinner, had been up all night crying again. She’d taken the first shift, rocking him. Alex had taken the second. Come morning, they were both wrecked.
A fellow detective leaned over her desk. Ellen O. She had a real last name, but it was too long and involved too many consonants. When the newly minted detective had first joined the force two years ago, someone had shortened her name to O, and, half the time, no one bothered with even the Ellen part, but simply referred to her as Detective O.
O was fifteen years younger than D.D. and fifteen pounds heavier, but in all the right places. She had dark exotic eyes and glossy brown hair nearly the same shade as cinnamon. In the beginning, male detectives had been very interested in mentoring the young sex crimes detective. When she was less than receptive to their attentions, rumors had started that she was a lesbian.
D.D. doubted that. From what she could tell, Detective O lived and breathed her job. She was actually more intense than even D.D., which was not, in anyone’s mind, a good thing. While D.D. would admit this to no one-no one!-the rookie detective scared her a little.
“Your dead perv,” O prodded now. “Possibly one of two. I want in.”
D.D. started with the obvious: “You’re a sex crimes detective. This is a homicide investigation.”
“Where the victims are suspected pedophiles, which just so happens to be my area of expertise. Trust me, you need me.”
D.D. gave O a look. They’d both been around long enough to know that as arguments went, trust me was never the right approach.
O slapped a sheath of papers on D.D.’s desk. “Forensic analysis of the first perv’s computer. I’ll give you three minutes to review it, then you tell me the relevant findings, because I already know.”
“Three minutes?” D.D. scowled. She hadn’t gotten to reviewing details of the “first” shooting yet. She was still working on the homicide that had happened on her watch, not the one that hadn’t.
“Three minutes was all it took me,” O declared boldly. She crossed her arms over her chest. The sex crimes detective was wearing a white button-down shirt over a blue tank. Nothing wrong with the ensemble, perfectly professional. It was all D.D. could do not to reach over and fasten the top button.
Apparently sleep-deprivation made her petty. And bitchy. And way too tired for this.
D.D. sighed and gave up. She pushed the report back to O. “Fine, you’re the expert, and yeah, especially if these two shootings are related, we could use some help. What do you got for me?”
O appeared genuinely startled. Maybe D.D. was, too. She’d never caved easily, or gracefully, before. Hah, she wanted to say. You’re younger and prettier, but I’m older and wiser. That would probably ruin the moment, however, so she didn’t.
“All right,” O said. She uncrossed her arms, took up position on the edge of D.D.’s desk, and got serious. “Douglas Antiholde, level three sex offender, shot four weeks ago in the doorway of his apartment. Double tap to the left forehead.”
“Yeah, know that much.” D.D. made a motion with her hand for Detective O to speed it along.
“’Kay. So most pedophiles specialize, particularly when it comes to MO. Some use coercion, some use force, some use opportunity. Either way, all of them start by ‘grooming’ their targets. And they have preferred methodology for that as well, the latest and greatest being the Internet.”
“Douglas Antiholde was an Internet predator,” D.D. filled in dryly. Another hand gesture to move it along. Not her first rodeo.
“You know the target age group for online predators?” O asked.
“Fourteen-year-old girls,” D.D. guessed.
“Nope. Five- to nine-year-old boys.”
“Really?” D.D. sat up a little straighter. Okay, she had not known that.
“Antiholde’s Internet log is textbook,” O was saying. “He was a registered user of every major kiddie website out there, plus Facebook, plus Spokeo, plus Chatroulette. You gotta understand, these guys are like day traders-this is what they do, twenty-four seven. They surf the Internet, identifying targets, initiating relationships, and then grooming, grooming, grooming. Just like stockbrokers, they understand that not every target is going to pay off. So they build a ‘portfolio’ of ten, fifteen, twenty victims they’re actively following and researching. They don’t expect all to bear fruit. They just need one to work out, and it’s worth it to them.”
D.D. had a feeling her mouth was hanging open. She’d never pictured sex predators as working professionals before. That level of discipline. That level of focus. “Ummm, aren’t there safety protocols or security software that help block sex predators’ access to kids?”
“Yes and no. See, most five-year-olds join websites that feature their favorite toys, where they can become a member. Now, these sites certainly advertise to parents their security protocols. Stuff like they have trained professionals hanging out on the websites patrolling for bullying, that sort of thing. And they impose limits on communication, mostly on instant messaging where it appears Virtual Animal A is talking to Virtual Animal B using dialogue bubbles. Virtual Animal A can ‘chat’ with Virtual Animal B, but only by selecting from stock phrases. This gives parents a sense of security. Cute fuzzy Animal A can’t type in a dialogue box, Hey want to meet after school, because that’s not a stock phrase.
“Unfortunately, parents are missing the obvious. Just joining these sites, becoming a part of a virtual community where you are encouraged to make virtual friends and rewarded for hanging out, is starting the grooming process. A five-year-old now thinks it’s good to be online. A five-year-old now thinks it’s something special to be a member of an Internet community. And a five-year-old now thinks it’s fun and desirable to invite perfect strangers to be friends. From an online predator’s point of view, a kiddie website does all the up-front work for him. Then he just has to show up and close the deal.”
“But how?” D.D. asked. “According to you, they can only communicate using pre-scripted phrases.”
“Sure, on those sites. Which is why they serve as the first step in the grooming process. Look, a guy like Antiholde picks a popular kids site, say AthleteAnimalz.com. He logs on to the site, enters his animal’s code, becomes a member. Then, for the first few weeks, he does what any user does-he plays like mad. He masters games, he builds up points, he wins whatever there is to win. Boys, in particular, are acutely status-conscious. From an early age, they want to win and they want to be friends with winners. So Antiholde becomes that winner. He builds a virtual image as the most popular, most successful member of the site. The high school quarterback everyone wants to high-five in the school halls. Then he goes to work.
“He starts monitoring other users. He’s looking for the members that play regularly. Remember, he’s a day trader. He’s got a lot of stocks to watch, so he doesn’t want the random visitor to the site. He wants someone with fairly predictable hours, the kid that goes on after school or after dinner most days of the week. The kid that day in, day out, he’s gonna find there.
“Now he starts friending. Invites other users to be his buddies. Asks them to play games with him. And again, the website is going to do his work for him, by providing the perfect team-building exercises. Think of any of the virtual combat games-Antiholde’s character will be the one that magically has your back. He’ll save your character again and again. Which will make you feel good about him, again and again. In a matter of weeks, you’re happy to see him logged on to the site, excited to be on his team, and even more thrilled when he invites you to log on and play with him at certain times during the day. You’re not just friends now, you’re friends.”
“Yeah,” D.D. interjected, “but it’s all still online. A virtual relationship. Creepy, but make believe. Plus what are the odds the kid is from the predator’s same town? I mean, I’ve heard the stories of the sixteen-year-old girl being lured into taking a plane to meet her new soul mate, but a five-year-old?”
“Sports teams,” O said.
“Primary geographic indicator used to target boys. You’re a pedophile in Boston, first thing you do is look for kids who describe themselves as Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, or Pats fans. Nine times out of ten, you’ve just identified a victim within driving range. And boys love to talk sports. Another innocuous way of bonding, where the kid is giving up a major piece of personal information, without ever being the wiser.”
D.D. shifted uneasily in her chair. “That’s twisted.”
Detective O shrugged. “Just because they’re predators doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Computers are tools. We use them to help us analyze evidence and process reports. Internet predators use them to reach beyond the walls of their seedy apartments, into your nice, cozy family room, and make contact with your child without you ever knowing the difference. Some of them even create their own sites. Hamsters Who Play Hockey, whatever. On Website A, where they’ve established the relationship, they trace the kid’s user name back to the child’s e-mail addy-a fairly simple technical exercise. Then they send the kid an e-mail, inviting the child to visit hockey-playing hamsters. Nothing scary or alarming about that, especially as the e-mail came from Cute Animal A, who the child’s been ‘playing’ with for weeks. Kid clicks on the hockey-playing hamster link, and bada bing, bada boom, the child is now on a website controlled by a predator, where content will quickly become more and more questionable as the predator ramps up the next phase of the grooming process. Or maybe the predator goes with a direct outreach. From playing virtual games online, to sending an e-mail saying, Hey, buddy, want to meet after school and play catch in the park?”
“Or Want to see my new puppy,” D.D. murmured.
“Second victim,” O filled in. “Stephen Laurent. Yep, come see my puppy would do the trick. And most kids are easily manipulated. They are receiving an e-mail from a perceived friend, so they say yes. They show up at what they think is another kid’s house, to see a puppy, except there’s a grown man there. But there’s also the puppy, and they’ve been trained not to be rude to adults, so even if they’re uncomfortable, even if in the back of their mind they think maybe they shouldn’t…” She shrugged. “They go along. Things we’ve trained our children to do without the help of computers.”
D.D. felt ill. She was accustomed to analytically discussing crime. But now she kept seeing Jack, except five years from now, and she and Alex were taking the time to raise him in the right neighborhood with the right locks on the door and attending the right kind of school, except the minute he went online…Her son would disappear down a virtual rabbit hole, with dark alleys and seedy strangers everywhere, except the dark alleys would be dressed up as brightly colored computer screens and the seedy strangers would be cute little bunnies with names like ILuvSk8boardingInHarvardSquare. Dear Lord.
“Do you have kids?” D.D. asked Ellen O.
The detective’s face was serious. “Are you kidding? I go around spouting facts like 40 percent of girls ages twelve to seventeen have been solicited by a stranger online. Doesn’t really go over well on dates. Or at cocktail parties for that matter. Then, should someone pull out a smartphone while I’m in the room…Let’s just say, at least my cats still hang with me.”
D.D. hadn’t thought of that, but it rang true. O had a head filled with the kind of boogeyman stories no one wanted to hear. D.D. was a homicide detective, and even she wasn’t sure how much of this she could take. It made her feel too powerless, as a mom and a cop.
“So,” D.D. ventured, “you’re saying Antiholde’s computer log proves he was an online predator?”
“And Stephen Laurent?”
“I’d like to glance at his Internet log, but figured I should get your permission first.”
“I’d like you to look at his Internet log, too,” D.D. agreed. “At the moment, we’re searching for any kind of link between the two victims-”
“Murder victims. If they both frequent these websites you’re talking about…”
“Question becomes,” O said, “how’d their cover get blown? I mean, online, they’re gonna appear like any other user, an excited kid. Except someone figured out who they were and what they were doing.”
“Victim in common?” D.D. guessed. “Someone who knows the victim?”
She was thinking of the forensic handwriting expert she’d talked to last night, Dembowski’s theory that their shooter was an anal-retentive female. D.D. didn’t say anything, however. She didn’t want to contaminate the investigation with an assumption, and apparently graphology itself was riddled with assumptions, not to mention the assumption that the person who left the note was the same person who shot Stephen Laurent. Which brought her to another question. She regarded Detective O.
“You read the crime scene report of the first shooting, Antiholde?”
“Yep, late last night.”
Ah, the good old days, when work didn’t shut off at five.
“Any documentation of a note from the shooter?” D.D. asked.
“What do you mean?”
“When I left the Stephen Laurent scene, I found a note on my car. I’m wondering if it was from the shooter.”
Ellen O frowned. “What’d the note say?”
“Everyone has to die sometime. Be brave.”
“Oh. Oh, oh oh. Hang on. Wait here.”
O dashed off. D.D. sat there, wondering what was up. Sixty seconds later, O was back with some crime scene photos. One showed the victim, Douglas Antiholde. Another showed a close-up of the contents of his pants pocket, including loose change, a paper clip, and a crumpled piece of torn yellow legal pad paper that had been smoothed out enough to read: Everyone has to die sometime. Be brave.
Writing was script, with a flattened bottom, every letter precisely shaped.
“I’ll be damned,” D.D. murmured.
“Serial shooter, targeting pedophiles,” Detective O declared triumphantly. “I’m in!”
“Are you ever,” said D.D. “And good luck with that. Good luck to us all.”
I DREAMED OF MY MOTHER.
She stood at the counter in a tiny brown-and-gold kitchen, curtain of dark hair obscuring her pinched face as she crooned to herself. “Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of.”
In my dream, I was three years old, crammed into a high chair meant for a baby, my back plastered to the sticky vinyl seat, while a white plastic strap, splattered with dried eggs and fuzzy oatmeal, jammed into my tummy hard enough to hurt.
I wanted out. I whimpered, whined, fussed, and fidgeted. If I could just get my quick little hands on the buckles, I could escape. But I’d done that before. I had a memory of getting out, so she’d changed the straps, and now the buckles were in the back of the sticky seat and I was trapped and uncomfortable, and even though I was hungry, I didn’t want to be there anymore.
My mother had a lightbulb in her hand. She’d taken it from the chipped white lamp in the family room. Unscrewed it, while singing softly to herself.
“Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of.”
My mother placed the lightbulb in a blue plastic bowl, picked up a large metal spoon, and slammed down hard. A faint tinkling sound. The older me, the real me, and not the trapped three-year-old version of me, understood the sound was the lightbulb shattering.
The three-year-old trapped me simply watched with big blue eyes as my mother ground the lightbulb, all the while singing, singing, singing.
Then, she looked up at me and smiled.
Next to the bowl was a jar of peanut butter. Now my mother unscrewed the lid. Now she scooped out a big spoonful. Now she placed the peanut butter in the blue plastic bowl with the shattered lightbulb. And stirred.
“Sugar and spice and everything nice,” my mother declared. “That’s what little girls are made of.”
She crossed to the high chair. She placed the bowl on the too-tight white tray. Plopped it down on a piece of congealed egg. I could hear the squishy, popping sound of yolk smooshing against the bowl.
My mother was dressed up. She had gloss on her lips, color on her cheeks. Her brown hair was freshly washed. She’d taken the time to brush it until it fell long and shiny halfway down her back, a waterfall of shimmering brown-red silk.
I wanted to touch that hair. Hold it in my fist. Feel this softer, shinier version of my mother.
My mother looked pretty. It both fascinated and terrified me.
“Sugar and spice and everything nice,” my mother singsonged. “Oh, but Charlie honey, nice girls finish last. You don’t want to be last. The world wants brave little girls, tough little girls. Sugar and spice and broken glass, that’s what little girls should be made of.”
She scooped up the first spoonful of peanut butter. “Here comes the airplane. Come on, Charlie. Be a good girl for your mommy. Open up. Here comes the airplane, into the hangar, vroom, vroom, vroom…”
LATER I VOMITED BLOOD. We went to the emergency room. The nurses rushed me in, fussed all over me. I was poked, prodded, the doctor flashed a light in my eyes. I held my stomach and whimpered. But I didn’t cry. Good girls were brave. Good girls were tough.
Pain. Wracking cramps, eye-rolling diarrhea, my face bursting with sweat, but I promise, promise, promise, no tears rolling down my cheeks.
“I just don’t know what to do,” my pretty, shiny mommy was telling the doctor. “I turned my back for only a moment, and next thing I knew, she was eating a lightbulb. I mean, really, Doctor, what kind of child eats a lightbulb?”
Good girls are brave. Good girls are tough.
“It’s just so hard, sometimes, being a single mom. I mean, I’d just popped into the kitchen to make her favorite peanut butter sandwich, and well, I was doing laundry and trying to pick up all the toys in the family room and clean the bathroom. And yes, a lightbulb had burned out, so I’d gotten one down to replace it, but I never thought for a second, never imagined…I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to cry. I just haven’t slept in so long. You have no idea how active she is and impulsive and…And now this and we don’t have insurance and, and…I’m sorry, can I just sit down for a minute?”
Good girls are brave. Good girls are tough.
The doctor patted my mother’s shoulder. The doctor told my mother everything would be all right. The doctor told my mother she was doing the best she could and he understood completely.
I rolled over, held my stomach, and vomited more blood.
Wanted to talk. Wanted to find my voice, but my tongue was swollen and my cheeks hurt and my throat burned.
Another nurse standing beside me. Wiping my mouth with a cool cloth, touching my forehead with gentle fingers. I stared at her. Dark eyes, dark hair. Kind face. Speak. I wanted to. I tried to open my mouth. Could feel the urgency of it, the desperate need to. Had to speak, had to speak.
Not about the lightbulb, not about the peanut butter.
Something else I had to say. If I could just say…
Good girls are brave. Good girls are tough.
I opened my mouth.
The nurse turned away. Across the room, as if sensing my intent, my mother glanced over the doctor’s shoulder, met my gaze, and triumphantly smiled.
* * *
I WOKE UP IN THE BLIND-DARKENED ROOM of my Cambridge rental. Pulse pounding. Hair damp. Gray tank top glued to my sweat-plastered skin.
Words were still on the tip of my tongue. The words I never got to say back then, the words it took me years to slowly but surely remember:
That’s what I’d wanted to say. What I’d felt a desperate urge to tell the doctor, the nurse, someone. Except in theory, I didn’t remember a baby. In theory, my mother only had me.
Down the hall, I thought now. And for a second, I could almost taste a name, feel it like a scent in the air, a ghost of a ghost of a memory. A baby girl. Down the hall. Crying.
I squeezed my eyes shut. Pressed the heels of my hands into my eye sockets as if that might help. To remember. To forget?
I never knew. All these years later, I never knew.
My mother hurt me. I knew that. She was not well. So sick, in fact, that after that last incident, she was sent away permanently. A mental institute I guess, because that’s where sick people generally went, and jail would’ve involved a trial, and that I would’ve remembered.
My mother went away. That’s what Aunt Nancy told me the first day in the hospital, and I never brought it up again. Mentioning my mother’s name risked summoning the demon. So I never asked and Aunt Nancy never told.
Something bad had happened. Worse than usual. And I knew what it was. Deep down inside, I understood that I knew everything, that in fact I remembered everything. But I didn’t want to remember what I remembered. So I didn’t. By a conscious or subconscious act of will, I took the past, boxed it up, and put it away, never to be seen again.
Maybe not the best coping strategy. And not without consequences. Turns out, when you wall off pieces of your mind, you can’t control everything that disappears. To this day, I have haphazard recall at best. Time escapes me, days, weeks. Entire conversations with best friends, the vital last lecture that happened right before the final exam.
Jackie and Randi used to tease me I’d forget my own head if it wasn’t attached to my shoulders. I’d laugh with them, but often self-consciously. Jackie had really called me on the phone last night, we’d talked for two hours, and I’d forgotten all of it? Randi had told me all about her first date with local heartthrob Tom Eastman, and I couldn’t recall a single detail?
Small glitches in the operating system, I’d tell myself. I mean, given the amount of resources I’d dedicated to wiping eight entire years from my general consciousness, some errors were bound to occur. Besides, no matter how much I screwed up, forgot, genuinely overlooked, those occasions were still better than the few times I started to remember.
Recall was most likely to happen when my anxiety spiked. Then the past would leak out in my dreams, snippets from an old movie reel, where once upon a time, a thin crazy mother lived in a tiny dirty house with her thin lonely daughter. And the mother fed her daughter shattered glass and slammed her fingers in kitchen drawers and pushed her down steep flights of stairs because little girls needed to be brave and tough.
Until one day, the little girl grew to be so brave, so tough, that she won the war.
That, I felt in my bones. My mother did something. But I won the war.
And I didn’t ask about my mother anymore, because in my heart of all hearts, I understood that answer might tell me everything I still wasn’t prepared to know.
Girl. Stuffed bear. White ruffles, pink polka dots. Sugar and spice and everything nice…
Don’t remember. Block it out. Shove it away. Nothing good can come from the past, especially a past like mine. Not to mention, at this stage of the game, what would be the point?
A hunted woman doesn’t need closure. A hunted woman needs battle skills.
I stood abruptly, glanced at the clock in my shadowed room, and calculated the time remaining until 8 P.M., January 21. Zero hour. When my own killer would finally come calling.
Seventy-eight hours to go.
I put on my workout clothes, grabbed Tulip’s leash, and prepared to run.
MY FATHER LIVES IN BOSTON. Only argument Aunt Nancy and I ever had was about him, so again, another topic rarely broached and even less frequently considered. But yes, I have a father. Rich guy. On his fifth, sixth wife, last I heard. I have siblings, too, half siblings I guess. I’ve never met any of them, and I have no illusions my father is any more of a parent to them than he is to me.
My dad has a sperm donor approach to fatherhood. Meet a young pretty girl, knock her up. If she’s young enough, pretty enough, surgically enhanced enough, maybe marry her, too. Until of course, the next young pretty thing comes along, in which case, hey, he’s a guy; he can’t help himself.
I guess he met my mother while on vacation at the grand old Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods. She was seventeen and working as a housekeeper. He was thirty and looking for entertainment. According to Aunt Nancy, my mother told him she was pregnant. He didn’t marry her, but sent money. Sperm donor, check writer. See, a hell of a guy.
He never followed up on my care. At least that’s how the story goes. Lost touch with my mother in the very beginning, which surprises me a little. Not that he’d let me go, but that my mother would let him go. Maybe she tried. But she would’ve been a mountain mouse and he’s some big city finance guy, came from money, makes even more money, has a long and enduring value system wrapped up in his own self-importance. She probably never stood a chance.
I guess the cops in upstate New York called him first, after the incident. My mother had his name listed as the emergency contact, though no phone number. Police, however, are a bit more skilled than mentally ill twenty-five-year-olds, so within a matter of days, they tracked him down. He was not in the country, however. Paris, London, Amsterdam. I don’t recall.
He bounced them to Aunt Nancy, who did the honors of assuming responsibility for a niece she’d never met. Even then, she ran a business, the call came out of the blue, so it took a few more days while she made it from the wilds of New Hampshire to the even deeper wilds of upstate New York.
Those days remained hazy for me. I remembered waking up in the hospital. I remembered being surprised that I was alive. Then I remembered feeling deeply, deeply disappointed.
A social worker sat bedside. She had black hair cut in a short bob that showed off a sharp, angular face. Not a kind-looking person. Not maternal. She looked hard and spoke in a clipped voice.
The doctors had removed my appendix, maybe some other things. Apparently, spending years eating small doses of glass and rat poison was not good for various internal organs. But I was healing well, she’d assured me. I’d be just fine.
And again, I was so deeply, deeply disappointed.
I never spoke to her. Or the nurses. Or the doctors. They had betrayed me. They had forced me to live. I’d hated them for that.
Eventually, my aunt had arrived. She’d taken my hand, and that quickly I went from being my mother’s child to being my aunt’s niece.
That was the best thing that had ever happened to me.
Aunt Nancy was my mother’s older sister by six years. She had silver-gray hair cut Brillo short. Premature gray hair ran in the family, I was told. Like blue eyes and strong jawlines. But the gray color suited my aunt, brought out her steel blue eyes, her high cheekbones. My aunt could care less. If my mother was obsessed with male attention, then my aunt was equally obsessed with keeping men at arm’s length.
When their parents died in an auto accident-in New Hampshire you’ll notice lots of signs advising you to brake for moose; you really should- my aunt took over the parenting role. My mom was a wild one, even back then. And my aunt was the responsible one, even back then. Needless to say, their relationship was strained even before my mom got knocked up by a wealthy Boston financier.
They went their separate ways until one day, the phone rang and my aunt learned about an incident, a niece, and yet one more unexpected life change.
Like any kid, I never appreciated my aunt, until one night, my own phone rang with news of an incident, a tragedy, an unexpected loss. And I turned to my aunt for guidance, because given a choice between being my mother’s daughter and being my aunt’s niece, I’d take niecedom any day of the week.
My aunt is brave. My aunt is tough.
Fuck chewing shattered glass.
Run a bed and breakfast with little help and no health insurance in the mountains of New Hampshire, where in January the daily temperature will start at negative twenty and most of your Boston guests will have forgotten to pack hats, scarves, and gloves and will consider it all your fault.
I thought of my aunt now, as Tulip and I slowed at an intersection, waited for the light to change, then sprinted through the crosswalk. I thought she deserved better than yet another life-changing phone call on January 21.
I thought, heart pounding from the exertion of my six-mile run, sweat pouring down my face, dog trotting beside me, gun quickly accessible in my fanny pack, that I was glad my aunt couldn’t see me now.
Because she’d have taken one look at me and understood that even if I was winning the battle, I’d lost the war: I’d become the spitting image of my mother, down to the bruised eyes, hollowed out cheeks, and hard-lined face.
The mountains had left me. My aunt had left me. Living in isolation, fighting paranoia in a big city, I had become everything I knew better than to be.
These days, I was my mother’s daughter.
Except I didn’t chew shattered glass anymore.
I carried a. 22 semiauto. And this evening, sometime after 7 P.M., I was going to prove once again that I knew how to use it.
HELLO. My name is Abigail.
Have we met yet?
Don’t worry, we will.
Hello. My name is Abigail.
RHODE ISLAND STATE POLICE DETECTIVE SERGEANT Roan Griffin had the voice of a bear and the build of a boulder. Big guy. Probably bench-pressed small automobiles after toppling sumo wrestlers and tackling linebackers. Good-looking guy, too. Officer Blue Eyes, the Providence Journal had dubbed him years ago, when he’d appeared on Dave Letterman to model the state police’s award-winning new uniforms.
Truth was, the Rhode Island State Police had a reputation for the best-looking cops in New England. No one knew how they did it. Maybe a special factory that chiseled out broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, square-jawed men. Either way, whenever there was an opportunity for cross training with their Rhode Island counterparts, the female officers of Massachusetts quickly signed up. Like, all three of them.
Currently, D.D. was on the phone with Griffin. A shame, really, because Rhode Island’s headquarters was only an hour south, and given the restaurants available for lunch in Providence’s Federal Hill…Missing out on sightseeing and Italian dining, D.D. thought with a sigh. So much for the new and improved lifestyle.
Griffin was a married man. Actually, his second marriage, as the first wife had died of cancer. Wife number two was a blond advertising executive named Jillian. D.D. had never met her, only knew her because of the press coverage. Jillian had survived the notorious College Hill Rapist about eight years back. Her younger sister hadn’t been so lucky. When they’d finally arrested a man for the attacks, Jillian had formed a group dubbed the Survivors Club in order to assist one another through the trial. Except there hadn’t been a trial, given that the suspect had been gunned down outside the courthouse and Jillian and her fellow club members had gone from sympathetic victims to prime suspects.
D.D. would be the first to admit she’d followed the case as zealously as Nancy Grace, especially when days after the alleged rapist’s murder, another woman was attacked. Seriously, there were days on this job when she thought not even a suspense novelist could make these things up.
Griffin and Jillian had two boys now. Ages four and six, D.D. was learning. The youngest, Dylan, had taken a page out of his father’s book and was all football all the time. The six-year-old, Sean, had recently discovered cooking. As in last night he’d prepared rack of lamb for the entire family.
“With a pomegranate molasses marinade,” Griffin was finishing now, “though I suspect his mom helped him with that.”
“He’s six. How’d he even lift a roasting pan into the oven?” D.D. wanted to know.
“Oh,” Griffin said breezily. “He gets that from me.”
“And the hot oven…not a problem?”
“Jillian did the honors of taking it out. And she helped him sear the outside on the stove. But he found the recipe-”
“Where? At the back of his comic books?”
“He checked out a cookbook from the library. He’s a how-to kid. No fiction, but brings home books on how to plant gardens, how to engineer robots, how to build boats. Guess now it’s gonna be how to cook.”
“Rack of lamb. That’s amazing.”
“Hell, it was fabulous. I’m ready to start a college fund for Johnson and Wales.”
“I don’t know about cooking yet for baby Jack,” D.D. said. “But last night he threw up something that might pass for molasses.”
Griffin laughed. That was the great thing about parents and homicide cops-nothing ever grossed them out. She could tell diaper stories all day, and her fellow detectives would actually find that charming. D.D. wondered sometimes how normal people lived.
“Is he sleeping at all?” Griffin asked.
“Try driving around?”
“No. Too afraid I’ll fall asleep.”
“What about during the day? Does he nap?”
“Some. When you’re holding him, or when he’s in his carrier, then he passes out cold.”
“Okay,” Griffin said briskly, “so Dylan wasn’t much of a sleeper when he was an infant. I’d take him for short drives in the car seat, get him wiped out. Then return home and place his carrier directly in his crib, with him still strapped in. Worked like a charm for weeks. Then pretty soon, we could just place him straight into the crib. Maybe being in the carrier helped get him acclimated to the crib? Hell if I know, but it worked.”
D.D. pursed her lips, nodded. “Sounds like something worth trying. Or I could just sign up for the funny farm now.”
At the last minute, she realized maybe she shouldn’t have said that. Given Griffin’s own past, that little incident with the Candy Man, Griffin’s ensuing mental breakdown, the medical leave from the state police.
Griffin just laughed again, sounding unruffled. D.D. took that as a sign his new family was working for him. She hoped so. Griffin was a good guy and great detective. If he was happy, maybe there was hope for the rest of them.
“So,” she declared, “as delightful as our children are, I’m actually calling you about a case. Randi Menke, murdered in Providence two years ago. Guess the state police became involved because you were already investigating the number one suspect for fraud.”
“Jon Menke,” Griffin said immediately. “Slimy bastard.”
“You think he did it?”
“Please, at the time I would’ve bet my career on it, which it turned out, would’ve cost me, given the second murder one year later.”
“Jackie Knowles,” D.D. filled in. “So you heard about that.”
“Only four dozen times. The friend…Charice, Chartreuse…”
“That’s it.” Griffin snapped his fingers over the phone. “Charlie something something Grant. She visited our fine headquarters many times. Made her wishes for swift and immediate justice known.”
“What do you think?”
Another sigh. “Crap, it’s January eighteenth. Just three days to go. Well hell…” Griffin stopped murmuring, seemed to collect his thoughts. “Okay, so I can only speak to the Providence scene, and there wasn’t much to it. First responders arrived to a quiet house. Front door was closed but unlocked. In the family room, they found the body of a woman. She was lying there so peacefully, one of the guys dropped to start CPR. Wasn’t until he was leaning over her that he saw the bruises around her neck and realized she was dead.”
“Dressed in some kind of upscale, dark green track suit-pants, long-sleeved white shirt, matching top. Fluffy white socks, L.L. Bean slippers. Comfy clothes, as one of the detectives put it. Like she’d gotten all settled for the night, then someone rang the doorbell.”
D.D. considered that. Women didn’t usually wear track suits and fluffy socks when expecting male guests, so she went with their theory-Randi had turned in for the night.
“TV?” she asked. “Was it or any lights on when the officers arrived?”
“TV was off, all lights had been turned off-”
“Print the switch plates?” D.D. interrupted.
“Duh,” Griffin informed her drolly. “Nada. Perp was definitely wearing gloves and, less quantifiable, but I’d say knew the house. Felt comfortable there. It’s like he showed up, did the deed, then tidied up. Turned off lights, mopped the floor, wiped down the kitchen for all we know. But the scene was tidy. Except for the dead body, of course.”
“So maybe there had been a struggle,” D.D. challenged. “Maybe Randi put up a helluva fight, and that’s why the perp cleaned up afterward.”
“Maybe. No signs of trauma on the body, though. No defensive wounds, no bruising. All in all, it’s like someone walked in, put his hands around her neck, and that was that.”
“You’ve said he a couple of times. So you’re thinking a male attacker?”
“ME’s best guess. It’s not easy to manually strangle someone. Takes a bit of muscle but also finger strength. Randi was an average-sized female, five five, hundred and twenty, did Pilates four times a week. In theory, it would take someone bigger and stronger to overpower her so quickly.”
D.D. pursed her lips. “And Jon Menke?”
“Weasel,” Griffin muttered. “Six feet, one ninety, physically fit, spent four to five mornings a week at the gym. Apparently, he felt a doctor should look the part. We learned his female colleagues appreciated that.”
“A ladies’ man?”
“Definitely not monogamous.”
“Did Randi know?”
“Apparently part of the cause for the divorce. The other part being that he liked to beat the shit out of her.”
“Document it?” D.D. asked sharply.
“Oh yeah. To give Randi some credit, she did her homework before leaving the bastard. Called a hotline, got some advice. She’d filled an entire safety deposit box with photos and walk-in clinic reports before dialing up the lawyer and making a break for it. And trust me, Menke was pissed off about that. His wife not only left, but got him branded as a wife beater while nailing him for alimony. Yeah, Menke had every reason to want her dead and was fully capable of getting the job done.”
“Except…” D.D. drawled out.
“Alibi,” Griffin supplied. “A cocktail waitress, mind you, some pretty young thing who probably saw his pecs, his paycheck, and his Porsche and promptly forgot things like his history of domestic abuse, but they were in a bar and several regulars backed their claim. In the end, we couldn’t break it.”
D.D. thought about it. “You said he had a history of smacking his wife around?”
“Yep. Fat lips, black eyes, a wrecked knee where apparently he’d kicked her.”
“Sounds like a guy who had trouble managing his temper.”
“But, the homicide scene…”
“Looks like the work of someone fully in control,” Griffin agreed. “Which was the second problem with pursuing Menke. On the one hand, it just felt right to nail him for something. On the other hand, this something didn’t feel like his kind of something. He would’ve trashed the place. Not to mention, according to our criminologist, wife beaters who become wife killers almost always disfigure their spouses. Shoot them in the face, stab them five dozen times. It’s a personal, frenzied, dehumanizing attack. This…this was cold-blooded. More akin to murder-for-hire, which became our next theory.”
“Oooh,” D.D.’s eyes widened. “Menke paid someone to take down his too-good-for-her-own-good ex-wife.”
“Yeah. My theory. Real winner at the time, and maybe still the best theory, but we could never find a money trail. Now, the feds were investigating Menke for health care fraud at the time, and the money trail there was long and convoluted. Lot of suspicion that he was dealing prescription drugs on the side, which would’ve given him access to both cash and a certain ‘clientele’ we could never prove. So murder-for-hire remains the most likely scenario, in my mind.”
“Did you ever get him for fraud?”
“Feds got him. Small potatoes though. Could only prove the tip, not the iceberg. But it was enough to have his medical license revoked, plus he’s serving three-to-five in a Club Fed somewhere. You can contact a Boston FBI agent, David Riggs, if you have more questions. He ran the health care fraud investigation.”
“When you pressed Menke about his wife’s murder, how’d he take it?” D.D. asked. “Get hostile on the subject, or smug?”
“Moral indignation. He was totally over her, how dare we suggest otherwise.”
“Ah, moral indignation. Always a nice choice for a wife beater. Taking the high road.”
“Well, he was a doctor you know.”
Both D.D. and Griffin lapsed into silence. “No physical evidence at the scene?” she tried again.
“Only evidence was lack of evidence,” Griffin assured her.
“What do you mean?”
“Most homes have fingerprints. How odd that this one didn’t.”
“So the killer really did clean up afterward.”
“Stone cold and handy with a sponge. I’m still thinking murder-for-hire, and this guy has quite the résumé.”
“And the second murder?” D.D. tried. “In Atlanta?”
“Don’t know the details. Only heard after the fact from Charlie, plus some Atlanta Feebie, Kimberly Quincy, gave me a buzz. She’d heard there might be a connection between Jackie Knowles’s murder and a Providence case and was curious. She commented that the Knowles scene was equally pristine. Other than the dead body and all.”
D.D. frowned. She didn’t like it. “They gotta be connected,” she muttered now. “I mean, how many clean murder scenes have you seen in your day?”
“Counting Randi’s: one.”
“Exactly. So they have to be connected. But how?”
“Question,” Griffin corrected, “is who? We knew Randi had at least one enemy-her ex. But what about Jackie Knowles? Who had reason to want her dead?”
“Murder-for-hire suggests money,” D.D. said immediately. “But two different victims from two different families rules out inheritance.”
“Please, Randi wasn’t getting that kind of alimony. She had thirty bucks in checking, that was it. Look,” Griffin took a deep breath, “I gotta run in a minute, but for what it’s worth, when I heard about the Atlanta scene, I went back to the area hotels. Tried to see if maybe a mutual acquaintance of Randi and Jackie might be in town. They grew up together, right? So maybe a neighbor, classmate, friend.”
“Charlie yada yada Grant,” D.D. guessed.
“Not that I could prove, but maybe she paid for a room with cash…You know how it is.”
D.D. nodded. She did know how it was. “She found me, you know.”
“Charlie something something Grant?”
“Yep. She’s living in Boston now. Running from her neighbors, classmates, friends.”
“Three days until the twenty-first,” Griffin murmured.
“Yep. She wanted to meet me in person. She hopes, if she doesn’t survive the twenty-first, that’ll make me try harder to solve her murder.”
“Shit,” Griffin drawled.
“My thought, exactly.”
Griffin said, “You should call Atlanta. Try the Feebie. She seemed all right. Wish I could help you more, especially given the time line…”
D.D. agreed. Three days to solve two cold cases that hadn’t yielded any leads in the past two years…“So,” she asked briskly. “If you were me, who would you be on the lookout for?”
“Someone physically strong, mentally patient, good with his words, better with his hands, and absolutely positively soulless. Probably above average computer skills as well-the Internet being every stalker’s new best friend. Conversely, I’d tell Charlie that as long as she’s running, stay off the net. Logging on these days is like sending out smoke signals: Here I am. And mine the connections. How many people really knew all three women? In fact, here’s a thought-have you checked out Facebook? Sometimes there are pages in memoriam, you know, in honor of Randi Menke and/or Jackie Knowles. See who’s posting, then track them down. Might give you a start.”
“Lotta man hours for a case that’s not even a case,” D.D. muttered. Then in the next instant, she thought of Detective O, Internet predators, and online grooming and felt a satisfying click in the back of her head. Ten weeks of total sleep deprivation, and she still had it. “Thanks, Griffin,” she said hastily. “You just gave me an idea.”
JESSE FLEW OFF THE SCHOOL BUS, slinging his Red Sox backpack over his left shoulder while dashing down the snowy street. Didn’t have a watch. Wasn’t sure about the time, but the bus had been late. Wouldn’t it figure that today of all days the bus would be late? Had to hurry, hurry, hurry.
He hit the front steps of the apartment building and jumped them two at a time before slapping the palm of his hand against the buzzer for his apartment. His mom, expecting him, buzzed back. He jerked open the heavy outer door and leapt for the stairs, missing the bottom two, hitting the edge of the third and sliding down on his knees before he got his feet beneath him and finished the long rat-a-tat dash up three levels. He was already digging in his coat pocket for the apartment key. He arrived at his unit’s front door, sweaty, trembling, and feeling a little sick.
Couldn’t be late, didn’t want to be late.
Helmet Hippo was depending on him.
Jesse jammed the metal key in the lock, got the door open, and burst into the apartment, already hemorrhaging boots, backpack, mittens, coat, hat, snow pants. No time for snack. Gotta move, move, move.
He sprinted for the table, hitting the power button above the keyboard of the computer as his mother yelled down the hall: “Jesse, you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just gonna play a game.”
“AthleteAnimalz. Geez, Mom, everything’s all right!” Second the words left his mouth, Jesse bit his lower lip, realizing too late, he should’ve watched his tone. Sometimes, if he was “fresh,” his mother would take his computer privileges away. He paused, hand still on the computer, eyes on the screen as the old laptop slowly churned to life.
But his mother didn’t appear in the hallway, didn’t say anything more. Probably on a call, couldn’t tear herself away. Jesse felt guilty, but grateful. He darted away from the loading computer long enough to grab Zombie Bear and a glass of milk. The stove clock told him it was 3:42 P.M.
Yep, he was late. Very late.
He flew back to the table, sloshing some of the milk over the rim of the glass, then had to run back to the kitchen for a napkin, and by the time he returned and cleaned up the mess, his heart was really going thump, thump, thump and he didn’t feel well again. He was hot, like shaky and trembly and he wanted to cry, but he didn’t know why.
He was late and Helmet Hippo would be mad and he’d been fresh and now probably his mom was all mad and he just wanted a friend; he just wanted everything to be okay and for someone to like him, and for his mom to not have to work so hard and for their downstairs neighbor Mrs. Flowers not to bang on the floor all the time when he was trying to use quiet feet but still wasn’t so quiet.
Jesse plopped down in front of the computer, entered the AthleteAnimalz website, and did his best not to weep. He knew he was late. He still didn’t want to blubber like a big baby.
Homerun Bear had mail. Jesse’s arm was trembling so badly, it took him three tries with the mouse to click on the mailbox icon. The letter was from Helmet Hippo. It included a smiley face and a picture of a baseball mitt.
“Hey Bud. I’m here and ready to play. Find me when you’re ready. Your friend, Helmet Hippo.”
Then Jesse did cry. Giant tears of relief. Helmet Hippo wasn’t mad at him. Helmet Hippo still wanted to play.
Helmet Hippo was still his friend.
Jesse sobbed gratefully.
AT 4:31 P.M., I began phase one of operations. First up, dress code. I went with black jeans, black turtleneck, thick-tread running shoes, and a black wool coat, all courtesy of the local Salvation Army store.
I looked like a cat burglar, or a New Yorker, depending on your frame of reference.
I loved the shoes and tried to get over it. Phase four of operations involved pitching the entire ensemble into a public Dumpster. Not that the police couldn’t find or wouldn’t find the items, but there was nothing to prove these particular secondhand clothing articles were mine. A precaution built into a precaution built into a precaution.
So far, it had worked for me.
Exiting the house, I wore a bright turquoise scarf and matching hat and oversized mittens. I’d read somewhere that one of the keys to any disguise was distinguishing accessories-later, witnesses would associate me with the aqua scarf or shocking gloves, meaning I couldn’t be the black-clad perpetrator. Obviously, I was wearing turquoise at the time!
I had my messenger bag slung over my shoulder, stuffed with wadded newspaper to give it the appearance of bulk. Later, the newspaper would be tossed and replaced with my overbright scarf, hat, and mittens. For now, the bulk of the leather bag disguised another telltale bulge-my Taurus. 22 holstered at my waist on a belt specially designed by my firearms coach, J. T. Dillon, to hold twenty-seven extra rounds of ammo.
I would see him for the last time tomorrow. I had a feeling he knew a little bit about tonight, too. But he didn’t pry and I didn’t inform. Instead, our conversation two weeks ago had gone something like this:
“If I needed to, say, establish a new identity…for example, get my hands on a complete set of top-of-the-line papers, would you know who I might contact to make such arrangements?”
J.T., loading his. 45. “Seems like I get asked that question a lot.”
“Beats girls asking what’s your sign.”
J.T., finally looking up at me. Me, doing my best not to squirm beneath that gaze. Before J.T. took on a serial killer, shot up half of Massachusetts, and eventually found a wife, he was a marine, Force Recon. Mostly, he reminded me of an old gunslinger, possessing the salt-and-pepper hair, leathery brown face, and deeply lined eyes of a man who’d spent most of his life peering into the horizon and was never surprised by what he saw there.
“Nothing’s cheap,” he said.
“I got a rainy day fund. Hey, it’s raining.”
“My wife likes you,” he said, as if that settled the matter for him. Maybe it did. I’d met his wife only once before. She’d studied me for half a second, then walked over and wrapped me into a tight embrace. I got the feeling Tess was as tough as her husband, and that if I ever took them up on their offer of dinner, we’d have a lot to say.
J.T. provided a name. Told me to wait twenty-four hours, so he could vouch for me. He must’ve, because when I made the call two days later, the crisp-voiced woman on the other end seemed to be expecting me. She asked questions. I provided answers. And three days ago, for the bargain basement price of one thousand dollars, I picked up three sets of brand-new, top-of-the-line fake papers: three birth certificates, three Social Security cards, one driver’s license.
Everything a terrified woman might need to stay on the run for the rest of her life.
I wasn’t sure I could imagine that, to tell you the truth. It’s funny, but boxing and shooting and running had awakened something inside me. Turns out, I had a violent streak. It’d only taken me twenty-eight years to figure that out, but these days, I was doing my best to make up for lost time.
Exiting the back door of my landlord’s house, I was grateful to come around and discover the front porch clear, no sign of Tulip. Tonight was a solo mission for sure.
I hunched deeper into my coat, chin tucked to collar to fight the biting cold, and set off for Harvard Square. Ten-minute walk to the T stop. Eight minutes waiting for the train, then off and moving again.
Rush hour, the subways crammed full. I stood in the middle, just another nameless commuter, hand gripping the metal support pole, legs swaying in rhythm with the railcars, inhaling the subterranean scents of sweat and urine and wet wool coats.
I hummed softly under my breath, my only concession to my growing nervousness.
Seventy-five hours left to live.
What would you do?
SKY WAS PITCH-BLACK when I returned to upper earth, pushing my way through the creaky turnstile, hiking up the steps to another darker, quieter section of Boston. Street lamps did their best to combat the relentless winter night, but they’d been positioned too far apart, casting the icy sidewalk into large enough pools of shadow to make a lone female think twice. I shed the turquoise scarf, hat, and mittens, shoving all deep into my pack. Then I flipped my messenger bag backwards, pouch bouncing against my rear. No need to disguise my hip holster anymore. In this neighborhood, everyone was probably packing, and blending in was my best shot at survival.
Turned out, even snow was ugly in housing projects. The mountains where I used to live, Harvard Square where I now lived, blanketed in yards of white fluffy Norman Rockwell snow. Not here. In this section of town, snow became just another form of litter. Gray, sandy, riddled with yellow pools of dog piss and bristling with discarded straws, Big Gulp lids, cigarette butts. You didn’t look at this kind of snow and think of Christmas lights, cheerful hearth fires, or mugs of hot cocoa. You walked by these piles and figured even Mother Nature was an unforgiving bitch.
I set off, following a map I’d committed to memory to find an address I’d never written down. Another precaution rolled into a precaution.
Sidewalks weren’t empty. In an inner city neighborhood, they never are. I walked by groups of hulking black teens, baseball caps worn backwards, down coats four sizes too large, chests gleaming with gold chains. Some were laughing, some were smoking. Some were already pushing and shoving, maybe in jest, maybe not.
They all looked up. Started. White chick, on their streets.
I smiled at them. I put my finger to my lips. I exhaled softly, Shhhh.
And just like that, they quieted, stepped away.
I think it had to do with the look in my eyes. One each of them recognized, most likely contemplated every single morning when standing in front of his mirror.
You want to know what it feels like to having nothing left to lose?
6:02 P.M., I acquired my target.
Seventy-four hours left to live.
What would you do?
TOMIKA MET ME IN THE FOYER. She had the kids bundled up so thickly only their eyes, brilliant white, appeared against their dark faces. Michael, the older boy, had a red backpack. Mica, the four-year-old girl, clutched a blanket and a teddy bear. Tomika carried the rest, two black duffel bags slung over each shoulder. Eight years of marriage, twenty-six years of living, condensed into two midsized travel bags.
I faltered. My foot, coming over the threshold, missed. I stumbled, caught myself in the doorway.
Then I did something curious even for me. I exhaled, so I could watch my breath form a misty trail in the ice-cold night.
That satisfied me. Made me feel that the scene was exactly right.
“Has he called?” I asked softly.
“Five minutes ago.”
I glanced at my watch, set a mental deadline. “Let’s go.” I held out my arm, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world for nine-year-old Michael to loop his hand through it. I smiled down at him. He gazed solemn-eyed back up at me, and again, the scene felt right.
Tomika had called dispatch for the first time six months ago. Usual story. Drunk, angry husband, tearing up the place. Usual results. Police showed up, talked her husband down; she refused to press charges.
But six weeks ago, Michael called the hotline. Their mother had gone out, leaving him and his little sister alone with their father. Now they were huddled in the closet, trying not to be seen or heard because other men were over and had gotten to arguing and one had pulled a gun and Michael had grabbed his little sister and jammed them both into the back of their parents’ closet and he didn’t know what else to do.
I did what comm officers do. I asked questions, I got answers, I dispatched several officers to the scene, and I kept Michael on the line. Forty-five minutes that call lasted. We sang silly songs. Exchanged knock-knock jokes. Michael and Mica even taught me some ghetto slang to improve my street cred.
By the time the first of my officers had arrived, the men were gone, and Stan grew pissed off at having a patrol man on his doorstep. Officer Mackereth, Tom, had been on duty that night. He’d done good. Never mentioned Michael or Mica, two frightened kids huddled with a phone in the closet. Just said he’d responded to reports of an argument in the neighborhood. Had Stan seen or heard anything?
After that, Michael started calling more often. Sometimes just to talk. Because nights were long in his house, and who cared about monsters under the bed when the real thing was passed out drunk on the family room sofa? He worried about his mom. He was terrified for his sister.
After the last recorded call, three weeks ago, Social Services had paid the family a visit. As Michael explained to me days later, Stan rounded up the family and sat them before the caseworker. They were to answer all questions openly and honestly. While Stan stood there and glared at them.
The moment the social worker left, Stan got out a hammer. He broke all of Tomika’s fingers, then four of Michael’s, then two of little Mica’s. No one, he informed them, would be dialing the phone ever again. Or next time, he wouldn’t be getting out a hammer-he’d get out an ax.
It had taken Michael twenty-four hours to work up the courage to dial 911 with his pinkies. Then he’d had to wait another two days for it to be my turn on graveyard shift. If anyone ever listened to that recorded call, it would sound like a little boy, playing with the phone, looking for his mother’s number. It would sound like an exasperated dispatch officer finally rattling off a number to appease the child.
That it happened to be the dispatch officer’s own prepaid cell was just because, of course. What other numbers do you know off the top of your head?
Michael and I took our conversation off-line, where his mother, Tomika, joined the party. Then I liquidated my entire savings accounts, all forty-two hundred dollars, to buy a woman and her two children brand-new IDs, to cover first and last month’s rent plus security deposit on a new apartment, and to pay for the bus tickets that would get them all there.
Seventy-three hours and thirty minutes remaining.
What would you do?
I ESCORTED TOMIKA, MICHAEL, AND MICA to the bus stop. It would take three more exchanges to get them to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but Tomika had an old girlfriend there, who’d set her up with job. New names, new life, new opportunity.
Tomika was crying.
“I love him,” she said, then brushed her cheeks with hands thick with finger splints and white bandages.
“He’ll kill you.”
“He’ll kill your children.”
Michael had his arm around his little sister’s shoulders. His expression, as he stared at his mother, was resigned.
“Mommy?” Mica finally spoke up.
Tomika glanced down at her daughter, sobbed harder. “I swear I won’t go back. I’ll be strong. I’ll take care of us, baby. I promise, I’ll take care of us.”
Given the state of her splinted fingers, I helped her organize the new IDs in her purse. I opened her wallet, withdrew her old driver’s license, slipped in the new one, made with the help of one of her Facebook photos and J.T.’s friend. In thirty seconds Tomika Miller became Tonya Davis. I wrapped my turquoise scarf around her neck, slipped dark sunglasses over her eyes, and added a bright hat to cover her uptucked hair.
For Michael and Mica, we had something simpler in mind. Michael gained a wig, becoming the seven-year-old sister, while Mica’s ponytail was summarily cut off, turning her into a four-year-old younger brother.
Later, at the bus stop, should Stan Miller ask questions, no one would know of a lone woman with an older son and younger daughter boarding the bus. They’d only witnessed two women and two children who climbed on together, with an older girl and younger boy. I handled all the tickets again, so Tomika could keep her bandaged hands hidden inside her coat. Another question Stan might think to ask, but no one in the bus depot would have the answer.
At the last minute, I got back off the bus, mentioning I’d forgotten something, would catch up later.
Right before exiting, I leaned down and slipped a prepaid cell, recently purchased from Wal-Mart, into Michael’s pocket. It was programmed with a single number-my own. I whispered in his ear, “Call me. Anytime. I’ll be there, Michael. I’ll be there.”
Then I was off. Five minutes later the bus pulled away, Tomika Miller and her two kids getting a fresh start in life.
Until the first time it grew too tough, and Tomika gave in to the urge to call her husband. Or broke down and told her story to a friend who’d tell a friend who’d tell a friend who’d tell Stan Miller. Or Stan himself managed to track them down.
Maybe this time, Stan would bring that ax. Maybe this time, Michael would call me, begging, pleading, screaming desperately for help.
Maybe it would be after 8 P.M. on January 21.
And my phone would ring and ring and ring. Nobody left alive to answer.
I glanced at my watch. 7:42 P.M.
Seventy-two hours and fifteen minutes left to live.
What would you do?
I headed back to Tomika’s old address. I headed for Stan Miller.
THINGS I DIDN’T KNOW about myself until the last year: I am, or used to be, deeply, deeply terrified of fighting back. First time my boxing coach tried to get me to spar in the ring, I couldn’t do it. Shadowboxing, sure. Heavy bag work, no problem. Speed bag, fun. But to hit someone, actually pull back my arm, then snap my fist forward, rolling my shoulder, rotating at the waist, stepping into the full velocity of the punch, committing to my opponent’s gut, kidney, chin, nose, right eye. Couldn’t do it.
I danced around the ring. Dodged, ducked, V-stepped, sidestepped, elbow blocked, swatted, did anything but throw a punch.
All those years of going along. All those years of being a brave little girl, a good little girl. I couldn’t retaliate.
My mother had trained me too well.
At the end of the sixth session, in sheer frustration, my boxing coach, Dick, a retired three-time world champion, nailed me in the eye. It hurt. My cheekbone exploded. My eye welled with tears. I recoiled, stared at him incredulously, as if I couldn’t believe he’d done such a thing.
He jabbed me in the other eye. Then the gut, the shoulder, the chin. My coach started wailing on me.
And I took it. I hunched over, fists in front of my face, elbows glued to my rib cage, and let him beat me.
Brave little girl. Good little girl.
Making my mother proud.
Dick gave up first. Walked away in disgust. Muttering at me for not fighting, muttering at himself for beating up a defenseless girl.
And that did it. I finally registered my own pain. I finally heard someone calling me a defenseless girl and I lost it.
I attacked my fifty-five-year-old, gristle-haired, battle-scarred boxing coach and I tried to kill him. I threw jabs, right hooks, uppercuts, left hooks, solid punches, endless kidney shots. I chased him around the ring, corner to corner, and I discovered inside myself something I’d never known was there-rage. Pure, unadulterated rage. And not the good old, I’m twenty-eight years old and I’m finally pissed off at my mother rage, but the better, harder, I’m twenty-eight years old and I’m finally pissed off at me rage. Because I’d taken it. Because I was a good girl and a brave girl and I went along. So help me God I went along and I went along, and I was never going along again.
At the end of the session, my coach had one black eye and one swollen nose. I had two black eyes and bruised ribs. And we were both exultant.
“That’s it!” he told me again and again, dripping blood all over the boxing ring. “I knew you could do it. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! Now, that’s boxing, Charlie. That’s committing to the punch!”
Turns out, I didn’t want to be Tomika Miller, running from shadows, constantly looking over her shoulder.
I wanted it to be January 21. I wanted to open that door. I wanted to look my killer in the eye.
And I wanted to beat the shit out of him, before plugging three to the chest. One for Randi. One for Jackie. And one for me.
I’d been a good girl once.
Now I didn’t plan on being a good girl ever again.
I ARRIVED BACK AT TOMIKA’S APARTMENT in the tenement housing unit at 8:26 P.M. I’d been told Stan’s shift as a security officer ended at seven. Usually, he had half a dozen drinks with the boys, then came home to terrorize his waiting family around nine.
Big guy. Six two, 280 pounds. Not fit. His security job involved sitting in a booth, checking ID at a major manufacturing plant. Basically, he made twelve bucks an hour to sit around and look intimidating. Which must have pissed him off, because then he returned home and threw his weight around.
According to Tomika, he was often packing and seemed to have an endless supply of firearms. Where they came from, she didn’t know and she didn’t ask. But he and his buddies liked to shoot beer cans off the rear fire escape at nights, and none of them had problems producing a weapon.
So I had roughly thirty minutes to prepare for a mountain of man who might or might not be packing multiple firearms.
My palms were sweating. My heart beat too hard in my chest.
I worked on breaking down my plan into short, manageable steps. First, quick buzz through the apartment, removing lightbulbs. Darkness was my friend, surprise my best advantage.
The instant Stan opened the door, he’d be back lit by the hall, a clear target. Best moment of opportunity would be those first two seconds, when he was caught unaware and completely haloed, while I’d be nothing but a faint shadow in the dark recesses of the living room.
My countdown to January 21 would continue. His would not.
Next step, hastily ransacking all kitchen and bedroom drawers. I found a. 22 and a tiny little ankle holster gun. I kept the ankle shooter, dropped the. 22 in the toilet. Then I discovered Stan’s tool kit and went to work. A precaution built into a precaution built into a precaution.
In the back bedroom, I left the window access to the rickety fire escape open-always good to have an additional egress, especially if neighbors responded to the sounds of gunfire by crowding the inner halls.
Nine oh one. Jittery. Not good. My own anxiety started to piss me off. Nerves? I’d been training and practicing for a fucking year. What good were nerves to me? So sorry, Mr. Killer of My Two Best Friends, but can we hold off on our confrontation for a minute, while I calm myself down? Want a drink? Want a Xanax?
Here, take two.
I was a lean, mean killing machine.
Footsteps. Out in the hallway. Heavy and ringing. Thump. Thump. Thump.
My heart rate spiked. My black turtleneck constricted around my throat, and at the last second, I had to take my shaking left hand off my Taurus to wipe my sweaty palm on the leg of my jeans.
I’d locked the front door. Everyone did in this building. Now I heard the jangle of keys. A rasp of metal teeth engaging the first lock, then the second. Front door flung open.
Two hundred and eighty pounds of Stan Miller loomed in the entryway.
“What’s for dinner, bitch?” Stan boomed across the darkened apartment.
He sounded cavalier, almost like he was in a good mood.
So I shot him.
I PULLED LEFT. Don’t ask me how, don’t ask me why. But I fucking pulled my shot left. Doorjamb exploded, Stan dropped like a rock and rolled toward the kitchen, screaming. I cursed a blue streak and, through my shock and rage, realized now I was in for it, not to mention that if my firearms instructor J.T. ever heard about this, he’d kill me anyway and spare me the miserable pain of the twenty-first.
“What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck!” Stan was yelling. “Where’s Tomika? What’d you do with Tomika?”
“Killed her!” I called back at him. “That’ll teach you not to pay your debts.”
(I was making this up. Precaution built into a precaution, right? Always gotta have plan B, and if I couldn’t kill Stan, plan B was to lead him to think that his family was dead. A man like Stan had to owe somebody something somewhere. It just figured.)
“You’re a girl,” Stan said. And just like that, he stood up in his kitchen. Apparently, being attacked by a girl didn’t scare him nearly so much.
So I shot him again.
This time, I hit his shoulder. He howled, dropped again.
I felt better about things.
Until good ol’ Stan popped back up and fired off four rounds in my general direction. This time, I dove for cover, cursing myself all over again. First two seconds. Battles are won or lost in the first two seconds. He’d been standing right there, lit up beautifully, 280 pounds of target. How the hell had I missed 280 pounds of target?
“Gonna hurt you,” Stan bellowed now. “Gonna find you, gonna hurt you. With a knife. Bad.”
I crawled behind the overstuffed recliner, leading with my gun, and peered out, trying to penetrate the gloom of the kitchen. Couldn’t see a thing.
I took a second to get my bearings. Stan seemed to be doing the same, the apartment falling eerily silent. I strained my ears for sounds from the rest of the building. Neighbors yelling about gunshots, or banging the ceiling to say quiet the noise. Police sirens already screeching down the street.
Maybe 9 P.M. was too early for most residents of this building to be home yet. Or maybe, in a building where men routinely spent their evenings shooting beer cans off the fire escape, nobody noticed gunfire anymore.
I did. My ears were ringing, my heart pounding, my hands a shaking mess of adrenaline and fear. Even my stomach felt funny. Hollowed out, queasy, and butterfly-y. Shock, probably. Terror. Rage.
I tried homing in on the rage. Fear would get me killed. Anger was the only hope I had left.
“Who are you?” Stan boomed again. “I don’t owe nobody nothin’, so who the fuck are you?”
I didn’t answer, but traced the sound of his voice toward the hall to the left of the kitchen. I could just make him out, his gray sweatshirt a faint glow on the dimly lit floor. He’d shimmied out into open space. Probably to sneak around on me, but also to keep himself from getting cornered. The tiny kitchenette was no good to either of us; too small and cramped. Family room was better. Rear bedroom, with its open window leading to the fifth-story fire escape, best yet.
But for me to get to the bedroom, Stan had to get out of the hallway. Fine.
I shot him again.
For a big guy, Stan moved pretty fast. Sprang out of his crouch and leapt through the doorway into the kids’ room. Couldn’t tell if I’d got him or not, and didn’t wait to see. I bolted down the short hallway into the back bedroom, as he opened fire behind me. Carpet exploded at my feet. Sheetrock rained down from overhead.
He was an even worse shot than I was. Course, spending the past few hours in a bar probably didn’t help his aim, thank goodness for me.
I took four zigzagging steps and staggered into the rear bedroom. Another ringing shot, and I was hurling myself over the windowsill, wincing as I flopped awkwardly onto the metal fire escape. I could feel the rickety deck sway upon impact. Couldn’t stop. I’d be trapped on the tiny fenced-in balcony, and he’d come for me, like shooting fish in a barrel.
I didn’t think anymore, I moved. Crabbing around, trying desperately to find the top rung of the descending metal ladder in the dark. I banged my head against another set of metal rungs, the ones heading up, staggered back, and a meaty fist clamped onto my shoulder.
Stan thrust his massive head and shoulders through the window and held tight.
“Gotcha! Gonna make you hurt, girl. Gonna get my ax, gonna get my hammer, gonna get my knife. Gonna make you pay.”
Which was a funny thing for him to say, given that I was the one holding a gun. One small twist, and I had the barrel of my. 22 pressed against his temple.
Stan stilled. His eyes rounded. His mouth formed the proverbial O and he sucked in a breath, as I dug the barrel of my gun harder against his fat head. Big ol’ Stan had made a mistake. He’d grabbed me with his left hand, and given the width of his massive shoulders wedged through the narrow window frame, his right hand, the one holding his own gun, was trapped uselessly in the bedroom. He’d need to release me and bring his left shoulder back inside the apartment, in order to get his right arm through again.
Battles are won in the first two seconds, or in the final two minutes.
The fire escape swayed unsteadily, making me feel as if I were surfing on air. I smiled at Stan. I exhaled and watched my frosty breath mist in the cold night.
The scene felt exactly right.
Shoot. Pull the trigger. For Tomika and Michael and Mica.
For Stan’s hammer and his family’s fingers and their long, terrified nights.
I wanted to. I needed to.
For that little boy in Colorado, whom I still couldn’t forget. For all the crying kids, all the terrified women who called 911, except they had problems too big for any dispatch operator or patrol officer to help.
Pull the trigger.
Baby. Crying down the hall. I could hear her again, so close, so clear. Baby, in my mother’s house, crying down the hall.
Sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of.
Sugar and spice and broken glass, I should’ve told the nurse. If only I’d told the nurse. Why hadn’t I told that nice nurse?
PULL THE TRIGGER!
Pull the fucking trigger!
But I couldn’t do it. I stared at Stan Miller, peered into the whites of his eyes, pressed my nickel-plated semiauto deeper and deeper into his temple…and I couldn’t do it. My hand shook too badly.
I pulled back my arm and pistol-whipped him instead.
Stan howled. Let go. Stumbled back through the window.
I bolted. Down the ancient fire escape, rusty metal rungs shaking, whole structure swaying from my rat-a-tat impact, as I half slid, half jumped from metal decking down to metal decking, desperate to hit the street five stories below.
Stan was gonna get his right arm out now. Stan was gonna hunt me down. And Stan would shoot a woman in cold blood.
I felt the fire escape groan again. Heard, more than saw, Stan squirm and heave and twist his considerable homicidal bulk onto the narrow fifth-story decking.
Faster, faster. Not much time now. Gotta move, move, move.
As the fire escape heaved, sighed, gave an ominous creak.
“Gonna get you, girl,” Stan bellowed from above. “Big Stan gonna run you down. What’d ya do to my family? Where’s my Tomika? Tell me now, girl. Talk, or I’ll shoot out your damn bitch brains.”
The first metal bolt attaching the fifth-story decking to the crumbling brick building went ping. Then the second, third, fourth.
Go, go, go I urged myself. No time to lose. Jack, racing the giant down the beanstalk. Run!
The whole fire escape swayed above me. Making the sharp corner two flights below, I knew the moment Stan figured out what was happening, because he dropped his gun. It went sailing by me, just missing my head. Stan didn’t need his pistol anymore. He’d grabbed for the railing instead.
Except that wouldn’t help him any. I knew, because I was the one who’d ratcheted loose all the bolts attaching the rickety fifth-story fire escape to the ancient bricks of the dilapidated building.
A precaution built into a precaution built into a precaution.
I’m only a hundred and five pounds. Too small to fight a giant like Stan. But lighter and faster to beat him down a collapsing fire escape.
The wobbly metal ladder was shaking beneath my feet now. Above me, I heard a terrible screech as the fifth story decking swung out into midair, then felt it, like a giant chain, start ripping the corresponding layers of decks and ladders from the side of the cheaply constructed housing unit. Ping. Ping. Ping.
Metal groaned. People inside the building began to yell at the unexpected commotion, while the ladder beneath my own feet suddenly lurched down and away. One story above street level. Wasn’t gonna make it.
I jumped, dropped, and rolled. To the side, away from the collapsing metal structure thundering down and across the street.
More screaming. More yelling. More groaning.
Stan Miller plunged five stories to the frozen pavement below.
Then the screaming stopped. Gritty sand and dirty snow ballooned up, settled back down.
I staggered to my feet, cleared my eyes, registered a pain in my ankle. Now was not the time. People pouring out. Residents of the unit who’d been immune to gunfire and screaming, but not this. No one, no how, had seen anything like this. They gathered on the street, yapping, dialing cell phones, shaking their heads, and then, when they spotted Stan’s hulking body, skewered on multiple shorn metal rungs, the first woman screeched in horror, before several more joined her.
I stared at the carnage, the twisted heap of wreckage, the blood pooling on the front of Stan’s shirt.
Then, I ran.
I didn’t look back. Not for the screaming women. Not for the growing cries, not for the startled exclamation from the lone kid who spotted my escape.
I ran and I ran and I ran, my body shaking uncontrollably.
Round the block, I paused long enough to grab my messenger bag from beneath a snowy bush. Then I was off and running again.
Seventy hours left to live.
What would you have done?
BABY JACK WAS CRYING AGAIN. He was not a happy camper and he wanted everyone to feel his pain.
“He gets that from me,” D.D. said. It was 9 P.M. Jack had been crying off and on ever since she picked him up from day care, where apparently he’d spent a very fussy day. No temperature. No spitting up. But he scrunched his face and fisted his hands and churned his legs as if he were jogging a marathon.
So far, they’d given him droplets specially designed to relieve baby gas. Not particularly effective droplets, D.D. thought.
“We could call the pediatrician,” Alex said. He was sitting on the couch, while she attempted to soothe Jack in the rocking chair.
“And admit we don’t know what we’re doing?” D.D. said.
Alex regarded her strangely. “We don’t know what we’re doing. And we’re not the first new parents who harassed their doctors with middle-of-the-night questions. For heaven’s sake, that’s what they’re there for!”
Alex’s unexpected display of emotion finally caught D.D.’s attention. She took in his salt-and-pepper hair, currently standing on end. The dark shadows beneath his eyes. The gaunt lines of his face.
He looked like hell, a man who hadn’t slept in years. Did she look that bad? Come to think of it, Phil had clapped her on the shoulder four times today with clear sympathy. Suddenly, she got it.
“The baby’s winning!” D.D. burst out.
“That would seem a fair assessment of the situation,” Alex agreed tiredly.
“He’s only ten weeks old. How can he be beating us already?”
Alex eyed their squalling son. “Same way youth always conquers age-better stamina, faster recovery.”
“We’re two strong, intelligent, resourceful people. We can’t be defeated by an infant. I was sure we’d make it until he was at least seventeen and demanding his own car. Which reminds me. When he’s three and wants his own cell phone, the answer is no. And when he’s five and wants his own Facebook page, the answer’s also no.”
Alex stared at her, eyes sunken, cheeks unshaved. “Got it.”
“Did you know the target age for Internet predators is five- to nine-year-old boys?”
Alex’s eyes widened. “No!”
“Yep. Big bad world out there. And more of it than you think is sitting in that sleek little laptop on the table.”
Alex ran a shaky hand through his hair. “Well, wasn’t like I was going to sleep tonight anyway. This from your new case?”
“Yeah, got a sex crimes detective, Ellen O, assisting now. She’s an expert on Internet predators, so she and Phil spent the day poring over reports from the computers of the two vics and talking nerd.”
“Find a connection between the two pervs?” Alex asked.
“Many and varied,” D.D. assured him. “Ironically enough, vics’ computers share so many favorite sites, it’s almost impossible to get traction. It’s not a matter of did they run across each other online, but on how many different websites, user groups, and chat rooms. It’s gonna take a bit.”
“Is Neil still going through the photos?”
“Sadly for him, yes. He made it through the first of six boxes and already looks like the walking dead. Gonna need some stress time for sure. I tried talking to him once today, but he’s not ready yet. Just gotta get through it, he told me.” D.D. sighed, thought of her young squadmate with genuine concern, and sighed again. “I almost admire his naïveté.”
She shifted baby Jack to her other shoulder, resumed rocking. Judging by the whimpering in her ear, Jack didn’t like her left shoulder any more than the right.
Alex stood up. “Want me to take a turn?” He gestured to Jack, who churned his feet fussily.
D.D. rubbed her son’s back, hating not being able to soothe him. It felt both wrong and inevitable. Proof that she wasn’t maternal enough, just as distant as her own parents. Except she didn’t feel cold and dismissive. She hated that her baby was upset. Wanted desperately to do the right thing, say the right thing that would comfort him. So far they’d tried burping, swaddling, rocking, singing, pacing, and driving. Nada.
The baby was winning. And they were old.
“Okay,” she said reluctantly.
Alex crossed to her. “What about the ballistics report?” he asked as he transferred Jack from her shoulder to his chest. “Got anything to conclusively tie the shooting of victim one to the shooting of victim two?”
“Got a note,” D.D. said triumphantly. “Left in first victim’s pocket. Exact same phrase: Everyone has to die sometime. Be brave. Written in the exact same tightly wound script.”
Alex was impressed. Jack was not.
“Maybe we should try going for a drive again,” D.D. suggested.
“Not sure either of us is safe behind the wheel.”
D.D. nodded tiredly. Alex was right about that. They were stupid tired. Which was why they were talking shop. It was the only topic of conversation that came to them naturally.
“Ballistics report should arrive tomorrow,” she murmured.
“Before or after your parents’ plane lands?”
Alex stopped pacing with the baby. “Was I not supposed to remind you of that?”
“We should just run away,” D.D. said. She couldn’t deal with this. She was too tired and her baby hated her. There was no way she could handle her mother, too.
“I could meet them,” Alex offered bravely. “Pick up Jack from day care, do the honors. Then, if you get stuck at work, it’s not so terrible. You could always meet us later for dinner, something like that.”
“They’ll never forgive me.”
“Yes they will. You’re the mother of their grandson. And when he’s not squalling like a howler monkey, he is the cutest, most adorable, most brilliant baby boy ever. Aren’t you?” Alex hefted baby Jack into the air, gave him a little toss, then caught him again.
Jack stopped crying. He gazed down at his father. He hiccupped, twice.
Heartened, Alex gave him another little toss.
Jack landed in his father’s arms, hiccupped again, then, with a giant belch, finally relieved the gas cramping his tiny tummy, by spewing his entire liquid dinner down his father’s chest.
Alex stopped moving, held perfectly still.
“Well, at least he’s not crying,” Alex said at last.
D.D. scrambled for towels, wet wipes.
“You are the best father in the entire world,” she assured her sleep-deprived partner. “Come Father’s Day, Jack is gonna get you not one, but two ties. I swear it!”
D.D. HAD JUST FINISHED getting Jack cleaned up and settled into his carrier, when her cell phone rang. She checked the screen. Blocked number, which could mean any number of things this late at night. Out of sheer morbid curiosity, D.D. took the call.
“Detective D. D. Warren? FBI Special Agent Kimberly Quincy from Atlanta. Sorry to call so late.”
“Oh,” D.D. said. “Oh, oh, oh. Not a problem.”
“Been out all day,” Special Agent Quincy continued in a clipped voice. “Just got your message and was going to call you back tomorrow, then I realized the date.”
“Only two and a half days till the twenty-first,” D.D. filled in.
“Exactly. Figured if you were calling me, you had some kind of development, and you’d appreciate a call back sooner versus later.”
“I have the third friend,” D.D. said. “Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant. I believe you know her.”
“You could say that.”
“Well, now I know her, too. Like you said, it’s nearly the twenty-first. Charlie’s preparing for war. As a backup plan, she’d like me to handle her murder investigation.”
“With all due respect, Special Agent, I haven’t slept in ten weeks. I was hoping for more than ‘Huh’ from the FBI.”
“Big case?” the special agent asked.
“Boy or girl?” Kimberly’s voice warmed up.
“Boy. Loud, fussy, cranky, beautiful boy.”
“Two girls,” Kimberly provided. “The seven-year-old wants a cell phone. The four-year-old wants a puppy. Sure you don’t want help on the case? I could fly right up.”
D.D. smiled. “You’re supposed to tell me it gets easier. ‘This is just a phase. Parenting gets better and better every day.’ Lie to me. I could use a good story right now.”
“Absolutely. Best days are ahead. And FYI, never leave a five-year-old alone with a jump rope and her two-year-old sister, and if your husband works as many nights as mine does, buy the king-sized bed now, because all life-forms will be in your room.”
“Hard to fit a king-sized bed in Boston real estate. Jump rope?”
“Technically, the two-year-old was only tied up for ten minutes, then figured out how to wiggle out of the knots. I blame my husband. He’s an outdoorsman, so he keeps teaching the girls ‘skills’ that inevitably result in babysitters never returning.”
“What’s your husband do?”
“Mac’s a state cop.”
“Ah,” D.D. said, connecting the dots. “So your daughters are double-Special Agent kids-FBI on the one side and Georgia Bureau of Investigation on the other.”
“That might be the other explanation,” Kimberly agreed.
“My partner is also a former detective, who now teaches courses in crime scene analysis at the police academy. I figure when Jack skins his knee for the first time, he’ll fetch placards to mark the scene of the crime first, then grab a Band-Aid.”
“Mac’s been taking our eldest, Eliza, to the shooting range with him. He swears her first time out, she clustered three to the chest. Apparently, aiming for center mass is genetic.”
“Your seven-year-old can shoot?”
“It’s the South, honey. We like our guns.”
“I like your daughter,” D.D. assured her.
“Me, too. So what can I tell you about the Jackie Knowles murder? I’m assuming you’ve read my father’s report.”
“Your father’s…” D.D.’s voice trailed off, then she got it. “The consultant, retired FBI agent Pierce Quincy, he’s your father?”
“Yep. He’s the reason I got involved. Generally speaking, a local homicide doesn’t garner FBI attention, but my dad had done the initial analysis of the Rhode Island crime scene. He identified several overlapping variables between the Providence murder and Atlanta homicide, and a predator operating in multiple jurisdictions would be our cup of tea.”
“So you definitely think the murders are related.”
“Hard to believe otherwise,” Kimberly said bluntly. “Victims knew each other. Were murdered exactly one year apart by someone using the same MO. There’s a connection, all right. I’ll be damned if I know what it is, but there’s a connection.”
“What do you think of the third friend, Charlene yada yada Grant?”
“Only met her a couple of times, and she wasn’t feeling good about the investigators handling her friends’ murders on either occasion. She’s interacted with my father many more times, and much more positively. He likes her, but remains reserved. While she seems to earnestly and passionately care about her friends and has remained a staunch advocate on their behalf…”
“She remains a prime suspect,” D.D. filled in.
“She got an alibi for the Knowles murder?”
“Her aunt claims she was in New Hampshire the evening of the twenty-first. By midday on the twenty-second, when Charlene got the news of Jackie’s death from the local police, she flew straight down from Portland, Maine. We have her name on the ticket and can corroborate the Delta flight. All in all, a decent alibi.”
“There’s a but in your voice,” D.D. said.
Kimberly sighed. “Only lead we’ve ever had in the case-Jackie’s neighbor claims to have seen Jackie return home after nine P.M. on the twenty-first, and she wasn’t alone. She’d brought home a friend: a female with long brown hair and a petite frame.”
“Like Charlene Grant,” D.D. mused thoughtfully.
“Who was a thousand miles away with her aunt. Unfortunately, the neighbor only saw the woman from behind, so not the best ID, but all we got.”
“Crime scene?” D.D. prodded.
“Clean. Conspicuously clean. Switch-plates-wiped-off, floorboards-mopped, every-sofa-pillow-in-place kind of clean. Kitchen, entranceway, family room-all spotless. The killer took his or her time, felt comfortable in the home. Detail-oriented, thorough, smart.”
“Strong,” D.D. added. “Manual strangulation?”
“COD, manual asphyxiation, yes. So, strong hands. But I’m less convinced on this subject than the Rhode Island investigators. They took the manual strangulation as proof the perpetrator must be male. Maybe it’s living in the South, but I’ve watched enough little old ladies wring the heads off chickens to be more open-minded. Plenty of women have decent upper body strength. Especially if they grabbed another female from behind, I think it could be done.”
“So maybe the ‘friend’ Jackie brought home that night. You check with the local bars?”
“Sure, credit card activity told us where Jackie had spent the evening. Unfortunately, it was a new bar opening downtown. When we flashed Jackie’s picture, couple of servers remembered seeing her that night, but no one was paying much attention. Apparently, the debut was very successful and the place was cranking.”
“Her e-mail messages, cell phone log?” D.D. asked.
“No recent contact from a new friend, or calendar notation to meet so-and-so at such-and-such. I’m guessing Jackie hadn’t planned on meeting a friend that night. I think the other woman found her.”
“Found her, or stalked her?”
“And the woman talked Jackie into taking her home.”
“Conjecture, but a good one.”
“Because Jackie might be suspicious of a man, given what happened to her friend, Randi. But she wouldn’t think much of a strange female.”
“According to friends and family, Jackie thought Randi’s ex-husband killed her. So it’s not clear Jackie was on guard one way or the other. Then again, it was the one-year anniversary of her best friend’s murder. Jackie’s at a downtown bar, probably feeling a little lonely, a little blue…”
“The right approach, Hey, I like your sweater, mind if I have a seat…”
“A little conversation, a couple drinks,” Kimberly filled in.
“Jackie was an easy target. Assuming our killer is a female and really good at social engineering.”
“To judge by both scenes, we’re looking for someone with advanced people skills. Which, let’s face it, you can’t say about all killers.”
D.D. nodded, mulled it over. This case that was not even a case was growing on her, sinking in. A puzzle within a puzzle.
“So now it’s basically two days until the twenty-first,” D.D. provided. “Location has moved to Boston, where we have the final member of the trio, Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant. She’s definitely on guard. Carrying a. 22, running, training, boning up on forensics and true crime, not to mention outreaching to her local homicide detective. I don’t see her bringing home any ‘new’ friends, male or female, on the twenty-first.”
“Probably not,” Kimberly agreed.
“So our killer would have to come up with another ruse,” D.D. murmured, still thinking.
“What does Charlene want most?” Kimberly asked.
“What d’you mean?”
“If you’re a killer, if you want to get someone’s attention who has every reason to be on guard, you have to offer something so good, so personal, so compelling, that even paranoid Charlene would be willing to throw caution to the wind, just to learn more.”
“She wants to know who killed her friends,” D.D. said.
“Then maybe the killer has it even easier this time around. She doesn’t have to ‘pretend’ to be anything at all. She can just be herself. Because she is who Charlene wants more than anything in the world. She holds all the answers to Randi and Jackie’s last minutes. And if you’re someone who has lost people you love to crime…it’s very hard to say no to that. Even if you know better, the desire, the need to know what happened to your loved ones…That’s a very powerful tool. I wouldn’t blame Charlie for not walking away.”
“Who’d you lose?” D.D. asked softly.
“My mother and sister.”
“And if the murderer called you up tomorrow?”
“He’d have to be dialing from one eight hundred rent a psychic,” Kimberly said flatly.
“And now your seven-year-old can plug three to center mass.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Charlene’s preparations are physical,” Kimberly stated curtly. “Her killer’s MO, however, is psychological. Intimate. Up close. Personal. What good is running a six-minute mile going to do her, when she’s the one willingly opening the door? Charlene doesn’t need to be tough. She needs to think tough. That’ll get her through the twenty-first.”
“I want to stir the pot,” D.D. announced.
“Facebook, social media. I’m working with another detective who’s something of an expert. We’re thinking of putting together a fake Facebook page, with posts commemorating the deaths of both Randi and Jackie. See who responds.”
Kimberly seemed to consider the matter. “What about leaking info?”
“You mean crime scene details?”
“I mean fake crime scene details, maybe a criminology report. Something unflattering. No, I take that back. Something…messy. Our killer likes to be in control, yes? Neat, tidy, thorough. What if you reveal something about the Knowles scene the killer missed. Something that’s now a possible lead in the investigation. Get the killer feeling defensive, second-guessing him- or herself.”
“Get inside his or her head,” D.D. murmured.
“Turnabout is fair play.”
“Got an idea for a detail?”
Kimberly hesitated. “I’d ask my father. He knows both scenes, he was a profiler. Messing with criminal minds. Hell, he’ll love this. Give him a call.”
“Not a problem. Keep me posted. Especially on the twenty-first.”
“Will do. Good luck with your growing girls.”
“Good luck with your baby boy.”
Both women sighed, hung up their phones.
I WAS LATE FOR MY GRAVEYARD SHIFT. First time ever. Couldn’t help myself.
I’d had to race all the way to the T stop. Then wait for the train to return me to Cambridge. Then run another seven minutes, snotty-nosed and watery-eyed, all the way back to my one-bedroom rental. Mrs. Beals wasn’t home, but Tulip was sitting on the front porch.
I didn’t even stop to think about it. I scooped up the warm, solidly packed body of the dog that was not my dog and buried my face into the sleek folds of her neck. Tulip leaned her head against my shoulder. I could feel her sigh, as if releasing a great strain herself. So we stood like that, my arms cradling her body, her head on my shoulder.
Maybe I cried a little more. Maybe she licked the tears from my cheeks. Maybe I told her I loved her. And maybe she thumped her tail to let me know that she loved me, too.
I carried Tulip to my bedroom. Didn’t care anymore if Frances discovered and kicked me out. So little time left. What did it matter anymore? So little time left.
Stan Miller. Metal rods, protruding through his massive frame. The blood, dripping down the corners of his mouth. Sightless eyes, forever staring at me.
I tucked Tulip in my room with a bowl of food, then retreated down the hall for a long hot shower. I scrubbed and scrubbed. Shampooed, rinsed, conditioned. Did it all over again.
Was it just my imagination, or could I still smell the gunpowder on my fingertips? I searched my naked body for other signs of the evening’s activities. Blood, bruising, something. I felt altered on the inside, ergo it made sense the outside should change as well.
But…nothing. My leather shooting gloves had done their job and protected my boxing-battered hands as I’d careened down the fire escape. My heavy winter wardrobe had done its job and guarded my already battle-scarred skin as I’d dropped and rolled. Even my ankle felt almost fine, a minor twist that had quickly recovered.
When I got out of the shower, I cleared the steam from the mirror to confirm what I already knew.
I had just killed a man, and I looked absolutely, positively the same as I had before.
Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant meet Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant.
Loving niece, loyal friend, respected dispatch officer, and stone cold murderer.
I started shaking again, so I returned to the shower, cranking up the water as hot as it would go, but still not beating the chill.
ELEVEN FOURTEEN P.M. Tulip and I caught a taxi to work.
Sixty-eight hours, forty-five minutes.
I kept my arms around the dog that wasn’t my dog and didn’t let go.
“Baby’s crying. Down the hall. Crying and crying and crying. Nothing helps. Dunno…” A shaky sigh. “Dunno, dunno, dunno. Please, ma’am, tell me how to make it stop.”
Sitting alone in the glow of multiple monitors and a muted TV screen, I rubbed my face and forced myself to focus. Crying baby. Overwhelmed new parent. One of dispatch’s top ten calls. Protocol was to establish basic physical health of newborn and basic mental health of new parent. If both seemed okay, then remind caller that 911 was for emergencies, not for parenting tips, before disconnecting.
I didn’t disconnect my caller. It had been a relatively quiet shift, the police scanner filled with chatter about one major crime, already being handled, with no other emergencies coming down the pike. And I understood, like a lot of dispatch operators who sat alone in darkened comm centers at 2 A.M., that sometimes people just needed to talk.
So I let my caller talk. I learned the name of her nine-month-old baby girl, Moesha. I learned that the baby’s father worked graveyard for a janitorial service company. I learned that my caller, nineteen-year-old Simone, was still hoping to get her GED and wanted to be a vet tech someday. She’d been excited to get pregnant, still held out dreams of getting married. But her baby daughter cried most nights and it was getting tough, and now the baby’s dad was being a jerk and Simone just wanted to go shopping with her friends, but she didn’t have any money and her boyfriend said she was too fat to buy new clothes and why didn’t she wait till she lost all the baby weight, and yo, when might that be?
Simone talked. Simone cried. Simone talked some more.
I sat and listened and stroked Tulip’s head.
Simone talked herself down. Call ended. Screen went blank.
I sat in the dark, smoothing Tulip’s floppy ears.
“Baby’s crying,” I whispered to Tulip.
She gazed up at me.
“Down the hall.”
Tulip placed her head in my lap.
“I screwed up, Tulip. All those years ago, in my mother’s house…I failed that baby. And that’s why I don’t think about my mother anymore. I don’t want to remember. Not that it matters anymore, does it? Too little, too late.”
Tulip nosed my hand.
I smiled down at her, stroked her head. “Funny, I’ve spent a whole year planning, preparing, and strategizing for my last stand. And in the end, I’m probably gonna die just like everyone else-filled with a list of unfinished business.”
Tulip whined softly. I leaned down, put my arms around her neck.
“I’m going to send you up north,” I promised her. “You’ll get to live with my aunt Nancy, become a B-and-B dog. And the mountains are beautiful and filled with paths to run and squirrels to chase and rivers to swim. You’ll like it up there. I certainly did.”
I held her closer. “Remember me,” I whispered.
Tulip sighed heavily.
I knew exactly how she felt.
DOOR OPENED SHORTLY THEREAFTER. A dark figure appeared, backlit by the hall light, and it jolted me from my chair. I sprang up, into an automatic pugilist stance, while my desk chair flew across the tiny space.
Officer Mackereth flipped on the light.
“You always work in the dark?” he asked gruffly. He was dressed in his uniform, duty belt clasped around his waist. I’d checked the roster when I started my shift, so I knew he was working tonight. I also knew he’d been called in earlier, along with a dozen other officers, to help handle a homicide in the Red Groves housing project. Dead black male, skewered on a collapsed fire escape of a tenement housing building. Messy scene, according to the radio chatter. The crime scene techs had finally used blowtorches to sever the metal rods in Stan Miller’s body from the fire escape. Then the ME had hauled away the corpse, still shish-kebabbed, in an extra large ambulance the city had recently purchased for transporting extra large patients.
I dropped my hands to my side, flexed my fingers. I wanted to move farther away, but the desk kept me in place. The single-person comm center was strictly utilitarian. Seven feet wide, seven feet deep. The PD’s handicap-accessible unisex bathroom was larger.
Beside me, Tulip perked up. She trotted over to Officer Mackereth, sat before him, and presented her head.
He bent over, scratched her neck. Then, in a move that probably surprised him as much as me, he squatted down and gave Tulip a hug. She licked his cheek.
“At least one of you likes me,” he said.
Under the wash of fluorescent lights, I could see the heavy lines in his face. The price one paid for working death scenes. Would he dream of Stan Miller’s body later this morning? How much would it surprise him to know I’d be having that nightmare, too?
“Tough night,” I commented now, staying next to my console.
“At least no other calls,” Officer Mackereth said.
“Figures. We got every uniform buzzing around the Red Groves scene, so of course nothing else comes in.”
“How’s Red Groves?” I stared at my monitor, as if I should be checking it.
Tom shrugged. “Scene’s secured. Body’s bagged and tagged. Neighbors are furious and fearful. The usual.”
“Any witnesses?” I asked. Casually.
“Only three or four dozen-”
Officer Mackereth blew out a huff of breath, stood up. “Hell, we had so many gawkers saying so many different things, who the hell knows? Half of them claimed the vic was yelling at his wife, then must’ve gone to storm down the fire escape, but it collapsed. Others swear there was a shoot-out at the OK Corral, probably drug dealers, maybe Russian Mafia-”
“Not likely. Someone sure as hell shot up the apartment, though. Bullet holes everywhere. We’re still looking for the family. Wife, two kids. One of the neighbors saw them leaving earlier in the evening. I’m hoping for their sakes, that’s true.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Messy way to go,” Tom said, rocking back on his heels. “Christ, never seen anything like it. Plunging five stories to land in a bed of metal stakes.”
At the last moment, he must have seen the look on my face. He caught himself, said hastily, “Sorry. Didn’t mean to…Occupational hazard. Cops forget sometimes that other people don’t spend their time staring at corpses.”
“It’s okay,” I said numbly. “I hear enough stuff.”
“Not the same. Hearing is easier than seeing.”
“Is it? Or does it just leave more to the imagination? Especially when I never get to learn the end of the story. Yelling, screaming, crisis, crisis, and now on to the next caller. Oh well.”
Officer Mackereth nodded slowly, as if considering the life of a dispatch operator for the first time. “Clean anything?” he asked abruptly.
I had to think about it. “Not yet.”
“Slow day for Charlene Grant?”
“Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant,” I corrected automatically.
“Not what your driver’s license says.”
My chin came up, I regarded him levelly. “The form didn’t allow for two middle names, so I opted not to include either one.”
“Why the two middle names, anyway?”
“You never asked your parents?”
“Don’t know where they are to ask the question,” I said stiffly.
That seemed to draw him up short. He nodded again, but continued to study me. We were dancing. Around and around. Except I couldn’t figure out: Were we partners on a dance floor, or opponents in a boxing ring?
“Tried Googling you,” he said now.
“What’d you find?”
“There are a lot of Charlene Grants in the world.”
“Maybe that’s why I have two middle names. To distinguish.”
“You don’t have two middle names.”
“Yes I do.”
“Not according to your birth certificate.”
“You looked up my birth certificate?”
“Well, when Googling doesn’t work, what else is a guy gonna do?”
I didn’t know what to say anymore. I blinked at him. Tulip whined softly, sitting between us.
“What do you want?” I asked now. The backs of my legs were still pressed against the desk. Abruptly, that bothered me. I forced myself to take a step forward. Stop retreating. Own the room. Seize control of the situation.
“E-mail addy,” Officer Mackereth said.
“Don’t have one.”
“Facebook page? Twitter account? MySpace?”
“Don’t own a computer.”
“Don’t own a computer, a smartphone, an iPad, an iPod, an e-reader, or even a DVD player.”
“Off the grid,” Officer Mackereth observed.
“Frugal. If I want to go online, I visit the library. I can always check out a good book while I’m there.”
“What are you doing on the twenty-first?” he asked abruptly.
“The twenty-first, Saturday morning. What are you doing?”
“Why?” My voice came out too high-pitched. At my sides, my hands were clenched. I don’t know if he noticed, but Tulip slunk over to me, pressing against my legs.
“You refused coffee. Turned down dinner. That leaves brunch.”
“Saturday, the twenty-first. One P.M. Café Fleuri at the Langham Hotel. All you can eat chocolate buffet. Best offer I got. What do you say?”
I…I didn’t know what to say. Then I didn’t have to. Because next to me, the monitor lit up, my headset started to chime, and I was literally saved by the bell.
I grabbed my headset, turned toward the ANI ALI screen.
“Can’t run from me forever,” Tom murmured behind me.
I whipped around abruptly, but he was already gone, flipping off the light switch and returning me to the gloom.
FIVE THIRTY A.M. Jesse snuck out of bed. He used his best quiet feet, padding down the heavily shadowed hallway toward the kitchen table. The door to his mother’s bedroom was still closed. He paused, just in case, listening intently. No sounds from the other side. His mother slept. Good.
Jesse continued on to his target: the ancient laptop. It beckoned from the kitchen table. Battered case folded shut and topped by a waiting Home Run/Zombie Bear.
Jesse’s mother liked rules. One of them was no TV or computer time on school mornings. Monday through Friday they both got up at 6:30 A.M. They ate breakfast together, then Jesse’s mom packed his lunch while he got dressed, brushed his teeth, and combed his hair. By 7:20, he was thundering down the apartment stairs to the curb below, where he caught the 7:30 bus.
That was the drill. Jesse went to school, his mom went to work.
Monday through Friday, Jesse followed the schedule, played by the rules. It made his mom happy, and Jesse liked it when his mom was happy. She smiled more, ruffled his hair, bought him treats she didn’t really approve of, such as Twinkies. It was just the two of them, Jenny and Jesse against the world, she would tell him. They would snuggle together on the sofa each night, where she would read him Goosebumps novels and he would rest his head against her chest like he was still a little kid and it was all right, because it was just the two of them, Jesse and Jennifer against the world.
Jesse loved his mother.
Jesse couldn’t sleep last night. He couldn’t stop thinking about Helmet Hippo and their afternoon together on AthleteAnimalz.com. Jesse had always enjoyed the website. It was something to do. But yesterday… Yesterday had been way cool. He’d not only had something fun to do, he’d had someone fun to do it with. A real friend who believed in Jesse, thought Jesse could do anything. An older kid who liked him.
Jesse wanted to go back online.
Even though it was a school morning.
He had a plan. First up, he’d set his watch alarm for one hour before his mother woke up. Sun wasn’t even up yet, so his room had been cold and dark as he’d crawled quietly out of bed. He’d paused long enough for his fleecy bathrobe. Then, the soft glow of the hallway night-light had beckoned him out of his dark room, into the apartment, where he followed its glow toward the family room. The sound of his footsteps were dampened by his footy PJs until at last, he arrived, on a school morning, in front of the computer. He chewed his lower lip. Eyed Zombie/Home Run Bear.
Gave in to the impulse.
Quickly, he shoved aside Zombie Bear, popped open the top, hit the power button, and heard the computer whine wearily to life.
The old computer took a while to load. So, while it woke up, Jesse moved on to the next phase of his plan. He was going to feed himself breakfast. Then, he was going to fix his own lunch. Then, he was going to pack his own backpack.
That way, when his mother got up, and inevitably discovered him on the computer, she couldn’t get too mad. He’d eaten breakfast, right? He was all ready for school, right? He’d even helped her by fixing his own lunch, right?
Sometimes, rules could be bent a little. It was just a matter of proper mom management.
Jesse tiptoed into the tiny kitchenette. He cracked open the refrigerator, using its glow to guide him as he carefully climbed onto the kitchen counter, eased down a bowl, found the Cheerios, poured the milk. Breakfast took about five minutes. He resisted the urge to check on the computer, as the kitchen table was next to his mother’s bedroom and activity in there was more likely to wake her. Better to stay tucked away in the kitchen, getting through morning chores.
Next up, lunch. He was a bologna man. Liked it with a little mayo and one slice of Kraft American cheese. He preferred white bread, but his mother only bought wheat. White is like eating a piece of sugar, she told him, which only made him like white bread more.
Jesse got out two pieces of wheat bread. Struggled with the squeeze bottle of mayonnaise. He had to use two hands. First nothing came out, then half the bottle exploded out in a giant white blob. He did his best to smooth it with a knife, but when he finally added the cheese and bologna and put the two slices together, mayo oozed everywhere.
A wet, messy sandwich. The price to be paid for morning AthleteAnimalz. Jesse felt philosophical as he stuffed the gooey mess into a sandwich Baggie and plopped it into his lunch box. He added an apple and a snack-sized bag of pretzels. School would provide a carton of milk.
He zippered up his Transformers lunch box, loaded it into his backpack, and rocked back on his heels, feeling pretty good. He’d done it. Breakfast and lunch, all by 6 A.M. Not that hard, either.
Except then he glanced at his hands, still covered in greasy mayo. And the kitchen counter, which was dotted with even more mayo, pieces of cereal, and bits of bread. Better clean up or his mother would freak.
Back on the counter. Running the water thinly, doing the best he could with the sponge, smearing around the mayo, chasing the bread crumbs. Another quick rinse, and he hopped down, careful to land on soft feet before taking a deep breath, closing up the refrigerator, and finally creeping out of the tiny kitchen. His hands were maybe a little greasy. But not too bad, he thought. Close enough.
Laptop. Open. No longer wheezing. Waiting for him.
Jesse sidled up to it. He could already feel his heart race with anticipation. One last second, straining his ears for any sound from his mother’s room…Silence.
Jesse typed in www.AthleteAnimalz.com and hit return.
* * *
HE HAD MAIL. And not from Helmet Hippo, which surprised him. He was still figuring out the rules for mailing another player. From what he could tell, “talking” to another animal during a game was subject to a lot of restrictions; each animal could only pick from the Go Team Go list of expressions to appear in the conversation bubble over its head. But e-mailing…that seemed to be fair game. Helmet Hippo could write anything, a real letter to Jesse. And Jesse could write a real letter back, which he thought was pretty cool. Like a big kid talking to a big kid. This latest e-mail, however, wasn’t from Helmet Hippo. This morning someone else had found him: Pink Poodle.
Curious, Jesse opened the letter:
Nice playing! You’re getting really good, especially at baseball. That’s my favorite game. Is it your favorite, too?
I play every day. I use the computers in the Boston Public Library after school. I see you are a Red Sox fan. Does that mean you live in Boston, too?
You should come some time. We can play together. I’ll show you some tricks for hitting the curveball. No big.
If you feel like hanging out, come to the library. I’m easy to find: look for the Pink Poodle. Whatever.
C U on-line.
Jesse frowned. He read the letter again, then again. Some words he struggled with, but he thought he got it. Pink Poodle liked him. Pink Poodle lived in Boston. Pink Poodle could show him some tips if he came to the Boston Public Library.
Jesse sat down in front of the computer. His heart was beating hard again, though he wasn’t sure why. He rubbed his palms unconsciously on the worn legs of his pajamas. He studied the bright, cheerful e-mail again.
Stranger danger. His mother talked about that. Both in real life and on computers. If someone sent him an instant message, he was never to reply, but fetch his mother immediately. If someone sent him an attached file, he was never to open it. It might have a virus, which would destroy their already sickly computer. Worse, it might be something bad, not suitable for kids.
Scary? he’d asked his mom, because while he’d never admit this to his fellow second graders, Jesse didn’t like scary movies. They gave him nightmares.
Something like that, his mother had said.
So he wasn’t to “talk” to strangers online, or open attached files. But Helmet Hippo and Pink Poodle weren’t strangers. They were other kids on AthleteAnimalz. And they weren’t sending him scary videos. They were teaching him skills so he could win more points.
Jesse liked winning points. He could use more skills.
And he was allowed to go to the Boston Public Library, he reminded himself. He and his mother went often, a couple times a month. Libraries were good. His mother approved of them. If he asked to go after school, she’d let him. You were never to get into a stranger’s car, or follow a stranger into his house. That he understood. But meeting another kid at the public library…that didn’t sound so bad.
Jesse read the note again.
Pinky Poo. A girl. But a girl who was really good at baseball. Best hitter Jesse had seen. Even better than Helmet Hippo. And wouldn’t Helmet Hippo like that, when Jesse logged on later and could rack up even more points for his team…
Jesse made up his mind. Using his index finger, he began to laboriously type out his response, using Pink Poodle’s letter to help him with spelling.
Baseball is my favorite game, too. I will come. After school. No big, he added, because he liked the way it sounded. Older, confident. Like maybe a sixth grader.
He sat back. Reviewed his reply one last time.
Public place, he assured himself. The library.
Besides, stranger danger applied to creepy men. Pink Poodle was a girl. Jesse wasn’t afraid of a girl.
Jesse nodded to himself. He touched his carefully crafted e-mail on the computer screen. Admired his own typing, proper use of punctuation. Just like a sixth grader, he decided.
Jesse hit send.
While on the other side of the thin apartment wall, his mother’s morning alarm chimed to life.
HELLO. My name is Abigail.
Have we met yet?
Don’t worry. We will.
Hello. My name is Abigail.
D.D. WENT TO THE DARK SIDE. And fell in love all over again.
Coffee. Hot. Rich. Black. She cradled her cup tenderly, feeling the warmth spread from the beverage to the palm of her hands to the pulse points at her wrists. That first slow inhale. Savoring. Taking her time. Welcoming a long lost friend.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, just drink it!” Phil ordered from across the conference table.
She eyed him mildly. Detective O sat next to him, Neil on the other side. This morning, O was wearing a formfitting deep red sweater, which made her appear less city detective and more Victoria’s Secret model. Neil, on the other hand, looked like he’d spent the night in the morgue, as a corpse.
“You almost never swear,” D.D. said to Phil, still clutching her mug, feeling the aromatic steam waft across her senses.
“You almost never look like a Folgers commercial. O and I have been here all night. Neil’s been here half the night. We want to debrief, then get some rest.”
That made her feel bad. D.D. eyed her exhausted case team, their over-fluoresced faces, deeply bruised eyes. She didn’t look any better than they did, having pulled an all-nighter herself. Only her taskmaster was smaller and more persistent.
“All right,” she agreed with Phil. “Let’s get this party started. You go first.”
At which point, she took the first sip. Immediately, her heart quickened. She both tasted and heard the caffeine hit her bloodstream, a powerful jolt that made her want to sigh and inhale and start the whole process all over again. So she did.
“For the love of God!” Phil exclaimed.
“Want a cup?”
Phil stormed out of the room in search of fresh java. O shook her head. Neil folded both arms on the table and collapsed his head into them.
Just another day in paradise, D.D. thought, and sipped her wonderful, lovely, how-had-she-ever-lived-without-it cup of joe.
Phil returned with his own cup, and the party finally got started.
“We found a chat room,” O announced.
“We found a transcript of a chat room,” Phil interjected, eyeing his computer partner. “As for the chat room itself, it’s probably encrypted or encoded eight ways to Sunday.”
“Have to be invited to join,” O added.
“Worldwide membership from what we can tell-makes it very difficult to trace the servers involved,” Phil said.
“But it’s definitely a training site,” O emphasized.
“Training for what?” D.D. asked with a frown, cradling her coffee more defensively now. Geek in stereo was no easier to follow than geek in mono.
“For pedophiles,” O clarified. “You know, a place to hang out, compare notes, and feel accepted for your perversions.”
D.D. set down her coffee. “What?”
“We’ve been noticing this trend for the past few years,” O announced dismissively, her findings obviously old news to her, if not to them. “More and more crimes against children are being committed by younger and younger perpetrators. We figured it had something to do with the use of chat rooms within the sex offender community and this transcript proves it.”
Neil raised his head from his arms. He stared at the dark-haired sex crimes detective. “Start over,” he said. “Speak slowly.”
O rolled her eyes, but complied. “Okay. Society has norms. Those norms include not regarding children as sex objects. Of course, a pedophile views children in exactly that manner-a deviant sexual fantasy. Generally speaking, a child molester will spend at least a few years fighting that fantasy. Recognizing it as inappropriate and trying to resist the urge. Maybe some do, but obviously others don’t, eventually acting out on that impulse and beginning a life of crime.
“Given this cycle, most sex predators are mid-twenties to mid-thirties when they offend. As criminals go, that’s a relatively mature perpetrator pool. There are some exceptions-teenage babysitters targeting their young charges, but that’s more an example of impulse meeting opportunity. The attacks are rarely planned or sophisticated in nature. So again, the ‘classic’ profile of a pedophile is an older male. Except lately, we’re seeing a spike in crimes that are nearly children against children-relatively young pedophiles engaging in the kind of sophisticated targeting and grooming behavior that until now, we’ve always associated with older predators.”
“Good God,” Neil groaned. D.D. seconded that vote.
“Our best guess,” O continued, “validated by this transcript, is that these teenagers aren’t fighting their deviant sexual fantasies. Instead, they’re logging on to the Internet, where they’re finding validation for their impulses and even tips for how to engage in these inappropriate acts. Basically, hard-core pedophiles are using Internet chat rooms to train the next generation of child molesters, which is accelerating the predator cycle.”
“I’m never using my computer again,” D.D. said.
“Please,” Phil said tiredly. “We spent all night reading the logs from these kinds of chat rooms. Now I have to go home and bleach my eyeballs.”
“You keep saying transcripts,” D.D. said. “What does that mean?”
“Victim number two,” Phil supplied, “Stephen Laurent, downloaded some of the chat room logs onto his hard drive. Including one that details how to use a puppy to approach young children. A second chat describes how to create a following on various kids’ websites in order to attract potential victims. It’s very detailed, including tips for how to determine which ‘e-victims’ live in close enough geographic proximity to become ‘physical victims.’”
“He was building a manual,” Neil said flatly. “A fucking perverts manual on his hard drive. Complete with photos.”
O reached over and lightly touched the back of Neil’s hand. The redheaded detective flinched, sat up straighter.
“You want help?” O asked kindly. “I’ve gone through those kinds of photos before. I can assist if you’d like.”
“I can’t see ’em anymore. It’s just…I’ve stopped viewing them as kids. And that’s wrong. Too wrong. I can’t do it anymore.” Neil turned his stare to D.D. “I’m done.”
She nodded immediately. “You’re done. Absolutely. And you’re right, Neil. They’re kids. They deserve to be seen as kids. The fact you recognize you’ve hit your limit is a good thing. It does right by them. Thank you.”
“I don’t think they’re his victims,” Neil said.
Phil looked at him. “What d’you mean?”
“Made it through four out of six boxes. The photos themselves are too eclectic. There are Polaroids from the eighties, faded shots from the seventies. Subjects are boys, girls, young kids, teenagers, black, white, Hispanic, urban, house, hotel. I think Laurent collected the shots-I don’t know, bought them online, traded for them from other collectors…” He looked at Detective O.
She nodded. “Sure, pedophiles have always traded graphic images, videos, etc. For some predators, visual aids even do the trick for them. You’d be amazed how many ‘family men’ we’ve busted for owning child porn, who claim the porn was ‘good for them.’ Kept them from committing the actual act.”
“I hate this case,” Neil muttered.
D.D. didn’t disagree with him, but she was getting confused. “So are you saying Stephen Laurent might not have been an active child molester, but a porn collector?”
“I’m saying that model exists,” Detective O stated, “but I doubt Laurent was a passive pedophile. He was not only downloading transcripts on how to engage in illegal behaviors, but remember, he’d also gotten a puppy.”
“Do pedophiles escalate?” D.D. asked. “So maybe Laurent started with child porn, but was now graduating to child molestation?”
“Sure. And to a large extent, that’s what these chat rooms are all about. Giving a weak, low-self-esteem, usually male perpetrator the acceptance, tools, and coaching to finally act out his sexually deviant fantasies. There are chat rooms for rapists, too, by the way. Probably serial killers as well.”
“I hate this case,” Neil said again.
But D.D. had an idea. “So judging from that cycle, what is Stephen Laurent? The mentor or the intern?”
“Intern,” O said without missing a beat. She turned to look at Phil. “That’s basically what we saw on his computer, right? The understudy gathering information on his next, starring role.”
Phil nodded his agreement.
“And the first shooting victim,” D.D. asked quickly. “Antiholde. He went to these chat rooms, too?”
“Same chat room,” Phil provided.
“Trainer or trainee?”
“Trainer,” Phil said flatly. “Given his criminal history. The second victim, Laurent, hadn’t been caught yet. Our first victim, Antiholde had already been caught and paroled. I bet he visited the chat room for two reasons-to brag about past exploits, while trying to improve his technique for future offenses. Definitely a more experienced predator than Laurent.”
“But still seeking more information, guidance,” D.D. said.
“Pedophiles are always seeking more information,” O said bluntly. “It’s a high-risk lifestyle, where they feel victimized by their own impulses and live in constant fear of being caught. It keeps them logging on.”
“And how many users in this chat room?” D.D. asked.
“Can’t get on to find out. Transcript from Laurent’s computer shows a few dozen active posters.”
“We need to track them down.”
“Obviously working on that,” O said dryly. “Unfortunately, pedophiles are a suspicious bunch, and very sophisticated with their computer skills.”
“But our victims have a common link-this chat room. Identify the users, identify the killer…or the next victims.”
“But again,” Phil reminded D.D., “we only have copies of a chat, not access to the chat room itself. While the transcripts show a couple dozen posters, that’s probably only the tip of the iceberg. Most members ‘lurk’ in these kinds of forums. Meaning there’s probably hundreds if not thousands of other users who don’t actively post, meaning they remain invisible to us. We’ll work on tracing the user names we can identify from the transcripts, but bear in mind, it’s probably a needle-in-the-haystack kind of exercise.”
“You said we can’t access the real chat room,” D.D. spoke up. “That it’s encrypted eighty ways to Sunday, invitation only. So how can we get an invite?”
“Don’t know,” O said. “Probably friend of a friend kind of thing. Meet in other forums, perhaps swapping porn, and once enough trust is gained, eventually a member of the chat room will extend an invitation.”
“But they must get new members, these teenagers, like you said.”
“Sure, and one possibility is that we could go ‘undercover’ as a teenage boy. Build a virtual identity that surfs the right places on the net, engages in the kind of Internet searches that might catch a fellow pedophile’s eyes. There are ‘undercover’ operators on the Internet, you know. But that kind of thing can take months to fully execute. Given our shooter’s time line, we have more like weeks.”
“We need a hacker,” D.D. said bluntly.
“Or…” D.D. thought a moment. “Do they know two of their users are dead? What if we claimed their user names and passwords? Could we log on as Stephen Laurent and/or Douglas Antiholde?”
“We’d have to identify their user names and passwords,” Phil said.
“Which our fine computer forensic experts should be able to do, right? Mine it out of the hard drive of the victims’ computers?”
Slowly, Phil nodded. O, as well.
“Yeah,” Phil considered. “Might take them a couple of days, but the computer pros should be able to do that.”
“All right, so forget building an undercover identity. We’ll simply steal Stephen Laurent’s user name, log on, and recon. We’ll listen, we’ll learn, and with any luck, we’ll find our man…or woman as the case might be.”
“Woman?” O asked.
D.D. hadn’t mentioned her conversation with the forensic handwriting expert before. She figured it was probably time. “The notes left at both scenes: Everyone has to die sometime. Be brave. Based on penmanship, our note writer is most likely female. Tightly wound, probably private school-educated, and prone to wearing plaid. Which is another question, I suppose: How much ‘personality’ can you tell from chat room logs? Any of the users come across as a type A female? Or can you even distinguish male users from female users?”
Phil shook his head. O, too. Both detectives were thinking, however. D.D. had that feeling between her shoulder blades, the one that as a detective she liked to get. They were on to something. Finally gaining ground.
Case would crack. Soon. Suddenly.
They would get their man…or woman.
“Anything else I need to know?” she asked.
Her case team shook their tired heads. “O,” D.D. said, “how about you meet with Neil, take over photos?”
O nodded. Neil looked embarrassed to surrender his assignment but didn’t argue.
“Neil,” D.D. continued, “in my office at ten. Phil, you’re off duty at noon. Go home, get some rest. O, you can finish today, but I don’t want to see you tomorrow before noon. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Phil looked at her strangely. “You never send us home.”
“Are you complaining?”
He shut up.
D.D. adjourned the meeting, returning to her office, where she picked up a second crime scene report and prepared for her second major case of the day: the soon-to-be murder of Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant.
D.D. lifted the phone and dialed.
TRAINING EQUALS PREPAREDNESS. You drill a pattern of movements over and over again, so that when the moment of attack occurs, rather than freezing in shock, you fall back into a series of instinctive responses that quickly renders your opponent useless.
That’s the theory at least.
Tulip and I left the Grovesnor PD a little after 8 A.M. No Officer Mackereth to drive us home. The morning sun was weak, barely penetrating the thickening clouds. I could already taste the snow building on the horizon, feel the frosty bite through my coat, hat, and gloves.
Within a matter of minutes, Tulip, with her short tan-and-white fur, was shivering.
It distracted me. That was my excuse as I hustled us both to the corner, where I began the competitive game of hailing a taxi at the height of the morning commute.
After five minutes, I’d had no luck, and Tulip was shivering harder.
Bus pulled up. Number was right for my purposes, so I boarded, hefting Tulip up with me.
The bus driver, a heavyset black woman with crimped gray hair and a face that had seen it all, shook her head. “Service dogs only.”
“She is a service dog. Lost her collar. Some jerk took it off her right outside the police station. How d’you like that? Now look at her. She’s out of uniform and freezing to death.”
Tulip helped me out by giving the driver a particularly pathetic glance.
Four other people shoved up behind me, trying to board, impatient with the holdup, particularly given the freezing temperature.
Bus the driver ignored them, stared at me.
“What’s your disability?” she demanded.
“There’s no dogs for peanut allergies.”
“Are too,” muttered the man behind me. “Come on. Let her on or kick her off. It’s fucking cold out here.”
I glared at him, then took in the row of passengers already filling the seats. “Anyone eat peanut butter this morning?” I called out. “Or have peanuts in your purse?”
Couple of tentative hands went up. I turned triumphantly to the bus driver. “See, I need my dog. Otherwise, I might die on your bus, and think about the paperwork. Nobody wants to do that kind of paperwork.”
I swiped my commuter card and dropped Tulip into the aisle, as if that decided the matter. As I headed toward the back of the bus with Tulip in tow, I could tell the bus driver still didn’t believe me. But it was fucking freezing out, and nobody liked paperwork.
I lied. I got away with it. It made me a little triumphant, a little cocky. Second mistake for the morning.
Really, it was only a matter of time.
I had to stand. Right hand up, holding the overhead bar for balance. I had the end of Tulip’s leash encircled around my left wrist, with my left hand pressed flat against the closed flap of my messenger bag. Protecting the contents, particularly my weapon.
Now, here’s a rule of mass transit: The colder it is outside, the hotter it will be inside.
Heat blasted through the vents, and pretty quickly, the wool coats and fleece-lined hats that made so much sense outside, became suffocating inside. Tulip started to pant. I started to sweat. More people jammed in, hot bodies pressing together, adding to the sauna.
Twenty minutes into my fifty-five-minute ride, I started to feel nauseous. The swaying suspension system, rolling beneath my feet. The beads of sweat, rolling down my hairline to pool on my overheated neck. The stench of too many bodies crowded too close together, only some of whom had bothered to shower recently.
Another five minutes, and I raised my hand from my messenger bag long enough to loosen my scarf, remove my hat. I breathed marginally easier, then the bus was off and bouncing again, passengers bobbing, windows fogging.
I managed to stuff my hat in my coat pocket, then I had to move my left hand again. Unbutton the top button of my jacket, second, third, fourth.
I wore an oversized navy blue fleece pullover beneath my coat. The kind of soft, bulky sweatshirt perfect for cozying up with a good book on Sunday afternoon. It was strangling me now, the collar damp with sweat, the compressed sleeves squeezing my arms.
Thirty minutes down, twenty-five more to go.
Bus stopped. Passengers got off. More passengers got on. Tulip whined and panted. I loosened my grip on the sweat-slicked metal bar, wiped my forearm over my brow.
Bus lurched forward and so did my stomach.
Was I still holding on to the messenger bag? Maybe. Maybe not. I was hot, uncomfortable, fighting motion sickness. So first distracted, then cocky, and now partially incapacitated.
Cities operate by jungle rules, you know: The weak and infirm are immediately targeted to be culled from the herd.
Stop after stop. Block after block. With me panting almost as hard as Tulip. Not paying attention to my fellow passengers. Not noticing my surroundings. Just counting down the blocks. Wishing desperately to get off that damn bus.
Finally, as my face went from overheated red, to unsightly pale, to alarming green, the stop. Doors opened in the front. I started the forward charge, leading with Tulip, who weaved effortlessly through a sea of heavy boots and flapping overcoats.
“Excuse me, excuse me, coming through.” Pushing, shoving, and shimmying. Following the siren’s song of fresh air, beckoning through the open door. At last, we made it. The bus driver and I exchanged final scowls, then Tulip and I clambered down the steep bus stairs onto hard-frozen terra firma. We jogged a couple of steps away from the metal sauna.
I was vaguely aware of the bus doors closing, the bus pulling away. I had both hands away from my messenger bag. Opening up my coat, gulping for icy, snow-laced air, trying to draw as much of it as I could into my overheated lungs, through my sweat-soaked fleece.
My leather bag dangled at my hip, my open coat flapped around my thighs.
I was all about the refreshingly frigid air, the feel of it against my face. I was finally off the bus. End of the road. From here, Tulip and I could jog the roughly mile and a half to our destination. Away from the densely packed urban sprawl, into the back roads and rolling countryside that still dotted random parts of Greater Boston.
It felt good to be out of the city. I felt safe. Relieved. Optimistic even.
Right until the instant I was attacked from behind.
HE CAUGHT MY COAT LAPELS FIRST. Jerked the front flaps of my black wool coat back and down. In one second or less, he’d incapacitated my left arm, basically bound it to my side with my own coat. The strap of my messenger bag, however, slung diagonal across my body, trapped the right lapel at the side of my neck, tangling his hand.
I used that second to stand perfectly still, my mouth caught soundlessly open, while my brain screamed (stupidly), But it’s not the twenty-first!
While I made like a statue, my attacker grabbed the strap of my messenger bag, whipped it over my head, and tossed it aside. The weight of the bag tangled with Tulip’s leash. My fingers opened reflexively, releasing her leash, and that quickly, I’d lost my gun and my dog. To be sure about it, my attacker, still standing behind me, kicked my bag away.
Then, his hands closed around my throat.
Belatedly, my survival instinct kicked in. I stopped cataloguing what was happening and started responding. First, I fought against my own coat.
While my attacker squeezed, slowly but surely obstructing my airways, I jerked my coat-bounded elbow backwards into his side. When he shimmied left, I used the air-starved moment to jerk off my coat, finally freeing my hands and arms.
His grip tightened. My mouth gasped, I struggled for air. Could feel pressure growing in my chest, the weight of my own rising panic.
But it’s not the twenty-first!
Fight, I needed to fight. But I was expecting to punch forward. To squat, block, jab. Now I was left with self-defense 101, trying to stomp on my attacker’s instep, kick back into a kneecap. Hurt him, incapacitate him. Do something so that he’d have to let go.
Barking. Tulip, running around our feet, leash trailing.
Hands still squeezing, white spots appearing in front of my eyes.
Forgetting to stomp, to fight. Succumbing to panic and clawing futilely at the fingers at my throat, as if that would make a difference.
So this is how Randi had felt. This is how Jackie had felt.
Such a crushing weight against my chest. The desire, the urge to breathe was so primal, so hardwired that the lack of oxygen led to the most peculiar kind of pain. As if I could feel the cells in my body dying one by one, screaming out their last desperate seconds.
Baby, crying down the hall.
I know, I know. I should’ve told. I should’ve.
I was crying. He was killing me, and instead of fighting back, I was weighed down with old regrets. The baby I’d failed. The mother I’d let hurt me. The friends I’d loved with all my heart and buried one by one.
Tulip barking, then suddenly, a yelp of pain. He’d kicked her. My attacker had hurt my dog.
That pissed me off.
I sagged. In a dimly remembered move from so many rounds of training, I stopped surging up with my legs and turned myself into dead weight instead. The sudden shift of my knees giving out threw my attacker off balance. He lurched forward, and I immediately countered by planting my feet and using my attacker’s own weight to flip him over my head.
Then, I was on him. I kicked at his ribs, punched his unprotected head. This wasn’t boxing. This was street fighting. I inhaled ragged, desperate gasps of air into my searing lungs as I kicked and jabbed and chased my killer across the snowy ground.
My attacker rolled, forearms over his face as he quickly put distance between us in order to regain his footing.
No way. Not gonna happen. If he got up, no doubt he was gonna be bigger and stronger than me, with maybe a knife or gun or other tricks up his sleeve. So I had to keep him down, where I could loom over him, where I was the biggest badass in town.
I continued to chase. He rolled, at one point made it up onto all fours, but I rewarded his efforts with such a devastating kick to the ribs, he collapsed and scuttled sideways.
He kept his head down, protecting his face, but also making it hard to read his intent. Thus, he managed to surprise me when I lashed out again and his left hand came up lightning fast, grabbed my foot, and jerked hard.
I toppled back, landing with a crack on my right hip. But even gasping in pain, I had the presence of mind to kick with my other foot, dislodging my first leg from his hand. Now we were both on all fours on the frozen ground, scrambling around each other.
Tulip circled as well, no longer barking but whining and uncertain. I couldn’t risk looking at her or our surroundings. I should probably scream, call for help. We were just off the street. It was after 9 A.M.; even on the outskirts of the city no place is ever completely deserted.
But I couldn’t make a sound. My blood rushed in my ears, I could hear the hoarse sound of my own breath. But I couldn’t even whisper. My vocal cords were locked, frozen.
In the horror movies, the plucky victim always screams her terror. In real life, we are more likely to die in silence.
I got my feet under me at the same time he got his. I bounced up, fisted hands up, proper fighting stance finally established, just as my attacker squared off against me.
And I found myself staring into the weather-beaten face of my shooting instructor, J. T. Dillon.
“I GIVE YOU A C,” he said. He straightened, hands dropping to his side.
Still not entirely sure about things, I punched with my right, going for the side of his head. Just as quickly, J.T. blocked my shot with his left arm, then his hands were down again, passive at his side.
“Maybe a D,” he said roughly, his breathing no easier than mine. “You’re still alive, but only barely.”
Slowly, I straightened. “You attacked me as a training exercise?”
“Think of it as graduation.” He fingered his side, where I’d kicked him pretty hard, and winced. “Though, given my age, next time I’m going with a paper diploma.”
My hands were still up. I couldn’t drop them. Not yet. My breathing was too shallow. My throat hurt. I would be bruised in a matter of hours.
“Fuck you!” I said suddenly.
He studied me, eyes cool, inscrutable.
I hit him again. He blocked it again. So I really went for it. Punching, jabbing, and attacking until pretty soon we were chasing each other around in a circle again, him on the defensive this time, me powered with a rage I barely recognized. He had hurt me. I needed to hurt him back.
He’d almost killed me.
And I’d nearly let him.
It burned. My throat, my chest, my pride. All that training, all that practicing, and I’d still nearly died, taken out by a sixty-year-old ex-marine.
Tulip chased us. Not barking or whining. She had seen me spar before, and maybe she understood the situation better than I did. I don’t know. I chased my shooting coach and he let me. Dodging, blocking, recoiling, sometimes slapping back. Moving with a speed I didn’t know a silver-haired former marine sniper could still have.
Problem with hitting, really truly throwing a punch, is that it demands such an explosive release of energy. Even world heavyweight champions can only sustain the action for three minutes at a time.
Sooner versus later, my hands grew heavy. My lungs heaved for air, my shoulders and chest burned. My heart rate had spiked to the edge of nausea, and I no longer chased my opponent as much as I staggered after him, my rage still willing, the rest of me giving out.
J.T. ended the situation, by plopping down beneath a skeletal tree. I collapsed on the snow next to him. My face was beet red, covered in sweat from my exertions. The snow felt good, the gray sky a balm against my flushed cheeks.
Tulip came over, sat beside me, and whined uncertainly. I stroked her head. She licked my cheek. Then she wandered over to J.T. to repeat the ritual. Satisfied all was now well, she plopped between us, burrowing against my side for warmth. After another moment, J.T. got up, trotted over to my messenger bag, and returned it to me.
He sat back down and we passed another moment in silence.
“Why is my firearms instructor beating me up?” I asked finally.
He regarded me steadily. “Nothing wrong with training with a handgun,” he said curtly. “But odds are, you’ll never get off a shot. Or if you do, you’ll be panicked and overwhelmed with adrenaline. You’ll shoot wild till you run out of ammo. Then, you’re back where you started-up close and personal.”
I thought of my encounter with Stan Miller. J.T. had just summarized it quite nicely. Stan and I had both fired wildly. And the situation had ended up close and personal.
“Have you ever killed anyone?” I asked.
“I’ve done my share of damage.”
“How did it feel?”
“Never as good as I wanted it to.”
We sat in silence again. I stroked Tulip’s head.
“Am I going to die on the twenty-first?” I asked at last. A stupid question, but maybe that’s what life came down to. Stupid questions in waning hours where we stood on the tracks, watching the locomotive bear down on us and wondering how bad it was gonna hurt.
“Maybe,” J.T. said. He looked at me again. “Who beat you? Mother, father, boyfriend?”
I didn’t answer right away. I stroked Tulip’s silky brown ears. “Mother,” I said finally. “Munchausen’s by proxy.”
First time I’d said the words out loud. Aunt Nancy and I had never discussed it. And I’d never told Randi or Jackie. Never even mentioned my mother to them, or where I’d lived before the mountains or any of the days, weeks, months that had existed before I became my aunt’s niece instead of my mother’s daughter.
But I told J. T. Dillon, because physically hitting someone is like that. It forms a bond. Sex, violence, death. All intimate in their own way. Another thing I hadn’t known until the past year.
“You didn’t defend yourself,” J.T. said curtly. “You didn’t fight for you.”
“Eventually I did.”
“No. I kicked your dog. You fought for your dog.”
“She’s a good dog.”
He stared at me. “You gotta get her out of your head,” he said abruptly.
I stiffened, still stroking Tulip’s ears, but feeling myself pull away.
“Mean it,” J.T. said. “You gotta hit for you. You gotta take that rage and shame and silence, and turn it into a weapon. You gotta know, Charlie, you gotta well and truly know it’s not okay to be hurt. You don’t deserve to be punished. Someone attacks you, stop accepting, start fighting back.”
“Bullshit! You hesitate. You go to some place in your head where you’re conditioned to hang out until the punishment stops. Look, I can train you to shoot. Dick can train you to hit. But neither one of us can untrain you to stop playing victim in your own life. You gotta do that. You gotta care.”
I flushed, felt like a little girl chastised for not doing my homework. I didn’t want to be passive. I wanted to be a badass. And yet, when his hands had closed around my throat…When he’d attacked me from behind…
I’d felt like I deserved it. I’d been bad and I deserved my punishment. Conditioned response of abused children everywhere. We all grew up, but none of us ever got away.
“Dying for someone is easy,” J.T. murmured now, as if reading my mind. “Living for yourself, that’s hard. But you gotta do it, Charlie. Honor yourself. Defend yourself. Fight for yourself.”
I nodded finally, tucking Tulip closer to my body to help keep her warm.
“Are we going shooting now?” I asked.
“In a minute.”
He was opening my bag, withdrawing my Taurus. The. 22 looked tiny in his large callused palm, his long fingers better suited for his explosive. 45 than my peashooter. He sniffed at it, looked at me.
“Never put away a gun dirty,” he said.
“Figured I’d clean it after our session.”
“Never put away a gun dirty.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“Good, ’cause I don’t want to know.”
He handed me the Taurus. We both rose to standing.
“She gonna be okay walking?” He gestured to Tulip.
“If we keep her moving. She needs a coat. Maybe later today.”
“Do that. Dog that’s worth fighting for deserves a sweater.”
J.T. started walking; Tulip and I fell in step beside him. It was a mile and a half to his house, tucked away on three acres of land. Perfect for a man with a shooting range in his backyard. Perfect for a man-and his wife-who didn’t much care for company.
“She still alive?” he asked as he walked.
I didn’t need clarification to know who he was asking about. “No,” I heard myself say, another rare admission, a memory barely known and definitely never explored. But if I really thought about it…of course my mother was dead. It stood to reason that if she were still alive, she would’ve contacted me by now. Written a letter from prison or whatever mental institute she was living in. Dropped by the first moment she was released. That’s the whole point of Munchausen’s by proxy-the perpetrator considers herself the victim. It’s all about her-she doesn’t just need sympathy, support, understanding. She deserves it. But I’d never heard from my mother since waking up in the upstate New York hospital. Not a phone call, not a letter, not a peep.
There had been some kind of final confrontation. I’d lived, and my mother…
“Drinker?” J.T. asked.
“Crazy. Just plain crazy.”
“Glad she’s dead then,” J.T. said. “Now get over her.”
“Sure,” I promised him. “Might as well.” I glanced at my watch. “Fifty-eight hours to go,” I muttered. Both of us started to jog.
“This is Sergeant Detective D. D. Warren, Boston PD. I’m calling regarding the criminal profile you developed for Charlene Grant. The January twenty-first homicides. As in two murders down, maybe a third to go, which I’d personally like to avoid. Boston’s homicide rate is high enough, thank you.”
“Detective,” retired FBI profiler Pierce Quincy greeted her crisply. “Spoke to my daughter last night. She apprised me of your investigation. Sounds like you have a plan, something involving social media?”
“Seems worth trying. I understand you studied both the first and second crime scene.”
“Prepared the first report for Jackie Knowles. Wrote the second for Charlene, after Jackie’s murder.”
D.D. hadn’t thought of that. “Sorry,” she murmured, not sure what else to say to the retired profiler.
“Crime scene analysis is easier,” Quincy replied simply, “when you don’t know the victim. Therefore, I must add caveats to my second report. It is probably not as objective as the first.”
“Let’s start with the first murder, the Providence scene,” D.D. decided. “My impression from your report, and the lead investigator, Roan Griffin, is that the perpetrator is someone with a high-degree of self-control, advanced communication skills, above average intelligence, and a good deal of manual strength.”
“Male or female?”
“Statistics would argue male. Lack of sexual assault, however, complicates the analysis.”
“Can’t get one from the Providence murder. However, factoring in the Atlanta homicide, where the victim was last seen with a woman, I lean toward a female perpetrator. It would explain the willingness of both women to open their doors, even the thorough cleanup afterward. Granted, many serial killers can be meticulous in their ability to sanitize a crime scene, but few think to tend the sofa cushions.”
“Tend the sofa cushions?” D.D. asked.
“They appeared recently fluffed. A distinctly feminine touch.”
“Fluffed? How can you tell that?”
“Can’t, not definitively. But according to Jackie’s neighbor, Ms. Knowles had a tendency to toss the decorative pillows to one side of the love seat and sit on the other. When the police arrived at the scene, however, the accent pillows were perfectly positioned. In fact, the lower cushions and back cushions of the love seat were smoothed out and neatly squared. As one detective observed, it appeared as if no one had ever sat on the furniture. It was fluffed.”
“But Jackie might have done it,” D.D. countered. “You know, tidying up in case she brought up a ‘guest’ that night.”
“True. I’m offering a theory based on supposition, not fact.”
“Well, at least you’re honest,” D.D. informed him.
She thought the profiler might have laughed, but the moment was brief.
“We need to stir the pot,” D.D. said abruptly. “We have two days before January twenty-first. I’ve got Charlene Grant running around Boston, hiding from everyone she knows and currently armed with a twenty-two semiauto-”
“She has a handgun?”
“Won’t help her.”
“Based on supposition or fact?”
“Both. First two victims never fought back. If they didn’t rip off their own fingernails trying to claw away a pair of hands choking them to death, what makes Charlene think she’ll get off a single shot?”
D.D. swallowed hard, not liking that image. “Maybe they did fight back. The perpetrator cleaned up their hands afterward, after fluffing the pillows, of course.”
“Randi had perfectly manicured nails of above average length. Not a single one was broken. What are the odds of that?”
“Tox screen?” D.D. asked.
“Negative for drugs.”
“Could they have been attacked in their sleep?”
“Possible, but lack of oxygen should have bolted them awake, triggering fight or flight. By all accounts, both were capable of fighting.”
“Then how do you explain the lack of self-defense wounds?”
D.D. sighed again. “At least you’re honest,” she repeated.
“Sadly, that’s not helping either one of us. Or, on the twenty-first, Charlene Grant. Has there been any contact?” Quincy asked abruptly. “A note to Charlene, anything?”
“Unusual,” he commented. “Very, actually, for a repeat offender to duplicate a pattern so precisely. Most killers describe murder as a physical sensation, releasing a chemical in the brain similar to a runner’s high. The first kill is generally impulsive and anxiety-inducing. But after the dust settles, the killer forgets the fear, remembers the buzz, and begins to yearn again. Next kill cycle may take a bit, but over time, the need for the physiological release that accompanies each murder becomes the overriding drive, shortening the kill cycle, leading to more frenzy, less organization, less control. The killer may try to combat the cycle by turning to alcohol and/or drugs as a substitute for the homicidal high, but it rarely works. On the other hand, it does assist law enforcement efforts as the killer begins to disintegrate, making more and more mistakes.”
“Judging by that logic, this killer is still at the infancy of the kill cycle, if he or she can make it a full year between each victim?” D.D. guessed.
“Technically speaking, this killer isn’t yet a serial killer. Takes three. At this point, we have a repeat offender whose pattern is almost technical in nature. More ritualized assassin than serial predator.”
“Maybe because the murderer is a female. She’s not driven by bloodlust, but something else.”
“It’s the something else we need to understand. If we could identify the why, then perhaps that would reveal the who.”
“All right.” D.D. was game. “Why Randi Menke? Why Jackie Knowles? What do they have in common?”
“Both single women living in urban environments. Same age. Both grew up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, with friends and family in common. More specifically, both were best friends of Charlene Grant.”
“Which Charlene takes to mean that she’s the next victim. Are you as sure of that? Maybe this has something to do with Randi and Jackie. Not Charlie at all.”
“Possible,” Quincy agreed. “With only two murders, we lack enough data points to draw meaningful conclusions. The fact that Randi and Jackie happened to know each other could still be completely random; they knew they knew each other, but the killer did not.”
“I don’t like random,” D.D. said. “I know it happens, but it still hasn’t made a believer out of me.”
“That would make two of us,” Quincy agreed. “So, we’ll make our first assumption: Randi and Jackie share a common link that led to their deaths. Now, in adulthood, they didn’t really. They lived in two different states, separated by nearly a thousand miles. Randi lived in a posh area of Providence, divorced from an abusive husband, worked as a receptionist at a wellness center. Jackie lived in the suburbs of Atlanta, single, lesbian, corporate workaholic. Not so much in common.”
“Wait a minute,” D.D. interjected. “What about the abusive husband? Did Jackie know, perhaps intervene on behalf of her friend, Randi, which might have put Jackie in the doc’s sights?”
“Negative. According to Jackie herself, she never knew Randi was having domestic issues until after Randi’s murder. Apparently, Randi had never confided in her friends.”
“She isolated herself,” D.D. murmured, recognizing the pattern of so many beaten wives.
“In adulthood, the three friends had drifted apart,” Quincy stated. “Meaning, in order to find the common link between Randi and Jackie, you must go back approximately ten years, to when they grew up together in the same small town, attending the same tiny school. And during that time, they were not defined as Randi and Jackie, but as Randi, Jackie, and Charlie. Apparently, the locals often referred to them by a single moniker, Randi Jackie Charlie.”
“The Three Musketeers,” D.D. said.
“Precisely, and given that, I can’t blame Charlene for making the assumption that she’s next. Best case scenario, she wakes up pleasantly surprised January twenty-second. Worst case scenario…”
“Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” D.D. murmured.
“All right,” D.D. said briskly. “For the sake of argument, let’s assume the entire trio has been targeted. So why now? Wouldn’t it make more sense to try to kill them when they lived in the same town? All together? For that matter, why pick them off, one by one? And why on January twenty-first?”
“Excellent questions, Detective. When you find the answers, please let me know.”
“It’s ritualized,” D.D. continued thinking out loud. “The perpetrator’s whole approach is deeply personal to him or her. The date, the methodology, even the individual targeting. Perhaps the target cluster is a trio of friends, but the killer’s style ensures each one dies alone.”
“An interesting observation, Detective.”
“All right, so let’s say the killer is morally opposed to BFFs. First murder was two years ago, nearly eight years after the women had gone their separate ways. Why wait until so many years have passed, then start by attacking Randi on the twenty-first?”
“There are several points to consider there,” Quincy replied. “One, age. The women parted ways at eighteen. Assuming the killer is someone who knew them from childhood, it’s possible the killer is of their peer group. Eighteen is a transitional age, the boundary between being a teenager and being an adult. You could argue the killer needed to gain more experience before having the wherewithal to act out his or her impulse…”
“Grooming,” D.D. muttered. “Had to go to various murder-r-us chat rooms, learn how to get it done.”
“Eighteen is also a pivotal age in mental health. There are many conditions, including bipolar or schizophrenia, that manifest around this stage of development.”
“Meaning, the attacker transitioned from ‘normal’ to ‘abnormal,’ including an abnormal need to kill BFFs?”
“Possible, worth considering, I think. The issue with this theory is that the nature of the crime scenes argues for a perpetrator in full possession of his or her faculties. An organized, not disorganized killer.”
“But something happened,” D.D. murmured. “If you assume that three friends are the target, something happened to make the perpetrator embark on this ritual.”
“Maybe it happened on the twenty-first,” Quincy said.
“Did the women see something, witness something?” D.D. mused. “Maybe they were home for the holidays, as adults, they came across an incriminating auto accident, happened to witness a Mafia killing, something, anything.”
“Question has been asked many times. Charlene has always responded negatively.”
“Okay,” D.D. kept thinking. “Three best friends. Who hates three girls?” And then it came to her, so obvious she couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of it before. “The fourth,” she breathed out. “The fourth girl, who never made the cut.”
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” Quincy said. “It’s a good theory. In fact, I’m sorry I never thought to ask that question.”
“So I return to Charlene, I ask about other childhood friends.”
“No,” Quincy corrected immediately. “Don’t ask about friends, ask about the girls who were never friends. The loner in the classroom. The girl who always sat by herself at lunch, the outsider, looking in.”
“But you said the killer has above average communication skills. When has that loner had above average communication skills?”
“Maybe I was wrong about that. Maybe Randi and Jackie opened their doors out of lingering pity for a former classmate, not warm welcome of a charismatic stranger.”
“Okay, okay. I can do that,” D.D. muttered. “But even if Charlene remembers a name, I’m down to forty-eight hours to track a person for a case that isn’t even yet my case. Given the time line, maybe this girl is already in Boston, on the hunt for Charlene…”
“You want a strategy that is more proactive?”
“I want to draw the killer to us. I was thinking of setting up a Facebook page, something commemorating the anniversary of the murders, honoring the victims. I want to stir the pot. Crawl inside the killer’s head. How do I do that?”
The phone line fell quiet. She could feel Quincy considering the matter.
“I wish I could come to Boston,” Quincy muttered. “I would feel better, I think, if I were in Boston.”
“Hey, nothing personal, Mr. Former Fed, but Boston PD is not a bunch of local yokels. We try to keep at least one person alive a year. I’m thinking this year that’ll be Charlene Grant.”
“I’m worried about her,” Quincy said quietly.
“You should be,” D.D. said bluntly. “I spent an hour with the girl. She needs to gain about twenty pounds, sleep twenty days, and lay off the twenty-two. Other than that, though…”
“My wife and I. We’ve recently adopted.”
“You have a baby?” D.D. was shocked. She hadn’t seen a photo of the former profiler to determine age, but given that his daughter was a full-grown fed with kids of her own…
“Not a baby. We are much too old for that,” Quincy replied dryly, as if reading her mind. “A ten-year-old girl we fostered first. We love her dearly. And if we are very lucky, one day we hope she will be able to feel that love. But she isn’t there yet.”
“Project,” D.D. said.
“Potential,” Quincy corrected gently. “My wife is a former law enforcement officer as well. We’ve seen both sides of the equation. We know what we’re up against. When I heard of Jackie Knowles’s murder…It was good to have a child in the house again. It was good to remember the promise of the future and not just dwell on past regrets.”
D.D. didn’t say anything. Quincy’s words made her think of everything she loved about coming home to Jack. She’d worried in the beginning that having a baby would limit her ability to do her job. And maybe Jack did limit her hours, but he also balanced the equation. Children, the hope for a better tomorrow, was everything a homicide cop worked for. You took the hit, so your child wouldn’t have to. You put in the long hours, as her case team had done last night, so that other kids could feel safe.
“Fourth friend,” Quincy said.
“That’s what you need. Based on your own analysis. You need to create a fictional fourth friend. A fresh target to distract your killer.”
D.D. frowned, turned it over. “But how? If we assume the killer is someone from childhood who knew the trio, the murderer will know it’s false.”
“You need to be the fourth friend.”
“The person who initiates the Facebook page. Position yourself as a person of honor and ownership of Jackie and Randi. You met them in college maybe. First Jackie, then Randi, then Charlie. You all hung out together in Boston. You love them, you grieve for them, and now you’ve appointed yourself memory keeper. If your theory is correct, and the killer is a social outsider, that alone will aggravate her. She murdered Jackie and Randi so that they would belong to her. And now in death, you’re taking them back. You’re claiming their memory. Colloquially speaking, that should piss her off.”
“I like it,” D.D. said.
“Killing is about power. So you must interrupt the power equation, deliberately provoking and threatening the authority of the killer. She’s not in control. You are. In fact, you are the best friend Jackie and Randi ever had, because you will keep them alive forever. Your love, your power, is greater than hers.”
“And I have better shoes,” D.D. added. “Women can’t stand that.”
Quincy’s low chuckle. “Sounds like you’re on the right track.”
“Thank you,” D.D. said honestly. “This has been very helpful.” She paused. “Can I ask you one last question?”
“By all means.”
“Could it be Charlene? She’s setting herself up as the third victim, but what if that’s just a ruse? What if she’s the perpetrator and this is how she’s covering her tracks?”
The receiver was quiet again. “I don’t know,” Quincy said at last. “That’s a complicated way to get away with murder. But one thing’s for certain-you’ll know on the twenty-second.”
J.T. AND I SHOT ROUNDS for an hour. I practiced at twenty feet, then fifty feet, then thirty yards. No long-range targets for me. For me, the challenge would be up close and personal.
When I emptied my last box of ammo, I sat on a hay bail near the fence line and worked on cleaning my gun. Snow had started, dusting my dark hair with light flakes as I hunched over my Taurus, meticulously taking it apart.
Tulip had left me for the warmth of J.T.’s house and the comfort of his wife’s company. J.T. was still shooting. He had a 150-yard target he liked to play with. Sometimes, he’d shoot happy faces, or a five-point star, maybe a heart for his wife on Valentine’s Day. I guess we all have our talents.
When my phone rang, I ignored it at first, then remembered Michael, the prepaid cell I’d slipped into the boy’s pocket on the bus, and quickly checked the display.
Not Michael, but I recognized the number. I hit answer and brought Detective D. D. Warren to my ear.
“Work last night?” she asked me.
“Sleep this morning?”
“Same as the rest of us then. Come on down. We got a plan.”
“I’m your new best friend. Literally. Meet me at police headquarters, thirty minutes. We got something to show you.”
The detective hung up. I looked up to find J.T. watching me.
“Gotta go?” he asked.
“’Kay,” he said.
I went to fetch my dog. When I returned outside with Tulip, J.T. was gone and only the scent of gunpowder lingered in the air.
“He’s not good at good-bye,” his wife, Tess, murmured behind me. She’d come out onto the covered front porch, arms crossed over her black-and-gray plaid shirt for warmth. She was younger than J.T., closer to fifty than sixty, with silver strands liberally sprinkling her pale blond hair. In faded jeans and fleece-lined slippers, with her hair pulled loosely back to reveal a delicately boned face, she wasn’t a beautiful woman, but striking. She had a way of looking at me that reminded me of J.T. They didn’t just look, they saw, and they trusted in their ability to handle what they’d seen. The two of them fit each other perfectly.
I peered out at the empty shooting range. “I know how he feels,” I said.
Tess came to stand beside me. “I told him he should stay with you, on Saturday the twenty-first. Just in case.”
“And he said that’s what you would say.”
“Have you ever been hit?” I asked her abruptly.
“Did you take it, or did you fight back?”
“Both. People change. Kids grow up.”
“J.T. says I have to get my mother out of my head.”
“He’s smart like that.”
“But I don’t know how.”
“Do you hate her?” Tess sounded genuinely curious.
I had to think about it. “I don’t know. I avoid her. Don’t think, don’t remember. Then, I don’t have to feel.”
“That’s your problem then.”
“Denial? But it’s a personal strength of mine.”
“If you believe you’re honestly going to die on Saturday, Charlie, if you believe you’re honestly going to have to fight for your life, you should feel something about that.”
“I’m pissed off,” I offered.
“It’s a start. There’s no right answer. I forgave my father. J.T., on the other hand, will probably never stop hating his.”
That surprised me, but I didn’t say anything.
“I don’t like to hate,” Tess said simply. “Not my father, not my ex-husband. I held on to the rage as long as I needed it to do what I needed to do. Then, I let it go. I look at my children. I feel how much I love them. I feel how much they love me. And that makes me feel better instead.”
“I love my dog,” I said, automatically bending to pat Tulip’s head. “And she’s not even my dog.”
“Sounds like a country-western song. You’re welcome to stay here, Charlie, for as long as you need.”
I nodded, then straightened, adjusting my messenger bag, fiddling with my grip on Tulip’s leash. “Good-bye, Tess,” I said.
She wasn’t surprised. “Good-bye, Charlie.”
Tulip and I stepped off the front porch, and even though Tulip whined a little, neither of us looked back.
IT TOOK TULIP AND ME twenty minutes to walk through the light snowfall to an area busy enough to hail a cab. Then another twenty minutes for the cab to deliver us to the BPD headquarters in Roxbury. The driver wasn’t happy to transport a dog, so I had to tip him five bucks extra, and that quickly, I was broke.
Let me tell you, a girl doesn’t work police dispatch for the money.
I thought of Officer Mackereth, felt myself flush, and reminded myself sternly I didn’t work at police dispatch for that either.
To enter HQ, I had to go through security. The first officer, a mountain of a black man, got a little excited about my. 22. I showed my license to carry, but he remained skeptical. Leave it to Massachusetts to create a gun policy so paranoid that even when you took the proper legal steps no one believed you.
Of course, I’m not sure what legal steps were taken to secure my gun permit. J.T. had done it for me, given the stringent standards. Probably called in a few favors. I never asked, unanswered questions being the whole key to my relationships.
“What do you do for a living?” the BPD officer asked me now.
“Comm officer, Grovesnor PD.”
“Oh.” His massive shoulders came down. He gave me a grudging measure of respect. Officers liked dispatch operators. We took care of them, and they knew it.
He kept my gun, handing me a tag. “You can claim it on your way out. Same with the dog.”
“You can’t take my dog.”
Officer Beefy got puffy again. “Honey, my house, my rules.” He jerked his thumb toward the glass door. “Dog goes outside; say pretty please, and I’ll keep an eye on it.”
Having now gone twenty-four hours without sleep, I didn’t take this news well.
“Look, your detective invited me here,” I informed him, beyond caring if he was three times my height and four times my weight. “This is my dog, and I’m not tying her outside in this weather or in this neighborhood. If Sergeant Detective D. D. Warren wants to see me, then she gets both of us. That’s the deal.”
“Sergeant Detective D. D. Warren?” The officer’s dark face broke into a broad grin. “Ha, good luck with that.” He motioned to the desk sergeant, sitting on the other side of the security scanner, “Got a visitor, with dog, for Detective Warren.”
“With dog?” the desk sergeant called back.
“She sniffs out doughnuts,” I informed the sergeant. “Took years of training.”
“Sounds like a Detective Warren dog,” the sergeant drawled. Tulip and I were finally allowed into the lobby, where we roamed the enormous glass-and-steel space while waiting for our date to arrive.
Urban police stations should be dingy, with yellow-stained drop ceilings and tiny barred windows, I thought crabbily. Not modern art monstrosities, boasting cavernous lobbies filled with glass and gray winter sky, let alone the wafting odor of coffee and fresh baked goods. Rather helplessly, Tulip and I followed the tempting scents to the open doors of the building’s cafeteria. I hadn’t eaten in twelve hours, and neither had Tulip, but being out of cash limited our options. As it was, Tulip and I would have to muscle our way onto the T if we wanted to get home.
D. D. Warren finally appeared at the other end of the lobby. I recognized her by the bounce in her curly blond hair and the laserlike quality of her crystalline blue eyes. She spotted me, then Tulip, and zeroed in.
“What happened to you?” she demanded. Guess I was starting to bruise.
“Aren’t you supposed to wear gloves?” She pointed to my hands, where the knuckles on both pinky fingers had turned bright purple.
“I will remind my attacker of that on the twenty-first,” I assured her.
“And the bruises around your neck?”
“Hey, you should see the other guy.”
“Legally speaking, I’m not sure you want that.”
She stared at me a minute longer, as if trying to figure out just what kind of crazy she was dealing with today.
Then she surprised me. “Nice dog.” She held out her hand for Tulip. “I like dogs for women. One of the best lines of self-defense. Better than guns. Guns can be taken and used against you. Not a good dog.”
I shook my head. Should’ve known the detective would have a point.
“I don’t plan on having Tulip around on the twenty-first,” I informed D.D. “I’m sending her to live with my aunt.”
“Then you’re an idiot.”
“I prefer the term responsible adult.”
“Idiot,” Detective Warren said again.
“Are we done yet?”
“I don’t know. I find that now that I have a newborn, I appreciate adult conversation more. Want coffee?”
She eyed me, eyed my dog. I categorized D. D. Warren along with J. T. Dillon and his wife, Tess; like them, D.D. didn’t just look, she saw.
“Come on, my treat.”
Tulip and I followed D.D. into the cafeteria. I selected a roasted chicken sandwich for me, bread and cheese for Tulip. Then I added two cookies, a bag of chips, a cup of coffee, and a bottle of water. The detective didn’t say a word, just paid the bill.
She led us back to the desk sergeant, who gave me another look, then handed the detective my tagged. 22.
“She had this in her bag. Licensed to carry,” he informed her.
“Tattletale,” I mouthed at him.
D.D. glanced at me.
“Nothing,” I said.
She sniffed my gun. “Recently cleaned.”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Why am I helping you again?”
“I pay taxes.”
“In that case…” D.D. handed the desk sergeant my beautiful nickel-plated Taurus with its rich rosewood grip. “It’s legal, so when she’s on her way out, she can have it back.”
The desk sergeant took my gun, handed me a visitor’s pass. I snubbed my nose at him.
It’s possible I’d gone a little too long without sleep.
We went upstairs to the homicide unit, where D.D. turned on her computer and I stopped breathing for the second time that day.
RANDI’S PICTURE CAME UP FIRST. Her beautiful wheat blond hair blown out straight, one side tucked behind her right ear, long bangs swinging gracefully down the other side, drawing attention to huge, doe brown eyes. She was sitting next to a planter of pink petunias, maybe on her front porch in Providence, because I didn’t recognize the backdrop. But I felt the weight of her large, soft smile. The familiar gesture of her fingertips, brushing across the strand of pearls above the neckline of a dove gray cashmere sweater.
Her grandmother’s pearls, gifted to her on her sixteenth birthday by her parents. Jackie and I had oohed and ahhed over them. We weren’t pearl people, but we understood how much Randi loved them. We knew that she’d wear them every day, whether entertaining or gardening or grocery shopping, and look perfect doing so. And if Jackie was jealous her best friend had received such an extravagant necklace, she didn’t show it. And if I was jealous my best friend had inherited a family piece from a grandmother who’d known and loved her, I didn’t show it. We were happy she was happy.
Randi had glowed that day. She’d opened that box, and her normally quiet face lit up until she appeared even more lustrous than the pearls.
I couldn’t help it. I reached out. Touched the image on the flat monitor, as if I could still feel the warmth of my friend’s skin, feel the indent of her dimple, hear her call my name.
Charlie, Charlie, Charlie! Look at this! Can you believe it? My grandmother’s pearls. Oh, Charlie. Aren’t they beautiful?
The words came out before I could stop them. “I failed her.”
D. D. Warren was watching me. Looking and seeing. “Why do you say that?”
“I was the glue. That was my job. Jackie organized us, Randi energized us, and I…I held us together. Through petty fights and minor squabbles and all the ways three girls can become two against one. We were better together. I appreciated that. So it was my job to keep us on track, reminding us even when it was difficult that three was better than two which was better than one. Except then we turned eighteen and drifted apart.”
“Why?” D.D. asked the question flatly. As if she already understood the answer mattered, was the real reason I now couldn’t let my friends go.
I took my eyes off my friend’s picture. I studied the detective and I started to understand the real meaning of being tough. The trait shared by Detective Warren and my firearms instructor J.T. and his wife, Tess.
They looked at life without blinders. They had the confidence to not dodge the blow, but stand there and take the hit.
“I was embarrassed,” I told the detective quietly. “I let us fall apart, because I didn’t just love Jackie and Randi, I knew that I loved them more than they loved me. So I never told them about my mother. If I had, then maybe Randi would’ve told us about her abusive husband. And Jackie and I would’ve helped her and we would’ve stood together, instead of scattering and dying apart. But I couldn’t tell them about my mom. I loved them so much, I couldn’t risk them thinking less of me.”
Detective Warren leaned forward, peered at me intently. “What should you have told them about your mother, Charlene?”
I held up my left hand. The fresh boxing bruises stood out starkly, bright purple kisses on the webbing between some of my fingers. But there were other markings as well, a patchwork of thin white scars zigzagging across my skin. They became more obvious in the summer, when I had a tan, than during the winter when, like most New Englanders, my skin was bone white. But I knew D.D. would spot the pale, spidery lines.
I murmured, “I think other people’s mothers don’t break bottles over the back of their little girls’ hands, so they can take their children to the emergency room and have the cute male intern tweeze out the broken glass. I think other people’s mothers don’t hold a hot iron to their daughters’ fingertips, so they can return to the same ER three days later, when the cute male intern said he’d be working again.”
“How old were you?”
“Young enough to go along, old enough to know better.”
“And this was in New Hampshire?”
“Upstate New York. That’s where I lived before my mother died. At which time, Social Services tracked down my aunt and asked her to take me. That’s how I met Jackie and Randi, first day of school. We sat side by side. And just like that, we were best friends. We did everything together-played, studied, worked, rebelled. Except then we turned eighteen, and they had dreams and I didn’t. So I let them go. And I didn’t call or check up or be the kind of friend I should’ve been, because I didn’t want them to know just how much I missed them. I was embarrassed, that all these years later I still loved them more than they loved me. And now…And now…”
I couldn’t get the words out. I just sat there and touched the digital image of my best friend who I’d never see again.
I should’ve told Randi everything. I should’ve told Jackie. I’d hoarded my secrets as a child, then Jackie and Randi had hoarded their secrets as adults. Randi had never told us about her abusive husband. And Jackie never confided in us that she was gay. I only learned that during the police investigation, when Pierce Quincy, the profiler Jackie had hired, let it drop, and I’d sat there stone-faced, willing no expression to show, because of course I would know such a thing about my best friend. Of course one best friend would feel comfortable enough to share such a personal revelation with another best friend.
The thin white scars on the back of my hand were the least of my concerns. It was the internal wounds that hurt me. My world had always been too small, first just me and my mother, then me and my aunt, then Randi Jackie Charlie. I’d always had too little. I’d always loved too hard. And I’d always lost too much.
Baby, crying down the hall.
I guess I’d had her, too, a baby I’d known I needed to protect. But I hadn’t, and now, I couldn’t even remember her name. So much for life without blinders. Twenty-eight years old and still taking daily dips in denial.
I didn’t want to be at police headquarters anymore. I wanted to go home to the mountains. I wanted to walk into my aunt’s house, throw my arms around her, and cry like a child.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I loved them and I failed and I just can’t do it anymore. It is too hard to walk through this life alone.
There was a knock on the door. Detective Warren and I both looked up. A woman stood in the doorway, wearing a cinnamon red sweater that showed off wavy locks of stunning reddish brown hair and an even more stunningly curved figure. A TV show cop, I thought instantly. The kind that solved the case, won the male lead, and celebrated both events with a new pair of Jimmy Choos.
I looked down at my nearly flat chest, then fingered my plain brown hair yanked back into a plain brown ponytail, and immediately felt self-conscious.
“Show her?” asked the woman.
“Just started. Come in. Detective O, this is Charlene Grant. Charlene, Detective O. She set up the page, being our resident Facebook expert.”
Detective O and I shook hands. She appeared to be about my age, which surprised me. Then I peered into her brown eyes and met a gaze as flat and frank as D. D. Warren’s. Cop eyes. Must be one of the requirements to graduate from the academy.
“Nice dog,” she said. She peered under the desk, where Tulip was curled up asleep.
“Not my dog,” I said automatically.
The detective stared at me, then at D.D.
“Not my dog either,” D.D. said.
“Well, that explains it.” O propped one hip against the desk. The office wasn’t big; we were now all crowded in, me sandwiched between two hard-edged Boston cops with better wardrobes and bigger guns. Somehow, I didn’t think that was accidental.
“What do you think?” the new detective gestured to the computer screen, voice brusque.
Detective O glanced at D.D. again.
“Haven’t gotten there yet,” D.D. said by way of explanation. “It’s your baby, so why don’t you do the honors.”
“All right,” Detective O began. “So…Saturday, the twenty-first, will be the second anniversary of Randi Menke’s murder in Providence.”
I flinched, said nothing.
“And the first anniversary of Jackie Knowles’s murder in Atlanta. Given the pivotal date, we thought we’d set up a Facebook page in honor of both victims and see if we can provoke a response.”
“Jackie and Randi must have had other friends and acquaintances before you moved into town,” D.D. spoke up. “Did your arrival upset any of these relationships? Maybe displace another girl, create competition, social rivalry?”
I regarded her blankly. “I don’t know. We were eight. I’m not sure I was aware of social rivalries when I was eight.”
“What about as you grew up? You girls became the three musketeers. How did other girls take it?”
I still didn’t understand. “We weren’t mean. At least, I didn’t think of us that way. We weren’t bullies or anything. We just…played together.”
“What if other girls wanted to play?” Detective O asked curtly. “Would you let them?” There was a tone to her voice, almost an accusation. I found myself leaning away. Maybe it was a tactic she often used with subjects, but clearly she’d already found me guilty.
“You mean like in grade school?” I ventured. “Because I have vague memories of jumping rope and playing freeze tag, but lots of kids were doing it, not just us three.”
Detective Warren spoke up. “Let’s try high school. By the time ‘Randi Jackie Charlie’ hit high school, what was the social landscape like? Were you always together, or did you have other friends, other hobbies, sports, after school activities?”
“We weren’t always together. We had different class schedules, of course. And different extracurricular activities. Jackie was active with the debate team, soccer team, and the alpine ski team. Randi was into figure skating and home arts. I did cross-country skiing in the winter, but spent most of my time helping my aunt with her B &B.”
“So you had other friends?” D.D. prodded.
“I guess. There were over a hundred and fifty kids in our class, so we definitely knew more than just each other.”
“Let’s start with Randi.” Detective O took over the conversation again, brown gaze probing. “When she wasn’t with you and Jackie, who were her friends?”
I had to think about it, delve back ten years, and the minute I tried, I could practically hear Jackie’s voice in my head, laughing at my terrible memory. Me, of all people, the cops needed me to remember. “There was this girl…Sandra, Cynthia, Sandy…Becca, her name was Becca. She ice skated, too, I think. And maybe a Felicity? Artsy, like Randi. I think.”
“Did you like them?”
I shrugged. “I think so?”
“They like you?”
I shrugged again, feeling even more self-conscious. “We would say hi to each other in the halls.” Probably. “Why? What are you looking for?”
“The fourth girl,” Detective Warren said. “The girl who wanted to be friends, too, but none of you let her in. We have reason to believe she’s still out there, and she’s really pissed off.”
IT TOOK A BIT. We had to pour through my high school memories, which was a challenge at best. I know some people can tell you the name of the cat they had when they were four, but I wasn’t one of them. I simply don’t remember things well. Not good things, not bad things. Not twenty years ago, not twenty days ago. If memory was a muscle, then mine had been purposefully atrophied through consistent lack of use.
Plus, Detective O rattled me. The way she asked questions, then scrutinized my answers as if she already knew I had something to hide. I felt simultaneously guilty and remorseful. She was disappointed in me. I was failing her; I should remember faster, answer better, confess all.
Good cop, bad cop, it occurred to me. Both detectives were playing me expertly, but all they had to show for it was a very tired, increasingly confused witness, who honestly didn’t recollect her childhood.
Finally, we Googled my high school, and found an archive with digital copies of old yearbooks.
With a bit of effort, I was able to identify a dozen girls that floated around our trio, some friends of Randi, some friends of Jackie. None were friends of mine. Even reviewing pictures of my Nordic ski team, I didn’t recognize half of the girls’ pictures, couldn’t provide their names.
My world really had been Randi and Jackie. Away from them, I passed the time. With them, the world started spinning again.
I wondered if they would’ve said the same. Had they really enjoyed spending all their weekends helping out at my aunt’s B &B? Were they really excited to take my call at ten o’clock at night because I’d thought of one last thing to say?
Maybe I wasn’t the glue that held us together. Maybe I’d been the anchor around their necks. And that’s why we’d drifted apart when we turned eighteen. They’d been happy to finally get away from me.
The detectives took down names and background info. They wanted personal information on Randi, things only a good friend would know about Jackie. Nicknames, favorite expressions, songs, movies, TV shows, childhood pets.
I could answer all of their questions. I tried to tell myself that meant something. I hadn’t just loved my friends. I’d known them. I’d listened, I’d understood, I’d cared.
Jackie and Randi, I’d remembered.
But it became increasingly difficult to bolster my flagging spirits as the detectives turned my childhood relationships upside down and inside out, leaving me feeling emptier and emptier. As if Randi Jackie Charlie hadn’t been the best part of my life, but maybe just a very unhealthy friendship fostered by an overly needy girl in order to compensate for her mother’s destructive love.
The detectives muttered among themselves, took notes, asked questions, opened more Internet pages and launched more Google and Facebook searches.
I stopped sitting and paced the tiny confines of the office instead.
Detective D. D. Warren had framed certificates on the wall. Apparently she had a degree in criminal justice and lots of advanced training in various firearms and forensic courses. The frames were slightly askew, so I straightened them up. They were dusty as well, so I took a napkin and polished them up.
What I needed was Windex to polish the glass. Without thinking, I turned to ask, and found two sets of eyes staring at me. The detectives’ gazes went from the straightened frames to me to the straightened frames again.
“Neat freak much?” Detective Warren drawled.
“Only when I’m nervous.”
“How often are you nervous?”
“Every day of the past year.”
The detectives exchanged glances.
“You went to a public school?” Detective Warren prodded.
“Who has neater handwriting? You, Jackie, or Randi?”
“I don’t know. Randi had a thing for drawing little hearts over her i’s. Does that count?”
“What about print?”
“Me probably.” I shrugged. “But only because Randi preferred cursive, and Jackie had terrible handwriting, all cramped and rushed. It didn’t do any good to pass notes with her in class-we could never read what she wrote.”
“Wrote like a doctor,” D.D. said amiably.
“Do you listen to the police scanner when you’re off duty?” she asked abruptly.
The change in topic confused me. “What? Sometimes. Why?”
“Just thinking, in your line of work, you must like to keep your finger on the pulse of the city. And the things you must hear, the things you must know, being police dispatch and all.”
“You’re dispatch?” Detective O spoke up, finally sounding impressed. She looked me up and down, as if reassessing. “Tough job. I got a friend who does it. Kids are the toughest calls, she says. So much shit going on out there, and so little you can do to help them.”
“Does it make you mad?” she continued conversationally. “Because I’m a sex crimes detective and it makes me furious. I mean, the number of perverts out there, and the things they can get away with, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Most kids are too terrified to come forward, and even if they do, system puts them through the wringer. You must hate that. Taking those calls while already knowing that even if the officer shows up and an arrest is made, it’s still gonna end badly for the kid. Just the way it is.”
“It’s best not to get personally involved,” I said. I had stepped away from both of them. I wondered if they had noticed; figured they had. I found it interesting that while their bad cop routine had rattled me, the good cop routine had me genuinely fearful and ready to exit stage left.
“Look,” D.D. said briskly, waving her hand toward the computer monitor and their pile of notes. “This is a lot of information we’re plowing through in a short time. Why don’t you write down any other names we should consider, no matter how inconsequential, then you can head out. We’ll be in touch if we have any more questions.”
She handed me a sheet of paper, a pen. Then she picked up a stack of files, clearing a space on top of a gunmetal gray filing cabinet for me to use. “There you go. And while you’re at it, write down the full names of your parents and your aunt.”
“Why my parents?”
“My mother’s dead. My father’s not part of my life. Don’t think it’s relevant.”
The good detective wasn’t going to let me off that easy. “Didn’t you come to me for help?”
I looked at her.
“You were standing outside my crime scene,” she continued, and this time there was an edge of challenge in her voice. “You said you were there because you Googled me. Though, now that I think about it, you never approached me. You were walking away. I ran you down.”
“I wasn’t going to approach you.”
“But you said-”
“I just wanted to see you. I wasn’t, I didn’t,” I waved my hand around her office defensively. “I never expected any of this. You’re my precaution built into a precaution. I figured I’d write you a letter, provide details on my own case. That way, if I didn’t get it done on the twenty-first, you’d have a better shot at finally catching the guy on the twenty-second. You’d provide justice for my aunt, closure for Randi and Jackie’s families. I wasn’t researching you for me. I was studying you for them.”
D.D. narrowed her eyes. “Two of your friends have been murdered,” she stated bluntly. “You believe you will be the third.”
“So you’ve left behind your home, the people who know you. You’re hiding out in the big city, no registered phone or utilities. You have no computer, no e-mail, no Internet footprint to trace. But you’ve kept your name.”
I had my chin up. “Can’t change everything.”
“You’re training, boxing, running, shooting. Preparing to make your last stand. But you’re going to send the dog away.”
“And maybe you looked me up, but it was never with the mind-set of asking for help before the twenty-first. Not to mention, you’re a woman with a target on your back who hasn’t asked her own officers for assistance.”
I didn’t say anything, just returned her steely blue stare.
“Can’t figure you out, Charlene,” she drawled at last. “You trying to live January twenty-one? Or are you trying to die?”
“I don’t want to die.”
“But do you want to live?”
I remained silent. D.D.’s gaze dropped to my scarred hand, and in those fine white lines, I figured she read the answer.
Earlier today, Tess had said that adults could change, that children grew up. But some things in life were very hard to transform. For example, taking the little girl who’d once stood there passively while her mother ironed her fingertips and training her how to throw a punch. Or taking the same little girl, who’d willfully chewed and swallowed a shattered lightbulb, and teaching her how to pull the trigger.
I was trying to move forward. Some days were certainly better than others. But in the end, I’d only had 363 days as a fighter. I’d experienced far more as the victim, the child who did whatever her mother wanted her to do, because that was the price of love, and that little girl had lived too little and loved too hard and lost too much.
“Names please,” Detective Warren said, and gestured to the blank piece of paper.
I took my time, mostly because my hands were shaking. I formed each letter carefully, wanting the result to be neat and legible. I wrote two names, following an instinct I couldn’t explain, but that felt right.
I took one last moment, to study my carefully printed letters.
Then, I handed over the piece of paper.
I collected my dog.
I collected my gun.
Three P.M. Thursday afternoon. Fifty-three hours and counting.
Tulip and I headed out into the city’s stark, snow-frosted landscape.
DETECTIVE O WAITED until Charlene had exited the homicide unit, then she returned to D.D.’s office, closed the door, and collapsed in the desk chair across from her.
“Could we really be that lucky?” she asked, her voice incredulous. “I mean, is it just me, or is Charlene Grant a perfect fit for our shooter?”
“Don’t know if it’s luck,” D.D. mused, frowning. “Remember, I first encountered her outside the second homicide. When I ran her down, she claimed she was checking me out to handle her own case. But maybe that was just fast thinking on her part. She offered up her own troubled history to distract me from the fact she was loitering outside an active crime scene.”
“What’s with her hands and throat? Looks like she’s been mugged-”
“So she really thinks someone will try to kill her on the twenty-first?”
“Randi Menke and Jackie Knowles really are dead.”
Detective O paused. Then her eyes widened. “Motivation. Think about it. Charlene’s police dispatch. She takes the calls, she hears these kids. Maybe she wants to help them, but she’s not sure how. In the meantime, she’s boxing, shooting-”
“And, even more importantly, counting down to her own death. Meaning, at a certain point, what does she have to lose?”
D.D. stilled, regarded the other detective. “Charlene decides to do something with the limited time she feels she has left. Maybe right some past wrongs, given a history of child abuse.”
“She’s saving other kids,” O continued. “Doing what she no doubt wishes someone had done for her, when she was that age, and Mommy Dearest was pulling out the insulin.”
“Oh, other case I worked. Evil stepfather, actually. A diabetic. Came up with the idea to inject his beautiful twin stepdaughters with insulin. Their blood sugar would crash, rendering them semi-comatose, he’d do what he was going to do, then squirt spray cans of frosting into their mouths to bring their blood sugar back up. Later, after he’d perfected his technique, he’d leave cans of frosting out on the counter just to mess with their heads.”
D.D. stared at her. “Your job sucks.”
“No,” the young detective said seriously. “The cases suck. My job, putting evil stepfather away for twenty years and ensuring those little girls will never be hurt again, pretty much fucking rocks. Which you, of all people, I’d think would understand.”
“Touché. So, back to the matters at hand. Motivation. Means. Opportunity. Yeah, Charlie looks pretty good as a vigilante killer right now.” D.D. glanced down at the piece of paper in her hand, unfolding it and holding it out to Detective O. “Handwriting, however, is not a perfect match.”
“No flat edge,” O agreed, taking the paper. “Then again, she had to execute her penmanship with both of us watching. Girl’s not stupid. If she did write the other notes, you’d think she’d take some steps to make her handwriting look different.”
“She wrote in print here, not cursive like the notes, but check it out, the letters are neat in appearance, carefully formed.” D.D. turned toward one stack of paperwork on her desk. She couldn’t help glancing at her watch, simultaneously aware of the amount of work she still had to do and of her parents’ flight landing in a matter of hours. She rifled through the pile of papers until she found what she was looking for, scanned copies of both notes left at the shootings.
Everyone has to die sometime. Be brave.
She pulled the copies, placing them on the blue-gray carpeted floor between her and O. O positioned Charlene’s recent writing exhibit between the other two sheets, and both peered down.
“Rosalind Grant,” O read. “Carter Grant. Who are they?”
“Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant,” D.D. recited Charlene’s full name. “Maybe her middle names are in honor of her mother and father?”
“I thought she wasn’t going to give us her parents’ names.”
“Must be my charm.”
“Look at the n,” Detective O said after another minute. “First in the note writer’s cursive ‘everyone’ then in Charlie’s printed ‘Grant.’ Looks similar to me.”
D.D. shrugged. “Looks like an n.”
“Top arch is nice and round. The lines going up the left side of the letter and down the right side are almost exactly parallel. You write an n. See how rounded your top is and how perfectly parallel your sides are.”
For the sake of argument, D.D. gave it a try, first in cursive, then in print. Either way, her n looked dreadful. Like an upside down v. No neatly arched top, no nicely parallel sides, just a tiny, shuttered-up scrawl.
“You write like a doctor,” O declared.
“In my family, that’s a compliment.” D.D. automatically snuck a glance at her watch again. “Okay, Charlene’s n is certainly closer to the note writer’s n than mine. Now, if only those were grounds for arrest.”
“You could have the handwriting expert write up an analysis-”
“Which he’s already said won’t be admissible in court, given that graphology is considered a pseudoscience.”
“This isn’t graphology. Theorizing that the letter writer is anal-retentive is graphology. This is straightforward forensic analysis of penmanship, author of letter A most likely also wrote exhibit B.”
“But he needs multiple exhibits. Still,” D.D. amended herself, “I’ll make a copy of Charlene’s names, get him started. Might take a couple of days, however, for him to do his thing. In the meantime, we need something more tangible.”
“A smoking gun.”
“Which ironically, we just handed back to her.”
“Her twenty-two. We had it in custody downstairs.”
“Really. But still can’t run a ballistics test without probable cause. I tell you those constitutional rights are making our job more difficult every day.” D.D. continued to stare down at the notes, frowning.
Rosalind Grant. Carter Grant. Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant.
Why those names? What was Charlene trying to say?
“I like her,” she murmured. “Who knew, but I actually like the girl, and would prefer not to arrest her for murder.”
Detective O sat back, steepling her hands in front of her. “Want to hand over the case? I could take the lead.”
D.D. nearly laughed. “What, don’t they keep you busy enough in sex crimes? First you want on the case, now you want to lead it.”
“I take my responsibilities seriously.”
“And I’m a slacker?”
“Well…you have other obligations now.”
“Is that the politically correct way of saying I’m a working mom?”
“Fact of life: Baby’s gotta get picked up when the baby’s gotta get picked up.”
“Another fact of life: The trick to this job isn’t working hard, it’s working smart.”
“Is that a politically correct way of saying I’m not as experienced as you?”
Detective O opened her mouth. Detective O closed her mouth.
“Touché,” she said at last.
“Let’s review.” D.D. forced her gaze off the wall clock and back on her upstart new partner. “Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant. Obviously knows where the second victim, Stephen Laurent, lives, as I found her in the neighborhood. Has a permit for a twenty-two, same caliber as the murder weapon, and has stated she can hit a bull’s-eye at fifty feet.”
“Physically fit,” O supplied. “Also tiny, nonthreatening. If a pedophile opened his door to her, he wouldn’t automatically assume the worst.”
“Relatively young,” D.D. continued. “And with an almost childlike build. Even more reason for perverts not to slam the door right away.”
“She would have ability to research pedophiles through her police dispatch job. Maybe hear about them on the scanner or via incoming calls, but also, she can log on to police databases, registered sex offender lists.”
“Access to information would not be a problem,” D.D. agreed.
“And in terms of the profile developed by the graphologist-”
“Our daily dose of quack.”
“She fits the requirements of being anal-retentive.”
“Though I appreciate the help with my pictures.”
“Definitely a bit of a control freak. What’s the deal with the hair anyway? She’s not just wearing a ponytail, she’s basically seized the strands in a choke hold. And none shall ever escape.”
“Very controlled hairdo, but very sloppy clothing. Oversized, baggy. Maybe her way of trying to look larger and tougher than she really is?”
“Pretty blue eyes,” O commented. “Hair down, better clothes, she could talk her way into most men’s apartments, pedophiles or not.”
“But would she leave the puppy?” D.D. asked.
“In Stephen Laurent’s apartment. The killer left a young puppy to fend for itself. It’s one thing to kill a suspected pervert. It’s another to abandon a puppy without food or water. Charlene must have some sympathy for dogs, as it appears she’s adopted a street mutt. So would she leave the puppy behind?”
“Calculated gamble. Odds are the victim’s body will be found soon versus later, and the puppy rescued.”
“Possible,” D.D. said, but the detail bothered her. Felt not as right to her as the other variables.
“She suffered abuse as a kid,” O continued, “making it easy for her to identify with the victims.”
“She also feels powerless,” D.D. filled in. “Both of her friends have been murdered, the police have no answers, she’s convinced she’ll be the next one to die. She’s trying to prepare, but mostly, she’s waiting. Someone is about to kill her, and there’s not a thing she can do about that.”
“Whereas attacking pedophiles…”
“Would make her feel powerful. Now she’s the one in control, taking charge, righting wrongs. Pulling the trigger probably beats Xanax for anxiety reduction, that’s for sure.”
“Unless she’s the one who murdered her friends,” O pointed out.
O studied her. “But you don’t think so.”
D.D. shrugged, tried to put her thought, which was really more of an instinct, into words. “As a former profiler explained to me just this morning, two murders don’t provide enough data points for thorough analysis. Who knows if Charlene is really a target, or if there will even be another murder on the twenty-first. But I believe Charlene believes it. Because of the marks on her knuckles and the fingerprints bruising her neck. She’s training that hard. She’s willing to be attacked and pummeled and choked, because she believes that’s what she needs to do in order to survive January twenty-one.”
“And assuming she believes she really will die in a matter of days…”
“Then she has some incentive to color outside the legal lines.”
“Exact vengeance for young, powerless victims everywhere.”
D.D. nodded. She looked up at O. “One thing’s for certain.”
“If it really is Charlene Grant, she only has two days left. Given she’s probably cleared her calendar for the twenty-first, that means sometime in the next twenty-four hours…”
“Another pervert will bite the dust.”
“With the twenty-two semiauto we just returned to her.”
FOUR THIRTY P.M. Sky was already dark, snow drifted lazily outside the apartment window, and Jesse was nearly frantic.
He’d been asking to go to the Boston Public Library for, like, the whole afternoon. He’d wanted to take a bus after school, but his mother had said no. She didn’t want him on the bus in this weather, meaning there were, like, six snowflakes on the sidewalk and now the whole world had to grind to a halt.
When he’d begged and pleaded and nearly cried with frustration, she’d finally said she’d take him at four, when she got off the phone, because she had some school research she needed to do. Plus, Jesse had said they were studying libraries at school and he was supposed to write three sentences on his favorite library, which is why he needed to go. So they would ride the subway together, to the central branch of the Boston Public Library, then maybe have dinner at the food court in the Pru Center. A big night out, said his mom.
She’d looked happy about that. A little excited, planning their evening adventure, and that had made Jesse feel bad ’cause he was lying. But he wasn’t lying too much. He really would write three sentences and they could go to dinner in the mall, but first he really, really, really needed to meet Pink Poodle and learn how to hit a curveball.
At 3:55, he put on his big fat winter coat, then a fresh pair of dry socks, then his boots, his hat and gloves. By 3:59 he was standing next to the door, poofed out three times his natural size, clutching Zombie Bear, and ready to go.
Except his mother hadn’t gotten off the phone.
She was talking and talking and talking (“Just a minute, Jesse!” “Jesse, shhh!” “Interrupt me one more time, young man, and no library!”)
Jesse was now too hot. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck and he hopped from foot to foot because he had to pee, but he didn’t want to get unbundled, because his mother might hang up the phone any second, then it would be time to leave, and they needed to go.
He walked little circles in front of the door, spent time jumping over the piles of shoes. Jump, jump, jump, the world’s smallest obstacle course.
C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon!
Then, when he thought he couldn’t take it a second more, his mother appeared in the hallway.
“Jesse? Ready to go?”
“Ahhhhh!” he nearly screamed, then bolted for the bathroom before his bladder burst.
When he returned, still overheated, but slightly less crazed, his mother was just finishing buttoning up her coat. Without another word, he followed her down the three flights of stairs into the cold.
Jesse liked the city at night. He liked the lights everywhere, different colors and shapes that bounced off the low-hanging clouds and made the city look like a fun house. He especially liked a night like this one, when the snow was drifting down in big fat flakes, that you could catch on your tongue and feel melt into droplets of rust-flavored water.
Jesse’s mother walked briskly toward the subway stop three blocks away. Jesse darted around her, pretending he was a frost monster, powered by snow, running at the icy flakes, snapping at them with his mouth until his mother told him sharply, to stop it before he hurt himself.
Then he trotted along beside her, subdued but still happy, because they were finally going to the library and the city was all lit up and there were people everywhere, and surely that meant Pink Poodle would still be hunched over a computer in the Boston Public Library, because it was that kind of night. Cold and busy and bustling.
Zombie Bear’s bandaged head poked out of his pocket, the undead homerun hitter along for the ride.
It took forever to finally reach the main branch of the Boston Public Library, on Boylston Street. Technically it was two buildings; the historic McKim Building and the newer Johnson Building. Jesse loved the 160-year-old McKim Building, with its massive stone arches and ornate carvings and the kind of long, shadowed halls that hinted of ghosts and gargoyles. The McKim had mostly the research stuff, however-government documents, historic papers. Jesse and his mom headed for the Johnson Building instead. It was built in the seventies and, according to his mom, looked it. Jesse didn’t much care for the outside, but the inside was pretty cool. It had a special kids’ area, even a teen room.
Maybe he would need to visit the teen room. Maybe, that’s where Pinky Poo hung out. Jesse hadn’t thought of that.
He fingered Zombie Bear. Told himself he wasn’t nervous. Grabbed his mom’s hand and trotted up the steps.
In the lobby, his mother laid out the plan. She had some nursing homework to do. She walked him to the section she needed, showed him exactly where she would be. He was allowed to go to the kids’ section. He could pick some books, then he was to return right here, where he could look at his books while she finished her project. He could write up his homework, too. Then, they’d go to dinner.
Jesse nodded solemnly. They had been coming to the library since he was a baby. He knew the drill.
He kissed his mom. Maybe hugged her harder than he usually did. Then he headed down the stairs to the first-floor children’s room.
JESSE KNEW THE LIBRARY WELL. Sometimes, on rainy days, his mother would bring him here to “explore,” her library-speak for going someplace free where a young boy could run around without old Mrs. Flowers yelling about stampeding elephants.
When Jesse had turned six, he and his mother had first started separating. Partly because she’d gone to school and she had her own work to do, but also because Jesse had noticed other kids in the library without hovering moms, and decided he no longer wanted to be embarrassed by his. At first, his mother had waited outside the section. Then, bit by bit, they’d gone their separate ways.
The children’s room made a big deal about not allowing “unattended adults.” Meaning adults couldn’t just roam the section without a kid in tow. This was meant to discourage loiterers, Jesse’s mom said, as well as reduce stranger danger. It seemed to make her feel better about Jesse being in the room on his own.
There was always a librarian in charge of the kids’ section. If Jesse had any problems, or felt nervous about stranger danger, he was to approach the librarian for assistance. But Jesse had never had any problems. He loved the library. The big vast space with towering shelves and piles of books, and people who sat and read and left you alone, so you could pretend you were an explorer in the lost wilds of the Congo and at any moment a giant ape might swing out from between the narrow aisles, or an alligator snap from beneath a reading bench, or a snake unfurl from a hanging lamp.
But Jesse didn’t play explorer now. He headed for the computers in the children’s room. They sat at various little desk cubbies and all were in use. He spotted one girl, but she looked even younger than him and was playing some Dora the Explorer game, while her father stared at a cell phone beside her.
Not too many computers in the children’s room. Jesse hadn’t really thought about that. But upon more consideration, he figured Pink Poodle was older and, therefore, might be in the teen room up on the mezzanine level. He’d never been in the teen room, but the library was very proud of it. He’d seen pictures on posters, advertising a room for teens to hang out. It had crazy red gaming chairs and a big red-and-purple patterned carpet that apparently teens liked, but which made Jesse’s eyes hurt.
He found the stairs, headed up. He could do it. Just open the door and walk right in like any other kid. Of course he was in the teen room. Of course he belonged there.
Jesse made it to the door and hit the first obstacle: a sign declaring that only kids younger than eighteen and older than twelve could enter. Anyone older or younger might be asked to leave.
Maybe being asked to leave wasn’t the same as leaving, Jesse decided. He took a deep breath. Walked in.
The room was crowded. Teens and laptops and huge windows showing city lights and red chairs and crazy carpets, and Jesse got so revved up he forgot to breathe and then the whole room swam before his eyes.
He glanced around wildly, once, twice, saw girls, saw boys, saw no poodles, and hightailed it back out.
That was it. He couldn’t go into that room. He couldn’t handle it.
But what to do? How to find Pinky Poo?
It occurred to him that there were computer stations scattered all over the library. Patrons could even check out laptops, which his mom did when their ancient computer required medical care. Pink Poodle hadn’t said which computer or any particular section. Maybe she just roamed the way Jesse liked to roam, until she found an open station.
Jesse decided to give it a try. He started at the bottom of the library and worked his way up.
He had Zombie Bear out of his pocket, clutching him with both hands. It was hot or cold in the library, depending on the area. The mezzanine level definitely felt too hot, so Jesse unzipped his jacket, shoved his hat in his pocket, walking slower and slower, trying to look for a homerun-hitting girl sitting tucked away in the shadows, without looking like he was looking.
Then he saw it.
A pink poodle sitting on the corner of a computer station.
Jesse stopped. He spotted the computer user, just as the teenage boy looked up and spotted him.
THE BOY SPOKE FIRST: “Homerun Bear?”
“Pinky Poo?” Jesse sounded stupid. He shut his mouth, wished he hadn’t spoken.
But the boy laughed. “Yeah. I know.” He grinned, looked a little embarrassed. The boy had tousled brown hair, kind of shaggy, which he now brushed away from his forehead. “Swear the poodle isn’t mine,” the boy said. “Belongs to my little sister. She got it for her birthday a year ago and wanted help with some of the games. So I started messing around on the site, and…” Boy shrugged. “My sister hasn’t looked at the poodle since, but here I am. Baseball, three days a week.”
Jesse nodded, relaxing slightly, taking a step forward. “You should get a Homerun Bear,” he said seriously.
The boy laughed again. “Thought about it, but Pink Poodle has all the stats, and I don’t wanna give ’em up.” Boy stuck out his hand. “Barry. You?”
“Um…Jesse. Jesse Germaine.”
“Nice bear. What happened to him?”
Jesse held up his bandaged bear self-consciously. “Oh, um…he’s a zombie now. A homerun hitter, back from the dead.” The words felt lame the moment he said them, but the boy, Barry, laughed again.
“That’s pretty cool. Maybe I could zombie-ize Pink Poodle, too. That’d be at least a little cooler than being a sixteen-year-old boy with a pink pooch.”
“Are you playing a game now?” Jesse asked, venturing closer.
“Yep. Helmet Hippo was just online. He’s my nemesis, you know. Has one thousand and five hundred points more than me. But I’m improving my game all the time, so I’m thinking in the next month, I’ll close that gap. Pass the fucker.”
Jesse gaped for a second, caught off guard by the swear word. Then he closed his mouth, forced himself to appear relaxed again. Barry was sixteen. Sixteen-year-old boys could use those kinds of words. Jesse could use those kinds of words. He glanced around. As long as his mother never heard him.
“Are you playing baseball?” Jesse asked, standing behind Barry’s shoulder, peering at the monitor.
“Yep, seventh inning, at bat, two outs. Got Slimey Slug on my team.”
“Sorry,” Jesse said.
“Exactly. Not going well. Will take a miracle to get up to bat again.”
“Oh.” Jesse was disappointed. He wanted to learn to hit the curveball.
Barry seemed to understand. “Want to play? Come on, grab a chair. We’ll log on your bear and I’ll show you some things to do.”
Jesse scrambled to find an empty chair. He pulled it up close to Barry, shoulder to shoulder so they could both see the monitor. Then he carefully placed Zombie Bear next to Pink Poodle on the tabletop. He thought they looked good together.
Jesse glanced at his watch, realized it had been well over fifteen minutes. “I’ll be right back,” he said. Before Barry could respond, he bolted to his mother’s section, where he found her hunched over a giant book, brow furrowed as she flipped pages. Jesse exclaimed in a rush, “Sorry I’m late working with the librarian to find a new series to read can I have fifteen more minutes please?”
“What?” his mother stared up at him.
“Librarian. Helping me. Gonna find a new series to read.”
“Okay. But not too much longer. Get the first book of the series, bring it here, please.”
Jesse breathed deep, glanced at his watch again, and bolted back downstairs, where Barry had already logged off Pink Poodle and was clearly waiting for him.
“Just needed to check in,” Jesse said without thinking.
Jesse’s cheeks turned pink. “My mom,” he mumbled. “She’s doing research.”
“Okay,” Barry said, like it was no big deal. He asked Jesse his password, logged in Zombie Bear, then they were off and running. Barry used the keyboard first, showing Jesse what to do. Then Jesse would use the arrow keys and try to replicate. Sometimes, the moves were too fast. Then Barry would place his hand over Jesse’s and show him which arrow-right, left, up, or down-to hit faster. Like left, left, left, down, right.
When Jesse made a hit, Barry cheered, his voice low so others wouldn’t shush them. When he missed, Barry would mutter stuff like “Fucker,” “Shit,” “Shit on a stick,” in an even lower voice, and Jesse would giggle because he’d never heard “Shit on a stick” before and the more he thought about it, the funnier it sounded.
Then Barry’s pocket started to chime. “Jesus H. Christ,” the boy said, and Jesse’s eyes rounded into saucers.
Barry fumbled with his pocket, pulled out a phone. “Gotta go,” the older boy said.
“Oh,” Jesse said. Then, before he could help himself. “The curveball, we didn’t get to the curveball.”
“Yeah, right.” Barry was already logging off, grabbing Pink Poodle, stuffing the dog in the pocket of his oversized ski jacket. “Well, you know, come back tomorrow. We’ll do it then.”
Jesse bit his lower lip. He wanted to come back tomorrow, but it had been hard enough to come today. And given how long it had been since he’d checked in with his mom, she was probably mad at him, and then he definitely wouldn’t be allowed back in the library tomorrow. “I got…something…” Jesse mumbled. “After school.”
Barry was already standing, pushing the chair. “Next day then.”
“Look, kid, I gotta go.”
Jesse couldn’t think of what to say. Just stared up at the older boy.
“Okay, okay, okay,” Barry said at last. “Follow me, ’kay? I gotta grab a smoke. Right outside, I can light up, then I’ll show you how to log in on my phone and we’ll hit a curveball. But then I gotta go, ’kay?”
The older boy was already moving. Jesse scrambled to catch up.
Outside the air had turned frosty. Jesse could see ice particles dancing in the glow of the streetlights and feel tiny pinpricks of cold sting against his cheeks. Barry loped down the front steps, moving quickly. The teenager was tall, lanky. Walked, talked like a cool kid. Jesse bet at school, all the other students liked Barry, wanted to be like him. And here he was, with Jesse.
The boy stopped at the bottom of the library stairs, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lit one up.
He caught Jesse staring up at him. “Never smoke,” the older kid instructed. “These fuckers will kill you.”
Barry held out his phone. “I’ll show you what to do.”
Barry got Jesse logged on. They found a baseball game in progress, and Jesse waited his turn to come up to bat. Barry kept moving, so Jesse jogged along beside him. He was focused on the phone, the world of AthleteAnimalz, not paying attention.
“Gotta piss,” Barry said abruptly.
Jesse looked up. They were no longer outside the library. They were no longer on Boylston Street. “What?” He let the phone fall down to his side. For the first time, he didn’t feel so good about things. Jesse wasn’t allowed to wander alone in the big city. Jesse didn’t want to wander alone in the big city.
“Gonna piss. You know, waggle the willie, wet the snake, walk the dog.” The older boy took back his phone, started unsnapping his jeans.
Jesse looked away, nervousness growing. They seemed to be behind one of the restaurants, next to some Dumpsters. The smell hit him at the same time as his fear, and he recoiled, took a step.
“What? It’s nothing but us boys here. That a problem for you?”
Jesse shook his head, but he still didn’t look up. He was sweating. Could feel it suddenly streaking down his face, neck, the small of his back. His stomach roiled. He didn’t feel good. Couldn’t say why, but he did not feel good.
Barry had his pants down; he was holding his privates.
“Come on, Jesse. Sheesh. Just a penis; you got one, too, right?”
“I want to go home,” Jesse whispered.
Then Barry said, in a voice Jesse hadn’t heard before, “Well you should’ve thought of that about thirty minutes ago. Before you left the library with someone you’d never met before.”
Jesse looked up then. He looked straight into the eyes of Stranger Danger, and he suddenly understood everything his mother had ever told him, every mistake he’d ever made, every bad thing that was about to happen to him.
Just as another voice said, “What’cha doing, boys?”
Jesse turned around to find the woman right behind him. She had brown hair scraped back into a ponytail and the scariest blue eyes he’d ever seen. Jesse registered two things at once. She was smiling at him in a way that had him just as uncomfortable as the boy Barry did, and she was holding a gun.
She looked right at Jesse, put a finger to her lips. “Shhh.”
Then she turned to the older boy.
“What the fuck,” Barry said.
“Pink Poodle, I presume?”
“Who the hell are you?”
“Helmet Hippo. I’ve been watching you. You are a very naughty boy.”
The gun came up. The older boy stepped back.
At the last second, Jesse closed his eyes. At the last second, Jesse covered his ears.
He still heard:
“Wait, wait. What the hell. I’m just a kid-”
“Everyone dies sometime.”
“I didn’t. I never. I didn’t mean-”
“Wait! I’ll stop, I’ll change, I swear! I’m just a kid! Wait-”
A sound, somewhere between a pop and boom. Once. Twice.
Jesse counted to five. Then slowly, he opened his eyes. He saw the older boy’s feet poking out from behind the Dumpster. He saw the woman bending over those feet.
Then the woman straightened, slipped her gun into a leather bag on her hip, and turned toward Jesse.
He whimpered, stepped back.
But she merely smiled at him, extending a hand as if in greeting.
“Hello,” she said. “Have we met yet? Don’t worry. My name is Abigail.”
I DON’T REMEMBER MAKING IT HOME from BPD headquarters. I suppose Tulip and I managed the subway. In the constant stream of humanity boarding the late afternoon train, it’s easy enough to slip through, for a woman and a dog to go unnoticed.
We would’ve taken the orange line from Roxbury to Downtown Crossing, then changed to the red line for Harvard square. The transfer station at Downtown Crossing would’ve been a hot, crowded mess, filled with people already glazed over from the day’s events, moving on autopilot, just wanting to go home.
We would’ve walked twelve minutes from Harvard Square, up Garden Street past the snow-covered Cambridge Commons, left onto Concord Avenue, right at the parking lot for the Harvard College Observatory, onto Madison. Or maybe we ran. Not the best sidewalks; footing would’ve been treacherous given first the soft snowflakes, then a sharper, icier drizzle that would’ve pelted the top of our down-turned heads and turned the brick pavers at Harvard Square into a particularly slippery mess.
I don’t remember, my memory having one of its fickle moments. The price of forgetting. The ongoing cost of coping with a childhood that should’ve broken me but didn’t. I must have gone home, though. Right? Where else would I have gone from police headquarters? What else would I have done?
* * *
I SLEPT. I know that much. At a certain point, I was in my own room in my own bed, Tulip nestled beside me, back to back. I woke up once, noted the clock reading 8 P.M., and was grateful, after the past forty-eight hours, that I didn’t have work. Then my eyes closed and I had the craziest dream.
My mother was in the backyard. She had a shovel. She was digging a hole. It was dark and stormy out. Rain lashing, wind whipping. A flashlight stood upright on the ground next to her, illuminating pelting raindrops, wind-tossed debris. From time to time, the blade of the shovel would catch the faint yellow beam, wink in the light. Up, down. Up, down.
I stood at a window. It was tall for me. I was on my tippy toes so I could peer out, and I’d been watching for a while, because my toes ached and my calves burned, but I couldn’t stop looking. The wink of the spade. Up, down. Up, down.
My mother wore her favorite nightgown. It was pale yellow with tiny blue flowers and green leaves. The rain had plastered it to her skinny frame, molding wiry legs and whip-thin arms as she bent and heaved spadefuls of dirt. Her long brown hair was loose, wet hanks stuck to her hollowed out cheeks.
Up, down. Up, down.
The hole grew bigger. Not too big. Big enough.
Then, the baby, crying down the hall.
My mother heard it at the same time I did. Her head came up. The shovel stilled in her hands. She turned toward the window. She looked right at me. She smiled, her mouth a gaping black maw, and her hair suddenly turned to hissing snakes around her head.
I let go of the windowsill. I fell back. Bumped my head against a coffee table, but I didn’t cry out. I scrambled to my little feet and I began to run.
Down the hall. Baby crying.
Had to get there first.
The creak of the back door opening. My mother, stepping through the back door into the filthy little kitchen, bare, boney feet caked with mud.
Down the hall. Baby crying.
Had to get there first.
My fisted hands chugged. My little knees went up and down as fast as my mother’s spade had. Running, running, running. Hearing my panting breath, feeling my pounding chest. Running, running, running.
“Charlie,” my mother sang out behind me. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
Down the hall. Baby crying.
Had to get there first.
“Come to your mommy, Charlie. Remember Charlie…Don’t make me angry.”
Then I was there, yanking open the closet door. No crib. No bassinet. A dresser drawer, padded with blankets and placed on the floor.
Footsteps, closer. Steady. Sure.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
The wink of the shovel blade, up, down, up down, up down.
I scooped up the baby, grabbed the pile of blankets, and ran for the front door. I bolted out into the wild night. Whipping wind. Lashing rain. Thundering sky. Couldn’t notice. Couldn’t care.
“Charlie. I see you. Charlie! Don’t make me angry…”
I headed straight into the woods. Knew where I was going. Practiced this. Had known. Had to try. Had to do something. With my small little hands and my small little legs, but my big heart, nearly bursting in my chest.
“Charlie…Don’t make me angry.”
The broad-leafed tree was a dozen trunks back. Last-second pause, taking the longest blanket and using it to tie the baby in a sling against my chest. I’d practiced this before, too. Sometimes, I carried the baby around the house this way, because then she didn’t cry, and when she didn’t cry, life was better for all of us.
Blanket was wet. Baby was wet. I was wet.
My mother’s voice, not so far behind me now. “Charlie Grant, come here this minute. Charlene Grant, don’t make me angry!”
I reached for the nearest branch, low, slippery, not too big, and with determined little fists, I grabbed it with both hands and scrambled up to the first tree branch.
Moving fast and desperate. All up, no down. Tree wasn’t that big, but neither was I. If I could just keep moving, monkey-climb my way to the top…
My mother was afraid of heights. She would follow me out, she would follow us down, but she would never follow me up.
Below me, her sudden screech.
“Charlene Grant! You come down here. Right now! Do you hear me young lady? Charlene Grant you do as your mother says!”
Swinging up and up. Not looking down. Not wanting to think about the drop, the fall, the squirmy weight of the baby. Not wanting to see my mother standing below, her hands on her hips, glaring at me with her snake-like hair and black maw mouth and the shovel that would go up down, up down, up down. Forming the hole. Not too big. Big enough.
At last I ran out of branches. Had to stop, nestled in the junction, shivering uncontrollably, rain streaming down my face, one hand clinging to a branch beside my head, the other wrapped around the baby.
My mother still screamed, but the wind was now whipping her words away. From this height, she was smaller, harder to see. From this height, I didn’t have to be scared of her anymore.
Eventually she would wear herself out. Eventually she would return inside and, caked in mud and filth and leaves, curl up on the couch and fall asleep. Then I would carefully make my way back down.
I would change the baby’s diaper, wrap her in fresh blankets I’d left warming on the radiator. I’d feed her a cold bottle, sitting cross-legged on the floor with her propped on my lap.
The baby would fall asleep. Then I would return her to the nest in the hall closet, before heading back outside and refilling the tiny hole, working, just as my mother had done, by the glow of a flashlight.
If I did everything right, in the morning, there would be no sign of tonight. It would be erased, a bad dream that never happened. And my mother would wake up happy, maybe singing lightly under her breath, and she would dance around the house with me, giddy and gay, and she would kiss and hug the baby, and everything would be all right again. She would love us.
For a little bit, anyway.
I nestled deeper into the tree limbs. Felt the warmth of the baby against my chest. Hoped she felt my warmth, too, as I wrapped my other arm around her and held on tight.
“It’s okay,” I whispered to her now. “Almost done now. Almost safe.”
She was no longer crying. Instead, she stared up at me with big brown eyes.
Then her little face lit up in a giant toothless grin.
She beamed up at me, my beautiful baby sister, Abigail.
D.D. MADE IT TO THE RESTAURANT ON TIME. Alex had selected the Legal Seafood on the water, next to the Boston aquarium. It was close to the airport, offered good food and great views. D.D. knew the restaurant well, had used to walk there from her North End condo. Walking, however, was much easier than navigating the crush of rush hour traffic.
She plodded up 93, then looped through an elaborate off-ramp pattern that mostly involved sitting at red lights for three to four turns at a time.
By the time she arrived at the waterfront location, she was tense, frazzled, and pretty sure she had sweat through the blue silk blouse she’d bought the week before, in anticipation of meeting her mother.
Across from the restaurant was a public parking garage. D.D. wound her way up the levels until she was lucky enough to discover an empty space, way in the back, as far away from the stairwell as one could get. The space was marked COMPACT ONLY. She wedged her Crown Vic carefully into the narrow confines, then eased open her door.
As she stepped out of her car, the icy cold sliced through her like a knife. She went from overheated to shivering in a matter of seconds.
She should start walking, warm herself up.
She stood there instead, feeling like a little girl again, dragging her feet as she got home from school, because she had another note from her teacher in her backpack and her mother would be angry again. Worse, her mother would never say a word. She’d just thin her lips and look at her in a way D.D. knew too well.
I am a grown adult, D.D. reminded herself. A top detective, respected by cops, feared by felons.
It wasn’t working for her yet. She wanted it to, but it wasn’t working.
She thought of Alex and baby Jack instead. The way Alex was no doubt sitting patiently with her parents, easing them into their visit, encouraging them to fuss over their grandchild. The way Alex would look up when she finally walked into the restaurant. The way he would smile, instantly, genuinely, as she appeared table-side.
D.D. started walking, one black booted step in front of another as she made her way across the garage, down the stairwell, then across the snowy street until she arrived in front of the bustling restaurant.
Final deep breath. Reminding herself that a woman who worked death investigations could surely handle one dinner with her own parents.
Her hands trembled.
She went in.
ALEX AND HER PARENTS WERE SEATED in the very back, in a corner booth. It was slightly quieter back there, but still busy enough given a Thursday night at a major Boston restaurant. A waiter had performed the high chair trick-turning it over so that Jack’s car seat fit snuggly between the wooden legs. Alex sat on the right side of the booth, her parents side by side on the left.
Her mom, Patsy, sported a Florida tan, beautiful silver-blond hair, and an elegantly carved face that had obviously served as the model for D.D.’s own. She was wearing linen slacks and a sea foam green sleeveless sweater over a thin white shirt-a snow bird trying to adjust for the northern climate, but forgetting just how cold and bitter January in Boston could be. D.D.’s father, Roy, equally fit and trim, also appeared as if he’d been plucked from the golf course, wearing a navy blue sports jacket over a white-and-blue striped polo shirt.
Alex, as she’d predicted, spotted her first. He wore one of her favorite dark red cashmere sweaters over a black turtleneck. When he saw her, his blue eyes lit up, and the corners crinkled with the full force of his smile.
She faltered. She went to take a step and actually stumbled a little. Because it hit her, halfway across the extremely loud and crowded restaurant, that the most handsome man in the place belonged to her. Smiled for her. Sat patiently, with their baby and her parents, for her.
And it terrified her, because for every ounce of love she felt for him, she felt simultaneously, like a bank of black clouds across the sun, that she wasn’t worthy. That a man this handsome, accomplished, and smart belonged more to the likes of her parents than to the likes of her.
Which pissed her off all over again. All these years later, she did not want to feel that small. Maybe she hadn’t been the child her parents had wanted her to be. But she was the adult she needed to be, and that ought to be enough.
D.D. thrust up her chin and strode across the restaurant.
She arrived in front of the table. Opened her mouth to declare loudly, “Welcome Mom, howdy Dad, have a good flight?”
Just as her pager chimed to life.
ALEX SPOKE FIRST. “Everything okay?”
D.D. unclipped the pager, read the brief message. Closed her eyes. “I gotta go.”
“What?” Her mother, addressing her for the first time, already sounded strident.
“I’m sorry.” D.D. did her best to gather her wits. She leaned over, kissed her mother on the cheek, then her father. When she spoke, however, she looked at Alex, as his expression was easier to take. “Another shooting,” she informed him.
“Exactly. Near Copley, so at least I’m close.”
“I don’t understand.” D.D.’s mother again.
“I’m in the middle of a major case, a string of murders. Another just happened. I have to go.”
“But…but…you just got here.”
“Apparently, the killer didn’t get that memo.”
“D. D. Warren-”
“Mom,” D.D. held up a hand, strove for a neutral tone of voice. “I appreciate you coming up from Florida. I know it’s cold and you don’t like it here. But…This is my job. I’m not just a detective, I’m the lead investigator. Buck stops here.”
Her father took her mother’s hand, as if to calm her. “Will you be back?”
His voice had a quiver she didn’t remember hearing before. And now, as she looked closer, she saw fresh lines around his eyes, skin sagging beneath his chin, age spots on the backs of his hands. Seventy-eight, it occurred to her. Her parents were seventy-eight years old. Not ancient, but definitely getting up there, and how many more of these trips would they be able to make? How many more years would they have with her and their baby grandson?
“Probably not for dinner,” she whispered.
“So we’ll see you in the morning.”
“I could do an early breakfast, if you’d like, or maybe catch up for lunch if that’s better for you.”
“I don’t understand,” her mother interjected, still sounding disapproving. “It’s seven o’clock at night. You just got off work, now you’re going back to work, and still the best you can do is an early breakfast?”
“Welcome to Boston homicide.”
“What about Jack? You have a baby now. What about him?”
D.D. hadn’t even greeted her son yet. She’d kissed her parents, spoken to Alex, but her baby…
She bent over his car seat. Jack was asleep, oblivious to the growing drama around him. His lips were pursed into a little rosebud, his hands fisted on his blue-clothed tummy. A new bib around his neck proclaimed, “Someone in Florida loves me.”
D.D. glanced up at her parents. “That’s adorable, thank you.”
Her pager chimed again. She closed her eyes, feeling the relentless pull.
“Go,” Alex said softly. “It’s okay. I’ll handle it.”
“I owe you,” she mouthed at him, over their son’s sleeping form.
He nodded, a shade grim, so apparently her parents’ charms weren’t lost on him.
D.D. placed her lips against Jack’s forehead. She inhaled the scent of baby powder, felt the silky wisps of his hair. And for a second, she could actually agree with her mother. What was she doing, walking away from this?
“I’ll call you in the morning,” D.D. said to the table.
She walked back through the restaurant, bracing herself for the cold as well as the relentless weight of her mother’s disappointment.
AS THE CROW FLIES, Copley Square was only a hop, skip, and a jump from the waterfront. Given Boston traffic, further snarled by a wintry mix of light snow and icy sleet, it took D.D. nearly forty-five minutes to navigate the handful of miles. She didn’t bother with the legalities of parking, but pulled up on the curb right behind a string of police cruisers.
She stepped out of her car to find Detective O already waiting for her.
Whatever plans D.D. had had for the evening, O’s had obviously been better. The young detective had her dark hair piled on top of her head in a loose knot of curls. Mascara touched up her exotic eyes and deep red lipstick enhanced her lips, while beneath her long, black wool coat, she wore a knee-length dress paired with black leather stiletto boots. She looked softer, rounder, more feminine. A look D.D. herself had never been able to pull off, but that some guy somewhere had probably really appreciated.
O caught her stare. “Police pager: best birth control invented by man,” she drawled.
“Funny, I used to say the same thing.”
O arched a brow, given D.D.’s new mom status.
“Condoms aren’t a hundred percent effective either,” D.D. said defensively.
“I’ll remember that.”
D.D. shut her door. Donned her fleece-lined black leather gloves, pulled down her black wool hat. “So, what do we have?”
“Dead kid, back alley. Scared kid, back of patrol car.”
“I thought this was related to our sex offender shootings.”
“Dead kid was the offender. Scared kid the victim.”
D.D. digested this, eyes widening. “Scared kid didn’t pull the trigger, did he?”
“Nope. But he saw who did. Lone female.” O broke into a grim smile. “Small build, small gun. World’s craziest blue eyes, he said, and brown hair, scraped back into a ponytail.”
“Charlene Grant,” D.D. breathed.
D.D. TENDED THE CRIME SCENE FIRST. Given the high traffic around Copley, the ME’s office had already removed the body. No sign of Neil, so maybe he’d accompanied the body to the morgue. She’d given Phil the night off, which left her and O to do the honors. As O had obviously been at the scene for a bit, D.D. did her best to come up to speed.
Squatting down inside the crime scene tape, D.D. could just make out the faint impression of the already-removed corpse, which formed a literal snow angel on the white-dusted alley. Victim had been tall. Long splayed legs, one dangling arm.
She didn’t see the outline of the right arm. Maybe the victim had it over his chest. Maybe he’d been raising it in front of his face at the time of the shooting. Pedophile or not, that image disturbed her, to be shot down in cold blood.
“How old?” she asked Detective O, who stood behind her, shivering in her short dress and boots.
“Victim gave his name as Barry. Said he was sixteen.”
“And he targeted another kid?”
“Seven-year-old boy. Apparently ‘met’ him on a gaming website. Arranged to meet him at the Boston Public Library. Then lured him outside.”
D.D. shook her head. Even after O’s lecture on sex predators becoming younger and younger, sixteen was hard to take. “Has the body been identified?”
“Uniformed officers are canvassing the area now. He was on foot, so maybe someone local will recognize him.”
“There’s a doorstop conversation,” D.D. muttered. “First off, we regret to inform you that your son is dead. Secondly, he was most likely killed while sexually assaulting another child. Shit.”
Detective O didn’t say anything; maybe she shared the sentiment.
“So the older boy got the younger boy outside, then led him here.” D.D. looked around. They were tucked in a back Dumpster area, servicing local establishments. It was secluded, rank-smelling. But not totally private. One end was open to the side street, not to mention they stood before a heavy metal service door used by personnel as they hauled out trash.
“Wonder if he scoped the area out before,” D.D. thought out loud. “Learned the traffic patterns of this alleyway, felt comfortable. Or maybe, as you explained before, it was a case of impulse meeting opportunity. The seven-year-old had followed, so the sixteen-year-old decided to see what he could do.”
Detective O shrugged; given that the perpetrator was now dead, there wasn’t any way of answering such questions.
“The sixteen-year-old had just exposed himself,” O said, “when the woman appeared. The victim didn’t recognize her and has no memory of her following them. But she seemed to know the sixteen-year-old, implied that she’d been watching him. She identified herself as a gamer from the same website.”
D.D. stood up, frowning. “Really? So while one user is targeting kids, another user is targeting the predator. And both were able to find their victims in real life? But how? Isn’t that supposed to be the hard part?”
“Sixteen-year-old probably targeted the younger based on his stated interest in the Red Sox. Once sixteen-year-old established that the boy lived in Boston, he sent an e-mail inviting him to the library, which, as a public place, seemed harmless enough.”
“Lured him in.”
“Exactly. As for our Femme Nikita,” O shrugged, “there are several tools available to her. Personally, I’d start by running my target’s user name through Spokeo, to find other sites he visited. Given ‘Barry’ was sixteen, one of the first sites that would probably come up is his Facebook page. So I’d visit there, study his photo, identify friends, hobbies, interests. Better yet, Facebook has a feature, called Facebook Places or Check In. Meaning that when ‘Barry’ posts while at the Boston library, that site automatically shows up as part of the post. Now, La Femme Nikita can follow all of Barry’s comings and goings, including that he was at the Boston Public Library tonight. Assuming she has a smartphone, she doesn’t even need to lug around a laptop. She simply carries her smartphone in one hand, her gun in the other, and lets Barry tell her exactly where he’s going and what he’s doing. Takes all the fun out of stalking if you ask me.”
D.D. shook her head, gazing down at the snowy shadow of a dead kid. “But you said the sixteen-year-old targeted his victim at a gaming website, not the chat room you and Phil discussed earlier?”
“Not the chat room. AthleteAnimalz.com, however, is a major corporate kiddie site. Chances are, our first two pedophiles roamed there as well.”
“Meaning that’s the connection, not the chat room.”
“Or all of the above. The pedophile community isn’t that large. It’s not unreasonable that their paths crossed in several different sites on the Web.”
D.D. could buy that. She straightened, working on getting the choreography established in her head. “Sixteen-year-old boy targets seven-year-old-boy. Lures him to dark alley. Then…this woman appears. What happened next?”
“According to our seven-year-old witness, she was already holding the twenty-two. Pretty much ignored the younger boy, homed straight in on Barry. Of course, at this point, Barry had his pants unzipped and was holding his penis, making himself the obvious target.”
“What’d she say?”
“Not much. Confirmed the older boy’s Internet identity as Pink Poodle-”
“A sixteen-year-old boy is Pink Poodle?”
“Welcome to the Internet. And for the record, that strategy helped him. The seven-year-old agreed to meet tonight in part because he assumed he’d be meeting a girl, and who’s afraid of a girl?”
“Shit,” D.D. said.
“The shooter then identified herself as Helmet Hippo, another user from the website. Teenager tried to defend himself. Argued his age, said he’d change.”
D.D. looked down at the snow angel. “Obviously, that didn’t work.” But it bothered her again. Sixteen years old. Shot down in cold blood. What if he could’ve changed? The courts probably wouldn’t have tried him as an adult, but another citizen had. Tried him and executed him in a matter of minutes.
“The woman stated he’d been a very naughty boy, ordered him to be brave, then shot him.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that. Granted, our witness is young and traumatized, but his best guess is that the entire altercation took about three minutes.”
“Be brave, you said. Was there a note?” D.D. asked. “Everyone has to die sometime, yada yada yada.”
“Tucked inside the victim’s coat. Most likely written in advance, as, according to the witness, she didn’t have time to write anything at the scene. He saw her bend over the body, however, probably placing the paper in the victim’s jacket.”
“So definitely the same shooter. Refining her game now. Not just picking off pedophiles, but rescuing their victims.”
“In her mind, I’m sure she had a good night.”
“What happened after she shot the sixteen-year-old?”
“The shooter introduced herself to the witness, told him not to worry, then walked away.”
D.D. arched a brow. “Which way did she exit?”
“To the left. The boy didn’t follow, though. He stood there a minute longer, then bolted back to the library, where his mother had alerted the staff she couldn’t find him. They were going to lock down, police had just been called, when he came tearing up the steps. He was hysterical, she became hysterical. It took five or ten minutes to sort things out. Then uniformed officers immediately dispatched to this location, while broadcasting the woman’s description, but no hits.”
D.D. wasn’t surprised. Anyone could disappear in Boston. Which is why Charlene Grant had originally moved here.
D.D. thought about it. “That the Internet user was sixteen should’ve startled her. Made her pause, ask more questions, something. But it didn’t. Meaning your theory stands to reason-she’d been stalking her target for a bit, visiting his Facebook page, maybe even following him in person on other occasions. She wasn’t surprised by his age or his actions. She expected both.”
“Premeditation,” O supplied. “Planning. Strategy.”
“Smart. Adept with computers. Patient.”
“Controlled,” O added to their profile of the shooter. “She shot the sixteen-year-old, then walked away. No collateral damage, no fussing with the witness. Just in, out, done.”
“Where’s the witness now?”
“Back of a squad car with his mother. We’re arranging for a forensic interviewer who specializes in children to meet them at HQ.”
“Can he talk?”
O shrugged. “Last time I saw him, he clung to his mother and didn’t say a word.”
“I’d like to try.”
O hesitated. D.D. looked at her. “What?”
“You have any experience with kids?”
“Worked a case where a four-year-old was the prime witness.”
“Look, you may be older and wiser,” O drawled, “but I’m sex crimes, and unfortunately, most of my cases involve questioning kids. So take it from me, you can’t screw this up. You lead the witness here, and that contamination will carry. Then the entire interview will be tossed, and we’ll have no grounds for arresting our prime suspect, Charlene blah blah Grant. You gotta be smart.”
“Then I’ll leave the stupid questions at home.”
O still didn’t seem happy, but she turned away from the alley, returning in the direction of the flashing cruiser lights. The little boy and his mother were huddled in the back of the first patrol car. The door was open, probably to make them feel less like prisoners. But it also let in the chill, and both the boy and his mother were shivering. The mom held a cardboard cup of steaming beverage, probably coffee, but she wasn’t drinking it. Just holding it, as if willing the warmth to make a difference.
The little boy didn’t look up when they approached. He was leaning against his mother’s side, his tiny form nearly lost in an oversized black winter coat, hat, scarf, and mittens. D.D. had an impression of dark eyes and a pale pinched face, then he turned away from her.
The mother had her left arm around her son. She had the same pale features and haunted expression as the boy. But her jaw was set, her lips thinned into a resolute line.
“Sergeant Detective D. D. Warren,” D.D. said to introduce herself. It sounded as if they’d already met O.
“Jennifer Germaine.” The woman nodded, as she didn’t have a free hand to offer. She nudged her son, but he didn’t look up. “My son, Jesse,” she said after another moment.
“How are you doing, Jesse?” D.D. asked.
The boy didn’t answer.
“Fair enough,” she agreed. “I’m not having the best night either.”
He turned slightly, stared at her with a wary expression.
“I’m supposed to be having dinner with my mother. She came all the way from Florida to see me. But I had to leave. She’s not very happy with me. It doesn’t feel good, to have my mom not very happy with me.”
Jesse’s lower lip trembled.
“But I also know she understands,” D.D. continued. “It’s the cool thing about moms. They always love us, huh?”
Jennifer’s arm tightened around her son. He pressed himself harder against her side.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, his voice coming out hoarse and raspy. Maybe from crying now, or screaming earlier.
“Why are you sorry?” D.D. asked, keeping her voice conversational.
“I was a bad boy.”
“Why do you say that?” Open-ended questions. That was the deal with kids-can’t imply, can’t lead, can only ask open-ended questions.
“Stranger Danger. Don’t talk to strangers online. Don’t meet strangers. Don’t go away with strangers. My mommy told me. I’m sorry, Mommy. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
The little boy started to cry. His mother stroked his hair, then leaned over his head, murmuring low words of comfort.
“Thank you for returning to the library tonight,” D.D. said.
The boy looked up slightly.
“That was quick thinking. You had to find your way back through the city streets, which I personally find very confusing at night. But you did. You found your mother, you notified the police. Very brave of you. Have you ever walked the city alone, Jesse?”
The boy shook his head.
“Then kudos. You kept a cool head. Bet your mom’s pretty proud of you for that.”
Jennifer nodded against the top of her son’s head.
“I need you to be brave for me now, Jesse. Just a little bit longer, okay? Just relax, snuggled up next to your mom, and think about a couple of things for me.”
The little boy nodded, just slightly.
“Can you tell us what happened tonight, Jesse? In your own words. Take your time.”
Jesse didn’t start talking right away. His mother bent over again. “Jenny and Jesse against the world,” D.D. heard her whisper to him. “Remember, Jenny and Jesse against the world. Hold my hand. We can do this.”
The little boy took his mother’s hand. Then, he began to speak.
It was a pretty straightforward tale. A sixteen-year-old boy named Barry spent his afternoons gaming online as a pink poodle. He racked up points, he gained attention. He sent out e-mails to other gamers, offering friendship and help.
Jesse had taken the bait.
He’d assumed he had nothing to fear from a poodle, a meeting in a public library, and a rendezvous with a presumed girl. And so it went, right up to the second Jesse found himself standing in a back alley, too scared to run, too shocked to scream.
He couldn’t tell them much about the woman. Her arrival had startled him. Her gun had terrified him. Mostly, he remembered her eyes. Bright, bright blue eyes.
“Crazy eyes,” Jesse breathed softly. “Creepy, like blue cat eyes.” He looked up at them. “I think she’s an alien or maybe a robot or a monster. She…she hurt him. And…and I was happy.”
His gaze dropped again, and he buried himself suddenly, tightly, into his mother’s embrace.
“I’m sorry,” the little boy moaned, voice muffled against his mother’s coat. “I was bad. And there was this noise, and he’s dead. And I was bad and I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Mommy, I won’t ever do it again. I promise, I promise, I promise.”
D.D. looked away. She didn’t know what hurt worse, the boy’s obvious pain, or his mother’s, as she put her other arm around him and rocked him against her, trying to soothe, clearly knowing it wasn’t enough.
“I would like to take him home,” the woman said. “It’s late.” She added as an afterthought, “He has school tomorrow.”
Then her face suddenly crumpled, as if understanding for the first time that school in the morning probably wasn’t going to happen. That tonight had been bigger than that. That this was one of those things that would take more than a good night’s sleep to recover from.
Detective O stepped forward to explain about the interview with the forensic specialist, which needed to happen sooner versus later, as children’s memories were highly pliable.
Jesse’s mom shook her head, clearly becoming as overwhelmed and shell-shocked as her son.
D.D. reached out and squeezed the woman’s hand. “Just another hour,” she said encouragingly to the woman. “Then you can both go home. And tomorrow will be better than today, and the next day will be better than that. It will get better.”
The woman looked at her. “I love him so much.”
“I would do anything for him. I would give my life for him. I was just looking up a school assignment. Fifteen minutes we’d be apart. We’d done it before and he’s at that age. He doesn’t always want his mother around anymore. And I want him to feel strong. I want him to feel safe.”
“I would do anything for him.”
“The interview will help,” D.D. assured her. “I know it sounds scary, but telling his story will allow Jesse to own it. It will become less and less something that happened to him, and more and more something he can narrate, take control over. We’ve seen it with other kids. Talking helps them. Holding it inside, not so good.”
Jenny sighed, rested her cheek on top of her son’s head. “Jenny and Jesse against the world,” she murmured.
“You’re a good mom.”
“I should’ve done more.”
“Story of a mother’s life.”
“Do you have a child?”
“Ten weeks old, already the love of my life.”
“What would you do?”
“I hope I never have to find out.”
D.D. hesitated, then answered as honestly as she could: “I would try to help him find his strength. The bad part already happened. Now it’s about helping Jesse find his way to the other side. Where he’s no longer the victim, but the one in control. Where he can feel strong. Where he can feel safe.”
The woman stared at her, seemed to be studying her face. “We’ll go to headquarters,” she said at last. “We’ll meet with the interview…expert.”
“We’ll have a victim’s advocate meet you there as well,” D.D. told her. “There are resources for you and your son. Please don’t be afraid to use them.”
D.D. handed over her card, then straightened, jamming her freezing cold gloved hands back into her coat pockets.
“Thank you for your help, Jesse,” D.D. said. “I appreciate you answering my questions.”
The boy didn’t look up, didn’t respond.
She said to his mother: “Take care of your son.”
“Oh, I will, Detective. I will.”
D.D. stepped away, heading over to O. She’d just paused beside the sex crimes detective when a startled cry went up. Both investigators turned to see a uniformed officer waving for them furiously from the first patrol car.
“Detectives,” he called. “Quick! You gotta see this!”
D.D. and O exchanged glances, then made their way precariously down the icy sidewalk. The uniformed patrol officer had the passenger-side door open and was gesturing inside excitedly.
“On the dashboard,” he said urgently. “Don’t move it. I’d just set it there, you know, to deliver to the evidence room later. Course, I got the heat running, then when I looked in…”
It appeared to be the shooter’s note, now encased in clear plastic. A full sheet, the letters scripted in the familiar precisely formed, elegantly rounded letters. Except, as D.D. looked closer, she suddenly spotted other letters so small and jumbled together, they first appeared as a blemish or blur.
She looked up abruptly, glancing at the uniformed officer. “Did you touch this, mess with it in any way?”
She stood back, allowed O to take a look.
“No, no, no,” Officer Piotrow assured her hastily. “It’s the heat. When I saw that something seemed to have happened, I picked up the note, and I’ll be damned if the letters didn’t immediately disappear. But then I set the paper back down on the hot dash…”
D.D. felt her heart quicken.
“I think it’s lemon juice,” the officer was saying. “My kid did this experiment once in grade school. You can write secret notes with lemon juice-the words will disappear when the lemon juice dries, but reappear when you hold the note over a hot lightbulb. I think my dash is the lightbulb.”
“A note within a note,” Detective O murmured, still leaning over the paper. “Different penmanship.”
“Different sentiment,” D.D. replied tersely, chewing her lower lip.
The first note, Everyone dies sometime. Be brave, was scrawled in the usual large rounded script.
In contrast, the hidden message was much smaller, jumbled letters hastily scrawled and crammed into a space smaller than a dime.
An order. A taunt. Or maybe even a plea:
Two simple words: Catch Me.
HELLO. My name is Abigail.
Don’t worry, we’ve met.
Trust me, and I will take care of you.
Don’t you trust me?
Hello. My name is Abigail.
IT FELT GOOD TO HIT.
I liked the satisfying thwack of my gloved fist making hard contact with the heavy bag. I liked the feel of my front leg pivoting, my hips rotating, and my shoulder rolling as I snapped my entire body behind the blow. Jab, jab, jab, uppercut, roundhouse, feint left, left hook downstairs, left hook upstairs, second roundhouse, V-step right, jab left, punch right, dodge low, uppercut, repeat. Hit, move, hit harder, move faster. Hit.
Four thirty A.M. Pitch-black outside. Brutally cold. Definitely night, not day. All over the city, sane, well-adjusted people were snug in their beds, sound asleep.
I stood alone in the middle of a twenty-four-hour gym in Cambridge and pounded the crap out of the heavy bag. I’d been at it a bit. Long enough that my long brown hair was plastered to my head, I’d soaked through my quick-dry gym clothes, and my arms and legs were glazed in sweat. When I landed a particularly forceful blow, perspiration sprayed from my arms onto the blue mat.
I’m not a pretty girl-my figure is too gaunt, my face too harsh these days. But I’m strong, and in the wall of mirrors across from me, I took pride in the muscles rippling across my shoulders, the curve of my biceps, the fierce look on my face. If there were men in the gym right now, working their way through their own regimens, they’d feel a need to comment. Make light of my sweaty form, raise a brow at my go-for-broke style, ask me what his name was and what he did to make me so angry.
Even better reason for me to arrive at four in the morning, running from uneasy dreams and a screwed-up internal clock that wasn’t used to sleeping at night anyway.
Alone, I could hit as hard as I wanted to for as long as I wanted.
Alone, I didn’t have to apologize for being me.
Girls get a raw deal, I think. When boys brawl, tumble, tackle, it’s all boys will be boys. A little girl lashes out, and immediately it’s “Hands are for holding, hands are for hugging.”
Boys are encouraged to grow strong, to inspect their scrawny arms and thin chests for the first sign of muscular bulk. Girls, by the time they’re eight, are already overanalyzing their waistlines, worrying about the dreaded muffin top. We have no concept of gaining muscle, just an enduring aversion to gaining fat.
Girls are complimented on beauty, flexibility, and grace. But what about the upper body strength it takes to scramble up a tree, or the core muscles involved in swinging across the monkey bars? Young girls perform natural feats of strength on parks and playgrounds all across the country. Parents rarely comment, however, and eventually girls spend more and more time trying to look pretty, which does earn them praise.
Until recently, I wasn’t any different.
I had to learn my aggression the hard way. Through practice and repetition and painful reinforcement. By experiencing the cracking neck pain that follows an uppercut to the chin, or the immediate eye-welling sensation of taking a fist to the nose. Pain, I discovered, was fleeting. While the satisfaction of standing my ground, then retaliating fiercely, lasted all afternoon.
I had to learn to go deep inside myself, to a tiny place that had managed to survive all those years with my mother, a place where I could finally stop apologizing and start fighting back.
Around the fourth month of boxing, I happened to catch my reflection in the mirror. I noticed lines in my shoulders, curves on my back. Muscles. From fifty push-ups every morning and every night. From jump roping and heavy bag intervals and speed bag drills. From tripling my daily intake of protein, because for all of my philosophizing, boys are different than girls. They start with more muscle mass, add to it more efficiently, and retain it more effortlessly. Meaning if I wanted to bulk up, I had to eat, eat, eat. Egg whites and chicken sausage, six ounces of boneless chicken breast, six ounces of fish, protein shakes supplemented with peanut butter, plain Greek yogurt supplemented with protein powder.
Eventually my boxing coach moved me on to “tire work.” Big heavy tractor tires. I sledgehammered them, flipped them, jumped on top of them. By the six-month mark, I’d both leaned down and filled out. People stared at my arms when I went out in public. Teenage boys took notice of the way I moved, granted me more space on a crowded subway. Men looked me in the eye with a bit more respect.
And I liked it. Physical pain is nothing, I’ve realized. It’s letting go of your fear, finding your rage, and feeling strong that make the difference.
Unless it’s 2 A.M., and you’re dreaming of a baby who couldn’t have existed, or your homicidal mother who certainly did, or Stan Miller and the iron spikes protruding from his bloody chest.
Did killing someone make me a badass? Or did it take more courage to continue pounding the heavy bag while my own hollowed-out face mocked me in the far mirror?
I worked the bag for another thirty minutes. Next, I hit the weight machines. Then the StairMaster, followed by jump roping. This was it, my final workout before my once-in-a-lifetime main event. The next thirty-eight hours would be spent on rest and recovery. Like a professional athlete, I would take the final two days before the marathon off. Gotta be fresh for 8 P.M. Saturday. Gotta be ready.
Six A.M., people started arriving, beginning their own daily rituals. I left them behind, staggering into the locker room, where I headed straight into a hot, steamy shower.
I stood there a long time, soaking exhausted muscles.
And I wondered, if I was so strong, if I’d made so much progress in the past year, why was I still so terrified of a baby girl named Abigail?
* * *
IWALKED HOME FROM THE GYM. Watched my breath puff into the single-digit air. Watched the sun crawl its way over the gloomy gray horizon. I strode past yawning college students and hunch-shouldered morning commuters, all of them heading into the brick sprawl of Harvard Square as I worked my way out.
I kept my hands jammed deep in the pockets of my coat for warmth, while my ears were wrapped in a plain brown scarf. The cold didn’t bother me. It felt refreshing after my time in the gym. I moseyed along, my body finally wrung out and ready to collapse on my bed.
Times like this, I could almost admire the world around me. I could almost feel the tang of a snowflake on the tip of my nose. Appreciate the way the dawn painted the horizon with streaks of pink and orange and made the densely packed buildings glow.
I didn’t want to die.
It came to me, walking fifteen minutes toward my lonely room.
I had regrets. I wasn’t a great person. I’d engineered another man’s death. I’d done something terrible to my own mother. And I’d lost both of my best friends.
Put it in those terms, and why I even cared about what was going to happen at roughly 8 P.M. tomorrow was a mystery. But I wasn’t ready to give up. Maybe my life was one giant fuckup. But I felt…I didn’t know. As if I was on the edge of discovery. Finally realizing the power of my own arms and legs. Finally, twenty-eight years later, learning how to be me.
I wanted more mornings like this one. More rounds with a heavy bag, more crisp winter days. I wanted to walk the dog that was not my dog, smooth my hands over her sweet face. I wanted to run and laugh and, someday, what the hell, fall in love. Have a couple of kids. Raise them in the mountains where everyone would know their business, but also look them in the eye and smile.
I thought of Officer Mackereth. His invitation to brunch. The fact that I’d worked my final shift tonight and probably wouldn’t see him again.
Thirty-seven hours to live.
What was I waiting for? I was who I was. I’d done what I had done. And in a day and a half, what would happen would happen.
No more training. No more planning. No more preparing.
Living. That’s the only thing I had left to do. All thirty-seven hours of it.
I started to think about it. Really, truly consider it.
Then I turned the corner toward my house, and discovered my aunt Nancy standing there.
I HAVE KNOWN MY AUNT for nearly twenty years. She is a practical woman-gets up early, goes to bed late, works hard in between. Life has problems, but none that can’t be quickly identified and properly tackled. Elbow grease resolves most things. If not, perhaps a plate of freshly baked brownies will do the trick.
In our years together, we’ve cried a little, hugged on occasion, but laughed most of all. My aunt believes in laughter; you need it to run a business, especially in the hospitality trade.
I valued that about my aunt. What you see is what you get, which made her one of those people you immediately liked when you walked into a room.
So it was doubly strange to stand awkwardly in front of her now, positioned on the covered front porch of a Cambridge triple-decker I’d never expected her to visit. We stood four feet apart, my hands still jammed in my coat pockets, my face more shuttered than I would’ve liked.
“Charlene,” she said at last, breaking the silence first.
“How did…? When did…?”
“It’s time, Charlene. Come home.”
I stared at her a moment longer, trying to process. My post-workout glow vanished. In its place, I felt uneasy.
“Why don’t you come inside,” I said at last, reaching into my pocket and fumbling with the house key.
She nodded briskly. I realized for the first time that she wore her long winter coat but no hat or gloves. Her normally pale cheeks had turned pink with the cold, and her slight frame trembled beneath her coat.
I felt bad, hugging her belatedly and feeling her gratefully return the gesture. It should’ve broken the ice, returned us to normalcy, but instead I felt more confused. Of course my aunt knew where I lived. She was the only person with whom I’d kept in contact. I’d even planned on calling her today to make arrangements for Tulip.
But to see her here. Now. So suddenly. The day before the twenty-first. It spooked me, and I found that as I ushered her into my landlady’s house, I kept her slightly in front of me, in my line of sight.
My landlady was an early riser. She looked up from the kitchen table as we entered. She still wore her pink-and-purple striped day robe, but being a woman of a certain age, she could carry it off. She registered my aunt’s presence, my first ever guest, and performed a little double take.
I did the honors: “Ummm, Fran, this is my aunt Nancy. Aunt Nancy, this is my landlady, Frances Beals.”
My aunt crossed to shake hands politely, and up close, even Fran could see her shiver.
“Have you been outside in this weather? Goodness, you look chilled to the bone! Let me get you a cup of coffee. How do you take it?”
“Black, thank you. Lovely home.”
“Hundred and fifty-three years old,” Fran volunteered, “but I like to think the old gal doesn’t look a day over a hundred.”
“I know how she feels,” my aunt responded.
Frances laughed as she bustled about the kitchen, fetching coffee. I took my aunt’s coat, pulled out a chair for her, offered breakfast.
Aunt Nancy shook her head, but in such a way that I didn’t believe her. I hung up both of our coats, then returned to the kitchen, inspecting the shelf in the pantry that was marked with my name, before finally settling on some whole grain bread for toast.
Behind me, Frances resumed talking with my aunt, about the house, Boston, New Hampshire, landlady versus innkeeper. I welcomed their distraction, so that my aunt couldn’t see how badly my hands were shaking, and Fran wouldn’t notice that all of a sudden I couldn’t remember how to work the toaster.
My aunt and I had last spoken by phone two weeks ago. She hadn’t mentioned coming. I hadn’t mentioned returning. We had a drill. It involved never speaking of the twenty-first. That was the foundation of our relationship after all-love each other, support each other, and never mention unpleasant truths.
My early childhood had been “unfortunate.” My mother had been “misguided.” What happened to Randi, then Jackie, “tragic.”
You gotta love New Englanders. We can take anything we don’t want to face, whitewash it resiliently into a faint echo of itself, then simply lock it away.
I finally managed to get out two slices of bread and slide them into the toaster. While they browned, I found the carton of egg whites and set to scrambling. Working on the stove kept my back to my aunt and my landlady. They seemed content to chat, but from time to time, I could feel my aunt’s gaze upon me, assessing.
When the toast popped up, I split the pieces between two plates, topped them both with scrambled egg whites, and carried my concoction to the table.
My aunt looked up from talking with Frances, and her voice immediately trailed off. She stared at my exposed throat, and so did Frances. Belatedly I fingered the bruises from yesterday’s session with J.T.
“Good Lord,” my aunt whispered.
“Sparring,” I said defensively.
“Your neck…your hands.”
Several of my knuckles were bright purple, my left hand abraded, my wrist slightly swollen. I set my aunt’s plate down, tucked my hand behind my back. “Hey, you should see the other guy.”
My aunt and landlady continued to regard me with equal levels of horror.
“It’s okay,” I said at last, voice firmer. “I’ve taken up boxing, that’s all. And I like it. Now, eat.”
I pulled out a chair, sat down next to my aunt, picked up my toast. After another moment, my aunt nodded, maybe to me, maybe to herself, then regarded her own breakfast. She eyed the egg white-topped bread curiously, then gamely took a bite.
“Very nice,” she declared after swallowing. “Never been a huge fan of egg whites, but with the toast, it works.”
“She’s a healthy eater, that one,” Fran said.
I looked at my landlady in surprise. I hadn’t realized she’d noticed what I ate, one way or another.
“Hard worker,” Fran continued, apparently taking it upon herself to vouch for my character to my own aunt. “Tends her night job, comes home to sleep, then is always ready to report to work the next evening. No nonsense, this one.”
“Charlene’s got a good head on her shoulders,” my aunt agreed. “She was always a huge help to me in the B &B. This past year, I’ve missed her.”
I ate another bite of toast, starting to feel like an outsider in my own life.
“Lease is almost up,” Fran commented. She faced me, instead of my aunt. “You coming or going?”
“Sunday,” I said.
“You’ll give me the answer?”
My aunt, who understood the relevance of Saturday, frowned at me.
“Gonna include the dog that’s not your dog?” my landlady continued. “You know, the one that’s supposed to be outside but is in your room instead?”
I flushed. My aunt arched a brow.
“Yeah…um…Gonna talk to my aunt about that. See about finding a home for Tulip.”
“Hmmm,” my landlady said. “By Sunday?”
“Yeah, by Sunday.”
“Dog pees, dog chews, it’s out of your pocket.”
“I like her,” my aunt said, referring to Frances.
I finally smiled. “Figured you would.”
BY THE TIME I led my aunt down the hall to my little room, I felt nervous again. Like a teenager, anxious to impress her parent with her first dorm room. Look at me, look at the life I created all on my own. Clean sheets, made bed, hung-up clothes, the whole works.
Tulip met us at the door. Judging by the look on her face, she hadn’t appreciated being shut up for the morning adventures. Maybe you can take the dog off the street but not the street out of the dog. I thought I knew how she felt.
She refused to greet me, but worked her charm on my aunt instead. My aunt had the typical questions. What was Tulip’s name, breed, what a sweet face, what a nice disposition.
While she fawned over the dog that I hoped would become her dog, I went through the requisite hostess motions-found my aunt a chair, refreshed her coffee, then closed the door behind us for privacy. We sat, me on the edge of the bed, her in the lone wooden chair, and Tulip on the floor in between. The conversation almost immediately sputtered out.
“Sorry you had to drive down,” I said at last, not really looking at her, but at the floor beside her chair.
I was thinking of Detective Warren’s assessment of Randi and Jackie’s attacker. It would be up close and personal. Someone I wouldn’t immediately fear. Someone I would welcome with open arms.
I couldn’t really be afraid of my aunt.
“Have the police learned anything more?” my aunt asked.
“About Randi and Jackie’s murders?” I shook my head. “No. But I’m working with a couple of Boston detectives now. They have some fresh ideas.”
“You still think you’ll be next,” my aunt said, a statement not a question.
“You’ve lost weight, Charlene. You look different. Harder.”
“It’s not good for you, Charlene. The way you’re living right now. It’s not good for you.”
I surprised myself. I looked up, stared my aunt in the eye, and asked, “What happened to my mother?”
My aunt’s pale blue eyes widened. I don’t think I could’ve shocked her more if I’d blurted out that I was a man trapped in a woman’s body. But she caught herself. Fussed with her hair for a second, fingering the fringe around her neck, tucking a short Brillo curl behind her ear.
Her hands were trembling. If I looked harder than she remembered, then she looked older than I remembered. Like the winter had been long and taken some of the fight out of her.
Or maybe she’d spent the past year performing her own countdown to the twenty-first. Which was more stressful, fearing for yourself or for someone you loved?
“What do you think happened to your mother?” she said at last.
“She’s dead,” I said flatly. “And it’s my fault. I think…I did something…resisted, or maybe finally got angry, lost control. I hurt her, though. Badly, and that’s why I don’t remember. I don’t want to face what I did.”
“She’s not dead, Charlene. Least, not last I knew.”
“Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant,” my aunt stated, and her tone was different now, testing.
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you want to understand?”
“Why do you keep asking me questions like that!”
“Because from the first moment I arrived at the hospital, that’s what the doctors advised me to do. I was not to tell you what happened, but to give you love and support until one day, when you felt safe enough, you would remember on your own.
“I’ve waited twenty years, Charlene, never knowing if this might be the week you’d suddenly bring it up or, worse, if this might be the day she would magically show up. It’s been a lonely vigil. Stressful, too. But I did it, because that’s what the doctor said. And I don’t have kids, Charlie. I don’t know what’s right or what’s wrong for an eight-year-old girl. The only attempt I had at child rearing was the years I spent trying to rein in my baby sister, and we both know how well that went.” My aunt’s voice broke off, the first tinge of bitterness I’d ever heard from her. Then I noticed a sheen in her eyes that had nothing to do with the lighting.
I’d hurt her. I’d made my aunt cry.
Immediately, I wanted to take it all back. I was sorry I’d brought up my mother. I was sorry I’d left New Hampshire. I’d do anything, say anything, return home. I just wanted my aunt to be happy. She was all I had, and I loved her.
And in the next second, I realized how warped that was. How quickly I’d fallen back into the trap-appeasement at all costs. Loving too little and holding on too tight.
Worst part was, my aunt didn’t even expect me to appease her. She simply sat there, shoulders squared, jaw set, awaiting my next question.
“If my mother’s alive,” I ventured, “why hasn’t she ever contacted me?”
“I don’t know.” She hesitated. “I always figured she would. If not in person, then by mail. Then later, when all this Internet and e-mail and Facebook nonsense started, I worried about that, too. But nothing that I’ve ever seen, or you’ve ever said.”
“Nothing, not a single word from her,” I agreed, and took a moment to digest that.
“Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant,” my aunt said again.
“Did I hurt her?” I asked, and my fingers were unconsciously moving across my left side, the top of my thigh, the back of my hand. I couldn’t help myself.
“We don’t know. When the EMTs arrived, they found you on the floor, seriously injured. In fact, they assumed you were dead.” My aunt spoke the words flatly, having obviously spent the past twenty years turning them over in her head. “There was no sign of your mother in the house.”
“She ran away?”
“The police put out an APB for her. Especially…after the other discoveries they made.” She paused, stared at me again. When I didn’t respond…“To date, they’ve never found her, and I would know if they did. There are charges pending against your mother, Charlene. Serious criminal charges. Which may be why she’s never appeared in person. I’m sure she knows I’d toss her sorry ass in jail the second she did.”
I blinked, caught off guard by the vehemence in my aunt’s voice. It occurred to me that I’d spent most of my life fearing that one day I might turn into my crazy mother. Hence the need to forget, avoid, fail to confront. If I didn’t remember, I couldn’t feel. If I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t lose my mind. Now I wondered if perhaps I didn’t carry a trace of my resilient aunt. A woman who looked, who saw, who endured. A survivor.
Given the date, I would like to be a survivor.
“Do you remember getting your driver’s license?” my aunt asked suddenly.
I was startled by the change in topic, nodding faintly.
“You wanted your license to read Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant. And when you were told it couldn’t be done, you became upset.”
“I thought it was stupid you could list only one middle name. That if it was supposed to be legal ID, it should carry my full legal name.”
“No,” my aunt said.
I frowned, stared at the floor. And I remembered suddenly, being at the DMV in Tamworth, where you had to go in person to get your first license. It should’ve been fun and exciting for a teenager, except I was red-faced, sweating, nearly panting from a pressure I couldn’t explain. My aunt was talking to me, murmuring something low and calm except I couldn’t hear her. My head was on fire, my skull threatening to explode into a thousand bits. I was going to cry, I was going to scream. I mustn’t cry, I mustn’t scream, so I fisted my hands into my eye sockets to hold in the pain. Then, when that didn’t work, I walked over to a wall and beat my head against it, as if that external force would drive out the internal agony. I pounded my forehead hard enough that two uniformed state troopers came running out with their hands on their holstered weapons.
Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant. My driver’s license needed to read Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant. It hurt too much to have it any other way. To be anyone else.
“I got sick,” I whispered. “I had to leave.”
“I finally got you to the car,” my aunt filled in. “I drove you home, I put you to bed. Then I stayed awake all night, waiting for you to come back down, waiting for you to talk to me, to tell me what you remembered. But you didn’t. At seven A.M., you appeared in the kitchen and informed me that if you couldn’t have both names on your license, then you would accept Charlene Grant. You never spoke of it again.”
“My headache went away,” I said simply. “I woke up…It was just a driver’s license, I decided. Not my name. So it didn’t matter. I could…It would be okay.”
My aunt smiled at me, but the expression was sad. She reached out, touching the back of my hand, where the thin white scars threaded through fresh purple bruises.
“You’re a strong girl, Charlene. If you need to forget the past in order to find your future, I haven’t felt it was my place to mess with that. In fact, the doctor told me that forcing you to face things before you were ready would most likely do more harm than good. So I’ve held my council. I’ve kept my vigil. And I’d do it all over again, Charlene. Because I was not there when you needed me, and I’ll never forgive myself for that. But that’s my burden to bear, not yours.”
“My legal name isn’t Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant,” I heard myself say.
“That isn’t the name on your birth certificate.”
“That’s why, at the DMV…It had nothing to do with middle names. It was the birth certificate. You showed it to me, and I became angry. Because there was no Rosalind, no Carter. And my head began to hurt. And my stomach…”
My aunt didn’t say anything.
“But I am Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant,” I tried again, weakly this time, lacking genuine conviction. “I…I feel it.”
“It’s the name you chose for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Then it came to me, the list I’d made for Detective Warren. The two names I’d felt compelled to record: Rosalind Grant, Carter Grant. Because it had felt right to write them down. To see them listed on a sheet of paper in a detective’s office.
To finally get out what I had failed to tell the nurse.
I looked at my aunt. And I felt the trapdoor suddenly yawn open in the deepest corner of my mind. There was darkness behind it. Ghosts and monsters and things that would make anyone scream in the middle of the night.
Yet I took a step closer. Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant. Rosalind Grant. Carter Grant.
“Baby crying,” I whispered.
“I’m sorry, Charlene.”
“I wanted to tell the nurse. I didn’t tell the nurse.”
Another step. The floorboards of my mind, creaking in warning.
“I was too young. I swear it. I was too young.”
“Shhh.” My aunt was standing, her arms reaching toward my shoulders. At her feet, Tulip whined, rose to sitting. “It’s okay, Charlene. It wasn’t your fault. It was never your fault.”
“I was just a kid myself!”
“I know, honey, I know.”
“Baby crying!” Except she wasn’t anymore. She was pale and still as marble. Blue-lipped as I stroked her cold cheek, tried to get her eyes to open, tried to make her flash that wide, beaming grin.
Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant. Rosalind Grant. Carter Grant.
My aunt’s arms were around my shoulders. Maybe her hands were even upon my throat. It didn’t matter anymore. I sagged into my aunt’s embrace. Dying wasn’t my greatest fear anymore. Remembering was.
Baby crying, down the hall.
First a little girl. Rosalind Grant.
Then, later, a little boy. Carter Grant.
Charlene Rosalind Carter Grant.
“Shhh,” my aunt murmured. “If I’d known, I would’ve come. Please believe me, Charlene. If I’d known, I would’ve come and taken all of you away.”
“WE SHOULD ARREST HER. Immediately. Girl’s already squirrelly. If she figures out how close we are to identifying her as the shooter, she’ll bolt in a second.”
D.D. sighed. She rubbed a throbbing spot on the back of her neck that had less to do with Detective O’s investigative zeal and more to do with the hours of sleep she didn’t get, followed by a breakfast with her parents she never should’ve scheduled. But other than that…
She picked up her fourth cup of black coffee, eyed the way her hand performed the over-caffeinated mambo, and took a sip. “On what grounds?” she quizzed her eager young colleague.
Phil nodded with equal skepticism. He sat beside Neil, the whole team assembled to debrief from last night’s shooting and this morning’s ongoing discoveries. Murder investigations had a tendency to ebb and flow. This one was currently flowing. Hell, it was nearing flood stage.
“Charlene Grant matches the description of the shooter,” O stated.
Phil was already shaking his head. “At best, gives us grounds to bring her in for a lineup. But we can’t go around arresting all the females in Boston who have brown hair and blue eyes.”
“She owns a twenty-two, same caliber as the murder weapon.”
“As do thousands of people, probably in just this city block.”
“Handwriting analysis,” O snapped, glancing at D.D. “Especially given the note within the note.”
D.D. shrugged. “I dropped off Charlie’s handwritten list of two names plus the three crime scene notes with Ray Dembowski. He’s going to test the notes from the first two shootings this afternoon to see if they have the same hidden message, Catch Me. Then, he’ll analyze the lemon juice scrawl versus the ink script to determine if the same person wrote both messages on the sheets of paper. Finally, he’ll analyze the handwriting of both messages against Charlie’s list. But it’ll be at least Monday before he has a formal report for us, and he’s already complaining about feeling rushed.”
“Motive, means, opportunity!” Detective O threw her hands up in the air. “Come on, I can’t be the only one who thinks Charlie’s guilty!”
O had exchanged last night’s little black dress for a more sedate light blue Brooks Brothers button-up shirt. It was expertly tailored, perfect for the up-and-coming young detective. Would also look good on TV, D.D. thought, should camera crews catch her making a major arrest.
“It’s not a matter of what we think,” D.D. said, less patient, more curt. “It’s a matter of what we can prove.”
Neil spoke up. “I think we should arrest her.” He had a sullen look on his face, his carrot top mane uncustomarily smoothed down, his lanky shoulders rounded. He’d barely spoken since the meeting started, opting to stare at a fixed spot on the table instead.
O pounced, having finally found an ally. “She’s a flight risk. If we spend too much time getting our ducks in a row, she’s bound to fly the coop.”
“Which is why we generally don’t share our investigative strategies with our prime suspects,” Phil muttered.
“How is she not going to figure it out?” O exclaimed. She pointed a finger at D.D. “She wants to call her in for a lineup. Think that won’t give our game away?”
“I didn’t say call her in for a lineup,” D.D. corrected. “I said that’s all a matching physical description can do for us. Now, put that finger away before you hurt someone.”
O glared at her, hand falling to her side. “What’s the alternative? Request a warrant to search her room or seize her twenty-two? Sure, we’ll gain some evidence. And boo hoo, she’ll be in Canada before we can snap on the handcuffs.”
D.D. sighed. She looked at O, she looked at Neil. Finally, she turned to Phil. “Kids these days,” she murmured.
The father of four nodded in agreement. He’d gotten to sleep last night, which thus far had made him the only sane person in the room. D.D. took a fortifying sip of coffee, and got to it.
“Neil,” she announced, “when were you going to tell us you broke up with Ben?” Ben being the medical examiner, whom Neil would’ve encountered last night when accompanying the latest shooting victim to the morgue.
“No one’s business,” her red-haired colleague mumbled.
“Oh, but it is. Maybe your relationship wasn’t dipping the pen in the company’s well, but it was dipping in the company’s brother’s well. We work with the ME’s office. The end of your relationship has on-the-job consequences and you know it. So dish. What happened?”
“We’re on a break.”
Phil rolled his eyes. “Oh, good Lord-”
“He says I’m too young,” Neil burst out. “He says I’m too green. I gotta go…sow wild oats or some such bullshit.”
“Become a man?” D.D. suggested.
“Won’t solve your problem. You are young, you are green. You’re also a very promising detective who spends way too much time hiding behind his partners. You want to grow up?”
D.D. gave him a look.
He straightened his spine. “Yes!”
“Then let’s get you to the National Academy. It’ll get you more training and experience. Plus, being a smart guy with some promising detective skills, you might even like it.”
“You’re gonna have to make some calls to figure that out. Preferably, before Phil and I are driven to beat you.”
“Horgan will agree?”
Cal Horgan was the deputy superintendent of homicide, who’d have to nominate Neil for the academy, as well as authorize the funds should Neil then be invited.
“I’d use your nice voice,” D.D. advised.
Neil pursed his lips, tapped on the tabletop a few times with his hand. “Okay.”
D.D.’s turn to roll her eyes. “You’re welcome. Now, as long as you’re learning new skills, why don’t you accompany Phil to interview the family of the shooting victim.”
They’d finally gotten an ID on their sixteen-year-old shooting victim/child molester. Barry Epsom. Formerly of Back Bay. Rich kid, one of four, they were told. Father a bigwig with Hancock Insurance, mother known to be a patron of the arts. Private school, where he hadn’t necessarily shined academically but also wasn’t known for causing trouble. Ironically enough, he had a reputation as a computer whiz kid.
Family had already lawyered up. They were grieving, admitting nothing, and the mid-morning interview was doomed to be the kind of long, dragged out, dramatic affair that yielded no useful information but killed the rest of the day. Better to let the rookies cut their teeth on it.
“Goal,” she informed Neil, and to a lesser extent Phil, because he knew his business, “is to be sympathetic, accuse their son of nothing, and get your hands on his electronics.” She eyed Phil, their own computer whiz, on the last part. “Smartphone was seized at the scene last night, but that still leaves computers, iPad, iPod, gaming systems-you’d be amazed where perverts hide their electronic data these days. Search warrant is broad and I want you to use it. We’ll let the forensic wizards manage this one-see if they can’t dig out exactly what Barry was doing online and, even better, how our vigilante shooter might have tracked him.”
“Sixteen. Couldn’t be a registered sex offender,” Neil spoke up, frowning.
“No record,” D.D. confirmed. “Not even a sealed juvie file.”
“Then how’d the shooter know-”
“Charlene Grant,” O repeated promptly, “knew about his behavior because she’d already taken calls from his victims. Further proof our shooter has insider knowledge, say from her job as a comm officer with a local police department.”
“Or our shooter baited him online,” Phil said neutrally. “Reached out to various registered users on the animal website. First one that sent her porn became the next target.”
“Which is why your goal,” D.D. said to Neil and Phil, “is to seize all electronics. Our sixteen-year-old victim has several key differences from our first two victims. Young, not yet in the criminal justice system, etc., etc. Connect him to the first two victims, and we’ll finally answer some questions.”
“Analyze his cell phone,” O said dryly. “Search the call log for the last time he called nine-one-one.”
D.D. rolled her eyes at the sex crime detective’s one-track mind. “Which brings us to the next matter at hand-how to wrap up our current homicide investigation, by trapping Charlene Grant.”
“Here’s the deal.” D.D. regarded Neil and O. “You’re both right: We’re dealing with a suspect who’s half-feral and probably will bolt at the first hint of suspicion. Which is why we have to proceed with caution. For example, we could request a warrant to seize her twenty-two on the grounds that she matches the general description of our shooter. Which, as O pointed out, would probably gain us the murder weapon but lose us the murderer as Charlene heads for the hills. Or, we can wait for her to show up for her eleven P.M. shift tonight at the Grovesnor PD, at which point they’ll seize it for us.”
Detective O frowned, clearly trying to follow this logic. “She had her gun on her yesterday,” the detective murmured slowly, “when you called her in from work. Meaning, she must carry it with her at all times. Which would be-”
“Against department policy,” D.D. finished for her. “Grovesnor PD has the right to seize her weapon, not to mention then authorize any tests they’d like, such as a ballistics test, to see if the rifling on Charlene’s Taurus matches the rifling on the six slugs recovered from three separate shootings.”
“She’ll fight that,” O warned. “She believes she needs the gun for the twenty-first…which would be tomorrow.”
D.D. shrugged. “Then she needs to spend more time reading her employer’s rules and regs. Her mistake, our opportunity.”
O nodded. “Smart,” she said finally, which D.D. would’ve taken as more of a compliment if the beautiful young detective hadn’t sounded so surprised.
“Gee thanks.” D.D. pulled together her notes, rapped them into one eight-and-a-half-by-eleven stack, then rose to standing. “Now you just have to keep it our little secret while speaking to her this afternoon.”
“We’re speaking to her this afternoon? Why?” O looked puzzled. “We don’t have any developments from the Facebook page yet. People are just starting to friend it. Frankly, I’m not sure eight P.M. tomorrow night is enough time, even by the viral standards of the Web.”
“It’s not about the Facebook page. I have news for her, however. Worth her paying us a visit.”
Neil had also risen to standing. “You know who killed her friends?” he asked.
“Nope. I found her mother.”
DID ALL DAUGHTERS FEAR THEIR MOTHERS? It was food for thought, after D.D.’s own breakfast with her parents. Even now, three hours later, she couldn’t decide which moment was the most humiliating. Maybe when she’d first showed up in the lobby of the Weston Hotel in Waltham, and her mother had pointedly asked, “Isn’t that the same outfit you were wearing last night, dear?”
D.D. hadn’t even thought about it, given that she pulled a lot of all-nighters on the job and wardrobe change was generally the least of her concerns. She’d brought that up. Her father might have even appeared sympathetic. Then they’d sat at the table. Her mother had wanted to know where Alex and Jack were. D.D. had answered that Alex had to teach today at the academy, so Jack was at day care.
Her mother had gotten that look again. Like she was sucking on lemons. Which had pissed D.D. off, because if memory served, her mother hadn’t exactly played house when D.D. was a baby. Her mother had gone back to teaching, too close to tenure to give up now. D.D. had gone to day care. Hell, D.D. remembered loving day care. There were other kids who rolled and tumbled and got dirty and laughed hard. Day care was nirvana. Home was all “Sit still, don’t make that face, for God’s sake can’t you stop fidgeting for just one minute?”
No was the general answer. D.D. couldn’t be patient, couldn’t sit still, couldn’t stay in one place. Even now, she was forty-one, and within the first two minutes of breakfast she was compulsively folding and unfolding her napkin on her lap. It was either that or scream.
Her mother had ordered a bowl of fruit. Her father had asked for toast. D.D. had gone for eggs Benedict with extra béarnaise sauce.
Her mother had arched a brow. Fat, cholesterol-should D.D. really be eating such things at her age?
Interestingly enough, her mother’s lips had never moved, her throat had never vocalized the syllables. Turned out, she didn’t have to actually speak. She could communicate an entire range of disapproval all with the single lift of her brow.
If D.D. hadn’t been so thoroughly infuriated, she would’ve been impressed.
They didn’t speak while waiting for their food. They just sat there, a father, a mother, a daughter, who all these years later couldn’t bridge the divide. And eventually D.D. had stopped feeling so angry and simply felt depressed. Because they were her parents and she loved them in her own way and understood they loved her in their own way, and what a shame it didn’t make bearing each other’s company any easier.
Food came. They ate gratefully.
D.D. had thought she just might survive the meal, when her mother chewed her last piece of cantaloupe, set down her fork, looked D.D. in the eye, and stated, “This is what I don’t understand: If Alex is good enough to father your child, why isn’t he good enough to marry? I mean really, D.D., what are you waiting for?”
D.D. had frozen, forkful of eggs Benedict midair, and stared at her mom. Then, belatedly, she’d turned her gaze to her father, who was resiliently studying the white linen tablecloth. Coward.
“I’m glad you like Alex,” D.D. had mumbled at last, then set down her fork and bolted for the bathroom. By the time she’d returned, her mother sat pinch-faced, staring straight ahead. Her father had his hand lightly on hers, but whether that was offering comfort or asking forgiveness, D.D. couldn’t tell.
They were an attractive elderly couple, she realized, approaching the table. They fit together in a way you could see from across the room. And maybe that was the problem. They were the unit. And she was forever the outsider, looking in.
She kissed her mom on the cheek, feeling the rigidness of her mother’s spine. She kissed her father as well, feeling the dry brush of his lips on her cheek. Then she paid the bill and got out of there.
At a certain point, you had to agree to disagree, even with your own parents. Logically she could accept that. But it hurt. It would always hurt.
At least she knew, somewhere deep down inside, that her mother lo