9FRIDAY, OCTOBER 30THPETROSKY STARED across the cherry desk at Dr. Stephen McCallum. Thedepartment psychiatrist was Santa Claus in the off-season, at least two-hundred-and-fifty pounds, with ruddy cheeks and a head full of curly white hair thatmatched his beard. No red coat, though; McCallum’s green button-down shirtand brown tweed jacket strained against his bulk.“Do your victims have any common acquaintances?” McCallum asked.“Nope.”“Any promising physical evidence?”Fuck no, there wasn’t. No fingerprints on any of the restraints, but tons ofrandom prints all over the crime scenes, probably from kids smoking dope orsquatters. “At the Trazowski scene, we found fingerprints all over that basementfrom some guy who had a previous arrest. Crack addict, says he slept in thebasement once, shit in a corner. The restraints are expensive, and the dissectionmeticulous enough that I don’t think corner-shitter is our guy.”McCallum nodded. “Agreed. What else?”“No sexual assault, no murder weapons found, and no witnesses. Trazowskiand her kids were pretty much ghosts; I’ve got nothing on her movements untilshe arrived at the shelter, and less than a day after she left, she was filleted in thebasement of a house she has no connection to. The father of Trazowski’s kids iscurrently doing four years in New York on a series of B and Es, and he didn’tknow Lawrence.” So not a pissed-off father situation. That would have made his
life too fucking easy. “As for Lawrence, she had an abusive boyfriend with eightprevious arrests for domestic violence, but he’s got an alibi the night of themurder. She had two priors: one for domestic violence and another forprostitution. Then there’s her abandoned kid.”Petrosky blinked hard against the headache that was taking root in histemples. “The kid died of hypothermia, no signs of violence, but I turned it overto the prosecutor’s office in case they feel like going after Keil. I don’t thinkmuch will come of it.”McCallum leaned forward in his chair and folded his hands on the desktop.“That bothers you.”“Of course it fucking bothers me.”“Because you’d give anything to have your kid back, and here people arethrowing them away?”“Because it’s fucked up, that’s why.” Petrosky had seen McCallum himselfafter Julie died. Mandatory leave, they’d said. Fucking bureaucratic bullshit.“Has the anger abated any?”“Goddammit, McCa—”“I’ll take that as a no. Remember, anger can be a symptom of bothdepression and complicated grief, but it’s not something to ignore. Drinking stillunder control?”“Everything’s under control,” Petrosky said tightly. He rubbed a hand overthe stubble on his cheek. “Let’s get back on track here.”“Fine, have it your way. Lawrence, then.”“Lawrence. No family and no friends that the boyfriend mentioned.” A lackof acquaintances wasn’t uncommon in these situations, but it made Petrosky’sjob far more difficult. Fewer friends around, fewer ways to trace a person’smovements. Fewer leads. He sighed.“Okay, so not much to go on there. Anyone else who might provide you withsome leads?”“Maybe,” Petrosky said. “What’s your take on LaPorte?”“Her file is very interesting. The early arrests for protesting and civildisobedience aren’t especially concerning given the time period. However, when
paired with other symptoms, trouble with the law can be a sign of antisocialpersonality disorder, the clinical diagnosis related to psychopathic tendencies.The later arrest for the murder of her husband certainly fits that bill.”“It was dismissed as self-defense. When a man stabs you with a kitchenknife, you’re allowed to bludgeon him to death with a tire iron.”“I happen to agree,” McCallum said wryly. “And running a non-profit shelterfor abuse victims speaks to empathy and a history of victimhood as opposed tosomeone with antisocial personality disorder. Whatever attitude made yoususpicious of her is more likely related to her protecting those under her carethan an admission of guilt.”That much was true. LaPorte wasn’t a suspect. But between LaPorte’sdefiance and Hannah’s anxiety, something still felt wrong.“What about the poems left at the crime scenes?” McCallum asked. “Fromwhat I understand, that poem is open to interpretation, and hotly debated. Thewhole book is a psychedelic Freudian’s dream.”Petrosky had gleaned as much from Morrison’s assessment last week: “Thepoem he’s using is from the end of the book. The whole thing’s pretty weird, soit’s hard to tell what he’s saying. If I were him, I would have used the Walrus andthe Carpenter. All those poor oysters.”“So you’re saying you’re the Walrus?” Petrosky had asked.“Koo koo ka choo, Boss.”So much for a fancy-ass English degree.McCallum laced his fingers on the desk. “The poetry is a conundrum, but thetypical profile for this type of crime still fits. White male between the ages oftwenty-five and thirty-five. A planner, intelligent, probably well educated in thiscase. Someone shrewd, calculating.”Petrosky nodded. “Could the dissection be related to the fact that both weremothers?”“If he were dissecting only the uterus, the reproductive organs, I’d say yes.But according to the medical examiner’s reports, he dissected the stomach, theintestines, and in one case, part of the esophagus. Almost as if he’s looking forsomething there.”
Petrosky pictured the gaping hole in Trazowski’s abdomen, envisionedsomeone rummaging around, hands submerged to the wrists, forearms coated ingore. His gut clenched. “What would you look for inside someone’s stomach?”“Something he fed them, perhaps, or maybe he wondered what their lastmeal had been. Or maybe he’s just interested in the mechanics. While thedissections were deliberate and rather precise, there were some small tearsaround the incisions, so I’d guess that he simply lacked the medical knowledgeto complete the job perfectly. And the fact that they were alive when he cut intothem speaks to an underlying rage or past slight. You might be looking forsomeone who was hurt by a maternal figure. Lack of attachment in these cases isprominent.”“So, our guy had a shitty upbringing?”“Possibly. But some psychopaths are born without the ability to emote, whileothers only show sociopathic behaviors after severe abuse or neglect. Either typecan end up killing people in fairly horrific ways. It’s hard to tell which categorythis individual would fall into since the presentation is generally the same.”So their killer was likely a younger male, not a physician, who possibly, butnot certainly, suffered childhood abuse or neglect. The abused became theabusers if they lived long enough. Everyone had a motivation. Not that thisexcused leaving a murdered child to be torn apart in a field. Petrosky’s chesttightened, and he settled into the anger, letting it focus him. He needed a lead.He needed to think.How did the killer choose his victims? Both women had a history of arrestsfor prostitution as well as drug charges. They were similar physically, with thinbodies and blond hair, though that wasn’t hard to find.Petrosky cracked his knuckles, and the noise startled McCallum’s hands offthe desk. Jumpy motherfucker. Petrosky eyed him, but he recovered quickly,leaning back and steepling his fingers beneath his chin in official shrink style.“You know, this guy is a goddamn stereotype. Kill the hookers. Like thathasn’t been done.”“Whether it’s the prostitution thing or not, there’s something about thesewomen,” McCallum said. “They remind him of someone. And whoever it is,
he’s killing her over and over again.”“You think he killed the original?”“Perhaps. But maybe he couldn’t. She could have died of some other cause.Or maybe she got away, and he doesn’t know where she is.”“Let’s hope someone got away.” Petrosky stood. “The next one won’t unlesswe find him.”McCallum shrugged his fleshy shoulders. “That’s your department, Ed. Notmine.”McCallum walked him out, huffing as he tried to keep up.Petrosky kept his eyes on the hallway in front of him. He needed to find amore solid link between the victims, or at least someone else who knewsomething. It was either that or wait until the guy chopped up someone else andleft a clue. If he left a clue. Hannah Montgomery, the young woman who hadbeen a spitting image of Julie, flashed through Petrosky’s mind. He pushed theimage away and opened the door.Icy air brushed his face, but the wind was laced with the smell of grass andearth, a stubborn summer still rasping its final breaths.“Later, Ed. And I’m here to help you work things through, on this, or—”“I know, Steve. I know.”Petrosky flipped his collar against the breeze and headed for the precinct.“Petrosky!” Shannon Taylor’s long jacket flew behind her like a cape as shehurried toward him across the lot.“You looking for my rookie again, Taylor?”She stepped onto the curb. “Yeah. Where is he?”“Out. Tracking our vics.”“He’s good, Petrosky. Got an eye for details.”“I know. But he’ll be better.”“You’re taking a lot of time with him. You feel bad because his dad died, or—”“Did you need something, Shannon?”“No ‘Taylor’ anymore, huh?” She smiled. He didn’t.“All right, so I have a defendant in holding across the street. Former or
current prostitute, arrested on domestic violence, claiming self-defense.”“And? She needs someone to bail her out, and you thought you’d ask me?”“She says she’s been over to the shelter. Knew one of your victims—Trazowski. Kinda shaken up about it.”Petrosky squinted toward the street. The detention center hulked in thebackground. “You been pulling information from my rookie?”“Just talking.”“How long’s she got?”“Transfer later today to the William Dickerson facility. I told her we’dprobably cut her some slack if she cooperated with your homicide case.”“I’ll check it out.”Taylor started toward the precinct.“And, Taylor?”She turned.“Don’t mess with Morrison.”“I’m not messing with him. He’s nice. And unlike you, he doesn’t try to hideit from everyone.”“Thanks for the helpful tip, Taylor. I’ll let Baker know you said she needs toplead the fifth and focus on changing her name before you lock her ass up.”“You’re such an asshole.” She turned on her heel and walked away, cape-coat flapping behind her.It was the same goodbye every time. He smiled at her back and crossed thestreet toward the Ash Park Detention Center. Halfway across the road, anoncoming Chevy honked at him. Petrosky stopped in the street, forcing thedriver to halt with a squeal of brakes. He flipped open his badge. Deciding thatasshole looked appropriately chagrined, Petrosky left the street for the detentioncenter where a lady cop with a bored expression checked him through the metaldetector inside the front door.Inside, the waiting room looked like the DMV but felt more miserable, ifsuch a thing were possible. Behind a counter surrounded by Plexiglas, a manwith ghost-white skin and a face flat enough to have been run over with asteamroller raised caterpillar eyebrows, too indifferent to bother asking what
Petrosky wanted. A. Cook glinted off the badge on his chest.“Cook.”“Petrosky.”“Need a form. Got a few questions for one of your detainees.”Cook pulled a yellow carbon sheet from a drawer and slid it through thePlexiglas slot. “You make them sound like they’re on their way to Guantanamo.”“Some of them might as well be for all the good this place’ll do them.” Hescrawled on the form, and Cook pulled it back through the slot, a yellow tongueretracting into a Plexiglass lizard.“Give me ten.”Petrosky moved to the blue-upholstered chairs, set in rows across the middleof the room. Three seats away, a mother with stringy orange hair fed gummybears to an overwrought toddler, probably waiting for daddy to be brought to thevisiting area so they could pretend they were a family for thirty minutes. Behindher, a woman in a business suit picked at a hangnail with a faraway look on herface. Waiting on a brother or a father, Petrosky thought—someone far removedfrom her own station in life, but whom she just couldn’t let go.The door next to the Plexiglass-enclosed counter clacked open and theprevious round of visitors emerged, all from different walks of life, but allwearing the same expression: forlorn, defeated, depressed. Behind Petrosky, theexit whooshed open and closed, open and closed, bringing with it fresh bursts ofmisty winter that he could barely smell over the stench of hand sanitizer, drytoast, and cheap perfume.He took his place in line with the others, behind the woman in the businesssuit. She’d abandoned her hangnail and was now twirling her short, dark curlswith such ferocity that Petrosky expected one to snap off in her hand. Thetoddler was wailing somewhere in the back, a warning siren for his mother torun for the exit before whomever they were seeing sucked her down too. Shehushed the child as they walked single file through another metal detector andinto a holding pen between two bulletproof doors, then into the sterile-lookinginterior hallway that led to the visitor stalls.A young black officer with a drawn face and a full beard stood in the aisle
holding a list. “Chapman, second stall,” he said, gesturing with the paper towardthe first hallway. The woman in the business suit raised a hand, stumbledforward, and disappeared down the aisle.“Baker, end of the line.”Petrosky followed the officer’s finger to the last stall, where Sarah Bakerstood waiting for him on the other side of a chest-high cinderblock wall. Hepeered at her through the thick black mesh that ran from the top of the wall tothe ceiling. She was thick and stocky, the kind of girl you’d want on your side ina street brawl.She edged her face forward and squinted as if trying to get a better look athim through the mesh screen. “Who are you?” Her voice had the low huskyquality of a lounge singer.“Detective Petrosky. I heard you might have some information on JaneTrazowski.”“Oh, that.” A wet slap, the pop of bubble gum. “I met her at the shelter overthere on Hamerstein.”“LaPorte’s place?”“Yeah. Her and me were talking at dinner one night. She was real beat up.Bruises everywhere. Couldn’t hardly eat on account of her lip, all busted up.Even had those marks on her wrists, the kind from rope or whatever.”“She’d been tied up?”“Yep. Said the guy paid for the night, but he was into some kinky stuff. Gaveher twice her normal.”“Did she describe him?”Pop. “She said tall, I think. Not muscly like, but tall.”“Hair?”“I don’t remember. I don’t think she said.”“Eyes?”Pop. “She just said tall and that he was an asshole. Told him to stop, and hesaid he already paid her so she couldn’t say no.”Entitled fuck. “Sounds like an asshole, all right.”“So was it him? The one that killed her?”
“We don’t know. Where’d he pick her up?”She shrugged. “Didn’t say.”“Tattoos? Anything?”“Nuh-uh. Nothing like that. Just that he was mean, and she was afraid to gohome because he might know where she lived.”“So he picked her up close to her house, then.”Pause. “Well… I dunno. Maybe. Or maybe he dropped her off. I’m not sure.”“How long were you there with her?”“She left the day after I got there. You can only stay ten days at a time, but Ithink she was only there one or two.”“Where were her kids?”“I dunno.”“Why didn’t she bring them with her?”Pop. Pop. Pop. Petrosky waited.“I only really talked to her that once at dinner. Didn’t even know she hadkids.”“What’d you have?”“What?”“For dinner.”“Burgers.” Pop. “They were good. The assistant toasted the buns and stuff.”“Assistant?” LaPorte had called her “Hannah” at the shelter. Now his filereferred to her by her last name. “Ms. Montgomery?”“Uh…yeah, whatever. She was real nice.”Ms. Montgomery, the assistant, not Julie, his daughter. His stomachtightened anyway as he remembered the shock of the resemblance. “I’m sure shewas nice. I’m sure they all are.”“Sometimes they aren’t on account of them being hurt. It makes peoplemean. Some of us, anyway.”“Hurt?” Heat flared in his chest. He clenched his fist against his thigh.“Yeah, that girl—”“Ms. Montgomery.” Not Julie.“Yeah. She had a few bruises on her wrist. She covered them up real good,
but I know what it means when you have concealer rubbing off on your shirtsleeves.”“She ever mention who hurt her?” Petrosky asked.Baker squinted at him through the screen. “Why? Is she dead too?”
10FRIDAY, OCTOBER 30THI CHEWED my cheek and typed in another batch of dismissals. Engineer ErnieSmack was not nearly as intimidating on paper as his name suggested he’d be ifI tried to fire him in person. Luckily, Noelle had let him go this morning, and Iwas just helping her play catch up on her files. Not that I minded; I neededsomething to keep my brain busy so as not to end up in a padded room.So far, my efforts were working. Over the last week, things had been so quietat the shelter that my panic had finally subsided. And it was looking like the firstvictim was completely unrelated to the shelter or to me. When I saw herunfamiliar face on the news—bleached blond hair and polar bear white skin—Iwas so relieved that I didn’t even mind when Jake snapped the channel back tohis lame car race.This ride on the paranoia train happened all the time, and I wished I couldstop buying tickets. I once freaked out for three weeks after the news reported atall man with dark hair had strangled a female store owner whose face kindalooked like mine. Which obviously meant that he was trying to find me and gotconfused. I tend to be a paranoid jerk and not the cute kind that can feigninnocence about it. At least I’m aware of it, I guess.The horned owl on my desk glared at me. I should break his other ear off. Orget a plant for him to hide under.I looked up at the sound of heels clacking on the floor. Noelle stood at theentrance to my cubicle, smiling, her lips shiny from a fresh coat of gloss.
“What’s up?” she said.Just contemplating torturing an inanimate ceramic figurine. Also, someonemight be after me and killing girls I work with at a place you don’t even know Igo to.“Not much. Crushing people’s dreams and occupational aspirations with thetouch of a few buttons.”“Eh, I’m sure Dominic has a reason.”I stared at her, trying not to think about lying beneath Jake’s naked body theother night, eyes squeezed shut, swallowing Mr. Harwick’s name while Jakemoaned in my ear. “You’re on a first name basis?”“Well, no. But hopefully I will be soon.” Noelle winked.My face grew warm. Subject change time. I nodded at the other side of theroom and lowered my voice. “How are things with Ralph? He seems bummed,and he’s been watching you all day.”Noelle shrugged. “He wasn’t what I was after, I guess. Boring, you know?”There was something else in Noelle’s eyes, but it passed before I could get ahandle on it.“Anyway,” Noelle said, “how about we let off some steam after work?There’s a club downtown that I’ve been dying to check out. They keep sendingme ads. Maybe it will give me a little practice for the boss, or at least help mefind someone more interesting than Mister Excitement over there.” Noelle jerkedher head in Ralph’s direction.I needed to stop chewing on my lip before I ate it clean off my face. One day,Noelle was going to get tired of asking me to go out with her. Maybe she’d evengo find another friend altogether. Shit.“I’m not sure…I mean, I don’t know if Jake—” My wrist throbbed. I clearedmy throat. “I can’t.”“Girl, it’s fine. Next time, okay?” She waved her hand in that universalshooing-a-fruit-fly gesture.Ouch. I hoped I had better than fruit fly status—buzzing, fruit-stealing, poop-eating, assholes. Did fruit flies even eat poop? A biologist, I was not.“Yeah, next time,” I said to the owls since Noelle was already gone.
My cell phone rang. I grabbed it out of the bottom drawer.“Hey, baby. What’s up?”Jake was chewing on something, and the wet crunch of chips or pretzelsmade me want to gag. In the background, the television chattered about leasing acar.“Just working,” I said. Like you should be doing.“My mom wants us to come over for dinner tonight,” Jake said.“By ‘us’ do you mean ‘you?’”“Why do you always do that?” he demanded.I took a deep breath. He was right. I was in a horrible mood and in no shapeto be around his mother. Not that my heart ever swelled at the prospect of sittingin her living room, choking on cigarette smoke, watching her glower at me. Ishould run off with Mario, my silent but poisonous plant—or Horny the rage-faced owl.“Sorry, I just…I don’t think she likes me very much.”“She likes you fine. I just think…I dunno, I think maybe she wishes we’dgotten married before we moved in together.”I’m pretty sure she just thinks you can do better. I rose and peeked at Noelle,on the phone in her cubicle. Maybe making plans with someone less fruit-fly-like. My heart squeezed. “Actually, I’m going to work late tonight. I’ll get dinnerbefore I come home. You go ahead.”“Fine,” he spat.Don’t be mad, don’t be mad. “There’s some extra money in the drawer in thekitchen. Why don’t you grab some drinks and dessert for you and your mom? Iwon’t be too late.”The channel changed in the background. Game show. Judge show. Newsshow.How do you get your boyfriend to do sit-ups?Put the remote between his toes!There was a pause, then a sound like Jake was rummaging in a drawer. Theshuffling stopped. He must have found the money.“Well, okay.” His voice was softer. “Don’t spend too much on dinner.”
“Okay.” Like you should have any say where I put my money. “See you whenI get home. Tell your mom I said hello.”“I will. Love you.”Not mad. Thank goodness. “Love you too.”The line clicked, taking the chatter of the television with it. I tossed my cellback in the drawer and headed to Noelle’s cubicle. “Change of plans,” I said, myheart twitching with nerves or maybe…excitement.Her hand pressed against her chest in mock surprise. “You mean Little MissGoodie Two Shoes is actually going to go out and absorb some nightlife?”“I guess so. I just need to make sure I get back early. Like, maybe dinner, andthen we can stop in at the club but head out after an hour or so.”“Aw, but no one’s out at five, Hannah.”Jake’s mother usually slugged back half a dozen beers and smoked a packbefore she took Jake home. Last time I went to visit her, we got home atmidnight—not because we were having a blast, but because his mother hadfallen asleep on the couch and Jake said she’d be angry if he didn’t say goodbyeto her. “If we can get out of there by ten thirty, I should be fine.”“Okay, Cinderella, I will return you home punctually and as virtuous as whenyou left.” Noelle’s eyes said she would do anything to break that promise if Iwas willing. She smiled. “You won’t regret it.”ROBERT ATE a late dinner at Johnny’s, an Italian pizza kitchen around the blockfrom his house. The food was good but not great; eaten over a nondescripttablecloth and served by a nondescript waiter. Despite his obvious boredom, thewaiter looked expectant when he handed over the check like he thought hedeserved a tip.He’s going to be disappointed.The car ride was no better. Every accident within sixty miles was clusteredalong his route to the club. Robert bit back his rage as best he could, though itdidn’t stop him from aiming expletives and obscene hand gestures at an elderly
woman in a neighboring car. Her horrified eyes improved his mood considerably.Thomas was waiting for him at the entrance to the parking structure a blockfrom the club, eating something fluorescent from a small plastic bag in his palm.As Robert approached, Thomas held the bag out in offering. “Gummy bear?”Thomas’s tongue was green.Imbecile. “You look like a fucking leprechaun,” Robert said.The drone of music and lively chatter swelled as they neared the club. Eachdrew IDs for the muscled door attendant who was hulking behind rope chainsand currently squinting at the license of a skinny blonde wearing stilettos and aminiskirt that left half her ass hanging out. Slut. The bouncer waved her throughand stared Robert down over the top of his fake license. Robert stiffened.“Twenty apiece, pay at the door.” The guard handed Robert’s ID back andnodded at Thomas.They walked to the entrance, handed the cover charge to a grim-facedskinhead with barbed wire tattooed around his left bicep, and entered the club.Inside, the warehouse-like expanse stunk of stale smoke and the rank tang ofsweat. The place was already teeming with bodies, a mix of men and women insharp business attire as if they had come straight from work, and casually-dressed young people who gave off “regulars” vibes. A few slouched men incargo shorts and women in spaghetti straps scrutinized other patrons as ifdeciding whether anyone there was worth fucking.At the bar, a young woman in a tight halter dress approached a stodgy Tom,Dick, or Harry in an expensive suit. She rubbed her breasts on his arm andwhispered in his ear. Robert narrowed his eyes in disgust. The succubus alwaysfound her prey early.“There’s a table near the back,” Thomas said. “It must be our lucky night.”They threaded their way to a small table with a wraparound leather benchacross from the bar. The polished wooden tabletop was littered with emptyglasses and wrinkled napkins. A few tiny stirring straws were set up in a tic-tac-toe formation in the center.“Wanna play?” Thomas gestured to the straws.“Nah. I hear leprechauns suck at that game.”
Thomas stuck out his tongue, and it glowed eerily yellow under the blacklights. He really was an idiot.A redheaded waitress appeared wearing tight pants and a harried expression.Her lithe hands scurried like rabbits, clearing the table into a brown bin. She setthe bin at her feet and whipped out a small pad of paper from her back pocket.“What can I get you?”“Vodka and Red Bull,” Robert said.Thomas shrugged. “Whatever you’ve got on tap.”She scrawled the orders, shoved the pad into her pocket, and flashed them atense smile. “Be right back, guys.”Robert watched her over Thomas’s shoulder as she walked away, her hipssashaying more than seemed necessary. Maybe that was for his benefit. Maybenot. He frowned as she disappeared into the back with the bin and their tablescraps.Thomas was focused on the televisions behind the bar. Robert glanced at thescreen where a common-looking woman in a blue suit yammered into thecamera about something surely as tiresome as her flaring nostrils.“CNN, huh?” Robert said.Thomas met Robert’s eyes and grinned. “Nothing says it’s time to party likestock market updates.”Robert looked past Thomas again, but the redhead did not reappear. When hedrew his gaze back, Thomas was staring at him with knowing eyes, and Robertresisted the urge to throttle him.“You looking for our waitress?”Panic chilled Robert’s marrow. “Yeah, I’m thirsty.”“Aw, come on, man! You were staring at her when she walked away. Not thatI blame you.” He winked, tarnishing her.No, he could not let Thomas take this away from him, not if she was TheOne. There was no time to dwell; Robert felt her return in every cell of his body.She emerged through the doors, eyes alight with passion and the promise ofresurrection, of atonement, of a chance to prove himself worthy and noble. Hehad been noble once.
He could do it again.For love.And he had loved her, if only for a day during his senior year in high school.Mindy Haliburton. Each twist of her fingers, each bite of her lip had been a sureindication that she was trying to control herself. But she was ReverendHaliburton’s daughter.They were in the Reverend’s basement when Robert had pushed her to thefloor. “Don’t worry, Mindy. I understand,” he whispered.Of course he’d understood. He understood that by fighting him, by makingthe lust his alone, she might absolve herself of guilt and save herself from Hell.He understood that her thoughts were as deep as his, or she wouldn’t have askedhim there. And he surely understood that she wanted this, no matter what shehad to say to protect her reputation and her soul. Each desperate sound she mademirrored his own desperation, their mutual desire mingling with fear ofrepercussions, their need for one another overriding their terror.“No! Robby, stop!”But he heard what she really meant: Yes! Robby, harder!When it was over, she lay still, eyes bloodshot, face ashen and laced withtears. He stroked her cheek and ran his tongue over her bottom lip.You’re welcome.He had admitted to the rape, despite their mutual need. He had saved herfrom her own sins by sacrificing himself to hordes of inmates who had offeredno remorse, no leniency, no forgiveness. There was nothing more noble oneperson could do for another.Pride welled in his heart.“Here you go, guys.”Robert refocused his attention on the redheaded waitress as she set Thomas’sglass in front of him. She had a tinkling voice that grew a little hoarse as sheincreased her volume to be heard as if Pollyanna were trying her hand as a phonesex operator. Robert met her eyes. She did not look away. He touched her wristas she put his drink down, and electricity zipped up his arm, through his chest,and down into his groin. She pulled her hand away too quickly. Her eyes, once
warm, now emanated surprise and fear—and revulsion.She knew. She could feel it in his touch.“Can I get you anything else?” she asked, her voice suddenly not so muchsultry as irritating. Robert shook his head.“No thanks,” Thomas said with an idiotic smile, oblivious to the wholeexchange.But Robert was not. I am a doomed man, and she knows it.The waitress picked up an empty cup, her eyes wide. Watching him. Markinghim. The mark of Cain.No one will ever offer me forgiveness. He kept his gaze on her, memorizingher features as she retreated.Especially her.“Earth to Jim! You hear what I said?”Robert blinked at Thomas.“Two just walked in, our age, both of them gorgeous. The blonde lookedright at me.”Robert ground his teeth together. They’d surely sense his wickedness andmark him like all the others. But if there was any chance, any at all…His jaw relaxed.“They’re in the booth next to us. We should say hello.”“Yes,” Robert said, plastering on his best come-hither smile. “It would becruel to make them wait.”THE HANGOUT WAS A POSH ESTABLISHMENT, but the bouncer shooed Noelle andme in without asking us to pay the cover, which made me feel attractive and alsoa little like a prostitute flaunting her wares to save twenty bucks. The musicpounded through immense speakers and strobe lights pulsed flashes of red andyellow, green and blue, in time to the music. Noelle stood on her tiptoes to scourthe seating situation, then dragged me to a back-corner booth across from thebar. The vacating couple was still collecting their drinks when she clambered
into the seat. I waited until they disappeared into the crowd and sat as ourwaitress approached.Noelle ordered a daiquiri. I got a cranberry juice with lime.“I better take it easy on these,” I said when the drinks were delivered. “Idon’t want you to have to carry me out of here.”Noelle laughed, but it was hard to hear her over the music. I watched herface, trying to decide if I was supposed to be making conversation as shescanned the room. I settled for working on my drink.Within minutes, the booth began to feel like a prison. A gopher in my chestclawed at my rib cage. I pictured the rodent from Caddyshack and squinted atthe subtitles on the muted television behind the bar, half expecting Jake’s face toleap onto the screen, eyes radiating disapproval. I really need to get out more.“Hey, need some company?” Two men stood next to our table, drinks inhand. The one who spoke was blond, with chiseled features and a wide mouth.His taller, darker companion looked like he had just stepped off the cover ofG.Q. His eyes were sharp like a hawk’s and ringed with aqua, the uniquecoloring visible even in the dim light of the club. As our eyes met, a pang ofmemory flittered across my mind and disappeared. My breath caught, but I couldno longer remember why.“Sure.” Noelle scooted toward me in the booth, and the blond slid in besideher. I moved to the end to avoid being squished.“I’m Thomas,” the blond said, offering his hand. Noelle took it and smiled athim.“I’m Jim,” said Mr. G.Q. He was watching me, presumably waiting for me totell him my name, but my mouth was too dry to speak. When I said nothing, heparked next to Thomas.Noelle raised her voice over the pounding music. “I’m Noelle, and this is myshy friend Hannah.”Thomas waved, and it was so exaggerated and goofy that I almost smiled.Jim bowed his head once. “Nice to meet you, Hannah.”I picked up my juice and put it to my lips instead of responding. Socialawkwardness was a bitch. Dammit, Hannah, act normal!
Noelle glanced at me and turned back to the guys. “So, Thomas, what do youdo?”“Yoga.” Thomas’s voice was strained, speaking over the music, but it wasstill mellow somehow. Calm. “I also play on the jungle gym whenever possible.Buy catnip. Not for me, mind you, but that doesn’t make it less true.”Noelle laughed. “No, for work.”“We’re both in the automotive industry,” Thomas said, pointing to Jim.“Being in the Motor City, it was between designing cars and starting a Motownboy band. But I can’t dance.”Noelle’s eyes were on Thomas’s face as she shifted toward him and put herhand on his arm. “Original. Most guys just go for ‘I’m a big-shot lawyer’ or ‘I’man engineer.’”Thomas’s smile was infectious: straight, white, genuine. “I have to play tomy strengths. I’m better at creative dialogue than dancing anyway.”Noelle laughed harder than I’d ever made her laugh, and a pang of jealousyhooked my stomach.“Did you go to school here?” Noelle asked him.“Yep. University of Michigan,” Thomas said.My head throbbed in time to the music. I set my glass on the table next toNoelle’s.As if remembering there was someone else at the table, Noelle took her handoff Thomas’s arm and sat back in the booth. “How about you, Jim? Where didyou go to school?”Jim sipped his drink and watched me like he hadn’t heard her. It wasprobably my overactive imagination, but it didn’t stop the niggling at the base ofmy skull. There was hunger in his fixed stare like he wanted to eat me alive.“Cal Tech,” he said finally.I turned my head and looked across the way, behind the bar, toward thetelevision again—anywhere to avoid Jim’s eyes. The view wasn’t any better overthere. On the flat screen, a spunky young newscaster feigned seriousness while,behind her, police officers walked by with a black body bag on a stretcher. It wasthe same shot that had been on replay for weeks as the media exploited the
murders of two young women. Jane and what’s-her-name. Meredith. I winced.“Scary stuff,” Jim said.I turned toward him but kept my eyes on his forehead.“Don’t worry, they’ll catch him,” he said.“What makes you think it’s a him?” Noelle asked.Jim’s head cocked to the side. “It always is, isn’t it?”Noelle’s face darkened so briefly that I thought Iimagined it.“Things aren’t always as they seem,” Thomas said, and his voice wassolemn, all trace of humor gone.The hair on my arms stood.Jim painted an abstract in the condensed water on his glass. “I mean, it’salways some dude who is so fucked up in the head that no one else wantsanything to do with him. Look at Dahmer. Same story, different guy.”Noelle elbowed me lightly. “Hannah, you okay?”I cleared my throat. “Yeah, I guess I…feel a little sorry for some of thoseguys. Not the murdering part, but the part where they’re so desperate that theythink their only option is to kill someone.”There was a pregnant pause. Did I just say I feel sorry for murderers? If onlyI were a magician so I could disappear. Behind us, the black lights flickered off,and neon strobes swept over the room like searchlights seeking to highlight mystupidity.“Hey, how about another round of drinks?” Thomas asked, summoning thewaitress with his trademarked goofy wave. Noelle giggled and nodded heragreement.Thomas was my new personal hero. I’ll call him Captain Awkward, and hecan come to my rescue in ridiculous social situations. It was an ingenious plan.So why was my skin still crawling?I twisted toward Noelle, but she was whispering in Thomas’s ear. In myperipheral, I saw Jim, openly staring at me, his eyes alert and sharp and…famished. My heart backflipped. No. Don’t panic. Not now.Too late. I couldn’t breathe. I grabbed my cranberry juice to loosen my vocal
cords, and the cup slipped, splattering juice down the front of my shirt.“Shit.”Well, at least you can still talk. “I’ll be right back,” I croaked like someonewho had just turned from a princess to a frog but without any of the royalpizzazz. I squeezed through happy women, angry women, and dancing couplesto where a hand-painted wooden sign decreed Ladies above a little stick figureof a person in a dress. I was wearing jeans. I considered using the men’sbathroom to make a point but jerked open the door to the ladies’ room.The bathroom was crowded but only for the stalls. In an alcove off to theside, I found a place at the sink and scrubbed at the stain with a wad of wet papertowels. The stain spread. I scrubbed harder, trying to avoid the buttons, so Ididn’t tear them off. Other women walked by to the other sink, but noneacknowledged me. I kept my eyes on the bleeding stain.Why couldn’t you just have a vodka tonic like everyone else?Because you can’t handle being out of control even a little bit.A little more water, some soap, and a ream of paper towels later, the spot hadfaded from maroon to a sickly pink—still visible, but better. My heart hadslowed as well. I looked into the mirror.Shit. Under the florescent lights, my cream-colored blouse was almostcompletely see-through. Shit, shit, shit. At least the stain had covered myundergarment. Now, the outline of my bra was clearly visible to everyone.I stepped to the hand dryer and jabbed the button, half squatting andstretching the blouse as best I could to get the fabric under the airflow. The dryerstopped humming. I pushed the button with my elbow, and frantically tried to getthe material back into the perfect place before the hot air stopped again. By thesixth round, I was smashing the button, less worried about the shirt, and moreconsumed with the desire to kick the dryer into space. Why couldn’t the thingjust keep going? Like anyone’s hands really got dry in one push!“Hannah? What are you doing?” Noelle stood in the doorway, eyebrowsraised. I desperately wished for a sudden power outage so I could make agroping, awkward run for it.“I was…trying to get this blouse to work again.” Out of the corner of my
eye, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror: hair askew from the errant dryerwind, cheeks flushed with exertion, and that fucking shirt stretched and hangingoff my front, a disarray of transparent ripples.Noelle began to laugh. I joined her, and once I got going, I had no ability ordesire to stop. Tears rolled down my face and mingled with the sweat ofpanicked shirt drying. Three other women walked into the bathroom and tossedeach other knowing looks. Wow, look who’s already had one too many, theirpursed lips said.I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. “Can we take off, please? This isenough excitement for one night.”“Aw, come on! We’ve only been here for an hour! Plus, with your invisibleshirt, you’re finally in something club appropriate. Maybe you’ll even get laidwhen you get home! Nothing like a little ooh and aah to make theembarrassment worth it, right? Though, I’m not sure Jake knows how to get youto make those noises anyway.”Point taken. “What’s the difference between ooh and aah?” I said.Noelle raised her eyebrows.“About three inches.”We collapsed into laughter again. Noelle was the first to catch her breath.“Let’s get our stuff. I already got their numbers, but I want to say goodbye. Here,take this.”She handed me her cardigan. I pulled it on and followed Noelle out of thebathroom toward the table. The guys stood when they saw us—impressive,actually—but it didn’t change anything.“I’m sorry, gentlemen, but we have to head out,” Noelle said.Thomas’s face fell. “But it’s so early! Is there anything we can do to changeyour minds?”Noelle shook her head. “We had a little wardrobe malfunction.”Their banter faded in my ears. Jim’s eyes roved over me, as engaged as if Ihad suggested we strip naked and hula hoop. The prickle of goose bumps I’d feltearlier returned with renewed ferocity. I touched Noelle’s arm and jerked myhead toward the door.
“Hopefully, we can get together again soon,” Jim said.I tried to force a polite nod, a grin, some kind of acknowledgment, but mybody was shouting no way in hell. Noelle and I weaved toward the exit throughthrongs of club-goers smelling of Axe Body Spray and desperation. It wasn’tuntil we reached the street that I felt my body relax as if an invisible wire hadbeen cut.“WHY THE HELL would it be okay for you to go to a club?”My face was on fire. “I wasn’t there for long, and I didn’t dance or anythinglike that.”“Did you talk to anyone?”“Well, yeah, but—”“What the fuck is wrong with you?”Why did you tell him, Hannah? “The club was next to the restaurant. I just—”“Who’d you go with? Are you fucking around?”I put a hand on the table behind me to steady myself. “No! I…saw Noelle,this girl who works with me in HR. She always asks me to come out with her,and I always refuse because I know you wouldn’t want me to. But I was rightthere. I thought she might get suspicious or something if I said no.”“Suspicious?” A flash of understanding. Not enough.“I mean…I don’t know.” My back was dewy with sweat. The table. Focus onthe table.Jake stepped toward me, face inches from mine. “Are you fucking listeningto me?” I could barely hear him over the thudding of my heart.He grabbed my arms in both hands. “Look at me, goddammit!”“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Jake, I just thought that—”“Why do you make me do this to you?” He released me, violently. Mytailbone hit the table, and I yelped.Just get it over with. Be done.“I need to get the fuck out of here to calm down,” he said. “You’re fucking
worthless; you know that?”I watched him stalk into the hallway. The door slammed.You’re worthless. I am the only one who appreciates you.Let me show you how much I care about you—I ran through the living room to the bathroom and dropped to my knees infront of the toilet. One of Jake’s pubic hairs stuck to the seat. My stomachmuscles lurched, but nothing came up. The world wavered. I gripped the sides ofthe toilet bowl.In, out…in, out…I shouldn’t have told him where I had gone. No, I shouldn’t have gonesomewhere that I wasn’t supposed to be. I was a damn liar and nowhere nearclever enough to do the right thing or avoid pissing him off. Maybe I should stopworking at the shelter, too, before he found out and had another reason to getangry.A scar on my ankle throbbed wetly. In the past, it had been worth bleedingthe dejection from my veins with a straight razor. The pain had worked to clearmy mind because it released calming endorphins, though I suspected the hurtalso served as a distraction from my shitty life. But I wasn’t that girl anymore.Maybe if I did just a little. It wouldn’t take much to make my head stopspinning.I won’t go back.I stood on wobbly legs, leaned against the counter and stared into the mirror.Pale cheeks, like Casper, but not as adorable. See? As long as I could crack ajoke, I would be okay. I smiled shakily at my reflection.You’re okay, Hannah.I splashed my face with cool water, toweled dry, and walked out to the livingroom. All was silent except for the television that had been left on low. Thewhole place felt utterly abandoned. I touched a large brownish stain on thearmrest of the empty couch. Sticky. I sighed instead of crying.Beer bottles and old magazines littered the coffee table. I was bending topick them up when a cold chill shivered down my spine. Someone waswatching. I jerked around, envisioning a figure emerging from the shadows, but
the room remained empty.Outside. The curtains were open, window cracked—probably so Jake couldsmoke a bowl without me knowing—but now the darkness beyond taunted mewith far more terrifying unknowns. I clasped the papers to my chest and movedcloser to the window, peering down at the empty street below. What wouldhappen to me if Jake left for good?Get it together, Hannah. There’s no one there. No one’s going to come afteryou; you’re not that important.I was important enough to him. And I’m sure I made him furious. I slammedthe window shut.The living room took half an hour, the bedroom another forty minutes. Whenall was tidy, I finally felt like I could breathe again. As I brought dirty rags backto the kitchen, I stumbled over my purse on the floor and grabbed the wallet offthe top. But I already knew—my cash was gone.THROUGH THE GLASS FRONT DOOR, the man saw Jake rush out of the stairwelland into the lobby. The man had no time to escape across the street withoutdrawing attention to himself, so instead, he grabbed the front door handle as Jakeemerged.“Pardon me,” the man said.Jake glared back, his stained T-shirt showing beneath his wrinkled, openjacket.“A friend of mine is having a party here tonight, but I seem to have left theaddress at home. Can you tell me where Sandra Henson lives?”Jake snorted. “How the hell would I know?” He scurried down the walkwithout waiting for a response.The man held the door, watching Jake’s back until it was swallowed up bythe night. Then he let the door swing shut and crossed the street to a buildingthat had once been a family home, but was now a tailoring service for children’sclothes by day and vacant every evening after six o’clock. He ducked under the
awning and considered the boyfriend.An unexpected encounter, but not concerning. Jake would be less apt to thinkit strange when they met again.And they would.His breath hissed steadily in and out, merging with the brisk, dry air, and thetwigs that skittered across his path. A short distance from his shoes, the grassshimmered under the glow of the streetlight. He wore the shadows withoutconcern for passersby; she lived on a street populated with people who went tobed early. Was it by chance, or by her conscious design? Probably the price. Andthe fact that there were fewer people to hear her boyfriend yelling at her like aNeanderthal.And then there she was, a silhouette against warm lamplight, moving, almostdancing as she wiped the glass. She had stayed up late as if she knew he’d bethere.He inhaled the crisp scent of leaves and musty earth. Interesting how quicklyhe had found her once he began looking in earnest. It was equally intriguing thathe wasn’t yet sure whether he would kill her, whether he would pull out herinsides and watch her writhe like the others.Usually, he knew a woman’s date of death from their first meeting. This timehe felt the question throbbing between his ears, wrapping his mind in aconundrum.“Hannah.” He let the name play on his tongue, tasting the syllables, savoringthis single piece of her he now possessed. Hardness strained against his zipper.He watched closely as she spun from the window, clicked off the lamp, anddisappeared into the blackness of her apartment. Satisfaction tingled around theedges of his brain.The night birds squalled as the light in Hannah’s bedroom turned on. She didnot pass the windows, no more bustling around trying to forget her uselessboyfriend, not even a shadow as she dressed for sleep. Perhaps she was alreadyin bed. The wind pulled at his jacket, the cold sharpening his focus on herwindow until the song of the night birds faded in his ears. He could almost hearher breathing. And still the light remained.
Hannah must not be sleeping well. He suspected it was because of him.
11MONDAY, NOVEMBER 1STWHAT A DIFFERENCE A WEEKEND MAKES.On my desk, a vase of tulips brightened my cubicle with a silent but sincereapology. Three were already wilted, but they did their job all the same, even ifthey had been bought with money from my purse. At least I hadn’t had to pay forthe deliciously long back rub that had lulled me to sleep last night.I should pick up something special for him on the way home. Maybecondoms.I was the most romantic girlfriend ever.Also, on my desk, three stacks of new hire packets fluttered in the dry heatfrom the vent. I blinked hard to wet my corneas, and an eyelash stabbed me inthe eye. I tried to blow it off. It stuck. I brushed at it until the stubborn bastardcame out, then finished entering the last of the new employee data from thesecond stack.I took my completed work to the filing room and found Noelle already there,shoving personnel files into the cabinets with practiced precision. “Hey there,stranger! What’s been going on?”“Same old, same old,” I said, trying to sound casual but feeling guilty as hellfor not calling Noelle back this weekend.She squinted at me. “You okay? What happened?”“Jake was a little pissed about the whole clubbing thing, but we made up. Nobiggie.”
She wiggled a file into place. “I just don’t understand what you see in him. Ikeep thinking about what you told me when my dad died. All that stuff about ittaking more than blood to build a relationship, so I wouldn’t feel bad for hatinghis ass. But all Jake ever gives you is grief, and you don’t even—”“I really do love him.” My pulse quickened, and I swallowed hard. “He’s hada tough time finding work, so I think he’s stressed.” I just needed to talk to himmore. Be more understanding. At the least, I could avoid intentionally doingthings that I knew would make him upset.Noelle touched my hand. “Hey, I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t mean it. I’m just alittle tired.”My heart slowed at her backpedaling. But… Noelle, tired? There were nobags under her eyes, and the whites were clear, probably more clear than mineafter my renegade lash incident. She looked…peaceful. Happy, even. “You’retired? Why? Did you go over and mess around with Ralph? He looks like hecould go all night long.” I tried to smile.“I went out with Thomas last night.”Jim’s creepy, weirdo eyes flashed across my consciousness and disappeared.“How did it go?”“Dinner was good.” Her words caught almost imperceptibly like a leafhitching on a breeze that doesn’t ultimately possess enough power to change itscourse. Noelle closed the drawer and bent to open the one below it, but kept herface buried in the files. “He’s an interesting guy. Really…different from anyother guy I’ve met. He’s funny but not like he’s trying to be.”“Did you…you know?”Noelle closed the file drawer and straightened. “Nope. He came back to myapartment, but he didn’t even try to get in my pants.”“Really? I mean, he likes women and everything, right?”Noelle laughed at my joke, but not as hard as she had laughed at Thomas’s.“Yeah, he likes women. He’s just…nice. Cautious, you know? Respectful. Plus,he’s kind of a homebody. Would rather hang out in the woods or at home than beout partying.”I took her place in front of the cabinet and opened a drawer. Noelle was
happy with a homebody? She wasn’t determined to drag him out clubbing withher?Or is it just me that she needs to take out? Am I not interesting enough on myown?I stuck a couple folders into the drawer. “So, what did you do at yourapartment?”“Talked for a few hours. And ate ice cream.”I closed the drawer. “Come on, Noelle. You have to do better than that. Howelse am I supposed to live vicariously through you? I need details!”“If you feel like you need to live vicariously, then that just proves you’remissing something in your real life. Jake seriously needs to step up his game. Oryou need to make better friends with your vibrator.”HANNAH LAUGHED, but her eyes glazed over as if she were thinking somethingshe didn’t want to say. Noelle’s stomach clenched.Note to self: Don’t talk about Jake. Just the mention of that jack-off madeHannah’s mouth tighten up.Noelle ground her teeth together to keep from screaming at her friend to kickhis ass out. She knew Hannah wouldn’t, and she no longer cared why.“Good enough,” Noelle said. Good enough if you don’t care about beinghappy.She avoided Hannah’s eyes.There has to be a way to get him away from her.I TOOK a bite of the roasted vegetables I had made for dinner. “I just can’tbelieve I got everything done today. I’m glad I was able to sneak out of there ontime.”“Well, I know you’re good at your job. You’re good at everything you do. I
appreciate the way you always take care of me.”His words softened a touch of the frostiness I had felt when I walked in andfound beer bottles all over the kitchen counter and the garbage overflowing. Butbeing angry at him wouldn’t push away this feeling I had that someone was afterme, and it certainly wouldn’t help if I pushed him away and ended up alone. Istared at the table and wielded my fork like a bayonet as I finished my veggies.Better the carrots than a person. Probably.I should buy myself some more flowers.After dinner, he slothed off to the living room, though sloths are cuter thanthe face Jake makes sucking on his after-meal cigarette. Maybe instead of Mariothe philodendron, I would get a tree, so Jake could hang out in the branches allday on his machete claws, looking dull. Doing nothing.I washed the dishes with irritation burning in my chest like a nasty infectionyou couldn’t scratch lest you make it spread. I tried to picture the flowers on mywork desk. I should have brought them home so I could be more easily remindedof the good things. Things like the way he used to hold me when I was too afraidto sleep, though he thought I was just an insomniac. And the compliments usedsparingly, so I knew he really meant them. And what about that time he spent allday cleaning the apartment after he got angry and…well, there were other goodtimes, too. Lots of them.When the last dish was clean, I poked my head into the living room whereJake was glued to the TV, eating what looked like a fast-food apple pie from apaper sleeve. “I’m going to get the mail.” My voice dripped annoyance, but if heheard it, he didn’t acknowledge it.“Mm-hmm.”He even talks like a sloth. I rolled my eyes and yanked open the apartmentdoor, but glanced back toward the living room once more as if really expectingto see a sloth lounging on Jake’s recliner. The television droned on, flashinglights on his face as he chewed with his mouth open.I squared my shoulders and hurried down the hall and downstairs to the wallof mailboxes. A slip of white paper poked from the corner of my box, probablyan advertisement for housekeeping services. Or pizza delivery. Maybe a new
takeout restaurant. My keys clattered against the metal doors as I unlocked thebox and grabbed my bills and the rogue paper. A scent like lilies wafted into mynose, but it was sharper, more acidic. Citrus. Oranges, maybe. Weird. Perhaps I’dbe a scent detector if this thing at Harwick didn’t work out. But they already hadGerman Shepherds for that. Doggie jackasses, stealing all the good jobs.I opened the mystery sheet.JakeMiss you, babe! Come down tomorrow after she leaves for work. Ipicked up that lingerie you like and some whipped cream. xoxoMeJake? Snakes in my stomach awakened and writhed. Acid climbed to mythroat. Behind me, someone entered the building, and the blast of bitter airturned the dew on my skin to ice. I fled to the stairwell. My feet on the metalstairs thudded like an executioner’s drumbeat.How could he do this to me? I reached my floor and grabbed the door handle,but it was heavy, much too heavy.No one else will ever put up with me the way Jake does. Maybe I shouldn’tsay anything about it at all.I let go of the door and collapsed on the top stair, face against the dilapidatedrailing. My tears tasted metallic.Just leave. Run. Start again.Stay. Don’t say anything. It’s not worth fighting.I won’t make it on my own.So what? What have you got to live for anyway?My hiccuping gasps echoed around me, then, from the phone in my pocket, atext message plink: Baby, where’d you go?The snakes lashed themselves against my esophagus. I wiped my tear-stainedface on the sleeve of my shirt and stood, fist clenched around the letter. Lingerie.Whipped cream. I had never had a chance.
THE APARTMENT DOOR clicked softly closed behind me. Sometimes the beginningof the end was a whisper. I resisted the urge to throw myself at his feet, begginghim to stay.“Where’d you go?”I stared at my shoes, the wall.“What’s in your hand?”“The…mail.” No use delaying the inevitable.He snatched it from me. “What the fuck is your problem?”Paper rustled. I walked around him into the kitchen and turned back to facehim, my butt against the dining table.“What the hell?”Jake flicked the letter with two fingers. “I have no idea who this is! It mustbe for someone else.” His face was flushed, neck corded.Don’t talk. Tears slid down my cheeks. I swallowed back bile.“Baby, it isn’t for me! Someone is fucking with you. I want to marry you!I’ve asked you a dozen times!” His hands clenched into fists when I didn’trespond.“How could you even…so what, it’s over now? We’re not going to getmarried? I have to start all over?”I clamped my lips shut, stealing glances at him, gauging his distance.I’m sorry, forget I said anything, please don’t hurt me!I don’t care who you screw, please don’t leave me alone!His knuckles were white. “You’re going to believe some stupid note overme?” His voice grew louder with each word, escalation steeped in rage. “We’vebeen together for years, and you’re just going to throw it away on this shit? Whatthe fuck is wrong with you?”Don’t speak. You’ll make it worse.Jake’s fist unclenched, and everything around us slowed until there was onlythe motion of his hand, reaching along the counter. A weapon? A knife? Myheart slowed too, then seemed to stop, the throbbing of my chest replaced withwhite noise, so deafening I couldn’t even hear what he was shouting, thoughspittle flew from his moving lips. Then movement, sudden as lightning. He
grabbed a plate from the stack of drying dishes, and I flinched, preparing for thepain, for the shattering glass to embed in my skin. It flew past me, and the breathfrom the hurtling dish whispered in my ear: Run. Run away. I flattened myselfagainst the table. Don’t move. Watch the wall. Nothing but the wall.Footsteps pounded toward me, reigniting the furious beating of my heart, andthen he was there, his breath hot with rage and reeking of tobacco. His fistslammed into my temple with a dull, wet thud. Stars exploded behind my lefteye, and I was falling, plunging over the edge of the table, crashing against thelinoleum. Pain roared up my side.He panted above me, breathing fast, much too fast. I curled into a fetalposition and squeezed my eyes shut. I waited. No more blows landed.“I’m done. I’m fucking done,” he said. I heard footsteps stomping away fromme, and then the door slammed.As my tears puddled around my throbbing head, I wondered if I wouldsurvive without him.IT WAS DARK, as it had been in his younger years, though he no longer waited inpatient silence for the feathery kiss of tiny legs to climb over his dirty bare feet.Nor did he listen for the disembodied groans coming to him through the closetdoor, or the wet thwack thwack thwack of skin-on-skin, those strange songs thathad once held a faint promise that maybe he would eat tonight.He stretched his eyes wide, adjusting to the gloom. As a child, he had oncewondered if he could develop superhuman sight if he strained hard enoughagainst the dark; comic book superheroes certainly had no less outlandish waysof acquiring power. But he had dismissed the idea just as quickly, even then.Most children will believe anything. He’d believed nothing.Moans filtered through the memories and snapped him back to the present.The drugs must be wearing off. The man on the table groaned again, louder thistime. He could get as loud as he wanted; no one would find them here.The cement building had long been abandoned, each stinking puddle of rat
urine a tribute to all the wretched lives that had once spent time in these rooms.Crumbled walls, crumbled dreams. From the windows on the upper levels, apower plant lit by feeble floodlights was visible in the distance, belching eerieclouds of grayish smoke into the obsidian sky.Cities like Ash Park were punctuated by isolated pods of despair where thesilence was so complete that even vagrants seemed to avoid them. Here, a childcould go undiscovered for weeks on end before anyone in the apartment buildingnoticed the smell of their mother’s rotting corpse. These streets felt like homeand beckoned that quiet child back into focus.But he was not a child anymore.Around him, the basement room had retained its shape, unlike the rubble-strewn rooms on the above floors. A lantern in the corner cast the floor andceiling in amber. His captive was on his back, supine and naked, stretched acrossa four-by-four-by-six concrete table constructed from cinderblocks and coveredwith a clear plastic tarp specifically for this occasion. The filthy gray cementmade Jake’s pale skin stand out in striking contrast, though he was still jaundicedby the yellow glow of the lantern. Above Jake’s head dangled a single, unlitfluorescent light bulb in a battery-powered goose-necked lamp. A flick of theswitch turned it on.Jake opened his eyes in the sudden blinding light and worked his mouthbehind the duct tape, squinting like a woman readying herself for a beating. Ashis mother had. As perhaps Hannah had. But there would be nothing so trite aspunching happening here tonight.With latex-covered fingers, he reached for the small instruments he’d linedup on the floor. Scissors, chest clamps, nails, scalpel. Scalpel. No, stopwatch.How could he forget? He reached for it and pushed start, betting on fourteenminutes and twenty-two seconds with a forty-five second margin of error beforeJake stopped screaming. Only once had he miscalculated, but that had beenenough.He grabbed the scalpel and held it up. Jake’s eyes bulged. Behind the tape,his captive leaked a whining screech, the squall of a bird seized by feline jaws.He moved the scalpel to Jake’s clavicle and slowly, slowly, sliced rib cage to
sternum. A bright red line appeared and swelled to a garish stream that gusheddown Jake’s sides and formed slick puddles on the plastic tarp. Grunting andhuffing, now fully alert to the precariousness of his situation, Jake strainedagainst the cuffs—arms, then legs, then both in a helpless dance.He peered into Jake’s eyes. The expression was familiar, and he stopped mid-cut, the scalpel buried in hair below Jake’s belly button. They all made that sameface at the end. Fear? Anger? Maybe the look of recognition when someonerealizes they are about to die. Desperation, perhaps.Desperation would not save him, though. Nothing would.He returned to his task, cutting the thin skin of the abdomen and cleavingslowly through flesh and fat and down to the muscle. The struggling manshivered as the muscles split under the blade. He set the scalpel aside. Jake’smuffled howling disintegrated into thin yelps and squeals.It won’t be long now.He peeled the layers of skin back and secured them in place with hardwarenails, then pressed his fingers into the cave of Jake’s belly, prying the rupturedmuscle back to expose the cache of organs beneath. He wrapped his fingers in acoil of intestine and pulled.Jake panted through his nostrils. His eyes rolled back in his head, his breatherratic and fast.No more screaming. Satisfied, he dropped the spiral of intestine and pushedthe stop button on the watch, leaving a bloody fingerprint on its face. Thirteenminutes, fifty-eight seconds. Still within the margin. He smiled and picked up thescalpel.Drawing his attention back to the tangle of organs that had once been a man,he picked up a length of intestine and sliced it open, watching the yellowed, pus-like contents drip into the open abdominal cavity. The scalpel slid smooth as silk—not the slightest hesitation in the tissue as if it wanted nothing more than togive up its treasures.But no insect.This time he had waited several hours after forcing the roach down hisvictim’s gullet, so perhaps it had already made it through the small intestine. He
should at least be able to spot the legs and shell; roach exoskeletons wereadmirable in their ability to remain at least partially intact through the durationof the digestive process. He remembered that well enough from his childhood,along with the way they smelled: that oily, musky odor that set his mouthwatering even now.It was an amazing thing, how a human being could survive and function onso little nourishment. How a handful of cockroaches every day and theoccasional loaf of bread could sustain a child for years at a time.Simply incredible.He ran a finger over the soft, slippery tube of intestine as if it were Hannah’scheek, envisioning her face when she heard the news: her eyes getting hazy, thenoverflowing, her arms reaching for him.She might cry out of genuine sadness.He dismissed that possibility, giving it twelve-to-one odds in favor of tears ofrelief—if she cried at all.Jake was a waste of a human. It made no logical sense for anyone to misshim.