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FATAL OPTION – EXCERPT

PROLOGUE

 

FATAL OPTION cover

 

 

The blizzard winds hit the bedroom windows with brute-force, the wump sounds registering in the recesses of Stephen Porter’s mind as he hugged the extra pillow and yearned for a blackout sleep to take the sad night away. His arms and legs were heavy, his sinuses swollen from the emotions that had struck the moment he had climbed into bed. From downstairs he heard the faint chimes of the grandfather clock—a lonely sound resonating through the sparsely furnished rooms of his sprawling suburban house.

Wump

The windows shuddered again as he slipped into a deeper doze. He sensed a vague threat in the sound—a notion the glass might break as it persisted—

WumpWUMP

—louder now, nudging its way into the dream-space between wakefulness and sleep, still a part of the physical world of his bedroom and his house . . . but with a reverberation of the past.

No, he thought.

Not again—

Not tonight—

He tightened his hold on the pillow, as if it would slow the backsliding feeling; tried to move against the solid weight on his chest as the sound and the memories took him back to another kind of storm, with gusting winds and thunder and lightning shattering the heat of an August day. Back to the rapid-fire deluge of rain on the roof. And the sight of it overflowing the gutters and pooling in the streets. And the conversation at the front door, riddled with assurances that did not ring true.

“It’s 9 o’clock.”

“But I have to go—”

“It’s not safe—”

The voices had a tinny, ethereal tone, and gave way to images triggered by both certainties and imaginings of what must have been:

The Lexus, silver-gray in the steely downpour, backing up and driving away.

The rain obscuring visibility as it traveled from the neighborhood streets to the highway and then toward the mountain to the north.

The Lexus moving too quickly for the weather or the narrow road as it climbed, up and up toward the mountain’s highest perch.

The Bluetooth ringing, the calls ignored as the speedometer needle swept higher, and higher—

50

60

70

“STOP!”

He felt a jolt in his neck as his eyes flew open, the sound of his voice—either imagined or spoken—still echoing through his mind as he sat up—

And heard the ringing phone, a dislocated sound amid the nightmare images still flickering through his mind as he looked at the clock:

12:13

He rubbed his eyes as the room began a slow turn around him, and listened as the next ring was interrupted by the click of the answering machine kicking in with his own recorded voice:

You’ve reached the Porters. We’re not here right now—”

His temples throbbed as he reached for the receiver, and knocked it to the floor.

He groaned as he picked it up.

“Hello?”

He heard nothing in response. The connection had broken. He thought of his son, Kenneth, soundly asleep in his room down the hall, and his daughter, Sara, at her friend Madison’s house, just four blocks away.

Nothing to worry about.  He sucked in a deep breath, willing his mind to calm. Everybody’s okay.  

He gazed at the empty space beside him as the phone rang again.

There was a mild tremor in his hand as he answered.

“Hello.”

“Daddy . . .”

The line filled with static as the windows shuddered from another gust of wind.

“Sara?” He pressed the phone against his ear and spoke louder. “I can barely hear you.”

“Something happened—”

There were several seconds of silence before her voice came through again.

“—scared. I don’t know how—”

He heard a dial tone. His heartbeat quickened as he turned on the bedside lamp. His cell phone was on the dresser, plugged into the charger. He scrolled to Sara’s number, and went straight into her voice mail.

The landline rang again. He snatched it up.

“Sara, what’s wrong?”

He heard more static. “The Jeep won’t start—I’m stranded. Can you come pick me up?”  

Stranded? The word hit him wrong. He remembered that she had driven to Madison Reidy’s house; remembered cautioning her about the icy roads. But if she had had car trouble it would have taken no more than five minutes to walk back home.

“Is Madison with you?”

Sara sniffled. “No.”

“What do you mean, no?”

“I’m somewhere else. I really need to get out of here.”

“Where’s Madison? Where’s her mom?”

“I don’t know. I’m not with them.” She paused, and took a deep, audible breath, as if mustering her composure. “I’m really sorry daddy—”

And then she started crying—with hard sobs that made it sound as if she was struggling to catch her breath.

Stephen pressed the phone harder against his ear as he opened the bedside table drawer and scrambled for a pen.

“Sara, tell me where you are. What’s the address?”

“I’m . . . at a house, with a boy from school. It’s 4334 Rolling Road. Off 15 North. Up on the mountain. Can you please hurry?”

And then they were cut off again.

He sat on the edge of the bed and tried to process what he had just heard. Sara was not with her friend Madison. She had lied to him about where she was going. And now she was stranded, at a house on the mountain.

On Rolling Road

Images from the nightmare rushed back—with memories of that same narrow, two-lane roadway, hemmed in on both sides by towering trees, undoubtedly coated with snow and ice—             

“Hell,” he whispered, his heart racing as he reached for his jeans and pulled on a heavy corduroy shirt. On the table next to the bed was an empty glass, a reminder of the last shot of straight bourbon; one on top of way too many before. He remembered sitting alone and sipping it slowly, doing his best to blot out the sadness that had followed him up to his room.

It had been less than an hour since that last drink and he knew it was still coursing through his system as he went into the adjoining den where he kept his computer. He turned on the overhead light—a bright white flash that sharpened the pain at his temples—went to Google, and typed in the address.

A map came up. He recognized the arc of Route 70 and the bisecting line of Route 15, and then the turnoff to Rolling Road, a zigzagging thoroughfare that led up to the top of the mountain.

The address Sara had given him—4334—was marked by a green arrow on the screen. He stared at it for a long moment, wondering how tonight—of all nights—she had found her way there.

And then he got moving, returning to the bedroom, where he pulled a pair of woolen socks from the drawer and took a wintergreen Life Saver from the bedside table, the taste reminding him of the antacids that he had been downing almost every day. A wave of nausea made him gag as he moved out to the hall and down the curved stairway. Into the foyer with its green marble floor. Through the kitchen of granite and steel. Into the two-story family room, where the air had grown chilly in the deepening night.

He scribbled a note—GONE TO RESCUE YOUR SISTER IN THE SNOW—on the family message board on the extremely unlikely chance that Kenneth would wake up and come downstairs before they got back, then grabbed his barn coat from the mudroom and stepped into the garage.

Harsh overhead lights flickered on as he pushed the button for the automatic door. It rose a few feet and came to a squealing stop halfway up. He cursed and hit the button again. Like every other upgrade in the new house, the mechanized door had been installed by the builder. It had been on Stephen’s mental list of things that needed to be fixed for over a month but he still hadn’t found the time.

A gust of wind blew a spray of snow into the garage as the door finally rose all the way. He took the shovel from its hook on the wall and moaned, “Good God Sara, you’re gonna kill me,” and stepped out into the brutally cold air to clear a path from the driveway to the street.

He was panting and sweating when he finished, his vision vibrating as he reached for the handle of the driver’s side door.

You drank too much, he thought. Shouldn’t drive.

He swung the door open anyway, and dropped heavily into the seat of the Ford Explorer and turned on the ignition and backed slowly down the sloped driveway and tapped the brake, which sent the car into a sideways skid before stopping at an angle just before the sidewalk.

It’s a blizzard.

Nausea crept up the back of his throat.

Probably even worse, at the top of that mountain.

He sat for several seconds before another option came to mind, then reached into the back pocket of his jeans for his wallet, wincing at the dull twinge of pain that the shoveling had brought to his lower back. He turned on the Explorer’s overhead light and sifted through the unorganized jumble of credit and business cards until he found the worn membership certificate for AAA. The print was small, blurry in his vision, readable only when he squinted.

He tapped the number into his phone and cleared his throat as he looked out at the snowbound night. There were five other houses on the street, all equally grand and new, and all lived in, Stephen expected, by middle management executives who had migrated to the outermost suburbs in the quest for bigger houses, better schools, and safe distance from urban problems. After five months he still knew his neighbors solely by sight since most, like himself, left by 7 a.m. and returned after dark as a result of monstrous commutes to work.

He felt a twinge of loneliness as his gaze came back to his own house, and as he thought of the all the empty rooms inside.

The operator from AAA sounded harried when she finally answered and he had the feeling she was only half-listening as he told her about the disabled Jeep and gave her the address Sara had called from. There wasn’t a trace of give in her voice when she told him there was absolutely no chance of getting it towed any time soon.

His offer to pay a premium was answered with a weary sigh.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do. We have three tow truck operators in your area and all are backed up with calls because of the storm.”

Stephen cleared his throat, conscious of the tightness of his grip on the phone.

“Look, I’m really worried. My daughter’s only seventeen. She was very upset when she called me. She was crying—scared. I think she’s in trouble.”

“Then maybe you need to call the police.”

He shook his head. The idea of cops going to Sara’s rescue made him even more uneasy. He wanted to believe her crying was an overreaction, perhaps to the heavy snow and the lateness of the hour and the fear that she was going to be in trouble for lying to him.

“You have to help her,” he said.

The dispatcher hung up.

“Shit!” He punched his fist against the seat as a hard gust of wind hit the Explorer, blowing the snow sideways and nearly obscuring the sight of the house at the top of the long driveway. He narrowed his eyes, seeing a double image of the gauges on the dashboard, and swallowed back the sickly-sweet blend of wintergreen and the lingering taste of alcohol in his mouth; the sensations hitting him like a warning, urging him to heed the dispatcher’s advice.

He dialed 911 and nervously tapped his fingers against the wheel.

“911. What is your emergency?”

Stephen told her about Sara’s call.

And realized his voice was slurring.

The pause that followed worried him; made him wonder if she had figured out what kind of condition he was in. As the silence lengthened he heard the voices of other dispatchers in the background, an undertone of tension among them.

“Hello—you still there?”

“Sir you need to call the non-emergency line at 445—”

“This is an emergency! She’s stuck by the side of the road in a goddamn blizzard!”

There was another pause; the sound of typing on a keyboard.

“I’ll notify the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, sir.” The woman’s voice was a monotone. “We’ll ask a deputy to respond.”

“You have to…please.”

The call ended.

He leaned forward and pressed his forehead against the wheel as he replayed the conversation. He considered the possibility of doing what he had been told and simply waiting until someone from the Sheriff’s office reached his daughter, and then realized that the dispatcher had not even asked for a number where he could be contacted.

He sat back, gripping the wheel with both hands as he thought about the panic in her voice, and about Rolling Road with its blind rises and sharp descents; the hairpin curves that led to Brighton Gorge—

You can’t just sit here.

Can’t leave her up there.

“God help me,” he mumbled, and backed out of the driveway and into the street, the Explorer’s back-end sliding sideways over the icy pavement as he righted the wheel, a torrent of snowflakes blowing into the windshield as he drove into the night.

# # #

Part One

The Day Before

1

The day began in the pre-dawn darkness as Stephen stared at the LED numbers on the alarm clock and counted the minutes until the verdict would be delivered.

I’ll send you a text when the decision comes in, the insurance agent had told him, but we’ll need to talk it through on the phone.

The agent had told him not to expect the text before 7:30 a.m. but he checked his cell the moment he got out of bed any way, and checked it again after he stepped out of the shower. He thought about making the call himself—catching the agent on the way into the office, but decided to focus instead on getting Kenneth and Sara off to school.

They were at the breakfast bar when he stepped into the kitchen, arguing about some kind of special shampoo, purchased by Sara, appropriated by Kenneth, and now at the center of an argument that made him wonder if his two children were about to come to blows.

“It cost me six dollars Kenneth.”

Kenneth gave his sister a cool sideways look under the shaggy honey-brown hair that swept down to his eyebrows.

“I told you I’d pay for some of it,” he said as he reached for the box of cereal.

“Even though you used more than half the whole bottle. Which you took from my closet.”

“The closet’s in the hall. It’s not all yours.”

“Well you have your own closet, with your own stuff. Which is twice the size of mine.”

“God, are you really fighting over closet space?” Stephen wrinkled his brow in mock anguish as he poured a cup of coffee and sat down between them. “If so I wish you’d stop.”

Sara crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re going to take his side?”

“No.” He kept his eyes on hers, but reached across the countertop, his palm up. “Kenneth, give me a dollar.”

With a slight, knowing smile, his son reached into the pocket of his jeans and put a buck in his hand.

Stephen squinted down at the money, and shrugged. “Well, maybe.”

“Dad!” Sara’s eyes widened with indignation.

He laughed. “What can I say? Money talks.”

“And bullshit walks.”

“Whoa . . .” Stephen sat back and frowned at the harsh language and the sour expression on his daughter’s face. “When did you start talking like that?”

“What does it matter?”

“It matters. I’m your father, and I don’t like it.”

She said nothing. Her insolent look spoke for itself.

“You’re going to apologize, right?”

Her eyes turned glassy.

“Sara?”

“I’m sorry I said that to you. But sometimes I just hate him.”

Kenneth, appearing unfazed, poured the cereal into his bowl.

“You don’t hate your brother,” Stephen said.

“Sometimes. He acts like such a queer.”

Kenneth looked at her. “Which is better than being a bitch.”

Jesus, would you two stop?”

His children went silent, but continued to radiate a smoldering anger at each other. Stephen was once again amazed at how the bumpy rhythms of stress and hormones could flip their moods in an instant. Even so he knew it was only a matter of time—minutes or even seconds—before they slipped back into the natural rapport that had bound them together from the earliest moments of childhood. They had been born one year and one day apart and he often found himself thinking of them as if they were twins, linked on some kind of emotional see-saw, their moods interdependent, with the happiness of one always balanced on that of the other.

Sara picked up the milk carton, read the label, and set it back down.

“What’s wrong with the milk, Sara?”

“It’s whole milk. Which means it’s loaded with fat.”

“You don’t need to worry about fat.”

“Right, tell that to my butt.”

Stephen smiled at her self-deprecating humor, then reached over and brushed her hair away from her cheek. Sara had her mother’s gray-green eyes and clear, pale skin, and a lovely, heart-shaped face that still projected a pensive innocence even under the heavy makeup she had been favoring.

He glanced at his watch, knowing he needed to get a jump on the traffic, but decided he wanted to sit with his kids for a few minutes longer.

“So, what kind of day are we going to have today?”

“Terrible,” Kenneth said.

“Horrific,” Sara added.

“Well all righty.” He clasped his hands together, grinning as if all was well. For a fleeting moment the gesture made both of his kids smile. “Really, what’s happening?”

Sara poured a dash of milk into her cereal bowl. “A test in physics and a stupid role-playing thing in Spanish, followed by various grossities in the cafeteria.” She picked up her spoon and tamped down the cereal. “Drama club this afternoon. I won’t be home till late.”

“What about you, Kenny boy?”

“Just the usual stuff. Classes. Studio art—”

“Getting clobbered,” Sara interrupted.

“Shut up!”

“Well you know it’s going to happen.”

Kenneth was glowering at his sister, his strawberry blond complexion blotchy with embarrassment.

Stephen treaded carefully. “What‘s going to happen?”

Kenneth stared down at the table without responding.

“Yo, Ken.” Stephen used his buck up voice. “Somebody giving you a hard time about something?”

Kenneth pushed his cereal bowl aside and avoided Stephen’s eyes. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

But you have to, Stephen thought. He wanted to get up and hug his son, but at fifteen, that was the last thing Kenneth would tolerate.

So talk around it. But let him know you understand.

“You know, high school basically sucks,” he said.

“Now who’s cursing?” Sara countered.

“It does!” Stephen laughed, and turned to Kenneth. “Tell her I’m right.”

Kenneth gave him a grudging smile. “Yeah, you’re right.”

“So, what the heck. Before you know it, it’ll be over. Then you’ll go to college, graduate and get a job. Get a big mortgage. Add a few lumps to the waistline. End up like your old man.”

 Kenneth met his eyes. “Oh. Great.”

“I can’t believe you said it sucks,” Sara said. “Especially after giving me a hard time about my BS comment.”

“Well, you know my approach to the whole parenting thing. Do as I say, not as I do. Besides, I’m the dad. I have special rules.”

Sara sighed. “Whatever.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Stephen replied. “Who loves you?”

Sara gave him a weary look. “You do.”

“Kenny?”

“You.”                                                                                   

“God it’s so easy living with teenagers. I should write a book about how great I am at it.”

Kenneth and Sara both managed a brief smile across the table, a moment of solidarity in acknowledging the absolute lameness of anyone over thirty. Stephen saw it and relaxed, hoping that enough had been said. His daughter was troubled but undoubtedly tough enough to withstand the pressures of boys and body image that her mother had always predicted. His son was a sensitive kid who was being forced to deal with bullies, but Stephen was almost certain that the smart-ass Porter attitude would carry him through.

His cell phone chirped. He glanced over to the kitchen counter where he had set it down, and anxiously looked at the screen.

It was an incoming call from his office, not the insurance agent.

He put the phone back down.

“Are you going to get that?” Sara asked.

He shook his head, and tried to smile, feeling desperate to maintain the happy feeling the moment of humor had given him, like catching a ray of sunlight breaking through gray clouds.

Focus on something to look forward to, he thought. Something to keep this connection going.

He thought of his brother and his wife and their twin teenage daughters, who were lifelong friends of Kenny and Sara.

“We should talk about this summer. Instead of going to the beach, I’ve been thinking about Uncle Frankie’s place in the Finger Lakes.”

Another cell phone rang. Kenneth reached into his pocket. Sara gave him a don’t bother look, said “It’s mine,” and grabbed the purse slung across the back of her chair.

“Can you answer it later?” Stephen asked.

She retrieved her phone, and frowned at whatever she saw on the screen.

“Sara, please?”

She stared at the screen for a moment longer, and put the phone face-down on the table.

Her posture was suddenly stiff. She looked past him, toward the window that offered a view of the backyards of the neighboring houses.

Stephen sighed. “Frankie emailed me yesterday. He’s got a new boat—”

 The cell phone on the counter rang again.

 “Damn it!” Stephen snapped.

The spell was broken. Sara and Kenneth both stood up and rinsed their bowls and put them in the dishwasher, and then trudged up the house’s second stairway, which led from the family room and kitchen to their bedrooms. Stephen stayed at the table, determined to finish the mug of coffee without interruption. A brief chime from the phone told him that a message was waiting. He glanced at the clock, thinking of another ten-hour day at the struggling public relations firm where he’d worked for more than a decade. Lately every block of time he had with his kids could be measured in minutes, and almost always with an underlying sense of fear they were slipping away from him completely.

“Oh, crap,” he muttered as he stood up and then dumped the coffee into the sink and headed into the foyer and up the front stairway into his own wing of the house. He took the last few steps of the morning ritual: brushing and gargling, then tightening his tie and checking the slight jowl under his chin and the exhaustion and sadness that now seemed permanently ingrained in his face.

“Okay, wheels up!” he called out.

He went to Sara’s room and realized she had already gone downstairs as he stood at the threshold to what had recently become an “off-limits” space. For as long as he could remember his daughter had been fascinated by costume drama movies and historical fiction, and had decorated her walls with movie posters and artistic photography. He recognized the images that he had glimpsed on the rare occasions when her door had been left open, but noticed they were now interspersed with dark and disturbing images that didn’t seem to belong: Gargoyles, robed figures, strange shadows under arched doorways.

Goth

He felt a sense of unease. He was still trying to get used to the dark clothes she had come to favor, and to worry less about the great stretches of solitude that she seemed to crave behind her bedroom door. He wanted to believe that he was witnessing nothing more than a harmless phase of adjustment to the new realities of his family’s life.

Yet the anxiety lingered as he stepped back and moved down the hall to Kenneth’s room, an airy haven built over the garage. He started to call out, but through the half-open door he caught a glimpse of his son in front of the mirror over the bathroom sink. Kenneth was tilting his head and gazing at the way the light struck his hair as he combed it. There were highlights that Stephen was fairly sure hadn’t been there a few days earlier, which explained the special shampoo, another one of his son’s experiments …

He remembered the recent, nasty bruise that Kenneth had claimed to be from a fall. Thought of him being clobbered amid taunts as the high school mob mentality gained its inevitable momentum.

Jesus

He took another few steps back so Kenneth would not know what he had seen, his voice unsteady, as he called out “Time’s a wastin’, Kenny boy.”

There was another moment of silence, long enough to make him wonder what else his son was up to as he waited outside his bedroom door.

“Kenny?”

“Ready.” Kenneth stepped into the hall and shut the door behind him, as if sealing off his personal territory.

Stephen followed him down to the foyer and opened the door to a blast of Arctic air under a light gray sky. He turned on the radio as he warmed up the Explorer. The weathercaster was going on and on about the incoming “weather situation” and its likely impact on traffic later in the day as he headed out of the subdivision, then heard the beep of an incoming text.

Violating his rule to keep his hands off his phone whenever he was behind the wheel, he looked down and saw the message from Denise Wong had finally come.

He tapped it open.

Stephen, the investigative committee has reached a decision. Please call me to discuss this.

 He set the phone down on the console and gripped the wheel with both hands. Denise Wong had been his insurance agent for more than twenty years and he knew that she too had anxiously awaited the “decision” that would be part of his family’s history for the rest of their lives.

He was still thinking through the best and worst scenarios when the sharp blast of sirens filled the air.

He froze, his arms and shoulders rigid as he looked in the rearview mirror and tried to see past the column of SUVs and trucks behind him. Three Frederick County Sheriff’s cars and an unmarked sedan streaked by on the shoulder and made sharp right turns into the garden apartment complex ahead.

An ambulance came next, but it was moving slowly, the driver making only a marginal effort to get through the heavy traffic. Stephen pulled over to the shoulder, and waited for it to pass. Its ambling, lumbering pace felt like an omen for the news that Denise Wong had to share. Ambulances raced to accidents to save lives, but they were also called to carry away the dead, when nothing else could be done.

The thought was like an undertow, pulling him toward the darkness. He took a succession of deep breaths, and swiped the moisture from his eyes as he prepared for the day ahead.

# # #

2

Madison Reidy pulled her Range Rover diagonally across two spots at the inner edge of the Langford Secondary parking lot—a fairly bitchy thing to do since spaces were limited, but totally necessary given the probability of dents and scratches from juniors in crappy cars who were still learning how to drive. She was glad to be there fifteen minutes early, which gave her ample time to re-do her eyes and figure out the best way to get even with Sara Porter.

She turned off the ignition and checked her phone. Sara had ignored her text message from twenty minutes before, which only made her angrier as she dialed Marco Niles.

He answered after the first ring. “What?”

The sharpness of his tone startled her. Her mind raced with worry that she might have done something to annoy him. “Are you okay?”

“What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

“You sound mad.”

“I lost my wallet.”

She exhaled, feeling relieved. His anger had nothing to do with her. “Oh no. Where?’

“I don’t know. Somewhere.” He sounded short of breath, as if he had been running. But then she heard a rumble of an engine, and guessed that he was behind the wheel of one of his father’s Hummers, on his way to school. “Any way, what do you want Madison?”

She paused, and brought a wounded sadness to her voice. “Sara Porter is such a bitch.”

“What—why?”

He sounded surprisingly anxious. She knew she had his full attention.

She made a vague sniffling sound, as if she had been crying.

“She called me a whore.”

Silence on the other end. She had an uncomfortable sensation—a sense that he might be smirking, given the lengths she had gone to over the weekend to try and keep him happy.

“Marco?”

“Why did she do that?”

“I don’t know!”

“What are you gonna’ do about it?”

The question set her back. In her mind, Marco would be the one doing something about it, not her. She tilted the rearview mirror down to look at her face. Her eyes were what her mother called Indigo Blue and they looked absolutely gorgeous in contrast to the dusty rose blush on her cheeks and the fresh, sunny highlights in her thick dark blonde hair. She would need more lip gloss before she saw Marco at lunchtime.

She squinted slightly, and found just the right words. “I think her brother wants to give you a blow job.”

What?

“I’m serious. You should have heard him working on that display outside the Art League yesterday, talking to one of the other freaks about the aesthetic symmetry or some shit. But of course he got distracted when you walked by.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“He said you had a nice ass Marco.”

She heard him gasp.

“And I wasn’t the only one who caught it,” she said. “Tyrone Nichols and Jerome what’s-his-name were walking by and I could tell by the way they glanced at each other they heard it too.”

She waited a moment, for effect.

“I hope they don’t jump you in the locker room or whatever. You know, once word gets around—”

“Holy shit.”

His voice was breathless, as if he’d been punched in the stomach.

“You really shouldn’t be surprised Marco. You already knew Kenneth Porter is that way.”

She heard the squeal of brakes, and imagined him pulling off of the road and overcome with anger. A flighty sensation coincided with the quickening of her heart as she saw Sara Porter’s beat-up Jeep heading toward her, with Kenneth in the passenger seat. Kenneth met her eyes with a shy smile and a tentative wave. She felt a fleeting moment of guilt over the lies she had just told, but decided that in essence they were pretty much true.

“Marco, are you okay?”

“No, Madison, I’m not okay.”

She thought of her mother and the soothing voice she sometimes used after a couple of hours with her “life-coach;” the post-orgasm moodiness that usually precipitated a night of boozy psychobabble.

“It’s really bad for your karma to be angry, Marco.”

She gave Kenneth Porter an exaggeratedly sweet smile as the Jeep rolled by, and then glanced at a group of fellow cheerleaders who had gathered on the sidewalk; all of them waiting for her to step out and accompany them so they could proceed, as a group, into the school.

“But you need to find a way to deal with it if you are.”

* * *

Sara had a bad feeling in the brief moment of eye contact with Madison in the parking lot and tried to ignore it as she dropped Kenneth off and watched him head into school. He hadn’t said a word to her in the car, and had been noticeably nervous, gripping his black leather portfolio as if he was terrified someone was going to suddenly rip it away. She felt badly about the way she had talked to him at breakfast, knowing that she had only added to the anxiety of another day at a new school without a single friend to count on.

The sense of doom stayed with her all the way into the afternoon, and spiked with the text message from Madison that arrived during the last class of the day.

fuck u

It was a clear escalation from the one-word text—FREAK—from the morning. The message had stunned her when she had read it in the kitchen, in front of her father and Kenneth. It was cruel, even for Madison, and she could only hope that eventually her former friend would get bored and find someone else to torture.

She glanced at the clock over the door and was relieved to see the hour ending. She closed her laptop and slipped it into her shoulder bag just as the bell began to ring. On the way to the door she had to walk past a girl who was part of the clique that followed Madison’s every move. She made a feeble effort to offer the girl a distant smile. Over the past few days she had attempted to adapt an attitude—or at least an appearance—of indifference to her lack of friends, but she knew that her emotions were betraying her. She was almost certain that Madison and her crew knew she spent much of every day on the very edge of tears.

Just get past her, she told herself. Don’t give her another thought.

Langford Secondary combined grades seven-through-twelve and sprawled over acres and acres of what had once been a big farm. Sometimes it took a full five minutes to get from one class to the next. Fortunately, her next period was in the immediately adjacent wing, and designated as her tutoring time for Aidan O’Shea, a sweet, sensitive, autistic eighth grader who probably wouldn’t have even been at Langford without the guidance of Kieran, his beloved older brother.

As always her mood lifted with the certainty that Kieran would come by the tutoring center at the end of the session. After so many weeks of “friendship” she still felt as if she was under some kind of spell every time she looked into his beautiful pale blue eyes or ran her fingers through his wavy, black hair, or simply gazed at him as he walked the hallways, a teacher who somehow got away with wearing jeans and steel-toed boots and silver studs in his ear, projecting an almost forbidding sense of authority and a mysterious, irresistible vibe.

The happy feeling stayed with her as she passed the Art Wall, a large cinder block space at the interior of the building that had skylights instead of windows and a long wall that had been turned into a display space for the most creative and least popular oddballs in the entire school.

As expected, Kenneth was there, sitting on the tile floor, his attention focused on the sketchpad on his knees. Last week he had told her that his art teacher had given him his first “commission”—a large collage for the wall that would combine photography, graffiti art, and picture frames placed in what Kenneth had called “a deliberately random way along the whole piece.” She had rolled her eyes and called him “pretentious” but had actually been interested in what he came up with. So far the wall was blank but there were two large leather satchels leaning up against it, most likely containing some of the photographs Kenneth had either taken or gathered from the innumerable places in the cyberspace where he spent most of his time.

Even from a distance she could tell he was completely absorbed in whatever he was drawing. She glanced at her watch, told herself don’t worry, he’s fine, and turned around to head to her class.

Everything that happened next occurred very quickly. At the far end of the hall, amid the dense crowd of students in motion, she caught sight of Kieran, standing with his arms folded across his chest, playing the role of hall monitor but somehow finding her, focusing on her across the vast space. The connection between them felt like an electric current, a hum that vibrated through her whole body as she gazed back. She stood completely still but she felt him touching her from a distance; felt a tingle in her breasts and the feather-light brush of his lips, his hands stroking her neck and running through her hair . . .

She wanted to walk toward him but found that she couldn’t move. Even so her knees were vibrating as if an electrical current bad become trapped within her. She stayed that way for an infinite moment before a loud smack made her turn around. She saw Kenneth standing, and then walking backwards, his eyes wide with terror at the sight of Marco Niles advancing. There was a forward hunch in Marco’s broad shoulders and his fists were balled at his sides. She had a brief view of the tile floor as the crowd parted around them, saw the scattered photos and realized that the smacking sound had come from the leather portfolio, upended by Marco and then tossed back down.

Marco shouted “Faggot!” the word cutting like a firecracker through the air.

Panic flooded her thoughts but she remembered what she had told herself she would do when this finally happened.

A witness; a teacher; you need a teacher to witness—

She spun around; searched frantically for Kieran; saw nothing but the blur of teenagers; turned back toward Kenneth, hidden now, hemmed in by a tight circle of football players—Marco’s friends—blocking the view. But then Kenneth’s head rose briefly above the crowd. She realized then that he was being lifted off his feet by Marco Niles and heard a sickening umph as he was slammed backward against the wall; heard it again as she rushed toward her brother and screamed “GET AWAY FROM HIM” just as a fist flew backward, hitting her hard in the stomach and knocking her to her knees.

Bright white light flashed in her vision as Marco finally stepped aside and gave her a full-on view of Kenneth, his eyes half-open and dazed, the blood streaming from his nose as he slid down the pale yellow cinder block wall.

* * *

“They’re ruling it as a suicide, Stephen. I’m really, really sorry.”

Denise Wong’s voice sounded as if it was coming from the end of a long tunnel, her tone as surreal as the message she was conveying. Unable to respond, Stephen pinched the space between his eyebrows and shut his eyes. In quick, flickering images he saw his wife coming briskly down the stairs and pulling her jacket and umbrella out of the hall closet; recalled her drawn, anxious expression during the mysteriously awkward conversation in the foyer; his mind capturing in freeze-frame the downward tilt of her head as she stepped out the door and into the rain.

Her last-minute appointment with the decorator they had hired for the new house had been scheduled for 9 p.m. At 8:45, according to the official police report, a driver had rounded a bend and seen her Lexus at the bottom of Brighton Gorge, filling with water from a flooded stream. The man had called 911 and then climbed down the embankment, and had nearly been swept away by the fast-moving current as he tried to reach her.

“The investigators are wrong,” he said. “Lori would never . . .”

He looked at the closed door of his office and fought to hold back the tears.

“I honestly don’t believe it either.” Denise told him. “Unfortunately the lead investigator said he can only look at the physical evidence.”

The evidence. No seat belt despite the fact that Lori always buckled up. No sign that she ever touched the brakes. No way to challenge the investigator’s estimates that his wife had hit a speed of 70 mph as the car struck the guard rail, then flipped and tumbled down the gorge.

“They’re only seeing what they want to see,” he said.

Denise was silent. In the weeks leading up to this moment she had advised him of his right to contest the decision that would be made by the insurance company’s claims department if it wasn’t what he wanted to hear. She had assured him there would be “due recourse,” but not without expensive lawyer fees, and depositions, and arguments that would dredge up the details of Lori’s death again and again.

He had also endured numerous conversations with the Frederick Sheriff’s Department Detective, which had been repetitive and draining.

Something’s not right, Mr. Porter.

Call me Stephen.

All right, Stephen. I think we need to go over this again.

He turned his attention back to Denise. “Did the committee look at Detective Caruso’s statement?”

He heard the click of her fingers on a keyboard and a sense of resignation in her voice as she responded.

“They looked at everything, including the report that came in last week.”

Stephen sat up straighter. “Last week?”

“There was an addendum from Detective Caruso. Basically just saying that the investigation would be ongoing, which means, I think, that he also still has questions. But he reiterated the medical examiner’s determination of the cause of death.”

Stephen pressed his fist against his lips and thought once again about the circumstances that had been in the initial report:

The malfunctioning airbag.

Her head hitting the windshield.

The water rushing in.

“He also conveyed his concerns about the note,” Denise said.

The note had been addressed to “My Wonderful Family.” Stephen had found it underneath the hand mirror on Lori’s chest of drawers the day after she died. It was typewritten, and printed out on plain white paper, and unsigned. Just a simple short letter describing her “deep sadness” and desire to end her life. It had been dated the day of her death, but Stephen had found no trace of it on the computer he and Lori shared, nor on those used by Sara and Kenneth.

“I told Detective Caruso, Lori did not write that note.”

“Well I’m here for you if you have any other questions,” Denise told him. Her voice sounded more grounded now, more in tune with her professional persona as a representative of the insurance company that went by the slogan, “Agents for Life.” Stephen remembered her office walls were covered with Asian art conveying various symbols of luck and fortune.

The thought of those images only made him feel more worn-out as he whispered the question that had been at the front of his mind for five months.

“What am I gonna tell my kids?”

Your mother loved you, he thought. She would never leave you.

“Stephen, I’m so sorry. If you need to talk to someone—”

He set the receiver down on the desk, disconnected the line, and felt a hollow, scraping sensation at the back of his throat as the receptionist buzzed him.

He hit the speaker button. “I’m not taking any calls, Carole. I need to be left alone.”

“It’s Sara calling. From school. She said it’s urgent, Stephen. I think she’s crying.”

# # #

 


DOUBLE ABDUCTION – EXCERPT

EXCERPT FROM DOUBLE ABDUCTION

ONE

Stealing a child in broad daylight could be tricky, but the shopping mall almost made it simple. Blending easily with the crowd, the abductor followed Mary Bennett and her brother Michael from a distance of 30 feet, feeling a restrained sense of excitement as Mary’s son, five-year-old Justin Bennett, took advantage of a moment of inattention and slipped away.

Eyes trained like a laser at the top of Justin’s head, the abductor followed. There was a moment of hesitation when the child stood among a large, slow-moving group of shoppers, looking back at his mother and his uncle to see if they had turned around and noticed his absence. Seeing their backs, Justin followed through, heading quickly and more deeply into the crowd.

The abductor moved swiftly, following the child back toward the direction from which Michael, Mary and Justin had come earlier. Spotting the boy’s likely destination long before Justin could see the store sign above the adult bodies in the crowd, the abductor walked ahead, passing within four feet of him. Justin Bennett had a dark red wine stain on his right cheek. It was a birthmark that would have brought him misery in adolescence. As a five-year-old it made him easy to identify, which made taking him riskier still.

Moving ahead, but glancing occasionally back to ensure Justin was making progress, the abductor made quick notice of two exits, one on each side of the mall, and both within a 30 second walk of the store where Justin Bennett was surely headed. Once the grab was made, it would be easy to get to the van on the second level of the garage. Once inside, his little body would be laid down on the back seat floor and covered with a blanket, unnoticeable to the attendant as the van exited the lot.

After that the task would be simple, nothing to do but get Justin Bennett to the relay point one hour away. Shortly afterwards, the boy would be dead.

The store that drew Justin away from his mother and uncle sold discount shoes from shelves that went up nearly six feet, with narrow aisles in between. The aisles were crowded with stray samples and half-empty shoeboxes, and the single clerk on duty was flustered by a long line of customers at the counter.

The child was apparently drawn back to the store by a double life-sized standup cutout of Captain Steel, a Saturday morning cartoon character that was now branded to a line of children’s shoes. Today for Justin Bennett the character was like a Pied Piper, a bright burst of color from 20 feet away. For marketing purposes the cutout had been placed in the middle of the store, to draw customers deeper into the midst of the merchandise.

Hidden by the tall shelving, the abductor stood four feet behind the display – a perch that was just a little over an arm’s length away from the statue. The abductor was fairly certain that the child wouldn’t have time to protest, but it was important to plan ahead just in case. With a quick but careful movement, the prick of the needle would feel like nothing more than a light scratch on the boy’s arm. Within 30 seconds the liquid Valium shot into his bloodstream would render him semi-conscious. He would be carried silently away, the wine-stained cheek hidden by the abductor’s shoulder, looking like an anonymous child headed for an afternoon nap.

A muscular little boy in denim coveralls, Justin approached the display with a grin. His eyes were wide as he stared open-mouthed, then quietly uttered “cool.”

“Justin!”

The abductor jumped back at the woman’s voice, retreating behind the tall shelves an instant before Mary Bennett rushed down the aisle and grabbed her son. Mary was shaking, holding Justin as if protecting him from an attack of pit bulls. Attracted by the commotion, the other shoppers had left their own aisles and were gathering around her now.

Still concealed, the abductor watched through a narrow opening in the shelves as Michael Bennett came through the crowd. Apparently brother and sister had split up for the panicked search. Michael’s face was pale, his breathing labored. He looked as if he’d run two miles.

Stopping a few steps away from Mary, who still held the boy tightly, he leaned forward, his hands on his knees, and waited until his sister met his eyes.

“He okay?” Michael asked her.

She nodded, and looked back down at her son.

“We were worried little buddy.” Michael reached over and touched Justin’s shoulder. “We got scared when you ran off like that — .”

“You were supposed to be holding his hand.”

The coldness in Mary Bennett’s voice made Michael visibly tense.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“I know you’re sorry Michael. But that wouldn’t have helped us.”

Even through the narrow space between the shelves it was easy to see the sag of Michael Bennett’s shoulders. At 25, Michael was in peak condition and he had obviously been working out with heavy weights, trying to look like the bodyguard he no doubt imagined himself to be. From the tone in his sister’s voice the moment of inattention would cost him dearly.

And it would hurt her trust in him even more.

The abductor felt a small sense of satisfaction, something to counter the frustration of losing a perfect opportunity. Michael and his sister were standing near the front now, chatting with the clerk, who was offering Justin a lollipop. Mary was shaking her head, saying no. Her light brown, shoulder-length hair had the texture of silk and during the search several strands had loosened from a barrette and drifted forward across her high, narrow cheeks. She was 5’8 and a good 10 pounds thinner than she should have been, one of those wiry women who always seemed harried and nervous.

But beautiful still.

It hurt to see her so close to being happy. After five years she seemed to be healing, but the blow that was coming would take her down hard. It might even push her over the edge. Loveless, childless, empty, she would be reduced to a shell of her former self.

The abductor thought about that for just a moment, acknowledging that the horror ahead was far worse than she deserved.

But there was no other choice. Tomorrow, or the next day — whenever the chance arose — Justin Bennett had to be eliminated, his voice silenced long before the inevitable questions could be asked.

Michael and Mary Bennett were walking out of the store and back into the mall now. Between them, holding their hands, Justin Bennett was a tiny, beloved, flesh and blood link.

A bond about to be broken.

TWO

Steps away from the dance floor, near the front of a swelling crowd, Harland Till watched as Bobby Freed spun and swayed to the thumping beat.

A white male in his mid-20s, Freed was dressed to lure in a sleeveless white t-shirt and tight, tattered jeans. His hair was shorn military-style above broad cheekbones and a heavy jaw. His skin was pockmarked and leathery from years of sun. Blue-gray tattoos on his biceps shined with sweat.

Looking past him, Till had a spectacular view of Club Night and its crowd. Up to the mezzanine where the couples – male-female, female-female, male-male – kissed and groped. Back toward the long, curving bar, tended by men and women moving in swift, easy rhythm as they tilted the bottles to fill glass after glass. Toward the two mirrored walls at the corner of the dance floor, where he watched a reflection of Bobby Freed’s pumping fists, the swaying of his muscled arms, the gyrations of his hips.

Watched and waited, knowing that Freed would eventually meet his eyes.

Till glanced away when it happened, but he glanced back a moment later, wearing the hint of a smile as he moved closer, his shoulders rolling with the beat as the hip-hop music video morphed into soft-core gay pornography on a screen rising two stories high.

As if on cue, the light around the dancers became a rapid-fire strobe, capturing Freed in hypnotic poses. Poses that tempted, and provoked, as Till held his gaze, then nodded toward the bar at the rear of the room.

The rendezvous happened exactly as Till had hoped it would, free of small talk and any other diversion as he pressed Freed’s back against the bar, slipping his leg between the man’s thighs and speaking directly into his ear.

Minutes later they were in the nightclub’s back parking lot, agreeing to the specifics about what would happen next. With only the slightest bit of indecision Freed consented, giving Till the address and room number of a hotel just a few minutes away from the club.

Till watched as Freed got into a beat-up pick-up truck, but felt a twinge of anxiety at the sight of the truck’s burned-out taillight and out-of-state license plate. Mounting his Harley, giving the man a bit of a head start, he made sure he followed at a safe distance, from which it would be easy to simply speed away if Freed happened to be pulled over. Till had already been back to Club Night too many times since the last incident, and he wanted to minimize the chances of having a D.C. cop doing a check of his own license.

The hotel was what Till expected, and hoped-for, a rundown low-rise on New York Avenue. He watched Freed park the truck, then drove the bike around the block twice to plan his exit. Interstate 95 was nearby and it cut right through the center of the city. He knew that he could be on it and heading north or south in less than two minutes.

He parked several car lengths behind the truck, in the darkness under a burned-out streetlight. The Harley had a small, locked compartment behind the seat, inside of which Till kept the backpack with all of his traveling gear. The bag was heavy and there was a distinct clinking sound as Till brought it out and set it down. He kept a baseball cap with a large bill in one side compartment and a roll of duct tape, two thin towels, some sturdy twine and several pairs of sheer rubber gloves in the other. The condoms he had bought earlier in the evening were in the pocket of his jeans.

Wearing the cap with the bill pointing slightly downward, he slung the backpack onto his back and walked into the lobby. The clerk was reading a magazine behind the counter. Till headed straight to the bank of elevators, hoping to look like a guest accustomed to coming and going. But with a stroke of luck a phone underneath the counter rang as he walked by. The clerk answered it, and turned around to face the boxes that held the room keys as Till moved swiftly across the lobby.

He pushed the button for the elevator but thought better about it as he listened to its slow, groaning approach. It was already past 2 a.m. but the hotel looked like a place accustomed to all-night traffic. People who might remember him. The stairs were a better option, and he was relieved to find the heavy stairwell door unlocked.

He exited at the third floor. The hallway was brightly lit, the carpeting tattered. The sweet, fruity scent of cleaning fluid filled his lungs as he moved toward Bobby Freed’s room.

He knocked lightly, stepping inside immediately as Freed came to the door. With only a hushed “hello” Till clasped him by the belt and pulled him close, halting any possible conversation with a long, open-mouthed kiss, pausing only to turn the deadlock and slip the chain into place.

He was pleased to see the drugs that had been laid out before his arrival: Several lines of cocaine on a pocket mirror, a fat marijuana cigarette in the ceramic ashtray, a bottle of amyl nitrate on the table next to the bed. Stripping down to white cotton briefs, Freed did three lines and took two long hits of the joint as Till set the backpack next to the bed and slowly undressed in front of him. Freed did not seem to notice as Till then pushed both his clothes and his shoes far underneath the bed.

Reggae music from the radio was low and rhythmic as Bobby Freed slipped out of his briefs and reclined back on the bed, stretching his arms and catching his breath as Till bound his wrists. For a long moment Till’s mind skipped back to the dozens of photographs of Bobby Freed that he had committed to memory. Under the light of the bedside lamp, Freed’s long body bore several more tattoos. As Till had expected, Freed’s nipples and navel were pierced with several small silver rings. The skin at the underside of his penis was pierced with a ring of gold.

Freed watched him put on a condom and groaned with pleasure as Till climbed on top of him, showing no fear as Till grasped Freed’s wrists and used his weight to hold him down.

The rest happened quickly, in seconds of gasps and moans over the creaking bed and the pulsing music and the flurry of images spinning through Till’s mind; Till forcing himself not to cry out loud with the sudden, final release.

For several seconds afterward Freed appeared to be completely relaxed, his eyes fluttering shut. He was already beginning to doze as Till rolled over and reached down to the backpack next to the bed.

Slipped his hand into the center pocket and gripped the leather-bound handle above the long, narrow steel blade.

Turned his face back toward Bobby Freed, who was breathing calmly, wearing a subtle, contented smile. Till felt his own desire dissolving completely as he ran the fingers of his left hand down the man’s torso, tracing the sign of a cross over Freed’s abdomen as Freed opened his eyes.

“You wanna untie me now?”

Freed’s voice was an unexpected interruption to the reverie. Till had hoped he would simply drift off to sleep. But if he was talking he could soon be screaming . . .

“Yeah,” Till said. “Let me get somethin’ to cut it with.”

The roll of black duct tape was between the two thin towels. Till glanced back and saw Bobby Freed’s eyes fluttering shut again as he let go of the knife and leaned down just a bit lower. He cleared his throat to cover the sound as he pulled off a long piece of tape and bit the edge to tear it off the roll. Then with a quick but careful movement he pushed the whole bag underneath the bed so that it sat next to his clothes and shoes.

Holding both ends of the tape, he slowly rose, keeping the tape out of sight as he climbed back on top of Freed. Till used his weight to hold him down as Freed opened his eyes again.

Till let Bobby Freed look into his eyes for a long moment, and felt the angry smile coming to his own face.

“Get ready,” Till whispered. “Cause here it comes — .”

Till brought the tape down quickly, slapping it over Freed’s half-open mouth, pressing with both hands to secure it as Freed reared up, eyes wide with panic, his bound hands slapping Till’s chest as Till reached down to the floor, Till still managing, just barely, to hold him down as he grabbed the knife again, Freed’s eyes going even wider as Till raised it high above his chest, holding the handle with both hands in a tight double fist, holding it as if he were about to perform a ritual as he whispered . . .

“Fucker . . . ” and thrust the knife down, the blade plunging between Bobby Freed’s ribs; Freed bucking and lurching as Till pulled it free . . . and brought it back down again, and again; out and down and out and down in a spastic flurry, the blood shooting up like a bright red geyser with Bobby Freed’s last silent scream.

* * *

The afterward feeling came on quickly, sweeping over him in gentle, peaceful waves as he slid off the body and stood next to the bed. The blood had drenched both of them and the stink of it filled the room. There were splatters on the lamps, the tables and virtually every other surface that Till could see. Taking a long, deep breath, he turned in a slow circle to survey the scene that surrounded him.

The scene like so many others, in hotel rooms and apartments and distant houses in several different states. Some of the victims, like this one, wore familiar faces on familiar bodies. Others were simply anonymous; men who had made themselves available for quick, furtive thrills with virtually no questions or worries about what could happen.

Till looked back at the victim, remembering the first time he had seen him on a Web site, his slim, muscled body naked and tense with arousal, eyes looking straight into the camera. Till had felt the victim’s stare calling him, luring him.

You got what you deserved, Till thought. Yessir . . . got it in spades.

The clock next to the bed read 2:20. Time to get moving. Till’s mind cleared quickly as he began the steps for a secure exit.

He went first to the bathroom, ran warm water in the sink, rinsed the blood from his hands and wiped them dry. Slipped the condom from his wilted penis and wrapped it in a washcloth that would be carried away in his bag and discarded later. He then went back into the room and carefully reached underneath the bed, putting one hand below the backpack and the other above it to keep it up off the carpet as he brought it out.

He took it straight to the bathroom, which was still clean and white, laid it down on the back of the toilet. Went back and repeated the same motion with his clothes and shoes, keeping them away from the blood, clean and dry.

The shower came next — hot, soapy and not too long — Till becoming more aware of the time and everything he still needed to do. He gave the knife a good washing as well, even though it would need to be fully soaked and cleaned of all residue later, when he was safely away. When he was dry he put on most of his clothes, leaving his socks and shoes on a clean spot of carpeting just inside the hotel room door and rolling up the legs of his pants.

Back in the bathroom, he pulled a pair of rubber gloves from the backpack and grabbed a clean towel. At the bathroom doorway he paused, remembering every surface that he had touched. He had little reason to worry. He had never been arrested, or fingerprinted, so there was no evidence that he knew of to link him to any of his crimes. But he was never sloppy or overly confident, and the steps that he took next were crucial to the ritual.

He started at the doorway, wiping the deadbolt and the chain, moved to the bedside table and headboard, finished with the shiny metal and porcelain surfaces in the bathroom. Went back to the entrance to the room and mentally traced his actions to make sure there was no place he had missed.

It was nearly 3 a.m. now. Time to get out. But the last step of the ritual beckoned as Till went to the pile of clothes that the victim had left next to the bed. They were splattered with blood, but with his fingertips he was able to lift the wallet out of the back pocket. The plastic sleeves inside revealed a driver’s license from West Virginia and a membership card to a health club. Till carefully took out the cash: two $50 bills and three 20s. Not a lot, but a nice addition to his own stash. Slipping the money into his pocket, he glanced over at the shoulder bag that the victim had placed in the corner of the room. If the victim had traveled here from West Virginia without credit cards he probably had more cash, which he probably would have left back at his hotel room to avoid carrying it around.

Still wearing the gloves, Till carefully lifted the bag and reached inside.

On top of the victim’s clothing was a camera, in a leather case, along with a snap-on telephoto lens. It looked expensive, and would probably be worth at least $100 if he could fence it, Till thought, although he had never been stupid enough to take anything that could connect him to a victim. Tilting the bag toward the light, he fished around some more, then turned the bag around to check the pockets on the other side.

He felt two envelopes as he reached in; one large and thin and another smaller one from the PhotoExpress store he had seen just down the block.

He glanced at the clock again, knowing he needed to get moving as he opened the larger envelope. It contained an issue of the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper, and what looked like transcripts from an Internet chat room. Till had always had trouble reading but he usually managed by going through passages several times and finding familiar words. The type on the transcripts was small and hard to read but there were several words that did stand out . . . words that made him feel lightheaded as his eyes went back and forth over the first two pages . . .

Damnation,” he whispered.

His hands were shaking as he opened the second envelope and reached inside . . . panic fluttering in his chest as he flipped through the photographs of the little boy playing in a yard . . . a beautiful little boy laughing and running and jumping into the arms of a grown man . . .

A beautiful little boy turned nearly ugly by the dark red wine stain on the side of his face.

* * *

Officer Gloria Towson took the call at 9:45 a.m., cutting quickly through the alleys even through she knew the call about a “disturbance” at the Capitol Hotel would probably amount to nothing more than a fight to oust one of the homeless white guys who occasionally tried to sleep in the lobby. But she quickened her pace at the sight of the maid who looked as if she had collapsed in the lobby chair and the shock on the face of the clerk who simply said “room 305” as she came through the revolving door . . . took the stairs two at a time to reach the third floor . . . felt the muscles tensing between her broad shoulders as she saw the wide-open door near the end of the hall . . .

And gasped as she reached the threshold.

“Oh God.” Her hand went to her gun as the images and smells assaulted her mind . . . the naked man who had been savaged on the bed . . . the odor of stale marijuana lingering in the air . . . the blood splattered into every corner of the room.

She stepped back, wondering if she had already screwed up by getting too close to the scene, then looked down at the dry, clean carpeting under her feet and realized she had stopped just in time. She heard the ding of the elevator door and turned to see the clerk getting off, his eyes wide with curiosity as he said something about the floor being “nearly empty” and the only other “guests” running straight down to the lobby after glimpsing the sight that had caused the maid to scream.

“Good, that’s good.” She held her arm out, motioning him back. “I need to ask you to go back downstairs now. Please. And don’t let anyone leave. Keep that lady — the maid — who saw this in the lobby till we can interview her. Please. Jesus.”

“Are you okay ma’am — .”

Yes.” She paused, took a deep, calming breath. “You’ll need to stay down there for awhile too, until we can get a statement.”

She turned away, back toward the room. Priority one at a scene was “officer safety.” She did not believe she was in danger; the killer was surely long gone.

Priority two was the “health and welfare of the victim” and under most circumstances she would be expected to check for life signs but . . . no, not here.

Priority three was “protection of the scene.” She pulled the radio from her belt, a surreal chill radiating through her whole body as she called it in, blurting out that the victim’s wrists were bound even though it was a detail the dispatcher did not need to know. She stayed just outside the doorway to make sure that no one — from curious guests to the first wave of patrol officers who would soon be filling the hallway — contaminated the crime scene.

She realized then what she had forgotten. The hotel room was small and from the doorway she could see every corner, but the bathroom was only partly visible through the open door. Procedure dictated that she check for any other victims without damaging the scene.

Gloria took out her gun. “Police. Is anyone here? We’re coming in.”

There was a narrow perimeter of carpeting that appeared to be free of bloodstains and she walked sideways along it toward the bathroom. She crouched and peered around the doorway and was relieved to see that she could do a visual sweep of the inside without entering. The curtain in the tub was open; the tub was empty. There was no other victim.

She retraced her steps as she moved back to the hall, eyes sweeping side to side and taking in more details. In the far corner, the victim’s traveling bag appeared to have been emptied; a pile of clothes left on the floor. The radio was on, tuned to a station where the newscaster spoke with a lilting Caribbean accent. There were marks in the bloodstained carpet that looked like they had been made by bare feet. And there was a photograph lying in blood near the foot of the bed.

A little boy. Gloria squinted, but the photograph was partially obscured by the tousled bedspread and it was difficult to pick out the details from five feet away. There was a strange shadow on the child’s face and he appeared to be looking sideways, not at the camera.

The sound of an approaching siren took her attention back to the doorway and the crime scene that had to be protected. Less than a minute later there were four other patrol officers in the hallway. Gloria stayed at the door to stop anyone from entering and pulled the notebook from her back pocket to begin her log, writing down the names and badge numbers of the other officers as they arrived and assuring herself that she had done everything right as Louis D’Amecourt stepped out of the elevator and met her eyes.

D’Amecourt, the Fifth District Commander, coming down the hall with surprising speed and already looking as if he had something to say.

D’Amecourt grilling her but not looking at her as he stood at the threshold, staring into the room, every question putting her more on edge. What time did she get the call? Who discovered the victim? Had she trampled on, touched or done anything else to damage the crime scene?

She gave him short, succinct answers, which she knew measured up. But she was still on edge as homicide detective Tommy Payne came through the stairwell door. Payne looked warily at D’Amecourt as he approached the scene, and gave her a little wave when he met her eyes.

“Hey Glo.”

D’Amecourt flinched at Payne’s greeting, the use of her first name.

“Hey Tommy.” Her voice croaked. “Thanks for — .”

“Okay Towson, we’ll take it from here,” D’Amecourt said.

“I have witnesses to interview,” Gloria told him. “The maid downstairs and some people who were staying in the rooms on this floor — .”

“Just make sure they don’t go anywhere. We’ll talk to them in a minute,” D’Amecourt said sharply.

“I was the first on the scene. I’d like to get their statements.”

“You heard me Towson. You’re done.”

Well goddamn you too. Her jaw was locked and it was impossible to keep the anger out of her eyes as she stared back at D’Amecourt, waiting for him to look away.

“I’m sure you’ve taken good care of everything so far,” Payne came to her rescue, which only made her feel worse. But the chirping of her cell phone cut through the air before she could respond.

“You can take that down in the lobby,” D’Amecourt said dismissively.

“We’ll do a debrief in a little while,” Payne said, his gentle gaze promising her that they would.

“Okay,” she said quietly, unable to resist another harsh look at D’Amecourt as she turned away. She answered the phone while walking down the hall and was relieved to hear the voice of Booker, her husband of four months, who was also a police officer but off-duty for the day.

She gave him the details in the stairwell, telling him what a bastard D’Amecourt was, as if Booker didn’t already know.

“He came in here like a freight train,” she told him. “Like he was desperate to run me out.”

“What about Tommy Payne?”

“Payne was okay, but he knows I am pissed off.”

“D’Amecourt’s always been hands-on Glo.”

“Well he’s freakier than usual today. I think there’s something going on.”

“What do you mean?”

Gloria paused, thinking about the possibility that D’Amecourt was reacting not to her but to the crime scene itself. “Something about the way he acted. Like maybe he was scared of something.”

“Yeah right.” Booker’s laugh was short and hollow. “Only thing that man’s scared of is an empty bottle.”

Gloria looked back through the narrow glass window in the heavy stairwell door. There were two new officers guarding the scene now, and apparently D’Amecourt and Payne were both inside the room. As the Commander of the Fifth District, it made sense that D’Amecourt might have come to the scene, and that he would keep an eye on the processing carried out by a homicide detective under his watch. But it still surprised her that he was among the first to arrive.

She told Booker that she would call him later, that she needed to go down to the lobby to make sure that anyone who might have seen anything stayed put. But curiosity kept her rooted to the spot as she hung up, and moments later she was heading back down the hall and looking for an excuse to go back to the scene.

Both of the officers at the doorway, Rutherford and Sanchez, nodded stiffly as she approached, and neither man looked as if he would move an inch. But the door was still open and she had a clear view of D’Amecourt, stooping down alongside the pile of clothing on the floor.

With his back to her, she scanned the room again, her eyes coming back to the victim, the blood-soaked sheets, the empty space under the bed where she had seen the child’s photograph just moments before.

THREE

Refusing to be paranoid about premonitions, Michael Bennett sat on the edge of the bed as Justin hugged his stuffed spaniel dog and whispered:

“Momma was scarwed, Uncle Mike.”

Justin had a froggy, elfin voice, and he had always had trouble with “w”s, “l”s and “r”s.

“She made me scarwed too.”

The sadness in Justin’s eyes brought a small ache to the back of Michael’s throat as he pulled the covers up under the boy’s chin, then patted them down to create the snugness that Justin craved. Then he sat down on the bed and placed his palms on both sides of Justin’s face.

“Your mom loves you very much,” he said. “And it’s true, she does get upset when she turns around and you’re not right there.”

Justin blinked, and Michael knew he was ashamed that he had violated one of his mother’s “most important rules.” Michael decided to speak matter-of-factly, to take the opportunity to make a point.

“You have to remember, when you’re out with your mom, or with me, it’s very important that you stay close by . . . you have to hold our hands like you were supposed to today. Do you understand?”

Justin frowned for a moment, then nodded. Relaxing, finally, Michael stretched out beside him and listened to the child’s gentle breathing.

“But what about on the wides?”

“What do you mean?”

“Uncle Michael,” Justin chastised him now. “When you wide the ponies you have to hold on with both hands.”

“Oh yeah, right,” Michael smiled at the earnestness in Justin’s eyes.

“And also when you dwive the little cars,” Justin told him. “Both hands on the wheel. That’s what you said last time, remember, Uncle Mike?”

“Yeah I remember,” Michael said. His sister’s ever-present apprehension had made last month’s trip to the AdventureWorld amusement park tense at first, but she had eventually relaxed. Pestered to submission, Mary had agreed to let Justin go again. This time, tomorrow, with his Uncle Michael alone.

Michael gave Justin a serious look. “I’ll tell you what. Because you’re getting to be a big boy now . . . When you’re on the rides, you do have to keep a grip on the reigns or the wheel. And when you’re with your mom or me, you have to hold her hand or mine. But guess what else?”

“What, Uncle Mike?”

“Tomorrow you get to on a couple of the rides by yourself. We’ll start with the merry-go-round, and then move onto the cars. You think you’re up for that?”

Justin nodded and grinned, then frowned again.

“But where will you be, Uncle Mike?”

Michael thought about it a moment, knowing he had to balance his own fears with Justin’s need for independence. Then with what Justin called his “crazy face,” he leaned closer.

“I’ll be right here. Grrrrrrrr,” Michael growled and giggled and tickled him. “All right, little boy?”

“All wight Uncle MIKE!” Justin let out a peal of laughter, kicking his legs under the covers as Michael tickled and squeezed him again and again.

* * *

Later he would regret the tickling and the squeezing, and he would have nightmares about what happened next.

“Michael, what are you doing?”

Mary’s voice startled him. He was in the basement, at the workbench. He hadn’t heard her come down the stairs.

“I’ve got Justin’s ID bracelet. I’m working on the clasp.”

Mary came closer. She was wearing a light blue nightgown and a frumpy white terry cloth robe. Under the harsh light Michael saw new lines around her eyes and wondered if the scare at the mall had aged her.

“Are you fixing it, or taking it apart?” Mary joked.

“I’m bending it so it won’t come loose again.”

“It came loose?”

Michael rolled his eyes. “No, Miss Overreact to Everything. I was wrestling with Justin and realized that it was about to, which is why I’m fixing it.”

Michael felt her watching as he closed the rings on either side of the clasp. Justin had been complaining about the tightness of the bracelet, and about a taunt he’d gotten from another little boy at kindergarten who told him jewelry was for girls. There was no possibility of his nephew going without the bracelet, which listed his name, address and telephone number, but Michael had decided earlier today that the least he could do was make it more comfortable. The bracelet was designed to be lengthened as Justin grew, but when he had started working on it earlier the clasp had jammed, and it had almost slipped off when he tickled Justin in bed. Michael felt responsible; the late-night repair at the workbench wouldn’t have been necessary if he hadn’t fiddled with the bracelet in the first place.

“I didn’t overreact, Michael. And I don’t appreciate you joking about it either.”

The tone of Mary’s voice made it clear she was still thinking about the morning’s incident. The rest of the day had gone by without any discussion of it. Michael had hoped she wouldn’t mention it again.

He sighed, knowing now that she would have to talk it through. “You mean at the mall.”

“Of course that’s what I mean.”

“I feel awful about it.” He lowered the bracelet and looked at her. “But it’s okay. Justin was fine.”

“Well it scared the hell out of me,” she said harshly. “Michael we have to be careful with him.”

She said “we,” he thought, with some relief. “I know.”

“I’m not saying it was completely your fault.”

“And I’m not saying it wasn’t,” he offered. “It was just for a few seconds that I wasn’t holding on to him, but that’s what you were counting on me to do.”

“Then we’ll share the blame.” Mary made an attempt to smile, and gave his forearm a squeeze. “Okay?”

“Yeah.” The look in her eyes bothered him. She still thinks you’re a screw-up, he thought.

He went back to the bracelet. The clasp felt secure now. “Okay, it’s done. See?”

He handed it to her and she held it under the light, squinting slightly as she checked it. After a moment she shuddered.

“What’s wrong?”

She looked at him, blinked quickly, then shook her head dismissively. “I just had a strange feeling.”

“What kind of feeling?”

“I don’t know. Just sort of . . . sad.”

Michael found himself nodding slightly. He had had similar feelings off and on all day. Feelings that intensified as Mary met his eyes.

“Oh never mind.” Mary tried to smile. “I’m sure it’s just my imagination, turnin’ me into an old hag.”

Michael laughed. His sister was a mere 31, the same age their parents had been when they had died. The rest of their childhoods and the past five years in particular had been a battleground of risk and redemption, both stemming from the tragedy that could have made them enemies but had brought them far closer instead.

“You don’t have time to be a hag.” He put his arm around her shoulder. “You’re too busy bein’ my big sissy.”

“I thought you were the sissy, Michael.”

“Then you ain’t seen me pumpin’ iron, darlin’.”

“Yeah well I also ain’t seen you workin’ the iron either, darlin’.” She elbowed his stomach and handed the bracelet back. “It’s your turn this week, and since I happen to work in a legitimate dining establishment I prefer it when my fine polyester aprons look nice.”

“Yikes, I fail again,” he moaned.

“Yes that’s you Michael.” Abruptly, she kissed him on the cheek. “Failure Boy extraordinaire.”

The words hung in the air as he watched her go up the narrow stairs and into the kitchen, feeling a rush of gratitude that, after everything, she didn’t really believe it. The bracelet felt delicate in his hand as he switched off the light.

And saw the flash in the window.

It had come to him in an instant, a beam of white light that hit him directly in the face. The basement windows were at eye level, and when he moved closer he realized the flash had come from headlights belonging to a car that had pulled up to the curb. The three-level townhouse Michael, Mary and Justin lived in was on a corner in the woodsiest section of Northwest Washington, on a short side street that backed up to parkland. There were only four other houses on the block. Michael continued to stare at the car at the curb, watching to see who got out.

For several seconds nothing happened. As his eyes adjusted to the light he was able to see the outline of the car, something out of the late 1960s, he thought. A muscle car, maybe. He felt a catch in his breath, the mere shape of the car bringing back a memory that he instantly tried to push out of his mind.

With a revving of the engine, the car backed up, paused, and pulled away.

Probably just someone turning around. The incident at the mall had jangled his nerves, but he had to stop thinking about disaster at every turn.

Just put it out of your mind, he thought, and headed up the stairs.

* * *

The feeling of being watched struck him again as he stepped out of the shower. He had stayed under the hot water for a long time. The windows were steamy but it wasn’t hard to imagine that under the bright overhead light someone could see him from the dark woods at the back of the house. With a swipe of the towel on the glass he looked out and saw nothing but old trees and the passing headlights of traffic on the Rock Creek Parkway 100 yards behind.

He shut the blinds and wrapped the towel around his middle, then stepped into the attic bedroom that comprised the third floor of the house. The feeling of unease faded away as the thumping beat of club music filled the room. The beat was catchy, and he tapped a rhythm against his thigh as he moved toward the dresser.

He caught sight of himself in the full-length mirror and was pleased.

“So it’s working,” he said out loud as he thought of the harder-than-usual workout the day before. He flexed his right arm, then twisted to the left, a semi-serious attempt at a muscle-boy pose, which he held for no more than five seconds before he laughed and turned it into a parody. Sometimes it amazed him that despite everything he had done more than just survive. Somehow between the faith of his sister and the support of his very untraditional family he had found it possible to look forward to the common joys of everyday life. Health. Success. A future of open doors. The last few years had taught him to relish it all.

Thanks to Justin, he thought. And a second chance a hundred times better than you deserve.

The music was reaching a fever pitch. It heightened his anticipation for the night ahead as he ran his fingers through his towel-dried hair and slipped into a pair of baggy jeans and a bright white t-shirt. It was already the first week of October, but several warm days in a long Indian summer had only deepened his tan, giving his confidence another boost as he stood in front of the mirror again.

You look happy.

His mind flashed on the face of someone he had met a week before. The name and phone number that had been scrawled on the matchbook. The smile meeting his across the bar.

Ready to try again.

He was ready to slip out into the night when he accidentally kicked over the stack of magazines and papers he hadn’t gotten around to throwing out. He remembered Mary’s comment about the ironing. She was right; he hadn’t paid as much attention to his own household chores as he should have recently. Knowing it would take just a minute to make some headway, he decided to sift through the pile and toss everything he didn’t need to save.

At the bottom of the stack was an article Mary had written weeks earlier for the Washington Blade. Michael picked it up and felt a familiar clenching in his gut as he thumbed through the article, which began with a harrowing description of the abduction and death of her first son, Benjamin, five years before. He was still anxious about the many details his sister had chosen to reveal, but comforted by the way the story evolved into a description of her “deep appreciation” for his role as a father figure to Justin, and the happiness of “our odd little” family at present.

As if we’ve moved right on, he thought. No more worries. No more questions —

The attic room had storage built under the eaves. It was a good hiding place for the box that contained items he hoped neither his sister nor anyone else would ever see. Knowing that this issue of the Blade was something he would keep forever, Michael slipped it into the box.

With one more look in the mirror and a dash of cologne at the back of his neck, he headed back downstairs. On the second floor were two bedrooms, one for Justin, and a larger one at the front of the house for Mary. Her door was partially open as he walked by and he could hear the television turned to low volume. When he opened the door a little wider he saw she had dozed off. He stepped into the room and was just reaching over to turn the television off when he saw what she was holding.

His breath came up short, his mood plunging as he gazed at the light brown teddy bear in Mary’s arms. Benjamin’s bear. Michael had noticed that it was missing from Justin’s room earlier in the afternoon and carefully not asked his sister where it was.

Feeling suddenly like a trespasser, he stepped back. A creak in the floor sent a shiver up his back and made him step even more quickly out of the room.

In the hallway he felt his heart racing.

Calm down, think of something else.

Justin was afraid of the dark, and he liked to keep his door open to let in light from the hallway. Standing in the doorway, Michael could tell he was now sleeping soundly with the stuffed cocker spaniel in his arms. He stood there for nearly a minute, reminding himself that the windows were locked. The house was alarmed. Justin and Mary were completely safe.

It was a mental checklist he went through three more times as he stepped outside and slipped behind the wheel of the Jeep. He was at the end of the block before he realized he hadn’t turned on his lights. Doing so sent his mind moving forward as he headed more deeply into the city, toward the noise and distraction of Club Night, where thoughts of Mary and Justin and the incident at the mall would quickly fade away.

Down the block, forgotten by now, the muscle car pulled up to the curb again.

* * *

Mary heard the door shut: nothing more than a click that for some reason sounded louder, like a punctuation mark to all of the conflicts of the day.

She had dozed off in front of the television with her arms wrapped snugly around the teddy bear that now belonged in Justin’s room. The stress had worn her down and brought tears to her eyes as she drifted into the netherworld between consciousness and sleep. It was in that state that the memories were most difficult to manage. She had already been awake when Michael had stepped into the room, but had kept her eyes closed. She just hadn’t been up to conversation.

Now that he was gone, she suddenly wished that he wasn’t.

“Sorry little brother,” she muttered into the darkness. She still felt badly about snapping at him in the shoe store, but she almost wanted to hit him, to call him stupid for letting his attention wander. And yet for the rest of the afternoon she had been haunted by the look on his face at the moment they realized Justin was gone.

You can’t keep doing this, she told herself. You have to move on.

Knowing how difficult it could be to get back to sleep, she decided to head downstairs to study. She brought Benjamin’s bear with her and propped it up on the breakfast table. She eyed the scotch bottle in the glass-fronted cabinet but opted for the more sensible choice of a club soda instead. Within minutes the words from the textbook on libel laws were blurred by tears. After reading the same page three times with little comprehension, she was ready to give up.

But still wide-awake. At 10:15 she needed to be winding down, getting ready for the day that would follow. She was working a lunch shift at O’Malley’s, the popular restaurant and pub owned but no longer managed by her Uncle Martin. She would be serving her regular tables and a special gathering, hosted by Martin, of his political supporters. It’ll be good money and an easy time, he had joked. If any one of those blowhards gives you trouble, I’ll be right there.

The recollection cheered her. Uncle Martin and Aunt Joan were the lifeblood of the recovery that her shrink had tried to convince her she had reached. In her darkest periods she prayed they would never be farther than a phone call away.

Even now, she thought as she looked at the clock, knowing that Joan usually stayed up until 11 and then “wound down” by reading crime novels for half an hour or so before going to bed. Picking up the phone, she was ready to excuse herself immediately if the woman was too immersed in one to chat, although she couldn’t think of a minute in her whole life that her cherished aunt hadn’t given her full attention.

“Hello?” Joan’s voice was upbeat, as expected.

“Are you busy?” Mary pictured her sitting in the leather club chair alongside the big carved mantel in her historic Cleveland Park home, drinking a glass of sherry. It had been three weeks since the two of them had seen each other. Joan had busy gearing up for Martin’s city council reelection campaign and Mary missed her more than ever. “Can you talk?”

“Of course I can baby. How are ya’?”

“Crappy,” Mary answered with her usual honesty, and then described the scare at the mall and the sense of fear that had stayed with her for the rest of the day.

“I can only imagine what it must have been like.” Joan’s voice was comforting as always. Mary could feel her gentle smile. “It’s so easy to overreact when something like that happens.”

“I know, but — .”

“Besides, how can you compete with Captain Steel?” Joan chuckled. “Defender of the Universe.”

“And ‘Protector of the World.'” Mary laughed. Over the past month the Saturday morning cartoon character had become Justin’s absolute favorite. But she was still anxious at how easily the 12-foot tall plastic statue had lured her son away.

She decided to change the subject. “So any way, how are you? Did you get some shopping done today too?”

“Are you kidding?” Joan had recently retired from a long, successful career as an Assistant District Attorney, a difficult job given her constant anger over the inability of the system to protect innocent victims. Working as a campaign-aide to her husband, a city councilman, had proven to be only slightly less draining.

“I’ve been pinned to the desk all day. This event of Martin’s is going to be the death of me,” Joan said. “I think I was at it for seven hours without a break before being chained to the phone for a conference call that took another two.”

“It’s going to be great.” But sad, Mary thought. She had helped her aunt write a portion of Martin’s speech for the event, which would dedicate a new pediatric AIDS wing at George Washington Hospital, where Martin would share the podium with the Mayor, the university president and probably a celebrity or two.

She heard the call-waiting beep, looked at the clock. “God, who could be calling so late?”

“You have to go?”

“I guess so,” she sighed wearily. “There’s never enough time to just relax anymore.”

“I feel the same way,” Joan said. “Especially with the pressure we’re starting to get from the Moral Minority.”

Mary recognized the reference to Martin’s most significant opposition, a Republican running on a law and order platform, who continuously bolstered his position by citing the high homicide rate in the city’s tougher neighborhoods, an implicit criticism of Joan’s previous effectiveness as a prosecutor. After an impassioned public debate two nights earlier, Louis D’Amecourt, one of the best-known police officials in the city, had been interviewed by a local newscaster. D’Amecourt had put up an appearance of neutrality, but his support of Martin’s opposition was pretty clear. Mary had had a distinct feeling that D’Amecourt was still motivated by personal animosity, and that he would have done anything to see her uncle defeated.

“So you’re pretty sure they’ll be back?” she said.

“Oh yeah, marching on that same old bandwagon –.”

The call-waiting click came again.

“Ugh!” Mary snapped. “It’s probably a damn telephone solicitor.

“Probably. You take care honey.”

“You too.” She felt another pang of regret at having to say goodbye, a renewed uneasiness as she disconnected.

With another click she was on the new line.

“Hello?”

“Mary. It’s me. Scott.”

Scott. The voice knocked her breathless as she pressed her back against the wall, looked at the locked door. The kitchen window. The darkness outside.

“I’m home,” Scott said. “In D.C. I need to see you.”

She gripped the phone tighter, and thought of the last time she had seen him, five years earlier, on his way to prison. Thought of the letters, the phone calls, the lurking presence of him every day since.

“I’ll beg you if I have to. Come on Mary, please . . . “