EXCERPT FROM DOUBLE ABDUCTION
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 . . . “