Read an Excerpt
Fourteen Years Ago . . .
Cassandra Marie Jackson clutched her mother’s hand as the man who’d raped and murdered her sister rose to his feet to hear the verdict. Time seemed to stretch, and to slow. She could hear the clock in the back of the courtroom, and it seemed there was an unnaturally long pause between every tick. She closed her eyes and tried to block the past, but it came rushing at her, anyway -- the memory of that moment when her life had been turned upside down.
The knock at the door came at ten o’clock. She’d been on the sofa, doing homework. Dad was going over some notes -- he had to perform surgery early the next morning, and as always, he spent time double-checking everything. Mom was watching a movie and crocheting. The afghan she was working on was almost done. Purple and white. Cassie remembered it perfectly.
She’d looked up briefly when her mother went to answer the door, then frowned when she saw the policeman on the other side. Before the officer said a word, her mother turned, her face pale. Almost as if she knew. "Ben," she called. "Ben, come here."
Dad came in from his study, pausing halfway across the living room with a file folder in one hand. He took off his reading glasses, tucked them into his shirt pocket and went to the door.
"Dr. Benjamin Jackson?" the officer asked.
"Do you have a daughter named Carrie?"
Cassie was off the sofa by then. Something clenched in her stomach when she heard her older sister’s name, and she automatically looked at the clock on the wall. It was only ten. Carrie’s curfew wasn’t until eleven. In some warped way that meant nothing could be wrong.
Her mother was clutching her father’s hand as he said, "Yes." But there was something different about his voice that time. It was lifeless, flat.
"I’m very sorry to have to tell you this, Dr. Jackson, Mrs. Jackson, but your daughter . . ."
Cassie didn’t know what else he’d said, but she knew what it meant. Maybe she’d forgotten the words because of what had followed them. Her father dropped the precious notes, white sheets fluttering everywhere, like the feathers of a murdered dove. Her mother screamed; first it was the word "no" over and over again, but then it became a hoarse, choked cry that wasn’t a word at all, because there was no word that could express the pain. And with every sound she emitted, it seemed more of her life left her body, until she backed away from the door and dropped gracelessly onto the carpet, empty. Then Cassie’s father and the policeman were hovering over her, trying to help her up, to calm her. But there was no calming Mariah Jackson. Not until Dad managed to get a hypodermic from his bag and inject her with something.
Cassie knelt beside her mother on the floor, holding her as tightly as she could, and thinking how wrong it was that she was hugging her weeping mother. She’d never seen her mom like this. Not like this. It was like the end of the world. It was like everything that had ever been was gone. Torn apart, turned inside out. But she held her mother, because she couldn’t think of anything else to do, until, still sobbing, Mariah fell asleep in Cassie’s arms, right there on the floor.
Dad had been standing nearby, watching, helpless, and speaking in low tones to the police. There were two of them. Cassie had only seen one at first.
Bending, Dad scooped her mother up and carried her to the sofa.
Cassie had to let her go, but for some reason she couldn’t get far from her. She felt as if she might fall into some bottomless pit if she did. Nothing was real, things seemed like a dream -- a nightmare. Her sister couldn’t be dead. She couldn’t be.
And even then she hadn’t known the true horror that had visited her family. She thought it must have been a car accident, and wondered which of Carrie’s friends had been involved and whether they were hurt, too.
"Will you be all right?" her father asked. "I have to go with the officer . . ."
To identify the body, Cassie thought, the phrase floating into her mind from countless TV cop shows.
"Officer Crowley can stay with them," the policeman said. And Cassie looked up to see that the second cop was a woman in uniform, standing just inside the doorway, battling tears. She wasn’t very old, Cassie thought. Not more than a few years older than Carrie.
Cassie met her father’s eyes, nodded to tell him it was all right for him to go. He hugged her hard. Told her he loved her.
She spent the next hour in a state of shock, mostly staring at Carrie’s senior-class picture in its frame on the wall. She kept thinking she should be crying. But she couldn’t, because it wasn’t real. She still expected Carrie to come walking through the front door, asking what all the fuss was about. Cassie remembered the lady cop telling her that they would catch the man who did it. She made it a promise, a vow, and there was fire in her eyes when she said it.
It was only in that moment that Cassie realized her sister hadn’t died in some senseless car accident. Someone had killed her.
Somehow, Cassie got through that night. She would always think that lady cop had a lot to do with it. Her promise that they would get the man had given Cassie a focus -- a dark, faceless him to hate and wish dead. The man who’d killed her sister. A target for her rage. She hoped the cops wouldn’t arrest him -- surely they would just shoot him instead. How could they not? He’d killed Carrie.
They hadn’t, of course. They’d arrested him.
Jeffrey Allen Dunkirk had been their neighbor for more than a year. A seemingly harmless, always friendly, forty-five-year-old divorced father, who used to pay Cassie and Carrie to watch his twin sons from time to time. He only had the boys every other weekend. The cops said he’d spotted Carrie walking home from her best friend’s house, three blocks away, and had stopped and offered her a ride. Then he’d driven her to a park five miles out of town, raped her, strangled her and left her lying in a ditch, with her clothes and her purse tossed in beside her broken eighteen-year-old body. There was no question. His semen was inside her. Her hairs and fingerprints were all over his car. He had no alibi.
In the courtroom, the man standing there, waiting for the verdict to be read, was not the man Cassie knew. He was jittery, jerky, fidgety. Throughout the trial he'd alternated between sitting in a zoned-out stupor, and fidgeting as if he were going to jump out of his chair, while occasionally talking to himself in urgent whispers.
All an act designed to support his claim of insanity, because it was the only defense his lawyers could come up with. It made Cassie angry enough to claw out his eyes. And maybe that was good, because the anger took the edge off the grief.
A slip of paper was passed from the jury foreman to the bailiff, to the judge, who unfolded and read it, then handed it back to the bailiff, who carried it back to the juror. And finally, the foreman cleared his throat and read.
"In the case of New York State versus Jeffrey Allen Dunkirk, on the charge of murder in the first degree, we the jury find the defendant . . ."
Cassie’s mom squeezed her hand even tighter. Her father just sat there, as if he’d turned to stone.
"Not guilty by reason of mental defect or impairment."
There was a collective gasp in the courtroom, followed by noisy murmurs, even as Cassie’s mother slumped in her chair. Cassie turned to her father, seeking his strength, his comfort, but he was on his feet, reaching into his suit jacket while the judge banged his gavel and shouted for silence. Cassie watched, paralyzed with shock, as her father’s hand emerged again, with a gun. The weapon bucked hard when it exploded in his hand, three times in quick succession, before men were hurling themselves at him. Cassie’s chair was knocked over in the rush, and she landed awkwardly on the floor, her eyes searching for her father beneath the pile of bodies on top of him.
She couldn’t see him, and her gaze was drawn to the crowd gathered across the aisle. In the midst of that crowd she could see Jeffrey Allen Dunkirk lying on the floor, a thick red puddle forming around him. Someone said, "He’s dead!"
Cassie got to her feet and stumbled to her mother, who was standing, sobbing, her entire body quaking. She put her arms around her mom as men hauled her father to his feet. An officer pulled the esteemed surgeon’s hands behind his back and snapped handcuffs around his wrists as he said, "Dr. Benjamin Jackson, I’m placing you under arrest." Then he put a hand on her father’s shoulder and said, "I’m sorry," before continuing on, reciting the familiar Miranda rights.
Present Day . . .
River sat on the floor in the room’s deepest corner, his back to the wall, his arms wrapped around his waist. He couldn’t move them. The straitjacket held them too tightly for that. The room was white, its walls padded like the ones in the old Blackberry High School gymnasium. It didn’t smell like the gym, though. No mingling of hardwood floor polish and B.O. Here, the smell was a sickening combination of urine and bleach. Aside from that minor distraction, though, his mind was clouded in an almost pleasant fog, and yet turbulence kept surfacing from its depths. Specific analysis was impossible at this point. He only knew he was in trouble. Terrible trouble. And that he had to do something or he was going to die. So he sat there, rocking and struggling to capture coherence, because he couldn’t do anything unless he could remember what it was he had to do.
Sounds brought his head up; the locks on his door were turning. He strained his eyes as the door swung open, and slowly managed to bring the man who entered into focus. Ethan. Thank God.
Ethan crossed the room, a gentle smile on his face. He hunkered down in front of River, his white coat spotless and almost too bright, his name tag pinned neatly to a pocket. Dr. E. Melrose, M.D. Chief of Psychiatry. He put a hand on River’s shoulder.
"How you doing, pal? Better?"
River shook his head slowly. "Worse," he said. "Getting worse, Ethan."
Ethan frowned, studying River’s face, stared into his eyes. It made River think of when they were kids and they would stare at each other until one of them blinked. And then Ethan blinked and River laughed. "I win."
"I’ll order more medication," Ethan said.
Ethan’s reaction -- the way he jerked away from River -- made its way through the fog in River’s mind enough to hurt. Enough to tell him that even his best friend was afraid of him. He licked his dry lips and tried again, though forming sentences was a challenge at best.
"No more drugs."
"I know you don’t like taking the meds, Riv, but right now they’re the only thing keeping you--"
"You said . . . I’d get . . . better." He knew his speech was slurred; he lisped his s’s and dulled his r’ s. He couldn’t help it. "I’m getting worse."
"I know. I’m doing all I can for you." Ethan moved to one side, reaching behind River to unfasten the straitjacket. When the sleeves came loose, River lowered his arms, sighing in relief at finally being able to change their position. Then he sat forward and let his friend pull the jacket off him. "Do you feel like talking?"
River nodded. "Try."
"I know. I know it’s hard to talk. That’s due to the drugs, but . . . I’m sorry, Riv."
River nodded. "Before Steph died . . ." His tongue felt thick and clumsy, and the words he formed in his mind didn’t make it all the way to his lips. He felt much like he had on prom night a hundred years ago when he and the jocks from the team had spiked the punch and he’d drunk way more than his share. Ethan had saved his ass that night. Practically carried him home, poured him into bed and then covered for him.
"Wasn’t this bad -- jus’ the blackouts. And not rememememem . . ."
"Remembering," Ethan finished. "I know."
"Now . . . I can . . . barely . . . funchin . . . funchin . . . fun--"
"Function," Ethan said.
Nodding, River lifted a hand to his lips, wiped and felt moisture. "Jesus. Ethan . . . I’m drooling."
"I know. I know. I didn’t expect this, either."
"It’s meds. Gotta be. Meds."
Ethan nodded. "It’s possible. But River, you’ve got to stop getting violent with the staff here. It’s only making things worse. They’re here to help you. The way you’ve been acting the past few days, I’m afraid that without the medication, you might hurt someone."
River narrowed his eyes on his friend. "Someone . . . tried . . . kill me."
"Pillow . . . on my face. Couldn’t see who. Came up sing -- sing--"
"And . . . and they came in. I kep’ fighting. I din’t know . . . who--"
"All right, all right. Calm down. Don’t get agitated again."
River took a few breaths, wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. "Not a violent . . . man. Din’t . . . kill Steph. You know that."
"I know," Ethan said, lowering his eyes.
"S’posed to get better . . . here."
Ethan sighed. "River, I’m going to review your meds, see where we can start lightening up the doses, and gradually bring you off them. Then we can get an idea where you are without chemical help. And I’ll speak to the staff, make sure you’re safe. I’ll have them keep your room locked while you sleep, have them keep a closer eye on you. All right?"
"Can’t jus’ stop . . . meds? Jus’ stop them?"
Ethan shook his head slowly. "Not all at once, no. You’d be a mess if we did that. I’ll start lowering the doses today. I promise."
River sighed. "Okay. Okay."
"Okay." Ethan clasped his shoulders one last time, then got up and went through the door.
River struggled to his feet, though he had to press his palms to the wall to do it. Then he clung to that wall, pushing himself along it, around a corner and to the door. Exhausted, he leaned against it, his head resting on its smooth, cool surface, his ear pressed tight, because he thought someone might be out there waiting to come in when Ethan left. He had to be careful. Be aware.
". . . must be so hard for you, seeing him like this," a woman was saying. "He’s not the same man he was when he came here. But I suppose it’s eating away at him. He killed his pregnant wife, for heaven’s sake."
"Doctor, he’s drooling a bit," a second female voice said. "Did you notice it?"
"Yes. I’m afraid he’s getting worse," Ethan said. "Showing signs of increased paranoia. Brand-new set of delusions. We’re going to need to increase his meds."
"But, Doctor, he’s exhibiting extrapyramidal side effects," the second voice said. "Doesn’t that indicate he should be taken off the Haldol altogether?"
"Excuse me, who are you exactly?" Ethan asked.