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Some people claim to be able to feel trouble coming, the way they might feel a storm approaching from a long way off. They sense a disturbance in the atmosphere, something stirs the hairs along the backs of their necks or makes them wary when old, slumbering injuries awaken and ache. My own sense of such things is not entirely reliable. Just as I am more likely to be caught in a downpour than I am to be the only one with an umbrella, trouble has blindsided me more often than it has announced its approach.
Hindsight being so sharp-sighted, when I look back on that June afternoon, I can say that my sixth sense, if it was working at all, was fully occupied by the distinct possibility that I would be out of a job within a few months. That didn’t make me different from ninety-nine out of a hundred of the country’s newspaper reporters.
So as I sat at my desk in the newsroom of the Las Piernas News Express, rewriting a city council story that wasn’t likely to excite anyone, my thoughts were taken up with trying to find a better angle on it. What I felt, when the phone on my desk rang, was not fear but irritation at the distraction.
“Kelly,” I answered, using my headset.
“Irene? Aaron Mikelson.”
Mikelson used to work for the Express, but he had moved up north to Sacramento several years ago. He covers California state government for a news service there, reporting on everything from the legislature to the prison system, and putting up with all the jokes about the inhabitants of both being similar.
“You hear about Nick Parrish?” he asked.
“No,” I said, and my next, exhilarating thought was He’s dead.
“You know he regained the ability to speak, right?”
“Yes.” During the first months after Nick Parrish had sustained head and spinal injuries, he had gradually recovered speech and movement in his hands and feet, though he wasn’t walking. The speech impairment had cleared up as the swelling from the head injury was reduced. That he had fully recovered his speech wasn’t news to me, and Mikelson knew that—he was the one who had let me know Parrish was asking about me at the time.
“You haven’t talked to him?”
“Nothing has changed in the last few years,” I said. “I have no interest whatsoever in talking to him or in hearing what he has to say.”
“He tried to sue you, right?”
For a stunned moment, I wondered if Mikelson could possibly believe that my only complaint about Nick Parrish was a frivolous lawsuit. Aloud I said, “Tried. The courts rejected the suits he filed against me and the paper, so after that … well, that was more than enough of hearing from him.”
“Understood. He’s one sick bastard.”
“Yes,” I said, thinking that “sick bastard” didn’t come close to describing Parrish. Mere words couldn’t draw a line around him and hold the monster he was within.
“You know about the Moths?”
I sighed. “His online fan club? Yes. Almost too predictable that some group like that would form, right? If the Internet has given us anything, it’s some idea of how much psychosis goes undiagnosed.”
“Look, Aaron, you cover a prison beat, so you know how this goes. Parrish has doubtless had a dozen marriage proposals, too.”
“That’s true. I don’t claim to understand it. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out why anyone would want to marry a serial killer. How could anyone ignore what he did to those women before he killed them? And not just women, right?”
Images I’d rather not recall started flashing through my mind.
Body parts scattered over a rain-drenched field.
Parrish shoving my face into the mud, nearly suffocating me.
Photos of one of his victims found in the grave he had forced her to dig.
I could hardly concentrate on what was going on around me. As if from a great distance, I heard Mikelson’s voice in the headset. I was vaguely aware that he was saying something more about the women who wanted to marry Parrish. Asking me if I had read anything on the Moths’ blog or social networking pages lately.
I swiveled my chair, stood up, and looked out across the newsroom.
A normal Monday afternoon. Everyone else bent over their keyboards or on the phone, working toward deadline. Far fewer reporters than I would have seen even a year ago, but a normal day for these times. I took a deep breath.
As the rush of memories faded, my brain kicked into gear. Mikelson had news about Parrish, and Parrish wasn’t dead, or he would have told me that right off the bat. He wasn’t speaking of him in the past tense.
I thought about hanging up, letting voicemail catch the call if he called back, leaving my colleagues to wonder why I ran out of the building looking as if I had the devil on my tail.
I let the breath out, told myself to get a grip. I sat down again, turned to face the computer.
“Anyway,” Mikelson was saying, “you may not know this, but when he was first injured, the doctors didn’t realize he had something called central cord syndrome—they thought he’d be tetraplegic. But then some spine specialists were called in, and they started treating it differently. They stabilized his neck. He was on anti-inflammation drugs, and they did several surgeries. Then there was a long process of rehab.”
“Look, Aaron, I really don’t—”
“Yes. On his own. And not just walking—he’s got full use of his limbs, with very few limitations. Apparently the type of injury he had is one of the few that have such a good prognosis. His doctor says that, for his age, he was unusually fit. And he was incredibly determined, really worked hard. I guess the trickiest thing was this last surgery on his neck. They’ve kept his progress under wraps, waiting to see how he did after the surgeries, and with the rehab.”
“Oh?” I managed to say.
I looked down at my hands. My fingers were shaking. I pressed them against my cheeks. It was like sticking my face in a bowl of ice.
“Yes. His docs say he’s doing much better than most patients his age.”
I stayed silent. This time, Mikelson noticed it.
“No,” I said. I tried again to marshal my thoughts. “Um—this isn’t an interview, is it, Aaron?”
“Jesus, Kelly. No. Just a friend calling a friend.”
He said not to worry about it, then added, “Listen, later, if you’d be willing—”
I bit back a few choice phrases. “I’ll have to talk to my editor about it.” But the anger was good. It drove off some of the panic.
“Sure. Sure.” He paused. “Look, Parrish isn’t going anywhere, even if he can walk—now that he’s finished rehab, he’ll be transferred out of the prison hospital and into maximum security.”
“Of course,” I said.
“I keep thinking about that guy who lost his leg because of him. The forensic anthropologist—what was his name?”
“Ben. Ben Sheridan.” God. I’d have to tell Ben.
“Yeah, that’s right. I mean, how ironic is it that he’s not walking and Parrish is?”
“Ben walks just fine,” I said, unable to keep the anger out of my voice. “He lost part of one leg below the knee, but he’s got a prosthesis. He leads an active life. In fact, he’s still helping to put away assholes like Nick Parrish.”
Mikelson paused just long enough to let me know my reaction had surprised him, then said a little too brightly, “That’s great. Glad to hear it—I mean that. So he’s doing okay. Maybe I’ll try to give him a call.”
I shut up again, thinking of how unhappy Ben was going to be with me if Mikelson called him. Aaron could have looked up the information he needed anyway, but I had made his work a little easier, and I wasn’t happy with myself for that.
“There was a partner, right?” Aaron asked. “The original Moth. Parrish’s partner is still in the slammer, right?”
“Yes.” I left it at that, my resentment rising a notch. He knew damned well that Parrish’s accomplice, who had helped him escape and lured victims into his grasp, was serving an LWOP sentence—life without possibility of parole.
Aaron isn’t stupid. He knew he needed to stop pushing if he wanted my cooperation down the road. So he changed the subject and asked me about mutual friends and former Express employees, and caught me up on news of a couple of people I knew at the Sacramento Bee. Eventually, he said, “Sorry if I upset you about Parrish. Just thought you should know. And you’ll let me know first if John cuts you loose to talk to other media?”
“Sure. Thanks for the heads-up.”
I called Ben Sheridan’s cell but got his voice mail. The outgoing message said he was away and out of cell phone range but would be returning late Tuesday. Leave a message.
I decided I couldn’t leave this news of Parrish as voice mail, so I simply asked Ben to give me a call when he got back to town. I hung up, wondering if Mikelson was already in the process of tracking him down.
Calling Ben had forced me to collect my thoughts. My blood might be running cold, but I still had enough ink in my veins to realize that this was a breaking story, and one the Express needed to cover. Mark Baker, our crime beat reporter, was at his desk, so I got his attention and filled him in. He’s known me a long time and quickly figured out that overt sympathy was probably going to make me lose it, so we mutually pretended this news wasn’t personal.
He called the prison hospital and confirmed the details. At that point, we got together with our editor, John Walters, and the city editor, Lydia Ames. A few more meetings were held, and plans for the front page changed.
I didn’t really want to be writing about Parrish or reminding the public—or myself—of his crimes. But under current conditions, every day with a job at a newspaper felt like a stay of execution, so I didn’t shy away from the work, however much it amplified my fears.
Rumors were at a fever pitch at the Express. No one had any doubt that the paper was in financial trouble. If a buyer wasn’t found soon, we’d close. Bets were being laid on whether our publisher, Winston Wrigley III, was going to resign or be canned before the place shut down entirely. Some said he stayed on because he had nothing else to do with his life, others that he seemed to believe the captain ought to go down with the ship. Most of us felt that this particular captain should have been thrown overboard a long time ago.
But the general state of the industry wasn’t his fault, and as much as I disliked him, I couldn’t help but find him a pitiful creature now. His shame surrounded him like a force field, repelling his critics even as it protected him from our anger. His grandfather had founded the newspaper, his father had built it into one of the most powerful businesses in the city. Yet the newspaper business was one the next son had never understood, and now it punished him for his ignorance. Although his father had seen Winston III’s weaknesses and had been smart enough to set things up so that he answered to a board, too many family members were on that board, and they often protected sonny boy. Luckily for us, these days he avoided his employees—Winston III spent most workdays wandering aimlessly through the many parts of the building that were now all but empty.
For the staff, morale was at an all-time low. We stomached the group “good-bye parties,” fought against the pressure put on senior staff to retire early, and went to too many funerals—the heart attack rate among our oldest male reporters and retirees should have triggered a study by the CDC. Admittedly, these were the guys who, in their salad days, had never touched a salad, and I’m sure the high-pressure work, the years of hard drinking, and the once smoke-filled workplace took their toll. But it was hard not to believe that loss of dignity was the final nail in their coffins.
Old newspapermen were dying. The rest of us had to listen to people who believed all in-depth professional reporting could be replaced by text messages. The saying might have to change to “Don’t believe everything you read … on your cell phone.”
It wasn’t just the Express that was being measured for a coffin, of course. The whole profession had been hearing eulogies while it was still on life support.
That afternoon, though, the newsroom was stirring to life in a way it hadn’t in some weeks. Stories about Parrish, our local monster, sold papers. We could provide the kind of detail that wasn’t going to be available on television. I had doubts that anyone living in the city needed a recap, but I dutifully told them of that time when Parrish—manacled and heavily guarded—pledged to help us find the body of one of his victims. It was part of a plea bargain, in exchange for which he would receive a life sentence rather than the death penalty. At the request of the victim’s family, I accompanied the group that journeyed into the Sierra Nevada to recover her remains. We walked into a trap. I was one of the few lucky ones—I lived.
Parrish escaped and continued to terrorize Las Piernas and other cities while he was on the loose. When he was finally captured, he was injured and almost completely paralyzed. Between that and his conviction and imprisonment on additional murder charges, the good citizens of Las Piernas breathed a sigh of relief. They were safe.
Those of us who had been in the mountains with him never felt completely safe again.
By the end of the day, I was a wreck. When I came home, I told myself I was glad that my husband, Frank, was away on a camping trip with our next-door neighbor, Jack. Glad that they had taken our two dogs with them. Frank needed the break, and the dogs loved going to the mountains. Maybe by the time they got back, I’d have calmed down.
Except for the company of my elderly cat, Cody, I was alone.
Not for the first time, I reminded myself. After all, when you’re married to a homicide detective, there are plenty of nights when he’s not home. Although the dogs were usually with me, this wasn’t the first time Jack—who is in many ways as much their owner as we are—had taken them camping.
Nick Parrish was in prison. He might be able to walk, but he wasn’t going anywhere. I made dinner for one and watched television. Avoided all crime programming, which turned out to be about half of what was on. Other channels I flipped because I didn’t want to shop from my TV or watch someone cook. I still found enough to stay amused. The distraction worked for a time.
I was safe, wasn’t I?
By the time I went to bed, though, I could believe that for only a few minutes at a time. I tried to sleep. After an hour of tossing and turning, I switched on the light and grabbed a book of crossword puzzles. I was still awake when the alarm went off.
I kept telling myself I had nothing to fear.
I was wrong.
© 2011 Jan Burke