Read an Excerpt
These are the things I didn’t know:
When you first wake up in a dark wooden box, you’ll tell yourself this isn’t happening. You’ll push against the lid, of course. No surprise there. You’ll beat at the sides with your fists, pummel your heels against the bottom. You’ll bang your head, again and again, even though it hurts. And you’ll scream. You’ll scream and scream and scream. Snot will run from your nose. Tears will stream from your eyes. Until your screams grow rough, hiccuppy. Then, you’ll hear sounds that are strange and sad and pathetic, and you’ll understand the box, truly get, hey, I’m trapped in a dark wooden box, when you realize those sounds come from you.
Pine boxes aren’t composed entirely of smooth surfaces. Air holes, for example, can be crudely drilled. When you run your finger around them, when you poke your fingertip into them, desperately seeking . . . something . . . you’ll get splinters. You’ll chew out the wooden shards best you can. Then you’ll suck on your injured digit, lick the blood beading the tip, and make more hurt puppy dog sounds.
You’re alone in the box. It’s frightening. Overwhelming. Awful. Mostly because you don’t yet understand how much you have to fear.
You’ll get to know the box well, this home away from home. You’ll wiggle against it with your shoulders to determine the width. You’ll trace the length with your hands, attempt to bring up your feet. Not enough room to bend your knees. Not enough room to roll over. It’s exactly your size. As if it’s been made just for you. Your very own pine coffin, straining your lower back, bruising your shoulder blades, paining the back of your head.
One convenience: newspapers lining the bottom. You don’t notice this detail in the beginning. Don’t understand it once you do. Until the first time you wet yourself. Then spend days lying in your own filth. Like an animal, you’ll think. Except most animals are treated better than this.
Your mouth will grow parched, your lips chapped. You’ll start jamming your fingers into those air holes, ripping apart your own skin, just so you have something to taste, swallow, suck. You’ll know yourself in a way you’ve never known yourself before. Broken down. Elemental. The stink of your own urine. The salt of your own blood.
But you still don’t know anything yet.
When you finally hear footsteps, you won’t believe it. You’re delirious, you’ll tell yourself. You’re dreaming. You’re a lost, pathetic waste of human skin. A stupid, stupid girl who should’ve known better and now just look at you. And yet, the sound of a metal lock jangling on the other side of the box wall, inches from your ear . . .
Maybe you cry again. Or would if you had any moisture left.
When you first see his face, the man who has done this to you, you’re relieved. Happy even. You gaze upon his puffy cheeks, his beady eyes, his gaping mouth, yellow-stained teeth, and you think, thank God. Thank God, thank God, thank God.
He lets you out of the box. Lifts you up, actually, because your legs don’t work, and your muscles lack all strength, and your head lolls. Which makes you giggle. Head lolling. One of those words from English class that never made any sense. But there you have it. Heads loll. Your head lolls.
God, the smell. Garlic and BO and unwashed clothes and skanky hair. Is it you? Is it him? You gag, helplessly. And that makes him laugh. As he holds up the bottle of water. As he spells out exactly what you’ll have to do in order to earn it. He’s fat. Old. Disgusting. Repulsive. The unkempt beard, the greasy hair, the ketchup stains splotching the front of his cheap checkered shirt.
You’re supposed to be too good for him. Young, fresh, beautiful. The kind of girl who could have her pick of the litter at a frat party. You have moves. Had moves?
You cry for your mother. You beg him to let you go as you lie in a crumpled heap at his feet. Then, finally, ultimately, with the last of your strength, you remove your clothes. You let him do what he’s going to do. You scream, but your throat is too dry to make a sound. You vomit, but your stomach is too empty to yield any contents.
And later, when he finally offers up that bottle of water, only to dump it over your head, you lift your hands shamelessly to capture as much of the moisture as you can. You lick it from your palms. Chew it from your oily, filthy hair. You wait till he’s distracted, then suck that spot of ketchup from his now discarded shirt.
Back to the box. The box. The Box.
The lid hammers now. The lock snaps shut. The repulsive man walks away. Leaves you once again all alone. Naked. Bruised. Bloody. Knowing things you never wanted to know.
“Mommy,” you whisper.
But this monster’s real. And there’s nothing anyone can do to save you anymore.
This is what I do know:
There’s not much to do day after day trapped in a coffin-size box. In fact, there’s really only one thing worth imagining, obsessing, contemplating minute by minute, hour after terrible hour. One thought that keeps you going. One focus that gives you strength. You’ll find it. You’ll hone it. Then, if you’re anything like me, you’ll never let it go.
But be careful what you wish for, especially if you’re just a stupid girl trapped in a coffin-size box.
She started with a pomegranate martini. Paid too much, of course. Boston bars being very expensive. Pomegranate juice being very trendy. But it was Friday night. Another week survived, and by God she deserved at least an overpriced fruity cocktail.
Besides, she had some faith in herself. Loosen another button of her white fitted shirt, pull a few clips from her shoulder-length blond hair. She was twenty-seven, fit, and with the kind of ass that brought notice. She might buy her first drink. But odds were, she wouldn’t be buying the second.
She took a sip. Cool. Sweet. Biting. She warmed it on her tongue, then let the vodka slide down her throat. Worth every penny of the fourteen bucks.
For a moment she closed her eyes. The bar disappeared. The sticky floor, the strobing lights, the high-pitched squeal of the opening band, still warming up.
She stood in a void of silence. In a place that was solely hers.
When she opened her eyes again, he was standing there.
He bought her a second drink. Then a third, even offered a fourth. But by then the vodka and the dance floor lights were starting to mix in a way that didn’t make for a great morning after. Besides, she wasn’t an idiot. Whole time Mr. Haven’t I Seen You Around Here Before was plying her with martinis, he stuck to beer.
He was nice enough looking, she decided somewhere near the end of martini number two. Muscular, clearly a guy who worked out. Uninspired taste in clothing, though, with his tan slacks, button-up blue-striped shirt. Going for young professional, she supposed, but she noticed his pants were frayed at the hems, his shirt faded from too many washings. When she asked what he did for a living, he tried for charm. Oh, a little of this, a little of that, he said, going with a wink and a grin. But his eyes remained flat, even distant, and she felt the first pinprick of unease.
He recovered quickly. Produced martini number three. Wasn’t wearing a watch, she noticed, as he tried to catch the bartender with a twenty, then failed, as the other patrons were flashing hundreds. Not a wedding ring either. Unattached. Well built. Maybe her night was looking up.
She smiled, but it wasn’t a happy look. Something moved across her face, that void again, that realization that all these hours, days, weeks later, she still felt alone. Would always feel alone. Even in a crowded room.
It was just as well he didn’t turn around.
He finally snagged the bartender—white shirt, black tie, the kind of pecs that produced big tips—and got her a fresh drink.
She was ready for the fourth martini by then. Why not? It enabled her to talk about her little bit of this and little bit of that with a wink and a grin that matched the gleam in her eyes. And when his gaze lingered on the front of her shirt, the extra button that she might’ve slipped just moments before, she didn’t back away. She let him stare at the lacy hint of her hot-pink bra. She let him admire her tits.
Why not? Friday night. End of the week. She’d earned this.
He wanted to leave the bar at midnight. She made him wait till close. Band was surprisingly good. She liked the way the music made her feel, as if her blood were still alive, her heart still beating in her chest. He was clearly uncomfortable on the dance floor, but it didn’t matter; she had moves good enough for both of them.
Her white fitted shirt was now tied beneath her breasts Daisy Duke style. Her low-riding black dress jeans clung to every curve, her tall leather boots stomping out each rhythmic beat. After a while, he didn’t even bother with dancing but simply swayed in place, watching her. Her arms flung overhead, lifting her breasts. Her hips swinging round and round, taut bare abdomen glistening with sweat.
He had brown eyes, she noted. Dark. Flat. Watchful. Predatory, she thought. But this time around, instead of being spooked, she felt a fresh spike of adrenaline. The well-chiseled bartender was staring at her now too. She did a tour of the dance floor for both of them. Having accepted that fourth martini, her mouth now felt sweet and purple while her limbs were liquid ice.
She could dance all night. Take over this floor, take over this bar, take over this town.
Except that wasn’t what Mr. Haven’t I Seen You Around Here Before wanted. No guy bought a girl three overpriced drinks merely for the privilege of watching her dance.
Band wrapped up, started putting away their instruments. She missed the music acutely. Felt it like a pang to her soul. No more driving bass to power her feet, mask her pain. Now it was just her, Mr. Haven’t I Seen You Around Here Before, and the promise of a killer hangover.
He suggested they head outside for some fresh air. She wanted to laugh. To tell him he had no idea.
Instead, she followed him to the narrow side street covered in littered cigarette butts. He asked her if she wanted to smoke. She declined. He took her hand. Then, he pinned her to the side of a blue-painted dumpster, left hand already squeezing her breast, palming her nipple.
His eyes weren’t flat anymore. They were molten. Predator having secured prey.
“Your place or mine,” he demanded.
She couldn’t help herself. She started to laugh.
Which was when the evening really took a turn for the worse.
Mr. Haven’t I Seen You Around Here Before didn’t care for being laughed at. He struck quickly. Right hand connecting open-palmed against the side of her face. Her head rocked back into the metal dumpster. She heard the crash. Registered the pain. But courtesy of four martinis, it all felt distant, a bad night happening to someone else.
“You a tease?” he yelled at her, hand squeezing her breast, face screaming just inches from hers.
This close, she smelled the beer on his breath, noted the distinct webbing of red veins around his nose. Closet drinker. She should’ve realized that sooner. Kind of guy who liquored up before coming to the bar because it was cheaper that way. Meaning he wasn’t there for the booze at all but to hook up. To find a girl like her and take her home.
In other words, he was perfect for her.
She should say something. Or stomp her heel on the instep of his foot. Or grab his pinky—not his whole hand, just the pinky finger—and wrench it back till it touched his wrist.
He’d scream. He’d let her go.
He’d look into her eyes and realize his mistake. Because big cities such as Boston were filled with guys like him.
But also with girls like her.
She never got a chance.
He was shouting. She was smiling. Maybe even still laughing. With her head ringing and the taste of blood salting her tongue. Then Mr. Haven’t I Seen You Here Before ceased to exist.
He was there. Then he was gone. Replaced by the body-conscious bartender with the amazing pecs and now a very concerned look at his face.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “Did he hurt you? Do you need help? Do you want to call the cops?”
He offered his arm. She took it, stepping over the body of Mr. Haven’t I Seen You Around Here Before, who was knocked, slack-jawed, to the ground.
“He shouldn’t have touched you like that,” the bartender informed her soberly. Leading her away from the gawkers gathering around. Leading her deeper into the shadows beyond the perimeter of the bar’s flashing lights.
“It’s okay. I’ll take care of you now.”
As she realized for the first time that the bartender was gripping her arm harder than necessary. Not letting go.
She tried to talk her away out of it. Even when you knew better, it was a natural place to start. Hey, big boy, what’s your hurry? Can’t we just slow down? Hey, you’re hurting me. But of course he never broke his stride, nor relaxed his bruising grip above her elbow.
He was walking funny, keeping her tucked against his side, like two lovers out on a very fast stroll, but his head was tucked down and tilted to the side. Keeping his face in the shadows, she realized. So no one could see him.
Then, it came to her. The line of his posture, the way he moved. She’d seen him before. Not his face, not his features, but the hunch of his shoulders, the rounded bend of his neck. Three or four months ago, summertime, on the evening news, when a Boston College student went out drinking and never came home again. The local stations had repeatedly aired a video clip from a nearby security camera, capturing the girl’s last known moments as she was hustled away by an unknown male, head twisted from view.
“No,” she breathed.
He didn’t acknowledge her protest. They’d come to an intersection. Without hesitation, he yanked her left, down a darker, skinnier street that already smelled of urine and dumpster trash and dark things never spoken of again.
She dug in her heels, sobering up quickly now, doing her best to resist. At 110 pounds to his 190, her efforts hardly made a difference. He jerked her tighter against him, right arm clamped around her waist, and continued on.
“Stop!” she tried to scream.
But no sound came out. Her voice was locked in her throat. She was breathless, lungs too constricted to scream. Instead, a faint whimper, a sound she was embarrassed to admit was her own but knew from past experience had to be.
“I have a family,” she panted at last.
He didn’t respond. Fresh intersection, new turn. Skittering between tall brick buildings, out of public view. She already had no idea where they were.
“Please . . . stop . . .” she squeezed out. His arm was too tight around her waist, bruising her ribs. She was going to vomit. Willed it to happen as maybe that would gross him out, convince him to let her go.
No such luck. She heaved abruptly, purple liquid spewing from her mouth, spraying her feet, the side of his pants. He grimaced, jerked reflexively away, then quickly recovered and yanked her once again forward, pulling her by the elbow.
“I’m gonna be sick again,” she moaned, feet tangling, finally slowing his momentum.
“Drank too much.” His voice was filled with scorn.
“You don’t understand. You don’t know who I am.”
He paused long enough to adjust his grip on her arm. “Shouldn’t have come to the bar alone.”
“But I’m always alone.”
He didn’t get it. Or maybe he didn’t care. He stared at her, gaze flat, face expressionless. Then, his arm shot forward, and he socked her in the eye.
Her neck snapped back.
Her cheek exploded. Her eyes welled with tears.
She had a thought. Fleeting. Faint. Maybe the secret to understanding the universe. But then it was gone.
And much like Mr. Haven’t I Seen You Around Here Before, she ceased to exist.
Friday night. End of a long week. She’d earned this.
He moved her. By foot, by car, she didn’t know. But when she regained consciousness, she was no longer on the mean streets of Boston, but tucked somewhere dark and dank. The floor beneath her bare feet felt cold. Concrete. Cracked and uneven. A basement, she thought, or maybe a garage.
She could see faintly. Enough light from three small windows placed high on one wall. Not letting in daylight, but a dim yellow haze. As if a streetlight was outside those windows, permitting an ambient glow.
She used the wash of illumination to determine several things at once: Her hands were bound in front of her with plastic zip ties; she’d been stripped completely naked; and at the moment, at least, she was alone.
Her heart rate accelerated. Her head hurt, her skin prickling with goose bumps, and odds were she’d miss this state of relative safety soon enough. The kind of guy who knocked out his date and removed every stitch of her clothing wasn’t the kind that was going to leave her untouched for long. Even now, he was most likely preparing for the rest of the evening’s festivities. Humming away to himself. Contemplating games he could indulge in with his new toy. Feeling like he was the biggest, baddest asshole in town.
She smiled then. Though once again, it wasn’t a happy expression on her face.
First off, inventory. Basement or garage inevitably meant storage, and as the saying went, one person’s trash was another person’s treasure.
He’d been stupid not to bind her ankles as well. Not as experienced as he thought. Not as clever as he was about to wish he’d been. But then, people saw what they wanted to see. She’d been taken in by his pecs. He’d no doubt assessed her as an easy blonde. Turned out, they were both in for some surprises this evening.
She found a heavy worktable. Raising her bound wrists, she skimmed her fingers across the wooden surface. She identified a thick metal vise built into one corner. Moved on more quickly in search of what she hoped might be an assortment of tools. But no, he wasn’t that stupid and she wasn’t that lucky.
No abandoned sharp objects, pliers, hammer. She searched the room’s perimeter next, almost tripping over a metal can, then reaching out quickly to grab it before it fell. No sense in alerting him to her conscious state any sooner than necessary. Lid steady, nerves still shaky, she forced herself to continue.
The metal can yielded a filled plastic garbage bag. She set it aside in the short term, then paced the remaining two walls. She identified a collection of empty gas cans, as well as two plastic jugs. Based on smell, one gallon jug held the remains of windshield wiper fluid, the other antifreeze. So she was most likely in a garage. Being Boston, probably a detached unit, allowing the bartender even more privacy.
She didn’t dwell on what might happen next, why a man like him required such privacy. For that matter, she refused to get caught up in the stickiness of the floor in the rear corner. Or the smell that was becoming nearly impossible to ignore. An odor that matched the taste of blood on her tongue.
She took the jug of antifreeze and moved it to the bare wooden worktable. His first mistake. Her first victory.
She found a shovel propped up against the wall. With renewed vigor, she placed her plastic bindings against the blade and rubbed vigorously. After a minute or two, she was breathing heavily, sweat stinging her swollen eye. Yet to judge by the feel of the zip tie . . . Nothing. The edge of the spade was too dull, or the plastic too durable. She tried for another moment, then forced herself to abandon the effort.
Zip ties were tough. Frankly, she would’ve preferred metal cuffs. But at least he’d done the courtesy of binding her hands in front of her, where she still had considerable use of them, while not pulling the plastic so tight she lost all feeling in her fingertips.
She could move her feet; she could move her arms.
She could hold herself perfectly still and feel the void, right there. Dark. Comforting. Silent.
Alone in a crowded room, she thought, and for a moment, her body swayed, listening to music only she could hear.
Then she grew serious again. Trash. It was time.
She tore through the thin plastic bag using her fingers. First thing that hit her was the stench. Rotten food, rotted flesh, something worse. She gagged, felt tears well in her eyes and forced down a flood of bile. Now was not the time to be squeamish as she forced her fingers into oozing garbage she could feel but not see. Paper towels. Wet piles of God knows what. Discarded food containers. Takeout. From inside the home, or food he’d brought out here to share with his catch or munch on himself when taking a break from his entertainment. Halfway through the bag she came upon a new batch of rotten, more organic smelling this time. Her fingers moved quicker. Paper-dry petals. Squishy green steams. Flowers. A tossed bouquet. Because in addition to food, he plied his playthings with treats?
More likely, she decided, the last ruse he’d used to lure an unsuspecting victim. Then, in the next instant, it occurred to her: Where there’s a cheap florist’s bouquet . . .
Bound hands moving quickly now. Diving into the foul pile. Digging determinedly through rancid Chinese food and sticky duck sauce. Tossing aside empty coffee cups and more and more gooey flower carcasses. Plastic, she was seeking the feel of a thin plastic packet. Small, square with a sharp edge . . .
The noise came from directly behind her. The sound of a hand, a foot, connecting with a metal garage door. She couldn’t help herself. She froze. Naked. Shivering. Elbow deep in garbage. And listened to him once again announce his arrival.
Because he wanted her to know he was coming. He wanted her shaking, terrified, curled into a ball, already fearing the worst. That was the kind of man he was.
And this time, it was a happy expression on her face. Because now, in her right hand, she had it: the thin packet of flower food, generously included with most bouquets and exactly what she’d been looking for.
She hadn’t lied to him before. He didn’t know her. Which had been his first, and would now would be his last, mistake.
Behind her, the garage door began its shaky ascent. Him dragging out the suspense as he slowly heaved it open.
No more time to wait. No more time to plan. She gripped the packet between her palms, then grabbed the nearly empty jug of antifreeze. Moving swiftly across the cracked concrete floor until she stood beneath the row of eyebrow windows. The weak light streaming above her, bathing the middle of the space in a dim glow while keeping her in shadow.
Garage door. Quarter of the way open. Now a third. A half.
She released her grip on the packet. Grabbed the antifreeze jug first, pinning it between her feet, then used both hands to press down the child-safety lid and twist. The plastic cap clattered to the floor, but the rattle of the heaving metal door covered the sound.
Two-thirds of the way open. Now three-quarters. Enough for a grown man to walk through.
She placed the antifreeze to the side. Forced herself to take the time to shake out the packet, settling the crystals to the bottom. Couldn’t afford to waste any if this was to work.
He stepped into the space.
The bartender with the amazing pecs. Shirt already off. Muscles rippling in the moonlight. A beautiful physical specimen.
She should feel guilty for what she was going to do next.
But she didn’t.
She stepped forward into the dim stream of light. Her nakedness clearly exposed. Her wrists clearly bound.
He smiled, right hand already moving to the waistband of his jeans.
“You don’t know who I am,” she said clearly.
He paused, regarded her quizzically, as if she’d challenged him with complicated math.
Then . . . the bartender moved toward her.
She ripped open the plastic packet, took three quick steps forward, and tossed the contents into his face.
He reared back, coughing and blinking as the flower food hit his eyes, nose, mouth.
“What the . . .”
She grabbed the open jug of antifreeze, swirled it three times, and then . . .
A suspended heartbeat of time. He looked at her. Stared hard. And in that instant they finally saw each other. Not a ripped bartender. Not a stupid blonde. But dark heart to lost soul.
She sprayed the antifreeze straight into his face. Splashed it onto his exposed skin and the granules of potassium permanganate still clinging there.
One more heartbeat of time. Then . . .
The first tendrils of smoke. From his hair. His cheeks. His eyelashes. The man lifted his hands to his face.
Then basic chemistry took over, and the bartender’s skin burst into flame.
He screamed. He ran. He beat at his own head as if it would make a difference. He did everything but stop, drop, and roll, panic having its way.
She stood there. Not moving a muscle. Not saying a word. She watched until at last he collapsed into a pile of smoking ruin. Other sounds penetrated then. Neighbors calling out into the dark, demanding to know what was going on. The distant sounds of sirens, as apparently one of the smarter ones had already called 9-1-1.
The woman finally stepped forward. She peered down at her attacker’s remains, watched the smoky tendrils drift from his now blackened skin.
Friday night, she thought. She’d earned this.
“Who is she?”
“Don’t know. Neighbor over there, Kyle Petrakis, claims he found her standing over the body. Stripped naked, hands tied, face bashed.”
“She did all this with her hands tied?” Sergeant Detective D. D. Warren knelt down, studied the charred remains of their . . . victim? Perpetrator? Body was curled in a near fetal position, hands clenched over the young male’s face. A protective gesture, which, judging by the burn patterns across his head, shoulders, and face, had been too little, too late.
“Chemical fire,” the third detective spoke up. “Combine potassium permanganate with antifreeze and poof.”
D.D. ignored the third detective, glancing up at Phil instead. “So what do we know?”
“House belongs to Allen and Joyce Goulding,” her former squad mate rattled off. “Older couple, currently waiting out the winter chill in Florida. They left behind, however, their youngest son, twenty-eight-year-old Devon Goulding, who trains as a bodybuilder by day, works as a bartender by night.”
“This is Devon?” D.D. asked, gesturing to the body.
“Umm, gonna have to wait on the fingerprints for that one.”
D.D. grimaced, made the mistake of breathing through her nose, grimaced harder. “Where’s our victim turned vixen now?”
“Back of a squad car. Refused medical attention. Waiting on the feds, whom she called directly.”
“The feds?” D.D. rose to standing, voice curt. “What do you mean she personally invited the feds to our party? Who the hell is this girl?”
Detective number three did the honors: “She called the Boston field office and requested Dr. Samuel Keynes. Dialed the number off the top of her head, I might add. Would you still call it a party?” the newest member of Boston homicide asked conversationally. “Or is it more like a barbecue?”
D.D. walked away. Turned on her heel, left the body, exited the garage. In her new and improved supervisory role she could get away with such things. Or maybe it was due to her current classification as restricted duty.
The fact that detective number three had taken D.D.’s former position with her former squad—an assignment D.D. could no longer hold, given her recent injury—was no reason to shun the thirty-five-year-old recruit. No, currently D.D. held the woman’s name against her. Carol. As in Carol Manley. Sounded like an insurance agent. Or maybe a soccer mom. But definitely not a cop. No kind of serious detective went by Carol.
Of course, no kind of serious homicide unit sergeant obsessed about a new detective’s name, or was petty enough to hold it against her. Maybe.
A year ago, D.D. hadn’t worried about women named Carol. Or the future of her three-member squad. Or her own role with the BPD’s homicide unit. She lived, ate, and breathed death investigations and was a happier person for it. Until the evening she returned for a late-night analysis of a crime scene and startled the killer still lurking there. One brief altercation later, she’d toppled down a flight of stairs and suffered an avulsion fracture to her left arm. No more lifting her gun. No more lifting her small child.
For the next six months, D.D. had gotten to sit at home. Nursing her wounds, worrying about her future, and, yeah, losing her mind. But slowly and surely, as her physical therapist, Russ, had promised her, the hard work had started to pay off. Until one day she could shrug her shoulder, and another day she could slowly but surely raise her arm.
Her strength wasn’t there yet. Nor full range of motion. She couldn’t execute such things as, say, the two-handed Weaver stance for shooting. But her pain was manageable, her injury improving, and her overall state of health excellent. Enough to convince the powers that be to allow her to return under restricted duty status. Meaning she now spent more time supervising as a sergeant than engaging in hands-on investigating as a detective. She told herself she could handle it. The work was the work, and either way she was solving crimes.
Of course, she continued to engage in thrice-weekly occupational therapy sessions where she used a hand weight in lieu of her handgun and practiced the motion of unsnapping her holster, then drawing and firing over and over again. She also spent some time on the shooting range. One-handed. Not as reliable. Not department SOP. But she had to start somewhere.
Otherwise, Phil and Neil, two of the finest detectives on the force, would forever be saddled with a rookie.
The Gouldings’ garage was a detached, single-car unit set in the back of the property. Striding forward, D.D. vacated the structure, crossed the modest backyard, and headed for the street. Sun was just coming up. A gray, chilly dawn that seemed almost anticlimactic given the current level of activity. Patrol cars were stacked up along both sides of the busy neighborhood street, as well as the ME’s vehicle and several larger, more impressive media vans.
The first responders had done an admirable job of roping off the property. From the gray-painted two-story colonial to the dilapidated rear garage, the officers had seized it all, establishing a strict perimeter of yellow crime scene tape that would make D.D.’s job that much easier. Nosy neighbors contained to the sidewalk across the street? Check. Rabid reporters confined to fifty yards away from the closest law enforcement officer? Check. And now for the trifecta . . .
D.D. discovered the woman sitting in the back of the third patrol car, shoulders shivering slightly beneath a blue BPD blanket, face staring straight ahead. A district detective sat beside her. The rear car door sat open, as if they were waiting for something or someone. Neither was saying a word.
“Margaret,” D.D. acknowledged the officer on the far side of the vehicle. This close, she realized why the vehicle door had been left ajar. Back at the crime scene, investigators had marked a bag of rotting food that had been pulled out of a trash can and torn open. The woman must’ve been at least elbow deep in that mess, given the scent of rancid meat and sour milk wafting from her skin, let alone the streaks of slime marring her cheeks and mucking her hair.
“D.D.,” the district detective replied stoically. “Heard you were back. Congrats.”
“Thanks.” D.D.’s gaze remained focused on the woman. The alleged killer. The alleged victim. The girl appeared young. Mid- to late twenties would be D.D.’s guess. With shoulder-length blond hair and delicate features that would probably be found attractive, if not for the assortment of bruises, smatters of blood, and smears of rot. The girl didn’t look at her, but continued to focus on the back on the driver’s seat.
Flat affect, D.D. noted. An expression most often found in homicide cops or victims of chronic abuse.
Standing outside the patrol car, D.D. leaned down until her face was even with the woman’s. “Sergeant Detective D. D. Warren,” she said by way of introduction. “And you are?”
The girl finally turned her head. She stared at D.D. Seemed to study her as if looking for something. Then, she resumed her examination of the back of driver’s seat.
D.D. gave it some thought. “Quite the scene in the garage. Chemical fire, I’m told. Basically, you burned a man alive with some kind of preservative mixed with antifreeze. You learn that as a Girl Scout?”
“Let me guess. Devon seemed nice enough when you first met. Good-looking guy, hardworking. You decided to give love a chance.”
“Devon?” The woman finally spoke, gaze still locked straight ahead. Her voice sounded husky. As if she’d smoked too much. Or screamed too loud.
“Victim’s name. Devon Goulding. What, you never got around to asking?”
Cool blue eyes. Gray, D.D. thought as the girl glanced over.
“Didn’t know him,” the girl said. “We’d never met.”
“And yet here we are.”
“He’s a bartender,” the girl offered, as if that should mean something to D.D. Then, it did.
“You went out tonight. To the bar where Devon worked. That’s how you met.”
“We didn’t meet,” the girl insisted. “I was there with someone else. The bartender . . . he followed us out.” She stared at D.D. again. “He’s done this before,” she stated matter-of-factly. “August. That girl who went missing, Stacey Summers. The way he grabbed me, tucked his head to hide his face from view as he pulled me down the back streets . . . He matches the man in the abduction video. I would search his property thoroughly.”
Stacey Summers was a Boston College student who’d disappeared in August. Young, beautiful, blond, she had the kind of beaming smile and gorgeous head shots guaranteed to grab nationwide headlines. Which the case had. Unfortunately, three months later, the police possessed only a single grainy video image of her being dragged away from a local bar by a large, shadowy brute. That was it. No witnesses. No suspects. No leads. The case had grown cold, even if the media attention had not.
“Do you know Stacey Summers?” D.D. asked.
The girl shook her head.
“Friend of the family? Fellow college student? Someone who once met her at a bar?”
“Are you a cop?”
“So your interest in the Stacey Summers case . . .”
“I read the news.”
“Of course.” D.D. tilted her head sideways, contemplated her subject. “You know federal agents,” she stated. “Family friend? Neighbor? But you know someone well enough to dial direct.”
“He’s not a friend.”
“Then who is he?”
A faint smile. “I don’t know. You’d have to ask him.”
“What’s your name?” D.D. straightened up. Her left shoulder was starting to bother her now. Not to mention this conversation’s strain on her patience.
“He didn’t know my name,” the girl said. “The bartender, this Devon? He didn’t care who I was. I arrived at the bar alone. According to him, that’s all it took to make me a victim.”
“You were at the bar alone? Drank alone?”
“Only the first drink. That’s generally how it works.”
“How many drinks did you have?”
“Why? Because if I’m drunk, I deserved it?”
“No, because if you’re drunk, you’re not as reliable a witness.”
“I danced with one guy most of the night. Others saw us. Others can corroborate.”
D.D. frowned, still not liking the woman’s answers, nor her use of use of the word corroborate, a term generally favored by law enforcement, not laypeople. “Dancer’s name?”
“Mr. Haven’t I Seen You Around Here Before?” the girl murmured.
On the other side of the girl, the district detective rolled her eyes. Apparently D.D. wasn’t the first person to be asking these questions, or getting these answers.
“Can he corroborate?” D.D. stressed the legal term.
“Assuming he’s regained consciousness.”
“You should search the garage. There’s blood in the far left corner. I could smell it when I was digging through the trash, trying to find a weapon.”
“Is that when you discovered the potassium permanganate?”
“He’s the one who threw away the bouquet, probably after using it to lure in some other victim. I’m not his first. I can tell you. He was much too confident, too well prepared. If this is his house, check his room. He’ll have trophies. Predator like him enjoys the private thrill of revisiting past conquests.”
D.D. stared at the woman. In her years in homicide, she’d interviewed victims who were hysterical. She’d dealt with victims who were shock. When it came to crime, there was no such thing as an emotional norm. And yet she’d never met a victim like this one. The woman’s responses were well beyond the bell curve. Hell, outside the land of sanity.
“Did you know what Devon—”
“The bartender had done to these other women? Maybe a friend of yours told you something. Her own scary experience. Or rumors of something that may have happened to a friend of friend?”
“But you suspected something?” D.D. continued, voice hard. “At the very least, you think he was involved with the disappearance of another girl, a case plastered all over the news. So what? You decided to take matters into your own hands, turn yourself into some kind of hero and make your own headlines?”
“I’d never met the bartender before tonight. I left with a different loser. He was the one I was trying to set up.” The girl shrugged, gaze once more locked on the back of the driver’s seat. “The evening’s been filled with surprises. Even for someone like me, these things can happen.”
“Who are you?”
That smile again, the one that was not a smile but something far more troubling rippling across the girl’s face. “I didn’t know the bartender. I’ve read about the Stacey Summers case, who hasn’t? But I never thought . . . Let’s just say, I didn’t plan on some overpumped nightclub employee knocking me unconscious or carting me off as his personal plaything. Once it happened, though . . . I know survival skills. I know self-defense. I utilized the resources I found on hand—”
“You went through his trash.”
The girl stared at her. For once, D.D. was the one who looked away.
“He started the war,” the girl stated clearly. “I simply ended it.”
“Then called the FBI.”
“I didn’t have any choice in that matter.”
D.D. suddenly had an inkling. It wasn’t a good feeling. She studied her victim, a midtwenties female obviously experienced with law enforcement and personal defense. “The special agent? Is he your father?”
The girl finally took her seriously.
She said: “Worse.”
In the beginning, I cried. Which in time led to a sort of mindless humming, making noise for the sake of making noise, because it’s hard to be alone in a dark wooden box. Sensory deprivation. The kind of torture used to break hardened assassins and radicalized terrorists. Because it works.
The pain was the worst. The relentless hard surface denting the soft spot on the back of my skull, straining my lower back, bruising my bony heels. I would feel the ache like a fire across my skin, until my entire nervous system roared its outrage. But there was nothing I could do. No new position I could adopt. Not a twist here or a bend there to relieve the pressure. To be trapped, pinned really, flat on your back on a hard pine plank, minute after minute after minute.
I think there were times, especially in the beginning, when I wasn’t sane.
Humans are interesting, however. Our ability to adapt is truly impressive. Our rage against our own suffering. Our relentless need to find a way out, to do something, anything, to advance our lot in life.
I made the first improvement in my living conditions by accident. In a fit of fury against the pain in the back of my skull, I lifted my head and smacked my forehead against the wooden lid. Maybe I hoped to knock myself unconscious. Wouldn’t have surprised me.
What I received was a sharp sting to my front right temple, which did, at least temporarily, alleviate the ache in the back of my head. Which led to more discoveries. Your back throbs? Smack a knee. Your knee hurts? Stub a toe. Your toe hurts? Jam a finger.
Pain is a symphony. A song of varying intensities and many, many notes. I learned to play them. No longer a helpless victim in a sea of suffering but a mad orchestral genius directing the music of my own life.
Alone, trapped inside a coffin-size box, I sought out each tiny register of discomfort and mastered it.
Which led in turn to leg lifts and shoulder shrugs and the world’s most abbreviated biceps curls.
He came. He worked the padlock. He removed the lid. He lifted me out of the depths and reveled in his godlike powers. Afterward, a small offering of liquid, perhaps even a scrap of food as he tossed the dog the proverbial bone. He’d stay to watch, laughing as I cracked open the dried-up chicken wing and greedily sucked out the marrow.
Then, back to the box. He would leave. And I belonged to myself again.
Alone in the dark.
Master of my pain.
I cried. I railed against God. I begged for someone, anyone, to save me.
But only in the beginning.
Slowly but surely, dimly, then with greater clarity, I began to think, plot, scheme.
One way or another, I was getting out of this. I’d do whatever it took to survive.
And then . . .
I was going home.
D.D. discovered Neil in the upstairs rear bedroom of the second-story house. The youngest member of the three-man squad, Neil was famous for his shock of red hair and perpetually youthful face. Most suspects dismissed him as a new recruit, which D.D. and Phil had never stopped using to their advantage.
These days, Neil carried himself with more poise. In the past couple of years, D.D. and Phil had been pushing him to step up, take the lead. It had resulted in a few battles, given Neil remained most at home overseeing autopsies in the morgue. But D.D. liked to think she’d raised him right. Certainly, with her gone and Phil now serving as lead detective of the squad, Neil had better be lording over Carol, D.D. thought. It was the least he could do for her.
Neil glanced up as she walked in. He was kneeling on the floor beside a rumpled queen-size bed, holding a shoe box pulled from beneath the mattress. D.D. made it three feet into the cramped, dank space and wrinkled her nose. It smelled like unwashed sheets, cheap cologne, and gym socks. In other words, like the home of a bachelor male.
“Devon Goulding’s room?” she asked.
“Looks like it.”
“Arrested development,” she muttered.
Neil arched a brow. “We can’t all be Alex,” he observed.
Alex was D.D.’s husband. Crime scene reconstruction specialist and instructor at the police academy. One of the more refined members of the species, D.D. liked to think, he had impeccable taste in clothing, food, and, of course, his wife. He also looked pretty good with mushy Cheerios glued to his cheek, which is how most breakfasts with their four-year-old son ended. Alex actually enjoyed doing laundry. Devon Goulding, on the other hand . . .
“Got anything?” D.D. gestured to the shoe box in Neil’s hand. “Say, a stash of trophies from previous victims? According to our femme fatale, who apparently had never met Mr. Goulding before this evening, he’s definitely done this before and might even be the perpetrator responsible for the Boston College student who went missing in August.”
Neil blinked. “You mean the Stacey Summers case?”
“So I’m told.”
“By the woman who torched Devon in his own garage with her hands still tied?”
“The one and only.”
“Who is she again?”
“Interestingly enough, she was more forthcoming on Devon’s alleged crimes than her
own. But she’s convinced he’s a serial predator, and we should definitely check for trophies.”
“She looks familiar,” Neil said. “I can’t quite place her. But when I first arrived and spotted her . . . I thought I knew her from somewhere.”
“Quantico?” D.D. asked helpfully, as Neil had recently attended a training seminar there for detectives, and it would certainly explain the woman’s knowledge of criminal behavior.
But Neil was shaking his head. “I don’t think so. Then again . . .”
“You ever hear about this chemical-fire thing?” she asked him now, Neil having the most extensive science background on her squad. Former squad.
“Yeah. One of those survival tricks for when lost in the wilderness, that sort of thing. Gotta admit, though, if I woke up trapped in a garage with my hands bound . . . Not sure that’s the first thing that would pop into my head.”
“Seems to indicate higher-than-average self-defense skills.”
“Here’s the thing, though,” Neil continued, rising to his feet. “It shouldn’t have killed Goulding. Incapacitated, maimed, traumatized, sure. But localized burning, relatively low heat . . . You’d be amazed at how much the human body can endure and keep on ticking. I’ve seen victims pulled from fiery wrecks with two-thirds of their skin toasted, and still, with enough time and treatment, they make it.”
D.D. shuddered. She didn’t like burns. She’d once been sent to interview a survivor in a burn unit who was having the dead skin literally scraped from his back. Based on the guy’s screams, she’d assumed he was dying, only to be told the whole treatment was designed to fix him. Not enough morphine in the world, the nurse had offered helpfully, scouring away.
“Now, it’s possible Devon inhaled heat and smoke into his throat,” Neil was saying. “Maybe seared his esophagus, which swelled up, closing his airway. But what the witness described sounded more instantaneous. Which made me think maybe he went into shock and his heart stopped beating.”
“Okay,” D.D. said. She still didn’t know where they were going with this, but Neil had worked as an EMT before he became a cop. He often saw things she and Phil didn’t.
“Of course, the deceased is a young, obviously fit male. Bodybuilder, by the looks of things.”
“You could see that?” D.D. asked incredulously, recalling the curled-up lump of charred remains.
“Which leads to further considerations. Bodybuilders have been known to dabble in anabolic steroids, which in turn can lead to a whole host of symptoms, including high blood pressure and an enlarged heart.”
“And shrunken testicles,” D.D. offered up. “High blood pressure is news to me, but the shrunken testicles, I’m pretty sure about.”
Neil rolled his eyes. “We’ll let the ME measure testicle size. Based on this, however, we’re probably both right.” He jiggled the shoe box, and D.D. could hear the telltale noise of glass vials rattling together. “Devon Goulding was definitely shooting up ’roids. For how long, I couldn’t tell you. But even short-term use could have impacted his heart, and been a contributing factor in his death.”
“What about roid rage?” D.D. asked, considering the matter. “I always thought that meant flying off the handle, but could it have lead him to abduct a girl from a bar?”
“Beyond my pay grade,” Neil said with a shrug. “In theory, long-term steroid abuse leads to diminished sex drive, which begs the question why would he want to kidnap a girl from a bar.”
“Giving into his darker impulses was the only way he could get interested anymore? Violence his last remaining turn-on?”
Neil shrugged. “Your guess is as good mine. Based upon this box, I think we can safely assume Devon Goulding used steroids and it probably was a factor in his death. As for evidence of past crimes, additional victims, only one way to find out.” Neil set down the box, took one step toward the narrow dresser that was crammed up against the wall, and started pulling out drawers.
D.D. let him do it. She was on restricted duty after all. Neil could ransack the room. She crossed to the bed and inspected the contents of Goulding’s shoe box. In addition to various colorfully labeled glass jars, there were numerous baggies of unmarked pills, supplements, hormones, God only knew. Could steroid abuse have led to Goulding’s crime spree? Their lone survivor had implied she hadn’t known him at all, had been at the bar with another man until Goulding had knocked out bachelor A and absconded with the girl. Certainly sounded primitive enough. It also sounded impulsive to D.D. Serial predators were more likely to stalk their victims, plan out the abduction. Whereas snatching a girl from outside a bar . . .
“Hey,” Neil interrupted her thoughts. He’d given up on the drawers and was once more on his hands and knees, feeling beneath the bureau with his gloved hand.
It took him several tugs; then he retrieved a large, plain yellow manila envelope that had been taped to the bottom of the dresser. He shook it, and D.D. saw several small rectangular shapes move against the paper sheath.
Neil carried the envelope to the bed. The top flap wasn’t glued down but fastened shut with metal tabs. He flipped them up, then did the honors of opening the envelope and pouring its contents onto the bed.
D.D. counted two credit-card-size objects. Except they weren’t credit cards.
“Driver’s licenses,” Neil said. “Two females. Kristy Kilker. Natalie Draga.”
“But not Stacey Summers?”
“No Stacey Summers. Then again”—Neil held up one of the licenses to show a single bloody fingerprint—“I think our world’s most dangerous Girl Scout may have been on to something after all.”
They tore the rest of the room apart, D.D. starting with the bed, Neil continuing on to the dresser. They moved methodically and efficiently, teammates who’d done this kind of thing before. Later, the crime scene techs would return with fingerprint powder, luminal, and alternative light sources. They’d retrieve fingerprints, bodily fluids, and hopefully miniscule strands of hair and fiber.
For now, D.D. and Neil went for the obvious. Women’s clothing, jewelry, anything that could tie back to other victims. Pay stubs and bar bills that might indicate other hunting grounds. And, what the hell, a killer’s diary. You never knew when you might get lucky.
D.D. had to have Neil’s help to lift the top mattress. Her shoulder already throbbed, her left arm too weak for the job. Neil didn’t say anything. He came over. Together, they lifted; then he returned to his corner and she resumed her search of the bed.
She was grateful for her partner’s . . . former partner’s . . . silence. The fact that he didn’t comment on the sheen of sweat already collecting on her brow, her clear shortness of breath. Supervisors were hardly expected to work crime scenes, D.D. reminded herself. Request paperwork on the subject, review all notes, sure. But this actual work thing . . . No, she was supposed to be safely ensconced back at HQ, where her lack of ability to carry a sidearm wouldn’t be a liability to herself and others.
D.D. searched every square inch under the top mattress, then went to work on the box spring. Later she would have to ice down, while enduring Alex’s knowing stare. But she was who she was. He knew it. Neil knew it. It was simply the Boston Police Department she was determined to fool.
“Got something.” She could feel it now. A hard lump near the top right corner of the box spring. Up close, she could see that the seam where the heavy-duty material from the sides of the box spring met with the flimsy top cover was frayed. She poked around with her gloved fingertips, and sure enough, wedged between a nest of coils . . . “A box. Hang on. Slippery damn thing. And . . . got it!”
Gingerly, D.D. withdrew the metal box. Her entire left arm was trembling with fatigue. More weights, she thought vaguely. More weights, more PT, more anything in order not to feel this weak, in order not to be this weak in public.
But once again, Neil didn’t comment. He simply took the small lockbox from her shaking hands and moved it to the corner desk, where they had more light.
The box appeared fairly standard issue. Gunmetal gray. Maybe six inches wide by two inches tall. Meant for a few precious or personal mementos, little else.
“Photos,” Neil said.
“What?” D.D. leaned closer, trying to make out the stack of pictures beneath the desk light.
“A black-haired woman. Again and again.” Neil flipped through the stack. Each photo revealed the same subject. Walking in a park, sitting with a cup of coffee, reading a book, laughing at someone off camera. The woman appeared to be in her early thirties, and beautiful, in a dark, sultry sort of way. “Former girlfriend, maybe?”
“Stashed in a container inside his box spring?” D.D. was already shaking her head. “I don’t think so. Look like anyone you know? Stacey Summers? Wait, she’s a petite blonde, whereas this girl . . .”
“Not Stacey Summers,” Neil agreed. “What about our vic downstairs? Last I saw, she was covered in garbage. I don’t remember hair color.”
“Also blond, with light gray eyes. Not this woman either.”
“D.D.” Neil spoke up quietly. He’d reached the last few photos. Both of them stilled. Same woman. Except she wasn’t smiling or laughing anymore. Her dark eyes were huge, her pale face stricken. She stared straight into the camera and her expression . . .
Now, it was Neil’s hand that shook slightly, and D.D. who didn’t say a word.
Neil set down the photos, then returned with the two licenses they’d found beneath the bureau.
“Natalie Draga,” he said. He placed the ID next to the photo as both of them looked from photos to official ID, then slowly nodded. “Thirty one, address in Chelsea.”
“But no pictures of the second victim?”
“No. Just Natalie.”
“Personal connection,” D.D. murmured. “She meant something to him. Hence all the images.”
“Worshipped her from afar,” Neil supposed.
“Or even a girlfriend. Except it ended badly. Maybe she rejected him. And then he turned on her.”
“And the second victim, Kristy? Plus, the woman downstairs?” Neil asked. They’d gone through the box; there were no more photos.
“Maybe he liked it,” D.D. theorized out loud. “The first time was personal. The second and third were for fun.”
“There’s no way of telling where these pictures were taken,” Neil said. “The framing is too close-up, there’s not enough backdrop.”
“Our survivor claims there’s blood in the garage.”
“I could smell something,” Neil concurred.
“Have the crime scene techs gather samples. And send more uniforms to the bar where Devon Goulding worked, with photos of all three known victims. Let’s see just how close to home he was hunting. Grab a photo of Stacey Summers as well. See if she frequented that bar.”
“She was last seen at a different establishment, Birches over on Lex.”
“I know. But if she’d spent time in Goulding’s bar as well . . . how many psychopaths can one poor girl run into?”
D.D. straightened, wincing as the motion jarred her shoulder, the growing ache in her back.
“You should go home,” Neil said. “It’s our job to handle all this, your job to tell us how we could’ve done it better.”
But D.D. wasn’t listening to him. She was thinking. Of the garage, of Devon Goulding, of his latest victim, who’d beaten him at his own game and was now sitting in the back of a squad car. A blonde with FBI connections and knowledge of how to start a chemical fire. A woman Neil had thought he’d recognized.
She should know this, she thought. Could feel something stirring in the back of her mind.
A knock came from behind her; newbie detective Carol Manley stuck her head in the room.
“D.D., the agent our vic called at the FBI. He’s here.”
Once upon a time, I could’ve told you all about myself.
I would’ve said with certainty that my name is Florence Dane. My mom, who dreamed big for her children, named me after Florence Nightingale and my older brother in honor of Charles Darwin.
I would’ve said that the happiest place on earth was my mother’s farm in central Maine. Mounds of blueberries in the summer, acres and acres of potatoes in the fall. I grew up loving the smell of freshly turned earth. The feel of soil beneath my fingertips. My mother’s contented sigh at the end of the day, when she gazed over all that she had accomplished and felt satisfied.
Our neighbors included several foxes, as well as bears and moose. My mother didn’t mind our local wanderers, but was a firm believer in not feeding the wildlife. We were to coexist with nature, not corrupt it. My mother had grown up on a commune. She had many theories about life, not all of which made any sense to my brother and me.
Personally, I loved the foxes best. I would sit for hours outside their den, hoping for a view of the kits. Foxes are playful, like a kitten crossed with a puppy. They enjoy batting around golf balls or tossing small toys in the air. I learned this the way kids used to learn things, by hanging outside with the sun on my face, by trying a little bit of this or a little bit of that. I brought them an old rubber ball, a catnip-stuffed mouse, even a small rubber duckie. The adult foxes would sniff at the offerings hesitantly, while the kits would come bounding out of the den and pounce on the new toys without a moment’s hesitation. Sometimes, I left a carrot or two behind. Or, if my mother was particularly busy and not paying attention, scraps of hot dog.
Just being neighborly, I tried to explain to my mother the first afternoon she caught me shredding cheese outside the den’s opening. She didn’t buy it: “Every creature must learn to make it on its own. Encouraging dependence doesn’t do anyone any favors, Flora.”
But later, after a particularly bad snowstorm in early November, I caught her carrying scraps from dinner to the same den.
She didn’t say anything, and neither did I. It became our shared secret, because back then, we couldn’t think of anything more scandalous than domesticating wild foxes.
So once upon a time, here is something I could’ve told you about myself: I love foxes. Or at least I used to. That’s not the kind of thing that’s easy to take from someone. But I don’t sit around and watch them anymore, or bring them toys, or smuggle them treats. Four hundred and seventy-two days later . . . I try to find peace in the woods. I definitely prefer the wide-open outdoors to small indoor spaces.
But some pieces of myself, some feelings . . . it’s just not like that anymore. I can do the things I used to do, visit the same places, see the same people. But I don’t feel the same anymore. Some days, I’m not sure I feel anything at all.
April is my favorite month. I’m fairly sure that’s still true. The farm came with a rickety old greenhouse. How it survived each long, blustery winter we never knew. But by late April, as the snow finally thawed, we’d trudge through the mud and force open the warped door, the whole structure groaning in protest. Darwin would lead the charge inside, the lone male and self-appointed family protector.
My mother would come next with a wheelbarrow full of bags of loam and topsoil. I’d bring up the rear, carting plastic trays and, of course, packets of seed.
My brother, Darwin, went for speed. Tossing in handfuls of soil, jabbing in seeds. Even back then, he was impatient, wanting to be anywhere but there. My mother had named him well. He loved us, but from an early age we could both tell staying home wasn’t his cup of tea. If the deep woods sang to us, then the entire world sang to him. So he worked beside us, fast, efficient, but his mind always elsewhere. My mother would watch him and sigh. He’s a young soul, she would say, with a tender heart.
She worried for him. But never for me. I was the happy one. At least, that’s how the story goes.
My brother returned from college the minute he heard about my disappearance. He stayed by my mother’s side, first as her anchor. Then, when the first postcard arrived and it became clear I’d been kidnapped, my brother the adventurer became a warrior. Facebook, Twitter, these were the battlegrounds of choice. He created entire campaigns designed to rally complete strangers to help find me. And he brought me to life, personalized his little sister for the masses, photos of my first birthday, me on the farm, and, yes, me sitting on a knoll with fox kits. Except these photos weren’t really for the masses. They were for my abductor, to make him see me as a little girl, a sister, a daughter. My brother made it his mission to humanize me in order to help save my life.
I think that’s why he took it the hardest when I returned home and I was no longer the young woman from all those photos. I didn’t smile. I didn’t laugh. I didn’t play in the dirt or go looking for foxes. See, my kidnapper had a mission of his own, to remove all shred of humanity from me. To hollow me out, break me down, to turn me into nothing at all.
You think you’ll fight, or at least endure. You promise yourself you’ll be strong enough. But four hundred and seventy-two days later . . .
My brother had to leave the farm after my return. He had to get away from the sister I no longer was. I watched him go and was mostly grateful for his departure. One fewer set of eyes to follow me everywhere I went. One less person to be startled by the new, and definitely not improved, Flora Dane.
Once upon a time, I would’ve been saddened by my brother’s departure. I would’ve told you I love him, miss him, look forward to seeing him soon.
Once upon a time, I would’ve told you that I love my mom. She’s my best friend in the entire world, and while it was exciting to go off to college, I still look forward to weekends home.
Once upon a time, I was that kind of girl. Outdoorsy, fun-loving, happy.
Now, there are things I still can’t tell you about myself.
There are things I’m still having to learn as I go along.
The sun is up now. Sitting in the back of the patrol car, blanket tight around my shoulders, garbage drying on my face, I feel the sky lightening around me. I don’t look up. I don’t look around. I don’t have to see to know what’s going on.
To my left, inside the house of my would-be attacker, the crime scene techs are now scouring every inch. A handful of detectives are also going through the structure room by room, cataloguing each electronic device, glancing at piles of mail, combing carefully through the bartender’s bedroom.
I hadn’t been lying earlier. I’m not a cop or an FBI agent. For that matter, I’ve never met the girl who disappeared three months ago, Stacey Summers. Like the rest of Boston, or the country, for that matter, I’ve simply followed her case on the news.
But then again . . . I know her. I recognize her beaming smile from her senior pictures, all big blond hair and round blue eyes. I recognize her exuberance in all the high school cheerleader photos, red pom-poms thrust into the air. Then there’s the ominous videotape: security footage of a petite blonde being forcefully abducted by a hulking brute. Morning, noon, and night. There was never a bad time for news producers to roll the sensational image of a tipsy nineteen-year-old former cheerleader being dragged down a dark alley.
I read every account in the newspaper of her abduction. Sat mesmerized by her parents’ appearance on a nationally televised morning show, though in theory, I’ve sworn off that kind of thing. I watched her father, the strong corporate type, struggle with his composure, while her mom, an older, still beautiful woman, hand tucked firmly in her husband’s, begged for her daughter’s safe return.
Beautiful, happy, bubbly Stacey Summers. Who, according to her parents, would never hurt a fly.
I wonder what things she didn’t used to know. I wonder what lessons she’s already been forced to learn.
The truth is, I know Stacey Summers. I don’t want to. I don’t mean to. But I know Stacey Summers. It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to understand that every time I look at her photo, or read another article, I’m really looking at me.
No one called my mother the first twenty-four hours after I went missing. No one knew I was gone. Instead, she received a confused message four days into spring break from my college roommate: Is Flora with you? Why didn’t she tell us she was heading home early?
Of course my mother had no idea what Stella was talking about. Apparently it took a good twenty minutes to sort out. That I wasn’t in Florida with Stella, nor was I magically back in Maine at my mother’s farm, nor had I miraculously returned to my college dorm room. In fact, no one had seen me in days.
My mother is not the type to panic. She set down the phone and proceeded to cover the basics. Contacted my older brother. Checked her e-mail. Skimmed my Facebook page. Her heartbeat accelerated slightly. Her hands began to shake.
She drove to the police station. Later, she told me she felt it was important to talk to someone in person. But even reporting her concerns became confusing. My mother lives in Maine, but I went to school in Boston and in theory had disappeared while on spring break in Florida. The Maine officer was nice enough. He heard my mother out, seemed to agree that I wasn’t the kind of girl to run away, though given the circumstances, they couldn’t dismiss a drunken misadventure. He encouraged her to get the ball rolling by filing an official missing persons report, which was faxed down to the local PD in Florida.
And then . . . nothing.
The sun rose; the sun set. My college friends met with the police in Florida. They returned to campus in Boston. They resumed taking classes. While my mother sat next to a phone that still didn’t ring.
A single postcard delivered by mail. My handwriting, but another person’s words. And suddenly, I wasn’t a missing college student anymore. I was a suspected kidnapping victim who’d been dragged across state lines. Overnight, my case became red-hot news and my family’s world exploded with it.
As a parent, my mother told me later, you’d like to think you’d have some control over your missing child’s abduction case. But it doesn’t work like that. The first thing law enforcement established was that she wasn’t to call them; they would call her. In fact, my mother never even met many of the FBI agents working my case until the first press conference.
Instead, she got to meet her new best friends: the victim advocates. Which, given their title, you might make the mistake of thinking meant they worked on behalf of her, the victim. No. Victim advocates work for law enforcement or the attorney general’s office. It depends on the jurisdiction. My mother dealt with six of them over the course of my abduction. Local, state, federal. They took turns. Because those first few weeks especially, family members are never left alone.
The advocates told her it was for her own sake. And when they first started answering her endlessly chiming cell phone, she thanked them. When they put up a sign in our front yard warning the media it was private property and they were not to trespass, she was grateful. And as they miraculously supplied yet another meal, while deftly shepherding her to a prepaid hotel room so she could snag at least one night’s sleep, she wondered how she could survive this ordeal without them.
My mother, however, is not stupid.
It didn’t take her long to realize that the victim advocates were always asking questions. About her children’s lives, past love interests. About her life, past love interests. And hey, now that she’d had something to eat, why didn’t she chat with the detectives for a bit? Which, in the beginning, she thought was so that the detectives could update her on what they were doing to help find me, but later she understood was so the detectives could grill her with even more questions. And oh yes, this morning her kind and compassionate victim advocate would take her around the house to collect possible pieces of information—cell phones, tablets, personal diaries. While the next morning, her victim advocate would chime out, hey, let’s go take a poly, much in the same tone her friends once used to invite her for a mani pedi.
I disappeared in Florida. And my mother’s life became a high-profile investigative drama, governed at all times by the nannies. Both of us, I guess, got lessons in survival. And both of us still know things that we wished we didn’t know.
For example, I know a victim advocate will appear on Stacey Summers’s doorstep this morning. Most likely someone close to her case. Maybe, like me, her parents actually value their advocate, having forged a bond. Or maybe, like my mother, they merely tolerate the relationship, one more intrusion in lives that certainly can’t be their lives anymore.
The advocate will bear a photo of Devon Goulding, my now dead attacker and almost certainly a repeat offender. The advocate will ask if they recognize this man, is there any chance Stacey once knew him? The Summerses will immediately be bold enough, crazy enough, to have questions of their own: Is this the man? Is this the guy who took their daughter? What happened to Stacey? Where is she, when can they see her?
The advocate will say nothing. And eventually, the Summerses will succumb to bewildered silence, every crumb of information merely leading to more questions. They won’t be able to ask Devon Goulding any questions. That fault is mine. But closure, the actual discovery of their daughter . . .
I glance back at the house. I hope these detectives can find the answers I didn’t get a chance to hunt for. Such as whose blood is in the corner of the garage. And is Devon the one who took beautiful, happy Stacey Summers? And what did he do with her after that?
Because I know I’ve watched Stacey’s abduction video more than I should. I know I sleep in a room wallpapered with stories of missing people who still haven’t made it home. I know when I headed out last night, I was looking for things I probably shouldn’t have been.
Once, I could’ve told you all about myself. Foxes. Springtime. Family.
Now . . .
I hope Stacey Summers is stronger than me.
I would like to sleep. Lay down my head in the back of the patrol car and dream of the days before I ever thought of college or the lure of spring break, the promise of a sunny Florida beach.
Back in the days before I was always and forever alone.
A fresh clamor arises from across the street. I feel the shift and stir of the crowd accommodating a new and official arrival at the crime scene. I don’t have to look up to know who it is. I called and so he came. Because that is how it is between us. My mother had her nannies, but for me, the relationship has always been something more.
A minute passes. Two. Three.
Then, he is here, standing outside the open car door, perfectly attired as usual, with his long, double-breasted coat buttoned up tight against the chill.
“Oh, Flora.” FBI victim specialist Samuel Keynes sighs heavily. “What have you done?”