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TWENTY-SIX YEARS LATER SEPTEMBER 2006
ONE YEAR LATER OCTOBER 2007
ALSO BY DAVID ELLIS
Eye of the Beholder
G . P. PUTNAM’S SONS
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned,
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Ellis, David, date.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For my beautiful Abigail
ACT NORMAL, whatever that means. Normal. Like everyone else.
Not different. Not like a freak. Just another person at the park.
It was a beautiful day, a glorious weekend in June, so bright you had to squint, so mild you didn’t feel the air. The playground was a perfect chaos, abuzz with children’s high-pitched squeals and whining pleas, parents calling after them in scolding voices, various playground contraptions in full animation, like busy turbines propelling the jubilant park.
Audrey. That was the name they called her. A surge of vicarious joy, watching her, her purity, her unadulterated innocence before the world turns cruel.
I feel like you sometimes. Like a child still. A child trapped in a grown-up’s body.
Audrey. She wore pink overalls and a bonnet with polka dots. Her tiny forehead crinkled in concentration as she gathered the sand in her hands and watched, fascinated, as it dissipated through her fingers.
I know we have a connection, Audrey. I know we do.
Audrey. She looked around her, up at the sky, at the other children in the sandbox, at her mother, a range of emotions crossing her tiny little face as the toddler slowly discovered the world around her.
“Audrey.” Saying the name aloud was dangerous. Someone might hear.
Don’t dare get close. Her mother isn’t far away. They’ll know. They’ll read it on my face, what I feel for you.
“C’mon, sweetheart.” Her mother scooped her up in her arms. “Sammy! Jason! Jason, get Sammy. C’mon, guys.” The boys, older by a few years, were over on the swing set. They jumped off the swings and landed with a flourish. The mother led the boys, still holding Audrey—Audrey—as she walked away.
I will follow you, Audrey. I will see you soon.
MARY CUTLER’S HEAD jerked off the pillow. A mother’s reflex. She’d been a light sleeper since Sammy was born seven years ago. Probably some shift in the pressure in the house, some break in equilibrium, had stirred her. Probably that was all.
Her eyes drifted to the clock by the bed. It was ten past two. Frank must just be getting home, probably reeking of alcohol and cigarettes, maybe even perfume. A brief surge of rage penetrated her sleepy haze. She wondered if she would have the energy to raise the issue.
Her eyes closed again as she surrendered to exhaustion, one maternal ear open to external sounds as her face fit into a cool, comfortable space in a pillow, as her conscious mind spiraled away—
Her eyes popped open. Her body stiffened. Something dark and uneasy filled her chest. Her legs slid out of the bed. She stepped past her slippers and moved across the carpet in her bare feet. An unknowing feeling of dread reached her throat as she moved down the hall and pushed the bedroom door open, where her boy, Sammy, slept over the covers of his bed.
She crossed the kitchen toward Audrey’s bedroom and felt a breeze reach her. She picked up her pace to a jog. Before she saw the empty bed, with the covers pulled back, she saw the open window, a window that had been closed when she had put her daughter down hours ago.
She didn’t hear herself scream.
* * *
AS HE NAVIGATED the corner in his sedan, Detective Vic Carruthers groaned. A small crowd of neighbors had already gathered around a squad car that had just pulled up outside the house. Was it idle curiosity surrounding the police presence? Or had word leaked out?
It had been five hours since two-year-old Audrey Cutler had been abducted from her home—snatched out of her bed at two in the morning. An insomniac neighbor, three doors down, had seen someone running down the street from the Cutler house. It looked like they were carrying something, the neighbor had said, with a trace of after-the-fact apology.
The trail had gone cold. The description was next to nothing. Medium height, baseball cap—best the neighbor could do from a distance of a football field, with the lighting weak at best. Nothing telltale from the scene. No fingerprints, no shoe prints, nothing.
Until they had run a check on prior offenders. Griffin Perlini, age twenty-eight, lived a quarter mile from the Cutler home. He had a kiddie sheet. And not just minors: He liked them young.
The arrests had been for sexual contact, but one had been dropped, the other convicted on the lesser charge of indecent exposure. Griffin Perlini had lured a four-year-old into the woods by a playground in a downstate town. The state had apparently decided it couldn’t prove the sexual touching, but they convicted on eyewitness testimony that Perlini had been seen pulling up his pants as the witness approached him.
“Got a feeling about this,” Carruthers told his partner, Joe Gooden.
They got out at the curb. Carruthers nodded at the uniform who followed in step behind the senior officers. Carruthers did a once-over. It was a ranch, like many of the places on the block. Old place with vinyl siding. Cobblestone steps leading from the driveway to the small porch. The lawn had seen better times. No vehicle in the driveway. A one-car attached garage.
Only seven in the morning, but already sticky-hot. Gooden had a sheen across his forehead.
Carruthers rang the doorbell and stepped back, keeping an angle that allowed him to look for movement near the windows. It came quickly, a stirring of a curtain on the east side front.
“He’s got five seconds,” Carruthers said. If his gut was right on this, he wasn’t going to give Perlini time to dispose of evidence—or a little girl.
He heard a small pop at the door—the deadbolt releasing—then a face that resembled a mug shot he’d recently seen, staring at him through a torn screen door.
The man didn’t answer.
“Detective Carruthers. This is Detective Gooden.”
Carruthers stopped there. Curious about the response he’d get.
Perlini’s eyes dropped. Pedophiles were like that. Wouldn’t look adults in the eye.
“Yeah?” Perlini said.
“We’re looking for a little girl, Mr. Perlini. She wandered off from her house. We think she walked this way, and we were wondering if anyone took her in. Y’know, to take care of her, until her parents showed.”
The first order of business here was to get that little girl back home safe. Didn’t matter how. He was giving Perlini an out, the opportunity to pretend that the child had simply wandered off, that Perlini had done what any good citizen might do. From Perlini’s perspective, it was a way to stop this right now, with the possibility of avoiding a criminal charge.
Perlini didn’t answer.
“She’s real young,” Carruthers elaborated. “Probably too young to even say her name. So we figured, maybe someone was hanging on to her. To be safe.”
It was going to work now or never. The suspect couldn’t hesitate on the answer. Either he had her or he didn’t. If he had her, and he was going to buy this out Carruthers was offering, he’d have to purchase that ticket now.
“I was just sleepin’.” Perlini scratched his head, gathered a bunch of his thick red hair in his hand.
Well, you answered the door pretty damn fast for being asleep.
“How ’bout we step inside and talk a minute.” Carruthers wasn’t asking.
Perlini scratched his head again and looked back over his shoulder. He had a small frame. He was skinny and below-average height. The neighbor’s description wasn’t much, but it generally fit this guy.
“What do ya say, Griffin? A quick talk.”
“Um—well—my lawyer is Reggie Lionel.”
His lawyer. Carruthers felt a rush.
Perlini pointed behind him. “I could call him, but it’s early—”
“Your lawyer needs his beauty sleep, Griffin.” Carruthers grabbed the handle to the screen door, but it wouldn’t move.
Perlini’s eyes moved up to the detective’s, reading pure fear.
“You’ll need to unlock this door, Griffin. Right now. Right now.”
“O—okay. Okay.” He pushed the door open.
Carruthers took the door handle. “Take two steps back, please.”
Carruthers, Gooden, and the uniform stepped in. Perlini suddenly looked lost in his own house, unsure of what to do, where to stand or where to go. Carruthers thought he’d let Perlini make the call. Surely, Perlini would try to direct them away from anything telltale.
The detective’s pulse was racing. She might be here in the house. She might still be alive. Behind him, Detective Gooden was strolling casually beyond the foyer, looking for anything in plain view.
“Is anyone else in this house, Griffin?”
Perlini shook his head, no.
“Griffin, you know a girl named Audrey Cutler?”
Perlini’s eyes were once again downcast, in anticipation of unwanted questioning, like a child expecting a scolding. On mention of the girl’s name, his eyes froze. His posture stiffened.
The answer was yes.
“No,” Perlini said.
“Griffin,” Gooden called out, “you don’t mind I look around a little?”
He did mind; it was all over his face. But pedophiles, they didn’t have a spine, not with adults. It wasn’t exactly textbook consent, but Perlini hadn’t said no. Carruthers was pretty sure he’d be able to reflect back on this moment and remember Perlini nodding his head.
“Eyes up, Griffin. Look at me.” Carruthers gestured to his own eyes, his fingers forked in a peace sign.
Perlini did the best he could, his eyes sweeping back and forth past Carruthers like a searchlight.
“If there was a misunderstanding here, Griffin—if maybe you thought about doing something but changed your mind—hey, let’s get that girl back home. No harm, no foul—”
“No. No.” Perlini shook his head, the insolent child, and gripped his tomato-red hair in two fists.
Carruthers heard a noise outside. A voice, yelling. He looked through the door and saw a man pointing at the house, talking to a gathering crowd. Something about a child molester.
The detective turned back to Perlini, who was beginning to dissolve. He was shaking his head with a childlike fury, tears forming in his eyes.
“This won’t get any better, Griffin,” Carruthers told him. “Every minute you stiff-arm me, it gets worse.”
Gooden’s voice sounded distant.
“Take that seat over there, Griffin.” He pointed to a small living room, a beat-up love seat with a torn cushion. He nodded to the officer, who clearly understood his direction to keep an eye on the suspect.
Carruthers moved quickly down a small tiled hallway, turned into a carpeted room with a television and fireplace, and found the back door to the place ajar. He stepped outside, into a yard of neglected grass and some old lawn furniture.
His partner was calling from the detached garage behind the house. No—it wasn’t a garage at all, just a small coach house within the fenced property.
“I’m here,” Carruthers said, opening the door. “Jesus Christ.”
The room was filled with black-and-white photos on the walls and hung from clotheslines. Children. Toddlers. Dozens of them, looked to be ages two or three at best. Some of them were taken indoors—maybe a shopping mall, probably the one a couple miles away. Most of them were photos from a park.
Gooden walked along one of the clotheslines and fingered a series of photos taken of a small girl in a sandbox. Carruthers had seen the face very recently. For confirmation he did not need, he removed the photograph of Audrey Cutler from his jacket pocket, her innocent serenity lighting a deepening rage within him.
He marched into the main house, his body on fire, his hands balled in fists. He thought of Mary Cutler, hours ago, clutching her seven-year-old son Sammy in her arms, bursting out words breathlessly as she gave a physical description of Audrey.
He thought of that little boy, Sammy Cutler, the confused expression on his tiny face, not comprehending the situation entirely but understanding, on some level, that something bad had happened to his baby sister.
Griffin Perlini sat motionless in the chair, his head in his hands. The officer snapped to attention when he saw Carruthers, the officer’s expression confirming the look on Carruthers’s face.
Carruthers brushed past the officer. He grabbed Griffin Perlini by the shoulders and pushed him hard against the back cushion.
“You tell me where she is,” he said in a controlled whisper, “before I rip your throat out.”
TWENTY-SIX YEARS LATER SEPTEMBER 2006
PACK A MARLBORO LIGHTS, box. Make it two.” Sammy Cutler fished a crumpled twenty out of his pocket. He threw a container of Tic-Tacs onto the conveyer as well, joining a couple of frozen dinners. The grocery store clerk, a young Latina woman with soft skin and hair as dark as coal, looked as bored and tired as Sammy felt. Sammy had just finished a double shift on the new highway being built. He figured he had another month, tops, of good weather before the construction trade shut down for the long winter. He didn’t have a backup plan at the moment. Employers weren’t knocking down the door for ex-cons.
He slipped one pack of cigarettes into the pocket of his flannel shirt, the other in his leather jacket. He noticed his hands, big and rough and hairy and swollen from another day of manual labor.
“Where the hell is Manny?”
Sammy glanced at the complaining man, standing in the next grocery line over, wearing a starched white shirt and a name tag that indicated some authority. Top grocery guy. He grabbed a plastic bag and began packing groceries that were piling up in the area past the register.
“Griffin,” the man said. “Griffin!”
Sammy felt his body go cold.
“—your change, mister.”
Sammy looked down at the green bills and silver coins placed into his hands. Then back up, at a man who entered his sight line, approaching the grocery store manager. The man was small, hunched, with small green eyes and cropped hair, grayed at the sides but mostly a dark red.
“Work this aisle, Griffin. Where is Manny?”
“I don’t know.”
Sammy bristled at hearing the voice. He’d never heard the man speak. Never even laid eyes on the man. He’d been so young.
And surely there were other people with the name, however unusual it may be.
But he looked the part. Sammy had served with some of them, the ones who liked little kids. You could spot them from a mile away. Meek and squirrelly. Like they carried an inner shame that never left them.
Yes. This was the man that had killed his sister twenty-six years ago.
Sammy felt himself move, his focus on the grocery clerk named Griffin shifting from front to profile.
“Don’t forget your groceries, mister.”
Sammy’s trembling hand reached out. His grip closed over the plastic handle of the bag.
“Don’t worry,” he said slowly. “I haven’t forgotten.”
ONE YEAR LATER OCTOBER 2007
HE CALLED an hour ahead for an appointment, and he called himself Mr. Smith. Over the phone to my assistant, he didn’t specify the reason for the visit other than saying he had a “legal matter,” which distinguished him from absolutely no one else who entered my law office.
From the moment my assistant Marie showed him in, he felt wrong. He presented, frankly, better than most potential clients. He was thin, precisely dressed in an Italian wool suit, a deep dimple in his shiny blue tie, gray hair immaculately combed. It was clear that whatever he wanted from me, he’d be able to afford the freight. So far, so good.
But still—wrong. His hand was moist when I shook it, and he didn’t make eye contact. As I retreated behind my desk, he closed the office door behind him. It wasn’t uncommon for visitors to want discretion with their lawyer, but still—it was my office, not his. It was a power move, establishment of control.
“Mr. Smith,” I said, wondering if that was his real name. I was assuming this was a criminal matter, and I like to guess the crime before the client tells me. A slick guy like him made me think of financial crimes or pedophilia. If it was the latter, this was going to be a very short conversation.
Smith didn’t seem too impressed with the surroundings. I wasn’t, either. I had a couple of diplomas on the walls and some pieces of art picked up at an estate sale and some bookcases filled with law books I never use. My brother had given me a couch that I put near the back of my office, though I wasn’t sure if that made the place look too cramped.
In his thousand-dollar suit, Smith looked like a fish out of water. He had one of those pocket squares that matched his tie. I never owned a pocket square in my life. I hate pocket squares.
“We’ll require your services, Mr. Kolarich. Can you tell me your hourly fee?”
In my recent reincarnation as a solo practitioner, I find that I have three categories of clients. Category one is a flat fee to handle a small criminal matter, like a DUI or misdemeanor. Category two pays me by the hour, with an up-front retainer. Category three is the client who promises to pay but stiffs me instead.
My hourly fee, where applicable, is usually a buck fifty. But I decided, then and there, that it was time to have an escalating fee schedule, depending on whether my client wears a pocket square.
“Three hundred,” I answered. It felt nice just saying it.
Smith seemed amused. Well-bred as he was—or was trying to appear—he stifled any comment. He was getting a mark-up, and he wanted me to know that he knew.
It usually took me a full half hour to dislike someone, but this guy was narrowing that window considerably.
“Three hundred an hour would be acceptable,” said he.
Then again, maybe I was being too hard on the guy.
“You’re young,” Smith said to me. “Young for a case like this.”
“Mozart composed a symphony before the age of ten.”
“I see.” I didn’t get the impression that Smith was placing me in the same category as the prodigy Amadeus.
“You came to me, friend,” I reminded him.
He didn’t offer a response, but I could see that he wasn’t here by choice. Why, then, was he here?
“The man you’ll be representing is charged with first-degree murder, Mr. Kolarich.”
That sounded like something important, so I reached for my pen and notepad. I wrote, pocket square = big fee.
“The man he killed was a sexual predator,” Smith told me.
My would-be client killed a pedophile? Well, if you’re going to pick a victim, there’s none better.
“And who are you to this guy?” I asked Smith.
He thought about that for a while. It didn’t seem like a hard question to me.
Typically, if it’s not the defendant himself reaching out for counsel, it’s a family member on his behalf. I didn’t get the sense that Smith fell into that category.
“As you can imagine,” Smith finally said, “sex offenders usually count their victims in the multiple, not the singular.”
Right, but he was being vague. Talking around the subject. I do that all the time, but I don’t trust people who remind me of myself.
It didn’t feel like Smith, or someone he loved, had been victimized by this pedophile, which was what he was suggesting. He wasn’t carrying that emotion. I like to think I can read a guy, and his face wasn’t registering that kind of pain. I was getting disdain, though it seemed to be directed more at me than anything else.
“You’ll take the case at three hundred dollars an hour,” he informed me. “Or someone else will gladly handle it.”
With that, Smith pushed himself out of the chair and remained standing before me. I’m not a big fan of ultimatums, unless I’m the one giving them. It’s been said that I have a problem with people telling me what to do. I think I was the one who said that.
Smith checked his watch. He’d obviously figured that I would jump at the chance for a case like this, but I hadn’t. In his mind, I was either stubborn or stupid.
But, I noted, he hadn’t walked away. He didn’t like bidding against himself, but for some reason he was set on hiring me for this case, and he knew he needed to give me more.
“When was he arrested?” I asked.
“September,” he said. “Of last year.”
“September—of ’06?” If this were a single-defendant case, as it seemed to be, that meant the trial couldn’t be far away.
“Four weeks from today,” Smith informed me.
“Well.” I waved a hand. “We’ll have to get the trial date kicked.”
“That won’t work.”
Sometimes I smile when I’m getting really annoyed with someone. I smile and count to ten. After reaching the count of six, I said, “We need to be clear on a few things, Smith. If you want to pay me, that’s fine. I don’t care who’s doing the paying as long as the money is there. Right? But you don’t decide what will work. My client and I make those decisions. You’re not my client, nor are you even related to this client. So you have no say. You’re an ATM machine to me and nothing more. And I’m not taking a first-degree on one-month’s notice.”
Smith nodded at me, but he wasn’t agreeing with me. Kind of like how I smile when I’m pissed off. “You’ll consult with your client on that,” he said.
“I’ll tell this client what I just told you, and if he doesn’t like it, he won’t be my client.”
Smith considered me. I wanted to wipe the smug expression off his face. Maybe I’d use his pocket square to do it. Finally, the briefest hint of a smile appeared.
“The client is an old friend of yours,” he said. “The client is Sam Cutler.”
Sammy. It came at me at once, a tidal wave of images, sights and sounds and smells from so long ago. So this was why Smith had picked me.
“Audrey,” I said. “Sammy killed the pedophile who killed his sister, Audrey?”
“Correct.” Smith nodded. “Griffin Perlini, you’ll recall.”
Even now, I physically shuddered at the name. The bogeyman to a seven-year-old. I could attribute many sleepless nights, and many burned-out lightbulbs, to that name. The man who single-handedly laid wreck to the Cutler family.
“There are those of us who believe that Mr. Cutler should not be punished for that act,” Smith said.
Of all the images that might stick, for some reason it was this: Audrey Cutler, a year and a half old, staggering around on a toddler’s legs in the grass backyard, Sammy hovering behind her to catch her fall. One of the other kids made a joke about how Audrey walked—she looks retarded or something like that. Sammy didn’t say anything at the time; he only looked at me. When Sammy’s mother called for Audrey to come in, Sammy carried her inside. By the time he returned to the backyard a few minutes later, I was already holding the kid down, and Sammy and I made sure he never had anything but compliments about Audrey’s walking ability in the future.
I didn’t know how to feel about all of this. Since Talia and Emily, most of my emotions had atrophied. I felt tension and panic begin to flex their muscles.
Sammy, obviously, had asked for me. That stood to reason, I guess. I wondered how closely he had followed the course of my life. I hadn’t spoken to Sammy Cutler in almost twenty years. I had no idea what had become of him, which made me feel uneasy with myself.
“The money will not be a problem,” Smith informed me. “I will have a healthy retainer delivered to you no later than tomorrow. I trust you’ll have time in your schedule to visit Mr. Cutler this afternoon?”
I nodded absently, as the wave of memories poured forth, a young boy who’d lost his sister, a devastated mother, the picture of an open window into Audrey Cutler’s bedroom on a haunted summer night.
TALIA PUSHES OUR DAUGHTER, Emily, in the stroller through the city’s zoo, stopping at the sea lion pool as Emily squeals with delight. Emily wants out. Talia lifts her in her arms and approaches the gate, where the sea lions pop out of the water to the delight of the children, proudly thrusting their black snouts in the air.
“Seals,” Emily says.
“Sea lions.” Not that Talia knows the difference. She smiles at her daughter.
Talia always loved the city. The daughter of Italian immigrants, she was born and raised out east but moved to the city for college and never left. She loves the vitality, the pace, the diversity, the theater and dining and culture. She wants Emily to grow up here.
“Seals,” Emily says. But after ten minutes, her attention span is spent, and she is saying, “Hippos.”
“Okay, sweetheart.” Talia musses Em’s hair and kisses her forehead. Emily doesn’t want the stroller and she doesn’t want to walk, leaving Talia to carry our daughter while pushing the stroller.
“Where’s Daddy?” Emily asks.
“He has that case he’s working on, honey.” But Emily has already moved on, distracted as they pass by the next exhibit, otters. She forgets her question and struggles with the word. “Ott-oh,” she manages, clapping her hands in self-applause.
Talia’s face lights up, as it always does when our daughter is happy. Funny how those tiny details can make such a difference.
Talia kisses the top of Emily’s head. “I love you, sweetheart,” she says.
I love you, too. I love you both.
I WAS A LITTLE EARLY to the detention center where Sammy Cutler was held. The center, next to the criminal courthouse, was shiny new, but with the new construction came additional security as well. It no longer mattered if you had a bar card; attorney or not, they ran you through the metal detector and inspected your bag. I didn’t mind because I wasn’t in a hurry. I wasn’t ready to concentrate on what Sammy would tell me. I was thinking about Emily, the first time she reached out to grab my nose, though her little wrinkled hand couldn’t yet form a fist. I remembered that baby smell, the feel of that warm, tiny body in the cradle of my forearm, those wondrous, innocent eyes—
I took a ridiculously long drink from the water fountain, used the bathroom, splashed cold water on my face, and looked at myself in the mirror. I was always in a foul mood after lunch, but still I kept that daily appointment, notwithstanding the fierce come-down, the growing resentment with each passing day, wondering when it would get better, if it would get better, why it would get better.
The only thing I knew was I was still a mess, still mired in a combination of self-pity, bitterness, and hopelessness. I was a lawyer, but I would be of no use to Sammy Cutler.
Sammy. Many different snapshots filtered through: The skinny little kid with the big ears and flyaway hair, scampering through the rushing water of an open fire hydrant. The ten-year-old with a buzz cut, a growing solemnity in his expression. The teenager, hardened, solving problems with his fists. Differing portraits as time moved forward, I realized now more than I had as a child.
I didn’t notice him until he approached the door with the security escort. We made eye contact, an awkward moment, as we appraised each other with the mild surprise that accompanies any encounter following decades of separation, no matter how you try to make adjustments for maturity, for hard breaks along the way. I’d done that time-adjusted analysis and come up short, way off. He wasn’t what I expected. He looked, in fact, much more like the clients I’d been defending for the last six weeks.
Sammy was thick in the torso with meaty arms, a blotchy complexion, oily hair pulled back in a ponytail. His nose was crooked, with dried, crusty skin around his nostrils. His eyes were the only sign of life, large blue eyes that searched me with the hope I’ve seen many times from clients.
So many things came back so quickly, but seeing him in manacles brought back the most logical, the most obvious vision. Age sixteen, Sammy in handcuffs, his head down inside the police interview room.
Better me than you, he’d said to me then.
Excerpted from "The Hidden Man"
Copyright © 2011 David Ellis.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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