Monopoly - A novel
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Monopoly - A novel

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Bodies of Ivy League sophomore coeds are turning up throughout New England. Single parent and FBI special agent Scott Nixon, a former navy SEAL, has been running the hunt for the serial killer. ...

Bodies of Ivy League sophomore coeds are turning up throughout New England. Single parent and FBI special agent Scott Nixon, a former navy SEAL, has been running the hunt for the serial killer. Nixon's best friend, Dawn Hardeman, who was a police forensic psychiatrist learns her daughter has been kidnapped. Helping Nixon hunt the killer is Nixon's college friend, a brash Philadelphia homicide detective Jimmy Salvano. Nixon and Salvano also help is the search for Dawn's daughter. As the investigations proceed, it becomes apparent that they may have a perilous connection.

This is the first several chapters of my draft. I uploaded it hoping that someone will be kind enough to read it and offer some constructive comment. Thanks, Paul

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Monopoly - A novel Monopoly - A novel Document Transcript

  • Chapter 1 Arson investigations are continuing to look into the circumstances surrounding the fatal fire. Firefighters were still evaluating whether the two-alarm blaze that killed James and Dolly Minnard early yesterday morning could have been the result of frayed wiring that was discovered near the barn’s outdated fuse box. The couple’s badly charred bodies were found only a few feet front the barn’s side entrance. “Apparently they had almost made it safely out of the barn when the hay loft above them collapsed, pinning both of them to the floor,” reported volunteer deputy fire chief Hunsaker, as wisps of acrid smoke from the barn’s charred and massive hand-hewn beams circled around his boots. We don't have any reason to believe it was arson, but you just want to be sure you cover all the bases,” he said. Hunsaker went on to say that he believed the couple, both in their mid-thirties, probably died from being struck by the collapsing beams rather than from the fire, however they were so badly burned that they probably would not be able to establish an actual cause of death. A neighbor who was driving past the working farm reported the blaze and then rushed to the house. The couple’s ten-year-old, Robbie Minnard, was alone asleep in the house during the blaze, and was not injured. The neighbor heard the Minnard’s screams coming from the barn, but because of the enormous heat he was unable to get within twenty feet of the blazing structure. Chief Hunsaker was not able to comment as to whether or not the child had any other living relatives. The small Episcopalian church was tucked away in a copse of trees a few hundred feet from the single lane road, smack dab in the middle of Amish country. The church was surrounded by a low fieldstone wall, and the wall enclosed a cemetery of fifty or sixty carved granite headstones, each covered with a yellow-orange lichen, the markings on some no longer discernable. The front of the church portico was encased by several old wisterias, their gnarled vines twisting along whitewashed columns from both sides and meeting in the center. A small bug encrusted brass lantern hung in the alcove. On Sundays, the small congregation would enter the sanctuary through a pair of tall wooden white doors. Wide pegged planks covered the floor. Two dozen worn pine pews sat on either side of the center aisle, the backs of each pew fitted with long narrow racks which held the Book of Prayers, and the hymnal. Red velvet covered kneelers were affixed to the back of each pew. Two simple coffins sat on brass biers. Chief Hunsaker sat in the next to last pew, scanning the sports page as he waited for the service to begin. A lone acolyte lit the pair of candles that braced the altar. Robbie Minnard sat alone in the front pew, and watched indiscriminately as father Charles Benton genuflected and proceeded to the altar.
  • ■■■ The landscape is as idyllic as looking at an Andrew Wyeth painting. Large, rough hand- hewn bridge timbers wide enough for horse drawn carriages crossing fast flowing rivers. Old barns supported by trunk-like pillars of river and field stone, faded red painted board planking running the entire length. Cleared fields, their rocks piled along the perimeter as stone walls to prevent the milk cows from breeching, and in the summer acre upon acre of clover and soy, the light falling upon the fields from a screen of green leaves. In the winter, the light takes on a palette of violets and cadmium yellow. Narrow roads criss-cross the countryside and loop back on themselves, and bleached wooden fences look like hand-railings for the roads. The livestock meanders in and out of barns and across the fields. It’s a landscape forged of wood and stone, water and field. It’s a landscape whose pristine nature would soon be obscured by the activities of some of its least notable residents. The state hospital occupied more than a hundred prime acres of Chester County. There were more than two dozen tediously uninteresting low brick buildings on the property, all interconnected by a narrow patch of macadam. The room lights, off in all but a handful of the buildings, cast long yellow shadows across the snow-swept landscape. A small number of cars dotted the parking lot, each covered by a few inches of November snow. Through the oversized double doors a long narrow hallway ran for almost two hundred feet, branching both left and right about a hundred feet from the main entrance. An old Coke machine stood at the junction, as though keeping watch, its motor giving off a faint murmur. A vacuous stare had her looking withdrawn and on the wrong side of haggard. The post-doctoral psychiatric intern from the University of Pennsylvania leaned heavily against the wall in the dimly lit corridor, pondering her next move. Her internship was coming to an end as was her temperament. Wet meandering strands of her brown hair partially obscured her damp face. The clumps of snow that had clung to her boots now lay in puddles beneath her chilled feet. She felt overheated in her overcoat and sweater, she was tired, and she would be late picking up her daughter from her elementary school band practice. A single bead of sweat marked a lonely path from the base of her neck, between her long shoulder blades, until it was absorbed by her bra strap. An overstuffed black valise hung from her right shoulder. Between the half-frozen fingers of her left hand was a nearly finished Marlboro Light cigarette, its gray-white ash seconds from dropping to the bleak linoleum floor. It was her third in the last hour. A small piece of tobacco clung to her lower lip and she flicked at it with the French manicured nail of her index finger. Her right hand clung to a stained ceramic coffee mug that held the remaining sips of cold coffee; coffee she should have left in her car.
  • She stared through the green metal door’s thick window, the view partially obscured by the chicken-wire mesh that was molded into the glass. The door was dented and was encased in a multitude of layers of paint. The view from the dark corridor into the small room was similar to the view one would have in a dark room as they were peering at a lit aquarium. She tossed the spent butt of the cigarette to the floor, unwittingly having it land at the feet of the lone janitor. “Tisk, tisk,” mumbled the janitor as he bent down to retrieve it. “Guess they don’t teach much manners at them colleges, do they?” he asked, purposefully populating the interrogative with erroneous words. “Sorry,” she offered, adding embarrassment to her already spent set of emotions. “That one in there yours?” inquired the janitor, as he sprayed some window cleaner on the small window and wiped it dry with a worn cloth rag that had been stuffed in his back pocket. She nodded affirmatively. Without further hesitation, she inserted the elongated key into the Yale lock. Upon hearing the tumbler click, she turned the handle and opened the door, closing it quickly behind her. The sound of metal on metal reverberated through the small room. The frail-looking patient, dressed in a faded and bland green hospital smock, sat at the far end of the bare table. All of the patient’s earthly belongings sat on the floor in a brown paper bag. The psychiatrist placed her briefcase and mug on the table and retrieved the patient’s chart from the plastic receptacle that hung on the wall, reviewing it in silence for several minutes. In the back of her mind she kept thinking about her daughter waiting for her at school, and about the snow, wondering just how late she would be. Calm down, she chided herself, fifteen minutes, and you’re done here. She looked sympathetically at the orphaned child. The orphan had been confined at the institute for the past eleven months, after having been removed from three foster homes. The orphan still showed physical and emotional signs of abuse from the foster care system. The state had finally located relatives who had agreed to adopt the orphan. All that remained was the last set of paperwork, and they were both free to go. There was a knock on the door. “This should be them,” she said.
  • Chapter 2 (Seven years later) The buds that were hard on the maple trees several weeks ago were now in full leaf. The mulch surrounding the snack bar was in bloom with day lilies and marigolds. Several games were already under way at the YMCA’s soccer fields. The green fields were stippled with yellow dandelions and purple and white clover. It had been raining off and on, mostly on, for the last two days. A steady cold wind was blowing in from the north causing what remained of the matutinal fog to dance across the freshly mowed fields. A gray pallor of clouds seemed to reach down and grip the cold ground, further ensuring that the morning temperature would remain well below normal. About thirty cheering parents huddled in small clusters along the near sideline, alternatively raising and lowering their feet in a vain attempt to stave off the cold from the muck and wet grass. The forecast had called for morning temperatures in the low to mid fifties. The forecast was wrong, so what else was new? Some of the parents sat in collapsible chairs, blankets draped across their knees. Several clutched cardboard cups of coffee from the nearby Wawas, their arms and elbows pulled tightly to their chests to conserve body heat. One man carried a large thermos that looked like it held a half gallon of coffee. A half dozen or so half-frozen toddlers scurried about in a pickup game of tag, splashing in the puddles and ambivalent to the cold and the scolding of their parents. On the field a swarm of seven year-olds was drawn to the soccer ball in much the same way moths were drawn to a lamppost, colliding into one another like excited electrons as the ball skidded along the slick grass. Other players were off in their own world, one pulling his shirt over his head so he couldn’t see, and a small-boned girl attempting handstands in the wet grass by the far goal. There was no sense of order to the game. Other than the fact that one child stood within ten feet of the goal while picking grass and tossing it over her head, none of the other children exhibited the slightest knowledge about playing their assigned positions. The ball careened out of play off a child’s knee resulting in the blowing of the referee’s whistle and the stoppage of play. “Corner kick,” announced the high school aged ref. The respective coaches made a futile attempt to align their players. The swarm of children, half wearing numbered blue T-shirts and the other half wearing green shirts, moved towards the corner, with no discernable way to distinguish between the offense and defense. “Look at those women,” commented Scott Nixon, directing her gaze with a nod of his head towards two women, blow-dried bottled blondes he guessed to be in their forties.
  • They were both thirty or more pounds overweight, and their skin hung from their faces like under inflated balloons. “The one on the left lives up the street from me,” commented Dawn. She has the house on the corner in the cul-de-sac.” “Cul-de-sacs don’t have corners,” Nixon informed her. “They’re round.” “Whatever,” replied Dawn with a look that on her best day could have turned him into a pillar of salt the same way it had happened to Lot’s wife, only Dawn thought there were days when Scott Nixon was much more deserving of Lot’s wife’s fate. “Back to what I was saying about those women,” pressed Scott. The older of the two sported a pair of black wrap-around sunglasses whose lenses were the size of saucers, the kind of sunglasses that fit flush to the face like a pair of ski goggles, black enough, thick enough, and big enough to block even the most persistent photon of unfiltered light from entering her eyes. “Hundred dollar Nikes, new sweat suits, IPODS. Can you imagine how many polyesters had to be sacrificed to make those sweats?” “What’s wrong with how they are dressed?” asked Dawn, sipping her coffee, moving her feet up and down doing the frozen feet dance, and ducking behind Scott, trying to shield herself from the wind. A Baltimore Orioles baseball cap covered Nixon's crew-cut hair. He still wore his hair at regulation length, even though he’d been out of the SEALS for several years. Nixon stood, five-eleven and a quarter, kiddingly referring to himself as over six feet in heels. Weighing in at just a foot-long cheese steak over a hundred and eighty, twelve pounds heavier than what he called his ‘playing weight’ as a SEAL, he carried the weight well on his muscular frame. “You’re kidding, right? When was the last time those two worked out? Is that some sort of fashion statement, or do you suppose they just stopped by here on their way to the treadmill? Who are they trying to impress?” retorted Scott Nixon. “That’s your problem Trot,” she answered without answering, choosing to escalate the verbal scrum. Other than his SEAL buddies, Dawn, and Scott's best friend, Jimmy Salvano, were the only two people who called him by the nickname he’d been stuck with as a SEAL. The SEAL instructors gave him the nickname “Trotter” as a sign of disrespect. It was a form of hazing. One of the instructors in his BUD/S class pinned it on him the first day of training after watching Scott finish last in most events that involved running. “When are you going to quit trotting and start running Nixon?” the instructor yelled. The name stuck with him, and he wore it with pride.
  • “Do you always have to make negative comments about everyone?” asked Dawn. “How would you feel if I critiqued what you’re wearing?” With his hands stuffed into the pockets of this bomber jacket for warmth, he glanced quickly at his outfit trying to remember what he’d thrown on that morning. Scott wore a pair of faded straight-leg Levis, his favorite belt, a Navy SEAL T-shirt with the motto, The only easy day was yesterday imprinted on the back. A gray V-neck wool sweater, a brown bomber jacket with a broken zipper and frayed cuffs, and a pair of New Balance running shoes that looked like they’d been through one too many marathons. “Critique away,” he grinned, extending his arms to give her the full effect. “What’s wrong with how I’m dressed?” he asked, cringing at her use of the words always and never. Nothing like a few gross generalizations to stir the pot. “I’m not here to impress anyone.” En garde. “You’re safe there,” replied Dawn. “I think we can safely assume that nobody will be overly impressed. Besides, I didn’t say there was a problem; I merely asked how you’d feel if I critiqued you every time I saw you.” Dawn gave Scott the once over. He looked fine, but she wasn’t about to stroke his ego by telling him. She on the other hand looked like she’d just stepped out of a photo shoot for a Talbots catalog. A bespoke knee-length camel hair jacket, navy cashmere sweater, white turtleneck, and burnt umber and tan hounds-tooth patterned wool pants. She should have paid more attention to her choice of footwear; the black leather pumps had already soaked through to her socks. She usually wore her shoulder length dark brown hair curled stylishly under. Today she wore it pulled neatly back from her face with a silk scarf. She wore simple gold earrings. Her skin had the slightest hint of an olive tint. Her high cheekbones and refined forehead gave her a look of confidence that was amplified even more by her five foot eight inch frame. She had a Romanesque nose that seemed perfectly suited for her face, and her ebony eyes were gentle, almost humorous. Being left-handed, she wore her watch, her father’s gold-plated Hamilton, on her right wrist. On her left wrist, she wore a gold charm bracelet. Her daughter Riley wore the exact same bracelet. She had them made for Riley’s sixteenth birthday. It held eleven gold charms, each one a miniature of the Monopoly game pieces. To others they looked like silly baubles, but Monopoly and pizza had been their Friday night staple for as long as either of them could remember. On her right pinkie was a gold signet ring, a gift from her father. The ring finger of the same hand bore a custom birthstone ring from the jeweler John Christian. Displaying three opals, it was inscribed with Riley’s birth date. Scott paused long enough for her to take note of his smirk. “What?”
  • “Don’t give me that,” he chided. “I’m surprised I’ve never found you laying out my clothes for me. Every time we go anywhere, you always have something to say. Your favorite line goes something like, “Is that what you’re wearing?” Nice shoes, by the way,” he offered; counter parry. Each time she moved her feet he could see small streams of water squishing in and out where the sole was sewn to the shoe. “What’s wrong with my shoes?” “Nothing. Nothing, that is if you don’t mind freezing your feet off. People with soggy feet shouldn't be so quick to criticize how others are dressed.” “What was I suppose to wear?” “Supposed.” “What?” she asked, somewhat incredulously. “It’s supposed. You should have asked, ‘what was I supposed to wear, not suppose.’ No big deal.” “Clearly it is a big deal, that’s why you took the trouble to correct me, since it’s no big deal. You only do that with me?” she asked as her frustration continued to build. On a roll, Nixon was clearly enjoying himself. “You don’t mean that,” he said in preparation for the next round. “Of course I do. Don’t tell me what I do and don’t mean!” “No, you don’t. You see, I don’t only do that with you. The fact that we are at a soccer game disproves your premise. If I only did that with you, kid you about your use of the King’s English, then we couldn’t be doing something else, such as being here. What you meant to say is, you do that only with me. It’s a matter of where you place the adverb.” “How’s about I place my wet foot up your backside? When I need help with my grammar, I’ll look it up.” She saw him getting ready to respond and cut him off. “If you were about to correct me for ending a sentence with a preposition, you’d better be prepared to duck.” That’s exactly what he was going to do and they both knew it. They could spend the next twenty minutes in a verbal jousting match. Parry, riposte. Parry, riposte. Rather than choosing to escalate the war of words, she dropped the matter, turned her attention to the game, and reflected on their tempestuous relationship. Dawn knew he was right. But, as charming as she found him, his after-hours attire would never land Scott on the cover of GQ. After work and on weekends, his sartorial
  • leanings tended towards T-shirts he’d collected over several decades, several pairs of jeans, and running shoes. It was as though he’d developed some sort of mental fashion block once work ended. Dawn knew Scott’s mission over the past few years was to add simplicity to his life. He sought to bring order to his personal chaos, and one way to chose to go about that was in his manner of dress. He’d had his share of chaos over the last several years; he’d lost his daughter Kirsten to cancer, a loss from which still devastated him. The ensuing chaos spiraled Scott Nixon further out of control, chaos that was self-inflicted; it cost him his marriage and almost cost him his relationship with his son Hunter. After his wife Susan had left Scott, Dawn, a single-minded woman of seemingly tireless energy, had made it her mission to rescue him, taking him under her wing. She was the person who helped him start over, who helped navigate him through the demands of a suddenly-single lifestyle. Her efforts as his aide-de-camp and fashionista proved much more effective and were much better received than her attempts at arbitraging his relationships. Dawn first met Scott through a mutual friend several years ago. Scott and Susan had just moved into the area and were asking their neighbors about who they might use for a babysitter. One of the neighbors had been using Dawn’s daughter Riley, and recommended her to Scott. Dawn and Scott had been friends and partners of one sort or another ever since, helping each other through the rough times and celebrating the victories. Even though they were the same age, Scott had become the big brother she never had. Scott had helped Dawn make as graceful a transition as possible from her role as a forensic psychologist with the Philadelphia Police Department to establishing her own practice. A year ago, Scott had stood by her side at the funeral of her parents who had both died in a freakish automobile accident. In addition, Dawn had been there for him when Susan threw him out, and took Hunter with her. Two sharp blasts from the whistle signaling the end of Hunter’s game snapped her train of thought. “Are you able to join us for lunch?” asked Scott as he high-fived his son. “I have to pick up Riley at the train station in twenty minutes. Where are you going to be, maybe we can meet you there?” she asked hopefully. “Do you know the Wave Noodle in West Chester?” Dawn nodded that she did. “It’s at the corner of the cul-de-sac off of Gay Street.” His little attempt at humor earned him a friendly poke in the ribs. “It serves authentic Asian. They serve a beef noodle soup that they make with lemon grass and Kaffir leaves that’s worth whatever they charge.” Scott had developed quite a fondness for Asian cuisine during his yearlong posting in Taiwan as an instructor to the Taiwanese Special Forces. “Where’s Riley been?” he added almost as an afterthought.
  • “Philly. The University of Pennsylvania had an orientation program yesterday for entering freshmen. They allowed her to spend the night in one of the dorms. Her train gets in at 11:45. How’s about we meet you at 12:15? I’d better hurry so I don’t miss her.” She gave him a friendly peck on the cheek, hollering over her shoulder as she dashed off, “And get me an order of the spring rolls.” She smelled of White Shoulders perfume, and her hair had the slightest hint of something tropical. Where had that come from, he wondered? He followed her with his eyes as she as she darted across the field on the balls of her feet, trying to avoid as many of the puddles as possible. It occurred to him that he never thought of Dawn in those terms, whatever that meant, never really thought of her as having gender one way or the other. Why was that? He knew his friends thought of her in that manner; they told him they did, and rode him hard for not pursuing her. Jimmy especially. As he watched her leave, he could certainly spot the whole gender thing. Dawn was many things, but gender neutral was not one of them. Scott noticed that the pieces all fit together just right, and when she moved, well, it all just seemed to have a nice flow to it. While married to Susan, it wasn’t unusual for Dawn to have hugged him or kissed him when greeting him, much the same way she would have hugged or kissed Susan. However, her displays of affection ended when the marriage ended. This was the first time she’d kissed him in a few years. Probably just an oversight, he thought, as he tucked it away in the far recesses of his frontal lobe. Nixon began stuffing the collapsible chair into its bag while Hunter joined the rest of his team for the traditional post-game snack that included Pokemon juice boxes and fruit rollups. He knew Hunter would get a kick out of seeing Riley. He also knew how difficult it must have been for Dawn to let Riley spend the night away from her. Dawn had been a single parent for more than ten years, and after the death of her parents last year she had grown even more protective of Riley. Although Riley had been accepted at Brown and offered a partial scholarship, Dawn convinced her to attend Penn to keep her closer to home. Dawn was even toying with the idea of selling their home and buying a condo close to campus so that Riley could live at home while she attended Penn. He admired that quality in Dawn, probably because of how much it mirrored his own sensitivities about his relationship with Hunter. Scott hated that he only got to see Hunter on weekends and for two weeks in the summer. “All set Sport?” he asked as he lifted him by the waste and started to carry him to his car. “Dawn and Riley are going to meet us for lunch, if that’s okay with you.” Scott knew it would be, but he wanted Hunter to know that Hunter had the final say on how they spent their time together. “Sure Daddy. Mind if I play my DS while we wait for them?” inquired Hunter, referring to his dual-screen Game Boy. “I just got to a new level on Super Mario.” “Hey Daddy, did you see that bunch of cows we just passed?” asked Hunter.
  • “Herd of cows,” corrected Scott. “What?” “It’s called a herd of cows. Herd of cows.” “Of course I’ve heard of cows, we just passed a bunch of them.” Hunter laughed at his father for falling for the same joke so many times.
  • Chapter 3 “Excuse me”, chirped the tomboyish looking blonde with a pixie haircut who was walking a pace or two behind her on the sidewalk. Riley slowed her brisk pace and made eye contact with the stranger. Other than a single person sleeping under a large cardboard box that was blocking the alcove of a fabric store the street appeared to be deserted. “Weren’t you at the orientation program last night at Penn?” The fact that anyone would recognize her in downtown Philadelphia caught Riley by surprise. “I was. Were you there too?” she asked of the stranger. The girl, dressed in sweats and a pair of Nikes was lanky, yet muscular. As she approached Riley, Riley thought the girl must be about six feet tall, and she had a waist that was so tiny that Riley thought she could wrap her hands around it. She had a backpack slung over one shoulder, and Riley noticed the orientation brochure sticking out of her purse. The girl picked up her pace until she was walking alongside Riley. “I was. Pretty cool, huh? Especially being able to come down here without my mom. She almost didn’t let me come without her, but I softened up my dad and he said it was okay as long as I was home by this afternoon. He wanted me to take the train, but I talked him into letting me drive. They recruited me to play volleyball. My grades aren’t quite Ivy League, but I did okay on my SAT, and one of their setters graduates in May, so I got in. Brains versus brawn and beauty; can’t have everything. We won state last year and finished second the year before.” She turned around to show Riley ‘State Champions’ embroidered on the back of her sweat shirt. “You must be really good”, Riley said, not hiding her admiration. “I don’t have much time for team sports. I ride, dressage mostly. That keeps me busy almost every day of the week after school. Every couple of weeks we load her up and go to competitions in the area.” “Where do you live?” asked the girl as a gust of wind blew several strands of hair across her face. “It’s just my mom and me,” she replied with proper grammar. “We’re in Downingtown, off Route 30.” “I take 30 all the way to Lancaster. We have an old farm out there. Want to caravan on the way home?” “I can’t”, replied Riley. “I took the train. My mom didn’t want me driving in the city.” The girl replied that her mom must be very protective of her. “What time is your train?” “Not for another hour and a half. I wish I had brought a book to read. It’s an hour and ten minutes on the train.”
  • “Why don’t you let me drop you off? You’ll be home before the train even leaves. It’d be nice to know somebody at school this year. You know, we’ll surprise your mom. If she’s anything like my mother, she’d probably feel a lot safer knowing you were traveling with a friend instead of being trapped with a bunch of strangers.” ■■■ Even though she’d only be an hour away, she’d been struggling with the whole notion of being away from home and not knowing anyone. The idea of catching a ride and of possibly making a new friend sounded fun to Riley. She’d always been a bit of a loner and didn’t know much about how to make friends. Her free time was usually split between her riding and hanging out with her mom. She’d only been on one date her whole senior year. That was two months ago, and that had been such a disaster that she’d spent most of the time waiting for the movie to end so the boy would be forced take her home. She’d only accepted the date at the urging of her mom, remembering her mom telling her; it didn’t have to be a “date” date. He wasn’t a jock, he didn’t hang around with the stoners; he pretty much kept to himself. There was an otherness to him, a jejune behavior, that she didn’t see in her other classmates. She’d seen some of the kids teasing him, sometimes relentlessly, trying to get a reaction from him, and trying to get him to stand up for himself. There was an epicene character to the boy’s manner. He was rail-thin, about her same height, matchstick legs, and a pasty complexion, a complexion that added extra emphasis to the acne that covered much of the lower half of his face. His black hair was cut close to the scalp on the sides and in the back, and it was so dark it appeared to give off blue highlights, like the dark-haired figures found in comic books. It was as though he was trying to make eccentricity an art form. The boy had been to Riley’s house on one previous occasion to work on a group project for drama class, and Riley’s mom inadvertently bestowed on him a blessing akin to the kiss of death by calling him “nice.” What her mom didn’t know was that at school the boy was thought of as being a bit of an odd ball. The boy dressed in black, all black, every day; the one exception being the time he came to her house. Unfortunately, for Riley, that was when he had asked her mom if it would okay if he asked Riley to go to the movies. After their date, he’d called her several times, calls she didn’t return. She’d seen his car drive by or parked outside her home on a number of occasions. The boy had also followed her around the school, like a stray puppy hoping to be wanted by someone, and had been seen waiting for her outside of her classes, and sticking off-color notes through the slots in her locker. Riley’s mom had spoken with the school principal, but he’d stated that since the boy hadn’t threatened Riley, and hadn’t broken any rules there was nothing he could do.
  • One evening two weeks ago around ten, she told her mom she’d heard a noise outside her window, and thought she’d heard her cat screeching. Riley’s mom went outside and caught the boy as he was climbing into his car; her pet cat was stuffed under his sweatshirt, and his face was hidden under a black balaclava. A video camera and binoculars rested on the front seat of the car. Her mom grabbed the frail boy by the arm, ripped off the balaclava, and pinned him to the car, shaking him, and screaming, her spittle spraying his blanched face, and threatening him to such a degree that she had convinced herself the matter would soon be put to bed. Rather than going to the police, Dawn had driven to the boy’s home, and banged on the door until his parents answered. She explained the series of events, forgetting however to mention the video camera. The boy’s parents called their son into the hovel of a space that served as the living room, made him admit what he had done, and forced him to apologize. The father then slapped the boy across the face, cutting his lip and knocking him to the floor. Their actions seemed to have worked, since he had made no further attempts to contact Riley. “That sounds fun,” said Riley in response to the girl’s offer to drop her at her house. “How far away is your car?” ■■■ The parking lot at the train station was almost deserted as hardly anyone took the train into Philadelphia on Saturdays. Absentmindedly she deposited two quarters into the metal self-pay parking attendant box before she read that weekend parking was free. She glanced at her watch – 11:44. As she walked to the track, she looked and listened for any sign that the train may have been early and that she had missed it. She retrieved from the trashcan a copy of the Friday edition of USA Today, thumbing through it as she waited. Two minutes later the R5 eased into the Downingtown station. A porter dressed in a midnight blue uniform and similarly colored cap, dropped a wooden stool onto the platform as an elderly couple exited. “I there anyone else on board?” she yelled towards the porter. “That’s it, and this is the last stop, ma’am,” replied the black man with the weathered face and pleasant smile. “Did you happen to notice if there was a young girl on the train? She’s seventeen, five foot seven, dark hair – cut like mine,” she said as she reached out and grabbed a handful to show him. “She has hazelish, brownish eyes. She would have been wearing jeans and a red North Face jacket. Oh, and she had a suitcase, the kind with the wheels and handle.” “Sorry, ma’am. Nobody’s gotten off since Paoli. You can try the next train, but I’m afraid that won’t be until 3:30.” He reached down, grabbed the stool, and placed it back
  • inside the compartment. The train slowly headed west, leaving Dawn wondering what to do. Remembering that she had her phone set to vibrate, she retrieved the Blackberry from her purse, and keyed in her password. The screen indicated she had one missed call. She clicked “view”. The message showed that Riley had called at ten, but hadn’t left a message. She navigated back to the home page and clicked to check her email, thinking perhaps that Riley had missed her train and sent her a note. She skimmed through more than a dozen unanswered emails, but there was nothing from Riley. She pressed and held the ‘R’ key, Riley’s speed dial. There was no answer, and the call rolled to her voice mail. Dawn left a curt message ordering Riley to call her the minute she received it. She disconnected the call. Dawn then pressed and held the ‘S’ key, to call Scott. He answered on the third ring. “’What’s up?” “She must have missed the train, and the next one is not for more than three hours,” she told him. Scott noticed that her tone sounded troubled. “Why don’t you call her?” “I did,” she replied in clipped sentences. “She didn’t answer. She called me but didn’t leave a message. No email. Nothing. That’s so unlike her. She knew how nervous I was about letting her go. If anything has happened…” Scott didn’t give her the chance to finish her thought. “Why don’t you head home, and I’ll drop by with Hunter. If she’s not home before the next train, we will ride over together and pick her up,” he added, trying to sound hopeful. Riley was not on the 3:30. The last train was due in after 7 PM. During that span of time, Dawn had called the school and spoken with the dean of students who had overseen the orientation program for the entering freshmen. The dean, a courteous gentleman with a hint of a British accent, promised to check with Riley’s student chaperone and call her back. It had taken ninety minutes to locate the student, a time during which Dawn grew increasingly concerned. The ringing of the Blackberry startled her. “This is Dean Wesley; may I speak with Dawn Hardeman?” “Speaking,” she said, poorly disguising her aggravation. “Did you find her?” “I spoke with the young lady with whom she spent the night, Heather Randal. She told me that she and Riley went for a late breakfast a few blocks from campus. She said she offered to walk Riley from the deli to the train station four blocks away. Heather said that because of the cold weather that Riley told her not to bother walking her all the way to the station. She accompanied her for two blocks and then Heather returned to her dorm.”
  • Chapter 4 The sky had been darkening all afternoon. At dusk, the sky appeared to hang low on the horizon, weighted down by indigo and dark pewter colored bands of clouds that lumbered west to east, resembling the thick wash of a morose watercolor landscape. “Why do you insist on doing that?” nagged Dawn as they drove back to the Downingtown train station to await the arrival of the last train. He knew of what she spoke, but refused to acknowledge the point. And, he knew she knew he knew. He had the annoying habit of having one-way conversations, critiquing whoever happened to be driving in front of him. He did it was such frequency, that half the time he wasn’t even aware of it. “One of these days somebody is going to look in their mirror and see you mouthing off at them. Then you’re going to have a real mess to deal with. Is that what you want?” “Did my mom tell you to do this to me, somehow bestowing upon you her maternal God- given right to nag me in her absence?” looking at her and smiling as he asked, trying to instill a little whimsy into what was turning out to be a rather tense evening. Few people found him to be as funny as he found himself to be. “It’s an awesome responsibility teaching everyone how to drive. Lord knows I didn’t ask for the responsibility, but when duty calls…” He parked the metallic black Range Rover in the vacant train station parking lot. A sodium-vapor street lamp cast an amber pallor throughout the car’s interior, illuminating the rivulets of water that traced a path down the windows. Hunter was sleeping on the back seat, covered by Scott’s bomber jacket, and still wearing his soccer cleats. The car was idling to allow the heater to function. The wipers, set to intermittent, made a low thwumping sound as they etched a clearing on the windscreen. Garrison Keilor’s weekly radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, was barely audible on the National Public Radio station. Keilor was well into his weekly monologue about Lake Woebegone, an offbeat and somewhat irreverent Lutheran version of Peyton Place. A skein of caliginous nimbus clouds hugged the horizon, appearing at times to balance on the uppermost limbs of the partially denuded trees. The rain had been steady since around four o’clock, blustering enough at times to rattle the Rover. The lateness of the hour coupled with the howling wind and the driving rain that seemed to fly at them horizontally made the night uncomfortably dark. Twice during their wait, Nixon had driven the quarter mile to Wawa, once for hoagies and diet Pepsis, the second time for coffee and a bathroom break. “I’m worried sick,” she needlessly informed Scott, speaking in a soft tone so as not to awaken Hunter. “Isn’t there something we should be doing or could be doing?”
  • Scott squirmed in his seat, half focused on Dawn yet fighting the urge to go to the bathroom. Coffee always did that to him, ten minutes into a cup would have him prancing like a gazelle in search of the nearest stall. “We both know that department policy won’t even allow them to put out an alert for her until she’s been missing for forty-eight hours. Because she’s almost eighteen, they would need some evidence of foul play, or they’ll simply treat it as a runway. And, it’s not like anyone downtown is going to pull any favors for you”, he added, his mouth jumping in front of his better judgment. ■■■ Dawn’s abrupt departure from the PPD had been more of a public evisceration than a forced resignation. She’d spent twelve years as one of two of the department’s forensic psychiatrists. Unlike her male counterpart, Dawn didn’t complete the police academy training, opting out after the second week. This quickly gave her the reputation of a skirt who couldn’t cut it as a real cop, more like somebody who would rather play a cop on TV than one who had what it really took to survive on the streets. She knew they referred to her as the PPD’s rent-a-cop, nicknaming her ‘Rents’. She had received her Doctor of Psychiatry from George Washington University in D.C. Most of her work as a forensic psychiatrist involved performing psychodiagnostic examinations ordered by the courts to make forensic assessments, including determining defendant’s competency to stand trial or their criminal responsibility. In short, it was her job to determine just how wacko these people were. And, they were wacko, no doubt about it. Fortunately for her, and for the vast majority of the people roaming the streets, most of the nut cases she analyzed didn’t fit the legal definition of wacko, so their defense attorneys would have to come up with some other approach to get the scumbags back on the street. Dawn had also been certified as a consulting forensic examiner, providing expert testimony regarding a criminal’s psychiatric state at the time of the crime, assessing if the individual was legally responsible for their act. She also worked in the area of victimology, requiring her to create a profile of the victim, which sometimes was critical in helping to develop a profile of the criminal, sort of like applying reverse engineering to solve the problem. Using this approach, she’d study the victim, examining every aspect of their lifestyle, family, friends, coworkers, background, physical, and health characteristics. Dawn had collaborated with Scott in the development of a software application they named ASLAN that combined witness and suspect interviews and interrogations, culling for common threads, to ensure that no information was missed. Scott’s initial premise for developing the application had been that no witness was ever going to provide one hundred percent of the evidence needed to convict someone, but when pulled together from a number of witnesses, the police and the prosecution could develop a much more concise picture of what had happened. The problem was, Scott soon learned when
  • trying to market the application, was that a number of similar programs already existed. The dénouement moment for him came when he thought to add meta search logic along with a healthy dose of artificial intelligence to the application. This series of enhancements enabled the program to search hundreds of law enforcement databases looking for similar crimes, victims, and predators. For example, if a detective were tracking a criminal who had kidnapped and murdered someone, the detective would gather the evidence using standard forensic techniques and interviews. A case could involve grabbing a woman in a parking garage, binding her with duct tape, and sending a written ransom note. The suspect could be ID’d as being a white male, thirty to forty years old, and of small build. The victim is defined as white, thirty-seven, attractive, and single. This data would be entered into ASLAN. ASLAN would grind through the tens of thousands of records of crimes, and create a probability index based on the available information as to whether or not the crime being investigated had characteristics similar to other crimes. If a determination was made that there was a high probability that the same criminal was involved in a similar crime in another jurisdiction, the respective evidence would be combined to elicit an even clearer profile of the criminal, his victims, and even where and when he liked to strike. He likened the program’s capabilities to watching a slow motion film of a bomb blast in reverse, all the disparate pieces sliding back into position to create a complete picture. Dawn’s added touch was to ‘teach’ the application how to develop forensic profiles of the suspect by helping Scott add the features to enable it to incorporate the crime’s victimology. Her efforts brought in the best of inductive and deductive profiling. This enabled ASLAN to not only build a case against similar suspects, but to attack the problem from an entirely new perspective, building profiles of similar victims. Scott had marketed and sold ASLAN to a number of police departments and was now enhancing it for the FBI by developing the capability for the application to perform “what-if” scenarios. ■■■ Scott squirmed in his seat, ran his hand through his thinning auburn hair, and glanced at himself in the car’s rearview mirror. His hair was damp from perspiration. The crew cut looked a lot better before his hair started receding. Other than that, and a slight chip in his front tooth, he gave his appearance a better than passing grade for someone about to turn forty. He ran his finger along the two-inch scar that ran from what remained of his right eyebrow to his temple, a scar he wore with a great deal of pride. The scar resulted from an operation his SEAL team had run about thirty miles south of the Iraqi city of Najaf. The tip received by the CIA indicated that one Sadam’s henchmen was known to be hiding at farmhouse near a small village. They helicoptered Nixon’s team in and dropped them a mile and a half outside the village. By three that morning patrol of fourteen SEALs was in position. Things had gone to hell in a hurry form the moment they breached the front door. The booby-trapped door exploded the moment the trip-wire on the cement step was breached, killing one SEAL
  • and seriously injuring another. Sniper fire erupted from the neighboring rooftops, pinning down the injured SEAL and much of the rest of Nixon's patrol. Nixon knew that without taking immediate action more members of the patrol would be sacrificed to a mission that was already lost. Somebody had known the SEALs were coming. Without any regard for his own safety, Nixon raced across more than fifty feet of open field, firing his Heckler & Koch MP5 as he ran, and dragged the injured SEAL through the exploded opening to the house. A bullet ricocheted off the doorframe and grazed him just above his right eye. His actions provided enough of a diversion to enable two of his team members to perform a flanking maneuver and they were able to eliminate the snipers. The last train came and went. Nixon returned the rearview mirror to its normal position. He looked over and noticed Dawn using the base of her hand to brush away a tear from her cheek. “Let me take you home”, he offered. “I’ll call Jimmy and see what he might be able to do to help. Nine times out of ten this turns out to be nothi…” Before he could finish his sentence, she reached across to the driver’s seat and slapped him hard, her reaction completely catching him off-guard. “Damn you, Scott Nixon!” Dawn never called him by his full name unless she really wanted his full attention. “Statistics are for TV when they’re talking about someone else’s child”, she yelled, waking Hunter. “We’re talking about Riley, and don’t you forget that again. I don’t need your soothing comments; I don’t need you to tell me that everything will be alright. You don’t know that any more than I do. What I need is your help, and if you’re not the right person to help me, I’ll find someone who is.” She pulled the lapels of her coat tightly together, folded her arms across her chest, and leaned against the door, putting as much space between the two of them as she could. She hadn’t told Scott about the boy who had been stalking Riley, because she knew that Scott was the type of man who would have made sure that punk never accosted another person as long as he lived. She felt bad about slapping him, but she was too upset and too focused on Riley to apologize. That could wait until tomorrow. His face stung from the slap, but he willed himself not to rub it to try to sooth the pain. The truth of her statement ate at him as he drove through the downpour. Deep down, he felt Riley was probably fine, just out being a teenager, enjoying a day of being grown up. However, what he thought seemed to have no bearing on the situation, nor did it have the desired effect. Open mouth, insert foot. He drove the six miles to her house in silence, grateful for the sound of the rain, thinking about his friend and business partner and about the early successes they’d had. Scott had worked for the Bureau as a semi-independent consultant for about two years, having forged a business relationship once the FBI had licensed ASLAN. In actuality, he was glad to be rid of the tedium associated with having to market his software. Scott enjoyed the creative process, the discipline it had taken to turn an idea into something tangible. He finally sold enough licenses to allow him to hire someone to
  • run the business full-time. He and Dawn remained on the board of directors. The small but growing firm now had a sales team to attend the law enforcement trade shows and perform demonstrations of the program. In a small storefront in Downingtown, they also had built an exceptional team of software engineers to enhance it and ready the application for its next release. The next version would include the ability to input data from handheld devices in the field. During his period as a consultant to the FBI, they had paid him to make the product better, and they had agreed to allow him to incorporate all of the non-confidential enhancements into the next version. Scott had quickly become more intrigued with the work performed by the FBI agents than he was with being a software developer. Some of their work reminded him more of what he had enjoyed about being a SEAL. He knew that if he hadn’t torn up his hip he probably would have remained a SEAL for at least one more tour. The work performed by the agents sure got his juices flowing better than did sitting behind a desk for eight hours each day. He was having lunch one day in the Hoover building when the director Mike Shippman approached him about becoming a special agent within their Behavioral Sciences Unit. Director Shippman’s management style is antithetical to that of his predecessors. He’s capable as he is cold. Those closest to him describe him as having no heart and no empathy. He has no family, not pets, not even a plant, nothing for which he is responsible other than the Bureau. He works. He works nights, he works weekends. He wants you to know of his dedication, and he expects the same dedication of his staff. He is there to give orders, and others are there to follow those orders. He doesn’t hate, he doesn’t love, he merely exists in the small void between those two emotions. For an agency not noted for its flexibility, Shippman had managed to bend the rules considerably in Scott’s case, knowing it was a whole lot cheaper on the agency’s budget to pay Scott at a GS-13 level than as an independent consultant. Shippman envisioned Nixon as the first of the Bureau’s next-gen horsemen of the apocalypse agents. Exploiting his, “it’s good to be the king” management style, Shippman had the Bureau tailor the New Agent Training program for Scott to a ten- week version, giving him what Scott referred as “advanced placement credit” for much of his SEAL training and instruction. Shippman’s grand design was to have Scott be the Bureau’s in-house point of contact for ASLAN, applying the application to their caseload, and training the FBI’s field agents. Once a quarter Scott would spend a week at Quantico instructing the trainees on how to use the software. It had taken Scott several years to generate a large enough sale of ASLAN to find a degree of financial security, to reach a point where the inbound cash flow exceeded the outbound flow. In fairness, not all of Scott’s time during that period had been dedicated to developing the business. He’d spiraled downward after blowing out his hip, absent for weeks at a time, depressed and drinking heavily. During that tumultuous time, they’d made a go of it off Susan’s income. Susan was an associate partner in one of the city’s largest law firms that specialized in the pharmaceutical industry. She was
  • recognized as an up and comer in Philadelphia’s legal circles, a recognition that further irked Scott and often had him referred to as a lawyer’s wife. The fact that he wasn’t making any money, coupled with all the time he’d spent overseas as a SEAL on a variety of assignments, assignments of which she never knew where he was, what he was doing, and if or when he’d make it home, had taken its toll on their marriage. Four years after Hunter was born, she and Hunter were both gone. A year later, he was divorced. He never realized how easy it was to shatter someone’s life with the stroke of a pen. ■■■ Scott Nixon had attended Penn State on a Navy ROTC scholarship, a double major in software engineering and classical literature. As part of the Navy’s enlistment enticements, they’d paid for his master’s program provided he agree to sign up for a six- year hitch. He completed the master’s at Columbia in eighteen months and then kissed his college days goodbye. The original idea for ASLAN had come to him in a morphine-induced fugue as he lay in traction in a hospital bed at Walter Reed. Just days prior to being admitted to Walter Reed, Scott was finishing his third tour as a SEAL, and was teaching the twenty-six week SEAL BUD/S class at the Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado near San Diego. Club Dead, is how he referred to it, white sandy beaches, clear warm water, and a bunch of instructors who acted like they’d rather see you drown than make it as a SEAL if you weren’t qualified. He recalled that during his BUD/S class his instructors expected him to be the first to wash out, constantly yelling, “Nixon, I’ll have more respect for you if you quit now than wait ‘till later – avoid the rush, Trotter”. Instead of washing out, Scott had been the Honor Man in his class. He’d likened his turnaround to the Christians eating the lions. The training exercise on which he was injured was a low-level fast-rope insertion exercise from an Apache helicopter. Each of the recruits had made it safely into the shallow water. Scott slid down the rope in his Swiss seat harness, applying his hands to the rope in a towel-wringing motion to stop his descent; something he’d done safely hundreds of times. Entering the water, he hit a log that had been uncovered by a storm the previous night. He hadn’t seen it until the last second, and the impact with the driftwood shattered his hip. With four months left on his tour, after two surgeries he spent most of it undergoing physical therapy and convalescing. The therapy was brutal, but Scott Nixon kept focused on how he’d survived BUD/S, often repeating to himself, “Pain is temporary, pride is a lifetime”. During his first two tours, he’d operated for extended periods in the Middle East. The SEAL team was comprised of three 40-man task units. Scott, Trot to the other SEALS, served as the Officer in Charge of his platoon as well as the platoon’s interrogator. Their primary mission was to infiltrate and capture members of Al-Qaeda. Once captured, the prisoners were choppered to secret bases for three days of intense
  • interrogation prior to being sent to Guantanamo. Trot usually did the interrogations with just an interpreter, although sometimes a CIA interrogator would be present. On those occasions, it was classic bad-cop, bad-cop. What he learned from that experience is that no matter how willing the prisoner was to talk, no single captive new enough of Al-Qaeda’s plans to seriously damage the organization. The best he could hope for was to grab bits and pieces of the puzzle, and then hope like hell that someone else not only collected the other pieces but also was somehow able to connect the dots. It had been a long and circuitous journey, but ASLAN had proven itself, and in doing so, had rescued Scott Nixon from himself. ■■■ He pulled into Dawn’s driveway, intending to walk her to her door with an umbrella. Before he could even unbuckle his seatbelt, he heard the car’s door slam and saw her dashing along the curved brick sidewalk for the front door, holding her purse over her head to shield her from the rain. “Why is she so mad at you Daddy?” asked Trot’s little hero from the back seat. “She’s a little scared right now Hunter.” One of Scott’s rules was that if Hunter knew enough to formulate the question, he deserved a reasoned response. “She’s worried about Riley. We were supposed to meet Riley at the train station, but she wasn’t on the train, and now she doesn't know where she is.” “Are you worried, too Daddy?” asked the sleepy boy. “No,” he lied, not wanting to alarm his son. “Everything will be fine in the morning, you’ll see.” It wouldn’t be.
  • Chapter 5 He was a gamer. Moreover, he had a gift for online games, he was good at playing games; all sort of games. The boy played to win. The boy’s new game was real. This time the opponent would be real, the stakes life and death. Riley would soon understand his gift; so would The Bitch. Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, dead Bitch in the pot, nine days old. The bad man and woman had foolishly tried to take away his personal computer in a futile attempt to prevent him from playing. That stupid move fed his desire to evolve to the next level of gaming. No longer would the game be played out in bits and bytes, no longer would he be forced to play according to the rules that had be laid out by some feeble game master, someone who lacked the intellectual acumen to understand that only the best gamers were bold enough and bright enough to challenge themselves using live game pieces. The voices had selected him, had told them he had been promoted to a new game, TEGWAR; The Exciting Game Without Rules. That bitch Dawn Hardeman would learn how good he was. Riley was the prize, and for now, the prize belonged to him. He’d play the game with her mother, and the loser would pay with a life. He’d been planning the game for weeks, and now he had an apprentice, just like that TV show with Donald what’s-his-name with the bad haircut. He couldn’t be sure if the apprentice was real or imagined, but it was helpful having one, real or not. He thought that perhaps the voices had given him the apprentice as a gift. They were real, of that he was certain. The apprentice didn’t know as much about games, but it was fun to be finally able to share his secrets with someone. Moreover, he had many secrets; so many that sometimes he thought his brain was going to explode and the secrets would leak out all over the floor. Then everyone would see his secrets. He couldn’t allow that to happen. If they learned his secrets, some people would be mad, very mad. They would not understand. They couldn’t understand. The voices would tell him what to do. He’d written down all of the voices’ instructions for setting up and playing the game in a black and white composition book. The man and woman didn’t find the books; he’d kept them hidden inside his mattress, the side of the mattress that faced the wall. If the man and woman found his secrets, that would have been bad. Bad for him. Bad for them. The voices told him what he would have to do if the man and woman found the books. He knew it wouldn’t bother him to do it to the man who slapped him, slapped him in front of that bitch. He might do it anyway just to show him. Teach the man the final lesson. Teach him that a good gamer, the one with the best strategy, always triumphed. That wasn’t the first time the man had hit him, but it would be the last. In fact, the man had done much worse things to him, many times. The first time the man had done it to him, he cried, cried like a baby. Hush little baby, don’t you cry, Daddy’s going to poke
  • you in the eye. That made the man even madder, and the man did it to him again, daring the boy to cry. “Cry baby. Cry again and I’ll give you a reason to cry!” scolded the man. The boy could still recall the sensation of the warm salty tears streaming into his mouth. That was three years ago; that was the last time he had cried. The man was right about one thing, crying was weak. Being weak was a luxury he couldn’t afford. And the lady, she was no better. There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, and she beat him and beat him ‘till he’s black and blue. The boy had memorized the poetry from the internet site, Cult of the Dead Cow. The woman knew what the man did to him. She had seen him do it. The first time she saw the man do it to him she tried to stop him. He had stopped, stopped only long enough to beat her and do it to her. She never tried to stop the man again. She fed him raw flesh without any bread, and whipped him quite soundly and chained him to bed. The boy had begged her to protect him. She promised she would but she never did. Lies. Liar. Liar, liar, pants on fire. Sometimes when the man wasn’t home, when he was younger, the woman used to make him dress in girl’s clothing, and make him play house with her. Sometimes she would even make him give her a bath. One time the man came home and saw him doing that, and the man beat them both. That was the last time he’d been forced to dress like a girl, but sometimes when he was alone, and when they hadn’t locked him in the cellar, he’d go up to their room, and dress himself in her clothes. He took a new notebook from his backpack and quickly started making a series of notes, scribbling and drawing the plan, trying to keep up with what the voices were saying. The voices told the boy what to do to the man and the woman, and the voices were not to be ignored. Ring around the rosies, pocket full of posies, gashes, gashes, we all fall down. The man and the woman would never know about the secret tomb. Maybe he’d bring others to the tomb. It was big, home sweet home. He could live here, he thought to himself. Fix this place up a little, it was possible. It had better be possible since now there were no other options available. There was lots of room for guests, unwilling guests, playmates. Maybe he would bring some of the boys and girls from school who teased him. The ones who bullied him, the ones who spit on his lunch, who did unspeakable things, embarrassing things to him in the locker room. He’d written down all of their names in his notebook, written what they did to him, and what he would to do them. Maybe they would be forced to play the game. He was getting sidetracked. There were some many opportunities. So many people with whom to play games. First, he had to play The Bitch. Next, the boy completed the video recordings, reading directly from the prepared script, saving each recording on a jump drive to a series of unique ‘.wav’ files. His skin was a shade of white that looked unhealthy. He’d have to spend several days in the sun just
  • to darken to the point where he could pass for pale. He filed his upper cuspids to a point to where they resembled a dog’s canine teeth. He died his dark hair jet black, and for the videos he was dressed all in black. On his neck a new tattoo, Tomb Warden, inked in a Gothic font and was visible above the shirt’s collar. ■■■ He and his apprentice had made the tomb mission-ready. Outwardly, the building appeared to have been abandoned years ago. The whitewash on the stone and mortared walls was stained with fungus and mildew and chipped and peeling. Several of the shake shingles were missing, and the majority of those facing north were covered with a thick growth of dark green moss. Thick brown tendrils of vines wrapped the walls as though they were trying to choke the life from the building. Much of the glass in the multi-paned windows was broken and lying on the ground. The heavy wood door was recessed almost a foot, it’s brass door knob darkened a matte black by the weather. A broken padlock rested on the granite stoop. Entry to the lower sanctum was through a trap door, then down a shaft cut through the floor of the large and old storage shed that stood next to a long, crumbling fieldstone wall. The shed had been used as a staging area for miners up until the time the mine was closed in the early nineteen thirties. It wasn’t a prosperous mine by any standards, but its deposits of anthracite coal had provided a source of heat for the residents of Lancaster and the surrounding counties for decades. Once fuel oil and natural gas became more cost effective, the mine no longer served a useful purpose, and the authorities blocked off most of the access points. Constantly changing taxing authorities caused property lines to be rezoned several times over the last decades, creating the secret underground labyrinth that undercut the boundaries of several farms. The portion of the mine that at one time supported open pit mining had, over time, become a natural reservoir spanning more than a dozen acres. A pair of rusted and twisted steel rails led from the small lake towards a hillside, dead-ending at a barricade of rotting timbers. There were also a handful of emergency exits spread across several acres of farmland, none of which was readily visible from ground level. The tomb had been adapted for wireless connectivity, a backup generator, microwave, even cable. It had been outfitted with a survivor’s mentality; a three hundred gallon water tank, chemical waste disposal, a storage larder, and footlockers for the gear. The walls were constantly damp, and the condensate pooled on the rock floor. The night before moving all of his worldly possessions to the tomb, all of which fit into his backpack and two plastic grocery bags, the boy had broken into Downingtown High School through a first floor window he’d left open when he was in the nurse’s office. He’d waited until after midnight to ensure that even the janitors would be gone. Even so, it took him more than a minute to raise the window, pausing every few seconds to listen, to make sure nobody was there, and to make sure he hadn’t tripped any alarms.
  • Once inside, he wiped the glass on the inside and outside with his coat sleeve to remove his finger prints, slid the window back down, and turned the clasp to lock it. Being alone in the cavernous school in the middle of the night was a wonderfully eerie feeling. The only lights on in the whole school were from the security lights that dotted the hallway. The gray linoleum tile floors smelled freshly buffed from whatever that green powder was the janitors used with their rotary buffers. His sneakers squeaked loudly with each step he took. He removed the sneakers, placing them in his backpack, and raced down the hall, sliding in his stockinged feet, past the entrance to the boy’s locker room, the scene of so many of the taunts meted out on him, a sharp left past the music and art rooms, and finally making his way to the rooms occupied by the drama department. The boy was in his third year of drama, one of the few classes in which he’d managed to earn a ‘B’, and the only class that interested him in this whole stinking school. He’d learned that he had a talent for playing a variety of roles, a gift, even playing multiple roles in the same production. In one act, he could fool the audience into believing he was Hecate, the coven leader of the witches in Macbeth, and in the next act play an equally convincing Banquo, Macbeth’s friend. He also had quite a gift for makeup. That gift brought him to the school tonight. He had stolen the key to the closet where the makeup was stored. Unlocking the door, he selected what he needed, bagged it, and dropped the bags out the window where he would pick them up in a few minutes. He then moved to adjoining room where the costumes were stored, selecting what was on his list and dropping them out the window. He was careful to relock both closets. As the school had just finished its year- end production of Gypsy, he guessed nobody would even know anything was missing for several weeks, and by then the game would already be well underway. With the makeup and costumes, the boy could create his own characters for the game. The boy stored the makeup and costumes in the tomb. The tomb reminded the boy of home, only it was nicer, a lot nicer, and there was nobody there to do things to him, bad things. He didn’t mind the fact that it was dark; he’d grown use to the dark. At first, the dark had terrified him. Sometimes the man and the woman would lock him in the dark for hours and hours. The boy learned to make the dark his ally, learned its secrets, allowed it teach him its powers. The darkness and the silence. A potent combination. The combination that made others weak made him strong. Alone in the dark, alone in the silence. Alone in the tomb, but not anymore. It was the combination of darkness and silence that allowed the voices to come. The others couldn’t hear the voices. To hear the voices for the first time, he had to be perfectly still, perfectly silent. So still and so silent so that hear could hear his own heart beat. So in control of himself that he could slow his heart to around forty beats a minute.
  • He’d spent the last few days getting the tomb ready for his guest, the prize, and playing his favorite game sites, updating the blogs and his page on MySpace.com. He was even shooting a small video for YouTube, planning to show clips of the game to some of the special gamers he’d met online. Final preparations were complete for Riley’s arrival. A pair of cots were chained to the stone wall. Manacles were chained to the floor by the head of each cot, another by the foot of the cots. Red five-gallon buckets from Home Depot stood under the cots, and blankets he’d purchased from the Salvation Army were neatly folded and placed on the cots. ■■■ Getting into The Bitch’s house had been easy; he’d unlocked a basement window the day he was there to work on the drama project. He parked a block away, and walked to the house. The boy knew Dawn Hardeman wouldn’t be home, knew that she’d be at the train station waiting to pick up Riley. Finding and killing the cat was easy, after all, it wasn’t as though he’d never killed a cat before. After removing the head, and placing it in a baggie in his backpack, he stuffed the cat in the refrigerator. He took a Diet Coke, from the fridge and drank it. He didn’t like Diet, but that was all there was. The boy placed the empty can in his backpack. He knew about DNA, about lots of stuff. He wasn’t going to loose the game before it had even begun. You could learn a lot about how not to commit a crime simply by watching those forensic shows on TV. He loved those shows, loved seeing how stupid people really were. It seemed to him that every episode involved some husband or wife who had killed their spouse, and every time it turned out that the surviving spouse had just purchased a large life insurance policy on the deceased spouse. Not too smart, not smart at all. Being alone in the house was a lot of fun, so much fun that he wished he could stay. He even thought about what it would be like to be there when The Bitch came home, she how it would feel to slap her around, see her reaction when he told her that he had Riley. Before leaving, he went upstairs to Riley’s room. The room was large by any standards, palatial compared to how he’d been forced to live. The room’s dominant color was that of Granny Smith apples. Thin pink stripes, the color of cotton candy, were painted on the walls, accenting the green. Off-white roman shades were open two-thirds of the way on both windows. He paused at a window marveling at the view across acres and acres of verdant forest, and wondering what it must feel like to grow up in such a home. What must it be like to come home to a family that loved you, to people who wanted you, he wondered. The boy surveyed the room; two dressers, a desk, a queen sized bed, and a walk-in closet. He went through her drawers, quickly filling a large duffel bag with her clothes
  • and underwear. He held the underwear to his face, rubbing the nylon against his smooth skin. He also took a stuffed animal that looked like a monkey that was lying on her pillow. The boy would give it to her as a present. In her bathroom he grabbed her toothbrush and deodorant, he thought of everything. He made his way down the hall to The Bitch’s room and removed a pair of her panties, tucking them into a small compartment in the backpack. He wouldn’t tell the apprentice about the panties. That wasn’t part of the plan. Once safely back in his car, he dialed The Bitch’s home phone. When the answering machine finished playing the greeting, the boy hit the play button on his voice recorder, leaving a message he had previously recorded, a message inviting Dr. Dawn Hardman to play the game.
  • Chapter 6 Scott whipped up dinner for the two of them. He made Hunter fish sticks and homemade fries, and filled a small ramekin with Hunter’s special dipping sauce – ketchup and French dressing. For himself, he seared a tuna steak on the indoor range, basting one side with a little teriyaki. The dripping of the teriyaki onto the open flame caused it to flare and smoke, and served to remind Scott to turn on the range hood. Next to the steak lay a few asparagus tips, and several thick slices of Vidalia onion. Scott sprinkled some sea salt on the tips and onion, and ground some pepper over everything. He poured them each a glass of cranberry juice. Oh, the joys of alcoholism, he thought sarcastically. Tonight would have been a good night for a drink. Of course, in the old days there was no such thing as a bad night for a drink or even a bad hour. His poison of choice had been the single malts, and Oban was his favorite. The problem for a scotch drinker, in addition to the expense, was that the recovery lag time could often ruin the better part of the next day. By the time the recovery had begun to surface, it was already being pushed under by the next day’s drinking. Scott had always managed to function day-to-day as a social drinker, right up until the time that the real world caught up to him, ate him alive, and spit him out. Scott’s daughter, Kirsten, had died unexpectedly five years ago. He had sat by helplessly watching the pain gnaw away at her desire to combat the disease. Kirsten had been a fighter. She fought the illness with everything she had, fought it as her weight dropped to thirty pounds, fought it until she had nothing left with which to fight. Nixon remembered thinking that the words four-year-olds and the death should never be allowed in the same sentence. All he and Susan had been able to do was watch, watch as the cancer spread like a forest fire through their daughter's failing organs. Had the process been quick and kind, the events of last summer might somehow have been allowed to pass. However, the God of kindness never showed his face. The part of his body that had held joy was filled with something foreign and corrupt. Despair; a despair that drained his emotions in the way a tick drained the blood of a stray dog. The thought of a helpless Scott Nixon was anathema to those who knew him. Navy SEAL. Commander of elite teams of fighting men. He’d killed men with his bare hands and taught others how to do the same. A man trained not to fear anything, trained to break terror into its component parts and to deal with those parts in bite-sized pieces, trained to make any situation manageable, and trained not to let his emotions get disable him. He’d willingly stared death in the eye a hundred times and lived to do it again. Controlled and controlling. Assess the situation, plan the course of attack, and do whatever was needed to accomplish his mission. With Kirsten’s illness, he wasn’t in control. He couldn’t take charge. He was helpless.
  • The sicker Kirsten became, the more Nixon drank, and the more his tolerance for the drink grew, the more he had to drink to make the emotional pain go away. The more he drank, the less he remembered, and the longer it took his headaches to go away. From the moment Kirsten first entered the hospital, Scott had withdrawn from Susan and everything else. The doctors told them Kirsten wouldn't be going home. He ignored Susan, and ignored Hunter. Scott spent his nights sitting alone in Kirsten’s bedroom and sobbing for hours on end. The faces of the clowns he had hand-painted on her walls were not able to reach out and comfort him, nobody was. Clowns had been Kirsten's favorite diversion. Every year Scott had looked forward to taking her to the circus as much as she enjoyed going. Nothing lit up her cherub-looking face more than their painted faces, colorful costumes, and oversized shoes. Comfort for Scott quickly took shape in the form of a bottle. The daily visits to the hospital ate away at his desire to press forward. Blinded by how to respond to Kirsten’s illness or to Susan’s and Hunter’s needs for him he shut down like a steel trap. Prior bad habits wasted no time resurfacing. It was as though he didn't have to invest a single moment to relearn his vices. His proficiency at them, and his resolve to distance himself from Kirsten's pain, only served to deepen the chasm between him and Susan. After Kirsten’s death Scott had switched from scotch to vodka; vodka martinis were a favorite, and he liked them dirty. He was fond of quoting the American humorist James Thurber; one martini is all right, two martinis are too many, and three martinis are not enough. Then there was vodka and tonic, vodka and orange juice, vodka rocks, vodka and vodka. People gifted him with bartending books, martini shakers, ornate swizzle sticks, and bottle after bottle of comfort. He was already warmed up whenever company came over; just enough to take the edge off is how he’d explain it to Susan. After the company would leave, he’d offer to clean up. That allowed him to finish all drinks that his guests may have left in their glasses. When he was drinking, there were all sorts of drinks, but there was no such thing as an unfinished drink. If they hadn’t left enough, he’d break out a bottle of whatever was handy. One evening he’d slipped on the ice on his porch, re-injuring his hip. The doctor had cautioned him about drinking while taking the pain medication, a caution he chose to ignore. He had awoken on the landing of the stairs, his back bruised, his face cut, and his hip in more pain than he could describe. Dazed and confused he made his way to his office, opened the file cabinet, and pulled out a pint of vodka he kept hidden. You can lead an alcoholic to a bar, but you can’t make him stop drinking. He couldn’t remember going to bed that night, hell he couldn’t even remember that night. All he knew is that he still had on the same clothes he was wearing the day before. That was yesterday, wasn’t it? Scott looked at his watch to see if it was morning or afternoon. The dial on the Navy Seal Luminox dive watch was cracked. One more reason for a small drink, he reasoned. He unscrewed the cap and was pouring it down his throat when Susan walked in. Her right eye was bruised and swollen.
  • “What happened to you?” he slurred. Susan said nothing for several seconds she just stared at him. “You did that last night; right after you fell down the stairs,” she replied, gently touching her bruised eye. “I was trying to help you get up and you punched me.” She wasn’t emotional, she didn’t yell. Her words were cradled with an eerily calm that seemed to float in the air towards him like a cloud of gnats on a summer day. It was almost as though someone had sanded off the rough edges of her consonants, making it easier for the sounds to fit in his auditory canal, her voice traveling through the air in a whispered monotone that was so subdued that it sounded like she was speaking in parenthesis. “I’m taking Hunter to my mother’s for the week. You have until then to get your things and be out. This is not for discussion. If you are still here when we get back, I’ll call the police. I will be contacting Randy Jessup to see how things can be handled with Hunter.” Randy was their attorney and a close friend. “If I did not know how much Hunter loves you I’d make sure you never saw him again. I will not punish him for your problems. However, I will not let you see him unsupervised until you’ve stop drinking for one full year. Those are my terms, they are not negotiable. Don’t call me. Leave me your address and I will ask Randy to contact you.” She said something about them being able to be friends if he ever cleaned himself up. He wondered if she meant being the kind of friends who had already divided all their furniture. With that, she turned and left. Ten minutes later he saw the two of them walk to the car. She helped Hunter fasten his seatbelt, placed two suitcases in the trunk, and drove off. That was four years ago. Up to that point, he had approached his drinking with an almost religious discipline; he would approach sobriety with the same discipline. He stopped drinking entirely two days after she left – cold turkey; tossed out all the pain medication as well. The year without being able to see his son without supervision was the second longest of his life, but that was all the motivation he had needed. If he could survive twenty-six weeks of BUD/S instructors trying to kill him, he reasoned that he could get through fifty-two weeks of him trying not to kill himself. ■■■ Scott looked over at Hunter and smiled. His sobriety had given him the best possible gift, the return of his son, the return of the one thing that was everything to him. They sat together at the granite countertop, Hunter just picking at his food. “Can I go to bed?” he asked. Scott hoisted the dewy glass of cranberry juice and drained it in one prolonged gulp. He could tell from the look on Hunter’s face that he had just impressed his son.
  • “I thought tonight was bath night.” He paused for a moment reconsidering, as it had been a long day for the two of them. “Okay,” he agreed. “We’ll take one in the morning before church.” Scott piggybacked him up to the room next to his. When he built the home, he had allowed Hunter to help pick out the furniture and the paint color. Hunter chose a bright blue, with a dark blue ceiling. Scott affixed an array of glow-in-the-dark stars to the ceiling giving it the look and feel of the night sky. Hunter decided on bunk beds, even though he’d be the only person using the room. Wearing long cotton pajamas with elasticized cuffs, the shirt top emblazed with Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith characters, Hunter scurried up the ladder to the top bunk, flipping himself over the extra railing Scott had installed. A small bookshelf attached to the wall within easy reach for Hunter held several volumes of The Hardy Boys, and the compete collection of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Scott placed his feet on the bottom bunk, reached up, and hugged him. “Don’t tell your mom we skipped the bath; that will be our secret. Pinkie promise, okay?” he asked, extending his right pinkie finger. “Should we pinkie promise about not brushing my teeth too?” “Good idea Hunt”, was Scott’s reply, pleased by how astute Hunter was. He said his prayers, covered him, and kissed him on the forehead. “Daddy, do you still remember Kirsten?” inquired Hunter, his question catching the unsuspecting Scott by surprise as he headed for the door. “Sometimes I don’t remember her face,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. “Does that mean I don’t love her anymore because I don’t remember her face?” “Of course I remember her,” Scott replied as his eyes quickly filled with tears. Every time he looked at Hunter, Hunter’s face reminded him of Kirsten; he had her smile and the same friendly eyes that captured his heart with each glance. “She loved you this much,” Scott told him, extending his arms as far apart as they could reach. “You were her favorite person in the whole world. “You’re still my favorite person,” he said as he crossed back into the room and hugged him. “Can I go see her in heaven?” Hunter asked. “Remember how we read in The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, when the White Witch kills Aslan on the stone table? After he dies, he comes alive again. How come Kirsten can’t come alive again? How come it’s not like what you told me about when Jesus died? You said he died, and then God made him alive again. Why doesn’t God do that with Kirsten?” Why indeed? He couldn’t explain it to himself, how was he expected to explain it to a seven-year-old who still couldn’t distinguish between the reality of God and the reality of Santa. The very thought of Hunter joining Kirsten in heaven sliced though him with the intensity of a plasma cutting torch. Scott still remembered that for months after Kirsten’s death how Hunter would awaken in the middle of the night and wander around the dark
  • house looking for his big sister. “That’s not how God makes things work. Even though we can’t see Kirsten anymore, she’s with us every day. She’s an angel now, and God lets her visit you and take care of you, me, and your mom.” Fortunately, for Scott the explanation seemed to suffice. “Good night, Daddy. I love you. Remember to leave my door open just a crack,” said Hunter as he turned to his side and pulled the covers tightly around him. Daddy was his favorite word in all the languages in the entire universe. Scott was pleased that Hunter referred to the door to his room as ‘my door’. When the weekend visits had started three years ago, he called it ‘the door’. As bad as it was only seeing him only on weekends, not seeing him at all was unthinkable. He scraped the remaining food from the plates into the disposal. From the cupboard, he removed a jar of black leaf tea, Earl Grey, and placed a tablespoon full of the loose leaves into a white ceramic pot. After placing the kettle on the gas cook top, umbrella at the ready, he walked outside down the cobbled drive to grab the mail. He heard the phone ringing as he made his way back to the house, but whoever it was had hung up before he could reach it.
  • Chapter 7 The smell of charred hardwoods from a neighbor’s fireplace wafted through the damp night air. In the semi-darkness of the front stoop, she fumbled through her purse for her key ring. The brass ring was cluttered with keys, keys from her old house, office keys, car keys, a key to the storage shed that had burned down years ago. It took her several seconds to locate the key that unlocked the front door. Chilled and tired, she turned the lock, depressed the lever with her thumb, and pushed the door open with a slight effort from her shoulder. Closing the door behind her closed off the noise of the rain. The house was silent, dead silent, the way unoccupied homes are. She dropped her purse and keys on the small occasional table under the sidelight. The house was in total darkness, the only visible light came from the reflection of the microwave’s digital clock. Scott’s headlights parsed the darkness as he backed out of her driveway. She paused for a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the darkness. She didn’t notice that the power indicator on the home’s keyed security pad wasn’t lit. The bulb in the table lamp in the living room that was connected to a timer must have burned out again. She thought she’d replaced that bulb only a few weeks ago. Dawn kicked off her shoes, draped her overcoat across the oak banister, and flipped the wall switch for the chandelier. Her damp socks left a trail of dark footprints across the slate floor. “Riley,” she hollered, already knowing she was not home. The house felt cool, and she flicked the control switch of the thermostat from off to heat. The sound of ice cubes falling into the refrigerator’s plastic holding bin broke the silence. Dawn swallowed dryly. All she’d had to drink all day was coffee, and she was feeling dehydrated. Dawn made her way to the kitchen and retrieved a bottle of red wine. With some difficulty, she uncorked the bottle of Chilean merlot, filled a large hand-cut crystal goblet, and almost gulped it down. She refilled her glass and carried the bottle and glass to her bedroom, picking up her shoes along the way. “Thomas... Here kitty,” she called. She was surprised Thomas wasn’t at the door to greet her the way he usually did, arching his back and rubbing himself against her leg. Maybe he’d let himself out through the pet door next to the laundry room. Riley named the cat after Tom from the Tom and Jerry cartoon. She decided to put on her pajamas before feeding the cat and grabbing some dinner for herself. Taking a long swallow, she placed the glass on the bathroom vanity and pulled the sweater and turtleneck over her head, tossing the turtleneck into the wicker hamper. The wine soothed her and gave a warm sensation to the back of her throat. She folded the cashmere sweater and placed it on a shelf in the cedar-lined closet. Removing her pants, she placed them on a hanger. She deposited her socks and underpants in the wicker hamper, and with a deft single-handed maneuver, removed her bra. Dawn slipped into a pair of micro- fleece pajamas, and warmed her feet with a pair of white tube socks. “Thomas,” she called again.
  • Grabbing the glass and bottle, she descended the staircase and made her way to the capacious kitchen. Ants. She hated ants. A dozen or more climbed across the spoon she’d used that morning to scoop the cat food from the can. She reached under the sink, failing to notice the small trail of dark blotches on the oak floor, grabbed a bottle of 409 with her right hand, and sprayed the ants while her left hand reached for a paper towel. With a circular motion, she pushed them into the sink, sprayed them with hot water, and turned on the disposal. Grabbing the end of the teaspoon with her fingertips, she tossed it into the dishwasher’s utensil basket. She wished she hadn’t slapped Scott, she said aloud as though to alert the empty house to the fact that she was home, as she crossed from the kitchen to the family room. The house was so silent without Riley, the way houses instinctively are when no one is home. On most Saturday nights, she and Riley would be sitting in the room with a big bowl of popcorn watching a movie or two. A hollow feeling formed in the pit of her stomach. Retrieving the remote Dawn slumped into the easy chair, and rubbed her ankles. They were as swollen as if she’d been running around all day in three-inch heels. She propped her feet on the ottoman, and started flipping through the channels. Fox News was on a commercial break, so she flipped over to Court TV. Pressing the button for a description of the show, she saw they were airing a cold case of a man who had murdered his stepchildren. She decided to flip back to Fox and wait for the commercial to finish. Remembering she hadn’t fed Thomas, Dawn headed back to the kitchen, picked up his bowl from beside the sink, and placed it on the counter next to the cherry paneled refrigerator. “Here Thomas,” she called as she removed a teaspoon from the drawer closest to the dishwasher. Pulling open the door of the GE Monogram side-by-side refrigerator, she absentmindedly reached inside for the half-empty can of Purina. The cat’s headless carcass was stuffed into the third shelf, right between the egg container and the Tupperware that held last night’s meatloaf. ■■■ His cell vibrated in its holster, Dawn’s name appearing on the display screen. He was wondering when she’d call to apologize. “Yessss,” he said, electing to use a friendly tone. “He’s killed Thomas!” she yelled hysterically. “Who did?” was the only thing Scott could think to say. Killed who, he wondered to himself before realizing she was talking about a cat. This ought to be interesting. He wasn’t someone people would typically call about their dead pets, especially a cat. “That kid who was stalking Riley. He cut off Thomas’ head and stuck him in the refrigerator.” The hysteria in her voice leapt from the phone, rising with each word. “Please come quickly!”
  • There were several pieces of relevant information in what Dawn just said, only one of which he knew from his training deserved his immediate attention. Separate the wheat from the chaff, fact from fiction. Categorize, prioritize. Since the cat was found in the refrigerator, whoever killed it had been in her house and may still be there. Her safety was his most immediate concern. “Dawn”, he ordered to make sure he had her attention. His years of training kicked right in. He needed to calm her down and get her to do exactly what he told her. “Take the phone upstairs with you to your bedroom and trip the panic button on your security system. Lock the bedroom door and get the Heckler.” He had her install the security system soon after she left the PPD because of the number of threats she’d received. Neither of them could prove who was making the threats, but Scott’s training taught him not to believe in coincidence, especially when it concerned someone’s safety. He’d also convinced her to buy a gun, recommending a 9mm Heckler & Koch semi-automatic P2000 SK. At less than a pound and a half, the HK P2000 SK was small and lightweight, and still provided plenty of stopping power with one in the chamber and ten in the clip. He’d taken her to the range on several occasions; something he did for himself each month so as not to lose the edge. The Olympic pistol team wouldn’t be knocking on her door to recruit her any time soon, but she could certainly find center of mass better than ninety percent of the time, and center of mass could put an end to most threats in a hurry. She did as instructed. The barrel of the 9mm had a blue tint to it in the light of her bedroom, and it smelled of gun oil. The siren blared throughout the house and outside, and the home’s interior and exterior security lights illuminated and began to flash. “Done,” she said, breathing heavily into the receiver. “Is the security system tied to your home line or your home office?” “The home line.” “Okay. Now hang up and call me back on your office line,” he ordered. “No, I’m not hanging up!” “You have to. The security firm is going to call the home line. Tell them someone broke into your house and may still be there. Get the gun and cock it. And remember, one in the head, two in the chest, just like we practiced. And tell security about the gun, you don’t want to give the cops any reason to shoot you.” He wasn’t kidding. “Do it now”, he shouted. He heard the click, and pressed the ‘end call’ key on his phone. Nixon waited anxiously for her to call back. One minute. Two minutes. If Hunter weren’t with him, he’d already be in the Rover, halfway to her house. Four minutes. Now he was truly afraid for her. Was this person still in the house even after the alarm went off? Most criminals, no matter what their intent had a higher sense of self-
  • preservation than they did to continue with a criminal act if they knew the police were on their way. Scott picked up his cordless phone and dialed the number from memory. “Trotter. How’s everything on the dark side?” Jimmy liked to kid Scott about working with the Bureau. “To what do I owe this pleasure?” asked his best friend, detective Jimmy Salvano. A few years back it was Jimmy Salvano who put his reputation on the line for Scott, who laid the groundwork with the Philadelphia Police Department to get Scott the opportunity to beta-test his profiling software. Eighteen months after the test began the PPD purchased ASLAN for an installed price of almost two million dollars, a sale that helped get Nixon back on his feet in many respects. Jimmy rose from the couch and headed to the bathroom to empty his bladder, cradling the phone to his ear as he walked, not thinking twice about the impropriety of urinating while talking on the phone. “Maria stopped by Blockbuster this morning, so I’ve been stuck watching chick-flicks all night. I made her a promise on Mother’s Day that instead of me picking the movies, or just sitting at home watching the Phillies, she could pick the movies until the end of summer. Dumbest thing I ever said. How was I supposed to know she’d hold me to it? She got this list from one of Oprah’s or Rosie’s shows, or something like that, called the Fifty Greatest Chick-Flicks, there’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one. Oprah and O’Donnell, think about it. If that isn’t a valid lesbian sighting then I don’t know what is. “We started four weeks ago with number fifty, tonight we just did thirty-nine and thirty- eight. Thirteen chick movies, count ‘em, thirteen. No cleavage. No action. Take Thelma and Louise, for example. A truck blows up, and one person gets killed. That’s not an action flick, that’s my morning commute. The only one that was even bearable was Bull Durham. I’m not sure how that slid past the estrogen censors, but if you ignore the relationship scenes, the baseball action made it passable. It would be easier to stick a fork in my eye than to watch the next one, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Nixon had let him go on long enough, but he empathized with Salvano’s plight, having suffered through Terms of Endearment last weekend with Dawn and Riley, and remembered thinking that without Jack Nicholson’s snide and irreverent remarks, the film would have been a total waste. He’d told Dawn afterwards that it was as if he was being penalized, being forced to watch a two-hour pity party, simply because God gave him the ability to stand up when he had to pee. “I need a big favor Jimmy, and I need it right now,” interjected Nixon. Jimmy Salvano was the kind of person everybody wanted as a friend because only a deranged person would risk having him as an enemy. Although relatively short in stature, an angry Salvano looked like a howitzer ready to go off. Scott said that even Gorgon shuddered when Jimmy Salvano got angry. Nixon liked to think that minoring in classical lit wasn’t a total waste of time and tuition.
  • Jimmy heard the anxiety in his friend’s voice. “Name it; get me out of here,” he was almost pleading. “I need you at Dawn’s, now. Siren and lights, and don’t stop for anything. Someone was in her house, killed her cat, and stuffed it in the fridge. She hit the alarm so Downingtown’s probably on their way, but I’m not taking any chances as to how quickly they’ll decide to respond. Maybe she gets a clean squad, maybe it’s friends of Vinnie’s.” Cenci’s tentacles had reached all the way to some of the Philadelphia suburbs. “If it is, damn sure they won’t bust a gut getting there.” He was referring to formed PPD captain Vinnie Cenci, and man who haunted her even from his grave. ■■■ Dawn’s forced resignation from the PPD came about after having testified for Internal Affairs about the interrogation sessions Cenci had been forced to attend with her. That was a little over two years ago. IA ordered Cenci’s sessions after it was reported that he had sex with a hooker, refused to pay her, and when she’d threatened to go to the cops, he beat her up badly enough to have knocked out two of her teeth. Although the hooker didn’t report it, a friend of hers had seen Cenci open the car door and push the hooker from the car and into the gutter. The friend had written down the license plate, and called Salvano. The bad news for Cenci is that the hooker was one of Jimmy Salvano’s snitches, and Jimmy and Cenci had been on a collision course for years. Bad blood had existed between them back to the days when Cenci was a sergeant, and tried to get Salvano to sign on as one of his bag boys. Salvano wouldn’t budge, and not accepting the offer had Cenci looking over his shoulder ever since. It also cost Salvano an extra year to get his gold shield. Salvano met with the hooker, took a few pictures, for posterity and IA, gave each of the girls a hundred dollars, and put them up in a motel for the night. IA had arranged to move the girls on their nickel for their own protection, and they’d opted for Harrisburg to stay close to their families. Harrisburg wasn’t too keen on adding to the number of hookers, but the request came from Salvano, and a request from Jimmy Salvano carried a lot of weight. Salvano told IA about several other activities of Cenci’s, some that were merely alleged, some that could be substantiated. IA had a tail placed on Cenci and tapped his phones. It didn’t take much to get a book on him. That he’d murdered a snitch and had one of his patrolmen remove a gun from property, file off the serial numbers, fire it from the dead man’s hand to leave gun shot residue, and claim self-defense, was unproven. However, IA knew that given time, if Cenci was dirty on the murder, they’d get him. Internal Affairs ordered Cenci to undergo four sessions with the department’s forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Dawn Hardeman. They instructed Hardeman to focus her interview on Cenci’s assault on the hooker. She’d been told to push him, to push the fact that she held his career in her hands, thinking that being grilled by a woman about having beaten a woman would be more than Cenci could take. They wanted to see if by pushing the
  • right buttons she could learn enough to develop a profile that would indicate that Cenci’s makeup would allow him to commit such a crime. The day of her first session with Cenci, Hardeman dressed in a manner that enabled her to take advantage of the fact the she was a woman and that he was a pig. She wore a pleated navy skirt that came to several inches above her knees, drawing attention to her firm thighs. A semi-transparent cream silk blouse was unbuttoned just enough to reveal a hint of the treasures that lay beneath, and the two-inch black heels that accentuated her taught calves and allowed her to stand eye-to-eye with Cenci. She offered no pretense of pleasantries and none were offered by Cenci. Upon entering the small room, he turned the chair around, swung his legs over it, and slid the aluminum chair towards the type of gunmetal grey table one would expect to find in most government offices. A digital recorder from Radio Shack was in the middle of the table. The room smelled of stale cigarettes and coffee, and there was an audible hum from the lone air duct in the ceiling. Bifurcating the wall to Cenci’s left from the floor to ceiling was a two-way mirror. The IA detectives on the other side of the mirror were surprised to see that Cenci hadn’t even bothered to wear his uniform to the interview, just as Dawn had guessed. She’d told them that Cenci would appear in street clothes to try to give her the impression that he was cool and relaxed. Fifty-three years old. At five-feet ten inches, Cenci stuffed his two-hundred and fifteen pounds into what in the nineteen-eighties would have passed for leisurewear. He was the type of man who would have looked cheap even in a custom suit. He wore black double-knit pants with a slight flair to the bottom that at an inch too short showed that the black rubber soled shoes he was wearing contained lifts. The off-white tight-fitting permanent-press rayon short-sleeve shirt was unbuttoned to mid-chest, revealing that he clipped his chest hair below his collar, much like trimming a hedge, thought Hardeman, and making him look like he was wearing a black mohair sweater underneath his shirt. Had he not trimmed the hair it would have been impossible to determine where his chest hair ended and his facial hair began. A comb with a few missing teeth was inserted in his shirt pocket. He had a full head of dark, almost black hair, that he wore long and combed straight back. It had a sheen and smell to it that was suggestive of several applications of Vitalis. His full and wiry eyebrows looked like they had never been trimmed. The same could have been said for the hair that grew from his nose and ears. On his left wrist was a gold bracelet, and his right pinkie bore a large gold ring with a round cut diamond in the center. The complete picture was more of a dated Blues Brothers wannabe than of a police captain of a major metropolitan city. Stained white acoustic ceiling tiles showed repeated signs of water damage and yellowing from years of nicotine. The wall he faced had photo enlargements of the pictures taken by Salvano, showing the victim’s full face, profile, and a close up of the
  • hooker’s mouth; bruised and cut lips, and a dark space where her upper left frontal and lateral incisor should have been. Dawn Hardeman read off the particulars as to date, time, the names, and titles of the two people in the room. “For the record, Captain, you have declined to have an attorney present.” She wanted to add that for the record his eyes were already fixated on her breasts. Cenci gave her a begrudging nod. “I need you to speak your answers loud enough for them to be picked up by the microphone,” she said somewhat tersely. Cenci cracked his knuckles, placed his elbows on the table, and clasped his hands together. On the pinkie finger of his right hand, he wore a rather gaudy looking signet ring, a gaudiness matched by both his gold watch and a pair of chains that hung around his neck. “That’s right lady,” he stated, causing the needle on the recording device to swing to the right. “I’m not afraid of anything you want to talk about. You ask, and I’ll talk. How’s that? Do I call you Ms. or Hardeman?” he asked trying to take control. “Doctor,” was her only reply. “Okay. Doc it is. Call me Vinnie,” he said as he used his tongue to roll a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. “Captain Cenci”, she began, ignoring his request as to how to address him. She spent the next hour reviewing the photos and the girl’s statement, focusing the entire session on the incident with the hooker. At the conclusion of the session, Cenci brusquely pushed back the chair, so hard that it slammed into the far wall and toppled over. “That’s all you have? Are you kidding me?” he harangued. “The whole city is going down the crapper and you pull me off the job for this kind of crap? I’ve given twenty years to this city, lady! What about you? You’re no cop. You pussied out of the Academy and here you sit judging me,” he yelled as he moved to within a few inches of her face. His warm breath smelled of a hint of wine and garlic. “I’m through with this; tell that to your buddies in IA, Rents.” He spoke her nickname as though he was using a racial epithet. For the briefest of moments, he placed his right hand on her shoulder intending to pin her to the wall. Intentions be damned. The five foot eight, one hundred and thirty pound Dr. Dawn Hardeman reacted in a flash. With all of her force, she smashed the palm of her right hand into the bridge of Cenci’s nose. They both heard the cartilage snap. With her left hand, she grabbed Cenci’s right thumb and quickly twisted it backwards causing him to turn towards the wall. He yelled in pain. Before he could finish his yell, she had twisted his right arm behind his back, pinning it between his shoulder blades, and kicked his legs apart. “Looks like I learned a little something at the Academy, hey Captain?” In actuality, she had taken a few self-defense lessons from her favorite Navy SEAL. “Let me tell you how things will work between you and me,” she snarled as she spoke directly into his
  • ear. As she was berating him, the door to the interrogation burst open and two officers from IA entered the room. “Need any help, Captain?” the officer chided. Cenci let fly with a few sexual invectives. “As I was saying, Vinnie, here are your choices. You can go on suspension effective immediately, or you can come back here, ‘same bat time, same bat channel’ for each of the next three days. I’m secretly hoping you’ll opt for the suspension. Talking with stupid a-holes like you really puts a damper on me. You’re dumber than a bowl of mice. And that’s sad, do you know why? Because no matter how hard scientists try, they just can’t find a cure for stupidity. You can’t fix stupid. However, if you’re man enough to try me again, here I’ll be, and I promise I won’t rough you up tomorrow. Is it a date?” She released his arm. “Okay you two, now kiss and make up,” joked the shorter of the IA men as Cenci stormed past him. The final psychiatric profile Dawn delivered to IA concluded that Cenci was perfectly capable of doing everything they were looking at him for, and probably several things for which he wasn’t being investigated. Cenci was dismissed from the force. A criminal investigation was initiated, and IA was working with the District Attorney to file felony charges for extortion, tampering with evidence, and second degree murder when Vinnie Cenci, a twenty-two year veteran put an end to the investigation the night he murdered his wife and then turned his police-issue 9mm Glock on himself. That was almost two years ago. The stalking, hazing, and threats started within a month of Dawn’s having filed her report with Internal Affairs, and they escalated after Cenci’s suicide. Dawn’s career with the PPD only lasted for another few months until she quit, in part out of fear and in part out of frustration. There were too many people in the department who held her accountable for the death of Vinnie Cenci and his wife. Dawn had even made a veiled attempt to contact Cenci’s seventeen year-old daughter to see what she could do to help, but her entreaties were not received.