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Be prepared to be afraid.
Brutal slayings in the quiet suburbs of Philadelphia have detective Aaron Miller on edge. Residents are readily falling victim to a cold-blooded serial killer who is absolutely vicious, torturing and murdering at random and for sport. As pressure mounts to stop this psychopath, Aaron becomes increasingly frustrated by the lack of evidence. As his own life begins to unravel, a chance encounter leads him to interview the employees of City Café. He notices the shadowy figure washing dishes in the back. What happens next places the group in grave danger and leads them into a horror that will change everything about their lives.
The last remnants of sunlight drained into the horizon as Tommy prowled toward a large, ranch-style home snuggled behind preened landscaping. Sweat leaked from his brow, rolled down his cheeks, and soaked into the collar of his maroon T-shirt. Excitement prickled his skin.
A decade had passed since he’d left St. Anne’s Orphanage and School for Boys and he’d come back to Philadelphia to fulfill his destiny. Jeffery promised what he was about to do would give him the power of God. Jeffery assured him the power of God would bring mommy back. If mommy came back, she would take care of him. Make everything in his life perfect again.
Jeffery lived in Tommy’s mind. Jeffery was a good dog.
Tommy squatted behind a thick row of manicured privet and breathed deeply. Mossy turf, the cool night air, and a hint of a woman’s perfume invaded his nostrils. His belly swooned. He could barely contain himself. Everything was about to change.
He crawled close to the garage and stole a quick glance up the paved driveway. Two women were sitting on lawn chairs with their backs to him. A yellow citronella candle burned on a small, plastic table. Laughter ran festive through the air as the women sipped wine and talked.
With this kill, you will become stronger! Jeffery said inside Tommy’s head. You will gain power!
Tommy wrung his hands. Calluses from years of washing hot dishes in a greasy, truck stop kitchen had roughened his fingers. He hopped up, stepped around a puddle of water collected from the recent rain, and moved within striking range.
Crickets shut off their chirr.
“...and my Sarah is so stubborn,” one of the women was saying. “I keep telling her not to crayon on the wall and then I come into her room and she’s got a green dinosaur drawn across the entire side.”
The other woman laughingly replied; “I have that same problem with Jess.”
She raised her wine glass and bumped it against her lip.
“Oh, shoot!” she said, and brushed her front. “Look at me. And after only half a glass.”
“I’ll get a towel.”
Tommy didn’t expect the woman to stand up and turn around so quickly. Their eyes locked, and for a moment, seconds gelled and seemed to stretch into a queer slowdown of time. His thoughts flashed backward in memory to the baby birds. The ones he’d found as a child under the eave at St. Anne’s. The ones he’d crushed with his bare hands.
He lunged and arched out, grabbed under the woman’s chin, and spun her head with a quick, savage twist that crunched bones. Her head lolled and she collapsed.
The other woman screamed and leapt from her seat. She stumbled backward, flailing her arms to keep balance. He charged after, tackled her, and smashed his fist into her face, flattening her nose, then grabbed her throat and squeezed. Her eyes bulged. The tendons in her face strained into lines.
The woman’s mouth worked in raspy screams as she clawed savagely at his face, his hair, and the air. Little by little, she weakened. Finally, her muscles relaxed, her eyelids slid halfway down and her pupils filmed over.
She was dead.
He let go and her mass slumped to the asphalt.
He breathed heavily, relishing what he’d done. A feeling of omnipotent power surged through him. Sensation more furious than orgasm.
Power will bring mommy back! Jeffery said. Killing gives you power!
“Yes,” Tommy agreed.
He checked up and down the driveway to make certain no one was watching, and then dragged the two women into the moon-shadow cast by the garage. He stood a moment admiring the flaccid bodies and then stooped to his knees.
Do it! Jeffery urged. You’ve earned this session!
Tommy’s whole body tingled as he withdrew the ten-inch chef’s knife he’d stolen from the truck stop, sank it into the woman’s abdomen, and started his play.
Crickets resumed their chirr.
Astor awoke with a fiery headache so intense it blotted her vision. Her neck ached and puffiness around her right eye felt the size and texture of a small water balloon. She knew she shouldn’t have questioned Darrel about his whereabouts last night. She knew he’d get defensive. She knew he’d get mad. She knew he took sick pleasure watching her face flinch as he raised his fist to strike her. His eyes gleamed when she crumpled in fear.
She sighed, crawled from the bed, and limped into the kitchen to fetch ice to counteract the swelling and fix a cup of hot tea to calm her nerves. She grimaced as she passed the small porcelain angelfish on the mantle beside their wedding photo. Darrel had given the figurine on the one-month anniversary of their first date. They had spent that day at the New Jersey Aquarium.
It seems so unreal, she thought. One moment life is running smooth as corn silk and the next it’s a pyre of dead stalks.
Her neck and shoulder were beginning to stiffen. She opened the freezer, dumped ice cubes into a towel, and hobbled into the bathroom. The mirror shown a reflection she hardly recognized as her own. The red palm print on her cheek looked like a cattle brand. Flesh circling her right eye had turned bluish-brown and the cornea was a cartography of burst vessels. Dark bruises dotted her neck where Darrel’s fingers had choked her. Her final fleeting thought as she lost consciousness was: I’m dead!
She blamed herself for their marital problems, but not the violence. That was the demon part of Darrel’s soul, the aspect of his personality he’d kept mostly hidden from her until after they’d recited their vows and their separate identities had legally merged into one.
But his affairs... deep in her soul she knew they were probably her fault.
She was shy and inexperienced in bed. After all, she’d only ever had sex with one other person in her whole life, a troubled boy who’d been raised in an orphanage and was socially incapable of giving the love and affection she so desperately desired. Though he had emotional and intimacy issues, he had been, and will always be, the greatest love of her life. The boy’s name remained clear in her mind even after all the years that had passed: Tommy Fielding.
Tommy was Astor’s first lover and when it finally happened she hadn’t even minded the pain of losing her virginity. Sex became more enjoyable with repetition, and the awkwardness and discomfort of the initial, blundering act; after time, turned into a strange, electrifying desire.
Their relationship dissolved quickly however, soon after she went off to her freshman year at Penn State University to study nursing. Tommy didn’t take the separation well and sounded more anxious and agitated each time he called.
The final time she communicated with him, Tommy rambled nearly incoherently for more than ten minutes about his love for her and her betrayal of him. When it was her turn to talk, he suddenly screamed an onslaught of degrading accusations and invectives.
“You fucked him, bitch!” he hollered. “I know you did! You fucking whore! You fucking whore!
“What’s wrong with you?” she responded. “I told you he was my study partner. Nothing happened!”
“Why are you saying it like that? I haven’t been with anyone else but you. I love you.”
“You whore! I know you fuck other guys! I know you’re a fucking slut!”
“Tommy what’s wrong with you? Why are you acting this way? Where is this coming from?”
“Shut up, whore! I hate you! I hate you! I’ll give you your punishment someday!”
“What are you talking—”
The line cut dead with a hard click.
The silence felt like an iron fist had smashed into her chest. Tommy’s verbal assault had ripped her heart out. For days after, she hibernated in her dorm room, waiting, hoping her cell phone would ring. Back then she truly believed Tommy would call. After all, she knew him better than he knew himself. Tommy loved her. He had no reason to think such despicable things. She’d done nothing to provoke such a tirade. She didn’t go to parties or even drink alcohol. He was just having a hard time adjusting to her absence, that’s all. She loved him and was certain he loved her.
* * *
Finally, persuaded by a few of the girls on her dorm floor, she went out on a Friday night and actually stopped into one of those late-evening bashes everyone always raved about in the campus center cafeteria the morning after. There she noticed Darrel Jillian sitting at a table playing quarters with a group of his buddies. To her, Darrel stood out like a gem among dirt. He was tall, with a prominent chin and nose, and an athlete’s physique. Their eyes met across the crowded room like two love struck characters from one of those corny old romance movies she used to watch with mom before the cancer took her.
Two years her senior, Darrel seemed incredibly worldly and smart compared to Tommy and his meager seminary school education. Darrel was a third-year biology major on his way to becoming a surgeon. He filled Astor’s head with his dreams of caring for the sick and curing disease. He was nothing if not confident and assertive, with an easy winning smile and a swagger in his step.
In the beginning of their relationship, she’d found this side of him irresistible. Fast-forward five years later and she wanted to scrub that smugness from his face with razor wire.
In college, Darrel slept with lots of women prior to her. He’d belonged to one of those college frats that guzzled beer by the gallon and packed as much vagina into their four-year group party as possible. Darrel was relaxed when in the presence of the opposite sex. Astor was shy, reclusive, and timid.
Considering the dreadful emotional state in which Tommy had left her, it was little wonder she fell head-over-heels in love with the handsome upperclassman. Their brief courtship consisted of downing Bacardi shooters in the upstairs rooms at Delta Kappa house and then playing beer pong or a nasty game of chug-quarters in the fraternity’s grimy basement. Though Darrel partook in the decadence, he was also a dedicated student, and the partying days were intermixed with all-night cram sessions, during which Darrel wouldn’t allow Astor speak for hours, berating her even if she asked innocently when he’d be finished studying his anatomy and chemistry books.
She should have realized his dark side back then, but she’d been so young and so frightened of being alone.
Their first lovemaking had been a painful experience. Unlike Tommy, who took his time, Darrel pounded her until the tender flesh between her thighs burned from punishment. When his seed finally jetted into her, she was merely thankful for the sudden lubrication and didn’t immediately comprehend the significance of what had just occurred. She remembered thinking only one thought; thank God, it’s over. What she did notice was Darrel’s expression, his face twisted in horror as he scrambled off of her.
“I came in you!” he gasped. “I didn’t mean to! Oh shit! Oh shit! What am I gonna do? You gotta douche or something!”
“It’s okay,” she cooed, and patted the mattress. “I’m on the pill.”
She felt sick to her stomach about the lie, but would have said anything to keep Darrel from fleeing, from deserting her, abandoning her, as Tommy had done.
“Everything’s fine,” she added. “Come back to bed.”
Darrel’s distraught expression melted and he settled into his usual relaxed and cocky persona. “Jesus, you had me frazzled there for a sec. I wish you chicks would set the limits up front. Why do guys always have to worry about that shit?”
“Come to bed,” she crooned, lying back, feeling excess semen dribble out her bruised cunt and trickle down her thighs.
She was an empty vessel at the time and he had filled her.
* * *
Eight months later, she was in a hospital delivery room, legs clamped high in stirrups, her bloated belly cramping with pain. The contractions had started so suddenly and were so violent that they had left her little time to do anything but grab her robe and go. Darrel was attending a football game so she had driven herself to the hospital. She hadn’t been due for another month; yet, nuclear bombs were exploding in her belly. Her hands clenched together so tightly against the pain that her aluminum wedding band cut indentations into her fingers.
Events of that night were a blur of color, sounds, and voices. She remembered an agony akin to someone firing a blowtorch inside her guts. The sensation of cold, insensitive hands probing the most intimate areas of her body. A tube being inserted into her anus and a loud fart blatting out. A doctor lowering a mask over her face. Tasting the chilly air being pumped into her lungs. Consciousness blinking away.
* * *
The bluish fetus the doctors pulled from her (they’d named the baby Jessica months before) was all that held Astor and Darrel’s flimsy marriage together. Bills generated in an attempt to keep Jessica alive totaled more than what Darrel had spent for his entire medical education. He took on two construction jobs just to keep them settled in a cramped one-bedroom apartment.
Darrel never wanted Jessica, even from his first inkling that she existed in Astor’s belly, but his Catholic upbringing didn’t permit him the luxury of an abortion. Darrel blamed her solely for getting pregnant; as if the life in her womb had been implanted there by divine intervention and his night of carnal release had nothing to do with it.
Month after month, they watched the bills pile and Darrel’s education slip further away. All because of that one night, that one mistake, and Astor’s lie.
* * *
Astor’s recuperation from the pregnancy and the death of her child took a long time. She’d gained forty pounds in the interim, but finally, when she felt a little better, she got a job waiting tables at a local diner. Darrel went back to his internship ten months behind the other medical students in his class and last on a long roster of surgical hopefuls.
Astor noticed his growing resentment toward her, saw hatred build in his eyes. He started to hit her. Little slaps at first, but they quickly progressed into full-fisted punches. He taunted and yelled, calling her a leech and a bitch. He insulted her, telling her she was fat and disgusting and ugly.
“Exercise!” he’d bellow, if she ate something he thought contained too many calories. “Watch what goes into your mouth, for Christ’s sake! You’re a pig!”
Too many times he’d made her feel like a burden, a worthless human being. He blamed her for all the flaws and faults in his life, all the hardships he now had to overcome. He even had the almighty gall to blame her for Jessica’s death, as if she could’ve done anything to prevent the umbilical cord from wrapping around the infant’s neck and cutting off the blood supply to her brain.
If Jessica had lived, she often wondered, how much of Darrel’s precious time and money would the struggling newborn have taken? How much would Jessica have fucked up his structured and rigid world?
Darrel never apologized to her after a beating, or let her know in any way that he felt bad for having hit her. And after the previous night’s rage, the worst in months, she feared he might actually leave sanity and reason behind. Though he’d never spoken such a threat directly, she knew he was certainly capable of killing her. Not only was he physically able, being a hundred pounds heavier and seven inches taller, but that he could actually go through with it. After all, she’d once seen him stamp a newborn litter of kittens to death after discovering them nestled in a box of old rags in the corner of his parent’s garage. She was convinced that someday he would stamp the life out of her.
She tottered back into the bedroom, opened a bureau drawer, and began stuffing her clothes into Hefty trash bags. She was leaving him.
Officer Aaron Miller’s belly jittered with butterflies as he swung his legs over the windowsill and lowered them until his shoes rested on the thin ledge. His knees buckled a bit. Fear made it difficult to breathe and he sucked in air tightly. He glanced down to the cordoned-off street far below. Thirty-three stories dropped away like a steel cliff. He had to be very, very careful. Watch every step.
The sky was a clean, hard blue and the breeze cooled the sweat on his forehead. The cobalt squiggle of the Delaware River loomed a few miles in the distance.
“Move any closer and I’ll jump,” a voice threatened. “I swear I’ll do it!”
On the sill a few feet away, sat Leslie Peters, the reason he was out here.
“Please come inside,” Aaron urged. He pressed his body against the side of the building. “No one’s going to hurt you.”
“Just let me die!”
Officer Eric Connelly leaned his head out the window.
“You crazy, Miller?” he said. “Get in here!”
“Are the men in position?” Aaron asked.
Leslie turned toward him. “What men?”
Aaron looked at her face and thought that he had never seen anyone so terrified.
“Men who can help you,” he replied.
“Miller, get inside!” Connelly stated, and poked his head farther out the window so he could see the young woman. “Ms. Peters, whatever problems you have can be overcome.”
“Bullshit!” Leslie’s hands flew up to cover her face and she teetered dangerously. “No one can help me!”
Aaron knew that if he didn’t act soon, Leslie Peters would appear in tomorrow’s obituaries.
“I’m gonna move a little closer so we can talk,” he said. “I just wanna talk, okay?”
Leslie sniffed, paused, and then relented. “Okay… just to talk.”
Aaron adjusted his heels, teetered, and circled his arms slightly to keep balance. He steadied his nerves and slid his feet a few inches along the ledge, concentrating on keeping his eyesight ahead and his mind clear of the fear and primal instinct to freeze in place.
“Are you crazy, Miller?” Connelly said. “What are you doing?”
“Tell me something, Leslie,” Aaron said soothingly. He knew he had to gain her trust if he were to save her. “Why are you out here?”
Leslie recoiled. “You a police shrink? ‘Cause I seen enough shrinks. Lotta good you do, ‘cept fill people’s minds with shit about their mothers.”
“I’m not a psychiatrist,” Aaron replied, and attempted to keep the quiver from his voice. “I just want to know why you’re doing this.”
Her gaze alternated between him and the street below.
“Okay…” She cleared her throat and evened her voice. “I’ll tell you. Someone should know. Even if you are a cop. I’m out here ‘cause I’m at the factory working my ass off and Jeff and that slut are doing it in my home! Stinking up the bed that I paid for! I let the whore stay a few weeks and… and when I caught them they… they didn’t even care! Didn’t even fucking care! Well, I’ll show them. I’ll make them pay for what they did!”
“By killing yourself?” Aaron said. “That doesn’t make sense. You’re looking at one bad event in your life and overemphasizing its importance. You think there’s no other way to get back at them except by hurting yourself, and that’s just not true.”
“Fuck you, cop! You don’t know shit! I left a note! I wrote down all the horrible things he’s done so everyone will know what a fucking scumbag I married!”
“Won’t matter much if you’re dead. He’ll still be around. And after a little time goes by people will begin to forget. Life may seem tough and unfair, but it’s still better than being dead.”
“Then why are you out here risking your life, cop? You’re risking being dead for me. For someone you don’t even know. That’s even stupider!”
Wind tugged at Aaron’s uniform. He felt someone’s grip on his belt, turned his head, and saw Connelly half out the window. Other officers in the room had grabbed Connelly’s waist and formed a human safety line.
“Please take my hands,” Aaron said. “Come inside.”
Tears bubbled in her eyes and rolled down her face. She slapped her palms against the ledge. “I don’t want your advice! I’m sick of hearing everyone’s advice! No one can help me!”
She glanced tearfully at Aaron and then pushed off the ledge.
Aaron reached out for her and his fingers briefly caught hold of her shirt, creating just enough momentum to swing her into the half-dozen arms that suddenly shot out from the office window one floor below.
“Let me die! Let me die!” Leslie wailed, as the men pulled her inside.
Connelly and the others quickly yanked Aaron back into the room. He hunched over, breathed heavy, and then straightened and looked around at the other officers.
“What the fuck were you thinking going out on that ledge?” Connelly said. “You’ve certainly earned a badge for irresponsibility.”
Aaron grabbed Connelly’s shirt collar. “You’re interference almost cost that girl her life!”
Connelly smacked away Aaron’s hands. “Fuck off, Miller! Dying in the line of duty doesn’t make you a hero! Officers don’t get any benefits from postmortem promotions!”
Aaron shoved Connelly’s shoulder. “You think I went out there to get an increase in pay?”
Aaron’s partner, Riley “Beanstalk” Watkins stepped quickly between the men.
“Knock it off!” Beanstalk stated. “Both of you!”
“What’s going on here?” a voice yelled. “I will not have officers in my precinct fighting!”
Sergeant John Bishop entered the room. A seasoned officer with a rotund body and a face like an overgrown baby with gray hair, John Bishop had seen it all. Aaron held a deep respect for the man. Before being promoted to Sergeant, John had taken Aaron under his wing and taught him the in’s and out’s of being a street police officer. A deep friendship had grown out of their collective, adrenaline-jacked experiences, and Aaron had even taken to having dinner with John and his wife, Maryanne a few times a month.
“You both acted like idiots!” Sergeant Bishop said. “Miller, you took a damn stupid risk climbing out there. And Connelly, you know better than to interfere in that delicate a situation.”
“Interfere?” Connelly retorted. “I was trying to save an officer’s life!”
“Bullshit!” Aaron said. “That’s not why you leaned out. You were afraid I’d do something heroic and nab that promotion!”
“Shut it, Miller!” Sergeant Bishop stated.
“I mean it, Miller! Shut your trap or I’ll have Sergeant Strom put you down on transit.”
“I’m already on transit three shifts a week.”
Sergeant Bishop’s eyes crinkled. “How would you like to be holed up in the depths of the subway writing tickets to degenerates with forged passes?” His gaze shifted to Connelly. “And that goes ditto for you. No more arguing!”
Connelly looked at the floor. Aaron stared ahead at a blank spot on the wall.
Sergeant Bishop addressed the rest of the group. “Show’s over, people. Everyone back to their patrols, ‘cept you, Miller. I want a word with you in private.”
The officers headed toward the exit and filed out. Connelly glanced back at Aaron and then closed the door behind him leaving the two alone.
“Something on your mind, John?” Aaron asked coyly.
Sergeant Bishop turned toward the window, sighed, and shook his head. “Dumb-fuck stupid what you did out there, Aaron. Real fucking stupid. I wouldn’t have put my ass on that ledge for nobody.” He looked Aaron in the eyes. “But it bought time for those officers to get into position. Probably saved that girl’s life.” He looked back out the window. “Hell, I’m not saying what you did was proper procedure, in fact, it was downright asinine. But between you and me… and this one’s totally off the record. That was one of the most courageous things I’ve witnessed in a long time. Well done.”
Aaron ran a hand through his hair. “Appreciate that, John. But the other guys deserve the credit. They’re the ones who caught her, and saved me from falling, too.”
“You’re sharing the laurels with Connelly and his crew?”
“Connelly’s a prick! He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about Leslie Peters… or me. He just worries someone’ll steal that promotion he’s been egging for. It’s all about the money with him. He doesn’t have an ounce of the responsibility that’s supposed to come with the job.”
“Look who’s talking?” Sergeant Bishop turned and headed toward the door. “You don’t have an ounce of responsibility when it comes to your own life.”
* * *
Three hours later, Aaron was back at the precinct and sitting at his desk. He had taken off his badge and was looking at his reflection in the shiny stainless steel, evaluating his square face, prominent brows, strong cheekbones, and Jewish nose.
Not bad, he thought. Now, if I could only find a woman who doesn’t care that my job specs say I might die on any given shift.
He lit and slipped a Camel Light between his lips and watched Sergeant Strom barrel from his office. Strom had been with the force thirty years and only recently became the head of the precinct. He was a dumpy man with a bad case of adult acne and sagging, tired eyes. Oily gray hair absently combed to the side masked his spreading baldness. His complexion was the color of high-blood-pressure.
Aaron watched him navigate through the labyrinth of chairs and overstuffed crates of file paper, toward his cubicle, which was little more than a desk surrounded by stacks of overflowing boxes arranged to resemble a chest-high square with a space for an entranceway.
“It’s all over the station what you did today,” Strom said, his voice a low grumble from what Aaron figured was thirty-plus years of choking down unfiltered cigarettes. “More experienced officers, wouldn’t have taken such a personal risk. They would have trusted the men beneath them to do their jobs.”
“The men weren’t ready,” Aaron replied.
“I don’t want to hear excuses for negligence!” Strom hollered. “You fucked up, understand? No cop should ever put his life in jeopardy like that! You’re lucky I don’t suspend you!”
Aaron squashed his cigarette on the rim of an empty Coke can. “You’re absolutely right, sir. I’m sorry.”
“And you think a mere apology excuses your actions?”
Strom plucked a cigarette from a pack in his shirt pocket, lit it, and smoked as he spoke. “Dammit, Miller, when an officer ignores the fundamentals of procedure or uses poor judgment, the results can be disastrous. Must I remind you exactly what your job is?”
“To enforce the law, prevent crime, investigate crime, and maintain order,” Aaron rattled off.
Strom’s eyes got squinty. “That’s right, officer. It doesn’t include playing shrink four hundred feet above the pavement. I should take you off the beat and put you behind a desk for that stunt! Hell, I should have you emptying the quarters from the meters downtown! One more fuck up like that and you’re outta my precinct and off the street!” Strom breathed through his cigarette. “Understand?”
“I didn’t want the woman to die, sir,” Aaron defended. “That’s all.”
“Your empathy breaks my fucking heart.” Strom dropped the remainder of his cigarette into the Coke can. “I’m gonna give you some advice, son, cause your relatively new at this game. I’m not saying that what you did isn’t an honorable deed; it may even earn you a few commendations over the years. What I’m saying is you can only do so many honorable deeds before your number comes up. Graveyards are filled with officers who took their jobs beyond the résumé, officers who cared too much. Never let your emotions get in the way of the job. And it is a job. Don’t ever forget that.”
Strom straightened his shoulders, removed a fresh unfiltered, and sparked the tip.
“Look, Miller,” he continued. “I know you’ve got a law degree from one of those fancy universities, and I know you graduated top in your squad at the academy. You’re a good cop and I’ll put that in your daily. I’m also gonna note that if you ever do anything even remotely as dangerous as that again, you’ll be at the front desk greeting DUI transports, permanently.”
“With all due respect, Sergeant,” Aaron replied. “I did what I had to do to save that girl and I’d do it again. I didn’t become a cop because I have a desire to rise above the ranks and become a sergeant, or a captain. I’m not in this for the adrenaline rush, or to fill some void in my ego, or because I think I look good in uniform. Believe it or not, I became a police officer because I think I can make a difference. Today I did. Maybe my whole calling was to save that woman? Maybe I’ll die tomorrow, or tonight in a car wreck, or by some random act of violence. I’m not gonna live my life second-guessing my actions. The situation happened. Situations will continue to happen, and I’ll continue to do what I think is right.”
“Noble attitude.” Strom blew a cloud of smoke and then turned to backtrack through the maze of clutter. “I hope you live a long and healthy life, officer Miller.”
“You believe in karma, Sarge?” Aaron called after him. “What comes around goes around.”
Strom turned and smirked with the cigarette hooked in the left corner of his mouth. “I believe in what I see with my own eyes. And I’ve seen enough to age an infant into an old man.”
He clambered back into his office and shut the door.
Aaron lit another cigarette and fiddled it in his fingers. He took several quick drags reliving the morning’s events in his mind. The psychological profile said the woman for whom he’d risked his life was a depressed single mother of three who’d been in and out of mental institutions for most of the last five years. The story about her husband’s infidelity was just that… a story. Was she worth the chance he took? Was he willing to sacrifice his life for a complete stranger’s lack of good judgment or mental stability?
He’d only drawn his gun twice in four years. Some of the men unsnapped their holsters nearly every day. He took extraordinary measures not to harm the criminals he encountered, even when he knew he should incapacitate them for his own safety.
Was he taking unnecessary risks on the job? Perhaps karma was nothing but a figment of the human psyche programmed into our brains to prevent us from fully realizing our own mortality.
Perhaps, he thought too much.
He dropped the half-smoked cigarette into the Coke can and pinned his badge back onto his shirt.
Tommy sat on a bar stool and stared at the clear liquid in his glass. He hadn’t touched the vodka and tonic he’d ordered. He hadn’t spoken a word to the mass of people surrounding him. His eyes hadn’t blinked in more than a minute. He barely knew where he was.
In the theater of his mind, he was seven years old again.
After mommy and daddy’s funeral, he’d gone to live with Uncle Leo. Uncle Leo was a dirty, usually unshaven longshoreman who spent his evenings hanging out at a watering hole called The Swill and smoking funky-smelling white rocks through a handmade metal pipe. Tommy was glad for the white rocks because Uncle Leo was always funny and in a good mood when he’d had lots.
One time, Uncle Leo smoked so much he stumbled over the coffee table, sending the porcelain lamp crashing to the floor. Another time, he walked straight into the wall and bounced off, leaving a smear of blood from his smashed nose.
When the white rocks were gone, however, it was a different world altogether at Uncle Leo’s. Those times, Tommy would hide around the house in fear, squeezing his body into the space beside the couch, or the cobweb infested storage area behind the water heater. Uncle Leo always found him. Then he’d lock Tommy in the laundry closet by the old Kenmore washing machine and leave him there for hours. Tommy hated the laundry closet. It was cold, and dark, and smelled like the bathroom at The Swill, where he was sometimes taken to wait while Uncle Leo got more white rocks to smoke.
If he was a good boy while he was locked in the laundry closet, and didn’t make poo or pee, then uncle Leo would give him a chocolate Tastycake when the door finally opened. Uncle Leo would always have lots of white rocks by then and Tommy could watch television while Uncle Leo smoked them to his heart’s delight.
Those were good times.
However, if after several hours locked in darkness Tommy’s bowels mutinied and he made a mess on the floor, then Uncle Leo wouldn’t be so nice. The beatings would leave Tommy unable to sit and he would have to poo outside, leaning against a tree for support.
Then one bizarre day, Uncle Leo unlocked the closet door and stumbled into the den.
“You okay, Uncle Leo?” Tommy asked innocently, and headed toward the couch.
He’d been hoping for a Tastycake, but it didn’t look like Uncle Leo had any.
Uncle Leo turned in his direction. He had the same large-as-marbles look in his eyes that daddy had the night everything changed. Uncle Leo sat down on the sofa and sighed heavily, followed by a muffled sob. His scrunched his fists against his temples.
“I’m losin’ the house,” he said, as tears ran down his sunken cheeks.
Tommy had never seen Uncle Leo cry. It scared him.
“I’m losin’ my job,” Uncle Leo continued. “I’m losin’ everything. The cops are comin’ to take me away. They know. Had surveillance on me. Saw me making the deals.”
Uncle Leo pulled a pistol from his jacket pocket. Tommy cringed.
“This is your fault, boy!” Uncle Leo stated. “No one would’a gotten involved if the neighbors hadn’t seen a kid livin’ here! Why’d ya have to come into my life? Why couldn’t you have died along with your ma and pa?”
Tommy wanted to run out the door but was too petrified to move.
“I’m sorry,” he whimpered.
“You caused me to do this!” Uncle Leo said. “See what you did!”
In one quick motion, Uncle Leo put the pistol barrel against his temple and flexed the trigger. There was an explosion and blood. Lots of blood.
Tommy stood beside Uncle Leo’s flaccid body, feeling his own stomach tighten with nausea. He sat down and brought his knees to his chest.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck…” he muttered, and rocked slowly back and forth until the authorities arrived.
* * *
Later that night, someone from a place called the Department of Child Welfare and Human Services came to the house and took Tommy to live with his aunt Grace. Aunt Grace was a mean, resentful woman who often told him she no more wanted to care for a child than slide razor blades underneath her fingernails. She wouldn’t have taken him at all, except she found out how much the state would pay her in welfare support.
“Welcome home,” she said, on the eve of his arrival. “You’re my new meal ticket.”
Aunt Grace stayed out all night and slept all day, paying for almost everything in one and five-dollar bills, with an occasional ten tossed into the mix. She had enormous breasts. “Them’s my money makers,” she’d say when she was in a particularly good mood. “Wanna see ‘em, boy?” Then she’d lift up her shirt and order him to touch them. “That’s a good boy,” she’d moan, as his fingers rubbed her enormous mounds of flesh and the hard, discolored nipples. “You’re a good boy... such a good boy...”
Sometimes she’d even make him touch her where she peed.
Tommy grew to understand why aunt Grace attracted so much attention from men, but he never understood why she went out with so many men when she seemed to hate them so much. He also never knew when she’d take that hatred out on him.
Sometimes, he could anticipate the blows, like the time he knocked over her garbage heap of an ashtray, sprinkling stale filters and powdery gray residue on the carpet. He wasn’t able to sit properly for almost a week after that. Worse were the unexpected attacks, when she arrived home stinking like uncle Leo’s laundry closet, with blue/brown bruises discoloring her cheeks, and pockets half-filled with singles, and hardly a five in the bunch.
Those were the nights she pulled him from sleep to beat him.
“Aunt Grace, no!” he’d cry. “I’ll be a good boy for you! A good boy!”
Unlike Uncle Leo, who had used a belt to inflict punishment, aunt Grace preferred her fists and lit cigarettes.
On his eighth birthday, and hurting real bad from an unprovoked beating, he made up his own imaginary world and began to live inside his mind. He withdrew from aunt Grace and barely spoke, spending hours alone in his room staring at the floor, daydreaming of his world. No one could hurt him inside his own thoughts.
Tommy imagined himself as absolute ruler of his inner world. He had imaginary friends, lived in an imaginary castle, and even had an imaginary talking dog. He named the dog Jeffery. Jeffery was his best friend.
Tommy could pretend as he pleased without fear of punishment, reprisals, or repercussions. He called these daydreams ‘sessions’ and they became a refuge where he could escape the misery of his real life. In a session, he was the king of the household with Jeffery at his side and Aunt Grace cowering before them.
His two-and-a-half year stay with Aunt Grace ended abruptly after a concerned neighbor saw him on the porch crouched in pain and called an ambulance. He had three fractured ribs, a bruised collarbone, and about a dozen cigarette burns on his chest and back. Two were infected.
The nurse looked at him as if she were in pain, too.
“How did this happen, sweetie?” she asked.
Tell her you fell, Jeffery said in his mind.
“I fell,” Tommy said.
The expression on the nurse’s face morphed into one of doubt. A moment later, aunt Grace stepped through the doorway. Her hands shook as she held an unlit cigarette. The odor of consumed whiskey oozed from her pores.
“You can’t be in here,” the nurse said.
“I’m his guardian!” aunt Grace replied.
The nurse grabbed aunt Grace by the elbow and pulled her a few feet from the bed. She spoke quietly, but Tommy still heard.
“This little boy belongs to the state now,” the nurse said. “Authorities will be contacting you soon.”
“No!” Tommy cried.
He struggled from the hospital bed and limped out the room before the nurse or Aunt Grace could stop him.
“I want mommy!” he cried, as he faltered down the hallway. “I want mommy!”
He didn’t make it far before an orderly grabbed him.
“Let me go! Let me go!” he screamed.
A doctor rushed over and pricked a needle into his arm. The multiple pains shooting through him ceased and he lost consciousness.
When he awoke, his chest was bandaged, he wore a neck brace, and he was the newest member of St. Anne’s Orphanage and School for Boys, headed under the watchful eye of an old nun named Sister Angelina. Sister Angelina had long, gray hair, corn-kernel teeth, and a bird-like face. She looked very much like a witch straight out of the late-night horror flicks uncle Leo used to watch on television.
Acted like one, too.
Tommy started wetting his bed at night and spent the late hours in damp misery, talking with Jeffery in his mind, too afraid of the other kids’ teasing to clean himself up.
When not in religious class, he spent his free time staring out the rectory windows, seeing little of reality; immersed in sessions where he and Jeffery ruled St. Anne’s and Sister Angelina cowered before him.
* * *
Tommy blinked for the first time in more than two minutes. His eyes were dry.
He became aware of the people around him; their faces, their different smells, the buzzing of voices and multiple conversations. He tried to focus on the reason he was there, shake off the cerebral distractions.
He reached down, picked up his drink, and sipped. More memories flooded through him. Images flashed before his inner eyes. It was as if someone had flicked on a movie camera in his brain.
He was reliving the day he’d discovered the bird’s nest tucked beneath the eave where the newer bricks of the storage shed met the crumbling masonry of St. Anne’s. He’d heard the high-pitch chirping from down the sidewalk and had moved a cinderblock to stand on and peak inside. Four chicks covered in gray fluff and pinfeathers cuddled together in a pocket of woven twigs. The chicks opened their mouths and craned their necks upon seeing him.
Fascinated by their utter helplessness and fragility, Tommy lifted one out and set it on his palm.
Kill it! Jeffery told him.
Shock traveled through Tommy’s veins. Jeffery had never told him to be bad before. Jeffery only told him to be kind and sweet. What caused Jeffery’s change, he wondered?
“I can’t,” Tommy replied. “I’ll get punished.”
You must! Jeffery urged. The more you kill the more powerful you’ll become. Power will turn you into God. God can bring mommy back.
“Mommy,” Tommy whispered.
He missed her so.
Tommy surveyed the area. The nuns were in the rectory and the other orphans were around front playing tag on the lawn. He was totally alone.
A lazy wind ruffled his hair.
Yes, Jeffery replied. Power can bring mommy back. Killing will give you power.
Tommy didn’t question Jeffery’s statements. The two of them were best friends.
Do it! Jeffery crooned. Do it Do it! Do it! Do it!
Tommy grabbed the bird’s head and twisted his fingers. Little spinal bones fractured and popped under his grip. The bird let out a strained peep and went limp. A splatter of white-gray poop released in Tommy’s hand.
All at once, the panic of what he’d done blasted over him. The nuns at St. Anne’s were unfailing in their teaching and belief of the Ten Commandments. And he had just broken the number one thing you’re not supposed to do: thou shalt not kill!
He dropped the bird, wrapped his fingers in his dirty T-shirt, and sobbed to the sky, “Oh, forgive me, Lord! Forgive me! I’ve sinned!”
His shoulders bobbed as he cried.
Seconds slipped into minutes. The breeze dried his tears and sent a tattered page of old newspaper sailing across the asphalt. Birds that lived in the rickety awning gained back confidence and flew in and out from nests hidden underneath. A wasp helicoptered passed, landed, and crawled through a rusted space along the siding.
Tommy stepped down from the cinderblock and stood in the alleyway feeling bewildered, confused; nearly giddy. No all-powerful hand of God had unhooked from the heavens, come down, and twisted his head as he had been warned would happen. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, the Bible preached.
He’d forsaken the Lord and received no punishment. Why had God allowed him to commit this act?
Tommy headed back around the front of Saint Anne’s, but not before slaughtering the other chicks in the nest. Something about the act made him feel stronger, superior; greater than the other orphans.
You will be God!
He believed what Jeffery said.
With this power, he could bring mommy back.
* * *
The bartender’s cigarette-scarred voice snapped Tommy from his reverie of childhood memories and fast-forwarded him into the present. Sights and sounds of the establishment returned in an infusion of noise and movement. The bar was even more crowded. People immersed in a dozens of separate conversations surrounded him. Smoke rolled around the ceiling. He looked down at his drink and forced his mind and eyes to fully adjust to reality.
“You okay, pal?” the bartender asked, seemingly annoyed at Tommy’s aloofness.
“I’m good,” Tommy answered, and reset his thought processes of why he was here.
He was a predator in search of prey. A woman. A man. It didn’t matter. He had to have another session. He ached for killing. Craved the feeling of power.
The faintest brush of air from behind told him someone was there. He turned his head slowly and his eyes connected with a woman. She was attractive, with an older more mature face and a few extra pounds stuffed into her tight red dress.
This one is perfect, Jeffery praised.
“Hi, I’m Trish,” the woman said, and looked around nervously. “This is a nice place, isn’t it? I like this bar. I work at a restaurant down the street.”
Tommy nodded and sipped his drink. He watched her, as she seemed to be searching for something else to say. For a long moment, she stood with a silly grin. Her face pinked with embarrassment.
“Do you come here a lot?” she said. “‘Cause I’ve never seen you before.”
Tommy shook his head.
“Okay, I get it,” she said. “You’re with someone. Sorry to bother you.”
Dance music suddenly exploded from hidden speakers. She raised her voice.
“Have a nice night.”
Tommy leaned close to speak into her ear. The scent of her flowery perfume drifted above the cigarette and alcohol stench. An electric-adrenaline-rush surged through him.
“I’m not with anyone,” he said. “I’d love some company. I’m Tommy.”
He held out his hand for her to shake. Trish’s face lit with a smile.
“Hello, Tommy,” she said. “Mind if I sit next to you?”
* * *
An hour flew by. They spent it talking, or more accurately, Trish did all of the talking. Tommy sat stone faced, listening to her spew the drivel of her life, his fingers clasped around the same drink, which had watered down long ago. Trish spoke about her waitress job and the quirky customers with whom she doted on. She bragged about her former high school achievements: captain of the swim team, member of the National Honor Society, straight-A student, voted most likely to succeed.
She ordered another drink, and told him how she had beaten breast cancer a few years back. How horrible the treatment was. How the chemotherapy had robbed her of energy and caused her hair to fall out. How it took months for the follicles to grow back.
She ordered another drink. And then another. Shortly thereafter, another. The bar thickened with smoke and new faces.
Trish’s movements became loose and more relaxed. Her skin flushed with inebriation. Her words became slurred.
Tommy noticed everything.
His session was drawing near.
Tommy feigned a yawn; bored with her endless prattle, but telling her he was getting tired. He suggested they go somewhere to talk. Trish agreed.
“I’ll take care of the drinks,” she said, giggled, and threw two twenties on the bar. “You take care of me.”
Tommy smiled, and took her arm in his. She gave his bicep a little squeeze and embraced it.
“Let’s go,” he said, and hustled her through the intoxicated bar crowd toward the door.