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Pretty little things, p.16
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       Pretty Little Things, p.16

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  The bartender brought him over more peanuts without saying a word. He loved Dave & Busters. The food was great, but the concept was what kept him coming back. An eclectic family-themed restaurant emporium with an attached arcade, complete with pool tables, Nothing But Net basketball hoops, batting cages, Dance Dance Revolution, Derby simulators. Any game – from PacMan to Ghost Squad – if you wanted to play it, it was there. And it wasn’t just kids’ stuff. The arcade had an enormous fully stocked bar in the middle of it with all sorts of fun drinks, like the Melontini or the Snow Cone. He looked around him at the half-empty bar. At the girls sipping blue drinks with umbrellas and pineapple wedges. Getting looped on blue curacao and Bacardi Limón before they got their cherries popped in the backseat of boyfriend’s car, never realizing just how potent the blue sweet stuff could be, till the next morning when they woke up wearing no underwear with their shirts on backwards.

  He spotted her then at the far end of the Skee Ball lanes, just like she said she’d be on her blog. Long pink neon ringlets framed her pale face, contrasting with her otherwise straight, jet-black mane. Tall and, as his mother would politely say, ‘big-boned’ – which was a euphemism for chubby. An Amazon. Not his normal choice of fare, but he sometimes liked to switch things up to keep it all interesting. He definitely had a weakness for blondes, so it was time for another brunette. And while Shelley didn’t sport a supermodel waist, that could be fun, too. He could invent a whole new series of games to play just with her. She was certainly no Lainey, that was a fact. But Lainey was special. She was different, so there was no sense comparing. Earring hoops ran up Shelley’s ear; one hung from her lower lip. He could see her tramp stamp, even from across the room. The brilliantly colored butterfly that ran up her back, and down her too-tight jeans. Everything about Shelley screamed, ‘Notice me!’ And he had. His hand began to tremble, sloshing the liquor on to his thumb. He licked it off and glanced at his watch. A little late, but at least she was here. Just like she’d said she’d be.

  She looked exactly like her profile page. It wasn’t all that surprising – at sixteen or seventeen there was nothing yet to hide, no image that needed a desperate makeover from a rough past. That was why he loved this age; it was so very honest. In the future, he suspected Shelley Longo would want to run from her piercings and tattoos and easy reputation that he was sure she’d justly earned. She would look back on her troubled childhood and, like so many others, creatively rewrite it. Here it was, past midnight on a Monday night and young Shelley was out partying hard, sneaking a sip of cocktail from one of her hoodlum friends, high as a kite on some shit, flaunting her tats and not a parent in sight. He knew the type, he could spot them in an instant in a chat room, at the mall, in an arcade. It’s almost like he could smell them. Vulnerable loners, left alone to grow up, looking for friendship anywhere they could find it and from anyone who would offer it. Even from vultures like him.

  He watched her bend and pick up the balls, laughing and throwing her mane around, wrapping her lips seductively around the beer the horny bartender had just sent over with a smile. He felt himself getting hard, and wondered if she would recognize him from their little chat yesterday in the World of Warcraft White Wolf chat room. He imagined what she would look like as an addition to his collection. If she’d fit in. He imagined himself painting her full face, how he would capture on canvas the shaking of that nasty silver ring on her lower lip when she screamed.

  But tonight was not about mistakes or acting on impulse. He was here to look, that was all. And even that was real risky. Being out at all now was risky, with all the attention he was getting. The hard-on disappeared. That was how the best got caught – being stupid. He was probably being paranoid thinking people were watching him. Or narcissistic. The dipshit anchor had already moved on to Terrible Tragedy Numero Quatro. He sipped at his drink and casually looked around, out at the world that was just beyond that closet door. No one was looking at him. No one was staring to see if they knew him. Or recognized him. To see if his face was famous or infamous. No one gave even a second thought that the person one barstool over, sharing a smile and a drink with them, might actually be … not right. That he might just be a psychopathic murderer, who had a weakness for, well, pretty little things. No one worried that the hand they had inadvertently touched en route to the peanuts was the same hand that had made news tonight.

  He grabbed his coat and put a very nice tip on the bar. He took one final glance around and downed his drink with a mouthful of warm, coppery blood. Nope. No one was looking at him. No one was even looking at the TV.

  He held the smile in check as he headed through the late-night crowd and passed by the busy Skee Ball lanes. The tips of his fingers lightly brushed the warm wings of her brilliantly colored butterfly as he made his way through the narrow swathe of young bodies and headed out the door. He felt the electricity run up his arm like a current. He mumbled an apology for his indiscretion, but she didn’t even acknowledge the slight. She just kept on laughing.

  No one cared. No one at all.

  Not yet.

  39

  Lainey lay on the dirt floor, curled up in the tightest, smallest ball possible, her hands covering her ears. Her favorite song played over and over in her head. ‘The Sweet Escape’ by Gwen Stefani. How she wished her mind could just escape, could just recreate a whole new world, like the song said. If only she could leave this tomb that reeked of old earth and mildew and human rot that she was trapped in, for even a few minutes. But there was no escape. Even her dreams had been replaced with nightmares.

  She wasn’t sure how long she had been lying there, singing the same song over and over again. Time had no meaning any more. Minutes could be hours. Or even days. Or weeks, maybe.

  Slowly she sat up, listening hard. Silence. There were no footsteps. No creaking floors. The ghostly scratching had finally stopped. And the voices … were they real? She shook her head, reaching cautiously in the darkness to feel where she was. To make sure she was, indeed, alone. She was so hungry. And thirsty. Her hand fell on something in the corner. Something smooth and bulky and large. It felt like a stuffed bag. Her hand felt around till she found an opening. She dipped her hand inside. It was filled with little, hard … pebbles?

  ‘Are you still there?’ whispered the voice. It was coming from the wall.

  Lainey immediately curled up again on the floor and started to cry. ‘No, no, no …’

  ‘Listen! Listen! Don’t start singing again,’ said the voice in the wall. ‘Just talk to me.’

  Lainey sucked in a sniffle.

  ‘Talk to me. It’s OK. It’ll be all right.’ It was a girl’s voice. ‘Don’t cry. I’m here, too. You’re not alone.’

  ‘What?’ Lainey whispered back.

  ‘Just talk to me. I need to talk to someone. I’m going crazy here. And then you were singing …’

  ‘Where are you?’ Lainey asked, her hand lightly touching the cold wall.

  ‘I don’t know. In a closet, I guess. A room, like you. Right?’

  ‘Right,’ Lainey said softly. She pressed her face up against the wall.

  ‘Who are you? What’s your name?’ asked the girl.

  ‘Lainey. I’m Lainey. My name’s Lainey. He took me.’ The moment completely overwhelmed her and she started to cry again.

  ‘He took all of us. He’s bad. He’s a really bad man.’

  ‘Us?’

  ‘Yes. There are more of us. Down here, somewhere. I hear them in the walls.’

  ‘I can’t see,’ Lainey blubbered. ‘He did something to my eyes. I think I’m blind!’

  ‘It’s just bandages. Bandages and tape. You can try and take it off, but you won’t see anything anyway. There’re no lights down here. And you’ll rip your lashes out. If he finds out you peeked, he’ll use glue.’

  A shiver ran up her spine. Just when she thought words couldn’t get more horrible, they did.

  ‘I don’t care, though,’ the girl said defiantly. ‘I took mi
ne off. That’s what I’m saying, you can’t see anything anyway.’

  ‘But you said he would hurt you …’

  ‘I don’t care any more. Let him try. At least I’ll see him coming at me. I won’t be a sitting duck, like …’ But she stopped herself.

  ‘How many of you are there?’ Lainey asked.

  ‘I don’t know. I only know the girls I’ve heard, like you, in the walls. I’ve talked to three others. Eva, Jackie, Adrianna.’

  ‘Where are they?’

  There was a long pause. The girl sounded like she was choking up, but holding it in. ‘I don’t know. I haven’t talked to them in a long time. What’s your sign?’

  ‘What?’

  ‘When’s your birthday?’

  ‘Um, August. August twenty-seventh. Why?’

  ‘You’re a Virgo. I knew it.’

  Lainey didn’t say anything back.

  ‘He’s been gone for a while, this time,’ the girl continued. ‘When he puts me in here, he’s gone for a long time, but this time it’s been really long.’

  ‘I’m hungry,’ Lainey said.

  ‘He leaves a bag of food in the corner. Have you found it? And water bottles. Feel around.’

  ‘What is it? It feels like the bags my mom buys Rosey. She’s my dog. It feels like dog chow.’

  ‘It is dog food. Have you found the water bottles?’

  There was no way she was eating dog food. No way. She felt around some more. ‘Yeah. I feel them. There’s a stack of them. How long have you been here?’ Lainey asked, twisting off the cap and sniffing it. It smelled like nothing.

  ‘Don’t know. Longer than most, I think.’

  Lainey took a long drink of water. It tasted so good. She practically finished the entire bottle in one gulp. It reminded her again just how hungry she was. She raised a piece of kibble up to her nose and sniffed. It didn’t smell that bad. ‘Who are you?’ she asked finally, as she tried a little taste with the very tip of her tongue. ‘I mean, what’s your name?’

  There was a long pause. ‘Katy,’ the girl replied softly. ‘My name’s Katy.’

  40

  Anyone in the television business would tell you to get the fuck out of the television business. Mark Felding included. The politics. The bullshit. The long hours. The arbitrary and all too infrequent success stories that most times you knew had nothing to do with talent. TV news was no different; no longer was broadcast journalism above the sleazy world of showbiz and celebrity and the all-important rating. Exposing corrupt local politicians was no more honorable than working staff over at the Disney Channel. Perhaps the game had been changing face for a long time, but with the economy officially in a downward spiral, the bottom line suddenly cut prestigious journalism careers short now, and, like it or not, big boobs and blindingly white smiles were what opened doors for the new crop of cheap labor graduating from broadcasting schools. At the ripe age of forty-two, the outlook was bleak for an ‘old timer’ like Mark and after twelve years in a business that he’d personally watched take a change for the worse at six different stations, he knew it was time for him to shit or get off the pot.

  Mark had seen the handwriting on the wall for a while: The dramatic drop in airtime for his stories; the cut in research staff; the hiring of inexperienced freelance investigative reporters, the YouTubeization of news in general – where yahoos with camcorders replaced veteran professionals and ENGs. He’d had to work harder and harder to pull together insightful stories, only to see some green, twenty-something, steal three minutes’ worth of airtime with mindless drivel on the dangers of not removing lint from your dryer. It was a most depressing situation, but Mark had vowed he wasn’t gonna be bitter. He was gonna get out, that’s what he was gonna do. That was the Master Plan. And he was gonna leave before someone told him to go.

  So it was real funny sometimes how fate twisted frowns into smiles. Just last week he’d been contemplating writing true-crime novels on a back porch in the Ozarks when along came the Story That Makes a Career. What had started out as a ‘cliché’ investigative report into teenage runaways had led to the full-blooded craziness of the past week. And a steroidal shot in the arm for his aching career. Now here he was, John Travolta – back in the game again, with a chance at going all the way …

  News ratings at WTVJ had shot way up, beating CBS4 and WSVN 7 in the eleven o’clock slot the night after Gale Sampson’s body was found at the Regal. And every night thereafter. In a biz where ratings measured success, that was huge. And, in his producer’s opinion, directly attributable to the fact that the station’s now star field reporter, Mark Felding, had the inside track on the Picasso murder, as it was being called. At first it felt a little opportunistic to be personally benefiting from such tragedy, but Mark had gotten over it. After all, Hurricane Andrew had launched Bryan Norcross from obscurity as a local weatherman into a nationally recognized meteorologist while most of his Miami audience was still living under a blue tarp without electricity or water – and no one had held it against him.

  Mark’s reward from the station for helping win the ratings crown was a Monday and Wednesday weekly three-minute special segment called ‘Ask Mark’, a self-help crime-prevention program that his producer was originally going to try out on one of those green twenty-somethings. How to Recognize a Sex Predator, How to Defend Yourself Against a Rapist, How to Prevent ID Theft, that sort of thing. It wasn’t anchor, but it was a regular gig. An opportunity to make a name for himself. And that was more than Mark had ever had before.

  Not wanting to fuck up, he’d spent most of the morning working on his script for Wednesday’s first shooting. Then he’d gotten caught up in some research, and before he knew it, it was thirteen minutes till call time. They only had an hour of studio, so every second counted, and since HD was no one’s friend, he definitely had to stop by make-up.

  ‘Felding! Yo, Mark!’

  Mark recognized the voice behind him as he hurried past the newsroom and down the hall. It was Terry Walsh from the mailroom. Walking backwards, he yelled, ‘Hey there, Terry! I’m in a rush –’

  ‘You got a package that won’t fit in your box,’ called Terry, who was a dead ringer for Jerry Garcia. He was pushing a gray mail cart and waving an oversized yellow envelope in his hand. ‘You want me to put it on your desk?’

  Mark stopped walking. His heart began to pound. He was expecting some videotapes from archives on other self-help segments. Maybe that was what Terry was talking about. Maybe the yellow envelope wasn’t for him. ‘What’s that, Terry?’

  Terry waved the envelope again. ‘I don’t know, dude. It came in today. Must’ve been hand delivered. It’s got your name on it, but it won’t fit in your box. It doesn’t want to really bend.’ He tried to fold the envelope to demonstrate.

  ‘No! No!’ Mark yelled, running back down the hall, his hand outstretched as if Terry was holding a bomb and playing with the red and blue wires. ‘Don’t! Don’t touch it!’

  Terry stepped back. ‘OK, man,’ he answered with a shrug, handing the envelope over.

  Mark’s heart was beating so hard he thought it might explode. Scenes from his two favorite shows, CSI and Law and Order, flew through his head. What should he do? He shouldn’t flip. That’s what he shouldn’t do. He should look at the envelope, that’s what he should do. No need to panic. He turned the envelope over in his hand. No special markings. Just a plain computer-printed label that said ‘WTVJ 6 Investigative Reporter Mark Felding’ pasted on the front. He squeezed the package slightly. It felt stiff and bulky. Bumpy in spots. He sniffed at the flap. It smelled like paint.

  He looked at his watch and pulled out his cell. He dialed his producer with shaking fingers as he headed back to his office. ‘Paul, it’s Mark,’ he said when it went to voicemail. He tried hard to tame the excitement that was building in his voice, but it probably didn’t work. ‘I’m afraid I won’t be able to tape today. Something’s come up. Something really big, I think.’

  41

&nbs
p; The two girls were seated face-to-face on the floor, pressed close together in a twisted embrace, their wrists chained together at their sides, their butchered faces turned to face the artist. Black sockets existed where their eyes should have been. Red tears flowed down their cheeks to their distorted open mouths, forever immortalized with thick strokes of paint into bone-chilling screams.

  The macabre painting of two screaming blonde females had been made into a poster-sized crime-scene photo that was now tacked on to a new corkboard that completely dominated a wall in the Crimes Against Children squad bay. Hung next to it was the picture of the Gale Sampson painting that had come in last week. Below that were photos from the Sampson crime scene taken at the Regal All-Suites. Two MEPIC flyers were thumb-tacked below the screaming blondes, but there were no crimescene photos posted there. Not yet. As of ten a.m. Friday, all they had was another brutal portrait.

  ‘The painting’s at the lab,’ Bobby said to the men seated at the conference table that had been set up in the Crimes Against Children squad bay: Zo, Frank Veso, and CAC Special Agents Ciro Acevedo and Larry Vastine. If this latest work of grisly art turned out to be a painting of another crime scene, assembling a task force would be his first priority. But even without two more bodies, Bobby knew that was exactly what he was looking at – a crime scene. So he figured it would be in the public’s interest to get the best brains in on the investigation now. With that in mind, he’d brought in Vastine and Acevedo and contacted the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office for legal assistance. ASA Stephanie Gravano was now officially assigned part-time to assist the soon-to-be formed task force with legal matters, like warrants and subpoenas. If more bodies were found in jurisdictions outside the City of Miami, where Gale Sampson was found, then members of those police departments would join the task force as well, along with members of departments where the victims had gone missing from.

 
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