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Pretty little things, p.20
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       Pretty Little Things, p.20

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  ‘We don’t have a positive ID yet, but like I reported earlier, Sue, this is a developing story. FDLE is on scene. They’ve been here all day. Now they’re not releasing details other than what we learned this afternoon, but it’s definitely looking like those two sisters from Florida City. The biggest concern is this: Are we looking at a serial killer? Certainly, law enforcement doesn’t want a panic – Miami is still cringing from the notoriety that the brutal Cupid murders brought to the city a few years back. No one wants that publicity again, but two gruesome portraits, three dead bodies and multiple missing teens … No one can ignore what this is shaping up to look like.’

  ‘I’m Elbe Sanchez,’ said the little woman.

  ‘Do we have a serial killer …’ Felding continued, holding up a fistful of Runaway/Missing Children flyers and waving them around.

  The room began to spin. Slow at first, then faster.

  ‘… that is targeting teens or, perhaps more particularly, teenage runaways?’

  And faster.

  ‘If so, just how many victims might this Picasso have?’

  ‘Nurse? Can I see my son now? Is he all right?’

  And faster.

  ‘Nurse? Are you OK?’ Elbe asked again.

  Until it spun completely out of control.

  ‘Jesus!’ screamed someone in the waiting-room crowd.

  ‘Oh my God! Roger! Roger! I need a crash cart! LuAnn’s down!’

  Then the voices faded off and the darkness mercifully settled in.

  49

  ‘Miami, the city that forever made love synonymous with brutality, apparently has a new serial killer on the loose with another catchy nickname.’

  He stared at the TV and thoughtfully rubbed the scruff on his face. No shit. MSNBC. He took a deep breath. MSNBC. He looked at the bottom of the screen. MIAMI POLICE FIND BODIES OF TWO SISTERS BELIEVED TO BE VICTIMS OF SUSPECTED SERIAL KILLER, PICASSO. He was ticker-tape news on the bottom of the MSNBC screen …

  He was ticker tape news in Times Motherfucking Square!

  Cute anchor Chris Jansing was yapping about him, her pretty little pouty mouth trying so hard to look serious, yet he could see she was barely able to stifle a smile. And it wasn’t just MSNBC covering the story – although it was by far the biggest station he’d seen so far today. He was the top story at six on every local channel, too. People all around the country, from hokey Indiana to bustling LA, were standing around the water cooler right now, maybe, talking about him. Looking up at the bright lights of Broadway and reading about him. The magnitude of the situation was a bit overwhelming, but … the smile slipped out, taking over his whole face. It was easy to understand now the addictive, seductive appeal fame held. And why it was that starlets who complained the loudest about the paparazzi’s invasion of their precious privacy took it the hardest when the cameras weren’t camped outside their front door any more and their sweet faces weren’t gracing covers every week.

  Picasso. Not a bad comparison. Jeesh, he’d take that any day. Although anyone who knew anything about art knew that their two styles of painting couldn’t have been more different. Picasso was a surreal cubist – he painted choppy, abstract art that only mentals and geniuses professed they could understand. While he himself favored expressionism – a distortion of reality in art for emotional effect. But no matter – Pablo Picasso was more famous than Munch or Kandinsky anyway. As for nicknames, he hadn’t honestly given a thought as to what the press or the police might call him one day, or what his new moniker would sound like alongside other killers whose names lived in infamy: Jack the Ripper. Zodiac. The Green River Killer. The Boston Strangler. The Sunday Morning Slasher. Son of Sam. The Night Stalker. Cupid.

  And now, Picasso.

  Some men made an indelible impression on history. Some names you never, ever forgot. He wanted to be one of those names.

  He was already feeling, however, the effects of notoriety. He’d brought it on himself, no doubt. He’d gone and stuck a stick into a hornet’s nest, and they were out in full force looking for him now. No matter if they were looking in all the wrong places, there were still thousands of dangerous pests out there looking, and he had to be very careful. But he’d never been away from his collection for this long before, and he hoped none of them had, well, expired. That would really suck. Unless they were real pigs and had scarfed down everything he’d left out for them already, they should be fine. But he was finding that raising his fragile, eclectic collection was a lot like tending a garden – some flowers required more TLC, while others pretty much took care of themselves. Some bloomed early; some fell apart like an orchid when you touched them. After all the nurturing, the feeding, the watering – after all the motherfucking loving care you showed them day in and day out – sometimes a puddle of pretty petals and an ugly, scrawny stem was all you had left to show for your efforts at the end of the day. He definitely didn’t want to come home to that. Especially since he’d have nobody to blame but himself if his precious petunias dropped dead; neglect was strictly his fault. He needed to get back to them by the weekend. No matter what, he had to find a way through the growing swarm of angry pests …

  He was probably over-thinking his situation. By trying very hard not to underestimate his opponent he’d succeeded in giving them way too much credit; Miami’s finest were turning out not to be so exceptional after all. It took a homeless drunk to lead them to what they should have found with just a smidgen of due diligence, which most likely meant they weren’t picking up on any other clues, either. It was disappointing, no doubt about it. FDLE Special Agent Supervisor Robert Dees was supposed to be the crème de la crème. The Shepherd that everyone runs to whenever a lamb goes missing from the flock – so says People magazine about 2008’s Hero Among Us. Bobby Dees was the man who was supposed to make the hunt a little more interesting, a little more exciting because he was sooo good at what he did. Well, so far he wasn’t impressed. Not at all. It was like playing chess against the latest NASA computer and always winning. Either you were really, really smart, or the mythical, magical, all-powerful computer was a lot dumber than you’d given it credit for.

  He dunked an Oreo into his warm milk and turned his attention back to the computer. He was feeling lonely, all dressed up with nowhere to go, with hornets buzzing right outside his door. It was time to see what mischief big-boned Shelley and her pretty pink butterfly were up to. With just a few clicks of the mouse, he opened the gates to the tank and surreptitiously swam out on to the internet, navigating past parental controls and protective firewalls. All around him, scrumptious little fishies were IMing and sending pictures and swapping OMGs. He could practically hear their squeaky chatter. Millions of excited young voices, screaming and squealing and yapping – spreading their new wings over the big, bad internet. Out to prove to Mom, Dad, Grandma and themselves that there was nothing to worry about on the World Wide Web. No sexual predators on their buddy lists; they’d be able to spot a poser a mile away. All they were looking for was to make some new friends and have a good time.

  Within moments he’d found exactly who he was looking for. With invisible hands he unzipped her dress, unhooked her bra and slipped, undetected inside her computer, his skilled fingers probing through her applications till he found just the right switch. Then he sat back in his seat and finished his cookie just as sweet Shelley walked across his screen in her pink polka-dot Jenni jammies, her hair twisted in a towel turban, yapping away on a phone. Her bed was unmade and clothes were strewn all over her messy lilac bedroom. He picked crumbs out of the hair on his tummy and leaned over the keyboard.

  ElCapitan says: hi shell. r u online?

  A few seconds later he had her undivided attention.

  He smiled. He just loved home movies.

  50

  ‘How long do you think he’ll be gone for? I mean, do you think he’s ever coming back?’ Lainey asked, her cheek pressed to the cool, mildew-smelling wall. She was losing her voice.

  ‘Don’t kno
w. Maybe he had an accident,’ Katy answered back. ‘I hope to God it hurt.’ The thought had occurred to Katy that the freak might not be coming back at all. That he had just left them in this hellhole – wherever it was – to rot and die. At first she was OK with that because it was better than what she faced if he came back. It was better than listening to the screams down the hall. Or smelling the nauseating stink of paint. Or feeling his sticky fingers on her skin. Now all she heard was quiet; all she smelled was her own stink in the corner. Then she got to thinking about the possibility that he really might not be coming back. She started to think about slowly starving to death in the darkness and how that would feel. And while death seemed preferable to living her life out in a blind dungeon, if he never came back, and she did die here, she’d started to consider the possibility that no one would ever find her body. Would her poor mother ever know what had really happened to her? Or would her parents think for years that she was living it up in Vegas or LA or New York? Would she rot like a mummy and wither to bones, only to be dug up in a century or two and studied by some dinosaur hunter who would wonder aloud why the hell she was buried where she was?

  ‘How’s your tunnel coming?’ Lainey asked. ‘Can you feel the other side of the wall?’

  ‘I hit rock.’

  ‘Oh. Are you quitting?’

  ‘No way.’ Katy lightly clenched her fists. She felt her raw fingertips rub against her palm, the nails broken, jagged stubs. They’d been bleeding for what felt like days. ‘I’m just going around it. This may be our only way out if he doesn’t come back. How’s your tunnel?’

  ‘I stopped. My fingers hurt too much.’

  ‘Lainey …’

  ‘I wanna go home, Katy. I don’t want to dig tunnels I’ll never fit through.’

  ‘Think positive.’

  ‘Don’t you want to go home, Katy?’

  Katy closed her eyes. She didn’t like to talk about home. It hurt too much. ‘Yeah. That’s why I’m digging. Wishing you were home, warm in your bed, doesn’t fly, Lainey. There’s no wizard here to grant you your wish when clicking your heels don’t work.’ She sighed and sat back against the wall. ‘Tell me about your brother again. What’s it like to have a brother? And why was he called Bradley Brat?’

  ‘I don’t remember any more. I don’t remember why I called him a brat,’ Lainey whispered back. ‘Or why he made me mad so much. I just miss him. I can’t believe I’m saying that. I miss Brad. I miss him coming into my room and stealing my comics because he’s scared of the thunderstorm and he wants to read them under the covers. I miss his stupid, snorty laugh when he thinks something’s really funny. I used to think he was faking, but now I know it’s real.’

  ‘And your mom? Tell me about your mom.’

  ‘She’s probably really upset, but not telling anyone, you know? She’s gotta hold it in. She always does. We weren’t getting along, you know, like I told you, when this happened. And Liza – you know, my sister – she’s run away before and my mom was really pissed. She told her once not to bother coming home any more if she did it again. And Liza, well, you know, she probably doesn’t even know I’m gone, she’s always so busy. She has lots of boyfriends and stuff, so …’ Lainey broke off and rubbed her bandaged eyes. ‘She’s probably still mad that I took her jeans and her make-up.’

  ‘I wish I could re-do things,’ Katy said softly. ‘Do a do-over, you know? I thought things were so bad at home. Isn’t that funny? But sometimes you have to see the really bad to know what’s good. I fucked things up at home. It was my fault. It’s just too late to do anything about it.’

  ‘Don’t say that!’ Lainey yelled at the top of her lungs.

  There was a long silence.

  ‘Do you think anyone is looking for us, Katy? Do you think anybody even cares?’

  Katy rubbed away the tears on her cheeks with her shredded, bloody fingertips. There was no way she was gonna answer that, either in her head or out loud. She felt around for the hole she had started long ago. Her fingers caught on the rough limestone and she followed it with her hands till she felt the sharp drop-off into what she hoped was just plain dirt. She dug her hands in and began to feverishly tunnel, ignoring the pain in her fingers, the ache in her back, the grumble in her stomach, the fear in her heart. ‘That’s why we need to get the hell out of here, Lainey,’ she whispered. ‘And we need to get out of here now.’

  51

  ‘Where is she?’ Bobby asked as soon as he opened the front door to his house. Charlotte Knox, a close friend of LuAnn’s from the hospital, was sitting on a chair in the dimly lit living room, a People magazine on her lap, waiting for him. Nilla met him at the door with a tail thwap and a howl.

  ‘She’s sleeping in the family room, on the couch,’ Charlotte replied, with her finger to her lips. She stood up and gathered her purse. ‘She’s not so good.’

  ‘What the hell happened, Charlotte? They won’t tell me anything at the hospital. I flew here as soon as you called –’

  ‘She’s gonna be OK, Bobby. They did a dozen tests, and it looks like she just fainted. But she hit her head on a chair on the way down, so she’ll have a shiner and a nasty headache when she wakes up. She whacked it hard enough for a concussion, so she has to take it easy for a couple of days and see the doc before they let her go back to work.’

  ‘Fainted? Jesus … what?’

  ‘Don’t know. One minute she’s plucking asphalt out of the back of a motorcycle accident victim, the next she’s down in the middle of the ER waiting room. She was only out for a few minutes. She didn’t want to alarm you while they did tests.’ Charlotte’s voice lowered. ‘I see you’re on that big case. It’s been all over the news today.’

  ‘This was her idea not to call me?’

  ‘She didn’t want to scare you, is all.’

  Bobby, it’s Deirdre. Dispatch just put a call through from someone at Broward General looking for you. I picked up. I … I don’t know how to say this. Something’s happened to your wife, Bobby.

  He shook his head and looked past Charlotte in the direction of the family room. His hands were still shaking. ‘Too late, Charlotte.’

  ‘She’s gonna kill me when she finds out I called you. I just didn’t want her to come in tomorrow like nothing ever happened. She’s been working way too much. I think the girl’s plain exhausted.’

  ‘You did the right thing, Charlotte,’ Bobby said, walking her to the door. ‘She’s been under a lot of stress.’

  ‘Obviously,’ Charlotte said as she headed down the front walk to her car. ‘Take care of our girl. Goodnight, Bobby.’

  The family room was dark. In the kitchen, which opened on to the family room, only the light above the stove was on. Still, with the moonlight filtering through the palm trees outside, he could make out her small frame on the oversized navy blue chenille couch. She was curled up like a baby. A cotton ball was taped to the crook of her elbow. Another was on her wrist, presumably where they’d taken blood and run an IV. Right below that was her hospital patient ID.

  ‘Hey there,’ he said in a hushed voice as he knelt beside her, pulling the old knitted throw back up over her shoulders. He stroked a piece of her long blonde hair off her cheek and saw the black stitches over her left eye, which was swollen and already bruised. A raw-looking red scrape ran across her cheek. It must have been one hell of a fall.

  LuAnn opened her eyes and looked at him. ‘She told you,’ she murmured.

  ‘You should’ve called me, Belle. What happened?’

  LuAnn’s eyes welled up and she suddenly started to cry.

  ‘Honey, honey. What is it, Lu?’ he asked as he scooped her up in his arms and held her head against his chest. ‘Is it bad? Jesus … Did the doctors tell you something bad?’

  She shook her head.

  ‘Then what is it, honey?’

  She shook her head again.

  ‘You’re gonna be OK, Belle. Everything’ll be all right.’ He stroked the hair off her face and tried to find
her eyes. ‘Why didn’t you call me?’

  ‘I saw it on the news. I know, Bobby,’ she managed, her voice barely a whisper.

  ‘Saw what?’

  ‘That reporter on the runaway case you have. I saw him.’

  ‘LuAnn …’

  ‘I want the truth. I want you to tell me. Does he have her? This killer, Picasso?’

  ‘What? LuAnn …’

  ‘Does he have her?’ she barked. Then she buried her head in his shoulder. ‘Does he have my girl?’

  LuAnn was normally so composed. So much so that she could come across as cold to some, especially since Katy left. Bobby knew it hurt for her to talk about their daughter – about what had gone so wrong in between the bottle feedings and adolescence – so they never did. But seeing LuAnn break down this way was awkward, not because he didn’t want to hold her, not because he didn’t want to listen and tell her to get it all out, not because he didn’t want to tell her he had the same exact fears as her, but because he knew she didn’t want him to see it. He knew tomorrow she would likely regret her indiscretion, and cold might turn to freezing.

  ‘No, Belle. He doesn’t have her. She ran away, is all. She’s somewhere with Ray, but I know she’s safe. I know she is. She’s been gone far too long to be a victim of this guy. She’s too smart. And I don’t know where this reporter is coming off, saying it’s a serial or that our bad guy is targeting runaways. He’s trying to make headlines, is all. He’s trying to make a career for himself.’

  ‘Bobby, it can’t be her.’

  ‘She ran away with Ray. She’s with him.’

  ‘Tell me I’m not a bad mother. Oh God, tell me it wasn’t me. Lie, if you have to. I just need to hear it …’

  ‘Jesus, Lu, it wasn’t you. Why would you think that?’

  ‘It was me she ran from, Bobby. Me. I was too strict. I made her cheer and she didn’t like it. I made her study and kept her home on Friday nights sometimes. I told her I hated that boy. I told her he was no good for her, that he was a loser and trailer trash and a druggie, and she left. She left because of me …’

 
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