Criminal, p.32
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       Criminal, p.32

           Karin Slaughter
 

  “At first it was the young one. She said her name was Kitty. She seemed nice enough. She gave candy to some of the children, which was allowed until we realized what she was doing up there.”

  “And then?” Amanda asked.

  “And then another woman moved in. This was at least a year and a half ago, mind you. The second girl was white, too. Looked very similar to Kitty. I never got her name. Her visitors were not as discreet.”

  “Is that the woman you saw through your window tonight? Kitty?”

  “No, a third one. I’ve not seen Kitty in a while. Nor have I seen the second one in some time. These girls are very transitory.” She paused, then added, “Lord help them. It’s a difficult path they’ve chosen.”

  Amanda remembered the licenses she’d tucked into her purse. She unzipped her bag and pulled them out. “Do you recognize any of these girls?”

  The old woman took the licenses. Her reading glasses were neatly folded on the side table, resting atop a well-read Bible. They all watched as she unfolded the glasses, slid them onto her face. Carefully, Miss Lula studied each license, giving each girl her undivided attention. “This one,” she said, holding out the license for Kathryn Treadwell. “This is Kitty, but I assume you know that by her name.”

  Amanda said, “We’ve been led to believe that Kitty was renting out the space to other girls.”

  “Yes, that would make sense.”

  “Did you ever talk to her?”

  “Once. She seemed to think very highly of herself. Apparently, her father is very politically connected.”

  “She said that to you?” Evelyn asked. “Kitty told you who her father was?”

  “Not in so many words, but yes. She made it clear she didn’t really belong here. But then, do any of us?”

  Amanda couldn’t answer the question. “Do the other girls look familiar?”

  The woman scanned the license again. She held up Jane Delray’s. “The quality of men changed quite a bit for this one. She was not as discriminating as—” She held up Mary Halston’s photo. “This one had a lot of repeat customers, though I would not call them gentlemen. She’s the girl out back.” She read the name. “Donna Mary Halston. Such a pretty name considering the things she did.”

  Amanda heard Evelyn suck in her breath. They were both thinking of the same question. Amanda asked, “You said Mary had repeat business?”

  “Yes, that’s correct.”

  “Did you ever see a white man who was about six feet tall, sandy blond hair, long sideburns, wearing a sharply tailored suit, probably in some shade of blue?”

  Miss Lula glanced at Deena. When she handed back the licenses to Amanda, her expression was blank. “I’ll have to think on that. Let me get back to you tomorrow.”

  Amanda felt her brow furrow. Either the wine was wearing off or the tea was kicking in. Miss Lula’s apartment was at the end of the hallway. It was at least ten yards from the stairwell, even farther from the back door. Unless the old woman spent her days sitting behind the building, there was no way she could note the comings and goings of the girls or their visitors.

  Amanda opened her mouth to speak, but Deena interrupted her.

  “Miss Lula,” she said. “We appreciate your time. You’ve got my number. Get back to me on that question.” She put her saucer down on the tray. When Evelyn and Amanda didn’t move, she grabbed their teacups and placed them beside hers. “We can let ourselves out.” She did everything but clap her hands to get them moving.

  Amanda led the way, clutching her purse to her chest. She was going to turn to say goodbye, but Deena pushed them out the door.

  The hallway had emptied. Still Amanda kept her voice low. “How could she—”

  “Give her until tomorrow,” Deena said. “She’ll find out whether or not your mystery man was here.”

  “But how could she—”

  “She’s the queen bee,” Deena told her, leading them up the hallway. She didn’t stop until she reached the exit door. They stood in the same spot where Rick Landry had threatened Evelyn. “What Miss Lula told you isn’t what she’s seen. It’s what she’s heard.”

  “But she didn’t—”

  “Rule number one of the ghetto: find the oldest biddy been around the longest. She’s the one running the place.”

  “Well,” Evelyn said, “I did wonder why she had a shotgun under the couch.”

  Amanda asked, “What?”

  “That thing was loaded, too.” Deena pushed open the door.

  The crime scene was cordoned off with yellow tape. There were no lights back here, or at least no lights that were functioning. The bulbs on the light poles had all been broken, probably with rocks. Six patrolmen took care of the problem. They stood in a ring around the body, the butts of their Kel-Lites resting on their shoulders to illuminate the area.

  The grounds behind the building were as desolate as the front. Red Georgia clay was packed hard by the constant pounding of bare feet. There were no flowers back here. No grass. One lone tree stood with its tired branches hanging down. Just below the tree was the body. Pete Hanson blocked the view with his wide frame. Beside him was a young man of about the same height and stature. Like Pete, he was wearing a white lab coat. He tapped Pete on the shoulder and nodded toward the women.

  Pete stood up. He had a grim look on his face. “Detectives. I’m glad you’re here, though I say that with reservations given the circumstances.” He indicated the young man. “This is one of my pupils, Dr. Ned Taylor.”

  Taylor gave them a stern nod. Even in the low illumination, Amanda could see the green tint to his skin. He looked as if he might be ill. Evelyn wasn’t much better.

  Deena suggested, “Pete, why don’t you run Amanda through this?”

  Amanda supposed she should feel proud of her lack of squeamishness, but it was starting to feel like one more secret she would have to keep about herself.

  Evelyn volunteered, “I’ll go check the apartment. Maybe Butch and Landry missed something.”

  Deena harrumphed. “I’d bet my next paycheck on it.”

  “This way, my dear.” Pete cupped his hand beneath Amanda’s elbow as he led her toward the dead woman. The six officers holding flashlights seemed puzzled that Amanda was there, though none of them asked questions, probably in deference to Pete.

  “If you would?” Pete got down on one knee, then helped Amanda kneel beside him. She smoothed down her skirt so that her knees would not grind against the dirt. Her heels were going to get scuffed. She hadn’t exactly dressed for this.

  Pete said, “Tell me what you see.”

  The victim was face down. Her long blonde hair draped down her shoulders and back. She was wearing a black miniskirt and red T-shirt. Her hand rested on the ground a few inches from her face. The nails were polished bright red.

  Amanda said, “Same as the other victim. All ten fingernails expertly manicured.”

  “Correct.” Pete pulled back the woman’s stringy blonde hair. “Neck’s bruised, though I’m going to guess the hyoid wasn’t broken.”

  “She wasn’t strangled to death?”

  “I believe there’s something else going on.” He pulled up the red T-shirt. There was a line of injuries down the woman’s side, almost like a dress seam had been ripped open. “These lacerations run the length of her body.”

  Amanda saw the pattern duplicated on the girl’s leg. She had mistaken the damage for the seam in a pair of stockings. Likewise, the outside of the victim’s arms showed the marks. It was like a McCall’s pattern, where someone had tried to tear apart the stitches joining the front to the back of her body.

  Amanda asked, “What—who—would do that?”

  “Two very good questions. Unfortunately, my answer to both is that I have no idea.”

  Amanda didn’t so much ask as wonder aloud, “You told Deena to call us, to get us here.”

  “Yes. The manicured fingernails were similar. The setting. I thought there was more, but upon further examination
…” He started to pull up the miniskirt, then changed his mind. “I must warn you, even I was startled. I haven’t seen this in a few years.”

  Amanda shook her head. “What do you mean?”

  He pulled up the skirt. There was a knitting needle between the girl’s legs.

  Amanda didn’t need to be coached this time. Automatically, she found herself taking deep breaths, filling her lungs, then slowly pushing out all the air.

  Pete shook his head. “There’s absolutely no reason for a girl to have to do this anymore.”

  Amanda noticed, “There’s no blood.”

  Pete sat back on his heels. “No, there’s not.”

  “You would expect to see blood, wouldn’t you? From the knitting needle?”

  “Yes.” Pete pushed open the legs. One of the officers moved back a step. He nearly tripped over a broken tree limb. There were a couple of nervous laughs, but the man righted himself without incident. He trained the beam of his flashlight on the victim’s legs.

  Pasty white thighs. No blood.

  Amanda asked, “Are her fingerprints on the knitting needle?”

  Despite the circumstances, Pete smiled at her. “None. It was wiped clean.”

  “She didn’t do this to herself.”

  “Not likely. She’s been cleaned up. Someone brought her here.”

  “The same place our other victim was found.”

  “Not exactly, but close.” He pointed to a spot several feet away. “Lucy Bennett was found over there.”

  Amanda looked back up at the building. Miss Lula’s apartment was on the far end. She couldn’t see the tree from her window. She certainly couldn’t see where Jane Delray was found. Deena was right. There was someone else—or a series of someone elses—who’d seen everything but were too afraid to tell.

  “Ned,” Pete called. “Take her feet, I’ll get her shoulders.”

  The young doctor did as he was instructed. Carefully, they rolled the victim over onto her back.

  Amanda looked at the girl’s face. The damage was incomprehensible. Her eyelids were shredded. Her mouth was torn to pieces. Still, there was enough left to recognize her. Amanda unzipped her purse and found the license, which she handed to Pete.

  “Donna Mary Halston,” he read. “Lives here?” He looked up at the building. “Top floor, I’m assuming. Same as Lucy Bennett.”

  Amanda shuffled through the licenses and found Lucy Bennett’s. She handed this to Pete and waited.

  “Hm.” He studied the photo carefully. He was obviously mindful of the six patrolmen when he told Amanda, “This girl is unfamiliar to me.”

  Amanda handed him Jane Delray’s license.

  Again, he studied the photo. A deep sigh came out like a groan. “Yes, this one I recognize.” He handed both licenses back to Amanda. “Now what?”

  She shook her head. It felt good to have Pete weigh in on the identities, but his validation wasn’t going to change much.

  The back door opened. Evelyn shook her head. “Nothing in the apartment. It’s still a mess, but I don’t think anyone’s—” She stopped. Amanda followed her gaze to the knitting needle. Evelyn put her hand to her mouth. Instead of turning away, she looked up at the tree. Then she looked down at the girl again.

  “What is it?” Amanda asked. Something was obviously wrong. She stood up and joined Evelyn. It was the same as the construction paper puzzle. Sometimes a change in perspective was all it took.

  The tree limb was broken. The girl lay on the ground. Her child had been aborted.

  “Oh, my God.” Amanda realized, “Ophelia.”

  nineteen

  Present Day

  SUZANNA FORD

  The darkness. The cold. The noise.

  Air sucking in and out, like a car zooming through a tunnel.

  She couldn’t take it anymore. Her body ached. Her mouth was dry. Her stomach was so empty that she felt as if the acids were eating a hole in her belly.

  Meth.

  That was what had brought her here. Brought her low. She had fallen too far. She had put herself in the gutter. She had brought herself to this place.

  Dear Jesus, she prayed. If you get me out of here, I will worship You every day. I will exalt Your name.

  The claustrophobia. The absolute darkness. The unknowing. The fear of suffocation.

  Way back when they were still a family, her father had taken them all on a trip to Wales. There was a mine there, something from thousands of years ago. You had to wear a hard hat to go into the tunnels. They were small because people weren’t as tall back then. They were narrow because most of the workers were children.

  Suzanna had gone in twenty feet before she started freaking out. She could still see sunlight from the opening, but she’d nearly pissed herself running back toward the entrance.

  That was what it felt like now. Trapped. Hopeless.

  I will praise You. I will spread Your word. I will humble myself before You.

  Arms couldn’t move. Legs couldn’t move. Eyes couldn’t open. Mouth couldn’t open.

  Meth will never touch my lips, my nose, my lungs, ever again, so help me God.

  The tremble started slow, coursing through her body, straining her muscles. Her fingers flexed into a fist. She clenched her shoulders, her teeth, her ass. The threads pulled. The pain was excruciating. Hot needles touching raw nerves. Her heart was going to explode in her chest. She could rip herself away. She was stronger than this. She could rip herself away.

  Suzanna tried. She tried so hard. But each time, the pain won.

  She couldn’t make the skin tear. She couldn’t make the thread break.

  She could only lie there.

  Praying for salvation.

  Dear Jesus—

  twenty

  Present Day

  TUESDAY

  Will awoke with a start. His neck cracked as he stretched it side to side. He was at home, sitting on his couch. Betty was beside him. The little dog was on her back. Legs up. Nose pointed toward the front door. Will glanced around, looking for Faith. She’d driven him home from the morgue. She’d gone to get him a glass of water and now, judging by the clock on the TiVo, it was almost two hours later.

  He listened to the house. It was quiet. Faith had left. Will didn’t know how he felt about that. Should he be relieved? Should he wonder where she had gone? There was no guidebook for this part of his life. No instructions he could follow to put it all back together.

  He tried to close his eyes again, to go back to sleep. He wanted to wake up a year from now. He wanted to wake up and have all of this over.

  Only, he couldn’t get his eyes to stay closed. Every time he tried, he found himself staring back up at the ceiling. Was that what it had been like for his mother? According to the autopsy report, her eyes had not always been sewn closed. Sometimes, they had been sewn open. The medical examiner posited in the report that Will’s father would have to stay close by during these periods. He would have to use a dropper to keep her eyes from drying out.

  Dr. Edward Taylor. That was the name of the medical examiner. The man had died in a car accident fifteen years ago. He’d been the first investigator Will had tried to track down. The first dead end. The first time Will had felt relief that there was no one around to explain to him exactly what had happened to his mother.

  “Hey.” Faith came out of his spare bedroom. He could see that the light was still on. His books were in there. All his CDs. Car magazines he’d collected over the years. Albums from way back. It had probably taken Faith less than ten seconds to figure out which items were most out of place. She held the books in her hand. The New Feminist Hegemony. Applied Statistical Models: Theory and Application. A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

  He said, “You can go home now.”

  “I’m not leaving you alone.” She put his mother’s textbooks on the table as she sat in the recliner. The file was on the table, too. Will had left it there this morning. Faith had probably paged through everything while
he was sleeping. He should’ve felt angry that she’d been prying, but there was nothing left inside of him. Will was utterly devoid of any emotion. He’d felt it happen when he first saw Sara at the morgue. His initial impulse was to weep at her feet. To tell her everything. To beg her to understand.

  And then—nothing.

  It was like a stopper being pulled. All of the feeling had just drained out of him.

  The rest flashed in his mind like a movie preview that gave away every plot twist: The battered girl. The painted fingernails. The ripped skin. The sound of Sara’s breath catching when Will told her—told everyone—that his father was to blame.

  Sara was a verbal woman, outspoken at times, and not usually one to hold back her opinion. But in the end, she’d said nothing. After nearly two weeks of living with that inquisitive look in her eyes, there were no questions she wanted to ask. Nothing she wanted to know. It was all laid out in front of her. Amanda was right about the autopsy. Will shouldn’t have been there. It had been like watching his mother being examined, processed, catalogued.

  And Angie was right about Sara. It was too much for her to handle.

  Why had he thought for even a second that Angie was wrong? Why had he thought Sara would be different?

  Will had just stood there in the morgue, frozen in time and place. Staring at Sara. Waiting for her to speak. Waiting for her to scream or yell or throw something. He would probably still be there but for Amanda ordering Faith to take him home. Even then, Faith had to grab Will’s arm and physically pull him from the room.

  Close-up on Sara. Her face pale. Her head shaking. Fade to black.

  The end.

  “Will?” Faith asked.

  He looked up at her.

  “How did you get into the GBI?”

  He weighed the question, trying to spot her end game. “I was recruited.”

  “How?”

  “Amanda came to my college.”

  Faith gave a tight nod, and he could tell she was chasing a train of thought he couldn’t pin down. “What about the application?”

 
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