Criminal, p.41
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       Criminal, p.41

           Karin Slaughter
 

  Henry laughed when she placed the book on the coffee table. “Are we going to pray for Ulster’s soul?”

  Amanda opened the Bible. “Here’s your mistake, Hank.”

  He studied the envelope. One shoulder went up in a shrug. “So?”

  “This is addressed to James Ulster at the Atlanta Jail.” She pointed to the name. “And this logo says Treadwell-Price. Your law firm.”

  Will was past the point where he could be surprised by Amanda’s lies. Less than an hour ago, she’d told him that the letter was from his father’s defense attorney.

  “So?” Henry shrugged his shoulder again. “There’s nothing inside.”

  Amanda asked, “Isn’t there?”

  “No, there’s not.” He seemed very sure of himself. “Obviously, I wrote him a letter giving him a piece of my mind. The man murdered my sister. You can’t prove otherwise.”

  “I can prove what a lazy pig you are.”

  He gave her a sharp look. “Where do you—”

  “You gave this envelope to your girl to type.”

  He glanced at his wife, but Elizabeth was staring at Amanda. She was smiling again, but there was no warmth in her expression.

  Amanda asked, “Do you see your name typed above the Treadwell-Price logo?” She turned the Bible so Henry could see it. “That’s what you’re supposed to do when you send out a business correspondence. They teach you that in secretarial school.”

  “My secretary passed away years ago.”

  “I’m sorry for your loss.” She turned the Bible back around. “The thing about those old typewriters—and you wouldn’t know this—is the rollers were heavy. If you weren’t careful, you could pinch your fingers between them.”

  Henry straightened the nail clippings on the table. He used the tips of his fingers to move them around. “Again, I ask for your point.”

  “The point is, you had to line up the envelope just right so the address wouldn’t come out crooked. Sometimes you had to twist the envelope back and forth between the rollers to get it straight. It’s almost like an old printing press, where you turn the screw to press the ink onto the sheet of paper. Do you still use a fountain pen?”

  Henry froze. He finally seemed to get it.

  “The ink wasn’t dry when you put the check inside.” Amanda carefully pinched open the paper. “So, when your girl pressed the envelope between those two heavy rollers, the ink on the check transferred to the inside of the envelope. This envelope.” She smiled. “Your name. Your signature. Your money paid to the order of Herman Centrello, the defense attorney working for the man who murdered your sister.”

  Henry took out his nail clippers again. “That’s hardly a smoking gun.”

  “He kept it all these years,” Amanda said. “But Ulster was like that, wasn’t he?”

  “How should I know what—”

  “He didn’t care about the money. It was a means to an end. He lived to control people. I bet every time he opened this Bible, all he could think about was how easily one word to the right snitch, one phone call to the right lawyer, could turn your world upside down.”

  “You have no proof that—”

  “You licked the envelope flap to seal the letter, didn’t you, Hank? I don’t imagine you’d let your girl do that for you. She might wonder why you’re sending such a sizable check to another law firm, care of the man looking to be sent away for murdering your sister.” She smiled. “It must’ve galled you to have to lick your own envelope. How many times has that happened over the years?”

  Henry looked frightened, then angry. “You don’t have my DNA to compare.”

  “Don’t I?” Amanda leaned forward. “Were you ever scratched, Hank? Did Jane scratch you on the arm or chest while you were strangling her?”

  He stood up so fast the chair fell over. “I’d like for you to leave now. Wilbur, I’m sorry you’ve entangled yourself with this—” He cast about for a word. “Lunacy.”

  Will unbuttoned his collar. The room was suffocating.

  Amanda took off the glove. “You worked out a deal with Ulster, didn’t you, Hank? He got what he wanted. You got what you wanted.”

  “I’m calling the police.” He walked to his desk. His hand rested on the phone. “Out of deference to Wilbur, I’m giving you one last opportunity to leave.”

  “All right.” Amanda took her time standing. She straightened her sling. She lugged her purse onto her shoulder. But she didn’t head directly for the door. First, she stopped by Henry’s overturned chair. She took the fingernail clippings off the side table.

  Henry demanded, “What are you doing?”

  “I always wondered about Jane. She wasn’t killed like the other girls. She didn’t have the marks on her body. She was strangled and beaten. You tried to make it look like a suicide, but you were too stupid to know that we could tell the difference.”

  Henry didn’t speak. He eyed the fingernails in Amanda’s hand.

  “Jane was telling anyone who would listen about the missing girls. So you used Treadwell’s name to pull some strings down at the station house. You thought Jane would be afraid of the police.”

  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

  “You’ve never understood women, have you, Hank? All you did was piss Jane off and make her talk more.” Amanda opened her hand. The fingernails fell to the carpet.

  Henry nearly jumped across the desk. He caught himself at the last minute, telling his wife, “Pick those up. Immediately.”

  Elizabeth seemed to debate her answer. “Oh, I don’t think so, Henry. Not today.”

  “We’ll talk about this later.” He angrily punched the numbers on the phone. “I’m calling the police.”

  “They’re right outside,” Amanda told him. “The envelope is enough to arrest you. I know a gal at the lab who’s just dying to get her hands on your DNA.”

  “I told you to leave.” Henry hung up the receiver and picked it back up again. Instead of dialing three digits, he dialed ten. He was calling his lawyer.

  Elizabeth said, “You’re nothing like him, you know?”

  She wasn’t talking to Amanda or Henry. She was talking to Will.

  “There’s a kindness about you,” she said. “James was terrifying. He didn’t have to speak, or move, or even breathe. Just being in his presence was like staring into the pit of hell.”

  Will stared at the ugly shape of her mouth.

  “He said he wanted to save them. Funny how none of them actually lived up to his promise.” Elizabeth inhaled deeply from the cigarette. “He gave Lucy a chance, at least. A chance to do something good, to bring something pure into the world.”

  Will asked, “What are you saying?”

  “Girls don’t matter. They never matter.” Her red lipstick had wicked into the deep lines around her mouth. “But you, handsome boy. You were saved from James. Saved from his brutality. His madness. You were our salvation. I hope you’ve earned it.”

  Will watched her round off the ash of her cigarette in the ashtray. Her nails were long, painted in a flame red that matched her skirt and sweater.

  Amanda said, “They were working together, weren’t they?”

  “Not like you’re thinking,” she answered. “Yes, Hank had some fun, but I’m sure you’ve noticed that he doesn’t like to get his hands dirty.”

  Henry ordered, “Shut up. Right now.”

  She ignored him, telling Will, “He didn’t really want you, but he didn’t want anyone else to have you, either.” She paused. “I’m sorry about that. I really am.”

  “I’m warning you, Elizabeth.” Henry’s voice was terse. Sweat rolled down the side of his face.

  She continued to ignore her husband, staring at Will with what could only be described as a sinister smile. “He’d get you from the children’s home and bring you here for a day, two days at a time. I would hear you downstairs playing—inasmuch as a child can play without touching anything. Sometimes, I would hear you laugh. You loved ro
lling down that hill. You’d do it for hours. Down and up again, laughing the whole time. I would start to feel attached to you, and then Henry would take you away, and I was alone again.”

  “I don’t—” Will had to stop to catch his breath. “I don’t remember you.”

  She held the cigarette to her mouth. Her lipstick ringed the filter. “You wouldn’t. I only saw you once.” She gave a soft laugh. “The other times I was tied up.”

  The tinny sound of a woman’s voice came through the telephone receiver in Henry’s hand. He stood holding it from his ear, staring at his wife.

  Elizabeth told Will, “It could’ve just as easily been me, you know. I could’ve been your mother. I could’ve—”

  Amanda hissed, “Shut up, Kitty.”

  She blew out a stream of smoke. The tendrils swirled up into her thin blonde hair. “Bitch, was I talking to you?”

  thirty

  July 15, 1975

  There was definitely a noise. A banging sound. Tapping. Amanda wasn’t sure. The house was full of men tromping around in heavy shoes, yelling across the rooms. The attic stairs were pulled down. Someone was checking the crawl space. They could see the beam of a Kel-Lite through the planks in the hardwood floor.

  Amanda stood in the hallway. “Shut up!” she yelled. “Everyone just shut up.”

  The men stared at her, not quite knowing what to do.

  Amanda heard the noise again. It was coming from the kitchen.

  Evelyn pushed past the crowd, fighting to get to the back of the house.

  “Hey!” one of them complained.

  Amanda followed her into the kitchen. The cabinets were metal. The white laminate countertop had a gold swirl pattern. The appliances dated back to the thirties. The overhead light was a single bulb, the same as in the other rooms.

  “Do you hear it?” Evelyn kept her jaw tight. The lump was dark red now, taking up the lower half of her face.

  Amanda closed her eyes and listened. There was no banging. No tapping. Nothing. Finally, she shook her head. Evelyn let out a long sigh.

  The men in the house had lost their patience. They started talking in low voices that got louder as more of their compatriots arrived on the scene. The front door was wide open. Amanda could see into the street. An ambulance had arrived. The medic jumped out of the back and headed toward the house. A patrolman stopped him and pointed toward the driveway.

  James Ulster was still alive. She could hear him moaning through the open window.

  “Crawl space is clear,” a voice called. “Somebody get me the hell out of here.”

  Evelyn asked, “You heard it, right?”

  “Yes.” Amanda leaned against the counter. They both stood there, ears straining for the noise. And then they heard it again. Papers rustling. A thumping. It was coming from under the sink.

  Evelyn still had her gun. She held it in front of her. Amanda wrapped her hand around the cabinet knob. She silently mouthed the countdown, “One … two … three …,” and opened the door.

  No one jumped out. No bullets were fired.

  Evelyn shook her head. “Nothing.”

  Amanda looked into the cabinet. It was much like her own. On one side were the usual cleaning supplies: bleach, a few rags, furniture polish. On the other side was a large kitchen trashcan. It was wedged under the sink, almost too big for the space.

  Amanda was about to close the door, but the trashcan moved.

  “Jesus,” Evelyn whispered. Her hand went to her chest. “It’s probably a rat.”

  They both looked down the hallway. There were at least thirty men on scene.

  Evelyn whispered, “I’m terrified of rats.”

  Amanda wasn’t crazy about them, either, but she wasn’t about to erase everything they’d done tonight by asking some big strong man to help them.

  The trashcan moved again. She heard a noise that sounded like a cough.

  “Oh, my God.” Evelyn dropped her gun on the counter. She got to her knees and tried to pull out the trashcan. “Help me!”

  Amanda grabbed the top of the plastic can. She yanked as hard as she could. The edge came free and she saw two eyes staring up at her.

  Almond shaped. Blue. Eyelids as thin as tissue paper.

  The baby blinked. His upper lip formed a perfect triangle as he smiled up at Amanda. She felt an ache in her heart, as if he was pulling on an invisible string between them. His tiny hands. The fat little dots of his curled toes.

  “Oh, God,” Evelyn whispered. She wedged her fingers between the trashcan and cabinet, trying to bend back the plastic. “Oh, God.”

  Amanda reached down to the baby. She cupped her hand to his face. His cheek was warm. He turned his head, leaning into her palm. His hand brushed against hers. His feet came up. They curved as if he was pressing against an invisible ball. He was so impossibly small. And so perfect. So beautiful.

  “I’ve got it.” With one last pull, Evelyn finally freed the trashcan. She picked up the boy, holding him close to her chest. “Little lamb,” she murmured, pressing her lips to his head. “Poor little lamb.”

  From nowhere, Amanda felt a flash of jealousy. Tears sprang into her eyes, blurring her vision. Blinding her.

  And then came the rage.

  Of all the horrors Amanda had seen in the last week, this was the worst. How had this happened? Who had thrown away this child?

  “Amanda?” It was Deena Coolidge. The scarf around her neck was blue. She had a white lab coat on. “Ev? What happened? Are you two okay?”

  Amanda’s bare feet slapped against the floor as she stalked out of the kitchen. She was running by the time she reached the front door. They were loading Ulster into the ambulance. She bolted into the street and pushed the medic out of her way.

  Ulster was strapped down to the gurney. His wrists were handcuffed to the metal stiles. His clothes had been cut open. A bloody bandage was taped to his side, another to his leg. Gauze was wrapped around his arm. His throat was as red as Evelyn’s jaw.

  The EMT said, “We need to trach him. He’s not getting enough air.”

  “We found him,” Amanda told Ulster. “We beat you. I beat you.”

  Ulster’s wet lips curved into a self-satisfied smile. He could barely breathe, but he was still laughing at her.

  “Amanda Wagner. Evelyn Mitchell. Deena Coolidge. Cindy Murray. Pam Canale. Holly Scott. You remember those names. You remember the names of the women who brought you down.”

  Air wheezed from Ulster’s mouth, but he was shaking with laughter, not fear. She had seen the look in his eyes a million times before—from her father, from Butch and Landry, from Bubba Keller. He was amused. He was humoring her.

  All right, doll. Run along now.

  Amanda stood on the bottom rung of the gurney so she could loom over Ulster the same way he had loomed over her.

  “You’re never going to see him.” He blinked as her spit flew into his eye. “He’ll never know you. I swear before God he’ll never know what you did.”

  Ulster’s smile would not fade. He took a deep breath, then another. His voice was a strangled gasp. “We’ll see.”

  thirty-one

  July 23, 1975

  ONE WEEK LATER

  Amanda smiled as she pulled into the parking lot of the Zone 1 station house. A month ago, she would’ve laughed if someone suggested that she’d be happy to be back here. A week of crossing guard duty had taught her a hard lesson.

  She took one of the far spaces in the back of the lot. The engine knocked when she turned the key. Amanda checked the time. Evelyn was running late. Amanda should go inside the squad and wait for her, but she was thinking of this as their triumphant return. Having to spend five days in the grueling heat dressed in a wool uniform while lazy children tromped in and out of traffic had not negated the fact that they had caught a killer.

  Amanda unzipped her purse. She took out the last report she was ever going to type for Butch Bonnie. She hadn’t done it out of kindness. She’d done it becau
se she needed to make sure it was right.

  Wilbur Trent. Amanda had named the baby because no one else would. Hank Bennett did not want to sully his family’s name. Or perhaps he didn’t want the legal entanglement of Lucy having an heir. Evelyn had been right about the insurance policies. With Hank Bennett’s parents dead and his sister murdered, he was now the sole beneficiary to their estate. He’d let the city bury his sister in a pauper’s grave while he walked away from probate court a millionaire.

  So, it fell to Amanda to buy Wilbur his first blanket, his first tiny T-shirt. Leaving him at the children’s home had been the most difficult thing Amanda had ever done in her life. More difficult than facing down James Ulster. More difficult than finding her mother hanging dead from a tree.

  She would keep her promise to Ulster. The child would never know his father. He would never know that his mother was a junkie and a whore.

  Amanda had never written fiction before. She was nervous about the details she’d put into Butch’s report, the blatant lies she’d told about Lucy Bennett’s life before her abduction.

  The boy could never know. Something good had to come out of all this misery.

  “What’s the skinny?” Evelyn stood outside the car. She was dressed in brown slacks and a checkered orange shirt that buttoned up the front. The bruise on her jaw had started to yellow, but it still blackened the bottom half of her face.

  Amanda asked, “Why are you dressed like a man?”

  “If we’re going to be running around the city, I’m not going to ruin another pair of perfectly good pantyhose.”

  “I don’t plan on doing much running anymore.” Amanda tucked the report back into her purse. She zipped the bag closed quickly. She didn’t want Evelyn to see the application she’d requested from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Her father had gotten his old job back. Captain Wilbur Wagner would be running Zone 1 again by the end of the month.

 
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