This is a work of fiction. Characters, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination, or are used in a fictitious manner. No portion of this excerpt may be used without the expressed permission of the author.
A rhythmic knock pounds through the front door. Elsie took off hours ago to meet with one of her study groups. Peter doesn’t bring other people to his apartment. He leaves the TV on but is otherwise silent as he waits for the visitors to announce themselves, or leave. Peter jumps when the rapping resumes.
“Just a minute!” Peter calls. He searches for something heavy enough to protect himself with in case the person slamming their fist against his door is a robber, or worse, some religious fanatic come to save him.
His gaze settles on the dusty family Bible on the bookshelf near the door. It’s oversized and bound in leather. Whether he needs to knock the offender out or start proclaiming he’s ready to smite the world, it will serve its purpose.
Peter tiptoes towards the door, arms already feeling like lead as he cradles the giant book. He looks through the peephole and finds the funhouse image of a man standing too close. The glass warps his forehead into the shape of a kid’s swimming pool. Arms and legs dangle from his chin like waves of crepe paper on a badly constructed piñata.
Behind him stands a woman wearing a hat and a cream-colored coat. Her frame bows at the waist, comically thin in the peephole. She looks something like an animated harp. Peter moves the Bible to his hip, cradling it in one arm as he opens his door the few inches the fastened chain lock allows.
“Henry?” The man no longer looks like he belongs in the circus. He looks prepared for a funeral. He leans into the open crack, trying to get a look inside the apartment. “Henry Roberts?”
Peter freezes. He tries to sort out who could know his real name. The man is older, perhaps in his early sixties, and looks tired in a way that implies he hasn’t slept in years. He’s wearing a black suit that reminds Peter of classic detective films and holds a binder in one hand as he passes the other over his retreating hairline. Peter shakes his head. “Sorry. No one by that name here.”
“Oh.” The suited intruder blinks a few times as he stares at Peter.
The woman takes the binder from her friend. She opens the cover and bows her head. A grey felt fedora shields her eyes as she searches the page. She looks over the suit’s shoulder. “It’s Peter now, right?”
Peter takes a step away from the door, gripping his grandmother’s Bible, preparing to strike if the strangers bust through the flimsy chain. “Who are you?”
The man smiles and shifts uncomfortably on his feet. He wipes his brow with his sleeve, absorbing a bead of sweat. “It’s been a long time. Maybe you don’t remember me. I don’t think we’ve seen one another since you were — what — eighteen? You went by James then. Or was it Jamie? I never can keep track of these things.”
“No James here either. Sorry.” Peter’s heart pounds against his ribcage. The man on his doorstep carries a haunting familiarity that makes his stomach clamp down on his dinner. He moves to close the door. He’s told no one about his past identities. It shouldn’t be possible for this person to know who he is.
Then it clicks.
The suited man and well-dressed woman look like journalists. The vultures track him down from time to time, desperate for details about his childhood. Everyone wants to know about what it’s like to grow up under the same roof as a serial killer.
“No reporters!” Peter shouts as he pushes the door. The male intruder shoves the thick sole of his shoe in the narrowing crack, preventing it from closing.
“I’m not a reporter. It’s me, Henry. Inspector Richard Douglas.” He forces the words through the crack, jogging Peter’s memory. “I helped on your dad’s—”
“You helped my dad?” Peter cuts him off and takes another look at the flustered stranger. If he imagines the man thirty pounds lighter, with healthier skin and twice as much hair, he can almost make out the familiar face of the F.B.I. agent he’d known as a kid. “I called you Dougy.”
“That’s right! Special Agent Dougy. Man, that got under my skin after a while.” He gives a slightly irritated chuckle. “You were stubborn back then. Just like your old man.”
Peter stares through the crack. Time has not been kind to Dougy. Not only is his waist larger and hair thinner, but the messy tufts he drags his fingers through are gray with thin flecks of brown when it had been the other way around. Peter thinks back on the last time he saw him. He’d worn a biker jacket and beard then, looking like some Hollywood rendition of an undercover cop. Now, he’s clean shaven and wears a suit that looks too big for him. Peter wonders whether he’s losing weight, or if he’s in the habit of buying clothes one size too large in case his waistline expands. “I’m nothing like my father.”
“Right. I didn’t mean to imply you have the same hobbies, or anything like that. It’s just on the way over I was telling my partner you both knew how to push my buttons.” Inspector Douglas gestures at the woman, who nods once.
“You never had a partner before,” Peter says. He looks warily at the woman. While Dougy’s suit hangs and bunches on his frame in awkward places, everything she wears looks tailor made.
Inspector Douglas stands a little straighter. His shoulders broaden and he takes a bullish stance. “Well, I’m not an agent anymore. I’m an inspector. That’s what they do to you when they see you’re getting close to cashing in your pension. Special Agent Jones will take over for me when I retire.”
“Which should have happened six months ago,” Special Agent Jones comments in a tone that says this isn’t the first time she’s reminded him.
“The work’s not over ‘till it’s over.” Inspector Douglas rolls his eyes dramatically before they return to rest on Peter. “Will you let us in?”
Peter slides the chain off and opens the door wide so his unwanted visitors can enter. They stop in the middle of the living room and Inspector Douglas turns in a slow circle while he takes it all in. “Wow, Henry. You’ve got a nice place.”
“Thanks. But please, call me Peter.” He closes the door but leaves it unlocked in case anyone needs to make a hasty exit. He moves to set the Bible down on the coffee table, keeping it within arm’s reach. “What are you doing here?”
“Mind if I sit?” Dougy doesn’t wait for an answer. He takes the folder from his partner and sits square in the middle of the couch. He drops the binder on the coffee table, covering the Bible. He leans into the cushions, arms draped across the back of the sofa, and crosses his legs.
Special Agent Jones moves toward the hallway. “You here alone?”
“Yeah,” Peter answers nervously. “Why?”
“I need to powder my nose.” She points toward the back of the apartment. “Bathroom?”
Peter nods. He still hasn’t put away his nose hair clippers and sucks in a panicked breath of air as she pushes the restroom door open.
“Say, Henry. Do you mind if I have a glass of water? It’s been a long day.” Inspector Douglas lifts his bushy eyebrows and tilts his head toward the kitchen.
The other agent still hasn’t entered the bathroom. She stands in the hallway, watching him with an intense stare that sends a shiver down his spine. To avoid her gaze, he moves into the next room to retrieve a glass for Dougy. The inspector talks as soon as the faucet turns on, and Peter can’t make out any of what he says. Peter yells around the corner to stop Dougy’s chatter. “Just one second…”
When he returns to the living room, Peter finds Dougy in the same position as before. Though it doesn’t look like he’s moved a muscle, the binder is open, and papers are arranged in neat piles across the coffee table. Peter hands him the glass of water, checking the dim hallway for signs of the inspector’s partner. The bathroom door is closed.
Peter returns his gaze to Dougy without looking at the photos. He’s seen the suspected victims dozens of times over the years. A menagerie of family portraits and studio headshots have come and gone on the news and in the papers for two decades. Peter even watched a documentary last year about The Godless Killer. The director had run trails of red string from the photos to maps, to newspaper clippings, and back again like some conspiracy theorist.
“I spoke to Oliver.” Inspector Douglas takes a sip of water, then sets the glass on a stack of papers. He picks up a photo and offers it to Peter, as if he hasn’t memorized the woman’s auburn hair and broody eyes in the years they’ve been trying to pin his father for her disappearance.
Peter hears water running in the bathroom. He wonders how long it will take Special Agent Jones to catalog his collection of antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills. He concentrates on looking out the window as a neighbor passes by without waving. “I thought he was still giving everyone the silent treatment.”
Inspector Douglas lets out a low chuckle. He still proffers the photo. “He had been. But suddenly, last week, he decided he wanted to have a conversation. You know how he is. When he wants something, it’s hard to say no.”
“Harder for some than others.” Peter rubs a clammy hand across the back of his sweating neck.
“Yeah, I guess.” The inspector struggles up from the couch, then takes a few steps to close the gap between them. He pushes the photograph into his line of sight, forcing Peter to look at the portrait. The woman’s straight teeth and round cheeks make her look young and alive, despite the dark rings of depression encircling her eyes. It’s a graduation photo. Peter has always wondered why she doesn’t look more excited. Maybe, somehow, she knew her time was up.
“He wants to talk about Carol. Show us where she is.”
Special Agent Jones emerges from the bathroom. She moves silently across the apartment, boxing Peter in so he can’t run away from the burning intensity of Carol’s pensive stare. He can’t stand the discomfort of Carol looking up at him from the glossy paper. Pleading with him to do something. His eyes move to study the top right corner of the picture. It’s a faded grey, the color of a background drenched with the flash of a thousand budget graduation photos.
Peter clears the bubble of worry from his throat. “So what?”
Inspector Douglas shifts his stance. There’s a tension in him, like a guitar string wound too tight, ready to snap if it’s strummed the wrong way. Peter thinks maybe Dougy feels her haunting the room, too.
Special Agent Jones leans into Peter, looking over his shoulder at the photograph. Her breath is soft, tickling his skin. Her closeness causes the hairs on his neck to stand on end. “He says he’ll only talk to you.”
The words land on him like a ton of bricks.
Discover if Peter can be strong enough to work alongside his father to clean up cold-cases without unleashing his own inner demons.
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