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You kill one guy, one time, and suddenly everyone thinks you need therapy, Ellery Hathaway thought as she stood in the biting wind of the subway T platform overlooking the icy Charles River. Doesn’t matter if everyone is glad he’s dead. She debated again whether to follow through on her shrink’s orders to show up at the group meeting for survivors of violent crime. “You want to get your job back, yes?” Her court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Sunny Soon, had kept her tone pleasant with the question, but the underlying threat was plain. Ellery shoved her hands in her pockets and turned her collar up against the cold and the curious gaze of the passing commuters as she headed for the long escalator down to the street. Her face had been on TV for weeks over the summer as the public tried to render a verdict on whether she was more of a victim or a killer. The man she’d shot would be devastated to know he’d been nearly written out of the conversation—the viewers only ever wanted more of Francis Coben and Ellery, the girl who got away.
On crisp fall days, the T station for Massachusetts General Hospital boasted one of the loveliest views in Boston, with the city skyscrapers on one side and the MIT buildings on the other. Trees and boat docks lined the banks, wending back and forth along with the river’s curve. Today, however, everything was the same washed-out gray, from the polluted melting snow to the naked tree branches scratching overhead at the gloomy sky.
Ellery noted with some irony that this supposed survivors’ group met inside a hospital, like the victims had all been infected somehow. Like violence was a virus. Then she remembered how she’d landed there herself, and considered maybe it was true.
“You should come to the group sessions because there’s someone I want you to meet,” Dr. Sunny had said. “I think you’ll have a lot in common.”
Ellery had tried not to roll her eyes at this idea. “No offense,” she’d told Dr. Sunny. “But I really don’t think that’s possible.”
“It can be helpful to talk to other people who are walking your same path,” Dr. Sunny had countered, but Ellery knew all crimes were not created equal. There was getting mugged on the street, and then there was surviving an abduction by one of the world’s most infamous serial killers. Ellery wondered if any of these other people had had their perp show up as an answer on Final Jeopardy!
She edged carefully around a murky puddle and jaywalked with the crowd across the street toward the hospital. Officially winter wasn’t supposed to arrive for a few more weeks, but it had crashed the party early, blowing the doors off the city with howling winds and a foot of heavy snow. Ellery embraced the icy landscape, because a frozen world suited her just fine. Frozen was the crunch of snow under your boot and the glint of icicles on crystal-coated trees. It was clean and unspoiled and beautiful. The problem, Ellery thought as she trudged through the slushy streets of Boston, is the thaw.
She reached the glass doors and the forced-air heat hit her like a wall as she stepped inside the hospital. She unwound her scarf and went down the hall in search of the appointed therapy room. The police brass holding her job hostage could make her go to these stupid sessions, but they couldn’t make her cooperate. Talking is pointless, she’d told Dr. Sunny at their first meeting. It doesn’t change the facts. Ellery could ramble on until she was blue in the face and it wouldn’t bring back any of the girls Coben had killed; nothing she could say now would keep her off the Chicago streets the night she’d turned fourteen years old. Nothing would change what had happened in Woodbury last summer.
She found the meeting room without any trouble. It was in the basement of one of the older buildings, and the scuffed-up linoleum floor and lone, crankshaft window reminded her of an elementary school classroom. The circle of chairs and blank whiteboard added to the effect, although the table at the back of the room appeared to have a hot plate with coffee on it. Dr. Sunny looked up from her notes with a pleased expression. “Ellery, welcome. I’m glad you could make it.”
The others turned to look, too. Ellery glanced around at all of them in turn, curious about which person Dr. Sunny wanted her to meet. There was a tall, slim, African-American man wearing a conservative pullover sweater and Malcolm X–style glasses; a heavyset older white guy with shaggy graying hair and worn-out work boots; a couple of women, one Hispanic perhaps about Ellery’s age who sported a shaved head and—Ellery squinted—a neck tattoo? The other woman looked like an average Boston suburban housewife: white, plump but not overweight, with soft hands, a tired perm, and a Target sweatshirt that did not match the designer handbag at her feet. They were all strangers to Ellery, but she found they were regarding her with recognition or expectation, as if her arrival had been scripted. She felt her face go hot and wondered if Dr. Sunny had told them her story, irritation flashing through her because she was at a disadvantage now, knowing nothing about them. Then she remembered they would have to have lived under a rock the past few months not to know who she was—which was why it was so stupid to have her come in the first place. Try being raped and then watching Hollywood make a movie about it, she told them silently. Where’s the group for that?
Ellery crossed the room with her head down, making a beeline for the coffee table. She didn’t actually like coffee but at least it would give her something to do with her hands. Her fingers had become clumsy from the force of her embarrassment, and she had difficulty getting a single paper cup free from the stack.
“Let me get that for you.” Ellery glanced up to find the black guy standing next to her, holding his own cup of steaming coffee, which he set aside to assist her. He had the coffee poured before she could object.
“Thanks,” she said, careful not to touch him as they made the exchange.
“Happy to help. My name is Miles, by the way.”
“Ellery,” she replied with a short nod. She wondered if she was supposed to ask what brought him to the group, or if it was off-limits, like asking a con in prison, So, what are you in for? She said nothing and instead set about adding cream to her coffee, filling it to the very brim, after which she added four straight packets of sugar.
Miles gave a low whistle. “I take it you don’t really like coffee,” he said with a smile. “You could set that outside in the snow right now and it’d turn straight into ice cream.”
“Then maybe I would eat it,” Ellery admitted. She took a sip and made a face.
Miles chuckled and sipped his own coffee. “It’s not good enough to force it,” he advised her. “This here is your very basic cup of joe.”
“It all tastes like dirt to me.”
“Hmm.” He scratched at his chin thoughtfully and she looked him over for scars. She saw no obvious marks on him and became more intrigued for his story. “I suppose the java beans come from dirt,” he said. “Like we all came from dirt—and one day we’ll go back into the ground all together.” He lifted his paper cup in mock salute. “To the cycle of life.”
She raised her cup in solidarity, enjoying the morbid slant on the discussion. So far this was easier than she had expected, and she hoped that Miles was the one she was supposed to talk to so that she wouldn’t have to make direct conversation with any of the others. “Have you, uh, have you been coming here long?” she asked, thinking he might volunteer something that hinted at a Dr. Sunny–arranged meeting. After all, he had been the one to approach her.
“About a year,” he said soberly. “That’s actually what I want to talk about today.”
Miles didn’t get a chance to say anything further because the door opened across the room and two people entered: an old woman in a wheelchair and an old man pushing behind her. They both wore hats—his, a tweed newsboy-style cap, and hers, a colorful knit that looked like it might be homemade. “That’s Myra,” Miles explained in a low voice as the old man helped the woman off with her coat. “She’s been coming here the longest of any of us.”
Even from a distance, Ellery could see that this woman had not emerged unscathed from whatever her ordeal was. Her facial features did not line up correctly, and the skin color on the right side did not match the color of the left. Burned, Ellery realized with a start. She’s been burned.
“I think we’re all here now, so let’s get started,” Dr. Sunny said, and Ellery chose a seat next to Miles. “We have a new face with us today, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Ellery, would you like to say anything to the group?”
Ellery shook her head and slouched farther in her seat.
“That’s quite all right,” Dr. Sunny replied easily. “You are welcome to just listen, but of course feel free to join in the conversation if you would like. Everyone else, let’s please go around the room and introduce ourselves to Ellery.”
It was like circle time in kindergarten, Ellery thought as they all complied with Dr. Sunny’s request. Miles went first. The shaggy-haired guy was Alex. Wendy was the one with the shaved head, and the housewife was called Tabitha. Myra volunteered her name with a smile, and Ellery noticed that the old guy who had pushed her in, presumably her husband, had not stuck around. “So you may remember that Miles asked us to talk about anniversaries this week,” Dr. Sunny said. “Miles, would you like to start the conversation?”
Beside Ellery, Miles took a deep breath and leaned forward slightly in his seat. “Yeah, okay. I’ve got the one-year anniversary coming up. The crash was December eighteenth. I think on some level I’ve been trying to prepare for it all year long. How would I feel? How was I going to handle it when the calendar flipped over to December? I’m supposed to be in school teaching that day. Which is better—stay home and take the day for myself or go in and let the kids distract me? Like, maybe if I make a good enough plan I can get through the day without feeling destroyed.”
The housewife, Tabitha, snorted. “Good luck,” she said, and crossed her legs.
“Feeling destroyed,” Dr. Sunny said. “What would that be for you? What do you think would happen?”
Miles was silent for a moment and then shook his head slowly. “Like before. Like right after Letitia died. I lay in bed in the dark, acting like I was dead, too. Maybe I was hoping I could be. Like if I faked it good enough, the Lord would take me with her.”
Ellery looked hard at the floor and held very still. She remembered that feeling, lying on the closet floor in her own blood, praying God would kill her so Coben wouldn’t do it himself. She wished suddenly that Miles would stop talking, but he continued.
“We can all tell since I’m sittin’ here that it didn’t work out that way,” he said wryly. “Those kids at school needed me, so I got up one day and I just kept on getting up every day after that. Now it turns out it’s almost a year later and I can’t quite believe it’s happened. This big chunk of rock has traveled all the way around the sun again with me here on it and Letitia gone. Makes me want to be Superman—pushing it back and back and back until we get to the place where we turned down Harvard Street and Ed Kleinfeldt came roaring through the intersection, high as a kite in July.”
“That bastard,” Tabitha muttered. “The drunks, they always walk away without even a scratch.”
“He got taken to the hospital,” Miles replied absently. “Probably for detox.”
“He gets out pretty soon, doesn’t he?” the man called Alex wanted to know.
“Next spring if he makes parole. That’s what the lawyers told me. Five years, out in less than one-and-a-half. But don’t worry: he’s real sorry he killed her.”
“Bastard,” Tabitha said again. “How long before he’s loaded up and behind the wheel of another car?”
“I think we’re getting off course a bit,” Dr. Sunny interrupted. “Miles wanted to talk about how to handle the anniversary of his wife’s death—isn’t that right?”
Miles nodded and sat back in his seat. “The thing is, I was prepared to be freaked by the date on the calendar. I didn’t expect the rest of it.”
“What do you mean?” Dr. Sunny asked.
“It’s all the same,” he answered, gesturing vaguely around him. “The tinsel decorations on the streetlights. The smell of frost in the air. It was so cold that night. But clear, you know? You could see the stars. Letitia put Christmas music on the radio, like she always did starting in about mid-November. It was playing ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ when those headlights came right out of nowhere. Now … now when I try to cross a street in the dark, I see headlights and I flinch. I hear Christmas songs and they make me want to cry. Ed Kleinfeldt didn’t just take Tetia from me: he took the snow and the music and the pine trees and every little reminder, because it’s all tied up together.”
Ellery forced down a swallow of coffee to clear the lump in her throat. For her, it was the summer, especially when it got so hot the concrete remained warm even after dark. The smell of her own sweat. The sight of a girl riding a bicycle always made her cold inside.
“I know what you mean,” Alex said. “Nate and I weren’t even supposed to be in the store when it got hit. We were just walking by and he said, ‘Let’s go in a sec. I want a Snickers.’ We were only going to be there like maybe two minutes. Only two minutes later, he’s lying on the ground, shot to the gut. It’s been three years and I still can’t friggin’ stand the sight of Snickers.”
“What did you do on the anniversary of the first year?” Dr. Sunny asked him. “What got you through the day?”
Alex grinned and Ellery saw he was missing a couple of teeth. “Jim Beam and ESPN.” Then he faltered, his grin slipping away. “Nate hated ESPN.”
“Let’s talk about other strategies people have used to deal with tough anniversaries,” Dr. Sunny suggested smoothly.
Ellery tuned out the resulting chatter because she became aware that the young woman with the shaved head, Wendy, was staring at her. When Ellery turned to look, Wendy glanced away in chagrin, as if she’d been caught with too many items in the express lane at the supermarket. Ellery wondered again whom she was supposed to meet at this gathering, and if Wendy could be the one. The others had all spoken during the session but Wendy hadn’t said a word after introducing herself. She sat with one leg drawn up defensively on the chair in front of her. From this angle, Ellery could see that the neck tattoo read NO MERCY.
Privately, Ellery agreed with the sentiment. Take down the monster when you have a clean shot because you might not get a second one. This philosophy had landed her in hot water now, but she felt confident it would blow over eventually. Her crimes were small compared to those of the man she’d killed.
When the meeting broke up, Ellery cast a dubious look around at the other group members, men and women with their own small crimes. She edged closer to where Dr. Sunny was putting some papers away in her briefcase. “So who is it?” Ellery asked her. “Who’s the one I’m supposed to meet?”
To Ellery’s surprise, Dr. Sunny waved over the old woman in the wheelchair. “Ellery, meet Myra. Myra, this is Ellery. The two of you have something in common.”
I can’t imagine what, Ellery thought as she appraised the other woman up close.
Myra extended a gnarled hand that was covered on one side with bald, shiny skin—too tight to match the rest of her softly aging physique—and that’s when Ellery realized the woman had been burned across more than just her face. “Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Myra said in a hoarse voice. She tried to smile but the scorched half of her face wouldn’t cooperate, so the result was akin to a grimace.
Ellery gave the woman’s hand a perfunctory shake and then stepped backward again, shoving her hands in the pockets of her coat, lest she show off her own scars. “What is it we have in common?”
Ellery asked the question of Dr. Sunny, but it was Myra who answered. “I read about you in the paper,” Myra said, looking up at her. “I read what happened with Francis Coben.”
“Yeah?” Ellery glanced at the door, wondering if it was too soon to make her good-byes and escape back to the solitude of her apartment.
“You were the one who lived,” Myra continued. “So was I.”
Ellery swiveled her head around and regarded the woman with new eyes. “What did you say?”
“Myra received a lot of unwanted media attention as a result of what happened to her,” Dr. Sunny explained as she took up her briefcase to leave. “I know the scrutiny is new for you, but she lived with it for years. Perhaps she has some advice.”
Myra gave a harrumphing sort of sigh, as if denying her own supposed wisdom, and for the first time, Ellery felt something like grudging respect. “You’re probably too young to remember,” Myra said. “Heck, look at you—maybe you weren’t even born back then. It was the mid-1980s, and Boston was on fire. Seemed like every day, the papers would carry a new story about a building that went up in flames overnight. No rhyme nor reason that anyone could see—warehouses, a couple of churches, abandoned or empty houses. There was a major investigation but they couldn’t seem to find the guy. Then one night I went back to our furniture store after closing. My husband was sick, hanging his head over the toilet half the day, but taxes were due and we needed some papers. I took Bobby, our son, and went to fetch them. I—I only put him down for a minute. You know how wriggly toddlers are, especially the boys. I turned my back to get the papers from the cabinet, and the next thing I knew, the place was on fire and Bobby was gone.” She drew a shuddering breath and placed one hand to her chest. “I tried to look for him. I called his name, over and over, but there was so much smoke and the place got so hot, real quick. I couldn’t find the way out. I only survived because a passing firefighter saw the smoke and busted through the nearest window. He tried to get to Bobby, too, but it was no use.”
Ellery tried to imagine it, the dense smoke and searing flames. How terrified the woman must have been when she couldn’t find her son. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you, dear. So am I.” They lapsed into silence for a moment. Ellery had no idea how to navigate a conversation that included the death of a toddler. Thankfully, Myra seemed to have had practice. “It was a huge story because of Bobby’s death, my dramatic rescue, and because they caught the guy that night.”
“They got him?”
“He was standing there watching the place burn. Apparently they do that,” she said, her voice quavering. “The firebugs. They want to watch their handiwork. The police said he still reeked of gasoline when they arrested him. The reporters hounded us for comments—camped right outside our house, like cats waiting for the mice to come out of the hole. I bet you know what that’s like.” She glanced up at Ellery for confirmation, and Ellery noticed for the first time how bright the blue was in her eyes, like they were the eyes of a much younger woman, full of light. It was, Ellery mused later, like the fire was still inside her.
“I do know what they’re like,” Ellery said of the reporters. “‘The story will go on with or without you,’ they say. ‘Make sure you tell your side.’”
“Exactly.” Myra pointed a finger at her. “I didn’t want to tell my story. My story was about my dead little boy. Who would want to talk about that?”
Ellery shook her head. “I’m sorry you went through that. I hope they eventually left you alone.”
Myra gave a sad smile. “Oh, sure. They move on to the next big thing. There was a TV movie in the 1990s, and every ten years they do some sort of retrospective. But mostly, folks stopped talking about it once Luis Carnevale was locked up. That’s why I still come here to the group.” At Ellery’s inquiring look, she explained. “Now, this is the only place I can talk about it. Otherwise, I’m a sad old lady dwelling on the past, and no one likes a sad old lady. Here, I can talk about my Bobby, and it’s like … it’s like he comes alive again, if only for a little while.”
Ellery, who had a young brother gone too soon, one who lived now only in her memory, understood this all too well. The dead could only speak if you spoke for them.
“They say time heals all wounds,” Myra said after a beat. Then she leaned closer to Ellery and dropped her voice low. “But we both know that’s a lie, don’t we?”
Ellery didn’t quite know what to say to that. She straightened back up and cleared her throat. “Is he still alive—the man who did it?” Francis Coben was sitting on death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, writing her letters he could never send.
“Oh, yes. He’s coming up for parole again soon—and they tell me he might make it this time. It’s been so long that no one remembers anymore how it was, the year the city burned. They aren’t afraid of him anymore.”
Her voice drifted off at the end, and Ellery could tell Myra didn’t share this reformed opinion of the arsonist. “You never know,” Ellery said, hoping to be reassuring. “There would be press again if they released him—that alone might keep him behind bars.”
“I’ve no doubt there’d be stories,” Myra said grimly. “Bad ones. They’d start up again when he set his first fire.” The old man returned, presumably Myra’s husband come to take her home, but he didn’t actually enter the room, just stood there frowning from the doorway. Again, Ellery felt as if she and the rest of the group were lepers, contagious somehow. She couldn’t wait to get out of there. “I hope you’ll come to the next meeting,” Myra said, as if reading her thoughts, and Ellery tore her gaze from the door. Myra gave her a twisted smile. “It’s nice to get fresh blood into the group.”
“Maybe.” Ellery felt sorry for the woman, but she didn’t want to be like her, showing up at these support group meetings a quarter century after the fact. How utterly depressing. Dr. Sunny might want to rethink the wisdom of pawning Myra off as some sort of life lesson for other people, given that she didn’t appear to be a success story. Still, Ellery had one question she wanted to ask, just in case she never saw the woman again. “What will you do if he gets out? Carnevale?” This was Ellery’s big fear: as long as Coben was still breathing air, there was a chance he might get free somehow. If that happened, he would know exactly where to look for her, because now, thanks to last summer, everyone did.
Myra halted with her hands on the wheels. Her chin quivered. “I guess I’d have to find a way to bear it, the same as everybody else.”
* * *
Ellery left the hospital preoccupied from her talk with Myra. The slush had refrozen as the sun went down, making the path hard and slippery. As she walked toward the T station, she caught a flash of movement on her right—the impression of a person more than anything else—and she whirled on the figure, prepared for battle. She stopped short when she saw it was the girl from the group, Wendy. Her shaved head was covered in a black hoodie and she held up her hands in a gesture of peace. “Whoa,” she said, skidding to stop about five feet from Ellery. “It’s just me.”
“You scared me.”
“Sorry. I was waiting for you.”
Ellery didn’t know this girl from a hole in the wall. “Waiting for me?”
“Yeah. I saw on TV what happened to you last summer—what you did.”
Oh, Ellery thought. That.
Wendy licked her chapped lips and took a tentative step closer. “I just needed to ask you … can you sleep at night, you know, now that you shot him? Is that what it takes?”
Oh hell. Ellery scrubbed her face with both hands. I ought to move to Mexico or Denmark or something. “I’m currently unemployed and being forced to do court-mandated therapy,” she told the woman darkly. “Make of that what you will.”
Wendy’s eyes became wider, her gaze unfocused. “I lost my job, too,” she whispered. “I can’t even sleep. I thought—I thought maybe you could tell me what to do next. How to go on.”
Ellery thought longingly of her apartment across town, but she dropped her hands with a sigh and nodded down the street. “Come on,” she said. “I’ll buy you a slice of pizza.”
Soon she and Wendy were seated in a tiny pizza joint at a table for two right up against the store window, the kind of place that ran so cold in the winter that you didn’t bother to take off your coat while you ate. Ellery welcomed the extra layers of winter clothes because it kept away the prying eyes, and she expected from the enormous hoodie Wendy wore that her new companion felt the same way. She and Wendy had each ordered a slice of cheese and an ice-packed cup of Coke, but Wendy didn’t touch her food. “He came in through my bedroom window,” she said without preamble, and suddenly Ellery wasn’t hungry anymore, either. “I was stupid. I left it cracked. It was early spring but we had a weird heat wave going on. My apartment got roasted. It was so stuffy that I opened the window to get some air. I lived on the second floor of a house, in a nice neighborhood. There was a balcony outside the windows but it was high up and I never thought … I didn’t think anyone would get up there. But I was sleeping, and all of a sudden, I just woke up. Like there was no transition. I was asleep and then wide awake. Maybe somehow I knew he was there?”
She seemed uncertain, searching herself for the details, and Ellery didn’t have the heart to tell her the particulars didn’t matter. The story was always the same.
“It happened so fast,” Wendy continued. “I didn’t have time to look around or turn on a light because then he was on me. He had a knife and he put it against my throat, right here. He said, ‘If you scream, I will kill you. No mercy.’”
No mercy. The same phrase as the woman’s tattoo. A strange choice on Wendy’s part, Ellery thought, to wear his words on her body.
“He didn’t kill me,” Wendy continued bitterly. “But he may as well have. Before, I had a job and a boyfriend and my own apartment. Now I’m alone, on disability, and living with my sister and her kids. I’m too afraid to be alone. They didn’t catch him so he’s still out there someplace. Not enough evidence, the detective says to me. All I could tell them was that he was big and strong, like a linebacker. He wore a ski mask and I didn’t see his face. I went through hell at that hospital to get the rape kit, only turns out, it has nothing in it. He didn’t leave semen, no hair, no DNA. It’s like he was a fucking ghost.”
“I’m sorry.” Ellery couldn’t fathom how she would get through a day if Coben were out on the streets.
“I thought,” Wendy said, hesitating. “I thought since it happened to you, too, kind of, and since you were a cop, that maybe you could help.”
“Oh,” Ellery replied, realization dawning as she leaned back in her seat. “I’m not—I’m not working right now. I’m on leave.”
“So maybe you have free time?” Wendy asked hopefully. “The detective on the case has given up. He can’t do anything until he gets another lead. That means another woman gets raped, right? That’s what he’s waiting for.”
Ellery couldn’t deny it. “It’s not my case,” she said gently. “I don’t have access.”
“Please. I’ll tell you everything I know. I’ll call up my doctor and Detective Manganelli and tell them I want you to have access to my records if that will help. I just…” She put her hands to her head. “I just want him caught so that I can get my life back. I thought maybe you would understand that.”
Ellery barely heard her. Her mind was already whirring. “Did you say Detective Manganelli? Joseph Manganelli? Works in Somerville?”
Wendy’s expression gave the barest hint of brightening. “You know him?”
“A little bit. He taught part of one of my training courses five years ago.” Ellery had pestered him with extra questions outside of class, and Manganelli was always obliging with his time. “Listen,” she told Wendy, “I’m sympathetic to your position, believe me, but if you’ve followed my story, you know that most cops are doing their best to get away from me right now.”
“You had the guts to shoot that guy. They’re just jealous because you’re in the papers and stuff.”
No, Ellery thought, that’s definitely not it. She could just imagine what would happen to her if the brass caught her mucking around in someone else’s case. If Dr. Sunny got wind of what she was doing, she’d tattle to the brass, and Ellery’s career would be over for good. Forget about any second chances. “I’d like to help you. I really would. But…”
Wendy’s lower lip trembled and she bit it back. “The stories on the news, they made it seem like you were different. They made it seem like you knew what it was like. If you’re not going to help me, who will?”
The plaintive question reminded Ellery of her plea last summer, when she’d called up Reed Markham at the FBI and tried to cash in on a fourteen-year-old favor. Reed could’ve told her to get lost, that he had his own problems to deal with, but instead he’d risked his career to come up to Massachusetts to help her. “I suppose I could call Detective Manganelli, just to see where the case is,” Ellery found herself saying. “But I can’t promise anything.”
Wendy straightened in her seat. “That would be amazing, thank you. Anything at all you can do to help.”
Ellery drank a long swallow of Coke and crunched the remaining ice cubes between her back teeth. If Wendy had seen the stories on the news, then she must have known the truth: the last time Ellery had tried to help, two more people ended up dead.
* * *
Back at her apartment, Ellery crouched down to greet her basset hound, Speed Bump. He wriggled up against her and stamped his paws in enthusiasm, like she’d been gone to outer Siberia for six months. “Yes, yes, I missed you, too. Let’s get your dinner, okay?” She fed the dog and turned on the stereo for added company, opting for something mellow from The Cure. She ate her own dinner—microwaved mac and cheese—standing at the kitchen counter, since she’d left the pizza slice she’d had with Wendy virtually untouched. She glanced around at her empty, shadowed loft, with its sparse furnishings and huge windows. Normally she loved the tall ceilings and hardwood floors, the sense of isolation that came from living far above the city, but tonight she kept glimpsing her reflection in the black windows and thinking someone else was looking in on her. Impulsively, she picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number, a series of digits that still felt like “home,” even though she hadn’t set foot there in more than a decade.
“Mom,” she said when the other voice came on the other line. “It’s me.”
“Ellie! It’s been ages since you called.” She could picture her mother in the same threadbare green chair, the TV news on mute, an open beer in her hand.
“I know,” she said, suddenly shamed. “I’ve been so busy…”
There was a short silence as her mother processed this lie. They both knew Ellery had no job at the moment. “How are you doing? Are you eating?”
Ellery looked at the cardboard container sitting in her trash, the one coated in a particularly nuclear shade of orange cheese. “Yes, I’m eating.”
“Good, good. I worry about that. When you were little we had to work so hard to get food into you, and then you’d just pop outside and run it off again.”
Ellery stroked her flat stomach and leaned against the wall, still watching the windows. “I promise I’m eating fine.”
“Good. A man likes a woman with a little meat on her bones, you know?”
“Yes, Mom. I know.”
“Yes, you know? You have someone special?” The hopeful tone in her mother’s voice made Ellery wince, and she remembered anew why she didn’t phone her mother more often. They always spent the entire call disappointing each other.
“No, there’s no one special.”
“Oh, that’s such a shame. Soon, I’m sure. You just have to put yourself out there. Smile and you’ll make friends. You know who is getting married? Timothy Adler. Remember him? He was Daniel’s best friend in grade school—that little red-haired boy? I met him in the grocery the other day with his fiancée, and I wouldn’t have even recognized him, he’s got so tall. But he said I look exactly the same.”
“I remember Timothy.”
“I can’t believe he’s old enough to be getting married. Seems like yesterday he and Danny were swinging from the trees in the park.”
“That was twenty years ago, Mama. Timmy’s all grown up now.”
“Yes.” Her mother sounded wistful. “Of course he is.”
Timmy would be thirty-two now, Ellery knew, although it seemed impossible because Daniel had died before his seventeenth birthday. She felt alien sometimes as her own birthdays mounted, as she turned ages that her big brother never knew.
“Christmas is coming soon,” her mother announced. “You know what I’d like more than anything.”
Yes, Ellery knew, because it was the same wish her mother had for every birthday, every Christmas, since Ellery had left home a dozen years ago. “I’m not going back there, Mom. Not ever. You’re more than welcome to come out here for Christmas. It’s—it’s real pretty. They have a tree on the common and we’ve had snow already and everything. I can pay for your ticket.”
“Fly? I don’t think so. You won’t catch me hurtling through the sky in some bucket of bolts that’s probably driven by a liquored-up pilot.”
Ellery repressed a sigh as she sagged against the counter. “The train then.”
“Did you see the news last week? A derailment outside of Philadelphia killed three people.”
Caroline Hathaway saw danger everywhere but the city streets outside her apartment. Meanwhile, Ellery spent the remainder of her growing-up years looking out on the park where she’d been abducted. “Mom?” She wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand. “I’ve got to go. I’ve got to take the dog out.”
“So soon? We’ve hardly talked.”
“I’ll call again.”
“You always say that.”
“I know. I always mean it.”
When she hung up with her mother, Ellery did take the dog out into the night for a brisk walk. Down close to the ocean, the winter air set on her like a sea monster from the blackest depths, wet and icy cold. It froze the inside of her nose and burned the tips of her ears. She heard a siren in the distance, the belligerent honk of a fire truck, and it made her turn for home. She quickened her steps but she couldn’t outrun Myra’s painful grimace and melted face as she’d said those words, we both know that’s a lie. The woman had been in therapy for more than twenty years and she obviously wasn’t healed yet. It didn’t give Ellery a lot of confidence in Dr. Sunny or her methods.
Back inside, pink cheeked and breathless, Ellery put on water for tea and resolved to focus her attention on someone she could help: Wendy Mendoza. She looked up Wendy’s case on the internet while she waited for the kettle to whistle. Wendy had provided enough identifying details that Ellery was able to find the news stories with no trouble, and what she read largely matched Wendy’s narrative. The rapist broke in through an open second-floor window. The police had no clues, at least that they were sharing publicly, and no physical description beyond the fact that he was big and wore a ski mask. Detective Manganelli said they were looking to match the M.O. to other open cases, and he urged anyone with information that might be helpful to the case to come forward. That was eight months ago, with nothing since. Maybe Manganelli would be able to offer some additional tidbits in person.
The kettle warmed from a noisy vibration to a full howl, and Ellery hurried to pull it from the stove. She singed her thumb in the process, leaving a red mark that again made her think of Myra. Unable to resist this time, she took her mug of tea to the couch and started a new search on Myra and the fires. Myra was right that there had been a lot of press, so Ellery had many links to peruse. She got the basics easily: there had been more than two dozen four- or five-alarm fires across South Boston over the course of two years in the mid-1980s, with eight firefighters injured during the fires, including one hurt badly enough that he had to take early retirement. The target buildings were all empty at the time of the blaze until the final one, at Gallagher Furniture, a small business that specialized in hand-carved wood pieces. Deceased in that fire was Robert Gallagher, aged two. He was survived by his mother, Myra, who was badly burned in the fire; his father, Patrick; and an older teenage brother, Jacob.
Ellery noted that Myra had survived only because fireman Kevin Powell was passing by and happened to see the smoke and flames soon after they started. Powell was also the one to spot Luis Carnevale, a two-bit criminal who had been on no one’s radar as the arsonist, among the onlookers at the scene of the fire. He’d been arrested on the spot, stinking of gasoline. When she looked him up, she found Kevin Powell had been richly rewarded for his bravery and was now fire commissioner for the City of Boston.
Ellery looked at Bump, who wagged his tail happily whenever her gaze set on him. “Lucky he happened to be passing by at the right time,” she told the dog. She hoped for Myra’s sake that Carnevale remained locked up, because Wendy’s desperation showed how crazy-making it felt when your tormenter was free. Ellery had one predator in the grave and another one on his way, assuming they ever did give Coben the needle. Still she lived in an apartment with no closets and a gun on her nightstand, and yet half the nights she could not sleep at all. No, she would have told Wendy if she’d been entirely truthful. It does not stop when they are dead.
* * *
The next night, Detective Joe Manganelli was more than happy to meet her for a drink, as she’d suspected he would be. Yes, he’d been generous with his knowledge all those years ago, but now she was infamous and not telling her story to anyone. Cops, like reporters, loved a good story, and she knew that Joe would show up for hers. “Ellery,” he said warmly when she slid into the booth across from him. “Long time, no see. You look great.”
She wished she could say the same, but Joe was balding, ruddy cheeked, and always looked about eight months pregnant. “Thanks for meeting with me,” she replied. “Drinks are on my tab—what’ll you have?”
“Another one of these,” he said, nodding at his empty beer glass.
Ellery bought them both a round and settled in for shop talk. “You might have seen something about me in the news,” she began, and Joe threw back his head with a laugh.
“Something? Darlin’, you were leading the six o’clock hour for two weeks straight. Most cops don’t sniff a serial case their entire career, and you bring down two of ’em.” His tone was somewhere between admiration and envy.
“And two’s my limit,” she replied lightly. The last thing she wanted to do was get sidetracked into the gruesome details of the Coben case or its reprise from the summer. But Joe was curious and she had to pay the piper if she wanted to dance to the tune, so she had to accept at least a few of his questions.
“I read a book on Coben a few years back,” he said. “That was some twisted shit, the way he cut off all those girls’ hands. Did he try that with you?”
Reluctantly, she showed him the scars at her wrists.
“Wow, incredible. Guess he messed with the wrong girl, huh? Have you seen him since it happened?”
“No, and I don’t care to.”
The finality of her tone made him blush. “No, no, of course not. Why would you?”
She took advantage of his discomfort to press her agenda, leaning conspiratorially over the booth. “Anyway, the thing is—they’ve got me doing mandated therapy now, on account of what happened over the summer.”
Joe made a face. “Yeah, I read about that, too. The bastard got what was coming to him. Why’re they yanking your chain about it?”
“Because they’re just as glad he’s dead but they’re afraid to give me back my gun for fear I might shoot someone else.” There, she’d said it. It was kind of liberating to have the truth out loud.
“I hear ya. It’s always cover-your-ass mode with the brass, ain’t it? We do the dirty work and they’ll look the other way so long as the collars keep rolling in and nobody ends up on the wrong side of the news.”
“Yeah, well. That’s where I went wrong, I guess.”
They clinked glasses. “So tell me what I can do you for,” Joe said as he licked the foam from his upper lip.
“This therapy group I’m in,” she said, figuring she would play it straight. “Wendy Mendoza is in it, too.”
Joe knew the case right away. Just the sound of Wendy’s name seemed to deflate him in his seat. “Aw, hell. That poor kid. I wish I had some good news for her, I really do. You don’t know how hard we worked that case—night and day for a solid month. It was priority one. Sick freak like that, you figure he’s going to do it again if we don’t stop him, right? And the city was panicked there for a while. Women calling all day long, wanting to know why we haven’t caught the guy yet. We tried. We’re still trying. There’s just nothing to go on.”
“I heard you were trying to tie it to other open cases,” Ellery said, fishing delicately now that they were in open waters.
“Yeah, there are a couple that seem possibly related, but it’s hard to say. One of ’em, the victim is an old lady of eighty-two. I mean, we’re talking gray hair, walker—the works. In that case, no weapon was used. In another case, it wasn’t nighttime but the middle of the day. A woman came back from a jog and found the perp waiting for her in her bedroom with a gun. He had rope, too. In the Mendoza case, it was nighttime, a young, attractive victim, and he had a knife. We have no hair or fluid from any of these cases, which is one reason we think they might be related—but at the same time, we have nothing solid to connect them. Goddamn frustrating, I tell ya.”
“Maybe I could look at the cases,” Ellery suggested.
Joe’s eyebrows shot up. “You pass the detective’s exam in Somerville and I didn’t notice?”
“Just trying to help out a friend. I have the time.”
He looked her over skeptically and then took another drink. “I appreciate the offer, Ellery, but we’ve had a dozen eyeballs on these files already, so I don’t think it’s worth either of us risking our heinies just to get one more, capisce?”
Ellery turned her glass around in her hands as she considered her next move. She could just give up here and tell Wendy, Hey, I tried, but the desperation in the woman’s eyes and the way she’d said I thought maybe you’d understand kept eating away at Ellery. “What if,” she said slowly, “what if I could get you access to an FBI profiler? Someone who might take a look at the case and move the investigation forward.”
“FBI? They don’t get involved in this low-level shit.”
“He would if I asked him to,” Ellery said, sounding more confident than she felt. It’s not like Reed Markham owed her any favors. This time, it was definitely the other way around.
“He,” Joe repeated, putting the pieces together. “You mean Markham. The guy who caught Coben.”
“If I can convince him,” Ellery pressed. “Will you let us see the cases?”
“Let you? I’ll throw a goddamned ticker-tape parade.”
Ellery smiled in triumph and drank down her beer. Tomorrow she would figure out how to call up the decorated Agent Reed Markham and tell him she had pimped him out to the Somerville PD.
Copyright © 2019 by Joanna Schaffhausen