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~ Chapter Fifteen ~
Pressure on her hand brought Audrey back to reality. She returned the squeeze half-heartedly, still in a daze.
This can’t be happening. This must be some horrible nightmare. It can’t be real…
It had taken so long to get over Jim. So long to stop hearing him sing Hey Jude in the shower in the morning. So long to stop smelling his after-shave, to stop missing the feel of his arms around her. Sometimes she caught a glimpse of her husband out of the corner of her eye, and had to remind herself all over again that he was gone.
I can’t survive this again; I can’t.
“Do you want me to tell her?”
Audrey shook her head without looking at Jake. The devastation in his eyes would confirm that this wasn’t a dream. She couldn’t deal with anyone else’s pain right now.
“No,” she said. “She should hear it from me.”
* * * *
Sara glanced up when her mother entered the waiting room.
Audrey slowed her progress, wanting to remember her daughter the way she was before the terrible news changed her forever.
So many short steps to take, but so many thoughts rushed through her mind. What to tell her, how to say it, how she could possibly protect her. But all of her fretting was useless, as she well knew. There was no way to protect anyone from this.
“Mom?” Sara asked. “Mom?”
Seeing Audrey’s expression, she burst into tears and buried her face in Tim’s shoulder. Audrey held out her arms to her remaining child, desperately needing to hold her close.
“No.” Sara pushed her away. Beside her, Tim shifted on the plastic bench, his blue eyes glassy with exhaustion.
Audrey knelt down and placed her hands on her daughter’s shoulders. “Sara…”
Sara shook her head. “No. No! She’s not dead. It’s not her. You’re saying this to get back at me. All this—all of it—it’s to punish me.”
Audrey wished that were true. She would give anything for it to be a cruel trick, a terrible joke. “It’s her, Sara,” she said as calmly as she could manage. “Tessie’s gone.”
Her daughter sobbed louder. Audrey had no more tears, nothing to give. She felt numb. What kept her from collapsing was the need to make Sara understand that this was no twisted form of punishment.
Just awful, unbelievable truth.
* * * *
Jake eased his front door closed, tossing his hat into a corner of the room. The sound of pounding feet, like those of a small horse, could be heard moving closer and closer. The source of the noise soon came into view and launched itself at Jake in a lean yellow line.
“Sunny!” Jake laughed in spite of himself, unable to contain the sixty pounds of wriggling Golden Retriever. “Sunny! Settle down.”
At last the dog relented, regarding him with her friendly brown eyes. Her tongue lolled out in an unmistakable doggy smile. The damage was done. Jake, who’d suspected he’d never smile again, broke into a grin. It was a rare talent that could break a mood so foul, but then again, Sunny was no ordinary dog.
He had rescued her from the Rapture Animal Shelter when she was a pup. She was born in a cage, the product of a neglected mother with a patchy coat and a lame rear leg. Having her last litter of pups in the company of the shelter’s loving volunteers had somewhat restored the bitch’s spirit, but she whined pitifully when Jake approached.
There was nothing pitiful about her progeny, however. From the start, Sunny was a robust little pup who rolled about with her siblings in wild abandon. For Jake, it was love at first sight.
There was no time to go home and discuss it with Beth, and he knew it. Puppies, especially those of an apparent pedigree, were rare at the shelter. Jake’s window of opportunity was a knothole. If he didn’t take the pup, someone else would, and soon.
So the chubby bundle of fluff joined the Glover family. Beth loved her, as did Skip, who adopted Sunny’s mother and sister.
Like most retrievers, Sunny was an agreeable dog, always eager to please. No matter how big the crowd, there was enough of her affection to go around. But she made it clear that she was Jake’s dog. That was a wise decision on Sunny’s part, since Beth left them both in less than a year.
Jake dumped a can of Ken-L-Ration into Sunny’s plastic bowl, and smiled at how her tail thumped against his leg. He poured himself a mug of Pepsi before sinking into his favorite chair, a leather recliner with the best view of the television.
His living room was as spartan as the rest of his home. Beth had taken most of the furniture and knickknacks when she left, and he hadn’t felt the need to replace them. He was rarely home. But he was grateful that he’d kept his battered chair.
It had been another terrible day, made worse by the fact that it was exactly like the three days before. Four days had gone by without a break in the Martin case. While it was frustrating, Jake knew his experience wasn’t unique. In spite of modern law enforcement’s scientific advances, murder rates were going up and the number of solved crimes was going down.
There had been a chance of solving this one early, or so he’d thought. The odds of keeping a secret in a town like Rapture were slim.
Nothing Jake did could bring Tessie back. But he could find out how and why she died and give Audrey that tiny bit of closure.
He worried about her, especially since he couldn’t be there for her the way he would have liked. Jake knew she understood—that she’d rather have him find out who murdered her daughter than be there to hold her hand. But it killed him that he couldn’t do both. He comforted himself with the thought that the sooner the case was solved, the sooner he could be with her.
This resolve had driven him through the last few days. He worked his men ruthlessly, but no one complained. After four days and three nights of around-the-clock ass busting, what did they have? A ton of physical evidence, since whoever killed Tessie hadn’t been careful about that. No usable fingerprints, but a lot of semen, blood, hair samples, and some vomit.
The sheer horror of what had been done to Tessie plagued him. Someone who took that much pleasure in killing was likely to do it again.
Tessie had put up a good fight. She was tall for her age, and she was strong. Jake knew she didn’t surrender quietly.
Where are the witnesses? It was a puzzling predicament, and no matter how much he rolled it around in his brain, he didn’t like the implication. A girl was the victim of a terrible crime (no, a series of terrible crimes) at a teenage party. The girl went to this party with her sister, who, even though distracted, would have kept an eye out for her. Tessie was a strong-willed girl, capable of quite a temper. Yet, she managed to die the most horrible of deaths without anyone hearing or seeing a thing.
It was impossible. But he had spent twelve hours questioning the kids at Rapture Collegiate without a single viable lead to show for it. All of Tessie Martin’s friends, all of Sara Martin’s friends. He had talked to everyone who admitted being anywhere near the gravel pit that weekend, and some who hadn’t.
It was the same story from each and every one. All the physical evidence in the world wasn’t worth a damn if you didn’t have a suspect.
There was a theory floating around that Tessie was murdered by drifters, bad seeds who passed through the community on an ill wind. Jake knew it was much easier for people to believe that strangers—madmen who didn’t belong in their snug nest of traditional values—had committed this terrible crime. Easier than suspecting your own neighbors could be capable of such savagery.
He understood the need for these rumors and the comfort they could bring. There could even be some truth to them. So far, he had no evidence to the contrary. The gravel pit was a safe, fairly low-key place (low-key unless teenagers were having an illegal party there, that is) for vagrants to hide out and warm themselves by a fire. He’d moved people on from there more than once.
But if drifters had killed Tessie, it meant bad news for him and the rest of the Rapture police force. Also no justice for Audrey and Sara. A nomadic vagrant would be extremely difficult to track down, and harder to identify if Tessie was the only one who’d seen him at the party. Still, with no other suspects to speak of, Jake had to consider all possibilities. Maybe other towns had experienced similar crimes. Maybe there were other girls who had suffered like Tessie. It was worth looking into.
Jake smiled as Sunny, her meal well on its way to being digested, leaped into the chair beside him.
“That’s a good girl,” he murmured. He absentmindedly scratched the retriever behind her ears. The dog’s warm, softly snoring form was small comfort to him at a time like this.
He eased himself out of the recliner and made his way back to the kitchen, where he added a shot of rye to his flat Pepsi. The bottle of whiskey was covered with dust, a Christmas present from one of his deputies over five years ago. Jake sniffed the contents cautiously before he poured, wondering if booze could go bad.
The warmth of the rye in his gut failed to relax him. He couldn’t forget the sight of Tessie’s mutilated body. Try as he might, the scene played over and over in his mind like a masochistic movie. Beth always said that he took his work home too much, and on nights like these, he was inclined to agree with her.
Whenever his mind turned to thoughts of his ex-wife, which happened more often than he cared to admit, one memory stood out from the rest. It was the conversation they had immediately after his proposal.
“Do you know what it means to marry a cop?”
“I’m not marrying a ‘cop’, Jacob. I’m marrying you.”
“But I’m a cop, Beth.” He refused to be charmed out of his serious mood. “That means the phone is going to ring at ungodly hours. There will be times when I can’t be there for you, and times I can’t keep my promises. There will be nights when you’re alone, and nights when you’re afraid for me, but that’s the way it’s got to be. Are you sure you can handle it?”
“Of course I can handle it. I’ve dated you for over a year, remember? I’m not some damsel in distress you have to take care of. I can take care of myself. I’ll be fine.”
But Jake had seen too many supposedly blissful unions collapse. “You’re positive? Because I don’t want to be a stereotype, Beth. I’m not going to be another divorced cop. If we get married, it’s for keeps, so you have to be sure.”
“There’s nothing stereotypical about me. And I’m only getting married once.”
Well, she tried, Jake thought as he set his empty mug on the floor beside his chair. She lasted three years before she left. That’s longer than it takes most of them.
For a while, their relationship had progressed smoothly. Beth loved to spend time with him: snow-shoeing or walking around their property in the evenings, going out for dinner to their favorite Italian restaurant, or checking out what the local movie theatre happened to be showing that weekend. Only one thing stood in the way of their long-term happiness.
As Jake was given more responsibility at work, he came home later and later. While serious crimes were infrequent in Rapture, there was more than enough going on to keep his department busy. He could tell that Beth was trying to take his schedule in stride, but she wasn’t a patient woman by nature. As she entertained guests on her own and spent more and more nights alone in their home, she began to change. Soon she no longer resembled the cheerful woman he’d married. Feeling bitter and neglected, she would snap at him the moment he walked in the door.
Exhausted and facing pressure from all sides, Jake didn’t deal with Beth’s complaints as compassionately as he should have. He started to snipe back, and before he knew what was happening, their close friendship had disintegrated. They’d devolved into one of those married couples they’d sworn never to be: screaming at each other, avoiding each other, going to bed angry instead of in each other’s arms.
And then Beth stopped coming to bed at all.
As unhappy as they’d become, Jake was determined to make things work. Marriage was for life.
On their third-year anniversary, Beth suggested that they put the months of bickering behind them. She would get take-out from the Italian restaurant they loved, and they would have a romantic dinner together at home. It would give them the chance to remember how things were when they first met, when they were still on the same side. Jake promised to be home by six.
At a quarter to six, there was a fatal hit-and-run at Rapture Elementary School. A truck collided with seven-year-old Theresa Duncan as she rode her bicycle across the street. The force of the accident was enough to send Theresa and her pink sneakers in opposite directions. When Jake arrived at the scene, the girl’s twisted bike was still an abstract sculpture in the middle of the street.
At that moment, tracking down the coward who ran over Theresa without stopping took preeminence in Jake’s mind. He forgot his anniversary. He forgot his promise. For a little while, he even forgot his wife.
He stumbled in the door at midnight, so physically and emotionally drained that he found it difficult to put one foot in front of the other. Beth waited for him in the kitchen.
The remnants of two candles dominated the table, which was covered by the anniversary dinner, now cold and congealed. Past the table sat his wife, who looked up at him with an expression of defeat and sadness. Beth had never looked at him that way before, and the realization of what it meant sent prickles of fear up his spine. When she yelled at him, at least it meant she cared. This quiet resignation scared him more than anything.
“I’m sorry, Beth.” He was barely able to get his voice above a whisper. “I’m so sorry. There was a hit-and-run...little Theresa Duncan was killed, and I completely forgot to call you. I’m sorry.”
“There’s always going to be a Theresa Duncan, isn’t there? There’s always going to be someone who needs you more than I do.”
Jake had the uncomfortable feeling that he was stuck in a dream, one of those horrible nightmares where something awful is coming but you can’t seem to run. She’s going to leave you. Do something. Say something to make her stay.
But what was there to say? She was right. Things were never going to change. There would be slow times, more than most cops had the luxury of. But there would always be nights like this, more nights than Beth could handle. More than she wanted to handle.
“You knew I was a cop when you married me, Beth,” was all he could say. “You knew what that meant. I told you what that meant.”
“I’m sorry, Jake,” she said, looking down at her fingers, which toyed with the edges of the lace tablecloth, a wedding gift from his mother. Jake couldn’t remember Beth ever using it before. “I really loved you, but I can’t do this anymore.”
When Jake heard those words, he knew it was over. The monster was here and there was no point in running.
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