Chapter 39

NASH kept his hold on either side of the girls' necks.

His grip was light, but these were pressure-point-sensitive areas. He could see Yasmin, the one who had started all the trouble by being rude in Joe's class, grimacing. The other girl-the daughter of the lady who had stumbled in on all this-quaked like a leaf.

The woman said, "Let them go."

Nash shook his head. He felt giddy now. The crazy was running through him like a live wire. Every neuron had been switched into high gear. One of the girls started crying. He knew that should have an effect on him, that as a human being their tears should move him in some way.

But they just heightened the sensation.

Is it still crazy when you know it's crazy?

"Please," the woman said. "They're just children."

She stopped talking then. So maybe she saw it. Her words were not reaching him. Worse, they seemed to give him pleasure. He admired the woman. He wondered again if she was always this way, brave and feisty, or had she turned into the mother bear protecting her cub?

He would have to kill the mother first.

She would be the most trouble. He was sure of it. There was no way she would stand idly by while he hurt the girls.

But then a new thought aroused him. If this was going to be it, if this was going to be his final stand, would there be any greater high than making the parents watch?

Oh, he knew that was sick. But once the thought was voiced in his head, Nash couldn't let it go. You can't help who you are. Nash had met a few pedophiles in prison and they always tried so hard to convince themselves that what they did was not depraved. They talked about history and ancient civilizations and earlier eras where girls were married when they were twelve and all the while Nash wondered why they bothered. It was simpler. This was how you're hardwired. You have an itch. You have a need to do what others find reprehensible.

This was how God made you. So who was really to blame?

All those pious freaks should understand that if you really thought about it, you were criticizing God's work when you condemned such men. Oh, sure they would counter about temptation, but this was more than that. They knew that too. Because everybody has some itch. It isn't discipline that keeps it in check. It is circumstances. That was what Pietra didn't understand about the soldiers. The circumstances didn't force them to relish in the brutality.

It gave them the opportunity to.

So now he knew. He would kill them all. He would grab the computers and be gone. When the police arrived, the bloodbath would occupy them. They would assume a serial killer. Nobody would wonder about some video made by a blackmailing woman to destroy a kind man and good teacher. Joe could very well be off the hook.

First things first. Tie up the mother.

"Girls?" Nash said.

He turned them so that they could look at him.

"If you run away, I will kill Mommy and Daddy. Do you understand?"

They both nodded. He moved them away from the basement door anyway. He let go of their necks-and that was when Yasmin let out the most piercing scream he had ever heard. She darted toward her father. Nash leaned that way.

That would prove to be a mistake.

The other girl sprinted straight for the steps.

Nash quickly spun to follow, but she was fast.

The woman yelled, "Run, Jill!"

Nash leaped toward the stairs, his hand outstretched to grab her ankle. He touched the skin, but she pulled away. Nash tried to get up but he felt a sudden weight on him.

It was the mother.

She had jumped on his back. She bit down hard into his leg. Nash howled and kicked her away.

"Jill!" Nash called out. "Your mommy will be dead if you don't come down here right now!"

The woman rolled away from him. "Run! Don't listen to him!"

Nash rose and took out the knife. For the first time he was not sure what to do. The telephone box was across the room. He could knock it out, but the girl probably had a cell phone.

Time was running out.

He needed the computers. That was the key thing. So he would kill them, grab the computers, and get out. He would make sure that the hard drives were destroyed.

Nash looked toward Yasmin. She jumped behind her father. Guy tried to roll, tried to sit up, tried to do anything to make himself something of a protective wall for his daughter. The effort, what with him hog-tied with duct tape, was almost comical.

The woman got up too. She moved toward the little girl. Not even hers this time. Brave. But now all three were in one spot. Good. He could take care of them quickly. It would take very little time.

"Jill!" Nash called out again. "Last chance!"

Yasmin screamed again. Nash moved toward them, knife raised, but a voice made him pull up.

"Please don't hurt my mommy."

The voice came from behind him. He could hear her sobs.

Jill had come back.

Nash looked at the mother and smiled. The mother's face collapsed in anguish.

"No!" screamed her mother. "Jill, no! Run!"


"Run! God, honey, please run!"

But Jill didn't listen. She came down the stairs. Nash turned toward her and that was when he realized his mistake. He wondered for a second if he had intentionally let Jill make it to the stairway in the first place. He had let go of their necks, hadn't he? Had he been careless or was there something more? He wondered if somehow he had been directed by someone, someone who had seen enough and wanted him at peace.

He thought that he saw her standing next to the girl.

"Cassandra," he said out loud.

A minute or two earlier, Jill had felt the man's hand press down on her neck.

The man was strong. He didn't seem to be trying at all. His fingers found a spot and it really hurt. Then she saw her mom and the way Mr. Novak was tied up on the floor. Jill was so scared.

Her mom said, "Let them go."

The way she said it calmed Jill a little. It was horrible and scary, but her mother was here. She would do anything to save Jill. And Jill knew that it was time to show that she would do anything for her.

The man's grip tightened. Jill gasped a little and glanced up at his face. The man looked happy. Her eyes moved toward Yasmin. Yasmin was looking directly at Jill. She managed to tilt her head a little. That was what Yasmin did in class when the teacher was looking but she wanted to get Jill a message.

Jill didn't get it. Yasmin started looking down at her own hand.

Puzzled, Jill followed her eyes and saw what Yasmin was doing.

She was making a gun with her forefinger and thumb.


The man holding them by the neck squeezed and turned a little so that they would have to look at him.

"If you run away, I will kill Mommy and Daddy. Do you understand?"

They both nodded. Their eyes met again. Yasmin opened her mouth. Jill got the idea. The man released them. Jill waited for the diversion. It didn't take long.

Yasmin screamed and Jill ran for her life. Not her life, actually. All their lives.

She felt the man's fingertips on her ankle but she pulled away. She heard him howl, but she didn't look back.

"Jill! Your mommy will be dead if you don't come down here right now!"

No choice. Jill ran up the stairs. She thought about the anonymous e-mail she'd sent to Mr. Novak just earlier today:

Please listen to me. You need to hide your gun better.

She prayed that he hadn't read it or if he had, that he hadn't had time to do anything about it. Jill dived into his bedroom and pulled the drawer all the way out. She dumped the contents on the floor.

The gun was gone.

Her heart fell. She heard screaming coming from downstairs. The man could be killing them all. She started tossing his things around when her hand hit something metallic.

The gun.

"Jill! Last chance!"

How did she get rid of the safety? Damn it. She didn't know. But then Jill remembered something.

Yasmin had never put it back on. The safety was probably still off.

Yasmin screamed.

Jill scrambled back to her feet. She wasn't even down the stairs when she called out in the littlest, baby-est voice she could muster: "Please don't hurt my mommy."

She hurried down to the basement level. She wondered if she would be able to apply enough pressure to make the gun fire. She figured that she'd hold the gun with both hands and use two fingers.

Turns out, that was pressure enough.

NASH heard the sirens.

He saw the gun and smiled. Part of him wanted to make a leap, but Cassandra shook her head. He didn't want that either. The girl hesitated. So he moved a little closer to her and raised the knife over her head.

When Nash was ten, he asked his father what happens to us when we die. His father said that Shakespeare probably said it best, that death was "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns."

In sum, how can we know?

The first bullet hit him square in the chest.

He staggered closer to her, keeping the knife raised, waiting.

Nash didn't know where the second bullet would take him, but he hoped it would be to Cassandra.