I dedicated the better part of two full years to tracking her, paying for intel, following just behind her until finally she settled at Stillhouse Lake with the kids, and I could slip into the landscape. Blend in. Watch her as she went about her business. I became a member of the same gun range, both to keep up my practice and to see her up close, in situations where she wasn’t as on guard.
I don’t know when I started seeing past the still photo. Maybe it was the grateful, thoughtless smile she gave me when I held the door for her; I don’t think she even clocked who I was, just that I was a friendly stranger. Maybe it was watching the way she shredded the target, and afterward, the look in her eyes—that shimmer of grief and rage. I knew that feeling.
Maybe it was seeing her with her kids, laughing, interested in what they had to say, sharply protective of them. I was careful. I watched from a distance, trying to catch her with her mask down, trying to see the monster underneath, the one who’d allowed my sister to die so horribly. Who was complicit in the inhuman crimes of the man she’d married, and stayed with. The man who’d abducted, tortured, and raped my sister while I was overseas, fighting for our country.
But I didn’t see a woman who covered up for a monster. Instead of Gina Royal—whom I’d never once met—I saw Gwen Proctor, a woman with a faint resemblance to that other person. Someone who had a full, human personality. Who treated others kindly, if a little guardedly.
That was when I realized that those Internet trolls I hung out with online, the ones who were trying to track her movements, competing to be more aggressive, more vindictive . . . they were wrong. Wrong about who she was. What she deserved. Wrong about her kids. What else had they been wrong about? Her role in the killings?
I remember the day she opened her door to me. Her son had gone missing from school, and I’d found him nursing a bloody nose down at the lake. I’d seen the relief at finding him safe, and then that flash of pure, terrified rage that I might have done something to her child. Then the gratitude when she judged I was being honest, that I hadn’t done anything but be a responsible adult.
I’d told myself I stayed around them to gather evidence of her guilt, but from that moment on it hadn’t been true.
Need came later, but it came on slowly. Softly. Against my will.
I’m not prepared to say I love her. But I am willing to admit to myself that it’s more than curiosity, more than liking, more than the kind of one-night-stand lust that you get over in the morning.
There are moments when it feels like I’ve always known her. And then, like tonight, there are moments when I feel like I don’t know her at all. Like she’s a mystery I’ll never solve, wrapped in barbed wire and thorns and roses.
I think about what she said. Melvin Royal called her. How he’d gotten the number is a mystery, but then again, he’s still working with Absalom. Maybe they’d located footage of me in the convenience store where I’d bought the disposable phones. Maybe then they’d tracked us from the rental car agency, where we’d used a fake ID. The Georgia police. Maybe, maybe, maybe. It’s useless to speculate how, but the important question is . . . why? First, always, it’s to torment her, and it’s worked. He’s unsettled her. Thrown her off balance.
Which means we are getting close to him now. Melvin deflects. Misdirects. Hits there and moves here. Classic tactics, but done with the slick, unnerving confidence of a true sociopath. I can’t play chess with him; I don’t even have whatever sick board he’s using. But I can understand that this isn’t really about Gwen. She’s a piece he moves, or tries to, when it suits him. She’s no longer a pawn, like she’d been when he married her, but a more powerful piece: a bishop, a rook, a queen.
Me? I am a knight. I move in unforeseen directions. Which is why, after I hear Gwen close and lock her door, I dig earbuds out of my backpack, plug them in, and start up the torture video.
This time I make myself watch it without blinking, without stopping. It’s long. A full fifteen minutes of torture, degradation, and horror. A human figure suspended by the hands from a chain, anchored to the floor by another two more. Splayed out and defenseless to do anything but bleed and scream. The video’s jerky and poorly lit, but now I am paying attention, walling myself off from the horror of it and focusing on details. This is not a person, I tell myself. This is an echo. A collection of light and shadow. I am reducing that suffering person to the same pixels to which I once reduced Gwen. Stripping away the humanity because that is the only way I can save myself and still watch this unrelenting horror. I’m watching it for details. For the room. Anything I can use to possibly identify a location, the victim, or the perpetrators.
My first assumption—and, I’m sure, Gwen’s first assumption—is completely wrong. The person who’s screaming, suffering, and dying in this video is male.
And this isn’t torture done purely for the sake of sadism. It’s an interrogation.
I can’t really hear the questions; the sound is terrible, garbled and echoing, which—I quickly note down—means a large, metallic room of some kind, maybe that warehouse we’ve already identified. I can’t make out the answers the man’s giving, either, mixed in as they are with microphone-overwhelming shrieks, with gasps and coughs and bloody mumbling. I close my eyes and reverse the video, starting from the beginning. Listening for questions and answers.
I finally get a few.
How long have you been tracking us?
Did you really think we wouldn’t catch you?
Please stop, for God’s sake . . .
Who are you working for?
I open my eyes, because I finally understand his last response. Just one word. A name.
I write it down, sit back, and stare at it.
Then I pick up the phone and call Mike Lustig. It’s late—nearly two in the morning—but I know he’ll answer. He does, on the second ring, with no trace of grogginess. “You know what time it is, my man?” he asks, but it’s done in place of a hello. I don’t answer the rhetorical question.
“You recognize the name Rivard?”
There’s a long, long pause before Mike says, “Could be thousands of them, but the only one that springs to mind is Ballantine Rivard, owns Rivard Luxe. Been a tabloid staple for—how long? Forty years? The Howard Hughes of retail. Lifetime member of the billionaire boys club, with Buffett, Gates, Trump . . . Been locked up in his tower for years now.”
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