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“In a deserted warehouse,” I say. I’m willing to let Sam take the lead, but he’s laying back, watching. Absorbing information. “Why did you hire him?”

“You said the name Absalom,” Rivard counters. “Explain how you know that name, please.”

I force a smile. “Sure. But first you tell me how you know it.”

“I’ve had some . . . issues. I’d rather not go into the details.”

“Did it have to do with your son?” Sam asks, and I ease back to let him take the conversation.

I think for a few seconds that we’ve lost the old man, that he’s going to summon his men to see us out . . . but Rivard heaves a sigh and looks off into the distance, out at the serene Atlanta skyline. “Yes. It had to do with my son,” he says. His voice has a ring of sadness, and also frustration. “Very much to do with him. I lost him to suicide a few months ago, you know. My fault. It’s not easy, raising wealthy children with a good sense of right and wrong. I should have done better, but that’s my sin, not his. He had drug problems through the years, as I suppose you’re aware; the tabloids covered it with a great deal of glee. He was in and out of treatment facilities . . . not unlike you, Mr. Cade. You also have some hospitalization in your past, don’t you?”

Sam closes up. I’ve seen it before, this change, but it’s still alarming, as if he’s turned to glass, and only his eyes are still alive. Then the shell breaks, and he says, “I was hospitalized after Afghanistan.”

“No shame in it, son. A lot of good men come back damaged from war.”

Sam’s not having Rivard’s honey-coated condescension. His eyes have gone flat and cold. “I was treated for severe depression, and since you’re only discussing it to demonstrate you dug into both our histories, why don’t you just skip to the main course and talk about Melvin Royal?”

I’m glad he’s countermoved. Hearing him say my ex-husband’s name is a shock, but a bracing one. We’ve just controlled the pacing. And I see Rivard doesn’t care for that much, from the slight tightening of his thin lips.

“All right,” he says. “Let’s do discuss the invisible serial killer in the room. Melvin Royal is on the loose, everyone is running in terror, and yet you, Gina, you aren’t hiding. If anyone has cause, one would suppose it’s you . . . unless you have a good reason not to be afraid of him. Which makes me believe that is how you know about Absalom.”

“Fuck you,” I say, which makes him wince from the incivility of it all. “You think I’m working with my ex? Sincerely, fuck you.” I stand up, set my glass with a thump, and head for the door. Rivard smoothly angles his chair forward to cut me off, and I’m not quite angry enough to punch a rich old man who’s wheelchair-bound. “Move.”

“I was only seeing your reaction,” he tells me calmly. “I do apologize if you were offended.”

I’m staring straight into his eyes. “If I was offended? Fuck you and your Ivory Tower power-play bullshit. That sick bastard is hunting me. He’s hunting my children. Either help, or get out of my way. Is that direct enough for you?”

Behind me, Sam stands, too. I hear his glass hit the table. “We don’t need you,” he tells Rivard. “Go to hell.”

It’s not quite Fuck you, but I’ll take it. He’s probably thinking about Mike Lustig, and not completely destroying this back channel, but I don’t have any kind of patience. I am incandescent with rage. Melvin’s Little Helper had her day in court, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let anyone say this to my face again.

Rivard blinks first. “All right,” he says, then moves his chair out of my way. “You’re welcome to leave if you like, I won’t stop you. But I do apologize, Ms. Proctor. That was rude. But I had to be certain you weren’t . . . one of them.”

“Absalom, you mean,” I say, and he nods. “It was Absalom you were after? That’s who Sauer was looking into?”

“Yes.” He takes a long breath. “My son suffered from, as they term it these days, affluenza. I would simply call him spoiled. It led to drug and alcohol addiction, which resulted in a variety of problems. All tiresomely predictable. A cliché.” He waves that away. “Absalom targeted him, and they were unspeakably cruel in how they tormented him online. No reason at all. Simply because he was an easy target. Amusement, I suppose.”

“How did they attack him?” I ask, but I think I already know. He takes another drink, then puts his glass down on the table to join ours. It means he’s surrendering his last defense, I think.

“It started as postings. What do they call them on the Internet? Memes. One day he woke up and discovered he was the butt of a thousand jokes, and I can only imagine it devastated him; he never told me about it. He tried to handle it himself, and that only put fuel on the fire. They came after him like a pack of wild dogs. Put his personal details online. Posted stolen therapy records. They went further every day. My son had a three-year-old daughter. They first claimed he molested her, then forged paperwork that purported to prove it. Pictures. They posted these—horrible videos of—” Rivard’s voice fails him, and for the first time, I feel sorry for him. I know this story. I’ve lived it.

He clears his throat. “The worst was, people believed it. There were websites formed around hounding him. Police investigated the claims of molestation. There was no truth to it, the case was dismissed, but that didn’t stop the crusade. There were avalanches of vile letters. Faxes. Phone calls. He couldn’t—he couldn’t get away from it. After a while, I suppose he didn’t even see the point of trying.” Rivard’s watery eyes suddenly shift to lock on mine. “You understand. I know you do, given what was done to you.”

I slowly nod. From the day that Melvin’s horror chamber was broken open, my kids and I have been targets. You never understand how vulnerable you are in this age of social media until something breaks against you, and then . . . then it’s too late. You can shut down Facebook, Twitter, Instagram; you can change your phone number and your e-mail. Move to new places. But for dedicated tormentors, that isn’t a barrier. It’s a challenge. They enjoy hitting. They don’t particularly care if the blows ever land, and it becomes a contest of who can post the most shocking, degrading material. The torrent comes from nowhere, and everywhere, and the hatred . . . it’s like poison, seeping from the screen into your brain.

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