What I say is, “How can I be sure you’re going to give me anything at all?”
“Half a mile up, there’s an exit to Willow Road. Take it. Turn right. There’s a coffee shop on the corner two blocks up. Tell the barista you left your tablet there. There’s one waiting under your name.”
Shit. The phone feels hot in my hand, and I’m shaken more than I should be. Of course they can track me. They’ve got this number. I’ll have to ditch my phone, too. I should have already done it, but I was so worried about Gwen that I didn’t consider both our phones would have been compromised.
“Okay,” I tell the voice. “I’ll look. Where do I call you back?”
“You don’t.” The voice remains flat, expressionless, but I can imagine the man on the other end is smiling now. Grinning, maybe. “Just watch what’s on it. The password is 1-2-3-4.”
The cold’s creeping into the cab of the SUV now, or maybe that’s the shock finally taking hold; either way, my down jacket doesn’t feel warm enough anymore.
I hang up, drop the phone on the seat next to me, and pull out into traffic, heading for Willow Road.
At the coffee shop—a local place, nothing nationally branded, and nearly empty in the poor weather—I order a coffee and ask for the tablet. It’s behind the counter with a sticky note on it. When I ask who found it, I get an indifferent shrug.
It powers on when I hit the button, and I enter the password the voice gave me. I’ve taken the precaution of taking a seat in the corner of the shop, at an angle where no passersby or bored baristas can take a look at what I’m seeing. Not that anyone seems remotely interested.
There’s a file that comes up immediately. It’s video; I pause it to dig out earphones and plug in. The figure on the screen is shrouded in a black robe with a hood, and there’s a red devil mask concealing the face. Blank white wall behind it. The lighting’s poor, and the sound isn’t much better, but it’s clear enough.
“If you’re seeing this, you know what we’re offering. You know who this is. We will give you location upon agreement.”
It’s a brief intro, designed not to give anything up if anybody else watched the video by accident . . . but I know the context.
The scene changes in a jump cut. I recognize Melvin Royal immediately. He’s facing the camera, but it’s clear he doesn’t know he’s being filmed. He’s got on a ball cap and sunglasses, and he’s grown a scruffy beard. He blends well: jeans, a flannel shirt, a down jacket that’s a dead ringer for the one on my back. He doesn’t look like a man on the run. He looks, if not like a local, then someone who might be a casual visitor.
He’s standing near a corner, looking through a rack of postcards under what probably is an awning. The sun’s out, so it isn’t anywhere around here, but it’s cold enough that everyone passing is wearing something heavier than a sweater.
He isn’t postcard shopping. He’s watching people. I see as a young woman passes that she catches his attention. He pulls a card from the rack and pretends to study it, but behind the sunglasses, he’s following her. Assessing her.
He puts the card back in the slot and steps out in pursuit. Casual. Natural. A hunter in his environment.
It’s fucking awful to watch, and I can’t help but think, That girl’s dead now. It brings back dark nightmares of my sister walking oblivious into the darkness of a parking lot, then vanishing forever. Snatched away by a predator as fast and ruthless as a praying mantis.
I can’t tell where he is, not from this narrow-focus video. I try blowing up the postcard rack to see details, but nothing’s clear enough. Could be anywhere winter chill has taken hold, but likely still somewhere south and west of here; I can’t see any snow or ice on the ground.
Of course, I don’t know when it was filmed. I try the metadata for the file, but it’s clean. Not Absalom’s first ride.
A chat window opens on the tablet. The contact name is Abs, for Absalom.
I watch as a message appears: we give you location if you give us Gina.
Give her to you how exactly? I’m just killing time, trying to think. Struggling against a tidal wave of memory and sickness and the feeling that if I don’t do something, more women are going to die, sure as sunrise.
Motel address and room number, the next message says. Stay out of the way. Let us have her.
What are you going to do with her?
What you wanted. The answer comes fast, and in the next second, another window opens, piling documents one on another, faster and faster. Screenshots, and with a sick jolt I recognize what they are.
My words. Posts on message boards. E-mails I sent to Gina Royal. Letters I wrote to her mailbox, every time she moved and tried to hide. The hate is right there, in pixels and pages.
. . . helped slaughter my sister like an animal . . .
. . . never be done with you. You have no hiding place . . .
. . . guilty as sin and I will never forget, never forgive . . .
. . . hope you suffer the same torture she did . . .
It’s me. It’s my sick fury captured and on display. Nightmare made real. I wrote those things. I meant them.
She’s guilty as sin, Absalom says, quoting my own rage. She deserves to pay for the girls who died.
Fuck you, I type back with shaking fingers. You’re helping Melvin Royal.
Now we’re helping you. Everything has a price. She’s yours. We’ll give you Melvin. You give us Gina.
I take a long moment of silence. I stare at all the evidence of my madness, and I know it’s still in me; I still half believe those videos of Gina Royal. I wish to hell I didn’t. I want to rip that part of myself up by the roots, but I can’t; it’s the part that holds the memories of my lost little sister, too. It might be toxic, but it’s important.
I think. My coffee sits undrunk, cooling, as the sleet hisses against the windows and the night grows darker. I remember Gina Royal saying she never helped her husband. Swearing it under oath. I remember the video, fake or not, that says she lied.
I remember Gwen screaming into the cold wind while I held her back from plunging into traffic.
And then I type two words.
Dad said that Javier and Kezia would never figure out what I did, and he was right about that. He sent me all the instructions: how to download the video onto his phone, how to transfer it to the one Mom gave me, how to take off the parental lock that kept me from using the Internet so I could pretend I found it on a message board. He even posted a fake message there so Javier could find a broken link when he went looking. I already knew Mom’s code to take the lock off. It wasn’t hard to figure out.
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