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When she entered the women’s lavatory, she seemed to be alone. The doors on all three stalls were slightly ajar, not fully closed and latched.


The sound of rain swelled louder here, not merely an insistent drumming on roof shingles, but a more intimate gurgle, plink, and splash.


The double-hung window featured panes of frosted glass. The lower sash had been raised, opening the room to the night.


Choruses of rain danced on the windowsill, drizzled off the edge, and formed a shallow puddle on the floor.


The water reflected the ceiling light but didn’t appear to be luminous in its own right. It seemed to have no peculiar odor, either, so perhaps the storm had entered a new phase.


Considering what a leak had spawned in the janitorial closet in the men’s room, however, Molly moved directly to the window to close it.


As she reached for the bottom rail to pull down the lower sash, she was shaken by the conviction that something lurked in the night just beyond the window. Something waited that she could not see through the doubled panes of frosted glass, a hostile presence that would reach inside and seize her and drag her out into the dark wet or, with razored claws, would slash her open, groin to breast, and eviscerate her where she stood.


So intense and specific was this fear that it had the impact of a paranormal vision, rocking her backward. She stumbled, nearly fell, regained her balance, and chastised herself for allowing Derek to reduce her to the condition of a frightened child.


As she stepped toward the window again, a familiar voice spoke behind her, one that she hadn’t heard in many years but that she instantly identified: “Do you have a little kiss for me, sweetheart?”


She turned and discovered Michael Render, murderer of five children and father of one, standing hardly more than an arm’s length away.


24


IN RAIN-SOAKED GRAY COTTON PANTS AND matching shirt, Render looked not storm-battered but storm-refreshed, as if this downpour that had been conjured and concocted to nurture alien vegetation had also nurtured him.


He appeared to have thrived in twenty years of sympathetic custody. Freed from the worries of work and self-support, granted leisure greater than that of pampered kings, with the services of an institutional nutritionist and the use of a well-equipped gym, he had stayed slim at the waist, had added muscle, and had acquired no lines at the corners of his eyes or mouth. At fifty, he could pass as a man still shy of his fortieth birthday.


Pleased by the effect that his surprise appearance had on Molly, he smiled and said, “For heart-rending emotion, nothing quite equals a father-and-child reunion.”


Molly found her voice and was relieved to hear no tremor in it, no reflection of the fact that her thundering heart boomed hard enough to rattle bone on bone in her knees. “What are you doing here?”


“Where else should I be but with my only remaining family?”


“I’m not afraid of you.”


“I’m not afraid of you, either, sweetheart.”


The 9-mm pistol nestled in her raincoat. She slipped her right hand into that pocket, closed it around the checked grip, and hooked her index finger on the trigger guard.


“Going to shoot me again?” he asked, once more with a note of amusement.


Render was handsome now, as he had always been; and once he had been uncannily charming, too, sufficiently winning in his ways that her mother, who even as a young woman had a keen insight into people, had been seduced by him and swept into marriage.


Thalia had soon learned the consequences of her naiveté. She’d mistaken Render’s possessiveness for love. She discovered that what had seemed to be an admirable male desire to cherish and protect had in fact been an almost demonic need to control.


Rain-slicked, rain-beaded, Michael Render stood here in his true persona, reveled in it. But there was something different about him, too, a disturbing change that Molly could sense but not define. His seductive gray eyes had a luster to rival the luminosity of the early rain, as if the storm had filled him to the brim and pooled now within his skull.


“I’ve given up guns,” he assured her. “They’re effective but so impersonal. Between the idea and the reality, the thrill is lost, and murder by gun fades in memory too fast. In a year or two, reliving it doesn’t even stir an erection.”


By the time Molly was two years old, her mother had endured enough of Render’s intimidation, his irrational jealousy, his self-pitying tantrums, his threats, and finally his violence. Choosing freedom at the cost of poverty, she had taken nothing from their marriage except her most personal possessions and her daughter.


“And let me tell you, Molly, dear, when a virile man is confined to solitary accommodations in a sanitarium for the criminally insane, even in one of the progressive institutions with all its comforts, he is denied the satisfaction of women, and to achieve relief, he really needs all of the erotic memories he can get.”


During and following the divorce, Render had initially pursued sole custody of his child, then joint custody. When the legal system proved slow enough to try his short-fuse patience and when judges admonished him for his behavior in their courtrooms, he argued his case in personal confrontations with Thalia, often in public places, red-faced and shouting threats, which resulted in the issuance of restraining orders that diminished his chances of obtaining joint custody. Contempt for the restraining orders had landed him in jail for thirty days and had put an end to even his supervised visitation rights.


“After a year of isolation,” he said now, “I’d all but forgotten the feel of your mother—the taste of her mouth, the weight of her breasts. I had cheap whores who stayed in memory better.” A smile, a shrug. “Your mother was a boring porcelain bitch.”


“Shut up.” Molly couldn’t summon any volume, only a whisper. As always, Render insisted on dominance, and to her chagrin, Molly was unable to assert herself, as though twenty years had dropped out from under her, plunging her into childhood again. “Shut up.”


“After two years, the memory of your head-shot, gut-shot little playmates didn’t do it for me anymore, either. A bullet is just too impersonal. A bullet isn’t a blade, and a blade isn’t bare hands. I’ve found that strangulation stays vivid in the memory. It’s much more intimate than merely pulling a trigger. I stiffen even now at the thought of it.”


Molly drew the pistol from her raincoat pocket.


“Ah,” he said with evident satisfaction, as though the intention behind his visit to the tavern had been to taunt her into precisely this confrontation. “I’ve come a long way through bad weather to ask you a few questions—but first to tell you a little story, so you’ll better understand your dear old dad.”


The moment was increasingly surreal. Claustrophobic. Paralytic. Emblematic.


She stood at the vise point between the jaws of the past and the future, both pressing hard and insistently upon her, constraining her breath, denying her mobility, pinching her voice in her throat.


“I’ve spent twenty years under lock and key. Internal darkness, deprivation. At least you owe me a friendly ear for a moment. Just one little story, and then I’ll go.”


Twenty years earlier, when he destroyed his last hope of winning legal custody of Molly, Michael Render resorted to the instrument of persuasion that he now claimed to find unsatisfactory: the gun. He had come to her elementary school to take her from her classroom. Having asked to see his daughter on some pretense that the principal had found unconvincing, Render realized that he’d aroused suspicion, whereupon he pulled a pistol and shot the principal dead.


“After five years of treatment,” he told her now, “I was sent to a facility with lower security standards. They had large, lovely grounds. The best-behaved patients who had made the most progress in their therapy, who were judged to have reached a point of remorse on a journey to contrition, were encouraged to work in the various gardens if they wished.”


With the principal dead, Render had gone in search of Molly’s third-grade classroom, killing one member of the faculty en route and wounding two others. He found her room and grievously wounded her teacher, Mrs. Pasternak, and would have abducted Molly if the police had not then arrived.


“In the gardens, we wore an electronic shackle around one ankle, which would trigger an alarm in the security office if we ventured farther than allowed. I made no attempt to escape. There was a fence, after all, and a world outside that knew my face too well. I became something of a horticulturist, specializing in roses.”


With the arrival of the police, he had taken Molly and twenty-two other children hostage. He wasn’t a stupid man—in fact he had earned two university degrees—and therefore knew that having killed two and wounded three, he could not hope to negotiate freedom for himself. By then, however, his ever-simmering anger, which was the essence of his personality, had grown into a fiery rage, and he determined that if he could not have the control of the daughter that he had for so long pursued, then he would deny other parents the pleasure of their children’s company.


“One day, as I worked alone in the rose garden, what should appear before me but a nine-year-old boy with a disposable camera.”


Render had killed five of the twenty-two children before Molly shot him. He’d brought two pistols and spare magazines of ammunition. After reloading both guns, he’d reacted with such fury to something he heard from a police bullhorn outside that in his rage he left one weapon lying on the teacher’s desk, and turned his back on it.


His voice these twenty years later, colored by something darker than his usual anger, mesmerized her: “On a dare, to prove his courage to his pals, the boy had cut a hole in a far corner of the fence, distant from the actual sanitarium buildings, and had crept across the grounds, hoping to photograph one of the infamous patients as evidence of his nerve.”


Although only eight years old and unfamiliar with firearms, Molly had picked up the second pistol from the teacher’s desk. Gripping it with both hands, she squeezed off three shots. Rocked and terrified by the recoil, she still managed to hit Render twice—first in the back, then in the right thigh—and fortunately harmed no one with the third shot, which lodged in a wall.


“The infamous patient the boy chanced to come across was me,” said Render. “He was skittish, but I charmed him, mugged for the camera, and let him take eight photographs there among the roses.”


When Render, having been shot twice, crashed to the schoolroom floor, the seventeen surviving children fled. In their wake, a SWAT team entered to find Molly weeping at the side of her badly wounded teacher, who would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.


“By the end of our little photo shoot, the boy had let down his guard. I hit him very hard in the face, and hit him again, and then strangled him there among the roses. The experience would have been even more satisfying if he’d been a young girl, but you have to work with what you’re given.”


Later on that bloody day, twenty years before this current encounter, Molly had wondered how she could have wounded him twice with three shots even though she had never handled a gun before, though she had been shaking with terror, though three times the punishing recoil had nearly knocked her off her feet. That she had been able to stop him seemed a miracle.


“Not far from the rose garden was an old cistern, an enormous stone-walled underground tank. They’d once had a complex rainwater-collection system that funneled runoff into the cistern to be used for maintenance of the landscaping in dry months.”


Molly had told her mother that some spirit had been with her on that awful day, an angel that could have no influence with Render but could guide her and steady her to do what must be done.


“The cistern hadn’t been used in sixty years. They left it there because the cost of tearing it out was prohibitive.”


Thalia had assured young Molly that she—and she alone—deserved the credit for her courage, for what she’d done. Angels, Thalia said, didn’t work their miracles with guns.


“Using gardening tools, I pried off the cistern lid and dropped the boy into that hole. So dark in there, and such a stench. Shallow water far below. He landed with a splash, and a chorus of rats squeaking in fright.”


In spite of her mother’s well-meaning counsel, Molly believed then, and to this day, that some guiding spirit had been with her in that schoolroom.


She felt no spirit now, however, and was inexpressibly grateful for the pistol in her hand.


“I buried his little disposable camera at the foot of a rosebush. It was the Cardinal Mindszenty rose, so named because of its glorious robe-red color.”


Render moved, not toward her—and risk being shot—but around her, slowly circling away from the toilet stalls, in the direction of the sinks.


“Police came looking for the boy, of course, but they took some time to find him. The rats had done their work. But better yet, the bottom of the cistern had cracked and broken out ages ago. The boy had settled into a natural limestone catacomb under the cistern. His condition, when they discovered him, didn’t give the CSI techies much to work with.”


Slowly Render moved past the first sink, then past the second.


Molly turned, tracking him with the pistol.


“Suspicion fell on another patient. Edison Crain, his name was. A plump, sweaty little man. Ten years before, he had raped a young boy and strangled him to death—his only known act of violence.”


Second by second, the lavatory seemed less real to Molly, while simultaneously Render grew more vivid, commanding her attention, as hypnotic as a weaving cobra.


“Crain had lived ten blameless years since then, had been a model patient, and it was thought that his cure was well advanced, that he would be eligible for medically supervised release in a year or so. But the poor troubled thing must still have been eaten with guilt over the boy he did kill, and must not have trusted his own sanity. Because when suspicion fell on him, he cracked and broke, confessed to the murder of the camera boy.”


Having circled a hundred eighty degrees of the room, Render stood with his back to the window, his feet in the puddle of rain.


“They transferred Crain to a maximum-security hospital, and I…well, I escaped all consequences. That was fifteen years ago, but still, when I’m lying alone in bed at night, between the desire and the spasm, the memory of strangling the boy excites me no less than the first time I resorted to it for stimulation.”


Molly had been aware of a difference in him, the nature of which for a while eluded definition; but now she understood it. Render’s characteristic anger was not in evidence. His hot temper had cooled.

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