Authors: Antoinette van Heugten
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult, #Thriller
Perspiring now, she gets down on her knees and shines the light under the bed. She pushes a tennis shoe out of the way and hits something. Twisting her arm, she pulls out an object covered with dust. Danielle stands, fingering the small black box connected to red nylon. It is an electronic dog collar.
She makes a quick inspection of the kitchen. No dog bowl on the floor; no dog food in the pantry. She thinks of the crude holes that were punched in the neoprene collar to make it smaller—small enough to fit around a boy’s neck. Danielle feels sick. She puts the collar back under the bed. The glowing hands of her watch show that she has been here almost an hour. The noise outside has stopped. She slips out of the room and stands in the living room. Silence. The boys must be gone. A quick inspection of the bathroom reveals nothing other than a medicine cabinet and everyday toiletries.
She walks back to the spare room and opens the closet. A stench so vile hits her that she fights an overwhelming urge to vomit. This is the source of the putrid, stifling odor that emanates throughout the house. She clamps her hand to her mouth and flips on the wall switch. Everything touched by the light has an odd, bluish glow. Winter clothes hang from the racks, bathed in the foul smell. Could a rat have died in the walls? She starts to flick off the light when something catches her eye, something on the corner shelf. It seems to have a light source all its own. Danielle pushes aside the hanging clothes that hide it.
Swimming in surreal light is what appears to be a glass receptacle. A pink, quilted cloth partially covers it. She looks closer. A tea cozy. She takes a deep breath and slides it off. Underneath is a laboratory specimen jar, its lid askew as if someone forgot to secure it. The reek almost blinds her. She shrinks back and drops the quilted cozy onto the floor.
It is what is inside the jar that confounds her. It looks like a dark shape suspended in a viscous, colored fluid. The blue cast of the overhead bulb lends a strange shadow to the form. The interplay of light and a soft humming noise give the entire corner an otherworldly, eerie appearance. Danielle blinks. The form in the jar appears to move, barely, like a lava lamp that has just been turned on and is slowly responding to the heat that causes its contents to twist and rise. She stares, mesmerized. Some primitive part of her brain goes on alert. An irrational fear overwhelms her with the conviction that any sudden movement on her part will cause the form to spring from its container and attack her.
Hypnotized, she moves closer. Each inch brings the form more clearly into focus. One minute it is a coiled mass of scales and fur—the next nothing more than a smooth, shiny piece of protoplasm suspended in midair. When Danielle finally brings her face level with it, she makes out bulging folds of a shape in the murkiness. The thing seems to be twisted upon itself. Almost too frightened to breathe, she points her tiny flashlight at the jar. What stares back makes her recoil as if it had leapt out of the jar and struck her.
They are the dead, translucent eyes of a fetus. It hangs, paralyzed and grotesque, in an opaque, curdling fluid. She fights down the bile that closes her throat and forces herself to look once more. Its eyes, in shadow, seem alive. They implore her, entreat her.
After the longest moment, it comes to her. The tiny eyes beg for mercy, justice, retribution. But above all—they scream for their mother.
Danielle sits on a bar stool in the kitchen, as far from the specter in the closet as possible. Her mind whirls as she tries to assimilate these bizarre discoveries. She fumbles in her purse for a cigarette. Her hands shake. Before she has a chance to exhale, her cell phone rings. It is earsplitting in the silence of the house. She digs in her purse again and looks at the screen. Doaks. The miracle is that he hasn’t called sooner. She lets four rings shrill before she decides to answer. “Hello?”
“Don’t you fuckin’ ‘hello’ me!” he snaps. “Where the hell are you?”
“As if I didn’t know. It’s one thing you duckin’ out on Sevillas, but now you’re screwin’ with me. Are you off your nut?”
She is silent.
“Well?” The gravel voice is harsh. “You comin’ back, or are you plannin’ to wait till Tony sics the Feds on you? Don’t think he won’t, girlie, and I’ll be right behind ’em.”
She takes a substantial drag on her cigarette. Exhaustion and severe jitters hit her all at once. “Are you finished?”
“Finished? I ain’t even gotten started.”
“Have you told Sevillas?”
He snorts. “That I’m stupid enough to let you give me the slip? No way. Now, spill it—are you comin’ back or not?”
“Doaks, you can’t imagine what I’ve found here.”
“Sure I do.” His words sound like shots from a Gatling gun. “The bloody comb? A written confession?”
“Cut it out,” she says curtly. “I don’t have time for this. It’s almost three, and I have to catch the early flight out of here to make it back for the hearing.”
“Assumin’ you don’t decide to ride the magic carpet to some other planet,” he mutters. “You’re lucky I like you, kiddo, or you’d be dead. All right, I’m in. Tell me what you got.”
She takes a deep breath and tells him about the strange scientific experiments, the collection of molds and toxins, the pharmaceutical and medical texts in Marianne’s bedroom. Before she can continue, he makes an exasperated noise on the other end of the line. “So what?”
Danielle hears him chomping on something with nuts in it. He goes on. “All we got in Chicago is that the broad humped and blackmailed some old coot and took off with his dough. And now you’re tellin’ me she does some kinda mad-scientist shit instead of buyin’ junk off the Home Shopping Channel. She’s a doctor, for chrissakes—they do that kind of crap. It don’t get us down the road none.”
“John,” she blurts. “She’s got a dead fetus in her closet.”
The chomping stops. “She’s got a what in her what?”
“You heard me.”
There is a silence.
“God, it’s all too bizarre to put into words. There is real evil in this house. I can feel it.”
Doaks groans. “Listen, honey, so we show that the broad’s got a bat in her belfry and a fetus in her closet. Where the hell does that get us? You gonna march into that courtroom tomorrow and hoist that thing up in front of the judge, and yell ‘Murder’?” A short pause and then muttering. “Lord, why do I get all the friggin’ whack-jobs? Ain’t it somebody else’s turn?” A cough. “Look, Danny, you know you got nothin’ that connects the dots between that broad and her boy. You’re pissin’ in the wind.”
“Like hell I am.” Anger rises red inside her. “I found an
electronic dog collar. She had to be abusing Jonas with it. There’s no sign of a dog here.”
“Hold the phone.” There is a short silence. “Yeah, I found the same thing in that attic. But maybe she boarded the dog. And even if it’s true, that don’t mean murder, Danielle. You know it, I know it and the jury’s sure gonna know it.”
“Child abuse never leads to murder?”
“There ain’t no pattern, no evidence,” he says. “Nothin’ in the records; nothin’ in her past.”
“That we know of.”
“That we can prove right now.” His voice is tired. “C’mon, missy, head back here, would ya? I told you I’d go back and scope it out after the hearing, and you know I will. I’m not sayin’ she ain’t mental—no question she is. What I’m sayin’ is that you’re screwin’ yourself to the wall if you don’t get your ass in court by nine tomorrow morning.”
“I can’t. I’m not finished.” She feels as strong-willed as she sounds.
Her feet have brought her back to the spare room. She has to focus. There must be something else, something she’s missed. She glances at the table with its petri dishes and the closet with its private horrors. This is where Marianne must keep her secrets, she feels certain. But what has she missed? Danielle turns to the other desk. Of course, the computer. How could she be so blind? Marianne and computers. “John? Listen, I just found something. I’ll call you back.” Before he can say anything, she snaps the phone shut.
Danielle yanks out the swivel chair and sits. As the computer boots up, she opens the first drawer and claws through an assortment of pens, paper clips and pads. The drawer on the other side is full of CDs labeled in strange number and letter codes Danielle doesn’t understand. The cabinet beneath is locked. “Finally,” she whispers. A locked door means there is something to hide. Her breath quickens as she fumbles in her pocket. She has it—the small key she found in Marianne’s
lingerie drawer. She takes a deep breath and inserts it into the lock. The door springs open. She sees a few photo albums and some cloth-covered books. Then, front and center, a box of CDs. She counts them. Five.
She reminds herself to breathe as she turns to the computer monitor. She inserts the first CD. The desktop has the typical icons. She clicks on the document file and opens it. A quick review reveals nothing unusual. She notices a folder named “TGRFT” on the desktop. She opens it. It is a summary of some kind of tissue-graft study. Other files with similar acronyms seem to be the coded results of experiments involving various infections and bacteria. The last series includes notes on organic brain damage, psychiatric and behavioral disorders—including clinical trials of relevant medications—complete with Web sites and links. The file entitled “Maitland” has a neatly organized set of articles about the place, but nothing else. Danielle sighs. If someone broke into her computer, they’d find much of the same psychiatric research she has done on Max. It’s what mothers of damaged children do.
Danielle looks at her watch. Thirty minutes to get to the airport. She cannot miss that flight. She quickly opens the remaining files, but finds nothing related to Marianne’s blackmail of Jojanovich or the phony documents he said she created. Marianne is not stupid. She would never leave incriminating data on her computer. She picks up the first of the CDs from her lap, inserts it and groans. The box that appears has one word and then a blank space.
it demands. She tries to bypass it, but the computer denies her access. “Damn.”
“Birthdays, anniversaries, nicknames,” she mutters. She pulls Jonas’s application to Maitland out of her purse. It has Marianne’s birth date, Jonas’s birth date and Social Security number. Danielle tries every combination of these she can think of.
Danielle studies the application again. She looks at the fake
5724 Piedmont Lane.
She flips the form over. The telephone number of one of Jonas’s general physicians, whom Maitland would have had no reason to contact, catches her eye. 555-4600. Surely this is too coincidental. She punches in groupings of these numbers, with no success. Exasperated, Danielle stands up and paces around the house. In Jonas’s room, she sits on the bed. Marianne and Jonas stare accusingly at her from the photograph on the wall. She stands up to leave when her eye catches the needlepoint of mother and child.
Every good boy does fine.
Her mind races as she rushes back and types the words into the computer. Nothing. Then she remembers a game she used to play with the neighborhood kids—transposing the letters of the alphabet into numbers to send coded messages their parents couldn’t understand. She punches in the numbers for the first letter of each word.
Nothing. “Damn!” She slams her fist on the table. She’s getting nowhere and the clock is ticking. One more try. She grabs a pad and a pen, scribbles furiously and types in “EGBDF.”
The password box disappears, and a series of files cascades across the screen. She feels an electric tingle rise on the nape of her neck. Marianne must never have thought anyone else would use this computer. The files are untitled, but appear to be arranged chronologically. A quick scan shows that the first entry is dated shortly before Marianne’s departure for Maitland. Danielle’s fingers shake as she clicks on the document.
Dear Dr. Joyce,
All I’ve ever wanted is the unconditional love a child has for its mother—the kind Joyce Brothers understands. That’s why I’m dedicating my thoughts to her. I’m a very special mother—no mean feat, given the delicate state of my health. I’ve had sixty-eight operations, each more thrilling than the last. Not in the same hospital, of
course, that would be unwise. All babies are quite sweet in the beginning—at least right after they’re born. But after all the oohs and aahs, you’re left alone with ugly little monkey face. All it does is eat, defecate, cry, and cause trouble. It simply isn’t an acceptable situation.
So I put a stop to it.
Horrified, Danielle skips down the page.
The diagnosis of a tiny infant is a fluid, beautiful thing, but elusive. You must carefully select the diagnosis you want and stick with the basics. Cyanosis and bacterial infections are my building blocks, if you will, but cyanosis is tricky. Honestly, how many times can you go through the same exercise—with your child turning blue—and not expect to arouse suspicion? The key to success is to achieve the proper level of distress, but avoid strangulation. By the time Ashley was born, it was a snap.
Danielle scrolls to the end of the entry.
It is, of course, very difficult to be masterful in these matters after a youngster reaches a certain age. Children will talk. Of course, you can introduce foreign bacteria, rat droppings, or fungus, and achieve a fairly satisfactory result. But a child’s immune system is as strong as a horse. And when you walk that line between creating the effect you desire and not being too obvious, their little bodies fight you every step of the way.
Isn’t that just like children?
Sevillas walks into the courtroom. He is dressed in a simple navy blue suit, a starched white shirt and a conservative tie. He believes that all lawyers should wear blue to court. To him it’s the color of sincerity. Today he fervently hopes that it will mask the variety of untruths he may be required to tell the court in defense of his client. He looks at his watch. Eight-forty. He scans the courtroom. No sign of Danielle or Doaks. He feels perspiration begin to form at the base of his neck. The bailiff brings in a white, terrified Max and seats him next to Sevillas at the defense table. Max’s entire body seems to tremble. Sevillas has developed a good relationship with Max during his visits to Maitland. Although Sevillas is somewhat more confident that the boy is innocent, the evidence against him is so damning that a jury conviction is not just a possibility—it’s a probability. He puts his arm around his shoulders as Max looks wildly around the courtroom.
“Where’s my mom?” His voice is a high, frightened plea. He twists his head around the room again, frantically searching. Sevillas grips him closer and tries to quell his trembling. “She’ll be here in a minute, buddy, don’t worry.” Max closes his eyes a moment; stifles a sob; and turns to Georgia, who squeezes his shoulder from behind the railing. “It’s all right, Max. Don’t worry about your mom. She’ll be here.” She murmurs more comforting words. Max seems to calm down. Tony hands Max a list of exhibits and asks him to check and
make sure that each document matches its description. It’s busywork, to be sure, but he thinks that is exactly what Max needs right now.
Sevillas looks up at the judge’s bench. Neither Judge Hempstead nor her clerk is present. The court stenographer, a level beneath the throne, is setting up. She gives him a smile. He manages a friendly nod and then hears footsteps behind him. Relief floods him until he realizes that it is not Danielle, but his adversary.
Oliver Alton Langley struts down the aisle. Two younger D.A.’s and a paralegal trail behind him. He has a military bearing, probably from his stint in the Marines. Every corner of him is crisp and pressed. In the current fashion, his scalp is shaved bald, although he is only fortysomething. Oddly out of place are dark, bushy eyebrows that meet in the middle and pale, gray eyes that dart from underneath them. He makes a direct line to the defense table and sticks out his hand. “Good morning, Counselor.”
Sevillas rises and briefly shakes hands. “Langley.”
Max raises terrified eyes at the D.A. Langley leans on the table and locks eyes with the boy. “So you’re Max Parkman?” He sticks out his hand. “I’m Mr. Langley—the District Attorney. I represent the State on behalf of Jonas Morrison.”
Max raises a thin, trembling arm. Langley encompasses his hand and shakes it—hard. “Let’s make sure everybody tells the truth today, shall we?” Max shrinks back and moves his chair closer to Sevillas. Georgia glares at Langley and pats Max’s hand.
Sevillas stands and breaks the grip Langley’s eyes have on the boy. “That’s enough, Langley. Keep away from my client.”
The D.A. shrugs and points at the pile of papers on Sevillas’s table. “Last-minute details?” Before Sevillas can answer,
Langley glances at the State’s table, where his minions are busily arranging orderly stacks of files and exhibits. He gives Sevillas a smug sneer, a general proud of his troops.
Sevillas’s smile is cool. “You know what they say, Alton. If you think you’re ready, you’re not.”
Langley gives him a short salute. “Good luck.”
Sevillas sees Doaks rush in from the back of the courtroom. “Excuse me,” he says as he motions at Doaks to meet him outside.
As Sevillas heads for the hallway, Max’s terrified eyes track every step he takes. He walks back. “Max,” he whispers.
“Yes?” His eyes are eager, hungry.
“Can you do something for me?”
“Why don’t you organize all the evidence against Fastow you have? It would be a big help.”
“No problem.” He immediately dives into a stack of documents. Georgia gives Sevillas a thumbs-up sign. He squeezes her shoulder and leaves the courtroom.
Langley joins his entourage, jostling against the wave of reporters who barrel in with their cameras and chatter. Doaks stands outside near the men’s room. He looks like shit. The obligatory khaki pants are grimier than usual, although he has thrown on a frayed jacket over his yellow golf shirt. His white, kinky hair seems more psychotic than ever before, and the dark circles under his eyes tell Sevillas that Doaks has been up when he should’ve slept. He cranes his neck through the flow of humanity in the hallway and grabs Doaks by the arm. “Where is she?”
Doaks pulls him into a small niche near the john. “She’s on her way.”
Sevillas stands with his fists on his hips, his voice crushed concrete. “From where?”
Doaks shrugs. He gives Sevillas a nonchalant look. “Probably puttin’ on her panty hose. You know how broads are.”
Sevillas’s eyes narrow as he glares at Doaks. “You better be telling me the truth, Doaks, because if you’re not, I’m going to have your ass.”
Doaks points at the clock on the wall. “Shouldn’t you be gettin’ in there? It’s showtime, buddy. Remember, she’s sick and runnin’ a little late.”
“I’m going,” he says tightly. “I’ll try to stall until she shows up. Max is in there, and he’s petrified. And you—” he thrusts an angry finger in Doaks’s face “—you get her here.”
“Yes, sir, boss.”
Sevillas turns and stalks back into the courtroom. It is packed. Not a seat remains. Just as he reaches the defense table, the bailiff stands. “All rise!”
Everyone complies in unison. Judge Hempstead strides to the bench, climbs the five stairs that elevate her above the commoners and takes her seat in a high-backed chair. She nods at the bailiff.
“All those present are called to this court to hear and be heard,” he bawls. “This is the 158th Precinct, Plano District Court, Honorable Judge Clarissa Hempstead presiding. Calling Cause Number 14-33698.”
The judge smacks her gavel and dons steely half-lens glasses. She motions to the court reporter, whose hands are poised over her machine, to begin the formal record. She flips open a file and speaks sternly, without looking up. “For purposes of the record, this is both a proof-evident hearing to determine if the defendant was properly granted bail and an evidentiary hearing to determine if probable cause existed to charge the defendant, Max Parkman, in this case. The Court will consider evidence pertaining only to whether or not there is sufficient evidence to support the indictment against the
defendants.” She gives an imperious look around the courtroom. The lawyers nod respectfully. “Also for the record,” she adds, “defendant’s motion to suppress on the ground of cross-contamination is denied.”
Max clutches his arm. “What does it mean, Tony? Is it bad?” Sevillas squeezes Max’s shoulder and stares straight ahead. It’s bad, all right. It’s all coming in: the bloody comb, if they find it; the bloody clothing; Jonas’s St. Christopher’s medal—all the damning physical evidence. He lowers his head and writes on his legal pad. He does not look at Langley.
Hempstead ends what appears to be a conference between her law clerk and court coordinator and turns to the audience. “The Court sees that members of the press have decided to grace us with their presence.” She gives them a withering glance. “I will say this once and only once. There will be no photographs taken in this courtroom and no disturbances from the press. You will check your cameras at the door. Unless you plan to stay until the Court declares a recess, don’t come at all. I will not have people jumping up and down or trailing in and out of my courtroom, distracting counsel and witnesses.” She peers out over her glasses. “Mr. Neville?”
A man with slick gray sideburns and an expensive suit stands. “Yes, Your Honor?”
“I wouldn’t want to name anyone in particular, but I will say that anyone caught in my courtroom with any kind of recording device will be charged with contempt.” The man sits quickly. Hempstead turns back to counsel. “Now, gentlemen,” she says. “Let the games begin.”
Langley speaks softly to his associates and points at a sheaf of papers in front of him. He pulls a document from the stack and studies it.
The judge drums her manicured nails on top of the bench. “Mr. Langley?”
He looks up. “Yes, Judge?”
“Are you planning to start, or shall I let the defendant’s bond stay right where it is?”
“Absolutely not, Your Honor.” He speaks at warp speed. “The State is ready to proceed.”
“Praise be. Call your first witness.” The judge holds up her hand as the bailiff whispers something in her ear. She looks at the defense table. “Mr. Sevillas?”
He stands. “Yes, Your Honor?”
“Would it be impertinent of me to ask where the other defendant might be?”
Sevillas clears his throat. “Of course not, Your Honor. I’m afraid Ms. Parkman has been very ill for the past week. She is confined to her bed under doctor’s orders. She has assured me that, if at all possible, she will be here today.”
“Does that mean she’s coming or not?” The brown eyes magnified by the half-moon lenses are displeased. “You are aware, Mr. Sevillas, that I have a trial beginning this afternoon. I have no intention of asking my coordinator to change that setting.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
Langley shoots to his feet. Before he can speak, Hempstead does. “Does the State intend to question Ms. Parkman today?”
His head bobs up and down. “Absolutely, Your Honor.”
She turns back to Sevillas. “Before Mr. Langley calls his first witness, you go out in the hall and call your client. Tell her I have ordered her to attend this hearing. And—” she points her pen at him “—I will not postpone Mr. Langley’s direct. This hearing will be over today, come hell or high water.”
“Yes, Your Honor.” Sevillas nods reassuringly at Max and
then turns and walks out. The hall is deserted. He turns the corner and sees Doaks standing next to the elevators with his cell phone glued to his ear. As soon as he sees Sevillas, he snaps it shut. “What’s up?”
“The judge told me to get Danielle in there—now.” He takes Doaks by the arm and looks him straight in the eyes. “You were just on the phone. Is she on her way?”
“Yeah, you could say that.” Doaks pulls his arm away. “Why don’t you try to buy a little time—”
“Are you crazy? Hempstead’s already royally pissed off, Langley’s licking his lips, and Max is about to lose it. Now, when will she be here?”
Doaks looks at his watch. “Before lunch, I think.”
Sevillas glares at him. “You drag her out of bed and tell her if she isn’t here in ten minutes, I quit.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because she ain’t there,” he says slowly. “She’s comin’ back, but she got…delayed.”
“Wait a minute.” Sevillas puts his face very close to Doaks’s. “Are you telling me she didn’t come back from Chicago when you did? That she isn’t in her apartment?”
Doaks steps back and gives him a shrug. “Okay, okay, I ain’t been totally straight with you. Truth is, she gave me the slip in Chicago.”
Sevillas groans. “To do what?”
“To go to Arizona, where the Morrison broad lives. She found some wild stuff—”
“Oh, Christ, don’t give me that tired line again.” He shakes his head. “She has completely fucked herself, does she know that? Jumped bond to fly around to two different states chasing nothing. We know who did it. She just won’t face it.” Sevillas
glances at his watch and then at the courtroom door. “I’ve got to get back in there.”
“What’re you gonna say?”
Sevillas gives him a hard look. “If anyone expects me to lie to the Court and lose my license—guess again. And if she thinks I’m going to be able to keep her out of jail, she’s nuts.” He takes a deep breath and straightens his suit jacket.
Doaks grips Sevillas’s shoulder. “Come on, Tony, hang tough. She’ll show up.”
Sevillas shrugs free and opens the door. He looks back. “By the time she gets here, the judge will throw us all in jail.”
Doaks winks at him. “Won’t be my first time.”