53 (rough draft)
Cooper Applewhite gave the approaching man a leisurely up-down. “Doctor,” he greeted.
“I’m not an actual doctor,” Raymond Taylor advised. “Are you a relative?”
“Sure, why not?”
Taylor looked over his glasses, flipping papers on the chart. “We’re detoxing. She’s a lucky woman.”
“You met her daughter.” Applewhite narrowed his eyes.
Back to the chart, Taylor matched the narrowed eyes. “Stayman. Miss Doom and Gloom Punching Bag.”
Applewhite cocked an eyebrow.
“You’re somehow connected to Arianna?”
He offered a subtle nod.
“I should have gotten her phone number.”
“Personal or professional?”
“So? Stayman?” Applewhite bobbed his chin.
“She’ll be fine, assuming a train wreck is fine.”
“A fine train wreck.”
“You could say.”
“I need to speak with her.”
“Not until –”
“Arianna Sandalwood, Peachtree Hill. She has a public number.” Pushing by, Applewhite thought, I wouldn’t blow him, but I can see why you would, Air, entering the hospital room. “Good looking doctor,” he greeted Morgan Stayman.
Groggy, she squinted. “He’s not a doctor.”
“Not an actual doctor. Why was your bedroom door locked?”
“Your bedroom door was locked. Why?”
Stayman shook her head as if to clear the fog. “I wanted to be alone.”
“Did you mean to kill yourself?”
“You took a hefty hit or two.”
“Three. I wanted the pain to go away, even if for a little while.”
Applewhite watched her eyes, waiting.
“You see, my daughter abandoned me.”
“It is. Just walked right out, you know. I got a call, saying she’s leaving for good. Just like that. I got a call.”
“I don’t remember the name. Some bitchy cunt, a Philly lawyer. Am I being arrested?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“I thought you were a cop.”
“I’m not actually a cop.”
Stepping back into the hall, a young athletic man spun Applewhite, putting his face into the wall, an elbow on the back of his neck, his free hand relieving Applewhite of his gun, passing it behind him.
“Excuse me?” Applewhite suggested.
“You interfered with an ongoing investigation, placing a two-year project at risk.”
“I’m FBI –”
“I know exactly who you are, One-armed Man.”
“Then, you can get these cuffs off me.”
The man pushed close, snarling, “Simon Beck, with County. I’m under direct orders from Lieutenant Daryl Kay. Lieutenant Kay told me to tell you Lindsay Fowler and Amaretto Stayman.”
“Oh, did I go and step on someone’s little toes?”
Beck delivered a rabbit punch, soliciting a grunt. “Penrose,” he said over his shoulder. “Take the prisoner directly to County Lockup.”
“They’ll be waiting for you.”
John dropped across from Amaretto, checking all directions in the chaos of the cafeteria, helping himself to a fry from her plate. “Fuck, Apple. Fuck.”
“Hey, I’m eating for two! Get your own food.”
He took another fry. “Lunch next period.” Again, he glanced the cafeteria, sliding a thumb drive across the table. “Was that guy serious?”
Amaretto shrugged causally, securing the drive in her pocket. “I guess. Edgewood cop.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Duck him, talk to Air when she gets back. She’s got this thing going on for underage girls –”
“Not for them, for protecting them.” She rolled her eyes. “I have to go over her files, since she’s out of town. See what she’s really up to.”
“Slow homework night?”
“Always. I have to stop by the hospital after school. Want to come along?”
“God, Apple. Is she okay?”
“She’s not dead. We’ll see after school.”
“We could ditch. That’s a good excuse.”
Again, she shrugged. “Cops offering me a madam job, Markus and Fishy wanting me to be the Punisher aside, I like the normalcy of school, getting myself lost as a kid in a sea of kids.”
“A hormone thing?”
“I’ve been thinking about that. I keep blaming my hormones, but I bet it’s not that. Clarity of thought.”
“Clarity of thought?”
“I’ve been living in a self imposed dark shadow all my life. Morgan had me smoking pot since I was seven.”
“Yes, John, really.”
“I’ve been drugging just to take the edge off the darkness, but the drugging might have been pushing me deeper into the state of not giving a fuck. Now, I find I give a fuck.”
John nodded. “Is that true? What he said about a porn star?”
“Sure, I fuck like a porn star. It’s not like you aren’t aware I’m damaged.”
“We talked about this, sure. Maybe it’s that damage that appeals to me.” He took a breath.
“Don’t get all creepy on me now.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. Apple, I know what you’ve said and all and how you feel about sex. But, eh, Apple, would you do me if I asked? I mean, if I really wanted it from you?”
Amaretto sighed deeply. “I would, John.”
“Knowing how you feel about it, I’d never ask. I just wanted to know if you would. So, it was Penrose?”
Amaretto closed her eyes. “No one is to know that. I don’t want him to ever think this is his baby. I want him to forget I’m alive.”
“Is that fair? I mean, not to Penrose, but to the baby? You don’t seem too happy about not knowing who your father is.”
Amaretto twisted her face. “I’m not too happy for the reason Morgan doesn’t know, not that I don’t know.”
John nodded, working from his chair. “Brig.”
Brigantine nodded to John, dropping next to Amaretto. “John.” She kissed Amaretto on the side of the head. “How’s my Apple?”
John hurried off.
“All things considered, Brig, you know.”
“I was thinking. Abby.”
Amaretto nodded. “Yes, Abby.”
“You put a camera in her room.”
“John made it.”
“Smart guy. I like John. He’s good for you. You don’t stink like a skunk sprayed you.”
“Now that I have something going with John, I don’t think we should be making out.”
Brigantine snickered. “Wasn’t what I was getting at. I thought you were pretty sure Abby has a food allergy or something like that.”
“From the beginning, I was dead sure Howell was drugging her and smacking his chummy as he grabbed at her naked body, maybe sniffing her armpits. I was convinced he wasn’t fucking her by the way she bled when she was raped by the Jesus Clown Car.”
“And, you didn’t share – because?”
“We had this conversation. Would you have believed me?”
“No. I doubt it.”
“Abby was sick. Howell’s out of town. Abby’s being drugged. These are facts.”
“Okay, that’s what I wanted to ask. Abby was sick, sure. Howell’s out of town. That’s a fact. How can you say she was drugged is a fact?”
“I was. Drugged. Raped. I woke up in the same mess Abby has. Nothing like experience, even better than The Googles.”
Brig stared for a long moment. “Apple. It just so happens I have an open date on my calendar. Just give me a name. No need for me to flip a coin.”
“You’ll have to get in line. It would seem everyone wants revenge on my behalf. I don’t want revenge. He’s a predator, I his prey. That’s how nature works. I really should have known better. I should have seen it coming.”
“Blame the victim.” Brigantine’s sarcasm was not lost.
“Not like that at all.” Amaretto looked left and then right, leaning close to Brigantine. “I killed Richard Bly.”
“I know you think you set in motion –”
“I went to the hospital, to his room. I put my hand over his mouth, pinching his nose shut until he was dead.”
“You’re the one that wants to know private shit.”
“I, well, I mean, I guess, eh, he hurt Ockie and all.”
“I try to convince myself of that. That I was revenging Ockie.”
“If not that, then why?”
“He wouldn’t let go of my shirt.”
“It’s beyond complicated. He was barely alive. I put him out of my misery like we’d put down a horse that came up lame. I come back to him holding onto my shirt. If he let go of my shirt, I don’t know, I wouldn’t have killed him. I’m just telling you this to let you know I understand the predator, the guy that drugged and raped me. I’m just as much a predator as him, if I wish to be. I dance around it and no matter what excuses I come up with, I can’t escape the feeling that I liked it.”
“You liked – killing?”
“No. Not killing per se. In that moment, everything taken as a whole, given all the circumstances, I liked killing Richard Bly.” She narrowed her eyes, holding Brigantine’s eyes. “You talk about whether you should call the cops when we get Nard on tape or bury Nard in the Pines. I’m telling you, Brig. You only have one choice.”
“Shit just got a bit too real for me.” Brigantine closed her eyes. “Apple, you’re right. I could never kill Nard.”
“Now, Brig, consider this: There’s no difference between a serious beat down and murder. Different degrees of the same thing.”
“Eh, I don’t think so.”
“Think about it. We’ll talk later.” Amaretto nodded across the table. “Hi, Abby.”
“Apple, Brig,” Candice said, sitting. “What do you think?”
Brig nodded hello.
“Think about what?”
Candice glanced at Brigantine. “Brig didn’t give you my list. My list of food I ate?”
“Oh, that. I put everything on the calendar. Nothing jumped out. You’re still keeping a list, right?”
Brigantine let out a sigh, Apple able to play along.
Christian Caroline appeared, towering behind Candice. “Please excuse me, Abby, we need to go.”
With a dismissive glance and roll of the eyes behind her, she said, “A minute, Chris. I told you a minute.”
“Okay, Abby, but remember, we have to meet Dad soon.”
With a shoo of her small hand, the large young man backed away like a scolded puppy. “So easy to train,” Candice said with a casual smirk.
Apple grinned. “Abby and not Candy, huh?”
“I learned from the best, Apple.”
“You’re welcome.” Amaretto offered a slight head bow.
“What am I missing?” Brig asked.
“Men,” Candice explained, “value most what they can’t have.” She blushed, watching Apple. “I really do like this sex thing, but don’t you dare tell anyone.”
“I envy you.”
“As it turned out, Chris pretty much gets all he wants on demand because of the cult. And, as it turns out, it would seem I’m more special than anyone else.”
“Morgan calls it my sweet little honey box.”
“I think I’ll resist any nicknames Chris might want to give it.”
“Once you realized how much Chris wanted to fuck you, you put restrictions on access.”
“That’s what I learned from you. It’s my superpower.” Candice rolled her eyes. “Hobnobbing with the riffraff is still frowned upon.”
Brigantine blinked repeatedly. “How does that make you nothing but a whore?”
Candice fluttered her hand in the air, Christian appearing. “Would you be a dear and get me a Coke?”
“Water is better for you.”
“Coke will be fine, thank you.”
Christian hurried off.
“Brig, you were saying?”
“Do you even want a Coke?”
“No, water is better for me.”
Brigantine offered a slow nod.
“I’m sure Brig told you what I said.” Candice watched Amaretto.
“No, she didn’t.”
Brig huffed, a bit indignant. “You told me not to tell, so I didn’t.”
Candice shared an indifferent nod to Brigantine, holding Amaretto’s eyes. “If I could put your brain in Chris’ head.”
“Is he a true believer?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, obviously you’re on your way to ruling the cult, yet you don’t believe their doctrine.”
Candice paused for a long breath. “Sure, there’s stuff.”
Christian placed the Coke, then back away.
Candice leaned across the table, lowering her voice. “I told Brig: you, Brig and Ockie are really fricking smart. Sometimes I feel really dumb around you.” She held up a hand to stop objection. “In Stars, I’m the smartest one in the room. Look over my shoulder at Chris just standing there like a puppy dog. Sure, Chris is a true believer but I understand what you mean. His father is not.”
“I kind of met him once. Little guy, whines when he tries to sound powerful. Likely the reason he went into preaching.”
Amaretto caught herself just before an eye roll, understanding what Candice meant about her feeling stupid. “Being small, literally, leading in religion gives him power, good self esteem.”
“Hubris,” Brigantine interjected.
Candice pushed back, standing. “And, there you go.”
Amaretto shrugged. “I’m sure Brig told you that we love you and always will, that it is you that judges yourself, not us.”
Candice hung like a snowman in early March. “I get all that, Apple, I really do.” She blushed. “I really don’t know how long I’m going to ride this pony.”
“What about Sally?” Brigantine asked.
“What about her?”
“Are you going to, you know.”
“Oh, that. We’re going to come up with something different. By we, I mean I am. Everyone in the room could get twenty years to life. What the frick are they thinking?” She narrowed her eyes at Amaretto. “When you reached into the fire for me, you robbed me of the experience.”
“I didn’t mean –”
Candice showed Amaretto the stop hand. “You and Brig. I may be slow, but I catch on. Chris, the others, don’t know, I’m sure. Chris’ father may, I’m not sure. Their little rite takes the power away from sex.”
“Their desire for sex.”
“Right, that’s what I meant.”
Amaretto smirked. “I guess they are a Bible group.”
“I have no idea how that even relates, but it doesn’t matter. I look forward to figuring it out. Apple, and I really mean this: I pray some day that you heal enough to experience what I do.”
Amaretto wiped a tear from her cheek with her knuckle. “Damn hormones.”
Arianna Sandalwood entered the lobby, taking in the room. “Quiet berg,” she said to herself. She dressed conservatively, a tan A line dress to her knee, London Fog Classic raincoat, tan to match, white flats, her long sandy hair in a high ponytail. She wanted to appear professional. With a casual hand, she dropped her sunglasses to the tip of her nose.
To her right, three people populated three of the eight chairs, the chairs lining the wall. A barely teen girl, faded jeans, flip flops and Justin Bieber tee shirt, attended her phone with one hand, twirling her gum from her mouth with the other. Next to her, away from Sandalwood, a woman sat, eyes fixed across the room, maybe a bit older than thirty, obviously bothered by and impatient with the teen. The woman struck Sandalwood as a bloated dumpling, soft gray flesh, eyes like Sandalwood’s, dark like the seamless cloudy sky at night in the dead of winter, but beady, hidden below an outcropped brow, faded carrot-orange hair dangling ratty on her forehead and down her neck like Sunday laundry hung on a breezeless cloudy day.
The man to her right picked at the fingernails of his right hand, using a pen in his left hand, glancing at Sandalwood when she entered, but not long enough to notice her.
Directly to her left, from just above her head almost down to her knee, the wall was crowded with photos in various styles of frames. She suppressed her urge to straighten them, maybe group the photos in some kind of order. A hall entrance cut the wall in half and beyond the hall entrance across from the eight chairs, rested a desk, a disheveled man sat, an ill-fitting uniform draped on him, his head tilted, a phone receiver wedged between his cheek and his shoulder.
“What can we do for you?” The question hung in the air. The man at the desk flipping through a folder with one hand, bouncing a pencil on the desk with the other. He was pushing fifty, a hard fifty, the ashen flesh of his face hung on bone and tired, sad eyes screamed years of alcoholic abuse.
Sandalwood looked to her right, at the three people on the chairs against the wall, guessing who the question might address.
“Miss,” came sharply. “What can we do for you?”
Turning to her left, she looked down. “Good afternoon, eh,” she removed her sunglasses, bending just a little to read the nametag. “Officer Newsome.”
She offered an innocent smile. “Good afternoon, Sergeant Newsome. How are you today?”
“Good, good. How are you?”
“I’m wonderful, thanks for asking!”
Closing the file, he placed the phone on the receiver, looking up. “How might the Springdale Police Department be of service to you today?”
“I was hoping to get a look at some old files. You see, I’m a writer, working on a novel.”
“Do tell? Have you written anything I may be familiar with?”
“I doubt it. I’m an independent author with a small group of fans. I’ve floated a book idea that could put me on the map. I’m not supposed to say.” She leaned closer. “Simon and Schuster has expressed interest in my proposal.”
“That sounds very exciting,” he said, obviously the subject and details not exciting to him in any way. “What can I do for you?”
“The Nielson brothers. I was hoping to get a look at the original public files. I know there’s a fee for copies.” Using her body to block spectators, Sandalwood fanned three crisp $100 bills.
“We only charge a quarter a page for copies,” he said curtly. “However, that will not be possible.”
“Oh? And, why not?”
“We had a fire ten years ago. Everything in the file room burned to the ground. I really do wish I could help you.”
Sandalwood produced her Ipad. “Well, you can still help, I’m sure. Who was involved in the final incident with the Nielson brothers? I’m sure you were around then.”
He huffed like a bull ready to charge, then cleared his throat. “That was a long time ago.”
“Just what is this novel of yours about?”
“Based on the actual story, it’s about the Nielson brothers. I’d really like to get details of the final event, so I can write the end of the book, you know.” She rolled her eyes, tapping her chin. “I was thinking something like Bonnie and Clyde. That shoot out at the end?”
“It was pretty simple, actually. We went out to arrest them, they resisted, were killed in the firefight.”
“You were there.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Do you recall why you went out to arrest them?”
“I wasn’t here when the call came in. We got a tip.”
“That’s what I remember being told.” He wiggled a finger at her, drawing her near, Sandalwood bending across the desk. “We had a meeting soon after, you know. We were told never to talk about the case,” he whispered.
“The actual events, you know, were only known by a handful of people. There was even a news blackout. It had to do with all the murders they did and not causing a panic. The rest of us weren’t told anything. That’s why.”
“That’s why we were told never to talk about the case. We don’t know anything.”
Newsome looked left and then right. “We’re not supposed to talk about it. Though I don’t know anything, I’ve heard things over the years, you know, like when people drink.”
“I can’t say. Here, anyway. When people drink.”
“Do you have a time and place in mind?”
“The Dew Drop Inn. That’s dew, like on the grass.”
Sandalwood poked at the Ipad. “Got it.”
Exiting, Sandalwood looked at the sky, gray cotton looking down, the air moist, threatening rain. She lingered under the awning, tapping on her Ipad, looking for news archives of the local independent newspapers for anything she may have missed.
The door opened ten feet behind her then closed, soft foot falls, a pause, the strike of a match, cigarette smoke. Finally, “Hi,” the greeting Sandalwood waited for.
“Hey,” Sandalwood answered, not turning from the almost rain.
“I overheard some of that.”
I figured, Sandalwood thought. “Writing is easy. It’s digging up the background and facts that’s hard.”
“None of it’s true.”
“None?” Arianna turned, watching the dark beady eyes sunk in the dumpling face.
The woman looked back into the police station, glanced left and then right, pulling hard on her cigarette. “None of it. Al, Ted and George didn’t kill those families.” Again, she glanced behind her.
Paranoid bunch, Sandalwood thought. “So, the police didn’t raid and kill them?”
“Oh, that part’s true. We can’t talk here.”
“You know a bar?”
“What? No. Come over my house.” She held a hand forward, taking the Ipad, tapping in an address. “Tonight.”
“I’m meeting Sergeant Newsome at five.”
“That was funny. You knew he was a sergeant.”
“I did, yes. I wanted to see how’d he react: secure, insecure. You know.”
She leaned close, drawing on her cigarette. “Ted’s got a thing for the ladies. He only wants one thing.”
Sandalwood shrugged. “I’ve blown worse for less.”
The woman gave Sandalwood a sad nod. “Haven’t we all.”
“Melody Lark,” she announced amid the confusion, clipping her press I.D. to her Temple sweatshirt. “Valerie Brown?”
A child-almost-a-man glanced up from fists full of papers, then nodded across the busy room. “Gray suit.”
Gray Suit gave Lark a judgmental up-down. “I did not get the memo that it’s casual Monday.”
“I drove half the night. I didn’t know you had a dress code for visitors.” Lark glanced the office. People were overdressed for their job. Brown, looking back at sixty, had dark, sharp eyes, eyes always in motion, silver hair short to her head and glowing complexion.
“Jim speaks highly of you.”
“I did not know that you knew Jim.”
Brown’s eyes focused over Lark’s shoulder. “We were friends in college. Have exchanged cards on holidays.”
“Jim’s been a longtime fan of my work.”
“Just how long have you been a journalist?”
“I’m slopping around in a murky bucket, which started with a notable character’s predilection for young girls.”
“That’s redundant. Young and girl.”
“Sure it is, and in print, I’d be more specific. I wanted to get background on the teenage sex ring that disappeared.”
“It’s a dead story. You drove all night for nothing.”
“I like to drive.” She showed the photo. “Michael Rodgers. What do you recall.”
Brown narrowed her eyes, pursing her lips. “We never did find out who he really was. He was a person of interest, as the article said. There was an underage sex ring. A sting, based on a witness statement.”
“The witness that killed herself?”
“Sure, killed herself.”
“You think she was murdered?”
“I’m a journalist. I deal in facts, not what I think.”
“Off the record.”
“No such thing.”
“The other witness. The one that disappeared. She’s not named in any of the articles I’ve seen.”
Brown extended an arm, snapping her fingers. “Johnny. Johnny.”
A man, thirtyish, looked up from his nearby desk. “Ms. Brown?”
“The underage prostitution ring.”
“What about it?”
“Two witnesses, one dead. Why’d we not name the missing witness?”
“Hold on.” His fingers danced on the keyboard. “Red flag, request from – doesn’t say.” He looked up from the screen. “Seems they thought she may have gone to ground and feared for her safety. We were asked not to publish her name.”
“Any follow-up on Michael Rodgers,” Lark asked.
He looked at Brown, Brown offering a subtle nod.
“My guess he was in witness protection, which is why he didn’t and doesn’t exist.”
“That’s not a fact,” Brown warned.
“We had a pool.”
“Sure, all the guesses up on a whiteboard.”
“No facts fit to print,” Brown interjected.
Lark produced a photo. “How about his guy? Is he on your radar?”
“Paul Markus,” the man said. “We called him Tex. Almost didn’t recognize him without his cowboy hat.”
“Was he connected to this story?”
“Principal of a local middle school for two years. I covered the school, ran across him often. He certainly didn’t seem the type.”
“No complaints from anyone?”
“We had a teacher, English, I think.”
“Math,” Brown corrected.
“Right, math. He was inappropriate with a couple of the girls. Big deal. Major story. If Tex were doing the same, we’d have heard.”
“Sorry we couldn’t be of more help,” Brown said, a hand to Lark’s elbow.
“Oh.” Lark held her ground. “You say you withheld the name of the witness? Does that mean you have it?”
Brown nodded to the man.
Lark wrote the name as he spelled it.