25 to Life

JUNE 8, 1994

“On the first count of murder in the first degree, how does the jury find?”

“Not guilty.”

I stared at the table, my vision too fuzzy to read the words on the paper in front of me. I could feel my heart pound in my chest so hard and fast I wondered if I was having a heart attack.

At twenty-five.

“ … second count of murder in the first degree, how does the jury find?”

“Not guilty.”

My stomach heaved, like the mass of people in the gallery behind me who stood and screamed and roared.

Rage.

Me.

Them.

All of us.

The pounding of the gavel echoed in the courtroom, echoed in my head. I felt a big hand on my shoulder. It squeezed comfort, but it wasn’t enough.

“ORDER IN THE COURT! BAILIFF!”

Still I sat as the crowd surged toward the man at the table across the imaginary aisle from me. I didn’t dare look at him because I knew what I’d see: Smug arrogance.

My vision focused enough for me to read one line of the list I couldn’t stop staring at.

LaVon Whittaker

One of the defendant’s lovers.

Simone Whittaker.

LaVon’s thirteen-year-old daughter.

I suspected LaVon knew more about the defendant’s hobby than she’d admitted to, but it wouldn’t matter to him; it never did. He’d killed them when he was done with them, every last one. LaVon Whittaker wouldn’t die tonight, but someone on this list would. Just as soon as the next seventeen verdicts were read and the defendant was released.

“CLEAR THE COURTROOM!”

I vaguely wondered if Nocek had fixed this case behind my back somehow. Sheriff Raines. He might have done it, taken the evidence, but I wasn’t sure he was that smart. I also wasn’t sure if Nocek was stupid enough to sabotage a case that, if won, would reflect well on him enough that he wouldn’t have to stuff so many ballot boxes. I really couldn’t be sure, but I would have preferred to believe Nocek had sabotaged me than to believe … a mistake.

Just a small, stupid mistake.

And not mine.

That big hand left my shoulder as the people in the gallery were herded outside like cows to slaughter, protesting all the way. A small, soft hand grazed across my back and then that, too, left me. No, Sebastian, Giselle! Don’t go, please don’t go! I need you with me.

The courtroom doors thudded closed.

Other than the jury and the bailiffs, there were only four people in the room: the judge, the defendant, the defendant’s lawyer, and … me.

Alone.

Having failed to get justice for the nineteen women and girls who had spent the last year crawling out of their graves into my nightmares—if I had the audacity to sleep—to beg me to give it to them.

Having failed to keep another slew of people safe.

One of the women or girls on the list in front of me would die tonight. The rest would follow her, one by one, until he was stopped.

Again.

And it would be my fault.

“ … third count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Jamie McElroy.

“ … fourth count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Anita Sterling

“ … fifth count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Susanna Chase.

“ … sixth count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Valerie Nottingham.

“ … seventh count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Penny Hendricks.

“ … eighth count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Christy Madison.

“ … ninth count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Sharon Gentry.

“ … tenth count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Charlene Lawrence.

“ … eleventh count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Allison Martino.

“ … twelfth count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Cindy Trusdale.

“ … thirteenth count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Gabriela Jorge.

“ … fourteenth count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Sandra Jenson.

“ … fifteenth count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Justina Phillips.

“ … sixteenth count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Octavia Mitchell.

“ … seventeenth count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Patty Davis.

“ … eighteenth count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Loretta Jones.

“ … nineteenth count … ”

“Not guilty.”

Maureen Givens.

I still sat, numb, thinking about those nineteen women, two of whom were girls who hadn’t even reached puberty and four more not even eighteen.

“All right, Mr. Parley,” Judge Wilson intoned, his voice weary. “You’re free to go. I’d like to thank the members of the jury for their service.”

CLAP!

Judge Wilson heaved himself out of his seat and trudged to his chambers, his shoulders slumped, his head bowed.

The jury box emptied under armed supervision, as those people would need armed escorts to get out of the courthouse, past the reporters, and home safely.

I couldn’t even react when the defendant, after clasping his attorney in a jolly bear hug, walked by me and gave me a hearty clap on the back.

“Ya did a good job, son,” he said, his voice full of the merriment and charm that convinced women he was a decent man. “Just not good enough.”

I swallowed. Hard.

He laughed his way down the aisle to the courtroom doors where armed deputies would escort him off the courthouse property to his car and see that he made it home alive, to keep him from the mob that wanted to lynch him, like it was 1840 or something.

The courtroom was empty.

I couldn’t move.

The crime scene photographs flashed across my mind.

“Knox?”

I closed my eyes at the sound of that voice and breathed a sigh of almost-relief. I could barely hear her footsteps, but then she was there, that familiar perfume in my nose. She ran her fingers through my hair and I took a deep breath, the way she’d taught me. In through the nose, out through the mouth.

Focus.

Visualize.

“How can I help you?” she murmured.

Make love with me.

My eyes popped open. It was the first time I’d ever really thought it and meant it. I’d said it before, naturally, then laughed. Made her laugh. As a joke. Because, even though we slept together occasionally, the thought was just so … strange.

So impossible.

Where had it come from?

“Giselle,” I whispered, unable to speak any louder; I simply wasn’t capable of it. I’d spent my voice doing what prosecutors do. “What would you do if you were the one sitting here?”

Her hand stilled, then slowly fisted in my hair, her knuckles hard against my scalp.

She slid the list of names out from under my hand and picked it up.

“LaVon Whittaker,” she read in a tone I’d never heard for myself, and I shuddered. The answer was right there, in her voice. “She’s still alive, right?”

I nodded.

“Evie Winslow. Samantha Rodriguez. Donna Franklin … ” And on and on and on she went until the last name faded into the silence of the darkening courtroom. Then she flipped the piece of paper back onto the table, retrieved her other hand from my hair, and said, “Well. I guess I’ll get going.”

“No.”

She stopped. “No?”

“No.”

I looked up at her then, into those ice blue eyes just like mine, into that pale chubby face I knew so well, surrounded by all that strawberry blonde frizz she’d never been able to tame. She pursed her lips. Took a deep breath through her nose. Held it. Stared at the table. Released it through her mouth.

“I take it you aren’t going to Dallas in September after all, then?”

My chest caved in.

Dallas.

The temple.

To take out my endowment, like I should’ve done when I was nineteen.

She knew.

She was the only one who could have known, would’ve been able to see it in my face, the idea taking root the instant that irreparable hole had been shot through the heart of my case—

“I guess not.”

She cleared her throat. “Do you … want some … uh, company?”

“No.”

She squatted awkwardly beside my chair. “You don’t have to do this, Knox,” she whispered.

“What would you do?” I repeated, returning her look, not backing down.

“Okay, but you don’t have to do it alone. Let me help you.”

“What. Would. You. Do.”

She bit her lip.

Looked away.

“There’s a— Um.” She cleared her throat again. “There’s a man I know. At the barbershop on the corner of Belmont and Truman. He’s expecting you.”

I grasped her to me tight and she began to cry.

I only wished I could.

• • • 

Neither of us spoke.

When I dug in my pocket for money, the barber waved it away and flashed a sign at me. I didn’t know if that meant he had already been paid or if he didn’t want to be paid. It was one of those things I probably would never know and didn’t need to anyway.

He let me out the back door of his shop as silently as he had let me in and I walked up the alley and the six half-blocks to 17th Street, where I’d parked in the rec center lot. The merchandise hung heavy in my pocket and I realized just how long it had been since I’d owned something like it.

Held one.

Used one.

I was so out of practice.

Empty your mind.

I emptied my mind.

Then think about the pictures.

I dug a Polaroid out of my pocket, swiped from my case file long ago, when I had used it as a locus as I prayed for guidance while I prepared for trial.

Please, Heavenly Father, guide me so I can get a conviction. Please let me get justice for these people.

I looked at that poor woman, laid out bare, bloody, broken.

I choked.

Put it back in my pocket. Not now.

I’d failed her.

Recite the victims’ names.

Jamie McElroy Anita Sterling Susanna Chase Valerie Nottingham Penny Hendricks Christy Madison Sharon Gentry Charlene Lawrence Allison Martino Cindy Trusdale Gabriela Jorge Sandra Jenson Justina Phillips Octavia Mitchell Patty Davis Loretta Jones Maureen Givens

Think about your weapon.

Glock nine-millimeter.

Visualize it.

Matte black.

Feel it in your hand with your mind.

My hands gripped the steering wheel as I drove west, then north across the Broadway Bridge, up the Broadway Extension, I-29, past KCI.

Remember, there’s no safety on a Glock like on a revolver or a rifle. The trigger will catch about a third of the way through the pull. You have to pull through that all the way the first time. Do it fast and don’t hesitate.

I pulled off I-29 in Chouteau City, like it was daylight, like I was going to work.

Like I’d go to work in a few hours, as if nothing had happened.

There’ll be a round in the chamber, so whatever you do, don’t draw the slide or you’ll jam it.

I felt it in my jacket pocket, still heavy against my hip.

Don’t get fancy. Don’t get arrogant. Don’t go for a long-drawn-out vengeance or try to get some Scooby-Doo confession. Just do the job and leave.

The light turned green and I drove slowly into the trailer park, past the Whittaker trailer where his car was parked, though not for long, I was sure. I didn’t really know how long I had, but I went back to the courthouse and parked in my usual spot.

Nothing unusual about that; I’d been pulling late nights and overnights for the last year.

I shook out my keys, unlocked the courthouse doors, gave my usual salute to the usual half-asleep deputy, and jogged up the stairs as usual—

—and promptly stole through Nocek’s office to his back staircase and sneaked out the back way, keeping to the shadows and attempting not to let the world know how loudly I breathed.

I ran all the way back to the trailer park, where his car sat empty, waiting for him to leave his lover’s house.

It was an old junker, a yacht. Its locks didn’t work. I slipped in the back seat and hunkered down on the floor, covering myself up with the blanket I knew he’d have there.

Because I knew his habits.

Don’t let your anger get the better of you. Keep it cold. You’re just doing your job.

One way or another.

Breathe in your nose and out your mouth. Slowly. Relax.

I must have relaxed myself right into a doze because the next thing I knew, the yacht was shaking slightly, the car door squeaked open, and low chuckles came my while when he got in and shoved the key in the ignition.

“Stupid cunt,” he muttered.

Track where you go in your mind.

I’d expected him to go straight home, but he stopped to get gas—

—and was damn near assaulted by the good citizens of Chouteau City who might have done my job for me had there not been a couple of state troopers in the parking lot, on break.

Screams, obscenities, shouts, and threats.

Apparently, the troopers waded into the melee to break it up, but it seemed to me a half-hearted attempt on their part.

“Get lost, asshole,” one of them growled low. “We’re watching you.”

He laughed heartily, as if the trooper had told a good joke, but he drove off without getting gas and then he hissed, “Shit” to no one.

And then we turned toward his home, down a long country gravel road, then left onto an equally long gravel driveway. I knew that because I knew everything about him.

I hope you’ve thought this through.

No.

For once.

Because if I had, I wouldn’t be here right now.

The yacht shook and shuddered as first the rusty door creaked open and then he struggled to get out of the seat and then he slammed the door closed behind him, muttering all the way about his plans for the night being interrupted.

I had him.

It was possible there were others out in the woods with the same intention, but that only meant I’d know who not to charge in the morning.

He turned when I opened the car door; I don’t know if he saw who I was or not, but I felt his smug arrogance turning into … something else.

Fear.

“Who’re you?” he barked before he could see my face in the intermittent moonlight.

Empty your mind. Focus.

I bored the barrel of my Glock into his forehead and said, “Get on your knees.”

He caught me off guard when he did exactly what I told him to do, when he began to blubber like a little kid caught stealing candy from QuikTrip.

No theatrics. You’re there to get the job done.

“Look, Hilliard, I’m sorry, you know— I didn’t mean to get all up in your face today in court, really—”

“Do you think that’s why I’m here?” I asked, feeling rage swell up in me, a killing rage, a rage I had never known.

Don’t let your anger get the better of you. Anger destroys your focus and makes you do stupid shit. Just get the job done.

I couldn’t help it.

“Do you want to live?”

“Yes. Yes! I got grandkids, yanno?”

“So did half the women you killed.”

“Look, I’ll move away. Anything, just— Put the gun down now, son. You know what’ll happen to you. You’ll go to prison and won’t they just love you, all young and pretty, big blond boy that you are.”

Don’t let him speak. He’ll rattle you. Just get the job done and get out. One shot.

“Beg.”

He paused a beat. Changed his tactic. “Ah, son, now look. If you ain’t shot me yet, you ain’t gonna.”

I shot him in the left thigh.

He howled. The gunshot echoed around the woods and rang back at me.

I shot him in the right thigh.

He fell to the ground and rolled, curled up in a ball and began to cry.

“Get. Back. On. Your. Knees.”

“Don’t kill me,” he sobbed as he struggled to his knees. “Please don’t kill me. It ain’t my time yet and I cain’t—” He struggled more, the hole in his thigh gushing. “I cain’t—”

“Put your hands behind your head.”

“Hilliard, boy, I—”

“On your knees. Hands behind your head.”

He struggled. I allowed him to struggle, to cry like a little girl.

Then he was on his knees, barely, and his hands were locked behind his head, sort of, and he looked up at me, his desperation lit by the moon as the clouds moved, as if it had been perfectly timed for my little stage drama here.

“Don’t kill me, don’t kill me, don’t kill me,” he panted and cried, terrified.

Empty your mind. Pull the trigger all the way through the catch. Fast, firm, once. Don’t stop.

It’s a different thing to know that a shooter will end up with his victim’s blood on him than to feel the warmth and smell the copper and hear the ringing in your ears yourself.

I had never felt so cold in my life as I did looking down at Tom Parley’s body, the back of his head blown off, but his eyes open, his expression frozen in supplication for mercy.

Don’t think about it. Empty your mind. Keep the gun and get away as fast as you can.

I dropped the gun back in my jacket pocket, grabbed the blanket I had hidden in, then turned and jogged back up the long driveway to the country road. I stopped short when I saw a car on the side of the road, dark, quiet, looking for all the world as if it had been abandoned.

The engine came to life. The door swung open, the interior glow the only light other than the moon.

She said nothing, but held her hand out for the blanket and helped me smooth it over her car seat that she’d already wrapped in plastic.

I got in.

Closed the door.

She remained silent as she zipped down the road in the dark, headlights off, then west with the lights on, away from town and only a mile to Kansas.

By the time we crossed the state line, I was freezing. My teeth were beginning to chatter and I drew the blanket around me. She turned off the air conditioning and rolled down the windows. In June in Missouri—well, Kansas—it was hot and humid enough that it should have warmed me up, but I knew I was going into shock.

She knew it, too.

I could never have done this on my own and I was stupid for thinking I could.

She caught I-435 south and carefully eased off the accelerator, being very careful not to attract any attention by speeding. She had her radar detector on and it seemed a very, very long time before we got to I-70 and headed back east into Missouri, then into downtown Kansas City.

She parked at the freight dock of her bookstore and got out, came around to my side, helped me out. I was still freezing, shaking.

What have I done?

“Shhh.”

She helped me to the concrete stairs where there was a railing I could hold onto to climb them.

I murdered a man.

“Shut up.”

I have no hope now.

“Let the Lord worry about that. Watch my hands. Concentrate on what I’m doing. Don’t think about anything else.”

I did that.

She shoved a key into the lock over the freight elevator buttons, pulled it up, then shoved another key into the button pad. The elevator whirred to life. She used a third key to open the gate, then pulled on the strap of the doors. She maneuvered me into the elevator, kept her foot on the door, closed and locked the button pad. She closed and locked the gate, then closed the elevator doors. The floor shifted, jerked, protested as it pulled us up through the shaft.

I still shivered and she wrapped her arms around me.

Riding Giselle’s freight elevator had never seemed such an arduous and painstaking and long process before, and I pondered that a while. It was a good thing to ponder: Did it need repairs? Did it need replaced? I couldn’t imagine why she wouldn’t have taken care of the elevator the way she took care of everything else at Decadence. Surely Maisy or Coco would have noticed how slow and decrepit it was … ?

I don’t know or remember how I got to the bathroom, all stark white with yellow tile accents, yellow towels, yellow flowers, yellow candles and I realized—

“Yellow. Your favorite color is yellow.” Shouldn’t I have known that?

She thunked me down hard on the toilet lid and turned to start the shower.

“Giselle, I think I’m going to hell.”

“We don’t believe in hell,” she said shortly as she knelt at my feet and took off my Nikes.

“Well, not that burning lake of fire thing, but still—”

“Knox, be quiet. You’re in shock. I’ll be right back. Stay right where you are. Don’t get up, don’t move, don’t fall over.”

Silly girl.

Don’t fall over while sitting on a toilet seat.

Ow! Shit!

“Knox!”

She helped me back up onto the toilet seat and shoved a half gallon jug of orange juice in my hand. “Oh, thank you!”

“Have you eaten today at all?”

I shook my head as I gulped. I’d forgotten to.

“All hopped up on adrenalin. Your blood sugar’s in the tank, to boot.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” I quipped, but she slapped me upside the head and started taking the blanket away from me. “I’m cold, Giselle.” I knew I was whining and I didn’t care. I was cold, dammit.

“Knox, we have to get this off of you. You’re soaked in blood. C’mon, please,” she said, pleading. “Drink your OJ and let me get this stuff taken care of.”

I looked at her then, really looked. “Your face is wet.”

She sniffled and ran the back of her hand across her nose. “Yeah, I know.”

“Okay. Weird.”

She seemed so … sad … and I couldn’t figure out why. I had to think about that a while because it wasn’t like her to not tell me why she was sad, but I figured if it would make her happy to see me shiver, then that’s what I’d have to do.

’Cause it was my job to make her happy.

She stuffed the blanket in a heavy black trash bag, then threw my shoes in there after them.

“Hey, those are almost brand new.”

“Buy another pair.”

“Giselle, are you mad at me?”

“No! I’m not mad at you, Knox. Stand up for a minute.”

I stood up, but when she went to unbutton my fly, I panicked and pushed her away. “Giselle! What are you trying to do? I’m going to the temple in September, remember?”

She stopped, stared at me, eyes wide and mouth open. “Shit!” Then she pursed her lips and ripped my fly open, had me half naked before I could stop her.

“Giselle—”

“Shut up,” she snapped. “Shut the fuck up and drink your juice before you end up in the emergency room. You know you’re not supposed to go that long without eating, you shithead.”

Oh, she really was mad and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why.

She put my clothes in the same bag as the blanket and the shoes, and left with it. I just sat there on the toilet, buck naked, shivering, chugging orange juice until she came back, although if she thought she could seduce me, she had another think coming.

But she still had her clothes on. I bet she was plenty warm enough.

“Can you stand up for more than thirty seconds without falling over?”

I looked up at her, all mad and pretty. Pretty mad, anyway.

“Yes, Mother,” I sneered.

“Then get in the shower. Scrub until you don’t have any skin left.”

That took a while because the stupid skin just would not come off. But I did feel better and not cold anymore and besides, there wasn’t any more hot water.

I found Giselle’s yellow bathrobe and put it on— “Oh, fuck you, too,” I said to my smirking reflection. —walked through Giselle’s bedroom to her living room-kitchenette, and stopped short when I saw Sebastian pacing frantically, running his hands through his hair.

Giselle was sitting on the floor in front of the dishwasher, her head back, her eyes closed, her hands limp on either side of her. Her whole body shook with her sobbing.

“Knox!” Sebastian barked. I looked at him, confused. “Do you remember what happened tonight?”

“Yeah, I—” I stopped. Thought about that a minute. No, what had happened tonight? Why was I at Giselle’s? And on a work night. I looked at Sebastian. The room started to turn a bit. “I think—” Shit, now I was dizzy. I really should’ve eaten something. “I think there’s something wrong with me.”

• • • 

I woke up in Giselle’s bed.

I knew that was where I was because of the perfume and because her mattress was softer than mine. I kept begging to buy it from her, but she kept refusing.

I started to get a weird feeling about it all when I saw sunlight on the floor. I never slept past sunrise, even in the summer; it was a habit since I’d started surfing because I needed to be on my board paddling out by sunrise to get the best waves. I jerked over and looked at the clock.

“Shit.”

Nocek was going to tear my head off, and not figuratively, either. It was eleven o’clock in the morning—Thursday morning—and here I was, still sleeping. In River Market, a good twenty-five miles from Chouteau City.

I tried to clear my head, to start from the beginning, to figure out why I was where I was and when—

Empty your mind.

I barely made it to the bathroom before I puked.

I don’t know how long I sat there on the freshly bleached bathroom floor in front of the toilet, just in case, toothbrush in my hand, before Giselle appeared in the doorway. She looked at me, then at the toilet and murmured,

“I guess you remembered.”

I nodded.

“Everything?”

I nodded.

“Nocek’s looking for you.”

I nodded.

She sighed. “I don’t know what to do, Knox. Let you hide out here or make you go back to work like nothing happened. Thing is, if you stay here, people will think you cracked up after the verdict yesterday—not that anybody’d blame you. But if you go back to work, you might actually crack up and say something you shouldn’t.”

I stared at her. “You mean, they’re not looking for me because—”

“As far as I can tell, nobody knows anything except you’re AWOL.”

“My car is still at the courthouse.”

She shook her head. “Sebastian and I went and got it. It’s parked in front of your house like it’s supposed to be.”

I couldn’t wrap my head around it, any of it.

What I’d done.

What I’d have to do.

What would happen to me.

What I’d lost.

“Giselle,” I whispered as the enormity of it all began to drift down on me. “I murdered a man in cold blood.”

Her mouth tightened. “It wasn’t cold.”

“It wasn’t—”

“He needed to die,” she snarled so viciously I shrank away from her, but she followed me, got in my face. “I wanted you to let me do it so you wouldn’t have to go through this, so you could go to the temple and you could be the funny and sweet and warm Knox Hilliard I’ve always known. You’ve changed, Knox. Ever since you caught that case, you’ve been changing and it’s not pretty. I wish you had let me do this.”

I gaped at her, feeling every level of every implication of every word she said—and getting pissed off. “You wanted to protect me?”

“Yes! No! I don’t know! I wanted you back, Knox. I wanted the boy I grew up with. My best friend. I wanted him back.”

“Fuck you, Giselle!” I got to my feet, but I swayed because I still hadn’t eaten. She grasped my wrist to pull me out of the bathroom but I shook her off. “Fuck you, Giselle. You think you’re somehow more of a … badass—” Shit, I couldn’t think. Couldn’t find words. “—than I am and you need to protect me? Because I’m weaker than you are? Because you went tagging after St. Sebastian for years and then went to BYU and decided you were some kind of special super-secret ninja shit something? And that it’s your job to protect—everybody—and to hell with your soul because … why? Oh, so we can protect poor little Knox from the world? Because he’s just not as tough as you and St. Sebastian are? Because he’s the Dunham tribe’s cute little fuzzy golden retriever puppy? Golden retriever Knox, does exactly what he’s told, never talks back, never gets in trouble, never—”

“That’s enough, Knox.”

“Oh, look! It’s St. Sebastian, as I live and breathe.” I tried to make an elaborate bow, but it wasn’t working in the small bathroom.

“Giz, you’ve got a customer here to pick up a special order and Coco can’t find it. I’ll take care of him.”

“Oh, fuck you, you will not. I can take care of myself.”

But I couldn’t because as soon as Giselle turned away, I nearly fell over.

And St. Sebastian caught me.

“C’mon, pal,” he murmured as he wrapped my arm around his shoulder and led me into the kitchen. “You need to eat.”

I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to eat anything ever again.

“I hate to tell you this,” Sebastian said as he rummaged in the refrigerator and pulled out a casserole pan, then eyed me dubiously, “but yellow’s not your color.”

That made me laugh. A little. “So, what, you’re going to lecture me, too? That I should’ve let Giselle do my dirty work, clean up after me? As usual.”

He pursed his mouth and dumped a huge spoonful of a potato casserole into a dish. “Nope.”

That surprised me, but the casserole caught my attention. “You know what they call those in Utah, don’t you?” He looked up at me, surprised, and I gestured to the pan. “Funeral potatoes. That’s what they call ’em in Utah because the Relief Society serves it at all the funeral dinners. Not ‘favorite potatoes’ like we do. You’re feeding me funeral potatoes. How freaky is that?”

Sebastian just stared at me, clearly unable to figure out how to respond to that. “You know, I don’t give a fuck what they’re called,” he finally said, turning away from me and dumping more into the bowl. “You like ’em and Giselle made ’em for you and you’re gonna eat ’em.” The beeps of the microwave buttons only undercut the tense silence. “As for lecturing you,” Sebastian said low as he busied himself wiping down the countertops. Fucking neat freak. “I can think of several hundred worse things than putting a serial killer in the ground. And you’re right, it wasn’t her job to do. It was yours.”

I started. “You— You don’t—”

“Knox, you saved at least twenty-three lives last night. Extrapolate that twenty-three to the people who loved them and what might have happened to their lives, having to live with that. You gave another nineteen people’s families and friends justice and maybe, closure. You start adding all those numbers up and it’s going to get into the mid three digits. You did the right thing. Not only was it your responsibility, it was your right. Not hers.”

I stared at Sebastian, shocked.

“What she wanted to protect you from,” he continued, “was this, the emotional fallout. Yeah, you are the good kid of the tribe, the perfect child. Okay, the golden retriever puppy. I see your point and it sucks. And now, going from that to … this. Yes, I’m proud of you, what you did, that you risked everything to do the right thing, but this is going to be a rough several years for you yet. I don’t know what’s going to happen to you, what the tribe will think, but Giselle and I will stand with you. I’ll hire the best defense lawyers in the country if it comes to that.”

Proud. But …

“I was going to go to the temple in September.”

It stabbed me in the chest. I wouldn’t be able to go now.

I’d murdered a man and, granted, while it wasn’t exactly one of the temple recommend questions, it’d fall under “unresolved issues” and how could I explain that?

Well, you see, Bishop Hooper, there was this serial killer who got acquitted …

Bishop Hooper, I brought in some photographs for you and a bit of the transcript of the medical examiner’s testimony …

I hate to do this to you, Bishop Hooper, but this is a list of his next twenty-three victims. Read all the names very carefully …

The microwave beeped and Sebastian turned, mixed up the potatoes into an unrecognizable mess and put it in front of me. Then he poured me a big mug of milk.

I opened my mouth—

“No orange juice.”

—and snapped it shut again.

Sebastian lazed at the table playing solitaire while I ate and listened to the faint noises of commerce going on downstairs.

“What happened to my clothes?”

“Burned,” Sebastian answered shortly.

I nodded. Didn’t know where, didn’t know how or when. It only mattered that it was done.

“Gun?”

“Gone.”

I looked at him, all calm sitting there looking at his cards like he had to think about it. “You do know that you’re just as guilty as I am now, right? I get the needle, so do you and Giselle.”

Sebastian nodded and played a card. “I guess that means you better keep your remorse and any potential confessions to yourself, doesn’t it?”

I stared at him, but he didn’t bother to look back at me.

“The tell-tale heart,” I muttered.

“That’s your life now. Get used to it.”

• • • 

I finally called Nocek, expecting the worst—

“Good to hear from you, boy!”

—and nearly fell off the bed or dropped the phone or both.

“Sorry about what happened in court yesterday, but I’m sure you’ll be back up on your game in no time, right?”

My game? He hated my game. I almost always won and winning didn’t make Nocek any money. He hated me because of my game.

“Uh—”

“Say, why don’t you go ahead and take tomorrow off, too? Come back Monday. Spend the weekend getting all relaxed and whatnot.”

I actually pulled the phone away from my head to look at it. I thought people only did that in sitcoms for comic effect. “Uh—”

“You ain’t been watching the news, haveya?”

“Uh, no. No, sir.”

“Found Parley dead.” My stomach lurched. “Execution-style murder. The press is all over it. You know, Hilliard,” he said slowly, his voice suddenly dropping half a scale, “everybody loves a vigilante.”

“Um … Okay?” I whispered, confused, disoriented, unable to form a coherent sentence that would contribute to the conversation.

“Even the feds love a vigilante.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. Yeah, I knew he was trying to tell me something but I couldn’t figure out what right then.

“So why don’t you stay wherever it is you’re stayin’, get laid or sumpin’, come back Monday ready to roll out on another good-sized case, ’cause you know, boy, I always knew you’d come through and do some really good work for me one of these days.”

I was lying awake in bed, looking up at the ceiling, my forearm across my forehead.

Empty your mind.

Yeah, I liked that. It wasn’t too bad, really.

Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth. Slow, easy.

Maybe there was something to that special super-secret ninja shit.

Concentrate on relaxing one joint at a time, starting in your toes. Keep breathing.

I don’t know how long I laid there like that, but Decadence had closed two hours ago. Maisy and Coco were just leaving. I heard Giselle on the stairs, then coming through the door, locking the door behind her, walking across the living room to the bedroom, across the bedroom to the bathroom—all without saying a word to me.

I wondered if I’d lost my best friend in the world because I didn’t want her to protect me.

The shower began and I listened, but really, I started to remember all the times she’d watched my back, covered for me and taken punishment for things I’d done because no one in the tribe would believe I was that obnoxious—

—or because whatever she did would get blamed on Sebastian and he’d just take it like it was his due.

Perhaps it was just natural for her to think she needed to protect me, and I hated that.

The Dunham tribe’s golden retriever. Fetch, Knox. Carry, Knox. Sit up, Knox. Roll over, Knox. Shake hands, Knox. Good boy, Knox. Here’s your treat.

With the requisite scratch on the head.

The covers whooshed and the bed shifted.

Ah, so she wasn’t mad enough at me to give up a good night’s sleep on her perfect mattress. I almost had to smile.

Empty your mind.

I wrapped my arm around her and pulled her close in to me, where she’d been half my life, and she yawned. “It’s been a long day.”

“I’m sorry, Giselle,” I whispered, unable to figure out how I could ever express my gratitude for her help, because I’d surely be dead or behind bars right now without it.

She patted me. “Justice has a very high price,” she whispered. “Some people are just more willing to pay it than others. And whether you get caught or not, you’ll be paying for the rest of your life.”

I sighed. “Eternity.”

She said nothing for a moment. “There is something to that ‘instrument of the Lord’s vengeance’ thing, yanno.”

“That’s your special super-secret ninja shit talking.”

“Kenpo.”

“Whatever.”

“For what it’s worth, I think Porter Rockwell would have been very proud of you.”

I stopped breathing, but my heart continued to pound long after Giselle went to sleep.

• • • 

I didn’t make it back to Chouteau County Monday.

Or for the next two months, after Governor Carnahan suspended me with pay.

I don’t know how anyone made the connection between me and the murder, considering my golden retrieverishness. A fiber in the back seat of his car, maybe. A hair or six. A witness to my furtive dash out the back of the courthouse.

Sheriff Raines taking a mad stab in the dark just to be ornery, possibly.

Didn’t matter anyway.

Parley was dead.

Executed.

I spent weeks in and out of federal prosecutor John Riley’s office being, by turns, interrogated, interviewed, and conversed with. I knew what Riley was doing; I’d done it myself a time or two. Make it look good for the bosses. He wanted nothing to do with me.

On the X axis, Riley was caught between his bosses, who wanted to send a message that vigilante justice would not be tolerated, and law enforcement, who needed the hope of vigilante justice and would protect, at all costs, any cop or officer of the court who’d taken a real bite out of crime.

On the Y axis, Riley was caught between a guilt-ridden vigilante and a county full of people that now felt safe because of him.

He knew what I wanted to do: Confess. Stand trial. Go to prison.

Because that was what I deserved. It would take the edge off my guilt a little.

Riley did not want that.

I knew it. He knew I knew it.

If it weren’t for the fact that my family, my best friends, would go down with me, I would’ve anyway. They didn’t seem to have a problem with it and I started to understand the vastness of the emotional, experiential, philosophical chasm between me and them. I’d never known just how cold they could be and they scared me a little, really.

It was a political nightmare for Riley and he would have rather just pretended I didn’t exist. In the end, he let the bumbling cops and careless forensics people do his dirty work for him, though he never phrased it that way—and they were only too happy to take the subtextual blame.

Even if I hadn’t done it, the county would have pinned it on me because, as Giselle had said, I had changed. I didn’t know that. I hadn’t noticed that I’d stopped laughing and entertaining my littlest cousins, stopped hanging out with my generally happy family, stopped doing fun things with my best friends and my other cousins in our general age group.

Stopped sleeping.

Exhaustion hit me like a brick and I stayed with Giselle for the two months I was investigated. Sleeping. Helping out in the store. Maisy asked me to rearrange her stock room and take inventory; Coco had me chop about six hundred pounds of nuts and mind her ovens; Giselle made me vacuum the floor and clean the windows and sweep the sidewalk and shelve books. I liked being put to work. I didn’t have to think. The girls worked me hard enough I could drop into bed and get some decent sleep.

I didn’t dare turn on the TV—

—then learned that ignorance is not bliss. My stake president called to inform me that Parley’s murder had made national news, and that the press never failed to mention my association to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Prophet and his apostles were not pleased.

I drove up to Chouteau City on a Tuesday evening in early August, parked in the church parking lot, and walked into the building I hadn’t been in in two months because I’d gone to Giselle’s ward with her.

Summoned.

I never knew anybody who’d been summoned.

I’d always liked my bishop, admired him greatly. He was a pragmatic gentleman, not given to displays of emotion other than cheer. He had a good job and he’d raised a good family. His wife always had intelligent things to say in Gospel Doctrine; his kids were smart and kind to their peers. I wanted a family like that, had gone to BYU to find a wife like his and build a family like his, the one I hadn’t had, though my extended family tried their best. His oldest daughter, Loralee, was going to BYU early on a scholarship. A math scholarship. His twin sons had just earned their Eagles. At fifteen. His youngest son had a bit of a wild streak, but Sister Hooper had a gentle way with him that I had noticed and envied; would that my mother had been like that. I envied the Hooper family, their odd mix of strength and gentility and humility.

Such a good man.

I’d betrayed my bishop, betrayed my goal of somehow acquiring the kind of family he had, so I dreaded and feared his judgment.

Bishop Hooper greeted me with a lame smile and a firm handshake once he’d opened his office door and welcomed me in. I watched him carefully to see what I could read in his body language, but I didn’t always do that very well. I relied too much on my memory, Sebastian said, and I needed to start being more observant and paying attention to how people moved and what they did, not what they said.

He sat in his chair and leaned back.

His smile faded.

He didn’t look at me.

“Brother Hilliard, I—” He sighed. Scratched the side of his nose. Ran his tongue over his teeth. “You’re being investigated for murder.”

No use denying that and my gut clenched. “Yes.”

He did look at me then. “Did you do it?”

I hadn’t expected a point-blank question, but of course, I hadn’t expected to be summoned, either.

I wouldn’t lie, but I wasn’t going to admit to it, particularly since I could tell which way the wind was blowing and I then understood. He had about seven layers of priesthood to account to. He was at the bottom of the food chain. The messenger.

I sat silent, looking at Bishop Hooper trying to keep my face stone still, not give anything away.

It took a moment for him to accept the fact that I wasn’t going to speak.

“All right, then.” He looked down at the paper in front of him. I watched tears fall from his face to the paper and splash there. “What a waste,” he whispered. “Oh, what a shame.”

I wanted to curl up and die right then.

“I’ll resign my membership,” I said, but the words didn’t really come out right. More of a croak than speech.

“No. Salt Lake wants you excommunicated. This has been a PR nightmare and the church needs to distance itself from you. Bishop’s court— I don’t even know why they’re making me do this, but … Come back Saturday night at eight.”

I slumped in my chair, sick to my stomach.

“No,” I finally muttered. “Do it without me.”

There was nothing left to be said, so I stood and turned. Put my hand on the doorknob.

But Bishop Hooper shot out of his chair and around his desk, jerked me around by my arm and smothered me in a bear hug. He buried his face in my shoulder and began to sob.

“Thank you,” he wept. “Thank you, Knox.”

He knew.

9. Loralee Hooper – 17 – Chouteau HS trk & fld Mormon HOT prob. virgin

I don’t know how he knew, but he did and I embraced him tight.

“You’re welcome,” I whispered.

You did the right thing.

I think Porter Rockwell would have been very proud of you.

Thank you, Knox.

I walked out of the church, leaving my guilt and my need to confess behind.

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