Never in my life had I lived in a quiet cul de sac.
Bouncing around foster care didn’t give me much opportunity, but after joining the FBI and going through the ranks and living alone—that didn’t give me a chance, either. I’d move between apartments and men and—
Jesus. I’m already being a crybaby.
It’s a beautiful house: white siding, blue shutters, and manicured lawn framing a big porch. I should enjoy it; the quick taste of normalcy, the peace and quiet. I’m here because I’m investigating and he knows who I am, so I’m a little hesitant to embrace the calm.
I stand outside, head tilted. There’s a couple neighbors along the street, including some busybody mom and her teenager right next door. I’m supposed to be a writer for the New York Times, which makes zero fucking sense for someone in East Bumfuck Louisiana. They’ve all got that bizarre accent. Hick.
But it’s my cover and I can’t blow it. I’ll have time to follow my guy without worrying about him finding me. He’s been active in Alexandria, dumping bodies in Kisatchie National Forest, and I’m way down by the coast. Had to leave my assignment in Shreveport when he sent a letter.
I click my tongue. “Okay. Here we go.”
• • •
My boss has the place outfitted with cameras and motion detection and shit. I’ve come the closest to finding the guy, who’s been active for over a year and has a penchant for gutting women in their thirties.
I mean gutting. He spends an impressive amount of time ripping out the organs and playing around with the dead body, and we know from autopsies that he’s a violent rapist to boot. He’s strong. He’s strangled women to death with his bare hands, or beats their skulls in, or—
I lean back from my laptop, closing my eyes, shuddering. I’m restricted to only a handful of days investigating because it’s already getting to me. I’ve taken two miserable vacations where I could only think about finding him.
A dozen bodies is no joke. A dozen women, all mothers, all murdered in their own homes. He likes home invasion, just like the Golden State Killer.
But they found him. We’ll find this guy, too.
My cell rings and I welcome the distraction. I’m dressed up in my usual stuff: a blouse, hair back, pants that are easy to run in. I’m not doing a good job blending with the locals.
“Rey.” My boss, Han. “How’s it going?”
“Fine. Haven’t gone to see the neighbors yet.”
“Yeah, my kid and my ex are there. Figured it’s easier for us to keep an eye on all three of you that way.”
I laugh a little. “So you doomed me to suburban mediocrity?”
Han laughs, too. He’s a nice guy: older, well into his fifties, and divorced from the next door neighbor, Leia. His kid is some basketball, football star, mathlete, volunteering teenager. On track for Yale apparently. He’s going to be a doctor.
“Ben’s a good kid,” Han says for the hundredth time. “He’s usually out doing somethin’ for school but he’ll be happy to mow the lawn or clean the pool or whatever. He’s a good kid.”
“I won’t make your son my slave but thanks for the offer.”
We laugh again. Lapse into silence.
Han clears his throat. “Don’t do too much, Rey. We’ll find him. They found that prick in California.”
I nod along, tapping my pen on my desk, staring at the pictures of the mutilated bodies on my screen. I’m going to find him. The news calls him Mutilator for good reason, and sometimes pictures of the bodies leak online. I still don’t know who the fuck would want to see it.
Han hangs up to go follow some lead that will go nowhere. I change out of my work clothes into capris and a t-shirt, and kind of scowl at my reflection for a while. It’s so… suburban. All I need is a mini van and bob and I could be running PTA meetings and yelling at kids in fast food restaurants. It’s how I should look, though. Leia and Ben have no clue who I am or that I know Han and they can’t know any of that.
I amble around my empty house for another twenty minutes, bored shitless, and find the fridge is already full of food. I have a car on rental, too—mid size white Lexus, just like half the other cars on the block. It’s not a poor neighborhood, that’s for sure.
But I can’t go out and walk to the bar or just go for a walk at all. I’m more or less trapped in the house until the Mutilator is caught. He’s already made it clear that he knows who I am and what I look like and I was immediately moved into protective custody after the first letter. Lots of pictures, most from a distance, and one of the door to my apartment.
Now I’m just doomed to a life of boredom.
I plant some things around the house, like one of my small pistols under the kitchen counter and a couple knives in different rooms. He’ll try to corner me in the bedroom—that’s where he always strikes—so I hide a knife under the mattress and tape another under the side of my nightstand. I’m not helpless by any means, and I know how to incapacitate men twice my size, but I won’t take any risks, either.
After that I’m back to the tedium. I sit in the living room on my beige couch and sigh. I can’t keep poring over the file. It’s driving me fucking nuts.
The doorbell rings. My hand goes straight to my pistol, because old habits die hard. I hop up and shuffle to the door, peering through the eyehole to see a middle aged woman standing outside with a pan of brownies. It’s Leia. Han showed me a couple pictures of her and said she’s nosy.
She smiles when I open the door and I smile back. Good, I fit into the weird suburban mom look.
“Hello there—I’m Leia; I live right next door with my son, Ben.” She hands me the pan and motions to her matching white house. “I just wanted to stop by to say hi and invite you over for dinner. It’s exhausting moving. I know I wouldn’t want to cook on the first day.”
“I’m Rey,” I manage somewhere in the middle. “Um… yeah, that’s okay. Thanks so much for these; they look great.”
People go visit each other when they’re neighbors. Rey isn’t my real name, either, just part of the cover. Should be safe enough.
I let her inside and she starts looking around, craning her neck to see into the living room and dining room. It’s a really bland house. I didn’t pick any of the décor but my apartment back in Shreveport wasn’t that fancy, either. It slowly became more cluttered the longer I followed the case with the Mutilator, and I took my first vacation when Han saw the state of it.
“What do you do for work?” Leia calls. “Something local?”
“No, I’m actual freelance. I write a lot under a pseudonym for the Times and things like that.”
“You must be very good! Such a lovely home you have.”
Yeah, it’s fucking peachy.
I find a spot for the brownies and grab my purse before we head out. There’s an app on my phone that alerts if a window or door opens, and someone is constantly casing the neighborhood. It should put me at ease, but he’s slipped through security systems and past dogs. He’s frustratingly careful and intelligent, not the typical sloppy sadist who leaves a mess.
I’m pretty sure he’s a young guy, probably white. He’s strong. Must be big. Probably not married, no kids; I assume he’s a violent psychopath and manages to hide it well. That could fit a lot of different men.
I clear my throat, smiling as I walk to the door. “Thanks for coming over and inviting me. It’s so awkward coming to a new neighborhood.”
Leia nods, bustling back to the front, eyes scanning the house. I’m not super sure what she’s looking for but it feels less predatory and more nosy. Han would probably know if his ex was killing women.
“You can come by whenever you’d like,” she offers. “I’m usually working but Ben is home from his summer camp up by Alexandria.” She puts a hand over her chest and closes her eyes. “I was so terrified—it was so soon after that last girl was killed.”
“That must have been so upsetting!” I gasp.
Leia keeps prattling on about how scared she was that a serial killer strictly murdering women in their early thirties might have killed her seventeen year old son. I lock the front door and double check before following her the fifty or so feet to her identical house. She’s one of those. Something awful happens and she feels the need to make it about her.
Her house is air conditioned and nice and cool for a humid, sticky July in Louisiana. She leads me down the same hallway, to the same kitchen (with newer appliances) and goes to the oven to check on something inside. I sit at the island and murmur a thanks when she pours me a glass of white zin. I’m more of a whiskey girl, just because it fits the ‘lonely detective’ bill.
Leia shakes her head as she puts the bottle away. “Ben is independent, but I worry about him being alone. He tries to keep busy: volunteering, working, helping at the youth group. Have you been to the church in town? Very nice people. It’s not Catholic; they’re very progressive.”
“I’m not big into church, but thank you.” I sip my wine and hear voices outside. Laughing. “How long was Ben at camp?”
“Two weeks or so. He’s a counselor—loves the kids.”
Hm. I nod, mildly suspicious. Psychopaths hide in plain sight. They’re usually the best-adjusted person in the room.
Jesus, that’s not fair. I can’t suspect some teenager of murder—a teenager I haven’t even met. Maybe I should throw my laptop out the window and swear off this whole thing—
The glass door slides open and two very wet teenage boys laugh and push and stumble inside. Leia hisses at them to dry off first and one takes the threat seriously, shuffling out so fast I don’t get a good look, but the other one ignores her sharp rebuke, grinning, leaning on the counter.
He’s tall for seventeen, all crooked features in which I see hints of Han and Leia, and I know it’s got to be Ben. No shirt, because he’s a teenage boy and obviously just came back from swimming with his friend. Black hair is plastered back on his head and his ears stick right out. He’s laughing while Leia slaps him with a spatula and I double back, a little horrified I thought this nice kid could be a murderer.
She points to the door. “Get out, Ben! We have company and she doesn’t want to see you half goddamn naked!”
Ben seems to realize I’m there. He glances at me, then looks again and lingers. His eyes are dark and curious, and he just stares, licking his lips.
He stands up straighter. He’s completely posturing and I have to smile a little bit at it, sipping my wine and looking away toward the window over the sink. I’m not about to ogle a teenage boy, especially not my boss’s son. Ben’s not ugly or anything. I just—don’t ogle teenage boys, especially in front of their mothers. Or at all. Jesus.
Ben crosses his arms over his chest. “I’m allowed to be half naked in my own home, ma. Finn’s hungry and you know he gets pissy when he’s hungry.” He shuffles to his mother’s side, directly in my line of sight. His back is broad. He’s built less like a teenager and more like a linebacker. “So… what’re you feeding us? And our neighbor?”
“Rey,” I offer. He looks at me, eyebrows raised, and I raise mine back. “My name is Rey.”
“Huh. Fancy name. You don’t look like a Rey.”
Leia slaps him with the spatula again and he sighs and saunters back outside to dry off the pool water. There are puddles all over the floor and I offer to clean them up while she’s busy cooking.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, genuinely mortified. “He’s such an ass sometimes, just like his father.”
I shrug and get down to my knees while I clean. Ben and the Finn kid are sitting outside at a table with an umbrella, laughing like hyenas at something on Ben’s phone. It gives me flashbacks to the jock guys laughing at me; being in on some nasty joke about my torn clothes or dirty hair. Nowadays I fight back against bullies who are over the age of eighteen.
Leia bustles off to set the table, and the boys come back inside. Finn gives me a quick hi and a smile and exchanges a glance with Ben, kind of like ‘not bad.’ I’m in the best shape of my damn life, thanks very much.
Ben shuts the glass door and kneels to help me. He still hasn’t found his way into a shirt but I’m pretty sure that’s deliberate, and I can’t say it’s not maybe an ego boost. It’s a weird feeling.
“Sorry,” he says, gathering all the damp paper towels. He shrugs and gives me another lopsided smile and this time I can’t even begin to deny that my heart skips a beat. “I was gonna come back but I didn’t know mom would let you do it. It’s just fucking water. It won’t melt the floor.”
“It’s fine. No big deal.”
He throws it in the trash and stands up, offering me his hand along the way. I take it, noting his palm is rough, then take a sharp breath, surprised by how he yanks me to my feet without a pause. Han said he’s an athlete and it definitely shows. He’s big. Not basketball-oriented, but that broad kind of football body, built for withstanding tackles.
Ben smiles again, and scoops up my glass of wine. He keeps his eyes on mine as he walks past me, drinking it in one gulp—confidence that seems well beyond his age. But I don’t spend much time around teenage boys to know the difference between a weird look and a cocky golden boy.
I turn and watch him disappear down the hallway, frowning. One of those ‘save the world’ kids. He gets the arrogance from Han.