Chapter 1

“Fuck me!”

The outburst startled a middle-aged man in a short, plaid coat. He looked up toward the sound and then immediately down to the sidewalk. After a moment he looked up again then spun in a slow semi-circle searching the horizon for cameras, police, bystanders, anything to explain the situation in which he found himself.

The voice propositioned him at every turn. “Yeah, up here, you wanna fuck me real good. Just come on up and whip it out.”

The man looked up again, locking eyes with the demure, waif-like girl who called to him. Wispy blonde hair and bright, glassy green eyes. She sat motionless on the fire escape adjoining the second floor of a three-story midcentury townhome. The house itself occupied the middle section of the block, bordered on the right by a nearly identical home and on the left by a field wreathed in ivy and hedges. Beyond that, another townhome marked the far-left edge of the block. Behind it, another row of houses, elevated as the blocks ascended to a peak some five streets beyond. Narrow alleys separated the houses from each other. They contained a fire escape of wrought iron steps and small balconies winding down from the third story to the second with a spring-loaded ladder connecting the second floor to the ground.

The second-floor escape was wrapped entirely in cloth. It resembled, depending on the angle, either a padded cell or an Easter basket. Bright pastel pink blankets, more subdued blues and green towels, and the fluttering remnants of white sheets wound about the bars. Her legs were pushed through the bars, chubby about the ankle and the arch of the foot. Her right knee was scuffed. The legs were bare but even in the shadows of the escape, it was clear she wore a dressing gown pulled up and pressed into the bars.

The man backed away, casting nervous glances behind and above until he got to the left corner and bolted up the street.

Despite the graphic taunts she cast, she presented a flat affect. Her words carried a variety of pitches and intonations, adding a hyperactive, almost gleeful quality to her words. However, she remained stiff, almost inanimate, while speaking. Her legs didn’t so much as sway in hours. Her hand held tightly to the bars in a grip that left her knuckles white and her thumbs red.

Olivier sat on a small bench in the park across the street. Late 30s, average height and build, his wavy hair was brown but could appear reddish in the right light. He wore a blue t-shirt under a black dress shirt and matching dark-colored jeans. The t-shirt hung loose with the words ‘free the’ visible. He wiggled his worn sneakers in the grass. It was early spring and the grass was overgrown, waiting for that first cut to mark the emerging season. He made notes to himself in a tattered moleskin. Like many behaviors, writing notes was an affectation learned through centuries of scrutiny. “Subject: Laura Wilks. Seven years old. Blonde hair, green eyes.”

Hanging on the back of the bench, Guriel nodded emphatically. A tow-headed scamp with ruddy, cherubic cheeks and a twisted nose. His short pants were ragged from wear and his thick corduroy coat was smeared with grease and dirt. “It’s like I told ya, Ollie. She’s been up there for weeks yelling at anybody who comes by. She don’t eat or sleep. Just sits there all day and night yelling shit at people.”

Olivier cringed, “What’s with the Oliver Twist accent? You’re in New England, not England England. Do people not question you?”

Guriel pulled himself up and over the bench, flopping and rolling to the grass on the other side. “It’s all part of a schtick. Not like most people listen to me. I claim to be from Boston and they let it go. Look, I’ll do my thing, you do yours.”

“Anything else you can tell me?”

“String of experts gone through. Doctors, psychiatrists, I saw a news van but that didn’t go anywhere. Can’t report on a kid yelling obscenities on broadcast networks. Small community, probably kept the Internet away, sir.”

Olivier chuckled. “That would be Ireul. She’s been redirecting traffic.” He sighed and looked at his watch. “I’ve got to consider my approach carefully.”

Guriel scraped grass off his filthy coat and stomped his feet as if he were cold. “You’re the boss. I know it’s weird but why bother poking into it?”

Olivier opened the moleskin and made another note. “It smells off. A few days of aberrant behavior we can point to trauma. Weeks? This has supernatural written all over it.”

Guriel shrugged, “I dunno. It’s weird, sure, but I don’t feel anything in particular.”

“That’s just it. Nobody has done anything about it. A nefarious agent would be stoking the misery. The Host would be cleaning it up. I’ve not heard any chatter either way. Even as the Angel of Orphans and Whelps you’re barely picking up anything.”

Guriel shrugged again. “I’ve got a thousand new cases a day. I kick the weird stuff up to management. So, manage.”

“I’ll take it from here. If I need anything else, I’ll find you later. Best to keep the loop small, though, right?”

“I get ya.” Guriel slapped the back of the bench and waved as he departed.

Olivier remained nearly motionless on the bench for much of the day, observing the foul-mouthed girl and the reactions she garnered. Several times, her parents answered the door to offer apologies to outraged pedestrians. As the sun descended beyond the horizon of Georgetown, Olivier stood from the park bench, shouldered his satchel, and made his approach.

“Hey you! You need some? Only thirty a pop. I work cheap but I do quality. Come on, it’s okay to look. Yeah, up here. Seriously, buddy. Thirty-seven and I’ll touch it, stroke it, stick it wherever you want. Thirty-seven for thirty. Just come into the alley and pony up.”

Olivier crossed to the door of the townhome and knocked on the door. He notated the interaction, word for word as he waited. The door cracked and he stepped back, fully aware that the exhausted parents would be more comfortable if they didn’t feel crowded in their own home.

An older man opened the door. Once trimmed eyebrows growing unruly, face pallid and eyes puffy. He stood behind the door, regarding Olivier through a crack only wide enough to extend a hand through. He was missing a button from his green knit vest. “Yes?” he inquired with a sense of longing.

Olivier offered a card. “I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Wilks. I’m a psychologist, Oliver Kelley. I heard about your daughter and wish to offer my services.”

Mr. Wilks took the card with trembling fingers and held to the door like an anchor. “I… don’t know. We’ve… we’ve already had several doctors in. I don’t think…” He gave up and pulled the door open, gesturing Olivier in.

The sitting room was immaculate, midcentury décor with reds and golds setting off the exposed beams and hardwood flooring. An 18th-century Tabriz rug acted as a centerpiece for the décor. It was in impressive shape, faded along one corner but well-preserved. Diffuse track lighting bathed the walls in an inviting, almost candlelit glow while protecting the piece from damage. It was bordered on three sides by short sofas, offering little more space than two adults would occupy. On the north wall, a gas fire burned behind tinted glass.

Mr. Wilks pointed to the couch opposite the fire, nearest the worn elements of the rug. “Please, sit and have your say.”

“Thank you. I know this is an imposition in a trying time. I’ll explain my interest, and my qualifications shortly.” Olivier removed his suede coat and handed it to Mr. Wilks before sitting.

Mrs. Wilks lolled sleepily against the arm of the couch to his right. She wore pearls, her hair in a bedraggled bun. A tight cinched blouse, buttoned to the collar, was partially untucked and her skirt had ridden up to reveal knicks and tears in her dark stockings. Her left ankle was bandaged, and her toes were bound by a cast. She held a partially full wine glass in one hand and a smoldering cigarette in the other. She sneered, “Stop letting them in James. I can’t take it anymore.”

James hung the coat on a startlingly bare rack in a recess near the door. Tufts of fur and feathers on the floor the only indicators that the rack had ever been used. He turned back to Olivier and strode to the couch bordering the inner wall. “Elizabeth, please! I apologize for my wife, it’s… been—”

Olivier cut him off. “No need. I understand.” Then, to Elizabeth, “I apologize for intruding. I’m certain you’re at wits-end with experts and promises of hope.” He allowed a touch of sorrow into his voice. A sense of time spent at sea and the grim tedium of walking through an endless desert. “Hope is important. However, it is far more important to understand. I can’t promise it will be alright, but I can promise I will find out what has happened to your daughter.”

Anger bled from Elizabeth’s eyes and her jaw loosened. Tears welled up and started to slowly flow. She placed her wineglass on a rich oak end table and took a long drag on her cigarette, nearly extinguishing it. “I was ready to smash you in the face with that glass. Shriek and send you out the door bleeding.” She stubbed out the cigarette and gestured for another. James picked up a silver case from his own end table and handed it to her. “Yes, James, I said that was the last one, but…”

James shook his head and retrieved a silver Zippo. “I understand.”

Olivier breathed in the lingering smoke and let it drift through him as the fire flared and new smoke rose to join it. He tapped his pen on his knee. “Please, start from the beginning and tell me what’s happened.”

James threw the lighter at the fireplace and collapsed into the sofa. “You don’t even know what’s happening and you say you understand? You have answers when you don’t even have questions!”

Olivier glanced to the weeping Elizabeth and back to the trembling James. He pushed the thought of a winter morning warming with the rising sun into his eyes and offered a small smile. “I was told some details when the case was referred to me. I don’t like to let secondhand accounts color my judgment. Please, in your words, explain when this started. What you noticed. How you felt.”

James retrieved the lighter and remained standing at the hearth in silence.

It was Elizabeth who finally spoke. “It was the last weekend in February. James was wrapping up a project at work, plans for an office building in New York City. I put Laura to bed and came downstairs. We finished book club, and I sent the ladies home.” She picked up her wineglass, scrutinized the legs running down the sides, and placed it back down. “I wasn’t expecting James to be back until Monday morning. I woke suddenly when I heard a noise of glass shattering.”

James kicked at the glass of the fireplace absently, his hands gripped tight around the lighter. “My flight was early. I came back in the early hours of Sunday morning. Four or maybe five.”

Elizabeth took another drag. “It was four thirty-seven exactly.” She turned to Olivier and offered a weak smile. “I checked with the cab company.”

Olivier nodded. “Details like that are important, thank you.” He made a flurry of quick, exacting notes. “Please, continue.”

Elizabeth’s smile faded. She took a breath. “I ran downstairs as soon as I heard the glass break. It was from Laura’s room. The door was stuck.” She gestured to her foot. “I kicked it in, but it wouldn’t budge.”

James pounded the mantle piece. “I was just outside. I could hear the sounds as Elizabeth kicked the door. I wanted to run to the door, but Laura was out on the balcony. She was struggling, screaming. It looked like she was being pulled or carried but I didn’t see anyone. It was dark, the floodlights across the alley weren’t on.” He gripped the lighter harder, hard enough the cap flew off.

Elizabeth winced as the cap clattered to the stone and then under the couch. “James… calm down.” She addressed Olivier directly, “Our neighbor, Mr. Arnold Carmine swears the lights were in good repair. We’ve tested them several times since.”

Olivier made further notes, his rhythmic scratching invoking the practiced surety of a composer jotting down notes to a score. “Continue,” he said at length.

James continued, “There were no lights, no moon. I couldn’t see who had Laura. I only saw her being carried along. Her feet weren’t touching the ground but were kicking, she was punching at the attacker, but her eyes were closed.”

Elizabeth picked up the thread, “I got the door open then. I sprained my ankle and broke two toes. I couldn’t tell when that happened. The door was held so tight then it just came open. I rushed inside.” Her breathing was uneven and she sniffled as she spoke, years of training in decorum the only thing keeping her from bawling and smearing her makeup in her hands.

Olivier held up a hand. “Please, Mrs. Wilks. Finish your wine. Take a moment.” He stood and crossed to James at the fireplace. “If I may?” he gestured to the Zippo oozing lighter fluid down James’ arm.

James handed over the broken Zippo.

Olivier took it and led James to the couch opposite Elizabeth. “You should have a drink as well. But before that, finish with your account.”

James blinked through his own tears and huffed. “I went into the alley and tried to block their escape. The ladder didn’t move and I didn’t hear anyone heading up but they must have gone to the roof because they dropped Laura and were gone.”

Olivier poured a glass of port from the bar behind the couch he had been sitting in. “I assume you checked the alley for footprints, signs of entry?” He handed the glass to James.

James took it, nodding. “I lapped the block three times looking for anything.”

Elizabeth placed her empty wineglass on the end table and moved to stand. Olivier waved her back down and fetched the open bottle from the bar. “Alright. Now, Mrs. Wilks. What did you see when you came into the room?”

She took the wine and settled into the arm of the couch. “The room was a mess. The bed was flipped over. There were gashes in the walls. Gashes! Not just the wallpaper! Beams and wiring were cut and broken. The glass of her balcony doors was melted into the frame where it wasn’t broken.”

Olivier returned to his seat and took another set of notes. “And how was Laura after the attacker fled?”

James steadied his glass with both hands and took a long sip. “Elizabeth tried to pull her in but she screamed and struggled. She refused to come inside.” He pointed to his bruised cheek and pushed his hair aside to show a bandage on his left ear. “She punched me when I tried to pick her up, damn near tore my ear off.”

Elizabeth drained her glass and held it loosely in front of her, staring at Olivier through the tinted crystal. “I didn’t try to touch her after she attacked James. Two firemen were hospitalized. As long as nobody touches her, she just sits there calling out her horrible vulgarities. Trauma they say.”

Olivier made a show of looking over his notes, turned back two pages, and then forward again. “The cloth tied around the fire escape?”

James shook his head. “Every blanket, sheet, and towel, all of her clothes aside from the dressing gown she was wearing. In the first day, while we were still filing reports, she would just have them in her hands, tearing them up and wrapping the escape. Nobody saw her collect them.”

Elizabeth dropped her glass and wept openly. “By the second day, she was done moving. She’s just sat there. Sat there for weeks yelling obscenities.”

Olivier picked up the glass and offered a handkerchief to Elizabeth. “With your permission, I would like to check Laura’s room, maybe ask her some questions?”

James nodded and stood. “I’ll show you the way.”

Olivier grabbed James’ shoulder. “Tend to your wife. I’ll be back down in a few minutes.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *