Authors: Barry Lyga
Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Mysteries, #Mysteries & Thrillers, #Juvenile Fiction / Mysteries & Detective Stories, #Juvenile Fiction / Boys & Men, #Juvenile Fiction / Family / General (See Also Headings Under Social Issues)
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For my parents. Ironically.
Jazz opened his eyes.
Connie opened her eyes.
Howie opened his eyes.
Jazz realized he had been floating. Floating in dreams. But the dreams weren’t really dreams—not entirely. They were memories, filtered through a dream haze.
He’d seen himself in the Hideout again, with Connie. Telling her how happy it would make him to know that his mom had escaped Billy, rather than been killed.
He’d seen himself at his mother’s grave, weeping for her at Connie’s side.
And she wasn’t dead, Jazz knew, both in and out of the dream. She wasn’t dead; she was alive, and he’d said that would make him happy, but now he was hurt and he was angry and he was also—damn it!—happy at the same time because she was alive and that was great, but why didn’t she, why, why, why didn’t she take
Which is when he’d jerked awake, still in the dark, still locked in unit 83F. Cramped and stagnant, the place still reeked of formaldehyde and bleach, with a growing note of blood and meat. Nothing had changed.
He opened Dog’s ancient cell phone again, burning precious battery life. The storage unit lit up with the image of his mother.
That part wasn’t a dream. She’s alive. She’s really still alive.
He shivered. It was cold in the storage unit, but that wasn’t the cause of his sudden chill.
Who did you come to New York to find?
he had asked Billy, and Billy had answered with the photo.
She could be dead by now. Or tortured. Or anything, really.
“LET ME OUT OF HERE!”
The scream nearly ripped his throat to shreds; in the close echo chamber of unit 83F, it battered his eardrums. His heart skipped at the sound of his own voice, so raw and desperate. He hadn’t even known he was going to scream until the words were out of his mouth.
Don’t lose it, Jazz. Don’t lose it. Stay in control.
But he couldn’t stop himself. His leg had settled into a dull, forceful throb of pain, and he found he could maneuver well enough to get to the door of the storage unit, where he proceeded to howl and scream and pound at the door until the corrugated metal made his fists slick with his own blood.
He slumped down in the darkness. His hands were numb, but that—he knew—wouldn’t last. The pain would find him.
The pain always found him.
Pain means you’re alive. Pain is good. Pain is life.
It wouldn’t matter soon. Soon enough, he would be dead. His makeshift bandage wouldn’t keep the blood stanched forever. And if he didn’t bleed out, he would die of infection. Or thirst.
According to the clock on the screen of Dog’s phone, it had been less than fifteen minutes since he’d first seen the photo. Fifteen minutes to pass into a fugue state, to wake up again. Time was losing all meaning.
His mother stared back at him, caught unawares by Billy’s prying, prospecting camera.
“Mom,” he said, but it sounded wrong. After a moment, he realized why. She’d gone away when he was so young. And yes, he’d sometimes called her
, but most often he’d called her…
“Mommy,” he said, the word wrenched from him as though stuck fast.
“Mommy,” he said again, and wept.
It wasn’t a dream. It really was Billy Dent standing in front of her.
Connie shook her head to clear it, but the action only made a smallish pulse at the base of her skull become a throbbing headache that she couldn’t ignore. She gasped with the pain of it, and Billy smiled.
“Just breathe in and out,” he advised. “Only gave you a small dose. You should be clearin’ up in no time.”
Connie listened, but the headache didn’t—it kept pounding at her, a tiny man wearing gigantic concrete boots stomping away inside her brain.
Oh, God, Connie, stop worrying about your headache.
She was tied to a chair, she realized, as she tried to put one hand to her head to steady the pulsating beat there. She flexed the muscles of her arms, back, legs. The chair was depressingly sturdy; the ropes confidently tied. Billy was no amateur.
The room was exactly as she’d expected from this run-down building’s exterior—walls stained with mold and dirty water, floors dinged and marred with substances she didn’t want to know. There was Billy, of course, lurking dead ahead, but off to her left, she could just barely make out the edge of a table, on which lay two cell phones: her own iPhone and some kind of cheap flip phone.
Billy looked different from the photos she’d seen of him over the years. He wore absurd muttonchops and a goatee trimmed to elongate his face. His hair was grayish brown, not dirty blond. It was the face she’d seen when the apartment door had opened, and she’d recognized him not by his face, but by his
, his evil glee, and that voice.
Her stomach lifted and lowered, then lifted again.
“I’m gonna throw up,” she whispered.
Billy shrugged. “Ain’t gonna stop you.”
She wondered if she could aim her puke at Billy’s shoes. She wondered what the punishment would be for vomiting on the world’s most notorious serial killer.
She managed to keep her guts in check.
“It’s called Darkene,” Billy said suddenly. He had pulled another chair over and now sat on it, no more than two feet from her.
“What’s called Darkene?” she asked. She could suddenly remember—with crystal clarity—Jazz’s attempt to lecture her on surviving serial killers. She had screwed up most of the basics, but “keep them talking” was still on the list. Maybe if she kept Billy talking, someone would…
“Stuff I shot you up with,” Billy said.
Connie couldn’t remember being “shot up” with anything. The last thing she remembered was the door to the apartment opening. Seeing Billy there. Recognizing him—instantly—despite his facial hair and hair color. That drawl…
“Well now, ain’t you just the sweetest piece of chocolate I ever seen.”
“Some kinda European version of Rohypnol,” Billy went on. “They gone and put it in an alcohol solution to make it injectable, see? Found out about it on the Internet. And ain’t that thing a marvel? You can find out anything about anybody. Amazing. Sure makes my job easier. Hell, when I started out, back in the day, you couldn’t just push a few buttons and get what you needed. Had to do the
back then. More chances to get sloppy. Wouldn’t go back to that for all the tea in China, darlin’.”
At the mention of Rohypnol, Connie’s gut surged again, and she only barely kept herself from throwing up. Roofies. The date rape drug. She—
“Oh, now, darlin’,” Billy said soothingly, “you ain’t thinkin’ unkindly thoughts toward ol’ Billy, are you?” He laughed. “It’s all over your face. You thinkin’ ‘date rape drug’ and you know I got certain, well, let’s call ’em
, shall we? I ain’t gonna lie to you—I have been known to engage in what the prison shrink calls ‘nonconsensual liaisons’ with certain ladies. And I’ll tell you, Connie—if a single one of them women had been a real person or mattered in the slightest, there’s a chance I might even regret it. But they weren’t, so I don’t.”
He cleared his throat and leaned in close. “But you think real hard now, and you realize that your drawers are still on and I ain’t taken a stitch of clothin’ off you. Ain’t done nothing untoward. Not to my boy’s girl.”
Except drug me
, she wanted to say.
And tie me to a chair.
Wanted to say. But couldn’t. Wouldn’t. She was six inches from the mouth of a man who had bitten the throat out of a woman. Six inches from a man who had cut the nipples off a victim and switched them with those of another. Six inches from the monster who stalked the earth in a suit of human flesh and blood, raping, torturing, and murdering.
She walked into Melissa Hoover’s house with Jazz ahead of her and Howie behind her. Billy had been here. G. William told them that much on the phone. And then, suddenly, Jazz looked through a doorway and spun around and shoved at her and at Howie, shoved with more force than was necessary, as though he didn’t care that Connie was his girlfriend, didn’t care about Howie’s hemophilia.
“You can’t see this,” he said. “You’ll have nightmares for the rest of your lives.”
He had never told Connie exactly
Billy Dent had done to poor Melissa Hoover. But Connie and Howie had waited outside as Jazz stalked the crime scene with G. William and the cops. She’d seen a cop come outside and lean against the house, then hang—openmouthed—over a rosemary bush, as if begging his guts to let him puke. Nothing had come.
She’d watched the medical examiner go in, grim, and come out, gray-skinned and shaking his head.
Billy Dent didn’t just kill people. He didn’t just rape them. He
She was, she realized in a moment of stark, hot clarity, terrified.
Now was not the time for sass. Now was not the time to show how tough she was or to be a “strong woman.” Now was the time to do or say whatever she had to do or say in order to survive this.
“I’m sorry I doubted you,” she whispered.
Billy roared with laughter, slapping one knee. “Black girls!” he howled. “God love ’em! Where’s the sass, girl? Where’s the head toss and the attitude? You’re disappointing me. I see on the TV how badass y’all are supposed to be, but here? Now? You ain’t impressin’ me. Not a credit to the African American species, if you don’t mind my saying. More like a nothing-special colored girl. Beaten down like a slave, you know?”
He stood up with a hand behind his back, and when the hand came into view, it held a large, wicked knife.
“You think you’re good enough for my boy, Conscience Hall? You think you got what it takes to be with him? Oh, that’s right—I know all about you and him. I know. I first heard about it, I thought, ‘Well, damn, Jasper’s got himself some strange.’ And I laughed—well, no. Didn’t quite laugh.
Connie tensed. She couldn’t keep her eyes from following the knife as Billy gestured with it. But her ears couldn’t help hearing—
“Oh, no!” Billy said in mock chagrin. “Did he say
? No, no, of course not. I said
, Connie. Stop
being so sensitive. It’s a real problem with your particular breed. I ain’t sayin’ that out of a sense of racial entitlement, you understand. I’m just speaking honest with you. I’m trying to help you.”
He paused, and Connie realized—to her horror—that he expected a response.
“Thank you,” she managed to say. “Thank you, Mr. Dent.”
“ ‘Mr. Dent?’ ” Billy clucked his tongue. “Damn, girl, we’re practically family, what with you spreadin’ your legs for my son.” He sighed heavily. “It’s gonna kill my poor momma, if you ’n’ Jasper get hitched, Connie. Don’t mind telling you that. She ain’t as progressive-minded as I am. Know what I mean?”
“Yes, Mr.… Yes.”
“Call me Billy, darlin’.” He tilted his head like a confused puppy, grinning, the knife dancing slowly back and forth in her field of vision, throwing off flares from the overhead light.
“Yes, Billy. I understand.”
Billy nodded in satisfaction. “Good. Good.” He started pacing now, still gesturing with the knife. And Connie’s fear had abated enough that she began looking for a way out… only to realize there was none. She could scream, sure, but this was Billy Dent—he’d have her throat cut before the first syllable passed her lips.
“ ‘Sniggering.’ Perfectly fine word. Nothin’ wrong with it. Won’t hear ol’ Billy usin’
word,” Billy said, grinning. “Little old
thing like that? Drives people bonkers, it
does. Why, it would be
to say that! Insensitive! I say something like that, people might
hate me. Not just black folk, either. Got a lot of white folk get upset by it, too. But you want to know something? I’ll tell you a secret, Connie. I’ll tell you a secret, if you tell me one. Do we have a deal?”
What choice did she have? Connie nodded.
Billy considered. “You gonna live up to your end of the bargain?”
“Good. I don’t want to be dealing with no
.” He howled with laughter again, wiping tears from his eyes. He was out of control, helpless in the throes of his own idiotic, racist humor.
“I won’t hold back,” he told her. “Gonna tell you a good secret. All the details. I won’t be…
about it.” No laughter now as he sat across from her again, a wicked gleam in his eye.
Connie bit her bottom lip, hard. She’d made the worst mistake she could possibly make with him.
His idiotic, racist humor
, she’d thought. Nothing Billy Dent did was idiotic. Nothing was uncalculated or left to chance.
He’s trying to get inside your head
, someone said to her, and she was surprised—a little, at least—to find that it was Jazz’s voice. That was new.
Once he gets inside your head, it’s game over
, Jazz went on.
Once he gets inside your head, you’re dead.
Billy did the head tilt again. “Thinkin’, ain’t you? Thinkin’ way back in that head of yours. You’re thinkin’ that if you can keep me talking, maybe someone will come to rescue you.” He did something extraordinary just then—he tapped his knife against his chin, the sharp, lethal point just under his mouth. Absentmindedly. As though he did this all the time to keep himself focused. Connie hissed in a breath in some sort of strange sympathy—the idea of that blade so close to her,
He held the knife so casually, as if it were just an extension of his hand.
Does he have special ones?
Or will any old knife do?
He winked at her, and in that moment, she knew she was doomed. Billy was in her head. He was playing two games at once, talking to her while also sussing her out. Figuring out what would make her scream the most, maybe. Or possibly what would make her scream the best. He probably had a grading scale for screams, after all. And he knew how to take a victim from a one to a ten, no problem.
“So, here’s my secret,” he said. “Ain’t much difference between me and one of you ‘people’ running around out there in the world. Ain’t much difference at all, Connie. Truly. Know how I know?”
She shook her head.
“Well, I’ll tell you. I performed… Well, I performed what you might call an
, Connie. See, I got a whole lotta deaths to my name. Most of ’em are women. I guess you know that.” He stroked his chin with his free hand. “Got a lot of people sayin’ I got, well, issues with women. Whole
buncha experts thinkin’ they can understand ol’ Billy. But, damn, Connie. Damn! They don’t know me! You think they know me?”
She shook her head again. Agreeing with Billy Dent had become absurdly easy.
“I love women, Connie. Truly, I do. Love my momma, for example. That’s just one right there. But the problem here is that there just ain’t a lot of real women in the world. Oh, I know you like to think there are. You like to walk around all day and see. You see these things, Connie. These creatures, these dolls. Pretty things, sometimes. They got long hair and they got a bosom and they got fine legs with a nice spot between ’em, but they ain’t
, you hear me?”
He suddenly screamed: “YOU HEAR ME?”
“Yes!” she cried. “Yes, I hear you!”
“I DON’T BELIEVE YOU!” He brandished the knife before her eyes, the deadly point staring at her, unmoving, held so unbelievably still that it couldn’t have moved less if Billy had been a statue.
“I believe you!” she yelped. “I really do! I swear, Billy! I swear!”
He chuckled and went from outrage to easygoing in less time than it took her to blink. The knife pulled back.
“You get it. I’m startin’ to think maybe you’re real, Connie. Maybe that’s why my boy ain’t cut you open yet. Might could be.”
If I’m real, does he kill me? Does he let me go? Or does it even matter ’cause I’m black?
“Anyway, I tried this out. My little experiment. Scientific
method, Connie. See, the newspeople, they sure loved talkin’ about what I did and who I did it to and why. And I ain’t gonna lie to you—my pride surely goeth before my fall because I was pretty dang fascinated with what they had to say. Read every story I could get my hands on.” He dropped a sly, conspiratorial wink. “Even had one of them—whatchacallit—Google Alerts for a little while. Make sure I catch everything.
“So here’s where the experiment comes in. Here’s the secret, Connie: I purposely killed me some homely girls. Not many. I’m a man, after all, and I got my tastes and I ain’t one to deny myself. But I picked out some girls who weren’t nothin’ to write home about, and I did ’em just as done as the others, and you know what?”
She shrugged. It felt offhand and deliberate and provocative, so she quickly added, “No. What?”
“I’ll tell you what: The media reported on them
than on the others. Fewer pictures. Fewer words written. Less detail. Know why?”
He didn’t wait for an answer. He leaned in even closer than before: Five inches, then four, then three, now his lips at her ear—right at her ear—and he could bite it off or even just suck her brain out because he was Billy Dent and maybe he could.