Authors: Chelsea Cain
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
Susan glanced at Prescott. He was still leaning on the wall.
Gretchen’s hands readjusted the blanket over her lap. “He was trying to talk to me through the tape, shaking his head no, straining at the cuffs,” she said. “I took his
nose off first.” She glanced up at Susan, like she wanted to make sure Susan had gotten that bit. Susan tried to steel her expression, but she must have looked green because Gretchen smiled.
“I straddled him and I hooked the blade under one nostril and pressed hard,” she continued. “It was easy. Like slicing an avocado. You know, that bit of resistance before the
skin of an avocado splits and the knife sinks into the thick smooth flesh of the fruit? As I cut, I peeled and pulled his nose up with my other hand, slicing along the nasal fold, up one side, over
the bridge, down the other side, and finally the cartilage between the nostrils. He was screaming. As much as he could, considering the tape. It was more like a high-pitched whine, a car with a bad
fan belt. It came off in my hand. The nose. It didn’t look like a nose. Flesh always looks so much smaller once it’s been dismembered. The skin contracts. It looks small and harmless.
Like nothing. But without it, his face was a bloody hole. But he was still producing mucus. It bubbled up out of his nasal aperture, this pearly gurgling snot-blood stew.”
The contents of Susan’s stomach pressed against her throat. She glanced behind her, looking for some reaction from Prescott, and got nothing. Susan was beginning to think he was on drugs,
Gretchen smiled darkly to herself. “Now he was afraid,” she said. “When people are truly scared, truly in fear for their lives, the whites of their eyes go pink. I don’t
know why. Maybe it has something to do with their blood pressure elevating, vessels near the surface of the eyes dilating. I have always seen it, in those last moments, every single
Gretchen looked at Susan, and Susan felt cold all the way to the bone.
“But I didn’t want him to die,” Gretchen said. “I wanted him to stay alive, to see what I was doing to him for as long as possible.” Gretchen took a slow, long
breath. “But I had hurt him too much, too soon. I didn’t have the control I would develop later. I didn’t know how to pace myself.”
Like when she’d tortured Archie for ten straight days
Gretchen continued. “I cut him open. From the xiphoid process all the way to the pubic symphysis, only I didn’t know the words yet. It wasn’t a very clean incision. He was fat
and my blade got dull. I came to regret the plastic sheeting. He shat and pissed himself and it all pooled under him on the plastic, so that I was kneeling in blood and urine and shit. I had to
roll up the sides of the plastic sheeting and use towels from the bathroom to keep the blood off the carpet.”
Gretchen turned over her hands and looked at them. “People just open up when you cut them. Like a big smile. Once I got through all the fat and membrane he was just all there in front of
me: intestines, stomach, liver, spleen. I took my glove off before I pushed my hand inside him. I wanted to penetrate him, to feel him from the inside. He was in shock at that point, cadaverous,
eyes glazed, shaking. He was suffocating, drowning in his own blood. But when I listened close, I could still hear the squealing.”
She was quiet, a soft smile on her lips, and Susan wondered if she was listening for squealing at that very moment. “I put my fingers together and twisted my hand under his small
intestine,” she said, pantomiming the motion. “His body was so warm it sent a shudder through me. My hand in his belly made a sucking sound. He felt solid. I thought his insides would
be softer, slipperier, like putting your hand in a bowlful of Jell-O.”
Susan thought she might vomit. Even Prescott looked away and swallowed hard.
“It was fascinating,” Gretchen said. She said, “I took him apart.” Then her gaze snapped at Susan. “Have you ever prepared a Thanksgiving turkey for
stuffing?” she asked.
“No,” Susan said. She was never eating stuffing again. She might not eat again, period.
Gretchen continued. “I didn’t even notice the exact moment when he died. I was too busy. I’ve always been like that. Hyper-focused.” She said, “It’s funny,
once I realized he was gone, I lost interest in him. I folded the plastic around him, dragged him to the bathtub, and I dismembered him at the joints. It wasn’t any fun. Just work.”
Her face was devoid of any emotion now. She said, “It took me two hours to clean the room, and another four hours and five trips to carry the pieces of him out of there. All that luggage,
I needed a porter.”
She paused. Lost in thought, Susan figured. Reliving the good times. Then Gretchen looked at Susan and shrugged. “But the room was cheap,” she said. “Twenty-nine dollars a
night. And that included HBO. So I suppose it was worth it.” She leaned closer to Susan, like a confidante. Susan braced herself, fighting the urge to recoil. “You know, they never did
find his body,” Gretchen said. “Or his car. His wife thought he ran off.” There was something wicked in her eyes. She said, “I suppose she still hates him for
She stretched and settled back against the wall, like a reptile lounging in the sun. “Mr. James Beaton,” she said softly. “He was the first person I killed.” She lifted a
hand from her lap and gave Susan a curt, dismissive wave. “You should be able to sell that. Now go away.”
Susan stalled, flustered. “Why tell that story now?” she asked.
“Quid pro quo, little pigeon,” Gretchen said.
“I’m not doing anything for you,” Susan said.
“Yessss,” Gretchen hissed. She stared straight ahead, not looking at Susan. Susan could make out a fine fuzz of hair that had grown on her cheek and upper lip. “Yes. You are.
He’ll know you’ve been here, and he’ll come. He’ll come soon.”
Susan’s stomach hardened. “I’ll tell him not to,” she said. “I’ll promise him I’ll never come see you again.”
Gretchen’s eyes turned into lazy slits. “But that would be a lie, wouldn’t it?”
Susan sat back in the plastic chair. She knew that Gretchen was right. Gretchen Lowell’s first victim? An exclusive? Susan would sell this story. And she could sell others, as many as
Gretchen wanted to tell her. She wouldn’t be able to stay away.
Susan hated Gretchen for that. She flicked the recorder off with her thumb and stood up. “Someday,” she said, “someone is going to surprise you.”
“One more thing,” Gretchen said.
The name of a good dermatologist?
“Yes?” Susan said.
“I want you to ask Archie why he’s not looking for Ryan Motley,” she said.
“Who is Ryan Motley?” Susan asked.
“We should go,” Prescott said.
Susan had finally gotten used to his statue act. Now he was rushing her out of the room?
“Children are going to die,” Gretchen said. She reached up and combed her fingers through her hair. “He’s letting his personal feelings interfere with his professional
judgment.” She said, “You have to find the flash drive.” She yanked her fist down and looked at it, a handful of hair in her fingers, tiny bits of scalp still clinging to the
“You’re not crazy,” Susan said. She turned to Prescott. “She’s not crazy.”
Prescott stepped between them. “We’re done here,” he said.
“Find the flash drive, Susan,” Gretchen said.
Gretchen’s face looked sallow, her jowls puffy. Her chapped bottom lip had started to bleed, or maybe she had bitten it.
“Out, now,” Prescott said.
Susan followed him out of the Klonopin-yellow room. Klonopin. Susan would have given anything for one of those right now.
igarettes never tasted
very good in the heat. There was something counterintuitive about sucking down warm smoke when
you were sweating. It was like taking a cup of coffee into a sweat lodge.
That didn’t stop Susan.
She sat in her Saab, one trembling hand clawed around the steering wheel, the other clenching an American Spirit. She had left the car in the sun, and the seat was so hot she couldn’t lean
back without giving herself a second-degree burn. She was pretty sure she could have made a crêpe on the dashboard. So she had rolled down all the windows and opened the front doors, to let
the heat out before getting back on the highway.
The nicotine had helped. She wasn’t shaking as badly as when she’d first fled the hospital.
She took a last drag on the cigarette, tossed it out the window onto the parking lot pavement, and stepped on it with a flip-flop.
Then she squinted up into the sun until her eyes burned and tears formed. There was no denying it.
She had fucked up.
There was only one thing to do.
Face the music.
Her purse was on the passenger seat. She reached in and dug out her phone.
It rang four times before Archie picked up.
“What’s up?” he said.
Susan closed her eyes and sank her head in her hand. “I just saw Gretchen.”
There was a long pause. Finally, Archie said, “Tell me about it.”
“One of her shrinks called me,” Susan said, talking fast. “Said she wanted to give me an interview. She told me about a man she murdered, Archie. It’s not one of the
victims we know about. I have it on tape. But it’s not really about that. She used me to try to get you to visit her. She thinks that when you find out I went, you’ll come see her. You
can’t go see her.”
“What else did she say to you?”
Susan took a long shaky breath. “She asked me to ask you about some guy named Ryan Motley.”
“Where are you right now?” Archie asked. He gave away nothing with his voice. He was all business.
“Still in Salem.”
“Bring me the tape,” he said.
Susan glanced at the clock on the Saab’s dash. It was eleven o’clock. She could be back in Portland within an hour. And then she mentally kicked herself. She’d been supposed to
meet Archie at ten. “Shit,” she said. “Our interview with Pearl. I totally forgot.”
There was a pause.
Just long enough for Susan to realize that he’d forgotten, too. Archie didn’t forget things like that. He’d been distracted. Something had happened.
“Maybe tomorrow,” Archie said.
“I’m sorry,” Susan said. “About everything.”
“I know,” he said with a sigh. “We’ll figure it out.”
Susan ended the call and dropped the phone back in her purse. Then she lit another cigarette.
She wondered sometimes which would get her first—cancer, or Gretchen Lowell. Today, the odds seemed about even.
hat was that
about?” Henry asked. “Sorry,” Archie said. He turned his wrist over and looked at his
watch, trying to stall until he could be sure his voice wouldn’t betray his emotions.
He was sitting at his desk, in his office at the Major Case Task Force headquarters. Henry was sitting in a chair opposite the desk, with his feet up on the desk’s corner.
Archie knew how Henry would react to Susan’s call. Henry hated Gretchen Lowell. Mostly, he hated what she had done to Archie. He would get involved. And Gretchen knew exactly how to get to
Henry. She’d make him crazy. Henry didn’t need that; he needed to focus on his recovery.
Henry had always protected Archie. Now it was Archie’s turn.
He would take care of this without Henry needing to know.
Archie gave Henry’s cowboy boots an affable tap. “Why are your feet on my desk?” he said. “It’s for circulation,” Henry said, not moving.
“Doctor’s orders.” “I’m going to need a physician’s note,” Archie said. The task force offices were in an old bank building that the city had bought and
repurposed during the Beauty Killer Task Force days. Banks had once been built grandly with gilding and marble floors, to convince you that bankers knew how to handle money. Then, after a few
economic collapses, banks were built simply, no frills, lots of carpet, to convince you that bankers were just like you. The task force bank was in the second category.
It was one-story, square, with a parking lot that surrounded it on all sides. The old public area of the bank was now filled with desks. They used the old vault as an interview/interrogation
room. Vestiges of the bank remained: veneer desks and chairs, mauve upholstery, a path worn on the carpet leading from the door to where the deposit counter had been. A clock on the wall was
printed with a slogan that read time to bank with friends.
Archie had been given the old bank manager’s office. It was bare bones—a desk, three chairs, and a bookshelf. He had a photograph of his ex-wife and kids in a frame on the desk. But
nothing else personal. He had once brought in some of his kids’ artwork to hang up, but it hadn’t seemed right to have his children’s crayon drawings share the same space as
photographs of crime scenes and autopsy reports.
Henry had Pearl Clinton’s Department of Human Services report open on his lap, a pair of rectangular drugstore reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. “This kid has run away
eleven times,” he said.
Archie’s phone rang again.
It was the landline this time. Another bank relic—it was tan, with a cordless handset and a lot of buttons. No caller ID.
“Are you going to get that?” Henry asked.
Archie hesitated. But Archie couldn’t avoid taking calls, not at work, and not during a homicide investigation. He picked up the phone, hoping it would be Robbins with a positive ID of
the second victim.
“This is Dr. Prescott again, down at the State Hospital,” a familiar voice said.
Archie stole a glance at Henry. Henry was staring at him, his forehead folded with concern. “Uh-huh,” Archie said into the phone.
“I know you said not to call again,” Prescott said.
Archie found a piece of paper on his desk and picked up a pen, like he might take down information. “Uh-huh,” Archie said again.
“She said it was urgent,” Prescott said. “Regarding the body in the park and on the rooftop. Ryan Motley. Does that name mean anything to you?”