Authors: Christopher Rice
Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction, #Psychological, #Thrillers, #General, #Gay Men, #Journalists, #Gay, #Horror, #Authors, #Missing Persons, #Serial Murderers, #West Hollywood (Calif.)
C H R I S T O P H E R
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either
the product of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance
to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2005 Christopher Rice
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in
any manner whatsoever without the written permission of the Publisher.
Printed in the United States of America. For information address
Hyperion, 77 West 66th Street, New York, NY 10023-6298.
IN MEMORY OF MY FATHER
Behold the door.
The lock's alive.
With one finger he traced designs on the wooden table. He made a
circle out of a lake; he formed two rivers from the
circle; he flooded and destroyed an island, creating a sea. There were
so many things that could be done with
whiskey and water on a table. —GORE VIDAL,
The City and the
Such was the popular superstition—that California's interior was the
province of beastly condors and giant dragonflies
and Satan himself—that not a single Spanish land grant
was ever sought or given inside the valley.
—MARK ARAX AND RICK WARTMAN,
The King of California:
J. G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire
Several weeks after her husband's death, Janice Hughes packed what remained of her
belongings into her Toyota Camry, left her daughter's apartment in Berkeley, and drove east into California's Great Central Valley, where the knee-high carpets of tule grass make the low, rolling hills look like sand dunes, and the California Aqueduct, with its rippling surface and wide concrete banks, flows south alongside Interstate 5. From there, Janice somehow ended up in the tiny town of Avenal, teaching seventh and eighth graders at Boswell Junior High.
Avenal sits in the narrow valley between the tule-blanketed Kettleman Hills and the first rounded peaks of California's Coast Ranges. Its main street is just several blocks long, and city hall could easily be mistaken for a doctor's office. No one could see what such a small town had to offer a longtime San Franciscan like Janice Hughes.
To her fellow teachers, Janice mentioned a daughter who never came to visit. She wore her steel-colored hair in a pageboy cut and had a fondness for Native American jewelry, which gave birth to rumors that she was a lesbian. People suspected that when she wasn't working, she didn't spend much time in their town at all. But to her neighbors and colleagues, none of these speculations would have merited anything more than a passing mention if Janice had not become so dangerously obsessed with a thirteen-year-old boy named Caden McCormick.
* * *
A few days after Janice died, her colleague at Boswell Junior High, fifty-one-year-old Glenda Marsh, told a reporter for the
that Janice had come to her the week before, asking about a new student named Caden McCormick. There were trails of dirt around the boys ears, and other students had started to make fun of his bad smell. It was clear the kid wasn't bathing. Glenda Marsh knew the real story. Most of the other teachers at Boswell knew how to spot the child of methamphetamine addicts from a mile away.
But in Glenda's opinion, Janice was getting a "little too worked up" about the boy, so she gave the woman only half of the story. Tonya McCormick and her boyfriend Kyle Purcell had moved to town recently and lived in a trailer park that sat north of town, close to Highway 33.
There were rumors that Tonya had spent time in prison. Glenda assumed that these details would be enough to satisfy Janice: parents who moved their kids from town to town as if they were cars, a family history of trouble with law enforcement. She was trying to convince Janice that her concern for the boy could never make a difference. She failed.
In the journal discovered by the Kings County Sheriff's Department in her house, Janice described how one May afternoon she followed Caden home from school. The boy walked for almost a half hour north on Highway 33 before he came to a small trailer park with only six plots and a massive dried-out date palm in its center. Hidden from sight in her car, Janice watched the boy spend several minutes standing outside a high chain-link fence topped with coils of razor wire that surrounded a trailer with blackout curtains inside its windows and plywood sheets nailed over the rips in its walls. A pickup truck sat on blocks next to the trailer, its hood propped open and the contents of its engine spilled over the dirt, as if someone had been called away in the middle of ripping out its innards.
Caden wouldn't touch the gate in the fence. A few seconds later, Janice saw why. A pit bull vaulted from the rear of the trailer, its barks crazed and ferocious and its head twisting in the air, as if it were chewing on something. Caden McCormick took a few steps back from the fence and watched the dog plow headfirst into the chain link. Then Janice heard a sound like the snap of a giant guitar string—and suddenly the dog was sprawled out on the dirt on its back, yelping in pain, its head flailing and its legs jerking in quick spasms.
The man who emerged from the trailer wore a backward baseball cap. Red welts covered his bony arms and spindly legs. His long face was wasting into sharp angles, and in his right hand he carried something long and metallic. He threw open the gate without getting shocked, and Caden ran through it and toward the trailer.
Just as the pit bull rolled squirming onto its back, the man raised the metal stick in his hand and Janice saw a blue tongue flicker at its tip.
"A Taser," she wrote in her journal. "The kind they use on lunatics and inmates, and this man uses it on the family pet. And who knows who else."
On the afternoon of her death, Janice Hughes instructed her class of eighth graders to make family trees. No one could remember her giving such an assignment before. She passed out photocopies of possible formats, construction paper, and scissors and instructed the class to get to work.
Janice Hughes's students claimed she never took her eyes off of Caden McCormick, who sat in the third row. The boy did not use the construction paper or scissors Janice had given him. He sketched steadily, bent low over his desk to hide his work from the kids around him.
At one point, Janice walked up behind the boy, placed both hands on his back, and peered over his shoulder. Several students would tell the
that their teacher went pale when she saw Caden McCormick's work.
"What is that, Caden?" she asked.
The boy gave her a blank look and went back to work.
Deputy Amy Stahl was on patrol when a call came in from dispatch about an open 911 line in Avenal. Amy recognized the name of the caller. She had visited Janice Hughes one night when the woman had phoned to report a prowler. A search of Janice's property had turned up nothing.
Janice had been embarrassed and had offered the deputy coffee, then asked Amy questions about her life without offering up a single piece of information about her own. Amy had heard the rumor that Janice was a lesbian. She never worked up the courage to ask Janice if the rumor was true. Now Janice had called the Kings County Sheriff's Department in a panic, screaming something about how thirteen-year-old Caden McCormick was in danger. Amy was fairly sure Janice had been given the runaround, which is why the woman had bolted out of her home without bothering to terminate the call. Or perhaps Janice thought the best way to get the police's attention was to get them to come after her.
"She kept saying something about 'get the boy,"' the dispatcher said, slipping out of policespeak.
Amy heard another deputy call in to say that he was en route to Janice's home, so Amy flashed her lights and blew through the town of Avenal. She was heading north on Highway 33
in the direction of the trailer park Janice had mentioned to dispatch when a flash of white lit up the northern horizon. It strobed the metal power poles in the distance and flashed across the flanks of the Kettleman Hills.
Blinded, Amy slammed on her brakes. When she opened her eyes, she saw pieces of a
double-wide trailer tumbling back down to earth on a pond of fire that burned so white it looked like someone had spilled a piece of heaven. Amy grabbed the radio. She went lights and sirens and slammed her foot on the gas.
When she arrived on the scene, she almost ran into Janice's Toyota Camry. It was lying on its roof in a bed of shattered glass that shimmered with the reflection of white flames. Janice was not inside it. Amy found her across the road from the trailer's flaming crater, lying facedown on a torn piece of chain link. Most of the hair had been burned off her head and her burned lips were trying to form words.
Her eyes smarting from the flame's noxious fumes, Amy gripped one of Janice's hands and brought her ear to the woman's lips. She was whispering something about a dog but it was lost in the wail of approaching sirens. Janice Hughes died several minutes after she was loaded into the ambulance.
Later that night, Amy Stahl was the first sheriff's deputy to enter Janice's home. A muted television still flickered in the corner of a small, immaculate living room. A hanging pendant chandelier sent a harsh corona of light down onto the dining room table, where a river of red wine wound its way around a stack of papers.
Amy leafed through them and saw the family trees Janice had instructed her students to make earlier that day. One family tree lay off to the side, facedown. When Amy turned it over, her breath caught. It was a detailed pencil sketch of a trailer just like the one that had blown sky-high earlier that night. The trailer was surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire.
Behind it, Tonya McCormick's pit bull had been turned into a grotesque monster, its gaping jaws twice the size of the rest of its body. In the expanse of open field behind the trailer, there was a small dark figure without a face, its head rounded slightly as if it were wearing a helmet of some kind.
Amy turned the drawing back over and saw what had propelled Janice to call 911 and dash out of her house to the trailer. There was a message written on the back in small block letters. It was the answer to the question Janice Hughes had asked Caden McCormick in class that afternoon:
He's a demon. He comes every night now.
C H A P T E R 1
Three days before I quit drinking, Emilio Vargas met me at a giant Starbucks on Santa Monica Boulevard. He had a long, pocked face with high cheekbones and a sunken jaw. His springy black hair had been pulled back into a small ponytail. He wore Coke-bottle glasses and his left eye couldn't focus on anything higher than his nose. Emilio was a bartender at a hole-in-the-wall club in West Hollywood's east end that catered to male hustlers and hard-core crystal meth addicts. A week earlier, he had rearranged the faces of two Latino gangbangers who had tried to gay-bash him as he walked to his car after a grueling Saturday night shift.
According to the LA County Sheriffs Department, Emilios would-be assailants had spent the earlier part of the night walking the Sunset Strip, charming drunken bachelorette party attendees into giving them their phone numbers. Like most of the gangbangers who visited the city of West Hollywood each weekend, they had decided to spice up the long walk back to their car by breaking a gay man's jaw. One of them had carried a bicycle chain, the other a switchblade. If the two guys had simply cut to the chase, instead of calling Emilio the same names his mother called him when she shoved him out the back door of their house after discovering a gay porn magazine under his bed, they might have made off with Emilios wallet and a chunk of his pride.
Instead, they were still recovering from their injuries a week later.
No one in the local press had picked on Emilios story. If it hadn't been for a deputy at the West Hollywood Sheriff's Station who had taken me on a ride-along a few months earlier for a piece I was trying to put together, I wouldn't have heard about Emilios seemingly impossible act of self-defense either.
Two hours after we sat down together, my microcassette recorder was almost out of tape and I had Emilio Vargas's entire life story. June Gloom had brought veils of sun-lanced haze to the main thoroughfare of America's premier gay strip mall, and the rainbow flags tied to the lampposts rose and fell in a persistent breeze. The tables on the sidewalk around us were crowded with tank-top-clad men, their mops of windblown hair dyed the color of egg yolk and crow's feathers. They pretended to have conversations while they watched the parade of muscles heading into the 24 Hour Fitness across the street.
For the past year, I had been a glorified office assistant at a gay men's lifestyle magazine called
My editor, Tommy Banks, was convinced that a gay man's lifestyle didn't include much beyond his pecs and his underwear. Recently Tommy had agreed to let me start pursuing what I defined as real stories. That meant no more profiles of pretentious queens who owned their own specialty boutiques and became breathless with anger when I told them the magazine couldn't afford to hire a stylist for their twenty-minute photo shoot. Emilio Vargas was anything but a retail queen.