As soon as I see Daniel’s car pull out of the driveway, I run back to my computer and grab my phone, starting a new text to Aaron.
Bert Rhodes lives here. In Baton Rouge.
I don’t know what to do with this information. It’s a lead, definitely. It has to be more than coincidence. But still, it’s not enough to approach the police with. For all I know, they haven’t made the connection with the missing jewelry on their own, and I still don’t want to be the one to bring that up. Seconds later, my phone vibrates with Aaron’s response.
Looking into it. Give me ten minutes.
I put the phone down and glance back at my computer, at Bert’s image still glowing on my screen, his own face proof of the trauma he has experienced. When people get hurt physically, you can see it in the bruises and the scars, but when they’re hurt emotionally, mentally, it runs deeper than that. You can see every sleepless night in the reflection of their eyes; you can see every tear stained into their cheeks, every bout of anger etched into the creases in their foreheads. The thirst for blood cracking the skin on their lips. I hesitate for a minute as my eyes drink in the face of this broken person. I start to empathize, and I start to wonder—how could a man who lost his daughter in such a tragic way turn around and take a life in the exact same manner? How could he subject another innocent family to the exact same pain? But then I remember my clients, the other tortured souls I see day in and day out. I remember myself. I remember that statistic I learned in school, the one that made my blood run cold—forty percent of people who are abused as children will go on to become abusers themselves. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it happens. It’s cyclical. It’s about power, control— or rather, the lack of control. It’s about taking it back and claiming it as your own.
I, of all people, should understand that.
My phone starts to vibrate and I see Aaron’s name on the screen. I pick it up after the first ring.
“What did you find?” I ask, my eyes still glued to my computer.
“Assault resulting in a bodily injury, public drunkenness, DUI,” he says. “He’s been in and out of jail over the last fifteen years, and it looks like his wife filed for divorce a while ago after a domestic violence dispute. There’s a restraining order.”
“What did he do?”
Aaron is silent for a second, and I can’t tell if he’s reading his notes or if he just doesn’t want to answer the question.
“He strangled her.”
I let the words settle over my body, and instantly the room feels twenty degrees colder.
He strangled her.
“It could be a coincidence,” Aaron says. “Or it couldn’t.”
“There’s a big difference between an angry drunk and a serial killer.”
“He could be escalating,” I say. “Fifteen years of violent misdemeanors seems to be a pretty good indication that he’s capable of something more. He attacked his wife in the same way his daughter was attacked, Aaron. In the same way Aubrey and Lacey were murdered—”
“Okay,” Aaron says. “Okay. We’ll keep an eye on him. But if this is really concerning you, I think you should go to the police. Tell them the theory, you know. About the copycat.”
“No.” I shake my head. “No, not yet. We need more.”
“Why?” Aaron asks, sounding agitated. “Chloe, you said that last time. This is more. Why are you so afraid of the police?”
His question stuns me. I think about the way I’ve been lying to Detective Thomas and Officer Doyle, hiding evidence from the investigation. I’ve never thought of myself as being afraid of the police, but then I think back to college, to the last time I got involved in something like this, and how badly it had ended. How wrong I had been.
“I’m not afraid of the police,” I say. Aaron is silent, and I feel like I should continue, explain more. I feel like I should say I’m afraid of myself. But instead, I sigh.
“I don’t want to talk to them for the same reason I didn’t want to talk to you,” I say, my tone harsher than I intend it to be. “I didn’t ask to be involved in this. In any of it.”
“Well, you are,” Aaron snaps back. He sounds hurt, and in this moment, even more than the moment on the dock as he listened to me recount that memory with Lena, our relationship starts to feel like something more than journalist and subject. It starts to feel personal. “Whether you like it or not, you’re involved.”
I glance toward the window just in time to see the outline of a car through the blinds, pulling into my driveway. I’m not expecting anyone, so I glance at the clock—Daniel has been gone for about thirty minutes. I look around the house, wondering if he forgot something and had to turn around and drive back.
“Look, Aaron, I’m sorry,” I say, pinching my nose between my fingers. “I didn’t mean it like that. I know you’re trying to help. You’re right, I’m involved in this, whether or not I want to be. My dad made sure of that.”
He’s silent, but I can feel the tension evaporating on the other side of the line.
“All I’m saying is I’m not ready for the police to start digging around in my life just yet,” I continue. “If I bring this to them, if I tell them who I am, I can’t turn back from that. I’ll be picked apart and scrutinized all over again. This is my home, Aaron. My life. I’m normal here … or as normal as I can get, anyway. I like it like that.”
“Okay,” he says at last. “Okay, I understand. I’m sorry for pushing it.” “It’s fine. If we find any more proof, I’ll tell them everything. I
I hear the slam of a car door outside and turn to see the silhouette of a man walking up my driveway, approaching my home.
“But hey, I need to go. I think Daniel’s home. I’ll call you later.”
I hang up and toss my phone on the couch before walking toward the front door. I can hear the sound of footsteps on the stairs, and before Daniel can come inside, I swing open the door and place a hand on my hip.
“You just couldn’t stay away, could you?”
My eyes register the man before me, and my smile fades, my playful expression replaced with one of horror. This man isn’t Daniel. My hand drops to my side as I look him up and down, his husky frame and dirty clothes, his wrinkled skin and dark, dead eyes. They’re even darker than they were in his picture, still pulled up on my laptop screen. My heart starts to accelerate, and for one terrifying second, I grasp the doorframe to stop myself from passing out.
Bert Rhodes is standing on my doorstep.