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Chapter no 24

A Flicker in the Dark

We stare at each other for what seems like forever, each one silently daring the other to speak first. Even if I had something to say, I wouldn’t be able to say it. My lips are frozen in place, the sheer terror of Bert Rhodes in the flesh rendering me immobile. I can’t move, I can’t speak. All I can do is stare. My gaze travels down from his eyes to his hands, callused and dirty. They’re large. I imagine them gripping my neck easily, squeezing gently at first before increasing the pressure with every gag. My nails clawing at his grasp, my eyes bulging as they stare into his, searching for a hint of life in the darkness. His cracked lips snaking into a smile. The finger-shaped bruises Detective Thomas would find on my skin.

He clears this throat.

“Is this the residence of Daniel Briggs?”

I stare at him for another second, blinking a few times, as if my mind is trying to shake itself from a stupor. I don’t know if I heard him correctly

—he’s looking for Daniel? When I don’t answer, he speaks again.

“We got a call from Daniel Briggs ’bout thirty minutes ago asking to install a security system at this address.” He looks down at his clipboard before glancing at the street sign behind him, as if checking to make sure he’s at the right place. “Said it was urgent.”

I glance behind him at the car parked in my driveway, the Alarm Security Systems logo printed across the side. Daniel must have called the company himself as soon as he got in the car—it was a sweet gesture, well intentioned, but one that also lured Bert Rhodes directly to me. Daniel has no idea of the danger he’s just put me in. I look back at this man from my past, lingering on my doorstep, waiting politely to be invited inside. The realization dawns on me slowly.

He doesn’t recognize me. He doesn’t know who I am.

I hadn’t noticed it before, but I’m breathing rapidly, my chest rising and falling violently with each desperate inhale. Bert seems to notice at the same moment I do; he’s eying me suspiciously, rightfully curious as to why

his presence is making a stranger hyperventilate. I know I need to calm myself down.

Chloe, breathe. Can you breathe for me? Breathe in through your

nose.

I imagine my mother and close my lips, inhaling deep through my

nostrils and letting my chest fill with air.

Now out through your mouth.

I purse my lips and push out the stale air slowly, feeling my heartbeat slow. I clench my hands to stop them from shaking.

“Yes,” I say, stepping to the side and gesturing for him to come in. I watch as his foot crosses the threshold of my home, my sanctuary. My safe haven and my escape, carefully crafted to exude normalcy and control, an illusion that instantly shatters the moment this presence from my past steps inside. There’s an atmospheric shift in the air, a buzzing of particles that makes my arm hair bristle. Standing closer to me now, inches from my face, he seems even larger than I remembered, despite the fact that the last time I was in a room with this man, I was twelve years old. But he doesn’t seem to know that. He doesn’t seem to have any idea that I am the twelve-year-old girl who shares blood with the man who murdered his daughter; I am the girl who screamed when the rock he threw came crashing through my mother’s window. I am the girl who hid beneath my bed when he showed up on our doorstep stinking of whiskey and sweat and tears.

He doesn’t seem to have any idea of the history we share. And now, with him standing in my home, I wonder if I can use this to my advantage.

He steps farther into the house and looks around, his eyes scanning the hallway, the attached living room, the kitchen, and the staircase that leads to the second floor. He takes a few steps and peeks into each room, nodding to himself.

Suddenly, a terrifying thought washes over me. What if he does

recognize me? What if he’s just checking to see if I’m alone?

“My husband is upstairs,” I say, my eyes darting to the staircase. Daniel keeps a gun stashed in our bedroom closet, in case of intruders. I rack my brain, trying to remember where the box is, exactly. I wonder if I

can make an excuse to run upstairs and grab it, just in case. “He’s on a conference call, but if you need anything, I can just go ask him.”

He squints at me before licking his lips and smiling, shaking his head gently, and I get the distinct feeling that he’s laughing at me, mocking me. That he knows I’m lying about Daniel, and that I am here completely alone. He walks back in my direction, and I notice him rubbing his hands against his pants, as if wiping the sweat from his palms. I start to panic and consider bolting outside before he twists around and points to the door, tapping it twice with his index finger.

“No need, I’m just assessin’ your entry points. Two main doors, front and back. You got lots of windows in here, so I would suggest we install some glass-break sensors. You want me to take a look upstairs?”

“No,” I say. “No, downstairs is fine. That all—that all sounds fine.

Thank you.”

“You want cameras?” “What?”

“Cameras,” he repeats. “They’re tiny little things we can place throughout the property, then you can access the video from your phone—”

“Oh, yeah,” I say, quickly, absentmindedly. “Yeah, sure. That’ll be good.”

“All right,” he says, nodding. He scribbles some notes on his clipboard before thrusting it in my direction. “If you could just sign here, I’ll get my tools.”

I take the clipboard and look down at the order form as he steps outside and walks toward his car. I can’t sign my name, obviously. My real name. Surely, he would recognize that. So instead, I sign Elizabeth Briggs

—my middle name paired with Daniel’s last—and hand him the clipboard as he walks back inside. I watch as he scans my signature before making my way back to the couch.

“I appreciate you showing up on such short notice,” I say, shutting my laptop and stuffing my phone into my back pocket. “That was extremely quick.”

“On-demand, 24/7,” he says, reciting the slogan from the website. He’s walking around the house now, sticking sensors on each window. The

thought of this man knowing exactly which areas to avoid to bypass the alarm is suddenly concerning; for all I know, he could be skipping a spot, keeping a mental note of which window to crawl through when he comes back later. I wonder if this is how he chooses his victims—maybe he first saw Aubrey and Lacey when installing systems in their homes. Maybe he stood inside their bedrooms, took a peek inside their panty drawers. Learned their routines.

I’m quiet as he stalks through my house, poking his head into various corners, his fingers into every crack. He grabs a footstool and grunts as he climbs, sticking a small, circular camera in the corner of the living room. I stare into it, a microscopic eye staring right back.

“Are you the owner?” I ask at last.

“No,” he says. I expect him to elaborate further, but he doesn’t. I decide to keep pressing.

“How long have you been doing this?”

He climbs off the ladder and looks at me, his mouth opening as if he wants to say something. Instead, he reconsiders and closes it again before walking toward the front door, pulling out a drill from his tool bag and fastening the security panel to the wall. I watch the back of his head as the sound of the drill fills my hallway, and try again.

“Are you local to Baton Rouge?”

The drilling stops, and I see his shoulders tense. He doesn’t turn around, but now the sound of his voice is what fills the empty room.

“Do you really think I don’t know who you are, Chloe?”

I freeze, his response stunning me into silence. I keep watching the back of his head until, slowly, he turns around.

“I recognized you the second you answered the door.”

“I’m sorry.” I swallow. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, you do,” he says, taking a step closer. Still clutching the drill. “You’re Chloe Davis. Your fiancé gave me your name when he called. He’s on his way to Lafayette, and he said you’d let me in.”

My eyes grow wide as I register what he just admitted—he knows who I am. He has this whole time. And he knows I’m here alone.

He takes another step closer.

“And the fact that you lied about your name on the order form tells me that you know who I am, too, so I really don’t know what you’re playin’ at, askin’ me these questions.”

My phone is hot in my back pocket. I could pull it out, call 9-1-1. But he’s right in front of me now, and I’m terrified that any movement on my part will send him hurtling in my direction.

“You wanna know what brought me to Baton Rouge?” he asks. He’s getting angry now; I can see his skin reddening, his eyes getting darker. Little bubbles of spit multiplying on his tongue. “I’ve been here for a while, Chloe. After Annabelle and I got divorced, I needed a change of scenery. A fresh start. I was in a dark place for a while there, so I picked up and moved, got the fuck out of that town and all the memories that come with it. And I was doin’ okay, all things considered, until a few years ago, I opened the Sunday paper, and guess who I saw starin’ right back at me.”

He waits for a second, his lip curling into a smile.

“It was a picture of you,” he says, pointing the drill in my direction. “A picture of you beneath some cheeky little headline about you channeling your childhood trauma or some bullshit like that right here in Baton Rouge.”

I remember that article—that interview I had granted the paper when I started working at Baton Rouge General. I thought that article would be a redemption piece, of sorts. A chance to redefine myself, to write my own narrative. But of course, it wasn’t. It was just another exploration of my father, another gaudy glorification of violence masquerading under the façade of journalism.

“I read that article,” he continues. “Every fuckin’ word. And you know what? It just pissed me off all over again. You makin’ excuses about your dad, capitalizin’ on what he did, for the good of your own career. And then I read about your mom, tryin’ to take the cowardly way out after the role she played in all of this. So she didn’t have to live with herself no more.”

I’m silent as his words settle over me, as I take in the way he’s staring at me with pure hatred in his eyes. The way his hands are clutching the drill so hard I can see the whites of his knuckles, threatening to tear straight through his skin.

“Your entire family makes me sick,” he says. “And no matter what I do, I can’t seem to escape you.”

“I never made excuses for my father,” I say. “I never tried to capitalize

on anything. What he did … it’s, it’s inexcusable. It makes me sick.”

“Oh, is that right? It makes you sick?” he asks, tilting his head. “Tell me, does owning your own practice make you sick, too? That nice little office you got downtown? Does your six-figure paycheck make you sick? Your fuckin’ Garden District, two-story home and picture-perfect fiancé? Do they make you sick?”

I swallow hard. I underestimated Bert Rhodes. Inviting him inside was a mistake. Trying to play detective and interrogate him was a mistake. Not only does he know me—he knows everything about me. He’s been researching me the same way I’ve been researching him—but for much, much longer. He knows about my practice, my office. Maybe that means he knows that Lacey was a patient—and he was there, waiting, the day she stepped outside and disappeared.

“Now, tell me,” he growls. “Why is it fair that Dick Davis’s daughter gets to grow up and live a perfect life while mine is rotting in the ground wherever that fucker dumped her body?”

“I am not living a perfect life,” I say. Suddenly, I’m angry, too. “You have no idea what I’ve been through, how fucked up I am after what my father did.”

“What you’ve been through?” he yells, pointing the drill at me again. “You want to talk about what you’ve been through? How fucked up you are? What about my daughter? What about what she went through?”

“Lena was my friend. Mr. Rhodes, she was my friend. You are not the only one who lost someone that summer.”

His expression shifts slightly—a softening of the eyes, a loosening of the forehead—and suddenly, he’s looking at me like I’m twelve again. Maybe it was the way I said his name, Mr. Rhodes, the same way I said it when my mother introduced us in our kitchen one evening after I burst in from camp, sweating and dirty and confused as to who this man was, standing so close to my mother. Or maybe it was the mention of her name

—Lena. I wonder how long it’s been since he’s heard it spoken out loud, a

name so sweet it tastes like sap dripping down a piece of bark on the tongue. I try to take advantage of this momentary shift and keep talking.

“I am so sorry about what happened to your daughter,” I say, taking a step back, putting some distance between us. “Truly, I am. I think about her every day.”

He sighs, lowering the drill to his legs. He turns to the side, gazing at something outside through the blinds, a faraway look in his eyes.

“You ever think about what it feels like?” he finally asks. “I used to keep myself up at night, wondering. Imagining. Obsessing over it.”

“All the time. I can’t imagine what she went through.”

“No,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m not talking about her. Not Lena. I never wondered what it was like to lose my life. Honestly, if I did, I wouldn’t care.”

He turns toward me now. His eyes have morphed back into two inky black voids, any trace of softness now gone completely. He’s wearing that expression again, that same expression of flat, emotionless indifference. He almost looks inhuman, like an empty mask hanging against a pitch-black wall.

“I’m talking about your father,” he says. “I’m talking about taking one.”

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