Chapter no 35

A Flicker in the Dark

The rest of the morning goes by in a daze. I have three appointments, back-to-back, none of which I remember very clearly. For the first time, I’m thankful for the little icons on my desktop—I can go back and listen to my recordings later when I’m less distracted, more engaged. I cringe, imagining the emotionless mumbling I’m sure to hear coming from my side of the conversation; the distant mhmms I had administered instead of asking genuine questions. The long, drawn-out silences before my eyes refocused and I remembered where I was, what I was doing. My first appointment was in the waiting room when Detective Thomas walked out. I saw the look on her face when I finally pulled myself from my chair and walked into the lobby, the way her eyes darted from me to the door as if she were trying to decide whether or not she wanted to come into my office or just get up and leave.

I rise from my desk at 12:02—I don’t want to seem too eager—and snatch my duffel bag, powering down my computer before opening up my desk drawer and tapping my fingers across the sea of pills. I look at the Diazepam nestled in the corner and turn away, deciding instead on a bottle of Xanax, just in case, before securing the drawer and rushing past Melissa with hurried instructions to lock the door on her way out.

“You’ll be back Monday, right?” she says, standing up.

“Yes, Monday,” I say, turning around and trying to flash a smile. “I’m just doing some wedding shopping. Knocking out the last-minute errands.”

“Right,” she says, eying me carefully. “In New Orleans. You said that.”

“Right.” I try to think of something else to say, something normal, but the silence stretches between us, awkward and uncomfortable. “Well, if that’ll be all—”

“Chloe,” she says, picking at her cuticle. Melissa never uses my first name in the office; she always keeps distinct boundaries between personal

and professional. Clearly, what she’s about to say to me now is personal. “Is everything okay? What’s been going on with you?”

“Nothing,” I say, smiling again. “Nothing’s going on, Melissa. I mean, other than my patient being murdered and my wedding coming up in a month.”

I try to laugh at my pathetic attempt at a joke, but it comes out strangled. Instead, I cough. Melissa doesn’t smile.

“I’ve just had a lot of stress lately,” I say. It feels like the first honest thing I’ve said to her in a while. “I need a break. A mental health break.”

“Okay,” she says, hesitating. “And that detective?”

“He was just asking some follow-up questions about Lacey, that’s all. I was the last one to see her alive. If I’m their strongest witness, they obviously don’t have much to go on at the moment.”

“Okay,” she says again, this time more confidently. “Okay, well, enjoy your break. I hope you can come back refreshed.”

I walk out to my car, tossing my duffel bag into the passenger seat like junk mail before getting into the driver’s seat and cranking the engine. Then I pull out my phone, navigate to my Contacts, and start typing a message.

On my way.

The drive to the motel is quick, only forty-five minutes from my office. I reserved the room on Monday, immediately after I told Melissa to block my calendar. I had found the first cheap all-nighter I could find on Google with a rating over three stars—I wanted to pay in cash, and I knew I wouldn’t be spending much time in the room, anyway. I pull into the parking lot and walk into the lobby, avoiding small talk with the clerk while retrieving my key.

“Room twelve,” he says, dangling it in front of me. I grab it, shoot him a weak smile, almost like I’m apologizing for something. “You’re right next to the ice machine, lucky you.”

I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket as I’m unlocking the door. I dig it out, read the message—I’m here—and shoot off a text with the room number before tossing my bag onto the single queen bed. Then I glance around the room.

It’s bleak in that fluorescently lit way only highway motels can be. The efforts at décor almost make the place sadder, with its mass-produced beach scene hung crookedly over the bed, the chocolate placed delicately on my pillow, warm and slightly squishy between my fingers. I look at the bedside table, open the drawer. There’s a Bible inside with the cover ripped off. I walk into the bathroom and splash water on my face before twisting my hair into a topknot. There’s a knock at the door, and I exhale slowly, stealing one final glance at myself in the mirror, trying to ignore the bags under my eyes that seem amplified in the harsh light. I force myself to flip the switch and walk back toward the door, a silhouette looming outside the closed curtains. I grasp the knob firmly and swing the door open.

Aaron is standing on the sidewalk, his hands shoved deep into his pockets. He looks uncomfortable, and I don’t blame him. I try to smile in an attempt to lighten the mood, to draw attention away from the fact that we’re meeting each other in a nondescript motel room on the outskirts of Baton Rouge. I haven’t told him why he’s here, what we’re really doing. I haven’t told him why I can’t sleep in my own home tonight when we’re within an hour’s drive of my neighborhood. All I said when I called him on Monday was that I had a lead he wouldn’t want to ignore—a lead I needed his help to follow.

“Hey,” I say, leaning against the door. It groans under my body weight, so I straighten back up, crossing my arms instead. “Thanks for coming. Let me just grab my purse.”

I motion for him to come inside, and he does, stepping self-consciously across the threshold of the door. He looks around, unimpressed with my new digs. We’ve barely spoken since I asked him to look into Bert Rhodes last weekend, and that seems like a lifetime ago. He has no idea about the confrontation I had with Bert, my trip to the police station, and the subsequent threat from Detective Thomas to stay out of the investigation—the exact opposite of what I am doing right now. He also has no idea that my suspicions have shifted from Bert Rhodes to my own fiancé, and that I am enlisting his help to prove my theory right.

“How’s the story coming?” I ask, genuinely curious if he’s been able to uncover anything more than me.

“My editor is giving me until the end of next week to dig something up,” he says, sitting on the edge of the mattress with a creak. “Otherwise it’s time to pack it up and head home.”

“Empty-handed?” “That’s right.”

“But you came all this way. What about your theory? The copycat?” Aaron shrugs.

“I still believe it,” he says, his fingernail picking at the seam of the comforter. “But honestly, I’m getting nowhere.”

“Well, I may be able to help.”

I walk over to the bed and sit down next to him, the slouch of the mattress bringing our bodies closer together.

“And how is that? Does it have to do with this mysterious lead of yours?”

I look down at my hands. I need to word my response carefully, giving away only the information that Aaron needs to know.

“We’re going to speak with a woman named Dianne,” I say. “Her daughter went missing around the time of my father’s murders—another young, attractive teenager—and just like his victims, her body was never found.”

“Okay, but your dad never confessed to her murder, right? Only the


“No, he didn’t,” I say. “And there was no jewelry of hers, either. She

doesn’t really fit the pattern … but since her abductor was never found, I think it’s worth looking into. I was thinking that maybe he could be the copycat, you know? Whoever he is. That maybe he started mimicking my father’s crimes way earlier than we thought—maybe even while they were still happening. He went dark for a while, and maybe now, for the twentieth anniversary, he’s popping back up again.”

Aaron looks at me, and I half expect him to stand up and walk back outside, insulted that I brought him all the way out here for such a half-assed clue. But instead, he slaps his hands on his legs, exhaling loudly before standing up from the sunken bed.

“Well, okay,” he says, offering his hand to help me up. I can’t tell if he’s actually sold on my story, if he’s desperate enough for a lead that he’s willing to follow me blindly, or if he’s just going along with it to make me happy. Either way, I’m grateful. “Let’s go talk to Dianne.”

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