The policeman who comes into my office is in plain clothes—a dress shirt and tie under his jacket—which makes me think he must be some sort of detective. He’s also significantly older than the cops I see pounding the pavement outside. Maybe late fifties or early sixties—almost the age my father is right now. His close-cropped hair is mostly gray and his shirt buttons strain slightly to hold in his gut.
All I can do is sit there, too petrified to speak.
“Dr. Davis?” The officer smiles, but it’s a halfhearted smile. It doesn’t even get halfway to his dark eyes. “I’m Detective Ed Barber.”
“Hello,” I manage.
Police officers terrify me. Ever since that day my entire life changed when I was eleven years old. But for the most part, since that time, I haven’t had any bad interactions with police officers. Especially since I changed my last name. After my grandmother took me in, she insisted I change my last name to hers. I was eager to oblige. The last thing I wanted was for people to know I was that monster’s daughter. And it’s not like Nierling is a common surname.
“Do you have a minute to chat, Dr. Davis?” the detective asks.
“Not really.” My laugh comes out sounding strangled. “But have a seat.”
Barber doesn’t hesitate to sit down in one of the chairs in front of my desk. As he studies my diploma on the wall, I try my best to talk myself down from the ledge. I had nothing to do with the car accident last night. That was entirely Callahan’s fault. Whatever he’s here about, I haven’t done anything wrong.
Maybe he’s here to get my medical opinion for another case. That’s entirely possible. I’m probably working myself up over nothing.
“Dr. Davis,” he says. “Do you have a patient named Amber Swanson?”
I freeze. That’s the last thing I expected him to say. “What?” “Amber Swanson. Did you perform surgery on her?”
I pick up a pencil on my desk and tap it against the surface. I don’t understand. Am I being sued? Why would a detective be here about that? “The name sounds familiar.”
“She had an appendectomy.”
Now it’s coming back to me. I was on call for the emergency room a couple of months ago and she came in with right lower quadrant pain. I remember walking into the examining room and finding poor Amber in a fetal position. Fortunately, we got her to the OR before her appendix ruptured. The surgery was entirely successful, and she was in good spirits during her postop appointment.
“Yes,” I say carefully. “I remember her.”
The crease between Barber’s eyebrows deepens. “Unfortunately, Ms.
Swanson was found murdered at around three in the morning.”
“Oh!” I clasp a hand over my mouth. “Oh my God. That’s awful. She was only… She was very young.”
“Twenty-five years old,” he says. “Really a shame. She disappeared two days ago, and she turned up floating in the San Joaquin River.”
“Oh my God.” I close my eyes against the image of Amber Swanson’s lifeless body floating in the river. “It’s so terrible. But…” I swallow. “How can I help you, Detective?”
“Well,” he says, “I’m just wondering when the last time you saw Amber was?”
I shake my head. “At her postop appointment. It was probably a few weeks ago.”
“And you haven’t seen her since then?” “No…”
This entire line of questioning is making me very uneasy. Why is he asking me this?
“Where were you two nights ago, Dr. Davis?” I frown. “Two nights ago?”
“If you could give me an idea what you did that night…”
I glare at him. “Are you going to all of Amber Swanson’s doctors and questioning them this way?”
Detective Barber watches me for a moment with his dark, shrewd eyes that are much younger than the lines on his face. It’s making me incredibly uncomfortable but I don’t look away. Finally, he leans in closer.
“Here’s the thing, Dr. Davis,” he says. “When we found Amber, both her hands had been severed.”
He knows. Oh God, he knows who I am. He doesn’t even have to say it—there’s only one reason he could possibly be sniffing around me after a revelation like that.
My father had an M.O. All of the bodies of his victims that were found were missing their hands. He severed them and preserved the bones in a chest in our basement. That was why they called him the Handyman. Partially because he had been claiming the basement was his workshop, but also because of the missing hands.
Barber is old enough that he was probably already a cop when my father was apprehended. He probably remembers it, although I’m sure there are databases that would have flagged it even if he didn’t.
“Aaron Nierling is in prison,” I say carefully. “This has absolutely nothing to do with me.”
Barber tilts his head to the side. “Well, he’s your father. So I’d say it has a little something to do with you.”
I feel my face getting hot, but I’m careful not to react. That’s what he wants.
“If you want to question me further,” I say, “it will have to be with my attorney. I’m sure you know as well as I do how ridiculous this is.”
The detective just stares at me. It’s like we’re having a blinking contest. I was always very good at those.
“Dr. Davis,” he finally says, “a young woman has been mutilated and murdered. If you think there’s anything about this I’m not taking seriously, you are very mistaken.”
With those words, he gets up out of his seat with a grunt. He reaches deep into his coat pocket, and for one horrible moment, I’m certain he’s going to pull a weapon on me and tell me to put my hands on my head. But instead, he pulls out a business card. He places it on my desk.
“If you think of any information that might help us,” he says, “call me.
I nod. “I’ll do that.”
I watch him amble out of my office, and it isn’t until he closes the door behind him that I feel like I can breathe normally again. But my head is still
buzzing. Because there’s one other thing I remembered. One thing I wouldn’t dare say to this detective, but it’s hard not to think about it.
I pull my phone out of my pocket. I go to a search engine and type in the name Amber Swanson.
Yes, Aaron Nierling had an MO. But he also had a type. Women in their twenties, with dark hair and blue eyes. Almost always.
The search engine finds several Amber Swansons, but I know who I’m looking for. It’s been several weeks, but I remember her face. There’s just one detail I’m not certain about. But when I find a picture of her, it jogs my memory.
She’s just as I remember her. Mid-twenties. Beautiful, with flowing dark hair. I remembered all that perfectly. But what I wasn’t certain about is now staring me right in the face.
Her clear blue eyes.