Chapter no 15

The Locked Door

Twenty minutes later, I walk into my own empty house from the garage. My clogs echo throughout the room with each step on the hardwood floor.

“Honey, I’m home!” I call out.

I stand in the foyer, unable to move forward. I close my eyes and imagine some other kind of life. Where I would say those words, and somebody else—someone like Brady—would come out to greet me. Would put his arms around me and tell me he’s been keeping dinner warm in the oven.

I push my ridiculous fantasies aside and go to the kitchen. My stomach growls painfully. Maybe I should’ve let Brady order that pizza after all. What difference would it have made if I had stayed there another hour? It might’ve been nice…

No. I was right to leave. I didn’t like who I was when I was with him.

It scared me.

My laptop is on the kitchen counter, where I left it last night. Even though I’m starving, I go straight for my laptop. I open up the screen and go to the Google search engine. And even though I shouldn’t, I type in the name Brady Mitchell.

This is a completely pointless exercise, considering I’m never going to see him again. It’s a relief to see that his social media presence is minimal. He’s not tweeting crazy stuff about wanting to shoot up a mall. He doesn’t seem to have a Twitter account at all. He just has a Facebook page, and there’s a perfectly nice, normal headshot of him. But that’s all I can see because the profile is locked.

It makes sense, because Brady is nice. Maybe I made a huge mistake running out of there like that. But if I want to, I can call him. So the fact that I’m not reaching for my phone is telling.

I close the browser window where I’ve been searching for Brady and bring up a new search bar. This time, I type in a different name: Amber Swanson.

The first website that comes up is a news article. Twenty-five-year-old bank teller found floating in San Joaquin River.

I quickly skim the details. Most of it is what the detective told me. Amber’s body was discovered early this morning by some teenagers. She had last been seen two days earlier and had not shown up for work since that time. The coroner reported she had been dead about a day.

So between her disappearance and her death, she was held captive somewhere. Alive.

The article also mentions the fact that the body was found with her hands severed. They don’t mention any connection to Aaron Nierling. And why should they? He’s in prison. Eighteen life sentences, certainly no chance of parole.

It’s a coincidence. Plenty of sick people out there do sick things.

I close my eyes and try to remember Amber. She was pretty out of it before her surgery, but she was very sweet at her follow-up appointment. Much like Henry Callahan, she thanked me for saving her life. You did a great job, Dr. Davis. And the scar is so tiny! I can totally hide it under my bikini.

Like with Callahan, I decided to do an open surgery rather than using the cameras. It’s always my preference when I have a choice.

I click on another link, which goes to one of Amber’s social media profiles. There’s a picture of her wearing a bikini, sitting on the beach, a pair of Ray-Bans on her nose. She’s grinning at the camera. She looks so young and happy. She had so many years of life left in her.

I hope they catch whoever did this to her. I hope that person goes to prison for a long time.

I hear a thump coming from the back door. It’s the cat again. I shut my laptop and get up to grab a can of cat food. Beef this time. It’s getting late— poor thing must be starving.


“All right, I’m coming!” I call out. Not that she can understand me. I don’t have a sense of what cats are aware of, although that particular cat sometimes seems very smart.

I yank the lid off the can of cat food and drop it in the trash. I wrench open the back door and…

There’s nothing there. No cat.

I look out into my backyard, which is bathed in darkness. I can’t see a thing. I take a step out, which is supposed to trigger the automatic lights,

but it doesn’t. Did they blow out? I can’t remember the last time I went out in the backyard during the night.

I pause in my dark backyard, listening. I don’t hear any meowing. I don’t hear anything.

“Hello?” I say. “Cat?” There isn’t a sound.

I go back into the house and slam the back door behind me. And then I lock it. I have a deadbolt on the front door, but nothing on the back door. Sort of seems silly to have the extra lock on the front when the back door could practically be kicked open. But I live in a very safe neighborhood. It’s nothing like where Brady lives.

I drop the can of cat food on the kitchen counter and hug myself. It was chilly out there. Soon it will be winter, and the temperature can drop down to the forties at night.

It was colder up in Oregon. The basement of our house was always freezing. If it hadn’t been, the smell would’ve been even worse and we would’ve noticed it sooner. It would’ve overpowered even the lavender.

I look down at the kitchen floor and that’s when I see a letter a few feet away from the back door. It’s lying on the ground like somebody slipped it under the door. Why would anyone slip a letter under my back door?

I reach down and pick up the letter. Right away, I see that familiar name on the return address:

Aaron Nierling.


How could this be? Yes, he’s been sending me letters every week. But those arrive in the mail. He must put them in the mailbox at the penitentiary, and then it gets delivered to me. They don’t end up being slid under my back door. That’s something that should never happen. And even though there’s a return address and a stamp on it, there’s no postmark on the envelope.

I sink into one of the chairs at the kitchen table. My hand holding the letter is trembling. This doesn’t make any sense.

Of course, I could be making too much of this. Maybe the letter came with my regular mail. And when I dropped the pile on the kitchen table, that one fell onto the floor. And I didn’t see it until just now. And maybe they somehow missed putting a postmark on it.

It’s possible. Extremely unlikely, but possible.

I have to believe it because the alternative is too scary to contemplate. I reach for my laptop again. I type in the URL for the Bureau of

Prisons website from memory—I’ve typed it many times before. I go to the menu and select the option to locate a federal inmate by name. My hands are shaking so badly, it takes me three tries to type in the name Aaron Nierling.

It’s an uncommon enough name that only one entry pops up:

Name: Aaron Nierling Age: 67

Race: White Sex: Male

Release Date: None

Location: Oregon State Penitentiary

According to the Bureau of Prisons, my father is still imprisoned. With no release date. If he had escaped or something like that, I would know, wouldn’t I? Something like that would be all over the news.

Detective Barber gave me his card. I could call him. Tell him about the letter.

But something stops me from doing that. When Barber came to visit me earlier, he was doing his due diligence. He was investigating a long-shot lead. He didn’t really think I had anything to do with Amber’s death.

But if I call him… If I show him this letter… That will change his way of thinking.

I don’t know who killed Amber Swanson, but it wasn’t my father. My father is in prison for life. I’m sure this letter just fell onto the floor, and that’s why it was there. Nothing more sinister than that. And as for the thump at the door, I’m sure that the cat heard a raccoon or something and got frightened off before I got there. I’m making too much of all of this.

I stare down at the letter. Every week for over twenty-five years, he has sent me one of them. When my grandmother confessed that she had been throwing them out, at first I was furious with her. What right did she have to do something like that?

He is an evil man, Nora, she said to me. It’s bad enough that he raised you for eleven years. I didn’t want him to poison you further.

My grandmother was my mother’s mother. She took me in when both my parents were arrested, and she kept me after my father was sentenced and my mother killed herself. They both abandoned me in their own ways, but my grandmother was there for me.

But I always got the feeling she didn’t trust me entirely. Sometimes I would catch her looking at me like she was afraid of me.

She wasn’t the only one.

There was never any question about whether or not I would change my last name. I didn’t want to be Nora Nierling anymore. It was a relief to put that behind me.

That’s all I ever wanted. To put him behind me.

I look down at the letter again. I rip it in half. Then rip it in half again.

Whatever he has to say, I don’t want to know about it.

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