Chapter no 32

The Locked Door

When I was a kid, after my father was arrested and later sentenced, I wanted to visit him in prison. My mother had killed herself at that point, and he was the only parent I had left. I desperately wanted to see him.

“Not a chance in hell,” my grandmother said every time I brought it


“But why not?” I complained. “It’s not like he’s going to hurt me.”

“Because he’s an evil man and I don’t want you anywhere near him.” “But he’s my father.”

“He’s nobody’s father,” she said. “That man is the devil. And no good

could come out of talking to the devil.” “But, Grandma—”

“It’s not happening.” And she would turn away from me, indicating the conversation was over. Especially compared with my mother, my grandmother was not a warm person. Although sometimes I wonder if she would have been warmer with another grandchild—one who wasn’t the daughter of Oregon’s most notorious serial killer. “Nora, when you’re eighteen, you can go and be his best friend. But while you’re living under my roof, you will not see that man.”

But by the time I was eighteen, I was a lot smarter. I knew what it meant to be Aaron Nierling’s daughter. I understood the full impact of what he had done. And for my own good, I knew it was better to stay away. My grandmother was right. No good could come out of talking to that man.

And now, after all these years, he’s found a way to convince me to come.

I snag a seat on a flight from the San Francisco airport to Portland first thing in the morning. From Portland, I’ll have to rent a car and drive out to Salem, where the prison is located. The flight will be about an hour and a half, and the drive will be another hour. All told, the trip should take around three hours.

And then I’ll see my father.

I call ahead to make sure I’m not taking a trip for nothing. Part of me is hoping there will be some impenetrable barrier to my going to visit, but

the staff at Oregon State Penitentiary informs me that my name is on the approved list of visitors for Aaron Nierling. Although the woman I speak to on the phone seems less than impressed with my intention to visit.

“Aaron Nierling?” Her voice is filled with barely concealed disgust. “You sure you want to see him, hon?”

The words send a shudder through my body. I imagine some moment in the future when somebody is asking the same exact question about me. Brady sure got the hell out of here fast enough. If I were sent to prison, I can’t think of a single person who would come visit me. “I just have some questions for him,” I tell her. “Um, does he get a lot of visitors?”

She snorts. “I heard when he first got here, there were all sorts of weirdos trying to get in to see him. And reporters, of course. But he wouldn’t see any of them. And now… well, I guess the excitement has died down.” She pauses thoughtfully. “Although there’s that copycat killer out there now, isn’t there?”

I can’t get off the phone fast enough after that.

The next thing I do is something I never, ever do. In all my years as a surgeon, I have never once called in sick. I would rather drag myself to work half-dead than take a sick day. Philip feels the same way. But today, I’m going to take a sick day. Thank God I don’t have any surgeries scheduled. Harper can move around some of my appointments, but this is going to require a direct call to Philip.

I send Philip a text message, asking him to call me right away. Within five minutes, my phone is buzzing.

“Nora,” he says. “Are you okay? What’s going on?”

I already asked him to cover for me this morning. I hate to ask again. But I have to do this. Somebody has been trying to frame me for murder, and I need to know why. “I’m not feeling great today. I’ve been throwing up all morning. Do you think you could see some of my patients for me? I’ll ask Harper to reschedule most of them.”

There’s a long pause on the other line. “Are you really sick or is something else going on?”

“I’m sick,” I say through my teeth.

“Because the other day, you were asking me about a criminal lawyer…”

“Are you going to cover me or not?”

“Of course I will.” He pauses. “Should I be worried about you, Nora?” “I’m fine. Probably just a twenty-four-hour bug. I’ll be back by


“Yeah,” he mutters. “Whatever you say.”

It seems like he doesn’t believe me, but it doesn’t matter. What I’m going to do today is none of Philip’s business. It’s better he doesn’t know.

I don’t bring anything besides my purse with me on the trip, because I will not be staying the night. I’m going to visit my father, to talk to him about what’s been going on with me, and then I’m heading straight home. There’s no way I’m spending one more night in Oregon. I’ve already got my return flight booked.

Three hours after my flight takes off, I’m driving up to the Oregon State Penitentiary. I’ve never been to a prison before, much less a maximum-security prison. The building is a pale yellow color that looks more like it should be a schoolhouse instead of a prison. There’s an ominous stop sign right before the entrance that warns me not to go any further without instruction.

I sit there in my rental car, gripping the steering wheel so hard that my knuckles are white. I was too nervous to even put on the music while I was driving. I drove in silence, broken only by the British voice of my GPS directions. For the hundredth time today, I wonder if this is a mistake.

No good could come out of talking to the devil.

I wish my grandmother were still alive. After she changed my name and we moved, she was the only person who knew my secret. She was the only person who could have given me advice.

Except I have a feeling I know what Grandma would have said. She would’ve told me not to come. That this is exactly what he wants, and I’m playing right into his hands.

“Can I help you, ma’am?”

I jerk my eyes up from the steering wheel at the words. I look up and a man is standing by my car in a guard’s uniform, with a gray short-sleeved dress shirt with the words Oregon State Penitentiary embroidered on the breast. The sleeves are short enough to show off some pretty terrifying biceps.

“Hi.” I attempt to keep the tremor out of my voice. “I’m here to visit one of the inmates.”

The guard narrows his eyes at me. Finally, he nods and gives me instructions on parking. As I grow ever closer to the prison, the sick feeling in my stomach intensifies.

This is a mistake.

Turn back while you still can.

I’m glad to see that they take security very seriously at the penitentiary. I have to go through a metal detector, but in addition to that, I also get a pat-down. They even ask me to remove my shoes. When they’re completely satisfied I’m not carrying a big old gun, the guard gives me the okay to go on ahead.

“You’re going to see him through the glass,” he instructs me. “You pick up the phone on your side, he’ll pick up his, and he’ll be able to hear you.”

“Okay,” I say.

The guard gives me a long look. “What do you want to see that piece of shit for?”

I can’t tell him the truth. What would they think about me if I said I was that monster’s daughter? I had thought that my identity would be plastered all over the Internet by now, but somehow my secret has stayed quiet. “I just have some questions for him. It’s… personal.”

The guard grunts but doesn’t question me further.

He leads me to a tiny narrow room where there’s a row of stools set up in front of numbered glass partitions. Each one has a phone attached to it. There’s a guard positioned in the room, watching all of the interactions. I feel uneasy about the fact that the guard will likely hear everything I have to say. I’m going to have to be careful.

I’m given the fourth Kiosk. I sit down, my fingers drumming on the table in front of me. I can’t believe I’m about to see my father. After twenty-six years. It feels surreal.

I could still turn around and leave. This doesn’t have to happen. But I know that I’m staying.

Before I left on this trip, I looked on the Internet for current photos of my father. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any less than twenty years old. So I have no idea what he’s going to look like. The last time I saw him, he was a big man with black hair like mine, a blandly handsome face, and penetrating eyes.

I assume he doesn’t look that way anymore. Even if he hadn’t been locked away in prison all those years, he would still look twenty-six years older than he did when I was a kid. I imagine he would still have the same handsome features although with more creases on his face. Maybe some salt and pepper hair. The same broad build and powerful hands. That’s how he looks in my head, whenever I imagine what he must look like now.

And then a guard leads him into the room.

I take a second to gawk at the man my father has become. He’s in his sixties now, but it’s still somehow a surprise that his formerly thick black hair has turned entirely gray—it’s sparse on top of his head and he’s got a bald patch in the back. He looks like he’s shrunk as well. I always remember him being so tall, but now he’s hunched over and he shuffles when he walks, although that’s likely due to the shackles on his feet. He doesn’t look like somebody capable of killing thirty women. He looks like a decrepit old man. He could easily be eighty years old.

The guard at his side points me out to him, but he doesn’t need it. Instantly, his eyes lock with mine. It is one thing about him that hasn’t changed at all—his dark eyes, the same color as mine. They haven’t aged at all.

His eyes never leave mine as he sits on the stool across from me. His skin is deeply wrinkled, and there’s an old scar running along his right jaw and one splitting his left eyebrow in half. I’ve heard that people who commit truly heinous crimes are beaten severely in prison, and I wonder what he went through over the years. In any case, the scars are long since healed. Nobody is beating up on this old man.

My father picks up the phone on his side just as I pick up mine. A ghost of a smile touches his lips as he leans forward.

“Hello, Nora.”

His voice sounds different, raspier than it used to be, but still achingly familiar. He still has that calm, even tone. He never lost his temper with me. My mother would get hysterical sometimes when I would do something wrong, but he never would. He never seemed to get upset. I used to like that about him.

“Hi,” I cough.

He takes a deep breath as his eyes rake over me, like he’s inhaling me. “It’s been a very long time, hasn’t it?”


“You look beautiful, Nora.”

I don’t know what to say to that. “Thanks,” I mumble.

“And I hear you’ve trained as a surgeon,” he adds. “Quite impressive. I always knew you had it in you.”

Despite everything that’s happened in the last several days, I feel a burst of pride. My father is proud of me. I know he’s a monster and I know I shouldn’t give a shit what he thinks, but everyone wants their parents to be proud of them. Even if that parent happens to have murdered thirty people.

And he knows it. He’s manipulating me, just like he manipulated those girls he killed. I can’t let him do it to me. Otherwise, I’m going to end up right with him in prison.

“I’m so glad you finally decided to visit,” he says. “I’ve been waiting to see you. I thought you’d forgotten all about your old dad.”

“I could never forget.” My lips are nearly touching the phone receiver.

I don’t want the guard to hear me. “I read your letter.”

“Did you?” He has an amused look on his face. “It only took about five-hundred of them.”

I inhale sharply. “Who put that letter under my door, Aaron?”

“Aaron?” He laughs. I forgot how my father’s laugh sounded. I never thought much of it when I was a child, but now the sound of it strikes me as particularly hollow and soulless. “Is that what you’re going to call me? You used to call me Daddy.”

I feel a vein throbbing in my right temple. “Who put that letter under my door?”

“The mailman, of course. Who else?”

“It was under my back door. And there was no postmark.”

“Please don’t hold me accountable for your mailman’s shenanigans, Nora.”

I take a shaky breath, trying to get my temper under control. Aaron Nierling has become an old man, but he is still the same person he always was. If they ever let him out of here, he would do the exact same thing. He’s still pure evil—a monster.

I stare into his dark eyes, refusing to blink. “Who killed those girls, Aaron?”

“You know, Nora…” He toys with the receiver in his hand. “I was so sad that you never came to visit me all these years. I mean, I’m your father. It’s because of me that you’re even alive in the first place. And what are the thanks I get?”

“Who killed those girls?”

“I could understand when you were a child and that witch who was my mother-in-law wouldn’t let you.” His left eye twitches. “But after that, you could’ve come. Just once. Out of respect for the man who gave you your life.”

My right hand—the one not holding the phone—balls into a fist. I feel like I could punch through the glass and right through his face. “Who killed those girls? Tell me.”

My father blinks his dark eyes at me. “It was you. You killed them.” He raises his eyebrows. “Didn’t you?”

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