A Taste of... Cold shadows

Chapter One

Fifteen years ago…

Marcella Davidson stood on tiptoes to reach the cabinet shelf in the small bathroom, stowing the pile of bath towels she’d folded so carefully. Swiping at the sweat beading on her forehead, she mentally checked off the last thing on the long list of Saturday chores the mother bear had doled out.

Now, she was free to do as she pleased…if she could slide under the parents’ radar. At that, she’d had plenty of practice.

She tiptoed down the hall, confident in her well-developed “be very, very quiet” skills. The task was made easier by the blue carpet, though she needed to watch out for the threadbare spots and the creaky boards underneath.

Remembering her homework, she snatched it from her room, along with a book she’d checked out from the school library just yesterday. She held it to her chest, wishing that today was a weekday too. While most kids her age complained about school, for Marcella, it was an escape.

An escape from the brutal heat of her bedroom. An escape from them.

Homework, then reading. A perfect Saturday evening. If she could make it to her spot.

Sn-snort!

Marcella froze halfway down the stairs, her heart picking up speed, even though the sound was a familiar one. Not daring to breathe until she was on the bottom stair, she peeked around the corner and into the living room. She spotted him snoozing in the big recliner chair taking up much of the corner.

Robert Davidson.

Her father for the past year and a half.

Fluttery bugs danced in her stomach. She needed to make it behind the chair. There, no one could see her, not even him. Out of sight, out of mind.

Marcella had learned the definition of irony in school last week, so now, she found it ironic that behind the sleeping bear, the father bear, she would be hidden. Safe. Cool from the air conditioner whirring from the window.

Holding her breath, she went down on her hands and knees, her book and homework tucked beneath her chin. Glad the chair was close to the hallway door, her lungs ceased to take in air as she slipped past Dickbert, her own special name for the man who made her call him Daddy when people were around.

She could call him whatever she wanted in her head. The woman who made her call her Mommy had been dubbed Molemy, named for the giant mole on the side of her nose.

Dickbert snorted again, but he didn’t stir. Two empty beer cans lay on the table next to him. From experience, Marcella knew that, by this time of day, several had already made it to the trash can.

Plopping down silently behind the chair, Marcella rubbed her nose as the scent of cat urine drifted up, willing herself not to sneeze. When the tickle stopped, she silently exhaled and lifted her hair from her sweaty neck, letting the breeze from the window unit dry her skin.

When she no longer felt too hot, she studied the math problems on her worksheet first. She didn’t mind homework, even on the weekends. It gave her something to do other than the dishes or sweeping or the million billion chores Molemy came up with on a daily basis.

Molemy wasn’t Marcella’s mommy, just as Dickbert wasn’t her daddy. Marcella’s last name wasn’t even Davidson, not really. They were her fake parents, and not the first set either.

Meow!” A gray tabby cat rubbed on the corner of the recliner as he joined her in the hiding spot.

“Shh….” Marcella whispered in his ear as she reached out and pulled Dusty’s fluffy body into her lap. “We don’t want Dickbert to hear us.”

Flattening the worksheet down on the carpet, she stared at the numbers on the paper. She’d never liked math. Subtraction had been a chore. And now, she had to learn long division. Did she carry, or did she add? Math wasn’t the same as history, which she loved. Dusty solved the issue by plopping down on the paper and curling up in a ball.

Dickbert farted so hard the chair rocked, causing both her and the cat to freeze. As Marcella stifled a hysterical giggle, the grownup’s pudgy hand reached over to the table and picked up the remote, flicking through the channels until he settled on a baseball game.

Marcella longed for a father she could go to and ask for help with her math homework, but she didn’t dare approach this man about anything. Not just because he didn’t know squat about long division or any of the homework Marcella brought home. He didn’t even know what year the Declaration of Independence was signed. Worst of all, she would give away her position, and she wanted to read her book in the coolness of the room.

“Marcella!” She flinched but didn’t answer. Maybe he would fall back asleep. “Get me a beer.” When she still didn’t answer, he chuckled, though it wasn’t a pleasant sound. “Don’t make me call your name twice.”

Quiet as a mouse, she looked out of her hideaway.

Since before she could remember, she’d practiced being very, very quiet, making sure not only her breaths but her footsteps were silent as a ghost. If only she had another cool hiding space to choose from. But Dickbert only turned on the air-conditioning unit to the room in which he or Molemy was in. Marcella didn’t dare turn on another. She shuddered, remembering the whipping she’d received the only time she had.

Dickbert had forced her to help him make a “special” paddle, a thick piece of wood in which he’d drilled a dozen holes. Before that, Marcella had thought that nothing could hurt worse than the leather belt the last fake mom and dad had whipped her with.

She’d been wrong. So very wrong.

When Dickbert began to grumble, Marcella knew she was out of time. Scrambling from the hiding spot, she didn’t stop crawling until she was in the hallway. There, she stood and smoothed down her dress—the only type of clothes Dickbert let her wear. After plastering on a smile, she moved to stand inside the doorway.

“S-sorry. What did you say?” Dusty weaved around her legs, and she bent to pick him up. The cat’s purring comforted her, made her brave. The feline was her only ally.

Father bear’s dark eyes latched onto hers before clawing up and down her body. “Get me a beer, and be quick about it!”

Marcella hurried away and draped Dusty over her arm as she opened the fridge. Molemy glared at her from the kitchen table but didn’t lower the phone from her ear long enough to issue her another order.

“No, it’s okay,” Molemy said into the phone, but the glare she gave Marcella belied the sugary sweet words.” “It’s just our darling Marcella. Do you need anything, sweetie?” The large woman’s eyes narrowed down into slits, the warning behind them clear enough.

“Just getting a drink for Daddy.” Marcella’s throat nearly choked on the last word, but the mother’s expression smoothed a little. Marcella had passed her unspoken test.

You must always look happy in front of everyone. Always.

“You’re such a good girl.” Molemy’s eyes narrowed again as she watched Marcella’s every move. The hateful woman most likely was making sure that she didn’t sneak a drink or crumb of food for herself. Another harsh lesson Marcella learned early on.

Beer in hand, she backed toward the door, Dusty stilled curled over her arm. Please don’t hit me. Please don’t hit me.

Molemy was clearly more interested in the person on the line because she didn’t even raise her finger as she went back to her favorite pastime…gossip. “Sorry, Dorothy, for the interruption, but like I was saying, you wouldn’t believe how Jessica was dressed. Let me tell you, the woman looked like she was about to audition for some stripper movie. And has she had a boob job? I think she must have had a boob job because…”

Forcing the mother’s voice into a faraway place, Marcella focused on her task. The beer can was cold in her hand, the way the father liked it, and she relaxed a little. Hot beer was almost as bad as no beer at all.

Outside the living room door, frustrated tears sprang to her eyes as she realized a commercial had taken the place of the baseball game. That wasn’t good. Dickbert didn’t like commercials, and she had learned to not be near him when each thirty second message began.

She pressed her lips to the top of Dusty’s soft head and began counting, praying it was only one of those short breaks, not the long ones that lasted several minutes.

One.

Two.

Three…

Though Marcella was only ten years old, she understood the concept of being strategic. If the father was absorbed in a game, there was a seventy-five percent chance that she could get away without being noticed. If she didn’t hurry back with his beer in the time he thought it should take, though, there was a hundred percent chance that the raw lumber would find her naked bottom.

She wasn’t sure which was worse…getting noticed or getting the paddle.

Twenty-eight.

Twenty-nine.

Thirty.

She nearly sobbed in relief when the game announcers’ booming voices echoed from the television instead of another commercial. With a shaky exhale, she moved into the room and replaced the empty can with the cold one, giving the father as wide a berth as she could manage. Sometimes, he liked to grab her and make her hug him. Sometimes, he grabbed her and made her do worse. If she was lucky, the baseball would keep his attention.

Crack!

The sound of ball connecting with bat was followed by an even louder Dickbert shout. Her heart was thumping as she glanced at the TV to see one of the players race toward first base. Dusty lifted his head, his purrs abruptly ending when Dickbert shouted again as the ball sailed into the stands, and the player slowed to a victory trot.

During the excitement, she managed to back away to the safety of the hallway once again. But now, she had a dilemma. Did she dare sneak back behind the chair to get her homework and book?

Ding!

“Get the door,” the father ordered before she’d barely registered the sound of the twangy old bell. His chair squeaked, and he began grumbling words that sounded like, “Who the hell could that be.”

Who indeed?

In the time she’d lived here, Marcella had only known the bell to ding a few times. She knew what to do, though. She knew to open the door with a smile and give her best happy expression to whoever stood on the other side.

And to never, ever let the person know that the parents were home.

As she headed to the small foyer, the pop of the beer can opening made her cringe. Dickbert was on the edge of getting drunk, which meant bad things for her. Very bad things.

As her hand reached for the deadbolt, Marcella allowed herself to imagine that a white knight would be standing on the other side. He’d lay one eye on her and fall to his knees, begging her to run off with him. She’d take his hand, and they’d run to his black steed, and together, they’d leave this place and live happily ever after.

But that flash of thought lasted but only a moment. Her life wasn’t a fairy tale and there would be no happy ending for her, she knew.

Though she was only ten, she knew enough about the world to know that only the very meanest people were allowed to be happy. The mean people who took whatever they wanted, did whatever they wanted. Hurt whoever they wanted.

They were the only ones who thrived…who survived.

Holding extra tight to Dusty, Marcella opened the door and was hit by the thick soup of Florida’s humidity. Even though it was late evening in April, the weather was oppressing.

“Hello,” she said in her most cheerful voice. Though the father was distracted by the baseball game while the mother was preoccupied by her phone call, Marcella didn’t dare be anything less than polite. “May I help you?”

The man standing on the cracked cement porch smiled, but it didn’t make her feel warm inside. It was the sort of smile Marcella had learned to avoid—fake. Even at her tender age, she had learned a lot about smiles. The biggest ones often came before the worst hurt.

With the setting sun at his back, the stranger’s face was covered in shadow. She had no idea how old he might be, but not as old as the father. The man didn’t have a belly like the father, either. His black pants were clean, the kind people wore to church, and his black jacket seemed new.

He leaned forward and the light from the foyer touched his face, making it seem like his hazel eyes bored into hers. “May I come in?”

“I-I…” Marcella cleared her throat and focused on what she was supposed to say. She wasn’t supposed to let in strangers. Or anyone. “I’m sorry, but this isn’t a good time. Perhaps a phone call would be better.” Dusty meowed, and only then did Marcella realize that she’d been squeezing the cat much too tightly.

“Your parents are expecting me, dear one.” His voice was as mellow as warm milk, but his eyes held a glint that made her shiver despite the hot day. They reminded her of ice, the way it reflected the colors when the light hit it just so. “I have a surprise for them. Do you like surprises, my dear?”

Marcella wasn’t sure how to answer because not all surprises were good. She’d once been invited to a surprise party for one of her classmates, but that had been two fake mommies ago.

“Like a party?” she asked, trying to understand if this would be a good surprise or bad.

The smile grew wider, and the man held out a hand. Her eyes widened when she spotted the black gloves. Was he a magician who would pull a bunny from a hat?

“Yes, a party, my sweet. A party that will be more fun than you can possibly imagine. I promise.”

Would this party have a great big birthday cake? It had been a long time since she’d had any cake or anything sweet just for her.

Her stomach growled as saliva filled her mouth just at the thought of a tasty treat.

Before she could form a response, he stepped into the house, brushing past her, and closed the door in a way that made no sound at all. Marcella backed away, suddenly afraid, and pulled Dusty tighter to her chest. The man in black set down a black backpack, drawing her gaze to equally dark dress shoes.

“The surprise is for your mother and father,” he spoke in a low voice, barely above a whisper, “but the party will be for you.” He crouched down until his face was level with hers, and the smile disappeared. “I want you to go to your room until I come for you. Can you do that for me?”

Marcella had that itchy feeling she sometimes got when something bad was about to happen. It started in her toes and moved up her body, not stopping until her hair stood on end.

“C-can I g-go outside instead?”

The wide smile returned, and this time, it held enough force to make her step back. “Then you might miss the best part. You don’t want that, do you? Trust me,” his rich voice spoke the words slowly, almost hypnotically, “this party will be something you’ll never forget.”

Her mind whirred frantically, but the words it spun had trouble leaving her mouth. “I-I n-need to see my friend.” The excuse popped out of her mouth, a lie that came to her automatically. She’d spent her life making excuses for herself or others.

The smile disappeared. “What’s your friend’s name?”

He knew. This man knew she had no friends.

A name sprang to mind. “C-Chloe.” Why the mean girl from school became Marcella’s mental rescuer, she would never know, but there it was.

The very corners of the man’s mouth turned up, but his eyes grew even harder. “And why exactly do you need to see this friend?”

Marcella sought another lie. “We’re s-supposed to do l-long division p-problems together.”

“Ah, I understand.” Instead of leaving, the stranger turned the lock on the front door until it clicked. After testing the knob, he faced her again, and this time, the smile he wore made her heart pound in her chest. “I think Chloe can wait.”

Her teeth began to chatter. “But—”

He leaned down, not stopping until his mouth was near her ear. “I have a confession. I excel at long division, but we have another problem to solve first.”

It wasn’t until he straightened to his full height again that she found the strength to speak. “What problem?”

The tiny smile reappeared. “It’s a subtraction problem, really.”

She frowned. He was good at long division but needed help with subtraction? “But—”

“Marcella!” It was Dickbert, bellowing from his chair. “Who is it?”

Fear like she’d never known—and she’d known lots of fear—gripped her heart.

What should she do?

What should she say?

No one was to ever come into the house, but this man was right here. Because she hadn’t stopped him.

Marcella was fumbling for an answer when Molemy appeared in the hall. The flowery dress she wore swirled around her knees when she stopped short. Her mean face smoothed into abject shock, and her hand fluttered to her throat, the fingers waving like a moth’s wings.

“M-m-master…”

“Hello, Minnie.” Though he was still smiling that overly bright smile, the man in black pulled a big pistol from beneath his jacket.

Who is it?” the father yelled.

“Run!” Molemy screamed the word, the fear in her eyes unmistakable.

As if the word was a steaming branding iron touching her flesh, Marcella bolted, running for the stairs and taking them two at a time. Dusty hissed, his sharp claws raking across her skin as he jumped away.

“Dusty, we have to hide.” From the doorway of her sweltering room, she chirped at the cat, but he had already disappeared. “No!”

She choked back a sob. There was no time to go after Dusty. He would be okay, she told herself as tears clogged her throat. He could take care of himself, just as she had to take care of herself.

But how?

Where?

The closet held promise, but she knew the man would find her there. He wasn’t stupid like the parents. Under the bed was out too. Everyone looked under the bed. She might hide in one of the other bedrooms, but he would search them. She would be found.

She jumped when Dickbert bellowed louder than she’d ever heard before. A crash was followed by a shriek, but that ear-splitting sound was cut short with an abruptness that made the hair stand on Marcella’s arms.

Marcella didn’t like that, not one little bit. She needed to hide…and quick. The man with the gun would come for her. It wasn’t a good surprise after all.

Marcella went to the window and shoved it open. She gulped as she looked down at the jumble of landscaping rocks far below. She couldn’t jump, the drop was too far, but with any luck, he would think she had somehow made it and run away. She was about to leave the room when her gaze caught on the screen. With the screen in, the man would know she hadn’t escaped. She ran to the window and pushed it out. That was better.

Checking the hall first, she shot across to the big bedroom, the one the parents slept in. Something crashed in the living room, but she wasn’t about to investigate. She had learned all about being too inquisitive. Better to ignore the noises that sounded like a fight.

In the parents’ bedroom, Marcella slipped into the closet and moved to the very back. After she was behind the last of the hanging clothes, she picked up several shoe boxes, building a wall to hide her legs. Pressed into the corner, she made herself as small as possible and tried not to breathe too loud.

The quiet in the house filled her ears, and it seemed almost louder than the scream. She didn’t like the silence.

When the backs of her eyes began to burn, she squeezed her eyelids shut to keep the tears in. She didn’t need to sniffle now and draw attention. There were things worse than dying, she knew. Sometimes, she thought she would rather die, or at least never have been born. But now that death was a possibility, she just wanted to live.

In fact, she knew she’d do just about anything to survive. To grow up. To make it to the point where she could make her own decisions. To make the bad people pay.

Long moments passed as she strained her ears, jumping at a loud thump from the family room. She clamped a hand over her mouth so she wouldn’t scream out the terror that was building in her chest.

Eyes still closed, she started counting the seconds. She had no idea how long she would have to stay in the closet. Once, she had hidden for three hours in an attic with many, many spiders. Closets were better than attics and basements and cellars and wooden boxes, she knew from experience.

But she didn’t want to think about any of that. She didn’t want to think about the man in black or what he planned to do next.

To take her mind off what was happening downstairs, she played her favorite game. She imagined she was in her favorite TV show—Sabrina the Teenage Witch. She loved the show because Sabrina could work magic, and to her ten-year-old mind, having powers would be the coolest thing in the world.

If Marcella was a witch, she would leave this house and create her own palace. She would eat all the cake she wanted and have all the money she needed to buy toys and have McDonald’s every day. There would be servants and lots of TVs, one in every room, and no one would keep her from watching. She wouldn’t have to put up with boring baseball ever again.

But most of all, if she were a witch, she would get back at the people who had hurt her so badly.

Marcella could conjure up exquisite torture. Dickbert would starve as luscious food sat just out of his reach. She would make Molemy eat until she became so large her skin would burst. That was a fun thing to imagine. The mole would blow into a million pieces first, like a rocket exploding from her face. The large hair sticking out would—

“There you are.”

She gasped as two realizations hit her at once. The man in black also knew how to be quiet, and the open window trick hadn’t worked.

The man moved the boxes, parting the clothes so her hiding place was exposed. “Come out of there.” He was smiling again, she could tell from the tone of his voice.

Marcella pulled her knees to her chin. “Leave me alone.”

“Don’t you want ice cream?”

He was lying. Wasn’t he?

She suddenly wished that she had a totally different superpower and was able to peek into another person’s mind.

Was this a trick? Was there really a party?

She couldn’t tell.

He sank to his haunches. “I know that your mother and father have not been good to—”

“They’re not my real mother and father.” Of everything that was happening right then, she wasn’t quite sure why that was the most important for him to know, but her voice was stronger as she told him that crucial fact.

His expression softened. “You’re right. They aren’t your real parents, and they have treated you badly, haven’t they?”

It was the very first time anyone had cared enough to ask her that question. Tears burned her eyes as she shook her head. “I don’t like them.”

He reached out his hand. “It’s time to teach them a lesson, don’t you think?”

She stared at his palm, the bad feeling coming back. This had to be a trick.

“H-how?”

Faster than even Dickbert, he grabbed her arm. Marcella tried to yank away, but he was strong, and his fingers dug into her skin. Sinking down the way she’d been taught in school when learning about how to escape a stranger, she kicked at him, her foot hitting his leg.

“That’s what I like about you. You’re tough. Smart.”

But for all her effort, he pulled her from her hiding spot as easily as he would have picked up a doll.

“Let me go!” To her surprise, he did, and she fell, the carpet burning her knees. She scrambled to get to her feet, panting hard from the struggle, the corners of her vision growing dim.

“My name is Lenny.”

Anger rose with the burn in her knees. “You better not touch me.”

He chuckled. “You’re not to my taste.”

She swallowed hard, not exactly sure what he meant. “You won’t hurt me?”

“No.” The answer was immediate, and Marcella couldn’t help but believe him. Still…

“Adults always lie. Why should I trust you?”

His lips moved into the little smile again. “Come to the kitchen and you’ll have your answer.”

Marcella studied him closely. He was strong. The way he’d pulled her from the back of the closet was proof of that. He had a gun. She was outmatched in every way possible, and if he’d wanted to hurt her, he could. Right here, right now. He didn’t have to cajole or promise or anything, so why wasn’t he just carrying her screaming down the steps?

That, more than anything, caused her feet to move forward.

He stepped aside, letting her go first. She felt more than heard him a few paces behind her.

On the steps, the lights cast a replica of their shadows on the wall. She almost expected his shadow-hands to reach out and push her or maybe close around her throat. They didn’t. They remained at his side.

She could run. She was fast as the wind, especially when she was scared. She could jump the bannister and run to the door, flip the lock, and race screaming into the late evening.

But she didn’t run. She was…curious.

Curiosity killed the cat.

That’s when she spotted Dusty. He was sitting in the doorway to the kitchen. When she made a chirping sound, he didn’t turn his head, just continued to stare at something he must have found fascinating.

The surprise?

Maybe the man had been telling the truth.

Picking up speed, she rushed to the tabby’s side before stumbling back in a different kind of surprise.

The parents were tied to the oak kitchen chairs, gags in their mouths. Dickbert bled from a cut on the side of his head, his shirt soaking up the red, a stain that would make the mother really mad and yelling for Marcella to not stop scrubbing until it was perfectly clean.

But the mother hadn’t noticed because she had problems of her own. One of her eyes was swollen almost shut. Molemy’s cheeks were soaked with tears, and an ugly red mark on her cheek flamed red. Even though they were tied up, fear rooted Marcella to the tile floor. The parents would be pissed when they got loose.

“Surprise.” Grinning, Lenny nodded at the parents, and Molemy shuddered so hard that her chair rattled on the floor.

Marcella brushed the hair from her eyes, her gaze going to the father, who growled at her as he tried to say bad words with his eyes.

“What’s happening?” Marcella’s voice was made small and thin by the rush of air in and out of her lungs.

Lenny’s hand came down on her shoulder, but it was only to give her a little pat. “They need to be punished. Don’t you think?”

She nodded, mesmerized by the sight before her. “Yes. All the parents need to be.”

Marcella couldn’t remember exactly how many parents she’d had over her lifetime, but she knew that none of them had been good. They’d all been quick to punish, whether it be a paddle or a belt.

Lenny looked pleased. “How should we punish them?”

There were so many options, but her eyes locked onto the handmade paddle hanging from a rusty nail. Her mouth was almost too dry to speak, so she just pointed. The gesture…the ability to make a choice…was so heady she almost felt dizzy.

“Excellent idea, but I don’t think that’s punishment enough. I get the feeling these two are quite nasty. Does your father touch you?”

Marcella glanced at the man in the chair, bolder now that she wasn’t standing before him alone. “I told you, he’s not my father. And he likes to…” bile crawled up her throat, “wrestle.”

“I see. Is that how you got those bruises?”

Marcella touched the yellow marks on her arm. This batch had faded but still resembled fingerprints. “I don’t remember what these ones were for.”

“And your mother, who isn’t actually your mother. What bad things has she done to you?”

She eyed the woman who never had a hair out of place. Now, her perfect curls were a mess, plastered to the sweat on her face. “She…” Shame poured out of Marcella like sweat.

The man’s hand came down on her shoulder again, and he gave her a gentle squeeze. “It’s okay. You can tell me.”

Marcella lifted her chin and shrugged the hand away. Not because she was revolted by the touch. She wasn’t, not really. She wanted it gone because she needed to say this on her own.

“She calls me Maid Marcella, and she…she likes to watch when he makes me wrestle.”

Lenny hummed, leaning back on his heels. “I have an idea, then. Perhaps she should lose her tongue. No, that would be difficult with the gag. How about an ear…to start?”

But Marcella had other ideas. As she met the mother’s gaze, she knew that she wanted the woman to never watch a wrestling match again.

Maybe she could take care of that too.

The mother moaned as Lenny went to the wooden block on the counter and carefully examined the knives. Beside her, Dickbert yanked hard at the bindings, but he couldn’t move.

Marcella shivered. Lenny was suggesting things she had never considered. What would it be like to lop off an ear? She stared at the mother’s overly large one, which held a fake pearl earring. Marcella knew they were fake because they only cost twelve dollars.

“This will do.” The man in black ran his finger along the blade. “Cheap, but sharp enough.”

He brought the knife to Marcella, holding it out.

“Start with your father’s pinky.”

Her eyes popped wide again. Cutting the mother was one thing. Cutting the father…what if he got loose?

Marcella took a half step away, locking her hands behind her back. “I’m scared.”

Scared I might like it.

“Were you scared when he made you…wrestle?”

She closed her eyes, trying to force the memories away. Bile surged like a tide, but she managed to hold it down, gulping hard until the thoughts of the things he’d made her do faded away.

She nodded, just once.

The hand on her shoulder was back. Soft, almost gentle. “This is a special occasion. This is justice, on my part and yours, and the penalty is sometimes harsh. It’s only fair that you hurt them as they hurt you. An eye for an eye.”

Could this man read her mind?

“Are you a warlord?” She knew men weren’t technically called witches, and her feelings were itching again, not in a good way.

He laughed. “You may consider me to be your fairy godfather, if you wish. Now, if the pinky doesn’t suit, do you have another suggestion?”

When her gaze fell to Dickbert’s crotch, the man began to whimper. Tears streaming down his cheeks, he began saying things through his gag. “Please don’t…no…please,” was what it sounded like.

She looked up at Lenny. “Can I take off his gag?”

Lenny’s eyebrows furrowed. “Why?”

She held out her hand, her heart beating even harder when he placed the handle in her palm. “Because I like hearing him beg.”

Lenny’s head fell back, and he practically roared with laughter. It made Marcella smile. Turned out she liked to make her fairy godfather laugh too.

Marcella took a step closer to the father. “I told you that I don’t like to wrestle.”

Dickbert jerked at his binds. Beside him, the mother’s shriek was blessedly muffled by the gag.

“Your choice, Marcella. Where do you want to begin?”

“Cut off the hand that touched me.” It was a whisper, but Lenny seemed to have no trouble hearing. “One finger at a time.”

“Yes. It is right and fair retribution, Marcella, but we don’t have all day.” He tapped his expensive looking watch.

Dickbert’s beady eyes snapped to Marcella as she took another step closer. His chest rose and fell rapidly while sweat streaked down his bloated face. “Pweese,” he said past the gag.

Lenny motioned for Marcella to move even closer, and her feet obeyed.

The father made a whining noise, and beside him, Molemy groaned.

Dickbert was crying hard now, but she didn’t care. Just like he hadn’t cared all the times he’d made her bleed between her legs.

“You hurt me.” Marcella was surprised that she’d said the words out loud, but it felt good to speak, to say the things that had been burning in her throat. “I hate you. I hate you both.”

“Tell him what you plan to do and why,” Lenny prompted her softly. “Show them your power.”

Before she knew what she was about to do, Marcella drug the tip of the blade up her arm. The pain was exquisite, causing the world to explode in a kaleidoscope of color. Fear and pain and excitement made her heart beat as fast as hummingbird wings.

Both the father and the mother stared at the blood that began dripping down Marcella’s arm. She liked having their full attention. “From now on, I’m the only one who can hurt me.”

She desperately hoped that would be true.

But for now, she did indeed have the power. Power to give or take. Power of life or death.

Marcella giggled with the headiness of it all as she stared down at Dickbert’s hand. “This little piggy went to market…”

She knew that the child’s rhyme was about toes, but she didn’t care.

When Marcella stepped closer to the father, the man did something she didn’t expect. He balled both hands into fists.

“My friend,” Lenny warned, his voice lower than before, “if you persist, she’ll be forced to lop off your entire hand. Which would you prefer?”

The father resembled some sort of monster, with the blood dripping from his chin, but he unballed his fingers.

“Intelligent decision. There might be hope for you.”

Marcella grabbed the fat pinky finger at the tip and laid the edge of the bloody knife close to the knuckle, her own hands trembling.

Lenny leaned down next to her ear. “You must be decisive. Cut fast and hard, all the way through the bone.”

Marcella pulled the knife across the finger, cutting the skin, drawing blood. Even though the father wailed, she didn’t come close to cutting deep enough.

“A start. Now, imagine you’re chopping carrots.” He wrapped his hand around hers, raising the knife handle until it stood on its point just below the knuckle of the hand. “From here, all you do is push down.”

With pure fascination, Marcella did exactly what she’d been told to do. It was very much like chopping into a carrot, except carrots didn’t explode with blood, and they didn’t make a plopping sound when they hit the floor.

Dickbert wailed, thrashing even harder now. Molemy did too.

They both looked horrified by her actions. Good.

The blood was warm as she grabbed the ring finger of the hand. “This little piggy stayed home…”

The muffled screaming got worse, but to her surprise, she began to feel better. More relaxed. The sounds faded as her vision refocused on the middle finger. “This little piggy had roast beef…”

Chop.

“This little piggy had none…”

Chop.

She giggled again because the fat thumb, standing out now all alone, did look like a pig. “This little piggy said wee, wee, wee…” chop, “all the way home.”

“How do you feel?” Lenny asked as she stepped away and ran the blood-covered blade over her dress.

She didn’t have to consider the question for long. “Better.”

He smiled. “And you aren’t even finished yet.”

Marcella smiled too before turning her attention to the mother.

Molemy tried to pull away when the girl raised the knife to her face, but the woman had nowhere to go.

“The ears?” Lenny asked. “After all, ears are so ugly. Women add all sorts of jewelry to make them appear halfway decent.”

Marcella had never given much thought to ears before, but he was right. And the pearl didn’t help much. But that wasn’t what she wanted.

With the slight flick of the blade, the mole was replaced by a circle of red. Even the long hair stayed in place as the small piece of flesh fell and stuck onto the middle of Molemy’s shirt.

Marcella giggled. “What will I call you now?”

The mother narrowed her eyes at the girl, sounds coming through the gag like curses. An hour ago, that gaze would have filled Marcella with terror. Now…it filled her with some emotion that was so much bigger than hate.

“That looks better,” Lenny said, and Marcella nodded in vigorous agreement. “What would you like to do next?”

“I don’t want her to ever watch a girl get hurt ever again.”

Lenny’s smile grew wider. “Fitting. Think of popping a balloon.”

The mask of pure terror that spread across the mother’s face made Marcella happy as she lifted the knife to just above the woman’s cheek. “I spy with my little eye…”

The blade sank in so fast and quick, Marcella nearly stumbled forward. Blood and a different kind of liquid gushed around the blade. It almost made the girl gag, but only almost. She didn’t want to ruin this moment.

The single remaining eye squeezed shut as the blade moved closer. “Open it,” Marcella said, her voice steady. When Molemy didn’t respond, Marcella poked her on the cheek. Then again and again and again until the eyelid fluttered open.

“I’m the last thing you’re ever going to see.”

When it was over, Marcella stood back to admire her work. The mother reminded her of a Halloween costume, only with real blood. A strange satisfaction settled into Marcella’s chest. She had evened the score a little.

“Think they’ve had enough?” her new teacher asked.

Marcella considered the question, looking from one parent to the other. She moved until she was in front of Dickbert again, slipping on the blood a little before catching herself. “No.”

With no hesitation and no warning, she brought the knife down between his legs. She barely registered the father’s sounds as she let go of the handle, watching it vibrate from where it now pierced the wood.

She stepped away. Now, she was finished.

The man in black seemed pleased with her efforts, and this time when he smiled, the warmth reached his eyes. “I want you to sit on the table and wait for me.”

Fear returned, skittering down her back like the cold finger of a ghost. The table? She’d been so involved with her personal vengeance that she’d forgotten that she could be next. Fear made her heart beat as fast as hummingbird wings.

“Hesitation allows time to think, but obedience is a virtue.” Eyes nearly piercing through her, he nodded to where he wanted her to go. “On the table.”

She still didn’t move, needing to know one thing first. “Am I next?”

He stared at her for so long that her entire mouth went dry, but she stood her ground. Yes, she was afraid, but she’d also gotten a small taste of power. She wasn’t ready to give it up just yet.

“Not anymore.”

Marcella was confused by his answer but took it to mean that she was safe, at least for the moment. Backing up until she bumped into the table, she sneaked a peak at Molemy because she knew she was about to do something else that was very wrong. She was never to sit on the furniture, not even the chairs.

Two bloody holes gazed back.

Instead of being disgusted by the sight, a snicker bubbled in Marcella’s chest as she remembered that the mother would never see her again. She thought that she should feel bad about what she had just done, but she didn’t. She didn’t know how to describe how she felt, but the word “peace” was on the tip of her tongue.

She knew that word, not because she’d ever felt it before, but because one of the fake parents had made her go to church with them every week. There, the pastor spoke of peace and forgiveness, of having a clear heart. He spoke of treating others as you would want to be treated. The fake parents would nod and say things like, “Amen.” But after church, they treated Marcella any which way they wanted.

She’d learned another word too. Hypocrites.

Was Lenny a hypocrite too? So far, he’d told her the truth. Would it last? She didn’t know, but she was simply too tired now to fight or run. On legs that felt like spaghetti noodles, Marcella climbed onto the table and sat.

“Observe.”

Marcella did what the man said but found herself wanting to look away as he began to carve into the parents’ skins, making patterns that didn’t make sense to her as they both writhed and wailed. After only a few minutes, she yawned.

It was getting boring.

Watching wasn’t the same as doing, and as the excitement faded away, the smells that now filled the kitchen hurt both her brain and her tummy. The noises coming from the parents made her head hurt.

To soothe herself, she began to hum one of her favorite songs.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star

How I wonder what you are

As Marcella watched the fake father’s ear plop to the floor, she wondered if she had a real father and real mother out there somewhere. Did they miss her? Had they looked for her at all?

Up above the world so high

Like a diamond in the sky

Or had they simply thrown her away, never to think of her again? If that was true, would Lenny help her find them? Help her give them a surprise?

Twinkle, twinkle little star

How I wonder what you are

After many minutes had passed, Lenny turned to her, his face the very picture of happiness now. “There is a certain joy in the perfect cut. Behold the canvas.”

He was right. There was a certain beauty to the design in which he’d carved into the mother and father’s flesh. The sounds the parents once made had thankfully dimmed, providing a deeper soundtrack of moans she found raw and compelling.

“It’s like art.” She wondered what he planned to do next. “Do you sign your autograph to it after you’re done?”

Lenny looked both genuinely surprised and pleased at the question. “I’ve actually never signed my name to a masterpiece before.” He bobbed his eyebrows, giving him a playful look as he whispered, “Evidence. It’s something you want to avoid at all cost.”

Marcella knew what evidence was. When the father wasn’t watching baseball, he liked to watch true crime shows. Frowning, she looked around the kitchen. Blood was everywhere, and although the man wore gloves, she didn’t. She looked at her dress that was stiffening with the stuff.

Once again seeming to read her mind, Lenny smiled. “Don’t worry, little one. All of this will soon go away.”

Maid Marcella. Her shoulders slumped.

Before she could tell him that she’d rather die than clean all this up, he turned to the mother and carved a K in her forehead with a flourish. When he stepped over to the father, he yanked the man’s head back so hard that his neck made a loud pop, and his entire body went limp.

This time, instead of just making the initial, Lenny bore down, carving the letter with what looked like all his might. Marcella wanted to know what the letter meant, but she was afraid to ask.

Lenny turned to her and spread his arms. Blood dripped from the tip of the blade still tight in his grip. “You may applaud.”

As she clapped, he smiled in the way that made goose bumps pop up on her skin, reminding her of the Joker she’d seen on TV. Her breathing grew heavy when the smile slid away and he studied her closely, making her feel like a bug pinned to a board.

Her hands stopped just inches apart, her entire body frozen in place.

His face transformed into the scary mask from before as he walked toward her. “Only one more thing to do now, sweet Marcella.”

Deep in her heart, she’d known this moment was coming. She wrapped her arms around her legs and closed her eyes.

The man in black had lied.

She was next.

Chapter Two

Knife still in hand, I faced the pretty little girl sitting on the table, hugging her knees to make herself as small as humanly possible. She’d probably sat just that way many times in her short life. Huddled in a ball, waiting for the next bad thing to happen.

Always bad. Never good.

Well, not good for her, but the parents would have enjoyed this sweet thing immensely.

Dark hair, dark eyes, perky nose. She would break a lot of hearts if she lived long enough. Her jaw was set, even after she’d closed her eyes to blind herself to what she believed was coming. I respected the brave front, even though I knew she was nearly frightened to death. Fear hovered around her like a ghost, vibrating and pulsing the air surrounding the child.

“Am I next?”

That had been the plan when I first knocked on the door of this hovel of a home. But those three words had echoed in my mind since she’d said them so softly. The question had been timid, but there’d been strength in the query too. She had simply wanted to know what to expect from a world that delivered the unexpected.

I should have already killed her. I didn’t need a ten-year-old girl as a sidekick, but this one was proving feisty. I liked to reward those who showed courage.

Plus, if I was being honest, I was responsible for her predicament, which also meant she’d developed her extraordinary spirit because of me. Pride bloomed warm in my chest.

When the silence stretched into a minute, then two, the girl opened her eyes and lifted her chin, biting her lip even as it trembled, trying desperately not to show her fear. “Are you going to kill me too?”

It was my turn to be surprised as sparks instead of tears practically flew from her eyes. She was as angry as she was afraid. How far could she be pushed? Yes, she was a child, but if I chose to let her live, I would need to develop trust in her. I was not in the habit of leaving witnesses who could easily send me to prison.

“Well, are you? Are you going to cut me up like you did the parents?”

Amused at her question, I studied her intelligent brown eyes. “I’m thinking…you have a pretty throat.”

“Go to hell,” she snarled, and I couldn’t help but wonder which of her fathers she replicated.

Yet another deep belly laugh rumbled out of me. I couldn’t remember laughing so hard even once, yet this girl had just now caused me to double that record. “You going to send me there?”

“Maybe.” She glared at me before directing her gaze at the people tied to the chairs. She seemed mesmerized by them.

I considered her courage, a quality I admired. Not to the point of recklessness but knowing when to take risks. Could she be groomed? I’d never had a daughter, although I thought I might like one.

The bottom line was trust. Could I trust her…in every way?

Leaning toward her, I searched for a detail that would tip the scales. “Listen to me. I’m going to talk, and you need to listen closely. Understand?”

I waited until she met my gaze fully. “Yes.”

“Leaving the window open in your bedroom was clever. I like such cleverness, but you made a mistake. If you had climbed out or jumped from your window, I would have seen footprints in the flowerbed below. That’s how I knew you tried to trick me. No footprints, no escape, so I knew you were in the house. You have much to learn.”

She raised both eyebrows, waiting for me to continue. When I didn’t, she flashed a smile just big enough for me to see that her teeth were a bit crooked. It was cute, but to be beautiful, she would need them straightened.

She lifted her chin. “I want to learn.”

With that simple sentence, I now had a choice to make. With one swing of the blade, I could make this entire situation go away. But did I want that? No, I didn’t. I was curious to see what would happen next.

Curiosity killed the cat.

Although, more often, curiosity bagged the cat a tasty meal.

I made my decision. “I’m willing to teach you. As soon as I finish here, I’m leaving town.”

“Where?”

“I’m starting a new life in another city. The idea of starting fresh is exciting, yes? Do you find it exciting too?”

She glanced at the people in the chairs. The coppery scent filled the room. I inhaled, the scent touching on my tongue and making my blood move faster in my veins. A little blood was a nuisance. A lot of blood stimulated.

Her brown eyes glistened as she slowly shook her head. “Starting fresh is bad.”

Of course. She’d “started fresh” six times, I knew. I’d made a pretty penny off her sweet little face each time.

“What if I promised this time would be different? You would leave here with me.”

Her lips trembled. “Are you—”

I held up a hand. “Before you answer, I want you to know this is a legitimate offer. I have no plan to take you from here only to kill you later. If you come with me, you will be my daughter, pure and simple. You’ll call me…‘Father.’”

I liked that. Father.

Her tears glistened even more, and I realized I’d made a misstep. I might like the title, but this girl surely didn’t. She’d been forced to use that term with three different men.

“Or maybe Dad?” No change in her expression. “Or Papa.”

She blinked at that one, and the very tips of her lips turned up. “I like Papa.”

“Excellent. I’ll send you to school, and I might even come to recitals. Most importantly, you would never mention this to anyone, not a word. Those are the rules…so far.”

It was a bit shocking how pleased I genuinely was at the thought of having this girl as my daughter. That was concerning. Was I losing my grip on my sanity? Was I doing something I would soon come to regret?

Maybe I should let fate decide if she was to come with me or not.

“Marcella…” I waited until those big brown eyes met mine, “I must go outside for a few moments. When I return, if you are still here, that means you will go with me. If you’re not, then that is your answer.”

I didn’t tell her that I’d hunt her down and kill her. Fate required free choice, and fear of death changed the weight on the scales by a large degree.

Turning on my heel, I strode back through the house and outside, not stopping until I reached the SUV I’d borrowed from a friend. Hidden in the cover of an orchard, I stripped off the gloves and tossed them in a bag I’d already prepared. The shoes and suit were next.

Looking up at the sky, I wished the clouds would gather and create a downpour to wash the sins of the Davidson family away. When no rain came, I used a pack of sweet smelling wet wipes to scrub at my skin before changing into a fresh suit.

Grabbing the can of gas from the cargo area, I glanced back at the house, wondering if I would spot a small shadow sneaking into the night. She had no idea that I’d placed a small transmitter in the pocket of her dress.

You can run, but you can’t hide.

Not from me.

But all was still in this typical middle-class neighborhood. Outside the city limits, all the houses were generously spaced away from their neighbors. No doubt, the Davidsons had thought living out in BFE made them safe. Fools. If they were hidden while things went well, they were screwed when things turned to crap.

I started for the kitchen, and hopefully, the girl.

Relief and pleasure flowed through me when I spotted her still on the table. Those unfamiliar feelings made me yet again question my intent.

I could always kill or sell her later, of course. This was only a test.

Smiling at the thought, I stopped just inside the doorway, where the spray of blood hadn’t reached. I set the gas can on the floor and smiled at the girl. “It’s time to go, but we can’t have you looking like that. Go shower and change into clean clothes, but I need you to be quick.”

She scrambled off the table so quickly it made me smile even wider. Little Marcella was trying to please me, not acting out of fear.

She made it to the bottom of the stairs before turning to me, a serious expression on her face. “I’ll go with you, but I want you to know something.”

I lifted an eyebrow, keeping all amusement from my expression. “What’s that?”

“If you touch me…” Her nostrils flared, her small hands curling into fists.

“Yes?”

“I…I’ll kill you.”

I faced the fiercest eyes I’d ever seen on a person, child or adult. This wasn’t the same girl I’d met just an hour before. She absolutely meant what she said. If I molested her, she would try to kill me, any way she could. I wondered if I’d awoken that urge in her, or if the desire to kill had lain dormant inside her heart like a slumbering bear.

To my surprise, this child had woken something unfamiliar in me too.

“You need not worry,” I assured her with a practiced smile, though the gesture took more effort than normal. “I don’t fancy girls your age. I accept your conditions.”

It wasn’t a lie.

My fancy lay…elsewhere, but I wasn’t going to get into that subject here.

Thankfully, the girl just nodded and trudged up the stairs. A few moments later, pipes began to clank when water started running.

The sound made me angry and was yet another reminder of why I was leaving this state. This business. Why I was branching out on my own.

In my line of work, I was used to dealing with infants and children so small they had no means of communication. Handing them over had always been a relief. The illegal adoption trade was lucrative, but when my partners vetted parents like the Davidsons, we would never reach the heights of success as I imagined.

I’d been frustrated for quite some time. The proverbial straw that’d broken this camel’s back was when Minnie Davidson had asked for another child. She didn’t want an infant but another girl close to Marcella’s age. The vile woman had even hinted that she would be forced to tell local authorities about the business if she wasn’t given a pretty blonde this time.

Blackmail wasn’t something I tolerated, as Minnie fully understood by now.

When the pipes stopped clanging, I picked up the gas container to begin the next stage of my work. Heading up the steps, I went straight for the master bedroom, making sure to pour a generous amount around the perimeter of the room.

“Is that gas?”

I hadn’t heard the child approach, and her stealth made me smile as did the way she pinched her nose. Her wet hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she’d changed into a dress that was as hideously ugly as the one she’d worn before.

The outside could be fixed. It was her inside I was most interested in.

“Yes.” I inhaled deeply. “It’s one of the sweetest concoctions in the world. It erases the truth. You’ll learn that in time.”

She dropped her hand away from her nose and attempted to replicate my enjoyment of the scent. Although she coughed a bit, I gave her credit for the effort.

“What’s behind this door?” I asked once we were back in the hallway.

She ducked her head and turned the knob. “My bedroom.”

A wave of heat rushed from the closet-sized room. A bare mattress lay on the floor, a broken bookcase leaning against a wall. There were no pretty colors, no posters or art of any kind visible. Though the girl had been given little to work with, what she did have was neat and clean.

Gritting my teeth, I stepped inside, but before I could pour, her fingers tugged at my sleeve. “I’ll do this one.”

“It’s heavy.”

She lifted her chin. “I can do it myself.”

Without a word, I handed it over and watched with interest as she carefully chose specific places to destroy. She pulled the plastic container beside her, tipping it over when she reached her target. A generous dollop soaked into her bed, and she surprised me when she doused the lone teddy bear.

I knew right then that she possessed more than the usual level of hatred. Well, certainly a wish for revenge.

The child was absolutely fascinating.

In the eight years it took for me to receive my doctorate in psychology and in the twelve years of practice since, I didn’t think I’d come across such a multi-faceted creature.

I admired her, but she would bear watching.

“You don’t want to take any toys or other belongings?”

She shook her head. “I don’t want anything to remember this…” Her eyes went wide, and one hand flew to her mouth. Abject horror crossed her features. “Dusty!”

“Who?”

“My cat!”

I mentally groaned as I remembered the gray tabby I’d spotted a few times. “We’ll find him, don’t worry.”

Her little hand slipped into mine, the brown eyes brimming with tears. “Promise?”

Something close to what many people would label as affection went through me. Having a daughter might be nice after all. “Promise. We just need to do it quickly.”

The fumes from the gasoline were already verging on dangerous.

Back downstairs, I wasn’t sure who was more relieved to spot the feline, Marcella or me. Perhaps it was the cat, who nearly jumped into the girl’s arms, butting his head into her chin.

“Wonderful. Now, just sit him outside, and I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

Her mouth fell open. “If I sit him outside, he might run away.”

I smiled brightly. “Exactly. He’ll run away and be safe.”

Over the years, I’d seen many expressions. Sadness, anger, and fear were a few of my favorites, but the total devastation that crossed this child’s face tugged at something I wasn’t familiar with. Guilt.

A single tear fell, and she rubbed her cheeks on the cat’s gray fur. “Don’t make me leave him. Please.”

This wasn’t a child’s tantrum, or a young girl using her femininity to get what she wanted.

This was a basic need.

Which was a problem. The girl must learn that only I could provide her with life’s necessities.

I made my face expressionless. “No.”

Turning my back on them both, I sloshed gasoline onto the living room curtains and furniture. Moving into the kitchen, I was careful to avoid the blood as I saturated the floor and walls.

When the task was complete, I stepped back into the hallway, expecting to find that the pair had vanished. But no, Marcella and the tabby hadn’t moved. In fact, they looked more like a statue than anything.

Annoyed now, I set the gas can down and marched in their direction. I didn’t have time for this. I was already at least an hour behind schedule.

Reaching for the cat’s scruff, I paused when her small voice said, “Papa.”

Shit.

“Listen to me, young lady. There is no way I’ll allow—”

“You taught me about revenge.” Her voice didn’t waver as she stared up at me. “Can I teach you something too?”

I should just say no. I should just put my foot down and grab the damned cat and toss it into the yard. Curiosity got the better of me. “Teach me what?”

Light shimmered with the dark depths of her eyes. “Compassion.”

Holy hell.

My shoulders seemed to be the first part of me to understand that I was about to surrender, because they sagged under the weight of the choice I’d never expected to make. Or maybe it was the gasoline fumes keeping me from thinking clearly?

Whatever it was, I found that I was enjoying myself immensely.

Was that a bad thing?

“You’ll change the litterbox and feed the animal.” She nodded vigorously as I ticked off each of her responsibilities. “And if this creature ruins even one of my shoes, I’ll make him into a pair of gloves myself.”

She actually giggled, and I found that I enjoyed the sound. “That’s just silly. Dusty doesn’t even wear shoes.”

Shaking my head, I waved her toward the front door. “Go to the front porch while I finish up here.” My voice was overly loud and commanding as I strove to reestablish myself as the alpha. I was moving on and upward. And now, I had a partner—a junior partner. I chuckled.

After she did as I’d requested, I grabbed the morning newspaper as well as the gas can and used the last of the fuel to create a starter trail out the door. There, I rolled the paper into a tube before taking a lighter from my pocket.

“Take note. Fire is a wonderful cleanser. The flames destroy the good but also the bad. When the fire dies, there is nothing but ashes, and ashes tell very little. If you ever have any doubt about your work, burn it. The term is called ‘kill your darlings.’ The more you love your work, the more you must question it. Many a criminal went to prison for loving their work too much.”

With a flick of my thumb, flame burst to life then spread as I touched the lighter to the tip of the paper.

Marcella tugged at my sleeve. “Let me.”

Would this child ever cease to surprise?

“Are you sure?”

She nodded and thrust the cat in my direction. Staring into the depths of the yellow eyes, I silently dared it to scratch me or shed a single piece of fur onto my thousand-dollar suit.

With the awkward exchange complete, Marcella took a step closer to the door, the makeshift torch held high.

“Not too close,” I warned and found myself stroking the cat’s soft fur.

 As the feline and I looked on, the girl stood there for many seconds, and for a moment, I thought she might change her mind. Looking more closely, though, I noticed her lips were moving, although I couldn’t tell if her silent words were a prayer or a curse.

Once the torch was halfway gone, she nodded and tossed the flaming paper onto the gas-covered floor. With a whoosh, flames raced along the gasoline trail, seeking the rich pools we had left through the house. Marcella stared at the wall of flames separating her from Minnie and Robert Davidson, and I could swear the corners of her lips turned up in a smile.

I pulled her from the porch and into the driveway, her mesmerized gaze not leaving the windows that now shown with flames. In the dark, the conflagration would soon be a huge signal. First responders would be on their way.

“Come along,” I said, handing the cat back to her.

Marcella climbed into the SUV while I placed my backpack and the gas can in the rear. I slid behind the wheel, started the engine, and put the vehicle in gear. My little passenger…my daughter…sat erect in the passenger seat, Dusty in her lap.

No tears. If she was sad, it didn’t show.

In seconds, I was rolling down the county road in the opposite direction from which I knew the emergency vehicles would come.

“Note.” I waited until I had her attention. “I scouted the escape route, searching for cameras. Cameras are your enemy. All the cameras in this area will be analyzed as soon as they discover the bodies. The police will examine footage for vehicles. The ones they can identify, they’ll chase down. Avoid cameras.”

She nodded before turning back to stare into the dark.

“I’m not sorry about your parents, or the people who acted like your parents. They deserved this payback. You know what a burr is?”

She shook her head.

“A burr is a spiny thing that comes off a plant. The spines stick to clothes like Velcro but are much sharper. If a burr gets between your clothes and your skin, it irritates and there’s no relief until you remove it. That’s what the Davidsons were to me. A burr. They were causing me pain, and there was no changing that as long as either of them was alive. Avoid burrs or get rid of them.”

Big brown eyes turned to me. “Like cameras?”

“Yes, like cameras.”

“I’ll remember.”

I didn’t doubt that she would. I hit the state highway. From here, I knew I wouldn’t pass a camera for twenty miles; I could be just another vehicle out on the road. Reaching under the seat, I pulled out a baseball cap—the Miami Marlins, my favorite team growing up. The logo was first-class.

“Wear this.” I handed the hat to her.

“Why?”

“Because, when we eventually pass a camera, I don’t want you to be recognized.”

The turquoise cap was too big, but the effect was cute. “If I’m going to a new place, I need a new name.”

“Good thinking. What would you like to be called?”

“I get to choose my own name?” Her face was hidden beneath the bill of the hat, but her voice was laced with excitement.

“In my business, many people feel they have the wrong name. For example, I treated a woman who was named Veronica but felt she should be a Carol. She changed her name and was happy. You get to choose the name that fits you.”

“Well, I don’t like Marcella. That’s what the parents named me.”

“I agree. You don’t strike me as a Marcella.”

“I’ll have to think about what my new name will be. When I find it, I’ll never change it again.” She gave a sharp nod, a note of finality in her voice. She had made up her mind.

“Works for me.”

She turned and smiled at me, truly smiled for the first time since we left the burning house. In some respects, she was older than her age. I couldn’t have her overstepping her bounds.

I maintained a steady speed of five miles per hour over the limit. I wasn’t the fastest driver on the road, and I wasn’t the slowest. I was immersed in the great middle.

When the cat moved from her lap to settle on the seat beside her, I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision, but I reminded myself that I wasn’t a monster. She deserved the chance to become something…special. I had the power to give her that opportunity.

I raised a finger. “Rule one.”

The oversized hat swung in my direction. “Already?”

The kid was a natural comic. “Yes, already. It’s a simple rule. When I talk, you listen. Understood?”

Even in the dark, I felt her penetrating stare. The light from the dash didn’t give away her emotions. She was good at hiding those, her face a careful blank screen, probably as a matter of necessity.

“Say it.”

“I’ll listen.”

“Great. Rule number two.” I checked the rearview mirror. Clear.

She sighed before muttering, “Go ahead.” She was going to be a real treat as a teenager.

“Never forget rule number one.”

She laughed, which I took as a good sign, even though I couldn’t see her face. We were going to get along just fine.

She gazed out the window at the signs we passed, drawing closer to the state line with every mile. “Can I ask a question?”

I squeezed the steering wheel. “You may, but I may not answer it.”

“Are we going to kill more people?”


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Cold Shadows by Mary Stone

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