Archie doesn't know for sure that it's her until that moment. There is a dull bloom of warmth in his spine, his vision blurs, and then he knows that Gretchen Lowell is the killer. He realizes that he has been drugged, but it is too late. He fumbles for his gun, but he is ham-fisted and can only lift it awkwardly from his belt clip and hold it out as if it were a gift to her. She takes it and smiles, kissing him gently on the forehead. Then she reaches into his coat and takes the cell phone, turning it off and slipping it into her purse. He is almost paralyzed now, slumped in the leather chair in her home office. But his mind is a prison of clarity. She kneels down next to him, the way one might a child, and puts her lips so close to his that they are almost kissing. His pulse throbs in his throat. He can't swallow. She smells like lilacs.
It's time to go, darling, she whispers. She stands then, and he is lifted from behind, elbows under his armpits. A man in front of him, red-faced and heavy, takes his legs, and he is carried into the garage and laid in the back of the green Voyagerthe vehicle Archie and his task force have spent months looking forand she crawls in on top of him. He realizes then that there is someone else in the van, that she wasn't the one behind him, but he doesn't have time to process this because she is straddling his torso, a knee pressing on either side of his waist. He cannot move his eyes anymore, so she narrates for his benefit.
I'm rolling up your right sleeve. I'm tying off a vein. Then she holds up a hypodermic in his sight line. Medical training, he thinks. Eighteen percent of female serial killers are nurses. He is staring at the ceiling of the van. Gray metal. Stay awake, he thinks. Remember everything, every detail; it will be important. He thinks, If I live.
I'm going to let you rest for a little while. She smiles and puts her flat, pretty face in front of his so he can see her, her blond hair brushing his cheek, though he cannot feel it. We'll have plenty of time for fun later.
He cannot respond, cannot even blink now. His breath comes in long, shallow rasps. He cannot see her push the needle in his arm, but he assumes she has, because then there is only darkness.
He wakes up on his back. He is still groggy, and it takes him a moment to realize that the red-faced man is standing over him. In this moment, the very first moment of Archie's awareness, the man's head explodes. Archie jerks as the man's blood and brain matter blow forward, splattering Archie's face and chest, a vomit of warm, clotted fluid. He tries to move, but his hands and feet are bound to a table. He feels a piece of something hot slide down his face and slop onto the floor, and he pulls hard against the bindings until his skin breaks, but he cannot budge them. He gags, but his mouth is taped shut, forcing the bile back into his throat, making him gag again. His eyes burn. Then he sees her, standing behind where the man's body has fallen, holding the gun she has just used to execute him.
I wanted you to understand right away how committed I am to you, she says. That you are the only one. And then she turns and walks away.
He is left then to contemplate what has just happened. He swallows hard, willing himself to remain calm, to look around. He is alone. The man is dead on the floor. Gretchen is gone. The driver of the van is gone. Archie's blood is pulsing so violently that it is the only sensation. Time passes. At first, he thinks he is in an operating room. It is a large space, walled with white ceramic subway tiles and well lit by fluorescent lights. He turns his head from side to side and sees several trays of instruments, medical-looking machinery, a drain on the cement floor. He strains again at his binds and realizes that he is strapped to a gurney. Tubes are coming in and out of him: a catheter, an IV. There are no windows in the room and a faint earthy smell skirts the edge of his consciousness. Mildew. A basement.
He starts to think like a cop now. The others had been tortured for a couple of days before she dumped the bodies. That meant that he had time. Two days. Maybe three. They could find him in that amount of time. He had told Henry where he was going, that he had a psych consult about the newest body. He had wanted to see her, to get her advice. He was not prepared for this. But they would connect it. Henry would connect it. It would be the last place to which he could be traced. He had made a call to his wife on the way. That would be the last point of contact. How much time had passed since he had been taken?
The scar on his chest was pale and raised, the fibrous tissue no wider than a piece of yarn. It began a few inches below his left nipple, carved a naked path through his dark chest hair, arced, and then arced again back down to its original point. It was shaped like a heart.
Archie was always aware of it, the raised skin against the cloth of his shirt. He had a lot of scars, but this one was the only one that still seemed to hurt. A phantom pain, Archie knew. A broken rib that had never quite healed right, aching underneath. A scar wouldn't hurt. Not after all this time.
The phone rang. Archie turned slowly to look at it, knowing what it meant. Another victim.
He only got calls from two people: his ex-wife and his ex-partner. He'd already talked to Debbie that day. So that left Henry. He glanced at the caller ID on his cell phone and confirmed his suspicions. It was a department prefix.
He picked up the phone. Yeah, he said. He was sitting in his living room in the dark. He hadn't planned it that way. He had just sat down a few hours before and the sun had set and he hadn't bothered to turn on the light. Plus, the dingy apartment, with its sparse furnishings and stained carpet, looked slightly less sad cloaked in blackness.
Henry's gruff voice filled the phone line. He took another girl, he said. And there you had it.
The digital clock that sat on the empty bookcase blinked insistently in the dim room. It was an hour and thirty-five minutes off, but Archie had never bothered to reset it. He just did the math to calculate the time. So they want to reconvene the task force, Archie said. He had already told Henry that he would go back if they agreed to his terms. He touched the files that Henry had given him weeks before. They were on his lap, the crime-scene photographs of the dead girls tucked neatly inside.
It's been two years. I told them that you had recovered. That you were ready to come back to work full-time.
Archie smiled in the dark. So you lied.
Power of positive thinking. You caught Gretchen Lowell, and she scared the crap out of everybody. This new guy? He's killed three girls already. And he's taken another one.
Gretchen caught me. A rectangular brass pillbox sat on the coffee table next to a glass of water. Archie didn't bother with coasters. The scratched-up oak coffee table had come with the apartment. Everything in Archie's apartment was scarred.
And you survived. There was a pause. Remember?
With a delicate flick of his thumb, Archie opened the pillbox and took out three white oval pills and tucked them in his mouth. My old job? He took a drink of water, relaxing as he felt the pills travel down his throat. Even the glass had been there when he moved in.
Task force supervisor.
There was one more requirement. The most important one. And the reporter?
I don't like this, Henry said.
Archie waited. There was too much in motion. Henry wouldn't back down now. Besides, Archie knew that Henry would do almost anything for him.
She's perfect, Henry said, relenting. I saw her picture. You'll like her. She's got pink hair.
Archie looked down at the files on his lap. He could do this. All he had to do was to keep it together long enough for his plan to work. He opened the top file. His eyes had adjusted to the dark and he could make out the vague image of a ghostly body in the mud. The killer's first victim. Archie's mind filled in the color: the strawberry ligature marks on her neck, the blushed, blistered skin. How old is the girl?
Fifteen. Disappeared on her way home from school. Along with her bike. Henry paused. Archie could hear his frustration in his silence. We've got nothing.
Amber alert? Archie asked.
Issued a half hour ago, Henry said.
Canvass the neighborhood. Dogs, everything. Send uniforms door-to-door. See if anyone saw anything along the route she would have taken.
Technically, you're not on the job until morning.
Do it anyway, Archie said.
Henry hesitated. You're up for this, right?
How long has she been missing? Archie asked.
She's dead, Archie thought. Pick me up in a half hour, he said.
An hour, Henry said after a pause. Drink some coffee. I'll send a car.
Archie sat there in the dark for a few minutes after he hung up. It was quiet. No TV blaring from the upstairs apartment, no footsteps overhead; just the pulse of traffic going by in the rain, a steady blast of forced air, and the rattled hum of the dying refrigerator motor. He looked at the clock and did the math. It was just after 9:00 p.m. The girl had been gone for almost three hours. He was warm and woozy from the pills. You could do a lot of damage to someone in three hours. He reached up and slowly unbuttoned the top few buttons of his shirt and inserted his right hand under the fabric, placing it over his ribs, running his fingers over the thick scars that webbed his skin, until he found the heart that Gretchen Lowell had carved on him.
He had spent ten years working on the Beauty Killer Task Force, tracking the Northwest's most prolific serial killer. A quarter of his life spent standing over corpses at crime scenes, paging through autopsy reports, sifting through clues; all that work, and Gretchen had tricked him into walking right into a trap. Now Gretchen was in prison. And Archie was free.
Funny. Sometimes it still felt like the other way around.
Susan didn't want to be there. Her childhood home was cluttered, and its tiny Victorian rooms reeked of cigarettes and sandalwood. She sat on the gold thrift-store couch in the parlor, occasionally looking at her watch, crossing and uncrossing her legs, twisting her hair around her fingers.
Are you done yet? she finally asked her mother.
Susan's mother, Bliss, looked up from the project she had spread out on the large wooden wire spool that served as a coffee table. Soon, Bliss said.
On the same night every year, Bliss burned a likeness of Susan's father in effigy. Susan knew it was crazy. But with Bliss, it was easier to just go along. Bliss made the foot-tall father figure out of bundled straw, wound round with brown packing string. It had been an evolving process. The first year, she had used dead bear grass from the yard, and it had been too wet and hadn't burned. Kerosene had been required to get the thing ablaze and sparks had set the compost pile on fire and the neighbors had called 911. Now Bliss bought straw ready-packaged at a pet-supply store. It came in a plastic bag with a picture of a rabbit on it.
Susan had said she wouldn't come this year, but there she sat, watching her mother wrap the packing string tighter and tighter around the little straw man's femurs.
Bliss cut the string, tied it in a knot around the straw man's ankle, and took a drag off her cigarette. That was Bliss for you: She drank green algae every day and smoked menthols. She embraced contradictions. She wore no make-up except for bloodred lipstick, which she wore every day without fail. She refused to wear fur except for her vintage leopard-skin coat. She was a vegan, but she ate milk chocolate. She had always made Susan feel, in comparison, less beautiful, less glamorous, less crazy.
Susan would admit that she and Bliss did have two things in common: a shared belief in the artistic potential of hair, and poor taste in men. Bliss cut hair for a living and wore her bleached hippie dreads down to her waist. Susan colored her own hair, dyeing her chin-length bob colors like Green Envy or Ultra Violet or, most recently, Cotton Candy Pink.
Bliss appraised her handiwork with a satisfied nod. There, she said. She got up from her cross-legged position on the floor and bounced into the kitchen, her dreadlocks flapping behind her. She reappeared a moment later with a photograph.
I thought you might want to have this, she said.
Susan took the color snapshot. It was a photograph of her as a toddler, standing in the yard with her father. He still had his heavy beard and was bending down so he could hold her hand; she was looking up at him and beaming, all plump cheeks and tiny teeth. Her brown hair was tied up in messy pigtails, and her red dress was dirty; he was wearing a T-shirt and holey jeans. They were both sunburned and barefoot, and they appeared completely happy. Susan had never seen the photograph before.
She felt a wave of sorrow wash over her. Where did you find this? she asked.
It was in a box of his old papers.
Susan's father had died when she was fourteen. Now when Susan thought of him, he was always kind and wise, a picture of paternal perfection. She knew it wasn't that simple. But after he was gone, both she and Bliss had fallen apart, so he must have had some leveling influence.
He loved you so much, Bliss said quietly.
Susan wanted a cigarette, but after spending her childhood lecturing Bliss about lung cancer, she didn't like to smoke around her. It seemed an admission of defeat.
Bliss looked like she wanted to say something motherly. She reached up and sweetly smoothed a piece of Susan's pink hair. The color's faded. Come into the salon and I'll touch it up. The pink is flattering on you. You're so pretty.
I'm not pretty, Susan said, turning away. I'm striking. There's a difference.
Bliss withdrew her hand.
It was dark and wet in the backyard. The back porch light illuminated a half circle of muddy grass and dead sedum planted too close to the house. The straw man was in the copper fire bowl. Bliss leaned over and set the straw on fire with a white plastic lighter and then stood back. The straw crackled and burned and then the flames crept up the little straw man's torso until they engulfed him fully. His little arms were splayed wide, as if in panic. Then all human shape was lost to the orange blaze. Susan and Bliss burned Susan's father every year so that they could let him go, start fresh. At least that was the idea. Maybe they would stop if it ever took.
Susan's eyes filled with tears and she turned away. That was the thing. You thought you were emotionally steady, and then your dead father went and had a birthday and your crazy mother went and set a straw doll on fire in his memory.
I've got to go, Susan said. There's someone I need to meet.
Excerpted from HEARTSICK © Copyright 2011 by Chelsea Cain. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Minotaur. All rights reserved.