Last week, Bustle revealed an exclusive sneak peek at the prologue and opening chapter from Karin Slaughter’s new novel, False Witness. Now, continue reading Slaughter’s tale of murder and intrigue with the second and third chapters below — well ahead of the book’s release next month. (Trigger Warning: This piece contains descriptions of sexual assault, child sexual abuse, and the production of child sexual abuse materials.)
In Bustle’s first excerpt from False Witness, readers met Leigh Collier, a defense attorney hired to represent Andrew Tenant — a wealthy man accused of rape. Leigh has spent 20 years running from the dark past she shares with Andrew: decades earlier, Leigh helped her then-14-year-old kid sister, Callie, clean up the crime scene after she killed Andrew’s father, Buddy Waleski, who had been secretly filming himself raping her and distributing the tape. Andrew was in the house, drugged with NyQuil, when his father was killed — but how much does he remember about the night in question?
Keep scrolling to continue reading Karin Slaughter’s False Witness — out from William Morrow on July 20, and available for preorder now — and come back next week to read Bustle’s third and final excerpt.'False Witness' by Karin SlaughterHarperCollins Publishers
Leigh parked her Audi A4 outside the offices of Reginald Paltz and Associates, the private investigation firm handling Andrew Tenant’s case. The two-story building had been built for small offices, but made to look like a single colonial house. It had that too-new/too-old feel of the eighties. Gold fixtures. Plastic-trimmed windows. Thin brick fascia. Crumbling concrete stairs up to a set of glass doors. The vaulted lobby had a crooked gold chandelier hanging above a set of winding stairs.
The outdoor temperature was already climbing, expected to hit the mid-seventies by the afternoon. She let the car idle so she could keep the air conditioning running. Leigh had gotten here early, allotting herself twenty minutes to get her shit together in the privacy of her car. The thing that had made her a good student, then a good lawyer, was that she could always tune out the bullshit and laser-focus on what was directly in front of her. You didn’t help chop up a two-hundred-fifty-pound man and still graduate at the top of your class without learning how to compartmentalize.
What she had to do right now was turn that laser-focus not onto Andrew Tenant, but onto Andrew Tenant’s case. Leigh was a very high-priced lawyer. Andrew’s trial was scheduled to start in one week. Her boss had requested a full-on strategy session by end of day tomorrow. She had a client looking at serious charges and a prosecutor who was playing more than the usual prosecutor games. Leigh’s job was to find a way to poke enough holes in the case for at least one juror to drive a bus through.
She sighed out a stream of anxiety to help clear her thoughts. She scooped up Andrew’s file from the passenger seat. She flipped through the pages, found the summary paragraph.
Tammy Karlsen. Comma Chameleon. Fingerprints. CCTV.
Leigh read the entire summation without comprehension. The individual words made sense, but putting them into a coherent sentence was impossible. She tried to go back to the beginning. The lines of text began to swirl around until her stomach started swirling with them. She closed the file. Her hand found the door handle but didn’t pull. She gulped in air. Then again. Then again. And again, until she swallowed down the acid that was trying to hurl up her throat.
Leigh’s daughter was the only living being who had ever been able to break her focus. If Maddy was sick or upset or justifiably angry, Leigh was miserable until things were set right. That uneasiness was nothing compared to how she felt now. Every nerve ending inside of her body felt like it was being pounded by the rattling chains of Buddy Waleski’s ghost.
She tossed the file onto the seat. Squeezed her eyes closed. Pressed her head back. Her stomach wouldn’t stop churning. She had been on the edge of vomiting most of the night. She hadn’t been able to sleep. She hadn’t even bothered getting into bed. She’d sat on the couch for hours in the dark trying to think her way out of representing Andrew.
The night that Buddy had died, the NyQuil had effectively put Trevor into a coma. But they’d had to make sure. Leigh had called his name several times, her voice growing increasingly louder. Callie had snapped her fingers near his ear, then clapped together her hands close to his face. She’d even shaken him a little, before shifting him back and forth like a rolling pin across a piece of dough.
The police had never found Buddy’s body. By the time his Corvette was located in an even shittier part of town, the car had been stripped for parts. Buddy did not have an office, so there was no paper trail. The Canon digital camcorder hidden inside the bar had been broken into pieces with a hammer, the parts scattered around the city. They had searched for other mini-cassettes and found none. They had looked for compromising photographs and found none. They had turned over the couch and upended mattresses and rifled drawers and closets and unscrewed grates from the vents and rummaged through pockets and bookshelves and inside Buddy’s Corvette and then they had carefully cleaned up after themselves and put everything back in place and left before Linda had gotten home.
Harleigh, what are we going to do?
You’re going to stick to the damn story so we both don’t end up in prison.
There was so much awful bullshit Leigh had done in her life that still weighed on her conscience, but the murder of Buddy Waleski carried the mass of a feather. He had deserved to die. Her only regret was that it hadn’t happened years before he got his hooks into Callie. There was no such thing as a perfect crime, but Leigh was certain they had gotten away with murder.
Until last night.
Her hands started to ache. She looked down. Her fingers were wrapped around the bottom of the steering wheel. The knuckles were bright white teeth biting into the leather. She checked the clock. Her angst had eaten up ten full minutes.
“Focus,” she chided herself. Andrew Trevor Tenant.
His file was still on the passenger seat. Leigh closed her eyes for another moment, summoning the sweet, goofy Trevor who’d loved to run around the yard and occasionally eat paste. That was why Linda and Andrew wanted Leigh to defend him. They had no idea that Leigh was involved in Buddy’s sudden disappearance. What they wanted was a defender who would still see Andrew as that harmless child from twenty-three years ago. They didn’t want her to associate him with the monstrous acts he was accused of.
Leigh retrieved the file. It was time for her to read about those monstrous acts.
She took another breath to reset herself. Leigh wasn’t one of those believers in bad blood or apples not falling far from the tree. Otherwise, she would be an abusive alcoholic with a felony assault conviction. People could transcend their circumstances. It was possible to break the cycle.
Had Andrew Tenant broken the cycle?
Leigh opened the file. She read the charge sheet in depth for the first time.
Kidnap. Rape. Aggravated assault. Aggravated sodomy.
Aggravated sexual battery.
You didn’t need much more than Wikipedia to understand the accepted definitions of kidnap, rape, sodomy, and battery. The legal definitions were more complicated. Most states used the blanket term sexual assault for related sex crimes, so the charge of sexual assault could indicate anything from unwanted ass-grabbing to violent rape.
Some states used degrees to rank the severity of the crime. First degree was the most serious, then the others fell into lesser degrees, usually distinguished by the nature of the act — from penetration to coercion to involuntary touching. If a weapon was used, if the victim was a child or law enforcement officer, or had diminished capacity, then felony charges came into play.
Florida used the term sexual battery, and no matter how heinous or not-so-heinous the act, unless you were a wealthy, politically connected pedophile, the crime was always charged as a serious felony and could carry a life sentence. In California, misdemeanor sexual battery could land you in county jail for six months. Sentencing for felony sexual battery ranged anywhere from one year in county lock-up to four years in big-boy prison.
The state of Georgia fell in line with most states so far as sexual assault encompassing anything from non-consensual touching to full-on necrophilia. The term aggravated was used to indicate the most serious charges. Aggravated sodomy meant force was used against the victim’s will. Aggravated assault meant a gun or other life-threatening weapon was involved. A person who committed aggravated sexual battery intentionally penetrated the sexual organ or anus of another person with a foreign object without that person’s consent. The sentence for that offense alone could be life, or twenty-five years followed by probation for life. Either way, there was a mandatory lifetime registration on the sex offender registry. If you weren’t a hardened criminal when you went into the system, you would be by the time you got out.
Leigh found the booking photo for Andrew Tenant.
It was the shape of his face that reminded her of the boy he used to be. Leigh had spent countless nights with his head in her lap while she read to him. She would keep glancing down, silently begging him to fall asleep so that she could study for school.
Leigh had seen her share of mugshots. Sometimes defendants stuck out their chins or glared at the camera or did other stupid things that they thought made them look tough but played out exactly as you would expect with a jury. In Andrew’s photo, he was clearly trying not to show that he was scared, which was understandable. Scions didn’t often find themselves arrested and dragged down to the police station. He looked like he was chewing the inside of his bottom lip. His nostrils were flared. The harsh flash from the camera gave his eyes an artificial glimmer.
Was this man a violent rapist? Was that little boy Leigh had read to, colored with, chased around the dirt-packed backyard while he giggled so hard he snorted, capable of growing into the same disgusting type of predator as his father?
Leigh startled, papers flying into the air, a scream bleating out of her mouth.
“I’m so sorry.” Andrew’s voice was muffled by the closed window. “Did I scare you?”
“Hell yes you scared me!” Leigh grabbed at the loose pages. Her heart had banged into the back of her throat. She had forgotten how Trevor used to sneak up on her when he was a kid.
Andrew tried again, “I’m really sorry.”
She shot him a look that she usually reserved for family. And then she reminded herself that he was her client. “It’s fine.”
His face was red from embarrassment. The mask hanging around his chin came up. It was blue with a white Mercedes logo across the front. The change was not an improvement. He looked like an animal who’d been muzzled. Still, he stepped back so that she could open the car door.
The tremor was back in Leigh’s hands when she turned off the engine and pulled together the file. She had never been so grateful for the time it took to find a mask and cover her face. Her legs felt weak as she got out of the car. She kept thinking about the last time she had seen Trevor. He was lying in bed, eyes closed, completely clueless to what was happening in the kitchen.
Andrew tried again, offering, “Good morning.”
Leigh swung her purse over her shoulder. She shoved the file deep into her bag. In heels, she was at Andrew’s eye level. His blonde hair was combed back. His chest and arms were gym-toned but he had his father’s tapered waist and height. Leigh frowned at the suit, which was exactly the kind you’d expect a Mercedes salesman to be wearing — too blue, too fitted, too sharp. A mechanic or plumber on the jury would see that suit and hate him.
“Uh...” Andrew indicated the large Dunkin’ Donuts cup he’d placed on the roof of her car. “I brought you some coffee, but that seems like a bad idea now that it’s happening.”
“Thank you,” she said, as if they weren’t in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
“I’m so sorry I frightened you Har — Leigh. I should call you Leigh. Just like you should call me Andrew. We’re both different people now.”
“We are.” Leigh had to get control over her uneasiness. She tried to put herself on familiar ground. “Last night, I filed an emergency motion with the court to establish myself as counsel. Octavia already withdrew herself as attorney of record, so approval should be pro forma. Judges don’t like this last-minute finagling. There’s no way we’ll get a continuance. Considering Covid, we need to be ready to go at any time. If the jail locks down because of an outbreak or there’s another staffing shortage, we have to be ready to go. Otherwise, we could lose our slot and get bumped into next week or next month.”
“Thank you.” He nodded once, as if he had only been waiting for his turn to speak. “Mom sends her apologies. There’s a company-wide meeting every Monday morning. Sidney’s already inside. I thought I could talk to you alone for a minute if that’s okay?”
“Of course.” Leigh’s anxiety jacked back up. He was going to ask about his father. She took the coffee off the roof of her car to give herself a reason to turn away. She could feel the heat through the paper cup. The thought of drinking it made her queasiness intensify.
“Have you seen —” Andrew indicated the file she’d stashed in her purse. “Have you read it yet?”
Leigh nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
“I couldn’t get through to the end. It’s really bad what happened to Tammy. I thought we hit it off. I’m not sure why she’s doing this to me. She seemed nice. You don’t talk to someone for ninety-eight minutes if you think they’re a monster.”
The specificity was strange, but he had given Leigh some much-needed prompts. She resurrected the stray words from the summary statement in his file — Tammy Karlsen. Comma Chameleon. Fingerprints. CCTV.
Tammy Karlsen was the victim. Prior to the pandemic, Comma Chameleon had been a hot singles bar in Buckhead. The police had found Andrew’s fingerprints where they shouldn’t be. They had CCTV of Andrew’s movements.
Leigh’s memory added a stray detail that Cole Bradley had relayed last night. “Sidney is your alibi for the time of the assault?”
“We weren’t exclusive then, but I got home from the bar and she was waiting for me on my doorstep.” He held up his hands as if to stop her. “I know that sounds totally coincidental, right? Sid shows up at my place on the very night I need an alibi? But it’s the truth.”
Leigh knew that both the best and the worst alibis could sound wildly coincidental. Still, she wasn’t here to believe in Andrew Tenant. She was here to get him to a not guilty. “When did you get engaged?”
“April tenth of last year. We’ve been off and on for two years, but with the arrest and the pandemic, it all brought us closer together.”
“Sounds romantic.” Leigh struggled to sound like a lawyer who hadn’t survived the first months of the virus by filing dozens of no-fault Covid divorces. “Have you set the date?”
“Wednesday, before jury selection begins on Thursday. Unless you think you can get the case dismissed?”
The hopeful tone in his voice took her straight back to the Waleskis’ kitchen when Trevor asked if his mother would be home soon. Leigh hadn’t lied to him then and she absolutely couldn’t lie to him now. “No, this won’t go away. They’re coming after you. All we can do is be ready to fight back.”
He nodded, scratching at his mask. “I guess it’s stupid for me to believe I’m going to wake up one day and this nightmare will be over.”
Leigh glanced around the parking lot, making sure they were alone. “Andrew, we couldn’t get into the weeds in front of Sidney and Linda last night, but Mr. Bradley explained to you that there are other cases the district attorney will probably open if you plead guilty.”
“And he told you that if you lose your case at trial, those other cases could still —”
“Cole also said you’re ruthless in the courtroom.” Andrew shrugged as if that was all it took. “He told Mom that he hired you because you were one of the best defense attorneys in the city.”
Cole Bradley was full of shit. He didn’t even know which floor Leigh worked on. “I’m also brutally honest. If the trial goes sideways, you are looking at serious time.”
“You haven’t changed a bit, Harleigh. You always put all your cards on the table. That’s why I wanted to work with you.” Andrew wasn’t finished. “You know, the sad part is, the MeToo movement really woke me up. I try hard to be an ally. We should believe women, but this — it’s unconscionable. False allegations only hurt other women.”
Leigh nodded, though she didn’t find his words persuasive one way or another. The problem with rape was that a guilty man generally knew enough about the prevailing culture to say the same things an innocent man would. Soon Andrew would start talking about due process without realizing that what he was going through right now was exactly that.
She said, “Let’s go inside.”
Andrew stepped back so she could walk ahead of him toward the building. Leigh tried to get her head on straight in the interim. She had to stop acting like the worst kind of criminal. As a defense attorney, she knew that her clients didn’t get caught because the cops were brilliant detectives. The client’s own stupidity or guilty conscience usually landed them in legal peril. They either bragged to the wrong person or confessed to the wrong person or, most of the time, stepped on their own dicks, and then they needed a lawyer.
Leigh wasn’t worried about guilty feelings, but she would have to be careful that her fear of getting caught didn’t somehow give her away.
She transferred the coffee cup to her other hand. She steeled herself as she climbed up the crumbling concrete steps to the entrance.
Andrew said, “I’ve looked for Callie over the years. What part of Iowa is she in?”
Leigh felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise up. The biggest mistake a liar could make was to offer too many specifics. “Northwest corner, close to Nebraska.”
“I’d love the address.”
Andrew reached ahead of her to open the lobby door. The carpet was worn in front of the stairs. The walls were scuffed. The inside of the building felt more dreary and sad than it had from the outside.
Leigh turned around. Andrew had gone down on one knee to untuck the leg of his pants from his ankle monitor. The device was geo-targeted, limiting him to home, work, and meetings with his attorneys. Anything else and an alarm would go off at the monitoring station. Technically. Like every other resource in the pandemic-wracked city, the probation office was stretched thin.
Andrew looked up at her, asking, “Why Iowa?”
This, at least, Leigh was prepared for. “She fell in love with a man. Got pregnant. Got married. Got pregnant again.”
Leigh checked the sign. Reginald Paltz & Assoc was upstairs.
Again, Andrew let her go first. “I bet Callie’s a terrific mom. She was always so kind to me. It felt more like she was my sister.”
Leigh gritted her teeth as she rounded the landing. She couldn’t figure out if Andrew’s questions were appropriate or intrusive. He had been so transparent as a child — immature for his age, gullible, easy to pin down. Now, all of Leigh’s finely honed gut instinct was falling to the wayside.
He said, “Northwest corner. Is that where the derecho hit?”
She squeezed the coffee cup so hard that the top almost popped off. Had he read everything he could find about Iowa last night? “They got some flooding, but they’re fine.”
“Did she stick with cheerleading?”
Leigh turned around at the top of the stairs. She had to redirect this before he put more words in her mouth. “I forgot you guys moved away after Buddy disappeared.”
He had stopped on the landing. He blinked up at her, silent.
Something about his expression felt off, though it was hard to tell because all she could really see were his eyes. She silently ran back through the conversation, trying to find out where it could’ve gone wrong. Was he acting strange? Was she?
Leigh asked, “Where did you move to?”
He adjusted his mask, pinching it around the bridge of his nose. “Tuxedo Park. We stayed with my uncle Greg.”
Tuxedo Park was one of Atlanta’s oldest, monied neighborhoods. “You were a real Fresh Prince.”
“No kidding.” His laugh sounded forced.
Actually, everything about him felt forced. Leigh had worked with enough criminals to develop an internal warning siren. She felt it flashing bright red as she watched Andrew readjust his mask again. He was completely unreadable. She had never seen someone with such a flat, vacant look in their eyes.
He said, “Maybe you don’t know the story, but Mom was really young when she met Dad. Her parents gave her an ultimatum: we’ll sign off on the legal stuff so you can get married, but we’ll disown you if you go through with it.”
Leigh clenched her jaw so that it wouldn’t drop open. The legal age for marriage with parental consent was sixteen. As a teenager, Leigh had thought all adults were old, but now she realized that Buddy had been at least twice Linda’s age.
“The bastards followed through on their threat. They abandoned Mom. They abandoned us,” Andrew said. “Grandpa only had one dealership then, but they had plenty of money. Enough to make our lives easier. Nobody lifted a finger. Not until Dad was gone, then Uncle Greg came swooping in talking about forgiveness and all this religious crap. He’s the one who made us change our last names. Did you know that?”
Leigh shook her head. Last night, he’d made it sound like a choice.
“It ruined our lives when Dad disappeared. I wish whoever made him go away understood what that felt like.”
Leigh swallowed down a wave of paranoia.
“Anyway, it all worked out, right?” Andrew gave a self-deprecating laugh. “Until now.”
He fell back into silence as he climbed the stairs. There had been an inflection of anger in his voice, but he’d quickly gotten it under control. It occurred to Leigh that her own guilt might not be at play here. Andrew could be uncomfortable around her for his own reasons. He probably felt like she was testing him, trying to weigh his guilt or innocence. He wanted her to believe he was a good man so that she would fight harder for him.
He was wasting his time. Leigh rarely considered guilt or innocence. Most of her clients were guilty as hell. Some of them were nice. Some were assholes. None of it mattered because justice was blind except when it came to the color green. Andrew Tenant would have all of the resources his family’s money could buy — private investigators, specialists, forensic experts, and anyone else who could be monetarily induced to persuade a jury of his blamelessness. One lesson that working at BC&M had taught Leigh was that it was better to be guilty and rich than innocent and poor.
Andrew indicated the closed door at the end of the hall. “He’s down —”
The unmistakable husky laugh of Sidney Winslow echoed from the distance.
“Sorry. She can be loud.” Andrew’s cheeks turned a slight red above his mask, but he told Leigh, “After you.”
Leigh didn’t move. She had to remind herself yet again that Andrew was clueless about her role in what had really happened to his father. Only a stupid mistake on her part could make him start asking questions. Whatever sirens Andrew was setting off probably came courtesy of the fact that he could very well be a rapist.
And Leigh was his lawyer.
She launched into the spiel she should’ve given Andrew in the parking lot. “You understand that Octavia Bacca’s firm hired Mr. Paltz to do the investigation. And now Bradley, Canfield & Marks hired him to stay on the case, correct?”
“Well, I brought Reggie into this, but yes.”
Leigh would deal with the Reggie part later. Right now, she needed to make sure Andrew’s ass was covered. “So you understand that the reason the law firm hires an investigator rather than a client hiring him directly is because any discussions we have about strategy or any advice given falls under my work product, which is privileged information. Which means the prosecutor can’t compel the investigator to testify about what we’ve discussed.”
Andrew was nodding before she finished. “Yes, I understand.” Leigh tried to be careful about this next part, which she happened to be something of an expert in. “Sidney doesn’t have that privilege.”
“Right, but we’ll be married before the trial, so she’ll have it.” Leigh knew from experience that a lot could happen between now and the trial. “But you’re not married at the moment, so anything you say to her now isn’t protected.”
She couldn’t tell if Andrew’s shocked look above his mask came from fear or genuine surprise.
“Even after you’re married, it’s tricky.” Leigh explained, “In Georgia criminal proceedings, spouses have the adverse testimony privilege — that’s the one where she can’t be compelled to testify — and they also have the confidential communication privilege, which means you can prevent your spouse from testifying about anything you said to her as part of your spousal communication.”
He nodded, but she could tell he didn’t fully understand.
“So if you and Sidney are married, and you’re alone in your kitchen one night, and you say, ‘Hey, I feel like I shouldn’t keep secrets from you, so you should know that I’m a serial killer.’ You could invoke confidential communication and she would not be allowed to testify.”
Andrew was paying close attention now. “Where does it get tricky?”
“If Sidney tells a friend, ‘This is crazy, but Andrew told me he’s a serial killer,’ then that friend can be called to testify as a hearsay witness.”
The bottom part of his mask moved. He was chewing the inside of his lip.
Leigh dropped the bomb that she’d heard ticking the moment she’d spotted Sidney’s leather accessories and various piercings. “Or let’s say Sidney told a friend you did something kinky in bed. And that kinky thing is something similar to what was done to the victim. Then that friend could testify about that kink, and the prosecutor could claim that it showed a pattern of behavior.”
Andrew’s throat worked. His concern was almost palpable. “So I should tell Sid —”
“As your lawyer, I can’t tell you what to say. I can only explain the law so that you understand the implications.” She asked, “Do you understand the implications?”
“Yes, I understand.”
“Hey!” Sidney was clomping toward them in chunky combat boots. Her mask was black with chrome studs. She was slightly less goth today, but still radiated an unpredictable energy. Leigh could’ve been looking at herself at that age, which was both galling and depressing.
Andrew said, “We were —”
“Talking about Callie?” Sidney turned to Leigh. “I swear he’s obsessed with your sister. Did he tell you he had an enormous crush on her? She’s his one hall pass. Did he tell you?”
Leigh shook her head, not to say no, but because she needed to wake up her stupid brain. Of course Andrew still had a crush on Callie. That’s why he kept bringing her up.
She tried to steer the topic away from her sister, asking Andrew, “How do you know Reggie Paltz?”
“We’ve been friends for...” He shrugged, because he wasn’t really paying attention to Leigh now. He was thinking about what she had told him about spousal privilege.
Sidney picked up on the tension, asking Andrew, “What’s going on, baby? Did something else happen?”
Leigh didn’t need or want to be here for the coming conversation. “I’ll get started with the investigator while you two talk.” Sidney raised one overly arched eyebrow. Leigh realized her tone had sounded chillier than she’d intended. She tried to project neutrality as she passed the young woman in the hallway, fighting the urge to itemize every single part of her that she found annoying. There was no doubt in her mind that Sidney talked to her friends about Andrew. When you were that young and stupid, sex was all that you had going for you.
“Andy, come on.” Sidney dropped into blowjob voice. “What’s wrong baby boy, why do you look so upset?”
Leigh closed the door behind her.
She found herself in a cramped outer office with a metal desk, no secretary, no chair. There was a kitchenette along the side wall. She dumped the coffee in the sink then tossed the cup into the trashcan. The usual was on offer: coffeemaker, teakettle, hand sanitizer, a stack of disposable masks. There was an open door leading down a short hallway, but Leigh wanted to form an impression before she met Reggie Paltz.
White walls. Dark blue wall-to-wall carpet. Popcorn ceiling. The artwork wasn’t professional enough to be anything but vacation photos: a tropical beach sunrise, dogs sledding across the tundra, snowcapped mountain peaks, the Great Steps of Machu Picchu. A battered lacrosse stick hung on the wall over a black leather loveseat. Old copies of Fortune magazine were scattered across the glass coffee table. A tie-dyed blue rug straight out of an Office Depot catalogue sat like a postage stamp under the glass.
Younger than she’d guessed. Well-educated; you didn’t learn to play lacrosse in the projects. Definitely not a cop. Probably divorced. No kids, otherwise child support would’ve ruled out the exotic vacations. A college athlete who didn’t want to give up the glory. Probably an unfinished MBA on his college transcripts. Used to having money in his pocket.
Leigh availed herself of the hand sanitizer before going through to the back.
Reggie Paltz was sitting behind a desk that had taken its cues from the Resolute. His office was sparsely furnished, with another leather couch shoved against a wall and two mismatched chairs in front of the desk. He had the requisite leather blotter and masculine accessories of every man who’d ever had an office, down to a colored glass paperweight, a personalized business card holder, and the exact same sterling silver Tiffany letter opener that Leigh had bought for Walter a few Christmases ago.
She said, “Mr. Paltz?”
He stood up from his desk. No mask, so she could see a once-sharp jawline sliding into softness. Leigh’s snap judgment hadn’t been far off. He was mid-thirties with a tightly trimmed goatee and a flippy early-Hugh Grant wave in his thinning dark hair. He was dressed in khakis and a light gray button-down shirt. A thin gold necklace was around his thick neck. His eyes gave her the once-over, an expert face-to-breast-to-leg evaluation that Leigh had been getting since puberty. He came off as a good-looking asshole, but not Leigh’s type of good-looking asshole.
“Mrs. Collier.” In normal times, they would’ve shaken hands. Now, he kept his hands in his pockets. “Call me Reggie. Nice to finally meet you.”
Leigh felt every single muscle in her body stiffen as she clocked the Mrs. and the finally. This entire time, she had been in such a hurry to figure out how to extricate herself from this fucking case that she hadn’t given one damn thought to how she had gotten into it in the first place.
Leigh had taken Walter’s last name when they had married in college. She hadn’t bothered to change it back to her maiden name because she hadn’t bothered to divorce him. She had legally changed her first name from Harleigh to Leigh three years before they’d met.
So how did Andrew know to ask for Leigh Collier? As far as he knew, she was still going by Harleigh, still using her mother’s last name. Leigh had been very careful over the years to make sure that connecting her past and her present took jumping through several hoops.
That led to the bigger question of how Andrew had found out that Leigh was a lawyer. Sure, the Tenant family knew Cole Bradley, but Cole Bradley hadn’t heard about Leigh until twelve hours ago.
Andrew must have hired Paltz to look for her. He was glad to finally meet her after doing a deep dive, jumping through the hoops, landing in the middle of Leigh’s life. And if he knew how Harleigh had become Leigh, then he would know about Walter and Maddy and —
“Guys, I’m sorry.” Andrew shook his head as he walked into the office. He slumped into the low couch. “Sid’s down in the car. That did not go well.”
Reggie pulled a face. “Dude, does it ever?”
Leigh’s knees felt weak. She sank into the chair closest to the door. Sweat rolled down her back. She watched Andrew slip down his mask around his chin. He was texting on his phone. “She’s already asking how long.”
Reggie’s chair squeaked as he sat back down. “Tell her to shut the fuck up.”
“Thanks for the advice. I’m sure that will calm her down.” Andrew’s thumbs started moving across the screen. An emotion had finally punched through his unreadable veneer. He was visibly worried. “Shit. She’s furious.”
“Dude, stop replying.” Reggie tapped his laptop awake. “We’re burning through your mama’s cash big time.”
Leigh unhooked her mask. The Mrs. and the finally kept knocking around inside her skull. She had to clear her throat before she could speak. “How did you two meet?”
Reggie volunteered, “Andrew sold me my first Mercedes. What was that, dude, three, four years ago?”
Leigh cleared her throat again, waiting, but Andrew was still distracted by his phone.
She finally asked, “Is that so?”
“Yeah, dude used to be a fucking stallion until Sid neutered him with that engagement ring.” He caught a sharp look from Andrew and abruptly shifted back into business, telling Leigh, “I got your firm’s server encryption key from your assistant this morning. I’ll have everything uploaded for you by this afternoon.” Leigh forced herself to nod. She mentally tried to unwind her paranoia. The Mrs. was because he had done his homework. It wasn’t unusual for high-income clients to make sure they knew who they were dealing with. The finally meant — what? The simplest explanation was the same as the one for the Mrs. Andrew had hired Reggie Paltz to investigate her, to delve into her life and family, and he was finally meeting Leigh after reading so much about her.
“Y’all, I’m sorry.” Andrew stood up, eyes still on his phone. “I should check on her.”
“Ask for your balls back.” Reggie shook his head for Leigh’s benefit. “Dude’s back in high school with this chick.”
Leigh felt the unwelcome tremor return to her hands as Reggie hunched over his laptop. The simplest explanation still did not answer the most important question. How had Andrew found Leigh in the first place? He was an accused rapist staring down a jury trial that started in one week. It didn’t make sense that he would stop in the middle of it to find his babysitter from two decades ago.
Which was why her internal warning siren was still flashing bright red.
“Mrs. Collier?” Reggie’s head was turned in her direction. “You all right?”
Leigh had to stop her emotions from rollercoastering. Walter’s one abiding complaint about her was the very quality that made Leigh a survivor. Her personality changed depending on who was in front of her. She was sweetheart or Mom or Collier or Counselor or baby or you fucking bitch or, very occasionally, Harleigh. Everyone got a different piece of her, but nobody got the whole.
Reggie Paltz ran hot, so Leigh needed to run ice cold.
She reached into her purse to retrieve her notepad and Andrew’s case file. She clicked her pen. “I’m on limited time, Mr. Paltz. My boss wants a full rundown tomorrow afternoon. Take me through it quickly.”
“Call me Reggie.” He angled his laptop so they could both see the image on the screen: a nightclub entrance, a neon sign with a large comma followed by the word chameleon. “CCTV clocked Andrew doing everything but taking a crap. I spliced it together. Took six freaking hours, but it’s Linda’s cash.”
Leigh pressed her pen to the notepaper. “I’m ready.”
He started the video. The date stamp read February 2, 2020, almost a month before the pandemic closed everything down. “The cameras are 4K, so you can see every speck of dirt on the floor. This is Andrew early on. He talked to a couple of foxes, one on the roof deck, another at the lower bar. The roof babe gave Andy her number. I tracked her down, but you don’t want her on the stand. The minute she figured out why I was talking to her, she got all up in that hashtag shit and turned into a raging bitch.”
Leigh looked down at her notepad. She had gone into autopilot as she recorded the details. She started to turn the page. Her hand stopped.
Her wedding ring. She had never taken it off, even after four years of separation from Walter. She let her lips part, slowly exhaled some of her stress.
“Here.” Reggie pointed to the screen, “This is when Andrew first meets Tammy Karlsen. She’s got a nice body. Face, not so much.”
Leigh ignored the casual misogyny and trained her gaze on the video. She saw Andrew sitting on a low, cushioned bench with a petite-looking woman whose back was to the camera. Her brown hair was shoulder-length. She was wearing a fitted black dress with three-quarter sleeves. She turned her head as she reached for her drink on the coffee table, laughing at something Andrew had said. In profile, Tammy Karlsen was attractive. Button nose, high cheekbones.
“Body language says it all.” Reggie tapped a key to doubletime the video. “Karlsen scooches closer as the night rolls on. Around the ten-minute mark, she starts touching his hand to make a point or laugh at one of his jokes.” Reggie looked up at Leigh, saying, “I’m guessing that’s when she figured out that the Tenant stood for Tenant Automotive. Damn straight I’d be scooching close to a dude with that kind of cash.”
Leigh waited for him to continue.
Reggie tripled the speed, rushing through the video. “Eventually, Andrew’s got his arm along the back of the bench, and he starts stroking her shoulder. You can see him looking down at her tits, so it’s pretty clear he’s sending out messages and she’s receiving them one hundred percent. Around forty minutes in, she starts rubbing his thigh like a freaking stripper doing a lap dance. They went on like that for ninety-eight minutes.”
Leigh remembered Andrew using the exact same number in the parking lot. She asked, “Are you certain about the time?”
“As certain as anybody can be. All this shit can be faked down to the metadata if you know what you’re doing, but I got the raw footage from the bar, not through the prosecutor.”
“Has Andrew seen the video?”
“My guess is no way. I sent Linda a copy, but Andy’s going down that river called De Nile. Thinks this is gonna be over and he’s gonna get his life back.” Reggie fast-forwarded until he got to the spot he wanted to show her next. “So look, it’s just after midnight. Andrew walks Karlsen downstairs to the valet. He’s got his hand on her back as they go down the stairs. Then she’s holding on to his arm until they get to the valet. While they’re waiting, she leans in and he gets the hint.”
Leigh watched Andrew kiss Tammy Karlsen on the mouth. The woman’s hands wrapped around his shoulders. The space between their bodies disappeared. Leigh should’ve noted the number of seconds they held the kiss, but what had caught her attention was the look on Andrew’s face before their mouths had met.
His eyes had been their familiar blank and unreadable, but his lips had twitched, the left corner tugging into a smirk the same way Leigh had seen when Andrew was a boy promising her that he hadn’t eaten the last cookie, he had no idea where her history assignment was, he hadn’t drawn a dinosaur in her Algebra II textbook.
She wrote down the time stamp so she could go back to it later.
Reggie called out the obvious. “Valets come with their cars. Andrew tips the guys for both of them. You can see here where Karlsen gives Andy her business card, then another kiss on the cheek. She gets into her Beemer. He gets in his Merc. They both turn in the same direction, north on Wesley. Not the best way for him to get home but it’s a way to get home.”
Leigh tuned out Reggie’s road-by-road call-out of each twist and turn the cars took. She thought about the finally, as in nice to finally meet you. Leigh had come on to the case last night, but Andrew had fired Octavia two days ago. That left at least forty-eight hours for Reggie Paltz to dig into Leigh’s life. Where else had that finally led him? Had he located Callie, too?
“Then it’s south on Vaughn, then we got no more CCTV or traffic cams,” Reggie continued, seemingly clueless to her internal conflict. “You can see from this last shot that Andrew’s Merc has dealer plates.”
Leigh knew he was expecting her input. “Why is that relevant?”
“Andrew took a loaner off the lot that night. His personal car was in the shop. Classic cars are finicky. It happens sometimes, but not a lot of times.”
Leigh drew a box around the word car. When she looked up, Reggie was studying her again. She didn’t have to think back through the conversation to know why. They were getting to the part where Andrew’s actions would be harder to explain away. Reggie had been testing Leigh with his crass language, trying to see if his bitches and tits and lap dance would draw a rebuke that would indicate she wasn’t on Andrew’s side.
She kept her tone icy cold, asking him, “Did Karlsen tell Andrew to follow her back to her place?”
“No.” He paused after the word, making it crystal clear that he was on alert. “Karlsen says in her statement she told him to call her if he was interested. Her memory’s shaky after she got her car from the valet. Next thing she’s sure about, she’s waking up and it’s morning.”
“The police are saying Andrew spiked her drink?”
“That’s the theory, though if he slipped her a roofie, it doesn’t show on the videos or in her tox screen. Between you and me, I pray to the good Lord that she was drugged. You’ll see what I’m talking about when we get to the crime scene photos. You’re gonna wanna do everything you can to get them suppressed. I didn’t even download the files to my laptop. Everything’s encrypted under Triple DES. Nothing goes to a cloud because a cloud can be hacked. Both the primary and the backup server are locked in that closet over there.”
Leigh turned, seeing a serious-looking padlock on the steel door. “I’m very careful when I work these high-profile cases. You don’t want this shit getting out, especially when the client is wealthy. People come out of the woodwork looking for money.” Reggie had turned the laptop back in his direction. He typed two-fingered. “Idiots don’t realize it is a hell of a lot more lucrative to work on the inside than it is to have your nose pressed against the glass.”
Leigh asked, “How do you know me?” He paused again. “What’s that?”
“You said nice to finally meet you. That implies that you’d heard about me, or you were looking forward to —”
“Ah, gotcha. Hold on.” More pecking on his damn laptop. He swiveled it back around to show her the screen. The Atlanta INtown masthead filled the top of the page. A photo showed Leigh walking out of the courthouse. She was smiling. The headline explained why.
lawyer: there’s no date stamp on urine.
Reggie gave her a shit-eating grin. “That’s some jujitsu lawyering, Collier. You got their own expert witness to admit he couldn’t say whether the guy pissed in his wife’s panty drawer before or after the divorce.”
Leigh felt her stomach start to unfurl.
“You got some balls telling a judge that water sports fall under spousal privilege.” Reggie barked out another laugh. “I showed that shit to everybody I know.”
Leigh had to hear him say the words. “You showed the story to Andrew?”
“You’re damn right I did. No offense to Octavia Bacca, but when I heard the cops were trying to jam up Andrew on these three other cases, I knew he needed a goddam cheetah with a razor blade.” He rocked back in his chair. “It’s crazy he recognized your face, right?”
Leigh desperately wanted to believe him. Both the best and the worst alibis could sound wildly coincidental. “When did you show it to him?”
“Two days ago.”
Right when Andrew had fired Octavia Bacca. “He had you look into me?”
Reggie let another one of his dramatic pauses fill the void. “You’ve got a lot of questions.”
“I’m the one signing off on your invoices.”
He looked nervous, which gave the entire game away. Reggie Paltz wasn’t on some kind of secret mission. The reason he was bragging about his encrypted server and the need for discretion was because he wanted Leigh to give him more business.
She adjusted her evaluation, kicking herself because she should’ve recognized the type: a poor kid who had managed to scholarship his way into the rarefied air of the filthy rich. That explained the lacrosse stick and the exotic trips and the shitty office and the expensive Mercedes and the way he kept constantly referring to money. Cash was like sex. You didn’t talk about it unless you weren’t getting enough of it.
She tested him, saying, “I work with a lot of investigators on a lot of cases.”
Reggie smiled, one shark to another. He was smart enough to not take the first bite. “Why’d you change your name? Harleigh’s killer.”
“Doesn’t fit with corporate law.”
“You didn’t go over to the Dark Side until the pandemic hit.” Reggie leaned forward, lowered his voice. “If you’re worried about what I think you’re worried about, he hasn’t asked me to. Yet.”
There were so many different things he could be referring to that Leigh could only feign ignorance.
“Really?” Reggie asked. “Dude has a massive hard-on for your sister.”
Leigh felt her stomach start to seize again. “He wants you to find her?”
“He’s talked about her off and on for years, but now that you’re right in front of him, reminding him every day?” Reggie shrugged. “He’ll ask eventually.”
Leigh felt like hornets were under her skin. “You’re Andrew’s friend. He’s going to trial in less than a week. Do you think he needs that kind of distraction right now?”
“I think if Sid finds out he’s chasing his first wet dream, dude’s gonna end up with a knife in his chest and we’ll both be out of jobs.”
Leigh glanced down the short hallway to the outer office, making sure they were alone. “Callie had some problems after high school, but she lives in northern Iowa now. She has two kids. She’s married to a farmer. She wants to keep her past in her past.”
Reggie drew out the moment way too long before finally saying, “If Andrew asks, I could tell him I’m too busy working other cases.”
Leigh dangled some more bait. “I’ve got a client with a cheating husband who likes to travel.”
“Sounds like my kind of assignment.”
Leigh nodded once, and she hoped to God this meant they had an understanding.
Still, Reggie Paltz was only part of the problem. Leigh was mere days away from what looked like a very compelling case against her client. She said, “Tell me about these other victims the prosecutor has in his pocket.”
“There’s three of ’em, and they’re a guillotine hanging over Andy’s neck. They come down on him, his life is over.”
“How did you hear about them?”
“Trade secret,” he said, which was how any investigator answered when they didn’t want to give up a cop informant. “You can take it to the bank, though. If you can’t get Andrew out of the Karlsen charge, he’s gonna spend the rest of his life trying not to drop the soap in the shower.”
Leigh had too many clients behind bars to think prison rape jokes were funny. “How does Tammy Karlsen’s attack tie into the others?”
“Similar MOs, similar bruising, similar wounds, similar
morning after.” Reggie shrugged again, as if these were hypothetical injuries rather than real harms against real women. “The big thing is, Andrew’s credit card pinged at or near various businesses where they were last seen.”
“At or near?” Leigh asked. “Does Andrew live in the area?
Are these businesses he would normally frequent?”
“This is why I told Andy to hire you,” Reggie pointed his finger at his temple, making it clear he was the smart one. “The three attacks stretched out over 2019, all in DeKalb County, which is where Andrew lives. The first victim was at the CinéBistro, spitting distance from his house. Credit card shows him at the Men in Black matinee on June twenty-second. The victim was there three hours later for Toy Story 4.”
Leigh started taking notes in earnest. “There are cameras in the lobby?”
“Yes. Shows him arriving, ordering popcorn and a Coke, then leaving when the credits rolled. No overlap between him and the first victim, but he walked home. No cell phone records. He said he forgot to bring it.”
Leigh underlined the date on her notepad. She would need to check for rainfall because the prosecutor sure as hell would. Even without that, June in Atlanta saw average temperatures in the high eighties and the kind of rancid humidity that warranted an official health warning. “What time was the matinee?”
“Twelve fifteen, right around lunchtime.”
Leigh shook her head. The hottest time of day. Another mark against Andrew.
Reggie said, “For what it’s worth, every single one of the businesses where the victims were last seen — Andrew frequented them a lot.”
That wasn’t necessarily a point in his favor. The prosecutor could argue he was staking out the scenes. “Second victim?”
“She was eating out late with her friends at a strip mall that has a Mexican place.”
“Was Andrew there that night?”
“It’s one of his regular spots. Goes there at least twice a month. He got take-out half an hour before the second victim showed up. And like always, he paid with his credit card. No car again. No phone. Dude took another walk in the heat.” Reggie’s shrug had a hint of defensiveness. He knew this didn’t look good. “Like I said, it’s a guillotine.”
Leigh’s pen stopped. It wasn’t a guillotine. It was a very well-constructed case.
Ninety percent of Atlanta fell inside Fulton County while the remaining ten percent was in DeKalb. The city had its own police force, but DeKalb investigations were handled by the DeKalb Police Department. Fulton had by far the largest number of violent crimes but, between MeToo and the pandemic, the last two years had seen a spike in rape reporting across the board.
Leigh thought about a detective at an over-burdened DeKalb precinct spending hours cross-referencing hundreds of credit card payments at a movie theater and a Mexican restaurant against reported assaults. They hadn’t picked Andrew’s name from thin air. They had been waiting for him to make a mistake.
She said, “Tell me about the third victim.”
“She was at a bar called Maplecroft, and Andrew was on the prowl back then. You can see it in his credit card statements. Dude charges a pack of gum. Never carries cash on him. No Ubers or Lyfts. Seldom has his phone. But he was buying a lot of women a lot of drinks all over town.”
Leigh needed him to make the connection. “Andrew’s credit card statements put him at Maplecroft on the night of the attack?”
“Two hours before the third victim disappeared. But Andrew had been there at least five times before.” Reggie added, “No CCTV on this one. The bar burned down at the beginning of the pandemic. Very convenient for them, but good for Andy because the server melted down and they didn’t back up to the cloud.”
Leigh looked for a pattern across the three cases, the same way a police detective would. A movie theater. A restaurant. A bar. All establishments where you’d drink from an open container. “The cops think Andrew roofied all three?”
“Just like with Tammy Karlsen,” he said. “None of them can remember jack shit about the assaults.”
Leigh tapped her pen on the notepad. Rohypnol cleared the blood in twenty-four hours and urine in seventy-two. The well-documented side effect of selective amnesia could last forever. “Did the victims drive themselves to these places?”
“All of them. The first two, their cars never left the parking lots. Cops found them the next morning. Victim number three, the one from Maplecroft, was involved in a single car accident. Hit a telephone pole two miles from her house. No traffic cams or CCTV. Car was found abandoned with the door unlocked. Tammy Karlsen’s BMW was on a side street about a mile from Little Nancy Creek Park. Purse still inside the car. Same as with the others, no CCTV or traffic cams caught any of this, so the guy’s either an evil genius or damn lucky.”
Or he’d been smart enough to stake out the places well ahead of time. “Where were the victims found the day after?”
“All in City of Atlanta parks located inside DeKalb County.” He should’ve led with that, which was what was called a modus operandi by people who knew how to do their jobs. “Were all of the parks within walking distance of Andrew’s house?”
“All but one,” Reggie hedged. “But there’s tons of people who live within walking distance of those places. Atlanta’s full of parks. Three hundred thirty-eight, to be exact. City parks and rec maintains two hundred forty-eight. The rest are taken care of by volunteer organizations.”
She didn’t need his Wikipedia recitation. “What about cell phone records?”
“Nothing.” Reggie looked circumspect. “But I told you, Andrew never has his phone on him.”
Leigh felt her eyes narrow. “Does he have a separate work phone and personal phone?”
“Just the one. Dude’s that guy who says he doesn’t want to be connected all the time, but then he’s always borrowing my phone when we’re out.”
“Andrew was driving a Mercedes that he took from the lot on the night he met Karlsen,” Leigh said. “I remember reading about a Big Brother lawsuit in the UK over tracking devices?”
“They have it here, too. It’s called Mercedes me, but you’ve got to set up an account and agree to the terms before it’s activated. At least that’s what the Germans will tell you.”
Leigh was seven days from trial. She didn’t have time to knock on that door. She could only hope that the prosecutor felt the same. One positive for Andrew was that December’s astronomical Covid deaths and January’s attempted political coup had put trans-Atlantic goodwill on hold.
She asked, “What else do you have?”
Reggie closed the traffic cam video and started typing and clicking. Leigh saw six folders: lnc_map, crime scene photos, victim photos, charging sheet, supporting docs.
He opened victim photos.
“Here’s Karlsen. She woke up under a picnic table. Like I said, no memory of what happened but she knew shit got real the night before.”
Leigh flinched when the photo loaded. The woman’s face was barely recognizable. She had been beaten to a pulp. Her left cheekbone was out of place. Her nose was broken. Bruises ringed her neck. Red and black splotches peppered her chest and arms.
Reggie clicked open the folder labeled lnc_map. “Here’s a sketch of Little Nancy Creek Park. Closed eleven p.m. to six a.m. No lights. No cameras. You can see the pavilion here. That’s where Karlsen was found by a dog walker the next morning.”
Leigh concentrated on the map. A one-and-a-half-mile jogging trail. Wood and steel bridge. Community garden. Playground. Open-air pavilion.
Reggie opened crime scene photos and clicked on a series of JPEGs. Numbered yellow markers indicated evidence. Blood splotches trailing down the stairs. Shoe print in the mud. A Coke bottle resting in a patch of grass.
Leigh moved to the edge of her seat. “That’s a glass Coke bottle.”
Reggie said, “They still make them here, but this one comes from Mexico. They use real cane sugar down there, not high-fructose corn syrup. You can really taste the difference. First time I ever had one was when I was getting my Merc serviced at Tenant. They stock it behind the bar in the service center. Apparently, Andrew insists on it.”
Leigh looked him in the eye for the first time since she’d entered the office. “How far does Andrew live from the park?”
“One-point-nine miles by car, less if you cut through the country club.”
Leigh directed her attention back to the map. She would need to walk the terrain herself. “Has Andrew been to the park before?”
“Guy’s a nature lover, apparently. Likes to look at butterflies.” Reggie smiled, but she could tell he knew this was bad. “Fingerprints are like urine, right? There’s no time or date stamp. You can’t prove when the Coke bottle was left in the park, or when Andrew touched it. The real perp could’ve been wearing gloves.”
Leigh ignored the tip. “What about the shoe print in the mud?”
“What about it?” he asked. “They say there’s a possible match to a pair of Nikes they found in Andrew’s closet, but possible ain’t enough to pull them over the finish line.”
Leigh was tired of Reggie controlling the pace of the story. She reached for the laptop and clicked through the photos herself. The prosecutor’s case came into sharp relief. She gave Reggie a lesson on getting to the point.
“Andrew’s right index print was found on the bottle along with Tammy Karlsen’s DNA. Aggravated sexual battery. That looks like fecal matter. Aggravated sodomy. Bruising on her thighs consistent with penetration. Rape. She was taken to a secluded place. Kidnap. They can’t prove she was drugged or the charge would be there. What about weapons?”
“A knife,” Andrew said. Leigh turned around.
Andrew was leaning against the doorjamb. His suit jacket was off. His shirtsleeves were rolled up. The discussion with Sidney clearly had not gone well. He looked utterly exhausted.
Still, his eyes had not lost their unsettling emptiness.
Leigh could reflect on that later. Now, she skimmed through the rest of the photos. No other physical evidence was documented. Just the video at the bar, the tangentially connected Nike shoeprint, and the fingerprint on the glass Coke bottle. She assumed that Andrew’s prints had not been in the state database. In Georgia, only a felony arrest would garner that dubious honor.
She asked, “Do you know how you were identified?”
“Tammy told the police that she recognized my voice from the bar, but that’s not — I mean, she’d just met me, so she doesn’t really know my voice, does she?”
Leigh pressed together her lips. You could just as easily say it was fresh in the victim’s mind, especially after hearing him talk for ninety-eight minutes. The biggest point in Andrew’s favor so far was the Rohypnol. Leigh had an expert witness who could argue the amnesia caused by the drug made Karlsen’s identification unreliable.
She asked Andrew, “When did the cops get your fingerprints?” He said, “They came to my work and threatened to drag me down to the police station if I didn’t voluntarily go with them.” Reggie said, “You should’ve called a lawyer right on the spot.”
Andrew shook his head in visible regret. “I thought I could clear it up.”
“Yeah, my dude, the cops don’t want you to clear shit up.
They want to arrest you.”
Leigh turned back around in her chair. She paged through the case file. She found a warrant for the prints signed by a judge who would sign off on waterboarding if it got him onto the golf course faster. Still, the fact that they’d gotten a warrant rather than snagged his prints off a water bottle in the interrogation room told Leigh that the prosecutor had not been playing around.
Andrew said, “I used to think if you’re innocent, you’ve got nothing to hide. See where that got me? My entire life has gone to hell because one person pointed her finger at me.”
“Dude, that’s why we’re here,” Reggie said. “Collier can take down that crazy bitch with one hand tied behind her back.”
“She shouldn’t have to,” Andrew said. “Tammy and I had a good time. I would’ve called her the next day if Sid hadn’t shown up on my doorstep.”
Reggie’s chair squeaked as he leaned back. “Look, dude, this is war. You’re fighting for your life. You gotta play dirty because the other side sure as hell is. Don’t be sitting your ass in prison going all I wish. Tell him, Collier. This ain’t no time to be a gentleman about it.”
Leigh wasn’t going to put herself between them. She pulled the laptop closer and returned to the victim photos file. Her finger pressed the arrow key as she paged through to the rape-kit documentation. Each close-up was more devastating than the previous. God knew that Leigh had witnessed her share of brutality, but she felt a sudden vulnerability sitting in a small room with two loud men who were arguing about bitches while the horrific evidence of a savage sexual assault flashed across the screen.
The skin along Tammy Karlsen’s back had been clawed out. Bite marks riddled her breasts and shoulders. Handprint-shaped bruises wrapped around her arms, stretched across her ass and the back of her legs. The Coke bottle had ripped her open. Contusions and lacerations scraped up her thighs into the groin. Fissures sliced her anus. Her clitoris had been ripped, only a tiny piece of tissue keeping it connected. The wounds had bled so profusely that the impression of her buttocks was sealed in blood against the concrete of the pavilion floor.
“Jesus,” Andrew said.
Leigh suppressed a shiver. Andrew was standing right behind her. The photo on the laptop showed Tammy Karlsen’s mutilated breast. Bite marks dug into the soft flesh around the nipple.
He said, “How could anyone think I would do that? And how stupid would I be to follow her from the bar with all of those cameras?”
Leigh felt relieved when he walked over to the couch.
“It doesn’t make sense, Harleigh.” Andrew’s tone went soft as he took his place on the couch. “I always assume I’m on camera. Not just at a bar. At an ATM. On the streets. At the dealership. People have cameras in their driveways, on their doorbells. They’re everywhere. Always watching. Always recording everything you’re doing. It defies logic that you could hurt someone — anyone — without a camera catching you in the act.”
Leigh had picked the wrong time to look him in the eye. Andrew held her directly in his sights. His expression changed right in front of her, the left corner of his mouth twitching into a smirk. In seconds he transformed himself from hapless innocent to the suave psychopath who had kissed Tammy Karlsen, then followed her car, waiting for her to pass out so that he could kidnap and rape her.
“Harleigh,” he said, his voice almost a whisper. “Think about what they’re saying I did.”
Kidnap. Rape. Aggravated assault. Aggravated sodomy.
Aggravated sexual battery.
“You’ve known me longer than anybody but Mom,” Andrew said. “Could I do that?”
Leigh didn’t need to look at the laptop to see the rape-kit photos flashing in front of her eyes. Open wounds, gouges, bites, scratches, all caused by the animal who was now staring at her like fresh prey.
“Think about how clever I would have to be,” Andrew said. “Avoid the cameras. Avoid witnesses. Avoid leaving any clues.”
She felt her throat catch as she tried to swallow.
“I wonder, Harleigh, if you were going to commit a terrible crime, a crime that would destroy another person’s life, would you know how to get away with it?” He had moved to the edge of the couch. His body was tensed. His hands clenched. “It’s not like when we were kids. You could get away with cold-blooded murder back then. Couldn’t you, Harleigh?”
Leigh felt herself slipping back in time. She was eighteen, packing for college even though it was a month away. She was picking up the phone in her mother’s kitchen. She was listening to Callie say that Buddy was dead. She was in her car. She was in Trevor’s room. She was in the kitchen. She was telling Callie what to do, how to clean up the blood, where to drop the pieces of broken video camera, how to dispose of the body, what to do with the money, what to say to the cops, how they were going to get away with this because she had thought of everything.
Slowly, she turned toward Reggie. He was clueless, absently typing on his phone.
“Did —” The word caught in her throat. “The attacker used a knife on Karlsen. Did the police find the knife?”
“That’s a negative.” Reggie kept typing. “But from the wound size and depth, they think the blade was serrated, maybe five inches long. Probably a cheap kitchen knife.”
Cracked wooden handle. Bent blade. Sharp, serrated teeth.
Reggie finished typing. “You’ll see it in the files when I put them on your server. Cops say the same knife was used on the three other victims. They all had the same wound in the same place.”
“Wound?” Leigh heard her own voice echo in her ears. “What wound?”
“Left thigh, a few inches south of the groin.” Reggie shrugged. “They got lucky. Any deeper, and he would’ve cut open the femoral artery.”
Leigh barely made it more than a mile from Reggie’s office before her stomach turned inside out. Horns blared as she swerved her car over to the side of the road. She lunged across the passenger seat. The door flew open. Torrents of bile shot out of her mouth. Even when there was nothing left, she couldn’t stop gagging. Daggers stabbed into her abdomen. She hung her head so low that her face almost touched the ground. The smell made her gag again. She started to dry-heave. Tears poured from her eyes. Sweat beaded across her face.
They think the blade was serrated.
She hacked so hard that stars burst against her eyelids. She gripped the door to keep from falling. Her body was wracked by a series of agonizing spasms. Slowly, painfully, the heaving subsided. Still, she waited, hanging out of the car, eyes squeezed closed, begging her body to stop shaking.
Maybe five inches long.
Leigh opened her eyes. A thin line of saliva fell from her mouth, pooled into the flattened grass. She gulped down a breath. She let her eyes close again. She kept waiting for more, but nothing came.
Probably a cheap kitchen knife.
She tested herself, gently moving into an upright position. She wiped her mouth. She closed the door. She stared at the steering wheel. Her ribs ached where she’d stretched across the console between the two seats. The car shook as a truck whizzed past.
Leigh hadn’t panicked inside Reggie Paltz’s office. She had gone into a sort of fugue state — still physically there but somehow not there, her soul hovering above the room, seeing everything but not feeling anything.
Below, she had watched the other Leigh look at her watch, register surprise at the time. She had made an excuse about having a meeting downtown. Andrew and Reggie had both stood when she did. Other Leigh had lifted her purse onto her shoulder. Reggie had returned his attention to his laptop. Andrew had watched her every move. Like a fluorescent tube flickering back on, he’d turned all cow-eyed and innocent again. His words had come rushing at her like a fire hose. I’m sorry you have to leave I thought we were just getting into things should I give you a call or will I see you at the meeting with Cole tomorrow afternoon?
Floating against the ceiling, Leigh had watched her other self make promises or excuses, she wasn’t sure which because she couldn’t hear her own voice. Then her fingers had looped her mask around her ears. Then she was waving goodbye. Then she was walking through to the outer office.
Her other self continued to project an outward calm. She had stopped to get some hand sanitizer. She had looked at the empty Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup that had been taken out of the trash and placed prominently on the counter. Then she was walking down the hall. Then she was going down the stairs. She had opened the glass door. She had walked out onto the concrete stoop. Navigated her way down the crumbling stairs. Looked out at the parking lot.
Sidney Winslow was smoking a cigarette. Her mouth had twisted in disgust when she’d seen Leigh. She had thumbed off some ash, leaned back against a low sports car.
Leigh had staggered forward, reeling from the impact of her soul slamming back into her body. She was herself again, one person, one woman who had just heard a sadistic rapist all but confess that he not only knew that Leigh had been involved in Buddy’s murder, but that he was also refining the same technique on his own victims.
Any deeper, and he would’ve cut open the femoral artery.
“Hey, bitch.” Sidney had aggressively pushed herself away from the car. “I don’t appreciate you making it out like my own damn fiancé can’t trust me.”
Leigh had said nothing, just stared at the stupid girl. Her heart was jackrabbiting. Her flesh was hot and cold at the same time. Her stomach had filled with razor blades. It was Andrew’s car that was setting her off.
He drove a yellow Corvette.
The same color, the same body style, as the one that Buddy had driven.
Suddenly, Leigh heard a loud horn. The Audi shook violently as a truck swerved by. She looked in the side mirror. Her back tire was on the line. Instead of moving, she watched the traffic coming toward her, silently daring someone — anyone — to hit her. More horns. Another truck another sedan another SUV but no flash of yellow from Buddy’s Corvette.
He would never be Trevor to her again. The thirty-three-year-old man was not the creepy five-year-old who used to jump out from behind the couch to scare her. Leigh could still remember the invisible tears the little boy had wiped away when she’d screamed at him to stop. Andrew clearly knew some details about his father’s death, but how? What had they done to give themselves away? What stupid mistake had Leigh made that night that somehow, eventually, had allowed Andrew to put together the pieces?
If you were going to commit a terrible crime, a crime that would destroy another person’s life, would you know how to get away with it?
Leigh sniffed, and a chunk of something thick and putrid slid down her throat. She looked for a tissue in her purse. Couldn’t find one. Dumped her purse onto the passenger seat. Everything scattered. She saw the pack of tissue obscuring a distinctive orange pill bottle.
Everyone had needed something to get through the last year. Leigh didn’t drink. She hated feeling out of control, but she hated not sleeping even more. During the drawn-out election insanity, she had gotten a script for Valium. The doctor had called them Pandemic Pleasers.
That’s what Buddy had called Andrew’s NyQuil. Every time Buddy got home and Andrew was still awake, he would tell Leigh, Hey doll I can’t put up with his shit tonight, do me a favor before you go and give the kid his sleepy medicine.
Leigh could hear Buddy’s distinctive baritone as if he were sitting in the back seat of her car. Unbidden, she conjured the feel of his fumbling hands rubbing her shoulders. Leigh’s own hands started trembling so badly that she had to use her teeth to open the cap on the Valium. Three orange tablets scattered onto her palm. She tossed them all back, dry-swallowing them like candy.
She gripped her hands together to stop the shake. She waited for the release. Four more tablets were left in the bottle. She would take them all if it came to that. She couldn’t be like this right now. Wallowing in fear was a luxury she could not afford. Andrew and Linda Tenant were not trashy poor Waleskis anymore. They had Tenant Auto Group fuck-you money. Reggie Paltz could probably be bought off with the promise of more work from Leigh’s firm, but he wasn’t the only private investigator in town. Andrew could hire an entire team of investigators who could start asking questions no one had bothered to ask twenty-three years ago, like —
If Callie was worried about Buddy, why hadn’t she called Linda? The woman’s number was taped to the wall by the kitchen phone. If Andrew had in fact accidentally ripped the phone cord out of the wall, why couldn’t he remember doing it? And why was he so groggy the next day?
Why had Callie called Leigh to drive her home that night?
She’d made the ten-minute walk hundreds of times before.
Why did the next-door neighbors say they’d heard Buddy’s Corvette stalling several times in the driveway? He knew how to drive a manual transmission.
What happened to the machete in the shed? Why was the can of gasoline missing?
What about Callie’s broken nose and cuts and bruises?
And why did Leigh leave for college a month early when she had nowhere to stay and no money to waste?
The night that Buddy died, he had just been paid for a big job. His briefcase had been packed with fifty grand. They had found the rest hidden around the house.
Not for the first time, Callie and Leigh had argued about what to do with the money. Callie had insisted they leave something for Linda. Leigh had been equally insistent that leaving a dime would give them away. If Buddy Waleski was really skipping town, he would take all of the cash he could lay his hands on because he didn’t give a shit about anybody but himself.
Leigh could remember the exact words that had finally persuaded Callie: It’s not blood money if you pay for it with your own blood.
Another car horn beeped. Leigh startled again. The sweat had dried to a chill on her skin. She dialed back the air conditioner. She felt weepy, which helped nothing. She needed to summon her focus. In the courtroom, she had to be ten steps ahead of everybody else, but now she had to use all of her energy to figure out which first step would take her in the best direction.
She called up Andrew’s exact words, the taunting sneer on his lips.
It’s not like when we were kids. You could get away with coldblooded murder back then.
What had Leigh and Callie missed? They hadn’t exactly been teenage gangsters, but they’d both spent time in juvie and they had both grown up in the ’hood. They intuitively knew how to cover their tracks. Their bloody clothes and shoes had gone into a burn barrel. The video camera was broken into pieces. The house was thoroughly cleaned. Buddy’s car was stripped and burned. His briefcase was destroyed. They’d even packed a suitcase full of his clothes and tossed in a pair of his shoes.
The knife was the only thing left.
Leigh had wanted to get rid of it but Callie had told her that Linda would notice it was missing from the set. In the end, Callie had washed off the thin line of blood in the sink. Then they had soaked the wooden handle in bleach. Callie had even used a toothpick to clean around the tang, a word Leigh only knew because she had marked every year since it happened by going over all the details of a possible case that could be built against them.
She did a quick review in her head, knocking down the long list of questions, which relied either on the memories of children or on a pair of elderly neighbors who had both died eighteen years ago.
There was no physical evidence. No body found. No murder weapon. No unexplained hair, teeth, blood, fingerprints, DNA. No child porn. The only men who knew that Buddy Waleski had been raping Callie were the same men who were incentivized to keep their disgusting pedophile mouths shut.
Dr. Patterson. Coach Holt. Mr. Humphrey. Mr. Ganza. Mr. Emmett.
Maddy. Walter. Callie.
Leigh had to keep her priorities front and center. The time for wallowing in fear was over. She checked the side-view mirror. She waited for the lane to clear, then pulled out onto the road.
As she drove, the Valium stretched into her bloodstream. She felt some of the edges smoothing out. Her shoulders relaxed against the seat. The yellow line on the road turned into the belt on a treadmill. Buildings and trees and signs and billboards blurred by — Colonnade Restaurant, Uptown Novelty, Mitigate! Vaccinate! Keep Atlanta Open for Business!
“Shit,” she hissed, her foot going down to the floor. The car in front of her had braked suddenly. Leigh turned the a/c back up. The cold air slapped her face. She passed the stopped car. Drove so carefully that she felt like an old lady. Ahead, the green light started to turn, but she didn’t rush it. She rolled to a stop. Pushed up the turn signal. The digital sign outside the bank gave the time and temperature.
Eleven fifty-eight a.m. Seventy-two degrees.
Leigh turned off the air conditioning. She rolled down the window. She let the heat envelop her. It felt only fitting that she should be sweating. By the end of the stifling August night that Buddy Waleski had died, Leigh and Callie’s clothes were soaked through with blood and sweat.
Buddy was a contractor, or at least that’s what he’d told people. The tiny trunk of his Corvette had held a toolbox with pliers and a hammer. Inside the shed in the backyard were tarps and tape and plastic and a giant machete that hung from a hook on the back of the door.
First, they had rolled Buddy onto the plastic. Then they had gotten on their hands and knees to clean up all the blood underneath him. Next, they had used the kitchen table and chairs to create an impromptu bathtub around the body.
Every second of what happened next was seared into Leigh’s memory. Slicing off chunks of skin with the sharpest knives. Hacking joints with the machete. Breaking teeth with the hammer. Prying up fingernails with pliers in case Callie’s skin was underneath. Scoring fingers with a razor blade to obscure prints. Splashing bleach onto everything to wash away any trace of DNA.
They had taken turns because the work was not just mentally grueling. Cutting up the massive body and shoving the pieces into black lawn bags had taken every last ounce of their physical strength. Leigh had gritted her teeth the whole time. Callie had kept chanting the same maddening lines over and over again — If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again... If this is an emergency...
Silently, Leigh had added her own chant — This-is-my-fault-this-is-all-my-fault-this-is-my-fault...
Leigh was thirteen and Trevor was five when she’d started babysitting for the Waleskis. She’d gotten the referral by word of mouth. That first night, Linda had delivered a long-winded lecture about the importance of being trustworthy, then made Leigh read aloud from the list of emergency numbers by the kitchen telephone. Poison Control. Fire department. Police department. Pediatrician. Linda’s number at the hospital.
There had been a quick tour of the depressing house as Trevor had clung to Linda’s waist like a desperate monkey. Lights were turned on and off. The fridge and kitchen cabinets were opened and closed. Here was what they could eat for dinner. There were the snacks. This was his bedtime. Those were the books to read. Buddy would be home by midnight at the latest, but Linda needed Leigh to promise on her life that she would not leave until Buddy was there. And if he didn’t come home, or if he showed up drunk — knee-walking drunk, not just a little drunk — Leigh was to call Linda immediately so she could leave work.
The lecture had seemed like overkill. Leigh had grown up in Lake Point, where the last wealthy white residents had drained the lake on their way out of town so that no black people could swim in it. The small, abandoned houses had been turned into crack dens. Gunshots could be heard at all hours. Leigh walked to school past a park where there were more broken syringes than children. During her previous two years of babysitting, no one had ever questioned her street smarts.
Linda must’ve picked up on her bristling. She had quickly turned down the threat level. Apparently, the Waleskis had been plagued by irresponsible flakes. One sitter had abandoned Trevor, not even locking the door behind her. Another had stopped showing up. Another refused to answer her phone. Linda was mystified. So was Leigh.
And then three hours after Linda had left for work, Buddy had come home.
He’d looked at Leigh in a way that she had never been looked at before. Top to bottom. Appraising her. Sizing her up. Lingering on the shape of her lips, the two tiny bumps pressing against the front of her faded Def Leppard T-shirt.
Buddy was so big, so looming, that his footsteps shook the house as he walked toward the bar. He had poured himself a drink. He had wiped his sloppy mouth with the back of his hand. When he spoke, his words fell all over each other, a cataclysm of sly questions buried in inappropriate compliments — How old are you dolly you can’t be more than thirteen right but damn you look like you’re already a full-grown woman I bet your daddy has to beat the boys off with a stick what’s that you don’t know your daddy that’s a shame baby girl a little thing like you needs a big tough guy to protect her.
Initially, Leigh had thought he was giving her the third degree the same way Linda had but, looking back, she understood that he’d been testing the waters. In law enforcement circles, this was called grooming, and pedophiles followed the same relentlessly predictable playbook.
Buddy had quizzed her on her interests, the subjects she enjoyed in school, joked with her about her seriousness, implied she was smarter than him, more interesting, led a more fascinating life. He wanted to hear all about her. He wanted her to know that he wasn’t like those old farts she had met before. Sure, he was an old fart, too, but he understood what kids were going through. He offered her some weed. She passed. He offered her a drink. She sipped something that tasted like cough syrup and silently pleaded with him to please, please mister, please just let her go home so she could study.
Finally, Buddy had made a big deal about looking at the giant gold watch on his thick wrist. His mouth had dropped open dramatically — wow dolly, where did the time go I could talk to you all night but your mother must be waiting up for you right I bet she’s a real bitch about that always keeping track of you even though you’re practically an adult and you should get to make your own decisions right?
Unthinking, Leigh had rolled her eyes because the only reason her mother would be up was to make sure Leigh handed over the cash she’d made for watching Trevor.
Had Buddy picked up on the eye-roll? All Leigh knew was that everything had changed in that moment. Maybe he was putting together the information he’d gathered. No father. Useless mother. Not many friends at school. Not likely to tell.
He’d started talking about how dark it was outside. How bad the neighborhood was. That maybe it was going to rain. Sure, Leigh lived a ten-minute walk away, but she was too beautiful to be out on her own at night. Tiny little thing like you some bad dude could scoop you up and hide you in his pocket and what about that a fucking tragedy because then Buddy would never be able to see her beautiful little face ever again did she want that to happen he would be heartbroken could she really do such an awful thing to him?
Leigh had felt sick and guilty and shamed and, worst of all, trapped. She’d dreaded the possibility that he was going to insist she stay the night. But then Buddy had told her he would drive her home. She had been so relieved that she hadn’t argued, just grabbed up all her homework and shoved it into her backpack. The light changed, but Leigh was so lost in thought that it took a moment for her to register the green. Yet another car horn urged her on. She took the turn. Her movements felt robotic as she drove down a shady side street. There was no wind to rustle the trees, but she could hear the rush of air through her open window as she sped down the road.
The Waleskis had a carport on the side of their house. The windows were already rolled down in Buddy’s yellow Corvette when they left by the kitchen door. The car was an older model. Rust rimmed the hood. The paint was faded. A permanent oil stain marked his space on the concrete. The interior had smelled like sweat and cigars and sawdust. He had made a big deal about opening the door for Leigh, flexing his biceps to show her how strong he was. Prince Charming at your service little madam just snap your fingers anytime and your ol’ pal Buddy will be there. Then he’d walked around to the driver’s side, and her first thought was that he was like a clown jamming himself into a toy car. Buddy was groaning and huffing as he wedged his hulking body behind the wheel. Shoulders hunched. Seat raked back. Leigh could remember watching his enormous hand wrap around the stick shift. The entire gear box had disappeared. He kept his bear paw there, tapping along to the song on the radio.
Callie was haunted by the phantom bleating tone of the operator on the broken kitchen telephone. Leigh was haunted by Buddy’s creaky falsetto as he sang along with Hall & Oates’ “Kiss on My List.”
They were two minutes into the trip when, in the dim orange light of the radio, Buddy’s hand wandered in her direction. He kept his eyes straight ahead, but his fingers tapped on her knee the same as they had on the shifter.
I like this song do you like this song dolly I bet you do but I wonder have you ever kissed a boy do you know what that feels like?
Leigh was paralyzed, trapped in the bucket seat, sweat melding her skin into the cracked leather. Buddy’s hand didn’t leave her knee as he slowed the car and pulled to the side of the road. She recognized the Deguils’ house. She had babysat for their daughter, Heidi, a few times last summer. Their front porch light was on. That’s okay little girl don’t be scared your ol’ pal Buddy would never hurt you okay but Jesus your skin is so soft I can feel the peach fuzz you’re almost like a baby.
He still hadn’t looked at her. His eyes stayed focused straight ahead. Tongue darting out between his lips. His sausage fingers tickled along her knee, dragging her skirt along with them. The weight of his hand on her leg was an anvil.
Leigh gasped for breath. Her head swam as she felt herself spinning back into the present. Her heart was beating so hard in her throat that she pressed her hand to her chest to make sure it hadn’t dislodged itself. Her skin was clammy. She could still hear Buddy’s last words as she got out of the car —
Let’s keep this between you and me how about that here’s some extra cash for tonight but promise me you won’t tell I don’t want your mama getting mad at you and punishing you so I can’t ever see you again.
Leigh had told her mother about Buddy’s tickling fingers on her knee the second she’d walked through the door.
Jesus Christ Harleigh you’re not a helpless baby just slap away his hand and tell him to fuck off when he tries it again.
Of course Buddy had tried it again. But her mother had been right. Leigh had slapped away his hand and screamed at him to fuck off and that was the end of it. Damn dolly okay okay I get it no big deal but watch it tiger you’re gonna give some poor fella a run for his money someday.
Afterward, Leigh had forgotten about the incident the way you forget about things that are too awful to remember, like the male teacher who kept talking about how Leigh’s breasts were developing so fast or the old man at the grocery store who told her she was turning into a real woman. Three years later, when Leigh had saved up enough to buy a car so she could drive to a better job at the mall, she had passed on the babysitting gig to a grateful Callie.
The light turned green. Leigh’s foot moved to the accelerator. Tears were streaming down her face. She started to wipe them away, but fucking Covid stopped her. She pulled a tissue from the pack and carefully dabbed underneath her eyes. Another sharp breath filled her lungs. She held on to the air until it hurt, then shushed it out between her teeth. Leigh had never told Callie about what had happened to her in the Corvette. She had never warned her baby sister to slap Buddy’s hand away. She had never told Buddy to leave Callie the fuck alone. She hadn’t warned Linda or anyone else because Leigh had pushed the awful memory so far down that by the time Buddy’s murder bubbled it all up, all she could do was drown in her own guilt.
Her mouth opened for another breath. She felt disoriented again. Leigh looked around, trying to get her bearings. The Audi knew where it was going before she did. Left turn, coast a few yards, right turn into the strip-mall parking lot.
Sergeant Nick Wexler’s squad car was backed into its usual lunchtime spot between a frame shop and a Jewish deli. The lot was only half-full. A distanced line led to the deli’s front door for take-out.
Leigh took her time before getting out of the car. She freshened her make-up. Chewed a couple of breath mints. She put on her Fuck Me Red lipstick. Her notebook and a pen were retrieved from the pile. She turned past the notes on Andrew’s case and found a clean page. She wrote along the bottom of the paper. The Valium was doing the trick. Her hands had stopped shaking. She could no longer feel her own heartbeat.
She tore off the bottom part of the page, folded it into a tight square, then tucked it into her bra strap.
Nick was already watching her when she got out of the Audi. Leigh exaggerated the sway of her hips. Flexed her calves with every step. The walk bought her time to carousel through her personalities. Not vulnerable like she was with Walter. Not icy cold the way she’d been with Reggie Paltz. With Nick Wexler, Leigh was the kind of woman who could flirt with an Atlanta police sergeant while he was writing her up for speeding and end up fucking his face off three hours later.
Nick wiped his mouth with his fingers as she got closer. Leigh smiled, but the corners of her lips curled up too much. That was the Valium. It made her a grinning idiot. She felt Nick’s eyes track her as she walked around the front of his squad car.
The windows were down.
Nick said, “Damn, Counselor. Where you been hiding yourself?”
She waved at the detritus he kept on the passenger seat. “Move your shit out of my way.”
Nick flipped up the dash-mounted laptop and used his arm to sweep everything else onto the floor. Leigh’s hand missed the door handle on the first try. Her vision clouded. She blinked the fog away, smiling at Nick as she pulled open the door. His navy Atlanta Police Department uniform was wrinkled from the heat. As sweaty as he smelled, Nick was an unabashedly sexy man. Bright white teeth. Thick, black hair. Deep blue eyes. Ropey strong arms.
Leigh climbed into the squad car. Her heel slipped on his lunch bag. She hadn’t bothered with a mask. The Valium had made her loose, but her judgment wasn’t completely shot. Frontline workers had been eligible for the vaccine back in February. Leigh figured she was more likely to get syphilis from Nick Wexler than Covid.
He said, “I hope you’re here to badger my witness.”
Leigh stared out the dirty windshield. The line to the deli was inching forward. The grin tightened the muscles in her face. Her anxiety was simmering in an unreachable part of her brain. Andrew receded into the darkness along with it.
“Hey.” Nick snapped his fingers. “You wanna share some of that shit you’re on?”
“Rain check,” he said. “I’d settle for a handjob.”
“Rain check,” she said. “Since when do you settle?”
He chuckled with appreciation. “What brings you to my ride after all this time, Counselor? You up to something?”
Conspiracy to commit murder. Improper disposal of a body. Lying to a law enforcement officer. Signing a false statement. Fleeing prosecution across state lines.
She told him, “I need a favor.”
He raised his eyebrows. They didn’t do favors. They were occasional fuckbuddies who would both be drummed out of their respective occupations if their dalliances got out. Cops and defense attorneys got along about as well as Churchill and Hitler.
She said, “It’s not about a case.” He was clearly skeptical. “Oh-kay.”
“Deadbeat client. I need to track her down so I can get paid.”
“Are the Shylocks getting antsy at Buttfuck, Cunt & Motherfucker?”
The silly grin picked at her mouth. “Something like that.”
He was still dubious. “They make you chase down your own receivables?”
“I’ll try somebody else.” Leigh reached for the door.
“Hey-hey. Hold up, Counselor. Stay with me.” He was talking to her like a cop, but his hand gently rested on her shoulder. His thumb stroked her neck. “What’s the matter?”
She shook off his hand. They didn’t soothe each other. Only Walter got that version of Leigh.
Nick tried again, asking, “What’s wrong?”
She hated his let me fix this tone, which was one of the reasons she hadn’t seen him in a while. “Do I look like something’s wrong with me?”
He laughed. “Counselor, ninety-nine percent of the time I got no idea what the hell is going on in that gorgeous head of yours.”
“You make up for it with the one percent.” She hadn’t meant to put the suggestive lilt in her tone. Or maybe she had. There was a certain amount of self-harm that came with what they were doing. Leigh fully appreciated that the risk was what kept bringing her back.
Nick had never cared about her motivations. He let his eyes travel down her body to her legs. He was a man who knew how to look at a woman. Not the sleazy way that Buddy had sized up a thirteen-year-old. Not the casually sexist fuckable/not fuckable appraisal Reggie Paltz had given her in his office. The kind of look that said I know exactly where to touch you and for how long.
Leigh bit her bottom lip.
“Shit,” Nick said. “All right, what’s the client’s name?”
She knew better than to show her eagerness. “Left bra strap.” His eyebrow shot back up. He checked to make sure no one was watching. His finger slipped inside her blouse. Her skin was sweaty from the heat. His finger traced along her collarbone, down to her breast. She could feel her breathing change as he found the piece of paper. He slowly slid it out between two fingers.
He said, “It’s wet.” She smiled again.
“Jesus Christ.” He pushed down his laptop. He peeled open the paper and laid it flat on his leg. He laughed when he read the name. “Let’s see what kind of trouble homegirl got herself into.”
“Racial profile much?”
He side-eyed her. “If I want someone to break my balls and not fuck me, I can go home to my wife.”
“If I want to fuck somebody whose balls are breakable, I would go home to my husband.”
He chuckled, typing into the keyboard with one finger.
Leigh took a deep breath and slowly let it out. She shouldn’t have said that about Walter. This was the nasty side that Nick brought out in her. Or maybe Walter was the only man on earth who could bring out that tiny little bit of Leigh that was good. “Oh, damn.” Nick squinted at the screen. “Theft. Possession of a controlled substance. Trespassing. Vandalism. Controlled substance. Controlled substance. Jesus Christ, how is this bitch not in jail?”
“She’s got a damn good lawyer.”
Nick shook his head as he paged down the screen. “We work our asses off to make these cases and it goes to hell the second you cocksuckers show up.”
“Yeah, but at least you get your cock sucked.”
He gave her the look again. They both knew why she kept bringing this back to sex.
Nick said, “I could get fired for looking this up for you.”
“Tell me when a cop ever got fired for anything.”
He grinned. “Do you know how miserable desk duty is?”
“Beats being shot in the back.” She could tell by his sharp look that she had pushed him too far. So she pushed him farther. “Are you worried at all that white people are starting to distrust the cops, too?”
The sharp look got sharper, but he said, “Counselor, you better be glad your legs look so damn good today.”
She watched him turn back to his computer. His finger slid across the track pad. “Here we go. Previous addresses — Lake Point, Riverdale, Jonesboro.”
Not the northern corner of Iowa. Not on a farm. Not married.
Not raising two kids.
“Lady prefers your finer establishments.” Nick took the pen and spiral notebook from his breast pocket. “Two weeks ago, she was given a citation for jaywalking. She gave an address at a no-tell motel. She in the game?”
“The name doesn’t exactly set her up for success.” He laughed. “Calliope DeWinter.”
“Callie-ope,” Leigh corrected, because their mother was too stupid to know how to pronounce it. “She goes by Callie.”
“So she’s capable of making at least one good choice.”
“It’s not about making good choices. It’s about having good choices.”
“Sure.” Nick ripped the page out of his spiral notebook. He folded the address in half and held it between his two fingers. He didn’t try to slip it underneath her bra strap because he was a cop and he wasn’t stupid. “What do you make, Counselor, ten grand an hour?”
“Something like that.”
“And a low-level junkie prostitute pays for that how?”
Leigh forced herself not to snatch the address out of his hand. “She’s a trust-fund baby.”
“Is that the story you wanna tell me?”
Only one emotion could cut through the Valium: anger. “Jesus fuck, Nick. What’s with the third degree? Either give me the information or —”
He tossed the address onto her lap. “Get outta my ride, Counselor. Go find your junkie.”
Leigh didn’t get out. She unfolded the paper.
ALAMEDA MOTEL 9921 STEWART AVENUE.
Back when Leigh worked Legal Aid, she’d had a lot of clients living in the long-term motel. They charged $120 a week to poor people who could find a hell of a lot better place to live if they could save up the deposit money to rent a place that charged $480 a month.
Nick said, “I got work to do. Either start talking or start walking.”
Her mouth opened. She was going to tell him the truth.
She’s my sister. I haven’t seen her in over a year. She lives like a junkie prostitute while I live in a gated condo building and send my daughter to a twenty-eight-grand-a-year school because I pushed my baby sister into the arms of a sexual predator and was too ashamed to tell her that he’d come after me, too.
“Fine.” Leigh couldn’t tell Nick the whole truth, but she could tell him part of it. “I should’ve been up front with you from the beginning. She’s one of my previous clients. Back when I worked for myself.”
Nick clearly expected more.
“She was a gymnast in elementary school. Then she got into competitive cheerleading.” Leigh narrowed her eyes to ward off a crass cheerleader joke. “She was a flyer. Do you know what that is?”
He shook his head.
“There’s a couple of guys, sometimes as many as four, who are spotters. They do things like raise up the flyer on the palms of their hands while she holds a pose. Or sometimes they just throw her up into the air as high as they can. We’re talking fifteen, sometimes twenty feet off the ground. The flyer spins around, does a couple of flips, then she comes down, and the spotters interlock their arms to form a basket for her to land in. But if they don’t catch her, or they catch her wrong, then she can mess up her knee, break an ankle, sprain her back.” Leigh had to stop to swallow. “Callie landed wrong on an X-Out basket toss and ended up fracturing two vertebrae in her neck.”
“She was so strong that the muscles held it in place. She kept performing. But then her legs went numb and she was rushed to the ER and she had spinal fusion surgery and she had to wear a halo to keep her head from turning and she started taking Oxy for the pain and —”
“Heroin.” Nick was on the streets. He’d seen the progression in real time. “That’s quite a sob story, Counselor. The judge must’a bought it since her ass isn’t behind bars where it belongs.”
The judge had bought a confession from the innocent junkie Leigh had bribed to take the fall.
Nick asked, “She on the needle or smoking it?”
“Needle. It’s been off and on for almost twenty years.” Leigh’s heart had started pounding again. The crushing guilt of her sister’s tortured life had broken through the veil of Valium. “Some years are better than others.”
“Christ, that’s a hard road to walk.”
“It is.” Leigh had watched it play out like a never-ending horror novel. “I wanted to check on her because I feel guilty.”
His eyebrows arched back up. “Since when does a defense lawyer ever feel guilty?”
“She almost died last year.” Leigh couldn’t look at him anymore. She stared out the window instead. “I gave her Covid.”
The night was pitch black. Harleigh’s eyes sharpened on every detail picked out by her car’s headlights. Mailbox numbers. Stop signs. Taillights on parked cars. A cat’s eyes as it scrambled across the road.
Harleigh, I think I killed Buddy.
Callie’s hoarse whisper had been barely perceptible on the other end of the telephone. There was a scary flatness to her voice. She had shown more emotion this morning when she couldn’t find her socks for cheerleading practice.
I think I killed him with a knife.
Harleigh hadn’t asked questions or demanded a reason why. She had known exactly why, because in that moment, her mind had taken her back to that sweaty yellow Corvette, the song on the radio, Buddy’s enormous hand covering her knee.
Callie, listen to me. Don’t move until I get there.
Callie had not moved. Harleigh had found her sitting on the floor of the Waleskis’ bedroom. She still had the phone to her ear. The operator’s staticky voice was talking over the screeching wah-wah-wah sound that the phone made when you left it off the hook too long.
Callie’s hair was out of its usual ponytail, shrouding her face. Her voice sounded raspy as she spoke the words along with the recording. “If you’d like to make a call...”
“Cal!” Harleigh dropped to her knees. She tried to pry the phone out of her sister’s hands, but Callie wouldn’t let go. “Callie, please.”
Callie looked up.
Harleigh fell back in horror.
The whites in her sister’s eyes had turned black. Her nose had been broken. Blood dripped from her mouth. Finger-shaped red slashes ringed Callie’s neck where Buddy had tried to choke the life out of her.
Harleigh was responsible for this. She had protected herself from Buddy, but then she had put Callie directly in his path.
“Cal, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“What —” Callie coughed, and blood misted out from her lips. “What are we going to do?”
Harleigh gripped Callie’s hands like she could keep them both from sinking farther down. So much ran through her mind — you’re going to be okay. I’ll fix this. We’ll get through it together — but she saw no way to fix this, no path out of hell. Harleigh had entered the house through the kitchen. Her eyes had flickered across Buddy the same guilty way you’d pretend to not see a homeless person freezing in a doorway.
But he wasn’t homeless.
Buddy Waleski was connected. He had friends all over the place, including inside the police force. Callie wasn’t some coddled suburban white kid with two parents who would lay down their lives to protect her. She was a trashy teenager from the bad side of town who’d already spent time in juvie for stealing a pink cat collar from the dollar store.
“Maybe —” Tears welled into Callie’s eyes. Her throat was so swollen that she had trouble speaking. “Maybe he’s okay?”
Harleigh didn’t understand. “What?”
“Will you see if he’s okay?” Callie’s black eyes caught the reflection from the table lamp. She was looking at Harleigh, but she was somewhere else, a place where everything was going to work out all right. “Buddy was mad, but maybe he’s not mad anymore if he’s okay? We can — we can get him help. Linda won’t be home until —”
“Cal —” Harleigh’s sob strangled around the word. “Was it — did Buddy try something? Did it happen before or...”
Callie’s face gave her the awful answer. “He loved me, Har. He said he was going to take care of me always.”
Harleigh was literally bowled over by the pain. She touched her forehead to the filthy carpet. Tears seeped from her eyes. Her mouth opened as a moan escaped from deep inside of her body.
This was her fault. This was all her fault.
“It’s okay.” Callie rubbed Harleigh’s back, trying to comfort her. “He loves me, Harleigh. He’ll forgive me.”
Harleigh shook her head. The stiff carpet scratched against her face. What was she going to do? How was she going to fix this? Buddy was dead. He was too heavy for them to carry. There was no way he would fit in Harleigh’s tiny car. They couldn’t dig a hole deep enough for him to rot in. They couldn’t leave because Callie’s fingerprints were on everything.
Callie said, “He’ll take care of me, Har. Just tell him I’m s-sorry.”
This was her fault. This was all her fault.
“Please —” Callie’s broken nose whistled with every breath. “Please will you check?”
Harleigh kept shaking her head. Her chest felt like claws were digging into her ribcage, pulling her back into the stinking shithole that was her life. She was supposed to leave for college in four weeks and one day. She was supposed to get away, but she couldn’t abandon Callie like this. The police wouldn’t see the cuts and bruises as evidence that her sister had fought for her life. They would see the tight clothes, the make-up, the way she wore her hair, and say she was a conniving, murdering Lolita.
And if Harleigh came to her defense? If she said that Buddy had tried it with her, too, but she’d been so busy getting on with her life that she hadn’t warned her sister?
It’s your fault. It’s all your fault.
“Please check on him,” Callie said. “He looked cold, Harleigh. Buddy hates being cold.”
Harleigh saw her future circling down the drain. All the things she’d planned for — the brand-new life she’d pictured in Chicago with her own apartment, her own things, maybe a cat and a dog and a boyfriend who didn’t already have a criminal record — were gone. All the extra classes in school, all the nights she’d spent studying in between working two, sometimes three different jobs, putting up with handsy bosses and harassing comments, sleeping in her car between shifts, hiding money from her mother, all to end up exactly where every other miserable, hopeless kid in this ghetto ended up.
“He —” Callie coughed. “He was m-mad because I f-found the camera. I knew about it but not — he taped us doing — Har, people watched. They know w-what we did.”
Harleigh silently replayed her sister’s words. The apartment in Chicago. The cat and dog. The boyfriend. All of it melted into the ether.
She forced herself to sit back up. Every part of her brain was telling her not to ask, but she had to know. “Who watched you?”
“A-all of them.” Callie’s teeth had started chattering. Her skin was pale. Her lips had turned the blue of a jay’s crest. “Dr. Patterson. C-coach Holt. Mr. Humphrey. Mr. G-ganza. Mr. Emmett.”
Harleigh’s hand went to her stomach. The names were as familiar to her as the last eighteen years of her life. Dr. Patterson, who’d warned Harleigh to dress more modestly because she was distracting the boys. Coach Holt, who kept telling her his house was right up the street if she ever needed to talk. Mr. Humphrey, who’d made Harleigh sit in his lap before he’d let her test drive a car. Mr. Ganza, who’d wolf-whistled at her last week at the supermarket. Mr. Emmett, who would always rub his arm across her breasts when she was in the dentist’s chair.
She asked Callie, “They touched you? Dr. Patterson and Coach —”
“N-no. Buddy made...” The chattering cut her off. “M-movies.
Buddy made m-movies and they w-watched us.”
Harleigh’s vision started to sharpen again, the same as it had during the drive over. Only this time, everything was red. Everywhere she looked — the scuffed walls, the damp carpet, the stained bedspread, Callie’s swollen, battered face — she saw red.
This was her fault. This was all her fault.
She used her fingers to gently wipe away Callie’s tears. She watched her own hand move, but it was like watching someone else’s hand. The knowledge of what these grown men had done to her baby sister had split Harleigh in two. One side of her wanted to bite down on the pain the same way that she always did. The other side wanted to cause as much pain as possible.
Dr. Patterson. Coach Holt. Mr. Humphrey. Mr. Ganza. Mr. Emmett.
She would destroy them. If it was the last thing she did, Harleigh would end their lives.
She asked her sister, “What time does Linda get home in the morning?”
Harleigh looked at the bedside clock. She had less than thirteen hours to fix this.
She asked, “Where is the camera?”
“I —” Callie put her hand to her strangled throat like she needed help pushing out the answer. “The bar.”
Harleigh’s fists were clenched as she walked down the hallway.
Past the guest room, the bathroom. Past Trevor’s bedroom.
She stopped, turned around. She cracked open Trevor’s door. His night light spun pinprick stars against the ceiling. His face was tucked down into his pillow. He was fast asleep. She knew without asking that Buddy had made him take his sleepy medicine. “Harleigh?” Callie stood in the doorway. Her skin was so pale that she looked like a ghost hovering in the darkness. “I don’t know w-what to do.”
Harleigh pulled Trevor’s door closed behind her.
She walked up the hallway, past the aquarium, the couch, the ugly leather club chairs with their cigarette-burned arms. The camera was on a pile of wine corks behind the bar. Canon Optura, top of the line, which Harleigh knew because she had sold electronics over the Christmas rush. The plastic case was broken, a chunk missing from the corner. Harleigh ripped the camera away from the power cable. She used her thumbnail to drag the tiny slider to eject the mini-cassette.
Harleigh searched the floor, the shelves behind the bar, trying to find the cassette.
She stood up. She saw the couch with its depressing, solo imprints on opposite sides. The grungy orange drapes. The giant television with the cables hanging down.
Cables that went into the camera she was holding in her hands.
The device had no internal storage. The mini-cassette, which was slightly larger than a business card, held the recordings. You could plug in the camera to a TV or VCR, but no cassette meant no movie.
Harleigh had to find that cassette to show it to the cops so that they could see — what?
She had never been inside of a courtroom, but she had grown up watching woman after woman get knocked down by men. Crazy bitches. Hysterical girls. Stupid cunts. Men controlled the system. They controlled the police, the courtrooms, the probation agencies, welfare services, juvenile hall and the jails, school boards, car dealerships, supermarkets, dentists’ offices.
Dr. Patterson. Coach Holt. Mr. Humphrey. Mr. Ganza. Mr. Emmett.
There was no way to prove they had watched the video, and unless it showed Callie screaming No the entire time, the cops, the lawyers, the judges, would all say that she had wanted it because, no matter what happened to women, men always, always covered each other’s asses.
“Harleigh.” Callie’s arms were hugged around her slim waist. She was trembling. Her lips had turned white. It was like watching her baby sister disappear in stages.
This was her fault. This was all her fault.
“Please,” Callie said. “He — he could still be alive. Please.”
Harleigh looked at her sister. Mascara ran down her face. Blood and lipstick smeared her mouth into a clown’s grimace. Like Harleigh, she had been desperate to grow up. Not because she wanted to distract the boys or call attention to herself, but because adults got to make their own decisions.
Harleigh slammed the camera down on the bar top. She had finally seen their way out of this.
Buddy Waleski was sitting on the kitchen floor, his back against the cabinets under the sink. His head had dropped forward. His arms were at his sides. His legs were splayed out. The cut was in his left leg, a tiny spring of blood bubbling out like sewage from a broken pipe.
“Please ch-check.” Callie stood behind her, black eyes unblinking as she stared at Buddy. “P-please, Har. He c-can’t be dead. He can’t.”
Harleigh went to the body, but not to help. She stuck her hand into Buddy’s pants pockets, searching for the small cassette. She found a wad of cash on the left side along with a half-roll of Tums and some lint. A remote control for the camera was in the right pocket. She threw it across the floor so hard that the battery cover broke open. She checked the back pockets and found Buddy’s cracked leather wallet and a stained handkerchief.
No cassette. “Harleigh?” Callie said.
Mentally, Harleigh pushed her sister to the side. She needed to keep her focus on the story they would tell the cops —
Buddy had been alive when they’d left the Waleski house. The only reason Callie had called Harleigh to pick her up was because Buddy was acting strange. He’d told Harleigh some guy had threatened to kill him. He’d told Harleigh to get Callie the hell out of here. They had both gone home and then, obviously, the man who had threatened Buddy had murdered him.
Harleigh punched at the story, looking for weak points. Callie’s fingerprints and DNA were everywhere, but Callie was here more than Buddy. Trevor was dead asleep, so he wouldn’t know anything. Buddy’s blood was confined to the area around his leg, so there were no bloody fingerprints or footprints that could be traced back to Callie. Everything had an explanation. Maybe some of it was weak, but it was believable.
“Har?” Callie’s arms were still wrapped tight around her narrow waist. She was swaying back and forth.
Harleigh took her in. Black eyes. Strangled neck. Broken nose. She told Callie, “Mom did this to you.”
Callie looked confused.
“If anyone asks, tell them you talked back and Mom gave you a beat-down. Okay?”
“I don’t —”
Harleigh held up her hand to stop Callie from talking. She needed to think it all through forward and back again. Buddy came home. He was scared. Someone had threatened his life. He hadn’t said who, just that the sisters should go. Harleigh drove Callie home. Buddy was fine when they left. Callie had gotten the shit beaten out of her the same as she had dozens of times before. Social services would be called again, but a couple of months in foster care beat the hell out of the rest of your life in prison.
Unless the police found the mini-cassette, because the cassette gave Callie a motive.
Harleigh asked, “Where would Buddy hide something small, something smaller than his hand?”
Callie shook her head. She didn’t know.
Harleigh let her gaze bounce around the kitchen, desperate to find the cassette. She opened cabinets and drawers, looked under pots and pans. Nothing seemed out of place, and Harleigh would know. Before Callie took over, she had practically lived at the Waleskis’ five nights a week over three long years. Studying on the couch, cooking Trevor’s meals in the kitchen, playing games with him at the table.
Buddy’s briefcase was on the table. Locked.
Harleigh looked for a knife in the drawer. She jammed it under the clasp, ordering Callie, “Tell me what happened. Exactly. Don’t leave anything out.”
Callie shook her head again. “I don’t — I don’t remember.”
The lock popped open. Harleigh was only momentarily frozen by the sight of so much cash. The spell broke quickly. She unpacked the money, checked the liner, the inside pockets, the folders, asking Callie, “Where did the fight start? Where were you in the house?”
Callie’s lips moved without sound.
“Calliope.” Harleigh cringed at her mother’s tone coming out of her own mouth. “Tell me now, God dammit. Where did it start?”
“We...” Callie turned back toward the living room. “Behind the bar.”
“What happened?” Harleigh kept her voice hard. “Be exact. Don’t leave anything out.”
Callie’s voice was so weak that Harleigh had to strain to hear the details. She looked over her sister’s shoulder, playing out the movements as if the fight were unfolding in real time. Callie’s nose taking the pointy end of Buddy’s elbow behind the bar. The box of wine corks tumbling. The camera falling off the shelf. Callie being disoriented, lying flat on her back. Walking into the kitchen. Head under the faucet. Threatening Buddy that she was going to tell Linda. The attack. The phone cord being ripped from the wall. The strangling, the kicking and punching and then — the knife.
Harleigh looked up. She saw that Callie had put the receiver back on the hook. The list of emergency numbers was still taped to the wall beside the phone. The only clue that something bad had happened here was the broken cord. “Trevor ripped the cord.”
“What?” Callie said.
“Tell them Trevor ripped the phone cord. When he says he didn’t, everyone will think he’s lying so he doesn’t get into trouble.” Harleigh didn’t wait for Callie to agree. She repacked Buddy’s briefcase and slammed the lid shut. She gave the kitchen another once-over, looking for somewhere Buddy could stash the cassette.
Her eyes finally settled on his hulking body. He was still slouched to the side. The cut in his leg continued to sputter.
She felt her own blood stop cold.
You didn’t bleed unless your heart was still pumping. “Calliope.” Harleigh swallowed so hard that her throat clicked.
“Go check on Trevor. Now.”
Callie didn’t argue. She disappeared down the hallway.
Harleigh knelt down in front of Buddy. She grabbed a fistful of his hair and lifted up his giant head. His eyelids slitted open. She saw the whites of his eyes as they rolled back.
“Wake up.” She slapped his face. “Wake up, you stupid cocksucker.”
The whites flashed again.
She pressed open his eyelids. “Look at me, asshole.”
Buddy’s lips parted. She could smell his cheap whiskey and cigars. The stench was so familiar that Harleigh was instantly back in his Corvette.
Terrified. Helpless. Longing for escape.
Harleigh slapped him so hard that saliva flew from his mouth. “Look at me.”
Buddy’s eyes rolled up but, slowly, they came around to center.
She saw the glimmer of recognition, the stupid belief that he was looking at someone who was on his side.
Buddy stared at what was left of the phone, then looked back at Harleigh. He was asking her to call for help. He knew he didn’t have long.
She said, “Where’s the cassette from the camera?” He looked at the phone again, then back at her.
She got in his face. “I’ll kill you right now if you don’t tell me.”
Buddy Waleski was not afraid. He viewed Harleigh as a prude, a rule-follower, the girl who knew the difference between right and wrong. The twitch that pulled up the left side of his lips told her he was happy to bring down Miss Goody Two Shoes and her baby sister right alongside him.
“You fucking asshole.” Harleigh slapped him harder than the first time. Then she punched him. His head banged into the cabinet. She grabbed his shirt, reared back to punch him again. Buddy heard the sound before she did. A distinctive click coming from his shirt. She watched his confident expression slip into uncertainty. His eyes moved back and forth, trying to get a read on whether or not she understood.
Harleigh was frozen, right fist still raised, left fist still gripping the front of his shirt. She rolled through her senses, trying to force herself back into that exact moment — the copper-penny smell of blood, the rasp of Buddy’s faint breathing, the bitter taste of lost freedom souring her mouth, the feel of his dirty work shirt wadded into her tight fist.
She twisted the material tighter, bunching up the thick cotton. The click drew her eyes to his chest.
Harleigh had only checked his pants pockets. Buddy was wearing a Dickies short-sleeved work shirt. The seams were reinforced. Two flapped breast pockets were on either side. The flap of the left pocket was up, worn with two fang-like impressions from the ever-present box of Black & Milds.
Except this time, he’d put the box in backward. The cellophane window on the front faced his heaving chest.
Harleigh slid out the long, skinny box. She stuck her fingers inside.
She held it to his face so that he could see that she had won. Buddy wheezed out a long sigh. He only looked faintly disappointed. His life had been filled with violence and chaos, mostly brought about by his own hand. Compared to that, his death would be easy.
Harleigh looked down at the small, black plastic cassette with its faded white label.
A piece of electrical tape covered the protection tab so that the tape could be recorded over again and again.
Harleigh had watched her sister change over the last three years, but she’d chalked it up to hormones or brattiness or just growing into another person. Callie’s heavy make-up, the arrests for shoplifting, the suspensions from school, the late-night whispered calls that went on for hours. Harleigh had ignored them because she’d been too focused on her own life. Pushing herself to work more, to save more money, to do well in school so she could get the hell out of Lake Point.
Now, she was literally holding Callie’s life in her hands. Her youth. Her innocence. Her trust that no matter how high she flew into the air, the world would catch her.
It was all Harleigh’s fault.
Her hand squeezed into a fist. The sharp edges of the plastic mini-cassette dug into her palm. The world went red again, blood soaking everything she saw. Buddy’s fat face. His meaty hands. His balding head. She wanted to punch him again, to beat him into oblivion, to plunge the steak knife into his chest over and over until the bones cracked and the life spewed from his disgusting body.
Instead, she opened the drawer by the stove. She pulled out the roll of Saran Wrap.
Buddy’s eyes went wide. His mouth finally opened, but he had lost his chance to speak.
Harleigh wrapped the plastic film around his head six times before it tore off from the roll.
The plastic sucked into his open mouth. Buddy’s hands reached up to his face, trying to claw open a hole to breathe. Harleigh grabbed onto his wrists. The big strong man, the giant, was too weak to stop her. She looked into his eyes, relishing the fear and helplessness, the panic as Buddy Waleski realized that Harleigh was stealing his easy death.
He started to shake. His chest thrust into the air. His legs kicked out. A high whine came from his throat. Harleigh held on to his wrists, pressing them back against the cabinet. She was straddling him the way he had straddled Callie when he’d choked her. She was pressing her weight into him the same way he had pressed Harleigh back into the seat of his Corvette. She was watching him the same way Dr. Patterson, Coach Holt, Mr. Humphrey, Mr. Ganza, Mr. Emmett had all watched her sister. She was finally doing to a man the same fucking thing that men had been doing to Harleigh and Callie for their entire fucking lives.
It was over too soon.
All at once, Buddy’s muscles released. The fight had left him. His hands flopped down to the floor. Urine seeped into his pants. If he had a soul, she imagined the Devil grabbing onto it by his filthy shirt collar, jerking him down, down, down into hell.
Harleigh wiped sweat from her forehead. Blood was on her hands, her arms, arced into the crotch of her jeans where she had sat on top of him.
“If you’d like to make a call...”
She turned around. Callie was sitting on the floor. She’d pulled her knees to her chest. She was rocking, her body slowly moving back and forth like a wrecking ball.
“Please hang up and dial again.”
From FALSE WITNESS by Karin Slaughter Copyright © 2021 by Karin Slaughter. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.