The Second Season
Parental Advisory Rating: L, AC
Break out those V-Chips, everyone!
Created, Produced, Directed and Written:
Fanatic and TNovan
Legal Disclaimer: While this story arc was inspired by certain actual incidents, it is a work of fiction and references to real people and organizations are included only to lend a sense of authenticity. All of the characters, whether central or peripheral, are wholly the product of the authors' imagination, as are their actions, motivations, thoughts and conversations, and neither the characters nor the situations which were invented for them are intended to depict real people or real events. In particular, the depictions of CBS and NBC are not meant to portray the corporations, or any individual within their news organizations.
Episode Six: Penalty Phase
"Pay him." I cross my arms and tap my foot. Harper looks at me, snorting, fidgeting and trying to figure out what to say.
"I am not going to pay him."
"Yes, you are. He got all five; he won."
"He had help! I'm not going to pay him." She folds her arms across her chest, mimicking my posture.
I sigh. "Of course, he had help, Tabloid! He's three! Now, pay him."
She blows out an exasperated breath. Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out a wad of bills. From it, she peels off two hundreds and a fifty, handing them to Rene.
"Thank you very much, sister dear," Rene says sweetly, tucking the money in her jeans pocket. "I'll make sure this goes straight into his savings."
"You do that," Harper grumbles, flopping down in the deck chair. "So not fair," she pouts as I place myself in her lap. Despite her grumpiness, her hands settle around my hips.
"There's always next year," I offer, giving her a little kiss to try to heal her damaged ego.
"Next year Christian can't play," Robie mumbles as he hands his half of the five hundred to Rene as well. "What I want to know is which one of you two," he glares between his wife and I, "gave him the green one?"
"We're not telling," Rene answers, taking a position in Robie's lap that matches my own in Harper's.
"They're working against us here, Harper," Robie mutters.
"Yeah." She smiles up at me, hugging me around the waist. She moves her hand to rub my stomach. She's been doing that every chance she gets since we went to the clinic on Wednesday. "Ain't it great?"
"Oh, I suppose it is. If we have to get shanghaied, I'm glad these two are doing it," he agrees, giving Rene a kiss.
"Do you two really have to go back to New York so soon?" Rene asks. She reaches over to a small table on the porch and picks up her glass of iced tea. She takes a sip and offers the glass to Robie for a drink.
"Yeah. We're leaving Saturday afternoon. We have to be ready to go to work on Monday morning and we have to rearrange all the furniture we've had delivered while we've been down here," Harper states with a little sigh. "This is where real life starts for us."
I don't know about that last statement. This feels like real life to me and I like it. Don't get me wrong, going back to New York means really getting to work and I love that idea too. But this is home. I hate leaving home.
* * *
I am about to enjoy another piece of sweet potato pie when Mama walks into the kitchen. I pause in mid-bite at her disapproving look and put the fork down slowly. "Hi, Mama."
"Don't you 'hi, Mama' me while you're sneaking food in my kitchen in the middle of the night." She picks up my fork and takes a bite. "Why are you down here eating when your girl is upstairs in your bed? You two have a fight, mon coeur?"
"Mais non. I was just hungry."
"Worked up an appetite?"
I blanch. "Mama! Please!" I push the plate away from me. "You and Papa are trying to send me into therapy for years."
"I'm sorry," she says with only a touch of humor in her tone. She kisses my hair and sits down at the table with me. "It's been good to have you two girls at home."
She makes it sound like we've been having a slumber party. "It's always good to be here. You know that."
"I do." She takes another bite of my pie and a sip of my coffee. "So, what are you trying to hide from your Mama?"
It takes all my self control to keep from reacting to her question. I push up from the table and go pour her a cup of coffee, fixing it the way she likes. "I don't know what you're referring to, Mama."
She makes a disparaging sound. "Don't use those lips to lie to your mama. Now, tell me what it is you're trying to hide. You know I'll find out anyway."
"Nothing. There's nothing."
Mama begins the Lord's Prayer in French. I know she's annoyed now.
Okay. The best lie is always one with a bit of truth in it. "Lucien and I had a fight at the poker game."
She stops her recitation. "What did he do?"
Ooh, she's still burned about that bet he had with the boys. It was stupid of him. Mama has been after me to settle down and meet some nice girl for as long as she's been on the Committee for Same Sex Marriages. How did he think she would react when she found out? But, nevertheless, he is still my brother, and I owe him some loyalty so I won't tell her about Rachel. "Nothing. Just more of the same."
"I should take him over my knee like I did when he was younger. I still have that spoon too." She gestures toward the dreaded wooden spoon. My parents, for as liberal as they are, nonetheless used corporal punishment on us as kids. Of course, with us five I can't really argue with that choice. The spoon was the worst threat we could ever have.
"Nah, there's no need for that. We came to an understanding."
"You tell me if I need to have Papa talk to him. I don't know what's wrong with Lucien. He's never been like the rest of you." She shakes her head and takes another sip. "You four have common sense, a sense of humor, but Luc has always been "
I shrug. "I know, Mama, but it's okay." Whoops. I didn't mean to get Mama all melancholy about her boy. "Don't worry. Everything is fine. I love Lucien. Just sometimes I wish he would know when to stop talking."
She wraps her hand around mine, giving it a gentle squeeze. "See, isn't it better when you tell your Mama what's on your mind?"
Oh, Mama, if you only knew.
* * *
Monday morning. 8 a.m. I'm in the office as a real-life, swear to God, senior producer for Exposure. Not like that courtesy trip through the pleasant side of television news we had before leaving for Mardi Gras. And what do I find this morning? A note from the boss himself. Short and concise, just like him.
"Report as soon as you get in."
It's 8:03 and I'm knocking on the frame of his office door.
"Kingsley, sit." He points to the chair in front of his desk. The same staccato style he showed in the meeting seemingly carries over into his personal conversations. He continues on a phone call and pecks at his keyboard. As I sit, I note this chair is much lower than his. Too damn funny. I like this guy.
I look around at his office while I have the chance. There are piles of newspaper clippings, folders and videotapes all over the place. The man has a mind like a steel trap and an office that would make an entire generation of pack rats faint with envy. With a few terse instructions, he hangs up the phone.
"All right, Kingsley. Let's get some stuff straight between us. As far as I know, you're here for two reasons. One, you got lucky because some dumbass general manager got a hard on after watching you take a risk only a person with a suicidal tendency the size of the Pacific Ocean would have taken."
I think that must be the longest sentence the man has ever uttered in his life.
He continues, "That stunt got you out of tabloid news and gave you a shred of respectability by getting you to KNBC. That is, if you can call working for an NBC affiliate respectable."
I mask a smile. Seems the boss has a sense of humor. A small one, but it's there.
"And two, your lover is now afraid to go out and do without you what she obviously did very well in Los Angeles without you for quite some time."
"Well, I wouldn't -" I try to protest but he runs right over me.
"So, let me spell it out for you: this story is your test, Kingsley. Yours and your girlfriend's. We'll see if you two can cut it here at the network level. Or if we just pissed away over three million dollars on the two of you."
"You didn't," I counter.
He waves his hand. "That remains to be seen. The issues here are complicated. A man has been convicted of rape and murder of an all-American girl. He's due to be executed this year. And, of course, he claims he's innocent. There have been ninety-nine innocent men on death row set free since we restored the death penalty. I want to know, is this the hundredth man? Or is he just some sick fuck like the one who held your girlfriend?"
Kels is more than my girlfriend, buddy. She's a damn good reporter and she'll do this story and blow you on your ass.
"So, can you do a story that's balanced? Can she face this? Because, if she can't, and you don't, I'll see to it that you two get assigned to the presidential campaign. The republican nominee. And I'll make sure your contracts aren't renewed after I send you out on every shitty assignment for a year."
Nothing like having it all nicely laid out in black and white.
"Oh, and keep on that cult story. It sounds like an interesting perspective on counterculture."
With that, he turns back to his computer and starts typing again. Clearly, I am dismissed. I feel like I did back in 5th grade when Sister Ignatius called me into her office and told me I had to live up to the standards my brothers set before me. She made it real clear she didn't expect me to measure up. Well, I proved her ass wrong and graduated valedictorian. Just like I'm gonna prove Langston wrong. I'm the best damn thing that's walked in here in a long time. And he's gonna know it.
Now, I just have to break the news to Kels. How in the world am I gonna do that?
* * *
As I slowly walk back to my office, Kels comes tripping down the hall. Literally. Her arms are full of suit jackets and the pile is slipping.
I look at her in amusement, then grab a couple of jackets from her arms as they start to slip to the floor. She smiles her thanks, clearly expecting me to carry them for her. I mean, I guess we are going steady by now.
Instead, I lift her chin from the remaining pile of clothing, replace the fallen items on the stack, and lower her head. Glancing down the hallway, I see we're quite alone, so I give her nose a little kiss. "When you're done pretending to be a worker in the garment district, drop by. We need to talk."
"'Kay," comes a muffled response. "Though I thought I was doing an imitation of someone in Compulsive Over-shoppers Anonymous." Her eyes belie her amusement. Shopping always does perk up my gal. I better commit this look to memory. Somehow I fear it's gonna be the last time I see it for awhile.
Real life sucks sometimes.
In my office, I sit down at my desk. I look at the monitors, trying to figure out what is going on with the various morning shows, but I don't give a damn. I find myself taking stock of my professional life:
Twenty-five years old.
Nominated for a Peabody, the most prestigious award in broadcast news.
Lucrative contract as a senior producer for the highest rated news magazine on the air.
A career that looks fast tracked.
An EP who is willing to derail me if I'm not good enough.
A shitty assignment meant to test my lover and me.
If we fail, I can kiss both of our careers goodbye.
And I get to break the news to her.
Just how in the hell am I gonna do that?
The door opens, interrupting my train of thought. Kels' tousled head peaks around the door. "Hey, honey. What's up?"
"Just had a meeting with the boss. We've got our first, major assignment."
"Yeah? Great!" Her eyes flash with excitement and she bounds into my office, placing herself on the edge of my desk. "What story are we off after now?"
"Well, actually, we have two stories. The first you know about. He approved our continuing to look at cults and what they tell us about where our society is headed." God, I'm such a chicken. I should check myself for feathers.
"Great! I'm starting to really get into it. I want to do more research on the Wicca and alternative religions aspect of the story."
"Sounds good to me." Okay, Kingsley, suck up and bear it. It's time to pay or play, prove you're worth three-quarter of a million dollars. "I have to head out to Ohio for the other story."
"When do we leave?" she asks immediately.
"We don't, sweetheart. I do. I want you to stay here and keep up with your research. I'm gonna go take a look at this other story, see if it has merit." I find myself playing with my pen, spinning it around on the desk. Anything to avoid looking at her.
"All right, Tabloid." Her hand comes to rest on my shoulder. "What's the other story and why are you upset about it?"
I take a deep breath. I start to examine the grain of wood on my desk. Fuck. I do have feathers. I'm gonna start clucking any moment now. Grow a spine, Kingsley. I raise my gaze to meet hers. "It's not a story either of us wants to do, chér, but it can't be avoided. Langston just spelled it all out for me. We do this and do it right, or we're fucked. He made it real clear."
"We'll blow his socks off, Harper. Tell me what the story is and we'll make it great."
I reach out and hold her hand gently, my thumb brushing the back of it. "It's about the application of capital punishment in the U.S., the continuing debate - not over the morality of it - but the practicality of carrying it out in a fair manner. It seems he's looking to see if this guy out in Ohio is another innocent man on death row."
"Aren't they all? If you listen to their stories."
"You're right. Very few admit to the crime they're accused of."
A hint of wariness appears around her eyes as Kels begins to suspect what our boy's crime was. "What did he do?"
"He raped and murdered a young woman, and is believed to have raped several other women, although no additional charges were ever brought. The jury convicted him despite no evidence of his being in the victim's house on the day of the murder and a couple witnesses who provided him with an alibi. It looks like he might have been framed. Or, if not framed, there was a rush to judgment by an incompetent police force."
I watch as the blood drains from her face. Her hands start shaking. She looks down at me and whispers one word, "No."
I release her hand long enough to go over and close my office door. Coming back to my desk, I take her in my arms, pulling her tight against me. "Sweetheart, I'm afraid we don't have a choice."
"I can't do it, Harper. I won't do it! It's unreasonable!" She pushes herself away from me and stares at me angrily. "Tell him no." Her eyes start to tear up. An angry swipe of her hand brushes them away but they're still there in the corners, waiting to fall.
I can't stand it when she cries, and she knows it. Every time she's ever cried before, I've folded. But I can't this time. It would be taking my whole career and balling it up like a used Kleenex and pitching it away. "Kels, you have to understand. He's given us this assignment to see if we can cut it. Basically, we either do this right or we're out of here."
She jerks herself out of my arms and backs away till the back of her legs touch the edge of my sofa. "Fine." She gives me a quick, jerky nod of her head. I can tell she's mad. "You go do the story. You go face another psychopath, but I won't. I've paid my dues already. I don't need this shit. Not from him. And, certainly, not from you."
I'm tempted to look down and see if I'm bleeding from that comment. Surely it drew blood. I bite back my reply, knowing it won't help. Kels is already on the defensive, and getting madder by the moment. She stands in front of me, her anger making her seem taller. "You weren't in that room for days, chained up like an animal! You weren't beaten and tortured on his every whim! You didn't have to listen to the foul things he said, the promises he made me of what he would do to me. You didn't have your dignity, your courage, your self worth, your soul ripped away by a fucking freak." With each accusation, she pokes me in the chest, a little harder each time.
God, I want to try to comfort her, but I know she won't allow it right now. I stand and let her have at me.
"You don't have to live with the fact that a group of women you never knew are dead because they sort of looked like you. You don't have to live with being the cause of your best friend's death." Her voice catches with that accusation and we both think of Erik and his mangled corpse. Her voice is bitter and low, "So you go do the story, Tabloid! But leave me the fuck out of it. I never have to look at another sorry, sick bastard like that for the rest of my life. I have paid my fucking dues, you got it?" Suddenly she drops to the sofa like a sack of rocks, and sits there with her face buried in her hands. Her whole body is shaking.
I just stand here, with my hands hanging at my sides, stunned at the vitriol in her voice and feeling lost. This is a Kels I have never seen.
From behind her hands, muffled by her tears, she continues to speak in a cold, hard voice. She's never directed it at me before, but I heard rumors of it at the affiliate. "As for that goddamned, little weasel, if he thinks this is good journalism - to assign the ones with 'experience' to this story - then he's a sick, little bastard and I don't want to work for him anyway. It's not worth it."
I stand there, watching her cry, frozen. I see our careers evaporating in front of my eyes. I think I might be sick. Hold it together, Harper. This job is too important, to both of us, to let it get pissed away in tears and anger.
I am pleased, but a little surprised, at my own voice as it comes out of my mouth solid, sure, firm, professional: "Kelsey, you have it all wrong. This isn't about a sick sense of humor. He's genuinely concerned that we'd let our personal lives and feelings get in the way of doing a story, any story. And since we were hired over his head, he's got to test us. You can do this. You will do it because it's what you do and it's what makes you who you are."
She looks at me like I've grown two heads and fangs. Apparently that was not the inspiring speech I meant it to be. Slowly, she rises from the sofa to face me. We stand there, locked in a stare down for what seems like centuries, but is only seconds. However, I believe I have just experienced the Ice Age.
Kels breaks eye contact first. She uses both hands to wipes the tears from her cheeks. In a small, tight voice, she says, "You're right. I am a professional. I'll do it because I'm a professional. But don't expect anything more than that from me, 'cause you're not gonna get it."
Before I can respond, she leaves my office closing the door gently behind her.
That went well.
* * *
Well, the producer in Harper certainly came out in full force. She's going to be a damn good one, it appears. I slam my office door and sink into my desk chair shaking. I've never been so damn mad.
"You will do this story." Her words echo in the back of my mind right behind his words: "I killed the bitch. You're next."
I can't do this story. I can't help get a monster like him out of jail.
I glance over at the picture of Erik. Before I know it, I'm at the bookcase clutching his picture to my chest and fighting back the tears. "I can't Erik. I can't do it." The tears slowly leak out, not so much because I'm sad, but because I'm mad.
I'm mad at Harper for telling me I will do it.
I'm mad at Langston for telling us to do it.
I'm mad at Erik for leaving me.
I'm mad at him for fucking up my life.
And I'm mad at myself for letting all this get to me.
You're stronger than this, Kelsey Diane Stanton. Tabloid is right. This is what you do. So, push back the pain and the frustration, and do your damn job.
I wipe away my tears, looking at Erik once again. "I miss you, you little shit."
"Kelsey?" Brian calls softly, sticking his head in the door. "You all right?"
I take a deep breath and put Erik's picture back on the bookcase. "Yeah, I'm fine." That's a big, fat lie. I'm not fine at all. I'm fucking falling apart.
"Would some tea help?" he asks, raising his brows.
Apparently I didn't lie very well. "Ye-" I stop, remembering something, or hopefully someone, more important than all of this bullshit. "Ah, how about some apple juice?"
He smiles kindly. "Back in two shakes."
Sinking back down into my chair I rest my head in my hands. They tell me I was with him for four days. I don't know for sure. Locked away in that little room, continuously tormented, time had no meaning for me. I remember lying there with my eyes closed, listening to him tell me how he killed those girls. He told me every detail of every rape and every murder. He told me how he killed Harper.
Thank God, he didn't take her from me, too.
Yet now I'm willing to not only throw away my own career, but hers as well? Oh yeah, that's supportive. That's being a real partner. If I fuck up, I take her with me. I ruin her life as well.
I can't do that to her.
I won't do that to her.
I feel his hand on my knee, but I look up to find Brian. He's kneeling next to me, holding my juice in one hand and a Kleenex in the other. Hell, I've been crying and didn't even know it.
"Here you go." He offers both items to me. "Kelsey," he squeezes my knee gently, "I don't know what has you so upset, but if you need someone, I have two good shoulders."
I find tears in his eyes which only cause more to fall from my own. I feel him take the glass out of my hand and, a moment later, wrap his arms around me. "Just like Erik," I whisper to him.
"Only not as butch," he makes a soft joke and I have to chuckle.
I pull back, wiping at my eyes, trying to smile at my new friend. "Right, not as butch. You would have liked him a lot."
"Oh, I know that. To be honest, I went to his movies to drool over him. Those eyes," he sighs dramatically.
I laugh a little while wiping at my face with the Kleenex. "They were beautiful. He would have been flattered you thought so."
"Kelsey, I don't know what's wrong, and I'm not going to pry, believe it or not, but I'm guessing this is about more than missing Erik. I want you to know I was serious when I offered my shoulders. Free of charge."
"Thanks." I lean across my desk and pick up the glass of apple juice. I take a long drink, letting it soothe my nerves. "Brian, have you ever felt like you were coming apart at the seams, and everything and everyone in your life was pulling at you?"
"What do you do to get through it?"
"I find one thing -" He takes another Kleenex from the box on the floor. He certainly comes prepared, must have been a Boy Scout. Well, actually, no, he wouldn't have been. As I contemplate his Eagle Scout status, he wipes my face a little more. "- one thing that means the world to me and makes me happy and I tuck it away. Then I deal with each thing one at a time until the pressure lets up." He tosses the Kleenex in the trash can and hands me another one. "Blow."
I obey. I glance at the glass of juice on my desk. I have one thing. And if I let all this stress get to me I might lose it too. This is assuming, of course, that I even have it. I won't know for another week, but I have to act right now like I do.
"You have something, right?" Brian asks gently.
"I sure hope so."
* * *
I stare at the door she closed so quietly a few minutes ago. That controlled, hard edged, desolate voice was more painful than anything I've ever heard before. Given how she was when she left here, I suspect I better give her some time to cool down.
I turn to the file Langston gave me earlier. The first items in the files are the addys in our electronic morgue for the print materials and transcript files on the story. I log into the library server and start glancing through the files. I take it in, looking for anything that might make this case different from the hundreds of other rape/murder cases each year.
Clips from all of the major Ohio papers are here from the Plain Dealer to the Akron Beacon Journal. From the looks of things, the Columbus Dispatch is the closest to being the on-the-site paper.
The first time my new story shows up is a short crime report on an inside page of the local section.
Jamestown Village. The bound and mutilated body of a young woman was found late last night in her two-family home. Police Chief Jason Clairmont stated that all appropriate steps were being taken by the Jamestown Village police to identify and apprehend the perpetrator. Motivation for the killing is unknown, but the victim was also raped, according to unnamed sources. The police are withholding additional information until the family of the victim has been notified. The body has been turned over to the Fairfield County Coroner's office for an autopsy examination into the exact cause and time of death.
Later stories go on to detail the Jamestown Village Police Department's apprehension of Frederick Johnstone, an itinerate laborer with a history of petty crimes, nothing rising above a misdemeanor.
The cops did their investigation and pieces of information were published accordingly. The perp broke into her house through a broken basement window. The woman was raped, vaginally and orally, then beaten about the face and killed, more or less in that same sequence.
The evidence was purely circumstantial. Johnstone had a history of being a bad drunk, of roughing up women occasionally, and being the neighborhood Casanova. He had been seen flirting with the victim a few weeks prior while doing some repair work in her next door neighbor's home, raising the likelihood he knew about the broken window. There were several empty bottles of Rolling Rock at the scene, his known beer of choice, and one the victim was said to not favor. There was a belt at the site similar to one he had been seen wearing previously, but it was a common, brown leather one with a Harley Davidson buckle.
Interestingly enough, despite living in the same general neighborhood, there is no mention in any of the stories that the victim, Beverly Verrett, and Johnstone knew each other before he worked for her neighbors. The case doesn't look like the depressingly common "pick up the girl, have sex, bang her around a bit too hard" story. In fact, Beverly Verrett was, according to all the newspaper articles, a modern day saint: kind to stray animals, caring for her elderly parents, and working on a nursing degree.
Nor does it look like he was a serial killer caught early. Johnstone doesn't fit the typical profile in any way. He was a bad drunk, no question, but he was also a devoted churchgoer, attending one of those southern Baptist splinter churches devotedly with his pregnant second wife. He seemed to have normal relationships with his parents and his wife, and his children from his first marriage, wasn't abused as a child, no history of cruelty to animals. No, this wasn't another Ted Bundy caught early.
The coroner's report provides a description of the injuries which seem to be far too specific and focused to be a drunken killing. This woman was tortured, methodically and systematically. Every bone in her face was broken. The coroner compared her injuries to being in a high-speed car accident.
Another thing bothers me. Jamestown Village is small. The Ohio register of municipalities puts the population at under four thousand people. The entire police force consists of one police chief, a sergeant, a corporal and four patrol officers, as listed in the news articles. Yet nowhere is there any mention of bringing in the state police, or receiving assistance from the nearby Columbus PD, or calling in the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Why not? The case doesn't strike me as open and shut.
I push the folder away and run the story through my mind. While I was reading through the various clippings, transcripts and reports, I was able to put aside my feelings, treat it like any other story I've ever handled. But now it hits me.
This could have been Kels.
If he hadn't made that one mistake and she hadn't been looking for an opportunity.
If she had lost hope and the will to live.
I could be looking at her autopsy report.
I imagine Kels' beautiful face shattered. Her skin turning blue as he strangles her to death. Leaving her exposed and defiled, lying in a pool of blood in her own house. A place where she was supposed to be safe.
I grab my trash can and dry heave over it. The acid bites at the back of my tongue and sweat pores down from my temples.
Shit. What if Langston is right? What if I don't have what it takes? What if I can't get past this and be the professional I once was?
Don't go there.
I put the trash can back under my desk and wipe my brow with my sleeve.
I am a professional. And I will prove it.
I pull the folder back towards me. There's a story here. A good one, I think. I don't know if Johnstone is guilty or not, but I do know that there are questions. And I haven't even gotten to his trial yet. Defense counsel in capital trials tend to be overworked, overwhelmed and understaffed. Not to mention the number of plain old incompetent ones out there, forced to take the case by the courts.
There is a story. One we're gonna tell.
As I make the decision, I hear a soft knock on my door. "Come in," I call, setting the folder aside. Kels sticks her head in. Since when did she knock on my door? I study her, noting she's been crying again.
"Are you ready to leave? Or does the new story have your exclusive focus?"
* * *
I glance at her while unlocking the apartment door. She's leaning against the foyer wall, waiting. She barely said two words all the way home. They were both one word responses to the small talk I tried to make. I finally gave up and listened to 1010 WINS which the cabby had on. I know more about traffic and weather conditions than I cared to know. I'm glad we don't have to take the GWB on our way home tonight.
I open the door and motion her inside. She goes in without a word. She's not mad at me, I don't think. She looks like a zombie, drained of life. God, I hate this. She hangs her coat up on the rack.
"I'm going to go take a bath."
"Terrific idea, Little Roo. I'll order us some dinner. Italian good for you, sweetheart?"
"Sure." She leaves me standing at the door.
It's my first time feeling alone in our apartment.
After dinner is ordered, I pour myself a drink and head for the sun room. It's too damn cold to go out on the balcony. We get a good breeze up here. Something I hadn't thought about, but I bet I'll appreciate it come the summer. God, please let us make it to summer. Don't take this away. Not now. Not when I know what it's like.
I stare out over the park, sipping and thinking.
This is tearing her up. She has barely talked to me about everything that happened to her while she was with him. Her way of dealing with it, I guess. The big D of denial. It ain't just a river anymore.
Of course, now we're up that river without a paddle. Or a damn boat. Or a life preserver. And I should have fuckin' learned how to swim.
I only know bits and pieces of what happened based on what Bear could piece together and the things Kels would blurt out when waking from a bad dream in the hospital.
But I found Erik. I saw the crime scene photos of what he did to those other women. I know what he was capable of.
A shiver runs down my spine. I take another sip, hoping the alcohol will bring needed warmth.
He had my Little Roo. He had her for four days. He hurt her in ways I can't fathom. Ways I don't want to think about.
Maybe I'm at fault too. I should have gotten her help. No matter how much she would have protested. She kept telling me she was doing okay. I helped her hide from it.
I should have gotten her help. And now it's too late. We're forced to deal with this story and if I push anything more, it'll only make it worse.
Way to go, Kingsley.
I turn when I hear her join me in the room. She's in sweats, with a towel wrapped around her head. She lowers it to her shoulders and begins drying her hair with it. She looks so young. I raise my glass. "Want one?"
She shakes her head. "No, I'll get some milk or juice." Quietly, without another word, she turns for the kitchen.
I follow her even though I know I should give her some space. But I can't let her hurt like this and not try to help.
She caps off the milk and puts it back in the fridge. We've been shopping at a very expensive Upper East Side grocery store that sells milk in the old fashioned bottles. If only they sold it at the old fashioned prices. Kels leans against the counter sipping from her glass, staring at the floor.
"You sure you don't want something a little stronger? It might help you relax," I offer, moving over to the wine bottle I'd opened earlier.
She shakes her head. "Baby," she says quietly.
Oh shit! Great, Harper. Of course, she's thinking she might be pregnant. "Jesus, I'm sorry. I should have thought of that." I dump my drink down the drain and join her by getting a glass of milk too. I add Hershey's chocolate syrup to mine though.
I lean against the counter next to her, to be near her. I let our shoulders brush, wondering if she'll even allow that much contact. I'm relieved when she doesn't pull away as I half-expected. I don't know what to say to make this any better. I go with the first thing that comes to mind. "I'm really sorry."
"Not your fault."
"I feel like it is."
She shakes her head and surprises me by reaching over and taking my hand in hers. I almost faint in relief. "No, it's my problem. I have to deal with it. I'll do the story, Harper. I won't -" her voice cracks and she takes another sip of her milk - "I won't let you down."
I squeeze her hand gently. "Sweetheart, that would be impossible."
* * *
I'm sitting here, digging through the life and death of a young woman. By all accounts, Verrett was a beautiful, young woman, with auburn hair, laughing eyes, and a promising future. Some of the interviews almost read like poetry as people, men especially, talk about her. She was only twenty-four when she was murdered.
Of course, that begs the question. Was Johnstone her murderer? Through all the accounts, he's never changed his story or his profession of innocence. Unlike others who later recant confessions, he's never wavered. He says he was at a bar with a couple buddies early in the evening and then went to another one later that night. People had general recollections of him being there, but no one could speak to the exact times he was there. Drunks don't make good witnesses.
No one saw Verrett with anyone that evening. She went over to visit her parents and make their meal, then came home around eight. She waved to her next door neighbor and exchanged a few words before going inside. That was the last time she was seen alive. Except by her murderer.
I place a call to Mama who is at home, fortunately. "Kingsley residence," she answers.
"Bon jour, Mama, c'est Harper."
"Harper? Is something wrong?"
Everything, but I can't tell her that. Not without her hopping a flight up here to lecture me for a couple hours in person. "Oui, Mama. I need a contact."
"For your eyes?"
I laugh. "No, for a story. I'm doing one on capital punishment. I need to know who I can talk to in Ohio, preferably in the Columbus area, about a case."
"Hold on, let me get my organizer."
My Mama has a rolodex CEOs of Fortune 500 companies would die for. All of the work she and Papa do with various causes has brought her into some very influential company. Mama also has an incredibly memory. Once she knows you, she never forgets you. Papa has long called her his 'stealth weapon'. She looks sweet and people underestimate her because of the accent, but, she'll nuke ya.
I hear her flip the pages of her address book. "Call Melanie Henley of Capital University Law School. She's a professor of Constitutional Law and she advises the ACLU chapter at the law school." She gives me Professor Henley's phone number. "She's worked with Papa and I on a number of committees. She's good people, for someone who doesn't speak French." It's Mama's old joke.
"Well, I'm sure she wishes she did." I play along.
We talk for a few more moments before she tells me to earn my living. I next punch in the Professor's number and am surprised when she picks up the phone. "Henley."
"Hello, Professor Henley, my name is Harper Kingsley and I'm with -"
"Kingsley? Are you related to Jonathan and Cecile Kingsley?"
"Yes, I'm their daughter. I'm a producer with Exposure in New York."
The professor has a soft mid-western accent. "I thought I recognized your name. What can I do for you? And how are your parents? I haven't talked to them since our last central committee meeting."
"They're doing well, thank you for asking. Mama ask me to send you her regards. I was calling because I've been assigned a story there in Ohio about one of the men on death row. Are you familiar with Frederick Johnstone's case?"
The professor blows out an exasperated breath. "I am, but I'm one of a few. We've been trying to get him a retrial for the last two years. It's only because he's scheduled to die this summer that people are suddenly getting a little bit interested in the case."
"I'm definitely interested. I've been looking at the newspaper articles and some of the file tapes here and I have questions. Can you share with me some of your concerns about the case?"
And she does just that. We talk for the next hour. Actually, she talks for the next hour, I take notes. Professor Henley and her students in the ACLU chapter began looking at the case as part of a special project on constitutional law. Over the last few semesters, they have put together a lot of information, most of which seems to indicate that Johnstone shouldn't be sitting where he is today.
Around the time of Verrett's death, a serial rapist was working her neighborhood and a few of those adjoining. In each instance, he would enter through a lower, unlocked window, rape the occupant of the house, and leave the same way. There was a substantial amount of community pressure on the small police force for someone to be brought in for questioning in the matter. Johnstone had been a suspect in that case, based on his Lothario status, but he had credible alibis for the majority of the attacks. He was released after questioning.
Evidence in the Verrett matter appears to not have been handled correctly, or lost altogether. The bed, sheets and towels found around the victim were disposed of by her landlord. Hair in the bathroom sink, where the police assumed the killer cleaned up after the murder, was gathered nearly two weeks later from the drain trap by one of the patrol officers with a pair of tweezers and a baggie. The basement window - the means of entry according to police - was never dusted for fingerprints. The footprints one cop reported in the basement were obliterated by subsequent visits to the room by other cops. The bathroom was not dusted for prints at any time. At least three other people had keys to Verrett's apartment and there was no sign of forced entry onto the premises.
The main item linking Johnstone to the scene were several empty bottles of Rolling Rock found in the kitchen and several more in the fridge. Once the cops found out he had flirted with her earlier, he became their prime suspect. The empty bottles were never tested for his fingerprints or DNA during the trial.
We don't even have time to get into the trial and what happened there before she has to leave for a class. I thank her for her time and assure her I'll be visiting her in the near future.
Langston is right. There's a story here. Maybe Johnstone is guilty, but there's enough of a doubt to make me wonder if he isn't the Hundredth Innocent Man Langston is looking for.
I gather up my notes and march over to Langston's office. Here I am, just twenty-seven hours later, standing at his door, tapping on the frame. Just like yesterday, he is on the phone and pecking at his keyboard furiously. I swear he's wearing the same clothing. I wonder if it's true that he doesn't go home.
He finishes his call and, without looking up, he orders, "Kingsley: sit!" I feel a bit like the family dog, but I obey. After a few more moments at the keyboard, he faces me. "Well?"
I hand him a synopsis of the story as I see it. "You may have your poster boy, Langston: evidence is flimsy, the crime is brutal, and Johnstone wasn't all that bad-looking before he went to jail. I don't know what the outcome of all the research will be, but it's not looking like he had a fair trial. We have an incompetent police force, a hungry DA and God knows what type of lame defense. Also, there's a law school club dying to prove this guy innocent as their semester project. So, we have a lot of free research coming our way."
Langston looks over my notes while I talk. After I finish, he grunts. "When are you leaving?"
"Tomorrow morning. Or whenever the first flight to Columbus is. If they even have direct flights there."
He snorts. "Nah, they'll probably send you through somewhere convenient, like Raleigh-Durham. Get on it, Kingsley. And keep in touch."
I walk back to my office feeling immensely better. One major hurdle has been cleared successfully.
I can do any damn story you send me on, Langston.
Arriving back in my office, Charleen, our shared secretary - or executive assistant as she prefers to be known - calls to me. "Ms. Kingsley, you're needed in Ms. Stanton's office right now." Her tone is low and guarded, as if she knows something is wrong.
God, what if there is something wrong?
* * *
Brian sets a stack of books down on my desk. "Bitches, huh? I know a few of those. The stories I could tell." He clucks and shakes his head.
"Witches, Brian, not bitches." I smile back at him. I know he's trying to stay cheerful and help me through this in his own way.
"Bitches, witches, whatever. Put a man in a pair of fishnets and six inches heels and you can't tell the difference."
I shake my head and try to get into another web site, if only to get that mental image out of my mind. If the information superhighway were moving any slower today, it would be going in reverse. "Hey, by any chance did you find that herbal tea I asked you about?"
"I sure did and hid it in your dressing room. Want me to make you a pot?"
"No, I'll do it. Can you call research and have them send up anything they have on the Salem witch trials?"
"Absopositootly." He turns, leaving to do my bidding. I don't know how he stays so damn happy all the time. I wish I knew his secret.
I glance at the screen. Connection timed out. Of course. It figures. Nothing like trying to work and not be able to. Oh well, at least I can make my tea. Going into my dressing room, I fill the carafe and pour the water into the coffee maker.
Suddenly, I'm back there, in that little room.
Back there with him.
I look around, trying to get my bearings, but everything is clouding over. Like in the movies when the fog suddenly rolls in and sweeps over the heroine, nothing is clear. I can't find my way home.
But I can see his face. Hear his voice. Feel his hands on my body.
I stumble backward.
I have to get away. I can't go through this again.
I have to get away.
My heart is pounding and I worry it'll come bursting out of my chest at any moment. I can't catch my breath. The oxygen is being sucked out of the room.
He's taking my life away.
"No!" I scream.
I fight against his hands on me. Not again.
His grabs ahold of me, just above my wrist.
"No!" I struggle against him, clawing at him. I'm glad when I feel skin under my fingernails. "No!"
"Kelsey! Stop! Please!" he urges.
A gulp of air catches in my throat, causing the room to come back into focus momentarily.
I'm in my office. In New York. Far away from him. From that room.
I can hear the blood pounding in my ears. I can hear my breathing; I sound like I ran a marathon.
"Get Harper," he says.
Yes, Harper. Get Harper. She'll make this go away.
As the panic passes, I realize it's Brian who has me in his arms. Looking down, I see blood and the shattered remains of the coffeepot on the carpet. I realize his grip on my arm is to try to stop the flow of blood.
I close my eyes.
"Where is she?" Harper calls. I lift my head from Brian's chest and see her charging through the door, a woman right behind her. "What happened?" she demands of Brian, her tone hard.
He pauses just a moment before reply. "I think she tripped. The coffeepot shattered and she cut herself on it."
I'm coming to my senses and I look at Brian quizzically. He knows I didn't trip, but his eyes tell me he's not giving up any details about what he found when he came in.
Harper steps into the bathroom and grabs a towel from the rack. She wraps my arm in it, pressing down against the gash there. Leading me carefully over to my couch, she settles us down on the soft leather, wrapping me up in her arms. "Brian, can you go get a first aid kit?" she asks softly.
"Sure." Brian ushers the other woman out of my office and closes the door behind him.
I take a deep breath and look into worried, blue eyes. "I'm clumsy," I offer with a little smile.
"Right." Her voice sounds doubtful, but she's not forcing it.
"I'm okay, really." I try to get up but she won't let me. Her embrace is strong, keeping me in place. Instead of causing me to panic, it does the opposite. I know I'm safe. He can't get me here.
"Just relax until we get that cut cleaned up," she requests, kissing the top of my head. "I haven't been able to hold you all day."
How can I deny her?
* * *
Sitting on the sofa at home, I watch her pace back and forth. I look down at the bandage above my wrist. It didn't take stitches, but it was a nasty, little cut requiring two butterfly bandages and a gauze pad over it. It took quite some time for the bleeding to stop and a thin red line stains the gauze right now. My fingers trace over it lightly.
"Kelsey, chér, look at me."
I look up to find her kneeling in front of me. She brings her hands to rest on my knees lightly. There are so many things I want to say to her. So many things I want to tell her, to make her understand. But, if I do, she'll hate me. She'll leave me for sure if I tell her the things I remember about my time with him.
"I love you. Every day I think I can't love you more and I find I do. Finding you, having you fall in love with me all of it surprises the hell out of me. I didn't think I'd get this lucky. But somehow or other, I won the cosmic lottery."
I try to smile. "And you didn't even have to pay taxes on me."
"Nope, sure didn't. And, sweetheart, I hope that one day we'll be able to claim each other as deductions. If Mama has anything to do about it."
We share a smile. Mama on a crusade is a scary thought.
"I know that the incident today in your office was no accident. You didn't trip. You're not clumsy."
"No." I admit quietly.
"I didn't think so. What happened?"
"I was back there. In L.A. I felt it happening again."
She nods. "I thought as much. The nightmares are back again, aren't they?"
"Hell, I hate it that I have to leave right now. I have to, though. You understand that, don't you? You know why I have to go?"
"The story," I whisper. God, I hate this story.
"It's more than a story, Kels. It's our careers here. I've got to - we've got to - do this story. Otherwise Langston is going to do everything he can to get rid of us."
I reach out and touch Harper's cheek with my fingertips. "I'll be ready if you need me."
She takes my hand, kissing my fingers. "I always need you, Little Roo. What I want is for you to be able to get through this without any more trauma. I'd like to see if we can't find you someone to talk to, who can help you work through things."
"I can handle it. I just need time."
Harper shakes her head, dropping her eyes momentarily. "No, Kels, you can't handle it. No one can alone. Today was a perfect example of that. These panic attacks, or flashbacks, or whatever you want to call them, are only going to get worse. I'm here for you, sweetheart, but I think you need someone professional, who can be objective."
I nod, dropping my head, fighting more tears. She knows I'm really screwed up because of this. She doesn't need this in her life. The best thing I can do for her is get through this story so that when I finally do snap and lose my mind, they won't fire her too. If it's the last decent thing I do, I have to make sure she's okay.
I look up and all I see is a very concerned face watching me carefully, trying to determine what I'm thinking.
"Let's go to bed. You have an early flight," I needlessly remind her.
I get up from the couch and tug her hand gently to see if she's coming with me. She rises and we slowly walk toward the bedroom. Harper pauses in the hallway, looking at the stairs near the front door. I wonder if she wants to go sleep in the guest room. I might die if she does.
"You know," she starts, "it occurs to me that the money we put into the guest room was a total waste."
"Huh?" I'm truly confused.
"Well," she wraps her arms around me from behind, placing her hands over my stomach, "we're gonna have to turn it into a nursery soon."
These are the first happy tears I've cried in days, and I can't stop the sob that leaves my throat at the thought. The one thing. That's my one thing I have to hold onto. The one thing that's going to keep me from losing it completely.
"Come on, let's go to bed." She nudges me down the hall towards our room.
Once we're settled in bed, I roll over to face her in the dark. "Hold me?"
"Only for forever, darlin'."
She opens her arms and I curl tight against her. I don't know what I'm going to do tomorrow night when she's not here.
* * *
I stay awake for awhile, keeping watch over Kels' dreams. Once in my arms, she falls asleep rapidly, but her rest isn't easy. In the moonlight, I can see her brow is still furrowed with worry. I reach a hand up and gently massage it, to get her to relax. Reluctantly, she does and the tension transfers to her hands which clutch at my jersey. I pry them off one at a time and massage them, placing kisses in her palm while doing so. I try to remember every bit of French poetry my mother or my professors made me memorize and I whisper it softly into the night air.
I hate leaving her in a few hours.
Jesus, the last time I left when I shouldn't have is how we got into this mess to begin with. If I had been at her apartment, I could have prevented all of this. Erik would still be alive. Kels wouldn't be hurting.
I did this to her.
I should trash that damn bike. I should tell Robie to keep the damn thing instead of just storing it for me. Or maybe I'll go down to NOLA and burn it.
A fucking drive was more important than staying with Kelsey. Way to go on the priorities, Kingsley. You're lucky she still lets you near her. Anything else is pure grace.
She's hurting and I have to leave her.
I'm hurting and I have to leave her.
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