I Don't Want to Kill You, page 16
‘She’s terrified,’ said Marci. ‘If that’s a bomb, she didn’t put it on herself.’
I glanced back at the door, and the black night beyond. Marci’s right: Ashley’s not the killer, she’s the pawn. Nobody’s out there somewhere, watching where it’s safe. I flexed my fingers in frustration, curling them around imaginary weapons. I had nothing – there was no way I could confront her. I didn’t even know if I could reach the door, and the window behind me was too high to climb to. I thought about calling her, begging her to cancel the attack, but Forman’s phone was still at home, hidden away. There’s nothing I can do.
The press of people surged against us, squishing screaming students into the wall and almost jostling us down from our perch on the radiator. Someone else was scrambling up now, pulling heavily on Marci, and I shoved him back.
‘I can’t just stand here,’ I said, staring out at Ashley. She had something in her hands; her knuckles were white around it. ‘I’ve got to do something.’
‘Are you crazy?’ asked Marci.
‘Technically, yes.’ But what could I do? I caught a glimpse of Brooke on the far side of the ring, eyes wide with terror, and I made my decision. ‘Do you have your phone?’
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m going to stop this,’ I said. ‘Do you have your cellphone?’
‘Where would I hide a cellphone in this dress?’
‘Then find someone who does,’ I said, ‘and call the police. And stay here.’
She called after me again but I ignored her, diving down into the crowd and shoving my way through a sea of stomping feet and frightened faces. Ashley’s voice rang out, wet and hoarse with tears. ‘I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!’
‘Let me through!’ I shouted, but the only people lucid enough to pay attention merely shouted back insults as they pushed past me in a futile rush towards safety. I struggled against the current and finally got through, stumbling into the wide circle that had formed around her. Students and teachers and chaperones were pressed tight against all four walls, rigid with terror.
‘John, move back!’ bellowed a teacher. ‘You’ll get us all killed!’
‘She doesn’t want to kill everyone,’ I said. The next words stuck in my throat, but I forced them out. ‘This doesn’t have to happen.’
‘It’s not me,’ Ashley said, her voice cracking. ‘I swear it’s not me.’
‘I know,’ I said, walking slowly towards her. ‘I know it’s not you – it’s the woman who put the bomb on you.’
I stopped. ‘The woman who’s making you do this.’
‘It was a man,’ she cried, ‘only a man. I didn’t see a woman.’
So I was right; she’s taken a new body somehow.
‘That’s fine,’ I said, and took a step closer. ‘It was a man. What did he tell you?’
‘Stay back!’ the Principal warned me. ‘It’s not safe.’
‘It’s fine,’ I told him. ‘Ashley is not going to hurt anybody, and nobody is going to hurt Ashley. Isn’t that right?’
She nodded, and I took another step closer. ‘What did he tell you?’
‘He said,’ she choked on her tears, swallowed, and continued, ‘he said he’d push the button and kill us all.’
There has to be some way out of this. ‘He’ll kill us no matter what?’ I asked. ‘Is that all he said?’
‘He said I had to read this letter.’ She held up her hands. She’d been clutching a sheet of paper.
‘That’s good,’ I said, nodding and grasping at the sliver of hope. ‘If he wants us to hear something then he’s not gonna kill us – there’s no point. He needs us alive so the message can get out.’ I looked at her. ‘Just do what he said. Just read it.’
She trembled, and I could hear the paper rattling in her hands. ‘ “Why won’t anybody listen”,’ she began.
That’s right, I thought, we’re listening now. Just don’t kill us.
‘ “I have tried to be reasonable. I have tried to be—” ’ she swallowed ‘ “—polite. Your city is plagued by evil, and I am trying to destroy it, but all you do is fight against me”.’
Am I the evil she’s fighting against? But these four killings seem designed to lead me towards her, not drive me away. It doesn’t make sense.
‘“When I . . .” ’ Ashley sobbed, squinting through her tears, ‘“killed the . . . the great liar, I sent a letter to the newspaper, which they refused to print. When I killed the pedophile I talked to them directly, but they still refused to share my teachings”.’
Slowly it dawned on me: This isn’t about me at all. It’s not a plan or a trick or anything else. The Handyman really cares about his message, more than anything else.
‘ “Now this is the final straw”,’ Ashley continued, fighting back sobs, ‘ “You have understood my teachings, but you have turned against them. You have tried to protect the adulterer. But still I am merciful, and I have slain the one who led you astray”.’ At this point Ashley dissolved into tears, too terrified to continue.
‘Is that all?’ I asked. ‘Ashley, look at me. Come on – look at me.’ She did so, and I held her gaze. ‘He said you’d be safe if you read it,’ I told her. ‘You have to read it all.’
She nodded and looked back at the paper. ‘ “I didn’t want to put these innocent children in danger, but it was the only way to make you listen. This is your final warning. Walk in the ways of the Lord, and make His paths straight. Thus you shall be purified . . .” ’ She trailed off, then finished: ‘ “By fire”.’
The hall was silent, no one daring to move or breathe, everyone waiting. A single second ticked by, as long as an hour. Nothing exploded.
‘Is that all?’ I asked.
‘Are you sure? There’s nothing else at all?’
‘That’s every word, I promise.’
‘Then I want you to drop the paper, and turn around,’ I told her. I was only ten steps away now, and I walked slowly forward. ‘Just turn around, so I can undo that harness.’
She turned slowly, gingerly, as if expecting to blow up at any second. I was three steps away, two steps, one. The harness was a simple web of straps and plastic buckles, hanging loosely over her shoulders and around her chest; he hadn’t even tightened it. I inspected the first buckle carefully for wires or metal contacts, saw nothing, and slowly squeezed the plastic nubs until the buckle popped loose. Nothing happened. I undid the next one, then the next, then reached around to grab the pack of explosives before opening the last clasp.
Something’s not right.
I didn’t know anything about explosives, but I’d seen enough movies to know that a block of C4 was supposed to be like a heavy brick of clay that you pressed the detonators into. This wasn’t anything like I had expected. I moved around to face Ashley directly, getting a better look at the blocks.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
I’d assumed that the subtle differences between the Hollywood image and the bomb on Ashley’s chest were because the ones on TV were inaccurate, but I could see now that it was more. Seen up close, these bombs were completely different – almost handmade. Almost fake. I reached out and grabbed the edge of the paper wrapping, digging my finger into a crease, and tore it away.
‘No!’ screamed Ashley, but nothing happened. The torn paper revealed woodgrain and saw-marks; the bright red stamp of a lumberyard.
‘They’re made of wood.’ I pulled the paper away on the others and found the same: long wooden blocks, cut into pieces and wrapped with paper. The wires that ran into them were held by hidden nails. There was no explosive, no power source, and no detonators, just a carefully crafted prop designed to remind us of the movies. ‘The whole thing’s a fake.’
Ashley pulled away from me, reaching behind her back in a frenzy and pulling apart the last buckle. She tore the fake bomb off and held it up, grimacing, then threw it down and backed up a step. The crowd gasped. The
I jumped forward and grabbed Ashley’s arm, whispering urgently, ‘What did you see out there? What happened?’
‘It was a man,’ she said, trying to pull away. I held her like a vise. ‘He had a gun. He told me to put the vest on or he’d shoot, and then he said to come in here and read the letter or he’d blow me up.’
‘Did you see him? Can you describe him?’
‘No, no!’ she cried. ‘It was dark and I couldn’t see a thing - just his outline. He was short, maybe five feet tall, I don’t know!’
‘And his voice,’ I demanded. ‘Describe his voice.’
‘He didn’t say anything,’ she said. ‘It was all written on a note. Let me go!’
The crowd was parting and police were coming in. I let go of her just as the police caught up to us, shouting for paramedics, and they pulled Ashley and me outside. More cops were directing traffic through the double doors, trying to get everyone out of the building. A bomb squad rushed past us going in, but I shook my head.
‘It’s fake,’ I called after them. ‘He was never going to blow up anything.’
I felt a hand on my shoulder, and turned to see Officer Jensen; Marci was right behind him, and raced to my side. I reared back, suddenly afraid that he’d come to kill me, but he held up a clear plastic bag containing a small, discarded pistol. ‘He was never going to shoot anybody, either. This was out in the shadows, just over there, clean as a whistle - no clip, and nothing in the chamber.’
‘He left his gun?’ I asked.
‘He probably wanted us to find it,’ said Officer Jensen. ‘It looks like he scrubbed it clean of evidence and then left it where he knew we’d see it.’
I leaned against Marci, suddenly tired. ‘He wanted us to know it was really him. I’ll bet you anything the ballistics of that gun match all four killings, but you won’t find any evidence to tell you who he is.’
Officer Jensen nodded. ‘That’s exactly what I thought, too.’ He cocked his head to the side. ‘You’re very good at this, you know?’
I studied him closely, sizing him up, trying to match him against Ashley’s description of her attacker, but he was far taller than she’d described. It couldn’t have been him.
But it was a man, that much she was sure of. Which meant either Nobody really was a shapeshifter, or . . .
. . . it wasn’t Nobody.
I stumbled, feeling drained, and Marci caught me and led me out onto the park lawn.
‘You need to sit,’ she said. ‘You’re going to come down off a killer adrenaline buzz any second now, and you don’t want to be on your feet for it.’
‘I’m fine,’ I said, but allowed her to lead me to a bench. It was dark, lit by the flashing lights of a dozen cop cars and fire trucks, and the sidewalks were filled with lines of terrified students. My hands were shaking, and Marci pulled them into her lap and held them tightly.
‘He didn’t say anything,’ I said, ‘he just gave her a note. That either means he couldn’t talk, or he wouldn’t.’
‘You’re an absolute idiot,’ she said. ‘You could have been killed – do you realise that?’
‘This is important,’ I told her. ‘None of the victims have ever fought the Handyman, which probably means he gains their trust, which almost definitely means he can talk. So why would he talk to them, and not to Ashley?’
‘Just let it go,’ said Marci, ‘just for one night.’
‘No,’ I said, fixing her with my eyes. ‘He just told us he’s going to keep killing, and he just showed us that most of our profile is garbage. We can’t just let it go, we’ve got to figure him out. Or her – we don’t even know that for sure any more.’
Marci reached up and touched my cheek, running her hand up the side of my face and straightening my hair. I found myself suddenly unable to think about anything else.
‘You’re a hero,’ she said, ‘but even heroes need a rest sometimes.’
‘He might have a speech impediment. Like the Trailside Killer. But it’s probably not something, um, debilitating.’ She was stroking my head, and I could barely concentrate. ‘It’s probably just an identifier, like an accent. He didn’t want Ashley to hear his voice because he knew he was going to leave her alive. The Handyman has an accent, I’ll bet you anything.’
‘That’s your whole thing, isn’t it?’ said Marci, leaning close to my face. I could see the blue and red lights from the police cars reflecting on her skin and flashing in her eyes. ‘You see something wrong and you have to fix it, and damn the consequences.’
‘But it’s important,’ I said again. ‘She, or he, or whatever it is, will just keep killing and killing until I stop it.’ I looked up at the stars. ‘Now I’ve wasted two whole months building a profile that can’t predict anything, and we’re not any closer now than when we started.’
‘You don’t have to solve everything by yourself,’ Marci said softly. ‘I know you’re trying to do your best to make things right, and I love that about you, but you can’t let it eat you alive. The Handyman left evidence, and the police can use it to track her down, or him, or whatever, and you don’t have to do everything.’ She smiled weakly. ‘You don’t have to march into hell every single time they open the gate.’
I studied her face, cataloguing every familiar line and curve. I let out a long breath, pushing out the air like a poison. Calm down, I told myself. I turned and looked at the street. Cars crept past slowly, trying to get a good look at the chaos. ‘You know, I am suddenly struck with the horrifying realisation that you and my mom might really get along.’
‘Then you’re lucky to be surrounded by smart women,’ she said. ‘I can see we have our hands full.’
She said ‘we’. She’d seen me be stupid, she’d seen me be obsessed, she’d seen me put my life at risk . . . and she said ‘we’.
‘You’re not leaving,’ I said.
She smiled, curling her mouth into a mischievous grin. ‘Are you kidding? My boyfriend just saved the whole school - he’s a hero! He’s a stupid, reckless, idiot of a hero, but hey. He’s mine.’
‘I’m yours, huh?’
We watched the chaos swirl around us, curiously separated by darkness and grass: there were police on the front steps, interviewing witnesses; there were long lines of students trying to get to their cars, and long lines of cars trying to get out onto the street. I tilted my head back and looked up at the stars again.
‘You know,’ said Marci, ‘it’s getting kind of chilly out here.’
I smiled up at the sky. ‘Now you’re regretting that immodest dress.’
She punched me lightly, laughing. ‘I’m not complaining, you dork, I’m asking you to put your arm around me. I swear, it’s like dropping hints off a cliff.’
I lifted my arm and curled it around her shoulders; she laid her head on my shoulder, warm and soft and perfect.
‘So,’ she said. ‘How’d your first dance go?’
‘Not bad, overall.’
‘I take it this is also your first bomb threat?’
I smiled. ‘Yep.’
‘How about your first kiss?’
I paused, lost for words, my brain a hollow, buzzing sphere. ‘Nothing’s happened yet, but it is a night for firsts.’
She lifted her head, bringing it level with mine. ‘Well, if it’s your first, I’d better make sure it’s memorable.’
And she did.
I slept in the next morning, dreaming of Marci, and finally crawled out of bed at ten o’clock. Mom was gone, and I flipped on the TV; there was nothing on, and I turned it back off. I poured a bowl of cereal and was just sitting down to eat it when the doorbell rang. I ignored it, but it rang again, then a third time, so I dragged myself out of my chair, went down stairs to the outside door and opened it up. Brooke was outside, walking away.
‘Hey,’ I said, suddenly conscious of my wrinkled pyjamas and mussed-up hair.
Her face, already pale, went white. ‘You haven’t heard.’ It wasn’t a question, but a sudden shock of realisation, and in that instant, reading her eyes and her face and her stance, I received the same shock. I knew exactly what she was going to say.
‘She killed herself,’ I stated.
‘Dammit.’ I stepped back, feeling the blood drain from my head, leaving it light and useless; an empty, worthless thing that buzzed with static and noise. The walls were dark and oppressive; the sun was too bright, and too cold. ‘She was a mess all night – crying and depressed and everything - but I didn’t think she’d take it that far. I had no idea.’
DAN WELLS SERIES:
Other author's books:
- PartialsI Don't Want to Kill YouIsolationThe Devil's Only FriendOnes and ZeroesNext of KinOver Your Dead BodyFragments
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