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Sharp objects, p.4

Sharp Objects, page 4

 

 


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  sweet-faced young girl was the second victim of what police presume to be a serial killer. A serial killer who’s targeting children.

  “All the little ones here are sweethearts,” said local farmer Ronald J. Kamens, who assisted in the search for Keene. “I can’t imagine why this is happening to us.”

  Keene’s strangled body was discovered May 14, crammed into a space between two buildings on Wind Gap’s Main Street. “We will miss her laughter,” said Jeannie Keene, 52, mother of Natalie. “We will miss her tears. Mostly, we will miss Natalie.”

  This, however, is not the first tragedy Wind Gap, located in the boot heel of the state, has withstood. Last August 27, nine-year-old Ann Nash was found in an area creek, also strangled. She had been bicycling just a few blocks to visit a friend when she was abducted the night before. Both victims reportedly had their teeth removed by the killer.

  The murders have left the five-person Wind Gap police force baffled. Lacking experience in such brutal crimes, they have elicited help from the Kansas City homicide division, which has sent an officer trained in the psychological profiling of murderers. Residents of the town (pop. 2,120) are, however, sure of one thing: The person responsible for the slayings is killing with no particular motive.

  “There is a man out there looking for babies to kill,” says Ann’s father, Bob Nash, 41, a chair salesman. “There’s no hidden drama here, no secrets. Someone just killed our little girl.”

  The removal of the teeth has remained a point of mystery, and clues thus far have been minimal. Local police have declined to comment. Until these murders are resolved, Wind Gap protects its own—a curfew is in effect, and neighborhood watches have sprung up over this once-quiet town.

  The residents also try to heal themselves. “I don’t want to talk to anyone,” says Jeannie Keene. “I just want to be left alone. We all want to be left alone.”

  Hack work—you don’t need to tell me that. Even as I e-mailed Curry the file, I was already regretting nearly everything about it. Stating that police presumed the murders were committed by a serial killer was a stretch. Vickery never said anything of the sort. The first Jeannie Keene quote I stole from her eulogy. The second I yanked from the vitriol she spewed at me when she realized my phone condolences were a front. She knew I planned to dissect her girl’s murder, lay it out on butcher paper for strangers to chew on. “We all want to be left alone!” she yelped. “We buried our baby today. Shame on you.” A quote nonetheless, a quote I needed, since Vickery was shutting me out.

  Curry thought the piece was solid—not great, mind you, but a solid start. He even left in my overfried line: “A serial killer who’s targeting children.” That should have been cut, I knew it myself, but I craved the dramatic padding. He must have been drunk when he read it.

  He ordered a larger feature on the families, soon as I could scrape it together. Another chance to redeem myself. I was lucky—it looked like the Chicago Daily Post might have Wind Gap to ourselves for a bit longer. A congressional sex scandal was unraveling delightfully, destroying not just one austere House member, but three. Two of them women. Lurid, juicy stuff. More importantly, there was a serial killer stalking a more glamorous city, Seattle. Amid the fog and coffeehouses, someone was carving up pregnant women, opening their bellies, and arranging the contents in shocking tableaux for his own amusement. Thus it was our good fortune that reporters for this type of thing were out of commission. There was just me, left wretched in my childhood bed.

  I slept late into Wednesday, sweaty sheets and blankets pulled over my head. Woke several times to phones ringing, the maid vacuuming outside my door, a lawn mower. I was desperate to remain asleep, but the day kept bobbing through. I kept my eyes closed and imagined myself back in Chicago, on my rickety slice of a bed in my studio apartment facing the brick back of a supermarket. I had a cardboard dresser purchased at that supermarket when I moved in four years ago, and a plastic table on which I ate from a set of weightless yellow plates and bent, tinny flatware. I worried that I hadn’t watered my lone plant, a slightly yellow fern I’d found by my neighbors’ trash. Then I remembered I’d tossed the dead thing out two months ago. I tried to imagine other images from my life in Chicago: my cubicle at work, my superintendent who still didn’t know my name, the dull green Christmas lights the supermarket had yet to take down. A scattering of friendly acquaintances who probably hadn’t noticed I’d been gone.

  I hated being in Wind Gap, but home held no comfort either.

  I pulled a flask of warm vodka from my duffel bag and got back in bed. Then, sipping, I assessed my surroundings. I’d expected my mother to pave over my bedroom as soon as I’d left the house, but it looked exactly as it was more than a decade before. I regretted what a serious teenager I’d been: There were no posters of pop stars or favorite movies, no girlish collections of photos or corsages. Instead there were paintings of sailboats, proper pastel pastorals, a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt. The latter was particularly strange, since I’d known little about Mrs. Roosevelt, except that she was good, which at the time I suppose was enough. Given my druthers now, I’d prefer a snapshot of Warren Harding’s wife, “the Duchess,” who recorded the smallest offenses in a little red notebook and avenged herself accordingly. Today I like my first ladies with a little bite.

  I drank more vodka. There was nothing I wanted to do more than be unconscious again, wrapped in black, gone away. I was raw. I felt swollen with potential tears, like a water balloon filled to burst. Begging for a pin prick. Wind Gap was unhealthy for me. This home was unhealthy for me.

  A quiet knock at the door, little more than a rattling gust.

  “Yes?” I tucked my glass of vodka to the side of the bed.

  “Camille? It’s your mother.”

  “Yes?”

  “I brought you some lotion.”

  I walked to the door a bit blurrily, the vodka giving me that first necessary layer to deal with this particular place on this particular day. I’d been good about booze for six months, but nothing counted here. Outside my door my mother hovered, peering in warily as if it were the trophy room of a dead child. Close. She held out a large pale green tube.

  “It has vitamin E. I picked it up this morning.”

  My mother believes in the palliative effects of vitamin E, as if slathering enough on will make me smooth and flawless again. It hasn’t worked yet.

  “Thank you.”

  Her eyes scanned across my neck, my arms, my legs, all bared by the lone T-shirt I’d worn to bed. Then back with a frown to my face. She sighed and shook her head slightly. Then she just stood there.

  “Was the funeral very hard on you, Momma?” Even now, I couldn’t resist making a small conversational offering.

  “It was. So much was similar. That little casket.”

  “It was hard for me, too,” I nudged. “I was actually surprised how hard. I miss her. Still. Isn’t that weird?”

  “It would be weird if you didn’t. She’s your sister. It’s almost as painful as losing a child. Even though you were so young.” Downstairs, Alan was whistling elaborately, but my mother seemed not to hear. “I didn’t care much for that open letter Jeannie Keene read,” she continued. “It’s a funeral, not a political rally. And why were they all dressed so informally?”

  “I thought the letter was nice. It was heartfelt,” I said. “Didn’t you read anything at Marian’s funeral?”

  “No, no. I could barely stand, much less give speeches. I can’t believe you can’t remember these things, Camille. I’d think you’d be embarrassed to have forgotten so much.”

  “I was only thirteen when she died, Momma. Remember, I was young.” Nearly twenty years ago, can that be right?

  “Yes, well. Enough. Is there anything you’d like to do today? The roses are in bloom at Daly Park, if you’d like a walk.”

  “I should go over to the police station.”

  “Don’t say that while you’re staying here,” she snapped. “Say you have errand
s to run, or friends to see.”

  “I have errands to run.”

  “Fine. Enjoy.”

  She padded away down the plush corridor, and I heard the stairs creak quickly downward.

  I washed up in a cool, shallow bath, lights off, another glass of vodka balanced on the side of the tub, then dressed and entered the hallway. The house was silent, as silent as its century-old structure would allow. I heard a fan whirring in the kitchen as I stood outside to make sure no one was there. Then I slipped in, grabbed a bright green apple, and bit into it as I walked out of the house. The sky was cloudless.

  Outside on the porch I saw a changeling. A little girl with her face aimed intently at a huge, four-foot dollhouse, fashioned to look exactly like my mother’s home. Long blonde hair drifted in disciplined rivulets down her back, which was to me. As she turned, I realized it was the girl I’d spoken to at the edge of the woods, the girl who’d been laughing with her friends outside Natalie’s funeral. The prettiest one.

  “Amma?” I asked, and she laughed.

  “Naturally. Who else would be playing on Adora’s front porch with a little Adora house?”

  The girl was in a childish checked sundress, matching straw hat by her side. She looked entirely her age—thirteen—for the first time since I’d seen her. Actually, no. She looked younger now. Those clothes were more appropriate for a ten-year-old. She scowled when she saw me assessing her.

  “I wear this for Adora. When I’m home, I’m her little doll.”

  “And when you’re not?”

  “I’m other things. You’re Camille. You’re my half sister. Adora’s first daughter, before Marian. You’re Pre and I’m Post. You didn’t recognize me.”

  “I’ve been away too long. And Adora stopped sending out Christmas photos five years ago.”

  “Stopped sending them to you, maybe. We still take the dang pictures. Every year Adora buys me a red-and-green checked dress just for the occasion. And as soon as we’re done I throw it in the fire.”

  She plucked a footstool the size of a tangerine from the dollhouse’s front room and held it up to me. “Needs repolstering now. Adora changed her color scheme from peach to yellow. She promised me she’d take me to the fabric store so I can make new coverings to match. This dollhouse is my fancy.” She almost made it sound natural, my fancy. The words floated out of her mouth sweet and round like butterscotch, murmured with just a tilt of her head, but the phrase was definitely my mother’s. Her little doll, learning to speak just like Adora.

  “Looks like you do a very good job with it,” I said, and motioned a weak wave good-bye.

  “Thank you,” she said. Her eyes focused on my room in the dollhouse. A small finger poked the bed. “I hope you enjoy your stay here,” she murmured into the room, as if she were addressing a tiny Camille no one could see.

  I found Chief Vickery banging the dent out of a stop sign at the corner of Second and Ely, a quiet street of small houses a few blocks from the police station. He used a hammer, and with each tinny bang he winced. The back of his shirt was already wet, and his bifocals were slung down to the end of his nose.

  “I have nothing to say, Miss Preaker.” Bang.

  “I know this is an easy thing to resent, Chief Vickery. I didn’t really even want this assignment. I was forced into it because I’m from here.”

  “Haven’t been back in years, from what I hear.” Bang.

  I didn’t say anything. I looked at the crabgrass splurting up through a crack in the sidewalk. The Miss stung me a bit. I couldn’t tell if it was politeness I wasn’t accustomed to or a jab at my unmarried state. A single woman even a hair over thirty was a queer thing in these parts.

  “A decent person would have quit before writing about dead children.” Bang. “Opportunism, Miss Preaker.”

  Across the street, an elderly man clutching a carton of milk was shuffling half-steps toward a white clapboard house.

  “I’m not feeling so decent right now, you’re right.” I didn’t mind gingering Vickery along a little bit. I wanted him to like me, not just because it would make my job easier, but because his bluster reminded me of Curry, who I missed. “But a little publicity might bring some attention to this case, help get it solved. It’s happened before.”

  “Goddam.” He threw the hammer with a thud on the ground and faced me. “We already asked for help. Got some special detective from Kansas City down here, off and on for months. And he hasn’t been able to figure out one goddam thing. Says it might be some crazed hitchhiker dropped off the road here, liked the looks of the place, and stayed for near on a year. Well this town ain’t that big, and I sure as hell haven’t seen anyone looks like they don’t belong.” He glanced pointedly at me.

  “We’ve got some pretty big woods around here, pretty dense,” I suggested.

  “This isn’t some stranger, and I would guess you know it.”

  “I would have thought you’d prefer it to be a stranger.”

  Vickery sighed, lit a cigarette, put his hand around the sign post protectively. “Hell, of course I would,” he said. “But I’m not too dumb myself. Ain’t worked no homicide before, but I ain’t a goddam idiot.”

  I wished then that I hadn’t sucked down so much vodka. My thoughts were vaporizing, I couldn’t hold on to what he was saying, couldn’t ask the right questions.

  “You think someone from Wind Gap is doing this?”

  “No comment.”

  “Off record, why would someone from Wind Gap kill kids?”

  “Got called out one time because Ann had killed a neighbor’s pet bird with a stick. She’d sharpened it herself with one of her daddy’s hunting knifes. Natalie, hell, her family moved here two years ago because she stabbed one of her classmates in the eye with a pair of scissors back in Philadelphia. Her daddy quit his job at some big business, just so they could start over. In the state where his granddad grew up. In a small town. Like a small town don’t come with its own set of problems.”

  “Not the least of which is everyone knows who the bad seeds are.”

  “Damn straight.”

  “So you think this could be someone who didn’t like the children? These girls specifically? Maybe they had done something to him? And this was revenge?”

  Vickery pulled at the end of his nose, scratched his mustache. He looked back at the hammer on the ground, and I could tell he was debating whether to pick it up and dismiss me or keep talking. Just then a black sedan whooshed up next to us, the passenger-side window zipping down before the car even stopped. The driver’s face, blocked by sunglasses, peered out to look at us.

  “Hey, Bill. Thought we were supposed to meet at your office right about now.”

  “Had some work to do.”

  It was Kansas City. He looked at me, lowering his glasses in a practiced way. He had a flip of light brown hair that kept dropping over his left eye. Blue. He smiled at me, teeth like perfect Chiclets.

  “Hi there.” He glanced at Vickery, who pointedly bent down to pick up the hammer, then back at me.

  “Hi,” I said. I pulled my sleeves down over my hands, balled the ends up in my palms, leaned on one leg.

  “Well, Bill, want a ride? Or are you a walking man—I could pick us up some coffee and meet you there.”

  “Don’t drink coffee. Something you should’ve noticed by now. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

  “See if you can make it ten, huh? We’re already running late.” Kansas City looked at me one more time. “Sure you don’t want a lift, Bill?”

  Vickery said nothing, just shook his head.

  “Who’s your friend, Bill? I thought I’d met all the pertinent Wind Gappers already. Or is it…Wind Gapians?” He grinned. I stood silent as a schoolgirl, hoping Vickery would introduce me.

  Bang! Vickery was choosing not to hear. In Chicago I would have jabbed my hand out, announced myself with a smile, and enjoyed the reaction. Here I stared at Vickery and stayed mute.

  “All right then, see yo
u at the station.”

  The window zipped back up, the car pulled away.

  “Is that the detective from Kansas City?” I asked.

  In answer, Vickery lit another cigarette, walked off. Across the street, the old man had just reached his top step.

  Chapter Four

  Someone had spray-painted blue curlicues on the legs of the water tower at Jacob J. Garrett Memorial Park, and it was left looking oddly dainty, as if it were wearing crochet booties. The park itself—the last place Natalie Keene was seen alive—was vacant. The dirt from the baseball field hovered a few feet above the ground. I could taste it in the back of my throat like tea left brewing too long. The grasses grew tall at the edge of the woods. I was surprised no one had ordered them cut, eradicated like the stones that snagged Ann Nash.

  When I was in high school, Garrett Park was the place everyone met on weekends to drink beer or smoke pot or get jerked off three feet into the woods. It was where I was first kissed, at age thirteen, by a football player with a pack of chaw tucked down in his gums. The rush of the tobacco hit me more than the kiss; behind his car I vomited wine cooler with tiny, glowing slices of fruit.

  “James Capisi was here.”

  I turned around to face a blond, buzz-cut boy of about ten, holding a fuzzy tennis ball.

  “James Capisi?” I asked.

  “My friend, he was here when she got Natalie,” the kid said. “James saw her. She was wearing her nightgown. They were playing Frisbee, over by the woods, and she took Natalie. It would’ve been James, but he decided to stay here on the field. So Natalie was the one right by the trees. James was out here because of the sun. He’s not supposed to be in the sun, because his mom’s got skin cancer, but he does anyway. Or he did.” The boy bounced the tennis ball, and a puff of dirt floated up around him.

  “He doesn’t like the sun anymore?”

  “He doesn’t like nothing no more.”

  “Because of Natalie?”

  He shrugged belligerently.

  “Because James is a pussy.”

  The kid looked me up and down, then suddenly threw the ball at me, hard. It hit my hip and bounced off.

  He blurted out a little laugh. “Sorry.” He scrambled after the ball, dove on top of it dramatically, then leapt up and hurled it against the ground. It bounced about ten feet in the air, then dribbled to a stop.

  “I’m not sure I understood what you said. Who was wearing a nightgown?” I kept my eye on the bouncing ball.

  “The woman who took Natalie.”

  “Wait, what do you mean?” The story I’d heard was that Natalie had been playing here with friends who left to go home one by one, and that she was assumed to have been abducted somewhere along her short walk home.

  “James saw the woman take Natalie. It was just the two of them, and they were playing Frisbee, and Natalie missed and it went into the grasses by the woods, and the woman just reached out and grabbed her. Then they were gone. And James ran home. And he don’t come out since.”

  “Then how do you know what happened?”

  “I visited him once. He told me. I’m his buddy.”

  “Does James live around here?”

  “Fuck him. I might go to my grandma’s for the summer anyway. In Arkansas. Better’n here.”

  The boy threw the ball at the chain-link fence outlining the baseball diamond, and it lodged there, rattling the metal.

  “You from here?” He began kicking dirt in the air.

  “Yeah. I used to be. I don’t live here anymore. I’m visiting.” I tried again: “Does James live around here?”

  “You in high school?” His face was deeply tanned. He looked like a baby Marine.

  “No.”

  “College?” His chin was wet with spit.

  “Older.”

  “I got to go.” He hopped away backward, yanked the ball out of the fence like a bad tooth, turned around and looked at me again, waggled his hips in a nervous dance. “I got to go.” He threw the ball toward the street, where it bounced off my car with an impressive thunk. He ran after it and was gone.

  I looked up Capisi, Janel, in a magazine-thin phone book at Wind Gap’s lone
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