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Dark places, p.4

Dark Places, page 4


Dark Places
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  On the other side, Lyle spotted me and started arrowing through the crowd, leading with a shoulder, scooting along sideways. Glad-handing. He was, apparently, an important guy in this crowd— everyone wanted to touch him, tell him something. He leaned down to let some guy whisper in his dainty ear, and when he pulled himself upright, his head hit a flashlight, and everyone around him laughed, their faces glowing off and on as the light rotated like a police car’s. Men’s faces. Guys’ faces. There were only a few women in the entire place—four that I could see, all bespectacled, homely. The men were not attractive either. There were whiskery, professorial fellows; nondescript, suburban-dad types; and a goodly amount of guys in their twenties with cheap haircuts and math-nerd glasses, men who reminded me of Lyle and the guy who’d led me downstairs. Unremarkable, but with a brainy arrogance wafting from them. Call it AP aftershave.

  Lyle reached me, the men behind him grinning at his back, studying me like I was the new girlfriend. He shook his head. “Sorry, Libby. Kenny was supposed to phone my cell when you got here so I could bring you down myself.” He eyed Kenny over my head and Kenny made a shruggy noise and left. Lyle was steering me into the crowd, using an assertive finger to the back of my shoulder. Some people were wearing costumes. A man with a black waistcoat and tall black hat pushed past me, offering me sweets and laughing. Lyle rolled his eyes at me, said, “Frederick Baker freak. We’ve been trying to push out the role players for the past few years, but … too many guys are into that.”

  “I don’t know what that means,” I said, worried I was about to lose it. Elbows and shoulders were jostling me, I kept getting pushed back every few feet I moved forward. “I really, seriously, don’t understand what the fuck is going on.”

  Lyle sighed impatiently, looked at his watch. “Look, our session doesn’t start til midnight. You want me to walk you around, explain more?”

  “I want my money.”

  He chewed at his lower lip, pulled an envelope out of his back pocket, and stuck it in my hand as he leaned into my ear and asked me to count it later. It felt fat, and I calmed down a bit.

  “Let me show you around.” We walked the perimeter of the room, cramped booths on our left and right, all that metal fencing reminding me of kennels. Lyle put that finger on my arm again, prodding me onward. “The Kill Club—and by the way, don’t lecture, we know it’s a bad name, it just stuck. But the Kill Club, we call it KC, that’s one reason we have the big meeting here every year, Kansas City, KC, Kill Club … uh, like I said, it’s basically for solvers. And enthusiasts. Of famous murders. Everyone from, like Fanny Adams to—”

  “Who is Fanny Adams?” I snapped, realizing I was about to get jealous. I was supposed to be the special one here.

  “She was an eight-year-old, got chopped to bits in England in 1867. That guy we just passed, with the top hat and stuff, he was playing at being her murderer, Frederick Baker.”

  “That’s really sick.” So she’d been dead forever. That was good. No competition.

  “Well, that was a pretty notorious murder.” He caught me grimacing. “Yeah, like I said, they’re a less palatable section. I mean, most of those murders have already been solved, there’s no real mystery. To me, it’s all about the solving. We have former cops, lawyers—”

  “Are there role players for … mine? My family, are there role players here?” A beefy guy with highlighted hair and an inflatable doll in a red dress paused in the crowd, nearly on top of me, not even noticing me. The doll’s plastic fingers tickled my cheek. Someone behind me yelled Scott and Amber! I pushed the guy off me, tried to scan the crowd for anyone dressed as my mother, as Ben, some bastard in a red wig, brandishing an axe. My hand had balled into a fist.

  “No, no of course not,” Lyle said. “No way, Libby, I would never let that happen, the role play … it. No.”

  “Why is it all men?” In one of the booths nearby, two tubby guys in polo shirts were snarling at each other over some child murders in the Missouri bootheel.

  “It’s not all men,” Lyle said, defensive. “Most of the solvers are men, but I mean, go to a crossword-puzzle convention and you’ll see the same thing. Women come for the, like, networking. They talk about why they identify with the victims—they’ve had abusive husbands or whatnot—they have some coffee, buy an old photo. But we’ve had to be more careful because sometimes they can get too … attached.”

  “Yeah, better not get too human about it,” I said, me being a fucking hypocrite.

  Thankfully Lyle ignored me. “Like, right now, they’re all obsessed with the Lisette Stephens thing.” He motioned back behind him, where a small cluster of women were huddled around a computer, necks stretched downward, henlike. I moved past Lyle toward the booth. They were all looking at a video montage of Lisette. Lisette and her sorority sisters. Lisette and her dog. Lisette and her look-alike sister.

  “See what I mean?” Lyle said. “They’re not solving, they’re just looking at stuff they could see online at home.”

  The problem with Lisette Stephens was there was nothing to solve: She had no boyfriend, no husband, no upset coworkers, no strange ex-cons doing repair work in her home. She just vanished for no reason anyone could think of, except she was pretty. She was the kind of girl people noticed. The kind of girl the media bothered to cover when she disappeared.

  I nudged into a spot next to a stack of sweatshirts bearing iron-on decals that read Bring Lisette Home. Twenty-five bucks. The group, however, was more interested in the laptop. The women clicked through the website’s message boards. People often attached photos with their notes, but the photos were jarring. “We love you Lisette, we know you will come home,” popped up alongside a picture of three middle-aged women at the beach. “Peace and love to your family in this time of need,” surfaced next to a photo of someone’s Labradoodle. The women returned to the homepage, and up came the picture the media liked the most: Lisette and her mother, both arms wrapped around each other, cheek-to-cheek, beaming.

  I shrugged, trying to ignore my worry about Lisette, who I didn’t know. And also fighting the jealousy again. Out of all these murders, I wanted the Day booth to be the biggest. It was a blush of love: my dead people were the best. I had a flash of my mother, her red hair tied back in a ponytail, helping me tug off my flimsy winter boots, and then rubbing my toes one by one. Warming up big toe, warming up baby toe. In this memory, I could smell buttered toast, but I don’t know if there was buttered toast. In this memory I still had all my toes.

  I shivered hard, like a cat.

  “Wow, someone walk over your grave?” Lyle said, and then realized the irony.

  “So what else?” We hit a traffic jam of people in front of a booth marked Bob’s Bizarre Bazaar, manned by a guy wearing an oversized black mustache and slurping soup. Four skulls lined up on a plank behind him with a sign that read The Final Four. The guy was hollering at Lyle to introduce him to his little friend. Lyle started to wave him off, tried to pull us through the milling crowd, then shrugged, whispered role player to me.

  “‘Bob Berdella,’” Lyle said to the man, making a winky joke of the name, “this is Libby Day, whose family was … of the Kinnakee Kansas Farmhouse Massacre. The Days.”

  The guy leaned across the table at me, a drooly piece of hamburger hanging off his tooth. “If you had a cock, you’d be in pieces in my garbage right now,” he said and then gunned out a laugh. “Little, tiny pieces.”

  He swatted at me. I skittered back involuntarily, then I lurched back toward Bob, my fist up, rageful, as I always got when I had a fright. Go for the nose, make him bleed, smack that piece of chili meat right off his face, then hit him again. Before I could get to him, Bob shoved his seat back, hands up, muttering not to me but to Lyle, dude I was only playing, no harm, man. He didn’t even look at me as he apologized, like I was some child. As he yammered at Lyle, I went for him. My fist couldn’t quite connect, so I ended up giving him a hard smack against his chin, the way you’d punish a puppy.
  “Fuck you, asshole.”

  Then Lyle snapped to, muttering apologies and steering me away, my fists still tight, my jaw set. I kicked Bob’s table with my boot as I walked away, just enough so it wobbled once, severely, and dumped the guy’s soup on the floor. I was already regretting that I hadn’t just shot over the table. Nothing more embarrassing than a short woman who can’t land a punch. I might as well have been carried away, my feet baby-kicking in the air. I glanced behind us. The guy just stood there, his arms slack, his chin pink, trying to decide if he was contrite or angry.

  “OK, that wouldn’t have been the first fistfight at Kill Club, but it might have been the weirdest,” Lyle said.

  “I don’t like being threatened.”

  “He wasn’t really … I know, I know,” Lyle muttered. “Like I said, at some point these role-play guys will splinter off and leave the serious solvers alone. You’ll like the people in our group, the Day group.”

  “Is it the Day group, or the Kinnakee Kansas Farmhouse Massacre group?” I grumbled.

  “Oh. Yeah, that’s what we call it.” He tried to squirm through another bottleneck in the cramped aisle, ended up smushed to my side. My face was stuck just a few inches shy of a man’s back. Blue oxford shirt, starched. I kept my eyes on the perfect center crease. Someone with a big hobo-clown gut was pushing me steadily from behind.

  “Most people work Satan in there somehow,” I said. “Satan Farmhouse Massacre. Kansas Satan Killings.”

  “Yeah, we don’t really believe that, so we try not to use any Devil references. Excuse me!” he said, wriggling ahead.

  “So it’s a branding issue,” I sniped, eyes fixed on the blue shirt. We pushed around a corner into the coolness of open space.

  “Do you want to see any more groups?” He pointed to his immediate left, toward a bunch of men in Booth 31: quickie haircuts, a few mustaches, a lot of button-downs. They were arguing intensely at a low volume. “These guys are pretty cool, actually,” Lyle said. “They’re basically creating their own mystery: They think they’ve identified a serial killer. Some guy has been crossing states— Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma—and helping to kill people. Family men, or older people sometimes, who got trapped with too much debt, credit cards maxed out, subprime mortgages, no way out.”

  “He kills people because they aren’t good with money?” I said, rolling my eyes.

  “Nah, nah. They think he’s like a Kevorkian for people who have bad credit and good life insurance. They call him the Angel of Debt.”

  One of the Booth 31 members, a young guy with a jutting mandible and lips that didn’t quite cover his teeth, was eavesdropping and eagerly turned to Lyle: “We think we’ve got the Angel in Iowa last month: a guy with a McMansion and four kids has a picture-perfect snowmobile accident at a really convenient time. That’s like one a month the past year. Economy, man.”

  The kid was about to keep going, wanting to pull us into the booth, with its charts and calendars and news clippings and a messy nut-mix that was scattered all over the table, the men grabbing overflowing handfuls, pretzels and peanuts bouncing down to their sneakers. I shook my head at Lyle, steered him away for a change. Out in the aisle, I took a breath of unsalted air and looked at my watch.

  “Right,” said Lyle. “It’s a lot to take in. Let’s head over. You really will appreciate our group, I think. It’s much more serious. Look, there are already people there.” He pointed toward a tidy corner booth, where a fat, frizz-haired woman was sipping coffee out of a jug-sized Styrofoam cup, and two trim, middle-aged men were scanning the room, hands on hips, ignoring her. Looked like cops. Behind them, an older, balding guy sat hunched at a card table, scribbling notes on a legal pad, while a tense college-aged kid read over his shoulder. A handful of nondescript men crowded toward the back, flipping through stacks of manila file folders or just loitering.

  “See, more women,” Lyle said triumphantly, pointing at the frizz-haired female mountain. “You want to go over now, or do you want to wait and make a big entrance?”

  “Now’s fine.”

  “This is a sharp group, serious fans. You’re going to like them. I bet you’ll even learn a few things from them.”

  I humphed and followed Lyle over. The woman looked up first, narrowed her eyes at me, then widened them. She was holding a homemade folder on which she’d pasted an old junior-high photo of me wearing a gold-heart necklace someone had mailed me. The woman looked like she wanted to hand the folder to me—she was holding it like a theater program. I didn’t reach out. I noticed she’d drawn Devil horns on my head.

  Lyle put an arm on my shoulder, then took it off. “Hi, everyone. Our special guest has arrived, and she’s the star of this year’s Kill Convention—Libby Day.”

  A few eyebrows raised, several heads nodded appreciatively, one of the cop-looking guys said, holy shit. He was about to give Lyle a high-five and then thought better: his arm froze in an accidental Nazi salute. The older man darted his eyes away from me and scribbled more notes. I worried for a moment I was supposed to make a speech—instead I mumbled a tart hello and sat down at the table.

  There were the usual greetings, questions. Yes, I lived in Kansas City, no, I was sort of between jobs, no, I didn’t have any contact with Ben. Yes, he wrote me a few times a year but I tossed the envelopes straight into the trash. No, I wasn’t curious what he wrote. Yes, I’d be willing to sell the next one I got.

  “Well,” Lyle finally interrupted with a grandiose rumble. “You have here in front of you a key figure in the Day case, a so-called eyewitness, so why don’t we move on to real questions?”

  “I have a real question,” said one of the cop-looking guys. He gave a half-twist smile and turned in his chair. “If you don’t mind me cutting to the chase.”

  He actually waited for me to say I didn’t mind.

  “Why did you testify that Ben killed your family?”

  “Because he did,” I said. “I was there.”

  “You were hiding, sweetheart. No way you saw what you say you did, or you’d be dead, too.”

  “I saw what I saw,” I began, the way I always did.

  “Bullshit. You saw what they told you to see because you were a good, scared little girl who wanted to help. The prosecution screwed you up royally. They used you to nail the easiest target. Laziest police work I ever seen.”

  “I was in the house …”

  “Yeah, how do you explain the gunshots your mom died from?” the guy hammered, leaning forward on his knees. “Ben didn’t have any residue on his hands—”

  “Guys, guys,” the older man interrupted, waving thick, crimped fingers. “And ladies,” he added, greasily, nodding at me and the Frizz-Head Woman. “We haven’t even presented the facts of the case. We have to have protocol or this might as well be some Internet chat session. When we have a guest like this, we should be particularly sure we’re all on the same page.”

  No one disagreed more than a grumble’s worth, so the old guy wet his lips, looked over his bifocals and rearranged some throat phlegm. The man was authoritative, yet somehow unwholesome. I pictured him at home by himself, eating canned peaches at the kitchen counter, smacking at the syrup. He began reciting from his notes.

  “Fact: Somewhere around 2 a.m. on January 3,1985, a person or persons killed three members of the Day family in their farmhouse in Kinnakee, Kansas. The deceased include Michelle Day, age ten; Debby Day, age nine; and the family matriarch, Patty Day, age thirty-two. Michelle Day was strangled; Debby Day died of axe wounds, Patty Day of two shotgun wounds, axe wounds, and deep cuts from a Bowie hunting knife.”

  I felt the blood rush in my ears, and told myself I wasn’t hearing anything new. Nothing to panic about. I never really listened to the details of the murder. I’d let the words run over my brain and out my ears, like a terrified cancer patient hearing all that coded jargon and understanding nothing, except that it was very bad news.

  “Fact,” the man continued. “Youngest child
Libby Day, age seven, was in the house at the time, and escaped the killer or killers through a window in her mother’s room.

  “Fact: Oldest child Benjamin Day, fifteen, claims he was out sleeping in a neighbor’s barn that night after an argument with his mother. He has never produced another alibi, and his demeanor with the police was extremely unhelpful. He was subsequently arrested and convicted, based largely on rumors within the community that he’d become involved in Satan worship—the walls of the house were covered in symbols and words associated with Devil worship. In his mother’s blood.”

  The old man paused for dramatic effect, eyed the group, returned to his notes.

  “More damning was the fact his surviving sister, Libby, testified that she saw him commit the murders. Despite Libby’s confused testimony and young age, Ben Day was convicted. This despite a startling lack of physical evidence. We convene to explore other possibilities and to debate the merits of the case. What I think we can agree on is that the killings can be traced to the events of January 2, 1985. It all went wrong in a single day—no pun intended.” Murmurs of laughter, guilty looks toward me. “When that family got up that morning, it wasn’t like there was a hit on them. Something went really wrong that day.”

  Part of a crime-scene photo had slid out of the speaker’s folder: a plump, bloody leg and part of a lavender nightgown. Debby. The man noticed my gaze and tucked it back in, like it wasn’t my business.

  “I think the general consensus is that Runner Day did it,” the fat woman said, rummaging in her purse, wadded tissues falling out the side of it.

  I started at the sound of my dad’s name. Runner Day. Miserable man.

  “I mean, right?” she continued. “He goes to Patty, tries to bully her for money, as usual, gets nothing, gets pissed, goes haywire. I mean, the guy was crazy, right?”

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