Penumdra

 

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Braden University
Lecture Hall

Jarod liked teaching. Sparking new thoughts in fresh minds was exhilarating. He winged the class, giving them a dissertation on a carousel of slides featuring artwork by highly disturbed adults and children, while barely glancing at Dr. Prescott’s notes.

When the lights came on, he fielded questions from the undergrads and discussed a wide variety of pathologies that both interested and amazed his students. Many of them stayed after he dismissed them, clustering around him with still more questions, but when he caught sight of the woman standing in the doorway at the back of the room, he promised them more next class and shooed them away with a warm smile.

“Dr. Prescott,” he called. “I was hoping to meet you today. I’m Jarod Young.” He ascended the steps in the amphitheater toward her, and she came down to meet him halfway. Her pretty face was drawn, and there were dark circles beneath her eyes. He also noticed with a twinge of remembered pain that her short hair was copper red. Just like Zoe’s. This pretend was starting to hit just a little too close to home.

“Dean Adams called to let me know I had a sub today,” she told him. “I was planning to do this lecture anyway, but when I got here you were already in full swing, so I thought I’d just listen. You’re good. Some of your insights were… fascinating.”

Jarod beamed. “Thank you. I’ve done a lot of this over the years.”

“The dean mentioned you had taught at Quantico. For a man your age, that’s pretty impressive by itself.” She eased past him and went to the slide carousel at the center of the room. “This one, for instance, this drawing by little Jessica Hamilton…” She searched through the slides for a moment, turned on the projector and flashed what appeared on the surface to be a benign child's drawing of a little girl, a house and some trees. "The first few shrinks to get a look at this drawing didn't pick up on her predilection, but you did. And I know you didn't get that out of my notes, since there was only her name and age in the file. Jessica was one of my patients, and came to me through the courts, so I knew every detail about her case."

"Did you get her after she had killed for the first time?" he asked solemnly. The signals in that drawing had been abundantly clear to him.

Tamara Prescott glanced up at him sharply. "How did you know she killed someone?"

"Look at the trees and flowers," he offered as he strolled toward her. He pulled his laser pointer from his blazer pocket and aimed it at the projection screen, drawing attention to the trees. "Those aren't plants. They have faces and hands. They're the people who live in her world. And the ones she's got gathered up into a bouquet in her hand…"

"Were her victims. All very young. Younger than she was." Tamara sighed. "That picture hung on her therapist's wall for a month before the first body was found. They knew she was troubled, but nobody saw the signals, not even me at first. You nailed it with a glance."

Something sick settled in the pit of his stomach as he looked at that drawing, understanding its elements too well. He turned his back to it and shut the projector off. "Practice. But I'd rather not talk about cases, if you don't mind. I'd like to know what you want me to do to help you with your work, until you're ready to handle it all on your own again."

Tamara's blue eyes narrowed slightly. "I was wondering who sent you here."

Jarod smiled. "Professor Denisof sends his regards."

Her suspicions instantly melted away into the ghost of a buried laugh. "How is the old guy?"

"Enjoying retirement. Still proud of his best student. And in case you're wondering, this is a favor to him in exchange for something he did for me. I'm not cutting into your paycheck. This is just a professional courtesy."

Dr. Prescott looked distinctly uncomfortable at the mention of money. “Are you sure you can afford…”

“Money’s not a problem,” he assured her. “I got a nice severance package with my last job, and the next one starts when I get there. How are you doing?”

She shrugged. “Things are a little tight. I’m trying to pay off Tal’s medical bills. We had agreed to that.”

“Even though you weren’t married.”

Tamara’s bittersweet smile brightened her face as she reached to liberate the tray of slides. “Not yet. Just another couple of weeks, and we would have been.”

Jarod drifted closer, and settled one hand onto her shoulder. “I know how you feel, Tamara.” He let just the right amount of heartbreak show in his eyes. “I lost someone special, too.”

She smiled sadly. "It's really hard sometimes, you know? We were so close to having everything… the wedding, and Tal about to submit a new book to his publisher…."

"What sort of things did he write?" Jarod asked gently.

"Nonfiction, mostly. He called this one Penumbra. Said it was appropriate, since it was the story of a profiler, a man who lived his life with the shadow of others constantly hanging over him."

"It sounds… interesting." Jarod had been a profiler himself, but knew he couldn't discuss that with the woman in front of him.

“You know, I started a support group for those who have lost a loved one," Tamara was saying. "We've already had our first session; why don’t you come to the next one? Just sit in on it with me. You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to.”

Jarod usually preferred a one-on-one setting to that of a group. His smile hardened, felt as if it might shatter at any moment. “I’ll try, but I’ve got a couple other projects to work on while I’m here. If you’ll leave the information on my desk, I’ll see what I can do about attending.”

This time her smile was genuine, and warm. “That would be nice. I’ll look forward to seeing you there, Jarod.” She sighed. “Meantime, why don’t we go back to the office and go over my schedule? I’m trying to get back into teaching, but I’m still tying up some loose ends of Tal’s, going through his things. You know.” Tears gathered in her eyes. “After I do a little of that, it’s just really hard to come in here and start talking about aberrant behavior.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Want some help with those slides?”

She glanced at his arm. “Looks like you’re the one who needs help,” she teased. “How’d it happen?”

“Science experiment gone wrong,” he answered evasively.

He escorted her back to the office, keeping up the banter between them, and delving into the professional aspects of the department of psychology, while keeping her interest steered away from him and his recent past.

* * * * * * * * *

She was just settling in behind her desk with some of her ill-gotten gains when Miss Parker's office door swung open. Broots darted inside and closed the door, staring at it for a second as if he thought it might open right up again on its own… or if someone was following him. Then he dashed across the room to her desk and bent over it conspiratorially. He was sweating, and his eyes were bulging with fear.

“Miss Parker!” he whispered. “Something weird is going on!”

She rolled her eyes at him and dropped her glance back to the folders spread out on her desktop. “Since when does anything normal ever happen here, Broots?”

He leaned closer. “This is weirder than usual. I went to Mr. Raines’ office, just like you told me. I was expecting to find most of his stuff being farmed out to other people, since he’s dead and all, and if anybody asked me, I was going to say that I was taking some of his projects to Sydney. But when I got there, you’ll never guess what I found!”

“Santa Claus?”

“No!” He was so worked up that he didn’t even notice her barb. “Willie was standing guard, and Raines’s office was locked up tighter than a drum!” He blinked. “What does that mean, anyway? Are drums always tight?”

She sighed impatiently. “So? Wait till Willie has to go to the bathroom and prance right in there!”

He backed off slightly. “You don’t get it,” he hissed, inching closer. “Why would they have his stuff nailed down in the first place, if he’s dead? Wouldn’t they be handing his projects out to people who can finish them?”

For a moment, she was silent. “You’re right, Broots,” she whispered back. “They’d do exactly that.”

She stood, scooped up the folders and the DSAs and handed them over to him. “Copy these for me and have the originals back on my desk ASAP. I’m going hunting.”

“You don’t think--“

“I’m going to make certain,” she snapped, and stepped out from behind the desk to lead the way out of her office, listening for his obedient footsteps to follow her out the door. She could almost feel his furtive looks all around him as he skulked in her wake, but her awareness of Broots was fading. She could smell something unpleasant on the wind, and was determined to follow it to its source.

* * * * * * * * *

The victims were all Asian women in their 20's. They were smart. They were pretty. But that seemed to be what drew their killer to them.

Jarod read over the reports, poured through the case files, studied the photographs of the bodies, the grave sites, the murder locations. All of it was eerily familiar, as if he had seen it before, but he knew he had never heard of Lung Li until Tamara Prescott asked him to handle the research project on this particular serial killer for her.

She had given him a stack of four files from Peltier Maximum Security Prison from which to choose one subject. The study was being done at the request of the FBI, as a comparison for their Behavioral Sciences training classes. Braden University provided several guest lecturers for the academy's BSU, and often participated in field studies with the Bureau, Tamara had explained to him. She specifically requested that he consider doing the study on this particular offender. She had interviewed him before and found him charming, though obstinate, but was unable to get straight answers from him; perhaps being interviewed by a man would shift the balance.

He read over each of the files, except for one. That one he opened, glanced at the first photograph, and closed the folder, sliding it quickly to the bottom of the stack. Lung Li's was the next folder he opened, and he decided to follow Dr. Prescott's suggestion.

And so he began to simulate Lung Li, imagining him at the murder scenes, the things he did to all those women. Some elements were puzzling, but eventually he understood the motivation, the intricacies of the crimes. That Lung Li was an extremely sick, dangerous man was obvious. But there was always a method behind the madness.

Jarod understood that all too well. Simulating the behavior of a serial killer had been hard for him as recently as two years ago; each subsequent time it became a little easier, though it also made him uneasy for reasons he didn't totally understand.

He laid the photographs out all over the desk in his tiny, cramped apartment. Some of them he laid on the floor, on the tops of opened drawers and tacked to the walls, until the photographs of murder and mutilation virtually surrounded him. With sweat beading on his brow, he fired up his laptop computer and began to write, to fill in the blanks on all the survey questions he was supposed to ask Lung Li. And he let Lung Li answer every one of them with unvarnished, twisted truth that was his alone.

* * * * * * * * *

When a detective wanted to know why something was happening, standard advice was to follow the money. In this case, Miss Parker decided, it was a case of follow the sweeper. Willie knew Mr. Raines better than anyone else, except perhaps her father. If anyone could lead her to old wheezy's current whereabouts, be they under or above ground, it would be his personal errand boy.

Apparently, though, she'd misjudged the size of the man's bladder. Willie never took a bathroom break. Instead, he stood stiffly in front of Raines' office door for hours, studying the passersby and turning away those few brave souls who dared to request admittance. Only when another black-clad statue arrived to replace him did he finally leave his post, and head directly for the elevator.

Sliding neatly into the flow of traffic, she stepped into the car along with half a dozen others, pressing the button for Sub-Level 5 and the Tech Room. No one would question her desire to talk to Broots about Jarod's latest whereabouts. That was her job.

The doors opened at her floor, and she stepped out under Willie's watchful eye. After they closed, instead of heading for Broots' desk she hung back and watched the indicator. SL-7… SL-12… SL-16. All reasonable floors. It was only when the elevator car descended into the very bowels of the Centre that she guessed its final destination.

Renewal Wing. If there were a better place to slip underneath everyone's radar, she couldn't think of it. Somehow, she was certain, Raines had managed to escape the grim reaper yet again, and was hiding in a part of the Centre no one visited unless they had a good reason.

She broke into a feral smile. Putting paid to Dr. Billy's latest trick was certainly a good enough reason for her. "Haul out the good china," she whispered to no one in particular. "You're about to have company."

* * * * * * * * *

Peltier Maximum Security Prison
Peltier Island, on the Potomac River

“You know the procedure?” the guard asked casually.

Jarod nodded. “Keep back from the enclosure gates at least five feet. Do not pass anything to or accept anything from the inmates. No personal information on my part.” He handed over his briefcase for the guard to rifle through. After a very thorough search, he took it back.

“Okay,” Officer Walters agreed at last. “Walk through the metal detector and meet me on the other side."

The Pretender passed through without incident. A muscle twitched in his jaw. “I don’t look forward to this.”

“No one does. Even their regular shrinks don’t like seeing them.” Walters shot a nervous glance toward the steel and thick Plexiglas door that separated him from the cell corridor. “They’re some bad dudes, man. Be careful.”

Jarod offered a pained smile. “I will, believe me. I know more about these guys than I want to.”

After another pat-down, the guard finally allowed him to pass through the electronic gate. He flinched when he heard the massive door clang shut behind him, but straightened his suit jacket and marched down the wide aisle between the thick stone wall and the bank of small but well lit cells. He did not meet the eyes of the first man in the cell, though he saw the movement of his head as he walked past.

That would be Ron Chambers, put away for his crimes against a sorority house full of college girls. In the next cell was Pauley Fishman, a man of questionable intelligence who killed a farm family and lived in their house with their rotting bodies for four months. At the third cell, he put his head down and tried not to look, but it was impossible.

The man was as tall as he, but broader, more muscular. His light blue eyes were piercing, and his dark hair was pulled back, secured at the nape of his neck. He smiled and rose from the table at the center of his cell, where he had been drawing.

“And what are you doing here?” Kodiak Brown asked. “Come to pay me a visit?” He strolled up to the Plexiglas front of his cage and leaned casually against it as Jarod walked past.

He couldn’t maintain eye contact with that man, knowing what he had done. Jarod could still see the mangled bodies of his final victims in the photographs taken in the basement of his country home. Brown had a particular enjoyment of torture, and had murdered almost a dozen women after weeks of captivity, during which he put his victims through unspeakable torment.

Jarod blinked away tears that sprang to his eyes, and concentrated on his job. These interviews, though difficult, were part of the process. He had a mission to accomplish, and getting through them was necessary. He had a list of questions he was supposed to ask, and he was supposed to try to get the inmates to converse with him as a psychological professional. The university had gone to a lot of trouble to arrange it, and he had to get it done.

But when he passed Brown’s cell and took his seat on the molded plastic bench across from Lung Li’s cell, he wasn’t sure he was going to make it all the way through. He could feel Brown’s gaze on him, and it made his insides clench painfully. Jarod opened his briefcase, took out a tablet of paper, a pen and the printed list of questions.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Lung,” he began coolly. “Thank you for participating in this survey.”

Lung was average sized, average build, average in every sort of way, except in the crimes he had committed against the women of his race. He seemed congenial and interested, which Jarod knew was a ruse to draw the other person in, get them to relax. Charm was a big part of what had enabled this Chinese-American man to coax women into close quarters, where he would rape and torture them for days before disposing of their bodies in wooded areas. But Jarod already had his answers. Here he was simply going through the motions.

He ran down the list in typical clinical fashion, with Lung teasing and hinting with his responses rather than answering them outright. Jarod’s pen did not move even a single time to take note of those answers, and when he thanked Lung for his time and started packing up, the inmate called him on it.

“Aren’t you going to take notes? You might get something wrong if you don’t write it down now, while it’s fresh.”

Jarod cocked his head slightly and studied the man. He reached into his briefcase and pulled out a set of neatly typed papers, stapled together in the upper left corner. “I really don’t need to, Mr. Lung, since I’d already written my report before I got here. This was just for the record.”

Lung chuckled. “So you already know everything about me, huh? That’s a new one. Docs here have been trying to figure me out for years.” He stepped closer to the reinforced acrylic door, arms crossed. “What’s your opinion, then? Why do I do what they say I did to get me in here?”

“Because you like it,” Jarod answered succinctly. “It’s validation of how smart you are and how stupid the women are when they go with you. And the power you wield over them, man! That’s intoxicating, isn’t it?” His voice emphasized the understanding of how powerful that attraction was to the other man. “It’s not about the sex, though that’s a nice bonus. It’s about the power, the invasion, the shattering of their trust in that moment when they know you’re the Big Bad Wolf. It’s all about the looks on their faces, their pleas for mercy.” He leaned closer to the transparent shield, half smiling as his dark eyes gleamed with empathy. “And the screams. It’s like a symphony, isn’t it?”

Echoes of them teased his ears, twisted his heart up into a knot. He could see by Lung’s expression that he was right on, yet not satisfied with the depth of his assessment. “But no one knew about the blood, did they?”

Lung’s eyes narrowed.

Jarod glanced at a photograph in a folder in his briefcase. “You bled them, just a little, here and there, while you tortured them. You gathered the blood into vessels to mix with the earth where you buried them, didn’t you? But nobody ever knew that little detail except you.” He paused. “And me.”

Lung’s hands curled up into fists. His teeth ground together, his eyes flashing with leashed rage. Abruptly he smiled, only the merest flicker of anger still showing in his eyes. “And why would I do such a thing, doc?”

Jarod replaced his report into the case, closed and locked it, and stood. He made eye contact after straightening his jacket, and took the briefcase in hand. “Because you’re a sick, twisted bastard with no regard for human life except your own,” he snapped. He took a step closer to the door, intending to impress the other man with his greater height and physical presence, but Lung stayed where he was, smirking back at him. “And because you had gods to appease, so they would give you a son. Instead, you got five daughters. I’d say your gods didn’t like you very much, wouldn’t you?”

Lung lunged at the barrier, slamming into it with his shoulder, then backed off. “Come see me again, Doc. Maybe next time you’ll actually listen so you can find out just how wrong you are.”

But Jarod wasn’t listening. He had taken one step toward Kodiak Brown’s cell, and made eye contact. His feet stopped moving. He was riveted to the spot, his palms sweating.

Brown chuckled huskily, the sound a soft growl with a dark edge to it. “What exactly do you know about me, doctor?”

Jarod swallowed hard, fighting back tears, trying desperately to avoid the agony welling up in his soul. “Everything,” he whispered. “I know everything about you.”

Brown winked at him as his smile grew brighter.

Jarod bolted past, stumbling to a walk just in front of the first cell. He was flushed and sweating when he signaled the guard to let him out. The guard searched him and his case again, and then permitted him to leave. He had to maintain a calm demeanor as he left the prison, returned to the ferry and drove back into town.

But he didn't go back to the university right away. He had to go to his temporary digs first and stand under a hot shower, where he could weep in private and attempt to wash away the blood his mind told him was still covering his skin. That sim had been a lifetime ago, but it never left him completely. And seeing Brown brought too much of it back, more than he could handle.

He thought instead about Zoe, of the light and joy she had brought into his life. He remembered making love to her, and how wonderful it had been. The memories helped, but then came the awful shadow of her death and the tide of grief that came with it. Even that was more tolerable than seeing that man in his cell. Jarod struggled to tamp down those terrible memories, so he could get on with his work. He had people to help, and he couldn’t do it if he was a mass of tangled emotions.

But he would never be able to leave Kodiak Brown behind, and he knew it.

On to Act III

 
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