Authors: Elliott James
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Once Upon a Time, I was attending a support group for survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder. We were in the basement of a Methodist church in Vista Verde, West Virginia, sitting on folding aluminum chairs, eating sticky pastries, and drinking herbal tea out of plain white ceramic cups. Justin, the soft middle-aged therapist with a gentle voice and a gray sweater, said that he wasn’t in favor of caffeine at these sorts of things. He probably wasn’t in favor of people shaking him violently and screaming “GIVE ME COFFEE RIGHT NOW, MIND-FUCKER!” either, so I just sipped the damn tea quietly.
Cassidy was talking at the moment, a brown-haired thirtysomething who had been severely beaten by her ex-husband, Steve, right before he disappeared. “I didn’t see the bills until after he left. Then I couldn’t stop seeing them. We were still legally married, and the credit card companies knew they weren’t going to get any money out of
. He lost his job for calling some kind of sex hotline on his company’s phone, if you can believe that. He was thousands and thousands of dollars in debt, a lot of it from calling that number. It was crazy.
Justin leaned forward, his watery blue eyes intent behind his small square glasses. “So, what I hear you saying is, you felt betrayed on multiple levels.” Justin was a bit of a tool, but his good intentions were palpable.
“If it had been drugs, I could have maybe understood it,” Cassidy said. “But he was paying these women…or this woman…just to talk. He had the real thing at home.” She indicated herself. She was quite pretty in a worn, tired, dark-eyed, dehydrated kind of way. “I would have loved to have had more sex!”
“It’s never a good idea to generalize about—” Justin started, but Cassidy wasn’t finished.
“I actually called the number,” she confessed. “I was almost hoping it would be a man or something.”
Just for the record? People only say that kind of thing when they’ve never met an
“It would mean that it wasn’t something wrong with me,” Cassidy finished when no one responded.
“This man broke into your house and beat you half to death, and you’re still trying to figure out what was wrong with you?” This from a graying woman named Cheyenne who had been emotionally terrorized by her stepfather and was tired of failed relationships. “That’s what’s crazy!”
Cassidy visibly faltered. “He just acted so different. And he changed so fast….”
Justin cleared his throat and waited for a go signal this time. “When someone’s internal life is extremely different from their external life, it seems like they change fast, but it’s not that simple. They’re actually revealing the real person they’ve been hiding for a long time.”
Cassidy was still focused on the sex number. Something about it had lodged in her mind like a splinter, and she couldn’t stop squeezing and plucking at it. “It was so weird. This woman was saying these intimate sexual things, but it was in this half-singsong way, like she was talking to a child. It was…I don’t know what it was. It sounded like some sick sex lullaby. Then I thought about Steve and I just started screaming at her. Just screaming and screaming. I couldn’t stop. I don’t even know what I said, but it must have been pretty bad.” She laughed shakily. “She hung up, and I was paying her eight dollars a minute.”
Trina, a teenaged prostitute who was there as part of her probation, made a scornful sound. “I didn’t even know people paid for phone sex anymore!” Despite the tough talk, Trina was so tiny that she had her feet up on the edge of her seat and her arms wrapped around her knees. She looked like a tight little fist. “Hello. It’s called internet porn?”
Justin cleared his throat. “Let’s take the emphasis away from Steve for a while,” Justin said. “Let’s talk about you, Cassidy.”
Things kind of stalled after that. Cassidy ran out of gas, and Justin gave her a few things to think about before letting her retreat back into herself.
When it was my turn to talk, I cleared my throat. “My name is John Charming. I know, it’s a weird name. The thing is, I come from a long line of monster hunters, and I came here tonight because I have a dead cop on my hands, and I really want to get rid of the body in a way that makes it look like he died in the line of duty. I figured meetings like these would be a good place to get a lead on some violent criminals who deserve to get framed for murdering a police officer.”
Well, okay, I didn’t really say any of that. These people were traumatized enough. But that’s what I wanted to say. It was a support group, after all; it would have been nice to get some support.
* * *
I volunteered to be the somebody who washed the ceramic cups and plates after the meeting disbanded. The deacon who showed up to close the church told me he would take care of it, but he said it in the perfunctory way of a person doing what’s socially expected of them, and he seemed grateful when I ignored him. “We’ve got Styrofoam cups and plates in the pantry, but that guy over there”—he indicated Justin with a nod—“said something about landfills.”
I remained neutral. The basement had a little kitchenette walled off behind a huge counter, and I went ahead and filled one of the side-by-side sinks with soapy water. I could still smell the remnants of a lot of intense emotions in the air, and I like methodical, mindlessly repetitive tasks when I’m trying not to think too heavily about my past or my future.
Cassidy came over to help me dry while some people put away folding chairs, others left, and a few hung around to talk to other members about something that had resonated. I had mumbled some vague story about being a cop who had quit the force after seeing too many bad things. All respectable enough, but Justin wasn’t going to let me walk off with Cassidy without saying something about it . I liked that about him.
“He was buying her gifts too, wasn’t he?” I asked Cassidy quietly. “Steve.”
She actually froze with the dishrag in her hand as if she were in a still frame. Then she tried to answer coldly, but her voice was shaky. “How’d you know that?”
Because she’d mentioned that Steve broke into her house looking for a specific piece of jewelry, but what I said was “You’re the second person in Vista Verde I’ve heard talking about some phone sex operation that seemed a little hinky. A friend of mine who’s a cop said something about looking into something like that a couple of weeks ago. These phone sex operators were getting men convinced that they were really in love, and the men were sending the women all kinds of expensive gifts and things.”
She bit the hook. “Steve was buying lots of jewelry and sending packages to some place that must have been pretty far away. The dumbass paid for the postage with my card. Or maybe he wasn’t dumb. I guess he just didn’t care anymore.”
“Where was the phone number from?” I wondered.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I’ve heard about that kind of stuff online. People getting people to fall for them over the internet and then telling them they need money to get out of their country or something.”
“But you feel like Steve is dead.”
She hadn’t actually said that during the meeting, and she didn’t admit it now. A huge sob without tears shuddered through her. “He wasn’t some fake when I fell in love with him. He changed.”
“I believe you.” And I did.
“He was in so much debt. The police think he just ran away from it,” she said uncertainly.
I nodded. “But you think his obsession with this woman got him killed somehow.”
Cassidy still wouldn’t address that directly. Like saying it out loud might make it true. “He wasn’t even ashamed when I caught him breaking into my home! He was crazy! He was hitting me, but it was like he didn’t even see me. I don’t see how he could have kept on like that and not have something bad happen to him.”
“I haven’t seen my police officer friend for a while,” I said. “But I could pass the number on to him if you’d like. See if it’s the same people.”
“Everybody says I have to let it go.” She was just stalling. It didn’t matter how unlikely or unconvincing my story was. There was no way she wasn’t going to give me the number.
“I’m not a psychologist,” I said. “But maybe this would be a good way for you to do that.”
She still hesitated. “What about you? Aren’t you supposed to be getting over being a cop?”
I half smiled. “I’d just be passing on some information.”
She sighed and recited the number as if I’d dropped a quarter in her ear. “Do you want something to write that down on?”
I repeated the number back to her, maybe showing off a little. “And if you got billed for postage, you can probably get the tracking number for some of those packages too.”
“I don’t know much about that kind of thing,” she said.
I handed over the last cup. “How about this? Why don’t you cut your credit card information and address off the billing statements? Bring them to me tomorrow morning at a public place, like that diner I saw on South Main Street. And definitely don’t let a strange man you met at a meeting for messed-up people come to your house.”
She gave me a small smile at that. “You’re the protective type, aren’t you?”
I shrugged uncomfortably.
“The real thing,” she said. “Not like those men who act like they want to take care of you, but they really just want to take over your life.”
“I have my own problems,” I said.
“I can see that.” Cassidy folded up her dish towel. “Like trying to warn women off because you don’t think you deserve to have anyone close to you.”
That crack had a little too much dirt in it. I don’t know what showed on my face, but Cassidy laughed. “Not my first therapy session.”
* * *
I was the last member of the meeting in the church parking lot, though the deacon was still puttering around inside. I stood beside my pickup truck and sighed. “Come on out, Samuel.”
Samuel Blanco emerged from the shadows of a small playground next to the church. He was eerily good at hiding in darkness, considering that he was six foot six and built like a dump truck. It was cold but he was dressed in a blue T-shirt and jeans, his dark hair swinging lankly around his broad shoulders. “Hey.”
“You were supposed to stay at the campsite,” I pointed out, though I was careful not to sound irritated. Samuel had a short fuse, but at least he came by it honestly. He was the child of an aatxe, half human and half fire elemental, and any kind of flame can get out of control quickly.
“There was nothing to do there,” he complained. Ever since I had helped Samuel quit his job and negotiate ending his rental agreement early, we had been camping in the mountains outside Vista Verde. Samuel liked to draw, and I had bought him a sketch pad and drawing supplies. He liked music, and I had bought a portable CD player—nothing that emitted a GPS signal—and batteries and several CDs. But I wasn’t surprised that Samuel wasn’t too good at self-entertaining without beer or television. I’m not any kind of mental health professional, but Samuel was intellectually disabled in some fashion. A low IQ, a short attention span, limited memory retention, some anger management issues, an inability to recognize complex facial expressions or tones, and a tendency to be over-literal all seemed to be part of whatever was going on with him. Not too different from a lot of people who manage to function in society, really, but Samuel had the added complication of a magical nature that he had to conceal.
What really bothered me was the question of how Samuel had tracked me. Some animals can home in on their family, pack, mate, or mother, but the idea that I was becoming any of those things to Samuel wasn’t exactly comforting. But my choices were to take responsibility for him, find him a home, or end him.
Samuel had killed the police officer whose death I was trying to make right.
* * *
“Why are you crunching your face up like that? What’s wrong?” Samuel took a handball-sized scoop of ice cream from his fourth hot fudge sundae and shoveled it into his mouth.
“Dude, take small bites,” I said absently. I was frowning at the laptop I’d set up on the table between us. “Eat slowly. This isn’t about filling up. This is about enjoying the taste.”
“This is how I enjoy the taste.” Samuel was already troweling another fudge-covered vanilla lump into his maw. “What’s wrong?”
I looked around the truck stop. I actually feel safer in shadows than in brightly lit spaces surrounded by darkness. I felt like I was in an aquarium for people fish. “I can’t track the location of a phone number I got at the meeting.”
Samuel’s grin was huge, and it stayed on his face as if he’d left it there and forgotten about it. “Some girl gave you her phone number?”
I watched him tilt what was left of the sundae and drain it A stream of ice cream and chocolate syrup leaked down the corner of his mouth and over his chin. “It’s part of getting ready to leave this place.”
“Why do we have to?” Samuel asked. We’d had this conversation at least twenty times. What he was really saying was “I don’t want to.”
“You’re getting more of that sundae on you than in you, Samuel.” Was it wrong to treat him like a child? I had no idea, but I took the glass out of his hand and replaced it with more napkins. “You don’t get old, Samuel. Sooner or later, people will start to notice. It’s why your family used to move you around every ten or so years, right?”
“Lots of times,” Samuel said starkly. “I’m tired of it.”
From what I’d been able to gather, Samuel had been the Blanco family secret for at least a hundred years. His mother had gotten impregnated by a supernatural being in circumstances Samuel didn’t know or couldn’t process, and his Basque relatives had shuffled him around for generations.
“Besides, you killed some people,” I reminded him. I was willing to let the two vandals who had tried to stab Samuel lie, but I was determined to do right by the memory of the police officer he’d killed. Samuel rotated his jaw several times. “My mouth is cold!”
I couldn’t tell if Samuel was changing the subject because he was uncomfortable about the violence he’d committed or just easily distracted. “Maybe we should order you some soup.”