Authors: Brian Freeman
He was eight miles from Shawano, near a flyspeck country town named Gresham. The farmhouses he’d passed looked deserted, with dark windows mirroring the black sky and old equipment stranded in the fields. As he got out of his truck, he heard a dog barking madly. From above, individual flakes of snow drifted to the ground like white stars.
There was no sign to mark the location of the ruins. If you didn’t know the old estate was there, you wouldn’t find it. A crumbling wall bordered the property, but dead weeds had overgrown most of the stone. Two pillars framed a chained gate that prevented cars from driving onto the land. Beyond the gate, Stride couldn’t see the building itself, just an untouched stretch of snow and a swath of evergreens and winter trees. Woodland crowded the lonely road.
He trudged into the acres of riverside land. His were the only footprints. The wind gusted, like a woman picking up her skirt and running down a dirt road. The trees bucked and swayed. Snow from the branches joined the flurries to make a fog in the air around him. He felt the cold snaking inside his jacket. He realized that you didn’t have to fly to the moon to feel as if you were alone on an alien planet.
Alone. Far from rescue.
That was how Kelli Andrews would have felt.
He hiked for a hundred yards before he saw the estate on the other end of a wide field. From a distance, it was majestic, built of cream and red stone, like God’s fortress. He knew a little of the history of the place. It had been built as a private estate in the 1930s and then donated to a monastic order in the 1950s. The novices and brothers had spent fewer than twenty years in Gresham before uprooting and leaving behind only a caretaker to watch over the grounds. The property attracted national attention in 1975 when an armed group of Indians occupied the estate, holding the caretaker hostage and demanding that the land be handed over to the tribe. To avoid bloodshed, the order sold the Novitiate to the Indians for a single dollar, but the tribe ultimately relinquished its claim when it proved unable to maintain the property.
Soon after, a mysterious fire devastated the mansion, torching and blackening everything inside it. The fire burned for hours, hidden under a queer fog. That was when God left and the Devil took over, people said. As if cursed, the Novitiate had largely remained untouched since then, decaying further with each winter season. The only people who went there were the bored teenagers, braving the ghosts and the rabbit holes to smoke pot and have sex among the ruins.
Until Jet Black came. Until he used the Novitiate as a torture ground.
As he got closer, Stride saw the devastation clearly. The stone of the two-story mansion lingered in a hollow shell. The glass of the windows was gone, leaving black squares like missing teeth. Trees grew through the gaps and from the mud in the roof gutters. The wind had peeled away shingles and bricks and scattered them around the field. He saw the rusted empty frames of chambered windows, which now looked like bars protecting a prison.
He stepped carefully, getting close enough to look inside. Almost nothing was left. Black scorch marks, like spiders, riddled the stone ceiling. In other places, the ceiling had crumbled away. Jagged holes punched through the floor, letting melted snow drip to the cellar. Animals had taken shelter here, leaving dead prey and feces. Broken stone created a thick dust. He could see through the building from one side to the other. In the middle of what would have been a grand foyer, stone steps with no railing led to the second story.
Graffiti had been spray-painted on the walls.
A heart with the names of young lovers.
A circle in black overlaid with a red X.
And then the word again, on each of the stone steps.
. Looking as it did on Jet Black’s grave.
Stride called Kelli’s name but received no response. He continued through the snow past the estate itself and heard a roar overtaking the wind. The Red River flowed at the base of the property, where the snowy grass ended and the forest took over. Despite the cold, the river had broken free of the ice where the current was fastest, and it tumbled loudly over glacial rocks. At the base of the waterfall, a blanket of ice hadn’t been washed away, and impatient water thumped beneath it. Yellowed weeping willows lined the riverbank.
Kelli Andrews sat on a stone near the river, with her arms wrapped tightly around her knees. She couldn’t hear him, and he didn’t want to startle her. He approached along the snow-covered shore. Her face was pale, as if she’d been drained of blood by the serpents tattooed on her neck. The river had hypnotized her. He was almost on top of her before she noticed him, and her mouth bent into a weak smile. There was gratitude in her eyes as he sat down next to her on the cold rock.
Nearby, he spotted charred wood where someone had lit a fire. It wasn’t recent. Out in the water, the stones breaching the ice looked like prehistoric animals that had been petrified in place. He sat with her in silence.
Finally, she spoke. It was more like a whisper.
“I couldn’t go inside,” she said, “and yet I couldn’t stay away.”
She glanced over her shoulder at the ruined Novitiate behind them. Barely six feet away, the river roared and thumped, and the wind howled in the tall trees. She trembled. It wasn’t just fear; she was freezing cold. Stride took off his leather jacket and slipped it over her shoulders.
“I’m sorry for running,” she said. “I just had to get out of there. I jumped in my Camry and left.”
“The police are looking for you.”
“I told you. You’re a suspect. Weik is convinced you killed Greg Hamlin.”
“Do you believe it? Do you think I could have done what they say?”
“I just met you, Kelli,” he told her. “I don’t know you well enough to believe or disbelieve anything you tell me.”
“I wasn’t lying. I never met Hamlin. I had no reason whatsoever to kill him. Neither did Percy.”
Stride didn’t answer immediately. Finally, he said: “Hamlin was a recovering alcoholic. He was trying to make amends for the abuse he’d committed as a teacher. He ruthlessly bullied some of his students. One of those students was Jet Black.”
Kelli’s head sank forward. “Oh, my God.”
“He was going to call you, Kelli. He
call you. The police will know very soon that you had a powerful motive to kill him. They’ll think you blamed him for everything you suffered here.”
Tears bloomed in a glassy film over her eyes.
“I didn’t,” she said.
“Did Jet ever mention Greg Hamlin when you were counseling him? Did he talk about what happened to him when he was in school?”
Stride shook his head. “I want to believe you, Kelli, but you have to understand how this looks.”
“I know. I know how it must have looked to Percy, too. He must have thought I did this. My own husband lost faith. I can’t expect you to see past all of this. All I can do is tell you the truth. When you hear it, you’ll either be convinced that I’m innocent or convinced that I’m guilty.”
She pushed herself to her feet. Her body was unstable on the rocks, but she steadied herself. She reached out a hand to him. “Come with me. Please.”
He stood up, too. “Where?”
“I have to go inside.”
They left the river and walked up the shallow hillside to the Novitiate. She walked like a skydiver who’d finally worked up the courage to jump. Her stride was quick and long. At the fringe of the estate, where the ground was scattered with rubble, she stopped and folded her arms over her chest. His jacket was still perched on her shoulders. She took a breath, bit her lip, and picked her way to the portico and past the four stone columns into the decayed heart of the estate. Her face broke into a slightly wild smile. She touched one of the stone walls. It was real. She was really here. She’d crossed the threshold, and she’d survived.
“Jet Black,” she announced. She looked around, almost as if expecting an answer.
“Are you afraid that his ghost is here?” he asked.
“No, that’s not who I’m afraid of.” Kelli looked at him seriously. “Do you believe in the Devil, Mr. Stride?”
“I believe in evil. Those are two different things.”
“I believe in him,” she said. “He exists. He’s real.”
“You wrote an article about demonic possession. The police have it. Percy knew about it, too.”
Kelli frowned. “I wish I’d never written it. Come upstairs with me. It happened upstairs.”
She took the stone steps, and he followed her. The graffiti on each step reminded him of the Devil, but she acted as if she didn’t see the German word at her feet. Upstairs, the estate was a dangerous place. The floor was weak, and in numerous places, had broken into open gaps. She led him as if through a minefield to a stone fireplace in a corner of the mansion nearest the river, where glassless windows looked toward the water. He knew why they were here. Four years later, he could still see bloodstains on the ground.
“People ask me why I do what I do,” she said. “Why not help only the victims? Why help the abusers? But if we ignore them, we perpetuate the cycle.”
Stride said nothing.
“Some clients come to me because they want to change. Others get sent to me, and they don’t want to come. Jet didn’t think he had a problem. Everyone else had a problem. As strange as it sounds, those are the cases I like the most. They’re the biggest challenge. I have an ego. I thought I could reach anyone.”
“You couldn’t reach Jet?” he asked.
“That’s the irony. I did reach him. I made him go places no one had made him go before. He didn’t like that. My problem was that I didn’t see the threat. I had found a wound on a tiger. If you put your thumb on a tiger where it hurts, what do you think he’s going to do? He’ll strike back at you.”
She shook her head.
“In the beginning, he boasted. He talked about the power he had, how he used it against his wife and son. I should have realized that what he really wanted was to see me afraid. The more I didn’t react, the more he told me. Awful, sadistic things. Things he’d done to animals, sometimes in front of his son. He told me about picking up a hitchhiker in Michigan once. He claimed that he strangled and killed her just for the hell of it.”
“Did you tell the police?” Stride asked.
“It was a lie,” Kelli replied. “I checked the details he gave me. None of it matched any reported crimes. I told him I didn’t believe him. You see, he wanted me to be impressed. He wanted to find a way to dominate me. Instead, I made the mistake of making him feel small. Not intentionally, but that was the result. I didn’t realize how much he was coming to hate me. How much of his frustration in life he was starting to lay on my head. Many of the things he talked about, he’d never actually done them, but he
to do them to someone. And here I was.”
She squatted down. She touched the stains on the floor.
“He never mentioned Greg Hamlin. We didn’t get that far back. Even so, I knew there had to be someone
Hamlin in his life. Someone who had treated him with the cruelty he’d spent his life trying to repay.”
“What happened?” Stride asked.
“We had a particularly difficult session,” she said. “He lost control. Screaming. Cursing. Threatening. He was going to kill me. He was going to make me beg him for mercy. I sat there and let him vent. No fear. He really didn’t scare me, because I’d pegged him for a coward by this point. My mistake. Sometimes cowards are the ones you really should worry about. Anyway, he stormed out of our session, and he missed the next two. I was going to have to report his absence to the court. Except then he called me. He was very calm. That should have been the tip-off to me. That was what I missed. He apologized for his outburst, and he said he’d been thinking about everything I said, and I was right. He played to my ego. It was the first time he’d figured out how to get to me.”
Kelli’s hair fell in front of her eyes. She brushed it away. She stood up, still staring at the dirty floor of the Novitiate. Blood co-mingled in the stains at her feet. Her blood. Jet Black’s.
“He asked to meet me. It was spring, like now, but warmer. There’s an open-air theater in town near the lake, and during the off-season, it’s typically deserted. I sometimes meet clients there. We need privacy, and many of them don’t want to be seen with a therapist—and meeting outdoors is therapeutic. So I met Jet at the theater. He was cloyingly sweet. I was concerned, but I wasn’t as concerned as I should have been. I turned my back on him.” She closed her eyes. “And I woke up here.”
“I’m sorry,” Stride said.
“Six days,” she murmured. “He held me for six days.”
“He only came at night. During the day, he kept me hooded, gagged, tied up. Blind, mute, deaf, motionless. Like I was inside a black coffin for hours on end. I kept praying that someone would find me. My prayers went unanswered.”
He listened for the emotion in her voice, but she spoke in a monotone.
“I’ve never told anyone except Percy the things he did to me, Mr. Stride. The magazines wanted it, and I didn’t tell them. Publishers offered me book deals, and I refused. I need to tell you now, so you’ll understand.”
“I can imagine—”
“No. No, you can’t. I told my therapist that I’d blocked it all out. That was a lie. I remember everything. I live with it every day.”
“Kelli—” he said softly.
“Spiders, Mr. Stride. I’d made the mistake once in a session of mentioning how much I hated them. The first night, he covered me with live spiders. They were all over me. They were in my nose. My eyes. My ears. In my—in my—” She stopped. “That was
. By morning, I would have begged him to kill me.”
Stride thought about Greg Hamlin’s body and how minutes could stretch into years.
“The next night, he brought in a dog. You see, I made another mistake. I told him I loved dogs. I can never own a dog again in my life, Mr. Stride. Not after I saw what he—”
“Kelli, you don’t have to do this.”
Her soul simmered and then boiled over in agony. She erupted at him. “
I prayed to God for six days, and God fucking well ignored me!