Authors: Kendra Elliot
No doubt Leo’s message with the skull had made its point. The woman was as vulnerable as the rest of the world. The location of her home was not a secret. Her profession was not untouchable. Her safety was not a given. She should be feeling rattled. He could ruin her career and destroy whatever she held precious.
Adrenaline surged in Leo’s bloodstream. The nicotine from his cigarette pulsed through his veins. He was unstoppable.
Old Cesare often shoved the woman’s success in his face. For a man who seemed to believe women were best kept barefoot and pregnant, he had a bit of an obsession with the success of Victoria Peres. He took pride in the woman’s achievements as if
they were his own, but in the same breath tore her down, claiming she was a misfit and a disgrace.
Considering the identity of her mother, he understood Cesare’s point.
He’d decided it was time for Victoria Peres to learn about her mother and had put the wheels in motion yesterday. Her present bone investigation had been entangled, her home security compromised. What would discovering the truth about her roots do to her psyche?
Two people knew the truth about Victoria’s mother: himself and Cesare. Cesare believed only he held the knowledge. But the man shouldn’t keep written records. The man had a lot to learn about living a secret life. He’d been sloppy. His hiding places weak. Cesare had managed to fool his congregation for years, but Leo had easily discovered the truth. If you’re going to hide an alternative life, don’t leave dead women in your shed.
He blew a lungful of smoke into the air. The ceiling of the tiny bedroom grew fainter through the gray-blue haze. He set his cigarette in the ashtray and tucked his hands under his head as he rested on the bed. Last night had gone as planned. He’d hoped the fire would have burned more of the home, but he’d made his point. She wasn’t safe.
The first time he’d found a body in the shed, he’d nearly wet himself. She’d had long dark hair. The feature was a fetish of Cesare’s, and he decided to adopt it as one of his own. He’d been snooping, noticing the man often made trips to the shed at all times of the night. His father kept the door padlocked, but he had watched to see where Cesare kept the key. One early morning, he’d decided to look for himself.
She’d been dead for a while. He could smell the rot.
Why had Cesare been visiting a dead body?
The handcuffs were carelessly cast aside. The mattress foul. The room showed signs of occupancy. A water bucket, a waste bucket. Some empty cracker boxes. More handcuffs and rope attached to various metal rings in the walls and floors. The room had been strengthened. From the outside, it looked like a shed about to collapse. Inside the walls were closer than they should be. A sign of thick space between the inner and outer wall, no doubt filled with an insulating material. He’d tapped on a wall. They’d been dense two-by-eights. A room meant to imprison.
The next day he’d returned, and the woman had vanished. A few days of wandering in the woods behind Cesare’s home had revealed a plot of freshly turned dirt. Nearby were other sunken depressions in the ground. He’d read that an amateur grave will first be a raised area of dirt, but then sink where the torso collapses as it rots, leaving the concavity. He’d counted five possible sites.
Cesare wasn’t the holy man he presented to his flock.
He’d kept his knowledge to himself, watching as the old man preached to the dwindling congregation. Now the group was small, mostly older men like Cesare whose wives had abandoned them to their faith, unable to live the oppressive role their husbands laid out for them.
Leo wondered if Cesare had always been so bitter toward women, or if it’d grown after his own wife left. Had he intensified his hatred because of what his wife had done to him?
He’d snooped thoroughly through the shed and discovered a locked fire box of photos. The key hadn’t been hard to find. Cesare kept his keys in the same drawer he’d used all his life. His confidence in keeping his secrets safe was laughable.
The pictures were of women. Some dead, some still alive. All with long dark hair and white dresses. But the photos that
struck him the most were of the circle. The women laid out as if they were daisy petals. Their white dresses echoing the flower. Some pictures showed them flush with life. But others showed their cheeks and eyes starting to sink as they lay lifeless in their circle day after day.
How many days in a row had Cesare returned to photograph the women?
He pictured Victoria Peres in the circle. Her life’s essence destroyed.
First he wanted to emotionally rip her to shreds.
The bones were done. Victoria stretched the kinks out of her back, shuddering at the series of loud cracks. Everything was inventoried. Samples were removed for testing. Full records written and photographed. Frustratingly, she hadn’t found an earth-shattering lead to use as a tool to hunt down the women’s identities. From an anthropologist’s perspective, these were a bunch of nondescript women. Sadly missing their skulls.
She closed her eyes for a long moment.
It was a process she’d done since her first anatomy class: imagining her own bones without their flesh. She could see her skull. Its forehead high, its eye sockets slightly angular, and the zygomatic arches high and well defined. Cool and bare. Lifeless.
“Need some sleep?”
Victoria smiled as she opened her eyes.
It was low and rumbly and sexy. It’d taken her all of one second to get used to hearing it again. That first night in Forest Park, the sound of his voice rang in her ears like hearing a beloved song from long ago. At first the sound was a small, stunning surprise, and then came the realization that she knew every melody and lyric.
She turned. He’d changed out of scrubs and lab coat into a faded pair of jeans. His hair was slightly messy, and she knew instantly he’d been running a hand through it in mild frustration. But his eyes looked happy and relaxed.
“What’s up?” She could tell he had news. He was so easy to read.
“Anita asked me to give you this. It just came via messenger.” He handed over the white cardboard document envelope.
Victoria glanced at the front, verifying it was for her.
Weird. No return address.
She ripped open the envelope and shook the single sheet of paper onto her desk. Seth leaned against her doorjamb, his arms crossed, casually watching. She flipped over the paper. It had two sentences.
Your mother’s name is Isabel Favero.
The second line was an address in Portland.
Victoria’s vision tunneled on the paper, reading the name over and over. Seth spoke as if from a great distance. She couldn’t move.
Is this a joke?
“Tori!” His tone grabbed her attention. “What is that?” He moved behind her and read, his hands heavy on her shoulders.
“What the hell?”
Her thoughts exactly.
“I thought someone had died, by the look on your face. Can I see that?”
She nodded, and Seth tugged the paper from her frozen fingers.
Seth glanced at the back of the paper. Blank. “I don’t think this is how Michael would deliver any information he found, right?”
Victoria shook her head. “No. He’d call.”
Seth picked up the messenger envelope. “I’ll call them and find out who had this delivered.” Frowning, he pulled out his cell and started tapping, searching for the messenger service number. “I don’t like this. Who would send you something like this?”
“I don’t know.” Victoria shook her head. Her spinning brain made her stomach queasy. She leaned forward on her desk.
Why now? Why send this within a day of her wondering about her birth mother?
She listened as Seth spoke on the phone. He wasn’t getting an answer he liked.
“A walk-in,” he told her as he ended his call. “He paid cash. Now they’re noticing the form he filled out has a bunch of bogus information.”
“He?” Victoria asked.
Seth nodded. “They couldn’t tell me much about how he looks. Hat, jacket, jeans, and wet. Just like everyone else in Portland today. And they don’t have cameras.” Seth ran his finger down the edge of the paper. “Chances are this is a hoax.”
“I know. So it should be easy to disprove.”
“Let’s call that reporter friend of yours. See what he can dig up on this name and address first.”
“He’s not my friend.”
“I’ll call. And then we might go for a drive.”
It seemed like forever before Michael got his information back to Seth. Victoria sat in her desk chair, unable to keep her feet
or hands still. She tapped pencils and pens. She crossed and uncrossed her legs as Seth talked to Michael on the phone. She’d left the matter in his hands. Ever since the note, her mind had been unable to form a coherent thought. Two mantras blasted a path through her brain.
Is this my mother?
Who is doing this and why?
Seth was doing a lot of “Uh-huh” and “Hmmm” on the phone, scribbling notes on a pad with his cell tucked between his shoulder and ear. Every now and then he’d meet her gaze, his fiercely serious as he listened to Michael.
He hung up and Victoria held her breath.
Seth looked at his pad. “There really is an Isabel Favero and this is the address listed for her. She doesn’t own the home; she rents. She is fifty-five, single, and currently unemployed.”
He looked at Victoria and frowned. “Breathe,” he ordered.
She inhaled and pressed her lips together.
So far, nothing had ruled it a prank.
“She’s been married three times and has four children. None appear to live with her.”
Do I have siblings?
“She has a past address in Seaport.”
Victoria straightened in her chair.
Where I was adopted.
“The address is the same as the church where your parents attended. The church burned down twenty-five years ago.”
Victoria nodded. She’d remembered that. Her parents had been upset that their previous church had burned, and a very young Victoria had questioned what had happened to the grandpa-like pastor. Her parents had assured her no one was hurt. But she’d always wondered if the kind old man had rebuilt
his church somewhere else. “Wait. She lived at the church? I don’t understand.”
“Could be a number of things. Maybe she worked there and got her mail there. Maybe she just needed some sort of mailing address. It was pretty rural out there at the time. I doubt she actually lived in the building.”
Nerves bubbled up inside of her. They weren’t excitement nerves or dread nerves. Simply sheer stimulation. This day had taken an odd turn of events. “I haven’t heard anything to rule her out.”
Seth nodded. “I agree.” He paused and stared at his pad.
“What? What else did you find out?”
Seth licked his lips. “Brody pulled up her driver’s license photo.”
“He says there could be a resemblance. Black hair, brown eyes.”
Victoria swallowed hard. “Oh my God. This might be real,” she whispered.
Seth squatted in front of her chair, his hands on her thighs, his eyes earnest. “Listen. No hopes up, okay? Someone could have engineered this. I don’t know why, but don’t rule it out, okay?”
“I need to go see. I have to know.” She ran a hand through her hair. She’d never wanted anything so badly in her life. The “not knowing” made her want to vomit.
“Okay, let’s go take a look at the address.” He took her hand and helped her out of the chair.
She knew he hadn’t missed the icy sweat on her palms.
“What do you mean, you don’t know where Jason is?” The old man stared at Leo. His worthless excuse for a son was sniveling, terrified of him.
“I’ve checked with all his friends. I went to their homes and looked. I don’t know where he slept last night.” He looked around the room, avoiding his father’s gaze.
The old man moved in his seat, wishing he could stand up easier. The pain in his legs was a constant companion. Drugstore painkillers no longer helped. And he would never visit a doctor. They asked too many questions and threw drugs at every problem. Medical nonsense. God gave him pain; why would he fight against God’s will? Suffering was part of life.
Today’s society spent too much effort to avoid suffering. Pain was good for the soul.
He wouldn’t allow his son the pleasure of watching him struggle to stand, but he didn’t like the fact that his son was looking down at him. It created a subtle advantage. He preferred to have the higher ground during this type of discussion.
“And… and there’s one more thing,” his son whispered.
The old man looked up. That tone didn’t bode well, and his son looked like he wanted to melt into the carpet. Anger flared in his chest. “Well?” he barked. “What is it? What else has happened?”
His son twisted his hands together, misery in his expression. “The bones. When I went to get the skulls, they were gone.”
“The bones you stole?” he roared. A red haze narrowed his vision.
He’d lost the skulls?
“Jason took them?”