On this November night, the television was on in that cozy appartment on the second floor of an old brick building in the center, where Billy Brewster was having dinner with his family. The television was also on in that crummy third floor appartment in the projects where Dany Cassidy was smoking a cigarette, a guilty pleasure to be enjoyed quickly before Mom came home from work. The television was also on in that pretty suburban house where Sally Lomax was hosting a sleepover with two of her friends, eating pizza. And at 6:41 that night, as these three kids were in front of their television, they all saw it. Not only them but Tommy DaSilva, the school jock, saw it too. As well as Clara Clarkson. Melvin Graham. All the kids around saw it, and were all in shock, because they all knew her, and they all thought such things would never happen to people they know:
Short black hair, brown eyes
Last seen wearing jeans, red Converses and a blue blouse
Witnesses saw her get into a brown Buick Sport Wagon with no licence plates at 5:25 tonight
Call 911 for any information
The alert message came along with a picture of a smiling, bright-eyed, babyfaced Asian girl, the face the kids would see everyday at school. It was Debbie. Debbie who wouldn't do anything to attract attention, let alone make enemies. Debbie who did well in class, enjoyed basketball, was nice and polite, and was virtually unnoticed by the popular kids. That Debbie. Now they noticed her. Everyone did. That Debbie. Missing.
6:47. Lauren Lomax was in her car, driving towards the fancy French restaurant where her husband was waiting for her for a quiet, just-the-two-of-us evening now that the girl had the house for herself and her friends. Lauren was smiling like a teenager all the way, cheerful at the prospect of having a little romantic time, which was very scarce in their daily life, with a fifteen-year-old daughter to take care of. Especially considering what the poor girl had been through in September. It had been hard to get her back on her feet, but now she was better, she wanted to have friends over, so Mom felt that a night with her man was a just reward. Her joy was kind of darkened by the announcement, on the radio, of the disappearance of a girl called Deborah Parks. She was of Sally's age, Lauren thought. A chill went down her spine at the thought that it could have been her daughter, and she prayed they found her safe and sound. Absorbed in her thoughts, she did not pay attention to the road ahead, and she saw at the last moment the motorcycle speeding insanely on the wrong lane, right in her direction ! She screamed, turned the wheel to the right with all her might to avoid the collision, and felt her front right tire hit the sidewalk as a deafening buzz filled her ears and disappeared, the motorcycle having roared passed her and gone. Lauren braked furiously and stopped the car, panting, her heart beating like it was going to burst out of her chest from that accident closely prevented. "Where did you learn to ride, you crazy motherfucker !" she shouted angrily at the motorcyclist, or rather, at herself, since the guy was far away now. Her hands were shaking. Cool off, she thought. I'm almost there. I could use a glass of wine right now !
Deborah opened her eyes, but all she could see was pitch darkness. What happened ? Where was she ? Disorientation mixed with a growing anguish, she tried to remember the events of the day. She was hanging out with Mindy, that she remembered. They had to go home for dinner. She had walked Mindy to her home, they said goodbye. Deborah lived further away and had to take the bus. The bus stop was not so far from Mindy's, and she had done it multiple times. There was no reason for this to go wrong ! What had happened ? She tried to remember, but her last memories were kind of messy. She pictured a large brown car. And a man. She couldn't remember what he looked like. He was fat, she thought, but couldn't know for sure. He spoke to her, now it came back. He told her the car was broken, and asked if she had a phone. She remembered having hesitated. Her parents had told her not to talk to strangers. And why would he ask her for a phone ? She thought she remembered having seen a phone booth a few feet away... she should have turned back and run to Mindy's place. Instead, she hesitated, and the next thing she knew, she had some kind of cloth pressed on her nose. It stank, she remembered, a burning smell. She couldn't have recognized the smell of ether, but that's what it was. Nothing afterwards. Black out.
She opened her eyes but there was nothing to see. Moving her head, trying to feel what was blinding her, she concluded she had some kind of dark cowl over her head, obstructing her view. She tried to take it off. That's when sensations came back to her limbs, and anguish gave in to utter panic. Her legs were firmly tied together, and her arms were stretched high above her head and tied tight. She thought she was in a standing position but leaning back and tied onto something. As she wiggled with what minute freedom she had left in her movements, she heard a steel-like clatter, like the sound of Dad's ladder when he moved it to do some work around the house on sunny Sundays. She concluded that she was tied up on a ladder, her body outstretched so that she could hardly move at all. Her heart began to pound painfully, her breath went short. That feeling of total vulnerability had turned her on total survival mode. She began to wiggle harder and harder, trying in vain to shake off the bonds, and at the same time shouted for help. She called and kept calling until she felt fingers on the top of her head, grabbing the fabric of the cowl, pulling it off. The first thing she saw in that dimly lit room was the bare, fat, hairy torso of a man whose eyes, the only part of his face left visible by his balaclava, were glaring at her with the most cruel intentions. She screamed at the top of her lungs.
7:22. The Irish pub was lightly crowded at this hour, but still resounded with the joyous conversations of buddies sharing a drink, the monotone bips of the pinball machine and the delicate hum of the television set above the counter, tuned to low volume waiting for tonight's game to start. Things would get hotter, Ron thought, ten minutes before the start, when an army of football fans would invade the place, screaming, singing and getting plastered. But Ron liked it better than his sad, lonely apartment. Ron Davis was a stout, balding man in his forties, divorced, left all alone with a miserable job and an equally miserable apartment because of his past mistakes. With nothing to hold on to, Ron had gotten in the habit of going to the pub almost every night after work and drinking away his sorrow. He was already at his third beer when a guy appeared at his side, leaning on the counter, staring at him. Or at least he guessed he was staring at him, because his whole head was concealed behind a black motorcycle helmet. Ron looked at the guy, waiting for him to say something, but the guy kept leaning on the counter, the screen of his helmet turned towards him, without saying a word. Ron quickly grew irritated, an irritation made worse by his alcohol consumption. Who was this rude little punk ? What did he want ? Apart from the helmet, the guy was wearing jeans, heavy-duty motorcycle boots, a black flight jacket made of cheap leather, and black leather gloves. He was shorter than Ron. Not really muscular or imposing, although the loose cut of the jacket prevented him from really appreciating the guy's build.
"Your Mom never told you it's rude to stare at people ?" Ron said. "And to keep your face covered ?"
No answer. The guy's unresponsive attitude started to get on Ron's nerves. His irritation gradually changed to some kind of anxiety. He took a sip of his beer and asked:
"What do you want ?"
Biker guy didn't say anything, but searched his pocket and dropped something on the counter. A folded piece of paper. Ron took it and opened it. It was a photograph. Poor quality, obviously something that was hastily printed out of a website. It showed a young girl, a teenager. Asian. Short black hair. He instantly recognized her, for like about half of the city, he had seen her face on TV forty minutes before.
"Why do you show me that ? If you're her dad or big brother, sorry dude. I'd help if I could."
He meant it. But Biker guy wouldn't hear it. As Ron took another sip of his beer, he tapped the picture with his gloved index figure in an insisting manner. Ron put down his glass and said angrily:
"You're deaf or what, I told you I-"
He had no time to finish his sentence as the guy's other hand suddenly lay on the top of his skull and brutally pushed down, slamming his face on the counter. The unexpectedness of this attack, the noise of the shock and Ron's raging roar of pain stirred the bartender who hurried to them and put his hand on Ron's arm.
"You alright, Ronnie ?" he asked with a thick Irish accent, before turning towards the biker guy and giving him a serious look. "Sir," he said, "I have to ask you to leave. We don't tolerate this behaviour here."
Just as he said that, a heavy hand lay on the guy's shoulder, who realized that two tall, burly, square-jawed men were now standing behind him, willing to escort him out unceremoniously. The bartender heard a deep sigh from inside the helmet. Not a desperate sigh. Rather, it sounded like the sigh a bull would produce before charging. The guy swiftly shook the hand off his shoulder, turned around and stood menacingly before the two men.
"Oh you want to do it that way ?" one of them said angrily, clenching his fists. "Fine !" He threw a right hook that could have stunned a horse. Too slow. The guy saw it coming, and looked down at the last moment, so that the fist would hit the top of the helmet. The man groaned as he felt his fingerbones snap on contact with the hard plastic. He did not feel pain for long, though, as the next moment, two gloved hands had grabbed him by the collar and the helmet was rammed into his face, knocking him out cold. The other man had no time to throw his attack before biker guy socked him in the jaw, knocking him out too. The pub was eerily silent now. In a second, this small guy had knocked down too men who were easily two heads taller than him. He sure knew how to pack a punch, and no-one was willing to try him after seeing that. The bartender stepped back nervously, searching for his phone.
"You wanted it, I'm calling the cops !" he yelled.
The guy didn't pay attention. He took the picture with one hand and with the other, grabbed a groaning, bleeding Ron by the collar and dragged him out of the pub.
He released his prey in a dark, foul-smelling alley behind the pub. Ron struggled to sit up against a wall, next to a trash can. His nose now felt numb, and he had blood all over his shirt.
"Jesus Christ, what kind of psycho are you, man ? What do you want from me ?"
The guy remained silent, standing in front of him, his fists clenched, his faceless head bent down in his direction. Then, he again dropped the photograph in front of Ron.
"Again ? Told you guy I don't have anything to do with that girl ! Why do you think I've got to do with that anyway ?"
The guy simply answered by taking another piece of paper from his pocket and tossing it at him. He unfolded it, and sighed. Ronald Davis, registered sex offender. Who happened to live not far from where Deborah was last seen.
"How did you find out so fast ?" he asked. "Don't tell me you've been keeping tabs on all registered..."
He didn't finish his sentence for he saw, in the guy's quiet yet determined composure, that the answer was yes.
"Oh shit," he muttered. "Wait, so you're that guy who goes around pretending to be Batman or something ? So you made the connection and found me..."
He was about to ask exactly how he found him, but his imagination easily supplied an answer: in his head, he saw the guy show up at his house, not long after the girl's disappearance made the news. Just the time it'd take to make the connection and arrive. He saw him break into his house. At that moment Ron was already at the pub. The guy would find the house empty, and begin to look around for him, searching one, two, three bars, following the trail like a goddamn hound, until he got him. All in less than an hour. Although Ron knew he was innocent, he shuddered at that guy's psychopathic determination.
"Okay," he confessed, "listen, I tried to rape a girl once. Only once, you hear me ? I was drunk and I didn't know what I was doing..." tears began to appear on the corners of his eyes at this painful recollection. With a choked voice he went on: "there's not a single minute I spend without regretting this... I did jailtime for this... lost my wife, my job... I paid my debt, goddamnit ! I'll be registered for the rest of my life, but I'm clean now, get it ? I'm a normal guy who did one mistake once, I'd never kidnap a child or..."
He stopped abruptly, his eyes shining with a new light. The light of someone who just remembered something important. He looked up:
"What if I told you I know a guy who may have something to do with this ?"
The helmet nodded slightly, inviting him to go on.
"Okay... there was that guy, when I was in jail... we became friends and... I discovered he'd been busted for having... the wrong kinds of videos on his hard drive. He must've felt confident with me because he confessed that he... thought of... things. Assured me he never acted upon his thoughts, but... man, the things he told me, I don't want to repeat these, it's so fucking sick ! Shortly after he was transferred, they said he wasn't dangerous and just needed to be cured. We didn't see each other after that. I only learned that he'd been declared sane, and was free. Dunno if it's really him, dunno if he can really act upon his... but if it's him, you better find that girl fast. His name is Lenny Keats. Dunno where he lives."
Without a word, the guy walked away. Ron stood up with difficulty as his eyes followed his aggressor. It was only then that he noticed the CB600 parked in the alley a few feet away. The guy straddled the bike, started the engine, and roared off into the night.
"Crazy fuck..." Ron muttered, as he walked back to the pub.
Deborah was alone, she was helpless, and she was terrified. Without the cowl, she could see she was in a windowless room made of concrete, a cellar it seemed. On her right she could distinguish a staircase leading up, to the man's house probably. The room was only lit by dozens of candles scattered all around, with in the center, like some insane altar, the ladder she was strapped on, at the mercy of this man. She had stopped screaming a while ago when her throat became too sore. For several minutes she had screamed, called for help, in utter panic, and all along this man had been staring at her, doing nothing, saying nothing, as if he was just... enjoying the show. Tears began to roll down her cheeks as she tried to speak, her voice choked with pain and despair coming out only as a faint murmur:
"Please, let me go... what are you gonna do to me ?"
Stupid question, she thought. What do you imagine ? It was only at this moment that she noticed, on her left, a small table on which lay a set of knives, a pair of pliers, and a blowtorch. Her eyes grew wide at the sight of these instruments that confirmed a fate she already knew. In a last effort she resumed her pleas with utmost energy:
"Please ! Just let me go, please ! I promise I won't tell, but please just let me !"
This was no use. The man only came closer, and slowly, unfastened the top button of her blouse. It took him about two minutes to undo a single button, and she realized that this slowness was deliberate. He was enjoying every second of it. Her pleas would not move him at all. With nothing else to do, she began to cry silently. Right now, she thought, she was supposed to be having dinner with her parents. Mom would make spaghetti tonight. Then she'd watch some television, chat with Mindy on Facebook about Quentin Mayfair, the gorgeous captain of the basketball team, until it was time to go to bed. Instead, she would die in horrible pain, in this dark basement.
7:28. Jennifer sighed and took a look around. Mostly geeks with their headphones on, doing some of their online game she didn't know nor care about. She looked at her phone. An hour and half until the cybercafé closed, and she regained her freedom at last ! Her stomach began to torment her. She took a look again. Those geeks looked like they'd barely notice her absence. She wondered if she could just go grab some ramen at the Chinese store next door. She'd only be gone for two minutes max. No big deal.
She was almost resolved when the door opened. Instinctively she stood up to greet the new customer properly. A guy in a black flight jacket, with a helmet on. Motorbike rider.
"How may I help you, sir ?" she said.
The guy didn't answer immediately. He wasn't taking off his helmet, which was covering his whole face. Oh great, she thought, a robber ! Couldn't wait for my day off, could you ? Nervous, she was about to tell him this was a cybercafé and there were hardly thirty bucks to steal, when he raised one gloved hand, palm toward her, his five fingers spread. Five.
"Five minutes ?" she asked.
He nodded. A mute, she thought, this is getting better...
"That's one dollar sir. You may use number 5."
The man put a one dollar note on the counter and when to his designated computer. A minute and a half later, he stood up and left the place without saying a word. Weird pal, she thought. Maybe the helmet was hiding some kind of horrible disfigurement that had rendered him mute. Her imagination running wild, she forgot her aching stomach, and decided to go check his computer in case he'd forgotten to erase his history. She knew this was terribly unprofessional, but curiosity had the better of her. To her surprise, he had left the browser on with the page he was consulting, as if he was expecting her to find it. It was the yellow pages website. He had done a research on the name KEATS. One result was highlighted:
303 Flynn Street
She stopped breathing. A strange guy who's not speaking and not showing his face, looking for another man... to kill him, maybe ! She had no proof, and this might as well be her imagination on the loose. Still, she smelled something fishy, and not wanting to have someone's death on her conscience, she called the cops.
The man hadn't reached the bottom of her blouse when a short tune was heard. At first Deborah didn't hear it, in her numb state. But the man had stopped moving, which roused her attention, and she heard it the second time. A tune from above... the doorbell ! Feeling this was an unexpected chance to escape, the young girl shouted for help with all the strength she had left in her throat. The man startled, put his hand on her mouth, and with his other hand took the cowl, rolled it and tied it around her mouth in a makeshift gag. She kept struggling to take it off as she observed the man, who looked utterly surprised and confused, like a rabbit caught in the lights, or a child caught doing a forbidden thing. With trembling hands he hastily put on a shirt, and went up, taking his mask off on the way. She prayed this was her parents coming to save her, with the cops. Even if it was the Jehovah witnesses, her only hope was that someone out there had heard us and would put an end to this nightmare. She listened attentively. The door opened. She heard a clatter of voice. A surprised voice, the man's voice ! Then there was a ruckus above her head, an infernal noise of feet trampling the ground, things falling down... people fighting ? It lasted only a few seconds, then there was the crash of glass breaking, and silence. She held her breath, not knowing what had happened, who would come down. One step in the staircase. Then another. She trembled in expectation. What she would see in that staircase could be her salvation or her doom. Then she saw the feet. Heavy black boots. Soon, she had a view on the man who now stood before her. His face was concealed behind a black helmet.