I’ve finally been able to start writing the third Lucy Kendall novel, Gone to Die (May 2015), and to celebrate, I’m sharing the first two chapters of ALL GOOD DEEDS (Lucy Kendall #1).
Who is Lucy Kendall? A former CPS worker turned private investigator and vigilante killer of pedophiles. She’s got a code and believes her actions are justified–a necessary evil. She’s not a serial killer. Yet.
ALL GOOD DEEDS (Lucy Kendall #1)
I’m not a killer. Or a savior. I’m just one person trying to repair the broken scales of justice one jagged crack at a time.
The crack I planned to eliminate tonight sat ten feet away eating nachos. His short, pink tongue darted out to slurp the gooey cheese off the chip before shoving the tortilla into his mouth. He smacked his lips when he ate. Licked his fingers and started over again, like a pig fighting for its mama’s teat. This coward wouldn’t be the dominant piglet. He’s the sort who would be shoved to the end of the hierarchy. The only way for him to feel powerful is to prey on the weak.
I flagged down my favorite waitress. Another drink was essential to the evening’s success. She grinned and started navigating her way between crowded tables.
Famous for its microbrews and restored tin ceiling with golden tiles that cast a warm glow over the entire restaurant, Chetter’s Bar and Grill was a hallmark of the historic Old Kensington area of Philadelphia. If I were in my twenties and still naïve, I’d probably love the place. But it’s too noisy, too full of people who can’t see what’s right in front of them.
A few tables to my left, a pair of middle-aged women tried to corral two hyper boys who were old enough to know that shaking salt on the wood floors was unacceptable. In between telling the boys to quit, the two women competed for shittiest day and sucked down strawberry margaritas. The bigger of the two boys had a red bouncy ball, one of those cheap things bought in any gas station. He took great delight in how the ball sprang back up from the hard floor. I waited for him to toss it at Chetter’s prized ceiling. Instead, he miscalculated his bounce and slammed the ball off his foot. It rolled three booths down and into the foot of the man positioned in the corner.
Nursing his beer, the man picked up the ball and examined it as if it were a rare gem.
One of the women–I could only assume it was the kid’s mother–snapped at the boy and ordered him to fetch the ball. Chin against his chest, he trod down the aisle and muttered something before sticking out a chubby hand.
The man, who looked like any other Joe Schmo off the street, smiled obligingly and gave the ball back. The middle-aged woman waved appreciatively and fluffed her hair. Brat boy shuffled back to his own table. Supposedly kids are more attuned to the things adults don’t want to see. Did the boy sense the evil he’d just encountered? Perhaps not, since the child was the wrong gender. He and his margarita-loving mother would go on about their lives, peacefully oblivious to what might have been.
The waitress finally reached my table. She wore stone washed denim shorts with carefully constructed rips in them–the kind I wore in my youth because we were too poor to buy new ones. She had the Betty Page vibe right down to her jet-black hair and the pin curl in her bangs. The men loved her too. Their eyes glazed over whenever she walked by, and I didn’t blame them. She never messed up a drink order, and her tables constantly smiled, even if the women who watched her strut away did so with wistful jealousy in their eyes. I liked her because she didn’t ask me how I was doing every four minutes. “What can I get you?”
“Martini, dry, please.”
“Your fingers cold?” She squinted at my hands.
“Circulation problems.” I flexed my fingers. Beneath the wool, the latex clung to my sweating hand. “Plus I’m a bit of a germaphobe. Gloves solve both issues.” Not to mention they were an essential part of my toolkit.
Tipping the glass made the liquid swirl beneath the bar lights. It sparkled. Dry. Two olives. Boisterous laughter came from several tables down. Twenty-somethings on a date, chowing down on potato skins chased with one of Chetter’s microbrews. I envied their youthful ignorance as much as I detested them for it. I wondered what they would do if they knew a monster was sitting just a few red booths down from them.
If they were like most people, the young couple wouldn’t believe it. Neither would the middle-aged women with the rowdy boys. A mistake, they would say. Wrong identity. Because surely that sort of person wouldn’t slither among them without their taking notice.
Living in the dark is a lot easier than facing the truth.
My gaze strayed back to the man in the corner–the man I’d come here for. Steve Simon sat alone. Facing the crowd, he casually tipped back his beer. Like me, his clothes were understated. He probably chose them as carefully as I did. For all I knew, he justified his behaviors. Perhaps he felt he was born this way, or that he was entitled. But I doubted he spent hours agonizing over his choices. That’s not how his mind was geared. There is no cure for the sickness he harbors.
A group of laughing young women strode into Chetter’s, and for a moment, I was painfully aware I was becoming invisible. At thirty-three, I’m nowhere near old, but the sight of them reminded me how quickly time races forward. Tan and toned, every one of them still had the glorious firmness of their early twenties instead of the creeping softness of the thirties. The women commanded the attention of all the straight men in the bar. Except for Steve. He never noticed the hot women.
Why would he? He has a fetish for adolescent females. The younger the better. Anything over the age of fourteen is too old for his particular kind of sick.
His file was burned into my brain. Molested his kid sister when he was fifteen, released at eighteen. A bid for possessing child pornography a year later, and then our well-oiled system sent him back to the streets. That’s when he got smart and started trolling online with the other cyber creeps. The Internet is the biggest double-edged sword in our technological history, but it’s not going anywhere. The sickos get sicker and more numerous. The Internet gives them a hidden playground, and privacy laws actually protect them.
Behind the group of beautiful women and waiting to be seated were a mother and her pre-teen daughter. Her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail and clutching her daughter’s hand, the women had the slightly frazzled look I associated with motherhood. Working mom or stay-at-home-mom, the results were the same: never enough time in the day accompanied by random bouts of sheer exhaustion.
The little girl was probably around ten, all legs and impatience. Shifting from foot to foot, her gaze never strayed from the pink phone clutched in her hand. She’d already taken off her coat and given it to her mom. The girl’s almost too tight shirt revealed budding breasts and the smallest curve of the hips.
My Betty Page server greeted the mother and daughter and began to escort them to their table. The nerves I’d managed to contain for the past twenty minutes rippled through me. The bottle hidden deep in my bag felt as heavy as a brick. They were going to walk right by Steve.
I knew his trick. I’d seen him do it repeatedly over the past two weeks.
Just as the mother and daughter passed, Steve started to cough. He quickly shoved his head into his right elbow, discreetly twisting so that he could watch the girl pass by. He didn’t blink, didn’t move. Just watched until the girl sat down. Then Slimy Steve returned to his beer.
The first time I saw him do it, I almost attacked him.
But all good things come to those who wait. My computer specialist–who is the main reason my turn as a private investigator paid the bills–spent the last few weeks trolling online to make sure Steve was still molesting girls. That’s my number one rule. I won’t touch them unless they’re active. That probably made me a hypocrite since I believed sex offenders couldn’t be cured, but I figured I should have some sort of code in this operation. My girl found him in an online chat room recently soliciting a meeting with a twelve-year-old. Normally I took more time to act, but Steve’s living with a girlfriend who’s got a ten-year-old daughter, so he was escalated to Enemy Number One. His sentence came when I had a former colleague check the system at Child Protective Services and found out someone at the daughter’s school had reported her sudden behavioral change. The revolting drawings from art class depicting an older man and young girl in positions they should never be in is what did the trick. While my CPS friend started her investigation, I began my own.
Family members of a pedophile pray for change. The truth is, it won’t happen. The experts argue whether it’s brought on by nature or nurture. I really don’t care what they think. I know what I’ve seen in a decade of working at Child Protective Services, and as far as I was concerned, the only thing that mattered is this indisputable fact: pedophiles can’t be cured.
So I’ve come for Steve.
Steve finished his drink. I needed to get ready. I liked a good routine, so I quickly ran through my mental checklist. Fifteen years ago when I was a nervous yet hopeful college freshman, I attended a seminar about success. The professor resembled the Gandalf of my imagination, and much of what he said was lost on me because I’d been busy dreaming about my freshman formal and of hopefully losing my virginity. But three sentences caught my attention.
“See yourself creating goals. Think of what you need to do to achieve those goals. And then, imagine the reward of hitting those goals.”
I still lived by those words.
Time ticked by. I needed to act now, or I’d have to wait another night, and I was ready to be done with this filthy business. Every night like this drained a part of my spirit, and the recovery time got longer. But I believed in my decision. At this point in my life, nights like these were the only way I could make any kind of a difference in this world. I tipped my glass, making sure to drain it to the last drop. I stood and swayed just enough to look tipsy, like my night was just getting started. Making my way to the restroom, I made sure to keep my eyes hooded and my smile inviting. Several men smiled back. Steve ignored me.
The ladies’ room had two stalls and both were empty, but a woman wearing too much makeup stood at the counter freshening up her lipstick.
I slipped into the first stall and waited. If the woman even noticed me, she probably thought I was either sick or doing what every woman does in a public restroom: waiting until the place was empty so I could relieve my bowels in peace.
Heels clicked across the floor. The bathroom door swung shut. I took a deep breath and steadied my hands. I didn’t enjoy any of this process, but the next few minutes were the most dangerous. Since I’m not a livin’ on the edge kind of girl, sometimes it was all I could do not to pee my pants when I started.
I checked to make sure the latex gloves hidden beneath the thin cloth ones were still in place and then put on the sweater I’d wrapped around my waist. Making sure my wrists were covered and all the buttons on the sweater fastened except for the top one–I didn’t want to look like an uptight drunk–I pulled the clean martini glass and the black vial from my purse.
I carefully poured the contents of the vial into the glass and then put the empty container in a Ziploc bag and into my purse. My pulse beat at my temples, and the sweater felt hot. Or maybe that was just the adrenaline. I took a moment to collect my spinning thoughts. Steve sat two tables to the right of the restroom, against the wall. He’d been sitting hunched over his beer just like he does every other night. Almost recoiled, as if he were ready to run from a beating. Probably a habit picked up in prison.
Now was the time for the inevitable doubts. What if I miss my mark? What if the reaction starts before I’m out of here? What if I get caught this time? I simply couldn’t allow them to creep in. Too many children hurt, too many kids lost, my own sister, gone. Because of men like Steve.
I left the stall, took a deep breath, and sauntered out of the restroom. My gait was again tipsy, head down far enough not to make eye contact while still allowing me to see the room.
Steve’s table was empty.
Experience was the only thing that kept me from stopping in my tracks. Getting bumped into wouldn’t be good for my health.
Damnit. He always finished his beers, and he’d just ordered another. Why had he left?
I couldn’t stand there looking confused. A cough, a slight stumble to the left, and I quickly hurried to the bathroom. The place remained blessedly empty. I slowly poured the glass’s contents down the toilet, making sure the liquid only trickled and left no splash on the seat. Just in case, I wiped it off with a cleansing wipe. I ran the martini glass under the hot water and then stuck it back into the plastic zipper bag in my purse.
So much for wrapping up this case tonight.
The crowd seemed to have doubled in the last few minutes. Steve’s table was already taken. I chalked up my bitter defeat and headed for the door. The waitress would probably remember me after tonight, which meant I needed a new approach to Steve.
“Excuse me, miss.” The man now sitting at Steve’s table spoke to me. “Can I buy you a drink?”
I sized him up. Nice clothes, the casually preppy type, with strong cheekbones matching his full lips. An attractive man looking for a bar hookup. “No, thanks. I’ve got to call it a night.”
He grinned, his smile listing somewhere between charming and arrogant. He stood to his full height–at least six feet, with broad shoulders and lean muscles beneath his long-sleeved shirt. Certainly easy on the eyes, and apparently not willing to take no for an answer. I was in no mood for a hookup, but my skin warmed with egocentric pride. It felt good to be noticed.
I moved toward the crowd, but he was faster, closing the small distance between us. Standing less than an inch away from him, I smelled the pleasant scent of his cologne and caught a glimpse of bright blue eyes.
“Please.” He stood close enough he didn’t have to shout. “I’d really love to talk to you about something.”
Anxiety licked at my veins. I plastered a sweet smile on my face and twisted to meet his eyes. They were really blue. And calculating. “About what?”
He leaned down until I thought he might try to kiss me. “About that cyanide you just got rid of.”
My mouth tasted like someone had stuffed cotton balls into my cheeks. I didn’t move, didn’t break eye contact with the man. My pulse slammed in my temples. He might be bluffing. Oh bullshit. He wouldn’t have randomly guessed something as obscure as cyanide. He knew.
He’d called me out in a way I couldn’t ignore. What else did he know? How much of a threat was he? I’d never killed an innocent person, never even considered it to be an option. But I wasn’t exactly ready to start thinking of decorating ideas for my cell on death row. Not yet.
“All right,” I said. “I’m pretty sure you’re delusional, but since you’re cute, I’ll have a drink with you.”
He pulled out a chair. I sat. I honestly never imagined this moment happening. Not under these circumstances. Arrested, hauled in for questioning, accidentally spilling the cyanide on myself–those thoughts crossed my mind every day. But never a random, good-looking stranger in a bar who may or may not be a cop flat out calling me on the act.
I took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of greasy bar food and warm bodies. Anxiety rippled in my chest, but I buried it. “What’s your name?”
“I’m not a cop.” His face was still friendly, but his gaze keen. I’ve never seen eyes so blue–or so perceptive. I instantly disliked them. He gauged my every move, no doubt measuring my body language just as I was his. He was probably counting my pulse considering the vein in my neck throbbed big enough half the bar could see.
“Good for you. So what should I call you?”
“My name’s Chris, and you can call me an interested party.” The response bordered on arrogance. My temper flared. I didn’t like being backed into a corner. The absurd idea of flinging the poison on him and running like hell flashed through my mind until I remembered I’d just flushed the cyanide. I nearly laughed, but his raised eyebrow sucked any mirth right out of my spirit. I tried to play it cool. He already had enough of an upper hand. But how did he know? Had Conner, the chemist who provided the cyanide, said something? Had Kelly charmed the wrong online predator?
“What are you interested in?” Thankfully the drone of the bar noise hid the shakiness in my voice.
“You. It’s not often I find someone who’s like me.”
“In the same line of work.”
I said nothing.
“I don’t like to use the popular name for it.” He leaned over the table, into my space. His eyes burned even brighter up close. In another scenario, I would have matched his body language, flirted a little. A woman should always seize the opportunity to get up close and personal with a face like his. Unless he’s a stalker with the power to send her to the lethal injection chamber. “You know, serial killer. The term is so … trendy. I like to call myself the garbage man. Just taking out the trash.”
Of all the presumptuous, stupid things to say. I wasn’t a serial killer, and I had no interest in aiding this man’s sick fantasies. “I don’t know who you are–”
“Name’s Chris Hale. I’m a paramedic and an Aries. I love Indian food. Italian, too. And Mexican. Pretty much all food. I’ve got a major sweet tooth. Never done drugs, I’m an only child. I’ll spare you the sob story. Anything else?” He smiled again, the lines around his eyes crinkling in a ruggedly attractive way that probably made plenty of women act foolish.
“Good for you. But you’re way off about me. I’d guess it’s delusion talking. And if you’re thinking this game will get me into bed, I’m sorry, but I don’t go home with guys I meet at the bar.”
He laughed, throaty and packed with self-assurance. “Please, life’s too short to dance around the truth. Let’s be real. You were going to play drunk, dump that demon on the guy, and walk out of the bar. He’s gone thirty minutes later. Not original, but very good methodology.”
The walls closed in like a trash compactor. I felt trapped like a rat. I gritted my teeth and volleyed back. “You might want to seek a psych evaluation. There’s a good free clinic not too far from here.”
“The Iceman.” Chris ignored the bait. “That’s your inspiration, right? The mob hit man who lost count at 200 murders. His method was easy and anonymous. He spilled the bad stuff, his mark got angry about it but didn’t do anything about the wet shirt or pants. The goods seeped through the mark’s skin and twenty to thirty minutes later, into the bloodstream, and the Iceman was long gone. It’s brilliant, really. Great choice, for cold weather anyway, considering the health hazards. I just hope you’re more than a hit man. Woman, excuse me.”
My chest tightened into an iron cast, and my jaw ached from the hard set. If this guy knew the routine, he no doubt had proof. “Seriously, have you ever thought about seeking professional help?”
He ignored me and kept rambling. “Like I said, I’m a paramedic. And I’m observant. I saw you at a scene a few months back. You were standing to the side, in the middle of the onlookers. But something on your face gave you away–to me, at least. Guess I’m good at spotting my own kind.” He rested his chin on his hand and gazed at me with obvious admiration. To anyone else, we probably looked like we were on a first date and still stuck in the awkward getting-to-know-you stage.
“I’m not your kind.” He was nothing like me. I was just sick and tired of seeing a broken justice system routinely fail children who’ve already been treated like disposable playthings. So I did everything I could to balance the creaking scales of justice–the same scales many people want to believe are designed to protect the vulnerable in society. But those scales don’t shield anyone, even our most innocent victims. Their function is to balance the lines of bureaucracy.
Sometimes I have to fill the void.
He probably picked his victims at random and took them somewhere to torture them before finally killing them. If he was actually a serial killer.
“Your marks aren’t good people,” he continued as though I hadn’t denied him. “I know because I’ve been tailing you for a while. And I watch the news, managed to put two and two together. Kiddie diddlers, which is another nice choice, by the way. Scum of the earth for sure. Me, I’m not that selective. Long as they’ve maimed or killed, I’m willing to get rid of the trash.” He smiled again, and I was alarmed at how genuine he seemed. And his good looks were becoming an annoyance. “I gotta ask, though. The cyanide, that’s tricky stuff. Not the easiest way to kill someone. Untraceable unless a medical examiner is looking for it, yeah. But aren’t you afraid of spilling it on yourself? Or is sudden death not an issue for you?”
My throat constricted, my scalp felt clammy and hot. I was terrified of death, and the irony that I’ve given myself the right to administer it without question hasn’t escaped me. Death was a finality I could only fully comprehend in the dark of my bedroom, when I was on the cusp of sleep. Like an electric shock, it hit me with the force of a thousand wits. It’s the end. There’s no blackness, no tunnel, no sinking into oblivion. It’s literally nothing. And it’s the nothingness, the utter finality of ceasing to exist that scared me to the point of sitting up in my bed, gasping for air and covering my ears as if somehow that would stop my brain from dredging up the horrific reality.
I couldn’t think about that right now. I focused on Chris’s smirking face.
“Why are you bothering me?” How did I miss this man following me? He was the kind who drew attention everywhere he went.
“I admire your work. Thought maybe we could talk shop.”
“There’s no shop to discuss.” And we don’t do the same kind of work. I did it because it needed to be done. I wasn’t a killer. Not in the real sense of the word. I filled a much needed void in the most efficient way possible. I had to believe that, especially now. Even if he did claim to understand the need to get rid of pedophiles, his brazenness was repulsive.
He shrugged. “I’m a sociopath.”
“Well, good for you, Chris Hale.” Apparently this was the sort of man I attracted now. I reached for my purse. “I truly hope we don’t meet again. Good looks don’t cover your brand of crazy.”
“Come on.” His grin was part hypnotic, part dangerous. “I’m not the only one who knows your secret. You’ve got help.”
Fresh panic set in. Did he know about Kelly and Conner? No way could he have found their identities just by following me. I had to draw a line in the bar dust right now. He wasn’t going to bring them down too. “Excuse me? Are there more people out there suffering from your delusion?”
His twisted smirk made it clear he enjoyed my seeping panic. “There’s no way you’re doing this on your own. Maybe you’re computer savvy, but I’d bet you have help getting the information. Not to mention the poison. You can’t just buy that stuff at the pharmacy. So you don’t work alone, and I do. But I’m willing to make an exception for you.” He finally took a sip of the club soda he’d been fondling. Dingy bar lights reflected off the sliding ice as he drank, his Adam’s apple bobbing and his eyes always on me.
“I’m leaving now.”
He set the glass down. “Suit yourself. I think we could learn a lot from each other.”
“No offense, but I really don’t want to know any more about you,” I said. “I just want to pretend this never happened.”
Chris dug his wallet out of his pocket and tossed it across the table. “There. Look through it. Take my driver’s license information. Look me up.”
Now I was certain he needed the psychiatric evaluation. “Are you crazy? Besides, this could be fake.”
“Except it’s not. And you can easily confirm that.”
I stood up and slipped on my coat. My insides burned with panic, and my brain felt sluggish. I needed to get away from Chris, into the fresh air. Figure out what to do next.
Chris scribbled something down on his napkin and then slid it over to me. A phone number. I put it in my purse. I’d throw it out later.
He stood and stretched. His shirt hiked up enough for me to see the muscles of his abdomen. I looked away only to see the women at the next table trying to check him out without being noticeable. “It was nice meeting you, Lucy.”
“You know my name.”
“I’m observant. I’ll be looking forward to your phone call.” He flashed me one last annoyingly captivating smile and then disappeared into the crowd.
My phone call? I wasn’t about to get into any sort of partnership with some guy who crawled out of Chetter’s woodwork, even if he turned out to be exactly what he said he was. Especially if he turned out that way. With him out of sight, some of the tension in my muscles evaporated. I leaned against the wall trying not to throw up. Life has tossed me curveballs for as long as I could remember, and I was good at lobbing them out of the way with ease. Cops I could deal with. Angry family members, parents who feel they’ve failed their child because they didn’t realize the kid was being molested–those situations I could handle. I knew when to fight and when to walk away and save the battle for next time. When I finally accepted our justice system wasn’t black and white and decided to strike out on my own, I prepared myself for the inevitable day I was caught for my decisions.
But Chris Hale was an entirely different monster, and I had no idea what to do with him.