The Summer Children (The Collector #3)(8)

“Remind me when we get to the van. That earns you a lollipop.”

Morbid humor: not just an agent thing.

“If this is about the abuse,” Eddison answers, “and we are still spitballing that, but if it is, then killers of this kind generally consider the mother complicit, even if she is herself a victim. She didn’t protect her child. She had to have known about it but didn’t stop it, either because she didn’t think she could, or because she chose not to in order to relieve some of the burden on herself.”

“When I go to my parents’ on Sundays, my mom asks me if I’ve learned anything new over the week,” the assistant says. “I need to start lying.”

“Fact of the day calendar,” Eddison tells him. “Seriously.”

“Saw some of the neighbors outside,” I note. “Any of them mention hearing gunshots?”

The detective shakes his head. “We’ll know better once the bullets are out, but there seems to have been some kind of silencer. A potato, probably, from debris in the wound tracks. Neighbors mentioned screams, but that’s pretty commonplace for this house.”

“A child’s screams?”

Eddison gives me a slightly jaundiced look. “You think Ronnie stood and watched his parents get murdered and didn’t scream?”

“He didn’t move off my porch. After the killer left him there, he could have gone to any other house and asked for help, but he stayed exactly where he was put. And look at the carpet: Is there any sign of a struggle around where he must have stood?”

“If he’d ever admitted to Social Services what was happening to him, he likely wouldn’t have been returned to the home.” Eddison rubs at his jaw. “So he’s probably pretty conditioned to protect his father by keeping silent. Anyone suitably authoritative is someone he’d probably obey, so long as it didn’t mean talking about the abuse.”

“Poor kid’s got years of therapy ahead of him,” the ME observes.

“Does the scene remind you of any of your cases? Or things that have come across your desk that didn’t become your cases?” asks Mignone.

“Not a one,” Eddison says. “We’ll go back through, just in case, and let you know if we find anything.”

“Does it echo any of yours?” I ask, and get looks from both Eddison and Mignone. “Ignoring the blood, this is a clean scene. Simple, efficient entry and exit, with the child. Clear planning, awareness of the character of the neighborhood. This doesn’t feel like a first time, and if it is, what the hell comes next?”

Mignone blinks at me, his moustache twitching. “Thanks, this night wasn’t nightmare enough already.”

“The mothers taught me how to share.”

True to Eddison’s prediction, it’s almost four in the morning before we walk out of the house, our booties placed in evidence bags with one of the officers just in case and our time of departure marked on the scene log. The neighborhood is still quiet, the areas beyond the house dimly lit by isolated porch lights and a couple of streetlights. A thick cluster of trees runs behind the houses on the other side of the street, and I’m tired enough that my skin crawls at the sight of them.

There are reasons my street has big lawns and no woods.

Eddison nudges my shoulder with his. “Come on. Marlene will be up in half an hour; we can keep her company.”

“We’re going to invade Vic’s kitchen—”

“Vic’s house, Marlene’s kitchen.”

“—and keep his mother company before he wakes up?”

“That is exactly my plan. What do you think she’s making?”

Doesn’t matter what it is, it’ll be amazing, and dinner was a very long time ago. I lean against the top of the car, looking out at the dark fringe of woods. I can’t hear anything from them, and it seems strange, to finally find trees that are silent. Strange and frightening. “You know, Siobhan got me craving those cream-cheese-and-berry puff pastry pinwheels.”

He smirks at me over the roof and unlocks the doors with a beep and the soft clunk of the latches releasing. “Come on, hermana. We’ll go drink all the coffee before Vic wakes up.”

“That seems an excellent way to end up dead.”

Unwillingly, we both glance back at the illuminated house, the Wilkins adults still inside, their son at the hospital, terrified and traumatized and in the company of strangers.

“We’ll leave one cup. Three-quarters of a cup.”

“Deal.” I slide into the car, buckle in, and close my eyes until we turn back onto the main road, where the trees don’t crowd so close.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who was scared of the night.

It wasn’t the same as the dark. A dark closet, a dark room, a dark toolshed, those were things that would change in an instant. You could make it not-dark, or at least try.

Night, though. Night you just had to grit your teeth and wait out, no matter what was happening.

Her daddy started coming to her in the night, and it was different. He didn’t hit, not unless she struggled or told him no. He’d kiss the bruises he left on her during the day, call her his good girl, his beautiful girl. He’d ask if she wanted to make him happy, make Daddy proud.

She could hear her mama crying down the hall. In that house, everyone could hear everything, no matter where they were.

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