He always loved the Madonna-like glow around a mother tending to her child. More than once, this glow had been the thing that called a woman to his attention.
He appreciated the way this mother’s deep brown skin shone as she bent down close to a little face that was just as beautiful as hers. Her auburn braids cascaded around her face as she leaned in close to hear her child’s secrets. White teeth gleamed behind full lips that would have shone even without the frosty pink gloss she wore. Earrings dangled like a hypnotist’s gleaming watch. Rings adorned every one of her fragile fingers.
He had been watching this mother with this child for a long time, longer than he’d ever stalked a woman. His attention had strayed, because certain needs must be met, but he always came back to her.
For her, he had broken every one of his rules. They lived mere blocks apart. He knew her name. She knew his. More to the point, the people who would be her survivors knew his name and they knew where he lived. He should have run from her as fast as his feet would take him, but he was transfixed by the graceful tilt of her head as she listened to everything that her little girl had to say.
As the two of them neared the crosswalk, she held her hand out in the mother’s universal signal of caution. The hand said, “You’re too young to cross the street alone.” Or perhaps it said, “You’re old enough to cross the street alone now, but hold mine, please. I feel safer when you do.” Something about the way the child took her mother’s hand made him think that the balance was already shifting, years too soon. Perhaps the mother was the one who needed someone steady to look after her.
There was no wedding ring. He always checked for those.
He could have done it, then and there. Nobody could be easier to grab than a woman with a child in tow. Come within an arms’-length of the child, flash a knife, grab a wrist, and you were in control. That’s where he liked to be, in control.
This woman knew him well. Getting close enough to seize the wrist would be easier than it had ever been, because she knew him. Or she thought she did.
He said her name out loud, again: “Frida.”
He liked the taste of it. It vibrated on his lips in the same way that her wrist would pulse against his palm.
Grabbing a woman’s wrist was always his first move and, in many ways, it was his favorite moment. There was always a tremble of fear there, playing counterpoint to her rocketing pulse. There was a cold clamminess, too. A hard yank on the wrist could bring her close enough for him to smell her sweat, in the very instant that a surge of adrenaline gave the scent a top note of fear. A harder yank could sprain the wrist, dislocate the elbow, sometimes even snap the arm, but he had to wait for that. Until they were alone and no one could hear, he couldn’t afford to loose the hungry dog of his desire.
Mother and child crossed the street, hand in hand, and he enjoyed watching them go. The mother had long, slender legs beneath a short skirt that was silky enough to enhance the curves beneath. The daughter’s legs were short and sturdy beneath her athletic shorts, but that would change. She was her mother’s image made over. In two years, maybe three, she would be as delectable and he would be waiting. Once he’d broken his rules for her mother, he might as well break them for her.
He let them walk out of sight, but it would be a mistake to say that he let them go. He had decided that they were among the chosen, and this was not a decision that he had ever reversed. The mother was ripe now and the daughter would be soon. They could walk away from him, but they could not escape him.
He knew where they lived.
The slow-moving creek carried a thick layer of olive-green algae. Faye Longchamp-Mantooth shuffled along, using her feet to feel her way along a sandy bottom that she couldn’t see. Tainted water lapped at sandy banks littered with beer cans, crumpled plastic grocery bags, and an occasional whitewall tire. Anything that had ever been cast aside by anyone in Memphis, or even in most of west Tennessee, could theoretically be hiding under the scum, so she stepped carefully.
She was wearing boots that were water-resistant, but not watertight, and she’d been slogging along this creek for nearly half an hour, so its blood-warm water now saturated her socks. Her shirt clung to her ribs. Even her bra was sweat-soaked. She was mildly miserable but she couldn’t quit now. To quit would be to admit that a little girl was tougher than she was.
She was far behind the girl, just close enough to catch sight of her every five minutes or so. The child couldn’t be more than ten, yet she moved in the world like someone who had never been dogged by a protective adult urging her to be careful. There was no question that she knew this creek. Faye had learned quickly to pay attention when her quarry made a random move, stepping deeper into the water than Faye would have expected or crawling up the bank to take a detour that seemed unnecessarily strenuous. When Faye reached the jumping-off points for those odd detours, she inevitably found out the reasons for them.
Once, a deep hole, hidden by the algae and muck, claimed her leg all the way up to the butt cheek. She’d waited in that hole several minutes, until she was sure the girl was too far away to hear her splash and flail her way out of it. Another time, she’d tripped over a submerged television and barely missed slicing her calf on the exposed shards of an ancient cathode ray tube. Faye had collected ample proof that the girl knew this creek intimately, miles of it. This was despite the fact that, if Faye had been her mother, she would have been years away from receiving permission to leave the back yard alone.
When a culvert came into view, Faye crawled up onto the high bank to get a better look at it. She saw a concrete pipe, maybe four feet across, marking the point where the creek was almost blocked by the bed of a busy road. The pipe throttled the creekwater into a narrower, swifter flow.
Faye hoped that the girl had traveled as far as she intended to go. She didn’t want to see her wade into the culvert’s fast-moving water, deep enough to splash the hem of her skimpy red shorts. Faye had been following those shorts for nearly a mile, but she’d been keeping her distance. There had been times when the only signs of her quarry were occasional glimpses of their faded crimson through the underbrush.
Why was she doing this, anyway? It had been three days since Faye had first noticed the child hiding in a shady clearing atop the creek bank that loomed over her worksite. Every day since, the little girl had been up there before Faye arrived, ready to roll up her sleeves and do some archaeology. Shortly before noon each day, Faye had seen her creep quietly through the trees lining the bluff, skirting the creek until she believed she was out of Faye’s sight. Each day, she returned more than two hours later, closer to three, and waded out of the water at a spot where the creek bluff dipped down to a manageable height. This happened far enough from the spot where Faye worked that the child probably believed that she’d gone unnoticed.
But this had been a tactical error. She’d underestimated Faye, who had also spent her childhood outdoors, albeit in safer places and supervised by an adult. Whenever the girl passed by on the bluff above her, Faye heard the soft footsteps and the rustle of disturbed underbrush. Even the faint splish of small feet stepping into running water was obvious to outdoorsy Faye.
After the girl disappeared downstream on the first day, Faye had listened for the barely audible splashes to fade. Then, certain the child was gone, Faye had climbed up the bluff and checked out her hiding place.
The little girl’s stash of treasures had been eclectic. Faye had found a neat pile of magazines that looked like a sampling of convenience store stock—three issues of Guns and Ammo, a real estate circular, two issues of Car and Driver, and a dog-eared copy of People so old that the cover featured Paris Hilton. She’d also found a cache of pretty-colored stones and a fistful of dried-up yellow water lilies.
There had also been lots of trash, but it had been corralled in a plastic bag that was pinned down by a rock. Faye had admired this act of unchildlike tidiness. Then, because archaeologists are fascinated by trash, Faye had followed her instincts and peeked in the bag.
It had been filled with food wrappers, which was no surprise, but Faye hadn’t expected the wrappers to lean more toward real food than toward candy and gum. The girl’s unkempt hair and too-small clothing had led Faye to assume that she was neglected, but somebody was making sure she ate granola bars, peanuts, and canned fruit. Why wasn’t she eating it at home, instead of hiding from the July sun in the patchy shade of a copse of water oaks? Was she homeless? Did she live here, outside and alone?
No, that was impossible. There had barely been room in the gap in the trees to sit, much less to lie down and sleep, and there had been no possessions beyond the tattered magazines. This was not the hideout of someone with nowhere else to go.
This line of reasoning had made Faye reasonably sure that the child had a home, but was there someone waiting there to take care of her? She studied the girl, far ahead of her in the creek. By her best guess, she was looking at two-days-since-somebody-fixed-it hair, which is a far cry from the hair of a ten-year-old living alone. Some of the braids were starting to fray, but most of the multicolored plastic barrettes still held. A lot of kids’ hair looked like that in the summertime.
Where was she going?