“By making me more miserable than ever! She took away everything I knew, everything I loved! I died all over again, Landry, while you and she were smugly patting yourselves on the back for saving me! Going to that awful place destroyed what little world I had left!”
He truly didn’t get it. He’d known what she was suffering here at home. How could the boarding school have been worse? She’d been safe there. She’d had a chance to grow up, grow stronger, to heal, and she hated him and Miss Viola for putting her there?
His little sister hated him. Intended to kill him.
Dear God, she had been so much more damaged than he’d ever suspected.
“We were trying to help you. I thought—” He’d thought they were dealing with a reasonably normal girl, given the circumstances, one who would be happy once she was out of the abusive environment, the way he had been. Neither he nor Miss Viola had had a clue that Mary Ellen might have been beyond saving.
“They say I tried to kill myself there.” She shrugged carelessly. “I don’t know, maybe I did. I was gone then.”
That was the second reference she’d made to being gone. Puzzled, he asked, “Gone where?”
“Just...gone. I come when I’m needed and go when I’m not.”
She sounded...fractured. As if she’d been living someplace other than the land of denial. Was that how she coped—by coming and going? Had she created some safe place in her head where she could hide even when in the middle of the ugly things?
He’d done that a few times back then—retreated into his mind, where the pain and humiliation and hatred didn’t exist. Where he could pretend nothing was happening, no one was hurting him. But it never lasted longer than the act itself. He’d always come back to himself within minutes.
Had Mary Ellen got lost in that retreat?
“I’m sorry, Mary Ellen. I’m so sorry.” It wasn’t much, but what else did he have to offer?
Grimly he directed his thoughts from the past to the present. If he didn’t think of something, there wasn’t going to be any future for him. No one knew where he was. They’d missed him at work by now, but she’d taken his cell phone and smashed it. His hands were secured, his ankles even more so. He could knock the chair over, but what good would it do him unless he managed to take her down with him?
Eventually Alia would come looking for him, he was sure of that, but would she be in time? And what would happen if she was? Would she kill Mary Ellen? Would his sister kill her? He knew Alia was strong and well able to take care of herself—those were two of the things he loved about her—but damn if he wanted her to put herself in danger to save him. If Mary Ellen hurt her...
Bleakness settled in his gut. This night wasn’t going to end without someone getting hurt, probably even dying.
Please, God, don’t let it be Alia.
* * *
The gate to the Jackson house was open, a lonely piece of crime-scene tape dangling from one side. Wishing for full tactical gear, Alia secured the Taser into the waistband of her skintight running shorts, then gripped the pistol loosely in her right hand. Her cell phone was tucked inside the ribbed band of the sock on her right foot, its ringer turned to vibrate.
Jimmy would be here soon with the cavalry, but did they have that long to wait? Landry had been with Mary Ellen for about two hours now. He could already be dead.
No. Not possible. If she didn’t believe it, it couldn’t be, and she damn sure didn’t believe it. Couldn’t.
She waited a minute, then half of another one before she started up the brick drive. She’d driven past the house before parking at the curb, had seen Landry’s car in the drive, lights on inside. There was no sign of Mary Ellen’s car. She must have parked some distance away so no nosy neighbors could place her at the scene.
There was an eeriness to the quiet. Houses could carry the essence of their former owners, and Jeremiah’s essence had been evil. Knowing what she did, she shivered as she approached the back door. Her only other time here, a windowpane had been broken. She didn’t need such measures. When her fingers wrapped around the cool metal knob and turned with a quiet click, the door swung inward.
A light shone over the kitchen floor, lighting the dark bloodstain that marked where Constance Marks had died. No one had been in to clean the place yet, explaining the faint mustiness and the fainter blood scent. It replaced the chocolate taste in her mouth with sourness rising from her unsettled stomach.
Careful to walk lightly, she made her way into the hall, then to the bottom of the stairs. The house was too big, built too solidly, for voices to carry, but the light shining from above led her cautiously up each stair.