As she crept along the hall, carpet muffling her steps, she heard the first hum of voices. They came from the master bedroom, where a thin wedge of light spilled through the partly opened door.
“The girls are safe now, Mary Ellen,” Landry was saying. “You can stop. No one’s going to hurt them.”
Alia flattened herself against the wall on the opposite side of the door. She had little view of the room, but she could see Mary Ellen, sitting on a stool, a kitchen knife held loosely in her hands. She was so slender, so damn innocent looking, that a person could be forgiven for thinking she’d never hurt a fly. Harm the brother she adored? Never.
Alia would never forgive her if she succeeded.
“Don’t you get it, Landry? They’ll never be truly safe. Do you think Daddy and his friends are the only pedophiles out there? Our world was small when we were children, and yet five of the men in it were perverts! Five! And that’s just the ones we know about.” She shook her head. “My girls will never be completely safe. But at least these five bastards will never hurt them. I’m gonna make sure of that.”
“I don’t care if every one of them dies,” he said heavily, his voice coming from somewhere directly in front of Mary Ellen. “But what about Faith and Mariela? How are they going to grow up without you? You’re their mama. They need you.”
“And they’ll have me.”
“No. They’ll catch you, Mary Ellen, and they’ll lock you away.”
Not in prison, Alia thought, but in a psychiatric hospital, because this was certainly not a sane person in front of her.
“What will the kids think?” Landry went on. “How will they get over it?”
“No one suspects me. No one even really knows me because I come and go.” Rising to her feet, she turned defiant, gesturing with the knife to make her point. “And even if I do get caught, at least my daughters will know I was willing to kill to protect them. That’s more than you and I ever got from Mama.”
Just how much not sane was she? No one really knew her? She came and went? Was it possible she suffered from dissociative identity disorder? Was this a separate personality from the Mary Ellen everyone knew and loved, a protector who kept her safe like no one else had ever done?
Alia had no psychological training. She knew not all professionals believed DID was a valid diagnosis. She didn’t know how to talk to Mary Ellen in a way that might defuse her rage. She didn’t know if she could reason with her.
But she did know how to deal with an armed suspect with a hostage she intended to kill. Lifting her pistol, giving the door a nudge with her left foot so that it silently swung open a few more inches, she stepped into the room, sighted and gently squeezed the trigger.
The worst of summer was over, though on a hot, sunny October Saturday, it was hard to tell. Landry was sprawled on the back steps of the Creole cottage, a bottle of beer cradled loosely in both hands. He had chicken marinating in brown sugar and cinnamon; he’d microwaved a half dozen potatoes until they were semitender, then sliced them thickly before coating them with olive oil and chopped parsley; and since green tomatoes were hard to come by now, he’d bought the firmest red ones he could find. Different flavor, but still well worth grilling.
All he needed before he put the food on the grill was someone to help eat it.
That changed in half a minute as Alia ran around the corner of the house, arms in the air cheering. Spinning to trot backward, she beamed a smile at her followers. “You made it! You ran a whole mile! Yay!”
Panting and sweaty, Faith and Mariela stumbled to the ground in a heap at his feet. They were dressed like the runners they were slowly becoming, in shorts, tanks and sneakers, picked to match Alia’s.
“Why don’t you run, Uncle Landry?” Mariela asked.
He gave her a look of horror. “That’s Alia’s passion, not mine.”
“What’s your passion?” Faith asked.
“You are. And you—” he nodded at her sister “—and you,” he added when Alia sat down beside him. Even though she was damp with sweat, he nuzzled her neck, making the girls giggle.
“Okay, you two, hit the shower,” Alia commanded. “Bathe, clean clothes, then lunch.”
How could a seven-year-old and a ten-year-old rattle the entire house just by running up the steps? he wondered, then the screen door slammed and he was alone with Alia and he forgot all about the noise.
He smiled at her. “There was a time—” he didn’t mention that it was that last day, the day his sister had tried to kill him, the day Alia had shot her “—when I thought those two would love you and want to be just like you when they grow up. I was right.”