I needed to calm the fuck down. I needed to think. I took a deep, centering breath. And another. And another. But that calm left me when the heavy wooden doors opened, and I turned to watch as Ricky’s friend walked in. His mouth went as slack with shock as mine did.
Whirling on Ricky, he stalked toward him. “What did you do, you stupid fuck?!”
Ricky jutted out his chin. “I did what needed to be done!”
“I told you to leave her alone! She’s covered in fucking bruises, and she’s got a gash on her head! What did you do?”
Ricky shrugged one shoulder, smirking. “My truck might have plowed into her car.”
Reed fisted Ricky’s shirt. Yes, Reed. Mother of fuck, I hadn’t once suspected that he could have anything to do with all this. Not. Once.
“There’s something fucking amusing about this?” Reed demanded, upper lip curled as he glared at Ricky. “I told you that she’s no obstacle!”
“She’s the biggest obstacle of all, Reed, and you know it! All Michael can see is her. She made him soft. When she and her mother are gone, he’ll go back to the way he was before. He’ll be the person he was meant to be! And we’ll be his sons.”
Reed hissed through his teeth. “Michael wouldn’t want her harmed.”
Ricky smirked again. “Doesn’t matter now, does it? She’s seen your work. You’ll have to kill her.”
Reed turned to face me, cheeks red with fury, a glint of something wrong in those eyes that I’d never seen before. “I don’t want to have to kill you, Kensey.” I was sure he thought he sounded reassuring, but he didn’t. “Michael wouldn’t want that. You have him in your life. You’ve accepted him and what he did, even though you don’t like it. I need you to say you can understand and accept this just the same.”
Rigid as the hooded body not far from me, I just stared at Reed. I wondered if my eyes were as cold and lifeless as I imagined. How fucking ironic was it that the one thing that might save me was my connection to Michael?
“I don’t fit the profile of your average serial killer, do I? I’m not good looking. Not charming. Not in great shape. But that’s where my power lies, Kensey. No one sees me as a threat. People underestimate me. Even dismiss me. They never see me coming.”
“You killed all these people?” My voice came out low and warbled.
The expression on Reed’s face was almost sympathetic. “You’ve never really understood Michael, have you? You’ve accepted his crimes, but you don’t understand. Some people just shouldn’t live, Kensey. They shouldn’t. Michael knows that. I know that. Ricky knows that. These people here don’t deserve your pity. They needed to be punished. They needed to pay. Every single one of them admitted it, right there on that altar.”
I was betting they’d have said or done whatever he wanted if they thought it might end their suffering. Keep him talking, I told myself. “How haven’t the bodies completely decomposed?” Surely the place would smell a heck of a lot worse if they had.
“I learned how to embalm the dead from my father—he’s a mortician, remember? I embalmed each of them, and then I mummified them too before dressing them in a cloak.”
Well, he hadn’t gotten the mummification process totally right. Allegedly, mummies didn’t smell ‘dead,’ they smelled musty with, in some cases, a hint of incense. But here, there was a whiff of rot that I suspected would worsen over time. “What were their crimes?”
Seeming pleased by my interest, Reed gestured at the body on the pew behind mine. “Mrs. Jenkins over there would offer to babysit the young children of her tenants. While their parents were gone, she’d strip them naked and encourage them to play in her outdoor pool. Then she’d invite her friends to come sit by the pool and watch. But they didn’t just watch, Kensey. And neither did she.”
My stomach rolled, because the implication was utterly clear.
He gestured at two figures huddled in a corner at the other side of the church. “Over there, you have Mina Best and Josie Hall. Lovers. Mina had five children; four daughters, one son. The women tortured the three-year-old boy. Burned him with cigarettes. Whipped him with a studded belt. Made him sleep in a dog crate and eat dog food. And that’s not even the worst of the things they did—I’ll spare you the rest, because I can see you’re close to losing whatever food is in your stomach. Let’s move on to Miss Thorpe …”
One by one, he told me about his ‘parishioners.’ Each time he finished a devastatingly sad and sickening story, I tensed, bracing myself to hear a name I recognized. When there were only two left to go, I should have been relieved that they’d all so far been strangers to me. It was likely that Ricky had simply been fucking with my head—something that was clearly a hobby of his. But I was wound tighter than a drum, because it was still possible—
“At the back is Liza Montgomery.”
My pulse spiked at the name.
Reed lifted a brow. “I believe you know her story. I was sitting in my car, talking to Ricky on the phone, when she approached you that day in the parking lot. I overheard the conversation and made a point of finding out who she was. A quick Google search unearthed quite a bit of information. She told me the rest while spread out on my altar. She was cruel to the core, Kensey. They all were.”
They were also all women. Women who had abused children in one way or another. And bile rose in my throat at the thought of what those children had been through. Mouth dry as a bone, I asked, “And what did you do to them?”
He stepped toward me but halted when I jerked back. His mouth tightened, but he went on, “Until someone experiences something for themselves, they can’t really know what it’s like. Unless they know how it feels, they can’t truly be sorry. I made sure they knew how their victims felt. Made sure they knew what it was like to be helpless, terrified, overpowered, and assaulted. They begged for it to end, because they couldn’t take the pain they’d dished out so many times to others.” He breathed deeply. “Michael was my inspiration. Me and Ricky were both part of the Nexus, you know.”
I fisted my damp shirt as if it would anchor me. The Nexus was a Satanic cult that worshipped Michael.
“They said they believed in him and his cause, but they didn’t, Kensey. Not really. Because when it came time to continue his work, none of them would step up. Oh, they’d perform their rituals, pray to Satan, and worship at the altar they’d dedicated to Michael. They even planned to go on killing sprees, but they never did it. Not even once.”
Thank fuck for that.
“Me and Ricky were the only ones who really believed in furthering Michael’s work. But Ricky, no, he doesn’t have that killer instinct. Can’t stomach seeing a knife slice through flesh. I started this venture alone after we left the Nexus but, well, it got hard not having anyone to share it with. I knew Ricky would understand. Can you, Kensey?”
I closed my eyes. It was so hard to look at Reed right then. Hard to face that this person I’d worked alongside and considered a friend had done such terrible things. How hadn’t I seen it? I’d never felt entirely comfortable around him; never felt able to trust or confide in him. But I’d never imagined him to be a killer.
Reed sighed. “I see you’re having trouble dealing with this. Don’t fear me, Kensey. I’ve watched over you for years.”