stillhouse lake - Page 11


Prester doesn’t say anything, and I don’t get any kind of vibe from him; it’s like sitting next to a piece of sun-warmed granite that smells faintly of dry-cleaning fluid and Old Spice. I don’t know what I smell like to him. Fear, probably. The sweaty aroma of a guilty woman. I know how cops think, and they wouldn’t have come to get me if I wasn’t a—as they like to term it—person of interest. Which is a suspect that they haven’t quite collected enough evidence on to charge. I worry about Lanny, with so much responsibility landing on her at just the wrong time in her life. Then I realize I’m thinking like I’m actually guilty.

Which I’m not. Not of the murder at the lake. Not of anything except marrying the wrong man and failing to notice he was the devil wearing human skin.

I take in a slow breath, let it out, and say, “Whatever you think I did, you’re wrong.”

“I never said you did anything,” Prester says. “To borrow a colorful phrase from the English, you’re helping us with our inquiries.” He’s nearly as bad at British accents as he is at ties.

“I’m a suspect, or you wouldn’t have a warrant,” I tell him flatly.

For answer, Prester unfolds the paper. It’s good, official stock, with the logo of the city on the top, and the word WARRANT printed on it in bold letters, but where the particulars should be, it’s just nonsense words graphic designers use to fill space. Lorem ipsum. I’ve used the same text so often, I can’t help but let out a soft laugh. “Ain’t no way we could get a warrant with the information we have right now, Ms. Proctor, I’ll tell you that for free.”

“Nice prop. Does it work often?”

“All the damn time. Fools around here take one look at it and think it’s in Official State Latin or some such nonsense.”

This time I laugh, because I can imagine a drunk, angry guy trying to parse out the words. Official State Latin. “So what’s really so urgent that you have to come get me in the middle of the night?”

Prester’s near-imaginary smile vanishes, and he looks unreadable. “Your name. You’ve been living a whole pack of lies, and let me tell you, it doesn’t exactly sit well with me. We got an anonymous call about your real name today and heard you might be planning to beat it out of town, so I had to make a move fast.”

I go a little cold, but I’m not really surprised. It was a logical play for my ex-husband to make, to make my life harder and more miserable. Any little, spiteful thing to hurt. It also locked me here, in Norton, and prevented me from starting the cycle again. Instead of answering, I turn my head.

“You know how strange all this looks,” Prester says. “Don’t you?”

I don’t answer. There’s really nothing I can say to make any of it better. I just wait as the cruiser bumps onto the main road leading to Norton, and we speed toward town.

I don’t flinch when Prester spreads out the photos in front of me. Why would I? I’ve been faced with Melvin Royal’s gruesome work a hundred times now. I’m fully acclimated to the horror.

There are only two that still wake a flutter in my chest.

The photo of the woman hanging limp from a wire noose in my old garage, naked and yet stripped even further by the removal of pieces of her skin.

The one taken underwater of Mel’s garden of women, floating eerily in the dark with their legs chained tight to weights, some hardly more than skeletons.

He’d made a science of body disposal, of exactly how much weight to use. Calculated it, using trial and error with dead animals, until he was sure how much to add to keep the bodies down. That all came out at court.

Mel is worse than a monster. He’s a smart monster.

I know it doesn’t help me that my expression stays calm as I look at all this horror, and my body doesn’t flinch, but I know, too, that faking it will be transparent. I look across the array of photos to meet Prester’s gaze. “If you’re looking to shock me, you’ll have to do better than this. Try to imagine how many times I’ve had to look at these before.”

He doesn’t answer. Instead, he slides one more photo onto the pile. It was, I realize, taken on the docks of Stillhouse Lake, probably the one not far from my front door. I can see the worn wingtip shoes that Prester’s wearing right now peeking in the edge of the shot, and regulation polished black ones that must belong to a uniformed officer, maybe Officer Graham. I am noting the shoes to avoid studying what’s in the center of the picture.

The young woman is barely recognizable once I’m forced to focus on her. She is an anatomy lesson of pink muscle and dull yellow ligaments, with the occasional flash of white bone. Sunken, clouded eyes, and a weedy fall of wet dark hair that half hides part of her skinned face. Her lips are intact, which makes the whole obscenity worse. I don’t want to think why her lips are still full and perfect.

“She was weighted down some,” Prester says. “Rope got cut by the motor, though, and the gut bacteria brought her back up. You know, it wouldn’t have taken much to keep her on the bottom since her skin’s gone. Lots of places for gases to escape. I suppose you’d know all about that, though. Wasn’t that how your husband did it?”

Mel’s victims had never floated. He’d have collected another dozen for his silent, drifting garden if The Event hadn’t happened. That was one thing Mel wasn’t guilty of: being bad at what he chose to do.

I say only, “Melvin Royal liked to do this kind of thing to women, if that’s what you mean.”

“And he disposed of his girls in the water, didn’t he?”

I nod. Now that I’ve fixed my gaze on the dead girl, I can’t look away. It hurts, like staring into the sun. I know the afterimage will stay burned on my brain for the rest of my life. I swallow, and my throat clicks. I cough, and suddenly, the urge to vomit comes hard; I hold it back, somehow, though sweat breaks out against my suddenly cold skin.

Prester notices. He has a bottle of water, and he pushes it across to me. I uncap and gulp, grateful for the cool, glassy weight that gathers in my stomach. I drain half the bottle before I recap it and set it aside. It’s a gambit, of course, for my DNA. I don’t care. If he chooses to wait for it, he could request confirmation from the Kansas PD. I’m documented, printed, photographed, and filed, and though the old Gina Royal is dead to me, we still share the same blood and bone and body.

“You see my problem,” he tells me in that warm, slow voice. It drones deep, and I think of old-time hanging judges, hoods, ropes, nooses. I think of the girl swaying from the end of a wire. “You were involved in a case like this back in Kansas. Got tried for being an accomplice. It might be hard to see it as some kind of coincidence happening again so close to you, is my point.”

“I never knew about what Mel did. Never, until the day of the accident.”

“Funny that your neighbor said different.”

That puts my back up, despite my efforts to stay calm. “Mrs. Millson? She was a vicious gossip, and she saw that as her chance to be some reality-show star. She perjured herself to get on the news. My lawyer destroyed her testimony on the stand. Everyone knows she was lying, and I had nothing to do with it. I was acquitted!”

Prester doesn’t blink. His expression doesn’t shift. “Acquitted or not, doesn’t look so good for you. Same kind of crime, same signature. So let’s go through this, step by step.”

He puts another picture down, covering the first one. In a way, it’s almost as upsetting as the first, because I see a fresh-faced young brunette woman with a saucy grin, sitting with her head bent to touch against another woman’s. The other woman is the same age, blonde, with a sweetly wistful look. Friends, I think. They’re not similar enough to be related.

“This is how she used to look, this girl Rain Harrington we found floating around in our lake. Pretty girl. Well liked around here. Nineteen years old. Wanted to be a veterinarian.” He adds another photo, of her cradling an injured, bandaged dog. It’s blatant manipulation, sentimentality, but I still feel it move through me like a subtle earthquake. I shift my gaze. “Nice, lovely girl without an enemy in the goddamn world. Don’t you look away!”