New Excerpt: Every Last Fear by Alex Finlay
By Crime HQFebruary 12, 2021
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Agent Keller slid the key into the door of the small ranch-style house, moths circling the porch light above her. Readington, New Jersey, wasn’t a fancy neighborhood, which was just as well. That would’ve been cost prohibitive, given her FBI salary. But it was safe, filled with working-class families and young couples in starter homes.
In the entryway, she stopped at the sound coming from the kitchen. She dropped her keys softly in the bowl on the front table and crept down the hall, walking carefully, avoiding the creaky patch of wood floor.
Outside the kitchen, the noise was louder. A shaking sound like maracas.
Staying quiet, Keller peeked inside.
At the stove was Bob, making one of those old-fashioned popcorns, the kind you shake on the stovetop, creating a dome of foil. Two feet away the twins watched him in action. Michael wore dinosaur pj’s and Heather the cotton nightgown with Belle on it.
Bob grasped the thin metal handle, rattling the foil pan quickly, and the two wiggled their bodies at the same speed as the jostling. He stopped suddenly, and the twins froze in place—Michael’s hands in the air like a scarecrow, Heather trying to hold in her laugh. Bob then made wide figure eights with the pan as the grease sizzled, and the kids made circular movements with their hips, spinning invisible Hula-Hoops.
Keller felt warmth run through her. Bob was bald, and not in the slick stylish way of the young agents at the Bureau. He had an old-school doughnut of thick black hair. His stomach hugged his frayed concert T-shirt. But he evoked the awe of a movie star in the eyes of their children. And to Keller.
Some girls wanted to marry their fathers. It was the reason why so many couples were unhappy, Keller surmised: women seeking idealized versions of the first man in their lives. But Keller had no illusions about her dad. Whereas her father was a hard-charging lawyer who spent too much time worrying about appearances, Bob was a stay-at-home dad who—well, look at him. Whereas her father thought showing emotion was for the weak, Bob wore his heart on his sleeve, crying during movies and at the kids’ school performances. Whereas her father had engaged in an affair with his secretary in the oldest of clichés, Bob was as loyal as a Labrador. Most of all, he was kind.
“Mommy!” the twins said in unison when they finally saw her spying in the doorway.
Keller knelt down and accepted the squeeze and she felt that sensation she loved.
Bob moved the popcorn pan to an unlit burner, and came over and gave her a kiss.
“We’re going to watch Frozen!” Heather said.
“Again,” Keller said, eyeing her husband. “But isn’t it past bedtime?”
“Pleasssse, Mom, please,” Michael said.
“Daddy said we could,” Heather chimed in.
“Give Mommy a minute to relax,” Bob said. “She’s had a long day.” He looked at Keller. “Can I make you something to eat?”
“I picked up a sandwich,” Keller said.
“How about some wine?” he said as he cut into the tinfoil dome and poured popcorn into a plastic bowl.
“That I could do.”
He looked at the twins. “You two go get the movie started,” he said. “We’ll be right there.”
Michael took the bowl of popcorn and padded off to the living room, his sister at his heels.
“Small bites!” Bob yelled after them. “Popcorn’s a choking food.”
Keller sat at the small kitchen table as Bob pulled a wineglass from the cupboard and placed it in front of her. He displayed the bottle and, in a fake French accent, said, “Only the finest from the Trader Joe’s collection.” He filled the glass.
Keller swirled the wine, then put her nose in the glass before taking a taste and swishing it in her mouth. “It’s no Whole Foods 2019, but it will do.”
He sat beside her. “Long day, huh?”
Keller exhaled heavily. “I took him upstate to Fishkill prison so he could tell his brother.”
“How’s he doing?”
Keller took a drink of the wine. “He’s twenty-one. His parents and little brother and sister are dead, and his older brother’s in prison. And let’s not forget the media circus.”
Bob listened as Keller told him about her very long day.
“I just kept thinking of his family,” Keller said. “The little boy was the same age as the twins.”
Bob put his hand on his wife’s. “Speaking of, it’s a bit too quiet in there. I’ll be right back.” He left the kitchen to check on the kids. He returned carrying Heather in one arm, Michael in the other, both fast asleep.
“Ahh, I wanted to cuddle them,” Keller said.
“Look on the bright side. Were you really up for Frozen again?”
Bob carried the twins to their bedrooms. When he made it back to the kitchen, Keller said, “I’m sorry I’ve been working so much lately.”
“Don’t you apologize.”
Keller drained the rest of her glass.
“Do you think there’s a connection with the father’s accounting firm?” Bob asked as he poured her a refill.
Keller’s money-laundering investigation into Marconi LLP was the only reason she’d been dragged into this mess with the Pines.
“I doubt it. Evan Pine wasn’t a big player at the firm. He was only on my interview list because he’d been fired,” Keller said. Fired employees were always the most willing to dish dirt.
“It’s a big coincidence, though,” Bob said. “The firm is in bed with the cartel, and the family dies in Mexico.”
“That’s what Fisher said, but it’s a stretch. He’s just using the connection to get us involved with a high-profile case, curry favor with State and headquarters.”
“So you think it was just an accident?”
“I didn’t say that.”
A Violent Nature
Season 1/Episode 3
“You Fucking Idiots”
The sound of a murmuring crowd is broken by THE JUDGE’S voice announcing the jury has reached a verdict. FADE IN ON:
INT. COURTROOM VIDEO FOOTAGE
The judge reads the verdict, and the spectator section is a mix of cheers and sobbing. The judge calls for order, when a man rises. He’s pointing angrily at the judge, then the prosecutor, the defense lawyer, his finger landing on the jury box.
You fucking idiots! Shame on you, shame on all of you.
Order! I will not have outbursts in this courtroom.
He’s innocent. You fools. You fucking idiots!
TWO SECURITY OFFICERS confront Evan Pine, a struggle ensues, and he’s dragged from the courtroom.
He’s innocent. My son is innocent!
Evan examined the wild-eyed man with curiosity. With the wrinkled shirt and unruly hair, the man looked like one of those homeless street preachers who hold Mass outside the subway. Or an angry cable news pundit on a bender.
“With the advent of DNA,” the man ranted, “we learned something that people still just don’t seem to get: we lock up a shocking number of innocents. And you know what? About a quarter of them confessed. So when people say innocent people don’t confess to crimes they didn’t commit, well, it’s horseshit. And teenagers falsely confess at rates much higher than adults. They just tell the police what they want to hear. One study of people exonerated through DNA found that forty percent were kids who falsely confessed.…”
Evan clicked the mouse on his laptop and paused Netflix. Horseshit. It wasn’t a word he’d normally use. But there Evan was, for twenty million viewers to see. He’d once made the mistake of reading the comments section on one of the forums for the documentary.
The father has lost his shit.
He’s so devastated, he can’t see straight.
Free Danny Pine!
Boo fucking hoo, I hope his son rots for what he did to that poor girl.
Off-camera, the documentary filmmakers, Judy and Ira Adler, were quietly stoking Evan’s flame. They meant well, the Adlers. They believed Danny was innocent. But in the aftermath, Evan couldn’t help being angry with them. For exploiting their private lives for public entertainment. For getting his hopes up. He clicked the mouse, and his face was animated again.
A voice spoke from off-screen—Judy’s. “But if Danny wasn’t involved, how did he know that Charlotte’s head had been crushed with a rock?”
“He didn’t know anything,” Evan replied, angry at the question. “Those two cops, they fed him all the details. Watch the tape, for Christ’s sake.”
The screen jumped to the now infamous interrogation video. It showed Danny with his head down on the table in the windowless interview room. The cops had picked him up at the house early that morning. Evan had been out of town for work. Liv had been running errands, and had missed the calls from Maggie.
The burly cop, Detective Ron Sampson, slammed his open hand on the table, making a loud smack. Danny jolted up, his face puffy and tear-soaked.
The other cop, Wendy White, with her frizzy hair and circa-1985 bangs, said, “Just tell us what you did, and we’ll work this out. You can go home.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Stop lying!” Sampson said, his voice showing the frustration of several hours of interrogation. Evan felt a sting of guilt that no one—not Evan, not Liv, not a lawyer—had been there to help his son. Danny had turned eighteen just two weeks before. Technically an adult, so the cops didn’t need to notify his parents. Still, if Evan had caught a different flight and not been in the air, or if Liv had just been home and … Evan stopped himself, deciding not to go down that road again.
Sampson continued playing bad cop: “We have your prints on the rock.” A lie.
White: “Just tell us the truth and we can get you home. We can talk to your mom and dad and get this sorted out. I’m sure it wasn’t something you planned.”
Danny shook his head.
Sampson: “Let’s just lock him up now. I’m sure his cellies will have a good ol’ time with a firm young man like him.”
White: “No, not yet,” she said in a soft tone. “Just tell us the truth, Danny, and we’ll get you home.”
Exhausted and tearful, Danny finally said it: “Okay.”
“Okay, what?” White said.
“I did it.”
“Did what?” Sampson said. He put a reassuring hand on Danny’s shoulder. “Tell us what you did to Charlotte.”
“I hurt her with a rock.”
“Good job,” White said. “What’d you do with the rock?”
“I, ah, threw it at her.” It came out more like a question.
“You know you couldn’t throw a rock that big, Danny,” Sampson said, yanking his hand from Danny’s shoulder. “I’m done,” the cop said, standing, the chair scraping loudly against the linoleum floor. He made a show of pulling out handcuffs.
“What’d you do with the heavy rock?” White continued, her voice urgent, like she was trying to head off her partner.
Danny shook his head, said something indiscernible.
“You already told us you did it, and we have the proof. The only thing that’ll help is if you tell us what you did to her head.”
Danny swallowed. “I hit her with the rock.”
“Where did you hit her?” Sampson said, sitting down again.
“Good boy,” White said. “You’re doing great.”
“How many times did you hit her with the rock?” Sampson continued.
“Stop lying, Danny,” Sampson said, “we have the proof.”
“Just tell the truth and we’ll work this out, we can get you out of here,” White said. “One hit wouldn’t cause her head to smash in like that.”
Danny gulped down a sob.
“Just tell the truth,” White said.
“No,” Sampson said.
“Three,” Danny replied.
“Okay, good job Danny, you’re doing great,” White said. “Now why did you do it? Was it because you’d had a fight at the party?”
He nodded, his eyes on the floor.
“Great job, Danny.”
“And you then used the wheelbarrow and took her to the creek.”
Danny put his head on the table. “Okay.”
The two cops looked at each other, and Sampson gave White a tiny nod. They had what they needed.
Danny lifted his head and looked at both of the detectives. In a quiet voice, he said, “Can I go home now?”
* * *
Evan stabbed the laptop keyboard with his finger, shutting down Netflix. No matter how many times he watched the video, his blood always flowed hot, his fists clenched. He remembered Danny crying when Evan finally got to the station house. No sound was more heartbreaking than your child sobbing. Danny was shell-shocked, asking when he could go home, worried because he had a school project due on Monday.
Evan clutched the bottle on the counter and poured himself a large glass of Scotch. It worked as well as—no, better than—his therapy session earlier that day.
The house was quiet. Liv and Tommy were in Nebraska, seeing to Liv’s father. He’d been causing problems at the nursing home again, and Liv needed to convince them not to kick him out. Maggie was staying the night with a friend. If there was ever a good time, it was now.
At the kitchen counter, the lights dimmed and shades drawn, he clicked the mouse again and opened the banking site to the savings account. Less than two thousand dollars. The checking was no better. And the mortgage was due in a week. He’d managed to conceal his deception—the tens of thousands he’d spent on lawyers and investigators for Danny. But the reckoning was coming. He imagined Liv seeing the statement for the first time. Evan telling her he’d been fired, that he’d been pretending to go to work.
He imagined his wife’s face. The anguish, which would turn to fury when she would inevitably insist on examining the rest of their accounts. She’d find Maggie’s college fund down to $12,332, not enough to cover even the cost of the dorm room at MIT.
He closed the site and set up an automatic email timed to send to Liv tomorrow morning. It told her to call the police and make sure Maggie stayed at Harper’s until they removed his body. It told her where to find the files on his computer with notes to each of the kids. And it told her where to find the information on his life insurance, which he’d confirmed would pay out even after a suicide. A cool ten million.
He thought of Dr. Silverstein’s warning. The meds can trick a patient into thinking there’s only one solution.
But he wasn’t being tricked. It had started as a whisper in his ear. The voice of reason, snaking into his subconscious, confirming his every last fear: “They’ll be better off without you.” He was doing this for them. To spare them financial ruin. To spare them living with someone who was broken. That’s what the voice kept saying. But deep down he knew it wasn’t for them at all.
It was for him.
To turn off the faucet of despair.
He slammed the fistful of pills into his mouth, then chased them with the Scotch. They went down hard, and he had to suppress the gag reflex. He poured another glass and downed it quickly as he waited for the pills to take effect.
Evan wasn’t a religious man. But he liked the idea of organized religion, with an emphasis on the organized part. As an accountant, he found virtue in organization and order. And something about the rituals and traditions of religions—rules largely aimed at making you a better person—was appealing. Back in Nebraska, Liv had insisted that they attend church every Sunday. Faith had helped her through her mother’s death when she was ten. After Danny was convicted and they moved to Naperville, Illinois, Evan had no patience for it all. Still, while he was waiting for the pills to do their thing, he said the words nonetheless: “God, please forgive me. And take care of them.”
As if answering, his iPhone chimed. Not the usual ring.
He looked at the screen. It was a FaceTime call. He didn’t ordinarily use FaceTime, and he didn’t recognize the number. He was going to ignore it, but if this was divine intervention, he’d better answer.
He swiped the phone. The screen was dark, but he heard music and the din of a crowd, like a nightclub or a bar. His own image floated in the small box in the upper right corner. He looked much like he did in the documentary. The camera jostled about, then a woman’s face appeared. It was shadowed, but he could somehow tell she was scared. She was walking quickly, bumping into people, her heavy breathing and muffled music pounding through the phone’s tinny speakers. Finally she came under some grim lighting and stopped.
Evan’s heart stopped as well. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. He moved his own face closer to the screen.
She said something into the camera, but he couldn’t make it out. But it was the face—the freckles, the strawberry-blond hair, the small scar on her forehead—that caused every nerve in his body to tingle. Evan rubbed his eyes with his balled fists. It just couldn’t be.
He fumbled for the volume, turning it up.
She said the words again, and this time they were clear.
A hand grabbed the woman by the hair and the phone jerked violently and went black.
Evan blinked several times, trying to process. He ran to the sink and jammed two fingers down his throat. Vomit projected out of his mouth. Brown liquid and pill capsules. Many were still intact.
His legs felt weak and his thoughts muddled. He didn’t know if it was from the shock or if some of the pills had made it to his bloodstream. He needed to stay awake. Needed to understand what he’d just witnessed.
Gripping the iPhone, he pulled up the number. The caller ID said MOLOKO BAR and gave a place of origin: Tulum, Mexico. Light-headed, he clicked on the number. His own face projected on the screen as it rang. But no one answered.
Answer, he thought.
Please answer, Charlotte.
Copyright © 2021 by Alex Finlay.
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