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Sidetracked: Chapter 12

LOGAN

Virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbors.

—Confucius


“Just stay here,” I tell Lana, gesturing to a large breakroom. “I’d let you into my office to wait, but it’s restricted access.”

She squeezes my hand, giving me a small, reassuring smile. “I’m fine. Go do your thing.”

I head out of the breakroom, leaving the door open, and walk straight toward Craig’s office where he’s waiting with Hadley and Duke. Hadley’s red-rimmed eyes meet mine the second I step through the door, and she jerks her gaze away.

My eyes shift to Duke, who glares at me.

“Why is it necessary to have you guys in here for me to ask her a few simple questions?” Duke asks, annoyed.

“Call it an observation, but your chief put my girl in danger just to have a better chance of catching a serial killer. Then you show up, targeting one of my people for a crime she couldn’t have possibly committed.”

His eyebrows go up, and a lazy smile curves his lips. “Really? Agent Grace has so many alibies that it’d be a fool’s quest to try and pin Kenneth Ferguson’s death on her.

“Then why are you here?” I ask, suspicious.

His smile dies, and he tosses out several bagged pictures. Hadley’s breath catches in her throat when she sees them, and she clutches the chair.

“These aren’t all the pictures he had, but these children? They’re missing. Some of them have been missing for years.”

Hadley doubles over, vomiting into the trashcan. Duke actually looks sympathetic as he watches her.

“I need air,” Hadley says, wiping the back of her mouth as she stands.

I nod toward Craig, who takes her out, leaving me alone with Duke in the office.

“You wanted to see her reaction,” I tell him as I sit down too.

“She ran away from home for a reason,” Duke answers.  “She accused him of molesting her as a child.”

“So you are trying to—”

“I’m trying to get answers about what ‘special’ places he took her, as terrible as that sounds. We need to find these kids, even if we’re just recovering bodies. Someone killed this guy, but I’m looking for the dozens of kids who are missing more than I’m looking for his killer.”

He pulls out his phone, and I glance at the pictures that are on the desk. Most are naked little girls, spread wide on a bed. My stomach roils and I look away. Hadley never told me this part of her past.

“Ferguson left Hadley’s mother shortly after Hadley ran away. That means the mother was no longer valuable after the child was gone. How can a mother ignore something like that?” he asks.

“It’s often easier for someone to believe evil can’t exist inside someone they love, than to admit they’ve failed someone who should be more important. We see it too often. The blind eye effect is what we call it,” I say absently.

Just as I’m about to ask questions, he thrusts his phone at me, and my eyes widen in disbelief. “Someone knew what this guy was doing,” he goes on, gesturing to the picture.

Kenneth Ferguson has been tortured. There’s no doubt about that. His skin has been flayed off in numerous areas. There are black spots on the flayed portions, as though someone burned him.

“They used a knife. They used a blowtorch—possibly even the one he had downstairs for welding. And they hammered nails into his feet and testicles—seventy nails, to be exact… We found sixty-nine pictures and seventy nails. They did all this before dumping his dead body into the water.”

I grimace, wondering why so many killers have to focus on the genitals.

The water has bloated the body, turning the flesh a paler color and showing the blue veins. The eyes are white and glossed over.

“Was he dead before he hit the water?”

He nods.

“So the water was a countermeasure. We’re dealing with an organized killer who has the stomach for torture. Could have been a hitman. Where were these kids’ parents? One of them could know where these other kids are buried or kept if they’re still alive.”

“All of them were in the system, homeless, and hadn’t been placed with a foster family. They were labeled as runaways. Ferguson was a social worker with unlimited access to files and folders with countless children he could take at his own leisure. The ages range from eight to fifteen.”

“Pedophiles have a selective age range from two to three years that they prey on. Never a gap as big as that. Unless…”

“Unless what?” he prompts.

“Unless he’s a groomer. It’s rare, but some pedophiles select children they can groom and have long-term relationships with, that way, when their bodies are old enough, he can take more than just some touching from them.”

He chokes back a sound, possibly swallowing bile. “Sick fucker. Why kill them?”

“If he killed them, it’s because they didn’t play their part in the fantasy anymore. Possibly became too distant or detached. Maybe even cried too much. He wants their tears as children. As women, he wants their submission. Most groomed children either break psychologically, or kill themselves. Some of these could be suicides.”

“I want to find them. I want to at least give them a damn voice,” Duke says angrily. “No one cared. No one looked for them. And no one stopped this demon from carrying on all these years.”

“Someone did,” I remind him, curious. “Maybe one escaped somewhere along the line and came back for vengeance.”

“I released the information to the media, asking any prior victims to come forth. Is it wrong that I don’t want to catch his killer? I just want to find the missing children—dead or alive.”

He looks truly torn.

“I can’t answer questions of moral dilemma. When did you alert the media?”

“His body was found three hours ago. So far no one has called in or stepped forward. He was killed in his basement, but the scene was compromised with bleach. The unknown suspect doused the room in bleach and then hosed it down. Seems like this isn’t the first time he’s killed.”

“You said he,” I tell him, frowning.

“The guy weighed a ton. There’s no way a girl carried him to the water alone. There was signs of him being rolled to the water, but even still, that’s a lot of strength. It was uphill for a piece. Then they used a hoe to dig up all the dirt where the footprints were. The tire treads we found weren’t enough to get a make or model of a car. They were careful to stay out of the dirt or sand.”

Definitely organized. Too organized to have had just one kill under their belt.

“No hesitation marks,” I say quietly, gesturing to the picture. “We may be dealing with a serial.”

He tenses, his eyes narrowing. “I’m not trying to take your case away, detective,” I add, watching as he relaxes. “I’m just saying you may have some avenger seeking justice where the cops haven’t. You may want to look into—”

The door opens, and Craig steps in. “We have a little girl here. She’s bruised and malnourished, and the woman who brought her in claims that she was left on her doorstep during the night. The little girl is a victim of Ferguson’s.”

My eyes dart to Duke’s as his widen, and we both launch ourselves toward the door, moving briskly.

The little girl is whispering something in Hadley’s ear as we walk into the room where they’re seated, and Hadley frowns, studying the little girl.

“What?” Duke asks.

The little girl shudders when she hears his voice, harsh and demanding. Duke tenses, realizing his error.

“Sorry,” he says softly as the woman puts her arm around the little girl.

She was just found last night? Yet the traumatized kid is clinging to this woman?

“Sorry,” Duke says again, his voice barely above a whisper as he takes a seat.

“I’m going to head home,” Hadley says as she nears me, clutching my arm on her way toward the door. “Let that girl stay with Lindy. Do not let them take her away. I need…I need a moment.”

I follow her out, letting Duke speak with who I assume is Lindy. Craig joins him, sitting down with his iPad as he listens intently.

“I don’t know. The doorbell rang, and Laurel was there when I answered it. I brought her in, fed her, gave her water, and then let her shower for as long as she wanted. That’s when I saw the news, and Laurel gave me her story, along with information you need. I’ll tell you everything she told me, but only if you promise she can stay with me. No taking her away.”

“Yes,” Laurel agrees adamantly.

A bond that deep can’t be forged so quickly unless Laurel and Lindy know more than I think they do.

I’m distracted by Hadley as I shut the door on the room, focusing my attention on my friend.

“Are you okay?”

Hadley turns to me with tears in her eyes. No one is around right now, everywhere scrambling around to find Plemmons.

“No, I’m not okay. I let them convince me it was all in my head. I thought I was sick and crazy, Logan. Now…that little girl is in there. Those kids…all of this is my fault.”

She swallows harshly as she sobs, wiping her eyes.

“This isn’t your fault, Hadley.”

“I should have tried harder. I should have looked into it better when I started working here. No other reports were ever filed…I had it set to ping me. I honestly believed it was all in my head. Now…I just need to go home. I’ll call you later.”

She walks away, never turning back around, and I blow out a long breath. She needs space, and I get that. I just hope this doesn’t break her.

I see her pause, eyeing the breakroom where Lana is. I tilt my head, confused as the emotion flees her eyes, turning into something more concentrated, but I can’t see Lana.

Finally, Hadley walks away, and I make a mental note to question that more later.

Just as I start to step back into the room, Craig steps out, his face flushed and his eyes wide.

“Your office. Now,” he says, heading straight by me.

Confused, I follow, and I see him gesture for Donny and Leonard to follow. Elise and Lisa are taking a sleep break, like I was supposed to be doing.

As soon as we’re all in my office, Craig shuts the door and he lays out his iPad.

“Lindy May Wheeler is the woman Ferguson’s killer decided to leave the child with.”

Her name doesn’t ring any bells.

“And?” Donny prompts.

“Lindy May Wheeler is from Delaney Grove.”

The blood chills in my veins, turning to ice as goosebumps pebble my skin. Slowly, I make my way to the chair, dropping to it as the weight of the revelation settles on to me.

“She left nine and a half years ago, started a new life, even dropped her last name,” he goes on. “She just goes by Lindy May now.”

“What the fuck is going on in that town?” Donny asks in a hushed whisper.

“I was there. It was like the Andy Griffith show. Everyone was smiling and happy, waving at us as we passed. No signs of something wrong. If anything, they live like it’s the nineties, refusing to move forward with the rest of the world.”

“Someone gets tortured and killed, and an innocent child ends up with a Delaney Grove resident. That’s not a coincidence,” Donny says.

“No castration,” Craig says. “That’s his one constant. Why would he deviate if it was him? If anything, this guy deserved castration more than any of the prior victims.”

“As far as we know,” I say under my breath, looking up as all eyes swing to me. “He didn’t want this tied to him. This was an impulsive kill. He wasn’t prepared. The footsteps were dug up, meaning he may not have been wearing his boots. He may even be tricking us with his weight. He poured bleach all over the scene of the crime, washing away evidence. That’s not in his MO, which means he’s normally more prepared. What triggered this?”

“We need to adjust the profile,” Donny says.

“Why?” Craig asks him.

“Because a sadist would never take the time to deviate from his list and go kill a pedophile. This was motivated. There was something that triggered the unsub’s need to kill this man,” I explain. “A sadist wouldn’t take the time to find a child and see them off into the hands of someone they felt would care for the child. He wouldn’t give a damn.”

“There was no rage,” Donny says, knowing where I’m going with this. “The kills were brutal, but each slice of the knife was controlled and calculated. No rage means no revenge.”

“What if this unsub has been preparing for this for a lot longer than we expected? What if he’s numbed himself to his emotions? Rage wouldn’t be found in a kill. This would all be about inflicting as much pain as possible, hence the days and days of torture.” As the words leave my mouth, and audible breath escapes them all.

“We need to dig deeper into that town. Something seriously fucked up has gone on there.”

“What about Plemmons? We’re supposed to be working solely on that case right now,” Leonard reminds me.

“I’m technically just supposed to be the middle man for the media. I can look into this without getting us in trouble,” Craig volunteers. “Maybe Lindy May can shed some light on that town.”

“I’ll go see what I can find out,” Donny says, standing and leaving us behind.

“I’m going to go listen in,” I say to them. “Stay on Plemmons. Keep working that. This changes nothing as far as the priority goes,” I tell Leonard.

“Revenge would have this guy contacting the media,” Leonard says, lost in thought. “He’s killed six. He’d want his story known. He’d want the world to know why he was doing this. It doesn’t make sense.”

“And targeting Hadley’s stepfather? That can’t be a coincidence,” I point out. “He’s watching us. Studying us, possibly. He doesn’t want the media knowing yet, because he doesn’t want the world to know his motives until he’s ready for his endgame. We have no idea how long that list is, which is why we need to know what happened that was so bad that a seemingly normal person who cares enough about a child to deliver them to a safe doorstep, would become a brutal torturer and killer.”

“Definitely not a sadist,” Leonard sighs. “That’s for damn sure.”

He stands, running his hand over his stomach as it growls.

“That town was too shiny for something this dark to be in its recent past. I’ll see how far back I can go. I won’t stop until I find something.”

“Work on Plemmons for now. After we catch that bastard, we’ll dig into Delaney Grove.”

He nods, though it seems like reluctant compliance.

Craig gets up, bringing his iPad with him. “I’ll go see if I can dig anything up. You deal with this.” He pauses, studying me for a moment. “What does it mean if a serial killer goes after someone who hurt a member of our team?”

I purse my lips as Leonard stands. “When he goes after a pedophile, it means he suffered something similarly traumatic…may even feel a kinship with Hadley. I don’t feel like he’s targeting us. I feel like he wants us to understand him.”

“But he didn’t want this linked to him,” I counter. “That was forced because he wanted the little girl safe. He’s cut himself off from all new relationships, forced to return to the ones from his past that aren’t tainted with whatever happened.”

I look over at Craig. “You said Lindy May moved nine and a half years ago?”

He nods. “Look around that time frame. See what you come up with.”

He immediately starts pulling something up on his iPad, and I glance over at Leonard.

“Call Hadley. Tell her what we’ve learned. It’s better to err on the side of caution.”

“The cautious seldom err,” he quips, quoting Confucius as he exits the room.

“We’ll revisit the entire profile, examine the evidence from a whole new perspective after we deal with Plemmons,” I tell him, following him out.

“This changes everything,” he agrees.

I walk into the small conference room where Duke is still speaking to Lindy. Donny shakes his head, letting me know he hasn’t asked anything yet.

“She already told you she never saw the person who took her there,” Lindy says, glaring at Duke as Laurel rests against her, not seeming the least bit timid.

She knows something. She knows Ferguson is dead, but not even that would put a scared child so at ease. She’s already bonded with Lindy May. Something like that has a reason, and more to it than simply feeling safe. And why does she feel so safe?

“She was too exhausted to even open her eyes,” Lindy goes on.

She has a protective arm around the child, showing instant maternal instincts. She’s bonded with Laurel as fiercely as Laurel has bonded with her. In less than twenty-four hours.

“So she has no idea how she ended up on your porch? And you never saw anything?”

Her eyes narrow to slits. “I came in freely, willing to give you information. You still haven’t agreed to my terms, yet I’ve told you all I could except for what you really want to know. Yet you’re interrogating me. I should have stayed home.”

Duke opens his mouth to speak, but I put a hand on his shoulder, drawing his attention.

“You said you wanted to know where the other kids were, so why are you grilling her about who brought the kid?”

His lips clap shut, and I cock my head to the side. Finally, he blows out a long breath.

“It doesn’t add up. Even you know this sounds wrong.”

“What information do you have?” I ask Lindy.

She glares at me now. “I’m not telling you anything until you promise me that Laurel can remain in my house with me. You have to promise no one will take her away.”

Laurel clutches Lindy’s hand, still leaning on her.

“Donny, make some calls,” I say, titling my head. “Make sure Laurel doesn’t get removed from Ms. Wheeler’s home.”

“May,” Lindy immediately corrects. “My last name is now May. I don’t use Wheeler anymore.”

“Why is that, Ms. May?” I ask, acting as though this is news to me.

“Sometimes you just need a fresh start. Same as I’m trying to offer Laurel. Why are we being treated like criminals when we just came to help?”

Duke slumps in his seat, a look of regret crossing his face. He’s trained to ask about the suspicious answers. She’s definitely hiding something, but I’m not sure what.

Donny walks out, his phone to his ear, making the calls we need.

“Why’d you leave Delaney Grove?” I ask her.

No surprise flickers in her eyes, but her back stiffens. Laurel’s hand clutches hers tighter.

She definitely knows something, and I’ll bet Laurel knows a piece of the puzzle too.

“I got a divorce, decided to change my world for the better. Delaney Grove isn’t as grand as it seems.”

Craig gave me all the info on her, and I’m looking at it on my phone now.

“You were married to Antonio Gonzalez, correct?”

She nods curtly, a coldness washing over her eyes.

“He still lives in Delaney Grove,” I go on.

Duke is watching me, a confused expression on his face.

“Why’d you come here instead of the police station?” I ask her. “The local PD is who broadcasted that they needed the information on Ferguson.”

“You should call him the monster,” Laurel interjects, surprising me as her eyes darken.

There’s a fury there. A dark, deeply laced fury. There’s not an ounce of fear in her eyes, just determined hatred so out of character for an abused child. The bruises on her arms and face and neck suggest he wasn’t gentle about his ways with her.

Has she even been examined yet?

Lindy ignores my question, but I already know the answer. He sent her here.

“Has she seen a doctor?” I ask Lindy, changing my line of questioning.

“We’re going to see one today.”

She doesn’t say more.

“How severe was she injured?”

“Bad enough to leave scars on her soul, but not to the extent it could have been. If you know what I mean, Agent.”

He hasn’t raped her. She’s too young. But he’s forced her to do other things, and that’s bad enough.

Lindy speaks like a victim herself, as though she understand the trauma on a different level. The unsub knew this, because that couldn’t be a coincidence.

She knows him. And she’s apparently for whatever crusade he’s on. I won’t get an ounce of information out of her that tells me who he is. Whatever happened affected more than just the unsub.

But why not tell me what happened?

What the fucking hell is going on in Delaney Grove?

“Ms. May, I know this is difficult, but can you at least tell me what led to you leaving Delaney Grove? Maybe something that affected more than just you?”

Her eyes shift, and a calmness comes over her.

“I left to start anew, Agent. If you want to know about Delaney Grove, maybe you should visit it.”

So he asked her not to tell. She spoke with him. There’s no doubt about that.

He saved the child. The child feels safe because he’s the dark knight that slayed the monster who has haunted her for months, ever since her disappearance. Our unsub handed her over to this woman, who he swore would keep her safe. She trusted him. She was cared for by Lindy, and the bond formed instantly.

That much makes sense.

They both owe him their silence for a reason. They’ll never talk. And I’m not in the business of bullying victims who’ve suffered enough. I’ll find out another way.

Donny walks back in, and I look over at him as he nods.

“Laurel is yours,” I say to Lindy.

“Paperwork. I want it in writing.”

He coached her on this. Told her to make sure she got custody by leveraging information.

Unreal.

We had him all wrong.

There won’t be animal cruelty in his past. He’ll have been someone gentle, possibly naïve and trusting—too trusting. Trusting enough to have been someone’s victim.

Instead of it shattering him; he came back for cold vengeance. But why target so many? What did they fucking do?

Donny walks out again, going to get something in writing. Duke taps his pen impatiently, his knee bouncing under the table. Across from him, Laurel whispers something into Lindy’s ear. Lindy presses a kiss to the child’s forehead.

I watch, fascinated by the fact Laurel doesn’t seem appalled by the affection. An instant maternal bond has been brought forth by two victims bonding with a killer. A killer they feel slays the monsters of their nightmares.

A killer who won’t stop.

They don’t realize how dangerous this guy will become. Revenge killers have no limitations on who dies. The smallest of infractions is a death sentence. They take justice into their hands, become judge, jury, and executioner, becoming too immortal in their own minds.

Donny returns, a paper in his hand. He hands it to Lindy, and she reads it carefully, searching for any sort of a trick.

I take the paper and sign it. “This is me calling this the truth,” I explain, watching her gauge me.

She must trust whatever she sees in my eyes, because she pulls a piece of paper from her purse and hands it to me. Duke stands and comes to read it over my shoulder.

It’s a map to the burial ground, written in blood with a calligraphy penmanship, with most likely a calligraphy pen to disguise the unsub’s handwriting. He knows calligraphy?

So organized it’s eerie.

How long has he been preparing for every possible outcome?

Signed in blood is one name—Kenneth Ferguson. Only it’s not in calligraphy. It’s still signed in blood, written with most likely his finger. The strokes are shaky, as though he was trembling when the unsub made him sign this with his own blood.

That’s a level of cold that had us profiling him as a sadist.

There’s an x marking so many graves, the names of each child written in calligraphy. The only structure on the map appears to be a shed of some sort. The graves are all around it. The map goes from his home, the road names marking each turn to take. He went and visited them. The sick fuck knew exactly where he’d buried each and every child.

Sixty-nine photos. Seventy nails.

Those words come back to me, reminding me they were spoken.

I dart out of the room, leaving Duke behind to deal with the murders that have him sagging to a chair in disbelief.

I grab the page Duke left in the office, one listing all the children’s names. Our people must have run facial recognition against all the kids in the system. After being runaways, their names and photos are reported.

There’s a list of names for each photo. Sixty-nine names.

The same names and ages are written on the photos themselves.

Only one is not listed.

Hadley’s.

He spared her the indignity of our team seeing her photos next to these. He sent Lindy here instead of to the police. He knew we’d take it more personally, knew there was a stronger chance of Lindy getting custody of Laurel.

He definitely feels a kinship with Hadley, and could possibly want to see her reaction. Hadley doesn’t answer, so I tell all that to her voicemail, hoping she hears it soon.

Then I head into the breakroom where Lana is drinking a coke, kicked back with her feet crossed at the ankles as she stares at the TV. I lean against the doorjamb, studying her easy grin.

She has no idea at how sick the world is. I hate that I can’t take her home right now. Hate that this got more complicated and now I need to stay. She’s the only thing keeping me sane right now.

So much for spending some time in bed apologizing even more.


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