"I hope you're not a big fan of popcorn," I told the girl in my passenger seat, parking on the street next to Tootie Fruities. "Because I hate popcorn."
She looked around, confused. "Where are we?" I walked over to her side and opened her door, gesturing to the small building. "We're getting ice-cream!" I said cheerfully. She simply looked up at me from her seat, frowning.
"Do you not like ice-cream?"
She ignored my question and stepped onto the sidewalk. "It says yogurt on the sign," she muttered.
"Yeah, but they sell ice-cream too. C'mon." I almost gave her a little push in the right direction but decided against it. Maybe not touching her was the key to getting her to trust me.
"Pick anything you want," I said as we walked through the door. She furrowed her brow but still remained silent. Once it was our turn, she ordered a chocolate malt, her voice so low I could barely understand what she was saying. I briefly wondered how long it had been since she had been in a public place like this. Her discomfort was obvious and I noticed her eyes darting around the room as I told the man I wanted a banana split.
Please, God, don't be contemplating screaming for help, I inwardly pled. I honestly had no idea what I would do if she would try something, and I started thinking maybe ice-cream had been a bad idea. But she didn't. I realized Royce must have taught her well not to scream bloody murder in the first public place she found. Though his probable brain washing and abuse was helping me now, the thought made me uneasy. She should run for help. It's what any normal person would do. It's what I would do.
I handed her the malt and led her back to the car. We ate in there quietly as I searched the movie times.
"Does midnight sound good?" I asked her, breaking the silence.
She looked up from her malt and scrutinized me before blurting, "Why are you doing this?" What's your deal? Trying to lure me into a false sense of security? Is that it? Could you at least tell me the truth? I think I deserve the right to know when you're going to pounce."
"Who said anything about pouncing?" I said defensively.
She rolled her eyes and slumped down further into her seat, avoiding my eyes. She glared forward and ran her tongue over her teeth. It was actually quite comical what with her wearing my mother's pink sweater and yellow carpis. She looked like a pissed off flower.
"How much did you pay for me tonight?" Her voice seemed much more under control, but there was a hint of menace underneath.
"I don't see how that matters," I told her, looking away sheepishly. I didn't want her to think I thought her life—or any life for that matter—was worth any amount of money.
"Just answer the question," she snapped. Then, more calmly, she added, "It's just something I ask everyone."
I hesitated before deciding to be honest. "I paid a hundred for the night," I said. At this, she was surprised.
"A hundred? That's it? What, were you just expecting a blow—"
"No!" I nearly shouted. "Like I said, I don't expect anything from you. Royce…gave me a discount, that's all."
"A discount…" she repeated thoughtfully. "What makes you so special? I've never heard of the bastard cutting the price so low. You must be his best friend or something," she added, disgusted. Did she talk this way to every man she spent the night with? Surely they weren't as nice as I was being. Here I was, paying her a favor, and she was still being a total ass.
No, a favor would be setting her free.
"Believe me, I am not friends with that scum," I said. "Look, I swear that I'm not going to ask you to do anything you don't want to. Can we just leave it like that? You should just enjoy your night away from Royce and any other…client. Okay?"
"Why? I'll just have to return in the morning." She looked at me, noticing the slight glare I was giving her for being so damn difficult. She sighed in defeat. "Fine," she muttered, gesturing to the road in front of us. I quickly put the car in drive and took off, headed for City Park.
I paid the woman at the entrance for our tickets and picked a good spot to park. My dad and I used to come here all the time, but I hadn't been since he died.
The previews were met with another uncomfortable silence apart from the speakers connected to our windows. But there was one thing I was very curious about.
"I know Royce must not be very nice to you…" I started. She gave me a look that said What now?
I continued before she could protest. "But what about his partner? James?"
She glanced back to the movie thoughtfully. "James isn't as bad as Royce," she admitted. I felt a bit of relief at that.
"Does he stay in the house all the time?"
"I think so. I really don't have much idea what's going on when I'm locked in the room. He could leave the house then for all I know," she said. "Why? Is that why you came over the other day? Are you his parole officer or something?"
I chuckled. "Not even close. Believe me, I wish I didn't know either of the bastards."
"So how do you know them?"
I sighed, not wanting to tell her the truth. It was embarrassing.
"You buy drugs from them?" she pushed.
"No," I responded adamantly. "It's complicated."
"Is that why you got me tonight? To get information on them? 'Cause I'll be honest, I don't know much."
"No, that's not why."
"Then what's the real reason?"
"I'll tell you when I figure it out myself." That answer seemed to both confuse and satisfy her, and she let it go.
The movie started, and I noticed the teenagers in the car next to us were already making out. I stayed silent and watched the screen, trying not to glance at the woman sitting in my passenger's seat.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, a woman named Renee Dwyer lay on her death bed, speaking softly to her only son.
He was sitting close to her, the only soul around to see his favorite person pass into the next world. He gripped one of her old, sick hands in his own large ones, trying to keep the tears from running silently down his tanned cheeks.
"I need you to do something for me, sweetheart," she said weakly, but determined.
"Mom, save your strength. You don't have to say anything if you're hurting."
"Emmett," she continued, ignoring his request. "I'm sorry," she stopped for a minute, trying to catch her breath. She hadn't talked this much in days, and she felt death approaching quickly, within the next few hours or so. But it could not take her without explaining something to her son.
She had always meant to tell him, but years of cowardice held her back, her fear of his anger too much to even think of spilling her worst secret. But now she was dying, and she still hadn't told a soul; he was going to find out eventually when he cleaned out her house, so it was best she do it now. After all, once she was out of this realm, she wouldn't have to deal with whatever feelings he would have toward her. She was still being cowardly, and she knew it.
"I'm so sorry," she repeated, but her apology wasn't just for the young man sitting beside her. Emmett's brows came together in confusion, having no idea what his mother could possibly be sorry for, He brushed it off as her just talking nonsense from her sickness.
"I need you to go into my bottom dresser drawer and find an envelope hidden there," Renee wheezed slowly.
He did as he was told, weary of what he would find. He pushed aside the underwear, no doubt hidden there so no one would even think of looking in that spot. Sure enough, at the very bottom of the drawer, there was a crumpled envelope with no name on it. Emmett got back up and brought the letter over to his chair next to his mother, examining it. Renee's eyes opened for the first time that day, catching sight of the letter she had grown to hate over the last few years, the letter she had put in the mail countless times just to pull it out at the last minute to make sure it wouldn't get sent.
Emmett sat down, now worried that this letter would only upset his mother in her last moments. But he was insanely curious. The envelope was starting to yellow, obviously a few years old at least, and looked as if it had been crumpled up and straightened out a few times. Emmett guessed his mom had thrown it away and then changed her mind many times. The thought caused a pang in Emmett's heart, knowing whatever was in this letter had taken a toll on his mother and had probably stressed her out for a while now. He was briefly tempted to just burn the damn thing without even opening it.
"Mom?" Emmett said, making sure she was still there. She smiled weakly at him. Emmett started opening the letter.
"No," Renee pled, stopping Emmett from tearing any further. "Do it later. After…" her voice trailed off, and he understood what she meant. He sighed sadly and tucked the letter inside his jacket pocket. He fluffed up her pillow lovingly as she drifted into unconsciousness once again.
Another two hours later found Renee Dwyer passing into the after-life. Her only son wept silently, alone, his tears coming as a surprise to him. He'd known she was going to die. He'd known for a long time now. There'd barely been a fight, and Emmett was happy for her, glad she had finally escaped the pain. But there was still the fact that she was his mother, and now she was gone.
Later that night after his mother's body had been taken to the morgue and he'd made calls to plan the funeral, Emmett lay in his old childhood bed. He couldn't bring himself to go home, not tonight. He remembered when they'd moved into this house, when he'd begged his mom to let him use the loft as his room instead of the other bedroom in the house. It was definitely smaller than the bedroom, but Emmett didn't care; he wanted the loft because of the radical glass ceiling. He would look up at the stars every night from his pillow and memorize which ones were bigger and brighter and exactly where they were in the sky. Doing so tonight made him feel infinitely better after many years of living in his own house.
And suddenly he remembered the envelope that had been tucked away in his jacket pocket. Carefully he pulled it out and examined the yellowed paper one more time before opening it with shaky hands.
Once the movie was over I started to drive home. The girl didn't say much, but it made me happy that she'd gotten so engrossed in the film. I felt bad for wanting a 'thank you' from her, but it was mostly just because I was hoping that deep inside, she was still a good enough person to feel gratitude. That could at least show me she wasn't completely controlled by Royce and James.
"Do you have any family around here?" I asked, breaking the awkward silence.
She rolled her head against the headrest and gave me a scathing look.
"Right, I guess not."
She took a deep breath. "My mom disappeared when I was little. And my dad died a year ago," she said. I felt my eyebrows raise in shock; she actually shared something with me!
"Then I moved here. Thought I could start over. Well, I started over, all right."
I bit my lip, contemplating.
"Can I ask you something?" I said.
"Yeah, I guess," she said, not unkindly. Finally, I thought. She's actually cooperating.
"You know about that murderer on the loose, right? The Phantom?"
I felt her eyes on me, but couldn't decipher the emotion on her face.
"Yeah," she said slowly. "I've heard a little from the other girls. He's killing prostitutes."
I heard no trace of fear in her voice. I wasn't sure if that was good or bad.
"What do the girls say?"
"Some of them are scared. Candy swears she knows who it is, but she lies about everything," she snickered. "She tried to tell us he was 6'4" and had a dangerous looking scar down his left eye. Then the next time she talked about him, her story completely changed. She said he was short and wore a big camouflage coat and hunting boots and he had a beard."
"Do any of the others talk about him?"
Her lips pursed in thought. "Blondie said she knew the last girl that was killed. They went way back. Berry—she just had a baby—said that he won't come after Royce's girls because of Royce's wrath. But they're all still scared."
"Are you scared?" I asked.
"No," she said immediately.
"Because if you ask me, I think Royce is behind this whole killing spree. I mean, how many girls have been killed so far? Five? And not one of them is Royce's girls. I don't think it's because this murderer is afraid of Royce. I think it's because…" she drifted off. "Holy fuck!"
"What?" I shouted. She'd scared me half to death, and I almost swerved into the car driving in the next lane. She pushed herself against her car door, away from me.
"It's you isn't it?" she shrieked. "They said he was good looking. They said he probably had money, too."
I rolled my eyes and told her to calm down. "No, it's not me. Thanks for the compliment, though."
"Well, then why are you so interested?"
I pulled into my driveway, happy to finally be getting out and hopefully onto another topic.
"I'm just curious is all," I said, getting out of the car. She got out, too, before fixing me with a stare.
"What's your name, anyway?" she questioned. One hand went to her cocked hip.
"Oh, I'm supposed to tell you my name, but you can't tell me yours?" I teased, walking into the house. She followed me, aggravated and amused.
She caught me off guard by coming within an inch of me, our bodies almost touching. She was every bit sassy, hands still on her hips, and said, "It's Bella."
"Edward," I retorted, briefly wondering what made her change her act so quickly. Maybe she appreciated what I'd done tonight after all.
She pulled away. "I'm tired," she said, looking up at me curiously, probably testing to see what I would say to that. To see if everything I'd said about letting her do what she wanted was true.
"You can go to sleep in my mother's old room," I said. She nodded and walked up the stairs, glancing back at me. I smiled in assurance; I wanted nothing from her.
I stayed on the couch for a while, tossing back a couple beers. I worried she would try to escape through the window or something, but decided the windows were so old now, that if she tried to open one, it would break, and I would definitely hear it.
Hours passed, and I looked at files I'd taken home, hoping to find a similarity in arrests we'd made in the last few years. Serial killers and rapists usually started off small. Maybe the guy had already been caught and released on earlier charges.
Suddenly I heard light footsteps on the staircase, and looked up to see the girl, Bella, tiptoeing down. I immediately was glad I'd stayed up, for I realized what she was trying to do: escape. I couldn't blame her for trying to get her freedom, but I just couldn't let her go. Hell would rain on me if I did. Maybe someday I could help her, but tonight was not it.
She abruptly realized I was in the room, and looked sheepish.
"Water," she lied, pointing at the fridge. I smirked, and got up to fix her a glass. I handed it to her, and she sipped, making eye contact the whole time before turning around and walking back upstairs without a word.
I lay down on the couch again, thinking about what Bella had said earlier about Royce being behind the killings. It was definitely a possibility, though I couldn't help but think that Royce just wasn't that smart. No, this Phantom was surely smarter than Royce King.
But I would still run it by Alice in the morning.
A/N: Sorry about the long wait, guys. I'll try better next time. And what do y'all think was in that letter? Hmmm. Read and Review, please!