A Cavern Dark Enough
Andy Griffith was having his nails manicured by Barbara Eden in the window of Floyd's barbershop when the doorbell rang. The men of Mayberry thought having manicured nails was too girly and the women of Mayberry didn't like the idea of a beautiful, young woman getting a hold of their man's hand. That's why Andy had to step in and prove that it was okay for a man to be well groomed, so the lovely Miss Eden wouldn't pack up her files and move to Mount Pilot.
Ellis wasn't actually watching the TV. It was just on while she painted. Old shows, ones she'd seen a million times over, made the perfect white noise. They blocked out her thoughts and allowed her to flow with the paint. That was why she didn't acknowledge the doorbell the first time. The second chime broke through to her brain and that was followed by a wave of concern.
Who came to the door after midnight with good news? No one. So it had to be bad. She put down her paint brush then wiped her hands on her smock as she headed for the door.
The bell sounded two more times before she got there. One ring right on the heels of the other. Someone was frantic and she felt it in her chest.
Ellis flipped on the porch light then peered out the thin window next to the door to see who was outside.
Hands shaking, she threw back the double locks then yanked open the heavy door.
"I have to do this." Frank moved past her, paced to the end of the foyer then turned back when he reached the doorway to the kitchen.
"Do what? What's the matter?"
Frank closed the space between them with four long strides, then he grabbed Ellis by the arms and shoved her back against the now closed front door. She gasped from the force of the hit and before she could suck in another breath he was kissing her.
Not that she hadn't thought about the idea of sharing a romantic moment with the older of the Hardy brothers, but this wasn't the way it had gone in her mind. She tried to wriggle away but he had her pinned with the full length of his own body. His fingers crawled up into the reddish-brown waves of her hair as his lips left her mouth and moved on to her neck.
"Have to do this," he gasped out and then suddenly he slammed his palms flat against the door on either side of her head.
The noise made her jump, but there was nowhere to go. Not an inch of space between them. That was when she saw his eyes. Sparkling blue was now dull and empty.
"Frank. Listen to me. Listen!" Ellis brought her right hand up and over his extended arm, her palm heading for the side of his face. Anticipating a slap, Frank shifted to his right then opened his stance for better balance. That was all the space she needed to jerk her knee up into his groin. It wasn't as powerful a shot as she would have liked, but male instinct made him arch back and away from her and that left her enough space to turn sideways. An instep stomp would have been her next choice but she didn't have shoes on and he was wearing well-padded sneakers. No joy there.
Next best thing? Drop. She went to her knees and he fell forward into the space she used to occupy. She crawled out from between him and the door but didn't get far. He grabbed hold of the back of her smock and yanked her back. It was an awkward change of direction and for a moment her legs were caught beneath her own body as Frank threw her flat on the floor then straddled her. With his weight on his knees, she had room to uncoil her legs, plant her feet and push across the hardwood like she was doing the backstroke. It was a short reprieve. Her head hit the riser of the bottom step. Nowhere to go now and then his hands were around her throat.
"I have to do this." He leaned forward over his knees putting his weight over his shoulders to increase the pressure.
Panic rose as her brain used up the last of the oxygen. Ellis clamped her hands around his wrists but it wasn't even enough to postpone the inevitable. She flung her arms out to the side in an instinctive search for salvation. It came in the form of the entryway table. It was knock-off Victorian, tall with spindles connecting the top and a lower shelf. There was a vase on the top and a stone bowl for keys and coins and other miscellany. She wrapped her hand around one of the spindles then focused all her energy on what she was about to do.
A swinging motion. Like a badminton racket.
The table slid then tipped sending the vase and bowl down on top of Frank's head. It wasn't a death blow, but it was enough to make him throw his arms up in defense and that gave her a chance to fill her lungs.
The table fell over him, too but did little damage. He shoved it away with an angry growl and as he came back around again she clocked him hard on the side of the head with the bowl. That was a stunning blow. Frank toppled to the right so she scooted to her right. A few gulps of air and then she was back on it. Struggling to her feet, she grabbed the small table by the spindles then swung it at Frank's unprotected back. It was like the folding chair maneuver from WWE wrestling but this wasn't TV and she was all too aware of the real damage it might cause.
But damaged beat a murder rap.
Frank collapsed face-first then lay there panting and in pain.
"Sorry, honey. Really." With the clock ticking in her head, Ellis ran into her studio for a roll of painter's tape. She used several winds to bind Frank's hands behind his back, then secured his ankles as well.
That done, she stumbled into the kitchen, picked up the phone receiver then dialed a number that was tacked to the bulletin board beside it.
As the phone rang on the other end, the adrenaline stopped pumping and she landed on her butt on the floor, back to the kitchen island.
They must have been asleep because it took six rings before Joe picked up.
"It's Ellis," she said, finding it hard to get much volume. "Frank. . . my house."
"Ellis?" Joe repeated. "What's going on?"
"Just come." And that was all she had left.
# # #
"What aren't you telling me? Why did Frank go to see Ellis? I mean he went to bed at eleven I saw him. Then what? An hour later he suddenly decides to get up and go for a stroll?"
"I don't know, Joe. I swear to you. He didn't say a word to me. I didn't even know he'd left the house."
Even though Ellis was living in her parent's old home less than a mile away, the drive over through the empty streets of Bayport seemed to take forever. Joe turned his gaze towards the darkened store fronts once again running the short phone conversation over in his mind. Not really a conversation. More like a collection of jumbled facts. Ellis had sounded like she was struggling to speak, out of breath, in pain maybe. And if Frank was there and not in need of help, why hadn't he made the call himself? It all pointed to Frank being injured and that left Joe with a pain in the pit of his stomach.
Joe brought is eyes back to the road as Fenton turned into a residential street. He passed three houses then turned into a drive without slowing to check the house number. He knew exactly where he was going and that didn't feel right. He knew Ellis had been helping his father on a case. Something about art forgeries, but he didn't think Fenton knew the girl well enough to find her house in the dark.
Fenton pulled into a spot beside Frank's car and Joe decided that was how he'd spotted the house so easily. They got out and Ellis was on the porch to meet them by the time they got there.
"Are you okay? Fenton asked.
She nodded yes but even in the dim glow of the porch light it was clear that she wasn't. Ellis moved back into the house then stood to the side to let them both pass her. The first thing Joe saw was his brother lying nearly face down on the floor, wrists and ankles bound with tape. He wanted to run to him, to check for a pulse but fear kept him upright and close to his father. What kind of trap had they just walked into?
"He attacked me," Ellis explained. "He was choking me, I couldn't break his hold. I pulled the table down on us. . . "
From the scattered debris it was easy to surmise the rest.
"That doesn't make any sense." Joe dropped to his knees beside his brother then gently rolled him on to his back. "He's bleeding!"
"It's nothing. I didn't hit him that hard." Then to Fenton she said, "I'm surprised he's out cold it must be an after effect of the compulsion."
"Compulsion?" Joe repeated but no one bothered to explain.
"There's a first aid kit in the pantry in the kitchen." Ellis pointed to the swinging door at the end of the hall. Instead of following her implied instructions, Joe tore at the tape around Frank's wrists.
"Joe, leave it," Fenton said in a weary version of a parental command.
"Go get the first aid kit."
Joe wanted to disobey but his father's pained expression told him this wasn't the time to play that card. He went into the kitchen, easily found the kit and when he returned Frank was on the couch in the living room. Ellis was sitting in a side chair, absently rubbing her throat as she spoke.
"He didn't start choking me until I tried to get away. Before that it was all sexual aggression."
Joe glanced at his father expecting to see surprise but there was none.
"It was the same with Andrew," said Fenton. "I finally talked to his girlfriend Mandy and she said he was all over her just hours before the attack."
Andrew? Mandy? Attack? Joe put the pieces together as he swabbed Frank's head wound with antiseptic. "Are you talking about that shooting spree at the university?"
Fenton hesitated and in that moment Frank shifted and moaned. Joe spoke his brother's name along with a few words of comfort and when he finished applying a bandage Frank's eyed blinked open.
"Welcome back to the world of the living."
Frank shifted, obviously trying and failing to find a comfortable position. Then he tried speaking but that was rough, too.
"Take it slow. Everything's fine now." Joe spotted a craft knife next to a collection of paints and brushes on the worktable. The time for disobedience was here. Fenton started to object again when he saw his son's intention but Joe pushed back with a look of defiance that he reserved for only the most heartfelt moments.
He cut Frank loose then helped him settle into a better position on the couch.
"Maybe it's a set of stages they have to go through to reach that level of aggression," Ellis said continuing Fenton's train of thought. "Some kind of chemical reaction that builds up until the final explosion."
"Andrew finished it by killing himself," Fenton said grimly.
"And maybe Frank would have done the same if I hadn't put him out of commission."
Fenton did react to that. His knees folded and he landed on the arm of the couch face hidden in his hands.
"Dad?" It was the first clear word Frank had spoken since they arrived and it bolstered Joe's spirits.
"How you feeling?"
"Feeling?" Frank looked straight on at Joe, confusion twisting his face and then his eyes rolled back and he started to shake. No, not just shake, convulse.
"Oh my God" Ellis leapt up from her chair. She shoved the coffee table away from the couch just in time to stop Frank from crashing into it. Wildly jerking muscles sent him to the floor even as Joe tried to stop it from happening.
"What's wrong with him? We should call for an ambulance!"
"No. He'll be fine." Ellis got down on the floor, too. She sat cross-legged and took hold of Frank's hand. It was a tight squeeze but Joe did the same on the other side. But where all he could do was offer emotional comfort, Ellis was doing something more. She had her eyes closed and head bowed and her lips were moving as if she were an actor in a silent movie.
The convulsions became the shakes then Joe could feel the tension falling away. Another few moments and it was as if Frank was simply sleeping.
Ellis let go then raked her fingers through her hair with a weary groan.
"All right?" Fenton asked and Joe wondered if he was asking about Ellis or his son?
"Will someone please tell me what's going on?"
Fenton leaned down to clasp his youngest's shoulder. "Just give me a minute." Then he got up and left the room and a moment later Joe heard the front door open and close behind him.
Joe turned to Ellis, wanting her to see the annoyance on his face. "I don't suppose you'd like to tell me why my brother is lying unconscious at my feet?"
She shook her head, but it was more like sadness than a 'no.' "Let's get him up on the couch." She moved behind Frank then slipped her hands under his shoulders. Joe took his legs and together they moved him. "There's a quilt over there," she nodded toward a window seat as she slipped a pillow beneath Frank's head.
Joe got the quilt and unfurled it over his brother. This whole thing was beyond insane. Frank could hold his own in a fight against anyone who had it out for him, but he wasn't an instigator. And the idea of him attacking a girl, under any circumstances was ridiculous. Then here was Ellis, obviously suffering from the effects of near strangulation and his father acting like he'd seen it coming all along.
"You know about Andrew Highland." Ellis went to her work area and began cleaning up the brushes and open paints. There was a partially finished canvas on the easel – a stylized version of the Bayport lighthouse.
"Shot his psychology professor and three classmates." Joe sat down on the arm of the couch, keeping within reaching distance of his brother.
"Prior to that, he was a good student, not fabulous, but good. He belonged to a fraternity, no drugs, moderate party drinker. No sign of depression or trouble. He just woke up that morning and decided to kill people. His final act was to put a bullet in his own head." She picked up a remote and turned off the TV, which Joe hadn't noticed was playing. Talk about tunnel vision.
"A couple of months ago," Ellis continued, "Tony Pascuzzo, a theater major an NYU, met up with friends at a disco. Two hours into the evening, he stabbed his girlfriend to death on the dance floor, severely wounded the two men who tried to stop him then plunged the knife into his own chest."
"Awful, but what does any of this have to do with Frank?"
Ellis sat down again and this time she sank into the chair as if she'd used up the last bit of energy in her whole body.
"Weeks before that, Steven Brooks, an intern at an ad agency in Boston beat his boss into a coma with a typewriter. He trashed the office, wounded a few others in the frenzy then jumped out of a 14th story window. He didn't survive."
"Shocking," Joe muttered sarcastically. He was tired of being strung along and he was about to say so when he heard his father speak his name.
"Joe, just listen to her."
"I'm trying, but she's not saying anything."
"Andrew, Tony, Steven, I knew them all. Three young men in different cities, in different places in their lives, all going from normal to homicidal without warning and I knew them all. Frank knew all of them."
Joe glanced down at his brother and seeing the bandage on his temple made the bits fall into place. "You're saying, the same thing happened to him. That all four of them had some kind of sudden dementia. How is that possible? He hasn't had any contact with these guys recently or I'd know them, too. So it's not like they all caught the same disease from each other."
"He knew them when he was little." Fenton came to stand beside him. "All three boys moved away from here before they hit the fourth grade. Steven left when he was only seven so it appears the last time they were together was in kindergarten."
"Kindergarten? Seriously?" Joe turned to Ellis. "You remember these kids from kindergarten."
"Tony for sure. I had a hell of a crush on him. But the other boys and Frank, we're all the same age so we had have gone to school together. When I made the connection, it bothered me so I came back here to do some digging but I couldn't get into the school records and so I went to Fenton with it. I knew he was a detective and figured he'd be the perfect person to help me figure it out."
"So this whole art forgery thing was a lie," Joe said.
"I'm sorry." Fenton set a heavy hand on his son's shoulder. "I didn't know what to make of it so I thought it was best we kept it to ourselves until we could find an answer."
"But you didn't find an answer. And then it was Frank's turn." Joe got to his feet and whirled on his father. "The other three killed themselves. You knew that was a possibility and you didn't. . . . "
"What? Watch him? Put a guard on him 24-7? There were 28 kids in his kindergarten class. All the rest of them are fine."
"Frank's not fine."
"I didn't know this was going to happen. Good lord, Joe, imagine if you'd heard all of this yesterday? Would you have ever thought that Frank would try to kill someone today? It doesn't make sense, even with what I know, it's hard to believe."
Frank tossed on the couch and muttered something unintelligible and all three of them tensed until he settled again.
"I would never intentionally risk his life or yours, Joe," Fenton said, softer now. "You know that. And I guess I was naïve, but I needed to believe that these were isolated incidents. A bizarre coincidence and not some great conspiracy."
"Is that what this is?"
"We don't know," Ellis snapped.
"The girls," Joe countered.
"Girls," asked Fenton.
"Only boys have been affected so far. The girls from that class are all fine?"
Joe turned away from his father and went after Ellis this time. "So what are you all worried about? You're in the clear. Why are you even involved in this?"
Fenton protested as she did but it was all wiped out by Frank's shout. He sat up suddenly and tried to scoot backwards but there was nowhere to go.
"Take it easy, son." Fenton perched on the edge of the couch and reached for Frank's hand, but Frank pulled away. His eyes kept darting around the room, not focusing on the people, but checking out every dark corner.
"You're safe." Joe stooped down to block Frank's line of sight. "Dad and I are here and everything's okay."
"This isn't home."
"No." Fenton settled for resting his hand on Frank's blanket-covered leg. "This is Ellis' house. Her parent's old house."
Frank shook his head. "Mrs. Bagly the book lady lives here."
That rang a bell for Joe and suddenly he remembered that he'd been to the house before. On numerous occasions. Mrs. Bagly used to run the book mobile summer library out of this house but that was years ago.
"She used to live here," Ellis said gently. "That's right. But she's gone and now I'm here again."
"Maybe it would be best if we went home," said Fenton. "Get him back in familiar surroundings, in his own bed."
Joe agreed, but Ellis simply walked from the room and motioned for Fenton to follow. Ignored again, but Joe wasn't about to leave his brother alone, even if it meant breaking up the secrets club so he stayed.
"Frank. Why did you try to hurt Ellis?"
He shrugged. "I had to. I just had to." Frank's eyebrows dipped inward as he looked down at his own chest. The frown on his face deepened. "I'm not supposed to be here."
"Where are you supposed to be?"
Frank looked up so he was eye-to-eye with his younger brother. "Dead. I'm supposed to be dead." And to him. It was as simple as that.
Ellis had Fenton follow her all the way into the kitchen so there was no chance of being overheard and still she kept her voice low.
"You know you can't just tuck him into bed for the night and hope for the best."
"Of course not. Once they realize he's still alive, they might try again and until we know how they're triggering the suggestion. . . "
"That's the only saving grace here. Hopefully after a good night's rest he'll be able to recount everything he did yesterday and we can pinpoint when the contact happened."
"Let's hope." Fenton sighed as he scrubbed his hand over his face. "I think you should come home with us, too. Whoever is behind this specifically targeted you. This wasn't like the other incidents. The other three attacked people that they saw on a regular basis, people they were close to, but you've barely spent two hours with Frank in the past 15 years so they were obviously looking for a way to kill two birds with one brainwashed stone."
"But that's stupid. I may have started this investigation, but did they really think that you'd walk away from it after they used your son as a murder weapon?"
"You're giving these guys too much credit. If they were smart they wouldn't be targeting innocent people in the first place. Now go pack a bag and let's get out of here."
# # #
The drive back to the Hardy home was uneventful. Joe sat in the backseat with his brother, while Ellis followed in her own car. Frank slept most of the way, waking only once to complain that he was cold when they stopped at a long traffic light.
And if Joe had thought the drive over to Ellis' had been intense, the ride home was even more so. Knowing that his father had lied to both of them, for their own good or not, didn't sit well. They weren't children anymore. They didn't need to be protected and ironically, it was the lie that had landed Frank in harm's way. If Fenton had shared what he knew with both of them, they might have been able to avoid the ugly transformation that Ellis had witnessed.
Which was another thing.
Her stories about the other three guys and their killing sprees. . . he couldn't imagine his brother reacting so violently even with outside influence. He'd heard about brainwashing experiments on G.I.'s during the war. The Manchurian Candidate was all about soldiers brainwashed to commit murder. But that was just a movie. A worst case scenario and those soldiers had been tortured for months before being turned into human time bombs. No one had tortured Frank and yet. . .
"We're going to get this figured out," Fenton said, and Joe caught his gaze in the rear-view mirror.
"You should have told us. I could have watched him. Made sure this didn't happen. Unless. . . " Joe stopped himself, not really believing what he was thinking.
"Unless I wanted it to happen?" Fenton finished. "You think I was that desperate to stop these people that I used Frank to bait the trap?"
"It would be for the greater good, right? All those people killed and wounded and you had a chance to prevent it from ever happening again."
Fenton swung the car into their own driveway, parked, then turned to look at Joe over the seat. "You're tired and upset, so I'm going to assume that's why you're saying these things. No case is more important to me than you boys. You got that?"
"I hear you," Joe said but there was still more of an edge to his voice than either of them was comfortable with. "Frank?" He gave his brother a light shake but had to work harder at it to get him to come around. By then, Fenton had the passenger side door open and between the two of them, they got Frank out and sort of to his feet.
"I'm tired," Frank complained when they reached the porch. "Can I lay down?"
"Working on that," Fenton said as he struggled to maintain his hold while unlocking the front door. From there, it was straight upstairs into the first bedroom. Any thoughts of getting the bed turned down and Frank undressed went out the window when he began to fight them. At the first push back, Joe's stomach clenched as fear of a repeat performance took hold.
"I want to sleep." Frank shoved at them both until they guided him down to the bed.
"I'll stay with him," Joe said as he pulled off his brother's sneakers. "Why don't you go get some sleep, too."
Fenton moved to help with the undressing but Joe blocked him. "I'll take of him." He knew he was being too hard on his father. This was no picnic for him either, but Joe wasn't ready to let go. Maybe in the morning. Everything always looked better in the morning.
"Where do you want me?"
Ellis. Joe had forgotten all about her. She was standing in the doorway with a fat totebag slung over her shoulder.
"We have a guest room. I'll show you," said Fenton. Then he left the room and Joe closed the door behind him. Tired but determined, he stripped off his brother's shirt and jeans, then rolled and tugged until he got the quilt out from under and then over. With Frank securely tucked in, Joe kicked off his own sneakers then carefully climbed on to the other side of the double bed. He stayed sitting, back to the hard headboard and after a few minutes of staring into space, he picked up a book from the nightstand. It was a biography of a man who had surfed his way around the world. The bookmark was more than half-way in. Joe started at the beginning even though it wasn't a book he would have chosen for himself. It was all Frank, and knowing that gave him an odd sort of comfort as he turned page after page.
# # #
Golden morning light was the first thing that registered when Frank woke up. His eyes weren't even fully open yet, but he knew he was home, in his own bed and as normal as that was, it felt wrong. He rolled to his back and startled at the feeling of someone in bed beside him.
He was half sitting, half wilted, surfing book in his lap and completely asleep.
Careful not to wake him, Frank slid off his side of the bed, grabbed fresh jeans and a shirt from the closet then went into the bathroom to wash up. His mouth tasted like he hadn't brushed his teeth in a week and there were blueish bruises scattered over his arms and torso. Then there was the bandage over his left eye. He peeled the tape away to reveal the clean, scabbed over cut.
Ellis had hit him with something hard. He remembered the shooting pain in his head and things got fuzzy after that. Before that. . . clear as rainwater. He remembered pinning Ellis to the wall, kissing her, getting rough with her and then his hands around her throat. He remembered what it felt like when she was struggling to get away. And he remembered feeling like if he didn't kill her, the world would come to an end.
And then. . . he pushed that thought aside with three handfuls of cold water to the face.
The why of it all eluded him. Drugged was all he could come up with. Someone had slipped him a mickey and he'd had a psychotic reaction. The last thing he'd consumed outside of the house was a coffee from Java Jive on Main. It seemed unlikely that he'd react more than five hours later, but it beat the other option, which was he'd done it in his sleep.
Feeling a little more human, he dressed and went downstairs where the smell of coffee reached him before he even entered the kitchen.
"Usually, that's my job."
Ellis startled, nearly knocking over the milk bottle on the counter.
"Sorry," said Frank. "For scaring you and for choking you."
"You remember that, huh?"
"Vividly." Frank chose a coffee mug from the cabinet then held it out for her to pour. He took it to the kitchen table, but she stayed at the counter preparing eggs and toast for the both of them.
"Do you remember why you went after me?"
"Because I had to. That's all I've got. I can hear it in my head like a direct order repeating over and over. Like a nagging itch."
"You had to scratch." Ellis poured beaten eggs into a hot frying pan. "I hope scrambled is okay."
"Sure. Goes well with the state of my brain." He sipped the coffee and was taken back for a second. It was stronger than he was used to, but it was still good. "You seem rather calm about all of this. What am I missing?"
"The whole truth." Ellis divided the eggs over two plates, added triangles of toast then brought them to the table. She sat down beside Frank and filled him in on everything she'd told Joe the night before.
"So you think there's a connection. That we were all, what? Drugged?"
"I'm going with brainwashed." She got up again and went to the refrigerator for butter and juice.
"That's ridiculous. You can't brainwash a person in a couple of hours and I haven't spent more than three hours out of the house alone in the last two weeks."
Suddenly Joe came charging into the kitchen. His hair was tangled and he was still in yesterday's clothes. He saw Ellis first, started to speak then turned to take in the whole room.
"Looking for me?" said Frank.
"Some bodyguard you are," Ellis laughed. "He was up and out ten minutes before you noticed."
"Twenty," said Frank. "I was in the bathroom for at least ten. Tending my wounds."
It was her turn to say sorry. "I don't usually beat a boy up on the first date but with you I made an exception."
"I'm glad you both find this so hysterically funny."
"Relax, Joe. We're just trying to make the best of an awkward situation. You want coffee?"
"No." But he sat down at the table across from Frank anyway.
Ellis put the butter, orange juice and glasses on the table then pushed her untouched plate of food in front of Joe. "Eat."
Joe went for the juice instead. "So did she explain everything to you, about the other guys and how you all went to school together?"
"She explained, but I'm still confused."
"Me, too. And there's one more thing, Ellis, when Frank had that seizure, you did something to stop it. How'd you do that?"
She shrugged. "It's one of my odd talents. The best way I can explain is that I act like a ground wire during an electrical short. That's kind of what a seizure is, the physical manifestation of a short in the brain. My best friend when I was a kid was epileptic. The first time she had a seizure in front of me I instinctively reached for her hand to comfort her and me. She came out of it pretty quick and later her mom told me that it was unusual for her to recover so quickly and so fully. I still thought it was a coincidence until the next time it happened. That time I concentrated really hard and she came back even faster. "
Frank stopped eating mid-bite. "Wait. Did I know this girl?"
"Yeah, Lena Holtz. We were in school together since we were little. I left freshman year of high school but she stayed on so she would have been in your graduating class."
"How little," said Joe. "Like Kindergarten?"
"She had those ringlet pigtails back then." Frank bit off the corner of his toast and continued talking as he chewed. "I used to pull them down to watch them bounce back up. She hated me."
"She did have pigtails," said Ellis. "She had this picture from back then that she kept on her bulletin board at home for years. I remember teasing her about it. Oh my God." She grabbed Frank's arm just as he tried to lift his fork to his mouth. "The picture. It's her and I and Tony, and you're in it and I bet Steven and Andrew are in it, too. That's the link. Whatever that group was, we're the ones being targeted."
"Does Lena still live around here?" Joe asked.
"A couple of towns over. She got married and pregnant. I've spoken to her on and off over the years but not real recently."
"We need to talk to her." Joe pushed the plate back to Ellis since she was picking food off of it anyway. "Call her. See if she still has that picture."
"I don't have her number with me but I could find the house. Let's just go there."
"I'll get cleaned up. Wake dad –"
"Dad's woke," Fenton said, as he walked into the kitchen. "What's all the excitement about?"
"A break in the case. Frank will you fill you in." Joe dashed past and could be heard galloping up the stairs a moment later.
"Did Frank remember something?" Fenton asked as he helped himself to coffee.
"Not about the attack. Nothing helpful, but together we remembered a classmate, Lena Holtz. She had a photo of a small group of kids from back then and I think it's the link we're looking for. We're going to head over to her place as soon as Joe's dressed."
"We're all going, all four of us," Fenton clarified. "I want everyone where I can see them until we figure this out."
Which brought up a concern Frank hadn't voiced. If he had inexplicably flipped out once, he could do it again.
"What's on your mind, son?"
Leave it to dad, to read his expression in an instant. "What if what happened last night, happens again? What if I hurt you or Joe?"
"You won't, I promise."
"That's not a promise you can keep. Dad. If we don't know what set me off –"
"It doesn't matter," Fenton cut in. "You're going to stay with one of the three of us at all times. We'll keep you away from strangers and no one will have a chance to trigger another episode."
"Do you think that's when it happened? When I was out at the coffee shop?"
"I don't know. You did answer the phone last night. You said it was a salesman but that could have been it."
"It still doesn't explain how they planted the idea in the first place. What was I? Hypnotized over the phone?"
Fenton took a swallow of coffee then made a face. "We need to follow the evidence just like we do on any other case. It'll lead us to the truth." He took another sip and this one went down easier. "And next time Ellis, let Frank make the coffee."
# # #
Lena Holtz was the same age as Frank and Ellis but she looked much older. She was thin, her brown hair hung limply around her shoulders and there were dark circles under her eyes. She was dressed in a stained rainbow t-shirt and sweat pants and the only glimmer of life in her was the surprise in her face when she saw Ellis.
"Oh my god, what are you doing here?"
"I'm sorry I didn't call first. I didn't have your number and we really needed to see you."
Lena expanded her gaze to take in the three men. "Frank? Frank Hardy, right?"
"You have a good memory. It's been awhile."
"Yes, it has. Well, geez, don't just stand out there." She stepped back and waved for them to come inside.
The interior of the house mirrored the disheveled state of its owner. Every surface was piled with papers and clothes and cups and bric-a-brac. What you could see of the furniture was better off hidden by the mess and the whole place had a slightly unpleasant smell.
The reason for the chaos was made clear a moment later when a baby's cry sent her straight into tears. "Oh no. She won't stop, she won't sleep. I don't know what else to do." Lena hurried to the playpen in the corner of the living room then lifted out the cranky, squalling baby.
"May I?" Fenton asked, holding out his arms.
"Be my guest." She handed over the baby then frantically starting picking up the trash in the room.
"That's my father, Fenton and this is my little brother Joe."
"Oh sure." Lena dropped the pile of magazines she had just collected right back on the coffee table. "He was a couple of years behind us in school but we were in choir together."
"Yeah, I think we were," Joe agreed.
"Um, sit down." Lena cleared a spot on the couch for Ellis and Frank. Joe went to the side chair but had to clear off a stack of papers first.
"Boy, between you and Ellis, I'm beginning to feel very untalented." He held up a sketch for everyone to see. It was a detailed depiction of a busy street. "New York, right?"
"Yes. It's nothing. Ellis is an artist, I doodle."
"Doodle?" Joe glanced at several more of the sketches before she took them from him and waved for him to sit. "Those are terrific. They pull you right in to the place. Do you travel a lot?"
"I don't. I don't go anywhere." She shoved the stack of paper into an already overflowing bookcase. "I just draw what I see."
"That's what we were trained to do," Frank said, his voice oddly slow and soft. "Draw places we'd never been."
Fenton moved into the group while gently bouncing the now quiet baby in his arms. "Someone taught you remote viewing?"
To Joe's ear he sounded both concerned and confused. "What's remote viewing?"
"It's a psychic experiment. It was very popular back during the Cold War. The Chinese in particular claimed to have had a lot of success training children to draw photos of places half way around the world. They thought they could use it for spying."
"With kids," Joe repeated. "Now I have heard everything." He dropped into the cleared side chair.
"They used children because their brains aren't full formed. The theory is that they can access those parts of the brain that adults shut off when they get older."
"That's why it's only the boys," said Ellis. "The female brain matures before the male brain. That's why they can't use Lena or I but they can get to Frank and the others."
"Are you calling me immature?" said Frank.
"I'm calling your brain immature."
"But wait!" Joe got back to his feet so quickly, the baby startled in Fenton's arms and began to cry again. "What you're suggesting is that someone experimented on Frank and his classmates when they were in kindergarten and now, all these years later, they're . . . what? Running tests?"
"A long term study," Fenton said almost to himself as he stroked the baby's back. "To see how the developmental changes in the brain affected psychic abilities, suggestibility. . . "
"Are you listening to yourself?" Joe snapped. "You're not talking about lab rats. These are real kids. This was your son! How could someone experiment on your son without you knowing?"
"Because it happened while we were in school," said Frank flatly.
"We were special," said Lena.
"And I'm starting to feel like I'm in the middle of a zombie movie." Joe said spinning to include the lot of them. When he came back around to Fenton he saw a look that he didn't want to see.
"Of course." Fenton hugged the baby to his chest and rocked his body from side to side even though she was quiet and content. "You were special. That's what they told your mother and I so we agreed."
"To what?" Frank and Joe both asked at the same time.
"To allow you to spend a few hours a week in a gifted class. Only a few children were chosen. They said you were very bright, way ahead of most of the other kids. They said it would be good for you. A challenge. I didn't known. . . . " Fenton carried the baby back to her playpen and laid her down on her stomach. She wiggled for a moment and gurgled then settled into sleep. When he turned back around, he wore a pained expression that cut deep into Joe's heart. His gaze fell on Frank, he started to say something then turned to face Ellis instead. "Your mother taught that class."
"I don't remember."
"I'm sure of it. She wasn't a regular school teacher, she had this advanced degree. Good lord, could she have done this? Could she have brainwashed my son?"
Suddenly Lena dropped to the floor and her body jerked and seized in a full epileptic fit. Ellis sat down beside her and took up her hand as she'd done for Frank the day before. But this fix didn't come as easily. Once the seizure had past, both women were exhausted.
"Should we call an ambulance?" Joe asked as he gave a hand to Lena who was struggling to sit up.
"No. Just need to lie down." She pulled on his arm as if that might give her the leverage she needed to get up but she was too weak. "Happens all the time."
A frightening thought, considering she was had a newborn baby to care for.
"Let me help you." With Joe's assist, Frank lifted Lena up off the floor then carried her into her bedroom which was in the back of the single story apartment. Joe continued on to the kitchen to get Ellis a glass of water but he couldn't find a clean glass. Washing the glass meant clearing the dirty the dishes out of one side of the sink which led to him washing each dish, drying it and putting it away until he'd made a serious dent in the pile.
"Now who's brainwashed," Frank said when he came into the small kitchen. "Joe Hardy doing dishes without complaint?"
"Instead of jokes, why don't you lend a hand? This poor girl is obviously in way over her head and maybe if we can get her back to square one, she'll have a fighting chance."
"You wash, I'll dry." Frank found a fairly clean towel threaded through the fridge door handle then he accepted the first plate from his brother. "So what do you think about all of this?"
"I don't know. It's too much to process. The idea of someone experimenting on kids is bad enough but when you add in your own brother and a person he trusted, it's so much worse."
"I keep thinking about the families. The other three victims, I don't really remember them that well, but we probably knew their fathers or sisters. They all lived right here in Bayport so it's likely we came in contact with them someway and now. . . how do they go on living knowing their sons were murderers."
"But they weren't murderers. They couldn't help themselves. When we figure this out, we'll tell them."
"I'm not sure it'll make a difference. How would you have felt if I'd killed Ellis last night, then killed myself."
"Don't." Joe let the dish he was washing go back under the soapy water in the sink. "I can't think about that. It didn't happen and now that I know about, it's not going to happen. You're safe as long as I'm around."
"You're stealing my line, little brother."
"Yeah well," Joe shifted, his eyes finding a crack in the tile on the floor. "You've pulled me out of plenty of jams; it's time I returned the favor." He could hardly get the words out around the lump in his throat. It was stupid, getting all weepy and sentimental but it was just starting to hit him, how close he'd come to losing his brother.
"Hey, Joe?" Frank stepped closer but Joe avoided meeting his eyes.
"You were a little kid. I was still a baby. How could they -" It was talk or breath, and he chose breath.
With a deep sigh, Frank wrapped his arms around his brother. "We're going to figure this out. Okay? Like you said, nothing's going to happen to me, as long as you're around."
# # #
As soon as the boys left the room with Lena, Fenton cleared a spot on the coffee table then sat down on the edge to talk to Ellis. She was stretched out on the couch, pale and worn out. She probably needed to rest as much as Lena did but Fenton had questions first.
"Did you know your mother was involved in this?"
"I guess I suspected. I've always know I was different. That I had abilities, and I have these vague memories of them teaching me. . . testing me. When I heard about what happened to Tony and the others. . . something clicked but I really don't what. I guess that's why I went to you, to help me prove it wasn't true." She moaned as she dragged her hands over her face. "We're a fine bunch of freaks, aren't we? We were supposed to have super powers and instead we're. . . " She trailed off into a deep breath. Her eyelids slid closed.
Fenton knew he should let her sleep but he also knew he wouldn't get many more chances to talk without the boys around. "Ellis. Where is your mother now?"
"Dead. She and dad were in a car accident when I was in Junior High. That's why I moved. I had to go live with my Aunt in London. I came back to the US after I graduated from school. I wandered the country for a while and then found my way back here. No one was living in our old house. Mrs. Bagley rented the place after my parents died but her kids put her in a home and my Aunt and I just never got around to dealing with finding another tenant or selling the place."
She heaved a big sigh, then her eyelids slid closed again.
"I need to rest a little. Then we can. . . .we need that picture. . . "
"Yeah." Fenton patted her hand where it lay across her stomach. "Lena will find it later." And that was when he realized that neither of his sons had returned from taking the woman to her room. Normally, he wouldn't have given it a second thought. . . but things were far from normal. He stood up but stopped when he felt her hand brush against his pant leg.
"Fenton. I'm sorry about Frank. They had no right."
"Not your fault." He took her hand and folded it back over her stomach. "Get some rest. I'll be back." He left the living room and went down the hall passing the door to Lena's bedroom on the way. He glanced in and saw that she was properly tucked in and completely asleep. He continued on toward the kitchen but stopped when he heard Joe's voice, all choked up and full of anguish.
"You were a little kid. I was still a baby. How could they -"
Then Frank's reply, "We're going to figure this out. Okay? Like you said, nothing's going to happen to me, as long as you're around."
Always the big brother.
Fenton took another step then stopped again at the sight of the two boys locked in tight hug. He couldn't see either of their faces but he knew what he'd find there and it hurt. At the same time, it felt good to know that they were there for each other.
He backed out of the doorway and returned to the living room without saying a word.
# # #
Joe was playing peak-a-boo with the baby when Lena woke up. The child had been fed and changed thanks to Fenton's never forgotten parenting skills and now they were all enjoying the refreshing innocence of baby laughter.
"It's a common female reaction," said Frank.
"What is?" asked Ellis.
"Laughing when they see him coming. It's either that or they run screaming. There's no middle ground."
"Ha ha," said Joe. "You're just jealous because she likes me better than you." Which was true. When Frank picked her up she cried like mad. But now she was all smiles and giggles.
"She knows a kindred spirit when she sees one," Frank countered.
"I know you meant that as an insult but I'll take it as a compliment. Right, sweet thing?" Joe bent down and blew a raspberry on the baby's tummy. The baby shrieked its appreciation and then Lena's voice cut through it all.
"Could you please not do that. You're getting her all worked up." She snatched the baby away from Joe then deposited her roughly in the playpen.
"I'm sorry. I was just trying to make her laugh."
"You'll make her have a seizure, just like you made me have a seizure."
"She has seizures too," Ellis asked, reaching out to her friend.
Lena brushed her hand away. "Another side effect of being special. The doctors say I'm lucky she's alive. I miscarried twice before Alice was born. I was so happy to have her and then when they told me about the brain damage. . . "
"Oh Lena, why didn't you tell me?"
"Because you have a life. You have your art and your friends and you travel and this is my life." She gestured at the sloppy apartment. "You should go now. I don't really feel up to company."
Ellis started to protest but Frank stopped her with a touch on the arm.
"I'm sorry we upset you Lena. We'll see ourselves out." Frank gave Ellis a small push toward the door, then he waited for Joe to go, too.
Fenton was the last to leave. He stopped as he passed Lena, then handed her his business card. "If you need help with anything, you call me. Don't let pride stand in the way of what's best for you and your daughter."
When he reached the car, Frank and Ellis were already settled in the back and Joe was in the passenger seat but none of them looked ready to go.
"Should we be leaving her alone with the baby?" Joe asked as Fenton slid behind the wheel. "What if she has another seizure? And where's the father? She clearly needs help."
"He's in the military, stationed overseas," said Ellis. "She wasn't this bad the last time I saw her. She was never a neatnik but I can't believe the state of that apartment."
"Nothing to be done about it now," Fenton said as he pulled away from the curb. "If we call social services, they'll take the baby away and I don't think she's strong enough to handle that."
"The way she handled that poor baby, I'd say she'd be happy to have her taken away."
"Joe," said Frank. "One problem at a time, okay? We still need to find out who else was in the special class."
"I've been thinking about that," said Fenton. "There are a couple of boxes in the attic filled with all that art work and paper you boys brought home from school. Your mother wanted to keep every scrap of it but I made her cut it down to one box for each of you. We should pull those down and have a look."
"And what about school records," Frank asked, raising his voice to be heard over the rumble of tires on the highway.
"I tried to get hold of those but all the school district told me no warrant, no way and since we can't prove a connection between the killings, no judge is going to grant me a license to fish. Mrs. Albertson, the school secretary took pity on me and gave me a list of names. I was only able to find two of them before. . . . " He didn't need to finish. They all knew what he was thinking. Before Frank went psycho and tried to kill Ellis.
"So we need to start working the phones again. If we call everybody in town whose family lived here back then, we should be able to trace them all," said Ellis.
"But what does that get us?" Joe snapped, turning sideways to look over the seat. "Even if we figure out who was in the special class, that doesn't get us any closer to whose doing this and why. That's the person we need to find."
"And we will," said Fenton. "But we need to find the other kids, too, especially the boys before we have another rampage on our hands."
With that thought in their minds, they drove home the rest of the way in silence.
# # #
They spent the rest of the day going through boxes of ephemera and flipping through photo albums while Fenton worked his contacts at a variety of records offices around the US. But it was Friday and by 5 o'clock, the phone calls were going unanswered. That was all he'd get from those sources until Monday and that was a sobering thought. A lot could happen in two days.
They did get in touch with two others from the kindergarten list, both boys and both reporting no strange symptoms and no memory of being in a special class. One of the two, Chris Connor said he remembered his best friend being pulled out of class a few times a week. It stuck with him because he always wondered why he wasn't special enough to go, too. The name of his friend? Steven Brooks. The first victim. Since his was the least brutal of all three attacks, the story had only made the local news. Frank filled Chris in even though recounting the details made him sick to his stomach.
There but for the grace of God go I.
They took a break at six for dinner. Ellis cooked, Fenton and Joe to cleaned up and Frank was left wandering the house feeling useless. It wasn't a feeling he was accustomed to. He tried going to his room to read but the silence quickly got on his nerves. He rejected television as an option and chose instead to go out on the back porch.
Ellis was there. She was sitting with one hip on the railing staring out into the night as if she'd find the answer in the darkness. Frank coughed so as not to startle her but she jumped anyway.
"Sorry. I don't mean to keep sneaking up on you."
"And I'm not usually so jumpy." She adjusted her position so she was sitting fully on the wide railing, her back to the yard. "I came out here to relax but I can't stop the film that keeps running through my mind. It's like an old movie that I vaguely remember seeing a long time ago. There are parts that are so clear and other parts are missing. I keep thinking, if I concentrate a little harder, I'll remember something. I'll be able to fill in the blanks."
"I hear that." Frank sat down on a lounge chair but instead of leaning back, he perched on the edge like a bird ready to fly away at the slightest hint of trouble.
"But they were my parents. I lived with them for fifteen years. How could I not know what they were doing? In those last years, they were both professors working on their doctorate degrees in psychology. I remember some heated arguments with a couple of colleagues who used to visit. I'm trying to remember more about them because they could be the ones behind this. If they knew about the experiments then maybe they decided to follow through on the work after my parents died."
"It's a long shot," said Frank.
"But it's something. What Joe said earlier, about what's the point? He's right. We're spending our time trying to find out who else was affected when we should be looking for the people behind it."
"And how do we do that?" Frank stood up and moved to within a foot of her. "Where do we begin? Track down every person with a degree in psychology or anyone who ever turned in a paper about brainwashing or gender differences in brain activity? Believe me, I'm as frustrated about this as you are. Even more! I'm the walking time bomb."
"Maybe not. Maybe it's a one-time thing. They flipped the switch and it's all used up."
"That doesn't make sense." Frank lifted his hand and absently brushed over her knee.
"It does make sense. If they could order the same person to kill over and over again, why not do it? Why have them kill themselves when they're done? That's a hell of a waste of a major resource. If this is all part of the original study, you'd want to keep the subjects alive to see what happens next."
"That's the part I don't understand. Where's the motive? Where's the gain? Do we really think someone is doing this just to prove they can?"
"People have done worse for less."
He moved closer to her and she shifted so he could stand between her legs. "And why did I go after you?"
"Your father thinks it's because I know something even if I don't realize it."
He moved in closer, touched a gentle hand to her cheek then jumped back so suddenly he knocked over the lounge chair. "Oh no. This is it, isn't it? You said that it starts with sexual aggression. I was going to kiss you. I wanted to kiss you."
"Frank, stop!" She got down from the railing and took a step toward him but he backed up and got tangled in the legs of the tipped over chair. Ellis reached out to stop him from falling but he pulled away from her grip and landed in tangle with the chair and a potted plant.
"What's going on?" Fenton asked as he and Joe came charging on to the porch.
"Nothing. It's alright," Ellis soothed, but Frank wasn't having any.
"You have to lock me in my room, handcuff me to my bed, or something."
"Why? What happened?" Joe asked, now more panicked than the rest.
"Nothing happened," Ellis replied. "He thinks he's having another attack, he's not." She turned to Frank who was still on his butt. "Aggression. Sexual aggression! Wanting to kiss me isn't sexual aggression! I can tell the difference. Believe me."
"That's why you scared the hell out of me!" Joe snapped. "Because of a kiss? And what are you doing anyway? We have big problems and you're working on your pick up lines!"
Joe was serious but it was so ridiculous the others couldn't help but laugh.
"I'm sorry," Frank said as he allowed his father to help him up. "I guess I'm overthinking it."
"Look," said Ellis. "I'm not saying we shouldn't be cautious, but you're going to have a nervous breakdown if you keep expecting to snap."
"I guess," said Frank reluctantly. "But I can't help it. I just don't want to hurt anybody. I'm going to go to my room and maybe a padlock wouldn't be a bad idea."
Fenton sighed as he gripped his son's shoulder. Frank shrugged him off, then slipped back into the house with Joe on his heels.
Fenton was about to follow but Ellis stopped him.
"You realize we could be waiting for the shoe that never drops. There is a possibility that this is over. They found out what they wanted to know or they can't trigger him a second time or they're afraid we're getting too close so they move on—"
"That's the one the worries me." Fenton glanced over his shoulder to make sure the boys were out of hearing range. "A month goes by and nothing. We figure it's over and go on with our lives and that's exactly they're waiting for. For us to drop our guard. We could be in a hotel room in Istanbul when they decide to try again. We have to figure out how they're doing it. What's the trigger mechanism and how do they deliver the instructions."
"The first three attacks could have been random. Paranoia or anger took over and they lashed out at those closest to them, but not Frank. He left this house in the middle of the night, drove to your house, which he hasn't been to since he was a kid, and attacked you. That was a plan. That wasn't random."
Ellis sunk back against the porch railing. "So maybe they're getting better at it. The first attack, Steven, that was sloppy and sudden. But Andrew, he made a conscious decision to get a gun, then conceal it until he was in the right place on campus. There was nothing sudden about it."
"And then there's Frank. If that phone call he got was the trigger, he waited almost four hours before he left the house and we didn't see any change in his behavior during that time."
"So whoever is doing this can pick the time, the place, and the victim. Which means they've got the perfect assassin."
Fenton nodded grimly. "What if this whole experiment was about that from the beginning? What if all they were after was the ability to program someone into killing a complete stranger, like a politician or a witness?"
"No." A cool breeze dashed through the yard and Ellis shivered. "Maybe that's the new puppet master's goal but there's no way my parents were trying to turn kindergartners into assassins. It's ludicrous."
"I agree that going back that far, they were only trying to understand the workings of the human brain, but whoever got hold of their research has a much more nefarious purpose. I'm sure of that."
Ellis sighed as she raked her fingers through her hair. "So what do we do?"
"What we're already doing. We keep building connections until we find the answer. In the meantime, I think one of us should be awake at all times, just to make sure Frank doesn't go out the front door in the middle of the night again."
"I'll take the first shift, then you and you can wake Joe when you've run out of gas."
"Are you sure we should involve Joe? Can he handle it?"
"I don't know, but he's going to want to take his turn, so. . . " Another cold breeze made both of them shiver. "Come on. I've got a pot of coffee going – extra strong, the way you like it."
"Good, because we're going to need it."
# # #
The night passed without incident, which should have made everyone feel better but only served to make them more tense. Joe confided to his father that he wished something would happen already. Not that he wanted to be faced with a monster of a brother, but at least they'd get it over with it. Fenton didn't feel the same. If Frank could be triggered twice, he could be triggered three times or more. The only way to stop this was to find the person or persons behind it and that meant more detective work.
The next morning they went back to working the phones, reaching different people since it was a Saturday. In the late afternoon Fenton left to talk with a lawyer about a case he'd worked on three months earlier. He convinced Joe to go with him under the pretext that Joe had helped conduct surveillance and could add his own perspective. The truth was all this togetherness wasn't helping anyone and the break would do them all good.
While they were gone Frank and Ellis kept at it, finally locating two more classmates, one with no symptoms and another who routinely worked as a psychic to help police. They considered bringing her up to speed on their suspicions but decided it was still too risky to share it with the world.
The psychic gave them the name of a young man who was also in the "special class." Logan Richards had lived next door since the day he was born. Knowing he'd found another potential target, Frank held his breath when he asked her where Logan was now.
"Gone," was her reply. Committed suicide just after last Christmas.
"Do you think he could have been part of the pattern," Ellis asked when Frank filled her in. "An early attempt that went wrong?"
"Maybe." Disheartened, Frank wandered into the living room and flopped down on the couch. "We've talked to more than half the people in our class and we're no closer to figuring this out." He groaned as he dragged both hands across his face. "I need a break. I need to think about something else for ten minutes."
"We could watch TV," Ellis suggested. "I find old sitcoms to be very soothing. Doesn't take much brain-space to make it through an episode of Leave it to Beaver."
"I'm not sure I can even focus on that."
The front door opened and Fenton called out, "we're back."
Joe appeared a moment later, trying to mask it, but obviously relieved that nothing had changed while he was gone. "I'm starving. How do you guys feel about pizza tonight?"
"Works for me," said Ellis.
Frank mumbled a noncommittal "sure" then got up off the couch. "I'm going to go to my room and read for a while. Call me when the pizza gets here." He left the living room and went into the hall, just as Fenton disappeared into his den. On his way to the stairs, Frank spotted a pile of new mail on the table. He flipped through the pile, pulled out a science magazine, a letter from a friend and another envelope with his name on it. No return address and he didn't recognize the handwriting.
"Anything I need to know?" Fenton asked, making Frank look up.
"No. Not really. Ellis can fill you in. I'm going to read, maybe lay down for a while." Taking the mail with him, Frank went up to his room, closed the door then sat down on the bed with his back to the wall and feet up. He ripped open the unknown envelope first. There was a single sheet of paper inside. A drawing with no words but the number 2 in the corner. He studied it for few minutes, easily recognizing the place and the person that was depicted. He didn't read the other letter or look at the magazine.
The pizza arrived an hour later and not long after that, Frank went back to his room and fell asleep.
He was still fully dressed and sleeping when Fenton checked on him at midnight. He considered undressing him so he could sleep more comfortably but decided it was better to leave him alone than risk waking him.
Joe was still awake when he checked on him. "You should get to bed if you expect to take the third watch."
"I know but every time I close my eyes I start thinking, seeing things. . . "
"I've heard mediation is good for that," said Fenton jokingly.
"I've heard a bottle whiskey is good for that, but I don't think I'm cut out for either one."
Fenton smiled then worked hard to fight the urge to hug his youngest to him. Joe and Frank both saw themselves as grownups, but to Fenton they were still his little boys. "Well, don't stay up too late. I'll see you in the morning." He closed the door then went back downstairs.
Though not much of a TV watcher, he turned it on for company. Switched channels for a few minutes and finally settled on a John Wayne movie. Who could sleep with cowboys and Indians chasing each other all over creation?
Who could sleep knowing that their own flesh and blood was a walking time bomb?
Fenton had no trouble staying awake.
# # #
Ellis came down a half hour into a happy, forties musical about a girl from the farm who makes it big in New York.
"Two o'clock already," Fenton joked, "time really does fly when you're having fun." He got up from the couch and stretched his aching back. "Look, Joe didn't go to bed until after midnight, so why don't you forget waking him and just wake me again in a few hours. He needs the sleep."
"So do you. So do I. Fenton, it's only been two nights and already we're worn to the nub. I'm not sure how long we can keep this up."
"As long as we have to and if you don't want to be a part of it, that's fine. I understand—"
"I didn't say –" She was cut off by a crash from upstairs. "Oh no."
They both ran up the stairs. Ellis got to the top first but it was Fenton who threw open the door to Frank's room. He wasn't in bed.
"Joe!" Fenton led the way to the next bedroom and again threw open the door.
There was Frank, back to the window, one arm slung tightly around Joe's neck. The nightstand on the opposite side of the bed was tipped over and the lamp was on the floor along with several books, trinkets and a desk chair.
"I have to do this," Frank shouted when he saw his father. "I have to!"
"You don't have to," Fenton replied, struggling hard to keep his voice low and steady. "You don't want to. That's your brother. I know how much you care about him and all the things you've done to keep him safe over the years. Why would you want be the one to hurt him now?"
Fenton took a step forward and it was the wrong move.
Frank tightened his hold on Joe, bending him back at an awkward angle that left him fighting for air.
"Easy, easy," Fenton soothed but it didn't help. Frank's eyes darted between his father and Ellis as if calculating which was more dangerous. Then he glanced to his right and saw just what he needed. A glass. He stuck his fingers down inside the mouth then smashed the bottom against the edge of the table. This left him with a jagged circle which he brought up the underside of Joe's chin. The only upside was that he had to lessen his choke hold through all of it which gave Joe a chance to take a full breath.
"Frank," Joe tried, barely able to keep the distress out of his voice. "Please. You can fight this. I know you can. You don't want to hurt me."
"I have to hurt you," Frank corrected.
"Why? I'm your brother. You're my best friend. Don't let them take that away. We –" Joe's words turned into a gasp when the glass bit into the soft skin. Not enough to do much harm but a horrible reminder of how little effort it would take to slit his throat.
"Frank. Listen to me," Fenton said, hands trembling as he reached out to his son. "This isn't you. You're not a killer and you're stronger than they are. They're hiding while innocent people do their dirty work. You're not like that. You can beat it; beat them if you just listen to me. Block out what those other voices are telling you to do and put down the glass."
Frank started to tremble, as if he was fighting to hold himself back. The glass nicked Joe again, deeper this time, but it wasn't intentional, just a side effect of the shakes.
"You're doing it, son. Now step away from your brother."
Frank lifted both of his arms like dual safety bars retracting on an amusement ride. With the pressure gone, Joe stumbled forward, almost falling to his knees before Ellis caught him.
"I'm sorry," said Frank then he swiped the jagged glass across his outstretched, sleeve-covered, left arm.
Joe, only just out of harm's way, turned back and tackled his brother before he could take another swipe. They both hit the wall then slid down in a heap on the floor. Ellis took advantage of the moment to grab Frank's right wrist preventing him from doing any more damage with the broken glass. She gave his arm a shake but he stubbornly held on to the makeshift weapon.
"Let it go!" She snapped and he did, but only as a result of another bone-shaking seizure. Ellis did her best to quell the tide but she was worn raw and had little left to give.
Thirty seconds that felt like three hours later, he went limp. Out cold.
Ellis moved the broken glass while Joe inspected the damage.
"He's cut, but not too bad." The long shirt sleeve had kept the blade from cutting cleanly so it was no worse than a scraped knee.
Together, the three of them lifted Frank on to the bed, then Fenton went to get the first aid kit.
"I don't understand this," Ellis said as she cleaned up the mess. "He didn't talk to anyone—"
"He talked to lots of people," Joe said, cutting her off. "All those phone calls to the classmates. What if it was one of them? They could have given him instructions while you thought he was listening to their life story."
"I didn't think of that."
"I didn't either, so don't take it personally." Joe unbuttoned the cuffs on Frank's sleeves, then, with Ellis' help, stripped the shirt off completely so he could clean up the wound. "So what do you think happened this time?"
Fenton returned with the first aid kit then set to work cleaning and bandaging Frank's arm.
"Do you think he actually fought back?" Joe asked continuing the thought, "Is that why he let me go?"
"Seems like it," said Fenton. "I felt like we were getting through to him."
"Brotherly love trumps all I guess," said Ellis with a cynical edge in her voice. "So what now?"
"Now you two get some sleep. There's no reason to believe he'll give us any more trouble tonight but I'll sit up with him just in case."
"Are you sure?" asked Joe. "I can stay with him. He is in my room."
"No, you go sleep in his room." Finished with the first aid, Fenton tore his eyes off his oldest to look more deeply at his youngest. "Are you alright?"
"Physically, I'm fine but I'm still kinda freaked out. I thought if he went over the edge he'd go after Ellis again, finish what he started. I never expected him to come after me. It was. . . surreal. I didn't want to hurt him but after a few seconds it was pretty clear that he didn't have the same reservations about hurting me."
"Don't take it personally," Ellis said, reiterating Joe's earlier statement.
"Go to bed," Fenton said, then gave Joe a gentle push toward the door. "Your brother is going to need you fully rested and supportive in the morning when he realizes what he's done."
"Alright, but you wake me if anything happens."
Fenton promised he would and with that Joe left his own bedroom and went next door to his brother's. Moving through the darkness, he flopped down on the bed and heard a crunch of paper caught beneath his body. Joe switched on the bedside lamp then located the paper which was caught in a tangle of blanket and top sheet.
It was a sketch. A sketch of him, asleep in his room and it was perfect drawn to the items on his bookshelf and even the glass that had only been on the nightstand since the day before.
"Oh my god." Joe jumped out of bed and ran back to own room. Ellis was on her way out so he grabbed her arm to stop her then called for his father in a hushed whisper. "I found the trigger." He showed them both the sketch. "And I know whose doing this. The only thing I can't figure out is why."
# # #
Ellis rang the bell twice in quick succession then followed that with a series of knocks on the aluminum screen door. She stopped when she heard crying and then footsteps and then the suction sound of the front door being yanked open.
"Ellis. Geez, twice in one week."
"Lena. Something terrible has happened." Ellis stepped forward, forcing Lena to step back into the apartment. "Frank went crazy last night and he tried to kill Joe."
"No! Really? That's awful."
"Not quite," Ellis deadpanned. "Want to try again?"
"What are you talking about? Try what again?"
"Try to sound shocked."
Lena's eyes shifted past her to three more figures that were now in full view. "Wait, what are they. . . you said. . . "
"I said he tried to kill Joe. I didn't say he succeeded." Ellis took another step and Lena countered backwards leaving plenty of room for the three men to come in as well.
Joe went straight for the living room and the pile of sketches he'd seen on their last visit. "You're really good, Lena. I recognized all of these places you drew, I just didn't get the connection until last night." He held up a sketch of a crowd dancing at a disco. "Tony Pascuzzo stabbed his girlfriend on the dance floor." He put that down and showed them the next – a pastoral college campus. "Andrew Highland and his campus rampage." He flipped through the photos and found another – an office. "Steven Brooks kills his boss at the ad agency." Joe dropped the sketches on the table then pulled one more from his pocket. "And finally, the one you mailed to Frank yesterday. Only, you didn't really mail it. There was a stamp, but it wasn't canceled. You put it in our mailbox so Frank would get it right away."
Lena shrugged as if she'd been caught sneaking a cookie before dinner.
"Why?" Ellis asked. "Why did you do this? People died. Our friends died."
"Friends?" Lena huffed out a laugh. "Where were my friends when I was eight months pregnant and living on Ramen noodles because that's all I could afford? Where were my friends when Mark left me with a new born baby? Where were you! My best friend who couldn't take ten minutes out of her life to call me."
"That's not fair!" Ellis snapped back. "The last thing I knew you were happily married and pregnant."
"That was two miscarriages ago. That's the legacy your parents left me. Seizures and sickness and a brain damaged baby!"
Who was now crying in her playpen. Fenton picked the child up and rocked her into silence.
"I'll take the blame," said Ellis. "But why Frank? Why Andrew and Tony? What they did they ever do to you?"
"They were happy. Andrew had his fraternity buddies and a girlfriend and parties and sports. Tony was acting. He always wanted to act and he was doing it in New York surrounded by all these exciting people." Lena turned to Frank. "And you. I keep seeing your name in the paper about how you help your father solve crimes, save people. The first time I mostly wanted Ellis gone and you were just the easiest way to do it. But when you were here and I saw how much you and your brother and your father all cared for each other. . . .it's not right."
"Why isn't it right?" Frank asked.
"Because you were in the special class, too. You weren't supposed to be happy. I'm not happy. Why do you get to be happy!" She threw herself at him, fists flying but he easily blocked the punches, then pulled her safely into his arms.
"I'm so sorry, Lena. Believe me, if there was anything I could have done to help you over the years, I would have. But I didn't know. None of us did."
"You should have," she sobbed. "We're connected. The ten of us." She wiggled out of Frank's arms then dropped to her knees and pulled a photo album out from under the couch. She laid it on the coffee table, on top of a greasy pizza box, then opened it to the first page.
In the center was an 8 x 10 black and white photo of a group of children. Four of them had X's over their faces.
"That's the photo. The one you had when we were kids. Where did you get it?"
"I stole it from your mother's desk. I liked it because we were all smiling. And look—" Lena pointed to a very young Frank Hardy in the back row. "You're pulling my pigtails but I didn't care because I knew it meant you liked me."
"I did like you, Lena." Frank sat down on the edge of couch in front of the photo album. "May I?" He flipped to the next page. It was covered with newspaper clippings about their classmates. So was the next page and the next. Wedding announcements, birth announcements, business cards and achievements. She had cataloged their lives. An outsider, living vicariously, always wishing she were on the inside.
The back of the album had a fat pocket which was stuffed with lined papers covered in scrawl.
"That's my mother's handwriting." Ellis pulled the pages out of the pouch and skimmed through them with Fenton and Joe peering over either shoulder. "This is how you figured it out. These are lab notes about the tests they ran all of us. Psychic experiments, remote viewing. . . . Where did you get these?"
"Your house. When Mrs. Bagley lived there. I was her companion until they put her in a home. Her family didn't give a damn about her, either. I was the only one who cared. So when they put her away they hired me to box up her stuff. I found those papers in a file box in the back of a kitchen cabinet."
"My aunt and uncle cleaned out the house after my parents were killed, they must have missed it."
"But I found it," Lena said proudly. "I was meant to find it. It was my gift. Payment for all the suffering they caused with those experiments." She flipped back to the front of the album and pointed out one of the boys with an x on his face. "Logan was the only other one suffered like me. He tried to be normal but he couldn't make it work so he killed himself." She drew a lazy finger around the group. "Now they all understand what it's like to be a freak."
Lena started to shake as if she were going to seizure but it passed as she slowly and lovingly caressed page after page of the scrapbook. "If we had stuck together, we could have ruled the world."
# # #
The first thing Joe did when he got home was start a fire in the fireplace.
"Cold?" Frank asked as he slid into the large arm chair facing the flames.
"Not taking any chances." Joe held up a folded piece of paper which Frank assumed was the sketch that had triggered this last event. Joe tossed it on the fire then pushed it around with a poker to make sure every bit turned to ash.
"Can we talk about what happened?"
"Nothing to talk about," said Joe, keeping his back to his brother. "It wasn't you and no harm done."
Frank wasn't sure about that. Joe had been abnormally quiet on the ride home. Their father and Ellis had stayed behind to deal with Lena, which was a whole 'nother problem in itself. Even though she technically was responsible for more than six deaths, they couldn't charge her. What jury would believe that she committed murder with a pencil and scraps of paper? At the same time, they couldn't just let her go. She had mastered the technique, so simply taking away the names and instructions wouldn't have stopped her. That left them with only one choice, a choice none of them were comfortable with, but they were out of options.
"Joe. What happened with you, it was different than when I went after Ellis."
"Yeah, you came on to her first. With me you went straight for the choking."
The sexual aggression. They'd found out too late that it wasn't a prerequisite to a triggered event. "I'm serious. When I went after you, it's like I was two people. One person had no doubt that you were a threat and had to be eliminated, but another part of me was trying to protect you."
"You did protect me." Joe put the poker back into the tool stand then turned to face his brother. "You fought the compulsion to hurt me and I know that couldn't have been easy."
"But I did hurt you. It could have been worse, sure but. . . I feel like you'll never be able to trust me again."
Joe sighed as a faint smile crossed his lips. "I trust you with my life, Frank. I always have and I always will. Nothing's changed."
"So you believe this is over?"
"Yes. Lena's going to be locked up under observation. Dad's got the instructions and the names. It's over."
Frank nodded in agreement but he couldn't get past the niggling knowledge that somewhere, buried deep in his brain, was a list of commands, put there when he was only six years old. Who could be sure that those commands wouldn't ever surface again?
The front door squeaked open then closed with a heavy thump. A moment later, Fenton came into the living room. He had an envelope in his hand and he was alone.
"Where's Ellis?" Frank asked.
"I dropped her at home. She's having a hard time with . . . well. . leaving Lena in that place. It's what's best for everyone but it's still tough." Fenton eyed the roaring fire suspiciously. "Kind of warm for a fire, isn't it?"
"Not when you have stuff to burn." Joe nodded toward the envelope in Fenton's hand.
"Ah yes." He opened the clasp and drew out the handwritten notes that had belonged to Ellis' mother.
"I'm surprised they let you keep them," said Frank, eyeing the documents as if they were a snake about to strike.
"They didn't want to but when I explained that these papers are akin to the detonator on a time bomb, they agreed." He tossed the pages into the fireplace then Joe did the honors, poking them into embers. "And that, my sons, is that."
Wearily, Fenton dropped down to sit on the couch and Joe slid on to the arm at his right. "What's going to happen to Lena's baby?"
"Foster care for now, until they locate the child's father." Fenton looked up at his youngest, then, unexpectedly for both of them, he took hold of Joe's arm and pulled him down on to the couch beside him. There wasn't much room so they ended up smushed together. Fenton wrapped his arm around the boy and pulled him close the rest of the way. "Whine about it later," he said before Joe got out a word. "Right now your old man needs a hug."
Frank laughed at the sight of his nearly suffocated brother. "Can I get in on that?"
"Sure!" Fenton opened his other arm wide and Frank sat down, sitting much closer than he needed to with all the room on his side of the couch.
Fenton closed his arm around his oldest then hug both of his sons as tight as he could manage. And he didn't care if either of them complained, he wasn't going to let go again until he was good and ready.
# # #
"We've only had a chance to do some preliminary tests, but so far what we've seen is pretty amazing. She's a very talented young lady."
"And there's more from where she came from." The man picked up a stack of 8x10 photos which he handed to the woman. "See what you can make of these."
The woman skimmed the text in the photos. "Lab notes. Very interesting."
"Just between you and I for now."
"Of course." The woman left the office and the man went back to work on projects that the world would never know about as long as he did his job right.