A/N: Ohai duckies! I hadn't planned to update quite yet, but credoroza is kind of amazing and I lub her. :) Who's going to Twific Meetup in June? I am! I'm in charge of bringing the moonshine and bail money. ;-)
All standard disclaimers apply.
"Edward, calm down. You're scaring her."
He tried, he really did. But fuck, how was he supposed to stay calm when everything in him was trying to do the complete opposite? His stomach churned, anxious and nauseated, and his chest still squeezed tightly, closing in on itself, forcing him to struggle for air. Wisp's worried brown eyes hovered near, her soft mouth pursed in a trembling frown as one, then two, tears dripped down her cheeks. She sniffled.
Though Emily continued to talk, her voice faded from Edward's ears. His senses narrowed, and the girl in his lap—already his world—became everything he could see, everything he could hear. Her warm body pressed against his, one hand tangled in the short hair at the nape of his neck, the other cupped around his cheek.
"Wisp," he whispered.
She blinked. Another tear fell.
She was so beautiful. Everything about her, inside and out. So soft. So sweet. Her life prior to meeting him was basically one tragedy after another—a tangled mystery, a puzzle to which they had only a few pieces, even now. She'd been horribly abused, that much he knew, and not just by the son of a bitch in whose house they now lingered. Had anyone cared, before him? Ever? Why the fuck had no one known about this girl's pain, and done something to stop it? His body shuddered and he held his breath, refusing the sick feeling that wanted to consume him. He couldn't vomit. Not here, not now. Not when Wisp needed him.
Her worried, whispered plea broke him. "Come here," he said softly. "Come here, sweetheart. Will you give me a kiss? A thimble?" he corrected. He needed her near, the smooth reality of her warm body, whole and healthy, unbroken, in no pain.
"Thimble." Her murmur was solemn, as was the way she pressed her lips to his jaw, tender, loving.. "Thimble, Edward."
"Thank you, little Wisp." He drew her close, tightening his arms around her. Having her here, in his grasp, was immensely comforting. "Such a good girl."
"Stay. Stay, Edward."
Always. As long as the state allowed. He wasn't letting her go—not ever. Not when sick fucks like this doctor still walked free. "No wonder you don't like doctors." He still would have taken her to see Jasper because it was medically necessary, but he maybe understood her fear a little bit more now that he'd seen this monster's house. "Wisp," he murmured. And then, because he couldn't help it, "Bella."
She cocked her head to the side slightly, but didn't argue with him.
"You're my little Wisp right now, sweetheart. Not Isabella. Not Ruth. But someday you'll be your own person—your Bella. Wisp's Bella. Bella's Bella. And we'll show them, sweet girl. We'll show them that they didn't win. You did, because you're stronger than everything they did to you."
"For now," he agreed. "For as long as you need."
The sound of a car pulling into the cracked driveway catapulted Edward's stomach into his throat and he jerked to his feet with Wisp clasped firmly against him. Emily's eyes went wide, and Emmett had his sidearm in his hand before Edward could inhale another breath.
"Hello?" a male voice called from the front door. "Police! Everything okay?"
Emmett relaxed slightly. "Police," he called back, removing his finger from the trigger of his gun, though he didn't put it down. "Lieutenant Emmett McCarty, Forks PD."
"Detective Thomas Singh, Puyallup PD." The voice came closer, and an Asian man in plainclothes accompanied by a uniformed beat cop entered the dining room. They both flashed their badges, and the beat cop said he was going to do another quick check of the house while they were there.
"Tommy." Emmett holstered his gun and held out his hand. "Nice to finally meet you in person."
"You, too," the detective said, shaking his hand. "Dave's been one of the boys we have patrolling the area since Gerandy skipped town. When he mentioned a car with a license plate registered to the Forks PD was parked in the driveway, I thought I'd come out and see if I could be of any help."
"Thanks. Appreciate it." Emmett stepped back and waved at the other people in the room. "This is Dr. Edward Cullen, the Jane Doe victim—we call her Wisp—and her therapist."
Edward's heart didn't want to settle back down, but he managed to sit again. The detective seemed nice enough, though he'd scared the shit out of them. Wisp had hidden her face against his shoulder when she heard the unfamiliar male voice, and she peeked warily at the man from the safety of Edward's arms. He hugged her close and kissed her hair. "You're okay," he whispered against her head. "You're fine. The police won't hurt you."
"Yeah, we saw her on TV when you guys had your press conference," Tommy Singh was saying. "We passed her photo around, but nobody on the force ever remembers seeing her around." His shoulders lifted in a weary shrug. "I wish I had answers for you, I really do. D'you have any idea how fucked-up it is to learn that something like this's been going on in your jurisdiction and nobody knew anything?"
"I can imagine," Emmett said, pulling out a chair for Emily, then himself. The detective perched on a kitchen stool. "I know we talked a little bit before, you and me, but Edward and Ms. Young weren't around. What can you tell us about Leonard Gerandy?"
"Not much." Tommy held out his hands, palm up. "Nothing all that helpful, at least. He's owned this house for close to twenty years—of course we can't verify that he actually lived here during all that time, but it's been his only legal address that we know of. Never been married—again, as far as we know. Not in the US or Canada, at least. He went to school in Nebraska, moved out here around the same time as his brother did, in the 70's. Just the two boys in the family, parents are deceased. Leonard's pushing sixty, his brother is four years younger."
"Any kids?" Edward asked, thinking of the man with tattoos on his arms, the man Wisp had drawn twice now. If Gerandy was pushing sixty, he could certainly have a grown son.
"Nope. Not that we can find. Brother's got two—one in high school, one in college. Both girls. He's been notified by now, of course, but he was definitely surprised when he heard that his wife had gone to the police with suspicions. They live down in Aberdeen and the local PD interviewed the whole family. I think you were involved, Emmett?"
Emmett nodded. "Yeah, we gave them the go-ahead to interview, and they sent us videotapes and transcripts. The girls corroborated their mother's story that they were always somewhat uncomfortable around their uncle, but he never actually touched them inappropriately. The dad was completely oblivious. At first I thought he might be pissed at his wife for pointing the finger, but once he heard his brother had disappeared, the fight went out of him."
"It's hard to accept the thought of a family member doing something so awful, I'm sure," Emily murmured.
"I'm sure," Tommy agreed. "Anyway, the family's very cooperative, but they don't really know anything."
"Not even about the malpractice case that got his license taken away?" Edward relaxed his arms as Wisp peeked at the detective.
"Not really. Just that it was settled out of court, and Gerandy agreed to the revocation of his medical license as part of the settlement. His brother says he always insisted he was innocent but said he didn't think he could win that sort of he-said-she-said trial, which is why he settled."
"What was the alleged wrongdoing?" Emily asked. "Was it sexual in nature?"
"The brother doesn't know. He says he never asked."
"I'm not sure I believe that." Edward rubbed his thumb against Wisp's jacket. He hadn't grown up with brothers, but he'd grown up with two best friends. He couldn't imagine Jasper, for instance, not telling him something like that.
"Some families are just weird like that," Emmett said with a shrug. "I mean, look at James and Mike. They're cousins, and James was staying at Mike's house, but he says he had no idea about the girl in the truck, and I believe him."
Edward believed him, too. It was such a Mike thing to do—to let his cousin's drunk ass stay with him, no questions asked. But still.
"Families come in all colors," Emily agreed. "Still, a little more information would have been nice."
"You're telling me." Tommy grimaced. "We have plenty of cold cases on the books, don't get me wrong. But this one—this one needs to be solved."
Edward couldn't agree more. Leaving these assholes unpunished was not acceptable.
"Anyway, we talked to the neighbors after Gerandy disappeared. They're few and far between, as you can see, and they're tired of the neighborhood having such a bad reputation, especially after that crazy preacher died a couple of years ago."
Edward's head snapped up. "Crazy preacher?"
"Yeah. You can't reach his house by car from this street, it's the next one over. Through the woods right there." Tommy motioned vaguely. "Nobody wanted to buy the thing so it's just sitting empty."
"What happened?" Edward tightened his arms. A crazy preacher in the neighborhood? Wisp quoted from the Bible by rote, words she couldn't possibly understand, at least not completely. Not now. But someone had to have taught her. "Who is he?"
"He was a crazy preacher, before he kicked the bucket." Tommy scratched his chin. "Wasn't my case, but it was kind of big news, at least locally. He was born Stanley Tucker, but legally changed his name to Jeremiah as an adult. Claimed to be a prophet and amassed a small following in the late 70's and early 80's, then got thrown in jail for tax evasion and some other stuff. Once he got out, he fell off the radar. He wasn't causing trouble anymore, you know, so nobody bothered him. We got a call about, oh, two years ago, maybe? A little less, I think. Neighbors around here were complaining about delinquent boys roaming the neighborhood, breaking into houses, rooting through garbage, stuff like that. We caught a couple of them and they said they'd been living with a man they called Father. When we went to the house we found more boys, and Jeremiah Tucker dead in his study. I can't remember how long the ME said he'd been dead—like I said, it wasn't my case. Turned out he'd been running some sort of clandestine orphanage-thing. Boys of all ages, a very strict Biblical routine...Pentecostal, I want to say, though it could have been some sort of Baptist, I guess. Strict, like I said, in any case. We rounded up about fifteen boys during multiple calls out to the neighborhood and I know we didn't catch them all. Every once in a while we hear that one or two have come back to the house from wherever they ran off to, but they don't stick around. There's nothing left worth staying for."
Edward felt dizzy. It added up—a lot of it added up. But— "Boys? Just boys?"
"Just boys," Tommy confirmed. "We never found any girls."
"How did he get them? Where did they come from?"
Tommy shrugged. "That's an excellent question," he said. "Not from our foster system, that's for sure. All I know is, he didn't have legal custody of any of those boys. Maybe they were runaways, though some were pretty young for that, in my opinion. Maybe they were abandoned. Who knows? We were only able to find parents for two of the boys, and neither set was interested in taking their son back."
"Where are the boys now?"
Tommy shrugged. "A few are still in the foster system, I assume. Some ran away. A good portion are in lockup, either juvie or adult. I can't pretend to know the man's motivations for taking the boys, but whatever it was, he didn't do the greatest job at raising them. Most were literate, at least, but incapable in almost every other subject. They could do rudimentary arithmetic and they had the Bible pretty much memorized, but they had no grasp of modern history, politics, science—nothing. They were completely unprepared for the real world and incapable of living in it. If that's not a recipe for delinquency, I don't know what is."
Edward took a slow, deep breath. His chest squeezed tighter. So much of it fit, but Wisp was definitely a girl, not a boy. This Jeremiah Tucker only took boys. He exchanged a long look with Emmett.
"So, you see," Tommy went on, "the neighbors are understandably upset about another scandal. They're quiet people, and they just want to live their lives. They keep to themselves. Most of them knew there was a crazy preacher with a bunch of boys in his house, but they assumed they were foster kids. They had no idea he was doing anything illegal, and this is a pretty religious community. Even if they knew the kids didn't belong to him, they would have appreciated what he was doing."
"And nobody had anything to say about Gerandy?" Edward asked.
Tommy shook his head. "Nope. He kept to himself. The kids in the neighborhood said he'd patch up a skinned knee or whatever if they knocked on his door, but that was it. No claims of harassment or abuse. Little to no contact with the adults."
"And the preacher?" Emmett asked, glancing at Edward again. It was clear they were on the same page about that. "What about him?"
"None of the boys reported sexual abuse, if that's what you're asking. Most admitted that he did administer corporal punishment, but if he were their legal guardian he'd have the right to do so. In their eyes, from what I remember, he was quite strict and rarely kind, but they did not consider him abusive." He raised an eyebrow at Emmett. "What's the interest in our crazy dead preacher? Do you think he might have known your Jane Doe?"
"It's possible," Emmett said slowly, watching Wisp huddle in Edward's arms. "I'd like to show you something." One side of his mouth lifted in half a smile. "If I can remember any of my Bible, that is." He thought for a moment, then said, "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart."
Wisp peered at him for a long moment. Edward held his breath. She'd parroted Bible verses when Carlisle prompted her, but never for Emmett, and never in a situation like this, with a stranger watching, in a setting where she most definitely did not feel comfortable.
She swallowed, her graceful throat constricting for a moment. Those soft pink lips fell open, the lower one swollen from being chewed on. "...and lean not unto thine own understanding," she whispered after several seconds. "In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths."
"Good girl." Edward slid his fingers through her hair, hoping to soothe the troubled wrinkle between her eyebrows. "Good girl, that's enough."
"No girls?" Emmett said simply, watching the detective. "Are you sure?"
Tommy looked at Wisp for a long moment. "Come with me," he said finally.
They left the house, to Edward's relief. Dave, the beat cop, was waiting by the cars, and he lifted a hand in greeting.
"Dave, d'you have a key to the Tucker place?" Tommy asked. "I'd like to show these people."
"Sure do." The young cop stepped away from his car.
"Where are you going?"
He pointed to the woods. "There's a path leads right to the preacher's house. There's been no trouble in the neighborhood—no reason to move the cars."
Edward's chest tightened even further. The back of his neck was damp with cold sweat, and his hands were clammy as he held Wisp against him. The cool late afternoon air felt good against his skin, much better than the closed-up house, but his heart still hammered against his ribs unnaturally fast. He was glad Wisp was wrapped around him, her legs helping to hold herself up. Forcing air into his tight lungs, he stepped onto the wet grass behind Dave and squelched toward the woods.
Five minutes later, they emerged from an overgrown trail, into an unkempt yard. Tall, dead weeds littered what used to be flowerbeds, and a vegetable garden had grown to ruin. Edward recognized overgrown beet and broccoli plants, and the dead remnants of what used to be beans and peas. Close to the ground, choked with dandelions, the dark, glossy leaves of stubborn potato plants huddled.
Wisp whimpered in his arms.
"Are you okay, sweetheart?"
She hugged herself tightly against him. "Bad, Edward."
"I believe you." Nobody was too near, so he added, "And I love you."
She pressed close and did not cry, though he knew she didn't want to do this. Every breath she took, every movement of her body against his told him that much. He knew in his bones that this hurt her, but he also knew it was so, so important. They'd found her Doctor Gerandy, he had no doubt of that. And he suspected they'd also found the elusive "Father," too.
The house, when they came to it, was obviously abandoned. Derelict. Forgotten. Even so far from anything resembling a city, graffiti decorated the walls. Several windows were broken, jagged glass surrounding the blackness within. It was a large midcentury ranch, one level, sprawling and ugly, the mossy roof sagging badly. Edward was honestly surprised to see the door both intact and locked.
"No next of kin could be found when the preacher died," Dave said, fitting a key into the lock. "He owned the house outright, so no bank repossessed it. The county is supposed to deal with abandoned property but with the recession and all, they just don't have the budget." He shrugged and pushed the door open. The smell of mildew rushed out.
"So this place was left to rot," Emmett muttered. He peered into the darkness within and flicked a light switch experimentally. Nothing happened. Edward wasn't surprised.
"Basically," Tommy agreed.
"Is it safe to go in?" Edward hugged Wisp tightly. He wasn't risking her physical safety.
Dave shrugged. "I've been in a few times, to check on things. Don't want anyone setting up a meth lab or whatever, you know?"
"It'll be okay," Emmett said. "We won't stay long, I promise, Ed. We'll just look around."
Dave turned on a flashlight, and they stepped inside.
The place had been gutted, that much was clear. The kitchen cabinets were open, piping ripped to pieces for the worth of the metal. Someone had taken the refrigerator and the range, though Edward suspected they weren't worth much. Dishes littered the countertops and the floor, mostly broken. The pervasive, wet smell of mold was everywhere.
"Father," Wisp murmured. Her eyes were glassy, her expression almost dreamy in the dismal light that seeped through broken windows. She gazed at her surroundings, moving her head slowly, observing everything around her. She was remarkably calm, though Edward felt her little fists still clutching his shirt. "Father?"
She nodded to herself, almost as if she had expected that answer. "Home?"
"Your home is with me now, little Wisp. We're not leaving you here, I promise."
She brushed her nose against his in a soft, deliberate little nuzzle, then did something Edward never in a million years expected.
She loosened her grip on him and wiggled her body, asking to be put down.
"I don't know if that's such—"
"Put her down, Edward," Emily said softly. "Let her do this."
Aching, he did.
Wisp knelt on the old shag carpet, looking at the shadowed room. Black mold crept along the window frames, crawling deeper into the house, exposing the rot that surely lay within. Edward vowed to throw her jeans away as soon as possible. Washing them just didn't seem good enough after putting her down in this place.
"Father," she murmured, dropping to all fours. She slid along the filthy carpet, toward a couch backed against a wall. One cushion was missing, and Edward could see the white fuzz of mildew along one arm where water had obviously damaged the padding.
Wisp didn't try to climb on the furniture. Instead, she reached behind it with confidence, as if assured of what she would find. She felt around for a moment, then drew a faded blue vinyl mat, dusty and cobwebbed, out from between the couch and the wall. She pushed it down on the carpet in front of the couch and stared at it for a long moment. It looked like something that belonged in a preschool, maybe; Edward didn't know.
"Bed," she said. Her voice sounded almost...almost wistful.
"Shit." Emmett's voice was low, but irritated. "The camera keeps flipping from regular to night-vision; it doesn't like the low light in here. Where the fuck is the switch to change it manually?"
"Shut up," Edward snapped. He didn't give a fuck about Emmett's camera problems. "Wisp, sweetheart, that's not a bed."
"Bed," she repeated, turning to glance at him with her solemn little face. "Bed."
"Don't argue with her." Emily touched his arm. "Let her do this."
They followed Wisp down a dark hallway, Dave's flashlight the only illumination. She ignored rooms that had been clearly ransacked at some point—bedrooms with multiple bunk beds where the boys must have slept. A bathroom had suffered the same treatment as the kitchen, piping torn out for the value of the copper and other metals. The toilet was clogged and filthy, the liquid in the bowl a putrid greenish-brown. Wisp didn't give it a glance, moving instead to the door at the end of the hall.
It was locked. Wisp tugged at the knob, but it refused to give. She looked up at Edward with a pleading expression.
"This is where he was found," Dave said, glancing at the detective, then at Emmett. "We locked the room up after the investigation because of the biohazard, since no one was willing to pay for the forensic cleanup." He held up a key, but didn't fit it into the lock.
"Go ahead," Detective Singh said. "A few minutes won't hurt. Just watch the girl so she doesn't crawl into anything."
Edward held his breath as the door was unlocked and pushed open.
Instead of the putrid stench he feared, the room smelled mainly of decay, with a sweet, noxious undertone to it and the lingering whiff of some sort of chemical. A padded armchair, presumably where the body of Jeremiah Tucker had been found, was stained with something dark and moldy. Other than that, the room looked remarkably intact. Security bars on the two windows explained why. The rest of the house had been gutted, but not this room.
"Father," Wisp said. She did not attempt to crawl further into the room.
"What did he die from?" Emmett asked, panning the scene with his camera. "Just from being an old fuck?"
"Near as we could tell," Dave confirmed. "The ME said it was likely a heart attack. He was found right there. No signs of foul play, and none of the boys were ever implicated."
"Boys." Edward struggled to take a full breath. His chest kept squeezing tighter and tighter. "Why only boys? She obviously knew him."
"I really don't know. You're welcome to look through the files we took from here; they're all in our storage."
Edward looked around the room again, grateful when Wisp leaned her head softly against his leg. There was a large desk that dominated the space, and a small sitting area with the moldy armchair. A clunky old computer monitor, off-white and boxy, stood on the desk, but the tower was missing—presumably the police had taken it. There were several shelves full of books, and when he stepped closer to read the titles, they were all religious.
Wisp shifted away, crawling to the desk. Edward watched carefully as she pulled open the shallow, wide central drawer, exposing neat dividers full of pens, pencils, paperclips, and the like. Rummaging through with her delicate hands, she closed her fingers around something and brought it out into the beam of Dave's flashlight.
It was a switch—thin, flexible, wicked-looking. She scowled, sucked her lower lip into her mouth, and brought her fists together, bending the switch until it snapped. "Gone," she said, throwing the two broken halves to the floor with a measure of deep satisfaction. "Gone."
She reached back into the drawer and lifted the plastic dividers, scrabbling until she found a key hidden beneath them. With purpose, she palmed the key and headed for the door.
Edward followed without a word. Whatever she was doing, he wouldn't stop her. This was clearly something she needed to do.
They made their way down a different hall, and Wisp paused before another closed door. There was a deadbolt—odd for a door that did not lead to the outside—but it was clearly broken. She frowned and pulled at the knob, and the door opened to reveal what looked like a dark little closet. When Dave beamed his flashlight into the tight space, Edward saw a large wooden cross still hanging on the wall.
"God," Wisp murmured. "Pen-penance. Penance."
"We never found a key." Dave spoke equally softly. "Had to break the lock. The boys confirmed they'd be locked in here to kneel and pray as punishment."
"And they were hit." It wasn't a question. Edward had seen clearly what Wisp did to that switch. Tommy nodded anyway.
Wisp relinquished the key when Edward asked for it. He gave it to Dave, who slotted it into the broken deadbolt. It fit.
No one was surprised.
"Let's go," Emmett said after a minute. "It's getting dark. We can take a look at those records tomorrow, Ed, okay?"
Edward knelt next to Wisp. While the rest of the house was carpeted, the floor of this closet was bare wood. He couldn't imagine how it would have felt as a child, to be locked in here for who knew how long, forced to kneel, staring up at that cross or left in the dark with it. It surely wasn't the worst thing his Wisp had suffered, but it was bad enough.
"Wisp, honey." He touched her shoulder, and she turned to him with haunted eyes. "Hi, sweetheart. We're going to go now, okay? These people, they're gone. They're not part of your life anymore. You're going to go home with me, where you're safe and loved. You never have to worry about Father or Doctor Gerandy again."
"Yes," he confirmed, offering his arms. "Always your Edward."
A/N: If you're not reading my As Children After Play, it's getting close to the end! I'm so excited, it's been at least *whispers* two years!
Also, some of the Let's Do Anal contest entries are up! Read them at letsdoanal dot blogspot dot com. I miiiiight have co-authored one of them. ;-)