Disturbance

Jan Burke

Disturbance

Book 11 in the Irene Kelly series, 2011

For Kathryn Moriarty Killeen, who elegantly blends class and sass

ONE

Some people claim to be able to feel trouble coming, the way they might feel a storm approaching from a long way off. They sense a disturbance in the atmosphere, something stirs the hairs along the backs of their necks or makes them wary when old, slumbering injuries awaken and ache. My own sense of such things is not entirely reliable. Just as I am more likely to be caught in a downpour than I am to be the only one with an umbrella, trouble has blindsided me more often than it has announced its approach.

Hindsight being so sharp-sighted, when I look back on that June afternoon, I can say that my sixth sense, if it was working at all, was fully occupied by the distinct possibility that I would be out of a job within a few months. That didn’t make me different from ninety-nine out of a hundred of the country’s newspaper reporters.

So as I sat at my desk in the newsroom of the Las Piernas News Express, rewriting a city council story that wasn’t likely to excite anyone, my thoughts were taken up with trying to find a better angle on it. What I felt, when the phone on my desk rang, was not fear but irritation at the distraction.

“Kelly,” I answered, using my headset.

“Irene? Aaron Mikelson.”

Mikelson used to work for the Express, but he had moved up north to Sacramento several years ago. He covers California state government for a news service there, reporting on everything from the legislature to the prison system, and putting up with all the jokes about the inhabitants of both being similar.

“You hear about Nick Parrish?” he asked.

“No,” I said, and my next, exhilarating thought was He’s dead.

“You know he regained the ability to speak, right?”

“Yes.” During the first months after Nick Parrish had sustained head and spinal injuries, he had gradually recovered speech and movement in his hands and feet, though he wasn’t walking. The speech impairment had cleared up as the swelling from the head injury was reduced. That he had fully recovered his speech wasn’t news to me, and Mikelson knew that-he was the one who had let me know Parrish was asking about me at the time.

“You haven’t talked to him?”

“Nothing has changed in the last few years,” I said. “I have no interest whatsoever in talking to him or in hearing what he has to say.”

“He tried to sue you, right?”

For a stunned moment, I wondered if Mikelson could possibly believe that my only complaint about Nick Parrish was a frivolous lawsuit. Aloud I said, “Tried. The courts rejected the suits he filed against me and the paper, so after that… well, that was more than enough of hearing from him.”

“Understood. He’s one sick bastard.”

“Yes,” I said, thinking that “sick bastard” didn’t come close to describing Parrish. Mere words couldn’t draw a line around him and hold the monster he was within.

“You know about the Moths?”

I sighed. “His online fan club? Yes. Almost too predictable that some group like that would form, right? If the Internet has given us anything, it’s some idea of how much psychosis goes undiagnosed.”

“Amen.”

“Look, Aaron, you cover a prison beat, so you know how this goes. Parrish has doubtless had a dozen marriage proposals, too.”

“That’s true. I don’t claim to understand it. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure out why anyone would want to marry a serial killer. How could anyone ignore what he did to those women before he killed them? And not just women, right?”

Images I’d rather not recall started flashing through my mind.

Body parts scattered over a rain-drenched field.

Parrish shoving my face into the mud, nearly suffocating me.

Photos of one of his victims found in the grave he had forced her to dig.

I could hardly concentrate on what was going on around me. As if from a great distance, I heard Mikelson’s voice in the headset. I was vaguely aware that he was saying something more about the women who wanted to marry Parrish. Asking me if I had read anything on the Moths’ blog or social networking pages lately.

I swiveled my chair, stood up, and looked out across the newsroom.

A normal Monday afternoon. Everyone else bent over their keyboards or on the phone, working toward deadline. Far fewer reporters than I would have seen even a year ago, but a normal day for these times. I took a deep breath.

As the rush of memories faded, my brain kicked into gear. Mikelson had news about Parrish, and Parrish wasn’t dead, or he would have told me that right off the bat. He wasn’t speaking of him in the past tense.

I thought about hanging up, letting voicemail catch the call if he called back, leaving my colleagues to wonder why I ran out of the building looking as if I had the devil on my tail.

I let the breath out, told myself to get a grip. I sat down again, turned to face the computer.

“Anyway,” Mikelson was saying, “you may not know this, but when he was first injured, the doctors didn’t realize he had something called central cord syndrome-they thought he’d be tetraplegic. But then some spine specialists were called in, and they started treating it differently. They stabilized his neck. He was on anti-inflammation drugs, and they did several surgeries. Then there was a long process of rehab.”

“Look, Aaron, I really don’t-”

“He’s walking.”

“Walking?”

“Yes. On his own. And not just walking-he’s got full use of his limbs, with very few limitations. Apparently the type of injury he had is one of the few that have such a good prognosis. His doctor says that, for his age, he was unusually fit. And he was incredibly determined, really worked hard. I guess the trickiest thing was this last surgery on his neck. They’ve kept his progress under wraps, waiting to see how he did after the surgeries, and with the rehab.”

“Oh?” I managed to say.

I looked down at my hands. My fingers were shaking. I pressed them against my cheeks. It was like sticking my face in a bowl of ice.

“Yes. His docs say he’s doing much better than most patients his age.”

I stayed silent. This time, Mikelson noticed it.

“You okay?”

“No,” I said. I tried again to marshal my thoughts. “Um-this isn’t an interview, is it, Aaron?”

“Jesus, Kelly. No. Just a friend calling a friend.”

I apologized.

He said not to worry about it, then added, “Listen, later, if you’d be willing-”

I bit back a few choice phrases. “I’ll have to talk to my editor about it.” But the anger was good. It drove off some of the panic.

“Sure. Sure.” He paused. “Look, Parrish isn’t going anywhere, even if he can walk-now that he’s finished rehab, he’ll be transferred out of the prison hospital and into maximum security.”

“Of course,” I said.

“I keep thinking about that guy who lost his leg because of him. The forensic anthropologist-what was his name?”

“Ben. Ben Sheridan.” God. I’d have to tell Ben.

“Yeah, that’s right. I mean, how ironic is it that he’s not walking and Parrish is?”

“Ben walks just fine,” I said, unable to keep the anger out of my voice. “He lost part of one leg below the knee, but he’s got a prosthesis. He leads an active life. In fact, he’s still helping to put away assholes like Nick Parrish.”

Mikelson paused just long enough to let me know my reaction had surprised him, then said a little too brightly, “That’s great. Glad to hear it-I mean that. So he’s doing okay. Maybe I’ll try to give him a call.”

I shut up again, thinking of how unhappy Ben was going to be with me if Mikelson called him. Aaron could have looked up the information he needed anyway, but I had made his work a little easier, and I wasn’t happy with myself for that.

“There was a partner, right?” Aaron asked. “The original Moth. Parrish’s partner is still in the slammer, right?”

“Yes.” I left it at that, my resentment rising a notch. He knew damned well that Parrish’s accomplice, who had helped him escape and lured victims into his grasp, was serving an LWOP sentence-life without possibility of parole.

Aaron isn’t stupid. He knew he needed to stop pushing if he wanted my cooperation down the road. So he changed the subject and asked me about mutual friends and former Express employees, and caught me up on news of a couple of people I knew at the Sacramento Bee. Eventually, he said, “Sorry if I upset you about Parrish. Just thought you should know. And you’ll let me know first if John cuts you loose to talk to other media?”

“Sure. Thanks for the heads-up.”

I called Ben Sheridan’s cell but got his voice mail. The outgoing message said he was away and out of cell phone range but would be returning late Tuesday. Leave a message.

I decided I couldn’t leave this news of Parrish as voice mail, so I simply asked Ben to give me a call when he got back to town. I hung up, wondering if Mikelson was already in the process of tracking him down.

Calling Ben had forced me to collect my thoughts. My blood might be running cold, but I still had enough ink in my veins to realize that this was a breaking st ...

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