Excerpt: You Fit the Pattern
Heather Burns coiled her perfectly highlighted blond hair into a tight bun and frowned as she gave her face a brutal inspection in the mirror of her parked yellow Range Rover.
Dissatisfied with her appearance, Heather pulled the skin back from the corners of her jawline and took in the wistful reminder of what she used to look like when age meant nothing because the onset of its ravages hadn’t yet struck.
God, getting older really was the ultimate bitch, the thirty-nine-year-old thought and scanned the empty parking lot of Mayberry State Park in Northville, a suburb of Detroit, where she and her teenage daughter, Carly, lived.
Heather gave up on her face momentarily and spun around to the backseat to make sure she remembered the four find your new home here! signs dotted with cheerful red-house emojis for her nine am open house, her day’s next order of business after her early-morning run. Satisfied when she spotted the signs poking out from underneath her briefcase, Heather took to the rearview mirror to resume her search for any new wrinkles.
She needed new headshots for her latest batch of business cards and beat her French-manicured fingernails against the dashboard as she fretted over the stone-cold fact that a pretty face sold more houses and raked in bigger commissions. She had learned early on that looking good was a job requirement for a successful Realtor. And Heather had already bore catty witness to a younger crop of thinner and blonder girls already jockeying at her RE/MAX office for a chance to snag her clients.
Heather dug her hand deep inside her bag and retrieved a business card her friend had given her over drinks at a downtown Detroit bar during a recent girls’ night out. Heather studied the phone number on the card and recalled how her friend swore to her with the enthusiasm of an infomercial host that if Heather just made an appointment, she’d feel so much better about herself. Presto chango, renewed self-esteem courtesy of a couple syringes of Botox and assorted fillers stuck in her face.
Heather tossed the card back in her bag and decided she’d stick with her crow’s-feet. At least for now.
The sharp bite of the early-October Michigan morning hit Heather as she exited the Range Rover and she began to shiver. Heather worked through her usual series of stretches and felt a renewed pang of guilt for giving Carly a new phone. Her daughter had ultimately worn her down, complaining about the sheer humiliation of being the only person in her group that had a flip phone. Carly had hammered home the injustice that even elementary-school kids had iPhones, and there she was, a ninth grader, forced to use a relic.
Carly was a good girl, a straight-A student, and a solid athlete who excelled on her county-rec baseball and soccer league teams, despite the grenade Heather’s dad had thrown into their lives after he walked out on his family to take up with a pharmaceutical sales rep he met at his physician’s practice. After her ex had bailed on his latest weekend with Carly, Heather had caved on the phone as some sort of half-baked consolation prize to make her daughter feel better.
She was sure her good girl would never abuse the privilege of the phone. But three weeks later, Heather soon learned that phones with cameras where images could be quickly snapped and texted to boys or girls who fluidly changed their allegiance of friendship in a teenage hormonal nanosecond were dangerous toys, not modern-day commodities for kids to communicate.
One stupid slip of judgment and the selfie of Carly in her underwear had spread like wildfire around the school. But Heather would make it right. She hated confrontation and usually choked under pressure, her voice melting into a quaking stutter when she had to face down a hostile encounter. But this was for her little girl, so Heather had made an appointment to talk to the principal after the open house.
Moms would go to any length for their kids.
A cool gust of wind sent the fall leaves scattering like a swirl of bright copper pennies across the ground. Heather ignored her chattering teeth and took a quick glance at her watch: 6:00 am. Her Range Rover was still the only car in the parking lot. But Heather wasn’t worried about running alone. The park was an old friend, one that she had discovered during her sophomore year of high school when she first ran track. A sad smile played on her lips as she recalled the state record she set senior year for the eight-hundred-meter race, a crowning residual jewel she sometimes pulled out as a reminder of a time when she believed the world was brimming with endless possibilities just waiting for her with a beckoning hand.
Glory days, baby.
Heather’s feet found their pace as she started her run. She completed her first loop around the lake, the one-mile mark of her four-mile run, and pushed herself faster and harder for her second round.
Running for Heather was like meditation. Her mind was usually clear of any worries or regrets when she ran, and the sound of her sneakers slapping against the pavement was soothing white noise, a temporary respite from memories of her last date with her ex-husband who announced over a plate of shared pasta puttanesca that he wanted a divorce.
She discovered later that his new lady was at the restaurant waiting for him, watching the scene unfold from a seat at the bar.
Heather felt the tears come, but she forced herself not to cry. She was fine. Just fine.
The sun crested its way up to the top of the tree line and Heather checked her watch again: 6:45. Time to head home for a quick shower and to make Carly lunch before she went to school. Heather slowed her pace to a fast walk and made her way back to the empty parking lot, where she spotted another vehicle cutting around the corner, breaking her solitude.
As the car got closer, Heather could see that it was an older-model tan Buick driven by a gray-haired woman, who gave Heather a quick, friendly wave with a mittened hand as she passed. The Buick stopped at the other end of the park by the duck pond, where Heather frequently saw a group of people from the senior center do tai chi.
Heather did her usual routine and headed to the public restroom before she left the park. She always downed a large bottle of water before she ran, so the women’s room was her final stop before her twenty-minute car ride home.
The door to the women’s room creaked as she opened it. Heather hurried inside, grabbed a handful of brown paper towels from a dispenser near the sink so she wouldn’t have to touch the icky bathroom door handle, and entered the stall closest to the door.
Heather began to come up with her strategy on how she could steady her nerves during her meeting with Carly’s principal, when the bathroom door opened, the rough screak, screak, screak of its hinges sounding like a rusty nail being dragged across the floor.
Plodding footsteps thumped past Heather and then a stall door banged shut on the far side of the room.
Heather flushed the toilet with the toe of her sneaker and approached the sink. She did a quick look in the mirror and saw the reflection of someone’s feet planted underneath a stall. The wearer had on a set of black orthopedic shoes and tan pantyhose that poked out from the elastic bottom of a pair of gray sweatpants, the outfit likely belonging to the older lady in the Buick, Heather figured.
Heather finished washing her hands and decided to slip a note in Carly’s lunch box before she left for work, letting her daughter know she loved her and that everything was going to be all right. Something along the lines of “I know this all seems terrible now, but it will be okay. I promise.”
“Oh no,” a woman’s voice creaked. Heather turned to see a roll of toilet paper drop onto the floor from inside the occupied stall and then make a slow crawl in her direction, the tissue unwinding in a wide stripe until it abruptly stopped and landed on its side next to the garbage can.
Heather started to move to the door, thinking she had to hurry if she was going to get Carly to school on time, but stopped when she realized she needed to do the right thing.
“Are you okay?” Heather asked.
“Just old age,” the woman answered with a dry laugh. “I have arthritis and my hands don’t work as well as they used to. Can you hand me the roll if it’s not a bother?”
“Sure,” Heather said. Something in the woman’s voice niggled in the back of Heather’s head, but she quickly moved on to the upcoming open house, hoping to God she’d get some actual prospects instead of the neighborhood looky-loos who usually showed up.
She carefully picked up the toilet paper, thinking how gross the outer layer was, since it rolled its way across God knows what was teeming on the gray cement floor. She wound a few loops of tissue off until the spots of wetness and dirt were gone and then shoved the wad of soiled tissue into the garbage.
“Here you go,” Heather said. She bent down and reached her hand up under the woman’s stall.
“Thanks so much, Miss Burns.”
The thin chime of a warning bell went off inside Heather over the sound of her name being spoken so intimately by the stranger.
Heather tried to quickly retract her arm from under the stall door, but the vise grip of an unseen hand latched itself around her wrist.
“Hey! What is this?” Heather cried out. “Let go!”
The lady was senile, she had to be, Heather reasoned as she fought to keep her balance from her crouched position and free her hand, figuring the old woman inside the stall would be no match for her. Heather reared backward to try and break away, but her arm was pulled forward with such force, Heather was sure it would rip out of the socket.
“Help! Please! Somebody help me!”
Heather felt a second hand wrap around her forearm and she pitched forward, slamming her face into the gray stall door.
A sharp pain pulsed like a jackhammer from her nose as Heather’s thoughts screamed out to her, Don’t give up, can’t give up! She started to cry and wondered how this old woman could be so strong.
“Please, I have money in my car. And my credit cards. You can have them. Just let me go.”
An unexpected surge of hope spread through Heather as her attacker released their grip and Heather’s arm slipped free.
This was her chance. She knew she needed to run, to get out of the confined space as fast as she could. But Heather Burns, the queen of choking under pressure, kept her title and froze in place as the stall door banged open.
Her attacker ran a large hand across their mouth, leaving a smeared trail of bright pink lipstick down their chin. Heather slowly crabbed her body toward the door and spotted the tendrils of a gray wig spilling out from a small trash can in the back of the stall.
Two minutes too late, Heather realized she made a critical mistake by ignoring the off-sound of the woman’s voice as a tall, well-built man with sandy-blond, short-cropped hair and a smile so wide, it almost split his face, exited the stall and loomed over her.
“Don’t fight,” the man said. “It’s going to be much easier if you just give up.”
“Please, I’ll give you my money. You can have everything. I swear.”
“I don’t want money,” the man said. He pulled out a folding knife from underneath a bulky dark blue sweatshirt and snapped open its six-inch blade. “On your stomach. Now.”
Heather felt a sickly panic move through her as she stared at the weapon, which had a green-fatigue, military-like handle and a black blade with an inch of serrated teeth by its base.
The man was going to rape her. She was sure of it. She closed her eyes and wondered if it would be better if he just killed her instead.
“On your stomach, I said.”
Heather thought of her daughter, who would be waking up for school about now and wondering where her mother was. She mustered a reticent nod, knowing she needed to do anything to get back home, and flipped over on her stomach in a prone position.
She shook as she waited for the man to pull off her running shorts. But he reached for her hands instead, roughly pulling them behind her back and then binding her wrists together with something that felt to Heather like hard plastic that bit into her skin.
“Let’s go,” the man said, and pulled her up. “We’re going to take a ride.”
Heather had stopped trying to find the emergency release latch in the trunk of the Buick, where the man had stuffed her. After realizing the car was an older model and didn’t have a release pull, she had resorted to pounding her feet against the top of the trunk in a futile effort to get it open.
During the beginning of what Heather thought was so far a thirty-minute ride, she could hear what she decided was city traffic. But for the past ten minutes, the honks and revved engines of aggressive Detroit commuters had ebbed and all Heather heard now was the Buick’s wheels humming underneath her as she sat, crammed in a fetal position in complete blackness.
The Buick came to a sharp stop and Heather tried to scramble to come up with a flight plan. She cursed herself for not leaving Carly a note to tell her where she was jogging, so her daughter could call the police with a location when Heather didn’t come home.
Daylight flooded the Buick as the trunk swung open, and Heather squinted to see her attacker looming over her.
“If you try to run, I’ll kill you,” her abductor said, and flashed his ugly black and camouflage-green knife from the pocket of his sweatshirt, as if Heather really needed a reminder.
Heather could smell the sour musk of the man’s sweat not quite masked under his cologne when he pulled her out of the trunk. He wrapped his arm around her waist, and Heather felt the dampness of his sweatshirt on her back.
Heather took a quick mental snapshot of her unfamiliar surroundings to come up with an escape route if she could get away. The Buick was parked on a desolate side street next to an old brick church that looked like it was about to crumble. A sliver of the remote Detroit skyline was visible from the side of the church, which meant the man had likely driven them to one of the city’s run-down, left-for-dead neighborhoods that skirted Detroit. What that meant to Heather was the likelihood of anyone stumbling by to help her was going to be as likely as her winning the lottery or getting crowned Miss America.
“Move,” the man whispered in her ear.
In lockstep, the two entered the abandoned church. The depressing, cavernous space was littered with a few ruined leftovers of the church’s likely golden era when parishioners filled its now-gutted pews. A splintered, keyless organ lay hangdog on its side in the middle of the aisle, and what was left of a broken stained glass image of Jesus on the cross framed the rear wall of the church.
Heather shivered when she reached the end of the aisle, where someone had tagged I love weed in black graffiti letters, and she turned slowly around. She did a quick mental picture of the man’s face so she could describe him to the cops if she was able to get free, and was struck by the odd realization that the man who abducted her was good-looking.
“Please. I have a daughter.”
“No, you don’t. You have two sons.”
“You’re wrong! This is some kind of mistake.”
“No mistake. But you’re not right yet. I need to fix you.”
The man pulled out his knife, reached behind Heather, and sliced apart the twist ties. He then dug into a green-fatigue duffel bag and pulled out a long, dark wig and a piece of blue clothing.
“Put these on.”
“Jesus, what is this?” Heather cried.
The man looked through Heather as if she weren’t there. “I’ll dress you.”
Heather screamed and her voice echoed through the lonely belly of the church, a haunted cry to no one, as the man carefully arranged the dark wig over her blond hair. He took his time and teased out a few long strands so they cascaded down to the tops of her breasts.
“Better. But still not right. Put the dress on.”
“Will you let me go if I do?”
The man continued to look through Heather and slid his tongue over his lips.
Heather grabbed the dress from his hands. She’d play along. He had to be a freak is all. If she just did what she was told, maybe he’d let her go. If he was going to kill her, he would’ve done it by now, Heather convinced herself. She looked at the piece of clothing she was supposed to wear. It was a bright blue dress, which was sleeveless, with a scooped neck, a fitted high waist, and an A-line skirt.
“Take off your shorts and shirt. It needs to be perfect,” the man said. He turned around as if to give Heather privacy so he wouldn’t see her in her underwear.
“Don’t look,” Heather said. She undressed and then pulled the garment over her head. “Okay. It’s on.”
The man cocked his head to the side as he took in his creation. He rearranged a few locks of the long, dark wig so they framed Heather’s face, and, seemingly pleased with himself, smiled.
“Size two. It fits you perfectly, just like I knew it would.”
“You’ve been watching me?”
“I’ve seen you running. You fit the dress, just like I thought.”
Heather shivered and tried to move backward and away from the man, but fumbled and tripped on a step that led up to the altar.
“She would’ve never done that,” the man said. “Don’t ruin it.”
“Who are you talking about? I don’t understand.”
The man grabbed Heather by the waist and drew her against his chest. Unable to hold it together anymore, Heather sobbed as her attacker began to sway with her in his arms.
“‘Hold me close and hold me fast … The magic spell you cast …’”
The man sang softly and tenderly in her ear. His voice hung on the last word, triggering a memory for Heather, something long ago and familiar. She worked it through her head, and caught an image of her eight-year-old self rummaging through the contents of her family’s garage and discovering her mother’s old jazz albums.
The name of the song and singer was on the tip of her memory when her attacker spun her around and then slit her throat in a single fast, deep cut.
Heather’s hand shot up to her neck in surprise. She tried to stop the bleeding, but there was so much of it and the laser-sharp pain was such that she had never felt before.
A strange wheeze came from her throat, like a child blowing a whistle, and she collapsed in front of the altar. She stared up at the splintered image of Jesus in the stained glass and was no longer able to fight off the truth.
She was dying.
Something warm and wet trickled from Heather’s mouth. She pictured Carly from a long-ago memory when her daughter was just two, her Carly laughing as her plump little legs poked out of a striped onesie, her little girl racing down the hallway of their house, with Heather trying to keep up from behind.
She tried to hang on to the image and block out the horror around her, but was still vaguely aware of her killer, huddled on the floor over a piece of paper, drawing while he hummed.
The man stood above her now, smiling and holding up the picture he had drawn, strange and intricate symbols in turquoise and red.
“Do you like it?” he asked, and beamed like he was showing her his masterpiece.
He then lifted up Heather’s left hand, slipped something inside it, and folded her fingers closed against her palm.
Heather struggled to take her last breaths as the man brushed his lips against her ear.
“We are one and the same, my Julia,” he whispered. “For now, write everything for me. Every single little detail.”
Julia Gooden eased up on the killer pace from her ten-mile dawn run when she reached her place of reprieve. The graveyard.
Julia pushed her way through the wrought-iron gates of the Sunset Hills Cemetery, the five-mile mark to her Rochester Hills home, and kept pounding forward. Her breath came hard and fast as she ran past the somber, neat rows of gravestones. The sun pierced through a nettle of trees in the distance and her sneakers left behind a tattooed dent in the dewy grass until she reached her destination in the back of the cemetery lot, away from the road and close to the peaceful solitude of the woods.
It was still there.
Julia smiled as she picked up the baseball she had left behind during her last visit. While most people brought the traditional bouquet of flowers or wreaths to remember their loved ones who had been laid to rest, Julia had carefully selected a ball with a New York Yankees insignia for her older brother, Ben.
Julia had been the only thing Ben had loved more than the Yankees during his nine short years spent on this earth. And he had tried to protect her until the very end.
Julia looked up to the gray sky and felt the familiar ache of loss and pain as a vivid image of Ben flashed through her memory like a bittersweet postcard from the little boy who promised he’d never leave her, not in a million years.
Three decades had passed, but sometimes when Julia was alone, she felt like her brother was still right beside her, with his jet-black hair, crooked smile, and red shirt, grabbing her hand as the two ran down the boardwalk to snatch a rare moment of happiness in their desperate young lives.
Julia bit the side of her mouth to keep herself from crying. She knew crying never did anyone any good or gave back what was taken.
Benjamin Gooden Jr. Julia ran her finger over Ben’s name on his gravestone and shivered as she thought about the one truth that had stayed with her: Nine-year-old boys should always find their way home.
Julia had finally turned off her front porch light three months earlier when Ben’s case had been solved. The lifelong ritual started when Julia was seven, the night Ben was taken from the room they shared. When she had returned from the police station, she hoped the light would help her brother find his way back home.
A tiny beacon in a tempest, like the hope that had somehow remained inside her. Even the cruel answer of what happened to her brother couldn’t snuff that out.
Ben would’ve wanted it that way.
Julia ran her fingers over the baseball’s red stitching and took hollow comfort in the fact at least she now had the answers that she had chased for the majority of her life. She knew from her experience as a crime reporter that many families never found out what happened to their kidnapped child. Some nights, after she put her children to sleep, Julia felt selfish when she wondered which outcome was less agonizing for those who were left behind.
A dozen dry, scattered leaves blew across Ben’s marker as a gust of a cool October wind kicked up. Julia swept the fall leaves away and then set the baseball back in its rightful place.
She did a quick look at her phone to check the time. Julia didn’t want to leave just yet, but she knew she’d need to hustle back home for a call with her New York book editor and her return to the newsroom following a three-month sabbatical to write a book about Ben’s abduction and how she was able to find his killer after thirty years.
Julia gripped Ben’s gravestone with a gloved hand and sprinted out of the cemetery to the road that would take her home. She ran past her oldest son Logan’s elementary school and wondered if anyone ever really got closure, especially when the hard-won answers were stuff of monsters and howling nightmares that no little child should ever have to endure.
The warmth and familiar smells of her home wrapped around Julia when she went inside. She knew she had to get moving, but still paused in front of her little boys’ bedroom, taking in the peaceful sight of her sleeping sons. Her three-year-old, Will, had migrated to Logan’s bed since she had first checked on them before her run. Logan, who had just celebrated his ninth birthday, lay cocooned in a ball, with his shiny black hair standing out against his Pokémon pillowcase. Her towheaded Will wore his favorite Captain America pajamas and was sprawled out at the foot of Logan’s bed.
Julia beat a quick path to her home office where she pulled up her manuscript in preparation for her seven am call with her book editor. She then clicked on her newspaper’s website to see if there were any updates on the story that she couldn’t let go.
Julia snapped the tip of her pink-and-gold Make it Happen pen against her desk in an inpatient rhythm as she tried to sift out the missing details on the dead woman. Julia dropped the pen and put her head closer to her computer screen, as if the proximity to the newspaper story about the single mother, April Young, age thirty-four, who was last seen jogging along the Detroit RiverWalk, would help her figure out what the cops didn’t tell the reporter who was playing babysitter on her beat.
Julia’s eyes ticked off the story’s bare-bones facts. April was a first-grade teacher and a mother of a six-year-old boy. Her body was discovered by a homeless man in an abandoned Catholic church in one of Detroit’s still-struggling neighborhoods. The coroner estimated the missing woman had been dead for several days before her remains were found.
It was a twelve-inch “just the facts, ma’am” kind of follow-up story, with no new details about the murder, no mention of possible suspects, or, at the very least, any color elements about April Young. Based on the scant facts, which were really nothing more than a rehashing of the first article that went live the day before, Julia figured the general assignment reporter didn’t have good sources in the cop shop to work. Either that, or the guy was too lazy to call the school where April worked or to track down any relatives to get quotes about April to include in the article. That was a no-brainer on a day-two story, even if the new reporter with the unfamiliar byline was fresh out of j school.
Julia could admit that she was as proprietary as a jealous lover about her beat of twelve years. But she had to concede on one point, the article had a hell of a land mine that the reporter, and subsequent editors, buried at the bottom when it should have been the lead: Police would not give specific details about the cause of April’s death, but they did confirm the crime appeared to be “ritualistic in nature.”
Julia studied the picture of the abandoned church that had run along with the photo of a smiling April from her elementary school’s yearbook. From her years on the beat, Julia knew what was on the other side of the yellow crime-scene tape that the police wouldn’t comment on could speak volumes about the killer. If he was ritualistic, as the cops indicated, the person who murdered April would be an organized planner who likely left his signature behind as a perverse clue, or a braggart’s calling card.
Julia envisioned a mental rolodex of the killers she had covered who fit easily into that category, including the Holly Hobby murderer, who had slaughtered six nurses during a three-month spree across the city one summer after the victims got off their swing shift. The police came up with the Holly Hobby nickname, since the killer wrote the initials HH on the dead nurses’ stomachs after he raped and then strangled them.
Julia clicked out of the story about the murdered runner and vowed she’d get answers from the police and would doggedly investigate what happened. April Young and her family deserved at least that.
Ready for more?
Continue reading by purchasing You Fit the Pattern from the following retailers: