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It had been a two and a half weeks since the brutal slayings of Sherry Phillips, Maria Melendez, and Karen Shephard, two and a half weeks since Jessica Porter had been rushed to University Hospital with multiple stab wounds and had slipped into a coma. It had been two and a half weeks and they were nowhere closer to finding out who was responsible.
That simple fact ate away at Nathan. He had been doing this a long time and never before had a murderer who left behind absolutely no clues. The house had been thoroughly combed and searched. He had talked to numerous people who knew all four women. And still, he was coming up empty.
Sherry, Maria, and Karen had all three been laid to rest this past weekend, their bodies finally being released from the coroner. The services had been heartbreaking, as he had attended all three. Fathers, mothers, siblings, and distant family and friends mourned for the lives that were taken so suddenly and brutally. There was no closure for the families of the slain victims because there was no one to blame. And the way it was looking, if Jessica Porter didn’t recover, they would never know who was responsible.
Nathan had questioned the victims’ family and friends, had come up blank every time. None of them could tell him anything that was useful. He didn’t know why he assumed that they would know anything anyway. But something Mike had told him made his mind work overtime. He had said that there had to be more than one perp and the women had to have known who the men were. Mike had a valid point. There was no evidence of forced entry and it would have been nearly impossible to take on three women alone without some sign of struggle. So, now the question was how many perpetrators were there.
There was also the fact that the three women and been drugged and boozed, the affect of the sedatives and the alcohol certainly impairing their judgment. The victims had no clue what was happening to them until it was too late.
Nathan shook his head as he sat back against the cushion of his worn sofa, pressing his fingertips to his eyes. He had stared at pictures and files for so long, his head was pounding. Each time he glanced over his own written notes and compared them to the actual facts, he seemed to still be missing something.
Nathan read through his notes on the women again, from their jobs to their personalities.
Sherry Phillips was a daycare teacher who worked four days a week with three year olds. She had had a string of relationships, none that had lasted more than a few weeks. Her friends and family described her as ditzy, yet remarkably intelligent. They had said that she had a sweet side but could be temperamental and sulky.
Maria Melendez worked as an exotic dancer in a strip club over in Hartsville, a mere thirty-minute drive from Deatsville. She had come from a broken home. Her mother was an alcoholic who was verbally abusive and her father had taken Maria’s brother back to South America with him. Maria had stayed behind with her mother because when the family fell apart, she only had two years in high school left and wanted to graduate with her friends. Her acquaintances called her a bitch that was so self-involved that she couldn’t see anything beyond her own narrow vision.
Karen Shephard was described as the homecoming queen who seemed to hold so much promise in high school and turned out to be a waitress at Denny’s. She had passed on college to stay behind and marry her childhood sweetheart. But the day before her wedding, she found the groom in bed with the maid of honor. She was described as na´ve, yet jaded, having been scarred by the circumstances of her life.
Then, there was Jessica Porter. She was the one that seemed to have everything together. She had attended college at UNC in Chapel Hill and then moved back to Deatsville to be close to her sick grandmother. The girl had taken a two-year hiatus from school before starting back at Hilliard University with the intention of getting her masters degree in Literature. She didn’t really date, didn’t seem to have any time for men period. Although she had been in a few scattered relationships here and there, all she had insisted stay platonic.
All four women had gone to high school together, had been really close growing up. Despite their differences, they had remained close over the years and after Eugenia Wolfe’s last stroke and her voluntary admittance to Stoneybrook Manor, Jessica had asked the three girls to move into the house with her, pay her minimal rent in order to take care of the overwhelming bills that continuously piled up.
Leaning forward, Nathan reached for the remote control and clicked on the television, hitting the play button for the VCR. With his arms resting on his thighs, he watched the video again, probably for the hundredth time.
He needed to get into the lives of these four women, delve into their unknown world. Nathan knew that would be the only way he could put even the smallest dent in solving their mystery.
The video began to play. Jessica Porter was driving the car while Maria and Sherry sat in the back seat singing along with the radio, which left Karen holding the video camera. Nathan sat back and watched.
“So, tell me Miss Jess… are we there yet?” the voice behind the camera asked in a teasing voice.
Jessica Porter shook her head and laughed, a smile upon her face that illuminated her stunning features. “You ask me that again, I’m going to strangle you.”
The woman behind the lens laughed. The camera left Jessica’s face and focused on the two women in the backseat, their coloring such a contrast to one another, one light skinned with red hair and the other one dark skinned with black hair. They were both singing off tune at the top of their lungs to the song that was playing on the radio.
Jessica’s voice could be heard in the background, laughing. “Okay ladies, knock it off. I think you’ve tortured us enough.”
The redhead known now as Sherry Phillips pouted. “What are you trying to say?”
“I’m not trying to say anything. I’m telling you straight out. Don’t quit your day job,” Jessica teased.
“Hey… my kids love it when I sing to them,” Sherry retorted.
“Yeah, well they’re three years old. They love it when Barney sings to them. What the hell do they know?” Jessica returned cynically.
Karen, behind the camera, began her own pathetic rendition of the beloved Barney song, causing everyone in the car to laugh but Sherry.
“You all suck!” Sherry protested.
“Hey, Jess,” Karen’s voice shouted over the laughter.
“Tell Hall and Oats in the back seat ‘the story’.”
The camera fell back on Jessica, the wind from the window lifting her ponytail. “No,” she chuckled.
“What story?” Maria insisted.
“Yeah, what story?” Sherry chimed in.
“Come on,” Karen pushed, her voice a long drawn out whine.
“Okay, okay. Yesterday, I was turning in my paper to Professor Gideon.”
“Is that the really hot one?” Maria asked.
“No,” Sherry replied. “Professor Taylor is the good looking one.”
“Gideon is the creepy one,” Karen clarified for everyone.
“So anyway,” Jessica continued, “we were discussing the romantic symbolism in many of the female poets of the nineteenth century, and out of nowhere, Chad, the T.A. came in.”
“Now, Chad is the one you have a crush on?” Sherry asked.
“Yes,” Jessica nodded. “Well, we started talking and the guy kept staring at me funny. I kept babbling and babbling and he just kept on smiling. I thought, ‘hey, this guy is really interested’. Right? So, he said he had to run and I left and went to the bathroom. When I looked in the mirror and started checking my teeth, I had a big piece of lettuce hanging right there for all the world to see.”
The girls burst out in laughter, causing Jessica to moan and giggle herself.
“I’ve had the same thing happen to me,” Maria offered.
“Oh yeah?” Jessica prompted.
The camera fell on Maria’s face. “Yeah. I was dancing one night at the club and I did one of my famous splits in front of a patron. He kept looking at my crotch with this funny grin on his face. It wasn’t until after my number when I went into the dressing room and found out I had a small piece of toilet paper hanging from my…”
“Oh God!” Karen roared.
“Um, Maria… that’s not quite the same thing,” Jessica replied.
The car was noisy for a moment as the girls all laughed again.
Finally, Sherry leaned forward and tapped Jessica on the shoulder. “Hey, I think Cam was a little sad to see you go today.”
The camera veered back to Jessica. She grimaced as she glanced at the camera, and then put her hand over the lens to cover it. The camera pulled away, remaining trained on Jessica.
“I think he has a crush on you,” Karen taunted.
“I think he’s got more than a crush,” Maria chimed in from the back seat. “That man has a permanent hard on when you’re around.”
Jessica just shook her head and glanced over at the camera before focusing her eyes on the road again. “Would you three just stop!”
“What’s wrong with you, is all I want to know?” Sherry asked, her voice filled with jealousy. “Cameron dotes after you like a love struck teenager. He’s obviously in love with you. And you constantly pretend like you don’t know it.”
“Yeah,” Karen piped in from behind the camera. “I mean, Cameron is a good looking guy and he’s sweet and he’s totally devoted to you. What more do you want?”
“I don’t expect for your three to understand this considering that none of you have ever been in a relationship that lasted longer than three days, but…”
“Come on, Jess,” Sherry taunted. “You can’t still be hung up on that guy from Chapel Hill.”
Jessica didn’t speak for a long time, stared off in the distance as if her mind had wandered to somewhere else before she answered. “Josh and I are over. I know this. He knows this. There’s nothing left to say.”
“But why are you two over is the real question?” Sherry asked.
The camera remained trained on Jessica, the expression on her face unreadable. “Have you ever known someone that just seems like they’re perfect for you in every way and yet, there’s absolutely no attraction whatsoever?”
“No,” Maria jested playfully.
Jessica shook her head. “As flawless as Josh was, and as perfect as we seemed for one another, there was just something missing.”
“You’re hopeless,” Karen sighed. “What you want is the whole frigging fairytale. But, honey, prince charming doesn’t exist.”
“I don’t want prince charming. I just want to be with a man that makes me feel weak from head to toe,” Jessica explained.
“And Cameron doesn’t do that for you?” Maria asked.
“Nope. In fact, I haven’t met a man yet that does that for me. Who knows? I probably never will.”
The rest of the video basically played out like any other, odds and ends from their vacation. But Nathan wasn’t paying attention. He was busy scribbling notes down on a piece of paper. Josh in Chapel Hill… that was someone he needed to check out. While he was at it, it wouldn’t hurt to look into Chad, the T.A. But how could he without last names?
He knew just the person to ask. Cameron Demauro. He had said that he had been there through all of Jessica’s boyfriends. If anyone knew who this mysterious Josh was, Cameron was the man. And as far as Chad, he would only have to go to Professor Gideon’s class and meet the teaching assistant in person.
A tinge of pity surged through him for Cameron Demauro. How hard it had to be for that man, being in love with a woman and not having it reciprocated. He was probably the shoulder she had cried on through her ups and downs, the one she told all of her deep dark secrets to, the one she shared her dreams with. And while Cameron was pining for her, in love with her, she thought of him as her best friend, loved him like a brother.
Nathan glanced back up at the television and hit pause on the remote. Dancing before him was the image of Jessica Porter, smiling as the wind whipped through her long waves of hair. Her sky blue eyes were glittering in the sunlight, her tanned and toned body encased in a very flattering bikini. He had to admit, the more he delved into the life of this woman, the more he was beginning to become infatuated with her himself.
From everyone he had spoken to, he had learned that she was always quick with smiles and laughter, always had nothing but kind words for everyone that passed by her. She was a friend to everyone she had met, making sure that she went out of her way to do little things for those that she was close to.
Most of the women both from Jessica’s classes and her work adored her, admired her, and strived to be just like her. And all of the men admitted to having a crush on her. Hell, Nathan had never met the woman and found himself inexplicably drawn to her. She was something of a mystery.
She spent all day in school and then went to work at a fulltime job every evening. And on the weekends when she should have been out enjoying life, she’d spend all day Saturday and half a day on Sunday visiting her sick grandmother in the nursing home and volunteering at the Bradbury Orphanage on Sunday afternoon. She was the epitome of perfection, almost too good to be true in every sense. Yet all of those things drew him to her, made him want her to live for more than the obvious reason.
He needed her to live so that she could tell them all what had happened that fateful night. He wanted her to live so that he may have a chance to meet the enigma, the woman he was beginning to know so well without having spoken one word to her.
Suddenly, the phone rang, echoing loudly in the silence, bringing Nathan out of his deep thoughts. He reached behind him and grabbed the receiver, placing it to his ear. “Benson.”
“You’re never going to believe this!” Mike nearly shouted.
“Jessica Porter… she just woke up.”
* * * *
Eugenia Wolfe watched in silence as the woman clad in navy blue scrubs opened her milk and cut her meat into tiny pieces that she could actually eat. It was such a belittling experience to be treated like a child, the way most of the workers there at the nursing home unintentionally handled her. She was eighty-two years old and she couldn’t even go to the bathroom on her own. Waking up and getting dressed in the morning seemed like a routine, a waiting game until someone could find the time to make it to her room and wash her from head to toe. Her day revolved around breakfast, lunch, and dinner… getting dressed, going to the bathroom, and sitting in her wheelchair staring blankly out the window. Her mind was still with her, but the stroke had left her verbally handicapped, unable to speak for the words were formed in her brain but unable to leave her mouth. She felt like a captive in her own body, incapable of communicating with the outside world.
It had been this last stroke that had woken her in the middle of the night merely five days ago that had taken away her power to talk. The feeling had come on out of nowhere, had taken a hold of her and hadn’t let go. She refused to go to the hospital, knowing full and well that no hospital could help her now. As long as she was still in her right frame of mind, lacking in verbal consent or not, she had the right to make her own decisions. And going back to the hospital was a choice she had opted to decline.
The female nurse’s aide patted her on the back and offered her an encouraging smile to which Gene was thankful for, yet powerless to say as much.
“So, Gene, did you hear about those murders over in Deatsville?” the woman asked.
Gene simply shook her head, her blue eyes widening with the hope that the female aide named Samantha would continue.
“Yeah. Four girls were brutally stabbed. Three of them died and the other one is in a coma. The news report wasn’t giving any names, but said that they were all in their late twenties.” Samantha shook her head and made a clucking sound with her tongue. “It’s scary to think that there’s a murderer running loose in our neck of the woods. Deatsville is only a thirty minute drive from here.” Samantha stabbed a bite of pork with the fork and lifted it to Gene’s mouth. “You’re from Deatsville, aren’t you?”
Gene nodded, although she wanted more details, more information. Jessica hadn’t been in the last two weekends for her regular visit, hadn’t called, and Gene had been worried about her. Usually when her granddaughter couldn’t make it, which was very rare, she at least called. Then again, with the murders came the press hounds and Gene was sure that The Gazette was keeping Jessie busy.
“I thought so.” Samantha scooped up a spoonful of peas and offered them to
Gene. “When I was growing up, we never locked the doors to our house, our parents never worried about us going outside and playing. Now, children have to be watched every moment for fear that someone’s going to take them right out from under our noses. Remember that little girl that disappeared last November right from her own backyard? It scares me to think what kind of people are out there. And now… a triple murder. I’m afraid to walk out alone to get in my car anymore.”
Samantha placed a straw in the milk carton and lifted it to Eugenia’s mouth. “I’m telling you, I think I’m going to go buy a gun. If someone comes to my house and tries to hurt me or my daughter, I’m not going down without a fight.”
Gene pushed the straw out with her tongue and pursed her lips, trying to form words where no words could be formed. Getting frustrated with herself, she pushed the tray off of the table, spilling the food and contents in the floor.
Samantha took a step back, placing her hands on her hips and staring down at the mess in the floor. Then, her eyes found Gene’s, a heartening smile lifting her lips. “I know this is hard, honey. Just give it some time. Pretty soon, we won’t be able to get you to shut up.” Samantha turned on one heel. “Let me go get some towels and a broom.”
Gene watched the aide walk out of the room before dropping her head back against the pillows. Imprisoned in her own mind, incapable of producing intelligible words… she just assumed die at this point. What did she have to live for? Then… the self-pity dissolved as she realized there was a reason to live. Jessica.
Jessie had been her salvation for all of these years; from the moment she entered her house until this very day. Her granddaughter was her reason to live, to go on. Because when it all came down to it, Eugenia knew that Jessie would do great things with her life, had already accomplished so much. And she had promised her that she would be there in the front row when she received her Master’s degree, cheering her on. Eugenia Wolfe never made a promise that she didn’t keep.