“How was your bath?” I asked.
“Very nice.” She looked over the food. “I’ve missed your cooking.”
“I miss your cooking.” I said.
“What I miss most is cooking with you in our kitchen.” She said. “We collaborate well together.”
“Well, snap.” I said.
She picked up the wine glass and took a drink. “That’s quite delicious.”
“One of my readers was raving about it, so I picked up a bottle. I thought it might be good to serve at our reception.”
She dipped a potato chip into the cheese and seemed to like it. Then she served herself some of the tomatoes from Sissy’s garden. My phone rang with an unfamiliar number, but I had the feeling I should answer it.
“Mr. Christopher.” A man said on the other end. “I’m Aaron Ramierez and I’m an investigator with the Sheriff’s Department. “ He politely inquired if I might be available to discuss something. He even offered to come to my home instead of hauling me into their office. “
“What’s this all about?” I asked.
He reluctantly spoke the name of Wilma Crandall and said the investigation involved her.
“What the hell did she do now?” I said. And after a bit of discussion, I agreed to talk to him at my home in an hour.
When I ended the call, Martie said. “Guess I better get dressed. What the hell did you do?” I followed her into the bedroom explaining my crime spree while she dressed.
“She didn’t see you?” Martie asked.
“Not at all. Didn’t hear me either. I said nothing.”
“Why?” She asked. “What was the point. I thought we agreed to stop with all this.”
“I just wanted to keep her in check.” I said. “I wanted to frighten her.”
“Is it really worth the risk?” She demanded. “Did we not discuss this risk versus reward thing?”
“If someone hurt you like she hurt me, you’d want to hurt her back.” I said.
“Of course.” She said. “I get wanting it. You know what I want? I don’t want your ass to get arrested.”
“I won’t get arrested.” I said.
“I warned you about getting arrogant. I warned you were done with this vigilante crap. You are not the Masked Avenger.”
“I didn’t hurt her.” I insisted.
“Don’t play a semantics game with me, it makes you sound like a convict.” She pulled on a pair of jeans and zipped them and then grabbed a shirt. “But I guess that’s good practice for your inevitable future, if you’re going to play these kinds of games.”
I had been lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to get away with quite a lot lately. It was enough to make me wonder if God wasn’t on my side. That perhaps He didn’t mind my meting out a little vengeance on the worst people in the world. I suppose the tipping point for me was what happened to Martie. I was coping with own demons fairly well. Finally back on my feet and doing something with my life after close to fifteen years struggling to get past what went on in the Crandalls’ basement. I’d never even met Martie in person, only heard glowing reports of her from Don and Connie Vasquez. Martie had quite a talent for misleading sex predators online, able to convince them she was either a child or a fellow freak looking to make friends. She was so very good at her job at the FBI. Then it happened. She saw something so awful while video chatting with a monster in human form named John Evanovich that she literally lost her mind for awhile. A baby girl named Taran Summer Murphy murdered in front of her eyes while she watched half a continent away unable to do anything. Don was there as well, he managed to dispatch a SWAT team to the house; but it was too late. Martie was crumpled up on the floor screaming. Don had actually thrown up in a trash can. Martie was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for a few weeks and then on a disability leave from the FBI for months. That’s when I met her, when she was broken and terrified by the same sort of evil that had stolen so many years of my life away from me. And I saw her across a crowded room and knew she was the one for me. The worst possible time of her life and probably the worst possible person for her to be involved with. But I had seen the darkness and she did not have to worry about traumatizing me by speaking about what she’s experienced and how it made her feel. I just wanted to protect her. Then a couple of really bad men made the mistake of crossing her. And I could not abide that.
She had spotted a child killer named Greg Jefferies out at a restaurant with a woman her little girl. He’d been the prime suspect in the disappearance of a little girl named Hailey May. But no body had ever been found and no charges pressed. Martie had warned the unsuspecting woman and probably saved her daughter’s life. Greg had not taken it well; he called my sweetheart names and threatened her. That was unacceptable.
Martie felt she would never really be up to returning to work as a Special Agent with the FBI, but she had found lucrative employment with Merrimac Consulting giving seminars that helped law enforcement and other professionals identify pedophiles and protect children. At a seminar for parks and recreation employees, she’d spotted William Taintor, a pedophile she’d help send to jail years earlier. My fearless Martie called him out publically and caused him to lose his position on a park board. He had the audacity to sue her. Again, that was completely unacceptable.
I’d struck up an online friendship with William Taintor, who loved to be called Uncle Billy. Time had not taught him to tell the difference between a twelve year old and someone trying to trap him. But I guess that’s because he just wanted the twelve year old boys so much, it overrode his judgment. So he met me in the public restroom of a park in a small town Pennsylvania one night. I was working on a photography job in Ohio, less than an hour’s drive away. Nobody even noticed I was gone. And I told him he was caught and surely headed back to prison and that he was a sick twisted bastard who would be better off dead. And then he surprised me by agreeing with me. He said he couldn’t stop that it was just too hard to resist. That the idea of little boys preyed on his mind day and night like a voice screaming in his head until he acted on it. I may have suggested he kill himself to get out of it. I might have even found him some rope to make it easier. But he did the deed. So I stole his computer from his car to cover up evidence of his pretend Internet friend and left Uncle Billy dangling in a bathroom. And I didn’t even feel a little bit sad. It was all just too easy. Then his sister sued Martie for driving her brother to suicide with public embarrassment. I let her live.
Greg Jefferies was easy to befriend as well. I didn’t think I could successfully impersonate a six year old girl, so I let him think I was a fellow who shared his peculiar proclivities. Despite having been run out of the Washington D.C. area by Martie and forced to move in with his mother in St. Paul, Minnesota, he made attempts to contact the little girl of the woman he’d been dating in Virginia. The freak went so far as to bribe a daycare employee to slip presents to the kid. Greg had done time as a teen for raping a neighbor’s child, he was the only suspect in the disappearance of a girlfriend’s child, there was no doubt in my mind where it was all headed. So I dangled the possibility of forgiveness in front of him. That there might be a way to be forgiven for things he’d done; things he’d been accused of but couldn’t admit. There might be a way to be little Kayla back in Virginia. And just like William Taintor, he’d been so in love with his own freakish fantasy that he was willing to believe anything. The weekend I was making an appearance at the Mall of America to promote my cookbook, I’d met up with Greg Jefferies. He was all ready to run off with me so I could help him snatch up Kayla and start his new life overseas. We’d driven to a remote farm out on the plains where he thought Kayla would be brought to him. Then I let him know the jig was up. I’d given him the option of taking the pills he’d brought along to sedate Kayla with in case she was trouble. Or I gave him the option of jail again. He seemed relieved at the chance to be free. At the end he’d scribbled a note that would lead to the discovery of Hailey May’s body in Maryland. I hadn’t noticed. But much later when Martie found the body as the result of her keen investigative skills, she had deciphered it. Along with Don, they’d found the remains of the child in a cooler at a campsite in Maryland.
It doesn’t seem smart to embark on a hobby of convincing pedophiles to just say yes to suicide while you’re dating a former FBI agent. But at first I didn’t know that Martie I would become a couple, she seemed way out of my league. We texted, we chatted and I sent her silly pictures and somehow she became the center of my entire universe. And I was lying to her every day in a thousand small ways. By omission, to be sure. If she had asked me anything directly I would have answered truthfully. She never did think to ask me if I was advocating suicide for the perverted. It had occurred to me more than once that I was back to my old self-destructive ways, searching for something that my perfect woman wouldn’t forgive, looking for the one thing that make Don stop giving a damn what happened to me. Not that Martie was clueless, she suspected something, she just didn’t know what. At one point she even pulled a gun on me because I said something weird. The breakdown had caused Martie to doubt herself and her instincts. And like a coward, I let that stand for months. I allowed her to hunt all over hell and creation for Greg Jefferies until she found his decaying body. I let her care for me while I recovered from hip replacement surgery; only telling the whole truth when she found proof of what I’d been doing. Like Martie said, I was not as clever as I thought I was. And the damndest thing happened. She did not shoot me. But that might have been because I was quick to trot out some evidence I had been gathering about a very bad man who was up to his old tricks.
I’d first heard about Ray Butterfield from Don long before I met Martie. He was explaining to me how some children became enamored of their molesters, even protective. Martie had conned Ray Butterfield into thinking she was an old man who shared his fondness for naked pictures of little girls. For years, he made a good living selling nude images of his stepdaughter. Even when she’d started to get a little too mature to interest some of the freaks, he still had the old photos to peddle. Ray had married Barbie Butterfield, a widow with the mental capabilities of a thirteen year old. She had done fine while married to her kindly first husband, caring for her baby Chloe. But when he unexpectedly died, she made a perfect target for Ray. Although Don said she seemed to grasp the situation better than many women when faced with proof her husband was a predator.
“He’s a bad man.” She said. “Put him in jail.”
A funny thing happened to the way to jail. During the trial, Chloe completely changed her story. She denied Ray had ever been involved in taking photographs of her. It had all been her mother and some mysterious friends of her mother that no one had ever laid eyes on. The prosecutors new better, but they were up a creek without a witness. Chloe was moved to foster care and Ray Butterfield was a free man. Martie had testified at the trial. Chloe Butterfield never saw Martie, but somehow she got her name and began to send Martie anonymous threatening letters. Letters on purple paper in glitter ink with unicorn stickers. Letters that were easily traced. The kid got more therapy, but it turned out it really didn’t help much. A few years later, I was meeting with some students enrolled in the photography program at a college in Washington State. The school had won a contest sponsored by Country Lifestyles magazine. And one of the students’ name was familiar. How many Chloe Butterfields could there be in the world who lived in the Pacific Northwest. A sweet-faced girl who told me her father was a keen photographer who’d taught her everything she knew. And that she worked taking portraits of children, with a specialty in portfolio pictures for little pageant queens. I had started poking around and discovered that she lived with her father Ray. She had turned eighteen and could live wherever she chose and what she wanted was Ray. Martie processed the information and still she did not shoot me. She did not leave me. She covered up for my stupid ass. Mostly because she loved me; partly because Ray Butterfield was evil and a corrupter of children. Whatever game I thought I was playing, Martie played it better. She sat down with Ray Butterfield and interviewed him for a book she was working on. He was eager to talk about being “falsely” accused of being a child pornographer. Then she lifted Chloe’s phone at a child beauty pageant and proceeded to convince Ray via text messages that his stepdaughter/girlfriend has turned on him and was now telling everything to the FBI. Chloe was busy driving miles away to pick up her phone from someone who called and said they found it. Ray Butterfield had ended up in his garage with his car running. And Martie managed to leave enough evidence to hint that he was involved in some kind of suicide pact with fellow freaks Greg Jefferies and William Taintor. Not enough to prove it, but surely enough to suggest it.
“Now you have exactly the same amount of goods on me that I have on you.” She said. “And this stops now. It may appear that I love you so much that I will let you get away with anything; but that’s not the case. Just because you got away with it; doesn’t mean you’ll keep getting away with it.”
And right now, she was pissed. “I warned you.”
“I didn’t do anything like…” I said. “I didn’t hurt her. I’m not trying to kill her. That wouldn’t work with her. I really think on some level all those guys hated what they were ultimately. She’s not like that. It’s not a compulsion, it’s just business.”
“Why?” she asked.
“There’s actually a method to my madness.”
“Well you should have shared it with me.” She snapped. “Cause I’m smarter than you. “
That was difficult to argue with.
Investigator Ramierez was polite, almost apologetic about bothering me. He accepted my offer of coffee.
“This is delicious.” He said. He was stocky, but solid in perfectly pressed plainclothes and a buzz cut. Everything about him screamed “Cop!”
Martie introduced herself to him with “Martha Garrett, former Special Agent with the FBI. I advised him not to speak with you without a lawyer present, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“There’s no need for that.” He said.
“Cops are not your friends.” Martie said. “From personal experience I know all that matters is the investigation.”
“This is routine.” He said.
“Do you know what that woman did to him?” Martie said forcefully.
“I’m aware she served a sentence in a case that involved Mr. Christopher.” He said.
“I took the liberty of making you a copy of a file I prepared for the Parole Board. Apparently they weren’t impressed, since they let her out. Maybe you’d like to give it a look-see.” She shoved the folder into his hands, so he really had no choice but to take it. “And let me tell you, I am disgusted that you have the nerve to come in here and harass her VICTIM. I don’t care what happened to that woman.”
“I have no intention of harassing Mr. Christopher.” He said.
“I’m sure you don’t.” Martie paced around as if she were conducting an interrogation. “Or at least I’m sure you won’t. So when does Mrs. Crandall claim this abduction took place?”
“Monday night around 11pm.” He said.
“Seth.” She said. “Would you care to share with Investigator Ramierez what you were doing Monday night?”
“Blogging and updating my Facebook and Twitter pages and uploading some pictures to my website.” I answered truthfully without mentioning the kidnapping part.
“And how did she get away from her alleged abductor?” Martie asked.
“Mrs. Crandall says she was released around nine the next morning.” Ramierez said.
“I can’t vouch for him, I was out of town until a few hours ago.” She said.
“I was here along overnight.” I said.
“You better have been.” Martie said.
“If I took her, I’m one hell of a multi-tasker.” I said. “I was hosting a chat on my website about hot dips this morning. She really said I kidnapped her?”
“Mrs. Crandall said she was abducted.” He said. “And that she feels you have threatened her.”
“I just had my hip replaced because she and her husband popped out of the socket so many damn times when I was twelve while they were torturing me that it never healed right.” I said. “And she finds me threatening? Are you sure she was really abducted? That woman is professional liar.”
“We investigate all reports of crimes.” He said.
“I am my only witness.” I said. “And the people I interacted with online. You can check when I updated my pages and I guess you could look at my chat transcripts.”
“Was she robbed?” Martie asked.
“Apparently now.” He said.
“Sexually assaulted?” She continued.
“No report of any type of injury.” He said.
“Ransom demand?” Martie continued.
“No.” He said.
“This is the weirdest damn abduction in the history of the world.” She said. “Did her kidnapper mention what he or she wanted?”
“The alleged abductor did not speak.” He said. “Any more questions, Ma’am.”
Martie folded her arms across her chest. “I’m a little protective. When he had hip replacement surgery he was subjected to that woman’s presence in the same hospital. One of her nutty church friends popped in his room to say hello.”
“I understand.” He stood a little taller and folded his arms across his chest. “But as a former law enforcement officer, you understand that I have a duty to investigate every report of a crime. And we would be remiss not to speak with Mr. Christopher.”
With two alpha dogs circling each other, I felt kind of wimpy.
“I don’t know if this is pertinent.” She said. “But I wouldn’t want to withhold information. When Seth was in the hospital one of the employees tipped me off that Wilma Crandall was in the same facility. She also told me she believed Mrs. Crandall to be a hypochondriac looking for attention. And of course, I can’t give you her name because I didn’t get it.”
“So what you’re saying is that Wilma didn’t see me or hear me abduct her, but she still thinks it was me?” I said. “Did she smell me or something?”
“I doubt anyone could blame you for wanting to strike out at Mrs. Crandall.” He said.
“Oh, I think the State of Texas might.” I said.
“Feds might disapprove, too.” Martie said.
“Not to brag.” I said. “But follow me over here and look out to my back yard.”
Investigator Ramierez followed me to the glass door overlooking my courtyard with its built-in outdoor kitchen and stylish furniture.
“That’s my patio and beyond that is my really nice pool. And if you look over that way you can see the hot tub off my master suite.”
“It’s very nice.” He said.
“I’m having my wedding out there and I’m marrying this really beautiful woman who is giving you such a hard time. “
“Congratulations and good luck.” He said.
“And as you can see, this is a really nice house with a real nice kitchen and fancy appliance like the espresso machine I used to make your tasty latte. And I have one cookbook published and another due out in October. What I’m saying is that I have a lot to lose. And I’d have to be crazy to risk that just to get even with that woman. She’s a piece of garbage. And how the hell could I ever begin to get even with her?”
“Don’t get upset.” Ramirez said. “And I realize you have plenty to be upset about when it comes to Wilma Crandall. I don’t get why she’s out of jail, either.”
“I can’t help you with your investigation.” I said.
“I see that.” He looked sideways at Martie and that made her chuckle.
He offered me his card. “My number in case you need it.”
I accepted it. “Please finish your coffee.” I said. “And I hope you don’t think it’s anything personal against you. “Talking about Wilma makes me want to throw up.”
“I will finish the coffee, it’s excellent.” He said. “And I will look over this file. It’ll save me some research. I like to know who I’m dealing with.”
“She’s the devil disguised as a church lady.” Martie said authoritatively, as if it were a well-established fact, widely accepted in the law enforcement community.
“Yes, Ma’am.” Aaron Ramirez said.
“I’m not questioning your competence or your authority.” Martie said. “But people like Wilma Crandall are a different species from the rest of the human race and they are my area of expertise.”
“At the FBI.” He said with a slightly sarcastic emphasis on FBI. I knew from Don and from Martie that local law enforcement often resented federal law enforcement. They felt the Feds intruded when you didn’t need them and withheld valuable resources when you did; stealing the credit and deflecting the blame.
It was my turn to feel protective. Martie had nearly lost her mind protecting children from the worst people on earth. She had looked and listened daily to things that no one should have to see. Don and Martie both had given so much of themselves to keep other children from suffering the agonies I’d been through; I would not have that mocked.
It must have shown on my face because Ramirez put his delicious cup of coffee down on the counter and said. “Thank you very much for your time and the coffee.”
We stood on our doorstep and watched him drive away. It was hotter than hell and a relief to go back inside to the air conditioned coolness.
“I’m an idiot.” I said when we were back inside. “I get that.”
“You stole my phone trick.” She said.
“I did.” I admitted. “I’m going to be really pissed off if they don’t check her Facebook account.”
Martie walked back towards the kitchen. “Can you put my food out again? I’m starving.”
“Sure.” I said.
“Thank you.” Martie sat down at the kitchen bar and I quickly put a glass of wine in front of her.
“Why did you do it?” She asked. “Other than you just plain hate her?”
“I was at a library book festival last Saturday.” I said.
“I know.” She said.
“Wilma Crandall was face-painting at the kiddie tent.”
“What the hell?” Martie said. “Doesn’t that violate the terms of her release?”
“No.” I said. “She’s not permitted unsupervised contact with children. The parents were there.”
“The library let her volunteer?” Martie exclaimed.
“The Friends of the Library that organized the festival did.” I said.
“Paint faces?” Martie said.
“And take pictures of the cute little kiddies.” I gave the cheese a stir.
Martie slapped her hand down hard on the counter and let out a scream of frustration and anger.
“Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn.”
“That’s what I said.”
“You should have told me.” Martie said.
“I know.” I agreed.
“If I had seen that, I might have shot her.” She took a gulp of wine.
“My appearance was pretty well publicized.” I said. “She wanted to mess with me.”
“So you messed back.” Martie said. “But she stayed within the letter of the law.”
“I want to smash her face in and feed her teeth to her for a snack.” I said.
“Should I congratulate you on your restraint?” She asked sarcastically.
No.” I said. “I want you to understand. I don’t want you to think I’m a psychopath. I was not lying when I promised to give up aggravating perverts to death.”
“I don’t want you to end up in jail.” She said.
She ate a potato chip and took another drink of wine. “Well, I had something to tell you, but now it doesn’t seem like such a good idea. She put her head in her hands. “Dammit.”
“What?” I asked.
“I had an opportunity…” She began. “That seemed to coincide perfectly with something else. But maybe not.”
The cheese dip was warm and soft enough not to break the potato chips. I tasted one and then said. “What opportunity?”
“OSU had a series of weekend seminars for continuing education credit for the criminology program scheduled. The instructor was injured a car accident and won’t be able to teach and I had an opportunity to take her place. I haven’t said yes; but I did clear it with Merrimac. And I haven’t told you yet, but Nana is going to have hip replacement surgery.”
“Really, that’s not so good.” I said. “But it does feel better afterwards.”
“And I thought I could help out and stay there with her at night and spell Mom and my aunts. And I know that means I’d be gone instead of here helping with the wedding.”
“But you really want to do it.” I said.
“I don’t know, it seems like a bad idea to leave you alone now.”
“You’ve spent months sitting by my bed holding my hand while I whined about hip pain.” I said.
“You’re important.” She said.
“Nana is important.” I said. “And you moved all the way out here away from your family to be with me.”
“I already moved away from my family.” She said.
“I owe you.” I said. “I owe you big.”
“We’re even.” She said.
“You want to do it.” I said. “I’ll come with you.”
“You need your kitchen.” She said. “It’s where you photograph your food. Nana’s condo kitchen won’t work for what you need to do. And one of us should be here for the wedding stuff… Actually, we both should. I can’t do this.”
“Yes you can.” I said.
“I don’t trust you home alone.” Martie said bluntly. “I’ll come home and find Wilma in the freezer.”
“I would never contaminate my freezer with Wilma.” I said. “What if I promise not to do anything illegal?”
“I’m marrying a guy who has to make special promises not to do anything illegal.” She rolled her eyes. “What the hell?”
“You should have shot me while you had the chance.” I said.
“I could still shoot you.” She said. “But since I don’t think I can live without you; that wouldn’t work out for me.”
“You can’t spend the rest of your life watching me.” I said.
“Can’t I?” Martie said. She took a bite of the steak and bleu cheese. “Damn, this is delicious.”
“I grilled steaks for Brett yesterday.”
“Kidnap Wilma in the morning and have lunch with a minister.” She said.
“I felt bad about that.” I said. “At least about not telling Brett the whole truth about my morning. Can’t figure out how to feel bad about Wilma.”
“I love you.” Martie said. “And I’m going to watch you like a hawk.”
“If you can’t trust me to be home alone, you probably just ought to let me go down in flames.” I said.
“I should have let you go down in flames a long time ago.” She said. “But that is an unacceptable outcome. I’ve made another choice for my life.”
Martie filled a plate with food and concentrated on eating. She loved my cooking. That’s probably why she didn’t shoot me. I had not been cooking for long; but I was good at it. I enjoyed watching people eat my food; but I got damn near giddy when Martie was enjoying what I cooked.
“This cheese is fantastic.” She said. “So creamy.”
“I got the idea during my hot dip chat.” I said.
“Which you moderated while you had Wilma tied up?” She said. “You are one hell of a multi-tasker.”
“It was distracting.” I said. “It’s not like it comes easy to me to hold old women captive. Even old women I hate.”
“She’s not exactly elderly.” Martie said. “If you’re uncomfortable, that may be a sign it’s not your calling.”
“I never thought it was my calling.” I said. “I wasn’t planning on becoming a professional …ah…suicide assistance professional for pedophiles.”
“Don’t ruin all this with a mistake.” She said seriously. “We have such a good life.”
“I feel that I need…” I stopped.
She finished my sentence. “What we need to do about Wilma is tip off a couple of newspapers and the TV. You know, why was a convicted sex offender painting faces at a library function?”
“That’ll hurt the friends of the library more than Wilma.” I said.
“They’ll have to take some heat for their mistake. I’ll give them some free training.” She said. “But a nice harsh spotlight on Wilma is just the ticket.”
“You’re right.” I said. “But you finished the wrong thought for me.”
“Ooops.” She said.
“This is something else.” I said. “You know there were five boys in the videos they determined were made in the Crandalls basement.”
“I know.” She said.
“Me.” I said. “Joshua Lee Smith, Danny Waltrip and the two unidentified Hispanic boys.”
“Most likely Mexican because of the bone structure of their faces.” She said.
“And the screaming for God to help them in Spanish.” I said so hatefully that it surprised me. I took a deep breath. “Guess I’m still a little angry about that one.”
“Don tried pretty hard to find out who those kids were.” She said.
“That was a long time ago.” I said.
“True.” She agreed. “Don would look into it again if you asked.”
“Don has suffered enough with this.” I said.
“And you haven’t?” She countered.
“I’ve taken way too much from Don.” I said. Plus I was having a hard time looking him in the eyes lately.
“Don has the resources.” She said.
“Wilma Crandall knows who those kids were.” I said.
“She’s not talking.” Martie said. “And please don’t try to waterboard it out of her.”
“I won’t do anything illegal.” I said. “You can look after Nana.”
“You trying to get rid of me?” She asked.
“No, I’m thinking that when I come to see you on the weekends, you’ll be super horny.” I said.
“Selfish bastard. “ She said. And I really think she meant it even though she was smiling.
“I can be.” I said. “But swear to God, I’m working on it.”