We walked into the Half Castle at 11:32 a.m., barely ahead of the lunch rush. In the hidden back room, Mr. Gray was expecting us–but this time, the procedure was different. Jack and I weren’t given information verbally. Instead, Gray handed over a tiny, sealed envelope.
“There’s way too much information,” he explained. “In the envelope, there’s a URL to an online address our people assure us is a 100% secure cache. When you call it up, the screen will ask a few questions that only you, Jack, could answer correctly. If anyone else tries to access the data, the site will instantly self destruct. Also, it will only be up and available for the next three hours. Once the download to your computer is complete, the site will vanish.”
The natural, urgent thing to do would have been to dash right back to the motel room, fire up Hill’s laptop, and get to it. We did have three hours, though, and it was lunch time or close enough. They’d gotten to know us in the restaurant: Chicken fried rice for me, sweet and sour chicken for Jack. It wouldn’t take long.
Later, though, back at the motel, I realized I needed some downtime. Despite still having to sleep mostly on my back, preferably propped up in a recliner, I was having trouble keeping my eyes open.
“Jack,” I asked, “you mind if I grab some shuteye? I’m feeling like B.J. was right and I need to convalesce for an hour or two. Wussing out on you.”
“Wuss away,” Hill grinned. “I’ll get this download done and start going through whatever our people found. Sounds like there’s enough I’ll still be at it whenever you’ve had your beauty rest.”
“Thanks.” I settled back on the bed, four excellent, soft pillows propping me up just fine. “Much appreciated.”
There were dreams, but none remembered. When my eyes popped open again, the light was going.
Jack was still at it, kicked back in a chair, Walmart reading specs perched on the bridge of his nose, eyeballing the screen on his laptop.
“We get some good sh*t?” I asked, realizing that if nothing else, my mouth tasted like sh*t.
“More’n–Tree, I hardly know where to start.”
I thought about that for a moment or two. “Start with Hicks.”
“Yeah. Okay. His is the easiest, anyway. First off, that Chevy Impala he picked up in Wall. It came with OnStar, which our people were able to hack. So they could tune right in to the OnStar GPS, and did, and pinned the car’s location right down to a gnat’s ass.”
“Awesome.” Things, I thought, might be looking up.
“Not so awesome. The FBI is on this one, sure enough, and they found the car, too. Found it abandoned in a city parking lot in Idaho Falls. Most likely, they just asked OnStar, and OnStar said, sure, here ya go, oh Feddy Ones!”
“Hm.” It wasn’t a pleasing thought, that Hicks had known enough to keep switching vehicles, even if he had been dumb enough to ignore the OnStar GPS tracking threat for a while. “Why do I get the feeling he smartened up all of a sudden?”
Jack stretched, working out a few kinks. He’d been glued to that computer screen for hours while I slept. “I don’t know if intelligence is involved. His probable next vehicle, reported stolen from that same city lot, looks like a pretty predictable choice for a serial killer.”
“Don’t tell me.” I did my own mild stretching, flinching inwardly when that double busted rib shifted in its sheath. “A van.”
“Close enough,” he nodded, setting the computer on the table and getting to his feet. The coffee maker had just finished brewing a batch. We’d brought our own mugs, one of which Hill handed me. Coffee in bed. “Minivan. Silver gray, same as the Impala, but a twelve year old model. Chrysler Town and Country, no GPS tracking on it.”
“Well…” I paused to take a sip of coffee. Not bad. Not home brew, but not bad. “I bet that’s his abduction vehicle, there.”
“Yeah duh. The Feds have an APB out for that one now, but….”
“Yeah.” None of us had much faith in the Federal Bureau of Idiots. If Hicks hadn’t changed vehicles again…of course he had. He seemed to be changing every few days now; the pattern would likely continue. “So…that it for Hicks?”
“Not everything, but the rest can wait. The info on his victim is what’s fascinating.” He drained his coffee mug, set it aside and gave me the scoop.
Blessing Devonia, it turned out, had a few kinks of her own. Born Blessing Cecily Pitts, she’d grown up country, all right, involved in 4H, the whole nine yards. By the time she’d left Mississippi and come west with her soldier husband, though, she’d been 22 years of age with a reputation.
The girl liked BDSM. One former boyfriend, now a bank teller in her old home town, swore she’d dumped him because he wouldn’t tie her up before having, as he put it, “intimate relations”. He said she’d screamed at him, “You promised me bondage!” Which he had indeed promised, but when the moment came, he’d found himself unable to follow through. “In the end, I just couldn’t do that,” he’d explained. “I just couldn’t.”
Brandon Devonia, her ex, echoed that sentiment. “She wanted it rough,” he told investigators. “She wanted me to tie her up so tight it cut off the circulation, wanted me to do things to her–sir, she gets off on pain.”
The skeptical interviewer, FBI agent Denton Chase, had asked, “Mr. Devonia, do you really expect us to believe that? Do you expect us to believe she terminated your five year marriage because you wouldn’t hurt her enough?”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Devonia had replied. “That woman is sick. Check out her computer if you haven’t already. She was always chatting around on BDSM sites—that’s bondage, dominance, sadism, masochism–the one she was on the most was collar me dot com, and when she’d get bored there, she’d go over to alt dot com. They’re, I think they call themselves alternative lifestyle sites or something like that.”
I interrupted Jack’s narrative. “Wait a sec. Your hacker contacts got inside the actual FBI interviews? Really?”
He nodded. “Sure looks that way. Either that, or they’ve got a guy close to the investigation.”
“An agent giving them access.”
“Ayup. Possibly. Either way, I’m taking this info as gospel. These people haven’t led us astray yet.”
“No. I must admit, they have not.”
“Guess what else?”
“They managed to copy her entire hard drive right off her laptop, before the Feds got around to picking the thing up from her employer’s place.”
Like any unthinking member of today’s hi tech society, Blessing’s hard drive told us…a lot.
Month in, month out, she’d spent an average of two point three hours per night on collar me dot com, chatting here and there with other members or browsing photos of the most remarkably graphic sort. These people were insane. Page after page after page, members posted pictures of themselves in what they obviously felt were provocative poses. Compared to this bunch, Carlos Danger aka Anthony Wiener was a rank amateur. Full frontal genitals, often caged or pierced or bound till they turned purple. Whipped backs and buttocks, some to the point of drawing blood. So called consensual slaves smeared with human excrement. Adult babies who wanted nothing more than to wear giant diapers and do what real babies do in diapers.
There were dominants and submissives, voluntary slaves both male and female, straight and bisexual, gay and lesbian, transgender and probably Martian.
Wow. And here mainstream society considered having a couple of live-in lovers, as Jack Hill and I both did, to be ultra risqué. I’d had no idea this sort of thing even existed.
Jack knew, but he’d been around for centuries. He’d had time to see it all, like it or not.
“Heck, Tree,” he shook his head, “I read some of those profiles while you were napping, just to get the feel of the site. There are scams on there for sure, got the feel of the old Nigerian experts at work. But most of them appear to be real folks with real powerful fetishes, what you and I’d call dark desires. I did some online research. Alt dot com claims a worldwide membership in the millions. Some of these people want to be cut, stuck with needles, even castrated. I read one girl’s profile that said she was halfway to the male gender, had had her breasts removed but not the rest of it yet. Was looking for a master, and would leave it up to her new master–or mistress, she didn’t care which–to decide whether to have her get male genitals or just use her the way she stands today.”
To say I felt overwhelmed would be an understatement. These people, these BDSM folks, call the rest of us “vanilla”. I’d heard that term applied to comedian Jay Leno, that most of his humor was “too vanilla” for the younger generation.
Vanilla. Okay, maybe just one step beyond vanilla, what with Sissy and Judi both waiting for me at home. Vanilla with a dash of cinnamon, maybe.
“Jack,” I told my partner when he was done giving me the rundown, “I think I’ll go take a shower. Maybe scrub down good, then soak for about a year in a good hot bath. Hearing all that makes me feel….”
“Filthy?” He grinned, somehow conveying understanding.
“I can’t get the image of people crapping on each other out of my mind,” I admitted. “Hot water and plenty of soap may not help, but it can’t hurt.”
“Makes sense to me. One thing, though.”
“This gives us a whole new picture regarding Shawn Hicks.”
My brain wasn’t working. “It does?”
“I think it does. He kidnaps a good looking 30 year old woman, right? Now, the idea is to kill her as part of his overall plan, but maybe he throws in a bit of rape first. Nothing we’ve turned up in his background indicates he’s ever been involved in this BDSM lifestyle. So, now hear me out, he hurts Blessing Devonia. Maybe hurts her bad. But to his astonishment–at least, it would seem like he’d pretty much have to be astonished–the tighter he ties her, the more he hurts her, the more it turns her on.”
My brain started working again. “And that means–”
“It means he gets profoundly surprised. It throws him off his game. The only question is–”
I finished his sentence. “–does it jolt him into keeping her alive as a highly erotic sex toy, or does it yank his chain the other way, and he kills her outright, on the spot?”
“Well.” I ruminated on that a bit, considering the angles. “I’m still going to hit that shower and bath, but now I need that long hot soak more for thinking. For one thing, Mom and B.J. are due to call in any time now, right?”
“Right. That’s the deal. Use the throwaway phones, ten minutes max per call, change phones after every call.”
“Yeah. I remember the rules. What I don’t know,” I admitted, shaking my head, “is how on Earth we’re going to condense this information down to ten minutes.”
He chuckled. “That’ll be easy, Tree. I won’t have to explain the BDSM scene to your Mom or your uncle, either one. Them two lost their innocence years ago.”