"Cassie's Story" was originally published at Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, a terrific online Speculative Fiction e-zine. It was one of several stories in the July 2008 issue (Issue 9).
By David B. Coe, © 2008
By the time Cassie was shot, I’d been covering the story of the vigilante killer, Hell’s Fury, for a couple of months. I’d gotten the assignment as the Metro beat writer, but the story had become front page news and they’d kept me on it. Biggest story of my life.
I had interviewed the cop who fired the shots the night of the shooting for an article that ran the next morning. As he told it, he and his partner had been patrolling their usual beat when they heard a girl screaming in the alley. The cop’s partner reached the girl first and saw that the guy who had attacked her was already dead. But the guy’s killer – a woman -- was still in the alley. She ran from the partner and straight at the first cop. He shouted for her to stop and when she didn’t, the cop fired. He only got off one round before feeling himself flung against the alley wall, but he’d been certain that he hit her. That’s what he said at the time, and even when I interviewed him again, giving him every opportunity to change his story, he stuck to it.
Turns out this cop had been talking about Cassie Sloan. Cassie, whom I had worked with and then dated after her husband died. Well, not really dated, so much as slept with one night and then avoided for weeks afterward. Not my finest moment.
Now Cassie was in jail, a convicted killer. And I was here to interview her.
She didn’t look the part. If you could have found a person in this country who didn’t know who Cassie Sloan was, or what she was said to have done, and you had shown that person a picture of her, he might have guessed she was an actress, or a sports star, or a news anchor. He might even have guessed she was a newspaper reporter, which she was. Anything but a killer. That was part of the fascination. The crimes themselves were enough to feed the headlines for months. Add in her angelic face and the long dark hair and the pale blue eyes, and you had a spectacle.
Staring at her now, through the small glass window in the door, her features framed in one of those diamonds of wire embedded in the glass, I could see lines around her eyes and mouth that hadn’t been there before. The last few months had taken their toll on her. People who didn’t know her wouldn’t have seen it. But I did.
She sat on a metal chair, her hands resting on the wooden table before her, which was bare save for a pack of cigarettes and a book of matches. She looked small, solemn. Back when we’d worked together at the paper, before everything happened, she’d always seemed to be smiling. Not friendly, necessarily. More like she was amused by something that the rest of us hadn’t heard or wouldn’t have understood. Now she looked so serious, though I saw no sign that she was scared, or that she dreaded this conversation as much as I did.
“You ready?” the guard asked me.
I took a breath, nodded.
He unlocked the door and stood back, allowing me to step past him into the room.
Cassie looked up, her eyes widening at the sight of me. “You’ve got to be kidding me! They sent you?”
“I’ve been covering it from the start. You know that.”
I heard the door close behind me, and for just a minute I started to panic, my heart trip-hammering, my breath catching in my throat. My hands began to tremble and I thrust them into my pockets so she wouldn’t see.
Cassie shook her head, her lips pursed. “Fine then,” she said at last. “Let’s get this over with.”
I just stood there, watching her. Her hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail and her lips were dry, cracked. She’d always been pale, and she would have been the first to point out that she hadn’t spent much time in the sun recently. But in the flickering glare of the fluorescent lights she looked positively ghostlike.
“Well?” she said, impatient, seeming to read my thoughts.
I forced myself into motion, crossing to the chair opposite hers, willing myself to inhale, exhale. As I sat, I pulled a digital recorder from my jacket pocket.
“You mind?” I asked. “I’ve always been terrible with notes.”
At first Cassie just shrugged, but then a subtle change came over her, as if she had decided something. “Sure,” she said. “Go ahead.”
I switched the recorder on and placed it on the table.
“Thursday, September fourteenth.” I glanced at my watch. “Nine forty a.m. I’m with Cassidy Sloan at the Fuller Correctional Facility. Cassie, why don’t you--”
“I don’t think it’s working.” She stared at the recorder. “Shouldn’t there be a light or something?”
I leaned closer, checked the LED. She was right. Nothing was happening.
“Damn it.” I picked it up, moved the switch to “off”, then back to “record.” Nothing. I took out the batteries and put them back, though they were already loaded correctly.
“Looks like you’re stuck taking notes. Just as well. They say writing things down helps you remember them better.”
Our eyes met for an instant. There was something in her expression . . . a hint of amusement.
“All right.” I put the recorder back in my pocket and pulled out a pad and pencil. I jotted down the date, time, and location before looking up at her again. “Why don’t you start with your husband?”
A reflexive grin touched her face and then vanished as quickly as it had come. “I did.”
I shuddered, and she grinned again.
“Why do you think everyone’s so fascinated by this, Eric? Is it me? Is it the way I look?” She paused. “Is it the way I did it…?”
“How did you do it?”
She eyed me briefly. After a moment she reached for the cigarettes. “I’d ask if this was going to bother you, but I don’t really care. It’s pretty much the only vice I’m allowed.” She lit up and took a long, deep pull, closing her eyes. After what seemed a long time, she exhaled through her nose, a billowing cloud of blue-grey smoke enveloping us both like a mist.
“My husband.” She opened her eyes. “You met him, didn’t you?”
I nodded. “At one of the office parties, I think.”
“That sounds right. It would have been several years ago. He stopped coming after my promotion.” She took another pull, rested her elbow on the table so that the hand holding her cigarette hovered just beside her head. “Kenny was . . .” She shrugged. “I think I was drawn to him because we were so different. I wasn’t looking for cerebral; I got enough of that at work. I liked him because he was physical -- muscular, broad, like an action movie hero.”
I jotted down notes, avoiding eye contact, feeling weak and small.
“The first time he hit me, I was . . . shocked, you know? But I figured it must have been my fault.”
“When was that?” I asked.
“April twenty-second, five years ago.”
I frowned and looked up.
“It was our anniversary.” She smiled faintly. “A girl remembers. We’d just finished dinner and were . . . well, the evening was moving along as you’d expect. And then I said something. I don’t even remember what it was, but it made him angry and before I knew it we were arguing. Finally, he got so mad that he hit me. His hand was open. It didn’t even hurt that much. But it was . . . We crossed a line, you know? I knew it immediately, though I didn’t admit it to myself.
“Kenny said he was sorry about twenty times. He got real tender. We went to bed a little while later and he was so gentle -- more than he’d ever been. I tried to put it out of my mind, but the whole time we were making love, I kept thinking to myself, ‘He hit me. Kenny hit me.’”
“How long was it before he hit you again?”
Cassie took another drag. “Not long. A couple of months maybe. Another argument. We were at home again. We were always at home when it happened. This time he hit me hard, with his fist.” She pointed to a spot high on her cheek. “Right here. Really rattled me. For a couple of minutes I could barely see, like I’d been staring into the sun too long. You might remember the bruise. I said I’d gotten it rollerblading; that Kenny and I had been trying some silly trick and we bumped heads.”
I did remember. Hearing this now, I was ashamed that I’d believed her.
“When was that again?” I asked to mask my discomfort.
“I don’t know exactly. Early summer. After that . . .” She shrugged again and smiled, though it looked more like a grimace. “The hits just kept on coming. A black eye that I blamed on an inadvertent elbow during a basketball game; a swollen jaw that I blamed on my dentist; another bruise on my cheek that I couldn’t explain, so I just stayed home for a week until it faded enough that I could cover it over with makeup. I think I pleaded flu on that one.
“I once did a piece on battered women,” she said, looking at me. She took one last pull from the cigarette, dropped it on the linoleum floor, and ground it out with her foot. “Were you at the paper yet?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Maybe not. I remember thinking that their stories were sad, but also a little pitiful, you know? I mean, he’s hitting you, so leave him. I might have even said as much to some of them. ‘Why don’t you just leave?’ As if it were that easy. And a few years later, there I was, just like them, trapped in love with a guy who knocked me around every now and then.
“Women like me -- professionals; strong, bright, educated women -- we’re not supposed to be victims of abuse. Turns out that’s horse shit.”
I wanted to ask her why she didn’t leave him, just as she had asked those women. Because I didn’t understand. I couldn’t get past what I knew about her. Cassie was beautiful and smart and strong. She should have been able to walk away and make a new life for herself. But I didn’t ask her about it. Instead, I kept to the story. “When did you decide to kill him?”
She cast a hard look my way. “You know that’s not how it happened.”
“I know what you said. But I’m still trying to understand. All of us are.”
Cassie reached for the cigarettes and lit up again. She’d once been such a health nut; it was hard to believe this was the same person. But I kept that to myself, too.
“It got really bad,” she finally said, each word emerging from her mouth as a puff of smoke. “He’d gotten his contractor’s license not long after we were married, and for a while business was pretty good. Not great, but he was getting by. But then he had a problem with a client -- some rich guy up in the Crescent area. The guy sued and suddenly the rest of Kenny’s clientele began to shy away. Pretty soon, he had nothing. No clients, no prospects, no way of paying his crew. I was making enough for both of us, but that just made things worse, you know?
“He was angry all the time, and he started drinking.” She closed her eyes and winced. “God. Listen to me. Somewhere along the way my life turned into a damn soap opera cliché.”
I didn’t say anything. I simply watched her, my pencil poised over the paper.
“One night he came home drunk and was yelling at me before he’d even closed the door. It wasn’t just the beatings I was afraid of at this point. For a couple of months I’d been thinking that it was just a matter of time before he killed me. And this was the night. I was sure of it. If I hadn’t--” Cassie looked away and lifted the cigarette to her lips. “I would have died that night,” she said softly.
“Instead he did.”
She nodded. “I’m still not sure how I did it. One minute he was coming at me, his fist raised. The next he was on the floor by the table, a gash on his forehead. You wouldn’t have believed the blood.”
Actually, I’d seen pictures and I’d been appalled. You always hear that head wounds bleed like mad, but good God. There was blood everywhere. The police investigated it as an accidental death and concluded that Cassie had called nine-one-one as quickly as anyone could have expected. But Kenny never had a chance. And as to her killing him -- a man that big? The lead detective said it was impossible. The coroner agreed. Case closed, at least for a time.
“How did you do it, Cassie?”
“I just told you, I don’t know.”
I stared back at her, silent, waiting.
“It felt . . .” She stopped, shook her head, took another smoke. “You’ll think I’m nuts.”
“That would make me stand out in a crowd.”
She looked startled for just an instant. Then she burst out laughing. “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, you have a point.”
“You started to tell me what it felt like.”
Cassie nodded. “Right. It felt like I . . . like I pushed him. But with my mind, you know? I knew what I wanted to do to him. I was scared and angry and sick to death of feeling that way. Of being afraid of the man I was supposed to love. Just once I wanted him to feel what it was like to be weak and helpless. I wanted to hurt him for a change.”
She puffed fiercely on her cigarette. “So it was like I took hold of him somehow. I grabbed him and threw him at the table. Not with my hands, but with my mind.” She shook her head. “I know how it sounds, but it’s the truth. I was trying to make him hit his head. He . . . he did just what I wanted him to.”
“You mean the way he fell?” I asked.
“I mean the way he died.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I cleared my throat and Cassie grinned, seeming to enjoy my discomfort.
I forced myself to meet her gaze. “Then what happened?”
“Very good, Eric. For a second there I thought you were going to leave.”
I looked down at my pad and realized that I’d stopped taking notes several minutes ago. Not that I was likely to forget any of this.
“What then?” I asked a second time.
Cassie shrugged. “I convinced myself that it hadn’t happened. I’d never done anything like that before, and I couldn’t explain how I’d managed it this time. The cops all said it was an accident, so that’s what I told myself. I went back to living my life. I wrote. I slept around.”
I felt my face turn red.
“Our night together came, what? Two months after Kenny died? Didn’t that strike you as odd?”
“I didn’t really think about it,” I said.
She gave a short, harsh laugh. “Right. And afterwards you avoided me like I had the plague. Or was it the clap?” She grinned. “What was the matter, Eric? Wasn’t I any good?”
I felt the panic rising in me again. “That had nothing--”
“Don’t,” she said. “It was a joke. That’s all.”
I wasn’t sure if she was referring to what she had said, or to sleeping with me. She was right, of course. I had avoided her, but only because it had been an incredible night for me and, I was quite certain, far less than that for her.
“How long after that until you killed the second guy?”
“All business, huh?” she asked, a crooked smile on her face. She puffed on her cigarette for a few moments. “It was probably six months after I killed Kenny. It was a late night at work and I wasn’t ready to go home yet. I went to the Oasis, instead. You know the place? Over on Sixth, near Woodbine.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I know it.”
“I was drinking white wine at the bar. Nothing very good. But I was chatting up the bartender, this pretty college girl, and wondering if I was ready to try taking a woman home for a change. And then I heard them.” She shook her head. “It was like being pulled back in time to a part of my life I thought I’d escaped forever. I heard them arguing, I heard the way he was talking to her, and I knew. I just knew that he was beating her. Not there, of course. But at home. He was Kenny. She was me. I knew it.
“I listened to them, and when they left I followed. I was lucky, I guess. They lived nearby and they covered the distance on foot. They went in and I watched them through a window. And sure enough, as soon as they were inside the house, he started screaming at her and slapping her around. I don’t know what he thought she’d done, but he was pretty pissed. She was crying, and she was bleeding from her nose. I could see it all. I could tell that she hated him, that she wanted to be rid of him, just like I’d wanted to be rid of Kenny.”
She’d sucked her cigarette down to the filter and she mashed it out on the table. Immediately she reached for the pack again, but then seemed to reconsider. Eventually she just looked at me.
“I did it pretty much the same way. He’d smacked her, and she’d flown across the room. She was this tiny thing -- that asshole must have had a hundred pounds on her. He was stalking her now and she was cowering against the wall next to the television. Before he reached her I pushed, hard this time. I knew what I was doing and I did it good and hard.
“He hit his head on the set and landed next to her. And then for good measure I made the TV fall on him. For a while she didn’t move. She just sat there crying, staring at his body, saying, ‘Oh no, oh no,’ over and over again. I thought maybe she was upset that he was dead, you know? But pretty soon she pulled herself together and called nine-one-one. Then she got herself a glass of water. I figured she was okay, so I left. I didn’t want to be there when the cops showed up.”
“That was when you started going to the bars?”
Cassie nodded. “At first I wasn’t sure why I did it. I mean, I knew what I was listening for, and I guess I knew what I was going to do when I heard it. But it wasn’t like I decided, you know, ‘Okay, now I’m going to start killing guys who beat their wives and girlfriends.’ A part of me just wanted to hear those conversations. In a way it made me feel better. I wasn’t the only one, you know? There were all these women out there who were just like me, who were afraid of their Kennys. They just didn’t know how to do this . . . this thing that I did.”
She stared at the cigarettes for several seconds before finally giving in and lighting up another.
“Pretty soon I was noticing other stuff, too,” she said, breathing out a haze of smoke. “I could tell when guys were cheating. It didn’t matter if they were with their wives or their mistresses, I always knew. After a while I could tell with the women, too. But I left those folks alone -- the men and the women. That was . . .” She shook her head. “I didn’t want any part of that; it’s just normal relationship stuff, you know? But then there was a night when I saw this guy slip something into his date’s drink. Them I followed. And when he tried to rape her, I killed him. I don’t even think she noticed that he was dead -- that’s how out of it she was.”
“How long was it before the papers started writing about you?”
“It was the next morning. I had to take a cab to keep up with them, and the cabbie remembered me. His description was way off, but that’s when the headlines started. Pretty soon they started putting other things together. People remembered seeing me at several of the bars where I found the guys I killed. Without meaning to, I’d been wearing my hair differently from night to night, so the police sketches weren’t very good. But they were looking for me.”
I nodded again. The headlines had been sensational right from the start. “The Avenging Angel,” they called her at first. But when that didn’t prove lurid enough, they went the other way: “Hell’s Fury.” From that famous quote: “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” That was Cassie.
“You didn’t stop, even after the stories started,” I said. “Why?”
“I wasn’t scared. I didn’t think anyone could stop me.” She took a long pull on the cigarette, her eyes locked on mine. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to have the power I have? I can make people do whatever I want. I can kill with a thought. I can . . .” She trailed off. “You don’t believe me, do you? You don’t believe any of this.”
I wasn’t sure what I believed, but in that moment I was terrified, of her, of the anger I saw in her eyes.
“I just . . . I’m just wondering why, if you can do all these things, you’re still here in this jail.”
“Is that all you’re wondering, Eric? Aren’t you wondering if I ever considered killing you? You bought me drinks, you drove me back to my place, and you screwed me -- twice as I remember it, though that first time didn’t amount to much. And then you ignored me. You didn’t call, or speak to me, or acknowledge what had happened in any way. After I was arrested -- after you read and heard everything they were saying about me -- you must have wondered.”
She was right about this, too. I did wonder. I was wondering at that very moment. If she really was all she claimed to be, all she appeared to be, then she held my life in her hands. Or in her mind.
“Yeah,” I admitted. “I thought about it. I’m out of my depth here, Cassie. I’ve never dealt with anything like this before. The things they’re saying about you -- the things you’re saying about yourself . . . I don’t know what’s real.”
“Yeah, well, welcome to my world.”
She stared at me for a moment. And then without warning, my chair flipped backwards. My pad and pencil went flying. I crashed onto the floor, the back of my head smacking the linoleum, the air leaving my body in a rush. I lay there for several seconds, trying to breathe and clear my vision.
“You all right?” Cassie asked, her voice calm and even.
Before I could answer, the door swung open and one of the guards stepped in. “Everything all right in here?”
I rolled off of the upended chair and climbed to my feet. “Everything’s fine,” I said.
The guard looked at me and then at Cassie, as if trying to decide if we were both crazy. After a few seconds he shook his head and left, pulling the door closed behind him.
“You didn’t have to do that,” I said. I rubbed the rising bump on my head.
“Didn’t I? You believe me now, don’t you?”
I nodded, righted the chair, and retrieved my notes and the pencil. Sitting down, I touched the bump again, half-expecting my hand to come away bloody. It didn’t.
“You should put ice on that,” she said.
“Don’t be pissed. I needed you to know that I’m not making this up. Now you do.”
I nodded, sullen, embarrassed. My whole body hurt.
“One of the cops swears that he shot you, says he couldn’t have missed. The others say he’s nuts. But . . .”
I stopped, my mouth falling open. Cassie had taken hold of the collar of her shirt and pulled it down so that I could see the top of her left breast. There was a small white crater there, about the size of a penny. It was perfectly round and slightly puckered in the center. I got up and walked around the table so I could take a closer look, all fear of her forgotten for the moment.
“He did hit you,” I whispered.
Cassie nodded. “It hurt like a sonofabitch, but only for a second.”
“Tell me how it happened.”
“I was at some diner, listening as this older guy tried to pick up my waitress. I stayed to closing time. So did he. He hung around the diner and I pretended to leave. When the waitress came out a while later, he offered to walk her home. One thing led to another, and eventually he forced her into an alley and tried to rape her. I killed him before he could hurt her, but I was still in the alley when the cops showed up. I guess there were two of them -- cops, I mean -- and they entered the alley from opposite ends. I ran from one of them and ended up face to face with the other. I tried to shove him aside . . .”
I looked at her and she shook her head.
“Not literally. I used my . . . I did it the same way I knocked you over, the same way I killed Kenny and the others. Anyway, I wasn’t quick enough and he managed to get a shot off.”
That was pretty much the story I’d gotten from the cop.
For months before that episode the press -- mostly the tabloids -- had been writing about the supposed supernatural powers of this “vigilantess” known as Hell’s Fury. Not only could she kill with her eyes, but she could make herself invisible. She could fly, and summon the dead to her aid. The police, of course, dismissed all of this as nonsense. She was just another wack-job serial killer who happened to be taking out creeps instead of more respectable folk. Then patrolman Peter Silofsky told his story about shooting her through the heart. After that no one was certain of anything anymore. Not the cops, not the press.
Even as I stared at that tiny crater on Cassie’s chest, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t say anything. I just stood there, not believing it, yet not having any choice but to believe it.
“There’s a mark on my back, too,” she said, “where the bullet left my body.”
I straightened, then hesitated. “May I?”
I stepped around to the back of her chair and as she leaned forward I lowered the back of her collar so I could see. Sure enough, there it was: larger than the entry wound, less perfect, but still vaguely round. Spidery lines radiated from the scar in every direction so that it resembled a child’s drawing of the sun. Given where the bullet had gone in and the path it had taken through her body, I didn’t see how it could have missed her heart. I let go of her shirt and backed away from her. After a moment I returned to my chair, happy to have that table between us. I felt queasy, though whether from the smoke or the sight of that wound I couldn’t say.
“You should be dead.”
“I know,” she said. “But they can’t kill me. No one can. You want to know why I’m in jail? Why I let myself get caught? Why I haven’t escaped? Because I’m tired of killing. And I’m tired of being hunted. It was either kill myself, keep going, or get caught.”
“You could have left,” I said. “Gone somewhere else and started over again.”
“I don’t think so.” She smiled, though sadly. “I’m Hell’s Fury, remember? Those sketches would have followed me anywhere I went.”
“They didn’t look that much like you. Cut your hair, maybe dye it; no one would have recognized you.”
“It’s not that easy. Given the chance to kill those bastards again, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Even Kenny. Especially Kenny. I don’t feel guilty at all. But that’s no way to live. And I would have kept on doing it. I’m sure of that. Once I started hearing those conversations, the violence hidden in those words, I couldn’t get away from it. It’s everywhere, Eric. What I said about you before . . .” She shook her head. “I didn’t mean that. I never for a moment thought about doing anything to you. You’re a putz. But you were sweet that night and I don’t think you’re capable of hurting anyone.”
I kept my mouth shut, sifting through my past, fearing that I’d find something -- anything -- that might prove her wrong.
“But the violent ones,” she went on. “There’s lots of them. More than you’d believe. And if I was out there, I’d still be killing them. I wouldn’t be able to help myself. How long do you think a person can do what I’ve done before it starts to eat away at their soul?” She lifted the cigarette to her lips, only to find that it had burned to the end.
I made myself look her in the eye. “I don’t know.”
For a while neither of us spoke. She lit up again, her eyes wandering the empty room, one of her legs bouncing impatiently. I could tell that she wouldn’t give me much more.
“So what will you do?” I asked. “If they can’t kill you . . .”
“I’ll do it myself,” she said. “But first I wanted to get my story told. I wasn’t happy when I first saw they had sent you.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I noticed that.”
Cassie smiled faintly. “Well, maybe I was wrong. There’s hope for you, yet.” She toyed with the matches. “Anyway, once the story’s out . . .” She shrugged.
Probably I should have said something, tried to talk her out of killing herself. But had I been in her position I would have been thinking along the same lines. She deserved more from me than empty words about not throwing her life away.
“You’ll write it, won’t you?” she asked.
“Of course I will. That’s why I came.”
“But you don’t think they’ll print it.”
I exhaled, a frown on my face. “I don’t know, Cassie. It’s . . . it’s quite a story.”
“You believe it, though, right?”
For one last time, I forced myself to meet her gaze. “Yes, I do. Every word. I’ve got the bump to prove it.” I smiled. She didn’t. More seriously, I added, “And I’ve seen your scars.”
“You think the scars would convince other people? You could take pictures.” For just a moment she looked so hopeful. Then she shook her head. “Pictures wouldn’t convince anyone, would they?”
“Probably not. Pictures can be doctored.” I closed the pad and put it back in my pocket. “I’ll write it,” I said. “And I’ll do what I can.”
A faint smile touched her face and for a fleeting moment I saw the old Cassie, the smart-mouthed beauty with the wry sense of humor. “You haven’t asked me the obvious question,” she said.
I pulled the pad and pencil out once more. “Why you?” I asked. “Why do you think you wound up with these powers? Or whatever you want to call them? You’re certainly not the only woman who’s been abused.”
“The short answer is that I don’t know.”
“And the longer answer?” I asked, knowing she wouldn’t have brought it up if she didn’t want to talk about it.
Cassie eyed me for a moment and then gazed toward the door, looking so wistful, so sad, that I thought she might just get up and walk out. And after all, who could have stopped her had she chosen to?
“I don’t think I’m special at all,” she finally said, her voice so low I had to lean in to hear her. “I think the power resides in all of us.”
She lifted a hand, stopping me. “It’s in every one of us, Eric. But I found it. I was scared and I was pissed and I’d had enough. And somehow I found it.”
“You can’t have been the only woman to have felt those things,” I said, expecting her to cut me off again. “And lots of them die at the hands of their boyfriends or husbands. How do you explain that, if they have this power, too?”
“I can’t explain it. You’re right: lots of women don’t manage to save themselves. For some reason they can’t find the power that I did. But I believe many of them do. More than you’d think.”
I tried to keep from looking skeptical, but clearly I failed.
“How many guys die each year in ways the cops can’t explain or only think they understand?” she asked, sounding so reasonable, so sure of herself. “That was Kenny for a long time, until they reopened the investigation. How many times have women protected themselves the way I did, but without actually killing the guy who was hitting them? We don’t know, do we? Because it never draws the attention of the police or the press. It happens, then it slides by, unnoticed.
“If I could describe how I did it, if I knew some secret to finding the power, I’d write the damn article myself and make sure all of those women knew.” A sad smile settled on her face. “Maybe what made me different wasn’t the power itself, but my willingness to use it. I mean really use it. If I’d stopped with Kenny, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I’d still be working at the paper, getting laid now and then, leading a normal life. Maybe I wouldn’t even believe it myself. But I couldn’t leave it alone.” She let out a small laugh. “Turns out I was different because I liked the way it felt. It felt good, you know? I wanted to do it again.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. As explanations went, hers didn’t amount to much. But I could tell she believed it and I wasn’t sure I wanted to challenge her.
“Go,” she said. “I’m talked out. And you need to write this thing if it’s going to run tomorrow.”
I stood, reluctant to leave her like this. “I can come back--”
“No. Like I said, I’m talked out.”
“How soon . . . ?” I trailed off, not certain how to ask the question.
She wouldn’t look at me. “Take care of yourself, Eric. Be good.”
I stood there for several seconds, then nodded, crossed to the door, and knocked once for the guard. “If you change your mind,” I said, my back to her. “If you decide you want to talk again, call me.”
Cassie didn’t answer. In the next moment the door opened.
As I started to walk out, she said, “Sorry about your head. And also about your recorder.”
The recorder? I hesitated, my hand straying to my pocket. All I could do was laugh and shake my head.
A guard waited for me in the corridor, a tall, rail thin white kid who couldn’t have been more than twenty years old.
“Is that girl crazy or what?” he asked, grinning like a ghoul.
I grunted a response.
He led me through the twists and turns of the hallways and buzzed me through a series of locked, steel doors. I’d noticed the doors coming in and had meant to count them going back out, but I didn’t remember until after I’d signed out and was outside, beyond the fences and the razor wire. The air felt cool and clean, and I realized that I must have reeked of cigarette smoke. It had rained while I was in the jail, but now the sun was shining, and faint wisps of steam rose from the damp blacktop.
I started toward my car. As I walked I pulled out my cell and dialed Beth’s work number. We’d only been seeing each other for a couple of months, but already it felt substantial, like something that might last.
She picked up after the second ring. “Beth Danbridge.”
“Hi,” I said. “It’s me.”
“Hey, you.” She sounded happy to hear my voice.
I smiled in spite of myself.
“I didn’t expect to hear from you ‘til later,” she said.
“Yeah. I just wanted to say hi.”
“You all right?”
“How’d the interview go?”
“All right. It was hard.”
I didn’t say anything, and for a moment we were both silent.
“You sure you’re all right?” she asked.
“I haven’t hurt you, have I?”
“What?” She sounded confused. I could almost see the frown on her face, the crease in her forehead above those dark brown eyes.
“Never mind.” I took a long breath, rubbed the bump on my head. “I’m sorry I bothered you. Why don’t we eat out tonight? My treat.”
“Yeah, all right. That sounds nice.”
“I’ll come by and get you around seven-thirty.”
“Okay. See you then.”
Before I could close the phone she said, “Eric?”
“You haven’t. We’re doing okay.”
I smiled. “Thanks.” For a heartbeat or two I said nothing. I just enjoyed the silence, the feeling that she was enjoying it to. “Bye.”
I closed the cell and returned it to my jacket pocket. Reaching my car, I glanced back at the prison, taking in the institutional brick, the small barred windows and the floodlights, off for now, but gleaming in the sun. I couldn’t help thinking that it looked like a terrible place to die: sterile and cruel and lonely.
Not that there was much I could do about it. Her death, her choice. She’d made it clear that she didn’t want my help, at least not with that. There was only one thing Cassie expected of me.
I climbed into the car and began the long drive back to the office. In my head, I had already started to write her story.