Authors: Blake Pierce
“That poor kid could have been Eugene’s first victim,” Riley said after she’d finished reading the article to Bill.
“Jesus,” Bill murmured. “He started as a pre-teen? What kind of monster are we dealing with?”
Riley remembered Dr. Lombard’s stony silence when she’d asked him if someone had been murdered. She thought about the smiling young child she’d seen in the photograph at Walter Sattler’s house. How soon had that child been turned into a killer?
When Bill parked the car, Riley observed that the group home was housed in a clean, modern building. Outside in front was a playground with colorful equipment. There were dozens of kids playing happily.
Two gray-clad, smiling nuns were watching over them. Riley and Bill approached the closest one.
“Excuse me, Sister,” Riley said. “Could you take us to this facility’s director?”
“That would be me,” the nun said pleasantly. “Sister Cecilia Berry. What can I do for you?”
Riley was surprised at how young she looked. It didn’t seem likely that she’d been in charge of this place all those years ago. Riley wondered what they could hope to learn from her.
Riley and Bill both took out their badges.
“We’re Agents Jeffreys and Paige, FBI,” Bill said. “We’d like to ask you a few questions.”
Sister Cecilia’s smile dropped away. She turned pale. She looked around, as if to make sure that nobody was watching.
“Please come with me,” she said. She called to another nun to take over the playground supervision.
Riley and Bill walked with her into the building. On their way to nun’s office, Riley noticed that the building was organized like a dormitory. Down one hall, she saw rows of rooms, many with their doors open. A couple of kindly-looking nuns were checking in on the kids, stopping to talk with them as they went. Music, conversation, and laughter could be heard.
From what Riley could see, the St. Genesius Children’s Home was a warm, welcoming place.
So why is this woman so uneasy?
Riley and Bill sat down in Sister Cecilia’s office. But the sister didn’t sit down. She paced with agitation.
“I don’t know why you’re here,” she said. “We’ve had no complaints since this new facility opened. We have lawyers to deal with the old cases. If you’ve checked with the DHS, they’ll tell you that we pass every inspection with a perfect score. I’ll show you the latest report.”
She started to open a file drawer.
“Sister Cecilia, I don’t think you understand the nature of our visit,” Bill said.
Riley added, “We’re here to ask about a child who was here sixteen years ago. Eugene Fisk. We’re trying to find him. He’s the subject of a murder investigation.”
“Oh,” the sister said with surprise. She sat behind her desk.
“Please excuse my mistake,” she said. “We’re trying to put our history behind us. I’m sure you can understand.”
The truth was, Riley didn’t understand, and she was sure that Bill didn’t either.
“What can you tell us about Eugene Fisk?” Riley asked.
Sister Cecilia looked wary.
“What do you know already?” she asked.
Bill said, “We know that he was transferred to a psychiatric hospital after your old facility burned down. A boy died in that fire—Ethan Holbrook. We’re here to find out more about what happened.”
“It was before my time, of course,” Sister Cecilia said, getting up from her desk and going back to the file cabinet. “But I know Eugene’s story well.”
She opened a drawer, took out a file, and sat down again.
“It was a terrible story,” she said, opening the file and scanning its contents. “Most of the nuns thought Eugene had started the fire. They even thought he might have killed Ethan. Nothing was ever proven.”
“Why would he have killed another child?” Riley asked.
Referring to the old file, Sister Cecilia explained, “It seemed that Ethan Holbrook was an awful bully. He was particularly ugly toward Eugene. Eugene was small, weak, and awkward. And he had a terrible speech impediment. Ethan tormented and mocked him about it.”
“Why didn’t the nuns put a stop to the bullying?” Riley asked.
Sister Cecilia fell silent.
“I get the impression there’s something you don’t want to tell us,” Riley said.
Slowly and reluctantly, the sister said, “There’s quite a lot I’d rather not tell you, actually. It’s not exactly a secret. It’s not a secret at all. You can find court records about it, and old news stories. It’s just so awful to have to dredge up the past. And I’d hate to have it all in the news again. With the Lord’s help, we’ve tried to put it all behind us. We do nothing but good work here now. We really do.”
“We’re sure that’s true,” Riley said. “But it would help if you’d tell us.”
Sister Cecilia said nothing for a moment. Then she continued, “After the fire, when the home was just starting to be rebuilt, the truth began to come out. The director back then was Sister Veronica Orlando. She’d run the place for more than a decade. She and her nuns were merciless. They encouraged the kids to bully each other. And she and the nuns would punish kids horribly for the smallest things—like sneezing or wetting the bed.”
Riley was struck by the sister’s sad expression. She could see that Sister Cecilia was doing her best to redeem the home from its awful history. Even so, the poor woman couldn’t help but be haunted by a past for which she had no responsibility.
“Sister Cecilia,” Riley asked in a gentle tone, “did any of these punishments involve chains?”
“If you’re asking whether the kids themselves were chained up, no,” she said. “But Sister Veronica and her nuns did sometimes lock them up by putting chains on the doors.”
Sister Cecilia tilted her head inquisitively.
“But it’s interesting you should ask about chains,” she said, checking the record again. “Eugene came here when he was ten years old. He’d been found with a shackle on one ankle, chained to a post in his house. He was starving, and he couldn’t talk at all.”
“Where was his mother?” Bill asked.
“She’d been murdered. Her body was found right there in the house, right in front of the child where he would have seen the whole thing. The killer was never caught.”
“How was she killed?” Riley asked.
“Her throat was slit,” Sister Cecilia said. “The straight razor that killed her was found there too, thrown down on the floor near her. But they didn’t find any prints on it.”
Then the nun looked out the window, still with that haunted expression.
“The newspapers didn’t say it,” she said, “but that was how Ethan Holbrook died, too.”
Riley was awakened by Lucy charging through the door between their adjoining hotel rooms.
“Turn on your TV!” Lucy cried.
Riley yanked herself to a sitting position. “What?” she asked. She saw that it was morning. She and Bill had gotten back to Albany last night. In the other bed, April growled sleepily, “What’s going on?”
“I’ll get it,” Lucy said. She found the clicker and turned the television on herself. The first words Riley heard were those of a news announcer.
“We must warn our viewers that some of the images you’re about to see are graphic.”
Riley immediately saw that the announcer really meant it. The first image was of a chain-bound body dangling from a tree branch. Mercifully, the body was facing away from the camera.
The announcer continued, “A woman was brutally murdered last night, her body left in Albany’s Curtis Park. This seems to be the latest in a series of ‘chain murders’ that have terrorized the Hudson River area over the last five years. The victim’s identity is being withheld pending notification of her family …”
“No,” Riley muttered. “It can’t be. Not yet.”
The tree branch overhung a road, and it looked like the same park where Carla Liston had been abducted. The hanging body surely must be that of Carla Liston. But it was too soon. He’d only taken her a few days ago.
As the announcer continued, the camera panned to show that a small crowd of gawkers had clustered just outside the area that the cops had taped off. The whole situation was an investigator’s nightmare.
Now the on-the-scene reporter was talking to the man who had discovered the body a couple of hours earlier.
“I was just driving through the park on my way to work,” the man said. “When I saw it, I almost wrecked my car. Then I thought maybe it was a dummy hung up by some sick pranksters. But when you look you can tell …”
At that moment came a sharp knock on the hotel room door. While Riley stared at the TV screen, Lucy went to the door and let Bill in.
He said, “I just got a call from Harvey Dewhurst, the head of the Albany field office. He’s going out of his mind. That guy you see on camera there called the media before he called the police.”
Riley shook her head wearily. “Well, he’s sure getting his fifteen minutes of fame,” she said.
Bill continued, “As soon as the police heard about it, they knew it was our case and called the field office. But by the time Dewhurst and his people got there, the media was all over the scene. And the sightseers had also started to arrive.”
“We have to get over there,” Lucy said.
Riley was already out of bed, scrounging around for clothes. She carried her things into the bathroom and got dressed in a hurry. No time for breakfast, she knew. Maybe they could grab some coffee when they went by the motel breakfast room.
When she came out, Bill and Lucy were waiting by the door.
“We’ve got to go, April,” Riley said to her daughter. “All of us. You stay put right here.”
“It’s your job,” April said. “Go. I’ll be fine.”
During the drive to Curtis Park, Riley was still trying to get her mind around what had happened.
“I don’t get what’s going on,” she said. “He’s breaking his own MO. He’s supposed to hold his victims captive for a longer time. For weeks. Why did he kill her so fast?”
A wave of discouragement swept over her.
“I thought we had more time to find Carla Liston,” she added sadly.
“We did everything we could,” Lucy said from the back seat.
But Bill said nothing as he drove. Riley knew that he felt exactly the same as she did. After all their years doing this job, they’d never gotten used to losing a victim. It was especially hard when they felt that they were closing in on the killer.
When they arrived at the park, Riley saw that television crew vans were mingled with police vehicles. The crowd outside the taped-off area had gotten larger, and people were snapping pictures with their cell phones. She and Lucy followed Bill as he pushed his way through to the police tape. They showed their badges to a pair of cops who were doing their best to control the area.
Then the three of them walked up the road toward where the body was still hanging in plain view. Riley could now see that the victim was clad in a straitjacket, just the same as the earlier victims. And like Rosemary Pickens in Reedsport, she’d been hauled up on a rope that ran through a pulley.
Riley stopped and stared, shaken by the sheer audacity of the display. Eugene Fisk must have stopped his van here before dawn, climbed up onto the overhanging limb, fastened the pulley in place, then climbed back down and hoisted Carla Liston’s body.
And all without being seen,
Riley thought. He’d been more than daring, but he’d also been lucky.
This wasn’t some abandoned warehouse by a railroad track, but a well-used road through a city park. With any other serial killer, Riley would assume that he was becoming more brazen, thumbing his nose at the authorities. But she knew that Eugene Fisk was a different sort of creature. This was more likely to be a gesture of sheer desperation. Again she wondered what was going on with the maniacal killer.
Special Agent Harvey Dewhurst trotted toward them. He was overweight and middle-aged, and at the moment he was anxious, red-faced, and sweating. He was also as angry as hell.
“I hate it when this kind of shit happens,” Dewhurst said. “You guys are the Quantico experts. You tell me what we can do for damage control.”
“First of all, you’d better get her down,” Bill said.
Riley agreed. She had asked Chief Alford to leave Rosemary Pickens’s body hanging until she could get to the scene, but this was a different matter. The Reedsport police had been in better control of the crime scene. Here, too many pictures had been taken of this corpse already. And she and the rest of the FBI on site had already looked everything over.
Dewhurst turned to the local cop in charge.
“Tell your people to bring her down,” he said. “And tell the coroner to get right to work on the body.” He looked around and added, “And clear those onlookers out of here. Move the tape back where they can’t take pictures and open up some room for the coroner to get his wagon in.”
The cop hurried away to carry out Dewhurst’s orders.
“What next?” Dewhurst asked.
Riley thought for a moment.
“We might as well take advantage of the media,” she said. “Have the local TV stations alert the public that we’re looking for a white Ford delivery van. A dented rear bumper, no other known markings, a Pennsylvania license plate. Agent Vargas can give you a photo that she took of it. Make sure the public sees it.”
Then Riley reached into her bag and pulled out the photo of Eugene that the psychiatrist had given her.
“This picture shows the suspect as a teenager,” Riley explained. “He’s now twenty-seven years old. Take this back to the field office and run it through the age progression program. We should be able to get a good image of what he probably looks like now. Then make sure it gets on TV and the Internet.”
She thought another moment and said, “Don’t mention that the perp has a stutter. That will help filter the calls.”
At that moment the coroner called out to Dewhurst, “You’d better have a look at something over here.” He was crouched over the body that had been lowered carefully to the ground.
Riley, Bill, and Lucy all followed Dewhurst to see what the coroner was indicating. The woman’s eyes were wide open, and she still wore a terrified expression on her face. The coroner pointed to her throat.