Authors: Owen Laukkanen
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Crime Fiction, #Thrillers
Also by Owen Laukkanen
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
Publishers Since 1838
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New York, New York 10014
Copyright © 2016 by Owen Laukkanen
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-19408-3
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The watcher in the wall : a Stevens and Windermere novel / Owen Laukkanen.
PR9199.4.L384W38 2016 2015026298
It was time.
Adrian Miller had planned to wait, a few more days, another week, maybe. Hell, when he woke up for school that morning, before school, he wasn’t even sure he would do it anymore. He’d thought about his mom and dad and sister, about Lucas, and wondered what kind of monster would want to hurt them the way he was planning. He’d hugged his parents good-bye and walked out the front door, and it was a beautiful fall morning, crisp and bracing and clear, and he’d decided,
. Maybe not ever.
But then he showed up at school, and it all started again.
Lucas wouldn’t talk to him. Lucas
talked to him, not in public, anyway. Lucas avoided his eyes in the hallway, wouldn’t eat lunch with him, made him wait until the final bell rang and they could go to the park, or to Lucas’s dad’s basement, somewhere far away from school and Lucas’s real friends.
Today, though, Lucas acted even more distant. Wouldn’t even answer Adrian’s texts. Laughed along with his friends when they mocked Adrian in math class, when someone poured water on his seat, so that
when he sat down it seemed like he’d pissed himself. He’d glared over at the jocks in the corner, Lucas among them, all of them pointing and laughing and losing their minds, snapping pictures to upload to Facebook. Lucas was laughing with them. Lucas didn’t even have the courtesy to look away, even when Adrian caught his eye, like,
What the hell, man?
I thought you were my friend.
The pictures showed up online by lunchtime. Followed him around for the rest of the day. By the time the final bell rang, he’d forgotten how happy he’d felt that morning. He’d remembered why he wanted to do it.
And now it was time.
He was alone in the house. His parents wouldn’t be home for another couple of hours at least. His little sister was off with her friends. He set his backpack on the bed and opened up his laptop, heard the chime from a hundred and one Facebook notifications.
He opened a new window in his browser. Logged on to the website he visited most. Found Ambriel98 and opened a chat window.
I think I’m ready. I think I’m going to do it today.
A long pause. He pictured Ambriel on the other side of the screen, staring into her own laptop somewhere in Pennsylvania. Wondered if she’d try and stop him.
It’s the right decision,
U’ll be in a better place.
At least I won’t be in this place,
I wish I had your balls.
He kind of laughed, despite himself.
Turn your webcam on if you’re doing it,
Your microphone, too, like we talked about. You’ll inspire me. You’ll inspire so many people like us.
He surveyed his room. Wondered if he was really ready to do this. Heard the chime from Facebook again, another asshole he couldn’t avoid, even in his own bedroom. Pictured going through another year of this shit, graduating, and then what?
More shit, probably.
Never any escape.
He dug into the bottom drawer of his desk. Pulled out the bottle he’d stolen from his dad, uncapped it, and took a drink. Grimaced at the burn. Then he turned back to his laptop. Screw it. He was ready.
Get ready for the show,
he told Ambriel as he switched on his webcam.
See you on the other side.
The phone wouldn’t
Carla Windermere looked up from her computer, irritated. Looked across the small office to her partner’s empty workstation, then out into the hall and the Criminal Investigative Division beyond. Kirk Stevens
had disappeared somewhere, and he’d left his dinky old cell phone behind.
Windermere pushed herself out of her chair, crossed to Stevens’s desk, where the cell phone kept bleating its tinny electronic ringtone. She snatched up the phone, walked to the doorway, and scanned CID, fully intending to give her partner a lecture on the merits of his handset’s “silent” feature. But there was no sign of Stevens anywhere.
Windermere was still getting used to the whole partner thing. She’d worked with Stevens, a special agent with Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, on a number of high-profile cases during her four years at the FBI’s Minneapolis office. She liked the man, a twenty-year cop with sharp instincts and a steady aim, figured they worked well together—and history proved it. But when their bosses had decided to put them together on a joint FBI-BCA violent crimes task force, they’d shunted Stevens into the FBI building, given him an office with Windermere. And Windermere still wasn’t sure how she felt about sharing.
Still clutching Stevens’s phone, Windermere walked deeper into the CID bullpen, splitting the rows of cubicles until she came to Derek Mathers’s desk. “Seen Stevens?”
Mathers grinned up from his computer when he saw her. He was a junior agent, a boyish, good-looking Wisconsin farm boy. He’d also managed to thaw Windermere’s heart enough that lately she’d been calling him her boyfriend, despite how much the lovey-dovey stuff nauseated her.
“Stevens? No idea,” Mathers said. “You try the kitchen?”
The phone shut off. Stayed silent a moment. Then it started back up again. Around CID, people poked their heads up from their cubicles.
“I swear, the bastard’s doing this to piss me off,” Windermere said.
• • •
Stevens was just replacing the coffeepot when she walked into the break room. “Carla,” he said. “You want coffee? Fresh pot.”
“I swear to God, Stevens, if this thing keeps ringing, I’m going to answer it myself,” she said, brandishing the phone. “And I can’t be held responsible for what happens next.”
Stevens made his eyes wide. Put down the pot and his coffee mug, crossed the break room to the door. “Give it here,” he said. “The last thing I need is you swapping more stories with my wife.”
He took the phone, flipped it open. “Agent Stevens,” he said, ducking out into the hallway.
Windermere savored the silence for a moment. Regarded the coffeepot.
As long as I’m here
. She poured herself a cup. Replaced the pot. Left the break room and found Stevens standing in the hall, staring at his phone, pale.
“You okay?” she asked.
“That was Andrea,” Stevens told her. “There was an incident at her school. I have to go get her. One of her classmates, uh, well, I guess he killed himself.”
Windermere felt something twinge inside her, something small and tucked away and long forgotten. “Shit,” she said. “Stevens, that’s awful.”
“Yeah,” Stevens said, still staring at the phone. “Andrea’s a mess. I should—”
“Go, definitely. Get out of here.”
Stevens nodded. Walked off down the hall like he was in a kind of daze. Windermere watched him go, all the way back through CID to
the bank of elevators on the far wall. Watched him until he’d disappeared, and wondered why she wasn’t moving.
“His name was Adrian Miller,”
Kirk Stevens told his wife. “His parents found him in the bedroom when they got home from work yesterday. They figure he did it about as soon as he came home from school.”
Across the dining room table, Andrea Stevens wiped her eyes with a Kleenex. “He was in my math class,” she told her parents. “Some asshole jocks from the football team poured water on his chair yesterday and took pictures of it when he sat down. It was all over Facebook.”
She blew her nose. Glanced at her mom. “Sorry for swearing,” she said quietly.
Nancy Stevens waved her off. Dabbed at her own eyes. “Kids can be so mean.”
Stevens nodded. Had nothing to say. He’d driven to the school as soon as Andrea called, found her with her boyfriend and the rest of her classmates, along with the principal and a couple of grief counselors besides. Three weeks into senior year, everybody was still wearing the last of their summer tans, nobody prepared for this.
He’d called his wife at the law office, and she picked up JJ, their eleven-year-old son, brought him back home for a family day.
“He was just a quiet kid,” Andrea said. “He dressed kind of funny, and he didn’t have any friends, but he was a nice guy, anyway. There was nothing
“Why didn’t he have any friends?” JJ asked.
“I don’t know,” Andrea said. “People were always picking on him, that’s all.” Her face seemed to crumple. “It’s all just so
You got that right,
Stevens thought. He’d dealt with plenty of different kinds of cruelty during his career as a BCA investigator, but the ways kids had of tormenting each other still made his stomach turn. Andrea, smart and athletic and popular, had managed to avoid the worst of the bullying, thank God. But JJ would be starting high school soon enough, and who could say how his classmates would treat him?
Andrea looked up. “You have to do something, Dad. You have to make it so the people who did this to Adrian have to pay.”
Stevens swapped glances with his wife. “I don’t know if there’s anything I
do, Ange. This kind of thing, it’s probably too late to solve anything. There’s not really any point in mucking people around.”
“You’re a cop. Adrian’s
. Aren’t you supposed to punish the responsible parties?”
Nancy rubbed Andrea’s back. “He can’t just arrest all those jocks, honey,” she said. “It wouldn’t solve anything, anyway. It’s not going to bring Adrian back, no matter who gets arrested.”
“You have to do
, Dad. You can’t just let people get away with this.”
Stevens studied his daughter across the table, her fierce eyes.
She has her mom’s sense of justice,
Always fighting for the underdog
. It was the quality he admired most in his wife, a brilliant law mind who’d turned her back on a comfortable salary to work Legal Aid for the city’s
downtrodden. It warmed Stevens’s heart to know his daughter had inherited the same passion.
“Let me see what I can do,” he told Andrea. “I can’t promise it’ll make you feel any better, but maybe I can make a few calls.”
Windermere had tried
to get back to work after Stevens left. She’d had a whole pile of paperwork to process, the last hoops to jump through on a sex-trafficking case she and Stevens closed during the summer. Had all afternoon to work on it, her office blissfully free of any distractions, any annoying ringtones, but somehow the work didn’t get done.
“It’s nothing,” she told Mathers at dinner that night. “I’m fine, Derek. No big deal.”
They’d gone back to her condo in downtown Minneapolis, as usual. Were supposed to do some cooking, had all the ingredients for a kick-ass ceviche. Windermere had started her career in Miami; she was slowly weaning Mathers off of his meat-and-potatoes dependency. But tonight they ate take-out Chinese, fried rice and egg rolls. And conversation was minimal.
She’d done some searching after Stevens had left that morning, dug through yesterday’s police reports until she found the right file: Adrian
Miller, seventeen years old, a senior at Kennedy High School. Found hanging in his bedroom, a clear suicide. There wasn’t much more in the file, not much more to say, but she’d stared at the screen all afternoon, anyway.
She couldn’t say why, exactly. Windermere prided herself on being the tough cop, the no-nonsense hard-ass who brought the bad guys to justice without dragging any emotional baggage behind her. She was strong, independent, barely needed Mathers in her life, much less any friends and family. And kids? Forget it. So why did some poor teenager’s suicide have her rattled?
Big Bird, that’s why,
Wanda Rose and Rene Duclair. Things you thought you’d managed to forget.
She drank another beer while Mathers cleared the table. Knew he was watching her, waiting for her to say something, ignored him. Just sat at the table and drank her beer, thought about Adrian Miller and Wanda and Rene, tried to chase those long-ago voices from her ears.
“You know you can talk to me, right?” Mathers said, tucking the leftovers in the fridge. “I mean, something’s bugging you, Carla. I’m your boyfriend. I can help if you let me.”
She drained her bottle, set it down on the table. “Bring me another one, Derek,” she said. “Seeing as you’re so keen to help.”
Windermere had been
a junior when Rene Duclair moved to Southaven. She came from somewhere across the Mississippi River, some backwater town in Arkansas, as far as Windermere could figure. She was quiet, kind of homely, wore the same three outfits in constant rotation, the colors fading from all the washing, the fabric thinning to nothing.
“Poor,” Wanda Rose would whisper, watching Rene pass. “Her dang clothes don’t even fit right. Must have been wearing them since she was normal-sized.”
Rene was tall, had inches on most of the boys in the grade, let alone the girls. Plus, she was clumsy. Awkward and ungainly as a baby giraffe, the kind of girl who’d set fire to her chemistry experiment, cause an evacuation. She was always knocking things over, tripping over her feet and falling on her face, spilling her lunch, sending her homework flying. Rene was an easy target to pick on. And Wanda Rose did.
Thing is, for all that, Rene was a decent girl. Windermere had a couple classes with her, senior year, walked a similar route home, till they’d covered about a half mile from school. Sometimes they walked together. Sometimes when they walked, they talked.
Turned out Rene had been all over the place before she came to Mississippi. Her dad had worked barges on the river, from the Gulf Coast all the way up to Saint Louis, and he’d taken Rene with him.
“My mom wandered off when I was little,” Rene told Windermere.
“So I had to go along when my dad found a new job. We lived in just about every state within fifty miles of the river.”