Breaking into a person’s home was the easy part.
Suffering was born from the stolen nostalgia.
Frank Grimm never took anything that didn’t belong to him, tried to keep his presence invisible — like he had never even been there at all — and tamped down the vicarious thrill he occasionally felt while stalking lives like he did. Because the breaking and entering had never been about the excitement. Frank sneaked into his neighbors’ homes and turned them inside out while their occupants were away for only one reason: to find the person who murdered his daughter, Jenny.
One day, he would find and kill the man responsible.
Then the world would be a slightly better place. And Frank might finally be able to sleep through the night.
Right now he was in one of the newer rebuilds in the cul-de-sac. The Jhasti family had moved in four years ago, less than a week after the Bensons loaded everything into a big Mayflower truck and a much smaller U-Haul. Frank wasn’t sure where the Mayflower had been bound, and back then he didn’t care enough to ask, but both of the Benson children were all grown up. So Joseph and Leslie had decided to buy a tiny house, an acre of land, and all the peace of mind that accompanied solitude and a severe lack of attachment.
Now Frank thought about that all the time. Getting the hell out of Creek County. Finding a quiet place to live out the rest of his miserable life, knowing he could never, ever be happy again.
Not without Jenny.
Not without Sarah.
And not without any answers, or quenching the vengeance that lived inside him like a thirst.
Frank moved from Peter’s room to Tabitha’s, trading posters of the
Justice League and McLarens for One Direction and My Little Pony. Tabitha was probably too old for those toys now, even though she had a battalion of them arranged on her nightstand. Jenny got her first Pony on her fifth birthday from one of the girls in her kindergarten class, and for the next six years she was obsessed. She was already starting to grow out of it, and hadn’t really been playing with them much anymore when the unthinkable happened, but looking down at the Ponies now was a reminder, same as it always was.
Every time he’d ever been inside this room.
It wasn’t that Frank had lost count of how many times that had been so far, it was that he didn’t want to think about it. Or acknowledge his obsession.
Tabitha was fifteen, the same age Jenny would have been if ...
He swallowed, and tried to rinse the thought from his mind. It was already nested there whether he liked it or not, growing scabrous inside him. He was here for answers, not to reminisce.
He picked up one of the ponies and felt a stab of pain with the realization that he knew its name. Pinky Pie, Jenny’s favorite.
He palmed the pony, then went to sit on the edge of Tabitha’s bed, thinking.
He shouldn’t be this comfortable in another person’s home, and was breaking one of his own rules by getting lost in his thoughts like he was. But this house was different and always had been. Tabitha and Jenny were the same age, so being in her room kept him haunted by the same recurring thought.
It could have been Tabitha instead.
Tabitha was just as innocent, she had just as much potential.
Would the life that had been squeezed out of Jenny have destroyed Bill Jhasti just like it had ruined Frank?
The girls had just begun getting close. It took more than a year after the new family moved into the cul-de-sac before they started playing — or hanging out, as Jenny insisted — together.
But they never got to have a sleepover.
They never got to paint each other’s toenails, and probably never got to talk about boys from school, and who they each might have a crush on.
Or girls. Frank would never get to know that part of his daughter — who she might have liked if some sick bastard hadn’t—
He stood from the bed and returned General Pinky Pie to the front of her battalion.
He should really be going.
There were no answers here.
But Frank looked around the room again anyway. He saw a battered flute case over by Tabitha’s desk. She had apparently signed up for band, because the instrument hadn’t been there the last time Frank had broken into the house, just over a week ago.
Bill Jhasti was innocent. He knew that, same as he knew that this particular home wouldn’t have any answers. But it fed something inside him to be there; a loaf of bread for a man starving to both remember and forget. Going through Tabitha’s things would never help him catch the killer, but it was a compulsion he couldn’t do much about.
Or maybe he could.
If Frank were willing.
And since he wasn’t, maybe he was as broken as the man he would one day murder.
Two sides of a shattered mirror.
Staying here in Tabitha’s room and drowning in pilfered nostalgia kept Frank away from the truth. Jenny’s case had never produced any DNA evidence, so his only hope of catching the killer was to find a trophy, photos of his daughter that someone shouldn’t have, anything that might tie a suspect to her.
Frank’s longest running theory was that someone in their neighborhood had been obsessed with Jenny, and finally acted on their wicked fixation. Specifically, someone in his cul-de-sac, where she could have been seen playing on the front lawn like she once loved to do — ring-around-the- orange-tree — before her life was stolen away.
A few months before she’d died, she told her mother that the neighbor had been creeping her out. When Frank had asked which neighbor, Jenny had refused to answer, saying it was nothing, not wanting to cause a scene. Had she seen into the eyes of the man who would kill her? Frank couldn’t help but wonder.
Only one home on Heirloom Cove was exempt from suspicion, and only because the family had moved in six months ago, half a year too late. The two-story Victorian with a family of three that had so far kept to themselves. The daughter looked about Jenny’s age. Another friend she would never get to have.
Breaking and entering wasn’t just a way to cope, it was Frank’s only way to gather the kind of evidence he couldn’t legally obtain as a cop. The only way he could subsist or survive after Sarah—
He couldn’t think about her either. Or that.
None of his to-dos could be done here at the Jhastis’, so Frank needed to go.
He stood with a sigh, and was smoothing his indent from Tabitha’s perfectly made bed when he startled at the sound of a car pulling into the driveway.
Three long steps and Frank was looking out the window.
He clenched his fists, angry at both his indulgence and his incompetence.
Bill was never home at this time of day. Frank had never seen him stay home sick — or pretending to — even once in the entire time he’d been paying close attention. He left for work with his prissy tie knotted too tightly like always.
Bill slammed the door to his Audi, either speaking to someone on Bluetooth or muttering to himself like a madman. He looked upset. His movements seemed erratic and frantic.
Frank had a minute at most.
He spent six seconds to make sure the bed looked like a glass tabletop, then took flash inventory of his situation. His options were either slogging through wet concrete, or waiting for it to dry at his ankles.
He couldn’t afford to panic.
Frank closed his eyes for a moment to calm his nerves.
He’d always been prepared for this inevitability. He was breaking into homes while his neighbors were away. He had run the scenarios to sharpen himself, knowing he might need to cut his way out of an unexpected situation. Without killing.
His target couldn’t be found at the Jhastis’, and yet here he was having to decide between getting caught by Bill, or jumping out a second-story window. A subpar option; not only would the coast need to be clear of any neighbors walking their dogs or out for a late morning stroll — that loudmouth Iggy liked to treat the cul-de-sac like his private trail — but landing would make a loud noise for sure.
Bill would almost for sure hear Frank’s escape, in addition to any curious neighbors opening their own windows to investigate the disturbance. And, perhaps most obvious, was that Frank was too damned old to be jumping from second stories. He could very well break a leg or two.
The front door opened downstairs.
Bill’s furious voice filled the house. “—whatever he did! Let me ask you something, Wally: am I a man you know to unnecessarily swear?” A beat for Wally to answer. “Exactly, Wally. So you should be extra concerned when I remind you that this is FUCKING RIDICULOUS!”
Bill Jhasti might be the nicest guy on the street. Frank felt genuinely curious to know what Wally had done to upset him, but he needed to make a move more than anything else.
Bill was already stomping up the stairs.
At least he was mad enough, and talking loudly enough, that Bill wouldn’t be able to hear Frank moving quietly around. He looked around the room again — a futile gesture to buy him a breath or two. Tabitha’s closet was the only place he could possibly go.
He slipped inside and closed the door like a whisper behind him.
“I’m going to make this as clear as I can make it. No — you don’t get to respond right now! This isn’t just a fireable offense, I feel like using my life savings to hire an ex-Mossad agent to kill you. Not Orson, not Greenburg, and not Farrow. You, Wally.”
Bill marched right by Tabitha’s room, then loudly yanked open the door to his home office and went inside, giving Wally a moment to defend himself.
This was bad.
Frank couldn’t get caught.
Even if he managed to escape undetected, the Jhastis couldn’t suspect that someone had been inside their house. If the sheriff's office traced the break-in to him, his life would become unbearable again. The media spotlight was too bright for Frank, its heat too much for him to take.
Innocence didn’t matter. The attention was damage enough. And of course they would bring up Jenny.
Bill was still yelling up a storm. Like Wally, Frank didn’t know Bill Jhasti as a man to swear without intent, but he’d also just heard him scream, “I HOPE YOU DIE SHITTING!”
Tabitha would be home in an hour and a half.
So Frank should get out in the next minute or so.
Bill’s voice got louder as he emerged from his office and passed
Tabitha’s room while walking back toward the stairs.
“I understand sorry. I can relate to sorry. I might even be able to see
how sorry could relate to this situation — IF YOU HADN’T COST THE COMPANY THE CARLSON ACCOUNT!”
Bill sounded like he was halfway to the ground floor.
“You know what else you cost me?” No chance to answer. “My job, Wally. This is probably going to cost me my fucking job.”
Frank sure hoped not, for Peter and Tabitha’s sake. And Nicole’s.
The Jhastis were good people.
And he shouldn’t be here.
It sounded like Bill was now yelling at Wally from the kitchen or thereabouts.
Frank took a series of exceedingly cautious steps, out of the closet then
down the stairs, and into the living room. He looked both ways, feeling like he was attempting to cross a highway at midnight, then dared another eight heart-stopping steps toward the front door.
Bill was still barking at Wally like a rabid dog, but Frank was positive he’d see him opening the front door, or hear him closing it and running over to investigate.
But Frank made it to the other side with a pounding heart.
This was too risky going out the front instead of the back like he usually did, but it wasn’t like he could wave at Bill on his way out the kitchen door.
He looked up and down the street to make sure he was alone.
Then exhaled with relief as he cut a sharp right onto the sidewalk and aimed himself toward home.
Frank made it ten steps before he looked up and saw the girl at 47 Heirloom — much too skinny and always dressed in black — staring down at him from her second-story window.
She’d seen him escape.