Memory Man



  “And if someone got him to do this?”

  “Might give us an opportunity. I’m sure you thought of that already.”

  “Will you let me know what you decide with Leopold?”

  “You’re no longer on the force. I wish you were, but you’re not.”

  “It was the choice I had to make at the time.”

  Miller rubbed his nose and buttoned his jacket. “Well, different times call for different choices.”

  He started to leave but turned back. He held up one finger. “Today was your freebie, Amos. You only get one, so you have none left. Don’t forget that. And forget Sebastian Leopold is even on the same planet as you. We’ll take it from here. You screw me over on that, I’m no longer your ally. I will crucify you. Have a good one.”

  Amos Decker sat there for a minute and then rushed back to his room, locked the door, closed all the curtains, lay on the bed with the pillow over his face to block out all the remaining light, and succumbed to the beast devouring his vastly altered mind.

  Chapter

  11

  THE HEAVY CLOUDS ate away at the fragile sky until there was no significant light left, although the sun was up there somewhere, diminished and vacant. It was akin to staring at a forty-watt light bulb while wearing a gauzy blindfold. For Decker, who was deeply influenced by color in everything, it seemed the only one left in the world right now was gray.

  He had his hands in his pockets as the chilly wind bit into him. He had recovered from the migraine, gone to a local Wendy’s, and gulped down a Coke, letting the sugar drain the last vestiges of the discomfort away—an acid wash on dreary, stained metal—and allowing the sweat to dry off his pores. He had then bused back downtown and retrieved his gun and clothes from the trash can. Fortunately, they had not been discovered. He could not afford to lose his only other set of work clothes any more than he could his only weapon.

  Now he was standing there in his old clothes, braced against a stiff wind and staring over at Mansfield High. It had been built, along with thousands of other schools across the country, in a postwar construction boom. The birth rate had spiked in 1946 and those kids would need to go to high school at some point. That’s what being away from home fighting a war for four years did to a man. It made him horny as hell. The wives of America’s returning veterans probably hadn’t slept for an entire year.

  Mansfield was three stories high, all brick, and time had not been kind to it. Windows were boarded up or broken. Mortar had leached out from the neat lines around the rectangular bricks and mottled the school’s façade like meaningless graffiti. The grounds were full of chickweed and dirt patches, the asphalt cracked and the chain-link fences mangled, with gates hanging off twisted, rusted hinges. The place now looked more like an abandoned state mental asylum than a high school.

  It had been built principally as a school for children of the military personnel who worked at the Army base right next door. The base had been one of the biggest employers in Burlington, and servicing all those soldiers was an economic boost to the area. And then the Pentagon downsized and the base in Burlington was one of the first to go. Now the defunct Army base just sat there a hundred yards from Mansfield High behind high chain-link fences and walls of vegetation that had partially reclaimed the land it was on. Burlington had never recovered from the soldiers pulling out, and the later economic downturn was the last nail in the town’s coffin.

  Today, like many other schools, Mansfield was underfunded, beaten down, discipline was hard to find, teachers didn’t stay long, and drug and alcohol abuse was rampant. The student population was less than half of what it had once been, and graduation rates were heading south as fast as snowbirds fleeing to Florida before winter set in.

  Burlington, even without the military base, had once been a prosperous manufacturing town, like thousands of other communities dotted across the middle of the country building what America and the rest of the world needed. Now, with all the manufacturing outsourced overseas, the only thing one could build here was misery. There were two grocery store chains here. From what Decker had seen, the two most popular food items purchased there were Hamburger Helper by the kilo and sugary orange pop by the barrel. And the fast-food places also did brisk business, fattening both the young and old to impossible degrees and foretelling diabetes, cancer, stroke, and heart disease stats blowing right through the roof.

  And didn’t he know that firsthand?

  In Burlington, the few rich lived in gated communities on the west side of town and pretty much never strayed from there. Everybody else lived on the three other compass points. The homeless lived on the streets in ratty sleeping bags, old blankets, and cardboard condos.

  Just like I did.

  Decker had attended school at Mansfield over twenty-five years ago. Some of the trophies bearing his name were still in the gym’s locked glass cabinet. He had been an outstanding high school athlete, lettering in three different sports. He was simply bigger, faster, and stronger than anybody else. He had been popular, dated all the hot girls, slept with a number of them, done okay in the classroom, and everyone had thought him a lock for a pro career.

  How wrong they had been.

  He had been a good, but far from great, college player. And then the funnel narrowed even more. He had gone undrafted on pro draft day because there were hundreds of prospects far better than he was. He had taken that as a personal attack. Decker had worked his way onto the Cleveland Browns by busting his ass on the practice field, sacrificing his body in idiotic ways that had come back to haunt him in his forties, and being the last to leave the film room. For all that effort his career had lasted one regular-season play and had left him with a brain permanently changed.

  Something good had come out of it, at least. He had met Cassie while he was rehabbing his “other” injuries. Because, as it turned out, the hit had not only addled his brain. Both cleats had stuck in the turf as Dwayne LeCroix leveled him. The result was a broken right femur, a blown-out ACL on his left knee, and a torn MCL on his right. Pretty much the whole package, the surgeon had told him. Well, in for a dime, in for a dollar.

  Cassie had been a newly minted physical therapist attending him. He had worked his butt off to get back right. His leg and knees eventually healed. His brain was what it was. But she had been with him every step of the way, encouraging when necessary and bullying her patient when encouragement failed to motivate.

  During that time he and Cassie had fallen as deeply in love as he imagined anyone could. After his stint at the institute outside Chicago where they studied people who had extraordinary mental abilities, he and Cassie had gotten engaged and then married and moved back to his hometown. He had previously given a lot of thought to what he would do in the future, and had come back here with the express purpose of enrolling in the police academy. The classwork was a cakewalk with his new and improved and utterly infallible memory. His physical skills, though somewhat diminished by his injuries, were still far superior to almost all in his academy class. He had sailed through the process, was sworn in, and got his badge and gun. Nine years later he was promoted to detective. For nearly ten years he had investigated major crimes against the good citizens of Burlington—although most of the crimes had also been committed by the not so good citizens of Burlington, with the occasional outsider thrown into the mix.

  They had wanted a large family but had struggled to conceive a child. They spent money they didn’t have on specialists, and at long last Cassie had become pregnant. And they had Molly. She would be their only child. The pregnancy had nearly killed Cassie, and a complication had required surgery that had rendered her incapable of conceiving again.

  They had named her after Decker’s mother. His parents had both perished in a car crash while Decker was in college, so Molly didn’t have paternal grandparents. But she had carried her grandma’s name. Carried it all the way to her premature death at the hands of, perhaps, Sebastian Leopold.

  He stared up at the bri
ck fortress that Mansfield had become. Crazy-angled police tape was everywhere, like a spider’s yellow web looking venomous and terrifying. There were cop cars and forensic trucks, and black trucks with no windows standing ready for the body bags. For Decker was certain the corpses were still in the school. Except for those injured and needing medical attention, you didn’t subtract anything from a crime scene until it was thoroughly gone over, photographed, measured, and adequately poked, prodded, and analyzed. It wouldn’t matter to the dead how long they lay on the floor in pools of their own blood, their lives ripped away by some psycho with unfettered firepower. Forever was forever, after all.

  If Decker had still been on the force he would be in there right now. From where he was standing, he had already seen Mary Lancaster come and go twice. She looked haggard and repulsed and depressed. She glanced his way once but it didn’t seem to register. He knew she had other things on her mind. She probably had forgotten that a man named Sebastian Leopold was sitting in a holding cell. That he had confessed to murdering three people, two of whom had meant everything to Decker. Lancaster had a pile of fresh bodies to work on right now. And with it a criminal out there walking free to possibly kill again, as opposed to one sitting placidly in a holding cell.

  The school story had of course hit the national pipeline. The town was the number one headline on every media platform. The names of the dead had still not been released. Decker had been checking on his phone. “Pending notification of next of kin” was the standard catchphrase. He had heard from a friend on the force that Pete Rourke’s grandson was okay. But a son of a beat cop had not been so lucky. And a police dispatcher’s husband, Andy Jackson, an English teacher at Mansfield, was in the hospital in critical condition with multiple gunshot wounds.

  Decker began to walk, choosing his path with care as he made his way in a long loop around the grounds of the high school and outside the investigative barriers. Miller had said the shooter had escaped. The entire city of Burlington was up in arms about this development. Wasn’t it enough that they had lost their loved ones? But to have the killer walking free right now, perhaps ready to murder again? It made the already horrible completely unbearable.

  Yet how had the man escaped? It was personally and professionally offensive to Decker that any criminal should just walk away from an Armageddon of his own creation.

  And then there was the complex reason. Decker could do nothing more with Leopold. He could either sit powerless and run through endless and ultimately pointless speculation. Or he could think about Mansfield and who had done it. And where that person was now. He chose the latter.

  He kept walking, toward the football field, where he’d enjoyed some of his greatest glories. Football season was over halfway done, and the grass was beaten down. The home game scheduled for this Friday would not be played. They might not play another game this year. Maybe not another game here ever.

  He went up into the stands and took a seat near the fifty-yard line. It was a labor getting his obese body up the steps, and he told himself once again that he needed to lose the weight, get back in some semblance of shape. At this rate, at forty-two, he might not make it to fifty-two. Hell, he might not make it to forty-three.

  As he stared down at the field he ran back in his mind pretty much every play he had been involved in as a high school player. They must have been in his brain somewhere, but he had been incapable of digging through the gray matter to reach them. Now it was effortless. The DVR just went back to the date of his choosing and the game film ran.

  It was both exciting and a bit disturbing to see himself as a young man running over and through other young men. He could throw the ball a mile and with accuracy. In college he had quickly learned that his arm wasn’t strong enough to make all the throws required of a college QB. He had switched to defense full-time, and discovered that the guys on that side of the ball were bigger, stronger, and faster than he was. It was a rude awakening for a guy used to effortless success. He could have given up, but he had chosen to simply work harder than his more gifted teammates.

  In the end it had been for naught. His playing days long over, his law enforcement career also in the toilet, he sat on the hard aluminum bleacher with the row of ridges that guaranteed your butt would be rubbed raw after only one half of a football game. And in doing so decided that he could not look any farther ahead in his life than the next morning. But he had the rest of the day to think about things. And what he was thinking about were ways for a killer to escape from this place.

  There were exit doors all over Mansfield, front, rear, left, and right sides. The place was built long enough ago that people did not walk in with AK-47s and open fire, and thus the original builders had never considered that possibility. But over the years, as the number of school shootings multiplied, many of the doors had been locked down or could only be opened from the inside. Visitors were now supposed to go to the front entrance and check in at the office. There had been talk of putting in metal detectors, but the cost was prohibitive for a nearly bankrupt school system. The school did have an automatic alert mechanism that would be sent out to folks’ emails in the event of an emergency. Presumably that had been deployed today in what was by far the worst emergency the city had ever suffered.

  Outside the ring of police vehicles and media trucks stood the families. When he had passed them earlier Decker saw as much pain in those faces as he was ever likely to see in another human being.

  Molly would have gone to Mansfield when she entered the ninth grade. He could have been one of the parents standing out there, feet stamping lightly on the ground, hands in pockets, faces looking at shoes, a few murmurs between grieving folks. It was all horrible, and Decker felt his gut clench.

  He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. Inside was a fading photo of his daughter on her ninth birthday—as it turned out, the last one she would ever celebrate. He traced the line of her impish smile and then the curls of her hair. Her eyes were her mother’s, hazel and sprightly. He remembered, of course, exactly when the picture was taken and precisely what he was doing when the camera had flashed. It had been early summer, so he’d been barbecuing in the backyard, grilling two of his daughter’s favorite foods: ribs from Kansas City and water-soaked corn on the cob still in their husks.

  He looked back at the school and wondered again how the person had done it. First, gotten into the school with weaponry. Second, committed the murders. Third, managed the exit. That was the crux of the thing, really. Point number three: the exit. With all those people around, many of them still alive, how did you get away with no one seeing you?

  “Dollar for your thoughts?”

  He looked down on the ground near the crushed gravel path that ran around the football field, which itself was enclosed by a waist-high chain-link fence.

  Mary Lancaster was staring up at him, a cigarette perched in her right hand, while the left one rode on her hip trembling away.

  She slowly made her way up the steps and sat down next to him. She had looked pale and uncomfortable this morning. Now she looked crushed and even disoriented. It was amazing what life could do to you in less than a day.

  She puffed on her smoke, said nothing, but gazed out onto the empty field.

  “Shitty time,” noted Decker quietly.

  She nodded but didn’t answer.

  “What’s the situation?” he asked.

  “You want to come and see for yourself?”

  He turned to stare at her. Before he could speak she said, “I heard what you did with Leopold.”

  “I never mentioned you coming to tell me.”

  “If it was me, I probably would have just shot him.”

  He knew that Lancaster had one child, Sandy, who had Down syndrome. Her husband, Earl, was in construction, which meant right now he was probably not working very much. They subsisted mostly on Lancaster’s salary, which wasn’t that large, but did come with good health benefits at least.

  “You don’t
think he’s good for it, do you?” she asked.

  “I’d have to know a lot more.”

  “He’ll get arraigned in the morning. With the confession we can hold him. They’re asking for no bail because he has no known address, no ties to the community, and thus is a decent flight risk. They’ll set it for trial once he lawyers up.”

  “PD?” asked Decker, referring to a public defender.

  “Looks that way. So, the Mansfield crime scene? You want to see?”

  “I can’t go in there, Mary, you know that.”

  “You can, if Mac says it’s okay. As an official consultant to the Burlington Police Department. A paid consultant. You won’t get rich off it, but it’s probably more than your PI gig is paying you.”

  “He really said it was okay?”

  She held out her phone. “Want to read the email yourself? Or let me do it for you.” She turned the screen back to her and read, ‘Get Decker on Mansfield. See what he sees. We need help and him sitting on his fat ass feeling sorry for himself or obsessing over Leopold or playing private dick for lowlifes is not a good use of his time.’”

  “I see he’s been following my recent career.”

  “I guess so.” She rose, puffed her smoke nearly all the way down, and then flicked the butt away. Decker watched as it dropped down to the crushed gravel, flamed for a sec, and then went out.

  Like all those dead in the school, thought Decker as he rose and followed his old partner down the steps.

  Chapter

  12

  SCHOOLS SHOULD NEVER be this quiet. That was Decker’s first thought as he walked down the hall next to Lancaster. His second thought was that this was the grimmest place he would ever visit.

  He passed pictures on the wall of long-ago principals of Mansfield, including the man who had headed up the school when he was there. He glanced at rooms where he had sat in class, sometimes listening, sometimes taking notes, and sometimes sleeping while pretending to listen and take notes.

  He forgot about the past when he saw the leg right at the juncture of two halls. It was a bare calf, which told Decker the