From Stockholm, With Love
Working backwards, it had all ended a year before Dean Rogan had ended up dead. He met Alexa King at an auto show in Las Vegas. He had been there cruising with his friends, looking for slots to play and dice to roll and fast cars that he could never afford with the winnings he wasn’t getting. She was there out of professional curiosity. And somewhere between that day, and his betrayal, it all unraveled, her sanity came tumbling down like her hair, which swung back and forth as she smashed his head against the headboard of a hotel’s four poster bed.
And before all of that, Alexa was coping. Before all of that, Alexa was high. And before all of that, Alexa was screaming, kicking, begging for them to bring her father back to her. And before that, there was her mother. Her mother, Joanna, who spent three years in a court-ordered rehab facility, or at any rate, three years away from them. Alexa was sixteen and getting ready for school when she heard the knock at the door. She answered it without thinking, because they lived in a safe, suburban neighborhood, and nobody dangerous ever came calling.
“Hey, baby,” Joanna said, in a small voice. Her smile cracked her sun-damaged skin.
Alexa didn’t know what to do. She considered closing the door on her, but before she could, Joanna stepped inside, taking Alexa’s hand.
“I’ve come to take you away from all this,” Joanna said. “It will be better, where we are.”
“What?” Alexa breathed. “No… What about Daddy?”
“Sh, baby, it’s OK,” her mother assured her. “I’m better now. And I have some friends in the car, and they’re going to make sure your father never hurts you again.”
“Daddy didn’t hurt me,” Alexa hissed. “You did.”
This visibly stung. Her eyes widened ever so slightly and her mouth hung open. But she swallowed, snapped it shut, and nodded vigorously. “Yes, sweetheart, yes, I know I did. And I am so sorry for…” She reached out tentatively to touch the air between them, looking at Alexa’s face.
Alexa knew what she was staring at. “No. Get out of my house.”
“I said get out!” She pushed her mother away from her towards the door.
“What’s going on here?” Both of them turned to look at the top of the stairs, where Louis King stood straightening his tie.
Joanna took a deep breath and held her head high as she stepped forward. “Hello, Louis.”
There were footsteps, and Alexa turned to look at the open front door, where a man and a woman stood in suits. She had long, brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. He was darker skinned, and had darker hair, and wore sunglasses. The man’s hand hovered over his gun in his holster while the woman flashed a badge. “Reno PD,” she said. “Sir, we have a court order to remove this girl from this environment immediately until further investigation.”
Louis looked from the officers to Joanna and Alexa. “Remove her from what? That’s my daughter you’re taking away from me,” he boomed as he marched down the stairs.
“I told you to let me take care of this,” Joanna said to the police.
“We tried,” said the woman. “We heard a commotion, so we came in.”
“You haven’t heard any commotion yet,” Louis growled, grabbing Joanna harshly by the arm. The male officer drew his gun.
“Sir, let her go,” he ordered, as Louis twisted Joanna’s arm behind her back.
“Why?” Louis demanded. “So you can shoot me?”
“Daddy, please!” Alexa begged, tears bulging from her eyes.
“Alexa, get out of here,” Louis said, his eyes on the police. He revealed a razor blade and held it against Joanna’s throat. Now the female officer drew her gun.
“Sir, drop your weapon. Drop it now.”
“Why are you here?” Louis demanded. “Why are you taking my little girl away?”
“We have substantiated reports of abuse,” the female officer said.
“Substantiated by what?” Louis spat. “The ramblings of an alcoholic?”
“I’ve been sober for three years now!” Joanna cried out. “I’m making amends.”
“Shut up!” Louis growled. “What proof?”
“Photos,” said the male officer. “I’d show them to you, but my hands are full. Detective?”
“Nope, got my hands full, too,” said the woman, choking up her grip on the gun.
“Photographs?” Louis breathed.
“I took them,” Joanna said through gritted teeth. “Years ago. I should have shown them then, but I was too drunk and stupid—”
“You are still drunk and stupid,” Louis roared.
Alexa’s ribcage was rattling. “Daddy?” Her voice was tiny, like a mouse.
“Go over with the nice police, sweetheart,” Joanna breathed.
“Lexa, run,” Louis ordered. “Out the backdoor, run now.”
She stepped in that direction, when the woman officer spoke. “Alexa, you run out that door, and I will follow you. I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to make sure that you’re safe.”
“I… I am safe…” Alexa breathed. Why did she feel like a criminal? She’d done nothing wrong, and yet…
“Let my daughter go,” Louis said slowly. “Or I slice Joanna’s throat and she bleeds out right here.”
Alexa felt herself drawn to her father, but despite everything that her mother had done to them, she couldn’t let him kill her. She looked to the detectives, imploringly. “Please… Don’t let him do this.”
There was a scream, and then a shot, and Alexa was on her knees. She watched, wide-eyed, as her mother stumbled forward and her father clutched at his arm. A dark liquid seemed to swell under the sleeve of his blazer. He cradled his injured arm before looking up incredulously at the female officer. His face, drenched in sweat, contorted and Alexa could see every ounce of humanity evaporate from those eyes. He curled his lips, bared his teeth, and flared his nostrils before letting out a brutish roar and launching himself at the female officer, raising the razor in his good arm.
“Da-ha-ha-ddy!” Alexa shrilly screamed right as she heard the second shot and watched him fall to the floor. There was a gaping hole in his furrowed gargoyle’s brow from which she could still see wisps of smoke as they rose up out of his corpse. She saw the particles of vaporized blood as they clung to the air, hanging there for a moment, before coating her nostrils, her tongue, her throat and she nearly choked on it. She couldn’t pull her eyes away.
“Daddy?” she breathed, inching towards him on her hands and knees. “Daddy?”
“Roger, call in backup, and a bus,” Alexa heard the female cop say. “Also, tell Samson he’s gonna need to call IA about an officer involved shooting. File an incident report.” Alexa whipped her head to look at the detective.
“You… you shot him.”
Without missing a beat, the brunette nodded. “I did. The first time. In the arm.”
But Alexa shook her head. “You killed… you killed him.”
The detective pursed her lips. “My partner did, yes.”
Alexa blinked her wide green eyes, before slowly turning to her mother, whom she saw was cowering at the foot of the stairs, clutching at her throat. Her hands had blood on them. The female detective moved over to Joanna and whispered a few words to her. Joanna slowly pulled her hands away for a moment, but the detective had her immediately put the pressure back on her neck.
Alexa didn’t understand. She saw the male officer walk back into the house, hanging up a phone. “Who’s going to take care of me?” she breathed.
The male detective looked a little surprised. “Well… Your mother has custody of you until you’re eighteen, so I think that—”
“You?” Alexa interrupted. “Will you take care of me?”
His features softened. He approached her and kneeled down beside her. “Alexa… I can’t do that.”
But she smiled and took his hand. “You look nice. I bet you’d love me, wouldn’t you?”
His eyes grew sad. “Your mother’s nice, too, Alexa. She’s done a lot to help you.”
“I hate her,” Alexa growled. “Can’t be near her. But I like you. Will you love me?”
He squeezed her shoulder, then slowly rose to his feet. He tried to pull his hand away, but she wouldn’t let him.
“Please,” she begged. “Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me with her.”
He paused and frowned at her. “It’s going to be all right now, Alexa.”
“No…” Alexa said, shaking her head slowly, looking directly into his eyes. “No, Daddy, please, don’t leave me…”
He managed to tug his hand away from her, then approached the brunette detective. Alexa strained her ears.
“Call in psych,” she heard him say. “This girl is badly damaged.”
They tried to place Alexa in her mother’s care, but she screamed like a toddler whenever they tried. She scratched at the eyes of CPS and armed officers who tried escorting her to the residence. When finally in the house, she threw lamps and dishes and anything she could get her hands on, until CPS finally decided to put her in foster care until she calmed down. But that didn’t work out either, and eventually she was labeled too unstable to live with foster parents, which is how Joanna ended up signing the papers to commit her daughter to the Willow Springs Treatment Center for Children and Adolescents.
Willow Springs was different than the various foster homes, and Alexa responded to it cautiously. All she knew was that it was away from her mother. She fell into a routine. They provided some academic courses that she took during the morning, with counseling in the afternoon, and recreation and socialization in the evening. When counseling alone could not bridge the schism that had grown in Alexa’s mind between the dependent child and the angry adult, the doctors at Willow Springs incorporated medication into her treatment, and Alexa responded well. So well, in fact, that after two years, she was old enough, and finally felt strong enough to venture outside of those walls. She would spend her time on the campus of the University of Nevada, even though she didn’t attend classes there. Willow Springs had taught her social skills, how to interact and bond with her peers, and she used them to make several friends, friends who then introduced her to marijuana, and Alexa spent the rest of her teenage years smoking up in her friends’ basements.
One of these friends had a Sixty-Two Chevy Impala and, with nothing else to hold her attention, Alexa fell madly in love with it. He taught her everything about the car, from headlight to tailpipe. After that, she found old cars at the impound lot and delighted in taking them apart and putting them back together again. She found it blissfully soothing to spend her days beneath all that metal, where no one would bother her. It was the first place she felt truly safe. She soon was known as the go-to girl around campus for a cheap, well-done tune up. But when she turned twenty-two, and her friends had all graduated, Alexa bought her 1957 Chevy Pickup and hit the road, unsure of where she would end up.
She didn’t go far. Didn’t even cross state lines. She headed southwest on Route 95 until she finally landed in the City of Lights. The neon took her breath away, and she thought to herself, This is somewhere I can finally fit in. So she found an old garage for sale, snapped it up and set up shop. And she made a decent living there for six years. Six years of mediocrity and joy, just Alexa and her cars, and she didn’t need anything else. And then came the day that she met Dean, and suddenly, twelve years were not enough to bury her past.
They bonded discussing the pros and cons of the illegality of drag racing. She took him home that night and for the first time since her father, slipped into bed with a man. They started slow, then the stakes increased, until she was devouring him, and he was completely enthralled with her. They spent the week together, holding hands as they walked down the strip, and then, he went home. He told her he needed to stay in St. Louis for work, and they continued their relationship over the internet, where Alexa divulged secrets she had never before told another soul. She found herself falling deeper and deeper into this relationship, until she decided to surprise him in St. Louis.
She put money aside for a month before she’d saved up enough to go. It was a struggle to keep her plans from Dean, as every time she logged on she wanted to squeal about how excited she was to see him again. The minute she touched down, she dialed Dean’s number, ready to yell, Surprise!
But it wasn’t Dean’s voice that answered. “Hello?”
Alexa hesitated. Had she accidentally dialed the wrong number? “Hi… Sorry, I think I have the wrong number, um… I’m looking for Dean?”
“Ah,” said the woman on the phone. “Yuh huh, yeah, sure, OK, uh… Hang on, though, he’s kinda in the shower. Can he call ya back?”
“Oh…” Alexa said. “Yes, that’d be great.”
“So who’s asking for him?”
“I’m sorry…” Alexa broke in. “Might I ask who this is?”
“You might,” the woman replied casually.
Alexa waited for her to answer, then grew frustrated. “So who are you?”
“Gina,” the woman replied. And then, her tone shifted. “Let me guess. Dino didn’t tell you he lived with me, did he?”
“N-no…” Alexa said slowly. “So… you guys are roommates?”
“I’m his girlfriend,” Gina said.
Alexa hung up immediately as if the phone had burned her. She latched her fingers together and held them over her stomach. She watched as the taxis and other cars came and went, picking up new arrivals and whisking them away to fancy hotels, or home to their families. Family… Family was a word that meant something entirely different to Alexa than it did to most people. She felt herself slowly detach from the scene as if it was dissolving around her. The Doppler whoosh of the cars as they went passed was muted and she could clearly hear her slow breathing, paying close attention to her heartbeat.
I should go home…
And then, another thought occurred to her. Why?
Alexa shook her head and brought her hands up to rub her arms. He lied to me. He has a girlfriend. All this time… they live together. I should never have come.
Coming here is the best idea you’ve ever had.
Alexa took a deep breath. She spun on her heal to go back into the airport.
What the hell do you think you’re doing?
She stopped. She looked over her shoulder at the taxis.
It’s not him.
They’re the same type of person. It might as well be him.
But it’s not him. He’s dead.
And Dean isn’t.
Alexa blinked. She looked at the people who walked right by her, as if she didn’t exist. They were lugging bags on wheels or being weighed down by large backpacks.
Don’t you think you should fix that?
She couldn’t believe what she was thinking. That’s horrible! I… I could never…
You had the chance to be happy again. You were so close. He took that from you.
Joanna killed Daddy. She took him from me. I couldn’t… It’s not Dean’s fault, he’s—
It’s entirely his fault. He’s out there. Your father is out there. Find him, Alexa. Find him again, and show him how much you love him.
And then, something inside of her slipped, like a glass from her hand, and she could feel it hit the concrete and shatter into a million pieces.
Find him, Alexa. Find him again, and show him how much you love him…
Nick’s eyes fluttered open and he knew that something was wrong. Or rather, he knew that something was different. There was very little about his situation that wasn’t wrong. But he could feel it, somewhere in the chills that stirred goose bumps across his bare arms. There was a dull, throbbing ache resonating from his chest and he knew that he was feeling the burn again. But that wasn’t what was different. Moreover, that wasn’t what was wrong.
Alexa wasn’t there.
She wasn’t there, and this made Nick uncomfortable. He imagined that she had stepped out, to put on the pretense that she lived a normal life. Which begged the question, What time is it? In the windowless room, Nick couldn’t even tell if it was night or day. He shifted on the bed, rolling his numb shoulders, trying to start the blood flow again. He winced as he aggravated the wound on his chest, but the movement of his facial muscles tore a stitch in his healing scar. He let out a frustrated groan. He couldn’t win. There was no scenario in which he could escape this unscathed, if he hoped to escape at all.
The door to the bedroom creaked open, and Alexa stood there for a moment, watching him with a blank expression. In her hands, she held a lug wrench. She twirled it in her fingers, and Nick saw the perpendicular bar spin around in circles. Nick tried to crane his head to get a better look at her, so that he could gauge her mood. If she were delusional, her face would be filled with fantasy and lust. If she were rational, her face would generally be flooded with guilt and uncertainty. But none of these telltale signs graced her features, and Nick found that she was very difficult to read. So he decided to say nothing and wait for her to make the first move.
And then, she whispered, with the voice of a ghost, “What have you done to me?”
It was an ambiguous question, and Nick still could not tell if she thought he was her father or not. “Alexa…”
“You’ve made me a monster…” she continued. She stopped twirling the lug wrench and instead began tapping the cross against her thigh. “Have I become you?”
Nick slowly shook his head. “You’re dreamin’ again, girl,” Nick said, his voice shaking. “I’m not your father.”
“No,” she said, as if it were obvious. “You aren’t him, are you? But you might as well be.”
Nick’s stomach heaved. “What?”
The tapping intensified and tears grew in her dead red eyes. “I killed for you… I’ve done everything, for you, because of you, and you just… you…” She was almost beating her own leg with the lug wrench now. “So help me, God, I will end this haunting.”
She launched herself at him with the wrench and, horrified, Nick called out, “Lexa!” He’d only left off the ‘A’ in a hurry to get out the rest of her name, but it stopped her better than a bullet. Alexa was frozen, with the wrench held over her head, and the tears spilled out down her cheeks as a panicked, petrified smile twitched its way onto her lips. “Da… Daddy?” she half begged.
At this point, Nick would pretend to be anyone other than a dead man. “Y-y-yes, sweet… sweetheart,” he choked.
Her breathing quickened and the lug wrench tumbled to the floor with the clatter of metal against wood. She brought her hands to her mouth and took deep breaths. “Oh, Daddy, I’m so sorry…” The tears spilled out over her face. “I could never hurt you… I’m so sorry, I thought, I thought, I thought maybe you weren’t him and you… but you were, and… Oh, God, Daddy…”
She threw herself at him again, but this time it wasn’t about violence, but solace, as she slung her arms around his torso and buried her face his neck. He could feel her hot tears splash against his skin as she slobbered all over him. Nick closed his eyes, relieved that this was all she was doing. He let her cry, releasing all her demons into the air. He felt her ball her hands into fists and then open them again, raking them up his sides and then down again. For a moment, Nick almost wished that he could embrace her.
“I can’t stand to see you cry, sweetheart…” he breathed.
“Daddy, I’m so lost…” he heard her sob against his skin. “Tell me… what to do…”
Nick closed his eyes, and for what he felt was the millionth time that evening, whispered, “Let me go, Alexa.” He knew it was futile. He knew that even though she spoke as if he held the power, deep down she knew better than to release her victim.
“Don’t leave me…” she pleaded, squeezing him tighter. Nick gritted his teeth as he felt his seared skin fold together.
“Never,” he promised.
“Never ever,” Alexa wailed. She pulled her face away from his neck and sniffed. Her face was red and swollen, as if someone had hit her. He saw her try and stop crying, and it worked a little. She fought to regain control of her breathing. She set her jaw, closed her eyes, and took deep breaths. When she opened them again, it was to stare down at him, with such devotion in her eyes. She brought her hand up to cup his cheek and leaned forward, gently kissing the other one. Her hands moved down to his shoulders and rubbed them, almost painfully hard.
And then, she said, “All right.”
Nick blinked. He wasn’t sure what she meant. But then, his eyes doubled in size as he saw her reach for the scissors on the bedside table again. There was an anxious pounding in his chest when she reached across his chest towards his left arm. There was a moment, where she struggled to cut through the thick rope, but she eventually managed and Nick’s arm fell limply to the bed. The minute it hit the mattress, he could feel that prickling sensation erupt across his muscles. He pulled his arm against his chest, if only because he couldn’t do it before and was immeasurably more comfortable just by that action. And then, he felt the other one drop. He wrapped both arms around himself and let out a low groan of satisfaction. He began rubbing his chilled upper arms, trying to bring the feeling back to them. His hands traveled down his biceps, to his forceps, and finally, to his wrists, which were purple and brown. One of them looked like it had been dislocated, but he couldn’t even feel it. Bracing himself, he held his breath and snapped it back into place before letting out a low sigh. He continued to wrap his fingers around his wrists, trying to sooth them.
Alexa sat back on her knees and looked down at him, the tear streaks on her face standing out. “I’m so sorry…”
Nick realized that she’d also cut away the ropes tying his feet. He stopped focusing on his arms and looked up at her, her hair shining golden in the incandescent light from the ceiling lamp. He reached up and tucked it behind the ear. She lowered her chin to her chest. He adjusted his position, moving up on the bed so he could rest his back against the headboard. He leaned his head back, again emitting a low moan.
“Oh God…” he breathed. He never thought it would feel so good to sit up. Spending so long in the same position was so much more exhausting than running five miles. He pulled his knees up to his chest, relishing the opportunity to allow them to bend. For a moment, he didn’t want to move at all. And then, he felt Alexa shift on the bed beside him. Her hand was on his shoulder, making him look at her. And then, she kissed him. And as before, he let her, numbly. His eyes closed, he felt her hand move back into his hair, her fingers clutching his scalp. She pulled away from his face and watched him with those bright forest eyes.
“Tell me you love me.”
“I love you.” His response was automatic, but emotionless and robotic. She looked off to the side, her gaze vacant. And Nick made a decision.
He reached out and touched her chin with his fingers, tilting it up and making her look at him again. He brought his hand up to her white cheek and she gladly leaned her head into it. His hand moved back and he combed his fingers up into her hair, and she closed her eyes, her mouth partly open as she waited. He leaned in very close, until he could feel her breath cross his lips. But he moved past them, and delicately touched them to her forehead. When he pulled back again, her eyes were open.
“I love you,” he repeated, not because he meant it, but because he felt that she needed to hear it, with sincerity, without needing to ask for it. She looked down again at the bedspread and he stretched out his arms and legs, moving his head from one shoulder to the other. He stretched too hard, however, because he’d forgotten about his burns and he let out a small cry of pain. Alexa didn’t even look up. She sat there, on the edge of the bed, looking defeated. Nick moved his hand across his bandaged chest, over his heart, to where the tip of the iron burn pointed, then down over the white cotton. All things considered, she didn’t do a bad job taking care of the injuries she inflicted.
Slowly, he kicked his legs over the edge of the bed, watching Alexa for movement all the while, but she was a perfect porcelain statue. He carefully shifted his weight onto his feet and staggered slightly, for a moment forgetting how to use them. His legs were still waking up, and he was beginning to feel sore around his angles, where the ropes had been, although it wasn’t as noticeable as the dull ache in his wrists. But standing had done something else, and his burn began to crackle again and he felt like the damaged skin was splintering and flaking off his body. He clutched at his chest, then saw the pain pills and the water. He only took one, enough to keep his head on straight but dull the sting of his multiple injuries.
Again, he looked back at Alexa, and again, she hadn’t moved. Still, in her silent pose, she looked graceful. Her legs were hanging off the side of the bed, her knees together, her bare toes touching the floor. She was turned at the hip, her torso facing the headboard, but her head bent, almost in penance, as her eyes remained on the purple comforter. One hand kept her balance on the bed, and the other lay forgotten on her lap. She reminded Nick of a marble angel in a graveyard. A part of him was averse to just leaving her there like that. But then, his survival instincts were screaming at him to take his chance and run. She might not always be so docile. He had seen her when she really lost it.
Or was this what it looked like when Alexa King really lost it? Was she so far gone that everything, the rage, the desperation, the lust, the savage need to love and be loved, all drained from her now? Had some dam in her cracked from the pressure of all these conflicting needs and obsessions? Perhaps she had gone catatonic. If that were the case, then she’d surely be in the same position when Nick came back, with doctors, to take care of her. He looked at the open door and moved purposely towards it.
“Don’t leave me…”
And just like that, Nick was drawn to her again. He couldn’t leave her there like that. He turned in the doorway and saw that the only part of her that had moved had been her lips. With a strange, reluctant sigh, he stepped back into the room and closed the door, leaning against it.
“Like I told you before,” he breathed. “I could never leave you.”
Catherine slammed down a file in front of Sara as she finished her salad. “Twenty-six big moves from St. Louis to Las Vegas in the past month,” she explained. “From four different moving companies. Nine of them are families, seven retirees, four couples and six singles.”
Sara blinked. “What about residency applications?”
“Whole other barrel of fish,” Catherine said. “We’ll worry about it if these six don’t pan out.”
Sara opened the file and perused the names Catherine had highlighted. “Only twenty-six, huh?”
“That’s for the ones who did it through the moving companies,” Catherine explained. “Others may have come over on their own, or had family help, but…” She gave a half-hearted shrug. “It’s a start, right? And it was your idea.”
Sara nodded, vigorously. “I know, I know.” She rose to her feet, her salad forgotten as she took the file. “OK, so, I’ll start with the first name, you start with the last name, we can make some calls.”
“Sounds good,” Catherine agreed, as she followed Sara out of the break room and down the hall. They rounded the corner.
“I was also thinking,” Sara continued. “Greg and Detective Adams should have touched down about half an hour ago. Do you think they found anything we can use?”
Catherine shrugged. “I feel, if they did, they would have called us from Missouri.”
“So you’re not hopeful?”
Catherine managed a sad smile. “I’m always hopeful, Sara.”
The two women stopped as they passed the lobby. They both turned to see a woman in late middle age standing in the middle of it, clutching a purse with both hands. Her blonde hair fell to her shoulders, and she wore an off-white, wrinkled suit.
Sara noticed that Judy wasn’t at the front desk, so the woman would have had no one to talk to. “Are you lost, ma’am?” she asked, approaching the woman.
“I-I don’t think so,” the woman replied, sounding slightly anxious. “I’m looking for, um, a detective?”
“Is this concerning a case?” Catherine guessed.
The woman nodded, quickly. “Yes, um… I live in Reno, and I saw the news about those two men that were murdered here. The ones with the scars on their faces?”
Sara and Catherine exchanged looks. “Did you know one of those men, ma’am?” Sara asked, with bated breath.
“He’s only haunted me for the past twelve years,” the woman whispered, with a sad smile. “Both of them… they’re the spitting image of my husband.”
Catherine spun on her heel and rolled her eyes. She muttered to Sara, “We don’t have time for this.”
Sara was equally disappointed, but she tried not to let it show. “Ma’am, neither of those men are your husband, they’re—”
“Don’t be silly, I know they aren’t my husband,” the woman interrupted.
Catherine turned around and watched the woman curiously. “Then what are you saying?”
The woman seemed skittish. She licked her lips and extended her hand. “My name is Joanna King. And I think I can tell you who killed those men.”