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By mm2537 All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Horror

Chapter 1

“Has your attorney told you why I’m here?” Dr. Daniel Boudreaux asked his new client, doing the best he could to sound empathic. He needed to complete his psychological evaluation without bias, and that meant giving Earl Denham the chance to tell his side of the story. He glanced at the thick file he had been given on Denham in his hand, and questioned his decision to take such a high profile assignment. If he hadn’t owed Denham’s lawyer a favor, he wouldn’t have gotten involved in this mess of a case.

The man didn’t look like a killer to Daniel, but he had been in practice long enough to know that appearance meant little. With Earl’s watery eyes, smallish stature, twitchy demeanor, and weak chin, he looked out of place amidst some of the other inmates Daniel had passed on his way to the behavioral services wing of the jail. As he waited for his client to answer the question, he reminded himself of his duty to present an accurate depiction of his client’s mental state during the alleged murders.

Earl raised his head and met the psychologist’s gaze with a vacant stare. Denham still hadn’t answered the question, and his mind seemed to be somewhere else. Daniel reached for the file and Denham flinched, his distant gaze honing in on the file, where Daniel’s hand now rested. The psychologist paused. Why had that startled him?

“I’m not going to hurt you, Earl. May I call you Earl?” Denham nodded. “My name is Dr. Daniel Boudreaux, but you can just call me Daniel if you’d like. I’m a clinical psychologist hired by your defense attorney. I’m here to conduct a forensic evaluation on you,” Daniel informed his new client in a wary tone. Earl continued to stare at the file beneath Daniel’s hand.

“I’m not crazy. I know what I did,” Denham spoke in a low, flat voice. “I killed eight people and I was going to kill another two before they caught me. What I did to them is nothing compared to what they did to me.” Earl said, still glaring at the file. “Or what they’ll do to me. Let them sentence me to death, I’ll be dead long before they can bring me to the electric chair.” The gears began to turn in Daniel’s mind, and he formulated his next question.

“You were planning to kill ten people? Why ten?” Daniel asked him, keeping his tone neutral. And what do you think they did to you? Daniel wondered. None of Denham’s victims had any connection to him. His method of selection remained unknown. And how does he think his victims will exact revenge from beyond the grave? The man showed evidence of delusional thinking, but that barely scratched the surface of what would be necessary for a successful not guilty by reason of insanity plea. The client had already put that plea in jeopardy when he admitted to killing eight people, declaring that he knew right from wrong at the time of the offense.

Earl Denham didn’t respond, and as the seconds ticked by Daniel decided to move the interview along. “Okay, we’ll skip that for now. Why do you say that you’ll be dead before the state would be able to execute you, supposing it came to that?” No response. Paranoia? Psychosis? The psychologist hypothesized. If the man was psychotic, Daniel needed to know about the specific hallucinations and delusions his client might be experiencing. His earlier words indicated he feared some kind of retribution.

“Are you afraid of someone, Earl? Have any threats been made against you? Or do you intend to kill yourself?” But Denham didn’t seem to be paying attention. His eyes had wandered back to the file. Is there something in the file that he’s afraid of?

The case had been dropped on him without warning when Denham’s attorney Sheila Jankowsky had called in her favor, and he had only glanced through the first few pages of the file. But perhaps there was something in there that Denham feared he might discover.

Maybe I should come back tomorrow after reading the file. If Sheila had given me a couple days to prepare, I would have read it before the interview, Daniel groused. He prided himself on preparing for each new case in advance when possible, and it irked him when he had to begin an evaluation in haste.

Excuses, Danny, Henry’s voice retorted in the back of his mind. You spent last night drinking and watching television, you could have read the file then. But he didn’t want to think about Henry right now, and he definitely didn’t want to hear his voice. Daniel pushed it to the back of his mind and forced himself to focus on the present. He was missing something, and it was time to wrap up this interview for now.

“I think we’ll end for today. It seems you’re a little distracted, and before I ask you any more questions I’d like to do some research,” Daniel concluded. Even among his usual clientele, something about Earl felt off. He reached his arm toward Denham to offer a handshake, hoping that might alleviate some of the tension. It often helped build rapport with his clients.

Earl shrieked and pushed his chair backward, falling over onto the cold cement floor. “Keep that away from me!” He screamed at Daniel. The psychologist felt a shiver inch its way up his spine. What is this about now? What did I do to frighten him? He suspected severe psychosis, and yet the man’s dramatic reaction still didn’t add up, not at this level. Something else must be at work.

Daniel looked at his outstretched hand in confusion, then back to the terrified man. “What is it you think I’m holding? I’m just offering a handshake, that’s all.” Denham stood up, his face and hands twitching with terror.

“Get your hand away from me! Get it away!” The door burst open, and several officers restrained Denham, wrapping their arms around his chest and shoulders. “Get your hands off of me! Off! Off! Off!” He sobbed, fat teardrops streaming down his pudgy, unassuming face. “Get them off of me, let go of me…” A heavyset, middle-aged nurse ran into the room with a syringe and injected it into Denham’s arm as the correctional officers held it steady. The man fell unconscious within seconds.

The nurse turned to Daniel as the deputies dragged Earl Denham back to his solitary cell. Bright, dyed red hair fell down to the nurse’s shoulders. “He doesn’t like being touched. He freaks whenever someone so much as reaches out towards him,” she informed Daniel in an excited whisper.

“Has he ever told you why?” Daniel asked her, silently fuming at Sheila. He had just upset a client that he needed to build rapport with in order to conduct a reliable evaluation. That could have been easily avoided if Sheila had spent more than two minutes briefing me on the case, Daniel griped to himself.

The nurse shrugged. “No, he doesn’t like to talk to us. He doesn’t trust anyone here. He’s got good reason, though. Once the correctional staff found out about his fear, some of them started to mess with Denham by thrusting their hands at him through his cell. When we transferred him to the unit we put a stop to that. But he still doesn’t trust us.”

“Well, it’s good you keep him contained here, where he’s supervised and monitored.” Daniel brushed an errant lock of dark blond hair out of his deep green eyes. Emerald eyes, Henry had always called them. Daniel shook his head to clear his thoughts. Stay focused, Daniel. Work takes precedence. He told himself in a stern inner voice, but that voice sounded like Henry too. But another, softer voice reminded him that prioritizing work had started their problems.

“It’s my hope that he’ll open up to me, at least. If I have to write a report then I need something to work with.” Daniel spoke with a confidence he didn’t feel. If Earl Denham wouldn’t cooperate, he’d have to write his report based on the documented information he had available, such as incident reports, school records, hospitalizations, and other archival data. Without a clinical interview to reference in addition to a battery of psychological tests, his testimony would be weak if he were called to the stand as an expert witness. And that was almost guaranteed in a high-profile case like this.

The nurse leaned close to him. “You want to know something strange though?” She asked him in a hushed voice. “When he sleeps, he curls up into a tight little ball, as if he’s afraid something will attack him while he’s sleeping. And sometimes he wets the bed. Pretty strange for a thirty-two-year-old man, huh? But then again, I’ve seen much weirder on this unit,” she finished with a smirk.

“That is odd,” Daniel replied, thinking about what she had told him. “Have you ever noticed him talking to himself or to someone who wasn’t there? Besides his fear of being touched, has he ever exhibited any other fears or strange beliefs?”

“No, he’s pretty quiet unless provoked. He keeps to himself and doesn’t make any requests from anyone, even the usual ones like extra pillows and blankets.” She glanced out of the interview room, towards the nurse station where they watched over the inmates from behind a wide counter. One of the other nurses was beckoning her over. “I’ve got to get back to work, doctor.” She winked at him flirtatiously, which only made him feel awkward. “Come back and see me sometime, if you have any more questions,” she finished. Daniel turned to leave the ward, clutching the file on Earl Denham to his lean chest.

Later that night, Daniel sat in his condo near downtown Fort Lauderdale, the papers on Earl Denham splayed out on his kitchen table. Outside his windows, the lights and sounds of the city beckoned to him. Go out, Danny. Go to the Manors, meet some new people, a voice in his head argued, but it didn’t sound like Henry this time. Daniel sighed. It’s too soon, he might still…

Henry’s gone, the other voice replied. Look around. Daniel glanced through his barren condo, noting the empty spots where the furniture Henry had owned used to sit. He’s not coming back. Daniel felt a pang as he remembered each object. Henry had owned some hideous pieces of furniture when he had moved in, and he had acquired even more during their time together. The bright pink dresser with the clawed feet had been the worst. It hadn’t truly hit him that Henry was leaving until he had seen that horrid dresser on the moving van, leaving South Florida for New York where Henry planned to live with his sister Emily.

We could have gotten married in New York, if I had been willing. Sometimes you don’t know how much you love someone until they’re gone. And I miss that stupid dresser too, He thought as he stared out his second story picture window at the city lights beyond.

“We care about different things, Daniel. And we want different things out of life and out of…us. I’m sorry, but this is the way it has to be,” Henry had told him as he got into his little Mazda two-seater for the last time. The words still stung every time he remembered that day. Daniel had only turned his back, unable to deal with the situation.

“As usual, Henry had told him as he rolled his eyes. “That’s how you deal with everything you don’t want to confront, you just turn your back on it. But one day you’ll come across someone or something you can’t just give the cold shoulder to.” Daniel wasn’t quite sure whether that was a conversation that had actually taken place or if it was just Henry’s voice inside his head. He decided that it didn’t matter. It was something he would have said.

He returned to Earl Denham’s file and ignored the temptation to go out into the city. Earl Denham’s case might be a morbid distraction from his personal problems, but at least it was a distraction. Denham’s victims had varied in age and gender, but the methodology had remained the same; first he had first pierced each hand with a hunting knife, and then impaled each person through the heart. The media had dubbed him “The Crucifier” because of the similarity of his killings to the crucifixion used by the Romans on Jesus, although Denham hadn’t stabbed them through the feet as the historical methods dictated.

The media had theorized that Denham murdered out of religious fervor, but Daniel wasn’t so sure. Earl hadn’t expressed any religious identity to his coworkers at the warehouse he had worked at before his arrest, and no church had reported his attendance. Nor had he been raised with any religious background. Daniel began reading the history in Earl’s file as he sipped at a tumbler of whiskey.

Earl Denham had been born to a middle class family in the Westchase area of Clearwater, Florida. His father had been a biologist at some minor and now defunct medical lab, and his mother taught at a local elementary school. Earl’s intelligence seemed to be intact and even superior to most of the children his age, as evidenced by his grades and the comments of his teachers. However, the records reflected that he began to show signs of severe emotional disturbance at around the age of seven. Daniel put down his tumbler and focused on the reports in front of him.

During this time Earl began wetting the bed several times during the month, even though he had previously stopped at the appropriate age. The family cat, Franklin, was found strangled to death in Earl’s room at the age of nine, and his parents brought the boy in for therapy due to this incident. Daniel squinted as he began to read the copies of the child therapist’s handwritten notes.

According to the therapist, Earl maintained that he hadn’t killed Franklin, but that something had come out from under the bed and killed him. The therapist wrote in her notes that despite all evidence to the contrary, she believed that Earl hadn’t killed the cat, or at least she believed that he believed he hadn’t. The therapist wrote that he had seemed too upset about the death of the pet and terrified of the dubious culprit for it to be an act.

Daniel pulled out his notebook, where he had detailed his thoughts from his interview with Earl that afternoon, and wrote down “dissociation” with a question mark. Genuine cases of Dissociative Identity Disorder were rare, but there were documented examples of it. The therapist had also considered it in her notes, but had then discounted it without explanation. She also documented that at around this time, Earl began to show an intense fear of being touched. He continued to describe a monster of some sort lurking beneath his bed, and she noted that he appeared sleep-deprived during their sessions as well.

She described an incident in which she tried to pat his shoulder and he flinched away from her and hid in a corner of the office for the remainder of the session. If she so much as gestured in his direction he would cringe, and she began to keep her hands crossed or at her sides as a habit during sessions in order to keep Earl at ease. Daniel began to chew on the end of his pen as he continued to read. Henry had always chided him for that.

Daniel frowned and wrote “sexual abuse” with another question mark in his notebook. If someone had been abusing Earl, then his fear of being touched might have resulted from that trauma, rationalized as a boogeyman beneath the bed. Again, the therapist seemed to have the same idea. She had asked Earl if he would draw a picture of the thing that came out from beneath the bed, since he had shown early signs of artistic talent and interest. The therapist wrote in her notes that Earl might draw a picture that could identify an abuser. According to her notes, Earl told her that he would bring a picture that next week.

Daniel turned the page with shaking fingers, hoping for a description of what Earl had drawn or maybe even a copy of the drawing itself. Instead, he found only a progress note that read “discontinued therapy with patient. This clinician does not feel that therapy can progress any further and has referred patient to a specialist.” Daniel growled in frustration.

Why the sudden termination? Did it have anything to do with what the boy had drawn? He flipped through the file, hoping for a copy of the drawing or any more information on Earl Denham’s therapy, but he didn’t find anything. The therapist didn’t note what specialist she had referred the boy to, and the family hadn’t followed up on the referral. Daniel gnawed harder on the pen. Yet another dead end. What is it about this case? He groaned and shifted his position in the chair, and then continued to read Earl Denham’s history.

The boy’s emotional problems deepened as he hit adolescence, and his attendance at school began to drop along with his grades. Daniel turned to the work records included in the file and began to piece together Earl’s professional life. At the age of sixteen he dropped out of school, ran away from home to the southeast coast of Florida, and began to work at various minimum wage positions, although he tended to choose jobs that put him in minimal contact with people. At this point he ceased all communication with his parents.

At the warehouse he had worked at before his arrest, he had stayed in his office, demanding that employees enter only when necessary and that when they did they kept their hands at their sides. The company had retained him because of his work ethic and productivity when left alone, but noted that his eccentricities often unnerved the other workers. His boss had come close to firing him on several occasions, but each time decided against it.

Daniel closed the file and sighed. He must be missing something. Or maybe he wasn’t focusing on the right aspects. It would make sense if Earl had been molested as a child, but that didn’t account for the murders. He hadn’t killed men exclusively, and the method of killing was odd if it wasn’t motivated by religion, which it didn’t seem to be. The murders must relate to his fear of being touched, but where had that phobia originated?

Earl’s description of a “thing underneath the bed” must be a metaphor for some trauma he had experienced, and if against all odds he did have dissociative identity disorder, then that was going to be a nightmare to prove to a jury. But Earl’s stark admission of murdering the eight people did not suggest dissociation. He knew what he had done. But why? Daniel clenched his jaw in frustration. What had gone through his mind as he tortured and killed those people?

Daniel glanced around his condo again, and the empty spots felt even more prominent. As he gazed out his window, an idea struck him. He needed to get away from Fort Lauderdale for a while to clear his head, and he also needed to get some more information on the case. Perhaps he could take care of both problems at once. He glanced at his watch to make sure it wasn’t too late at night. Then he picked up the phone and dialed a number in Clearwater he had found in the file.

“Mrs. Regina Denham?” He asked when a woman picked up the phone.

“It’s Ms. Hillstrom, I’ve been divorced for a while now. Who is this?” The woman asked in a cautious tone.

“My name is Dr. Daniel Boudreaux. I’m a clinical psychologist hired by your son’s defense attorney.” He could almost feel her about to hang up. “I assure you my credentials are real. You can check with the American Psychological Association if you’d like.”

The woman remained silent for several seconds. “What do you want, Dr. Boudreaux? Don’t you think I’ve suffered enough? The media won’t leave me alone, and I’ve got whackjobs bothering me at every hour to condemn Earl or worship him, and personally I don’t think he deserves either. Some of them claim to be connected to the case, like you.”

“I’m trying to understand your son and what might have caused him to commit these murders, if he did in fact do so. Determining his state of mind at the time of the offenses is my job. But there’s something missing and I can’t figure it out. There are some questions I’d like to ask you, and your ex-husband if you can put me in contact with him-”

“He’s dead,” Regina Hillstrom interjected. “He killed himself five years ago, after the lab he worked at burned down. If you’re a clinical psychologist for my son, why didn’t you know that?”

Good question, Daniel thought to himself. None of his records indicated that Maxwell Denham, Earl’s father, was dead, much less a suicide. Goddamnit, Sheila. How many more surprises should I look forward to? How could she expect a decent report if she wasn’t willing to give him the information to do so?

“I’m still gathering information, Ms. Hillstrom, I apologize if I’ve offended you.” If I have, my other questions will probably offend you far more, he thought, but kept that to himself. “I’d like to come to Clearwater to visit Earl’s childhood home and ask you a few questions in person.”

“Why can’t you ask them over the phone? Why do you need to come to my house? That’s kind of strange, Dr. Boudreaux,” Regina demanded. In his imagination Daniel could almost see her eyes narrow.

In all honesty, Daniel didn’t have an answer for why he wanted to visit Earl Denham’s old house. He had a vague idea that seeing where Earl grew up and the source of his fears might help him understand the case better. For the first time in his professional career, he was making a decision based on a hunch.

“If I come in person, you can better verify my credentials. I’ll bring a copy of my diploma and license to practice with me as well. I feel this interview would be more beneficial in person, and I’d like to get a feel for how Earl grew up. I can drive up this weekend. This could help your son’s case in court,” he added.

Regina Hillstrom remained silent for several moments. “All right, if you think it will help. But I will look up your credentials and I want to see a copy in person before I let you in my house.”

Daniel smiled, although he wasn’t sure why. “All right, it’s a deal. I’ll be there this Saturday afternoon, if that’s all right with you. You still live in the house in Westchase, right? The one I have on record as Earl’s childhood home?”

“Yes, that’s right. And remember to bring your credentials or you made the drive for nothing. I still don’t entirely believe you, and I’m not letting some potential serial killer fanatic into my house.” Regina replied, and then she hung up. I guess paranoia runs in the family, he thought, and then felt a pang of guilt. She had a right to be paranoid with all the people that must be bothering her after Earl had been charged with serial murder.

Daniel frowned as he wondered what had become of Earl’s father. He pulled his laptop over from where it sat near the other end of the table, and entered “Maxwell Denham” in the search engine of his Internet browser. He found an article in the Tampa Tribune dating back five years ago that detailed a suicide involving a biologist named Max Denham.

He read the article, which listed his surviving family as ex-wife Regina Hillstrom and one son named Earl Denham, both estranged. So Earl’s father had killed himself several years after Earl had run away. Why? Daniel pulled his notebook over and jotted down “Maxwell Denham’s suicide-guilt?” Could he have been the one who had abused Earl? He also wondered why Earl’s mother and father had divorced. Perhaps she had found out about it?

Daniel sighed and rubbed his temples. He closed the file, shut his laptop, and stood up. As he fumbled for the switch to turn off the lights, he tried not to look at the vacant spots where Henry’s ugly furniture used to sit. I’ve got to get some of my own to replace it, he decided. He had put it off for several weeks now, because doing so would mean admitting that Henry was never coming back.

But he couldn’t delay any longer. As soon as I’m done with this case, I’ll go furniture shopping, he promised himself. It might not help him get over Henry, but it would be a start. He wondered whether Henry had met anyone in New York yet, but extinguished the thought. He couldn’t think about that, not now. They had ceased all contact the day Henry moved out. As Henry had told him numerous times, no one gave the silent treatment like Daniel Boudreaux.

That night, Daniel dreamed he was a child again. He lay huddled in his bed, wrapped in shadow. Across from him stood Henry’s bright pink dresser, its color a sharp contrast to the stifling darkness. The area around him brightened to reveal the bedroom of his condo, and he saw a figure standing in the corner near his door. The figure stepped forward, and Daniel could see that it was Earl Denham. The shadows lent a strange emphasis on the man’s weak chin and flabby torso, making him seem almost inhuman.

“What are you doing here?” Daniel asked him in the prepubescent voice of a child. In the back of his mind he knew he was dreaming, but the sensations were too intense to keep him fixated on that thought for long. Earl seemed much different from the way he had been in the detention center that afternoon. Rather than tense and paranoid, he appeared calm and resigned to his fate.

“I received a death sentence at the age of seven, when that thing came out from underneath the bed,” Earl said in quiet voice. Earl stepped forward, closer to Daniel.

“Stay back!” Daniel commanded in his child’s voice, but Earl merely sighed.

“I’m not the one you should be afraid of, Dr. Boudreaux. I’m just a dream.” Earl pointed beneath Daniel’s bed, where a pool of shapeless something began to form. “That’s not a dream, though. It never was. That thing wants to hurt you, Dr. Boudreaux. And it will once it’s finished with me.” Daniel felt a presence beneath him, and he knew that whatever lay there hated him. He could feel its simmering rage and brooding resentment coiled beneath the bed. Earl stood before him now, glaring down at something Daniel couldn’t see, the unmentionable source of his fears.

“I tried to kill it, Dr. Boudreaux. That’s all I tried to do.” A tear rolled down Earl’s face, gleaming in the near darkness. “But I think…I think I might have been…” The image of Earl began to fade, and with it his voice. The dream shattered and Daniel awoke to a familiar, comforting hand across his chest.

“Henry?” He rubbed his crusty eyes. Henry’s gone, remember? A voice screeched in his mind, and Daniel jerked his head around to the empty side of the bed. The sensation vanished, and Daniel could swear he caught a glimpse of movement in the gloom. This case with Denham was getting to him, he realized. Or maybe it was the fact that the longest relationship of his life had ended just weeks ago.

He put his index fingers to his temples, trying to ease the pounding headache his nightmare had triggered. The dream was already drifting away, but he remembered that Earl Denham had been in it, along with whatever hallucinations that might have haunted him since childhood. And the arm across my chest? Did I dream that too? He asked himself, still trembling. It hadn’t felt like a dream, but it had to have been. Perhaps it had been one of those sleep paralysis things that everyone went through every now and then.

He jumped out of bed and sprinted towards the door. He knew that there couldn’t be anything beneath his bed, that was something a man like Earl Denham would believe. He felt foolish as he exited his bedroom and turned on the living room light with trembling fingers. I’m a grown man and a licensed psychologist, scared of a monster under the bed. But nonetheless, morning found him in an uneasy slumber on the couch in his living room, the lights still turned on as he had left them. After last night, he felt an even greater urge to get out of his condo and Fort Lauderdale.

Saturday morning came, and Daniel woke to the shriek of his alarm and an ache in his neck from another night on the couch. Until he had gotten to the bottom of this case, he had given up on sleeping in his bed. Since that night he had dreamed of Earl Denham and the arm across his chest he hadn’t felt comfortable sleeping in there. He hoped once he had gotten to the root of Denham’s phobias everything would return to normal.

Daniel rubbed his eyes and focused on the trip. He had already planned the route; it would be a long drive, but Daniel found that he was looking forward to it. Perhaps a switch of scenery would bring a different perspective. Something hadn’t been right since he had accepted this case, but he felt as if he was on the verge of discovering the missing piece.

He felt energized, he reflected as he lugged his suitcase to the car and adjusted his tie. He had worn one of his best suits in the hopes that it might help convince Earl’s mother that he was a legitimate clinician. But just in case, he had printed out a copy of his license and the official contract he had signed with Sheila designating him as Earl’s forensic examiner.

The morning dawned bright and sunny, the hazy late summer heat already suffocating before he set out. As he left the city behind to the orange glow of morning and headed into the Everglades, his interview with Earl a couple days ago came back to him. The man had two prominent but distinct phobias, it seemed: a terror of something beneath the bed, and a fear of being touched. But what if they had the same source? What if whoever had abused him had hidden beneath his bed and then come out while he was sleeping? Where did the psychosis end and the real trauma begin?

He had thought that Earl’s fear of something beneath the bed had been his way of expressing the abuse; a plea for help of sorts. Most children were afraid of a monster under the bed at some point during childhood. Except for me, I was always afraid of the closet, Daniel recalled and chuckled at the irony. But maybe he had been wrong in his assumption about Earl’s phobia.

What if there had been something beneath the bed that abused him in the night? Not something, someone, Henry’s voice corrected in his mind. He had always been the more down-to-earth one, after all. It had to have been a person, not a monster, Daniel reminded himself. But Earl’s fear of an unknown entity beneath the bed had persisted into adulthood, if the nurse at the detention center could be believed. He made a mental note to examine Earl’s old room and bed carefully, if it was still at the house.

He checked the clock on his dashboard and then his GPS. Daniel would be in Westchase soon, and he realized that he hadn’t even prepared a formal interview for Regina Hillstrom. For the most part he just wanted to see the house. If whatever he was missing couldn’t be found in the file, then maybe he would see it in the house.

At about one thirty in the afternoon, Daniel pulled up to a two-story house with gray stone sides. He pulled his briefcase from the passenger seat and walked up to the door. The midafternoon sun beat down on his shoulders, and within seconds he regretted wearing the suit. He felt himself beginning to perspire seconds after leaving the air-conditioned refuge of his car. He tugged at his collar and raised his hand to knock on the door.

But before he could, the door opened to reveal a haggard woman in that transitional stage between late-middle age and elderly. Her hair had gone gray, with only a few wisps of mouse-brown streaks crisscrossing her head. She didn’t smile or say hello, only beckoned him in after glancing around with wary eyes. “Don’t you want to see my credentials?” He asked her before he stepped into the house.

“No need, I did some research on you. You look exactly like you do in your picture, and I found a news article about you being appointed as Earl’s forensic psychological examiner.” Regina Hillstrom paused. “I was almost hoping you were a quack so I could just tell you off. But seeing as you’re the real deal, let’s just get this over with.”

“Haven’t you been following the story?” He asked her in an incredulous tone. He would have thought that she would have been looking up every article about her son’s trial that she could.

“No, quite frankly I haven’t. It’s too upsetting, and I already know how it’s going to turn out, one way or the other. No matter what, Earl’s never going to see the light of day again, so what difference does it make? No one can save him.” She turned her back to him and walked into the house.

Daniel followed with a sudden hesitation in his step. What exactly had he hoped to accomplish by bothering this grieving mother? Wasn’t it bad enough her son had just been charged with multiple murders and was pleading not guilty by reason of insanity? Nevertheless, he followed and began to formulate several questions in his head that he wanted to ask Regina.

“Ms. Hillstrom, can you tell me when Earl’s fear of being touched began, and what might have been the cause? I’ve read the progress notes of his childhood therapist, but they haven’t been all that enlightening.” He asked the woman as he followed her into the living room. You should always wait until you’ve sat down and you’ve each made yourselves comfortable before beginning an interview, Henry nagged from inside his head. He felt something catch in his throat. Not now, not here. Something…something’s wrong here, he returned in his own inner voice.

“You can just call me Regina, there’s no need to be formal at this point.” She answered in an exhausted, almost resigned tone that was much different from how she had sounded on the phone. “And Earl was never afraid of human contact, exactly. It was more than that. He was afraid of hands, not touch.”

“I…don’t understand.” Daniel replied, but something in the back of his mind began to click. Get your hand away from me, he had screamed. It had been the nurse that told him Earl was afraid of being touched. And when one thought of touch, one thought of hands.

“If you were to reach out to him with your foot, he’d be fine with it. Lean in to kiss his cheek, and he’d smile.” A glimmer of moisture began to form in the woman’s eyes, and she blinked hard. “But reach a hand towards him…”

“…and he would panic,” Daniel finished in a voice that was almost a whisper. Earl’s behavior in the interview room made more sense now. Daniel had reached his hand out towards him, and even before that, Earl had fixated on his hand, it had never been about the file. And the murders…Earl had stabbed their hands not in imitation of crucifixion, but because he had been afraid of them. His victims must have approached him the wrong way, and he had killed them. Daniel frowned. No, that wasn’t right. Earl had allegedly stalked his victims and attacked them when they had been defenseless.

But the final question still burned unanswered in his mind. “Do you know why Earl might have developed a fear of hands, and of a monster lurking beneath his bed? Where did this all begin?” He asked her, and she stopped in the living room. Daniel realized he was breathless, as if speaking the words had taken physical effort. Regina turned back, a dark expression on her face.

“I figured you might ask me that,” she sighed. “I have an idea, but I’m not sure what to make of it. Earl…developed some strange ideas as a child. Follow me.” She led him out of the living room and back into the hallway, where the stairs led to the second floor. Regina continued to talk as she led him upstairs.

“It began without warning. He was a bright and well-adjusted child in kindergarten and the first grade. I should know, I was a schoolteacher myself then, although at a different school. But one night we found him curled up in a ball, soaked in urine, screaming his head off. After that…well, you’ve clearly read his file.” She told him in a flat voice.

“I know, but did you ever find out what he was afraid of?” Daniel asked her.

“I’m getting to that. Forgive me if I take my time, this…will be unpleasant, for the both of us. I don’t like to remember the things I am about to show you.” They reached one of the bedrooms, and Regina opened the door. The room had several posters of comic book characters and rock bands, On a dresser sat a thin pile of papers, and she picked them up and handed them to Daniel.

“Everything’s the way it was before Earl left. I wouldn’t let Max change it. As a teenager he tried to overcome his troubles and have some hobbies. I like to think that his comic books and music brought him some peace. He never did well with people, not since…since that first night, but he loved to plug in his headphones and read those comics.” Earl’s mother lowered her gaze.

She gestured with the papers. “I dug these up earlier, I figured you’d want to have a look at them.” Regina Hillstrom turned away, a mixture of loathing and revulsion twisting her features. “This is the reason Earl’s therapist discontinued. These papers are what Earl drew for her when she asked him to describe his attacker.

Daniel looked at the papers, and the bottom of his stomach dropped away. The images in front of him swam and the room spun. He looked for a place to sit down, and lurched over to the bed. The drawings showed a small, pudgy boy with an expression of abject horror on his face, surrounded by ten pairs of hands reaching up towards him from the darkness beneath the bed. The source of the hands remained ambiguous. Young Earl had not drawn whatever connected the hands and appendages together, and yet there seemed to be a dark, amorphous mass skulking under the bed. As he stared at the thing it began to take shape. Daniel tore his eyes away before the entity could resolve itself and focused on the picture as a whole.

Earl had been a talented artist even as a child; the look on the child’s face in the picture spoke of a terror Daniel couldn’t dream of. How could a child imagine a horror like that? But what made the hands and limbs more disturbing were the extra elbow joints. The limbs that the hands connected to had multiple joints that allowed them to bend in ways that no human arm could. The limbs contorted and twisted, filling the room with their ominous presence.

He flipped through the papers slowly, taking in every one. In each drawing, the hands seemed to be doing different things to Earl. In one, they were grabbing his feet and trying to pull him off the bed, and Earl held on to his headboard for dear life. In another, five pairs of hands seemed to be tugging on his hair and his pajamas while several others explored his face and pulled at his cheeks.

Earl had even drawn a puddle on the bed where he had wet himself in one picture. He looked down at the bed he sat on and noticed that it was identical to the bed in the picture. But everything else had changed, and Earl was no longer a terrified child.

“What…is this?” Daniel asked in a trembling voice. A couple of the drawings fell from his hands and slid to the floor. One of them depicted several of the hands gripping an anguished cat, while the other hands restrained Earl from trying to save the animal.

Regina looked down at the picture. “Earl loved that cat. It didn’t make any sense when he killed it. That’s when we sent him to the therapist.” She picked up the drawing and handed it to Daniel, who took it and numbly added it to the stack.

“We never found anything, you know. At first, every time he screamed we came running. It didn’t happen every night, or even most nights. But once it started, it got more and more frequent, until it was happening at least once a week. We turned on the lights and looked everywhere, but we never found anything. Eventually, Max said that Earl would have to overcome it on his own and that we were just enabling him. I never forgave him for that.” She paused.

“Earl wasn’t scratched up at all that night…the night he strangled the cat. I didn’t think about it much until after Earl had left, but…you’d think the cat would have fought back when he killed it, wouldn’t you?” Regina pulled out a cigarette and lit it, a morose, thoughtful look in her eyes.

 “Some nights…some nights I just can’t sleep, and these questions keep running through my mind.” The woman turned away and walked over to stand by the door, then took another drag on her cigarette.

“I suppose,” Daniel answered, still puzzling over the things Earl’s mother had just told him. “You stopped coming to his room when he cried for help,” Daniel continued. He looked down at the pictures, but as disturbing as they were they still didn’t make sense to him. What was he looking at, exactly? Had it been some kind of psychotic hallucination? That was the most likely answer, but it didn’t sit right with Daniel. He looked back up at Regina.

“He was diagnosed with childhood onset schizophrenia of the paranoid type. They told us it was uncommon at his age, but that it happens. They gave him medication, but it never made a difference. He still kept having outbursts in the night. Then he ran away, and we never heard from him until his arrest. I don’t think he ever forgave us for not coming to save him.”

“Is it possible that Earl was being…sexually abused by…someone?” Daniel asked. In all his years of clinical practice, he had never felt comfortable asking that question.

“You mean by his father, right?” Regina narrowed her eyes at the psychologist. “That’s who they always suspect, don’t they?”

“I didn’t say that. It could have been someone sneaking into his room at night and then leaving when you came to see what was wrong.” Daniel replied carefully. Max Denham had been his primary suspect, but he wouldn’t tell her that now.

“No, I don’t think so. It definitely wasn’t Max, he was always with me whenever we heard Earl screaming. And how would a person get into his room? We’re on the second floor, and there aren’t any trees outside the window. We looked everywhere, and when we responded to his episodes we got there fast. Our room was right across the hall. We looked beneath the bed, in the closet, and anywhere else. There was nowhere for a person to hide.”

Daniel decided to let the subject drop. He turned back to the pictures, and began leafing through them again. He squinted at one of the pairs of hands, realizing that it looked somewhat different than the others. Those hands were smaller and more slender, as if they were the hands of a…Daniel felt a sudden sinking feeling in his stomach as another piece clicked into place.

“Do you know why he might have chosen the people he’s accused of murdering?” Daniel asked, although it had already begun to fit together. But he needed to hear someone else say it.

Regina Hillstrom remained silent for several moments. “Yes, I do. He called me from jail, after he was arrested. I never told anyone, but I think he was killing the people whose hands resembled the ones he believed tormented him at night. He said that they followed him from Clearwater to Fort Lauderdale and that they wouldn’t stop until he found their bodies and killed them. He said that if you can see it, it can see you, and that the hands are nothing compared to the- the rest of it. He refused to describe that part, but I’ve never heard his voice laced with so much dread. But he believed that the thing would die if he found the owners of the hands and killed them.”

Daniel didn’t respond. He was still trying to comprehend everything he had just learned. The last few pieces of the puzzle had fallen into place, and he didn’t know how to process it. He had handled close to a hundred forensic cases since he had received his license as a clinical psychologist, but none of them had affected him as much as this one had. The thing beneath Earl’s bed, the unknown creature with ten pairs of hands, couldn’t have been real, could it?

But even if he were to accept the reality of such a thing purely for the sake of argument, the murders still didn’t make sense. Earl’s mind must have snapped from the trauma, whatever it had been. How could the hands of ordinary people be related to some imaginary monster beneath a child’s bed? Earl must have seen those people’s hands and the images had triggered flashbacks. Not that he believed in the existence of such a creature, but it showed the flaws in Earl’s already twisted logic and might provide a more solid insanity defense in court.

The ringing of his cell phone interrupted his revelations. He pulled it out of his pocket and saw that it was Sheila. He answered the phone with a dazed expression on his face. But based on what he had discovered, Sheila might have a decent case for at least a downward departure of Earl’s sentence based on his traumatic childhood and history of mental illness.

“Where are you right now, Dr. Boudreaux?” She asked him in a stiff voice. Despite their years of affiliation, she had always refused to simply call him Daniel. He could almost picture her iron-grey hair and sardonic frown over the phone.

“I’m at the house where Earl Denham grew up in Clearwater. I’m interviewing the mother and trying to get a feel for Earl’s childhood.” He answered her.

“Trying to get a feel for his childhood? What, are you some kind of psychic?” She responded with a heavy note of sarcasm. In a bad mood Sheila possessed the social skills of a rusty brillo pad, but Daniel had long since become accustomed to the surly lawyer. “Well, it doesn’t matter anyway. Earl Denham killed himself last night. They found his body this morning. He strangled himself to death, it seems.”

“With his hands? I thought that was impossible. You pass out before you can suffocate yourself, that’s why people who want to do it that way tie plastic bags over their heads. Are you sure it was a suicide?”

“Well I’m pretty damn sure they found his hands clutching his own windpipe. Normally you would be right I suppose, but before he passed out he managed to crush his Adam’s apple, and he choked to death on his own blood. But the only fingerprints they found on his throat were his own, and they were pressed pretty fucking deep.” Sheila replied. She could have been talking about the weather from the nonchalance in her voice.

“You’ll be paid for your time, of course, but you might as well head back-“ Daniel hung up on her. He turned to Regina, who wore a knowing, resigned expression.

“He’s dead, isn’t he? I figured he might be.” She spoke in an almost emotionless voice.

“Yes, Ms. Hillstrom. Regina. He killed himself last night. I’m sorry for your loss.” Even to his own ears, his words sounded hollow. Regina turned to leave the room. “Come on back downstairs. I’ll make you some coffee before you leave.” Maybe she was in shock, or maybe she had already begun grieving his loss.

Daniel got up to follow her, but some impulse made him turn back to the bed where everything had begun, all those years ago. A glimpse of movement caught his eye, and as he saw the source a series of chills paralyzed him to the spot, and then he stumbled. His vision swam. There was no way he could have seen what he thought he had. Daniel turned away and hurried out of the room after Ms. Hillstrom’s retreating footsteps.

A mouse, he thought. It was a mouse, or a palmetto bug. It couldn’t have been…that. What he thought he had seen was a single finger, retreating rapidly into the darkness beneath Earl’s bed. But things like that, things that tormented men like Earl Denham, just didn’t exist in the real world. But he couldn’t deny what he had seen, and he couldn’t delude himself. He thought back to Earl’s death, and wondered if maybe, just maybe, there was more to the incident than met the eye. What do the hands connect to? What lurked beneath Earl’s bed? He thought about the arm he had felt around his chest two nights ago, and shuddered.

He rushed out of Regina Hillstrom’s house too flustered to say goodbye, and squinted in the cheerful South Florida sunlight. Despite the bright day, chills ran up and down Daniel’s spine. The sun always set, he reflected, and with it…he opened the door to his car and sat down, his entire body numb. The image wouldn’t leave his mind, and he knew that he would be sleeping on the couch with the lights on for many more nights to come. In his mind he searched for Henry’s voice, but it was nowhere to be found.

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