Murder By Design

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Chapter 10

Leone refused to believe it - any of it, really.

He refused to believe that Pandora - the same person who had basically handed them the Johnsons on a silver platter, albeit a very confusing and tricky platter - was a nine-year-old girl.

He refused to believe that said nine-year-old girl was the daughter of the very killers that she had sent them after.

Or that that same girl was now sitting across from him in an interrogation room and claiming to be responsible for the deaths of seventeen people.

“What is your name?” was the first question asked by Leone. Jackson was in the viewing room, on the other side of the one-way glass, connected to his partner by a comms unit.

The girl smirked. “I already told you. My name is Pandora.”

“No.” Leone said. “What is your real name?”

This time, there was no answer.

“Ok then.” Leone said after a moment. Next, he tried, “What do people call you?”

That attempt went slightly better.

“Girl. You. Kiddo. Freak.” The little blonde replied, each word said forcefully. She kept shooting distrustful looks at both the child psychologist sitting in the corner, and the lawyer and social worker sitting on either side of her. Then, with a twisted smile, she added one more, her voice changing so it was slightly higher in pitch and had a sing-song, almost dreamy quality to it.

Oh please, oh please, I don’t want to die.

That one made every civilian in the room subconsciously shift away from her - a move that neither Leone nor the child missed.

“Alright then.” was the only response that Leone gave, as he tried to figure out a way to phrase the question so that he might actually get a straight answer.

Luckily, RJ chose that moment to chime in, using the comms unit.

“She likes riddles.” he reminded his partner, and Leone gave a slight nod to show that he got it.

“How about a game?” he offered. “You like puzzles, right? Word games, riddles, that sort of thing?”

She straightened slightly in her chair, showing interest for the first time since Leone had first met her.

“Give me a puzzle.” he suggested. “A riddle. One where, when I solve it, it will tell me your name.”

“If.” The girl said, looking at Leone with a spark of mischief in her eyes.

“Sorry?” Leone asked, confused.

She gave a smile then - a real smile, not a sarcastic smirk. “If you solve it.”

His only response was a snort of amusement - she sounded just like his son in that moment.

She thought for a moment, before leaning forward in her chair and cocking an eyebrow at them.

“I have a mouth, but do not speak.

I have a bed, but do not sleep.

I have a bank, yet need no money.

What am I?”

There was complete silence for a minute as they all tried to figure it out - Leone, Jackson, the lawyer, the psychologist, and the social worker. But it was the psychologist who figured it out first.

“A river.” He said, earning himself a raised eyebrow from Leone, and a deadly glare from the girl - now known as River.

“Nice name.” Leone said, drawing the girl’s attention back to him - because even though it had been proven that looks couldn’t actually kill people, River seemed like she was willing to give it the old college try.

“River Johnson.” She snapped back around to look at him. “My name is Special Agent Robert Leone.”

“I know what your name is.” River said, smirking. “I also know that the agent behind the glass is your partner, Ryan Jackson.”

Leone tried to ignore the sound of RJ cursing in his ear - as well as the hundred questions that that one statement had created - and moved on to the next topic.

“You said that you are responsible for the deaths of seventeen people.”

River just nodded, not even taken aback by the swift change in the conversation - or by the topic at hand.

“River, how old are you?” He asked gently. His mind was buzzing, trying to figure out how he could make this girl see that none of this was her fault.

“I’m nine and a half.” She said, and he smiled at her.

“So you’re still just a kid then, right?” Leone reasoned, and River nodded at him cautiously, unsure where the agent was trying to go with this. “So how could you be responsible for those people’s’ deaths?”

Her answer was not one that any of them had been expecting.

“Because I killed them.”

Leone paused, momentarily stunned into silence.

“How….” he began, then stopped again, having to recollect his thoughts. “How could you have killed them? They were all bigger than you, stronger than you.” He protested, completely convinced that River Johnson was delusional. It was the only rational explanation for why she thought she had killed seventeen fully grown adults at age nine.

“No, no.” River protested, her eyes flashing dangerously as she leaned forward in her seat, putting her elbows on the table and her head in her hands. “That’s not the question.”

“It’s not?” Leone responded, raising a skeptical brow at her.

She shook her head. “No. The real question is this - how could the FBI, a government agency with huge amounts of manpower and nearly unlimited resources, not catch me? After all,” she drawled, leaning back once more with a smirk. “I am just a little girl.”

It took all of Leone’s willpower to keep from reacting to the smug child in front of him.

“Very true.” He simply said, and something flashed in her eyes that took the agent a minute or two to decipher.

He realized that it was surprise, but it took him a little bit longer to discern why.

She was being an evil brat, most likely to try and get a reaction out of him. Judging by what little he had seen of her parents, they ran a very strict household - although Leone guessed that that was due to the father’s influence more than anything. He remembered with a slight wince how flippant the man had been about his own daughter after they had been caught. Even just working off of that small moment, Leone had no problem picturing the type of household that she had grown up in. She would be used to any snarky behavior being met with anger, not calm acceptance. It made him sad, to say the least. If he was to say the most, he would say that River’s father deserved to burn in the seventh circle of Hell.

But, he realized, as ashamed as he was to admit it, maybe that violence was somehow a good thing. It made her accepting his help easier, and it was his calm acceptance of her snarky attitude that prompted her to start talking.

“Have you ever heard of a designer baby?” River asked and Leone shook his head.

She sighed as she leaned back in her chair, and the handcuffs that kept her attached to the table jangled as she tried to explain. “Imagine that a woman finds out that she is pregnant. So she decides that she wants to give her child the best life possible.”’

Leone nodded, understanding so far. “Sounds like every mother out there.”

River nodded, conceding his point. “But this particular mother has an advantage. She can choose her child.”

Leone looked at her, confused, even as Jackson’s voice went off in his ear. “What the hell does that mean?”

River just rolled her eyes, anticipating the question that Leone was about to ask.

“Ok, so imagine that a baby is like…. Ice cream. Like an ice cream sundae.” A look of childish glee crossed her face, only to disappear just as quickly. “You start with plain ice cream - that’s the baby, but just the general idea of it. Then you pick out the toppings, the traits.”

There was a moment of total silence, and then…

“Ok,” Jackson admitted over the comms. “She lost me… and now I want ice cream.”

But Leone got it.

“So you’re saying… the mother can choose every detail of her child? Every last thing?” He asked, incredulous.

River simply nodded with the kind of resignation that only came from having accepted what she was saying to be the truth.

Then it all clicked.

“You’re not saying….?” Leone asked, and River nodded again, flashing him a grim smile.

“Speed, strength, agility, intelligence - all enhanced.” She said, confirming, the non-vocalized theory. “And of course, the most important factors in their eyes - the inability to empathize, and completely obedient.”

The door of the interrogation room flew open, and Jackson came in.

“Sorry to interrupt storytime,” he said sarcastically, “but you can’t seriously be believing this, can you?”

Leone gave his partner a look, but that was all.

“I can prove it.” River said suddenly, and Leone couldn’t help but smile.

He couldn’t help it - even though she was a confessed murderer, she sounded like a stubborn child who couldn’t say no to a dare.

Then he realized - she was a stubborn child who couldn’t say no to a dare.

“Go on, then.”

Of course. Leone thought. His partner was more of a child than the actual child was.

River smirked as she got up out of her chair. For a moment, as her hair flipped and her skirt flounced, she looked like an average - albeit well-dressed - nine year old.

“No.” Leone said sternly, putting a stop to things before they even had the chance to get out of control. “First off,” he began, turning to his partner, “that’s a kid. You’re not fighting a kid. Second, do you remember what happened to that SWAT agent?”

After making sure that RJ had been properly chastised, Leone turned to River. Putting on the “stern grown-up” look that he used with his son, he asked her, “Weren’t you just handcuffed to the table?”

She just smirked at him, dangling the cuffs in front of him.

Leone nearly growled in irritation as he took the cuffs and reattached them to the table, and then to River, before continuing on with the interrogation.

By the time that they had gotten the whole story from River Johnson, several hours had passed and the room had fallen silent. Everyone there was drained, both mentally and emotionally, and the agents’ minds were reeling from all of the information that they had just learned.

“What’s going to happen now?” River asked as the two agents went to leave the room.

The two men shared a glance, before Robert Leone crossed the room to crouch in front of River.

“You’ll go into witness protection for awhile.” Leone told the young girl, stalling for time as he tried to figure out how he was going to tell her the next part. “Then, once the case is completely finished, they’ll most likely give you a psych evaluation before…”

“Before what?” River Johnson asked, and the traces of distrust that had been in her voice before were back in full force.

“Before you go into the foster care system.” Leone admitted, and then he watched as her face fell for barely half a second, before any sliver of emotion was replaced by a mask of cold indifference.

“But, before you go,” Leone said, as he began fishing in his pockets for a business card. “You have to promise me something.”

“What?”

“No matter how bad things get,” Leone said, staring down the young girl and making sure that she knew just how serious she should be taking this, “I want you to promise me that you will never use your… skills … to hurt another human, okay? Can you promise me that?”

River nodded, and Leone smiled at her. “Good.” he said, as he scribbled his address and phone number down on the back of the card before handing it to her.

“If you ever need me, you let me know, okay?” Leone told her. She couldn’t stop smiling, her eyes following him as he left the room.

That was the last time that he saw her for almost two years time.

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