He grins. “Why did you come by? Besides you finally opened the envelope and found my address.”
My goofy smile comes out.
“But I still haven’t seen the check clear the bank.”
“Samantha Samuels. Really?”
“That’s what it said on the back of the receipt.”
“I can’t even cash it.”
“Why did you come by?” He steps in front of me and grabs the hem of my shirt.
I squeeze my arms to my body. “Um … what are you doing?”
“You can slip on a clean shirt of mine.”
I stare at him unblinkingly with a death grip on my shirt.
“I’ve seen it all before. Arms up.”
As I relax my grip, he peels the shirt over my head. His gaze goes to my birthmark, something else he’s seen a hundred times before. I’ve never seen him focus on it like this except for the very first time he saw it.
“Why did you come by?” he whispers, keeping a focused eye on my birthmark, like he’s mesmerized by it. I’ve never felt self-conscious about it … until now.
“I … uh … wanted to talk to you.” I cross my arms over my stomach to hide the birthmark.
He kneels in front of me. “About?”
What is he doing? His eyes never leave my stomach.
Whisky eyes flick up to meet my gaze for two seconds. He nods and returns his attention to my stomach.
“What are you doing?” I ask as he pulls my arms away.
“Shh …” He presses his lips to the bottom of my birthmark.
Tears burn my eyes. I don’t know why. His touch is so incredibly tender, reverent, and haunting. Ever so slowly, he moves his lips up a tiny fraction, like he’s trying to … I don’t know.
“He killed Daisy,” he whispers over my skin. “But he cut her first … from here…” he presses his lips to the very bottom again and ghosts them to the top, just on the underside of my breast “…to here.”
“Not now …” I beg, fighting this miserable reality—this haunting revelation.
“Now,” he says.
“I said I would protect you. I promised to keep you safe. You were my world, even if I wasn’t yours.”
Her body shakes with emotion as I wrap my arms around her waist, resting my cheek on her birthmark.
“I woke up early that morning before the sun. And I watched you sleep. All I wanted was to scoop you up in my arms and take you with me. I wanted to chase darkness where we could hide beneath the shadows of a million sunsets. If you could transcend time, why couldn’t we stop it? Why couldn’t our love be immortal?”
“Griff …” she weeps.
I don’t want to hurt her. I want to love her. But I took another life and mine will never be the same. For us to love, for us to live, this has to be our burden to bear. I take it to my grave. She takes it to hers. And we both leave it behind in this life. We leave no stones unturned between us.
We have to be all or nothing.
“Jett used to be in the Special Forces. He has certain skills and knowledge he shared with me. I didn’t have a single weapon. I didn’t need one. Nothing to hide. Less accountability. I knocked on Doug’s door while blocking the peephole with my other gloved hand. He was fearless, like all idiots are, and he opened the door.”
“What the fu—”
I pushed him inside, shutting and locking the door behind me.
“Get the fuck out of here before I call the police.”
“Morgan Daisy Gallagher.”
He narrowed his eyes, taking backwards steps until his legs hit the sofa.
“Did you kill her?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about?”
My lips twisted to the side. “I’m on a tight schedule today. Just indulge me. It will be less painful if you do.”
“Think you’re going to beat me up again?”
“God no.” I shook my head, taking a step closer. “You’re going to hang yourself.”
He released a nervous laugh. “Fuck you.”
“The only question is … why? Hmm … do you suppose it’s the scar on your face that makes you look creepy as fuck? Is it possible that one day you woke up and couldn’t stand to look at yourself in the mirror any longer? Maybe out of sheer anger and self-destructive insanity you cut open that scar. A cleansing of your past, your sins. And then you hung yourself.”
I stepped closer.
He fell back into the sofa.
“What do you want? Is this about my accident prone neighbor?”
I shook my head. “I want to know about Morgan Daisy Gallagher. I want to know about that scar on your face.”
“It’s none of your fucking business.”
“Just how much of a sick fuck are you?” I moved toward his kitchen. “Are we talking body parts in your freezer?”
He jumped up from the sofa and came at me. I slammed him into the wall. Not hard enough to leave a mark, just hard enough to restrain him and maneuver him where I wanted him, where my hold on him controlled all oxygen to his brain.
“The scar?” I increased the pressure, using my arms where they wouldn’t leave a mark. “One … two … three …”
He flailed. I let up just enough to give him a quick breath.
“The scar? One … two … three …” I let up.
We did this several times until he talked.
“She cut me …” He coughed. “So I cut her.”
He coughed. I applied pressure again. “One … two … three …”
More coughing when I let up. His hand went from clutching my immovable arm to drawing an invisible line on his chest. “I cut her with the same piece of metal she used to cut me—”
“WHERE?” My patience waned.
“H-here.” His finger pressed to his ribs and straight up.
The birthmark. He fucking drew the exact path of the birthmark. My jaw clenched. “How many?”
More coughing. More pressure until he clawed at my arm again.
“How many girls? How many? Last chance before I cut. Your. Fucking. Face. Open.”
“I-I … don’t know.”
I closed my eyes. “I don’t know” meant there were many. Too many to count. I didn’t open my eyes again. My arms applied more pressure. I counted.
I needed him unconscious, not dead.
When his body relaxed at ten seconds. I let go, eased him to the floor and retrieved the paracord from inside my jacket. I made slip knots at both ends of the cord—one for his head, one for the doorknob—and hoisted him up to hang him. I set a stool nearby. And I left.
No sign of injuries or a struggle.
Then I drove west. Leaving my whole fucking world in Madison. But …
I kiss her birthmark again. And again. And again. “You were safe.”
“Griff …” My name rips from her chest.
“I believed you … ninety-nine percent. But before I took a man’s life, I had to know with complete certainty.”
I hold her while she grieves. I can’t entirely imagine what it must be like to hear details of your own death. So … I just hold her.
After long minutes, her labored breaths and jerky sobs fade to a silent stillness. She cups my face, forcing me to look up at her red eyes and tear-stained cheeks. “I let her go.”
I nod and turn my head to kiss the inside of her wrist.
“I let him go.”
“I know,” I say with my lips relishing the feel of her soft skin.
If she didn’t let Daisy and Nate go, she wouldn’t be here.
“But my heart … it never let you go.”
My gaze finds hers, holding it while I stand. “I know.”
She smiles. “All.”
“You said we’re all or nothing.”
I grin. “All.” Then I grab her a clean shirt and slip it over her head.
“It’s a little big.” She pinches the front of it and brings it to her nose. “But it smells like Griffin.”
I chuckle. “It’s a clean shirt.”
I take her hand. “Come on, Samantha. Let’s grab some food.”
She pulls in the opposite direction. I stop.
Her expression falls serious again. “You took a life.”
I took a life.
And while I need her to share some of the burden, I will never tell her that every day for the rest of my life I will think about how it felt to be judge, jury, and executioner. I will never tell her that no matter how much he deserved to die, it’s impossible to kill someone without letting go of a piece of your own soul.
“I saved a life. Many lives.”
I’ll tell myself that every day too. I have to think that. I have to believe it.
“How many? How many do you think he killed?”
I shrug. “I don’t know.”
“Why?” she whispers.
I don’t answer. I know her question is rhetorical. Sane people can’t explain what exactly makes a serial killer.
“He always had these women coming and going from his apartment. I assumed they had to be hookers.”