Pretty Girls


PAGE 51


I trust no one but your mother.


So I cleared my throat a few times and inserted some pained emotion into my tone and told Paul that I could not in all good conscience see myself giving any man permission to marry either of my daughters, or to even attend their weddings, until I know what happened to my oldest child.


Like Pepper, and like you for that matter, Claire is as impulsive as she is stubborn. She is also my baby girl, and she would never, ever go against my wishes. There is one thing I know about both of your sisters: They would just as soon break my arms and legs as break my heart.


I know this truth like I know the sound of Claire's laughter, the look she gets on her face when she is about to smile or cry or throw her arms around my shoulders and tell me that she loves me.


And Paul knows this, too.


After I told him about my dilemma, there was a long pause on his end of the telephone line. He is cunning, but he is young. One day, he will be a master manipulator, but two days from now when I get him alone, I will be the one asking questions, and I will not let Paul Scott leave my sight until he gives me all of the answers.


FIFTEEN


Claire clenched her hands around the steering wheel. Panic had almost closed her throat. She was sweating, though a cold rush of wind came in through the cracked sunroof. She looked down at Lydia's phone on the seat beside her. The screen had faded to black. So far, Paul had sent three pictures of Lydia. Each one showed her from a different angle. Each photo brought Claire some amount of relief because there was no further damage to Lydia's face. Claire didn't trust Paul, but she trusted her own eyes. He wasn't hurting her sister.


At least not yet.


She forced her thoughts not to go to that dark place that they were so desperately drawn toward. Claire could find no location or time stamp on the photos. She had a tenuous hold on the belief that Paul was stopping his car every twenty minutes and taking the photographs, because the alternative was to believe that he had taken all the photos at the same time and that Lydia was already dead.


She had to think of a way out of this. Paul would already be strategizing. He was always five steps ahead of everyone else. Maybe he already had a solution. Maybe he was already implementing that solution.


He would have another house. Her husband always bought a back-up. A two-hour drive from Athens could put him in the Carolinas or on the coast or close to one of the Alabama border towns. He would have another house in another name with another murder room with another set of shelves for his sick movie collection.


Claire felt sweat roll down her back. She opened the sunroof a few inches more. It was just after four in the afternoon. The sun was dipping into the horizon. She couldn't think about Paul or what he might be doing to her sister. He had always told her that winners only competed with themselves. Claire had one more hour to figure out how she was going to get the USB drive back from Adam, how she was going to deliver it to Paul, and how in the hell she was going to save her sister in the process.


So far, she had nothing but fear and the nauseating sensation that the hour would pass and she would be just as helpless as when she'd first left the Fuller house. The same problems that had plagued her before were on an endless loop that took up every conscious thought. Her mother: persistently unavailable. Huckleberry: worthless. Jacob Mayhew: probably working for the Congressman. Fred Nolan: ditto, or maybe he had his own agenda. Congressman Johnny Jackson: Paul's secret uncle. Powerful and connected, and duplicitous enough to stand with the Kilpatrick family during press conferences as if he had no idea what had happened to their precious child. Adam Quinn: possible friend or foe.


The masked man: Paul.


Paul.


She couldn't believe it. No, that wasn't right. Claire had seen her husband in front of that girl with her own eyes. The problem was that she couldn't feel it.


She forced all the disturbing things she knew about Paul to the forefront of her mind. She knew there was more. There had to be more. Like Paul's color-coded collection of rape files, there had to be countless more movies documenting the girls he abducted, the girls he kept, the girls he tortured for his own pleasure and for the pleasure of countless other despicable, disgusting viewers.


Was Adam Quinn one of his customers? Was he an active participant? As Lydia had said, it wasn't like Claire was the best judge of character. She had been with Adam because she was bored, not because she wanted to get to know him. Her husband's best friend had been a constant in their lives. In retrospect she understood that Paul had kept him at a distance. Adam was there, but he wasn't inside the circle.


The circle had only ever contained Paul and Claire.


Which was why Claire had never given Adam much thought until that night at the Christmas party. He'd been very drunk. He'd made a pass and she'd wanted to find out how far he would take it. He was good, or maybe just different from Paul, which was all that she had been looking for. He could be awkwardly charming. He liked golf and collected old train cars and smelled of a woodsy, not-unpleasant aftershave.

That was the extent of her knowledge.


Adam had told her that he had an important presentation on Monday, which meant that he'd be in the office first thing tomorrow morning. The presentation would take place at the Quinn + Scott downtown offices, where they had a custom-built screening room with theater seating and young girls in tight dresses who served drinks and light snacks.


Adam would have the USB drive on him. The files were too big to email. If he needed the files for work, then he would have to take them to the offices to load them for the presentation. If he needed the keytag because it had incriminating evidence, he would be a fool to keep it anywhere but on his person.


Claire let her thoughts drift back to the latter possibility. Paul could have another circle that encompassed Adam. They'd been best friends for over two decades, well before Claire entered the picture. If Paul had found his father's movies after his parents' accident, surely he would have gone to Adam to talk about it. Had they hatched a plan then to keep the business going? Had they both watched the films together and realized that they weren't repulsed by, but attracted to, the violent images?


In which case, Adam would've already told Paul that he had the USB drive. Claire didn't know what his silence meant. A falling-out? An attempted coup?


"Think," Claire chided herself. "You have to think."


She couldn't think. She could barely function.


Claire picked up Lydia's phone. Lydia didn't have a passcode, or maybe Paul had helpfully bypassed it for Claire. She clicked the button and the most recent photograph came up on the screen. Lydia in the trunk, terrified. Her lips were white. What did that mean? Was she getting enough air? Was Paul suffocating her?


Don't abandon me, Sweetpea. Please don't abandon me again.


Claire put down the phone. She wasn't going to abandon Lydia. Not this time. Not ever again.


Maybe Claire was tackling this from the wrong end. She couldn't think of her own strategy, so the better thing to do was to guess what Paul was planning. Claire was good at predicting Paul's behavior, at least where Christmas presents and surprise trips were concerned.


His first goal was to get back the USB drive. It would cost him nothing to wait. He was keeping Lydia somewhere. She was his leverage over Claire. He wouldn't kill her until he was absolutely certain that he had the drive in his hands.


The thought brought Claire some relief, but she knew full well that there were other things that Paul could do with Lydia.


She wasn't going to think about that.


Paul still had feelings for Claire-at least inasmuch as he was capable of feeling anything. He had put the pillow under her head. He'd slid her wedding ring back on her finger. He had taken off her shoes. He had charged the Tesla. All of these things had taken time, which meant that Paul placed importance on them. Instead of rushing Lydia out the door, he had risked exposure by taking care of Claire.


Which meant she had a slight advantage.


Claire groaned. She could hear Lydia's voice in her head: So fucking what?


The car's GPS told her to make a right turn up ahead. Claire didn't dwell on the relief she felt from having someone else tell her what to do, even if it was the onboard computer. Back in Athens, she had been overwhelmed with bad choices. She couldn't go home to her mother, who would only fret and take to her bed. She couldn't go to the police because there was no telling who was in cahoots with Paul. She couldn't go to the Dunwoody house because Nolan was probably looking for her. The only place she could go to was Lydia's.


She was halfway to the house when she realized there was something at Lydia's that could possibly-maybe-help her.


Claire slowed the Tesla as she took in her surroundings. She had been thoughtlessly following the GPS commands. She hadn't realized until now that she was inside the caverns of an older suburban neighborhood. The houses lacked the uniformity of a new subdivision. There were shotgun-style cottages, Dutch colonials, and the brick ranch where Lydia lived.


Claire didn't need the GPS to tell her that she'd reached her sister's home. She recognized the house from the photographs in Paul's files. The yellow numbers on the side of the mailbox were faded, obviously rendered by a child's hand. Claire pictured Lydia standing in the yard watching her young daughter carefully paint the address onto the side.


Lydia's van was parked in the driveway. According to Paul's detectives, Rick had lived next door to Lydia for almost ten years. Claire recognized the garden gnomes by his front door. Rick's truck was parked outside the Dunwoody house, but he had a second car, an old Camaro, parked in front of his garage.


She scanned both houses as she slowly drove by. Lydia's home was dark, but Rick had a few lights on. It was late afternoon on a Sunday. Claire imagined a man like Rick Butler would be watching football or reading a well-worn copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Dee was probably at a friend's. According to the women in Claire's tennis team, teenagers were incapable of turning off lights when they left a room.


Claire turned down the next road, a short dead end with a rundown-looking cottage at the end. She parked and got out of the car. She put Lydia's phone in her back pocket because she was owed another photo in nine minutes. As usual, Paul was being punctual. Or he had programmed the phone to send out the pictures ahead of time.


She opened the trunk of the car.