Venus had been calmly walking home from the post office when the familiar voice cut in with a equally familiar insult. The week was going from bad to worst with every passing moment, as if some dark god had cast its hateful gaze upon the young girl.
First, there was the rain. It came down in thick wet sheets like an unwelcome monsoon. It was a refreshing break from the harsh sun that had been relentlessly beating on Saint-Ferdinand for the past two weeks, but it was temporary relief at best. Once the sky cleared, the sun would dry off the rain puddles into a cloud of sticky humidity which would then hover over town for days. The village was surrounded by trees that blocked most of the wind that could have dissipated the inevitable muggy weather. Saint-Ferdinand would become an unbearable sauna.
Then, there was the clerk at the post office, Anaïs Bérubé, who wouldn't release her package until Venus brought her some form of identification. Anaïs had known Venus since she'd been a baby, but was so hung up on following the rules that she couldn't make one tiny exception. As a result, either she had to walk home, get her medical insurance card and walk back, all under the marginal protection of her umbrella while deluvian torrents fell all around her, or she'd have to wait one more day for her package. Ironically, a day like this would have been perfect to install the new video card she'd ordered and was now being held hostage at the post office.
Finally, on otherwise empty streets, in the worst weather so far this summer, she had to run into André Wilson. A smart boy would have picked a better time and more pleasant weather to practice his half-witted bullying, but not André. He was as dedicated to his craft as an artist, but his paint was childish insults while his canvas was Venus.
"Really André?" Venus turned around to face the boy. Her exasperation was cut short when she noticed he wasn't alone. He had with him a couple of friends which she recognized as some of boys from the schools soccer team. Judging from their sodden uniforms and muddied shinguards, they had just come from practice.
"Heading back to the commune?" André laughed.
He'd once probably been Venus' best friend. Through most of their youth they'd hung out together. They built snow forts together, went swimming in the lake together and even camped in André's backyard together. For as long as she could remember, they had been friends. That is, until Venus skipped ahead a grade over a year and a half ago. In fact, she'd lost a lot of friends that year. She tried to comfort herself by rationalizing that it was going to be worth it in the long run, but it stung regardless. If it hadn't been for Penny and Abraham, she might have just given up. Regardless, André never quite got over his best friend leaving him behind and unfortunately, knew exactly what buttons to push to get a rise out of her.
"I'm not a hippy! You don't even know what a hippy is!"
"You're parents are hippies, so what does that make you? Huh? 'Venus'?"
André and his dumb friends laughed. Her parents were indeed 'free spirited' for lack of better term. They owned a tea shop where they sold kettles, imported teas and herbal drinks. Her mother cooked home-made organic baby food that she sold to the mothers around town while her father padded the family income by doing some carpentry. Both were staunch vegetarians and vocal pacifists. They'd named their only child 'Venus' and practiced 'free range parenting', which was synonymous to 'child neglect' as far as Venus was concerned. For all she could care her parents deserved to be called names for being strange and letting her pay the price for it. What she resented was being associated with their lifestyle choices. Especially considering how hard she worked not to be like them.
"Look André, it's raining cats and dogs, can't you reschedule being an idiot 'till tomorrow?" the words escaped her mouth before she realized no good would come of them.
"I don't know if it's the rain, but you're awfully clean for a hippy." said the bully, nodding to his friends.
Venus turned to run but her short, sandaled legs couldn't keep up against three young teens with running shoes and a desire for mischief. Within three strides they had caught up to her and tossed her umbrella aside. Lifting her by the arms they then unceremoniously tossed her in the muddy ditch by the side of the road.
"There you go!" laughed the bully. "Ain't that more comfortable for a dirty hippy?"
When Venus finally got home, she was livid. Dirty, wet, cold and humiliated, her only saving grace that no one could see her tears as she barged into the house. Virginie, her mother immediately dropped her book and ran to get a towel.
"Oh sweetheart! What happened? Did you fall?"
Venus snatched the towel away and between choked breath answered.
"No! I was thrown into a ditch."
"Why?" asked her mother, stepping back, knowing full well that her daughter's rage was somehow being directed at her.
"Because! Because you and Paul can't just be like every other parents in town! Because you can't just spend vacation time in Florida instead of going to Burning Man! Because you can't just give a curfew and chores and an allowance and you couldn't call me 'Mary' or 'Suzy' or something normal!"
Virginie felt pained and more than a little guilty. Slowly and gently, she took a corner of the towel and wiped the mud and rain away from her daughter's face.
"Venus," she began, as soothingly as she could "we raise you like that because we believe it will make you a better person. And we don't treat you like a normal girl because we believe you're more than just an ordinary kid. You're special."
"No, I'm not! Parents always say that to their kids, but I'm not falling for it. Just 'cause you couldn't make anything of your lives doesn't mean I have to tolerate your messiah complex!"
After yelling the words and before she allowed herself time to regret them, Venus shoved past her mother and stormed upstairs to her room.
"I'll beat the snot out of him."
Abraham spoke as if it were a matter of fact. Then again, as far as sixteen year old boys went, Abe Peterson wasn't prone to empty threats and flights of fancy. Not that he was pathologically phlegmatic but he rarely bothered with hesitation or burdened himself with such things as plans.
"No you won't." Penelope ordered setting a large chocolate Sundae in front of the boy.
"Why not?" Abe was a large boy that had no physical reason to be afraid. A voracious appetite conspired with constant farm work to grant him a powerful if rather graceless physique. His piercing eyes were too small for his face which made him look dumber than he actually was, combined with his economy of words this made him as much a target of ridicule as Venus was for her eccentric parents. Though other kids tended to keep their hands off Abraham as well as a safe distance.
"What do you mean 'why'? Because I told you so but if that's not enough; because André'll take it out on Venus if you do."
Abraham growled acknowledgment before stuffing an enormous spoonful of ice cream and syrup into his mouth. Penelope grimaced at the display of gluttony before continuing.
"What else did she say? Is she gonna be okay?"
"She said she was moving out." The words came out muffled by the un-swallowed food in his mouth to which Penny rolled her eyes. The boy was more animal than human at times.
"She can't move out you pig. She can't get a job and she's not old enough." she picked up a rag and some stray dishes to dry. "Besides, where would she move? No one rents apartments here."
"The shed." answered Abraham, carefully swallowing before speaking. "She's moving to the shed in her backyard. I offered that she move to the farm, Pa would have found a use for her, but she said 'no'. Said she's got it all figured out."
That made sense in a strange way. Venus had always been fiercely independent, having essentially raised herself since she could walk. However, while she was resourceful, Penny suspected that the younger girl had probably planned mostly for her computer and books, but not for how cold the uninsulated building would be come winter. The bottom line was that Penelope had one more hare-brained idea to talk her friend out of.
"I'll go see her after work tomorrow. She's just upset and needs some time to cool off. Maybe she can spend a few days at my place."
"I'll go with you." piped in Abraham, his mouth once more filled with fudge and ice cream. "I have to help her move some of her stuff."
Out of patience, Penny slapped her hand over his mouth, but before she could get to lecturing him about the very basics of table manners, the door chimes rang announcing a new customer.
Wearing the kind of suit and tie attire seen only at weddings and funerals in Saint-Ferdinand, the man looked around the shop expectantly. His gaze settling on Penelope he smiled and walked in, letting the door slam behind him. Young and relatively short with unkempt brown hair and a face that seemed like it wouldn't grow a beard for several more years, he strode to the counter and took a seat right next to Abe, nodding to the boy as he did so.
"Can I help you?" asked Penny with a sincere smile she seemed to reserve only to out of towners.
"Do you serve any of those float things with soda and ice cream?" the man answered with a perfect smile.
"Sure. Any particular flavors?"
As Penelope turned away to make the float, Abraham swiveled to his side and leaned dramatically on his elbow. Taking on airs of self confidence that fit him as well as a cocktail dress, he smiled and made sure his mouth was free of ice cream.
"So are you a cop or a reporter?" Abraham asked with his best attempt at conviviality.
"Abe! Don't bother the customers!"
"It's quite alright." reassured the newcomer "I stick out like a sore thumb don't I?"
"Yeah," continued Abraham after shooting Penny a victorious look. "Actually I'm surprised the place ain't crawling with city folk, considering the news and all."
"You have your chief of police to thank for that. Kept the lid on things pretty tight."
"We don't have a chief here," interrupted Penny while handing the man his float. "inspector Crowley's good enough for our little corner of the world. Five seventy-five please."
"Whatever the man's title he's a genius at understating important news. If it weren't for a friend at the hospital in Magog who told me an odd story about a dead little girl..."
"So a reporter then?" asked Abraham a second time.
"Guilty." the man smiled and took a deep sip of his float. His eyes rolled up in his skull, expressing blissful joy. "What is it about small town floats that are so delicious?"
"So if you're a reporter, what are you doing drinking sodas with high school kids instead of getting the big story?" asked Penny, apprehensively.
"One scoop at a time I figure." the man grinned and looked to Abraham who seemed to appreciate the pun. "Besides, I'm probably not that much older than you."
"What newspaper do you work for mister...?" Abraham squinted as if trying to recognize the man.
"Sean Hayes and I'm a freelancer."
"I'm Abraham. She's Penny." Abe jumped in to complete the introductions. There was a moment of silence as his friend glared at him, annoyed at being introduced by her nickname.
"So, mister Hayes..." started Penelope.
"Sean." smile the reporter.
"Whatever. You still haven't explained why you're here and not interviewing important people."
"Beside the delicious float? It's mostly because all the important people as you put it have already told me, with little room for misunderstanding, that they were too busy for the media."
"So you're taking a break before giving it another shot." added Abraham with confidence.
"Nope." contradicted Hayes "I'm befriending locals in a not-too-subtle attempt at finding someone that'll put in a good word for me."
Penny sneered at the reporter, being obviously contrary to Sean's attempt at charm. Her natural cynicism kept her from accepting anyone as not having a hidden agenda, especially if they seemed too open about their intentions. Venus had once called it 'interpersonal paranoia'. Penelope was hard pressed to disagree with the expression, though she'd never admit that.
"Well, you're barking up the wrong tree." she commented while picking up and rinsing out Hayes' glass which had been swiftly emptied during the conversation. "You should look for Don Crowley, the inspector's son. He's probably going to be harder to charm though."
"So the inspector has a son?" contemplated Hayes. "See? It was worth my dropping in here after all. A refreshing drink, good conversation and a bit of work done."
Hayes got up and fished in his pockets, pulling out seven dollars in bills and coins before putting them on the counter.
"Maybe I'll see you guys around. Thanks for the float Penelope." he said putting special emphasis on her full name as he left with a wink and a smile.
The teenagers watched as the door closed. After a beat, Abraham turned to Penny.
"I'll have another sundae if you don't mind."
Penny rolled her eyes, exasperated at her friend's voraciousness.
"What?" asked Abe, sincerely confused.
Gabrielle LaForest usually didn't walk home from work. In winter time she obviously took her car, but during summer, rain or shine, she made a point of taking her bicycle. Not that she was a dedicated athlete but she liked to stay fit and her schedule didn't allow her much time for exercise. So she made due with what she had and the most efficient thing she could come up with was cycling.
It was a hobby she wished she could share with her daughter. While they were very close, especially since Gabrielle's husband passed away nearly five years ago, they didn't have much time to share common interests. Gabrielle was extremely busy putting food on the table and as the town's sole notary, her days and evenings were often full.
So it was particularly frustrating to Gabrielle that she would not only take four times as long to get home, but she had planned on dropping by her daughter's job for a cone sprinkled with a bit of quality time. A last minute phone call with a client and a broken bicycle chain had sabotaged those plans beyond any hope of salvation. At this rate, it would probably be dark by the time she got home. In fact, it was already twilight and she could barely see the road in front of her as the sun bid its final farewell to the horizon.
Not much more than a week ago, Gabrielle, or any sane resident of Saint-Ferdinand, would have been hesitant to walk alone after dark on such an isolated road. In such a situation, where trees cast the perfect kinds of shadow for a killer to lurk in, she would have jogged to the nearest farm and begged for a ride to her doorstep. She would have received it, no questions asked, even if her good samaritan didn't know her very well. Such was the state of the town that no one wanted to be responsible for the next Saint-Ferdinand killer's murder.
Tonight, the threat was no longer there. The killer was behind bars and while there were still many issues to resolve about the case, such as finalizing the list of victims (of which Gabrielle's husband might feature), the danger was behind them. There was an intoxicating giddiness at being finally able to walk the night with impunity. Part of it, she had to admit, was the possibility of finding closure at last and seeing the monster who nearly ruined her life, hang for it.
She still had roughly half an hour of walking ahead of her. The lights from the Richards farm were far behind her and she could see the glow of familiar porch-lights from old man Demers' stables ahead. Her little house was just beyond that at the edge of a small residential area at the end of town. Though it looked close, she knew from experience that the distance was deceiving.
Those are the thoughts that floated through her head as Gabrielle endured the walk home. In meditative solitude she was surprised when her reverie was interrupted by a voice. The sound was so faint, so ethereal that she could have very well imagined it.
Just as she was about to dismiss it as a figment of her imagination however, she heard it again. At first, panic set in and all the fears from two weeks ago rose from their grave, more powerful and real than ever. It's only when she heard the voice a third time that her soul was gripped with a different kind of panic.
The voice was that of a little girl and although the words it kept repeating was still unintelligible, the recent death of Audrey Bergeron had left a deep scar on the community, especially in the heart and mind of mothers who had daughters of their own.
So Gabrielle, conquering her fear with her motherly instinct walked towards the voice. She had to step off the road and jump across the ditch walking several meters into the forest. As she looked behind every tree she expected to find a wounded or lost little girl, terrified and alone, much like Audrey might have been the night she died.
Before long, she was deep enough amongst the trees that she could barely see the road anymore. She stopped and perked her ears, listening carefully for the voice. Again, silence was her only answer until about a second before she would have dismissed the whole incident, like a trick her mind was playing on her senses. This time however, she saw the little girl.
She was a tiny little thing, with alabaster skin and pale ivory hair. She was wearing her Sunday best except she was barefoot. It took a moment, but as Gabriel got closer she noticed a few odd things about the child.
Her naked feet were pierced with crude nails that seemed driven into the ground beneath her. More horribly, similar nails were rammed into her skull through her eyes. She was completely white apart from a toy she held in her arms; a stuffed bear with a bright red hat.
As Gabrielle stood in stunned silence, the apparition spoke one more time, the same single word: "Run!"