"Relax, shh, shh. No, don't try to talk. You're all right."
Akari—fifteen years of age, North Korean, and presently gasping for air—might have frowned in confusion had she clearly heard and correctly interpreted those earnest assurances, the startling incongruities between words and deeds. Horrific deeds. The man speaking, an American, was merciless.
"For now," he added blithely, pushing sweat from his brow, breathless and tremulous from his transgressions. Lyle was, in fact, depleted of energy.
There was a method to indulging the ineluctable urgencies, flawless airway constriction, carotid compression, and attaining and preserving a harmonious balance of life and death, that beguiling equidistance to simple unconsciousness and death. He lived for this moment, enjoyed prolonging the terror, depriving his victims of any relief they might anticipate from a conclusion to the torture by releasing his grasp, forcing them to relive their impending deaths repeatedly.
Restraint, Lyle had discovered, was as fatiguing as—and as fundamental to—release. "I'm not finished with you yet." He dragged his gaze over her battered body, damp with sweat, and with a mocking simper remarked flippantly, "Don't go anywhere, Baby."
Akari recognized the futility in struggling; human instinct, nevertheless, prevailed. Straining against shackles, she cried out in her native tongue, falling silent with abruptness when, at last, the door swung open. Akari feared he'd returned, much sooner than usual, bringing with him the smell of soy sauce and fish.
The girl whimpered incoherently, observed a beam of light emerge and advance. Behind that light, cautious eyes widened, softened briefly, hardened.
Stammered prayers were, incredibly, answered. "It's all right," Parker offered in comforting tones, glancing behind her as she loosened the woman's binds. "Sorry," she added, smoothly transitioning to the woman's language. Gently, she grasped the girl's hand, guided her to freedom.
Akari, weakened and frightened and rather eager to leave, violently lurched to the right. Parker steadied the girl, coaxed her through an open "shed" door and along a narrow passageway—a glorified crawl space—that emptied them into a closet and ultimately freedom. Akari began shuddering when she and Parker departed Bobby's house of horrors.
"You're safe now," Parker assured the girl.
Now, Parker would discover, was rather amorphous, tenuous, elusive and illusive. Akari would experience a million more nows during the course of her life all with one foot remaining behind in the inescapable then.
"There's another," the girl stammered in her native tongue, her words smashed together hastily. "Sun-mi. She's ill."
"Perfect." Parker's hand clenched the doorknob. "Go," she commanded, hastily returning.
My God. Another victim.
The woman, in her thirties, had been bound, gagged, thrust into a corner. She had only a weak pulse, was coated in a sheen of blood. Parker tried and failed to lift her, opting, instead, to drag the blankets upon which the woman lay dying.
Where are you, Sydney?
Reaching the crawl space, Parker considered telephoning the police, despite the damning repercussions; ultimately, she decided against it.
She almost wouldn't live to regret the decision.
"Well well," Lyle purred and observed, fascinated, as his sister swiveled, stunned and enraged. She glared at him in the tiny triangle of light, hissed in disgust, "You're a monster."
"Mm-hmm," he concurred coolly. "And you freed Akari. You really shouldn't have done that, Sis."
"Why the hell not, Bobby," asked Parker, her voice low and throaty.
"Because," he answered, curling his left hand into a fist, "you're going to take her place." Parker's eyes didn't stray from those fingers curled tightly. She wouldn't even remember his stealthy right hand, the butt of his gun, the blow to her head.
"Sydney?" Parker muttered in the darkness when she regained consciousness.
"Oh, that's right," grunted Lyle. "You don't know."
Parker jerked her gaze to the opposite end of the room; however, at the precise moment that reality drew sharply into focus she hastily squeezed her eyes closed, quite incapable of accepting the truth that had been presented to her.
"Hold that thought," Lyle addressed Sun-mi and advanced on his sister. "Sydney's dead, Sis. The Calvary isn't coming."
"Liar," Parker said coolly, loosening one of her binds fractionally and inconspicuously testing range of motion.
"If they were, I'd kill you now. I only play with my food when time affords such---- luxuries. Don't believe me? Hmm? Then believe this," he purred arrogantly, pushing Sydney's mobile into Parker's face, allowing her ample time to examine images of her colleague and confidant, the rivulet of blood that marred a pleasantly creased forehead, vacant chestnut eyes.
"Oh, Sydney, no," said Parker softly.
"You knew how this would end when we first met," Lyle said.
"Who said it's ended?" Parker murmured, thrusting her elbow into Lyle's face.
"I say," snarled Lyle, retrieving from an ankle holster a rather large hunting knife and thrusting its blade completely through Parker's left hand and into the wooden floor beneath, to the hilt, effectively securing his sister to the floor.
Parker's mouth opened wide; the cry of pain, however, never left her throat.
"That'll slow you down for a while," said Lyle with a chuckle. "It's a shame," he added absently, fingering blouse buttons, "that you will die completely ignorant. Or," he announced thoughtfully. "Perhaps I can give you a tiny taste of ecstasy." Parker swallowed a sob, blinked away tears. "No," she commanded. "No, Lyle."
"Oh, yes, yes, Sis," countered Lyle, kicking Parker's knees apart. "You want to do this the hard way? Fine with me." He straddled her, produced another knife, and with a flick of the wrist bisected her silk bra.
Lyle studied her heaving chest. "Angry enough to kill? You and me both, Parker." With a smirk of amusement, he rose and informed her in singsong condescension, "First, however, I want you to witness the consequences of your failure to save this poor woman." Lyle brutally dragged a bound and gagged Sun-mi across the dirt floor, was satisfied only when the two bodies were parallel and Sun-mi's body was overlapping Parker's.
"This," Lyle explained, "is as close as you'll ever get to comprehension, clarity. Parker's lips parted in protest; she faltered, drew a sharp breath, strangled on her rage. Spat. Coolly, Lyle turned his face, neatly escaping Parker's saliva.
"Fighting to the end," remarked Lyle blandly. "How honorable," he said, striking his sister hard, twice, across the face with the back of his hand.
"If you're intending to plead for your life," Lyle explained, "you should begin now. Who knows," he said jovially, pushing away delicate fabric and pressing a scalpel to her exposed breast. "I might even let you keep this."
"I'll never beg you for anything, ghoul."
"Suit yourself. Oh, and by the way, this is going to hurt," Lyle said with a grin, drawing a shallow, nevertheless, bloody, course down the center of her body, from breast to abdomen. Parker cried out in pain, observed in horror as Lyle lapped greedily at the perforation, imbibing her blood. "Change your mind about begging?"
"Fuck you," Parker hissed.
"You'll have to wait your turn, I'm afraid," rejoined Lyle in mock regret.
"Oh, God, don't do this, Lyle," cried Parker when her brother straddled Sun-mi; the woman's weak whimpers morphed into agonized cries that Parker knew would never be excised from her mind.
Parker summoned her mother and Thomas, clung to them desperately, imagined Catherine's voice, her deceptively calm voice and absolute duplicity. It's okay, Sweetheart.
It isn't. Parker recalled her mother's battered face, the soft assurances. It wasn't okay when Raines assaulted you. It's not okay now. This isn't okay, Mama.
Close your eyes, Baby. Close them. Listen to my voice, listen only to my-
Parker cried out suddenly in renewed terror; her composure and her mother evanesced; the studied calm withered. Sun-mi's body jostled violently beside her, and, owing to Parker's proximity to the woman and Lyle's arrangement of their bodies, Parker, too, lurched rhythmically, propelled by Lyle's savage assault.
Sun-mi's fierce attempts to draw a single restorative breath mingled with Lyle's groans. The woman fought, quite literally, to the death, gurgling dreadfully at the end, still yearning for breath, unaware that she'd already breathed her last. Lyle grunted obscenities, shuddered wildly, and collapsed heavily onto Sun-mi's lifeless body.
"God damn," bellowed Lyle, rising slowly onto an elbow and tossing a bloody condom out of sight. "It's time to finish this," he announced.
"Lyle, don't," Parker demanded when he transferred his weight from Sun-mi's lifeless body to hers.
"Enough," he said, fondling Parker's neck gently and then squeezing, smirking when her eyes began to water. "Be thankful that I'm spent, that you won't be conscious, or alive, when I fuck you because I'm not going to be nice."
Parker envisioned herself dislodging the blade from her palm and thrusting it through Lyle's aorta. At least I won't be alive, she, inexplicably, mused, appalling herself, remaining, nevertheless, enraged that he would defile her corpse, dissect and consume her.
She closed her eyes, depriving Lyle the pleasure he typically gained from observing fear, pain, death. She ignored his threats, continued, unconsciously, to attempt to free herself, seesawing rigorously to push the blade through her hand and free herself of the hunting knife that anchored her to the floor.
Above Parker, Lyle's arms trembled with exertion. His sister, twice, had attempted to fool him by feigning death and still intended to leave his home alive. He tightened his grasp, watched her eyelids flutter in response.
Her head ached, her thoughts blurred, became disorganized. Parker's usual acumen dissipated; mute screams reverberated through her mind. Hers alone. She had no memory of Sun-mi or those hoarse whimpers and no longer felt Sun-mi at her side.
Oh, god. Please, someone. What is—
Those were Parker's final thoughts prior to the darkness opening its arms to her.
"It's going to be okay now," Lyle consoled- consoled himself.
Lyle was incorrect.
He felt his nose connect painfully with the floor once, was unconscious when his face was thrust into the floor a swift third time.
Jarod, standing over Lyle and numb from finding his mentor dead, revealed neither emotion nor indecision. He dropped to his knees, determined that Parker's pulse was absent, and commenced resuscitation attempts. Jarod didn't become aware of paramedics and police officers until two of the former began noting petechial eruptions and ecchymosis, edema. The young woman and her male partner were competent, diligent, and astonished to discover a weak pulse.
The woman voiced concerns about laryngeal fractures, airway edema, and damaged neck structures while performing a difficult albeit successful intubation. There were murmurs that a cricothyroidotomy could quite possibly be indicated in the coming days.
The minutes, Jarod believed, elapsed in rapid slow motion. Complications—seizures, bradycardia—developed too quickly and were countered much too slowly. Implausibly, Jarod remained largely ignorant of the passage of time, the appraising gazes, his surroundings.
Kneeling on an unfamiliar tile floor of dubious cleanliness, Jarod vomited into an emesis basin and deduced correctly that he was in a hospital. Strangely, he had no memory of leaving Lyle's kill room. Lyle. Where is Lyle?
"Where is Lyle," Jarod asked an ostensibly empty restroom.
"In jail," answered Broots, exiting a stall and washing his hands.
"I should have killed him," murmured Jarod contritely.
"That doesn't matter now. You saved Miss Parker's life."
"Did I," rebutted Jarod sharply.
"She'll wake up, Jarod."
"Will she? And will she still be--- her when she does?"
Broots shook his head, said, "Miss Parker witnessed her biological brother brutally rape and murder a woman. No one who went into that godforsaken hell hole came back out the same person, Jarod, and that includes you. I honestly don't know how the hell anything can ever be the same again after this."
Tearfully, Jarod observed Broots dry his hands and withdraw.
"Neither do I."