He was asking for trouble just being there. He had no business being anywhere near that kind of establishment, and he knew it. Toy stores were on the lengthy list of places he was to specifically avoid, along with playgrounds, schools, and malls. These were very explicitly laid out among the many conditions attached to his parole, and they were non-negotiable.
If he was spotted and reported by the wrong person, it would surely mean a return trip to prison, as unpleasant a place as there was for a man with his proclivities. He wanted no part of that and had gone to considerable lengths to avoid it. He’d diligently behaved himself for most of the past ten months, minding his own business and keeping as low a profile as possible under the circumstances—a tricky proposition in a town in which he’d never previously been, but where everyone was fully aware of his presence and who he was. He did his best, and for a while he thought he’d kicked it. But, on some level, he knew better. Sooner or later, the ugly beast within would rear its head. He was drawn to his old ways as surely as a moth was drawn to a flame. And then, as if on cue, he saw her.
Not that he was doing much to maintain obscurity on this day. For reasons he couldn’t completely fathom or explain—a random impulse, a rare moment of indulgence, perhaps—he’d dressed in possibly the gaudiest clothes he’d ever worn. A bright yellow and orange Hawaiian shirt that was several sizes too big hung past his waist, giving him the illusion of being much smaller than he actually was. White cotton slacks paired with baby blue golf shoes, and a ridiculous straw hat rounded out an ensemble that flew in the face of the whole concept of anonymity. On some level, he thought it might represent the early stages of feeling human again; drab earth tones felt constrictive and held him back, if only on a psychological level. The outfit fairly screamed of change, of new beginnings beyond a shadowy past, and for all his longings and temptations, moving beyond was exactly what he wanted to do.
He’d heard it said that a predator—and that was what he unquestionably was, a predator—was never cured, his urges always bubbling just beneath the surface, threatening to boil over at any time. A leopard never changes its spots, they said. A monster is a monster. All it would take was the right trigger and they’d fall right back into their old ways. Through those doors of the big box store he’d spotted the very catalyst in question, in the form of a five-year-old girl.
She was tiny but not fragile, more delicate than anything, and moving with a grace and beauty reserved for children of a certain age. She had a face he could only describe as angelic, framed with shimmering blonde hair, arrow-straight and tied back in a neat ponytail with a red ribbon. Her bright blue eyes shone as she looked around eagerly at the vast array of toys. She was smiling, and he noticed she still had all of her baby teeth—not a single one missing. She was absolutely perfect: uncannily similar to the one that always appeared when his dreams turned to the forbidden pleasures. He was instantly smitten—ten months of careful diligence thrown away in an instant.
More and more often, the images returned unbidden from the folds of his subconscious mind. When he closed his eyes he could see, hear, and smell the experience as though it were still fresh, instead of merely a whisper of a distant past. Even when the prison shrinks were working on getting to the root of his obsessions, when he was really making an effort to exorcise the memories, the dreams would come. He would savor the sensation as long as he could, then drift up from the depths of sleep and lie there, perfectly still, trying vainly to cling to the last vestiges of the swiftly fading images.
He assumed the girl was a manifestation of his deepest desires. The thought never crossed his mind he might someday encounter someone that so closely resembled the vision of perfection in his mind’s eye. All he could think of was that fate had brought the two of them to the same place—a toy store, of all places. He took it as a sign.
He’d found himself standing by the doors entirely by accident. He was on his way home, driving the rusty minivan he’d bought not long after he got to town, as he did every day. After ten months, he still struggled with the seemingly illogical street system, which forced him to take numerous side streets and off ramps that made no sense, over a distance of just twenty miles. He missed one of his turnoffs while preoccupied with a strange pinging noise under the hood, and in an effort to get off the road and check things out, pulled into the first parking lot he came to. It was there that the van sputtered and gasped its last. Despondent and frustrated, he looked around and saw with alarm where he was, and almost ran away in fear. But something compelled him to stand his ground. “You’re not hurting anyone,” he’d reasoned. “You’ve got a perfectly legitimate excuse for being where you are. Take a few minutes and gather your thoughts, then call Triple A.”
That line of reasoning had led him to see if he could walk up to the doors and look in, just to test his resilience. He’d taken several shaky steps, all the while feeling burning pangs of guilt gnawing at his sensibilities. He knew on some level what he was doing was not only tempting fate, but inherently wrong. But he’d fought the inner turmoil, convinced if he could touch the door and not be tempted to go inside and look around, he’s actually be on the road to recovery. And then there he was, his hand pressed against the cool brick façade of the building, his eyes nervously scanning the parking lot as if he were being watched. For all he knew, maybe he was. But he’d made it, and even allowed himself a tiny sliver of pride, when he saw her and felt his resolve melt away in an instant.
All thoughts of logic and reason were cast aside as he stepped through past the automatic doors into the artificial chill of the air-conditioned toy store. He feigned subtlety and disinterest, only keeping the girl peripherally within his line of sight as he pretended to look for something at the far end of the aisle she walked along. All of his predatory instincts had kicked in immediately, he noted with far more pleasure than dismay. He stepped past the aisle to the next one, planning his approach. Just as she passed from his sight he thought he saw her look in his direction. His breath caught in his throat, but he quickly diverted his glance and kept walking.
He strolled casually along the next aisle over, desperately hoping the girl would still be unaccompanied by a parent by the time he reached her. He wiped his sweaty palms on his pants and gave his head a little shake as he began to get into character. He reached back into the forgotten recesses of his mind for one of his opening lines, trying to recall which ones had worked the best for him in the past. Despite the long layoff, he was back in his element once again, doing the only thing he’d ever been any good at.
He’d gone to prison for molesting four young girls over a ten-year period. The oldest had been thirteen, and she had been the one who finally blew the whistle on him. As is often the case in such matters, the other three quickly came forward once his arrest and the nature of his crime became public knowledge. Almost immediately, he was found guilty in the court of public opinion, and the judicial system didn’t take long to concur. He received a twelve-year sentence, and following a brief but ugly period in a holdover facility where he was taunted, threatened, and attacked, was transferred to the protective custody unit in an undisclosed and distant maximum security prison.
He spent just over five years there, gradually responding to intense therapy and counseling, until he was declared a likely candidate for early release by the psychiatric staff. While he openly regretted his past choices and agreed what he’d done was unforgivable, there remained a small part of him that always clung to the idea that a lot of people were making a really big deal out of nothing—an opinion he fastidiously kept to himself. What they didn’t know, and what he certainly never volunteered, was that there were more girls that hadn’t come forward. He considered it a testament to his skill, coupled with a broad stroke of luck, that nobody ever made the connection between him and the eight missing girls—the ones whose bodies had never been recovered.
Relief at having dodged that particular bullet didn’t translate to the anticipation of a lifetime of immunity. He approached his state-enforced rehabilitation with an open mind and a willingness to be cured. Only, they told him, there was no cure. It was up to him to get a grip on his perversions and to keep them under control. And for the most part, he did.
For nearly a year, he’d been wandering around a free man, or as free as a convicted sex offender can ever truly be. He’d abided by the court-appointed stipulations and stayed on the straight and narrow, never wavering or even thinking all that much about his former lifestyle. Until the present day, when that little girl with the bright smile dragged him backwards through time.
He needn’t have worried about his approach: as he rounded the corner, he nearly collided with her. He jumped back in surprise and grabbed at a nearby shelf to regain his balance, narrowly avoiding bowling her over in the process. She skidded to a halt, her eyes widening at the near miss, her mouth forming a tiny ‘o’ of surprise. She quickly recovered, however, composing herself and treating him to a broad smile. “Oh, hello,” she said.
So caught off guard was he that it took a second for him to realize she was looking at him expectantly, waiting for him to say something. He cleared his throat and returned her smile. “Well, hello there, young lady,” he said. “What are you doing in here, all by yourself? Where’s your mommy?”
“She went in there with a man,” she said without hesitation, gesturing toward the rear of the store. “She told me to look at the toys, and she’d come find me later.”
He mulled over the situation. Was it possible the girl’s mother was dating one of the employees, and had snuck into the back for a little action while her daughter wandered around out front? He decided he didn’t much care about the whats, hows, or whys. Opportunity was knocking loudly; he barely hesitated before he stepped beyond the point of no return and decided to answer.
“Well now, it wouldn’t be right for a young lady to have to spend such a lovely day all alone. Would you like some company? Believe it or not, I’m pretty good at picking out the best toys.” He braced himself for the possibility of a negative reaction, ready to make a run for it if she caused a scene and drew unwanted attention. Instead, she seemed to embrace the idea immediately, her eyes flashing with excitement.
Within a few short minutes, he’d managed to persuade her to accompany him outside. The girl wasn’t shy in the least, as it turned out, and combined a rare mixture of maturity and naiveté that made his approach work perfectly. It had taken very little convincing; she seemed more than happy to put her complete trust in him. He was almost uncontrollably pleased with himself; for better or worse, he still had the touch. It’s almost too easy, he thought with an inward smile.
Almost too easy, indeed. The culmination of a lifetime of searching for that exact set of conditions, only to have it fall into his lap so smoothly, gave him cause for suspicion. A terrible thought flashed through his mind briefly: maybe he was being set up. The idea occurred to him that he’d been recognized and followed, and that the girl was planted by someone trying to entrap him, and he subtly scanned the area for anything that looked out of the ordinary. For a moment, he considered just calling it quits and getting out of the area before any such ambush could take place. But in the end, the urge was too strong. He forced aside any thoughts of stopping; he’d come too far to turn back now.
He took extra care to avoid detection, knowing that he’d reached a critical juncture of his mission. He was so close to being in the clear, almost deathly afraid of raising suspicion among the staff or numerous other shoppers in the store. Luck was with him—so at ease was she with him, chatting amiably and even holding his hand, acting very comfortable and natural enough in his company that nobody gave them as much as a second glance. They made it to the front door, casually staying out of sight of the security cameras—a trick he’d picked up and never quite put down—and they were on their way.
As the door opened, he shoved her roughly in front of him inside. She gave a small cry and landed hard, face down. He reached back to grab the handle, took a final look around to make sure nobody had seen him, and pulled it firmly shut. When he turned back to face her, he saw she’d already gained her footing and was crouched on the van floor facing him, sporting a look he wasn’t expecting. Was it confusion, sadness, or fear? No, he knew those expressions very well. This was something different, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Defiance? Yes, that was it. She may have been small, but she had spirit. By the time he’d pulled the door closed, he’d decided this one was going to be one of those they never found.
Had anyone passed nearby they might have been drawn to stop and listen, curiously, as some very strange and suspicious sounds came from within the confines of the old rusted van sprawled at a haphazard angle across two parking spaces. At first there were shuffling sounds, as if someone were moving around the cramped space. These were quickly accompanied by cries of fear, followed by the unmistakable sounds of a struggle. The distinct ripping sounds of clothing being torn asunder. The muffled bumps as something struck the inside walls of the van, some violent enough to rock it back and forth, eliciting sounds of protest from the vehicle’s sagging suspension. The pleading cries softened to silence after just a few minutes, interspersed only by brief bursts of pain-filled anguish.
Had the passerby crept closer still, she might have heard a faint, wet sloshing sound coming from within, accompanied by soft moans of pleasure. An astute observer might even have noticed that the fresh oil spill under the van wasn’t oil at all, wasn’t anywhere near the motor, in fact. But nobody passed close enough to hear any of these sounds or take in these sights. The rest of the world remained oblivious, and within minutes, the noises had ceased; the encounter had ended, missed completely by the outside world.
The van door shuddered open and she stepped lightly to the ground, her tiny feet touching down delicately on the pavement. She seemed completely unconcerned at the prospect of potential onlookers, possibly because she had a good idea if they hadn’t stepped forward before now, there weren’t any nearby. She was completely unrecognizable from the way she’d appeared just minutes earlier, as she wiped her hands and dabbed at a red smudge at the corner of her mouth with a torn piece of yellow and orange cloth. The greenish gray scales covering her body were already reverting to the pale, pinkish hue she’d sported earlier. The steely claws retracted, leaving delicate little fingernails in their place. An impossibly long tongue danced across the rows of jagged, bloody fangs, removing the last traces of blood even as they morphed into the tiny, pearly white deciduous teeth of a five-year-old girl.
She stopped in front of the set of large glass doors and checked her reflection for any evidence she might have missed. Yellow, pupil-less eyes stared back at her. She blinked once, and the sparkling, sky-blue eyes were back in place. Satisfied that the illusion was once again complete, she flashed herself the innocent, child-like smile she’d perfected over time for occasions such as this.
She’d tried to be good for so long. She did her best to keep as low a profile as possible under the circumstances in a town she’d never previously been to, but she was always drawn back, as surely as a moth to a flame. She’d always heard that a predator, no matter how determined or resolved to change, was never truly cured. And when presented with such a tempting target, she couldn’t resist. A monster, after all, is a monster.
“It’s almost too easy,” she muttered in a lilting, whispery voice, pushing her way back inside the store.
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