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The Victims' Club

Jeffery Deaver

  “Sorry about that,” the sheriff said from the doorway.

  Jon Avery lifted his shoulders in a partial shrug. “How bad could it be?”

  “Um,” the sheriff grunted. The stocky, balding man’s light-brown uniform was always perfectly pressed. Avery never understood how the garment stayed this way. He was envious, to the extent that one could be on the topic of spray starch and an iron. Avery was slim—he had no rolls to wrinkle his shirts—but he always ended the day looking like a sack, no matter how much time he’d spent ironing his outfit that morning. Avery’s wife was happy to do it for him, but he was good with an iron: Avery’d been army. Like most soldiers, he’d wielded a Black and Decker steam iron far more frequently than an M16. The good news was that, though a deputy by payroll, he was a detective by assignment, entitling him to wear a suit, which helped to camouflage the flaws.

  The reason for his boss’s apology: extra work. The sheriff’s office was small, as was the county it kept order in, and taking over fellow detective Sarah Bennet’s caseload would increase Avery’s chores by . . . How much exactly? He tried to figure it. Five detectives, take away one, how much more work do the others have to do? Twenty percent? He’d been helping Jon Jr. on his homework yesterday, with mixed results. Avery had been a history major and was much better with ancient Greece and Amerigo Vespucci than with sneaky math problems, which, in his opinion, a grade-schooler should not be bothered with. Much less his father.

  Avery asked, “How long’ll Sarah be away?”

  “Not long. Her dad’s getting discharged from the hospital, and she needs to get him into the new retirement home. Early next week, I’m guessing.” It was now Thursday morning. “She doesn’t have a lot on her plate that’s critical. I’m divvying it up. But this one thing she says needs moving on. Developed last night. And she wanted you to handle it.”


  “What she said.”

  At forty-two, Jon Avery was not the senior deputy in the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, but he was the senior detective and accordingly had more investigative experience than anyone else. Other officers tended to lean on him.

  “What’s this development?” Avery asked.

  “State police’re calling with some info Sarah requested. Should be any time now. The file’s on her desk. Top one, she said.”

  “K, Freddy. I’m on it.”

  “You’re a star. Junior’s team do good?”

  “Good enough.”

  Avery sipped his black Starbucks and looked over his neatly ordered desk.

  He turned to the weekly disposition report on all Major Case arrests—felonies and class 1 misdemeanors—and brushed a hand through his trim hair. It was a mystery to him why his mustache remained completely black while he was graying aloft. Jon Jr. said—as if the logic were irrefutable—that this condition was because the dark shade drained from his hair and settled under his nose. It was as good a theory as any.

  He needed to send the sheriff’s office’s recommendation on charges to the district attorney. The office’s statistical week ran from Friday to Friday, and, though it was Thursday and thirty-six hours remained for mayhem, this seven-day period looked to be setting a record for serious offenses.

  Some offenses, though still felonies, were relatively minor, typical of the kind of crimes Avery saw in Monroe: Robin Scopes, for instance, unemployed former car mechanic, arrested for opioid sale. Others, like the Dee Gibson case, were pretty bad; her infant son had been badly burned when a batch of meth she was cooking exploded. Others fell halfway in between: Charles Fillmore, a high school senior, was charged with burglary after breaking into a home and stealing liquor and a TV.

  A domestic. Other drug cases. Oxy and its sinister relatives were a problem here, like everywhere else in the world. With controlled-substance cases, Avery tried to minimize jail time and maximize programs if the offenders were willing to put in the effort and there’d been no injuries or resistance.

  One crime on the list stood out not for its severity but for its far-reaching shock waves, out of proportion to the incident that led to the arrest: Donnie Simpson, the famed receiver for the local college’s winning team, the Eagles, had been arrested for felony battery after a foolish dustup over rights to a taxi. Fans were already in mourning over his absence at this coming Saturday’s game.

  Avery’s landline jangled. He answered. It was Emma, the upbeat and indispensable office assistant. “I’ve got a call for Sarah Bennet. Can I transfer it to you?”

  “Go ahead, Emma.”

  A click.


  “Detective Avery?”

  “That’s right.”

  “That young lady just said you’re taking over for Detective Bennet?”

  “Temporary, that’s right.”

  “I’m Hank Severn with the State Police Computer Crimes Unit. Detective Bennet requested some information. We had some luck. I wanted to get with you folks right away.”

  “Appreciate it. What d’you have?”

  “She wanted to know if we could find who owned a phone that was used to upload some pictures to a website in Europe. There was a pretty sophisticated proxy used and it was a burner, but we managed to make some headway.”

  “Hold on a second, please,” Avery said. “Let me get the case file in her office. I’ll be right back.”

  Avery walked to Bennet’s office, two down from his. He looked at the top file on her desk.

  In Bennet’s scripty handwriting was the name Rose Taylor.

  Oh. That case.

  In a sheriff’s office’s unmarked cruiser, Jon Avery drove along quiet midmorning streets canopied by maple and framed by pine trees. The houses neatly aligned in this trim neighborhood were sturdy, mostly wood, and painted in the colonial browns, grays and dark red typical of dwellings you’d find throughout this portion of New England.

  Rawlings, the seat of Monroe County, was an old town. Soldiers on their way to, or from, a battle in the Revolutionary War—no one was quite sure which—had bivouacked in the fields that were now a cattle ranch on the outskirts. A millionaire banker based in Rawlings had been poised to become the next J. P. Morgan, if only the luxury steamship he was traveling on from Southampton, England, in April of 1912 had made it to New York Harbor. Thomas Wolfe got into a fistfight with someone in a bar here, and John Philip Sousa penned a march in a boardinghouse near the train station. Or part of a march. Or something.

  But mostly the modest town was known for Preston College, into whose campus Avery now turned the Ford Interceptor.

  The 12,000-student, 150-year-old institution was modeled, architecturally and landscape-wise, after Oxford and Cambridge in England. Avery took this on faith, because he’d never been to the UK (it was on the list, but he and Becky were waiting till Jon Jr. was older and could appreciate the place for more than Harry Potter). Preston was the beating heart of Monroe County, both culturally and economically, as those students spawned a good number of jobs—professors, researchers, admin and support. Then there were the coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, clubs and music venues, galleries, clothing stores, musical instrument shops, souvenir stores . . . all the places where the kids could spend their money. And money they had, most of them. Preston was wincingly expensive, and the people who sent their youngsters there were not, by any stretch, of modest means.

  Preston was an academic mecca as well. The school had produced renowned doctors, medical researchers, politicians, think-tank geniuses, cabinet members, appellate court justices (one Supreme as well), lofty CEOs and cable-news-worthy lawyers.

  The school was also known—and beloved—for its sports.

  Oh, did Preston College have sports. National winning basketball and football teams. It was
a Division I school, a magnet for famed coaches and young athletes from around the country. Their performances on the turf and court drew legions of fans, both in person and cemented before TV screens. (Hence why this week’s fistfight over a cab in downtown Rawlings was a “tragedy”; if Donnie Simpson was convicted for assault, as Avery believed was a certainty, his magically adhesive fingers would catch no more lobs this season—or perhaps ever again.)

  Avery now made his way along the twenty-mile-per-hour streets, some of them the original cobblestone, that meandered through campus. Gothic classrooms and dorms rose on either side. He thought they looked like miniature cathedrals. The crowns of the buildings were so impressive and so lofty that he wondered how much the school might save if it poured the spire money into education instead. How expensive were spires anyway? Maybe not very if you ordered them in bulk.

  Rose Taylor—whose case he was taking over—was part of the Preston College academic world. She was a PI, a principal investigator. Avery had looked up the job description online and learned that PIs were basically professors who’d been given grant money by the government or a corporation for research. In her case, this was something to do with molecular biology, chemistry and other topics he couldn’t begin to fathom; Avery supposed medical science was involved.

  The case was a troubling one. Though Avery himself hadn’t worked it, he, like everyone in the sheriff’s office, was aware of the basic facts. One evening recently after work, Taylor had been at a party off campus with students and other young professionals. She’d gone with a friend, an assistant professor in the Preston fine arts school. The friend, though, had left early, with a man she’d met there. Taylor decided to stay for one more glass of wine. She’d chatted with some people around the bar but, not knowing any of them previously, gravitated to the backyard and sat by herself on a bench overlooking the swimming pool and landscaped gardens. She finished the wine and began to feel tired.

  The next thing she knew she was lying on her back on the bench. It was hours later, nearly eleven o’clock. Her blouse was disheveled, partly untucked. She knew the fuzziness she felt, the dry mouth, the headache couldn’t be from the two glasses of wine she’d had; she’d been drugged. Horrified, she’d fled for home and called the police. Sarah Bennet had responded and talked her into a medical exam, which confirmed that there was no evidence of genital molestation, but a blood test revealed the presence of flunitrazepam—a.k.a. roofie, the date-rape drug. She said in her statement that, while she’d obviously been drugged, she might not have been assaulted; her blouse could’ve become untucked inadvertently.

  That hope crashed the next day when Taylor began to get texts. And emails. And calls. Lots of them.

  The first photo of her appeared on Snap-Shot, a photo and video upload site. It depicted her lying on the bench, head back, mouth slightly open. Her blouse had been unbuttoned and bra tugged up. It was taken down as soon as she emailed the site, but once released into the digital landscape, the pixels of her body joined the millions of sensational and exploitative JPEGs zipping like wasps—immortal ones, of course—through the internet. While the algorithms and human monitors at the more legitimate servers and search engines occasionally scrubbed the picture away on their own, it continued to pop up in emails and chat rooms.

  Until recently, what had happened to Rose Taylor was not a clear-cut crime. Taking a nude picture of a child under eighteen was clearly against the law. But prosecutors had been forced to shoehorn nonconsensual uploading of nude or sexually explicit images of adults into the traditional crimes of peeping or invasion of privacy, whose statutes were not meant to address such crimes. Several years ago, though, a state criminal law had been passed that directly addressed these activities—informally called “revenge porn.” The statute primarily focused on situations where consenting partners filmed each other nude or having sex; then, after a bad breakup, one of them would upload embarrassing videos or images to get even. Whatever the motive might be—revenge or otherwise—didn’t matter; anyone who posted explicit images of someone without his or her permission was guilty of a class 4 felony.

  In Rose Taylor’s case, revenge didn’t seem to be in play. She was casually dating another professor, at a university in Washington, D.C., and they had a fine relationship. She’d had no breakups in years. She could think of no students she’d given particularly bad marks to, no rival academics who wanted to trash her reputation. No stalkers. Her life was quiet, she’d reported in her statement. She had a small group of close friends, most of them connected to the college, and preferred bicycling or hiking over tailgate parties, quiet dinners to clubs and bars. The party where the incident occurred was one of the few she’d gone to this year.

  Her conclusion—and Detective Sarah Bennet’s—was that what happened to her was motiveless, an opportunistic prank. Which, Taylor had said to Bennet, was almost worse than revenge.

  Avery now arrived at Rose Taylor’s off-campus townhouse complex, a newish Cape Cod–style development, the sort young professionals would live in, contentedly, until the second child was on the way.

  He rang the bell. He heard rustling around—the sound of a chair sliding against wood, someone walking toward the door. It opened then, though only a foot. A woman of about thirty answered. She was wearing jeans and a burgundy sweatshirt. Running shoes. Her dark hair, cut to just above her shoulders, was wiry and askew. She brushed at it absently as if realizing she should have combed the strands into place before answering the door.

  She reminded him of his own wife, Becky, back when they’d gotten married.

  “Yes?” Taylor asked, her brow creased. She was wary.

  “Ms. Taylor, I’m Detective Avery. I work with Sarah Bennet. She’s been called out of town on a family matter and asked me to make that appointment you two had today.” He showed his shield.

  “Oh, she didn’t say anything.” Taylor didn’t move from where she stood in the doorway.

  “It was something that came up just this morning. Is it OK if I come in?”

  “Will she be away long?”

  “At least until next week.”

  “I see.”

  She remained silent, considering his words.

  Avery suddenly understood. He was a man. She wanted the woman cop.

  He continued, “Detective Bennet wanted to follow up on this lead as soon as possible.”

  Taylor’s brown eyes dipped to the porch at his feet. She was debating. Finally, her lips tightened. She said, “All right, I suppose. Come in.”

  He followed her into the immaculate, well-ordered townhouse. The furniture was an odd but comfortable mix of old and new. Heavy mahogany pieces beside glass and chrome. On some of the walls were tapestries, dark green and red and beige, depicting medieval characters and landscapes. One wall, above her desk, held dozens of certificates and diplomas. Another was entirely books, floor to ceiling.

  She directed Avery to a couch overlooking the landscaped pathway behind the complex. A glint of light through the trees outside suggested a stream. Pleasant enough. But not enough yard for Jon Avery. He and Becky had twenty-two acres a long way out of town. He loved it all, even the portions he saw only once a month, when whim or curiosity directed him off the usual routes on a jog or a dog walk.

  Taylor sat in a chair opposite him. A steaming cup of coffee was on the table where she’d been working. She offered him no beverage. Few did, and curiously the only recent offerings were from two suspects: one accused of murder, one of kidnapping. They’d each wondered, politely, if he’d like coffee or tea.

  “How are you doing, Ms. Taylor?”

  She debated again, her eyes turning this time to the window. A hand straightened a tuft of hair that did not need straightening. “It’s hard, Detective. I’ll walk up to the lectern, and the students look at me in a different way than they used to. Or don’t look at me. Somehow that makes me feel worse, like they’re feeling sorry for me.” She grimaced. “Students ten years younger than me, and I get pit
y. I had to tell my boyfriend. And my mother. Before she heard from somebody else. And then the guys on the street, checking out the goods.” A vague wave toward her torso. “So, your answer? I’m not great.”

  “I’m truly sorry for your trouble. We’ll do everything we can to find whoever did it.”

  She shrugged and pursed her lips in a way that said, Good luck with that. She glanced at a pile of paper sitting on the table next to her. The page on top looked to be covered in notes and calculations that Avery couldn’t have understood in a thousand years. Her handwriting was the smallest he’d ever seen.

  “The state police’s Computer Crimes Unit was able to trace the upload back to the phone. It wasn’t easy. The Snap-Shot server was in Europe.”

  She scoffed. “You used to have to abuse people in person. Now you can do it through Bulgaria.”

  It was Serbia, but no need to bring that up.

  The tracing process had cost the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office quite a chunk of change. The Computer Crimes Unit billed counties and cities for their time. And often, as in this case, when the uploader used a proxy to hide his or her IP address, an outside consultant had been brought in. An expensive consultant.

  “Now, the phone was a burner. That’s—”

  “I watched Breaking Bad. I know what a burner is. Paid for with cash.”

  “But Computer Crimes traced the sale to a store about ten miles from here. There was a credit card purchase just before the burner was bought. The officers got the security tape and saw it was the same man buying the phone as the other merchandise.”

  She narrowed her eyes. “That was smart.”

  “Was, yes. And they got an image.” He took a glossy photo from his pocket. The shot was of a black-haired young man, a long face, a dark complexion, thick black hair.

  “Who is he?”

  “Amir Karesh. Student at Preston. Senior. No criminal record. Was he at the party? Or did you see him any other time?”

  She stared some more, then leaned forward with a squint, as if trying desperately to summon up memories lost that night. She sat back, clearly unhappy. “No.”