Chapter 25: Things Fall Apart

“You’re joking, right, Sullie?” Ash rolls his eyes towards her.

“You think he’s what? Attacking girls all over the city?” Frasier leans back in his chair, crossing his hands behind his head. “What on earth would make you think that?”

“Sul, you are a little prone to the conspiracy theories.” Rowena raises her eyebrows. “Serial killer disguised as a criminology teacher?”

“Not serial killer. More like violent pedophile. Hang on.” Sullie reaches into the purse lying beside her feet. After fishing around for a few seconds, she pulls out a thin, black flash drive. “Frasier, do you have a computer we can use?”

“Come on.” He leads the way upstairs to his mother’s office. After a little fiddling, Sullie opens a chart on the monitor in front of her.

“Okay, come look at this.” They all lean in towards the screen. “Ash, you remember when you asked me to put together that article about Mr. Staal for the paper? This is the information I didn’t use.” She points towards a list on the screen.

“I can’t really see.” Rowena tries to peek over Ash’s shoulder.

“Yeah, me neither.” Emmette agrees.

“Hang on.” Frasier rolls the chair Sullie’s sitting in away from the desk.

“Hey.” She grabs the arms to keep from falling.

“Give me a second.” He clicks a few icons on the monitor and grabs a remote from the side of the computer, points it at the ceiling, and reaches over to flip off the overhead lights. “Mom does a lot of work from home.” The whiteboard beside the computer lights up with Sullivan’s charts.

“Sweet.” Sullie walks towards the wall, touching the screen. The square below her finger lights up. “Dude! Is this a smartboard?”

“Totally. You should see all the stuff you can do with this thing.” Frasier reaches forward to grab one of the markers on the tray below the board.

“Um, can you two nerd out later?” Ash crosses his arms and leans against the desk. “I’m more interested in seeing the evidence that my sister was dating a, what did you call him Sullie, a violent pedophile.”

“Right. Sorry, honey.” Sullie shrugs with chagrin. “You know how I get around computer stuff.”

“I know.” He pushes her hair behind her ear. “It’s one of the reasons I like you so much.”

Smiling, she steps back towards the board “Alright, so right after Mr. Staal started at the school, Ash asked me to put together that article we published a few weeks ago. It was essentially a puff piece, but I found out a lot of non-fluffy information. We’re doing this really cool assignment in Criminology where Mr. Staal is teaching us these really interesting research techniques and how to see beyond surface information. I decided to start using some of those techniques to research him. These…” she points to the green squares running along the left side of the screen “are the schools he has taught at since he started subbing last year.”

“Eight schools, okay…” Ash’s voice is sceptical. “That proves nothing. That is simply a list.”

“Right.” Sullie holds up a finger. “And these” she points to a list of five names, “Are girls from those schools who were all treated for some kind of injury within a couple weeks of him leaving their schools.”

“Less than half a dozen girls from schools with hundreds of students were treated for different injuries around the city?” Emmette’s eyes scan the screen quickly. “There is no connection between those things. You’re reaching here, Sullie.”

“Not done yet.” Sullie reaches up and touches each of the names. Pictures start popping up all over the screen. ”This prove anything?”

“Holy shit.” Ash stares at five pictures of girls with long, black curly hair and light eyes. All with athletic builds. “They all look kind of like my sister.”

“He clearly has a type.” Rowena reaches forward to readjust the pictures on the screen.

“Hang on a second.” Frasier still sounds doubtful. “We’ll need more than this to prove that he actually hurt her. What did these girls go to the hospital for?”

“Broken arm. Separated shoulder. Bruised kidneys. Blown out knee. Abortion.” Sullie answers, pointing to each of the girls.

“How the hell did you find all of this out?” Ash turns to her “I’m both impressed and terrified.”

“You can find out a lot on the internet, but I got most of it by talking to the girls.”

“You talked to them? They told you they dated him? And you didn’t say anything?” Now Ash looks angry.

“I only got in contact with the last one a couple days ago. I know I should have told you, but we were so happy. And we thought they’d stopped dating. And none of them would admit his name. They just said they dated a substitute teacher. That they kept seeing him after he left. That he had a temper. The timing is too perfect for it to be anyone other than Mr. Staal, but I wanted more proof. I was still pushing them to say it was him.”

“It’s definitely convincing, but there’s a big step from breaking someone’s arm and strangling someone to death.”

“That’s when I get to this last little piece of information.” Sullie plays with the information on the screen and brings up the image of a high school yearbook and a couple newspaper clippings. “This is Gina Strand. Mr. Staal’s high school girlfriend. She looks so much like Penelope it’s eerie.” She sees the others nod. “They dated all through high school but broke up when she went out of province to university. She died two years after they graduated high school. She came home for the summer and got mugged while taking a shortcut through the park one evening. He was never questioned. Never suspected because they’d been broken up for years. But I talked to her parents. Told them I was doing research for a school project on local crime patterns. They were certain it wasn’t a mugging. They were sure that it was him. Apparently he was famous for his temper in school. But his parents insisted that he’d gotten it under control with therapy and hadn’t had an episode since early in his senior year. There’s no proof one way or the other, but her parents are sure Mr. Staal was involved. So I guess calling him a pedophile is a little extreme. He’s not that much older than us. But by the pattern, I think that’s the path he’s on.”

“Look at that.” Emmette purses his lips in thought. “You are scarily good at this.”

“Thanks” Sullie goes back to the board and closes the pages.

“But, how does someone like this end up getting a job as a teacher? How does he even get hired?” Emmette walks up to the board and moves the pictures around.

“The research I did was intense. There’s nothing in a basic search of his records. Officially, he’s squeaky clean. No one has ever pressed charges. He has great references. Got exceptional grades in university. The girls have never said anything. And I only know about those ones because they were hurt enough to go to the hospital. Even his visits to a therapist don’t show up because he was a minor. I only know because I talked to Gina’s parents. There is absolutely nothing that would keep him from getting a job.”

Rowena wraps her arms around herself. “I want to see Penelope. Can we go back to the hospital?” She turns to Emmette, her fingers digging into the flesh of her arms.

“Sure.” He pries her fingers loose and wraps them in his. “You guys are okay here, right?”

“Go ahead.” Ash nods. “I need to think.”

“Hang on a second, okay?” Rowena places a hand on Emmette’s chest and nods Sullie into the hallway. The two girls head out of the room, Rowena pulling the door closed behind her. She turns and pulls her other best friend into a hug. “How are you doing, Sul? I feel like we haven’t talked at all today and the three of us were… You know, the three of us.”

Sullivan pauses for a moment before answering, “I’m… shit, Row. I’m not doing okay at all.” Tears instantly fill her eyes and flood over onto her cheeks. “I’ve been trying so hard to keep it all together for Ash. I haven’t really taken any time to digest this myself. I’ve been hiding behind all my facts and research.” Her voice catches in her throat. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

“I know.” Rowena slides down the wall into a sitting position. Sullivan quickly follows suit. “The three of us have been inseparable for years. I don’t know what we’re going to do without Penelope.”

“At least you have Emmette now.”

Rowena rolls her eyes towards her. “Does having Ash make it any better for you?”

“No. I’m sorry. That was a stupid thing to say.”

Rowena pauses before responding. “I feel so guilty about Emmette; it actually makes it worse. Like I could have done something if I wasn’t sucking face with him all night.”

“Row, you know better than that.” Sullivan takes her hand. “Not being with Emmette doesn’t mean that you would have been with Penelope. There is nothing you could have done to stop what happened. But, I guess I understand. I feel guilty for being with Ash. For being so happy I didn’t notice there was a problem.”

“And for not doing more about Gil. About not pushing her when she told me about his temper.”

“His temper?”

“Right after they slept together for the first time, she came over and was having some doubts about whether or not she was doing the right thing. She told me how he would get angry with her and stuff, but we both just kind of brushed it off. He only seemed to get physical when there was a real chance of them getting caught. Then a couple of times I noticed bruises and stuff. She insisted they were from accidents. But when I pushed her to explain them, she got really upset, so I just let it go. I didn’t mention it again, but last week I noticed this huge bruise across her back. I should have said something, but I didn’t. She seemed so happy.”

“I wish I had put everything together faster. So we could have warned her. I should have said something when I started to suspect there was something wrong with him. Even if I thought they’d broken up. If I’d told you, you would have known and we could have done something. When that first girl told me he threatened her until she got that abortion. I should have done something to get him out of our school. Some criminal profiler I’ll be.” Sullie kicks her foot at the opposite wall. “Now, we just wait for her to get better and find out what really happened. Right?”

“And we take this information to the police.” Rowena pushes herself up and offers a hand to her friend. “I don’t care what Ash says, Sullivan. This is way too much for us to handle.”

“Guys,” Fraisier sticks his head into the hallways. “Ash is on the phone with his mom for an update. You better get in here.” The two girls hurry into the room.

“Can’t you just tell me? I don’t want to come back to the hospital.” Ash paces the room, his phone against his ear. “I need some time away from that place. If she’s gotten worse, please just tell me.” His face goes blank as he listens. His knees give out as he crumples to the floor.

“Ash!” Sullivan runs across the room. Dropping to the floor, she pulls his face up. “Ash. What’s wrong?”

Emmette squats beside his friend and pulls the cell phone from his hands. “Mrs. Chisholm? It’s Emmette. What’s going on?”

“Emmette? Where’s Ash?” Mrs. Chisholm’s voice cracks.

“He’s gone kind of…. I don’t know. It’s like he’s in shock. He’s not saying anything.” He looks down on his friend, still staring at the floor. Sullie trying to get him to talk. Emmette listens as Mrs. Chisholm fills him in what’s happened since they left the hospital. “I’ll let everyone know. I’m so sorry.” He adds quietly, turning away from the others. He hangs up the phone and inhales sharply.

“What the hell is going on, Em?” Frasier looks up from where he’s perched on the floor beside Ash. Emmette walks up to Rowena and wraps his arms around her before saying anything.

“Penelope didn’t make it. She died fifteen minutes ago.” He feels Rowena’s knees go out. He catches her weight against him. Holding his arms firmly around her waist. Letting her turn into his shoulder. Her tears coming hot and fast. Sullie and Frasier look up at him in disbelief. He feels his own eyes tingle and gives in to the tears. Burying his face in Rowena’s long hair, their bodies shake under the weight of their grief.

When their tears finally stop, Ash is still sitting in the same stunned position, his shirt soaked with Sullie’s tears. Emmette slides his friend’s phone across the carpet. The small piece of metal bumps against Ash’s knee, shaking him from his daze. His fingers wrap slowly around the cell phone. He picks it up, looks at it, flipping it over in his hand. Then, without warning, he pulls his arm back and hurls the phone into the wall. Pieces of plastic, metal, and microchips fly across the room. Ash pushes himself into a standing position, wiping away the tears that still stream from his eyes. Sullie stands up beside him.

“Ash.” She wraps her arms around him.

“Sullie.” He takes her hands, unwrapping her from his body. “I need to be alone for a little bit. And some fresh air. I’m going to go outside. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He kisses her forehead distractedly. “I just need some time.”

“Okay.” She nods at his back as he walks out of the room. Sinking back onto the floor, she wraps her arms around her knees and buries her face against them.

Chapter 26

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