Barry Hoffman's HUNGRY EYES

Chapter Twenty Seven

Shara swung gently on a swingset that had captivated her as a child. There'd been swings in South Philly, where'd she'd grown up, but even then playgrounds were more for gangs and drug addicts than kids. It was heroin then, crack now. Glass littered the ground, graffiti decorated the walls.

But the playground set in the Sheffields's back yard was something else. She had felt in another world. She had marveled how she could come out at dusk without fear, and have the swings to herself. She'd pump, her anger, humiliation and fear spurring her to new heights. She'd pump until she could nearly touch the surrounding trees; pump until her momentum all but catapulted her off the swing. She could see the Sheffields' watching from indoors, and wondered if they'd rush out to admonish her to slow down, play it safe. But even then, she knew they were aware she knew her limits, and wasn't self-destructive. Though she could see Anna cringe, grasping Paul's shoulder, they never interfered.

That was one reason she had written them the postcard after she'd run away. They had taught her so much in so little time. She had learned discipline. She had learned manners. She had found someone who loved her. At first she'd thought they'd taken her out of pity, but she had soon learned different. They loved kids. As important, while they set rules they respected her idiosyncracies.

She had torn down the posters they'd put up, expecting a rebuke. She didn't like them, and the eyes brought fear, but she had torn them down as much to gauge their reaction. Her room, they'd said, and her room they had allowed it to be.

And a room of her own. Liberating. Terrifying. She had always had to share one with Bobby, and as they got older, he got more curious. Now she had privacy, for the first time, and reveled in it. At the same time, feared gnawed at her every night. At first, she wondered if it was the fear of being alone, but it was more than that. It was Bobby's eyes. She couldn't escape his eyes, no matter how she tried. Slowly, though she had adjusted, until Bobby's visit. She knew then there was no escape, unless . . . .

So, she had run away, but to keep Bobby at bay made it look like a suicide. Months later, with the first Shara, she couldn't stop thinking of the Sheffields'; thinking of how they watched as she pumped on the swing, knowing she wasn't self-destructive. So, she had sent them a postcard because she didn't want them thinking they might have been responsible for her death.

Now on the same swings, she felt strangely liberated, her mission accomplished. She noted changes in her body. She no longer sweat bullets; the toxins within released. She wore jeans and a tight fitting t-shirt she had bought earlier that day. Unlike her other clothes, they didn't feel constricting. She felt no need to shed them.

She had also gotten her final tattoo that morning. Both her breasts ached and itched fiercely, but it was a small price to pay. For the first time she felt complete. Bobby was now a permanent part of her, but his eyes would no longer torment her.

She had viewed the completed puzzle upon her return. The tattooist was more than an artist. He was her biographer. On her first visit she had told him there'd be six separate tattoos, a puzzle of sorts, of six men in her life. He had captured the essence of each man in his work.

With the last he had outdone himself. Though the eyes were blind, Bobby's pure evil radiated from the tattoo like a photograph of his soul. Where the colors of the others were somewhat muted, Bobbys' was dominated by shades of orange, red and bright green.

Without having to tell him, the man knew this was the centerpiece of the mosaic he had begun over a year before. He'd even adorned each nipple with a single red tear, symbolizing to her the pain Bobby had inflicted upon her.

She knew deep down this man knew who she was, but just like Deidre he wasn't about to turn her in. He never asked about the men, but spent as long as twenty-minutes staring into her eyes, nodding now and then, mumbling to himself, before he would begin. She also saw a copy of the News, its headline blaring the latest killing. It wasn't the first time she had noticed he had read an account of one of her killings before she came in for her tattoo.

She'd looked at herself in the single mirror in her room for a full half-an-hour when she returned. Her mission complete, she mustn't forget what she had endured. The tapestry on her breasts insured she wouldn't.

She had come unannounced to the Sheffields' shortly after two-thirty in the morning. Paul had recognized her immediately; Anna had taken just a bit longer. She had felt as if she had never left. She was incredulous at the love that poured from them, like a bottomless well.

Paul had made everything easier by explaining from Deidre's visit they knew what she had done. They were not there to pass judgment, he'd told her, only to offer shelter and a friendly ear if she felt the need to unload.

And, she had told them everything: what really happened at Costanzo's cabin; why she had left; the years with the first Shara; the empty years following her death; the depravity that drove her to kill; and finally, killing her half-brother earlier that night. She omitted just one detail; something she'd tell only Deidre, if she showed up the next day.

Paul had peppered her with questions. His focus had been on the exorcising the demons that had made killing necessary. Could she be sure that with her half-brother's death the urge to kill was vanquished?

"I didn't feel any sense of release or fulfillment with the others," she had answered. "Deep down, I probably knew I had to confront Bobbby, but he still held me captive. I can't describe the sense of relief I felt with Bobby tied to the bed. He had become bigger than life in my mind, but there he was no different than the others. As I felt the life leaving his body, his sightless eyes no longer a threat, I felt a weight lifted. Psychiatrists would label it closure, I guess. I'm not proud of what I've become, but at the same time I'm no longer the person I was a few hours ago."

"Get some sleep," Paul had said. "Anna and I must talk."

Shara had gotten up, feeling no fear whatsoever placing her future in their hands. It was so totally foreign to her. Trust. They had taken her in, warts and all, once before. They would not stab her in the back now. She told them she had to be up no later than eight the next morning. Deidre would probably be there by noon, she told them, and she had errands to run before she arrived.

She had fallen asleep immediately and sleep dreamlessly.

At eight, Anna awakened her with a kiss, Paul by her side. They'd both agreed, Anna announced, to stand by her. For what it was worth, they felt with her half-brother's death she was "cured."

"Have you given any thought to what you'll do now?" Paul had asked.

"I hadn't given it much thought," she said drowsily. "Go someplace to start anew, I guess," she had answered without much conviction.

"Easier said than done," Paul responded, "but we agree and we can help."

After a brief discussion, she had agreed to Paul's plan. He could provide her a fresh start. He would make it work. She was both excited and relieved. She would have had to face up to her future sooner or later. Like good parents, they had outlined a course of action for her to accept of reject. What they suggested felt right.

Now there was just one piece of unfinished business. She had fucked with Deidre's mind since she had first met her as a young reporter. She owed her an explanation. She knew Deidre would have questions. She knew Deidre would have trouble resting until they were answered. It was time to repay a debt. So she waited, happily reliving the six months she'd had with the Sheffields'.

She'd heard a car pull in the driveway, and assumed Paul and Deidre were discussing her future. For the first time she was glad others would make decisions for her.

She knew Paul would prevail. After all, Deidre, protest all she might, wasn't tough enough for the likes of Paul Sheffield or herself. In a perverse way she envied her. At least she had a code of ethics to guide her through the minefields of a society where your dearest friend one day was just as likely to stab you in the back the next.

Deidre entered the backyard alone; stood for a moment watching her, and finally approached. Deidre eyed her, saying nothing. Shara made the first move.

"If I was to kill again, Pasqual would be my next victim. He's a vile man, Dee, and I hope the police won't ignore him. If they do, you might want to expose him before he adds to his list of victims."

She had opened the door for Deidre. There was only one question she could ask.

"How did you know I'd break into your apartment and take your bait?"

"I knew someone was poking into my files. Remember, I'm a computer expert. In layman's terms, I put a flag on my personnel file. If anyone checked it out, I'd know. I wasn't up for promotion, had kept my nose clean, and there were no ongoing internal investigations in which my file would be randomly or routinely pulled.

"You were after me. You alone knew I was alive. And, I'd pointed you to the Sheffields'. When I found someone digging in my file, it was no great leap to assume it was you. Regardless, I was too close to take any risks. If you went to the police, I was fucked. But I knew deep down you wanted me for yourself. So, I planted Pasqual just in case. Did you go to Briggs or wait for me yourself?"

"I went to Briggs. Not the best of career moves, not that you care . . . "

"But I do care, Dee. Maybe not yesterday, at least on the surface, but I never meant to hurt you. Yesterday I said I'd made you. I was wrong. You would have done well without me, but I do think I steered you in a certain direction. It wasn't my intention. Hell, I was ten, and I was using you as a buffer from the outside world, while I sorted out for myself what to do. Bobby's threat, his presence, was very real to me. I used you, yes, but I needed you, too.

"And look at what you've written since. So many of your stories deal with victims. You chose a path, until the death of your family, because I chose you. Knowing what I had to do to Bobbby, and with you at my heels, I was too into myself to care how sending you on a wild goose chase might impact on your future. But I care, Dee. I never intended to take you down with me."

Shara saw Deidre looking at her strangely, as if measuring her words for duplicity.

"I don't know, Shara. You are different from the woman I met yesterday. Different from the one who sparred with me over the phone the past week. The arrogance is gone. But is it real, or just another ploy? I'll be honest with you. You've got me doubting myself; second guessing where instinct seldom led me astray. Are you manipulating me once again, or are you finally at peace with yourself? How am I to know you won't kill again, that you can control yourself?"

"There's one last secret. Not even the Sheffields' know." She lifted her t-shirt, exposing her breasts. "It's complete, now, Dee. I've got Bobby. Finally got him where he can't peer at me, can't frighten me. Bobby's been the key all along. With him out of the way, I'm whole again. Least, as whole as I'll ever be."

Shara saw Deidre try to avert her eyes, but was drawn to the now complete tattoo.

Shara pulled her top down. "The last secret, Dee. I was never a serial killer. Killing Bobby was premeditated murder. That's why I know I'll never kill again."

"What are you talking about?"

"I was able to cope with Bobbby while he was in the army. It was he I ran away from, you know that already, faking suicide as a child. When he returned, so did his eyes. It's not rational. It's not logical, I know, but with him around the terror returned. So, I decided to kill him.

"If I killed him outright, an investigation might somehow unearth me. I needed to cover my tracks, so I became the Vigilante. I went after the predators who'd escaped the system. With a pattern established, Bobby's death would be considered only in the context of the other killings. Only his past would be scrutinized: The reason for his frequent transfers in the army; the girls he mind-fucked on his return. The pictures I left on his bed were all victims of the past year. If Renee is mentioned, it will only be in passing.

"I killed five loathsome creatures, preying on society after they beat the system to cover the killing of the source of my nightmares."

"You really are sick, Shara."

"What would you have me do?" Shara's hardened eyes met Deidres', which had suddenly gone cold. "I was sick. I was also terrified. I told you there's no logic to it. I had to get rid of Bobby, but there was no way in hell I was going to be locked up for defending myself. Jail would be no different than the cage Bobby had me in. Instead of Bobby, there'd be others who would want to get a good look at me, strip me naked with their eyes. Bobby had to die, deserved to die, not just for what he did to me, but what he did to all the others."

"So it was all about revenge," Deidre said. "Maybe you thought his eyes were still fucking with your mind, but in fact he didn't know you were alive. You killed him to avenge what he had done to you, plain and simple. Judge, jury and executioner."

Shara balled up her fists, as if the act itself would make Deidre understand.

"He took all I had. He wouldn't even let me be when I'd been placed with the Sheffields'. I was a witness he would eliminate. So I ran away to escape him, and look at the life I've had. I wanted to be a cop, but with Shara's identity all I could be was a glorified secretary. Maybe it was revenge, but the bastard deserved to die.

"I had been in a cage once. I planned his death, and covered my tracks so I'd never be caged again. That's all there is to it. It's not pretty, but it's the truth. And that's something I owe you."

"Why did you have to tell me, Shara? Add this to the equation . . . "

"You wanted the truth!" Shara spat out. I've told you half truths from the day we met. I've manipulated you when you realized I was the Vigilante. But all along you asked for . . . no, you demanded the truth. Now you have it and you don't like its smell. Well, the truth's ugly. I can't win with you, can I? I've given you proof I won't kill again. But that proof is more revolting than any new web of lies I could spin."

Deidre laughed bitterly. "The final manipulation. I told Paul, told myself, if I thought you wouldn't kill again, I could live with you starting a new life. That was the sole determining factor. That you're a cold-blooded killer . . . ," she stopped, shaking her head in exasperation. "You're right. It doesn't make a difference. It's not for me to judge you. You gave me what I wanted, though, you're right, I wish you hadn't. You're free of me. I hope you can find happiness."

Shara could see tears forming, as Deidre turned and walked away. She thought of calling her back. She didn't want it to end this way. Under the swing was a paper bag. Inside, a plastic bag that held a goldfish. She had bought it that morning. An apology of sorts. Much as she wanted to give it to Deidre now, the timing was wrong. She would ask Paul or Anna to deliver it to Deidre.

She wanted understanding. And, dammit, she wanted forgiveness. Maybe that's why she had bought the fish. She knew, though, she wouldn't get it from Deidre. Not now at least.

The truth had set her free.

The truth had cost her a friendship.

Life was sure a bitch.

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