“Last on the right.”
The grey-haired man marched his weary suit down the tight corridor. Empty cells sat behind rusted bars on either side. Unusually bright moonlight crept through small windows and lit the man’s crudely-bearded face at five step intervals. As he approached the final set of cells, the loud clang of the old, metal lock sounded behind him.
The wooden chair laid out for him was small but adequate. The man slid it back several inches and perched himself on its end. He lay the thick binder he was carrying in his lap.
The cell in front of him was a box of shadows. Windowless, the moon’s glow had no jurisdiction, but light from the corridor crept through the bars here and there. He could make out a small figure sat on the bed to his right, back straight against peeling white brick.
“I’ve been sent here to… assess you.”
The black outline remained motionless.
“My name is Doctor Chang.”
The figure turned toward him. Doctor Chang surveyed the rest of the cramped cell – no toilet, pillow or duvet – and almost felt sorry for its occupant. But if the rumours were true, his pity was sorely misplaced.
“Can you tell me your name?”
Chang thought he saw the figure shiver in the damp. It was indeed cold, a fact Chang had not properly appreciated until he had entered this area of the compound. Still, he wouldn’t be long.
“This’ll go a lot easier if you work with me.”
“That’s not your name.” The voice was weak, almost a whisper, but slipped through the stale air like a leaf on the wind.
“Chang. That’s not your name.”
Don’t let her fool you, Chang told himself. You knew this might happen.
“You’re right, it’s not. I suppose you-”
“Your name is Candle, Marvin. Doctor. Of sorts. 44. Widowed. Left-handed. Likes sherbet.” The voice was still soft, but now much more focused, exact.
“And your name is Megan. A very troubled little girl.”
She slid to the top of the stained mattress and into the dim glow of the corridor. Her soft brown hair and bright complexion was in stark contrast to her current surroundings. She almost looked pretty.
“To you perhaps.”
“But not to you?”
Candle watched her closely. “You feel nothing for what you’ve done?”
He held the catalogue of her offences in his hand, but didn’t need to read them. He probably knew more about her crimes than she did. The old lady in Carrington Plaza, who had been found with her throat and wrists slit. The banker in the Chester St Station toilets, discovered with three rounds in the head, chest and heart. The young couple on Route 23, found by a Ranger having been strangled in their car. Not to mention the father who mysteriously drove his car carrying his wife and three children off of Bounters Bridge. None of these crimes were linked to the girl in front of him, of course, but Candle knew he currently stared at the culprit.
“No.” Despite his preparation, the certainty of the way she spoke threw Candle off a little.
“I’m… not sure you mean that.” Candle studied the gentle features of her face, the freckles dotted across her cheeks, the way brown strands fell across her forehead. “A girl your age should be in school. Wouldn’t you like that?”
Megan widened her baby-blue eyes and shrugged. “Why are you really here, Doctor Candle?”
Damn she’s smart. “First, I need to know. Why them?”
Megan swung her bare feet up onto the mattress and crossed her legs. A smirk stretched across her face. “You don’t know?”
He knew, at least he thought he knew, but he wanted to hear her say it. “You tell me.”
“You know. But I’ll play.” Her tongue poked out of the side of her mouth, between two sorely-chapped lips. “Carrington. Husband. Pills. Murder. Chester. Boy. Kidnap. Rape. 23. Parents. Murder. Robbery.”
“And Bounters Bridge?” Candle watched her attention turn to the stone floor. “Megan?”
The clang of the metal lock twisting made its way down the corridor. Candle shot up from his chair.
“I’ve heard enough.” Megan glanced up at him. “Ready to get out of here?”
For the first time she looked apprehensive, shoulders forced back, eyes tightened. She was studying him. For a moment, nothing but the sound of soft rain tip-tapping numerous sheets of reinforced window glass. Both remained still, waiting for the other to make the next, decisive move. But there wasn’t time.
Candle pulled a crumpled photograph from his top pocket and threw it into the cell, which Megan caught with one hand. “Help me,” he began quickly, “and I’ll help you.”
She bit her lip as she studied the photograph. “Really?”
“I know. I can explain. But not here.”
“You trust me, Doctor Candle?”
The question took him entirely by surprise. His honest answer surprised him further. There was something about her he couldn’t quite put his finger on, something unique, something, indeed, very special. “Yes, Megan, I think I do.” He considered. “Do you… trust me?”
She grinned. “I do.”
“Then let’s go.”
Candle pulled a small, single-shot pistol from the binder. Megan recognised the unique shape of the .221 Thompson immediately. He raised the Thompson and pointed it into the cell. “It’s the only way they’ll unlock this door.”
Megan bounced into the centre of the cell, summer dress half-spinning like a stuttering carousel. “I can play dead.”
Candle smiled. She was already one step ahead of him. “When you’re free, meet me in Jackson’s Diner-”
“Jackson’s Diner. Route 19. 4.2 kilometres. Eight minutes car, thirty-five minutes foot. Give or take.”
She returned Candle’s smile. At that moment, she could have been any other seven-year-old in the country. Young, hopeful, full of promise, full of beauty. She could be anything she wanted. But what she wanted, it seemed, was to punish bad guys.
Candle steadied his arm. Shouts of rising degrees bounded through the moonlight and approached fast. “Ready?”
He squeezed his index finger down and watched as a round entered her shoulder. She flew back and landed in a bundle on the floor, shadows quickly concealing her. Candle dropped the pistol and placed both hands behind his head.
“See you in thirty-five,” he whispered.