The Stepping Stone Cycle

Forensic psychologist Dr. Jack Carter has had to question his sanity – a year’s worth of memory lost, his wife, Sarah, missing and himself the prime suspect. His most recent cases have led him to meet beings he could only classify as supernatural. Called to consult on a mother’s mental health after she confesses to drowning her five children, Jack finds there’s more to the death of these kids than a fanatically religious mother’s fractured grasp of reality. Every turn in the case leads him to face the truth – a powerful entity known only as The Sleeper is spreading a murderous corruption throughout the world. Can Jack survive its terrible pull and discover the truth about what happened to Sarah?

Chapter 1

The noon sun offered little warmth to the Martins Point Bridge as Dr. Jack Carter drove his rental car over the slowly churning waters of the Presumpscot River. Ignoring the Christmas wreaths that dotted the bridge at regular intervals, Jack tried in vain to shove down the hungry hollowing void in his soul shaped like his missing wife. Sarah had always been an utter freak about Christmas decorations and nothing had made her happier than sightseeing the garishly lit spectacle of homes decorated for the season. Jack remembered how seeing her giddiness at the holiday had always cheered him up as well, but the memory felt trapped in amber, an emotional connection he could only approach with clinical detachment devoid of feeling. Making it past the bridge didn’t help, as the decorations continued up the road beyond the city limits of Portland, Maine.

Sitting in the house waiting for any sort of phone call on Christmas Eve had proved too much for Jack. He had purposefully chosen not to get a tree. Without Sarah there to celebrate the season, the reminder would have proved maddening. No work had come in for almost a week. Any of the civil cases he might have taken would have halted any progress on account of the holidays. Bill West, his most frequent partner in the F.B.I. had been playfully forced by his wife to use the vacation time he’d accrued to go see her family in South Carolina until the New Year. The psychologist charged with bringing him back from the amnesia he’d suffered at the disappearance of his wife had gone on some kind of Christmas sabbatical, studying symbology in the Middle East. Jack was well and truly alone, with no family to force him out of the suffocating funk. When it finally got too much, Jack decided to drive.

With the roads almost completely abandoned on Christmas Eve, he struck out from Wilmington, Delaware to parts north, not entirely sure at first where he was going. He’d packed a small duffel bag just in case he decided to stay overnight. By the time he passed Princeton, New Jersey on 95, he could consciously admit to himself that he was headed to Maine. Without conscious contemplation, Jack had decided he would go to the last places he and Sarah had been seen before her disappearance into the fog of his amnesia. He unconsciously hoped seeing the places where he’d last been with his wife before his memory failed him, would perhaps pry something loose from the lockbox his mind had become. Sometime around three in the morning, fatigue got to him. Finding a hotel with a vacancy had proved challenging due to the holiday, but he’d managed to secure a room in Kennebunkport. The bed had been comfortable though a chill permeated the room such that he woke multiple times before sunrise from cold feet. No dreams came to him in the night, and he overslept, snapping to consciousness only an hour before noon. After a light breakfast of fruit and stale donuts, he hopped in the car and proceeded towards the bridge.

Jack continued driving up Route 1, paralleling I-295 most of the way until he reached the town of Yarmouth. Seeing signs for a local farmer’s market, he figured that had to be something that Sarah would have insisted on visiting. Unfortunately, the market had closed for the holiday. Jack sat parked in the market’s deserted lot, staring across the snow-covered landscape at the empty Log Cabin where the market resided during the winter. As he sat idling, a friendly police officer drove by and tapped on his window. “Fella, you’re going to have to move your vehicle. Can’t be sitting here, you’re blocking the snow plows.”

“Sorry, Officer, I’m not from around here.”

“A-yah, I bet.”

Jack began to roll the window up, then put it back down again. “Say, officer, can I ask what there is to do around here? Like say, where would a couple doing one of those driving bed and breakfast tours stay?”

The officer scratched his chin with a gloved hand for a moment, then pointed east. “Welp, there’s a mighty fancy bed and breakfast over on Cheabeague Island if you like, real nice place.”

“And how do I spell that?” The cop gave Jack the spelling, and he entered the location into the GPS.

“Ain’t you missing something?” The cop said as Jack had almost closed his window.

“What’s that?”

“The couple part, ain’t you missing the better half?”

“I sure am,” Jack said with a pang of sadness.

Jack drove east until he reached the Cousins Street Bridge that carried him off the mainland onto Cousins Island. He had to wait almost an hour for the ferry to Chebeauge Island to leave, and he spent most of that time staring across the water at the island trying in vain to fish some memory of the place from the darkness in his mind. The seas were a frigid winter glass, providing him with a smooth ride. Close to the ferry landing, he found the Chebeague Island Inn, a picturesque B&B covered in holiday trimmings overlooking the bay. Entering the lobby, he met a charming senior lady behind the counter. “Merry Christmas, sir, can I get you a room? I’m afraid we only have one vacancy on account of the holidays.”

“No, ma’am, that’s quite all right. I’m just visiting for the day. But you might be able to help me. How long have you been working the desk here?”

“Oh, years now.”

“Do you remember me renting a room here, perhaps with this woman?” Jack showed one of the more recent pictures he had of Sarah.

To her credit, the woman didn’t bat an eyelash at the strange request. “Why, she’s lovely. Is that your wife?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I can’t say as I’ve seen her or yourself for that matter. What’s this about?”

“My wife went missing about two years ago, and I’m searching for her.”

“Oh, you poor dear.” And there it was, the look Jack couldn’t stand, the look that unleashed a torrent of near-rage in him. That look of pity on the face of a complete stranger as if they could ever understand what it’s like to lose someone in such a sudden fashion. He hated that look. “I wish I could help you, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you. Under what name would you have been traveling?”

“Dr. Jack Carter or Dr. Sarah Carter.” She began tapping away furiously on the computer sitting on the desk next to her. Jack scanned the rack of dusty brochures sitting on the counter while he waited.

“No, I’m very sorry but I don’t have any record of either of those names.”

“Thank you for checking.”

“It’s the least I can do, dear. I hope you find her.”

“Can you tell me one other thing? What’s there to do here? Like, what might we have come to the island to see on a day trip?”

“Well, at low tide you can walk across the water to Little Chebeague Island, there’s a fantastic golf course if you’re a duffer. And of course there’s clamming and fishing and some great little restaurants.”

“Where this Little Chebeague Island?”

The clerk gave him directions and sent him on his way with more infuriating condolences. He spent the rest of the day driving the island before finally getting out of the car at the makeshift park that had been built at the Little Chebeague Island crossing point. He walked to the water’s edge and looked at the tiny islet across the water, trying to imagine the two of them striding across the water to have a picnic. Again, no memories came. He stood there almost an hour, willing himself to remember but in the end, all he got was frustration.

Barely making the final ferry of the night, he floated across the water in silent agitation. The trip had been a complete waste. Whatever had walled off his memory of that time over two years ago was not so easily overcome. As the lights of Cousins Island came into focus, Jack’s phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number but answered anyway, as the area code and prefix indicated a Wilmington number.

“Dr. Jack Carter?”

“This is he.”

“Dr. Carter, my name is Gene Malden, I’m with the Wilmington D.A.’s office.”

“Yes, Mr. Malden, what can I do for you?”

“Well, I hate to interrupt your holiday…”

Jack shook his head. “You haven’t.”

“Are you available for a consult?”

“What, now?”

“If not now, as soon as you’re able.”

“Yes, but it’s going to take me a few hours to get back home. I’ve been traveling.”

“I’d like you to meet me at the scene of the crime as soon as you can. Do you know when you’ll be back in town?”

“I’m probably at least eight hours out. Is it that urgent?”

“I’d like you to examine the scene before meeting with the suspect.”

“That’s a bit unusual.”

“Yes, yes it is.”

“All right, shall I just call you on this number when I’m back in town?”

“Yes, please.”

The attorney quickly said his goodbyes and hung up. Jack stared at the phone with a quizzical look then put it in the console, aiming the car towards home.

Chapter 2

Jack struggled to ward off sleep as his wheels clattered rhythmically over the Commodore Barry Bridge, crossing the Delaware River in its languid wintry flow sometime after 4 a.m. He had stopped at a convenience store along the way to get a cup of coffee and refresh about two hours previous, and the caffeine’s boost had completely worn off. He needed to urinate badly but decided he’d rather get this business over before stopping. The car’s GPS led him for a short bound onto I-95 and unerringly to a middle class neighborhood on Blue Rock Road.

The neighborhood slumbered in post-holiday bliss, Christmas decorations left dark at the holiday’s passing, the sentinels of inflatable Santas and snowmen watching the sleepy streets. Jack would have missed the house in the darkness, but the bright yellow of police tape was visible the minute he turned onto the street. As he parked at the curb, the door of a car parked in the driveway opened, throwing a sickly light on the frost-covered lawn. The yard contained no Christmas decorations other than a darkened manger scene and a cross. Frost on the grass highlighted a series of thin tracks in the muddy ground, a sign of multiple stretchers having born their grisly cargo from the house.

“Dr. Carter?” The driver of the car walked quickly towards Jack with a gloved hand extended.  Though bundled tightly in a long winter coat, Jack could tell the man had a few pounds on his frame, the kind of weight a well-muscled man puts on as he hits his mid-40’s but is too busy to exercise regularly. Not a blond hair on his head seemed out of place, though the top appeared to be thinning precipitously.

Jack shook his hand, a firm grip full of confidence. “Yes, that’s me. Mr. Malden?”

“Call me Gene. I appreciate you taking time out of your holiday to meet with me, especially at such a brutal hour.”

“What’s this about, Gene?”

“Murder. Five murders, actually. If you’ll follow me…” he said, indicating the house. “I called you here for personal reasons, Doctor.”

“Please, call me Jack.”

“Jack. You come highly recommended despite your… recent troubles.” Jack didn’t comment though he felt a flush of anger at the reminder. “You see, I’ve a paralegal in my office, really bright young girl who’s been with me for three years. She called me up and begged me to take this case. Seems the suspect is a second cousin.”

“Couldn’t that be considered a conflict of interest?”

“No, I made sure to put a firewall around her. Cindy is not going to be working on this case at all. She won’t even be getting me coffee. No briefs, nothing. I’ve loaned her to one of the other ADA’s for the duration.”

“And yet you called me.”

“I did. The suspect’s name is Allison Martel, wife of Todd Martel. Mid-30’s, mother of five.”

“Five kids? Sheesh, that’s a lot of work.”

“Tell me about it. I got two myself and still don’t think I give them enough of my time. Her youngest was just an infant.”

Jack got a chill in his fingertips that had nothing to do with the cold. He gripped the door being held open by the attorney. “Was?”

“She killed them, Jack. All of them. Drowned them in the tub.”

Jack rubbed his chin. “Jesus. Are you sure she did it?”

“She’s the one that called 911. She’s already confessed to the investigating officer.”

“And you need me to establish her mental fitness.”

“Got it in one.” They entered the house, Gene flicking lights on in the tight entry hallway.  Family portraits lined the walls, five in all, each one showing the chronology of Allison’s growing family. From what Jack could tell, there had been almost no gaps in their production: she seemed to be pumping out children with startling regularity. The latest picture seemed to have been taken within the last month. The backdrop had a Christmas theme and the whole family wore green and red holiday-themed sweaters. Jack chuckled sadly.

The hallway opened into a living room, a darkened brick fireplace filling one wall. The couch sat directly across from it. On the coffee table in front of the couch sat a large, opened Bible. Jack noted the book and verse as Ephesians 6, deciding to look that up later. As he looked around the room, something was missing but it took him a minute to figure out just what. “There’s no television.”

“You noticed that too. Yes, apparently the couple was a bit religious and when I say a bit, I mean really fucking serious about it. No television, no Internet and I don’t even know how they lived without those two things these days. According to the mother’s confession, she sat the kids down for some Bible study while the dad was out at work. He wasn’t here according to her, and the neighbors have corroborated that. We’re verifying that with traffic cams and receipts, but apparently they didn’t believe in credit cards either so that may be difficult.”

“In this day and age, no TV, Internet or credit cards? I can’t even fathom that.”

“Yeah, right? So anyway, the mother sits the kids down for some words from the good book and gives them each milk and cookies. We’re running labs on the glasses to verify but she claims to have dosed the milk with sedatives so that they all nodded off together. Once they were out, she picks them up one by one, carries them down to the bathtub and drowns them. No struggles, just a quick dunk and…” The attorney hesitated, his words catching in his throat. He squeezed the bridge of his nose. “Man, the shit you see in this job sometimes.”

“Where’s the bathroom?”

Gene pointed down the hallway towards the back of the house. “Don’t worry about disturbing anything, by the way, forensics teams have been up and down this place. You won’t contaminate anything.”

“When did this happen?”

“Christmas Eve, around 4 p.m. She called 911 at exactly 5:23 p.m. She didn’t run, she answered the door for the police and showed them everything. I’m told she sat on the couch calm as you like describing the whole thing.”

A cold feeling tickled Jack’s toes and started to run up his legs as he started towards the hallway. Over his career, he’d dealt with more than one child killer and every time it had been an emotionally draining experience. Just having to pore over hundreds of evidence photos of dead kids in various states of violent decay wore at him, all that innocence destroyed for what seemed like no good reason. And invariably, the further he dug into the pathology of the killers, the more damage he would find that had been carried by the killer from their childhood into adulthood. All the things human beings did to their children rippled throughout the history of their lives, building and cascading until they finally exploded into the present. Every time Sarah and Jack had thought about having children, he had hesitated as much because of the damage he was afraid of doing as for any other reason. He might have considered himself lucky that Sarah had been so focused on her career that she didn’t really have time for children except that now they very well may never have that chance if Jack couldn’t find her alive.

Without warning, it hit him, all of it, all the loss and pain and longing and fear all crashing into him in a wave so strong that he couldn’t stand. His legs buckled out from under him and he fell to his knees. He sucked in deep halting breaths like a drowning man, his head swimming. Tears poured from his eyes. He could hear the attorney over his shoulder asking after him but it was as if the man stood in a long wind tunnel, a distant chattering at the edges of reality.

It took him several minutes to recover. “Are you all right, Doctor?” The attorney hovered over him but Jack waved him off.

“No, no, I’ll be fine. I think I must be exhausted from all the driving. And then I started thinking about my wife and I having kids and...”

“Are you sure you can handle this case? I would completely understand given the circumstances.”

Jack wiped his eyes and took a deep yet finally steady breath. “Yes. I’m fine. I’ll be fine. Let’s just get this over with so I can get some much needed sleep.”

Malden didn’t appear convinced but helped Jack to his feet and showed him down to the bathroom. Steeling himself for the horrible scene, he exhaled with a puff and opened the bathroom door.

The bathroom was smaller than he expected for this house, its white fixtures dulled with age. A sickly sea-blue tile made up of tiny squares bounded by white covered the floor. Deeper than it was wide, the bathtub was built into the wall directly across from the door. A single incandescent bulb burned above the mirror that rested over the sink. Other than a few wall stickers made for kids, the bathroom itself had no decoration.

Jack stepped in and immediately withdrew his foot. He had stepped across the chalk outline of a child’s head. “Don’t worry about it. You can step all over those if you want.”

“I know it’s a bit superstitious, but I always feel like I’m stepping on someone’s grave when I muddle those lines.” The attorney took his explanation with a shrug. Jack carefully stepped over the outlines and stood next to the tub looking at the placement of the bodies. “You said that Allison was completely calm the entire time. I can see that. Look how carefully the bodies are arranged. All of them are… I don’t want to say posed, but she isn’t letting one little arm even touch the others. Was the water drained?”

Malden looked over his tablet, flicking his finger here and there to find the information. “Yes. How did you know?”

“And the kids were dried off?”

“Yes. That’s creepy.”

“She was being a mother all the way to the end. Utterly focused on taking care of the children in whatever way she could. This isn’t a crime of passion. She’s not angry with them, it’s almost as if she’s done this because she loves them. What’s this?”

Jack pointed to a line of smudges along the rim of the tub, a hasty set of writing that must have been done with an unsteady hand. “Don’t have a clue,” Malden replied. “The forensics team notes that it was crayon but they couldn’t figure out why it was there.”

Leaning down to inspect it closer, he rubbed a finger over the smudges. The color came off on his finger and Jack rubbed it with his thumb to remove the stain, staring hard at the smudges. He read them from left to right and then back again. He had reached the middle of the tub when he recognized them. There in the middle of this long string of what must have been an unsteady attempt at writing characters she should not have been familiar with, Jack saw similar inscriptions to the ones he had found in multiple places since his return. In the shack where George Baxter had slaughtered women without any memory of the act, in the ground soaked with blood in Mississippi where the two teenagers had cut the throats of their dates, and now on the tub where a suburban mother had drowned her five children with cool precision, there were indecipherable characters written in an unfamiliar language. That cold chill that had started in his toes now permeated his entire body.

“Have you got a photo of this writing?”

“Yes, it’s in the case files.”

“Good, I’d like to study it closer.”

“Why? Do you know what it says?”

“No, but I’ve seen it before in other cases.”

The attorney swallowed that bit of information with a growing sense of concern written on his face. “Are you trying to tell me someone else killed these kids and she’s taking the blame?”

“No,” Jack shot back a little hastily. “No, I’m most definitely not saying that. I have seen this writing on cases before but I have no idea what it says or even what language it is. It’s just… odd.”

“Odd is a nice way to describe this whole case. See, the reason I called you in besides just doing a favor for a lady in my office is that… well, you have dealt with a lot of really whacked out people who kill for a lot of whacked out reasons.”

“I’ve had my share of insanity cases, yes.”

“Well, this one is pretty whacked. You’ve seen the house, the no TV, no Internet thing, the Bible on the table. These people were very religious. Like, VERY religious. The paralegal who brought me in on this, she used to be part of their church but left about two years ago. Thought they were getting a little too fanatical, if you get my drift. Almost cult-like.”

“Something in particular happen to make her feel that?”

“Nothing she’ll tell me about, no. More like she got a vibe that didn’t really mesh with her idea of what the Lord says you’re supposed to believe. I bring that up for one reason only. The mother told us the reason she drowned the kids when she confessed. If ever there was someone who probably deserved the insanity defense, this lady is it. She’s been popping out kids left and right and according to the cousin, she’s had lots of postpartum issues. We’re trying to find out now if she’s been seeing anyone about them or just dealing with them on her own.”

“What reason did she give?”

“She said the kids were demons.”