“If the two of you are getting serious you may start hearing some talk around town.” Jurgis waited until Erik was looking directly at him. “I’d rather you hear the truth from me than some gossip monger.”
Erik felt surprise knit his eyebrows together. This wasn’t going to be the you’d-better-treat-her-right speech he expected. And as Erik continued to study the old man he watched as the man’s weathered face seemed to age a hundred years.
Finally Jurgis took a deep breath. “Right after my son and his wife died Catherine started spending a lot of time with an old friend of--”
The man’s voice broke and Erik watched him once again fix his gaze on a spot outside the window.
Maria sat a plate of eggs and sausage in front of him. The sweet scent of the cheese and the savory smell of the sausage did nothing to ease the churning in Erik’s stomach. He took a small bite, unsure whether to prompt Jurgis or just let the old man be.
“He . . . well, he . . .” Jurgis took a long breath. “He violated her, Son. And he kept at it for two years.”
Erik’s insides turned to ice. Then, as the old man’s words began to worm their way into his heart he found himself flushing white-hot with an anger he had not felt in decades. He put his coffee mug down so hard he at first feared he might have broken it.
“It happened right under my nose and I didn’t find out for two years.” Jurgis took another deep breath then turned and put a cool, sallow hand on Erik’s shoulder. When he spoke again his voice was ragged and aching.
“I only found out then because . . . he gave her a disease.”
Erik’s frozen insides turned over. “She never told you.”
The head of gray hair shook from side to side. “By the time I realized what had happened it was too late. The virus he gave her destroyed her immune system and she started getting one infection after another. Eventually she developed rheumatic fever. That damaged her heart and caused her brain to swell.”
Erik stared at his plate of eggs, trying to find anything to disrupt the endless string of horrific images that were looping across his mind’s eye.
“I did everything I could to save her, Son. I brought specialists from all over the world but she just kept on getting weaker and weaker. Finally, I just brought her back here. I wasn’t going to let my little girl die in a cold hospital room.”
Erik looked up at Jurgis and realized the man was still staring at him.
“You know what I am.”
Erik nodded as the room around him began to spin.
“Catherine is the only thing in my entire life I ever got right and I wasn’t gonna’ lose her to some perverted bastard.” Jurgis slammed his palm down on the countertop, catching the edge of his empty plate in the process. As the remains of his breakfast flew across the wide, open kitchen Maria rushed in and began cleaning up the mess.
“I’m sorry,” Jurgis said as she picked Erik’s plate up and turned back toward the sink with it.
He turned his attention back to Erik. “I’ve never talked to anyone about this before.”
Erik nodded, trying to screw up the courage to put a comforting hand on the old man’s arm. Unable to do so, he settled for giving Jurgis the most understanding look he could. Then he understood.
“You turned her into one of us.” Even as the words became lost in the spinning of the room Erik realized his voice betrayed his horror.
Jurgis shook his head. “I wasn’t going to let her die. I injected her with only as much blood as it took to clear the virus and kill the bacteria that caused her meningitis. I couldn’t risk giving her enough to fix her heart because I knew if I gave her too much I’d either kill her or . . . well, you know.”
Jurgis took another long breath.
“I know you asked her if she was mortal and she told you the truth, Son. There’s just enough of it in her to make her heal a little faster than normal and age a little slower but that’s all. In every other way, she’s completely mortal.”
Jurgis looked back into the blue nothingness outside. “The blood disorder she has is my fault.”
“But you saved her life.”
Jurgis shrugged. A moment later his posture changed and he stood from the barstool. As Erik watched, he walked to the small breakfast table and sat down. Maria rushed over with two fresh cups of coffee. Sensing that the conversation was about to shift gears, Erik joined his host.
“There’s something else,” Jurgis said as Erik took the seat opposite his, “and this is what I really wanted to talk to you about.”
Erik watched him for a moment and the tension in his chest eased. Whatever this is, he told himself, it’s business. He felt his back straighten as he sat up against the hard back of the chair.
“As far as anyone knows, Catherine had a miraculous recovery. Some people say it must be because of some experimental treatment I gave her but no one outside this house knows the truth.”
Erik wasn’t sure if Jurgis was making a statement or warning him against sharing his secret so he simply nodded in agreement. “I would never--”
“But I couldn’t hide her medical tests. Someone at the hospital got to them before I could and called in the state police. They knew there was only one way a little girl could get that disease.”
Erik nodded, imagining little Catherine’s hospital room swarming with uniformed police officers trying to cajole her into giving them her abuser’s name.
“About a month after Catherine had her miraculous recovery the man who did it was found murdered.” Jurgis looked out the window and then turned back to Erik. “As soon as they identified what was left of the body I became their prime suspect.”
“Why’d they think it was you?”
“Well, I didn’t know it at the time but the guy had been a suspect in cases going all the way back to the late 1930s. I was an idiot. I thought Catherine had been a victim of opportunity. Turns out she was just the last in a long string. And it was no secret they guy had been hanging out here on the island.”
“I see,” Erik said, nodding. Of course the police had suspected the victim’s grandfather.
“The coroner put the time of death at around the same time I was spending the day with Catherine at the zoo in Jacksonport. They even got us on camera, riding the old carousel.”
“They ever charge you?”
Jurgis shook his head. “Duffy’s grandfather was the chief of police back then and he just came right out and told me he knew I did it. The murder was . . . gruesome, he said. Too gruesome to be a random act. But he didn’t have any evidence and I had an alibi.”
Jurgis looked at him for a moment. “Aren’t you even going to ask me if I did it?”
“I hope you did do it.”
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