To most people, the best aspect of the Mall of Louisiana was its central location in the fastest growing, most affluent area of Baton Rouge. However, to Dwayne Bentley, it meant something entirely different: prime hunting ground. Along with the one hundred and sixty stores, four full-service restaurants and food court, an antique carousel ground out tinkling tunes hearkening to simpler times. The merry-go-round featured thirty-six jumper horses, twelve stander horses, and two chariots, all carved by hand.
The carousel also drew Dwayne to the mall. He smiled to himself and thought, “What is a monster?” No, not the fictional creatures invading the dreams of youngsters, but monsters like Dahmer, Gacy, or Ramirez ran through his thoughts. For that matter, they never even captured the Zodiac. What did these men have in common? They all preyed on the innocent. Dwayne had more in common with the victims than those monsters. After all, in 1968 the DSM-IV officially recognized his problem as a legitimate psychological condition.
He would often bring a newspaper to hide his eyes as he stared at the scores of children parading about the mall. If any shoppers even looked in his direction, they would take him for an average doting father allowing his child one last ride on the carousel before going home. He knew from experience that with parents, all too concerned with the new handbag they had just purchased or the newest models of plasma-screen televisions, no one would be concerned with him.
“It’s time to play,” he said to himself as he folded his newspaper and placed it under his arm. He walked over to the carousel as it began to slow down. He stared at a young girl who could not have been over nine years old. She had shoulder-length blond hair and bright blue eyes, and she wore a sunflower-covered dress.
The young girl tried to get her mother’s attention, but the self-absorbed woman continued with her cell phone conversation.
“Hi. Can you help me with something?” he asked the young girl as he held out a snapshot of a golden retriever puppy. “I lost my puppy, and I need some help finding him.” Even though cliché, the approach always worked. “I talked to your mom, and she said it was okay. She is going to make a few more calls, and I promised it would only take a few minutes. Please,” he pleaded, with honest eyes.
“Okay.” She answered without hesitation as she smiled. After looking one more time at the picture, she began walking with him toward the exit doors. With a quick glance over his shoulder, Dwayne put his hand on her back and guided her toward the exit. Her mother had yet to notice she had gotten off the carousel. He didn’t run or even walk fast. With his slightly graying brown hair and cerulean blue eyes, he could have easily passed for her father.
A rush of adrenaline, powerful enough to make his hands shake, signaled to him the most difficult part of his task was complete. The recent reports of men who shared his particular predilection blanketed the evening news daily. Back in the eighties, when children only guarded themselves against the dark, scary stranger, Dwayne had thrived. However, the nineties brought about a new awareness. The friendly, fair-haired gentleman who could be a deacon or scoutmaster became the focus of the media’s attention. None of it mattered at that moment, though, as Dwayne led the little girl toward the mall’s exit.
He thought about his plan. Once he reached his car, he would go to the trunk to retrieve the dog’s leash. Being the sweet child she was, the little girl wouldn’t think it strange for him to ask her for help, and when she stepped closer, he would shove her in and close the trunk. The extra padding would prevent anyone from hearing her screams. He lived only a few miles away in a discreet subdivision off Perkins Road.
There it was. The exit door. The point of no return. With the line of demarcation, only a few feet away, he took another step toward the door. He breathed a deep sigh a relief when a powerful hand grabbed his shoulder. Even before he turned, Dwayne readied himself with his usual pretext.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the man asked.
Dwayne relied on his usual pretext. He would say he was returning the lost little girl to her parents. But the man who stopped him wasn’t a cop or even mall security. Dwayne recognized and feared something in his eyes. The strange man smiled and continued, “I come from a place darker than night. Welcome to your nightmare.”
Dwayne’s heart sank.
Read the rest of the story in my new thriller, Darker Than Night. Available soon.