Before the Siren Song Series:Katie was kidnapped in 1999... on the same day as the Columbine shooting. So little coverage of what happened to her and precious few people who even remember the strange events leading to her escape. Five years later, Katie is in a convent instead of in college with her friends, but she hasn't been able to escape her past. Needing the truth in order to move on, she calls the cop who saved her life and asks for his help, even as she realizes the truth could shatter them both.
On April 20th 1999, the nation reeled from the Columbine school shooting. Horrified parents, traumatized children, and self-interested politicians were all too invested in the shooting to notice the kidnapping of two seventeen-year-old girls just one state over, in Kansas. The local news devoted only one segment to the kidnapping, squeezing it between weather and sports. They didn’t even mention the girls’ names, dubbing Katie Tahiri and Nirali Patel “the Piper girls,” even though neither of them went to Piper High School.
By April 22nd, all three kidnappers had been found—two dead, one alive—and one day later, Katie was found alive as well. Nirali, the child of Indian immigrants, was found dead alongside her attackers. But the deaths of the thirteen young people in Colorado, and the heretofore unseen level of violence of the shooters, did not permit any deviation of the national attention.
No one had time to wonder exactly what had happened that night. Or care about the pudgy brown girl who lost her life. The blonde cheerleader had been found. And that would have to be enough.
1: The Survivor
April 3, 2003
Sister Thomas Moore did not receive many visitors at the convent. Having just donned the white veil and blue habit of the novitiate, she needed time away from her earthly family to truly commune with Jesus, to find direction for her spiritual life. Most of the sisters were involved in the school, which accepted kindergarten through eighth-grade students. But education wasn’t everyone’s calling and Sister Thomas was still very young. Just twenty this month. God may well call her to some other form of service.
Her mother understood the need for prayer, for full immersion in her new life, and was actually supportive. Besides, she certainly wasn’t going to come all the way to Washington State just for a quick lunch with her daughter. So who could have come to see her?
The identity of the visitor was mysterious enough but what alarmed Sister Thomas was who had come to tell her. The Reverend Mother herself, Sister Mary Paula, had come to the kitchen, pulling Sister Thomas from her cleaning duties and telling her she had a guest.
“Dere is a woman ‘ere to see you,” Reverend Mother said in her thick French accent. “She tells me she is newspaper reporter and would like to speak to you about your journey to become a nun. Is dis some-ting you want?”
Reverend Mother spoke to her quietly, her face flooded with both concern and a protective zeal. It was a familiar look—the same one her real mother wore when a policeman or a reporter had come to their house in the aftermath of the incident.
The sound of water dribbling on the floor brought Sister Thomas’s gaze down to the floor. She looked to see her hands clenching the soapy dishrag, spilling the bubbles and dirty dishwater onto the chipped linoleum.
Reverend Mother sighed, closing her eyes briefly, then patted her shoulder. “I tell her to go away.”
“No, Mother. I- I’ll speak to her. If she’s actually here to talk about my path to the Church, then that’s a message worth spreading. Especially to girls who are lost.”
Reverend Mother’s lips, already well lined, pursed into a tight pucker. Not impatience, she was never impatient with her. More likely, it was worry. Perhaps indecision. But ultimately, she nodded. “Yes,” Reverend Mother said quietly. “But she is not from a religious paper. It is the Kansas City paper. We know the secular press is no longer kind to Christians. I will stay to listen, if you like. To make sure she has not deceived us.”
She smiled, setting the dish rag down and drying her hands. Of course Reverend Mother should be present. She needed her strength, even if the reporter was perfectly nice and asked only questions about her vocation. There was always a chance something could go wrong, an unexpected swing of her moods. Reverend Mother’s presence would help keep her steady—keep her mind and heart firmly focused on God and away from… other influences.
Together, they left the cramped kitchen and walked briskly down the hall to the common area, their habits swishing and the massive five-decade rosary tied at Reverend Mother’s waist clattering. The reporter no doubt heard them coming from a long way off.
The middle-aged woman rose as they entered the common room, her eyes popping open in surprise in delight. “Oh, Katie I’m so glad to see you!” She enthused, clapping her hands as if she were a long-lost aunt.
“My name is Sister Thomas Moore,” she snapped, quick as a rattle snake and just as full of venom.
The woman froze, her fake smile falling off her face to reveal an affronted frown.
Damn it! Sister Thomas swore to herself, embarrassed at her rudeness. This woman has done nothing to you. She’s not Catherine Sutterfield.
“I’m so sorry,” she blurted, holding her hand up in an apologetic gesture. “We leave our worldly names behind us when we begin our postulancy. It’s the first step in our journey to become brides of Christ.”
“Of course, dear. Of course.” The woman nodded, going to great effort to put some semblance of the smile back on her face. “I’m so sorry. It’s just in all my research and seeing your pretty face so many times, Katie is just how I think of you. I’ll do my best to change. Should I call you Thomas? Tommy?”
Tommy huh? Sister Thomas felt her lips press together in irritated disappointment and she heard Reverend Mother’s equally irritated sigh from behind her. She had lied to get in here. The reporter had come to a convent and lied to the Reverend Mother. If this woman was reporting on Catholic vocations or had even a passing interest in the topic, she would know to call her Sister.
She wasn’t here about the convent. She was here about the incident. Of course she was. The four-year anniversary was approaching and with that poor Elizabeth Smart being all over the news, it made sense reporters would want to tie in another pretty blonde’s kidnapping story.
“Sister will be just fine. And you are?” she said, moving closer to the table where the reporter had made herself at home. It was one of the students’ lunch tables wheeled in here strictly for this occasion. The common room was used for so many things, including dance classes for underprivileged children. As such, the wall behind the reporter was lined with mirrors, allowing her to see the small recorder tucked in the woman’s belt, the record button no doubt already depressed.
“Meredith Bueller for the Kansas City Star. I’m so happy to meet you in person,” she enthused, holding out her hand.
Reverend Mother drew in a sharp breath—a reminder… or warning. One that was appreciated but not needed. Sister Thomas needed no reminders on the issue of handshakes.
“Forgive me if I don’t shake,” she smiled, perhaps too broadly. “Shall we?” She gestured at the chairs, sweeping her hand in a friendly invitation.
Darting her brow ever so slightly, Meredith withdrew her hand and took her seat while Sister Thomas sat across from her—and the bank of mirrors.
“I wanted to write a piece on the anniversary of your kidnapping. When we got sweet Elizabeth Smart back, it really made me think about your case. So many young girls are taken every year with barely a whisper said by anyone. It was such bad luck your case was overshadowed by Columbine.”
“It spared me the media circus,” she shrugged, hearing the bitterness in her voice and trying to get it under control. “And it was in the hospital I decided to become a nun. So there was a bright spot. For me anyway. Not so much for Nirali.”
Her voice cracked on Nirali’s name and Meredith’s eyes flashed in barely disguised triumph. Obviously, she thought she’d found her angle, the soft spot she’d use to weedle information out of her. For a reporter, she didn’t have a very good poker face, but that wasn’t surprising really.
Meredith had clearly been a looker in her youth. She was well into her forties now, her massive chest resting on a protruding belly and her rings biting into her fleshy fingers. Pretty girls don’t need to develop persuasive skills or even hide it when they’re lying. People give them what they want regardless. Sister Thomas knew that better than most.
When she’d been Katie Tahiri, one flip of her golden hair got her whatever she wanted, from both boys and girls. Even if she was shitty to them on a regular basis, all it took was a smile and they’d give her whatever she asked for. Help on her homework, the use of a graphing calculator, whatever.
But when Katie became Sister Thomas Moore, she’d shaved her pretty hair all off and tossed away her form-fitting clothes. Under the habit and veil, her body was no longer on display, ready to entice or inspire envy. And the way people treated her changed accordingly. People were still nice, of course. She was a nun after all. But Sister Thomas had to earn her way through life in a way Katie Tahiri never did.
It seemed in her middle age, Meredith hadn’t adapted to her new station in life.
“My article is to give hope, to show girls who have been through trauma that there’s life on the other side. I think your story could be such an inspiration. And maybe help people remember Nirali.”
Hot tears sprang into her eyes before she could stop them. A knot formed in her throat, the very thought of Nirali taking away her breath. Behind her, she heard Reverend Mother step closer.
“I’m so sorry, dear,” Meredith said, fishing a small pack of tissues from her oversize bag. “I know it must hurt to remember your friend… when so few people do.”
Sister Thomas nodded, reaching carefully for the tissues Meredith held out to her. But not carefully enough.
The overeager Meredith leaned forward, rubbing her fingers against her hand as she passed her the tissues.
At the moment their fingers touched, white-hot rage flooded Sister Thomas, a sour taste filled her mouth and a roaring sound flooded her ears. Voices and images hit her with the force of a speeding truck. She closed her eyes and yanked her hand back, breathing hard out of her nose.
“Sister?” Meredith and Reverend Mother asked simultaneously.
“Nothing sells like hot teenage ass. Isn’t that what you said to them?” Sister Thomas asked, her voice a low growl. She flicked her eyes open, staring in fury at the woman across from her.
“What?” Meredith squeaked out, her face going ashen.
“The Daily Mirror when you pitched this story,” she rose from her seat, leaning across the table. “You know, since your career in the US is circling the drain, you figured you’d get in the door in the British tabloids. So instead of talking about my dead friend or Elizabeth Smart or even the fucking West Memphis Three, you want to talk about the collective seventeen minutes where I had unwanted, uncircumcised penis inside me. That’ll get eyeballs on the website. Isn’t that what you said?” she snarled.
“Sister, it is time to go now.”
In the mirror, Sister Thomas saw Reverend Mother stepping forward carefully, her arms raised and her eyes wide. But she wasn’t done yet.
“You think I don't know about the people in the chat rooms trying to find footage from that missing camera? You think you’re the first asshole who thinks I have it? Not even close, bitch. And yes, that’s what you are. A bitch. A skeevy, pathetic bitch in heat so desperate for attention from some British newspaper editor that you’ll exploit anyone or anything that will get you a pat on the head, you fucking—”
“Sister!” The fear in Reverend Mother’s shout stopped her cold. Sister Thomas was able to tear her eyes from the terrified reporter’s face and see her own reflection—the flecks of spittle around her mouth, her knuckles gone white as she leaned into Meredith’s face. And her eyes shimmering a bright, electric blue.
At once, the fury left her. With a sob, she backed away from the table, unable to speak even one word of apology or explanation.
The sound of heavy footsteps approached from down the hallway and an Irishman’s shout demanded to know what all the bloody noise was.
With a final gasp, Sister Thomas fled the common room, running down the hall at top speed. Away from Reverend Mother. Away from the approaching Father Sheehan. And away from the lying reporter she’d just imagined murdering.
2: The Reckoning
The icy water cascaded down the back of her beet-red neck, the groaning of the pipes the only sound as Reverend Mother bent her over the stainless-steel sink.
Expecting to be forcibly escorted from the convent right along with the reporter, Sister Thomas had fled to her room, sobbing as she pulled off her wimple and veil. But Reverend Mother had been hot on her heels, swatting the wimple out of her hand and leading her back to the kitchen. Without a word, she’d slapped on a pair of thick rubber gloves and promptly bent Sister Thomas over the sink, shushing her gasping attempts at apology.
Somehow, even through the gloves, Sister Thomas could feel the warmth and care of the old woman’s hands as she gently held her neck, scooping water onto her skin to calm the fiery rage and shame. She was the only one Sister Thomas had told, the only one who knew what happened when she touched someone else’s skin and had put on the gloves as a precaution.
The first time it had happened, she thought it was because of the trauma—of being kidnapped and raped… of seeing what happened to Nirali. She’d run as far and fast as her legs could take her and when they’d failed, the policeman had been there to catch her, pulling off his jacket and wrapping it around her naked body, pulling her close to whisper that she was safe now.
But it wasn’t just safety she’d felt. In an instant, Katie saw this man, inside and out. The moment his rough hands closed around her forearms, flashes of his life filled her mind. His name was Frank and he’d been falsely accused of abusing his daughter some years ago. More than knowledge, she could also feel what he felt—his shame at finding out his wife had been unfaithful and that his daughter wasn’t actually his daughter at all. How he’d volunteered to help with Katie’s kidnapping case because she was the same age as his daughter and he needed to make up for abandoning her.
There, in that field, as this stranger held her, she could feel how much he loved her… even though he didn’t know her. It had felt good in the moment, knowing she could trust him. If she’d known the sensation would be a lifelong curse, she might not have basked so long in the feeling.
Unlike Officer Frank Cooper, Reverend Mother knew all about what she could do, understood there was no controlling it. Even so, she’d accepted her as a postulant, then as a novice, guiding her at every step through her commitment to Jesus and His church. But now, that was over. There was no way she’d let her take her vows after this.
“Fader Sheehan showed de reporter out,” Reverend Mother said, turning off the tap. “She was advised police would be called if she ever returned.”
Sister Thomas nodded, trying to suck up the tears and snot, genuinely touched Father would intervene for her, casting aside his gentle nature. If only he knew how unworthy she was of the gesture.
Finally, she stood up straight, rubbing a damp dish towel over her neck and shaved head, unable to look Reverend Mother in the eye.
“I’m so sorry,” she cried.
“Yes, you are sorry I was in de room.” Reverend Mother eyed her sternly. “But you are not sorry for what you said.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“You didn’t mean to touch her. Yes, I saw it was an accident. But when you saw into her heart and found her to be your enemy, you could ‘ave simply left. But you did not. You gave into your anger.”
“Because I’m evil!” she sobbed.
“No,” Reverend Mother growled, briefly losing control of her own temper. But then, she sucked in a long breath and rested her bony fingers on Sister Thomas’s arm, directing her to the small kitchen window, which was always half fogged. Together, they looked out onto the deserted students’ soccer pitch below.
“Listen to me, girl. Dere is nothing wrong with you. You can enter the church, can you not?”
Sister Thomas nodded, wishing more than anything they were in the chapel right now, instead of the cramped kitchen.
“And you can take communion, can you not?” This time, Reverend Mother didn’t wait for a nod. “No vessel of Satan can tolerate to hear the Holy name of Jesus. Certainly could not ingest his body and blood. You are a child of God and a servant of Jesus, even if we don’t understand… what gifts he’s given you. You are not evil.”
The last of her rage melted away, as it always did when Reverend Mother soothed her. She drew in a deep breath, closed her eyes, and nodded to herself. Her real mom had dragged her from one psychiatrist to the next, trying to find the right diagnosis—and accompanying medication of course—to solve her daughter’s delusions that she could read minds. When that made it worse rather than better, her staunchly atheist mother had relented and called the nice elderly priest who’d visited Katie in the hospital.
While her classmates were beginning their freshmen years at college, Katie was being examined by two professional exorcists—one Catholic, one Protestant—both of whom assured her she was absolutely not possessed by a demon. It should have come as a relief. But instead, it left Katie feeling hopeless and adrift. If not psychosis, and if not demon possession, what was wrong with her? And why couldn’t anyone fix it?
“I don’t know how to live with this,” she whispered, leaning forward until her forehead rested on the condensation-streaked window.
“When you first came here to us, I asked you if you wanted to become a nun to hide from de world, from what happened to you. Do you remember?” Reverend Mother wrapped her arm around Sister Thomas’s shoulders, pulling her back from the glass.
Unable to meet Reverend Mother’s eyes, Sister Thomas gasped out, “I thought He would heal me.”
She felt Reverend Mother’s head nod. “Dere are many types of healing. It may be our Heavenly Fader will heal your heart, but choose to keep your gift in place. To serve Him. If dat is so, do you still wish to wear de veil?”
An unvarnished clarity settled into Sister Thomas’s heart. No. I don’t want to spend my days in prayer. I definitely don’t want to feel other people’s emotions and see their most private moments. I want to be well. That’s all I want.
Finally able to look up at Reverend Mother, she braced herself for the sadness she expected to see on the old woman’s face. But there was none, only a sheen of loving acceptance radiating from her.
“Do I have to leave now?” she cried, careful to wipe her tears on her own sleeve instead of Reverend Mother’s habit.
“Not right now. Do you want me to call your mozere?”
“No. Not my mom. I- I need to call someone else. Do you still have my cell phone?”
Reverend Mother nodded. “It is wit de rest of your tings. I bring it to you tonight after vespers.” She gave her shoulders one final squeeze, then nodded at the dirty pots and pans, still sitting on the counter. “I leave you to your work.” And with that, Reverend Mother left her alone in the kitchen.
Relief and fear collided within her as she started washing the dishes—for the last time. There would be no healing until she knew what happened to her. And her memory was no help. She needed an impartial observer. An unblinking eye that saw the truth and documented it without passion or prejudice. She needed the camera. She’d run all the way to Washington State trying to scrub that certainty from her mind. But here it was, every bit as strong as the day she’d stepped off the Greyhound bus.
She couldn’t get the camera herself. She needed help, which is why she didn’t want Reverend Mother to call her mom. She needed Officer Frank Cooper, the man who wrapped her in his arms when she’d needed it most. The man who had checked on her daily while she lay in the hospital, and at least weekly once she was discharged. The man who needed redemption every bit as badly as she did. He would help her. Hell, when she called him tonight, he’d probably offer to drive all the way to Washington to pick her up.
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