The Support Group
As Edward Norton discovered in the movie Fight Club, there are an number of support groups in our country. Cancer sufferers, rape victims, single parents, widowers, dieters, gamblers and many others can find comfort sharing experiences and concerns with people in similar situations.
Hank Colter never dreamed there would be a support group where he could speak with others like himself. Having carried his burden alone for so many years, he never believed he could live a normal life. Then he read about the support group on an all-news website, and he was intrigued.
Unlike most groups that met at specific locations at prescheduled times, this support group, covering the New England states, met three times a week, but in a different town each time. Psychologist Garret Spellman, the leader of the group, traveled a route from eastern Connecticut, up along the coast through Massachusetts and into Maine, and then west to New Hampshire and Vermont. He held meetings not only in major cities but also in small towns like Adams, Massachusetts; Lincoln, New Hampshire; Washington, Connecticut; and Johnson, Vermont.
Obviously, not all members attended every meeting, nor were they expected to. Every month, a schedule went out by email, and members could select whatever meeting time and place was most convenient for them. Some members attended only one or two meetings a month, whereas others tried to make at least one meeting a week. Those who felt the need to speak with the group sometimes traveled great distances to attend out-of-state meetings.
At first Hank was skeptical about the gatherings. Even if there were other people who suffered as he did, what comfort could they give him? It wouldn't change who he was. It wouldn't give him his childhood back. It wasn't until he came home from work one day and noticed that yet another girlfriend had packed her bags and left without word that he went on the Internet and searched for Garret Spellman's contact information.
Because of the sensitive nature of the problem the members in the support group shared, Hank had to complete a detailed questionnaire via the website's secure server. Once Hank's identity and personal information were confirmed, he received a phone call from Garret Spellman himself.
"Do you know who I am? Who my father was?" Hank asked after the introductions were made.
"Yes, I do. That's why I want to invite you to join our group."
"To be honest, I'm not sure I want to yet."
"I understand. I don't normally allow outsiders to sit in on any of our sessions. After all, the members of the group cherish their privacy. But in your case, I'm willing to make an exception. You can come to one of our meetings and see what it's like. If you're interested, then you're more than welcome to join."
"I suppose that's fair," Hank decided. "But will I have to tell everyone who I am?"
"No. Our group is like AA in that we just go by first names."
"But members still have to talk about ...."
"Yes," Garret answered, anticipating the other man's question. "But remember, the other people in the group all have similar stories to tell."
"I suppose it won't do any harm to attend one meeting."
"Good. I'll send you an email with next month's schedule, and you can pick a convenient place and time."
Like many members of the group, Hank preferred a location that wasn't too close to his home or his workplace. He didn't want to run the risk of someone recognizing him either going into or coming out of the meeting.
I don't know a soul in Puritan Falls, he thought as he read the group's schedule.
Thankfully, it was close enough to Boston that he could drive there and back without staying overnight.
Hank found the building with little difficulty, and he parked in the back where no one would recognize his car. It was doubtful anyone would know it or him, but he spent his life living like a CIA agent in a highly covert operation, so caution came naturally to him. As he waited in his car, he noticed three men and one woman enter the backdoor of the building and assumed they were members of the group. None of the faces looked familiar, but they probably kept a low profile, just as he did.
He looked at his watch. The meeting was due to start in five minutes. There was a moment of hesitation. He was not obligated to attend; he could leave with no harm done. Then he remembered the women who had left him, the schools he had left as a child and the friends who had deserted him over the years, and he opened the car door and walked across the parking lot to the back door of the building.
* * *
Garret Spellman was easy to spot. Not only was he the only man in a suit, but he was the only one in the room who didn't act like he wished he was somewhere else.
Hank walked to a table where coffee and donuts were laid out. The people filling Styrofoam cups with coffee nodded to him in greeting but said nothing. Once the members finished their refreshments, Garret Spellman ushered the group to a circle of folding chairs. When everyone was seated, the meeting began.
After several uncomfortable minutes, a timid-looking middle-aged man bravely stood up and announced, "Hi, I'm Bob. I'm the son of a serial killer."
As the words echoed through the room, Hank sympathized with the meek little man. He knew how difficult such an admission was to make.
"When I was five," the man continued, "my father was arrested for raping and strangling seven young women."
The man's face was etched with pain, and the look in the other members' eyes conveyed their understanding and compassion.
"While he was in prison, I visited him twice a year: on Christmas and Father's Day. He was executed two months after my fifteenth birthday."
After the timid-looking man sat down, a petite woman in her early sixties rose.
"My name is Evelyn, and my husband is a serial killer."
Hank noticed the present tense verb is and assumed Evelyn's husband was still alive.
"I didn't know when I married him that he had already killed two women. It would be three years and four women later before I learned the truth. Since that time I've been plagued with nightmares about the man--the monster--I married. He's serving a life sentence now, and I pray he never gets paroled."
One by one the others in the group rose and introduced themselves, all except Hank. When the introductions were over, it was time for the members to bare their souls.
"After my husband was arrested," the woman in her sixties said, "I changed my name and moved to North Carolina from New Jersey. I didn't think anyone would know me there, but the reporters found me. I moved six times in the next four years. Finally, I moved in with a cousin in Sturbridge. By that time the public began to lose interest in my husband."
"But not entirely?" a young blond woman asked. "I'm sure at least once a year some magazine writer or aspiring true crime author hunts you down."
The bitterness in the young woman's voice indicated that she spoke from experience.
"My mother put me in a dozen different schools," a young man, barely out of his teens added. "But the kids always seemed to find out, and they would torment me. I had to drop out when I was sixteen."
Hank listened intently to the discussion.
These people are so much like me! They know what I've had to endure all my life because they are the relatives of serial killers, too.
After the meeting came to an end, Garret Spellman called his guest over and asked, "Well? How did you like our meeting?"
"I found it very enlightening. I'd like to accept your invitation to join."
The psychologist smiled and shook the young man's hand.
* * *
For the first time in his life, Hank felt acceptance and a sense of camaraderie. He attended all the support group's meetings held in a hundred mile radius of Boston.
After the fifth such meeting, he was able to stand up and say, "I'm Hank, and I'm the son of a serial killer."
It took eight more meetings for him to join in the post-introduction discussion and tell his fellow members about the life he and his mother, Dorothea Colter, lead after his father went away. He felt so relaxed at the meetings that something close to friendship developed between him and Barbara Jean, the attractive blonde whose brother killed five young men he encountered in gay bars in Chicago.
"You've gotten close to Barbara Jean," Garret noted one night after the meeting ended.
"Yes. She's a pretty girl. I'm thinking of asking her out," Hank admitted.
"Do you think that's a good idea?"
"Yes. We have a lot in common, and I don't have to worry about her walking out on me like the other women did."
The psychologist stiffened.
"Look, I really think you ought to reconsider. Give it some more time. You're both carrying a lot of emotional baggage right now."
"I'm not going to ask her to marry me; I'm just going to take her to dinner and perhaps a movie."
Although Garret didn't put up any further argument, the frown and the stern look in his eyes clearly showed his displeasure over members of his support group fraternizing.
Three months later, the group again met in Puritan Falls. Hank, who had recently attended meetings in Plymouth, Concord, Andover and Lowell, was one of the first to arrive. The faces he saw that night were all familiar to him. They were the same people who had attended his first meeting, with the exception of Barbara Jean, that is.
As he drank his cup of coffee prior to the start of the meeting, Hank kept glancing toward the door. It wasn't like Barbara Jean to be late.
When Garret walked to the circle of chairs, indicating that the meeting was about to begin, Hank quietly asked, "Aren't we going to wait for Barbara Jean to get here?"
"I'm sure if she were coming she'd be here already."
"Maybe she got stuck in traffic."
"Then she can join in when she gets here," Garret reasoned.
Hank looked at the people sitting in the circle and thought it strange that no one seemed concerned that Barbara Jean was missing.
* * *
Saturday's edition of the Boston Globe carried a story in the local section: GLOUCESTER WOMAN MISSING. When Hank read the headline, he had a terrible foreboding that was confirmed when he saw the photograph of Barbara Jean that accompanied the article. After reading the story, he went to his computer and immediately emailed Garret Spellman.
The group leader replied less than an hour later.
"It's not uncommon for people in our circumstances to disappear. Someone may have learned about her brother, forcing her to leave the area without word. I've seen it happen before. I'm sure once she feels safe, she'll contact me."
It was a reasonable explanation, and Hank would have believed it if Bob, Evelyn or one of the others had packed up and left, but he had a strong feeling Barbara Jean would not run away. He also had a peculiar hunch that Garret Spellman knew more about the woman's disappearance than he was saying.
For the next four months, Hank attended meetings as far south as Mystic, Connecticut and as far north as Old Orchard Beach, Maine. During every meeting, while pretending to listen to the stories of fellow group members, he was paying close attention to every move Garret Spellman made and listening to every word he said. When a new member joined the group, an attractive redhead, Hank noticed that the psychologist was very attentive.
Unsure if he should warn the young woman, Hank consulted Bob and Evelyn.
"You can't think Garret had anything to do with Barbara Jean's disappearance," the timid-looking man said in defense of the group leader.
"He's the last person I'd suspect of hurting anyone," Evelyn contended, "especially one of the group."
"Why?" Hank asked.
"Because he's one of us," Evelyn replied. "His father was a serial killer. He began this group and unselfishly devotes his life to it."
"I wish I had the faith in him that you do, but I just feel in my bones that Spellman had something to do with Barbara Jean's disappearance."
Against the advice of his two fellow group members, Hank arranged to meet with the pretty redhead after one of the support group's meetings. He wanted to tell her about Barbara Jean and warn her about Garret Spellman. When she didn't show up at the prearranged meeting place, Hank hoped it was a simple case of his being stood up. But when she didn't attend the next support group meeting, he feared the worst.
* * *
After a meeting held in Taunton, Massachusetts, Hank waited in the parking lot for Garret Spellman to leave. He then followed the other man's Mercedes to a nearby Marriott hotel.
Not long after letting himself into his suite, Garret heard a knock on the door.
"Who is it?" he asked.
"It's me, Hank Colter."
The door opened.
"This is most irregular, Hank. If you wanted to talk to me, why didn't you do so after the meeting?"
"I wanted to talk in private. It's about Barbara Jean and the new girl, the redhead."
Garret looked suspicious--or was it guilt on his handsome face?
"What has the redhead to do with Barbara Jean?"
"You tell me," Hank countered. "Two very pretty women come to your support group and both go missing. Why is that?"
"I don't think you really want to know the answer to that question," Garret said with a sigh, as he went to the hotel suite's small wet bar and poured himself a drink.
Hank put his hand in his pocket.
"I've got my cell phone on me, and I can have the police here in a matter of minutes. Perhaps you'd prefer to talk to them."
Garret downed his shot in one swallow and then lit a cigarette.
"What happened to those women?" Hank pressed.
"I suppose they're both dead."
"Don't you know?"
"Perhaps it's best you make that phone call to the police."
Hank took his phone out of his pocket, but his fingers froze on the keypad.
"Do you intend to confess your guilt, just like that?" he asked his companion.
"I do feel a certain amount of guilt in their deaths. I should have turned you in when I first suspected it was you and not your father who was the serial killer."
Hank let the phone fall from his hand.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"When you submitted your application for the support group, I did a thorough background check on you and your family. Your father died in Iraq before you were born. He was a brave soldier, not a murderer. You, on the other hand, are a different story. I realize your first victim was the result of an accident. You were only five, and when you took your father's gun outside and shot the girl next door, you probably weren't aware of what you were doing."
"After you were cleared of all charges, your mother sold the house and the two of you moved away, but somehow people found out what you'd done. You had to move again and again. I assume you blamed your absent father for your troubles, and in your mind he was to blame for all that you later did."
"I didn't make him up. He was a murderer, a vicious serial killer."
"What about the women you claim abandoned you when they learned about your father's crimes? These women didn't pack up and leave. They went missing. Their bodies have never been found. Neither has Barbara Jean's, and I suspect neither will the redhead's. Unless, of course, you tell the police what you did with them."
"What you're saying makes no sense," Hank insisted. "If you thought I was a killer, why did you take me into your support group? Why didn't you turn me into the police?"
"At first I wasn't certain you'd actually harmed anyone. I thought you might simply be delusional, but when I knew you were a killer, I honestly believed I could help you. Sadly, I was wrong."
Hundreds of memories flooded Hank Colter's brain: his mother's tears and horror when he'd shot the little girl next door, the women he'd killed pleading for mercy, the framed photograph of his father displayed on the fireplace mantel next to the folded flag Dorothea Colter had received at her husband's funeral.
Hank was so engrossed in his emerging memories that he failed to notice Dr. Spellman picking up the cell phone from the floor and calling the police.
* * *
In a VFW hall in a suburb of Boston, a dozen people sat in wooden folding chairs placed in a circle.
A timid-looking man stood up and shyly announced, "My name is Bob. I'm the son of a serial killer."
After nine more people stood and made similar announcements, a middle-aged woman, whose care-worn face made her look much older than she actually was, looked to Garret Spellman for support. He nodded encouragingly, and the new member rose unsteadily to her feet.
She wiped her tear-stained face with a tissue, and with her head held down in shame, announced, "Hi, I'm Dorothea. I'm the mother of a serial killer."
I wish someone would start a support group for people who own troublesome cats like Salem!