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O N C E B U R I E D
(A RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY—BOOK 11)
B L A K E P I E R C E
Blake Pierce is author of the bestselling RILEY PAGE mystery series, which includes eleven books (and counting). Blake Pierce is also the author of the MACKENZIE WHITE mystery series, comprising seven books (and counting); of the AVERY BLACK mystery series, comprising six books; and of the new KERI LOCKE mystery series, comprising four books (and counting).
An avid reader and lifelong fan of the mystery and thriller genres, Blake loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.blakepierceauthor.com to learn more and stay in touch.
Copyright © 2017 by Blake Pierce. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Jacket image Copyright anuruk perai, used under license from Shutterstock.com.
BOOKS BY BLAKE PIERCE
RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY SERIES
ONCE GONE (Book #1)
ONCE TAKEN (Book #2)
ONCE CRAVED (Book #3)
ONCE LURED (Book #4)
ONCE HUNTED (Book #5)
ONCE PINED (Book #6)
ONCE FORSAKEN (Book #7)
ONCE COLD (Book #8)
ONCE STALKED (Book #9)
ONCE LOST (Book #10)
ONCE BURIED (Book #11)
ONCE BOUND (Book #12)
MACKENZIE WHITE MYSTERY SERIES
BEFORE HE KILLS (Book #1)
BEFORE HE SEES (Book #2)
BEFORE HE COVETS (Book #3)
BEFORE HE TAKES (Book #4)
BEFORE HE NEEDS (Book #5)
BEFORE HE FEELS (Book #6)
BEFORE HE SINS (Book #7)
BEFORE HE HUNTS (Book #8)
AVERY BLACK MYSTERY SERIES
CAUSE TO KILL (Book #1)
CAUSE TO RUN (Book #2)
CAUSE TO HIDE (Book #3)
CAUSE TO FEAR (Book #4)
CAUSE TO SAVE (Book #5)
CAUSE TO DREAD (Book #6)
KERI LOCKE MYSTERY SERIES
A TRACE OF DEATH (Book #1)
A TRACE OF MUDER (Book #2)
A TRACE OF VICE (Book #3)
A TRACE OF CRIME (Book #4)
A TRACE OF HOPE (Book #5)
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
CHAPTER THIRTY ONE
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR
CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE
CHAPTER THIRTY SIX
CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN
CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT
Courtney Wallace felt a familiar burning in her lungs and her thighs. She slowed her jog down to a walk, then stopped, bent over with her hands on her knees, and gasped as she regained her breath.
It was a good, bracing feeling—a much better way to wake up than a cup of hot coffee, although in just a little while she’d have coffee with her breakfast. She still had plenty of time to shower and eat before she had to go to work.
Courtney loved the glow of early morning sunlight low among the trees and the lingering dampness of morning dew still in the air. Soon it would be a hot May day, but now the temperature was perfect, especially here in the gorgeous Belle Terre Nature Preserve.
She liked the solitude as well. She had seldom encountered another jogger along this trail—and never at this time of morning.
In spite of her satisfaction with her surroundings, a feeling of disappointment began to creep over her while she got her breathing back under control.
Her live-in boyfriend, Duncan, had promised yet again to come jogging with her—and yet again he had refused to wake up. He probably wouldn’t get up until long after she’d gone to work at her own office job, maybe not until afternoon.
Is he ever going to snap out of this? she wondered.
And when was he going to get another job?
She broke into a gentle trot, hoping to shake off her negative thoughts. Soon she broke into a full run, and that invigorating burning in her lungs and legs seemed to sweep her worry and disappointment away.
Then the ground gave out from under her.
She was falling—a weird, suspended moment that somehow felt agonizingly slow.
She crashed and crumpled with a brutal thump.
The sunlight was gone, and her eyes had to adjust.
Where am I? she wondered.
She saw that she was at the bottom of a narrow pit.
But how had she gotten here?
She felt a terrible pain shooting up her right leg.
She looked down and saw that her ankle was bent at an unnatural angle.
She tried to move her leg. The pain sharpened and she cried out. She tried to stand up, but her leg collapsed beneath her. She could actually feel the broken bones rasping against one another. Nausea rose in her throat and she nearly blacked out.
She knew she needed help and reached into her pocket for her cell phone.
It wasn’t there!
It must have fallen out.
It had to be here somewhere. She groped about to find it.
But she was partially entangled in a sort of rough, heavy, loosely woven blanket along with soil and leaves. She couldn’t find the phone.
It began to dawn on her that she had fallen into a trap—a hole with the debris-strewn cloth stretched over to hide it.
Was it somebody’s idea of a practical joke?
If so, it wasn’t the least bit funny.
And how was she going to get out of here?
The walls of the hole were straight, with no footholds or handholds. Unable to even stand up, she would never be able to get out of here on her own.
And no one else was likely to come along this trail soon, maybe not for hours.
Then she heard a voice directly above her.
“Hey! Did you have a bit of an accident?”
She breathed a little easier at the sound.
She looked up and saw that a man was standing above her. His figure was silhouetted against pale light, so she couldn’t make out his face.
Still, she could barely believe her luck. After so many mornings of seeing no one on this trail, this morning someone just happened to come by when she desperately needed help.
“I think my ankle is broken,” she called up to the man. “And I’ve lost my phone.”
“That sounds bad,” the man said. “How did it happen?”
What kind of question is that? she wondered.
Although there seemed to be a smile in his voice, Courtney wished she could see his face.
She said, “I was jogging, and … there was this hole, and …”
Courtney was feeling more than a little impatient now.
She said, “Well, obviously, I fell in.”
The man fell quiet for a moment. Then he said, “It’s a big hole. Didn’t you see it?”
Courtney let out a groan of exasperation.
“Look, I just need help getting out of here, OK?”
The man shook his head.
“You shouldn’t come jogging in strange places where you don’t know the path.”
“I do know this path!” Courtney shouted.
“Then how did you fall in this hole?”
Courtney was dumbfounded. Either the man was an idiot or he was toying with her.
“Are you the dick that dug this hole?” she snapped. “If so, it’s not funny, damn it. Get me out of here!”
She was shocked to realize that she was weeping.
“How?” the man asked.
Courtney reached up, stretching her arm as far as it would go.
“Here,” she said. “Reach down and take my hand and pull me up.”
“I’m not sure I can reach that far.”
“Sure you can.”
The man laughed. It was a pleasant, friendly laugh. Even so, Courtney still wished she could see his face.
“I’ll take care of everything,” he said.
He stepped away and out of sight.
Then she heard a rattling of metal and squeaking, grinding sounds coming around from behind her.
The next thing she knew, she felt a huge weight crashing down on her.
She gasped and sputtered until she grasped that the man had just dumped a load of dirt on her.
She felt her hands and legs getting cold—signs of panic, she realized.
Don’t panic, she told herself.
Whatever was going on, she had to stay calm.
She saw that the man was standing with a wheelbarrow tilted over her. A few remaining clods of dirt tumbled out of the wheelbarrow onto her head.
“What are you doing?” she yelled.
“Relax,” the man said. “Like I said, I’ll take care of everything.”
He rolled the wheelbarrow away. Then she heard a dull, drum-like pounding against metal again and again.
It was the sound of the man shoveling more dirt into the wheelbarrow.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, opened her mouth, and let out a long, piercing shriek.
Then she felt a heavy clump of dirt hitting her directly in her face. Some of it got into her mouth, and she choked and gagged and spit it out.
His voice still sounding friendly, the man said …
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to yell a lot louder than that.”
Then with a chuckle he added …
“I can barely hear you myself.”
She let out another shriek, shocked at the loudness of her own voice.
Then the man dumped the new wheelbarrow full of dirt onto her.
She couldn’t scream again now. Her throat was clogged with dirt.
She was overcome by an eerie sense of déjà vu. She’d experienced this before—this inability to run from danger or even to scream.
But those experiences had only been nightmares. And she’d always woken up from them.
Surely this was just another nightmare.
Wake up, she told herself again and again. Wake up, wake up, wake up …
But she couldn’t wake up.
This was not a dream.
This was real.
Special Agent Riley Paige was working at her desk at the BAU building in Quantico when an unwelcome memory swept over her …
A dark-skinned man was staring at her with glassy eyes.
He had a bullet wound in his shoulder, and a much more dangerous wound in the abdomen.
In a weak, bitter voice, he told Riley …
“I order you to kill me.”
Riley’s hand was on her weapon.
She ought to kill him.
She had every good reason to kill him.
Even so, she didn’t know what to do …
A woman’s voice snapped Riley out of her reverie.
“You look like you’ve got something on your mind.”
Riley looked up from her desk and saw a young African-American woman with short straight hair standing in her office doorway.
It was Jenn Roston, who had been Riley’s new partner on her most recent case.
Riley shook herself a little.
“It’s nothing,” she said.
Jenn’s dark brown eyes were filled with concern.
She said, “Oh, I’m pretty sure it’s not nothing.”
When Riley didn’t reply, Jenn said, “You’re thinking about Shane Hatcher, aren’t you?”
Riley nodded silently. The memories were coming pretty often these days—memories of her terrible confrontation with the wounded man up at her dead father’s cabin.
Riley’s relationship with the escaped convict had been rooted in a weird, twisted bond of loyalty. He had been at large for five months, and she hadn’t even tried to curtail his freedom—not until he began to murder innocent people.
Now it was hard for Riley to believe that she had let him go free for so long.
Theirs had been an unsettling, illegal, and very, very dark relationship.
Of all the people Riley knew, Jenn knew best just how dark it had been.
Finally Riley said, “I just keep thinking—I should have killed him right then and there.”
Jenn said, “He was wounded, Riley. He posed no threat to you.”
“I know,” Riley said. “But I keep thinking I let my loyalty get in the way of my judgment.”
Jenn shook her head.
“Riley, we’ve talked about this. You already know what I think about it. You did the right thing. And you don’t have to take my word for it. Everybody else here feels the same way.”
Riley knew that it was true. Her colleagues and superiors had heartily congratulated her for bringing Hatcher in alive. Their goodwill was a welcome change. As long as Riley had been in Hatcher’s thrall, everybody here had been justifiably suspicious of her. Now that the cloud of suspicion had lifted, her colleagues’ faces were friendly again, and she was greeted with renewed respect.
Riley truly felt at home here again.
Then Jenn grinned and added, “Hell, you even did things by the book for once in your life.”
Riley chuckled. Certainly she had followed correct procedure in how she had apprehended Hatcher—which was more than she could say for many of her actions during the case she and Jenn had just solved together.
Riley said, “Yeah, I guess you got a real crash course in my … unconventional methods.”
“I sure did.”
Riley chuckled uneasily. She’d ignored even more rules than usual. Jenn had covered for her loyally—even when she’d broken into a suspect’s house without a warrant. Jenn could have reported her actions if she’d chosen to. She could have gotten Riley fired.
“Jenn, I really appreciate—”
“Don’t even mention it,” Jenn said. “It’s all in the past. Whatever comes next is all that matters.”
Jenn’s smile broadened as she added, “And I don’t expect you to act like a Girl Scout. You’d better not expect me to either.”
Riley laughed again, more comfortably this time.
She found it hard to believe that she had recently distrusted Jenn, had even considered her a true nemesis.
After all, Jenn had done much, much more for Riley than be discreet about her actions.
“Have I thanked you for saving my life?” Riley asked.
“I’ve kind of lost count of how many times,” she said.
“Well, thank you again.”
Jenn said nothing. Her smile faded. A far-off look came over her.
“Did you want something, Jenn?” Riley asked. “I mean, why did you stop by?”
Jenn just kept staring down the hallway for a moment.
Finally she said, “Riley, I don’t know whether I should tell you …” Her voice trailed off.
It was easy for Riley to see that something was troubling her. She wanted to reassure her, to say something like …
“You can tell me anything.”
But that might be presumptuous.
Finally Jenn seemed to shiver a little.
“Never mind,” she said. “It’s nothing for you to worry about.”
“Are you sure?”
Without another word, Jenn disappeared down the hall, leaving Riley with a distinctly uneasy feeling. She’d long sensed that Jenn harbored secrets of her own—perhaps some very dark ones.
Why won’t she trust me? Riley wondered.
It seemed that one or the other of them was always a little distrustful. That didn’t bode well for them working together as partners.
But there was nothing Riley could do about it—at least not yet.
She glanced at her watch. She was almost late for an appointment with her longtime partner, Bill Jeffreys.
Poor Bill was on leave these days, suffering from PTSD after a terrible incident during their last case together. Riley felt a pang of sadness as she remembered it.
She and Bill had been working together with a promising young agent named Lucy Vargas.
But Lucy had been killed in the line of duty.
Riley missed Lucy every day.
But at least she didn’t feel guilty about her death.
Early this morning, Bill had called Riley and asked her to meet him at the Marine base that made up the largest part of the Quantico facility.
He hadn’t told her why, which worried her. She hoped it was nothing serious.
Riley anxiously got up from her desk and headed out of the BAU building.
Bill felt a tingle of worry as he led Riley toward the Marine target range.
Am I ready for this? he wondered.
It seemed almost a stupid question. After all, it was only target practice.
But this was no ordinary target practice.
Like him, Riley was wearing a camouflage uniform and carrying an M16-A4 rifle loaded with live ammunition.
But unlike Bill, Riley had no idea what they were about to do.
“I wish you’d tell me what this is all about,” Riley said.
“It’s going to be a new experience for both of us,” he said.
He’d never tried this new kind of range shooting before. But Mike Nevins, the psychiatrist who had been helping him with his PTSD, had recommended it for him.
“It’ll be good therapy,” Mike had said.
Bill hoped Mike was right. And he hoped it would take the edge off his nerves to try it out with Riley.
Bill and Riley took positions next to each other among upright four-by-four wooden posts, facing across a wide grassy field toward a paved area. On the pavement were vertical barriers marked with bullet holes. A few moments ago, Bill had talked to a guy in a control booth and everything should be ready now.
Now he spoke to that same guy through a little microphone in front of his lips.
“Random targets. Go.”
Suddenly, human-sized figures appeared from behind the barriers, all of them moving about in the paved area. They were wearing the uniforms of ISIS-style fighters and appeared to be armed.
“Hostiles!” Bill called out to Riley. “Shoot!”
Riley was too startled to shoot, but Bill fired one shot and missed. Then he fired another shot that hit one of the figures. The figure bent completely over and stopped moving. The other figures turned to avoid the gunfire, some of them moving faster, others hiding behind the barriers.
Riley said, “What the hell!”
She still hadn’t taken a shot.
“Stop,” he said into the microphone.
Suddenly, all the figures were motionless.
“Today we’re shooting at fake guys on wheels?” Riley asked with a laugh.
Bill explained, “They’re autonomous robots, mounted on Segway scooters. That guy I talked to in the booth a minute ago is punching in programs for them to follow. But he doesn’t control their every movement. In fact, he doesn’t really control them at all. They ‘know’ what to do. They’ve got laser scanners and navigation algorithms so they can avoid each other and the barriers.”
Riley’s eyes were wide with amazement.
“Yeah,” she said. “And they know what to do when the shooting starts—run, or hide, or both.”
“Want to try it again?” Bill asked.
Riley nodded, starting to look enthusiastic.
Again Bill said into the microphone, “Random targets. Go.”
The figures began moving as before, and Riley and Bill fired single shots at them. Bill hit one of the robots, and so did Riley. Both of those robots stopped and bent over. The other robots scattered, some gliding about capriciously, others hiding behind barriers.
Riley and Bill kept firing, but the shooting was getting harder. The robots that stayed on the move darted in unpredictable patterns at varying speeds. The ones who hid behind the barriers kept popping out, taunting Riley and Bill to shoot at them. It was impossible to tell from which side of the barrier they might appear. Then they either scurried around in the open or took shelter again.
Despite all this seeming chaos, it only took about half a minute for Riley and Bill to take out all eight of the robots. They were all bent over and motionless among the barriers.
Riley and Bill lowered their weapons.
“That was weird,” Riley said.
“Want to stop?” Bill asked.
“Are you kidding? Absolutely not. What’s next?”
Bill swallowed, suddenly feeling nervous.
“We’re supposed to take out hostiles without killing a civilian,” he said.
Riley looked at him sympathetically. He understood her concern. She knew perfectly well why this new exercise made him feel uneasy. It reminded him of the innocent young man he had mistakenly shot last month. The boy had recovered from his wound, but Bill still couldn’t shake off his guilt.
Bill was also haunted because a brilliant young agent named Lucy Vargas had been killed in the same incident.
If only I’d been able to save her, he thought yet again.
Bill had been on official leave ever since, wondering if he’d ever be able to get back to work. He’d completely fallen apart, lapsing into alcohol and even contemplating suicide.
Riley had helped him through it—in fact, she had probably saved his life.
Bill felt like he was getting better now.
But was he ready for this?
Riley kept eyeing him with concern.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” she asked.
Again, Bill remembered what Mike Nevins had said.
“It’ll be good therapy.”
Bill nodded at Riley.
“I think so,” he said.
They resumed their positions and raised their weapons. Bill spoke into the microphone. “Hostiles and civilian.”
The same actions as before began to unfold—only this time, one of the figures was a female draped in a blue hijab. It certainly wasn’t hard to distinguish her from the hostiles in their drab, brown outfits. But she was weaving among the others in seemingly random patterns.
Riley and Bill began to pick off the hostiles to the same effect as before—some of the male figures dodged the bullets, while others took shelter behind the barriers, only to dart out at unpredictable moments.
The female figure also moved as if frightened by the gunfire, hurrying to and fro frantically, but somehow never bothering to hide behind a barrier. Her simulated panic only made it harder not to accidentally hit her.
Bill felt cold sweat forming on his forehead as he fired one round after another.
Soon he and Riley had shot all the hostiles, and the woman in the hijab stood alone unscathed.
Bill breathed a slow sigh of relief and lowered his weapon.
“How are you doing?” Riley asked, a note of worry in her voice.
“Pretty good, I guess,” Bill said.
But his palms felt damp against the weapon, and he was shaking a little.
“Maybe that’s enough for now,” Riley said.
Bill shook his head.
“No,” he said. “We’ve got to try the next program.”
Bill gulped hard.
“It’s a hostage situation. The civilian will be killed unless you and I take out two hostiles simultaneously.”
Riley squinted at him doubtfully.
“Bill, I don’t know …”
“Come on,” Bill said. “It’s only a game. Let’s give it a try.”
Riley shrugged and raised her weapon.
Bill spoke into the microphone, “Hostage situation. Go.”
The robots came back to life. The female figure stayed in the open, while the hostiles disappeared behind the barriers.
Then two hostiles appeared from behind the barriers, hovering menacingly around the female figure, who wobbled back and forth with seeming anxiety.
Bill knew that the trick was for him and Riley to fire at both hostiles as soon as they had a clear shot.
It was up to him to call that moment.
As he and Riley carefully aimed their weapons, Bill said …
“I’ll take the one on the left, you the guy on the right. Fire when I say ‘Go.’”
“Got it,” Riley said quietly.
Bill carefully monitored the movements and positions of the two hostiles. He realized that this was going to be hard—much harder than he’d expected.
The very second one of the hostiles drifted away, the other hostile placed himself dangerously close to the hostage.
Are we ever going to get a clear shot? he wondered.
Then, for just a fleeting moment, the two hostiles both drifted about a foot or so in opposite directions away from the hostage.
“Go!” Bill barked.
But before he could pull the trigger, he was seized by a rush of images …
He was dashing toward an abandoned building when he heard a shot ring out.
He drew his weapon and ran inside, where he saw Lucy lying prone on the floor.
He saw a young man moving toward her.
Instinctively, Bill fired at the man and hit him.
The man spun around before he fell—and only then did Bill see that his hands were empty.
He was unarmed.
The man had only been trying to help Lucy.
Mortally wounded, Lucy lifted herself up on her elbow and fired six rounds at her real attacker …
… the man Bill should have shot.
A shot rang out from Riley’s rifle, snapping Bill out of his flashback.
The images had come and gone in a mere fraction of a second.
One of the hostiles tilted over, dead from Riley’s shot.
But Bill himself stood frozen. He couldn’t pull the trigger.
The surviving hostile turned menacingly toward the woman, and a recorded shot rang out over a loudspeaker.
The woman buckled over and stopped moving.
Bill finally fired his weapon and hit the surviving hostile—but too late for the hostage, who was already dead.
For a moment, the situation seemed horribly real.
“Jesus,” he said. “Oh, Jesus, what did I let happen?”
Bill stepped forward, almost as if he wanted to rush to the woman’s aid.
Riley stepped in front of him to stop him.
“Bill, it’s OK! It’s only a game! It’s not real!”
Bill stopped in his tracks, shaking all over and trying to calm himself.
“Riley, I’m sorry, it’s just that … it all came flooding back for a second and …”
“I know,” Riley said comfortingly. “I understand.”
Bill slumped over and shook his head.
“Maybe I’m not ready for this,” he said. “Maybe we’d better quit for the day.”
Riley patted him on the shoulder.
“No,” she said. “I think you’d better see it through.”
Bill took a few long, slow breaths. He knew that Riley was right.
He and Riley resumed their positions, and Bill again said into the microphone …
“Hostage situation. Go.”
The same action resumed again, with two hostiles lurking dangerously close to the hostage.
Bill breathed slowly, in and out, as he peered through his sight.
It’s only a game, he told himself. It’s only a game.
Finally, the moment he was waiting for arrived. Both of the hostiles had moved ever so slightly away from the hostage. It was still a dangerous shot, but Bill and Riley had to take it.
“Go!” he said.
This time he fired instantly, and he heard the sound of Riley’s shot a fraction of a second later.
Both of the hostiles buckled over and stopped moving.
Bill lowered his weapon.
Riley patted him on the back.
“You did it, Bill,” she said, smiling. “I’m enjoying this. What else can we do with these bots?”
Bill said, “There’s a program where we can advance toward them as we shoot.”
“Let’s give it a try.”
Bill spoke into his microphone.
All eight of the hostiles began to move, and Bill and Riley advanced toward them step by step, firing in small bursts. A couple of robots fell, and the others scurried about, becoming harder to hit.
As Bill fired away, he realized that something was missing from this simulation.
They don’t shoot back, he thought.
Also, his relief at saving the hostage felt strangely hollow. After all, he and Riley had merely saved the life of a robot.
It didn’t change the reality of what had happened last month.
It certainly didn’t bring Lucy back to life.
His guilt still haunted him. Was he ever going to be able to shake it off?
And was he ever going to be able to get back to work?
After their target practice, Riley was still worried about Bill. True, he’d recovered quickly after freezing up that once. And he’d actually seemed to enjoy himself when they started firing at close quarters.
He’d even seemed cheerful when he left Quantico to go back to his apartment. Still, he wasn’t the same old Bill who had been her partner for so many years—and who had long since become her best friend.
She knew what he was most worried about.
Bill was afraid that he might not ever be able to come back to work.
She wished she could reassure him with kind, simple words—something like …
“You’re just going through a rough stretch. Happens to all of us. You’ll be over it sooner than you think.”
But glib reassurances weren’t what Bill needed right now. And the truth was, Riley didn’t really know whether it was true.
She’d suffered her own spells of PTSD, and knew how hard recovery could be. She would just have to help Bill work through that awful process.
Although Riley went back to her office, she actually had little to do at BAU today. She didn’t currently have an assignment, and these slow days had been welcome after the intensity of the last case in Iowa. She wrapped up the few details that needed her attention and left.
As Riley drove home, she was feeling contented at the thought of dinner with her family. She was especially pleased that she had invited Blaine Hildreth and his daughter to join them tonight.
Riley was delighted that Blaine was part of her life. He was a handsome, charming man. And like her, he was fairly recently divorced.
He was also, as it turned out, remarkably brave.
It was Blaine who had shot and badly wounded Shane Hatcher when he had threatened Riley’s family.
Riley would always be grateful to him for that.
She had spent one night with Blaine so far, at his home. They’d been fairly discreet about it—his daughter, Crystal, had been away visiting her cousins during spring break. Riley smiled at the memory of their passionate lovemaking.
Was tonight going to end the same way?
Riley’s live-in housekeeper, Gabriela, had fixed a delicious meal of chiles rellenos from a family recipe that she’d brought from Guatemala. Everybody was thoroughly enjoying the steaming, lusciously stuffed bell peppers.
Riley was feeling deep satisfaction with a very good dinner and wonderful company.
“Not too picante?” Gabriela asked.
It wasn’t too hot and spicy for American taste buds, of course, and Riley was sure that Gabriela knew it. Gabriela always exercised restraint with her original Central American recipes. She was obviously fishing for compliments, which came quickly and easily.
“No, it’s perfect,” Riley’s fifteen-year-old daughter, April, said.
“The best ever,” said Jilly, the thirteen-year-old girl that Riley was in the process of adopting.
“Just amazing,” said Crystal, April’s best friend.
Crystal’s father, Blaine Hildreth, didn’t say anything right away. But Riley could tell by his expression that he was enchanted by the dish. She also knew that Blaine’s appreciation was partly professional. Blaine owned an upscale but casual restaurant here in Fredericksburg.
“How do you do it, Gabriela?” he asked after a few bites.
“Es un secreto,” Gabriela said with a mischievous grin.
“A secret, eh?” Blaine said. “What kind of cheese did you use? I can’t place it. I can tell it’s not Monterey Jack or Chihuahua. Manchego, maybe?”
Gabriela shook her head.
“I will never tell,” she said with a chuckle.
As Blaine and Gabriela continued to banter about the recipe, partly in English and partly in Spanish, Riley caught herself wondering if she and Blaine might …
She blushed a little at the idea.
No, not going to happen tonight.
There could hardly be any graceful, discreet segue with everybody here.
Not that there was anything wrong with things as they were.
Being surrounded by people she cared deeply about was pleasure enough for this particular evening. But as she watched her family and friends enjoying themselves, a new concern began to tug at Riley’s mind.
One person at the table had barely said a word so far. That was Liam, the newcomer to Riley’s household. Liam was April’s age, and the two teenagers had been dating at one time. Riley had rescued the tall, gangly kid from an abusive, drunken father. He’d needed a place to live and right now that meant sleeping on the sofa bed in Riley’s family room.
Liam was normally talkative and outgoing. But something seemed to be troubling him tonight.
Riley asked, “Is anything wrong, Liam?”
The boy didn’t seem to even hear her.
Riley spoke just a little louder.
Liam looked up from his meal, which he had barely touched so far.
“Huh?” he said.
“Is anything wrong?”
Riley squinted uneasily. Something was wrong, all right. Liam was seldom monosyllabic like this.
“I just wondered,” she said.
She made a mental note to talk to Liam alone later on.
Gabriela capped off the meal with a delicious dessert of flan. Riley and Blaine enjoyed after-dinner drinks while the four kids entertained themselves in the family room, and finally Blaine and his daughter went on home.
Riley waited until April and Jilly went to their rooms for the night. Then she went alone to the family room. Liam was sitting quietly on the still-closed sofa, staring off into space.
“Liam, I can tell something’s wrong. I wish you’d tell me about it.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Liam said.
Riley crossed her arms and said nothing. She knew from dealing with the girls that it was sometimes best to wait kids out.
Then Liam said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Riley was startled. She was used to adolescent moodiness from April and Jilly, at least from time to time. But it wasn’t typical of Liam at all. He was always agreeable and obliging. He was also a dedicated student, and Riley appreciated his influence on April.
Riley continued to wait in silence.
Finally Liam said, “I got a call from Dad today.”
Riley felt a sinking in the pit of her stomach.
She couldn’t help remembering that terrible day when she’d rushed over to Liam’s house to save him from being badly beaten by his father.
She knew she shouldn’t be surprised. But she didn’t know what to say.
Liam said, “He says he’s sorry about everything. He says he misses me.”
Riley’s worry deepened. She had no legal custody over Liam. Right now, she was acting as a sort of impromptu foster parent, and she had no idea exactly what her future role in his life would be.
“Does he want you to come back home?” Riley asked.
Riley couldn’t bring herself to ask the obvious question …
“What do you want?”
What would she do—what could she do—if Liam said he wanted to go back?
Riley knew that Liam was a gentle, forgiving boy. Like many abuse victims, he was also prone to deep denial.
Riley sat down beside him.
She asked, “Have you been happy here?”
Liam made a small choking sound. For the first time, Riley realized that he was near tears.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “This has been … I’ve just been … so happy.”
Riley felt her own throat catch a little. She wanted to tell him he could stay here for as long as he wished. But what could she do if his father demanded that he come back? She’d be powerless to stop it from happening.
A tear trickled down Liam’s cheek.
“It’s just that … since Mom went away … I’m all Dad’s got. Or at least I was until I left. Now he’s all alone. He says he’s stopped drinking. He says he won’t hurt me anymore.”
Riley almost blurted out …
“Don’t believe him. Don’t ever believe him when he says that.”
Instead, she said, “Liam, you must know that your dad is very ill.”
“I know,” Liam said.
“It’s up to him to get the help he needs. But until he does … well, it’s going to be very hard for him to change.”
Riley fell silent for a moment.
Then she added, “Just always remember that it’s not your fault. You know that, don’t you?”
Liam gulped down a sob and nodded.
“Have you ever gone back to see him?” Riley asked.
Liam shook his head silently.
Riley patted his hand.
“I just want you to promise me one thing. If you do go to see him, don’t go by yourself. I want to be there with you. Do you promise?”
“I promise,” Liam said.
Riley reached for a nearby box of tissues and offered one to Liam, who wiped his eyes and blew his nose. Then the two of them sat in silence for a few long moments.
Finally Riley said, “Do you need me for anything else?”
“No. I’m OK now. Thank you for … well, you know.”
He smiled at her weakly.
“Pretty much everything,” he added.
“You’re very welcome,” Riley said, returning his smile.
She left the family room, walked to the living room, and sat alone on the couch.
Suddenly, a sob rose up in her own throat, and she started to cry. She was startled to realize how shaken she’d been by her conversation with Liam.
But when she thought about it, it was easy enough to understand why.
I’m so out of my depth, she thought.
After all, she was still trying to get Jilly’s adoption settled. She’d rescued the poor girl from her own share of horrors. When Riley had found her, Jilly had been trying to sell her body out of sheer desperation.
So what did Riley think she was doing, bringing another teenager into the house?
She suddenly wished Blaine was still here to talk to.
Blaine always seemed to know what to say.
She had enjoyed the lull between cases for a while, but little by little, worries had started to creep in—worries especially about her family, and today about Bill.
It hardly felt like any kind of vacation.
Riley couldn’t help but wonder …
Is something wrong with me?
Was she somehow just incapable of enjoying a quiet life?
Anyway, she knew she could be sure of one thing.
This lull wouldn’t last. Somewhere, some monster was committing some heinous deed—and it would be up to her to stop him.
Riley was awakened early the next morning by the sound of her phone buzzing.
She groaned aloud as she shook herself awake.
The lull is over, she thought.
She looked at her phone and saw that she was right. It was a text message from her team chief at the BAU, Brent Meredith. It was a call to meet with him, and it was written in his typical terse style …
She looked at the time and realized she’d have to hurry to make it to the hastily planned appointment. Quantico was only a half-hour drive from home, but she needed to get out of here fast.
It took Riley just minutes to brush her teeth, comb her hair, get dressed, and rush downstairs.
Gabriela was already making breakfast in the kitchen.
“Is coffee ready?” Riley asked her.
“Sí,” Gabriela said, and poured her a hot cup.
Riley sipped the coffee eagerly.
“You must leave without breakfast?” Gabriela asked her.
“I’m afraid so.”
Gabriela handed her a bagel.
“Then take this with you. You must have something in your stomach.”
Riley thanked Gabriela, gulped down some more of the coffee, and rushed out to her car.
During the short drive to Quantico, a peculiar feeling came over her.
She actually began to feel better than she had during the last few days, even slightly euphoric.
It was partly an adrenaline boost, of course, as her mind and body prepared to embark upon a new case.