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Women are turning up dead in the rural outskirts of Virginia, killed in grotesque ways, and when the FBI is called in, they are stumped. A serial killer is out there, his frequency increasing, and they know there is only one agent good enough to crack this case: Special Agent Riley Paige.Riley is on paid leave herself, recovering from her encounter with her last serial killer, and, fragile as she is, the FBI is reluctant to tap her brilliant mind. Yet Riley, needing to battle her own demons, comes on board, and her hunt leads her through the disturbing subculture of doll collectors, into the homes of broken families, and into the darkest canals of the killer’s mind. As Riley peels back the layers, she realizes she is up against a killer more twisted than she could have imagined. In a frantic race against time, she finds herself pushed to her limit, her job on the line, her own family in danger, and her fragile psyche collapsing.Yet once Riley Paige takes on a case, she will not quit. It obsesses her, leading her to the darkest corners of her own mind, blurring the lines between hunter and hunted. After a series of unexpected twists, her instincts lead her to a shocking climax that even Riley could not have imagined.A dark psychological thriller with heart-pounding suspense, ONCE GONE marks the debut of a riveting new series—and a beloved new character—that will leave you turning pages late into the night.Book #2 in the Riley Paige series will be available soon.
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O N C E G O N E
(A RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY—BOOK 1)
B L A K E P I E R C E
Black Pierce is an avid reader and lifelong fan of the mystery and thriller genres. ONCE GONE is Blake’s debut novel. Blake loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.blakepierceauthor.com to join the email list, receive a free book, receive free giveaways, connect on Facebook and Twitter, and stay in touch!
Copyright © 2015 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 GoingTo, used under license from Shutterstock.com.
A new spasm of pain jolted Reba’s head upright. She yanked against the ropes that bound her body, tied around her stomach to a vertical length of pipe that had been bolted to the floor and ceiling in the middle of the small room. Her wrists were tied in front, and her ankles were bound.
She realized she’d been dozing, and she was immediately awash in fear. She knew by now that the man was going to kill her. Little by little, wound by wound. It wasn’t her death he was after, and it wasn’t sex either. He only wanted her pain.
I’vegot to stay awake, she thought. I’ve got to get out of here. If I fall asleep again, I will die.
Despite the heat in the room, her naked body felt chilled with sweat. She looked down, writhing, and saw her feet were bare against the hardwood floor. The floor around them was caked with patches of dry blood, sure signs that she wasn’t the first person to have been tied here. Her panic deepened.
He had gone somewhere. The room’s single door was shut tight, but he would come back. He always did. And then he’d do whatever he could think of to make her scream. The windows were boarded, and she had no idea if it was day or night, the only light from the glare of a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. Wherever this place was, it seemed that no one else could hear her screams.
She wondered if this room had once been a little girl’s bedroom; it was, grotesquely, pink, with curly-cues and fairytale motifs everywhere. Someone—she guessed her captor—had long since trashed the place, breaking and overturning stools and chairs and end tables. The floor was scattered with the dismembered limbs and torsos of children’s dolls. Little wigs—doll’s wigs, Reba guessed—were nailed like scalps on the walls, most of them elaborately braided, all of them in unnatural, toy-like colors. A battered pink vanity table stood upright next to a wall, its heart-shaped mirror shattered into little pieces. The only other piece of furniture intact was a narrow, single bed with a torn, pink canopy. Her captor sometimes rested there.
The man watched her with dark beady eyes, through his black ski mask. At first she had taken heart in the fact that he always wore that mask. If he didn’t want her to see his face, didn’t that mean that he didn’t plan to kill her, that he might let her go?
But she soon caught on that the mask served a different purpose. She could tell that the face behind it had a receded chin and a sloped forehead, and she was sure the man’s features were weak and homely. Although he was strong, he was shorter than she, and probably insecure about it. He wore the mask, she guessed, to seem more terrifying.
She’d given up trying to talk him out of hurting her. At first she had thought she could. She knew, after all, that she was pretty. Or at least I used to be, she thought sadly.
Sweat and tears mixed on her bruised face, and she could feel the blood matted into her long blond hair.Her eyes stung: he had made her put in contact lenses, and they made it harder to see.
God knows what I look like now.
She let her head drop.
Die now, she begged herself.
It ought to be easy enough to do. She was certain that others had died here before.
But she couldn’t. Just thinking about it made her heart pound harder, her breath heave, straining the rope around her belly. Slowly, as she knew she was facing an imminent death, a new feeling began to arise within her. It wasn’t panic or fear this time. It wasn’t despair. It was something else.
What do I feel?
Then she realized. It was rage. Not against her captor. She’d long since exhausted her rage toward him.
It’s me, she thought. I am doing what he wants. When I scream and cry and sob and plead, I’m doing what he wants.
Whenever she sipped that cold bland broth he’d feed her through a straw, she was doing what he wanted. Whenever she blubbered pathetically that she was a mother with two children who needed her, she was delighting him to no end.
Her mind cleared with new resolve as she finally stopped writhing. Maybe she needed to try a different tack. She had been struggling so hard against the ropes all these days. Maybe that was the wrong approach. They were like those little bamboo toys—the Chinese finger traps, where you’d put your fingers in each end of the tube, and the harder you pulled, the more stuck your fingers became. Maybe the trick was to relax, deliberately and completely. Maybe that was the way out.
Muscle by muscle, she let her body go slack, feeling every sore, every bruise where her flesh touched the ropes. And slowly, she became aware of where the rope’s tension lay.
At last, she found what she needed. There was just a little looseness around her right ankle. But it wouldn’t do to tug, at least not yet. No, she had to keep her muscles limber. She wiggled her ankle gently, gently, then more aggressively as the rope loosened.
Finally, to her joy and surprise, her heel popped loose, and she withdrew the whole right foot.
She immediately scanned the floor. Only a foot away, amid the scattered doll parts, lay his hunting knife. He always laughed as he left it there, tantalizingly nearby. The blade, encrusted with blood, twinkled tauntingly in the light.
She swung her free foot toward the knife. It swung high and missed.
She let her body slacken again. She slid downward along the post just a few inches and strained with her foot until the knife was within reach. She clutched the filthy blade between her toes, scraped it across the floor, and lifted it carefully with her foot until its handle rested in the palm of her hand. She clutched the handle tight with numb fingers and twisted it around, slowly sawing at the rope that held her wrists. Time seemed to stop, as she held her breath, hoping, praying she didn’t drop it. That he didn’t come in.
Finally she heard a snap, and to her shock, her hands were loose. Immediately, heart pounding, she cut the rope around her waist.
Free. She could hardly believe it.
For a moment all she could do was crouch there, hands and feet tingling with the return of full circulation. She poked at the lenses over her eyes, resisting the urge to claw them out. She carefully slid them to one side, pinched them, and pulled them out. Her eyes hurt terribly, and it was a relief to have them gone. As she looked at the two plastic disks lying in the palm of her hand, their color sickened her. The lenses were bright blue, unnatural. She threw them aside.
Heart slamming, Reba pulled herself up and quickly limped to the door. She took hold of the knob but didn’t turn it.
What if he’s out there?
She had no choice.
Reba turned the knob and tugged at the door, which opened noiselessly. She looked down a long empty hallway, lit only by an arched opening on the right. She crept along, naked, barefoot, and silent, and saw that the arch opened into a dimly lit room. She stopped and stared. It was a simple dining room, with a table and chairs, all completely ordinary, as if a family might soon come home to dinner. Old lace curtains hung over the windows.
A new horror rose up in her throat. The very ordinariness of the place was disturbing in a way that a dungeon wouldn’t have been. Through the curtains she could see that it was dark outside. Her spirits lifted at the thought that darkness would make it easier to slip away.
She turned back to the hallway. It ended in a door—a door that simply had to lead outdoors. She limped and squeezed the cold brass latch. The door swung heavily toward her to reveal the night outside.
She saw a small porch, a yard beyond it. The nighttime sky was moonless and starlit. There was no other light anywhere—no sign of nearby houses. She stepped slowly out onto the porch and down into the yard, which was dry and bare of grass. Cool fresh air flooded her aching lungs.
Mixed with her panic, she felt elated. The joy of freedom.
Reba took her first step, preparing to run—when suddenly she felt the hard grip of a hand on her wrist.
Then came the familiar, ugly laugh.
The last thing she felt was a hard object—maybe metal—impacting her head, and then she was spinning into the very depths of blackness.
At least the stench hasn’t kicked in, Special Agent Bill Jeffreys thought.
Still leaning over the body, he couldn’t help but detect the first traces of it. It mingled with the fresh scent of pine and the clean mist rising from the creek—a body smell that he ought to have been long since used to. But he never was.
The woman’s naked body had been carefully arranged on a large boulder at the edge of the creek. She was sitting up, leaning against another boulder, legs straight and splayed, hands at her sides. An odd crook in the right arm, he could see, suggested a broken bone. The wavy hair was obviously a wig, mangy, with clashing hues of blond. A pink smile was lipsticked over her mouth.
The murder weapon was still tight around her neck; she’d been strangled with a pink ribbon. An artificial red rose lay on the rock in front of her, at her feet.
Bill gently tried to lift the left hand. It didn’t budge.
“She’s still in rigor mortis,” Bill told Agent Spelbren, crouching on the other side of the body. “Hasn’t been dead more than twenty-four hours.”
“What’s with her eyes?” Spelbren asked.
“Stitched wide open with black thread,” he answered, without bothering to look closely.
Spelbren stared at him in disbelief.
“Check for yourself,” Bill said.
Spelbren peered at the eyes.
“Jesus,” he murmured quietly. Bill noticed that he didn’t recoil with disgust. Bill appreciated that. He’d worked with other field agents—some of them even seasoned veterans like Spelbren—who would be puking their guts up by now.
Bill had never worked with him before. Spelbren had been called in for this case from a Virginia field office. It had been Spelbren’s idea to bring in somebody from the Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico. That was why Bill was here.
Smart move, Bill thought.
Bill could see that Spelbren was younger than him by a few years, but even so, he had a weathered, lived-in look that he rather liked.
“She’s wearing contacts,” Spelbren noted.
Bill took a closer look. He was right. An eerie, artificial blue that made him look away. It was cool here down by the creek late in the morning, but even so, the eyes were flattening in their sockets. It was going to be tough to nail down the exact time of death. All Bill felt certain of was that the body had been brought here sometime during the night and carefully posed.
He heard a nearby voice.
Bill glanced up at the three local cops, standing a few yards away. They were whispering inaudibly now, so Bill knew that he was supposed to hear those two choice words. They were from nearby Yarnell, and they clearly weren’t happy to have the FBI show up. They thought they could handle this on their own.
The head ranger of Mosby State Park had thought differently. He wasn’t used to anything worse than vandalism, litter, and illegal fishing and hunting, and he knew the locals from Yarnell weren’t capable of dealing with this.
Bill had made the hundred-plus-mile trip by helicopter, so he could get here before the body was moved. The pilot had followed the coordinates to a patch of meadow on a nearby hilltop, where the ranger and Spelbren had met him. The ranger had driven them a few miles down a dirt road, and when they’d pulled over, Bill could glimpse the murder scene from the road. It was just a short way downhill from the creek.
The cops standing impatiently nearby had already gone over the scene. Bill knew exactly what they were thinking. They wanted to crack this case on their own; a pair of FBI agents was the last thing they wanted to see.
Sorry, you rednecks, Bill thought, but you’re out of your depth here.
“The sheriff thinks this is trafficking,” Spelbren said. “He’s wrong.”
“Why do you say that?” Bill asked. He knew the answer himself, but he wanted to get an idea of how Spelbren’s mind worked.
“She’s in her thirties, not all that young,” Spelbren said. “Stretch marks, so she’s had at least one child. Not the type that usually gets trafficked.”
“You’re right,” Bill said.
“But what about the wig?”
Bill shook his head.
“Her head’s been shaved,” he replied, “so whatever the wig was for, it wasn’t to change her hair color.”
“And the rose?” Spelbren asked. “A message?”
Bill examined it.
“Cheap fabric flower,” he replied. “The kind you’d find in any low-price store. We’ll trace it, but we won’t find out anything.”
Spelbren looked him over, clearly impressed.
Bill doubted that anything they’d found would do much good. The murderer was too purposeful, too methodical. This whole scene had been laid out with a certain sick style that set him on edge.
He saw the local cops itching to come closer, to wrap this. Photos had been taken, and the body would be removed any time now.
Bill stood and sighed, feeling the stiffness in his legs. His forty years were starting to slow him down, at least a little.
“She’s been tortured,” he observed, exhaling sadly. “Look at all the cuts. Some are starting to close up.” He shook his head grimly. “Someone worked her over for days before doing her in with that ribbon.”
“The perp was pissed off about something,” Spelbren said.
“Hey, when are we gonna wrap up here?” one of the cops called out.
Bill looked in their direction and saw them shuffling their feet. Two of them were grumbling quietly. Bill knew the work was already done here, but he didn’t say so. He preferred keeping those bozos waiting and wondering.
He turned around slowly and took in the scene. It was a thick wooded area, all pines and cedars and lots of undergrowth, with the creek burbling along its serene and bucolic way toward the nearest river. Even now, in midsummer, it wasn’t going to get very hot here today, so the body wasn’t going to putrefy badly right away. Even so, it would be best to get it out of here and ship it off to Quantico. Examiners there would want to pick it apart while it was still reasonably fresh. The coroner’s wagon was pulled up on the dirt road behind the cop car, waiting.
The road was nothing more than parallel tire tracks through the woods. The killer had almost certainly driven here along it. He had carried the body the short distance along a narrow path to this spot, arranged it, and left. He wouldn’t have stayed long. Even though the area looked out of the way, rangers patrolled through here regularly and private cars weren’t supposed to be on this road. He had wanted the body to be found. He was proud of his work.
And it had been found by a couple of early-morning horseback riders. Tourists on rented horses, the ranger had told Bill. They were vacationers from Arlington, staying at a fake Western ranch just outside of Yarnell. The ranger had said that they were a little hysterical now. They’d been told not to leave town, and Bill planned to talk to them later.
There seemed to be absolutely nothing out of place in the area around the body. The guy had been very careful. He’d dragged something behind him when he’d returned from the creek—a shovel, maybe—to obscure his own footprints. No scraps of anything left intentionally or accidentally. Any tire prints on the road had likely been obliterated by the cop car and coroner’s wagon.
Bill sighed to himself.
Damn it, he thought. Where’s Riley when I need her?
His longtime partner and best friend was on involuntary leave, recovering from the trauma of their last case. Yes, that had been a nasty one. She needed the time off, and the truth be told, she might not ever come back.
But he really needed her now. She was a lot smarter than Bill, and he didn’t mind admitting it. He loved watching her mind at work. He pictured her picking away at this scene, detail by minuscule detail. By now she’d be teasing him for all the painfully glaring clues that had been staring him in the face.
What would Riley see here that Bill didn’t?
He felt stumped, and he didn’t like the feeling. But there wasn’t anything more he could do about it now.
“Okay, guys,” Bill called out to the cops. “Take the body away.”
The cops laughed and gave each other high-fives.
“Do you think he’ll do it again?” Spelbren asked.
“I’m sure of it,” Bill said.
“How do you know?”
Bill took a long deep breath.
“Because I’ve seen his work before.”
“It got worse for her every day,” Sam Flores said, bringing up another horrific image on the huge multimedia display looming above the conference table. “Right up to when he finished her off.”
Bill had guessed as much, but he hated to be right.
The Bureau had flown the body to the BAU in Quantico, forensics technicians had taken photos, and the lab had started all the tests. Flores, a lab technician with black-rimmed glasses, ran the grisly slide show, and the gigantic screens were a forbidding presence in the BAU conference room.
“How long was she dead before the body was found?” Bill asked.
“Not long,” he replied. “Maybe early evening before.”
Beside Bill sat Spelbren, who had flown into Quantico with him after they’d left Yarnell. At the head of the table sat Special Agent Brent Meredith, the team chief. Meredith cut a daunting presence with his broad frame, his black, angular features, and his no-nonsense face. Not that Bill was intimidated by him—far from it. He liked to think that they had a lot in common. They were both seasoned veterans, and had both seen it all.
Flores flashed a series of close-ups of the victim’s wounds.
“The wounds on the left were inflicted early on,” he said. “Those on the right are more recent, some inflicted hours or even minutes before he strangled her with the ribbon. He seems to have gotten progressively more violent during the week or so that he held her captive. Breaking her arm might have been the last thing he did while she was still alive.”
“The wounds look like the work of one perpetrator to me,” Meredith observed. “Judging from the mounting level of aggression, probably male. What else have you got?”
“From the light stubble on her scalp, we’re guessing her head was shaved two days before she was killed,” Flores continued. “The wig was stitched together with pieces of other wigs, all cheap. The contact lenses were probably mail order. And one more thing,” he said, looking around at the faces, hesitant. “He covered her with Vaseline.”
Bill could feel the tension in the room thicken.
“Vaseline?” he asked.
“Why?” Spelbren asked.
“That’s your job,” he replied.
Bill thought about the two tourists he’d interviewed yesterday. They had been no help at all, torn between morbid curiosity and the edge of panic at what they had seen. They were eager to get back home to Arlington and there hadn’t been any reason to detain them. They had been interviewed by every officer on hand. And they’d been duly cautioned to say nothing about what they’d seen.
Meredith exhaled and laid both palms on the table.
“Good work, Flores,” Meredith said.
Flores looked grateful for the praise—and maybe a bit surprised. Brent Meredith wasn’t given to making compliments.
“Now Agent Jeffreys,” Meredith turned to him, “brief us on how this relates to your old case.”
Bill took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair.
“A little over six months ago,” he began, “on December sixteenth, actually—the body of Eileen Rogers was found on a farm near Daggett. I got called in to investigate, along with my partner, Riley Paige. The weather was extremely cold, and the body was frozen solid. It was hard to tell how long it had been left there, and the time of death was never exactly determined. Flores, show them.”
Flores turned back to the slide show. The screen split and alongside the images on the screen, a new series of images appeared. The two victims were displayed side by side. Bill gasped. It was amazing. Aside from the frozen flesh of the one body, the corpses were in almost the same condition, the wounds nearly identical. Both women had their eyes stitched open in the same, hideous manner.
Bill sighed, the images bringing it all back. No matter how many years he was on the force, seeing each victim pained him.
“Rogers’s body was found seated upright against a tree,” Bill continued, his voice more grim. “Not quite as carefully posed as the one at Mosby Park. No contact lenses or Vaseline, but most of the other details are the same. Rogers’s hair was chopped short, not shaved, but there was a similar patched-together wig. She was also strangled with a pink ribbon, and a fake rose was found in front of her.”
Bill paused for a moment. He hated what he had to say next.
“Paige and I couldn’t crack the case.”
Spelbren turned to him.
“What was the problem?” he asked.
“What wasn’t the problem?” Bill countered, unnecessarily defensive. “We couldn’t get a single break. We had no witnesses; the victim’s family couldn’t give us any useful information; Rogers had no enemies, no ex-husband, no angry boyfriend. There wasn’t a single good reason for her to be targeted and killed. The case went cold immediately.”
Bill fell silent. Dark thoughts flooded his brain.
“Don’t,” Meredith said in an uncharacteristically gentle tone. “It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have stopped the new killing.”
Bill appreciated the kindness, but he felt guilty as hell. Why couldn’t he have cracked it before? Why couldn’t Riley? There were very few times in his career he had been so stumped.
At that moment, Meredith’s phone buzzed, and the chief took the call.
Almost the first thing he said was, “Shit.”
He repeated it several times. Then he said, “You’re positive it’s her?” He paused. “Was there any contact for ransom?”
He stood from his chair and stepped outside the conference room, leaving the other three men sitting in perplexed silence. After a few minutes, he came back. He looked older.
“Gentlemen, we’re now in crisis mode,” he announced. “We just got a positive ID on yesterday’s victim. Her name was Reba Frye.”
Bill gasped as if he’d been punched in the stomach; he could see Spelbren’s shock, too. But Flores looked confused.
“Should I know who that is?” Flores asked.
“Maiden name’s Newbrough,” Meredith explained. “The daughter of State Senator Mitch Newbrough—probably Virginia’s next governor.”
“I hadn’t heard that she’d gone missing,” Spelbren said.
“It wasn’t officially reported,” Meredith said. “Her father’s already been contacted. And of course he thinks it’s political, or personal, or both. Never mind that the same thing happened to another victim six months ago.”
Meredith shook his head.
“The Senator’s leaning hard on this,” he added. “An avalanche of press is about to hit. He’ll make sure of it, to keep our feet to the fire.”
Bill’s heart sank. He hated feeling as though he were over his head. But that’s exactly how he felt right now.
A somber silence fell over the room.
Finally, Bill cleared his throat.
“We’re going to need help,” he said.
Meredith turned to him, and Bill met his hardened gaze. Suddenly, Meredith’s face knotted up with worry and disapproval. He clearly knew what Bill was thinking.
“She’s not ready,” Meredith answered, clearly knowing that Bill meant to bring her in.
“Sir,” he replied, “she knows the case better than anyone. And there’s no one smarter.”
After another pause, Bill came out and said what he was really thinking.
“I don’t think we can do it without her.”
Meredith thumped his pencil against a pad of paper a few times, clearly wishing he was anywhere but here.
“It’s a mistake,” he said. “But if she falls apart, it’s your mistake.” He exhaled again. “Call her.”
The teenage girl who opened the door looked as though she might slam it in Bill’s face. Instead, she whirled around and walked away without a word, leaving the door open.
Bill stepped inside.
“Hi, April,” he said automatically.
Riley’s daughter, a sullen, gangly fourteen-year-old, with her mother’s dark hair and hazel eyes, didn’t reply. Dressed only in an oversized T-shirt, her hair a mess, April turned a corner and plopped herself down on the couch, dead to everything except her earphones and cell phone.
Bill stood there awkwardly, unsure what to do. When he had called Riley, she had agreed to his visiting, albeit reluctantly. Had she changed her mind?
Bill glanced around as he proceeded into the dim house. He walked through the living room and saw everything was neat and in its place, which was characteristic of Riley. Yet he also noticed the blinds drawn, a film of dust on the furniture—and that wasn’t like her at all. On a bookshelf he spotted a row of shiny new paperback thrillers he’d bought for her during her leave, hoping they’d get her mind off her problems. Not a single binding looked cracked.
Bill’s sense of apprehension deepened. This was not the Riley he knew. Was Meredith right? Did she need more time on leave? Was he doing the wrong thing by reaching out to her before she was ready?
Bill braced himself and proceeded deeper into the dark house, and as he turned a corner, he found Riley, alone in the kitchen, sitting at the Formica table in her housecoat and slippers, a cup of coffee in front of her. She looked up and he saw a flash of embarrassment, as if she had forgotten he was coming. But she quickly covered it up with a weak smile, and stood.
He stepped forward and hugged her, and she hugged him, weakly, back. In her slippers, she was a little shorter than he was. She had become very thin, too thin, and his concern deepened.
He sat down across the table from her and studied her. Her hair was clean, but it wasn’t combed, either, and it looked as if she had been wearing those slippers for days. Her face looked gaunt, too pale, and much, much older since he’d last seen her five weeks ago. She looked as if she had been through hell. She had. He tried not to think about what the last killer had done to her.
She averted her gaze, and they both sat there in the thick silence. Bill had been so sure he’d know just what to say to cheer her up, to rouse her; yet as he sat there, he felt consumed by her sadness, and he lost all his words. He wanted to see her look sturdier, like her old self.
He quickly hid the envelope with the files about the new murder case on the floor beside his chair. He wasn’t sure now if he should even show her. He was beginning to feel more certain he’d made a mistake coming here. Clearly, she needed more time. In fact, seeing her here like this, he was, for the first time, unsure if his longtime partner would ever come back.
“Coffee?” she asked. He could sense her unease.
He shook his head. She was clearly fragile. When he’d visited her in the hospital and even after she’d come home, he’d been frightened for her. He had wondered if she would ever make her way back from the pain and terror she’d endured, from the depths of her longtime darkness. It was so unlike her; she’d seemed invincible with every other case. Something about this last case, this last killer, was different. Bill could understand: the man had been the most twisted psychopath he had ever encountered—and that was saying a lot.
As he studied her, something else occurred to him. She actually looked her age. She was forty years old, the same age he was, but back when she was working, animated and engaged, she’d always seemed several years younger. Gray was starting to show in her dark hair. Well, his own hair was turning too.
Riley called out to her daughter, “April!”
No reply. Riley called her name several times, louder each time, until she finally answered.
“What?” April answered from the living room, sounding thoroughly annoyed.
“What time’s your class today?”
“You know that.”
“Just tell me, okay?”
Riley frowned and looked upset herself. She looked up at Bill.
“She flunked English. Cut too many classes. I’m trying to help dig her out of it.”
Bill shook his head, understanding all too well. The agency life took too much of a toll on all of them, and their families were the biggest casualty.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“She’s fourteen. She hates me.”
“That’s not good.”
“I hated everybody when I was fourteen,” she replied. “Didn’t you?”
Bill didn’t reply. It was hard to imagine Riley ever hating everybody.
“Wait’ll your boys get that age,” Riley said. “How old are they now? I forget.”
“Eight and ten,” Bill replied, then smiled. “The way things are going with Maggie, I don’t know if I’ll even be in their lives when they get to be April’s age.”
Riley tilted her head and looked at him with concern. He’d missed that caring look.
“That bad, huh?” she said.
He looked away, not wanting to think about it.
The two of them fell silent for a moment.
“What’s that you’re hiding on the floor?” she asked.
Bill glanced down then back up and smiled; even in her state, she never missed a thing.
“I’m not hiding anything,” Bill said, picking up the envelope and setting it on the table. “Just something I’d like to talk over with you.”
Riley smiled broadly. It was obvious that she knew perfectly well what he was really here for.
“Show me,” she said, then added, glancing nervously over at April, “Come on, let’s go out back. I don’t want her to see it.”
Riley took off her slippers and walked into the backyard barefoot ahead of Bill. They sat at a weathered wooden picnic table that had been there since well before Riley moved here, and Bill gazed around the small yard with its single tree. There were woods on all sides. It made him forget he was even near a city.
Too isolated, he thought.
He’d never felt that this place was right for Riley. The little ranch-style house was fifteen miles out of town, rundown, and very ordinary. It was just off a secondary road, with nothing else but forests and pastures in sight. Not that he’d ever thought suburban life was right for her either. He had a hard time picturing her doing the cocktail party circuit. She could still, at least, drive into Fredericksburg and take the Amtrak to Quantico when she came back to work. When she still could work.
“Show me what you’ve got,” she said.
He spread the reports and photographs across the table.
“Remember the Daggett case?” he asked. “You were right. The killer wasn’t through.”
He saw her eyes widen as she pored over the pictures. A long silence fell as she studied the files intensely, and he wondered if this might be what she needed to come back—or if it would set her back.
“So what do you think?” he finally asked.
Another silence. She still did not look up from the file.
Finally, she looked up, and when she did, he was shocked to see tears well up in her eyes. He had never seen her cry before, not even on the worst cases, up close to a corpse. This was definitely not the Riley he knew. That killer had done something to her, more than he knew.
She choked back a sob.
“I’m scared, Bill,” she said. “I’m so scared. All the time. Of everything.”
Bill felt his heart drop seeing her like this. He wondered where the old Riley had gone, the one person he could always rely on to be tougher than him, the rock he could always turn to in times of trouble. He missed her more than he could say.
“He’s dead, Riley,” he said, in the most confident tone he could muster. “He can’t hurt you anymore.”
She shook her head.
“You don’t know that.”
“Sure I do,” he answered. “They found his body after the explosion.”
“They couldn’t identify it,” she said.
“You know it was him.”
Her face fell forward and she covered it with one hand as she wept. He held her other hand across the table.
“This is a new case,” he said. “It’s got nothing to do with what happened to you.”
She shook her head.
“It doesn’t matter.”
Slowly, as she wept, she reached up and handed him the file, looking away.
“I’m sorry,” she said, looking down, holding it out with a trembling hand. “I think you should go,” she added.
Bill, shocked, saddened, reached out and took the file back. Never in a million years would he have expected this outcome.
Bill sat there for a moment, struggling against his own tears. Finally, he gently patted her hand, got up from the table, and made his way back through the house. April was still sitting in the living room, her eyes closed, nodding her head to her music.
Riley sat crying alone at the picnic table after Bill left.
I thought I was okay, she thought.
She’d really wanted to be okay, for Bill. And she’d thought she could actually carry it off. Sitting in the kitchen talking about trivialities had been all right. Then they had gone outside and when she had seen the file, she’d thought she’d be okay, too. Better than okay, really. She was getting caught up in it. Her old lust for the job was rekindled, she wanted to get back in the field. She was compartmentalizing, of course, thinking of those nearly identical murders as a puzzle to solve, almost in the abstract, an intellectual game. That too was fine. Her therapist had told her she would have to do that if she ever hoped to go back to work.
But then for some reason, the intellectual puzzle became what it really and truly was—a monstrous human tragedy in which two innocent women had died in the throes of immeasurable pain and terror. And she’d suddenly wondered: Was it as bad for them as it was for me?
Her body was now flooded with panic and fear. And embarrassment, shame. Bill was her partner and her best friend. She owed him so much. He’d stood by her during the last weeks when nobody else would. She couldn’t have survived her time in the hospital without him. The last thing she wanted was for him to see her reduced to a state of helplessness.
She heard April yell from the back screen door.
“Mom, we gotta eat now or I’ll be late.”
She felt an urge to yell back, “Fix your own breakfast!”
But she didn’t. She was long since exhausted from her battles with April. She’d given up fighting.
She got up from the table and walked back to the kitchen. She pulled a paper towel off the roll and used it to wipe her tears and blow her nose, then braced herself to cook. She tried to recall her therapist’s words: Even routine tasks will take a lot of conscious effort, at least for a while. She had to settle for doing things one baby step at a time.
First came taking things out of the refrigerator—the carton of eggs, the package of bacon, the butter dish, the jar of jam, because April liked jam even if she didn’t. And so it went until she laid six strips of bacon in a pan on the stovetop, and she turned on the gas range under the pan.
She staggered backward at the sight of the yellow-blue flame. She shut her eyes, and it all came flooding back to her.
Riley lay in a tight crawlspace, under a house, in a little makeshift cage. The propane torch was the only light she ever saw. The rest of the time was spent in complete darkness. The floor of the crawlspace was dirt. The floorboards above her were so low that she could barely even crouch.
The darkness was total, even when he opened a small door and crept into the crawlspace with her. She couldn’t see him, but she could hear him breathing and grunting. He’d unlock the cage and snap it open and climb inside.
And then he’d light that torch. She could see his cruel and ugly face by its light. He’d taunt her with a plate of wretched food. If she reached for it, he’d thrust the flame at her. She couldn’t eat without getting burned …
She opened her eyes. The images were less vivid with her eyes open, but she couldn’t shake the stream of memories. She continued to make breakfast robotically, her whole body surging with adrenaline. She was just setting the table when her daughter’s voice yelled out again.
“Mom, how long’s it going to be?”
She jumped, and her plate slipped out of her hand and fell to the floor and shattered.
“What happened?” April yelled, appearing beside her.
“Nothing,” Riley said.
She cleaned up the mess, and as she and April sat eating together, the silent hostility was palpable as usual. Riley wanted to end the cycle, to break through to April, to say, April, it’s me, your mom, and I love you. But she had tried so many times, and it only made it worse. Her daughter hated her, and she couldn’t understand why—or how to end it.
“What are you going to do today?” she asked April.
“What do you think?” April snapped. “Go to class.”
“I mean after that,” Riley said, keeping her voice calm, compassionate. “I’m your mother. I want to know. It’s normal.”
“Nothing about our lives is normal.”
They ate silently for a few moments.
“You never tell me anything,” Riley said.
“Neither do you.”
That stopped any hope for conversation once and for all.
That’s fair, Riley thought bitterly. It was truer than April even knew. Riley had never told her about her job, her cases; she had never told her about her captivity, or her time in the hospital, or why she was “on vacation” now. All April knew was that she’d had to live with her father during much of that time, and she hated him even more than she hated Riley. But as much as she wanted to tell her, Riley thought it best that April have no idea what her mother had been through.
Riley got dressed and drove April to school, and they didn’t say a word to each other during the drive. When she let April out of the car, she called after her, “I’ll see you at ten.”
April gave her a careless wave as she walked away.
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