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O N C E L O S T
(A RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY—BOOK 10)
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 six books (and counting); of the AVERY BLACK mystery series, comprising five 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 aradaphotography, 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)
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)
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)
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)
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
CHAPTER THIRTY NINE
CHAPTER FORTY ONE
CHAPTER FORTY TWO
CHAPTER FORTY THREE
CHAPTER FORTY FOUR
CHAPTER FORTY FIVE
CHAPTER FORTY SIX
Katy Philbin was giggling as she stepped carefully down the stairs,
Stop it! she told herself.
What was so funny, anyway?
What was she doing, giggling like a little girl—not like the seventeen-year-old she actually was?
She wanted more than anything in the world to act like a serious adult.
After all, he was treating her like an adult. He’d been talking to her like an adult all evening long, making her feel special and respected.
He’d even been calling her Katherine instead of Katy.
She really liked it when he called her Katherine.
She also liked the adult drinks he’d been making for her all evening—“Mai Tais,” he called them, and they were so sweet that she could barely taste the alcohol.
And now she couldn’t even remember how many she’d had.
Was she drunk?
Oh, that would be awful! she thought.
What would he think of her if she couldn’t even handle a few icy, sweet-tasting drinks?
And now she was feeling extremely light-headed.
What if she fell down these stairs?
She looked down at her feet, wondering why they weren’t moving as they should be. And why was the light so dim here?
To her embarrassment, she couldn’t even remember exactly why she was here on this flight of wooden steps that seemed to get longer by the moment.
“Where’re we going?” she asked.
Her words came out all fuzzy and sloppy but at least she’d managed to stop giggling.
“I told you,” he said in reply. “I want to show you something.”
She looked around for him. He was somewhere at the bottom of the stairs, but she couldn’t see him. Just one lamp spilled a small pool of light in a corner far away.
But that light was enough to remind her where she was.
“Oh, yeah,” she murmured. “Down’n your basement.”
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” she said, trying to convince herself that it was true. “I’ll be right down.”
She forced one foot to reach for the next step.
She heard him say, “C’mon, Katy. The thing I promised to show you is over here.”
Dimly she realized …
He called me Katy.
She felt oddly disappointed, after a whole evening of being called Katherine.
“Be there in jus’ a minnit,” she said.
The slur in her words was getting worse.
And for some reason, she found that extremely funny.
She heard him chuckle.
“Are you having a good time, Katy?” he asked in a pleasant voice—a voice that she’d liked and trusted for many years.
“The besht,” she said, giggling again.
But now the world seemed to be swimming around her. Hanging onto the railing, she sat down on the stairs.
He spoke again in a less patient voice.
“Hurry up, girl. I’m not going to stand here all day.”
Katy pulled herself back to her feet, struggling to clear her head. She didn’t like the tone of his voice now. But could she blame him for getting impatient? What was the matter with her, anyway? Why couldn’t she get down these stupid stairs?
She was finding it harder and harder to focus on where she was and what she was doing.
She lost her grip on the railing and dropped down to sit on the step.
She wondered again—how many drinks had she had, anyway?
Then she remembered.
Of course, she hadn’t been drinking at all since that horrible night …
Not until now. But just two drinks.
For a moment she couldn’t breathe.
Is it happening again?
She told herself sternly that she was being silly.
She was safe and sound here with a man she’d trusted all her life.
And she was making a fool of herself, and the last thing she wanted to do was make a fool of herself, especially around him, when he’d treated her so nicely and served her all those drinks and …
And now everything was foggy, blurred, and dark.
And she felt a strange nausea churning inside her.
“I’m not feeling sho good,” she said.
He didn’t reply, and she couldn’t see him.
She couldn’t see anything.
“I think I’d besht—better go home now,” she said.
He still didn’t say anything.
She reached out blindly, groping around in the air.
“Help me—me get up—off the shtairs. Help me go up the shtairs.”
She heard his footsteps coming toward her.
He’s going to help me, she thought.
So why was that churning, sick feeling getting worse by the second?
“D-d-rive me home,” she said. “Could shyoo do that for me? Please?”
His footsteps stopped.
She could feel his presence right in front of her, even if she couldn’t see him.
But why wasn’t he saying anything?
Why wasn’t he doing anything to help her?
Then she realized what that nauseous feeling actually was.
She summoned up her last ounce of will, reached up and took hold of the railing, and pulled herself to her feet.
I have to leave, she thought. But she was unable to say the words aloud.
Then Katy felt a heavy blow to her head.
And then she didn’t feel anything at all.
Riley Paige struggled to blink back tears. She was sitting in her office at Quantico, looking at a photo of a young woman who had a cast on her ankle.
Why am I punishing myself like this? she wondered.
After all, she needed to think about other things right now—especially a BAU meeting scheduled for just a few minutes from now. Riley was dreading that meeting, which might threaten her professional future.
In spite of that, Riley couldn’t make herself look away from the picture on her cell phone.
She had snapped that picture of Lucy Vargas last fall, right here in the Behavioral Analysis Unit offices. Lucy’s ankle was in a cast, but her smile was simply radiant, a dazzling contrast to her smooth brown skin. Lucy had just been injured on the first case she had worked with Riley and her partner, Bill Jeffreys. But Lucy had done great work, and she knew it, and so did Riley and Bill. That was why Lucy was smiling.
Riley’s hand trembled a little as she held the cell phone in her hand.
Lucy was dead now—gunned down by a deranged sniper.
Lucy had died in Riley’s arms. But Riley knew that Lucy’s death hadn’t been her fault.
She wished Bill felt the same way. Her partner was currently on mandatory leave and not doing at all well.
Riley shuddered as she remembered how things had unfolded.
The situation had been chaotic, and instead of shooting the sniper, Bill had shot an innocent man who was trying to help Lucy. Fortunately, the man wasn’t badly injured, and no one blamed Bill for his actions, least of all Riley. Riley had never seen him so debilitated with guilt and trauma. Riley wondered how soon he could come back to work—or if he ever could.
Riley’s throat tightened as she remembered holding Lucy in her arms.
“You’ve got a great career ahead of you,” Riley had pleaded. “Now stay with us, Lucy. Stay with us.”
But it was hopeless. Lucy had lost too much blood. Riley had felt the life ebbing away from Lucy’s body until it was gone.
And now tears began to trickle down Riley’s cheeks.
Her recollections were interrupted by a familiar voice.
“Agent Paige …”
Riley looked up and saw Sam Flores, the lab technician with black-rimmed glasses. He was standing in her open office door.
Riley stifled a gasp. She hastily wiped away her tears and turned her cell phone face down on her desk.
But she could tell by Sam’s stricken expression that he’d glimpsed what she’d been looking at. And that was the last thing she wanted.
A romance had been budding between Sam and Lucy, and he’d taken her death very hard. He still looked brokenhearted.
Now Flores looked at Riley sadly, but to Riley’s relief he didn’t ask what he’d just interrupted.
Instead he said, “I’m on my way to the meeting. You coming?”
Riley nodded, and Sam nodded back at her.
“Well, good luck, Agent Paige,” he said, then continued on his way.
Riley muttered aloud to herself …
“Yeah, good luck.”
Sam seemed to realize she was going to need it for this meeting.
It was time to pull herself together and face whatever was coming next.
A little while later, Riley sat in the large conference room surrounded by more BAU personnel than she had expected, including technicians and investigators in a wide range of capacities. Not all of the faces were familiar, and not all of them were friendly.
I could really use an ally right now, she thought.
She certainly missed Bill’s presence. Sam Flores sat nearby, but he looked too downcast to be of any help to her right now.
The least friendly face of all was Special Agent in Charge Carl Walder, who sat directly across the table from her. The man with the babyish, freckled face glanced back and forth between Riley and a written report in front of him.
He said in a sullen voice, “Agent Paige, I’m trying to understand what’s going on here. We’ve granted a request to post agents at your house around the clock. This seems to have something to do with Shane Hatcher’s recent activities, but I’m not sure exactly how or why. Please explain.”
Riley gulped hard.
She’d known that this meeting was going to deal with her relationship with Shane Hatcher, a brilliant and dangerous escaped convict.
She also knew that a full and honest explanation would mean an end to her career.
It might even put her in prison.
She said, “Agent Walder, as you know, Shane Hatcher was last seen at a cabin that I own up in the Appalachian Mountains.”
Walder nodded and waited for Riley to say more.
Riley knew she had to choose her words very carefully. Until recently, she and Hatcher had had a secret pact. In return for helping Riley on an intensely personal case, Riley had agreed to let Hatcher hide away in the cabin she had inherited from her father.
It had been a pact with a devil, and Riley looked back on it with shame.
Riley continued, “As you also know, Hatcher escaped an FBI SWAT team that surrounded my cabin. I have reason to think he might turn up at my home.”
Walder squinted at her suspiciously.
“Why do you think that?”
“Hatcher is obsessed with me,” Riley said. “Now that he’s been spotted, I’m fairly sure he’ll try to reach out to me. If so, the agents around my house have got a good chance of capturing him.”
Riley cringed a little inside.
It was a half-truth at best.
The real reason she wanted agents around her house was to protect her and her family.
Walder sat drumming his fingers on the table for a moment.
“Agent Paige, you say that Hatcher’s obsessed with you. Are you sure that obsession isn’t mutual?”
Riley bristled a little at the insinuation.
She was relieved when her immediate superior, Brent Meredith, spoke up. Meredith cut a daunting presence as always with his black, angular features and his stern look. But Riley’s relationship with Meredith had always been respectful, even friendly. He’d often been her ally in difficult times.
She hoped that he’d be one right now.
He said, “Chief Walder, I think that Agent Paige’s request for agents at her home was well-founded. We mustn’t pass up even the faintest possibility of bringing Hatcher to justice.”
“Yes,” Walder said. “And I am not satisfied with the fact that we knew exactly where he was but he still got away.” Walder drew himself up in his chair, stared directly at Riley, and asked, “Agent Paige, did you warn Hatcher about the SWAT team that was closing in around him?”
Riley could hear a gasp in the room.
Not many people would have the nerve to ask her such a question. But Riley had to suppress a laugh. This was one question she could answer truthfully. It was why she had reason to fear Hatcher now.
“No, I did not,” Riley said firmly, meeting Walder’s gaze with a glare.
Walder dropped his eyes first. He turned to Jennifer Roston, a young African-American woman with short straight hair who sat looking at Riley with intense dark eyes.
“Do you have questions, Agent Roston?” he asked.
Roston said nothing for a moment. Riley waited somewhat anxiously for her reply. Roston had been assigned to bring Shane Hatcher to justice. Roston was new to the BAU and eager to make her mark. Riley didn’t think she could count on the new agent to be her ally.
Roston hadn’t taken her eyes off Riley during the whole meeting so far.
“Agent Paige, would you mind explaining the exact nature of your relationship with Shane Hatcher?”
Riley bristled again.
She wanted to say …
Yes, I mind. I mind very much.
Roston’s tactic was becoming clear to Riley.
Some days ago Roston had privately interrogated Riley about this very topic in this very room.
Now Roston clearly intended to ask her the same questions all over again, hoping to catch Riley in a contradiction. Roston expected Riley to crack under the pressure of a large meeting like this. And Riley knew from hard experience not to underestimate her. Roston was highly skilled with mind games.
Say as little as possible, she told herself. Be extremely careful.
After the meeting broke up, everyone left the room except Riley.
Now that it had ended, Riley felt too badly shaken to get up from her chair.
Roston had asked her familiar questions—for example, how often Riley had communicated with Hatcher, and how. She’d also asked about the death of Shirley Redding, a real estate agent who had gone to the cabin against Riley’s wishes and had died there. The police didn’t suspect foul play, but Riley was sure that Hatcher had murdered her for intruding on his territory. Riley sensed that Roston also suspected the truth.
Through all of Roston’s questions, Riley had responded with familiar lies.
She could tell that Roston was far from satisfied.
This isn’t over, she thought with a chill. How long could she hope to conceal the whole truth about her relationship with Hatcher?
But a much more terrifying worry also weighed on her.
What was Shane Hatcher going to do now?
She knew he felt bitterly betrayed that she hadn’t warned him about the approaching SWAT team. In fact, he had deliberately allowed himself to be seen at the cabin, allowed the FBI to close in, just to test her loyalty.
From Hatcher’s perspective, she had failed that test.
She remembered a text message he had sent to her afterward …
“You will live to regret it. Your family might not.”
She knew Hatcher too well not to take his threats seriously.
Riley sat at the big table clenching her hands together anxiously.
How did I let it come to this? she wondered.
Why had she allowed her relationship with Hatcher to continue even after his escape from prison?
Something Walder had just said echoed in her mind …
“You say that Hatcher’s obsessed with you. Are you sure that obsession isn’t mutual?”
Now that she was sitting here alone, she couldn’t deny the truth behind Walder’s question.
Hatcher had fascinated Riley ever since she first met him in Sing Sing, seeking out his considerable expertise as a self-taught criminologist. He still fascinated her now that he was at large—fascinated her with his brilliance, his ruthlessness, and his strange capacity for loyalty. In fact, Riley felt an uncanny bond with him—a bond that Hatcher did everything he could to strengthen and manipulate.
It was just like Hatcher had sometimes told her:
“We’re joined at the brain, Riley Paige.”
Riley shuddered at the thought.
She hoped that at long last she had broken that bond.
But had she also brought the wrath of Shane Hatcher upon the people she loved most?
Just then Riley heard a voice behind her.
“Agent Paige …”
Riley turned and saw that Jennifer Roston had just stepped back into the room.
“I think that you and I need to talk some more,” Roston said, sitting down at the table across from Riley.
Riley’s mind flooded with dread.
What trick might Roston have up her sleeve now?
Riley and Jennifer Roston sat looking at each other across the conference room table in silence for almost a full minute.
The suspense was almost more than Riley could take.
Finally Roston said, “That was quite a performance you just gave, Agent Paige.”
Riley felt stung and angry.
“I don’t need this,” she growled.
She started to get up from her chair to leave.
“No, don’t go,” Roston said. “Not without hearing what I’ve got on my mind.”
Then with an odd smile, she added, “You might be surprised.”
Riley felt as though she knew perfectly well what Roston had in mind.
She had set her mind on destroying Riley.
Nevertheless, Riley stayed seated. Whatever was going on between her and Roston, it was high time to settle it. And besides, she was curious.
Roston said, “First of all, I think we got off to a bad start. There have been some misunderstandings. I never meant for us to be enemies. Please believe me. I admire you. A lot. I came to the BAU eager to work with you.”
Riley was a little taken aback. Roston’s facial expression and tone of voice seemed perfectly sincere. The truth was, Riley had been deeply impressed by everything she’d heard about Roston. Her academy scores were said to be astonishing, and she’d already won commendations for field work in Los Angeles.
And now, sitting here looking at her, Riley was impressed anew with Roston’s demeanor. The woman was short but compact and athletic, and she radiated energy and enthusiasm.
But now seemed no time for Riley to heap praise on the new agent. There had simply been too much tension and mistrust between them.
After a pause, Roston said, “I think we’ve got a lot to offer each other. Right now. In fact, I’m pretty sure we both want exactly the same thing.”
“What’s that?” Riley asked.
Roston smiled and tilted her head a little.
“To put an end to Shane Hatcher’s criminal career.”
Riley didn’t reply. It took moment for Riley to register that Roston’s words were perfectly true. She no longer considered Shane Hatcher to be an ally. In fact, he was a dangerous enemy. And he had to be stopped before he did harm to any of Riley’s loved ones.
To do that, he would have to be caught or killed.
“Tell me more,” Riley said.
Roston tucked her chin on her hand and leaned toward Riley.
“I’m going to say a few things,” she said. “I’d like you to listen without saying anything in reply. Don’t deny or agree with what I say. Just listen.”
Riley nodded uneasily.
“Your relationship with Shane Hatcher continued even after he escaped Sing Sing. In fact, it became more intense than ever. You’ve communicated with him more than once—several times, I’m pretty sure, occasionally in person. He’s helped you on official cases, and he’s helped you in more personal ways. Your relationship with him has become—what’s the word? Symbiotic.”
It took Riley considerable self-control not to react to any of this.
All of it was, of course, absolutely true.
Roston continued, “I’m pretty sure you were aware of his presence at your cabin. In fact, you probably agreed to it. But the death of Shirley Redding was no accident. And it wasn’t part of your bargain. Hatcher has gotten out of control, and you want nothing more to do with him. But you’re scared of him. You don’t know how to break the connection.”
An unsettling silence fell between Riley and Roston. Riley wondered how she knew all this. It seemed downright uncanny. But Riley didn’t believe in mind reading.
No, she’s just one hell of a detective, Riley thought.
This new agent was extremely smart, and her instincts and intuition seemed to be as strong as Riley’s.
But what was Roston trying to do right now? Was she setting a trap, trying to get Riley to confess all that had gone on between her and Hatcher?
Somehow, Riley’s gut told her otherwise.
But did she dare trust her?
Roston was smiling enigmatically again.
“Agent Paige, do you think I don’t know how you feel? Do you think I don’t have secrets of my own? Do you think I haven’t gotten in over my head, made a pact with someone I shouldn’t have? Believe me, I know exactly what you’re dealing with. You took a chance, and rules sometimes need to be broken. So you broke them. Not many agents have your guts. I really do want to help.”
Riley studied Roston’s face without replying. She was again struck by the younger agent’s sincerity.
Riley could feel a grim smile forming at the corners of her mouth. Apparently something dark lurked inside Roston, as it did in herself.
Roston said, “Agent Paige, when I first started working on the Hatcher case, you gave me access to all the computer files you had relating to him. Except for one titled ‘THOUGHTS.’ It was listed in the summary, but I couldn’t find it. You told me you’d deleted it. You said it was just rough notes and redundant stuff.”
Roston leaned back in her chair, seeming to relax a little.
But Riley was anything but relaxed. She’d rashly deleted the file called THOUGHTS, which actually contained vital information about Hatcher’s financial connections—connections that allowed him to remain at large and wield considerable power.
Roston said, “I’m pretty sure you’ve still got that file.”
Riley suppressed a shudder of alarm. The fact was, she had kept the file on a thumb drive. She’d often thought about simply erasing it, but somehow she couldn’t bring herself to do so. Hatcher’s spell over her had been strong. And just maybe she’d thought she might need to use that information someday herself.
Instead of erasing it, she’d been carrying it around in a state of indecision.
It was in Riley’s purse right now.
“I’m pretty sure that file is important,” Roston said. “In fact, it might contain information that I need to put Hatcher away once and for all. And we both want that to happen. I’m sure of it.”
I mustn’t say anything, she thought.
But didn’t everything Roston said make perfect sense?
That thumb drive might well be the key to freeing Riley from Shane Hatcher’s clutches.
Roston’s expression softened more.
“Agent Paige, I’m going to make you a solemn promise. If you give me that information, nobody will ever know that you ever withheld it. I won’t tell a soul. Never.”
Riley felt her resistance collapse.
Her every instinct assured her of Roston’s sincerity.
She silently reached into her purse, took out the thumb drive, and handed it to the younger agent. Roston’s eyes widened slightly, but she didn’t say a word. She just nodded and put the drive in her pocket.
Riley felt a desperate need to break the silence.
“Do you wish to discuss anything else, Agent Roston?”
The younger agent chuckled a little.
“Please, call me Jenn. All my friends do.”
Riley squinted uncertainly as Roston got up from her chair.
“Mind you, I won’t presume to call you anything except Agent Paige. Not until you feel comfortable otherwise. But please. Do call me Jenn. I positively insist.”
Roston left the room, leaving Riley sitting there in astonished silence.
Riley settled down to catch up with paperwork in her office. Whenever she wasn’t working on a case, it seemed as though tons of bureaucratic tedium awaited her and didn’t let up until she went out into the field again.
It was always unpleasant. But today she had an especially hard time focusing on what she was doing. She grew more and more worried that she’d just made a terribly foolish mistake.
Why on earth had she just handed that file over to Jennifer Roston—or “Jenn,” as she now insisted Riley call her?
It was nothing less than a confession of obstruction on Riley’s part.
Why had she given it to this particular agent when she’d never shown it to anyone else? How could an ambitious young agent do anything other than report Riley’s transgression to her superiors—maybe even to Carl Walder himself?
Any minute now, Riley might find herself under arrest.
Why hadn’t she just erased the file?
Or she could have gotten rid of it, as she had done with the gold chain Hatcher had given her. The chain had been a symbol of her bond with Hatcher. It had also contained a code for contacting him.
Riley had thrown it away in a frantic effort to free herself of him.
But for some reason, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to do the same with the thumb drive.
The financial information it contained was surely enough to at least limit Hatcher’s movements and activities.
It might just be enough to stop him for good.
It was a riddle, as were so many aspects of her relationship with Hatcher.
While Riley was sorting papers on her desk, her cell phone rang. It was a text message from an unknown number. Riley’s gasped when she saw what it said.
Did you think this would stop me? Everything is already moved. You can’t say you weren’t warned.
Riley found it hard to breathe.
Shane Hatcher, she thought.
Riley stared at the text message, panic rising inside her.
It wasn’t hard to guess what had happened. Jenn Roston had opened the file as soon as she and Riley had parted. Jenn had found out what was in it and had already gotten right to work trying to shut down Hatcher’s operation.
But in his message, Hatcher himself defiantly announced that Jenn hadn’t succeeded.
Everything is already moved.
Shane Hatcher was still at large, and he was angry. With his financial resources intact he might be more dangerous than ever.
I’ve got to answer him, she thought. I’ve got to reason with him.
But how? What could she possibly say that wouldn’t infuriate him more?
Then it occurred to her that Hatcher might not fully understand what was happening.
How could he know that it was Roston sabotaging his network, not Riley? Maybe she could make him understand at least that much.
Her hands shook as she typed in a reply.
Let me explain.
But when she tried to send the text, it was marked “undeliverable.”
Riley groaned with despair.
Exactly the same thing had happened the last time she’d tried to communicate with Hatcher. He’d sent her a cryptic message, then cut her off. She used to be able to communicate with Hatcher by video chat, text, and even phone calls. But those days were over.
Right now, she had no way at all of reaching him.
But he could still reach her.
The second sentence of his new message was especially chilling.
“You can’t say you weren’t warned.”
Riley flashed back to what he had written the last time she had communicated with him.
“You will live to regret it. Your family might not.”
Riley gasped and said aloud …
She fumbled with her cell phone as she punched in her home number. She heard it ring, then keep on ringing. Then the outgoing message came on, her own voice.
It was all Riley could do to keep from screaming.
Why wasn’t anyone answering? The schools were on spring break. Her kids were supposed to be home. And where was Riley’s live-in housekeeper, Gabriela?
Just before the outgoing message ended, she heard the voice of Jilly, the thirteen-year-old that Riley was in the process of trying to adopt. Jilly sounded breathless.
“Hey, sorry, Mom. Gabriela went to the grocery store. April and Liam and I were out in the backyard kicking a soccer ball around. We’re expecting Gabriela to get back any minute.”
Riley realized she’d been holding her breath. She made a conscious effort to start breathing again.
“Is everything all right?” she asked.
“Sure,” Jilly said with a shrug in her voice. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
Riley struggled to calm herself down.
“Jilly, could you go and look out the front window for me?”
“OK,” Jilly said.
Riley heard a few footsteps.
“I’m looking,” Jilly said.
“Is the van with the FBI agents still out there?”
“Yeah. And so is the one in the alley. I just saw it when I was in the backyard. If that Shane Hatcher guy comes around, those guys are sure to catch him. Is something wrong? You’re kind of scaring me.”
Riley forced a laugh.
“No, nothing’s wrong. I’m just—being a mom, I guess.”
“OK. I’ll see you later.”
The call ended, but Riley’s worry was still surging inside her.
She went down the hall and straight to Brent Meredith’s office.
She stammered, “Sir, I—I need to take the rest of the day off.”
Meredith looked up from his work.
“May I ask why, Agent Paige?” he asked.
Riley opened her mouth, but no words came out. If she explained that she’d just gotten a threat from Shane Hatcher, wouldn’t he insist on seeing the message? How could she show it to him without admitting that she’d just given the file to Jenn Roston?
Meredith looked concerned now. He seemed aware that something was wrong that Riley couldn’t talk about.
“Go,” he said. “I hope everything is all right.”
Riley’s heart flooded with gratitude at Meredith’s understanding and discretion.
“Thank you, sir,” she said.
Then she hurried out of the building and got in her car and drove home.
As she neared her townhouse in a quiet Fredericksburg neighborhood, she was relieved to see that the FBI van was indeed still there. Riley knew there was another van stationed in the alley. Although the vehicles were unmarked, they were hardly inconspicuous. But there was nothing to be done about that.
Riley parked her car in her driveway, walked over to the van, and looked inside the open passenger window.
Two young agents were sitting in the front seats—Craig Huang and Bud Wigton. Riley’s spirits lifted a little. She thought highly of both agents, and she’d worked with Huang several times recently. Huang had been a little too gung-ho for Riley’s liking when he first came to the BAU, but he was rapidly maturing into an excellent agent. She didn’t know Wigton as well, but he had an excellent reputation.
“Anything going on?” Riley asked them through the window.
“Not a thing,” Huang said.
Huang sounded bored, but Riley felt relieved. No news was definitely good news as far as she was concerned. But was it too good to last?
“Mind if I have a look inside?” Riley asked.
“Be our guest,” Huang said.
The side door to the windowless van slid open, and Riley stepped inside to find another agent, Grace Lochner, stationed inside. Riley knew that Grace also had a sterling reputation at the BAU.
Lochner was seated in front of a battery of video screens. She turned toward Riley with a smile.
“What have you got going here?” Riley asked.
Seeming eager to show off the technology at her disposal, Lochner pointed to a couple of screens that showed overhead views of the neighborhood.
She said, “Here we’ve got real-time satellite images showing all the comings and goings within a half mile of here. Nobody can get near here without us noticing.”
Laughing a little, Lochner added, “I’m glad you live in a quiet neighborhood. It gives us less traffic to keep track of.”
She pointed out several more screens showing street-level activity.
She said, “We’ve hidden cameras around the neighborhood to see what’s going on closer up. We can check license plates of any vehicle that comes near here.”
A voice crackled over an intercom.
“Have you guys got a visitor?”
Lochner answered, “Agent Paige just stopped by to say hello.”
The voice said, “Hello, Agent Paige. This is Agent Cole, in the vehicle around back of your house. I’ve got Agents Cypher and Hahn with me too.”
Riley smiled. Those were all familiar names of well-respected agents.
Riley said, “I’m glad to have you on the job.”
“Our pleasure,” Agent Cole said.
Riley was impressed by the communication between the two vans. She could see the van behind her house in a couple of Lochner’s screens. Obviously, nothing could happen to either team without the other team knowing about it immediately.
Riley was also pleased by the display of weaponry stocked inside the van. The team had enough firepower to fight off a small army if necessary.
But she couldn’t help but wonder—was it enough to fight off Shane Hatcher? She left the van and walked on toward her house, telling herself not to worry. She couldn’t imagine even Shane Hatcher thwarting all this security.
Still, she couldn’t help remembering the text message she had just received.
You can’t say you weren’t warned.
When Riley stepped inside her house, the place seemed eerily empty.
“I’m home,” she called out.
But nobody replied.
Where is everybody? Her alarm started to turn into panic.
Was it possible that Shane Hatcher had slipped through all that security after all?
Riley struggled not to imagine what might have happened if he had. Her pulse and breathing quickened as she hurried to the family room.
All three kids—April, Liam, and Jilly—were there. April and Liam were playing chess and Jilly was playing a video game.
“Didn’t you hear me?” she asked.
All three looked up at her with blank expressions. They had obviously all been concentrating on what they were doing.
She was about to ask the kids where Gabriela was when she heard her housekeeper’s voice behind her.
“Are you home, Señora Riley? I was downstairs and I thought I heard you come in.”
Riley smiled at the stout Guatemalan woman.
“Yes, I just got in,” she said, breathing easier now.
With a welcoming nod and a smile, Gabriela turned and headed toward the kitchen.
April looked up from the game she was playing with Liam.
“Is everything OK, Mom? You look kind of agitated.”
“I’m fine,” Riley said.
April turned her attention back to the game.
Riley took a moment to marvel how mature her fifteen-year-old daughter looked. April was slender, tall, and dark-haired, with Riley’s hazel eyes. April had been through more than her share of life-threatening danger during the last few months. But she seemed to be doing very well these days.
Riley looked over at Jilly, a smaller girl with olive skin and big dark eyes. Riley was in the process of adopting her. At the moment, Jilly was sitting in front of a large screen blasting bad guys away.
Riley frowned a little. She didn’t like violent video games. As far as she was concerned, they made violence—especially gun violence—seem both too attractive and too sanitized. She believed they had an especially bad influence on boys.
Still, Riley considered, maybe these games were harmless compared to Jilly’s own experience. After all, the thirteen-year-old had survived real-life horrors. When Riley had found Jilly, she had been trying to sell her body out of sheer desperation. Thanks to Riley, Jilly had a chance at a better life.
Liam looked up from the chessboard.
“Hey, Riley. I was wondering …”
He hesitated before asking his question.
Liam was the newcomer to the household. Riley had no plans to adopt the tall, gangly kid with red hair and blue eyes. But she had rescued him from a drunken father who had beaten him up. He needed a place to live right now.
“What is it, Liam?” Riley asked.
“Is it OK if I go to a chess competition tomorrow?”
“Could I go too?” April asked.
Riley smiled again. Liam and April had been dating when Liam had come to live down here in the family room, but they had promised to keep that relationship on hold for the time being. They had to be hermanos solamente, as Gabriela had put it—brother and sister only.
Riley liked Liam, all the more so because of the positive influence the bright boy had on April. He’d gotten April interested in chess and foreign languages and schoolwork in general.
“Of course you can go, both of you,” she said.
But then she felt a renewed burst of worry. She got out her cell phone and found some photos of Shane Hatcher and showed them to all three kids.
“But you’ve got to watch out for Shane Hatcher,” she said. “You’ve got these pictures on your own phones. Always remember exactly what he looks like. Contact me right away if you see anyone who looks anything like him.”
Liam and April looked at Riley with surprise.
“You’ve told us all this before,” Jilly said. “And we’ve looked at those pictures a thousand times. Has something changed?”
Riley wavered for a moment. She didn’t want to scare the kids. But she felt that they needed to be warned.
“I got a message from Hatcher a little while ago,” she said. “It was …”
She hesitated again.
“It was a threat. That’s why I want you all to be especially on your guard.”
To Riley’s surprise, Jilly grinned at her.
“Does this mean we get to stay home from school when spring break is over?” she asked.
Riley was startled by Jilly’s nonchalance. She also briefly wondered—maybe Jilly had the right idea. Should she keep the kids out of school? And should Liam and April not go to that chess competition tomorrow?
Before she could think things through, April said, “Don’t be silly, Jilly. Of course we’re going to keep right on going to school. It’s not like we can put our lives on hold.”
Then turning to Riley, April added, “It’s not a real threat. Even I know that. Remember what happened in January?”
Riley remembered all too well. Hatcher had saved April and Riley’s ex-husband, Ryan, from a killer bent on revenge against Riley. She also remembered how Shane Hatcher had delivered the killer bound and gagged for Riley to deal with at her own discretion.
April went on, “Hatcher wouldn’t hurt us. He went to a lot of trouble to save me.”
Maybe April’s got a point, Riley thought. At least where she and the other kids are concerned. But she was still glad that the agents were stationed outside.
April shrugged a little and added, “Life goes on. We’ve all got to keep doing what we do.”
Jilly said, “And that goes for you too, Mom. It’s a good thing you got home early. You’ve got plenty of time to get ready for tonight.”
For a second, Riley couldn’t remember what Jilly meant.
Then it came back to her—she had a date tonight with her handsome former neighbor, Blaine Hildreth. Blaine was the owner of one of the nicest casual restaurants here in Fredericksburg. He was planning to come by and pick Riley up and treat her to a wonderful dinner.
April hopped to her feet.
“Hey, that’s right!” she said. “Come on, Mom. Let’s go upstairs and I’ll help you choose something to wear.”
Later that evening, Riley was sitting on the candlelit patio at Blaine’s Grill, enjoying wonderful weather, excellent food, and charming company. Across the table from her, Blaine cut a handsome figure as always. He was just a little younger than Riley, lean and fit, with a slightly receding hairline that he wasn’t the least bit vain about.
Riley also found him to be a pleasant conversationalist. As they ate a delicious dinner of rosemary chicken pasta, they chatted about current events, memories of long-ago times and travels, and goings-on in Fredericksburg.
Riley was delighted that their talk never once turned to her work at the BAU. She was in no mood to even think about that. Blaine seemed to sense that and steer clear of the subject. One thing Riley really liked about Blaine was his sensitivity to her moods.
In fact, there was very little about Blaine that Riley didn’t like. True, they’d had a bit of a spat not long ago. Blaine had tried to make Riley jealous over a woman friend, and he had succeeded all too well. Now they were both able to laugh about how childish they’d both been.
Maybe it was partly the wine, but Riley felt warm and relaxed inside. Blaine was comfortable company—fairly recently divorced like Riley, and anxious to get on with life without quite knowing how.
Dessert finally arrived—Riley’s favorite, raspberry cheesecake. She smiled a little as she remembered how April had secretly called Blaine before an earlier date to alert him to some of Riley’s favorite things, including raspberry cheesecake and her favorite song—“One More Night” by Phil Collins.
As she enjoyed her cheesecake, Riley talked about her kids, especially how Liam was settling in.
“I was a little worried at first,” she admitted. “But he’s an awfully good kid, and we all love having him around the house.”
Riley paused for a moment. It felt positively luxurious to have someone to talk to about her domestic doubts and worries.
“Blaine, I don’t know what I’m going to do with Liam in the long run. I just can’t send him back to that drunken brute of a father, and God only knows what’s become of his mother. But I don’t see how I can legally adopt him. Taking in Jilly has been really complicated and it’s not settled yet. I don’t know if I can do it again.”
Blaine smiled at her sympathetically.
“You’ll just take things one day at a time, I guess,” he said. “And whatever you do, it will be the best thing for him.”
Riley shook her head a bit sadly.
“I wish I knew that for sure,” she said.
Blaine reached across the table and took hold of her hand.
“Well, take my word for it,” he said. “What you’ve already done for Liam and Jilly is wonderful and generous. I admire you so much for it.”
Riley felt a lump form in her throat. How often did anyone ever say anything like that to her? She was often praised for her work in the BAU, and had even received a Medal of Perseverance recently. But she was not accustomed to being praised for simple human things. She hardly knew how to take it.
Then Blaine said, “You’re a good woman, Riley Paige.”
Riley felt tears well up in her eyes. She laughed nervously as she wiped them away.
“Oh, look what you’ve done,” she said. “You’ve made me cry.”
Blaine shrugged, and his smile grew even warmer.
“Sorry. Just trying to be brutally honest. The truth sometimes hurts, I guess.”
They laughed together for a few moments.
Finally Riley said, “But I haven’t asked about your daughter. How’s Crystal doing?”
Blaine looked away with a bittersweet smile.
“Crystal’s doing just great—good grades, happy and cheerful. She’s away right now for spring break, at the beach with her cousins and my sister.”
Blaine sighed a little. “It’s only been a couple of days, but it’s amazing how fast I start missing her.”
It was all Riley could do not to start crying all over again. She’d known all along that Blaine was a wonderful father. What might it be like to be in a more permanent relationship with him?
Careful, she told herself. Let’s not rush things.
Meanwhile, she had almost finished her raspberry cheesecake.
“Thank you, Blaine,” she said. “It’s been such a lovely evening.”
Gazing into his eyes, she added, “I hate to see it end.”
Gazing back at her, Blaine squeezed her hand.
“Who says it has to end?” he asked.
Riley smiled. She knew her smile was enough to answer his question.
After all, why should their evening end? The FBI was guarding her family and no new killer was demanding her attention.
Maybe it was time to enjoy herself.