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O N C E L U R E D
(A RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY—BOOK 4)
B L A K E P I E R C E
Blake Pierce is author of the bestselling RILEY PAGE mystery series, which include the mystery suspense thrillers ONCE GONE (book #1), ONCE TAKEN (book #2), ONCE CRAVED (#3) and ONCE LURED (#4). Blake Pierce is also the author of the MACKENZIE WHITE mystery series and AVERY BLACK mystery series.
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 © 2016 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 GongTo, 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)
MACKENZIE WHITE MYSTERY SERIES
BEFORE HE KILLS (Book #1)
AVERY BLACK MYSTERY SERIES
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
CHAPTER FORTY SEVEN
The man worried as he sat in his car. He knew he had to hurry. Tonight, it was important to keep everything on track. But would the woman come along this road at her usual hour?
It was eleven o’clock at night, and he was cutting it close.
He remembered the voice he had heard, reverberating in his head, before he’d come here. Grandpa’s voice.
“You’d better be right about her schedule, Scratch.”
Scratch. The man in the car didn’t like that name. It wasn’t his real name. It was a folktale name for the Devil. As far as Grandpa was concerned, he was a “bad seed.”
Grandpa had called him Scratch for longer than he could remember. Although everybody else called him by his real name, Scratch had stuck in his own mind. He hated his grandpa. But he couldn’t pull him out of his head.
Scratch reached up and slapped his own skull several times, trying to get the voice out.
It hurt, and for a moment he had a sense of calm.
But then came Grandpa’s dull laughter, echoing somewhere in there. It was a little fainter now, at least.
He looked anxiously at his watch. A few minutes past eleven. Would she be late tonight? Would she go somewhere else? No, that wasn’t her style. He’d scouted her movements for days. She was always punctual, always stuck to the same routine.
If only she understood how much was at stake. Grandpa would punish him if he botched this. But there was much more to it than that. The world itself was running out of time. He had a huge responsibility, and it weighed on him heavily.
Car lights appeared, far back along the road, and he sighed with relief. That must be her.
This country road only led to a few houses. It was usually deserted at this hour except for the woman who always drove from her job straight to the house where she rented a room.
Scratch had turned his car around to face hers and stopped it right in the middle of this little gravel road. He stood outside, hands trembling, using a flashlight to peer under his hood, hoping it would work.
His heart slammed as the other vehicle drove by.
Stop! he pleaded silently. Please stop!
Soon, the other vehicle pulled to a stop a short distance from him.
He bit back a smile.
Scratch turned and looked toward the lights. Yes, it was her shabby little car, just as he had hoped.
Now, he just had to lure her to him.
She lowered her window, and he looked over at her and smiled his most pleasant smile.
“I guess I’m stranded,” he called out.
He turned the flashlight briefly on the driver’s face. Yes, it was definitely her.
Scratch noticed that she had a charming, open face. More importantly, she was very thin, which suited his purposes.
It seemed a shame, what he was going to have to do to her. But it was like Grandpa always said: “It’s for the greater good.”
It was true, and Scratch knew it. If the woman could only understand, perhaps she’d even be willing to sacrifice herself. After all, sacrifice was one of the finest features of human nature. She ought to be glad to be of service.
But he knew that was too much to expect. Things would get violent and messy, just like they always did.
“What’s the problem?” the woman called.
He noticed something appealing in how she spoke. He didn’t yet know what it was.
“I don’t know,” he said. “She just died on me.”
The woman craned her head out of the window. He looked straight at her. Her freckled face framed by bright red curly hair was open and smiling. She didn’t seem to be the least bit dismayed by the inconvenience he’d caused her.
But would she be trusting enough to get out of the car? Probably, if the other women had been any indication.
Grandpa was always telling him how horribly ugly he was, and he couldn’t help thinking of himself that way. But he knew that other people—women especially—found him rather pleasant to look at.
He gestured toward the open hood. “I don’t know anything about cars,” he yelled back to her.
“I don’t either,” the woman called back.
“Well, maybe the two of us together can figure out what’s wrong,” he said. “Do you mind giving it a try?”
“Not at all. Just don’t expect me to be much help.”
She opened her door, got out, and walked toward him. Yes, everything was going perfectly. He had lured her out of her car. But time was still of the essence.
“Let’s take a peek,” she said, stepping beside him and looking at the engine.
Now he realized what he liked about her voice.
“You’ve got an interesting accent,” he said. “Are you Scottish?”
“Irish,” she said pleasantly. “I’ve only been here two months, got a green card especially so I could work with a family here.”
He smiled. “Welcome to America,” he said.
“Thanks. I love it so far.”
He pointed toward the engine.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “What do you think that is?”
The woman bent over for a closer look. He tripped the release and slammed the hood on her head with a thunk.
He opened the hood, hoping not to have to hit her again. Luckily, she was out cold, her face and torso stretched limp across the engine.
He looked all around. Nobody was in sight. Nobody had seen what had happened.
He shook with delight.
He gathered her up in his arms, noticing that her face and the front of her dress were now smeared with grease. She was as light as a feather. He carried her around to the side of his car and stretched her out on the back seat.
He felt certain that this one would serve his needs well.
Just as Meara began to regain consciousness, she was jolted by a deafening barrage of noise. It seemed like every kind of sound she could imagine. There were gongs, bells, chimes, birdcalls, and sundry melodies as if from a dozen music boxes. They all seemed deliberately hostile.
She opened her eyes, but nothing came into focus. Her head was splitting with pain.
Where am I? she wondered.
Was it somewhere in Dublin? No, she was able to put together just a bit of chronology. She’d flown here two months ago, started working as soon as she got settled. She was definitely in Delaware. With an effort, she remembered stopping to help a man with his car. Then something had happened. Something bad.
But what was this place, with all its horrible noise?
She became aware that she was being carried like a child. She heard the voice of the man who was carrying her, speaking above the racket.
“Don’t worry, we got here on time.”
Her eyes began to focus. Her vision was filled by a staggering number of clocks of every conceivable size, shape, and style. She saw massive grandfather clocks flanked by smaller clocks, some of them cuckoo clocks, others with little parades of mechanical people. Still smaller clocks were ranged across shelves.
They’re all sounding the hour, she thought.
But in all the noise, she couldn’t begin to pick out the number of gongs or bells.
She turned her head to see who was carrying her. He looked down at her. Yes, it was him—the man who had asked for her help. She’d been a fool to stop for him. She’d fallen into his trap. But what was he going to do to her?
As the noise from the clocks died away, her eyes went out of focus again. She couldn’t keep them open. She felt her consciousness fading.
Got to stay awake, she thought.
She heard a metallic rattling, then felt herself lowered gently to a cold, hard surface. There was another rattling, followed by footsteps, and finally by a door opening and closing. The multitude of clocks kept ticking.
Then she heard a pair of female voices.
“Too bad for her.”
The voices were hushed and hoarse. Meara managed to open her eyes again. She saw that the floor was gray concrete. She turned painfully and saw three human forms seated on the floor near her. Or at least she thought they were human. They seemed to be young girls, teenagers, but they were gaunt, little more than skeletons, their bones showing clearly beneath their skin. One seemed barely conscious, her head hanging forward and eyes staring at the gray floor. They reminded her of photos she’d seen of prisoners in concentration camps.
Were they even alive? Yes, they must be alive. She’d just heard them both speak.
“Where are we?” Meara asked.
She barely heard the hissed response.
“Welcome,” one of them said, “to hell.”
Riley Paige didn’t see the first punch coming. Still, her reflexes responded well. She felt time slow down as the first jab flashed toward her stomach. She backed away from it perfectly. Then a broad left hook came toward her head. She jumped to the side and dodged it. When he closed in with a final jab to her face, her guard went up and she took the punch to her gloves.
Then time resumed its normal pace. She knew the combination of blows had come in less than two seconds.
“Good,” Rudy said.
Riley smiled. Rudy was dodging and weaving now, more than ready for her attack. Riley did the same, bobbing, faking, trying to keep him guessing.
“No need to hurry,” Rudy said. “Think it through. Think of it like a game of chess.”
She felt a twinge of annoyance as she kept her lateral motion going. He was going easy on her. Why did he have to go easy on her?
But she knew that it was just as well. This was her first time in the sparring ring with an actual opponent. Until now, she’d been testing her combinations on a heavy bag. She had to remember that she was just a beginner at this form of fighting. It really was best not to hurry.
It had been Mike Nevins’s idea for her to take up sparring. The forensic psychiatrist who consulted with the FBI was also Riley’s good friend. He had gotten her through a lot of personal crises.
She’d recently complained to Mike that she was having trouble controlling her aggressive impulses. She was losing her temper frequently. She felt on edge.
“Try sparring,” Mike had said. “It’s a great way to let off steam.”
Right now she felt pretty sure that Mike was right. It felt good to be thinking on her feet, dealing with real threats instead of imagined ones, and it was relaxing to be dealing with threats that weren’t actually deadly.
It was also good that she’d joined a gym that got her away from Quantico headquarters. She spent too much time there. This was a welcome change.
But she had dawdled too long. And she could see in Rudy’s eyes that he was preparing for another attack.
She mentally chose her next combination. She popped abruptly toward him for her attack. Her first punch was a left jab, which he dodged and countered with a right cross that grazed her sparring helmet. She followed in less than a second with a right jab, which he took to his glove. In a flash she launched a left hook, which he dodged by lurching to the side.
“Good,” Rudy said again.
It didn’t feel good to Riley. She hadn’t landed a single punch, while he had clipped her a little even while defending himself, and she was starting to feel irritation building up. But she reminded herself of what Rudy had told her at the very start …
“Don’t expect to land a lot of punches. Nobody really does. Not with sparring, anyway.”
She was watching his gloves now, sensing that he was about to launch another attack. But just then, a strange transformation took place in her imagination.
The gloves turned into a single flame—the white hissing flame of a propane torch. She was caged in darkness again, the prisoner of a sadistic killer named Peterson. He was toying with her, making her dodge the flame to escape its searing heat.
But she was tired of being humiliated. This time she was determined to strike back. When the flame leaped toward her face, she simultaneously ducked and launched a fierce jab that didn’t connect. The flame hooked around to her, and she countered with a cross that also didn’t connect. But before Peterson could make another move, she threw an uppercut, and she felt it smash into his chin …
“Hey!” Rudy shouted.
His voice brought Riley back to her present reality. Rudy was stretched out on his back on the mat.
How did he get down there? Riley wondered.
Then she realized that she’d hit him—and hit him hard.
“Oh my God!” she shouted. “Rudy, I’m sorry!”
Rudy was grinning and getting back on his feet.
“Don’t be,” he said. “That was good.”
They resumed sparring. The rest of the session was uneventful, and neither of them landed any punches. But now the whole thing felt good to Riley. Mike Nevins was right. This was just the therapy she needed.
All the same, she kept wondering when she’d ever be able to shake off those memories.
Maybe never, she thought.
Riley cut enthusiastically into her steak. The chef at Blaine’s Grill did a great job with several less conventional dishes, but today’s workout at the gym had left her hungry for a good steak and a salad. Her daughter, April, and her friend Crystal had ordered burgers. Blaine Hildreth, Crystal’s father, was in the kitchen, but he would be back any moment now to finish up his mahi-mahi.
Riley gazed around the comfortable dining room with a deep feeling of satisfaction. She realized that her life didn’t include enough warm evenings like this with friends, family, and a nice meal. The scenes her job presented were more often ugly and unsettling.
In a few days she would testify at a parole hearing for a child-killer who hoped to get out of jail early. And she needed to make sure that he didn’t get away with that.
Several weeks ago she’d closed a disturbing case in Phoenix. She and her partner, Bill Jeffreys, had caught a killer who murdered prostitutes. Riley was still having trouble feeling that she’d done much good in solving that case. Now she knew too much for her own comfort about a whole world of exploited women and girls.
But she was determined to keep such thoughts out of her mind right now. She felt herself relaxing little by little. Eating out at a restaurant with a friend and both of their kids reminded her what it could be like to live a normal life. She was living in a nice home and growing closer to a nice neighbor.
Blaine returned and sat down. Riley couldn’t help observing yet again that he was attractive. His receding hairline gave him a pleasantly mature look, and he was lean and fit.
“Sorry,” Blaine said. “This place runs fine without me when I’m not here, but if I’m in view everybody decides they need my help.”
“I know what that’s like,” Riley said. “I’m hoping that if I keep out of sight, BAU will forget me for a while.”
April said, “No chance of that. They’ll call soon. You’ll be headed off to some other part of the country.”
Riley sighed. “I could get used to not being on constant call.”
Blaine finished a bite of his mahi-mahi.
“Have you thought about changing careers?” he asked.
Riley shrugged. “What else would I do? I’ve been an agent most of my adult life.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are lots of things a woman of your talents could do,” Blaine said. “Most of them safer than being an FBI agent.”
He thought for a moment. “I could picture you being a teacher,” he added.
Riley chuckled. “Do you think that’s safer?” she asked.
“Depends on where you do it,” Blaine said. “What about college?”
“Hey, that’s an idea, Mom,” April said. “You wouldn’t have to travel all the time. And you’d still get to help people.”
Riley said nothing as she mulled it over. Teaching at a college would surely be something like the teaching she’d done at the academy in Quantico. She’d enjoyed doing that. It always gave her a chance to recharge. But would she want to be a full-time teacher? Could she really spend all her days inside a building with no real activity?
She poked at a mushroom with her fork.
I might turn into one of these, she thought.
“What about becoming a private investigator?” Blaine asked.
“I don’t think so,” Riley said. “Digging up dirty secrets about divorcing couples doesn’t appeal to me.”
“That’s not all that PIs do,” Blaine said. “What about investigating insurance fraud? Hey, I’ve got this cook who’s collecting disability, says he’s got a bad back. I’m sure he’s faking it, but I can’t prove it. You could start with him.”
Riley laughed. Blaine was joking, of course.
“Or you could look for missing people,” Crystal said. “Or missing pets.”
Riley laughed again. “Now that would make me feel like I was doing some real good in the world!”
April had dropped out of the conversation. Riley saw that she was texting and giggling. Crystal leaned across the table toward Riley.
“April’s got a new boyfriend,” Crystal said. Then she silently mouthed, “I don’t like him.”
Riley was annoyed that her daughter was ignoring everybody else at the table.
“Stop doing that,” she told April. “It’s rude.”
“What’s rude about it?” April said.
“We’ve talked about this,” Riley said.
April ignored her and typed a message.
“Put that away,” Riley said.
“In a minute, Mom.”
Riley stifled a groan. She’d long since learned that “in a minute” was teen talk for “never.”
Just then her own phone buzzed. She felt angry with herself for not turning it off before leaving the house. She looked at the phone and saw that it was a message from her FBI partner, Bill. She thought about leaving it unread, but she couldn’t make herself do that.
As she brought up the message, she glanced up and saw April grinning at her. Her daughter was enjoying the irony. Silently seething, Riley read Bill’s text message.
Meredith has a new case. He wants to discuss it with us ASAP.
Special Agent in Charge Brent Meredith was Riley’s boss, and Bill’s too. She felt tremendous loyalty to him. Not only was he a good and fair boss, he’d gone to bat for Riley many times when she was in trouble with the bureau. Even so, Riley was determined not to let herself get drawn in, at least for the time being.
I can’t go traveling right now, she texted back.
Bill replied, It’s right here in the area.
Riley shook her head with discouragement. Standing her ground wasn’t going to be easy.
She texted back to him, I’ll get back to you.
No reply came, and Riley put the phone back in her bag.
“I thought you said that was rude, Mom,” April said in a quiet, sullen voice.
April was still texting.
“I’m through with mine,” she said, trying not to sound as annoyed as she felt.
April ignored her. Riley’s own phone buzzed again. She cursed silently. She saw that the text was from Meredith himself.
Be at BAU meeting tomorrow 9 AM.
Riley was trying to think of a way to excuse herself when another text followed.
That’s an order.
Riley’s spirits sank as she looked at the two images looming on screens above the BAU conference room table. One was a photo of a carefree girl with bright eyes and a winning smile. The other was her corpse, horribly emaciated and lying with her arms pointed in odd directions. Since she had been ordered to attend this meeting, Riley knew there must be other victims like this one.
Sam Flores, a savvy lab technician with black-rimmed glasses, was running the multimedia display for the four other agents seated around the table.
“These pictures are of Metta Lunoe, seventeen years old,” Flores said. “Her family lives in Collierville, New Jersey. Her parents reported her missing in March—a runaway.”
He added a huge map of Delaware to the display, indicating a location with a pointer.
He said, “Her body turned up in a field outside of Mowbray, Delaware, on May sixteenth. Her neck had been broken.”
Flores brought up another pair of images—one showing another vibrant young girl, the other showing her almost unrecognizably withered, her arms stretched out in a similar way.
“These pictures are of Valerie Bruner, also seventeen, a reported runaway from Norbury, Virginia. She disappeared in April.”
Flores pointed to another location on the map.
“Her body was found stretched out in a dirt road near Redditch, Delaware, on June twelfth. Obviously the same MO as the earlier killing. Agent Jeffreys was brought in to investigate.”
Riley was startled. How could Bill have worked on a case that hadn’t involved her? Then she remembered. In June, she had been hospitalized, recovering from her horrible ordeal in Peterson’s cage. Even so, Bill had visited her frequently in the hospital. He’d never mentioned that he was also working this case.
She turned toward Bill.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this?” she asked.
Bill’s face looked grim.
“It wasn’t a good time,” he said. “You had troubles of your own.”
“Who was your partner?” Riley asked.
Riley recognized the name. Bruce Remsen had transferred out of Quantico before she had come back to work.
Then after a pause, Bill added, “I couldn’t crack the case.”
Now Riley could read his expression and tone of voice. After years of friendship and partnership, she understood Bill as well as anybody did. And she knew that he was deeply disappointed with himself.
Flores brought up the medical examiner’s photos of the girls’ naked backs. The bodies were so wasted away that they barely seemed real. Both backs bore old scars and fresh welts.
Riley felt a gnawing discomfort all over now. She was taken aback by the feeling. Since when had she gotten queasy about photos of corpses?
Flores said, “They were both starved almost to death before their necks were broken. They were also severely beaten, probably over a long period of time. Their bodies were moved to where they were found postmortem. We have no idea where they were actually killed.”
Trying not to let her rising unease get the best of her, Riley mulled over similarities with cases she and Bill had solved during the last few months. The so-called “dolly killer” had left his victims’ bodies where they could be easily found, posed naked in grotesque doll-like positions. The “chain killer” hung the bodies of his victims up off the ground, wildly decked in heavy chains.
Now Flores brought up the image of another young woman—a cheerful-looking redhead. Alongside the photo was one of a beat-up, empty Toyota.
“This car belonged to a twenty-four-year-old Irish immigrant named Meara Keagan,” Flores said. “She was reported missing yesterday morning. Her car was found abandoned just outside an apartment building in Westree, Delaware. She worked there for a family as maid and nanny.”
Now Special Agent Brent Meredith spoke. He was a daunting, big-boned African-American with angular features and a no-nonsense demeanor.
“She got off her shift at eleven o’clock the night before last,” Meredith said. “The car was found early the next morning.”
Special Agent in Charge Carl Walder leaned forward in his chair. He was Brent Meredith’s boss—a babyish, freckle-faced man with curly, copper-colored hair. Riley didn’t like him. She didn’t think he was especially competent. It didn’t help that he’d once fired her.
“Why do we think this disappearance is linked with the earlier murders?” Walder asked. “Meara Keagan is older than the other victims.”
Now Lucy Vargas chimed in. She was a bright young rookie with dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark complexion.
“You can see by the map. Keagan disappeared in the same general area where the two bodies were found. It might be coincidence, but it seems unlikely. Not over a period of five months, all so close together.”
Despite her increasing discomfort, Riley was pleased at the sight of Walder wincing a little. Without meaning to, Lucy had put him in his place. Riley hoped he wouldn’t find some way to get back at Lucy later on. Walder could be petty that way.
“That’s correct, Agent Vargas,” Meredith said. “Our guess is that the younger girls were abducted while hitchhiking. Very likely along this highway that runs through the area.” He pointed out a specific line on the map.
Lucy asked, “Isn’t hitchhiking banned in Delaware?” She added, “Of course, that can be hard to enforce.”
“You’re right about that,” Meredith said. “And this isn’t an interstate or even the main state highway, so hitchhikers probably do use it. Apparently the killer does too. One body was found alongside this road and the other two are less than ten miles from it. Keagan was taken about sixty miles north along that same route. With her he used a different ruse. If he follows his usual pattern, he’ll keep her until she’s almost starved to death. Then he’ll break her neck and leave her body the same way as before.”
“We’re not going to let that happen,” Bill said in a tight voice.
Meredith said, “Agents Paige and Jeffreys, I want to you to get right to work on this.” He pushed a manila folder stuffed with photos and reports across the table toward Riley. “Agent Paige, here’s all the info you need to bring you up to speed.”
Riley reached toward the folder. But her hand jerked back with a spasm of horrible anxiety.
What’s the matter with me?
Her head was spinning, and out-of-focus images started to take shape in her brain. Was this PTSD from the Peterson case? No, it was different. It was something else entirely.
Riley got up from her chair and fled the conference room. As she hurried down the hallway toward her office, the images in her head came into sharper focus.
They were faces—faces of women and girls.
She saw Mitzi, Koreen, and Tantra—young call girls whose respectable attire masked their degradation even from themselves.
She saw Justine, an aging whore hunched over a drink at a bar, tired and bitter and fully prepared to die an ugly death.
She saw Chrissy, virtually imprisoned in a brothel by her abusive pimp husband.
And worst of all, she saw Trinda, a fifteen-year-old girl who had already lived a nightmare of sexual exploitation, and who could imagine no other life.
Riley arrived in her office and collapsed into her chair. Now she understood her onslaught of revulsion. The images she’d seen just now had been a trigger. They’d brought to the surface her darkest misgivings about the Phoenix case. She’d stopped a brutal murderer, but she hadn’t brought justice to the women and girls she’d met. A whole world of exploitation remained. She hadn’t even scratched the surface of the wrongs they endured.
And now she was haunted and troubled in a way she’d never known before. This seemed worse than PTSD to her. After all, she could give vent to her private rage and horror in a sparring gym. She had no way to get rid of these new feelings.
And could she bring herself to work another case like Phoenix?
She heard Bill’s voice at the door.
She looked up and saw her partner looking at her with a sad expression. He was holding the folder Meredith had tried to give her.
“I need you on this case,” Bill said. “It’s personal for me. It makes me crazy that I couldn’t crack it. And can’t help wondering if I was off my game because my marriage was falling apart. I got to know Valerie Bruner’s family. They’re good people. But I haven’t stayed in touch with them because … well, I let them down. I’ve got to make things right with them.”
He put the folder on Riley’s desk.
“Just look at this. Please.”
He left Riley’s office. She sat staring at the folder in a state of indecision.
This wasn’t like her. She knew she had to snap out of it.
As she mulled things over, she remembered something from her time in Phoenix. She had been able to save one girl named Jilly. Or at least she had tried.
She took out her phone and dialed the number for a shelter for teenagers in Phoenix, Arizona. A familiar voice came on the line.
“This is Brenda Fitch.”
Riley was glad that Brenda took the call. She’d gotten to know the social worker during her previous case.
“Hi, Brenda,” she said. “This is Riley. I just thought I’d check in on Jilly.”
Jilly was a girl that Riley had rescued from sex trafficking—a skinny, dark-haired thirteen-year-old. Jilly had no family except for an abusive father. Riley called every so often to find out how Jilly was doing.
Riley heard a sigh from Brenda.
“It’s good of you to call,” Brenda said. “I wish more people showed some concern. Jilly’s still with us.”
Riley’s heart sank. She hoped that someday she’d call and be told that Jilly had been taken in by a kindly foster family. This wasn’t going to be that day. Now Riley was worried.
She said, “The last time we talked, you were afraid you’d have to send her back to her father.”
“Oh, no, we’ve got that legally sorted out. We’ve even got a restraining order to keep him away from her.
Riley breathed a sigh of relief.
“Jilly asks about you all the time,” Brenda said. “Would you like to talk to her?”
Brenda put Riley on hold. Riley suddenly wondered whether this was such a good idea. Whenever she talked to Jilly, she wound up feeling guilty. She couldn’t understand why she felt that way. After all, she had saved Jilly from a life of exploitation and abuse.
But saved her for what? she wondered. What kind of life did Jilly have to look forward to?
She heard Jilly’s voice.
“Hey, Agent Paige.”
“How many times do I have to tell you not to call me that?”
“Sorry. Hey, Riley.”
Riley chuckled a little.
“Hey, yourself. How are you doing?”
“Okay, I guess.”
A silence fell.
A typical teenager, Riley thought. It was always hard to get Jilly talking.
“So what are you up to?” Riley asked.
“Just waking up,” Jilly said, sounding a bit groggy. “Going to eat breakfast.”
Riley then realized that it was three hours earlier in Phoenix.
“I’m sorry to call so early,” Riley said. “I keep forgetting about the time difference.”
“It’s okay. It’s nice of you to call.”
Riley heard a yawn.
“So are you going to school today?” Riley asked.
“Yeah. They let us out of the joint every day to do that.”
It was Jilly’s little running joke, calling the shelter the “joint” as if it were a prison. Riley didn’t find it very funny.
Riley said, “Well, I’ll let you go have breakfast and get ready.”
“Hey, wait a minute,” Jilly said.
Another silence fell. Riley thought she heard Jilly choke back a sob.
“Nobody wants me, Riley,” Jilly said. She was crying now. “Foster families keep passing me over. They don’t like my past.”
Riley was staggered.
Her “past”? she thought. Jesus, how can a thirteen-year-old have a “past”? What’s the matter with people?
“I’m sorry,” Riley said.
Jilly spoke haltingly through her tears.
“It’s like … well, you know, it’s … I mean, Riley, it seems like you’re the only one who cares.”
Riley’s throat ached and her eyes stung. She couldn’t reply.
Jilly said, “Couldn’t I come to live with you? I won’t be much trouble. You’ve got a daughter, right? She could be like my sister. We could look after each other. I miss you.”
Riley struggled to speak.
“I … I don’t think that’s possible, Jilly.”
Riley felt devastated. The question struck her like a bullet.
“It’s just … not possible,” Riley said.
She could still hear Jilly crying.
“Okay,” Jilly said. “I’ve got to head over to breakfast. Bye.”
“Bye,” Riley said. “I’ll call again soon.”
She heard a click as Jilly ended the call. Riley bent over her desk, tears running down her own face. Jilly’s question kept echoing through her head …
There were a thousand reasons. She had her hands full with April as it was. Her job was too consuming, both of her time and energy. And was she in any way qualified or prepared to deal with Jilly’s psychological scarring? Of course she wasn’t.
Riley wiped her eyes and sat upright. Indulging in self-pity wasn’t going to help anybody. It was time to get back to work. Girls were dying out there, and they needed her.
She picked up the folder and opened it. Was it time, she wondered, to get back in the arena?
Scratch sat on his front porch swing watching the kids come and go in their Halloween costumes. He usually enjoyed having trick-or-treaters come around. But it seemed a bittersweet occasion this year.
How many of these kids will be alive in just a few weeks? he wondered.
He sighed. Probably none of them. The deadline was near and no one was paying attention to his messages.
The porch swing chains were creaking. There was a light, warm rain falling, and Scratch hoped that the kids wouldn’t catch cold. He had a basket of candy on his lap, and he was being pretty generous. It was getting late, and soon there would be no more kids.
In Scratch’s mind Grandpa was still complaining, even though the cranky old man had died years ago. And it didn’t matter that Scratch was grown now, he was never free from the old man’s advice.
“Look at that one in the cloak and the black plastic mask,” Grandpa said. “Call that a costume?”
Scratch hoped that he and Grandpa weren’t about to have another argument.
“He’s dressed up as Darth Vader, Grandpa,” he said.
“I don’t care who the hell he’s supposed to be. It’s a cheap, store-bought outfit. When I took you trick-or-treating, we always made your costumes for you.”
Scratch remembered those costumes. To turn him into a mummy, Grandpa had wrapped him up in torn-up bed sheets. To make him into a knight in shining armor, Grandpa had decked him out in cumbersome poster board covered with aluminum foil, and he’d carried a lance made out of a broomstick. Grandpa’s costumes were always creative.
Still, Scratch didn’t remember those Halloweens fondly. Grandpa would always curse and complain while getting him into those outfits. And when Scratch got home from trick-or-treating … for a moment, Scratch felt like a little boy again. He knew that Grandpa was always right. Scratch didn’t always understand why, but that didn’t matter. Grandpa was right, and he was wrong. That was just the way things were. It was the way things had always been.
Scratch had been relieved when he got too old for trick-or-treating. Ever since then, he’d been free to sit on the porch dispensing candy to kids. He was happy for them. He was glad that they were enjoying childhood, even if he hadn’t.
Three kids clambered up onto the porch. A boy was dressed as Spiderman, a girl as Catwoman. They looked about nine years old. The third kid’s costume made Scratch smile. A little girl, about seven years old, was wearing a bumblebee outfit.
“Trick-or-treat!” they all shouted as they gathered in front of Scratch.
Scratch chuckled and rummaged around in the basket for candy. He gave some to the kids, who thanked him and went away.
“Stop giving them candy!” Grandpa growled. “When are you going to stop encouraging the little bastards?”
Scratch had been quietly defying Grandpa for a couple of hours now. He’d have to pay for it later.
Meanwhile, Grandpa was still grumbling. “Don’t forget, we’ve got work to do tomorrow night.”
Scratch didn’t reply, just listened to the creaking porch swing. No, he wouldn’t forget what had to be done tomorrow night. It was a dirty job, but it had to be done.
Libby Clark followed her big brother and her cousin into the dark woods that lay behind all the neighborhood backyards. She didn’t want to be here. She wanted to be home snugly in bed.
Her brother, Gary, was leading the way, carrying a flashlight. He looked all weird in his Spiderman costume. Her cousin Denise was following Gary in her Catwoman outfit. Libby was trotting along behind both of them.
“Come on, you two,” Gary said, pushing ahead.
He slid between two bushes just fine, and so did Denise, but Libby’s costume was all puffy and got caught on some branches. Now she had something new to be scared about. If the bumblebee costume got ruined, Mommy would have a fit. Libby managed to get untangled and scurried to catch up.
“I want to go home,” Libby said.
“Go right ahead,” Gary said, moving right along.
But of course Libby was too scared to go back. They had come way too far already. She didn’t dare go back alone.
“Maybe we all should go back,” Denise said. “Libby’s scared.”
Gary stopped and turned around. Libby wished she could see his face behind that mask.
“What’s the matter, Denise?” he said. “Are you scared too?”
Denise laughed nervously.
“No,” she said. Libby could tell she was lying.
“Then come on, both of you,” Gary said.
The little group kept on moving. The ground was soggy and slimy, and Libby was up to her knees in wet weeds. At least it had stopped raining. The moon was starting to show through the clouds. But it was also getting colder, and Libby was damp all over, and she was shivering, and she was really, really scared.
Finally the trees and bushes opened onto a large clearing. Steam was rising up from the wet ground. Gary stopped right up to the edge of the space, and so did Denise and Libby.
“Here it is,” Gary whispered, pointing. “Lookit—it’s square, just like there was supposed to be a house or something here. But there’s not a house. There’s nothing. Trees and bushes can’t even grow here. Just weeds is all. That’s because it’s cursed ground. Ghosts live here.”
Libby reminded herself of what Daddy said.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
Even so, her knees were shaking. She was afraid she was going to pee herself. Mommy sure wouldn’t like that.
“What are those?” Denise asked.
She pointed to two shapes rising up out of the ground. To Libby they looked like big pipes that were bent over at the top, and they were almost completely covered with ivy.
“I don’t know,” Gary said. “They remind me of submarine periscopes. Maybe the ghosts are watching us. Go take a look, Denise.”
Denise let out a scared-sounding laugh.