Authors: Blake Pierce
Without saying a word, the man unlocked the doors. April signaled for Brian to get in the back seat, so he opened the door and jumped in. He shut the door just as the light changed and the line of cars started to move again.
“Thanks for the ride, mister,” Brian said brightly.
The man didn’t say anything at all. He kept on scowling.
“He’s taking us to my house, Brian,” April said.
“Awesome,” Brian replied.
April felt safe now. If the man really had bad intentions, he surely wasn’t going to snatch both her and Brian. He’d surely drive them straight to Mom’s house.
Thinking ahead, April wondered whether she should tell her mother about the man and her suspicions about him. But no, that would mean admitting to skipping her class and hitchhiking. Mom would ground her for good.
Besides, she thought, the driver couldn’t be Peterson.
Peterson was a psychotic killer, not a regular man driving a car.
And Peterson, after all, was dead.
Brent Meredith’s tight, grim expression told Riley that he didn’t like her request at all.
“It’s an obvious case for me to take,” she said. “I have more experience than anybody else with this kind of kinky serial killer.”
She had just described the call from Reedsport, Meredith’s jaw set the entire time.
After a long silence, Meredith finally sighed.
“I’ll allow it,” he said reluctantly.
Riley breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank you, sir,” she said.
“Don’t thank me,” he growled. “I’m doing this against my better judgment. I’m only going along with it because you’ve got the special skills to deal with this case. Your experience with this kind of killer is unique. I’ll assign you a partner.”
Riley felt a jolt of discouragement. She knew that working with Bill wasn’t an option right now, but she wondered if Meredith knew why there was tension between the long-time partners. She thought it more likely that Bill had simply told Meredith that he wanted to stay close to home for now.
“But sir—” she began.
“No buts,” Meredith said. “And no more of your lone wolf shenanigans. It’s not smart, and it’s against policy. You’ve nearly gotten yourself killed more than once. Rules are rules. And I’m breaking enough of them right now as it is, not putting you on leave after your recent incidents.”
“Yes, sir,” Riley said quietly.
Meredith rubbed his chin, obviously considering all the options. He said, “Agent Vargas will go with you.”
“Lucy Vargas?” Riley asked.
Meredith just nodded. Riley didn’t much like the idea.
“She was on the team that showed up at my house last night,” Riley said. “She seems very impressive, and I liked her—but she’s a rookie. I’m used to working with someone more experienced.”
Meredith smiled broadly. “Her marks at the academy were off the charts. And she’s young, all right. It’s rare that students right out of the academy get accepted to BAU. But she really is that good. She’s ready for experience in the field.”
Riley knew she had no choice.
Meredith continued, “How soon can you be ready to go?”
Riley ran the necessary preparations through her mind. Talking to her daughter was at the top of her list. And what else? Her travel kit wasn’t here in her office. She’d have to drive to Fredericksburg, stop at home, then make sure that April would stay at her father’s and drive back to Quantico.
“Give me three hours,” she said.
“I’ll call for a plane,” Meredith said. “I’ll notify the police chief in Reedsport that we have a team on the way. Be at the airstrip in exactly three hours. If you’re late, there’ll be hell to pay.”
Riley rose nervously from her chair.
“I understand, sir,” she said. She almost thanked him again, but hastily remembered his command not to. She left his office without another word.
Riley made it to her house in half an hour, parked outside, and made a beeline for the front door. She had to grab her travel kit, a small suitcase she always kept packed with toiletries, a robe, and a change of clothes. She had to get them super fast and then go into town, where she’d explain things to April and Ryan. She wasn’t looking forward to that part at all, but she needed to be sure that April was safe.
When she turned the key in the front door, she found that it was already unlocked. She knew she had locked it when she left. She always did, without fail. All of Riley’s senses snapped into alertness. She pulled out her gun and stepped inside.
As she moved stealthily into the house, peering around at every nook and corner, she became aware of a long, continuous noise. It seemed to be coming from outside the house, in back. It was music—very loud music.
What the hell?
Still on the lookout for any intruder, she went through the kitchen. The back door was partly open and a pop song was blaring outside. She smelled a familiar aroma.
“Oh, Jesus, not this again,” she said to herself.
She put her gun back into its holster and walked outside. Sure enough, there was April, sitting at the picnic table with a skinny boy about her age. The music was coming from a pair of little speakers sitting on the picnic table.
Upon seeing her mother, April’s eyes lit up with panic. She reached under the picnic table to extinguish the joint in her hand, obviously hoping to make it disappear.
“Don’t bother to hide it,” Riley said, striding toward the table. “I know what you’re doing.”
She could barely make herself heard over the music. She reached over to the player and turned it off.
“This isn’t what it looks like, Mom,” April said.
what it looks like,” Riley said. “Give me the rest of it.”
Rolling her eyes, April handed over a plastic bag with a small amount of pot in it.
“I thought you were working,” April said, as if that explained everything.
Riley didn’t know whether to feel more angry or disappointed. She’d caught April smoking pot just once before. But things had gotten better between them, and she’d thought those days were behind them.
Riley stared at the boy.
“Mom, this is Brian,” April said. “He’s a friend from school.”
With a vacant grin and glassy eyes, the boy reached out to shake hands with Riley.
“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Paige,” he said.
Riley kept her own hands at her sides.
“What are you even doing here?” Riley asked April.
“This is where I live,” April said with a shrug.
“You know what I mean. You’re supposed to be at your dad’s house.”
April didn’t reply. Riley looked at her watch. Time was running short. She had to resolve this situation quickly.
“Tell me what happened,” Riley said.
April was starting to look somewhat embarrassed. She really wasn’t prepared for this situation.
“I walked to school from Dad’s house this morning,” she said. “I ran into Brian in front of the school. We decided to skip today. It’s okay if I miss it once in a while. I’m acing it already. The final exam isn’t till Friday.”
Brian let out a nervous, inane laugh.
“Yeah, April really is doing great in that class, Ms. Paige,” he said. “She’s awesome.”
“How did you get here?” Riley asked.
April looked away. Riley easily guessed why she was reluctant to tell her the truth.
“Oh, God, you kids hitchhiked here, didn’t you?” Riley said.
“The driver was a really nice guy, very quiet,” April said. “Brian was with me the whole time. We were safe.”
Riley struggled to keep her nerves and her voice steady.
“How do you
you were safe? April, you’re
supposed to accept rides from strangers. And why would you come here after the scare we got last night? That was incredibly foolish. Suppose Peterson was still around?”
April smiled as if she knew better.
“C’mon, Mom. You worry too much. The other agents say so. I heard two of them talking about it—the guys who drove me to Dad’s house last night. They said Peterson was definitely dead, and you just couldn’t accept it. They said whoever left those stones probably did it as a prank.”
Riley was steaming. She wished she could get her hands on those agents. They had a lot of nerve, contradicting Riley within earshot of her daughter. She thought about asking April for their names, but she decided to let that go.
“Listen to me, April,” Riley said. “I’ve got to go out of town on a job for a few days. I have to leave right now. I’m taking you to your Dad’s house. I need for you to stay there.”
“Why can’t I go with you?” April asked.
Riley wondered how on earth teenage kids could be so stupid about some things.
“Because you’ve got to finish this class,” she said. “You’ve got to pass it or you’ll be behind in school. English is a requirement, and you blew it for no good reason. And besides, I’m working. Being around while I’m on the job isn’t always safe. You ought to know that by now.”
April said nothing.
“Come on inside,” Riley said. “We’ve only got a few minutes. I’ve got to get some things together, and so do you. Then I’m taking you to your father’s house.”
Turning to Brian, Riley added, “And I’m driving you home.”
“I can hitch,” Brian said.
Riley simply glared at him.
“Okay,” Brian said, looking rather cowed. He and April got up from the table and followed Riley into the house.
“Go on and get in the car, both of you,” she said. The kids obediently left the house.
She latched the new slide bolt that she’d added to the back door and went from room to room making sure that all the windows were fastened.
In her own bedroom, she picked up her travel bag and made sure that everything she needed was still inside. As she left, she glanced nervously at her bed as though the pebbles might have returned. For a moment, she wondered why she was headed off to another state instead of staying here and trying to track the killer who had put them there to taunt her.
Besides, this stunt of April’s had her scared. Could she trust her daughter to stay safe in Fredericksburg? She’d thought so before, but now she had her doubts.
Still, there wasn’t anything she could do to change things. She was committed to the new case and had to leave. As she walked outside to the car, she glanced into the thick, dark woods, scanning them for any sign of Peterson.
But there was none.
Riley glanced at her car clock as she drove the kids into an upscale part of Fredericksburg and shuddered to see how little time she had left. Meredith’s words came rushing back.
If you’re late, there’ll be hell to pay.
Maybe—just maybe—she’d get to the airstrip on time. She had planned to just stop at home and grab a bag, and now things were getting a lot more complicated. She wondered if she should she call Meredith and warn him that family problems might hold her up. No, she decided; her boss had been reluctant enough as it was. She couldn’t expect him to cut her any slack.
Luckily, Brian’s address was on the route to Ryan’s house. When Riley pulled up to a big front yard and stopped the car, she said, “I ought to come in and tell your parents what happened.”
“They’re not at home,” Brian said with a shrug. “Dad’s gone for good, and Mom isn’t there much.”
He got out of the car, then turned and said, “Thanks for the ride.” As he walked toward his house Riley wondered what kind of parents would leave a kid like that on his own. Didn’t they know what kind of trouble a teenager could get into?
But maybe his mother doesn’t have much choice in that matter,
Riley thought miserably.
Who am I to judge?
As soon as Brian went inside his house, Riley drove away. April had said nothing during the whole drive so far, and she didn’t seem to be in any mood to talk now. Riley couldn’t tell whether that silence was due to sullenness or shame. She realized that there seemed to be a lot she didn’t know about her own daughter.
Riley was upset with both herself and April. Just yesterday they’d seemed to be getting along better. She’d thought that April was beginning to understand the pressures on an FBI agent. But then Riley had insisted that April go to her father’s house last night, and today April was rebelling against being forced to do that.
Riley reminded herself that she ought to be a whole lot more sympathetic. She’d always been something of a rebel herself. And Riley knew what it was like to lose a mother and to have a distant father. April was bound to be afraid that the same thing would happen to her.
She’s terrified for my safety,
Riley realized. During recent months, April had seen her mother endure both physical and emotional injuries. After last night’s intruder scare, April was surely worried sick. Riley reminded herself that she needed to pay closer attention to how her daughter might be feeling. Anyone of any age might have a hard time coping with the complications of Riley’s life.
Riley pulled in front of the house she had once shared with Ryan. It was a large, handsome house with a portico at the side door, or
as Ryan called it. These days, Riley chose to park on the street instead of pulling into the driveway and under the shelter.
She had never felt at home here. Somehow, living in a respectable suburban neighborhood had never suited her. Her marriage, the house, the neighborhood, all had represented so many expectations that she’d never felt able to fulfill.
Over the years Riley had realized that she was better at her job than she would ever be at living a normal life. Finally she had left the marriage, house, and neighborhood, and that made her all the more determined to live up to the expectations of being a mother to a teenage daughter.
As April started to open the car door, Riley said, “Wait.”
April turned and looked at her expectantly.
Without so much as stopping to think, Riley said, “I get it. I understand.”
April stared at her with a stunned expression. For a moment, she seemed on the verge of tears. Riley felt almost as surprised as her daughter. She didn’t know quite what had come over her. She only knew that now was no time for parental lectures, even if she had time to deliver one, which she didn’t. She also felt in her gut that she’d said exactly the right thing.