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Authors: Blake Pierce

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BOOK: Once Taken
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Riley and April got out of the car and walked together to the house. She didn’t know whether to hope Ryan would be at home or not. She didn’t want to get into an argument with him, and she’d already decided not to tell him about the marijuana incident. She knew she ought to, but there simply wasn’t time to deal with his reactions. Still, she really did have to explain to him that she was going to be gone for a few days.

Gabriela, the stout, middle-aged Guatemalan woman who had worked as the family’s housekeeper for years, greeted Riley and April at the door. Gabriela’s eyes were wide with worry.


Hija
, where have you been?” she asked in her heavy accent.

“I’m sorry, Gabriela,” April said meekly.

Gabriela looked closely at April’s face. Riley saw by her expression that she detected that April had been smoking pot.


Tonta!
” Gabriela said sharply.


Lo siento mucho,
” April said, sounding genuinely repentant.


Vente conmigo,
” Gabriela said. As she led April away, she turned and gave Riley a look of bitter disapproval.

Riley withered under that look. Gabriela was one of the few people in the world who truly daunted her. The woman also had a wonderful way with April, and at the moment, she seemed to be doing a better job of parenting than Riley was.

Riley called after Gabriela, “Is Ryan here?”

As she walked away, Gabriela replied, “
Sí.
” Then she called into the house, “Señor Paige, your daughter is back.”

Ryan appeared in the hallway, dressed and coiffed to leave. He looked surprised to see Riley.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. “Where was April?”

“She was at my house.”

“What? After everything that happened last night, you took her home?” 

Riley’s jaw clenched with exasperation.

“I didn’t take her anywhere,” she said. “Ask her, if you want to know how she got there. I can’t help it if she doesn’t want to live with you. You’re the only one who can fix that.”

“This is all your fault, Riley. You’ve let her get completely out of control.”

For a split second, Riley was furious. But her fury gave way to a sinking feeling that he might be right. It wasn’t fair, but he really did know how to push her buttons that way.

Riley took a long, deep breath and said, “Look, I’m leaving town for a few days. I’ve got a case in Upstate New York. April has got to stay here, and she’s got to stay put. Please explain the situation to Gabriela.”

“You
explain the situation to Gabriela,” Ryan snapped. “I’ve got a client to meet. Right now.”

“And I’ve got a plane to catch. Right now.”

They stood staring at each other for a moment. Their argument had reached a stalemate. As she looked into his eyes, Riley reminded herself that she’d once loved him. And he’d seemed to love her just as much. That had been back when both of them were young and poor, before he had become a successful lawyer and she had become an FBI agent.

She couldn’t help noting that he was still a very good-looking man. He went to a lot of trouble to look that way and spent many hours at the gym. Riley also knew perfectly well that he had lots of women in his life. That was part of the problem—he was enjoying his freedom as a bachelor too much to worry about parenting.

Not that I’m doing all that much better,
she thought.

Then Ryan said, “It’s always about your job.”

Riley choked back her anger. They’d gone around and around about this. Her job was somehow both too dangerous and too trivial. His job was all that mattered, because he was making a lot more money, and because he claimed to be making a real difference in the world. As if handling lawsuits for wealthy clients amounted to more than Riley’s never-ending war against evil.

But she couldn’t let herself get dragged into this tired old argument right now. Neither of them ever won it anyway.

“We’ll talk when I get back,” she said.

She turned and walked out of the house. She heard Ryan shut the door behind her.

Riley got into her car and drove. She had less than an hour to get back to Quantico. Her head was reeling. So much was happening so fast. Just a little while ago she had decided to take a new case. Now she wondered if it was the right thing to do. Not only was April having trouble coping, but she was sure that Peterson was back in her life.

But in a way, it made good sense. As long as April stayed with her father, she’d be safe from Peterson’s clutches. And Peterson wasn’t going to take any other victims during Riley’s absence. As puzzled as she was by him, Riley knew one thing for certain. She alone was his target for revenge. She, and no one else, was his intended next victim. And it would feel good to be far away from him for a while.

She also reminded herself of a hard lesson she had learned during her last case—not to take on all the evil in the world, all at the same time. It boiled down to a simple motto:
One monster at a time.

And right now, she was going after an especially vicious brute. A man she just knew would strike again soon.

 

Chapter 7

The man began to spread lengths of chains out on the long worktable in his basement. It was dark outside, but all those links of stainless steel were bright and shiny under the glare of a bare light bulb.

He pulled one of the chains out to its full length. The rattling sound stirred terrible memories of being shackled, caged, and tormented with chains like these.  But it was like he kept telling himself:
I’ve got to face my fears.

And to do that he had to prove his mastery over the chains themselves. Too often in the past, chains had held mastery over him.

It was a shame that anyone had to suffer on account of this. For five years, he’d thought he’d put the whole matter behind him. It had helped so much when the church hired him to be a night watchman. He’d liked that job, proud of the authority that came with it. He’d liked feeling strong and useful.

But last month, they’d taken that job away from him. They needed someone with security skills, they’d said, and better credentials—someone bigger and stronger. They promised to keep him working in the garden. He’d still be making enough money to pay the rent on this tiny little house.

Even so, the loss of that job, the loss of the authority it gave him, had shaken him, made him feel helpless. That urge broke loose again—that desperation not to be helpless, that frantic need to assert mastery over the chains so they couldn’t take him again. He’d tried before to outrun the urge, as if he could leave his inner darkness right here in his basement. This last time, he’d driven all the way down to Reedsport, hoping to escape it. But he couldn’t.

He didn’t know why he couldn’t. He was a good man, with a good heart, and he liked to do favors. But sooner or later, his kindness always turned against him. When he’d helped that woman, that nurse, carry groceries to her car in Reedsport, she’d smiled and said, “What a good boy!”

He winced at the memory of the smile and those words.

“What a good boy!”

His mother had smiled and said such things, even while she kept the chain on his leg too short for him to reach any food or even see outside. And the nuns, too, had smiled and said things like that when they peered at him through the little square opening in the door to his small prison.

“What a good boy!”

Not everyone was cruel, he knew that. Most people really meant well toward him, especially in this little town where he’d long since settled. They even liked him. But why did everyone seem to think of him as a child—and a handicapped child at that? He was twenty-seven years old, and he knew that he was exceptionally bright. His mind was full of brilliant thoughts, and he scarcely ever encountered a problem he couldn’t solve.

But of course he knew why people saw him the way they did. It was because he could barely speak at all. He’d stammered hopelessly all his life, and he hardly ever tried to talk, although he understood everything that other people said.

And he was small, and weak, and his features were stubby and childish, like those of someone who had been born with some congenital defect. Caged in that slightly misshapen skull was a remarkable mind, thwarted in its desire to do brilliant things in the world. But nobody knew that. Nobody at all. Not even the doctors at the psychiatric hospital had known it.

It was
ironic.

People didn’t think he knew words like
ironic.
But he did.

Now he found himself nervously fingering a button in his hand. He’d plucked it off the nurse’s blouse when he hung her up. Reminded of her, he looked around at the cot where he’d kept her chained up for more than a week. He’d wished he could talk to her, explain that he didn’t mean to be cruel, and it was just that she was so much like his mother and the nuns, especially in that nurse’s uniform of hers.

The sight of her in that uniform had confused him. It was the same with the woman five years ago, the prison guard. Somehow both women had merged in his mind with his mother and the nuns and the hospital workers. He’d fought a losing battle simply to tell them apart.

It was a relief to be through with her. It was a terrible responsibility, keeping her bound like that, giving her water, listening to her moaning through the chain he’d used to gag her. He only undid the gag to put a straw in her mouth for water now and again. Then she’d try to scream.

If only he could have explained to her that she
mustn’t
scream, that there were neighbors across the street who mustn’t hear. If he could only have told her, maybe she’d have understood. But he couldn’t explain, not with his hopeless stammer. Instead, he’d mutely threatened her with a straight-edged razor. In the long run, even the threat hadn’t worked. That was when he’d had to slit her throat.

Then he’d taken her back to Reedsport and hung her up like that, for everyone to see. He wasn’t sure just why. Perhaps it was a warning. If only people could understand. If they did, he wouldn’t have to be so cruel.

Perhaps it was also his way of telling the world how sorry he was.

Because he
was
sorry. He’d go to the florist tomorrow and buy flowers—a cheap little bouquet—for the family. He couldn’t talk to the florist, but he could write out simple instructions. The gift would be anonymous. And if he could find a good place to hide, he’d stand near the grave when they buried her, bowing his head like any other mourner.

He pulled another chain taut on his workbench, clenching its ends as tightly as he could, applying all his strength to it, silencing its rattle. But deep down, he knew that this wasn’t enough to make him master of the chains. For that, he’d have to put the chains to use again. And he’d use one of the straitjackets still in his possession. Someone must be bound, as he’d been bound.

Someone else would have to suffer and die.

 

Chapter 8

As soon as Riley and Lucy stepped off the FBI plane, a young uniformed cop came dashing toward them across the tarmac.

“Boy, am I glad to see you guys,” he said. “Chief Alford’s fit to be tied. If somebody doesn’t take Rosemary’s body down directly, he’s liable to have a stroke. Reporters are already all over this. I’m Tim Boyden.”

Riley’s heart sank as she and Lucy introduced themselves. Media on the scene so quickly was a sure sign of trouble. The case was off to a rocky start.

“Can I help you carry anything?” Officer Boyden asked.

“We’re good,” Riley said. She and Lucy had only a couple of small bags.

Officer Boyden pointed across the tarmac.

“The car’s right over there,” he said.

The three of them walked briskly to the car. Riley got in on the front passenger side, while Lucy took the back seat.

“We’re just a couple of minutes from town,” Boyden said as he started to drive. “Man, I can’t believe this is happening. Poor Rosemary. Everybody liked her so much. She was always helping people. When she disappeared a couple of weeks ago, we were all scared for the worst. But we couldn’t have imagined …”

His voice trailed off and he shook his head in horrified disbelief.

Lucy leaned forward from the back seat.

“I understand that you had a murder like this before,” she said.

“Yeah, back when I was still in high school,” Boyden said. “Not right here in Reedsport, though. It was near Eubanks, farther south along the river. A body in chains, just like Rosemary. Wearing a straitjacket too. Is the chief right? Do we have a serial on our hands?”

“We’re not ready to say,” Riley said.

The truth was, she thought that the chief must be right. But the young officer seemed upset enough already. There seemed no point in alarming him further.

“I can’t believe it,” Boyden said, shaking his head again. “A nice little town like ours. A nice lady like Rosemary. I can’t believe it.”

As they drove into town, Riley saw a couple of vans with TV news crews on its little main street. A helicopter with a TV station logo was circling above the town.

Boyden drove to a barricade where a small cluster of reporters had gathered. An officer waved the car on through. Just a few seconds later, Boyden pulled the car alongside a stretch of railroad track. There was the body, hanging from a power pole. Several uniformed policemen were standing a few yards away from it.

As Riley stepped out of the car, she recognized Chief Raymond Alford as he trotted toward her. He looked none too happy.

“I sure as hell hope you had a good reason for us keeping the body hanging here like this,” he said. “We’ve had a nightmare on our hands. The mayor’s threatening to take my badge.”

Riley and Lucy followed him toward the body. In the late afternoon sunlight, it looked even weirder than it had in the photos Riley had viewed on her computer. The stainless steel chains sparkled in the light.

“I take it you’ve cordoned off the scene,” Riley said to Alford.

“We’ve done it as best we could,” Alford said. “We’ve got the area barricaded far enough away that nobody can see the body except from the river. We’ve rerouted the trains to go around the town. It’s slowing them down and playing havoc with their schedule. That must be how the Albany news channels found out that something was going on. They sure didn’t hear about it from my people.”

BOOK: Once Taken
6.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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