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ONCE TAKEN is book #2 in the bestselling Riley Paige mystery series, which begins with ONCE GONE (Book #1)--a free download with over 100 five star reviews! Women are being murdered in upstate New York, their bodies found mysteriously hanging in chains. With the FBI called in, given the bizarre nature of the murders—and the lack of any clues—there is only one agent they can turn to: Special Agent Riley Paige.Riley, reeling from her last case, is reluctant to take on a new one, since she is still convinced a former serial killer is out there, stalking her. She knows, though, that her ability to enter a serial killer’s mind and her obsessive nature is what will be needed to crack this case, and she just can’t refuse—even if it will push her over the edge.Riley’s search takes her deep into a killer’s deluded mind as it leads her to orphanages, mental hospitals, prisons, all in an effort to understand the depth of his psychosis. Realizing she is up against a true psychopath, she knows time is short before he strikes again. But with her own job on the line and her own family a target, and with her fragile psyche collapsing, it may all be too much for her—and too late.A dark psychological thriller with heart-pounding suspense, ONCE TAKEN is book #2 in a riveting new series—with a beloved new character—that will leave you turning pages late into the night.Book #3 in the Riley Paige series will be available soon.
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O N C E T A K E N
(A RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY—BOOK 2)
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) and ONCE CRAVED (#3).
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)
Captain Jimmy Cole had just finished telling his passengers an old Hudson River ghost story. It was a good one, about an ax murderer in a long, dark coat, perfect for a foggy night like this. He sat back in his chair and rested his knees for a moment, too creaky from too many surgeries, and pondered, for the millionth time, his retirement. He’d seen nearly every hamlet the Hudson had to offer, and one of these days, even a small fishing boat like his, the Suzy, would get the best of him.
Done for the night, he steered his ship for shore, and as it chugged steadily for the dock at Reedsport, one of his passengers called out, jarring him from his reverie.
“Hey, Cap’n—isn’t that your ghost right over there?”
Jimmy didn’t bother to look. All four of his passengers—two young vacationing couples—were pretty drunk. Doubtless one of the guys was just trying to scare the girls.
But then one of the women added: “I see it too. Isn’t it weird?”
Jimmy turned toward his passengers. Goddamn drunks. Last time he’d charter his boat this late at night.
The second man pointed.
“It’s over there,” he said.
His wife covered her eyes.
“Oh, I can’t look!” she said with a nervous and embarrassed laugh.
Jimmy, exasperated, realizing he wasn’t going to get any rest, finally turned and looked where the man was pointing.
In a gap between the shoreline trees, something did catch his eye. It glistened, he thought, and it had a vaguely human shape. Whatever it was, it seemed to float above the ground. But it was too far away to see clearly.
Before Jimmy could reach for his binoculars, the object disappeared behind the trees along the bank.
The truth was, Jimmy had had a few beers himself. That wasn’t a problem as far as he was concerned. He knew this river well. And he liked his job. He especially enjoyed being out on the Hudson at this time of night, when the water was so still and peaceful. Few things out here could shatter his sense of calm.
He slowed and steered the Suzy carefully against the bumpers as he hit the dock. Proud of himself for a gentle landing, he stopped the engine and lashed the boat to the cleats.
The passengers tumbled off the boat giggling and laughing. They staggered down the dock to shore and headed toward their B&B. Jimmy was glad they’d paid in advance.
But he couldn’t stop thinking about that strange object he’d spotted. It was far back down the shoreline and impossible to see from here. Who or what might it be?
Annoyed by it, he knew he wouldn’t get any rest until he figured it out. That was just the way he was.
Jimmy sighed loudly, twice as annoyed, and set off on foot, trudging back along the riverbank, following the train tracks that bordered the water. Those tracks had been in use a hundred years ago when Reedsport was mostly bordellos and gambling houses. Now, they were just another relic to a bygone time.
Jimmy finally rounded a curve and approached an old warehouse near the tracks. A few security lamps on the building cast a dim light, and he saw it: a glistening human shape that seemed to be floating in mid-air. The shape was suspended from one of the crossbeams of a power pole.
As he neared and got a good look, a chill ran up his spine. The shape was truly human—yet it didn’t show any signs of life. The body faced away from him, bound in some kind of fabric and wrapped around and around with heavy chains that crisscrossed and connected far beyond any need to hold a prisoner. The chains glittered in the light.
Oh, God, not again.
Jimmy could not help but remember a gruesome murder that had rocked the whole area several years ago.
His knees weakening, Jimmy walked around to the other side of the body. He stepped close enough to see its face—and he almost fell to the tracks in shock. He recognized her. It was a local woman, a nurse, and a friend of many years. Her throat was slashed, and her dead mouth was gagged open with a chain that wrapped around her head.
Jimmy gasped in grief and horror.
The murderer was back.
Special Agent Riley Paige froze in place, staring in shock. The handful of pebbles on her bed shouldn’t have been there. Someone had broken into her home and placed them—someone who meant her harm.
She knew immediately the pebbles were a message, and that the message was from an old enemy. He was telling her that she had not killed him after all.
Peterson is alive.
She felt her body tremble at the thought.
She’d long suspected it, and now she was absolutely sure. Worse, he’d been inside her house. The thought made her want to throw up. Was he still here now?
Her breathing became short with fear. Riley knew that her physical resources were limited. Just that day she had survived a deadly encounter with a sadistic killer, and her head was still bandaged and her body bruised all over. Would she be ready to face him if he were inside her house?
Riley immediately drew her gun from its holster. Hands trembling, she went to her closet and opened it. Nobody was in there. She checked under her bed. Nobody there either.
Riley stood there and forced herself to think clearly. Had she been in the bedroom since she had gotten home? Yes, she had, because she had put her gun holster on top of the dresser next to the door. But she hadn’t turned on the light and hadn’t even looked into the room. She had simply stepped into the doorway and deposited her weapon on the dresser top, then left. She’d changed into her nightgown in the bathroom.
Could her nemesis have been in the house this whole time? After she and April got home, the two of them had talked and watched TV late into the night. Then April had gone to bed. In a tiny house like hers, staying hidden would require amazing stealth. But she couldn’t discount the possibility.
Then she was seized by a new fear.
Riley snatched the flashlight that she kept on the side table. With her gun in her right hand and the flashlight in her left, she stepped out of her bedroom and switched on the hall light. When she heard nothing awry, she quickly made her way to April’s bedroom and threw open the door. The room was pitch dark. Riley turned on the overhead light.
Her daughter was already in bed.
“What is it, Mom?” April asked, squinting with surprise.
Riley stepped into the bedroom.
“Don’t get out of bed,” she said. “Stay right where you are.”
“Mom, you’re scaring me,” April said, her voice trembling.
That was just fine as far as Riley was concerned. She was plenty scared herself, and her daughter had every reason to be as scared as she was. She went to April’s closet, shined her flashlight around inside, and saw that no one was there. No one was under April’s bed either.
What should she do next? She had to check every nook and corner in the rest of the house.
Riley knew what her one-time partner Bill Jeffreys would say.
Damn it, Riley, call for help.
Her longstanding tendency to go things alone had always infuriated Bill. But this time, she was going to heed his advice. With April in the house, Riley wasn’t going to take any chances.
“Put on a bathrobe and some shoes,” she said to her daughter. “But don’t leave this room—not yet.”
Riley went back into her bedroom and picked up her phone from the side table. She punched autodial for the Behavioral Analysis Unit. As soon as she heard a voice on the line, she hissed, “This is Special Agent Riley Paige. There’s been an intruder in my home. He might still be here. I need someone here fast.” She thought for a second, then added, “And send an evidence team.”
“We’ll get right on it,” came the reply.
Riley ended the phone call and stepped out into the hall again. Except for the two bedrooms and the hallway, the house was still dark. He could be anywhere, lurking, waiting to attack. This man had caught her off guard once before, and she had nearly died at his hands.
Switching lights on as she went and keeping her gun at the ready, Riley moved efficiently through the house. She aimed her flashlight into every closet and unlit corner.
Finally, she glanced up at the hallway ceiling. The door above her led to the attic, with a pull-down ladder tucked away inside. Did she dare climb up there for a look?
At that moment Riley heard police sirens. She breathed a huge sigh of relief at the sound. She realized that the agency had called in the local police, because BAU headquarters was more than half an hour away.
She went to her bedroom and pulled on a pair of shoes and her bathrobe, then returned to April’s room.
“Come with me,” she said. “Stay close.”
Still holding her gun, Riley wrapped her left arm around April’s shoulders. The poor girl was trembling with fear. Riley led April to the front door and opened it just as several uniformed police officers came dashing up the sidewalk.
The male officer in charge came into the house, his gun drawn.
“What’s the problem?” he asked.
“Someone was in the house,” Riley said. “He might still be here.”
The officer eyed the gun in her hand uneasily.
“I’m FBI,” Riley said. “BAU agents will be here soon. I’ve already searched the house, except the attic.” She pointed. “There’s a door in the ceiling over in the hall.”
The officer called out, “Bowers, Wright, get in here and check the attic. The rest of you search outside, back and front.”
Bowers and Wright went straight to the hallway and pulled down the ladder. Both drew their weapons. One waited at the bottom of the ladder while the other climbed upward and flashed a light around. In a few moments, the man disappeared into the attic.
Soon a voice called out, “No one here.”
Riley wanted to feel relieved. But the truth was, she more than half wished that Peterson had been up there. He could be arrested right here and now—or better yet, shot. She was all but sure that he wasn’t going to turn up in the front yard or the back.
“Have you got a basement?” the lead officer asked.
“No, just a crawl space,” Riley said.
The officer called outside, “Benson, Pratt, check under the house.”
April was still holding onto her mother for dear life.
“What’s going on, Mom?” she asked.
Riley hesitated. For years she’d avoided telling April much of the ugly truth about her work. But she had recently realized that she’d been overly protective. So she’d told April about her traumatic captivity at Peterson’s hands—or at least as much as she thought she could handle. She’d also confided her doubts that the man was really dead.
But what should she tell April now? She wasn’t sure.
Before Riley could make up her mind, April said, “It’s Peterson, isn’t it?”
Riley hugged her daughter tightly. She nodded back, trying to hide the shiver that ran through her whole body.
“He’s still alive.”
An hour later, Riley’s house was swarming with people wearing uniforms or FBI labels. Heavily armed Federal agents and an evidence team were working with the police.
“Bag those pebbles on the bed,” Craig Huang called out. “They’ll need to be examined for prints or DNA.”
At first, Riley hadn’t been pleased to see that Huang was in charge. He was very young, and her previous experience working with him hadn’t gone well. But now she saw that he was giving solid orders and organizing the scene effectively. Huang was growing into his job.
The evidence team was already at work combing every inch of the house and dusting for fingerprints. Other agents had disappeared into the darkness behind the house, trying to find vehicle tracks or some hint of a trail through the woods. Now that things seemed to be running smoothly, Huang led Riley away from the others into the kitchen. He and Riley sat down at the table. April joined them there, still badly shaken.
“So what do you think?” Huang asked Riley. “Is there any chance that we’ll still find him?”
Riley sighed with discouragement.
“No, I’m afraid he’s long gone. He must have been here earlier this evening, before my daughter and I got home.”
Just then a Kevlar-clad female agent came in from the back of the house. She had dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark complexion, and she looked even younger than Huang.
“Agent Huang, I found something,” the woman said. “Scratches on the back door lock. It looks like someone picked it open.”
“Good work, Vargas,” Huang said. “Now we know how he got in. Could you stay with Riley and her daughter for a little while?”
The young woman’s face lit up with delight.
“I’ll be glad to,” she said.
She sat at the table, and Huang left the kitchen to rejoin the others.
“Agent Paige, I’m Agent María de la Luz Vargas Ramírez.” Then she grinned. “I know, it’s a mouthful. It’s a Mexican thing. People call me Lucy Vargas.”
“I’m glad you’re here, Agent Vargas,” Riley said.
“Just Lucy, please.”
The young woman fell silent for a moment and just kept gazing at Riley. Finally she said, “Agent Paige, I hope I’m not out of line in saying this, but … it’s a real honor to meet you. I’ve been following your work ever since I went into training. Your whole record is just so amazing.”
“Thank you,” Riley said.
Lucy smiled with admiration. “I mean, the way you wrapped up the Peterson case—the whole story just amazes me.”
Riley shook her head.
“I wish things were that simple,” she said. “He’s not dead. He was the intruder here today.”
Lucy stared back, stunned.
“But everybody says—” Lucy began.
“Someone else thought he was alive. Marie, the woman I rescued. She was sure he was still out there taunting her. She …”
Riley paused, painfully remembering the sight of Marie’s body hanging in her own bedroom.
“She committed suicide,” Riley said.
Lucy looked both horrified and surprised. “I’m sorry,” she said.
Just then, Riley heard a familiar voice call out to her.
“Riley? You okay?”
She turned and saw Bill Jeffreys standing in the kitchen archway, looking anxious. The BAU must have alerted him about the trouble, so he’d driven here on his own.
“I’m okay, Bill,” she said. “So is April. Sit down.”
Bill sat down at the table with Riley, April, and Lucy. Lucy stared at him, apparently in awe to meet Riley’s former partner, yet another FBI legend.
Huang stepped back into the kitchen.
“Nobody’s in the house, or outside either,” he told Riley. “My people have gathered up whatever evidence they can find. They say it won’t be much to go on. It’ll be up to the lab technicians to see what they can make of it.”
“I was afraid of that,” Riley said.
“Looks like it’s time for us to wrap things up for tonight,” Huang said. Then he left the kitchen to give his final orders to the agents.
Riley turned toward her daughter.
“April, you’re going to stay at your father’s house tonight.”
April’s eyes widened.
“I’m not leaving you here,” April said. “And I sure don’t want to stay with Dad.”
“You’ve got to,” Riley said. “You might not be safe here.”
Riley interrupted. “April, there are still things I haven’t told you about this man. Terrible things. You’ll be safe with your father. I’ll pick you up tomorrow after your class.”
Before April could protest further, Lucy spoke.
“Your mother’s right, April. Take it from me. In fact, consider it an order from me. I’ll handpick a couple of agents who can drive you there. Agent Paige, with your permission, I’ll call your ex-husband and tell him what’s going on.”
Riley was surprised by Lucy’s offer. She was also pleased. Almost uncannily, Lucy seemed to understand that this would be an awkward call for her to make. Ryan would undoubtedly take this news more seriously from any agent other than Riley. Lucy had also handled April well.
Not only had Lucy had spotted the picked lock, she also demonstrated empathy. Empathy was an excellent quality in a BAU agent, and it was all too often worn away by the stress of the job.
This woman is good, Riley thought.
“Come on,” Lucy said to April. “Let’s go call your dad.”
April stared daggers at Riley. Even so, she got up from the table and followed Lucy into the living room, where they started making the call.
Riley and Bill were left sitting at the kitchen table alone. Even though there seemed to be nothing left to do, it seemed right to Riley that Bill was there. They had worked together for years and she had always thought of them as something like a matched pair—both were forty with touches of gray showing in dark hair. They were both dedicated to their jobs and troubled in their marriages. Bill was solid in build and temperament.
“It was Peterson,” Riley said. “He was here.”
Bill said nothing. He looked unconvinced.
“You don’t believe me?” Riley said. “There were pebbles in my bed. He must have put them there. They couldn’t have gotten there any other way.”
Bill shook his head.
“Riley, I’m sure there really was an intruder,” he said. “You weren’t imagining that part. But Peterson? I doubt that very much.”
Riley’s anger was rising now.
“Bill, listen to me. I heard rattling against the door one night, and I looked outside, and I found pebbles there. Marie heard someone throw pebbles at her bedroom window. Who else could it be?”
Bill sighed and shook his head.
“Riley, you’re tired,” he said. “And when you’re tired and you get an idea fixed in your head, it’s easy to believe just about anything. It can happen to anybody.”
Riley found herself fighting back tears. In better days, Bill would have trusted her instincts without question. But those days were over. And she knew why. A few nights ago she’d called him drunk and suggested that they act on their mutual attraction and begin an affair. It had been an awful thing to do, and she knew it, and she’d not had a drink since then. Even so, things hadn’t been right between her and Bill after that.
“I know what this is about, Bill,” she said. “It’s because of that stupid phone call. You don’t trust me anymore.”
Now Bill’s voice crackled with anger.
“Damn it, Riley, I’m just trying to be realistic.”
Riley was seething. “Just go, Bill.”
“Believe me or don’t believe me. Take your pick. But right now I want you to go.”
With an air of resignation, Bill got up from the table and left.
Through the kitchen doorway, Riley could see that almost everybody had left the house, including April. Lucy came back into the kitchen.
“Agent Huang is leaving a couple of agents here,” she said. “They’ll watch the house from a car for the rest of the night. I’m not sure it’s a good idea for you to be alone inside. I’ll be glad to stay.”
Riley sat and thought for a moment. What she wanted—what she needed right now—was for somebody to believe that Peterson wasn’t dead. She doubted that she could convince even Lucy of that. The whole thing seemed hopeless.
“I’ll be all right, Lucy,” Riley said.
Lucy nodded and left the kitchen. Riley heard the sound of the last agents leaving the house and shutting the door behind them. Riley got up and checked both the front door and back door to make sure they were locked. She moved two chairs up against the back door. They would make noise enough if anybody picked the lock again.
Then she stood in the living room and looked all around. The house looked weirdly bright, with every single light burning.
I ought to turn some of them off, she thought.
But as she reached for the living room light switch, her fingers froze. She just couldn’t do it. She was paralyzed with terror.
Peterson, she knew, was coming for her again.
Riley hesitated for a moment as she entered the BAU building, wondering if she was really ready to face anyone today. She hadn’t slept all night, and was bone-tired. The sensation of terror that had kept her awake all night had run her adrenaline until there was nothing left. Now, she just felt hollowed out.
Riley took a deep breath.
The only way out is through.
She gathered her resolve and walked into the busy maze of FBI agents, specialists, and support staff. As she wound her way through the open bay area, familiar faces looked up from their computers. Most smiled to see her and several gave her a thumbs-up. Riley slowly felt glad she had decided to come in. She’d needed something to lift to her spirits.
“Way to go with the Dolly Killer,” one young agent said.
It took Riley a couple of seconds to understand what he meant. Then she realized that “Dolly Killer” must be the new nickname for Dirk Monroe, the psychopath she had just taken down. The name made sense.
Riley also noticed that some of the faces looked at her more warily. Doubtless they had heard about the incident at her house last night when a whole team had raced to her frantic call for backup. They probably wonder if I’m in my right mind, she thought. As far as she knew, absolutely no one else in the Bureau believed that Peterson was still alive.
Riley stopped by the desk of Sam Flores, a lab technician with black-rimmed glasses, hard at work at his computer.
“What news have you got for me, Sam?” Riley said.
Sam looked up from the screen at her.
“You mean about your break-in, right? I’m just now looking at some preliminary reports. I’m afraid there won’t be much. The lab guys didn’t get anything off the pebbles—no DNA or fibers. No fingerprints, either.”
Riley sighed with discouragement.
“Let me know if anything changes,” she said, patting Flores on the back.
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Flores said.
Riley continued on to the area shared by senior agents. As she passed by the small glass-walled offices, she saw that Bill wasn’t in. That was actually a relief, but she knew that sooner or later she would have to clear up the recent awkwardness between them.
When she set foot in her own neat, well-organized office, Riley immediately noticed that she had a phone message. It was from Mike Nevins, the D.C. forensic psychiatrist who sometimes consulted on BAU cases. Over the years, she had found him a source remarkable insight, and not only into cases. Mike had helped Riley through her own bout of PTSD after Peterson had captured and tortured her. She knew he was calling to check up on her, as he often did.
She was about to call him back, when the broad frame of Special Agent Brent Meredith appeared in her doorway. The unit commander’s black, angular features hinted at his tough, no-nonsense personality. Riley felt relieved at the sight of him, always reassured by his presence.
“Welcome back, Agent Paige,” he said.
Riley got up to shake his hand. “Thanks, Agent Meredith.”
“I hear you had another little adventure last night. I hope you’re all right.”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
Meredith looked at her with warm concern, and Riley knew that he was trying to assess her readiness for work.
“Would you like to join me in the break area for some coffee?” he asked.
“Thanks, but there are some files I really need to review. Some other time.”
Meredith nodded and said nothing. Riley knew he was waiting for her to speak. Doubtless he had also heard about her belief that Peterson had been the intruder. He was giving her a chance to voice her opinion. But she was sure that Meredith wouldn’t be any more inclined than anybody else to agree with her about Peterson.
“Well, I’d better be going,” he said. “Let me know whenever you’re up for coffee or lunch.”
“I’ll do that.”
Meredith paused and turned back toward Riley.
Slowly and carefully, he said, “Do be careful, Agent Paige.”
Riley detected a world of meaning in those words. Not long ago, another higher-up in the agency had suspended her for subordination. She’d been reinstated, but her position could be still tenuous. Riley sensed that Meredith was giving her a friendly warning. He didn’t want her to do anything to jeopardize herself. And raising a lot of fuss about Peterson might cause trouble with those who had declared the case closed.
As soon as she was alone, Riley went to her filing cabinet and pulled out the thick file on the Peterson case. She opened it up on her desk and browsed through it, refreshing her memory about her nemesis. She didn’t find much that was helpful.
The truth was that the man remained an enigma. There hadn’t even been any records of his existence until Bill and Riley finally tracked him down. Peterson might not even be his real name, and they’d turned up several different first names supposedly connected with him.
As Riley looked through the file, she came across photographs of his victims—women who had been found in shallow graves. They had all borne burn scars, and the cause of death had been manual strangulation. Riley shuddered with the memory of the large, powerful hands that had caught her and caged her like an animal.
Nobody knew just how many women he had killed. There might be many more corpses yet to be found. And until Marie and Riley had been captured and lived to tell about it, nobody knew about how he liked to torment women in the dark with a propane torch. And nobody else was willing to believe that Peterson was still alive.
The whole thing was really getting her down. Riley was known for her ability to get into the minds of killers—an ability that sometimes scared her. Even so, she’d never been able to get into Peterson’s mind. And as of right now, she felt that she understood him even less.
He had never struck Riley as an organized psychopath. The fact that he left his victims in shallow graves suggested quite the opposite. He was no perfectionist. Even so, he was meticulous enough not to leave clues behind. The man was truly paradoxical.
She remembered something that Marie had said to her shortly before her suicide …
“Maybe he’s like a ghost, Riley. Maybe that’s what happened when you blew him up. You killed his body but you didn’t kill his evil.”
He wasn’t a ghost, and Riley knew it. She was sure—more sure than ever—that he was out there, and that she was his next target. Even so, he might as well be a ghost as far as she was concerned. Aside from herself, nobody else even believed that he existed.
“Where are you, you bastard?” she whispered aloud.
She didn’t know, and she had no way to find out. She was completely stymied. She had no choice but to let the whole thing go for now. She closed the folder and put it back in its place in her filing cabinet.
Then her office phone rang. She saw that the call was coming through on a line shared by all the special agents. It was the line that the BAU phone bank used to forward appropriate call-ins to agents. As a rule of thumb, whichever agent picked up such a call first would take the case.
Riley glanced around at the other offices. Nobody else seemed to be in at the moment. The other agents were all either taking a break or out working other cases. Riley answered the phone.
“Special Agent Riley Paige. What can I do to help you?”
The voice on the line sounded harried.
“Agent Paige, this is Raymond Alford, Chief of Police in Reedsport, New York. We’ve got a real problem here. Would it be okay for us to do this by video chat? I think maybe I could explain it better. And I’ve got some images that you’d better see for yourself.”
Riley’s curiosity was piqued. “Certainly,” she said. She gave Alford her contact information. A few moments later she was talking to him face to face. He was a slender, balding man who appeared to be well along in years. At the moment, his expression was anxious and tired.
“We had a murder here last night,” Alford told her. “A real ugly one. Let me show you.”
A photograph came up on Riley’s computer screen. It showed what appeared to be a woman’s body hanging from a chain over railroad tracks. The body was wrapped in a multitude of chains, and it seemed to be oddly dressed.
“What’s the victim wearing?” Riley asked.
“A straitjacket,” Alford said.
Riley was startled. Looking closer at the photograph, she could see that it was true. Then the picture disappeared, and Riley found herself face to face with Alford again.
“Chief Alford, I appreciate your alarm. But what makes you think this is a case for the Behavioral Analysis Unit?”
“Because this exact same thing happened very near here five years ago,” Alford said.
An image appeared of another woman’s corpse. She, too, was chained all over and bound in a straitjacket.
“Back then it was a part-time prison worker, Marla Blainey. The MO was identical—except that she was just dumped on the riverbank, not hung up.”
Alford’s face reappeared.
“This time it was Rosemary Pickens, a local nurse,” he said. “Nobody can imagine a motive, not for either of the women. They were both well-liked.”
Alford slumped wearily and shook his head.
“Agent Paige, my people and I are really out of our depth here. This new killing must be a serial or copycat. The trouble is, neither of those makes any sense. We don’t get that kind of problem in Reedsport. This is just a little Hudson River tourist town with a population of about seven thousand. Sometimes we have to break up a fight or fish a tourist out of the river. That’s about as bad as things usually get here.”
Riley thought about it. This actually did look like a case for the BAU. She really ought to refer Alford directly to Meredith.
But Riley glanced toward Meredith’s office and saw that he hadn’t returned yet. She’d have to alert him about this later. In the meantime, maybe she could help a little.
“What were the causes of death?” she asked.
“Throats slashed, both of them.”
Riley tried not to show her surprise. Strangulation and blunt force strike were far more common than slashing.
This seemed to be a highly unusual killer. Even so, it was the kind of psychopath that Riley knew well. She specialized in just such cases. It seemed a shame that she wasn’t going to be able to bring her skills to this one. In the wake of her recent trauma, she wouldn’t get the assignment.
“Have you taken the body down?” Riley asked.
“Not yet,” Alford said. “She’s still hanging there.”
“Then don’t. Leave it there for now. Wait till our agents get there.”
Alford didn’t look pleased.
“Agent Paige, that’s going to be a tall order. It’s right next to the train tracks and it can be seen from the river. And the town doesn’t need this kind of publicity. I’m under a lot of pressure to take it down.”
“Leave it,” Riley said. “I know it’s not easy, but it’s important. It won’t be long. We’ll get agents there this afternoon.”
Alford nodded in mute compliance.
“Have you got any more photos of the latest victim?” Riley asked. “Any close-ups?”
“Sure, I’ll bring them up.”
Riley found herself looking at a series of detail shots of the corpse. The local cops had done a good job. The photos showed how tightly and elaborately the chains were wrapped around the corpse.
Finally came a close-up of the victim’s face.
Riley felt as though her heart jumped up into her throat. The victim’s eyes bulged, and her mouth was gagged by a chain. But that wasn’t what shocked Riley.
The woman looked a lot like Marie. She was older and heavier, but even so, Marie might have looked a lot like this if she’d only lived another decade or so. The image hit Riley like an emotional blow to the gut. It was as if Marie was calling out for her, demanding that she get this killer.
She knew that she had to take this case.
Peterson coasted his car along, not too fast, not too slow, feeling good as he finally had the girl back in his sights. Finally, he had found her. There she was, Riley’s daughter, alone, walking toward her high school, with no clue at all that he was stalking her. That he was about to end her life.
As he watched, she suddenly stopped in her tracks and turned around, as if suspicious she were being watched. She stood there, as if undecided. A few other students passed her and filtered into the building.
He coasted the car along, waiting to see what she would do next.
Not that the girl mattered to him especially. Her mother was the true target of his revenge. Her mother had thwarted him badly, and she had to pay. She already had, in a way—after all, he’d driven Marie Sayles to suicide. But now he had to take from her the girl who mattered to her most.
The girl, to his delight, began to turn around and walk away from school. Apparently she had decided not to go to class today. His heart pounded—he wanted to pounce. But he could not. Not yet. He had to tell himself to be patient. Other people were still in sight.
Peterson drove ahead and circled a block, forcing himself to be patient. He suppressed a smile at the joy to come. With what he had in mind for her daughter, Riley would suffer in ways she didn’t think possible. Although she was still gangly and awkward, the girl looked a lot like her mother. That would make it extra satisfying.
As he circled around, he saw that the girl was walking briskly along the street. He pulled over to the curb and watched her for a few minutes, until he realized that she was taking a road that led out of town. If she was going to walk home alone, then this might be the perfect moment to take control of her.
His heart pounding, wanting to savor the delightful anticipation, Peterson circled another block with his car.
People needed to learn to put off certain pleasures, Peterson knew, to wait until just the right time. Delayed gratification made everything more pleasurable. He had learned that from years of delicious, lingering cruelty.
There’s just so much to look forward to, he thought contentedly.
When he came back around and saw her again, Peterson laughed aloud. She was hitchhiking! God was smiling down upon him on this day. Taking her life was clearly meant to be.
He pulled the car up beside her and gave her his most pleasant smile.
“Give you a lift?”
The girl smiled back broadly. “Thanks. That would be great.”
“Where are you headed?” he asked.
“I live just a little way out of town.”
The girl told him the address.
He said, “I’m going right past there. Hop in.”
The girl got into the front seat. With increasing satisfaction, he observed that she even had her mother’s hazel eyes.
Peterson pressed the buttons to lock the doors and windows. Over the quiet rumble of the air conditioner, the girl didn’t even notice.
April felt a pleasant rush of adrenaline as she fastened the safety harness. She’d never hitchhiked before. Her mother would have a fit if she found out.
Of course, it served Mom right, April figured. It was really rotten to make her stay at Dad’s last night—and all because of some crazy idea of hers that Peterson had been in their home. It wasn’t true, and April knew it. The two agents who had driven her to Dad’s house had said so. From what they’d said to each other, it sounded kind of like the whole agency thought Mom was a bit bonkers.
The man said, “So what brings you into Fredericksburg?”
April turned and looked at him. He was an agreeable-looking, big-jawed guy with shaggy hair and a stubble of beard. He was smiling.
“School,” April said.
“A summer class?” the man asked.
“Yeah,” April said. She certainly wasn’t going to tell him that she’d decided to skip the class. Not that he looked like the kind of guy who wouldn’t understand. He seemed pretty cool. Maybe he’d even get a kick out of helping her defy parental authority. Still, it was best not to take any chances.
The man’s smile turned a bit mischievous.
“So what does your mother think about hitchhiking?” he asked.
April flushed with embarrassment.
“Oh, she’s fine with it,” she said.
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