Before He Feels
Blake Pierce is author of the bestselling RILEY PAGE mystery series, which includes ten books (and counting). Blake Pierce is also the author of the MACKENZIE WHITE mystery series, comprising six books (and counting); of the AVERY BLACK mystery series, comprising five books; and of the new KERI LOCKE mystery series, comprising four books (and counting).
An avid reader and lifelong fan of the mystery and thriller genres, Blake loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.blakepierceauthor.com to learn more and stay in touch.
BOOKS BY BLAKE PIERCE
RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY SERIES
ONCE GONE (Book #1)
ONCE TAKEN (Book #2)
ONCE CRAVED (Book #3)
ONCE LURED (Book #4)
ONCE HUNTED (Book #5)
ONCE PINED (Book #6)
ONCE FORSAKEN (Book #7)
ONCE COLD (Book #8)
ONCE STALKED (Book #9)
ONCE LOST (Book #10)
MACKENZIE WHITE MYSTERY SERIES
BEFORE HE KILLS (Book #1)
BEFORE HE SEES (Book #2)
BEFORE HE COVETS (Book #3)
BEFORE HE TAKES (Book #4)
BEFORE HE NEEDS (Book #5)
BEFORE HE FEELS (Book #6)
AVERY BLACK MYSTERY SERIES
CAUSE TO KILL (Book #1)
CAUSE TO RUN (Book #2)
CAUSE TO HIDE (Book #3)
CAUSE TO FEAR (Book #4)
CAUSE TO SAVE (Book #5)
KERI LOCKE MYSTERY SERIES
A TRACE OF DEATH (Book #1)
A TRACE OF MUDER (Book #2)
A TRACE OF VICE (Book #3)
A TRACE OF CRIME (Book #4)
He’d read the book at least a dozen times, but that was okay. It was a good book and he had even gone so far as to give each character his or her own voice. It also helped that it was one of his favorites —Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. To most, it might seem like an odd book to read to the residents of a home for the blind, but everyone he’d ever read it to seemed to like it.
He was nearing the end, and his latest resident was eating it up. Ellis, a fifty-seven-year-old woman, had told him she’d been born blind and lived the past eleven years in the home, after her son had decided he didn’t want the baggage of a blind mother anymore, and placed her in the Wakeman Home for the Blind.
Ellis seemed to like him right away. She’d later told him that she told very few of the other residents about him because she enjoyed having him to herself. And that was fine with him. As a matter of fact, that was pretty much perfect as far as he was concerned.
Even better, about three weeks ago she had insisted that they leave the grounds of the home; she wanted to enjoy his storytelling in the fresh air, with the breeze on her face. And while there wasn’t much of a breeze today – it was, actually, gruelingly hot – that was fine by him. They were sitting in a small rose garden about half a mile away from the home. It was, she’d said, a place she visited a lot. She liked the smell of the roses and the buzzing of the bees.
And now, his voice, telling her Ray Bradbury’s story.
He was glad that she liked him so much. He liked her, too. Ellis didn’t interrupt his reading with hundreds of questions like some of the others did. She simply sat there, looking into space she had never properly seen, and hung on each and every word.
As he came to the end of a chapter, he checked his watch. He had already stayed ten minutes beyond his usual time. He didn’t have any others he planned to visit today, but he did have plans for later in the evening.
Placing his bookmark between the pages, he set the book down. Without the story to distract him, he realized just how oppressive the southern heat was on his back.
“Is that it for today?” Ellis asked.
He smiled at the observation. It never failed to amaze him how well the other senses made up for lack of sight. She’d heard him shift on the small bench near the center of the garden, then the soft noise of the book being placed on his leg.
“Yeah, I’m afraid so,” he said. “I’ve already worn out my welcome by ten minutes.”
“How much is left?” she asked.
“About forty pages. So we’ll knock it out next week. Sound good?”
“Sounds perfect,” she said. She then frowned slightly and added: “Do you mind if I ask you…well, you know…it’s so dumb, but…”
“No, that’s fine, Ellis.”
He leaned in close to her and let her touch his face. She ran her hands along the contours of it. He understood the need for it (and Ellis wasn’t the only blind woman who had done this to him) but it still weirded him out. A brief smile came to her mouth as she made her way around his head and then removed her hands.
“Thanks,” she said. “And thanks for reading. I was wondering if you had any ideas for the next book?”
“Depends what you’re in the mood for.”
“A classic, maybe?”
“This is Ray Bradbury,” he said. “That’s about as classic as I get. I do think I have The Lord of the Flies lying around somewhere.”
“That’s the one about the boys stranded on the island, right?”
“Boiled down, yes.”
“Sounds good. But this one…this Something Wicked This Way Comes is brilliant. Great choice!”
“Yeah, it’s one of my favorites.”
He was rather glad that she could not see the devious smile on his face. Something wicked this way comes, indeed, he thought.
He picked up his book, well-worn and battered from years of use, first opened about thirty years ago. He waited for her to stand with him, like an impatient date. She had her walking stick with her but she rarely used it.
The walk back to the Wakeman Home for the Blind was a short one. He liked to watch the look of concentration on her face as she started walking. He wondered what it must be like to rely on all of your other senses to move around. It must be exhausting to maneuver around a world without being able to see it.
As he studied her face, he hoped, most of all, that Ellis had enjoyed what she’d heard of the book.
He held his book tightly, almost a little disappointed that Ellis would never find out how it ended.
Ellis found herself thinking of the young boys from Something Wicked This Way Comes. It was October in the book. She wished it was October here. But no…it was the end of July in southern Virginia, and she didn’t think it could get any hotter. Even after planning her walk just before twilight, the temperature was still a cruel ninety degrees according to Siri on her iPhone.
Sadly, she had come to know Siri well. She was a great way to pass the time, speaking in her snooty little robotic voice, filling Ellis in on trivia, weather updates, and sports scores.
There were a few tech people at the home who always made sure all of her computer gadgets were updated. She had a MacBook stocked with iTunes and a pretty substantial music library. She also had the latest iPhone and even a top-of-the-line app that responded to an attached gadget that allowed her to interact in Braille.
Siri had just told her that it was eighty-seven degrees outside. That seemed impossible, seeing as how it was almost 7:30 in the evening. Ah well, she thought. A little sweat never hurt anyone.
She thought about just forgetting her walk. It was a walk she took at least five times a week. And she’d already taken it once today to meet with the man who read to her. She didn’t need the exercise but…well, she had certain rituals and routines. It made her feel normal. It made her feel sane. Plus, there was something to the sound of the afternoon while the sun was setting. She could feel it setting and hear something like a soft electric hum in the air as the world fell quiet, pulling dusk in with night on its heels.
So she decided to go for a walk. Two people within the home said goodbye to her, familiar voices – one filled with boredom, the other with a dulled cheer. She relished the feel of fresh air on her face as she stepped out onto the main lawn.
“Where the hell are you going, Ellis?”
It was another familiar voice – the manager of Wakeman, a jolly man named Randall Jones.
“My usual walk,” she answered.
“It’s so hot, though! You be quick about it. I don’t want you passing out!”
“Or missing my ridiculous curfew,” she said.
“Yeah, or that,” Randall said with a bit of scorn.
She carried on with her walk, feeling the looming presence of the home fall away behind her. She felt an open space ahead of her, the lawn waiting for her. Beyond that was the sidewalk and, half a mile later, the rose garden.
Ellis hated the idea that she was nearing sixty and had a curfew. She understood it, but it made her feel like a child. Still, other than her lack of sight, she had it pretty sweet at the Wakeman Home for the Blind. She even had that nice man who came in to read to her once a week – and sometimes twice. She knew that he read to a few others, too. But those were people at other homes. Here at Wakeman, she was the only one he read to. It made her feel special. It made her feel like he preferred her. He’d complained to her that most of the others enjoyed romance novels or best-seller drivel. But with Ellis, he could read things he enjoyed. Two weeks ago, they’d finished up Cujo by Stephen King. And now there was this Bradbury book and —
She paused in her walk, cocking her head slightly.
She thought she’d heard something close to her. But after pausing, she did not hear it again.
Probably just an animal passing through the woods on my right, she thought. It was southern Virginia after all…and there were lots of woods and lots of critters living in them.
She tapped her cane out ahead of her, finding a weird sort of comfort in its familiar click click noise as it struck the sidewalk. While she obviously had never seen the sidewalk or the road alongside of it, they had been described to her several times. She’d also put something of a mental picture together in her mind, connecting smells with the descriptions of flowers and trees that some of the home’s aides and caretakers had given her.
Within five minutes, she could smell the roses several yards ahead. She could hear the bees buzzing around them. Sometimes she thought she could even smell the bees, covered in pollen and whatever honey they were producing elsewhere.
She knew the path to the rose garden so well that she could have made her way around it without the use of her cane. She’d lapped it at least one thousand times in the course of her eleven years at the home. She came out here to reflect on her life, how things had gotten so difficult that her husband had left her fifteen years ago and then her son eleven years ago. She didn’t miss her bastard of an ex-husband at all, but she did miss the feel of a man’s hands on her. If she was being honest with herself, it was one of the reasons she enjoyed feeling the face of the man who read to her. He had a strong chin, high cheekbones, and one of those southern drawls to his voice that was addictive to listen to. He could read her the phone book and she’d enjoy it.
She was thinking of him as she felt herself enter the familiar contours of the garden. The concrete was crisp and hard under her feet but everything else in front of her felt soft and inviting. She paused for a moment and discovered that, as was usually the case in the afternoons, she had the place to herself. No one else was there.
Again, she stopped. She heard something behind her.
Feel it, too, she thought.
“Who is that?” she asked.
She got no answer. She had come out this late because she knew the garden would be deserted. Very few came out after six in the afternoon because the town of Stateton, in which the Wakeman Home for the Blind was located, was a tiny speck of a place. When she had stepped outside fifteen minutes ago, she’d listened for the movement of anyone else who might be out on the front lawn and had heard no one. She’d also heard no one else on the sidewalk as she had come down to the garden. There was the possibility that someone could be out with the intention of sneaking up on her and scaring her, but that could be risky. There were repercussions to such behavior in this town, laws that were enforced by a tried and true southern police force that didn’t take shit when it came to local teens and bullies trying to pick on the disabled.
But there it was again.
She heard the noise, and the feeling that someone was there was stronger now. She smelled someone. It was not a bad smell at all. In fact, it was familiar.
Fear ran through her then, and she opened her mouth to yell.
But before she could, suddenly, she felt an immense pressure around her throat. She felt something else, too, radiating off of the person like heat.
She gagged, unable to yell, to speak, to breathe, and she felt herself sinking to her knees.
The pressure tightened around her throat and that feeling of hate seemed to penetrate her, as pain spread throughout her body, and for the first time, Ellis was relieved that she was blind. As she felt her life slipping from her, she was relieved she would not have to lay eyes upon the face of evil. Instead, she had only that all-too-familiar darkness behind her eyes to welcome her into whatever awaited her after this life.
Mackenzie White, always on the go, was perfectly happy being confined to her little cubicle space. She was even happier when, three weeks ago, McGrath had called her up and told her that there was a vacant office thanks to a round of government layoffs, and that it was hers if she wanted it. She’d waited a few days, and when no one else had taken it, she went ahead and moved in.
It was minimally decorated, with only her desk, a floor lamp, a small bookshelf, and two chairs across from her desk. A large dry-erase calendar hung on the wall. She was staring at the calendar as she took a break between answering emails and making calls in her attempt to find details about one particular case.
It was an older case…a case linked to the single business card that she had on the dry-erase calendar, hanging there by a magnet:
It was the name of a business that apparently never existed.
Any lines of investigation that popped up were usually dashed right away. The closest they had come to getting anywhere was when Agent Harrison had discovered a place in New York that was a possible link. But that had turned out to be nothing more than a man who had sold old knock-off antiques in his garage in the late ’80s.
Still, there was the sense that she was this close to finding some thread that would lead her to the answers she had been looking for – answers regarding the death of her father and the apparently linked murder that had occurred earlier in the year, just six months ago.
She tried holding on to that sense of something being out there, dangling unseen yet somehow also right in front of her face. She had to on days like today when she’d had three possible leads die in their tracks via phone calls and emails.
The business card had become a puzzle piece to her. She stared at it every day, trying to figure out some approach she had not yet tried.
She was so enamored with it that when someone knocked on her office door, she jumped a bit. She looked to the door and saw Ellington standing there. He poked his head in and looked around.
“Yeah, an office setting still doesn’t suit you.”
“I know,” Mackenzie said. “I feel like such a fraud. Come on in.”
“Oh, I don’t have a lot of time,” he said. “I was just wondering if you might want to get lunch.”
“I can do that,” she said. “Meet me downstairs in about half an hour and – ”
Her desk phone rang, interrupting her. She read the display and saw that it was coming from McGrath’s extension. “One second,” she said. “This is McGrath.”
Ellington nodded and made a playfully stern face.
“This is Agent White,” she said.
“White, it’s McGrath. I need to see you in my office as soon as possible about a new assignment. Round up Ellington and bring him with you.”
She opened her mouth to say Yes sir, but McGrath killed the call before she could so much as draw up a breath.
“Looks like lunch has to wait,” she said. “McGrath needs to see us.”
They shared an awkward glance as the same thought passed between them. They’d often wondered how long they’d be able to keep their romantic relationship a secret from their co-workers, particularly McGrath.
“You think he knows?” Ellington asked.
Mackenzie shrugged. “I don’t know. But he did say he needs to see us about an assignment. So if he does know, that’s apparently not the purpose behind the call.”
“Let’s go find out then,” Ellington said.
Mackenzie logged out of her computer and joined Ellington as they headed through the building and toward McGrath’s office. She tried to tell herself that she really didn’t care if McGrath knew about them. It wasn’t grounds for suspension or anything like that, but he would likely never allow them to work again if he did find out.
So while she tried her best to not care, there was also some worry there. She did her best to swallow it down as they neared McGrath’s office while trying to purposefully walk as far away from Ellington as possible.
McGrath eyed them suspiciously as they took the two seats across from his desk. It was a seat Mackenzie was growing used to, sitting there and getting either lectured or praised by McGrath. She wondered which it would be today before he handed them their assignment.
“So, let’s deal with some housekeeping first,” McGrath said. “It’s become clear to me that there’s something going on between you two. I don’t know if it’s love or just a fling or what…and I honestly don’t care. But this is your one and only warning. If it gets in the way of your work, you’ll never be partnered up again. And that would be a damned shame because you work really well together. Am I understood?”
Mackenzie didn’t see the point in denying it. “Yes sir.”
Ellington echoed her response and she smirked when she saw that he looked embarrassed. She figured he wasn’t the sort who was used to getting reprimanded by those above him.
“Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to the case,” McGrath said. “We got a call from the sheriff of a small southern town called Stateton. There’s a home for the blind located there – and that’s about all there is, from what I gather. Last night, a blind woman was killed extremely close to the premises. And while that’s certainly tragic enough, it’s the second murder of a blind person in the state of Virginia within ten days. In both cases, there appears to be trauma to the neck, indicating strangulation, as well as irritation around the eyes.”
“Was the first victim a member of a home as well?” Mackenzie asked.
“Yes, though a much smaller one from what I gather. It was originally speculated that the killer was a family member, but it took less than a week for everyone to be cleared. With a second body and what appears to be a very specific set of targets, it’s likely not just coincidental. So you can understand the urgency of this situation, I hope. Honestly, I get a creeping sort of small town feel to this one. Not many people down there, so it should be easier to find a suspect quickly. I’m assigning this to the two of you because I fully expect you to have it wrapped within forty-eight hours. Less would be even better.”
“Is Agent Harrison not being involved on this one?” Mackenzie asked. Having not spoken to him since the passing of his mother, she felt almost guilty. While he had never truly felt like a partner, she still respected him.
“Agent Harrison has been tasked elsewhere,” McGrath said. “For this case, he will be a resource to you…research, expedited information, and things of that nature. Are you uncomfortable working with Agent Ellington?”
“Not at all, sir,” she said, regretting that she had said anything at all.
“Good. I’ll have human resources book you a room in Stateton. I’m not an idiot…so I’ve requested just one room. If nothing else comes out of this little fling between the two of you, at least it will save the bureau on lodging costs.”
Mackenzie wasn’t sure if this was McGrath’s attempt at humor. It was hard to tell because the man seemed to never smile.
As they got up to head out on their assignment, it occurred to Mackenzie how vague McGrath’s response about Harrison had been. He’s been tasked somewhere else, Mackenzie thought. What’s that supposed to mean?
That wasn’t for her to be concerned with, though. Instead, she had been assigned a case that McGrath was expecting a quick turnaround on. Already, she could feel the challenge brewing inside of her, pushing her to get started right away.