Blake Pierce is author of the bestselling RILEY PAGE mystery series, which includes thirteen books (and counting). Blake Pierce is also the author of the MACKENZIE WHITE mystery series, comprising nine books (and counting); of the AVERY BLACK mystery series, comprising six books; of the KERI LOCKE mystery series, comprising five books; of the MAKING OF RILEY PAIGE mystery series, comprising three books (and counting); of the KATE WISE mystery series, comprising two books (and counting); and of the CHLOE FINE psychological suspense mystery, comprising two 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.
Copyright © 2018 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 Artem Oleshko, used under license from Shutterstock.com.
BOOKS BY BLAKE PIERCE
CHLOE FINE PSYCHOLOGICAL SUSPENSE MYSTERY
NEXT DOOR (Book #1)
A NEIGHBOR’S LIE (Book #2)
KATE WISE MYSTERY SERIES
IF SHE KNEW (Book #1)
THE MAKING OF RILEY PAIGE SERIES
WATCHING (Book #1)
WAITING (Book #2)
LURING (Book #3)
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)
ONCE BURIED (Book #11)
ONCE BOUND (Book #12)
ONCE TRAPPED (Book #13)
ONCE DORMANT (book #14)
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)
BEFORE HE SINS (Book #7)
BEFORE HE HUNTS (Book #8)
BEFORE HE PREYS (Book #9)
BEFORE HE LONGS (Book #10)
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)
CAUSE TO DREAD (Book #6)
KERI LOCKE MYSTERY SERIES
A TRACE OF DEATH (Book #1)
A TRACE OF MURDER (Book #2)
A TRACE OF VICE (Book #3)
A TRACE OF CRIME (Book #4)
A TRACE OF HOPE (Book #5)
At first, Janet Davis was aware of nothing except the terrible pain that rattled through her skull like a thousand castanets playing out of time.
Her eyes were closed. When she tried to open them, she was blinded by glaring white light, and she had to shut them again.
The light felt hot on her face.
Where am I? she wondered.
Where was I before … before this happened?
Then it began to come back to her …
She’d been out taking pictures in the marshes near Lady Bird Johnson Park. It was too late in the summer for the millions of daffodils there to be blooming, but the dogwood leaves were a beautiful deep green, especially around sunset.
She’d been standing in the marina photographing the shadowy boats and the beautiful play of the sunset on the water when she’d heard footsteps swiftly approaching her from behind. Before she could even turn to look, she’d felt a sharp crack on the back of her head, and the camera had flown out of her hands, and …
I lost consciousness, I guess.
But where was she now?
She was too dazed to feel really afraid yet. But she knew that fear would kick in soon.
Slowly she became aware that she was lying flat on her back on some hard surface.
She couldn’t move her arms or legs. Her hands and feet felt numb from tight restraints around her wrists and ankles.
But the weirdest sensation was of fingers all over her face, smearing something soft and moist on her hot skin.
She managed to croak out a few words.
“Where am I? What are you doing?”
When no reply came, she twisted her head, trying to escape the annoying movement of the gooey fingertips.
She heard a male voice whisper …
She had no intention of holding still. She kept twisting until the fingers moved away.
She heard a noisy, disapproving sigh. Then the light shifted so it wasn’t shining directly on her face anymore.
“Open your eyes,” the voice said.
She did so.
Gleaming in front of her was the sharp blade of a butcher knife. The tip of the knife came nearer and nearer to her face, making her eyes cross so that she saw the blade double.
Janet gasped, and the voice whispered again …
She froze, facing directly upward, but a spasm of terror surged through her body.
The voice hissed a command again.
“Still, I said.”
She willed her body to be still. Her eyes were open, but the light was painfully bright and hot, and she couldn’t see anything clearly.
The knife went away, and the fingers resumed smearing, this time around her lips. She gritted her teeth, and she could actually hear them grinding together with terrible pressure.
“Almost through,” the voice said.
Despite the heat, Janet was starting to shiver all over from fear.
The fingers began pressing around her eyes now, and she had to shut them again to keep whatever the man was smearing from getting into them.
Then the fingers moved away from her face, and she could open her eyes again. Now she could make out the silhouette of a grotesquely shaped head moving around in the blazing light.
She felt a terrified sob burst out of her throat.
“Let me go,” she said. “Please let me go.”
The man said nothing. She felt him fumbling around her left arm right now, strapping something elastic around her bicep, then tightening it painfully.
Janet’s panic rose, and she tried not to imagine what was about to happen.
“No,” she said. “Don’t.”
She felt a finger probing around the crook of her arm, then the piercing pain of a needle entering an artery.
Janet let out a shriek of horror and despair.
Then, as she felt the needle leave, a strange transformation came over her.
Her scream suddenly turned into …
She was laughing riotously, uncontrollably, filled with a crazed euphoria she’d never experienced before.
She felt positively invincible now, and infinitely strong and powerful.
But when she tried again to free herself from the bonds around her wrists and ankles, they wouldn’t budge.
Her laughter turned into a surge of wild fury.
“Let me go,” she hissed. “Let me go, or I swear to God, I’ll kill you!”
The man let out a whispering chuckle.
Then he tilted the metal shade of the lamp so that its light blazed on his face.
It was the face of a clown, painted white with huge, bizarre eyes and lips drawn with black and red.
Janet’s breath froze in her lungs.
The man smiled, his teeth a dull yellow in contrast to the rest of his brightly colored face.
He said to her …
“They’re going to leave you behind.”
Janet wanted to ask …
Who are you talking about?
And who are you?
Why are you doing this to me?
But she couldn’t even breathe now.
The knife flashed in front of her face again. Then the man teased its sharp tip lightly across her cheek, down the side of her face, and then across her throat. Just the slightest bit of pressure, and Janet knew that the knife would draw blood.
Her breath started to come again, first in shallow gasps, then in huge gulps of air.
She knew she was starting to hyperventilate, but she couldn’t bring her breathing under control. She could feel her heart pounding inside her chest, could feel and hear its violent pulse between her ears growing faster and louder.
She wondered …
What was in that needle?
Whatever it was, its effects were coming on stronger by the second. She couldn’t escape what was going on in her own body.
As he kept stroking her face with the knife tip, he murmured …
“They’re going to leave you behind.”
She managed to gasp out …
“Who? Who’s going to leave me behind?”
“You know who,” he said.
Janet realized she was losing control of her thoughts. She was flooded with mindless anxiety and panic, mad feelings of persecution and victimhood.
Who does he mean?
Images of friends and family members and coworkers passed through her head.
But their familiar, friendly smiles turned to sneers of contempt and hatred.
Everybody, she thought.
Everybody is doing this to me.
Every person I’ve ever known.
Again, she felt a burst of anger.
I should have known better than to ever trust a single soul.
Worse, she felt as if her skin was literally starting to move.
No, something was crawling all over her skin.
Insects! she thought.
Thousands of them!
She struggled against her restraints.
“Swat them off me!” she begged the man. “Kill them!”
The man chuckled as he kept staring down at her through his grotesque makeup.
He made no offer to help.
He knows something, Janet thought.
He knows something I don’t know.
Then as the crawling continued, it dawned on her …
The insects …
They’re not crawling on my skin.
They’re crawling under it!
Her breathing came harder and faster, and her lungs burned as if she’d been running for a long distance. Her heart pounded even more painfully.
Her head was exploding with a host of violent emotions—fury, fear, disgust, panic, and sheer bafflement.
Had the man injected thousands, perhaps millions, of insects into her bloodstream?
How was that even possible?
In a voice that shook with both anger and self-pity, she asked …
“Why do you hate me?”
The man chuckled louder this time.
He said, “Everybody hates you.”
Janet was having trouble seeing now. Her vision wasn’t getting blurry. Instead, the scene in front of her seemed to be twitching and bouncing and jumping. She imagined she could hear her eyeballs rattling around in their sockets.
So when she saw another clown’s face, she thought she was seeing double.
But she quickly realized …
This face is different.
It was painted with the same colors, but with somewhat different shapes.
It isn’t him.
Under the paint lay familiar features.
Then it dawned her …
Me. That’s me.
The man was holding a mirror up to her face. The hideously garish face she saw was her own.
The sight of that twisted, tearful, yet mocking countenance filled her with a loathing she’d never known before.
He’s right, she thought.
Everybody hates me.
And I’m my own worst enemy.
As if sharing her disgust, the creatures under her skin scurried all about like cockroaches suddenly exposed to sunlight but with nowhere to run and hide.
The man set the mirror aside and began to stroke her face with the knife point again.
He said yet again …
“They’re going to leave you behind.”
As the knife passed over her throat, it occurred to her …
If he cuts me the insects can escape.
Of course the blade would also kill her. But that seemed a small price to pay to be free of the insects and this terror.
She hissed …
“Do it. Do it now.”
Suddenly, the air was filled with ugly and distorted laughter, as if a thousand clowns were noisily gloating in her plight.
The laughter propelled her heart to pound still harder and faster. Janet knew her heart couldn’t possibly take much more of this.
And she didn’t want it to.
She wanted it to stop as soon as possible.
She found herself trying to count the beats …
One, two … three, four, five … six …
But the beats were coming both faster and less regularly.
She wondered—which was going to explode first, her heart or her brain?
Then finally she heard her very last heartbeat, and the world dissolved.
Riley laughed when Ryan snatched the box of books away from her.
She said, “Just let me carry something, OK?”
“It’s too heavy,” Ryan said, carrying the box over to the empty bookshelf. “You shouldn’t be lifting it.”
“Come on, Ryan. I’m pregnant, not sick.”
Ryan put the box down in front of the bookshelf and brushed off his hands.
“You can take out the books and put them on the shelf,” he said.
Riley laughed again.
She said, “You mean you’re giving me permission to help move into our apartment?”
Ryan looked embarrassed now.
“That’s not what I meant,” he said. “It’s just that—well, I worry.”
“And I keep telling you, there’s nothing to worry about,” Riley said. “I’m only six weeks along, and I feel great.”
She didn’t want to mention her occasional bout of morning sickness. So far it hadn’t been very severe.
Ryan shook his head. “Just try not to overdo it, OK?”
“I won’t,” Riley said. “I promise.”
Ryan nodded and went back over to the pile of boxes yet to be unpacked.
Riley pried open the cardboard box in front of her and started putting books on the shelves. She was actually happy to be sitting still and doing a simple job. She realized her mind needed the rest more than her body did.
The last few days had been a whirlwind.
In fact, so had the last couple of weeks.
Her graduation with a psychology degree from Lanton University had been a crazy, life-changing day. Right after the ceremony, an FBI agent had recruited her for the bureau’s ten-week Honors Internship Summer Program. Right after that, Ryan had asked her to move in with him when he started his new job.
The amazing thing was that both her internship program and Ryan’s new job were in Washington, DC. So she hadn’t had to make a choice.
At least he wasn’t freaked out when I told him I was already pregnant, she thought.
In fact, he’d seemed delighted at the time. He’d gotten a bit more nervous about the idea of a baby in the days since graduation—but then, Riley felt plenty nervous about it herself.
The very thought of it boggled her mind. They were just getting started in their lives together, and they’d soon be sharing the greatest responsibility Riley could imagine—raising their own child.
We’d better be ready, Riley thought.
Meanwhile, she felt strange putting her old psychology textbooks onto the shelves. Ryan had tried to talk her into selling them, and she knew that she probably should …
God knows, we need every cent we can get.
Still, she had a feeling she’d be needing them in the future. She wasn’t sure just why or what for.
Anyway, the box also contained a lot of Ryan’s law books, and he hadn’t even considered selling any of them. Of course, he probably would be using them in his new job as an entry-level attorney in the DC law firm of Parsons and Rittenhouse.
When the box was empty and the books all on the shelves, Riley sat on the floor watching Ryan, who kept restlessly pushing and repositioning pieces of furniture as if trying to find the perfect place for everything.
Riley suppressed a sigh …
She knew he really wasn’t happy with this basement apartment. He’d had a nicer apartment back in Lanton, with the same furniture they’d brought here—a pleasantly bohemian collection of secondhand items.
As far as she was concerned, Ryan’s stuff still looked quite nice here. And the little apartment didn’t bother her at all. She’d gotten used to a dorm room back at Lanton, so this place seemed positively luxurious, despite the covered pipes hanging over the bedroom and the kitchen.
True, the apartments on the floors upstairs were much nicer, but this one had been the only one available. When Ryan had first seen it, he’d almost refused to rent it. But the truth was, this was the best they could afford. They were already seriously overextended financially. Ryan had maxed out his credit card with moving expenses, the deposit on the apartment, and everything else they had needed for this momentous change in their lives.
Ryan finally looked over at Riley and said, “What do you say we take a break?”
“Sure,” Riley said.
Riley got up from the floor and sat down at the kitchen table. Ryan grabbed a couple of soft drinks from the refrigerator and sat down with her. The two of them fell silent, and Riley sensed right away that Ryan had something on his mind.
Finally Ryan drummed his fingers on the table and said …
“Uh, Riley, we’ve got to talk about something.”
This really does sound serious, she thought.
Ryan fell silent again, and he had a faraway look in his eyes.
“You’re not breaking up with me, are you?” she asked.
She was joking, of course.
But Ryan didn’t laugh. He seemed to have barely noticed the question.
“Huh? No, it’s nothing like that, it’s …”
His voice trailed away, and Riley felt really uneasy now.
What’s going on? she wondered. Had Ryan’s job fallen through or something?
Ryan looked into Riley’s eyes and said …
“Don’t laugh at me, OK?”
“Why would I laugh?” Riley asked.
A bit shakily, Ryan got up from his chair and kneeled beside her.
And then Riley realized …
Oh, my God! He’s going to propose!
And sure enough, she laughed. It was nervous laughter, of course.
Ryan blushed deeply.
“I told you not to laugh,” he said.
“I’m not laughing at you,” Riley said. “Go ahead, say what you want to say. I’m pretty sure … well, just go ahead.”
Ryan fumbled around in his pants pocket and took out a little black jewelry box. He opened it to reveal a modest but lovely diamond ring. Riley couldn’t help but gasp.
Ryan stammered …
“Uh, Riley Sweeney, would—will you marry me?”
Trying unsuccessfully to hold back her nervous giggles, Riley managed to say …
“Oh, yes. Absolutely.”
Ryan plucked the ring out of the box, and Riley held out her left hand and let him put it on her finger.
“It’s beautiful,” Riley said. “Now get up and sit down with me.”
Ryan smiled sheepishly as he sat down at the table next to her.
“Was the kneeling too much?” he asked.
“The kneeling was perfect,” Riley said. “Everything is just … perfect.”
She stared at the little diamond on her ring finger raptly for a moment. Her spell of nervous laughter had passed, and now she felt a knot of emotion form in her throat.
She really hadn’t seen this coming. She hadn’t even dared to hope for it—at least not this soon.
But here she and Ryan were, taking yet another enormous step in their lives.
As she watched the light play on the diamond, Ryan said …
“I’ll get you a nicer ring someday.”
Riley gasped a little.
“Don’t you dare!” she said. “This is always going to be my only engagement ring!”
But as she kept staring at the ring, she couldn’t help but worry …
How much did this cost?
As if reading her thoughts, Ryan said …
“Don’t worry about the ring.”
Ryan’s reassuring smile made her worry dissolve in an instant. She knew he was no fool when it came to money. He’d probably gotten a good bargain on this ring—although she’d never ask him about it.
Riley then noticed how Ryan’s expression saddened as he looked around the apartment.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
Ryan let out a sigh and said, “I’ll make a better life for you. I promise.”
Riley felt strangely jolted.
She asked, “What’s wrong with the life we’ve got now? We’re young and we’re in love and we’re going to have a baby and—”
“You know what I mean,” Ryan said, interrupting her.
“No, I’m not sure I do,” Riley said.
A silence fell between them.
Ryan sighed again and said, “Look, I’m starting work tomorrow on an entry level salary. I’m not exactly feeling like a huge success in the world. But it’s a good firm, and if I stay with it, I’ll be moving up and I might even become a partner someday.”
Riley gazed at him steadily.
“Someday, sure,” she said. “But you’re off to a great start already. And I like what we’ve got right now.”
Ryan shrugged. “We don’t have much. For one thing, we’ve only got the one car, and I’ll be needing that to go to work, which means …”
Riley interrupted, “Which means I’ll be taking the metro to the training program every morning. What’s wrong with that?”
Ryan reached across the table and took her hand.
“It’s a two-block walk to and from the nearest metro stop,” he said. “And this isn’t the safest neighborhood in the world. The car got broken into once already. I don’t like it that you have to go out there on your own. I’m worried.”
A strange, unpleasant feeling was starting to come over Riley. She wasn’t yet sure just what that feeling was.
She said, “Hasn’t it occurred to you that I actually like this neighborhood? I’ve spent my whole life in rural Virginia. This is an exciting change, an adventure. Besides, you know I’m tough. My dad was a Marine captain. He taught me how to take care of myself.”
She almost added …
And I survived an attack by a serial killer a couple of months ago, remember?
Not only had she survived that attack, she’d helped the FBI track the killer down and bring him to justice. That was why she’d been offered the chance to join the training program.
But she knew that Ryan didn’t want to hear about any of that right now. His masculine pride was feeling delicate at the moment.
And Riley realized something …
I really resent that.
Riley chose her words carefully, trying not to say the wrong thing …
“Ryan, you know, making a better life for us isn’t just up to you. It’s up to both of us. I’m going to have something to do with it. I’m going to have a career of my own.”
Ryan looked away with a frown.
Riley fought down a sigh as she realized …
I said the wrong thing after all.
She’d almost forgotten that Ryan didn’t really approve of her summer internship. She’d reminded him that it was only ten weeks and it wasn’t physical training. She was just going to be watching agents at work, mostly indoors. Besides, she thought it might even lead to an office job right there in the FBI headquarters.
He’d become more agreeable about it, but he certainly wasn’t enthusiastic.
But then, Riley really didn’t know what he might prefer for her.
Did he maybe want her to be a stay-at-home mother? If so, he was going to be disappointed sooner or later.
But now was no time to get into all this.
Don’t spoil this moment, Riley told herself.
She looked at her ring again and then at Ryan.
“This is beautiful,” she said. “I’m really happy. Thank you.”
Ryan smiled and squeezed her hand.
Then Riley said, “So who are we going to share the news with?”
Ryan shrugged. “I don’t know. We don’t really have any friends yet here in DC. I guess I could get in touch with some of my old friends from law school. Maybe you could call your dad.”
Riley frowned at the idea. Her last visit to her father hadn’t been pleasant. Their relationship had always been deeply troubled.
And besides …
“He doesn’t have a phone, remember?” Riley said. “He lives all alone up in the mountains.”
“Oh, yeah,” Ryan said.
“What about your parents?” Riley asked.
Ryan’s smile faded a little.
“I’ll write to them about it,” he said.
Riley had to stop herself from asking …
Why not give them a call?
Maybe then I could actually talk to them.
She’d never met Ryan’s parents, who lived in the small town of Munny, Virginia.
Riley knew that Ryan had grown up among working-class people, and he was very anxious to put that kind of life behind him.
She wondered if he was embarrassed by them or …
Is he embarrassed by me?
Do they even know we’re living together?
Would they approve?
But before Riley could think of how to broach the subject to him, the phone rang.
“Maybe we could just let the machine take that,” Ryan said.
Riley thought about it for a moment as the phone kept ringing.
“It might be something important,” she said. She went to the phone and took the call.
A cheerful, professional-sounding male voice said, “May I speak with Riley Sweeney?”
“This is she,” Riley said.
“This is Hoke Gilmer, your supervisor for the FBI training program. I just wanted to remind you—”
Riley said excitedly, “Yes, I know! I’ll be there bright and early at seven o’clock tomorrow morning!”
“Great!” Hoke replied. “I look forward to meeting you.”
Riley hung up the phone and looked at Ryan. He had a wistful look in his eye.
“Wow,” he said. “Everything’s getting real, isn’t it?”
Riley understood how he felt. Ever since the move from Lanton, they’d seldom been away from one another.
And now, tomorrow, they were both off to their new jobs.
Riley said, “Maybe we need to do something special together.”
“Good idea,” Ryan said. “Maybe go to a movie and find a nice restaurant and …”
Riley laughed as she grabbed him by the hand and pulled him to his feet.
“I’ve got a better idea,” she said.
She pulled him into the bedroom, where they both fell laughing onto the bed.