Her Last Day by T.R. Ragan

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In this page-turner of a thriller by bestselling author T.R. Ragan, unlikely partners PI Jessie Cole and crime reporter Ben Morrison search for clues to a mystery buried in their own pasts—only to discover that sometimes the truth is better off buried.

Ten years ago, PI Jessie Cole and reporter Ben Morrison each suffered a tragedy that changed their lives—and now these two strangers are about to share a nightmare.

For Jessie, who makes her living finding missing persons, no case has consumed her more than the disappearance of her younger sister, Sophie. But left alone to raise Sophie’s daughter, she realizes that solving the case has become an unhealthy obsession.

For Ben, a horrific car accident resulted in scars both physical and emotional—and amnesia that has made his life a mystery. But curiously, out of his shattered memories, there’s one person he recognizes without a doubt: Jessie’s sister. He just doesn’t know why. Yet.

But Sophie isn’t the only phantom drawing Jessie and Ben together. An elusive serial murderer known as the Heartless Killer has reemerged from the shadows. His next move will cut even deeper into Jessie’s worst fears. And for Ben, what happens this time is going to be unforgettable.

  • File Name:her-last-day-by-t-r-ragan.epub
  • Original Title:Her Last Day (Jessie Cole Book 1)
  • Creator:
  • Language:en
  • Identifier:ISBN:9781542046060
  • Publisher:Thomas & Mercer
  • Date:2017-10-23T16:00:00+00:00
  • File Size:559.068 KB

Table of Content

  • 1. Unnamed
  • 2. OTHER TITLES BY T.R. RAGAN FAITH MCMANN TRILOGY Wrath Furious Outrage LIZZY GARDNER SERIES Abducted Dead Weight A Dark Mind Obsessed Almost Dead Evil Never Dies WRITING AS THERESA RAGAN Return of the Rose A Knight in Central Park Taming Mad Max Finding Kate Huntley Having My Baby An Offer He Can’t Refuse Here Comes the Bride I Will Wait for You: A Novella Dead Man Running
  • 3. Unnamed
  • 4. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. Text copyright © 2017 Theresa Ragan All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher. Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle www.apub.com Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates. ISBN-13: 9781542046060 ISBN-10: 1542046068 Cover design by Damon Freeman
  • 5. To all the nurturing, hardworking, tolerant, creative, and courageous women in the world who know the value of listening but who aren’t afraid to speak up when their voices need to be heard. When things get tough, you get tougher. This is for you.
  • 7. PROLOGUE Ten Years Ago He awoke to the smell of burned flesh. The acrid fumes filled his lungs. The crackling roar of fire was deafening, the smoke thick. He was trapped within the passenger seat of a car, hanging upside down, a mangled piece of plastic and metal pressed against his stomach. He couldn’t see the bottom part of his legs, but he felt a fiery heat around his feet and ankles. The car teetered back and forth, precariously, as if at any moment it might roll into the black abyss he saw through the broken windshield. Every muscle tensed. He had no idea how steep the fall would be if the vehicle lost its bearings. His lungs burned. He coughed, tried to breathe, then jerked backward when an arm fell limply through the flames and landed on the middle console. Charred fingers, skin melting from bone. The driver was engulfed in flames. They were both going to die if he didn’t find a way out. Trying to move his legs felt like wasted effort. They were pinned tight and wouldn’t budge.
  • 8. ONE Sacramento, California—Present Day Jessie Cole, private investigator, had been detained inside a small room at the Sacramento Police Department for thirty minutes now as Detective Aaron Roth lectured her. Another police officer stood in the corner. She zeroed in on Detective Roth’s mouth as he talked. It was a habit she couldn’t seem to break. In grammar school she’d had a friend who was deaf. Twice a week Jessie had attended speech-reading class with her, not only for fun but because they were inseparable. She also knew American Sign Language (ASL). In eighth grade her friend had moved away, but Jessie never lost her ability to read lips or sign. In his midforties, Aaron Roth was five foot eleven and had a cleanly shaved head and a thick mustache. As he rambled on—lecturing, reading her rights—she thought about the first time she’d met the detective ten years ago. The eagerness she remembered seeing in his eyes appeared to have been replaced with annoyance and resentment. “Did you
  • 9. TWO He pushed the dresser to his right, then leaned over and pulled open the wooden hatch. A hot wave of stench crept out of the dark space below. He turned away and coughed before he grabbed his backpack and slipped his arms through the shoulder straps. He then made his way down the stairs and into the underground room his father had built beneath their house before he was born. The room was a one-thousand-square-foot space consisting of two jail cells made of crude metal bars and another enclosed cell with a slot in the middle of the door that made it easy to feed his prisoner without opening the door. He waved his hands around to get the air circulating before lighting the oil lamps hanging from metal hooks on the wall. The space had been reinforced with concrete, which had created condensation. It was dank and damp, and the walls were covered with mildew. A large crack ran through the back wall and across a section of cement flooring. At times he wondered if these walls would cave
  • 10. THREE As Colin walked to his car, he inwardly scolded himself for volunteering his services. His reasoning was twofold. Number one, he was busy working the Heartless Killer case. The serial killer had been leaving a trail of fear throughout the city of Sacramento for six years now. Every morning before school, parents warned their children to be aware of their surroundings and never go anywhere alone. Even the wariest residents were unnerved. The FBI profiler who had been brought in to help said the Heartless Killer was a smart, single white male, a loner between the age of twenty-nine and thirty-six who came from a troubled family and had most likely suffered significant abuse. The list went on. Traits of many serial killers. Nothing new. Based on his findings, Colin would add that this particular single white male killer was fearless. He went into people’s homes and took victims from public places in broad daylight without being detected. That was not something a lot of serial killer
  • 11. FOUR It was a quarter past five when Ben Morrison left his workplace, a ten-thousand-square-foot cement-gray building that housed the Sacramento Tribune. He’d been working as a crime reporter there for twenty years, the first ten of which he had no recollection of, owing to a car accident that had left him with retrograde amnesia. After the accident he’d had no memory of his sister or his deceased parents. But something beautiful had come from the tragedy. He’d fallen in love with and married the nurse who’d helped put him back together again. At his wife’s insistence, he’d tried to reconnect with his sister over the years, but she and her husband had moved to Florida, and his phone calls went unanswered. Today was another hot one. The air was thick and dry, sucking the moisture out of every living thing and making it a chore to breathe. It had been a long day, and he was eager to get home. As he approached his 1978 Ford Club Wagon, he heard a distant call for help and stopped to look
  • 12. FIVE Erin walked slowly around the inside perimeter of the cell, her fingers trailing across rebar and then the rough cement wall as she searched for a way out. She couldn’t stop shivering. She forced herself to sit back down and think for a minute. Instinct insisted she stay calm. The oil lamps had been turned off, but Erin could still see shadows and hear the crunching of straw whenever Garrett moved. “You have to kill me,” he said. “The boss is angry, and that means he’ll be back.” “I won’t kill you, so stop asking. We need to save the battery power and use the Taser on that monster when he returns.” “You don’t have to use the Taser on me. You’re young, and you haven’t been here long, so you’re still strong. Wrap your fingers around my throat, and press your thumbs against my trachea. If I struggle, don’t let go.” He crawled close enough to her that she could see the whites of his eyes. “I’m begging you,” he said. “Please. I can’t do this any longer.” “I won’t do it.” “You don’t hav
  • 13. SIX While Olivia sat at the kitchen table doing homework, Colin made some calls and worked on what he needed to go over with his team in the morning. Frustrations in the department were at an all-time high. Now that all leads had been exhausted, he realized it might be time to have one of the retired detectives look over the case files to see if they could find anything that might have been missed. He also considered getting the media involved, have them do a story on the case and ask for help from the community to see if they could spark someone’s memory. Someone out there knew something. Either he wasn’t willing to come forward, or he had no idea about the importance of what he’d seen. Too many guys in the department had worked long hours, missing out on family events—and for what? The Heartless Killer had been hanging around for too long. He needed to be stopped. And yet it wasn’t going to be easy to find a killer whose MO kept changing. The Heartless Killer was no Jack the Ripper.
  • 14. SEVEN Jessie was jolted awake by a bloodcurdling scream. It took her a second to remember she’d slept in jail. The cot was lopsided, and the place smelled of vomit that someone had tried to cover up with bleach. Detective Roth had been kind enough to make sure she was put in her own holding cell, far enough away from the shit disturbers to get a few hours of sleep. She sat up and pushed tangled hair out of her face. This wasn’t the first time she’d been thrown in jail, but it was the first time she’d ever spent the night there. There were no windows, and she had no idea what time it was. She wondered about Olivia. Was she okay? Had Colin made sure she’d gotten something to eat? Did he take her to school? Feeling dizzy, Jessie lowered her head close to her knees and took deep breaths. She’d never done well in small enclosures, and the strong smell of disinfectant wasn’t helping. A few minutes later, footfalls sounded. Down the corridor she saw a guard coming her way. Following close beh
  • 15. EIGHT Erin awoke to the sound of chattering teeth. It took her a second to realize she was the one making the noise. She wondered how long she’d dozed off for. She was freezing, and it was pitch-dark. As her gaze darted around the cell, she rubbed the chill from her arms. “Garrett?” No answer. Pushing herself to her feet, she hoped her eyes would adjust to the dark. No such luck. She held both arms straight and stiff in front of her like a mummy in an old black-and-white movie and walked slowly across the small space. A few seconds passed before her hand came into contact with something cold and fleshy. She yanked her arm back. “Garrett,” she said again. “Is that you?” Still no answer. She swallowed as she reached out again and forced herself to touch whatever it was in front of her. It was definitely a human form, bony, skeletal. She held back a cry. Standing on the tips of her toes, she felt the cloth around his neck, and realized then what he’d been doing with the backpack. He’d spe
  • 16. NINE Jessie’s first stop after leaving Olivia home with the dog was her dad’s house in East Sacramento off Riverside Boulevard. It was the house where she and Sophie had been raised. With its unstable foundation, cracked walkways, and neglected grounds, she was surprised the property had been accepted as a pledge toward bail. She knocked on the door, three hard raps. Her dad used to be a carpenter, but after he’d started drinking, he couldn’t be trusted to show up on time. Now he worked as a handyman. Ethan Cole’s Handyman Services. She was about to get her hopes up when she heard lumbering footfalls approaching from inside. The door came open. “Hi, Dad.” He tightened the sash on his robe. Although his thick salt-and-pepper hair was all over the place and he needed a shave, for a fifty-nine-year-old drunk, he was in pretty good shape. Clearly he wasn’t expecting visitors. “Can I come inside?” “Yeah, um, sure, of course.” She stepped past him, walked down the hallway and into the family
  • 17. TEN “Not now. I’m busy,” Ian Savage said without looking up. Ben Morrison ignored his boss and took a seat in front of Ian’s rough wood desk, which he’d made from a fallen oak tree. Tall and reed thin, the man was nearing seventy. In a crowd, or anywhere for that matter, you couldn’t miss his abundance of silver hair. Old woodsy cologne came off him in waves, which always made Ben think the old man had more than one gargantuan bottle of the stuff hidden away at home. “This will only take a minute,” Ben told him. Ian continued to search through files and papers stacked in front of him, ignoring Ben completely. He was always misplacing something, always grumpy and seemingly discombobulated. “I want to do a serial story. Just enough words every week to keep readers wanting more.” Ian’s reply came out sounding like a grunt, which motivated Ben to continue. “I want to investigate the disappearance of a young woman who went missing ten years ago,” Ben said. “But first some backstory. Two sis
  • 18. ELEVEN Fatigue was setting in by the time Jessie arrived at the building on Nineteenth Street where she rented a two-hundred-square-foot space for $400 a month. It was the smallest office in the building, but the only one that had a window facing the street. The best part was that it was only a block and a half away from where she lived. She blew at a light coating of dust on the stainless steel sign on the door that read: JESSIE COLE DETECTIVE AGENCY. She unlocked the door and stepped inside. The first thing she’d done after finding the place was paint the walls light gray and install white crown molding, making it look up-to-date and professional. Her desk, a sturdy piece of wood with four steel legs, faced the door. The window overlooking the street was to her right and provided a lot of natural light. A row of filing cabinets against the wall took up most of the space. The nicest piece of furniture was her client chair. She’d found it on a street corner with a sign that said, TAKE
  • 19. TWELVE Colin stood on the side of a frontage road that ran parallel to Highway 80. This morning’s briefing concerning the Heartless Killer case had been short. A career criminal apprehension team (CCAT) would continue to work surveillance and talk to witnesses from past crime scenes connected to the killer in hopes of coming across a new lead. Unlike mass murderers, whose rage often erupted in one catastrophic act of vengeance, serial killers did whatever they could to escape detection. Even with the advancement of investigative techniques, there was only so much forensics could accomplish. Unless the killer was betrayed by an accomplice, identified by a relative, or grew overly confident and, in turn, increasingly careless, he could go on killing for years to come. It had been documented that about 20 percent of all serial killers were never brought to justice for their crimes. It was times like this that Colin felt for every detective who’d worked the case and would never get back ti
  • 20. THIRTEEN The house he’d been watching for more than a year now belonged to Mike and Natalie Bailey. From his perch in the highest branches of an oak tree, he had a perfect view of the kitchen window. He saw Mike Bailey step up behind his wife, kiss her cheek, and then wrap his arms around her waist while she rinsed the dishes. Under the soft glow of the kitchen light, he could make out the slight curve of her lips when she smiled. He shifted his weight from his right hip to his left. He hadn’t planned on sitting in the tree for so long. Usually that wouldn’t be a problem since he’d been climbing trees for as long as he could remember. After mastering the art of climbing gangly-limbed oaks, he’d moved on to pines and redwoods. From there he’d conquered fences and walls. His ability to climb trees had often saved him from his father’s tortuous whims. Mike walked away, leaving Natalie alone. His chest tightened. Tonight was the night. He’d learned a lot about the couple just from picking
  • 21. FOURTEEN Jessie awoke to the sound of a barking dog. Even then it took her a moment to remember Higgins. When she opened her eyes, she saw Olivia’s cat, Cecil, sitting on the dresser straight ahead, staring at her with his one gold-speckled eye. “How did you get in here?” Cecil meowed. She threw off the covers, climbed out of bed, and walked into the main room, where she could see Olivia in the kitchen making a bag lunch for school. “Good morning,” she said to Olivia as she watched the dog use his three good legs to scoot across the wood floor. Cecil had followed her from the bedroom. His long tail brushed across her calf before he jumped on top of the couch and stared the dog down. Higgins was too focused on Olivia to notice. “Morning,” Olivia said. “I didn’t think you were ever going to wake up.” “You should have woke me.” “Bella is picking me up. And I knew you needed sleep after spending the night in jail.” “Thanks,” Jessie said with a roll of her eyes, knowing she would never live
  • 22. FIFTEEN Jessie had been at the office for a while when she looked at the time and saw that it was already ten thirty. Looked like Ben Morrison was a no-show. She would give him until noon before she went to check on Higgins. Her phone rang. It was Adelind Rain. “Sorry I had to run off yesterday,” she said without prelude. “No problem.” “I’m calling to let you know I quit my job. My parents are worried, and so am I. I’m moving back to Seattle.” “Did something happen since I saw you?” Adelind hesitated before saying, “I got a call in the middle of the night. Heavy breathing. Are you sure Parker Koontz is still in the hospital?” “I was told he’s in a coma, but I’ll call the hospital to see if there has been any change.” “If it’s not him, who would be calling me? It makes no sense, and yet it can’t be a coincidence.” Jessie didn’t have an answer for her. There was a long pause before Adelind said, “If you could let me know what I owe you, I can get that taken care of before I leave.” Jessi
  • 23. SIXTEEN Arlo Gatley remained in Jessie’s office for another hour and a half, filling out paperwork and talking about Zee. Apparently his daughter heard voices. Zee talked to herself, even got into arguments with her reflection in the mirror. She’d once hidden inside a mail truck, and twice she’d made herself at home at the neighbor’s house. The first time she was making a sandwich, and the second time she was asleep in the master bedroom. Two years ago she was fired from her job at a large retailer after she slapped a customer across the face for being rude. All the stories combined made Jessie realize that this girl could be absolutely anywhere. It was two o’clock by the time Jessie stepped outside and walked down the block toward home to check on Higgins. A few minutes later, she slipped the key into the lock on her front door when she heard someone call her name from across the street. Glancing over her shoulder, she noticed a tall, broad-shouldered man heading her way. She recogniz
  • 24. SEVENTEEN Erin could hardly move. Her breathing quickened. Don’t panic. She was on her back, faceup, arms at her sides. When she tried to lift her head, her forehead smacked against wood. Closing her eyes, she forced herself to take calming breaths. But it was no use. She wanted to scream for help. But then what? Would that alert the freak? No. No. No. Don’t scream. She bit down on her lip and counted to five. The sound of her heartbeat pounded inside her head. How had she come to be there? The freak had been angry with her. She remembered that much. He’d said something about a box. That was the last thing she’d heard him say before everything went black. Had he hit her over the head? Drugged her? She had no recollection whatsoever. She used the tips of her bare toes to feel around and get an idea of the length of the box. If she pointed her toe, she touched wood. Damp wood. She could raise her knee only a few inches before making contact. The wood was soft. She jerked her knee upward,
  • 25. EIGHTEEN In the morning Jessie called the hospital to check on Parker Koontz. According to a nurse on the fifth floor, his condition had not changed. Although she wouldn’t elaborate further, she was adamant that his current condition would have prevented him from making a phone call. Next on the list was a visit to the coffee shop on Sixteenth Street where Adelind Rain had said she’d met a barista by the name of Fiona Hampton. According to Adelind, Fiona had also been stalked by Parker Koontz. Jessie hopped into the car and started the engine, hoping Fiona would be willing to talk to her. So far her research had proven everything David Roche had said about Parker Koontz was true. He was a well-respected, hardworking attorney who volunteered his free time to worthy causes. So why the hell had the man shot blanks at her? He had a clean record, and nothing she could find so far indicated he might be suicidal. After finding a parking spot on the street, Jessie got out and walked a half blo
  • 26. NINETEEN Erin’s eyes snapped open at the sound of heavy footsteps against the ground. Her space inside the box was so cramped she could hardly move. Her claustrophobia was real, making her heart race. Breathe. Calm down. Pressing her lips together, she forced herself to remain quiet. If the footsteps continued on, she would scream. Because that could mean there were other people, hired help who came by to feed the animals. Even now she could hear pigs grunting and ducks quacking. The rooster would crow at sunrise. But if the footsteps stopped, that would mean it could be him. In that case, she would stay quiet. If he opened the lid, she could use the splinters of wood she’d collected to gouge his eyes out. Being confined did strange things to her mind. She had no idea how long she’d been in the box. She’d been drifting in and out of sleep, hot during the day and cold at night. Two nights or three? If she thought about it for too long, she could convince herself she’d been trapped in th
  • 27. TWENTY After spending the afternoon going door-to-door talking to Arlo’s neighbors, Jessie wasn’t any closer to finding his daughter. Arlo had been right. His neighbors didn’t like him. More than a few of his neighbors had talked about the Gatleys as if they were a disgrace to humanity and deserved to be carted off and locked behind bars. Their reasoning had boiled down to the simple fact that Arlo and Zee looked and acted different than most “normal” people did. Zee wore dark lipstick, dark nail polish, and apparently a long dark coat that one of the neighbors described as “Goth,” and the other called “witchy.” Others had refused to answer the door at all, peeking through their curtains or telling her through the door to go away. Back at the office, Jessie sat at her desk, staring at a long list of things to get done. There were subpoenas to serve and a deadbeat dad who needed to be hunted down. It had taken her years to acquire the skills needed to find her niche in the investigative
  • 28. TWENTY-ONE Jessie and Ben exited the car and then walked side by side toward the entrance of the Wild West. The place was well hidden, not far from trails for hiking and horseback riding amid foothills and waterfalls. The building looked like an old Western saloon with a wide boardwalk that flanked the dusty, unpaved parking area. A couple of hitching posts completed the look. The Wild West was known for its whiskey and loud music. The regulars wore cowboy boots and wide-brim hats. It was past four when they pushed through the swing doors and walked inside. The wood floors creaked under their feet. Chairs were made from wine barrels, and the tables were mostly warped and scarred. There were a few customers scattered about, since they served hot soup and sandwiches during the day. Ben introduced himself to the bartender and asked if Leanne Baxter was around. The bartender disappeared inside the back room, and a minute later Leanne appeared. Leanne looked the same—round face, sky-blue ey
  • 29. TWENTY-TWO I’m going to kill him. You’re not going to kill him because when I’m done with him, he’s going to be blood and guts, splattered to bits like a bug on a windshield. “Shut up,” Zee told the voices in her head as she looked around. She was inside an ugly, straw-covered, stench-filled cell, and through a shared wall of metal bars, she saw a naked woman curled into a ball, lying on the ground in the cell next to her. “Hey, you!” Zee shouted. No response. “Are you dead?” Who cares? You’re going to be dead if you don’t find a way out of here! I told you not to try to find that weirdo, but you wouldn’t listen. You never listen. Zee rubbed the knot on the back of her head. It hurt like hell. The voices weren’t the only ones who wanted blood. A minute later she heard footsteps coming down the narrow wooden stairs at the far end of what looked to her like a shitty basement. When she’d first met the socially awkward man at Rainbow Park six months ago, he’d told her his name was Scar, wh
  • 30. TWENTY-THREE It was late that same night when Jessie heard a knock at the door. She crept down the stairs and peeked through the peephole. It was Colin. She opened the door. He looked like hell. “What’s going on?” “Did I wake you?” “No.” She’d been reading through old files on her sister’s case. “Come inside.” She led the way up the stairs and then followed him around the house as he checked the locks on windows and doors. “What are you doing? What’s going on?” “It’s happening again,” he said. “The Heartless Killer has struck again.” “Are you sure?” He turned to face her. Dark shadows appeared as half-moons beneath his eyes. “The mayor isn’t convinced. He doesn’t want to panic the public, but we’re seeing the same pattern as last time. A group of people goes missing, and dead bodies from his last hunt begin to emerge. Last year it was a married couple, Garrett and Robin Ramsey, taken while picnicking in a wooded area. Two days later, a teenage boy disappeared after leaving a party—” “A
  • 31. TWENTY-FOUR When Colin walked into the crime lab, Evelyn Klein, longtime friend and forensic pathologist, was waiting for him. They both wore blue, ankle-length, long-sleeve surgical gowns, shoe covers, and latex gloves. On the steel table in front of Evelyn was Garrett Ramsey, his pale, ashy flesh stretched tautly over bone. His feet were swollen, blackening; his eyes were bulging, marked by severe trauma; and his throat stretched and circled with a reddish-purple welt. “His expression says it all,” Evelyn said. Colin nodded as he continued his own examination. The burn marks on Garrett Ramsey’s legs were easy to identify, same with the markings made from a whip or belt across his abdomen. He pointed to the bloody holes in the man’s hands. “Any idea what caused those?” “Looks like nails.” She picked up a hand to show him that the hole went clear through. “This man was tortured in every way imaginable. These stab wounds,” she said, her gloved finger following the path along the length
  • 32. TWENTY-FIVE Jessie parked in front of Arlo’s house, but before she or Olivia could climb out of the car, she saw the front door open. “Stay here,” she told Olivia as she reached for the picture, “while I talk to Zee’s dad.” Arlo stepped out of the house and shut the door behind him. “What are you doing here?” he asked, seemingly put out by her visit. Ignoring his bluster, she handed him the eight-by-ten photo she’d had blown up and pointed at the man in the reflection of Zee’s sunglasses. “Look at that man,” she said. “He’s holding a Polaroid camera and taking Zee’s picture. Have you ever seen him before?” He looked at it for a long while, his trembling hands causing the photo to shake. A light sheen of sweat covered his forehead, and for the life of her, she had no idea what was going through his mind. Afraid to ask him if he was okay, since that hadn’t gone well the first time she’d met him, she simply waited for him to talk. A solid two minutes passed before he looked back at Jessie
  • 33. TWENTY-SIX The most important part of Ben’s job as a crime reporter was spending time on the crime beat. He hung around police stations, firehouses, and medical technicians. He’d gone on countless ride-alongs and had been walked through unsolved cases with a number of homicide detectives. He knew the judicial process because of long hours spent in the courthouse. He knew what police officers and detectives dealt with on a daily basis. Too often reporters merely wrote accounts of a crime as it occurred, using little background or depth. A good reporter needed to do his homework, which is why Ben had spent enough time with these guys to earn their respect. They knew he cared about trends and the impact crimes had on a community. And for that reason, he was granted access to things many reporters were not. Today Ben was at the Auburn Police Department, waiting to talk to Police Lieutenant Anne Garcia. He liked Anne. She was professional and seemed to see things many people didn’t. She’d a
  • 34. TWENTY-SEVEN Natalie Bailey couldn’t stop thinking about Mike. Was her husband okay? She prayed he was okay. And if he was okay, that would mean he’d be frantic. And yet there was nothing she could do to help either one of them. She was trapped. Locked in an ancient-looking handcrafted cell that had been welded together with rebar that was bent and rusting in places. She had no idea how she’d ended up in this place with its cracked, uneven cement walls and moldy smell. Beneath the fresh straw, she could smell a hint of bleach. How many people had been locked up before her? And who was in the enclosed cell nearby? Every once in a while she’d hear a long, mournful cry. At first she’d thought it was a wolf. Now she wasn’t so sure. The last thing she remembered before waking up in her own personal hell was being home in her warm bed. Sometime well after midnight, she’d felt the weight of a hand clamped tightly over her mouth. Her eyes had shot open, and she’d seen a shadowy figure hovering
  • 35. TWENTY-EIGHT After driving to the Wild West in Auburn and being told that Leanne Baxter had the day off, Ben drove to the apartment building where he knew she lived, since he’d talked to her landlord a few days ago. Calling it a shithole was being kind. Trash, piles of it, littered the parking lot and the edges of the property. Windows were covered with sheets, and more than one rat scurried past him before he made it to the stairs. A shouting match between a man and a woman was taking place inside one of the apartments. He stopped in front of 5B and knocked. The curtain moved. A few seconds later the door opened, but only an inch. He recognized Leanne as the one peeking through the crack. A TV blared in the background. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “How did you get my home address? That bitch at the bar, the one who—” “I found you on my own,” Ben said, cutting her off. “I talked to your landlord, remember?” “Oh.” “I want to show you something, and then I’ll leave. I promise.”
  • 36. TWENTY-NINE “I’m going to take Higgins for a walk,” Jessie told Olivia. She needed to get out, get some air. She didn’t want Olivia to know she was still wound up after thinking she’d lost her. Olivia waved a hand above her head to let Jessie know she’d heard. She was watching TV and eating a grilled cheese sandwich. “Maybe you should work on your report.” Another wave of the hand. Jessie sighed, grabbed the leash, and called Higgins’s name. The dog lifted his head and scurried around, his cast slipping on the floor before he finally got to his feet. Less than a week, and the dog already responded to his new name. He didn’t seem to know he had a broken leg, either. “You’re starting to like me—aren’t you, Higgins?” Higgins ignored her. He was halfway down the stairs, eager to get to the dog park. Overall, he was a good dog. He never made trouble with other dogs, and as long as she and Olivia kept things put away in the house, he mostly chewed on his rubber toys and bones she’d bought hi
  • 37. THIRTY Zee stood motionless at the door of her cell. She had given up trying to break the weakened rebar for now. Her arms still hurt from the effort. The voices in her head had finally calmed, but the howling in the enclosed cell next to her had started up again. She looked at Natalie. She was sitting on the ground, her back and shoulders leaning against the wall, her head tilted forward so that her chin rested on her chest. Zee wasn’t sure if the woman was awake, but she talked loud enough to be heard over the din. “Do you think that’s man or beast making all that noise?” “Man,” Natalie said without looking up. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” After a short pause, Zee said, “We need to find a way out of here.” The woman lifted her head. “Agreed.” “Sorry if I went a little crazy earlier. Without my medication, it’s not easy being me.” “Do you have an illness?” “I have schizophrenia,” Zee said. “A disease of the brain. The doctor told me there are abnormalities in my brain’s structure an
  • 38. THIRTY-ONE Jessie had returned from the hospital fifteen minutes ago. After being interrogated by Olivia about what had happened during the attack, Jessie had escaped to the bathroom. As she washed her hands, she looked at her reflection in the mirror. Her right eye was puffy and shaded with a half-moon of grayish black. She’d needed nine stitches under the left side of her chin. Gauze and tape covered her wound. The doctor had told her she’d been lucky. If the cut had been any deeper, she could have suffered nerve damage, or worse. Before she’d run into Colin, she’d been in shock. Seeing all that blood had made her dizzy, barely able to walk. If she closed her eyes, she could see her attacker. Average height and build. No identifying tattoos or marks. He had expressive eyes. Angry eyes. When she walked out of the bathroom, Colin was exiting the kitchen carrying a bowl of soup that he’d warmed up in the microwave. He set it next to the hot tea waiting for her on the table in front of t
  • 39. THIRTY-TWO Ben’s first stop after watching his oldest kid play soccer was John Hardcastle’s house off Gunn Road in Carmichael. John, a tech writer, had retired from the Tribune eleven months ago. It was his HTML skills, not stringing words together, that had landed him a job with his first tech publication back in the day. But along the way, John had fallen in love with journalism. Before he retired, he’d often entertained Ben with stories about how serious and socially inept Ben had been when he’d first come to work for the newspaper. Although Ben couldn’t say whether the stories were true or not, the two men had become fast friends after Ben’s accident. Although Ben tended to be an introvert, he honestly missed having John around. Ben had to knock on the door quite a few times before he heard movement inside the house. The door came open. “Hey there, pal. Long time no see.” “Mind if I come in?” John scratched the salt-and-pepper scruff covering his chin before gesturing inside. “Come
  • 40. THIRTY-THREE With raw, bloodied fingers, Erin removed the last of the rotted wood from around the lock. Her shoulders relaxed, and she took a breath before she lifted the lid. It was dark, which meant it was time to make her escape. Too weak from lack of food and water to push the lid all the way to the other side, she twisted her body in such a way that she could reach both arms out of the box, grab clumps of grass and weeds, and pull herself free. Wood scraped against her head and then her back as she pulled and pushed, grunted and groaned. She ignored the sharp pain pressing against her skull as her fingers dug into hard clumps of dirt. All her energy was focused on holding tight to the prickly weeds and grass. Finally, she was able to use her legs to push herself from the box. She lay there for a moment, her chest heaving. The night air was cold. Goose bumps covered her body. Her gaze darted about, then followed a dirt path to a barn. Staying low, she crawled on her belly in the op
  • 41. THIRTY-FOUR Ten o’clock the next day, Jessie was getting ready to head to the office when a knock at the door prompted Higgins to jump to his feet. The dog was filling out, had some meat on his ribs, and his patchy fur was looking better. “It’s okay,” Jessie told Higgins as she made her way to the window. Ben Morrison stood at the front door. He looked up, saw her standing there, and waved. “It’s Ben,” she told the dog. “You’ve met him before.” But Higgins didn’t care who it was. He stayed close to her heels, growling all the way down the stairs. Holding tight to his collar, she opened the door. It took Ben only a moment to calm Higgins down. When he finally straightened, he looked at her and frowned. “What happened to you?” “I was attacked yesterday. Nine stitches. I look worse than I feel.” She gave the dog a pat on the head. “Thanks to Higgins, I was able to use my pepper spray and get away.” “Good dog.” He stroked the animal’s back. “Where did it happen?” “A few blocks from here.”
  • 42. THIRTY-FIVE Nothing was working out as planned. He’d enjoyed having someone to talk to, but Zee had ruined everything. The fact that she was certifiably crazy had made her interesting to be around. But he’d never once thought of bringing her here. He’d had so many ideas about what to do with Natalie, but having Zee in the cell next to her made it difficult to concentrate. He thought about throwing Zee in the box for a few days, but she was a big girl, and the box would never fit her. He could kill her, but last night he’d had an epiphany. All he had to do was build the perfect place to keep Zee. If he could do that, he would always have someone to talk to. She wouldn’t die without her meds, and although she might be angry with him now, she would come around eventually. Anyone with two eyes could see she was infatuated with him. The notion amused him. Only a schizo could fall in love with the man dubbed the Heartless Killer. They were meant to be. The stacks of cement bags piled in the
  • 43. THIRTY-SIX Jessie walked Ben Morrison outside to his car just as Colin was crossing the street. She made quick introductions. “Colin Grayson, homicide detective with the Sacramento Police Department, I’d like you to meet Ben Morrison, crime reporter with the Sacramento Tribune.” “I’ve heard of you,” Colin said, “but I don’t believe we’ve ever met in person.” Ben nodded as they shook hands. “So, what’s going on?” Colin asked, turning toward Jessie. “Ben is doing his own investigation on Sophie’s disappearance.” “I thought you had decided to move on?” Her chin came up a notch. “I changed my mind.” “I should get going,” Ben said. “Good to finally meet you.” “Yeah, you, too.” Colin looked at Jessie. “You should be resting.” “I took some ibuprofen. I’ll be fine.” Jessie stepped around Colin so she could thank Ben for coming. After he drove off, she looked at Colin for a long moment. “Are you okay?” She hooked her thumbs in the front pockets of her jeans and smiled at him. “I am now that you
  • 44. THIRTY-SEVEN Zee felt dazed and out of sorts. Her stomach rumbled and growled, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten in days. Her face and part of her neck was swollen from spider bites. It had taken hours to rid herself of them all. She’d begun to sweat and vomit. When it became hard to breathe, she’d thought she was dying. But Natalie had talked to her in a calming voice. The more upset Zee got, the calmer Natalie became. Zee felt pain in her joints when she stood for too long. Worse than that was the hunger. She’d chewed on the dirty straw littering the ground, but it wasn’t helping. “Are we dying?” she asked Natalie. Natalie was in her usual spot, facing Zee, her back against the cement wall. “I don’t know.” “What if he starves us to death?” “We’ll be okay. I read once that dying of starvation is a peaceful way to go.” “I don’t see how.” “Do you really want to know what happens?” “Yes, I do.” “Simply put,” Natalie told her, “once the organs fail to work, the body will slip into a com
  • 45. THIRTY-EIGHT Not long after Colin had left, Jessie grabbed her purse. “Come on,” she said to Olivia. “Let’s go.” “Where are we going?” “To Woodland. I want to look Arlo Gatley in the eyes when they take him away.” “Why?” “It’s something I need to do.” “What if he’s dangerous?” “If the police haven’t arrived, I won’t get out of the car until he’s in handcuffs.” Jessie didn’t want to freak Olivia out, but there was no way she was going to leave Olivia home alone. “I always carry pepper spray,” Jessie told her, “and we can bring Higgins along for the ride, too.” Olivia jumped up from the couch and grabbed the leash and a couple of treats for Higgins. They had been on the highway for at least five minutes when Olivia turned to Jessie and said, “Are you all right?” “Why do you ask?” “You don’t look well, for one thing. I’m worried about you. The cut on the side of your face looks kind of puffy and swollen.” “Don’t worry. I’m taking antibiotics. I feel fine.” “I overheard some of your conver
  • 46. THIRTY-NINE First thing Tuesday morning, after his wife and kids pulled out of the driveway, Ben Morrison finished dressing, grabbed an apple from the bowl of fruit sitting on the counter, and jumped into his van parked in front of the house. The engine sputtered for a few seconds longer than usual before roaring to life. The first time Ben had seen Sophie Cole on TV, he’d never thought his investigation into her disappearance would become so entangled with his own accident. Last night he’d focused on the stolen vehicle. At the time of Ben’s accident, investigators had referred to it as an open-and-shut case. Vernon Doherty had stolen the car and was driving drunk when he plowed head-on into a tree in Auburn. The morning after the crash, it was confirmed that the stolen vehicle belonged to Caleb Montana, who’d reported it missing. The police had brought Mr. Montana in for questioning, and, of course, Ben had done his own thorough investigation, but everything had pointed to Vernon Dohe
  • 47. FORTY After calling Marcus Hubbard in Woodland and leaving a message asking him to call her, Jessie drove to the police station where they were holding Arlo Gatley. He’d waived his right to be booked into the station in Yolo County. She signed in at the front desk, asked to speak with Colin Grayson, and then took a seat and waited. A few minutes later Colin appeared. “What are you doing here?” “I want to speak to my client Arlo Gatley about his missing daughter.” “Jessie, that’s not a good idea.” “I need to see him, Colin. I need to figure out what I’m going to do next. She suffers from schizophrenia. Without her father to look for her, she has no one.” She sighed. “This is important to me.” He shifted his weight. “Did you find something in Arlo’s house? Is that why he was arrested?” “We found the necklace. The father of the twins came to the station last night and confirmed that it belonged to their daughter.” Jessie anchored her hair behind her ear. She felt strangely betrayed by Arl
  • 48. FORTY-ONE Ben sat at the top of the metal bleachers overlooking the soccer field where Abigail was practicing with her team. He looked at his watch. Practice should have ended ten minutes ago. He had an appointment with the coroner, and he didn’t want to be late. The coroner who had signed off on Vernon Doherty’s autopsy report had since passed away. But Melissa Erickson had been trained by her predecessor and was willing to go over the report with him. The coach called the players into a huddle, one arm around the goalie, the other around his daughter’s shoulder. Eyes narrowed, Ben stood, his gaze locked on the coach as he made his way to solid ground and walked by the other parents waiting for their children to come off the field. The coach’s thumb brushed against his daughter’s neck. She didn’t flinch, didn’t seem to notice. The coach flashed a wide smile at Abigail before the team straightened and said in unison, “Go, Pink Panthers!” The coach was giving the girls high fives by the
  • 49. FORTY-TWO Ben and his wife were in their bedroom. The door was locked. Melony was pacing the floor in front of the bed while Ben changed out of his work clothes. “What were you thinking?” Melony asked him. “Bringing our daughter to the morgue? Did you know she caught a glimpse of a corpse as it was wheeled through the hallway?” He shook his head. “She didn’t mention it.” “What’s going on, Ben? You promised me twice that you would get help.” He sighed. “I talked to Lori Mitchell today, and she said she called and left you a message to come see her and that you never showed up.” “Melony,” he said after he pulled a T-shirt over his head, “I’ve got a lot going on right now. I really don’t need to be lectured. I’ll make another appointment. I promise.” She stopped pacing and instead crossed her arms tightly over her chest. “Abigail said that you embarrassed her in front of her friends and the new coach.” “Have you met the guy?” “Of course I have. He’s a good man, a decent husband and father
  • 50. FORTY-THREE Jessie woke to the smell of urine and rotten eggs. Her head throbbed. Her vision was blurry. When she tried to move, she realized her hands were fastened behind her back, tied to a wobbly wooden chair. Her gaze darted around the room, but it was dark, and all she could see were shadows. Her heart raced as she took in her surroundings. Two crudely made cells and another room with a door that was secured with a thick chain and a padlock. A movement in one of the cells caught her attention. What was that? “Who’s there?” Jessie asked. “My name is Zee Gatley. Who are you?” “Zee?” “Do you know me?” Jessie’s heart raced. “Your father hired me to find you.” Another shadow caught her attention. In the cage next to Zee’s, a pale-skinned human on his or her hands and knees crawled to the middle of the cell, looking out as if to see what was going on. It was a woman. She looked as if she’d been starved. Her face was gaunt, her cheeks sunken. “That’s Natalie,” Zee said. “And there’s a m
  • 51. FORTY-FOUR The moment Ben caught sight of the weather vane jutting out from the top of the barn, he pulled over to the side of the gravel road and shut off the engine. Without hesitating, he climbed out and stayed low as he crept along one edge of the road until he could see the front entrance to the farmhouse. Parked in front of the house was Jessie’s car. His heart sank. Who the hell was Forrest Bloom, and what was Jessie doing in there? The fact that she had told Olivia she would be home soon and now wasn’t answering her phone didn’t bode well. He pulled out his cell and called the police, gave them the address, telling them that an armed and dangerous man was inside, holed up with a gun and plenty of ammunition. People were hurt and they needed an ambulance. Disconnecting the call, he then slid his phone into his back pocket and continued onward. If he ended up being wrong, then so be it. He’d learned from experience that he’d rather be wrong than sorry. He made his way to the fron
  • 52. FORTY-FIVE The sun had begun to rise the next morning when Jessie shot up in bed, her arms waving about as if to ward off whatever might be coming at her. Somebody grabbed her arm, stopping her from flailing around. “It’s okay,” he said. “You’re safe.” It took her a second to realize she was home in bed. “Colin?” “It’s me. I’m here.” The dizziness passed, and she saw him clearly. She caught her breath and said, “It’s good to see you.” “I’m always glad to see you.” She smiled. “I wanted to make sure you were okay,” he told her. “I’ve got to get back to work soon, but if it’s okay with you, I thought I’d stop by later with some Chinese food for you and Olivia.” “Yeah, I’d like that.” “It’ll be crazy busy for the next few weeks.” “Understandable.” She inhaled. “Is Olivia home?” “No. Andriana took her to school. She’s doing good, though. She was with you at the hospital last night before we brought you home.” She put a hand to her temple. “I hardly remember.” “The doctor gave you something
  • 53. FORTY-SIX Two weeks after Jessie escaped the bowels of hell, she found herself sitting in front of the TV, drawn in by a news reporter’s account of what they knew about the Heartless Killer up to this point. The reporter started off by saying that psychiatrists across the country were still discussing the case, theorizing and seeking rationalizations for his actions. For the most part they agreed that Forrest Bloom wasn’t merely a bad seed. After interviewing teachers, neighbors, and people who’d known him growing up, he didn’t appear to have held any deep-seated hatred for his mother. The autopsy report showed no signs of brain damage. Although most psychiatrists agreed that not all abused children grow up to be killers, they were quick to point out that every psychopathic killer known to mankind had been mistreated early in life. From what detectives had gathered so far, Forrest Bloom had been severely abused by his father since the time he could walk, prompting one female groupie to
  • 54. FORTY-SEVEN Two days later, after a long day of courtroom drama, rousing revelations, and celebrations, Jessie returned home to Olivia and Higgins, who had stayed up to say good night. As she watched her niece head off to bed, Higgins on her heels, Jessie found it hard to believe he was the same dog from only weeks ago. His cast had been removed, and he’d become more playful and less fearful of people. He’d also become dependent on Jessie whenever Olivia wasn’t around, following her like a second shadow. She wondered how they’d ever gotten along without him. Jessie plopped down on the couch, picked up the remote, and turned on the TV. For the second time in the past three weeks, she was the main story. On the screen, a reporter on Channel Ten news looked into the camera lens and talked about what went down in the courtroom behind closed doors. “Parker Koontz, a well-known attorney in Midtown, awoke from a coma yesterday,” the reporter said, “and was well enough to tell investigators th
  • 55. FORTY-EIGHT For two hours Ben had been sitting at his desk, looking over the accident report from his crash. Years ago he’d had every photo taken of the Ford Pinto—before and after the accident—blown up to eight-by-tens. After the wreck was towed up the hill, it was placed on a flatbed. The windshield was broken—a large, gaping hole. If Sophie had been driving, and if she had not been wearing a seat belt, she could have easily been propelled forward into the night, before the car burned and rolled. He thought of his last trip to the place where the accident occurred. In his mind’s eye, he saw the ravine made up of a mixed species of woodland, dead trees, shrubs, and an uninterrupted patch of thorny blackberry bush that would be difficult if not impossible to traverse. Why hadn’t he seen it before? Because he’d never once thought anyone else was in the car with him. His heart quickened as he looked at the time. Moving quietly through his bedroom, he made his way into the walk-in closet,
  • 56. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS It’s good to have Amy Tannenbaum in my corner. Thank you, Amy, for sharing your wealth of knowledge and for offering to help me at every turn. Thank you, Charlotte Herscher, for continuing to challenge me as a storyteller while also helping to bring clarity and emotion to every book. Brian McDougle is the first real-life detective extraordinaire I’ve had the good fortune to meet online. He’s funny, smart, and always willing to share his expertise. Thanks for your help, Brian. Robin O’Dell. Copyeditor and fine-tuning miracle worker. Thank you so much for such a thorough read. My fictional heroines, Lizzy Gardner, Faith McMann, and now Jessie Cole, aren’t the only ones who need a team of people to get things done. Many thanks to Liz Pearsons, Sarah Shaw, and the entire Amazon Publishing team for your ongoing enthusiasm and support.
  • 57. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Photo © 2014 Morgan Ragan T.R. Ragan has sold more than two million books since her debut novel appeared in 2011. A former legal secretary for a large corporation, she is now a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author. T.R. is author of the Faith McMann Trilogy and six Lizzy Gardner novels (Abducted, Dead Weight, A Dark Mind, Obsessed, Almost Dead, and Evil Never Dies). In addition to thrillers, she writes medieval time-travel tales, contemporary romance, and romantic suspense as Theresa Ragan. An avid traveler, her wanderings have led her to China, Thailand, and Nepal. Theresa and her husband, Joe, have four children and live in Sacramento, California. To learn more, visit her website at www.theresaragan.com.
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