Retribution: An Oak Grove Suspense

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Chapter One

Shayla

The calm of the night is stifling. Normally, I enjoy sitting in my daughter’s room late at night, but tonight, as I watch her sleep, my heart breaks. It was around ten when Dylan and Hannah came home from my parents, where they were supposed to spend the night so Ryan and I could have a date night. Hannah was fussy and couldn’t be consoled. It wasn’t the first time this had happened when they’ve tried to keep her overnight. I’ve tried weaning her, but nights are the worst. For my sanity and the sake of sleep, I let her nurse when she can’t settle down. I hadn’t planned for the kids to be here. This was supposed to be much simpler than it is turning out to be. I check the burner phone, which was supplied to me by Jason, and see a new text has come through.

The clocks ticking

Sighing, I tape the roughly written note, which says nothing for how I actually feel, to Hannah’s crib and return to my room. My bags are packed and by the door. Ryan is sleeping, sprawled across our bed with the blankets around his hips. I try to memorize every part of this man, my husband, because I know after he wakes up, he’ll never forgive me. My hope is that he believes the note and doesn’t look for me, but I know that won’t be the case. We are too close, to connected, for him to believe the words on that paper. I stare at him as my mind drifts. It was only a few months ago when Jason Mathis, Ryan’s nemesis and the man partly responsible for mine and Dylan’s kidnapping two years ago, came to the hospital to visit me.

I’m just finishing up with a surgery when one of the nurses tell me my husband is in my office with my daughter. Surprised by the unannounced visit, I hurry happily to see them only to stop short. Panic immediately fills me when I find that it’s not my husband, but Jason Mathis sitting on my office sofa with Hannah in his arms.

“Shut the door,” he says in a cheerful voice. I do as I’m told, too stunned to do anything else. “It’s good to see you, Shayla. Your daughter is absolutely perfect.” He kisses her cheek.

My mind is a blur of thoughts and confusion. How is this possible? “How’d you get in here?” I ask, because honestly, there’s nothing else I can think to say.

He smiles at me. “I have my ways.”

Then it dawns on me. He has my daughter! “How did you get Hannah?” I move towards her, but he holds up his hand to stop me.

He snorts. “Do you really think it would be hard for me to get her away from your dear ol’ mom?”

Panic surges through me. Is she okay? What did he do to her? “You better not have hurt her!”

Mathis looks at me for a long moment before answering me with a smile. “She’s not my type.”

Not his type? What does that mean? He didn’t hurt her just because she’s not his type? I stand frozen. I don’t know what to do. I want my daughter, I want to grab her and run, but I don’t want to do anything stupid that would make him hurt her.

I try asking nicely, “May I have my daughter, please?”

He looks at Hannah and gives her a genuine smile. “Say, not yet, Mommy. Uncle Jay has some things to discuss with you. Isn’t that right, Hannah?” He coos at her and she’s eating it up, laughing again. He beams at me. “You know why I love children?” I shake my head dumbly. “They are always honest. She likes me. There’s no fear in her whatsoever. You know what I do find strange?” I shake my head again not speaking. “She reminds me of you in that way. Of course, you’re scared of me, but you weren’t always. We had a connection once. I think if my stupid cousin wouldn’t have been such a freak, we could have been friends.”

“Never,” I growl, finally finding my voice.

He chuckles. “You say that now, but back then, you didn’t seem to be bothered by me one bit. Well, until closer to the end. My kindness had run out by that point.”

“Why are you here?” I ask. I mean, I know why, but I need to hear him say why. I know he’s here for me.

“For you, of course,” he confirms.

“Why do you have Hannah? If you wanted me, why not just take me?”

He plays with Hannah for a little bit, then says, “I want you to choose to come with me.”

“Not gonna happen.”

He smiles and it reminds me of his cousin Trevor, the man whose sick obsession with me almost cost me my life and my family. I have to fight the bile threatening to rise.

“Oh, you will. You’ll do exactly what I tell you to do.”

He stands then, holding Hannah in one arm. “We’re going to leave soon. You’re going to get in your car and you’re going to go to Ryan. You’re going to tell him everything I’m about to tell you and then, when I’m ready, I’ll come for you. If you don’t come with me willingly, then I’ll kill everyone you love, starting with this little bundle of joy. Do you understand?”

I can’t speak, I just nod. I’m beyond terrified. I feel like I may start shaking uncontrollably, like I’m freezing.

“Good. Now, lock the door and sit.”

I do as I’m told. He looks at me for a few long moments then says, “I’ll let you hold her. She seems to be getting a little restless, but if you do anything, anything at all, I will kill her.”

“I’ll just nurse her.”

He nods and hands me my daughter. She tugs at my shirt wanting her ‘nummies’ as quickly as she can get them. I wish there was some way I could cover myself better. His stare make me sick; he’s not even trying to hide the fact that he’s ogling me. After she settles down, nursing eagerly, he sits back down and clears his throat.

“As soon as we leave here, I want you to drive straight to the police station. You are to go directly to Ryan. I don’t care what he’s doing; you interrupt him if you have to. You don’t talk to anyone else; not even to tell them why you’re there. I will know if you disobey any of my orders.”

“How?”

“I have my ways. It’s been very easy to stay out of Ryan’s line of sight since returning to the states.”

“You have help at the police station?” I postulate.

“Let’s not worry about that now. Right now, I want you to concentrate on what I’m going to tell you.” I nod. “You tell Ryan that I’m in town. Tell him that I’ve been watching him for a while and I’ve enjoyed the game we’ve played, but now it’s time to collect what’s mine. He’s played with my toy long enough. Make sure you say toy.” I nod. He’s as sick and as delusional as his cousin. “Tell him that soon, very soon, I’ll be collecting my toy and there’s nothing he can do to stop me. You got all that?”

“Yes, I think so. You’re watching, you want your toy, and you’re going to get it soon.”

“Good, girl. Now, this next part is going to be a bonus. You’ve studied some psychology right?”

“Some.”

“Good, then you’ll know I’m a little OCD. I have to leave the fox on all my victims. I have a need to kill victims who look like my late wife, and coincidently, you and she could be sisters.” He watches me, a sly grin spreads on his face before continuing. “What you might find surprising is, I’ve not killed anyone since I was here before. Until last night, that is. I killed a woman in the woods. I didn’t plan anything and I didn’t feel the need to leave my calling card.” He shrugs and then winks at me. “Well, I didn’t have time to leave it, so I guess in a way you are my fox. You’re leaving the clue to my next game.”

“What is your next game?” I’m sure I know the answer.

He throws his head back and laughs, almost waking Hannah. “You are my next game piece, Shayla, but things have changed. I don’t just want to torture you to get to Ryan any more. I have no plans to kill you as I did before. No, this time, things are going to be different. You’re going to come to me and stay with me. You’re going to do everything I tell you to do, without question or thought. Do you understand?”

“I’ll do whatever you want, if you promise not to hurt my family, Ryan included.”

He smiles happily at me. “Of course. I don’t want to kill Ryan. I want him to suffer, and suffer he will, with you by my side.” He stands. “Let’s walk to your car.”

I right my shirt and he takes a sleeping Hannah from me. I don’t want to let go, but with one look from him, I begrudgingly do. I gather my purse and briefcase and follow him out to my car. We pass a few people I know, but no one seems to pay Jason any attention. I look at him and realize for the first time that he does look similar to Ryan. He’s bulked up a little, grew his hair out and dyed it black, and has grown a beard. He’s even dressed similar to Ryan. He’s in a pair of jeans, black tee, and a leather jacket. They wouldn’t pass up close, but in a glance, anyone who sees him carrying Hannah with me walking along would assume he’s Ryan. Once we reach the car, he buckles my sleeping daughter into her seat and then shuts the door. My heart is racing.

“Give me your keys.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s chilly and I don’t want her catching cold.”

It’s things like this that make no sense to me. He can be so caring and compassionate, then in the next minute, murder someone and not think twice about it. He takes the keys from my hands and starts the car. After adjusting the heat, he climbs back out. He moves toward me until my back is pressed against the car. He’s so close to me that anyone walking past would assume we were a couple in love. His lips press against my ear.

“You will be mine. I’m not my cousin. I’ll not make you do some forced wedding or put up any pretenses. I’ll take what I want, however I want it, and there will be nothing you can do to stop me.”

I shiver in fear and disgust. “Please don’t do this. Just let us be. I won’t tell Ryan you were here. You can leave and be free. If you follow through with this, he’ll never stop hunting you until he finds me.”

“I know, that’s why you’re going to make him believe you’ve left him. You will lie; you will distance yourself. You will do anything you can to make him believe you don’t want him anymore. You’ll give him no reason to come after you.”

Mathis is wrong, it won’t matter what I say to Ryan. He’ll never believe me. Never. He presses a kiss right below my ear.

“I’ll see you soon. Go straight to the station and do exactly what I’ve told you.”

“What did you do to my mom?” I brace myself for the worst.

“Nothing,” he replies with a wink. “She’s sleeping peacefully in her bed.” He pulls away and walks away from me.

I watch as he strolls deeper into the garage and shake my head. I can’t give it a second thought, I jump in my car and speed my way to the station, calling an ambulance to go to my parents as I go.

I shake myself from my thoughts and grab my medical bag on the dresser. I’ve procured a few things from the hospital that I’ll need, or could need while I’m gone. The most important thing right now is the sedative. I only plan on dispensing enough to knock Ryan out long enough for me to get out of here undetected. I’ve already taken care of the guards with their evening thermoses of coffee, but Ryan was asleep before I could offer him the same. I sit beside him on the bed and run my fingers through his long hair. I place a soft kiss on his forehead, then quickly insert the needle into his neck and press the plunger. He grumbles for a second; then is completely still.

“I’m so sorry, Ryan. I love you so much.”

I kiss his temple and then leave the house as quickly as possible, hoping Dylan doesn’t wake. I just couldn’t bring myself to drug him. I make it to the car and down the street with no problems. Taking a deep breath, I relax a fraction. I know I’ll never be completely relaxed again. I drive my car to the hospital and park in my spot as instructed. I get out of it, grabbing my suitcase and purse. Then, I deliberately look up at the security cameras and mouth, I’m sorry. I don’t know if Ryan will ever see it, but knowing how thorough he is, he probably will. I turn to my left as the sound of a vehicle reaches my ears. Jason pulls up behind my car and gets out of his SUV, walking towards me. He smiles warmly, but it makes me cringe, my stomach doing back flips.

“I’m a little surprised you came.”

“I told you I would.”

He takes my bags from me and tosses them in the back of his SUV. He looks up to the camera, then grabs the back of my neck and presses his lips to mine. My hands immediately go to his chest to push him away, but his grip is too strong. He pulls back a little and smirks.

“Kiss me back and make it good or I’ll make a call.”

I know it’s no use to fight him, he owns me now. So, I do what he says and wrap my arms around his neck and kiss him back. I wind my fingers into his long hair just like I do with Ryan, hating myself the entire time. Jason pulls back and smiles.

“Perfect.” He opens my door. “Get in, sugar lips.” I glare at him. He throws his head back and laughs.

We ride in silence for miles before either of us speak again. “Where are we going?” I ask, when I can’t take the silence any longer.

“West.”

“That tells me so much. I came willingly, Jason. Don’t I get to know more of this plan?”

He eyes me for a second then shrugs. “I don’t have a set plan, but for now, we’re going to Louisville. I have some connections there.” 

I roll my eyes at connections. “Is there anywhere you don’t have connections?”

He laughs. “Nope. I’m pretty much covered wherever I go. Don’t you worry your pretty little head, Ryan will never find you. I’ve been on the run for two years. They’ve only gotten close a few times and even that wasn’t close enough.”

“You’re not worried that one day they will get close enough?”

“Nope.”

“Ryan won’t stop looking for me. Even if he believes that I’m leaving of my own free will. He won’t stop until you’re dead.”

“Or he’s dead. I like the last option better and better every day.”

I turn swiftly to him. “No! You said if I came with you no harm would come to him or anyone in our families!”

He laughs. “Settle down. I’m a man of my word. I won’t purposefully set out to kill him, but if it comes down to him or me, I’m going to be the one that comes out of it alive.”

I say nothing, I just hope Ryan doesn’t get close enough for that to even be a possibility. We drive for at least six hours before we stop at a Motel Six. It looks old and a little shady looking.

“Stay here. I’ll be right back. If you run, I will find you and you definitely will not like what I do to you.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Once he is satisfied that I mean what I say, he puts a red-haired man’s wig on and runs inside. It only takes him a few minutes before he’s back in the SUV and driving around to the backside of the motel. Our room is in the furthest corner, even though the sun is starting to rise, it still looks dark and dank.

We grab our bags and head into the room. There’s two beds, which is a relief. It looks clean, so that’s a plus, but I’ll still be trying not to think of the invisible somethings that might be in this room. Jason puts his bag on the first bed, so I set mine on the second. He looks all around the room and bathroom.

“We’ll be here for a few days, but be ready to go at a moment’s notice at all times.”

“Okay. What are you going to do now?” I ask as I sit on the bed furthest from the door.

“You’re going to sit here and do nothing, I’m going to work on our long term plans.”

“What’s that?”

He chuckles. “I’m not trusting you with that just yet. You’ll have to prove yourself to me first. Get some sleep. I’m sure you’re exhausted.”

“You’re not going to sleep?”

“I will, but not yet. The bathroom looks clean if you want a shower.”

I nod, grab my bags, and head into the bathroom. Anything for some time to myself. I set my bags on the counter and look at myself in the mirror. I definitely look tired, but more than that, I look pale, an unhealthy pallor. Which I’m sure is from all the stress of the last couple of months; the constant worry of Jason showing up randomly during my day. It wasn’t until last week when he finally contacted me with the terms of the negotiation to keep my family safe. He had somehow entered my office at the hospital, undetected, and left a burner phone. There was no note attached, but I knew, without a doubt, it had to have been him. Who else would have left a random phone on my desk? It wasn’t minutes after finding said phone that he called with instructions for me to meet him in the parking garage. He told me what he expected and what I had to do. He made me keep the phone to ‘keep in touch’, then he pricked my finger and pressed it to a piece of paper, but refused to tell me why.

Knowing what I had to do to protect my family became worse as that day drew nigh. All the stress and worry that lead up to that event was driving me mad. Leaving the people, whom I loved most in this world, was the absolute hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’d do it all over again if it meant they’d be safe.

I undress quickly and shower. I’m too worried he’ll come in here to relax under the water. After I redress, I sit on the floor on a towel to dry my long hair. I should just chop it off. It’s a hassle and who knows what I’ll come across on this trip, but Ryan loves my hair. I just can’t bring myself to do anything else to make him hate me. I’m sure he does, and if, for some reason, we find our way back to each other, I’m sure he’ll never forgive me.

I shut off the hairdryer and lean against the wall. Closing my eyes, I take a stuttered breath. I won’t cry. I don’t deserve the release it will bring. I did this to myself. I deserve whatever happens to me. This decision, I’m sure, has been the worst I’ve ever made. Maybe if I’d told Ryan, he could have stopped Jason, but at what cost? Would he have died, or one of his friends? The risk was too great.

Jason bangs on the door, making me jump. “Hey, what’s going on in there?”

I clear my throat, pressing my palm to my chest and trying in vain to slow my rapidly beating heart. “Nothing. Just finishing.”

“Hurry up.”

I repack all my stuff and exit the bathroom. Jason is pacing back and forth while talking on the phone. He seems angry. I put my bags between the bed and bathroom wall and then sit down. I want to be as far away from him as possible.

I jump when Jason yells, “Do it now! I don’t want your excuses!” He hangs up the phone and then turns to me with a smile. “Don’t look so scared. I’m not mad at you.”

“Why are you mad?”

He sits on my bed, and I move to lean against the headboard and curl my legs against my chest. “Incompetence makes me angry, but don’t worry. We’re safe here. I doubt we’re even on Ryan’s radar right now.”

“Why would we be at all? I left him.”

He laughs. “Did you really think I’d let him believe you just bailed?”

“What do you mean? You told me to write the letter.”

He smirks. “Yes, but that was just for fun. I sent him a little package and I’m sure he’ll eventually check out the security camera at the hospital.”

I gasp. I’m so stupid. I should’ve known, placing my bloody print on the paper would have something to do with him torturing Ryan. Then there was the kiss before we left! That’s why he made me participate. Everything was about making Ryan’s life miserable. I’ve played into his game in the worst way! I’m so stupid. I was naive to think that coming with him would keep Ryan out of harm’s way.

“You said you wouldn’t hurt him,” I say defeated.

He puts his hand on my knee. “I said I wouldn’t kill him. I didn’t say anything about torturing him with the knowledge that you are mine now.”

“I’m not yours. I will never be yours.” I jerk away from him, standing stupidly between the wall and the bed.

“Do you think that’ll stop me from doing what I want?”

“Why are you doing this? I came with you because you were supposed to leave Ryan alone.”

He points to himself. “Bad guy, remember?” He lurches forward and grabs me, pulling me down onto the bed. He hovers over me, holding my hands above my head and trapping my legs with his. “I’m not my cousin. I don’t have some sick fantasy of you being my wife and bearing my children. I don’t care if you’re willing or not. I will take what I want and you’d do well to remember that.”

I fight back the bile rising in my throat. Sheer terror runs through my veins, I’ve been so stupid. I don’t know what I thought. I knew he wanted to get back at Ryan. Especially since Ryan slept with his wife, which led to Jason killing her, and subsequently to the beginning of his killing spree. I knew that and yet somehow, I thought I could be … what? The hero of this story?

“Please, don’t hurt me.” It comes out in a whisper, it’s all I can manage.

He sighs and sets back. I scramble away from him. “I don’t want to hurt you, Shayla. Believe it or not, I do like you, and contrary to what you may think, I don’t want to kill you. You’re an anomaly to me. You’re the perfect woman. You’re exactly what I like to stalk and kill.”

“Because I remind you of your wife, whom you loved.”

He shrugs. “Maybe, but probably more because you are Ryan’s, and I really want to see him suffer.” He stands from my bed. “Go to sleep.” He then goes into the bathroom and shuts the door.

I could leave right now. I could run, but I have no clue where I am, and how many henchmen he has around this motel. Of course, if I end up dead, then he has nothing to hold over Ryan. I don’t know what to do, but I’m so exhausted right now. I think the best thing is to get some sleep. Then, maybe I can figure out a way to get myself out of this crazy mess I’ve created.

Chapter Two

Ryan

Waking up and finding Shayla gone has been a nightmare. The note she left was a joke that I only believed for half a second. This has Jason Mathis written all over it. I should’ve seen the signs. I was too blinded by my ego to notice anything was wrong, even though I did notice Shayla pulling away. I just chalked it up to stress at home and work. Finding the fox on my doorstep left no room for doubt in my mind that he’s somehow been in contact with her. There’s no other way he could have set up this plan without her help. I stare at the unfolded origami fox in my hands. Why didn’t she come to me? Anger courses through me, at Shayla and definitely at Mathis. If he has touched one hair on her head, I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him anyway, but if he’s hurt her, I’ll make sure he suffers. Anger swells within me, greater than it’s ever been. I throw my head back and give a growling yell of frustration. I turn back into my house, slamming the front door.

“Riley!” I yell, making Dylan jump and Hannah start to cry. “I’m sorry, baby.” I set the box and stupid crinkled fox on the counter. I pick up Hannah and comfort her. “Shh, it’s okay, sweet girl. Daddy’s sorry.”

“What’s wrong?” Riley says as he jogs into the room.

“This was at the door.” I pick up the box and hand it to him. “Shayla is missing. Can you run that bloody fingerprint, see if it’s hers?”

“Missing?” I start to answer, but he holds up his hand. “Worry about that later, I got this.” He takes off back towards the office.

I turn to Gail, who must have come over with Tom earlier. She is standing near the stove with what looks like breakfast. “Will you keep Hannah indefinitely? I don’t want to worry about her. I have to concentrate on finding Shayla.

“Of course. Just get my baby back.” I nod.

I’ve let her down once again. I won’t stop until Mathis is dead this time. I don’t care if it takes me years. I’ll hunt him down and kill him the first chance I get. I turn to my father-in-law.

“Tom, I will need your help on this, but, for now, can you just take care of my family. I need to concentrate on finding her.”

“Whatever you need, Son.”

“Thanks.” I turn to Dylan. “Bud, I need you to have your eyes and ears open. Please, please stay out of trouble and just let me find your mom.”

He nods his head. “Yeah, I get it. It won’t be like last time. I’ll stay out of the way. I’ll help here, with Han.”

I pull him into a tight hug. He’s turned into an outstanding young man, whom I couldn’t be prouder of, but this is his mom and, like me, there’s little rational thought where she’s concerned.

“Thank you. If there’s anything you can help with, I’ll let you know.”

“Thanks. Just find her, please.” I nod, feeling myself getting choked up.

Dylan wraps his arms around me again, I hug him back tightly, hoping I can bring his mom back in one piece, and soon. I say my goodbyes and make my way to my office. Riley sits at the desk, furiously working. He has two desktop monitors and three laptops open with programs running. He’s going from one screen to the other, it’s a blur of motions, until he curses and grabs his hair.

“What?”

“I traced her phone past Walnut Cove then it lost signal. It was either ditched or the battery died. I’m sorry.”

“Thanks for trying. Did you get the fingerprint in the system?” I sit down and stare at the screens. I feel completely lost.

“Yeah, I’m running it now. I called Jessica; she’s coming over to get the sample to run to the lab. I didn’t want to be away from the desk.”

“That’s fine. Thank you.”

“What happened?” Riley asks.

I shake my head. “I don’t know. He got to her somehow. I’m constantly underestimating him. I bet you my pension that the murders in Alabama and Mississippi were decoys to throw me off.” A few days ago, Paul and Jon left to investigate a couple of murders that seemed to be related to Mathis.

“Have you heard from the guys?”

“Not yet. I need to brief everyone, but I have nothing to go on.”

“We know they were headed west. The cellphone signal dies west of Walnut. It’s not much, but it’s a start.”

“What big city is past there?”

Riley zooms over the keyboard and seconds later a map of the tri-state area pops up. “Looks like Lexington is the first major city. Are you thinking Mathis would have gone there?”

“I’m hoping so. Check the traffic cameras and run the facial recognition software. I’m going to see where the guys are.”

He sets to work and I call Paul. He answers on the second ring. “Hello?”

“I need you guys back here ASAP. Mathis has Shayla.”

“He has Shayla? How’s that even possible?”

I clear my throat and sigh, running my hand roughly through my hair. “I don’t know how all of this happened. I’m thinking he must’ve contacted her at the hospital.” I shake my head again. Why wouldn’t she tell me?

“Ryan?” Paul questions and I clear my throat again.

“He somehow persuaded her to leave. I’m sure he must have threatened to kill me, possibly our kids.” I let out a frustrated sigh. “I’m also pretty sure she drugged the guards and me. Tom found them asleep at their posts.”

“Oh, man, I didn’t even notice when I came in,” Riley murmurs from his desk.

On the phone Paul asks, “Drugged you too?”

“Yeah, it would seem so from this massive headache I have.”

“Man, that’s harsh. I’m sorry, Ryan. We’ll head back now. It’ll probably take about four hours or so.”

“Sounds good, thanks.”

We disconnect the call and I turn to Riley. He’s typing away on his computer as I slump in my seat with my elbows on my knees and my hands fisted in my hair.

“You’re right.”

I look up at the sound of his voice. “What?”

He points to the computer screen. What I see breaks my heart. Shayla steps out of her car and mouths ‘I’m sorry’ to the camera. She looks broken. I’m almost happy about that, because for a brief moment, I thought she really didn’t want me anymore, but it’s clear this was a hard decision for her to make, and it explains her recent distant behavior. My sympathy doesn’t last long as another vehicle, an SUV, pulls up behind hers and Mathis steps out. She smiles at him. Smiles!

“What’s he doing?” Riley asks.

I shake my head and shrug my shoulders, anger is filling me and I can’t speak. Mathis looks up to the camera and winks, then turns to Shayla. He leans in closely, telling her something, she disagrees and seems to be trying to push him away when he says something else. Shayla eyes the camera wearily, then wraps her arms around Mathis’ neck and kisses him.  My chair flies back, toppling over and hitting the wooden floor with a loud bang. I grip my hair tightly as I growl.

“Ry, man. Calm down. He obviously threatened her. It didn’t look like she was doing it because she wanted to.”

I scoff. “She smiled at him!”

Riley rewinds the footage. “No, Ryan. She grimaces. That’s not a smile.” He freezes the frame. I stare for several long moments.

“You’re right.” I sag into the chair. “Why would she do this? Why not just tell me? I could have taken care of it, I could have caught him.”

“I think she probably thought she was doing what she had to do to keep you and your family safe. Shayla would do anything for you guys.”

He’s right again. She would. Just like I would, and will. I will get her back.

“I need to go for a run and clear my head. Call my cell if anything comes up. I’m going to have to go into the station at some point today too.”

A chime from one of this computers sounds. “It’s Shayla’s.” Riley points to the screen with a matching copy of her fingerprint. “Now, Jessica can run the blood and see if it’s a match for hers as well.”

I nod solemnly. “Let me know when the test comes back. I really need a run.”

“Sure, I’ll keep looking for her.” I clasp his shoulder in thanks and head back to my room to change into running gear.

As I’m coming out of my room, I find Tom coming in the front door. “Hey, I just took Dylan to school. He didn’t want to go, but I thought it was important.”

“Yeah, thanks. If he wants to come home early, it’s fine. I know he’ll worry. I’m going for a run. I’ll be back soon.”

“I’ve got everything here. Do what you need to do.”

I nod my head in acknowledgement as I bend down to attach my ankle holster for my gun and then strap on my shoulder strap before grabbing my thick sweatshirt. I have no direction when I take off running through my backyard. I normally take a path I’ve cleared out and run a few miles up the mountain, but today I veer off the path. I run until I come to a familiar pond. It appears that I’ve run all the way to Judson’s property. I move down the path to the spot where Judson had told me he’d seen a figure on a couple of his runs. Mathis’ hideout has to be close by. If I can find it, it may hold some answers as to how long he’s been around and where he may be going next.

It feels like I’ve searched for hours. I’m sweaty and dirty, but still nothing is found. All the pent up anger I’ve been holding onto since this morning when I read that blasted note comes pouring through my body as I punch the tree in front of me. I don’t care about the pain in my hands, I just keep punching it. Suddenly, I’m hit from the side and tackled to the ground. I turn on my attacker, punching any part of him I can reach until I’m pinned on my stomach, face smashed to the cold ground.

“Ryan, stop fighting me,” Judson says, breathing heavily. The fight leaves me immediately and I let my body sag. “You good?”

“Yeah.” He climbs off me and I roll over. “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. What are you doing out here beating up on my oak?”

I snort. “I was looking for Mathis’ hideout.”

I stare at my mangled hands. I’m probably going to need them looked at. Just that thought makes my heart drop into my stomach. I dread going to the hospital. I rip part of my undershirt and try to wrap it around my hand. Judson takes the strip of fabric from me and finishes the job.

“Want some fresh eyes?”

I look up at him for a second. “You don’t have to get involved with this.”

“I want to. You helped me and I have another favor to ask anyway.”

I chuckle. “What’s that? Laney driving you crazy already?”

My sister was a thorn in his flesh for years until he let go and listened to his heart. He’d lost his whole family, no one, not even Laney, blamed him for pushing her away, but eventually he came around, and saw what he’d been denying.

He smiles. “Nah, she’s perfect actually. Josie has really taken to her. Remember my neighbor I told you about?”

“The one who pulled Shannon from the fire?”

About four years ago, a fire destroyed his home and killed his family. He thought his wife and two children had perished in the blaze, but it turned out that his daughter was taken. We found her a couple of months ago and now they are all trying to settle in with one another.

He nods. “Only, I don’t think he did. I think he was in on it. Josie told me he is the one who told her I was dead.”

“What? Why are you just now telling me this? I could’ve been checking into it sooner.”

“Honestly, I’d found out when I first saw her again and,” he runs his hand along his beard. “I’d forgotten about it until last night. Josie had a therapy session and afterward, she mentioned Vaughn again. I don’t know if he’s even still around.”

“Yeah, he is,” I say, furrowing my brows. “I interviewed him when I first started looking into the fire. He was never on our radar for anything other than being the one who pulled Shannon out. I’ll check into it again. I need the distraction anyway.”

“Maybe we should get you to Shayla so she can look at your hand, and then we can search again for the hideout.”

I sigh and close my eyes. “Mathis has her.”

“What? How?”

“We think he threatened her and she left with him.” I let my head thump back against the tree.

“Man, I’m so sorry. Anything I can do to help; just let me know.”

I nod. “Thanks, Jud, I will. For now,” I glance at him, “maybe you could just help me look for the hideout.”

“Sure. But I still think you need a doctor for that hand.”

He’s probably right, but it can wait. “After we look.”

We both start looking around, pulling at plants and trees, trying to find any kind of trap door. It doesn’t seem like we’ll find anything until Judson stops near the edge of a slopped hill, about two hundred feet past the tree he had seen a figure standing by a few weeks ago. I’d checked into it then, but nothing concrete was discovered. I’d assumed it was either the person sent after Judson to kill him, or more likely Mathis, since the figure didn’t attack when Judson noticed him.

He turns to me. “Come here a second.” I join him and he points across the small ravine to the other side of the mountain. “Do you see that rock, straight across from us?”

I nod. “Yeah, what about it?”

“To the left there’s a branch, but it looks off.”

I stare at it. He’s right. It does look a bit off. We never looked over there, but to someone not familiar with this area or the forest it wouldn’t be notable at all. We explored everything around this area, not considering that Mathis could be so far away from where Judson’s house is, and where he spotted the figure during his run. I completely dropped the ball. I should’ve had them look farther. I could have avoided all of this. Knowing I didn’t makes me even angrier. What a rookie mistake.

“It doesn’t look natural,” Judson continues, drawing my attention back to him. “And I don’t think that if it fell from the tree that it would’ve landed that way either.”

“Let’s go,” I say quickly.

I take off down the incline with Judson hot on my trail. It’s probably about three-hundred-fifty feet down, about the same across the bottom, then another two-hundred or so up the other side. It’s not a hard trek, but it‘s uncleared land, so it’s a little time consuming. It takes us about twenty minutes, maybe a little longer to make it up to the rock and fallen, or possibly placed, tree.

“Yeah, this has to be man-made,” Judson says, examining the area. “It blends in but it’s a little too perfect.”

He pulls the branch out of the way. It doesn’t appear to have anything behind it, but when we move over to get a better look, my heart races. We both simultaneously see a small opening in the side of the rock. That has to be it!

“You wouldn’t happen to have a flashlight, would you?” I ask.

“My phone.” He digs it out of his pocket and turns it on. I do the same and we head into the opening.

“You know, this could be an animal den,” Jud says with reservation.

I shrug. “You can stay here.”

“Nah, I’m coming. Someone has to tell them where to find your body when a bear eats you.”

I roll my eyes. “Gee thanks. Maybe you should stay out here then.”

“Go.” He laughs, shoving me forward.

“Ya know, this vaguely reminds me of high school. You were always shoving me around.”

“Yeah, well, you were always distracted by something.”

I chuckle slightly. We continue into the opening for about twenty feet until we stop when we come upon a small rounded area that is clearly not where any animal has been living. I can’t see much with the low light, but I spot a small folding table with a stump for a chair and a palette bed on the floor.

“This has to be Mathis’ hide out.”

“I agree,” Judson answers.

Suddenly, the light grows brighter. I look behind me to see that Judson has found a couple of lanterns. He hands me one and we continue to explore.  There’s really not much more to the space. The cave is small, and other than the table, there’s just some empty food wrappers, pop bottles, and a couple of plastic totes on the floor and table.

“Shayla,” Judson says as he hands me a stack of photos from one of the totes on the floor.

I set the lantern on the table and begin to flip through them. “He was following us.”

There’s probably fifty pictures here of our daily lives, each one is Shayla and whatever she happened to be doing that day: taking Hannah to my mom’s, going to work, dropping something off at school for Dylan, visiting me at work, our date nights, kisses on the steps of our house, building a snowman with the kids in the front yard. He even has photos of our guards and Shayla bringing them a thermos of coffee. He was everywhere and we never noticed.

I shake my head and growl. “I don’t know how I missed this!”

“I’d say it would have been easy to miss with this lens.” Judson holds up a camera lens about the length of my arm. “Why would he leave this behind?” He asks as he sets it back down.

“I think he plans on coming back here,” I say with a sigh.

“That’s good, right?”

I nod. “There’s a lot of evidence here that he didn’t plan on anyone finding.”

I continue to look through the pictures. There’s a couple of a woman, but I don’t know who it is. I know it’s not Shayla. This woman wears a lot of makeup and her eyes have a little brown in the mostly blue iris. There’s several pictures of her in various poses, in bed with only her leg sticking out of the sheet, or her arm. Each one is just as obscure as the other. I don’t know if she’s alive or another one of his victims.

“I think he’s after someone else.” I show Judson the photographs. “Or he’s already killed her.”

“You said his calling card was a fox?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Well, there’s a box of them on that table.”

He points to the back of the cave. There’s a small folding table and chair that I hadn’t noticed initially. Sitting on top of it is a medium size box. It’s wooden with a little pad lock, but it’s open, just hanging on the latch. The box is full of folded origami foxes.

“Must be his stash. I would imagine that it’s pretty time consuming to make them in the moment. Makes sense that he’d have a surplus.”

“But why is this one over here?” Jud picks up one of the lone ones from the table.

I hold out my hand and carefully open it up. There’s a hair inside. I carefully fold it back into the paper, though it doesn’t resemble a fox anymore, it’ll still do the job of holding it until I can get it to the lab. I put it in a zippered pocket on my coat.

“I’ve seen enough. I’ll have the guys come back and get everything to examine. Do you think you could lead them here?”

“Of course, whatever you need. This guy needs to be stopped.”

I nod. That’s the understatement of the century. “You should consider law enforcement. I think you have some potential for being a detective.”

He chuckles. “Nah, I’m finally doing what I love, and I have my little girl and the woman of my dreams. I want to spend as much time as I can with them.”

“I get that. How’s that going by the way?” I ask as we make our way back to his house.

“Good. It’s only been a couple of weeks, but Josie is doing well. The new therapist says she’s adjusting perfectly, and even though she went through a lot of trauma with the fire, she doesn’t seem to really remember that much. I’m glad, but I wish she could give us more info on who started the fire.”

“That would be helpful, but we have Vaughn’s name so we’ll check that out. I might go do that myself later today.”

“You’ve got a lot going on with Shayla right now. I understand if it needs to wait. Besides, Lyon and his group have been stopped, they were the ones responsible.”

“Well, Lyon and those directly under him were caught, but there’s still the Boss out there.” He glances at me so I shrug. “Like I said, I need a distraction. Shayla is okay for now. He’s not going to kill her. She chose to go with him. Even though I will find and kill him to get her back, I have a job to do here. I can’t just stop everything this time.”

“Do you think Marsh will find out who Lyon’s boss is?” he asks, changing the subject.

“He’s working on it, but he’s not found any hard evidence yet. Maybe this Vaughn can shed some light on it.”

We continue our trek in silence. I’m relieved that we found one of Mathis’ hiding spots, but it does little to relieve my mind of the anxiety and anger I feel. He shouldn’t always be so far ahead of me. I’m smarter than this! I shake my head and touch my pocket, before glancing back at the cave. We’ve brought several things back with us, so I’m hoping we can get a lead on where they might be going and what his endgame is. I need to get ahead of him. Once we reach Judson’s house, he gives me a ride back to my house.

“Thanks for your help,” I say as the vehicle stops in front of my house.

“No problem. I mean it. If there’s anything at all I can help you with, just say the word. Even if it’s just babysitting.”

I smile. “I might actually take you up on the babysitting.” I blow out a breath. “I don’t know how I’m going to do my job with a baby. Things are so different this time.” I know I asked Gail to take her, but I also know that’s not the right thing to do.

“You’ll get through it. Hannah won’t mind if you leave her for a little while. Especially, since you’ll be bringing back her mom.” He touches my shoulder. “She won’t remember this, Ryan.”

“Thank God.” I can see several cars parked along the street. “Looks like my crew is back. Thanks again for the ride, Jud. You want to come in? I don’t know if there’s anything for us to do right now, but after I brief my crew, we may be able to head up to Vaughn’s. If you want to tag along?”

“Yeah, I’d be happy to. I’ll be right in, I’m going to call Laney and let her know what’s going on.” I give him a nod and head inside.

Chapter Three

Shayla

Voices stir me from my sleep; I’m still so tired. I barely slept last night. The bed was awful, but more than that, my guilt is eating me alive. I’ve hurt everyone I care about and though I may be able to tamp that feeling down somewhat while I’m awake, when I’m asleep it’s a different matter. I’m plagued with nightmares. The common theme being my family hating me. The voices in the room are barely above a whisper, but I can still make out Jason’s. The other voice I don’t recognize at all. I try to lay as still as possible so they don’t know that I’m awake.

“Did you take care of it?” Jason asks.

“Yes, of course,” the voice answers with a touch of annoyance. “But my advice is to wait and move slowly to avoid detection.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Jason says and I hear him shift in his seat. “Tell Anton we’ll go with your plan for now. If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”

“All right. Are you leaving for Indiana today?”

“Yes,” Jason replies. Indiana? Why are we going there?

“I’ll take care of things on my end. Don’t worry, it’ll be ready by the time you arrive.” 

There is movement, and soon I hear the door click shut. All is silent and I briefly wonder if Jason went with this unknown person. That thought vanishes quickly as I hear footsteps and feel the bed dip as Jason sits down on it. Now what?

“I know you’re not asleep. Get up. We’re leaving in an hour.” He grabs my hip and gives me a shake.

Sighing, I roll over to face him. “Why are we going to Indiana? Who was that guy and what is he getting ready?”

He laughs. “Always so full of questions. We’re going to Indiana to pick up something I need. You’ll find out about the other question soon enough.”

An hour later, eight-thirty p.m., we are on the road. We drive in relative silence for the first hour or so. I stare out the window, wondering what Ryan is doing. Is he looking for me? Is he angry? If I find my way back to him, will he have me back? It’s the same questions that have plagued my mind almost every moment I’m awake, and the nightmares I see when I’m asleep. I’m a wallowing mess of self-pity.

“You hungry?” Jason asks suddenly. I jump, which makes him chuckle. I shake my head. “Well, I’m stopping, and you will eat. I won’t have you starving yourself.”

He pulls into a twenty-four hour fast food joint where we order our food in the drive-thru and then we get right back on the interstate. I nibble on mine, but I’m honestly not hungry. I hate fast food, and my nerves and stress are making my stomach roll.

I look over at Jason. “What is it you have to pick up in Indiana?”

“Drugs.” I gasp, he cackles. I really hate this man. “I’m joking. We’re picking up guns.”

“Oh, that’s so much better.” I can’t keep the sarcasm from my voice. “Illegal, I suppose?”

“Is there any other type?” I scoff, which causes him to chuckle again. He turns to me with a grin. “You’re just going to have to get used to it, sugar lips. You’re a mob chick now.”

“I’m not a mob chick.” He shrugs and turns back to the road. “How are you even still involved with your family business? You’re an escaped serial killer, running from the FBI.”

“I’m not a serial killer, and, technically, that was overturned. So actually, the FBI is really only looking for me because of Ryan.”

“That’s not true. You escaped before the verdict was overturned. They’d be looking for you no matter what. If you’d stayed like a normal innocent person would, then they wouldn’t be searching for you at all.” He shrugs his shoulder. “And, whether you want to believe it or not, you are a serial killer, proven or not.”

He laughs. “Maybe, but I’m turning over a new leaf.” I give him a raised eyebrow of doubt. “I am. I won’t seek out pretty little girls like you to torture and kill anymore.”

“So you’re what, just going to torture me long term then?”

He laughs and shakes his head. “I guess I deserve that, but you’ll see. I don’t want to hurt you, Shayla. I want you to be mine. I’m only taking back what he took from me. That’s fair, right?”

“Maybe if you’re in first grade,” I grumble.

“Point is, Shayla,” he says, ignoring my comment. “You came with me willingly. If you’d said no, I would have respected that.”

I look at him with what I can only describe as shock. “Seriously? If I would have said no, you would have left us alone?”

He throws his head back and laughs. “I never said that. I would have just come after Ryan from a different angle. This, however, is perfect.”

I pull my knees up to my chest and lean my body against the window and door. I have no desire to speak to him any longer. We arrive in Fort Wayne roughly six hours later, the trip itself was uneventful. Jason barely speaks, and I certainly don’t offer any conversation. The motel is much like the last we stayed at, only this one has not been recently renovated, and is definitely in a much seedier part of town. It’s after two a.m. and thanks to sleeping most of the day, I’m not tired.

“I need to do a few things, stay here.” Jason picks up his laptop case and starts for the door.

“You’re just going to leave me here alone?”

He scoffs. “Of course not. There’s men outside. You try to leave and they’ll just bring you back. But I don’t think that will be a problem, will it, baby?” He runs his finger down my cheek. I pull away as I shake my head, folding my arms in front of me. “Didn’t think so. Now, give me a kiss so I can go.” He winks and points to his cheek. I don’t move and he lifts a brow. I sigh and quickly kiss his bearded cheek. He beams. “Be good.” Then he walks out the door.

There’s nothing for me to do, the TV is broken, and I don’t have my computer. I shower, taking my time since I’m alone. I change into a pair of lounge pants and one of Ryan’s old FBI sweatshirts. It still smells like him, it’s more comfort than I deserve. I miss him so much. I can’t seem to get any relief to the pain I feel deep in my chest. I know I shouldn’t, but I grab my real cellphone and turn it back on. It’s fully charged, but I know I can’t keep it on for long. I pull up the photos and stare at my family. Tears come unbidden to my eyes as I stare at my children and my husband. Dylan and Ryan must hate me, and poor little Hannah won’t even remember me. I hate myself for doing this to them, but there was no other way. I have to protect them.

Suddenly, my phone vibrates with an incoming call, startling me. I drop it, then fumble to pick it back up. It’s Ryan. I know I shouldn’t, I know he’ll be angry, but I’m selfish, and I want to hear his voice.

I answer, but say nothing. “Shayla?” Ryan’s voice is full of emotion. I sniffle. “Baby, talk to me, please. I need to know you’re okay.” I try to stifle my tears, but I’m still unable to speak as my emotions overcome me. “Shay, please tell me you’re okay. I’ll … I’ll leave you alone if that’s really what you want. I just need to know.”

“I’m okay,” I whisper.

“Thank God. Where are you?”

I wipe at my face and sigh. He’ll trace the call anyway, so there’s no point in not telling him. I knew he wouldn’t give up on me that easily, especially knowing that Jason left him that fox. “Indiana for now, but I don’t know where he’s planning to go from here. Please don’t try to find me. I don’t want you getting hurt.”

He growls. “I’m not going to get hurt, Shay. You didn’t have to do this. I could’ve handled Mathis.”

“Jason has more people behind him than you realize. He’ll kill you if you come after me. He’s promised to leave you alone as long as I stay with him, but if you come after him, he’ll see it as fair game. Please, our children need you.”

He scoffs. “And you don’t think they need you? Even Hannah is feeling your absence and it’s barely been twenty-four hours. This isn’t what’s best for them or me. I have more resources than you are aware of, Shayla. Mathis wouldn’t have been a problem.”

“I … I’m sorry, Ryan. I just didn’t know what else to do to keep you safe. I’m only doing this to protect you guys.”

“Yeah, well it’s not your job to protect me. I can take care of myself,” he yells at me. “I won’t stop looking for you. And when I find you, I’ll kill him and you will come home.”

“Ryan, please …” I start to say but he interrupts me. He’s so angry. I don’t blame him, but it hurts so much.

“Shut up, Shayla, and listen to me,” he hollers angrily. “For once in your life just do what I say, because no matter what, I am coming for you, and I will kill your little boyfriend.”

I gasp. “He’s not …”

“You are in way over your head, Shay. You have no idea what you’ve brought upon yourself or this family. If you insist on being a part of this, and protecting us,” I cringe when he says protecting in a mocking tone. “Then you’re going to work with me. You will help me bring Mathis down, and if you don’t, you can guarantee you will never see either of our children again. Is that clear?”

Tears pour from my eyes. I have never heard him this angry, not even when he first contacted me about Dylan. It makes me so angry that he’d threaten me with our kids, but at the same time, I know I deserve this. I left them and now I need to cooperate and do whatever he says.

“Yes,” I finally whisper.

“You want to play games, run away, and be some kind of hero? Then that’s just what you’re going to do. You will report back to me at least twice a week. You’ll tell me any and everything you know about his plans and what he’s doing. If you can’t call, then you at least send me a text, letting me know you’ll make contact soon. You use any means necessary to get me a call, even collect if you have to. Understand?”

I’ve lost him. I knew I would, but the realization, the reality, is so much harder than I ever imagined. I choke back a sob. “Yes.”

“What are you doing in Indiana?” He’s all business now.

I sigh and get myself together. “He said he was meeting some guys to buy guns, but I don’t know if that’s really what he’s doing. He said he doesn’t trust me yet.”

“Then you make him trust you. This isn’t a game, Shayla. I don’t care what you have to do, you do it so we can put him and whomever else is working with him in the ground. You got it?”

“Anything?” I question.

He huffs. “I obviously don’t want you to sleep with him.”

“That may not be up to me.” I mumble, knowing that Jason has warned me already that he’ll take what he wants.

“What was that?”

I shake my head even though I know he can’t see me. “Nothing. I’ll do what I can. I understand.” 

“Good. Two days, I better get a call from you.”

“I’ll do my best. I need to go, I don’t know how long he’ll be gone.”

“Forty-eight hours.”

“I got it. I’ll do it.” The frustration seeps out in my voice. I hate that he’s acting like this, but I totally deserve it.

“Good.”

He’s still so clip, my heart is breaking all over again. I’ve done irrevocable damage to the one person whom I vowed to love unconditionally. I’m a monster. I hate myself so much. I really thought this was best. I wanted to protect him and our children. Why doesn’t he understand that! I can’t hold back my emotions any longer. I didn’t do this to hurt him or anyone else, but especially him. I just wanted to protect my family.

I sob. “Oh, Ryan. I love you so much. I’m so sorry.”

He blows out a deep breath, and clears his throat. “We’ll get through this, but you have to do everything I say.”

His anger seems to be gone and is replaced with heart wrenching sadness. I did this to him. This is all my fault. I take a deep breath. “I will, Ryan. I promise.” The door handle starts to jiggle, and I panic. “He’s back.”

I hang up without saying anything else and shut my phone off, before stashing it into the bottom of my bag. I wipe my face quickly. I have no idea how to get him to trust me. Ryan said anything and the thought of what I might have to do scares me to death. I’m not trained, what if Jason suspects I’m up to something? What’s more frightening is the thought of what Jason might do to me with or without my permission.

“What’s wrong?” Jason asks. He kneels down in front of me and cups my cheek. When he’s like this, soft and caring, it’s almost hard to see him as a killer.

“Just missing my kids.” I hold up a framed photo that I’d pulled out of my bag, as I stashed my phone.

“I’m sorry it has to be this way, but kids are a liability.” He stands up and starts for the table by the door, where several bags wait.

I shake my head, trying to clear Ryan from my mind. “It’s okay. I want them safe.”

He nods as he digs into one of the bags. “I brought you some fancy food.”

He gives me a half smile and I chuckle. “What’s fancy food?”

He holds several items out to me. I take them and set them on the bed. He’s brought me a large salad with grilled chicken, a package of sunflower and pumpkin seeds, several apples, and a bar of dark chocolate, along with a bottle of sparkling water to drink.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. See, I’m not completely corrupt.” He winks.

“Where did you go?”

He grabs a bag from a fast food place and sits down at the little one chaired table to eat. “To get food and run a few errands.”

I sit on the floor against the bed across from him. “Are you going to elaborate on those errands?”

He stares at me for a few minutes while he chews his food. “I’m not here just for guns, though I am getting guns.”

“What else are you here for?”

He stares at me again. It’s unnerving. “My uncle, my dad’s brother, took over the family business when I was sent to prison, he was second in command until that time. I’m meeting with him about getting my position back. It’s rightfully mine.”

“Why here?” Indiana seems like a really odd place, considering that his family is from Virginia and Maryland.

“My uncle’s wife’s family is up here, and we have some connections. It’s best to do these dealings as inconspicuously as possible.”

That makes sense I suppose. “Am I going with you to this meeting?”

“Yep. I told you, you’re a mob chick now. You’ll mingle with the aunts.”

“Will your parents be there, what about Trevor’s mom?” I ask quickly.

I don’t know if this is what Ryan meant, but I feel like the more personal I make our connection, the more he might trust me, and finding out about his aunt, Trevor’s mom—Rachel McAdams—might actually help Ryan since she is one of the people who helped with Jason’s initial release. As far as I know, nothing was ever pinned to her that would stick. She is still a practicing lawyer and could very well be helping Jason in some way.

“Nah, Rachel isn’t a part of my uncle’s wife’s family. She’s busy anyway, and as for my parents, they’re dead. But, my uncle’s wife and their kids will probably be around. I’ll introduce you. You’ll probably like Vicky. She kind of reminds me of your mom.”

A pain shoots through my chest at his mention of my mother. I hadn’t given much thought as to how my parents would react to my departure, but not good, I’m sure. I can see my dad right there with Ryan in his plans of rescuing me, but then again, Ryan’s plan isn’t to rescue me right now, it’s to take down Mathis, and I’m his inside man, his pawn. Of course, I’d rather be used as a pawn, and Ryan be ready for what he’ll face, than to have him going in blind.

“I miss her,” I say simply.

He gives me a half smile. “When we get somewhere secure, and only if I’m listening, I’ll let you call her.” I’m surprised by this and my face shows it. “I keep telling you, I’m not a horrible person, I just live a little outside the box.”

“That’s an understatement,” I say with derisive indignation.

“You’ll learn to appreciate my … let’s just call them talents.” He winks.   

I smirk. It’s impossible not to find him humorous when he acts so … silly. “What talents are you going to be using today?”

He swallows his food and takes a long pull from his soda. “The art of persuasion. You see, my uncle doesn’t want to give up being head of the family, so I have to make it worth his while to do so.”

“What’re you going to do to make it worth his while?”

He smiles sadistically. “Well, that remains to be seen.”

I nod. “So, if he takes your offer, he lives, if he doesn’t …”

He laughs as he swipes his finger in a cutting motion across his neck.

“You’d kill your uncle?” I shake my head and mutter, “Of course you would.”

He bites into one of the apples, and smirks at me. “There’s not much I wouldn’t do, Shayla. I look out for myself above all.” I don’t say anything, just stare down at my half eaten salad. He takes the salad from me, setting it on the table, then tilts my head up so he can see my face. “Don’t worry, Shayla. I’ll make sure you’re safe.”

“Unless it compromises what’s best for you.”

He sighs and sits on his butt in front of me. He shakes his head and chuckles, rubbing his hand over his mouth and beard. “Shayla, that’s not what I meant. I will take care of you. You gave up everything for me. I don’t take that lightly. I know you did it to save your family, but I think there’s a little piece of you that wanted the adventure, the excitement.”

I shake my head vehemently. “No, not at all. I don’t want to be here. If given the choice, I’d choose Ryan and our children.”

He stares at me in that unnerving way he has. “Shayla, you were given the choice and you chose me.”

Chapter Four

Ryan

Tom is filling a plate full of food from Gail, and the guys, Paul, Jon, and Riley, are all sitting around the table, eating lunch when I walk inside my house. I greet them with a head nod and pull the fox from my pocket, handing it to Riley.

“I need an analysis on this ASAP, there’s a hair inside.”

“Sure thing. Where’d you get it?” He asks as he pulls out an evidence bag and puts the unfolded fox inside.

Judson comes inside then, and Tom hands both of us a bottle of water and a plate of food. I take both, but down my water before speaking. “Judson and I found Mathis’ hideout in the woods behind his house.”

Paul looks shocked. “Wow, you’ve been looking for a while.”

I nod as I start to eat. After swallowing a bite I say, “Yeah, I wasn’t headed in the right direction before, and I didn’t go out far enough. The hideout isn’t actually on Jud’s property. Riley, can you find out who owns that land?”

“On it. Was there anything else in there?” He responds, standing with his plate and glass. He deposits them in the sink and then grabs his laptop from the counter to begin checking for the owner.

“Yeah, lots of stuff. I brought back some photos that Mathis took.” I pull them out of my coat pocket and hand them to Jon. Judson takes the seat across from me.

Jon looks through a few and hands a stack to Paul. “He’s been watching you?”

“Mostly Shayla. I thought we had her covered, but obviously it wasn’t good enough.”

“Who’s this?” Paul ask, showing the photo of the unknown woman.

I shake my head. “I don’t know, but I’m hoping whomever that is, we can at least get a lead from the hair in that fox.”

“I can run that over to the station after we finish up here. What’s your plan for finding Shayla?” Riley asks.

I run my hands over my face. “I honestly don’t have a plan. Other than running facial recs on both of them from here to the last known point of her cellphone. I don’t really have anything else to go on. I’m hoping there’s a clue in that note.”

“I’m sure we’ll get something.”

“I hope so. For now, I don’t think Mathis will kill her. It will give us some time to come up with something. I have a lead I need to check up on for Judson’s case. I’ll be back later.” I stand, turning to Jud. “You sure you want to go?”

“Of course,” he answers without hesitation. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, you knew the guy, right?” Judson nods and finishes up his sandwich.

“How are you doing?” Paul asks.

I lean against the counter top across from the dining table. “Not good, man.”

“I’d imagine. Don’t worry, we’ll find her.”

I blow out a harsh breath and fist my hair, before letting my hands drop to my sides. “You know what the real kicker here is? I almost don’t want to find her. I’m pissed. Like, really pissed off.” The sound of dishes falling in the sink makes me look up then groan, rubbing my face. I really shouldn’t have said that in front of Shayla’s father.

“Tom …” I start. He holds up his hand to stop me, shaking his head. He wipes his hand on towel before turning and leaving the room. I bang my head on the table.

“You know that’s just the anger speaking,” Paul replies, trying to smooth over my colossal screw up. “She’s been it for you your whole life. You used to drone on and on about her all the time, every mission we went on, it was Shayla this, Shayla that. Shoot, you didn’t even start dating again until Tasha, and that was what? Over ten years after Shayla?”

I nod. “Yeah,” I groan. “I’m sure it’s probably the anger. The thing is, I feel guilty for feeling like that, but,” I sigh dramatically. “I feel like she betrayed me.”

“I get it. I really do, but I guarantee that as soon as you have her back in your arms, you’ll just be glad she’s there.” Paul slaps my shoulder as he puts his dishes in the sink.

“I hope so,” I say, but at this point, I just don’t know anymore. This might be the final straw. Maybe we aren’t meant for forever.

“Ready to go?” Jud asks, interrupting my train of thought.

I nod. “Thanks,” I tell Paul, and he gives me a brotherly hug slash slap on the back. I turn to Judson. “Yep, let’s go. I need to stop by the station first though.”

The car ride over is quite. I think Judson knows me well enough to know that I’m in no mood to chitchat. The station is quiet as we enter through the front door. I take a quick glance around and then head in the direction of my office, stopping in front of my secretary, May.

“May, is Jessica in?”

She nods her head toward my office. I head in there, only to stop when I see the lady in question at my desk. I don’t know what I’d have done without Jessica on my team, she’s been irreplaceable. She’s officially Oak Groves new Assistant Chief, she deserved the promotion.

“Oh, hey,” Jessica answers, when she sees me approaching. “Sorry. I really need to get my office set up.”

“Nah, it’s okay. I’ll have your office cleaned out this weekend.”

“I can do it, I just haven’t had a chance.”

“At least let me get a few guys to help you. We’ve used that room for storage since before I came on board. It’s really a multi-person job. I’m sorry, I’ve been distracted.”

She smiles at me. “Ryan, you have every reason to be distracted. Please don’t worry about my office. I’ll have some of the guys help me today. Riley called. I’m so sorry. Please know that I have the station covered, you do whatever you need to get her back.”

I shake my head. “I can’t turn my back on my job this time. I will need you to fill in a bit, but I have to do something. Sitting around waiting is only going to make me crazy.”

She nods. “Don’t hesitate to call me. I’m here for you. You’re more than my boss, you’re my friend.” She gives my hand a squeeze.

“Thank you. That means a lot.” I get my mind back on work. “Listen, I need to run to Brantsville and interview Mark Vaughn again. He may know more about the fire at Judson’s than he previously let on. I’m going to take Judson with me, but if you need anything just call.”

“Will do, Chief. Oh before I forget. Jay North asked for a few days off starting tomorrow through Monday, can you sign off? I figured it would be fine since we have nothing big going on right now.”

I shake my head and chuckle. “Rookies, I swear, they always want to take time off. I don’t know how these kids expect to make it.”

I sign the form she hands me. I grab Judson’s case file, which is the real reason for the stop, and then say my goodbyes. We are on the road about twenty minutes when I turn to Jud.

“You’re awfully quiet.”

“Uh, yeah. Sorry. I haven’t been back to where my house was since right after the fire.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t think about that.” I glance at him. “You really didn’t have to come.”

He shakes his head. “No, I wanted to, I just … it’s harder than I imagined. The therapist thinks it might be a good idea to bring Josie back here. Ya know, for closure. But I’m not so sure about that.”

“I guess I can understand that a little, but wouldn’t the graves not be closure enough?” I ask. I wouldn’t want to put more stress on her by triggering old latent memories.

“Could be. I think I’ll leave it up to her. She’s nine, so she understands a good bit. I just wanted to wait until the graveyard had time to remove her headstone. I didn’t think seeing her name on a grave would be all that therapeutic.”

“Yeah, probably not,” I say shaking my head. “I can’t imagine what she must have gone through.”

“It was rough,” Judson replies sadly. “But she appears to be doing okay now. She spoke to her former foster parents the other day, they seem happy for her.”

“Was it hard to let them stay in her life?”

Judson pauses for a moment then says, “Yes and no. They took care of her and were there for her. She wasn’t so easy at first, but they stuck it out. They even went to battle with the courts to keep her when his job moved them out of state. She was separated from them for a couple of weeks while they reregistered in Virginia, but they talked daily and made sure she was okay. They were her parents for four years. That’s hard for me to reconcile. But at the same time, I can’t take that away from Josie, she’s lost too much already.”

“It’s good she was only in one home.” My mind immediately drifts to when Shayla and I were younger. “Shayla was bounced around a lot and the system screwed up getting her back with the Thorn’s. So it took two years before she was home again.”

“Yeah, I remember that. My mom was torn up. You know she tried to get Shayla at one point as well. She and Dad were foster parents at the time.”

“I didn’t know they tried to get her. They adopted your older sisters, right?”

“Yeah. I don’t know exactly what happened, but they obviously weren’t able to get her.”

“Well, at least now Josie is home and doesn’t have to worry about any of that. What does she think of Laney?”

He snorts a laugh. “They are two peas in a pod. They really clicked. It’s amazing to watch them together. Laney was meant to be a mom.”

I smile, he’s right. My sister, though a little high strung and bossy, is awesome at tending to people and their needs. I’ve always known she’d make a great mom.

“She’s great with kids,” I finally say.

“I hope one day we can have one of our own, but with her problems, and my infertility issues, it may not happen.”

I stop at a light and look over at Judson. “You never know. Laney’s miscarriage was tragic, but now doctors know so much more, they can help give her a better shot at carrying another pregnancy to term. I don’t know anything about male infertility, but maybe Shannon fudged those tests. I mean, I don’t know her obviously, but she did keep the fact that the twins were actually Grant’s from you, not to mention a ton of other stuff. Or, maybe something new has come along in that field you could try. Don’t worry about it yet. It’ll happen how it’s meant to.”

Jud is quiet for a few minutes. I feel bad for saying something so harsh about his dead wife, but the woman was a piece of work. But maybe that’s just my anger coming out. Man, I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth.

“You’re right. Shannon betrayed me horribly, but that doesn’t matter now. I’ve moved on and Laney would never do anything like that to me. Besides, now’s not a good time for anything like that. We need to get married and Josie needs to fully recover. She’s enough for me. I just want Laney to have everything her heart desires.”

“That’s what makes you a great match for her. She deserves it all, and so do you.” He gives me an awkward smile. “Enough with the heavy, do you think this guy will be home?”

I turn onto the road that leads to Vaughn’s home. “Probably. Last I spoke to him, he was working from home.”

Jud looks out the window as we pass his driveway. You can’t see where the house was from here because the trees are so dense, but as we travel up Vaughn’s driveway, the burned house comes into view. The once two-story home is now a pile of rubble. The fire didn’t touch the foundation and basement, but the first and second floors were destroyed so completely that only the brick and stone fireplace stands. I can’t imagine how Jud feels. I shiver at the thought of it being my home I was seeing this way. The pain it brings must be unbearable. 

Jud sighs. “I should do something with the house and land.”

“Eh, worry about it later. Just do like you said and worry about Josie right now.”

He nods in agreement, as I park the car. It’s fall and most things are dead now, but you can tell there’s been neglect. The grass never received its last cut before autumn set in and the bushes around the house are almost completely covering the cement sidewalk to the front porch. As I continue to look around, I get an eerie feeling. This doesn’t look like the immaculate house I visited during my investigations the first time around. I give Jud a questioning look, but he just shrugs. I’m sure this isn’t what he’s used to seeing from Vaughn either. As I step out of the vehicle and shut the door, the eerie feeling intensifies as does the smell.

“What’s that smell?” Judson asks.

I shrug, not wanting to voice my theories just yet. “I don’t know, but something doesn’t feel right.” I draw my gun. “Stay behind me.” I look over to Judson, who also draw’s his own gun.

He shrugs. “Never leave home without it.”

I can understand why, especially after everything that happened not long ago. We make our way to the front door of the house. I cover my nose. If I wasn’t certain before, I am now. That’s the smell of death, and I’m almost positive Vaughn is dead, and has been for a while. I turn to Judson.

“Wait out here, I’ll be back.” He gives me a nod and covers his nose and mouth with his shirt.

I knock on the door. “This is Chief Ryan Jacobs of the Oak Grove Police Department. I’m coming in!” The door is unlocked and falls open as I push on it. I repeat my greeting. “Hello. I’m Chief Ryan Jacobs of the Oak Grove Police Department. Is anyone home?”

There’s no answer. I quickly scan the living room and kitchen and find nothing. I turn left off the kitchen and head down a long hallway. There’s four doors and all are closed. I open the first and find nothing.  Behind the second door, I find a dead dog, but that’s not the complete source of the smell. The third door is an empty bathroom. I open the fourth and gag harshly.

“Ryan?” Jud calls.

I run back out of the house, gagging until I heave the contents of my stomach up in the rose bushes in front of the house.

“What’s going on?”

I hold up one finger to signal he wait as I gag again, expelling the contents of my stomach. I spit a few times and then straighten up.

“They’re dead.”

“Vaughn and his wife?” I nod. “How?”

“I didn’t have time to look. Oh, man. It’s so bad in there. It’s nothing compared to out here. There’s a dead dog too.”

“Small white dog?” I nod my head. “Do you think this was Lyon?”

“He’s in jail, but I’m sure whomever is in charge had something to do with this. Oh, man. Let’s get in the car. I can’t stand this anymore.” We hurry to the car where I grab my bottle of water and swish my mouth clean, and then I chug the rest of the liquid. “Man, I’ve been around dead bodies a lot in my time, but I’ve never been able to handle a rotting corpse.”

“I don’t blame you. I was outside and it was bad enough.”

I grab my phone and call the local P.D. and report my findings, letting them know who I am and that I came to Vaughn’s house to re-interview him, only to find him dead. I advised them to call the coroner and to send a unit over. Once I hang up, I dial Marsh’s number.

“Marsh.”

“Hey, man. I’ve got something for you.”

“Yeah, what’s that?”

I can hear him shuffling papers, so I know I’ve caught him in the office. I haven’t even told him about Shayla yet, but that’ll have to wait. “You remember Mark Vaughn?”

“Uh, yeah, the neighbor who found Judson’s wife?”

“Yeah, well, we had a new lead on him. Judson and I came up to chat, but we found him and his wife dead. They’ve been there for a least a few weeks, they’ve started decomposing.”

“Woah. You sure it’s him?”

“Well, I assume it’s him, being his house, but no, you’ll have to have forensics confirm.”

“I’ll send some of my people out. What was the new lead?”

“Judson’s daughter said Vaughn told her, Shannon, Jud, and her brother where dead. According to the police reports and his previous testimony, he claims the kids were dead when he arrived.”

“I’d say he did know a lot more considering he’s now dead. Man, every time we get a lead on who this boss is, it goes dead. Literally.”

“Sorry, man. If there’s anything I can do, let me know.”

“Will do. I guess I might as well head up there myself.” Marsh sighs.

“Uh, before I let you go, I need to tell you something else,” I pause and inhale sharply. “Mathis has Shayla.”

“What! And why didn’t you lead with that, Ryan? You’re an idiot, how’d that happen?”

I can’t help but chuckle at him. “She left with him of her own free will. She drugged the guards and me.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me?” He sounds about as angry as I was … am.

“Nope. I wish I was.”

“All right, look. I’ll get this mess I’m in finished as much as I can, then I’ll be there. I’ll help you bring her home.”

“I appreciate that. But I know you’ve got a lot going on with this new position.”

“Nonsense. Family comes first. I’ll be there.”

“Thanks, Marsh.”

We disconnect. The local police show up not long after and I let them in on what’s been going on. They are somewhat up to speed already, having had contact with Marsh and his men. It doesn’t take long to wrap things up and then the two of us head back to Oak Grove. Once we reach my house, it’s late, so Judson heads straight home and I head to my room to wash this nasty feeling off of me. It’s like death is clinging to my every pore. I shower and dress, then sit down on Shayla’s side of our unmade bed.

“Why did you do this, Shay?”

I pick up the photo of us on our wedding day that she keeps on her night table. It was taken outside in our backyard near our treehouse. The two of us as happy as can be, snuggled up together, staring into each other’s eyes, and our hands clasped between our chests. She looked so perfect that day; so happy and carefree. Like she was before her parents died. I’d longed for years to see her that happy again.

Now she’s gone and ruined any chance of that happiness. How could she be so foolish?! She’s been gone almost twenty-four hours, but it feels so much longer. I grab my phone from my nightstand, I know hers is off, or destroyed, but leaving a message is better than nothing. If she, at some point, hears this, I want her to know I won’t stop looking for her. Her phone connects. To say I’m surprised would be an understatement. I never expected her to pick up the phone, but she doesn’t say anything and I start to panic.

“Shayla?” I call out, needing to hear her voice, instead I hear her sniffle. “Baby, talk to me, please. I need to know you’re okay.” She starts crying even more. “Shay, please tell me you’re okay. I’ll … I’ll leave you alone if that’s really what you want. I just need to know.”

“I’m okay,” she finally whispers.

“Thank God. Where are you?”

She starts going on about how she loves me and did this to protect me, and I can’t take it. I am enraged. I don’t mean to be so harsh with her, but she’s playing with fire here. She has to know this is serious. I don’t know what possesses me to actually put her into play. I shouldn’t do it, but it happens and once the words are out, they’re out. Can’t go back now, what’s done is done. If she wants to play the hero, then we might as well let her. She’s in this whether I like it or not and she’ll help capture Mathis once and for all. She wants to protect us. Who am I to stop her? She starts crying uncontrollably and just like that, my anger recedes and my heart breaks.

“Oh, Ryan. I love you so much. I’m so sorry.”

I blow out a deep breath and try to remain calm. I’m still very upset, but I guess I can see her reasoning. Her heart was in the right place. Finally, clearing my throat, I say, “We’ll get through this, but you have to do everything I tell you to do.”

“I will, I promise,” she pauses and then continues, “He’s back.” I can hear the panic in her voice.

She hangs up abruptly and my heart constricts. I basically feel worse than I did before. As my anger completely subsides, it’s immediately replaced with regret. Not just for yelling at her, which I never do, but for not telling her how much I love her, and that somehow we will fix this. We will be us again, we will be happy. Forty-eight hours. I’ll talk to her again in forty-eight hours. I’ll tell her then. I turn back to the picture of us on our wedding day, feeling the burden of everything happening weighing heavily on my heart. I run my finger along the smile she’s wearing, wanting desperately to see her smile like that again.

“I love you so much, baby.”