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May 20, 9:30 a.m., Polunsky Prison, Polk County, Texas
Victoria Colby-Camp waited in the cold, sterile room for the man who had requested her presence. Considerable persuasion from the right source had been required to sway the warden of Polunsky Prison to allow this meeting. Lucas, Victoria's husband, though fully retired from his lifelong career with the CIA, still wielded a great deal of influence. One call to the esteemed governor of Texas and Victoria had almost immediate approval to meet with the prison's most infamous death-row inmate.
Raymond Rafe Barker had spent twenty-two years in prison, seventeen on death row, quite an extended period for Texas, where the punishment of heinous criminals was generally carried out in a swift and efficient manner. Many had hoped that the delays would provide the necessary time for him to grow a conscience and give up the locations of the bodies of his victims that were never recovered. But that hadn't happened, and now his time on this earth was coming to a close. In thirty days he would be executed by lethal injection.
Victoria was torn by what she had read in the file provided by the warden and what she might be about to learn. No one wanted to be used as a conduit for an evil man's purposes. Yet, after due consideration of the letter Barker had written, she could not refuse the request.
The door of the interview room opened. Victoria jerked from her troubling thoughts and mentally fortified for the impact of meeting the man whose stunning invitation had brought her here. Two prison guards escorted Barker into the room. The leg irons around his ankles and belly chain coiled about his waist rattled as he was ushered to the chair directly across the table from her. The nylon glides whispered across the tile floor as the chair was drawn back.
"Sit," one of the guards ordered.
Barker glanced at the man on his left, then followed the instruction given. He settled into the molded plastic chair and faced Victoria. His gaze, however, remained lowered, as if his reflection in the steel tabletop had garnered his undivided attention. The second guard secured the leg irons to a hook on the floor and the ones binding Barker's hands to his waist to the underside of the sturdy table that spanned some three feet between the prisoner and his visitor.
"We'll be right outside, ma'am," the first guard said to Victoria, "if you need anything."
"Thank you. We'll be fine."
When the door had closed behind the guards, Barker finally looked up. The move was slow, cautious, as if he too were braced on some level for what was to come. The twenty-three hours per day confined to his cell showed in the pale skin stretched across his gaunt face; a face that narrowed down to slumped shoulders and rail-thin arms covered by colorless prison garb. But the most glaring aspect of his appearance was the faded brown eyes, dull and listless. There was nothing about this man's presence that exhibited the compassion and desperation of the letter he had written to Victoria. Had she made a mistake in coming?
"I didn't think you'd come."
The rustiness of his voice had her resisting the urge to flinch. His voice croaked with disuse and age far beyond his true years. According to the warden, this was the first time he had broken his silence in more than two decades. Reporters, men of God, bestselling authors, all had urged him to tell his story. He had refused. The measure of restraint required to maintain that vigil in spite of so very many reasons not to was nothing short of astonishing.
"Guess you're wishing you hadn't," he offered before Victoria completed her visual inventory of the man labeled as a heinous monster.
"Your letter was quite compelling." Only two pages, but every word had been carefully chosen to convey the worry and outright fear he professed haunted him. Victoria had no choice but to look into the matter. His assertions, though somewhat vague, carried far too much potential for even greater devastation for all concerned in the Princess Killer case. The idea that the man watching her so intently had been arrested and charged with the murders of more than a dozen young girls held her breath hostage as she waited for his next move.
His throat worked as if the words he intended to utter were difficult to summon. "It's true. All of it."
Victoria kept her hands folded in her lap to ensure there was no perception of superiority. She wanted Barker relaxed and open. Even more, she wanted his full attention on her face, not on her unshackled hands. The eyes were the windows to the soul. If she left this room with nothing else gained, she needed to gauge if there was any possibility whatsoever that he was telling the truth about those horrific murders.
The prospect carried monumental ramifications even beyond the added pain to the families of the victims. Her chest tightened at the conceivability of what his long-awaited words might mean. "Why haven't you come forward with this before now?" Having told the truth at or before trial, for instance. Instead, he had refused to talk from the moment he and his wife were arrested.
Clare Barker, on the other hand, had steadfastly stood by her story that she was innocent. As the investigation of the case had progressed, the bodies of eight young girls, ranging in age from twelve to seventeen, had been recovered, but several others remained missing. Clare insisted that she knew nothing about any of the murders. Her husband, a pillar of the small Texas community rocked by the news, had executed all the heinous murders, at least twelve, without her knowledge, and that gruesome number didn't include those of their three young daughters the morning of the arrest. This would not be the first time a community and even a spouse were totally blindsided. Since the evidence had incriminated both Clare and Rafe, there was the remote chance his sudden claims were, in part, the truth.
But why now? There were only two possibilities. First, and most probable, after numerous appeals, his wife had just been released, exonerated legally if not in the eyes of the citizens of Texas, and he wanted revenge. The less likely scenario was that he actually was innocent. Though he had provided no proof in his letter, there was something in his words that Victoria could not ignore. She had explored the depths of evil many times in her nearly three decades of private investigations. Long ago she had learned to trust her instincts. "There was ample opportunity for you to come forward."
"I had my reasons for not speaking out before." He looked away as he said the words, each of which was imbued with distrust and what sounded more like misery than defensiveness.
A deep calming breath was necessary for Victoria to repress any outward reaction. This man, one painted as a monster by the deeds he had refused to deny more than twenty years ago, despite his frail appearance and imminent death now, held the key to closure for so many. Parents who merely wanted to find peace, to provide a proper resting place for their daughters. The warden, Don Prentice, had urged Victoria to tread carefully here. Barker might very well be looking for a last-minute reprieve. No amount of strength possessed by any human fully abated the natural inclination to keep breathing. That cold, hard reality aside, the families of the victims should not have to go through more agony, particularly unnecessary agony. Prentice was right. Too much misery and loss had been wielded by this man and his wife already. Yet, if there was even the most remote chance he was telling the truth Victoria had to know and to glean whatever good could come of it.
"Mr. Barker, you asked me to come here. You suggested in your letter that it was a life-and-death matter. If you want my help, I need the truth. All of it. Otherwise, I won't waste my time or yours'"
Barker stared at her for so long that Victoria wasn't sure whether he would respond or simply cut his losses and call out for a guard to take him away. There was no mistaking the fear that had trickled into his weary eyes. Her pulse accelerated as the realization sank deep into her bones that the terror she saw was undeniably real. But was it for his own life or was it because he believed, perhaps even harbored some sort of proof, that the real killer of all those children had just gone free?
He took a breath that jerked his upper body as if it was the first deep gasp of oxygen he'd been physically able to inhale since sitting down with her. "I didn't hurt anyone, much less a child. I couldn't." Again he looked away.
"Unless you have irrefutable evidence," Victoria began prudently, "the chances of staying your execution are minimal." If that was his intent, as the warden suggested, Victoria refused to be a pawn in Barker's game. She would not allow the media to use her or the Colby Agency to that end.
"I'm ready to go." He squared his thin shoulders. "Don't waste any time on me. This is not about my guilt or innocence. It's about my children." His lips trembled. "And the others." The craggy features of his face tightened as he visibly fought for composure. "I can't do anything to bring those girls back, and I don't know that the truth would ease nobody's pain. Dead is dead." He moved his head side to side with the defeat that showed in the deep lines forged around his mouth. "But I can't let her hurt anyone else, especially my girls."
Despite the anticipation whirling like a biting snowstorm inside her, Victoria kept her expression schooled. "In your letter you claimed your wife was responsible for the murders. All of them." The bodies of their three small daughters had never been found, but neither had those of at least four other victims. As much as Victoria wanted to ask specific questions, she could not risk putting words in his mouth. Over and over in his letter he had insisted his daughters were in danger. Yet not a single shred of evidence supported the theory that the children had survived that final downward spiral the morning of the arrest. In all this time no one had come forward and suggested otherwise. The little girls had vanished, and concrete evidence that a violent act had preceded their disappearance had been documented at trial. What he alluded to in his letter and now, face-to-face, had to be supported by something tangible. He needed to say the words without a visible or audible prompt by Victoria.
"That's the truth," Barker repeated, the defeat she'd seen and heard moments ago now gone. "I can't prove it, don't even want to. But it's so just the same." He blinked, clearing the definable emotion from his eyes. "I didn't beg you to come here to save me. I died in here" he glanced around the room "a long time ago. I need you to help my girls."
Now they were getting somewhere. His leading the way was essential. "What exactly is it you're asking me to do?" Did he want her to recover their bodies and ensure a proper burial? If they weren't dead, why would he not want to prove his innocence of those particular charges? Why had he allowed all involved in the case to believe they were deceased? Was he simply trying to muddy the waters? Whatever his end game, Victoria needed him to spell it out. The warden was monitoring this interview, as well he should.
"As far as the world is concerned," Barker explained in that unpracticed voice, "I can stay the devil they believe I am. That doesn't matter to me." His gaze leveled on Victoria with a kind of desperation that sent a chill all the way to her core. "Once I found out she was going to get away with what she'd done, it took some time to find just the right person I could trust with what I knew had to be done. Careful research by certain folks in here who knew I needed help."
That this man had developed a loyal following of some sort during his tenure was no surprise, since the warden had not known the contents of Barker's letter until Victoria had shown it to him. The letter had gotten through the prison mail system without the usual inspections.
"But over and over the results they found were the same," Barker continued. "There was only one place that consistently fought for justice and helped those in need without ever falling down on the job or resorting to underhanded deeds in order to accomplish the goal. A place that has never once bragged about its record or used the media for self-serving purposes. That place is the Colby Agency."
Time stopped for one second, then two and three. Victoria didn't dare breathe until he finished.
"I can't pay you a dime, and I know my appreciation means nothing to you." He shrugged. "I'm worse than nothing in the eyes of the world. But if you can ignore what you think of me and just do this one thing, I'll know your agency is everything I read it was." Another of those deep, halting breaths rattled his torso. "I beg you, just protect my girls from her. That's all I want."
Victoria's heart thudded hard against her chest, then seemed to still with the thickening air in the room. "I'm sorry, Mr. Barker. You're going to have to be more precise as to what your request involves since you pled guilty to murdering your daughters twenty-two years ago. Neither your letter nor what you're saying to me now makes sense."
"They're alive." The words reverberated against the cold, white walls. "My girls are alive."
Adrenaline burned through Victoria's veins. Still she resisted any display of her anticipation. "The first officers on the scene the morning you and your wife were arrested," she countered cautiously, "found blood in the girls' bed. Blood in the trunk of your car along with a teddy bear that your middle daughter carried with her everywhere. The blood was tested and determined to be that of your daughters." Victoria hesitated until the horror of her words stopped darkening his features and echoing in her own ears. "You never denied killing your young children, Mr. Barker. To date there is no evidence to the contrary. In light of those facts, how can you expect me to believe you're finally telling the truth now?"