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Nothing to Fear
By Karen Rose
Warner BooksCopyright © 2005 Karen Rose Hafer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWight's Landing, Isle of Wight Bay, Maryland Wednesday, July 28, 2:00 A.M.
Ow. That hurt. It was his first blurry thought as fingers gripped his shoulder and shook. Hard. That really hurt. Stop it.
The shaking continued, but he wouldn't open his eyes. It couldn't be morning yet. He drew in a breath, smelled her perfume. It wasn't fair. She'd promised him the whole week off. No lessons. No flash cards. No stupid word games or speech therapy. Just fun in the sun. Fishing, crabbing. Riding the waves. Video games all night. Sleeping in as long as he wanted. Yet here she was, shaking him awake.
He knew she'd break her promise. They all did, sooner or later. He'd just wait her out, just like he'd waited out all the other speech therapists. Sooner or later, they'd leave. Cheryl had stuck around longer than most. He had to give her credit for that.
He swatted her hand and tried to roll over, but she grabbed him and yanked him up by his T-shirt. Her hand clamped over his mouth just as his eyes flew open. Just as he took in her face, white as a ghost in the moonlight, and her dark eyes, wide and scared. Not just scared. Cheryl was terrified, and in that moment, so was he. He stopped struggling.
"Say nothing." She mouthed it. He nodded. She let go of his mouth and pulled him from the bed, shoving the processor in his hand. Normally he fought putting it on, put her off as long as he could. Now, he slipped it behind his ear without a word.
And flinched as the roaring began. As the processor "turned on his ears" as Cheryl would say, instantly changing the calm, quiet world of his deafness to a loud painful mess of sound. He concentrated to ignore it. To hear what he needed to hear in the ocean of noise. Now she didn't say anything, just pulled him across the room, into the closet.
She pushed him in the corner of the closet and to the floor. Crouched down to meet his eyes.
"Someone's downstairs." She whispered and signed it at the same time, her normally smooth hands shaking. Her whole body was shaking. "Paul went to check. Don't come out until I come get you." She gripped his chin. "Understand? Stay here. Say nothing."
He nodded and she snapped upright, grabbing the stack of life jackets that his father had stored on the top shelf of the closet. Then they were covering him, smelly and musty. The door closed and he was left in the darkness.
He was hiding. Like a coward.
Temper began to simmer, mixing in with the fear. He wasn't a coward. He was going to be thirteen, for God's sake. She'd shoved him in the closet like a little kid. Buried him under a pile of smelly life jackets, while Paul went to check. Carefully he pushed one of the life jackets far enough away from his eye to stare at the door, trying to think of what to do. He wasn't going to just sit here while someone broke into his house. He certainly wasn't going to let Paul take all the credit for chasing them away.
Dim light appeared at the crack under the door and all his courage disappeared. Someone was in his room. He shrank back into the corner of the closet, his heart beating so loud he thought he could hear it. The hairs raised on the back of his neck. Painful shudders shook him. No way. I have to do something.
A scream cut through the ocean of sound. Cheryl. I have to help her.
But his body was frozen. Frozen into a useless lump in a closet under a pile of life jackets. He concentrated, listening. Pushed the roar aside like Cheryl had taught him to do. And listened.
There was nothing. They were gone. He should get up. He should.
Then there was a loud crack of sound, so loud it hurt. His head jerked back, struck the closet wall, that pain mixing in with the other.
A gun. They had a gun. Someone had shot a gun. Cheryl. They'd killed Cheryl.
And they'd kill him, too. Or worse. Do something. Do something.
What? He didn't know. Didn't know what to do. Dad. What would his father do?
He felt a sharp pain in his chest. He was too old to cry for his parents, but he wished they were here. Wished they hadn't picked tonight to go into Annapolis. It was their anniversary. They'd gone dancing. They'd come back and find him dead. Mom would cry.
He blinked, realized his own face was wet. He was hiding in a closet, crying like a baby, while they killed Cheryl. And he couldn't move.
He flinched at the second shot, quieter this time. Then more screaming.
She was screaming. Cheryl was still alive. Screaming. The sound stabbed his brain like a million knives. He could hear it. Feel it. A million knives slashing. Heart pounding, hands trembling, he yanked the processor from behind his ear.
And it was quiet. The minutes ticked by in his head. Then the closet door opened.
He shrank back into the corner, clenching his eyes shut, his teeth together. Trying not to make a sound. One life jacket was pulled away. Then another. And another. The musty smell no longer tickled his nose and he could feel the air on his face.
He made himself open his eyes, felt the whimper stick in his throat. Looked up.
She was tall, taller than Cheryl. Bigger. Her hair was wild.
Her eyes were crazy. White. She has white eyes.
Her mouth was smiling, an evil smile that made him want to scream.
But he didn't. Because her shirt was splattered with blood and in her hand she was holding a gun and it was pointed at him.
Eastern West Virginia, Thursday, July 29, 3:30 A.M.
The shrill ringing of her cell phone woke her easily. She was a light sleeper. She hadn't always been, but prison had a way of changing little things like that. Even though she'd been out for six months now, it was one of the changes that stuck. Even though she'd been out for six months now, prison was still the first thing she thought of when she woke.
For that alone, there would be retribution.
Only her brother Bryce knew her cell number, still she cautiously answered, "Yeah?"
She sat up, cursing the stiffness in her back. Sleeping in the backseat of a small car was far from ideal, but she'd certainly slept in worse places. "They're home?" Her mouth curved and her heart began to beat a little faster. The Vaughns had come home. Found the wrecked house. The empty bed. The note pinned to the pillow. The gift waiting for them in the shed. They'd be terrified. They'd cry. They'd be powerless.
Powerless. It wasn't nearly enough, but it was a damn good start.
"I'm n-not r-really sh-sure." Bryce stammered it out, fear lacing every stuttered syllable.
Visions of triumph abruptly fizzled. "What do you mean?" she asked, each word evenly spaced. If he'd fucked this up, he'd do a hell of a lot worse than shake. "Where are you?"
"In jail." She closed her eyes. Reminded herself that the throwaway cell she'd bought in Maryland was untraceable. Still, the thought of him calling her from a jail made her seethe. "They a-arrested me for r-robbing a store. I need you to b-bail me out."
Her laugh was cold and brief. They were on the verge of millions and he'd robbed a goddamn store. "You want me to bail you out. You've got to be kidding."
"Dammit," he hissed. "I called you because ... you know. I c-could have called Earl."
He'd called because he was no longer at his post. No longer keeping watch over the beach house to report on the Vaughns' activities. No longer able to tell her when they came home and whether or not they'd called the fucking police.
"You're only seventeen. They'll slap you on the wrists and put you in juvie."
"No." Bryce's voice dropped to a terrified whisper. "They s-say they'll charge me as an adult. I'll go to p-p-prison. Please," he begged pitifully. "Get me out of here."
That she and Bryce shared DNA seemed an impossibility. And even the fact that they did wasn't enough to make her stick her neck out for him at this point. But she did need to get him out of jail before some slick DA got him to spill his damn guts. That Bryce would hold his stuttering tongue in the face of even the most civilized of interrogation techniques was too much to hope for. Growing up with Uncle Earl had mushed his brain. Growing up with Aunt Lucy had mushed his will. It was a pity she hadn't been around to see to his upbringing herself, but she'd been ... indisposed. Incarcerated. And now Bryce was on his way there, too. Their father must be spinning in his grave like a rotisserie chicken.
"I'll call Earl," she snapped. "I'll tell him I'm a clerk at the jail." That her uncle would recognize her voice wasn't likely as they hadn't spoken in years. "Where are you?"
At least he'd had the brains not to do it in that little bumfuck town of Wight's Landing. Ocean City was an hour away. Nobody would think to tie the two together, even if the Vaughns did call the cops. "I'll call Earl. You keep your damn mouth shut and your eyes open." She smirked. "And if anybody drops any soap, don't bend over to pick it up."
"That's not f-f-funny, S-S-Sue."
Hearing him stammer her name wiped the smirk from her face. "No, it's not. Neither is you calling me from a damn jail." With that she disconnected and took a look out of the back window at the dark forest in which she'd parked to get some sleep. She was far off the beaten path and had been since leaving the Maryland Eastern Shore the morning before. She'd made terrible time on the single-lane roads, having to stop every few hours to give the kid water so that he didn't dehydrate in the trunk, but she was avoiding the interstates for now. She wasn't sure when the Vaughns would be home and even though she'd warned them not to call the cops, they just might. She wouldn't let herself be found. She had too much at stake. The prize was just too sweet.
She climbed out of the car and popped the trunk. Eyed the two figures curled into fetal balls. They were still there, just where she'd left them. Still tied, just as she'd tied them.
Her prize. Her retribution.
Alexander Quentin Vaughn. A big name for such a scrawny kid. He was twelve, but he didn't look any older than ten. Bryce had summed it all up pretty well when they'd first laid eyes on the little brat cowering in that closet in the beach house. "Kid don't look like he's worth a million bucks," Bryce had said and in the strictest sense he'd been right. The kid was worth five times that.
But money wasn't everything.
Sometimes revenge meant a great deal more.
And when you could get them both at the same time ... That was justice.
Alexander Quentin Vaughn. And his live-in speech therapist, who had put up one hell of a fight. The Vaughns owed Cheryl Rickman combat pay, assuming she lived to collect it, which she would not. Rickman knew it, too, from the look of dazed terror in her eyes. Sue had only kept Rickman alive this long because she could communicate with the kid.
The boy blinked back tears now. Shrank back until his scrawny body bumped Rickman's. Tying him had probably been unnecessary. He couldn't weigh more than eighty pounds soaking wet and didn't fight worth diddlyshit. The gag was probably overkill as well, but Sue didn't know if he could scream. Just because he was deaf and mute didn't mean he couldn't scream.
That he was a deaf-mute had been a surprise. One of those glass-half-full things. He couldn't tell tales to people they'd meet on the way, but at the same time he couldn't make a terrified plea for his parents to pay his ransom. It was a damn shame. She'd been looking forward to hearing the kid making that terrified plea. But the plan moved on.
Adopt, adapt, and improve. It was a good motto. Her old man's favorite, ironically. She couldn't use the kid's voice, so she'd use his face. A picture was worth a thousand words.
She looked down at them, her prize, feeling control return. Bryce's arrest had changed very little, really. As long as she got him bailed out before he spilled his guts to some overzealous DA, the only thing that was impacted was her eye on the Vaughns. Hearing Bryce recount their pain and suffering firsthand would have been very nice, but ultimately unnecessary. Knowing if police cars lined the lonely road going up to the beach house would be valuable, but even if the Vaughns did go to the cops, they wouldn't find her. She'd be far, far away by then, tucked safely and secretly away in Earl's house. That didn't need to change either. Especially if Earl and Lucy were headed off to Maryland to bail Bryce's ass out of jail. Sue would have the run of the house to herself for a few days.
Then when they got back from Maryland, she and Earl and Lucy would have the reunion Sue had planned with such enthusiasm. She took out her phone and dialed Earl's number, noting the time. He'd be asleep, groggy. No way he'd know who he was really talking to.
The phone was answered on the first ring. "Yes?" a deep voice drawled.
Sue went still, every muscle tightening to its breaking point. He wasn't sleepy or groggy. He wasn't Earl. She said nothing, could say nothing. The voice just chuckled.
"Is this Bryce?" James. Sue's blood ran cold. Impossible. James was dead. She'd slit his throat herself. Obviously, not well enough.
"Not Bryce?" he said genially. "Then this must be Sue. How the hell are you, Sue?" His voice hardened. "Free lesson. When you kill a man, you need to make damn sure he's really dead. Now, did you want to talk to your Uncle Earl?" A moan echoed in the background. "He can't come to the phone right now."
Sue gritted her teeth. "You sonofabitch. They were mine."
"I have to say I'm shocked, Sue. You, a dutiful niece." He sounded it. Shocked. "Protecting an aunt and uncle you hated?"
"Not mine to protect, you asshole," she hissed. Mine to kill. Mine to make moan and weep and wish they were dead. Mine to make pay. She'd had plans. Damn him.
James choked on a laugh. "You were going to kill your own aunt and uncle, just like you killed that woman in Florida. And I beat you to it. Sue, you're priceless."
He knew about the Florida murder. James Lorenzano knew too damn much. She should have stayed to make sure he was dead, but someone had been coming and she'd been forced to flee. Killing him a second time would be far more difficult. She'd just need to stay out of his way. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. Don't forget I know far more about you than you know about me. I'll find you, Sue. You know I can. And when I do, you're dead."
A chill ran down her spine. He could. James knew how to find people. That's why she'd hired him in the first place. Then she stiffened her spine in resolve. She'd come too far to give up now. "No, you won't."
She hung up and seethed a moment. James was alive. That had been a bit of a shock. And he'd been to Earl and Lucy's. This was bigger than the lost pleasure of seeing Earl and Lucy writhe in pain. This meant she needed to find another place to hide with the kid.
Adopt, adapt, and improve. She would not change her destination. It had to be Chicago. No other city would suffice. No other place would be revenge.
She needed to find another place to hide in Chicago. Just long enough to get her money and her revenge. The money would be her ticket out of the country, away from James.
The revenge ... Well, that was sustenance. Without it, there would be little reason to survive and little joy in doing so.
She needed to find a place to hide that James would never think to look. He was right about one thing. He did know more about her than she knew about him. He would visit all her old cohorts, most of whom would sell their own mother for a buck, so she couldn't call any of them. Not yet anyway. She had to hide the kid, because without him the whole plan fell flat. She stared down at the boy, her mind working. And as usual, the pieces fell neatly into place, a new plan forming.
Luckily James didn't know everything.
She glanced at her watch in the dim glow of the trunk light. She had things to do. With both hands she grabbed Rickman's shirt and hauled her out of the trunk with ease. Rock-hard biceps were about the only thing of value she'd gotten out of Hillsboro Women's Penitentiary. Well, that wasn't entirely true. Without Hillsboro, she never would have met Tammy, whom James did not know.
Excerpted from Nothing to Fear by Karen Rose Copyright © 2005 by Karen Rose Hafer. Excerpted by permission.
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