Authors: Kylie Brant
Tags: #Fiction & Literature
By Kylie Brant
Also by Kylie Brant:
Published by Kylie Brant
Copyright 2014 Kylie Brant
Cover art by Middle Child Marketing, LLC
This ebook is licensed only for your personal enjoyment. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you are reading this ebook and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy.
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All characters in this book are fictional.
For Nate, our soon-to-be only favorite son-in-law.
We’re so excited to have you in the family.
Welcome to the craziness :)
This plot careened across the world and then ping-ponged across the United States. And it seemed with each new locale I had a fresh set of research to do. My great appreciation goes to Virginia Lockett for the fascinating details about Da Nang. I wasn’t able to use everything, but you gave me enough information to convince me I need to make a trip there!
For Chris Herndon, for being a constant for all things corpse-related, thanks so much! No blowflies this time around, alas. But there’s always the next book.
Thanks also go to Jessica Bae Welter, sister-in-law extraordinaire, for facilitating the answers regarding Vietnamese language. You are ever so much more useful than your husband ☺.
And I’d be remiss not to thank Jill and Jordan, helpless victims to my crazed deadline process. Next time will be different, guys. (I hope.)
“Once again, you disappoint, Eleven.”
The slight push he gave sent her body swaying from the length of chain like a pendulum. She hung upside down, sheathed in a clear thick plastic tarp that was held in place with bungee cords. Her ankles were suspended from a metal beam that ran the length of the building. Discipline was harsh and frequent. She braced herself for what was to come. Knew the agony would outweigh her anticipation of it.
“Who helped you?”
The lie was immediate. “Nobody.”
The first blow landed, a fist to her belly. Oxygen rushed out of her like steam from a boiling teakettle. “Try again.”
She was unable to draw a breath. Just shook her head in mute protest.
“Refusing to answer is just another form of disobedience.” The next punch caught her in the left kidney. But his voice sounded more amused than angry. He relished the punishments. They were meted out in varying intensity for the smallest infractions.
Finally able to speak, she gasped out, “Just…exploring…”
“With. Who?” The question was punctuated with a series of slaps. Her face. Breasts. Butt.
“Should your punishment focus on your lies or your disobedience, I wonder?”
From her position, he was visible only from the knees down. She could feel the blood shifting slowly toward her upper body. In minutes numbness would start to creep into her shoulders and arms.
Although she’d be expected to bargain the length and severity of her penalty, her words were meant to spare another. “I’m not lying.”
The others were silent. But she knew they huddled at the front of their cells watching, because he’d ordered them to. Punishments were group affairs. Lessons to be seared into psyches, designed to break spirits. To reduce them to their basest states. Cowering primitive beings whose every action was designed to avoid pain.
“Disobedience it is, then. Whose turn to choose the weapon? Four?”
“The whip!” The woman’s voice was gleeful. “No, no, the antenna!”
“Four, you’ve chosen wisely.”
He bent then, reaching out to turn her body until he could peer into her face. “Eleven, thank Four for her input.” As always her captor wore a mask that covered his head. This one was adorned with a curved black beak and a rainbow of turquoise feathers. A beautiful frame for a soulless monster.
Nausea threatened. It wasn’t that the humiliation was worse than the abuse. Nothing was worse than the pain. But each time she obeyed him, in even the smallest way, she felt a tiny shred of humanity stripped away. Soon there’d be nothing left of her. She’d be hulled out, an empty shell.
“Thank you, Four.”
You blood-sucking bitch
He straightened, and her muscles tensed as she heard the slight whistle the weapon made in the air before contact. Then agony exploded. Her back bowed, and a primal howl escaped her.
“Begin your lessons.”
The second blow landed, and pain radiated beneath the skin, dancing across nerve endings. Skipping along synapses. “You are my lord and master.”
The third blow had her body swinging. “I am…nothing. I exist…only…to serve you.”
The blows were coming faster now. Biting back the screams served only to enrage him so she let them echo and re-echo in the cavernous enclosure.
“Who are you?” The metal whipped across her back, her stomach, her thighs. “Whom do you belong to?”
“I am Eleven. I am yours.”
There was a roar of blood rushing to her head, ringing in her ears. The words were little more than whispered croaks. The blows rained upon her and unconsciousness crept along the hem of her suffering. She reached for it. Yearned to cloak herself in its veil of nothingness.
But before the tidal wave of blackness consumed her, a last tiny spark of defiance flashed through her mind.
Mia. My name is Mia.
Five years later
The light tap at his door had Jude Bishop hissing out a disgusted breath. “Yes, Shannon?”
He swiveled his chair from his computer toward the entrance of his office as it opened and the regal blonde stepped inside. As usual, after one quick furtive glance at his face she averted her gaze, waiting until the door snicked shut behind her before speaking. “There’s a man here to see you. He doesn’t have an appointment, but he’s insistent that you’ll meet with him.”
Jude waited in silence for a count of twenty as his firm’s newest employee looked at everything in the office besides him. He mentally damned his long-time secretary’s daughter for picking this month to give birth. “Does he have a name?”
“Adam Raiker. I thought maybe I should call security.” Her ice blue gaze landed on him for an instant before immediately flitting away. “He looks like a rough character.”
Humor warred with annoyance. “If by rough you mean dangerous, then I’d agree. Send him in.”
Alarm widened her eyes. “Oh, but he’s…” One hand gestured toward her face.
His earlier flicker of amusement faded. “Disfigured? Then he and I can be bookends, can’t we? Send him in.” When she turned, one hand on the doorknob, he added, “Oh, and Shannon. See Kacee about a different job in the firm. Something more in keeping with your…sensibilities.”
Her erect posture eased just a bit in what he suspected was relief. But she made no comment as she opened the door and spoke in her cultured voice, “Mr. Bishop will see you now, Mr. Raiker.”
Jude rose and started across the room. As the other man filled the doorway, then stepped through it, the corner of his mouth lifted. “You scared my secretary.”
Raiker cocked a brow and shut the door behind him. “If she scares that easily, how she’d come to be working for you?”
“I imagine she’s been asking herself that daily.” Jude took the man’s outstretched hand, genuine pleasure filling him. “Been a while, Adam.”
The other man set his briefcase down and leaned on his cane, engulfing Jude’s hand in a tight grip. “Too long. A year and a half? A little longer, I think. New York. The Brownlow case.”
Jude wasn’t fooled. If pressed, Raiker would be able to recite the day and time they’d last met. The hell the man had been through on his final case for the FBI was written on his visage, but his mind was unmarred. “When it went to trial, yeah. You destroyed the scumbag’s defense. It was a thing of beauty.”
“We all had a part.”
Jude waved the man to the leather chairs arranged in front of the marble fireplace and followed him to a seat.
Raiker looked around, his laser blue gaze missing nothing. “New office. High rent building. Business must be good.”
“No complaints.” He felt a twinge of humor. “At least not from me.” Without asking, he walked to an ornately carved rosewood table that held several decanters. Poured two fingers of Scotch into a couple glasses and returned to hand one to Raiker.
There was a bond between them that ran deeper than friendship. One that existed despite the other man’s disapproval of some of Jude’s methods. As the head of the renowned Mindhunters agency, Raiker worked cases at the invitation of law enforcement entities. As such his services always operated squarely within the law.
Jude wasn’t without scruples. He picked his clients very carefully. His work often paralleled that of law enforcement. At other times he operated in the shadows. Where niceties like legalities were considered suggestions, rather than hard and fast rules.
The other man let his cane rest against his chair, and brought the glass to his lips. Drank. His brows rose. “You have better taste in Scotch these days, too.”
“I learned from the best.” Jude sipped companionably and studied his friend. He was Jude’s senior by less than a decade, but the scar that traced down Raiker’s face, the one across his throat and the black eye patch he wore were visual reminders that they were unmatched in experience.
Or… He fingered the web of scars on his left cheek absently. Perhaps not totally unmatched. They’d both once been at the mercy of a monster.
Raiker drank again, lowered his glass. “Tell me what you know about Russell Deleon.”
Jude was too used to the man’s abrupt transitions to be thrown by this one. “Deleon. Forbes had him breaking the billionaire bracket this year. Outwardly charming, but ruthless. Has his finger in a lot of pies, all of them legal from what I’ve heard. Although,” he lifted a shoulder and drank again. “What’s legal for Wall Street folks would get most others a lengthy sentence.”
“And his daughter?”
Thoughts of that particular client still rankled. “You had to remind me. She’d be…twenty-seven, twenty-eight by now. And likely still a train wreck, although I haven’t seen her for years.”
The other man settled more comfortably into the leather chair, the heavily cut glass nestled in one hand. “Refresh my memory.”
Jude snorted. His friend’s memory was like a stone tablet. Once an experience had been etched on it, it was there for eternity. His gaze landed on the patchwork of scars covering the back of Adam’s hand clutched around the glass. In Raiker’s case, perfect recall wouldn’t necessarily be a blessing.
“Russell Deleon made the initial contact. Or,” he corrected himself, “the family lawyer did. Creighton Upton. Said Mia Deleon was suffering from anxiety. Depression. Wanted security until she was feeling better.”
Adam’s expression was unreadable. “They didn’t offer any details beyond that?”
He gave a negligible lift of his shoulder. “I filled in the blanks myself.” He never accepted a job without knowing who—and what—he was dealing with. And handling Mia Deleon had been like balancing a basket of explosives. He paused to drink, more deeply now. Remembering the Deleon case could do that to him. “She’d been a party girl. High society. If not empty-headed, then determined to appear that way. Always in the press. Regular arrests for drunk and disorderly, wild parties, high speed chases… I imagine her behavior contributed to several ulcers for her father.” The man’s pretty pampered princess of a daughter had been a willful out-of-control brat.
“And then she disappeared.”
Nodding, Jude tapped an index finger against his glass. “For three years her father didn’t hear from her. But there were regular withdrawals from her account. Transactions on her cards. Reported sightings in Vegas. The occasional yacht party. Until her father cut her off. About a year after he did, she came home.”
“And landed herself in the middle of a media frenzy once again.”
“A way of life for her.” Jude drained his glass. A natural reaction to memories of the woman. “Came back with her head shaved, dressed in rags spouting a wild story about being abducted and held captive with several other women. Only problem was she couldn’t narrow down the area where she might have been held. Or even the state.” He rose and crossed to the decanter again. Adam was right. It was damn fine Scotch.
He tipped more into the other man’s glass before filling his own. Replaced the container. “Difficult to separate the facts from the crap printed in the rags devoted to reporting on the rich and famous. Didn’t spend much time trying, to tell you the truth. There was a manhunt for this criminal that she claimed was responsible. It fizzled, because every damn lead she gave them went nowhere. Then came the private investigators, hired with Daddy’s money, most likely. As far as I know they found nothing to support her claims.”
“And then she became your client.”
He gave an imperceptible wince. “She did. It was after her that I devised a more stringent screening of the person requiring security prior to accepting a new job.”
Raiker’s grin was not without sympathy. “Made your life hell, did she?”
“She ran through six bodyguards.” Jude emphasized the words with accompanying fingers. “Male. Female. Caucasian. Non-Caucasian. It didn’t matter. After a period of time she’d request someone different.”
The other man’s expression was contemplative. “What was her behavior like at the time?”
Of course Raiker would ask that. The man had been the Bureau’s top profiler. Right up to the time that he’d been captured and tortured by the child killer he’d been trailing. Adam had intimate knowledge into the workings of the criminal mind.
Jude had personal experience in the area, himself. “I met the woman several times. Whenever a new security detail was changed, actually. As well as a final occasion.” He hadn’t been surprised when she’d disappeared again. He’d made it possible. “She was…erratic. Alternately demanding and paranoid. Emotionally unwell, I’d guess. According to my people, she’d spend hours, even days locked in her bedroom. No security measures we took seemed to be enough. She was highly anxious.” A memory slipped in. Of Mia, one leg drawn up on her chair. Arms clutched around her knee as she stared at him expressionlessly. Her face would have been beautiful if there was a flicker of life in it. But it’d been blank. Empty. She hadn’t shied away from looking at his disfigurement as so many others did. Jude had always had the impression that she didn’t see him at all.
He drank, uneasy at the mental image. “How she struck me? Spooky.”
Raiker leaned forward, face intense. “Your best guess. What really happened in the time she was gone?” He made an impatient gesture with his hand. “I know you didn’t come on board until later. But you met with her. Several times. What’s your take? Party girl who came home with a story once her rich daddy shut off the money spigot? A sensationalist intent on landing herself back in the news? Or…something else?”
Gently swirling the amber liquid in his glass, Jude considered the questions for a minute. “All three maybe. But…” He remembered her skittish behavior. Her difficulty with decision-making. The alternating paranoia and defiance. “I think something happened to her.” The undamaged side of his mouth quirked up. “How’s that for definitive? Maybe she disappeared on her own. But when she came back, she wasn’t the same person, at least from what I could put together from news stories. She rarely went out and when she did she was surrounded by a security detail. Which in itself, of course, attracted attention, I guess.”
His words brought a gleam to Raiker’s eye. “You just described the behavior of a person who might have sustained some sort of trauma.”
“Or someone with a mental illness.” Jude’s response was dry. In truth, to this day he wasn’t certain which described Mia Deleon. “My turn for questions. Why your interest? After all this time?”
In answer, Raiker set his glass on the Oriental rug beside his chair and reached for his leather briefcase. Snapped it open and took out a file folder, handing it to Jude.
He flipped it open. Stared dispassionately at the photo inside. “It’s always dead bodies with you.”
“Not always.” The other man’s voice was amused. “My agency consults on the occasional kidnapping and serial rapist.”
Damn occasionally, Jude knew. Still, he studied the photograph carefully. A thought stabbed through him then, and his gaze rose to his friend’s. “This isn’t Mia, is it?”
Adam shook his head. “This woman has been dead about four years. Very well preserved, though. That tarp worked to mummify her.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it.” The corpse looked leathery, with suspect slashes of dried yellowish ooze mottling the body. Yet he was oddly relieved to discover it wasn’t Mia Deleon. Despite the professional stress she’d caused him, he preferred to believe she’d finally found some peace.
“Look at the next picture.”
Obeying, Jude saw a photo of a skull, with only bits of skin intact. He glanced up. “Other people invite friends to view slide shows from their vacation. Disney World. The Grand Canyon.”
Raiker’s teeth flashed. “You wouldn’t want to see a slideshow of where I’ve been.” And Jude was reminded again of all the man had endured. Nodding toward the photo, Raiker said, “See that area circled on the skull?”
Jude peered closer. “I see the circle. No idea what it’s supposed to signify.”
“Caitlin Fleming is working the case. One of my forensic anthropologists. Someone left that young woman in a mineshaft in Wyoming. A pair of trespassing spelunkers discovered her. Two things in Caitlin’s report caught my attention. One was that no hair was on or near the body. Given the state of decomposition there should have been clumps, or at least strands still clinging to the remaining scalp. Barring that, some should have been found in the tarp. Or at least in the vicinity.”
“Okay.” He’d take the other man’s word for it. Raiker was the one with the world- renowned forensics agency.
“Caitlin found a mark on a scrap of scalp. She’s narrowed it down to ink. The kind used by tattoo artists.”
Jude stilled. And at last the reason for his friend’s visit became apparent. “That was part of Mia Deleon’s account when she returned home. That her captor kept her head shaved. Tattooed with a number.”
“Eleven.” Satisfied, Raiker sat back in his chair and reached for his glass again. “Caitlin’s findings with this corpse reminded me of Deleon’s story.”
Jude handed the photos back to the man. Watched him slip them back in the briefcase. “Then you should have recalled that nothing ever came of following up on that story, despite some pretty intensive investigating. Upton told me that Mia’s father tried to have her committed once she’d returned. Twice.” He sipped, watching Adam over the rim of his glass. “She’s not exactly a reliable source.”
“Still.” The inexorable tone was familiar. “I want to speak with her myself. I’ve had no luck. Either she’s off the grid or she’s left the country, although not under her own name.” He paused a beat. “I figured since you have some expertise in that area, you could help me find her.”
Security wasn’t the only service at which Jude’s agency excelled. He also had a reputation for discovery. People, things, information. The flip side of that skill was an acquired expertise in helping them disappear.