Read Final Touch Online

Authors: Brandilyn Collins

Final Touch (5 page)

12

B
rittany clutched both hands to her chest, eyes fastened on the recording device. Its tiny speakers had projected Shaley’s voice into the room just seconds ago. So real. So
alive.
Now—nothing.

“Shaley!” Rayne cried into her cell phone. “
Shaley!

Gary leaned toward Rayne, forehead creased and muscles looking stiff, as if he wanted to pull Shaley through the phone and into his arms. Kim, Morrey, Rich, Ross, and Stan huddled nearby, listening, waiting.

Agent Scarrow stood a few feet away, legs apart and arms crossed. His head tilted, his eyes fixed upon the recorder.

“Shaley!” Rayne’s voice broke.

Please, God, please,
Brittany begged.
Let us hear her again.

Mocking silence.

Rayne lowered the phone. “She’s gone.”

“She didn’t mean it!” Brittany’s eyes filled with tears. “You know somebody made her say those things!”

Agent Scarrow whipped a small notepad and pen from his shirt pocket and reached for Rayne’s cell phone. He checked the ID of the phone call and wrote down the number. Unclipped his own cell and punched in a number for auto dial. “We just got a call.” He turned away. “From the number…”

Weakness stole into Brittany’s legs, and the agent’s voice faded. Shaley was okay. She
was.

Agent Scarrow continued speaking rapidly into his cell, then waited.

Rayne sank into the nearest wooden chair. She gripped her knees and stared at the floor. Brittany knelt beside her. “She didn’t mean it.”

“I know. I know.”

“Brittany’s right,” Kim said. “Somebody made her say that.”

“I know.”

“But why?” Gary paced, hands pressed against his temples and elbows thrust out. His voice was ragged. “They didn’t ask for money.”

Brittany’s wild relief at hearing her best friend’s voice faded. What if whoever had taken Shaley didn’t
want
money? What if he had no intention of letting her go?

Rayne sagged back against her chair. Gary fell into the seat beside her and pulled her close. Rayne clung to him and shook.

“We can’t sit here any longer.” The words burst from Brittany. “We have to
do
something.”

Rayne pulled away from Gary’s arms. “Brittany’s right. We needed to hear from them first. Well, we’ve heard.”

Gary nodded. “We should schedule a press conference in the morning. Make a public plea for the return of our daughter. And beg every person out there to be on the lookout for her. Someone’s bound to see them.”

Brittany glanced at Agent Scarrow, who was still talking on the phone. Sunday morning seemed eons away. It was only midnight now. She would not sleep. She could barely
breathe.

“Right. Thanks.” The agent clicked off the line and turned to Rayne and Gary. “The call came from a pay phone at a gas station just across the Nevada border.”

Rayne’s jaw slackened. “Nevada?”

Brittany stared at him. Where could the kidnapper be taking Shaley?
Why?

“Our office is calling in local law enforcement right now,” Agent Scarrow continued. “They’ll take fingerprints from the phone, see if
they match any lifted from the van. They’ll also question employees at the station. If the place has working security cameras, the police can look at the tape.” He rubbed his hands together, energy bristling from him. “This is good. Gives us something to work with. And most importantly, we know Shaley’s alive.”

13

F
or the millionth time, I checked the clock on the Explorer dashboard. Just past midnight. Not long after the gas station, we’d left the freeway to take smaller back roads. For all I knew, we were going in circles. It was clear my captor took those little highways to avoid being spotted on major roads. Finally we’d been forced to hit the freeway again.

Every minute seemed an eternity. Like time had stopped. My real life had stopped. My body felt numb. In my mind I tried to stay strong. Tried to figure out…something.

I sat in the front passenger seat, not because I wanted to be anywhere near Monster Man, but because he told me to. He wanted me near him for company. I was supposed to help keep him awake so we wouldn’t crash. But I wasn’t allowed to turn my head and look at him.

What did I care if we crashed? I’d rather die than live in some wilderness Montana cabin with this man. But I clung to one thought: I
had
to get back to Mom and Dad. And Brittany, and the band. I had to win my
life
back.

We’d driven through the bottom tip of Nevada and into Arizona. We must have just hit a corner of Arizona, because not too much later I saw the state sign for Utah.

Utah.
Three states away from home.

My feet were cold. I needed shoes. I rubbed one foot on top of the other. The rest of my body still ached and would hurt for days. I wasn’t in any shape to make a run for it if we stopped. Not at all. It wasn’t my strength that would get me out of this. It was my brain. I
had to outwit Monster Man. And I had to fight back the panic that clawed at my throat every other minute.

I focused out my window. The freeway looked desolate, few cars besides ours. Even so, my kidnapper didn’t drive over the speed limit. Wouldn’t do to be pulled over by a cop.

“You’re supposed to be talking to me.” He hunched over the wheel, frowning at the road. Tiredness pulled at his mouth, his eyes. But a steely, dogged determination wafted from him, as if he were on a mission. As if he were
right
to kidnap me.

I’m going to teach you spiritual truth,
he’d said. The words chilled me. This man was deluded.

How do you rationalize with someone who’s insane?

“Talk!” he snapped.

I jumped. My gaze shifted to his ugly profile. Would he hit me for looking at him?

Strength, Shaley. Play along. Learn things you can use against him.

I folded my arms and shivered. “So what’s your name?” My voice sounded dull, hopeless.

“Joshua.”

Joshua. A biblical name. Was it his real one?

“Where are we going in Montana?”

“To the cabin I built for us.”

“But where in Montana? That’s a big state.”

“Up near the Canadian border.”

Ice flowed through my veins. What if he took me
into
Canada? How would anyone ever find us then?

“Tell me about this community you want to start.” I forced the name onto my tongue. “Joshua.”

He scowled at the road. “This country is falling into evil. Drugs, sex. People killing each other.” He threw me a disgusted look. “Rock music.”

My fingers curled into my palms until the nails bit into skin. How
dare
he sneer at my mom and dad, and the members of Rayne. Not one of them would ever
think
of doing what he’d done to me.

My anger felt good. Gave me courage.

“What’s wrong with rock music?”

“It’s full of sin and degradation. Bunch a loud noise and violent lyrics—”

“Rayne’s lyrics are never violent.”

“Full of sex—”

“They’re not full of that either.”

He turned his head and glared demon eyes at me. Inside I recoiled, but I forced myself to stare back at him.
You want to hit me, fine. But
don’t
you talk about my parents.

“There’s still a lot of sass in you.” His tongue poked beneath his upper lip. He turned back to view the road. “No matter.” He said the words almost to himself. Low. Menacing. “I’ll rid you of it soon enough.”

Fresh panic spun through me. What would he do to me?

For a wild moment I wanted to be back in the trunk of a car. At least there I wasn’t near him. At least there I could fight, scream when I wanted to scream. Now every emotion had to be pushed down deep inside me. Because I knew if I let it out now, I’d never get it back in. I’d attack him right here, driving or not. Hit and slap and scratch his eyes out.

Sweat slicked the back of my T-shirt. I clenched my jaw, breathed in, breathed out. I could
not
lose it here. I had to stay one step ahead of him.

I swallowed hard. “I asked you about the community. What’s it going to be like?”

“It’ll be people who want to serve God the right way. Women dressed modestly. Everyone in church every day.”

“What church?”

He made a sound in his throat, as if I’d asked a stupid question. “
My
church.”

“You’re a pastor?”

“I’m a prophet.”

Joshua the prophet. Oh, yeah, this guy’s head was on straight.

I was trapped by a madman.

“How will we live?”

“Off the land. We’ll farm, raise cattle. Sell our goods to people in town.”

The last word made my heart leap. “What town?”

“You’ll know soon enough.”

“How far away from the cabin is it?”

He smiled. It was the most evil expression I’d ever seen. “Far enough that you can’t run to it.”

Just watch me. He had
no
idea what I’d do to get back to my family.

I gazed at the freeway eaten up by the Explorer’s wheels. Every mile took me farther away.

I could see fine out of my right eye. But my left had only half the vision. Cautiously I touched the area with my fingertips. It still felt swollen. Tender.

My hand slid away. Woodenly, I stared out the windshield. The world looked black and vast. Like it would swallow me whole.

“You know how to sew?” Joshua asked.

“No.”

He grunted. “You’ll learn.”

I’d never threaded a needle in my life.

My thoughts turned to Mom. What was she doing right now? She wouldn’t be sleeping. She had to be going crazy with worry. Dad too. Had they stayed at Ed Schering’s mansion? Did anyone have any idea what had happened to me?

Be strong, Mom and Dad. If you are, I will be too.

14

N
early three o’clock in the morning. I’d been kidnapped eleven hours ago.
Eleven hours.
It seemed like forever.

I still couldn’t believe this was real.

In the front passenger seat, I shifted uncomfortably. My body felt cramped and torn. I needed to go to the bathroom again.

The freeway stretched on and on, never ending.

Fifteen minutes later I saw a sign for a highway exit. Joshua slowed and turned off the freeway.

I tensed. “Where are we going?”

“Takin’ a back road to a cabin.”

Every muscle stilled. Driving had been bad enough. But stopping…“Why?”

“I got to get some rest.”

Was he telling the truth?

“Whose cabin is it?”

“A friend of mine.”

No, not
two
men. “Does he know we’re coming?”

“Sure. But he’s already in Montana, waiting for us. He left the electricity on so we could use the place.”

“You mean he’s someone in your community?”

“Yeah. Me and him are like brothers.”

Could a monster like this care for someone like a brother?

Suddenly the word
us
registered. I turned my head to stare at Joshua’s jowly profile. “You mean he knows you’re bringing
me?

Joshua snickered. “He knows I’m bringing a wife.”

But did he know Joshua had
kidnapped
me?

My mind churned. I stared out my side window, thinking. Maybe some neighbor near his friend’s cabin would see us. Maybe they’d recognize my face. Surely my kidnapping had been on the news by now.

Joshua smirked, as if he knew what I was thinking. “No neighbors around to bother us. Besides, in this area people mind their own business.”

My chin lowered. I stared at my lap.

Why, God?

It didn’t make any sense. In the last year, I, then Mom and Dad, had become Christians. We were trying to live right. Why would God let this happen? And worst of all, Joshua was doing this in
God’s
name.

A lightning bolt ought to burst out of heaven and strike him dead.

We hit the end of the exit. Joshua turned right onto a two-lane highway. Full blackness descended, not one other car in sight. The Explorer’s headlights cut through the thick dark like swords. We might as well have been on Mars.

Never had I felt so isolated.

And what would happen when we reached the cabin? When Joshua didn’t have to drive?

I pulled my arms against my sides and tried to breathe.

“We’ll be there soon,” Joshua said.

Terror kicked around inside me. My eyes squeezed shut. I focused on the lull of the car, wishing for sleep. Telling myself this wasn’t real.

After some time the Explorer slowed. My head jerked up. Joshua turned left, and our tires popped over gravel. Trees lined the road on either side. Then a clearing. Our headlights washed over a two-story log cabin surrounded by weedy grass. A simple detached garage. Joshua pulled up next to the garage. “Stay here.”

He slid out of the Explorer, leaned down, and pulled up the garage
door. It rolled open with a grating sound. Joshua returned to the SUV and drove inside. He cut the engine. “Let’s go.”

The garage fell into darkness. Not even a window in the place to let moonlight through.

I couldn’t move.

He opened his door and glared at me, a message to obey. The overhead light in the Explorer had flicked on, washing down over his face. I stared back. In an instant I took in the beady brown eyes and round, pudgy face. Fat lips. A buzz cut.

My brain flashed on pictures I’d seen of that face. The memory jolted me.

No, no.

Dear God, don’t let it be him.

15

T
hree thirty in the morning, Rayne and Gary were on their knees in the mansion’s library. Rayne’s legs were going to sleep, but she hardly noticed. She couldn’t rest. Couldn’t do anything right now to help find Shaley. But she and Gary could pray.

Brittany and the rest of the band members were in their bedrooms, giving Gary and Rayne some time by themselves. Not one of them had wanted to leave Rayne’s side. She knew they weren’t sleeping. Ed Schering had hugged Rayne a short time ago, before straggling upstairs to his suite. Al was on the phone in the TV room. The man never stopped. He was either on a call or taking notes or conferring with the local sheriff’s deputies who’d come in and out every hour.

“God, please help us find her.
Soon.
” Gary’s voice sounded raw and cracked. He pressed close to Rayne, one arm around her back. He’d broken down and cried more than once as they prayed. “Be with us during our press conference. Let someone who sees it on the news lead us to Shaley.”

The press conference was scheduled for ten o’clock in the morning. Rayne and Gary were putting up a one-hundred-thousand-dollar reward for Shaley’s safe return. They both would make a statement. Al would handle the rest, giving out information and taking questions from reporters.

Gary rubbed Rayne’s shoulder. “And help Rayne—”

Footsteps sounded, and the door opened. Rayne looked up to see Al at the entrance. He carried a notebook-size folder. He
raised both hands. “Didn’t mean to disturb you. We have some new information.”

Violent fear and hope shot through Rayne. She struggled to her feet, Gary helping her up.

“What’s happened?” Gary demanded.

Al came into the room and gestured toward the rich chocolate leather couch. “You want to sit down?”

Rayne walked around the large glass coffee table to perch on the end of the couch, Gary at her side. Her muscles felt tied in knots.

Al sat in an armchair and angled around to face them. His eyes looked tired, but his shoulders were as straight as they’d been since he first arrived. Rayne felt a spray of jealousy. If only she were merely tired instead of weighted with a thousand pounds of fear. Her head throbbed even after two aspirin, and her mind still reeled.

But Al had been through this once. He
knew
how it felt. And his daughter hadn’t come home.

The jealousy spritzed away.

Al opened the folder and withdrew a sheet of paper. “Couple things. First, we did match fingerprints in the back of the van to Shaley. The blood drops are human and her type. And the hair is consistent with Shaley’s hair.”

Rayne’s throat constricted. She managed a tight nod.

“Also, we were able to match other fingerprints from the van to one lifted from the pay phone in Nevada. For that reason, and another one I’ll tell you in a minute, we’re certain this is our man. We ran those prints through the California database and got a hit.” Al handed the paper to Rayne. “His name is Ronald Fledger. Recognize that?”

Ronald Fledger?
Rayne snapped her eyes down to stare at the paper. A mug shot—one she’d seen before. Sickness whirled in her stomach. She shoved the picture into Gary’s hands. “He was stalking Shaley a couple of years ago. Kept sending her pictures and letters, saying how she needed to be with him, and he was going to make sure that happened. He really scared us. Sounded like a nut
case, no telling what he might do. We turned all the evidence over to the police. They arrested him. I thought he was in jail…”

“He got out a few months ago.” Al was watching Gary. “Ever see him before?”

Gary’s face had paled. He shook his head. “But I’ve heard the story of what he sent to Shaley.”

Rayne and Gary locked eyes in a long, horrified look.

That crazy man had her daughter. Rayne’s hands started to shake. No.
No.
“His hair was so much longer then.” The words sandpapered her throat. “I didn’t recognize the composite you showed me earlier.”

“He does look different with shorter hair.” Al continued to focus on Gary.

Gary dropped the mug shot onto the glass table as if it were a snake. He licked his lips. “At least…we know who to look for.”

“Yes.” Al picked up the paper and returned it to his folder. “This is already being disseminated.” He cleared his throat. “Now—the second reason we know this is our man. Nevada police interviewed the employee on duty at the gas station during the time of Shaley’s call. Unfortunately the employee’s not much help. He said people come in and out, and he’s often reading a magazine. He doesn’t tend to notice faces unless someone comes up to the checkout counter.”

Reading a magazine? What kind of employee was he?

“But the deputies pulled the tape from the security camera at the station and took it back to their department. It’s not the best of tapes in that it doesn’t constantly run the time across the bottom. So they had to watch it a while until they could approximate the time of Shaley’s call—”

“Did they
see
her?” Rayne leaned forward.
Please, please.

“Yes.”

“Oh.” Rayne’s right hand pressed to her mouth.

Gary gripped Rayne’s arm. “What did she look like? Was she okay?”

Al flexed his shoulders. “It was definitely Shaley, although it’s not a close-up of her face. In fact she kept her head down the whole
time. And the tape is somewhat grainy. She’s no longer wearing the bridesmaid dress—she’s now in jeans and a plain white T-shirt. Her hair was stuck up under a blue baseball cap. When they enlarged the shot they could see
San Diego
on the front of the cap. It’s the same one shown in our composite of the suspect.
That’s
why we’re sure we have our man.”

For a moment no one spoke. Rayne tried to absorb the information, but her brain couldn’t focus.

“He had clothes for her.” Gary’s tone had a raw edge. “He planned this so…he planned everything.”

“She’d stand out too much in the dress.” Rayne’s tongue seemed to move all by itself. Her mind was on Shaley. How
was
she? Was she hurt? Hungry? She had to be terrified.

She kept her head down the whole time.
That wasn’t Shaley. He’d forced her to do that. Or she’d been so scared she couldn’t even hold her head up.

Dread coated Rayne. She opened her mouth but only a moan escaped. Tears sprang to her eyes. She sagged against Gary. “Oh, God, please. I just can’t…”

Gary slid his arm around her. “I know,” he whispered in her ear. “But this is good news. We know what she’s wearing.”

Rayne fought to control herself. Slowly she pulled away from Gary, forced her chin up.

“There’s more.” Al tapped his folder. “The tape picked up their vehicle and license plate. They’re traveling in a 1997 blue Ford Explorer. We ran the plate and discovered the vehicle was stolen from the Santa Barbara area two days ago.”

“Two days?” Gary rubbed his jaw. “More planning.”

Rayne pushed a strand of hair from her face. While they’d happily counted the hours until the wedding, this man, this
beast,
had been planning his horrible act.

“But how did he know my ring would be brought in that van?” Gary’s eyes remained on Al. “Those plans weren’t in place until
after
he stole the Explorer.”

Al spread his hands. “That we don’t know.”

Rayne found her tongue. “You’ll give out the information about the car and license plate number at the press conference, right? And show the mug shot? Then everyone can be looking for this man.”

Al tilted his head. “We’re…discussing that.”

“What’s to discuss?” Rayne’s voice turned sharp. “And isn’t what’s said at the conference our decision?”

“Not entirely.” Al leaned forward. “Look. I and the others working on this case don’t know which direction will be the safest for Shaley. If we tell the public, true, they can help us look for the vehicle. Without the public’s help, it could take us far longer to find Shaley, and every minute counts. On the other hand, we have to think from the suspect’s point of view. He doesn’t know
we
know what vehicle they’re in, or that we know who he is. But if that information is disseminated to the media, he could turn on any radio or TV and hear it. That could make him very angry. What if he takes his anger out on Shaley?”

Oh.

Rayne looked at Gary. His expression was dazed—the same way she felt. The FBI agent was right—either choice could lead to terrible consequences.

“What should we do?” she whispered.

Gary closed his eyes. “I don’t know. I just…don’t know.”

A rock fell through Rayne’s stomach. How to know what to do? How?
God, please tell us.
Rayne searched Gary’s face and knew he was thinking the same terrible thought.

What if they made the wrong choice—and Shaley paid for it with her life?

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