Authors: Brandilyn Collins
he pebbles in the driveway hurt my bare feet. I hobbled over them toward the cabin, Joshua grasping my elbow.
A half moon and bright stars lit our way. If I’d been out with friends in a rural place like this, away from the lights of the city, I’d have been amazed at the starry sky. You couldn’t see such a thing in Southern California. But now the night mocked me. How could the sky hang with such beauty when my world had turned so black and terrifying?
Two steps led up to the porch. Joshua still held on to me as we climbed them.
He pulled a key from his pants pocket and unlocked the door to the cabin. I cowered beside him, trapped and trembling. I couldn’t go inside with this man. I
prophet of God—
was the man who’d stalked me two years ago. Who’d insisted I’d one day be his. That man had been arrested and sent to prison. But now here he was, leading me into a dark cabin in the middle of nowhere.
Panic clawed at my throat. I shoved it back down.
Please, God, protect me. Show me what to do.
“Wh-what are we going to do here?” My voice shook. My cheek and left eye hurt, as did my arms and hands. Joshua’s grip radiated pain through my elbow.
No answer. He put the key back in his pocket and opened the door. Its hinges creaked. Still holding my arm, Joshua leaned around and fumbled at the wall with his other hand. Light flicked on inside.
“Come on.” He pushed me over the threshold first, then closed and locked the door behind us.
The smell hit me. Oppressive and musty.
We stood in a denlike room with an old brown couch and a pea-green armchair. A wooden table with books and a few scattered magazines. Opposite the couch sat a small TV on a black stand. Farther to the left, the room flowed into a small kitchen. Even from where I stood, I could see burn marks on the short counter space. The stove was off-white and battered. A small refrigerator. A table for two people. Everywhere I looked I saw dust and grime, and what looked like white dog hair.
My ankles trembled.
To our right rose a wooden staircase. Any bedrooms and the bathroom must be upstairs.
I tore my gaze from the stairs and turned back toward the kitchen. My eyes landed on a small black object on the counter.
My heart skipped. Was it connected?
Joshua headed for the kitchen. “There’s some food in the refrigerator. Want a sandwich?”
Like I could eat.
I watched him turn on the overhead light in the kitchen. It was a bare bulb and bright. He opened the refrigerator door and checked inside. Everything in me wanted to bolt out of that cabin, make a run for it. But where would I go? And how far would I get in bare feet before he caught me? It would make him so
“Come on, Shaley, don’t stand there looking so stupid.”
I’m not stupid.
The defensive thought blossomed into an idea. Maybe I should play stupid. Or at least so scared I didn’t have any fight left in me. Let him think he’d beaten me down, that I just wanted to get along with him. Maybe then he’d get sloppy, not watch me every minute. Somehow I’d get to the phone…
If it even worked.
I forced myself to walk through the den. Around the brown couch and closer to the kitchen. My bare feet felt every piece of dirt on the wooden floor. Little piles of white hair gathered along the wall.
“Your friend have a dog?”
“Yeah.” Joshua was pulling cheese, lunch meat, and bread from the refrigerator. “Little white terrier.”
“What’s his name?” I stopped near the green armchair, about four feet from the kitchen’s threshold. I could see a clock on the wall. It read past four o’clock. We’d changed time zones.
A shiver ran through me. I rubbed my arms. “What’s your friend’s name?”
I should have guessed.
“Like in the Bible.” I tried to keep the disgust from my voice. This man was such a lying hypocrite. “Joshua and Caleb. Out to settle the Promised Land.”
Joshua looked around at me, eyebrows raised. “You know about that?”
“I read the Bible too, you know.”
He gave me a steely look. “Wouldn’t have expected that.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me. Or my parents.”
Who are surely moving heaven and earth to look for me right now.
Joshua jerked upright to face me, mouth twisting. “You better watch your mouth.”
I melted back, heart rat-ratting. How could he change so fast? “Sorry. I just meant…we have a lot to learn about each other.”
Joshua pierced me with a long gaze. Then he grunted and turned around to make his sandwich.
Movement on the floor caught my eye. A small gray mouse. I watched as he scuttled into the kitchen, past Joshua’s foot, and under the refrigerator. My shoulders drew in.
“I need to go to the bathroom.”
I turned and surveyed the steps. I didn’t want to go up there, near the bedrooms. What if Joshua came behind and trapped me?
But it had been hours since I’d used the toilet.
With a furtive glance at Joshua, I turned to walk back through the den.
I’d expected the stairs to creak, like the front door. They didn’t. My bruised hand slid along the pole railing.
At the top of the steps, I turned left into a hall that ran the width of the cabin. Three open doors stood on my left. I peeked in the first and saw a small room with a single bed and a three-drawer dresser. One window overlooked the front, with torn gray curtains.
The second door led to the bathroom. I slipped inside and locked myself in. I headed to the small mirror above the sink. Dared to look at my reflection.
Air swirled in my throat. I hung on to the sink, gazing into the face I didn’t know. It was even worse than before. My left eye was black and swollen half shut. The bruising ran clear to my jaw. My eye makeup was even more smeared, one dark line tracing down my right cheek.
I turned on the water. It flowed out a light brown. I let it run until it looked clear, then carefully splashed my face—at least the right side. The left side felt too tender to wash. One towel hung from a rack on the wall. I considered it, then pulled it off. Smelled it and wrinkled my nose. Replacing it, I reached for toilet paper to wipe the makeup smear from my face.
In the medicine cabinet I found an old rubber band. Who knew why it was there. I used it to pull my ratty hair into a loose ponytail.
When I finished in the bathroom, I ventured into the hall. Leaning forward, I listened, head cocked toward the stairs. The sound of shuffling feet drifted to me, and the closing of a cabinet.
I looked in the direction of the third door. What was in there?
Creeping farther down the hall, I peeked inside. A second bedroom,
bigger than the first. With a double bed. My breath shuddered. I didn’t want Joshua to come up and catch me anywhere near that thing.
As I turned to leave I saw a telephone on the nightstand.
My body froze. I stared at the phone, feeling the rise and fall of my chest with each breath. Could I walk across the room and pick it up without Joshua hearing?
What if the floor creaked? I’d be right above the kitchen. He might guess what I was doing. If he’d turned so angry just a minute ago over nothing…
I swallowed, eyes riveted to the phone. Then leaned back toward the stairs, listening.
No sound of footfalls on the wooden steps.
Swiveling, I hurried across the bedroom floor, taking long, low strides. Trying not to make even the tiniest noise. For the first time I was glad I was barefoot. In seven steps I stood at the nightstand, hand hovering over the receiver.
What if it
work, and he was on the downstairs phone?
My fingers grazed the black plastic. I bit my lip, glanced back at the door.
Carefully, I eased up the receiver.
I lifted it to my ear—and heard a dial tone.
Relief weakened my knees. I jabbed a finger at the first digit to dial 9-1-1.
“Shaley?” Joshua bellowed from below me.
I jumped, every inch of me tingling. Quickly, but with no sound, I replaced the receiver.
“What you doing up there, girl?”
Footsteps sounded on the main-level floor.
In seconds I crossed the bedroom and into the hall.
From the stairwell drifted the sound of Joshua’s foot on the bottom step.
I hurried noiselessly until I was even with the bathroom. Joshua continued climbing, his steps heavy and lumbering.
At the threshold of the bathroom I stopped, gulped in air. “I’m here.”
Joshua appeared at the top stair and turned toward me. “What’s taking you so long?” Suspicion darkened his face.
I pressed against the doorway. “Just looking at myself in the mirror.”
Something within me stirred, giving me courage. I folded my arms. “You said I was going to be your wife.”
He snorted. “Not
I stared at him evenly. “Is
the way you want your wife to look?” One hand gestured toward my face.
Joshua considered me as if for the first time. He tilted his head and shrugged. “The bruises won’t last.”
“They will if you keep hitting me.”
“I won’t hit you if you do what I say.”
doing what you say.”
He gave me a twisted grin. “Then there’s no need to worry, is there?”
We eyed each other.
there?” He walked toward me.
“That’s good.” He stopped four feet away. “Now if you’d kindly step out of my way, I’d like to use the bathroom.” His tone was mocking.
I moved aside.
Joshua shot me a hard look, stepped into the bathroom, and shut the door.
This was my chance—however short.
I turned and scurried on cat feet toward the phone.
our in the morning. Shaley had been missing for twelve hours. Brittany’s eyes felt gritty as she paced the library. Gary sat on the edge of the couch, head down, hands clasped between his legs. Rayne was beside him.
Brittany’s nerves were brittle. Rayne and Gary had told her about the conversation they’d had with Agent Scarrow.
Brittany shook her head. She should have remembered him. She
the suspect composite looked familiar. To think Shaley was with that awful man. It was just too horrible.
And now Rayne and Gary didn’t know what to do—tell the public the information they knew, or not? Even when they decided, Agent Scarrow had said the FBI may not agree.
“Tell them,” Brittany had declared. “Who cares what the FBI says? Anything to help find Shaley—we have to do it.”
That was ten minutes ago. No one had spoken since.
“I agree we should tell the media what car she’s in.” Gary’s words were aimed at the floor. He sounded broken and exhausted. “With everybody looking…”
“I think so too,” Rayne said, “but they—”
Agent Scarrow entered the room, carrying the tape recorder used during all his interviews. Rayne narrowed her eyes at it.
Brittany sighed. The FBI were supposed to be the experts here. But Shaley was Rayne and Gary’s daughter. Shouldn’t
have the final say in what information was included in the press conference?
“I’d like to talk to you, Gary.” The agent gave him a polite smile.
Brittany’s antennae went up. Something wasn’t right here.
“Why?” Rayne asked. “You’ve interviewed him already.”
“Something’s come up.” Agent Scarrow gestured toward the door. “You want to go somewhere else to talk? Maybe the dining room?”
Gary stared at him blankly. “I don’t care. We can do it right here.”
“Maybe we should talk alone.”
“Why?” Rayne demanded. “What’s going on?”
Gary shook his head. “I want Rayne here. Brittany can stay too.”
Agent Scarrow looked from him to Rayne to Brittany, as if making a decision. “Okay.” He set the recorder on the glass coffee table in front of the couch and turned it on. “You want to sit down, Brittany?”
Agent Scarrow took the armchair and swiveled around to face Gary. “Four a.m. Sunday.” He spoke toward the tape recorder. “Interview with Gary Donovon. Rayne and Brittany are also present.” He looked to Gary. “I’ve listened to the tape from Shaley’s call over and over. One thing that bothers me is this statement: ‘I never wanted you to marry Gary. He’s a lowlife.’”
Brittany folded her arms. Why was he even repeating those awful words?
“You know she didn’t mean that,” Rayne said.
The agent cleared his throat. “That’s just it—Ronald Fledger made her say it.” He turned to Gary. “But why that term—
It makes me think the kidnapper knows your background.”
“What does Gary’s past have to do with this?” Rayne retorted.
Gary shrugged. “Who
know? Once Rayne and I got back together, it was all over the tabloids.”
It sure was. Plus a lot of lies. Gary’s conviction for armed robbery, his years in prison. The former cell mate he’d asked to get close to Shaley upon his release from prison so the man could feed Gary information about the daughter he’d never met. How the tabloids had twisted
“True.” Agent Scarrow nodded. “Still I wonder why, of all things he apparently told Shaley to say, he included that.”
Gary frowned at him. “What are you getting at?”
Agent Scarrow tilted his head. “Do you think Ronald Fledger has any ties to anyone you knew in prison?”
Rayne made a face. “That would be quite a coincidence.”
“I’ve told you everything I know.” Gary spread his hands. “I can’t think of anyone in prison who had it in for me. Who might set Fledger up to do this for some kind of revenge. Besides, I was in a Nevada prison, and Fledger was in California. But if someone was paroled and got this crazy idea…”
“Do you have contact with anyone who was in prison with you, or may now be out?”
“I told you in our first interview—no.”
“You’re sure about that.”
this?” Rayne demanded.
“Let’s talk about your ring.” Al stayed focused on Gary.
Rayne huffed. “You’ve already talked about
” Gary frowned at her, then looked back to the FBI agent. “What about the ring?”
“You told me it was the wrong size, which surprised you. So you made last-minute plans to have it resized here in Santa Barbara and delivered to you.”
“But the question remains—how did the suspect know that van was coming here, and that Shaley would be personally meeting it to get the ring?”
“Shaley told the jeweler she’d be meeting the van,” Brittany interjected. The agent gave her a look, but she wasn’t about to keep out of this. “You should be asking Pogh Jewelers these questions.
people are the only ones outside the wedding party who knew that.”
Agent Scarrow looked at Gary—and Gary stared back. Suddenly Brittany understood. She and Rayne exchanged a horrified, knowing glance.
“Are you saying you think
is involved in this?” Rayne sounded shocked.
The FBI agent lifted a hand. “It’s a base I have to cover.”
” Gary straightened.
Rayne eyed Agent Scarrow, open-mouthed. “No, you don’t. You certainly don’t! Because Gary didn’t have a
to do with this! And every minute you spend thinking about that is a minute you aren’t looking for the real kidnapper!”
No kidding. Brittany glared at the agent. Didn’t the man know how on edge they all were already? How could he even think this?
“Listen.” Gary’s voice bristled with indignation. He leaned forward and pointed at Agent Scarrow. “You hear me good. I had
to do with Shaley’s kidnapping. I
how Fledger knew about the ring and the van.”
Rayne flung out her arms. “This is insane—”
“Rayne, quiet! I don’t need you to stand up for me.”
“Of course I’m going to stand up for you!”
Gary sprang to his feet and faced Agent Scarrow. “I’m not answering any more of your questions, understand? I will not. Waste. Our. Time. If I have to, I’m calling a lawyer right now. You just find Shaley.”
The agent sat back, one fist against his hip. He shot a rueful look at Gary, then Rayne. “All right. Sorry to upset you. Like I said, we have to check everything out.” He stood and clicked off the recorder.
Anger and determination creased Rayne’s face. “We want to announce the car and license plate at the press conference. And the kidnapper’s name. You should find a picture of a 1997 blue Ford Explorer. Blow it up so the media can get a good shot of it. And blow up the mug shot of Fledger.”
Agent Scarrow held up his palms. “Rayne, we’re still discussing that.”
“No!” She stuck out her chin. “Discussion’s over. We’ve been sitting here for
doing nothing but waiting for information from you. We can’t wait any longer. We’ve made a decision;
Shaley’s parents, and we expect you to do what we want!”
You tell him, Rayne.
Gary lifted his hands, as if his outburst had drained him. “Rayne, it’s okay. Calm down.”
going to calm down.”
Agent Scarrow picked up his recorder and headed out of the room.
“How could he say that?” Brittany burst out, knowing full well the agent was still close enough to hear her.
“Come on, Rayne.” Gary sat beside her and reached for her arm.
Rayne drew away. “Don’t take his side, Gary. You heard what he was implying.”
“It doesn’t matter. He’s just doing his job.”
“It does matter.”
“No, it doesn’t.” Gary reached for her again. “Come on, Rayne. It’s okay.”
Rayne’s shoulders slumped. Her chin started to tremble. “Gary, I don’t know what to do.”
He nudged her toward him. Rayne gave in, sank against his chest, and burst into tears.
Brittany edged out of the room, heart breaking for them. She felt so helpless. If only she could make this all go away, right now.
As for Agent Scarrow—she wanted to punch the man.