Black Rock Bay, page 26
Then she heard it. Soft, so that it almost faded into nothingness. Mia would have missed it if she hadn’t been listening for each groan of the house.
A hitched breath.
There was someone else in the room.
She froze. But the noise was gone. Had she imagined it?
Mia weighed the odds. It was unlikely her kidnapper was hiding down here. She’d been dumped and left bound and woozy. The door was probably locked so there was little chance Mia would be able to escape.
So who did that leave?
A second victim.
As quietly as she could, Mia shifted to her knees, her palms flat on the floor to give her balance. She shifted away from whatever she’d been propped on and scooted toward the shadows on the far side of the room. There was an old dresser blocking her view of the whole wall, and she moved slowly, so slowly, to the left so she could see around it.
A crumpled figure was curled up against the wall. Mia bit her lip until she saw the rise and fall of his chest beneath his thin wifebeater.
“Shit,” she whispered, her voice rough from disuse. The man flinched but didn’t even look her way.
Broken. He was broken.
She edged closer, her movements disjointed because of her bindings. A distant part of her realized that he had no such ties, but he looked so weak he could barely lift an arm, let alone fight off their kidnapper.
“Hello,” she said quietly. “I’m Detective Mia Hart. I’m going to get us out of here.”
There was a pause, and then that hitch of breathing again. Just when she was about to reach out, the man rolled over.
She covered her quick intake of air with a cough, but her gaze darted from the blood that glued his shirt to the side of his body to his damp, pleading eyes and then back again.
He licked dry, cracked lips. “I can help.”
“Charles Bell,” Izzy repeated, still standing in the doorway, unable to move any farther into the room. Charles Bell’s room, apparently.
Teresa glanced up from where she’d been fixing the quilt that draped over Charles’s legs, possibly sensing the shift in tone. “Yes,” she answered, though it hadn’t really been a question. Izzy had heard her the first time. Loud and clear.
This shouldn’t have been as unexpected as it was, maybe, but Izzy had convinced herself Charles Bell would have moved on. But beyond that, to think Bell in his current physical state could overpower anyone would be laughable.
Sammy’s phone call, though. It could have been to Bell. Maybe Bell was just pulling the puppet strings and leaving the dirty work to the doc.
“Can I . . . Can I try to wake him?” Izzy asked, unsure of the proper protocol.
“Won’t work, but . . .” Teresa jerked her chin toward his prone body.
Izzy stepped closer and called his name a few times. No response. She didn’t want to touch him, which left her few other options.
When she looked up, Teresa was watching her with a smug smile, her arms crossed over her chest. “I told you.” She seemed like the kind of woman who found pleasure in that phrase.
“Can I look around?” Izzy asked. This was a gray area ethically, legally, but she kept her face neutral.
“Don’t see why not,” Teresa said. “Not going to find anything. Rest of the house is like the downstairs.”
“Okay,” Izzy said easily and then paused on her way out of the room. “You said no family visits?”
“No. Poor man,” Teresa said.
“Who pays his bills?”
Teresa’s eyes narrowed on Izzy’s face, but her cautiousness seemed reserved just for her own privacy, not Charles’s. “It’s a trust. His lawyer oversees it.”
The mention of the attorney sent Izzy out into the hallway without any more questions.
She wandered through the rest of the rooms, her fingers dragging along the molding on the walls. Teresa had been right. The upstairs was almost bare. An eeriness had settled into the nooks and empty spaces, like there’d been a death in the house.
There had been.
She soon realized that while the house was Spartan, it wasn’t completely devoid of personal items. Izzy scoured each of the three bedrooms, digging through trouser- and sweatshirt-filled drawers, pausing over a small jewelry box tucked away in one. It played a haunting lullaby she somehow distantly recognized, but in a way that felt like from another lifetime. Under the beds were cartons of books, thick Russian volumes and tattered romance novels with dog-eared pages; comics, too, carefully preserved in plastic wrap, their bright colors garish. In the closets were dresses, silk and velvet, an era old but in pristine condition like they were just awaiting the return of their owner. Those were the creepiest finds. Izzy grimaced as she went to close the door of one in the last rooms.
A chill had settled in along her spine, and despite an urgency to find something, she also just wanted to get the hell out of there. But then her eyes caught on something. In the corner on the shelf was a dark box, pushed mostly out of sight.
Thankful that she kept a spare pair of latex gloves stashed in her jacket pocket at all times, Izzy shoved her fingers into them, then bent to pick up the box before dropping it lightly on the bed.
Carefully, so that she didn’t accidentally damage anything, she opened the lid.
Inside was a thick maroon journal, simple but clearly of good quality, and next to it lay a gold ring with an inset pearl. Izzy didn’t know jewelry that well, but it didn’t look cheap.
She grabbed the journal and opened it to the inscription page.
Brenna Connolly. Bix Bell’s maiden name.
Izzy ran her tongue over her teeth, pressing hard against her incisor, dread slipping into the places in her mind where only questions had been before.
The first page was dated in September of the year Bix had died. They would have just left St. Lucy’s at that point.
The writing curved and swooped, delicate in a way that Izzy would have guessed just based on the descriptions she’d heard of the woman alone.
But the words were stark.
I will be dead by the end of the year.
Anger and surprise came, a quick double shot of bitterness landing heavy in Izzy’s belly. Here, here was her ghost, that echo of a death that haunted the place. It had followed her from room to room until she’d found this.
The entries that came next read like textbook escalation.
I haven’t been able to stop crying about Monroe. He gets so angry with me.
He hit me tonight. His palm left a red mark. He cried as he stared at it. I didn’t shed a single tear.
It was a slowly ticking bomb both she and Bix would be helpless to stop.
Where was that boy who bought a street painting for five dollars? His ashes were scattered beside our daughter’s.
The journal ended abruptly three days before the date of the fire.
Bix’s prediction made reality.
Izzy swallowed hard, saliva and trace amounts of blood from where her teeth had dug into the inside of her lip.
The haze of rage cleared enough for her to reread several of the passages. They were almost too damning. She all but expected to find the paper crinkled and water stained from dried tears.
Why keep the journal? Why risk it being found? It told a clear story of Bix’s abuse, one that would be hard to misinterpret.
Izzy found herself in front of Charles’s bedroom door before she realized she’d even moved, her limbs following some buried command sent along her nerves as her thoughts remained stuck on that first entry.
I will be dead by the end of the year.
There was a detached quality to her movements now. She watched her fingers curl around the metal of the handle, watched them grip and turn and push. Rote muscle memory. Would she feel the same way as those same fingers pressed against Charles’s windpipe?
Her gun bumped against her rib cage as she stepped into the room, and the simple weigh
Why keep the journal?
The thought pushed through again, battled the anger, dug shallow roots into the banks of her consciousness so that it would hold firm as she tried to push it away.
She listened for Teresa’s footsteps, but she must have gone downstairs. Charles was alone in the room.
Izzy tossed the journal on the nightstand and then stepped even closer to the man.
He was pale, nearly translucent so Izzy could see the thin veins that ran beneath his eyes. There were dark spots near his temple, a discoloration that was unpleasant only because of the way his skin bunched around his neck, pulling taut over the ridges of his face.
The shirt he wore revealed the way his body was nothing but a wasted frame of bones, his muscles having deteriorated to leave behind a sunken hollow where they used to be.
Powerless. Fragile. Sickly.
It was hard to believe this was the same man from the journal, the one who had all the Bell girls scared.
But looks rarely had any role to play in abuse. Humiliation, rage, grief. They all made weak men feel strong.
Izzy was at a loss for what to do, though, other than wait. There was an IV by his bed, a slow drip of something slithering through the clear tubes. If it was morphine, it could explain his vegetative state. Maybe cutting off the supply would lift him out of his stupor. It would probably also cause him intense pain.
She reached for the bag.
As her fingers touched the tough plastic, Charles’s eyes snapped open.
Izzy flinched, but his hand lashed out to clamp around her wrist. His palm was fire against her skin, his pupils eating up most of the color of his irises, his breathing swift and frantic. His gaze bounced everywhere from her face, to her weapon, to the side table, and back again.
There would be bruises in the shapes of his fingerprints tomorrow.
“Charles Bell?” she asked.
“You found it.” His voice was painful, a rasp dragged out over shards of broken glass. “Of course you did. She wanted you to.”
His eyes slid back to the side table.
“The journal,” she said, answering her own question. Why had he kept it? “Who wanted me to find it?”
Charles’s fingers tightened against the pulse point that pounded at the inner side of her wrist. His lips worked and twisted, as if trying to form words, but no sound came out.
Izzy leaned forward as Charles took another rattling breath, the crackle of his lungs loud in the quiet room.
He tried again, and this time he got it out.
“Bix didn’t write it.”
The words hung there, and Izzy imagined them in the same delicate handwriting that filled the journal’s pages.
“What, what do you mean? It wasn’t hers?”
Tears gathered in the man’s pale eyes, spilling over papery cheeks. His mouth was moving again, but fruitlessly, his fingers loosening from around her wrist.
“No,” Izzy said, keeping her tone authoritative to try to keep him with her. “No. Who was it then? Who?”
He turned his head toward the window, away from Izzy.
“Her. It’s always been her.”
Mia was worried for the man even as he offered help to escape. It was obvious he was in bad shape, though she couldn’t see the full extent of the wound on his side.
“I can.” He nodded, earnest but quiet. “I can help.”
“Okay,” Mia soothed, even as she eyed the cut that was still weeping into his shirt, the bright red of the blood mingling with the dried copper from days past. “Yes, you can help. What’s your name?”
“Robert,” the man said, confirming what she’d already guessed. They were missing a person. Here was their person. “Robert Twist. I’m a journalist.”
There was a distinct lack of panic in his voice, and Mia tried to remember what to do with a person who was in shock. She smiled, going for reassuring, despite the way her head still throbbed. “That’s great, Robert. I’ve been looking for you.”
“Yeah?” It was hopeful in the way of a child being told he was a favorite by a teacher. “I don’t know how long I’ve been here. Lost track of days.”
“Do they come down here at all?” Mia asked, moving to sit next to him so that her ankles were in reach of his hands without him having to move. “Can you start in on that knot there, Robert?”
His mouth pulled back in a tight grimace as he brought his hands up, but he didn’t complain as he started tugging at the ends.
“No, put pressure on the point where the rope crosses,” Mia instructed. Then asked again: “Robert, do you know who’s keeping us here? Do you ever see them?”
Robert paused, looking up. There was the fear that had been missing earlier. Maybe it came in waves, the detachment followed by a fresh flood of terror.
“I don’t know.” The admission was hesitant, almost shameful, and he’d ducked his head once more, hiding.
“They don’t come down?” The webbing of old and new blood on his shirt said differently. That was a wound that had been aggravated over time.
His fingers trembled. “I have a pick.”
“For the lock,” Robert said, his lips tugging into a proud smile, that child once again. “Well, it’s just a piece of metal. But the lock is old fashioned. I think it could work.”
He glanced at her, his eyes bright. “You know how to pick a lock, don’t you? I don’t. I couldn’t . . . It wouldn’t work. I tried, but it wouldn’t work.”
Mia shifted her ankles to bring his attention back to them. “I’ll try,” she said, though she didn’t have much hope. What they needed was for her to have her hands and feet free if their kidnapper came down the stairs.
“You haven’t seen their face?” Mia tried a different way into the question.
But Robert just shook his head. It didn’t seem like a denial, but she couldn’t read him. He was eager and scared at the same time, hopeful and broken.
It took a long time for the bindings to finally give, and when they did, it happened all at once. In one moment the rope was stubborn and unmoving; in the next it relaxed against the tops of her feet. Something in her chest followed, untangling as well. She didn’t like being restricted.
Robert cheered lightly beneath his breath as she kicked the rope away.
Once Mia was able to stand, there was a simple maneuver she could use to get out of the plastic zip tie. She brought her hands up above her head and then, in a swift, practiced move, threw them toward the ground. The stress was too much for the restraint, and it gave way beneath the pressure.
She breathed hard as she thumbed over the tender skin where the hard plastic had dug in.
“That was impressive,” Robert said.
Mia smiled, a little. “They teach it on day one of training. Just couldn’t do it sitting down. Now where’s that lockpick?”
Mia was still kneeling by the door an hour later, the rusty piece of metal that could only be generously called a pick in this situation clutched in sweat-slicked hands.
The work was made more tedious by the way she had to pause every few seconds to listen for footsteps. If they were found in this position, they would lose any advantage they’d gained from slipping out of their bindings.
Robert had tried standing behind her, his cheek pressed to the metal, but it didn’t take long for his weight to sag against the door, against her shoulder. He was too weak to last beyond the first ten minutes. Now he was sitting silently on the stairs behind her, his eyes not once leaving her back.
Frustration ate away at her belly. Her vision blurred, and when she squeezed her eyes shut, bright lights popped against the blackness there.
She shook out her free hand, concentrating on the air pressing against her lungs, on her steady heartbeat, on the ache in her kneecaps, anything other than the searing desperation that threatened to sap all her
This was their only option. There were no other exits, no vents, no weak spots. Just one locked door and a piece of metal fashioned out of an old couch spring.
She started on the lock again.
As she worked this time, the memories came, those faint echoes that barely registered because her attention was focused elsewhere.
Cash coming up the stairs. His dead eyes and empty apology for startling her. Reaching for her gun, thinking he was going to attack. Thinking he was their guy. But he wasn’t.
Metal clanked uselessly against metal, and she clenched her fist.
It wasn’t Monroe who told me about the baby.
That had been it. The truth that had made everything else slide into place.
Just as the reality of it settled in her once more, so did the pick into the lock. The click was overloud in the quiet room.
Mia wasted no time. “Come on,” she said without even turning to Robert. He was behind her in an instant, his breath heavy against the nape of her neck. She shivered, the dampness of each puff unsettling.
The knob gave beneath her hand, the door opening without a protest, the hinges smooth and well oiled. They stepped out into a darkened, narrow hallway, her shoulders brushing against the walls as she started down the long corridor. Servants quarters, her mind supplied. That’s why everything was so tight. The place was old.
Her bare feet were silent against the hardwood, and she kept her body angled so that her chest wouldn’t provide an easy target. Robert stumbled behind her, all noise and pain and carelessness.
He wouldn’t make it long. His body was concave, almost curling into itself even as he struggled with each heavy shuffle, his free arm hovering over his center, protecting his wound.
When they reached the end of the hallway, there was a steep staircase leading up to what Mia assumed was the ground floor. Robert whimpered, low and pitiful.
“Robert, I’m going to hide you here,” Mia said, both hands clutching his shoulders for the purpose of keeping him upright more than to get his attention. “I’ll come back for you, I promise.”