Read The Murder That Never Was: A Forensic Instincts Novel Online

Authors: Andrea Kane

Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction, #Thriller

The Murder That Never Was: A Forensic Instincts Novel (5 page)

BOOK: The Murder That Never Was: A Forensic Instincts Novel
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As the scene finished, Ryan pieced some things together. For any “bad behavior,” the boy would be attacked by this woman with no means of defending himself except running away or hiding. And her attacks were strong enough to take chunks out of his health. The only way to beat the level was to find the key and escape, but if he got caught, something worse than that attack would happen. The questions for Ryan were: What constituted bad behavior? Where were the hiding places? And where were some clues to help him find the key?

The story continued to unfold, and Ryan soon learned that bad behavior was something totally subjective, hiding places were tough to come by, and clues to find the key were well hidden. At one point, the boy got caught checking the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, and Mrs. Higgins came screaming at him with a bat. Luckily he found a closet to hide in.

This game was way more challenging than Ryan had initially thought. And more twisted. The villain was an alcoholic psycho with a violent temper. And there was no strategic way to appease her. So the boy took a beating.

Plowing expertly through the game, Ryan finally got the boy to find the key in Mrs. Higgins’ wallet, which was no easy feat. The boy tried to make a break for it, but as he got to the top of the staircase, the crazed woman jumped from out of nowhere to block him. At this point she was half woman, half monster, puffed face like Ursula the Sea Witch, except red with anger and drunkenness. A huge vein was popping out of the side of her head, no doubt a manifestation of her “migraines.” It was time for the Boss Battle…

Wailing with rage and insanity, Mrs. Higgins whipped out an empty bottle of vodka and raised it over the boy’s head, preparing for a kill move. Gamer instinct told Ryan to aim for his enemy’s weak spot. He made the boy jump as high as he could while aiming his fist right for that throbbing vein...

Queue a cutscene. Totally stunned, Mrs. Higgins’ head snapped back, causing her to stumble and fall backwards down the staircase. She collapsed at the bottom in an unconscious heap. Camera angle shifted, and it was suddenly clear that she was dead—impaled by the jagged edges of her own liquor bottle.

A fitting end.

Ryan moved the boy forward at a breakneck pace, headed for Level Two. There were ten levels in total. The premise behind each level was the same as the first: there was an evil captor—each with a different persona and a different name: Mrs. Higgins. Mrs. Kaminski. Mrs. Gillman. Mr. Hilltop. Mrs. Korman. Mrs. Bridges. Mr. Todd. Mrs. Flanders. Mrs. Wilkins. Mr. Engels. As with the first level, Ryan took screenshots of all the captors’ names.

Each of these ten captors unleashed punishment on the terrified boy, who grew older, stronger, and smarter with each level. He continued to hide when necessary, looking for clues that would help him escape. The escape plans got more challenging with each level, as did the captors. Each Boss Battle got harder, too, with more shots needed to destroy the captor in various ways.

The House
ended with the boy—now a teenager—walking off into the sunshine. Inconclusive but hinting at the positive. Typical gamer melancholy for dramatic effect.

Ryan sat back in his chair and folded his arms behind his head. He had to take a minute to congratulate himself for not losing his gamer edge. He could still complete a complex game faster than any pro.

Okay, enough ego for now. Time to analyze the scenario. ScoobyDoo’s game was very unusual and very specific in the way of details. No doubt he’d had the whole game scripted before he’d started coding. Something made him choose this setup when no other survival games were like it—and whatever that something was, was personal to him.

Ryan was willing to bet that he’d lived this life.

So what had he become as a result—a stronger, more compassionate man or a dangerous monster?

The answer to that would tell Ryan who he was potentially helping to vanish off the grid.

Upper Montclair, New Jersey

Julie and Milo were settled into their new apartment—as settled as vagabonds on high alert ever were.

For the time being, life seemed to be holding its own.

Home from the gym, Julie sat on her bed, cross-legged. She opened her laptop and signed in. In the smaller bedroom, she could hear Milo on his headset, calmly but expertly answering the questions of a Dell customer.

Calling up her Facebook page, she settled herself to read the newsfeed and see what was going on.

She never expected to find a personal message waiting for her. But she did.

Nervously, she clicked on it. It was from Shannon Barker—the sixteen-year-old gymnast who the dead Julie had been training at the gym and who was destined to be an Olympic contender.

With pains in her chest, she read:

Please call me, Julie. I understand why you ran. It was probably you they were after. We need to talk. I’m completely unhinged. I don’t know what to do. Should I go to the police? What did you find out about Jim Robbins? Who else is he working with? Is it someone at the Olympic training center? Call me on my new cell at 312-555-4929.

Julie’s throat was so tight she could barely speak. She shoved the laptop aside and ran into Milo’s doorway, waving for him to cut his call short.

“Come in here,” she begged, a tremor in her voice. “

Three minutes later, Milo was reading the PM, his forehead creased in a frown.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s stay calm. We knew that the old Julie was killed for a reason. We just didn’t know why. Clearly, this kid has some idea. She’s looking for advice on what to do. Give it to her.”

“What?” Julie stared. “What the hell am I supposed to tell her? I have no idea what’s going on or why the murder happened.”

“Interesting.” Milo was off in his own little world of thought. “It looks like the killers weren’t targeting Lisa after all. I wonder who this Jim Robbins is. He obviously works at an Olympic training center. If Shannon trained there regularly, the place must be in the Chicago area. Should take about three minutes to find out everything there is to know about him.”

“Maybe this kid Shannon is a drama queen,” Julie muttered. “Maybe she just rents too many thriller movies and has conjured up this whole thing.”

“Yeah, except that we have a dead body to back her up,” Milo reminded her.

“You’re right.” Julie dragged a hand through her hair. “What do we do?”

“You message her back ASAP,” Milo instructed in his usual pragmatic way. “Calm her down. Use Jim Robbins’ name to coax out whatever info you can without arousing her suspicions. Most of all, keep her from going to the cops.”

“What do I tell her about me?” Julie spread her hands wide in question. “Do I tell her where I am? Do I ask her to keep it a secret? I can’t very well lie to her. Clearly, she and dead Julie had a personal relationship. I saw Julie training her once or twice. She acted kind of big sisterly toward her.”

“Then that’s what you’ll be. Tell her you’re in New Jersey, opening a gym. Ask her to keep that information quiet, since you’re scared that the killers will come after you. Tell her you didn’t find out anything, even though you tried. Let her do most of the talking,” Milo ended by advising. “You do the listening. You’ll learn more and give away less.”

“And where do I call her from? Julie’s cell?”

“Julie’s cell hasn’t existed since the day we left Chicago. I downloaded all the contents and got rid of the thing. You’ve been using a new iPhone.” A grin. “A newly-released one, too. I upgraded.”

“Great.” Julie wasn’t in a humorous mood. “I’m a lousy actress, Milo. How do I pull this off?”

“By remembering that you’re a scared woman who witnessed a murder. Shannon is more than aware of that. So she won’t be surprised by the new cell number, or any jumpiness in your tone. Obviously, Julie is in some kind of a hot mess—one that Shannon’s also involved in. Remember, she got a new cell, too. She clearly doesn’t want to be called by the wrong person. She’s probably scared to death that she’s next on the hit list.”

“Who’s doing this?”

“That’s what we have to find out.”

Milo headed back to the computer in his room. He’d made it his business to sound calm and reassuring. But, given Julie’s level of agitation, he had work to do.

He logged out of all his programs and fired up his Tor browser to ensure anonymity from this point forward. He was hoping he’d find the answers he’d been looking for about how to create brand-new untraceable identities. He wasn’t ready to push the panic button yet, but he knew that having all the bases covered would settle Julie down. Even when they were in foster care together, she was okay as long as she had a way out. It was up to Milo to provide that escape route.

He entered his user name and password. Instantly, he perked up.

ScoobyDoo had a new subscriber to
The House
and a private message of his own.


Shannon had been gripped by a constant state of panic ever since Julie’s disappearance. It was so severe that it eclipsed the mourning of her lost life as a gymnast, her recent arthroscopic surgery to repair her torn rotator cuff, and her now-impossible goals as an Olympic hopeful.

What if Jim and the killer who had shot that Lisa girl were after her, too? What if they planned to kill her? What could she do to hide? To stop them?

She couldn’t run away, not without her parents calling everyone up to the National Guard until they found her. And she couldn’t talk to anyone, including the police. Not without proof.

She’d tried so hard to get it. She’d had both her blood and her urine checked, hoping there’d be evidence of the drugs in her system. But it had been too late. Whatever Jim had given her clearly had a short half-life and had already dispersed. It had been a long shot anyway. Jim wouldn’t have chosen a steroid that could be detected in the bloodstream for months, maybe even longer. So that possibility was out. And now Julie had vanished along with whatever she might have found out. So Shannon had nothing.

She’d considered going to the cops anyway, to tell them everything she knew and to see if they could help her. Not only to protect her, but to find Julie and determine what she knew and if she, too, was in danger. But she couldn’t. The risk was too great. Not only could the killers be following her, but she herself might be in legal trouble, no matter how hard she’d try to make the police understand that she’d thought the pills she was taking were healthy supplements. Why would they believe her? She was an Olympic hopeful who’d do almost anything to get the gold.

God, she’d been such an asshole.

In the meantime, she couldn’t disguise her state of mind. Her parents were frantic, her psychiatrist was deeply troubled, and her tutors were well out of their league and afraid to say or do the wrong thing. So Shannon shut down like a clam, distancing herself from everyone and going so far as to end her psychiatric sessions after an intensive two-week regimen of daily visits.

Everyone attributed it to the devastation she was enduring about the shattering loss of her career. She let them think that. It was partly true anyway. As for the rest—if she wasn’t going to the police, she certainly wasn’t telling anyone else about Julie’s investigation and the PEDs Jim Robbins had been giving her.

Shannon hadn’t seen Jim since the day she’d spilled her guts to Julie. It wasn’t a reach to guess that he believed—with a great sense of relief—that Shannon had just fallen to pieces and was avoiding anyone connected to her old life. Obviously, the last thing he wanted was to be found out. Shannon might have no proof that the supplements she’d been taking had been performance enhancing drugs, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t make a big stink about it and ruin his career—not to mention get him investigated and possibly arrested.

Despite her fear, she was half tempted to take that step and blow open Pandora’s box.

But she didn’t. She was too scared. And she was so alone.

Then she got Julie’s Facebook message.

And everything changed.

Julie had finally reconnected. According to her private message, she’d fled to the East Coast after the murder, to some town in New Jersey called Upper Montclair. She’d sworn Shannon to secrecy about her location, and about the fact that she was opening her own gym in a week. She seemed really stoked about the gym. Normally, Shannon would have been thrilled for her. But now, all she could think about was danger and death. Julie really hadn’t addressed either or answered any of her questions. She’d just expressed concern for Shannon’s state of mind, and asked her where things stood in every aspect of her life.

Was she too scared to even broach the subject?

Shannon hadn’t wasted a second. She’d typed in a response, blurting out everything that had been crowding her mind these past weeks. How she’d withdrawn from the world and stopped seeing her therapist. How she was sure she was still a target for Lisa’s killers. How she was more than certain that the PEDs Jim Robbins had been giving her were part of something bigger. She’d concluded by begging Julie to tell her anything she’d found out before disappearing, since Shannon had no place else to turn.

Julie was all over the response the instant it arrived. The information it contained was invaluable toward handling the potential crisis at hand.

Milo did his job pronto. He researched Jim Robbins and the Apex Olympic Gymnastic Center. He revisited all of dead Julie’s emails, concentrating on those to Shannon, which were rife with sympathy and compassion. And he put together a list of professionals, such as Shannon’s manager, who were closest to her, so he could concoct a viable dialogue for the new Julie to have with Shannon. Once he’d compiled everything, he prepped Julie for her Facebook Messenger response.

In that response, Julie made sure to be soothing as she tried to calm Shannon down. This time, she’d addressed the subject head on. She’d echoed Shannon’s fears but said that, unfortunately, she’d learned nothing—so far—other than what they already knew. She wasn’t giving up her efforts, she assured Shannon, even though, at this point, she had nothing to take to the police. But she was still digging into Jim’s background, along with the background of the Apex Olympic Gymnastic Center. She was even delving into the history of Shannon’s trainer, Yuri Varennikov, covering all bases to see who might be involved. Given that her investigation was delicate and potentially dangerous, she made Shannon promise not to go to the cops, not until they had real evidence. She concluded by telling Shannon to private message her anytime, and they could have a good, long cell phone talk right after the chaos of her gym’s grand opening was behind them.

The reply from Shannon came instantly:
Thank God I’m not alone.

Milo read the last of Julie’s return message over her shoulder, along with Shannon’s instantaneous response.

“Nice work,” he praised with a nod. “You used all the research I got you and added a warm, personal touch. That should keep Shannon’s hopes up and her impulse to go to the cops at bay.”

“I hope so,” Julie replied. “But I’d better keep the lines of communication open. She’s a scared teenager. They’re not known for their impulse control. Remember?”

“Yeah, I remember. And I agree. Stay in touch with her. Feed her little snippets of things as I find them.” Milo paused. “And if she happens to be right, we’re all in deep shit.”

Manhattan, New York

Emma hated the subway. It was one of the evil necessities of living in the city. Normally, she walked the mile from FI’s Tribeca brownstone to her apartment on Mulberry Street. But she’d met some friends for drinks uptown, and now she was relegated to this miserable form of transportation.

Luckily, she’d gotten a seat, albeit a slimy one next to some weird woman who was staring straight ahead, swaying back and forth, and talking to herself. She had a large canvas bag sitting on the floor in the aisle—not a sharp idea. But it was none of Emma’s business.

She returned to her iPad and the follow-up news tidbits she could find about that girl, Lisa Barnes, who’d been shot to death in Chicago. There was little to nothing to dig up, only an obituary and a throwaway commentary that the Nineteenth district of the Chicago Police Department was still looking for the killer.

Bullshit on that. They’d shut the investigative door five minutes after they’d determined that Lisa was a loser who’d been in the system and who had had a sketchy youth.

Emma slapped her iPad closed on her lap with a frustrated sound. She didn’t know why she couldn’t shake her preoccupation with this murder, but she couldn’t. It just hit too close to home.

She was half tempted to take her thoughts to Casey and see if Forensic Instincts could do anything with them. But Lisa Barnes hadn’t been a client, and they had no right to step into a case halfway across the country without a reason.

Emma was still lost in thought when, out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a twenty-something guy in a sweater and jeans weaving his way through the subway aisle. Up went her antenna when he slowed down an aisle or two ahead of her and quickly eyeballed the tote bag lying on the floor in front of him.

Emma sized this jerk up in a New York minute. It took one pickpocket to recognize another.

Calmly, she waited.

Sure enough, the guy lurched forward as if he’d lost his balance from the motion of the train. He grabbed hold of the seat rail in front of him and allegedly tripped over the bag. While struggling to regain his footing, he reached down and, in one swift motion, scooped out the weird woman’s wallet. Just as swiftly, he straightened, excused himself, and continued along his way.

Emma bolted to her feet, careful to take her own belongings with her. She wriggled her way past the woman who was an unknowing victim, and marched up behind the asshole who’d just stolen her wallet.

She tapped him on the shoulder. He startled and turned around, obviously expecting to see a cop. Instead, he found himself facing an angelic young blonde with a body to die for.

“Hey,” he greeted her with a charming smile. “Can I help you—in any way?”

“Yup.” Emma nodded. She extended her hand, palm up. “You can either give me back the wallet you just lifted or I can kick you in the balls so hard they’ll come out of your mouth.” A shrug. “Your choice.”

The guy’s jaw dropped.

“Like I said, your choice,” Emma reiterated. “But I think you’ll prefer option one. I’m a hell of a balls kicker.”

He opened and closed his mouth several times, resembling an unappealing guppy. Then, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the well-worn wallet, placing it in Emma’s extended hand. “Bitch,” he muttered.

“I’ve been called worse. Now get lost. And if you’re thinking of making any more trouble, think again. Option two is still available.”

With that, she pivoted and went back to her seat. Vaguely, she found herself wondering how much cash was in the wallet. She immediately dismissed that thought. She was a different person now. But, hell, once an addict, always an addict. The important thing was that she didn’t act on her impulses—unless they were for the benefit of Forensic Instincts.

She didn’t even bother sitting down, just grabbed hold of the nearest handle to brace herself for the remainder of the ride. She glanced down at the humming, oblivious woman.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” she said. “I think this fell out of your tote bag.” She passed her the wallet.

The weird woman blinked, seemingly coming out of her reverie for a moment. “Oh, thanks.” She stuffed the wallet in her coat pocket. “Never saw it fall.”

“No problem.” Just to be sure no further threat existed, Emma slanted her gaze quickly in the direction of where she’d accosted the pickpocket. He was nowhere to be found. She doubted she’d be seeing him again. And if she did, her knee was ready and able.

“Stupid bag,” the weird woman was muttering under her breath as she glared down at the offensive tote bag. “You’re supposed to have enough room to hold everything. You’re an asshole.”

Emma bit her lip and averted her gaze. No need to respond. The woman had resumed her under-the-breath monologue.

The train whistled and Emma glanced up. The next stop was hers. Thank God. Man, did she hate subways.

BOOK: The Murder That Never Was: A Forensic Instincts Novel
3.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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