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Authors: Daniel Powell

Torched: A Thriller

BOOK: Torched: A Thriller
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TORCHED

A
THRILLER

 

 

DANIEL
POWELL

 

 

DISTILLATIONS
PRESS

 

Torched
©
2012 by Daniel Powell

This edition of
Torched
© 2012 by Distillations Press

Torched
is a work of
fiction. Names, characters, places, and
incidents are
the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead,
events, or locales is
entirely
coincidental.

 

Cover
design by Canopy Studios

Interior
layout by Distillations Press

 

Kindle
Edition

 

ASIN:
B008NXEHZK

 

ONE

They met at a
café just around the corner from Southmoor Park. The day was
sweltering—especially for a city at such high altitude—and they each had a
glass of cold iced tea.

“This is…” Terri
said. Shaking her head in disbelief, she closed the manila folder. “How did you
do
this?”

“Persistence,”
he replied. He didn’t look like a smoker, but his voice was low and raspy. She
thought he might be in his late fifties. He was fit, with broad shoulders and
closely cropped gray hair. He wore sunglasses just a shade darker than his
skin. “I just stayed after it, Ms. James. When I accept a case, I do my best to
see it through.”

She nodded,
flipping the folder open again to stare at the photograph. The woman had
colored her hair and put on a little weight. She was deeply tanned, and she was
smiling.

It made Terri
furious.

One glance at
the image and her mind conjured a pair of painful memories: the first was
Sheldon’s closed casket—the one they’d lowered into the frozen Colorado earth
just a few months earlier.

The second
recollection was much harder to process. When she looked at Vivian Bowles,
smiling over a meal in some tropical Mexican village, she thought of her
daughter. She thought of Erin, the brave little girl with the gaps in her smile
and the ugly scar on the inside of her forearm.

The girl missing
the pinkie and ring fingers on her left hand.

“I’ve itemized
my expenses, Ms. James. It doesn’t cost much to live in Mexico, but I was in
country for almost two months. It adds up.” He slid the document across the
table, tapping the subtotal. “I stayed at a little hotel on the outskirts of
Cerritos. It wasn’t the cheapest place I could find, but it wasn’t the Ritz
Carlton, either.”

Terri gave a
dismissive wave. She rooted around in her shoulder bag until she located the
envelope, which she placed on the table; the man made it disappear. “The
expense report looks fine, Mr. Hines. Thank you for your professionalism. There
should be more than enough to cover your fee and these expenses in that
envelope.”

He thanked her,
and Terri removed her sunglasses. Her eyes narrowed, and Benny Hines removed
his as well. He leaned forward.

“Look, I have to
ask you this: Why didn’t you go to the authorities, Mr. Hines? You knew about
the reward, right?”

He nodded,
smiling. He drained his glass of tea and sighed. “I didn’t want to go to the
authorities, Ms. James. I never even considered it.”

“But why?”

A shadow
darkened his features. “My niece went missing. She was snatched off a
playground in Mobile. Just,” he drew a deep breath, “she just up and
vanished
.”

“Oh, Mr. Hines,”
Terri said. She reached out and squeezed his hand. “I am so sorry.”

He nodded. “It’s
been damn near four years. We haven’t given up. I mean, we’re still looking.
Anyway, I knew what this woman did to your family. Knew what she did to your
children
.
I had to help.”

Terri smiled.
“I’ll pray for you, Mr. Hines. I’ll pray that your niece finds her way back to
you.”

“Thanks,” he
replied, scratching a spot on the back of his neck. “We’ll take all the prayers
we can get.”

The conversation
shifted as the retired Denver homicide detective explained the documents in the
dossier. “Cerritos is well off the beaten path. And Vivian? Shoot, Vivian’s
even further off the grid. You’ll have to get dirty if you want to get to her.”

“That’s okay,”
Terri replied. “Getting dirty is the least of my concerns.”

“You can’t fly
in, Ms. James. You want to be careful about leaving a trail. Mexico’s relaxed
when it comes to the law, but those people aren’t stupid. They’ve got their
eyes wide open down there. If you want to slide in without leaving a footprint,
I know some people in Brownsville that could probably help out with that.”

She nodded.
“I’ll take you up on that. What about once I’m inside?”

Hines shrugged.
“You’re on your own. I used to know a few expats down there. I might be able to
find some phone numbers. You want me to poke around?”

“Please. Mr.
Hines, I can’t thank you enough. This means a lot to me.”

Hines stroked
the graying stubble of his goatee. “I helped you find this woman,” he said,
“and I don’t regret doing that. I did it as much for your children as I did it
for you. But…but please just be careful, Ms. James. You want to be damned
careful about how you move forward from here.”

“Careful of
what?”

“Revenge,” he
replied, shaking his head, “can be one evil bitch. Just look at where it got
her
.
You think she sleeps easy at night? You think she’s at rest, living down there
in that dirty ol’ shack, looking over her shoulder twenty times a day?”

“She’s alive,”
Terri replied, an angry tremor in her voice. “She’s alive and Sheldon’s dead,
and our children don’t have a father. They’ll never have their dad back. Mr.
Hines, my daughter won’t even be able to wear a ring on her wedding day!
That…that woman took
so much
from us. You’re flat out wrong if you think
I have even an ounce of sympathy for her.”

Hines put up two
hands. “Hey, I just had to say my piece. It’s clear that you’re determined.
Like I said, I’ll help you get into Mexico, but from there I don’t want to
know. You do something to that woman, I don’t want to hear about it.

“Just…just
remember what I said. You seem like a decent person, Ms. James. Like a good
mother. If you do something you can’t take back, you’ll become somebody else
altogether. You’ll become somebody you might not recognize when you look in the
mirror.”

Terri sighed. “I
know. And I appreciate you saying that. I just…I just want to have a word with
her. That’s all.”

Hines nodded. He
put his sunglasses back on. “So…what’s next?”

“I guess I’m
going to Mexico,” Terri replied.

TWO

Vivian Bowles
opened her eyes. She gazed up at the aged wooden beams in the ceiling, thankful
once again for the opportunity to begin another day.

It was early and
the air was still cool; birds chirped just outside the window. She said a
prayer for Katie and reflected on the simple miracle that she was still alive.

Waking up that
first morning had been such a surprise.

She’d stumbled
upon the hunting cabin in the middle of a blizzard, drawn through the frigid
darkness by what she thought had been her daughter’s voice.

She had no
memory of slipping into bed, she was so exhausted from the things that had
happened on the side of the mountain.

And when she’d
awoken the following morning—shivering, dehydrated and disoriented, but
otherwise okay—she had made a promise to herself and to her daughter that she
would try to keep going.

She’d taken
clothing from the cabin, leaving a few crumpled bills in the chest in place of
the worn pants and thin jacket, and she’d put one foot in front of the next
until she was off the mountain.

She’d slowly
made her way back to Florida. People were searching for her and, although she
took no extraordinary measures to avoid them, she had succeeded in making it
home to gather some things before paying cash for a cruise to Cancun. She
traveled under the name of Katie Bowles, the officials barely glancing at her
doctored passport before ushering her through Mexican customs.

America is a
heck of a big country, and she’d just slipped right through the cracks.

From there, she
had hitched rides with benevolent strangers. The Mexican people were generous
and stopped often, and she wasn’t the only pedestrian on the pothole-strewn
highways. They carried her further and further into the jungle; they opened
their homes to her and offered her food and shelter. There was a language
barrier, but it was a small thing and she fell in love with the countryside as
paved roads yielded to gravel roads and, finally, rutted tracks through Mexican
clay.

She had settled
in a tiny place called Cerritos, and a month later had met the handsome man
whose bed she now shared.

Vivian snuggled
up against Miguel. She put her hand to his chest, felt the steady rhythm of his
heart and the regular swell of his respiration, and she felt good.

Truly and
honestly content.

She kissed his
shoulder, and he stirred.

“Hey,” he said.
He twisted to recline on the bed and she put her cheek against his chest.
“How’d you sleep, darlin’?”

“Like the dead,”
she said. “Same as always.”

“Well, that’s
good,” he replied. There was a hint of a Spanish accent there but, like Vivian,
he was American. “Never had rest like that in the states, did you?”

She smiled. “Not
often. Not every night, like I seem to down here.”

Miguel squeezed
her shoulder. He stretched his arms over his head. “Okay—let’s try this again.
How about…
Baltimore
?” he said.

“Not even
close,” Vivian replied, a little smile on her face. “Must you do this every
morning, Mike?”

“Until I get it
right. Look, Vi, I’ve been honest with you. I just want to know more about you.
Is that so bad? Not Baltimore, huh? That’s a shame. You get a chance, you
should try the blue crabs up there on the bay. Unbelievable.”

“I wish you
wouldn’t, Mike. Seriously.”

He sighed,
kissing the top of her head. “I know it bothers you, but whatever you were
running from up there doesn’t matter to me. I swear, it doesn’t.”

“I know. I
believe you, and I appreciate your patience. I…I’ll tell you more about my past
when I’m ready.”

“That a
promise?”

“I promise.”

“Okay, Vi. I can
wait.”

“Thank you.”

“No,
thank
you
,” Miguel said, his hands moving over the coolness of her naked skin. He
traced his fingertips lightly down her back and across the curve of her hip.
“Every morning I have to pinch myself. It’s been wonderful having you here. I
hope you know that.”

“You’re
welcome,” she whispered, sliding on top of him, “but the pleasure’s all mine,
Mike.”

They made love
and, in that way, began another day in paradise.

THREE

“I promise that
I’ll be home in a week,” Terri said. “Ten days, tops.”

Janet just
smiled at her sister, her eyes narrow with suspicion. “Look, Terri, I’m not
sure what this is really all about, but promise me—just promise me that you’ll
be safe.”

Terri pulled her
sister into an embrace. “I’ll be fine,” she whispered. “I swear. Thank you for
doing this for me, sis. I really appreciate it.”

“Hey, I’m
looking forward to it, and so are the kids. I haven’t had a vacation in ages.”

“Is Rob still
coming up on the weekend?”

Janet nodded.
“He didn’t have as many vacation days as I did, so we’re saving the zoo for
Saturday. They have that new butterfly exhibit.”

Terri instantly
deflated. What the hell did she think she was going to do? She thought about
what she had planned for Saturday and juxtaposed the image with one of her
sister and brother-in-law looking at butterflies with her children at the
Denver Zoo.

The contrast
made her stomach lurch, but her smile did nothing to betray the grim
premonition.

“That’ll be
great, sis. Take some pictures, if you don’t mind. I’ll try to call if I’m able,
but you know there really aren’t a lot of cell towers where I’m going.”

“Just make sure
you check in. There should be a register at the trailhead, and you need to
follow protocol, Terri.”

“Of course I
will. I know the routine.”

Janet nodded. “I
understand that you need this, Tee. Have fun out there. I hope you…that you
find what you’re looking for.”

Terri’s grin was
wicked. “Me too, sis. Me too.”

***

The Subaru was
stuffed to bursting with camping gear. Erin and Mike were standing in the yard;
Janet watched from her perch at the top of the front steps.

“Mom, I wish we
could go with you,” Erin said. Her eyes were wet, and she threw her thin arms
around her mother’s neck.

“Yeah!” Mike
said. He was crying. “We want to go, too!”

“Kids, we’ve
been over this. Why am I taking this trip?”

“To say goodbye
to Daddy,” Erin said, and the floodgates opened. Her lip quivered and her
shoulders shook with the sobs. Janet came into the yard and put her arms around
the kids. She rubbed their backs.

“Your mom just
needs a little time to herself, guys. We’re going to have a great time of our
own. Uncle Rob is coming up this weekend, and we’ll go see some movies and hit
the zoo—maybe take in a Rockies game. Would you like that, Mike?”

The boy nodded,
sniffling.

Terri swiped a
tear away. She loved her children with everything she had, which was one reason
she felt compelled to do this in the first place. “Listen, guys—I’ll call if I
can,” she said. It wasn’t exactly a lie. She’d purchased a couple of disposable
cellular phones; her Blackberry she had hidden in her bedroom, wary of the
device pinging cell towers every few minutes. “Mike, do you remember what the
name is of the place I’ll be visiting?”

“Llano
Estacado,” he said, nailing the pronunciation on the button.

Terri laughed.
She hugged her son close. “That’s my bright little man! Gosh, Mikey…you’re so
grown up!”

She looked into
the eyes of her children. “But kids, it’s very remote. It’s pretty much a
desert. I’ll be taking a long hike, and when I get back, I think I’ll feel much
better. Okay?”

Mike nodded. “I
love you, mommy.”

“I love you too,
son. You too, Erin. I love you both so much. So much, bunches and bunches! Do
me a favor and mind your aunt, okay? And Erin, take care of your brother.”

The girl nodded.
Terri hugged them again, gave her sister’s hand a squeeze and climbed into the
Outback.

She rolled her
window down and blew them a kiss.

They were still
waving when she turned the corner, and Terri felt a bizarre combination of
emotions roiling deep in her gut. There was excitement and trepidation, as well
as yearning and fear and anger.

She pointed the
Subaru south and switched on the radio, content to ramble for a while without
thinking about the things she still had to do.

***

She stopped
twice for gas and coffee. Thirty minutes after the sun dipped behind the
western horizon, she found the little state park outside of Abilene.

She pulled into
the deserted parking lot and unrolled her sleeping bag on the grass. Exhausted,
she burrowed inside and stared up at the sky.

The cloudless
heavens were brilliant—an indigo sieve lit occasionally by the flash of a
meteor burning up in the atmosphere.

She studied the
vast darkness above her and thought about her destinations—both the shaded
jungles of Central Mexico and the dark place she was visiting inside of
herself.

She conjured
those twin images—her husband’s casket and her daughter’s mangled hand—and
drifted into the ether of sleep feeling angry.

BOOK: Torched: A Thriller
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