Sidetracked (Page 16)

As if my life wasn’t complicated enough, I’m about to head into FBI headquarters. Lovely.

Chapter 12

Virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbors.



“Just stay here,” I tell Lana, gesturing to a large breakroom. “I’d let you into my office to wait, but it’s restricted access.”

She squeezes my hand, giving me a small, reassuring smile. “I’m fine. Go do your thing.”

I head out of the breakroom, leaving the door open, and walk straight toward Craig’s office where he’s waiting with Hadley and Duke. Hadley’s red-rimmed eyes meet mine the second I step through the door, and she jerks her gaze away.

My eyes shift to Duke, who glares at me.

“Why is it necessary to have you guys in here for me to ask her a few simple questions?” Duke asks, annoyed.

“Call it an observation, but your chief put my girl in danger just to have a better chance of catching a serial killer. Then you show up, targeting one of my people for a crime she couldn’t have possibly committed.”

His eyebrows go up, and a lazy smile curves his lips. “Really? Agent Grace has so many alibies that it’d be a fool’s quest to try and pin Kenneth Ferguson’s death on her.

“Then why are you here?” I ask, suspicious.

His smile dies, and he tosses out several bagged pictures. Hadley’s breath catches in her throat when she sees them, and she clutches the chair.

“These aren’t all the pictures he had, but these children? They’re missing. Some of them have been missing for years.”

Hadley doubles over, vomiting into the trashcan. Duke actually looks sympathetic as he watches her.

“I need air,” Hadley says, wiping the back of her mouth as she stands.

I nod toward Craig, who takes her out, leaving me alone with Duke in the office.

“You wanted to see her reaction,” I tell him as I sit down too.

“She ran away from home for a reason,” Duke answers. “She accused him of molesting her as a child.”

“So you are trying to—”

“I’m trying to get answers about what ‘special’ places he took her, as terrible as that sounds. We need to find these kids, even if we’re just recovering bodies. Someone killed this guy, but I’m looking for the dozens of kids who are missing more than I’m looking for his killer.”

He pulls out his phone, and I glance at the pictures that are on the desk. Most are naked little girls, spread wide on a bed. My stomach roils and I look away. Hadley never told me this part of her past.

“Ferguson left Hadley’s mother shortly after Hadley ran away. That means the mother was no longer valuable after the child was gone. How can a mother ignore something like that?” he asks.

“It’s often easier for someone to believe evil can’t exist inside someone they love, than to admit they’ve failed someone who should be more important. We see it too often. The blind eye effect is what we call it,” I say absently.

Just as I’m about to ask questions, he thrusts his phone at me, and my eyes widen in disbelief. “Someone knew what this guy was doing,” he goes on, gesturing to the picture.

Kenneth Ferguson has been tortured. There’s no doubt about that. His skin has been flayed off in numerous areas. There are black spots on the flayed portions, as though someone burned him.

“They used a knife. They used a blowtorch—possibly even the one he had downstairs for welding. And they hammered nails into his feet and testicles—seventy nails, to be exact… We found sixty-nine pictures and seventy nails. They did all this before dumping his dead body into the water.”

I grimace, wondering why so many killers have to focus on the genitals.

The water has bloated the body, turning the flesh a paler color and showing the blue veins. The eyes are white and glossed over.

“Was he dead before he hit the water?”

He nods.

“So the water was a countermeasure. We’re dealing with an organized killer who has the stomach for torture. Could have been a hitman. Where were these kids’ parents? One of them could know where these other kids are buried or kept if they’re still alive.”

“All of them were in the system, homeless, and hadn’t been placed with a foster family. They were labeled as runaways. Ferguson was a social worker with unlimited access to files and folders with countless children he could take at his own leisure. The ages range from eight to fifteen.”

“Pedophiles have a selective age range from two to three years that they prey on. Never a gap as big as that. Unless…”

“Unless what?” he prompts.

“Unless he’s a groomer. It’s rare, but some pedophiles select children they can groom and have long-term relationships with, that way, when their bodies are old enough, he can take more than just some touching from them.”

He chokes back a sound, possibly swallowing bile. “Sick fucker. Why kill them?”

“If he killed them, it’s because they didn’t play their part in the fantasy anymore. Possibly became too distant or detached. Maybe even cried too much. He wants their tears as children. As women, he wants their submission. Most groomed children either break psychologically, or kill themselves. Some of these could be suicides.”

“I want to find them. I want to at least give them a damn voice,” Duke says angrily. “No one cared. No one looked for them. And no one stopped this demon from carrying on all these years.”

“Someone did,” I remind him, curious. “Maybe one escaped somewhere along the line and came back for vengeance.”

“I released the information to the media, asking any prior victims to come forth. Is it wrong that I don’t want to catch his killer? I just want to find the missing children—dead or alive.”

He looks truly torn.

“I can’t answer questions of moral dilemma. When did you alert the media?”

“His body was found three hours ago. So far no one has called in or stepped forward. He was killed in his basement, but the scene was compromised with bleach. The unknown suspect doused the room in bleach and then hosed it down. Seems like this isn’t the first time he’s killed.”

“You said he,” I tell him, frowning.

“The guy weighed a ton. There’s no way a girl carried him to the water alone. There was signs of him being rolled to the water, but even still, that’s a lot of strength. It was uphill for a piece. Then they used a hoe to dig up all the dirt where the footprints were. The tire treads we found weren’t enough to get a make or model of a car. They were careful to stay out of the dirt or sand.”

Definitely organized. Too organized to have had just one kill under their belt.

“No hesitation marks,” I say quietly, gesturing to the picture. “We may be dealing with a serial.”

He tenses, his eyes narrowing. “I’m not trying to take your case away, detective,” I add, watching as he relaxes. “I’m just saying you may have some avenger seeking justice where the cops haven’t. You may want to look into—”

The door opens, and Craig steps in. “We have a little girl here. She’s bruised and malnourished, and the woman who brought her in claims that she was left on her doorstep during the night. The little girl is a victim of Ferguson’s.”

My eyes dart to Duke’s as his widen, and we both launch ourselves toward the door, moving briskly.

The little girl is whispering something in Hadley’s ear as we walk into the room where they’re seated, and Hadley frowns, studying the little girl.

“What?” Duke asks.

The little girl shudders when she hears his voice, harsh and demanding. Duke tenses, realizing his error.

“Sorry,” he says softly as the woman puts her arm around the little girl.

She was just found last night? Yet the traumatized kid is clinging to this woman?

“Sorry,” Duke says again, his voice barely above a whisper as he takes a seat.

“I’m going to head home,” Hadley says as she nears me, clutching my arm on her way toward the door. “Let that girl stay with Lindy. Do not let them take her away. I need…I need a moment.”

I follow her out, letting Duke speak with who I assume is Lindy. Craig joins him, sitting down with his iPad as he listens intently.

“I don’t know. The doorbell rang, and Laurel was there when I answered it. I brought her in, fed her, gave her water, and then let her shower for as long as she wanted. That’s when I saw the news, and Laurel gave me her story, along with information you need. I’ll tell you everything she told me, but only if you promise she can stay with me. No taking her away.”

“Yes,” Laurel agrees adamantly.

A bond that deep can’t be forged so quickly unless Laurel and Lindy know more than I think they do.

I’m distracted by Hadley as I shut the door on the room, focusing my attention on my friend.

“Are you okay?”

Hadley turns to me with tears in her eyes. No one is around right now, everywhere scrambling around to find Plemmons.

“No, I’m not okay. I let them convince me it was all in my head. I thought I was sick and crazy, Logan. Now…that little girl is in there. Those kids…all of this is my fault.”