I came down the side of the mountain and marveled at the town spread out below me. It looked so peaceful with each house and building placed in neat little rows. The tallest structure was easily the church; its steeple stark white against the backdrop of the blue-green mountains. The town was named Hillvalley, which I thought was very odd—how can a place be both a hill and a valley? Then I drove around another curve and I got my answer. I was coming down a hill, and the little town completely filled the valley floor. I was coming from the hill to the valley—it seemed appropriately named now. Perfect, in fact.
As I meandered down, careful of the narrow switchbacks and the jutting rocky-sided mountain, I feared for my wide RV. The spikes of rock ledges seemed awfully close as I navigated the curves. I didn’t want to get too near to the opposite edge of the road either. The steep drop-offs looked even closer to my tires in a vehicle of this size. Of all the places I expected to find Brick, this was definitely not it—there was absolutely nothing metropolitan here. It did not smack me in the face as having his type of crime. This area was all about farming and mining. And unless I missed my guess, hunters and moonshine were no strangers here. When Brick said come meet me in the hills of Kentucky, I’d had no idea how back woodsy the area would be. This was quaint, although it seemed to my mind, an unlikely place for the type of criminal Brick normally chased.
It took another hour to maneuver my home, a.k.a. my National RV Dolphin, all the way down the mountain and to find the tiny slate-shingled, pewter gray building Brick had described. With its nondescript front, this was the most unobtrusive police station I had ever seen. I wasn’t even sure it was a police station until I stepped inside.
A handful of men where milling around four desks piled high with stacks of dusty files on the corners. All had badges on their hips and guns in shoulder holsters. They looked up when I opened the door and then stared at me as if they’d never seen a woman before. A somber mood pervaded, I couldn’t say why I thought that, I just felt it. I asked for Brick Tyler and was shown to a hallway with several doors. A stoop-shouldered gentleman with an old-fashioned Fedora-styled hat that he held respectfully in his hand, nodded and said, “Knock on the door at the end of the hall there, they’s watching sumpin’ vulgar and vile. Give ‘em a chance to shut it off.”
Brick had called and asked me to take a detour to meet him here. At the time I had no idea what he wanted, but I knew from his tone that there was something gnawing at him from the inside. It was as if he was choking on anger when he asked me to meet him. Initially I thought his phone call might have something to do with his sister who had been missing for several years. From his tone, it sounded like they might have found her—and not in a good way. But he assured me that wasn’t the case.
He told me this was about another little girl, but said he just couldn’t talk about it yet. From the catch and rasp of his voice I knew this wasn’t going to be good. But if he thought I could help with whatever he was so angry over, I knew I had to try. He’d certainly come to my rescue, and more than once. Just recently, in Virginia when my estranged husband was holding me hostage, he had risked his life and saved me. I could do no less for him. But how could I possibly help him? He was big, strong—fearless. I was petite, fragile and just on the cusp of getting my feisty back.
I am Jenny, a woman on the run from a very wicked soon-to-be ex-husband. Three months ago I left my overbearing, jealous, possessive, son-of-a-bitch husband after I had finally built up enough courage and enough cash to make what I thought was the perfect escape—a life on the road in a motorhome.
But I had seriously underestimated my husband and he found me. The belly button piercing he had insisted on installing several years before held some type of transmitter and he tracked me down and tried to drag me back home. I evaded him several times but managed to fall into a trap he set, and for ten long days I was forced to be his sex slave again. He fancied himself to be a dominant and since he had not been able to coerce me into playing his submissive voluntarily, he broke all the rules for BDSM and forced me.
Then Brick and his team found me. Brick is an agent for the North Carolina Bureau of Investigation; he specializes in crimes against children. When he saw what Jared had done to me, he beat him bloody and senseless. I spent a week in the hospital recovering from the abuse I’d been subjected to. Nothing serious enough to require surgery and nothing I wouldn’t recover from, but my doctor wanted to keep me isolated from both law enforcement and the media. I didn’t need the questions, the attention, or the stress. And as I had no place to stay . . . the hospital room became my hotel room until I was back on my feet. Jared could afford it and I made sure he was billed for everything.
I hadn’t seen Brick since being released. I hadn’t wanted to. I hadn’t wanted to see anyone. I just wanted to crawl into a hole and hide. And then, after reuniting with my cell phone, I found I’d had a call from Randy, a fellow camper I’d met in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
His message had been short and sweet, “One of my guys on the set-up crew knows this Robert Byrnes guy you’re looking for. So give me a call when you get a chance and for heaven’s sake make it during the day. We’ve talked, and Charlotte’s getting better, but I’m still on a very short leash and you’re way too pretty by far for her to be comfortable with me talkin’ to you.”
I’d returned his call and set plans in motion to be in Redmond, Oregon in three weeks when The Rally was there. I was going to make Brick very happy. I was going to find his baby sister who was stolen by a husband and wife team four years ago. Of course, I wasn’t going to tell him about it, yet—he’d had too many leads and false tips go awry to get him all churned up just to end up disappointed again. I was going to go undercover on my own and find her. I could envision Brick’s face when I placed her in his loving arms. It would be a life-changing event—for both of us.
But meanwhile, by special request, I was here in this little burg and very curious as to what Brick wanted with me. I knocked, waited a few seconds, and then opened the door.
Brick was hunched over a desk watching a small TV—his head cupped in his hand, his voice low and hoarse as he talked to a man seated on his right. He turned to face the door when it opened and saw me, then jumped up and rushed over. I was clasped tight to his chest and the breath was hugged out of me. It felt wonderful to be held by him, but I knew his grip would be deadly if I didn’t get him to back off, and soon. He began murmuring in my ear, “Jenny, Jenny, Jenny,” as if he couldn’t get enough of saying my name. Then after a slight hesitation, he whispered, “You are still using Jenny, aren’t you?” In an effort to outrun my husband I had changed my name twice, but I really liked Jenny, and with Jared in jail it didn’t seem necessary to change my name again.
I managed to nod despite him gripping my head hard to his chest. His big hand was comforting and I loved the fresh linen smell of his dress shirt, but I couldn’t seem to get a full breath.
“Uh, hi. Not so tight, Brick. I can’t breathe.”
“Oh sorry, I’m just happy to see you. You can’t know how pleased I am that you came.”
I smiled up at him and saw a haggard face, haunted eyes, and a feral light I’d seen once before—the first time he’d taken on Jared, when he’d wanted to kill him and I hadn’t let him.
“What’s the matter?” I asked as I put my hand on his cheek. I felt the stubble of a beard in full bloom. “You don’t look as though you’ve slept in a week.”
“I haven’t. Just the kind of sleep that comes with nightmares.” He pointed to the man still sitting in the chair. “This is my boss, Agent Joe Rydell. We’re watching a video of a bust gone bad; my bust, and I’m the one who blew it. Big time. I need you to watch it with me. It’s going to be hard for you to watch, but you need to if you’re going to be onboard with helping us out. I told Joe you had some law enforcement training, that you were a campus policeman your junior and senior year at UVA so he agreed we could use you if you think you’re up to it. Here, have a seat; we might as well get this over with. It’s bad, Jen. Really bad. I fucked up.”
His hands left my waist and raked through his hair leaving thick segments in ridges. “I lost my cool. I lost all control.” His eyes met mine and I saw the despair, then he turned and sat back in the chair he’d just jumped up from. I was pulled into the seat beside him and the video monitor was moved back.
“There’s no signal for my wireless here so we have to use this old set up. It’s grainy, but you’ll have no trouble seeing what’s going on.”
I watched as he rewound the tape on the ancient VCR. From the sure action of his fingers on the keys I knew that he’d been watching it over and over again, probably all morning from the way he was in tune with the machine. It seemed he knew exactly when to stop rewinding. He pressed play and I turned my attention to the screen. It was dim, but I saw the outline of a bed and then a little girl propped at the head of it. Her clothing was askew and it looked as if her tiny white bra straps were pulled off her shoulders. One small breast was pulled up and over a cup. A disembodied voice broke the silence, a man’s gravely voice.
“Hi Susie. You’ve been such a good girl today, doing everything your Uncle John said to do, such a good little girl you are. It’s my turn to play with your sweet little body. Your teeny little breasts and your rosy little nipples are so sexy. They look so pretty poking out of your cute training bra, just begging for attention. I’m going to hold you and touch you, make you feel good, so good. I promise not to hurt you. Just let me touch you, okay?”
The girl, who was still holding on to her baby fat as she entered puberty, appeared to be heavily drugged, her eyes blank in her chubby face as she gave what could be assumed was a muttered assent and a vague nod.
“Good girl, I’m so glad it’s finally my turn. So many men got to sample you first, to try you out with their fingers so they could decide. But don’t worry, no one will be allowed to put their penis inside you until I say they can.” His hand caressed her breast, kneading it roughly. “Don’t worry, because I’m beginning to think you might be the one I choose to keep. Would you like that, being my girlfriend?”
Another blank look and another tiny drop of her head.
The man, short with a huge paunch, sat on the bed beside the young girl, depressing the mattress considerably. The fingers of one hand were pinching and pulling on the tiny budded nipple that poked over the cup of the white cotton bra while with his other hand he unzipped his zipper. The girl’s eyes went wide with fear when his penis popped through the opening. She sobbed as he gripped her hand and brought it to him.
Seconds later, undercover officers burst into the room and half naked men, each holding a doped up girl in their lap, jumped up and scattered. The man who had been fondling Susie gave a great roar and charged the last officer coming through the door. The screen went haywire with blurry images before going black.
Brick stopped the tape. I watched as his finger automatically hit the rewind button. What was it that made us rerun the worst moments of our lives over and over again, hoping for a different ending? I sat there waiting for him to speak. I had absolutely no idea what I could say to make it better or make it go away. I knew this kind of thing happened, but I had never been witness to it. Watching it was far worse than I thought it could possibly be.
Finally, he spoke, “I had to stop it right there. I couldn’t watch that pervert touch her like that any longer. And because of it, he got away. I knew we weren’t ready to go in. The man you saw there, John Howard, he ran like a line backer into one of my guys, knocked him on his ass, crushed a few ribs, and then he made off on an ATV he’d had hidden behind the motel. We gave chase, but he knew the surrounding woods—Christ this was his fucking hometown at one time. Anyway, we lost him. And it’s all my fault. Mine. He’s gonna get a chance at other girls now, because of me!”
I could see the anguish in his eyes. It pained me to see him hurting so badly. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing, just stared at the man I was coming to love as he fell to pieces. Finally our eyes met, his bloodshot and wounded, mine filled with tears of compassion. He took a deep breath and said, “And that’s where you come in, if you want to.”
“Oh, I want to. I definitely want to. What kind of a man does that to such a young girl? I want to do anything I can to help out.”
“We have an agent on loan from Vermont. She’s twenty-four, but dressed like a schoolgirl you’d swear she was no more than fourteen. She’s agreed to go undercover so we can get this guy and shut him down for good. We’ve been after him for months now, but he always manages to allude us, just like he did yesterday. This time, we’re determined to get him or die trying. We figure he’s responsible for kidnapping and drugging thirty-six little girls, ages ten to sixteen. He likes them young and so do the men he arranges to sell them to. Eight still haven’t been recovered.”
“Ohhh God. How awful!” It made my stomach clench, just the thought of what these girls were going through. I thought I might be sick but I didn’t want to show it. I wanted to be strong for Brick. I dug in my purse for a cough drop and sucked on it while Brick paced.
“Yeah. So if you agree to help out, we’d really appreciate it.”
“Don’t worry, I’m on board. Just what do you need me to do?”
“Dress down, slum yourself up a bit and pretend to be this agent’s neglectful, self-serving mother.”
“Her mother!” Boy that wasn’t very flattering. Then I did some fast addition in my head. Fourteen, could have had her at sixteen, okay being taken for thirty wasn’t all that bad. I was twenty-eight after all. “Okay, I suppose I could do that, no problem.”
He flashed me a big grin and it was worth the six hundred-mile detour just to see that bright, sexy smile plastered on his ruggedly handsome face again. With his curving sensuous lips and straight white teeth, I doubted any woman could say no to him, least of all me. I was all but acknowledging the inevitability of the fact that I was falling in love with him. Okay, okay, so darned near all the way into that free-fall that I doubted anything could change the outcome at this point. But this was not the time to tell him that.
“Our informant says John Howard never misses his momma’s birthday, so he’ll be in Knoxville two days from now to see her blow out her birthday candles, and soon after, he’ll be looking for a new victim to warm his bed. Hopefully that’ll be enough time to turn you into a scag who has no qualms about whoring her daughter for drug money.”
“When you say scag, you don’t mean cutting my hair, knocking out teeth, or messing with my eyebrows, do you?”
He came over to stand in front of me and softly caressed my check, then his fingers moved to the back of my neck and he stroked me there. I felt his heat and my skin responded with that telltale tingle that had me fighting to keep my hands to myself.
“No, we won’t do anything permanent. A few henna tattoos, a mousy hair rinse with some goop to make your beautiful hair look dry, chipped nail polish on chewed off nails, and tons of gaudy make-up should do the trick.”
“Good, I’d hate to remain scaggy after this is all over.”
“Mmm,” he said as he looked me over, “I can’t wait to see you skanked out a bit.” He leaned in and put his forehead to mine and whispered so no one else in the room could hear, “I sure wish I was going to be the one to pick out your slutty outfit. I’d love to see you in fishnets with huge holes in them, and a plunging see-through blouse over a tawdry mini-skirt.”
“See-through!” I gasped, a bit louder than I’d intended. He put his fingertips to my lips. His boss was sitting at the table watching our little reunion and just outside the door was a bustling police station.
“Just joking. I don’t want anyone, least of all this perv seeing you topless.”
I looked into his face, my own creased with worry. “Speaking of . . . what have all your friends been saying . . . uh, on that score?” I’d had the unfortunate experience of being rescued in my all-together a few weeks earlier, but despite Brick’s efforts to shield me, his whole team had had an eyeful of my 38Cs. I still flushed red whenever I thought about it.
“We don’t talk about it. But if anyone did, there’s hardly anything they could say, except how lucky I am that you’re my girl.”
“Am I your girl?”
His boss got up and left the room, mumbling something about a meeting in ten minutes.