Don’t Make a Sound – T. R. Ragan

After the pinwheel on the computer stopped spinning and the screen brightened, she logged in to her private group. They called themselves The Crew. There were five of them, and they all had nicknames. Hers was Malice. The others were known as Lily, Bug, Cleo, and Psycho. Their connection ran deep. Rape, torture, and years of anguish had brought them together. They knew one another’s stories, and they trusted each other fully. They hadn’t joined forces to provide emotional support, although much of what they did was therapeutic. The header pinned at the top of their page read Deterrence, Restitution, and Reformation. It was The Crew’s belief that the only way to get justice was to see criminals punished. Recently, they had decided unanimously to take control of their lives by teaching sexual predators a lesson or two. The people they planned to go after would come from all walks of life— young and old, rich and poor. The Crew had no intention of committing murder. The lowlifes would get exactly what they had coming—no more, no less.

Once the target had been properly “awakened,” they would be released back into society. They knew their hobby could easily become a full-time job. But there were only five of them, and so they would do what they could. They all had lives outside their club. Some of them were married and had children of their own. Some had full-time jobs. They would keep what they did from friends and family, because too many outsiders tended to believe the law would see justice served. But reality wasn’t that kind. Child abusers and sexual predators were becoming the norm. It was a well-known fact that fifteen of sixteen rapists walked free.

Criminals knew better than most that there were police shortages in nearly every city and town across the country. It wasn’t easy finding good candidates to recruit for police work either. The pay was shit, and the odds of getting killed on the job were high. So here they were, after years of getting to know one another, plotting their first target. They were a true sisterhood, committed to their newfound cause. Their motto was One Douchebag at a Time. It was all they could do. For now, it would have to be enough. CHAPTER TWO Sitting in her eight-by-eight cubicle on the third floor of the sturdy brick building that housed the Sacramento Independent, Sawyer Brooks, a twenty-nine-year-old journalist, gulped down her second cup of coffee and stared at the blank screen. What would her readers want to know about Jason Carlson, the man who thought it would be a good idea to whip out a rattlesnake to impress the kids at his ten-year-old son’s birthday party? While posing for pictures, he’d lost his grip, and the reptile bit the face of the child closest to him and another kid’s arm before slithering away.

It had happened yesterday. They’d been rushed to the hospital. One little boy was in critical condition. The other kid was going to be okay. What sort of moron would think pulling out a venomous snake in front of a bunch of kids was appropriate? A shadow fell over her. She swiveled around in her chair. Her boss stood there, hands shoved deep into his pants pockets. His grayish-blue eyes reminded her of the color of the sky before a storm. Derek Coleman was the guy she reported to, one of two people in the building who made the final decision when it came to what stories she worked on. Coleman was a young widower at thirty-five.

Sawyer wasn’t one to pry into the personal lives of others, but being observant, paying attention to those around her, and remembering details was one of her genetically predetermined characteristics. It was also her job to know things. Three years ago, a driver who’d been too busy texting to pay attention to the road had hit Coleman’s wife’s car head-on. She’d died instantly. He hadn’t removed the silver-framed wedding photo from his desk until recently. The picture of him holding his bride close to his chest, her white satin shoes inches off the ground, their faces brimming with happiness, told half the story. Gossipy staff filled in the rest. Sawyer had worked for the Sacramento Independent for five years now. She’d started out as an intern, basically a gopher, then moved on to researching and editing others’ stories, finally landing a job as a news and human-interest reporter after another writer moved back East. She met Coleman’s gaze.

His expression told her he had bad news. “What’s wrong?” “The kid died.” Her first thought was: What kid? Second thought: No way. She’d read the stats on snakebites. Both victims had been given an antivenin within an hour of being bitten. The probability of recovery was 99 percent. Venomous snakes bit seven to eight thousand people every year. About five of those died. “How could that be?” she asked, pushing through her surprise. “Apparently the boy had an allergic reaction.

” She swiveled back around, grabbed her purse from the bottom drawer, and jumped out of her chair. “Where are you going?” “To the hospital.” She knew Coleman wouldn’t try to stop her from talking to the grieving family or friends of the boy. Many frowned on journalists talking to family members too soon. But this was a newspaper, after all. Coleman trusted her as a journalist to tell the story, no matter how difficult. She didn’t act callously or hound people suffering from grief. And yet Coleman still stood there. Again, she met his gaze. “Is there something else?” “Geezer called in sick.

” Geezer was a crime scene photographer who worked closely with the Sacramento Independent’s top crime reporter, Sean Palmer. “So?” “He said you can hold your own when it comes to taking pictures.” She nodded. Waited. “There’s been a homicide. Forrest Hill Apartments in West Sac. Palmer wants you there ASAP. He said to bring your gear.” “What the hell?” She pushed her fingers through her hair in frustration. “Why didn’t you tell me five minutes ago?” A thick brow shot upward.

“Because I need the snake story on my desk by seven tonight.” She’d pissed him off. “I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to curse at you.” He said nothing. She turned away to shut down her computer. Working with Sean Palmer had been a goal of hers since she’d graduated from California State University, Sacramento. Running through a checklist in her mind, she grabbed her backpack, sliding the straps over her shoulder as it dawned on her that she needed to run home to get her camera. Pivoting on her feet, she was surprised to see Coleman still standing there. “Something else?” “Are you sure you’re ready for this? A woman was brutally murdered.

From what I’ve heard, it’s a grisly sight.” He looked overly concerned. “Are you kidding me? All I’ve wanted since I got this job was to work side by side with Sean Palmer and learn from the best.” “But that’s not what you’ll be doing. Your job today will be to take pictures.” He sighed. “And that’s only if you can get anywhere near the crime scene.” “I get it,” she said. “You’re not to get in anyone’s way.” “Got it.

” It was a tight squeeze, exiting her cubicle with Coleman in the way, but she managed. “Seven p.m.,” he called after her. A reminder to get the snake story on his desk, pronto. Without turning around, she raised a hand in acknowledgment. Outside, she ran across the parking lot, the dead boy forgotten. Nine a.m., and already the July heat was proving to be brutal.

The kind of extreme heat that made tree branches break and animals pant. She slid into her car, a second-generation Honda Civic with a rusty baby-blue exterior and tan interior. The engine jumped when she turned the key. A clunker, but it got her where she needed to go. She had no plans to put old Suzy out to pasture. Despite traffic and hitting a red light, she made a concerted effort not to speed as she drove to East Sacramento. She made a left on San Antonio Way, and as she neared the house of her boyfriend, Connor, she spotted a car she didn’t recognize in the driveway. She pulled to the curb across from the house and shut off the engine. A visitor? Had Connor been expecting someone, and that was why he’d rushed her out of the house this morning? Her pulse quickened as she walked toward the entrance. Connor was a bit of a slob.

Maybe he’d finally hired someone to clean. A few more scenarios played through her head as she slipped the key into the lock and opened the front door. Music was playing. It wasn’t blaring, but it was loud enough to cover the sound of her footfalls as she made her way down the hallway to the bedroom. The door was ajar. She nudged it open, and when she stepped inside, she couldn’t take her eyes off Connor’s naked ass as it rose and fell. The girl beneath him had big eyes that grew even bigger when she noticed Sawyer standing there. “Really?” Sawyer asked. Connor must have been focused on what he was doing, because the girl had to use both hands to push him off her and then gesture at Sawyer. Connor peeked over his shoulder.

His face was red from exertion, which made sense considering this was the hardest she’d ever seen him work. For some reason, Sawyer wasn’t surprised. Not that Connor had ever cheated on her . that she knew of. It just somehow fit. Connor had no integrity and only his own interests in mind. And what annoyed her at the moment was that she’d ever moved in with him to begin with. The girl used the sheet to cover herself. Connor slid off the bed. His dick was still hard, springing forth and wobbling a bit like a diving board.

“What are you doing?” he asked. “What am I doing?” Sawyer laughed, then thought about Geezer being out sick and Sean Palmer at Forrest Hill Apartments, waiting for her. She didn’t have time for this. “I need my camera.” She walked to the closet and searched through clothes and shoes. Her camera bag had been pushed to the back corner. She opened it, made sure she had an extra battery and plenty of memory cards before zipping it closed, and headed back the way she’d come. Connor followed close behind. “Where are you going?” he asked. “Back to work,” she said.

“It’s what people do to pay the bills. You should try it sometime.” He grabbed her arm. She shrugged it off. “Come on,” he said. “We need to talk about this.” “No. We don’t. It’s over.” “We haven’t had sex in months.

What was I supposed to do?” When she reached the door, she turned toward him. “Don’t sweat it. You’re like every guy I’ve ever known. I’ll grab my things later.” Walking toward her car, she saw a shadow underneath the frame by the front tire. It was a cat. “Come on,” she said, trying to coax the animal out. “I’m in a hurry.” She got down on all fours. The poor thing looked half-starved.

Its fur was long and matted, and there was no collar. When she opened the car door, the cat darted across the street and disappeared under a thick hedge. She felt bad that she didn’t have time to run after the animal to see if it belonged to anyone in the neighborhood. In her car and back on the road, Sawyer kept her hands steady on the wheel and tried to tamp down the emotions swooshing through her—a pinch of anger, a dab of disappointment, and a bucketful of reality that she just wasn’t that into Connor. Unlike her sisters, she wasn’t plagued with OCD, and she wasn’t afraid of conflict. But Sawyer definitely had her demons, and some of them came in the form of heightened distrust. Overall, Sawyer felt as if her self-contained anger kept her in control. But she was clearly at war with the world. Like many people, she suffered from anxiety, much of which stemmed from being touched. Connor had been one of two men she’d had consensual sex with.

When it came to having sex, she had rules. No grabbing hold of her hair, face, or buttocks. No fucking the shit out of her. Connor had known better than to dare press her against the wall or pin her to the bed. She needed to be on top —full control at all times. Otherwise, terror set in and made her feel things she didn’t want to feel— wild, feral. Her heart would beat erratically, and she would struggle for breath. Her jaw would harden, her teeth grinding together, and there was no telling what might happen. Not that she would ever purposely harm anyone. It was just that moment of feeling trapped that would set her off, filling her with a burst of energy, like a caged animal breaking free.

Her therapist wrote her a prescription every time they talked, but Sawyer always crumpled it up and threw it away. Not because of any clean-body and clean-mind bullshit. But because she knew firsthand what pills could do to her. They made her loopy and calm and vulnerable. Screw being calm and vulnerable. She’d stick with tight fists and body tremors. She turned her thoughts to where she was headed and Sean Palmer, one of the best crime reporters in the country. He was the reason she’d decided to apply for a job at the Sacramento Independent. Years ago, he’d been invited as a special guest to one of her journalism classes at CSUS. When class ended, she’d worked up the courage to tell him how he’d inspired her to seek out a career in journalism, more specifically, crime reporting.

Instead of shaking her hand and moving on to the next student in line, he’d looked her in the eyes and fired off point-blank questions, personal questions about her life. He said he’d easily picked her out of nearly fifty students in class, pegged her as troubled and high anxiety—too much foot bouncing, fidgeting, and shifting in her seat. In a matter of minutes, he’d concluded that whatever baggage she was carrying would weigh her down and prevent her from obtaining the sort of sharp-edged focus it would take to become a decent reporter. She’d returned to her run-down apartment with its rusty appliances and spotty plumbing, disillusioned but not defeated. Taking his words to heart, she’d decided to do something about the baggage he referred to. Starting with finding the cheapest therapist alive and telling her story. Of all those tragic memories, the night her sisters left was the most troubling, often as eerily vague as it was disturbingly real. Sawyer had been wearing her favorite nightgown, a light-pink cotton shift with a torn hem that fell below her knees. Out of breath and freezing cold, her heart hammering against her chest, she’d stood on the front porch of their old house in River Rock, staring into the night, praying it was all a bad dream and her sisters would return. That’s when a weighty hand had clamped down around her shoulder.

It was Uncle Theo, the person left in charge whenever their parents took off in search of antiques and collectibles for their store downtown. Earlier that night, Uncle Theo had told Sawyer and her sisters he’d be out for an hour or two and to stay put. But he was back. His eyes were glassy, his forehead covered with sweat. He was angry with her sisters for taking off. It was her oldest sister, Harper, who usually calmed him when he got like this, but minutes earlier, Harper had driven away and abandoned her. Her uncle yanked Sawyer into the house and slammed the door shut. His hands were cold, but his breath was warm, reeking of liquor. Her shoulder felt as if it might pop out of its socket as he dragged her down the hallway. He kicked open the double doors leading into the living area.

Four men waited inside, two of them sitting in her mother’s newly acquired nineteenth-century French Painted Rococo Boudoir chairs. Sawyer had no idea what was going on. She didn’t recognize anyone in the room. Why were they here? “She’s younger than the others,” her uncle announced in a booming voice that ricocheted off the walls. “Double the price if you’re still in. I’ll give you five minutes to make your decision.” “I’m in,” the man farthest away said without hesitation. “Me too,” said another. A third man nodded. “Same here.

” The youngest man, the one wearing a suit and sitting in her father’s recliner, stood. He had a thick neck and a wide, square jaw. He walked toward her, his expression hard to read as he reached out and used one of his slender fingers to move a strand of hair away from her eyes. Her knees wobbled. “I want to go to bed.” She looked over her shoulder. Uncle Theo had left the room. Rooted in place, she didn’t move. Her heart beat so fast she thought she might collapse and die right there in front of the four strangers. Why would her uncle have left her alone with them? Nothing made any sense.

The square-jawed man smiled at her as he leaned over and took her hand in his. “Come,” he said. “I’ll take you to your room.” His smile. Those sky-blue eyes and the soft lines around his mouth. She’d never forget him. For the two minutes it took to get to her room, she’d thought he was her savior. But he’d turned out to be the opposite. “Don’t make a sound,” he’d said after he closed the door and turned her way. He’d been Satan in the flesh, blue eyes and all, there to strip her of all goodness and light, spending hours on top of her, inside her, his sweat and sour breath all over her, leaving nothing for his friends but bones and whatever else made up the human body, including a darkened heart and a newfound aversion to being touched.

A car honked. Sawyer slammed on her brakes. Tires squealed. Shit! A pedestrian attempting to cross at the red light slapped his hand against the hood of her car and shouted at her. Her fingers clutched the steering wheel. Her body trembled. She’d been lost in thought and could have killed him. The light turned green. She drove off. The navigation system on her cell phone informed her the apartment complex was a quarter of a mile ahead to the right.

It was easy to find. A row of police cars lined the front of the building, lights swirling. As she turned into the parking lot, she assessed the area. A group of journalists stood to the left of the entrance, most likely waiting for an update from the police chief or a case detective. To the right, a group of people huddled together, consoling one another—neighbors, friends, and maybe family members. Sawyer parked in the back, away from the chaos. She shut off the engine. Chills washed over her. Someone was watching her. She looked around, took a breath, relaxed.

Although nobody was looking her way, a young man—early thirties, she guessed—was sitting behind the wheel of a nearby truck. He’d backed into the space so that he was facing the apartment building. He had a bushy, dark beard, and his hair was mussed. He looked her way, his big brown eyes glistening and overly bright. Had he been crying? She grabbed her camera, raised it to eye level, and pressed the shutter button. His expression changed, his eyes suddenly darker, colder. Sawyer jumped out of the car, hoping to see a license plate. Tires squealed as he sped off. She raised her camera and pressed the shutter button. Another car pulled into the space next to hers.

The driver was an elderly woman with silver hair pulled back with a clip. It took the woman a moment to climb out, retrieve her cane, and make her way to the trunk of her car. Sawyer looked from the line of police vehicles at the front of the building to the woman opening her trunk. An idea struck her. She tucked her lanyard inside her shirt, strapped her camera over her shoulder, and went to where the woman struggled with her groceries. “Let me help you,” Sawyer said. The woman looked relieved. “Are you sure? I live on the third floor.” “Not a problem.” Sawyer gathered two heavier bags, leaving the lightest for the woman to take before shutting the trunk and following her toward the entrance.

“Do you live here?” she asked. “I moved in a few days ago. My name is Sawyer Brooks.” “Nancy Keener.” “Nice to meet you.” After a short pause, Sawyer added, “I wonder what happened.” “A young woman named Kylie was killed last night.” “How do you know?” “Vivian lives in the apartment next to mine, and she called me while I was getting groceries to let me know. I like to go to the store early before too many people clog the aisles.” “Did you know Kylie?” “Not well.

She lived on the third floor too, but she’s usually gone during the day and tended to keep to herself. Vivian thinks it was Kylie’s boyfriend who killed her.” “Why?” Nancy shrugged. “He spent more time at her apartment than she did. Who else could it be?” She had a point. Fifty-four percent of murder victims were killed by someone they knew. Thirty-five percent of female victims were killed by their husband or boyfriend. Sad, but true. “Did he drive a red truck?” “I don’t know,” Nancy said. As they approached the front of the building, Sawyer caught sight of Sean Palmer at the edge of the crowd.

He made eye contact and gave a subtle tilt of his head. Apparently, he’d been shut out and didn’t want to risk her being stuck outside the crime scene too. The woman Sawyer was following showed security her key card. He entered both their names into a logbook and let them through. The lobby was long and narrow, one wall covered with mailboxes, the other with mirrors. “I’ve never signed in before,” Sawyer said. “Have you?” “No. They probably don’t want a bunch of lookie-loos coming around right now.” Sawyer looked around for any signs of a camera. Nothing.

A key card would get anyone inside. Crime scene tape blocked the stairway while evidence technicians took photographs of what looked like bloody footprints. Chills swept over her as she followed the old woman to the elevator, where they were quickly herded inside. A uniformed officer stood next to the control panel, her gaze unforgiving as she appeared to consider them as potential killers. “What floor?” she asked. “Third,” Sawyer said confidently. “When you get off, stay to the left,” the officer said. “You’ll have to go the long way around. We’d appreciate it if you stayed in your apartment for the next few hours.” The elevator lurched to a stop.

The doors opened. As Sawyer walked slowly behind the old woman, she had to stop herself from looking over her shoulder, since she could feel the officer’s gaze burning a hole into the back of her skull. She hardly took a breath until she heard the buzz of the elevator as it returned to the lobby. While Nancy dug around inside her purse for her keys, Sawyer looked at the apartment across the way. Markers dotted the walls. The door was wide open; an officer stood guard. When Nancy opened the door, Sawyer followed her inside. A minute later, Vivian, the nextdoor neighbor Nancy had mentioned earlier, joined them in the kitchen. Caught up in the drama of having a homicide right across the hallway, neither woman paid Sawyer much attention as she emptied the grocery items onto the counter, taking her time, hoping they would forget she was there. According to Vivian, Kylie Hartford worked for Good Day Sacramento, a popular morning show.

“She was dressed up as a banana the other day, and it made me laugh,” Vivian told Nancy. “I thought it was a bit corny,” Nancy said. “But I did chuckle. Funny girl.” “That was Kylie,” Vivian said. “She was a bright and shining star. A dose of morning sunshine.” “Nancy said you thought Kylie’s boyfriend might have killed her,” Sawyer chimed in. Vivian looked her over as if seeing her for the first time. “Do I know you?” “She just moved in,” Nancy told her friend.

The suspicious look on Vivian’s face disappeared. In a low, conspiratorial voice, she said, “I heard that Kylie’s boyfriend was some sort of engineer . No, not an engineer, an arborist?” She swatted her words away as if they were gnats. “Something to do with trees. Anyway, Kylie and this boy had been dating for five years, but according to Ruth on the second floor, Kylie recently went on a date with a handsome young man who also works on the morning show. Jealousy. Motivation. Makes sense, doesn’t it?” “Do you know the handsome man’s name?” Sawyer asked. “Of course I do. His name is Matthew Westover.

.

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