Her Last Day – T.R. Ragan

Ten Years Ago He awoke to the smell of burned flesh. The acrid fumes filled his lungs. The crackling roar of fire was deafening, the smoke thick. He was trapped within the passenger seat of a car, hanging upside down, a mangled piece of plastic and metal pressed against his stomach. He couldn’t see the bottom part of his legs, but he felt a fiery heat around his feet and ankles. The car teetered back and forth, precariously, as if at any moment it might roll into the black abyss he saw through the broken windshield. Every muscle tensed. He had no idea how steep the fall would be if the vehicle lost its bearings. His lungs burned. He coughed, tried to breathe, then jerked backward when an arm fell limply through the flames and landed on the middle console. Charred fingers, skin melting from bone. The driver was engulfed in flames. They were both going to die if he didn’t find a way out. Trying to move his legs felt like wasted effort. They were pinned tight and wouldn’t budge.

He reached for the buckle, touched searing-hot metal, and let out a shattering scream. Excruciating pain ripped through his body, sending jolts of electricity pulsing through his veins. Yanking his hand back, he watched blisters immediately form on his fingertips as flames licked at his pants from beneath the crushed console. He held his breath and began desperately banging his elbow against the glass, again and again. The window finally cracked, then shattered. Throat and lungs parched, he leaned that way, gasping for breath. Thick plumes of smoke escaped through the jagged hole he’d made and then disappeared into a dark, starless night. The smell was haunting, the pain intense. He was running out of time. Again he grabbed for the buckle.

He had no choice. He shouted obscenities through gritted teeth as his fingers clasped tightly to both sides of the metal, his thumb pushing the “Release” button. This time when he smelled burned flesh, he knew it was his. Click. He dropped, headfirst, to the ceiling. His right leg came loose, while the other remained pinned above him. Flames were everywhere now, red-hot tongues licking every part of him as he clutched the window frame spiked with shards of glass. Numb with pain, he held tight, every muscle straining as he used his freed leg to push off and yank his other leg free. Scrambling, he pulled his way through the shattered window and out of the burning death trap. Broken glass ripped through his clothes and cut into flesh as he dragged himself from the wreckage.

The pain shooting through his body was nothing compared to the blistering heat. No sooner had he pulled himself free than he was rolling downhill, past a boulder, arms thrashing, fingers grasping for a hold of grass and thorny weeds. Bam! He slammed into the trunk of a tree, his head jolting back with so much force he thought he might have broken his neck. Seconds passed before he lifted his head, relieved to be away from the smoky wreckage at the top of the hill. He looked the other way. Had he rolled another five feet down the slope, he would have disappeared off a steep embankment and into a gully. He lay still on grass and dirt, drinking in fresh, cool air as he stared back at the flames that still hissed and popped, sending sparks into the air. The smell of gas made him think of the driver. Was it too late for the driver to escape? On his belly, he clawed at the dirt, making his way back up the hill. With only one good leg, he made it just a few feet before an explosion left his ears ringing.

The car burst into flames, sending debris into the sky. He ducked at the sight of metal coming at him. A car door flew past and nearly took off the top of his skull. A loud, prolonged squeak coming from the wreckage prompted him to lift his head in time to watch the burning metal slowly tilt his way. Shit! A hulk of burning rubber and metal came crashing down the hill after him. Putting his weight into his knees, he lunged for the nearest boulder, plastered his body flat into dirt and grass, and waited for the flaming mass to sweep him to his death. The earth rumbled beneath him. The air was hot, the smell haunting. A whoosh of movement stirred the air above as the mass swept overhead. Another explosion erupted, creating a wall of heat behind him.

He pried his face from the dirt and looked down at the wreckage now wrapped around the tree he’d left only moments ago. Whoever had been inside the car could not have survived. He used his forearms to push himself over so that he was lying on his back, staring up at a dark sky. The kaleidoscope of pain arising from cuts and bruises, broken bones, and blistering skin stopped him from moving again. Just as well. He needed to shut his eyes, if only for a moment, before he attempted to claw his way back up the hill. It felt good to close his eyes, even peaceful despite the fire burning a few feet away—a blaze that now sounded like the crackling flames you might hear coming from a fire pit at a campground. He wondered about the driver then. Was it a he or she? And why didn’t he know? Where had they been going? Each question brought another, but he drew a blank when it came to the answers. The thing that worried him most, though, had nothing to do with the driver and everything to do with himself.

Dizzy and short of breath, he realized he had no memory of where he’d come from. He didn’t know if he was single or married. No recollection of any children, friends, or family. Who was he? ONE Sacramento, California—Present Day Jessie Cole, private investigator, had been detained inside a small room at the Sacramento Police Department for thirty minutes now as Detective Aaron Roth lectured her. Another police officer stood in the corner. She zeroed in on Detective Roth’s mouth as he talked. It was a habit she couldn’t seem to break. In grammar school she’d had a friend who was deaf. Twice a week Jessie had attended speech-reading class with her, not only for fun but because they were inseparable. She also knew American Sign Language (ASL).

In eighth grade her friend had moved away, but Jessie never lost her ability to read lips or sign. In his midforties, Aaron Roth was five foot eleven and had a cleanly shaved head and a thick mustache. As he rambled on—lecturing, reading her rights—she thought about the first time she’d met the detective ten years ago. The eagerness she remembered seeing in his eyes appeared to have been replaced with annoyance and resentment. “Did you hear a word I just said?” he asked. “Yes.” His brows drew together. “And?” Although his mustache covered half his upper lip, she could still see that his lips were pale. Redness in color was said to indicate better cardiorespiratory fitness but also meant a higher estrogen level. She couldn’t remember where she’d read that useless tidbit, but it had something to do with being able to distinguish male from female based solely on the lips.

She glanced at the clock. “I need to go, Detective. I was supposed to pick up my niece ten minutes ago.” “Oh,” he said, angling his head just so. “You have to go? Well, that’s too bad.” He jabbed a finger in the air. “You’re a piece of work. You shot someone. And not for the first time. You’re not going anywhere.

” A shiver of anxiety crawled up her spine. “I did nothing wrong,” she said, stiffening. “I understand the laws regarding use of deadly force. I was defending myself and others against a forcible and atrocious crime.” “And yet after everything you went through a few years ago, you shot the man anyhow.” “My life was in imminent danger.” She tapped a finger on the table for emphasis. “I saved ‘innocent bystanders from unavoidable danger of death.’” The detective frowned. Clearly he was not impressed by the fact she’d memorized parts of the California laws concerning self-defense.

“There were people everywhere,” she said, surprised by the desperation in her voice. Sitting straight and tall, arms crossed, he nodded. “We’re in the process of collecting evidence and talking to witnesses.” “You might be interested in watching this.” She reached inside her backpack, pulled out a black box attached to a thin strap of Velcro, and placed it on the table between them. Roth eyed it warily. “What is it?” “It’s the smallest, lightest GoPro on the market. Easy one-button control and waterproof.” Roth glanced at the other police officer in the room. The big guy shrugged.

“Are you trying to tell me you taped the incident?” Roth asked her. “That’s exactly what I did,” Jessie said. “Since all the hullabaloo the last time I was forced to use my weapon, I’ve been recording my daily activities whenever I’m working a case.” The detective lifted a brow. “Shooting and killing another person is against the law.” Her stomach roiled. “Is he dead?” “Critical condition.” She tried not to let him see her relief. “This was a simple case of self-defense. He fired at me first.

Twice. In a public place.” The door came open. It was Andriana Iudice, Jessie’s good friend and lawyer. Thank God. Andriana’s vibrant reddish hair, rows of tightly spun ringlets, had been pushed away from her face with bobby pins that matched her funky platform shoes adorned with giant sunflowers. Her face and neck were a splotchy red from the heat, which had reached 102 degrees before Jessie had been shoved into the back seat of a police cruiser and brought to the station. Andriana placed her soft leather briefcase on the table and pulled out a chair next to Jessie. After she was seated, she said, “You didn’t tell them anything, did you?” “She’s been here for thirty minutes,” Detective Roth said matter-of-factly. “What do you think?” Andriana asked the detective for a moment alone with her client.

His exhale came out sounding like a groan as he pushed himself to his feet and left the room, the second officer on his heels. Jessie’s hands shook as she watched the two men leave. She did her best to hold herself together, but the truth was she was a wreck. She’d shot a man, possibly killed him. It had all happened so fast. Instinct hadn’t been the only reason she’d pulled her weapon and fired. Less than ten feet away, children had been playing when Koontz pulled out his gun and shot at her. “What happened in the park?” Andriana asked as soon as the door clicked shut. Jessie took a breath. “I was hired by a woman, Adelind Rain, to watch Parker Koontz, a man she believes has been stalking her for months.

” “Is it true? Has he been stalking her?” “Yes. I’ve been watching him for over a week, and every afternoon he leaves his office to make his way to the bank where Adelind’s employed. He stands on the street corner and waits for her to go to lunch. I’ve never seen him approach her, but he never takes his gaze off her. After work he goes home to change his clothes, eat, whatever. Around nine p.m. he’s back at Adelind’s house peering through the windows.” “So he hasn’t actually threatened her in any way?” “No. He hasn’t touched her or left any goodies at her door, if that’s what you mean.

I’ve got a few pictures of him near the window, but the high bushes have made it difficult to get a clear picture. But she’s scared and I don’t blame her. She wants to get a restraining order, but she needs proof he’s dangerous.” “What does he do for a living?” “He’s an attorney at Roche and Koontz downtown.” “Interesting.” “Today I followed him through Capitol Park. After he walked through the rose garden, he stopped and turned my way. Before I could figure out what he was up to, he pulled out a gun and fired two shots at me.” “Was anyone else hurt?” “Not that I’m aware of. It was lunchtime.

People were screaming and running. It was total chaos. When he lifted his gun for the third time, I shot him before he could fire.” “Did you kill him?” “He was still alive when they wheeled him away on the stretcher. According to Roth, he’s in critical condition.” Jessie’s shook her head in disbelief. “I might have killed him.” “You did what you had to,” Andriana told her. The door came open, which concluded their conversation. Detective Roth and the other officer stepped inside.

“Looks like we’re going to have to lock her up,” Roth said. Andriana shot to her feet. “On what grounds?” “We have a witness who has stated that you were the initial aggressor. The DA’s office needs more time before they agree to your release. Besides,” Roth said to Andriana, “Jessie wasn’t at home. It was broad daylight, and she wasn’t exactly protecting her family, now was she?” Jessie’s heart dropped to her stomach. “She doesn’t have a reckless disregard for human life,” Andriana shot back, “and she was defending others.” “Blanks,” Roth said matter-of-factly. “Koontz was shooting blanks.” The blood rushed from Jessie’s face.

Detective Roth signaled for the officer to cuff her and take her away. “Is that really necessary?” Andriana asked. Roth ignored her. Jessie had been butting heads with Detective Roth for years, but she never thought he’d stoop this low. Jessie reached for her bag, but Roth ordered her to leave her things. They would take inventory of her belongings, and everything would be returned if and when she was released. “You can’t do this,” Jessie appealed to Roth as she was cuffed. “I was protecting every person in that park today.” She turned back to face Andriana. “I told Olivia I would pick her up today.

She’ll be worried.” That was an understatement. Her niece, Olivia, had been four years old when her mother disappeared and Jessie became her guardian. Since then, Olivia worried about everything and everyone. “I’ll get her for you, Jess,” a male voice said. All eyes landed on the detective standing at the door. Colin Grayson. She and Colin had a past—a sordid past that began with long nights of conversation followed by steamy sex—and ended three months later with a surprise visit from his wife. Colin’s dark hair had grown, and his hair swept over one eye. He wore jeans and a T-shirt, which told her he was working undercover.

His disheveled, rugged look only added to his appeal. Jessie had met him ten years ago—the same day she’d met Detective Roth. Colin had been a rookie cop at the time her sister went missing. He was the guy assigned to listen to her story and fill out a missing person’s report. Not only did he turn out to be a good listener, he’d been extremely supportive, a shoulder to cry on. Colin had been up front with her, telling her he was separated from his wife and in the process of getting divorce, but when his wife showed up on her doorstep to let Colin know she was pregnant, they were both blindsided. For the next week or so, she and Colin talked and cried until finally they both agreed it was best if Colin went back to his wife and tried to make it work. They lasted five years before calling it quits for good. As fate would have it, nine months ago Jessie ran into Colin at a local grocery store, and once again they became fast friends—platonic friends this time, friends without benefits—until six weeks ago when Colin told her he was falling in love with her and wanted to take their friendship to the next level. He thought it was time they started dating.

But Jessie wasn’t ready for anything more, and she hadn’t seen him since. “Time to go,” Roth told Jessie, yanking her back into the harsh reality that she would be spending some time behind bars. She looked at Colin. “Are you sure you don’t mind picking up Olivia?” “It’s not a problem.” “What if they keep me for more than a few hours?” she asked as she was escorted out the door. Colin looked at Roth. “How’s it looking?” “Could be hours. Could be days,” Roth said. “You know how these things work.” “Oh, come on,” Andriana cut in.

“If they keep me overnight,” Jessie told Colin, “could you—” “I’ll make sure Olivia’s taken care of,” he said. TWO He pushed the dresser to his right, then leaned over and pulled open the wooden hatch. A hot wave of stench crept out of the dark space below. He turned away and coughed before he grabbed his backpack and slipped his arms through the shoulder straps. He then made his way down the stairs and into the underground room his father had built beneath their house before he was born. The room was a one-thousand-square-foot space consisting of two jail cells made of crude metal bars and another enclosed cell with a slot in the middle of the door that made it easy to feed his prisoner without opening the door. He waved his hands around to get the air circulating before lighting the oil lamps hanging from metal hooks on the wall. The space had been reinforced with concrete, which had created condensation. It was dank and damp, and the walls were covered with mildew. A large crack ran through the back wall and across a section of cement flooring.

At times he wondered if these walls would cave in and the living space above might collapse on top of him. If his father had been smart, he would have used another inch or two of concrete and thicker rebar. Too late now. He opened the metal door. The man inside had a long, scraggly gray beard. He’d named him Dog. At the moment, Dog was crouched in the corner of the small space muttering to himself. In the cell next to Dog was Garrett Ramsey, a thirty-five-year-old man who looked closer to fifty. Garrett was rolled into a tight ball on the hard ground and appeared to be sleeping. As he did for all the animals on the farm, he kept the ground littered with straw.

He walked past Garrett’s cell and made his way to the stool in front of the third cell and took a seat. He removed his backpack, retrieved a tin can of sardines and a water bottle from his bag, and placed it all on the floor next to his feet. “Are you thirsty?” She nodded. He picked up the bottled water, slid his arm through the metal slats, and placed it inside her cell. She licked her lips, but apparently her wariness of him overrode all else. Next he pulled a pen and notebook from his bag. “What’s your name?” He already knew it was Erin Hayes. When he’d found her on the side of the road with a flat tire, she’d accepted a ride, which he’d found surprising. Getting someone inside the car was usually the most difficult part. After drugging her and bringing her to the farmhouse, he’d looked through her purse.

Her ID had provided her name and address. A search through social media had done the rest. But he would ask her questions anyhow because conducting interviews was half the fun. He thought of it as the beginning of the end. When he realized she hadn’t answered him, he looked up from his notebook. “Are you having a hard time finding your voice?” Another nod of her head. The drugs were probably still wearing off. “I’ll give you a few more minutes, but that’s all, okay?” He’d stripped her of her clothes before tossing her in the cell. She was sitting in the corner on a pile of straw. Every time he met her gaze, she looked away.

He didn’t like that. “Before I begin the questioning, it’s probably a good idea if I lay down a few ground rules. To start, I insist you call me ‘Sir’ at all times. If I ask you a question and you don’t answer right away, I consider that to be rude, and you would have to be disciplined. Punishment is not negotiable and comes in many forms.” He sighed as he thought about what to say next. “To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, should you make me angry, I might decide to electrocute you. Have you ever been electrocuted?” She shook her head, the fear in her eyes making his heart beat faster. “I could find the pliers and yank out one of your teeth instead. It all depends on my mood.

” He chuckled as he remembered the woman named Jill who’d been forced to eat soup he’d made out of vile things he’d collected. “I could make you consume large quantities of something hideously distasteful.” He lifted an eyebrow. “There has been a time or two where I’ve allowed a prisoner to pick their own poison, so to speak. See? You just never know.” He stared at her, unblinking. When she saw him staring, she averted her gaze again. “No. No. No.

Look at me. Never look away when I’m talking to you. I hate that.” She did as he said. “Okay,” he said. “What’s your name?” “Erin.” Good for her. She was off to a good start. “In what city do you live?” “Elk Grove.” “What is the name of your best friend?” “Amber.

” “How old are you?” “Eighteen.” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “Yes.” Every time she answered a question, he tossed a sardine her way, sometimes smacking her in the face or arm. She didn’t bother eating them as he wrote her answers down. She answered every question until he asked, “What are you most afraid of?” That was when she broke down and started to cry. Damn. For some ridiculous reason, he’d thought she would be different from the others. Maybe it was because she’d seemed so comfortable with jumping into the passenger seat of his car and carrying on a conversation with a complete stranger. He riffled through his backpack and pulled out his Taser. “Snakes,” she said when she saw what he had in his possession.

“And you. I’m afraid of you.” He made a sad face. “Too late.” He dug into his pants pocket for a key, walked over to Garrett’s cell, and unlocked the door. Garrett hadn’t been eating much lately, and his ribs were beginning to show. For the most part he took the clothes from his prisoners so they couldn’t hide anything in their pockets or use the fabric to hang themselves. Plus, he liked to demean them and make them feel vulnerable. Hovering over Garrett, trying to see if he was breathing, he kicked him in the shin. When that failed to get him moving, he wondered if Garrett was dead.

That would be a shame. The man had lasted longer than most. He’d been there for months, and his survival instincts were strong. When he leaned over to check his pulse, Garrett’s eyes opened. “Kill me. Please. I’m ready to die.” “Don’t be so dramatic. Get up. I have someone I want you to meet.

” Garrett’s readiness to die upset him. What made so many of his victims want to give up so easily? He’d endured far worse torture than this. And in the end, it had made him stronger. Garrett pushed himself up from the ground, his arms shaky, his legs wobbling. The Taser kept his captor in line as he nudged him out the door. Erin didn’t move a muscle when he unlocked her door and shoved Garrett inside. Once the door to the cell was secure, he sat back down on his stool and watched them, hoping they would interact on their own. Garrett was usually a social being. He was a professor at Davis. His wife had been one of his students.

They had adored each other. But then after only four weeks in captivity, Garrett had misbehaved by drowning her in the bucket of water he’d placed in the cell so they could wash up. He’d said he only wanted to put her out of her misery. Couldn’t bear to see her hurt. Garrett had ruined all his fun, and he’d paid dearly for his mistake. “My name is Garrett Ramsey,” his prisoner told the girl as he crawled toward her. “Do whatever he tells you to do or—” “Stay away from me!” She jumped to her feet, her palms covering her small breasts as she kicked her legs to keep Garrett from coming any closer. He watched them both, wondering what would happen next. But patience was a virtue, and a trait he did not possess. “Kiss her!” Erin’s back was up against the cement wall.

“Stay away from me!” Garrett looked over at him. “You know what to do.” Garrett crawled back to the cell door, pulled himself to his feet, and waited for his master to hand him a weapon. He knew the drill. He slid the Taser into Garrett’s hand. “Her name is Erin. I want you to Taser her, and then I want you to kiss her while she writhes on the ground. Make it a good one, Garrett. Pretend it’s your wife you’re kissing.” Garrett had been beaten and abused for so long, he no longer questioned his master’s authority.

Garrett held up the Taser, flipped the switch, and jabbed her in the shoulder. Erin screamed. Arms flailing, she dropped to the ground. One quick jolt was all it took. As she thrashed around on the floor, Garrett crawled on top of her and brought her mouth to his. A thump and a howl coming from the other cell made him groan. He walked over to Dog’s cell and banged a fist against the door. “Knock it off in there.” More wailing sounded, forcing him to pull out his keys. Before he had a chance to step inside, his phone buzzed, reminding him it was time to feed the animals.

Garrett and Erin forgotten, he relocked Dog’s cell, then walked back to where he’d been sitting on the stool and began gathering his things. A flash of movement caught his eyes. He looked up, surprised to see Erin standing so close. Her arm shot out through the space between the bars. Zap. The metal tongs pricked the side of his neck. The pain was surprisingly shocking, sending him to the floor. On his side, teeth clenched, he saw her reach for his bag and then struggle to pull it into her cell. There was nothing he could do but watch her dump its contents onto the ground, her fingers clawing through his things. As Garrett cowered in the corner, the palms of his hands clutching both sides of his head, the girl continued her search, determined to find something that wasn’t there.

He’d been right about her. She was feisty and brave. And he couldn’t wait to discipline her.

.

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