Hide and Seek – Mary Burton

Rhonda Burns was a small woman with dark hair and a laugh that could cut through the hum of conversation at the Cut & Curl Salon. She was popular with the customers because she was easygoing and could copy any hairstyle found in a magazine. Though she was only nineteen, she was ambitious and had her sights set on the manager job. She was ready and willing to work harder than anyone, anytime. As he had tracked her, he had noticed the long hours took a toll. She flexed her hands as if they cramped, arched her back when she’d been on her feet too long, and bought more moonshine from the guy in the trailer down the street. He’d been watching Rhonda for weeks and now knew more about her than she did herself. When she arrived home on Thursday night, clouds obscured the stars and moon, bathing everything in black. It had already been a fifty-hour workweek, and she was clearly dead tired. He’d bet good money she’d head straight to her refrigerator, grab the cold pizza and soda she’d stashed in there last night. As she approached her mobile home, she paused when she came upon her overturned trash can. He watched as she grumbled about raccoons and scooped up the empty beer bottles, chicken bones, and paper plates strewed all over her front yard. As she bent over, he stared at her ass and imagined what it would be like to strip those tight pants off her. He wondered if she’d connected the scattered trash to last week’s puncture in her tire or to the confusion she felt when she couldn’t find a favorite shoe or earring. Rhonda might have chalked it up to a scattered mind and bad luck, and likely never imagined a dark shadow lingered close enough to consume her.

She picked up the debris, tossing it into the bin and cussing under her breath. A cat in the nearby woods hissed and spat as if it were under attack. She glanced toward the thick stand of trees as she scooped up the remnants of a fast-food wrapper. A breeze rustled through the leaves, and she shivered. “Rhonda, you’re turning into a damn scaredy-cat,” she muttered. He had been inside her trailer three times now. The first time, he’d been scared and nervous, terrified he’d be caught. The second time, he’d left a coil of red rope under her bed, knowing the restraint would be there for him when he wanted it. Last week, he’d sneaked in her house and lain on her bed. As he’d masturbated, he’d pictured binding her arms to the posts and then wrapping his hands around her neck.

He’d come into a pair of her panties, which he’d pocketed. The trash finally collected, Rhonda searched around, moving toward his hiding spot in the woods. He tensed, realizing she might have seen him. If she saw him, he’d have to go in for the kill quickly before she screamed. She stepped closer to him and then stopped at the edge of the shadows. She hesitated only a moment or two before bending down and retrieving a large rock. She headed back toward her trash can and smacked the rock down hard on the metal lid with a loud clang. While making her way to her front door, she suddenly stopped and stared back at the woods. A little more light and a little less foliage, and she’d have seen him standing less than fifteen feet away. She unlocked her front door and dropped her purse on a chair just inside before she closed the door again.

He knew the lock was flimsy and could easily be popped with a switchblade. He moved out of the shadows toward the trailer and walked around the back to the window that looked into her bedroom. He could see through the screened window that she had moved into the bathroom and stripped. He grew hard as she ran her hands over her round hips and stepped into the hot spray. She showered and dressed in her favorite sweats and T-shirt. She placed a few slices of the cold pizza into the microwave. When the timer dinged, she grabbed the pizza and a soda and climbed into bed. As the scent of pizza drifted out her open bedroom window, he stepped back toward the shadows as he watched her. Rhonda clicked on the TV with the remote. It must have felt good to sit.

She’d been on her feet for days. She had the next day off, though. It meant no one would even miss her until Saturday morning. Popping the last bit of pizza into her mouth, she settled back onto propped pillows to watch television. It wasn’t long before she relaxed back against the pillows and closed her eyes. He waited a full twenty minutes before he walked around to the front door and, using a switchblade, jimmied the front lock. He stepped inside her house, his erection pulsing as he pictured her stripped naked and tied to her bed. He never knew what woke her up. He was careful, and he had planned carefully. But as he stepped past her worn sofa, he heard the rustle of sheets in her room.

Next came bare feet hitting the floor and the click of metal punching down the hallway, as if she had chambered a round in a gun. He knew she kept it in her nightstand. He had planned to press it to her temple as he told her about the girl he took last fall. Everyone had heard stories about Tobi Turner, and some had even heard whispers about other girls he had attacked in their beds. The leaves rustled and branches snapped. He could still rush her. He could still overtake her. She was small, and he was strong. But the risk–reward ratio had now tipped in her favor, and he didn’t like battles he didn’t know he could win. He backed silently out the front door, closing it behind him.

As he receded deeper into the shadows and the seconds ticked by, his pulse slowed and the jolt of energy that had cut through him eased. He watched as she slowly lowered her gun and pressed trembling fingers to her temple. She sat on the edge of her bed and replaced the gun in the nightstand. But she didn’t shut off her light, as if she felt Death stalking her. It wasn’t that he couldn’t wait her out and return. He could. But for reasons even he didn’t really understand, he decided to pass her by. CHAPTER ONE Monday, November 11, 2019, 10:30 a.m. Deep Run, Virginia Dave Sherman was hungover.

The days when he could drink any man under the table and then rise and shine the next day were long gone. He was forty-six, so every extra can of beer and shot of bourbon kicked his ass. Clearing his throat, Sherman winced against the sunlight hitting his face as he looked up at the old red barn. Time and weather had stripped away most of its paint, leaving behind a dark-gray wood that a craftsman in Richmond had already agreed to purchase for a pretty penny. Most of the reclaimed timbers were destined for a new log cabin in Winchester, and what wasn’t spoken for would be soon. This job was going to solve a lot of financial problems. As long as he kept putting one foot in front of the other, dismantled the beams, and loaded his bounty onto the one-hundred-dollars-an-hour flatbed, he would be set. Sherman drained the last of his coffee. “Let’s get moving! Break’s over.” The two men rose up off the tailgate, downed the last of their energy drinks, and headed inside the barn.

Sunlight seeped through the holes in the tin roof and along the wooden slats dried out by time and weather. “We’re taking down the hay chute next.” Nineteenth-century German settlers had crafted the shaft to move feed from the second-story loft to the livestock on the first floor. Protected from the elements, the wood was in near-perfect condition and would make a nice table if he and his men could dismantle it intact. Sherman ran his hand over the rough grain of the square box, admiring the wooden pegs that had held it together for a couple hundred years. He hated to knock the pegs from their interlocking joints, but a man had to make a living. The younger of his workers, Nate, a nineteen-year-old kid with scrub for a beard and long blond hair, scurried up a ladder to the loft. Nate moved with the speed and agility Sherman could only reminisce about. The kid and he operated in concert, working their crowbars back and forth, prying the peg from its hole. However, two-hundred-year-old hewed and crafted wooden dowels did not surrender easily.

“It’s not budging,” Nate shouted. “Do you want me to force it?” “You’ll crack the wood, and it won’t be of any use to me,” Sherman growled. “I think it just needs a few hard blows,” the kid insisted. “Easy, Nate.” Normally, Sherman had patience when it came to this kind of work, but today his pounding head and the young man were getting on his last nerve. “One solid yank, Mr. Sherman. That’ll do it.” Maybe Nate was right for once. “Fine, let’s do it.

” They both yanked hard, and the joint cracked and looked as if it would break clean until it caught and split right up the center just as he’d feared. Seconds later the wood fell, and he jumped back. The large splinters dropped around him as decades of dust filled the air. Quick on the heels of the grime, a big object barreled down the partially opened chute and struck him on the shoulder. Flinching as he turned, he prayed his rotator cuff hadn’t been retorn. What the hell had hit him? Sherman wiped the fine coating of muck from his face. “Did you look down the damn chute?” The kid shrugged. “Didn’t think there’d be anything after all this time.” “Dumbass.” Sherman glared at what had damn near fractured his shoulder and discovered it was a faded red backpack.

As he reached for the pack, his gaze was drawn to the objects that were strewed around. He picked up what looked like a stick and then quickly dropped it. He leaped back and released a string of curses. Scattered around him was a collection of bones. CHAPTER TWO Monday, November 11, 11:30 a.m. When Mike Nevada ended a fifteen-year career with the FBI, his intention was never to become a small-town sheriff or a gentleman farmer. His strategy had been to take a few weeks off from the Quantico-based profiling team tasked with finding and capturing the most vicious serial killers. He wanted to reflect on some of the choices he’d made and work on the house he had inherited from his grandfather. And yet, here he stood, the newly elected county sheriff.

Within days of his arrival in Deep Run for what was supposed to have been a vacation, he had received an anonymous tip about untested rape kits. The tip had led to a meeting with the sitting sheriff, but their conversation had quickly degraded into a pissing match. Frustrated, he had left the sheriff’s office, resigned from the FBI, and immediately declared his intention to run against the incumbent. The move hadn’t been his most logical. But once he started down a trail, he never doubled back. It was an election nobody, himself included, thought he would win. But he did. And now, two weeks after the votes had been tallied, he was responding to a potential homicide. Dave Sherman was a good ol’ boy who was well liked and had a solid reputation as a contractor in the Deep Run area. When he called 911 a half hour ago with his discovery, Nevada knew it wasn’t a prank call or a novice hunter mistaking animal bones for human.

He parked his black Suburban SUV behind the old blue pickup truck, where Sherman’s work crew sat on the tailgate. One was smoking. Another was drinking an energy drink. Sherman was on his cell phone, pacing, no doubt counting the dollars he was losing. The barn was collapsing on the north side, and it looked as though it would tumble upon itself with one good storm. It was located twenty miles outside of the county seat of Deep Run and years ago had been a meeting spot for high school kids looking to party. Finally, law enforcement caught on to the gatherings and started routinely chasing away trespassers. From what Nevada could tell, no one had been out here in years. Out of his vehicle, Nevada bent the stiff bill of his ball cap a couple of times before settling it on his head. The hat’s front panel read SHERIFF in white block letters.

Other than the Glock and cuffs holstered on his hip, the hat was his only concession to an official uniform. His plan was to limit the starch and brass to board of supervisor meetings and the occasional parade. Nevada grabbed his forensic kit from his vehicle. Like all his deputies, he collected basic forensic evidence. Complicated crime scenes were turned over to the state police. Nevada walked up to Sherman, and the man ended his call immediately. They shook hands. “Hear you found something.” “Thanks for coming so fast, Sheriff Nevada.” Sherif .

Still didn’t sound right. “What do you have for me, Mr. Sherman?” Sherman’s sun-etched face testified to decades of working in the open. However, he was clearly pale this morning. “At first I hoped it was an animal carcass. They can sometimes look human if you don’t know what you’re looking at. But then I saw the skull.” “The barn is owned by the Wyatt family, correct?” Nevada had been gone for twenty-plus years from the valley, but he had grown up here and still knew many of the older families. “Yeah. They wanted it moved.

Apparently, one of the great aunts is thinking about selling the land. I purchased the structure for next to nothing.” “Reclamation. Some money in that, I would imagine.” “Yep. Until a half hour ago, I thought I’d hit a jackpot.” By the look of Sherman’s red eyes, he had celebrated the windfall last night. “Show me what you found.” Sherman tucked his cell phone in his pocket, and Nevada and he walked into the dimly lit barn. “Watch your step.

There are nails and piles of wood everywhere.” “Appreciate the warning.” Fine dust coated his steel-tipped boots as he moved toward the pile of rubble in the corner. “We were breaking down this section over here,” Sherman said, pointing to a long three-sided chute that ran from the ground to the loft. The fourth wall had split and fallen on its side. Nevada had grown up on his grandfather’s farm not far from here and had done his fair share of mucking stalls and pitching hay in a barn that looked very much like this one. Since his return to Deep Run, he’d been immersed in the painful process of strong-arming his pop’s homestead into the twenty-first century. The old place was fighting him every step of the way—and winning. “The backpack was wedged in the chute,” Sherman said. “I guess that’s what kept the body from falling.

The pack was protected from the sun and rain, so it’s still in pretty good shape.” Nevada clicked on a flashlight and directed the beam onto the red backpack, which lay on its side. The initials TET were embossed on the outside, and there was a yellow yarn pom-pom attached to the zipper. It was old. Clearly long forgotten. “I’ve got daughters of my own,” Sherman said. “I can’t imagine one coming home without her pack. They carry everything in it. Like my wife’s purse.” Nevada removed latex gloves from his pocket and tugged them on.

“Did you open it?” “Shit, no. Soon as I spotted that skull, I had my men clear out.” Sherman rubbed the back of his neck. “Still makes my skin crawl when I look at it.” Nevada took several pictures of the bag and the bones scattered around it with his phone. He looked up at the chute and tried to imagine how the bag and the body had gotten in there. The pack would have gone in first and then the individual after it. This could be a case of murder or just a damn tragic accident. He pulled out a roll of yellow crime scene tape and tied it to one post, wound it around another, and knotted the ends to the horse stall gate. With Sherman standing outside the tape now, Nevada spread out a white cloth and set the backpack on it.

The red fabric was heavily stained on the top with a dark substance that smelled faintly of must and death. When the body had decayed, it would have bloated with gas until it burst, secreting its contents onto the pack. “When’s the last time this barn was used, Sherman?” Nevada asked. “It’s been close to thirty years,” he said. “When I played ball, we came out here on Thursday nights before the games. Hell of a lot of fun.” “Did you play on the Dream Team?” “I wish. Those boys came along about five years after me. Took it all the way to the state championship.” “When did the bonfires stop?” “Sheriff Greene put an end to them shortly afterward.

” Nevada bent down and carefully tugged on the zipper. It slid smoothly for several inches, then caught in a crimp. Carefully, he added pressure until the zipper gave way. Inside were books, along with a pair of girl’s jeans, a dark cable-knit sweater, and sneakers. He set the still-folded clothes aside on the cloth and picked up a book for advanced calculus. Many of the pages were seized together, but after he gently tugged the cover a few times, it opened. On the inside flap was a LEASED TO stamp followed by five lines. The names on the first three rows were crossed out. The last name was written in clear block letters. It read TOBI TURNER.

TET. Tobi Elizabeth Turner. Anyone who’d lived in Deep Run was familiar with the girl. In early November 2004, Tobi Turner, a junior at Valley High School, had borrowed her parents’ van to attend an evening study session. However, Tobi had never arrived. No one had sounded any alarm bells until she didn’t make it home by curfew. The girl’s father had called Greene, who made a critical mistake in the investigation: he didn’t launch a full-on search until morning. In a child abduction case, the first hours were crucial. The survival rate plummeted with each passing hour. Police had located the Turner family van at a truck stop along I-81 late on the second day, but there had been no sign of Tobi.

She had simply vanished. Volunteers had posted flyers of the girl’s picture on street corners, in bars, and in grocery stores. The media had broadcast her story for months. Milk cartons and roadside billboards had featured Tobi’s likeness. But no credible leads had ever panned out. She’d disappeared. Until now. “Mr. Sherman, it’s going to be a while before I can let you back on this site,” Nevada said. Sherman ran his hand over his head.

“Shit. Do you really think that’s Tobi Turner?” “Most likely.” If this was Tobi, her family was facing more heartache. In his experience, grim discoveries didn’t bring closure. “That poor girl. We searched every corner of this county.” Volunteers from around the state had walked the woods, checked dumpsters, and conducted room-to-room searches in abandoned buildings. “Were you on a search crew?” “Just about everyone volunteered.” Sherman shook his head. “She was here all this time.

” Nevada had witnessed enough human carnage to know evil walked among them. Part of the reason he’d tried to take a break in June had been to escape the darkness closing in on him. Now, it seemed, it had found him again. Nevada called his deputy, who he’d recently promoted to chief of investigations. Deputy Brooke Bennett had been with the sheriff’s department for ten years. In her early thirties, she was raising a fourteen-year-old son with the help of her mother. Bennett would likely have his job one day. “Deputy Bennett.” Her tone was crisp and cool. “It’s Nevada.

Call the state police. We need their forensic people down here ASAP. I think we’ve found the Turner girl.” “Tobi Turner?” Shock, sadness, and anger all vibrated around the name. “Yeah.” Silence stretched over the line for a moment before she offered a terse “Where?” “The Wyatt barn.” “I’m on it.” “Good.” He surveyed the pitched roof and the darkened corners. It was the perfect place for a monster to do his work.

“Sheriff, the timing isn’t great, but I received the results on the rape kits.” When Nevada had been elected, he had immediately sent the entire set of rape kits to be tested. He’d also asked Bennett to visit the surrounding jurisdictions and collect untested DNA sexual assault evidence. “What did you find out?” Nevada asked. “We only have results on eight from Deep Run. Three samples were badly degraded, and the reports on them were inconclusive. Two matched known felons who are currently incarcerated. And the last three . ” Her heavy tone told him there was one more shoe to drop. “The same perpetrator committed those three rapes,” she said.

He stared at the math book lying open on the white cloth. “When did these attacks occur?” “These three all date back to the summer of 2004.” “Are you sure about that?” “I pulled the files myself.” Nevada’s gaze drifted to the scattered bones. “The same year Tobi Turner vanished.” CHAPTER THREE Saturday, November 16, 11:45 p.m. In the early days, he hadn’t had the nerve to kill. He’d been afraid. A coward.

So he had tracked his targets. And for a time, he had felt a sense of mastery over the weakness that stalked him. But it hadn’t been long before simply watching wasn’t enough. He had needed to do more to prove to himself that he could master anything. So he had begun entering women’s homes, first when no one was there and then when they were sleeping. He had loomed over them while they had lain tucked in their beds and watched the slow rise and fall of their chests. He had savored the sound of their soft moans and watched as they rolled into different positions as their unconscious minds wrestled with the sensation that something was wrong. To commemorate his visits, he had stolen personal items as trophies. One earring. A shoe.

A scarf. Nothing huge. Small mementos of the time they had shared alone. The first time he decided to rape a woman, he hadn’t really prepared. He’d been watching her in the dark and knew if he left without taking her, that little victory would have been hollow. So he had climbed on top of her. Her strength had surprised him, and he had scrambled to bind her hands and shove himself inside her. It had been a victory, but a narrow one. He had planned more carefully after that. He had begun leaving behind rope under their beds, knowing the bindings would be waiting for him when he returned.

The next woman had been easier to control. The rope had allowed him to tie her spread eagle to her bed. His body had grown harder when he’d seen the fear in her eyes as he’d shoved her panties into her mouth. He had savored the salty taste of the sweat beading between her breasts as he’d thrust into her. He had loved the bang, bang, bang of her racing heart when his hands had wrapped around her neck. Alone in the room with her, he had realized he was God. He had the power of life and death. Win or lose. It was an intoxicating sensation. With each new conquest, he had taken his partners closer to the brink of death.

When the opportunity to kill had arrived, he had seized upon it. Squeezing the life from her body had provided a greater rush than even he had imagined. It had surpassed any victory or reward the regular world offered. It had put him above everyone. It had been the ultimate win. And once he had crossed the line, he’d known it wouldn’t be long before he was chasing that exquisite high again. By then the police had been looking for his first murder victim, whose face had appeared daily in the evening news. Her body hadn’t been found, but everyone had known something terrible had happened. As the cops had pieced together her last day, he had stitched together an alibi, silenced threats, and kept his head low. When the storm had passed, relief quickly gave way to a fresh hunger.

And soon he had sailed toward fresh hunting grounds. For fifteen years, he had been very careful. He had moved from town to town, state to state, jurisdiction to jurisdiction. He had selected his subjects with the utmost scrutiny, attacked on nearly moonless nights, and never carried his phone with him or used his own car. No digital trails. He had kept moving. Kept quenching his thirst for death. And now he had a new subject. She’d been on his radar for weeks. He had learned everything about her.

Tonight she would be home alone. After finishing up a double shift, she would slip out of her work clothes, shower, and change into an oversize T-shirt with no panties. He could already taste her. He approached the side window of her empty house and wedged a screwdriver between the window and casing. He wiggled it back and forth until the cheap vinyl sprang open. He pushed open the window, then hoisted himself up on the sill. His feet still dangling over the garden, he toed off his shoes. He swung his legs around and lowered himself into the dining room. He moved through the house, double-checking each room. Fifteen years had taught him to never assume anything.

In the kitchen, he spotted a cereal bowl and spoon in the sink. A blue dish towel was crumpled into a heap, so he took a moment to straighten and drape it over the faucet. Porcelain salt and pepper shakers representing Snow White and Prince Charming stood side by side on the windowsill. He plucked up Snow White and slid her into his backpack. In her room, he walked to the dresser and studied the collection of earrings. He pocketed a single hoop earring and a diamond stud and then carefully arranged all the jewelry into a neat row. He removed a skein of red rope from his bag and placed it directly under the bed. Climbing on the bed, he pretended she was under him and struggling and he reached under the bed, making sure he could lay his hands on the rope quickly. He did this several times until he was confident it was perfectly accessible. He slipped under the covers, drawing the unmade sheets to his nose.

He inhaled her scent. His erection pounded. When he heard a car pull in to the driveway, he hopped off the bed, carefully smoothed the top comforter, and hid in a closet in her roommate’s room. He listened as she turned on music, sang off-key, and puttered around the kitchen. Within twenty minutes, she was in bed, and the blue glow of the television shimmered from atop the dresser. He imagined her eyes slowly drifting shut as she nestled under the covers. She felt safe. Warm and cozy. When the television light clicked off, he still lingered inside the closet. He was in no rush.

Another hour passed before he eased open the closet door. Cautiously, he peered into her bedroom and saw her supple form as she lay on her side in the bed. She faced toward the window. He moved closer. She wasn’t wearing her favorite oversize T-shirt, making him wonder if she was still wearing her panties. She shifted slightly under the covers, and he hesitated before a deep sigh seeped over her lips. He came up to the bed and stood over her for several seconds. He removed a small flashlight from his pocket, clicked it on, and shined it in her face, knowing it wouldn’t take long before the glaring light reached her unconscious mind. Slowly she stirred, raising her hand to her eyes, and realized the light was real and not going away. She blinked.

“What’s going on?” He didn’t speak as he shoved a rag into her mouth. Her body tensed immediately and she struggled, but he was quick with the rope. Her hands and feet were bound before she knew what was happening. A moaned plea coupled with the panic in her gaze thrilled him. As tempted as he was to take her now, he was disciplined enough to wait. They had time. No need to rush. He wrapped his hands around her neck and squeezed. She struggled under him, but he kept the pressure steady until she passed out. When her body went limp, he carried her and her purse out the side door toward her car.

He sat her on the ground and then dug her keys out of her purse and opened the trunk. Carefully he dumped her and her purse in the small space and closed the lid with a soft click. Later he would double back and get his car, which he’d left down the road about a mile, hidden under brush. In the front seat, he started the car. He turned on the radio, selecting one of her favorite songs. Humming, he backed out of the small driveway. Would she beg before it was all over? Hard to predict how she would react in her moment of truth. But he hoped she would beg.

.

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