Once Chosen – Blake Pierce

Sheriff Emory Wightman held the big flashlight steady while two of his cops continued digging into the soft earth. The long, narrow hole was getting pretty deep now. Officer Tyrone Baldry paused and climbed out of the excavation. Leaning on his shovel, he wiped his forehead with his dirty sleeve. “Hey, Sheriff,” Baldry said, “care to take over for one of us for a little while?” “We could use a little breather,” Officer Newt Holland echoed, still scraping at the earth at the bottom of the pit. Wightman scoffed. “Somebody’s got to hold the light.” Both of the cops grunted sarcastically. But indeed, the little clearing in the woods had grown dark while they worked. Wightman considered stopping everything until they could bring in proper lighting. But if there was anything in this grave-shaped hole, he wanted to know it now. There had been nothing at all here the last time. He felt a flash of déjà vu as he glanced into the surrounding darkness. It had been on a cool fall night just like this, almost a year ago. They’d come out here on a sinister tip, looking for a missing person—a young woman named Allison Hillis, who had vanished a few nights earlier on Halloween.

An anonymous note had directed them to dig here, where freshly turned earth had looked like it might actually be a grave. But when they had removed all the soft dirt, they had found nothing. Now, nearly a year later, the woman was still missing, and no body had ever been found. A newly delivered note had led them here again. And again, loose earth had made it appear that something—or someone—could be buried in this place. And again, this was beginning to seem like a cruel hoax, dragging the police out here for the same fool’s errand. I’d like to get my hands on that prankster. Maybe I’d even press charges. Staring down into the pit, Baldry asked, “How much deeper do you want us to go?” That’s a good question, Wightman thought. How deep did they need to dig before they could feel confident that this late-night errand was an act of futility? That it was again based on a prank.

“Just keep digging,” Wightman replied. “I guess it’s getting tight down there. You can take it in turns.” Holland started shoveling again, while Baldry just stood on the edge of the hole. Glancing into the surrounding darkness, Baldry said with a smirk, “Sheriff, I hope you’re keeping an eye out for the Goatman.” Wightman growled under his breath. It wasn’t a very funny joke, given how those anonymous messages had mentioned the old legend, both then and now. The vicious Goatman was just a regional tale, of course, but when Wightman had been a kid, it had seemed scary enough to keep him awake nights. He was about to call an end to the digging when he heard a shaky voice from within the excavation. “Sheriff,” Holland said.

“Bring the light closer.” Wightman and Baldry leaned over the edge of the hole. Holland was brushing loose dirt aside with his hand, uncovering something. Baldry’s voice sounded frightened now. “Oh, Jesus. I’ve got a really bad feeling about this.” Wightman held his hand out to shine the light directly where Holland was working. “It looks like black cloth,” Holland said. As Holland cleared more dirt away, they could see white paint on the black background—white stripes that looked like ribs. The cloth was part of a Halloween costume.

The missing woman had been wearing exactly that sort of costume when she’d disappeared last year on Halloween—a skeleton costume, black with white bones painted on it. “Oh, no,” Holland said. “Oh, Christ, no.” He kept scraping the dirt away with his hands. He hesitated when he uncovered the skull mask. “Lift it,” Wightman said, knowing all too well what they’d find behind it. Holland lifted the mask, then let out a cry as he scrambled backward away from the sight. It was another skull—a real one. Desiccated flesh clung to the bones, and there were mangy tufts of raggedy hair on the scalp. The truth flooded over Sheriff Wightman like a tidal wave.

Allison Hillis was no longer a missing person. She was a dead one. Baldry retreated away from the edge of the hole, whimpering with horror. Wightman stared down at the skull with his mouth hanging open. “What do we do now, Sheriff?” Holland asked in a hushed voice. For a moment, Wightman had no idea what to say. What does this mean? he wondered. Why had the anonymous tipster led them here on some pointless errand last year, only to bring them out here again to find an actual corpse? And why had Allison Hillis been murdered to begin with? Wightman remembered what the cryptic note had said in cut-out letters … THE GOATMAN IS STILL HUNGRY Whatever else it might mean, Wightman felt sure of one thing. This was obviously a murder, and there are going to be more. Holland repeated his question.

“What do we do now?” Wightman took a long, deep breath. “We’re going to call the FBI,” he said. CHAPTER ONE Rounding up her daughters for breakfast seemed to be an impossible task for Riley this morning. After arguing over who was taking too long in the bathroom, April and Jilly kept popping in and out of each other’s room to chatter about nothing in particular. When they finally came downstairs, they even started playing games in the family room until Riley dragged them out. Have I got more than two girls? she almost wondered. “Come on, let’s eat,” Riley kept saying. “You’re going to miss the bus to school. And I’m not going to drive you this morning.” Finally she managed to herd both girls into the kitchen, where their Guatemalan housekeeper, Gabriela, had a delicious breakfast ready as usual.

As soon as they sat down at the table, Jilly asked a question. “Mom, can I have forty dollars?” “What do you need it for, honey?” Riley asked. “I need to rent a zombie costume,” Jilly said. For a moment Riley wondered, Zombie costume? Then she remembered—Halloween was just a couple of days off. “You don’t need a zombie costume,” Riley said. Sixteen-year-old April poked her younger sister and said gleefully, “I told you she wouldn’t let you have it.” A whine rose in Jilly’s voice as she said, “But I need a costume to go trick-or-treating!” “You’re too old to go trick-or-treating,” Riley said. “I’m fourteen!” Jilly said. “Exactly what I mean,” Riley said, taking a bite of her breakfast. “This isn’t fair,” Jilly said.

“I’ve never been trick-or-treating in my life. I’ll definitely be too old next year. This will be my last chance.” Riley felt a pang of surprised sympathy. “You’ve never been trick-or-treating?” Jilly shrugged and said plaintively, “When would I have had the chance to do anything like that?” April added, “You know she’s telling the truth, Mom.” Indeed, Riley was sure of it. It had just never occurred to her before. Jilly had only recently become part of the family. Last October Jilly had still been in a social services home in Phoenix, and before that she had spent her childhood in the care of an abusive father. Riley had finalized her adoption in July and gotten her settled into a more normal life, but she knew that Jilly had missed out on a lot of ordinary activities—including trick-or-treating, apparently.

She asked Jilly, “Who will you go trick-or-treating with?” Jilly shrugged again. “I dunno. Can’t I go by myself?” Riley shuddered a little at the very idea. “Absolutely not,” she said. “It can be dangerous for kids to go trick-or-treating on their own. You need to go with somebody older. Maybe April will take you.” April’s eyes widened with alarm. “I’m not taking Jilly anywhere!” she said. “I’ve got a party to go to!” “What party?” Riley asked.

“At Scarlet Gray’s house,” April said. “I’m sure I told you about it.” “And I’m sure you didn’t,” Riley said. “Anyway, you’re not going to any party. You’re still grounded.” April rolled her eyes. “God, am I going to be grounded for the rest of my life?” “Just until Thanksgiving,” Riley said. “That’s what we agreed to.” “Oh, that’s just great,” April said, poking at her breakfast with her fork. “I’m grounded and I have to go out with my kid sister trick-or-treating.

It doesn’t even make sense.” “It doesn’t have to make sense,” Riley said sternly. “I make the rules here.” Riley glimpsed Gabriela nodding at her with sage approval. The stout, no-nonsense housekeeper had taught her to say “I make the rules” once when Riley had gotten too wishy-washy with the kids. Gabriela often seemed to be as much a parent to April and Jilly as Riley herself could ever be, and Riley was deeply grateful to have her around. “All right,” Riley told Jilly, “you can have the money for your zombie costume. But we’ll still have to work out the details before you go anywhere.” Jilly seemed to be perfectly happy now, and April seemed to be perfectly miserable. But at least the matter was settled.

As they finished their breakfasts in silence, Riley found herself thinking that Thanksgiving was coming up fairly soon and her strong-minded older daughter would no longer be grounded. What April had done was deadly serious. When Riley had bought a pistol for April to train with during the summer, she’d felt confident that her older daughter would handle the weapon responsibly. But it had turned out that Riley’s confidence was misplaced. Not only had April failed to make sure the gun wasn’t loaded after bringing it home from the firing range, she’d dropped the weapon while trying to put it away in Riley’s bedroom. Riley could still hear the accidental gunshot echoing through the house. And she’d only recently repaired the holes the bullet had made in two walls. We were lucky nobody got hurt—or killed, Riley thought. That grateful refrain had been running through her mind every day since then. She wondered if she should have grounded April for longer—all the way through Christmas and New Year’s, maybe.

But it was too late to change her mind now. She had to be consistent. Gabriela had helped her learn that lesson too. Riley watched through the window as the girls finally left the house and headed for their bus stop. She found herself thinking about how much she hated Halloween. She wasn’t sure exactly why. Maybe she was troubled by the idea of kids going around pretending to be monsters. After years of working as a BAU agent, Riley had long since learned that the world was much too full of genuine monsters as it was. It struck her as kind of perverse to go inventing make-believe monsters just for fun. Of course, kids also dressed up as more positive characters on Halloween—superheroes, for instance.

But Riley didn’t like that either. As far as she was concerned, the world needed real heroes, not phony ones in capes and tights. More than that, there should be more people who could be heroic about the little things in life. Like getting their kids of to school, Riley thought with a smile as April and Jilly rounded a corner and disappeared from sight. The truth was, being a crime fighter never struck Riley as an especially heroic activity. The everyday tasks of being a parent often seemed much more formidable than ridding the world of actual human monsters. Those villains could often be caught, their rampages put to an end. The job of parenting went on and on, requiring an unflagging effort. Not that I’m much of a hero at parenting. But at least she’d managed to navigate her kids through breakfast, out of the house, and on their way to school this morning.

With no immediate assignment at BAU, she’d taken the day off. And she had some special plans. She smiled at the thought of it … A rendezvous. It seemed odd to think of it that way, particularly considering who she was going to meet for lunch. But an important relationship in her life had taken an unexpected turn recently. And now … We’re dating, I guess. She was glad to have the rest of the morning to get herself ready. When she went to her bedroom, she picked up her cell phone from the nightstand and saw that she’d received a voicemail message. When she played the message, she heard a familiar gruff, husky voice. “Hey, Agent Paige.

Van Roff here. Call me.” She felt a sharp tingle of anticipation and worry. From the sound of the caller’s tone, he didn’t have good news. The question was, did Riley want to hear what he had to say right now? She sat down on her bed looking at the cell phone, trying to decide whether to call him back or not. Van Roff was a technical analyst in the Seattle FBI field office. Riley had worked with the brilliant, overweight computer geek in the past, sometimes on less than legitimate tasks. She’d learned that Van was willing to bend and even break the rules on her behalf from time to time, especially if the problem at hand interested him. Now was one of those times. Riley sighed as she remembered how her then-partner Jenn Roston had disappeared during the last case they’d worked on together, leaving behind a cryptic note that hadn’t explained anything at all: Riley, I’m sorry.

Jenn It had come as a terrible shock, and it had gotten Riley into trouble with her boss, Brent Meredith, who rightly suspected that Riley knew more about Jenn’s disappearance than she was willing to say. Jenn had confided to Riley that she had been raised by a sinister foster parent who called herself “Aunt Cora,” and who trained children under her care to become master criminals in her own criminal organization. Jenn had escaped Aunt Cora’s clutches long enough to become a brilliant and promising young BAU agent. Riley had been the only person whom Jenn had told about her sinister past. Riley also knew that Jenn still heard from Aunt Cora from time to time, and that the diabolical woman kept trying to draw Jenn back under her control. After the case was solved, Riley had received a package containing Jenn’s badge and gun and another cryptic note: I tried. Riley had known right then that Jenn had fallen back into Aunt Cora’s dark world. Riley had dutifully delivered Jenn’s badge and the weapon to Brent Meredith, who had already received a letter of resignation from her. As far as Meredith was concerned, Jenn’s relationship with the BAU was over. He had no interest in finding out where she’d gone or why.

He didn’t care if he ever heard her name again. But Riley couldn’t help hoping maybe she could reach Jenn somehow—maybe even help her get away from Aunt Cora for good. Certain that Van Roff would find this puzzle interesting enough to attract his considerable skills, Riley had turned to him for help. And now he was responding. I’d better find out what he’s got to say, she thought. She punched in Van Roff’s number, and he picked up immediately. “I wish I had better news for you, Agent Paige,” Van said. “Have you been able to find out anything at all?” Riley asked. “Not a thing,” Van said. “You mentioned that maybe I could find something in her personnel records—something about that foster home where she’d grown up.

” Riley nodded and said, “Jenn told me there was something about that in her records. The foster home closed up long ago, but even so I thought maybe any information at all about it would give you a clue—” Van interrupted her, “Agent Paige, there aren’t any records. Somebody hacked into the FBI files and deleted Roston’s personnel files. It’s like she never worked for the FBI at all.” Riley felt light-headed with shock. Van continued, “Somebody doesn’t want anybody to know what happened to her. And whoever that ‘somebody’ is, they’ve got great hacking skills. Zapping away FBI records is quite a feat.” “What about that address I gave you?” Riley meant the return address on the package that had contained the gun and the badge—an address in Dallas, Texas. “Phony,” Van said.

“There’s no such place. And I used every trick in the book to find out if she might still be in Dallas. I can’t find her there or anywhere else. It’s like she’s disappeared off the face of the earth.” Riley felt thoroughly defeated now. “OK,” she said. “Thanks, Van.” “Don’t mention it.” Then something else occurred to Riley. “Van, I’ve told you a few things about Jenn that nobody else is supposed to know.

I hope you’ll—” Van interrupted in an incongruously cheerful voice. “Well, it’s so nice of you to call, Agent Paige. I really appreciate it. I like staying in touch, keeping tabs on each other.” Riley smiled a little. She knew this was Van Roff’s way of saying this whole conversation had never taken place as far as he was concerned. She could always trust Van to keep a secret. “Goodbye, Van,” she said. “And thanks again.” She ended the call and slouched miserably on the edge of her bed.

She remembered something Van had said just now. “Somebody doesn’t want anybody to know what happened to her.” Riley had a hunch that that “somebody” was Jenn herself. Jenn didn’t want to be found. And if Van Roff couldn’t find her, nobody else possibly could. She’s gone, Riley thought. Jenn’s really gone. Riley struggled for a moment with feelings of sadness, anger, and betrayal. There’s nothing I can do about it, she told herself. Jenn made her own choice.

It’s not up to me. Meanwhile, Riley did have something pleasant to look forward to. She got up from the bed and went to her closet to find something nice to wear for her lunch date. As she looked through her clothes, she smiled at the irony of wanting to look her best today. How odd, she thought. Here she was, trying to impress a guy who already knew her better than almost anyone ever had.

.

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