The Perfect Block – Blake Pierce

Splinters from the wooden arms of the chair dug into Jessica Thurman’s forearms, which were tied to the chair by a coarse rope. The skin on her arms was raw and bleeding in several places from her constant attempts to yank herself free. Jessica was strong for a six-year-old. But not strong enough to break free of the ropes her captor had strapped to her. She could do nothing but sit there with her eyelids taped open as she watched her own mother stand helplessly before her, her arms manacled to the wooden ceiling beams of the isolated Ozarks cabin where they were both being held. She could hear the whispers of their abductor, standing behind her, instructing her to watch, softly calling her “Junebug.” She knew the voice well. After all, it belonged to her father. Suddenly, with an unexpected strength she didn’t think possible, little Jessica flung her body sideways, sending the chair—and her along with it—toppling to the ground. She didn’t feel the thud of hitting the floor, which she found odd. She looked up and saw that she was no longer lying in the cabin. Instead, she was on the hallway floor of an impressive, modern mansion. And she was no longer six-year-old Jessica Thurman. She was now twenty-eight-year-old Jessie Hunt, lying on the floor of her own home, staring up at a man holding a fireplace poker above his head, about to bring it down on her. But the man was no longer her father.

Instead, it was her husband, Kyle. His eyes blazed with frenzied intensity as he thrust the poker down toward her face. She brought her arms up to defend herself but knew it was too late. * Jessie woke up with a gasp. Her hands were still raised above her head as if to block an attack. But she was alone in the apartment bedroom. She pushed herself forward in bed so that she was sitting upright. Her body along with the bed sheets were covered in sweat. Her heart was nearly beating out of her chest. She swung her legs off the bed and placed her feet on the floor as she bent over, resting her elbows on her thighs and her head in her palms.

After giving her body a few seconds to acclimate to her real surroundings—the downtown Los Angeles apartment of her friend Lacy—she glanced at the bedside clock. It was 3:54 a.m. As she felt the sweat start to dry on her skin, she reassured herself. I am no longer in that cabin. I am no longer in that house. I am safe. These are just nightmares. Those men can’t hurt me anymore. But of course only half of that was true.

While her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Kyle, was locked up in jail awaiting trial for various crimes, including attempting to murder her, her father had never been captured. He still haunted her dreams regularly. Worse, she had recently learned that even though she had been placed into Witness Protection as a child, given a new home and a new name, he was still out there looking for her. Jessie stood up and headed for the shower. There was no point in trying to go back to sleep. She knew it would be useless. Besides, an idea was circling in her head, one that she wanted to cultivate. Maybe it was time she stopped accepting that these nightmares were inevitable. Maybe she needed to stop fearing the day her father found her. Maybe it was time to hunt him.

CHAPTER TWO By the time her old college friend and current roommate Lacy Cartwright came out to the breakfast room, Jessie had been awake for over three hours. She had brewed a fresh pot of coffee and poured a cup for Lacy, who walked over and took it gratefully as she offered a sympathetic smile. “Another bad dream?” she asked. Jessie nodded. In the six weeks that Jessie had been living in Lacy’s apartment, trying to rebuild her life, her friend had gotten used to the semi-regular middle-of the-night screams and early morning wakeups. It had happened occasionally in college, so it wasn’t a total surprise. But the frequency had increased dramatically since her husband had tried to kill her. “Was I loud?” Jessie asked apologetically. “A little,” Lacy acknowledged. “But you stopped yelling after a couple of seconds.

I went right back to sleep.” “I’m really sorry, Lace. Maybe I should buy you better earplugs until I move out, or a louder noise-canceling machine. I swear it won’t be much longer.” “Don’t worry about it. You’re handling things much better than I would be,” Lacy insisted as she tied her long hair in a ponytail. “That’s nice of you to say.” “I’m not just being polite, girl. Think about it. In the last two months, your husband murdered a woman, tried to frame you for it, and then attempted to kill you when you figured it out.

That doesn’t include your miscarriage.” Jessie nodded but didn’t say anything. Lacy’s list of horribles didn’t include her serial killer father because Lacy didn’t know about him; almost no one did. Jessie preferred it that way—for her own safety and for theirs. Lacy continued. “If it was me, I’d still be curled up in the fetal position. The fact that you’re almost done with physical therapy and about to enter a special FBI training program makes me wonder if you’re some kind of cyborg.” Jessie had to admit that when things were laid out like that, it was pretty impressive that she was so functional. Her hand involuntarily moved to the spot on the left side of her abdomen where Kyle had plunged the fireplace poker. The doctors had told her she was lucky it had missed her internal organs.

She had an ugly scar. It made for an unsightly addition to go with the one from childhood that cut across her collarbone. She still felt a sharp twinge in her gut every now and then. But mostly she felt okay. She’d been given permission to ditch the walking cane a week ago and her physical therapist had only scheduled one more rehab session, which was today. After that, she was supposed to do the required exercises on her own. As to the mental and emotional rehab required after learning her husband was a sociopathic murderer, she was far from getting an all-clear. “I guess things aren’t that bad,” she finally replied unconvincingly as she watched her friend finish getting dressed. Lacy slid on her three-inch heels, turning her from a tall woman into a full-on Amazon. All long legs and cheekbones, she looked more like a runway model than an aspiring fashion designer.

Her hair was tied back in a high ponytail that revealed her neck. She was meticulously decked out in an outfit of her own design. She might be a buyer for a high-end boutique right now. But she had plans to have her own design firm before thirty and be the highest-profile lesbian African- American fashion designer in the country soon after that. “I don’t get you, Jessie,” she said as she threw on her coat. “You get accepted into a prestigious FBI program at Quantico for promising criminal profilers and you seem to be lukewarm to the idea. I’d think you’d jump at the chance to change your surroundings for a bit. Besides, it’s only ten weeks. It’s not like you have to move there.” “You’re right,” Jessie agreed as she downed the last of her third cup of coffee.

“It’s just that there’s so much going on right now, I’m not sure the time is right. The divorce from Kyle isn’t final yet. I still have to lock down the sale of the house in Westport Beach. I’m not a hundred percent physically. And I wake up screaming most nights. I don’t know that I’m up for the rigors of the FBI’s behavior analysis training program just yet.” “Well, you better decide quickly,” Lacy said as she moved to the front door. “Don’t you have to give them an answer by the end of the week?” “I do.” “Well, let me know what you decide. Also, can you open the window to your bedroom before you head out? No offense but it smells a bit like a gym in there.

” She was gone before Jessie could reply, though she wasn’t sure what to say to that. Lacy was a great friend who could always be counted on to give her honest opinion. But tact wasn’t her strong suit. Jessie got up and headed to her room to change. She caught a glimpse of herself in the fulllength mirror on the back of the door and didn’t immediately recognize herself. On the surface, she still looked the same, with her shoulder-length brown hair, her green eyes, her tall, five-foot-ten frame. But the eyes were red-rimmed with exhaustion, and the hair was stringy and greasy, so much so that she decided to put it in a ponytail and wear a cap. And she felt permanently hunched, a result of the ever-present worry that her abdomen might unexpectedly pulse in pain. Will I ever get back to who I was? Does that person even still exist? She shook the thought away, forcing the self-pity to take a backseat, at least for a while. She was too busy to cater to it right now.

It was time to get ready for her physical therapy session, her meeting with the apartment broker, her appointment with her psychiatrist, and then one with her OB-GYN. It was going to be a full day of pretending to be a functional human being. * The apartment broker, a petite whirling dervish in a pantsuit named Bridget, was showing her the third apartment of the morning when Jessie started getting the urge to jump off a balcony. Everything was fine at first. She was on a bit of a high from her final physical therapy session, which had ended with the pronouncement that she was “reasonably equipped for the tasks of daily living.” Bridget had kept things moving as they looked at the first two apartments, focusing on unit details, pricing, and amenities. It was only when they got to the third option, the only one Jessie was intrigued by so far, that the personal questions began. “Are you sure you’re only interested in one-bedrooms?” Bridget asked. “I can tell you like this one. But there’s a two-bedroom one floor up with virtually the same floor plan.

It’s only thirty thousand dollars more and it would have greater resale value. Plus, you never know what your situation might be a couple of years from now.” “That’s true,” Jessie acknowledged, mentally noting that only two months ago she was married, pregnant, and living in a mansion in Orange County. Now she was separated from an admitted killer, she’d lost her unborn child, and she was bunking with a friend from school. “But I’m fine with a one-bedroom.” “Of course,” Bridget said in a tone that suggested she wasn’t about to let it lie. “Do you mind if I ask what your circumstances are? It might better help me target your preferences. I can’t help but notice the skin on your finger is white where a wedding ring might recently have been. I could gear location choices based on whether you’re looking to aggressively move on or… hunker down.” “We’re in the right area,” Jessie said, her voice tightening involuntarily.

“I just want to see one-bedrooms around here. That’s the only information you need right now, Bridget.” “Of course. I’m sorry,” Bridget said, chastened. “I need to borrow the restroom for a moment,” Jessie said, the tightness in her throat now expanding to her chest. She wasn’t sure what was happening to her. “Is that okay?” “No problem,” Bridget said. “You remember where it is, down the hall?” Jessie nodded and walked there as quickly as she could without actually running. By the time she got in and locked the door, she feared she might pass out. It felt like a panic attack coming on.

What the hell is happening to me? She splashed her face with cold water, then rested her palms on the counter as she ordered herself to take slow, deep breaths. Images flashed through her head without rhyme or reason: cuddling on the couch with Kyle, shivering in an isolated cabin deep in the Ozark Mountains, looking at the ultrasound of her unborn and never-to-be-born child, reading a bedtime story in a rocking chair with her adoptive father, watching as her husband dumped a body from a yacht in the waters off the coast, the sound of her father whispering “Junebug” in her ear. Why Bridget’s mostly innocuous question about her circumstances and references to hunkering down had set her off, Jessie didn’t know. But they had and now she was in a cold sweat, shaking involuntarily, staring back in the mirror at a person she barely recognized. It was a good thing her next stop was to see her therapist. The thought calmed Jessie slightly and she took a few more deep breaths before leaving the bathroom and heading down the hall to the front door. “I’ll be in touch,” she called out to Bridget as she closed the door behind her. But she wasn’t sure she would be. Right now she wasn’t sure of anything. CHAPTER THREE Dr.

Janice Lemmon’s office was only a few blocks from the apartment building Jessie was leaving and she was glad for the chance to walk and clear her head. As she walked down Figueroa, she almost welcomed the sharp, cutting wind making her eyes water and immediately dry up. The bracing cold pushed most thoughts other than moving fast from her head. She zipped her coat up to the neck and put her head down as she passed a coffee shop, then a diner filled to near overflowing. It was mid-December in Los Angeles and local businesses were doing their best to make their storefronts look holiday festive in a town where snow was almost an abstract concept. But in the wind tunnels created by downtown skyscrapers, cold was ever-present. It was almost 11 a.m. but the sky was gray and the temperature was in the low fifties. Tonight it would drop close to forty.

For L.A., that was bone-chilling. Of course, Jessie had been through far more frigid weather. As a child in rural Missouri, before everything fell apart, she would play in the tiny front yard of her mom’s mobile home in the trailer park, her fingers and face half-numb, fashioning unimpressive but happy-faced snowmen while her mom watched protectively from the window. Jessie remembered wondering why her mother never took her eyes off her. Looking back now, it was clear. A few years later, in the suburbs of Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she’d lived with her adoptive family after going into Witness Protection, she would go skiing on the bunny slopes of the nearby mountains with her second father, an FBI agent who projected calm professionalism, no matter the situation. He was always there to help her up when she fell. And she could usually count on a hot chocolate when they got off the barren, windswept hills and went back to the lodge.

Those chilly memories warmed her as she rounded the final block to Dr. Lemmon’s office. She meticulously chose not to think about the less pleasant memories that inevitably intertwined with the good ones. She checked in and peeled off her layers as she waited to be called into the doctor’s office. It didn’t take long. Right at 11 a.m., her therapist opened the door and welcomed her inside. Dr. Janice Lemmon was in her mid-sixties but didn’t look it.

She was in great shape and her eyes, behind thick glasses, were sharp and focused. Her curly blonde ringlets bounced when she walked and she had a coiled intensity that couldn’t be masked. They sat down in plush chairs across from each other. Dr. Lemmon gave her a few moments to settle in before speaking. “How are you?” she asked in that open-ended way that always made Jessie genuinely ponder the question more seriously than she did in her daily life. “I’ve been better,” she admitted. “Why is that?” Jessie recounted her panic attack in the apartment and the subsequent flashbacks. “I don’t know what set me off,” she said in conclusion. “I think you do,” Dr.

Lemmon prodded. “Care to give me a hint?” Jessie countered. “Well, I’m wondering if you lost your cool in the presence of a near stranger because you don’t feel like you have any other place to release your anxiety. Let me ask you this—do you have any stressful events or decisions coming up?” “You mean other than an OB-GYN appointment in two hours to see if I’m recovered from my miscarriage, finalizing a divorce from the man who tried to murder me, selling the house we shared together, processing the fact that my serial killer father is looking for me, deciding whether or not to go to Virginia for two and a half months to have FBI instructors laugh at me, and having to move out of my friend’s apartment so she can get a decent night’s sleep? Besides those things, I’d say I’m cool.” “That does sound like quite a bit,” Dr. Lemmon replied, ignoring Jessie’s sarcasm. “Why don’t we start with the immediate concerns and work outward from there, okay?” “You’re the boss,” Jessie muttered. “Actually, I’m not. But tell me about your upcoming appointment. Why does that have you concerned?” “It’s not so much that I’m concerned,” Jessie said.

“The doctor already told me that it looks like I don’t have any permanent damage and will be able to conceive in the future. It’s more that I know going there will remind of what I lost and how I lost it.” “You’re talking about how your husband drugged you so he could frame you for murdering Natalia Urgova? And how the drug he used induced your miscarriage?” “Yes,” Jessie said drily. “That’s what I’m talking about.” “Well, I’ll be surprised if anyone there brings that up,” Dr. Lemmon said, a gentle smile playing at her lips. “So you’re saying I’m creating stress for myself about a situation that need not be stressful?” “I’m saying that if you deal with the emotions ahead of time, it might not be so overwhelming when you’re actually in the room.” “Easier said than done,” Jessie said. “Everything is easier said than done,” Dr. Lemmon replied.

“Let’s table that for now and move on to your pending divorce. How are things going on that front?” “The house is in escrow. So I’m hoping that gets finished without complications. My attorney says that my request for an expedited divorce was approved and that it should be final before the end of year. There is a bonus on that front—because California is a community property state, I get half the assets of my murdering spouse. He gets half of mine too, despite going on trial for nine major felonies early next year. But considering I was a student until a few weeks ago, that doesn’t amount to much.” “Okay, how do you feel about all that?” “I feel good about the money. I’d say I more than earned it. Did you know I used the health insurance from his job to pay for the injury I got from him stabbing me with a fireplace poker? There’s something poetic about that.

Otherwise, I’ll be glad when it’s all over. I mostly just want to move on and try to forget that I spent nearly a decade of my life with a sociopath and never realized it.” “You think you should have known?” Dr. Lemmon asked. “I am trying to become a professional criminal profiler, Doctor. How good can I be when I didn’t notice the criminal behavior of my own husband?” “We’ve talked about this, Jessie. It’s often difficult for even the best profilers to identify illicit behavior in those close to them. Often professional distance is required to see what’s really going on.” “I gather you speak from personal experience?” Jessie asked. Janice Lemmon, in addition to being a behavioral therapist, was a highly regarded criminal consultant who used to work full time for the LAPD.

She still offered her services on occasion. Lemmon had used her considerable string-pulling influence to get Jessie permission to visit the state hospital in Norwalk so she could interview serial killer Bolton Crutchfield as part of her graduate work. And Jessie suspected that the doctor had also played an integral part in her being accepted to the FBI’s vaunted National Academy program, which typically only took seasoned local investigators, not recent graduates with almost no practical experience. “I do,” Dr. Lemmon said. “But we can save that for another time. Would you like to discuss how you feel about being played by your husband?” “I wouldn’t say I was totally played. After all, because of me, he’s in prison and three people who would otherwise be dead, including myself, are walking around. Don’t I get any credit for that? After all, I did eventually figure it out. I don’t think the cops ever would have.

” “That’s a fair point. I assume from your snark that you’d rather move on. Shall we discuss your father?” “Really?” Jessie asked, incredulous. “Do we have to go there next? Can’t we just talk about my apartment troubles?” “I gather they’re related. After all, isn’t the reason your roommate can’t get any sleep because you have scream-inducing nightmares?” “You don’t play fair, Doctor.” “I’m only working from things you tell me, Jessie. If you didn’t want me to know, you wouldn’t have mentioned it. Can I assume the dreams are related to your mother’s murder at the hands of your father?” “Yep,” Jessie answered, keeping her tone overly jaunty. “The Ozarks Executioner may have gone underground but he’s still got one victim very much in his clutches.” “Have the nightmares gotten worse since we last met?” Dr.

Lemmon asked. “I wouldn’t say worse,” Jessie corrected. “They’ve been pretty much at the same level of terrifyingly awful.” “But they got dramatically more frequent and intense once you got the message, correct?” “I assume we’re talking about the message Bolton Crutchfield passed along to me revealing that he’s been in contact with my father, who would very much like to find me.” “That’s the message we’re talking about.” “Then yes, that’s around the time they got worse,” Jessie answered. “Setting aside the dreams for a moment,” Dr. Lemmon said, “I wanted to reiterate what I I’ve told you previously.” “Yes, Doctor, I haven’t forgotten. In your capacity as an advisor to the Department of State Hospitals, Non-Rehabilitative Division, you’ve consulted with the security team at the hospital to ensure that Bolton Crutchfield doesn’t have access to any unauthorized outside personnel.

There is no way for him to communicate with my father to let him know my new identity.” “How many times have I said that?” Dr. Lemmon asked. “It must have been a few for you to have it memorized.” “Let’s just say more than once. Besides, I’ve become friendly with the head of security at the NRD facility, Kat Gentry, and she told me basically the same thing—they’ve updated their procedures to ensure that Crutchfield has no communication with the outside world.” “And yet you don’t sound convinced,” Dr. Lemmon noted. “Would you be?” Jessie countered. “If your dad was a serial killer known to the world as the Ozarks Executioner and you’d personally seen him eviscerate his victims and he was never caught, would your mind be set at ease by a few platitudes?” “I admit I’d probably be a bit skeptical.

But I’m not sure how productive it is to dwell on something you can’t control.” “I was meaning to broach that with you, Dr. Lemmon,” Jessie said, dropping the sarcasm now that she had a genuine request. “Are we sure I don’t have any control over the situation? It seems that Bolton Crutchfield knows a fair bit about what my father has been up to in recent years. And Bolton…enjoys my company. I was thinking another visit to chat with him might be in order. Who knows what he might reveal?” Dr. Lemmon took a deep breath as she considered the proposal. “I’m not sure playing mind games with a notorious serial killer is the best next step for your emotional well-being, Jessie.” “You know what would be great for my emotional well-being, Doctor?” Jessie said, feeling her frustration rise despite her best efforts.

“Not fearing that my psycho dad is going to jump out from around a corner and get all stabby on me.” “Jessie, if just talking to me about this gets you so riled up, what’s going to happen when Crutchfield starts pushing your buttons?” “It’s not the same. I don’t have to censor myself around you. With him I’m a different person. I’m professional,” Jessie said, making sure her tone was more measured now. “I’m tired of being a victim and this is something tangible I can do to change the dynamic. Will you just consider it? I know that your recommendation is pretty much a golden ticket in this town.” Dr. Lemmon stared at her for a few seconds from behind her thick glasses, her eyes boring into her. “I’ll see what I can do,” she finally said.

“Speaking of golden tickets, have you formally accepted the FBI’s National Academy invitation yet?” “Not yet. I’m still weighing my options.” “I think you could learn a lot there, Jessie. And it wouldn’t hurt to have it on your résumé when you’re trying to get work out here. I worry that passing on it might be a form of self-sabotage.” “It’s not that,” Jessie assured her. “I know it’s a great opportunity. I’m just not sure this is the ideal time for me to up and move across the country for almost three months. My whole world is in flux right now.” She tried to keep the agitation out of her voice but could hear it creeping in.

Clearly Dr. Lemmon did too because she shifted gears. “Okay. Now that we’ve gotten a big picture view of how things are going, I’d like to dig a little deeper on a few subjects. If I recall, your adoptive father came out here recently to help get you squared away. I want to get into how that went momentarily. But first, let’s discuss how you’re recovering physically. I understand you just had your last physical therapy session. How was that?” The next forty-five minutes made Jessie feel like a tree having its bark peeled back. When it was over, she was happy to leave, even if it meant her next stop was getting checked to reconfirm she could have kids in the future.

After nearly an hour of Dr. Lemmon poking and prodding her psyche, she figured getting her body poked and prodded would be a breeze. She was wrong. * It wasn’t so much the poking that set her off. It was the aftermath. The appointment itself was pretty uneventful. Jessie’s doctor confirmed that she hadn’t suffered any permanent damage and assured her that she should be able to conceive in the future. She also gave the all-clear to resume sexual activity, a notion that had genuinely not crossed Jessie’s mind since Kyle attacked her. The doctor said that barring something unexpected, she should return for a follow-up in six months. It was only when she was in the elevator on the way down to the parking garage that she lost it.

She wasn’t completely sure why but she felt like she was falling into a dark hole in the ground. She ran to the car and sat in the driver’s seat, letting the heaving sobs wrack her body. And then, in the middle of the tears, she got it. Something about the finality of the appointment had hit her hard. She didn’t have to come back for six months. It would be a normal visit. The pregnancy stage of her life was, for the foreseeable future, over. She could almost feel the emotional door slam shut and it was jarring. On top of her marriage ending in the most shocking way possible and learning that the murderous father she thought she’d put in the past was back in her present, the realization that she’d had a living being inside her and now she didn’t was too much to bear. She peeled out of the parking garage, her vision blurred by tear-stained eyes.

She didn’t care. She found herself pressing down hard on the accelerator as she roared south on Robertson. It was early afternoon and there wasn’t much traffic. Still, she weaved wildly in and out of lanes. Ahead of her, at a stoplight, she saw a large moving truck. She hit the gas hard and felt her neck snap back as she accelerated. The speed limit was thirty-five, but she was at forty-five, fiftyfive, passing sixty. She was sure that if she hit that truck hard enough, all her pain would vanish in an instant. She glanced to her left and as she whizzed by, she saw a mother walking along the sidewalk with her toddler son. The thought of that little boy being witness to a mass of crumpled metal, blistering fire, and charred remains snapped her out of it.

Jessie hit the brakes hard, squealing to a stop only feet from the back of the truck. She pulled into the gas station parking lot to her right, parked, and turned off the car. She was breathing heavily and adrenaline coursed through her body, making her fingers and toes tingle to the point of discomfort. After about five minutes sitting there motionless with her eyes closed, her chest stopped heaving and her breathing returned to normal. She heard a buzzing and opened her eyes. It was her phone. The caller ID said it was Detective Ryan Hernandez of the LAPD. He’d spoken to her criminology class last semester, where she’d impressed him with how she’d solved a sample case he presented to the class. He’d also visited her in the hospital after Kyle tried to kill her. “Hello, hello,” Jessie said out loud to herself, making sure her voice sounded normal.

Close enough. She answered the call. “This is Jessie.” “Hi, Ms. Hunt. This is Detective Ryan Hernandez calling. Do you remember me?” “Of course,” she said, pleased that she sounded like her usual self. “What’s up?” “I know you graduated recently,” he said, his voice sounding more hesitant than she remembered. “Have you secured a position yet?” “Not yet,” she answered. “I’m weighing my options right now.

” “In that case, I’d like to talk to you about a job.”

.

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