It came to life—a Skype request for videoconferencing.
I fumbled for a minute, then managed to press the accept button. Jessica’s face appeared on the phone, her eyes swollen with tears. A purple bruise darkened her cheek. Oh shit oh shit oh shit …
“Loni?” she asked, her voice tight and strained. I leaned heavily against the van, my legs turning to Jell-O.
“Jessie, what’s going on?”
“I’m in some trouble,” she whispered. “Mom’s friends are here with me and they want to talk to you. Please listen to them. I think they’re going to hurt me more if you don’t.”
With that, someone grabbed the phone out of her hand and jerked it away. The image swayed, giving me glimpses of concrete and men wearing dark masks. Then it stilled, focusing on Jessica’s arm. A man’s gloved hand held it down, spreading out her fingers across what had to be a butcher block. Then a giant knife came into view—no, that thing was more like a machete. It flashed down and then Jessica’s screams came pouring through the phone’s tiny speakers.
A terrible fist clutched my chest, cutting off my breath and stopping my heart.
They’d sliced off her little finger.
I could see it sitting right there on the block, and it wasn’t attached to her body anymore!
Blood was gushing and Jess was screaming and somewhere in the background a man laughed, but my eyes would only focus on that little pink hunk of flesh, complete with sparkling gel nails that had recently been filled. I had a sudden, discordant vision of Jess and Amber getting manicures together. Laughing. Maybe grabbing something to eat before they came home and Amber handed over her beautiful daughter to a fucking psychopathic madman! I had no fucking doubt this was Amber’s work.
What kind of animal cuts off a child’s finger?
The picture abruptly disappeared, switching to audio. I put the phone to my ear, wondering if I’d imagined the whole thing. My body felt distant and shaky. Shock? I needed to breathe. I managed to climb into the van’s seat and drop my head down over my knees as a man started speaking.
“Next time it’ll be her hand,” he said, the heavily accented words laced with menace. “Then maybe I’ll cut that tube right out of her head, see what it looks like. Always wondered how they wire up retards to make them look normal. She’s cute, so I’ll probably fuck her before I kill her.”
“What do you want?” I whispered. “Please, she’s just a girl—let her go. We won’t tell anyone about this.”
“If you want to keep her alive, you’ll do exactly what I say, because I own you now,” he said, his voice dark and low and radiating so much evil I could cry. Wait. I was crying. “I want you to go through Picnic Hayes’s house and find papers for me. Anything you can that looks like it might be business related. Lists of names. Schedules. Take pictures with this phone and I’ll access them. You’ll do the same at Pawns and The Line. You’ve got until Tuesday to get it done, but I want to see progress along the way. If I don’t get something from you every day, her hand’s back on the block. We can cut off a lot of pieces before she dies—it’s all on you.”
I swallowed, wishing I could afford to play dumb, do something to buy time, change it somehow because this couldn’t actually be happening, could it?
“She’s more susceptible to infection than other kids,” I said desperately. “That shunt keeps her alive, and if it gets blocked or infected, it’s very serious. It could even kill her. Please—if she spikes a fever, get her to a doctor. She might need surgery if things go wrong. I saw a bruise on her cheek, which means someone hit her. Jessica can’t take trauma like that. She’s not a normal kid, it could kill her.”
“You should worry about me killing her. But if you do a good job following my directions we won’t have to hurt her any more. Start going through the house. Text me if you find something and I’ll download it. Be careful, because if he catches you, he’ll shoot you and then Jessica will die, too.”
“What about Amber?” I asked quietly, wondering if I really wanted the answer. “Does she know what you’re doing to her daughter?”
“That cunt’s dead. Unfortunate accident, couldn’t be helped. Let’s hope we don’t have any more of those, sound good?”
“Sounds good,” I whispered, closing my eyes as he ended the call.
Wow. Just … wow … How was this happening?
Amber. It always came back to Amber. I wanted to strangle her, but then a wave of guilt hit me because she was already dead. God, I’d hated her so much over the years, but I loved her, too, and the thought of her bloodied body being dumped somewhere filled me with agonized sorrow.
Detach. DETACH. You can do this. You have to do this. Doesn’t matter how much you like Reese, he’s just a man and your girl needs you. Life is about choices.
I knew what my choice had to be—the same one I’d made six years ago.
Jessica was a child of my family.
Saving her had to come first.
Things got weird after that.
There’s an understatement for you.
I considered calling Nate. I considered telling Reese. I considered driving to California with a gun and shooting people until they gave me back my little girl.
In the end, I decided to do what he told me, because Jessica’s life was at stake. End of story. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do to save her. I’d beg, borrow, steal, kill … I’d give every one of those men the best blow job they’d ever had, if I thought it would make a difference.
But they didn’t want me—they wanted Reese’s papers, and I’d find them if it killed me.
I’d do it because I was Jessica’s mother. The only real one she’d ever had. Fuck you, Amber. Fuck you all the way to hell. I’d become Jessie’s mother the hard way, cradling her tiny body in my arms in the NICU, holding her as she cried after her first boyfriend dumped her.
Dragging her out of the Reapers clubhouse in the middle of the night.
Jessica was a pain in my ass and she’d screwed up plenty, but this? This was all on Amber. Beyond that first burst of involuntary pain, I refused to let myself grieve for her. That bitch was lucky she was already dead, and that’s the fucking truth.
Because life is surreal, I still had to work that afternoon or people would’ve gotten suspicious. This turned out to be a good thing. There’s nothing like hard, physical labor to clear your mind. One of my crew leads had the day off, so I found myself cleaning a local attorney’s office downtown. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the assassin who worked for the club. I’d bet there were all sorts of interesting papers in that guy’s office, ones that might buy Jessica some time.