K.L. Barnes ... Is Dreaming Up Suspense !

Excerpts

The Pay Series - Gripping suspense! Intense, thrilling endings that will keep you reading

 

Gripping suspense with intense and thrilling endings that will keep you wanting to read more - Pay Attention, Pay the Piper, and Pay Penance Available Exclusively From Amazon

 

Prologue

The sirens stopped in mid wail, leaving behind an eerie silence. Muted flashes of red and blue continued to flicker like strobe lights across the dozen or so vehicles strewn across the road. They were parked pell-mell in the brush where a group of search and rescue workers milled solemnly around the scene under a canopy of dark, billowing clouds.

Arnold Baker dug the toe of his work boot into the damp soil and shoved his hands into the pockets of his battered sheep skin coat. Raising an arm, he signaled to the tall, slightly bowed figure crawling from behind the wheel, watching and waiting patiently while the newcomer picked his way over the uneven ground.

“Arnie.” The coroner bobbed his head by way of greeting and the two fell  into step as they walked together to the mutilated body.

“It looks like maybe we found that missin’ hiker we been lookin’ for,” Baker speculated.

“Any clue what happened to him?”

“Looks like he probably fell from the ridge up here.” The short, barrel chested sheriff dipped his balding head toward the edge of the overhang that ended a few feet away. Baker peered up at the coroner from under bushy gray brows and added, “S and R had a time pullin’ him up from the bottom of the ravine. He was wedged in pretty tight down there and the critters’ve had a go at him, so you just might have a rough go figurin’ out exactly what killed him.”

“If I didn’t know you better Sheriff, I’d say that sounded like a challenge,” Sam Kaufman said light heartedly as he slapped the sheriff on the back. Sam was tall and gaunt and slightly stooped from a life of bending over to avoid knocking his head on every other door frame. The contrast in their appearance and difference in education made the two men an unlikely pair, but early on they had discovered a mutual love of books and the pleasures of fishing that led to a solid friendship. They knelt down together over the body and studied the decomposing form. Most of the skin and muscle of the extremities had been torn away, leaving the bones jutting and exposed. Ragged pieces of what appeared to be a faded flannel work shirt were stuck here and there to denim jeans and a tough leather hiking boot still clung to one foot. As with the rest of the body, the boot was almost completely covered with dirt and twigs.

“Well, it looks like the wildlife sure has had a hay day,” Sam said doubtfully, his brow furrowed as he concentrated on the pathetic form before him. “I suppose this poor guy could be your hiker, but I’d say from the looks of it that he’s been dead for more than a few days. Of course, I can’t really say anything for sure until after the autopsy.”

Sheriff Baker shrugged and nodded in a maybe-maybe not sort of agreement while he chewed down the end of the toothpick he’d been swilling between his teeth. Waited for his old friend to take in the details of the gruesome cadaver. It wasn’t long before his patience was rewarded with Kaufman’s shocked explanation.

“Jesus H. Christ, Arnie! What in blue blazes happened to his head?”

“Well now, that’s a good question Sam, but I only know one kind a’ animal that skins the hair off its supper ‘fore he sits down to eat.”

*****

Chapter 1

As was typical, Glenn Makula ended up being the last one out of the office at the end of a really long day. More and more they were all becoming long days. Hell, it had been a really long week for that matter, and he planned to go home on this particular Friday evening to a good nights’ sleep.

Glenn could hear Lily’s voice in his head, reminding him that if he didn’t slow down, one of these first times he was going to crash and then he wouldn’t be any good to her or his patients. He smiled and told himself he would make it up to her this weekend with a tour of the valley’s vineyards and a whole day of wine tasting.

Checking to make sure that everything was turned off and the alarm was set before he twisted the key, he gave one last tug on the door. Ducking his head against the misting rain, he made his way down the stairs off the back porch of the old Victorian where he had set up his practice almost two years ago, and started toward the black Jaguar parked just a few feet away. A slight movement caught his attention and, just as he looked up, Joseph Binyon came lumbering around the corner of the house.

“What the hell is he doing here?” Glenn mumbled under his breath, talking to no one in particular. He had an instinctive dislike for the big ogre and he was always on edge whenever he was forced to meet the man’s cold gaze. He started to open the car door, hoping he could drive away and pretend he hadn’t noticed him, but by then Joseph was in the parking lot. He was obviously agitated, waving and babbling something about the kids needing him right away.

However annoyed or edgy Glenn might be with the father, he would never ignore the needs of the kids and he immediately forgot about trying to pretend he hadn’t noticed him there. It never occurred to Glenn that Joseph’s behavior was completely out of character, his first and only concern being for the kids. All he could hear was the sense of urgency in the other man’s tone and the almost panic stricken expression on his face.

“Where are they?” Glenn asked and then, without waiting for an answer, added in disgust, “I’ll follow you, but we might need an ambulance this time. I don’t care what your convictions are!”

Pressing the button to unlock the door, he yanked it open in a fit of temper and was leaning in to throw his medical bag in the backseat when a sudden, overwhelming jolt hit him hard between the shoulder blades. Gasping at the blow, he fell face first across the console. It was as if an electrical shock had robbed him of the ability to move his arms or legs and he struggled as someone folded him like a rag doll into the car. He was beginning to lose consciousness, but still tried to twist away and instead, came face to face with his attacker.

A much younger version of Joseph was leaning over him, shoving him roughly down on the floor.

“Carl, you little prick!” Glenn snarled the words and was horrified when all that came out was a drunken mumble. Drool rolled out of the side of his mouth and down his chin before he lost consciousness.

What little reality there was came to Glenn like snatches of scenes from a movie, flickering in and out of focus. Partially awake now, he felt himself being jostled around on the floor board of a car. His car. He recognized the feel of the engine slowing and accelerating each time it took another winding turn.

Body rocking with the motion of the vehicle, Glenn fought to regain his senses, but the effort only made him more disoriented until suddenly, he turned his head and vomited on the rough carper chafing the side of his face. He blacked out for a few minutes and when he came to again, everything was even more unclear. Fragments of voices and wispy impressions flitted here and there through his mind, and then everything slowly faded to black.

*****

Pay the Piper

 

Prologue

“Come on man!  You know me man, I’m good for it.”

“You’re not good for much of anything Stuck and that's God's honest truth.”

Stuckey braced against another shove to his shoulder and kept walking through the scrubby trees. Where he was going really wasn’t important because no matter where he ended up, it wouldn’t be good.

Stuckey stumbled and went down on his hands, hard. Fine gray dirt sifted up into his nose and mouth and made it hard to breathe. In hindsight he wished he hadn’t gotten loaded before this meeting but the stuff was right there – it was always there – and what was a guy supposed to do?

He grabbed the base of a small sapling and pulled himself up to his knees. Stuckey had barely gotten upright when the battering ram caught him in the kidneys. Pain, intense and crushing, stole his ability to suck in enough air to express the agony before he found himself back on his knees, sucking wind.

When the boy could finally get a breath, he turned his eyes upward to the blurry image of his boss standing a few feet away, one of his big ugly boots propped up on the stump of a long dead tree and looking awfully casual. That’s good, Stuckey thought, fighting to see through the haze of pain. Casual is good.

Squinting through tear filled eyes, Stuckey could see that Charlie looked relaxed and not at all pissed anymore. Maybe he'd gotten it out of his system with that sudden flash of brutality.

“I always take care of the girls boss, and make sure they’re ready to have a good time don’t I?”

Stuckey heard the whiney tenor of his own voice and scooted away on his knees until he felt a tree at his back. He knew that one thing Charlie could not stand was a whiner so he struggled to find a different tone.

“Hell boss, this was just a little party to get the girls going you know. It wouldn’t be the first time they needed a little priming – a little encouragement - you know?” He was stammering a little but thought he didn’t sound too bad, considering the circumstances.

Charlie had a real bad temper and Stuckey had watched him beat a guy to within an inch of his life once. He figured he was in for it good and sized up the other man. Charlie might not look pissed anymore, but Stuckey had known him long enough to know that the best he could hope for was a serious beating and a second chance. Charlie really didn't like it when things didn't go exactly his way.

“Well that’s just it,” Charlie said in a voice that was all gravel. “It’s the girls that may need ‘encouragement’ Stuck, but you sure as hell shouldn't.”

“Your job is to take care of them, give ‘em a little product and get ‘em to the party, not get wasted and forget where you’re supposed to be!”

Good, that's good. Stuckeyrecognized the change in Charlie's mood. He was in lecture mode now, so maybe this was just a little coaching session to keep him in line. The thought gave him back some of his confidence. A little more of the fear ebbed away and he could finally get a full breath and gather his thoughts.

“Okay boss, okay,” Stuckey said, holding his hand palm out, as if to stave off any further aggression. “I admit it, I got a little carried away with the stuff tonight and I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again. You’ll see, I’ll take real good care of the girls from now on.”

Charlie lifted his foot from the peeling bark with a cracking sound and took two steps closer to Stuckey, who was still kneeling on the ground, his face covered in dirt and snot.

The man was shorter than Stuckey, around five ten and stocky. He might have been a little fat but there was muscle there too, and lots of it. There wasn't much hair on his head but what was left he wore in a long braid. What he didn’t grow on his head he grew on his face, which was mostly covered by a long half beard that didn’t do much to disguise his thick neck and bulky shoulders.

Contrary to his looks and his trade, Charlie perceived himself to be a charming man, and it looked like Stuckey was falling for that easy, reassuring way now. Likely the stupid shit thought he was going to come out of their meeting with little more than some bruises and go right back to his place as right hand man. But that wasn’t how it worked in the business. When a guy screwed up this bad, there was just no going back. It didn't matter who he was.

Charlie squatted down, moved in and got close, right up next to Stuckey’s face. He reached out with a meaty fist and grabbed a handful of dirty blond hair, pulling Stuckey’s head back so hard he thought his neck might break. Stuckey twisted so he could hold himself against the tree and take some of the strain off, but he couldn’t pull away without looking weak or aggressive.

Weakness was another thing Charlie couldn’t stand, but appearing to be aggressive with the man would be an even bigger mistake.

“You were irresponsible Stuck,” Charlie said, “irresponsible and stupid the way you let those girls get messed up tonight. You didn’t protect my investment Stuckey. Didn't even think about what you were costing me in lost time did you?"

Charlie yanked hard on the handful of hair, practically pulling Stuckey up off his knees. “Get up! Get up and get yourself together,” he commanded.

Stuckey reached his arms behind his back and braced himself on the tree that had been supporting him. He pushed himself up and half stood, half leaned against the rough bark and was thankful to find that his knees had almost stopped shaking. Pushing away, he  stood upright to face his employer, adopting an expression that he hoped was the right combination of strength and servitude. He had to show he had a backbone if he wanted the boss to keep him on, but he also had to show how much he regretted his mistake if he wanted to stay in Charlie’s good graces. It was a tough balancing act but Stuckey had been with the boss for a long while now and, even though he still made some mistakes - like tonight - he was learning the ropes and had the idea that maybe someday he could be running his own show.

Stuckey was thinking so hard he almost didn’t notice when Charlie moved again, so it was a shock when that heavy black boot connected with his left knee, pushing bone and cartilage into a grossly unnatural position.

Unlike the shot Stuckey had taken to his kidneys, this one left him with breath to scream and he did, long and loud, as he slid to his butt at the base of the tree. New tears and mucus made their way down his face in a nasty mess that he didn’t even bother to wipe away.

Jesus Charlie, Jesus! You broke my fucking leg!” Stuckey screamed. But before he could say anything else that black boot caught him in the side of the head and he went flying. Lying on his face in a pile of moldy leaves, he was trying desperately to push himself to the side so he could breathe, when another kick caught him in the ribs. He would have sworn he heard his ribs break, and maybe he did, but he definitely felt it when the brilliant flash of intense pain attacked every one of his senses.

Charlie studied the frail looking form writhing on the ground in front of him, tipping his head first left and then right, taking his time, judging the best place to aim his next kick. Charlie had found over the years that a well-placed kick was really the best way to get his point across and the heavy steel toed boots he was so fond of were perfect for this kind of work. They protected his toes and inflicted a lot of damage to their target at the same time.

Charlie prided himself for his patience almost as much as his charming personality. But his patience with this scrawny, numb - nutted kid had finally been exhausted when he’d shown up tonight, stoned off his ass with the girls stumbling along behind.

A man should be able to trust his people, especially when they were responsible for his most valuable assets – his drugs and his girls.

That thought tipped the big man over the edge and he flew into a rage. It no longer mattered to him where he hurt the kid. The time for patience was past and he lashed out, kicking savagely over and over again at the figure writhing on the ground. He didn’t know how long he’d been pounding away when he realized the kid had stopped crying and begging, or even trying to claw his way along the ground like the wounded animal he was.

Charlie stepped back to catch his breath and then squatted down to look into a face that was nearly unrecognizable. Dirt and leaves were matted into the blood, snot, and tears that covered every part of Marlon Stuckey. The kid wasn’t dead because he could see one narrow eye still open and watching. It was amazing to him how much emotion could be communicated through that one very small, very battered orb. Well, Charlie thought with a grim smile, they did say the eyes are the windows to the soul.

Stuckey knew he was hurt and he knew he was hurt bad. He could barely breathe and his body forced out a feeble cough, like an old dogs bark, that wracked his body with more pain. He peered through his one good eye and watched Charlie study him like he was some sort of strange animal he’d never seen. Part of him was more scared than anyone ever had a right to be, and part of him was mad, but mostly he was sad thinking about his mom and what she would do if he lived through this – or if he didn’t.

At eighteen Marlon had been running for Charlie for almost four years. His mother would kill him if she knew what kind of mess he'd gotten himself into. Funny, it didn’t look like his mom would get the chance.

Marlon Stuckey tried, and failed, to curl  up and protect himself from the brutal pounding that, for the moment, seemed to have stopped. His body just simply wouldn't respond. He realized then that he was no longer really feeling the pain, Not feeling anything at all really. It was just that his brain kept telling him the pain was there, and that the pain was leaching the life out of him.

He shrank away, if only in his mind, as Charlie reached out and once again grabbed a hank of hair, jerking his head back to study his work. Even in his befuddled state Stuckey caught the brief look of surprise on Charlie's face when his head moved back in a most unnatural way - like a half full bag of potatoes that had gone bad.

"Well now would you look at that?" Charlie said.

"Looks like it's broken alright," he continued, as if they were having a conversation that sincerely pained him. He shook his head now with a look full of false compassion and regret. "Sorry Marlon, but I don't have much use for a man with a broken neck you know. I guess I'm gonna have to let you go."

********

Candi was truly wasted. She'd started to come down a little off that last hit of the heroin they'd been sampling - just enough to sense that something wasn't quite right with this drive up into the woods. When Charlie had pulled over and ordered Marlon to take a walk with him, he'd left the girls in the car with a serious admonishment to stay put. But that had been a while ago and Candi was getting nervous, being out here alone in the dark. The chatter from the other two wasn't helping.

"This is weird," she mumbled, and rolled her head back and forth toward Kitty and Chyna, who were sitting on either side of her in the cramped back seat. The girls didn't act like they'd heard her and kept up their irritating banter, leaning around and talking over her.

"Shut up!" Candi shouted. The other two just looked at her, surprised into silence by the bitchy tone.

"What's with you?" Chyna asked. "We're just trying to have a little fun here. I mean Jesus, we gotta sit out here in the dark and wait for Charlie and Stuck. You want us to just sit here and stare at each other?"

Candi was losing her buzz alright, but she was still experiencing that weightless feeling in her head - the one that made her feel like her movements were one step behind her brain, causing a strobe like sensation each time she turned to look at one of the others on either side of her. The stuttering motion added to the eerie feeling she had and she wasn't able to grab hold of the thoughts skittering through her mind.

Kitty laughed, low and throaty, leaning her head back against the leather headrest. Rolling her head side to side, she ran her hands down the front of her body in a slow, seductive wave that caught Chyna's attention.

"Whatcha doin' over there Miss Kitty?" The sultry voice belied the little Asian school girl image Chyna portrayed with her plaid skirt and coal black pig tails.

"Just having a little party in my own brain," Kitty said, practically purring. "If you promise to play nice I might invite you to join me."

"Oh, I'll be nice," Chyna sing-songed, turning and throwing a leg over Candi's lap to get to Kitty. She tipped her head down to Candi as she straddled her and playfully nipped her top lip.

Candi jerked her head back and away, pushing Chyna off to her left in an effort to get her back in her seat. She wasn't surprised by the girls' sex play. After all, she'd engaged herself a time or two, but only when there was an audience of paying partiers just jonesing for a turn on.

"Jesus Candi, what the hell is your problem?" Chyna was good and pissed now, shoving her face so close Candi could see the streaks of red threaded through the whites of her eyes. Or maybe she was just imagining that since it was so dark out here she'd hardly been able to see the seat back in front of her.

"Back off Chyna," Kitty said in a low voice. "Charlie's back."

When the driver’s side door popped open Chyna was back in her seat looking properly zoned out while she studied her manicure. The car dipped and rocked from the added weight and then the door swung closed and the engine roared.

Charlie turned to look over his shoulder and smiled kindly at the three girls still parked in the back seat. His little Angels. He knew it was a cliché but it always gave him a sense of satisfaction to know that they belonged to him, and that they would do anything he asked. Anything.

"Ladies," he said with a charming nod. "Did you miss me?"

"Weeelll" Kitty drawled in that little girl voice so completely out of sync with her seductive smile. "We were just keeping each other company back here but we're happy you're back."

Candi didn't mean to say it, to say anything, because she knew that was usually the best policy when dealing with Charlie.

But before she could stop herself, before she even knew she was speaking, she blurted, "Where's Marlon?"

Charlie twisted his body now and turned his head a little farther, better to see all three of the girls behind him. His gaze was cool as he looked directly at each of the girls, one by one, in a way that said clearly he was not to be questioned.

"Stuckey decided to move on," he said, turned himself back to the front, shifted gears, and peeled out onto the road.

"Ummm, are we just leaving him here?" Candi asked with a little half laugh.

Chyna grabbed Candi digging her nails into the palm of her hand. Candi snatched her hand back and glared, but caught the minuscule movement of Chyna's head. The warning, along with the fearful look in her eye, had Candi pressing back in her seat and keeping her mouth shut.

Charlie didn't bother to answer, or maybe he just hadn't heard, but either way Candi was forced to ride back to town worrying about Marlon and wondering what the hell was going on.

*****

Chapter 1

Claire watched as the burly man with the beard kicked the boy over and over again. The boy didn't fight back, couldn't fight, and just lay on the ground in a puddle of misery. Candace was there too, crying and asking over and over again where Marlon went.

To think of the dream as disturbing would have been a gross understatement and Claire was grateful when she woke to find herself in her own room, her own bed. Safe and sound if not well rested.

She had finally - just - been able to find some sense of security. This past year and a half she had spent a lot of time, and a lot of searching, to find that security. Her mother and sister had been with her through the process, trying to find their own comfort while they recovered from what she thought of as the dark time. That dark time when they had been abducted and held by a crazy bastard and his even crazier bastard kid.

Part of that security came from knowing that some really good things had happened after. But before, there had been a dream. And none of them had paid any attention to it until it was too late. This time, with the dream still vivid in her mind, she felt the same sense of reality, and of fear, that she had that first time. But this time she would make sure she didn't just brush it off as the result of an over active imagination and too much junk food before bed.

She tossed her legs over the side of the bed and stood, tugging up the flannel pajama pants that were constantly sliding down from her narrow waist. With a sense of urgency, she hurried from her room and headed downstairs, calling her mother's name. She found her outside on the back patio, elbow deep in potting soil and surrounded by the herbs she was getting ready to plant in the new pots.

"Mom" she said, "there you are."

"Morning honey," her mother said, glancing up with a quick smile. "How'd you sleep?"

"I have to talk to you mom," Claire said without preamble. "I think Candace is in trouble."

Looking up from the brightly colored pots, mother studied daughter, searching her worried face. She knew that look. Stopping what she was doing, she cleared her mind, reaching for calm and something that would resemble wisdom. Maeve Tidewell intended to give her daughter every bit of her attention.

She stood and pulled off the pretty pink and green gardening gloves she'd picked up at the nursery last night and motioned toward the patio table. "Let's sit over here and you can tell me about it. What do you mean Candace is in trouble?"

"I had a dream," Claire said with her big blue, soulful eyes locked onto Maeve's.

Maeve could see the nervousness, the insecurity in the way Claire watched her, the way her shoulders turned forward in a protective posture.

Maeve didn't want to ask, didn't want to know what Claire had seen, but she knew her daughter, and knew they would both be strong enough to deal with whatever it was. She wouldn't turn away from it, she knew that too, and would meet whatever challenges she was faced with.

"Okay," she said, reaching again for that calm. "Tell me. Tell me what happened in the dream."

"There was a guy, well two guys but one was more a boy really. He was about Jason's age, I guess, and the other man was hurting him.” Maeve could see the tears starting to form in Claire's eyes and she took both hands in hers, holding them securely in her lap.

Claire took a deep breath, steadied herself and started again.

"He was kicking him Mom. He had these big black boots and he was kicking him - over and over again - and the boy was just lying on the ground. He wasn't moving mom. I think maybe he was dead."

And then the tears fell and Maeve pulled her daughter close, crooning to her that everything would be alright. Claire felt like because her mother said it, holding her and loving her, then maybe it really would be true.

She pulled away and sat up, sniffing and rubbing her nose across the back of her arm. "Yuck," she said and went into the house for a wet paper towel. She carried it back to the table, wiping her face and arm along the way.

"It's okay Mom. I'm okay," she said and sat back down to finish telling her mother about the dream. Maybe together they could figure something out and help Candace, though she didn't know exactly what she needed help with.

Maeve sat patiently waiting for Claire to continue, but her mind was worried and her heart was hurting for her little girl.

"The thing is Mom, Candace was there. She didn't look the same, but it was her and she was crying and she kept saying "where's Marlon, where's Marlon?” Do you think maybe it's not really Candace that's in trouble and maybe it's just about one of her friends?"

"I don't know honey, but first we'll talk about the details a little more and then I'll go see Beth. I don't want to frighten her but if this is about Candace we need to know. When you say she doesn't look the same, what do you mean?"

"She had all this makeup mom, like bright pink eye shadow and blush, and lipstick, and she had real bleached blond hair in these long pigtails with big pink bows. There was really thick black eyeliner all around her eyes too. She was wearing this weird outfit - like with really short white shorts, a bikini top and fishnet stockings. And a surgical mask, like a bad Halloween costume or something."

Well, Candace was a little bit of a free spirit but Maeve hadn't ever seen her dressed like that. She was almost seventeen, only a year or so older than her own girls, and her best friends daughter. And if there was any chance that what Claire had seen in her dream was real, if Candace was in some kind of trouble, she would move mountains to make sure she got help.

"What else?" Maeve asked. "Did you see anything else?  Maybe where they were or what the other man looked like?"

"I think they were in the woods but I don't know for sure. There were trees and lots of dead branches and leaves. And the man had his back to me, to Candace, so I didn't really see all of his face.” Claire sat quietly for a minute, thinking hard about everything she'd seen in the dream.

Maeve sat quietly with her, holding on to her hands again, offering support and just to let her daughter know she was there, listening. Such delicate, fine boned hands, Maeve thought, for such a strong girl.

"He was big, not tall but big, you know?" Claire said as she pulled her hands away and spread them apart at her shoulders to show Maeve that the man was broad, bulky. She snapped her fingers and pointed at Maeve. "He had a beard! A long beard but not on his whole face. It was like a - what's it called? Oh, a goatee, yeah a goatee," she said, snapping her fingers again and raising her voice in excitement.

"Do you think you'd recognize him if you saw him?" Maeve was half hoping that Claire would tell her no, she wouldn't know the man if she passed him on the street.

If she couldn't recognize him then she wouldn't be in any danger. And maybe there wasn't any danger, but Maeve was getting that feeling, the one that told her something was definitely wrong.