Buried Deep

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Two missing persons. One apparent suicide. Three cases pushing PI Jessie Cole and crime reporter Ben Morrison closer to the edge.

Lacey Geiger could be a very rich woman. If Jessie Cole can find her. The beneficiary of a sizable estate, Lacey vanished years ago after escaping an abusive childhood and is veiled now behind a new identity. Jessie has two weeks to find her. It’s enough time to discover that Lacey is hiding from so much more than anyone realized. But she isn’t the only one with secrets. And Jessie’s not the only one searching for the truth.

A concerned daughter has asked for help finding her mother—a woman said to have been murdered thirty years ago. And Jessie’s colleague Ben, an amnesiac still struggling with the bloody memories of a shattered life, is nearer to piecing together a very dark picture. Especially when someone he detests is found dead, hanging from a tree by a riverbank.

Now as the mysteries, puzzles, and lies of three investigations are unearthed, Jessie and Ben will risk everything to bring all that is hidden into the light.


CHAPTER ONE

Jason Geiger slid into the back seat next to his wife and shut the door. He exhaled. He shouldn’t be doing this. Sitting here now. Celebrating. It was all wrong. But he hadn’t found the courage to tell Lacey he wanted to call it quits. “Where to?” the driver asked. “The Firehouse,” Jason said. Lacey leaned forward as if the driver wouldn’t be able to hear her otherwise, a ridiculous notion considering she wasn’t exactly soft-spoken. “It’s a very special night,” she told him.

The driver didn’t flinch. Nor did he say a word. “It’s our eighth anniversary,” Lacey went on. “Well, I mean, the actual day is a few days from now, but Jason would never be able to get a weeknight off. He works too hard.” She turned his way. Jason forced a smile as he reached for the bottle of champagne in the ice bucket. Nice touch, considering the price for a ride to the restaurant and back was more than fair, and the car was definitely not a limo. He lifted the bottle as he looked at the driver in the rearview mirror. “Thanks.” No reaction. Something about the man looked familiar.

Jason stared at him, trying to place where he might have seen him before. He finally gave up and instead concentrated on opening the bottle of champagne. A shot of whiskey sounded pretty good, but champagne would have to do. The foil and wire had been removed from the bottle, and all he had to do was pop the cork. Jason poured a few inches of bubbly into the plastic cups provided and handed one to his wife. She hesitated, then took a tiny sip and made a toast. “To the best life,” she said.

“To the best life,” he repeated. He gulped down the champagne and refilled his glass. He was thirty-two years old. He had his whole life in front of him. The prospect of spending another eight years with Lacey just didn’t sound appealing any longer.

He used to see her as cute and quirky. Now he saw her as overly talkative, always hovering over him. She did go out of her way to do things for him and make him comfortable, which was nice, but it just wasn’t the same. Basically, they were friends. Nothing more. He’d never questioned her love for him. But still. He’d spent so many nights in bed, tossing and turning, unsure of how to tell her what he was feeling. But the time was never right. It didn’t matter how late he came home, she always had a smile on her face. She was perky and positive, for the most part. Sure, she had her moments, but her bad days weren’t like most people’s. Any momentary lapses in her always-sunny disposition were more like blips on a radar screen. Fleeting. Every morning he woke up thinking, This is the day I’ll tell her, and every night he climbed into bed beside her and kissed her good night. He might not be able to pinpoint the exact problem he was having with Lacey, but that didn’t change anything. He knew without a doubt that, for him, she just wasn’t enough. Lacey could hardly contain her excitement. Lately, it seemed as if she and Jason never had time for each other, which was why she’d been saving her big news for tonight. She was pregnant.

Finally. Jason had no idea of the extreme measures she’d taken to make it happen. After they had sex in the morning, which wasn’t nearly often enough, he would run off to work, and she would stay in bed and keep her legs raised high, her heels resting against the wall for hours. This was only one of the tricks of the trade she’d gotten from kindhearted people on the internet. She had tried the Espresso, Nutella, and Wine Diet. The No-Dairy Diet. Headstands and yoga.

Nothing worked until one day, she simply gave up trying. Voilà! And now they would be having a baby. She couldn’t wait to see the look on Jason’s face when she told him. Tonight would be a turning point in their marriage. She knew that for certain because Jason had seemed so far away lately. Sometimes she would catch him staring off at nothing for minutes on end. When she asked him what he was thinking about, he usually looked surprised or guilty, as if she’d caught him with his pants down. Then he’d smile and say he was simply tired or he was thinking about a business meeting coming up. Lacey had talked to Jason’s parents and his brother, but they all shrugged off her concerns, suggesting it might be time to find a hobby. Even though she worked part time at a fitness center and volunteered at the local animal shelter, they told her she had way too much time on her hands.

Jason grabbed her arm, pulling her from her thoughts. “Do you smell that?” She sniffed the air. She couldn’t smell anything, really. But that was probably because all her senses seemed off-kilter since she’d learned she was pregnant. Nothing tasted the same. She sniffed again, and this time she thought she caught a hint of something minty. No. No. It smelled like the bathroom cleaner her mother-in-law used. “I don’t feel good,” Jason told her. When she looked at him, she was surprised to see how pale his face had become. He was leaning back against the seat, and his face was pasty white. She took his empty cup and put her full one inside of it before placing it in the bucket. Then she loosened her husband’s tie. He closed his eyes. Air. They needed air. She turned to her right and pushed down on the button to lower the window, but nothing happened. When she looked at the driver, she frowned. He had a plastic apparatus over his mouth and nose. “Is that a gas mask?” she asked. There was no answer. For the first time since she’d climbed into the car, the driver met her gaze in the rearview mirror. His eyes were flat, expressionless. And she didn’t like it one bit. “Please open the window. It’s stuffy back here, and my husband isn’t feeling well.” Panic didn’t fully set in until she realized he meant to do nothing about the situation.

It was then that she looked straight ahead through the windshield and saw nothing but trees and grassy fields for miles. Where are we? Her breath caught in her throat. Her skin felt tingly and strange. She turned back to her husband and said, “Jason. Something’s not right.” But Jason was out cold. She grabbed his shoulders and shook him. “Jason!” Leaning over and gagging as if she were going to be sick, she searched through her purse for the pepper spray she always carried. She reached for it, then grabbed hold of her iPhone and tried to activate the emergency SOS by pressing the side button and the “Volume” button.

But the car swerved, and her right side slammed into the car door. Her phone dropped to the floor and disappeared under the passenger seat. With the pepper spray still in her hand, she used her thumb to swipe the lever to the left as she leaned over the front seat and sprayed the driver. He gasped. The car swerved. Everything was hazy. Her throat constricted. She needed fresh air. The driver slammed on the brakes, and they skidded to a stop. The side of her head hit the back of the headrest on the passenger side. She grunted and grabbed the door handle, trying to get out.

The door wouldn’t open. She had to do something. Thinking fast, she reached over the seat for the device covering the driver’s nose and mouth and yanked hard. The strap broke, and the mask fell to his lap. It sounded as if he snarled at her before he opened his door and jumped out. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw him coming around to her side.

This was her chance! She scrambled over the seats to get behind the steering wheel, clicked down on the lock, and let out a triumphant laugh when she saw the keys still in the ignition. She started the engine and felt a thump above her head as she drove off. She couldn’t see him in the rearview mirror. Where was he? Thump. Thump. Thump. He was on top of the car. Cursing under her breath, she slammed on the brakes. Jason hit the back of her seat, and she jerked forward. The lunatic driver had fallen from the roof and was now hanging on to the windshield wipers. He pulled himself up, a few inches at a time, his body sliding against the hood of the car until his face was pressed against the glass.

He stared at her through the window, daring her to make her next move. The strange fumes floating around the interior of the car were making her dizzy. She put the car in reverse and slammed her foot against the gas pedal. The car shot backward, and the man flew off. But her reactions were slow, and before her foot hit the brake, the car swerved off the road and hit a tree. Her head jerked to the side, taking her breath away. She shoved the stick into “Drive” and hit the gas pedal again.

The tires spun but couldn’t get a grip. He was charging her way. Before she could move to the passenger seat, his fist shot through the window, shattering the glass and making contact with her jaw, leaving her in the dark.


CHAPTER TWO

 

PI Jessie Cole looked down the sight of the gun, took aim, exhaled, and pulled the trigger. Her heart rate picked up a notch. Her license to carry had been revoked after shooting a man in self-defense nearly six months ago. Thanks to friend and lawyer Andriana Iudice, the revocation was successfully appealed. This was Jessie’s third trip to the indoor range in Rocklin to practice shooting since the review board voted in her favor. She had a healthy respect for guns, which meant it was critical that she practice as often as possible in order to get to know her gun again. When Jessie was done shooting, she made sure her pistol was empty before packing it away in her bag. A quick slap of her palm against the button on the wall to her right caused the target to whir toward her.

After removing the paper target from the cardboard backing, she folded it and slipped it inside her bag along with her ammo, safety glasses, and earmuffs. She grabbed her coat from a hook to her left and put it on, then found a broom and swept the spent brass out of the walkway. “Leave your bay cleaner than you found it” was one of the range’s many rules. As she headed toward the door, she saw Colin Grayson packing up in aisle twelve. Not only was Colin a detective with the Sacramento Police Department, he was also her boyfriend, her lover. The thought made her smile. A mere glance his way made her heart kick up a notch. Their relationship had been long and complicated, with lots of ups and downs, and was stronger for it. He joined her outside a few minutes later, and they walked across the parking lot together. “How did you do?” he asked.

They stopped at the back of her car. She opened the trunk and put her things inside, then pulled out her target and unfolded it. “You tell me.” He examined it closely. “Looks like you’re still shooting low and to the left.” “I raised the muzzle and flexed my wrist to the right, but it didn’t help.” “I was watching you shoot in there. You need to relax. If that doesn’t work, you probably aren’t taking the slack off the trigger before pressing it.” She frowned. “It’ll just take some time.” She nodded. “Speaking of time, I was hoping we could take a little drive.” “Now?” He laughed. “I take it ‘now’ is a bad time.” Before she could answer, both of their phones buzzed simultaneously. Colin glanced at his phone. “Gotta get this.” “Wait,” she said. “Where were you going to take me?” He leaned her way, brushed his lips over hers. Straightening, he said, “It was no big deal. I’ll call you later.” She waved him off and had to stifle the urge to say “Stay safe” as she watched him jog toward his car. He was a grown man, perfectly capable of taking care of himself.

Yes, his work as a detective could be dangerous at times, but she didn’t like to think about that. She’d learned early on that worrying was a draining and futile emotion. Before she could ponder why he wanted to take her for a drive, she saw that it was her assistant, Zee Gatley, who was calling. “Hi, Zee. What’s going on?” “I just wanted to know if you would be returning to the office soon.

It’s insane over here. The phones are ringing like crazy. In the past two hours we’ve gotten calls from two more prospective clients.” “Hang tight. I’ll be there soon.” “Ten-four.” Although it felt as if she and Zee had been friends for much longer, they’d met under less-than-desirable circumstances five months ago. Their bond was strong because of it. Zee was twenty-eight. She’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was a young girl. She didn’t talk a lot about her illness, but Jessie knew that Zee often heard three distinct voices in her head. As long as Zee took her medication, she did okay. Better than okay. When it came to investigative work, she was a natural. Thirty minutes later, Jessie walked into her office on J Street in Sacramento and was surprised to find a woman she didn’t recognize sitting in the chair in front of her desk. Zee was nowhere to be seen. The woman looked over her shoulder, her brows lifting in surprise. Midthirties, Jessie guessed. She sported a pixie haircut and long blonde bangs swept to one side of her forehead. She was about to stand when Jessie stopped her. “No need to get up. I’m Jessie Cole.” “Penny Snyder.” They shook hands.

Jessie walked around the desk and took a seat across from her. “Your assistant went for tea. She said she’d be right back.” “Great.” Jessie pulled pen and paper from her top drawer. “What can we do for you, Penny?” “I need help finding out what happened to my mother.” “Okay. Why don’t you start from the beginning?” “The beginning?” Jessie nodded. “When was the last time you saw your mother? Maybe you could start there.” “Oh. I was only five,” Penny said, “but I remember the day vividly. Mom took me shopping for a summer dress to wear on my first day of kindergarten.” Penny exhaled. “That same evening, she made a big fuss over laying out my dress and shoes next to the flowery blue backpack filled with bright-colored crayons. She tucked me into bed, told me she loved me, and walked out of the room. I never saw her again.” She paused before saying, “That was thirty years ago.” Jessie waited as Penny reached into the leather bag at her side and pulled out a slightly smashed shoebox that she set on the desk. The box was held together with duct tape and rubber bands.

“I found this a few weeks ago in my dad’s closet. I didn’t mean to snoop,” she added. “Dad was . . . is . . . much older than my mom. He had a heart attack, and he’s in the hospital.” “I’m sorry.” “Thanks. I went to his house to feed the cat and water the plants—” She stopped midsentence. “I’m rambling. Bottom line, I found the cat and the box in his bedroom closet, and I haven’t been able to sleep since.” She removed the rubber bands and took the lid off. Inside were pictures and old newspaper articles.

Maybe a letter or two. The first thing Penny reached for was a news article. The paper had yellowed but was still readable. “This is an article that was printed in a local paper after my mom’s sudden disappearance. While I was growing up, Dad refused to talk about her. He always said he had been punished for her wrongs, but it was over and therefore time to let it go.” “Punished for her wrongs?” Jessie asked. Penny unfolded the paper and handed it to Jessie. The headline read, ARLENE SNYDER VANISHES WITHOUT A TRACE. “Possessive and controlling husband, Nathaniel Snyder, was ordered to spend eighteen years in prison for killing mother-of-one Arlene Snyder, whose body has not been found.” It went on to say that Nathaniel spent his time in jail denying he murdered his wife. Ten years into his eighteen-year sentence, because of new and better technology, a retrial was granted. Further DNA testing revealed that the bloodstain found in the trunk of Nathaniel’s car belonged to his daughter, Penny, not his wife. Nathanial had said all along that his daughter cut herself at the park, and he used the first-aid kit in his trunk to take care of her wound. This time, the prosecution was unable to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and Nathaniel was released. “I was fifteen when he got out,” Penny said. Jessie finished reading the article and handed it back to her. “So, you believe your mother is still alive?” “It’s complicated,” she said. “I lived with my grandparents on my mother’s side until Dad was released. I was nearly an adult by then.

For ten years I had been told over and over that my father was an evil and violent man. I believed them.” “That must have been a very difficult time.” “It was bad. My grandparents tried to get custody of me but failed, since Dad was exonerated. I wasn’t horribly upset because a part of me wanted to get to know my dad, and he wanted to get to know me. I made things difficult for him, though. I didn’t fully trust him, and he knew it.” Her eyes brimmed with tears. “He tried hard to prove his love. He would make jokes while I remained stone-faced. He attempted to help me with my homework. I pushed him away. I refused to have friends over, figuring they wouldn’t be allowed to go to an ex-convict’s house anyway.” She paused to think before adding, “I was athletic. I played soccer and basketball, and Dad didn’t miss a game. He spent most of his free time watching and analyzing playbacks of his recordings of my games. Sometimes I sat in the living room and watched, but I never said much.” “And your grandparents? Did they visit?” “No.

They despised my father. They thought it was ridiculous that he was let off on what they called ‘some hokeypokey DNA test.’ Convinced that he killed my mother, they sent me a birthday card each year, and I talked to them a couple of times on the phone, but mostly, they kept their distance until I was old enough to drive and come visit them.” The door opened and Zee entered, holding two to-go cups—a hot tea for Penny and a coffee for Jessie. Zee placed the cups in front of them. “If you’ve got this covered, I’m going to go finish up the workers’ comp case.” “Sounds good,” Jessie told her. “Thanks for the coffee. We’ll talk later.” After Zee left, Penny straightened in her chair. This time when she reached into the box, she pulled out five three-by-five pictures and laid them neatly in front of Jessie. “Look at how happy my dad and mom look.” Jessie examined the pictures: Penny’s mom and dad dancing in the living room, looking into each other’s eyes, wearing matching aprons and waving at the camera, playing in the pool, and so on. Both of them bright-eyed and smiling. Definitely happy, Jessie thought.

No denying it. And yet Jessie wasn’t exactly sure where Penny was going with this. “There are more pictures in the box,” Penny went on. “And love letters, too, written to each other before and after they were married. Dad never showed me any of this. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?” Jessie looked up from the pictures. “How so?” “He knew how badly I wanted to know more about Mom. But he wouldn’t talk about her. All these years,” Penny said, her voice quivering, “all he had to do was hand me this box.” “Maybe it was too painful for him to look at the pictures or to read the letters,” Jessie offered. Penny shook her head.

“Look at the wear and tear on this stuff. Everything inside this box has obviously been handled so many times you can see thumbprints around the edges of the paper where the ink is wearing off.” She made a good point. No thin layer of dust or mold coated the letters and pictures, or even the inside of the box for that matter. “Have you ever looked for your mom before?” “No.” “Why not?” “Well, for starters, I don’t know anything about her, not really. I couldn’t even tell you where she went to school since nobody would ever talk about her. I don’t have any information to give you other than her name.” “What about your grandparents? Didn’t they tell you about your mother?” She shook her head. “They don’t have any pictures of her on the wall or bookshelves. Grandpa once told me that seeing her image every day brought them too much pain.”

 

 

 

Author T.R. Ragan
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