Riley Thorn and the Blast from the Past
6:44 p.m., Wednesday, October 30
Riley was dumped unceremoniously onto the floor and immediately began fighting her way free. They’d taken her upstairs. The music and giggling were much fainter.
Someone whipped the material off her head, and she fought to get a full breath into her lungs.
It was dark. So it was the smell that hit her first, and she knew exactly where they’d taken her. The Creepy, Smelly Closet.
She had to keep her wits about her, Riley reminded herself. Any second now, the cops would arrive and the drugs would wear off. Nick would break out of his office and find her in no time. And if she kept the bad guys occupied up here with her, everyone would be safe.
The overhead light snapped on.
Riley blinked, trying to bring the woman into focus. She had a faint Southern accent. Not the bless your heart genteel kind but the wrastle gators in the swamp kind.
“Here we go again,” said the man who’d carried her upstairs. “You told me to bring you Dolly. I brought you Dolly. Nothing I ever do is good enough for you.”
The woman gestured angrily at Riley with the gun she held. “Does she look like the right Dolly Parton to you? I swear, I should have divorced your dumb ass years ago.”
The man sneered. “Well, good news for you because my cousin Otis never got ordained, so we ain’t never been married.” It was Zorro. The guest who had been handing out cups of punch.
And the woman peeled off her Guy Fawkes mask and glared at Zorro.
“Lurlene and Royce, I presume?” Riley scooched up against the back wall of the closet. She could have sworn she heard a hissing noise come from the grate.
“Great.” Lurlene threw up her hands. “Second Dolly knows our names. That means that tramp already opened her big mouth.”
“What’s the big deal?” Royce asked, dragging off his Zorro hat.
“The big deal is now we have to kill them all.”
“Uh, can I interject here?” Riley raised a hand. “I’m sure we can work something out so no one needs to die.”
Lurlene beaned her with a roll of painter’s tape. “Shut her up, and then tape her hands and feet together,” she ordered Royce.
“She ain’t goin’ nowhere,” he argued.
“Well, I don’t want her screaming or trying to run away when we kill her.”
“Have you always been this bloodthirsty?” he wondered.
“Yes! You just haven’t paid any attention to me for thirty years!”
“It sounds like you two are under a lot of stress,” Riley said, frantically searching for a way to connect with her captors. That’s what her favorite show, Made It Out Alive, always said. Well, that and don’t ever let yourself be taken to a second location, which she’d already screwed up. “Running your own business isn’t easy.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake. Shut your damn trap, whoever the hell you are,” Lurlene snarled, pointing the gun in Riley’s face. “Tape her up good, Royce.”
“Don’t get your panties in a twist.”
“If you think for one second I’m going back to scrubbing country club toilets or worse, you got a rock in your head where God shoulda put a brain. We have a billion dollars on the line here. I’m not walkin’ away from yacht money.”
“All right. All right. No need to lose your dang mind again. If you want Dolly dead, she’s dead,” Royce muttered. He grabbed Riley’s hands roughly and wrapped the tape around her wrists several times.
“Wait,” she said. But the next piece of tape covered her mouth. Which was a stupid, amateur mistake to make seeing as how she could just reach up with her bound hands and remove the tape. But she decided to keep that information to herself until she could use it to her advantage.
There was a very distinct hiss behind the grate.
Royce made quick work of taping her ankles together. “Happy now?” he demanded and tossed the tape. It bounced off the floor and hit the grate, knocking it askew.
“Not yet,” Lurlene said, crossing her arms and tapping her foot.
Royce made a big show of being annoyed when he pulled a knife out of his belt and opened the blade in Riley’s face. She flinched and flattened herself against the wall.
She was not going to die in a stinky closet during Nick’s birthday party.
Five days earlier
8:33 a.m., Friday, October 25
Riley Thorn was finding being psychic while chipping away at her To-Do list to be more complicated than she’d thought.
She swiped the roller through the pan of primer and sneaked a peek at the man in the closet next to her. Gabe was tall and broad and muscled in ways that suggested an inhuman metabolism. He had his back to her, his own roller working methodically. His dark skin and black workout gear were still pristine despite the fact that they were slathering primer onto the walls of the Creepy, Smelly Closet, which was attached to one of the seven questionably livable guest rooms in her new house.
Riley, by contrast, looked as if she’d wrestled with Casper the Friendly Ghost just before he exploded.
“You are pausing to focus,” Gabe observed without turning around.
“Sorry. This multitasking-psychic thing is tougher than I thought,” she said, getting back to work.
Technically everything about being a psychic was tough.
The intrusive thoughts that weren’t hers, the confusing ethics of mind reading, the constant decision-making. Did the guy in the cereal aisle need to know that he was going to get fired Friday? Did the mechanic at the tire store really need Riley to tell her that Aunt Marmella had wanted her to inherit the mantel clock but Cousin Bruno had stolen it during the wake?
“Try again. Paint the wall and open your mind,” Gabe told her.
She took a deep breath and immediately regretted it as the scent of something “earthy” and rotten hit her nose. Something had definitely been living in here at one time. If this paint job didn’t take care of the smell, Riley envisioned her psychic garage doors opening wide.
They were practicing reading minds while distracted by physical tasks. Usually, in order to read someone’s mind, she had to mentally drop into what she called Cotton Candy World. A place that existed inside her head filled with puffy clouds and friendly, invisible spirit guides who communicated with her in code.
Sure, the occasional stray thought from a passing stranger presented itself to her. But recent events, including a murderous city mayor and a vigilante serial killer with a bomb, had highlighted the need for mind reading on the fly.
Yeah. It was as weird as it sounded.
She wondered what Nick was doing. Then guessed she already knew. It was the same thing he’d been doing since August.
He hadn’t come to bed again last night. Since they’d moved out of one crumbling mansion on Front Street into another, her private-investigator boyfriend had spent more nights in his new home office than he had in their bed. Now they were only having sex two or three times a week, down from the baker’s dozen of the summer.
She blamed her grandmother.
When the great medium Elanora Basil told a man that the woman who’d disappeared on him six years ago—the woman whose presumed death had still weighed on him—wasn’t actually dead, it was bound to stir things up.
Since that fateful summer day, Nick had redoubled his efforts to find Beth Weber. Retracing his steps through the investigation files. Calling old witnesses. Revisiting old anonymous tips. Scouring cold case forums online for rumors.
While Nick obsessed about the past, Riley quietly kept her eye on the future. In the mornings, she trained with Gabe. The afternoons were reserved for work. But as Santiago Investigations’ office manager, her workload had lightened considerably since Nick hadn’t taken a new case in a while. Instead, she’d been using the time to chip away at the never-ending to-do list of a homeowner with a dilapidated, eight-bedroom Tudor mansion.
“Being present in the moment is a gift,” Gabe said behind her.
Damn it. Her brain was full of chatter this morning, and for once, it was all her own.
She dipped the roller into the pan again. She needed to buy more primer. Oh, and pumpkins for the front porch. Some decorations might make the place look less “haunted house” and more—
Gabe cleared his throat pointedly.
She let out a growl of frustration. She was a psychic, gosh darn it. A powerful one. Sort of. The latest in a long line of gifted women. She could paint a damn wall and read a damn mind at the same time.
Mental pep talk complete, Riley stared hard at the wall and forced her hand to move the roller in the V-shaped coverage she’d seen on YouTube. She breathed—through her mouth—and covered decades’ worth of stains with a thick coat of eggshell-white stain blocker.
“What did the skeleton say to the bartender?”
“Ha! I got it,” she announced triumphantly as Gabe’s message finally floated into her brain.
“You have stopped painting again.”
“You are capable of great things, Riley,” her friend said. “You can do this.”
“I can do this,” she said through clenched teeth.
She focused on the white. The clean, fresh start that erased the past. A blank slate.
“I’ll have a beer and a mop.” The punchline was out of her mouth before she even realized it was in her head. She turned to find Gabe’s wide, proud smile.
“You have done well.”
“So have you,” she noted. Gabe’s wall was finished and perfect. And still not a dot of paint on him. Something rustled in the vent at the back of the closet. “Let’s get out of here and celebrate with breakfast.”
They cleaned up the paint supplies and headed downstairs. Riley wondered if they had any sesame bagels left. She’d worked her way through two bags of them in the past week alone, and for some reason, the craving was even stronger this morning.
She frowned halfway down the stairs. “Do you smell bacon?”
Gabe sniffed the air. “It does indeed smell more like breakfast meat than decomposing body,” he agreed.
She grimaced. They’d gotten the mess of a riverfront Tudor on half an acre for a steal. Mostly because of the guy who’d gotten murdered in the secret passageway and stunk up the place that summer. Her sister, Wander, still had to wear nose plugs when she visited to protect her psychic snoot.
Hoping that Nick had taken a break from his investigation to fry up some bacon, Riley hurried into the kitchen.
It was a large room with orange flowered wallpaper and a hodgepodge of cabinetry and counter tops that didn’t exactly match but also didn’t totally clash. The stove top was new, the oven was older than Riley, and the massive Kelvinator refrigerator was a throwback to the Jurassic age.
In the midst of old and new, the purple-haired Mrs. Penny had her orthopedic shoes propped up on the hideous yellow table in the middle of the room. Perky at eighty-one, Lily Bogdanovich waved a pair of tongs at them from the ancient stove where a pan of bacon sizzled. A fleck of glitter sparkled on the handle of the frying pan. Riley’s oversized dog, Burt, tore his hopeful eyes away from the bacon to wag his tail at them.
She sighed. “That explains where the dog went. What are you two doing here?”
“When I saw you mowing the yard between our houses yesterday, I just knew it was an invitation for breakfast,” Lily announced happily. “Your kitchen has better light for making breakfast.”
“But you forgot to leave a door unlocked for us, so I broke a window in the mudroom,” Mrs. Penny said.
She did not have the energy to waste today arguing with her neighbors about yard maintenance and visitation etiquette. Instead, she helped herself to a cup of coffee and headed over to the corner of the room, where three neatly labeled clipboards hung in a row. She plucked the one labeled Riley’s To-Do List off the wall and crossed off Prime smelly closet and Train with Gabe with a flourish. Then added Clean up glass in mudroom. In a futile effort, she took Nick’s To-Do list off the wall, flipped back several pages, and added Replace broken mudroom window right under Mow lawn and Fix office door latch.
She wanted to cross Mow lawn off his list, however, since she’d already added it and crossed it off her own list, she decided it could stay on his for next week in hopes that he would actually at least look at the list.
“Your hair is looking exceptionally purple today, Mrs. Penny,” Gabe said to his elderly roommate. To help Riley become a better psychic, he’d moved in next door while Riley had been staying with the pack of geriatric troublemakers. Even after she’d moved out, he’d stayed as a babysitter, light-bulb changer, and fire-extinguisher operator.
“Thanks,” she said. “Your head’s looking pretty damn shiny today.”
“It is kind of you to notice. What are you making for breakfast, Lily?” Gabe asked.
Lily and her twin brother, Fred, were co-owners of the Bogdanovich mansion next door. Not only were they roommates, they also shared a hobby of recreating recipes. Some turned out okay, and some were natural disasters. The bacon looked safe, but Riley had concerns about whatever was smoking in the oven.
“Eggs, bacon, and Cracker Barrel hash brown casserole,” Lily announced, before glancing at Riley over steamed-up glasses. “You really need to look into getting more than one pan, you know.”
“Pots and pans are on the Buy It list.” Which was just as long as the Fix It list. Riley turned her attention to the woman with the makings of a chocolate goatee on her face. “Mrs. Penny, what are you eating?”
“Nothing,” Mrs. Penny lied despite the small mound of candy wrappers on the table in front of her.
“That’s for trick or treat night!”
Mrs. Penny shrugged. “If you didn’t want anyone eating it, you should hide it. Not leave it sitting out for anyone to find.”
“I did hide it.” Riley had squirreled away the new candy stash in one of the empty kitchen cabinets after she and Nick had accidentally eaten the first stash. It turned out buying Halloween candy that you liked was a terrible idea.
“Yeah, but you hid it behind the gluten-free kale chips along with your stash of Jelly Krimpets. Those kale chips only camouflage junk food from your mom, not an expert PI like me.”
“Being a partner in Nick’s business does not automatically make you a private investigator,” Riley reminded her.
“Says Pennsylvania state law. Look, I’m studying up on investigations and licensing,” Riley held up a textbook she’d bought off eBay. She paused to blow a speck of glitter off the cover. “We could study together.”
“Studying’s for nerds,” Mrs. Penny said dismissively as she unwrapped another mini Butterfinger with chocolaty fingers. “I’m gonna get me some real-life experience.”
On a sigh, Riley crossed the kitchen and rummaged through the bread drawer. No sesame bagels. Damn it.
Gabe dropped a canvas tote onto the counter in front of her. “I brought sesame bagels and vegan cream cheese.”
She pounced, snatching the bag out of his hands. “Gimmie!”
She nearly tore a hole in the bag freeing a bagel.
“Someone’s hangry,” Mrs. Penny observed.
“I’m not hangry,” Riley snapped. For the past week, she’d craved sesame bagels like she had some sort of vitamin deficiency. This was her third bag this week. And every night, she dreamed about fancy shoes and costume parties on merry-go-rounds until she woke up dizzy.
A loud thud followed by a series of bangs caught their attention.
Burt’s ears perked up, and he trotted out of the kitchen.
Riley pushed the lever on the toaster and moved to follow him. “Someone watch my bagel so it doesn’t burn.”
The banging wasn’t coming from the outside. It was coming from Nick’s closed office door.
“You okay in there?” she asked, leaning against the wall.
There was another thud and then a violent rattling followed by silence. “No,” came the mopey response.
Riley reached up above the door frame and found the flat key. “Sometimes the latch sticks when you close it. Remember?”
“Now I do,” Nick growled.
“It’s on your To-Do list,” she said, inserting the key into the latch and wiggling it.
“I said I’ll get to it when I get to it, Thorn. Now get me out of here.”
The latch sprung open, and Riley rolled the pocket door into the wall. “Oh, my.”
Nick Santiago was naked from the top of his sexy, dimpled face all the way down to his bare feet. There was quite a lot to appreciate. Lean, hard muscle. Dark ink over strong arms. Just the right amount of chest hair. Meaty thighs. And a spectacular penis that seemed to always be ready for action.
And when he turned to the side, she spotted a few flakes of glitter on his ass. “Sleep stripping again?” she asked.
He looked down, then shrugged. “I fell asleep rewatching WNEP’s special on Beth when she went missing.” The morning grumpiness seemed to burn off for a moment, and his gaze softened on her. “How’d you sleep?”
“Fine,” she said. He didn’t need to know that she’d had the dream again.
“You get into a fight with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man?” he asked, observing her paint-splattered arms.
She shook her head. “Gabe and I doubled up on training and housekeeping. We primed the smelly closet.”
Naked Nick reached for her, hooking his fingers into the waistband of her sweatpants. “I told you I’d help you with that.”
“I know.” She peeked over his shoulder at the war zone of his office. “But you’ve been busy, and Gabe didn’t mind.”
“As soon as I find Beth, I promise I’ll help out around the house more.”
She gave him a small smile rather than opening up a can of worms. “Sure. No problem,” she said instead.
“Good morning.” He slid those fingers from her waistband around to her back.
“Morning,” she said, melting against him. Nick’s touch was an automatic aphrodisiac to her.
“How’s my girl?” he asked.
“I could go for a little naked quality time today if you’re available.” She slipped a hand down his chest and across his abs. “It’s been a while.”
“Yo! Riley! Where do you keep the chocolate syrup,” Mrs. Penny, still wearing her chocolate goatee, bellowed as she hustled into the foyer. Her eyes lit up behind her bifocals when she spotted them. “We got a Code Man Fanny out here, Lily!”
“Fuck,” Nick muttered as a girlish shriek echoed off the kitchen walls.
Lily sprinted through the swinging door into the foyer at top speed. She caught sight of Nick and skidded to a stop. “Now that is some prime man fanny.”
She wasn’t wrong, Riley thought as Nick used her body as a shield. Even with his heart-shaped scar, it was a prime fanny.
“Why are they in our house?” he growled.
“Our kitchen has better light,” she explained.
“And better Halloween candy,” Mrs. Penny added.
“And firmer man fanny,” Lily interjected.
“Everybody back to the kitchen,” Riley ordered. “You go find your pants.”
“Party pooper,” Lily pouted.
“What’s with you and all the sesame cravings this week?” fully-clothed Nick asked her when he joined them in the kitchen. He helped himself to a KitKat that Mrs. Penny hadn’t yet devoured.
Lily gasped and dropped the tongs. Bacon grease splattered everywhere. “Riley, are you pregnant?”
Nick choked on his KitKat. Riley couldn’t tell if the panic on his face was related to lack of oxygen or to the idea that she could be knocked up.
“I knew you looked a little fluffy around the middle,” Mrs. Penny said, pointing at Riley’s abdominal region with a Hershey bar wrapper. Riley peered down at her stomach and frowned.
“Would you like me to perform the Heimlich maneuver?” Gabe offered solicitously.
“What? No!” Riley sputtered. “I mean, no, I’m not pregnant. You’ll have to ask Nick about the Heimlich.” She’d already triple-checked her birth control pill pack this week. Plus, with the dramatic dip in her sex life, the odds were definitely not in favor of an oops baby.
Nick waved Gabe away and washed the KitKat down with a hit of coffee. “You’re sure,” he rasped.
“I’m positive,” she said dryly before turning her back on him and slicing her bagel.
Gabe joined Mrs. Penny at the table and produced a tall cup of what looked like liquefied spinach.
Nick’s eyes narrowed. “Hang on a second. You people travel as a pack. Where’s Fred and Willicott?”
As if on cue, a power tool roared to life somewhere in the house.
Nick took off out of the room at a run.
“Look, as much as I love you guys, you really need to not just show up and cook a meal—” She paused for a moment and listened to the raised voices coming from the hallway. “Or start renovations without asking,” she added.
“Hey, I work here. I’m supposed to be here,” Mrs. Penny said, holding up both chocolate-covered hands. The eighty-year-old was now a not-so-silent partner in Nick’s private investigation firm, Santiago Investigations. A decision Riley was certain Nick was bound to regret.
“I’m just saying it would be nice if you called before you came over—or at least didn’t break in.”
“And I’m saying if you gave us all a key we could come and go as we please without breaking more windows,” Mrs. Penny said, crossing her arm over her chest. She had a tiny piece of glitter on the end of her nose.
“I would never wish to invade your privacy,” Gabe said earnestly. His brown-eyed puppy-dog gaze slid to the bowl of Halloween candy.
Riley rolled her eyes. “Help yourself. I’ll buy more candy.”
Gabe’s biceps bulged cheerfully as he dove for the candy bowl.
Nick returned to the kitchen and shoved a circular saw onto the top shelf next to the refrigerator. “For the last time, if I want your help with renovations, I’ll ask you,” he said to the men who followed him.
“Look at all these sexy ladies,” Fred said, patting the frosted tips of his boy-band toupee. He wore a pair of harem pants and a T-shirt that said Yoga Does a Body Good. The Bogdanovich twins had the market cornered on lusting after the opposite sex.
Mr. Willicott shuffled in behind Fred. The man could pass for an elderly Denzel Washington…if Denzel was grumpy and confused most of the time.
The toaster spit forth her bagel and, with a glance over her shoulder at Gabe, Riley snagged the non-vegan cream cheese from the fridge.
Nick came up behind her and settled his hands on her hips. “I need you to babysit today, Thorn,” he said, rubbing his stubble against her neck.
Riley dropped her knife. “Again? I was going to ask you to take me shooting again. I feel rusty.”
“As soon as I find Beth, everything will go back to normal. I promise. I just need you to hang in there for a little longer.”
His lips tickled their way down her neck. “Please, Thorn?”
She was helpless against that.
“Fine. But you owe me. And the first order of business when you find Beth is to figure out what’s rotting in the Smelly Closet upstairs.”
His grin was lethal. And the flash of dimples had her knees going weak.
“Anything for you, Thorn.”
“Breakfast is served,” Lily trilled.