Grave Shelter Sneak Peek
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Copyright ©2022 Kate Allenton
Psychic Ryley St. James’ feet pounded against the forest as the beam of her flashlight jostled from jumping over a patch of broken branches. Running was never her idea of a good time, but tonight she’d been left with no choice.
Sleeping was more important. Always. And Ryley wasn’t getting any until she finished this.
She’d learned that lesson at a young age, when the first creepy-ass ghost stalked out of her closet nightly and wouldn’t leave her alone.
They all had to go. None were welcome to stay.
Ryley’s lungs burned as rings of breath frosted and crystalized in the air. The telling chill suggested winter was fast approaching. Chill or not, she was not losing this damn ghost, not this time.
Ryley swerved, just barely bypassing a tree trunk in her way. It was a twisted version of playing tag when ghosts could float through objects that normal people had to maneuver around.
“Ryley, stop or at least slowdown. You might be running into a trap,” Detective Jake Crews called out from somewhere behind.
It wouldn’t be the first time a ghost had led her astray.
Ryley didn’t slow. A flash of red in the distance had her speeding up, pushing her arms and legs harder and faster through the trees. She was getting this done tonight. No matter what.
“Faster, Ryley. Don’t lose her,” Private Investigator Logan Bane called out, contradicting Crews. The fact that the detective’s ex-BFF and disgraced partner were working together made the night ten times icier.
She wasn’t listening to either of them. Tonight, she had her own agenda, which included a rekindled relationship with the back of her eyelids.
Brittle leaves crunched beneath her running shoes. She’d come prepared for a long haul. She might need an oxygen mask when she was done, but come hell or high water, she was dealing with this tonight. Nothing was going to stop her.
A little girl’s giggle crested in the wind.
Ryley narrowed her eyes at the taunt.
Her body and mind protested even as apprehension slithered down her spine. A decent night’s sleep was within reach. She could feel the tendrils in her grasp.
“This way. Hurry up.” She didn’t dare look back to see where the others were. One mistimed blink or distraction and she could trip and fall over a log, and the spirit might disappear again.
The undergrowth thinned, giving her a glimpse of the moonlight glistening off the lake. They were running out of forest, and Ryley couldn’t walk on water, unlike her prey. Urgency licked through her veins. Voices grew louder the faster she ran. Sounds and music came from campers somewhere nearby. She grinned.
There would be no turning back. No one but herself to blame. Even if she had to knock people out of her way as she passed. Assault charges would be worth it.
She broke through the brush and skidded in an attempt to stop. Her foot caught on a retaining wall. Gravity and inertia propelled her forward.
The slap of the cold water stole her breath as a million tiny pinpricks stabbed against her skin from the icy lake water.
The giggle grew louder.
Ryley sputtered, trying to grapple for footing. Wiping the water out of her eyes, she turned every which way in an attempt to locate the source of the giggle.
“You found me,” the little girl called out from a seat on the diving platform several feet away, farther into the inky abyss. She smiled. “You win.”
Ryley treaded water. “Where’s your body? Where are you? You promised to tell me this time and be specific. No more games.”
The girl pointed down into the murky water. “Down there. The platform is his compass. It’s so cold. I’m ready to get warm again.”
“Me too,” Ryley whispered.
“I’m ready to see my mommy.”
“Is your mom dead too?”
The girl frowned. “You’ll stop him, won’t you? You promise that you won’t let him hurt anyone else?”
She had promised. “I’ll do my best.”
The little girl nodded.
“Ryley, you’re nuts. Get out of that water before hypothermia sets in,” Detective Crews called out.
Ryley ignored him and climbed up onto the diving platform used by the lake residents.
“But first, tell me your name. You promised.”
“Millie Johnson.” The young girl’s spirit started to shimmer. Ryley was running out of time.
“You’re beneath the platform?”
The girl nodded. “Me and the others. None of us were right.”
“Right about what?” she asked.
“We weren’t keepers. He likes this spot. He likes to visit us to remember what he did. When he’s done with us, he likes to put us in the lake, only when the moon is full.”
“Every full moon?” Ryley’s heart raced as she glanced at the sky. They were running out of time.
“No. Only when he’s done with them. I saw him when he thought no one was watching. That’s why he took me. He promised that one day he’d stop, but I didn’t believe him. That made him angry so he added me to his collection.”
The cool air cut through Ryley’s soul, causing goosebumps to rise all over her body. She dropped to her knees in front of the little girl. “Who did this, sweetie? Who likes to visit this spot?”
“The bad man. He sees everything. Everyone. If you get caught, there is no escaping him. We all tried, and we all died.” Her voice broke off just as her spirit disappeared.
“Ryley, talk to me!” Detective Crews yelled out.
Ryley glanced down at the inky water in front of her. One spirit after the next floated up to the surface, face down, as if trapped in their final resting state while in spirit form. Women, too many to count. “You’re going to need divers and body bags. Lots of body bags.”
“Damn it,” Crews growled.
Ryley sipped hot coffee beneath the warmth of a police blanket as she stood on the lake shoreline bathed in police spotlights. She’d changed into dry clothes hours ago, even though her hair wasn’t fully dry.
Five body bags, filled, rested on top of the diving platform. There was no telling how many more were down there.
Millie was the first to come out; her red flannel dress gave away her identity. Her apparition appeared when her body surfaced. A worried longing filled her tiny face, instead of a look of relief. You promised. The words echoed in Ryley’s mind as the little girl’s spirit vanished.
Ryley’s shoulders eased. She’d been trying to get that little girl to talk for two weeks and had lost way too much sleep.
She was going to sleep for days starting tonight.
“You did good,” Private Investigator Logan Bane said, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. “Crews was right, though. You shouldn’t have gone into the lake. You could have gotten hypothermia, but you did good.”
“A midnight swim wasn’t my intention, and Millie didn’t warn me.”
“She going to leave you alone now?”
Ryley shrugged, not a hundred percent sure. “I hope so. I don’t think they’re going to let me near her body to touch her bones and send her into the light.”
At least not yet. Like any other time, she might just need to bribe someone at the medical examiner’s office to get close enough if Millie didn’t leave on her own accord.
“I’m sure she will. She’s a kid. She shouldn’t have much reason to stick around.”
“She’s bad for business. Lack of sleep makes me cranky, and you know it’s a problem when the lushes at my bar have started to notice.”
Sheriff Cavanaugh had arrived ten minutes ago. His voice stayed low as he spoke with Detective Crews. This was the most morbid find of the decade.
A serial killer’s cache. An evil dumping ground. Some might say this killer needed a pair of metal bracelets and to die behind bars. Metal bracelets were too kind.
Feet plastered in concrete and tied to chains, dumped in the same spot where the last victim was pulled out, would do the trick. If Ryley were more like her criminal father, she’d make sure he received the same treatment. Hell, she still might. If not in this water. She owned the perfect piece of tainted land.
Crews nodded and lowered his head as Sheriff Cavanaugh, clearly irritated, pointed a finger in Ryley’s direction.
She took a step, and Bane held on tighter. “You don’t want to get in the middle of that. The sheriff isn’t much of a believer in anything but facts.”
She shrugged out of his hold and smiled. “Maybe it’s time someone opened his eyes.”
Crews’ eyes widened when he spotted her headed in their direction. He shook his head slightly in warning, which only made her smile grow.
“Sheriff,” she called out as she approached. “You going to give me a key to the city for finding the serial killer’s graveyard?”
The sheriff’s eye twitched. Ryley had that effect on people.
“Guess not. So, are you going to give Crews the commendation? I would say that he excelled at his job tonight.”
“Commendation for what, exactly? Disobeying a direct order?”
She frowned. “Our straight laced Crews would never do that.”
“Ryley, you’re not helping,” Crews muttered beneath his breath.
“You must be rubbing off on him.” Cavanaugh’s sharp voice overflowed with irritation.
She brought out the best in everybody. It was another one of her charms.
“Judging by the look of things, I think you have about a half-dozen cases that are about to heat up.” Ryley gestured to the diving platform. “There’s no telling how many more are down there.”
Cavanaugh turned the weight of his attention on her as he spoke. “Crews, go get me an update while Ms. St. James and I come to an understanding.”
“Yes, sir,” Crews said, hurrying off.
Cavanaugh rested his hand on his gun belt. His buttons were more than pushed. They seemed ready to pop, and she was prepared to jab them some more.
“You care to explain how you knew the bodies were there?”
“A ghost told me. Millie Johnson, to be exact, after she made me chase her through the woods and take a midnight swim. You’re welcome.”
“How do you think the press will feel about a cop ignoring his superior officer and taking instruction from a psychic? I have grounds to fire him.”
“But you won’t. Imagine the press.” She grinned. “I’m sure you’ll figure out how to spin it and take it as a win.” She patted his arm. “Just like you did with Crews’ mother’s case.”
His narrowed eyes turned deadly.
“I helped find Millie for your investigation. It can be our little secret, and if you play your cards right, I might help again. But only if you ask nicely.”
“Now listen here, Ms. St. James.”
Every syllable of her name sounded like it was going to jail.
“You better hope that there’s no evidence linking you to those victims. If there is even one shred of it, I’ll have you behind bars so fast that your fancy lawyers won’t even be able to get you out on bail.”
She opened her mouth to protest and then snapped it closed, giving him a double middle-finger salute in her mind. Cavanaugh was a man of his word, not that she’d ever stick around long enough to give him the chance to follow through on his promises. He’d have to catch her first. “Good thing I’m not the killer.”
“And not even Uncle Freddy will be able to cut through the red tape to save your butt this time.”
That was a warning if she’d ever heard one. Ryley’s brows pulled together. Well played, Sheriff. He knew of her witness protection inclusion. It seemed some little birdy had spilled one of her many secrets.
She’d spent years hiding out from the man who wanted her dead. It was just a matter of time before her dear old dad returned to put a bullet through her head. She needed to come to terms with the fact that her secret had been outed months ago. She was living on borrowed time.
Cavanaugh walked down the deck, where Crews was talking to the head diver.
Her fingers itched to shove Cavanaugh into the water. Make him really respect and understand what she’d gone through to help them with Millie’s case.
She could pretend to trip right into him and send him over the edge. As much fun as that sounded, having twenty guns turned in her direction wasn’t appealing. She wasn’t willing to test an itchy trigger finger among the bunch. Still, her lips twisted in a smile at the thought.
She cracked her knuckles and headed straight toward him, only getting three steps when Logan appeared from behind and grabbed her hand, spinning her around as if he’d somehow read her mind.
“I know that look. It leads down a dark path.”
“I like the dark,” she said, glancing back at Cavanaugh.
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