The first conscious thought Astrid had was what in the hell happened, and the second was the realization she couldn’t move or see very well. She made a muffled, panicked outcry against a gag. Laying on her side on a mattress reeking of piss with both arms and legs bound behind her back, Astrid judged she was in deep shit.
The dimmed room her crusty eyes took in appeared vacant except for the putrid bed and a boarded-up window that let in the only light. Astrid’s skull felt split open. Through the throbbing at the back of her scalp, she tried to make sense of how she arrived there.
Astrid recalled watching TV Monday night when a noise came from the laundry room. She got up from the couch, stomping down the hall, agitated something must have rolled off of a shelf after placing the sheets she and Remy soiled into the dryer. Hearing a chuckle, she startled and…
A masked man!
Had Remy kidnapped her? No, he swore he would never hurt her. She struggled not to cry. The cloth in her mouth made it nearly impossible to breathe and knew if she did, her nose would become stuffy.
She squeezed her eyes shut, wondering if Remy finally cracked, not believing she loved him and took her to kill her in the same fashion as his former girlfriends. It had been nighttime last she looked, but daylight filtered through the boards covering the window. How much time passed? With a terrible headache making it hard to focus, figured whoever hit her wanted to be sure she’d be unconscious for a while.
Footsteps on the other side of the closed, warped wooden door made Astrid shake uncontrollably with dread. Who knocked her out and brought her to this horrible place? Sheer terror caused sweat to break out along her exposed flesh, and her breathing became ragged and uneven through the gag. If she didn’t get a hold of herself, she’d hyperventilate and pass out.
The footsteps teased, shuffling back and forth, then rattled the tarnished brass doorknob several times. Astrid inhaled calming breaths through her nostrils even as pain from the head wound made her want to throw up. Did she have a concussion?
Then Astrid heard somebody. She froze. A man breathed her name, slowly and tauntingly through the door. Icy fear arrested every inch of her consciousness, making her nausea ten times worse.
“Aaassst-RID,” he taunted too softly for her to recognize the voice.
She needed to go back to sleep — anything but hogtied and tormented! She couldn’t walk. Couldn’t talk. Couldn’t stop the fading light behind the broken window from plunging the dank space into absolute darkness.
In Astrid’s head and heart, she fathomed it wasn’t Remy mocking her. He preferred to witness her discomfort, and this freak’s tone held none of his wolfishness. Her strength returned as time went by and the name-calling stopped. She would not end up like Joyce and Alice. Whoever abducted her had done this because of Remy. Who did they both know? Astrid tried to calm down, praying to get out of this situation alive. She should have known this would happen after the weird behavior Remy displayed. He said he’d feared for her safety, but she hadn’t realized someone would snatch her out of her own damn house!
Shutting her eyes as shadows filled the room, Astrid asked God to send Alice and Joyce to help fight the evil bastard who kidnapped her. To let her return safely to the men who surely were freaking the hell out because if she had one guess — Remy and Calder were either accusing each other or working together to find her.
* Tuesday Night *
Calder discovered the blood first.
His stomach lurched, seeing the proof, as he prayed on the way to Astrid’s, would not be there. That Astrid required help and no clue where she could be.
Remy swayed, holding onto the kitchen wall. They both spotted a bloody handprint on the laundry room door. A spot of crimson stained the carpet too. Not much, but enough for both to conclude Astrid was seriously injured.
“I’m calling the cops,” Calder gasped, fumbling for his phone. He dropped it, cursed and with trembling hands retrieved it.
“I had her followed,” Remy snatched Calder’s cell with sweaty palms nearly losing the device too, “I always had a deep-seated fear another girlfriend would go missing.”
Calder swallowed, backing away from the crime scene and the psycho who pestered his girl until she broke. Did Remy think him an idiot? Then he saw how Remy’s hands shook with his face devoid of color. He was just as shocked as he was at the situation.
“I asked Julia for a lawyer outside your circle,” he eyed Calder’s retreat calling someone else for assistance, “I found your private dick, prick boy. He’s supposed to tail Astrid, making sure she’s okay when I’m not around.”
He frowned, knowing Chip Marrlow wouldn’t work for a punk like Remy. Not unless the price was right. The guy was a good investigator. He probably kept watch over Astrid after learning Remy’s past, but why hadn’t the PI said anything?
“We still need the police!” he growled, “If you didn’t do this, we have to find out who did! Every second counts! She’s hurt!”
Remy nodded with a glare, “Chip? It’s me.” He listened to the other end of the line before running out the front door.
“Slow down asshole!” Calder shouted, following closely behind realizing Remy had nothing to do with Astrid’s disappearance and now needed to trust the man he liked least in the world.
* Meanwhile *
The circulation in Astrid’s arms and legs was nonexistent, and she whimpered at the numbing exhaustion. Night made it difficult to distinguish much, and the quietness felt ominous, leaving her to wonder when the kidnapper would come back.
Would he kill her tonight?
Even as Astrid’s mind raced, her heartbeat remained steady, keeping her centered with hope and strength. She would not show fear to whoever abducted her. She told herself this over and over, although images of what Joyce and Alice went through impossible to block out, knowing they suffered before dying.
With her body numb and cold along with her throbbing head, it became hard to stay alert. Astrid was not supposed to end up here! She chose Remy! They were starting over. He was going to quit his job and help her find a new one. They discussed what made them both happy and found confiding in each other at the top of the list.
Was anyone looking for her yet? Poor Remy. The police probably pinned her disappearance on him. Calder would finger him for the crime without batting an eye. Foolish, stubborn men!
The door opened, and Astrid’s bowls nearly loosened. She squinted in the dark but couldn’t make out anything. The man slowly approached the mattress with shuffling steps.
“Astrid,” whispered a familiar voice, “Have you prepared yourself? There’s no one to rescue you.”
She moaned when the tie holding her hands and feet gathered at the small of her back fell apart. Her limbs were still bound, and the tingles spreading up and down her aching frame didn’t care as sensations returned to her extremities.
He chuckled, “It wasn’t easy getting to you. You always have a guy nearby, don’t you? But, now you just have me.”
Astrid inhaled sharply, recognizing the voice at last. Jay? Why would he kidnap her? And did he murder Joyce and Alice? How did he know where she lived? Nothing made sense!
He poked her breast, and she suppressed a scream. Didn’t move or cry out against the gag as her instincts urged. With the same knife he used to cut the rope, he sliced through her shirt from top to bottom. How he could see?
“Would you like some light?” he asked as if reading her mind, “I do. I want to look at the misery on your ugly face.”
Ugly? Resorting to name-calling already? A tapered yellow candle illuminated Jay’s eerie face inches from hers. He grinned ear to ear resembling a deranged maniac, chilling her blood. Oh fuck, he really intended to hurt her! What did she do to piss him off?
“Better?” he giggled, setting the flame out of reach.
Astrid caught sight of a hunting knife in his hand before looking at his pleased expression, trying not to react, telling herself she could make it through whatever he did to her. She would not die by Jay’s hands. No fucking way.
She studied him in the flickering candlelight. He wore a pair of worn jeans already unbuttoned with no shoes or socks. Her breathing increased. No, no, no! Jay planned to rape her! She heard an indistinct keening noise, then realized it came from her! When he spoke next, she resumed her resolve not to give in no matter what.
“I must say you look stunning tied up,” he hummed, palming her breast, “I’ve waited a very long time to steal you. Remy won’t get out of this. His luck isn’t that good. It’s all his fault you’re here.”
Astrid closed her eyes when the knife prodded the tip of her nipple. The bastard thought Remy made him do this? He played his friends perfectly. How Jay justified his actions caused her stomach to roil, and if she had any food in it, she would have thrown up.
“We grew up in the same orphanage,” he huskily told her, moving the sharp instrument lower, “He doesn’t like me. Arlo does, and that’s the only reason he’s friendly. I watched the asshole snag women so easily while I hoped he’d catch a disease. You were the only one he ever shared. Ha, but he was high. You were sensational that night.”
Astrid stiffened when Jay unzipped her shorts. The knife moved to the crook of her neck as he stuck his fingers inside her panties. She remained motionless when he pinched her, blood boiling at his cocky smirk.
“Don’t pretend you aren’t wet,” he hissed, pulling the blade back, “We’re gonna have quality time tonight, slut. I’ll give you the best kind of pain. Side note, Remy, and Calder will never recover from losing you. You should show some gratitude. I took you in place of Rose. Oh… you didn’t know? She’s another one of Remy’s fuck buddies. He bangs her like a loose drum every chance he gets.”
Astrid kept her eyes on the doorway. If she focused elsewhere, instead of his hateful words and intrusive touches, maybe she wouldn’t feel so horrified. Feel sucker punched and hopeless. Jay brought her there to murder her because he hated Remy. Coveted what his friend had.
After setting his weapon beside the candle, he stood and kicked off his jeans. She tried to not make a sound when he roughly ripped her clothes down to the binds around her ankles. He grunted, rolling her over. Astrid’s breaths became so labored it hurt. She glared at the water-stained wall, afraid to turn her head to see what he was doing. With his legs on either side of her naked body, he retrieved the knife.
“Shall we begin?” Jay chuckled near her ear, making her whimper in abject terror, “I know you’re dying… for me.”
* * * * *
Remy and Calder met with the police outside Astrid’s house at six. They immediately separated them for questioning along with Chip Marrlow. As they were taping the crime scene off, C.S.I. and local authorities charged in.
Calder found himself defending Remy. After all the times he’d put Remy down to Astrid, he now firmly stated the man was not a suspect. He didn’t care for the way Detective’s Scott Mason, and Roy Laramy badgered them after speaking to Marrlow.
“She needs help!” He heard Remy shouting at Laramy, “Let me find her!”
Laramy had been the detective on Joyce Nelly’s case. He had it in for Remy, so Calder used his best authoritative legal tone, reasoning with him until Mason regrouped with Laramy for a decision on letting the two men leave.
Chip wondered over, “Cal, I phoned your father. He’s on his way to assist. The locals may take you in for further investigation.”
“If you were watching Astrid, how could you not see who took her?” he ranted, getting in the man’s face, “You had one fucking job!”
Chip held a finger out, “I was in front. The bastard dragged her out the back! I do have proof Remy and Astrid are dating.”
Calder snarled, “Keep your proof. I just want her found safe and sound.”
Chip jerked his chin over to where Remy paced. “He should have spent more time stalking his friends instead of a piece of ass.”
“Watch it,” he hissed, outraged at his bold words.
“Someone he knows did this. Had three serious girlfriends go missing? It’s personal.” Chip shrugged, “I’ll talk to the cops and get you out of here, just think about it.”
They detained Calder and Remy for another hour before told to head home and nowhere else by a pissed off Laramy. Both men climbed into Calder’s Porsche, driving away with no intention of following orders.
Calder dealt with his irate father over the phone as he drove towards the nightclub Bounce. If Astrid’s random friends were there, Remy could point them out. It was the only place Calder thought to go. While he was busy, Remy called Arlo to update him on the situation. When finished blowing off Cal Sr. he glanced over to see Remy had gone pale.
“What?” he snapped, “What’s going on?”
“Arlo told me Jay didn’t show up at work or come over for their usual hang,” he shook his head, “Jay grew up with us. He… he’s a little different.”
A grim feeling overwhelmed his already tense body, “Is it him, Remy? Dammit, do the police need to contact this guy? Does Astrid know him?”
“Yes. They even screwed once. He rambled some shit the other day that should have clicked, but… why?” Remy clutched the phone until his knuckles turned white, “Why? Did Jay kill Joyce and Alice too? Was he trying to get me sent to prison?”
Calder heard the bewildering pain in Remy’s voice. To think a person could do such a thing to his friend terrified Calder. How come Astrid never confessed she slept with another man? Was it possible Remy never considered someone he knew was behind all of his misfortune? Hadn’t the detectives questioned everyone in his life when the other women went missing? Calder’s head spun at the unending questions he had.
“Where does he live?” he growled, “Let’s see if he’s the one after all.”
Remy gave him directions, still pale and striving to pull himself together. Jay lived near Remy, in an apartment on the first floor. Remy remained silent, apparently in shock.
“When did they have sex?” Calder pestered, “What did he say to you? Come on, snap out of it! Astrid needs us!”
Remy sighed, rubbing a hand over his eyes, “The fucker cornered her when we were off our faces. It’s why she left me. He brought up my ex-girlfriends last I saw him. He told me Astrid reminded him of Joyce. I got mad and bounced before I laid him out. Arlo knows I don’t like him, but we grew up together.”
“You never suspected Jay? At all?”
“No! Why would I? The nightmare of two Ex’s being murdered was hard enough to process. Why would he stick around all these years pretending to be my friend?”
“He hates you,” Calder bluntly answered, “Psychopaths latch onto wrongs we would never consider. He obviously envies you and hopes to ruin you. There was a similar case in the sixties. I remember it from one of my studies. Don’t blame yourself. Just try to guess where he might hide. His habits. If you’re close, then there’s hope we’ll catch him if he has her.”
“It’s Jay,” Remy hissed, “because if not, she’s lost. I don’t know anyone else who could be so… sick. She’s my life, Calder. I want to marry her. We’re in love.”
Calder strangled the steering wheel, hearing Remy gush about Astrid. Had she really planned to break up with him? He had sensed something off around the time Remy claimed they restarted their relationship. Didn’t Astrid love him? She said he was the only one she’d ever spoken the words to aloud. He exhaled, struggling to rationalize why she was willing to leave him after everything they shared. Was it his family? Or him?
“Astrid’s wracked with guilt,” he quickly added, “She cares for you although you two have fuck all in common.”
Calder relaxed his hold on the wheel, “We share enough,” he muttered angrily, “She left you for me.”
“Don’t start this shit,” Remy sighed with a frown, “I’m glad you didn’t accuse me when those asshole detectives came to you. I’d be in jail right now if they had their way.”
“Astrid cares about you too,” Calder thickly admitted, “I don’t understand why, but she wouldn’t want me to condemn you. She never saw you as a murderer. Ever. She denied it every time I tried to convince her. Sorry, Remy. But, you did bruise the hell out of her.”
“I figured if someone was watching me, they’d assume she didn’t mean shit to me!” he slammed a fist on the dashboard earning a glare, “She’ll never know pain again once we get her back. That bastard will, though. That’s for fucking sure.”
“For damn sure!” Calder echoed, then his mind caught up to his ears, “You… pushed her away on purpose? Wait, is that why you shared her? Dammit, you’ve been expecting this, haven’t you? I should pull over and beat your fucking ass for offering her up on a silver platter for this psycho!”
“We can go, motherfucker!” Remy shouted, but his watery eyes cooled some of Calder’s anger and he kept driving, “It doesn’t matter what I did or didn’t do anymore. Calder, she’s hurt. The… blood. What if…?” He couldn’t finish his sentence as they both imagined the worst.
“The women were tortured before the killer ended their lives. She’s alive,” he stated hard facts they both loathed to accept, “Think of Jay’s patterns. Help me. We’re the only ones who care about what happens to her and I believe you have nothing to do with her disappearance.”
Remy nodded, “We’ll find her. We have to.”