Murder By Design

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Chapter 11

August 21, 1998

The card had been taken from her in her first foster home, along with the meager few possessions that she had managed to hold onto from her previous life, as well as the short time that she had spent in witness protection. But that was okay. By that point, it had been folded, crumbled, run over, soaked, dirtied, and generally mistreated enough that it no longer even resembled a business card. That was okay, too - River had memorized the information on it within the first two weeks, just by reading it over and over until the words played in her mind every time she closed her eyes.

Making her way to the given address was much more difficult than remembering the address, though. She had tried calling the phone number that he had given her - borrowing her teacher’s phone one day with the excuse that she needed to call her foster parents and tell them that she would be coming home late. But the number was no longer in service - all she got was a dial tone.

Just making her way out of the latest foster home was troubling enough, though - in the past two years, she hadn’t had many reasons to practice her lock-picking skills, and the front door had several locks on it. The bedroom that she shared with two other girls - also foster children - was on the third floor, with no nearby trees, so climbing out through the window was out of the question. River had had weeks to plan out her escape while she collected what little money she needed. She would steal small amounts of money from her foster father’s wallet, or her foster mother’s purse - only up to five dollars at a time, though. That way the missing money wouldn’t be as noticeable. She had never tried running away before - out of the four homes that she had been in, this one was by far the worst - and was nervous about the outcome to say the least.

She waited until she was sure that the foster parents were asleep - it didn’t take as long as it usually would have. That probably had something to do with the sleeping pills that she had slipped into their food - it had been her turn to cook dinner tonight, enabling her with a reason to be in the kitchen that didn’t seem suspicious.

Judging by the dosage that she had given them, she waited about three hours before getting out of her bed. She froze for a moment as the bed springs creaked under her as she rolled off of the mattress, and then winced as the floorboards squeaked under her stiff movements. She pulled a battered blue bag out from under her bed, slipping it on.

It took her longer than usual to reach the door, and River tried to convince herself that it was just because she was being cautious. But there was still that nagging voice in the back of her head that said otherwise.

She could hear her blood rushing through her veins, her heart pounding in her chest as she crept down the hallway. River froze when she made it to the staircase, barely daring to breathe as she stared at the closed door of the master bedroom. She half expected one of the foster parents to come bursting out the door, ready to start swinging at her…

It took a moment to shake herself out of it, and then continued on her way. River had mapped out the stairs ages ago - she knew exactly where not to step to avoid the awful creaking sound that could happen. Things got slightly easier once she made it to the carpeted flooring, and she took a shaky breath. She unlocked the door slowly, flinching slightly every time when the lock clicked open as she made her way down the line, slowly opening all six of the deadbolts.

River only allowed herself to relax once she had made it to the end of the street and no one had come after her yet.

Now came the hard part - getting from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. Although, compared to what she had just done, River thought wryly, it would be a piece of cake.

As she looked for a suitably dense patch of woods, she allowed herself to slip into the past a bit and her muscle memory kicked into play. She remembered the countless lessons on stealth and maneuverability that They had given her when she was younger. She stuck to the edge of the tree line - far enough in that it was unlikely that anyone would spot her, but far enough out that she could still see by the moonlight.

After a couple of minutes, she found a good enough spot, and pulled her backpack off of her shoulders, letting it fall to the ground. She pulled out a couple of things that she would need - a long sleeve shirt that said “Live for Ponies” on it - even though the shirt made her want to gag - a container of foundation, a mirror, and a roll of money. As she slathered the skin-tone cream all over her face, she was careful to cover up every necessary spot. She didn’t bother with covering any of the ones on her chest and arms, because those would be hidden anyway. If even one bruise was left visible, it could spell ruin for her plan, and she may even be sent back to the home.

And if that happened, she was most certainly dead.

August 24, 1998

It took her a total of three days to make it to Washington, D.C. - although the trip would have only taken her about twenty-four hours if she hadn’t spent so much time backtracking and laying low. But one of the first things that They had taught her was to always make sure to cover your tracks.

That was why she had stolen cash from her foster parents, instead of just taking their credit cards. Credit cards were traceable. Cash was not.

River arrived at the address that Agent Leone had given her two years ago completely exhausted. Yet even the dizziness that she was feeling - along with the yellow and black spots that kept dancing in front of her eyes - couldn’t taint the pure elation that she felt at finally reaching what she hoped would be her safe haven.

She just stood there for a moment, trying to gather up enough courage to knock on the door. There was a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach, one that she had only ever felt once before - whenever she first began to enact her plan to get Them caught. It was hard to believe that that chapter of her life only ended a few years ago.

Before she even managed to work up the courage to raise her fist to knock on the door, it swung open. River stood there in surprise, just watching as a redheaded woman stormed past her.

“Daniel Alexander Leone, you best get your butt inside right now, or so help me…” she said, only it sounded a bit different due to her thick southern accent. She trailed off when she saw River standing there, though, and her scowl was quickly replaced with a sunny smile.

“Hello.” the woman said, sounding a lot more pleasant now that she was no longer screaming. “Are you a friend of Danny’s?”

River shook her head, stunned completely speechless by this woman. But it wasn’t like any of the other types of speechlessness that she had known. It wasn’t a necessary speechlessness - the kind that only occurs when you know that the slightest sound could be the difference between being found or not, and it wouldn’t be pleasant if you did get caught. It wasn’t a scared speechlessness - the kind that comes when you messed up and are about to pay the consequences in painful spades.

Instead, it was a calm speechlessness, like she instinctively knew that this woman would help her. River wasn’t sure why - the woman didn’t look like much. She was tiny, only about a head taller than River was, with pale, slightly freckled skin. But her pale complexion was evened out by the dark red hair that was piled on top of her head, and she wore overall shorts underneath a baggy button down shirt that had been tied up Madonna-style.

“Ok…” the woman said, tilting her head slightly as she looked at River in confusion. “Are you… selling… something?” she guessed.

“No.” River answered, finally pulling herself together. She was so completely exhausted at this point that she could barely even function. “Agent Leone gave me this address,” she said, hoping that this woman would at least have some idea of who she was talking about. “He told me that if I ever needed anything, to come here.”

This time, the woman looked at her differently. “Oh did he now?” she said, and River could sense the annoyance in her voice, but she could also tell that it wasn’t directed at her - it was directed at Agent Leone.

The woman continued to just look at her, and River’s hopes quickly fell as she waited to hear the inevitable phrase: “Get lost!” Or some variation of it. So she was pleasantly surprised when the redhead smiled at her instead.

“Alright.” she said simply, before turning around and going back inside of the house, her bare feet slapping loudly on the wooden floor. River just stood there, unsure of what to do? Did she follow the woman or not? She hadn’t been told to, so maybe she was expected to wait outside?

“Well?” the woman - she really needed to learn her name, River thought to herself - called out from somewhere in the house. “Are you comin’ in, or are you just gonna stand out there all night long?”

She hurried inside, following the voice to a cozy-looking kitchen. It was painted a pale green color, with a tiled floor. The back wall was covered in oak cabinets, and the countertops were all light speckled marble. There was some sort of hanging sculpture over the sink, and the sunlight that came in through the window caught in it, causing the room to be washed in reds, blues, and greens. The long wooden table had only four chairs, and then a bench on one of the long sides, and was already set for dinner. The woman was standing at the stove, stirring something in a big steel pot with a wooden spoon.

Dinner… River’s stomach rumbled at the thought. The last thing that she had had to eat had been two days ago, when some stuck up jerk had left a diner after screaming at a waitress because his eggs weren’t cooked right.

She had thought they had been cooked perfectly.

“I’m Scarlett, by the way.” the woman said, her back to River as she left the pot and picked up a knife. She began to chop up some sort of herb as she continued on with the conversation. “Scarlett Leone. My husband, the fancy G-man that you met, isn’t here right now - he’s out of town for at least another day.” she stopped working her knife for a second to fix River with a searching look. “But just a warning, sweetheart - every person who lives in this house knows where the guns are kept, and how to use them, y’hear me?”

River was too shocked by the sudden change in Scarlett’s behavior to do anything more than nod. As soon as she had, though, the redhead was back to being the sweet person that she had been.

“Good.” she said, going back to her cooking. “Nothing personal, hon, it’s just standard procedure for any people that my husband has met through work. Even RJ had to go through that. Hell, poor RJ nearly shit himself, too.” she laughed. “Anyways, you’re welcome to stay for as long as you need, or at least until my husband gets back.”

Scarlett turned around then, and her cheerful smile automatically changed into a look of concern. “Y’all right, hon?” she asked, just as River stumbled, backing into the table.

She heard a crashing sound, but it sounded funny, as if there was cotton in her ears. She looked around the room, seeing Scarlett coming towards her, and tried to wave the woman off, managing to slur out, “’m fine, ’m fine,” before she collapsed on the floor.

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