Excerpt: Unlocked (Celeste Files)
Book 1: Psychic CORE
THE NEEDLE PIERCED her skin and a small dose of morphine was sent into her veins. “Open the safe, or I’ll kill the spoiled bitch and her brat.” Hot, humid breath coated her neck as a soft chuckle followed the threat and the needle was removed. “You, too.”
All trust was gone. In its wake was only betrayal and fear. Her death would come anyway. This was a fact she’d been living with for nearly three years and something that could not be avoided. But once the safe was opened, there would be no recourse. No way of saving her daughter and granddaughter.
“Kill me,” she said, grateful her daughter had already visited today and was now safely at home. “I’m as good as dead.” Chemotherapy and radiation had done nothing to save her. The oncologist had tried numerous medications and they hadn’t worked. She didn’t want to die, but she didn’t want to live chained to a bed, her body a shell of what it had once been. And according to her oncologist, that was exactly how she would be in the next few months.
“I intend to, after you give me what I want.”
“No? Then maybe I should bring the bitch and brat here and kill them.” The barrel of a gun came into her peripheral vision. “I’ll start with the fat baby first. Bang. I’ll put a bullet in her—”
She jerked at the horrifying thought, then immediately stilled in the office chair she’d been bound to when the gun was pointed at her. “Please,” she begged, wishing she would die on the spot. That way the safe would remain locked, the threats would become meaningless and her secrets would remain hidden. “How could you do this?”
“How could you?” The brown wig she’d been forced to wear since losing her hair was torn from her head. The cool metal of the gun caressed her bald scalp. “For over forty years you’ve been living a lie.” The gun barrel trailed toward her ear. “I still can’t believe you’d throw away a quarter of a million dollars on a stranger, especially after all I’ve done for you.”
Not a stranger. But her flesh and blood. “Nothing I ever did for you was good enough,” she said, her voice shaking with fear and anger. “Never enough money. Expensive clothes, cars, vacations—”
“You’re right. It wasn’t. You’ve been hoarding and keeping it all to yourself. Now I want it. I need it. So here’s what’s going to happen…you’re either going to give me the combination to the safe, or I’m going to call the bitch and tell her it’s an emergency. Mommy has taken a sudden turn for the worse and needs to see her daughter and grandbaby. She’s as gullible and as stupid as you. And she trusts me. She’ll come. You know she will. And when she does, you will change your mind. The little bitch will beg you to help me open the safe, especially when I’m holding a gun to her baby’s head. Or, better yet, maybe I’ll let the brat suck on the barrel like a pacifier.”
“Stop,” she pleaded, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Please leave them alone.”
“Then give me the combination.”
Even if she did, they could still be killed. “No.”
“God, you’re stubborn. You want to play that way?” A sweaty palm slammed down on her head and pushed back, forcing her neck to arch against the chair’s headrest. “Then you leave me no choice. If I can’t get into the safe, then the only way to make sure I receive my full share of the money is to get rid of anyone standing in my way…like the bitch and the brat. I’m not a fan of murder-suicides, but in this case, I think it’ll work.”
Fear squeezed her lungs. Her breathing came in short quick pants. Her head swam as the morphine began to take effect. She closed her eyes and swore she could hear her granddaughter’s faint cries. She couldn’t allow her daughter and grandchild to be killed because she was too stubborn to open the safe. “I—I’ll do it,” she said on a sob. “Please don’t hurt my babies. I thought you loved them.”
A soft chuckle came at her ear. “You thought wrong.” The grip on her head became painful. “Give me the combination. Now.”
Terror had her heart tripping out of beat as she tried to remember the combination to the safe. The crying became louder, stronger. As if the baby was in the room. As if her granddaughter demanded that she not obey.
Her stomach churned with outrage and resentment. “How can I trust you won’t hurt them?”
“You have my word.”
“What about my other daughter?” she asked. Between the murky dark shadows fogging her head and the sudden buzz in her ears, she tried desperately to picture the beautiful, vibrant woman.
“She’s dead to me. Once I have what I need from the safe, she’ll no longer be a threat. She could go on with her life, as long as she stays out of mine.”
She didn’t believe the whispered promise. Not with a gun pointed at her head, and the threats still hanging in the air like an ominous thundercloud.
The screaming baby penetrated her mind again. This time she didn’t see her granddaughter’s image. Instead she pictured the baby she’d brought into this world, the precious child who’d been ripped from her arms and given away to a stranger. Her baby’s scrunched-up little face became fuzzy as the morphine continued to work its way through her system. The past and the present began to collide. She couldn’t think straight. She couldn’t—
“Give me the fucking combination.”
She closed her eyes. Tears slid down her face. “Eight, five, nine, ” she began, the baby’s cries growing louder. She shook her head hoping the cries would stop, so she could remember the combination before she slipped into that sweet place where there was no pain. As she tried to think, she swore a cascade of water gushed from somewhere in the room. There were no faucets in the office, though. Maybe the water had been left running in the adjoining bathroom? Maybe she wouldn’t die from an overdose or gunshot, but from drowning.
The doorbell chimed.
“Uh-oh. I hope that’s just a delivery or a kid selling cookies, and not Ann forgetting her key again. It would be a shame to have to kill her, too.”
Panicking, her gaze settled on the gun. She sobbed and pictured her longtime companion and best friend, her eyes lifeless, a bullet hole in the center of her forehead. Sickened, she looked at the safe. Her secret wasn’t worth her daughter, granddaughter or Ann’s lives, and no amount of money was worth dying for with the guilt of their deaths blackening her soul. As she finished giving the last digits of the combination, she wished to God she had left the past where it had belonged. But the daughter who had been lost to her, her smile and eyes so much like her own, filled her mind and heart with love. She would die today, but at least she would die knowing she’d done right by her child.
The doorbell rang again. The cascading water started to sound more like a torrential downpour. And the baby’s cries…she needed to be with her. In the dark recess of her mind, she needed to go to her. Hold her. Kiss her.
“Excellent.” The safe was opened, and the papers that would seal her death were withdrawn. “You made the right choice. Now I’m going to do you a favor and kill you.”
She didn’t want to die. She wanted to hold her baby. Ease her tears. Love her. Let her know Mommy would never let anything happen to her. She needed to—
The baby’s cries pierced her ears, just as a needle pierced her arm. As the drug rushed through her veins, something pulled her. Tugged at her psyche. Her mind fell into a familiar tunnel, spiraled and pitched from side to side. Quick movements and bright lights had her blinking rapidly. The baby’s cries sharpened and her skin prickled with dread as the room came into focus. Sucking in a deep breath, her heart and head pounding, Celeste Kain looked down at the crocheted blanket she clutched in her hand.
Her daughter wailed.
Oh, my God. Olivia!
Celeste dropped the blanket, shoved away from the table, then rushed to the highchair where her fourteen-month-old sat, face red and tear-soaked. “Oh, baby,” she said, and began crying right along with her daughter. “Ssh, I have you.”
With record speed she had Olivia out of the highchair and held tight to her chest. She rubbed her daughter’s back and rocked her. As she soothed her little girl, the kitchen sink captured her attention. The large pot she’d been filling with water overflowed. Steam clung to the window where droplets of condensation ran in streaks. She rushed to the sink and shut off the faucet, then looked to the stove. The glass top burner was red-hot and waiting for the pot of water. She shut off the burner, too, all the while chastising herself for stupidly turning it on in the first place.
Her cell phone rang. She jumped and held Olivia tighter. Although her baby girl’s cries had subsided, the heat radiating from her little body told her she’d been screaming her head off for quite some time. How long?
She glanced at the clock. Ten? Fifteen minutes? Confused, her mind racing in a million directions and filled with so many unfamiliar and terrifying images, she kissed Olivia’s head and ignored the phone.
She didn’t know what had just transpired, but she had a terrifying suspicion that the dead were talking to her—again. God, she needed a moment to digest, to remember what she’d been doing before…whatever had happened. She hugged her daughter tighter. Had she slipped into a trance? She must have. But that hadn’t happened since Wisconsin.
Grizzly images of murdered women ran front and center in her mind. She quickly dispelled them and rested her chin on Olivia’s head. This couldn’t be happening again. Not now. She was in a good place. Stress free. In love with her husband, her beautiful daughter and happy with the successful bakery she owned.
The house phone rang. Figuring the call might be from her husband, and not wanting him to worry that he couldn’t reach her, she wiped the tears from her face, then picked up the phone from the charger. The caller ID displayed her dad’s number. Thank God. He was exactly who she needed to talk to right now. Drawing in a deep breath, she answered, “Hi, Ian.”
“I just tried your cell. Everything okay?”
She kissed her daughter’s head again, and held back a sob when Olivia hiccupped. How long had her poor baby been crying? What if Olivia had choked on the Cheerios on her tray? What if she hadn’t been in her highchair and had been toddling around the kitchen? The burner had been on and Olivia could have reached up and burned herself.
“Celeste,” he said, his voice stern. “Answer me.”
“Sorry. Olivia’s fine. It’s just…” How did she tell him? God, how did she keep this from her husband? John worked for her dad’s private criminal investigative agency, CORE. While she trusted that her father wouldn’t say anything to her husband, it would hurt John to know that she’d confided in Ian before him. Then again, John hated her psychic stuff. As for Ian, he’d been the one who had encouraged her to come work for him and use her abilities to benefit his company. Only she hadn’t had a single vision in over two years.
“Just what?” Ian asked.
“I had a vision,” she admitted. Now that Olivia had calmed down and was squirming in her arms to reach a toy on the floor, she sat her daughter on the hardwood.
She ran a trembling hand through her hair until it became tangled in her curls. Snippets, like a quick movie trailer, filtered through her head. A room, cast in the golden glow of a lamp. The mahogany wainscoting on the walls. The pretty floral wallpaper above it. The antiseptic scent. The barrel of a gun. A safe. The pierce of a needle.
She rubbed her arm, then her temple and looked to the kitchen table. To the crocheted blanket she’d been holding. “After work, I picked up Olivia from daycare. While I was making a pot of soup, I went through her diaper bag and came across a blanket that isn’t ours.” She shook her head. “When I held the blanket I must have…slipped away.”
“No.” She had experienced trances during the murder investigation in Wisconsin where she’d met John. The problem with those was that she hadn’t been able to remember what she’d said or done. “This was more like I was giving someone a reading. Only…”
“Only I didn’t try to get a reading and I couldn’t pull myself away from it.” Her chin trembled as she fought the tears, the fear and confusion. She looked to Olivia, who sat on the floor, clapping a large block and plastic keys together. Her daughter paused, looked up at her and gave her a dimpled grin. “I don’t know how long I was…wherever I was. What if this had happened when I was driving Olivia or giving her a bath?” The horrifying image of her daughter in the tub, the water running—
No. She would not go there.
“Where was Olivia when this happened?”
She glanced across the room. “In her highchair.”
“Thank God.” He let out a sigh. “John is scheduled to return from Michigan tomorrow. Do you want him home sooner? I could arrange—”
“No,” she said loud enough Olivia stopped her banging. “I don’t want him to know.”
“He never did understand your gift. Not the way I do.”
She bristled. “John understands. He just doesn’t want to ever see his wife facing a killer again.”
“Celeste, you know it’s more than that. John might have believed in your gift because he’d witnessed firsthand what you could do, but the logical, no-nonsense side of him has always had a hard time truly accepting it. I, on the other hand, have been waiting—”
“Don’t you dare go there,” she said, her temper flaring. “I told you before, I won’t work for CORE.” After Wisconsin, after witnessing the results of her visions, she wanted nothing to do with murder investigations.
“Honey, I’m not asking you to work for me. What I meant…you haven’t had a vision in two years. After what I’d witnessed with your mother and what she could do, I knew in my gut that one day your gift would come back. And it is a gift, one that Olivia might also have.”
She glanced to her daughter again, who looked up at her and gave her another big smile. Her throat tightened. Olivia was so beautiful and sweet. If anything had happened to her…
“Your mother taught you some things, but not everything she knew,” he continued. “Don’t you want to know all that you can about your gift? Don’t you want to be able to help Olivia understand it, should she end up psychic like you?”
Yes, she did. She also knew her dad was manipulating her. But she’d take the bait. She needed to learn how to control her visions. She had a household and business to run. She and John had been talking about having another baby—arguing really. He’d refused to bring another child into the world until she’d hired more help at the bakery. Hiring a manager was easy enough. Except she had control issues. Right now, she couldn’t control her gift. If John found out she was having visions again he’d definitely nix having another child, even if she hired a manager. He might believe in her, but he had always hated what he’d referred to as her psychic stuff.
“You’re right,” she said, staring at the blanket that had transported her to another place and time. “I do want to understand why this suddenly happened again, and be able to help Olivia if she ends up like me. When I first moved to Chicago, you mentioned a woman you knew who could help me. Is she still around?”
At the time Ian had offered her assistance, Celeste had been too busy recovering from the injuries she’d sustained at the hands of a killer, moving in with John and starting her bakery, the Sugar Shack, to even consider meeting with her dad’s psychic acquaintance. The visions had stopped anyway. Marrying John, becoming pregnant with Olivia, the bakery…she’d been so involved with life’s ups and downs that she hadn’t missed or cared about being psychic. Until Ian and his fiancée had been kidnapped two months ago. Then she had desperately tried to gain a reading to help find them, but had been unable. She’d figured she had lost her ability—and was dead wrong.
“Yes,” Ian began. “Maxine Morehouse is still available and I know she’ll be happy to meet with you. I’ll text you her information. I suggest you call her immediately.”
“Maybe you should call her on my behalf. I don’t—”
“Not necessary. I’ve told her all about you. She knows who you are.”
“From two years ago?”
“Trust me. Maxine has an excellent memory.”
She went to the pantry for a plastic grocery bag. Using the bag to avoid touching the blanket, she scooped it inside, then tied the handles into a knot. “Okay, thanks. I’ll call her right away.”
“Celeste, one thing…”
“Yes?” she asked, and picked up Olivia, who smelled ripe.
“What did you see?”
She looked to the plastic bag and hugged her stinky daughter tight. “A woman about to be murdered.”