BLOG

Mary Stone - Journey's Aim (Journey Russo FBI Mystery Series Book 3)

A Taste of… Journey’s Aim

Chapter One

Daniel  Reaver pulled his truck into the driveway of his two-bedroom, picket-fenced starter home, every muscle aching, caked in dirt from twelve hours of manual labor. He’d installed the irrigation system he’d worked on today himself, but the homeowner hadn’t serviced it for winter, resulting in a near-total replacement. For Daniel, that meant a day of excavating, hauling, and crawling around in the mud under a blazing June sun.

Limping through his front door, Daniel wanted nothing more than to fall asleep on the couch with a cold beer in his hand, his wife at his side. He needed a shower, but he was too tired to stand. Maybe he’d head to the bathroom after putting his feet up for a while.

As he came in, he found Claudia curled up beneath a soft blanket on the couch, dozing in front of the television’s bluish screen saver light. Her brown eyes fluttered open, and her lips curved into a sleepy smile.

After pulling off his mucky boots and sweaty socks and setting them next to the door, Daniel stepped close and brushed her curly, chocolate-colored hair to the side, giving her a peck on the little beauty mark on her cheek.

“Bella’s asleep.”

A gentle reminder to not make too much noise if he wanted to grab something to eat. Their ten-year-old daughter was a light sleeper, even with her bedroom on the second floor.

His day might have been exhausting, but life felt right. Daniel was about to collapse onto the couch, ignoring food and focusing on his wife, when the doorbell rang.

Claudia startled. “What time is it? Who is that?” Inside her kimono robe, her shoulders slumped a little. “That definitely woke Bella up.”

“Shhh…I’ll check it out.” Despite his attempt to sound reassuring, Daniel knew late-night visitors rarely brought good news.

Thanks to his new job at the landscaping company, they’d been able to move to a neighborhood much better than the last, away from the apartment building where an elderly man’s son-in-law shot him over his disability check. In their new home, they no longer ducked at the sound of bullets ricocheting off bricks or feared them coming through the windows.

These days, they could afford to shop at the regular supermarket with the government assistance they’d depended on until just last week. Daniel now parked his old truck without worrying about becoming a carjacking victim. Claudia safely walked Bella to and from school.

Daniel felt a little silly peering through the peephole, but old habits died hard. Straining his eyes against the darkness outside, he only made out shrubs hiding beneath the bright glow of the porch light’s halo.

This was ridiculous.

With an irritated grunt, he flipped the dead bolt and eased the door open. Stepping onto the stoop, Daniel spotted a single feather lying on the center of his doorstep.

What the hell?

Most feathers were old and ragged, but this one appeared pristine, with long, white, downy edges dotted with brown spots. The feather put him in mind of a bird of prey but was too clean and perfectly placed to have been discarded.

Was this a prank?

A muffled groan from inside the house caught Daniel’s attention. “Claudia?” He kept his voice low, mindful of his daughter hopefully still sleeping just up the stairs. He headed back in. “You okay?”

She wasn’t. Not at all.

To his horror, Claudia was in the grips of an intruder, a sinister figure clad in camo with a pig mask obscuring his features. His arm encircled Claudia’s waist, his fingers digging into her flesh through the thin fabric of her kimono. Fear had drained all color from her face as the sharp edge of a knife pressed against her pale throat.

Daniel’s heart raced as he raised his hands. “Please, don’t hurt her.” He hated how his voice trembled with fear. “Take whatever you want.”

“Don’t worry.” The deep voice was only a little muffled beneath the rubber pig disguise. “I will.”

Above their heads, something crashed to the floor in Bella’s room. Instinctively, Daniel glanced up, torn between rescuing his wife and protecting his daughter.

“I wonder who’s up there?” Pig Man giggled as if this were nothing but a joke. As if he weren’t capable of slicing Claudia’s throat with a twitch of his wrist.

Daniel had a split second to decide whether to make a break for it and race upstairs. Panicked, he looked to Claudia, who mouthed one word.

Go!

That was all he needed. He turned on his heel to rush the stairs, but he ran directly into a second figure appearing from around the corner in a dog mask. The guy wore head-to-toe camo like his pal and sported a powerful-looking curved bow strapped to his back, a quiver of arrows clipped to his belt over his hip.

Rebounding off Dog Man’s chest, Daniel crashed onto his back, struggling to fill his lungs with air. Dog Man dropped his knee hard on Daniel’s stomach, driving out the rest of his breath.

A third man started down the stairs. This one also carried a bow with arrows, but he wore a mask shaped like the muzzle of a buck.

Claudia shrieked, echoing Daniel’s feelings at seeing Buck Man coming from the direction of their daughter.

“Hush now.” Pig Man clamped a hand over her mouth. “All that noise ruins the fun.”

Please let Bella be hiding in the closet or beneath the laundry. Please, Lord. Please protect our little girl.

Claudia gulped for air from beneath Pig Man’s clamped palm, each gasp a horrible sucking wheeze. Daniel tried to sit up to check on her, but Dog Face had him pinned to the floor.

A second thump came from upstairs. Daniel forced himself not to look, not to draw attention to their daughter. He watched the masked men for clues, but both Dog Face and Buck focused on Pig Man.

Awaiting orders.

“Let’s play a game!” Pig Man released his grip on Claudia and clapped his hands. “It’s called Ready. Set. Run!” He shoved her forward. “Ladies first!”
Claudia tried to make a break for the back door, but Pig Man and Buck stayed on her heels, chasing her around the kitchen table like a scrambling pair of shadows. But Claudia didn’t scream. Though her breath came in heavy gasps, she remained focused.

Dog Face grabbed Daniel by the shirt collar and lifted him off the floor. As soon as his feet were under him, the guy spun him and shoved him hard enough to send him back down to his knees. “Are you stupid? You heard the man. Run, boy, run!”

When her pursuers switched their attention to Daniel, Claudia broke for the door, leading them out into the backyard. “Save Bella!”

As all the men followed, they laughed like devils loose on Hell’s playground.

Daniel did not want to leave his wife in the hands of these monsters, but with them preoccupied with Claudia, he had one shot—probably his only shot—at getting upstairs to his child.

Turning, he sprinted for the stairs to the two bedrooms. But as he rounded the corner halfway up, he skidded to a stop on the landing at the sight of the nightmare waiting for him at the top.

A fourth man, this one in a bull mask, held little Bella clinched in his arms, her bare feet dangling above the floor. Even though everyone always said Daniel’s daughter looked small for her age, this was the first time he really noticed the fragility of her thin arms and legs.

Tears streamed down Bella’s face, soaking into her favorite dinosaur nightgown. “Daddy!”

“Don’t hurt her!” Wooden stairs groaned beneath the onslaught of Daniel’s feet as he rushed upward, fueled by fear-induced adrenaline pouring through his limbs.

Bull chuckled beneath his rubber skin. “Think fast, Daddy.” His last word came out in a snarl.

A second later, Bella went airborne, arms and legs flailing. Time froze as Daniel’s full attention zeroed in on the child, noting the way the light from downstairs caught on Bella’s loose, outspread hair as he calculated her trajectory faster than he could think.

Stumbling, he caught her, just managing to stay on his feet. Bella’s nightgown ripped in his grip with her inertia, but he swung her head away from the wall before she could slip through his hands.

Bull clapped, slowly, all disdain. “Good catch. Bravo!”

Bella sobbed, shaking in Daniel’s arms as he swung around to escape back down the stairs.

Find Claudia. Call the cops. Find Claudia. Call the cops.

But he pulled up short when Pig Man walked back into the kitchen, dragging Claudia by the shirt behind him. The screen door slapped sharply into the frame in their wake.

She hadn’t made it far, but she’d clearly put up a fight. Mud streaked her face, and tears rent her robe. Blood dripped from her nose, and her eyes held a dazed cloudiness, as if she’d taken a punch to the face.

Fear and rage crashed over Daniel at the thought of all the ways these freaks could’ve hurt her.

“Announcement!” Pig Man skipped over to the foot of the stairs, Claudia barely keeping her feet in his grip. “Announcement, everyone. I believe it’s time to play our last game of the evening.”

Dog Face, Bull, and Buck clapped and cheered.

Daniel pushed Bella’s face into his chest, blocking her view of the horror as he descended the stairs, Bull clattering down at his back. “Don’t look. Close your eyes.” Her warm tears bled through his cotton t-shirt as he whispered into her tangled hair.

When Pig Man shoved Claudia toward her family, she crashed into Daniel. Her hands encircled his bicep, and they stood huddled together between the stairway and living room.

In one smooth motion, Pig Man reached over his shoulder and withdrew his bow, then pulled and nocked an arrow. “This is a game called Race for Your Lives.” He raised his weapon, aiming at the center of Daniel’s chest, the exact spot where Bella’s head rested. “Put her down.”

Daniel shook his head. “Please don’t—”

“No, no.” Pig Man clucked his tongue. “On her feet. This game is everyone for themselves.”

Bella screamed and clung tighter to Daniel’s neck.

“Don’t make us help you, little girl.” Pig Man altered his voice to sound like an evil cartoon character, his tone dripping menace. “Daddy needs all his strength to win.”

“C’mon. She’s just a kid.”

The poured-rubber mask remained unmoved. “The rules are the rules. If she doesn’t follow them, I’ll have to shoot her.”

Claudia placed herself in front of Bella and Daniel, chin raised. “Don’t you touch her.”

“I said, put her the fuck down!” Pig Man stepped forward, putting the point of the arrow an inch from Claudia’s eye. “I will shoot you. Then her. Then him.” When he turned his piggy face to Daniel, his eyes seemed to sparkle as red as the devil’s. “Do you want me to put this arrow through her eye, big man? Put. The. Girl. Down.”

“Okay, Bella.” Every syllable tasted sour, a betrayal of his duty as a father, a protector. But he had to play the game or lose his little girl and his wife. “It’ll be okay. Trust me.” He peeled her hands from his neck and lowered her to the floor. “Stay behind me where they can’t hurt you.”

She clung to his leg.

“That’s more like it.” Pig Man let the bowstring go slack. “All right now, we want to make this sporting, so everyone line up in the kitchen.”

Bull prodded Daniel and his family into the other room. Dog Face and Buck ranged back and forth around them, hooting and crowing like hounds baying for the hunt. Once they reached the kitchen table, Bull spun the three of them around to face the front of the house. Pig waved him and the other two over to one side of the living room.

“I’m going to count down from ten. If you make it outside through the front door, we’ll let you live.” Pig Man paused, letting the horror of his statement sink in.

Just in front of Daniel, Claudia struggled to stifle the terrified sobs in her throat. Her shoulders shook.

To calm his thrashing heartbeat, Daniel took in deep breaths through his nose and out through his mouth. The front door to the house stood open only a few long strides away—all three of them could easily get there in ten seconds.

“If you don’t make it,” Pig Man clucked his tongue again and cocked his head, “too bad. So sad.”

Bull, Buck, and Dog Face copied Pig Man’s taunt. “Too bad. So sad.”

Daniel didn’t even have time to catch Claudia’s eye before Pig Man began at the top of his voice.

“Ten!”

Bella must’ve understood, because she let go of Daniel’s leg and made like a shot for the front door, tiny feet slapping the floor.

“Nine! Eight!”

Claudia followed right behind her.

“Seven!”

Daniel glanced one last time to make sure the men weren’t going to try to stop them like they had before.

“Six!”

Bella and Claudia were a few steps ahead of him, halfway across the living room. Almost free.

“Five!”

And then Bella tripped on the plush carpet and landed face down.

“Uh-oh!” Pig Man laughed. “Four…”

Claudia tripped over Bella. As she fell, she grabbed for their daughter, snagging a fistful of her nightgown.

“Three…”

The fabric gave way, tearing at the seams as she pulled.

“Two…”

Dashing forward, Daniel struggled to grab his family, all of them tangled and tripping over each other, scrambling to get up and escape.

“One!”

At the final count, Daniel straightened and did the only thing left to do. He stepped between those nocked arrows and his family, raising his arms to take up as much space as possible. As he did, he got a perfect view of Pig Man loosing the arrow a millisecond before it drove straight into his chest.

In disbelief, he looked down. A fiberglass shaft pierced the very center of him, blood already welling around the edges. In his own home. The room where, just minutes ago, he’d felt comfort and peace as he’d greeted his sleepy wife.

Pain flared through Daniel’s heart as he crumpled, slumping onto his side. His daughter’s desperate cries filled the house. His ears. His soul.

“No, no. You gotta watch the rest of the show.” Buck’s boot landed on Daniel’s shoulder and shoved him onto his back.

Claudia shrieked and collapsed as an arrow pierced her back. This one from the Bull’s bow.

Daniel cried out in anguish as Bella, his beautiful girl, still struggling toward the door on her own, took Pig Man’s arrow between her ribs. Her screams cut off as though a switch had been flipped inside of her.

He reached for his family, but darkness spread toward the center of his vision. The walls faded from peacock blue to gray. Waves, like the crashing of an angry ocean, roared through his ears.

Pig Man strutted up and stood over Daniel. That horrible rubbery pig mask clarified in his vision for his final moment as the man bent at the waist, a clenched fist held over Daniel’s face. When he opened his fingers, a brown-speckled white feather floated down toward his chest.

“Thanks for playing.”

Chapter Two

Special Agent Journey Russo inhaled a deep breath as she removed a photo from the manila envelope in her lap. It wasn’t necessary, though. The image was still seared in her mind from where she’d first seen it in the stark, fluorescent-lit office of her supervisory special agent just moments ago.

She hadn’t been able to react to the disturbing crime scene in front of her SSA, though, and she hoped to hell that she’d be able to maintain the same blank expression now.

“You good?”

The question from Special Agent Lucas Sullivan broke through her thoughts, his voice laced with concern. His brief glances, shifting from her to the road as he navigated their Bureau-issued car, underscored his worry.

Ignoring the question, Journey rubbed a shaky hand over her mouth before returning her focus to the photo of thirty-one-year-old Michael Bragg and his thirty-year-old wife sprawled side by side on their carpet. Michael was face down, but Rose lay on her back, mouth open in a permanent scream, face frozen in the terror of her last moments. Broken glass littered the floor around their bodies, while a bookcase and its contents peppered the room with debris.

With seven years as a special agent under her belt, Journey was no stranger to gruesome murder scenes. Just a couple weeks ago, she and Lucas had dealt with a sexually-suppressed murderer who’d abducted and killed seven couples, going so far as to scalp the women and wear their hair as wigs while he tortured the men to death. Yet despite the horror of that case, it hadn’t fazed her this much.

At least, not on the outside.

But the picture SSA Victoria Keller had showed them of a possible serial killer’s calling card resting on Rose Bragg’s chest had hit Journey hard. A long, white feather with brown spots.

Though Journey didn’t recognize the token, the move reminded her too much of The Chosen, a fanatical group she suspected but couldn’t yet prove had murdered her family with gasoline and a well-placed match.

The head of the Pittsburgh Field Office Violent Crime Division had just gotten the call from the chief of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police reporting they’d found two families slaughtered in their homes within two weeks of each other.

It was almost too much, too fast. The Braggs nine days ago, and now the Reavers. Two families cut down in their homes, just like Journey’s parents and their friends, who they’d tried to help leave The Chosen before paying for their bravery with their lives.

Journey flipped through the rest of the images once before dropping the stack on her lap. Several minutes of road separated them from the Reaver-family scene, leaving plenty of time for her to go through the Bragg crime scene again when she felt ready.

“Hey…” He nudged her with his elbow. “You okay?”

“I’m not about to puke all over your shoes, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“What a relief.” Lucas slid his sunglasses over his stone-gray eyes. “What about this case has you so spooked?”

Nope. Definitely not going there.

Journey would tell Lucas about her family when she was ready. If she ever got to that point.

Knowing Lucas possessed the impressive talent of outwaiting Ghandi himself for answers, Journey decided to dodge the question instead of clamming up.

“Daniel, Claudia, and their ten-year-old daughter Bella were found this morning with fatal puncture wounds to the sternum and that same kind of feather Keller showed us that turned up with the Braggs.”

In the briefing, Keller had given them the rundown of the Braggs’ crime scene, which Pittsburgh Bureau of Police had processed just the previous week. While PBP had originally considered that one a B and E gone wrong, with a second murder using an as-yet unidentified weapon at a house only a few blocks away, this was looking like a serial killer.

Lucas turned down the radio to silence a DJ’s crackling chatter. “So that’s why we’re taking the case. Potential serial killer with a calling card.”

Clenching her teeth, Journey flipped through her pile of photos to a wider shot of two brown-speckled white feathers, one lying on each of the victims. On Michael Bragg, it sat centered on his back. On Rose, her chest. Both tips pointed to the right. The feathers rested approximately at a thirty-degree angle. Was any of that relevant?

“Could be.” Her stomach twisted with a sick realization…a small thrill from processing the details of the murders of two separate families had just electrified her brain.

Maybe I need therapy.

Though she’d come to some realizations about herself the night before—that chasing serial killers quieted all the noise of guilt and fear inside her head, which probably shouldn’t have been the case—the idea of therapy hadn’t quite connected until right now.

“You’ve gotten quiet since we received this assignment.” Lucas sipped from the enormous cup of coffee she’d purchased for him that morning. His second of the day, since she’d wanted to surprise him only to find he’d also picked up coffees for the both of them. “Sure you’re good?”

“Yeah.” Journey tried to punch up the energy in her voice. “Weird morning. That’s all.”

He pulled up to a stoplight and took a moment to study her. “I hope by now I’ve proven myself a pretty good listener.”

“I’m fine.” She pointed at the recently turned green light. “Don’t be a traffic hazard.”

Huffing in irritation, Lucas pressed the accelerator. He didn’t like being told how to drive any more than she did.

They continued in silence that way a few moments longer—Lucas obviously outwaiting her and Journey sweating—before she decided to change the subject. “Do you have any hobbies?” She loved skateboarding but hadn’t gone out to the park in ages. Maybe if she got back into doing activities outside of work, she could dodge signing up for therapy.

Setting his cup back in the drink holder, Lucas considered his answer. “I spend time with Hallie. I exercise.” As his answer petered out, a sheepish expression crossed his face. “I skateboard a bit.”

Journey smiled. At least she wasn’t the only one. “What does ‘a bit’ mean?”

He shrugged. “I’m a workaholic, so ‘a bit’ means hardly at all.” He shot her another glance. “Why ask? My birthday’s not ’til next month, you know.”

“Oh, ‘not ’til next month,’ huh? That sounds like a hint to me.”

A small smile played at the corners of Lucas’s lips. “I’d never dream of it.”

After maneuvering through a bunch of cop cars lining the streets, he pulled up to the curb outside the Reaver house. Yellow tape lined the driveway and small yard, flapping in a light breeze.

Journey’s chest swelled at the sight. She wondered what Daniel, Claudia, and Bella would’ve been doing right now if they still lived. Going to work. Going to school. Looking forward to a weekend outing together, maybe. Now they’d never do any of those things ever again.

But Journey meant to make sure whoever stole that future from this family would face their own specific future. One behind bars.

That, after all, was the real reason she’d joined the Bureau. Not for the thrill of the chase, but for the chance to secure justice for families like the Reavers. Sure, an undeniable rush came with solving the puzzle of the crime, but the satisfaction she received knowing she’d stopped a ruthless killer outweighed the adrenaline.

She just needed to make sure to keep her priorities straight. If going to therapy could help with that, maybe she’d check out what the Bureau’s health insurance offered.

Ready, aim, die.

Barely twenty-four hours after tracking down a brutal serial killer, Special Agent Journey Russo is thrust into a different kind of hunt. This time, the stakes are much higher. Because the prey are innocents.

And all too human.

In less than two weeks, two families are found murdered in their homes, each victim fatally pierced by arrows. A mysterious feather left on each body serves as a haunting calling card, pointing to a new, sinister serial killer—one eerily reminiscent of the tragedy that decimated Journey’s family. Read More