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Mary Stone - Journey's Terror (Journey Russo FBI Mystery Series Book 2)

A Taste of… Journey’s Terror

Chapter One

Colin Abbott tried to keep his nerves from getting the best of him. Even though he’d popped the question to Monica at the start of their trip, and she’d said yes, he worried he’d dreamed sliding the ring on her finger. Colin was the happiest man alive and didn’t want that feeling to end.

With Thursday drawing to a close, the weeklong road trip through West Virginia would soon conclude. They’d turn for home in Ohio on Saturday. For him, the daily grind as the assistant manager at a bank branch located in a grocery store beckoned, while Monica would return to the neighboring salon as a hair stylist.

Colin let his thumb find the small diamond at home on her ring finger. “You still happy with my choice?”

“The ring is perfect. Dinner too.” Monica’s rich, brown, smiling eyes sparkled in the streetlights. “You might have to carry me the rest of the way back to the motel, though.” She patted her belly and let out a satisfied groan.

Colin chuckled. “If I didn’t think you might barf, I’d sling you over my shoulder and carry you back.”

Monica gave him a playful nudge. “Definitely not a good idea.”

They came to a bridge over the small river that separated the town’s main street from their motel. Ashville was a quaint little getaway in the West Virginia coal country, full of long-neglected historic homes and inhabited by a community that bet heavily on tourism to thrive. Many of those homes had a For Sale sign in the front yard. Those without signs showed obvious repair work underway.

When Colin had asked around about the best place to eat, he was shocked when several townsfolk told him to visit the Mother Lode Bar and Grill. From the outside, the place had looked like any other blue-collar bar. But just one bite had convinced him. “I think that might’ve been the best crème brûlée I’ve ever eaten.”

“And those short ribs were to die for.” Monica smacked her lips. “I’m glad we didn’t drive from the motel. I needed the walk.”

Mention of the only motel he’d found available soured Colin’s mood, but not for long—even their lodgings couldn’t bring him down off cloud nine. When they’d pulled into town, the one bed-and-breakfast around was booked, and a wedding party had taken over the chain hotel by the highway. The only option left was the somewhat questionable Countryside Motel.

In its prime, the place might have been luxurious, but the mid-century, L-shaped relic definitely showed its age. With small rooms, musty carpet, and water-stained porcelain bathroom fixtures, it desperately needed renovation.

At least the price was right, check-in had been easy, and the owners had updated all the security systems. Colin and Monica didn’t even need to stop at the front desk—he just received the key code to their room by email once the space was ready. A terrific convenience, though Colin wondered why the owner had spent all that money changing out the locks even though the carpet looked older than him.

When they reached their room, Colin punched four numbers into the electronic pad, which emitted two happy beeps and a click. He held the door open for his fiancée. “After you, milady.”

“Such a gentleman.” Monica curtsied. “Thank you, good sir.” Once inside, she undid the top button on her pants and let out a relieved sigh. “Finally.”

“That hungry for more of me, huh?” Colin smirked.

“Sorry, but don’t get any ideas tonight.” She laughed, then patted his cheek. “This girl ate way too much. I feel like I could pop.”

“Don’t do that. I’d be lost without you.”

“I’m a goner. There’s no hope.” Monica flopped back onto the bed and raised her legs, whining like a child. “But maybe if you help me get these pants off…I might survive the night.”

“You’re trying to kill me, aren’t you?” Colin rolled his eyes and chuckled as he tugged the hem of her pants leg.

“Don’t worry.” Monica wiggled her hips, freeing her pants as he pulled. “It’s just one night of disappointment. We have a lifetime together to make up for it.”

After they got ready for bed, Colin snuggled up next to Monica, listening to their in-sync breathing as he drifted off. He couldn’t believe his luck. She was smart, beautiful, and kind. And he got to spend the rest of his life with her.

A couple of hours later, though, a thunk on the other side of the bed startled Colin awake. “Monica?”

At night, his fiancée didn’t sleep so much as hibernate. Once she went under, she was dead to the world. In the six months they’d been together, she’d regularly knocked her phone off the bedside table and spilled several glasses of water, all without waking up.

But the usual splash of water hadn’t followed that thunk.

“Monica. You dropped something.” Colin searched for her beneath the covers and nudged her shoulder with his hand, but she didn’t respond.

When he rolled over to see what she’d knocked over, he saw everything was still in place, but he made out the shape of a shadowy figure standing just inside the door…which had thumped against the wall.

Colin’s veins ran cold, even as he grinned nervously. Relax, you’re all right. Just your eyes playing tricks.

He blinked twice, but the figure still stood there. Colin mashed his eyelids, as if his fingertips were pencil erasers, capable of wiping out the image before him. But amid the stars in his eyes when he reopened them, the dark apparition had not moved.

What is that thing?

Then, when the figure took a step toward him, terror seized Colin’s heart.

It took another.

Colin’s throat constricted, blocking air from his lungs. He froze and squinted, trying to make out the figure’s face in the darkness, but he couldn’t see more than a dark outline of a man now standing by his bed.

The figure held one finger to his lips and shook his head.

Colin’s mind raced. Had someone broken into the motel room? Were he and Monica being robbed? Neither seemed right. This felt…strange.

It had to be a dream. Too much sugar in the crème brûlée before bed.

He reached out to turn on the bedside lamp, praying that light might snap him from this nightmare back into reality.

“Shhh.” The shadowy figure spoke in a low whisper. “Don’t turn it on.”

Colin reacted without thinking, his instincts in the driver’s seat. He threw back the sheets and grabbed Monica by the shoulder, shaking her. “Please wake up!”

She didn’t move, as if stuck in some kind of trance. No matter how hard Colin shook her, Monica didn’t wake. Helplessness engulfed him, like when he was eight years old and he’d lost his mother at the mall.

Colin’s heart sank as the shadowy figure stepped closer. Light from the parking lot streaming in through the window caught the cold steel of a gun barrel.

The man pointed the gun directly at Colin’s head. “Don’t make a sound, and everything will work out jus’ dandy.”

At the appearance of a gun, Colin froze, realizing he had no choice but to obey.

“Gimme yer hands.” The man flicked the gun in an upward motion.

A wave of pure adrenaline and terror rushed through Colin as the madman aimed, but then something inside of him snapped. He balled his hands into tight fists. With all the power he could muster, he rolled to his feet as he smashed his fist against the man’s chin, propelling him backward.

The man dropped his gun.

Colin charged forward and tackled the intruder.

But the man was strong and kept his feet—only stumbling back a couple of steps before finding sure footing. He pushed Colin off, and Colin also tottered backward before planting his feet. He raised his arm, his hand curled in a fist, and threw another desperate punch at the man’s face.

Before it could land, the man caught Colin’s wrist in his hand and twisted.

Colin’s heart pounded in his chest as he strained against the man’s grasp. Sweat dripped down his forehead, but that grip was like a vise. His wrist bent under the pressure, and Colin gritted his teeth against the pain.

There had to be other guests in this motel. He’d seen multiple cars in the lot. With enough noise, their neighbors would surely call the police. He yelled with every ounce of air he had. “Hel—”

The intruder slammed his free fist into Colin’s face. “I said shut yer trap.”

The impact sent Colin reeling backward, his head spinning. Blood trickled down his nose. His vision blurred as a sharp pain shot through his cheekbone. He tried to regain his footing, but the man was already on top of him.

With the man’s weight crushing his chest, Colin struggled to breathe. He tried to wriggle free, but his assailant was too heavy. He could barely move, let alone escape.

Something sharp stabbed into Colin’s neck. Though he couldn’t see Monica beyond the edge of the mattress, Colin fixed his gaze on the bed he’d shared with her just moments ago.

Even as darkness overtook him, he knew she still lay there peacefully.

Chapter Two

Special Agent Journey Russo didn’t like when passengers gave opinions about her driving. She’d gone through rigorous offensive- and defensive-driving training. She knew what she was doing. Yet, at that moment, her partner, Special Agent Lucas Sullivan, couldn’t seem to stop side-seat driving.

They were on the road to West Virginia to investigate a newly discovered abandoned mine-turned-mass grave, so she was stuck in the car with him for at least two hours. Her default state of moderately pleasant had turned all kinds of cranky.

“I’m just saying the gas pedal is to the right.” Her partner flashed a shit-eating grin that Journey rather wanted to smack off his face.

Without responding, Journey navigated around a switchback.

“This old Ford handles better when you accelerate out of a turn.” Lucas pressed his right foot down on the passenger carpet mat to illustrate.

“All cars handle better when you accelerate out of a turn, Captain Obvious. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

“Then why aren’t you doing it?”

Journey had joined the FBI to help curb stomp evil, but she’d never expected such cruelty from her own partner. Was it too late to file for a different partnership?

Probably, after the success of their last, and first, case together.

Irritated, she pressed the gas a tiny bit more.

Clearly, Lucas had been stuck in the car too long. Her normally quiet partner had moved from opening and closing the clasp of his watch to fiddling with the radio for a non-fuzzy station to dusting the dashboard and air vents with his hands and flicking the dust particles at her.

She sneezed twice and intentionally swerved across the lane line both times.

“Watch the road, you lunatic.”

“Maybe don’t blow dust in my face. Besides, it’s all road.”

Lucas adjusted his dark sunglasses and stretched his legs out, as if trying to get comfortable for the remaining hour of their drive. At least he hadn’t resorted to dusting her side of the dashboard too.

“Can’t handle a little dust, huh?” He turned his gaze back to the road. “That surprises me. You struck me as much more capable.”

“And you struck me as much more adult.”

“And that was your first mistake.”

“I don’t make mistakes.”

Up ahead, Journey spotted a curve in the road. Not quite hairpin, but round enough to make her point. She pressed on the accelerator and headed into the curve.

They didn’t end up on two wheels, but Lucas gripped the grab bar nonetheless. “Well, I see you can learn. I’m proud of you.”

“All I’ve ever wanted.” Journey let the sarcasm hang in the air.

She held in a smile, but she knew she had a good thing going with her new partner. Even if he did get antsy enough to rib her on long car rides, Lucas had proven an excellent asset during their first case involving a serial killer.

Corey Minton, a once-quiet boy who’d lost his father on a hunting trip seven years ago, had grown into a man bent on revenge. Over a period of weeks, he’d systematically tracked down and murdered nearly all of his father’s hunting companions for the part they’d played in covering up the accident that took his father’s life.

Though Journey and Lucas had never before worked together as case partners, they’d proven an excellent team, cementing a permanent work bond. Violence permeated the nature of her job, but Journey wished she could have done more or found some way to act quicker before Minton managed to kill four people and seriously injure another.

They’d stopped Corey’s murdering spree before he could kill everyone on his list. But at quite the cost. Only one person in his sights had survived.

Just a few days ago, they’d officially closed the case. And just a few days ago, Journey had tried to cheer Lucas up from lamenting about the same thing. But now she couldn’t seem to take her own advice. The what-ifs of every investigation always got to her once the case closed.

As the Ford leveled out under Journey’s careful guidance, Lucas cleared his throat. “Like I said, usually cool as a cucumber. What’s really bothering you?”

“You think mocking my driving and my name wasn’t enough?” On the inside, Journey winced. She hadn’t meant to come off quite that straightforward.

Though his fingers tensed on the grab bar he hadn’t yet released, Lucas remained quiet. One of his interrogation tactics, Journey had learned on their last case, was outwaiting the suspect. And there was one person that always worked on.

Journey.

“Fine! I was hanging out with Michelle when Keller called. And I really wanted to spend my Saturday with her.”

As siblings, Michelle and Journey were tight. Like twins tight, if not for having been born to different parents. But these days, between Journey’s job in Violent Crimes and Michelle’s on the Evidence Response Team of Crime Scene Investigations, they just didn’t get to see each other enough. And after the hell Michelle had gone through two years ago while Journey was undercover in an extremist cult, Journey wanted more than anything to make her sister’s days bright.

With all the rest of her family gone now, Michelle was Journey’s whole world.

Her partner, Lucas, with his slick hair and cut jaw, was the spitting image of James Dean, especially when he wore jeans. But today he’d dressed in a signature Men in Black suit, as if prepared for a funeral.

They were on their way to a grave, after all.

“I get that, but you know how the job goes. No rest while we hunt for the wicked.” Lucas’s smirk returned to play around the edges of his mouth. “Talking about the case ought to make you less cranky. How about it?”

“Let’s do it.” Journey had fallen into her head and needed out. “So we’ve got a yet-to-be-determined number of bodies in a coal mine that was last active in the eighties. What else?”

Lucas pulled up the case notes from Keller on his phone. “Two teenage brothers, ages sixteen and fourteen, found the bodies on a hike when their dog went in after the scent.”

Journey’s stomach twisted. “Hell of a thing for anyone to find, let alone two kids.”

He whistled through his teeth in quiet sympathy. “According to early reports from the Ash County sheriff, the boys grew up in the area and heard various legends about the mine being haunted by the spirits of dead miners who refused to leave. They decided to explore the area for themselves, walking about a hundred or so feet in through the abandoned entrance. The younger brother got spooked and tried to leave, but their dog caught a scent and bolted farther in.”

“What do you want to bet they’re feeling some serious regrets about not keeping the dog on a leash?” She recalled the walk she and Michelle had taken just a few hours earlier with her dog. Peanut was a handful, despite weighing all of thirteen pounds, but at least he’d never go running off on an unaccompanied spelunking adventure. “Let me guess, the boys found the dog, who was probably sitting next to a pile of bodies, happily wagging his tail and waiting for a treat.”

Two teenagers and their pup in a dark, abandoned mine. Presumably, they’d had to bypass at least some level of security to get in there—a gate or fencing or, at the very least, a No Trespassing sign. The proprietor, Hayford Mining Company, would have needed something in place to avoid liability.

Lucas nodded. “That’s how the report makes it sound, yes.”

“I’ll be interested to see the terrain when we get there.” Journey had grown up in Pittsburgh. Anecdotally, it was well known as the city with the most abandoned mines in the United States—though she’d never verified that fact.

As far as she knew, the mines had all been shut down by the 1930s, but she remembered her grandparents were required to purchase special insurance policies on their house in case abandoned mines beneath their property caved in without warning.

She’d heard plenty of stories of teenagers daring each other to go exploring abandoned mines. But, at least in the populated urban areas, government regulators and the companies that owned the rights to the defunct mines went to great lengths to keep people and animals out.

Yet, at this West Virginia mine, not only did two boys gain access, someone did so before them and dumped a collection of bodies there. Furthermore, despite the mine having such an accessible entrance, the bodies left to rot weren’t dragged back out into the open by wildlife.

Presumably, anyway, or else the FBI would’ve gotten this call long before now.

That led Journey to another question. “Any indication of how long the bodies may have been down there?”

“Getting to it.” Lucas continued to scroll through his phone. “Sidenote…the Ash County sheriff has secured the scene and is awaiting CSU teams. The plan is to have the bodies shipped to ACOME.”

That was great news. The Allegheny County Office of the Medical Examiner performed outstanding forensic work, led by a genius scientist, Dr. Smith Simon, who bore a striking physical and intellectual resemblance to Doc Brown in the Back to the Future movies, which somehow made him more revered.

“But there’s no estimation for how long ago the first body was dumped?”

“Probably not until Dr. Simon gets a look at them.”

Journey crossed her fingers that the oldest body wouldn’t be too far gone to get an ID. If they could match the ID to a missing persons case, they’d get a good time frame for the killer’s activities. “So am I getting this right? The bodies were dumped and apparently left undiscovered by man or beast until two teenagers and their dog walked a few hundred feet into the dank, dark opening?”

“Yeah.” Lucas lowered his phone and rubbed his eyes. “That’s exactly what it sounds like.”

When Journey had gotten the call about a mass grave, her mind jumped to the Pennsylvania-based cult called The Chosen. After a few years of working in the Bureau, she’d taken on an undercover assignment that brought her close to Connor Leopold, leader of The Chosen.

As she’d dug into the cult’s activities, Journey all but confirmed suspicions that the cult had been murdering its wealthier and more skeptical members since the late seventies. She herself had barely escaped with her life after she signed over a $500,000 life insurance policy to The Chosen.

But after fighting off an assassin a month later, she’d gathered enough evidence to convict the man responsible for much of the cult’s money laundering. Though she’d taken out enough of The Chosen’s operations to send them packing, she knew Connor Leopold and his followers were still out there.

They’d tried for Journey’s life once. Possibly twice. In letting her survive, The Chosen allowed her to keep searching for answers about what exactly happened to her family.

Journey’s parents had tried to help their best friends leave The Chosen, then both couples, along with Journey’s little sister, Elaine, mysteriously died in house fires. If she hadn’t rebelliously snuck out to see a boy she liked that night, Journey would’ve perished alongside them. Memories of the scent of gasoline stinging Journey’s nose as she rescued their cat, Mittens, from the burning kitchen still made her gag to this day.

She always wondered when The Chosen would resurge. And when they’d return to finish her off.

Not every horror she investigated would be the work of The Chosen, but Journey always considered the possibility of their involvement, especially in cases like the discovery of a mass grave.

Secrets never rest in peace.

Haunted by a past that refuses to rest, FBI Special Agent Journey Russo faces a darkness deeper than any before. The discovery of a mass grave in an abandoned coal mine by two teenagers and their loyal dog pulls her back into the shadows she’s fought so hard to escape.

Beneath the earth, madness reigns.

What lies in the mine’s heartrending silence is a tableau of terror—bodies distorted and intertwined in a gruesome embrace. Forensic analysis unveils a chilling pattern of death that stretches across the years. Read More