A Dark Mind (Lizzy Gardner #3)


by T.R. Ragan

CHAPTER 1

We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow.

—Ted Bundy

John and Rochelle

Sacramento

June 2007

John Robinson loved the way his fingers felt, entwined with hers. One year, three months, and two days. That’s how long he’d known Rochelle. So many people never found someone to love, but he was one of the lucky ones. Rochelle was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He knew that better than most since he’d never known his father and his mother, who died when he was young. After living in a string of foster homes until he was adopted at the age of thirteen, John had learned that love was fleeting. That’s why he appreciated his relationship with Rochelle all the more.

She squeezed his hand, and just that small gesture made his blood flow faster through his veins—made him feel alive. He’d asked her to marry him, and she had answered with an emphatic YES!

“Are you all right?” she asked.

Of course he was all right. Filled with joy, he wanted to reach for the sky and tell the world about his good fortune. They had seen a show not too far from his house and were now walking back to his car so he could drive her home. She had declined his invitation to come inside for a nightcap. Rochelle tended to be demure at times, but he didn’t mind. He was in love.

“I’m fine,” he told her. In the moonlight, he saw her eyes sparkling—hazel eyes, the color more gold than green. “Better than fine,” he added. “You make me happy, Rochelle.”

He stopped and pulled her close to his chest. “Let’s elope.”

“Tonight?”

He nodded. “Right now.”

“Mom would never talk to me again.”

“You’ve got a sister and a brother. One of them will get married soon. She’ll get over it.”

Rochelle laughed the sort of laugh that told him his grand plan was not going to happen. No reason to rush things, he thought, especially since his only goal was to make her happy. Not that he was a fool or anything. It was just that making Rochelle happy made him happy.

They started walking again, the clicking of her heels loud against the concrete walkway. She shivered, and his first thought was to offer her his jacket, but then he felt a tug on his hand. He looked at her and saw worry etched across her face. “What is it?”

“Do you know those people?”

His dark-blue Toyota Camry was still a block away, but sure enough, there were two guys up ahead. One man sat on the hood of John’s car, and a big beefy guy leaned against the driver’s side door. He heard laughter. “Looks like a couple of guys having a good time.”

“I think we should be safe instead of sorry,” Rochelle said. “Let’s call the police.”

“The police? Are you kidding me?”

She stopped walking and let go of his hand, clearly not happy with his tone. “OK,” she said, crossing her arms. “I’m going to go back the way we came, and I’m calling a taxi. It sounds like they’ve been drinking.”

He planted his hands on her shoulders. “You stay right here. I’ll get the car and pick you up.”

Her shoulders slumped. “You really think they’re harmless?”

“I do, but I don’t want you to come with me if you’re uncomfortable.”

She exhaled. “I’ll go with you,” she said. “Everyone is always telling me I need to grow a spine, so I might as well start now.”

“You’re the smartest, bravest woman I’ve ever met. Who said you needed to grow a spine?”

“My brother. He accuses me of being afraid of my own shadow.”

He didn’t know what to say to that since he still wasn’t sure what to think of her brother. Whenever he went to her parents’ house for dinner, he felt as if her brother was staring at him. It was like he was waiting for John to make a wrong move so he could pounce.

John forgot all about Rochelle’s brother, though, when the guy leaning against his car saw them coming and straightened to his full height. He stood well over six feet. Even from here, John could see that the guy’s hands were uncommonly massive—the size of small boulders. He found himself thinking that fifty dollars for a taxi might have been money well spent. Tightening his grip on Rochelle’s hand, ready to make an about-face, he heard someone say, “Chuck, I think this car belongs to these people. Get off.”

The guy sitting on the hood quickly obeyed and slid off. His feet made a clunking noise as he hit pavement.

There were only two guys. John figured he could handle them. As long as Rochelle didn’t have to squeeze by either of them, they could climb into the car and quickly hit the lock button. His Camry was equipped with a smart key, which would make their getaway easier. No need to insert a key to start the ignition. Just one push of the button and they would be off.

As they approached his car, he could see pockmarked faces and bloodshot eyes. Rochelle was right again. These guys were definitely on something. He took a quick look around the neighborhood, at the chain-link fences and windows covered with plywood. The front yards consisted of dead trees and bushes, more weeds than grass. No wonder Rochelle had no interest in coming inside. Maybe it was time to move. The third house on the left had a light on, and he could see a silhouette of a person inside. It looked like his neighbor Claire Schultz was either peeking through the blinds or fiddling around in the kitchen—it was hard to tell.

“How’s it going?” one of the guys asked just as John’s fingers curled around the door handle. The car beeped, telling him that all the doors were unlocked. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw two more guys coming toward them. What the hell was going on?

The moment Rochelle climbed in on the other side and shut the door, he breathed easier.

It was then that he noticed his backpack was no longer in the back of his car. He enjoyed photography and had been taking a class at a local college.

How did they get inside? No broken windows as far as he could tell, and all the car doors were locked. The blood flowing through his veins thickened, but he decided not to confront them. He’d drive straight to the police station and fill out a report.

He opened the door, his jaw clenched.

“I asked you how it was going,” one of the guys said again.

Ignoring the question, John climbed in behind the wheel, shut the door, and locked the doors.