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Read by Brittany Pressley
Read by Kyf Brewer
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For her entire life, FBI agent Atlee Pine has been searching for her twin sister, Mercy, who was abducted at the age of six and never seen again. Mercy’s disappearance left behind a damaged family that later shattered beyond repair when Atlee’s parents inexplicably abandoned her.
Now, after a perilous investigation that nearly proved fatal, Atlee has finally discovered not only the reason behind her parents’ abandonment and Mercy’s kidnapping, but also the most promising breakthrough yet: proof that Mercy survived her abduction and then escaped her captors many years ago.
Though Atlee is tantalizingly close to her family at last, the final leg of her long road to Mercy will be the most treacherous yet. Mercy left at least one dead body behind before fleeing her captors years before. Atlee has no idea if her sister is still alive, and if so, how she has been surviving all this time. When the truth is finally revealed, Atlee Pine will face the greatest danger yet, and it may well cost her everything.
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INCH BY SOLID INCH, Atlee Pine watched the battered coffin being lifted to the surface from where it had rested six feet down for nearly two decades. Coffins and bodies were not supposed to be retrieved. They were supposed to stay right where they were planted, at least until a dying sun lashed out across space and bid farewell to all on earth.
But, for Pine, it was just that kind of day.
Just that kind of year, actually.
She gazed over at a black crow as it stridently cawed from its perch on the branch of a sickly pine overlooking the pierced grave. The bird seemed to think its meal was being delivered up as a boxed lunch, and the creature was getting impatient.
Well, I’m thirty years impatient, Pine thought.
Pine was an FBI special agent. Five eleven in bare feet, she possessed a muscular build from years of lifting massive amounts of weights, first for athletic glory, and currently to survive the rigorous demands of her occupation. Some agents spent careers mainly on their butts staring at computer screens or supervising agents on the streets. Pine was not one of them.
Her normal beat was in Arizona, near the Grand Canyon. It was a lot of ground to cover, and she was the only FBI agent out there. Pine preferred it that way. She hated bureaucracies and the paper pushers who lived and died by their stifling mountain of rules that got you nowhere fast. Certainly not with putting bad people away, which was really the whole point for her.
She was currently in Virginia working on something personal. This was her one shot to get things right in her life.
Next to Pine was her administrative assistant at the Bureau, Carol Blum.
Pine and Blum were searching for Pine’s twin sister, Mercy Pine, who had been abducted from their shared bedroom in Andersonville, Georgia, when the girls were just six years old. Pine had nearly been killed by the abductor, surviving by a combination of sheer luck and, Pine supposed, her absolute unwillingness to die. She hadn’t seen Mercy since. It was an incident that had destroyed the Pine family and stood as the one traumatically defining moment of her life.
They had tracked Mercy’s whereabouts to a place near Crawfordville, Georgia, in Taliaferro County, the most rural and least populated county in the state. She had been given the name Rebecca Atkins and had been kept as a prisoner until she’d escaped many years ago. Now the trail was as cold as a morgue freezer.
Joe Atkins, one of her captors, had been found murdered the day after Mercy had escaped. His wife, Desiree, had disappeared at the same time. Pine had unearthed that her sister’s kidnapper was a man named Ito Vincenzo. He was the brother of Bruno, a mobster who had held a grudge against Pine’s mother, Julia. She had acted as a mole for the government in its successful attempts to bring down several New York crime families back in the 1980s. Members of crime families did not like to be brought down. They held it against you. The Vincenzo family had certainly held it against the Pine family. At the urging of his murderous brother, Ito Vincenzo had tried to obliterate the Pines, and had largely succeeded.
The Bureau had recently put out a PSA using an image of Mercy captured at the exact moment she had broken free from her improvised prison cell. Pine had hoped that if Mercy was alive she would see the notice and come forward. That had not happened, so Pine had decided to work on a different lead.
Years ago, her mother had told Pine that her father, Tim Pine, had killed himself. Subsequently, she had learned that Tim was not her biological father. A man named Jack Lineberry was. Lineberry had been nearly killed in an attack aimed against Atlee Pine in an unrelated case. The revelation that he was her father had stunned Pine, but what she had found out recently had shocked her just as much, if not even more. That was why she was here.
I know all families are dysfunctional, but mine seems to be the undisputed world champ in that competition.
The coffin finally reached the surface and was shifted away from the hole and set on the grass. Its metal carcass was visibly damaged by water, and also by sitting in the earth all those years. She wondered how preserved the contents would be.
A forensics team hurried forward, quickly prized open the coffin, and placed the human remains in a body bag. They zipped it up and loaded it into the back of a black van, which was quickly driven away. Pine thought she knew who was in that grave. But thoughts weren’t enough, certainly not for an FBI agent, or a grieving daughter, hence the exhumation. DNA identification was as definite as it got. That would reveal who had been in the coffin, of that she was certain.
Pine had never been to this grave in rural Virginia, for the simple reason that her mother had lied to her about where her father’s supposed suicide had taken place. Her mother had also told her that her father had been cremated and his ashes scattered by her at some unknown place. All lies. But then again, it seemed everyone had lied to her about her past.
She now believed the man in the grave was none other than Ito Vincenzo. He had apparently discovered Tim Pine’s whereabouts and come to exact revenge on him. Only he had ended up being the one to die.
Pine had also been led to believe that her parents had divorced because of irreconcilable differences related to their guilt over Mercy’s disappearance. Now she knew that Tim had faked his death, and her mother had voluntarily left her remaining daughter shortly thereafter. Julia Pine had in fact joined her ex-husband, and they had vanished together.
And left me all by my lonesome. Thanks, guys. What great parents you turned out to be.
PINE LOOKED AT CAROL BLUM. In her sixties, a mother of six grown children, and a longtime employee of the Bureau, Blum had become something of a surrogate mother to the federal agent, to some degree taking the place of the one who had abandoned her.
Blum stared resolutely at her boss, who had her hands shoved deep into her jeans pockets, and whose features held a frown that seemed to run out of room on her face.
“How soon will they know if it is Ito Vincenzo?” asked Blum.
“Hopefully a couple of days max. I gave them samples of his DNA.”
“How’d you get those?”
“From his son’s and grandson’s bodies. A familial match under these circumstances constitutes a slam dunk.”
“Yes, of course,” Blum said quickly. “There’s no other way a DNA connection to the Vincenzo family could be in that grave.”
They walked back to the car and drove off.
“So what now?” asked Blum.
“We have some time, since the Bureau has given us an official leave of absence.”
“It was the least they could do after you and Agent Puller solved that case in New York.”
John Puller was an Army investigator who had teamed with Pine to run to ground a blackmail operation that had reached into the highest levels of the country’s power structure. Puller had been shot in the process, but he was on his way to a full recovery.
“You were in on all that, too, Carol. And you almost lost your life because I screwed up.”
“You also saved my life.”
“After needlessly putting it in danger,” countered Pine. As she turned out of the cemetery she added, “If Mercy sees the PSA she might come in. That would be the ideal scenario.”
“And if she doesn’t?”
“Then it could be that she’s…no longer alive.” Pine shot a glance at Blum. “I’ve accepted that possibility, Carol. A long time ago. I know Mercy was alive when she got free from the Atkinses. But a lot could have happened in between.”
Blum said, “And it doesn’t seem like the Atkinses did anything to, well, to educate her or…” Her voice trailed off and she looked uncertainly at her boss.
“Let’s just acknowledge it—she looked like a wild person,” said Pine slowly. “And I’m not sure how she could manage to function in society on her own, at least mainstream society. And people who live on the fringes with no support can be exploited.” Pine looked out the window and said dully, “The person I saw in that video…could be exploited.”
“But she was resilient and resourceful, Agent Pine. Look at how she survived the Atkinses and then outsmarted them and escaped.”
“And Joe Atkins ended up dead with a knife sticking in his back,” replied Pine.
“I already told you how I feel about that. He deserved what he got.”
“I’m not disagreeing with you, Carol. But I am saying that if Mercy did kill him, if she is violent, then the intervening years might not have been kind to her. She might have done other things.”
“You’re thinking that she could have hurt other people?”
“Or, more likely, had been a victim of violence,” Pine said.
“Which brings me back to my original question: What do we do now?”
“Her last sighting was near Crawfordville, Georgia. She got away that night, or at least it appeared she did.”
“What do you mean ‘appeared’?” asked Blum.
“Desiree Atkins has never been found. There are at least three scenarios that I can see.” Pine counted them off on her fingers. “She killed her husband and fled. Mercy killed her and fled. Or Desiree killed Mercy and fled.”
“Why would Desiree kill her husband?”
“By all accounts, she was a sadistic nut. We heard a gunshot on the video and just assumed it was Joe firing at Mercy. But what if Desiree had the gun and was doing the shooting? What if Joe tried to stop her? He gets the gun away but she stabs him.”
“So you think Joe might have wanted Mercy to get away? I just don’t see that. When the truth came out they both would have been in a great deal of trouble.”
“I’m saying it’s possible, not probable. She might have managed to kill Mercy, then Joe got nervous and wanted to call the police, so she stabbed him and fled with Mercy’s body. Only it would have been a real chore for her to lift the body into Joe’s truck. Desiree was tiny, and Mercy looked to be over six feet and probably outweighed her by seventy pounds. And they brought cadaver dogs in after we found out what happened there. There are no bodies buried anywhere in that area. So that option is out. But what if Joe helped her get rid of Mercy’s body, then got cold feet or regrets? Then Desiree plunged the knife in his back.”
Blum mulled over this. “Or, like you said, Mercy could have killed both of them. She left Joe’s body and maybe took Desiree’s remains and buried them somewhere far away.”
“It’s possible. But that would mean Mercy would have had to drive the truck.”
Blum said, “Surely she could have figured that out.”
Pine shook her head. “The truck has a manual transmission. I don’t know anybody, particularly someone who has been kept in a hellhole for years and never attempted to drive anything, who could have figured out how a clutch works. Certainly not under such stressful conditions. And I can’t see the Atkinses having taught her.”
“So what are you saying then?”
“I’m saying, Carol, that I think it was Desiree who took off that night in the truck. But I think she went alone.”
“Because the jig was up, you mean?”
Pine nodded. “Yes. So, to answer your initial question of what to do now, I think we head back to Georgia and see if we can pick up a very, very cold trail.”
“And Jack Lineberry? Will you stop in to see him while we’re in Georgia?”
To that, Pine said nothing.
She had mixed feelings about her biological father. And their last encounter had been disastrous. She was not expecting anything better the second time around. But ultimately the fault lay with him, not her. That’s just what happened when every word out of your mouth was a lie.
PINE STARED OUT THE WINDOW of the rental car at Crawfordville, in densely wooded Taliaferro County, Georgia. Here, you’d never see an assailant coming before it was too late. Thick foliage was a killer’s best friend, whether they were hunting deer or people.
They had flown into Atlanta from Virginia, rented the car, and driven here. They had already checked in with Dick Roberts. He was the retired, straight-as-an-arrow county sheriff who had helped them when they were down here the first time. It had been Roberts who, years before, had answered the 911 call and found Joe Atkins’s body. The question had always been—who’d stuck the knife blade there? Roberts also had been with Pine when they had discovered Mercy’s old prison cut into a knoll some distance away from the Atkinses’ house, and when they had found and viewed the video chronicling her sister’s escape. Roberts knew that Mercy was Pine’s sister, and that this case was personal to her.
No, it’s not just personal. I’m betting my entire professional life on finally solving this thing. There is no going back for me.
A sense of panic seized her for a moment, like a swimmer who realized they were caught in a riptide with a limited and risky way back to shore. Then she glanced out the window, drew a long, calming breath, and silently chastised herself to get a grip, that she was acting like a child.
Roberts had given them the route that the Atkinses’ truck had to have taken that night to where it was later found. They were now retracing that route. It was along a rural road; all the roads here were rural and winding and devoid, for the most part, of living things, except for the critters residing in the woods. They counted only five homes along the way. Three of them were occupied; two were abandoned. They stopped and asked their questions and found out that none of the people living here now were there during the relevant time period.
After the last interview, Pine and Blum drove to the spot where the truck had been found. It was an old Esso gas station long since abandoned, with the four letters and the neon tubes backing them having been used for target practice over the intervening years; only the sign’s metal spines survived. It was a bare, eroded filament of civilization in a forest that looked determined to reclaim its own. They sat in the car next to where the gas pumps used to be. Pine took a look around, and the view was as desolate as her hopes. But then something occurred to her.
“Okay, the truck and Desiree ended up here,” said Pine. “But why here?”
Blum gazed around. “I think this is a place to meet someone. ‘Hey, so and so, come get me at the Esso station.’ It was probably the only such landmark around. Desiree didn’t know when the body would be found. She wanted to get away, but not in a vehicle that could be traced.”
“And the ‘so-and-sos’ are pretty limited. In fact, there are only two possible choices, to my mind.”
“Len and Wanda Atkins, her in-laws,” replied Blum. “But Sheriff Roberts said that he talked to them after Joe was killed and Desiree disappeared. They both said they hadn’t heard from Desiree.”
“And they were both probably lying to save their own asses. You saw the picture of Mercy with them. They knew she was being held against her will. They knew if this all came out, they were going to prison. That’s why they got the hell out of here pretty soon after Mercy escaped and Joe was killed. I’m now certain that Desiree called them that night and told them what had happened. They arranged to meet her here where she abandoned the truck. They drove her somewhere, maybe a bus or train station. And off she went to start a new life with a new identity. Then they went back to their trailer and were there when they got the word the next day about their son.” She eyed Blum. “Any of that seem unlikely to you?”
“No, it all sounds spot-on, Agent Pine.”
Then Pine’s eyes narrowed and her look became less certain. “But it does seem unlikely that they would just take Desiree’s word for it that he was dead. They might have thought they could still save him, or that she was even lying about it. But if he was dead, they would have been terrified that animals could have torn Joe’s remains apart overnight. And we know that didn’t happen.”
“So maybe they were the ones to make sure their son’s body wasn’t desecrated?”
“Which means we need to find Len and Wanda Atkins and ask them that directly.”
“If they’re still alive.”
“If they are, they would be getting Social Security and Medicare. We could find them that way.”
“And he was a Vietnam vet. He was wounded. So…”
Pine picked up this thought thread. “That means he might be in contact with the VA for meds and treatments and the like. That would actually be faster for us than going through the HHS bureaucracy, because I don’t really have good contacts there.”
She pulled out her phone.
“Who are you calling?” asked Blum.
“Who else? John Puller. He already helped me get Len Atkins’s military records.”
She spoke with Puller, who told her he was recovering quickly from his injuries. He also said he knew several people at the VA because of his father being in one of their facilities, and he would do all he could to help her locate Len Atkins.
She thanked him and clicked off. “Okay, we’ll let him work his magic.”
“While he’s doing that, do you think you should go and visit Jack Lineberry?”
Pine’s expression hardened and she glanced out the car window. Lineberry’s image swelled up in her head like a nightmare. “You asked me that before.”
“And you never answered me, which is why I’m asking again.”
“Why should I go see him?” asked Pine, her tone heated.
“Like it or not, he is your biological father. And the way you left it with him?”
“Look, I’m not proud of what I did.”
“And now it’s time to move on to another level with him.”
Pine glanced sharply at her friend. “And why do I have to do that?”
“Because you’re going to need his help, whether you find your sister or not.”
Pine looked even more confused. “Come again?”
“I presume you still want to find your mother. And Tim Pine, now that you almost certainly know he wasn’t in that grave. And Jack can be a valuable asset in helping you do that. However, I’m not asking you to cut him any slack.”
“Good, because I don’t intend to,” interjected Pine.
“But,” continued Blum imperturbably, “I think he is trying his best to do the right thing. And he is your father. And if you don’t at least make an effort to have a relationship with him, I think you’re going to regret it later.”
“I regret a lot of things, Carol,” said Pine. But she put the car in gear and headed on to see the man who had lied to her more than any other person in her life.
Except for my damn mother.
JACK LINEBERRY’S ESTATE WAS AN hour south of Atlanta. He had made an enormous fortune in the financial world and owned, in addition to this main residence, a penthouse in Atlanta and a pied-à-terre in New York, as well as a private jet. It was a lifestyle that most people would be thrilled to enjoy. Pine was not among them.
If you need that many toys to enjoy life, then you’re still a child.
They had already called ahead and arranged to meet with him. They checked in at the front gate, were admitted into the house, and escorted to Lineberry by one of the maids. He was still in bed, the woman told them—which alarmed Pine, because it was well into the afternoon.
They entered the room and the maid left. The space was dark and overly warm, with all the window shades lowered. It was like a tomb with wallpaper and carpet, and living people. The effect unnerved Pine.
“Jack?” said Pine.
Something stirred on the bed. A pajama-clad Lineberry struggled to sit up, and finally managed to do so. Pine and Blum drew nearer and looked down at him. Their features betrayed their alarm at the state of the man. He looked like he had aged two decades since the last time they had seen him. A tall, handsome man in his sixties, he looked shrunken, withered, fragile, and, most tellingly, done with life.
Blum said, “Jack…what happened?”
He focused on her with a pair of weary, bloodshot eyes, his brow crinkling in annoyance approaching anger. “Nothing…happened. I’m…doing okay.”
“You don’t look okay,” Pine said bluntly. “You don’t look okay at all.”
“That’s your opinion,” he replied testily.
“That would be any reasonable person’s opinion,” countered Pine.
“I was shot, Atlee. It’s not like I have a case of the flu. Nobody just pops back from that. Particularly not someone my age.”
“I realize that,” she began before glancing at Blum. “And I know I was mad beyond all reason after my last visit here.”
“You had every right to be as angry as you were. I feel like I got off easy, actually.”
“Don’t go all chivalrous and make this harder than it has to be,” she said in a lighter tone.
He held up his hand before she could go on. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, Atlee. At this time in my life it’s imperative to do so.”
“Thinking about what?” she said sharply, not liking his fatalistic tone.
“About you, about Mercy, about your mother and Tim. And, finally, about me.”
Pine drew up a chair next to the bed and sat down. “And what have you concluded?”
Part of her didn’t want to know his answer, but in life you needed to listen to things you didn’t want to hear, maybe those most of all.
“Well, first of all, I’m leaving everything I have to you and Mercy.”
Pine immediately shook her head, recoiling at this news. “Jack, I don’t—”
“Please hear me out. Please. It’s important!”
Pine shot Blum another glance, and the woman nodded with a pleading look on her face.
She sat back, folded her arms over her chest, assumed a stubborn expression, and said, “Okay. I’m listening, but that’s not the same as agreeing.”
“I am your and Mercy’s father. That gives me certain responsibilities, none of which I have lived up to.”
“You didn’t know where—”
He interrupted. “I knew more than I let on. And what I didn’t know I could have found out. The bottom line is, I have behaved abominably throughout this entire thing. I doubt any man could have been a worse father.”
He was so distressed that Pine felt her anger at him start to fade. She sat forward and laid a hand on his arm. “Jack, you were between a rock and a hard place. There was nothing simple about the situation.”
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