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The Cabin on Willow Lake by A.J. Rivers

The Cabin on Willow Lake by A.J. Rivers PDF

Author: A.J. Rivers

Publisher: ‎ Independently published


Publish Date: August 2, 2022


Pages: 246

File Type: Epub, PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

During the daytime, Willow Lake Resort was a beautiful and seemingly peaceful place in the country, but at night, it was truly magical. The air was crisp and cool against Ava’s skin as she stood looking out over the lake. Cabins dotted the grassy area on the other side of the water, and closer to where she stood there was a magnificent waterfall that fed the lake with fresh, clear water from the mountain far off to the right side. The willow tendrils lifted in the breeze and moonlight sparked diamond points across the surface of the large lake. The large hotel with its casino, restaurant, and bar stood behind her. It was far enough removed from the simple serenity of the rustic cabins that it didn’t interfere with the ambiance.

A few days out in the country with no cases hanging over her head, no deadlines on paperwork looming, and no hectic morning meetings had been a godsend for Ava. Sal had suggested it, and Ava hadn’t argued too much. She had perhaps been working a little too hard and sleeping far less than she should have been lately, and the resort had seemed far enough removed from her daily life that Ava had started looking forward to the mini-vacation.

Inhaling deeply of the crisp night air, Ava closed her eyes and replayed the last twenty-four hours in her mind, pulling every minute detail she could from the recesses of her memories.

Sirens pierced the veil of silence, and she grimaced. They were still distant, as was the low hum of traffic snoozing by on the interstate a mile away, mostly hidden by trees and small rolling hills.

She tried harder to immerse herself into her reveries, but the steadily nearing warble of sirens prevented it. Her brow furrowed, and she held her breath, willing those images forward. But it was no use. No matter how hard she tried, she never pulled any more from her memories than she already had.

She let out a frustrated sigh and opened her eyes, finally turning to her right to see what all the commotion was. Flashlight beams crisscrossed the landscape. Tracking dogs alerted at different points at the place where the landscape stretched upward toward the mountain. Some were closer. She could hear them over the bluff that overlooked part of the lake.

Two county sheriff’s cars raced up the narrow road that served as the entrance to Willow Lake Resort, sirens slicing through the night like sharpened blades in a serial killer’s hands.

Ava pressed her fingertips to her temples briefly and then headed to the edge of the bluff.

Such a beautiful scene to be ripped apart by the ugliness that had happened there. Endearing silence ruined by the blare of shouting and the unpleasant blare of megaphones.

Seeing and hearing officers, dogs, sirens, and a full forensics team was surreal. They shouldn’t be in such a place. They should be off somewhere far away from Ava’s vacation spot.

A black SUV pulled into the parking lot and then idled into the flat grassy area near Ava. It didn’t have blaring sirens and there was no lightbar to make Ava squint as she watched the vehicle. But she knew the vehicle. It was like reality rushing forward to meet her, to cut through the last of her attempts to escape into her memories and bring her back to the world.

The driver’s side door opened, and none other than Sal Rossi stepped out with a concerned expression. She shook her head and walked toward Ava.

“You know, I’ve heard of a working break and a working lunch, but Ava, I have to say that this takes the cake. A working vacation…” She gave a slight grin as she put her arm around Ava’s shoulders.

But there was no more room for memory; no more time to dally around and play vacation. There was work to be done, and Ava welcomed it. This was what she was here for, after all; her purpose in life that had built on foundations she’d meticulously laid for years.

She was glad Sal had come.

Three Weeks Earlier…

A man who would take away a woman’s sense of self-worth when that’s all she really had wasn’t much of a man, but rather a monster. Jamie Black was definitely a monster.

His trail of destruction and terror wherever he went had cut a horrific swath through the eastern half of Virginia in recent months. At first, it had been a series of break-ins and robberies: he’d slip into the homes of young women who lived alone and steal small things: a cell phone here, some jewelry there, maybe an expensive trinket or two. But soon enough, he’d become bold enough to start restraining his victims while he carried out the crimes in front of them.

And then he’d started hurting them. Cruelly brutalizing, raping, and maiming them in ways that turned Ava’s stomach. And despite it all, he was still able to avoid being singled out by any of his victims.

It wasn’t until he went after the daughter of Governor Hammond that Ava and her team were put onto the case—a fact that made her furious, as the Bureau had only seen fit to look into it when it was a wealthy, well-connected woman who’d been attacked. They’d done enough investigating down in Richmond to find that Black had finally crossed the line into murder, and then just as unceremoniously ripped off the investigation once it stalled.

The pieces had finally clicked into place weeks later, when Ava had received a call from Monica Foster—Jamie’s sister—who told her everything as she witnessed her brother carrying out a savage attack right in front of her. If not for Monica, that monster might have gone on lurking in the shadows of single women’s homes without a name, without a face. But with that nugget of information, they finally had a link to tie together all the elements of this sprawling case.

Even despite her short career, Ava knew it wasn’t unusual to see this kind of progressive scale in career criminals. Often, the behavior patterns emerged in childhood but were overlooked by parents who thought the kid was just going through a phase, and then by teachers who labeled the same kid a troublemaker.

Case studies of serial killers almost always followed the same progression of disturbing patterns, though not all who exhibit those patterns turn out to be serial killers. Some are simply master manipulators, some are able to channel that energy into more socially acceptable behaviors and live a mostly full life, while others become CEOs of the world’s largest and most successful companies.

But then there are the ones like Jamie Black. The ones who turn from bad to worse, and then worse still. They become the boogeymen lurking in shadows and the living nightmares of which everyone has a deep-seated, innate fear. That was Jamie Black.

His case was by far the most disturbing one Ava had ever worked on personally. Even in the Academy when she had studied serial killer cases of the likes of Kemper and Bundy, she’d suffered terrible nightmares and paranoia in her waking life. Innocent noises in her apartment morphed and turned into knife-wielding maniacs creeping ever closer to her in the darkest hours of the night. The random screams of partygoers in town were turned into someone’s dying screams of agony. Many nights, she had awoken covered in a sickly sweat with her heart racing and her muscles trembling from some vivid dream about fighting off a maniac intent on taking her life.

She had never told anyone about the effects of the case studies. Giving voice to such things, in her opinion, gave them power over her, and she much preferred keeping her power.

She already didn’t want the pitied looks and hushed conversations that would come when people found out that she’d been kidnapped in Prague and nearly sold off to human traffickers. She fought hard in her time in the Academy not to seem weak, not to seem like she’d be jumping at shadows. She hated being scared and paranoid and hated the way people wanted to treat her with kid gloves even more. But she’d shown them all by graduating with flying colors and already being handpicked for leadership on Sal Rossi’s team in Fairhaven.

Ava was forever grateful that the FBI had given her the means to overcome all that. Turning that fear and paranoia into a steely resolve that she used to put away people like Jamie Black had made all the sleepless nights and moments of lonely terror worth it.

As she looked over the stack of reports that had to be put into some sort of coherent package with all the other files on Jamie Black—the ones that didn’t have his name and face and other pertinent information—Ava shook her head. It would take forever, and right then, she didn’t have that long. They were due in Richmond in a few hours to speak with Monica.

Sal knocked on the door and smiled when Ava looked up to motion her in.

“Come on in. What’s up?” Ava asked, glad to have the brief respite from the paperwork and the endlessly blinking cursor on the computer screen—to her, its incessant blinking was the equivalent of an impatient person drumming their fingers, urging her to hurry up and do something useful.

“I’m thinking of getting us on the road sooner than we planned. That’s not going to be a problem for you getting the paperwork into the system, is it?”

Ava shook her head. “Not at all. I’ll be glad to get off my butt, to be honest. I know this is a very important part of the job, but…” she grinned and shrugged.

“Doesn’t feel like you’re really doing all you can to get the bad guy, does it?”

“No, it certainly doesn’t. I can do all this after we catch him.”

“I wish that’s the way it worked, but unfortunately, it’s just not. Grab the hard copy of the files and the laptop. We’ll be there a few days. You can work on it during our downtime.”

Ava nodded. “Gotcha.” She didn’t know how old-school detectives and agents had done it. Spreading out all the paperwork and reports to find a connection, a pattern, or anything at all. No wonder all the detectives worked in notoriously messy offices back in the day.

“Twenty minutes?”

“Plenty of time. I’ll be at the car in ten,” Ava said, eager to get out of the office. She already had a go-bag packed with essentials and a few days’ worth of clothes that she’d refreshed just after getting the call from Monica, and it had been waiting patiently in the corner of her office for what felt like weeks, but she knew had only been a couple days.

Even then she had known they would be headed back to Richmond soon. Then, when the local cops hadn’t arrived soon enough to catch Jamie Black or save the woman he had been attacking, Ava was champing at the bit to get out there in the field and find the monster herself. Now, all the paperwork and gathering as much evidence as they could from his various crime scenes, they were headed down to the scene of the crime.

The drive was long and boring, but Ava’s mind turned over every bit of evidence they had in the files. Without conscious effort, her mind formed possible scenarios of what had happened the night Monica had called her. The woman had been terrified, distraught, and almost certain her own brother was going to kill her. Ava shuddered to think how traumatic that must have been.

Monica was obviously a strong woman, though, as she had gone back to her house after being released from the hospital and talking to the police. Ava didn’t think even she would have been able to do that.

The city rose up around them slowly, then all at once, like the skyscrapers of downtown Richmond had sprung up out of the earth. And then just as quickly they were gone, replaced by smaller, squatter buildings, then the neatly lined rows of suburbs, until finally, the two SUVs ambled off the main road into the rural neighborhood just on the outskirts of town. Ava and Sal parked up and gave a nod to Metford and Santos in the other car to wait behind for them.

The house was in need of some basic repairs. The paint was standard white, the color so prevalent in rural areas where most of the houses were two-story farmhouses from a bygone era. It was large—much larger than most middle-income houses in more urban settings. The porch had a few metal chairs and a wicker table with an overflowing butterfly ashtray in its center.

The curtains were drawn and Ava heard no movement from within as Sal pulled the screen door open to knock on the inner door. One of the three long panes of glass had been replaced with a piece of cardboard held in place with the world’s favorite silver tape.

“That’s how he got in the night she called me, I bet,” Ava mentioned to Sal, pointing to the cardboard.

Sal nodded and then knocked on the door again, announcing herself loudly. “Monica Foster? This is Agents Rossi and James with the FBI,” she called out.

Ava stepped back and saw the curtain over the right-hand window open a sliver and then drop back into place. The sound of hurried footfalls grew nearer, and then the sound of the locks being disengaged.

Monica opened the door three inches and peered out at them, then beyond them.

“Credentials,” she said, her gaze flitting between the members of the team.

Sal and Ava produced their IDs, and Monica eyed them suspiciously for a long moment before nodding and opening the door the rest of the way.

“Sorry. I’m just a bit paranoid, I guess. I don’t know what to expect. Jamie’s still out there, you know.” Her voice cracked as she stepped back to allow them entry.

“We do know, Monica. We’re very sorry for everything you’ve gone through, and we’re here to help. We want to catch Jamie as badly as you want him caught,” Sal told her.

Monica scoffed and used the back of her knuckles to rub her nose. “I seriously doubt that.” She motioned toward the kitchen. “Wanna sit in here?”

Ava followed Sal into the room. The kitchen was square and every corner was easily visible. The pantry was only a floor-to-ceiling built-in shelf. The appliances might have been new in the late eighties or early nineties, but the fridge was an avocado-green behemoth leftover from the sixties.

“Should I make some coffee, or tea, or something?” Monica asked, standing in front of the sink.

“No, we’re fine. We won’t take up much of your time,” Sal assured her.

Monica sat in a chair with her hands clasped between her knees. “I’m not worried about you taking up any of my time; I just want him caught, and if that means you need to move in here for a few days to get all the information you need, well, I’m fine with that.” She pursed her lips and placed her hands flat on her thighs.

“I don’t think we need to go that far,” Sal said.

There was a back door that led out into a large, flat yard. Trees lined the property farther out, and then the property line cut off with a rusted picket fence just before the woods behind it got so thick they were impenetrable. But there was another door there, too. One that wasn’t on an outside wall.

“I’m sorry…” Ava pointed to the door. “Where does that door lead?”

Monica looked around at the door and stood. She walked to it and pulled it open to show that it was only a small storage room with a few shelves that held various household tools and cooking accessories that weren’t needed all the time.

“Just a storage space.”

“Do you have a basement?” Ava asked.

“There’s an old one that hasn’t been used since I can remember. Mama and Daddy kept all our food right here,” she said, pointing to the open-faced, built-in shelf.

“Where’s the door to it?”

“Bulkhead outside around back of the house and at the end of the hallway underneath the stairs.”

“I’ll tell Metford and the others to check it out,” Ava noted as she got up to take a look.

“He’s not down there, you know. Hasn’t been there, either,” Monica said matter-of-factly as she sat again. “You think I came back here without having the cops search this place inside and out, top to bottom?”

“We’re just checking all the boxes, Monica. Better safe than sorry,” Sal said.

“Must be nice to be able to slice up life and put it in nice, neat little lists that you can just check off in an orderly fashion.” Monica’s tone fell flat as her gaze slid to the window.

Ava returned and joined Sal again. “They’re on it.”

“Good.” Sal turned to Monica. “I know it’s difficult, but we need to know about Jamie. Anything that stands out in your memory might give us the clue we need to be able to track him down or get a step ahead of him and save someone else’s life.”

Monica shrugged. “Like what? He’s my brother, so I have a lot of stuff in mind that stands out.”

“Are you and your brother on good terms?” Ava asked.

Monica scoffed and pushed her lank, mousy-brown hair back from her forehead. “No. Jamie and I were hardly ever on good terms. We’re siblings. Blood-related.”

“So, were you on bad terms? Had you two been arguing about anything?” Sal asked.

“No, no. I didn’t argue with Jamie. I just mostly tried to fly under the radar and stay out of his way when he was around.”

“Were you afraid of him?” Ava asked.

“If you’d grown up with him for a brother, you’d be afraid of him, too.” Monica ran her hand from her forehead down over her eyes and shook her head. “All those years, Mama and Daddy told me I was being overly dramatic when I’d say I was afraid of him. They’d get mad at me for it.” She dropped her hand to her thigh again. “Looks like I had damn good reason to be afraid of him. I’m glad our parents aren’t here to witness any of this, though. God knows it would have killed them.”

“What made you so afraid of him back then?” Ava asked.

“He was always a little weird. Just kinda off, if you know what I mean. Other kids avoided him and said he gave them the creeps. He was a real troublemaker at school and in town, too. He’d fight at the drop of a hat. He didn’t have to have a reason, he just enjoyed the fighting. He’d break shop windows, car windows, house windows just because he was bored, or because he wanted to watch the owners freak out afterward. More than once, the sheriff would come to the house in the middle of the night to bring Jamie home. Mama and Daddy wouldn’t even realize he’d been gone until the cops showed up with him. That was all before he turned twelve. Then when he got a little older, up into high school, he seemed to calm down a bit. Still kind of a troublemaker, but it was more like teenage pranks. That’s what everyone thought, including our parents, but I wasn’t fooled for one second. I knew better. He wasn’t as careful to hide stuff around me for some reason.”

“Why do you think that is?” Sal asked.

Monica shrugged. “Hell if I know. Maybe he wanted to share his thoughts with someone. Maybe he just knew that he could control me easier than anyone else. Maybe he wanted me to be afraid of him because I was the older sibling. And it worked.”

“What do you mean by that?” Ava pressed.

Monica nodded. “I remember one day, I walked up to the attic to get the autumn decorations for Mama one day, and Jamie was up there. He had some real fancy jewelry laying on the windowsill, and he was holding a ring up in the sunlight, turning it and smiling as the light sparkled through the diamond. That smile sent chills down my spine worse than seeing the jewelry that I knew he’d stolen from someone. He saw me, saw the look on my face, and he ran to shut the attic door and block me in with him. I begged for him to let me out. The look on his face scared the hell out of me.”

Monica closed her eyes and took a deep breath, clearly reliving the memory even after all the years. “He pinned me against the wall, put the blade of his pocketknife against my chest, and pushed the tip in just hard enough that I felt it puncture the skin there. I froze, and he pressed a little harder to make sure I didn’t move. I didn’t breathe. He told me that if I told on him, he would come in my room and put the blade all the way into my heart while our parents were asleep. I knew he was evil enough that he could do it. I just didn’t know if he really would do it or not, and I had no intention of ever finding out.”

“Would you say that’s when your relationship with him changed forever?” Ava asked.

“Well, yeah. I was terrified after that. And then, when he was sixteen, I saw him kill the neighbor’s terrier at the very edge of our backyard.” She pointed out the window to the spot. “He didn’t know I was there, and let me tell you, I never made a peep and I didn’t move until he was gone. I saw the whole thing. He liked what he was doing.”

“Is there anything else you can think of?” Sal asked.

“Just sort of repeats of those things that happened sporadically over the years. After Mama and Daddy died, he got worse. I couldn’t even be around him. The hatred and anger rolled off him in waves. He blamed me for their deaths because they were coming to get me from a summer camp I’d gone to with my church youth group—I found any excuse back then to be away from him. But with them gone, there was nobody left to defend him when he got into trouble, and the cops wouldn’t turn a blind eye toward his meanness—they only did that for our parents’ sakes.”

Ava nodded. “We have your report from the incident the other night. Is there anything you want to add to it? Anything that perhaps you forgot or left out for any reason when you gave that report.”

“No, I told them everything.”

“Is there family he could go to? Friends? Anyone you know that might let him stay with them?” Sal asked.

“Nobody. He didn’t have friends, and we only have one aunt left as far as family goes. She’s eighty-two. I doubt she’d be able to put up with him. He’s too volatile and too mentally draining. She would have called me if he’d gone to her house.”

“So, she knows what happened?” Ava asked.

“I told her, yeah. She’s family and had the right to know.”

Sal nodded and stood up, and Ava joined her. “Thanks so much for speaking with us, Ms. Foster,” she said with a tight smile. “We’ll just finish searching through the house, and then we’ll be out of your hair.”

“Mhm,” Monica replied flatly.

Ava turned as they reached the doorway. “Monica, I noticed that your last name is Foster, and Jamie’s is Black.”

Monica nodded and a sadness swept over her features. “I was married for a little over a year. I got married as soon as I turned eighteen, but he passed away. Accident down at the tire factory left him with constant debilitating pain in his lower back and left leg. He’d lie in bed moaning and crying even months after he’d been released from the hospital. The pain got too much for him, and he swallowed a handful of pills while I was picking up groceries. I found him.”

She sucked in a ragged breath and bobbed her shoulders as if shaking off the cold. “Anyway, that’s when I moved back in here. Right back to square one. Right where I started.” She chuckled caustically. “My life had come full circle before I was even old enough to buy a beer on my own.”

“I’m sorry. It must’ve been terrible.” She turned to leave and stopped again. “How old was Jamie when that happened?”

“If you’re thinking it traumatized him or was a catalyst for his bad behavior getting worse, don’t worry, it wasn’t. He was eighteen when Ricky committed suicide. Jamie despised him, so he was completely unaffected by his death, and he was cold and rude to me while I was still grieving.” She shook her head and lowered her gaze to the floor.

“Alright. Thanks again, Monica.” Ava stepped out of the room and followed Sal through the first-floor rooms before they moved to the second floor and attic to finish their sweep.

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