Just in case you haven’t preordered yet, here’s Chapter One of Deadly Affections to give you some incentive.
In the darkest room she could imagine, Leedra Henderson was a moment away from screaming at the top of her lungs. The only reason she hadn’t was her companion: small, cute and, as far as she could tell, just as scared as she was.
Leedra rolled to a fetal position. Sheer force of will was preventing her from surrendering to the familiar feeling of a concussion, threatening to carry her off into a deep sleep. She sat up slowly, one hand on her head and the other steadying her body as she pushed herself up from the cold concrete floor. She was racking her brain, trying to remember what had happened. A strong hand, a blunt object, a thudding pain at the back of her head. Trying to guess what that object had been, she hoped fervently that it hadn’t been a loaded gun.
She caught her breath and thought again about screaming, but she had to think first. She wasn’t sure any help was nearby to hear her, even if any bad guys were gone. She knew that if they were in fact present, screaming might just mean another clunk on the head. She needed to avoid that at all costs.
She’d been happy earlier that day, getting ready to start her life anew. She’d been en route to the house of her new boss for a meeting to discuss her new job at the Anchored Empowerment Center, a nonprofit organization serving women and their children who had been battered and abused. The Center helped to make new lives happen for the women and children they served. She was so excited about being able to offer others the same chance for rescue that she herself had received years ago.
Leedra’s mind drifted again, and she touched the side of her head to find a growing lump. She skimmed the raised flesh gingerly and was happy that at least no blood oozed from the sore. Slowly but surely, her mind was clearing.
“Hello?” she called softly. “Honey? Honey, are you there? Sweetie, I’m here to help you.You can trust me. Are you doing okay?”
Leedra sat straighter, hearing a shuffling just feet from her in the murky darkness. “Honey, please answer me and let me know you are okay. I’m not here to hurt you, I promise.” Leedra waited patiently, and eventually she felt the girl’s small clammy hand touch her leg. Leedra grabbed the hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
“Hello, hi there. Are you okay?” Her vision blurry, thanks to her glasses having been knocked off, Leedra leaned down to look closer at the girl’s face. Adjusting to the dark, she could make out large, pretty brown eyes and thick eyelashes fanning out for days. The child’s eyes were as wide as her own and just as scared.
“I’m scared,” came the little voice.
“I know, sweetie. Me, too.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Me?” Leedra asked, surprised. “What are you doing here?”
She could feel the girl shrug in response. “Well,” she continued, “I just happened to be in my car minding my own business, and I saw you, and I saw that white van, and I saw them jump out and grab you, and I felt like I was . . . in another world.”
Having an out-of-body experience, to be precise, but that would probably be a little too much for a small child.
She said, “I was like, uh oh, what’s going on?”
“So you came to help me?”
“Yes, dear.” Leedra assured.
Leedra was silent. Having focused on making the day’s earlier events seem more like a funny adventure for her companion’s benefit, she was taken aback by the child’s manners.
“You are welcome, my friend. Did you recognize either of the men?
The child shook her head. “What do they want?”
To terrorize poor little innocent children for some reason, Leedra thought silently. Aloud, she said, “I don’t know, but you’re going to be all right. You can trust me, okay?”
The tiny hand moved in Leedra’s own as if making itself more comfortable, letting her know that she was now a trusted party. Leedra squeezed it, trying to push back the memory of a time when there were no caring adults to hold and comfort her.
“So, let me tell you what: I’m so glad that there aren’t any thunderstorms here! If there were a thunderstorm while we were stuck in this little bitty room, I—well I’m telling you, I would not be your strong buddy right now. I’d be that puddle on the floor over there.” She didn’t know where in the world the thunderstorm narrative came from; she only knew that she was trying to make small talk with a kid, and she was improvising. Divulging her own fears would, she hoped, give them some common ground and take her own mind off their present dismal state.
“What are you doing?” the girl asked as Leedra stood. A sudden new pain shot through her leg, so strong that she almost collapsed to the floor again. Touching her thigh, she felt another wound: a deep flesh wound, sticky with what had to be blood.
Thankfully, the room finally stopped tilting. Restless but stable, her hands felt around the room’s cold walls, searching almost blindly for cracks, crevices and maybe, God willing, an opening of some sort that could provide an exit from their nightmare.
“I’m just trying to—uh . . .” Leedra’s fingertips felt a ledge and she stretched herself as far as she could. The tips of her toes lifted her up a few more inches so she could peer over the top. Nothing but more blackness greeted her. Continuing to grope around while favoring her injured leg, arms extended to their fullest reach, her heart leapt when she felt a small window. Through the dusty, dirty pane of glass, a weak sliver of light crept in. Someone had taken the time to coat the glass with shoe polish, black paint or some other dark, slick grease. The goopy residue now coated her fingers, particles of it drying and flaking away with each swipe of her hand against her clothes.
Ultimately, the window didn’t budge against her straining, pushing fingers. Without something to stand on and a heavy object, they did they stand a chance of getting through it. Leedra sighed as she brought herself back to her normal height and her feet back to flat. After just this mild exertion, she felt emotionally exhausted.
She sat down again and struck up conversation once more with the girl. “Do you remember where you live? Like, do you know your address?”
Leedra didn’t know why she asked that question. She didn’t really need to know where the child lived. She didn’t remember how far they had driven, but it had been day when she left, so presumably quite a few hours had passed.
The smart thing to do, obviously, would be to seek out the nearest authority facility as soon as they got out of this mess. A police station or fire station would do, or just any official-looking person wearing a state-issued uniform.
Unfortunately, Leedra couldn’t risk that.
For any normal person, these authorities would be the most logical people to seek—but she wasn’t any normal person. If there was one thing Leedra Henderson avoided, it was contact with the law. She’d have to find a way to get the child to safety, but she’d have to do so anonymously. If—when they got out, she corrected herself staunchly—her mission was clear: return the child anonymously to a safe space and proceed to run far, far away.
“I live at my grandma’s house. We moved after my mom died. My dad grew up there.”
Leedra looked up, so lost in forming her own plan of action that she’d forgotten the question she’d posed. “Oh, well . . . um . . . th-that must be a special place.”
“It was. Then it burned down a few years ago. Then my Daddy and my Uncle Cole rebuilt it. They changed it around. It looks different now, and it’s much nicer. We have a huge kitchen, and I got my own room with bunk beds so I can have sleepovers. We also have a library.”
“A library? That sounds wonderful, honey. Does, uh, your daddy let you have lots of sleepovers?”
“Only with my cousin. Actually, she’s sorta my aunt.”
“Huh?” Leedra said, confused—but she quickly silenced the girl before she could respond. Distant footsteps were coming down the hall. The child, picking up the unspoken alert, sat up and stopped talking completely. Leedra’s eyes were riveted to the dim outline of the door. Leedra grabbed the child to her chest, willing her pounding heart to calm and her nerves to steady.
The figure of a man looked in. Leedra just had time to notice the gun in his hand before a blinding light seemed to burst from behind him, stabbing painfully into her occipital lobe and forcing her to look away. The next instant, the door slammed shut and the light disappeared.
Thankfully, the child was still sitting in her lap.
Adjusting her eyes to the dimness once more, Leedra tried to salvage some consequential impression of the man. Had he uttered a grunt, a comment, even just heavy breathing? Did he have an accent, perhaps? Unfortunately, he made no sound during their split-second encounter. A smell, then: smoke, liquor? Nothing. She wouldn’t be able to identify him to anyone. Disappointment clouded her relief.
Perhaps the captors hadn’t expected her to be there with the little girl, which was good. Her presence complicated matters. Then again, Leedra herself hadn’t counted on being there either. She had been on her way to a new job and new life, for heaven’s sake. When that white van had pulled up just feet from her car, with a man leaping out and snatching up a child, Leedra hadn’t thought twice. She’d been discovered by the kidnappers and then been thrown into the dungeon with their other loot. That gut reaction had landed her smack-dab in her current predicament.
The girl, sensing that danger had temporarily passed, began talking quietly again. Leedra listened with half an ear, the other part of her brain churning. She contemplated whether screaming would get them anywhere, then wondered how she might be more prepared if anyone entered again. Leedra nodded absently as the child looked at her expectantly. Kira Parker. Her name was Kira Parker; she was eight years old.
“Guess what? My daddy was in foster care just like my cousin was until her brother found her. Well, actually my Aunt Allontis found her.”
“Allontis?” Leedra’s heart took a dive and then surged. She mostly had a hard time following Kira’s childish narrative—an uncle finding his little sister?—but that unique name made her ears prick up.
A few years ago, before she’d returned to the United States, she would check the Washington Post’s website regularly to keep up with news, just to stay in touch with events back home and to remind herself of the place she wanted to return to some day. Memories jangled in her mind of a news story she’d followed: lots of scandalous coverage of some Maryland senator’s awful embezzlement schemes and an illicit affair with a minor that had produced an illegitimate child. Leedra had learned some extra details about the story, not from the Post’s coverage but from email exchanges with her distant friend Allontis Baxter. While Allontis’s name had barely been mentioned in the press, that of one Cole Parker had been a main feature. Cole Parker, who Kira had just said was her Uncle.
Thoughtful but cautious, she asked aloud to be sure. “Is your aunt’s name Allontis Baxter?”
“Yes, well, used to be. We call her Aunt Lonnie now – she married Cole. She’s a Parker now, like me.”
“Oh, how nice,” Leedra breathed, trying to sound nonchalant.
“Do you know her?”
“I might. Um . . . is your father’s name Dexter? Did the Parker family adopt him like your Uncle Cole? How old is your daddy, sweetie?”
Leedra tried to slow her tumble of questions, but this could be huge. If Kira’s father really did turn out to be Dexter Johnson, the boy she knew from foster care as a child, this would turn out to be the most amazing coincidence Leedra had ever known. The Dexter she knew so long ago had been brought to her foster family after she’d been there just a few months herself. There had been other children there: two girls she’d called her sisters, plus her own biological sister. The old man that lived there had left the boys mostly alone. It was Leedra and the other three girls he’d been more interested in.
Leedra shook her head, annoyed that in her reverie she might have missed important answers from Kira. Right then was definitely not the time to relive her childhood. It was better off forgotten, although she could never forget. Yet, she had always wondered what happened to Dexter Johnson. That little boy had made her time in foster care a little easier.
Leedra took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. She’d shed no tears, but her eyes hurt from straining to see everything. She shook her head to clear her thinking. There was no way that the man she knew then could somehow also be this child’s father. That was too eerie a thought. Although she was curious about him, she didn’t want to be connected to anyone who might remind her of that painful time. In any case, if they did see one another, she didn’t even have to admit to being that little girl. He might not even remember her, and it was best for everyone if it stayed that way.
Her mission right then was to ensure the child currently in her care made it home safely.
Kira had fallen asleep on her lap and Leedra caressed her forehead tenderly. They were strangers, but the fact that the child could relax enough to sleep in her care must mean that some level of trust had been established.
“I’m gonna get you home,” Leedra whispered. “I promise.”
Leedra decided to let the child sleep a little longer while she worked out a plan to get them both back to their lives. She continued to talk in a whisper to herself. “If Dexter Johnson is your father, you’re the luckiest little girl in the world. He’s probably going crazy wondering where you are.”
Her mind was made up. If she had escaped the tragedies of her childhood, albeit with many battle scars and lots of baggage, then surely she could take on a couple of punks who preyed on the weak, small and innocent, for whatever sick reason they were doing it. She hadn’t returned to Virginia, the state she longed to make her home, only to fall at the first hurdle. She wanted a life, and this incident was just a bump in the road. Determined to get on with it, she would have to act now. “I know you’re with us, Lord. Help us through. Protect us,” she whispered.
After her short prayer, Leedra roused Kira from her sleep and told her about her plan to return Kira to her family, unharmed. Once the little girl seemed fully awake and understood her role, Leedra prayed all the harder that her plan would work.