Alex mercer 01 0 girl in.., p.1

[Alex Mercer 01.0] Girl in Trouble, page 1

 part  #1 of  Alex Mercer Series

 

[Alex Mercer 01.0] Girl in Trouble
 


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[Alex Mercer 01.0] Girl in Trouble


  Contents

  Title Page

  Down

  Bar

  Party

  Games

  Hope

  Palace

  Text

  Searching

  Discussion

  Desperate

  Sleepless

  Station

  Rest

  Home

  Breakfast

  Determined

  Clue

  Stuck

  Interview

  Waiting

  Research

  Threat

  Hungry

  Fenced

  Conference

  Vigil

  Collaborate

  Stress

  Dismissed

  Frantic

  Alone

  Setup

  Fired

  Attempt

  Note

  Longer

  Pins

  Out

  Realization

  Crash

  Hospital

  Convincing

  Reminisce

  Allies

  Progress

  Broken

  Careful

  Leak

  Escape

  Woods

  Chase

  Changes

  Intruder

  Comfort

  Past

  Confession

  Waste

  Fury

  Ring

  Scared

  Plans

  Office

  Retreat

  Arrest

  History

  Tour

  Suspicious

  News

  Warning

  Free

  Furious

  Picture

  Thwart

  Disbelief

  Held

  Boat

  Race

  Swim

  Struggle

  Shore

  Reversal

  Watching

  Turn Back Time (An Alex Mercer Thriller #2

  More

  Other Books

  Author's Note

  GIRL IN TROUBLE

  AN ALEX MERCER THRILLER

  by Stacy Claflin

  http://www.stacyclaflin.com

  Copyright ©2017 Stacy Claflin. All rights reserved.

  ©Cover Design: Didi Wahyudi

  Edited by Staci Troilo

  This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, businesses, events, or locales is purely coincidental or used fictitiously. The author has taken great liberties with locales including the creation of fictional towns.

  Reproduction in whole or part of this publication without express written consent is strictly prohibited. Do not upload or distribute anywhere.

  This e-book is for your personal enjoyment only. It may not be resold or given away to others. If you would like to share this book with others, please either purchase it for them or direct them to StacyClaflin.com for purchase links. Thank you for respecting the hard work of the author.

  Receive free books from the author: sign up here.

  Down

  One Year Ago

  The rickety wooden boat swayed slightly as the tall man sat, clutching the edge. He watched as the girl’s body sank lower and lower until it was completely underwater and out of sight.

  She hadn’t been the one.

  He’d been sure she was, but once again, he’d been proven wrong.

  He waited until the bubbles stopped.

  It was over.

  Until next year.

  Then it would be time to find the next girl. Would she finally be the one?

  He grew tired. Exhausted, really. Not enough to stop his search, though. He needed to right the wrong from so many years ago.

  Next year would be thirty years.

  Thirty.

  That was a big anniversary.

  Perhaps next year’s girl would be the one he’d waited so long for. Year thirty could be when he finally received his big payoff. He was starting to get too old for this. His shoulder ached.

  Everything would be made right.

  Next year would be his year.

  All he needed was just a little patience.

  He had a full year to plan everything out.

  The tall man glanced back out at the still lake.

  Another lake, another girl, another year.

  When would all this finally end? Would everything finally be as it should?

  Next year. It had to be next year. No, it would be.

  He grabbed the oars and rowed back to the shore, already making plans for next Halloween.

  Bar

  Current Day

  Alex Mercer glanced around the bar.

  His head pounded—not from drinks, but from another tedious day of futility. He tried to convince himself he was doing some good by fixing people’s roofs, but inside he knew his life was going nowhere.

  “Want more?”

  Alex pushed the glass toward Cole with a grunt, wondering what made him more of a loser—his dead-end job or the bartender being his only friend?

  Cole filled the glass and leaned against the counter. “I was thinking about decorating for Halloween. Think I should bother? It’s less than a week away.”

  Blood drained from Alex’s body.

  Halloween.

  He licked his lips and found his voice. “Less than a week away?”

  Cole glanced at his phone. “Yeah. You okay, Alex?”

  Alex ran his hands through his short hair, loose dirt falling to the bar top in front of him.

  He hadn’t missed the most important day of the month, had he?

  Alex swore under his breath. “It’s tonight. Tonight, and I almost forgot.”

  “You got a date?” Cole arched an eyebrow.

  “Me? You know I swore off women.”

  “Yeah, but that can’t last long.” Cole greeted another customer then turned back to Alex. “What’s tonight?”

  Alex’s body pulsed and his head pounded.

  “My daughter’s Halloween party. It’s more important to her than Christmas or her birthday combined.” He finished his drink with a swallow and scattered some bills on the counter. “I gotta go. I’m barely gonna make it with rush hour traffic.”

  Cole’s mouth gaped.

  “What?” Alex jumped from the stool, nearly knocking it over.

  “You have a daughter?”

  “It’s a long story, and I don’t have time. But I can’t show up like this.” He glanced down at his filthy clothes, nose curling from the stench of alcohol.

  Ariana was lucky Alex had given her up for adoption the day she was born. Giving the girl a decent chance at a good life was probably the only virtuous thing he’d ever done.

  Cole shook his head. “I can’t believe you’re a dad.”

  “Barely.” He only made a few appearances a year.

  “Tell me more.”

  Even clipped it could take all day. “Sure. Later.”

  “How old is she?”

  Alex’s blushing cheeks were buried behind his shaggy beard. “Eleven.”

  Cole choked. “Aren’t you only twenty-five?”

  “Yeah. Like I said, long story.” Alex grabbed his coat from a hook, hurried outside before his friend could ask any more unwanted questions, and tripped over a homeless man staining the outside stoop.

  “Got any cash?” The old man was caked in dirt and what was probably dried blood. He had at least four missing teeth.

  Alex opened his mouth, paused, then dug into his pocket and handed the man a ten.

  He snatched the bill, his face turning bright. “Thanks.”

  “No pro
blem.” Alex jogged over to his beat-up, ancient gold Tercel and raced home to his tiny one-bedroom apartment and the stench of something rotten.

  He sniffed, not quite placing the smell. Maybe he’d forgotten to take the trash out again. It didn’t matter. He needed to clean up and pull something together for Ariana’s party. He stepped into the living room and tripped over his coil nailer.

  “That’s where my nail gun went,” he muttered. He’d been looking for that when installing the roof at his job site.

  Alex peeled off his work clothes and left them in a pile on the floor, then he jumped in the shower and quickly trimmed his beard. Zoey would probably still criticize it, but he didn’t care. He wasn’t there to impress her. This was all about Ariana and the fact that she’d be crushed if he didn’t show. She was the one person who actually held him in high regard—for however long that would last. Eventually, she too would see what a screw-up he really was.

  With a towel around his waist, he dug through his closet, looking for something that would work as a costume. Finally, he settled on tattered black jeans—those were easy enough to come by—along with a white shirt and a red bandanna to wrap around his head. Now he was a pirate. Sort of. He found a vest and pulled on some brown work boots. That would have to do.

  He checked the time. With traffic, he’d be a little late, but at least he’d be there.

  As he got back into his beater, his phone buzzed with a new text.

  It was from Zoey.

  You’re coming, right?

  Alex groaned. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.” He could always count on his ex-girlfriend to boost his morale.

  Wouldn’t miss it.

  Good.

  Alex held back an eye roll and didn’t respond to her last text. He started the car and braced himself for the traffic. It was usually an hour drive, but it might take two—and he would definitely be late. Maybe he could slip in, unnoticed. Ariana’s parties seemed to get bigger each year.

  He coasted along the I-5 corridor at twenty miles an hour heading south toward Seattle, though he’d have to drive farther. His mind wandered to everyone he would see at the party. Zoey, of course. Her parents were raising his and Zoey’s daughter as their own, though Ariana knew and understood they were actually her grandparents.

  His parents would be there. They still lived next door to Zoey’s parents. Ariana had always visited them regularly, and they were always first choice as babysitters.

  Alex’s heart constricted. Part of him wished he could be more of a part in her life, but it was better this way. He really had nothing to offer to her. He just worked, went to the bar, and slept. Rinse and repeat every single day, except Sundays when he slept all morning and watched sports in the afternoon.

  He turned up the music and sang along with the song so he wouldn’t have to think.

  Finally, he pulled into the neighborhood he grew up in. His old street was filled with cars and nearly every house had spooky decorations.

  Alex pulled into his parents’ driveway and stared at the tri-level he’d grown up in.

  His stomach twisted into tight knots.

  Party

  Alex got out of the car and looked next door at Zoey’s parents’ house. It was the most decorated home in the neighborhood. He could hear festive music playing from speakers in a tree.

  Clementine, his parents’ orange tabby, walked up to him and rubbed against him. Alex kneeled and ran his hand along the cat’s back and relaxed somewhat.

  He rose and cut through his yard to the house that had been his second home growing up. He tried to distract himself with the yard decorations. Playful skeletons pulled at each other in a wagon. Ghosts danced around a tree. Smiling pumpkins lined the walkway. Giant bats and spiders hung from the house.

  It was all cute, and he could see Ariana’s touch behind it all. The girl spent the entire year planning her Halloween party, and she always made sure to turn it into the event of the year, with each celebration outdoing the last.

  Alex stopped in front of the door, pausing for a moment. For so many years, running in uninvited had been the natural thing to do. He and Zoey had continued dating for years after Ariana’s birth. But that had been so long ago.

  He took a deep breath and knocked. Playful Halloween music played inside over the sounds of kids giggling and shrieking.

  The door opened. Ariana stood there, wearing a costume that looked like a cross between a witch and fairy. Ari’s dark brown hair now went halfway down her back, and she’d grown at least a few inches—she already looked like she could be thirteen. How could she have grown up so much in the last few months since her birthday party?

  Her gorgeous brown eyes widened and her entire face lit up. “Dad!” She wrapped her arms around him, squeezing him so tightly that he couldn’t breathe.

  He flinched as he always did at the word ‘dad’ and awkwardly put his arms around her, patting her back.

  Ariana stepped back and looked him over. “I love your pirate costume! I almost went with pirate this year, but I think I’m going to do that next year. Do you like my outfit?” She spun around.

  Alex’s breath caught. She was so beautiful. “I love it.”

  She stopped and smiled, her eyes shining with excitement. “Do you know what I am?”

  “Either a witch or a fairy?” he guessed.

  Ariana squealed. “You figured it out! I’m a fairy-witch.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him inside. “Mimi! Papi! Dad is here!” Ariana called her grandparents ‘Mimi and Papi’ and she called Zoey and Alex ‘Mom and Dad.’ It was how she’d always differentiated her adoptive parents from her birth parents.

  Alex took in the scene before him. Aside from the loud, spooky music and kids running around, fake cobwebs hung from everything, even the furniture. More bats and spiders decorated the walls, and every portrait now had a witch hat added. The tables all had black coverings with skeleton decorations. Festive treats lay everywhere for the taking.

  Valerie and Kenji Nakano, Zoey’s parents, came over to them. Kenji was dressed as a baseball player—hardly a costume since he’d been a professional in Japan when Zoey was growing up. Valerie wore a wedding dress covered in fake blood.

  Kenji greeted Alex with a wide smile and a firm handshake. Valerie barely nodded an acknowledgment. She hadn’t liked him since he and Zoey had broken up. Mother and daughter despised him equally.

  But the joke was on them. No one could hate Alex more for what he’d done than he hated himself. Not that he would admit that to anyone else. The regret followed him around like a shadow, choking him when he gave it too much thought.

  Ariana dragged Alex away, showing him off to all her friends. She introduced him to the ones he’d never met. Then she stopped for a skeleton cookie and handed a bat-shaped one to him. “Want to see my room?”

  “I’ve seen it.” He bit into the cookie, glancing around for Zoey. She had to be avoiding him.

  “No, I’m in Mom’s old room now. We totally redecorated it after my birthday. Please. I want to show you.” Ariana’s eyes grew wide and she folded her hands together. “Please.”

  How could he say no to that?

  He smiled. “Let’s see it.”

  She squealed and her grip around his hand tightened. “Come on.”

  Alex followed her up the familiar stairs and into Zoey’s old room. His heart pounded against his chest as a flood of long-gone happy memories flooded his mind.

  “What do you think?”

  Ariana’s voice broke through his thoughts. Alex blinked a few times and focused on the very pink room. Pale blush walls matched the bedding and upholstered furniture. Dark rose pillows accentuated the light shades of paint and fabric. It seemed so much more mature than her old room filled with cartoon characters.

  “So grownup,” he whispered.

  “I know! Oh, and look at this.” Ariana let go of his hand and ran over to the bed. She picked up a framed picture from the nightstand and showed him.

&n
bsp; It was a picture of him and Zoey from the night of Zoey’s senior prom. She wore a beautiful teal dress, and Alex had on a tux. They looked so happy. They had been so happy.

  Ariana held the frame close and closed her eyes. “I love this picture so much. I even remember that night, but Mimi says that’s impossible. You came over and gave Mom the flower on her dress. Nobody told me that. I remember.”

  “I believe you.”

  Her grin widened big enough to light up the room. She twirled a strand of her rich, dark brown hair around a finger. “You do?”

  Alex gave a slight nod. “You were wearing pink pajamas with kittens dancing in the snow. You said we looked like a prince and princess going to a royal ball.”

  Ariana’s mouth gaped.

  He tapped her button nose. “I think you really believed we were.”

  She set the frame on her bed and squeezed his middle again. “I wish you lived closer.”

  “Me, too.” And he actually meant that—for the moment, at least.

  “Ariana? Are you up here?” came Zoey’s voice from the hallway.

  Before he had time to react, Zoey came into the room. She was dressed as a pirate also, but she had gone all-out with hers. Compared to Zoey, his felt especially thrown together.

  Their gazes locked. He studied her dark eyes. They were the same as they’d been for as long as he’d known her—as far as he could remember. Having messed up with the two people in this room was his biggest regret.

  Ariana released her hold on Alex. “I was showing Dad my new room!”

  Zoey’s expression stiffened. “It’s hardly new. You moved in here on your birthday.” She threw a glare at Alex.

  He turned away, unable to take the guilt and regret.

  “Well, it’s new to him.” Ariana bounced toward the door. “Let’s go downstairs. Time to bob for apples! Wanna go first, Dad?” She batted her eyes at him.

  “Yeah.” Zoey’s brows came together. “Want to go first?” Though her expression seethed anger, he knew her well enough to see the hurt beneath it all.

  He turned to Ariana. “If you want me to.”

  “Yay!” She spun around and bounded down the stairs, skipping every other step.

 
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