The Obsession

By: Nora Roberts



“I’m sorry. Ah, merciful God. She needed food. I just came out to see about getting her something.” Lettie crouched down with a cup of water.

“Did she see him? Did she see me bring that bastard in?”

Lettie only shook her head. “I wasn’t gone for more than three minutes. She’s coming around. There you are, baby. Naomi, honey, just breathe easy now. You just had a faint. I want you to sip some water.”

“Have I been sick?”

“You’re all right now. Take a sip.”

It came back to her, all of it. Her eyes—what her mother called medicine bottle green—closed. “Why isn’t he mad at me? Why doesn’t he care?”

They urged water on her. Wayne carried her into the back again. They brought her sick food—the tea and toast. She ate what she could, and found it made the worst of that floating feeling go away.

The rest passed in a blur. Dr. Hollin came in and looked her over. Somebody stayed with her all the time—and Wayne snuck her in another Coke.

The sheriff came in. She knew him—Sheriff Joe Franks—because she went to school with Joe Junior. He had wide shoulders on a sturdy body, and a tough face on a thick neck. She always thought of a bulldog when she saw him.

He sat across from her.

“How you doing, Naomi?”

His voice was like a gravel road.

“I don’t know. Um. Okay, sir.”

“I know you had a hard night, and you’re having a hard day on top of it. Do you know what’s going on here?”

“Yes, sir. My daddy hurt Ashley. He tied her up down in that old cellar in the woods by this burned-out cabin place. He hurt her really bad, and he hurt other people, too. There were pictures of them down there. I don’t know why he did those things. I don’t know why anybody would do what he did.”

“Did you ever go out there to that cellar before last night?”

“I didn’t know it was there. We’re not supposed to go into the woods that far. Just to the creek, and only when we have permission.”

“What made you go out there last night?”

“I—I woke up, and it was so hot. I was sitting by my window, and I saw Daddy go out. I thought maybe he was going to the creek to cool off—and I wanted to go, too. I got my flashlight and my flip-flops and I snuck out. I’m not supposed to.”

“That’s all right. So you followed him.”

“I thought maybe he’d think it was funny. I could tell if he did before I let him know I was there. But he didn’t go to the creek, and I just wanted to know where he was going. And I thought when I saw the old place, and the cellar, maybe he was putting a bike together for my birthday.”

“Is it your birthday, honey?”

“Monday is, and I asked for a bike. So I waited—I was just going to take a peek. I hid and I waited until he came out, but—”

“What?”

For a moment, she thought it would be easier if she floated again, just kept floating. But the sheriff had kind eyes, patient ones. He’d keep those kind eyes on her even if she floated away.

And she had to tell somebody.

“He didn’t look right, Sheriff. Sir. He didn’t look right when he came out and it scared me. But I waited until he was gone, and I just wanted to see what was down there.”

“How long’d you wait?”

“I don’t know. It felt long.” She flushed a little. She wasn’t going to tell him she’d peed in the woods. Some things were private. “There was a bolt on the door, and I had to work some to push it, and when I opened the door I heard something like whimpering. I thought maybe it was a puppy. We weren’t allowed to have a dog, but I thought maybe. But then I saw Ashley.”

“What did you see, honey? It’s hard, but if you can tell me exactly, it’s going to help.”

So she told him, exactly, and sipped at the Coke even though her stomach jittered with the retelling.

He asked more questions, and she did her best. When he was done, he patted her hand.

“You did real good. I’m going to bring your mama back.”

“Is she here?”

“She’s here.”

“And Mason?”

“He’s over at the Huffmans’ place. Mrs. Huffman’s keeping an eye on him, and he’s playing with Jerry.”

“That’s good. He and Jerry like to play together. Sheriff Franks, is my mama all right?”

Something shuttered down over his eyes. “She’s had a hard day, too.” He said nothing for a moment. “You’re a steady girl, Naomi.”

“I don’t feel so steady. I got sick, and I had a faint.”

“Trust me, honey, I’m an officer of the law.” He smiled a little. “You’re a steady girl. So I’m going to tell you there are going to be other people asking questions. The FBI—you know what that is?”

“Yes, sir. Sort of.”

“They’re going to have questions. And there’s going to be reporters wanting to talk to you. You’re going to have to talk to the FBI, but you don’t have to talk to any reporters.”

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