Twisted Webs Prologue and Chapter 1

PROLOGUE
Long Beach, California

August 18, 1990

Mario Christonelli pulled his silver Taurus into the only remaining parking spot behind St. Joseph’s Church, his trembling hands damp and cold. Between jagged breaths he wiped his palms on his trousers, then leaned over to check the large canvas bag on the passenger seat beside him. Inside, the tiny baby still slept soundly in the soft cradle he’d crafted for her. Suddenly he crushed both hands to his chest, as if to slow the thundering beat of his heart. What have I done? What in the hell have I done? God forgive me.

Mario’s eye shifted to the digital clock on the dashboard. It read 6:55. In the glow of the illuminated church, he sat stiffly. Time stood still.

His thoughts shot back to Erica, and his guilt shifted to unspeakable regret over what he’d done. Regret over what had driven him to commit this sin against God. Regret that his actions would bring so much pain to innocent people. But what choice did he have? Deep in his heart, Mario knew that if it were possible to turn back the clock, he still would not alter the course he had taken.

Moments later, parishioners began to pour out of the church’s open doors. Mario watched Father O’Reilly bid his final farewells in the vestibule and then turn toward the corridor leading to his small office. Mario gently scooped up the baby, snugly wrapped in a pink receiving blanket. No, not “the baby,” he corrected himself.Our daughter. He flung open the car door and headed toward the church steps, calling out, “Father. I need a few minutes of your time.”

Father O’Reilly smiled in recognition. “Mario. Of course.” He paused, his empathy transparent. “How is Erica?”

The priest had been privy to Mario and Erica’s despair. Well into her ninth month, Erica’s appendix had burst, infection dashing their hopes of ever having a child of their own.

“No better, I’m afraid.” Mario saw the questioning look in Father O’Reilly’s eyes as the priest’s gaze drifted down to the small bundle held awkwardly in his arms. Not caring to elaborate, Mario plunged on. “I’ve something … something I must confess.”

Father O’Reilly nodded and said, “Well, my son, then you must come to confession tomorrow morning, before our next mass.”

“But … I …” Mario paused, groping for the right words. They didn’t come. A moment passed, and then he blurted, “Forgive me, Father. What I have to tell you cannot wait. You must hear my confession now.”

 

CHAPTER 1

Ashleigh Taylor stared straight ahead, oblivious to the silver-haired nurse behind her wheelchair, oblivious to the hum of voices that echoed off the walls of Long Beach Memorial Hospital’s enormous lobby. Oblivious to anything but her tiny daughter.

From the moment this nightmare began, her room on the maternity floor had been flooded with people—hospital staff, members of the hospital administration, police, and plainclothes detectives. She’d talked to scores of individuals, so many that their faces and words were no more than an unfocused kaleidoscope.

As Ashleigh gazed down at her baby, her vision blurred. She blinked back tears.Who did this? Who could have taken her twin? And … why? Oh my God, why did this happen? She prayed once more for strength.

Ashleigh’s only relief was that she would finally be leaving the upheaval on the maternity floor and the endless litany of questions she could not begin to answer. Neither the nurse who pushed the wheelchair nor the two uniformed officers accompanying them had spoken directly to her since leaving the fourth floor. What was there to say?

The instant the automatic doors hissed open, Conrad rushed to her side, his dark hair slightly disheveled, a light stubble shadowing his jaw. He took her hand in his, then tenderly ran his index finger along their daughter’s soft cheek.

Ashleigh sat up as straight as she could, trying to show her husband that she could be—she would be—strong. Her gaze drifted from Conrad to the black-and-white police cars, one directly in front of their rented Lincoln Continental, the other nearly touching the back bumper. Behind the rear police car was a black sedan. The driver’s door swung open, and a tall man in a dark suit headed in their direction—perhaps one of the plainclothes detectives? Ashleigh felt her resolve begin to waver.

Conrad followed her eyes toward the tall man beside the black Crown Victoria. The man was well over six feet, with thick salt-and-pepper hair and a serious expression on his thin face. “Be right with you,” Conrad called out. Turning back to her, he said tenderly, “We’re going to get through this.”

“I know.” Ashleigh squeezed Callie lightly and then raised her to meet her father’s outstretched arms. Before either he or the nurse could utter a single word in protest, she rose from her wheelchair. “I rode in this thing only because I was given no choice,” she said in a strained voice. “I don’t need to be pampered. I need to be strong.”

“Ashleigh!”

“I’m sorry, love. I know I must sound like a petulant child. But I can’t allow myself to be weak or fall into any kind of self-pity. We both have to be strong. Callie needs us, and I pray that whoever has taken Cassie will …” Tears filled her eyes again, this time spilling down her cheeks before she could stop them.

Conrad pulled her close with his free arm.

“I’d like to sit in the backseat, beside Callie,” she said, knowing her husband would understand.

“Of course,” he said, pulling open the rear car door.

Ashleigh slid into the backseat, then froze. A single infant car seat had been secured to the beige leather seat. Conrad must have dashed out to purchase it that morning. There was no sign of the one they had bought in anticipation of the twins—the double one that had been strapped to the seat the day before. The day their life had been torn apart. The day Ashleigh had reached into Cassie’s bassinet beside her own bed and scooped up a rubber baby doll, swaddled in a pink hospital receiving blanket and staring up at her with bright blue, plastic eyes. The day her heart had come to a full stop.

Taking a steadying breath, Ashleigh looked up at Conrad and wordlessly held out her arms for Callie. He held her eye silently. There was no need for words. He gently placed their daughter in her arms and then strode toward the officer.

Callie whimpered, and Ashleigh’s thoughts temporarily shifted from her own loss. She held her infant daughter for a moment or so, rocking her back and forth until she quieted, then carefully maneuvered her into the car seat. Fumbling with the unfamiliar latches, Ashleigh had to smile at her own awkwardness. But Callie immediately settled down and appeared to be taking in her surroundings.

Ashleigh thought of the mysterious bond between identical twins—she’d read that it could be powerful. From the moment she’d learned that she was carrying twins, she had devoured every relevant book and article she could get her hands on. Did that bond develop in the womb? Could Callie, even now, sense the loss of her sister? Oh, let it be temporary! Callie would not be missing her twin for long. Whoever had taken Cassie would be found, and she would be returned to them. Their family would be whole again soon.

Ashleigh willed herself to believe it.