Authors: Rita Herron
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #Crime
Also in Rita Herron’s Slaughter Creek series
Dying to Tell
Her Dying Breath
Worth Dying For
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2014 Rita Herron
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by Marc J. Cohen
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014907477
To my twin—and my very best friend!
wish I could leave my body behind. I’d take my mind to another place, somewhere nice and soft and warm. Someplace with bright, pretty colors, where I had friends and a mom who’d sing to me at night.
Then the monsters could do whatever they wanted to me, and I wouldn’t feel any pain.
I try so hard to make it happen. To levitate and leave the room. To float to another place far away so I can tell . . .
Help me. Please help me,
But I’m only a kid and nobody listens. Nobody hears me cry at night. No one comes to help me.
No one says it’ll be okay.
Because they don’t tell lies where I am. And they don’t care if you’re afraid.
Death whispers in my ear a thousand times a day. “You can run, and you can hide, Zack. But I’ll get you anyway.”
No . . . I will escape one day.
The room is dark. Cold. Cement floors. Concrete walls. Musty smelling.
Outside my prison it’s quiet.
Except for the footsteps of the leader. Left, right, left, right. Coming closer.
My stomach pitches. He’s coming for me again.
I pick up the nail I found under my metal bed and scratch a picture on the concrete wall. A drawing of the monster who keeps me locked up. It has hideous features, distorted and bulging. Coppery eyes that shoot daggers dripping with blood at my feet.
And sharp fangs that snap at my skin and tear it off into pieces like rags.
The woman’s voice drifts through the cold halls. The lullaby she is singing. Only it isn’t a lullaby but a call for the dead. A warning of what is to come.
The room is black. The door bolted. The keys turning in locks down the hall screeching like banshees.
I shiver at the idea of banshees.
I know what they are. They’re creatures of the night.
People who are about to be murdered see them.
I hear her mourning call from the woods outside.
She’s washing the bloody clothes of someone who just died.
Is she coming for me next?
he nightmares refused to leave Amelia Nettleton alone.
She glanced at the bottle of pills on the table. The medication would quiet the voices, numb the pain. Make her forget . . . at least for a little while.
They also numbed her to everything else.
With a shaky hand, she pushed the bottle away. She’d come too far in her therapy to go back to that place where she floated in and out of reality. Where life was nothing but a blur, and she wasn’t really living at all.
Determined to purge the haunting images of the past from her mind, she mixed the paints, dark grays and black and reds, and began to fill the blank canvas with the images. Fast, furious, terrifying—she put it all on there.
Body parts filled the jars on the shelf on the wall—fingers, toes, a hand, a tongue . . . then eyes . . . bloody and ripped from humans as if a wild animal had scavenged them for food.
The eyes were the worst. They stared at her in shock and terror, accusing and full of hate. Why had she let this happen?
How could she love a man who was a monster?
Ting. Ting. Ting.
She painted the wind chimes on her porch outside. They tinkled, then clanged together, banging in the wind.
Then the monster turned on her, reaching inside her chest, tearing out her heart with his long, icy fingers, ripping through muscle and tissue, cracking bones and puncturing blood vessels until they gushed red like a river running down her chest. Pain tore through her, her body convulsing.
Her eyes were torn out, blinding her, making empty sockets in her face, the black holes endless and evil looking. Then her tongue was slashed, leaving her gagging, swallowing blood and rasping out a silent scream, her breath coming in shallow spurts as death called her name.
Amelia dropped the paintbrush, red paint splattering on the floor like blood.
Chilled from the inside out, she walked to the window to look out, wishing for daylight to chase away the darkness hovering over her. But the pull of death and despair threatened to consume her as night dragged on.
The chill of February raged through the mountains, lapsing into a sea of endless gloomy skies, winter holding on with a vengeance. Twigs snapped and broke off, flailing to the ground while the wind whistled through the mountains, shrill and eerie sounding.
Bare tree branches swayed and shook icy sleet onto the snow-crusted ground, the leaves dead and buried beneath the layers of frozen, muddy slush from the deluge of storms that had descended on Slaughter Creek.
I’m coming for you,
a gruff voice whispered
. Wait for me, Amelia.
She shivered at the sinister tone. Six’s voice was filled with the shock of betrayal.
Six—her former lover and the man the town called “the
Dissector” because he’d mutilated his victims and stored their body parts in the same type of mason jars her granny had used to can beans and peas from the garden.
Body parts he kept as treasures. Trophies.
For a brief second, his image appeared in the shadows of the woods as if he were watching her. She blinked, her heart hammering.
No . . . it wasn’t real. He was locked away. She was safe.
There were too many damn missing kids in the U.S.
But six-year-old Darby Wesley was one TBI, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Special Agent John Strong hoped to find.
Wind bit at his neck and fluttered leaves around his feet. His boots crunched the frozen snow as he crept toward the clapboard house deep in the mountains. Night sounds echoed from the woods, the dark keeping him hidden as he clutched his handgun at the ready.
The countryside was desolate with its dead trees and icy sludge crusting the ridges.
Had the kidnapper brought the little boy here?
Various scenarios raced through his head. A large percentage of the missing children cases involved parental disputes turned kidnappings. There were hundreds of runaway teens. Kidnappings for ransom. Abductions by mentally disturbed individuals desperate for a child of their own.
The reasons went on and on.
Some of the lost children were already dead. Some they’d never find or know what happened to them. Others were being abused or tormented.
Worse were the child traffickers. Bunch of sick fucks.
And then there were the pedophiles . . .
Even sicker fucks.
What were they dealing with this time?
Not a parental dispute, he knew that already. Parents were dead. Darby was in foster care.
John’s partner, Special Agent Cal Coulter, gave a quick nod from the opposite side of the house where he had a view of the front window, indicating he had visual confirmation the suspect was inside. John prayed the kid was, too. Darby had been missing less than twenty-four hours.
Every hour that passed decreased the chances of finding the boy alive.
But they’d caught a break when a gas station clerk had heard a noise coming from the back of a white utility van.
A noise that sounded like a little boy’s scream for help.
The clerk had played it cool, but scribbled down the van’s tag number, then called 911 as soon as the driver peeled out of the parking lot and headed into the foothills of the mountains.
A helicopter search had narrowed down the location.
John inched around to the left, checking the side windows. Years of grime and dirt coated the windowpanes, making it difficult to see inside. Birds had nested on the windowsill while termites had eaten at the wood.
He crept to the back door. Rotting wood, no glass. But a small, narrow window offered a view inside. More dirt and grime on the panes, but they were clear enough for him to see the hallway. “No visual on the child,” he said into his mic.
“Suspect is passed out on the couch,” Coulter replied. “Should we call for a warrant?”
Technically they should. But John didn’t always play by the rules. “No way. If we catch hell, I’ll deal with the fallout later.”
After all, a kid’s life was in danger. That was all the probable cause he needed.
John jiggled the doorknob. Unlocked.
Either they had the wrong man, or the bastard was so cocky, he thought he’d already gotten away with his crime. That he was so far off the grid no one would find him.
That he could rest up before doing whatever heinous thing he’d planned with the child.
That wasn’t going to happen on his watch.
Unless he had already hurt the boy . . .
Two hours had passed since the 911 call. Two hours was a long damn time.
The suspect could have killed the child and ditched him someplace in the woods or thrown him off a ridge and no one would know. It might take days for them to recover his body.
In that time, there was no telling what the animals might do to him.
Nausea tied John’s stomach into a knot.
Days that would be torture for Darby’s foster mother, who was already crazed out of her mind with worry and guilt.
Hand clenched around his Sig Sauer, John crept inside the kitchen. Musty odors. Cigarette smoke. French fries.
His gaze swept the room. A pizza box on the counter. A fast-food bag with a kid’s toy.
The man definitely had a child with him.
Fear squeezed John’s chest. The room was too quiet.
Exhausted but still unable to sleep, Amelia turned on the TV to distract herself from her thoughts while she put the last touches on her painting.
“This just in, a late-breaking story,” the reporter said. “A bomb exploded earlier at a women’s clinic in Knoxville. Three were killed, including two doctors and a nurse on duty. At this time, police are unsure of the motive but are investigating.”
Amelia stored her paints and immersed her brushes in cleaning solution, then crawled into bed, her nerves frayed as the reporter continued.
“Witnesses report a young man about fifteen years old walked into the clinic with a bomb strapped to his chest and set off the explosion.”
A shudder of horror ripped through her as the cameras panned to show the carnage. God . . . what was the world coming to?
Unable to stand watching any more, she punched the TV set off.
The wind whipped a branch against the window, its jagged edges scraping the glass as if they were gnarled fingers trying to claw their way in.
Six’s voice taunted her in the silence.
Why did you betray me, Amelia?
She battled the panic, desperate to banish his words—and her guilt.
to turn him in. Had to stop him from killing again.
She took a deep breath and pulled the quilt her gran had made for her over her, tracing her finger over the fine stitching and odd shapes. Gran had called this a crazy quilt because its pattern consisted of random shapes and fabrics mingled together.
Just like she was.
She glanced at the chest where the other quilt had been folded and stored. The wedding-ring quilt Gran had made for her marriage bed.
Her sister Sadie had hers on her bed now.
A sadness enveloped Amelia. She’d never get to use hers. Never get married or have a family. Not with her dark past and troubled soul. What man could possibly love her?
Thoughts of Gran gave her comfort, though, and she finally slipped into a deep sleep.
A voice seeped in.
Not Six’s this time. A child’s.
Help me, Mommy. Help.
The earth spun and she felt as if she were free-falling. When the world cleared again, she was in a hospital. Machines beeped. Voices sounded. The scent of antiseptic filled the air. A cart moved, trays rattled.
The sanitarium—she was back there, in a room. White coats all around her.
“Push, Amelia, push. The baby’s coming!”
Pain ricocheted through Amelia’s abdomen, fear choking her. What if something went wrong?
“Come on, you can do it.”
Hands lifted her shoulders. A voice ordered her to grip her knees and push again. She heaved a breath, fighting through the pain of the contraction, imagining the moment she would hold her newborn in her arms.
Her newborn . . . she was finally having the baby . . .
Tears blurred her eyes. She wished Sadie were there. Wished for Papaw and her grandmother and all the people she’d lost when they’d locked her up.
The bright lights blinded her, and the room blurred, spinning in circles. White coats with nameless faces floated past, the sound of voices echoing as if they came from a faraway place. As if they were in a tunnel.
“She’ll never know.”
“Don’t tell her.”
“She’s too crazy to have a baby.”
“No one can ever find out what we did.”
She struggled to discern who was talking, but another contraction gripped her, then another. They were right on top of each other.
“One more push, come on, Amelia.”
She gritted her teeth, clutched the bed, and pushed.