Authors: D.J. Palmer
Her call was answered with more barking.
Nina found the light switch. A naked bulb dangling from a cord illuminated a steep, slat staircase made of unfinished wood. Dizzy with fear, Nina descended the stairs slowly, one creaky step at a time, holding on to the wood railing for balance. Her heart knocked hard enough to mask the sound of her footsteps. The farther she descended, the louder the barking became.
Get my dog and get outÂ â¦ get my dog and get out,
she repeated to herself.
“Daisy?” Nina called her dog's name again as if she could answer; sure, so sure it was Daisy's bark, the way a mother knows her child's cry. Her breath came in shaky sputters, a whistle of fear pushing past her trembling lips as she continued her descent.
Nina stepped into a dark enclosure, the light from the lone bulb unable to penetrate the space below. She peered into the blackness. Daisy's barking was loud and to her left, somewhere in that pitch dark.
She thought she heard a noise to her right, or was that in her head? Nina froze, petrified. Closing her eyes tight, she drew in a sharp inhale. Simon was down here. He had
down here, waiting for her in the dark. He was always one step ahead. SimonâSimon the patient hunterâhad hidden himself in the basement. Knowing Nina as he did, like a subject he had studied in school, a topic he'd mastered, he knew
she would come, and she did just as he'd predicted, marching right into his trap. What would he do to her if he caught her here? Kill her? Dump her body in the same grave where he may have buried Allison?
She waited for another sound but only heard the desperate barking of a dogâher dog. Nina pushed aside all grim thoughts to focus on finding light.
Her fingers brushed up against a support pole, where she found a second switch that powered on bright overhead fluorescents. She turned, half expecting to see Simon, a twisted smile on his face, but instead, encountered a wide-open, nearly empty basement, as neat and devoid of possessions as the rest of the house. Taking in the room, Nina noticed a television propped up against a wall on the other side of the stairs, its snaking black cord plugged into the nearby outlet.
How strange to see a television in this empty space,
She turned her head in the opposite direction, toward the barking, and there she wasâDaisy, her beloved dog, crated, looking healthy as could be. The crate was large enough to allow Daisy to move about freely, and so she did, her body clanging loudly against the metal barricade in wild, uncontained excitement. Daisy could see and smell Nina. She knew what home was, and home had come to her.
Nina's heart leaped for joy. There did not appear to be a lock on the crate; escape should be easy.
Get my dog and get out
Nina went to the crate. She crouched down to undo the latch, and managed to get the leash out of her coat pocket without dropping her phone. Daisy broke into a frenzy of barking.
Opening the crate a crack, Nina struggled to secure the leash to Daisy's collar. Her dog was nonstop motion, barking, yipping excitedly, and kissing any part of Nina within reach of her tongue. The moment Nina stepped away from the door, Daisy shot bullet-like out of the crate. With a burst of startling strength and speed, she dragged Nina to a wall behind the stairs. Nina resisted by tugging hard on Daisy's leash to pull her in the opposite direction.
“Come on! Come on!” she urged.
She didn't want to go back through that house, but there was no other way out. Again, she jerked the leash hard, but Daisy continued to resist.
Eventually, Nina got to the stairs, and up she went, surprised she had to pull Daisy, and with some force, to get her to leave.
Out! Out! Get out!
The voice in her head was screaming now.
At the top of the stairs, Daisy dug in and wouldn't budge, so Nina gave the leash another hard tug. The house was quiet and still. To her left, she could see the front door. Escape was only feet away. Her heart lifted. It was mission accomplished. She'd go straight to the police and they'd arrest Simon for dognapping. She wondered if perhaps she should get the diary, thinking the authorities would search for Allison and reopen the investigation into Emma's death, but now wasn't the time. She had to leave. Every part of her was urging her to go.
Good-bye, house. Good-bye, Simon.
As Nina reached for the front doorknob, her cell phone rang.
Instinct made Nina retrieve her phone from her coat pocket. It could have been Maggie calling from school. Simon was there and she was thinking crisis.
She saw the call was actually from Connor. Nina was about to answer when Daisy gave a hard yank, pulling the leash free from her loosened grasp as she went for her phone. Spinning quickly to catch her, Nina lunged for the leash, but Daisy was too fast. In a blur of motion, Daisy bolted for the door to the basement, which Nina had left open in her haste.
Down she went again, putting her phone back in her coat pocket, not answering Connor's call.
Get my dog and get out
Nina returned to the basement to find Daisy barking wildly at the wall behind the stairs, pawing at the brick.
“What are you doing?” Nina shouted as she reached down to gather Daisy's leash. She pulled hard, but Daisy held firm. Nina gave the leash another tug, gritting her teeth in frustration.
“Come on,” she urged, her temper rising as if she were dealing with an obstinate child.
Instead, Daisy went down on her stomach, paws outstretched, before rolling onto her back, refusing to make eye contact.
“No! Come!” Nina scolded.
What is Daisy trying to say?
A trainer had once told her that hierarchy was important in the canine world. Could Daisy be attemptingâin a respectful mannerâto inform Nina that she wished to disobey her command? Perhaps. Or maybe it meant she was afraid. If so, it would be an emotion both currently shared.
Nina thought of Allison, gone somewhere, taken, killed, thought of Simon finding her here, and pulled on the leash again, this time with more force, knowing every second counted.
“Come on,” she growled.
Daisy allowed Nina to drag her a couple feet on her back before righting herself.
But Daisy dug in and began moving in reverse, as if she were playing a game of tug with an invisible rope toy, pulling Nina toward that same wall she'd visited before.
No more games. Nina went for the collar. She'd carry her out of here if she had to. But now, standing so close to the wall, Nina could see something she hadn't noticed before. There appeared to be the very faint outline of a door. Daisy kept her nose to the wall, barking excitedly. Using her fingers, Nina traced the edge of the outline, searching for some kind of a latch, but there didn't appear to be any way to open it.
She would have left, but Daisy was so insistent that she simply had to know why. But how did it open? She had no tools, nothing she could use to pry it ajar. What was behind there?
It's AllisonÂ â¦ it's her bodyÂ â¦ it's her bones.
Feeling desperate, Nina pressed against the wall in random places, looking for some kind of pivot point, but the door, if there was a door, wouldn't budge. She reached higher for added leverage, and her hand pushed against a brick above her head. She heard a click and a popping like an airlock giving way. The crack in the door widened. A jagged energy coursed through her body. Nina set her fingers against the edge of the crack and gave a hard pull. The door swung open easily, the
hinges not making a sound. A pungent aroma, truly an animal-like scent, filled her nostrils.
Nina's mouth opened in a scream, but no words came out.
He looked back at her blankly, his eyes wide with disbelief. Daisy darted into the room behind the stairs with unbounded joy, her barking ricocheting off the concrete walls.
“Am I dreaming?” he asked in a whispered voice.
Nina knelt before the man with the ankle restraint around his leg and touched his bearded face with great care and tenderness.
“No,” she said, caressing him, tears stinging her eyes. “You're not dreaming. I'm here, Glen. I'm really here.”
This was not the man portrayed on the missing-person posters that Nina had distributed all over New Hampshire. That photo had captured Glen's rugged good looks: the hard-to-tame wavy hair with the side part he favored, eyes a bit brooding, neatly trimmed beard glinting red, and a proud smile because, after all, he had just hiked up a mountain.
Then there was this man: hollow, bloodless skin pockmarked with ugly bruises, deep red scratches, and lesions on his arms and face that had to have come from a recent beating. He was shockingly pale, eyes darkly ringed, and cheeks sunken like those of a castaway. A thick and tangled beard, descending well past his chin, trapped dried food like a spider's web. His hair, unruly as his beard, draped long past his shoulders. His body was decaying while alive.
He was chained like a prisoner, and dressed like one, too, in a gray sweatsuit that hung loosely over what once had been a fit, well-muscled body. He began blinking rapidly, his eyes adjusting to the blazing light. Nina stood shakily, taking one step back, scanning the room, as if the answer to what to do next would be found nearby.
When the overheads were off, Nina had noted that the darkness was impenetrable. Now she knew why. The basement had casement windows that were covered with blackout shades. Certainly those windows
had been sealed tight. There was no way out for Glen, not with a chain locked around his ankle.
“Oh, dear Lord,” she said.
The ground seemed to suddenly drop out from under her, her balance gone. Nina sank to her knees again, landing with a painful crack of bone on cement. The room went spinningâthe walls, the floor, Glen, Daisy, all of it now a blur.
Blood thrummed in Nina's ears as her vision went black. Fear added weight to her body, pulling her down, down into nothingness. Again that smell, musty and rancid, wafted from Glen's prison, powerful enough to make her eyes water and sharpen her focus. She came to, snapping into herself.
She fixed her gaze on Glen. The despair in his eyes filled her with profound sorrow. Glen inched forward, the rattle of his chain making Nina cringe.
Get out! Get out! Get out!
The voice in her head was back, screaming to her this time.
Nina emerged from her fog and began to crawl toward Glen, her body trembling. She entered the room partway, reaching for the chain, pulling uselessly on his restraints.
Glen pursed his lips, still blinking, working hard to speak the words that were starting to form.
“He has the key,” he managed, his eyes traveling to the heavy-duty lock securing the ankle restraint to his body. “The chain is welded to the base. You can't break it.”
Nina saw such pain in Glen's eyes. Was that for all he had done or for what Simon would do to them? Daisy was elated, her tail wagging like wipers in a rainstorm. The room may have been soundproof, but it couldn't block out Daisy's incredible sense of smell.
“I'm so sorry,” Glen said, his voice breaking. “I'm so sorry for everything.”
Nina was checking the key ring for one that might unlock Glen's restraint, but put them away to take his hand in hers. His skin was raw
and brittle. Their eyes met, and when he didn't look away, when his eyes never left her face, she took in his grief and his sorrow and knew with certainty he'd been down here since his disappearance. He'd been living in the room behind the stairs for nearly two years.
“Oh, Glen, no, no, I'm the one who's sorry.” Nina's voice broke as tears filled her eyes. “I'm so sorry for what happened to you.”
“How long have you been in the house?” Glen sounded like he'd just come out of a dream. “The room is soundproof. I can't hear a thing in here.”
“Not long,” Nina said, forgetting for a moment the time she had spent in the bedroom.
“You shouldn't be here,” Glen said. “He'll know.”
“No, I turned off the alarm, and Simon's at school. We're safe.”
The hairs rising on her arms didn't agree.
“There'sÂ â¦ there's a backup system.” Glen croaked out the words, his voice hoarse, weak as an old man's. “It's hooked up to his phone. If anyone comes inside the house when he's not here, he'll know it. Get out. Get out now and call for help.”
Panic rose in her. Prisoner or not, Glen was the one thinking more clearly, and if he had known how long she'd spent reading the diary, he'd have yelled at her to run. A plan formed in her mind: she'd flee, get outside, and drive a safe distance away before calling the police.
“I'll go for help,” Nina said, walking backward, unable to avert her eyes from Glen.
The numb shock was beginning to abate, her brain firing now. The place had two alarms, not one. Simon was at school, a fifteen-minute drive away. But she'd been in his house twice as long. He had to know she was hereâwho else would it be?âso why wasn't
here? What was he doing? Was Maggie in danger? Had he taken her? Did he plan on striking some kind of dealâher loveÂ â¦ for her daughter's life? Is that why Connor had called?
Nina was reaching for her phone when she heard something skid across the floor like a hockey puck.
Peering down, she settled her eyes on what had caught her peripheral vision. It took a moment to realize the object by her feet was a leather diary.
Oh, God, no.
And the lights went out.
She was plunged into total darkness, a black void surrounding her. A noise now near her. Movement, a quick shuffling, barring the only way out, shoes scraping against the floor. Nina went completely still, her fight-or-flight response battling for a decision. What to do? There was nowhere to run. She couldn't see, but she heard his voice coming from the nothingness surrounding herâtwo words, pure ice.
“Leave her alone,” Glen cried out, his desperate plea coming from Nina's right, while Simon's fast footsteps approached from her left. He knew this space, how to maneuver in it, even without light.
Nina went for her phone to call for help; it was the only clear thought she had. But it took a moment to get it out of her jacket pocket, then more time to get her fingers in the right places to make the call.
Simon was on her. The light from the phone's display had helped him track his quarry. He grabbed Nina by the shirt and drove her into his body. At the same instant, he raked the phone from her grasp, causing her to drop it to the floor with a loud clatter. Still holding her by the buttons of her blouse, his foot went up, then down onto the phone with his heavy shoe, over, and over, until it was pulverized glass and plastic.
With a grunt, Simon dragged Nina away from Glen, out of the hidden
room, and over to a nearby wall. His hand soon found a switch and with a flick returned them to the light.
Nina needed a moment for her vision to adjust. When it did, she saw he was dressed for work. Everything about him looked normal, even the placid expression on his face. But those eyes, those black eyes were as empty as this house.
“We need to talk,” he said.
Daisy came bounding over to them, her leash dragging behind her. She knew Simon, his scent. He was a friend, and she must have thought this was some sort of a game. She went up on her hind legs, to put her front paws on Simon's waist, but Simon pushed her, and down she went.
With a grunt, Simon threw Nina up against the wall, clamped his hand around her throat, and started to squeeze. As her vision dimmed, Nina could feel her eyes bulging in their sockets. Daisy seemed to sense something shift in this game of theirs. She moved away, growled, head dropping low, approaching slowly, cautiously.
Simon was breathing heavily, like he'd just finished a jog.
“I had to borrow a car. Home emergency, I said, and my truck battery was dead. Your damn kidâso difficult, no discipline, no respect. You should have raised her better.” Simon drifted off as if in thought. “She came here to spy on me. Did she say that nobody was staying here? No renters? Is that why you thought to come here to look for Daisy?”
Simon's grip around her throat constricted the air to Nina's voice.
“I took her to punish you,” Simon explained. “I'd have brought her back, eventually, like I did the last time, once you realized you needed me in your life. But it's no matter now. I guess in a way this had to happen. No more secrets. Now we can be together as we really are.”
Simon reached behind his back with his free hand to remove a gun he had tucked into the waistband of his khakis.
He put his finger on the trigger, pressed the barrel up against Nina's forehead hard enough to leave an imprint.
She could sense what he was thinking.
Pull it. Pull it.
She heard Glen's muffled pleas through the partially open door to his prison.
She saw Simon's finger tense around the trigger. Fear bubbled in her throat. Her breathing became constricted as his grip tightened.
The determined look set on Simon's face left no doubt in Nina's mind that he was gathering his resolve to strangle her, or to shoot her dead.
She waited, the anticipation unbearable.
How much will it hurt? Please be quick,
she prayed. A desperate longing to see her children once more surged through her, a need more powerful than her desire to breathe freely again.
Who will take care of them? My parents? Would Simon even let them live?
“Please, SimonÂ â¦ you don't have toÂ â¦ do this.”
Nina's words burned with raw emotion. Simon said nothing and in his silence a steely bolt of terror struck her hard. She waitedÂ â¦ and waited for an end that didn't come. Something shifted in Simon. Nina sensed his hesitation. He couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger. He didn't want her to die,
let it happen. Instead, he began to caress the side of her face, running his fingers back and forth across her trembling lips. His black eyes flickered with bits of light, like the gasping final flames of a candle at wick's end, his internal conflict bubbling to the surfaceâto kill her or let her live; to end his twisted dream or try again.
Daisy wasn't comforted. She barked at Simon. He had fed her, petted her, loved her, and played with her, so why would he be hurting her person?
“It's okay, Daisy. Relax,” Simon said.
Keeping the gun pressed to Nina's head, Simon let go of his hold on her throat. Stretching his arm, eyes never leaving Nina's face, Simon felt the floor until his fingers brushed against Daisy's leash. He straightened, having managed to keep the barrel of the gun aimed at Nina the entire time. He maneuvered the three of them over to the
crate. He put Daisy inside, closing the door behind her. Daisy barked in protest.
“I wouldn't hurt her,” Simon said, using his free hand to caress the side of Nina's face. “She brought us together once before, and she's brought us together again.” He pushed her hard against the wall.
“Nina,” he whispered in her ear, moving his hand again to her throat, applying light pressure, his way of letting her know that by gun or hand, he was in charge. “I'll get rid of him,” he said. “Glen didn't love you. Look what he did to you. With Teresa, look what he did.”
Simon pushed harder into her body. “I love you, Nina,” he said in her ear, stroking her face with his hand holding the gun. “I love you so much. And you want to be with me, too, don't you?” he said, still speaking softly.
Nina knew not to antagonize him. Better to keep him off-balance, keep him talking.
“Yes, of course, of course I do,” she said, breathing hard.
“I have a box in my closet with two hundred thousand dollars in it. Two hundred thousand. It was Emma's money, and thanks to her will, now it's ours, her gift to us. I kept it here in case of an emergency. We'll go somewhere. We can live off that money. Believe me, you'll be so happy. I'll make you so happy.”
She forced her body to relax even while his other hand continued to grip her neck. She was responding to him, letting him know how much she liked his plan, while Daisy, still locked in the crate, let her presence be known as well.
“Please, Simon, please let her go,” Glen called out from his room. “It won't work. It can't ever work now.”
But Nina wasn't focused on Glen. All her attention was given to Simon.
Control your breathing. Control your fear. Make him believe.
She forced herself to relax. It
be as he wanted, or that's what she was trying to tell him with her body, leaning in, pressing against him. Even with his hand still clutching at her throat, Simon
getting the message. She saw joy blossom on Simon's face. He relaxed his fingers, letting
air, precious air, rush into Nina's lungs. He pushed against her harder, kissing her ear, her neck. She responded to his touch, her fingers now tugging at his hair, a soft noise escaping her lips.
Nina drew in a breath. She placed her lips against his ear. “Simon,” she whispered, breathing heavily, pushing into him. “Simon,” she said again.
“Yes, yes,” Simon said breathlessly.
A piercing cry exploded from Simon's mouth after Nina brought her knee up fast and hard, ramming into his crotch with all her might. Simon's hand flew up in reflex, and the gun went offâtwo loud pops that put holes directly in the ceiling, sending bits of plaster raining down on them.
He slumped to the floor, gasping for air. His body lay motionless, blocking the bottom stairâthe only way out. Nina had no idea if Simon had managed to hold on to the gun or not as she tried to hurdle him to make her escape. But he seized hold of her ankle as she went up and over and would not let go. Nina hopped awkwardly on one foot to stay upright as Simon managed to slowly get to his knees, still holding her ankle in his viselike grip. With another push and groan, Simon was soon standing. He kicked Nina's other foot out from under her and she went down, hard, using her hands to break her fall.
Nina spun onto her back. She looked up in horror as Simon loomed over her. Fury pulsated in his face. He began to drag her toward Glen's room by the ankle, limping to compensate for the pain in his groin. With no balance, no leverage, Nina tried to twist free, but could not. Simon pulled her toward him like a fisherman reeling in his catch. He let go of her leg to take hold of her from behind, wrapping one arm tightly around her chest, lifting her into him as if she weighed nothing. Nina kicked and thrashed to slip free, but it was impossible to break his hold.
Now she got her answer as to what had happened to that gun. With his free hand, he put the weapon back to her head.
“Calm down, Nina,” he said, huffing and hobbling, compensating for his injury. “Just take it easy. Okay? You don't want this going off accidentally. You don't want to leave Connor and Maggie without a mother.”
That got Nina to still. Daisy went wild, her barking escalating. Driven by instinct more than anythingâfight or flightâNina snapped her head forward and bit Simon hard on the arm he'd used to wrap around her chest. Simon yowled in pain as he tossed Nina onto the floor. The left side of her skull connected hard with the television. She lay there dazed, her vision blurred. Inching toward her, Simon aimed the gunâa gun she'd never known he ownedâat her heart.
“Don't!” Glen cried out, as loud as his weakened voice could carry. “Leave her alone. Leave her, Simon. Please.”
Coming as far forward as his chain would allow, Glen pawed frantically to get to Simon, but the chain wouldn't let him go far enough. Simon moved in front of Nina, still pointing the gun at her. As she struggled to stand, Glen made another useless lunge. His chain pulled tight, sending him momentarily airborne. He crash-landed hard to the ground. But he had distracted Simon, enough for Nina to get back to her feet, pick up the television, all sixty-something pounds of it, and fling it at Simon with the adrenaline-fueled angry cry of a shot-putter. Simon easily sidestepped the projectile. Shards of broken glass from the screen exploded on impact, shooting out in all directions. He surveyed the wreckage and made a tsk-tsk sound, like a disappointed parent.
“Well, that's a waste,” he said, as if it puzzled him that Nina would destroy a perfectly good television. “But I'm thinking in a few minutes nobody will be needing it.”
His threat went unacknowledged, but Nina understood if things didn't go his way, they would dieâperhaps they would
die. She was panting from exertion and terror, standing behind the stairs between Simon, who blocked her only way out, and Glen, trapped in his room.
“Your answer to my question will decide what happens to the children,” Simon told her. “I want you to know that. So, Nina, now it's the moment of truth for us. I love you. Do you love me, too?”
Simon lowered his weapon. His arms hung at his sides. There was nothing crazed about him. He was calm as could be. He looked to Nina like a teacher standing at the front of his classroom, hoping someone would give the right answer. That someone was her. Nina understood that any other words would bring her a bullet.
“Yes, IâI love you, Simon.” Knowing what he wanted to hear, of course that's how she'd answer, but why on earth would he believe her?
Her only hope was that desire and obsession would occlude his thinking. Simon closed his eyes and lifted his head to the ceiling as if basking in some hidden glow. “Say it again,” he said, his eyes still closed.
A flash of movement drew Nina's attention to the space behind him. To her shock and relief, she saw Detective Eric Wheeler quietly descending the slatted basement stairs. She could see him clearly in the open space between each step.
“I love you, Simon,” Nina said, more loudly this time and with feeling, while Wheeler crept panther-like down into the basement. He had his gun drawn as he moved cautiously from stair to stair, motioning with his hand for Nina to keep talking, keep Simon distracted.
“I love you,” Nina said again, her heart racing in terror. “We'll make it work. Don't worry about anything, Simon. It'll be the two of us. I'll be your second chance with Allison. Just the way you want.”
With that, Simon opened his eyes. He looked hopeful, relieved, somehow at peace. Nina's body quaked as a faint smile came to his lips.
“Thank you,” he said. “You don't know how happy you've made me.”
Wheeler came into full view, a stair creaking under his weight as Simon sprang out from behind the staircase. Whirling around to face him, Simon fired three shotsâ
pop, pop, pop
âbefore Wheeler fired one. His bullet sank harmlessly into a concrete wall; all three of Simon's
sank into flesh. Wheeler tumbled down the stairs, spilling onto the concrete floor, spreading blood everywhere.
Simon went to him. Wheeler, on his back at the bottom of the stairs, gazed blankly at the ceiling. Pulling the gun from Wheeler's weakened grasp, Simon tucked it into the waistband of his khakis. He looked down at the detective as though he were assessing something too bizarre to comprehend.
“Detective,” he said sorrowfully, “why on earth are you here?”
Nina watched the erratic rise and fall of Wheeler's chest. “Connor.â¦ worriedÂ â¦ called,” he managed to wheeze.