He stole her life and kept her locked in a basement for four years. He tried to break her with his diabolical games, but he couldn’t.
Then she was rescued.
That was the day Ellie learned just how much of her life had been stolen.
Officer Quinn West went down the stairs that led to the basement of the vacant house all because the neighbor complained the man living there stole her plant. He was a rookie cop who got all the crap calls. Instead of a plant, he found a young girl clinging to life.
Ten years have passed since the charm bracelets murders. They never caught the guy. The case went cold. All that was left were the charm bracelets, memories of the ones he killed, and one lone survivor too traumatized to tell them much.
Until ten years passes and a recently murdered girl is found and she’s wearing the same kind of charm bracelet.
Now an FBI agent, will Quinn send Ellie over the edge when he tells her that her biggest fear is still out there, and might be hunting her? Can she face her demons and relive a terrifying past to catch a serial killer? And can he break past the barriers she erected and show her how to live again?
Every once in a while, it snowed in the Texas Hill Country. Watching the puffy white flakes falling from the sky had always amazed Ellie. Her father once said that no matter how ugly the world got, snow made everything clean and pure again.
She hadn’t seen snow in a long time, or her parents for that matter. Her world was cast in shadowy darkness where the monster of her nightmares came to life.
He called himself Ray.
She hadn’t seen him in days. A long time ago, she learned to ration her food. If he brought more the next day, then that was great, she would feel as if she’d pigged out. She snorted. If you could call a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on wheat bread pigging out. She hated wheat bread. She hated the smell of it, the texture, the dryness.
She would eat it if she had some right now, though. The last of her food ran out at noon the day before yesterday. She knew the exact time because Ray hung a battery operated clock on the wall not long after he brought her down to the room in the basement. The clock had illuminated numbers and hands.
He liked playing mind games. She’d figured that one out pretty quickly. He probably imagined her watching each second of her life slowly tick away. Maybe her mind was already gone. She didn’t know.
“Don’t let him win, Ellie! You can fight him!”
“Do it for us, Ellie.”
Her laughter echoed in the room. The voices. She could always count on them. She pressed her hands over her ears to block them. “I can’t. I’m tired. I just want to sleep forever and ever. I want it to end.” She kept her ears covered until they stopped their infernal pleading.
Sometimes they were a pain to deal with.
But they were all she had.
Fear raced down her spine. What if they didn’t return?
“Don’t leave me,” she cried out. She moved to the middle of the room, her eyes searching the darkness. “Is anyone there?” she whispered.
All alone, all alone, her thoughts taunted.
She stretched her arms forward into the stale emptiness that had become her tomb.
Nothing. Sometimes she just needed to hear them, anything to break the silence of her thoughts. The thoughts that told her she would die soon. A cold shiver rippled down her spine. She hugged herself, feeling the bony protrusions of her ribs.
Being dead wouldn’t be so bad. She wasn’t really scared of death. Taking her last breath would release her from this prison. It was how she would get to that point that scared the hell out of her.
Hell. She could say the word. It didn’t really matter. “Hell.” There, she’d said it again. If she were home, her mother would give her a stern look and make her go to her room. Home, she hardly remembered it.
Her bare footsteps were quiet on the cold concrete floor as she walked the perimeter of the room. Ten steps across, twelve lengthways. There was a toilet and sink in one corner, a cot with a thin, lumpy mattress in the other. She should be grateful Ray tossed a scratchy blanket on top. She should, but she wasn’t.
There hadn’t been anyone to talk to in a very long time. Maybe that was a good thing. Inevitably, they always left.
She stopped pacing, resting the palm of her hand against the stone wall. Anger coursed through her. “Momma, where are you? Daddy, why haven’t you found me?”
Panic rose quickly to the surface.
“Talk to me!” Her scream bounced off the walls as the futility of her life came crashing down around her. The nightmare was never going to end. This was the extent of what her life had become. Slowly, she sank to the floor, sobs tearing from her throat. Please, God, she silently prayed, send me a miracle.
Crazed laughter bubbled out of her. “Miracle?” There were no miracles. There was no God. She would die in this coffin-like room.
“Can you open the door? It’s locked.” The words were a soft echo in the darkness, the girl’s voice shaking with fear.
Ellie stilled. For a moment, she wondered if she’d only imagined someone talking. It had been so long since anyone was on the other side of the wall. She scooted to her knees, pressing her ear against the rough surface as hope rose inside her. Her heart pounded so hard she thought it might burst from her chest.
“Lucy? Is that you? Have you come back?”
“I’m Sarah Taylor. Can you call my mom and tell her to come get me?”
Not Lucy, but a flutter of hope rose inside Ellie. Taking even one breath became a struggle. Maybe, maybe. “Did anyone see him take you?” If there had been even one witness—
“I don’t think so.”
Ellie slumped against the stone wall. Of course no one had seen him. He wasn’t that careless. This was going to be just like the other times.
“How old are you?” Ellie’s voice sounded dull, lifeless to her own ears.
Ellie swallowed past the lump in her throat, running a trembling hand across her forehead. One year older than she’d been. She dreaded asking the next question, but she had to know. So much time had passed since the last girl. Sometimes the battery ran down in the clock and it would be a long time before Ray brought another one. “What year is this?”
There was a long pause, then the girl said, “It’s October seventeenth, twenty-ten.”
Hysteria bubbled inside her. Ellie had always believed that she would be rescued, but now that belief was barely a flicker.
Tears rolled down her cheeks. Four years and four months she’d been locked
away in the basement. She was sixteen. She’d missed so much. Her life had literally stopped, as if she’d been put in a time capsule.
“Can you call my mom?” Sarah’s words cracked and Ellie knew the girl cried.
“No,” Ellie whispered. She closed her eyes tight and tried to remember what her own mother and father had looked like, but she couldn’t quite bring them into focus. They were like a picture that had yellowed and faded over time.
I want to go home! I want to go home! Make the nightmare stop!
There was a distinct, familiar click.
She tensed, then began to tremble as panic churned deep in her gut. Her body went from hot to icy cold in the space of a heartbeat.
A door softly closed.
She scrubbed the tears from her face.
“Stop crying,” Ellie hissed.
One step, two. The third step squeaked.
Ellie scooted her heels against the floor until she was planted firmly in the corner and could go no farther. Fear swirled around her like a dark heavy shroud.
She drew in a deep breath. No, she couldn’t let fear take control. She fisted her hands as she slowly pushed to her feet, glaring at the door. It didn’t matter that her legs wobbled or that she couldn’t really see the door.
Sarah’s cries grew louder.
Her gut twisted into tight knots. A new fear rose inside her. There was so little time to warn the other girl.
“No matter what he does--” Ellie frantically whispered, “--don’t let him know you’re scared,”
“I want my mommy and daddy,” Sarah choked out between sobs.
“If you want to see them again, you’ll do as I say. No matter what he does, fight back. Don’t let him win. You have to be strong! And don’t beg. Please, don’t beg.”
“But I’m scared.”
Heavy footsteps grew louder.
“He won’t stay long. I promise.”
He walked nearer, stopped in front of Ellie’s door. Would he come here then? Maybe he only wanted to taunt Sarah. Did he intend for Sarah to replace her? Ellie shrunk tighter against the wall, body shaking, willing him to walk past her door.
God, she hated her weakness.
He laughed, then walked away.
A door scraped across the stone floor.
But it wasn’t Ellie’s door. She breathed a sigh of relief at the same time guilt swept over her.
There was a fingernails-on-chalkboard sound as he screwed in the light bulb.
Sarah’s scream echoed loud and long.
Don’t scream, Sarah!
Ellie pressed her fists to her lips and sank to the floor.
“Hello, Sarah,” he said.
Sarah screamed again. This time, it came out high-pitched. That of a child.
Ellie had been a child once.
“Don’t scream,” Ellie whispered. “Please, don’t scream.”
She pressed her hands to her ears and began to rock back and forth, humming. It didn’t stop the sounds from coming through.
Ellie pulled her thin, tattered shift nearer.
The rattle of chains.
She rubbed the scars on her wrists.
The hiss of the lash.
Her back arched, feeling the bite as if he’d struck her instead.
He wouldn’t rape Sarah. At least she would be spared that. No, he only wanted their minds, not their bodies. But he would take Sarah to the edge of Hell, like all the others.
Swoosh! Snap! The lash found her tender skin.
“Don’t scream, Sarah,” Ellie whispered. “It will only make it worse.”
The lash met flesh again and again.
When Ellie thought she might start screaming herself, everything stopped. Complete silence.
Ellie waited for the crying to start.
He snorted in disgust. “She wasn’t strong like you, Ellie.” His words scraped down the sides of the wall, found an opening, then wormed their way to her ears. “Not strong at all.”
“I hate you!” She jumped to her feet and pounded her hands against the wall. “I hate you!”
He only laughed. “She broke too easily. It’s only a matter of time before I break you, too. You grow weaker each day, each year.” He paused. “You could have called me to you instead, but you let me go to her. You didn’t want to face me, did you?”
Ellie stumbled back a step. He knew. Another chink in her armor. Soon there would be nothing left, nothing to protect her.
Sarah’s door scraped open, then closed with a bang. He walked past Ellie’s room without stopping. Relief settled on her shoulders as his heavy tread made their way up the
stairs. She was alive, but had the cost been worth it?
“Sarah Taylor, are you there?” Ellie’s words were soft. It didn’t matter. She knew deep down Sarah wouldn’t answer. “It’s okay. He can’t hurt you now. You’re safe.”
They were all safe. Everyone except her.
Why had he let her live this long?
No, she wouldn’t dwell on it. She closed her eyes and the darkness was swept away to be replaced by soft, magical light that would never hurt her. Her imagination took her to the park where she was surrounded by trees and green grass. A winding sidewalk ran through the center and standing on the sidewalk was Lucy. The others were there, even Sarah. Shadows smiling and waving, but it was Lucy she knew best.
“Hi, Lucy!” she called out. “I’ve missed you.”
“Did you go to school today?”
She’s dead, Ellie’s mind screamed, all of them are dead.
No! Not Lucy! Maybe she’d escaped. Lucy had been strong. Almost as strong as Ellie. Lucy said she would never let him win. Lucy scratched his face.
Ellie’s thin arms hugged her waist. Lucy would never have given in, except time crawled by. Lucy cried more and more every day. Ellie told her everything would be okay, Lucy only had to stay strong. But soon after, even Lucy stopped crying.
“Not dead! No, no, no!”
Ellie drew in a deep ragged breath and squared her chin. “I’ll give you life, Lucy.”
Even if it was only make-believe.
She closed her eyes and mentally went to the park once more. There they were, waiting for her. Ellie felt secure in her make-believe world. What did it matter if it wasn’t real? Or that while they stayed children, she had gotten older? Nothing mattered except she still lived. At least, for a little while.
Snow began to fall in her imaginary park. She looked up and laughed as the tiny flakes landed on her face. Pure white snow making everything clean again, just like Daddy promised.
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