AVAILABLE OCTOBER 4, 2016
Cursed with a terrible gift…
Criminal investigator Xander Stone doesn’t have to question you—he can hear your thoughts. Scarred by lightning, burdened with a power that gives him no peace, Xander struggles to maintain his sanity against the voice that haunts him day and night—the voice of a woman begging him to save her.
A gift that threatens to engulf them
Isleen Walker has long since given up hope of escape from the nightmare of captivity and torture that is draining her life, her mind, and her soul. Except…there is the man in her feverish dreams, the strangely beautiful man who beckons her to freedom and wholeness. And when he comes, if he comes, it will take all their combined fury and faith to overcome a madman bent on fulfilling a deadly prophecy.
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Xander Stone stopped outside Interrogation Room B, shoved his ear up to the seam of the closed soundproof door, and listened. Supercharged hearing had only one benefit, and this was it. From inside the other room, he heard the slow, easy breathing of someone who thought he’d never be caught or prosecuted or imprisoned. Xander’s favorite kind of criminal.
He pushed open the door and made sure to display his scars to the suspect. The disfigurement was a neon sign on a starless and moonless night, pointing and flashing freak, freak, freak. A caution to all who dared speak to him. Wasn’t his fault if no one listened to the warning.
Yeah, life was a saggy-assed, fun bag of laughs since he’d been zapped with more than 50,000 volts of lightning. But the forehead-to-calf scarring didn’t even rank on the Richter scale of shit when compared to the bizarre sensation of no longer being alone inside his head. And then there was the issue of his amplified hearing. He couldn’t ignore the way his brain now tuned in to the frequency of thoughts.
The familiar pounding—like a basketball upside the head—slammed into Xander’s right temple. He winced. Always did with the first thump, no matter how hard he tried not to react. Tuning in to the frequency of people’s thoughts fucking hurt. He washed his features of expression.
Holy shit. What happened to the dude’s face? Xander heard the words even though they hadn’t been spoken aloud. The suspect—a kid, really—snickered, his gaze riveted to the puckered striation and the network of branch-like scars that stretched up Xander’s neck, spread over his cheek, and finally ceased on his forehead.
“Good Cop–Bad Cop didn’t work, so now they’re sending in Ugly Cop?” The kid slouched back in his chair as if he were in his dorm watching the latest episode of some show glamorizing stupid people, instead of in an interrogation room at a Bureau of Criminal Investigation field office. He looked like every other cocky college kid—hair too long, clothes too preppy, ego too large. He didn’t look like the leader of a sex gang.
“Ugly Cop? The last guy said the same thing. The asshole before him too, and the one before him. See how boring that gets? If you really want to insult someone, you’ve got to get creative. Try again. Lay a real good one on me. One I’ve never heard before.” Xander couldn’t remember the kid’s name—wasn’t important anyway. He took a seat at the table and settled his notepad squarely in front of him with his pen diagonal across the clean sheets of paper.
Scar face. Fugly motherfucker.
The kid opened his mouth, but Xander cut him off. “‘Scar face’ and ‘fugly motherfucker.’ Seriously? That’s the best you got?” Most suspects expected him to be offended or outraged. They didn’t expect his total acceptance.
The kid tilted his head like a dog trying to understand a new command. That’s weird.
Yeah, it was weird. “My name is Xander Stone, and just so you know for your insult planning, I’m not a cop. Never been a cop. Never wanted to be a cop. Don’t even like cops. They’re all pricks. And these guys”—Xander jabbed his thumb over his shoulder at the mirrored glass of the interrogation room—“are some of the biggest pricks of all.”
No one could accuse him of lying. It was no secret he didn’t do well with authority. The only reason the BCI put up with him was because they needed him and his unique style of interrogation.
A smile padded with self-satisfied smugness hitched up the kid’s mouth. We’re back to Good Cop.
“What is he doing in there?” The superintendent’s words came to Xander from beyond the mirrored glass. With his supercharged hearing, the soundproofing separating the rooms was little more than a cotton swab on a spurting artery.
He turned in his seat to face the mirror. Everyone knew about his rule of absolute quiet if they were going to observe. “Silence. I need complete silence. Or I’m out of here and you can let the kid walk.” He glared at the mirror, daring someone to speak.
This dude is certifiable cray-cray.
Xander faced the kid. “I think you might be on to something with that cray-cray bit.”
The kid jerked upright like someone had goosed his gonads. How’d he know what I was thinking? His attention bull’s-eyed on Xander. The kid was just starting to realize Xander had changed the game from checkers to chess.
“I know what you’re thinking because I’m the guy the BCI calls in when they’ve got a difficult case.” Referring to gang rape as merely a difficult case was like painting a pile of shit just to make it look better. It was still shit. It still stank.
The kid laughed a blatantly fake laugh, the kind that was code for “fuck you.” He’s trying to mess with me. Ain’t gonna work.
“I’m not trying to mess with you.” Well, maybe just a little. Disbelief in his ability was a universal rule. Hell, he barely believed in it himself. “I just want to get this done so I can get out of here. Like I said, I hate cops. And I’ve got a headache.” The vision in his right eye pulsed with each thump inside his brain. He wanted to press his palm against the pounding, but didn’t. Show no pain. Show no weakness. Show no emotion.
No more dicking around with the kid. Xander needed to get answers to the questions he’d been sent to ask and then get the fuck out of here. Funny how he could remember the questions, but not the kid’s name. “How many guys are in the Bangers Club?”
Six plus nine. Sixty-nine. Six plus nine. Sixty-nine. The kid’s thoughts were a perverted chant. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Xander picked up his notepad, tilted it so the kid couldn’t see, and scribbled 6 + 9 = 15 onto the paper. “I need the names of all fifteen members.”
Fifteen? How’d he come up with that number? He’s guessing. “I’ll tell you the same thing I told Good Cop and Bad Cop. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The names of all fifteen members.”
Michael Blevins. Blake Johnson…
Xander listed the names until he lost the frequency. Five to ten seconds of silence in the conversation, and the connection severed. He stared down at the paper and cherished the absence of pain, then sucked in a few deep breaths, pumping himself up to reestablish the connection and restore the basketball thumping inside his head. “I need the rest of the names.”
Bang! He jerked from the force of the blow inside his brain. God, that first hit—
Aiden Stacey. Trey Mitchell…
Xander listed all the names.
“What are you writing?” The kid half stood, trying to see across the table to Xander’s notes.
“Names.” Xander angled the notepad so the kid couldn’t see his writing.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Yeah, you did. Just not out loud.”
What is he talking about? They sent in some mind-game expert? This shit isn’t going to work on me. Just keep quiet and don’t react.
“You’re already reacting. I can hear it. You’re breathing faster, shallower. Your pulse has picked up. You’re not quite panicking yet, but eventually you’re going to.”
What the hell? What the hell? What. The. Hell. The kid did a stellar job of retaining his outward expression of entitlement. No one would ever guess he was on the cusp of an implosion.
“Between the fifteen of you, how many girls have you banged?” The word—the Bangers Club’s word—tasted insectile on Xander’s tongue, like if he didn’t spit it out, it would burrow a hole through the roof of his mouth and have babies in his brain.
Fifty-seven. Twelve away from our goal—sixty-nine.
Jesus. The kid needed to be neutered.
There was no reason to ask for the girls’ names. From what he’d been told, the Bangers Club didn’t bother learning the names of their victims. “You ever been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder?”
No. The kid’s brows rose and his head swiveled on his neck in a good imitation of a white-trash ho about to show her sass.
“Just asking because you seem awfully obsessed with the number sixty-nine.”
The kid’s jaw unhinged and nearly clattered onto the table. Not possible. He can’t really read my mind. He’s guessing somehow. Or…did someone talk? No one would dare—
“You’re right. I’m not reading your mind. I’m listening to the things you aren’t saying.” As if the kid would believe that. Only one more question and Xander could walk out of the room, out the building, and be alone.
The last question was the most critical. From the dumbed-down version Xander understood, the kid had created a nearly impenetrable computer system that streamed all the Bangers Club bangs—for a monthly fee. The only way to shut it down was to access the original computer and enter the password—no mistakes, no guessing—or the entire system would go viral and start broadcasting live on all the local channels, even the small-town church TV station. Kids today were dangerously clever. “What’s the password?”
6*2H95—London Bridge is falling down…
Xander wrote the numbers and letters on his paper. The kid was starting to catch on. Not that it would matter.
“Stop writing shit down. You’re making things up.” The kid’s voice rode the ridge of hysteria.
“6*2H95. I need the rest of the password.” Xander loved the way other people’s brains just couldn’t resist thinking.
O#ZR591H. No. No. No. London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down—
“6*2H95O#ZR591H. Keep going.”
It took three more tries before the kid eventually spit out the entire password.
“The tech department wasn’t kidding. This password is a monster.”
No. This isn’t happening. “Who talked? Someone is setting me up.”
“I didn’t say anything!” the kid yelled.
Xander felt the smile split open his face, felt the skin on his right cheek stretch in a way that wasn’t familiar. Life didn’t hold much amusement for him, but he always savored the moment when some asshole finally realized he’d been bested and was going to be sent on an extended vacation to criminal central.
Pushing back from the table, Xander got up and headed for the door. He stopped, hand on the handle, and turned back to the kid. “You come up with a creative insult yet?”
The kid leaned forward and banged his forehead against the table. No. No. No.
As Xander opened the door, a million sounds rushed his ears at once. A toilet flushing, typing, the hum and bump of the air conditioner, conversations—too many conversations. Sensory overload was imminent. The only question was how long before his brain shorted out, unleashing the Bastard in His Brain—that thing he always felt lurking in the darkest depths of his mind. When the Bastard took the wheel, there was no such thing as a happy ending.
He needed to leave. Now.
But Kent and Thomas, who’d been watching the interview, waited in the hallway.
He passed the notepad to Thomas, who sprinted down the corridor to get the names and password to the cyber division.
“Why the fuck was there talking during my interrogation?”
Kent gave him the same disapproving, annoyed, disgusted look he’d been giving him since Xander bloodied the guy’s nose in the first grade.
Bam. Pain bounced inside his skull. Xander flinched. Goddamned tuning in. “Quit with the look.” They’d never been friends. Still weren’t.
You’re such an asshole. Acting like you’re the only one working here. “Do you always have to be such a dick about us? The superintendent was watching.” Kent headed in the same direction as Xander—toward the exit. You need to make a decision about Camille.
“The superintendent was the one talking. You pushed me to work here. You pushed them to hire me. You got a fat-assed bonus out of it. So if you, or the superintendent, don’t like what I do, stop calling me. And what I do with Camille is none of your business.”
“Keep your freak self outta my head.”
“Only way to make it stop is by not talking to me.” Outside of work, Xander mastered in social isolation and conversation avoidance.
“Come on, man. She’s my sister. We may not be real close, but I care about her. I’m not letting this go.” You’re using her.
Xander’s neck got hot. He didn’t argue with Kent’s thoughts. He couldn’t. The man was right. Camille never rejected him, never made demands on him, but she wanted commitment. He got that from tuning in to her thoughts. All he wanted was acceptance and uncomplicated sex.
The conversation lagged, and the pain vanished.
Xander exited the building. Low on the horizon, all that remained of the day was a single tiger stripe of orange. Already the June night was in full chorus. The whistle screech of a bat using its sonar-like system, the flutter of its wings overhead. The buzz of a trillion mosquitoes. The bass of a bullfrog two blocks away at the Sundew Park pond. Life pulsed all around him.
When he couldn’t sleep, he’d lie in bed with the window open—listening, just listening. Not letting himself think, just focusing on the rhythm of the world. The sounds of nature were the only form of music he could tolerate.
He fished his truck keys from his pocket and pressed the unlock button.
“The superintendent is probably going to need you again tomorrow,” Kent called from the doorway.
“Tell him to call me.” Xander tossed the words over his shoulder.
“You going to answer the phone?” Bet you don’t.
“Bet you’re right.”
Death twined around Isleen Walker’s body, whispering over her naked flesh, coiling around her heart and lungs, hugging the last sparks of life from her. Twenty-five years of being alive distilled down to a wish. A wish that death would hurry up and grant her its promised relief.
“I’m dying.” She tried to warn Gran, but the words came out quieter than a breath. Her gaze roamed the room—their prison for the past eight years. It was just big enough to contain her and Gran and an overflowing waste bucket, but now it felt too small, too fragile to contain Isleen. Soon she would transcend this space, and no matter what Queen did, she wouldn’t be able to tether Isleen here.
Gran slept, face tucked into the corner. Safety was an illusion—beating after beating had proven that fact—but still, they always gravitated to the corners. Gran’s once-supple flesh sagged from her bones. Her spine protruded sharply in a pathetic row of spikes.
“…tobesaved. Not die.…protectordiedtoo?” Gran spoke in a smear of barely distinguishable words. She’d been a sleep-talker for as long as Isleen could remember—even before they’d been abducted.
She used to wake Gran from her dreams, but had long since decided it was a mercy to let her stay inside them for as long as they hosted her. Maybe in her dreams, Gran still possessed her wits and all her faculties, and lived somewhere beautiful where nothing bad ever happened.
Footsteps pounded down the hall and stopped outside the door. The sound of the key in the lock scraped across Isleen’s heart. Was today going to be a feeding day, a beating day, or a bleeding day? It didn’t really matter. It was too late for food; a beating would finish her off; and she had no more blood to give. But there was Gran—
The door rasped open. Queen. Always Queen and only Queen ever entered their prison. If ever a name didn’t fit a person, it was hers. Nothing about her was royal or regal. She was no whimsical fairy-tale ruler; she was a twenty-first-century reality. A simple-minded, delusional woman who took pleasure in domination and torture. Under a different set of circumstances, Queen would have been passing her days in a psychiatric hospital, medicated to the point of drooling.
Without even looking, Isleen could smell Queen’s stench. Cigarette smoke so stale and foul and thick that Isleen could taste the bite of it in her mouth, feel the burn of it in her eyes. The pungency of flesh that hadn’t been washed in years snuffed out the oxygen in the air.
Queen kicked her in the thigh. “The Dragon has not yet died.”
A small gasp, not of pain, but of being startled escaped Isleen’s throat. For as long as they’d been held captive, Queen had referred to her as the Dragon.
Queen cleared her throat. Mucus snapped and rattled. She hawked up a wad of nasty and spit it on the floor. “King decreed that if the Dragon shall linger—”
“You will suffer for everything you’ve done.” Gran crawled out of the corner on all fours. “Her protector is on his way.”
Queen’s hunched shoulders straightened. “I am your Queen. Bow before me.” It was all a part of Queen’s delusional mind—she was a queen and they were her subjects and the objects of her torture. Especially Isleen.
Gran didn’t bow, didn’t move, didn’t understand.
“You will be punished.” Queen opened and closed a giant pair of scissors. Shkk. Shkk. Shkk.
Dread burned a hole through Isleen’s shrunken stomach. “It’s not her fault. She doesn’t understand.” She tried to move, but her body was too weak, her limbs too emaciated.
“Your Majesty, I am sorry. I have committed the gravest of errors.” Gran executed a bow of supplication, arms spread out, forehead to the floor. “Please accept my humble apology and know that I will never again speak in such a manner to one as powerful as you.” Before Gran had lost her mind, she’d been fluent in kiss-up-to-the-fake-queen language.
Gran must be having a rare moment of clarity.
“Very well. I grant you a pardon. Know this—though I am a merciful queen, I will not tolerate such treasonous behavior again.” She pointed a fat, stubby finger at Gran. “You have been warned.”
Gran kept her pose. Good decision.
Queen turned her grotesque gaze to Isleen. She went through the same disgusting process of clearing her throat and then spoke as if she were making a proclamation. “King has decreed that on the sixth day, if the Dragon shall linger, I am to thrust my sword into its side.”
Thrust my sword into its side. Isleen understood Queen’s words; she just didn’t fear them. No matter what Queen did to her now, it would be nothing—absolutely nothing—compared to the agony of living. A calmness nestled into her bones, curled up in her guts.
Gran lifted her face from the floor and challenged Queen’s authority by looking directly at her. “You don’t have the power to kill her.” Insanity warped Gran’s tone.
Queen’s attention snapped to Gran. “You were warned. Now, you shall be executed.”
Isleen thrust words from her heart, words she’d always wanted to speak but never dared until now, when she needed to divert Queen’s attention away from Gran. “You’re not a queen. You’re psychotic. You’re a bitch. You’re evil and stupid and mean. And…and…you smell bad.”
Queen’s wide-spaced eyes nearly bulged out of her block-shaped head. Her fat lips snarled back, revealing teeth so neglected they were the same color and texture as Fritos. She switched her grip on the scissors, fisting the handle, and stabbed the blades at Isleen.
She watched the scissors descend, heard the whisper and swish of them piercing her flesh. Felt only a vague pressure and presence of something foreign inside her body. Smelled sweetness in the air and tasted salt on her tongue.
Queen yanked the scissors from Isleen’s body and held them up. Blood dripped from the blades, sending red streamers down Queen’s doughy arm.
Warmth oozed from Isleen’s side, the heat comforting her cold skin.
“Tomorrow, if you are still alive—off with your head!”
Gran waited until Queen locked them back in the room, then scooted next to Isleen. There were no bandages, no cloths, no tissues. Nothing to stop the bleeding.
“Hold on, baby girl. Just hold on. He’s coming. He’s got to be coming. He will release you. Save you.” The worst of Gran’s mental breakdown was the delusion that someone would find them. In Isleen’s most desperate of moments, she had allowed herself to believe Gran. Not anymore.
“Your dreams will come true. All of them. Remember the dreams about him. How you loved him and he loved you. Remember the dreams of sunshine on your face and the cabin you shared. Remember…”
There was nothing to remember. It had just been dreams. Silly dreams. No more powerful than Gran’s sleep-talking.
You’re not coming. You’re not going to save me. Because you don’t exist. Never have. I believed in you. Thought you must be real—Gran swore you were. But you were nothing more than hope’s fatal dream. We’re going to die, and no one other than Queen will ever remember we existed.
A rainbow of colors swelled in front of her eyes. Colors she hadn’t seen in years. Colors so brilliant and bright and beautiful that her eyes watered. Death was an alluring kaleidoscope.
A bloated moon dangled from the sky, tossing silver light across the barren hilltop where Xander’s cabin stood. He sat on the front porch swing, listening to the symphony of sounds only night could produce. A breeze full of relief from the summer sun whispered over his skin. From the woods encircling the yard, leaves rustled and branches swayed and clapped as if applauding Mother Nature’s concert.
Xander closed his eyes—as close to sleep as he was going to get. To other people it was late, the middle of the night, but to him, time didn’t matter. That’s what happened when he couldn’t sleep. The days and nights blurred and blended together with no division between them other than the color of the sky. It was an exhausting, endless sort of existence.
Tonight was worse than ever. His foot jittered against the porch floor. His insides twitched and trembled as if they were about to erupt through his pores. His brain itched. Itched. Actually fucking itched. Short of eating a bullet, there was no way to satisfy that particular sensation.
He couldn’t sit there a second longer. He needed to go somewhere. Do something. Only he didn’t know where or what. He’d figure it out on the way.
His truck turned over with a throaty rumble he usually enjoyed, but not tonight. He jammed his foot down on the gas, gravel chucking across the yard until the wheels got their grip and then rocketed down the mile-long winding driveway.
Tension grabbed hold of his spine. His heart stuttered, stopped, started again.
Those two words, spoken in that female voice, were not a product of the Bastard in His Brain. Those words were an auditory hallucination—another enduring effect of the lightning strike.
It’d been a long time since that voice had spoken to him. But still, there was only one sane way to deal with it—booze. There was another way to get rid of the voice, but that involved psych meds and a trip to the nuthouse. And he had a severe nut allergy.
He was ten minutes from the twenty-four-hour gas station with its beer cooler stocked full of liquid oblivion, but only ten seconds from driving past the main house. He should’ve moved years ago, but couldn’t afford a seven-hundred-acre tract of land as beautiful and isolated as the one his father owned. The benefits of extreme solitude continued to win over the reminder of rejection every time he drove past his childhood home.
He rounded the first curve in the driveway; the truck’s headlights danced across the house’s many windows. No lights shined from inside; no exterior lights illuminated the grounds. The place was a giant beast slumbering on the side of the hill.
Anyone else looking at the structure would be awed by the many gables and porches and stunned to learn that an entire medical facility was housed in the expansive basement. But to him the place was a mausoleum of memories. A place where he’d once been part of a family with his dad, his stepmom, and his teenage stepsister who all loved the child version of him. Until Gale left his father, taking Shayla with her, and his dad forgot Xander existed. He’d been just seven years old when love left his life.
He eased off the gas and coasted past the house, not wanting to make too much noise. Didn’t want to wake Uncle Matt, and he especially didn’t want to wake Roweena, the Stone family housekeeper. She might be an employee, but she’d chew his ass for driving around in the middle of the night as if he were still a teenager. She worried about—
You’re not coming. You’re not going to save me. Because you don’t exist. Never have. I believed in you. Thought you must be real—Gran swore you were. But you were nothing more than hope’s fatal dream. We’re going to die, and no one other than Queen will ever remember we existed.
“Get the fuck out of my head.” He yelled the words, breaking his number one rule—never talk back to the voice. Talking back meant he’d descended to a whole new level of cuckoo in the cranium. He clenched his eyes closed for just a second, hoping for a reset when he opened them.
A figure stood in the middle of the driveway, facing away from the truck.
“Shit.” Xander slammed on the brakes, the truck skidding in the gravel before stopping only a few feet away from a vehicular manslaughter charge. The sound of his heartbeat and ragged breaths were as loud as an air horn to his ears.
His father stood in the middle of the driveway, dressed in a pair of plaid pajama pants and a T-shirt. His thick, gray hair smashed and bent, forming an unattractive case of bedhead. What the hell was the guy doing?
Xander sat back in his seat and crossed his arms. He wasn’t making the first move. To acknowledge Dad would be a violation of their unwritten code of conduct. Each pretended the other didn’t exist. It’d been that way since Gale left them, taking his father’s heart with her.
But that voice. How long before it started talking again? He needed to get half pickled to get it good and gone.
Fuck the rules. He honked one short burst.
Dad didn’t flinch or acknowledge he was standing only feet from Xander’s bumper in the beam of his headlights.
Xander rolled down the window. “Move.” His throat tingled from the force of his shout.
Dad acted oblivious. As if he weren’t standing in the middle of the driveway, in the middle of the night, in the middle of Xander trying to get booze.
Xander tore open the truck door. Decades of anger rode between his shoulder blades. Hundreds of unuttered words flooded his mouth. He stomped toward his dad. “What is your problem? I’m just following your rules. I got the message ten years ago when you didn’t show up at the hospital after I was struck by lightning. When you never even asked Row or Matt whether I was alive or dead. Now get out of my…”
His words faded when he saw his father’s face. Fine wrinkles flared out from the corners of his eyes and deeper ones cut furrows across his forehead. His mouth was turned down in an endless frown. The last time Xander had been in the same room with his father, the guy was in his forties. The man before him was two decades older and looked like he’d suffered a tremendous loss.
Tears streamed down the older man’s cheeks, splashing onto his T-shirt.
Pain slammed into Xander’s temple. He jerked and pressed his palm to the side of his head. He could practically feel his brain pulsing inside his skull.
Dad’s gaze cut to him. “She needs me. I can feel her desperation, but I can’t find her anymore. It’s been too long.” I love her. She’s my soul. My everything. I need her as much as she needs me.
For a moment, only a moment, compassion chiseled away Xander’s hard edges. But then blades of bitterness and rejection and anger stabbed through the tenderness. “This is about Gale? It’s always been about Gale. It’s been over twenty-five years since she left. Get over it. And get out of my way.”
She’s my fearless. Dad cast his gaze down the driveway.
“Here we go again.” When Gale and Shayla first left, Dad had raged for weeks about some local legend and the bear totem that resided on the hill nearby. But that’s all anyone knew—the rantings and ravings of a man gone manic in his grief. “You’re not making sense.” Xander grabbed Dad’s arm and hauled him to the edge of the driveway. “Stare at the night all you want. But do it after I drive past.” He got back in the truck and drove on, refusing to look back, or think about Dad or the voice. He’d think about beer. A chilled beer. He could practically taste the tang of that first swig. His mouth watered.
At the end of the driveway, Xander barely braked, just cranked the wheel to the right and skidded out onto the road, laying a strip of rubber and squealing the tires in a way any high-school boy would admire. He gunned the truck’s engine to get to the top of the tallest hill in Sunny County.
Alcohol was less than six minutes away. God, how he needed a beer. Or five. Fuck that, he needed a case. Hell, he should go straight for the tequila. Anything to kill the voice.
As he neared the top of the hill, his headlights played over a motorcycle parked along the wide berm of road and then snagged on a man. A huge beast of a guy stood staring up at the centuries-old carved wooden bear like it was his own personal savior.
The animal posed on its hind legs, mouth open in a frozen snarl, looking real. Alive. Ready to attack. It wasn’t the kind of thing to attract tourists. It was more likely to repel them.
What the fuck was up with the carving? His father obsessed over it. And now this freak?
The man turned his face toward the truck, blinking from the brightness of the headlights. A thick black mark—what the hell was it—slashed up his face from mouth to cheekbone, giving him a sinister, half-evil look. He glared into the lights until Xander drove past.
Xander glanced in the rearview mirror. The truck’s taillights tossed a bloody glow over bear and man, highlighting the play of muscle and sinew hacked into the wood and making the black mark on the man’s face appear to be a gaping hole.
Xander’s breath locked inside his lungs. As crazy as it sounded, he half expected man and bear to move. To charge after him.
The truck raced down the hill, the man and the bear fading from sight. Xander’s gaze snapped to the road in front of him. Yeah, obviously, he was on the verge of losing it. It being his sanity.
Booze. Booze always helped. He needed to get some. Now.
Five minutes later, in sight of the gas station with its flashing neon BEER sign, a rush of energy stung his face and then rolled down his body—the Bastard in His Brain. The sneaky ass was about to stage a coup. Damn. All Xander could do was watch as he inexplicably turned the vehicle onto the highway and headed west—away from liquid salvation, away from reason and rationality, away from sense and sanity.
Three hours later, Xander parked on a mud strip that he suspected might have once been a driveway. The Bastard in His Brain had decided to take him on a vacation to Crazyland, where the only way out was through the funhouse. How else could he explain passing up alcohol and driving halfway across Ohio for this—a strange trailer secreted away among hundreds of acres of cornfields?
Despite dawn tipping the horizon in cheerful color, an ominous void and a bleak desperation hung over the place that went deeper than the structure’s disrepair. One side of the trailer sagged lower than the other, giving the impression of an enormous teeter-totter. Windows were missing, their gaping maws covered with boards or plywood or simple cardboard. The screen door dangled by its bottom hinge.
Xander wanted to reverse the truck and lay twin strips of fuck-you on the asphalt on his way down the road. Wanting wasn’t enough—not nearly enough—to overpower the Bastard. He got out of the vehicle, leaving the keys in the ignition. He would run up, scan the inside of the trailer, satisfy the Bastard, then sort out his shit on the drive back home.
A miraculous hush fell across the landscape. No birds chirped, no insects chattered. No corn leaves rustled. Pure, undiluted silence invaded his ears, and it was more stunning and fascinating than anything he’d ever heard. He stopped. Listened. Nothing. Not one sound. He couldn’t even hear the rapid duh-dum, duh-dum of his heartbeat.
He closed his eyes, savoring the quiet. Was this why the Bastard had led him here? To find relief from the constant barrage of noise? Was there something significant about this location? Something significant about the trailer? He needed to find out. ’Cause if this spot was devoid of sound, he was going to be moving.
He walked up the crumbling cinder-block steps to the trailer, his boots crunching loud and startling against the decay. So much for the complete-void-of-sound theory. He reached through the skeleton of the screen and jiggled the knob. Locked.
From the other side of the door, the thud of heavy footsteps approached. Someone lived here? The place looked like it should be inhabited by rats and rodents, not humans.
“Open the door. Now. Or I’m bustin’ it down.” The urgency in his voice surprised him. What surprised him even more—he meant every word. He’d get in this trailer one way or another. Didn’t matter that he was trespassing or about to break half a dozen other laws. He needed to get inside. Not guilty by reason of Bastard in the Brain—a.k.a. insanity—would be his defense.
A fist slammed into his temple—or at least it felt like a fist. Xander winced at the tuning in. Damn.
The door cracked open. All he could see was a too-large-to-be-normal jaundiced eyeball staring out at him, locking on Xander’s scars.
He bears the mark of the Beast. King warned me about him. He is here for the Dragon, but it is too late.
The mark of the Beast. Well, that was a new one. Xander touched the puckered skin on his cheek. He almost admired the originality. Almost.
“Go away. You’re trespassing.” The female voice was deep and thick, mucus snapping around each word. King must confirm the Dragon’s death before the body can be burned and the evil ashes soaked in holy water. “I’ll call the police.”
“You won’t call the police, or you would’ve called them already. Let me in. I won’t ask again.”
“Go away.” King would not permit such a risk to anyone, even one marked by the Beast. The door slammed. A lock snapped into place. A chain rattled.
Was she fearless or stupid or crazy? He leaned toward crazy, considering her thoughts of dragons and kings. He shouldn’t judge. He was short on sanity too.
Abandoning all of his self-control and the last of his logic, he rammed into the door, snapping the lock, busting the chain, and impacting with the heft of her body on the other side. He leaped across the threshold. The stench slammed into him—a physical entity that pushed him back a step.
Cigarette smoke so thick it choked the oxygen and clouded the room. Unwashed flesh so pungent and sour it burned his throat. And infusing it all, the putridly sweet rot of death. His throat kicked open, and he half coughed, half gagged, and barely managed to keep himself from vomiting.
The terrible throbbing in his head stopped, but his eyeballs took up the beat.
The floor was covered in trash. Old milk jugs, wrappers, empty boxes of food, strips of white paper that looked suspiciously like toilet paper. She obviously didn’t understand the function of a garbage can, and the concept of trash day had to be about fifty points above her IQ.
Roach-like, she scuttled to block a darkened hallway. Sweat plastered her few strands of hair to her skull like a greasy comb-over. Her bulbous nose and wide features verged on downright ugly. Stains of various colors and textures trailed down the front of her tank top, over the bulge of her protruding belly. Everything—every single thing—about her disgusted him. Repulsed him. He didn’t want to be in the same trailer with her, and he sure as fuck didn’t want to be in the same room with her.
So why was he here? Why couldn’t he force himself to leave?
She brandished a large pair of scissors and jabbed them at him like a roly-poly ninja. Under a different set of circumstances, he might’ve laughed, but her insanity sucked the humor from the situation.
And there was blood on the blades.
Dread fisted his lungs. “What have you done?” He braced, waiting for the frequency to be reestablished. His head jerked.
On the sixth day, I stabbed my sword into the Dragon’s flesh. “A peasant should not question his Queen.” Her tongue slithered from her mouth and stroked over her lips, leaving a slime trail, before slipping back inside.
“I’m not your peasant.” He might be on a visit to Crazyland, but she had moved into town, taken up permanent residence, and joined the Church of Unsound Mind. When in Crazyland, do as the crazy do. He packed his tone with authority. “I am your king, and you will tell me what you’ve done.”
She froze, almost as if Xander had hit the pause button.
You don’t look like King.
Shit. “I had plastic surgery. Changed my entire appearance. That’s why you don’t recognize me.” With the scars on his face, she’d have to be more than crazy to buy that line of bovine excrement; she’d have to be downright dumb.
Her face relaxed into a look of senseless understanding.
“Sire.” She crossed one tree trunk of a leg in front of the other and curtsied. Fucking curtsied like she was some fancy-ass princess.
King is so pretty now. Except for part of his face. “I didn’t know your new face.”
“Show me what you’ve done.”
“I have followed your decree. On the sixth day, I thrust my sword into the Dragon.”
His gut coiled tight. “Show me.”
“It might not be safe for you. I’m not certain the Dragon is dead.”
He used his best I-am-the-king tone. “Show me.”
“But Sire, you cannot risk being in its presence if it still lives.”
“All will be well.” He forced himself to not gag on his next words. “My queen, please, show me.”
She turned and waddled down the short hallway. He followed her to a heavy steel door. The kind of door that wouldn’t be standard issue in a cheap trailer. The kind of door used to keep intruders out. Or to keep something locked inside, something that bled, from the looks of her scissors. An animal? He wanted it to be an animal, but—damn—he knew he was going to find a human on the other side of that steel.
She unlocked the door and stepped aside. “Be careful, Sire.”
Dim silver light from the open doorway slashed across the dark room, illuminating a body in the middle of the floor. The naked female, so devoid of muscle she qualified as a skeleton, had a vile ring of blood surrounding her, seeping from a gash in her side.
His lungs contracted, expelling the air out of him. “What have you done?” he snapped at the Crazy One and realized two seconds too late he’d broken character.
You’re not King. You tricked me.
The woman on the floor needed an ambulance and mostly likely an extended hospital stay—assuming she was even alive. But the Crazy One still had those scissors in her hand. He wouldn’t be helping anyone if she buried them in his spine. He put himself between the woman on the floor and the Crazy One.
“I told you.” A croaky voice came from the shadows and muted planes of space the light didn’t reach. “I told you her protector would come.” Another skeletal body crawled into the light, face ravaged by torment and time, its attention focused on the Crazy One’s scissors.
Something familiar plucked at Xander’s memory, just beyond the reach of consciousness. Damn.
The Crazy One dropped the scissors. She stood, mouth hanging open, her flat slug of a tongue resting on her bottom lip. She backed away, one step at a time. I must finish. I must finish. She turned and ran down the hallway, each footstep reverberating through the floor.
“Take her. Protect her. Heal her. Save her from Queen.” The malnourished figure crawling on the floor spoke again, urgency riding each of her words.
Save her from Queen. Recognition slammed into him, knocking him to his knees.
…and no one other than Queen will ever remember we existed. Queen—not a typical name.
“Fuck me.” A burr gouged into his heart. The woman lying on the floor was the woman. The one inside his head. She wasn’t a figment of a fucked mind. She was naked and emaciated and—oh, Christ—looked like a corpse.
Guilt choked in his throat—a lump too big to swallow, too awful to taste. She’d tried to tell him she was suffering and needed help. What had he done? Buried her words under a gallon of liquor and a barrel of self-pity. All those nights when he’d felt so restless, if he’d just gotten in his truck, would he have driven here? Found her before it was too late?
The woman’s cheekbones jutted so sharply they nearly cut through the skin. Tufts of blond hair grew in patches along her hairline. And yet, superimposed over what his eyes took in, his mind filled in the gaps, added flesh to her cheeks, fullness to her eyes, and pale-blond hair to her head. Somehow, he saw beyond what lay before him to what might have been. She would’ve been beautiful. Radiant in an angelic way words couldn’t adequately describe.
“Oh, God.” He was the worst sort of asshole. Had always been a selfish bastard, owned that about himself, but this—this was a low he’d never be able to crawl out of. He couldn’t just rationalize away his lack of action all this time.
The spot where his heart should be throbbed. His hand shook like someone coming off the sauce as he reached for her, touching her neck, feeling for a pulse, though he knew there was no way she could be alive.
Her skin nearly froze his fingers. Death did that to a person, stole their warmth along with their life. Her eyelids fluttered, stuttered, and opened, locking directly on him, pinning him with her gaze.
Logical thought tumbled out of his head, splashing onto the floor. His body went into suspended animation mode.
She swallowed, wincing as if the action hurt. “Xander?”
Every word in his vocabulary vanished behind a nearly impenetrable wall of shock and disbelief.
“Is it really you?” Her words were barely a breath of sound. “Or am I dreaming?”
He understood what she was saying, just couldn’t pluck any response out of the emptiness in his mind.
Her face scrunched up, and a soft, dry sob hacked in her throat. “You’re just a dream. Why can’t I just die?”
Seeing her hurting, seeing her pain, finally dissolved his mental paralysis. “Oh, God. I’m here.” He gripped her face in one hand. Her expression relaxed as if his touch eased her. “I’m real. You’re safe.” He swiped his thumb over her chin, felt it tremble at his touch.
Sorrow faded from her eyes, but other emotions filled the void—more emotions than he knew what to do with. He didn’t need to be Freud to see the adoration and the hero worship. “Don’t look at me like that. I’m not the good guy here.” His tone was overflowing with self-loathing and guilt for not finding her years ago. “You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”
“Isleen.” One side of her mouth twitched like she was trying to smile. “You’re real. You’re really real.” The smile faded. “Where’s Gran? You have to save Gran too.”
Her eyes closed, her chest popped up and down in exaggerated breaths too unnatural to be normal. He yanked his cell phone from his pocket.
“Isleen, you stay with me now. You hang on.” He dialed 911, waited for the operator to pick up. Ring-ring. Pause. Ring-ring. Pause. Ring-ring. “Pick the fuck up.” Ring-ring.
“911, what is your—”
“The last road I remember is County Road 95. A trailer in the middle of cornfields. I just found two women being held against their will. They both need an ambulance.”
“Sir, can you tell me…”
The growl of his truck’s engine grabbed Xander’s attention. The Crazy One—he’d forgotten about her—had stolen his truck. This day was full of happy damned surprises. The sound of his truck faded and got further away, but then the direction changed and the roar of pedal-to-the-metal screamed at him. What was she doing? Even as the question flittered through his consciousness, the answer came to him. His truck was about to meet the trailer.
He dropped the phone and grabbed Isleen.
The room exploded.