Ten years ago, PI Jessie Cole and reporter Ben Morrison each suffered a tragedy that changed their lives—and now these two strangers are about to share a nightmare.
For Jessie, who makes her living finding missing persons, no case has consumed her more than the disappearance of her younger sister, Sophie. But left alone to raise Sophie’s daughter, she realizes that solving the case has become an unhealthy obsession.
For Ben, a horrific car accident resulted in scars both physical and emotional—and amnesia that has made his life a mystery. But curiously, out of his shattered memories, there’s one person he recognizes without a doubt: Jessie’s sister. He just doesn’t know why. Yet.
But Sophie isn’t the only phantom drawing Jessie and Ben together. An elusive serial murderer known as the Heartless Killer has reemerged from the shadows. His next move will cut even deeper into Jessie’s worst fears. And for Ben, what happens this time is going to be unforgettable.
Ten Years Ago
He awoke to the smell of burned flesh. The acrid fumes filled his lungs. The crackling roar of fire was deafening, the smoke thick.
He was trapped within the passenger seat of a car, hanging upside down, a mangled piece of plastic and metal pressed against his stomach. He couldn’t see the bottom part of his legs, but he felt a fiery heat around his feet and ankles.
The car teetered, back and forth, precariously, as if at any moment it might roll into the black abyss he saw through the broken windshield. Every muscle tensed. He had no idea how steep the fall would be if the vehicle lost its bearings.
His lungs burned.
He coughed, tried to breathe, then jerked backward when an arm fell limply through the flames and landed on the middle console. Charred fingers, skin melting from bone.
The driver was engulfed in flames.
They were both going to die if he didn’t find a way out.
Trying to move his legs felt like wasted effort. They were pinned tight and wouldn’t budge. He reached for the buckle, touched searing-hot metal, and let out a shattering scream. Excruciating pain ripped through his body, sending jolts of electricity pulsing through his veins. Yanking his hand back, he watched blisters immediately form on his fingertips as flames licked at his pants from beneath the crushed console.
He held his breath and began desperately banging his elbow against the glass, again and again. The window finally cracked, then shattered.
Throat and lungs parched, he leaned that way, gasping for breath.
Thick plumes of smoke escaped through the jagged hole he’d made and then disappeared into a dark, starless night.
The smell was haunting, the pain intense.
He was running out of time.
Again he grabbed for the buckle. He had no choice. He shouted obscenities through gritted teeth as his fingers clasped tightly to both sides of the metal, his thumb pushing the “Release” button. This time when he smelt burned flesh, he knew it was his.
He dropped, headfirst, to the ceiling. His right leg came loose, while the other remained pinned above him. Flames were everywhere now, red-hot tongues licking every part of him as he clutched the window frame spiked with shards of glass. Numb with pain, he held tight, every muscle straining as he used his freed leg to push off and yank his other leg free.
Scrambling, he pulled his way through the shattered window and out of the burning death trap. Broken glass ripped through his clothes and cut into flesh as he dragged himself from the wreckage. The pain shooting through his body was nothing compared to the blistering heat. No sooner had he pulled himself free than he was rolling downhill, past a boulder, arms thrashing, fingers grasping for a hold of grass and thorny weeds. Bam! He slammed into the trunk of a tree, his head jolting back with so much force he thought he might have broken his neck.
Seconds passed before he lifted his head, relieved to be away from the smoky wreckage at the top of the hill. He looked the other way. Had he rolled another five feet down the slope, he would have disappeared off a steep embankment and into a gully.
He lay still on grass and dirt, drinking in fresh, cool air as he stared back at the flames that still hissed and popped, sending sparks into the air.
The smell of gas made him think of the driver. Was it too late for the driver to escape?
On his belly, he clawed at the dirt, making his way back up the hill.
With only one good leg, he made it just a few feet before an explosion left his ears ringing. The car burst into flames, sending debris into the sky. He ducked at the sight of metal coming at him. A car door flew past and nearly took off the top of his skull.
A loud, prolonged squeak coming from the wreckage prompted him to lift his head in time to watch the burning metal slowly tilt his way.
A hulk of burning rubber and metal came crashing down the hill after him. Putting his weight into his knees, he lunged for the nearest boulder, plastered his body flat into dirt and grass, and waited for the flaming mass to sweep him to his death.
The earth rumbled beneath him. The air was hot, the smell haunting. A whoosh of movement stirred the air above as the mass swept overhead. Another explosion erupted, creating a wall of heat behind him. He pried his face from the dirt and looked down at the wreckage now wrapped around the tree he’d left only moments ago. Whoever had been inside the car could not have survived.
He used his forearms to push himself over so that he was lying on his back, staring up at a dark sky. The kaleidoscope of pain arising from cuts and bruises, broken bones, and blistering skin stopped him from moving again.
Just as well.
He needed to shut his eyes, if only for a moment, before he attempted to claw his way back up the hill. It felt good to close his eyes, even peaceful despite the fire burning a few feet away—a blaze that now sounded like the crackling flames you might hear coming from a fire pit at a campground.
He wondered about the driver then. Was it a he or she? And why didn’t he know? Where had they been going? Each question brought another, but he drew a blank when it came to the answers.
The thing that worried him most, though, had nothing to do with the driver and everything to do with himself.
Dizzy and short of breath, he realized he had no memory of where he’d come from. He didn’t know if he was single or married. No recollection of any children, friends, or family.
Who was he?
© Theresa Ragan, 2017. Republished with permission from Amazon/Thomas and Mercer.
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About the Author
T.R. Ragan (Theresa Ragan) is a New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal Bestselling author. Her exciting Lizzy Gardner series: Abducted, Dead Weight, A Dark Mind, Obsessed, Almost Dead, and Evil Never Dies, has received tremendous praise. In August 2015 Evil Never Dies hit #7 on the Wall Street Journal Bestselling List. Since publishing in 2011, she has sold over two million books and has been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times, PC Magazine, Huffington Post, and Publishers Weekly.
Theresa grew up in a family of five girls in Lafayette, California. An avid traveler, her wanderings have carried her to Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, China, Thailand, and Nepal, where she narrowly survived being chased by a killer elephant. Before devoting herself to writing fiction, she worked as a legal secretary for a large corporation. Theresa and her husband Joe have four children and live in Sacramento, California.