Series: Fatal Truth Series, Book 1
Genre: Dark Romantic Thriller
He’s found her at last…
Cain Killion knows himself to be a damaged man. His only redeeming quality? The extrasensory connection to blood that he uses to catch killers. His latest case takes a macabre turn when he discovers a familiar and haunting symbol linking the crime to his horrific past—and the one woman who might understand what it means.
Only to lose her to a nightmare
Mercy Ledger is brave, resilient, beautiful—and in terrible danger. The moment Cain finds her the line between good and evil blurs and the only thing clear to them is that they belong together. Love is the antidote for blood—but is their bond strong enough to overcome the madness that stalks them?
It’s a sad testament to the state of humanity that we elevate serial killers to the level of mega-celebrity.
~Ellsworth Garyington, M.D, Journal of Human and Philosophical Studies
The air reeked of dirty pennies and death. Days ago the bodies had been removed, but Cain Killion could still feel the desperate energy of the dying and almost—almost—hear the echoes of their screams imprinted on the bones of the house. He abhorred the sight of blood and yet here he was standing in another murder house, in front of another wall smeared, splattered, and sprayed with gore.
His heart banged against the cage of his ribs, trying to bust out and make a break for it. A bead of sweat slid in agonizing slowness down the center of his spine.
“You don’t look so good.” MacNeil Anderson stepped into his line of sight, diverting his attention away from the blood. The furrows around Mac’s eyes cut deeper than normal and three days’ worth of old man stubble fuzzed his cheeks, giving him a haggard and homeless appearance. Not exactly the look the FBI was going for when they promoted Mac to Senior Special Agent.
Cain almost smiled at his own thoughts, but laughter no longer existed in this place. Only horror could thrive here now.
“Do I ever look good when I’m about to…?” Yeah. There wasn’t a name for what he did. To the bureaucrats with their thumbs jammed up their asses Mac called it profiling—had to call it something. But it wasn’t profiling. Not at all. What he had to do with the blood was something worse than profiling. So much worse.
“This is different.” Mac reached up and put his dry palm on Cain’s forehead. “You sick? Have a fever?”
Cain might be thirty years old and lived on his own since he was eighteen, but Mac had never outgrown the role of his adopted dad.
“You can always walk away.” Mac made this offer at every kill scene.
And every time, Cain’s legs twitched with the urge to run. Only determination, masochism, and the promise of sick satisfaction kept him locked in place. “I’m staying. I always stay.”
“I’d stop calling you out for these cases, but I know you’d just find someone else who would.” Mac’s words were slow and glossed with sadness.
“No one else has the history I have. No one else can do what I do. No one else can give you the information I can.” Yeah. His profiles were more accurate, more detailed than anything a traditional profiler could come up with. In the majority of cases his work guided law enforcement directly to their perpetrator. “It’d be stupid not to call me.” Not to mention he needed to be around that dynamic duo—blood and death. They stripped away his mask of normalcy leaving him naked to the one truth about himself he could never forget.
He was Killer Killion’s Kid—Triple K—the media called him. The spawn of a killer with the genetic predisposition to be a murdering machine. One of the only ways he’d found to curb the ugly urges was to force himself to attend these murder scenes. Force himself to witness the destruction.
His deepest, darkest, dirtiest secret—the thing he would never utter out loud because it terrified him: Sometimes he enjoyed himself.
“Son, you don’t have anything to prove. Not to me.” Mac used a caring tone, but that word—son—threatened to transport Cain back to his childhood. Back to his biological father using that word like a curse.
Not going there.
Cain stepped around Mac and moved to look out at window. The Victorian home sat on a miniature peninsula of land that jutted out into a large pond. Such an odd place for a house. A beautiful place, breathtaking, and yet eerie in its loneliness and total isolation. Just the kind of place Cain loved.
Had location been a consideration for the killer? Had he finished with his bloody work then stood in this very spot staring out the window at the water?
Cain sucked in a breath, held it for as long as his lungs would allow then blew it out slowly. “I know I don’t have anything to prove to you. I do this for me.” He tried to make his tone firm, but it came out a little shaky. Mac the-FBI-guy would hear it, but Mac his-adopted-dad wouldn’t press. Time for a change of subject. “You notice anything odd about this place?”
“It’s not the typical.” Mac’s words were spoken on a sigh. “Not that there is a typical. This just isn’t like any other location I’ve been called to investigate.”
“Yeah. Victorian house. In the woods. On a pond. I get why our guy would like the isolation of this place. But there’s something more. It has to do with…” He had trouble finding to words to describe the gut-level truth inside him. “… all of it. The house. The woods. The pond. The family. It’s like this guy wanted the complete package.”
Mac nodded, his expression serious as a gravedigger. “You get that from the blood?”
“Just a feeling I have.” It was the kind of place he’d choose if he were going to plan a murder. Kind of like how salt and sweet tasted so good together—this was violence and peace in one location.
Enough stalling. He turned away from the window and faced the room.
Three walls were covered in Victorian era wallpaper—rich gold background, red blossoms on a vine, and fancy peacocks. Ostentatious was the word that came to mind. One wall, the longest, largest wall had been painted the same color as the paper’s background. Yeah. Four walls of peacocks and posies might’ve caused bleeding eyeballs.
Finally, he forced himself to look at the blood on the wall. Rosettes of red seeped into the wallpaper, the fat watercolor splotches almost blending in with the flowers.
Mac cleared his throat as if gearing up for a formal speech. “The techs released the scene this morning. They worked round the clock to get everything cataloged and bagged so we could get you on this ASAP. The blood is, of course clean, I wouldn’t have called you in otherwise.” He pointed to the three distinct blood pools. “The family—Dad, Mom, girl—were found here. Killed here, too. Forensics places their time of death at—”
“Mac.” Cain spoke the name loud enough to smother whatever the guy had been about to say. “Quiet.” He needed the absence of sound to see what happened. And he needed to do it now before he pussied out.
Mac clamped his lips closed, nodded, and moved across the room—out of the way.
Just fucking get it over with.
Cain knelt at the altar of blood. The sweet scent of rotting biological material an abomination to his nose and yet, foul anticipation crawled underneath his skin. His mind slid sideways like it always did when around the red stuff. Back to his childhood. Back to a time when he was very much his father’s son. Back to when blood covered his skin—the slick, silky, warmness of it so wrong and yet so horribly soothing at the same time.
He slapped his hands down into the congealed sludge. The coldness sent pleasant shock waves up his arms. He didn’t want to feel pleasure, didn’t want to enjoy this, but that other part of him had terrible intentions. Helpless to stop himself, he smeared his hands around in the red like a kid playing with finger paints. Only when they were coated with the family’s blood did he raise them to his face.
A miniscule part of him rebelled against what he was about to do, but the rebellion was quashed before it began. He spread the blood over his forehead, his cheeks, coating his skin in the thick, sweet, goo. He painted his neck, his bare arms, then lifted his T-shirt and wiped his hands on his chest.
His head fell back on his shoulders. His breath came in shallow, hyper-ventilating gulps. From a distance, he heard himself moan, only it wasn’t a moan—it was more like the yowling of a feral cat fighting for its life. Or getting ready to mate.
Blood did that to him—was a pleasure and a pain. A gift and a curse.
He had a complicated relationship with blood. He hated it. He loved it. Blood was a conduit, a link, a connection, between him and those who slayed souls. Blood opened a doorway, allowing him to step into the mind and body of those who found bliss in ending life. He became the killer. He saw what the killer saw. Did what the killer did. Felt what the killer felt.
An incandescent light flashed behind his eyelids. Cain was gone. He was now the killer.
He stood on a ladder, rolling simple white primer on the wall.
A song had been locked inside his head for months and only now was it time to give voice to the words.
Lift your feet when you
Dance around the old well,
Be careful or you’ll tumble pell-mell.
Look into the dark, dark, waters
For the blood of your fathers.
Show some courage young man,
Find your calling young man.
He loved the song. He hated the song. But that was life, wasn’t it? It was all one big paradox.
A breathy sound intruded. He turned on the ladder to see the ones on the floor.
They were laid out in a neat row in the middle of the room. Each of them on their stomachs, hands bound behind their backs and tied to the shackles on their feet, mouths obliterated by duct tape. The male’s wrists were hamburger, dripping blood from fighting against the metal cuffs. But none of them struggled now.
Their faces were wet from tears, or maybe sweat—didn’t really matter—and splotchy red and pale. The child grunted.
“Do you want to sing along?” He used a soft tone, the same as he would if he were cajoling a whipped dog. “I will let you, but you must sing it properly. No mistakes.”
More tears slicked the girl’s face and dripped on the drop cloth underneath her. A bubble of snot blew from her nostril and hovered there waiting to pop. She shrank from him. The female seal-humped herself up and over the girl as if to hide the child beneath her body.
Oh, well. He wouldn’t allow them to destroy the pure freedom of this moment. He turned back to his task, losing himself in his song once more.
Save pomegranate seeds as payment for the ferry man,
Offer red, red wine as payment to the bar man.
Carve some red, red meat as food for the hungry man.
Show some courage young man,
Find your calling young man.
And then, the wall was done, the completion of it sneaking up on him like a surprise party. He stepped off the ladder, moved it to the side to have an unobstructed view and then unzipped his painter’s coveralls and let them slide down his body.
The cool air whispered over his naked flesh like an endearment, the sensation wonderful after the confines of the material. His head fell back on his shoulders and he stood there absorbing and savoring. Everything from this moment to his finish would be carefully recorded in his memory. No matter what happened, no one could erase his memories. They were his alone—safe and untouchable—to be lovingly replayed until his death.
The female sobbed, deep throaty sounds similar to gagging. He faced the ones on the floor and used a gentle voice. “I do understand this is distressing for you, but I—” He dropped his tone a couple of octaves to show his seriousness. “—need. Complete. Silence.” He took his time, meeting and holding each one of their gazes before he continued. “I need to rest now.”
Only when they all quieted did he sit on the couch he had moved to face the wall. The material he’d spread over the cushions—couldn’t risk leaving DNA when he left—scratched against his ass and testicles, but that couldn’t be helped. He laid back, stretched out, waiting for his body to relax.
The blank canvas before him was a beautiful thing. All the potential in the world was right here. A picture waiting to be born.
He emptied his mind of all thoughts and feelings and stared at the wall. He stared, unblinking, until his vision yellowed and then darkened into something that looked akin to an x-ray. He stared, until tears watered his cheeks and his eyes burned like hot coals in their sockets. Only then did he catch a flash of what needed to be created—all he needed was a glimpse.
Wings. He saw wings.
He was about to create a masterpiece in blood.
A sense of timelessness came over him as he killed and painted. Painted and killed. He lost himself in his work. Not thinking about anything, just letting his hands wield the brushes mindless of the image he produced. When the blood was nearly gone and an image had been born upon the wall he came back to himself.
He stepped away from the wall taking more and more of it in with each footstep until he stood on the other side of the room, taking in the full magnitude.
The color contrast of blood on white was as breathtaking and beautiful as a flock of cardinal against the brilliance of snow. Tears burned his eyes. His face stung, and a wild freedom he’d hadn’t experienced in years surged through him. He recognized the feeling. In this moment he was God. The author of destruction. And creation.
The image he’d painted was so… No words existed to convey the gloriousness. Words were small and meaningless compared to this wall.
On the wall—a man knelt, head bowed, hair falling forward, shielding his face from view. Even in that supplicant’s position, supremacy and authority radiated from him. He looked like the strongest of warriors after a great battle—exhausted, but not weak. No. Never weak. There wasn’t an ounce of vulnerability in his sinew, muscle, and bone. Nor was there any delicacy to the lacework of scars marring the skin of his arms. And on his chest, directly over his heart were two criss-crossed slashes that dripped blood down his torso.
Surrounding him were a magnificent pair of wings. Not the kind you’d see on a sparrow or even on a chubby cupid, but the kind of wings that conveyed power and strength and utter indestructibility.
He loved the picture as he loved himself.
An incandescent flash and Cain returned to reality, to the stench of decomposing blood smeared over his face.
His brain re-categorized everything that he’d just seen and done into the it-wasn’t-really-me file. But that didn’t take the feelings away. The awe spreading through his chest at what he’d seen. The guilt sinking into his gut because he’d had no remorse.
A dull thumping started behind his eyes. Usually when he did his blood work, he was there for only a few seconds before skipping on to the next images and the next. Those flashes gave him a migraine every time, but seeing entire scenes like this…The migraine was gonna be a badass bitch today. He had maybe ten minutes before the pain ratcheted up to the level of axe-buried-in-his-brain.
Mac handed him a black towel—black concealed the blood better than any other color.
“You back?” Mac knelt next to him, his face full of concern, but Cain could see the concealed disgust in the way Mac’s mouth turned down at the corners, like he was fighting an outright grimace.
That look—especially when it was aimed at him—always took him back to the moment Mac found him. When Cain had been covered in snot and blood and shame. He had to give it Mac, the guy had tried to hide his horror, tried to pretend Cain was just a kid when he’d never been a kid. He’d been more monster than anything.
Cain scrubbed the material over his face, his arms, wiped his hands. The blood on his body—so thick and dry it smeared into his skin—would only come off after a good scouring down in a scalding shower.
He turned his attention to the image on the wall. But… There was no image, instead the wall had been painted gold, perfectly coordinated with the rest of the room. Mac must’ve called him back before the killer covered up his work with the paint.
His legs wobbled when he stood. His hand shook like an alcoholic in need of his jolly juice, but he pointed at the wall. “He painted a picture.” His brain bashed against the backs of his eyeballs. He wanted to press his hands to his eyes to keep them from exploding out of their sockets, but his hands were smeared with the family’s blood. The pain was only beginning.
“I… I don’t know what you mean.” Mac’s tone was full of question.
“He painted the wall white—made a blank canvas. Then he created a portrait—using the family’s blood—of some guy—” Cain closed his eyes, seeing on the back of his lids the scars lined up and down the man’s arms, the slashes over his heart, just like the ones on his—
“Fuck!” His lids popped open, his gaze automatically sought the wall, hoping to see the actual image again, but gold paint pulsed in his vision from the thumping inside his head. He held his arms out in front of him. Underneath the thin coating of blood on his skin, a network of white slashes ran from his wrists to his shoulders.
The wounds had healed decades ago, but the scars still remained. He pulled his shirt up high, and looked down at his chest stained with drying blood. A thick white criss-crossed scar rested over his heart—cut into his flesh by his father. Every scar on his body—placed there by his father.
“What is it?” Mac’s tone was full of question, mixed with a bit of suspicion. “You’ve got to talk to me. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Cain’s heart galloped up and down his rib cage, but he forced himself to speak slowly and quietly—in deference to the axe beating against his skull. He told Mac everything he’d seen and everything he remembered about the artwork in blood. “It’s there. You can’t see it, but it’s there. I’m there. Underneath that gold paint.”
It took a lot to catch Mac off guard and score one for Cain—he’d just done it.
Mac’s mouth was slightly open, lips twitching like they were trying to form words, until a one finally spilled out. “Infrared.” The word came out soft and hesitant. “We might be able to see the image using infrared photography.” Things went quiet for a moment while Mac stared at the perfectly painted gold wall. “Why paint you? Why not paint Killion? I mean people are obsessed with you both, but why choose you over him? And this guy made it clear it was you he painted. Without those scars we would’ve thought it was Killion.”
Yes. Cain was cursed with looking too much like his father—like one of the world’s most horrendous killers. It usually took a double-take and some head scratching before people realized he wasn’t Killer Killion.
Mac shook his head. “But then our guy covered up what he’d painted. Probably thinking we’d never know the image was there.”
“He even fucking signed it.” Cain didn’t realize until the words exited his mouth that he had seen a signature.
“He put his name on it?”
“Not his name. A symbol.” Cain wiped his hands harder on the towel then dropped it on the floor. He yanked his cell from his back pocket, and tapped on the art pad app. The white light from the phone lasered into his skull. It was all he could do to keep his eyes open and not groan out loud. He drew a Christian cross then put a hook on the bottom of it that looked like an upside down question mark “You’ve seen this before. I’ve seen this before.”
He showed the image to Mac and watched the guy’s face turn pink, then tomato with recognition.
“Yeah.” Cain voice was straight as a line. “It’s from my father’s last kill. But he didn’t do this. Not unless Petesville Super Max allows weekend furloughs.”
Mac snorted. “Only way he’s getting out of there is in a body bag.”
Couldn’t happen soon enough. His father was a stain on humanity. “So we know he didn’t do this.”
“But…” Mac’s words disappeared for eight thumps of Cain’s brain. “The girl—Mercy Ledger—made that mark on the wall as she was bleeding out from your father cutting… From her throat being cut. It didn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Didn’t mean anything until today. That symbol was at that scene twenty years ago and it’s here now.”
Mac shook his head slowly like an old dog with neck problems. “No one ever questioned her about it. The prints on the wall were hers. Jesus—we need to find Mercy Ledger.”
Mac didn’t say it, but Cain knew how the man’s brain worked. Mac thought Mercy must’ve done this. “She didn’t do this. She’s been locked down in The Center of Balance and Wellness for the past few years.” The words popped out his mouth before he censored them. And he really should’ve censored them.
He lifted his arm, pressed his eyes against a clean patch of material near his shoulder, and spoke without looking at Mac. “I—” Yeah. Just what was he going to say? It wasn’t like he could confess that he’d been checking up on Mercy Ledger for the past twenty years. That would make him sound like a damned stalker. And stalking was considered the gateway drug to killing. “Liz told me.” Bold faced, flat-out, flaming-bright lie. And Mac would know it. The guy was trained to spot a lie at thirty paces. And yet, Cain would rather endure the cost of the lie, than spend the truth. Call him chicken shit—he would own it. He kept his eyes closed against his shoulder.
“Isn’t that a violation of confidentiality or something?” Mac worded it as a question, but it sounded like a statement. “Liz could lose her nursing license.”
But Liz hadn’t actually told him. He’d guessed. He’d known Liz long before he’d met Mac. In those dark days of childhood, his father had forced Cain to work with him at The Center. Liz had been a night nurse and the only person to ever show kindness to him. Even after his father had been caught, she remained a part of Cain’s life—babysitting him when Mac was away for work. She was one of the few people he considered a friend and the closest thing he’d ever had to a mother. And now he’d tossed her in front of the bus because he was a pussy.
The quiet closed in around him. His head felt like it was about to burst off his shoulders. His stomach started rolling.
“The Center?” Mac finally broke the quiet. “That’s a horrible irony.”
And it was. That Mercy Ledger had lived the past few years of her life among the same hallways his father had roamed as a janitor was beyond irony. It was downright wrong.
In a recent online auction, the knife Adam Killion used in the Ledger family murders sold for a record breaking 2.3 million dollars. The Son of Sam Law prohibits convicted felons from profiting from their crime, but someone just made a fortune.
~J. C. Brown, www.criminalnewsinvestigations.com
Mercy Ledger sat in the therapy circle with eleven other crazies from Ward B. The pungent funk of unwashed bodies and rotting chicken—thanks to Bo Coray and his chicken fetish—hung heavy in the air. The suicidal, homicidal, or just plain psychotic didn’t care about trivial things like hygiene.
Dr. Payne wore his usual attire—three-hundred dollar shirt, perfectly tailored pants, and shoes so shiny when he stepped in front of her she could see her reflection in them. He looked too GQ to be a psychiatrist in this underfunded, overpopulated, dump of a mental hospital.
He handed her a sheet of paper. In what had once been bold letters, but now were more in the realm of fuzzy gray from over photocopying, it read:
Practice an attitude of gratitude!
List three things you are grateful for today!
Gratitude? Seriously? After two years on Ward B, there wasn’t a whole lot to be thankful for.
Dr. Payne held out the box of crayons to her. They didn’t trust the residents of Ward B with pens or pencils. Guess no one had ever gotten shanked with a Crayola. “What color are you going to choose?” His words themselves were benign, but each syllable was threaded with judgment.
Her pulse pounded in her veins, her face got hot, her hand holding the paper began to shake.
The vibe that came off of Dr. Payne was something she recognized. Ever since that long, terrible night with Killion she’d been able to sense people’s bad intentions as if she had an early warning system. It had to do with their energy—it connected with her differently than most people. But then most people hadn’t survived what she’d survived.
Her mind’s early warning system flashed her snatches of tomorrow’s session with Dr. Payne. If she selected the yellow or orange crayon he would say she was trying too hard to be cheerful. If she picked red, he would accuse her of having angry or violent thoughts. If she grabbed blue or gray he’d declare her depressed. If she chose black he’d claim she wanted to disassociate. Whatever the color, he would make sure she was going to be wrong, forcing her to spend all of tomorrow’s session with him defending tonight’s color selection. And if she wasn’t successful in her defense—he’d use that as an excuse to have more private sessions with her.
“Mercy. Take a crayon.” Dr. Payne’s voice sounded like a calm ocean, but underneath the surface hungry sharks swam.
Shit. She grabbed the purple crayon.
“I can stay after group to help you process your reluctance.” His tone was full of fake helpfulness.
“No. I’m sorry. I was just daydreaming.” Great. Now she was going to have to come up with a reason why she’d stared at the damned crayon box so long without choosing one. It wasn’t like she could tell him the truth—that she knew what he wanted and had been trying to out think him. The level of control he had over her life scared her nearly as much as Killion had all those years ago.
He moved on to Bo, handing him the paper and giving him a crayon, but she still felt the burden of his gaze on her—watching her, assessing her, looking for an excuse—any excuse—to increase her meds and decrease her ability to think.
She settled her hand over the six-inch ridge of puckered skin scarring her neck. The old injury was always cold and the heat of her palm soothed something inside of her, reassuring her soul that she had already survived the worst of life and she would survive Ward B and Dr. Payne too.
But she better get her hand off her neck, before he decided she needed to talk about Killion again. Dr. Payne enjoyed her tragedy too much.
She moved her hand away from her throat and the scar went cold. She held the purple crayon by the fingers of both hands.
“For tonight’s education group—” Dr. Payne used his Moses-parting-the-seas voice and took the empty seat next to her. He always sat next to her. “—we’re going to talk about happiness and some of the research being conducted in the field of positive psychology. A group of Harvard psychologists have found that happy people have a particular set of habits.”
None of the patients on Ward B gave two shits about happiness. They were all too damned crazy to care about such an elusive term. Now if this evening’s group had been about how to score smokes, line-up conjugal visits, or get extra pudding cups—most of the patients would have been taking notes.
“I’m already happy!” Bo let out a high-pitch little girl giggle that sounded nine kinds of wrong coming from a three hundred pound guy. “I’m Bojangles! See!” He framed his face with his pudgy hands and smiled an open-mouthed, deranged clown smile.
He called himself Bojangles—partly because of his chicken fixation and mostly because the name sounded like a clown’s name and that’s exactly what Bo thought he was—a clown. That crazy smile and his carrot colored afro only solidified the delusion.
“I’m so happy!” Bo swayed violently in his seat bumping in to her, knocking her into Dr. Payne whose arm went around her locking her against his hard body. He held her too hard and too wrong. The room fell away. Bo’s shouting vanished. The only thing that existed was his horrible strength, trapping her against him and the urge—the almost uncontrollable urge—to scream.
“Are you all right? If he hurt you…” His breath fanned across her cheek smelling of sweet tea and summer. He should be the one who smelled like rotting chicken. Her body went into rigor mortis. She couldn’t move or breathe or think.
Bo jumped to his feet and moved into the center of the circle. Dr. Payne let her go. What had felt like an eternity of being pinned against him had probably lasted only two seconds since no one seemed to notice.
“Let’s be happy together!” Bo hollered at the top of his volume range and began twirling like a morbidly obese ballerina. “Bojangles. Bojangles. Bojangles.” He sang his name at an ear throbbing volume.
Dr. Payne didn’t move, didn’t blink, just watched Bo with an expression of absolute indifference on his face. That was part of how Mercy had known he was a sociopath. He never reacted normally—and he didn’t have the excuse of being pumped full of anti-psychotics and sedatives like the rest of the group. He never seemed threatened, no matter the situation. Probably because he was always the biggest threat in the room.
Bo pirouetted to a stop in front of her. “Dance with me baby doll!” He snatched her up against his flabby body and hurled them around. His rotten chicken stench, assaulted her nose, but no matter how bad he stank, she wasn’t scared of him. Bo would never intentionally hurt her or anyone else. He was like a mastiff pup. He didn’t understand how big he was, or how strong, or how his size could intimidate.
“Bo, I don’t feel like dancing right now.” She pushed against his pudgy man boobs.
His bottom lip jutted out shiny with saliva, but he stopped and let her go, just like she knew he would.
His chest bellowed, his lungs wheezed and whistled. Hauling around three hundred pounds would do that to a person.
“Now why don’t you sit down, catch your breath, and let Dr. Payne finish tonight’s—”
Bo began toppling over sideways, taking his time to fall, the way a giant tree goes down in a thick forest. She reached out to grab him, but his momentum and weight were too much. He landed—knee, hip, then shoulder—the sound of flesh slapping concrete punctuated by the thud of heavy bones. Where Bo had been only a second before, Dr. Payne now stood, staring at her. Not the man on the floor.
And that’s where her ability to sense bad intentions fell short. Spontaneity. When someone acted without planning, her internal warning mechanism failed every time. She could never fully rely on it.
“What’d you do to him? He was done. He was going to sit down.” The moment the words flew out her mouth she wished she could suck every syllable back inside and swallow them down whole.
An unnatural silence engulfed the room. No one in the group moved, no one spoke, no one checked on Bo. They all stared at her. At her. As if she’d done something wrong. And she had done something wrong. She’d challenged Dr. Payne—talked back to him instead of being subservient. And worst of all she’d shown caring for Bo.
There was a terrible pattern to her life, one she tried to deny, one she tried to tell herself wasn’t real. But the undeniable truth, the thing that loomed over her ever since that night with Killion: If she cared for someone, they were bound to get hurt.
But didn’t anyone else care about Bo? Or that Dr. Payne had somehow caused Bo to fall? She wanted to scream at the group, at Dr. Payne, but clamped her lips firmly closed.
Click. The sound was a mini explosion in Mercy’s head. Her gaze shot to the panic button clipped to Dr. Payne’s belt and his finger just lifting off the pad.
Her stomach kicked. No no no. He wouldn’t have hit the button because of her words. He wouldn’t put her on Ward A just for questioning him. Or would he? On Ward A he’d have supreme control over her. No interaction with anyone except for him. Just what he wanted and what she’d managed to avoid for the past two years.
Dr. Payne’s eyes were black and unfeeling, his lips pinched in a promise of terrible things to come. He reached into his pants pocket and withdrew a syringe, uncapped it, and took a step toward her.
An odd buzzing sound started in her ears, her vision narrowed until the only thing she saw was that syringe held between his perfectly manicured fingers. She couldn’t let him inject her. Couldn’t let him knock her so completely out that she would be unconscious and then in a sedated, vegetable state for days afterward.
Dr. Payne jammed the needle in Bo’s ass cheek. She sucked in a lungful of air—she hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath.
Two security guards and two male nurses rushed into the room. She moved away from Bo and stumbled back to her chair, collapsing so hard on the metal seat her tailbone rang.
“Transport him to Ward A.” Dr. Payne returned to his place beside her. “I’ll be down to assess him in a few minutes.”
She wanted to cringe away from him, but forced her body to stillness and watched as each member of the security team took an arm or leg and dragged Bo out of the room—he weighed too much to carry.
“We’ll be cutting group short tonight. Everyone fill out your papers, return them to me, and then go to your rooms.”
Dr. Payne passed her a fresh sheet of paper and the pink crayon—her paper and crayon had somehow disappeared in all the commotion. Using her leg for a solid surface, she scribbled the same thing on all three lines.
I’m grateful to be alive.
I’m grateful to be alive.
I’m grateful to be alive.
Without glancing at Dr. Payne, she handed in her paper and crayon and strained to walk from the room, instead of run. ‘Cause she wanted to run. She wanted far away from Dr. Payne and Ward B and this miserable existence where everything she did was under a microscope.
In her room, she didn’t bother with the overhead fluorescents, she went straight to her barred window and stared out into the night. There were no distant lights dotting the horizon, no stars twinkling in the sky. Nothing to indicate an entire world existed beyond her pane of glass. Just a void—a massive, black nothingness stretching on to infinity. The emptiness—the illusion of being alone—soothed her.
Her door clicked and swung open. She clamped her teeth together and breathed a quiet huff of frustration. Privacy didn’t exist on Ward B. To the staff, privacy equaled delinquency. The wavy image of a person reflected on her window. Liz—the charge nurse—always checked on her after she’d done everyone else. She understood Mercy’s need to experience the only peaceful moments of the day.
“All good here. I’ll get in bed in a few minutes.” Mercy forced lightness into her tone. If she let any irritation or tension leak into her voice, she risked Dr. Payne finding out.
“Mercy—” A man’s voice.
She startled, a jerking of muscle so violent it felt as if she’d been electrocuted. She whirled from the window to face him.
“—I need to make sure Bo didn’t hurt you.”
Her mind rebelled against the message her eyeballs were sending. Dr. Payne stood in her doorway. He never entered a patient’s room. And male staff were not permitted in the rooms of female patients. But here he was and here she was—and this wasn’t going to end well.
Her heart went off like a cannon.
“I’m responsible for you. You’re under my care. I won’t let anyone interfere.” Dr. Payne wore a grin, his deep dimples giving him a look all the women—staff and patients alike—adored.
“I’m fine. No harm done.” There was only a slight tremor in her voice. Maybe he wouldn’t notice. She cleared her throat and aimed for a stronger tone. “Liz knows my routine. She’ll be in to do a check in a few minutes.” Yeah. Remind him that someone might catch him if tried anything. “She’s fine with me being awake as long as I don’t bother anyone else.”
Dr. Payne took a step into the room. “Liz is dealing with Bo.”
Slowly, silently, the door began to fall shut behind him. The light from the hallway pinched off inch by inch until only darkness stood between them. The barely audible click of the latch sent a cold rush of adrenaline through her limbs.
Her internal warning system went off and she knew—knew in the way of instincts and reflexes and urges—knew with a clarity beyond understanding what he had planned for tonight. For her. The images flickered through her mind almost like memories, but they were of things to come. Him forcing her face down over her bed. Him taking what she wouldn’t give. Him making it hurt. Him making her bleed. Him marking her as his.
Fear licked down her spine and bit into her guts, but she refused to cower before him. She wouldn’t be an easy victim. Not her. Never her. Never again. And if he didn’t know that—it just went to prove how much he sucked at his job.
She would handle this. She’d been through worse. She’d survived worse. This time all she needed to do was get to the hallway where the lights were on and the cameras were rolling and there was always someone at the nurse’s station. Ten feet. That’s all that stood between her and safety.
She walked toward him. Better to be on the offensive instead of being forced to react. She put an extra sway to her hips, and prayed he’d be too distracted to realize she was going for the door—not him.
He watched her, that dimpled predatory smile never leaving his lips. Her heart somehow exited her chest, floating up in her head and pounding in her ears. She stopped a mere foot away from him.
Calm. Keep calm. Breathe in slow. Exhale slow. She could freak all she wanted later. But not now. Not when it really mattered.
Slowly, she shifted to his side, a mere two feet from the door. No sudden movements. Not yet. Not until she knew she could grab the handle and get out into the hallway before he stopped her.
“What do you think you’re doing?” His words were liquid nitrogen to her blood. She froze.
He turned to face her, moving further into her space. He wasn’t much taller than her, his dead eyes and taunting mouth right on the level of hers—only inches away.
Do something. Do anything. Don’t let him touch you. Her mind screamed the words to be heard over her heart thundering in her ears.
With every ounce of force she possessed, she rammed her knee into his knobby knockers.
He didn’t make a sound. He didn’t move. Didn’t react.
Had she missed?
He struck out with his fist so fast she didn’t have a chance to flinch, block, or move. The impact sent a shockwave of agony through her face, the sensation so intense she couldn’t feel the epicenter. She stumbled backwards, lost her footing, and landed on her ass. The impact vibrated through every bone in her body like a plucked violin string.
Dr. Payne bent double, cupping his pulverized parts. He shuffle-walked the one step to her, drew back his foot and slammed it into her ribs. Air whoofed out of her. She collapsed back, rolling and writhing to escape the fire in her side.
How long she laid there, she didn’t know. But suddenly, Dr. Payne’s face was in her line of sight and his intentions were in her head. Her mind flashed through images of the stark walls of Ward A, of herself drugged beyond awareness, of Dr. Payne amusing himself with her mind and body.
She tried to move toward the door, but her body wasn’t able to comply. She was lost in an inferno of pain.
Dr. Payne ruffled his hands through his hair, making it messy. He pulled at his perfectly tucked in shirt making it sloppy, then knelt down next to her.
She scooted away from him, but he grabbed her hand, forced her fingers open, gripping her middle finger in his fist. Was this some new form of torture? He yanked her finger to his face, jammed the nail against his cheek, then scraped it down over his skin, leaving a red trough of blood. He slammed her hand against the floor, grinding and mashing it in with his own. But she had reached a familiar place. A numb place. A place where physical pain no longer hurt her. He could slit her throat like Killion had and she wouldn’t feel it.
He stood and hit the panic button, then pulled another syringe from his pocket.
“You were the reason Bo acted out tonight. You stormed off from group without completing your assignment. I came here to check on you. You attacked me. You called me Killion. You’ve had a break from reality.”
The whimpers and whines of a wounded animal filled the room. The sound came from her and no matter how hard she tried to shush herself—something deep inside had broken and wouldn’t be soothed.
He raised the syringe over his head and slammed it down with all the force of a large hunting knife, stabbing her in the thigh. She watched as the clear fluid emptied into her body.
“I think it’s time we stepped up your treatment. ECT should help. I’ll plug you in a couple times. See how you behave towards me then.”
A wave crashed over her, but it wasn’t a wave, it was her body. No, it wasn’t her body moving, it was the drug hitting her system, pounding its way to her mind. The world went gray. She fought to stay on the surface, to not let the sedative pull her under, but the world went dark and she drowned under the drug’s effect.
What does it say about us that our primary sources of entertainment are shows and movies that glamourize violence, rape, and murder?
~Ellis Worth, M.D, Journal of Human and Philosophical Studies
Three days later…
The moon beamed pearlescent rays across the sky. But none of the beauty touched the expansive lawn around The Center. The grounds were tarnished with a hopelessness that could never be polished away. How could anyone get better when the environment itself sucked at your soul?
Cain hated the place. Had hated it from that first night his father brought him to work on the night shift. Cain had been just five years old and forced to split the duties—emptying the garbage, mopping floors, cleaning toilets, scrubbing vomit and feces off the walls on Ward A. By far not the worst of his childhood memories.
From the dense woods surrounding the building a coyote yipped and howled, the sound a wild combination of mournful exuberance.
He pulled his cell from his pocket and hit the screen. 3:35 a.m. Liz was five minutes late. That didn’t bode well for Liz or him or Mercy. Or their clandestine meeting.
He had only two questions for Mercy. Did she remember drawing the symbol on the wall all those years ago? And what did it mean to her? Since Dr. God Complex refused to let Mac meet with her because it might jeopardize her treatment, Cain decided to use the back door—literally, he stood at The Institute’s back door—to get answers. There had to be a goddamned reason a picture of him—in blood—was signed with the same symbol Mercy had drawn as she was bleeding out from the wound caused by his father. He just needed to figure out that reason.
His neck itched and his body twitched. He shifted from one foot to the other, unable to stand still. Christ. He felt like an ADHD kid hopped up on sugar, trying to rein in a surplus of energy. Only it wasn’t energy pumping through him. It was anger. Rage. Fury. That’s what this place did to him. Made him into the sullen boy he’d once been who dreamed of wrath and revenge.
“Mercy.” He whispered her name to the moon and some of the anger evaporated. “Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.” He used the word as a mantra, reveling in the taste of those vowels and consonants inside his mouth. Just saying her name calmed him.
From inside the building, a rusty bolt scraped and banged, loud as a cherry bomb. The door swung inward, the squeal of old hinges shrieking through the night. In the woods, the coyote howled as if claiming its territory against the odd sounding intruder.
Liz backed out the door, pulling a wheelchair. Twenty-five years ago, when he’d first met her here at The Institute she’d looked like a mom—a smile on her face, encouraging words on her lips, and a stout don’t-break-the-rules attitude. Now she looked the grandma version with her gray hair and pleasant plumpness.
“Getting her out here was easier than I expected.” Liz didn’t exactly whisper, but didn’t speak at normal volume. “Ward A doesn’t have cameras since everyone is locked down. Thank the angels the night shift are notorious slackers—we didn’t run into anyone.” Liz turned the wheelchair to face him.
The woman in the chair slumped in the corner of the seat, head hanging as if it were too heavy to lift. Her hair dangled in limp, stringy hanks that reminded him of blond worms.
“This isn’t my Mercy.” Shit. The my had just slipped out. He didn’t look at Liz—didn’t want confirmation that she’d heard the slip.
His Mercy had always been strong. Even at ten years old, throat wrapped in a fat wad of bandages, she’d seemed oddly poised and imperturbable during all the media interviews. She had survived something worse than what he had endured and yet retained her strength. She’d inspired him, intrigued him and tied herself to him without ever knowing.
And she’d always been pretty. All strawberry blond hair and turquoise eyes and features that he’d just wanted to stare at because it made him feel all warm and nice on the inside. He’d never gotten close enough to smell her, but he imagined her scent to be a cross between fresh baked cookies and sunshine—not body odor and vomit like this woman.
“It is her. See what he’s done to her?” Liz’s voice snapped like a whip.
“Who?” Cain asked the question to Liz, but his gaze remained locked on Mercy. She hadn’t moved, hadn’t spoken, didn’t even seem alive.
“Dr. Payne. He’s had a sick fascination with her from the first. Probably because she was the only person on Ward B who didn’t deserve to be there. He’s been pretty harmless until three days ago, when he moved her to Ward A.”
“Why the fuck is she even here if she’s not—?” He’d assumed her past—what his father had done to her and her family—had finally caught up with her. He knelt in front of her wheelchair.
“Don’t you curse at me boy.” Liz’s tone was all angry mom, making him feel like a bad kid. “Her official record says Undifferentiated Schizophrenia and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But I’ve seen psychotic—she’s not psychotic and never has been.”
He’d never spoken to Mercy before, never been this close to her, never dared to. He’d been a wuss—too damned scared of her reaction to approach her. She had every right to hate him. It was his father that killed her entire family, his father that slit her throat, and his father’s blood that ran in his veins.
He touched her hair, feeling the damp stickiness of it on his fingers, and smoothed it back over her shoulder. Moonlight gave him more than enough illumination to see. Mercy’s eyes were half open and half rolled up in her head. A dark shadow marred the side of her face, spreading up and around her eye. His insides went arctic. “Who hit her?” The words exploded, loud and angry and conspicuous into the night. All the rage he’d suppressed came surging back into his body, tensing his muscles, and nestling in his bones.
“Dr. Payne claims she was hallucinating and thought he was Killion.”
Cain flinched as violently as if Liz had struck him. It was a reflex he couldn’t subdue even after all these years. Hearing his father’s name still had that effect on him.
“I don’t buy it. The good doctor claims he was in the process of subduing her when she fell and hit her face. And her ribs. Seems bit odd to me that the bruise where he injected her with the sedative is the exact size of man’s fist around the needle mark.”
Cain sucked in a slow breath, to calm the anger revving through his muscles. He felt like yelling at Liz for everything that had been done to Mercy, but the rational part of him knew it wasn’t her fault. He metered and measured his voice to force it to sound calm. “You reported him, right?”
“There’s no point. It’s his word against who? Mercy’s? My speculation?” Liz’s tone contained the anger that Cain had been trying to control. She was as pissed off about this as he was.
“Dr. Payne claims she’s been unresponsive to meds so now he’s shocked her twice in two days and still has her on enough meds to sedate an angry, bull elephant. But you won’t find any of that on her official record. If it ain’t recorded, it didn’t happen.” Liz’s lips pinched so tight the tiny wrinkles around them turned into chasms. “At this stage the damage isn’t permanent. Only short term memory loss. But the longer she’s with him…I’m not risking my job so you can talk to her—she’s unable to talk. I’m risking it so you can save her life. You have to take her away from here before he destroys her.”
Liz’s words fell into his brain one by one, each lining up until the meaning finally hit him. He jerked back from Mercy and stood. “No way. You know I can’t.”
“I just wanted to ask her a question. Maybe two. That’s all. I can’t take her. Be responsible for her.” He was going to hit Liz with his best shot. “She wouldn’t want me to take her. I look too much like him.” Cain backed a few steps away from Liz and Mercy.
“Cain—” Liz had that take-no-attitude tone. “—if you don’t take her, Dr. Payne is either going to turn her into a vegetable or kill her. Do you want her emotional or physical death on your hands? Because it will be if you walk away.”
His heart jerked. Liz’s words were a bulls-eye straight through everything he feared most—being responsible for someone’s death. And Liz fucking knew it. In that moment, for the first time in his life—he hated her a little for using his fear against him. “I never thought you would stoop so damned low.”
She gave the wheelchair a shove toward him. “I can tolerate your anger, even your hatred, but I can’t endure sitting back and watching Dr. Payne kill her a little more each day. If I take her, they’ll just find her and put her back in here. Her best chance is with you. No one would ever think to look for her with you.”
Cain opened his mouth to say something, to argue the point, but his brain went devoid of thought. Liz slowly turned and walked back into The Institute. She shut and locked the door behind her. Only when she was gone did Cain find the words.
“Holy fucking Christ!”
He was going to kidnap Mercy Ledger.