The noise was constant, nearly rhythmic, little droplets falling and falling and . . .
Zoe’s eyes flew open.
She blinked in the semidarkness.
What the hell was that noise and . . . Oh, Jesus, where was she?
She squinted, straining to see in the semidark. Dear God, was she naked and lying on some kind of cold, hard slab? No, that couldn’t be right. Her head pounded as she tried to think, to figure out if this was real or all part of some macabre dream, or worse yet, a prank.
She and Chloe were about to turn twenty-one, and with the help of fake IDs they had gotten, the party started long before midnight, downing drink after drink, laughing, talking, drinking some more. In a sharp-edged swirl of memories she recalled the neon lights and noise of Bourbon Street, the drinks, everything from Hurricanes in their special glasses to margaritas in oversized plastic cups and Jell-O shooters and . . . Her stomach roiled at the thought of what she’d downed; all to prove she was becoming a legal card-carrying, alcohol-swilling adult. Her head felt as if it were in a vise, the handle of which was being twisted by some he-man.
At least she was no longer reeling. She did remember that, how the world had spun in wild, crazy colors before . . . before . . . what?
Had someone laced one of the two-for-one shots? Given her something to make her lose focus? Had one of their “friends” pranked her and hauled her here to strip her and leave her on the cold stone floor or whatever it was she was lying atop? And what about Chloe? Where the hell was her twin sister?
For the life of her, she couldn’t pull the last few hours into sharp focus.
But here she was.
In the darkness.
Her arms pinned behind her.
Lying in some dark room where the dank, earthy smell was overpowering, as if she were buried alive. Her bed was a cold, hard patch of concrete. She twisted a bit and something rough dug into her throat, cutting into her skin.
What the hell?
With effort, she tried to pull her arm up to loosen the tension, but even the tiniest movement made the binding around her neck cut deeper. A noose? For the love of God, what the hell had happened?
In an instant all the fuzziness fell away.
She was in trouble. Big trouble.
If this was a prank, it was a sick one. A dangerous one. If not . . . she shuddered at the thought. Struggling, she attempted to move, but discovered that her hands were bound behind her, tethered by the same scratchy cords surrounding her neck.
Shit! Cold to the bone and shivering, she tried to move, then stopped as a searing pain scorched a ring around her neck. When she nudged a shoulder up toward the throbbing wound, it caused a brutal, cutting tug on her ankles. She realized her hands were bound to her ankles.
Hogtied and naked. That’s what she was.
What the hell?
“Happy birthday to yooouu.”
She nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard the whispered words, a lifeless, growling monotone. But sung, not spoken. “Happy birthday to yooouu.”
This had to be a dream. Right? A nightmare. She swung her head around and saw him, a big bull of a man at some kind of workbench, bare-ass naked except for a black bib apron. Hairy arms, a hairy butt and legs. The back of his thick neck glowed dimly from one of those battery-powered dome lights used in attics, closets, and basements that didn’t have power or sunlight. Just beyond the bench, a clock ticked loudly on the wall.
From the dank smell, she suspected she was underground, that this man who looked like an NFL lineman had captured her, though she couldn’t remember her abduction. She tried to move, but her restraints held her fast to some kind of ring cemented into the floor. Blinking again, her mind clearing from the shot of adrenaline suddenly singing through her blood, she focused on one of the walls. Again, cement. With dark stains running down it. Water she hoped. Mixed with rust.
Please don’t let it be blood.
She wanted to scream, but bit any sound back. Instinctively she knew it would be best to let him think she was still passed out, still stuck in a fetal position, as he worked. Jesus-God, what was he doing? Cutting lengths of red ribbon, measuring them over and over again, and then snipping them. The sound of his god-awful singing and something else—some other noise—caused her skin to crawl.
The soft, frightened cries were slightly muffled, as if whatever was issuing them was trying to hold back the sobs.
Some other person.
So Zoe wasn’t alone. He’d captured another prisoner.
Her heart dissolved.
Chloe. Her twin sister. In a flash, Zoe recognized Chloe’s voice, the choked sobs she’d heard as a child whenever Chloe was scared or being punished or whatever. Chloe had always been the weaker of the two Denning girls, the more sensitive. It had been Chloe who had held funerals for their pets, or run upstairs, footsteps banging on the wooden steps, when their parents fought. Chloe had stayed on her knees for hours, eyes shut, hands folded, as she’d prayed that the discord in the family would be quieted by the Holy Father and that their ever-quarreling parents would stay married. “You should try it sometime,” she’d told her minutes-older sibling. “A little prayer can solve a big problem.”
Or not. Mom and Dad had gotten divorced, and Mom was still not over it.
Zoe only hoped that Chloe was praying now, that her presumed connection to the Lord God Almighty would garner them both some quick salvation because, as her mind cleared, Zoe realized the situation was more dire than she’d wanted to believe. No college prank. No mistake. Somehow, some way, this huge sicko had been able to subdue and abduct them both.
For a second she thought she remembered it happening. In a kaleidoscope of jagged images, she recalled fragments of her abduction.
A voice behind her, whispering her name over the din of the crowd. “It’s your sister,” he’d said, his words cutting through the noise of pedestrians. “She’s hurt.”
“What?” Zoe had turned toward him, then searched the crowd. Where the hell was Chloe? Her twin had been right beside her . . . hadn’t she? Then she’d felt a sharp prickle of pain, like a wasp’s sting at first, then more intense as a needle had been plunged into her neck. In a quicksilver second she’d panicked, searched the faces of people teeming on the street, hoping to see Chloe or a cop or anyone who might think she was more than someone who’d had too much to drink. She’d stumbled and started to fall and tried to scream, but only a whimper had left her lips. On her way down, someone had caught her. The lights of New Orleans swirling, the cacophony on the street fading, she’d heard “happy birthday” whispered into her ear before she’d passed out.
Sweet Jesus, it had been this freak who had captured Chloe and her, and somehow brought them here, wherever the hell it was. Chloe’s sobs were louder now.
He quit singing, glanced pointedly at the clock. “Shut the fuck up,” he said, his voice gravelly as he shouted away from Zoe, toward the opposite corner of the darkened room.
The sobs stopped for a second. “Let me go,” Chloe begged, her voice trembling. Zoe’s heart nearly stopped. Don’t, she thought desperately. Oh, Chloe, don’t get him mad.
Chloe didn’t get the mental message.
“I . . . I don’t know what you want or who you are, but please just let us go.”
“I said, ‘Shut the fuck up.’” This time the words were said harshly and tightly, as if his lips were clamped in rage.
Oh, God, this was no good. No good!
“For the love of Christ!” He yanked something off the table where he worked. Zzzzt! Then a jangle. “I don’t have time for this!”
Quickly he raised one hand, his shadow looming against the far wall. A snake seemed to curl and writhe from his fist as he gave it a shake.
Chloe screeched in fear.
A belt, Zoe realized.
He cracked his wrist and the leather sizzled through the air.
Chloe shrieked and Zoe had to bite back her own scream.
Stop it, Chloe. Don’t piss him off! Use your head!
“I mean it!” he roared, and snapped the belt loudly again, close, it seemed, to the spot where Chloe was most likely tethered against the far wall. Though it was too dark to see into the corners, Zoe guessed her twin was also tied up.
It was all Zoe could do not to say a word, not to betray the fact that she’d come to and her mind was clearing. She wanted to shout out to Chloe, to warn her, to comfort her, but Zoe bit her tongue. Instinctively she knew it was best to stay silent, to lull the freak into believing she was still sedated and unconscious, not a threat. Let him focus on his work, whatever the hell it was, until Zoe could come up with a plan, some way to get them out of this horrific situation.
Barely making a sound, she once again tried her bonds and was rewarded with a deeper cut into the flesh of her throat.
Again, Chloe pleaded, but her cries only incited him further. The man was a psycho. Well, duh. Only a true whack job would abduct twins off the street, drug them, and torture them. And his quick-triggered temper indicated he was volatile. Dangerous. Tied as she was, Zoe had only one weapon: her wits.
Once Chloe was subdued, the near-naked bastard resumed his off-key singing. Never had the birthday song sounded more like a funeral dirge. And that was, no doubt, his intent. She was certain of that one heart-stopping fact. Gone was any thought of a prank gone wrong.
“Happy birthday, dear twinsies,” he crooned in his horrid scratchy voice, still concentrating on his work and not sending a single glance her way.
“Happy birthday to yooooou.”
Her stomach convulsed. Vomit rose in her mouth, but she fought the urge to spew.
And then he started over, repeating the verse, like a broken, ominous record. She hated to think what would happen when he stopped. Because she knew. As certainly as she knew this day was her twenty-first birthday. He was going to kill her. And kill her sister. This sicko was just waiting for the right moment.
No effing way.
“Do you know what time it is?” Olivia’s voice called softly from the bedroom, and Rick Bentz, seated at his desk where he’d been for the past two hours, glanced at his watch. “It’s after midnight,” she said groggily, and he imagined her in the bed, wild curls splayed on the pillow, her eyes at half-mast. “Come to bed, honey.”
Bentz’s jaw tightened. She was right. The digital display on the face of his watch read 12:14 in the damned morning. And he’d like nothing more than to strip off his clothes and the worries of the day to settle into bed with her. The baby, Ginny, eight months old, was asleep while their aging dog, Hairy S, was curled up and snoring softly. Even the damned parrot wasn’t making a peep.
Too bad. He couldn’t shut it down for the night. Not yet.
Streaming live from his computer was a radio program with Dr. Samantha Wheeler, who took calls from lonely hearts. Their voices were a soft drone of conversation. Dr. Sam, as she called herself, gave out psychological advice over the airwaves late at night on her show, Midnight Confessions.
Bentz was listening in.
So far it seemed as if all of tonight’s callers were legit: lonely or confused people seeking advice. It hadn’t always been so. Years ago, before she’d married Ty Wheeler, Dr. Sam had attracted the attention of a sadistic serial killer, a man who was sick enough to dress in priest’s robes, pretend to be a man of God, and then with horrifying determination went about his grisly business. She’d been his ultimate target and had barely escaped with her life.
Bentz retrieved a bottle of beer from the six-pack he’d picked up at a convenience store on his way home from work. Hesitating only slightly, he cracked the longneck open and pushed aside all thoughts of days, weeks, and years of sobriety as he twisted off the top and caught a glimpse of the other five bottles tucked inside the cardboard container at his feet.
He wasn’t tired.
“Rick?” Olivia called again, this time sounding a little more awake.
In the darkness, the only illumination in the house came from his computer screen. He stared at the frozen frame of the video link as Dr. Sam’s calm voice ran a soothing counterpoint to the image of a gray prison cell. “Be there in a sec,” he said, turning his head so that his voice would carry into the general direction of the bedroom before he took a long, calming swallow. A balm, the cold beer slid down his throat easily.
Then he turned back to the monitor and clicked on the Play arrow once more, putting the video from the prison security camera in motion for the umpteenth time. This time, maybe he’d see something important. A clue. God, he hoped so. In the days since the prison homicide, he’d been steeped in fury and disbelief. It just couldn’t be.
“You can’t force him to love you,” Dr. Sam was saying in her melodic voice. “But you can love yourself,” she advised. The same psychobabble BS she’d peddled for years.
“But he promised me,” replied the woman, a girl in her teens, Bentz guessed. “Nathan promised me we would be together forever and then . . . and then”—she sniffed loudly—“I saw a picture of him with Rachel. I mean, it was all over Instagram and everyone texted me and were, like, dude, what’s going on with Nathan?”
“I know, but you can’t control Nathan,” Dr. Sam advised. “You can only control yourself.”
Bentz listened with half an ear. He didn’t really care about the caller’s boyfriend problems, but he did want to listen to all of the people who phoned the radio show. Even though the producer of Midnight Confessions had assured him that the calls were being screened and recorded, you couldn’t trust that crew to weed out a psycho.
This psycho. Bentz had watched the damned video from Department of Corrections so many times, he might as well have it on a loop.
The familiar image showed a prison cell. A female prisoner sat on the edge of her cot as a priest stepped inside the cell, the shadow of the bars striping his cassock. The prisoner looked up expectantly, ready to give her confession to the priest, whose back was to the camera. As he stepped closer, she bent her head in prayer, probably hoping for absolution or some other damned thing. The priest appeared to say something softly to the confessor and then in one quick, sure movement, he reached down as if to bless her, but quickly, expertly snapped her neck.
She slumped quickly and Bentz noted that the priest didn’t use his trademark sharpened rosary beads to kill her. This time his actions were on camera; his image might be splashed on a monitor in the prison’s security hub, and he probably couldn’t risk his slower signature kill. The guards would have been upon him before he could finish. Instead of strangling the life out of her with a rosary constructed of piano wire and sharpened glass beads, he broke her neck, then left the rosary dangling between her fingers, the blood red beads sparkling as he glanced up at the camera he obviously knew was mounted near the cell door. Smiling triumphantly, he revealed himself.
Bentz’s stomach turned.
The sick son of a bitch actually grinned into the camera’s eye before disappearing from the cell.
Bentz’s jaw hardened.
Father John was back.