Edge of Darkness

Excerpt

PROLOGUE

Cincinnati, Ohio
Friday, December 18, 11:15 p.m.

Andy’s body jerked and his eyes flew open. His own shiver had woken him up. Cold. He was so damn cold. So move, dammit. Get your blood—

His memory returned and, with it, a mind- blowing panic.

He couldn’t move. He was tied up. Someone had tied him up and left him here. Wherever here was.

Scream, dammit. Scream for help. He drew a deep breath into his lungs that burned like fire, and his body shook in a fit of hoarse coughing.

No, he remembered. Don’t scream. His head still throbbed from the last time. He’d woken once before and screamed. How long ago? It had been dark then. It was dark now.

The man had come when he’d screamed. Dressed in black. Of course. Didn’t the bad guys always dress in black?

Because this was a bad guy. Andy had screamed for help. For anyone. But Guy‑in‑Black had kicked him in the head so hard he’d seen stars. That had shut him up quick.

That wasn’t what had put him back to sleep, though. No. He fought to swallow because his fear was a living thing, filling his chest with ice, choking his throat. The man had brought a smelly rag with him and had covered Andy’s face with it. He’d tried not to breathe it in, but the man had aimed a hard punch to his gut, forcing him to gasp in a breath along with whatever was on the rag.

Just like in the alley.

Yes, yes. Andy remembered the alley now, the one behind Pies & Fries. He’d been on his break and had gone out for a smoke. Someone had been waiting. It had been dark already and Andy hadn’t seen the guy until he’d lit a match and even then he hadn’t seen a face. Or a body. The sudden flare from his match and the shadow at the edge of his peripheral vision were all he’d seen.

Who did this to me? Why? He didn’t have enemies. Not anymore. Not here, anyway.

He’d started over. He had.

And now he was going to die here. Wherever here is, he thought bitterly.

I’ll miss my final exams, and I had A’s. Even in English lit. He’d worked so damn hard for that A, too.

Which did not matter right now. None of that mattered right now.

I need to get out of here. Before he comes back. Whoever he is.

I need to get out of here. Need to find Linnie. Never told her that I love her. Need to tell her. Need to tell her that I didn’t mean it. Any of it. They’d had a fight. He’d said terrible things. She’d think he meant the things he’d said. That he’d run away. Like everyone else in her life. Like everyone in both their lives.

I made a mistake. It couldn’t have been her that he’d seen that day. With another man. She’d denied it so forcefully when he’d screamed his accusations. His rage. His hurt. She’d backed away, weeping, still denying. Then she’d fled. And I let her go.

And then, when his temper had calmed, he’d believed her. She wouldn’t do that. She couldn’t. I believe you. But he hadn’t told her. Not yet. Unless I get out of here, I never will.

He struggled against the ropes that bound him, wrists and ankles, but all it did was burn his flesh. He collapsed into a heap on the cold concrete, barely holding back the sob that threatened to rip him up from the inside out. It came out a whimper. A teeny little whimper.

Be a fucking man, dammit. Do something. Save yourself

But it was no use. I’m going to die here.

You can’t die here. You’ve come too far. Fought too damn hard.

For nothing. I’m going to die here
.

He was so cold. He could feel the icy concrete through his thin sweater and socks. They’d taken his parka and his shoes. Both were new, too. New to me, anyway. He’d bought them at the thrift store just last week. He’d paid his spring tuition and had just enough left over to buy some winter clothes. Because nothing from the year before fit anymore.

Because I finally grew. He’d waited for years to be big enough to fight back. Finally he was. And some asshole shoves a smelly rag in my face and I’m down for the fucking count.

Who? Who could do this? Who the fuck would want to? It wasn’t robbery. After he’d bought the parka and shoes at the thrift store, he’d only had twenty bucks in his pocket— and those were his tips from the dinner rush. Everything else— all one hundred forty- two dollars and six cents that he had left in the world— was in his checking account.

Nobody in his right mind would want to rob him, and the one person who hated his guts was in jail.

That sick bitch was in jail, wasn’t she? New panic layered over the old. The judge had sent her away for fifteen years. It had only been three.

Oh God. If she gets out, I’m dead. Andy began to pant, hyperventilating. The cops would have told him, right?

No, genius, because they don’t know where you are either. You ran away, remember? Changed your name. Didn’t leave a forwarding address.

The only people who knew where he was were Shane and Linnie. Linnie . . . she’d never want to see him again, he thought, closing his eyes. The things I said . . . I’m so sorry.

Shane would always come if Andy called. But Andy hadn’t called. Hadn’t returned any of Shane’s calls after they’d gone their separate ways. Because I wanted to start over.

Just like Shane had. Shane was never afraid.

A tear spilled from his eye and trickled down Andy’s face. I’m not going to live to see the morning.

Not if they kept him out here all night. He’d freeze to death.

Do something. Be a damn man. Find a way to cut these ropes before he comes back and makes you breathe from that smelly rag again.

Find a way to get free so you can find Linnie. So you can tell her.

There was nothing on the floor that he could use to get free. No metal with a sharp edge. No plastic, even. Not even one rock. Nothing.

It was just concrete with rough wooden walls. Someone had slapped some planks together to make a shack. There was no mortar or fiberglass or anything between the planks— nothing to keep out the cold. It was just going to get worse.

Andy went still when he heard the snap of a twig outside. Someone was coming.

Maybe it was help. Maybe they’ve come to take me home.

But then the door opened and his heart sank. It was the man again, still dressed in black. Without a word the man picked him up and slung him over his shoulder in a fireman’s hold.

Pain radiated through Andy’s head. The rest of his body was so cold it was numb. He saw the ground pass under his feet as the man carried him across a yard covered in the thin layer of snow that had fallen two days before. His body was jostled as the man opened a door and . . .

Oh my God. Warm. It was so warm. His feet were on fire with the worst pins and needles ever as the blood began to circulate. Another whimper escaped his throat.

“Put him down there,” a voice said quietly. Male. Older. So menacing that Andy shivered again.

New pain swept over him when the guy in black dumped him facedown on a sofa. An old sofa. Dusty.

A new voice cried out in distress, female and . . . familiar. Oh God. Familiar. “Why?” she asked, physical pain in the single syllable. “Why him? He had nothing to do with this.”

“Because I need him,” the man said. “Sit him up straight.”

Guy‑in‑Black yanked the collar of Andy’s thin sweater, pulling him into a sitting position. He was in an office with old, ratty furniture. In a garage? He could smell the oil.

Andy stared at his captor in the dim light provided by a single lamp.

He was . . . Nobody. Nobody Andy had ever seen before. Not old, exactly. But not young, either. Maybe forty or fifty? It was hard to tell in the semidarkness. He appeared tall and strong, the sleeves of his starched white shirt straining around his biceps.

He was nobody Andy knew and certainly nobody he’d dare cross.

But the woman . . . Oh God, Linnie. She knew who the man was. It was clear from the expression on her pale, pathetically thin face. Her swollen, bruised face.

“Linnie?” Andy rasped. This man was dangerous. And he had them both.

Maybe it’s a mistake. Maybe we’re both a mistake. He meant to take someone else.

But then Linnie shook her head. She wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry, Andy.”

Not a mistake, then. The man hadn’t meant to take someone else. Or at least he’d meant to take Linnie.

This must be him. Andy had seen them going into a motel room. He’d seen them . . . together. “Who are you?” Andy asked him, deflated and broken. “What do you want?”

“You, Mr. Gold. Specifically your services.”

“My services?” Andy repeated stupidly. “What services? I’m a waiter, for God’s sake. I’m majoring in English lit. You’ve got me confused with someone else.”

The man turned to Linnie. “He doesn’t know, does he,
Linnea?” he asked and Andy’s gut turned inside out with dread. Linnie knew why he’d been taken.

Linnie closed her eyes. “No,” she whispered. “He thinks you’re my lover.”

The man snorted a laugh. “Lover? As if. Tell him the truth.”

Linnie shook her head, shrinking back into the chair in which she sat, turning her face away. Her bruised and battered face.

Andy leaned forward, suddenly furious. But still tied. “You hit her? You hit her?”

“I slapped the shit out of her,” the man said with a mean smile. He backhanded her again, making her yelp in pain. Like a dog. “Tell him, Linnie,” he commanded mockingly.

“Linnie?” Andy’s shaking voice jumped an octave, his heart beating so hard it was all he could hear. “Tell me what? Who is this guy?”

“Tell him,” the man commanded. “He deserves to know why he’s here.”

Andy felt the bile climbing up his throat, burning. Dread now lay in his gut like rancid lard. “Linnie, please?”

“He’s my . . . pimp.” She spat the word out. Andy’s mouth fell open in shock, but he didn’t say a word. Her pimp? Linnie was a prostitute? No, it couldn’t be true. She’d have come to me if she needed money. She would have told me. Wouldn’t she?

He’d loved her for years. They were going to get married someday. Because he would have found the courage to tell her how he felt. Eventually. He would have.

I should have told her that I loved her. His eyes stung. Because he still did.

The man’s smile was pure evil. “And?” he coaxed silkily. “Who owns you, Linnea?”

A sob jerked from her chest. “You do.”

“Yes, I own you.” The man shoved her away like trash. “You’re mine. Don’t you ever forget it, bitch,” he snarled. “Close your mouth, Mr. Gold. It’s highly unattractive.”

Unattractive. The word hung between them, suspended on the air. Vibrating like a plucked string. Unattractive? Andy’s gulp was audible. “I’m not doing that,” he said desperately. “I’m not going to be attractive. I’m not going to sell myself.”

The man stared at him for a moment, then threw back his head and laughed. “You think I’m going to sell you? Oh, kid, that’s rich. You’re not gonna hook. You’re gonna kill.”

Andy shrank back into the sofa, horrified. “No. I won’t.”

“Yeah, you will.” The man pushed the hair away from Linnie’s eyes. It would have been a tender gesture had it not been accompanied by such contempt. “Because if you don’t, I’ll put a bullet in her head.” He tapped her forehead. “Right here.”

No. No. Just . . . no. Andy’s chest froze as a keening cry came from Linnie. “No,” she moaned. “Please. I’ll do it. Let me do it instead.”

The man backhanded her again. “Shut up!” he snarled. “He’ll do it.”

Andy’s lungs unlocked and he gasped in a breath that was too fast, too sharp. “You can’t do this. You can’t kill her. You just . . . you just can’t.”

The man’s smile curled at the corners, sending a chill down Andy’s spine. “Take her,” he said to the guy who’d tossed Andy over his shoulder like a sack of grain. “Show him what we are capable of doing.”

“No.” Linnie moaned the word. “Please no.”

The guy in black tossed Linnea over his shoulder just like he’d done to Andy and carried her from the room. A minute later Linnie began to scream. Horrible, horrible screams. He was hurting her. The guy in black was hurting her.

And there wasn’t anything Andy could do to stop him.

He closed his eyes, unable to look at the man’s grin of triumph. Her pimp. This man was her pimp. She’d promised she wouldn’t. She’d promised. They’d made a pact back in foster care, the three of them— him, Linnie, and Shane. They’d promised no matter how hard it got that they’d never sell their bodies. She’d promised.

She’d lied. And right now, Andy wasn’t sure which hurt more— the knowledge that she’d broken their pact or that she’d obviously been lost and desperate enough to do so. Or that she didn’t come to me for help first.

The man lit up a cigarette and took a long drag, exhaling in a thin stream of smoke. “So, Mr. Gold, what’s it to be? More of this? My associate can make her scream for a very long time. Or can I depend on you to save your friend’s life?”

Andy opened his eyes. Forced himself to look at the man who held their lives in his hands with such casual disregard. The man tilted his head, listening to Linnie’s screams.

“Well, Mr. Gold? Make up your mind. My patience is growing very thin.”

Andy gritted his teeth. “What do you want me to do?”


CHAPTER ONE
Cincinnati, Ohio
Saturday, December 19, 3:30 p.m.

“Are you sure this dress looks okay, Mer?”

Meredith Fallon sighed patiently as she turned to the younger woman walking beside her. “It looks amazing, Mallory. You look amazing. Very stylish. No one will think you’re any different than any other eighteen- year- old who’s just signed up for her classes.”

But there was far more to Mallory Martin, who’d actually left the safe house where she’d stayed for four months, healing— which was huge. She still had so much healing left to do. In the ten years that Meredith had been counseling children and adolescents, she’d encountered few clients more victimized than Mallory— and even fewer with her courage.

“Yeah, but they’re signing up for college. I’m just . . .” Mallory looked away. “Dammit.”

“You’re taking charge of your life. Have I told you how damn brave you are?”

“Twice. And that’s only today.” A small smile was followed by a self- conscious grimace. “I know I’m being stupid, fishing for compliments. I’m sorry.”

Meredith’s sigh wasn’t so patient this time. “What did we agree about that word?”

“‘Stupid’?” 

“Well, yes. But mostly ‘sorry.’ Strike them both from your vocabulary right now.”

Mallory drew a breath and gave a hard little nod. “Eliminated.”

“Good. Let’s walk faster. It’s not much further to the café, and my toes are freezing.”

They were going to celebrate. Mallory had signed up for adult education classes today. Her first step toward getting the high school education she’d been denied by the monster who’d held her captive for six long years.

“You should have worn warm boots,” Mallory said archly. “Without four- inch heels.”

Meredith glanced at her brand- new suede knee- high boots with a happy little grin because Mallory was lecturing her, a small thing, but so normal. The girl had become one of Meredith’s all- time favorite clients. “But these are prettier. And they were on sale.”

Mallory shook her head with affectionate exasperation, as if Meredith were a child. “At least you needed them. They can keep all the other suede boots with four- inch heels in your closet from getting lonely.”

Meredith’s smile dimmed. Not from the criticism, because (a) it was clear Mallory was teasing and (b) her friends had given her shit over her overflowing shoe closet for years.

It was because she had needed them. Not the boots necessarily, but she’d needed something. The boots were an early Christmas present to herself, because it didn’t look like she was going to get the one gift she really wanted. Back in the summer it had appeared that things might work out, that for the first time she’d have someone, other than her family, to snuggle with while watching the lights sparkle on her tree.

She’d been stupid to hope. The hours that she and Adam Kimble had spent together had been precious and few— and obviously not as important to him as they’d been to her. They’d been working the same case. The case had closed and he’d disappeared. Again.

Which took talent and forethought, because they shared a circle of friends. There had been many opportunities over the last four months for them to run into each other, purely by accident. But they hadn’t. Finally, she’d had to conclude that he was purposely avoiding her. And it hurt. A lot.

Except that he hadn’t avoided her entirely. She thought of the envelopes she’d found in her mailbox every few weeks. No name, no return address.

They’d been from Adam. No question. Pages torn from coloring books, the designs having been carefully filled in with crayon or colored pencils. Not a stray line on the page. Detective Adam Kimble was careful to stay inside the lines.

The early pictures were colored in shades of red, but as the weeks had passed, he’d added more colors. One of the recent pictures had been done with watercolor paint. She’d counted fifteen distinct colors. It hadn’t been too bad, actually, as art went. As messages went, his was clear: I’m working on it. I’m getting better. Don’t give up on me.

Or maybe it was just wishful thinking on her part.

“Meredith?” Mallory’s voice was timid. “I’m sorry. I was just trying to tease you.”

Meredith came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the sidewalk, realizing that Mallory had stopped in front of the café, was watching her seriously, and that they’d walked an entire city block in stony silence. Shame filled her in a rush, leaving a bitter taste in her mouth. This is supposed to be Mallory’s day, but I made it all about me.

Meredith forced herself to smile. “Oh, I know, honey,” she assured. “It wasn’t you or what you said. Sometimes I get caught up in my own head.”

“Good to know that it can even happen to you. Makes me feel better.”

Meredith’s lips curved. “Good to know that I can help even when I mess up.” She pointed to the café’s sign. “Let’s go in. I hope you like it. They have the best pasta in town.”

“Good, because I’m hungry. But I do have one question,” Mallory said gravely.

“Only one?” Meredith had to chuckle when the girl rolled her eyes. Again, so normal. Be thankful, Meredith. Don’t pine for what you can’t have. She couldn’t force Adam to want her and it was time she stopped mooning over him. “Shoot. What’s your question?”

“What happens when I get a license and start driving again?”

Meredith paused, her hand on the handle of the café door, puzzled. “Please?”

One side of Mallory’s mouth lifted in another teasing smirk. “Well, if I can’t say ‘stupid,’ how can I possibly drive? I mean, you said it at least three times when you were looking for a parking place. How do I drive without using that word? Or ‘bastard’? Or ‘fuuu—’ ” She drew the “f” sound out, her dark eyes dancing. “ ‘Fudge’?”

Meredith threw back her head and laughed. “You little stinker.”

Mallory grinned, clearly pleased with herself. “Maybe, but I made you smile. Really smile, I mean.”

Meredith swallowed hard. “Get inside before I turn to an ice cube.” She held the door open, her throat thick but now for a different reason. Mallory had made a joke. To cheer me up. That the young woman who’d been so cruelly abused had somehow managed to retain her ability to care . . . it left Meredith humbled and clearing her throat harshly.

Her voice was still raspy when she told the hostess, “Reservation is under ‘Fallon.’”

“Right this way.” The hostess, a young woman about Mallory’s age, led them to a table by the window. “The best place to people watch,” she said, seating them with a smile.

“And to wait for the fireworks where it’s warm and comfy,” Meredith said.

Mallory’s wide eyes lit up, but she waited for the hostess to leave before leaning in to whisper, “Fireworks? Where?”

“Out on Fountain Square,” Meredith told her. “We’ll have a nice meal, linger over our coffee, then go outside and see them from the street.”

“Is that why you picked this place?”

“Oh, no.” Meredith looked around the café fondly. “My gran and I came here after the Nutcracker ballet every year, just the two of us. Back then, the ballet was  at Music Hall and very fancy.” It had returned to Music Hall this year after a long building renovation, and Meredith had wanted to take the girls who lived at Mariposa House, but decided against it. Most of the girls would have panic attacks around that many people. Maybe next year.

“How fancy?” Mallory asked wistfully. “Long dresses? Gloves?”

“Not quite that fancy,” Meredith said with a smile. “But I’d be all dressed up in my Christmas dress with a big bow in my hair and Gran would wear her best Sunday suit. And pearls. Gran always wore pearls.”

“So do you,” Mallory said. “Your earrings. I’ve never seen you not wear them. Pearls”— she glanced at Meredith’s hands—“ and bangles.”

Meredith gave one of her earrings a fond stroke, because her wrist bangles were not up for discussion. “They were my gran’s. You’d have liked her. She was a real pistol.”

Mallory’s smile was amused. “A pearl- wearing pistol.”

“Yes, indeed. She carried a pistol, too. Gran was a pearl- wearing card shark who cursed like a sailor, packed heat in her enormous purse, and still managed to fool everyone into thinking she was just a sock- knitting granny.”

Mallory glanced up from her menu, brows lifted. “Don’t knock the sock knitters. I know lots of knitters now and they carry, too.”

Meredith snorted a laugh. Her newest friend, Kate, was an FBI agent, a sharpshooter, and a compulsive knitter. Kate was quickly winning knitting converts from their circle of friends. Now their monthly movie night included wine, chocolate, and yarn.

Meredith wasn’t a knitter, but she’d quietly carried a gun for years, either in the pocket of her blazer or snugged up into her bra holster. As a therapist to children and adolescents, she sometimes encountered family members who threatened her with violence. She regularly trained at the range, but thankfully she’d never had cause to use the weapon.

“I miss my gran,” Meredith said wistfully. “She was my rock after my folks died.”

Mallory tilted her head, curious. “When did she die? Your gran?”

“Three years ago,” Meredith told her, acutely aware that she’d never divulged personal information to Mallory before. I need to transition Mallory to another therapist. Soon. The thought hurt. But it should have been done already. They’d grown too close over the last few months. “She had a heart attack. But it was fast, at least. She didn’t suffer. But it was a shock, even though she was in her eighties. I wasn’t ready to let her go.”

Mallory’s lips drooped. “I wouldn’t have been, either. What about your parents?”

Meredith drew a breath, because their deaths hadn’t been quick or painless. And because the anniversary of their deaths was looming over her. Another reason for her recent retail therapy. “Plane crash,” she said quietly. “Seven years ago.”

“Oh.” Mallory’s gaze was full of trepidation. “What about your grandfather?”

Thoughts of her grandfather made Meredith’s lips twitch and she saw Mallory relax in relief. “Oh, he’s still alive and quite the troublemaker. He retired to Florida. Has a place on the beach and he fishes every day. He says he catches fish every day, but I’m pretty sure he lies. You might get to meet him. He’ll be here for Christmas.” He never let her spend Christmas alone. “Now, let’s check out the menu. I’m going to indulge.” She went straight to the desserts. “Otherwise, running every morning makes no sense whatsoever.”

She was trying to decide which chocolate dessert would be her reward, when she heard Mallory’s sharp intake of breath. Looking up, Meredith’s breath did the same.

A young man stood between their table and the window. Pale and terrified, he was shaking like a leaf. Her first instinct was to run and she’d learned not to ignore her instincts. She didn’t run, but set the menu down, forcing her lips to curve as she rose. She slipped her hands into her blazer pocket casually, releasing the snap on her holster. “Can I help you?”

The man swallowed hard. “I’m so sorry.” Then he 
reached into his pocket and pulled out a gun. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

And then he pointed the gun at her.