Crusty armpit stains. That was the reason why I’d missed date nights with my sofa and coffee. After three months of running my editor’s shirts to the dry cleaners with his nasal whine echoing in my skull, “Make sure they use extra starch,” I’d had enough. Tonight, my life would change.
A blast of late autumn wind rattled through the pine forest bordering Glenwood Park. My impromptu hiding spot, a bush, provided dismal shelter against the elements. Exhaling a puff of breath at the cloud-covered sky, I fished out my phone. No need for night vision—the dilapidated streetlamp gave off a sufficient amount of light. Giddiness bubbled through my freezing bones. To ease the stiffness creeping into my limbs, I wiggled my toes, triggering a horrid case of charley horses burning through my calves. Shivering rewarded me with a branch poking the back of my head. Afraid of being ratted out by the bush, I didn’t dare tug my ponytail free.
To distract myself, I panned left and took a practice shot of the biohazard sign warning that Silver Lake was off limits, then I brought the empty bench overlooking the contaminated lake into focus. Perfect. My location gave me a balcony view for the shitshow about to commence. All I needed was for everyone to show up before I froze to death.
Right on time, two men hustled down to the lake. One I recognized as the mayor’s bodyguard. Crouching, he checked underneath the bench with a flashlight.
“Check up top,” he said.
Grumbling, the other man trudged up the hill. Each of his stumbles brought him closer and sent my heart slamming against my ribcage. When his gaze traveled to the bush, his brows pinched.
Adrenaline shot through my body, urging my tense limbs into a giddy-up and go. Not tonight. Gritting my teeth, I remained still.
With the approach of heavy footfalls against the jogging path, the man’s attention snapped from the bush to his partner, who was signaling for him to return.
After the men dashed away, I let out my breath. I’d have been lying if I didn’t admit to finding the danger invigorating. Writing obituaries lacked the whole pulse-pounding, undercover reporter, breaking news vibes.
A different group of shady meatheads walked over to the bench. After a few mumbles and a half-assed survey, the group parted, revealing the CEO of Safe Waters—the city’s water treatment facility. Tim McKay loved flashing his green credentials. However, his hired goons had taken it to a new level.
I cringed in remembrance of our interview. How his halitosis had tickled my earlobe as he leaned over me, sneaking a peek down my shirt. Ugh. I shook the memory from my head, focusing on the creep.
Setting his briefcase on the bench, McKay pursed his lips. A phone chirped and he shifted his weight to dig it out of his coat. The screen’s glow illuminated his plump face, reddened from the chill. Rolling his shoulders, he straightened up.
The two men from earlier escorted the mayor, muttering under his breath, over to McKay. As the bodyguards shifted to let him through, Mayor Brown transformed into a politician with a fake smile and puffed-out chest. With a confident swagger, he approached McKay.
“Sorry,” Mayor Brown said. “I got tied up.”
Flashing the mayor a tight-lipped smile, McKay gestured to the bench. The two men could’ve been twins, right down to the matching comb-overs and trench coats. I poised my numb finger, waiting. McKay handed over his briefcase while Mayor Brown pulled a manila envelope from his coat.
With the press of my finger, I landed the story no reporter had dared to investigate for fear of incurring the mayor’s wrath. After all, his brother owned the city’s newspaper. So much as an inkblot against the mayor’s squeaky-clean image and a reporter could kiss their career goodbye.
“How much longer?” The mayor unclasped the briefcase.
My interest piqued, I snapped another photo.
“Not much,” McKay answered, scanning the contents of the envelope.
Nodding, Mayor Brown closed the case. “Good.”
The men stood. After a firm handshake, they sauntered off in opposite directions with their bodyguards in tow.
Rubbing my hands together to move heat and blood back into the prickling digits, I forced myself to stay put. As minutes passed, the chattering of my teeth drowned out the soft lapping of waves and the rustling of leaves.
So far, the bodyguards had stayed out of sight and hearing. When I dragged in a satisfying breath, a rich aroma flooded my nose. Cologne was my first thought. A deeper inhale nixed that idea. The mystery scent wasn’t one of those drugstore deodorant sprays that men doused themselves with daily. No, it was something raw from nature and it smelled damn good.
Patting my windbreaker pocket, I hit on the cold metal of my pepper spray. An overreaction by far, yet a comforting one. Glenwood, New York, barely made city status with its population statistics. Most of our law-abiding citizens were snug in their beds watching sitcom reruns by nine, not waiting in the park shadows to grab me.
As I took another sniff, the musky lake odor jumped to my nostrils. The familiar stench marked the final all-clear to get moving. Groaning through my stiffness, I stood. No amount of frostbite would’ve kept me down. I got the bastards. Mayor Brown and McKay were covering up something at Safe Waters. Every fiber of my being believed it was the water contamination.
While blood flowed back through my legs, I sent the photos to my email. When the satisfying ping of a received message echoed through the deserted park, I stuffed my phone inside the windbreaker’s pocket and attempted a half-assed stretch before taking off.
Frigid air scraped my cheeks and stung my lungs as I crested the park’s tallest hill in record time. Overhead, the half-moon sent a silver glow across the frosted landscape. With the lengthening of my stride, I fought the impulse to stop and appreciate the scenery. The overpass tunnel came into view. Home stretch. Excitement propelled me into a full-out sprint. Nothing could have pulled the smile off my face except a patch of black ice.
In a series of violent somersaults, I plunged down the hill. My attempts to stop rewarded me with loose gravel embedded into my palms. To salvage the remaining layers of my flesh, I shifted onto my side. My hip smacked against the blacktop, grinding me to a halt inside the overpass tunnel.
As pain hammered my body, I shoved my bruised ego to the side and struggled to move. While my sharp inhales and ragged exhales bounced off the walls, an airy rhythmic sound filtered into the pitch-black tunnel.
As I struggled to my hands and knees, an intense burn shot through my palms. With my groans and movements, the panting ceased.
Sweat trickled down my temples while I waited for the prankster to reveal himself. Since the high school stadium was a block away, I had seconds before a juvenile delinquent jumped out at me. “Go ahead. Pick on the klutz. Hope you recorded it,” I muttered.
The panting continued. Louder. Faster.
“Quit it,” I said.
A rapid clicking joined the panting.
I strained my eyes against the darkness. A huge mass charged me. Unable to move fast enough, I hunched over, bracing for impact. Avoiding a head-on collision, the ball of yellow fur adjusted its course, darting around me. Behind its tucked tail, a chain leash bounced and skipped along the blacktop.
“Bad dog,” I whispered through my clenched jaw. When I slumped backward to sit, my palm landed on a sneaker. A wiggling of my toes confirmed both my sneakers were snug on my feet. “Hello?” I asked.
Silence answered me. I tugged experimentally at the shoe attached to a foot. No movement or protest. Stretching my fingers to grasp around a pant leg, I gave it a sharp tug, and with minimal resistance, I pulled a severed leg over my lap.
Shoving the limb off my thighs, I scrambled backward. Pain erupted from my right ankle, which gave out. Once more, I crashed onto my hip. Instead of a gravel landing, something solid and squishy broke my fall. I righted myself as a warm liquid soaked through my running tights. A brush of my fingertips across a sticky mess of jagged bone and denim sent a scream crawling up my throat.
Terror froze me to the spot as my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. Lumpy shapes littered the tunnel. My attention locked onto the shredded remains of a varsity jacket.
It took three tries to shove my blood-soaked hand inside my windbreaker. Relief raced through me as I touched my pepper spray. Clenching the metal cylinder to my chest, I dug back in for my phone.
“That was quite a fall,” a masculine voice said.
I dragged my attention away from the body parts and up to a looming shadow which blocked the tunnel exit. The moon kindly made an appearance, outlining the stranger’s tall frame.
Unable to move or think, I sat there blankly gaping at the man—who was wearing a freaking three-piece suit—until a breeze rushed past my face, carrying the rich scent that I’d wanted to snuggle with minutes ago.
“I hit my head.” I nodded to myself. “This is a dream.”
“I assure you”—his voice curled around me—“you are not dreaming.”
“Really? What kind of guy wears a damn suit to go strolling in the park?”
He cocked his head. Confusion drew his brows tight. “I am not a guy.”
“I’m dreaming,” I whispered. Still, the blood soaking into my clothes and the pain throbbing through my bones yelled otherwise. Using the wall as support, I eased upward. When I added pressure to my right ankle, I gasped.
He took a step toward me.
I scrambled to aim my pepper spray at the stranger.
“Skittish?” His dark laughter sent goosebumps screaming across my body.
“Don’t move,” I warned.
He ceased his laughter, but a smile parted his lips. “You want me to move.”
Blood rushed to my ears, and my head spun at his words. Some minuscule part of me was happy to agree with the stranger. I aimed the pepper spray at his face. “I’ve called the cops.”
“I call your bluff. Remember, I saw you fall.” The smile slipped from his face. “Put that contraption away.”
Once more, his words assaulted me. The pepper spray took on the density of a twenty-pound dumbbell and I struggled to keep it leveled at the stranger’s face.
“Impressive”—his eyebrow arched—“yet foolish.”
“I’ll scream,” I gritted.
“No one will hear you.” He gestured at the severed leg. “No one heard him.”
I weighed my dismal escape options. The overkill suit showcased his physique—he clearly outmatched me in strength, and he stood at least half a foot taller. A fight for freedom? Nope. A turn-and-run was also out, thanks to my injuries. Which left me with smarts as my one-trick-pony for survival. Rubbing the pepper spray trigger with my thumb, I cleared my throat. “Are you going to attack me or—”
He cleared the ten feet in a blur. No time to process or move—he shoved my back against the wall, pinning me by my shoulders. Freeing my hand between our bodies, I fought to get the spray to his face. He easily snatched it from me and tossed it over his shoulder.
My gaze locked with his black, mirror-like eyes which held my terrified reflection captive. I became weightless. If it weren’t for the man shoved against the entire length of my body, I’d have thought that I had jumped headfirst off a cliff. My heart hammered against my ribs as I forced myself to look beyond my reflection and into the dark abyss of his eyes, sucking me under, pulling me into—
The touch of his chilled finger trailing down my cheek snapped me from the trance. I tried to squirm away.
“How are you fighting me?” He grabbed my hair, pulling my head to the side.
Gasping for breath, I locked onto the lifeless gaze of the teenager whose body was nearby. His expression was frozen in surprised terror. The killer hadn’t played with him.
I must be lucky.
My attacker’s deep inhale over my throat cut through my thoughts.
“What are you?” His lips brushed against my neck.
His needle-sharp teeth jabbed into my throat. Agony raked through every cell within my body as the frigid air surrounding me turned into an inferno. My ears popped with pressure. Energy swelled within me, prickling along my insides. In an explosion of light, it escaped my body and slammed into my attacker.
Unlatching from my neck, he shoved my back against the wall. “Who are you?” Blood speckled my face from his question. “Answer,” he ordered, digging his fingernails into my shoulders.
Taking advantage of his momentary lack of control, I bottled up my terror, then rammed my knee into his groin. He let go.
My palms and knees smacked against the blacktop. As I scrambled to the tunnel’s opening, he snagged my ankle and dragged me backward. When his other hand clamped onto my thigh, I twisted over, kicking with my free leg.
My foot slammed into his nose, sending his head upward with a crack. His grip tightened on my thigh, and I sent another kick to his throat. He released my leg to grab his windpipe.
I flopped to my stomach, crawling over the dead teen’s leg, then out of the tunnel.
The ice-slick hill greeted me. Shit. I’d ended on the wrong side of the tunnel, heading back to the lake and away from the city. If my attacker recovered, he could watch me slip and slide. Abandoning the path, I dove into the knee-high weeds bordering the forest. Clawing the frozen earth between my fingers, I waited for the pounding of feet through the underbrush.
Inch by painful inch, I crawled, panting into the dirt with the hopes that my breath wouldn’t act like a smoke signal to the psycho. Still, it coiled upward against my best attempts while dead weeds groaned with each of my movements, tangling in my hair and snagging on my clothing. When I paused for a quick survey of my progress, I regretted it.
Blood trickled down my throbbing neck, slipping underneath my jacket then pooling between my breasts. When I glanced at the wetness darkening my windbreaker, the metallic scent of my blood filled my nose.
“Stop,” my attacker said from behind me. “I will not hurt you.”
“The hell you won’t,” I snapped.
My attacker jabbed his index finger at the forest. “They most certainly will.”
At the edge of the tree line, moonlight reflected off clusters of glowing orbs. Eyes. At least four large animals dodged and wove through the weeds.
Either from a crazed biting man or a pack of rabid beasts, Death was coming for me. Dropping my cheek to the dirt, flattening myself as much as possible, I hoped the beasts would see the psycho above me as the easier target.
The man yanked on the back of my windbreaker, flipped me over and tossed himself on top of me. When his lips grazed my ear, I screamed.
He covered my mouth.
Running on instinct, I sank my teeth into the heel of his palm.
“You fool,” he growled.
Snagging his free hand through my hair, he held me firm to the ground. I glared at his chest while flailing my arms. He easily dodged my blows, giving my hair a tug for my efforts. My teeth shredded into his flesh, but he still shoved his palm against my mouth.
“Drink.” His revolting order brought on a panic-induced awareness to the shot glass worth of blood rolling around in my mouth. Smothering me with his hand, he forced me to swallow.
As his blood slid down my throat, an electric current surged through me. In the same instant, the psycho tensed, hissing through his teeth.
Shifting his pale face an inch from mine, he entrapped me with his soulless eyes. “Do not move. Be silent.” He tore his hand from my mouth.
I tried to lift my arm, my leg… Nothing worked. My throat fought to produce a scream, but only air escaped. Breathing became labored. With each breath, an invisible chain tightened around my chest.
After a nod at my pathetic escape attempts, he moved off me.
Ear-splitting animalistic noises surrounded me, drowning out the thundering of my heart. Frozen in place, helpless, I stared at the cloud-covered sky. The ground vibrated against my spine from the impact of something large landing next to me. Trying to distract myself from the thing creeping its way over to me, I recited the different types of clouds.
Hot breath fanned my fingertips.
Grass exploded upward and the screaming beast was hurled across the sky. My fingers numbed from the absence of its breath.
Tears blurred my unblinking eyes, while above me, a small shape pirouetted on the wind. It landed on my cheek, soft and wet.
“I killed one.” The psycho paced back and forth, no longer attempting to be quiet. “The rest scattered.”
Another wet clump landed on my lip. More tears fell. Minutes ago, he was all about tearing out my jugular. Now, the asshole was making me wait so he could take a call.
“We have a problem. They made a kill,” he grumbled while leaning over me. Tilting his head, he paused. “Understood.” My attacker held no phone. He was freaking talking to himself. “I will return before dawn.”
As blood trickled down my neck, a sick satisfaction came to mind—if he waited any longer, I’d bleed to death on my own.
“You’re a mess,” he said to me, not his imaginary friend. Crouching beside me, he plucked the fur off my cheeks and lips.
You’re a psycho.
“What am I to do with you?”
Let me go. Call 911. Order me a pizza.
“You have placed me in quite a predicament.” Carefully, he brushed away a freezing tear from the corner of my eye. “You may blink.”
I did, and half wished I hadn’t. Through the shredded remains of his suit, a deep gash ran the entire length of his sternum. Bile burned the back of my throat. Forcing my gaze away from the white of bone glistening in the moonlight, I focused on his face. His nose bent at an unnatural angle. Point for me. Apparently, he had a high threshold for pain, because he smiled.
To drive up the psycho factor, he parted his lips, revealing bloodstained fangs which he pricked his index fingertip against. Blood welled up and rolled down his finger.
“You will do all that I command.” He brought his bloody digit to my temple and traced an arch across my forehead. His blood seeped into my pores and raced through my veins. “You may speak. What is your name?”
Unable to refuse his question, I whispered, “Tessa Sanders.”
His finger slid to my neck and massaged over his bite while he spoke. “Tessa Sanders, you are under my protection.”
“I’ll pass on that.” I glared at him.
“How naïve you are.” He lowered his face to mine. “You fell while running tonight.”
In a swift movement, he brushed his lips across mine. No lust. Just a slap in the mouth, because he was in control. As his thumbs touched my temples, a flash of light blanked my racing thoughts. Once it dimmed, a picture show flipped through my mind. As if I were a bystander, I watched myself fall on the ice. It became imperative for me to remember the event playing in my head. Struggling to remember anything different about the fall, all I recalled was the out-of-body experience.
Fear poured through my veins, freezing my blood. He controlled my body and my mind.
Finally, his lips left mine. Dipping his face against the crook of my neck, he inhaled. “Your fear is intoxicating,” he said.
When he pulled away, our eyes locked. My terror mixed with his hesitance, catching us both off guard. I clenched my jaw. His eyes narrowed. In an instant, smoldering hate rolled between us.
“Forget me”—his words flowed like a stream through my mind—“and go home. Once you are there, you will sleep. When you awake, you are to leave town.” The stream turned into a current that swallowed me whole. Darkness enveloped me as his last words echoed through my mind. “Never run at night again.”