We’re approaching a closed door, and I slow down. Annie’s hand grabs my left wrist and twists hard, but it doesn’t affect me as much now, because there’s a greater pain. A greater horror. I can’t let this happen. I can’t let him have my children.
Melvin steps ahead and swings the door open. A gentleman’s gesture from a monster.
It’s his torture chamber. I don’t even need a glance to see that; it comes at me as one thing, as inevitable as winter. I don’t look at the details.
I’m looking at the girl. The girl who stands on that oval, bloodstained rug, with the wire noose around her neck. The girl with dyed black hair, coarse and clumped with sweat, which hangs over her features.
For that one, horrible, irrational second, I think that it’s Lanny.
I scream. It bursts out of me in a shocking rush, all of the agony and grief and horror so real and present that I feel everything in me has been cut to the bone and flayed open, spilling out like blood. I swallow the cry a second later, but I know what it reveals to him.
The girl isn’t Lanny. She’s not my daughter. But she’s someone’s daughter.
She’s standing on the balls of her feet, straining to keep her balance, because if she relaxes at all, the noose bites into her neck. It’s deliberate and cruel and finely calculated, just like the tools hung on pegboard, arrayed in order on the walls. On the wooden workbench, toolboxes stand open to display wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers . . . all color-coded, aligned in precise rows in the drawers.
Precise in his barbarity.
There are two other people in the room. One man adjusts lighting, ignoring the girl and her horrible struggle. Another one adjusts the focus on a video camera on a tripod. Both look completely normal, and it’s horrifying to see that this is just work to them. Just another day.
“Shit,” the video guy says. “I wasn’t rolling. I wish I’d gotten that scream. That was something.”
“Are we close?” Melvin asks.
“Ten minutes out. You can start with the daughter stand-in, but keep it short. They’re paying for the main event, not the opening act.” He’s just so . . . normal. He’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt with hula girls on it, and cargo shorts, and slip-on sandals. But nothing about this is normal. Not one of these people has a soul. There’s something missing in all of them.
I turn my head. Melvin’s stopped next to me. He’s staring at that poor girl with horrible, fixed intention, but he tears himself away to transfer that look to me. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen. The pupils of his eyes have dilated, and in the light from that room they look almost . . . red. Monster’s eyes. “She looks a lot like her, doesn’t she? Our Lily.”
I can’t breathe. I can’t move. There’s something so dangerous in front of me that it paralyzes even my voice. I knew he was evil. I never knew he was this. There’s . . . nothing in there. Nothing I can identify as the least bit human.
“Yes.” It comes out in a shaking whisper not out of fear but rage. “But this girl isn’t Lily. There’s no point in hurting her. It won’t have the same impact.”
“Won’t it?” He considers me, like a bird considering a bug. “I’ll let you choose.”
The video operator has quietly turned the camera on. I’m blinded as lights suddenly flare hot against my face. But I don’t blink. I can’t. If I show any weakness at all, he’ll have me.
“Choose what?” The small shard of wood’s pressed hard against my skin, and I can feel the gouge it makes. I shift, put my weight on my left foot. I make sure he can’t see my right arm.
“I’ll let this girl go if you ask to take her place. But you have to want it, Gina. You have to ask. Beg me for her. If you do, I’ll turn her loose and let her leave. It’ll take her hours to get to a road. Lots of time before she can find anybody to listen to her. She’s a junkie whore. Maybe nobody will ever believe her.” His lips twitch, and a slow smile overtakes them. “But she’ll be alive. I know how much you want to save people.”
Breath turns to poison in my lungs. He has me. He knows what I’m going to do. But before I do it, I say, “You’re never going to have Connor.”
“Oh, Connor’s all yours,” he says. “But I’m going to have Brady. Count on that. What’s your answer? Because either way, you’re going to die tonight. This one doesn’t have to. Clock’s ticking, Gina. Choose.”
I don’t want to look at those dreadful eyes anymore. I let my lids drift shut, and I say. “Please, Mel. Please let her go. I beg you.”
It burns in my mouth to do that. Worse, I’ve just called him Mel. It’s the first time since the day our lives shattered apart. I wonder if he even notices.
“Good girl,” he says. I feel sudden heat against my skin. He’s put his hand on my cheek. “All right. She gets her life. I always knew you’d give in, if I found the right motivation.”
He bends close to me. His breath flutters against my skin. His fingers are gentle as they trace the line of my chin, my lips. I keep my eyes closed. God, I can’t look. I can’t. I’m trembling. The drugs make me dizzy, and unsteady. I wish Annie would twist my broken hand again, just to clear my mind.
“Let the girl down,” he says. He’s not talking to me, but his lips are so close to my cheek they brush my skin. “Get her out of here. Put her on the road and tell her to run.”
The spell breaks, but it isn’t me who breaks it. It’s the sound of the winch control activating with a whine, and the choked gasp of the girl. She’s crying. “Oh God, thank you, thank you—”
“Out,” Melvin says. “Or I kill you.”
I hear the rush of running feet. She’s leaving.
Now, I think. Now. I can’t miss. He’s right here.
I open my eyes and adjust my grip on the wooden dagger.
It shocks me. It shocks Melvin, too, and we both look toward the doorway. Annie’s leaning there, high as a kite from the look of her, and she’s giggling as she watches the other girl run for her life. “Son of a bitch,” she says. “I thought you were some fuckin’ badass, man. Here you are letting people go, making deals. Don’t you already own this sorry bitch?”
“You’re talking about my wife, Annie,” he says. His tone is mild, and calm, but the eyes . . . he’s deep in whatever fantasy he’s cultivated. “Don’t disrespect my wife.”
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