Cursed with a terrible gift...
Criminal investigator Xander Stone doesn’t have to question you—he can hear your thoughts. Scarred by lightning, burdened with a power that gives him no peace, Xander struggles to maintain his sanity against the voice that haunts him day and night—the voice of a woman begging him to save her.
A gift that threatens to engulf them
Isleen Walker has long since given up hope of escape from the nightmare of captivity and torture that is draining her life, her mind, and her soul. Except…there is the man in her feverish dreams, the strangely beautiful man who beckons her to freedom and wholeness. And when he comes, if he comes, it will take all their combined fury and faith to overcome a madman bent on fulfilling a deadly prophecy.
Xander Stone stopped outside Interrogation Room B, shoved his ear up to the seam of the closed soundproof door, and listened. Supercharged hearing had only one benefit, and this was it. From inside the other room, he heard the slow, easy breathing of someone who thought he’d never be caught or prosecuted or imprisoned. Xander’s favorite kind of criminal.
He pushed open the door and made sure to display his scars to the suspect. The disfigurement was a neon sign on a starless and moonless night, pointing and flashing freak, freak, freak. A caution to all who dared speak to him. Wasn’t his fault if no one listened to the warning.
Yeah, life was a saggy-assed, fun bag of laughs since he’d been zapped with more than 50,000 volts of lightning. But the forehead-to-calf scarring didn’t even rank on the Richter scale of shit when compared to the bizarre sensation of no longer being alone inside his head. And then there was the issue of his amplified hearing. He couldn’t ignore the way his brain now tuned in to the frequency of thoughts.
The familiar pounding—like a basketball upside the head—slammed into Xander’s right temple. He winced. Always did with the first thump, no matter how hard he tried not to react. Tuning in to the frequency of people’s thoughts fucking hurt. He washed his features of expression.
Holy shit. What happened to the dude’s face? Xander heard the words even though they hadn’t been spoken aloud. The suspect—a kid, really—snickered, his gaze riveted to the puckered striation and the network of branch-like scars that stretched up Xander’s neck, spread over his cheek, and finally ceased on his forehead.
“Good Cop–Bad Cop didn’t work, so now they’re sending in Ugly Cop?” The kid slouched back in his chair as if he were in his dorm watching the latest episode of some show glamorizing stupid people, instead of in an interrogation room at a Bureau of Criminal Investigation field office. He looked like every other cocky college kid—hair too long, clothes too preppy, ego too large. He didn’t look like the leader of a sex gang.
“Ugly Cop? The last guy said the same thing. The asshole before him too, and the one before him. See how boring that gets? If you really want to insult someone, you’ve got to get creative. Try again. Lay a real good one on me. One I’ve never heard before.” Xander couldn’t remember the kid’s name—wasn’t important anyway. He took a seat at the table and settled his notepad squarely in front of him with his pen diagonal across the clean sheets of paper.
Scar face. Fugly motherfucker.
The kid opened his mouth, but Xander cut him off. “‘Scar face’ and ‘fugly motherfucker.’ Seriously? That’s the best you got?” Most suspects expected him to be offended or outraged. They didn’t expect his total acceptance.
The kid tilted his head like a dog trying to understand a new command. That’s weird.
Yeah, it was weird. “My name is Xander Stone, and just so you know for your insult planning, I’m not a cop. Never been a cop. Never wanted to be a cop. Don’t even like cops. They’re all pricks. And these guys”—Xander jabbed his thumb over his shoulder at the mirrored glass of the interrogation room—“are some of the biggest pricks of all.”
No one could accuse him of lying. It was no secret he didn’t do well with authority. The only reason the BCI put up with him was because they needed him and his unique style of interrogation.
A smile padded with self-satisfied smugness hitched up the kid’s mouth. We’re back to Good Cop.
“What is he doing in there?” The superintendent’s words came to Xander from beyond the mirrored glass. With his supercharged hearing, the soundproofing separating the rooms was little more than a cotton swab on a spurting artery.
He turned in his seat to face the mirror. Everyone knew about his rule of absolute quiet if they were going to observe. “Silence. I need complete silence. Or I’m out of here and you can let the kid walk.” He glared at the mirror, daring someone to speak.
This dude is certifiable cray-cray.
Xander faced the kid. “I think you might be on to something with that cray-cray bit.”
The kid jerked upright like someone had goosed his gonads. How’d he know what I was thinking? His attention bull’s-eyed on Xander. The kid was just starting to realize Xander had changed the game from checkers to chess.
“I know what you’re thinking because I’m the guy the BCI calls in when they’ve got a difficult case.” Referring to gang rape as merely a difficult case was like painting a pile of shit just to make it look better. It was still shit. It still stank.
The kid laughed a blatantly fake laugh, the kind that was code for “fuck you.” He’s trying to mess with me. Ain’t gonna work.
“I’m not trying to mess with you.” Well, maybe just a little. Disbelief in his ability was a universal rule. Hell, he barely believed in it himself. “I just want to get this done so I can get out of here. Like I said, I hate cops. And I’ve got a headache.” The vision in his right eye pulsed with each thump inside his brain. He wanted to press his palm against the pounding, but didn’t. Show no pain. Show no weakness. Show no emotion.
No more dicking around with the kid. Xander needed to get answers to the questions he’d been sent to ask and then get the fuck out of here. Funny how he could remember the questions, but not the kid’s name. “How many guys are in the Bangers Club?”
Six plus nine. Sixty-nine. Six plus nine. Sixty-nine. The kid’s thoughts were a perverted chant. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Xander picked up his notepad, tilted it so the kid couldn’t see, and scribbled 6 + 9 = 15 onto the paper. “I need the names of all fifteen members.”
Fifteen? How’d he come up with that number? He’s guessing. “I’ll tell you the same thing I told Good Cop and Bad Cop. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The names of all fifteen members.”
Michael Blevins. Blake Johnson…
Xander listed the names until he lost the frequency. Five to ten seconds of silence in the conversation, and the connection severed. He stared down at the paper and cherished the absence of pain, then sucked in a few deep breaths, pumping himself up to reestablish the connection and restore the basketball thumping inside his head. “I need the rest of the names.”
Bang! He jerked from the force of the blow inside his brain. God, that first hit—
Aiden Stacey. Trey Mitchell…
Xander listed all the names.
“What are you writing?” The kid half stood, trying to see across the table to Xander’s notes.
“Names.” Xander angled the notepad so the kid couldn’t see his writing.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Yeah, you did. Just not out loud.”
What is he talking about? They sent in some mind-game expert? This shit isn’t going to work on me. Just keep quiet and don’t react.
“You’re already reacting. I can hear it. You’re breathing faster, shallower. Your pulse has picked up. You’re not quite panicking yet, but eventually you’re going to.”
What the hell? What the hell? What. The. Hell. The kid did a stellar job of retaining his outward expression of entitlement. No one would ever guess he was on the cusp of an implosion.
“Between the fifteen of you, how many girls have you banged?” The word—the Bangers Club’s word—tasted insectile on Xander’s tongue, like if he didn’t spit it out, it would burrow a hole through the roof of his mouth and have babies in his brain.
Fifty-seven. Twelve away from our goal—sixty-nine.
Jesus. The kid needed to be neutered.
There was no reason to ask for the girls’ names. From what he’d been told, the Bangers Club didn’t bother learning the names of their victims. “You ever been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder?”
No. The kid’s brows rose and his head swiveled on his neck in a good imitation of a white-trash ho about to show her sass.
“Just asking because you seem awfully obsessed with the number sixty-nine.”
The kid’s jaw unhinged and nearly clattered onto the table. Not possible. He can’t really read my mind. He’s guessing somehow. Or…did someone talk? No one would dare—
“You’re right. I’m not reading your mind. I’m listening to the things you aren’t saying.” As if the kid would believe that. Only one more question and Xander could walk out of the room, out the building, and be alone.
The last question was the most critical. From the dumbed-down version Xander understood, the kid had created a nearly impenetrable computer system that streamed all the Bangers Club bangs—for a monthly fee. The only way to shut it down was to access the original computer and enter the password—no mistakes, no guessing—or the entire system would go viral and start broadcasting live on all the local channels, even the small-town church TV station. Kids today were dangerously clever. “What’s the password?”
6*2H95—London Bridge is falling down…
Xander wrote the numbers and letters on his paper. The kid was starting to catch on. Not that it would matter.
“Stop writing shit down. You’re making things up.” The kid’s voice rode the ridge of hysteria.
“6*2H95. I need the rest of the password.” Xander loved the way other people’s brains just couldn’t resist thinking.
O#ZR591H. No. No. No. London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down—
“6*2H95O#ZR591H. Keep going.”
It took three more tries before the kid eventually spit out the entire password.
“The tech department wasn’t kidding. This password is a monster.”
No. This isn’t happening. “Who talked? Someone is setting me up.”
“I didn’t say anything!” the kid yelled.
Xander felt the smile split open his face, felt the skin on his right cheek stretch in a way that wasn’t familiar. Life didn’t hold much amusement for him, but he always savored the moment when some asshole finally realized he’d been bested and was going to be sent on an extended vacation to criminal central.
Pushing back from the table, Xander got up and headed for the door. He stopped, hand on the handle, and turned back to the kid. “You come up with a creative insult yet?”
The kid leaned forward and banged his forehead against the table. No. No. No.
As Xander opened the door, a million sounds rushed his ears at once. A toilet flushing, typing, the hum and bump of the air conditioner, conversations—too many conversations. Sensory overload was imminent. The only question was how long before his brain shorted out, unleashing the Bastard in His Brain—that thing he always felt lurking in the darkest depths of his mind. When the Bastard took the wheel, there was no such thing as a happy ending.
He needed to leave. Now.
But Kent and Thomas, who’d been watching the interview, waited in the hallway.
He passed the notepad to Thomas, who sprinted down the corridor to get the names and password to the cyber division.
“Why the fuck was there talking during my interrogation?”
Kent gave him the same disapproving, annoyed, disgusted look he’d been giving him since Xander bloodied the guy’s nose in the first grade.
Bam. Pain bounced inside his skull. Xander flinched. Goddamned tuning in. “Quit with the look.” They’d never been friends. Still weren’t.
You’re such an asshole. Acting like you’re the only one working here. “Do you always have to be such a dick about us? The superintendent was watching.” Kent headed in the same direction as Xander—toward the exit. You need to make a decision about Camille.
“The superintendent was the one talking. You pushed me to work here. You pushed them to hire me. You got a fat-assed bonus out of it. So if you, or the superintendent, don’t like what I do, stop calling me. And what I do with Camille is none of your business.”
“Keep your freak self outta my head.”
“Only way to make it stop is by not talking to me.” Outside of work, Xander mastered in social isolation and conversation avoidance.
“Come on, man. She’s my sister. We may not be real close, but I care about her. I’m not letting this go.” You’re using her.
Xander’s neck got hot. He didn’t argue with Kent’s thoughts. He couldn’t. The man was right. Camille never rejected him, never made demands on him, but she wanted commitment. He got that from tuning in to her thoughts. All he wanted was acceptance and uncomplicated sex.
The conversation lagged, and the pain vanished.
Xander exited the building. Low on the horizon, all that remained of the day was a single tiger stripe of orange. Already the June night was in full chorus. The whistle screech of a bat using its sonar-like system, the flutter of its wings overhead. The buzz of a trillion mosquitoes. The bass of a bullfrog two blocks away at the Sundew Park pond. Life pulsed all around him.
When he couldn’t sleep, he’d lie in bed with the window open—listening, just listening. Not letting himself think, just focusing on the rhythm of the world. The sounds of nature were the only form of music he could tolerate.
He fished his truck keys from his pocket and pressed the unlock button.
“The superintendent is probably going to need you again tomorrow,” Kent called from the doorway.
“Tell him to call me.” Xander tossed the words over his shoulder.
“You going to answer the phone?” Bet you don’t.
“Bet you’re right.”
Death twined around Isleen Walker’s body, whispering over her naked flesh, coiling around her heart and lungs, hugging the last sparks of life from her. Twenty-five years of being alive distilled down to a wish. A wish that death would hurry up and grant her its promised relief.
“I’m dying.” She tried to warn Gran, but the words came out quieter than a breath. Her gaze roamed the room—their prison for the past eight years. It was just big enough to contain her and Gran and an overflowing waste bucket, but now it felt too small, too fragile to contain Isleen. Soon she would transcend this space, and no matter what Queen did, she wouldn’t be able to tether Isleen here.
Gran slept, face tucked into the corner. Safety was an illusion—beating after beating had proven that fact—but still, they always gravitated to the corners. Gran’s once-supple flesh sagged from her bones. Her spine protruded sharply in a pathetic row of spikes.
“…tobesaved. Not die.…protectordiedtoo?” Gran spoke in a smear of barely distinguishable words. She’d been a sleep-talker for as long as Isleen could remember—even before they’d been abducted.
She used to wake Gran from her dreams, but had long since decided it was a mercy to let her stay inside them for as long as they hosted her. Maybe in her dreams, Gran still possessed her wits and all her faculties, and lived somewhere beautiful where nothing bad ever happened.
Footsteps pounded down the hall and stopped outside the door. The sound of the key in the lock scraped across Isleen’s heart. Was today going to be a feeding day, a beating day, or a bleeding day? It didn’t really matter. It was too late for food; a beating would finish her off; and she had no more blood to give. But there was Gran—
The door rasped open. Queen. Always Queen and only Queen ever entered their prison. If ever a name didn’t fit a person, it was hers. Nothing about her was royal or regal. She was no whimsical fairy-tale ruler; she was a twenty-first-century reality. A simple-minded, delusional woman who took pleasure in domination and torture. Under a different set of circumstances, Queen would have been passing her days in a psychiatric hospital, medicated to the point of drooling.
Without even looking, Isleen could smell Queen’s stench. Cigarette smoke so stale and foul and thick that Isleen could taste the bite of it in her mouth, feel the burn of it in her eyes. The pungency of flesh that hadn’t been washed in years snuffed out the oxygen in the air.
Queen kicked her in the thigh. “The Dragon has not yet died.”
A small gasp, not of pain, but of being startled escaped Isleen’s throat. For as long as they’d been held captive, Queen had referred to her as the Dragon.
Queen cleared her throat. Mucus snapped and rattled. She hawked up a wad of nasty and spit it on the floor. “King decreed that if the Dragon shall linger—”
“You will suffer for everything you’ve done.” Gran crawled out of the corner on all fours. “Her protector is on his way.”
Queen’s hunched shoulders straightened. “I am your Queen. Bow before me.” It was all a part of Queen’s delusional mind—she was a queen and they were her subjects and the objects of her torture. Especially Isleen.
Gran didn’t bow, didn’t move, didn’t understand.
“You will be punished.” Queen opened and closed a giant pair of scissors. Shkk. Shkk. Shkk.
Dread burned a hole through Isleen’s shrunken stomach. “It’s not her fault. She doesn’t understand.” She tried to move, but her body was too weak, her limbs too emaciated.
“Your Majesty, I am sorry. I have committed the gravest of errors.” Gran executed a bow of supplication, arms spread out, forehead to the floor. “Please accept my humble apology and know that I will never again speak in such a manner to one as powerful as you.” Before Gran had lost her mind, she’d been fluent in kiss-up-to-the-fake-queen language.
Gran must be having a rare moment of clarity.
“Very well. I grant you a pardon. Know this—though I am a merciful queen, I will not tolerate such treasonous behavior again.” She pointed a fat, stubby finger at Gran. “You have been warned.”
Gran kept her pose. Good decision.
Queen turned her grotesque gaze to Isleen. She went through the same disgusting process of clearing her throat and then spoke as if she were making a proclamation. “King has decreed that on the sixth day, if the Dragon shall linger, I am to thrust my sword into its side.”
Thrust my sword into its side. Isleen understood Queen’s words; she just didn’t fear them. No matter what Queen did to her now, it would be nothing—absolutely nothing—compared to the agony of living. A calmness nestled into her bones, curled up in her guts.
Gran lifted her face from the floor and challenged Queen’s authority by looking directly at her. “You don’t have the power to kill her.” Insanity warped Gran’s tone.
Queen’s attention snapped to Gran. “You were warned. Now, you shall be executed.”
Isleen thrust words from her heart, words she’d always wanted to speak but never dared until now, when she needed to divert Queen’s attention away from Gran. “You’re not a queen. You’re psychotic. You’re a bitch. You’re evil and stupid and mean. And…and…you smell bad.”
Queen’s wide-spaced eyes nearly bulged out of her block-shaped head. Her fat lips snarled back, revealing teeth so neglected they were the same color and texture as Fritos. She switched her grip on the scissors, fisting the handle, and stabbed the blades at Isleen.
She watched the scissors descend, heard the whisper and swish of them piercing her flesh. Felt only a vague pressure and presence of something foreign inside her body. Smelled sweetness in the air and tasted salt on her tongue.
Queen yanked the scissors from Isleen’s body and held them up. Blood dripped from the blades, sending red streamers down Queen’s doughy arm.
Warmth oozed from Isleen’s side, the heat comforting her cold skin.
“Tomorrow, if you are still alive—off with your head!”
Gran waited until Queen locked them back in the room, then scooted next to Isleen. There were no bandages, no cloths, no tissues. Nothing to stop the bleeding.
“Hold on, baby girl. Just hold on. He’s coming. He’s got to be coming. He will release you. Save you.” The worst of Gran’s mental breakdown was the delusion that someone would find them. In Isleen’s most desperate of moments, she had allowed herself to believe Gran. Not anymore.
“Your dreams will come true. All of them. Remember the dreams about him. How you loved him and he loved you. Remember the dreams of sunshine on your face and the cabin you shared. Remember…”
There was nothing to remember. It had just been dreams. Silly dreams. No more powerful than Gran’s sleep-talking.
You’re not coming. You’re not going to save me. Because you don’t exist. Never have. I believed in you. Thought you must be real—Gran swore you were. But you were nothing more than hope’s fatal dream. We’re going to die, and no one other than Queen will ever remember we existed.
A rainbow of colors swelled in front of her eyes. Colors she hadn’t seen in years. Colors so brilliant and bright and beautiful that her eyes watered. Death was an alluring kaleidoscope.
By day, ABBIE ROADS is a mental health professional known for her blunt, honest style of therapy. By night she writes dark emotional novels, always giving her characters the happy ending she wishes for all her clients. Her novels have been finalists in RWA contests, including the Golden Heart. She lives with her family in Marion, OH.