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By Michele Maddox
Copyright © 2008 Michelle Rouillard
All right reserved.
Chapter One It's called nyctophobia. I looked it up once. It's the official term for an abnormal and per sis tent fear of the dark. I've had it ever since my parents and sister were murdered during an in-home burglary and I hid under my bed.
In the dark I couldn't see anything. I could just hear the screaming.
And then the silence.
So, yeah. I've been scared shitless of the dark ever since. Go figure.
Unfortunately, that's exactly where I found myself when I opened my eyes. Frankly, I don't even remember closing them. I'd been in the mall-I remembered that much. I'd just lifted a new pair of shoes because my old pair was practically worn out, since all I do is walk everywhere in the city, day in and day out. This pair was nice. Red. With strong laces that, if necessary, could double as a weapon.
The streets were tough sometimes. Especially at night. Especially in the dark.
Like right now.
But this wasn't the street; I knew that much. I was inside.
I couldn't concentrate, though, due to the choking panic that began to flood my body. I knew it wasn't going to do a hell of a lot to freak out, but sometimes you just can't stop yourself-or reason with yourself-when you're in the process of freaking out.
I felt a pinch at my right wrist and reached over with my other hand, blindly trying to feel my way through the inky blackness. It was a metalcuff. Attached to a chain. Attached to the smooth, cold metal wall behind me.
What the hell was going on here?
Had I been caught shoplifting? Was this prison? I racked my brain but came up blank. No, I'd grabbed the shoes, shoved them under my coat, and left the store to go into the half- abandoned mall, where I put them on, throwing my old shoes in a garbage can. And then ... then what happened?
I remember wanting to grab some food. I had two bucks to my name, so I figured I could buy a small order of french fries at one of the few restaurants that were still open there. That would last me a day before my stomach would start complaining again.
Did I even make it to the food court?
I couldn't have. I was still hungry. Starving. My body felt like it was eating itself, but that was a bit of an exaggeration, I guess. Yesterday I'd had an entire meal. Ordered off the menu even, and then tried to skip out before the bill came. The owner of the diner caught me, reprimanded me, and I figured that that was it-he'd call the cops.
Instead he took pity on me and just made me wash dishes. It was a humbling experience, but I'd had a lot of those since my family died.
In the end, I did appreciate his kindness. Washing dishes was a hell of a lot better than going to prison.
It was just me now. For the past seven years, on my own since I was fifteen. Not a good time to lose your family, not that there's ever a good time for that. We weren't rich, but we weren't poor, either. My father was a scientist who taught classes at the university and he made decent enough money. Back then I was safe and relatively happy and free to do what I wanted with the love of my family to support me. But once they were gone I had nothing. The courts wanted to put me into foster care, but I'd run instead. A friend of mine went into foster care a long time ago and I never heard from her again. Not even an e-mail.
Okay, breathe, Kira, I told myself. And I did. I took a deep breath in through my nose and let it out through my mouth. I could hear my heart thudding hard in my ears.
Why couldn't I remember what happened after I took the shoes? Dammit. And where the hell was I?
I seriously had to calm the hell down. It wasn't helping.
I took another breath in and out and then I forced myself to listen. For something. Anything. There had to be something other than this total silence that told me absolutely nothing helpful.
And then I heard ... something. I pushed my distracting fears out of the way as best I could and strained my ears.
Breathing. I could hear breathing. Very softly.
Somebody else is in the room with me.
This realization did not help to ease my mind. Just the opposite. Just thinking that somebody was in there, in the darkness with me, scared me enough that I almost started to cry.
But I was a tough chick now. At least, that was what I tried to tell myself every morning when I woke up to face another day. This shouldn't be any different.
"H-h-hello?" Stuttering does not help the situation, I thought. "Who's there?"
The breathing hitched. I heard something heavy shift against the floor around fifteen feet away.
Then the something spoke. "Wh-what the fuck?"
A male voice. His words were gruff and raspy, as if he'd just woken from a deep sleep.
"Who are you?" I ventured again.
Dammit. Why did I sound so weak? I hated that.
He cleared his throat and groaned. "Shit."
Well, he did seem to have a fine command of the English language.
I strained to see something, but there was only black. "Tell me who you are."
There was a pause, and then another groan. It actually sounded like a moan of pain as I heard him shift his position again.
I frowned. "Hey, are you okay?"
He snorted at that. "Fantastic. I'm just fantastic, thanks for asking. And you?"
Sarcasm. Yeah, I recognized that.
"I've been better, actually."
Chains rattled. Not mine, so that meant that this guy was also restrained. But why?
"I'm Rogan," he said dryly after a moment. "So pleased to meet you."
"Where are we?"
"I tell you my name and you don't reciprocate? Didn't your mother teach you any manners?"
"My mother's dead."
That shut him up. Momentarily. "Sorry to hear that."
"It was a long time ago."
"Doesn't make it any easier."
No, that was very true. I swallowed hard. "My name's Kira."
"Well, Kira, where we are is anyone's guess."
I pressed back firmly against the hard wall.
We could be anywhere, and there wasn't a damn thing to give me a clue where that was. Except for the main drags, the city was so vacant that we could be in any one of dozens of abandoned ware houses or factories. And nobody would ever find us.
I'd heard lots of stories about girls who vanished from the streets, never to be heard from again. They weren't stories with happy endings.
"What's the last thing you remember?" I asked. "Who brought you here? Are you chained, too?"
"I remember enough, but not precisely who brought me here. And yeah, they've got me locked up real tight."
"Who would do this?" My voice caught on the words.
"Hey, there. Try to relax."
"Doesn't sound like it to me."
I banged the back of my head lightly against the metal wall behind me and brought my knees in close to my chest so I could hug them against me. "You sound relaxed enough for the both of us."
"What can I say? So far this is a hell of a lot better than where I came from."
"Oh? And where's that?"
My blood ran cold at the word. Saradone was the maximum-security prison just outside the city limits. Only the worst criminals were sent there, many for life, most for death. Horrible men who'd done horrible things. Luckily they didn't put girls who stole shoes there yet.
He laughed at my answering silence. "That's the reaction I thought I might get."
I shouldn't even be talking to this guy. Why would they put somebody like him in the same room as somebody like me? Both of us chained? Like putting a cobra in with a sarcastic mouse. Not exactly evenly matched.
A line of perspiration slid down my back.
"What were you in for?" I tried to make it sound very light and flippant, as if I were just making conversation about the weather.
"Murder," he answered simply.
"Oh." I cleared my throat.
"Not just murder, mind you, but first- degree." There was an edge of weariness to his deep voice. "Nine counts of first-degree murder. They locked me up in Saradone for ... I believe the sentence was five hundred years. Kind of funny, if you ask me."
My throat felt thick. Just the thought that I was in the same room with a murderer made me feel like throwing up. I tried to push the memory of my family out of my mind. Why was he sharing this with me? I seriously didn't want to know these things. "What's so funny about it?"
"Five hundred years in prison? It's stupid. A man lives to what, eighty, maybe ninety years old, and that's not even when he's in maximum. In there, if you're not tough enough you're lucky to live to the end of the fucking week."
His sudden humorless laughter seemed to echo off the metal walls.
Okay. So I was trapped in a pitch-black room, chained to the wall, with a mass murderer who found a joke in long-term prison sentences.
Maybe I was dreaming. Yeah. Just having a really bad dream. Maybe I fell and hit my head in the mall and was passed out cold in front of the understaffed burger place in the food court. Maybe some nice, rich, and handsome man would come by and help me. He'd fall immediately in love with me and take me away from it all. Kiss me on the lips like Prince Charming did with Snow White, wake me up from my deep sleep, and we'd ride away into the sunset, away from my past, and into a bright, exciting future, just the two of us.
I blinked against the darkness.
No, I was awake. Definitely awake.
"You're quiet all of a sudden," Rogan said. "Don't want to chat anymore?"
"Why not? Because you're scared of me now?"
Pretty much, but I wasn't going to let him know that if I could help it.
"No. Mostly because I've decided that you don't know anything that can help me."
"Doesn't mean you have to be rude, you know."
"Rude?" I felt a flare of anger and then settled back, trying to remain calm. My ass hurt from sitting on the hard metal floor, and I shifted position to cross my legs. "Yeah, I'm so rude. Sorry about that. I guess you've been treated so nice at Saradone the past little while that my behavior's a real shocker."
"The past little while you spoke of? Four years. That's how long I was in there."
"No offense, but it sounds like you deserved it."
He was silent so long that I felt even more uncomfortable than I had been to start with.
"And are you so innocent?" His words were clipped, sounding as if I'd struck a nerve. "What did you say your name was ... Kerry?"
"Kira," I corrected. What a dick this guy was. "I'm not innocent, but I sure as hell won't end up at Saradone."
"Don't be so sure about that. You never know where you're going to end up."
I guess I could thank this asshole for keeping my mind off my fear of the dark. He was getting me angry enough that fear was the last thing on my mind.
I chewed my bottom lip. "I haven't murdered anybody."
"Yeah, we'll see about that."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"They've got you now. They'll make you do what ever they want you to do, and don't kid yourself-you'll do it."
"They? Who are they?"
Rogan went silent.
I could feel my heart pounding in my ears now. "You can't just say something like that and not say anything else. Who are they?"
"The ones who put you here. Who put me here."
"I thought you said you didn't know who put you here?"
"I have an idea."
"Want to share?"
"Maybe not. You're not all that nice." He sounded as if he were smiling now. Was he mocking me?
"I'm not all that nice?" I repeated.
"Is this a surprise to you? Do you normally charm the pants off the men you meet in the dark? Because you're failing big-time with me."
"Who put us in here?" I said it flatly, with no humor or lightness implied. I wanted him to realize I was serious. I wasn't joking around. If he didn't tell me, then I was going to scream and keep screaming until they-whoever the hell they were-dragged me out of there.
"They gave me a choice," he said after a moment. "Stay in jail for as many of my five hundred years as I lived for, or come with them and play their sick little game. What choice did I have? At least here I might have a chance. A small one, but a chance. As soon as I agreed, they knocked me out. And then I woke up here just a few minutes ago to have this fascinating discussion with you. And ... and they did something to me when I was unconscious. To my shoulder. I'm hurt pretty badly, but I'm not sure how. Or why. Probably to slow me down." He snorted. "Playing fair isn't exactly their style."
"I didn't agree to this." I pulled at the chain until my wrist felt raw. "I want to leave."
"I'm sure they'll let you. Just like that. Sure." Another snort.
"You said they gave you a choice. Why didn't they give me one?"
"I have no idea." He paused. "You said your mother was dead?"
"And the rest of your family?"
"All dead." My voice broke a little as I said it.
Silence again. "So you're on your own."
"I have friends. Sometimes. But it's safer to be alone. I can move quicker that way if I have to."
"What did you do? Why would they pick you, other than the fact that you have no family?"
It sounded as if he was talking to himself.
I hissed out a sigh of exasperation. "At the risk of sounding like I'm repeating myself, who the hell are they?"
"You haven't murdered before ... so that's out. Are you ..." He paused and then laughed softly. "Of course. You must be a thief, aren't you?"
I let the darkness answer the question for me.
"A female thief without a family. Perfect." He let out a long, shuddery breath. "Well, little thief, I have to admit that I'm not feeling so good over here. What ever they did to me ... I don't think they'll have to worry about me finishing off my five hundred years. An eye for an eye and all that."
I licked my dry lips. "You're dying."
"Sure as hell feels like it."
"Why do you sound so calm?"
"What else can I be? There's no escape. Sometimes it's best just to accept your fate."
"Bullshit. There's a way out of here, I know there is."
Just as I said it, the lights flooded on in the room, blinding me. Ironic that since the darkness blinded me the light would, too. Was there no such thing as a happy medium?
I rubbed my eyes, which had started to water at the unexpected light. When I'd gotten used to it, I blinked around at the room as my vision slowly came into focus.
I sat against the wall in an entirely silver room. Floors, ceiling, walls, all made from smooth, cold metal. I'd never seen anything like it before. A silver metal band was around my wrist, and it was attached to a silver chain secured to the wall. It was all very bland, very clinical, clean and pristine.
My gaze moved to the other side of the room and locked with that of the most dangerous man I'd ever seen in my life.
He stared back at me with a half smile on his coarsely beard-stubbled face. His hair was dark and shaggy and unkempt, plastered across his forehead. He wore a shirt that may have once been white, but now was torn and dirty.
An angry red stain on his chest near his left shoulder stood out as the only bright color in the room. No, scratch that. His eyes. They were blue-green-the color of a tropical ocean and surprisingly jarring in their intensity.
There was a scar on his face, from the top of his left eye down to his cheek, like an angry exclamation point. It was still reddish, as if it had healed, but enough time hadn't passed to turn it to the whitish color of old scars. He wore faded jeans, also stained and dirty, and scuffed black boots that were untied. A silver shackle led from his right wrist to the chain to the wall behind him.
He looked like a murderer. Like trouble. Like nobody I wanted to be trapped in a room with now or anytime soon. I was almost sorry that the lights had come on.
"You're prettier than I expected," he said, keeping me locked in his oddly hypnotic gaze.
I swallowed. "Well, you have been in prison for four years."
He smiled. His teeth were white and straight, which struck me as odd from a hardened criminal. Though I suppose it was a bit of a cliché to expect him to have broken, rotting teeth. "That is true. Sorry I look a bit of a mess." His smile widened. "They didn't even let me have a shower before they knocked me out and dragged my ass here."
His gaze slid slowly down to the rest of me, black tank top, khaki cargo pants, and my new red shoes. I felt my face warm at his blatant appraisal, until I saw his eyes move away from my body and toward my side. He frowned. I looked to the floor on my right and gasped.
There was a key lying right there, only an arm's reach away.
Excerpted from Countdown by Michele Maddox Copyright © 2008by Michelle Rouillard.Excerpted by permission.
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