Raised as siblings by an itinerant “gypsy” family, knife expert Bobby Cain, trained by the US military in the lethal art of covert eliminations, and Harper McCoy, nurtured by the US Navy and the CIA to run black ops and wage psychological warfare, are now civilians. Of a sort. Employing the skills learned from the “family” and their training, they now fix the unfixable. Case in point: Retired General William Kessler hires the duo to track down his missing granddaughter, a Vanderbilt University co-ed. Their search leads them to a small, bucolic, lake-side town in central Tennessee and into a world of prostitution, human trafficking, and serial murder. The question then becomes: Will their considerable skills be enough for Cain and Harper to save the young woman, and themselves, from a sociopath with “home field” advantage, a hunter’s skills, and his own deeply disturbing agenda?
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She had a plan.
Not much of one, and not likely to succeed. But she had little choice.
That he was going to kill her was a given. No question. She knew that shortly after their lives intersected. At first he had been a Good Samaritan, a knight in shining armor. Polite and kind and helpful. When her car gave up, sputtering to a stop on the grassy shoulder of the winding, rural road, middle of nowhere, dead of night, as she was returning from a birthday party, berating herself for staying so late when she still had papers to grade. There he was. His SUV sliding up behind her, washing her in its headlamps, him stepping out, approaching, saying, "Car trouble?" An easy smile on his face.
In the darkness, she couldn't peg his age, could be thirty, could be fifty, but she could see that he was handsome, well-dressed in slacks and an open- collar dress shirt. Harmless, soft-spoken. He popped the hood, rummaged around, told her it looked like her distributor had given up. Offered her a ride home.
Sure. Thanks. He seemed so safe.
Then things changed.
The Taser to her shoulder, the foggy and helpless way she lay there, back of the SUV, knowing he was binding her, gagging her. Yet her muscles wouldn't respond to the silent screaming inside her brain. Run, fight, resist.
Then she was here. Wherever here was. A barn, large, drafty.
What she feared never happened. No rape, no touching, at least not that way. He had stripped her, tied her to a table, and shaved her. Completely. Even her long, dark hair was gone. She begged and pleaded, asking again and again what he was doing.
Making you perfect.
Those words shot a chill through her. No doubt, he would kill her.
He had to. He'd made no attempt to hide his face. No concern that she might later identify him. The unmistakable truth was that there would be no 'later' for her.
Then, that same night, she curled on an air mattress, blanket pulled to her neck to ward off the damp chill. Her handcuffed left wrist tethered to a massive support pole by a thick chain. She had tried everything: squeeze her hand from the cuff, dislodge it from the chain, loosen the chain itself from the tree-like stanchion.
The next morning, it began. Back on the table, each extremity restrained, the hum of the tattoo machine, the sharp pricks of the needle.
Again, she asked him why.
"To make you the masterpiece you deserve to be," he said while gently
cupping her chin.
Now, her fifth night in captivity, wrapped in the blanket, waiting.
Right wrist tethered now. Too bad. She had hoped for the left.
She had a plan.
One she had hatched last night as she lay in the dark, trying everything to slip her hand free. Working until the bones ached, the flesh raw, sweat covering her, making no progress.
That's when she realized that to escape, to survive, she had to sacrifice her hand. Not in a coyote gnawing off a leg way — she could never do that — but still a sacrifice.
Too bad it had to be the right. She almost laughed at that. Worrying about which hand when death was the endgame.
The weather in Tennessee in April could be anything. Sweltering, or as cold as deep winter. Most of the day, fat rain drops had hammered the tin roof, echoing inside the cavernous space, dragging the temperature lower.
Hard shivers racked her. She wound the blanket tightly around her naked body, legs drawn up so that her feet were covered. Still her toes felt almost frozen.
So she managed to slip her bonds, then what? Were the doors — the large one ahead of her, or the smaller one to her right — locked, bolted, chained? And once she was outside, into the cold night, where was she? She had no idea. She pictured open land, trees, no civilization in sight. Was that the case? Did it matter?
Doing nothing was a death sentence.
Earlier, as he gathered his tools, she had asked when this would end. "Soon," he had replied. "Two days at most." Once her transformation was complete.
"Your presentation to the world."
His unhurried footsteps faded, leaving her in an eerie darkness, faintly blushed by the glowing coils of the electric heater he left on for some measure of comfort.
Timing was everything now.
She waited, listening, inhaling the damp, musty air laced with the faint electric aroma of the heater. Had he really gone? The last two nights she had thought so, but within minutes he had returned, muttering about forgetting something. Yet he hadn't searched for or picked up anything. One final check on her. He was nothing if not meticulous.
She envisioned him nearby, waiting, just in case. She did not turn or move and willed her breathing to slow. Let him believe she was asleep, that she had accepted her captivity, that this night would be like the others. She would sleep and wait for his return.
Exhaustion tugged at her. She fought it. She had slept only in fits and spurts over the past five days. Was it only five days? Seemed an eternity.
Her eyes burned and her entire body ached with fatigue. A few more minutes, she told herself.
She jerked awake.
Where was she? Her confusion only momentary. The support pole, only inches from her face, reflected the red glow of the heater coils; its humming, the only sound she could hear. She rolled to her back and then her other side, the chain that bound her rattling. How long had she slept? What time was it? She had no idea. Time was a lost commodity in the massive barn.
She sat up, directing her gaze toward the side door. The one he used to come and go. Was he out there waiting? Did it matter? She had to act now. Had to take that one-in-a-million shot. Otherwise, all would be lost. There was no Hollywood ending here. At least not the kind where the armored knight rides up, slays the beast, and lifts her onto his pure white stallion. If this script had a good ending she would have to write it herself.
She had a plan.
She stood, angry at herself for falling asleep while a growing panic filled her chest.
Time to act.
She grasped her right hand with her left and squeezed. Hard. Ignoring the pain, she called on all her strength but the bones proved more resilient. Tears collected in her eyes. She banged the hand against the pole but that did little, except abrade her skin, blood now oozing along her fingers. Again she squeezed and yanked, hoping the blood would serve as a lubricant. It didn't.
Plan B. Something more drastic. She had feared it would come to this. She steeled herself, closed her fist tightly, settled it against her buttock, took a deep breath, jumped straight up, retracting her legs, and landed hard on the floor. The lubrication of the blood now worked against her, her hand sliding from beneath her as she struck the floor hard. Pain shot up her spine, her breath escaping in a whoosh.
She stood, set herself again, this time concentrating on pressing her fist even more tightly against her right buttock and repeated the jump/fall.
The pain was horrific, the cracking of the bones audible. She rolled to her back, tears welling in her eyes, her breathing deep and raspy. Nausea swept through her followed by a cold, hard sweat.
Two deep settling breaths.
She grasped the chain and tugged, the cuff further crushing her damaged hand. The pain was too much.
Again, she tried. The angry ache worse. Could she do this?
She stood, backpedaled, the chain and her arm now extended before her. A deep breath, a fall backwards. The chain snapped taut. The bones of her hand resisted before finally collapsing through the metal ring. She hit the floor hard. Fire shot up her arm. The world spun. She gulped air until the dizziness settled. The pain didn't.
Time to move.
She climbed to her feet, momentarily wobbling. She held her breath and listened, half-expecting to hear his footsteps. Nothing.
The side door. Locked. Toggle on the inside. She twisted it, eased the door open, and stepped outside.
Above, a nearly full moon peeked between fluffy clouds. No rain. Cold.
She examined her mangled hand. In the moonlight, it appeared blackened and swollen. A deep throbbing spread upwards into her shoulder.
She scanned her surroundings. A patch of open field to her left, dense woods ahead and to her right.
The pines offered cover so she headed that way. Naked except for the blanket she wrapped around her shoulders, feet bare. The ground cold and hard against her soles. She covered the two hundred feet to the trees before turning and looking back.
A house. A large house. Two lights on inside. His house.
Was he inside, asleep? Was he aware she had slipped away? Was he standing at a window watching her every move?
No time to ponder that. She scurried deeper into the trees, pine needles and small rocks biting at her feet. The uneven terrain sloped downward. Toward a road? A stream? Would this path lead her to civilization? No way to know but now she was committed.
She moved more quickly. Through the trees, their branches clutching at the blanket, slapping against her exposed legs and arms. In and out of ravines, over masses of limestone, thick clusters of pine trees, small open areas, up and down.
Fifteen minutes later she stopped at the edge of a shallow ravine. The cold air burned her lungs. Her hand throbbed. The soles of her feet felt as if the flesh had been ripped off.
How far had she gone? A mile? Maybe more?
The rain returned. A soft sprinkle, tapping against the pines above her.
The occasional splat of a drop against the protective blanket.
Then another sound. Behind her. Like a rock tumbling down a slope. She spun that way.
A shuffle, a scrape. Footsteps. No doubt. No, no, no.
She turned and ran. Down into the ravine. Twigs and cold, hard rocks cut into her already damaged feet. She ignored the pain and picked up her pace. The channel she followed turned right and then left, the darkness thickening with each step. Then she reached the edge of the trees. Maybe a hundred yards of open land before her. A recently plowed field. Neat rows of tiny sprigs, a few leaves.
She looked back, holding her breath, listening. Silence.
What now? Cross the open area? Exposed. Back into the trees and continue downhill?
Think. Make a decision.
The field. Open the gap as much as possible and then figure it out.
Head down, blanket pulled around her shoulders, she burst out into the open. The moon slid from behind a cloud, silvering the sprouts. She locked her gaze on a single pine, bent and misshapen, distinguishing itself from the regiment of trees that hugged the far side of the field. She picked up her pace, reaching it in less than a minute.
Back into the trees. Rockier here, with even more piles of limestone boulders and ledges. She weaved through them, deeper into the trees.
Where was she? She stopped, considering whether to climb the rocks, get a better view of her surroundings, or stay low to the ground. Out of sight.
Behind her, a sharp snap. A twig breaking. Her heart did a dance and she spun toward the sound.
There he was.
Standing on a limestone outcropping fifty feet away, looking directly at her.
She discarded the now wet and heavy blanket and ran. Swerving through another shallow ravine, scattered with limestone rocks that excoriated her feet. The pain excruciating. She pressed onward.
Don't look back. Just run. But she did glance back.
He followed, now in the ravine. Not really running. More a lazy lope. As if he knew she had no way to escape and running her down was simply a matter of time. He held something in one hand but at this distance she couldn't tell what? A gun?
She scurried out of the ravine, weaving, slipping past and beneath pine and cedar boughs, stretching out the distance between them. The forest rose and fell, the trees thick here, less so there, and always masses of limestone to deal with. Her feet screamed, her chest burned as if the cold air had frozen something inside. She kept moving. Pine branches slapped and clutched at her, raising welts on her arms and face. Her legs heavy, her feet on fire.
She rounded a twenty-foot high ledge of limestone, and descended to where a stream cut through the forest, tumbling downhill to her right. She stopped, bending at the waist, sucking air.
What now? Keep running? To where? Could her feet hold up much longer?
She straightened and looked around. Nothing but trees and more trees. Then she saw a crevice in the limestone that seemed to give birth to the stream. It appeared just wide enough for her to slip inside. Hiding seemed a better tactic than running in circles.
She stepped into the stream. The shock of the cold water initially soothed the fire in her ripped soles but that relief quickly became a deep ache, as if her feet were literally freezing. She eased into the crevice.
This better work, or she was trapped.
The scraping of his feet came from above. On the ledge.
She stood in the frigid water, plastering herself against the cold rocks of the crevice wall, her shivers now shaking her entire body. She clamped the web of her good hand between her teeth to soften their chattering.
The silence suddenly felt heavy. What was he doing? Then footsteps, growing fainter, moving away.
It had worked. Tears welled in her eyes. Her mangled hand throbbed, her feet ached, she was lost and might even freeze to death, but she had beaten him.
She waited ten agonizing minutes before slipping from the crevice and climbing out of the stream. She moved to where a slant of moonlight slid through the trees and lifted one foot and then the other, examining the soles. Ripped flesh and fresh blood.
Following the stream downhill seemed the best bet. But after only a few steps, something slammed into her left side. Hard. Sharp. She staggered. A spasm of coughing produced sprays of blood. She collapsed to her knees, confused. Then she heard his footsteps. Close. Right behind her. She swiveled toward him and looked up into his eyes,
"You shouldn't have done that," he said.
"You were to be my first masterpiece. But now? You're nothing. A wasted canvas."CHAPTER 2
Billy Clowers shook his head. "You don't know nothing."
"I know that if you leave those there it'll jump the tracks," Benjie Crane said.
"And we'll be in big trouble," Misty added.
"So you're on his side now?" Billy asked.
Misty jammed her fists against her hips. "When he's right, I am."
"You're so lame." Billy squatted beside the metal rail. "Both of you are."
Misty stepped up on the rail, balancing on her frayed tennis shoes, faded gray with new pink laces, and looked down at her brother. "Well, since we're twins, if I'm lame so are you."
"I'm smarter anyway."
"Want to compare report cards?"
Billy rolled his eyes. "Like that means anything."
"It means I'm smarter."
"Whatever." Billy settled two more quarters on the rail.
"You better take some of those off there," Benjie said.
"It will not jump the track."
"My cousin said if you used more than five pennies it would definitely cause a wreck," Benjie said. "And you got six pennies, two nickels, and three quarters."
Billy spun on his haunches. "Is this your cousin from up in Ohio?"
"Yeah," Benjie said.
"He's lame, too."
"Is not. He's five years older and in high school already. He knows stuff."
"That only means he's had five more years of lameness." Billy returned to adjusting coins. "You just have to make sure they're lined up down the middle. If they hang over the edge then they could derail it."
"See, I told you," Misty said.
Billy stood. "Do something useful. Take a listen."
Misty dropped to her knees on the gravel rail bed and pressed one ear against the metal. Her brow wrinkled.
"I don't hear nothing."
"Cause you don't know what to listen for." Billy dropped to his knees and pressed an ear against the other rail. "I hear it. It's coming."
"Is not. If it was I'd of heard it."
He stood. "Get Mom to clean your ears."
"It ain't coming."
Billy pointed down the tracks to where they curved right and disappeared into a stand of pines some two hundred yards away. "It'll come around that bend in about five minutes. If you want your coins flattened, you better get them lined up."
Misty and Benjie hesitated, looking at each other, and then began digging through their pockets. Soon a total of fifteen pennies, four nickels, and three quarters lined the rail.
"I feel it now," Benjie said, his hand resting on the track.
"Here it comes," Billy said, pointing.
The train chugged around the bend. Its horn sounded three short blasts.
"Let's go," Billy said.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Skin In The Game"
Copyright © 2019 D. P. Lyle.
Excerpted by permission of Suspense Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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