Authors: Katie Ruggle
EVERYTHING WENT SILENT.
George's smile froze as his eyes fixed on something over Ellie's shoulder. Puzzled, she started to turn, but an arm looping around her neck stopped her midmotion. Something pressed against her temple, and she could feel the metal, hard and cold, even through her knit hat.
“You move, and she's dead,” a voice rasped in her ear.
George's hands raised to shoulder level. His gaze was fixed on the gun, and his expression was so cold that he didn't even look like himself.
“Don't you try anything, either, pretty girl.” The man's voice changed when he talked to her, syrupy and sickening. “If you don't make a fuss, then no one gets hurt. And if you doâ¦”
He didn't need to finish the rest.
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Copyright Â© 2016 by Katie Ruggle
Cover and internal design Â© 2016 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover art by Craig White
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All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systemsâexcept in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviewsâwithout permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410
Fax: (630) 961-2168
To the brave and dedicated people who make up the Hartsel Colorado Fire Department. I know I should've dedicated the firefighter book to you, but I had to do the siblings first, or I would've never heard the end of it. Just kidding, sibs (sort of).
Ellie almost didn't take the call. If her date hadn't been so completely, utterly, and excruciatingly boring, she would've let it go to voice mail. But thanks to Dylan's never-ending monologue about his triathlon training, she seized the opportunity to escape when her phone made her tiny purse vibrate under her hand. Ellie didn't care who it wasâa reminder from her dentist would have been better than listening to Dylan talk about how brick workouts affected his lower GI tract.
“Please excuse me,” she interrupted with an apologetic smile as she pulled the phone from her purse. “I have to take this.”
Sliding off her barstool, she booked it as fast as her stilettos would take her toward the ladies' room. On the way, she tapped the screen to accept the call.
“Hello?” She fully expected it to be a telemarketer, since she didn't recognize the number. The seven-one-nine area code covered a big chunk of South-Central Colorado.
“Eleanor?” a male voice asked.
“This is she.” Definitely a telemarketer. No one who knew her well called her by her full name. It was worth listening to this guy's sales pitch, though, just to get away from the brain-sucking boredom that was her date.
The voice sounded familiar. She frowned, trying to place how she knew the caller as she ducked into the bathroom. It was empty and blessedly quiet compared to the loud music and chatter filling the main part of the club. “Yes?”
“Justâ¦just wanted to say sorry to you, baby.”
As recognition hit, Ellie's fingers went numb, and she almost dropped the phone. When she tried to speak, only a faint wheeze emerged from her throat.
“They're coming for me,” he continued, his words fast and urgent. “I've managed to get away from them so far, but I wantedâ¦ I wanted to tell you, just in case. I'm sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry.”
“Dad?” she finally managed to squeeze out of lungs compressed with shock.
“Yeah, baby girl. It's me. I haven'tâ¦ I haven't been a good dad. I know that. I know. But I wanted to say I'm sorry. I love you, baby. I've always loved you, but things are just not rightâ¦not right in my head. If I could've been a better dad, I would have. I would.”
Her knees felt wobbly, and she slid her back down the wall until she was sitting on the floor. “I know, Dad.” Her voice shook as badly as her knees. “I know you can't help how you are. I love you, too.”
“They're trying to kill me, baby. Trying to keep me quiet. I can't, I can'tâ¦
's trying to keep me quiet. I'm going to hide, though. I'll do my best to stay alive. I wantâ¦ I want to try again with you, try to be better this time. Will youâ¦would that be okay?”
“Yeah, Dad.” Tipping her head back against the wall, Ellie closed her eyes. “That would be great.”
“Good. Good.” His words slowed for just an instant before the anxious patter started again. “I'm going to Grandpa's cabin. I took you there that one summer, do you remember? The cabin? We had fun, didn't we? You had fun?”
“I remember.” Her voice broke on the last word. “We did have fun.” She'd been ten, and they'd had a great timeâat least until Baxter had had an episode and barricaded them both inside the cabin. Getting them out had required the efforts of a SWAT team and several law enforcement agencies. That had been Ellie's last unsupervised visit with her father.
“No one else knows about it. I should beâ¦should stay hidden. They won't find me there. As soon as it's safe, I'll come find you, okay? We'll try again. I'll be a better dad this time. I promise. Promise, promise.”
The alarm bells going off in her head finally penetrated her shock and sadness, and she sat up straight. “I believe you, Dad. Why don't you come to me right away? You don't need to go to the cabin.” The thought of her mentally ill and obviously unmedicated father wandering alone in the wilderness was terrifying. “I can pick you up. Where are you?”
“At Gray Goose's house. They killed him, baby girl. Chopped off his head and dumped him in the reservoir. They'll kill me, too, if I don't hide. Need to hide. Can't die, can't die. If I die, I'll never get to try again with you, baby, and I know I can do better. I'll do better.”
“I know you will, Dad, but you don't have to hide. I'll come get you. I'll keep you safe, okay? They won't be able to get you if you're with me. What's the address?”
“No, no, no. Don't come to Simpson, baby. They can't get you. Not you, not you. Stay away from them. They'll kill you, too. Not you, not my baby girl.” He grew more and more agitated with each word.
“Dad, it's okay. They won't get me.” The monsters in Baxter's head only tormented him. “I'm safe. I need to get you safe, too.”
“I'm going to the cabin. I'll hide there. You stay away. You stay away, baby. You need to stay far away.”
“Dadâ¦” Her phone gave the double beep of a lost signal. “Dad!”
She fumbled to call the number, but it immediately went to an automated message telling her that the voice mail was full. A sob caught her by surprise, and she pressed a hand over her mouth as if to physically hold it back.
The restroom door swung open, and a pair of laughing women walked inside. When they saw her, their smiles immediately died.
“Are you okay?” one of them asked.
Ellie suddenly realized how she must look, makeup smeared, sitting on the bathroom floor in a dress that definitely wasn't designed for that. Taking a shaky breath, she tried to force a reassuring smile.
“Yes, thank you.” Ellie climbed awkwardly to her feet, flattening her hands against the wall when her legs shook, threatening to send her back to the floor. “I just got some bad news. A family issue.”
“Oh, I'm sorry.” Both women looked at her sympathetically. Now that she was on her feet, they must've decided she wasn't in need of their assistance, because they headed for the stalls. Ellie took tentative steps to one of the sinks. Her face looked pale, her skin undershot with green, and her hazel eyes were huge. She did a cursory job fixing her makeup, took several deep breaths that weren't any less shaky than the first one, and left the restroom.
Dylan was waiting where she'd left him. Although it felt like the phone call had taken hours, it had probably only been ten minutes, tops, since her cell had vibrated. She wove her way through the crowd until she was next to him and plucked her sweater off of her stool.
“Dylan,” she said, leaning close to his ear so he could hear. He wrapped an arm around her waist, and she couldn't stop herself from flinching. Even shielded by the barrier of her dress, her skin felt oversensitive, as if every nerve were exposed. Ellie resisted the urge to shove away his arm, reminding herself that he was her boss's friend. Later, when her father was safe, she could gently give him the brush-off. “I'm sorry, but I have to go. Family emergency.”
“Oh, that's too bad.” He knocked back the rest of his drink and stood. “I'll drive you home.”
She cringed inwardly. Over the past hour, she'd watched him drink two and a half martinis, and he'd just finished off the third. “Thank you, but I'll catch the L. There's a stop right by my apartment building.”
“Sure?” When she nodded, Dylan sat down again. “Okay. It's been fun. I'll call you, and we can do this again sometime.” When he leaned in as if to kiss her, Ellie twisted free of his arm. Boss's friend or no, he wasn't getting a kiss. Diplomacy had its limits.
“See you.” After giving him a wave and a forced smile a few feet out of groping reach, she hurried toward the exit. Before she'd even left the club, Ellie had forgotten about Dylan. Her mind was filled instead with worry for another man.
The chilly air smacked her in the face as she stepped outside, and she hurried to pull on her long sweater. The fine, soft knit didn't offer much protection from the cold Lake Michigan wind, but it was slightly better than just the thin material of her dress. Turning right, she skirted the line of people waiting to enter the club. It was still early for a Saturday night, not even eleven, and Chicago's downtown was thick with both pedestrian and vehicle traffic.
Instead of heading toward the nearest train station, Ellie decided to walk home. It was less than a mile northwest to her condo building, and she needed to move, or her anxiety would boil over. Her shoes weren't the most uncomfortable ones she owned, although they were close. She'd been walking in heels for a decade, though, so she'd had years of training in ignoring discomfort.
Ellie realized she was picking at her cuticles and quickly yanked her hands apart. She thought she'd rid herself of that nervous habit, but it apparently took only one phone call from her dad to reduce her to the anxious teenager she'd once been.
Walking wasn't enough. She needed to do something productive, or she was going to run down the street, screaming. Digging her phone out of her purse, she stared at the time on the screen for several seconds before pulling up her contacts and tapping her mom's number.
As she held the cell phone to her ear, she realized her hand was creeping up toward her mouth. Ellie dropped it to her side and made a disgusted sound. The only thing worse than picking at her cuticles was chewing on her hangnails.
“El?” Her mother's voice sounded worried. “What's wrong?”
“Hi, Mom. Sorry I'm calling so late. Did I wake you?”
“It's not quite nine here.” Her mom had moved to California a few years before. “I'm not
Normally, Ellie would have laughed at that, but the tight ball of nerves in her stomach wouldn't allow it. Instead, she stayed silent.
“Did the date with Chelsea's friend not go well?” her mom asked, the sharp edge of worry in her voice fading to general concern.
“No. I mean, it wasn't great, but that's not why I called.” Taking a deep breath, she blurted, “Dad's in trouble.”
Silence greeted her announcement. As she waited for her mom to speak, Ellie counted her footsteps, heels clicking on the pavement.
One. Two. Three. Four. Fiveâ¦
“Honey.” There it wasâ
. Ellie had forgotten about the way her mom's words came out slow and heavy, thick with a mixture of fatigue and condescension, whenever she talked about her ex-husband. “You can't let him pull you into his drama.”
“It's not drama, Mom.” Her hand hovered by her mouth again, and she impatiently yanked it away. “He's sick, and he's scared, and I need to go get him.”
“He'll just drag you down with him.” The
had sharpened with added irritation. “I know you love him, sweetie, but you can't fix him. You can't make him take his meds, and without them, he's not safe to be around.”
“He's never hurt me.” She closed her eyes for a second, ashamed at the sullen cast to her voice. Why did interacting with her parents reduce her to a thirteen-year-old? “I just want to bring him to a safe place. He's trying to get to Grandpa's cabin.”
“Scott's cabin?” Her mom sounded startled. “In Colorado?”
“Yes. The one he took me to when I was ten.” When Ellie heard the inhale on the other end of the call, she grimaced. It had been a mistake to bring that up. After their extraction from the cabin, her mother hadn't let Ellie out of her sight for days, and any mention of Baxter had turned Ellie's mom blotchy red with rage.
“What is he doing? That place isn't even accessible by car until June at the earliest. He'll have to hikeânoâ” Her mom interrupted herself. “I can't do this.
can't do this. El, you need to separate yourself from him.”
“I can't just leave him,” Ellie said softly, stopping at the entrance of her building. Tilting back her head, she stared, unseeing, at the layers of metal balconies above her.
“Yes.” Her mother had her stern, you-will-listen-to-me voice going. “You can. You have to. Think of all the times we tried to help him and just got sucked into his mixed-up mess. For your own sanity, you need to stay clear of him.”
The balconies grew blurry, and she scrubbed away tears with the hand not holding the phone. “But I haven't. I haven't tried to help him
. He'd visit for an hour, looking so lost and desperate, and I'd be polite to him. When he'd leave, I'd feel relieved. If you'd heard him on the phoneâ¦ Mom, he's so scared.”
“There's no real threat, El. It's in his head.”
“But there is a threat!” She brushed at her cheeks, but her tears flowed faster than she could wipe them away. “You said it yourself. He'll have to hike to the cabin. There's no running water, and who knows if Dad will bring food, and he's going to hide there until he feels safe. The monsters are always with him, though, so he'll
Her mom sighed loudly. “You can't save him, El.”
“Not from his brain.” Her breath left her lungs on a hiccup. “But I'm going to find him, and I'm going to take him somewhere where he won't freeze to death hiding from the boogeyman.”
“I'm sorry, Mom, but I have to do this. If I don't, and something happens to him, I won't be able to live with myself.”
“I lived with the man for fifteen years, El. I tried, over and over, to fix him. You're just inviting heartache.”
“Better heartache than regret.” Ellie took a deep, shuddering breath. “Can you give me directions to Grandpa's cabin?”
“I'm not helping you chase after him, El.” The
was back. “I can't stop you, but I'm not going to encourage this.”
Ellie was silent as she resisted the urge to whine. “Okay,” she finally said. “I'll figure it out. Bye, Mom.”