Alone, held captive, and left in the dark, a woman's worst fears come true in this gripping thriller by the award-winning author of Expose.
San Francisco medical examiner Annabelle Schwartzman has spent eight years looking over her shoulder. Stalked by her vengeful ex-husband, Spencer, she's always known they'd meet again. Has her nightmare come true? Abducted, blindfolded, yoked, and tethered, she's being held prisoner in an isolated cabin in Idaho. But it's the unknown that terrifies Annabelle now. Because the man's voice in the dark, though eerily familiar, is not Spencer's.
Annabelle's partner and lover, Inspector Hal Harris, knows in his gut that Annabelle's disappearance is tied to the past. Except Spencer is fifteen hundred miles away. To save Annabelle, Hal is tracking every move Spencer makes. But is it drawing him closer to finding Annabelle? Or is it luring him farther from her desperate cries for help?
As a cruel game of retribution begins, Annabelle must rely on her wits, her will to survive, and a plan of escape. But time is running out. And her captor's three chilling words make her fear that the worst is yet to come: sweet dreams, Bella.
Release date: July 9, 2019
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Print pages: 299
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One week earlier
Spencer tucked the cell phone jammer behind the pot on the front porch and took another look at the street. All quiet. Mistress Keres would have chosen this area of town for exactly that reason. The houses were small, the yards well kept. These were not wealthy people who could afford to sit around and watch out their windows. People in this area worked, and at 10:30 a.m. on a Monday, there wasn’t another body in sight. He looked up at the front door and let himself relish what was about to happen, holding the excitement in his chest.
The plan was in motion. It was earlier than he’d anticipated by at least a few weeks. But Bryce Scala had made that happen. Anger burned in his nose at the thought of Scala—a man who had been unknown to him until a week ago. A few more weeks, and Spencer might never have known him.
Had Spencer been successful in convincing Scala that he’d had nothing to do with his own mother’s death? Hopefully, the conversation had allayed some of Scala’s suspicions. Only time would tell. While Spencer had someone keeping an eye on Scala, he was not willing to risk everything to wait around and see.
And when Scala discovered Spencer had disappeared . . . What then?
Would Scala turn over to the police the letters from Spencer’s mother when Spencer was gone? Would the police bother to look into her death now? Spencer had weighed the option of making Scala and the letters disappear rather than expediting his plan, but how could he be certain that Scala didn’t have copies somewhere? That the letters wouldn’t still make their way to the hands of the police?
He drew a long, deep breath and filled his mind with images of the pleasure the next hour would bring. He would be gone, and it wouldn’t be his problem, he thought, using his knuckle to ring the doorbell. Gloves would have been too obvious. Above all else, Mistress Keres was a student of human nature. The electricity of warning ran up his spine. He shouldn’t have been here. This was an unnecessary risk.
But if he didn’t have this outlet, he’d blow.
She was the one safe venue for his rage. How many times had he come here for her beatings? Mistress Keres. After the Greek goddess of violent death. Perhaps this final meeting of theirs was predestined.
A tingling spread through his groin. He’d always felt it there, though he’d never had sex with Keres. His needs were not so easily satisfied.
Behind the door, the clack of heels echoed on her wood floor.
He took a last glance at the street, though he knew he had not been followed. He had taken every necessary step to ensure his anonymity—booking the appointment under the name of a different client, taking an Uber under a false account, getting dropped off a half mile away. She had a security system, but he had cut the landline, and the cell phone jammer would eliminate the possibility of accessing help with her mobile.
Managing money for a hacker had its benefits. If you were good. And Spencer was. On the other side of the door, the sound of her footsteps grew louder. The peephole darkened. He kept his head down, though there was no way of disguising himself. Not if he wanted her to let him in.
And he did.
Spencer drew his breath, shutting out the sound of Bryce Scala’s voice rattling in his skull. The man’s visit had rocked him. And he wasn’t used to being rocked. It wasn’t the man himself—Spencer could have broken that man in two. It was the lingering idea that his parents could still haunt him, even though his father had died ages ago and his mother last November. He thought he had rid himself of their judgments.
But he hadn’t.
Because his mother had recorded them, shared them. Her concerns about him. Her fears.
The door opened slowly. Mistress Keres wore an expression of surprise, curiosity tinged with suspicion. There had been a flash of alarm in her eyes, quickly hidden. With a subtle shift of her head, chin, and shoulders, she regained control.
Spencer kept his head down, his hands clasped in front of him—the same way he always staged himself in his church. Demurring, deferential.
He didn’t stare at her, though he’d caught a glimpse of her outfit—the black leather shorts that barely covered the swell of her ass. Her short top showed both cleavage and a band of toned belly. She was disgusting. Nothing like Bella.
Anger raged in him again.
“I don’t have you on my calendar today.”
Actually, she didn’t have him down at all, not again. He’d told himself he was through with her. It was time to move on. But then he’d read those letters. And he’d known he had to see her.
“I thought I had it right,” he said. “I know it’s not our normal time . . .” He forced his eyes to widen and plead. Bit his lower lip. Please don’t reject me.
She put up a red-tipped finger and crossed the foyer, lifting her iPhone off the front table. The nails were too long. Obviously fake. Not the way she dressed for him. She knew he preferred proper clothes, a wholesome-looking woman. He’d known all the subtleties of her costumes weren’t real, but suddenly, the act was garish.
From the corner of his eye, he saw her trying to get her calendar to refresh. Of course, it wouldn’t. The jammer would make sure of that.
“Do you have someone else? I could just come back with this,” he said, pulling out the red Cartier box. He had never brought her a gift before.
She had another john—or maybe johns—who bought her gifts. Expensive ones he’d seen on her when he’d followed her out on the town with one man or the other. Most of her johns liked to take her out. He was the anomaly.
A flash of surprise crossed her face, a flush of pleasure. He was right. The gift had been a good idea. She eyed the box, then her calendar. He already knew she had a john coming in an hour. “I don’t have much time, but you look like you need me today.”
He nodded. Did he ever. At home, left with the letters, Spencer had felt Scala’s words batter against his mind like the waves against a ship in a storm. Your mother and my wife were like sisters, he’d said. They shared everything. And I’m a minister like your father. We shared a lot over the years.
The sharing. His parents did not share—not their attention or love. In every way possible, they had been frugal with him. But not so with others, it appeared. And then Scala’s last comment, spoken with his eyes narrowed, just as his own father had done. As a matter of fact, Scala had said, I saw your mother the day she died. The way he tilted his head, the appraising look.
What did he know?
Nothing. Spencer let out his breath. He knew nothing.
He caught her studying his face.
He looked at the floor as he’d been taught. Let his eyes fill with tears. She motioned him back to the room.
Once they stood in the entryway, Spencer scanned the space again as though wakening from a drugged state. This room had held such release for him. The pain, her control. He had been desperate to feel that.
But it wasn’t there. What he saw now was a cheap motel room, fake leather furniture, and the vague smell of bleach beneath layers of thick, overbearing candles.
She was holding the box.
He forced himself to smile. “It’s just a little thank-you.”
Keres opened its top and looked down at the thick byzantine gold rope. It was quite stunning, really. Something he had bought for Bella after Ava when he had expected them to reconcile. Not actually Cartier, but the box had been a nice touch. It certainly seemed to please the woman in front of him.
“It’s stunning,” she whispered, pulling it free of the box’s white velvet tabs. She draped it across her neck and turned her back to him. “Will you help me?”
For the first time since Bryce Scala had rung his doorbell, he felt himself relax. “Sure. Let me see,” he said. “I don’t have my reading glasses.” He wasn’t about to touch the necklace.
His hands found the white handkerchief in his pocket, drew it out.
Her long nails clicked as she fiddled with the clasp. He breathed through the incessant noise, focused his control.
“There,” she said, turning to show him.
But he grabbed her first. Wrapped the handkerchief around the necklace and jerked it backward.
Shocked, she gasped and clawed at the necklace. Her breasts jiggled in the low-cut top, reminding him of pudding.
He yanked the necklace tighter, his fingers struggling to grip through the cotton. The handkerchief slipped as he dragged her up to her tiptoes.
“You’re hurting me,” she said, the surprise in her voice making him smile.
He thought of Bryce Scala, of the letters his mother had written about him. A mother who had suspected something was wrong with her three- and four- and five-year-old boy. That he was broken somehow. Evil. She had called him evil. She had written those words and put them out into the world, sent them to another person.
All those years of fake love. She hadn’t loved him. She had loathed him, feared him.
The anger ran in currents through his hands and into Keres’s neck as though he were strangling his mother. If only he could kill her again—although not so gently—he would choke his mother slowly and watch the life drain out of her water-blue eyes. The handkerchief slipped again, and he let it fall, taking hold of the chain in his hand. He would have to take it with him now. But he didn’t care.
Something broke inside his blinding fury, and the tightness in his chest loosened. He could draw a full breath.
She kicked her feet, and the shoes sailed from them. The sight of her bare toes with their faint pink polish, hidden under those hooker shoes, brought another wave of hot fury. As she reached back, nails out to claw his face, he pitched her forward and then back again, lifting her off the ground and swinging her. Then he brought her down quickly. Her feet flailed inches above the floor. She fell forward, landing on her knees and reaching out to catch her fall.
He heard the satisfying crack of her wrist, the shrill panicked cry muted by the necklace choking her. Clasping the chain tight against her neck, he drove her forward toward the floor, closing the metal on her neck. His own breath was loud, raspy with excitement above her strangled cries.
She made another struggled attempt to grab for him. A nail on her left hand snapped off against the hard canvas of his jacket. It had left a mark, he was sure. To the dumpster with this coat. Oh well, he thought. He’d never liked it anyway.
Straddling her now, he drove her head into the floor with the heels of his hands, cinching the necklace with his fingers. Slowly, the fight drained from her. When she began to still, he eased the pressure off the chain. Released the necklace when he was certain she was unconscious.
In case she was trying to fool him, he stood at the ready. But she lay still on the floor. For several moments, he savored her lifeless form and the thumping of his heart in his chest, the rush of adrenaline. He worried he had gone too far, but her chest still rose and fell, although weakly. From his pocket, he removed the latex gloves and pulled them on. To confirm she was alive, he pressed his fingers to her carotid and felt the thump-thump of her pulse.
He took hold of her unbroken wrist and dragged her to the center of the room. Then he pulled the knife from his pocket and cut off the cheap shorts and the nasty top, leaving her naked.
With rope from her workbench, he trussed her—hands behind her back, feet attached to the rope on her neck. He was not aroused by her naked body. Her control had been his aphrodisiac. What he felt now was calm, centered.
Bryce Scala was out of his head.
He was back in control.
Spencer MacDonald checked his watch and wondered how long before Mistress Keres woke.
Already, he longed to strangle her again.
Saturday, 11:40 p.m. MST
Pain drilled through her skull. A bone saw whirred in the distance, its vibration traveling through her ribs and pelvis. Her head dulled by drugs, Annabelle Schwartzman shifted in the darkness. Something rough and thin pinned her arms behind her back, her shoulder a solid bruise against the hard metal floor. There was moisture beneath her and the faint scents of grass, dirt, and rust.
She wiggled her fingers, the metal cuffs biting at her wrists. Her hands were tied. Panic rose, cutting through the fog. Pieces of information pelted her, coming fast as she struggled to put it all together.
A long shriek of brakes cut through the darkness, and the saw went silent. Not a saw. An engine. She was in a vehicle. The hard floor beneath her felt different from the van. Had she been transferred? Where was she now? Fighting the panic, she studied the momentary silence, listening for sounds. The low drawl of a door and then footsteps on asphalt. Wet asphalt, hard-soled shoes. Boots. She held her breath. Metal clanked against metal, and a door creaked open.
Squinting, she waited for the light. But it didn’t come.
She turned her head but found only darkness. Shifting her chin, she felt something rough on her face. Fabric covered her head—thick and scratchy like burlap—cutting off all light. A smell close by. An unfamiliar cologne, the stench of cigarettes.
A hand jerked her arm. She gasped, swallowing a cry as her shoulder ground in its socket. The pain was muted and distant, muffled by whatever drugs her captor had administered.
She said nothing, waited. Tried to retrieve memories from the fog. To take in her surroundings. Metal pressed hard against her wrists, her bruises tender along the carpal bones. She felt the rope threaded between her feet, the rough plastic against her anklebones. Slowly, she drew her knees upward, tucking herself into a ball.
The burlap rustled on her chin, and a flash of light hit her retinas. She lowered her head to duck out of the bag.
“No.” His voice was a bark, throaty and hoarse from decades of cigarette smoke.
She turned her face away instinctively, but he gripped her neck. She felt something against her lips, pursed them closed.
“It’s water. Drink.” The voice had lost some of its gravel, and the words became clearer. Someone who hadn’t spoken in a while. Not Spencer. Her captor was alone, maybe. She tried to work out how much time had passed since she’d been taken. She sensed it was dark but couldn’t tell. The bruising she felt could have been two hours old or twelve.
Waiting for the bottle to touch her lips, she studied her surroundings for a second person. Only one. A man. The voice familiar somehow. But she couldn’t find it in her memory. Was he someone she had worked with? A police officer? The thought was terrifying. But the voice was not Spencer’s. Maybe that was good. Maybe not.
The plastic touched her lips, and she parted them slightly, feeling the wet cold strike her teeth. Swallowed a tentative sip and then drank greedily. The liquid came too fast, and she spit, choking as it went down her trachea.
He laughed as she coughed, and then he lifted the bottle to her again.
She drank again, more slowly, taking the water in until the last drops hit her tongue. Tears burned her eyes at the thought that there wasn’t more. How long had she been tied up here? Her stomach lurched in nausea. “Food.”
“Candy bar,” he said, and the tear of a plastic wrapper followed. She smelled the chocolate and peanuts, then felt the bar against her lips. Did he know she wasn’t allergic to peanuts? Did that mean he knew her? Or was it an educated guess? Despite all the buzz about peanut allergies, less than 1.5 percent of the population was affected.
The touch of the bar to her lips caused an involuntary gag reflex. She swallowed the saliva and opened her teeth to take a careful bite. Snickers. She chewed and swallowed, then took more. He was patient and silent as she ate, so she continued, buying time, thinking. How could she get out? Tied hands and feet. Blindfolded.
His one hand held her head, the other on the bar. Which meant no weapon. She twisted her feet ever so slightly, testing the strength of the rope between them. If she kicked him, could she get away? The rope bit into her ankles. She pushed harder, testing the give, but there was almost no space—certainly not enough to free one of her feet. And there was no way to run with her feet tied.
The candy bar pressed against her lips with a little force, and she took another bite. A faint breeze touched her chin, and she smelled his cologne, hints of ginger and frankincense. Her nausea reared again, and she paused to draw breath through her mouth, fighting off the urge to vomit. She needed the food and water.
The haze lifted momentarily, and she pictured the two plastic sticks on her bathroom sink.
The pregnancy tests.
She hadn’t seen the results.
But she didn’t need confirmation. She felt certain she was pregnant. Which meant keeping the food and water down was all the more important.
The tail end of the bar passed her lips. She closed it in her mouth and chewed slowly. The man crunched the wrapper into his hand. She felt a shift in the air. “Is there more water?”
Silence met her, and she swiveled her head as though she might sense his location. “Please,” she said. “I’m still thirsty.”
She smelled his breath first. Onion rings and ketchup. Heat and moisture, then his lips on hers. His tongue, warm and sour in her mouth. She twisted her face away, but he gripped the back of her head, holding his mouth to hers. She held her breath, clenched her teeth, panic building in her chest.
He stopped and laughed loud. The stench of onions filled her nose as his untrimmed fingernails bit into the back of her head. “You said you wanted more . . . Maybe next time you’ll be happy with what you get.”
Schwartzman drew her knees to her chest, forcing space between them.
The man released the back of her head, and the odor of onions faded slightly. He drew his fingers along her leg, his nails grating against the fabric of her yoga pants. Somewhere in the distance, an engine started.
His fingers halted. He’d heard it, too.
“Help me!” Schwartzman screamed. “Somebody help me!”
“Shut up,” he hissed as his hand clasped her leg. Those nails clawed through the fabric.
Launching her feet straight out, she connected with his body. He grunted, and she heard him fall back. The clank of something on the metal.
“Help me! Help!” she shouted, rolling herself toward the cold air. Her head struck something hard, and she tried to shift her course, still screaming. “Help! I need help!”
A hard, flat surface struck the side of her face. She gasped, tasting blood in her mouth. Another strike against the bone of her hip, the weapon catching the side of her ribs. She struggled to draw breath. Heard the click of the door closing.
She rocked slowly, fighting against the fear. The residual air in her lungs had been forced out with the blow; it made it hard to get that first breath. Her rational brain knew the cause, but adrenaline filled her with panic. Slowly, the air seeped into her lungs, and she drew a full, agonizing breath.
The pain echoed in her brain as she tried to get onto her knees.
His hands clasped her shoulders, and she was heaved off the floor of the truck and thrown. Like a bag of potatoes. She landed awkwardly against the wall, excruciating pain drilling her back. Tears streamed down her face, absorbed in the fabric against her skin.
He pressed her shoulders down, pinning her to the floor of the van.
Saying nothing, he straddled her, forcing her knees straight. She tried to rock against him, but he was too strong. The bindings on her feet prevented her from getting any leverage to fight back.
His weight drove her back into the hard metal floor until the ridges dug into her spine. “You want to scream?” he hissed. “I can make you scream.”
“No. Please.” The shearing sound of something ripping startled her, and then his hand pressed against her mouth. She breathed in the smell of plastic and adhesive just as she felt the pull of the duct tape across her lips.
Head turned, she huddled, waiting for him to leave. But he remained on top of her. Slowly, he shifted against her, grinding his hips.
She fought to close him out, to find a quiet place in her own head. Bide your time. Find a way out.
“That water you drank?” he whispered. “The drug’ll take effect anytime.”
More drugs. No. She thrashed beneath him, crying through the tape. He was erect against her, rubbing himself into her stomach. Panic lit her nerves on fire. Water rose in her throat. The residual taste of the candy bar was acidic at the back of her mouth. She focused on breathing, willing herself to stay awake.
But the haze descended. The rocking of his pelvis, the hard pain against her back grew more distant, less vivid. She tried to shake it off. She could not pass out. She could not be unconscious in this truck, with this man on top of her.
Her body grew light, the drilling pain on her spine far off as though it were happening in the past rather than in that moment.
His rocking rhythm seemed to slow. Everything seemed to slow. And then stop. Her head lolled, and her tongue felt too large in her mouth. There was a dull buzzing in her ears. Then she felt nothing at all.
And from somewhere in that floating blackness, she heard his words. “Sweet dreams, Bella.”
Sunday, 2:19 a.m. PST
Hal Harris paced a track from the coffee table in Anna’s living room to the edge of the kitchen, while Buster sat facing the door. Every time a car drove slowly down the quiet street, Hal went to the window, and Buster stood on all fours, wagging his tail. When the car passed, Buster whined and sat, and Hal went back to pacing. He pulled his phone from his pocket and checked it again. The picture of his nephews and niece on the lock screen, with their bright gapped-tooth smiles, seemed oddly menacing. He no longer noticed the time. It was late—or early. He needed sleep, but he couldn’t close his eyes.
When he tried, the panic set in—his heart raced, beating in his throat and neck, and his eyes burned as though they were on fire. Buster was no better. Since Hal had arrived at the house, the dog had kept vigil at Anna’s door. Hal pressed his palm against his left pocket, feeling the two pregnancy tests inside the plastic bag.
The sound of a car slowing on the street made Buster rise to his feet, ears pointed forward. Hal watched a black sedan pull to the curb and the front door open. The dome light illuminated a curly-haired woman. Hailey Wyatt, his old partner. He forced himself to stand still, though he wanted to turn around and go back into the house, close the door.
He thought of the pregnancy tests in his pocket, longed to study the faded blue plus sign again, to confirm for himself that he hadn’t made it up, that he could be a father, that Anna and he had made something. Before . . .
The car door cracked open, and Hailey stood on the street. “You up for company?”
She studied him without moving. They had worked together for almost twelve years. There had been a time when she had known him as well as he knew himself. Maybe better. Still standing at the car, she asked, “If I go, will you sleep?”
He shook his head. She closed the door and rounded the car to walk up the front path. The interior dome light went black, and she was caught in shadow momentarily. He found himself noticing all the differences between Hailey and Anna. While Anna was tall, probably five eight, Hailey was barely five three. Where Anna was lean and thin, Hailey was curvy. Her hair was a nest of wild curls while Anna’s was a gentle wave.
He looked away, the comparisons suddenly painful.
Hailey entered the house and sat on the edge of Anna’s couch. She cranked up her chin and watched him pace. “Hal.”
He looked back, and she nodded to a chair. Hal sighed and sat.
“The whole department is working her disappearance.”
Hal bristled at the word disappearance. Anna had been abducted. He drew a slow breath and let it out. He was grateful for the response from the department. His captain, Marshall, had put out a bulletin, and the response had been overwhelming. A dozen active officers were on the case, and more than thirty off-duty personnel had volunteered to go door-to-door to talk to neighbors. But they didn’t know what Spencer MacDonald was capable of. They would inevitably underestimate him.
“Roger has been in the lab all night,” Hailey said. “He and Ting are sorting through the CCTV and traffic footage in a one-mile radius.”
Ting was great with photo enhancement and manipulation, but finding a clear image of a face going thirty miles per hour in a white van . . . Hal wasn’t hopeful.
“And I checked in with Casazza in Missing Persons. She’s met with Eileen Goldstein twice.”
The woman who had been struck by the white van in the neighbor’s driveway. The reason Anna had left her house. The bait. Hal couldn’t blame an old woman, but the what-ifs spun like webs in his brain.
Hal had spoken with Casazza, too. “White man, white van.” Hal woke his laptop and checked his email. Marshall had requested FBI assistance. Hal had reached out to the Greenville police, but they weren’t interested in interviewing MacDonald about the disappearance of his ex-wife in San Francisco. Hal was considering flying down there himself.
He toggled to his spreadsheet that listed the things he wanted access to—MacDonald’s client list, known associates, phone records, bank and credit card records, GPS from his car, if he had a navigation system. If this were a San Francisco homicide and MacDonald a suspect, all of this would be within reach.
But Hal’s confidence that MacDonald was behind Anna’s disappearance was not enough to warrant that kind of access. Not officially. Hal had called in plenty of favors around the Bay Area. He’d responded to plenty as well. But across the country? In Greenville, South Carolina, of all places . . . He didn’t have any kind of inroad there.
“They’re sending a police artist over to sit with Goldstein tomorrow,” Hailey said. “We might get something from that.”
Hal said nothing. They both knew how imperfect that science was. And what good would an image do them? Facial recognition software didn’t work like it did on television. There was no way to upload an image and run it through some database of CCTV footage across a city, let alone the state. And certainly not with a sketch.
They weren’t going to get a photograph. Hal knew for a fact that the sketch Goldstein would help create was not going to be of Spencer MacDonald’s face. According to the local police, Spencer MacDonald had been home in Greenville at the time of Anna’s disappearance.
“Are you staying here?” Hailey asked.
He shrugged. “Maybe. I can’t have the dog at my place, and someone has to watch him.”
She nodded, holding her lip with her bottom teeth as though holding back a question. She opened a magazine on Schwartzman’s coffee table—something called Dwell—and images of perfect home interiors flipped by as she turned the pages.
Hailey closed the magazine. “Roger said there was a private investigator in Greenville.”
“Colton Price,” Hal said, standing again. “I spoke to him a few hours ago. He’s got people looking for MacDonald. There’s a credit card hit at a local hotel, which doesn’t make sense. He’s going to call me as soon as he knows more.” Hal drew the phone from his pocket again.
“Is there anything I can do?”
Hal walked the length of the room, turned back. Shook his head.
Hailey stood from the couch and made her way to the front door. “Try to rest.”
He nodded. “Thanks.”
After a moment of awkward silence, Hailey let herself out. Hal watched her walk back to the street and to her car. She wanted to help. He wished there was something she could do. Their friendship was built that way. During his divorce and after the death of Hailey’s husband, they’d leaned hard on each other. They had been fortunate to have one another. And he was grateful.
But this time was different. No amount of leaning on Hailey was going to bring Anna home to him.
That he was going to have to do himself.
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