A priest is in the midst of a personal crisis when a killer lures him into, a twisted world of moral corruption, cover-ups and revenge.
A dark shape materialized through the door in the middle of the hallway. Danika watched it, transfixed, as it coalesced into a monstrous-sized dog. It's bulging eyes kept her rooted to the spot. She opened her mouth to scream, but there was only an incongruous sound -- the animal rumbling with satisfaction.
Her bladder let loose, and Danika felt a hot stream of urine running down her leg. Fear drummed the back of her eyeballs and she swallowed against the bitter bite of it. Her whimpering drew the creature closer. She cringed against its assault. Then it did something possible only in nightmares. It stopped at her feet, sat back on its haunches and spoke, "I've come to complete our bargain, Danika Marten -- to make you famous and take your soul back to hell with me."
Danika Marten's brain struggled to comprehend her situation even as it assessed her physical state. Her tongue felt like a brick lying between her gums, and her throat ached with each indrawn breath. Discharged fluid crusted the corners of her eyelids, preventing full movement of the tender flesh. Through slitted lids, she could see nothing past the end of her bare feet.
She sensed she was bound to a soft surface, but had no idea where she was or how long she'd been unconscious. Attempting to roll onto her side, she gasped as if a red hot iron had been placed atop her bones. Pain radiated upwards from her left ankle, and she groaned with the realization it was likely broken, making her situation all the more perilous.
Her recurring nightmare usually stopped at this point, leaving her panting and immobile in the safety of her bed, cocooned in the elegance with which she surrounded herself. But not this time. The nightmare had broken through its imposed chains. Her life was up for grabs.
Danika struggled to pull together the shreds of her sanity. Think, girl. What do you remember?
Images like water bubbles struggled to the surface and popped just as she grasped them. Panic made a brief bid for control, but Danika gave no ground. She was of that strange breed of woman that looks like a sex kitten on the outside and is cold, carbon steel on the inside. She'd fought like a jackal bitch saving her brood to get to where she was in life. With every skirmish, every war won, she learned to detect outside danger. Her instincts told her the likely culprit, Jordan, wasn't capable of carrying through, let alone conceiving, such an elaborate revenge.
If not Jordan, then who...? Focus. What happened on the way to the car?
Reverting to a technique taught to her by a former colleague and war correspondent, Danika pictured herself behind the lens of a camera. Pacing her breathing put her into a witness mode, and she waited for the scene to come forward.
The painted dog! Yes, when I turned, it lunged at me. I felt the prick of a needle and then nothing. Someone used a dog to distract me while they approached from behind and shoved that syringe in my neck. Could it be the serial killer? Makes crazy sense. But what does he want from me?
To her left, a rush of cold, damp air -- smelling of fresh-dug earth -- set her shivering.
Negotiate. Convince the man he needs you – needs your money. Screw the apartment in Paris. Danika forced her limbs to relax. Patience... he's gotta check on you. When he does, you'll be ready for him.
Rustling announced a presence in the room. A sickening sulfuric odor made her stomach lurch.
“Ah, the delectable Miss Marten has returned to the land of the living. At least for now.” The speaker's voice was thick, yet keen as the prolonged screeching of an owl, making her ear drums ache as though flogged.
A scorching breath raked the length of her cheek followed by a tongue that ripped through her skin. “Mm. You taste --- dare I say it --- divine.”
Danika whimpered under the fresh assault of pain. Memory of a painted beast and its hideous smile rose up.
Impossible. Dogs can't speak. Pearce is a ventriloquist.
Harsh laughter from every corner of the room mocked her thoughts.
“Pearce is my servant and does not speak for me,” she heard. “Just as you are my servant, though you have yet to comprehend that fact.”
“Listen. I have money. Lots of money.” She turned in the direction of the voice. “I'll pay whatever you ask. I'll drop out of sight and never tell a living soul what's happened here.”
A drawn-out growl, sending shivers along her spine, was the only reply.
Danika's thoughts raced. Maybe he wants me to write about his crimes. Yes... that's it. I'll promise him fame. It's what every serial killer craves.
“You disappoint me, Miss Marten. I took you to be one of those people capable of thinking outside the box.”
Damn the pain! Danika reared up as far as her bindings would allow. “You rat bastard. Put a gun in my hand and we'll see how far out of the box I can go.”
“Now that's my girl. As good on your feet as you are on your back.” Danika stiffened. The voice had changed to one she knew to be silenced long ago. A bloated face with eyes of ice floated just above her chest. Oh my God, no!
“Carissa? How is it possible – I mean I heard you'd... ah... died. I meant to come to the funeral, really I did. But I had this gig...”
“Save it. You can tell me all 'bout it when you get here. And, hey, I'm not alone. My son... the one you played to get to me? He's here, too, and anxious to get caught up. We be all square y'know. Tyrone showed me how the whole deal went down. Showed me how you forced him into rehab so he'd get so desperate for drugs, he'd do anything you said. Even butcher his mother.”
“I had nothing to do with that. I'll swear it on a stack of Bibles.”
A rich-throated laugh tickled the hairs on her neck. “Ain't no Bibles where you be goin' Princess. But Tyrone... he gonna show you what they is plenty of.”
Danika sobbed her relief when the face disappeared and the room went silent. Then, agony beyond anything she imagined, forced her to scream over and over as the soles of her feet melted beneath a wave of searing heat.
Tribal policeman Ty Longacre approached his deputy's car with practiced stealth. Jake jumped when he tapped on his window, recovered his wits and rolled down the window.
“I about crapped my pants, Ty. You could've given me some warning.”
“Man up, Jake. The Feds are on their way, so we have to do what we can to assess the situation before they get here and commandeer jurisdiction.”
“Why don't we just wait for them? There's something awful happening here. My whole body is tingling, and that only happens when I'm around wosiche.”
Ty shoved an object through the window and Jake groaned when he saw what it was. “A BP vest? Is it even the right size?”
“It's a precaution. Now, follow me. And stop smoking those damned cigarettes. I could smell you from thirty feet away.”
“Sorry." Jake exited the car and hurried to catch up with his much thinner boss. " Where we headin' anyway?”
“Used to be a deer stand south of the cabin. It's not been kept up, but it will provide good enough cover. We can observe the property from there.”
Ty winced with every crunch made by his partner's heavy footfall. He kept his eyes moving and his senses on high alert. The devil dog was capable of bringing down one of them. A bullet-proof vest would provide zero protection against the beast's malevolence. But he had no intention of alarming Jake any further with that detail. What did bother him was how easily they'd been able to penetrate the property's perimeter.
Where the hell is that dog? He knows we're here. I'd bet the ranch on it.
His partner cried out as he stepped in a gopher hole and pitched forward.
“For Christ's sake, Jake. Are you trying to get us killed?” Ty hissed.
He grabbed the other man's arm and pulled him to his feet. When he saw the shame his harsh words caused, he softened his voice, “Should've warned you about the gopher holes. The woods are filthy with them. Are you hurt?”
“Just my pride.”
“We're close now.”
They skirted a clump of red pines and, as predicted, could see the wooden platform well up off the ground.
“Ty, I'm not sure I can climb up that far. Plus, it doesn't look like it will hold the weight of both of us."
“It doesn't need to. You're going to do surveillance from up there while I scout the situation at the cabin.”
“That's crazy ass stupid. You don't know how many people – with God knows what kind of assault weapons – are holed up in that house.” He grabbed Ty's shirt and pulled him close. “Wait for the Feds, Bro.”
Ty gave him a gentle shove backwards. “Can't wait. A good man is in that cabin. Someone our tribe honors and values. I'm not willing to put his life in the hands of people who don't care if one old man dies in order to bring down a serial killer.”
He pointed to the vest Jake carried under his arm. “Put that on and get yourself up that tree. No matter what you hear, stay put until back-up arrives.”
Halfway up the sloping trail, Ty froze as the screams of a woman in extreme agony shattered the forest's calm.