Zoë recoiled from the nightmare only to find it still existed in the waking world. She was lying naked on the floor of an oppressively hot shed with dust and dirt clinging to the sweat coating her body. Thick cable ties bound her wrists in front of her, as well as her ankles. They’d been cinched so tight her hands and feet tingled at the slightest move.
How had this happened? She tried to piece events together, but everything was a fog. When she tried to focus on a single thought, the fog draped itself, wet and heavy, over her brain.
A scream from outside split the night.
Holli! Her friend’s name cut through her mental haze.
A picture formed. They’d been together for a long weekend in Vegas. In true Thelma & Louise style, too broke to fly, they’d driven from the Bay Area. They’d thought a road trip would be kitschy but discovered what a monotonous thing it was, driving hundreds of miles across state lines. Once they got to Vegas, they threw off the grad-student respectability and gambled, drank, and partied. It was just the shot in the arm they needed. They’d waited until dark before driving home—less traffic, less heat. That was where things turned vague. She remembered stopping for food and gas at some town that was just a pinprick on a map. Another hazy memory of eating at some restaurant or bar followed. The clink of glasses sounded in her brain, along with laughter. Then . . . then . . . nothing. What had happened after receded back into the murk.
Another scream. Zoë felt it vibrate in her bones. It was more than a cry for help. It was the cry of someone in pain, and it shocked Zoë into life. Whoever had Holli would come for her next. He couldn’t find her here when he did. She had to escape for her sake and Holli’s.
Moonlight shone through the window, cutting through the room at an angle. There wasn’t enough to see the whole place, but it was sufficient for seeing what she had to work with. Her prison was cheaply constructed. Corrugated metal formed the walls and ceiling. The plywood floor sagged under her weight. Boxes, containers, and toolboxes were spread across it and climbed the walls, forming a canyon of junk. Did her captor see her in those terms—just trash to be dumped out of sight and mind until he came to dispose of it?
She didn’t let the thought distract her. Escaping was all that mattered, and the room’s contents held her shot at freedom. Toolboxes meant tools. Tools meant a crack at getting her hands and feet free.
“Please let there be a knife,” she murmured to herself.
Another scream was followed by sobbing and faint pleas. Zoë had dumbly believed she was in the worst situation of her life, but it surely paled against Holli’s plight. She couldn’t imagine what Holli was going through.
“I’m coming, Holli,” she murmured.
Her captor had made a mistake. Binding her hands in front of her gave her maneuverability. He obviously didn’t expect much of a struggle from her.
She rolled from her side onto all fours. With her slight frame, it was easy to achieve, but her body screamed, forcing her onto elbows and knees. She tried to put her weight back on her feet, but toppled back onto her side.
She tried again. Determination trumped pain, and she forced herself upright. This time, she bent forward to keep her balance, then pushed down through her legs to stand. Giddiness greeted her on the way up. It met the fog layer clogging her brain and robbed her of her balance. She didn’t realize she was falling until she crashed back onto the floor.
Whatever drug she’d been given had robbed her of her dexterity.
“You think you can stop me, you son of a bitch?” she murmured. “Not a chance.”
She clung to her bravado. Misplaced or unrealistic, it didn’t matter. It kept fear at arm’s length.
She struggled back over and inched along wormlike while she listened to Holli’s moans and whimpers filtering through the walls.
Poor Holli. She had the unfortunate bad luck of being chosen first. Things easily could have gone the other way. The thought forced a shiver out of Zoë, despite the hot and muggy atmosphere inside the shed. The sound of her friend’s pain drove her on. She crept forward more quickly, but she couldn’t stop the tears.
“Enjoy your fun while it lasts, you sick son of a bitch,” she murmured as tears streaked her face.
She reached the closest toolbox and hauled herself up onto her knees, then leaned against the nearby crates. She had to be quiet; no more loud noises. If she could hear Holli’s cries, then they could hear her. Using both hands, she turned the box to face her. It was heavy. She took that as a good sign. A heavy toolbox was a well-equipped toolbox.
She lifted the lid. Screwdrivers, wrenches, and a couple of pliers filled the top tray. She lifted the tray out and found her prize—a box cutter. She snatched it up and clutched it to her chest. “Thank you, God.”
She dropped onto her butt and pulled her legs up to her chin. A sting of pain burned her left hip where the tops of her thighs touched her lower belly. She uncurled herself to find a wound. It was a knife cut. Blood still seeped from the incision. As she examined it, she realized it wasn’t a random injury, but a marking. Two letters had been sliced into her—I and V. The son of a bitch had branded her. The thought brought bile to the back of her throat.
She pulled her legs back up to her chin to hide the mutilation, and parted her knees to give herself easier access. Her feet tingled from the movement. She extended the box cutter’s blade and worked it across the thick plastic of the cable tie. The blade was dull and the plastic tough. Progress was slow, but steel was gradually winning. Each fast, efficient stroke ate into her restraints.
An intense shriek from Holli jolted Zoë, and the box cutter sliced deep into her anklebone. The pain was sudden and intense. She bit back the flood of agony to keep in a cry.
She ignored the thick bead of crimson trickling down her ankle and kept sawing away. Finally, the cable tie broke. The rapid flood of blood to her feet was both painful and fantastic. She closed her eyes for a moment to take in the exquisite relief.
Her feet might have been free, but she wasn’t halfway home. Trying to cut the other restraint while it was still around her wrists was a much bigger proposition.
She turned the box cutter on herself and tried to work the blade back and forth with her hands. She managed to get a sawing rhythm going, but her movements were so small that she’d be there forever at the rate she was going. She needed something else.
She ransacked the toolbox for anything that might help. She tried the pair of pliers, but her hands were so confined she couldn’t work them.
She spotted a rusted old saw with a wooden handle, hanging on the wall. The serrated blade was at least eighteen inches long. A real carpenter’s tool. And a real escape tool for her. She grabbed it and dropped to the floor with it. She turned the saw blade-side up, braced the handle against her groin, and clamped the other end between her feet.
Instead of working the blade across the cable tie as she had with the one around her feet, this time she worked her bound wrists along the blade. The large, serrated teeth made cutting through the plastic difficult. The cable bounced across the wide gap between the teeth, but each tooth snagged and chewed the restraint. After a few minutes of progress, the bond finally snapped.
She grinned as she massaged her wrists. She was free.
Her smile disappeared. No, not free. She had one more thing to do first.
She picked up the box cutter. The tool was now her weapon.
She pushed open the shed’s door and peered out. Another shed was directly across from her, silent and dark, and a weather-beaten workshop sat off to her right. Beyond that, nothing. Desert stretched into the darkness, and mountains turned the horizon into a jagged tear between the ground and sky. There were no streetlights or houselights to be seen. She was in the middle of nowhere. No wonder the bastard didn’t seem worried about the noise.
Escape was a tough proposition. When she ran, where was she going to go? A dirt road running up to the workshop disappeared into the darkness. It had to be the only way in and out of this nightmare.
At least she wouldn’t have to do it on foot. Her VW Beetle sat off to the left. She didn’t see a second car, so he must have brought them here in hers. If she got away in that, he couldn’t chase after her. For the first time, she felt real hope.
But she was getting ahead of herself. Driving away was the final part of the escape. Rescuing Holli was the first part.
Holli. Her heart fluttered at the thought of her friend’s name. It took her a moment to recognize the source of her new and sudden fear. The screams had stopped. She strained to hear even a whimper, but she heard nothing. Not even the sound of his movement.
Please don’t be dead, she thought.
She had had to know the truth—know how bad it had gotten.
Light spilled from the workshop’s small-paned, dirt-covered windows. It forced back the night and flickered as someone moved inside.
Holli was in there. So was he. She felt her courage waver.
There was movement but not sound. It had been several minutes since she’d heard Holli scream. Was she dead? There was only one way of knowing.
She slipped outside, with the cutting tool in hand. The shed had been a sweatbox. Now, in the dry desert heat, her body dried in an instant, baking the dirt to her skin. If someone caught a glimpse of her now, they’d swear they’d witnessed a creature from the world’s Neolithic past.
Staying low, she darted toward the workshop. A wave of light-headedness overwhelmed her, and she pitched forward onto her knees, dropping her weapon. The drug in her system still had its grip on her.
“Slow and steady,” she told herself.
She retrieved the knife and edged over to the workshop, then dropped down underneath one of the windows. She listened for sounds but heard no voices, just movement. Her hand tightened around the box cutter’s plastic handle.
“Don’t be seen. Don’t be seen,” she said and slid up the side of the building to peer inside.
Her breath caught in her throat at the sight. She clamped a hand over her mouth to keep the scream rising in her chest from escaping.
Holli hung from a hook in the ceiling, like a side of beef. Like Zoë, she was naked, but leather cuffs bound her wrists instead of cable ties. Zoë saw no obvious signs of mutilation, but blood and dirt streaked Holli’s body from head to toe. Her head hung down, her long brown hair obscuring her face. She was so very still. The total absence of movement frightened Zoë more than anything else.
The man who’d inflicted this abomination on her friend, on them both, busied himself with his work. He stood with his back to Zoë as he picked over a workbench. He was blond, tall, and broad shouldered. Beyond that, she couldn’t tell what he looked like. The dirty windows and the drug dulling her system reduced him to a smudge when he moved. He picked up something small from the table and crossed the room to Holli.
He held the object up to Holli’s nose, then snapped it. Holli recoiled from it, causing her to swing back and forth. He held her hips to steady her.
Holli was alive. Fresh tears rolled down Zoë’s face.
“No, no, please, not again.” He backhanded her. The strike was so intense that Zoë flinched from the slap as much as Holli did. The blow had its desired effect on Holli—it silenced her.
“Are you sorry for what you did, Holli?” he asked her.
“Yes.” She spat out the word before he had a chance to finish asking his question.
“I’m not sure I believe you.”
“Yes, yes, yes, I’m sorry. Please let me go. I won’t tell anyone,” Holli said before she broke into a sob.
Zoë felt her friend’s despair. It was all so hopeless. So unfair. She didn’t deserve this. Neither of them did.
Zoë palmed away a tear. She couldn’t let Holli’s despair infect her. She couldn’t save them if she didn’t believe she could do this.
She watched their abductor. She looked for a vulnerability that she could exploit. He seemed relaxed. No one was about to drop by or overhear, which wasn’t surprising, considering the location. He wasn’t working against a clock. He had the air of someone with all the time in the world. He thought he was invincible. He had left her in an unlocked shed with tools, after all. That made him either dumb or arrogant. Two sides of the same coin, she thought.
Her plan was simple—surprise. He wasn’t expecting an attack. She could rush in, stab him, and leave him to bleed out on the floor while she got Holli down.
All her bravado disappeared in a second when he returned to his workbench. A whip sat on the bench. It was the real thing, not a sex toy. It was a tool. A weapon.
What had made her think she could take this guy? He was bigger than her, stronger than her, and not doped into submission. What skills did she possess? None. And this son of a bitch was an unknown quantity. He could be a martial-arts master or military trained for all she knew. He’d captured Holli and her without much effort, hadn’t he?
What was her plan? To charge in there and knife him before he could fight back? That was crazy. She couldn’t run ten feet before falling on her face. Even if she surprised him, he could take her down with the whip. If she went in there, she wouldn’t be saving Holli, she’d be getting both of them killed.
She looked over at her car. That was the better weapon. Jump in the car, find cops, and let them storm the place. Going for help would save them both and would send this bastard to jail. That was the smart plan.
But for whom? For both of them or just for her?
Zoë peered inside again. Holli was in bad shape. Zoë knew leaving her friend was a risk. It might be too late for her already, but she didn’t think so. Holli was bleeding, but none of it looked serious. If Zoë slipped away unnoticed, then she could do something.
Zoë stopped trying to convince herself and sagged, exhausted from the strain of the situation. They were screwed. No decision was the right one. Whatever she chose could turn out bad for them. The only thing she knew for sure was if she went in that room, they’d both die.
Then Holli’s glassy-eyed gaze fell on Zoë. Her eyes widened, and the daze left them. Zoë thought she saw hope in her friend’s face. Holli saw a rescue, while Zoë saw a suicide mission.
Zoë shook her head.
The hope in Holli’s face deserted her as quickly as it had arrived and shock replaced it. Zoë recognized the shock for what it meant: Shock that her friend would abandon her to save her own ass. Shock that she would surely die.
Zoë mouthed the word sorry and dropped out of sight. As she darted over to her car, she heard Holli scream, “No, no, no. Help me, Zoë!”
Each word cut into Zoë as she ran. Tears poured down her face.
“I’m so sorry,” she murmured.
She tugged on the door handle, and it opened. Thankfully, the keys were inside. She slipped behind the wheel and twisted the key in the ignition. She slammed the car into drive and it leapt forward.
“I’ll come back for you,” she said, knowing full well her escape had condemned her friend to death.