So crazy, I thought. All of this. Maybe I’m the one who’s sick. Maybe I’m the one in a hospital somewhere.

But...no such luck. Unless I was having the mother of all delusions, I was presently sitting next to the woman I cared about, outside of my ex-wife’s home, where my brother and his friend were currently chained in my basement.

Jesus.

I took her hand with my good one and squeezed it, briefly reveling in the warmth. “All right, come on.”

We stepped out, and as we headed up the wooden porch, I heard a door slam from within the house. No, not within. Below. It sounded suspiciously like the cellar. Carla drew her gun. I can’t believe I did the same.

“My brother is in there,” I reminded her.

“Nothing wrong with playing it safe, Carter.”

I nodded. She was right, of course. I unlocked the front door and we eased inside, our guns held loosely in front of us.

* * *

I motioned for Carla to follow me as we crept toward the kitchen, which was where the door to the cellar was located. We had just crossed the living room, when we heard the back door slam.

Despite myself, I jumped. My instinct was to rush blindly forward. Rushing blindly forward was never smart. I reached behind me and held Carla back. She and I had to be on the same page. She was, and moving closer to me. She was a good cop, no doubt about it.

We cleared the kitchen, and then headed to the back door. It was unlocked. I went through first, gun held out before me, wondering if my brother and his friend had escaped the cuffs—and if they were waiting for us, knowing that I was thinking crazy thoughts.

I inspected some recently trampled grass. Footprints and tracks were a specialty of mine. There had been two of them. One smaller than the other. A girl and a boy, if I had to guess.

Anna and a friend. Undoubtedly, she had been with that Jared boy.

I scanned the hillside above the house, but it was coming on dusk, and all was dark. The back gate, I saw, was also partially open. Had they heard us coming and run?

Maybe, but it seemed so unlike my daughter. Not only to disobey me...but to run from me.

Maybe she didn’t run, I thought. Maybe she fled. In fear.

Carla was at my side. She immediately deduced the same. I was torn between going after her and checking on my brother. I decided to do both. I pulled out my cell and dialed my daughter while we re-entered the house. No answer. Shit.

Carla was right behind me as I cautiously opened the cellar door. Had my daughter been down into the cellar? Had she seen her uncle? Jesus, was her uncle even still down here?

We descended cautiously. I heard a rustling from below. Damn, the person who had designed this cellar was a lunatic. Why on God’s green earth would they put the light switch at the bottom of the stairs?

I reached back briefly for Carla. She caught my hand and squeezed my fingers. My gesture was small but it spoke volumes: be prepared for anything. Her reassuring squeeze told me that she was.

At the bottom of the stairs, I found the hanging chain and switched on the light—a chain that I was certain had been swaying. A draft? Or had Anna and her friend been down here?

Either way, the flood of yellow illuminated the captives. That I would think of my own flesh and blood as a “captive’ was almost enough to make me weep. What had I become?

My brother and his friend winced at the light, raising their hands like two ghouls from a horror movie. Their eyes were redder. Their skin was pastier. They looked less and less human.

“Oh, my God,” was all Carla could say. Honestly, there wasn’t much more to say. I wanted desperately to go after Anna. But I didn’t quite trust Carla with my brother. What if she shot him? There was no time to waste.

I knew this was a critical moment. Although Carla had wanted to help me, I suspected she wouldn’t hesitate to shoot to kill if threatened—and I didn’t blame her. Still, my foremost thought was for my daughter. Anna would be wild with fear after witnessing this scene just moments ago, if she had been down here.

She was down here, I thought. Which is why she ran.

Carla flinched as I put my hand on her shoulder. I couldn’t afford for her to be trigger happy. “Carla. This is my brother.”

That’s when my close friend finally stated what I could not. “He’s not human, Jack.”

“Maybe not.” I touched her again, and this time she remained calm. I stood by her as she processed the two inconceivable beings in my cellar.

“They’re safe. Contained. I have to find Anna.”

She stood a minute longer, taking in their conditions, calculating. I didn’t have time to wait. “Come with me,” I pleaded. “My daughter. I have to get to her.”

Carla gave one final nod and, still pointing her gun, and backed up the stairs with me.

Chapter Seventeen

Anna ran and ran.

Tears streaked down her face. She raced up the little-known trails through the hills, the brush scratching her face and arms.

She ran as fast as she could until she could run no more. It was a considerable distance. Jared did his best to keep up with her, but even he fell behind. Anna ran because she was terrified, but also because she was angry. How could her father chain Uncle Joey up like that? She ignored his numerous calls on her cell. Her uncle needed a doctor. Anna burst up and around the path with a new rush of anger. Her father was killing her uncle. Anna would call the police if she had to.

She finally ended up in a close-knit grove of scrub oaks. Boulders formed a nice shelter from the elements. No one knew about this place except her and now, Jared. She was thirsty from running and crying. Her hair was tangled, and her shoes were muddy from the recent rain. She didn’t care. All she could think of was what to do about her uncle.

Jared found her sitting with her arms around her knees. He knelt beside her. Jared knew he didn’t need to say anything; with them, sometimes words were not necessary. Still, he wished he’d brought some water, but there hadn’t been any time.

Even with the horror she’d just witnessed, Anna wondered when Jared would take her hand. Whenever they were together, she always waited for him to hold her hand. And every time he did, she felt her stomach flip-flop. She took that as a good sign. Now, more than ever, she needed his comfort.

Jared was getting pretty good at sensing Anna’s needs, and so he moved a little closer and put his arm around her. He took one of her hands as she leaned into him. Jared was surprised to discover that Anna was shaking.

“Hey, you okay?” he asked her gently.

“He’s a monster!”

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