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Authors: Leslie Parrish

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Maybe he’s afraid you’ll escape and be able to identify him
.

Yeah. And maybe a pack of wolves would rip him to pieces in his own

backyard tomorrow. But she doubted it.

One of these times, she suspected she would wake up and find herself in

the middle of a rape. So, no, she did not want to fal asleep.

“I don’t know—we’ve read quite a lot. I’m worried you might have

nightmares. Did you, last night, after hearing about the little piggies who got

turned into bacon and sausage patties?”

She suspected the story didn’t end like that. If it did, parents who cal ed it a

bedtime story had a lot to answer for. As for her nightmares . . . Wel , she was

living one, wasn’t she?

Vonnie swal owed, her thick, dry tongue almost choking her. “I’l be fine.

Please read to me some more.”

The words echoed in the damp, musty basement room in which she’d been

imprisoned for three days now. Or four? She had been unable to keep track,

even though she had noted the sunshine coming and going again through the

tiny window in her cel . She had been too out of it, couldn’t make herself focus.

How long had it been since the night he’d grabbed her? And when had that

been?
Think!

Monday. He’d attacked her while she walked the long way home from a

nighttime event at her new high school, to which she’d just transferred

because they offered more AP classes than her old one. Mistake number one.

Her old school had been a block from her crappy home.

“Wel , if you’re sure, I suppose we can read a little more about those

naughty children.”

Knowing he expected it, she managed to murmur, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, dear. I’m glad you like this story. It’s no wonder their

parents didn’t want Hansel and Gretel—awful, spoiled brats, weren’t they?

Most parents hate their children anyway, but these two were especial y bad.”

If it wouldn’t have caused her so much pain, she might have laughed at that.

Because he was saying something he thought would hurt her, when, in truth,

he’d just reinforced what she already knew. Her mama had made that clear

every day of her life.

Most parents would be proud of their kid for doing wel in school, but not

hers. Al she’d said was that Vonnie had been stupid to transfer. Stupid to go

to the evening event. Stupid and uppity, thinking getting into the National

Honor Society mattered a damn when she lived on the corner of Whorevil e

and Main.

Normal y she’d have been at work serving chicken wings and fending off

gropey drunk guys by that time of night on a Monday. But no, she’d had to go

to the meeting, had to act as if she was no different from the smart, rich white

kids with their trust funds and their sports cars. She’d been cocky, insisting it

was no big deal to walk home alone after dark through an area of the Boro

where no smart girl ever walked alone after dark. Not these days, not with the

Ghoul on the loose and more girls missing from her neighborhood every

month.

The Ghoul—the paper had at first said he was real; then that he wasn’t.

Vonnie knew the truth. He was real, al right. She just wasn’t going to live long

enough to tel anybody.

“Hansel and Gretel didn’t know that the starving birdies of the forest were

eating up their bread-crumb trail, waiting for the children to die so they could

poke out their eyes,” he read, not noticing her inattention. “It was dark and

their time to find their way home was running out.”

Time. It had ceased to have any meaning at al . Minutes and hours had

switched places: minutes lengthened by pain, hours shortened by the terror of

what would happen every time he came back from wherever it was he went

when he left her alone in the damp, cold dark.

And Vonnie knew, deep down, that her time was running out, too.

“Did you hear me?” he snapped.

She swal owed. “Yeah.”

“Good. Don’t you fal asleep. I’m reading this for you, not for myself, you

know.”

She suspected he wasn’t reading at al , merely Wes Craven-ing up a real

bedtime story.

“Now, wasn’t it lucky that they were able to find shelter?” he added. “Mm, a

house made of gingerbread and gumdrops and licorice. Imagine that. Do you

like sweets, pretty girl? Want me to bring you some candy? Sticky, gooey

candy?”

She swal owed, the very thought of it making her sick. Not that she wasn’t

hungry, starving even. But the foulsmel ing air surrounding her, fil ing her lungs

and her nose, made the thought of food nauseating. She didn’t like to think

about the other smel s down here—the reek of rotten meat, the stench of

human waste. And something metal ic and earthy, a scent that seemed to coat

her tongue when she breathed through her mouth.

Blood. At least, that was what she suspected had created the rust-colored

stains on the cement floor.

Those stains had been the first things she’d noticed when she regained

consciousness after she’d been kidnapped. And ever since, they’d reiterated

what she already knew: This guy had kil ed before, and he intended to kil her.

It wasn’t a matter of if; only when.

There was no escape—she was chained, drugged, and had been terrified

into utter submission. She had no idea where she was, or when it was, or if

the door led to a way out or just another chamber of horrors.

Vonnie didn’t even try to comfort herself with thoughts of escape. It did no

good to pump herself up with the memories of al the other times she’d gotten

herself out of difficult situations—put there through either her own gul ibility or

by her mama’s greed.

Don’t go there, girl. Just as much darkness down that path.

No, she didn’t want to think those thoughts. Not if they were going to be

among the last ones of her life
.
Because so far, at least, this nightmare hadn’t

included sexual assault.

“Wel , maybe the candy shouldn’t be too sticky,” he said, tutting a little, like a

loving, concerned parent, not that she had firsthand experience with one. “I

know your jaw must hurt from when you made me hit you the other day. Maybe

I could chew it up, make it nice and soft for you, then spit it into your mouth just

like a mama bird with her little chick.”

Though she hadn’t figured there was anything left in her stomach, she stil

heaved a mouthful of vomit. But she forced herself to swal ow it down. She

wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing that his mere words had made her

sick. Nor could she let him know just how disgusting she found the thought.

Giving the monster ideas to try on her when she final y did pass out was a

stupid thing to do, and Vonnie Jackson might be beaten and chained, she

might be poor and the daughter of a drugaddicted prostitute, but nobody had

ever cal ed her stupid.

“Why was she doing it, do you suppose? Why did she want them to eat al

those sweets?” When she didn’t reply, his singsong voice rose to a screech.

“Answer me!”

“Fattening them up,” she said, the words riding a puff of air across her

swol en lips.

“Yes! You’re so clever; that’s what they say about you. Such a smart, clever

girl who was going to escape her pathetic childhood.” He
tsk
ed, sounding

almost sad. “And you nearly made it—didn’t you, Yvonne? Oh, you came so

close! High school graduation next May, then off you’d go to col ege on one of

your scholarships, never to see your slut mother or the hovel you cal home

again. Al that work, al that effort. Wasted.”

She didn’t answer, didn’t even flinch, not wanting him to see that his words

stabbed at her, hurting almost as much as his fists. Because getting out was

al Vonnie had worked for, al she had dreamed of for as long as she could

remember. And the fact that this filthy monster had taken that chance from her

made her want to scream at the injustice.

“Ah, wel , back to our story. Yes, indeed, the witch was fattening them up,”

her captor said. “But do you know why?” He hummed a strange tune,

repeating himself in discordant song. “Why, why, why? Do you know why?”

Her eyes remained open as she listened to that crooning voice deliberately

trying to lul her into much-needed sleep. Her body wanted to give in to it, to let

go. If she thought there was a chance she might never wake up, she would

have gladly embraced the chance.

But she wasn’t that lucky. And she knew she would regret it when she awoke

and found out what he wanted to do to her. So Vonnie forced herself to shake

her throbbing head, knowing the sharper the pain the less she’d be inclined to

give in. “Why?”

He laughed softly, not answering. Just as wel . She probably didn’t want to

know the answer to that question, given the way he was turning these nightly

stories into tales from his twisted crypt of a mind.

“You’l just have to wait and see. Patience, sweet . . .”

His sibilant words were interrupted by the sound of banging coming from

somewhere above. Before Vonnie could even process it, she heard a clang of

metal. The smal sliding panel in the door, through which he watched her,

talked to her, and tormented her, was slammed shut. The narrow column of

il umination that had shone through it, one single beam of blazing light in the

darkness, had been chopped away like the head off a snake.

Another bang from above. She tried to focus on it, tried not to let the relief

of his leaving make her give in to exhaustion. That noise, the way he’d reacted

to it, was important, though it took a second for her to process why.

Then she got it. He had been startled. The creature had been surprised out

of his lair by something unexpected. Or someone?

Oh God, please
.

Hope bloomed, relentless and hot. What if someone else was out there?

For the first time in days, she realized he hadn’t taken her to the bowels of hel

but to somewhere real, a place that other people could come upon. A

mailman, a neighbor? Anyone who could help her?

An internal voice tried to dampen her hopes. That might not have been

someone banging on the door at al , but merely a loose shutter or a tree

branch. Besides, it was dark out, maybe even the middle of the night—no

mailman worked these hours.

The police. Maybe they’re looking for me
.

It was a long shot. But long shots were al she had right now. “Help me.

Somebody, help me,” she whispered. “Please, I’m here!”

She didn’t think about what he’d do when he came back. Didn’t stop for one

second to worry whether he’d find some new way to punish her.

No. Vonnie Jackson simply began to scream as if her life depended on it.

ALSO BY LESLIE PARRISH

EXTRASENSORY AGENTS

Cold Sight

THE BLACK CATS NOVELS

Fade to Black

Pitch Black

Black at Heart

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