When a serial killer breaks into the home of bestselling author, Sage Quintano, she barely escapes with her life. Her husband, Niko, a homicide detective, insists they move to rural New Hampshire, where he accepts a position as Grafton County Sheriff.
Sage buries secrets from that night—secrets she swears to take to her deathbed.
Three years of anguish and painful memories pass, and a grisly murder case lands on Niko’s desk. A strange caller torments Sage—she can’t outrun the past.
When Sage’s twin sister suddenly goes missing, Sage searches Niko’s case files and discovers similarities to the Boston killer. A sadistic psychopath is preying on innocent women, marring their bodies in unspeakable ways. And now, he has her sister.
Cryptic clues. Hidden messages. Is the killer hinting at his identity? Or is he trying to lure Sage into a deadly trap to end his reign of terror with a matching set of corpses?
Monday, July 17, 2006 1:30 p.m.
I used to believe people were inherently good, if only at their core. I saw the brokenness of the homeless. I respected the overachiever in the football star hoping for Daddy’s approval even if he’d never get it. I saw the heart of sinners, the souls of lovers. Shattered dreams of an abandoned child. I saw good in evil, spirit in the unholy. I understood the complexities of love, marriage, life. Hell, I welcomed the challenge. I had hopes, dreams and affirmations. I did.
Then, that all changed. My views shattered, or my eyes finally opened.
That’s what Niko said, though devastation also filled his eyes. No longer did he think of me as his optimistic wife who loved life. I missed our blissful marriage. I missed our baby. I missed my blindfold. If only I could put it back on. Most of all, I missed…me.
Living on autopilot was the only way I could survive.
After my third shower of the day, I hobbled down the stairs, clutching a load of laundry. White-hot pain shot to my right knee and folded me in half. The basket of clothes tumbled to the floor—socks, T-shirts, jeans, shorts, and Niko’s sheriff’s uniform strewn about the living room.
I fell back against the stairs, twined my arms around the railing, and stared at the white lines on my forearms. I straightened, and a thick scar on my jugular tugged at the skin. After three never-ending years, hours and hours of counseling, one small reminder—scars from the knife—and I relived that night in Boston.
The phone startled me when it rang.
I didn’t want to answer, but for the Sheriff’s wife that wasn’t an option. “Hello?”
“Who’s this?” A man’s voice, distorted, disguised.
“Who’s this? You called me.”
“I think I have the wrong number.”
A dial tone sounded.
That was weird. I shrugged it off and reloaded the clothes in the basket. When I headed down the hall, the phone rang a second time. I’d had it with this guy. “Hello,” I answered, firm and harsh.
“Sheriff Quintano, please.” Same voice.
“Didn’t you just call here?”
“Sheriff Quintano, please.”
“He’s not home. He’s at work. Who is this?”
The line went dead.
“Jerk!” I slammed the handset in the cradle, and a chill sheathed my arms in goose bumps. I’d announced to a stranger that I was alone in the house.
The cordless phone’s musical trill resonated through the hall. Ruger and Colt jolted to their paws and took notice. I winced, not wanting to answer.
I rushed over. “I told you he’s not home. What do you want? Why are you calling back?”
“Do you want to live forever?”
A cold sweat broke across my back. “What’d you say?” This cannot be happening.
Not again. Unless…evil followed us here.
“Do you want to live forever?”
He found me. How? We were so careful. Niko and I hadn’t left a forwarding address. Our phone number wasn’t listed in the book. Neighbors asked where we were moving, and we refused to disclose any details. If questioned, I said north and left it at that. We escaped clean and faded into obscurity. Yet, he called.
I dropped the handset in the cradle, disconnecting from the past.
Adrenaline masked my pain, and I sprinted from room to room, closed and secured all the windows and double-checked the locks on the front and back doors, bolted upstairs, and pressed my foot on the sliders’ security bar. Colt and Ruger watched me zip around the house, not knowing what was wrong. Ruger gave up and laid his head on crossed paws while Colt bounded over and stayed on my heels.
When I returned to the kitchen table, the phone rang again. My gaze locked on the handset, and I froze. Colt’s face ping-ponged between me and the phone. He put the pieces together in his mind, trotted over, and knocked the receiver off the cradle, gently clasped the handset in his lips and carried it to me. By using his training to aid me, he was trying to help, but at that moment, it was the last thing I wanted him to do.
I didn’t speak.
The man panted like Ruger after an exhausting game of fetch. I slapped a hand over my mouth and held back screams, refusing to give him the satisfaction of terrifying me. I also couldn’t hang up. His breath held me hostage. My fingers lost feeling around the handset, knuckles white from lack of blood flow. Unable to move, I was in his thrall.
“Do you want to live forever?”
I gaped left, right. He could be outside my home hiding in the bushes. If I didn’t respond, he might come inside. Perhaps he’d stalked me for days, weeks, months. Maybe he’d always been here. Out of reach, in the shadows. Watching. Waiting. Planning.
Why, oh, why was this happening again?
Razor-sharp pain shot to my right knee, ribs, arms, and stomach, his haunting question conjuring the injuries from the fateful night. I cringed. “What do you want?”
His demon-like cackle shot through my core like a poison-tipped arrow.
If only Niko had killed him that night…if his guts had splattered my living room walls, dousing me in his death…if he’d taken his last breath and his evil soul plummeted to hell…perhaps then I could breathe without his ghostly fingers around my throat.
How did he survive?
Niko had emerged outside the sliders and shot through one of the doors. The bullet struck the masked man in the shoulder. Glass shattered everywhere. The dogs barreled inside and over to me, whimpering, licking the blood off my face. They were so preoccupied with tending to my wounds; the intruder got a shot off before he fell.
The bullet struck Niko in the shoulder, and he flew backward and landed in the garden I’d made around the apple tree. It had taken me days to edge the garden in slanted bricks. When Niko fell, those bricks drove into his spine and incapacitated him long enough for the assailant to scramble to his feet and flee.
But not before he hovered over me and offered one last warning. “I’ll see you soon, Sage Quintano.”
Member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, Sue Coletta writes psychological thrillers, mysteries, and suspense with grisly plots and complex storylines that are sure to keep readers flipping pages late into the night. A four-thousand-word excerpt of Marred scored first placement in Murder, USA, an anthology. When she’s not writing or reading, she enjoys nature, animals, and family. Bear shows and zoos at places that treat animals with respect are her personal favorites.
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