She had to run away.
JJ Jones had been planning it ever since she’d learned what would happen on her fifteenth birthday.
She would become a substitute for her foster father’s wife.
Her birthday was tomorrow.
Her stomach roiled at the thought, and she slipped from bed, retrieved her backpack, and then tiptoed over to Sunny’s bed.
Sunny was two months younger than JJ, but she was small for her age, frail, and terrified of her own shadow.
She gently shook her foster sister. “Wake up, Sunny, it’s time.”
Sunny groaned and rolled to her side.
“Come on, we have to go now,” she whispered.
If Herman caught them, she’d be punished.
He liked to punish.
Sunny’s eyes slowly opened, confusion clouding them. “What? I was dreaming.”
Probably of a better place to live. Clean clothes. A real family.
JJ had given up on those things a long time ago.
“It was Christmas, and we got to go to a party,” Sunny said.
She pressed her finger to Sunny’s lips. Sunny was always dreaming about parties or going to Disney World or to a beach.
JJ had her own dreams—or she used to, anyway. Dreams of a family, a nice house. Friends. Someone to love her.
Maybe she could save Sunny from becoming as jaded as she was. “Remember, I told you about my birthday. I won’t let that man touch me. We have to go now.”
Fear flickered across Sunny’s face, but she nodded, threw her covers aside, and dropped to the floor. They’d packed their backpacks before they’d gone to bed and slept in their clothes. Not that they had many clothes. Herman Otter and his wife, Frances, used the money the state gave them to support their booze habit.
JJ grabbed her jacket and shrugged it on, then tossed Sunny hers.
The wind howled outside, thunder rumbling. JJ’s adrenaline kicked in. They had to get to the bus station before the storm hit.
She jammed her feet into her boots, and Sunny did the same. They threw their backpacks over their shoulders, crept to the window, shoved it open, and crawled outside. The air was refreshing compared to the stench of the dirty house and the smell of liquor.
JJ had repeatedly phoned the social worker for help, but the woman had such a big caseload that she ignored JJ’s calls. JJ didn’t know what else to do but run.
Sunny’s legs buckled as she hit the ground, and JJ steadied her. A noise echoed from inside. JJ froze, terrified he’d woken up.
She motioned toward the woods in back, then mimed the word “Go.” Sunny nodded, and they ran toward the woods. JJ had stolen a flashlight from the house, and once they were far enough away not to be seen, she flicked it on and used it to light their path.
The coach’s son had promised to meet them at eleven. She hurried Sunny along, wincing as the bitter wind ripped through her and raindrops began to pelt them. The pennies in the jar in Sunny’s backpack jingled as she walked.
Sunny’s father had told her that the pennies were lucky, so Sunny collected every one she could find. So far they hadn’t brought her any luck, though.
She and Sunny yanked their jacket hoods over their heads, then picked up their pace, slogging through the woods as fast as they could.
A half mile from the house, she cut to the right toward the street, and they jogged toward the Dairy Mart where she was supposed to meet the boy. The lights were off inside the ice-cream shop, and the parking lot was empty.
JJ ushered Sunny beneath the awning to the side of the building, and they huddled in the rain, waiting.
Seconds dragged into minutes. Minutes bled into an hour. Disappointment and despair tugged at JJ.
“He’s not coming,” Sunny said, shivering.
JJ rubbed Sunny’s arms to warm her. A chill had wormed its way through JJ, too, and her teeth were chattering. She hated to admit it, but Sunny was right.
Lightning zigzagged across the sky, crackling as if it had struck a tree. Rain turned to hail, the icy pellets pounding the concrete.
They couldn’t stay here all night. Sooner or later the local cops might show, or someone would see them.
Then they’d take them back to him.
No way would JJ let that happen.
She grabbed Sunny’s hand. “We’re not giving up. We’ll walk.”
Sunny dug her heels in. “But it’s miles. I’m tired and cold.”
“Then let’s hurry.” Sunny balked, but JJ shook her by the shoulders. “Listen to me, you’ll be fifteen in two months. Then he won’t count you as a kid anymore either, and he’ll want you.”
Sunny’s face paled, ghostly white against the dark, gloomy night. “Where are we going?” Sunny whispered.
“My grandmother’s. She lives in Nashville.”
“I thought she didn’t want you,” Sunny said in a choked voice.
JJ’s heart clenched in pain. Sunny was right. Her grandmother hadn’t wanted her as a baby. But JJ refused to let that stop her from finding a better place to live. A safe one.
“She was sick when I was born,” JJ said. “When she hears what Herman planned to do to me, she’ll let us stay.” At least she hoped she would. Otherwise, she had nowhere to turn.
“What if she lets you stay but won’t keep me?” Sunny cried.
The fear in Sunny’s voice tore at JJ. She had no idea how her grandmother would react. Fifteen years ago, she’d told social services she couldn’t raise an infant. Would she feel the same about a teenager?
No, JJ would convince her she could take care of herself. All she and Sunny needed was a roof over their heads and for people to leave them alone.
“Don’t worry.” She gave Sunny a reassuring look. “I promised to take care of you, and I will.”
Sunny wiped at a tear, then gripped JJ’s hand, and they headed down the street together. The country road had no streetlights, and the clouds shrouded the moon. Sunny stumbled, and JJ flicked on the flashlight again.
She guessed it was about ten miles to the bus station. Thunder rumbled and the rain beat down, pounding the ground and soaking them to the core. Mud and water seeped into JJ’s shoes, adding to the chill.
A half hour later, Sunny complained that her legs were hurting. Occasionally a car passed, but JJ would quickly turn off the flashlight, and they’d duck behind some trees to hide.
Another mile and despair threatened. Sunny tripped over a tree stump, collapsed to the ground, and cried out in pain. “I hurt my ankle.”
JJ wiped rain from her face, willing herself not to cry, too. They had a long way to go. She shined her light on Sunny’s foot. It was turning red and swelling.
Panic streaked through her. What were they going to do?
The sound of an engine made her pause, and she pivoted. A truck was coming toward them. The headlights nearly blinded her, and she slid an arm around Sunny’s waist to help her stand.
“I can’t put weight on it,” Sunny whined.
Brakes screeched. The driver must have seen them. He slowed, gears grinding as he veered to the side of the road. The passenger door opened with a groan. JJ squinted through the bright lights.
“You girls need help?”
She couldn’t make out the man’s features, but a girl sat beside him. And there was someone else . . .
JJ’s lungs squeezed. Surprise filled her at the familiar face.
Thunder rumbled, startling Sunny. JJ helped her up, pushed Sunny into the cab first, and then hauled herself onto the seat.
As she closed the door, JJ turned to see who the man was, but it was so dark inside his face was shadowed. His clothes smelled, though, like some kind of men’s cologne. A cologne she’d smelled before . . .
“I’m sorry,” the girl said in a low voice.
JJ frowned. What was she sorry for?
A second later, the man shoved a rag over JJ’s mouth and nose, and the world swirled to black.
Fifteen years later—Graveyard Falls, Tennessee
No one in Graveyard Falls knew the real reason Sheriff Ian Kimball had moved from Sweetwater to this town. Hopefully, no one ever would.
None of that mattered, though.
He had a real mess on his hands.
Just a year ago, a serial killer had stalked the town. A sadist, nicknamed the Butcher, who’d carved women’s faces up and marked them with claw marks that resembled talons.
That case had been spawned by the movie being made about the previous Bride Killer and Thorn Ripper murders—a story based on a true-crime book written by Josie DuKane, the daughter of a local resident.
With those cases solved, some locals had moved away as soon as they could find jobs and other homes. But others who’d grown up in these foothills believed that good existed here. They’d fought the gossip and rumors that evil was bred in these mountains, that you could hear the whisper of it in the wind.
But as he drove toward the trailer park to meet one of his deputies, a sick feeling seized his gut. Dammit.
Their strength and fortitude had given him hope that the town would survive. Seeing people work together to help each other and overcome obstacles raised his admiration for the human spirit. It made him want to protect them.
No one had ever needed him before. His family . . . well, he wouldn’t go there. They’d let him down, and he’d let them down.
The people in Graveyard Falls and the surrounding county depended on him. He wouldn’t make them regret it.
His gaze swept the terrain as he turned on the mountain road. The F-3 tornado that had hit thirty-six hours ago was just too damn much. It was almost like the town was cursed.
The nearly two-hundred-mile-per-hour winds and flooding had swept over the Southeast, striking three counties, including Graveyard Falls—and Sweetwater, where he’d grown up—with a funnel cloud that had ripped up trees by their roots and flung houses and cars as if they were ping-pong balls. The devastating damage had left the town picking up the broken pieces of their homes and shattered lives.
His tires churned over gravel, and he swung left to dodge broken branches, then parked at the edge of the trailer park.
One of his deputies, Deputy Clint Whitehorse, paced the edge of what had once been a mobile home but now looked like a mountain of twisted metal and aluminum.
Whitehorse had been with him over a year now. Although sometimes Ian felt like he didn’t know the man. He was quiet and intense, but he’d grown up in these mountains and knew them inside and out.
“Shit, I can’t believe this.” Deputy Whitehorse removed his hat and rubbed sweat from his forehead. “Just when the dust settled from that Butcher case, now this storm.”
Ian’s boots dug into the muddy earth as he assessed the damage.
Metal, glass, household items, clothing, underwear, lamps, kitchen utensils, dishes, linens, broken furniture, and children’s toys were scattered across miles of soggy soil. Ancient oaks and pines were split in two, ripped from the ground, and branches and limbs that had once been large and sturdy lay in piles like kindling.
Ian had already walked the town square. Most of the businesses and residents in the city limits had fared better than the outskirts, but the Falls Inn had lost its roof, a live oak had fallen through the kitchen at Cocoa’s Café, and numerous homes had flooded.
Ian had caught a couple of scam artists trying to rip people off with repairs, but he’d turned folks on to a couple of reputable renovation experts, and the neighbors had given him a deluge of casseroles for it.
The women’s club from the Methodist church had designated one of their basements as a lost-and-found where items retrieved in the debris could be recovered. The Baptist church had donated blankets, quilts, housewares, and clothing.
“How many casualties?” Ian asked.
“Three so far,” the deputy said grimly. “A woman trying to get home to her kids was struck by a tree when it crashed into her VW.”
Sympathy welled inside Ian. “Jesus, poor family.” Now those kids would grow up without a mama.
Deputy Whitehorse pushed his ponytail over his shoulder. “Ninety-year-old Marvin Trullet tried to save his chickens and got thrown against his tractor on the way to the barn. He died instantly.”
“If only people had heeded the warnings we issued,” Ian said, hating to hear about the old man. “Who else?”
“Edna Mae, elderly woman in the trailer on the end. Neighbor, Rudy Pillings, said Edna Mae lost her hearing and was confined to a wheelchair. He tried to convince her to let him take her to a safe place to wait out the storm, but she refused to leave her home. Rescue workers found her dead beneath the kitchen table. She was holding a Bible, a picture of her husband, and a tin of snuff.”
He pointed where the trailer had once stood, but all Ian could make out were a few pieces of metal, broken china, a needlepoint family tree, and a damp photo album that probably held precious memories of the woman’s life.
Sorrow for the families struck him, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it. There was too much to do.
The Red Cross had rushed in with emergency supplies, including a blood bank collection unit to help restock the hospital, and utility companies were working around the clock to restore power.
Rescue crews had worked nonstop to help residents escape their flooded and demolished homes and uncover victims who might be trapped. The community center that had been used to stage auditions for production of the movie was now ironically being used to house the homeless.
Ian’s phone buzzed. He snatched it from his hip, dread balling in his gut when he saw the name. His other deputy, a new hire, Ladd Markum. The last thirty-six hours had been nothing but bad news. “Sheriff Kimball.”
“Sheriff, you need to come to Hemlock Holler.”
Hemlock Holler was a desolate stretch of land by the river surrounded by hemlock trees. Rumors claimed nothing would grow on the stretch because the land was haunted.
A prison had stood on the grounds, but it had been destroyed in another flood five years ago. Seventy prisoners had died in the flood, leading locals to claim that their ghosts haunted the hills and the holler. “What’s going on?”
“We’ve got a problem. A big problem.” The deputy’s voice cracked a notch. “The pilot from that search and rescue team called. They spotted something suspicious, so I drove over to check it out.”
“You have to see it for yourself.”
“I’ll be right there.” Wiping sweat from his forehead, Ian disconnected, then addressed Deputy Whitehorse. “I have to go. Let me know if there are any other casualties.”
Whitehorse nodded grimly. “I’ll keep you posted.”
Ian rushed to his police SUV, jumped in, hit the siren and lights, and sped toward the holler. Debris and tree limbs in the road slowed him, and he had to drive around a utility truck working on downed power lines, but finally he made it.
Early-morning sunlight fought to find its way through the aftermath of the dark storm clouds and lost the battle, an oppressive gray clouding the sky. The deputy’s vehicle was parked at an overlook on the mountain where tourists often stopped to enjoy the scenic view—or hear the so-called ghosts of the dead prisoners.
Ian swung his SUV in beside the deputy’s, dragged his jacket up to ward off the chill, and hiked down the hill. Wet dirt, gravel, and rocks created a slippery path. Ian latched on to trees and broken limbs to keep from falling and careening down the embankment.
His deputy waved him toward where he stood by a patch of mangled trees that created a V shape.
A hissing sound filled the air. Ian drew his gun and searched for rattlesnakes. But the tangled weeds and brush were so thick, he couldn’t see.
Deputy Markum tilted his hat to acknowledge Ian, but the man’s face looked colorless, almost sickly.
Ian rubbed his hand over his bleary eyes. He was going on forty-eight hours with no sleep himself. “What is it?”
“The storm was nothing. Just look.” The deputy shined his flashlight across the ground.
Ian followed the path of the light, cold engulfing him like nothing he’d ever felt before. A sea of white that resembled ghosts bobbed up and down on the surface of the flooded valley. He narrowed his eyes, trying to discern what he was seeing. The prison ghosts the locals gossiped about?
No. The white—Jesus, it was a river of thin, white, gauzy fabric. Well, at least it used to be white.
On further scrutiny, he realized the fabric was nightgowns. Gowns mired in mud, dirt, and leaves.
“What the hell?” He moved his flashlight across the murky water with a grimace. More sticks and twigs, broken branches?
The truth hit him like a fist in the gut.
The ground was covered in bones. Human bones. They floated in the water, protruded from the earth, clung to the white fabric, and lay scattered over the ground where the water had receded.
He swallowed back bile. Good God.
His deputy coughed. “Someone was buried here.”
Ian ground his teeth. “Not someone. There are hundreds and hundreds of bones.” He removed his hat and scrubbed a clammy hand through his hair. “This is a damn graveyard.”
Terror seized Beth Fields.
He hadn’t died in the prison flood after all. He’d escaped. He was hiding out in the mountains.
She’d moved to Knoxville in a secure building to be safe, but he’d found her.
He was watching her through her bedroom window. The man who’d destroyed her life fifteen years ago. The man who’d killed her best friend.
The man who’d held her for three days and then dumped her like she was nothing but roadkill.
His face was pressed against the glass, shadowed by the darkness. She strained to see his eyes. His mouth. Something to help her identify him.
Only she couldn’t distinguish his features.
A noise sounded. Loud. A car horn. Then a fire truck.
Beth jerked awake and clenched the bed covers, barely stifling a scream. God help her. She’d done everything possible to escape him and the nightmares. But nothing worked.
Every time she closed her eyes, she saw that blank face again. Felt his breath on her cheek as he pressed a knife to her throat.
His eyes pierced her through the darkness. The evil eyes of a predator. Wild and sinister—they were hollow black holes, ghostly looking.
Chest heaving for a breath, she slipped from bed and crept to the window to look out. But the face was gone.
Trembling, she ran to the living room and peeked out the windows overlooking downtown Knoxville. Nothing but the first hints of sunlight streaking the dark.
A self-deprecating chuckle rumbled in her throat. How could he be outside her window? She’d intentionally chosen an apartment on a higher floor and a building with top-notch security so no one could get in.
Shortly after the trial where her high school soccer coach who also served as the school counselor, Coach Gleason, was convicted of kidnapping her, she’d been placed in a group home. There she’d received counseling. To overcome the stigma and rumors dogging her, her therapist had encouraged her to change her name. Jane Jones had died, and she’d been reborn as Beth Fields.
Five years ago, when she’d heard Coach Gleason had escaped prison, she’d been grateful for the name change.
Vance, the executive assistant director of the criminal investigations division of the FBI, had assured her that he’d erased any paper trail to JJ, but she wore her nerves on her sleeves and saw Gleason everywhere she went. Although she’d questioned his guilt over the years, she still panicked at the thought of him hunting her down.
She blinked to clear away the nightmarish images that bombarded her. She was safe. Dammit.
She’d taken self-defense classes, learned to shoot, and joined the bureau in order to protect other girls from suffering as she had. Her specialty had become abductions, especially non-familial ones, and she’d honed profiling skills on the job. Immersing herself into the mindset of a killer helped her understand his motivation, his criteria for choosing his victims, and aided her in pinpointing his hunting ground.
But nothing could change the fact that she’d been a victim. That her foster sister, Sunny, had never been found.
And that the man accused of kidnapping her might want revenge for his imprisonment. That he could be searching for her.
Snippets of the past taunted her—whether they were real or figments of her imagination triggered by fear, she couldn’t be certain.
She and Sunny were trapped, locked in some dark place, their hands and feet bound. They huddled together, cold and crying . . . Sunny was afraid of the dark . . . Another girl screamed from somewhere deep in the cave . . . yes, it was a cave. Water dripped, a monotonous sound that made her want to pull out her hair. Another scream. Footsteps. A knife glinted against the dark.
She called out for help but no sound came out. Then everything went blank.
When she woke up, a deadly quiet reverberated around her. No water dripping. No footsteps. No crying Sunny.
Machines beeped instead . . . low voices, carts clanging . . . a sea of white coats . . . a hospital . . .
Shivering, she shut out the images. Determined to fight her demons, she yanked on running clothes, strapped her weapon in the holster, unlocked and opened the door, and stepped into the hallway.
Old fears and training kicked in as she entered the elevator, and she kept her gaze focused on the door as it opened to the lobby.
He saw the beautiful graves in his mind just as he’d dug them for the angels. He’d left each girl with a candle to chase away her fear of the dark and to light her way to heaven. He’d also given them a cross to cling to, a symbol that they’d been saved.
But the tornado and flood had destroyed the peaceful bed where they’d lain together, linking hands as they sang the praises.
A wave of sadness washed over him that their peace had been destroyed.
The sheriff had found the graveyard. He was here now.
He and his deputies would scour the floodwaters and excavate the bones. Then his people would pick them apart and analyze them with their tools and tests as if they were nothing but a science experiment.
No longer would the sweetlings lie saintly in their white gowns as he’d left them. So young and innocent. So in need of prayer and guidance.
He’d given them both.
Until the storm ravaged the area, they’d had each other.
Now a hand floated freely, a skull, a femur, the rib cage of another. They were scattered around randomly, disconnected, like a puzzle with missing pieces that needed to be put back together.
He clutched the edge of the tree where he stood, clawing at the bark so hard that blood dripped from his hand. Mesmerized as he had been when the blood had flowed from the girls, freeing them of their pain, he watched his own blood spatter the ground.
The droplets fell randomly like tears, creating a pattern on the soil. He always found a pattern in the blood spatters. This time the image looked like a face, features distorted . . .
Voices dragged him from the image, and he glanced back at the graveyard. The sheriff snapped a picture, then another and another, then knelt to examine the skull of one of the angels.
He bit down hard on his tongue to stop from shouting for the sheriff not to desecrate the girls’ remains.
Tears for the lost souls slipped down his face and fell, mingling with the blood at his feet.
His work wasn’t done.
Only he’d have to find a new burial ground for the others.