Her Dying Breath 2017-11-09T13:58:37+00:00

Project Description

Her Dying Breath

Book 2 of the Slaughter CreekSeries

Her Dying Breath

Journalist Brenda Banks is on the verge of the biggest story of her career—if she can stay alive long enough to finish it. A serial killer is targeting men in the small town of Slaughter Creek, leaving behind a twisted trail of clues meant only for Brenda. It’s a dangerous, deadly game, one she cannot master without the help of FBI Special Agent Nick Blackwood, the man she’s loved since high school—and whose tormented past could hold the key to catching a killer.

Nick Blackwood barely survived childhood at the hands of his father, a sadistic mastermind known as the Commander. Since he left town, he’s spent his life chasing criminals—and trying to forget the beauty he once loved. But when a murder investigation brings him face-to-face with Brenda Banks, Nick cannot ignore the smoldering fire she rekindles in his troubled soul. Allowing Brenda into his heart means letting down his guard—and that’s just what the killer is counting on…

Prologue

A journal entry, March 2

The first time I died, I was only five years old.

I remember seeing rainbows and carousels and the golden wings of an angel dancing in the wind, ready to sweep me to the heavens and save me from the monster who chased me through the endless dark forest of child-eating trees.

But then he was there again, blotting out the angels, and the darkness came. The minutes that bled into hours. Hours where I fought for my life. Hours where the carousels turned into evil beings with dragon-like wings, with fangs and claws that reached for me and twisted my neck until it snapped.

I didn’t want to die.

But I had no control.

The Commander would kill me over and over again. All while the piano music played in the background, as if Mozart’s music could soothe me as I took my last breath.

It was a game, he said. A test of wills. A regiment to make me strong.

Even then, when I begged for him to send me to my grave, he didn’t.

Because he liked to listen to my dying breath rasp out. He said it brought him pleasure.

Voices rumbled in the common room, and I carried my journal with me, anxious to see what the commotion was about.

But there was no one except Six there. The TV was on — a newscast about the story in Slaughter Creek airing.

A picture of the Commander flashed on- screen, and I wanted to run. But my eyes were glued to his face in the same morbid way rubberneckers are drawn to the scene of a fatal accident. You can’t turn away.

“This is Brenda Banks coming to you from Slaughter Creek, Tennessee, where a shocking case has just been uncovered,” the dark-haired reporter said. “Arthur Blackwood, a commander in the armed forces and the former director of Slaughter Creek Sanitarium, who went missing ten years ago, is not only alive, but he has been arrested and charged with multiple counts of homicide.

“In a bizarre twist, Commander Blackwood, who is believed to have been working with the CIA, was arrested by his own sons, Sheriff Jake Blackwood and Special Agent Nick Blackwood, who discovered that the Commander had spearheaded a research project called the CHIMES at the local sanitarium.

“At this point, the CIA disavows any knowledge that Blackwood was working with them or that they sanctioned the project, which used unsuspecting children as experimental subjects. Commander Blackwood is now in custody, but word is that he is not cooperating with the police and refuses to reveal the names of his victims.”

I lifted my hand and stroked the tiny number that had been branded behind my ear.

The Commander wouldn’t release names because to him we had no names. Just numbers.

I am Seven.

My friend who sits beside me, Six.

The reporter continued to babble about the experiment and its horrific effect on the subjects they had identified.

The subjects, that’s what they called us. Guinea pigs. Freaks was more like it.

“If you have any knowledge or information pertaining to this case, please contact your local law enforcement agency or Special Agent Nick Blackwood.” The reporter smiled, stirring a faint memory in the back of my mind.

I had seen her before. Years ago at the sanitarium…would she remember me?

“Again, this is Brenda Banks coming to you from Slaughter Creek. We will bring you more information on this case as it becomes available.”

Six turned to me with an evil glint in his eyes as the broadcast finished airing. “Everyone must pay.”

I nodded and glanced at the keeper of the home we shared. Six pulled a pack of matches from his pocket and gestured toward the back, where our rooms were.

His devious mind already had a plan.

Five minutes later, a blaze erupted in the bathroom, and I grabbed my bag from my room and slipped out the back. Blood soaked Six’s pocket, but I didn’t ask what had happened. I didn’t want to know.

Flames shot into the air, smoke billowing in a thick cloud. I heard a scream from inside, and then Six appeared through the cloud of smoke, his eyes scanning the property.

I hooked a thumb toward the car on the corner, and we ran toward it, ducking our heads as a siren wailed and a fire engine roared past us, heading to the blaze.

Silence fell between us, deep and liberating, as we climbed into the car. I hotwired it in seconds and pulled away. With Six, there was no need to talk. We had bonded years ago in the sanitarium.

I could read his mind now.

We would go back to Slaughter Creek, to where it all began. Where the Commander started his reign of terror.

Where the townspeople had allowed it to happen and ignored our pleas for help.

Heat flooded my veins as I imagined him chained to some godforsaken table, where he became the pincushion for the doctors’ needles and drugs. Where the CHIMES drained his blood and watched the life flow from him, one breath at a time. While he screamed for help that would never come.

Prison was not good enough for the man who’d tortured and deceived me and the others.

The police, the federal agents — they thought they knew the Commander’s secrets.

But they knew nothing.

Red Rover, Red Rover, send Seven right over…

I would show him what he’d turned me into.

And then I would kill him, just as he’d killed me.

Over and over and over again—seven times, I’d take his life, until he begged me to extinguish the light and finally let him slip into peace.

Then I would kill again, just for the fun of watching him die.

Chapter 1

Special Agent Nick Blackwood hated his father.

The bastard had ruined the lives of dozens of young, innocent children in the name of his research.

He’d ruined the lives of his two sons as well.

Nick had his own stories to tell.

Stories that he’d never shared with a single living soul. Not even his brother Jake.

But they were his secrets to keep, and he wore them like a badge of honor. The painful memories had shaped him into the man he’d become.

A cold, ruthless killer for the government. And now a cold, ruthless federal agent who hunted down the most wanted, the sick and depraved.

Psychopaths like his father.

The scars on his back ached as he walked into the interrogation room where Arthur Blackwood sat, scars his father had inflicted from the time he was three, but he refused to massage the pain away. Seeing his discomfort would only bring the Commander pleasure, and he refused to give him that, just as he refused to react to his father’s pleas to get to know him again.

Instead, Nick wiped all emotion from his face and mind.

This man meant nothing to him. Nothing but but a means to an end. He had information Nick wanted.

The interrogation techniques Nick had learned in the military taunted him. He’d like to use those on the Commander. In fact he would enjoy using them, making his father suffer as he’d made others suffer.

Unfortunately the TBI didn’t allow torture as part of their tactics.

The downside of being a fed — he had to play by their rules.

He and several other agents had already questioned the Commander a half dozen times and gotten nowhere.

But they kept hoping he’d slip and reveal the names of other parties involved in the mind experiments they’d conducted at Slaughter Creek Sanitarium.

They also wanted a list of all the subjects.

If their theories proved correct, the Commander had created a slew of mentally unstable twenty-somethings who ranged from trained murderers to psychopaths to sadistic serial killers without a conscience.

Not only had the people of Slaughter Creek been affected by the loss of loved ones, but these psychopaths could strike anywhere, anytime.

Already they’d uncovered one who’d been a sniper.

Worse, a handful of the subjects and two doctors involved had been murdered in order to cover up the project, murders his father had ordered to save his own ass.

“Hello, Nick,” the Commander said in that eerily calm tone he’d adopted since his capture.

Did the bastard think he could hypnotize Nick like he had the children he’d used in his project?

Nick dropped into the chair facing him. His father was shackled and chained on the other side of the wooden table, the only furniture in the room.

“The guards said you asked to speak to me.”

The Commander gave a clipped nod, his gray eyes trained on Nick as they used to be when he forced an impossible physical test upon him. They flickered with contempt, just as they had when Nick failed.

And then that glint of challenge, just before he doled out whatever punishment or torture his evil mind had concocted in the name of catapulting his son into manhood.

A sick smile tilted the corner of his father’s mouth. “I always knew you’d grow up to be a killer.”

Nick ground his teeth. Of course, his father knew about his military background. According to his sources, the CIA had given him a new identity and helped him hide out for the past ten years.

Gray hair now dusted the tops of his father’s hands as he folded them on the table. “You are so much more like me than Jake is. That’s the reason I was harder on you. You had that killer instinct, that same intense ability to focus. To kill.”

Emotions Nick thought long buried rose to the surface, his temper flaring. But he had to remain calm. His father had been famous for pushing his buttons.

And then punishing him for reacting.

Men – soldiers — did not react.

“I’m nothing like you,” Nick said. “I fought for my country, yes. But I didn’t prey on innocent little children like Amelia Nettleton or Grace Granger.”

“They were casualties of the cause.”

Nick shook his head. “If you called me in for your same old song and dance, then I’m out of here.” The chair scraped the hard floor as Nick shoved it back and stood. Then he headed toward the door.

“Jake has his head buried in that Nettleton girl’s ass just like he did ten years ago.” Disgust laced his father’s cold voice. “But you, Nick. You’re a worthy adversary. You won’t give up. I know that. You have to know the truth. All of it.”

Nick turned and cut him a scathing look. “Does that mean you’re ready to talk?”

A cynical chuckle escaped his father. “Now what is the fun in that, son?”

“This is not a game, or one of your training exercises,” Nick said tersely. “If you have any shred of humanity left, you’ll give us a list of all the subjects, so we can investigate the effects of your project on them and get the victims psychological help. We might even be able to save lives.”

“What you’ve done is expose the subjects, which will make things worse for them. They may want revenge.”

“All the more reason for you to give me that list.”

“The list was destroyed,” his father said simply. “The names of the Slaughter Creek subjects are lost.”

The slight inflection in his father’s voice aroused Nick’s suspicions. Another lie, or was his father toying with him?

Nick walked back to the table, planted his hands on top of it, and leaned forward, eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, the Slaughter Creek subjects’ names are lost?”

“Just what I said. We destroyed records when the project was terminated to avoid leaving a paper trail.”

“CIA protocol?”

His father nodded.

But a knot formed in Nick’s belly, the same fear that had slithered through him when he’d been cornered behind enemy lines. “Are you saying that the project wasn’t contained to Slaughter Creek?”

The handcuffs clanged as his father shifted. “That’s for you to find out, Nick.”

Nick silently cursed. Of course, the project could have taken place in other cities. Why confine it to this small town? “I told you I’m not here to play games.” He started to walk away again, but his father cleared his throat.

“But you will play this one.”

The Commander opened his folded hand to reveal a slip of paper. Dammit. There was probably nothing on it.

But Nick couldn’t gamble that it wasn’t a clue of some kind. So he took the bait.

When he opened the paper, though, his heart began to hammer.

There once was a child with a mind

Till he stole it from her for all time

Then they played Red Rover

And he said, “Come over”

And she crossed the line to the dark side.

Nick raised his gaze to his father’s. “Did you write this?”

“No,” his father said simply. “It came in the mail, no return address.”

Nick wanted to punch something. The bureau was supposed to be checking his father’s mail. The son of a bitch had received hundreds of letters. Some hate mail. Some letters from individuals who claimed they were part of the experiment.

The bureau had to assign a special team to investigate those. So far none of them had panned out, though. They were all crackpots and attention seekers looking for their ten minutes of fame.

Then there were the love letters from depraved women who claimed they were in love with the Commander. Some twisted souls thought they could redeem him. Others offered conjugal visits. He’d even had two marriage proposals.

What kind of sick woman would want to marry his father, knowing what he’d done?

“I believe it’s a warning,” the Commander said.

A warning from one of the CHIMES, who knew what he’d done to her?

She’d crossed the line to the dark side…

What did that mean? That she was going to hurt herself?

Or somebody else?

Or was she coming after the Commander?

Hell, if that was what she wanted, Nick would leave the cell door open and let her have at his father.

Still, he had to find out who she was, because she might lead him to the others — the victims, who their minds warped by the experiments, might have become killers.

***

Brenda Banks straightened her skirt and jacket as she waited outside the prison for Special Agent Nick Blackwood to emerge.

She wished like hell she’d been a fly on the wall, so she could have eavesdropped on his conversation with his father.

The tall stone prison with its massive gate and barbed wire fencing housed almost a thousand inmates, including some of the worst criminals in Tennessee, on twenty-four-hour lockdown with no chance of parole, some on death row.

Would Arthur Blackwood receive the needle for his crimes?

Frustration coiled inside her. She wanted an exclusive interview with the mastermind behind the project, but the feds had refused to put her her on the list of approved visitors.

She wouldn’t give up, though. Because Brenda Banks was not the woman everyone thought she was.

Sure, she could don a pleasing face for the public, but that talent had been drilled into her as a child by William and Agnes Banks.

Much to their displeasure though, she refused to simply be a pretty face on a man’s arm, like her daddy wanted. Or the socialite entertainer her mother tried to mold her into being.

Maybe there was a reason — technically she wasn’t their child.

Of course, her father, now the mayor of Slaughter Creek, demanded that his dirty little secret be kept safe, so she had to keep her mouth shut. Be a Southern lady, Agnes insisted. Use your charm and support your man!

Brenda intended to support herself, and to have a man stand behind her. Or maybe they would stand side by side.

Finding out the harsh truth, that the Bankses had bought her as a baby, had changed her. Made her tougher.

Explained why she felt like a stranger in her own family’s house.

She liked digging into people’s lives, liked digging into their secrets, liked exposing what lay beneath their polished exterior.

This winter, she’d clearly landed the biggest story in Slaughter Creek’s history, maybe even in the history of the state of Tennessee.

There was more to the story, too.

More victims. More people involved in the project. More involved in the cover-up.

She wouldn’t quit until she exposed them all.

No matter what she had to do.

The wind swirled around her, and she folded her arms, rubbing off the chill. Her piece about the CHIMES had landed her a position at the local TV station as an investigative reporter. No more covering the annual dog pageant or the cornbread festival. Or the Labor Day festivities with the deep-fried Oreos and Twinkies.

The front doors of the prison suddenly whooshed open, and Nick Blackwood, stepped outside. Her heart stuttered.

Nick had grown even more handsome and masculine with age. He looked three inches taller, had developed muscles that hadn’t been there when he was a teen, massive broad shoulders, and a chiseled jaw that made her want to run her finger along it, to make him smile.

The intensity in his dark eyes implied that he was untouchable, though. That cold, angry look screamed that he’d seen the dark side of the world.

And he hated everyone in it.

She remembered when he’d joined the military and left town. Had heard he’d joined Special Forces. Even now he exuded that military aura — the steely eyes and focus, the harsh mouth, the cropped haircut, the posture that indicated he was always in control.

He paused on the steps, adjusted his sunglasses, then scanned the parking lot as if he were searching for someone. She had the uncanny sense that he was always on guard. Always suspicious.

Always braced for a bullet to come flying at him.

She took a deep breath and strode toward him, steeling herself for another brush-off.

“Nick,” she said as she stopped in front of him a second later.

He heaved an exasperated sigh before she could say anything. “I have no comment for the press, Brenda.”

She felt a sliver of unease as his gaze swept over her, condemning her to the ranks of lowly civilian.

Even worse, lowly female civilian.

“I know you and your brother think I’m the bad guy,” she said. “But really, Nick, I just want the story. People in town deserve to know how your father got away with what he did for so long.”

“Jake gave you the exclusive when we made the arrest,” he answered in a gruff voice.

“Yes, but I also know you’re looking for other victims, subjects of that experiment. I’d like to interview them, run a personal story on each of their lives and the effects the experiment had on them and their families. The series would garner sympathy for the families and victims.”

His only reaction was a fine tightening of his mouth. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.”

“But I can help you,” she said, determined to find some common ground.

He brushed past her, completely dismissing her, but she grabbed his arm.

A mistake.

He stiffened, removed his sunglasses with careful precision, then leveled his cold eyes at her.

A tingle of awareness she hadn’t expected shot up her spine.

Brenda instantly dropped her hand, disturbed by the feeling. She could not be attracted to Nick Blackwood.

“If you won’t talk to me, maybe your father will,” she said, desperate to remain professional. “Maybe he wants to tell his side of the story.”

Nick wrapped his big, long fingers around her wrist. “I don’t give a damn about his side of the story, Brenda. Lives may be at stake, so take your pretty little ass and go interview the women down at the country club.”

Rage volleyed through her. His snide archaic comment sounded exactly like something her father would say. “That’s not fair, Nick. I’ve earned my position as an investigative reporter.”

His gaze darkened. “This is serious business, Brenda.” His voice dropped a decibel. “You have no idea what you’re doing. Leave the police work to the real cops.”

“People have a right to know the truth,” she snapped. “Otherwise, how will the citizens know that you aren’t covering up what your father did, just like he covered it up for years?”

Anger blazed in Nick’s eyes, betraying him — this cold, harsh man did feel something, after all. In that brief moment, she sensed a well of pain beneath his steely veneer.

He had been hurt by his father’s actions, shamed by the horrible accusations against Arthur Blackwood.

Had Nick known or suspected his father was capable of the crimes he’d committed?

Did Nick have his own secrets from the past?

What had it been like growing up with the Commander for a father? He’d been cruel to the children in the experiment.

Had he been cruel to his sons, or abused them?

Her heart raced. Yes, there was an angle she hadn’t thought of before. One everyone in Slaughter Creek would be interested in.

“I’m not covering up for that bastard,” he said through clenched teeth. “I intend to find his victims, get treatment for them if necessary, and protect the public.”

“Then let me help,” she said. “Some of the victims might talk to me before they would a federal agent.”

Tension stretched between them as his gaze locked with hers. A police van pulled up and unloaded a string of prisoners, then led them through a series of gates. One of them shouted a lewd remark at her, but she ignored it.

A muscle jumped in Nick’s jaw. “I’m warning you, Brenda, stay away from my father.”

“Why?” Brenda asked, a challenge in her voice. “Are you afraid he’ll tell me your deep dark secrets?”

His fingers gripped her wrist so tightly that she bit her tongue to keep from wincing as pain ripped up her arm. A second later his gaze dropped to his hand, and he must have realized he was hurting her because he released her.

Still, rage darkened his eyes. But he didn’t respond to her challenge. Instead, he strode down the steps, his shoes clicking on the cement.

Brenda rubbed her wrist, curious at his reaction. She’d obviously pushed a button. That rage meant she was right—he had suffered at the hands of his father. She had no doubt.

But how much? And what had his father done to him that he didn’t want to be revealed?

***

The dim glow of the lamp on the table painted her lover’s chiseled face with a sickly yellow glow as his eyes bulged in shock. His name was Jim Logger.

A decent name.

But he still had to die.

“What are you doing?” he rasped.

His face blurred, and the Commander’s replaced it. He was hurting her. Punishing her. Laughing.

She twisted the piano wire around Logger’s neck, tightening it with her fingers.

The whites of his eyes bulged. “Enough, babe, please…”

She shook her finger in his face, brushing her bare breasts against his chest. His erection stood tall and stiff below her, the cock ring holding him hard and thick, just waiting for her to climb on him.

She hadn’t yet decided if she would, or if she’d make him wallow in unsatisfied anticipation.

“I can’t breathe,” he whispered.

She ran one finger along his jaw and straddled him. “Just go with it. Soon you’ll feel the euphoria, then the hallucinations will come. Colors and images like you’ve never seen before.”

His chest rose and fell, panic creasing his face as he struggled for air.

The bastard had been speechless with lust when she’d performed her strip tease, then undressed him.

He’d barely blinked when she’d wound the ropes around his wrists and ankles. And he’d nearly exploded all over her face when she’d planted wet licks along the insides of his thighs as she secured his restraints.

“Seriously,” he gasped. “Stop it and let me just fuck you.”

Her smile faded, the pain of what the Commander had done fueling her fury. All men were like the Commander. She saw him in every face on the street.

“No, I’m going to fuck you.” She increased the pressure against his throat. “Do you feel the high? Do you see the lights twinkling?”

He kicked and jerked his arms, rattling the bedrails. She glanced at the clock, timing him as she impaled herself on his rigid length.

Ten seconds, twenty…thirty…

He jerked again, desperate to escape, but she rode him hard and fast, her senses taking over. The pressure of her orgasm rippled through her as he began to gag and choke.

His penis was big, long, felt delicious inside her. Heat sizzled along her nerve endings, the rhythm building as she gripped the wire and moved up and down on his cock. Over and over until a tingling started in her womb and her climax seized her.

Blinding colors of pleasure washed over her as she thrust deeper, so deep he touched her core. She threw her head back and groaned, moving her hips in a circular motion and riding the waves as sensation after sensation pummeled her.

His body jerked and spasmed, his own orgasm teetering on the surface.

But she climbed off of him, denying him the release.

“Please,” he moaned.

She squeezed it harder, repeating it seven times, lifting it from his skin and pressing it to another spot, each time increasing the pressure so hard she cut off his oxygen. His breath rasped out, his pallor turned gray. His body jerked, then a gurgling sound erupted from his throat.

Finally his eyes rolled back in his head and his body went slack.

She paused to listen for the sound of his breathing, but barring the tick-tock of the clock, the room was silent.

Puny son of a bitch. Not even two minutes, and he’d passed out.

She loosened the wire, leaned over and blew air into his mouth, then began chest compressions to bring him back from the brink of death.

When he finally opened his eyes again, shock glazed his irises, the realization that she’d choked him evident in the panic on his face.

“Get off of me, you freak!”

His shout sounded more like a croak. “No, babe,” she said, using the pet name he’d given her. “The fun is just beginning.”

She straddled him again, gripped the ends of the piano wire and wound it together until the fleshy skin around his neck bulged in fatty rolls. Again, seven squeezes, each one more intense, each one marking him.

She checked the clock. “The first time you die is always the worst. Let’s see if you can make it longer the second go around.”

Pure terror shot across his face, and he struggled frantically, then shouted as loud as his sore vocal cords allowed, “Help! Someone help me!”

She chuckled softly, then stuffed her panties in his mouth to muffle his screams. “If you last more than two minutes, I’ll save you again,” she murmured.

The pupils of his eyes dilated as he fought, but he was weak from dying the first time. He flailed, tears rolling down his ruddy cheeks.

The fight drained from him as her fingers worked the wire. Seconds later, he lay limp again.

A sad excuse for a specimen.

The Commander would have been disappointed.

She studied his face, the slack jaw, the listless eyes. Really, he was a handsome man.

Maybe she would save him again.

She ran a finger down his chest, through the thick, dark hair, then down to his waist.

Yes, she’d watch him die one more time.

But first she’d mark him as she’d been marked.

She took the knife she’d brought with her and carved a number behind his ear: # 1. Her first kill.

Now for more fun.

Then she’d alert that reporter who broke the story on the Commander and tell her where to find him.

Brenda Banks would give the message to the Commander.

Then all the world would see what she’d done in his honor.

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