Paige woke with her heart pounding and a vague sense of dread. At first she thought some foggy nightmare had startled her or maybe some dusty memory, because as a cop she had a few terrifying memories to fuel her night terrors. After fumbling with the lamp’s switch, she turned it on, and yellow light spilled into the room. Everything looked fine. Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.
“Damn paranoia,” she muttered to herself, but she would rather check the property than lie awake and try to convince herself she was getting weirder the older she got. She grabbed her robe off the floor and slid the drawer of her nightstand open. She’d built the furniture around the small gun safe. The November nights were a little chilly, and her cold fingers fumbled on the lock. Only once she had her weapon in hand did she head out toward the living room.
Maybe the neighborhood cat was raiding her chicken coop again, but usually when that happened she could hear the terrible squawks of the chickens and the howl of the cat as some injured bird landed a particularly hard peck on a vulnerable spot. Chickens weren’t as helpless as most people thought. But tonight, silence filled the house. Moving slowly, she cleared each of the spare bedrooms.
She felt like an idiot, treating her house like a crime scene, but a sense of danger had settled in her gut. She always told her newest partner, Brady, to trust his instincts when going into any situation, and she wasn’t going to ignore her own advice. On the other hand, she wasn’t ready to call for backup, not when she was probably just remembering the tail end of some nightmare.
Easing around the corner, she studied her living room. A shadow made her suck in her breath for the two seconds it took her to realize she’d forgotten to put the vacuum cleaner away. Other than that, the room was normal enough. A stack of books sat next to the couch. Bills were lined up on the coffee table, and a box of tile that should be in the bathroom sat in front of the rocking chair. Normal.
When Paige reached the kitchen, she finally admitted to herself that she’d imagined whatever dread had drawn her out of bed. She and Brady had pulled a nasty case—working door-to-door to try to help detectives identify any potential victims of a serial rapist who was targeting illegal immigrants. It had them both on edge. Part of her growing unease was the way the rapist didn’t follow the rule book. Oxbow didn’t see much rape, but these victims clung to Brady in a way that made Paige wonder if she’d missed some important memo about how victims usually acted.
The women who survived—and not all of them did—turned to the very masculine Brady, someone handsome and strong and young. Most times, rape victims shied away from men. Because Paige was short and a woman, she generally took lead with rape cases because she didn’t look intimidating, but Brady must have been putting out some serious trust-me vibes. The case was just weird.
Maybe the women gravitated to Brady because he looked like the lead in some movie where he would solve the case and beat the killer in hand-to-hand combat by the end of the two hours. Tall, dark, and handsome. Paige had never met anyone who actually met those three requirements. He could be an actor or a salesman who talked women into spending three month’s salary on cookware—he’d make more money in either career. Yet he’d signed up to be a small-town cop.
Paige set her weapon on the counter and reached for a glass. The light from the refrigerator made her squint as she pulled the milk out.
Two more days and she could take the weekend off. If she was having nightmares, even ones she couldn’t remember, she really needed the time to wander around the house in a nightgown and watch the chickens with their strange little hierarchies and ceremonies.
The clock on the stove said it was almost four a.m., so she had an hour or so before she had to get up. She drank her milk and put the glass in the dishwasher, pushing the door with a hip to shut it. Then she picked up her weapon and headed back toward her bedroom.
In the entryway, something made her stop. The feeling of disquiet got so great that she turned on the light. A few days’ worth of junk mail sat on the entry table, and several pairs of shoes were underneath. She whirled as she heard a scratching at the door. Her gaze went to the doorknob, but it didn’t move as the scratching got louder.
It was probably an injured dog. Oxbow was a quiet bedroom town, so there weren’t a lot of other possibilities. She flipped on the outside light. If a dog was hurt, she could call animal control. Then again, if a neighbor’s dog was going to wake her up at this time of the morning, the least she could do was return the favor.
After turning on the light, she unlocked the main door. Her gut still churned, and she kept her weapon next to her leg as she swung the door open. The metal security grid partially blocked her view, but a shadow huddled in the corner, flinching from the light. It took Paige a second to realize she was looking at the hunch of someone’s shoulders as they hid their face.
“What do you want?” Paige asked sharply. A battered face streaked with blood looked up at her.
“Silver?” he asked in a tremulous voice.
“Brady!” She fumbled at the lock on the security door, her weapon hitting the metal frame as she struggled to get it open. “Brady, what the hell happened?” If he’d been in a bar fight, she was going to kick his ass and write him up—right after she made sure he hadn’t broken any bones. He looked like hell with blood staining his shirt and ripped pants and something that looked like mud caking his left arm.
“Brady?” she called when he didn’t answer. He looked at her with the blank stare of a man seriously drunk—or in shock. The lock finally yielded. “Answer me right now or I’ll call 9-1-1.”
That shook him out of his stupor. “No!” He reached out for her with panic in his eyes. “Don’t call anyone.”
“Fuck, what have you been doing?” Paige asked as she knelt next to him, her gaze scanning the dark street for any trouble.
“I… They—” He stopped, and she got a hand under his elbow. Step one—get him somewhere secure. Step two—get some damn backup out here. Someone had done a real number on him. His light-brown eyes were bloodshot, and one was swollen nearly shut.
He leaned closer. For a second, she thought he was going to faint on her, and she debated leaving him to go call 9-1-1. However, before she could make any decision, fire tore through her arm.
“Shit!” Paige shoved at his head, but he had rediscovered his strength. He didn’t budge, and he was biting her. “Let go, or I will write your ass up after I kick it, you fucking drunk,” she snarled. Her fingers were getting numb, and she hit Brady right under the jaw, going for maximum pain and minimum damage.
With a cry, he fell back against the side of her house, his mouth red with her blood. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean— Oh, God.” He covered his face as her blood dripped down his forearms. Paige curled and uncurled her hand, cringing when she saw the human teeth marks deep in her flesh.
“What the hell are you on? Shit, Brady, you fucking bit me.” She was getting angry now.
“I didn’t mean…” He stopped, his breath coming in gasps that should have led to hyperventilation. His bloodshot eyes were a vivid map of angry veins.
“Get your ass in here,” Paige ordered. She stepped back to let him in, but she kept her distance as he slunk into the house. “Seriously, you are going to have to explain this to the paramedics, and unless your explanation includes kidnapping and involuntary drugging, you just flushed your career down the toilet.” She’d worked with a lot of trainees, and she knew that some made mistakes, but this…this was beyond a simple screwup.
“It does,” Brady said softly as he pressed himself into the corner with her entryway table. His six-foot frame suddenly looked small as he tried to become one with the wall.
“It does what?”
“It does include kidnapping. It does. I’d never—” He stared at her bleeding arm.
“What?” Paige’s stomach lurched as she realized what Brady was telling her. Ignoring the injury, she reached over to lock the security door. “You were kidnapped?” she asked, not sure she had heard right. It was too early in the morning for shocks like this. Brady nodded, his face twisting in pain.
Paige took a deep breath and tried to get herself into the right mindset to deal with work…to deal with a victim. If he was telling the truth, then Brady was a victim, not a drunk coworker who’d gotten her out of bed at four in the morning. “Okay, let’s just call the sergeant,” she said as she moved toward the living room.
“No!” He darted in front of her, the panic back in his face. “No, you can’t! They won’t believe me.”
Paige opened her mouth to bark an order, but she stopped herself. Right now Brady wasn’t her trainee; he was a crime victim, and she needed to treat him gently. “Brady, think about it. We’re cops. We always look at the evidence. If someone hurt you, there will be forensic evidence of that. We need to get someone over here to collect it.” Paige tried to be as reasonable and calm as possible because Brady had clearly left logic behind at some point. Then again, most kidnapping victims did.
“Evidence.” He breathed the word like a prayer and reached down to rub his wrists. Moving slowly, Paige reached for a lamp and switched it on. He flinched back toward the shadows, but he didn’t move fast enough to hide the vivid ligature marks on his wrists. He’d been tied—tightly. Fuck
Paige could feel a cold fury run through her. She was going to find the bastard who did this to Brady and gut him. Brady might be taller and physically stronger, but he was also her responsibility—her trainee. First, she had to calm Brady down and get help.
“That’s right. We need to collect evidence. That means we need to get a bus over here and let the station know you were attacked.” She also needed to have a paramedic look at her arm because Brady had bitten deep enough that the wound was throbbing. She was almost sure he didn’t have HIV, but she’d been to enough blood-borne illness trainings that she was feeling a little nervous.
“Evidence,” he said again.
“Evidence,” she agreed as she moved toward the phone. She’d covered half the distance before he darted forward and caught her left hand. Instinct made her jerk back, but he held her firmly despite his injuries. In fact, his fingers dug into her wrist.
“Brady, stop,” she said.
He frowned as if confused, but he slowly let her go. “You have to check the evidence.”
“That’s why we have to call someone,” Paige said.
“No, not someone. You have to check the evidence. I…I don’t trust myself.”
“No offense, Brady, but right now you shouldn’t trust yourself,” Paige pointed out. Whatever they’d dosed him with, it was definitely screwing with his sense of reality. It hurt to see Brady so confused—usually he was the first to jump into something with all the confidence and enthusiasm of a puppy. Of course, Paige never would have said that to his face because the male ego was a delicate thing, but from day one he’d approached every task with a good-natured passion that made her smile and wonder about his mental health. No one should be excited about their first Dumpster search. And now he was a trembling shadow of himself.
“I need you to tell me,” Brady said.
“Tell you what?”
“You have to feel this. You have to tell me.” He reached for her again, but this time he did so slowly. She watched, suspicious but willing to give him a little leeway.
“If you bite me again, I’m putting a knee in your crotch. I’ll feel bad about it, but you’re not getting another shot at me,” Paige warned him.
“I won’t. I promise. No biting.” He sounded so sincere that Paige didn’t argue as he brought her hand up to his neck. He pressed her fingers into his pulse point and then stood there with his hand cupped over hers, holding it in place. Paige waited for something to happen. Brady looked steady on his feet now, but his eyes were still vivid red, and his shirt showed streaks of dirt and rips that suggested he’d fought like hell.
Paige tried hard to not think about Brady tied down, fighting while someone shot him up with some drugs that had scrambled his brains. “Brady, what am I supposed to tell you?” Paige finally asked. His skin was cool enough that Paige was scared he was going into shock. She didn’t even know how far he’d had to run, wounded and drugged up.
“What do you feel?” Brady looked at her with unvarnished desperation.
“What are you talking about? Come on. Give me a hint.”
“A heartbeat. Feel for a heartbeat.”
Paige started to reassure Brady that the drugs were just messing with his mind, but then the reality hit her. She stood, her hand against a perfectly still, cool neck, and she realized what Brady was trying to tell her. Her mouth hung open, and she stared into Brady’s reddened eyes, his pale skin with her blood streaked across his chin from having bit her.
Shifting her fingers, she pressed deeper in search of some sort of life signs. Brady stared at her, his body unnaturally immobile as she moved her hand down to his wrist. It was stupid. If she couldn’t find a pulse in his neck, she wasn’t going to find one in his arm, but she dug her fingers into the soft flesh inside his wrist in search of some sort of sign. Brady wasn’t breathing.
He was dead.
Only he couldn’t be dead. He was looking at her with brown eyes wide with panic. “You must…” Paige stopped. There had to be a scientific explanation. His heart rate might be really, really slow. Maybe his blood pressure was down. He might just be holding his breath…for way longer than Paige could manage. Of course, if those things were true, he should be unconscious or something. Paige’s hands were sweating, and she could feel this weird pressure in her head.
Paige slowly backed away. For a second, Brady tried to hold her hand, but when Paige pulled back, he let her go.
A thousand thoughts ran through Paige’s head like monkeys on crack. A walking-around-type dead person. A dead person had bitten her arm. Pretty much every horror movie she’d ever seen started this way. True, she hadn’t seen many. She’d probably seen more horror movie commercials than anything else, but still…getting bit by the walking dead never turned out well.
“You have to help me. I don’t— I don’t know what to do.” He looked at her with a panicked expression. “Please,” he asked softly. Taking a step back, he leaned against the wall and started to slide down until he was hunched on her living room floor. Dead. She had a dead man in her living room. Well, shit.