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First pages

Chapter One

Confusion and pain intertwined to delay Kaylee’s escape from the depths of a nightmare. The attempt of her subconscious to alert her to some horrific horror or another was common during the past two years. The pain was an unwelcome penalty for which she could not account.

Cozy flannel sheets had never felt so rough under her cheek, nor had her head ached from a glass of wine. Her ineffectual grasp for homey comfort fell short of relief. Despite the tomboy tag since infancy, she appreciated certain creature comforts. The material scratching her face didn’t number among them.

A quiet foreboding swelled within that fuzzy twilight between the dream state and the hazy stages of surfing to consciousness. Sleep would be welcome if not for the musty odor and an undefined menace crowding her mind. Her brow furrowed even as her pulse increased, awareness swelling with each painful throb.

Why is there dirt in my bed and what the hell is wrong with this mattress?

With each erratic contraction of her heart, the tension in her head increased, ratcheting like the shell around a drumhead until pain reverberated along each nerve. In grim anticipation, she gingerly reached to touch her temple. A crusty line of fibrous, threadlike strands cemented her brow line and snaked down to her ear.

Blood? What the hell?

Moving back to Portland entailed a certain degree of compromise, yet shouldn’t include a cotton-mouth morning and a sticky material in her hair. A light finger-comb unmasked a large tangled knot and a painful lump over her ear. Did I fall off the mattress and hit my head?

“Hey, kid. Wake up, damn it. Hurry.”

The harsh whisper embodied urgency and desperation that replicated and swelled within her chest.

What the fuck? The voice in her head wasn’t her own. Enlightenment would come after punching through the suffocating fog and fully emerging in the suddenly hostile world. Stabbing pain accompanied the dingy light spearing her eyes after cautiously lifting one lid. A slurry of flashbacks included sitting in an outdoor riverfront café and enjoying the sunset. Her favorite camera had nestled in her lap after snapping the riot of colors slipping into the ocean.

Now, for reasons defying logic or memory, her gaze wouldn’t focus.

“Kid, open your eyes before it’s too late. Grab the small rock by your head. Hide it behind you.”

Okaaay, evil mini me is crazy, and I will never drink wine again.

Five minutes of silence might collect her thoughts and allow time to search the chaotic flashbacks for instigators of the nausea-producing pests in her brain and stomach. Each vied for the position of top party host. Unfortunately, intuition whispered taking that time would be her undoing.

Instead of the hustle and bustle of city life swarming her senses, Kaylee found the intense quiet more disturbing than the harsh whisper. “Wait…what rock?”

Bits and pieces of her surroundings wavered in and out of focus. Brick walls smeared with dirt were partially visible through the horizontal bars yet brought no clarity of thought. Horizontal bars? She reached with shaking fingers to touch the rusted metal cylinders then attempted to rattle them.

A cramp in her thigh from her semi-fetal position grew in intensity while her feet resting against a hard cylindrical surface prevented her from stretching out. More bars. She didn’t have the strength to yell.

The quick indrawn breath was also not her own. “C’mon you stupid kid. Knock that off, or we’re both dead.”

A shower of dirt sprinkling her face and hair induced a cough, the resultant sandy inhalation perpetuating the cycle. The collaborative dream, having taken a southern turn into hell, brought another wave of anxiety along with nausea. Each of her senses plunged deeper into a dark abyss, taking logic and rational thought through a twisted, interactional roller coaster ride. Disorientation, chaos, and the initial stirrings of panic took root like a well-fertilized seed that sent its growing tendrils sliding deep within the earth.

Loose dirt and small rocks covered the hard base and abraded her shoulder as she moved to a cramped position on her back. The changed perspective brought enlightenment. That’s why the bars were horizontal.

“Fuck.” Details assimilated slowly in her fact-finding pursuit. Dirt covering metal comprised a bed, but not in her apartment. Walls of brick as seen through her cage, lack of windows, and stale dank air, led to the deduction of an underground zip code. Micro currents ferried a putrid scent and a thickness that muffled faint eerie groans of venting tunnels.

“What’s your name?” Again, a whisper twisted with annoyance and despair saturated the air.

Halting breaths and extreme if painful concentration staved off the blind terror threatening her sanity. “Kaylee. My name is Kaylee.” Slowly, she visually searched for the irritating heckler.

“Listen up, Kaylee. The bastard who took you is gonna be back soon, probably looking for a bit of afternoon delight…And he won’t be asking. He kidnapped you, too. I don’t know why.”

Kaylee’s frightened mind took in her surroundings, low ceiling, dirt floor, cramped, cave-like room, and the caged, bedraggled woman three feet away. Purple and black surrounded her right eye and busted lip. Her left shirt front hung in tatters, the ripped flannel exposing a large bruise above her breast.

“How long have we been here?” A torch along the wall cast flickering shadows over the adjoining cage, just short of her own. Flickering—indicates an air current.

“The last thing I remember is shopping.” Mud-streaked tears trailed the petite blonde’s alabaster cheeks and sharply contrasted the bruises marring her face.

“There’s a slight breeze coming from—that way.” Kaylee strained to see yet failed to see where the tunnel led. Some apparitional entity scuttled in the darkness beyond the seedy illumination left the impression of ghostly stalkers. Stalkers that chittered in the dark. I’d rather see the boogyman than rats. “We seem to be in an underground room?”

“Yeah. I think so. I woke up just like you, but the bastard tied my hands before my head cleared...” A sob choked further words as the frightened victim looked away, her appearance and expression conveying the obvious.

A cursory exploration of the small perimeter delineated the filthy, tight confines and the small, sharp-edged rock which fit in her palm. Instinct saw her sliding it behind her. Mud covered her jeans and darkened her t-shirt and jacket. Bathing was the least of her worries.

“Someone slipped me a roofie.” Kaylee’s scrutiny of the cage yielded no clues of how to escape her dilemma. Even if she could squeeze her hand and arm through the bars’ two-inch gap and position it square to the door’s seam, she didn’t have the strength or leverage to break the heavy-duty padlock securing her prison.

“Yes. Yes. But at least you’re not tied up, yet.” She lifted her hands to reveal wrists bound with a double loop, plastic cuff. “See if you can break out.”

Kaylee studied the thick, U-shaped shackle linking the chain and then the small rock in her hand. “Shit.” Stomach acid threatened to revolt if she moved too fast. “I don’t think—”

Low rumbled conversation in the distance conveyed disgust and anxiety despite lack of clarity. The few words discerned argued the merits and risks of something important, judged by intermittent expletives and plaintive appeals. One’s a female? Thick foreign accents dampened perception.

“Shhh, someone’s coming. Lie down and pretend you’re still unconscious.” Unable to contain her fear, the battered victim huddled back, seeking shelter in her prison.

Instinct guided Kaylee into fetal position with feet facing the door and her scrunched body hiding the crude weapon. Closing her eyes heightened other senses and expanded her knowledge of the impossible scenario coming to life.

The shuffle step which skidded dirt in her face appeared to be from a large hulk, filling her thoughts with images of a monster able to snap her small neck via a flick of his wrist. Rustling sounds in the next cage testified to the other woman’s movements.

“Let me go, please. My family has money. They’re rich, and they’ll pay for my return.” A sob choked off as the beaten woman continued. “I won’t tell anyone where I’ve been or—what you’ve done.”

“Money, huh? You’re dressed no better than a junkie—though you did smell nice.” The nasal whine and broken English nurtured consideration of a weak character perpetuated by the sleazy, appreciative chuckle. “I doubt anyone knows you’re missing.”

“You guys have a new girl for your…entertainment. Please, let me go.” Desperate words ended in a choked mewling.

“Dunno how entertaining she’ll be. So damned skinny. I like to grab hold of some meat. At least she has nice hair and tits.”

Kaylee kept her eyes closed, unable to condemn the terrified prisoner after suffering obvious atrocities. Would she have done the same if the circumstances had been reversed?

“Why would I lose money for a lie? Stupid puss. Be quiet while I sample the new sweet meat or I’ll stuff your mouth with my cock.” The thick strain of foreign accent defied regional clarification.

Dull metallic clinking designated the shifting of chain between bars before tumbling to the cell floor.

“Wakee, wakee, kewpie doll. Time for sexercise.” A new gruffness in his voice choked the air with the oily cunning of a monster preparing to strike.

The cage’s door ground in protest before a large meaty fist grabbed her right ankle and yanked. The painful grip encircling her leg spawned a tsunami-force horror to swell within her chest. It gushed outward to seize and energize every nerve ending. She’d never experienced man-handling.

Kaylee’s eyes snapped open to a new brutality. Evil incarnate crouched in front of the open door. Grinning. A hideous knowledge he’d soon divulge.

Her photographer’s eye cataloged nuances of his appearance while her scrambled thoughts tried to formulate a plan. Long, greasy hair was tied in the back. A gap between crooked, chaw-stained teeth intensified a vile mindset. A face whose jowls sagged confirmed her initial impression of barbarian. The thickened ridge banding his nasal bone highlighted a prior break. Hopefully at the hands of a woman.

A low whistle hissed out in appreciation while black eyes glittered with menace. The veneer intensified from the jagged scar running from temple to chin. An artist’s stroke of malice. The bastard outweighed her by at least a hundred pounds, which completed her perception of being the fly in his trap.

The abrasions earned from him dragging her through the cage paled in comparison to the bands of shock and repulsion seizing her lungs. A painful wrench scraped her into a new position—on her back.

A low voice grumbled from the far side where the tunnels hid their dangerous secrets. Its owner remained concealed in the depths of the new hell. The split-second diversion would either save her life or delay an inevitable fate. Regardless of the garbled warning, another presence spelled trouble.

Kaylee’s explosive response took advantage of her assailant’s distraction. Terror aimed her left foot at her kidnapper’s crotch with all the strength of a desperate hostage. Regardless of the outcome, she’d go down fighting.

The dirtball toppled on his back with both hands cradling his junk amid a long groan interrupted by dry-heaves and growls. His slight rocking motion and tightly clenched eyes yielded little satisfaction. He deserved so much more.

With mere seconds to escape, she glanced at the caged woman and prayed for forgiveness. Widened eyes and dropped jaw bared a soul beseeching help. Hope was premature.

The thug opened his eyes and scrutinized her position. “Ahh, bitch. You’ll pay for that.” Hissed through tightly clenched teeth, the threat carried a vomit-provoking promise.

Curling to a sit, his bulky frame still blocked the exit while labored breathing punctuated his groans. His expression declared her already dead. Physically, she was no match for the brute. A sloping forehead engendered hope that his mental processes equaled dull wits.

Crushing alarm expanding in her chest purged confusion and disorientation. Time was not on her side. Before she could crab-walk out to kick him again, his malevolent smile affirmed a redirection of remaining pain into hatred.

The decayed leer, like his gaze, never wavered but extended a new and foul determination saturating the air between them. This time, he kneeled up, and his two-handed reach secured both lower legs in a matter of seconds. Vicious yanks pulled her from the cage. Pain stabbed her back as her body twisted and jerked in a bid to loosen his constricting grip. Instinctively, her hands reached for the bars on either side. Something sharp jabbed her arm. The rock.

Releasing the bar on one side, she palmed the stone. The movement gained a weapon but lost another layer of skin on her back. Nausea and the remnants of drugs threatened her effort while revulsion and encroaching blackness warred for dominance.

When her head cleared the opening, she curled her upper body in a disjointed sit-up. A new lightheadedness chiseled away at hope, her head swimming in a foggy mist between consciousness and blood-curdling fear. Unable to maintain focus, she prayed her upward momentum and continued arc proved true. Funneling the strangling emotions choking her thoughts, she bashed his head with the rock. A sickening thud asserted her triumph, if only temporary.

Satisfaction from a crimson gush pouring down his temple gave her strength. His hands went lax as he slumped sideways to the ground. Blood flowed freely over his forehead while his eyelids fluttered then closed.

If she crawled closer to hit him again and he roused, she’d be dead. Despite the circumstances, she couldn’t murder an unconscious man. Killing another human had never made her to-do list. However, making sure he remained out cold for a bit longer would grant her time to help the other captive.

“Quick. Get me out of here!” A frantic rattling of the cage accompanied the demand.

Clumsy movements gained Kaylee an upright advantage on shaky legs before anger and adrenaline supplemented her power. A well-aimed but weakened kick rocked his head. The crunch of nasal bone granted small satisfaction.

“Kaylee, he’s down. Free me.”

Four steps in the other victim’s direction. Kaylee stopped short. The bloody rock in her hand was no match for the thick padlock. The key she needed rested harmlessly in the lock to her own cage. Retrieving it would mean stepping between the dirtball and prison, thereby blocking her exit. She took one step.

The thug cursed.

She looked back.

Blood flowed around thick fingers pressed to his temple and nose. “Fuck. I’m gonna kill you slow, peel the skin from every inch of your body.”

The kidnapper’s sluggish movements wouldn’t stay clumsy for long. Kaylee glanced helplessly at the woman’s tear streaked face. To delay would mean death. With each wild heartbeat, the bastard regained a portion of his senses. She had no choice.

“I’ll send help.” The minuscule blink linking one heartbeat to the next rifled myriad images of cosmic lunacy through the dark reaches of her mind. What if their situations were reversed? She tried to use me as a bargaining chip. Meaningless in light of the circumstances.

“No, don’t leave me here. He’ll kill me. Grab the key. Just toss it to me!”

There were no good options.

The chamber had two exits. Two choices held equally dark and dismal hope. Two echoes that had defied origin. She figured it came from the farthest black yawning mouth. Fear and disorientation hampered her certainty, a fifty-fifty shot of running toward death. Each led into a dark unknown, each a question mark for escape and survival.

She fled through the closest shaft, blindly reaching forward, urged faster by the string of curses trailing her. Should’ve taken the light. Yet that would’ve given the kidnapper something to track. Do they know which way I went? Would the other victim use misdirection in hopes of gaining her own freedom?

Small rocks dotted the sandy ground and threatened her balance with each step. Please let them be rocks. At least they didn’t squirm underfoot. Above, the ceiling’s height outdistanced her reach. With one hand stretched in front and the other slightly overhead, she rushed forward, stumbling into the walls each time the maze curved.

Curses and shuffling sounds of a stumbling gait floated from behind. Each shunted her faster in a blind scramble to find an exit. These tunnels can go for miles. At any second, she expected someone to fist her hair in a punishing grip or fire blindly, the bite of a bullet piercing her back.

What felt like hours probably transpired in minutes. After several slight-angle turns and she no longer detected sounds of pursuit.

Musty air choked her lungs, the dampness making each heavy breath the equivalent of sucking air through a dirty, wet filter. Pitch-blackness after rounding her first staggering curve was a blessing and a curse. Surely her pursuers would use some form of light. A quick glance over her shoulder yielded no flickering shadows while no angry shouts drifted through the maze.

Time measured itself in each faltering step, each erratic thrust of her heart against its cage, and each smothering gag she suppressed. Without knowledge of her general location, she couldn’t guess what lay ahead. Each time the tunnel branched in front of her, she kept to the left. Always left. She’d already gone too far and made too many turns to track the number or varying angles of her route, not that she wanted to return. The police will search for the other woman. Did she lie about being rich? No light and with nothing to mark her trail meant she’d have to rely on her wits, frazzled and twisted into a mindless, instinctual creature.

Chapter Two

Time held little meaning as every harsh exhale returned a mini echo, the cadence a reassurance of continued life. Phantom talons plunged from the void every time her outstretched hand collided with solid wall. The conjured images of a flesh and blood nightmare spurred her desperation. Each time, a gasp threatened exposure to the fiendish rapist located in the bowels of the catacombs.

Her imagination evoked small recesses to either side, each filled with skeletons of those unable to escape. Empty sockets stared, silently jeering her onward. The musky scent of the past both followed and foreshadowed her future.

The fact she couldn’t hear her kidnapper in pursuit didn’t mean he wasn’t close. The dirt floor and maze-like configuration muffled her steps while ominous dark tunnels held tight to their secrets. She existed in a black void, a rat caught in a maze but lacking any positive stimulus as guide.

As if fear gave rise to action, a scream cauterized her forward momentum. Begging and pleading tones, echoing off brick walls, suddenly cut short. Would they kill her? Stomach acid boiled up the back of her mouth.

Surely the other kidnapper searched the tunnels in hopes of catching their escapee. To what ends would they go for recapture? Listening to the overwhelming silence, no telltale shuffling or curses delineated her remaining time of life.

 They have my driver’s license, which hasn’t been renewed since moving. The bastard wouldn’t know where she lived or if she made it back to civilization.

Shock and pain refocused her thoughts after her nose struck jagged rock. Instinct forced her to crouch.

A narrow wedge of wall scraping her left hand outlined the partition of the tunnel’s split. If someone attempted to track her and used sufficient light, they’d see a fresh, bloody smear on the edge.

Wiping her lip covered her fingers in the slick, coppery drainage reminiscent of when her childhood crush had rescued the neighborhood twins from the school’s bullies. Caden McAllister had stood between her and the future hoodlums. He’d become her hero, worshiped from afar and glimpsed sporadically with his older brothers.

She couldn’t spare the seconds to apply pressure when she needed both hands in front to detect narrow-angle bifurcations. Every second differentiated the gossamer thread between life and death. Sticky moisture dribbled down her chin and cemented her long hair in spiky patches.

Trembling fingers defined the tunnel’s split into what she guessed was only two shafts. Without visual confirmation, she realized she may have missed many splits. Left, always left. Again, the jagged surface removed a layer from her finger pads as she felt her way forward.

Oregon’s underground tunnels partly defined her reason for returning to the Pacific Northwest, a young photographer’s dream. She’d wanted to recapture the security experienced in prior years and reconnect with old friends. Ironic to find herself trapped in the very system she’d wanted to explore as a child.

Darting into the black void, she prayed she wouldn’t fall down a vertical shaft. Mindful of the miles of gnarled paths ahead didn’t help her frantic heart rate or fashion a better plan. She could die down here with no one the wiser, her parents unaware and not able to mourn her passing. Not gonna happen.

Shaking legs forced her to brace herself against the wall at intervals to catch her breath and stem nausea challenging her self-control. At some point, her nose stopped bleeding, either from normal clotting or dehydration, she couldn’t tell. Pitch-blackness and an overactive imagination skewed her time perception. The only thought, escape. She had nothing against which to judge time.

Chittering in the dark hurled her onward as her cunning dark side fashioned beady red eyes in mutant monsters hungering for the taste of flesh. I hate rats.

The gradual extinction of hope in helping the other woman came after the realization the kidnapper might have no choice other than to kill her, even if it wasn’t the original plan. They would have to hunt any witnesses, possessing an obvious advantage. Unlike her frame of reference, they had a name, birthdate, and driver’s license number. With the right connections, anyone could track her down.

Time hung suspended in a vortex of oily darkness, shifting images of a woman’s dead body through her mental folders. There was nothing she could do for the other woman except pray and send help.

Narrowing her focus to each step led to structure and order as her thoughts swirled in a drug-hazed mist to find absolution. Assuming she survived, the police would use canines to search, but what would they find? Was the kidnapper even now erasing his trail and clearing the room?

Claustrophobia had never numbered among her shortcomings. The subterranean maze now crushed her hopes with its seemingly endless branches lacking a discernable pattern. The path curved and twisted in defiance of an attempt at developing a mental template.

Both her cell phone and wallet were gone, along with the keys always attached to her belt carrier when working. The only remaining piece of her existence in her keeping lay cold against her neck. An SD card inside the locket she wore would give visual reference to her path before waking up in a cage. The lost camera was her prized possession. Nothing compared to a woman’s life.

Light mist coated her forehead despite the coolness of the musty air, possibly the last moisture she’d ever feel. A sobering thought.

At intervals, queasiness forced her to stop for slow, controlled breaths. Stumbling forward through the miasma of doom and resignation foreshadowed death. Time she spent listening for muffled curses and searching the distant recesses for torch light.

When exhaustion botched her step and caused her to face-plant, she considered yielding to fate. The loving family that had bolstered her lagging spirit whenever darkness encroached threatened her composure. Giving up had never been in her vocabulary.

If she survived, she’d make sure her parents knew their worth. Life brought her greatest epiphanies during the bleakest moments. In the back of her mind, her father’s voice drifted to her as unconsciousness dragged her into oblivion. “You can’t prevail if you don’t try.”

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

A nightmare woke her and followed her into the waking world. A not-so-distant chittering had her clumsily climbing to her feet. With no idea of whether moments or hours had passed, she forged ahead, one foot in front of the other. There was no other choice.

At one point, the heavy thump of music overhead throbbed in her chest. Perhaps it defined a deadfall through which someone might have dragged an inert body. Stretching up, she couldn’t reach the ceiling. Even if she had a light and could find a trap door, the occupants on the other side might prove her enemy. Not to mention the fact that if such a door existed, the owner would’ve barred it in some fashion with a table, chair, or heavy rug.

Without light or specific stimuli to guide her other than the bricks scraping her fingers, she shuffled forward as precious memories of her family surfed her thoughts. Gradually, she detected the low buzz of voices, growing louder with each turn in her maze. Lack of discernable words kept her hidden in the shadows.

Freedom was too close to risk stumbling into more thugs. After hearing the blood curdling scream cut short—what felt like hours ago—it wasn’t worth the chance.

A sudden loud crack coincided with her turning another corner in the pitch-black maze. Instinctively, she ducked at the sound of something solid striking wood. Perhaps someone had dropped a barrel on a dock? She knew many of the tunnels lead to the river. Her traitorous imagination created scenarios of bound and gagged women dropped on the decking, waiting to be led through the horrific chain of events others had endured.

Cautiously, she eased forward around another jagged-edged curve that like the others, branched out into places unknown. The air became sharper with a saltwater tang, making her want to take large gulping breaths. She savored them slowly, quietly.

Dim Light. Just around the corner, that blessed luminous energy she’d spent years studying in perfecting her craft, sent dingy spindles that stopped short about twenty feet from the opening. She strained to gather the gist of the conversation.

“Careful with that merchandise. We don’t get paid for damaged goods.” The deep, harsh tone could freeze any demon in hell. The unknown barrier between herself and freedom gave no indication as to the nature of his merchandise. At any moment, she expected to hear a thin wail or a pleading cry. Anything inanimate constituted fair game and insignificant.

If they were unloading stock to bring through the tunnels, fate had swung its pendulum against her. As quietly as on approach, she backed to where the tunnel branched and felt her way along the other shaft, not knowing if she’d taken their intended route or slipped out of their path. When a semi-solid entity underfoot squirmed and screeched, her own squeal pierced the musty air before she could clamp her hand over her mouth.

“Hey, you hear that?” The speaker’s voice sounded thinner, younger.

It seemed unlikely that bootleggers would hire teenagers for extra help but wasn’t worth the risk of discovery. She retreated several more steps.

“Yeah, sounds like your mama when I stroke deep.” Several deep chuckles preceded the admonition. “Now pick up the barrel and ignore the tunnel rats. I’d like to skin whoever’s putting poison down here. Makes the air fouler than necessary.”

Nasty air becomes tolerable when consumed by a free individual.

Quiet tears washed her face. She wanted desperately to bolt toward civilization, but without knowing where she’d exit, she had no clue how to return to the city. She didn’t even know the current date. After spending the night wandering underground and exhausted, she couldn’t outrun a small child, much less a grown man. If she waited until night, perhaps the city’s lights would act as a beacon to safety.

Sounds of shuffling feet with the occasional grunts and crude comments followed the men’s passage down the other shaft as Kaylee made her way farther into her branch of hell. This time, with the hope of eventual escape guiding her, she mentally noted the turns taken. Hunger clawed at her belly, yet overwhelming thirst pushed her further in hopes of finding an aquifer or underground spring. Without a timeframe since daylight caressed her skin, either dehydration or the drug’s after effects dulled her senses.

Fear of the dark had never cautioned her step, yet hearing the skittering and chattering rats conjured images of mutant, man-eating rodents swarming in a feeding frenzy. Regardless of their size and the fact they weren’t aggressive, her imagination played for the dark side, aided by confusion and time.

Exhaustion and fear muddled the weak mental template of her trail while a sense of self-preservation curtailed her search for water. Banking her reserves for the bolt to freedom led her to sit in contemplative silence. It wasn’t until she’d leaned against the wall she realized craggy dirt again replaced brick. Along her tortuous route, she’d vaguely recalled varying changes under her fingertips and wondered if that was how some defined their path. The horror of what she’d just escaped, or hoped to escape evoked a fresh accumulation of tears and a lump in her throat.

A slow, muted breath helped steady her thoughts despite the decaying odor and imagined horrors. In a quick mental assessment, she felt the scrapes and bruises on her face and head, along with the congealed, bloody strings from her nosebleed. Over her right ear, she found a tangled mess matted with blood.

Time passed in an agonizing flurry of conjured outcomes—punctuated randomly by distant voices and occasional guffaws. Were they devising methods of torture? As much as she wanted to close her eyes and sleep, she remained vigilant, wary of furry, red-eyed critters and the chance someone would stumble her way. In her mind, she reviewed her rusty memories of the Oregon coastline, Portland, and surrounding area. She could be miles from civilization with nothing but forest in between.

Current circumstances, days after moving back to Portland, corroborated her incompetence in regards to taking care of herself. If her parents knew, they’d be heartbroken for her—after panic had lost its grip. Their anniversary was in two weeks. Would she survive to call them?

Why would these men transfer their goods if the merchandise was illegal? If they were legit, why use the tunnels at all?

The fact someone had smuggled her underground during the daylight characterized a bold and arrogant move. How’d they get her inert body from the table through their dead fall? Her last memory, still fuzzy at best, included sitting in an outdoor café and enjoying the sunset. Alone. If she survived, she couldn’t point the police in the right direction to look for her kidnapper.

Limited external stimuli offered no help in gauging time’s passage and compelled her thoughts inward. The dull awareness of so much quiet wrapped in thickened layers of moist air reminded her of the caverns she and Reese explored in Pennsylvania. They’d planned to move back here at the same time. Her parents saw her moving to Oregon alone as her way of honoring her brother’s dream, but it’d been her dream too.

A single tear traced down her cheek, soon followed by others, left to add their moisture to her damp shirt and jacket. The fact her body produced tears offered proof of hydration. She hadn’t cried when Reese died, shock numbing that part of her which connected with her twin. If she ran afoul of the goon squad, she’d see him in spirit and have no more need of tears.

Temperature drop indicated evening’s approach and motivated her to crawl to the next bifurcation where she could taste the salty tang of the ocean on the slightest of air currents. Faint lapping sounds of water lulled her into a false sense of security while the screams of sea gulls reminded her of the last cry for help. The dichotomy snarled her nerves into knots of stupefaction.

Faint shafts of light stealing along the dirt floor dimmed, receding with the sun’s descent. Again, she sat against the rough wall, waiting, biding her time and fighting panic’s edges as darkness consumed her sanity.

When the Earth’s rotation cloaked her in pitch black, she could no longer breathe under its heavy weight and palmed the wall to gain her feet.

In preparation for her bid for freedom, she shoved the bulk of her sticky, matted hair down the back of her shirt. Eliminating the perfect handhold made sense despite the scratchy mess increasing her shakes.

The last of the male voices had drifted off hours earlier, followed by the sounds of a motor rambling away. That didn’t eliminate other threats. Waiting. There was only one way to find out.

Cautious steps in the Stygian oblivion yielded more of the same. Panic seized her with the realization she may not have retraced her steps but instead headed on a parallel tangent back into hell. Nervous energy hummed through her neurologic pathways while faceless monsters took shape in her mind. I stayed left to avoid a return to hell.

Around the next bend, faint shafts of moon glow offered a promise of freedom, capture, or death. If her brother could see her now, she wondered if he’d applaud her courage.

When a lighter shade of murkiness outlined the exit, she took her first unfettered breath. Another one followed. Each pace brought her a stronger tang of fresh air until she stood on a precipice, both literally and figuratively.

A sharp, downward slant represented the merging of two worlds where a bad decision equaled degradation, pain, and a return trip to the netherworld. Careless forward movement would see her injured and unable to outrun the morning sunrise. In looking over her shoulder, the oily, yawning mouth of oblivion pushed her out into the unknown.

The last night she’d spent in her rental house, the rising full moon allowed her to sit on the patio to enjoy the chittering squirrels in their woodland surrounding. Their activity increasing prior to the rising tide. Now, its warm glow illuminated the entrance of jagged rock approximately six feet in circumference, larger on one side than the other.

She kept to the side and peered through the darker shadows outlining a dock at the bottom of the rocky slope. Fear of exiting on the side of a cliff proved unfounded since twenty yards of craggy boulders and outcroppings would take her to the water’s edge. In either direction, moonlight pearled the water lapping along sandy shoreline as far as she could see. To her left, someone had carved the stone into crude, narrow stairs to the dock, not a direction to venture. The ship which had brought the unknown merchandise was gone.

One stealthy step. Quiet. Forward. She listened for soft footfalls not her own. Uneven footing meant a slow descent over large, slime-covered stone. A light salty fog coated her skin with mist, the welcome coolness accompanied by a slight breeze.

Haste would end with her sprawled and severely injured if she bore all her weight. Each tentative step was a test since various lichen forms coated rock surfaces and clefts in their bid for stability. The symbiotic relationship reminded her of her twin relationship and how they’d relied on one another. Once again, her stomach threatened revolt when she needed all her senses aligned and geared for escape.

Scrub brush mere yards from the shoreline was too low to offer camouflage and usually harbored snakes and other creatures she’d prefer not to meet. To visualize more, she’d have to expose herself. The view offered no evidence of another presence, no telltale furtive footsteps, quiet breathing or mumbled threats.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Reily is a West Coast girl transplanted to the opposite shore. When she’s not working with her dogs, you can find her curled up with a book or writing her next story. Past employment as an ICU nurse, private investigator, and work in the military police has given her countless experiences in a host of different environments to add a real world feel to her fiction.


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