The relieved residents of Cold Springs are returning to their normal lives after an arrest in the recent kidnapping. But their children remain in danger, vulnerable pawns for a man who’ll go to any length to make Adam Rutledge suffer.
Adam Rutledge wants nothing more than to forget his brush with death and the childhood trauma it has reawakened. Instead, he’s losing touch with the world around him and falling deeper into visions he can’t escape of horrors that aren’t his own.
When the unthinkable happens and another child is taken, suspicion falls upon Adam, whose role in rescuing the previous victim cannot be explained. Soon Adam is running from the authorities, searching for the missing child and for answers about what is overpowering his mind. But can he live with what he finds?
Note: This is a true trilogy–first read Book One, Prodigal!
In this second book of the Dead Hollow Trilogy, Rachel Nicholson has been safely returned to her family, but Adam Rutledge is still recovering physically and emotionally from the events surrounding her rescue. Others involved in retrieving the girl—Adam’s childhood friend JJ Tulley, his grandmother Iris Rutledge, his mentor (and Iris’s beau) Harlan Miller, and Beecham County Sheriff Grant Mason and Deputy Luther Beck—are likewise dealing with the fallout from the kidnapping. Their story continues in Founder. Following are the first two chapters of Founder, Dead Hollow Book Two…
“She shouldn’t have called you.”
He could barely make out his wife’s face in the dark car. She didn’t reply, but he heard her sigh as she adjusted her hands on the steering wheel, emerging from one sharp turn to enter another that veered in the opposite direction. His body swayed slightly with the car. The world was gray in their headlights—asphalt and trees, subdued double lines that should be yellow. Or maybe it was him, the grayness. Sometimes he lost his colors. Not completely, but just enough to notice their absence.
“I was fine,” he continued, rubbing his sore hand, but she didn’t respond. “I am fine.”
Finally, she glanced in his direction, before her eyes returned to the mountain road. “No, you’re not.”
Her voice was sad. Why was her voice always sad lately? “What do you want me to do?” he asked. “And don’t say, go to that place.”
“What place?” she asked, now with a spark of anger. “Prison? Or the morgue? Because that’s where you’re gonna end up. That’s where you’re headed now. Is that what you want? To leave me a widow?”
“No! Of course not. But he was—”
“He was what? Tell me. Tell me what he was doing that made you swing a chair at the back of the man’s head.”
He felt a grinding frustration inside, one that went beyond his worn teeth into his very bones. “I wasn’t drunk.”
She laughed, short and harsh. “I know you weren’t. That’s what scares me.”
He struggled to get the thoughts, the words, to line up in his head. He’d been so careful about what he said lately, but he had to tell her. She had to know. And yet, as he spoke, the anger built in him again.
No, not anger—fear.
“He was going to hurt you,” he said, and he heard the same grinding in his voice that he felt in his bones.
She glanced toward him. “What do you mean?”
“I could hear him, wanting to hurt you.”
His wife sounded as though she didn’t have enough air to speak, forcing the words out from the bottom of her lungs. “How did you hear him? Who was he talking to?”
He paused. “He wasn’t talking out loud. But I heard him. I heard the things he wanted to do to you, in my mind.”
“Jesus,” she whispered.
She didn’t believe him. She loved him, but she didn’t believe him. That’s why he had to protect her.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said, still barely above a whisper. “It’d be one thing if it were just us, but I have to think about—”
“I won’t leave you.”
She glanced over, and he thought he saw tears shining, reflecting the light from the console. “I don’t want you to. But I’ll be safe with Iris while you’re gone. And it won’t be long, just until we can get your medication right again. I promise.”
“It’s real! I swear to God, this is real!”
“Sweetheart, I know you think it is.” She paused, and the car slowed as she approached the Dead Hollow curve.
“It is real!” he exploded, raising his arms toward the heavens. “I have to stop him! If I’m not here, he will rape you and kill you and—”
In that moment, he saw her face turn toward him, her beautiful face. He saw it in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle as it rounded the turn, on the wrong side of the center lane.
But did he actually speak her name? Did he hear it, before her eyes grew wide and she jerked the wheel? Before the car pitched and the sound of brakes—theirs and the other vehicle’s—ripped through the air? Did he hear himself say her name before she screamed?
Their brakes dragged and clawed at the road, but the car struck the guardrail anyway, whipping his head but barely slowing them down. The front tires left the asphalt, his stomach lurched, and they were airborne. Then it all became a jumble of sound and sensation: tree limbs snapping, glass and metal breaking, the impact of the ground, of his head against the side window, of a tree, and then a second one, and then suddenly realizing that they’d stopped even though the sounds kept ringing in his ears.
The driver’s side was mashed against a tree trunk, but somehow the headlight on his side still sent a weak beam through the forest, visible through the space that used to be the windshield. His head itched. He reached up to scratch his temple, but scratching hurt, and his hand came away sticky.
“Charlotte?” He still wasn’t certain if he was speaking out loud. There was something wrong with his hearing. That must be why he didn’t hear her answer. He could make out her shape next to him, head back and immobile, but he couldn’t reach her.
Seat belt. His fingers fumbled with the release, and he could feel the noises of fear and frustration emanating from his chest and tearing through his throat. He felt but couldn’t hear the click as the buckle came free. The shoulder strap got hung up around his head, and his body shook with exasperation as he tore it loose.
Her name was on his lips—he could feel it there—whether he heard it or not. He leaned across the gap between the bucket seats until he could feel her breath on his face. It didn’t smell right, and it came out heavy and uneven. She was in pain. Her face was a pale blur, with patches interrupted by darkness, and he was afraid to touch her without seeing where and how she was hurt.
Dome light. The roof had buckled some toward the windshield, but was mostly where it belonged overhead. It hurt to lift his arm, and he couldn’t find the little switch for the light. He tried to open his door, but it stuck until he gave it a mighty push with both legs.
Miraculously, the light came on. And he saw what he feared most in the world. Her pallor, the dark blood staining her face and shining wet below her chest. And something else. A kind of shimmering… She’s dying.
“No!” He stepped backwards from the car, clutching at the door as his legs buckled. From his knees, he turned and looked behind them, up over the bank in the direction of the road. There was a glow there. Headlights? And a figure silhouetted against them.
“Help me! Please, help me!” he screamed. The figure turned, hesitated. “If you leave, I will find you! I swear to God, I will!”
His throat felt so raw, surely the person must have heard him, but the figure disappeared. Moments later, the light left as well. A sob rocked his chest before he climbed back in the car.
“Charlotte, sweetie,” he said, leaning toward her. Her eyes swung in his direction, but they didn’t look right. Different sizes or too big or something. He tried not to think about it. “I’m going to get you out of here.”
“No,” she said, before burping a trail of blood from her mouth.
His chest seized. She was right. He couldn’t move her. But he had to save her. How could he save her? What could he do? He looked over his shoulder, into the forest. Into the places where his father had dwelled. The place where he had died. And that’s when he heard it—his father’s whisper. He couldn’t make out words, just an echoing whisper like the hiss of a snake, telling him what to do. If he could remember the language. If he could interpret the signs. He turned to his wife.
“No,” she said. Except he was watching her, and her lips never moved. But her voice was clear in his mind.
As his ears strained for more words, from his dying wife or dead father, he began to distinguish other sounds. Like the screaming coming from the back seat. How had he not noticed the shrill noise before?
He got out and tried to open the back passenger door, but it wouldn’t budge, not even when he levered one booted foot against the rear of the car. He climbed back in the car, wedged his broad shoulders between the bucket seats and peered through.
The boy looked fine, unharmed in his little denim overalls and still strapped into the child’s seat Virgil kept thinking he’d outgrown, his chubby face screaming with terror. Good thing he’d listened to Charlotte…
And that’s when he heard the voice again—his father’s voice—and although there were still no distinct words, the voice carried intention. Instruction. There was still a way to save his wife. If he were willing.
He reached for the child—
“Adam! Adam, wake up!” Iris’s voice was firm as she grabbed him.
Adam jerked into consciousness, unsure of where or when he was, of whose hands were on his arm. He scrambled backwards, slamming into something and feeling it in his ribs. The headboard. The headboard of the bed in his old bedroom at Iris’s.
Iris stood next to the bed, hands up in a sign of surrender, easing closer. “It’s okay, kiddo. It’s just me. You’re okay.”
Adam nodded, but his heart was pounding, and his stomach—
He lurched to the other side of the bed and vomited in the trashcan he kept there. Heaved, anyway, but he didn’t have much to show for it. Remnants of a bowl of cereal? He’d forgotten to eat lunch.
Please, let me be done. Adam hung over the mattress, gripping the sides of the trashcan, waiting long enough to be sure and for his breathing to even out. He closed his eyes and rolled over onto his back, clutching an arm to his chest before he could stop himself.
“Those ribs still bothering you?” Iris asked, and he felt a cool, damp washcloth come to rest on his forehead.
“Thanks,” Adam said. “A little.”
He didn’t like to remind his grandmother of the lingering pain, a souvenir of a particularly bad day nearly two weeks ago when JJ had performed CPR on him a few hours after he’d suffered a beating at Otto Nicholson’s hands. He heard Iris sigh, and his fingers fumbled over mattress and through air until they found her hand. Her skin felt slightly loose, sliding over the knuckles and finger bones, and he had to restrain the urge to squeeze too hard, just to keep her there. He lay there for a minute or two, breathing and holding her hand, then released her and peeled the washcloth from his head. It took a conscious effort not to groan when he sat up. That sound is a force of habit, not a reflection of how you actually feel. He almost smiled at the lie.
“Did you have the dream again?” Iris asked.
Dream. Yeah, that’s what it was. “Yes,” he said.
“I heard you screaming from downstairs,” she said.
Iris was a master at hiding her emotions—neither tone nor expression changed—but she couldn’t control everything. In the weeks since he’d returned to Cold Springs, the wrinkles on her face were a little deeper. Her white blonde hair reflected more white than blonde and appeared brittle, its natural wave reduced to the occasional unruly bump. It was as though Iris were drying out inside. Had he done this to her?
“I’m sorry.” He grabbed the trashcan and pushed off the bed too fast, becoming light-headed as he stepped past her to the bathroom. After dumping and rinsing the vomit, he brushed his teeth quickly, avoiding his reflection in the mirror. Adam could feel his jeans hang loosely on his hips, and he didn’t really care to see the rest.
Iris waited outside the door, ready to interrogate him. He pretended not to notice, keeping a hand on the rail as he descended the stairs slowly, trying to look casual.
Iris followed. “Is that why you’re not sleeping at night?”
Adam headed toward the kitchen. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, you sit in a chair in the living room at night and just stare at the windows, as if you’re avoiding lying down.”
Adam opened the refrigerator. He didn’t want food—he seemed to have lost his sense of taste lately—but he knew he needed it. “What are you doing up at night?”
“I’m old. I’m not supposed to sleep. But you, you’re barely thirty and the only time you ever sleep is napping, usually in the afternoon.”
He looked at her, unsure if he’d ever heard Iris admit to being old. “I’m fine,” he lied. “It’s just habit, from spending so many years bartending. I can’t remember the last time I slept normal hours. It takes some getting used to.”
Adam turned back to the refrigerator and found a ham sandwich in cellophane from a convenience store. That would do. He unwrapped the plastic and took a bite. The taste seemed a little off, but everything tasted funny lately. He gave it a sniff. It was probably fine.
“When did you get that?” Iris asked, fiddling with her purse where it sat on the counter.
Adam shrugged and took another bite. “Couple of days ago, maybe.”
Her eyes widened before turning her attention back to digging in her bag. “Then throw it away! I doubt if it was worth eating the day they put it out. I swear, they’re lucky—”
“You look nice,” Adam said, still chewing but wanting to head off her rant. Iris was wearing a pair of gray slacks and a matching, thin sweater with a geometric pattern. “Why are you dressed up?”
Iris avoided his eyes, finally pulling her keys free with a metallic jangle. Adam finished his sandwich at the counter while she puttered around, rinsing a teacup and putting it in the dish drainer. When he crumpled the plastic in his hands, she still hadn’t spoken, so he did. “Are you going to see Harlan?”
“No,” she said. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
Adam glanced at the kitchen clock. “Crap, yes. Thanks for the reminder. I’m supposed to meet the tow truck guy to finally get my car. Let me grab my jacket.”
* * *
Iris was right; Adam wasn’t sleeping, not since he’d left the hospital, and he was exhausted. He stared out the window at the world blurring by. This was the route the car had followed in his dream (and in my life). Adam tried to ignore a persistent overlay of the landscape at night by concentrating on the fuzzy brightness of the late afternoon sky (although it hurt his eyes) and on the details it illuminated, details that were absent in the darkness of his dreams. The deciduous trees were now nearly naked. The rest of the leaves had fallen over the past weeks, except for a few brown stragglers (the multi-fingered oak leaves seemed particularly tenacious) that would hang on until their replacements pushed them out in the spring.
A bleached field fell away on the left, and soon the road was flanked by leaf-strewn, forested banks on either side. The land rose and fell haphazardly. A dry creek bed emerged from the crease between two slopes on the right, then continued parallel to the road. Remnants of a rusted plow peeked from the leaves in a low spot next to the creek. Adam wondered how long it had been there, who had left it behind.
“Harlan wants to speak with you,” Iris said.
“I know.” Adam picked at a spot of something (paint?) on the window with his fingernail, but it held fast. “Do you blame him?”
Her hands gripped the wheel more tightly, but she didn’t look at him. “Who?” she asked.
“For me doing what I did.”
“Why?” she asked. “I could just as easily blame JJ for what you got up to.”
“No, you couldn’t,” he said. “You couldn’t blame her for the how, for the… the way I opened my mind to Rachel.”
“You mean the way you almost died,” she said, finally glancing at him.
He waited, but she didn’t say any more. She didn’t have to. He knew she blamed Harlan; he just wanted to see if she’d admit it. There’d been a distance between the couple over the past week or so since Adam had gotten out of the hospital. Harlan had called a few times from his neighbor Jim’s phone, but he’d never been to Iris’s house, and so far as Adam knew, Iris had never been to Harlan’s. At least, if she had, she’d never stayed the night.
Iris made the turn onto JJ’s road, the turn Adam had missed in his own car. And there was the hatchback, sitting with half its front end in the ditch. Iris drove past the car and pulled over, but left hers in Drive, engine idling.
“What time’s the tow truck guy supposed to be here?” she asked.
“Soon. I don’t mind waiting in my car,” Adam said, but made no move toward the door. “Tell me. When you screw things up with Harlan enough that he finally lets you push him away, who will you blame for that? Me?”
He watched his grandmother’s pale face flush. She was either speechless, or taking a deep breath before tearing into him. He risked a grin, the way he couldn’t remember grinning since he’d left the hospital. It felt good, like the warmth spread from his face throughout his body. Iris shook her head, and slowly her lips curled in a smile.
“You think you’re so damned smart,” she said.
Adam threw a hand over his mouth in mock horror at her uncharacteristic choice of even mild profanity. “Iris, language.”
The phrase (Harlan’s response the first time Iris unexpectedly discovered Adam in his kitchen) struck a chord. Iris plucked a scarf from between the seats and threw it at Adam’s head. He laughed, and once he’d untangled the fabric, leaned over and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.
“Oh, stop it,” she said, but when Adam pulled away to leave, she held his arm. “Wait. You’re right; I might visit Harlan later. But right now… I’m going to see him.”
“Who?” Adam asked, even though he knew.
Iris seemed as reluctant to say his father’s name as Adam was. “His lawyer asked me to. Do you want to come with me?” she asked.
“No,” Adam said, careful not to raise his voice in the enclosed space. It wasn’t so long ago (ten days? twelve?), lying in a hospital bed, that he’d asked her about seeing the man. How had he built up so much anger in such a short period of time?
“Are you sure? I can wait with you and we can go together, if you want to see Virgil.”
A sound like a laugh’s bitter cousin escaped Adam as he shoved the door open. “Remember, I’ve seen him already. And he almost killed me.”