When veterinarian Jeremy Reed hears a thump one night on his front step, he expects to find an abandoned animal. What he gets is battered and broken cop Brendan Wheeler. Kidnapped from his apartment five days earlier by an unknown man, Brendan now sports a vivid tattoo across his back depicting a young woman's death, a woman nobody knows.
Until the next morning when Jeremy discovers her dead body.
Brendan wants to find the killer. Jeremy wants Brendan to survive. Someone wants both of them to pay ...
Brendan Wheeler knew pain. He had known it long before this inky night, long before each step carved fresh avenues of agony through his body, long before all but one of his instincts had fled, leaving only survival to guide his course. He knew how to block it out and focus on his task. He knew how to turn it into something useful when the ache became too great to ignore. Pain and Brendan were long old friends.
But this ... this was not his friend. This was the enemy determined to take him down. Brendan had no choice but to fight back with everything he had.
Even if that wasn't very much at the moment.
Brendan ran. Through darkness, through trees, through anything in his path. Brambles scratched at his bare ankles, aggravating the burn marks left by the manacles he'd left behind. More than once, he stumbled. He fell to his knees, or onto his hands, or once, flat on his hip which rolled new waves of fire across his back, but always, always, he righted himself again to resume his course. Stopping was unacceptable. Stopping would mean death, of that, he was sure.
The unforgiving sky masked the line of the horizon from his view. He lacked direction other than away, but that particular shortage did nothing to hinder his progress. He would run until he couldn't run any more, and when his legs gave out, he would crawl. He wouldn't go back. He wouldn't get caught. Youth and experience had stolen Brendan's sense of limitations until now. Now he understood what it would take to break him. Or how close he had actually come to it. He'd been pushed to the brink, bound and gagged, and been forced to see what lay at the bottom if his captor decided to push him over. Perhaps that was how he found the strength to finally get free. That was definitely how he discovered the fortitude to keep running.
His heel hit an unseen hole in the ground. His leg stopped while his upper body kept on going, and the opposing forces pitched him sideways. He landed with a squelch in a patch of mud, but while the cooler temperature eased some of the sting in his skin, his ankle flared in new protests. Brendan grabbed it to yank his foot free of the hole, gritting his teeth against the pain. Mud clung to his eyelashes. He blinked once, twice, to try and clear it. When that failed, he pushed off from the ground uncaring of the splotches in his vision, and ran even harder.
His lungs joined in with his body's screams. Each labored breath pounded in his ears, echoing against the drums to drown out the crack of twigs or the slide of rocks. If someone followed him, he couldn't hear it. He'd likely react too late if someone reached out and grabbed him.
So he ran faster.
He didn't recognize the landscape. All he could make out were the murky shapes of trees, the crest of a hill. Sweat dripped from his forehead to sting his eyes, but when he tried to wipe it away, all he did was smear it. Another mudslide loomed in front of him. He veered to the left to avoid it. He veered again when a thick branch broken off a looming oak tree barred his path.
His steps slowed, began to falter. The occasional land of his heel brought with it a gasp for air, and he shook from the desire to stop. How far had he come? Far enough? What would happen if he stopped?
He'd be found. Considering he was in the middle of nowhere, the only person who could find him was the last person he needed to.
Only shreds of hope remained when he saw the dark shape in the distance. It could've been anything. A cluster of trees. An abandoned barn. An illusion. He aimed for it anyway. He had no other choice. There was always the possibility that he had gone full circle and now ran pell mell for his once-jail, but he had to pray that he had kept straight, or at least as straight as could be expected.
The shape took form. Became solid. It gained a roof, a fence, the tall stack of a chimney. Relief refueled his adrenaline, and he fell against the closed gate, fumbling with the lock with fingers that refused to cooperate. When it opened, he collapsed onto his knees, abrading them anew.
Once down, though, standing became too hard. Brendan half-crawled, half-lurched for the front door. He dragged himself up the wooden steps, heedless of the splinters catching in his broken skin. Time dragged even slower than his body. The door looked miles away, no matter how many times he pulled himself closer.
He crumbled before he reached it. Darkness finally won.