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~Two Years Ago~
The stench of stale sweat hung so heavy in the air Dolan Watts could taste the last corrections officer’s body odor. He swallowed the urge to gag. There was no escaping the greenhouse effect of being trapped in a window lined room five stories above Petesville Supermax prison.
Petesville was a squat, ugly building, a place devoid of goodness and mercy. Its layers of razor-wire fence were flimsy barriers against the monsters caged inside. After six months of long hours, low morale, and lousy policies, Dolan knew that to be the truth.
He’d volunteered for shitty undercover gigs his entire career with the FBI. He never would’ve thought being a corrections officer would be the worst one.
Sweat slid down the channel of his spine, collecting at the top of his standard-issue utility belt. The uniform was old-school polyester, hotter than a hair suit on a hundred-degree day. Without letting go of his loaded rifle, Dolan raised his arm and wiped the sweat off his face with his sleeve.
“This is fucking miserable.” Gah. He shouldn’t have said anything. Shouldn’t be talking to Snake. And that’s as far as his ode to sanity went—knowing he shouldn’t have an imaginary friend and shouldn’t be talking to it. Because when he talked to Snake it encouraged the creature to talk back, and that led to conversations, and conversations led to Dolan believing Snake was real like he had when he’d been too little to know better.
As an adult, Dolan balanced on the threshold of insanity with his imaginary friend. He sometimes tried to ignore Snake, but if he was being honest, he didn’t want Snake to go away. It had always been him and Snake against the world.
You’re the one who volunteered for this job. Snake spoke inside Dolan’s head, his tongue flicking against Dolan’s skin.
He inhaled and grabbed for some patience. “I know.”
You could work that racketeering case in southern Ohio. Snake shifted, coiling his small body tight against the crook of Dolan’s neck.
“I know.” He sounded like a petulant child.
You could investigate the recent string of men missing in Columbus.
There are so many interesting cases you could work right now if only you’d learn how to get along.
“I. Know.” Dolan kept hold of his rifle with one hand and settled the other over Snake’s body to shut the creature up. Underneath his fingers, he could feel the reptile’s dry scales and delicate features flex into his touch. He looked down at his hand that seemed to hold nothing, yet he felt Snake’s body. All his life, he’d never been able to see Snake, but he could always feel him and hear him. “But this is Killion. Adam fucking Killion. If I crack this one, my future is golden. I’ll land any gig I want.”
Any gig where you can work alone. Snake’s tongue tickled along Dolan’s neck, taking the sting out of his words.
Dolan took his hand off Snake. The creature was right. Dolan didn’t like people. Period. As crazy as it sounded, he only trusted himself and Snake.
Five stories below, the door to the prison opened, and three men walked out. Dolan gripped the rifle with both hands. His eyesight was beyond exceptional. Where the COs in the other towers had to use binoculars, all Dolan had to do was focus, and he could see everything.
It was like a bad joke—a corrections officer, a psychiatrist, and a prisoner walked into the yard.
He could make out each man in detail. One was a CO Dolan didn’t recognize. One was the prissy prison psychiatrist. The last man—the inmate—Adam Killion.
“What the hell is he doing outside his cell?” he half yelled at Snake, as if the creature would have an answer.
Killion was walking in the fresh air and sunshine. Well, not exactly walking, since his ankles were shackled, forcing him into a slow shuffle step. He wore the typical navy-blue prison-issue jumpsuit that on him looked tailor-made—nipped and tucked in all the right places. As he moved, he closed his eyes and held his face to the sun, but even that innocuous gesture looked malevolent coming from him. He was an apex predator outside his cage, tethered on a flimsy leash. Any moment, he could snap and slaughter everyone.
Dr. Edward Payne, the psychiatrist, walked close beside Killion. Too close. He looked at Killion as the man spoke, and there was something about that, something about his rapt attention upon Killion, something…
Too familiar, Snake supplied, sliding partway around Dolan’s neck, then back again as if searching for a better view. I think you found your leak.
“Yep.” Dolan kept his gaze locked on the men.
Ever since Adam Killion’s arrest eighteen years ago, his disciples had started clubs and organizations all over the world in his name. They were drawn to his good looks, his charisma, and most of all his lack of conscience. To those groups, the absence of a conscience was considered the ultimate survival skill, a sign of a superior being that would one day rule the world. Survival of the fittest at its foulest.
The FBI had been monitoring all the groups, but still hundreds of copycat murders had taken place. Too many of the murders were identical to Killion’s, which meant Killion was talking to someone, but no one had figured out how. Until now, when the answer was strolling across the yard in his three-piece suit that looked more fitting for a Wall Street tycoon than a prison doctor. A prison doctor who had unlimited, unmonitored, access to Adam Killion.
“Gotcha, fucker,” Dolan whispered to the psychiatrist. He reached for his contraband cell phone to call his supervisor, SSA Coleman, but then he realized the men were heading straight toward the staff gate at the back of the prison, which led to the creepy old administration building. A building that no inmate should ever enter. It wasn’t part of the prison. It wasn’t secure.
The admin building might look like a horror show reject, but they used it solely for all the organizational duties that were more easily conducted outside a maximum-security facility.
“There’s no way they can take him outside the prison. There should be more than one CO. There should be a convoy. There should’ve been days of planning, practice and preparation.”
This is bad. Terrible. Snake slid in half circles around Dolan’s neck, then back again.
Dolan grabbed his radio and hit the call button. Nothing happened. No beep. No static. He pressed it again. Nothing. After he banged it against his leg, he tried again, but the thing was deader than a corpse when it should’ve been charged. His shoulders tensed and his hands on the rifle began to sweat.
He picked up the receiver to the ancient corded phone hanging on the wall and punched in the prison’s lockdown code. Nothing.
He punched the panic device on his belt. Nothing.
He lay down on the floor. All the COs wore the panic device because it was supposed to trigger if a guard went down. But as he lay there waiting to hear the sirens, he knew nothing was going to happen.
For the first time in his life, he was glad for his contraband cell phone. Without even getting up, he pulled it out of his pocket and tapped the screen. But the device froze and wouldn’t open no matter how many times he jammed his thumb against the fingerprint reader. “Fucking piece of shit.”
He jumped to his feet and beat the glass of the tower with his fist, hoping to get someone’s attention.
“Stop him! Don’t let him out!” He yelled the words so loud, his voice cracked and his throat stung. No one down there heard him.
The men walked up to the staff gate as if it were normal for one of the world’s most dangerous serial killers to be only a few feet from freedom. “Why haven’t the COs down there started the lockdown protocol? Why aren’t the sirens blaring?”
They’re in on it. Snake’s scales gripped onto Dolan’s skin so tight it was almost painful.
The first set of gates shuddered and rolled open.
“No.” A blade of fear speared Dolan’s chest. Not for himself. No. He was terrified of the guilt he’d feel when Killion started killing again. That would be his fault. That he—an undercover FBI agent—stood there watching with his thumb jammed up his ass as Adam Killion strolled out of prison. Un-fucking-forgivable.
Dolan ran toward the tower stairs. He didn’t remember going down the flights, he was just suddenly at the bottom, bursting out onto the grounds, sprinting with his rifle to the staff gate.
When he got within hearing range, he started shouting, “Open the gate! Open the goddamned gate!” The COs stared at him like he’d grown a nipple in the middle of his forehead. They didn’t move.
Dolan ran up. “Open the goddamned gates. Now! You just let Adam Killion out.”
CO Blanton looked at him and blinked like he was innocent, while CO Havers perfected a look of ignorance. Neither of them moved.
Dolan pulled his rifle up to his shoulder and aimed the weapon at them. “My name isn’t Owen Jenkins. It’s Dolan Watts. I’m undercover FBI.” He rattled off his badge number, but he might as well have been speaking Dothraki for all the effect it had. Blanton and Havers looked at him like they were having an impromptu staring contest. “If you don’t open the gates I will. After I’ve put a hole the size of a frisbee through you both.”
CO Blanton reached for the button that would start the opening procedure. As soon as the gate shuddered and move, Dolan took off, but not before CO Havers reached for his radio to make a call. He’d deal with those two later. The priority was to find and immobilize Killion.
Dolan sprinted across the short spans of grass and up onto the back porch of the administration building.
Call for backup. This isn’t safe. Snake slid in faster and faster half circles around Dolan’s neck. You could be walking into a trap, Snake spoke with same authority as SSA Coleman. Dolan treated Snake’s words the same as he did Coleman’s. He ignored them.
Turning the knob with agonizing slowness, Dolan opened the back door of the admin building and entered.
After six months of clocking in and clocking out and attending mandatory meetings, he was more than a little familiar with the place. Today was Sunday, the only day the regular staff had off.
Isn’t that a bit too convenient?
Dolan nodded in response to Snake’s words. He stood in the old-fashioned kitchen, the sharp tang of stale coffee in the air. He tiptoed across the space and peered out into the grand hallway that ran down the center of the old house.
Twenty feet in front of him, Dr. Payne had his back to Dolan as he held the doors to the conference room shut, although someone on the other side was rattling them, trying to escape.
Dr. Payne suddenly released the doors and jumped out of the way as if he expected an angry grizzly bear to come tearing out of the room.
Dolan raised his rifle, ready to fire, but time skipped a beat as a woman burst out of the conference room. Her eyes rolled around in their sockets, taking in everything, trying to determine where the next threat would come from.
She definitely wasn’t a prison employee. Dolan would’ve recognized her. There was no forgetting her face. She was natural and wholesome in a sweet way that reminded him of cool spring mornings and dewdrops on flowers.
As she ran down the hallway toward the front entrance, away from him, her long ponytail swished from side to side across her back, while the clap of her heels against the wood floor did nothing to conceal the sob that trailed behind her. It was the sound of innocence lost. He knew that sound. Had experienced it himself.
What happened to her? Who hurt her?
There had been no blood. There hadn’t been time for anything like rape, but then at least four minutes had passed. Rape could occur in seconds.
A sizzling energy tore through him as she slammed through the front door and ran down the porch steps and left his field of vision.
He turned his attention back to Dr. Payne. The man sauntered into the conference room, chuckling as he did so. The sound of calm conversation between Dr. Payne and Killion came to him. Calm. Fucking calm after what they did to the woman.
Call for backup. You know where Killion is. The situation is under control. Use the kitchen phone. Text Coleman. Snake sounded rational, but Dolan wasn’t feeling rational. In fact, he was the exact opposite. He felt irrationally violent. Ready for a fight. Prepared to avenge the wrong done to the woman.
He charged down the hallway, entered the conference room, and aimed his rifle at Killion’s face.
Dr. Payne and Adam Killion were seated as if having a budget meeting or some such normalness. Instead of Dolan’s appearance surprising them, instead of bewilderment, the men wore amused expressions as if the joke was on him. And maybe it was, because there, lying on the table, was a pair of handcuffs and leg shackles. Holy shit.
A gun poked him in the spine.
Damnit. Snake was right. This was a trap.