Emily sat in her car outside the warehouse and clasped her hands together to steady them.
She was terrified, but determined.
It was a chilly autumn day, and the small trees that lined the road had lost most of their leaves as they prepared for winter, giving them a somewhat skeletal aura.
Above, gray skies stretched out, blotting the sun in a heavy weight of dreariness. It mirrored her mood nicely.
At another time—what seemed like a lifetime ago—she’d loved the fall. Colors, crunchy leaves, and the hint of warm apple cider in the air had always filled her with a sense of happiness.
Now, in this place so far from home, it was just a cold reminder of hard months ahead.
Any minute the warehouse employees would be leaving the building, and she was going to confront him.
She’d never seen him in person, but the passenger seat was littered with pictures and documentation from a private investigator she’d hired six months ago when her sister suddenly disappeared.
The investigator had been expensive, but finding Amber was worth any price.
She hadn’t ended up with as many details as she’d hoped for, though, since he’d just up and disappeared one day as well.
While not as well-informed as she’d hoped to be when the investigator vanished, she was able to use the information he’d already supplied to pick up the trail right where he left off.
His last batch of pictures had contained several shots of her missing sister, proof positive she was still alive, along with a single 5x7 of the man who had her.
And a two-page letter that Emily had first thought to be a tasteless joke.
It read like the rambling of a madman, with one word recurring in an excited print.
On the day he was supposed to call and give her an update, she’d been waiting by the phone, ready to blister his ears and demand her money back.
How dare he blame her sister’s disappearance on his delusional fantasies?!
But the call never came.
It was only a few days later that she’d been politely excused from two different police stations.
As soon as the officers pulled Amber’s information and saw her sordid history, they shrugged off her disappearance.
They said she’d likely run off with the man in the photo, and there was simply nothing to indicate otherwise.
Then, in a roundabout way, informed Emily she was better off to let it go and move on with her own life. Unfortunately, the local police knew Amber.
They also knew this wasn’t her first disappearance. But Emily couldn’t just walk away and move on.
While her relationship with her sister was…strained, to say the least, Amber was the only family Emily had left since their mother passed a few years ago.
It was only a few days after the ill-fated attempt to contact authorities that she got her first glimpse of the monster the investigator had warned her about before he vanished.
It was a night she’d never forget. She bore the deep grooves on her arm from the beast’s claws for weeks after the attack.
The human man with the creature had claimed it was a warning to let it go and leave it alone.
It was the attack that spurred her to start doing her own research. Months later, the research had led her here, to this quiet small-town street in Maine.
Now she was waiting for the pack leader to leave work so she could follow him home, and hopefully find Amber.
She’d stared at the picture of him so many times in the past months, his face haunted her dreams. She’d know him anywhere.
When the whistle that announced quitting time finally blew, her heart seemed to grow cold with nervous excitement.
She slumped down in her seat to avoid notice as the workers began to file through the door and scatter into the parking lot.
She paid no attention to them, because the moment he walked through the door, she locked onto him like a radar. Nothing could break her focus.
She was surprised her hot stare didn’t burn a hole in the side of his head as he walked along the sidewalk that hugged the building and headed to his car.
She had a moment of panic when he stopped suddenly and looked around, then tipped his head up and seemed to take in a deep breath. Smelling, no doubt.
He was a hunter, and something had clearly triggered his instincts. That she knew it was her, while he didn’t, gave her a small thrill of satisfaction.
His behavior only lasted a moment. Not long enough to be noticed by anyone around him. He seemed to dismiss it, and headed for his truck.
Emily waited as the old truck pulled past her before she started her car.
She wouldn’t have much trouble following it, since it was white with a big orange stripe down the side, and something in the engine knocked loudly.
Using the rush of workers as cover, she pulled into the flow of traffic almost a block behind him.
She was comfortably hidden by the vehicles through town, but every few blocks, more people turned down side streets, slowly dwindling her cover until there was no one left to act as a buffer.
His blinker indicated a left turn onto a country road, and Emily quickly decided to go straight through the four-way stop instead of following him directly.
She was so close.
She crossed through the intersection and turned her car back around as soon as he was out of sight.
With a deep breath to calm her jangling nerves, she turned onto the country road he’d taken and began to follow the cloud of dust left in the wake of the ancient truck.
It was even easier than she expected, since the old gravel road gave her nearly half a mile worth of dust cloud, which was plenty of distance to go unnoticed and acted as a perfect cover.
It wasn’t a long drive, maybe fifteen minutes at most, but it seemed like forever to her.
She passed by the property he’d pulled into without even slowing down. It only took a glance for her to mentally map out the lay of the land.
Two buildings stood apart by maybe two hundred feet. One was an old farm-style house: run down with peeling paint and at least one broken window covered with plywood.
The other structure looked like a large yellow workshop-style metal building. It appeared much newer than the house itself, and was in better repair.
What worried her was the number of vehicles in the driveway. Counting the truck she followed, there were five in total. That suggested there might be a lot more people there than she was prepared for.
Her original plan was to wait until tomorrow, when he’d be back at work and Amber might be alone. But with so many vehicles present, she had to rethink quickly.
Either something was happening—which certainly didn’t bode well for Amber—or there were always people there.
In case it was the former, she decided to go ahead and get Amber out today, now, before it was too late.
If she made it this far, and got this close, only to have Amber die at the hands of her captor on the eve of her rescue, she’d never be able to live with herself.
If her sister was in that house, she was either going to get her out tonight or die trying.
Just under a mile from the house, she pulled her rented car onto a service road and parked.
She saved the address on her phone and turned it to silent before she slid it into her back pocket, then closed her eyes for a moment to gather her courage.
Nothing was going to stop her from finding Amber. Since the police had already proven they had no intention of helping, she was on her own.
Her new plan was simple. Find Amber and get them both out undetected.
She had no delusions of grandeur. It wasn’t like she was She-Ra the Warrior Woman.
She tipped the scale at a whopping one hundred and forty pounds—much of it muscle, she told herself firmly—and she had no chance of taking on a werewolf, though she had come prepared, just in case.
She opened her eyes, pulled her gun out of the glove box, and slid it into the waistband of her pants.
In her front pocket was a gaudy silver cross necklace covered in rhinestones of all colors, and her other pocket held an extra clip of silver bullets.
She’d acquired a small bullet-loading machine to design her own ammunition and had made a surplus in preparation.
When she had everything she thought she might need, she took a final deep, resolved breath and left the relative safety of her car.
It was only a few steps to cross the road and get into the line of trees on the other side. It wouldn’t do for her to come walking up the road and give them plenty of time to prepare for her arrival.
With luck, she could sneak up to the house and look in the windows unnoticed until she found Amber, then smuggle her out with no one the wiser.
Maybe extra people are a good thing, she decided while she made her way toward the house. Maybe it would keep Amber’s captor distracted while she mounted a rescue.
If the car ride following the leader had seemed long, the walk toward the house seemed like eternity.
Every broken twig, every movement from the corner of her eye, put her more on edge until she was such a tight bundle of nerves she feared if a butterfly brushed her arm, she might scream in terror.
Somewhere, she’d heard that real courage meant being afraid and doing something anyway. With that in mind, she decided she was the bravest woman on the planet.
Now, if she could just get her knees to stop knocking, she might be able to sell herself a little more on her courage.
With trembling fingers, she touched the gun in her waistband. The metal was cold and comforting.
A class on firearms and countless hours at the range meant she knew how to use it.
She wasn’t helpless.
She pressed her back against the rough bark of a tree and took a few deep breaths to slow the rapid rhythm of her heart.
Once she felt her nerves a little more steeled, she searched the house across from her.
No movement indicated alarm. A window was facing her, and she decided it was as good a place to start as any.
Head down in determination, she pushed off from the tree and headed toward that window at a dead run. When she arrived at her destination, she didn’t even pause to breathe.
Who needed to breathe with so much fear in their veins?
She stood on tiptoes and peered into the room. It was a dark space with very little furniture except for a bed with a bare mattress in poor repair in one corner and a plastic dresser beside it.
No sign of Amber.
A quick look around showed no sign of anyone coming her way.
She slid down the house to the next window and found a similar empty space.
Then the next one. She waited beside the glass for a moment, straining to hear any sound from the room.
There was something. It was a sound she couldn’t quite place. Not a voice, exactly, but a soft whimper came again and again.
Emily slowly leaned over just far enough to see into the room. It was furnished much like the other ones had been, with cheap furniture.
On the bed, she could make out a shape that could only be her missing sister.
A jolt of excitement flew through her.
She tapped on the window, trying to get Amber’s attention. But the figure never moved. Thinking she may have been drugged, Emily tried the window.
It was old, and the frame had years of paint layers holding it down, but with her nearly frantic fingers, she was able to pry it loose after a few attempts.
It didn’t open quietly, however.
Giving a screech that sounded louder than a gunshot to Emily’s ears, the window reluctantly slid on the track.
She didn’t consider the danger as she wriggled through the small opening. Not until her feet hit the uneven wooden floor and a hand clamped around her mouth from behind.
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