Louie Thorne was born with a dangerous gift and a reason to fear the darkness. But when her parents are murdered by the mafia, embracing her power is the only way to exact her revenge. She will destroy the men who destroyed her family—no matter the cost.
Robert King is a retired agent, and knows trouble when he sees it. First, an old partner asks King to use his connections and skills to investigate a suspicious case. Then an old flame begs a favor. By the time, Louie enters the picture, King will be lucky to survive the night.
Fast-paced action, suspenseful tension, and unforgettable characters—there's everything supernatural thriller fans could want in this first installment.
"Shrum's tale is bolstered by an undeniably resilient protagonist. Lou's smart and adept…and her gift makes her a formidable opponent to her enemies…an indelible protagonist"– Kirkus Reviews
"A fantastic, fast-paced read, and I can't wait to get my hands on the sequel!"– Angela Roquet, USA Today bestselling author of the Lana Harvey, Reapers Inc. series
"Shrum's writing is smart, imaginative, and insanely addictive!"– Darynda Jones, New York Times bestselling author of the Charley Davidson series
"No, no, no." Her daughter's hand shot out and seized Courtney's slacks. "Don't leave me."
"Jesus Christ." She tugged her pants from Louie's dripping grip and shoved her back into the tub by her shoulders. "What is it with you and water? It isn't going to kill you. You won't drown! And I have to finish dinner before your father gets home."
Louie's chest collapsed with sobs. "Please. Please don't go."
"Stop crying. You're too old to be crying like this."
Louie recoiled like a kicked dog, her body hunching into a C-curve.
God almighty, Courtney thought as shame flooded her. What am I supposed to do with her?
The illogical nature of your daughter's fear doesn't negate the fact her fear is very real, the therapist had said. Dr. Loveless must have repeated this a hundred times, but it didn't make these episodes any easier. The fat-knuckled know-it-all had never been present for bath time.
Most ten-year-old girls could bathe on their own. No handholding. No hysterics. No goddamn therapy sessions once a week. And somehow this was supposed to be her fault? Why exactly? Because she'd gotten pregnant at eighteen?
No. She did everything right. She married Jack, despite her reservations. He was too young, uneducated, and a dreamer. Triple threat, her Republican father called it.
She read all the pregnancy books. She quit her managerial position at the insurance company and stayed home with Louie, practically giving the girl her undivided attention for the first five years of her life. If she was guilty of anything, it was over-attentiveness.
But Courtney didn't believe for a second this was her fault.
It was Jack's.
Jack was the one who insisted on renovating the upstairs bath and then insisted his friend do the renovations. Three years. Three years it sat unfinished and oh no they couldn't go to another builder because Jack promised Gary the job. Jack and his misplaced loyalties. What did it get them? Bum friends who always borrowed money and three years with only the clawfoot bathtub to share between them.
Things worth having are worth waiting for, Jack had said.
This philosophy worked for a DEA agent like Jack, someone who had to track criminals for months or years, but Courtney had never been good at waiting. She preferred what her alcoholic father had called immediate gratification.
Within a week of switching from the shower to the clawfoot tub, Louie's episodes began. After three long years, Courtney felt she'd had more than enough. God, it would be wonderful to shove a valium down the girl's throat and be done with this. She wanted to. God almighty, she wanted to. But Jack had been firm about pills. Courtney loved Jack, but goddamn his self-righteous "drugs are drugs" bullshit. Any half-wit knew the difference between valium and heroin.
You will have to be patient with her, Mrs. Thorne, if you want her to get through this without any lasting psychological damage.
Apparently, the therapist didn't know a damn thing. The damage had already begun to show. Louie not only feared water now but dirt also. The child who used to come in at night covered head to toe in grass stains and palms powdered with pastel sidewalk chalk, now crept around as if playing a constant game of The Floor is Hot Lava. This morning, Louie had burst into tears when Courtney asked her to pull weeds from the hosta bed. Even after putting her in coveralls and peony pink garden gloves, the girl had whimpered through the task, ridiculous tears streaming down her cheeks.
Now, hands on hips, Courtney stared down at her hunched, shaking daughter. She could count the vertebrae protruding through her skin. She'd grown so thin lately.
It could be worse, she told herself. She could have a child with quadriplegic cerebral palsy like her book club buddy Beth Rankin. Would she rather have a kid who screamed in the bathtub three or four times a week, or a man-child who had to be pushed in a stroller everywhere and his shitty diapers changed and drooling chin wiped?
Courtney forced a slow exhale through flared nostrils and pried apart her clenched teeth.
"Okay," she said in a soft, practiced tone. "Okay, I'm here. I'm right here."
She knelt beside the tub and grabbed a slick blue bottle of shampoo off a shelf above the toilet. As she squeezed the gel into her palm, Louie still cowered like a beaten dog, head and eyes down.
"I'm sorry," Courtney said, her cheeks flushing hotly. "But it's hard for me to understand this fear of yours."
The girl's teeth chattered, but she said nothing. Only one of her eyes was visible from the slate of black hair slicked against her head.
Courtney massaged the soap into her hair. Thick white bubbles foamed between her knotty fingers, her skin turning red from the pressure and steam. Her gentle massaging did nothing to relax the girl.
"Isn't this nice?" Courtney asked. "I'd love it if someone washed my hair."
Louie said nothing, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees.
"You have to lean back now." She trailed her fingers through the gray water. "So we can rinse."
Louie seized her mother's arms.
"I know." Courtney tried to add a sweet lilt to her voice, but only managed indifference. Better than angry at least. "I'm right here. Come on, lie back, baby."
She thought baby was a nice touch. Wasn't it?
But Louie's chest started to heave again as her head tipped back toward the soapy gray water.
"Breathe, baby. The sooner we do this, the sooner you can get out of the tub." Courtney hoped the girl wouldn't hyperventilate. That would be the fucking icing on the cake. Dragging her wet body out of the tub would be hell on her back, and she'd already had her valium for the night. She'd risk taking another, but she knew Jack counted them.
As the back of Louie's hair dipped into the water, her golden eyes widened. Her fingers raked down Courtney's arms as she clung tighter. All right. It only stung a little, and it would be something to show Jack later when she complained about his lateness.
It was your turn for bath night and look what happened. She might even get away with a second glass of wine at dinner sans lecturing if the marks were red enough.
This made her smile.
With one arm completely submerged under Louie's back, buoying the girl, she could use her free hand to rinse Louie's hair. Thick clumps of soap melted into the water with each swipe of her fingers.
Louie's muscles went soft, her nails retracting.
"Not so bad, is it?" Courtney cooed with genuine affection now. "I love baths. I find them very relaxing."
Louie even managed a small smile.
Then the oven dinged.
"My ham!" Courtney clambered to her feet.
"No, no, no!" Louie frantically wiped water from her eyes and tried to pull herself into an upright position. "Don't! Please!"
And just like that, the hysterics were in full swing again. Fucking Jack. I'm going to kill you. "Breathe, baby."
Shaking suds off her arms, Courtney jogged toward her glazed ham and caramelized Brussels sprouts three rooms away. The sweet, roasted smell met her halfway. "The door is open, baby. Keep talking so I can hear you."
"Mom!" Louie screamed. "Mommy! It's happening!"
"I'm right here." She slipped a quilted oven mitt over each hand. "Talk to me. I'm listening."
The girl's escalating hysteria cut off mid-scream. For a moment, there was only a buzzing silence.
Courtney's heart skipped a beat. Her body froze instinctually. Her reptilian brain registering danger entered a mimicked catatonia. For several heartbeats, she could only stand there before her electric range, in her gloved hands, the oven mitts spaced equidistantly as if still holding the casserole dish between them.
Her eyes were fixed on a spaghetti sauce splatter to the right of the stove, above a ceramic canister holding rice. She stared without seeing.
Then a chill shuddered up the woman's spine, reactivating her systems. As her muscles cramped, she thought, fear trumps valium. She yanked off the oven mitts, throwing them down beside the casserole dish steaming on the stovetop. She jogged back to the bathroom, the silence growing palpable.
The tub was empty. No shadows beneath the soapy gray water.
In a ridiculous impulse, she looked behind the bathroom door and then inside the small cabinet beneath the sink, knowing full well Louie couldn't fit into either space.
The bathroom was empty. "Louie?"
She ran to the girl's bedroom.
It was empty too. And the wood floor tracing the entire length of the house was bone dry. Louie's soft Mickey Mouse towel, the one they bought on their trip to Disney World two years ago, still hung from the hook by the tub.
She searched every inch of their house, and when she couldn't find her, she called Jack. When he didn't answer, she called again and left a frantic message.
He arrived twenty minutes later.
They searched again. They called everyone. They spoke to every neighbor and the police. If Courtney thought Dr. Loveless was a ruthless interrogator with his second chin and swollen knuckles, she found the authorities much worse.
"I didn't kill her!" she said for the thousandth time. "Jack, do something! These are your friends!"
For three nights, they had no peace. Courtney doubled the wine and valium, but it wasn't enough currency to buy sleep.
In the early morning hours, she would find herself wandering their house, wearing down a path between the clawfoot tub and Louie's empty bed. Sitting on the firm twin mattress, she would pull back the Ninja Turtle comforter hoping to find her underneath.
In her mind, she apologized for every frustration, every cruel thought. I'll do anything—anything. Bring her home.
The call came on the fourth day.
Sixty miles east of the Thorne's home in St. Louis, Jacob Foxton was interviewed many times by the police, but his story never changed.
His nieces were coming down from Minnesota for the Memorial Day weekend, and he and his wife were very excited to see them. They'd changed the sheets on the spare bed and stocked the fridge with root beer and Klondike bars. The pool was uncovered and cleaned, and the heater turned on. All that was left to do before their arrival was mow the yard.
I was cutting my grass, and she…appeared.
As the police tried to pin the abduction on the man, the lack of evidence made it impossible. Foxton had no priors, and a neighbor confirmed Foxton's rendition.
Billie Hodges had been washing her Chevy Tahoe with a clear view of the Foxton family pool. Like Foxton, Hodges swore the girl simply appeared.
As if from thin air.
After thirty-six fruitless hours, the Perry County Sheriff's Department was forced to believe Jacob Foxton had merely cut a left around his rudbeckia bushes with his squat red push mower and found Louie Thorne standing there, on the top step of his pool.
Naked. Soaking wet. Her dark hair stuck to her pale back like an oil slick. Foxton released the lawnmower's safety bar, killing the engine.
"Hey! Hey you!" He rushed toward her, clumps of fresh cut grass clinging to his bare ankles.
The girl turned toward the sound of his voice, and his scolding lecture died on his lips. It wasn't only her fear that stopped him.
It was the blood.
So much that a cloud of pink swirled toward the drain in his pool.
The girl's body was covered in lacerations, the kind he got on his arms and legs as a kid, hiking through the woods. A great many of them stretched across her stomach and legs and a particularly nasty one across her cheek.
She must have run through the forests of hell, he thought.
But it wasn't the scratches that frightened him.
A ring of punctures encircled the girl's right shoulder. A ragged halo from neck to bicep. Like some hungry beast larger than the girl had grabbed ahold of her with its teeth. Long rivulets of blood streamed down her pale limbs, beading on her skin.
"Honey." Jacob pulled off his T-shirt and yanked it down over the child's head. If she cared about the sweaty condition of the shirt, the grass stains, or Jacob's hairy belly, she didn't show it. "Are you all right?"
"Is it still on me?" she whispered. She turned her face toward Jacob, but her eyes didn't focus. His mother called that a thousand-yard stare.
"Who did this to you, honey?" Jacob asked. He took her hands in his. The hairs on his arms rose at the sight of blood pooled beneath her nails.
"Jacob?" Called Billie from across the stretch of lawn between their two yards. "Is everything all right?"
"Call an ambulance," Jacob yelled. He saw the girl's mouth move. "What was that, honey?"
"Is it still on me?" she whispered again. "Is it?"
And that was the last thing she said before collapsing into his arms.