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The foul odor of decaying flesh roused the woman from her drugged haze, burning her nostrils and lungs like a freshly snapped ammonia capsule.

She blinked, clawed toward consciousness, searching the pitch-blackness for a landmark to anchor time or place. However, there was nothing except the stench that grew more potent with each hitching breath. She coughed and gagged. The contents of her stomach churned and rose up in her throat.

She lifted a trembling hand to her mouth but discovered the slight movement drove a cutting pain through her muscles and ribs. She froze, didn’t want to move, fearing more agony, but nausea overruled everything and had her rolling to her side. Tears burned her eyes as she gripped the edge of the metal table and vomited until her throat burned.

When the worst of the vomiting had stopped, she collapsed on her back, allowing only small shallow breaths as she stared into the darkness. She closed watery eyes and gently swiped her fingertips across her lips. The odors still hovered, but the worst of the nausea had passed.

With the sickness satisfied, there was only the pain.

Only. Every square inch of her flesh pulsated. Throbbed. Burned.

Fear rose up, but she quickly wrestled it down. Now was not the time to crumble.

She blinked. Once. Twice. But the fetid darkness didn’t diminish. It could have been the middle of the day or night, winter or summer. She couldn’t tell.

She tried to rise again, but her insides screamed. Again, she collapsed.

Where was she? What had happened? She had to get free.

Think back.

In the last few weeks, she’d sensed that she was being watched. At first she’d chocked up the feelings to an overactive imagination. But as much as she denied the feelings, they grew stronger whenever she’d stepped out of her apartment, whenever she arrived at work, or whenever she took a Pilates class. Soon she’d thought twice before she went anywhere. She’d stopped going to the gym and her favorite nightclubs. Her world shrank to the small path between home and work.

And then the notes arrived. I love you. Together always. You are never out of my mind.

The notes had been a relief. In fact, she’d laughed when she’d received the first. Of course! Her ex had been her stalker. It had been three weeks since they’d shared a bed or seen each other, but she knew he was the one watching. He enjoyed dark, erotic games. He liked scaring her. Keeping her off balance.

Knowing he was watching, she’d worn tighter skirts and sweaters, proudly strutting and hoping she tortured him with jealousy. She met a younger man and took pleasure kissing him, knowing her ex was lurking in the shadows.

When she’d found the red velvet box with the ivory pendant nestled inside, she’d known she’d won. She’d been energized by her power over him, knowing soon he’d beg for forgiveness. Men were so easy. So weak.

“Oh, God,” she whispered.

Someone had been stalking her. Watching. Planning. But it had not been her lover.

Pushing through pain and sickness, she sat up. “I’m alive. And that counts for something.” She repeated the words like a mantra.

She blinked again and again, willing the blackness to fade and the stench and pain to vanish. But no lights magically flicked on. It hurt to breathe, and her thoughts moved like thick muddy waters.

Where had she been last? The theater? Her apartment? The club?

And then she remembered. She’d been at the Duke Street Café. There’d been an impromptu party. Someone had decided to celebrate another large donation to the theater. The donation ensured that the theater would be able to make its payroll and mount a grander, more expensive production in the spring.

The party had been a glittering, exciting affair, and she’d been happy. There’d been lots of champagne—so much so, that she’d lost count of how many times the waiter had refilled her glass. Of course her ex had not come. He never met up with her at public events. But another old boyfriend had hit on her, and because she’d felt so good she’d flirted back. It had been fun. Intoxicating. How had she gone from such magical moments to this cave of horrors?

She ticked through the evening’s events. Wine. Music. Singing. A bite or two of food. Some guy, one of her ex-boyfriend’s buddies, had offered her cocaine, but she’d turned him down, knowing the drug would keep her wired most of the night and make her look too puffy for tomorrow’s photo call.

Had the actor and his friend slipped her something anyway?

Thoughts blurred in her mind. She couldn’t cut through the misty mosaic to access the right memories. All she had was the party and then this dark, dank hole that smelled of death. The middle had vanished.

It didn’t matter how she got here. What was important was escaping. And if she was good at anything, it was cutting her losses.

As much as she strained to see, she couldn’t make out the room’s details. The place was as still as a grave, and then suddenly she heard a tap turn on and water trickle. She cocked her head. “Is someone there?”

Water gurgled and bubbled, but no one answered. Struggling with a choking fear, she swung her legs over the side of the metal table. Her head spun, pain slammed her, and her stomach threatened another revolt. She hesitated and waited for her body to calm.

Gingerly, she set bare feet on a floor made of cold, wet stone. Her toes curled. She hated the slimy surface, so much like a lake bottom.

Wobbly limbs screamed under the protest of her weight as she stood. Every muscle ached. Her dress felt damp, but she had no idea of the cause.

The soothing drip, drip of water remained her only reference. It sounded as if it was off to her right. At least now she had a direction.

Get to the water, and she’d figure out her next move. She took a tentative step away from the table. Sweat dampened her body. Her dress clung to her breasts, hugging her nipples in an intimate way that left her feeling exposed. But as tempting as it was to cover up with her arms, her outstretched hands were all that kept her balanced.

With each step, the stench grew worse, and the urge to turn away increased. Still, she kept shuffling toward the water. Without warning, her knee bumped painfully into the side of what must have been a giant metal tub. Bolts of pain shot out and reverberated up and down her leg. She gasped, and the smells nearly overpowered her. Instinct had her turning from the tub. “Shit.”

She didn’t have the strength to retrace her steps to the table now swallowed up in shadowy obscurity. Tears filled her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. It would be so easy to surrender. But she’d never been a quitter. Ever.

Summoning her most imperious tone, she said, “I demand to know if anyone is there.”

The shadows hovered around her, mutinously silent, still, and unmoved by her practiced sternness. Her only answer was the steady, quiet trickle of water dripping into the tub.

“I shouldn’t be here,” she said. “This is a terrible mistake. People are expecting me to show up at work.

They’ll call the cops if I don’t show.”

She shoved a shaky hand through feathered curls and righted her hunched shoulders. Body and bones creaked as if she’d just passed her ninetieth birthday and not her twenty-sixth. What had happened to her? “I demand to know where I am.”

This time a shadow in a corner shifted. “You demand? If I were you, I wouldn’t demand. I’d beg.”

The rough, clipped voice had her head jerking around. “Why should I beg?” Even as she asked the question, she saw the absurdity. She’d beg or do whatever was asked of her to get out of here. “What do I need to beg for?”

“Your life would be a good start.” His voice was so silky and gentle. And for a moment, it sounded very familiar.

Had he been at the party? Where had she heard his voice before?

She leaned against the tub, fearing her legs would give way and she’d fall to her knees. “I am not afraid.”

A soft chuckle snaked through the gloom, unsettling her more than if the shadow man had hurled threats.

“You should be afraid.”

Tears streamed down her cheeks, but she raised her chin. “What is that smell?”

“Rotting flesh.”

This time her knees did crumble. She dropped to the ground, digging long fingers into the stone. “Why?”

“Why? Why are you here? Why is there rotting flesh in the room? Why what?”

His voice sent fear knifing into her. “Why me?”

She heard the clip of his shoes on the stone floor as he moved away. For a panicked second she thought he’d leave her alone in this room of horrors. Instead, he flipped on a light.

In a blink, overhead fluorescents clicked on, flooding the room with light and forcing her to wince and shield her eyes from the burning glare. Carefully, she cracked her lids, letting the light leak into her pupils.

When her gaze finally focused on her jailer she saw he stood directly in front of her. He wore crisp jeans, a dark sweater, and rubber gloves. He looked so normal. Handsome even.

“Do I know you?”

“Doesn’t matter.” He clapped his hands. “Want to have a good look around before we get to work?”

The source of the smell had her turning back toward the tub. It was a vile, putrid concoction of greasy, black water. Loose fatty deposits floated on the surface. Oh shit! Was it flesh clinging to bone?

She screamed and lurched back. “What is that?”

“It’s where the polishing process begins. Flesh must be stripped from the bones before I can polish them.”

The lightness in his voice told her he was truly enjoying this moment. “Now, we better get moving. We’ve got work to do.”

“Work? Where is this place?”

“Far enough from anyone that can help you.”

Tremors started to move through her limbs. “Where am I?”

“It’s where I do my work. My art.”

“What kind of art?”

“Look behind you.”

She turned and saw a workbench. Equipped with saws, carving knives, and buffing pads. It reminded her of a jeweler’s workstation. Until she saw it—the polished white femur.

“That’s not art!”

“You seemed to like the cameo I gave you.”

Her hand rose to her throat where the brooch had rested just days ago. “That was bone?”

He winked. “I love the way the light glistens on the bones, don’t you? Human bone carves like sandstone.”

“You are demented.”

Blue eyes sparked. “To each his own.”

“Please, don’t do this to me.”

“No going back now.”

“Of course there is. I won’t tell.”

And then as if she hadn’t spoken, he said, “If we get started now, we’ll be done by this time next week.” He hooked a steady, gloved hand under her elbow and pulled her to a standing position. “Let’s get you back on the table.”

Her legs wobbled, and her insides ached with fire. When she glanced down, she saw that blood stained her skirt and legs. Crimson droplets covered the ground around her feet. “What have you done to me?”

He guided her toward the table. “I haven’t done anything. Now up you go.”

“My body hurts.” She’d been invaded, assaulted.

Flickers of what had happened flashed: an attacker shoving into her with such force she’d screamed. He’d laughed, pushed harder, and then he’d leaned down and bitten her shoulder until her blood had spilled. He’d taken pictures. “You did this to me! You did this!”

“Not me. Him.”

Her head spun, and her pain paralyzed her muscles.

“There are two of you?”

He ignored the question. “You know you have the most perfect bone structure. Your cheekbones are symmetrically perfect. It’s as if an artist sculpted them.”

“Please,” she whispered.

“Mother Nature can be so haphazard and fickle, but with you she really outdid herself.”

She lay back against the cold metal, her body collapsing with exhaustion. Whatever reserves she’d possessed had vanished. She was empty. “What are you going to do?”

Out from the shadows stepped another man. She knew this man. She’d run her fingers through his hair. She’d kissed his face. Gotten to know the feel of his broad shoulder blades under her hands. “You did this to me.”

Smiling, he snapped another picture. “I’m finished with her. She’s yours now.”

“No, please,” she said.

He didn’t answer but simply turned. He left her alone with The Other, who grinned as he selected a knife from a table.

“Don’t leave me here with him!” she screamed.

A door closed.

The Other picked up a knife. Light glinted from the steel. “I’m going to make the pain go away.”

As much as the pain scorched through her body and stole her breath, it was proof of life. Without the pain, she feared, she’d be lost. “I want to leave.”

Gently, he smoothed his fingertips over her forehead.

“Shh. We can’t do that.”

The gentle touch detonated shivers. And then he dragged the razor sharp blade over the tender flesh of her neck. The pain was sudden and searing. Warm blood drained so quickly from the wound.

She inhaled, but her lungs didn’t respond. She tried to pull in a second breath. Nothing. Panic exploded as she directed her energy toward her lungs.

Breathe! Air!

A gurgling sound rose in her chest as the air already in her lungs seeped out through the wound. More blood pooled around her shoulders. She gripped the table, clinging to her final hold on life.

He kept smoothing gentle fingers over her head. “Don’t fight it. Fighting only makes it worse. It will just be a few more seconds, it will all be over, and I can get you in that tub with the others.”

Her vision blurred. Her lungs and flesh howled for air. Gentle fingers stroked her hair and cheeks.

“So pretty.”

Delight danced in his eyes. The more she struggled to breathe the greater his enjoyment. In these last moments of her life she realized bliss for him was watching her die.

The blackness returned to the edges of her vision, and with each second her constricting pupils squeezed out more light.

She had no breath to scream.

And then, like the final curtain call in the theater, the blackness dropped.

He stared down at her. It was a miracle that she’d gotten up off the table. After what the First One had done, it was a wonder she was alive. But he’d have been furious if she’d died. The killing was his treat. His well deserved reward.

He’d not expected she’d be such a fighter. She was a beautiful woman accustomed to using her beauty to get what she wanted. She’d never tasted the harshness that life really could offer.

But she’d faced him with a haughty arrogance that he found a bit charming. It was always more fun to bring the bossy ones down a peg.

He clicked on an overhead light and studied her face. Her flesh had been torn and bruised. If anyone saw her now, they’d be appalled by the damage. He didn’t like it when skin was mauled and ruined.

But thankfully, her injuries were only skin-deep. Flesh may have been torn, but her bones were sure and strong.

She would make a fine addition to his collection.

Excerpted from MERCILESS © Copyright 2011 by Mary Burton. Reprinted with permission by Zebra, an imprint of Kensington. All rights reserved.

by by Mary Burton