He lifted the limp body out of the trunk, wrapped the girl in a woolen blanket, and tossed her like a ragdoll over his shoulder. She was still warm, but if she was alive, she certainly wouldn't be for long. He had promised her that if she tried to run away, she would be punished.
Why did they all insist on running? They knew that he always kept his promises. He was, after all, a man of his word. Pa had taught him the importance of that particular trait at a very early age.
Surrounded by blackened woods, he yanked a flashlight from his back pocket and closed the trunk, eliminating the only light that pierced the pitch of predawn darkness. With the click of a switch, a yellow beam broke the night and wavered across the hardened gravel.
He glanced warily around once more. There were no signs of life on the stretch of dirt road that extended endlessly in either direction. He shifted his burden and turned toward the woods. As he climbed, the cold spring mist in the Blue Ridge Mountains settled over him. Perspiration soaked his clothes and the chill reached deep into his bones, bringing a shiver to the surface.
He made his way up the overgrown trail, recalling how simple it had been to take her nearly two years before. It was at a bustling dog park in Atlanta. The racket of barking dogs, chattering women, and noisy children created sufficient chaos for him to remain unnoticed as he watched and waited. When the girl's mother, caught up in conversation with the other uptight suburban housewives, turned her back on her eight-year-old daughter, the girl was left ripe for the picking. She was easily misled. A story about him losing his puppy drew her away from the crowded playground without a second glance back at her mother. Cloaked in plainness, his polite and pleasant demeanor deceived the unsuspecting child. A thrill ran through him at the memory. It was easy.
“Not like this path,” he muttered, which was treacherous in the darkness. His feet slipped on the rocks, and he stumbled on the steep slope. He was miles from anywhere. Even the dirt road that led him here was narrow and rutted from spring rains and flooding. Her body might not be found for months or years, if ever, he mused with grim satisfaction. He shifted his bundle again, securing his hold around the backs of her knees, her shoeless feet poking out from under the blanket.
He’d given her fair warning about attempting escape. Where the hell had she thought she was going anyway? He’d convinced her that her parents were dead—killed in an accident. Why else would no one come for her? He told her that no one was looking for her, no one wanted her, and no one would come after her—except for him. He could manipulate a child into believing anything—even that he was a cop. His night watchman’s uniform and handcuffs instilled fear and mistrust of police into the mind of the girl that he had kept locked away in the tiny room of his secluded farmhouse.
A tremor of doubt ran along his skin in the cold rain. Her mind was strong. She’d resisted more than the others. Then he smiled, remembering the look of disappointment and fear in her eyes when he’d caught her. The image brought a flush of warmth back into his bones. A spike of adrenaline raced along his flesh. Driven by her fear, his need for power consumed him. She’d eventually believed everything he’d told her. Repetition was the key. But she was getting older and smarter. That look of fear was turning to one of defiance. If she had succeeded in escaping, it would have ruined everything.
Winded by the hike into the hills, he decided he had come far enough. He shone the flashlight around the clearing in the dense stand of pines and dropped the body into a small depression in the ground. A small groan escaped the girl’s lips.
He stared down at the motionless form, the girl’s long black hair obscuring the lily-white face and sharp blue eyes that often held a mutinous rage—a look that screamed that there was a part of her that he could never have. He wiped the rain and sweat from his brow, and zipped his jacket up under his chin, surveying the small clearing to ensure he’d left no evidence of his presence. The ground was soft and thick with wet pine needles and decaying leaves. She wouldn’t last long in this weather. The elements or the animals would finish her off.