Prologue


Oh God, this couldn't be happening.

The room spun, the monotonous and cruel beep of the heart monitor not helping the nauseous feeling sinking to the pit of his stomach. He stumbled forward, scrambling to clutch her delicate, bony hands, rubbing small circles in the soft skin and willing warmth to return to the cold fingers. "No…" His voice cracked and he tried again, despite the fact that there was no one there to appreciate it. "No! You can't do this to me!"

He barely registered the tears that stung the corners of his eyes until a steady flow of salty misery was streaming down his pale cheeks. He licked his lips and tried to keep himself together, tasting the salty substance on his tongue, but broke into another helpless sob when she didn't try to console him.

Because she couldn't. Because she was dead.

Something akin to rage swept away the torment for a few blissful seconds and he took the distraction with open arms. He had been so damned close. Just a few more days, a week at most and it would've—

A loud bang sounded, the heart monitor shuddering at the sudden impact, and pain blossomed in his right hand. "Damn it!" Another whimper escaped him after his outburst and he cradled his hand in a pathetic attempt to quell the throbbing. He quickly abandoned the thought of rejecting pain, however; it was infinitely better than the all-consuming numbness that he seemed to be drowning in.

Her hand was back in his, and he pressed chaste but desperate kisses along her fingers before bringing it up to his forehead in something akin to a prayer. He couldn't remember the last time he had lowered his head to a being he highly suspected didn't exist, but now seemed like a perfect time to get back into the habit.

He heard himself swear in a strained voice when he raised his eyes to land upon her features. Her lovely face, laced with laugh lines and crow's feet, now lay dreadfully still, completely devoid of all the cheerfulness and immeasurable optimism he was so used to seeing in her. The usual dust of pink on her cheeks had faded to a pasty white and it made her look eerily like a wax doll. He desperately wanted her eyelids to flutter open and see those iridescent, piercing, grey eyes again that always glittered as though she knew something you didn't.

A tear dripped onto her face and slid down her cheek and, for one, tantalizing moment, he thought that she had simply been asleep and was now crying with him. But when he realized that the tears were his, and he had simply leaned over her to get a better look at her, another shaking sob ripped through his body.

Why now, why today? Just a bit longer, just a few more days and he could have— "I could've saved you!" He howled, "I… I could've…"

His legs gave out from under him, suddenly unable to sustain his weight, and the blubbering man fell to the floor in a wretched heap. The sound that spilled from his trembling lips was nothing but mindless babble in a useless attempt to ease his frantic mind. "No… no, don't— don't leave me! I was so close… You can't be gone, you can't, you can't—" He paused to draw a deep, shuddering breath, "What am I going to do without you?"

Broken and battered, the man wept on the hard, linoleum floor, trying to ease the rapidly growing hole in his heart.


Chapter 1


It was a nice sunny day when Claire noticed the book wedged between her side table and her bed.

How cliché, she thought as she worked to pull the novel out from its snug resting place, but it was true. Rays of sunlight filtered in through the crack in the translucent curtains and the distinct sounds of the waking world was working their way into Claire's quiet apartment. She'd already seen a few morning joggers make their way through the city before both the heat and the people became too dense.

Claire sniffed when a scattering of dust was freed along with the book. With a wave of her hand she glanced down at the cover of the novel, a look of recognition flittering across her face.

"This if from Percy's store…" She mumbled, trying to remember when she'd borrowed it. Scrunching up her nose when she couldn't recall the incident, Claire unceremoniously stuffed it into her bag, reminding herself to go by his store after work.

A synthetic chime sounded behind her, and she turned towards the small clock perched on the wall. 7:30. She had time.

Hefting her bag onto her shoulder, Claire padded quietly to her modern kitchen, grabbing the half-empty bag of bread from the counter on the way. She pulled out one slice and slid it into the toaster, wondering idly if she had enough time to maker herself some eggs. She decided against it and pulled open the fridge to get a carton of orange juice instead. Finding that it was nearly empty when she gave it a little shake, she didn't bother with a cup and downed it in a few gulps.

With a content sigh, Claire leaned against the counter and faced her living room. She noted sadly at how empty it looked. Her boyfriend's – ex-boyfriend's – less-than-tidy habits had once been a source of great irritation for Claire, but now that it was gone she found herself missing the constant mess. Her eyes strayed to the fish tank in the corner, and she heaved herself up and made her way towards it, shaking the thoughts of her ex from her mind.

Frump was a strange little goldfish that Claire's overbearing aunt had given her as a birthday present. She'd accepted it with some hesitation, wondering why her aunt had gotten any inkling that Claire would want a fish, but had never had the heart to throw the little creature away. Still, Frump wasn't the prettiest goldfish. In fact, it seemed to have been born with a strange growth on his head, making it look especially frumpy.

Claire sprinkled some fish food onto the surface of the water, and watched as Frump the frumpy goldfish swam up to its meal. "Morning, Frumpy." When the fish in question didn't so much as blink in reply, Claire continued, "Why do you look so weird? Poor fella."

She walked away when she heard the ding of the toaster.


8:07. Claire huffed quietly as she lowered her arm for what felt like the umpteenth time in the last ten minutes. This was certainly taking far longer than she'd anticipated. What should have been a short ten-minute drive had drawn itself out due to the unexpected and, frankly, unwelcome traffic.

Her official work hours started at 8:20, but Claire made it a point to arrive at least ten minutes early to get herself settled in for a long day at work. Though the chance of Claire making her punctual entrance was rapidly diminishing with every abhorrent honk of another exasperated driver.

Sighing with thinly concealed irritation, Claire thrust a few bills at the taxi driver, not bothering to wait for the change, and made her way out of the vehicle and over to the sidewalk. With her lips set in a determined line, she took off at a brisk pace; if she hurried, she would be able to make it to her office in time.

The traffic moved sluggishly and Claire passed the cars with ease, eventually leaving the taxi she had been occupying far behind. She was so caught up on dodging the numerous people that clogged the walkway while keeping up her speed that she almost missed the flashing lights.

After extracting herself form the hubbub of the crowd, Claire stopped, ignoring the time for a moment.

There had been an accident.

Bright sunlight spilled over the multiple dividers set up to shield people from the wreck in an ironic gesture to the grim event. However, they failed to cover the larger and more obvious items of interest. A car – or what appeared to have been one at some point – lay on its side; smoke billowing out from every cracked and splintered surface, wafting over the world like a dark entity. Black tire marks stained the road, signifying the course the vehicle took before meeting its demise. There was an ambulance and people were rushing about, trying to clean up the mess as quickly and effectively as possible, but still making a difficult obstacle for oncoming traffic.

What Claire's eyes seemed to zero-in on, however, was the pool of blood that was just visible between the crack of two dividers. The body was long gone, probably carted off somewhere, but Claire stared on with morbid fascination at the spectacle that resulted in someone's messy end. She felt a distant sort of discomfort in her gut, but it went away as quickly as it came.

With one last glance at the wreckage, Claire turned on her heel and continued on her way to her office, the image of a totaled car and ominous pool of blood moving to the back of her mind in favor of the quickest route to get to work.


By the time Claire reached the office, her breathing was a touch heavier than normal and she was hastily rearranging her disheveled hair to look somewhat presentable.

Clearing her throat, she dutifully stepped through the front entrance and walked by the receptionist – a new recruit, by the looks of it – with a brief smile and a flash of her ID card. After an uneventful elevator ride, Claire found herself at her desk, rearranging papers just as her phone pinged softly to alert her that her workday had officially started.

Claire was well in the way of sorting through the day's schedules when a Starbucks's paper cup was set on the edge of her desk. Smiling, she looked up. "Caramel Macchiato?"

"Of course."

Claire reached for the cup and took a sip. "Thanks, Vanessa. You're the best."

"No problem." Vanessa said, taking a swig of her own drink. "Did you hear about that car accident this morning? Something about a motorcycle and a car. Both died, I guess."

"Oh, yeah. I actually passed by it this morning. Didn't see a bike, though."

The shorter woman blinked. "Damn, really? No wonder you were late today." She said, laughing when Claire gave her a look. "Well, late for you, anyway."

"Shut up. I just like being on schedule."

"Yeah, yeah. Well listen, I've got to get back to work. Mondays are busy, you know?" With a small wistful sigh, Vanessa turned and started walking towards the Sales and Trading section. "See you around?"

"Yeah, bye."

Watching her friend walk away for a moment, Claire turned back to the multiple meetings that had to be arranged and steeled herself. "Mondays are busy, indeed…"

By the time that her phone pinged again to signify her lunch break, Claire had successfully organized the meetings and appointments for the next week, sorted through and printed out a list of things to do for the new recruits, and had gotten hold of the preliminary plans for the new building they were looking to build. Claire leaned back in her seat and stared at the work she had managed to complete with a small sense of pride before pushing herself up. She snagged her coat and bag as she walked towards her boss' door.

Knocking briefly, Claire waited a moment before rolling her eyes and pushing the door open. "Sir?" She called, peering into the vast room.

Damian Mercado was a young man of 26. He had taken over his father's banking business the year before and had yet to earn some of the old-time employee's respect because of his age, but Claire knew that he was intelligent and very capable. Claire had been slightly miffed at first that her superior was quite a bit younger than herself, but over the year that she worked for him, she'd come to give a grudging sort of respect for the sarcastic, young man. Still, at that particular moment, his age seemed to show through as he leaned back in his chair, ear-buds in and his feet up on the desk as he flipped through some documents.

Clearing her throat, Claire stepped up to the desk and plopped down the building plans on top of the other papers scattered across the surface. Damian barely spared her a glance before returning his attention to the documents in his hands. "Oh, Claire, I didn't hear you come in."

"Clearly." Claire said with a tight-lipped smile. "I got the preliminary plans for the new building-" she paused when Damian gave a pleased trill and made a grab for the papers, "and thought I'd drop it off. Is there anything else you need, sir?"

"Hm? Oh, no. You can go on your lunch break. I have a few things I need you to do, but it can wait." He said with a distracted wave of his hand. Noting her dismissal, Claire subtly rolled her eyes and turned with a quiet "Thank you, sir," before heading out of the building.

The clouds seemed to have had a change in mood since that morning, and they were rolling around like a great, black sea. Claire frowned up at them while pulling her coat tighter around herself. Damn weather, it wasn't always so unpredictable.

She made her way down the busy street – which was already filling with sinister, black umbrellas – winding through some smaller side streets until she came upon a small shop with a distinct antique look about it. There had originally been an old, painted sign on the shop front, but it had long been replaced with a new, plastic sign that read, "Percy's Bookshop" in Ariel font. Claire much preferred the old sign.

The bell on the door tinkled as she entered but was greeted by shelves upon shelves of old, dusty books as well as newer paper-backed ones that were starting to tear around the edges. There was no sign of Percy, though. Biting her lip lightly, Claire made her way towards the front counter with an eye out for the older man.

"Percy?" She called, digging through her bag in search of the novel she'd found in her apartment that morning, "You here? I found this book; it's from your store but I honestly can't remember when I borrowed it." There was still no answer, so Claire set the book on the countertop with a shrug.

"Seriously, Percy, where are you?" Waiting for another moment that was only rewarded with silence, Claire huffed and made her way around the counter to the back room. She'd been out back plenty of times before, but always felt a bit intrusive if she went in uninvited.

Nevertheless, she found Percy – a man of average height and about 60 years in age– cluttering about the workspace in his humble little kitchen with large, outdated headphones on with the music much too loud. He didn't seem particularly bothered by the volume, though, and continued to go about his way making what looked like a sandwich.

Claire stopped and privately smiled at the scene before walking over and calmly plucking the clunky headphones from the older man's head. He started and threw a sharp glance behind his shoulder until he saw Claire and relaxed.

"Oh my goodness, Claire, you scared the bejeezers out of me!" He said, turning back to his sandwich with a visible sag in his shoulders.

With a smile, Claire grabbed one of the chairs at the round table and took a seat. "Yeah, well, I did call for you. Several times." She said, taking out her lunch. "By the way, I left a book on the counter. I don't really remember when I borrowed it, but… Well. I guess I was too busy to read it."

"Yes, I suppose that happens to everyone." Percy sat down across from her with his oddly flat-looking sandwich and a smile.

After some idle chatter about books and the weather, Claire left with a full stomach and a pleasant mood, and made her way to the front of the shop. It was heavily pouring down by then and Claire sighed wearily.

"Why don't you take an umbrella?" Claire turned to have a navy-blue umbrella shoved in her face, "It's horrid weather out there, and I wouldn't want you to catch a cold."

"Thanks, Percy." With that, she pushed her way through the door and tugged her coat tighter around her, bracing herself against the rain.

She came out onto an empty road, the asphalt wet and black. It looked the perfect picture of misery with the grey buildings topped with stormy, black clouds that shifted ominously across the sky.

A black car was parked by the roadside and, as she passed it, Claire noted that there was someone sitting in the driver's seat, though she couldn't make out their face. She looked away when the head moved to follow her and quickened her pace. There was a rumble of an engine starting, and Claire barely paused to look behind her before she broke into a half-jog, her grip on the umbrella tightening.

"It's just a coincidence…" She muttered to herself, frantically trying to calm her nerves. "The car has nothing to do with you."

After a few moments of silence she managed to calm herself to a point that her pace was steady and slow. Claire released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding and glanced behind her shoulder to check for the car; nothing.

She turned back around, visibly more relaxed, and took no more than 9 steps when the slick, black surface of tinted windows cut her off. There was a moment when all Claire could process was the surprised look that graced her reflection before she was roughly jerked through one of the open doors into the waiting darkness then was promptly restrained and blindfolded.

The situation finally came back to her like a tidal wave and she screamed.

"Get off of me!" Claire thrashed against the hands holding her down and felt something crunch under her fist followed by warm, sticky liquid.

"Fuck!" was all that she heard before her head was violently snapped sideways, her cheek burning and her eyes stinging with unshed tears. "The stupid bitch punched me."

"And yet she's the one getting kidnapped and blindfolded." A second voice said with whip like scorn. How many of them were there? "Clean yourself up and try to do your job properly."

"Now – Claire, was it? – be a good girl and stay still or we're going to have to knock you out with a nice dose of chloroform. You get my drift, dear?"

"Where are you taking me?" Claire inwardly berated herself for the hitch in her voice but couldn't seem to quell the trembling that ran through her body like ants.

There was a low, amused chuckle and she felt a leathered hand press against her cheek. She flinched away from it with repulsion and was rewarded with a slap. "Well," the man said, "that's for me to know and you to find out, isn't it? Why don't you shut that pretty, little mouth of yours or we'll be forced to gag you."

Claire growled out, "Go to hell," She was awarded with another smack for her efforts.

"You asked for it," Claire bristled at the man's nonchalant tone but her sharp retort died on her lips by the dirty rag that was shoved roughly into her mouth. She struggled, trying to spit the gag out but her attempts proved to be fruitless and she gave up after almost choking on the rancid cloth.

They drove for several minutes, nothing breaking the monotonous silence other than a few exchanges of words between her kidnappers that Claire was finding harder and harder to keep track. She had no idea where they were going and the only indication that the car was actually moving at all was a low rumble of it's engine and the occasional street lamp that would brighten her vision even through the blindfold.

What had she done to deserve this? Her mind was reeling with unreasonable theories and stupid fantasies of getting rescued and sleeping in her own bed tonight. Deep down at the bottom of her gut, though, there was black ink that told her that this was it; she was done and there was nothing she could do about it.

The realization hit her with the force of a truck. This was real and Claire wasn't going to wake up from a bad dream like she had in her childhood. She wasn't going to be able to snuggle back into the covers and forget about the nightmare in favor of sweeter thoughts, and she wasn't going to wake up the next morning and go about her usual day.

Blood pumped faster through her veins and her breathing quickened until Claire's chest was rising and falling with rapid persistence. She could feel her heart thundering against her rib cage and wondered if anyone else could hear it. Would it matter if they could? Would they care? Would anyone care?

Claire thought longingly about her apartment and how she would give anything to be there right then, even when it felt somewhat empty and lacking in personality. She thought of her odd, little goldfish and how he would get hungry without her there to feed him. She thought of the man she had been taking an interest in at that one coffee shop that she liked. She thought about Vanessa and how she would never get to say goodbye. She thought about her boss, Damian, and all the work that she hadn't managed to finish. She thought about how it had been a long time since she'd called her parents and it had been months since she'd last seen them.

Claire was going to die, and there was nothing she could do about it.

Well, to hell with that.

It all happened rather quickly. One minute, Claire was sitting still, her hands tied behind her back, blindfolded and gagged, and the next minute she had thrown herself forwards with courage she didn't know she possessed in hopes of dislodging something – anything – important. She'd been sitting in the middle of the back seats, so she had easy access to the front of the car, and she thrashed around as the driver yelled in alarm and she felt the car swerve. There was more shouting but Claire didn't pay them any mind and continued to writhe about. She heard an, 'oomph', and a dull throb blossomed in her elbow as the car swerved again.

"Hey, watch it, Chuck!" Hands finally took hold of her arms and roughly tugged her upright even as she kicked and thrashed as though there was no tomorrow. Which, what with her current predicament, was a very possible outcome.

One of her captives struck her violently across the face again and she felt a flittering sense of vertigo as she fell over the other man. Her ears rung and her eyes prickled but Claire managed to grit her teeth and keep silent through the hammering of her heart. She barely registered when she was hauled up into a sitting position until she opened her eyes and found that the blindfold had slipped, allowing for a limited view of the front of the vehicle.

The driver – Chuck, according to the other men – turned around briefly to glare at Claire. A stray thought drifted through her mind; eyes on the road, Claire. Eyes on the road. It was something her father used to say when he had first started coaching her in driving and she felt a strong need to repeat the message to Chuck.

Especially when the man sitting to her right shouted, "Look out!" with such ferocity and distress that it made Claire physically jump. She saw Chuck swirl around to look at the road only to slam on the breaks, causing the three in the back, including Claire herself, to lurch forward. There was a horrible jolt and then a deafening screech, her three captives yelling all the while, and the car thundered down the road before the entire world seemed to shudder with unreal intensity that Claire thought she was going to throw up. Her head reeled and the car wreck she had seen that morning swam into her vision briefly and a dry sob ripped through her. Oh God, she didn't want to die, not like this, not now. But the little control she had over her thoughts quickly evaporated as a horrendous tremor racked the car again, and Claire curled up on herself and she could swear she was crying but couldn't be sure because the world was ending and she was going to die and everything was so loud

Then suddenly, it wasn't so loud anymore.

It was as though Claire was being engulfed in a soft, black pool and all the noises were distant and harmless. She found that she couldn't feel her legs but it didn't really bother her. Her vision was fuzzy and she couldn't seem to focus on anything but that was ok, too.

Oh, she thought, I must be dying. And despite the fact that she had been so distressed over the idea only moments before, she couldn't bring herself to see it as a problem. Pure serenity washed over her as her vision dimmed and she stared up at the sky. Huh, she must've gotten out of the car, somehow.

There seemed to be something trying to itch itself way through the numbness that surround her mind. Someone was calling her. Claire couldn't make out what they were saying and frankly didn't care. Something in her vision shifted, and before the absolute blackness fell around her like a comforting cloak, she saw a pair of vivid, blue eyes…


A/N: Review are highly appreciated!

D-n-h