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Michelle Maddox

Countdown

LEVEL ONE

CHAPTER ONE

It's called nyctophobia. I looked it up once. It's the official term for an abnormal and persistent fear of the dark. I've had it ever since my parents and sister were murdered during an in-home burglary and I hid under my bed.

In the dark I couldn't see anything. I could just hear the screaming.

And then the silence.

So, yeah. I've been scared shitless of the dark ever since. Go figure.

Unfortunately, that's exactly where I found myself when I opened my eyes. Frankly, I don't even remember closing them. I'd been in the mall-I remembered that much. I'd just lifted a new pair of shoes because my old pair was practically worn out, since all I do is walk everywhere in the city, day in and day out. This pair was nice. Red. With strong laces that, if necessary, could double as a weapon.

The streets were tough sometimes. Especially at night. Especially in the dark.

Like right now.

But this wasn't the street; I knew that much. I was inside.

Somewhere.

I couldn't concentrate, though, due to the choking panic that began to flood my body. I knew it wasn't going to do a hell of a lot to freak out, but sometimes you just can't stop yourself-or reason with yourself-when you're in the process of freaking out.

I felt a pinch at my right wrist and reached over with my other hand, blindly trying to feel my way through the inky blackness. It was a metal cuff. Attached to a chain. Attached to the smooth, cold metal wall behind me.

What the hell was going on here?

Had I been caught shoplifting? Was this prison? I racked my brain but came up blank. No, I'd grabbed the shoes, shoved them under my coat, and left the store to go into the half-abandoned mall, where I put them on, throwing my old shoes in a garbage can. And then … then what happened?

I remember wanting to grab some food. I had two bucks to my name, so I figured I could buy a small order of french fries at one of the few restaurants that were still open there. That would last me a day before my stomach would start complaining again.

Did I even make it to the food court?

I couldn't have. I was still hungry. Starving. My body felt like it was eating itself, but that was a bit of an exaggeration, I guess. Yesterday I'd had an entire meal. Ordered off the menu even, and then tried to skip out before the bill came. The owner of the diner caught me, reprimanded me, and I figured that that was it-he'd call the cops.

Instead he took pity on me and just made me wash dishes. It was a humbling experience, but I'd had a lot of those since my family died.

In the end, I did appreciate his kindness. Washing dishes was a hell of a lot better than going to prison.

It was just me now. For the past seven years, on my own since I was fifteen. Not a good time to lose your family, not that there's ever a good time for that. We weren't rich, but we weren't poor, either. My father was a scientist who taught classes at the university and he made decent

enough money. Back then I was safe and relatively happy and free to do what I wanted with the love of my family to support me. But once they were gone I had nothing. The courts wanted to put me into foster care, but I'd run instead. A friend of mine went into foster care a long time ago and I never heard from her again. Not even an e-mail.

Okay, breathe, Kira, I told myself. And I did. I took a deep breath in through my nose and let it out through my mouth. I could hear my heart thudding hard in my ears.

Why couldn't I remember what happened after I took the shoes? Dammit. And where the hell was I?

I seriously had to calm the hell down. It wasn't helping.

I took another breath in and out and then I forced myself to listen. For something. Anything. There had to be something other than this total silence that told me absolutely nothing helpful.

I listened.

And then I heard… something. I pushed my distracting fears out of the way as best I could and strained my ears.

Breathing. I could hear breathing. Very softly.

Somebody else is in the room with me.

This realization did not help to ease my mind. Just the opposite. Just thinking that somebody was in there, in the darkness with me, scared me enough that I almost started to cry.

But I was a tough chick now. At least, that was what I tried to tell myself every morning when I woke up to face another day. This shouldn't be any different.

'H-h-hello?' Stuttering does not help the situation, I thought. 'Who's there?'

The breathing hitched. I heard something heavy shift against the floor around fifteen feet away.

Then the something spoke. 'Wh-what the fuck?'

A male voice. His words were gruff and raspy, as if he'd just woken from a deep sleep.

'Who are you?' I ventured again.

Dammit. Why did I sound so weak? I hated that.

He cleared his throat and groaned. 'Shit.'

Well, he did seem to have a fine command of the English language.

I strained to see something, but there was only black. 'Tell me who you are.'

There was a pause, and then another groan. It actually sounded like a moan of pain as I heard him shift his position again.

I frowned. 'Hey, are you okay?'

He snorted at that. 'Fantastic. I'm just fantastic, thanks for asking. And you?'

Sarcasm. Yeah, I recognized that.

'I've been better, actually.'

Chains rattled. Not mine, so that meant that this guy was also restrained. But why?

'I'm Rogan,' he said dryly after a moment. 'So pleased to meet you.'

'Where are we?'

'I tell you my name and you don't reciprocate? Didn't your mother teach you any manners?'

'My mother's dead.'

That shut him up. Momentarily. 'Sorry to hear that.'

'It was a long time ago.'

'Doesn't make it any easier.'

No, that was very true. I swallowed hard. 'My name's Kira.'

'Well, Kira, where we are is anyone's guess.'

I pressed back firmly against the hard wall.

We could be anywhere, and there wasn't a damn thing to give me a clue where that was. Except for the main drags, the city was so vacant that we could be in any one of dozens of abandoned warehouses or factories.

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