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Turn Back Time

A dangerous cult disbanded years ago. Now they’re back, and they want revenge.

Alex Mercer spends his spare time operating a blog for missing children—a pastime inspired by his daughter’s recent disappearance. Another relative goes missing. As he follows up on leads coming into his site, the police department is inundated with a rash of missing persons cases. The incidents seem unrelated until evidence ties the cases to a dilapidated apartment building known for its unsavory clientele. Suspicion falls on a disbanded cult. The same cult Alex’s own relatives had managed to escape from and bring down a decade earlier.

The cult leaders, recently released or escaped from prison, reassemble their members and mandate a new mission to capture and kill all those responsible for the breakdown of their community. After another loved one disappears, Alex is ready to rescue the missing people from certain death. But will he get there in time?

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The large dilapidated building loomed in front of Lottie Mills as she hefted the bags into her arms and lumbered up the cracked walkway. Glowing rays from the setting sun behind her made it seem even more ominous than usual. She carefully avoided the raised areas in the cement where tree roots had long ago destroyed the path. A faded sign welcoming her to the Meriwether complex had profanities spray-painted across it and the scent of marijuana hung in the air. Shouts of an argument came from an open window inside the old apartment building. A baby cried somewhere. Glass shattered not far away.

Lottie picked up her pace and pushed open the chipped, muddy glass door. She passed the long-broken elevator and hurried up two flights of stairs, stepping over a young man who passed out just before the second level. The hallway on the third level reeked of dirty diapers. She made her way to unit three-thirty-two. The two hung upside down, as always. Lottie knocked with her elbow, not wanting to set the bags of food on the ground.

Shrieks from excited children sounded from inside the apartment. The door opened, and Sydney Kelly appeared with a frazzled smile. The dark circles under her eyes had gotten worse, and she had what looked like a bruise on her cheek underneath makeup. The younger woman pulled some light brown hair behind her ear and adjusted the toddler on her hip. “Thank you for bringing the groceries.”

Lottie stepped inside and set the bags on the table between fast food wrappers and some half-eaten candy. “It’s not much, but I hope it helps.”

Sydney put the child on a chair. “It always does. Thanks again. I wish I could do something to repay you.”

Lottie glanced at the makeup-covered bruise. “You could let me help you with that.”

“I can’t. I need him.”

A boy and a girl ran into the room and chased each other around the adults.

Lottie smiled at them and turned back to their mom. “Someday when you’re able, help out someone else in need.”

“I can’t see that day ever coming, but okay.”

“I’d stay and help with dinner, but I have some more food to deliver.”

Sydney sighed. “How is it you’re the only one who’s made anything of your life since—” She glanced at the kids playing happily. “—well, you know?”

“I’m not the only one.” Lottie thought of her son and daughter-in-law, who were doing even better than she was. “But I’m glad to help if you want to look for a better job.”

“I’m not sure Joey would…” Her voice trailed off for a moment and her hand rested on the bruised cheek. “I should get this food put away. Thanks again.”

“Always glad to help.”

Sydney grabbed a bag. “Come on, Trula, help me out.”

“Aw, do I have to? I…” The girl trailed off after looking at her mother’s face and picked up a bag to carry.

Lottie waved and headed out, closing the door behind her. In the hall, she was hit with the stench of dirty diapers again. She held her breath, hurried down the stairs and out the building, and gulped in the air outside. It wasn’t much better with the weed smoke drifting from somewhere. Yelling sounded from inside.

Hurrying, Lottie made her way to her little sedan across the street. She drove just a few blocks before stopping again to hand out some more food. Her stomach growled since she’d yet to have her own dinner.

“Just a few more minutes.” Lottie patted her belly and then pulled her messy, graying golden-copper hair into a loose bun. She topped it with an old, stained sun hat. There were many ogling eyes where she was going, and far too often her locks garnered her unwanted attention. It was best to get in and out as quickly as she could.

She got out, pulled some more plastic grocery bags from the trunk, and headed down the alleyway between two abandoned shops, now overrun with squatters. Once she reached the alley, the odors of alcohol and urine made her gag.

It saddened her that these people had to live like that. If only she could do more, but she already gave them more than she should. She was fortunate that her son and daughter-in-law were so generous with her, or she could never afford to help Sydney or any of the others.

Lottie stepped over a puddle of she-didn’t-want-to-know-what, since it hadn’t rained recently.

Laughter roared down an alley to her right. A scuffle sounded on the left. She took a deep breath and quickened her pace. As nervous as some of the homeless made her, they weren’t the ones she truly feared. Wherever Lottie went, even in her safe little backyard, she watched for them. She would never stop.

Finally, she made it to the old department store, where some of the families lived. It hurt her heart that children lived here. Some people had suggested she report them to family services, but tearing those precious little ones from their loving parents would shatter her heart to pieces.

Once inside, Lottie headed for the back of the building, smiling at all the children who crossed her path. She slid them packs of fruit snacks until she had no more.

“Thanks, Miss Lottie.” The little girl in loose, dirty pigtails who’d gotten the last pack smiled at her. She showed off a gap in her front teeth.

“Did you lose another tooth, Reyna?”

She nodded, but her smiled faded. “I wish the tooth fairy came here.”

Lottie set down a bag, dug into her jeans’ pocket, and pulled out a quarter. “I found this outside.

Maybe she dropped it on the way in here.”

Reyna’s eyes widened. “You think so?”

“I do.” Lottie put the quarter in the girl’s palm and picked up the grocery bag. “Don’t lose that.”

The little girl rubbed it between her thumb and first finger. “I won’t!” She scampered away, giggling.

Lottie stepped over a broken, grimy mannequin and made her way to the back where the three families she visited weekly lived. She gave each family one overstuffed bag, made some small talk, and rushed outside, eager to get to her clean, safe home before her own groceries went bad in the trunk.

Just before she came to the street, a man holding a half-empty booze bottle stepped out in front of her. He smiled, showing more missing teeth than little Reyna.

“Excuse me.” Lottie stepped to the side, careful not to make eye contact.

He moved in front of her again. “Up for a good time?”

She glared at him. “My burly son is expecting to hear from me. If he doesn’t, he’s coming right here to find me.”

The man held her gaze for a moment, but then stepped to the side.

Lottie hurried out to the street and breathed a sigh of relief. Her car was only a block away. She turned toward it, and a stocky, dark-haired, bearded man just taller than she was stepped out from behind a faded blue van.

Her blood ran cold. “I-I thought you were in jail.”

“I was. Thanks to you and your brat.”

She struggled to breathe normally. Her car wasn’t far. She needed to make a run for it.

The man stepped closer. Two more jumped out from behind the vehicle.

Lottie recognized them, also. She spun around and bolted away from them and her car. Multiple hands grabbed onto her, squeezing. She screamed. A large palm covered her mouth and nails dug into her cheeks and under her jaw. They dragged her toward the van and opened its side door.

The men shoved her inside. A rough, unfinished box resembling a coffin sat open on the floor. She fought harder, but they forced her inside. Someone hit her on the head. The lid came down over her, shrouding her in darkness.

She yelled and pushed on the lid with all her strength, using her hands and feet.

A lock clicked into place.

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