Hello, I just wanted to introduce myself. I am an aspiring writer who has written A STRANGLED ROSE, a mystery crime novel, and am presently working on TIMBER GROVE POINT, an edge-of-your-seat thriller. I love the written word. To kick off my blog I thought I’d share the first three chapters of A STRANGLED ROSE. Tell me what you think. All feedback is welcomed. After all, I’m striving for publication. I can’t do that unless people are honest with me. All I ask is that you be nice. There’s no need to rip my heart out.
I have since edited those first chapters. I swear it’s easier to write an entire new novel than to edit an old one, especially your first-born.
Here are the first two chapters of A STRANGLED ROSE— Revised version:
April 1st, 2013
Frightened, sapphire eyes peered through golden, wispy locks on a pitch-dark, desolate road. Isolated and alone, a young woman nervously glanced from side to side, awaiting the object of her affection. “All My Love” streamed from the car speakers as she leaned forward to increase the volume. When suddenly, the purr of the engine started to rattle. Smoke poured from its choking exhaust.
Flustered, she lowered the stereo, pushed her long, flowing, blond hair behind her ear and listened closely for a cause.
Without warning, an uninvited backseat guest threw a wire around her neck and violently forced her back against the seat.
Instinctively she scratched, tugged at the wire.
The stranger tightened her noose.
Gasping for air she fought to stay alive. Sheer fear driving her every move. Ruby red blood dripped from her sliced fingertips as she excoriated her neck.
Her attacker was too strong.
Her short life flashed before her eyes. If I’m gonna die, she thought. I’m not going down without a fight.
Her arms shot above her head, backward over the seat, and she wildly slashed at the stranger’s face.
He chuckled a devilish laugh, then expertly twisted his garrote.
Within seconds, there was no resistance. Silence. No movement. Death.
Jubilant over his proficiency he withdrew his garrote and smirked a ghoulish grin. Scanning his surroundings he grabbed his accomplishment. Dragging the corpse to his vehicle, he tossed it in with no regard.
The deafening, dual mufflers roared as they accelerated down the sandy, dirt road; pebbles and grit hit the rims as they whisked by.
Under a smoky half-moon the vacant car idled as if never inhabited. Abandoned in the night.
I gasped, jolted up in bed. My lungs compressed and expanded in quick, short bursts, attempting to catch my breath.
Urgently Jake asked, “Blu, what’s wrong?”
Hyperventilating, I leaped from the bed to search for oxygen in the air. “I– had–” I struggled to reply.
“Was it just a dream or a vision?”
“I’m not sure. It felt like a vision.”
Standing in my long nightshirt– worn so thin it was nearly transparent– I felt too exposed, as if danger could reach out and grab me. So swiftly I slipped back beneath the pale blue downy comforter and snuggled into Jake’s arms.
The warmth of his strong arms comforted me as tears slid down my cheeks.
“Guess what?” he said, rattling me. “It’s moving day!”
“But, Jake, what if what I dreamt comes true?”
“That could mean it happens here. We’ll be miles away in a few hours. This is a day to be happy! It’s the first day of our new life!” He hurried out the bedroom door filled with excitement.
But I was still puzzled by my dream. I rolled to the side and drew the covers over my head. I’d never mastered my clairvoyant dreams and visions, but it hadn’t mattered until now. Normally I predicted non-essential events, like running into a person I hadn’t seen in years, or knowing so-and-so’s marriage was on the rocks.
This dream, however, rocked me to the core.
The hot, sticky blood. A woman’s neck sliced wide open. Her final cries! The images raced through my mind as a shudder ran through me. Why was this happening?
I glanced at the clock. It was six-thirty a.m. I had no time to fall apart. We had a long day ahead of us. This move meant everything to us. It was our chance to have fun. Soak in the beauty of our surroundings without a care in the world. Alas, relax. And hopefully, re-spark the intimacy so often hindered after nineteen years of marriage. The rush of pheromones that charged through your senses with one touch. Not that Jake and I weren’t still madly in love, we were. Often times life gets in the way of passion and there’s nothing you can do about it, except wait.
I pushed the doubt and fear from my mind, crawled out of bed, plastered a smile on my face, and mustered up some excitement for the big move.
After driving several hours, cramped by boxes and sleeping dogs, we were greatly relieved to pull in the driveway of our new home. We raced for the front door like two kids chasing an ice cream truck. He carried me over the threshold, through the mudroom, and unlocked the inside door.
Fresh wood filled the air like natural potpourri.
We drank in our new home: stainless steel appliances tucked beneath nutmeg granite countertops and pine cabinets; slanted, warm pine halfway up the walls throughout an open country kitchen, running down the hallway to a full bath with double sinks and cobalt blue ceramic tile and into the spare bedroom, the kids’ room.
Jake and I stood in the living room– our fingers weaved together– our faces traced cathedral-length knotty pine walls up to a high, matching ceiling.
I sighed peacefully, relishing in two twenty-foot-high dome-windows hugging the sides of a floor-to-ceiling field stone hearth. We tracked the sun’s rays as they poured through the glass like a waterfall, spilling its beauty over the floors, brightening everything in its path.
“I’m in heaven!” I sang out, twirling in circles, my arms flying beside me. “I can’t believe we’re finally here!”
After gawking at our new home we unloaded the U-Haul. We’d been at it for a while when dusk arrived. The night air grew darker by the minute.
Out of nowhere we heard a man’s voice yell, “Do you need any help?”
We skimmed around us.
No one in sight.
The sensor’s grapefruit glow shined upon us as we turned our attention back to the moving truck.
We heard it again, only louder. “Do you need any help? I’m over here!”
Up the dirt road we spotted a man in his lit doorway staring at us.
“No thanks,” we both hollered.
The stranger’s generosity moved Jake, but I was leery. Why would he offer to help us with such an awful task? Did he want to case our belongings? Was he dangerous?
Jake dragged another box from the back. “That was nice of him.”
I scoffed at the remark. Yeah, nice. The best criminals often seem friendly, until you let them in. Then your robbed, raped, and before you know it– dead.
Seconds later, my dream flooded back. It devoured my thoughts, but I refused to let it ruin the elation of the day. I quickly pushed it from my mind, then carried the hanging clothes into the house.
Our new home sat directly on Bear Cat Mountain, a secluded, wooded area where only two other households resided. Further up the dirt road was one-hundred-and-eighty-acres of thick forest left untouched for wildlife to flourish. Bear, Wolf, Coyote, Moose, all sorts of animals thrived up there.
We never had an inkling a different danger lurked deep in those woods.
April 6th, 2013
An early heat wave had just hit the area and I was miserable in my clinging T-shirt as Jake and I strolled up our long flagstone walkway– our fingers laced together– and popped our heads out from behind a large ash tree we used as a shield to spy on our new neighbors. We wanted to meet them casually, not knock on their door and introduce ourselves. Accidentally on purpose.
The couple across the gravel road were opening their above ground pool. The husband was a strapping six-foot-two with broad shoulders– a husky build– brunette hair cut short and a perfectly trimmed goatee. The wife had long, sandy-blond hair pulled tight into a ponytail. Wispy bangs feathered her brilliant jade eyes that glimmered brightly in the sun. She was of average height, thin, but apparently very strong because she threw the equipment around the yard like it was made of Styrofoam.
Jake turned to me, his eyes widened. I knew she had impressed him. I smiled coyly, but my body ached just watching her.
When Jake and I first met I’d owned a hair salon. Two years later I took ill. The doctors told me– at age thirty– that I’d developed Rheumatoid Arthritis along with other joint, muscle and nerve issues. I’d known for some time I was losing my fine motor skills. And my feet were so painful high-heels fast became my enemy.
A diagnosis at that age was frightening. What would I feel like at age fifty or sixty or seventy? Would I require a cane or a walker? Would I be crippled in a wheelchair?
I decided right there in the doctor’s office that I’d fight this battle. It hadn’t been easy, but the alternative far outweighs the determination it takes to move when you feel like crying, exercise when all you want to do is scream in pain, eat right when you crave that chocolate cake. RA was a life long battle I didn’t intend to lose.
Jake had worked as an architect. After I closed my salon I worked with him for a while, until my knuckles twisted and inflamed with such severity I wasn’t able to perform my duties any longer.
Being a strong, independent woman, I was not about to let my disease rule my life. To look at me you’d never even know I was sick, unless you studied my hands and feet. I did have to learn limitations, though. Which, for me, was extremely difficult. Orphaned at nineteen years old, I was not accustom to setting boundaries for myself. An instinct not easily quelled because I suddenly took ill.
Jake had finally decided to retire early so we could move up north– something I’d always dreamed about. Most people with my condition would’ve moved south, but I despise the heat. We chose the Upper Valley of New Hampshire, nestled north of the lakes region and a smidgen south of the white mountains. With breathtaking mountain views and fun lake activities we had the best of both worlds.
We studied the couple across the way before summoning the nerve to approach. Then I gave Jake the signal and across the dirt road we strode for the big introduction. We were just about to tread on their pristinely manicured lawn when a one-hundred-and-thirty-pound German shepherd stepped out from behind a lavender azalea bush. Her lips curled back, baring her teeth, snarling a low rumble. And her black, beady eyes fixed on us– stopping us dead in our tracks.
I’d always considered myself good with animals. But she obviously was not in the mood to be handled.
A bead of sweat rolled down my forehead and stung my right eye as I racked my brain for a solution. I gazed beyond the vicious dog to the couple we were attempting to meet.
They were oblivious to what was happening.
Frozen mid-stride, I knew if we moved an inch the dog would charge, so I shifted only my eyes over to Jake and quietly uttered, “Don’t. Move.”
The shepherd cagily stepped closer, her dark eyes pinned on us. Then she let out a loud growl and thankfully the couple rushed over.
“This is Danni,” the wife said cheerfully. “She won’t hurt you. She’s just doing her job.”
Danni, such a sweet name for such a royal bitch.
I didn’t want to be rude, so I graciously smiled, patted Danni on the head and prayed my hand would still be attached when I brought it back.
“Hi, Danni. Thanks for not eating us.”
Jude and Marnie Barrows invited us over to their picnic table, where we relaxed and conversed for well over an hour. In that time, we discovered they were self-employed game butchers.
Game butchers? I thought. Who does that?
They owned a business in town called The Wildlife Butchery, a place where hunters brought their kills to have the meat cut and packaged. A family owned business passed down to Marnie once her parents retired.
Being an avid animal lover, I was initially taken aback by this. But eventually I realized Marnie had the same love of animals that I did.
Several days later, I was preparing dinner while Jake sat at our new barn-board-nook and scanned the newspaper.
A sudden strong knock at the door broke our happy bliss.
I ran to the dome window at the bottom of the loft stairs and peeked through the blinds.
A man stood at our door with his dog. He was short with brunette hair, parted on the side, and a salt-and-pepper goatee that gathered to a point. He wore thin wired-frame glasses and a smirk that instantly sent a cold chill down my spine.
He knocked again
I couldn’t move. Something inside me screamed, “He’s dangerous!” Over the years I’d learned to trust my intuition. It had never failed me.
I was about to voice my concerns to Jake when he opened the door and let him in!
That’s when I noticed it was the same man who’d called out to us on moving day. The man who offered his help. The man, I assumed, was ominous even then.
He introduced himself as Gary Surrett, a thrice divorced mechanic who was single again. A friendly yellow lab named Buck wagged his tail by his side.
Buck’s sad, sienna eyes made me melt. As I ran my fingers down his curly blond coat I pictured him cooped up all day while Gary was at work. Instinctively I offered to let him out during the week. Not only would I help a canine in need, it was a fine way to keep an eye on Gary without alerting Jake– for when my instincts were correct.
I decided there on the spot that that man should be watched. That man had something evil boiling beneath the surface, and someday soon it would rear its ugly head. And when it did I prayed Jake and I were nowhere in sight.
I shut the front door behind him. Then sat at the nook and scrutinized his every move, waiting to prove my foresight was right.
April 6th, 2013
A decaying corpse of a young woman was propped up against a rock maple tree. Infestations of maggots, beetles, and blowflies congregated to consume their feast. A deep incision spanned her jugular, nearly causing a decapitation. And a ruby red rose– once full and bursting with color– protruded from her left eye socket. Faded. Wilted. Dead.
Posed by her attacker the body sat– straightened legs with navy blue hip-huggers cinched at the calves– a sheer, cream-colored blouse torn open, yet buttoned at the cuffs. And a navy-paisley camisole shredded in half, spaghetti-straps still hooked her shoulders. The word WHORE carved deep in her ivory-skinned chest.
The smell, similar to rotted fruit, sent wolves and then coyotes to flock to the raw meat. They ripped and tore at her flesh in frenzy. The night air whistled through the evergreens, swaying a pale pink ribbon draped around her skull.
Paw prints covered the well-traveled trail to the bloody cadaver as a fisher cat made his way to the meal of the century.
Unexpectedly slowed in his tracks from the scent of larger prey he retreated and waited for an opening.
A sliver of moonlight dimly lit the territory amongst the tall pines as round golden eyes glowed upon high from the lone feline salivating over the banquet below.
Darkness turned to light.
A gunshot rang out, echoing off the mountainside. Three men were illegally hunting coyotes five days past the allotted time. Scott was the younger brother of Frank and brought along merely out of necessity– Frank and Rory needed his 4×4 pickup– not for his kinship.
Scott raised the scope of his rifle to his eye and fired, but missed.
A nimble coyote sprinted through the woods, running for his life, and had effortlessly leaped over the body. But Scott was not agile. He was awkward, chunky, blond and baby-faced. So when he’d ardently chased his prey, he tripped over the body.
Flattened face-down in the dirt, inches from a dried blood pool, he jumped to his feet, screamed for Frank, then folded at the waist and vomited his egg sandwich from breakfast.
Frank and Rory tracked Scott’s screams of terror.
“What’s all the racket, bro?” complained Frank. Then he saw the body. His hazel eyes locked on the dead woman’s chest. Bloodied. Carved. Defaced.
Rory stared at Frank. He’d never noticed the yellow flecks in Frank’s eyes before. But standing there in that moment, Frank’s eyes wide, they twinkled like razor-sharp flakes.
Why am I thinking about Frank’s eyes at a time like this? he thought.
Because Rory couldn’t bear to view the body. He wanted to, he yearned to, but he couldn’t. Instead, he watched his friends’ expressions.
The dimples in Scott’s pudgy cheeks smoothed. Frank appeared as rock solid as usual. Of course, he always did around Scott. It was his way of protecting him from life’s bedevilments.
Frank had a completely different reaction than Rory. He couldn’t peel his eyes away from the corpse. It was like a fatal car wreck. He didn’t want to stare but he couldn’t help himself.
The ends of his chestnut-brown mullet hung beneath his orange-knit cap. And his bushy moustache stilled showed signs of dried yolk on the tips. He dug deep in his camouflage pocket for his cell and flipped it open.
“If anyone asks,” he said to Scott, “we were hunting mink for the pelts. Mink and muskrat season lasts until the fifteenth.”
Frank understood that Rory didn’t need cautioning; he knew better. He scanned the heavily wooded area for a landmark. But everything looked the same: tall birch, oak and ash trees, pine needles blanketed the earth, rocks dotted the landscape. There were no distinguishing landmarks to tell the police where they were.
Scott tugged on Frank’s coat-sleeve. “Call nine-one-one! She’s dead! Someone killed her!”
“No shit! Let me think.” Frank circled back a few yards and searched for some way to describe his locale. There was nothing. His lips pursed under his shaggy moustache.
Rory tapped his deflated pack of cigarettes against his hand, his sandy-brown ponytail bouncing with each tap. He pressed a butt between his lips, careful not to set his scraggly beard ablaze in the breeze. Then he sucked a long drag from the filter– inhaling a plume of smoke– and blew it out slowly, snapping his jaw. . . smoke rings.
Frank glanced over at Rory. Is this really the time to screw around? He let it go. He had a murder to report. Besides, Scott was his first priority.
His thick fingers trembled as he punched the keypad. “Hello, I need to report a dead body on Bear Cat Mountain.”
“A dead body?” said the operator, bewildered. “In Alexandria?”
“Yes in Alexandria! She was murdered! Send police, ambulance, everyone!”
“Okay, sir, calm down.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down! This chick’s dead and I have no clue how to explain where I am! Yah know what, just tell the cops I’ll meet them at the base of the mountain and lead ‘em back up.”
“Stay on the line, please.”
The phone went dead.
Frank’s eyes jumped from Scott to Rory, and then settled back on Scott. The phone still pressed against his ear– trying not to alarm his brother– a dial tone sounded.
“Okay, thank you. We’ll head down the mountain now. Goodbye.” He hooked an arm at Scott and Rory to follow and headed down the wooded path.
Leaves suddenly shuffled. Sticks crunched. Footsteps pounded behind them.
All three men spun, stopped, listened.
“What was that?” yelped Scott.
“It’s nothing,” Frank said. “C’mon.”
Shuffle. Crunch. Step. Shuffle. Crunch. Step.
Frank spun, raised a finger to his thin lips. “Shhh. . .”
Slowly he folded a cupped hand to his brow and intensely stared beyond the multitude of pine trees. All of a sudden, a massive rack of velvety tan antlers moved into a stretch of light. A moose’s huge four-hundred-pound-frame stopped. His almond-shaped amber-eyes fixed on the men. Rays of sunlight danced on his coarse caramel coat as he stood statuesque, ready to charge at a moments notice.
Scott pressed in his heels. “Umm, Frank?”
“Pass me your rifle. I’m outta bullets,” whispered Frank.
“But it’s not moose season. The raffle isn’t until fall. You can’t shoot that swamp donkey, bro.”
“Shut up and pass me your gun.”
Scott sloughed off the rifle from his shoulder, passed it to Frank, who gingerly raised it to his face, squeezed one eye shut and aimed the other through the scope, setting the moose squarely in his site. He resolutely exhaled, set his finger on the trigger. Sweat glistened on his forehead– stood firm in a hunter’s stance– keenly alert and aware. Only one thought in mind: don’t miss!
He stared at the moose and the moose stared back, locked in a battle of wills. Just then, sirens wailed up the dirt road to the base of the mountain.
In a flash, the moose was gone. Evergreen branches still swayed in the path of his escape.
“Dammit!” Frank lowered his weapon.
“Look!” urged Rory.
Two navy-and-gold Alexandria squad cars, an ambulance, and the local sheriff’s vehicle raced through the parking lot.
Sheriff McCabe jumped from his tan sedan and shuffled steadily toward the men.
Frank took one look at the sheriff and chuckled. McCabe was the epitome of a cliché: bald, short, glasses, marching with his chest puffed like a turkey during mating season.
“Which one of you discovered the body?” McCabe asked gruffly.
“Me!” Scott raised his hand as if he were in a classroom and knew the answer to a
question the teacher had just posed.
Frank stepped in front of Scott. “He’s my little brother, sir. Why don’t you talk to me.”
“Because, he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, if you know what I mean.”
“All right. Tell me what you found.”
“A dead girl.”
“Yes, I know. What I meant was, are you sure it’s a dead human and not a dead animal?”
Frank caustically remarked, “I think I know a woman when I see one.”
“Watch yourself, mister!” McCabe waved a stubby finger in Frank’s face. “You’re talking to the law, boy! Just lead the way. I’ll see for myself.”
All three hunters began hiking up the dirt path when McCabe hollered, “Excuse me! I only said for him to show me.” He pointed at Frank. “You two stay here with Sergeant Myers.”
A tall, lanky, shaved-headed sergeant strolled over to Scott and Rory.
“Leave your weapon with me,” he said to Frank, collecting the guns from Scott and Rory. He started to escort them toward his squad car when he abruptly stopped and turned back to Frank. “By the way, what are yeah hunting up there?”
Scott winked at Frank. “Birds,” he said proudly. “Oh, I mean. . . Er. . . mink?”
Frank shut his eyes. Why am I not surprised? “We’re hunting mink, Officer.”
McCabe’s magnified blue eyes slid toward Sergeant Myers. “We’ll worry about that later.”
McCabe pulled a mini-steno-pad from his jacket pocket and questioned Frank along the way. “You told nine-one-one the victim was murdered. How’d you know that?”
“It didn’t take a genius to figure it out. Her neck’s sliced wide open.”
McCabe scrawled in his notebook: Uncooperative witness. Bad attitude. Possible suspect?
“Hey, what are you writing there?” Frank peeked over the sheriff’s shoulder.
McCabe blocked his notes.
“She’s over here on the left.” Frank pointed to a heavily wooded area off the path. He stopped, angled himself away from the corpse, unwilling to witness the slaughter again.
“You– wait here!” McCabe ordered. “Don’t move!” He hesitantly inched toward the victim, nostrils flared, blue eyes pinned on the rose. “Did anybody touch anything?” he asked Frank.
“No! Jeez, why would I?”
After examining the wounds McCabe strode over to a local patrolmen, Officer Duncan, who had not emerged on the victim with him. He dragged him aside.
“This is too big for us. We need to call Plymouth. They have a Homicide Unit. We don’t.”
Officer Duncan’s freckled face blossomed, eager to involve himself in a real live murder case. Only on the force six months, he’d mainly worked traffic. He considered the moment his big break, a chance to prove himself.
His coarse, black curls jounced as he fumbled for his hand-held radio.
“Sergeant Myers, sir!”
“Yes, Duncan. What is it?”
Myers had always been impatient with Duncan, as if he’d bothered him or had just interrupted an important meeting. Duncan never took it personally, though. He had often been rebuffed, kept at an arm’s length. Astute, he was not. Nor had his senses homed in on the job yet. Maybe it was his tender age of twenty-one. Maybe he appeared too eager at the wrong times. But he one attribute no one could take from him. He had heart. Someday he hoped to gain respect. Until that time, he was happy being involved.
“Well, sir, there’s a dead woman here,” continued Duncan. “The killer did some sick things to her body. Cut her up bad.”
“What kind of sick things?”
“He stuck a rose in her eye and carved something in her chest. I didn’t get a good look, but I hear she’s in rough shape. Er. . . Sir? Sheriff McCabe wants us to call Plymouth, sir.”
“Okay, Duncan. I’ll handle it. I’ve got a buddy in Homicide.” He called the Plymouth Police Department. “Detective Lushion Monroe, please. It’s Sergeant Myers, over in Alexandria.”
The dispatcher transferred him to the Homicide Unit.
Detective 1st grade Lushion Monroe stretched out in his padded chair– ankles crossed, propped up on his desk– reading an article in the newspaper when the call came in.
“Nick, how the hell are yeah? It’s been a long time.”
“Hey, Lushion. I’m fine. Listen, we have a body over here on Bear Cat Mountain. We were wondering if you could take over jurisdiction. We’re just not equipped to handle a case like this.”
Lushion dropped his legs to the floor. He straightened as his interest peaked.
“What about this murder leads you to believe it’s a complicated case?”
“This killer was sick, Lu. He sliced up the victim, stuck a rose in her eye. He even carved something in her chest. I figured with your profiling background, this would be right up your alley. Besides, we haven’t had a murder here since Moby Dick was a guppy.”
Lushion ignored the quip. “I’m on my way.” He rose and slid his coat off the back of his chair. “See you a bit.”
He slammed the receiver in its cradle and summoned his partner, Janet Ames. He pulled a cuff to check his watch. It was oh-nine-hundred. Slipped his arms in his olive Armani suit coat’s arms and rushed for the elevator doors.
As he waited for Janet, he ran his fingers through his short, dark hair, feathering it back. He checked the time repeatedly, then gazed at a cheap painting of a red farmhouse with cows enclosed by a wooden rail fence.
He wondered why the department had chosen that specific painting. It wasn’t well done, and it certainly had nothing to do with policing.
Lushion felt the thick leaves of a rubber-tree plant, stationed in a black ceramic pot in the corner of the hallway outside the Homicide Unit, then ran a flat hand down his suit coat and checked the creases in his pants. He was not about to let a little thing like murder ruin his sense of style. His partner– on and off the job– enjoyed his savvy dress, his French-Italian good looks. Away from prying ears she’d often kid that Calvin Klein lost a model.
Janet hurried toward him, her shoulder-length auburn hair swaying side to side.
Lushion held the lift doors open as she entered, yet said nothing about the murder while they rode down to the parking garage together.
A little thrill zipped up his spine from the thought of a big case. Not that he wanted someone to be dead, but small town living was just not the same as the excitement of a big city like Chicago, his original domain. Now, he’d show Janet the ropes. Teach her real detective work. And eventually, let her witness what it felt like to face a killer. He hated to admit it, but he hadn’t felt this alive in years. The rush of a ticking clock. The satisfaction of locking away the bad guy. Even testifying in court was better than what he’d been doing lately.
They crossed the cold, dark garage to their Crown Vic. Lushion slipped behind the wheel and told Janet the big news, masking the smile that lurked beneath his chiseled jaw.
Janet twisted her petite frame in her seat to face him. “Really? A murder? Where?”
“Over in Alexandria. Do you remember when I told you stories about Chicago?”
“What, the murders? Yeah, why?”
“According to my buddy, the vic was badly mutilated.” The corners of his lips arched to a grin. He quickly forced them down. “We’ll have our work cut out for us. But don’t worry, you can handle this.”
“I’ve never worked a homicide case before,” she said, feeling her pulse race.
“I know. That’s what’s so exciting.”
Janet’s eyes flicked out each window, looking for a safe place to land. She had climbed the ranks from patrol fairly quickly, promoted to Homicide six years ago. But since there were three other detectives above her in rank she’d only assisted in situations, and even then they were minor.
Lushion winked at her and smiled, then realized the stakes: he’d have to train her flawlessly to keep her safe.
“Listen, Janet. There’ll be several officers at the scene, so just follow my lead.”
Red and blue lights flashed and the sirens wailed as they sped through traffic light after traffic light heading toward Alexandria. Motorists pulled to the roadside to let them wiz by.
Twenty minutes later, they pulled in the parking lot at the base of Bear Cat Mountain.
“You ready for this?” asked Lushion, attempting to control his urge of sprinting from the car.
Janet felt a rush of adrenaline, or nausea; she wasn’t sure which. “I think so.”
They crossed the parking lot toward Sergeant Myers, who leaned against his squad car, taking statements from Scott and Rory. Lushion raised his chin in greeting as they passed, and then started up the mountain trail. Two strides in, Sheriff McCabe and crew met them on their way down.
“Duncan,” Sergeant Myers hollered. “Take the detectives to the crime scene!”
“Right this way, sir, ma‘am.” Duncan touched the brim of his hat and slightly nodded.
They hiked in a straight line, up the steep incline, through brush and fallen trees.
“When’s the ME arriving?” Lushion asked Duncan.
Duncan stopped, turned, cocked his head. “ME, sir?”
“The Medical Examiner. You did call him, right?”
“No, sir. I’ve never worked a homicide case before, sir.”
Lushion glanced back at Janet and rolled his eyes. Another rookie, just what I need. He took a deep breath in, cleared his mind of frustration as he exhaled.
“Janet, would you mind. . .?”
“I’m on it,” she replied.
As they hiked, Lushion looked back on his first murder case. It was a hot July night in Chicago. He and his partner, Odin Barrett, had just ordered a slice of pizza when the call came in. The body of a twenty-one-year-old male was found in an alley. The fingers on his right hand had been chopped off at each knuckle with a meat cleaver, then sprinkled over his chest like grated cheese on a plate of spaghetti. The ace of spades was rolled up and stuffed in his mouth. And his throat had been severed ear to ear.
The Medical Examiner determined the victim, Dennis Raymond, had bled out within minutes, and had been killed where his body was found. The blood spatter later confirmed that finding. The torture, however, was done elsewhere. It took two weeks for Lushion and Odin to solve the crime. The reason for the killing– the motive– was obvious to them, once they found the torture locale.
Raymond was caught counting cards in a back room poker game. Nobody likes a cheat. The owner of the establishment had chopped his fingers off at the table to teach any wandering-eyed clients from doing the same. Unfortunately for him, there were a couple of card sharks who had bragged about the incident at the local pub. And Raymond’s blood had pooled on the green-felt-top-table and left a stain that clearly told the gruesome tale.
Odin was only a few years older than Lushion but seemed wiser, hardened, sharp. And once Lushion had transferred to PPD, Odin was approached by the FBI. They offered him a position with the Behavior Analyst Unit, which he took.
Lushion wondered how his old pal was doing. After this case he’d have to reach out, touch base, and possibly meet for lunch someday soon.
He recalled how anxious he was when he first saw Raymond’s body. The blood. The stench of decomposing flesh in ninety-degree heat. The bizarre nature of torture. And he questioned whether Janet could handle witnessing such horror. He’d be there if she needed him, that was a given. But would it change her? He loved her innocence. The way she looked at the world through rose-colored glasses.
Janet was not naive. She chose to be a die-hard optimist. It was her way; the very nature of her soul. Lushion loved that about her, too. There wasn’t much he didn’t love about that woman. She was his everything. His reason for staying in small town, New Hampshire.
When they arrived on scene Janet stood off to the side on her cell while Lushion observed his surroundings. He stared at the multitude of heavy brush, tall trees, pine needles on the ground, and several animal tracks of different shapes and sizes. Then he approached the body, studying the victim and the soil around her.
“Make yourself useful and tape off the scene, would yeah, Duncan?”
“Yes, sir! Detective, sir!”
“Please, Duncan, call me Lushion.”
“How far back do you want me to go, sir– Er. . . Lushion?”
“Give me a good fifty feet.”
Janet finished her call and cautiously approached the body.
“Did the ME give you a time frame?” Lushion asked, squatting beside the victim.
“Actually, we lucked out. Dr. Abraham was at an appointment in Alexandria this morning, so he said he’d be right over.”
Janet casually glanced down at the remains, then quickly turned away. She wasn’t ready.
Lushion passed her a pair of latex gloves. Magically once she slipped them over her fingers she became eager to begin, even if her stomach wasn’t.
“Where do we start?” she asked with enthusiasm.
“First, we need to photograph the scene from perimeter to center,” Lushion said, using his hands to animate his words, his Italian side taking over. “Include every entrance and exit route you can find. Then photograph the body. Make sure to get her position from every angle, including above. If need be, you can jump on that rock over there.” He pointed to a massive boulder covered in moss, not far from the body. “We need to be able to reconstruct this scene for a jury once an arrest is made. Normally we’d scale any footprints or tracks using a ruler template. However, because of the size of our department, we don’t own one, so use something common like a dollar bill.” He reached in his pocket and handed Janet a ten. “Once the ME arrives, photograph anything he removes from the body. Write down its original position in your notes, then snap pictures before and during trace removal. Questions?”
“Nope. I think I’m good.” Still avoiding the victim, she wished that statement held true.
After they finished, they regrouped at the remains. Lushion knelt beside the victim while Janet moved to the opposite side.
“Now, without touching the body tell me what you see.”
She regarded him uncertainly. “Why can’t I touch the body?”
“Because, the Medical Examiner is the only one allowed to do that. You can only assist him if he’s present. So, what can you tell me?”
The victim’s cold, empty stare raised the tiny hairs on the back of her neck as she hovered over the dead woman’s face. Grayish-blue eyes– fixed, dilated– were veiled with a thick film. Tiny spider-webbed veins burst in the jaundiced-whites.
Janet saw how her thin, spaghetti-like blond hair seemed perfect, as if someone had combed it into place, straightened her bangs, and pushed her mid-back-length-strands over her shoulders. A pale pink ribbon had been tied under the victim’s hair with an odd floppy bow tied on the crown.
Was that done intentionally? she wondered. Her eyes flicked at the curled hands: a flawless, two-tone-beige French-manicure. Had she done her nails for someone special? The impact of the scene gnawed at her. Someone had loved this person. She was a daughter to a grieving couple. A sister to a distraught sibling. Janet tried to swallow her emotions. But how could she? This was a human being. Not some mannequin or prop for a television show. Her feelings bubbled to the surface and her eyes fluttered, attempting to halt her impending tears.
The victim’s personal details obstructed the task at hand.
She ordered her racing mind to focus only on the injuries as she narrowed on the first wound.
“I see a deep slice to the neck and a red rose jammed in the left eye socket,” she said solemnly.
“Good. Now look closer.”
“There are several abrasions and bite marks to the body. As well as, what appears to be, claw marks to the face and upper torso. Eww– her right leg’s been chewed off.” Janet whipped her head to the side, fighting the nausea. “The animals ate her right hand and half her friggin’ face. Oh my God!” She gagged. “Her stomach’s practically gutted. He disemboweled–” She turned away, swallowed several times. “Do we have any water here?” she asked Duncan.
“Uh, no, but I can get some. I probably have a bottle in the cruiser.”
“That’s okay. Thanks anyway.”
“Are you all right to continue?” Lushion massaged her back.
“I’m fine.” She jerked her body away. “Don’t treat me like your girlfriend,” she whispered sharply. “I’m a Detective.”
Janet never wanted anyone to assume she’d only made detective because of her relationship with Lushion. That wasn’t the case. Besides, if the Chief found out she’d be transferred in a heartbeat. Commingling was strictly forbidden.
“I assume the wolves and coy dogs are the culprits,” she continued. “A bear would’ve taken the whole body. Wait–” She leaned in, squinting at the torso. “There’s something carved in her chest.” Her green eyes crimped at the dead woman’s chest. “W. . . H. . . O. . . That’s it. That’s all I can make out.”
“Whore,” Lushion said matter-of-factly. “Obviously this killer’s making a statement. Do you notice anything about her position?”
“She looks posed,” she concluded. “Was that done to shock us?”
“It could be for dramatic effect, yes. Or, he could think he’s some sort of artist and takes pictures for prosperity, reliving his kill over and over again in his mind while admiring his work.” Lushion had dealt with psychopaths before. Nothing surprised him anymore. “I’ll tell you what I see. The UNSUB enjoyed killing this woman. And, if given a chance, he’ll do it again, too.”
A rush of exhilaration screamed through Janet’s bones. “A serial killer?”
“Not if we catch him. He’s only killed once, that we know of.”
“But don’t we only have forty-eight hours?”
“Here’s a little known fact. With an average homicide, if you don’t come up with any leads in the first forty-eight hours your chance of arrest become greatly reduced. Not so with a serial killer. As long as he remains out there killing you have a new chance to catch him with every murder. The clock resets itself, you could say. In this case, I strongly believe he’ll keep killing so don’t stress yourself out with time. Don’t get too comfortable, either. He needs to be caught ASAP.”
“You’d think they’d teach us this stuff at the academy.”
“They don’t. Real detective work is learned on the job.” Lushion extended his hand to help Janet up. “Is there anything else you’d like to add to your observations?”
“No,” she said. “I think I’ve covered it.”
“Look closely. There’s blood all over the victim, but not on the surrounding ground. Of course, I’m discounting the mess made by the wildlife. That tells us this is a dump site, not our primary crime scene. Also, why is she up here? She certainly isn’t dressed for hiking or hunting.”
As Lushion spoke with Janet an older man crossed the police tape. He dressed in a nutmeg tweed suit and tan flat cap, and moved swiftly toward the body.
Officer Duncan attempted to block his path, but the older man ducked under his arm. Duncan hurried after.
“It’s okay, Duncan,” hollered Lushion. “This is Dr. Abraham. He’s the Medical Examiner.”
Dr. Abraham turned his gaze on Lushion and smiled. His aging lips arched between creases in his sagging cheeks.
“Don’t worry about him, Doc. Duncan’s a bit green. How’s it going?”
“I’m all right. I’m getting too old to climb mountains, though, I’ll tell you that.” He coughed in his hanky. Out of breathe from the walk. “What do we have here?” He moved closer to the body. Snapped a pair of surgical gloves over his arthritic hands. “The wolves really did a number on her, huh? I hope you’re not looking for any exact determination straight away.”
“How about time of death? Can you give me that?”
“Taking the elements into account, and the fact that the body is just beginning to come out of rigger, I’d estimate seventy-two to eighty hours ago. I realize that’s quite a time span, but the condition of the body makes it difficult to give a more precise estimate. I’ll be able to determine a more accurate time of death once I get her back to the morgue. An approximate cause of death appears to be strangulation by a wire. Notice the smooth edges of the wound? Whether she died of strangulation or exsanguination will have to be defined by autopsy.”
Lushion kept his head down, scrawling his notes in his mini chocolate-leather-bound-notebook, nodding deeply, like a parent whose teachings were finally sinking in. “Does she have ID on her, Doc?”
Dr. Abraham dug in the victim’s front and back pockets of her slacks and withdrew a New Hampshire drivers license, a lipstick, an android cell phone, and cash. He held the license outstretched from his eyes and peered through half-moon brindle-glasses perched on the tip of his button nose. “The vic’s name is Olivia Farraday. Born October fourth, nineteen eighty-seven. Residence: Nine Hemphill, Bristol.” He raised his deep-blue eyes– like marbles tucked in leathery folds of skin– over the top of his glasses at Lushion. “Do you want the cell number to dump her calls?”
“Thank you.” Lushion’s dark eyes darted around the wooded area, “Where’s Jimmy? Is he meeting you?”
“Yes. I called him on the way over. I’ll have him photograph her injuries when he gets here. One last thing, Lushion. This killer enjoyed playing with the body before and after death. With all my years doing this job I can tell you he won’t stop at just one.”
“I was just telling Janet the same thing. Listen, I need to get back and inform the chief. Will you be all right here waiting for Jimmy?”
“You’re not only leaving Officer Duncan, are you?”
“Of course not. Janet’s staying and backup’s on the way.”
“Fine. I’ll call you when I’m ready to start the autopsy.
“Super.” Lushion turned to Janet. “Can I talk to you over here a minute?”
Janet followed him under the tape, over to a large clearing in the woods where they could speak privately. Where he could school her without having to worry about prying ears.
“You’re in charge. Forensics will be here in fifteen or twenty minutes. Make sure they cast all footprints. We can get elimination impressions from everyone at the scene later. Also, make sure they don’t only concentrate on the taped off area. There could be evidence anywhere. You should continue to scour the grounds while you wait for Jimmy. Make sure to mark and photograph each piece of evidence with the number cards, like I showed you. Remember, assume everything is evidence: cigarette butts, soda cans, gum wrappers, anything our suspect could’ve dropped.”
“And be careful not to break the chain of evidence. It’s best to keep everything with you and file it when you return to the office. Do not allow a uniform to take it for you. I’ve already called for backup. They’ll be here momentarily.”
“I’m on it.”
Lushion started to walk away, then stopped and turned back. “Have Myers photograph our witnesses. Then have him bring them to the house. And have him make a list of all the vehicles in the area, include color, make, model and plate number. You never know, we could get lucky. There’s a storm brewing so make sure everything is protected.”
“Okay. Anything else?”
“I’ll see yeah later.”
Lushion strode down the mountain path. Lightning shot across the looming, charcoal sky. He heard rustling behind him, and stopped. Listened.
He continued down the overgrown trail when a branch snapped, as if under a boot. He halted. Turned. His eyes skimmed the tall pines.
He sprinted in the direction of the noise.
The dark clouds and the thick forest impaired his sight line, but he chased the intriguing tones anyway.
Off in the distance a shadowy figure stood.
He charged toward the silhouette. His heart pounded, his mind alert, he was intuitively aware of his surroundings.
As he neared the shadow the clouds parted. A saffron day-star peeked through– shining a beam blindly in his eyes.
He folded a flat hand over his brow and squinted at the large rock that once held the form. . .