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“Stay on the floor, asshole, if you know what’s good for you.” Homicide Detective Savannah Flowers’ grip tightened on the scrawny prisoner, placing the handcuffs behind his back. That nasal whine of his grated on already shattered nerves. Teeth gritted while she held back anger not to smash the idiot’s face on the pavement.
“I did nothing…” Sprawled on the ground, the young man wouldn’t stop fidgeting. His black skull jacket contrasted with the red Canadians hockey hat on top of his dirty blond hair that spilled out from the sides. She summed him up as someone who hadn’t decided whether to be good or bad. Well, today he chose bad. And not only because he dared to wear her favorite hockey team’s hat.
“So what you’re saying is that the purse filled with jewelry is really yours, you actually live in that house we found you hiding in the main closet, and you simply forgot why you ran from us, right?” One knee leaned heavier on his thin back. Only the stupid would have missed the dripping sarcasm in her tone. “Hold still.”
“I’d be very careful how you answer that, mate, because she doesn’t take too kindly to liars,” said Detective Noah Virgil, Savannah’s partner, watching the man squirm.
Savannah dragged the thief up by one arm. There was little tolerance for desperate men and their fibs. Especially when tomorrow was her day off and this idiot had her working overtime.
“Hey, that hurts,” scumbag complained.
She gave a sideways, one-eyebrow-raised glance to Noah, looked around then kneed the robber in the balls. “Now that hurts,” she whispered close to his ear.
“Told you, mate, don’t mess with her.”
The guy slumped, chest wheezed while trying to suck in a breath. “Assa…sault.”
Savannah leaned closer, a tight hold on one of his bony wrists. “You’re dumb as a bag of rocks, right?” Dimwit kept quiet. “Listen carefully ’cause I’m not repeating. You shoved an elderly lady down the stairs, broke her leg, attempted to steal her jewelry then hid like the fucking coward that you are. You’re lucky she’s not dead, otherwise, I would do more than bust your family jewels, you got that?”
A repetitive shaking of his head meant he understood the threat.
After shoving the robber in the police cruiser’s backseat, she leaned against the closed door. “Why the heck did they call homicide to arrest this idiot? I don’t get it. The cops were already on the scene.”
“That’s not why we were called.” With a pensive expression, Noah motioned to follow him around the back of the house. She did. They cleared the pavement, opened the gate, and it felt as though someone sucker-punched her in the gut. Several feet away, surrounded by standard yellow police tape, was a severed head. Her limbs slowed down, memories of a long-ago trip up a tree and a head rolling all crashed on her.
* * * *
Fifteen years earlier…
This morning’s horoscope: Man of your dreams will sweep you off your feet.
In Savannah’s mind, this affirmed horoscopes sucked big time as she ran for her life.
Jenna, her best friend, had insisted they attend this party out in the countryside. She agreed believing maybe this time this horoscope stuff might come true. The massive, secluded party house was more of a retreat set in an oasis backdrop. Jenna had cozied up with the host, Pete something-or-other. At the end of the night, her car wouldn’t start. Pete chose someone from the party to take them home. Then everything went to hell once they had passed the main gates.
Massive, heavyset clouds with a tinge of scarlet gathered on the horizon, masking most of the moon’s radiant rays. Other than one that cast its escaped beam like a spotlight to freedom. Savannah suppressed an urge to glance back as she pounded down the backstreet’s gravel road.
Run! Keep running.A crisp fall breeze prickled exposed flesh.
Dead silence other than the mansion’s wrought-iron gate chains clanging several times in the backdrop. Savannah’s head throbbed, nostrils flared, mouth closed, trying to calm heavy, haggard breathing.
A bloodcurdling scream tore through the silent night—a painful wail slicing at the core of her heartstrings.
Lips clamped shut to avoid yelling out, determined not to betray her location. Veering off to the side, she ran down one dirt path, the next, vaulting over one obstacle after another until entering the stillness of the countryside forest. Ragged, pausing for a second, a weeping willow offered a temporary reprieve. She gasped for air.
Darkness painted the immediate vicinity. Desperate to add more distance, she pulled in a deep breath and bolted once again, zigzagging around a thicket of gnarled trees, rocks, and trampling over dormant weeds. Heavy feet groaned from exhaustion as though trying to barrel out of quicksand.
Come on, Savannah. It’ll be fun. You don’t go out enough, Savannah. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!
She flinched. Another scream, but this one more animal-like, not a painful cry. Lungs burned. Savannah stopped, back pushed against a tree, looked up at a low-bearing branch and heaved upward. Survival instinct kicked in a powerful hold. There was no way she was dying tonight. One branch, two branches, four branches…she climbed on as many as possible, balancing on thin footing. Out of the maniac’s sight, cowering like a hatchling from a predator.
Wait it out here, stupid. Stop running. Just wait until daylight.
Evaporated into exhaustion, she crouched, scanning the surroundings below for the assailant. Thoughts rocketed to Jenna. Was that her screaming? Oh God, I shouldn’t have run. She swallowed back a sob.
She stretched forward to massage burning thighs, and the stench of sweat rolled upward. Cursing inwardly, guilty, frayed nerves elevated. She should have made sure Jenna was following.
A clap of thunder and several veils of lightning bolts nearby lit the velvet-black skies.
Great. Why not? Murderous psycho mingled with a rainstorm, of course!
A guttural sound from below forced a glance down. Her jaw slackened. Menacing, stone-cold red eyes on pasty white skin stared up. His mouth quirked upward and then, with an incredible speed, climbed, long talon-like fingers clawing into the trunk for support.
Confusion reigned over her senses. “What the fuck are you?”
“I’ve been looking for you,” rasped the red-eyed creep—a.k.a. the Samaritan asked to drive them home—from a branch below her. Blood dribbled from his mouth and more oozed out when he licked his lips.
Savannah braced for the inevitable. Fists clenched, knuckles turned white, ready to strike. Back pressed hard against the bark, thoughts to jump down and take a chance jumbled through a frazzled brain. I’m bloody toast either way.
Darkness all around became more heinous as a shadow passed overhead.
As claw-like fingers reached upward, something flew out of the sky and grabbed the almost-assailant, tossing him off the tree. Swallowing dread, she dared a peek below. The world ground to a stop. A fight so fast moving she couldn’t grasp what was happening. Once adjusted to their movement, she noticed Freakzoid with the red eyes crouched low, growling, while Savior-who-appeared-out-of-nowhere-in-a-black-coat stood several feet in front of him holding a sword. He laughed, taunting the creature/man to attack. If she had to guess, she’d vow Freakzoid just met his nemesis.
A shuddering roar later, Freakzoid pressed both hands on the ground and charged.
Within a blink of an eye, Savior-whatever’s muscular form raised his sword, slicing it through the empty air several times. For a split second, she lost sight of him until he suddenly materialized behind Freaky Dude, and…
The sound of crunching, bones splintering, and a god-awful banshee-like screech erupted. Freakzoid’s head bounced away until hitting the base of the tree. Her stomach lurched. Heart slammed against a heaving chest. The world tilted as she fumbled forward, free-falling.
The last thing heard before the world turned black was a male’s voice saying, “I gotcha, love.”
* * * *
Noah gripped her shoulders. “Earth to Savannah. You okay, baby wings?”
Words lodged in her throat, mind yearning to scrub clean painful, guilt-ridden memories. “Yeah, yeah, I’m okay.” She steadied her breathing, pushed recollections back, shrugged away, and shuffled closer to the victim. Snap out of this, now. “What do we know…and please don’t tell me it’s a head. Not in the mood.”
“Gets worse. Looks like the victim’s head was literally torn apart from its body. No blood anywhere which indicates he wasn’t killed here, naturally, otherwise we’d have his body or a shitload of blood.”
She put on latex gloves, removed a pen from her inner jacket pocket, and crouched close to where the neck should have been. Tilting the head, unnatural jagged edges probably confirmed what Noah said. “Did you call Bill?”
“On his way.”
“Who found the victim?”
“A police officer who came to investigate a call about some sort of a racket here outside the vic’s home. Robbery just coincided at the same time.”
“And we’re sure it’s not dimwit in the car?”
“That skinny dude couldn’t rip apart a banana.” He grinned. “And now, most likely, won’t be able to stand straight for quite some time.”
“Whatever. Seems every year,” she began, getting up, “these murders get more gruesome.”
“Or we’re getting too old for this shit.”
“Speak for yourself, old man, I’m only thirty-five.” She wiped the pen and placed it back in her pocket, tossing the gloves in the trash bin close by.
“That’s right. Just two years younger than me and I’m referred to as the old fart.”
“Nope, I said old man, you said old fart. By the way…” She reached out and touched his chin. “…when is this scruffy goatee coming off? Will knock ten years off your ugly brew of a face.”
“Neeever. Don’t mess with Samson’s power beard.” His smile never reached his hazel eyes. Noah didn’t appreciate someone telling him what to do in the looks department. Although he definitely was in the handsome man vicinity, with wide shoulders, muscular arms necessary to apprehend scumbags, he always carried this sullen expression as though put on time out in the corner. Perhaps in another circumstance she may have accepted his date invites. But she never mixed business with pleasure, or as she delicately put it, Don’t eat where you shit. Too many anomalies if something went wrong with a relationship, which she avoided like the plague. Noah stopped asking her out, finally taking the hint.
“Now, about the head…meaning…” He pointed to the victim.”…that head.”
She ignored his sly grin and meaning, gaze centered back to the victim. Besides looking like a waxed mannequin piece fit for a horror museum, there was a terrifying fixed stare on the man’s face.
How could someone do this to another human?
Her jaw clenched along with her fists.
It was fear fixated before his death. A hammering familiarity kept rolling in her thoughts. But from where? When? Closing both eyes, she struggled to locate someone from the past or present that came close to resembling the victim. Nothing. She’d come across a few bald men in her life. No other apparent marking or feature on the victim other than the cliché bald as an eagle.
“Most likely someone tossed it over a fence.”
She nodded. “Have the team knock on all the homes in the neighborhood. Maybe someone glimpsed our psychopath.” She paused. “And who the fuck carries a head with no bag? Have them search for a discarded bloody bag too.”
The scent of Old Spice snatched the air from behind and she smiled. “Always on time, Bill.”
“You need to tell me how you do that. Bloody eerie.”
She turned to greet the newcomer. “Maybe if you stop using so much of that after-shave of yours then I wouldn’t smell you coming from a mile away.”
Head medical examiner William Whiteman smiled. “And here I thought you were some sort of a supernatural being with powers. What do we have?”.
“Nothing pleasant as usual when you’re called.” She walked over and hugged the Santa-like older man. And Santa was the perfect description, right down to the beard and moustache other than being salt and pepper instead of pure white. And no glasses. Although his height fitted more in the elf department, no one dared make any disrespectful, crude jokes. Considering the time he’d been a coroner and everything witnessed, William’s face always remained in a permanent jolly display. Brown eyes twinkled with kindness, yet Savannah was sure his job must have caused many sleepless nights for the widower.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret. Death is my middle name so, yeah, nothing pleasant ever.” Bill offered a small and tired looking smile then glanced over her shoulder. “Just a head?”
Noah nodded. “No blood, splatters, or other evidence to indicate this was the crime scene.”
“Bloody hell. I swear, civilization has gone back to the caveman years.” He cursed under his breath and then walked off in a slow gait.
Savannah turned to Noah. “Have the team search this vicinity, and like I said, the other connecting homes. See if they find anything. I’m heading back home. Call if you have anything.”
“I’ll let the cap know to put out a call to other stations in case a body with a missing head shows up.”
She nodded, tapped him on the back, and turned to leave but stopped. “Um, Noah…anyway you can—”
“Do the paperwork? Figured as much since you’re not sticking around. Just remember I’m adding up all the favors. You owe me big time and I aim cashing in very soon.”
She waved goodbye with both middle fingers at attention.
Once inside the car, hands gripped the wheel, and she forced whispering shadows to remain in the past.
* * * *
Kicking the slippers off, Savannah plopped down heavy on the bed, exhausted. The comforter was pulled right up to her chin. Try as she might, memories of her best friend stormed forward, pulling her into this black, recurrent dream hell. After all these years, Jenna still remained the one regretful crossroad haunting her.
“Come on, Savannah, don’t be a chicken shit, for God’s sake. There’s two of us and one of him. He’s just giving us a lift back home, thanks to Pete. He couldn’t leave his guests. What’s with you?”
Even way back then, before any cop training, instinct dictated there was just something off about the guy giving them a lift, along with several others. Heck, with most of the guests. He smiled but it never reached those shifty, conniving eyes. His clear ogling over Jenna’s body, tongue licking already saliva-enhanced lips…bloody creepy. She would have preferred to walk one hour through that countryside to get home, but Jenna had grabbed an arm and shoved her in the car.
Barely contained terror heightened while closed eyes rapidly followed the dream sequence. His disgusting sneer while pulling the car to the side. “You ladies want to party in private?” That raspy voice as though he’d inhaled a thousand cigarettes all in one sitting. He had reached over grabbing Jenna who sat up front, by the hair. “Momma never taught you gals not to take lifts from strangers?” Savannah’s hand turned the knob and she bolted out of the car.
“Jenna!” A sob caught in her throat.
Thumping from the front door stirred the nightmare away, removing the cocoon trapping her.
“Savannah! Open the door. You okay? Savannah!”
What the…? She squinted over at the nightstand’s digital clock. Eight a.m. Pushing the comforter away, feet snuggled into a pair of fluffy bear slippers, and she headed half-awake downstairs.
Yanking the door open, she scowled at Noah. “It’s my bloody day off. What do you want?”
“Well good morning to you too, baby wings.” He gave her a once over. “Love your Pink Panther pyjamas. Got a theme going on? Panthers and bears…oh my?” He bent and lifted two large styrofoam cups from the front step. “Brought your morning delight, French Vanilla.”
She turned and headed to the kitchen. By no means was she a morning person, that’s for sure, unless heading off to work. That had a purpose. Day off purpose? Do nothing. Vegetate. The soft click of the door sounded and Noah’s footsteps right behind.
“What was all the screaming about?”
I screamed? “Nothing. Bad dream.” Tamping down tense nerves, she leaned over the sink, folded one hand to sip some water and remove morning breath before relieving him of one cup. “Thanks.” Niceties out of the way, it was time to cut straight to the chase. “Now, what’s so important you had to wake me on my day off?”
“Bill called. He confirmed that the head wasn’t detached with any blade or cutting instrument. From his guess, like mine, it looked to have been ripped apart.”
“Any way an animal tore into the victim’s body and ran off with his head?”
“I asked the same thing, you know, great minds think alike, but there were no apparent bite marks or pieces of flesh anywhere near the scene. It was literally torn off but once the body is found he’ll know one hundred percent. And according to Bill, looks like we might have a werewolf on our hands.”
Her head jerked up. “Come again?”
“The only way he could describe it to give a visual. Said the lashes at the base appeared to have been made with long fingernails, talons of a sort, like the murderer slashed his head apart in one great swoop.”
Her head felt as though someone was plucking and peeling every nerve ending to get to the outer layer of skin. A sharp prism-like aura disturbed her eyesight for a split second, then it vanished. She arched her back, removing a kink. This case kept bringing up images of red-eyed Freakzoid and that Savior? from long ago. How did it factor in with this case? Did it or was she simply stuck at one scene from the past?
“Who the hell has the strength to do that?” she mumbled. Stomach clenched.
“Earth to Savannah,” Noah said, snapping his fingers. “Where did you go?”
Somewhere I wish I never was. “Just thinking about the case. Bill said nothing about dental records?”
“Nadda. Nothing came up so far.” Noah leaned back and unbuttoned his burgundy brown jacket. White shirt with three opened buttons showed off his sun-kissed sculpted chest. She had to give it to him; the man knew how to dress sexy. Undeniably handsome. Still, not her type, but more importantly, no chemistry. Seems all her life no one even came close to heating her emotions enough to warrant a second date. Deep down the stupid notion there was someone who was her soul mate always pushed to the forefront. Even dreamed of Mr. Right, sending oozes of heat throughout her body. Mr. Right possessed the most gorgeous grey eyes she’d ever seen, tall, muscular in an Alpha way, and thick black hair. Yet, no Mr. Right so far.
She rolled her head, easing more tension. In her mind’s view, she flipped the middle finger at her migraine. Lately, there were quite a few of middle finger salutes. Thankfully, she had been given a clean bill of health, nothing to worry about according to the doc at the walk-in clinic who checked her blood test results. Yet worry she did. They always hit after one of those dreams. “Let’s pray no kid finds a headless body. Traumatizing enough to see a dead person, let alone one without his head.” She sat, sipped her coffee, then turned to Noah. “Explain why the visit so early again? You never said. It’s not to tell me Bill found nothing new.” She glared, knowing full well Noah could have easily called with the info. No, there was more to this visit.
He leaned forward, reached into his jacket and took out a photo. “When I went back to the scene this morning I found this taped to one of the exterior fence walls. Now, I’m not sure but—”
She reached over and snatched the photo. Patience wasn’t one of her virtues, especially when a migraine was playing knock knock on her temples. Her eyes squeezed shut before opening again. Can’t be. “That wasn’t there last night, I’m sure of that. We scoured the place and if we missed it one of the cops would have found it.”
“We did a thorough search around the grounds even after you left, and no, that wasn’t there, not at the spot I found it at. I wouldn’t have missed it.” He hesitated for a brief second before saying, “Is that you, with black hair?”
Her hand held fast to the picture. A blast from the past, the recurring haunting whispers of late. A picture of her and Jenna taken by Mr. Creep before they got in the car.
Noah stared. His mouth was moving but nothing registered with her until he shook her arm.
“Savannah, what the hell is wrong with you? Are you okay?” He drew his chair closer and sat, eyes narrowing. “Tell me what’s wrong, and no bullshit that all’s well. You had that same faraway look on last night.”
Savannah rose, walked to the counter, and tossed her cup in the garbage. The ghostly wails of the past simmered in the background. Dread tightened its noose, and she expelled a weary breath. “I was attacked.”
That must have stunned him by his expression when she finally turned to face Noah.
“Attacked? When? Why didn’t you call me?”
How much should I reveal before he thinks I’m crazy? Would he believe her?
“It happened a long time ago, I was twenty. My best friend and I attended a party out in the countryside. Well, she was invited. I was dragged to it because Jenna, the girl in that photo with me, had a thing for the host.”
She walked over to the table and sat again. Words failed her. Everything from the past jumbled in heaps. Inhaling a deep breath, the best thing to do was to let him in and worry about his impressions later. “The party was okay although weird at the same time. I can’t explain it but the people, they were just off, most. We had some fun, drank but nothing crazy. Not like the rest of the party-goers. It was time to leave but Jenna’s car wouldn’t start so one of the guys we’d met was asked by the host to give us a lift home.”
“He’s the one that attacked you?”
“He…” How could she explain what happened next?
She drew in another deep breath. Here goes nothing. “He fanged out, okay? He whipped out these bloody fangs, grinned at us, and then I vamoosed out so fast I believed Jenna was right behind me because I saw her hit the guy when he reached for her hair. My mind roared to get as far away from that creep as possible. I just focused on running, never looking back, just ran and ran.” She spoke but watched Noah’s features, mostly his hands to make sure he wasn’t using his cell to dial the loony bin. If someone related a similar story to her she’d be dialing ASAP.
“Wait, what do you mean he “fanged” out?”
Why do people use finger quotes? Savannah pressed a hand to her throbbing temple. “Listen, I never took drugs, never drank, just a glass at social events and even then, white wine. So don’t look at me like I’m off my rocker, okay?” She focused again at the picture, ignoring his but-I-don’t-understand look. After several seconds of him continuing to stare like a total confused buffoon, she placed the photo down. “The guy turned and he bared fangs.” She placed both index fingers to her mouth, wiggling them. “Were the teeth sharpened to look like fangs? No fucking clue. Were they real vamp fangs? No fucking clue. All I know is that my chest had hurt so much from all the running, fear ripping my insides, that I hadn’t noticed Jenna wasn’t right behind when I jumped out of the car. To this day, I have no idea what happened to her and my dreams center on the guilt Jenna died that night.”
If he dared comment on the fangs, she was ready to slug him. Smart man kept quiet, probably processing everything. She picked up the photo again. “I’m assuming you dusted this for prints? Otherwise, you haven’t seen my Hulk side yet.”
“Nothing on them. Photo was clean of any prints.”
“Why would someone tape a photo of me and Jenna at the crime scene?”
“Unless the victim has a connection to you, maybe to that time in your life?”
It made sense. Everything pointed that way. But what connection and why?
“Did you ever report the incident to anyone? I mean, your friend went missing, you must have, right?”
“The very next morning when I hadn’t heard from Jenna.”
“The next day? Why not the same night when you got home?”
“Don’t ask. I don’t even remember how I got home , all I do know is when I woke up the next day everything came back to me. Cops went to the party location, investigated, found nothing suspicious, and left. Jenn’s mom called after she was missing for almost forty-eight hours like they told her to do, yet nothing was done or the bare minimum…two years later, the poor woman had a funeral for her daughter with no body because in her heart she knew Jenna died. Sucks ass. There was no way, Noah, she’d run away or never contact her mom or me.”
“Is that why you became a cop?”
In muted agony, she nodded. “To this very day I feel Jenna’s investigation didn’t go far enough. So yeah, that’s why I’m a hard-ass at times. I need cases solved.”
“Have you been in communication with her mother since then?”
Silence ensued. An unsettling feeling crumbled her resolve. “Not for a long while.” She ogled him. “Okay, out with it.”
“Out with what?”
“I can see the question marks plastered on your face.”
More silence. He eased back in his chair but his gaze never wavered from her. “We’re partners. If you say ‘fanged out’, I believe you.”
The stressful weight carried all those years lightened. Even if he was lying about believing her—heck, who wouldn’t?—she finally told someone. Maybe the barrage of nightmares would subside. As for the guilt? Not likely.
She nodded, he leaned forward, arms stretched to hug her. One hand stopped him. “Whoa. I’m grateful to you for believing me, but I’m still me.”
He shrugged, rising and buttoning his jacket. “Then I best leave while my nuts are still attached, right?” A small, devilish smile tugged at his lips.
“Day off…broke my solitude…I’d say yeah. On another note, you heard me screaming so why didn’t you use the spare keys I gave you?”
“Left them at home but I was close to busting down your door.” He placed a hand on her shoulder. “By the way…vamps, demons, weres, demigods, dragons, they’re fictional so what you saw were probably fakes.”
Not on your life. She didn’t argue with him. That’s what she’d always believed…until fifteen years ago.
Once Noah left, emotions unwrapped. She glanced at the photo. Memories flashed once again then just as quickly ebbed as she marched to the bedroom to get dressed. The small peace of mind Noah offered by listening now paved the road for something that was long overdue.