T. F. Allen
Author of Supernatural
Read an Excerpt:
– Chapter One –
Jason Birk gripped the machete tighter than he needed to. Carrying it made an already tense situation worse, but he never trekked through dense underbrush without one.
Warm raindrops pelted the earth from the night sky. Water streamed down his cheeks, under his collar, through his clothing, and into his socks. The squish of his boots carried louder than the downpour’s splashes.
He hacked though the bushes like a butcher wielding a cleaver. His precise aim and strong follow-through carved a path wide enough for him and his client to pass through. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the necklace in his pocket. The jewelry vibrated with a resonance much deeper than minutes before. They were getting closer. Wouldn’t be long now.
“You sure this is the right direction?” the client said.
Jason pointed his flashlight deeper into the woods. “I’m sure.”
“Doesn’t look like anyone has walked through here in a long time.”
“Maybe they didn’t come this way. Maybe you’re confused.”
“Only one of us is confused.” Jason sliced through a poison ivy vine. “You either want to see this or you don’t. Either way, no refunds.”
The man blinked, then wiped the rain from his forehead. “All right. But let’s hurry.”
Part of Jason regretted treating his clients with such roughness, but he couldn’t afford to be nice. People only came to him when they were desperate, after they’d exhausted all other means to find what they had lost. He insisted upon advance payment because no one wanted to talk money afterward. With his services came bad news, sometimes horrific news. News his clients would spend the rest of their lives trying to forget.
Twenty feet deeper into the woods, the underbrush fell away. The rain continued in a heavy tropical rush eerily absent of thunder or lightning. Tall pines dominated this area thirty miles north of Houston, where several large plots of land still hadn’t joined the suburban sprawl. They passed between a hunter’s stand and a deer feeder. The elevated platform leaned from the tree at an impossible angle, and the bottom of the metal feeder had rusted out. No kernels of corn littered the ground nearby. The air smelled like wet pine needles and deer urine. Jason quickened his pace.
An old barn appeared in the distance, just like it had earlier in his vision. The flashlight beam revealed the same rusted roof, broken siding, and an orange graffiti tag in the lower right corner. His heartbeat thrummed in his ears. He rushed forward and circled the building. His client followed close behind. Ten paces from the northeast corner he spotted a jagged mound of bricks, probably leftovers from a construction project.
Jason closed his eyes. The necklace in his pocket vibrated at a maddening frequency—one only he could sense.
He aimed the flashlight beam at the bricks. “There.”
“How do you know?” the man said.
“I just do.”
The client’s mouth hung open. “Will you help me?”
“That isn’t included.”
“I can’t do it alone.”
Jason noted the wrinkles etched into his client’s forehead. He wondered how much younger the man might’ve looked three months ago, before a home intruder had stolen what could never be replaced.
He didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to witness what came next. But the client had paid without complaint, and the look in his eyes told Jason he was too weak to face this by himself.
“Let’s get started.”
Brick by brick they disassembled the pile. Jason threw each one over his shoulder, not caring where it landed. His client handled them like a brown recluse hid under each one. The necklace radiated heat through Jason’s rain-soaked clothes, burning against his skin. He slowed his pace. He didn’t want to be the first to the bottom.
His client labored through the pile, sucking in large breaths. Then something seemed to click inside him, and he ripped away the bricks like a kid digging through a toy box. He didn’t blink, not even when the rain splashed into his eyes. Jason had seen that look before. Nothing could stop the man now.
The necklace pulsed with heat. An image flashed into Jason’s vision—a woman crawling across ground covered with pine needles and tree roots, her knees raw, her fingernails broken. A shadow descended. She screamed. Then everything faded to black.
He shook the vision from his head. The roar of the storm had stopped. Only the gentle sound of the wind knocking the runoff from the trees remained—along with the sound of bricks tumbling from the pile. Jason stood and turned away. He couldn’t bear to look. Hearing would be bad enough. He walked three paces before his client screamed.
“Maggie? Oh, my dear sweet Maggie. What have they done to you?”
– Chapter Two –
Twin panels of fluorescent lights shone down mercilessly on the tiny room with no windows. A large ceiling vent blew chilly air onto the back of Jason’s neck. He shivered, then checked the clock on his phone. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office Homicide Unit had kept him waiting over three hours. He must have really pissed them off this time.
They hadn’t cuffed him—they never did—but everyone from the uniformed patrolmen to the investigators with skinny ties and shiny badges treated him like a suspect. They hadn’t even offered him a towel. He understood why. Each time he led someone to a victim’s body it made the department look bad.
Something behind him clicked. The door handle turned, and an investigator named Banner entered the room. The tall bulky man sat in a steel chair opposite Jason and slapped his notebook on the table. “Hope we haven’t inconvenienced you.”
“No more than I inconvenienced you.”
Banner opened the notebook and produced a pen. “Claude Reynolds wants me to convey his thanks for finding his daughter’s body.”
“It was the least I could do.”
“Of course it would’ve been better if you’d found her alive.”
“Doesn’t work like that. They have to be dead, or else I can’t help.”
“Yeah.” The detective made a sweeping motion with his pen, then stared at Jason. “How much did you charge this time? Five, ten thousand?”
“None of your business.”
No one spoke for several moments. Banner’s blue eyes seemed to fade to gray. “We have dogs that can do what you do.”
Jason leaned forward. “How much do you pay them?”
Banner sniffed like a rotten odor had passed under his nose. “You need to account for your whereabouts on the evening of May twenty-fifth, the night Ms. Reynolds disappeared.”
“I was probably working.”
“Need to check my calendar to confirm, but I usually work nights.”
“Give me a name and contact number.”
“I’ll text it to you.”
“You realize why we need to know.”
Jason looked away. Of course he knew why. He’d answered these same questions from Banner over a dozen times before. But how could he explain how he’d found the body of a missing woman within hours of being hired? The first few times he’d tried using simple words and a calm demeanor. But he’d grown tired of the skeptical looks, the derisive stares, the not-so-silent whispers, and the cryptic scribbles on notepads. He no longer had any patience for these people.
“I can’t explain how I do it. Just make your usual notes.”
“Nothing is usual about this case.” Banner licked the tip of his pen. “Mr. Reynolds gave you something the victim once owned, right?”
“A pendant necklace.”
“And you used it to locate her body.”
The pen moved rapidly in the detective’s hand. “How exactly? Did it speak to you?”
“Not in any way you’d understand.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. So this necklace guided you into those woods, onto that abandoned property.”
“I guess so.”
“I’ll have CSU take a closer look—make sure it isn’t possessed by an evil spirit.”
“Be my guest.”
“Did you touch the body?”
“So we shouldn’t find your fingerprints or DNA.”
Banner eased back into his chair and folded his arms. “Innocent men don’t know the location of dead bodies.”
“This one does.”
The flow of Arctic air from the vents stopped. The electric hum of a wall clock was the only sound between them. They stared at each other. Jason wondered if Banner had run out of verbal ammunition.
“What an amazing set of skills you possess, Mr. Birk.”
Jason said nothing.
“Is it a learned ability, taking advantage of desperate people? Or are you a natural born scam artist?”
“I give people closure.” Jason pushed away from the table and stood. “Are we done?”
Banner tapped his pen on his notebook three times. The jerk hadn’t written a single word. Of course he didn’t need to. The camera mounted near the ceiling was recording everything. “Don’t leave the county.”
“And miss these stimulating conversations?”
“Check your calendar and get back to me.”
While a uniformed deputy drove him back to his car, Jason replayed the conversation with Banner in his head, and it only made him more upset. He understood why the cops wouldn’t shake his hand, but they also didn’t need to give him so much shit. He figured he was responsible for at least part of the improved closure rate the department enjoyed over the past three years. He didn’t expect a medal, but his performance should’ve earned their respect by now. Instead all they offered was contempt.
As the patrol car sped away, he dug into his wet jeans pocket for his keys. His fingers closed around a metal ring. When he pulled the object free, he realized it wasn’t part of his key ring. It didn’t belong to him at all. The shiny hoop earring was part of a set he’d once given to the woman he loved.
Melinda Frost had been missing for thirty-four months, six days, and seventeen hours.
He held the earring tightly in his fist, closed his eyes, and concentrated.
No vibrations, no heat. No visions.
That meant there was still hope.
– Chapter Three –
Harold Bain shoved a key into the door lock and turned. The dead bolt disengaged with little resistance. With one strong push he forced his way inside the house, a stone and brick two-story nestled in the back of a subdivision dominated by mature live oaks and cedar fences.
He could never afford a place like this. The property taxes alone would price him out of the market. But he didn’t need a huge mortgage to enjoy the comforts of a house three times larger than his. All he needed was the key he held in his hand.
The oak entry door creaked closed. A blast of cool air flushed the July heat from his skin and clothes. From deep inside the house, a rapid pattern of clicks on the hardwood floor announced the approach of a four-footed animal.
Harold lowered himself to a crouch. A ginger-furred cocker spaniel rounded a corner and padded up to him, its tongue wagging. He extended his hand and let the dog sniff. “Hey, there. Are you a good boy?”
The dog coated his hand with sticky wet saliva. Its clipped tail wiggled like an exposed earthworm.
“Yeah, you’re a good boy, all right. Come on.” He marched into the kitchen, all marble countertops and custom gray cabinets. A ceramic bowl on the counter held a dozen plump lemons. He picked one up and squeezed. It was hollow and plastic. He dropped it back into the bowl.
Next to the kitchen was a walk-in pantry. The white shelves were packed with dry and canned food, cereal stored in plastic containers, basmati rice, potatoes, pasta, and breakfast bars—more food than he could eat in a season. He reached for a bag on the top shelf, then walked toward the laundry room.
Houses like this provided a never ending feast for his imagination. He envisioned the mother working in front of the gas range, stirring canned tomatoes into a sauce pan then lifting a wooden spoon for her husband to taste. Had they ever fucked on the tile floor while the kids slept upstairs? Did the husband slap her ass when she bent over to check a roast in the oven? He probably had. Harold shook his head.
In the laundry room, he took out his phone and typed four words onto the screen:
I’m inside your house.
After he hit send, he put the phone away and checked the washer. It was empty. He opened the dryer door and found a load of white delicates. His fingers probed inside and fished out a tiny pair of panties. Obviously they were too small for an adult woman. He threw them back in the dryer and slammed the door.
The dog rushed through the doorway, sat at attention, and licked its chops. Its little black nose sniffed the air like it knew what was coming next.
He couldn’t make the little guy wait any longer. He opened the bag of food and filled a small white bowl marked CINDERS.
The dog yawned and licked its chops again, but didn’t move.
“Someone went to obedience school.” He stepped away from the bowl. “It’s okay, boy. Go get it.”
Cinders crept toward the bowl and sniffed. It glanced at Harold, then dug into the pile with its snout.
Harold’s phone vibrated. He read the display:
Great! How is Cinders?
He snapped a picture of the dog enjoying its meal and sent it. Cinders probably wouldn’t have appreciated the intrusion if it wasn’t a dog. But Harold had no choice. The owners wanted daily evidence their pet was eating. He bristled at the arrogance their request conveyed. As if dogs stopped eating and birds quit singing whenever they took a vacation. He left Cinders to dine in privacy and headed for the stairs.
The pictures mounted above the handrail depicted a family blessed with health, money, and good looks, which made Harold dislike them even more. Large stenciled letters of their last name were interspersed with the pictures, creating a mosaic of vanity. Mrs. Miller’s dark hair brushed against the pale skin of her shoulders in many of the photos. And her husband always seemed to wear the same distant expression, like his interest was focused on somewhere—or someone—else.
Harold had no way of knowing if Mr. Miller was a cheater. Most men had affairs, or at least that’s what his mother said. Even if their wife was beautiful, even if she did all the laundry and kept the house clean and cooked like Julia Child, men always found a reason to cheat. His mother also said men didn’t need a reason, only a place. When the opportunity presented itself, reason leaped out the window.
He never disagreed, but her argument seemed flawed. Mathematically speaking, the number of times men and women cheated with each other must be equal. So why all the focus on the man? He knew an argument based on math wouldn’t fly with his mother, so he’d let it go.
The upstairs hallway led to three different bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a media room. He strode into the farthest bedroom and inspected the closet. The hangers supported dozens of youth-sized replica basketball and football jerseys with the names of famous players sewn into the back. The window blinds were closed. He lifted one slat and peered into the neighbors’ backyard.
A woman with a pony tail and an aquamarine bikini knelt in the grass in front of a flowerbed. She wore matching aquamarine gloves, which probably covered a set of aquamarine-painted nails. She dug into the earth with a handheld spade that reflected sun into his eyes for a split second. He blinked, but didn’t look away.
God, was she gorgeous. Her skin glistened as if she’d sprayed herself with baby oil. The muscles in her thighs and calves flexed when she moved. Strong daylight formed a halo on her golden hair as she plunged her spade into the dirt.
Beads of sweat formed across his brow. He chose not to wipe them away. He didn’t want to move even an inch as long as this picture stayed in his vision.
The woman had mounded a pile of dirt and mulch over a foot high, exposing a hole equally as deep. He wondered what type of flower needed such deep roots. Then he noticed there weren’t any flower cartons by her side waiting to be planted. Instead he saw a small metal box encased in a plastic freezer bag. The woman snatched the bag and placed it at the bottom of the hole. She stared at it for a moment, checked the corners of her fenced backyard, then shoveled the dirt back in the hole.
Harold swallowed hard. Not only did this woman shine like a Roman goddess, she also carried a secret—one she felt needed burying in her backyard.
He thundered down the stairs without glancing at the pictures. The Millers no longer interested him. Besides, he’d never target a client. If anything happened to the Millers, the cops would rush to his door. Plus he didn’t want to risk ruining his perfect pet sitter rating.
In the kitchen, he snapped open every drawer, pulled wide every cabinet door, scanning the contents like a starving man. Inside a cabinet near the oven he found his prize, a collection of seven brass keys hanging on identical hooks and marked with names like ATKINS, KLEPPER, and MORALES. He grabbed them one by one and held them together in his fist.
Surely the goddess next door was friendly with the Millers. In a subdivision like this where delivery drivers still left packages on front porches without worry, the neighbors also traded door keys. No one expected anyone to use them except in cases of emergency—which never happened. He figured the tradition continued more as a symbol of trust than the real thing. Otherwise he wouldn’t be the one feeding Cinders.
His phone vibrated again. He checked the screen and read the message:
Aw, he looks happy! Don’t know what we’d do without you!
The Millers had chosen Harold to care for their pet, a cherished member of their family. Clearly he was far more trustworthy than the owners of these keys.
A quick check of online tax records would reveal which last name belonged to the goddess next door. With seven possible keys, he liked his chances.
He’d create his own set in ten minutes, tops. Fifteen if someone was ahead of him at the key copy machine at the home improvement store. He’d return the originals in the exact order he’d taken them, and the Millers would never suspect a thing.
Then one dark night, after he visited the goddess next door and dug in her backyard, Harold would discover both secrets the neighbor was hiding—the one in the metal box and the one inside her body.
He couldn’t wait to learn which secret made her shine.