First, I'm talking about why writers should consider writing flash fiction over at Livia's blog, Leave it to Livia, so please be sure to stop by.
Today's Friday Excerpt comes from Chapter One of Nightmare Ever After. I apologize it's a little on the long side, but it's worth the read. Nightmare Ever After is the sequel to Once Upon a December Nightmare and will be available on October 31st.
(By the way, if you haven't read Once Upon a December Nightmare and don't like spoilers, then you might want to hold off on reading this.)
FBI Special Agent Tim O’Conner’s nostrils burned from the pungent reek of death. His fingers twitched to cover his nose, but he wouldn’t dream of looking disturbed by a corpse, especially in front of the local yokels. Off to his right, a green-faced deputy leaned against his truck and barfed into a plastic grocery bag. Tim swallowed hard and breathed shallowly through his mouth.
Sunlight dappled the forest floor and deepened the shadows around the golden pattern. The rustling leaves sounded like raindrops splattering upon a roof. Each footfall sent gravel flying on the forestry road. The odor grew stronger. Tim ran his tongue against his teeth, as if he could rid the rotting death coating it.
Sheriff Jones knelt at the edge of the road. His crisp brown slacks had mud upon the cuffs, but his sheriff’s star gleamed. He held open a manila folder and shuffled through papers.
Tim cleared his throat. He flashed his badge before tucking it into his pants’ pocket. Due to the late May heat, he left his suit jacket in his SUV not far from the deputy’s truck. “You requested a FBI agent? I’m Special Agent O’Conner.”
“Pleased to meet you, O’Conner.” Jones stood, stepped back from the corpse, and offered his hand. The two men shook hands firmly.
Past the sheriff, he could see the edge of a hiking boot. It dangled from a partially gnawed leg. The other shoe was missing from the body’s bare foot. Since no vehicle had been discovered, he assumed the person was a hiker. Tim saw no backpack, so perhaps the person either had lost it or was only out for a couple hours. From his position, he didn’t detect any maggots, but the smell indicated death had to have been at least a few days or more ago. The medical examiner would tell them more.
“Who discovered the body?”
“Forestry service. They radioed us.” The sheriff took off his hat and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. “They asked if they could give a statement after their rounds. Hope that’s all right with you.”
“I suppose it’ll have to be, won’t it?” His jaw bunched at the lack of protocol, and he continued to peruse the corpse. The mangled flesh suggested quite a few animals had feasted on this poor departed soul. The flies’ humming sent a shiver down Tim’s spine. From the long hair and torn tank top, Tim guessed the hiker was likely female, but even then it was hard to tell.
A few days ago, the news had mentioned a missing hiker. He hadn’t remembered her name, but could this be the same person?
“We’ve been waiting on Patti Smith, the medical examiner down from Roanoke. She should be here shortly.” The sheriff glanced over to the deputy as he puked again. “Mikey, just drive down to the east entrance and look out for Patti. She might get lost up here.”
Tim knew Patti since he’d been assigned to the area three years ago. She was a damn fine medical examiner.
The deputy nodded and fled to his truck.
“Newbie?” Tim motioned to the deputy.
“Nah, Mikey’s a good guy but has a weak stomach.” Jones shrugged.
“Did you alert the State Police?” The FBI had jurisdiction in the Jefferson National Forest, but he wouldn’t be surprised if the State Police would be involved too. The Bureau was trying to get along better with the local and state police. They did know the land better, even if Tim sometimes thought they got in the way too much.
He tiptoed closer to the body, so he wouldn’t disturb the scene. Something shifted along the body’s upper torso. He squinted as he leaned closer.
“I did. Called them right after you.” He motioned to the body. “What do you think?”
“Something’s moving.” Tim scratched his chin. The odor shoved him back, but he kept moving near the corpse.
Tim removed a pen from his shirt’s pocket and lightly lifted up the neck of the tank top. Worm-like shapes writhed under the body. Then, a fat maggot popped out from the jagged tear along the victim’s throat.
Caw-caw! A crow flew from a tree branch, and Tim jerked upright. His heart thudded in his chest. He had to almost laugh at himself. Maggots were normal. So were birds in the woods. He was almost as bad as the barfing deputy.
“Agent O’Conner?” Sheriff Jones gave him a smug, slightly amused smile.
Great, the sheriff noticed his reaction as well. Tim slipped his pen back in his pocket and took a few steps away from the body. His gaze traveled up the slight incline. No signs of a struggle. The leaves and dirt appeared undisturbed, so he didn’t think she had fallen. A few animal markings dotted the area.
“It’s possible the hiker could’ve died here. Heart attack, heat stroke, something of that nature. There’s no drag marks.” He circled the body. “Not much blood. Dead before the animals got her, I suppose. The ME will tell us more.”
“So you think this is an accident?” The sheriff clutched his folders closer to his chest.
“Do you think it isn’t?” Tim’s eyebrow arched as he studied the older man.
“Let me show you something.” He offered the FBI agent the first folder. “About nine years ago on June 6, 2003, seventeen-year-old John Faraday and sixteen-year-old Cara Ryder went missing. We discovered his 2003 Ford F-150 along this very road. On June 8th, we finally stumbled across their bodies within a clearing. Beside them, we found deer remains. These kids were murdered, and that’s not all.”
While the sheriff spoke, Tim flipped through the pages. The last picture he came across was the bodies. The ragged neck wounds were eerily similar to the hiker before him. “They weren’t the only ones?”
“Nope.” Sheriff Jones handed him the second folder. “James Canley, Denise Hart, and Mary Hart were discovered in that same clearing on December 29, 2002. According to the parents, they were supposed to have gone to a movie on the 28th, so no one knew why they were found along this road. We suspected murder and had a person of interest, but the investigation took a different turn when Faraday and Ryder were killed six months later.”
Tim flipped through the next set of pictures. An old black truck sat upon the road. Drag marks and blood smeared across snow. There were three bodies. A gaping hole replaced the one girl’s throat. The other two had fared no better. The frigid December temperatures slowed the decay rate, so the corpses were fresher than the one in front of him.
“Who was your person of interest?”
“One Cassandra Richards. She’s the last photo in the file. A car hit her along the main road, and the paramedics took her to Roanoke Memorial Hospital. She had trace evidence from her friends, but her mental state kept her from trial.” The sheriff sighed. “We were certain she did it.”
The agent came to the last photograph. A wide-eyed young woman stared back at him, her eyes as haunted as if she’d lived through a nightmare and had never woken up. “What happened to her? Is she living in the area?”
“After we had realized she wasn’t our killer, she was released from Grayson Mental Sanatorium. She’s not here, though.” Jones cleared his throat. “Let’s just say many folks didn’t welcome her back. Last I heard she taught high school history in Springfield, Missouri.”
“And she was your only suspect?” Tim touched the picture. His heart clenched for the pretty girl. In the distance, a truck engine roared closer. The deputy was probably heading back with the medical examiner. Either that, or Virginia’s State Police had arrived.
“Yes. We had some strange trace DNA and hair on the victims, but it was nothing conclusive.” His chuckle lacked humor. “Young Cassie there told us a hairy monster killed her friends. Can you believe that?”
Normally, Tim would’ve said no, but seeing those eyes, his gut told him to trust her. “And I guess you think the killer’s back. Is that why you brought these folders to a crime scene?”
“You guessed right, Agent O’Conner. The one man from the forestry service recognized the wounds, told me it might be the same killer. We rarely have crime out here, O'Conner. I brought these reports to check it out. You still think it’s an accident?”
After seeing these pictures, Tim wasn’t so quick to label it one way or the other. “We’ll see what Patti says. I suggest we start a perimeter search. If the hiker was murdered, then this isn’t the primary scene. There’s not enough blood or disturbance. If it's not an accident, could this be the work of a copycat?”
“I really don't think it's a copycat. But I agree this isn't the primary scene. My office is willing to help. I know this is the FBI’s call. We have little jurisdiction here.” The sheriff gathered the folders.
“We’ll be glad for the assistance. There’re a lot of woods out here. I’ll call in some backup and see if the Western Lab can speed up their lab work on what we discover.” Tim’s partner Jess Lawson had picked a fine time to go on maternity leave. He could’ve used her help. He removed his cell phone from his pocket and searched for a signal.
“Oh, those phones don’t work out here. You can borrow our radio. Mikey’s back with the ME.” Sheriff Jones nodded to the deputy’s truck, followed behind by the medical examiner’s vehicle and the State Police in their cruiser.
“Thanks, Sheriff.” Tim nodded.
Jones returned the gesture.
Tim glanced at the corpse again before heading to Patti’s vehicle. Even along the forestry road, the sun barely poked through from the dense tree canopy. Such a picturesque place for a terrible crime. If the sheriff was right this man had killed again, then Tim would find the murderer. He knew he would need to speak with the medical examiner as well as the State Police before he could call in a couple more teams, but he needed to talk to one other person.
Cassandra Richards was the lone survivor. How could they believe she had anything to do with killing her friends? Plus, if this person was murdered and the evidence pointed to the same man who killed those teens back in 2002 and 2003, then she could give them insight on the case. Persuading her to return, though, might be a problem, but Special Agent Tim O’Conner was up to the task.
Don't forget to visit Livia and my guest post about flash fiction here.