Excerpt from WOLF BLOOD
The echoing, thunderous footsteps gained on her, the ground shaking beneath her feet. Paige pushed every ounce of strength she had left into her throbbing legs and propelled herself forward through the eerie trees, peering over her shoulder into the pursuing darkness, her blood pounding in her ears.
The creature was fast as lightning. It had matched her speed in micro seconds. She had hoped she’d have enough time to get some distance between them but it had remained at her heels with every terrifying step.
Her heaving chest constricted and she forced dry mouthfuls of air into her lungs to keep the oxygen flowing through her body so she could continue to run. To save herself. To flee for her life from – she wasn’t sure what. All she knew was the creature was big. Massive.
It’s gaining on me. I can’t go any faster! Tears stung the backs of Paige’s eyes and her throat burned as she rocketed through the gloom. She pushed her body to its limit, every tortured fiber screaming in agony. She tripped and stumbled forward, fumbling to retain her balance. Her breath caught in her throat, her knees buckled, and she crashed to the forest floor, skinning her hands and knees on jagged tree roots and rotting fallen branches.
She tried to scramble to her feet, the soles of her running shoes slipping on the soggy leaves beneath them, and landed flat in the mud. A huge clawed hand reached out of the dark, shredding her blouse and the skin beneath it. She opened her mouth to scream but the monstrous palm slid across her face, smothering the sound before she could make it.
Paige sucked in a strangled breath, her heart thumping against her ribcage, her sweat-soaked nightdress clinging to her trembling body. She sprang up in bed, nervous eyes flitting around the dark bedroom. Gulping in another mouthful of air, Paige attempted to calm her ragged breathing and racing heartbeat. “It was just another nightmare,” she assured herself with a shaky breath.
In the peculiar half-light, Paige studied the familiar shapes and shadows around her room and gave a relieved sigh. Nothing out of place. She’d been having these nightmares since she was a child and had no idea what they were supposed to mean. Even her psychiatrist couldn’t comprehend them. He’d told her it had to be related to some kind of childhood trauma locked inside her subconscious. But what? As far as she was concerned, she was a happy, well-adjusted young woman who had lived a normal childhood.
Paige threw back the covers, climbed out of bed and padded bare foot across the room to the window. She gazed up at the beautiful, iridescent full moon hovering above the soft, gray clouds and sighed. Maybe a change of scene would help. She’d been considering it for a while now.
Paige O’Connell sat opposite her fidgeting patient scribbling notes and intermittently doodling swirls around the edge of the page. Mrs. Franklin believed her husband was trying to kill her, that her son moved to a different state to college because he hated her, and her daughter never visited because she blamed her for God knows what. Paige did her best to be supportive and empathetic but sometimes she felt like killing the woman herself. There were people out there with far more serious conditions who needed legitimate help. Mrs. Franklin wasn’t one of them. Paige had referred her to a psychiatrist but Judy preferred to remain her client and without the assistance of medication.
A knock on the door echoed into the room and her receptionist stuck her head around the edge. “Dr. O’Connell there’s an important call for you on line one.”
Paige breathed a relieved sigh. “Thank you, Steph.” She glanced at her patient. “Time’s up for this week, Judy. Make an appointment for the same time next Thursday.” She stood up, walked over to the door and opened it.
“But I didn’t finish telling you about…”
“You can tell me next week.”
“Very well.” The woman gave her a disgruntled scowl and marched out of the office.
Paige closed the door, walked over and dropped the notebook and pen on the desk blotter, then sat down in her high-backed, leather executive office chair, kicked off her heels and gave another sigh. Perhaps she really should consider a change of location. Some of her patients were driving her insane.
The door opened and Stephanie stuck her head in. “Are you going to answer the call on line one?”
“Oh?” Paige straightened. “I thought you were rescuing me from Mrs. Franklin again.” Her eyes moved to the telephone on her right. “Thanks. Yes, I’ll take it.” She picked up the digital handset. “Hello, Dr. O’Connell speaking.”
“Miss O’Connell, my name is Myles Chesterfield. I was your uncle’s lawyer. Can we meet?”
Was her uncle’s lawyer?
“Can you tell me what this is about?” Paige leaned back in the chair and rubbed her aching left temple. The makings of a headache were forming there.
“I’d prefer to discuss it with you in person, if you don’t mind.”
She sighed. “Ok. When and where?”
“I’m across the street at the café so whenever you have some free time. I don’t mind waiting.”
Paige jumped out of her seat, rushed to the window and peered through the venetian blinds. “I’ll be there in five minutes.” She stepped into her shoes, hurried across her office, opened the door and rushed out into reception. “Steph, can you reschedule this morning’s appointments and hold my calls. Something’s come up and I have to leave for a while.”
Her receptionist, who was also her best friend, frowned up at her from her desk. “Everything ok?”
“I’m not sure yet. I’ll let you know when I get back.” She headed for the stairs.
Standing on the sidewalk, Paige’s stomach did anxious flip flops. The man on the telephone had said he was her uncle’s lawyer. Had something happened to Jake? She sucked in a calming breath, put on her professional face and crossed the street.
When she entered the café a man in his mid-forties, wearing a dark blue suit stood up at one of the booths. “Hello, Paige, thank you for meeting me on such short notice.” He extended his hand.
Paige shook it and sidled into the bench opposite him.
“Can I get you something?” Myles offered. “Coffee?”
She shook her head. “No thanks. I’d just like to know what this is about.”
He reached into the top pocket of his suit jacket, retrieved a pair of spectacles and placed them on his nose. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but I’m here because your uncle has passed away and you are his sole beneficiary.”
Tears stung the backs of her eyes. She hadn’t spoken to her uncle in a while and now she’d never have the chance to. She swallowed the painful lump in her throat and asked in a quiet voice, “What happened?”
“The investigation is ongoing so I’m afraid I can’t tell you.”
Paige’s eyes widened. “Investigation? I don’t understand. What investigation? What happened?”
He cleared his throat. “I wish I could tell you more, but I’m sorry I can’t.”
“You said I’m his sole beneficiary?”
“Oh, yes.” Myles dug into the black leather briefcase sitting beside him on the padded, green vinyl seat, pulled out a folder, sat it on the table and opened it. “As he wasn’t married and had no children that we’re aware of, you are his sole heir… or heiress as is the case.”
Paige eased her body back against the seat. “Oh.”
“He left you his house and land and a hundred thousand dollars in cash.”
“Yes, it’s all yours.”
Her moist gaze moved to him. “Has there been a funeral? Why didn’t someone let me know before now?”
Myles shook his head. “Not yet. As I said the investigation is ongoing. They won’t release the body until the case has been solved. And I am informing you now.”
“But you can’t tell me anything?”
“I’m afraid my hands are tied. I’d be breaking the law.”
Paige attempted to take it all in. Her uncle Jake was dead by suspicious circumstances and she now owned his house in Moon Grove, Illinois. From what she could remember from visiting her uncle a few times over the years, it was a small town of no more than twelve hundred people, give or take, but the scenery was beautiful and, as she recalled, the townsfolk friendly. Maybe this was the change of scene she’d been looking for. Could she set up her practice there? Would it be worth the move? Something she’d have to consider. Washington was far removed from a backwater town in the middle of nowhere. And she had a thriving practice and close circle of good friends. Would she leave it all behind and move back to a place she didn’t know?
“It was obviously a crime, right?”
“Was he murdered?”
He nodded again. “I’ve said too much already.”
Paige gasped and her eyes moved to the file sitting on the table then back to him. “Why? He was a good man. I doubt he had enemies. He’d give people the shirt off his back if they needed it.”
Myles gave her a pained look. “I’m sorry. Truly I am. I wish I could answer all of your questions. I understand how overwhelming this must be for you, Paige.” He reached across the table and rested his hand on hers.
Paige eased her hands out from under his and placed them in her lap. “So what happens now? With the will, I mean.”
“I have a couple of things for you to peruse and sign and then I can hand you the keys to the house and the banking information, which has already been transferred into your name.”
She blew out a noisy breath. How could this have happened? She loved her uncle Jake. He was a kind, gentle man who had always been there when she needed him. His death would leave a huge hole in her heart.
The lawyer slid the paperwork across the table. “It’s pretty standard stuff. What I do need you to read is here,” he said, pointing to several clauses marked with a sticky, red ‘SIGN HERE’ arrow, “and here. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask.”
“I think I’ll have that coffee now,” she said, gazing up from the papers.
“Of course.” Myles waved the waitress over and ordered their drinks.
After reading the important clauses and signing the documents, Myles handed her the keys and other information. “It’s been good meeting you, Paige. I’m sure I’ll see you again when you visit Moon Grove.” He stood up and extended his hand.
She shook it. “Thank you.”
Once the lawyer was gone, Paige sat in silence feeling numb. Her uncle was the last family member she had. Aunt Ruth, her mother’s sister, had passed away in a car accident five years before leaving Paige on her own, and now this. She’d never considered marriage and kids because of her career so she was the last of their bloodline, as far as she knew.
Six weeks later:
Eli Blackwood sat behind his desk going over the report on Jake O’Connell. They’d been friends for years and he couldn’t get his head around why someone would want him dead. Moon Grove had its fair share of secrets and its crazies too, but Jake wasn’t one of them. There had been a similar death over the past two months and Eli wondered if they were related. Both victims were male and each one had had their heads taken off. Well, ripped off.
He’d heard Paige O’Connell was moving into her uncle’s place and remembered her from kindergarten: red, wavy hair and rosy cheeks. She had always been a happy little girl as far as he could remember. She’d been taken away to live with her aunt after her parents disappeared. The case was never solved, and Eli had recently pulled the files to see if there was anything the investigating officers had reported that had been missed by their sheriff. He knew there were certain aspects that had to remain undocumented but, nonetheless, the whole scenario was suspicious because there had been blood in the house. A lot of blood – and no bodies. And now that her uncle was dead in similar, suspicious circumstances, he deemed it necessary to dig deeper.
Eli wondered what Paige was like now. She’d be close to thirty, if his calculations were correct. He was thirty two. Not the little girl tucked away in his memory. He heaved his six foot four inch, solid frame out of his office chair and gathered up the folders on his desk to take home. He figured he’d find out what Paige was like soon enough as she’d be arriving in town the day after tomorrow. Would she remember him? They were just kids when they’d known each other, she around five years old and he around seven. Did she remember what had taken her from the town? She had lived a very different life all of these years, why had she decided to come back after all this time?
It was late, and as Eli switched off the light in his office the station fell into deep shadow. It didn’t bother him; he was comfortable in the dark.
When Eli arrived home he found one of his deputies sitting on the steps of his front porch. He pulled his four wheel drive up to the garage, turned off the engine and gave a heavy sigh. All he wanted to do right now was have a bite to eat and fall into bed before another day began with its own set of problems. What could Craig possibly want at this time of night? Eli glanced at his watch. 11:26. He pulled the keys from the ignition, stepped out of the vehicle, and walked up the path to the porch. “Craig.” He could hear the tightness in his voice. There was a certain, unspoken animosity between them and no matter how hard he tried to alleviate the tension Craig wouldn’t yield.
“Eli.” He fingered the neck of the empty beer bottle in his hand before sitting it on the step with the other three and standing up.
“What brings you here so late?”
“What about it?” He dug his hands into the pockets of his dark blue, police issue anorak and sighed.
“I’ve been thinking about who would do that to him. Maybe he had a secret just like the rest of the town.”
Eli frowned. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Jake was a good guy. He didn’t have secrets. Like the rest of us.”
“Come on, Chief, this town is full of secrets. Everyone here has skeletons in their closets.”
“You need to go home and sleep it off, Craig.”
“I’m not drunk!” He stumbled on the step and Eli gripped his arms to prevent his fall.
“Let me take you home,” Eli offered, wrapping an arm around his deputy and leading him toward his car.
Craig pulled out of his grasp. “I don’t wanna go home. You have to listen to me. I think someone thought Jake was…”
“Stop!” Eli grabbed him by his jacket front and pulled him close. “You don’t want to go around saying the things you’re thinking. You need to keep your mouth shut. It’s dangerous.”
“See.” The deputy swayed, stumbled backwards and landed on his butt on the front lawn.
Eli grabbed his coat front and hauled him to his feet. “I’m taking you home or I’m putting you in a cell. Up to you.”
Craig’s harsh gaze met his. “Put me in a cell. I’d be better off there. At least I’d be safe from whoever’s killing everyone. You know there’ll be more, right?”
“What are you talking about?” Eli frowned.
“Someone’s picking us off, Chief. And I don’t wanna be the next in line.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying. Let’s get you home.” He wrapped a supporting arm around his deputy once again and led him to his four wheel drive. “Get in.”
Craig gave him a dark glare and climbed into the passenger seat.
The ten minute drive to his deputy’s house was in silence. Craig was brooding. Eli didn’t want to play into the politics of the town. He knew the darkness that lay beneath it. Yes, Jake had been butchered, but it wasn’t because he was anything other than in the wrong place at the wrong time. They’d found his blood behind Pete’s Tavern and his body in the woods. Later on, his head was discovered in the dumpster out the back of the bar by the proprietor throwing out food scraps.
Eli pulled up outside the timber clad, two story house and turned off the engine. “Well, here you are, safe and sound. Get some sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Craig gave his boss a sour sideward glance, unclipped his seatbelt, flung the door open and slammed it after he got out.
Eli sighed. Once the alcohol wore off Craig would feel pretty stupid. He always did.
The little girl couldn’t have been any more than five years old. Why was she out in the woods alone? As she ran through the trees, her long, wavy red hair flowed behind her like a cape and she giggled. Were they playing hide and seek or a game of chase? He continued to follow her through the legion of tall trees which grew darker the further they ran. Cold fingers of apprehension crawled up his spine and he shivered. “Wait for me,” he called after her.
She didn’t stop.
Her giggle echoed around him.
“Come on.” She glanced over her shoulder and disappeared into the gloom.
“No. Wait. Come back.” His eyes studied the eerie haze around him. He could hear her giggling in the distance. He followed the sound. “Where are you?” The road map of nerves winding through his body tingled with fear and his anxious gaze roamed the shadowy woods. “Please answer me!” he shouted, a nervous quiver in his high pitched voice.
The giggling grew distant.
He broke into a run, pushing through the tangle of low-lying branches. The woods grew even darker. His stomach shrank, his heart raced and tears stung the backs of his eyes. Where is she?
A shrill scream shattered the dense silence and he raced through the trees, clambering over twisted, rotting roots and underbrush.
Then he saw it.
A jagged trail of blood.
Splashes of red leading deeper into the woods.
He called her name frantically, over and over and over…
Eli launched himself out of bed, his breathing ragged, his heart pounding so fast he thought it would claw its way out of his throat.
He sucked in a strangled mouthful of air and ran his hand through his tousled, wavy, dark brown hair. It had been a long time since he’d had that dream. Why now?
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© 2016 M. A. Anderson
Bella Luna Books, Australia
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise, without written permission of the Author.