Seven gruesome animal attacks and a 5,000-year-old secret.
Private Investigator Dusty Garner much prefers to stay in the background, keeping out of sight from prying eyes. Leading an easy-going life in Cider Lake, Tennessee – a town holding two gas stations, three diners, a Holiday Inn, but small enough to not have a McDonald’s – she couldn’t ask for anything better. After tying up a seemingly unconnected case involving three 18-year-old best friends, she turns her attention back to Tammy Barker's missing person's report. Within a week of it landing on her desk, the number of missing women had grown to five. Now, one by one, they turn up in different parts of the city, savagely attacked by animals. They must bring in an expert. She reluctantly agrees.
Jonas Sparx – with his sarcastic one-liners – is the handsome, charismatic animal specialist. When Dusty is unaffected by the charm that most women – and men – find irresistible, he is intrigued. Soon, he realizes that Dusty needs to know the truth, no matter how farfetched it sounds.
The two face problems which force them to trust each other to stop an age-old supernatural being – three thousand years tends to warp one’s mind a bit – from fulfilling an ancient scroll’s dire forewarning. If all that isn’t bad enough, Dusty’s clandestine past starts to catch up to her.
It was going to be a ten-cup, pack and a half, one hundred jelly bean day – and it was only eight-thirty. To top it off, she had to make one of those phone calls. The kind where she never knew the right things to say, even after rehearsing it over and over in her head. Be that as it may… it was time. “Reverend Reynolds, it’s Dusty Garner. I’m calling about the missing person’s report ya filed on Tara.”
Reverend Jeremiah Reynolds once had deep brown hair and matching eyes. In his late forties, he was still quite the looker, but the months of heartache bore evidence his soul had been tested to its limit. Many swore he was molded from Reverend Shaw Moore, the preacher in ‘Footloose’. He didn’t cotton to devil music, coed relationships before marriage, and didn’t like it when he didn’t know where his little girl was. Hopefully, the latter was about to change before he lost his ever-loving mind.
Finally, someone had news about Tara. It was as if she just disappeared off the face of the planet and no one knew a thing. His baby girl was gone for seven months, but it might as well have been a lifetime. Every day he prayed for good news, crying himself to sleep, but his prayers went straight to God’s messaging center. With every salty tear, his broken heart cracked a little more. The police searched but when the investigation turned cold, something told him to give Dusty a try. “Yes, Dusty. Please tell me ya found her!” His southern accent sliced through the English language like a Veg-O-Matic.
“As a matter of fact, I have.”
Exhaling a ragged breath of relief, emotion choked his words. “Oh, thank God! Our Lord Savior has answered my prayers! It’s not like her to go a week without calling, much less seven long-drawn-out months! Is she okay? Can I go pick her up?”
“Well, I have good and bad news.”
“Oh Lord, save my soul.” His voice was weak and shaken. “What’s the bad news?”
“She’s in Paris.”
“I told her to stay away from Henry County. Too much sinning happening over there. At least it’s only a couple hours away. Where at? I’ll hop over and get her.” Relief washed over him. “I’m gonna lecture her about not answering her daggum phone!”
A detailed testimonial from Tara’s friends, a photocopy of the airline’s passenger list showing the three aliases the girls frequently used, and a copy of their illegal passports sat in front of her. “A few hours? Reverend, she went to Paris, France, not Tennessee.”
“France? Lord Jesus, how did she even get there? I’m forever having to pay their electric bill!”
“The flight was reserved well in advance which applied a hefty discount. They used fake passports and IDs. Very good ones, I might add.”
“Why in Sam Hill did she go over yonder for anyway?” His anger catapulted to volcanic levels, as he struggled to hide it.
The quality-assurance crew in her mind scrutinized every sentence. “From what her friends said, Tara, Karla, and Cindi traveled there to celebrate ‘Jim Morrison’s’ birthday.”
“That damn Cindy and Karla.” Composing as well as possible, he continued. “I’m sorry, Lord. Please forgive me.” He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “Jim Morrison? Is he a friend of theirs?”
Leaning back, she slowly rocked. “No. A deceased rock idol.”
“Then… how’s he having a birthday?”
“Good question. From what I was told, they’ve been doing this since they were twelve.”
“Twelve?!” His voice was thin and tight.
“How in God’s creation did they pay for it? That would’ve run them in the thousands!”
Unfortunately, he was asking questions that only the three girls could answer. “That… I do not know.”
“Didn’t someone realize that babies were flying halfway across the world? Isn’t there a law against that?”
“Laws have tightened up since then, but they had very good fake IDs and passports.”
“How? They looked like babies!”
“You’d be surprised what a little makeup can do to make young girls look older than they are. They would fly out to Paris, celebrate a few hours, and were back before Bible reading.”
He vaguely recalled a few times when all three were caught lying about staying at each other’s house for the night. Claimed they had to do some late Christmas shopping without the parents around to see what they were getting. It was a flimsy excuse, now he realized why. He let out an exasperated whoosh. “Dusty, can’t ya go and get her? I’ll pay for everything!”
“Reverend, Paris is out of my jurisdiction.”
“How do I get her back? For crying out loud, she’s been missing for seven months. Surely that party’s over by now! Her phone doesn’t ring anymore, just goes to voicemail. It’s full… of all my messages.” His words were a loud whisper, thick with emotion, on the verge of tears. “Please, any help will be greatly appreciated.”
Wincing at the pain in his tone, shards of thin glass fatally pricked her heart, making her sit up and start typing. “Call the American Embassy,” she rattled out the number, “and then zero when ya hear the greeting. Explain what I told ya… then it’s up to them. I have a form here. I can fax, email, or you can stop by and we can do it here. No matter which, I need ya to bring it to me after you filled it out, so I can make a photocopy. Any pictures of the girls would help. I could send it with the file.”
“I have a few from this past summer. I’ll stop by on my way to church. Thank you. You’ve been a big help, Dusty. May the Lord shine down on ya for the goodness ya do for others. God bless you.”
“And you as well.”
Those calls hung over her head like a cloud ready to loosen a bucket of rain. Slapping the chair arms, she jerked to her feet, stomping over to the file cabinet. Yanking it open, she took out the dossier on the three, and the forms the other parents needed to sign; placing everything inside for safe keeping. The American Embassy could start the search with Tara, but the other parents had to start proceedings on their angels as well.
There was a punching bag in the office for moments just like this. After working up a sweat, beating the hell out of it, she washed up in the bathroom. Taking a moment to pull herself together, she called the others. Karla’s parents kept asking her if she had the right number. Uncaringly claiming they didn’t have a daughter, only a son, as if the poor girl never existed. Cindi’s parents were hard to understand from all the sobbing and screaming out, “why?” after everything she told them.
A guarded hush fell over the office. The ‘tick-tock’ over the door sounded more like a drum beat. Over and over, hypnotic, peaceful, lulling her mind, relaxing her body. The high-pitched ringing of her phone, cut through the serenity like a foghorn, throwing her out of the comfort zone. Scrambling to silence it, she clicked the Bluetooth in her ear, righting herself, ready to take notes if need be. “Garner.”
The stained mahogany desk, filled with files, folders, and papers, had a polished name tag that read: ‘Dusty Garner’. Kicking back in the black leather chair, she propped her feet onto the shiny finish. It had been one of those days. This caller wasn’t making it any better. Rolling her eyes, the worn-down soles of her boots thudded against the floor in anger. Sitting up, she snatched a cigarette from the pack, lighting it quickly, inhaling deeply. A mist of smoke rose to the rotating ceiling fan as she exhaled.
“Oh, hell no! Stop right there, Bob! We have a legal contract!” It was actually a verbal understanding, but it was the same to her. “Not happening! Ever!” Having lived in this small town for a few years now, she picked up that southern twang like she was born to it.
Robert Fuller – regional manager of the Sweetheart Detective Agency – was the ‘Bob’ on her Bluetooth. There were more colorful names Dusty assigned to him, but for business purposes, ‘Bob’ sufficed. Not much younger than she was, the man looked as if he spent a week at Comic-Con, in the ‘I roleplay online using dice and enhancers’ booth. It was a miracle he got a well-paying gig with a national detective agency franchise, instead of reciting, “You want fries with that?” a hundred times a day. Some might call it divine intervention, or he sold his soul to the devil.
Dark, greasy hair, wearing black, horn-rimmed glasses, and a full face of acne, Bob Fuller – aka VVXDragonriderXVV to the online roleplaying world – was Dusty’s boss. Skinnier than Bowie during his ‘Thin White Duke’ stage, the young man’s only stand-out feature was cyan-colored eyes, with flecks of hazel through them. His claim to fame was being selected ‘most likely to die before finishing college’ in the Ledgemont High School yearbook. “Dusty–”
“Don’t you ‘Dusty’ me!” Her eyes narrowed and lips flatlined. “Ya know how I feel about that.”
“It’s out of my hands.”
“You’re the boss. Just tell… whoever… that it’s not happening!” The irony was not lost on her.
“Dusty, he’s an expert and we need him.”
Sparks flashed in her eyes as she ran a hand through chocolate strands, layering them back in place. “An expert? So is the town vet! Not to mention, he’s probably more qualified than some outsider! He knows which animals hang out around here. An outsider won’t! It is, after all, an animal attack.”
“I can’t call him.”
“Why? His number’s in the book! But, I’ll tell ya what,” her sarcasm drizzled into gooey sweetness, “I’ll send it to ya!”
“I have his damn number! Yes, the vet knows animals, but he isn’t an expert in this field. Your new partner is highly trained.”
Rounding a brow, she took another deep drag. Sitting back, eyes rolled up to the ceiling as she exhaled smoke. “I’m highly concerned this happens so often, someone trained an ‘expert’ to deal with it. What’s the difference between the vet who has oodles of years under his belt and this animal expert?”
“Easy. This guy knows how to find the animal… track its location… capture it without hurting anyone. A vet knows how to cure an illness. It would be like going to a dentist for a shark attack.”
Caramel-coated eyes looked at the far wall. Moments passed in silence before her shoulders fell forward. “When ya put it that way… but not as my partner! I work alone. He’s just gonna get in my way!”
“I don’t wanna hear how qualified he is! I don’t give a rat’s ass! I’ll quit first.”
“Oh, knock it off. He’s the animal investigator, so let him do his thing. You do yours. After he makes his report, he’ll be out of your hair.”
If the neighborhood vet couldn’t help, then it wouldn’t hurt to bring in an expert to decipher what mutilated those bodies to the point they needed closed casket funerals. Months. That was how long this case treated her like the unknowing lab rat, running around the maze looking for nonexistent cheese. It was as crazy as this Mad-Hatter-wanna-be world. Taking a deep breath, she quickly released it, thinking about this ‘ace’. Maybe it wasn’t a bad thing. After all, she didn’t know a thing about wild animals. “Okay, fine. When should I expect him?”
Bob fist-bumped the air. Smiling, he looked up, mouthing, ‘thank you’, before taking a deep breath. “He’s arriving today and you two will be working together so don’t give him a hard time. I know I can count on you. I’llcallyoulaterbye!”
Growling, she pulled the Bluetooth from her ear, hurling it on the desk. “You, son-of-a-bitch. I’ll get even with your ass.”
The morning sunlight streamed through, hitting the stained-glass sun catcher, washing the room with a cacophony of color. Her medium-sized office was perfect but with another body, it would be too small. Four metal filing cabinets took up the left wall. Being a small town, crime went from the occasional stolen bike down to an unruly bar brawl at the pub, barely filling a quarter of one. But yesteryear, crime overflowed with neglected cases. Reading into them, she discovered a bit of town history.
‘Johnny the Knife’ should’ve been called ‘The Butcher’ due to his uncanny ways using a blade; filleting flesh from bone. Being the exulted ‘Godfather’ caused even the strongest to go weak in the knees with just the mention of his unforgettable name. He had the mayor and the ‘fuzz’ in his back pocket and anchored roots in Cider Lake, making it his area. No one messed with Johnny. That was a sure-fire way to end up in one of the filing cabinets, shoved in a folder, disappearing as if ceasing to exist. In the sixties, the man vanished without a trace and so did the heavy flow of crime.
Opposite the cabinets, the water cooler sat in front of the window. The portico led to the kitchenette. The customary appliances adorned the area: coffee pot, microwave, refrigerator, sink, as well as table and chairs. A vending machine stayed filled with the recommended, yet disregarded goodies. The coffee pot was the whore of the group; seeing more action than an escort service at a Shriner’s convention.
The back office was the conference room with enough seating for twelve people. The murder board was at the front: the elephant in the room. All eyes were instantly drawn there. Especially hers. A mind-boggling puzzle baiting her to solve… before another death happened.
Back in the main receiving room, just on the inside of the front door, two desks kissed each other. Too close. Unacceptable. She pulled it to the opposite side of the room. Her desk, she yanked further away, leaving an enormous chasm between the two. Dusty put two chairs in front of both desks. The murder board separated them, sandwiched between a dry-erase and smaller cork board. The AC groaned, rattling out a sudden draft of cold air, blasting from a nearby vent. Satisfied, she walked into the kitchen to clean the ‘office tramp’.
Reverend Reynolds didn’t remember feeling so down, ready to throw in the towel. He prayed God would deliver him from this hell. In his hands were five pictures; to together and three single shots. Pulling the door open, he stepped inside looking around, his eyes instantly drawn to the ‘murder board’. “Dusty?”
The coffee pot gurgled and hissed. Soapy hands gripped the roll of paper towels, leaving a wet palm print in place. Stepping into the main area, a gentle smile lit upon her face. “Reverend Reynolds. I wasn’t expecting ya so early. Would you like a cup of coffee? I just put on a fresh pot.”
Shaking his head, a heavy sigh whooshed. “Wish I could. I need to relieve sinners of their heavy burdens.”
Smiling, she nodded, tossing the paper towel in the trash. “I understand. Let me get the paperwork.”
“God love ya, Dusty.” A spark of hope ignited as he prayed she could find the girls. “I can’t get any help from the embassy. No one cares but you.” Sitting down, he put the pictures on her desk. “Hope these are good. They’re the best I have.”
Deathly claws raked at her heart, hearing the desperation in his tone. The pictures showed three pretty girls having the time of their young lives. “Perfect.” Grabbing out the forms, she marked an ‘X’ throughout. “Read and sign. I’ll send it right away, so they can begin. Not sure why the police couldn’t find ‘em.” Handing it over, she tried not staring at the dark circles under his eyes.
Pulling a pair of trifocals from their worn brown case, he slid them on, examining the papers. Tilting his head, he noticed her watching and smiled. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Taking a pen from his pocket, he signed. “Don’t mean to be rude, but if ya don’t need anything else, I have to listen to sinners in a half hour.” His shoulders slumped. “And frankly,” looking around cautiously, “I’m afraid I’ll fall asleep in the confessional.”
She smiled softly. The form, photocopy of the portraits, and application went into the pile. She faxed each sheet to the American Embassy in Paris, France. “Hopefully that'll help.” After receiving confirmation, she put the originals in a folder, handing it to him, keeping her own copy for the file.
“From your mouth to God’s ears.”
“I promise you’ll have closure. One way or the other.”
Taking the folder, he embraced her tightly. “There’s a special place in heaven for people like you, Dusty.” Gently, he placed a fatherly kiss on her forehead, just as he did for Tara the night before she disappeared. He closed his eyes tightly, ushering forth memories and ghosts from the past, fighting the emotion.
Dusty wrapped her arms around him, giving him a warm embrace in return. “And you, Reverend.”
Smiling weakly, he shuffled out of her office, closing the door behind him. Outside, he looked into the blurry sky. The tears welled in his swollen eyes from months of crying. He looked older, his hair thinner than usual. A broken man. The sun’s rays shone behind him like God granting him strength. A halo appeared over his head. Removing the glasses, he set them back into their case. “Lord, it’s written ya don’t give nothing we can’t handle. I believe that with all my heart, I do. But this,” wiping tears from his eyes, “is more than I would wish on any man.” Folding his hands, he prayed. “Please take this cup from me.” After a moment of silence, he slowly walked away.
Dusty sat at the computer. It was time to jumpstart the American Embassy into helping. Being one of the best hackers in the world, she got busy finding a wormhole inside their system. Skillfully, she pulled up cases, jotting down names and positions, along with dates. After finding the correct pecking order for the dates needed, she put the boss’s signature to the application, predated it, making it a ‘lost’ top priority. It made the new application look like a second one. Once completed, she erased all signs she was even there. For her own file, she put the right date: July 26, 2014. Leaning back, she stared out the window, wondering what this new partner was going to be like.