I've posted the first two chapters for you to preview. Enjoy!
Detective Rick Burns' life is falling apart. His four-year old son is dead, his brother butchered, he's in love with the one woman he can't have and he's investigating a slew of unsolved murders of violent, domestic abusers.
When a mysterious boy enters his life, things only get worse.
The boy knows the victims. He knows about Rick's fears. And he knows about Debil, the serial killer with a lust for death.
Determined to help the detective find the perpetrator, the boy ushers Rick into a nightmarish chase where reality and the supernatural are blurred, nearly costing him his life, his love, and his reputation in a storm of domestic vengeance that is so twisted you won’t be able to stop reading until you discover the awful truth.
Find out what happens in this plot twisting Damien meets Sixth Sense supernatural thriller.
By Jeff Bennington
Detective Rick Burns raced into the upscale Indianapolis neighborhood, slammed on the brakes and stepped out of his rusty red Pontiac. He peered into the night and watched the crowd gather, took a deep breath and prayed to God that this murder would not be like the others. The heaviness, the blood and the darkness had finally pricked its sharp edge into his soul.
Red and blue lights enveloped his body and danced across the frightened neighbors who had gathered together, shaking and shivering. The car door let out a lingering squeak as he slammed it shut, and then he hurried toward the crime scene.
The detective rushed past an ambulance and heard a woman whimpering to his right. He turned toward the sound, continued forward and studied her face with twisted brow. She stood near a paramedic and a police officer, with a wool blanket over her shoulders that warmed her from the night breeze. Streams of mascara ran down her cheeks like rivers of death, but her shoulders didn’t shake, and she didn’t sob or wail in disbelief.
Rick examined her slow, careful movements as she gingerly wiped her tears. Her eyes lacked the hollow, confused grief that he’d seen far too often. Lady of the house or mistress, perhaps—whatever the case, he knew something about her didn’t ring true.
He pulled his pen and notepad from his jacket pocket and scribbled a few words regarding his first suspect.
Short red hair.
Approximately five foot eight.
No blood visible.
September 13, 11:07 p.m.
The detective weaved through the crowd of wealthy onlookers who were wrapped in throw blankets and pajamas. Fearful murmurs and conjectures splashed his ears as he approached the house. The frightened neighbors looked at him curiously, no doubt wondering who the scruffy-looking man could be.
Rick realized fleetingly that, with his tousled hair, wrinkled T-shirt, faded jeans and running shoes, he probably looked more like a down-on-his-luck reporter than a ten-year veteran of the Indianapolis Police Department.
He could’ve changed his clothes and combed his hair, but there was no time for primping. Rick didn’t bother fussing over his appearance. In his line of work, he found that looks, more often than not, were deceiving. His sport coat was a mere covering, nothing more than a show of respect for his position. He preferred jeans and T-shirts, one of many in a long list of professional quirks.
Rick lifted the crime-scene tape and walked toward the house, a Meridian Street classic with stacked Bedford stone, copper gables and staggered limestone corners that climbed two levels toward the slate roof.
He noticed that a second-story window was open and the room illuminated. Shadows fell against the walls as dark figures walked past the light.
“Forensics? Already?” Rick looked at his watch. “Damn.”
He peered into the yard and smelled the fresh scent of glory maple leaves and purple pansies that were at the edge of the stamped concrete. The architectural masterpiece watched over the courtyard and gardens amid a family of oak and sycamore trees that hugged the estate with their long-reaching arms. The fancy contours and lighting looked great from the outside, but Rick had a bad feeling about this place.
The detective continued toward the house and wondered what he’d find. The other murders had nothing in common except an absurd brutality that bridged race, age and social class. He opened the glass entry door and mentally noted that the doorjamb had not been tampered with. He approached a group of officers gathered at the base of the stairway.
“Which way, fellas?” he asked.
They pointed toward the stairs. Rick noticed their disturbed behavior, arms crossed, eyes reeling in disgust.
Officer Carmichael Rozzi looked and smelled like he had recently vomited. He wiped a milky liquid from his chin and looked at Detective Burns, embarrassed by his weak stomach. Rick patted him on the shoulder as he passed.
“You’ll be all right, rookie.”
Carmichael cleaned the remaining fluid with his sleeve and stepped outside. He was tall and timid, not the usual sort of gung-ho cop, and Rick often wondered how long he’d last on the force.
Officer Dave Daniels called from the assembly of police, his eyes weary and unsettled. “Hey, Burns.”
Rick stopped walking and looked over his shoulder.
“It’s not pretty.”
The detective observed the dread in Dave’s expression and asked, “On a scale from one to ten, what’ve we got?”
“Twelve. Maybe thirteen.”
Rick looked up the stairway and imagined the grisly scene. He reached into his pants pocket, grabbed a bag of sunflower seeds, popped a handful into his mouth and then sucked on the salty shells.
There had been five deaths in two years—all on his watch.
He swallowed, nearly choking on the lump in his throat, and headed up the steps, slapping his hands together.
“Time to get dirty, boys,” he barked.
His insides shivered.
Rick felt as heavy as a lead wrecking ball, but he guarded his dread like a trade secret. Throughout his career, he had learned what to say and how to act to keep his fearless image intact. His tough-guy persona, however, had begun to wear thin, internally breaking down with each successive homicide. He took a deep breath and his heart raced in anticipation of the unknown.
As he walked up the stairs he marveled at the beauty and extravagance of the large home. Each hardwood step curved at precisely the right arc, painstakingly shaped to fit between honed spindles.
A large crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling and twisted gently with the air current, leaving a trail of sparkling diamonds that glittered on the mahogany walls. He could only dream of living in such extravagance. His hand slid up the wooden railing and his shoes shuffled up each curved step. He listened to the walls, to their sorrowful tales, reflecting upon the cold beauty of everything perfectly in place.
Rick popped more sunflower seeds into his mouth. Chewing calmed his nerves. Catching the details saved his ass. Seeds, gum, pens and fingernails were all fair game. He chewed on anything to keep his fears at bay—fears that had haunted him from his youth, dreams unexplained, lingering, warring among his many troubles.
As he continued up the stairway, the sound of busy footsteps echoed from down the hall to the right and a putrid stench rose into his nostrils, eliciting his gag reflex. By the strength of the odor, he figured it was a two- or three-day-old corpse. He grabbed a handkerchief from his coat pocket and covered his mouth.
Sergeant Pete Gains lurched out of the room, gasping for air. He was dressed in a triple-X suit and tie, always navy blue. The sergeant’s forehead dripped with sweat. His chest pumped and his throat wheezed as he exited the bedroom door, covering his mouth with a dust mask. He plopped his right hand down on Rick’s shoulder and said, “Burns, where’ve you been?”
“Sorry, boss,” Rick mumbled through the cloth. “It’s bingo night. There was a triple winner when I got the call. Didn’t hear till after things had calmed down.”
Sergeant Gains waved his arm, directing the detective into the master bedroom, as he walked forward.
“Bingo? What’s wrong with you, Burns? Ever heard of poker?”
Rick smirked and said, “Ever heard of love?”
“Me? No,” Pete said, laughing. “But Stella, she sure the hell isn’t gonna marry you because you bring her to the bingo hall. Didn’t think of that, did you?”
Rick rolled his eyes and spit a shell into his hand. He knew why marriage wasn’t in the cards for them, but it had nothing to do with bingo.
“I’ll tell you what you need, Burns. You need to be domesticated. You’re a mess. Look at yourself. Your hair looks like you just woke up, your clothes never match and your apartment’s a wreck.”
Pete took a quick glance at Rick and said, “At least you’re wearing a jacket, for God’s sake.”
Rick patted Pete’s belly. “Yeah, well, we all have our vices, don’t we, Pete?”
Pete sneered and followed Rick into the master bedroom.
Rick gasped. “Oh my God.”
Nausea permeated his senses, but the sight grabbed his eyes and wouldn’t let go, pulling him closer to the corpse. His pupils widened in horror as his gaze rose slowly from the bloodied king-sized bed to the ceiling. A shape resembling a body lay in the center of the four-poster, blackened and burst open. Only the head and limbs remained.
The bloody mass lay dead center in purged decomposition fluids, with liquefied tissues and hungry, feasting maggots. The torso appeared to have exploded over an area of about twelve feet in diameter. Thick drops of dried blood still hung from the ceiling. Bits and pieces of a millionaire were splashed upward in a grotesque splattering of rotting flesh and silk pajamas.
“What in God’s name happened?” asked Rick.
Pete coughed. His eyes watered.
“You tell me, Burns. They don’t call you the ghost detective for nothing.”
Rick rolled his eyes and shook his head. He knew what Pete meant. Rick had been assigned to all of the recently unsolved cases. It’s not that he didn’t find every shred of evidence. There just wasn’t anything to go on. Rick’s peers started calling him the ghost detective because the perpetrators seemed to vanish into thin air like a morning mist.
Detective Burns and Sergeant Gains moved deeper into the room. Rick evaluated the crime scene and proceeded to write down his thoughts.
Very little splatter except for the ceiling.
The lack of dripped or splattered blood across the floor seemed unusual for such a gruesome scene. He thought there should be more blood. There were no signs of a struggle.
He felt light-headed.
Rick ignored the dizzy feeling and looked at Pete, and asked, “Who the hell cleaned up in here, Sarge?”
“No one. This is it. What you see is what you—”
Pete grabbed Rick’s shoulder. “You okay, Burns?”
Rick’s eyes dilated and his head wobbled slightly. He pressed his hand to his chest, and his heart hammered at his rib cage. The scene, the smell and the maggots had finally gotten to him.
“I’m fine. Just—” He stopped a thrusting dry heave mid-throat. “I’m just a little nauseated.”
Rick bent over to catch his breath. He closed his eyes and the memory of his mother’s accident leaped upon his thoughts, sending a chill through his body, and then vanished like a skillful prowler. He knew he had to shake it off. He stood up and blew out a stress-relieving exhalation.
He silently advised himself to get in the game. He had to snap out of it. He had to focus.
“So, was it a bomb?” asked Rick, still feeling a nervous shake in his legs. “You know, something small?”
“Don’t think so,” said Pete. “No sign of sulfur or any other explosive material, and no damage to the mattress. Forensics is looking into it though, and the autopsy will eliminate any doubt, but so far, no sign of anything, really.”
Pete crossed his arms and nodded toward the body. “He’s all we’ve got.”
Rick looked at one of the forensic investigators kneeling beside the bed and asked, “Any bullet holes or weapons?”
The investigator stopped dusting and said, “No.”
“Not one,” said Zeek, the lead forensic analyst.
“Prints? Hair? Anything?”
“Yeah,” said Pete. “We’ve got three separate sets of prints, but that’s it. Have to get back with you on those.”
Rick crouched down beside the bed and studied the body.
“Were the blinds open when you got here?” asked Rick.
“Closed,” said Pete. “One of the neighbors said she sits on her front porch every night. She said the window blinds are always closed. She didn’t see anything.”
Pete handed Rick a pair of latex gloves. He slipped them on with a rubbery smack and eyed the crater in the body, moving on to the victim’s face, careful to not touch anything.
Rick grimaced and whispered to himself, “No sign of lacerations anywhere or contusions to the head. The flesh and entrails simply opened and sprayed upward … like an erupting volcano.”
Rick stood up and faced Sergeant Gains. “I don’t get it, Pete.”
“Pfft. Who does?” The sergeant threw his hands in the air, miffed. “See … it’s like I told you the last time.”
“What?” Rick glared at Pete. “You’re still thinking paranormal?”
Pete pulled Rick aside and whispered, “Listen, Burns. We’ve been here for three hours and we haven’t found anything. Just like the other five. And this place is starting to creep me out. I don’t know what it is, but something isn’t right.”
Rick sighed. “Well, I was thinking something more like a spouse or a love triangle.”
“Spouse? Did you see that lady out there? She’s distraught!”
“Not hardly, Pete.”
“Well, that doesn’t mean she killed him.”
“And just because she’s attractive doesn’t mean she didn’t.”
Pete glared at Rick.
Rick grinned and said, “Don’t tell me you didn’t notice.”
Pete sneered and turned his eyes toward the body, with fear washing over his face.
Rick nudged him with his elbow. “You’re too superstitious, boss.”
Pete shook his head as he stared at the bloody mess. “Can you blame me?”
Rick looked at the body, shaking his head, running the possibilities through his mind.
He didn’t know what to say. He preferred to avoid supernatural solutions. It’s not that he didn’t want to believe; he simply couldn’t trust spiritual answers. He needed tangible evidence.
Rick circled the bed and shuffled through the chest of drawers.
“Victoria’s Secret,” he said quietly to himself. “Nice.” He closed the drawer and asked, “What do we know about the wife, anyway?”
Pete walked around the bed, squinting as he passed. “She found the body. Just returned from a business trip in Vegas. Cosmetics convention. She was a VIP. Besides, we’ve got video from their surveillance cameras. The boys looked at the tapes, and no one entered or exited the premises all week except Mount Rushmore here. And since he’s been dead for three days, you can check the wife off your list you got going there.”
“Hmm.” Rick opened the drawer on the marble-topped nightstand and observed its contents. “Any witnesses?”
Pete nodded. “One of the neighbors reported seeing a boy playing in the yard a couple of days ago, but that’s it.”
Rick turned. “A boy?”
“That’s right. But he didn’t show up on the tapes.”
“We’ll have to keep looking for him,” said Rick. “Oh, and bring in the wife and neighbor, too. I’ll stay here. Maybe I’ll get lucky and find something.”
“I hope so,” said Pete. “This is getting old.”
“Or maybe the killers are catching up with technology and we’re behind the times,” replied Rick.
Pete laughed. “Like cyber-bullying? You think we’ve got a cyber–serial killer?”
“Not necessarily. I just think there’s a rational explanation.”
“Like what … a serial-killing fairy who flies in, knocks off the victim and flutters away unseen?”
Rick couldn’t help smirking. “Yeah. That’s what I was thinking, Pete. A fairy.” He shook his head and said, “You need to see a shrink, Pete. And I need to spend some time here alone.”
Pete walked toward the door. “Be my guest, bingo boy.”
Rick chuckled and returned to shuffling through the small drawer, then closed it.
“Call me when you get the wife and that neighbor rounded up, will ya, Pete?”
“Sure thing.” Pete coughed. “And Burns?”
“Lay off the bingo. We’ve got plenty to do around here.”
The detective laughed.
He knew Pete didn’t get him. Everything Rick knew about life, he learned from bingo: keep your eyes peeled, listen carefully and keep going, even in a drought. If he did those things, then one of these days, bingo!
• • •
Sergeant Gains dispatched his officers, and Rick stayed behind. He ran his hands against the walls as he strolled around the perimeter of the room, analyzing each fixture, piece of artwork and article of clothing. He pulled a wallet out of a pair of slacks that were tossed on a Barcalounger and examined the driver’s license.
Frank J. Bertrum. Born 8-23-1946.
Rick scanned the picture and couldn’t help but notice that Frank was a good-looking fellow. Thinking back, he remembered that he had a nice-looking wife, too. He wondered what was missing? Was the guy an adulterer? A manipulator? Or a control—
The detective’s thoughts were interrupted, distracted by a bloody red trail that he noticed out of the corner of his eye.
He wondered why he hadn’t seen that before.
“Sarge, you still here?”
Rick turned his eyes back to the floor.
“Where did you come from?” he asked himself with a giggle in his voice.
Rick knelt down and lifted the crusty comforter and peeked under the bed—nothing but dust bunnies. He stood up and followed the impressions. The tiny tracks pooled, still shimmering wet. He curiously shadowed the prints as they made their way out of the room, into the hall and faded as they descended down the stairway.
He stood among the dancing diamonds, staring at the tangible evidence, and scratched his head in wonderment. He questioned how he and everyone else had missed the footprints.
He pulled out his cell phone and snapped a few pictures, but they weren’t quality images. There was only a shadow where there should have been bloody footprints.
“Shit.” His voice echoed through the mammoth structure.
He charged down the stairs.
There’s got to be an office in here, a ruler … something, he thought.
He tripped on the Persian rug in the foyer, crashed to the floor and grunted as he forced himself back up. He burst through the French doors leading to the library and rummaged through the drawers until he found a twelve-inch ruler. He lifted it into the air as if presenting King Arthur’s sword and briefly glanced at the pictures displayed on the many shelves.
“Nice family. What a shame.” He looked back at the ruler. “Thank you, Frank. God bless you, brother.”
He sprinted out of the office, ran back up the stairs and placed the ruler next to one of the footprints. “How big are you, little feet?” he asked. “Let’s see … five, five and a quarter inches.”
Rick’s mind launched into an analytical frenzy as he studied the new evidence. He figured it could be the same boy the neighbor saw. He observed how the feet pressed heavy on the heels. He thought it could be a five- or six-year-old, perhaps—a boy maybe, but not a killer. Not like that. No way. He could be an eyewitness, sure, but not a murderer.
He stared at the prints and realized that he finally had something to go on.
He opened his cell phone and dialed Pete’s number, then removed one of the gloves and stuck his finger in his mouth to pull out a wad of desalted shells. He stuffed them in his coat pocket to avoid soiling the crime scene.
“Pete, y-you gotta get back here!”
“Whaddya got, Burns?”
“In the bedroom, by the bed and hall and stairs.”
“What? I don’t think so. I didn’t see anything like that.”
“Neither did I. We overlooked them somehow. I don’t understand it myself. But you’ve got to see them. They’re perfect. They’re—wait. Oh God. No!” Rick lost sight of the tracks and bent down, fraught with hysteria, and rubbed the wooden steps, frantically scanning for the trail that was once there.
“They were here, Sarge. I swear. About thirty prints.”
“Five and a quarter inches. I measured them myself. Shit. They disappeared.” Rick nervously ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head in frustration.
“Burns?” persisted Gains. “Come on in to the station. We’ve got the wife and neighbor.”
“What about the boy?”
“No luck. We’ll have to work with what we’ve got.”
Rick rubbed his eyes, blinked hard to regain his focus and studied each step one last time, crawling on his hands and knees, hoping to see a trace of the prints. He searched every room of the house, but found nothing. The blood had disappeared.
“Where’d you go, damn it?” He gagged as he passed by the master bedroom and slammed the palm of his hand against the wall. “Oh, that smell.”
• • •
Rick flipped open his notepad, jotted down his findings and left the house, weighed down by defeat and a heaviness he had grown familiar with. The ghost detective had doubts. The unbelievable and mysterious things of the world always left him shaking with uncertainty, causing him to revisit his past—his nightmares.
He needed to chew. The seeds were gone, but there was always his pen, deformed and twisted at the end. The tension in his mind beat him down, testing his belief system, a system based on a bet, a simple game.
“Burns,” he said to himself as he started his Pontiac. “You know what you saw. You’re not crazy. Not yet, anyway.”
The engine roared, the pen crunched in his mouth and five-inch bloody footprints embedded in his mind like a sunspot in the eyes. They wouldn’t go away. They lingered and festered in his brain. A young witness to the Bertrum murder had escaped detection, hiding and terror-stricken. He could feel it, sense it, taste it.
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