Priscilla Hart couldn't shake the disturbing images from the night before that haunted her memory, nor could she identify what had possessed her to slip over to Logan Payne's desk when he wasn't paying attention and peek into the forensic files containing the gruesome photographs of those females. Glassy, vacant eyes stared into nothing. Blood...everywhere. Two dead bodies slashed open like the latest victims of Jack the Ripper. Their pale, tortured faces would be a permanent snapshot in her mind.
In a way, she should have been accustomed to such violence. Her job as a news reporter proved firsthand the evil that existed in people, the psychotic acts they were capable of committing. But gazing into the heart of such monstrosity made the experience far too raw. Jesus, those poor women. They never stood a chance.
The sick bastard who slaughtered without consequence was still out there. She'd been called to the scene when news of the second dead victim emerged. On a heavily wooded bike trail running through Erwin Park, she had waited two hours for officials to carry out the covered remains of Jasmine Courtland. In a press conference the next day, the chief of police announced the findings of the preliminary report released by the medical examiner's office. As in the case of the first victim they'd discovered, the current fatality had also been ruled an accidental cougar attack.
But there was more to these murders than police were letting on. If she hadn't spoken to the game warden who'd been on the scene of both, she might have never known about the footprints left at the crime scenes. The tracks were not consistent with those of a large cat but fit the description of a sizeable human foot. She needed more proof to support her theory the attacks on the women had not been animal related. She'd finally gotten her break. However, the method she'd used to achieve her goal had left her with a belly of burning regret.
Why can't you do anything by the book? Too late for that, wasn't it?
She shimmied out of her panties and tossed them over the crumpled stack of clothes sitting on the bench inside the gym's shower room. She wasn't the kind to wallow in guilt, but coming so close to sleeping with the lead detective in a murder investigation had changed the rules. How had she allowed things to go so far? Thank God she'd escaped before the deed happened.
Her flesh still tingled where-two hours ago-Logan Payne's feathery kisses had traveled down the length of her body, sending a shockwave of need through her she'd forgotten existed. She cursed the thrilling sensation thinking of him triggered within her even now. She didn't have time for such whimsical emotions. She'd written up the article and emailed it to her editor after leaving his apartment. Whether she liked it or not, the events of tomorrow had been set into motion.
She slid off her wristwatch and checked the time before setting it on the bench. 12:32 am. She ought to feel on top of the world, instead of chastising herself for her sins. With the early delivery of the Dallas Morning News, citizens would learn the truth about the savage murder of two women in their city, and she might soon find herself taking up a broadcasting position at KVIL. This story had the potential to put her at the front of the line for the job.
She reached the stall and turned the knob to hot. As she draped the towel over the separating wall, she considered how pissed Logan was going to be when he picked up the morning paper. He would feel devastated, tricked.
Priscilla took a deep breath. Why was her job so damn complicated? When he'd asked her out earlier, her genuine interest in him had made her decision to accept easy. Accompanying him on a date had nothing to do with obtaining a lead-in the beginning. But, a short time into their dinner conversation, she'd seen the perfect opportunity across the table. After all, he was one of them, and they cleverly hid the truth, didn't they? The public had a right to the facts, and the parents of those young women needed to know the circumstances surrounding their daughters' deaths. Her questions might have revealed the fact a killer was running around out there, somewhere. Just as she'd suspected, the McKinney Police Department intended to strip people of the privilege to protect themselves. She'd be damned if they'd get away with it.
Pushing the last indignant emotion from her conscience, she slipped into the heavenly water spray. She braced her hands against the tiles and allowed the therapeutic magic to beat down the coiled muscles of her back. The day had been long. After leaving the detective's apartment and racing back to her office to write up the article, she'd considered not visiting the gym, skipping her routine midnight workout altogether. But she'd needed the exercise more than ever. The ritual put her mind at ease and gave her the opportunity to recover from the day's hectic events.
Besides, she looked forward to Mondays. The gym was closed, and it seemed as if the place belonged to her. Her career kept her out until late, making it impossible for her to visit the fitness center during normal hours of operation. She'd known the owner of the establishment since childhood, and he trusted her enough to give her a spare key to the place.
As she reached for the shampoo, the lights shut down without warning. A strong, arctic wind slammed against her, biting into her flesh. She cried out, her gaze darting frantically around in darkness.
The disturbance died down, and the distinct sound of heavy, rapid breathing boomed in her ears.
After a moment, she exhaled a sigh of relief, realizing the panting came from her. You idiot.
But the awareness didn't lessen the knot forming in her stomach. Where had the powerful current of air come from? As sure as she stood there shivering, reaching for the shower knob somewhere behind her, she'd experienced an unexplained occurrence. Something was very wrong.
Rampant fear threatened to seize what little common sense she had left. With a trembling hand, she clasped the handle and fought to remember which direction turned it off. Get a grip. It's to the right.
She searched in the dark for the towel she'd slung over the partition earlier. Wrapping the terrycloth material around her, she stepped out of the shower.
Soft moonlight drifted through a single, tiny window a few feet below the cedar rafters. Sparse fragments of light offered a view of the area in front of her. To the right, she knew from memory, were a series of metal lockers against the wall. She made out the shape of the bench straight ahead of her and the outline of her heavy-duty valise sitting on top.
Didn't she have a few glow sticks in her gym bag? Yes. The last time a severe thunderstorm had moved through her neighborhood, knocking out the power in her apartment, she'd run to the store to pick some up. she'd also needed bottled water for future gym visits. She remembered leaving a few spare luminescent rods in her valise along with the water.
Getting to the bag meant leaving herself vulnerable to the frightening elements of the room. What if some ungodly thing waited in the stall she'd have to pass to get to her destination?
The image of the slain women came back full-force. Purplish skin stained with thick streaks of crimson. Mouths open in a dying scream of terror. Of all the ways to die, she didn't want to go out like that. Her throat became dry, and her palms damp with sweat. Don't think about it. Concentrate on getting to the bench.
The blustery weather outside the window stirred the trees. Branches swayed, casting dancing shadows across the floor. Rain pelted hard against thin glass. A violent wind gust sent twigs and leaves crashing against the pane.
Priscilla jumped, a terrified scream escaping her.
A guttural growl issued from somewhere in the room, turning her insides to jelly. Jesus! I'm imagining things. This can't be happening.
Where was the breaker box? Hadn't she spotted the electrical apparatus several times before against the back wall of the gym's main floor? She might as well participate in the Iron Man Marathon for all the chance she had of getting to the damn thing unharmed.
The awful being hiding in the darkness panted, and the fine hairs on the nape of her neck stood on end. The creature had to be huge. The bone-chilling realization she might not make it out of the building alive made her stomach clench.
A scream pushed up her throat, and she clamped her mouth shut. She focused on the bench where her valise sat. For the first time since the frightful incident revealed itself, she had to ask herself what good the damn glow sticks would do her now. Think, damn you, think! There's got to be something I can do to protect myself. Jesus Christ! Isn't there?
The Mace. She stored the weapon in her gym bag for protection. Frowning, she realized she should've thought to carry it with her at all times. Yes, but how am I going to get to it?
The bench was only a few feet in front of her. If she moved, she risked revealing her location to that awful growling thing. The Mace was her only means of defense. She had to get to it as quickly as possible.
Trembling from head to toe, she took her first step and paused to see if her movements echoed throughout the room.
Not a sound.
Three more paces and that terrifying snarl resonated in front of her-louder, longer, and more menacing than before. For the love of God, the ferocious roar seemed much closer to her.
Wild, demented laughter rang out.
Intense horror shocked her system, as if she'd been electrocuted. She tore across the ceramic tile floor toward the bench, no longer caring about giving away her position. She wouldn't have much time to snatch her bag if she managed to make it there at all.
The wheezing thing came after her, charging from the left side of the room. Each loud strike of its feet seemed to shake the surrounding walls.
She clutched the back of the bench and fumbled for the bag. Her fingers wrapped around the handles about the same time as something struck the metal bench. Its bolted legs pitched forward with unbelievable force. Screws wrenched from the floor, screeching in protest. The beast swiped at her face, narrowly missing her. Fighting paralyzing fear, she tightened her grip and didn't look back, only ran straight for the lockers against the far wall.
In a tiny alcove in the dead center of a row of lockers, she huddled against cool metal and, while fighting to control her trembling hands, she worked to retrieve the Mace. Pulling the can from the valise, she clutched it for dear life.
Beads of sweat popped out across her forehead. Tears stung her eyes, and she wanted to give in to them, but she didn't dare. Death waited, and if she let her emotions get the better of her, mortality would be upon her fast as lightning. The thing would find her, and when that happened, she planned to strike with the only weapon she had.
The howling beast pounded on the locker doors, creating an image of metal caving in as easily as aluminum cans. With each shattering blow, she cringed. She squeezed her eyes shut, afraid to move, Jesus, somebody help me!
She wanted to release a shriek from the pit of her soul. She covered her mouth with her hand while hot tears trailed down her face. No matter what, she couldn't scream.
The banging stopped, and the silence petrified her.
With her eyes now adjusting to the dimness of the room, she focused on the coatrack a few feet in front of her. Something enormous drifted by. It's going to find me. Oh, God. Holding her breath, she watched in horror as the figure backtracked. An obscure being loomed over her, blocking out the backdrop of shadows behind it. Its repugnant stench stung her nostrils. The creature reeked of a rotting animal.
Laughter roared throughout the room. She screamed.
The beast snatched her around the neck, and the shriek died in her throat in an instant. Her feet left the ground, as the creature lifted her into the air. Panic cut a searing path through the lining of her intestines. My God, I can't breathe.
When she brought the can of Mace up, she couldn't control the wild shaking in her hand. She squeezed the nozzle.
I can't wait for you to read Cunja. You're going to love it! I promise.
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