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Marie Martin typed steadily on her PC keyboard, and glanced at the clock while she finished editing her interview with New York City mayor, Donald Perez. She pulled a face when she noticed the time, and scrolled the arrow on the monitor, clicking the save icon at the top left corner of the screen. This was her first exclusive since promoted to reporter, and she wanted it flawless before it hit the press in the morning. She didn’t feel as if she had to prove anything to herself, after all, she received a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Brown University a year prior, and had the potential to become an brilliant correspondent. She was the executive editor of the University’s campus newspaper, The Bear, and interned for three years at The Herald, before applying at The New York Weekly. Although she had the education and skill to back up her qualifications of being a journalist, she chose to start out on the ground floor, and advance slowly. Her father, Maryland Congressman Reginald Martin, became upset at the announcement she had gotten a job as a copy editor, and kindly offered to pull a few strings for his only child to jump start her journalistic career. Marie declined the proposal. Not wanting the label ‘spoiled brat’, she accomplished her goal without resorting to her father’s help. Marie attached the report to her e-mail and forwarded it to the copy room, then rubbed her eyes tiredly and turned off the monitor. She pulled out the top desk drawer, removed her tote and handbag and strode to the door. It was late, but she wanted to get a run in before she made the long trip back to her apartment in Midtown. A charity marathon she’d signed up for was only a week away and she hadn’t had the time to devote herself due to her latest assignment. If she didn’t prepare, she’d make a fool out of herself and that wouldn’t be good for her father’s image. She could see the headlines now: CONGRESSMAN’S DAUGHTER FALLS ON FACE AFTER THIRTY-SIX MILE CHARITY RUN. When she was halfway out into the hall, the phone on the desk rang. She scurried back in, throwing her tote and handbag aside before scooping up the receiver. “Hello?” she asked, out of breath. “Hey, kiddo,” her father said, concerned. “Everything all right?” Marie sat on the edge of the desk and twirled the phone cord with her index finger. “Yeah, Dad, I was just running out the door. What’s up?”
“Nothing,” her father said. “I haven’t heard from you in a while and wanted to see how you were, you know, make sure you’re happy and healthy and what not. Didn’t mean to catch you at a bad time. Are you in a rush?” Marie looked at the clock. “Well actually, Dad, I’m heading to Central Park for a quick jog before it gets too late.” Marie’s father clucked his tongue on the other end of the line. “Marie, are you insane?” he scolded. “All kinds of crazies are out and about this late at night. You can get mugged, or worse, raped.” Marie rolled her eyes. Since her mother died of a heart attack two years earlier, her father treated her like glass. “Dad, I’ll be fine. It’s just for half an hour. I’ll run the trail across from Arthur Ross Pinetum, right next to the police precinct, so don’t worry.” Her father sighed. “I still don’t think it’s safe. If you insist, at least let me call Congressman Allen. He’s in New York for a congressional meeting and I can arrange for one of his bodyguards to escort you. I don’t want you out there alone.” Marie gripped the phone tight and clenched her jaw. “No, Dad. I don’t want to hang around here and wait for a bodyguard. I’ll catch a cab, take a run and go home. I promise I’ll call you the minute I get there, okay?” “All right, Marie,” he relented. “I still don’t like it, but I guess I can’t talk you out of it. You be careful and call me the second you get home, understand?” Marie laughed. “I promise, worry wart. Now let me go so I can get the hell out of here.” “Okay, I love you sweetheart.” Marie smiled. “I love you, too, Dad. Bye,” she said, and hung up. * * *
Marie puffed hard and sprinted across Rumsey Playfield, taking a short cut by The Sheep Meadow Café. She'd planned to run by the police precinct, originally, but decided to jog the circle around Central Park South, cutting her time in half by not having to stop at the end of the street, turn and then go the opposite way every time. Rounding the corner by Strawberry Fields, she locked her eyes on Tavern on the Green coming up ahead, then noticed something stir in the bushes along the edge of the trail. Squinting into the darkness, she slowed down to a trot. The hedge line directly beside her moved and a dark form walked through to the other side. Quickly, she took off running again, and cut over to the road beside Sheep Meadow to the Dairy Visitor Center a few meters away.
When she reached the Center entrance, she stopped, then leaned over and placed her hands on her knees to catch her breath. Rustling movements sounded in the bushes beside a lamppost to the left of the entrance and a shadowy figure stepped out and paused. A tight knot formed in the pit of Marie’s stomach, and she abruptly stood up, frantically examining her surroundings for a way to escape. Loud footsteps pounding on pavement came closer; Marie pursed her lips and turned in the opposite direction, planting the soles of her tennis shoes firmly on the asphalt for better traction. The figure emerged from the shadows and stopped directly underneath the lamppost. Marie let out a relaxed sigh when a scruffy looking teenage boy stared innocently with large dark eyes. Poor thing, Marie thought as she ran her eyes over his pitiful appearance. Oversized, ragged clothes hung loosely off a skeletal frame. Filthy army boots, jut from underneath mudcaked jeans, with a hole in the toe, exposing a dingy sock. Casually, the boy reached out, wrapped a hand around the lamppost base and tossed a mop of unkempt, long black hair over his shoulder. “You scared the shit out of me, kid,” she said, mildly scolding him. “It’s not a good idea roaming out here all alone. Lots of drug addicts come here at night and I’m sure they wouldn’t think twice about roughing you up if they thought you had some money.” The teenager shrugged and pulled a cigarette pack out of his pants pocket. He popped one in his mouth, and lit it, then let out a steady stream of smoke. The aloof manner suddenly dinged Marie’s radar. “What’s your name, kid? Are you with someone?” she asked, glancing behind him. The boy grinned wickedly. “My name isn’t important.” He flicked the cigarette to the ground and crushed it with his heel. “I’ve been waiting for you.” He lifted off the light pole. A tingling shot of adrenaline pumped through Marie, causing the hairs on her body to stand on end. She told her herself to remain calm and smiled wide. “Really? Well, I’m afraid I’m in a bit of a hurry. My driver’s waiting just around the corner at the zoo,” she lied, pointing up the street. “He gets real temperamental if he stays out late,” she laughed tensely. “I guess it’s hard to find good help these days. Are you hungry? I can run ahead and have my driver come back and bring you something to eat.” Marie turned her body again. The boy slowly walked over and stopped a few inches from her. Marie peered out of the corner of her eye, then did a double take. Eerie, slanted crystal blue eyes with thin vertical pupils glowed in the dim light. She repositioned her footing on the pavement and bent her knees slightly, transferring her body weight, and then pushed off. The boy waved a hand, freezing her legs. Hysterically, Marie pulled at them, and glanced over her shoulder again,
whimpering when the boy eased up behind her. The boy snapped his fingers, releasing her and spun her around. “I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head, slowly. "You can’t leave.” With a swift woosh a long clawed hand clamped over Marie's mouth and squeezed her cheeks together. Marie moaned and grabbed his fingers, trying to pry them from her face. “Shh,” the boy said, placing a long finger over his lips. “Be calm.” Marie nodded obediently, and put her hand down. The boy let go and draped an arm around her waist. She took in a long gulp of air, then let it out slow and focused on his face. Her eyes widened at large veins pulsing under translucent skin, pushing tiny bubbles of milky white flesh above the surface. Cat-like eyes glistened and narrowed evilly. The boy smiled and ran a long tongue over sharp pointed teeth curving from underneath his top lip to just above his chin. Marie bunched a hand over her quivering lips, then quickly removed it. “Look,” she said, voice cracking. “My father’s very important. You’ll be in a world of shit if you hurt me, so be smart and let me walk away. I won’t say a word and we’ll forget this happened.” The boy laughed. “I have no intention of letting you go,” he said, and tweaked her nose, playfully. “You see, you have something I need. Something very…precious.” “Please, don’t hurt me,” she begged. “My father will give you anything you want. He’s rich. I’ll call him right now. Please…just let me go.” The boy brought his hand back, and slapped Marie hard across the face, snapping her head back. . Marie screamed and instinctively, placed a hand over her cheek, then whipped her head back around. The boy pulled it away and moved in closer, leveling his eyes with Marie’s terrified ones. “Now you listen,” he said, pointing in her face. “There’s no way I can let you go, so don’t ask again. I’ll take what I need and if you don’t resist, I’ll make it as painless as possible. However, you fight, I promise, you’ll suffer. Understand?” Marie began to cry. The boy cupped her chin, and slowly lifted her head to meet his gaze. “What do you need?” she asked, lips trembling.
The boy curled a hand in Marie's hair and crushed his mouth onto hers, nipping her bottom lip. Small trickles of blood oozed between Marie’s lips, spreading the faint taste of rust inside her mouth. She groaned painfully, and pushed against his chest. The boy pulled back, and put his mouth next to her ear. “Your blood,” he whispered, coiling his fingers tighter in her hair. “I need your blood.” Marie shrieked as sharp nails dug into her scalp, holding her still. The boy’s free hand latched around her throat, pinching off her air. Marie’s face reddened; her eyes bulged and swelled when the grasp closed tighter around her windpipe. With a hard push, he slammed her head to the side and thrust his fangs into her, then pulled back, ripping a string of flesh from her neck. A spray of blood shot out, dousing his face and hair. He closed his eyes against the stream, and let the sticky warm blood fill his mouth. Marie’s eyes rolled back and her body went limp while she drifted in and out of consciousness. When she collapsed in the boy’s arms, he released his grip slightly and repositioned his fangs deeper. The blood flow dwindled and he pulled back, pressing her head harder, detaching it with a loud pop. The boy plunged his face into the bloody stump, bouncing Marie’s half decapitated head morbidly against her shoulder. He hugged her close, drinking every drop till there was nothing left. With a fierce sling, he threw Marie’s withered body to the ground. Quickening fire spiked through his body when the blood entered his system. He staggered over to the light post and leaned against it, while searing spasms contracted and roiled in his abdomen. A sharp pain jabbed his gut, he doubled over and vomited, spewing a jet of blood onto the pavement. The boy cupped his hand and heaved into it, then brought it up to his mouth and slurped loudly. Stinging needles pierced his veins with shards of electric jolts; he fell to the ground, writhing in agony. Marie’s blood took over and engulfed his senses; he closed his eyes and let it envelope him. Time stood still while he drifted on a pillow of air and plummeted into an immense abyss, soaring through an ocean of space into the past. Flashes of images collided in his head, going back hundreds of years, then slowly subsided when his body relaxed and settled. The boy opened his eyes and glanced down. He was dressed in a luxurious sequined green silk gown, sitting on an elaborate throne inside a woman, silently observing through her eyes. A crowd cheered below and he raised his eyes to a high platform with great pyre in the middle of a medieval town square. Two men in shackles and chains were shuffled through the crowd toward the platform. One dressed in a robe with holy emblems, the other, a commoner in rags, were led up and tied to wooden stakes in the center of the pyre.
Screams from the maddened crowd roared over the square while the men were secured to the stakes. The men thrashed and cursed, then fell silent when an executioner lit a huge torch. Pausing, with his body bent halfway over the wood pile, the executioner glanced up at the boy, and waited for the command to light the fire. The boy placed a hand on the rail in front of him and stood. Pointing a jeweled finger at the men, he nodded to a magistrate at the edge of the platform. The magistrate bowed and walked to the center. He held up a hand to hush the crowd, then unrolled a scroll and turned to the prisoners. “The Holy Roman Catholic Tribunal has found you, John Rogers and you, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, guilty of heresy and treason against our queen, Mary I of England. Punishment for your crimes is death by being burned at the stake, in accordance with Roman Catholic law.” The magistrate rolled up the scroll and placed it under his arm. “Do you wish to confess and ask God to forgive your blasphemy?” The men spat on the ground, and the magistrate stepped back in repulsion. He turned and signaled the executioner to proceed. “May God have mercy on your souls,” he said and made the sign of the cross in the air with his index and middle fingers. The executioner lit the woodpile and flames instantly spiraled and encircled the men’s bodies, arching high in curling halos of orange and red. Torrid heat rose and crackled, carrying the rancid odor of burning skin and hair up to the tier. The boy shielded his face from the blast of foul-smelling cinders with his forearm, and peered over it. Blood curling screams rang out amid the sweltering flames. The men bodies, now orange fiery lumps, twisted inside the inferno, disintegrating their clothes, expanding scorched skin, sizzling body fluids seeping through cracks of splitting tissue. Melting flesh bubbled and liquefied, blackening the bones underneath with intense heat. The lower half of the men’s burned remains crumbled into the fire, leaving only charred torsos chained to the wooden stakes. The boy felt himself pull away, free falling back into darkness and transporting through the vast tunnel. His mind slammed into his body lying on the pavement in the park. He opened his eyes and tried to sit up, then winced and lay back down. Churning cramps roiled in his stomach; he bunched into a ball to relieve the pain. Something came up beside him; he jerked his head up, and opened his eyes halfway to a blurred head shaped outline looming in his face. “It’s all right,” a gravelly voice said, gently rolling him over onto his back. “The pain is temporary. It will pass soon. Your body needs to adapt to drinking human blood again.” The boy grabbed the head by the nape of the neck and pushed up on his elbow. A rough skinned hand lightly wrapped around his wrist and pulled it down. “You mustn’t try to stand up, master,” the voice said, softly. “You’re still very weak. Lucifer will be pleased when I tell him you’ve successfully obtained the first of the transfusions. You’ve done well. I’ll take you back to Lucifer to rest, and when you awaken, you’ll be refreshed, ready to find the others and replenish your body with their powerful blood.”
The boy’s eyesight cleared and the face of an ugly demon came into view. He widened his eyes in surprise and drew back, then leaned in closer, darting over its features with a mixture of repugnance and curiosity. Green scaly skin reflected the dim light overhead, giving the creature a metallic sheen. Its knobby skull, covered with small sharp spines was wide at the base, and thinned out just above the cheekbones, narrowing to a fine point at the top. Orange-red slanted eyes blinked rapidly, and holes in the center of its face, flexed, like gills when it breathed. Wafer thin lips, smiled devilishly, and stretched over serrated teeth. “Who are you?” the boy asked, confused. The creature laughed. “My name is Abdon. I’m your servant,” he said and patted the boy’s shoulder with a clawed hand. Abdon rose to his feet and fluttered bat-like wings before spreading them out. He stooped over and carefully lifted the boy into his arms. “I’ll take care of you, master,” he said, clutching him close, then he lifted into the air and disappeared into the night.
Sydni Taylor bolted upright in bed when her cell phone rang on the nightstand. Automatically, she grabbed it, then let out a groan and punched the pillow beside her. “Taylor here,” she said, groggily when she answered. She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand and glimpsed at the clock beside her, mentally logging the time, a habit when she received the familiar late night wake up calls. “Wakey, wakey, compadre of mine,” the ever cheerful voice of her partner, Derrick Everett, sang into the phone. Sydni pulled a face. Derrick was one of those fortunate individuals who didn’t require much sleep. Years of living the life as a homicide detective turned him into an insomniac and the endless supply of caffeine he ingested was all the sustenance his body needed. Sydni jerked the covers back, and threw her legs over the side of the bed. “Quit playing around, Derrick. I’m on vacation. Just because you don’t have a life, doesn’t mean the rest of human society doesn’t.” “Hey,” Derrick said, mocking insult. “Is that any way to talk to your partner? How do you know I wasn’t calling to tell you how much I love you?” he teased, making kissing sounds into the phone. Sydni snorted. “Shut up!” Derrick snickered. “Sorry. Thought I’d change it up a bit, you know, make you think it was a social call instead of the usual two o’clock in the morning ‘get your ass outta bed we’ve got a stiff’ greeting. Did it work?” he asked, hopeful. “Oh, like a charm,” Sydni said, cynically. “You know how I adore being awakened in the middle of the night, and your different approaches of making sure I get no rest at all are absolutely ingenious. Tell me, Derrick, do you enjoy torturing me?” Sydni didn’t know why she got angry when called in. It wasn’t as if people chose to be murdered, or checked her schedule, making every attempt to commit crime between the hours of nine am and five pm. Maybe it was because technically, she was always on the clock. The overflowing population of creeps, scumbags and deranged assholes inhabiting The Big Apple didn’t take into consideration even God took a day of rest, leaving Sydni to believe they all banded together and formed a secret pact to commit crimes when it interrupted her slumber. “Look, I said I was sorry,” Derrick said, ruefully. “Anyway, you’ll get plenty of sleep when you’re dead. But until that day comes, my sweet little chickadee, you’ll just have to suck it up, and deal with it. They don’t call it ‘The City That Never Sleeps’ for nothing, meaning… if the bad guys don’t sleep, we don’t sleep. So, quit bellyaching and get your ass up! We’ve got a real beauty tonight, and I know you won’t want to miss out on this one,” he said.
“Where?” Sydni asked. “Central Park South,” Derrick said, becoming serious. “A civilian walking his dog spotted a dead body by The Visitor’s Center. He ran all the way up to Summit Rock and flagged down the nearest flatfoot. Poor bastard forgot about the emergency call boxes scattered all over the park. It took the patrolman a while to calm the witness and to speak clearly, and when asked where the body was located, he passed out cold. Two officers drove to the scene, when they arrived, they discovered something…unusual.” “What do you mean?” Derrick breathed a sigh into the phone. “Look, you know I don’t contribute to any mumbo jumbo bullshit, but,” he hesitated. “This isn’t your normal, run of the mill, homicide. Honestly, I wasn’t going to call, Ni Ni,” he said, calling her by the nickname he'd given her. “I mean it, I was going to team up with Green and leave you out of it. But when I arrived and saw the victim,” he said, and cleared his throat. “Let’s just say this kinda thing is right up your alley.” “That bad, huh?” “Yeah,” Derrick confirmed. “That bad.” “Who’s on scene?” “Me, Green, Shelton, a few uniformed officers collecting evidence and the coroner, Rachel Barnes. We’ve been here for a few hours; not a lot of evidence but some,” Derrick said, filling her in. “Rachel’s fixing to photo and tag the body. Better get down here while it’s still…fresh.” “I’ll be right there,” Sydni said, and snapped her cell phone shut. She threw it on the bed and pulled off her night shirt, then reached for a bra hanging on the bedpost and slipped it on, hooking it from the back. A pair of jeans and a crumpled sweatshirt lying at the foot of the bed was the closest outfit handy so she hastily put them on and walked to the bathroom. Brushing through her chestnut colored hair roughly, she pulled it back into a ponytail and secured it at the nape of her neck. After getting a good look at herself in the mirror, she grimaced and stuck out her tongue. Small red blotches dotted her sepia skin, spreading across her face and down her neck. She rubbed her wheat colored eyes with the back of her hand and opened them wide. Red-rimmed, blood shot and puffy, they made her look older than her twenty-seven years. Finishing up, she grabbed her gun, badge and car keys and headed for her 2002 Crown Vic in the parking garage of her apartment building. She turned right out of Hell’s Kitchen and onto 42nd street toward Times Square, heading to Central Park. Viewing mutilated murder victims really didn’t bother Sydni. In law enforcement, a hard heart and strong stomach was essential, and she learned to adopt professional disassociation to solve a case. But the way Derrick referred to the murder scene as “mumbo
jumbo” made her uneasy. Derrick was an excellent detective by his own right, he’d seen just about every violent act inflicted upon a victim, and his keen skills and expertise was unmatched. Sydni partnered up with Derrick two years ago, after transferring from narcotics. With both of them hailing from the South, the department figured the two were compatible. Especially since, they grew up in the same area. Derrick was from Meridian, Mississippi, a quiet town located in the center of the state, between Louisiana and Tennessee. Sydni grew up 185 miles away in New Orleans, the only child of a half-Creole half-Native American mother and African-American father. At first, she was apprehensive about Derrick. Sydni’s dealings with white Southern men in her childhood and adolescent years weren’t always pleasant, because of her bi-racial background. But Derrick was different. He didn’t share the political or cultural views of his Southern heritage and soon all doubts about him vanished. Derrick was like a brother to her and the relationship they shared was a rare jewel Sydni cherished. In all honesty, Derrick was her only friend, and Sydni confided in him every detail of her life, professionally and personally. Because of this close bond, she divulged a secret she kept to herself for many years--a secret no one else, besides her mother and father knew. Sydni stemmed from a long line of what Native American’s refer to as ‘readers’. By touching an object or a person, images projected through her, tracing its history and disclosing events leading up to the present. Her maternal grandmother, a Caddo holy woman, possessed the same unique gift, but instead of it passing on to Sydni’s mother, the genetic anomaly skipped a generation and transferred to Sydni. When Sydni’s mother recognized the signs in her early on, she helped her harness the power, and taught her how to control it. At eighteen, Sydni’s parents tragically died in a car crash. Having no living relatives or other attachments to keep her in New Orleans, she left and moved to New York. Figuring she could use the gift as a positive outlet, she joined the Police Academy. After three years as a uniformed officer, she took the detective’s exam and passed. She quickly excelled at the new position and with her supernatural sense guiding her she became one of New York City’s finest detectives. The gift, however, did have its disadvantages. On more than one occasion, Sydni made it a habit to read just about everyone she met, and the prognostic knowledge made her react strangely, especially around the opposite sex. Instead of being pleasantly surprised about a prospective relationship, she got the goods on the first date, without waiting for the natural course of time to determine the outcome. Dumping would-be boyfriends quickly earned her the reputation un-datable, and in the beginning, it didn’t bother her so much. But now, she realized her suspicious nature might have caused her never to find love. If she ever did meet Mr. Right, Sydni vowed to approach the relationship with less suspicion and more trust. Bright, twinkling neon lights cast across the windshield of the car when Sydni reached Times Square. Even in the dead of night, the hustle and bustle of the city never dwindled. She
turned left, then right on 6th Avenue, cutting over to 59th Street and entered Central Park using the southwest entrance. Driving by Heckscher House, she circled Wollman Rink past the Carousel, and parked east of The Dairy Center. She got out and walked toward the trail leading to the Visitor’s Center, flashing her badge at the officer posted at the entrance and ducked under the yellow tape sanctioning off the crime scene. Thick musty mold hung in the air from the morning dew. Sydni wrinkled her nose and followed the path to the entrance. Standing by a light post, was Derrick in a prim and proper three-piece suit, talking to a terrified looking man with a dog. Six-uniformed patrol officers from the Central Park Precinct scattered around the area, combing the perimeter for clues under the watchful eye of Detective Leo Green. A few feet away, Detective Anthony Sheldon skimmed the ground on all fours, sifting through dirt with a pen around the hedge line. Sydni cast her eyes away from them to Rachel Barnes, the coroner, squatting down and holding up the corner of a white sheet while a forensic photographer snapped pictures of the body lying beneath it. Sydni walked toward them and stopped a few feet away, clearing her throat politely. Rachel looked up and grinned, then held up a latexed gloved finger in the ‘wait one minute gesture’ while the photographer finished up. When the photographer was through, Rachel covered the body and waved Sydni over. Sydni carefully scanned the ground while she stepped, grimacing when she got closer. Droplets of dew soaked the asphalt; no way to recover any footprints. She stopped short and glanced up at the officers stomping around in the bushes beside the light pole. “You men be careful,” Sydni ordered. “There could be evidence inside the hedges. Use your flashlights and scan the ground before you step.” The police officers nodded and removed their flashlights. Sydni smiled and greeted Rachel when she moved closer. “Hey Rach, how are you?” Rachel sighed and removed a glove off her hand. “Better than this young woman,” she said, motioning to the white sheet with her head. “In all my years as coroner I’ve never seen anything this odd.” Rachel paused when laughter came from the officers by the brush and spun her head around. “Hey!” she yelled at them. “This is a crime scene not social time. Leo,” she said, glaring at the detective harshly with her brown eyes. “If the officers can’t take this seriously then they can get the hell out of here. This isn’t the time or place for jokes.” Sydni smiled amusingly. Rachel worked as forensic pathologist at Mercy Hospital for ten years before becoming chief coroner and was regarded as one of the most prestigious experts in the field. Sydni liked the feisty high-spirited Latin American woman, they’d worked many cases together, and Sydni admired her professionalism and attention to detail. Rachel kept her eyes on the men for a few seconds before turning back to Sydni and resuming their conversation. “As I was saying,” she said. “This one is a real doosie.”
“May I have a look?” Sydni inquired. Rachel nodded. “Yeah, knock yourself out,” She stepped back out of the way. Sydni crouched, grabbed the sheet by the outer fold, and threw it back. She gasped and jerked her hands behind her, then looked up at Rachel, baffled. “What the hell?” Rachel nodded, again. “I told you…weird. I don’t know what the hell to make of it.” Sydni collected herself and turned back to the body, staring wide while she ran her eyes over the remains. Crisp, mummified skin molded the skeleton, merging a half-decapitated head on the victim’s shoulder. A twisted cry formed on an open mouth, protruding a blackened tongue between shriveled lips. Two eyes, hanging by tangled knots of nerves, bulged out of deep-pitted sockets surrounded by rubbery hide. Sydni turned her head when Derrick walked up. “What did I tell you, Ni Ni,” he said, narrowing his bright green eyes and running a hand through the bristles of his close-cropped red hair. “Unusual.” Sydni draped the sheet back over the body and stood up. “Do you have an ID?” Derrick nodded, and whistled to a police officer still interviewing the witness. The officer excused himself and walked over. He handed a small fanny pack to Derrick. “This was on the body,” he said, holding it out to Sydni. “See for yourself.” Sydni grabbed the bag and pulled out a billfold, removing a New York Weekly press pass and driver’s license. She brought them up to her face, and a picture of a beautiful blond woman smiled on the card. Sydni glanced down, reading the name on the bottom then froze and looked back at Derrick, surprised. “Mm, hmm,” Derrick said. “Congressman Reggie Martin of Maryland’s daughter.” “Shit,” she muttered, and put the cards back in the bag. As soon as word got out a politician’s daughter was murdered, all hell would break loose. And since it happened on her beat, Sydni and Derrick would work a lot of overtime to catch the assailant. Mayor Perez would make damn sure of that. She handed the bag to Rachel and turned to Derrick. “Did the witness see anything?” Derrick shook his head. “No, unfortunately not. He’s really shaken up. I gave him my card and told him to contact me if he remembered anything. The officer is finishing getting his statement and then we’re letting him go home. We did however, find a pool of blood underneath the lamppost and bagged a cigarette butt located in the vicinity. Hopefully the
perp left it. You know the drill; it’ll take a while to get a DNA sample, if we can. The butt’s trampled, so we may not get any readable information.” Sydni turned back to Rachel. “What about cause of death? Any ideas?” Rachel sighed. “Not sure,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “With the body drained of fluid it’ll be difficult to determine. Probably can’t extract anything for a tox screen to see if drugs are a factor. The medical examiner will have to rely on skin and organ samples, which takes longer, maybe a couple weeks--a month? Perhaps trace evidence under the fingernails or possible fragments from the perp's clothing or DNA are present. Despite that, the head is partially severed. A complete autopsy will determine if the detachment was post mortem, or the actual cause. As for the time of death? The condition of the body is unusual, almost mummified, so that’s a big negative there, but possibly can be narrowed down by the state of the pool of blood. Blood congeals at certain stages and the photographs will help as far as that’s concerned. Detective Everett was kind enough to get a few samples, so maybe the perp's blood is mixed in with the victim’s. Let me talk to the medical examiner and I’ll see what I can do,” she said, reaching out and touching Sydni’s arm, lightly. “Well,” she said, sighing again. “If you’ll excuse me, I’d better get her bagged and sent to the lab.” “Of course,” Sydni said and smiled. When Rachel was out of earshot, Sydni turned back to Derrick. “What do you think?” she asked, keeping her voice low. Derrick looked at her quizzically. “Honestly, I don’t know,” he confessed, rubbing the back of his neck. “The pool of blood under the lamppost doesn’t suggest significant loss to cause death, but I don’t think she was killed at another location. She’s wearing athletic clothing, jogging stuff, you know. It wouldn’t make any sense to seize her, kill her and then bring her back. Why run the risk of dragging a body back to a high traffic jogging trail, even in the dead of night?” Sydni nodded in agreement. “Yeah, you’re probably right. Could be some crazy occult related thing, you know—draining the body of blood. Someone could have siphoned it out and put it in a container of sorts.” She shrugged. “Well, hopefully you can figure that one out,” Derrick said, breaking out into a wide grin. “See what you can read from the body and then work on the pool of blood under the light pole.” Sydni nodded and walked back over to Rachel standing beside Marie’s body, now loaded on a stretcher. “Hey, Rach,” Sydni said, touching her arm. Rachel turned around. “Do you mind if I take another look?” “Not at all,” Rachel said, and signaled for the paramedics to walk away. “Let me know when you’re done.” She turned on her heel and walked away. Sydni glanced behind her,
carefully unzipped the bag and peeled back the flap. Marie’s blood matted blond hair crunched like dry straw between her fingers when she placed a hand on her head and closed her eyes. Immediately flashes of Marie’s last moments alive formed in her mind. Marie’s muddled form ran through the park and stopped a few feet away from the Visitor’s Center when a dark silhouetted shape moved toward her. Sydni flashed forward and felt someone press on Marie’s lips with theirs, then grasped her by the back of the head. The next image was delusional confusion. Marie became weaker and Sydni felt her skin shrivel, tightening around her bones while the blood drained from her body. Darkness came over her and the vision was lost. Sydni shook her head to clear her thoughts. Gingerly, she zipped the bag closed and turned away, then waved to Rachel, signaling she was through. Derrick said nothing when she walked back over to him and both waited while the officers and forensic personnel finished up. When the last officer climb into a patrol unit and sped off, he turned to Sydni. “Well?” he asked, raising an eyebrow, curiously. “You were right, she was killed here. I want to read the blood before I say anything else. I saw an image of someone but I’m still fuzzy on a few things. Maybe the blood will give me a better inkling on whether more than one individual attacked her.” Derrick pointed to the light post. “Over here,” he said and led her over. Sydni stopped above the pool of blood. A fine line scattered across the pavement, not as if it flowed out of the victim and landed there. She bent to her knees and pulled a face, then laid a palm in the sticky goo. Sydni twitched and her mind floated away. Looking through the eyes of someone else, she walked toward a terrified Marie and grabbed a hold of her. Thrusting teeth entered Marie’s flesh, piercing the jugular in her neck and ripping it open. Warm iron-laced blood, sticky and thick, pumped inside her mouth, filling her cheeks and running down her throat in long drawn gulps. When there was no more blood left, Marie’s dried carcass was slung to the side and a terrible burning, like venom, ran through her body. Painful spasms, wrenched inside her stomach, twisting and coiling; she convulsed and lurched forward, vomiting on the pavement below. Marie’s ingested blood sprayed onto the concrete and saturated the ground. Sydni fell in a heap to the pavement. A strange peaceful feeling washed over her and she drifted to another place, and another body. A woman, dressed in a beautiful jeweled gown stood on a high platform and pointed over a screaming mob. Images of a medieval square ran through her, flashing sequences of two individuals burning on a great pile of wood. Smoldering wood mixed with burning flesh hung thick in the air and tiny embers floated inside heavy clouds of smoke. Sydni drew back inside the body. An indistinct shape of an inhuman face came into focus. The sandpaper feel of granite scraped against her wrist, and then she was lifted gently
into the monster’s arms. Soft flapping rustled and Sydni flew over the park, gliding into the night sky. She awoke from the spell and quickly removed her hand from the pool of blood. Derrick rushed over and helped her to her feet. “Ni Ni, you okay?” he asked, alarmed. Sydni coughed and waved him away. “I’m all right.” Derrick released her and stepped back. “What did you see, Sydni?” he asked, pulling a handkerchief out of his jacket pocket and handing it to her. Sydni grabbed the cloth and wiped her hand. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “But whatever killed Marie Martin,” she said, looking fearfully into his eyes. “It wasn’t human.”
Sitting at his home office desk in Coalmont, VA., Kellan Donnolly doodled on a notepad while he talked to his father, Simon, on the phone. He, Nicole and their three-year old daughter, Mary, left the bustling activity of New York City, and went to their country home for a much-needed vacation. Kellan took over the role of President of The National Blood Association’s U.S. division when John Westfield died. Now his responsibility was to ensure John’s legacy lived on, and guarantee the livelihood of their kind. But it wasn’t an easy task. Although Kellan and Nicole were together now, the road to their seemingly happy ending had been riddled with terrifying obstacles. And it almost killed Kellan. Shortly after Nicole was turned, she took Mary and vanished. Kellan was in a panic. His first thought was that Lucifer had kidnapped them and he and the Apostles dispatched every vampire on earth to hunt for them. The instructions were simple. Find Nicole and Mary at all costs. For days Kellan and the Apostles searched and turned up nothing. Not a clue as to where they had gone. It was like they had simply disappeared off the face of the earth. The emptiness consuming Kellan was far worse than any torture he could have endured in Hell. Every passing day without finding Nicole and Mary brought Kellan closer to the breaking point. He and Simon packed up, left the chateau in Colorado and moved to New York. Kellan knew Nicole had contacts there, her best friend, Mia for one, and thought moving there would help him find her. But his duties to the Blood Association were placed on the back burner in his quest to search for Nicole and Mary and when business began to suffer Simon granted Kellan a temporary leave. Scoping Mia turned up nothing. As the days dragged into months, Kellan’s behavior became more and more erratic. He barely fed or slept. Kellan’s appearance changed as well. His once meticulous manner of personal appearance declined. Months turned into a year with no sign of Nicole or Mary. Simon and the others decided it was time to move on and return to business as usual. But not Kellan. He never gave up hope that his daughter and Nicole would return. In a desperate attempt, Kellan went to Nicole’s father’s farm in Coalmont. It had been on the market for over a year and after questioning several residents in the area, he learned no one had even offered a bid on the place. Kellan marched down to Cate & Sons, bought it sight unseen and moved in. He thought maybe, just maybe the gesture would rouse Nicole from her hiding place. It worked. Two months later, out of the blue, Nicole re-emerged. No explanation as to why she left or where she had been. Kellan naturally was at first relieved, then furious. He demanded answers. But his actions proved futile. Nicole simply would not talk about it and told Kellan he should be grateful she came back at all. But Kellan had his theories. As a new vampire one must be taught key rules of survival by an experienced one—it is the only way. And Kellan figured
Nicole having to endure taking care of her newly acquired vampire needs, and also the needs of their mortal daughter, proved too much for her and she decided to come home. That was good enough for Kellan. And crazy as it seems, he never brought up the subject again. Simon and the others were wise and did the same. Kellan and Nicole waited until things settled down before mapping out a new life together. The first thing on the agenda was to create a new Protector for themselves and Mary. It wasn’t an easy task and finding the right person to trust was difficult. The other Apostles offered up their own Protectors, alternating them every month, until Kellan and Nicole found their own. The second thing Nicole and Kellan had to decide was whether Nicole should reconnect with her best friend, Mia Roundtree. After all, having a friend who was a vampire wasn’t exactly normal, and because Mia was mortal, Nicole wasn’t sure she’d understand. Nicole weighed the pros and cons, but it wasn’t long before she realized her friendship with Mia wasn’t something she could sacrifice. Out of respect and protocol, Nicole talked about her feelings with Simon, although she didn’t need permission. Simon agreed, but reminded Nicole of the risk of exposing not only herself, but the entire Clan as well. The plan worked relatively well and after Mia’s initial shock at discovering Nicole was a vampire, she took the news better than expected. When questioned about Nicole, she simply informed the inquirer she’d moved, reasoning that raising Mary in a small town was far better than exposing her to the dangers of a big city. As fate would have it, a tragic event occurred, putting any fears the others had to rest. Almost two years after Nicole’s transformation, Mia’s father, Edward, suffered another heart attack and died. Three months later, Mia’s mother, Sarah, followed him to the grave. To Mia’s surprise, her parents named her executor of their estate. Mia's siblings, not happy their share was in the hands of the youngest sister, procured a lawyer and contested the matter. The claim: Sarah, too grief stricken in her final days, grew mentally incompetent and unintentionally proclaimed Mia sole heir. Disgusted at her siblings greed, Mia signed over all rights and privileges of her parents assets to her oldest brother, Craig, and told him neither he, nor any of the other siblings to ever contact her again. Nicole seized the opportunity, and after a very intense discussion with Kellan, they asked Mia to be their Protector. Nicole was hesitant at first about asking Mia. Once transformed, her former life would be over. But to her delight, Mia willingly agreed and allowed Nicole to create her. When the sacred ritual was complete and Mia’s mortal body died, she slipped the iconic ruby ring on her right middle finger, signifying her new role as Protector, and vowed allegiance as guardian of her new family. Kellan and Nicole also kept the farm in Virginia as a retreat and busied themselves with a complete renovation, toiling for almost two years. Timothy Williams ran the farm in their
absence and as a token of appreciation they built another house on the property for him to live in and gave him twenty acres of land. Kellan scribbled with his eyes down and looked up when he heard a squeak in the doorway. Nicole stood in the threshold, holding their raven-haired toddler, Mary, with her favorite doll clutched to her chest. He winked at Nicole, and made a funny face at Mary, moving his hand in a yapping gesture, making her giggle. “I’m glad you’re taking a vacation, son,” Simon said on the phone. “Fresh country air is good for Mary. Just keep your eyes on her. She’s not used to playing outdoors. Don’t let her overindulge and wear herself out, after all, she’s my only granddaughter,” Simon said, proudly. Kellan rolled his eyes. “I know, Dad. Heaven forbid if she runs and plays like a normal child. Oh, and we can’t have her cavorting about and experience the wonders of nature. She might like it too much. How about this? We’ll put a padded suit on her and wrap her in bubble wrap, just to be on the safe side. Wouldn’t want her to fall and get a cut or anything, why that would be a disaster,” he taunted, covering his mouth with his hand when Nicole burst out laughing. Simon sighed. “It’s nice to see you’ve maintained a sense of humor, despite your new position in the clan,” Simon said, clearly not amused. Kellan laughed, softly. “Yeah, and it’s nice to see you’re still the same old worrisome coot. Chill out, Dad, for Christ’s sake. Mia’s with us and she’ll take good care of Mary. Timothy’s here to make sure we don’t burn the place down, so cool your jets and let us have a nice, relaxing family vacation, without calling every fifteen seconds to check on your grandchild.” Simon laughed. “All right, son. I’ll leave you to it. Give Mary a kiss from her grandfather and tell Nicole her favorite father-in-law loves her very much. And son,” Simon paused. “What?” “I love you, too.” Kellan grinned. “Right back at ya, Dad,” he said and hung up. Nicole pushed off the doorjamb and walked over to Kellan. “I swear you two are the most childish adults I’ve ever known.” She plopped Mary down on his lap and shook her head. Kellan tickled Mary playfully on the ribs before looking up at Nicole. “You know we can’t help it, honey. Dad and I have that kind of relationship. Having a father my own age is too weird…it wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t cut up with each other, and besides,” he said, raising one corner of his mouth in a sly grin. “I love busting his chops.”
Nicole giggled and placed her hands on her hips. Kellan resumed his play with Mary, goosing her while she laughed and squirmed joyfully. He picked her up and spun her around, placing the doll in his lap and holding her hands, bouncing her on his knees. “Kellan you’ll make her sick,” Nicole chided. Mary squealed happily, jostling wildly back and forth on her father’s lap. Kellan stopped bouncing Mary and spun her back around, placing his face next to hers. He put a finger on Mary’s bottom lip, then moved it up and down, speaking in a high-pitched childlike voice. “But mommy,” Kellan said out of the corner of his mouth. “I love it when Daddy plays with me. Quit being a square britches and let Daddy have fun.” Nicole threw her head back and laughed, then bent over and kissed Kellan's cheek. Kellan winked at her and smiled at Mary when she turned her head and grazed his chin with her forehead. He pressed his lips together and winced when she nuzzled against his labret stud, pushing it into his skin. “Daddy, can I have a real horse?” Mary’s smoky gray eyes glimmered. “I don’t know, pumpkin,” he said, faking seriousness. “A horse can be dangerous and I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.” Mary gave an impish look and set her jaw. She raised the doll and moved it in front of Kellan’s face, placing a small finger delicately on the doll’s lower lip and moving it up and down, mimicking his earlier gesture. “But Daddy,” she said, raising her voice higher. “Mary’s a very good girl. Aunty Mia will help her and she promises she’ll be careful, please, Daddy, let Mary have a horsy.” Kellan roared with laughter. “I tell you what. Mommy and I’ll talk about it and if she says okay, Daddy will see about getting you a horsy,” he promised, feeling Nicole's harsh glare penetrate him. “Now,” he said, lifting Mary off his lap and placing her beside him. “Daddy’s going to call Aunty Mia and she’ll take you outside to play for a while. Daddy has a few things to do and when I’m through,” he said, looking briefly up at Nicole. “I’ll see what I can do about the horse, okay?” “Thank you, Daddy!” Mary shouted and wrapped her arms around his neck, squeezing hard. Kellan returned the squeeze and kissed the soft crescent of Mary's cheek. “You’re welcome, pumpkin.” He sat back up and pushed the phone speaker button, summoning Mia. “Yes, Kellan?” Mia’s voice chimed over the speaker. “Mia, will you take Mary outside for a while? And, please bring me the New York Weekly. I want to check our stock.” “Of course.”
Nicole clucked disapprovingly and held her tongue until Mia brought what Kellan requested and took Mary out of the room. “Kellan, it’s almost noon. We need our rest and we’re supposed to be on vacation, remember? Can’t you wait and enjoy our time with our daughter? Let Bartholomew worry about the stock market for a couple of weeks.” Kellan turned in the chair and pulled Nicole down on his lap. “I’m sorry, love,” he soothed, stroking her auburn hair lightly. “I just want to check a few things. Although, I love Bartholomew dearly, you and I both know he has a tendency to cad about and lose focus. After all, he managed to lose you. Remember?” he asked, grinning. Nicole laughed. “Oh, how could I forget? Having our child delivered by a demon is not something I care to go through again. But all in all,” she said, rubbing his cheek lightly. “I think it was worth it.” Kellan smiled and brought his lips to Nicole's, kissing her deeply. Nicole returned the kiss and hugged him close. The phone intercom buzzed and Kellan jumped with a start. Reluctantly, he broke away from Nicole, and pressed the button. “Yes, Mia,” Kellan said, not hiding the irritation in his voice. “Sorry, Kellan. Simon’s on line one. He says it’s imperative he speak with you.” Kellan grumbled and gently scooted Nicole off his lap. “Would you please inform my father I’m in the middle of making out with my wife and I’ll call him later? Good Lord, Mia. What do I pay you for?” he asked, flinching when Nicole slapped his back, lightly. Mia huffed into the speaker. “Hey, you don’t pay me at all you bloodsucking ass. And I told him you were busy. But you know Simon. He won’t take go to hell for an answer, and if you want peace, you’d better take this call; otherwise, you’ll have to deal with my grouchy ass right along with his. Want me to put him through or spend the rest of the day listening to the gripes of your beloved employee?” she inquired, smugly. Kellan shook his head. “Yes, Mia, put him through. Oh, and Mia?” “Yes, spawn of hell?” “You know I love you. Right?” he teased. “Geez! Whatever!” Mia fumed and hung up. Kellan was still laughing when he answered the phone. “Gee, Dad, you’ve set a new record,” he said, without saying hello. “You actually waited a whole twenty minutes before calling and checking on Mary. Brava, Dad! You’re improving.”
“Yes, I’m sorry Kellan,” Simon apologized. “Mia said you were busy, but I’m afraid I have some news that can’t wait,” he said, sounding a little shaken. Kellan became serious. “What is it, Dad?” “Put me on speaker, Kellan. Nicole needs to hear this, too.” Kellan pressed the speaker button and laid the receiver back on its cradle. “All right, Dad, go ahead.” Simon cleared his throat. “Have you seen the latest edition of The New York Weekly?” Kellan furrowed his brow. “No, not yet, but it’s right in front of me. I brought a copy with me to take a quick look at our stock, but,” he said, smiling devilishly. “I got a little… distracted.” Simon remained silent for a second, then continued. “Kellan, look at the front page.” “Hold on, Dad.” Kellan grabbed the paper by the corner and slid it toward him. Nicole leaned over his shoulder, placing her face next to his and read to herself, when he brought the paper up and scanned the headline. MUMMIFIED CORPSE OF CONGRESSMAN’S DAUGHTER FOUND IN CENTRAL PARK. POSSIBLE BIZARRE OCCULT RITUAL COULD BE MOTIVE Kellan scoffed and threw the paper back on the desk. “Dad, so what? Why is a reporter’s murder important?” Simon sighed. “Kellan, the reporter's murder isn’t the issue. It’s how she was killed. Read the article, Kellan. Read it and then tell me it’s not important.” Kellan grabbed the paper again, and angrily shuffled it when he brought it back up. He perused a few paragraphs, irritated again, not reading anything at all of importance. When he read the details of the reporter’s death, he gripped the edges of the paper, tightly. A sudden recollection of a story Simon told him not long after his rebirth came to him. He dropped the paper to his lap and leaned back in the chair. “Dad, do you think…?” he asked, reaching up and pulling at his labret stud nervously. “I’m not sure, son. We must contact the Apostles and assemble at the Gathering Place,” Simon said, firmly. “You, too Nicole. I’ll do some checking and then join you when I know for sure.” “What do you want us to do before you get there?” Kellan asked. “Make sure Mary is taken care of. Until we find out she's in danger, the safest place for her is the farm. I’ll contact the Apostles. In the meantime, you fill Nicole in. I’ll call you once the Apostles are ready to leave,” Simon said.
“Dad,” Kellan protested. “I don't feel comfortable leaving Mary here. What if this is a trick to get us all away? She'll be vulnerable.” Simon sighed loudly. “Kellan, I'm afraid as long as Mary lives she'll never be safe.” Kellan held a hand over his eyes and shook his head. “You're right, Dad,” he removed his hand from his face and laid it on the desk. “Please, Dad,” Kellan said softly. “Hurry.” “I will, son,” he said and hung up. Kellan turned off the speakerphone, then took in a long breath and rubbed his temples. Nicole patted Kellan’s shoulder lightly. “Kellan?” she asked, apprehensive. “What the hell is going on?” Kellan turned around in the chair, pulled Nicole close, and laid his head on her abdomen. “Baby,” he said, closing his eyes. “If it is what I think it is, we’ve got a big problem."
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