Authors: Frank Peretti
There she was. The dead woman. Ben couldn’t see her face; Mulligan was in the way. But she was dressed all in black, and lay on her back in the straw, her body and limbs twisted and limp as if someone had wadded her up and thrown her there.
Ben shined his light around the inside of the shed. The beam fell on a plaid shirt next to the body. Apparently Mulligan hadn’t seen it. He reached in and picked it up. It was stained with blood.
“Hey, Harold, look at this.”
Mulligan spun around as if rudely surprised. “Cole! Get back to the Potters and get a statement from them!”
“Yes, sir. But take a look at this.”
Mulligan didn’t take it—he grabbed it. “Go on, get over there. We can handle things at this end.”
Leonard was shining his light at the woman’s face and Ben caught his first glimpse of it. She was young and beautiful, but dead—violently dead. The expression on the face was blank, the eyes dry and staring, the shoulder-length black hair a tangled shadow upon the straw.
Ben didn’t know he was staring until Mulligan hollered at him.
“Cole! Have you seen enough? Get moving!”
Ben got out of there, and hurried back across the field to the Potters’ house. His mind was racing. This was going to be a bigger case than they’d thought. The appearance of that body, the bloodied shirt, the spilled feed, the obvious violence . . .
This was no suicide.
The aid crew drove away in the aid car, their work completed. Ben put on a calm demeanor as he went up the porch steps. The Potters heard him coming and immediately came to the door.
“Hi. I’m Officer Ben Cole.”
Ben extended his hand, and Fred took it.
Fred stared at Ben just a little. “Have we met before?”
“No, sir. I’m new in Bacon’s Corner. I’ve been here about four months.”
“Oh . . . well, welcome to the neighborhood. Things aren’t usually this exciting around here.”
“Of course, sir. Uh, with your permission, I’d like to get a statement.”
Cecilia opened the door. “Please come in . . . Ben, was it?”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”
Fred and Cecilia took their place on the couch and offered Ben a chair facing them. He took out his notepad.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“Oh . . . fair,” said Fred.
Cecilia just shook her head. “Poor Sally.” Tears returned to her eyes. “This is just awful. It’s terrifying.”
Ben spoke gently. “I . . . understand it was you who first found her?”
“Did you touch her or move her in any way?”
Cecilia was repelled by the very thought. “No. I didn’t go near her. I didn’t even look at her face.”
“About what time was this?”
Ben jotted these items down. “Now, why don’t you just tell me everything that happened?”
She started telling him about the goats being out, and about the nanny goat trying to butt her, and then tried to remember what she did to get that goat back to the pen, and then a strong opinion took precedence over her narrative and she blurted, “I think somebody killed her!”
Fred was shocked at that, of course. “What? What gives you that idea?”
Ben had to get control of this. “Uh . . . we’ll work on that when the time comes. But for now you need to tell me what you saw . . . just what you saw.”
She told him, and it wasn’t much different from what he himself had seen. “I didn’t want to see her that way. I just didn’t stay there.”
“Okay. Can you tell me the victim’s full name?”
“Sally Roe. She was such a quiet sort,” Cecilia said, her face full of grief and puzzlement. “She never said much, just kept to herself. We enjoyed having her for a renter. She was clean, responsible, we never had any trouble from her. Why would anyone want to hurt her?”
“So you can’t think of anyone who might . . . have some kind of grievance or grudge against her?”
“No. She was a very private sort. I don’t remember ever seeing her having company or visitors.”
“Can you think of anything else that may have seemed out of the ordinary?”
“Did you see the feed spilled on the ground?”
“Someone may have jumped out and grabbed her.”
“Uh-huh. Anything else?”
“I saw a long piece of rope in her hand. Maybe it was to tie the goats, I don’t know.”
Ben noted it.
There were loud footsteps on the porch. It was Sergeant Mulligan.
He let himself in, and removed his hat.
“Well, folks, it’s been quite an evening. We’ve seen a real tragedy here. Got their statement, Cole?”
Ben rose and looked over his notes. “Just what Mrs. Potter saw initially. I suppose—”
Mulligan took the notes from Ben’s hand and looked them over.
Ben finished his thought. “I suppose once we check the house and comb the area we’ll have more to go on.”
Mulligan didn’t seem to hear him. “Umm. Okay, I’ll get these typed into the report.” He pocketed Ben’s notes and told the Potters, “Guess she hung herself from the rafters of the shed, who knows why.”
“Hung herself?” said Cecilia in surprise.
“How about any suicide notes? Did you find anything like that around?”
Cecilia was still taken aback. “No . . . no, I—”
“Well, we’ll be checking the scene over tonight and maybe we’ll find something.” He headed out the door again. “Cole, go ahead and call it a day. Leonard and I will check the area over and wait for the coroner.”
“You say it was a
?” Ben asked, following him out the door.
“Cut and dried,” said Mulligan.
“Well . . . maybe.”
Mulligan got impatient with that kind of response. “What do you mean, ‘maybe’?”
“Well, you saw what it looked like in there . . .”
“Yeah, I saw it all, and you didn’t.”
“But Mrs. Potter did. The body wasn’t hanging when she found it. It was lying in the straw just like when we first saw it.”
Mulligan turned back toward the rental. “Go on home, Cole. Don’t worry about things that aren’t your responsibility.”
Mulligan headed across the field, cutting the conversation short. Ben went back to his car and sat in it with the door open, flipping through his notepad. He clicked his pen and started scribbling some notes to himself, things he wanted to remember: “plaid shirt with blood . . . position of body suggests violence . . . spilled feed . . . rope in hand, not around neck . . . victim not hung . . .”
JUST OUTSIDE CLAYTONVILLE
, Sally turned off the highway onto an obscure, overgrown and rutted road that meandered deep into the forest, winding around trees and stumps, passing under low limbs, dipping into black mudholes, and making the old pickup buck and rock with every new pothole, rut, bump, and turn. This road—or maybe it was a trail—had probably been used by surveyors and developers, but now was kept in existence only by kids on dirt bikes and perhaps an equestrian or two. Maybe somewhere back in here she could find a good spot to abandon the truck.
She finally found what looked like a turnaround or dead end, a short section of once-cleared area the dirt bikers hadn’t found yet, quickly being reclaimed by the thick brush. She cranked the wheel hard and let the pickup push its way forward, plowing through the brush and flattening the weeds that rose in front of the headlights.
Far enough. She turned off the lights and shut down the engine.
And then she sat there, her elbows on the wheel and her head in her hands. She had to hold still for just a minute. She had to think, to assess the situation, to sort out thought from feeling. She didn’t move for a minute, and then another, and then another. The only sound was her own breathing—she was conscious of every breath—and the steadily slowing
tink, tink, tink
of the engine cooling. It occurred to her how still it was out in these woods, and how dark it was, and especially how lonely it was. She was alone in the darkness, and no one knew.
But to the business at hand:
How about it, Sally? Do you keep going or do you give up? You can always call them, or send them a letter, and just let them know where you are so they can come and finish the job. At least then it will all be over and you won’t have to wait so long to die.
She drew a long, tired breath and leaned back from the steering wheel.
Such thoughts, Sally, such thoughts!
she finally admitted to herself,
no—I want to live. I don’t know why, but I do. I don’t know how much longer, but I will. And that’s all I know for now.
That’s all I know. But I wish I knew more. I wish I knew how they found me . . . and why they want to kill me.
She clicked on the dome light—it would only be for a second—and reached into her jacket pocket for a small object. It was a ring, ornate, probably pure gold. She took a close and careful look at it, turning it over and over in her fingers, trying to make out the strange design on its face. It made no sense to her, try as she might to understand what it could mean. For now, she only knew one thing for sure about this ring—she’d seen it before, and the memories were her worst.
She clicked off the dome light. Enough sitting. She put the ring back in her pocket, took the keys from the ignition, and opened the door. In this deep, surrounding quiet, the dry, dirty hinges seemed to scream instead of groan. The sound frightened her.
The dome light came on again, but then winked out as she closed the door as quietly as possible, which still amounted to a pretty loud slam. Now the only light in the middle of that thick, forlorn forest was gone. She could hardly see, but she was determined to get out of these woods even if she had to feel her way out. She had to get moving, get someplace safe. She pressed on, fighting the brush as it pulled at her legs, scratched her with its thorns, jabbed at her out of the dark. Somewhere ahead was that old roadway where the ground was still bare and walkable. She only had to find it.
Underneath a fallen log, deep down in a dark and rotted pocket, two yellow eyes were watching her, two taloned hands curled in hate. The thing let out a little snicker as she stumbled past.
In the low, overhanging branch of a tree, another spirit crouched like a grotesque owl, its black wings hanging at its sides like long, drooping curtains, its head not more than a knob above its shoulders. The yellow eyes were following her every move.
They were out to do Terga’s wishes; they hoped to appease Destroyer.
She made it to the old roadway; she could feel firm, bare ground under her feet and discern just a little more light ahead of her. She quickened her pace. She was starting to feel like a little girl again, afraid of the dark, afraid of unseen horrors, longing for some light to drive all the spooks away.
Two black shapes hovering just above the roadway waited for her to pass beneath them. They drifted in little back-and-forth patterns, floating on unfurled, shadowy wings, their long, spindly legs and arms
hanging down like spiders’ legs, each tipped with long, clawed talons that flexed and curled with anticipation.
Sally stopped. Did the roadway turn here?
Come on, girl, don’t get lost. That’s all you need.
Three more spirits, some of Terga’s worst, sailed down through the trees like vultures gathering for a feast. They came in behind her, slobbering and cackling, jostling each other to get closer.
Sally thought she saw the roadway again, heading off to her left. She tried that direction. Yes, she’d found it. But her legs were getting weak. Her heart was beating against her ribs like it wanted out.
No, please, not again, no more . . .
But it was fear, all right, the old-fashioned kind—the kind she’d lived with for years. Just when she thought she’d gotten rid of it, escaped from it, forgotten it, here it was, back again, as fierce as ever, digging into her, scrambling her thoughts, making her tremble, sweat, stumble.
Her old friends were back.
She passed under the two hovering demons.
“YAAAK!” they screamed, enveloping her with sulfur.
The spirits following behind slapped through her soul with their black wings.
She pitched forward into the dirt, a muffled cry in her throat. She struggled to get her legs under her again, to get moving again. Where was that road?
The spirits alighted on her back and dug their talons in deep.
She covered her mouth tightly with her hands, trying to keep a cry inside, trying to keep quiet. She couldn’t get her balance. Something was after her. She had to get away. She was still trying to get up.
The demons gave her a stab and a kick, cackling and shrieking with delight, and then they let her go.
She was on her feet again. She could see the roadway and she ran, her arms in front of her face to block the forest limbs that slapped and grabbed her. She could hear some traffic out on the highway. How much further?