These are the first few chapters from the first book in a new series.
Make sure you are not alone, and put the lights on, before reading Chapter Four:
Black thunderheads obscured by the oppressive night air. Closer they move; drawn into explosive detonation. The first thunderclap announced a prodigious tempest. The strengthened glass wall shuddered as the sound waves tried to penetrate the quiet interior with their full force. Anka Syzmanski’s step hung suspended for a fraction of a second; the hallway lit with jagged electric blue. She completed the step; started another.
The lights went out.
Another celestial drumroll; quicker now, the storm approaching fast.
Seconds passed; she waited. Fighting against the darkness, the emergency lighting sputtered into action.
Plick, plick, plick, plick.
Spattering against the glass separating wet from dry, the rain began. A heavenly tap opened; grime swabbed down the transparent wall by sluicing torrents; lightning filtered through cascading wash forming eccentric shadows.
Syzmanski’s shoes picked up their clipping rhythm; pounding heels a counterpoint to the drubbing rain, announcing to all nocturnal dwellers: Beware! The night Nurse cometh.
She fell into her routine: step close, depress handle, open door, insert torso, listen, watch, decide; alive or gone? Gone meant a retreat to the Nurses’ station and a quick phone call. Alive meant close the door, move to the next room.
Syzmanski eased the door to room 359.
Listen: the shallow, laboured breathing.
Watch: no perceptible movement from the woman in the bed.
Alive… for now.
Windows rattling; another cracking roar as the storm ramped up. Close the door.
* * * * *
Nurse Syzmanski’s fleeting interruption done, a shadowy shape lowered itself from its hiding place under the metal-framed bed.
Ralph Graham and Amy Bree were cold. Toes no longer felt; lower legs going the same way. If they had to exit quickly from the panel truck now, they hoped adrenalin would overcome the lethargy they felt. Amy raised the binoculars for what seemed the millionth time that night, sweeping her magnified gaze over the single-story detached house on the outskirts of Houston. Although it was late, her wristwatch showed past two a.m., a fine tendril of smoke drifted lazily from the chimney, evidence of a cozy fire allowed to burn out after all had turned in for the night. Amy’s mind went to the soft couches in the large lounge; the warmth radiating from the stone fireplace; the comfortable beds with down to fight off the damp chill… She shook her head. No. She had never been in that house; hoped she never would.
She looked over at Ralph, sitting bored alongside. Two peas in a pod; cut from the same cloth. That’s what people said about them. Behind their backs, and often to their faces, they were just geeks. No mind they had both passed the physical and mental testing all Field Agents had to take; only just for Ralph in the case of the physical stuff, but a pass nevertheless. The commentaries were correct, however.
Both had excelled as students, gaining top honours. Both had IQs north of 150. Both had special abilities. Both were extremely competitive and ambitious, nurtured in a society that reduced everything to winning or losing. They were winners, yes; just not in the race they wished to run.
They both harboured secret desires. Once, some months ago at the party for Ralph’s retiring department head, with tongues loosened by liquid, they had confessed these wishes. Astounded to discover coincidence, as well as frustration, they had vouched to help each other win the prizes they wanted; not those imposed by others.
After University, Ralph could have gone to any of the Seattle or Silicon Valley computer software conglomerates; with some business experience thrown in, could have been another guru of Information Technology in ten years. But not him; he wanted to carry a gun. He applied to, and was recruited by, the FBI.
After an equally outstanding stint studying at MIT, Amy could have taken her talent for puzzle solving to NASA or any number of high-flying University or research outfits. Perhaps she would end up, one day in the not too distant future, working in the huge, secret National Security Agency data centre in Utah. Not what she wanted though; she needed to use her special talent in the field. She had also applied to the FBI.
Both had spent a little over seven years as junior Field Agents in small FBI offices, making up the numbers on raids, pushing paper around desks, fetching coffee for the Senior Special Agents; generally gestating disappointment. This was not their goal. It was, unfortunately in the rigid structure of the Bureau, a necessary rite of passage. Then, their talents had been noted.
Again, matters did not quite work out as planned. They were both now in the Behavioural Science Unit at the FBI’s training facility in Quantico. There they had met for the first time: Ralph developing software to provide Artificial Intelligence Support for various Field Units; Amy assigned to problem-solving methodologies and Crisis Intervention. Neither was where they wanted to be.
That changed today…
…just not officially.
“Any coffee left?” Ralph’s southern drawl made the sentence seem longer than three words.
“We drank the last an hour ago. I could go and find somewhere.” It was not really a question; Amy had no intention of leaving their stakeout.
“Forget it.” He yawned. “Any movement?”
“Nothing. It’s been over three hours since she turned in.” For the first time since they had discussed the night’s venture, an element of doubt rose in Amy’s mind. “What if we’re wrong?”
Ralph pondered this for a while; breaking the question down, exploring multiple logical paths, finally reaching a conclusion.
“If we are, then nothing’s lost. If we aren’t…” Left hanging in the frigid air of the panel truck.
“Let’s give it another hour.” Amy stretched, willing warmth to her toes.
It had been Ralph’s idea, although convincing Amy was the work of seconds. He had been loaned temporarily to the prestigious Behavioural Analysis Unit Team 2, the serial-killer catchers, to write some bespoke software for their latest investigation. The Blood Sucker, the uninspiring name by which this particular Unknown Subject was christened by the Media, had the BAU team stumped. Over sixteen months and thirteen gruesome murders; the victim’s blood, all of it, painted on the walls of their homes. Four States; children, adults and the elderly; males and females; college students, bankers, even one police officer. No clues. No connections between the victims. No suspects. No end in sight.
Ralph suggested they should take on, and of course, solve, the mystery. Combine Amy, and her uncanny ability to find clarity in confusion, with his knack of creating complex decision-tree designs he could rapidly convert to the zeroes and ones of the computers. That would get them noticed. That would get them where they wanted to be.
He tried to approach the BAU Supervisory Special Agent, but geeks had no credibility for this seasoned law enforcement professional. So one evening, when the BAU team were off looking at the fourteenth murder scene, Ralph used his temporary key card to allow Amy into the BAU Team 2 office.
The corkboard walls were covered with full-colour photographs of the preceding crime scenes. They had a predominantly red tint. Amy tried to relax, forcing down the bile the bloody images threatened to expel from her stomach. Ralph was less successful and made abundant use of a plastic wastebasket. Neither she nor Ralph had any experience of this sort of crime scene gore.
On a desk they found a folder containing reports and images of the latest killing. This was different. Five victims, a complete family, yet only one had been singled out for exsanguination and wall-painting. What was so special about this teenager?
Amy sat at an empty desk and started to turn the pages of the latest report. Victimology, investigating what connected the objects of such violence, is a technique often used by the BAU’s profilers to try to identify where, when, who had been the common factor. Amy turned a page in the profiler’s notes about the family’s history. When the mental light bulb lit, she smiled and called Ralph over.
“Look, five years ago.” She pointed to a brief annotation. “I’ve seen this also in the other three case histories you showed me, and all about the same time. Let’s check all the victim reports.”
Another half hour; all but two of the reports showed the same detail. The two that didn’t were the first cases. Ralph said he would make some phone calls and scuttled off.
The cold in the panel truck had become almost unbearable for Amy. Amazingly, it did not seem to bother Thin Ralph as much. He was proud of having used his FBI credentials to obtain this vehicle from the Police impound lot when they had flown into Houston earlier that day. This small victory empowered him in his eyes and he was determined to enjoy it to the full. He had tilted the driver’s seat back several degrees, to observe the house better he had said, and was now semi-reclining with his head tilted away, resting on the doorframe. It would have been a sell, if it were not for the gentle snoring coming from his obstructed sinuses.
Over at the house, nothing had changed; or had it?
Amy wasn’t sure; it could have been a trick of the light. For a fleeting second, her own eyes not entirely focused on their target, something, someone had moved past one of the front windows. This in itself would not be unusual. On many occasions she had risen from a warm bed to visit the bathroom, or the kitchen for a glass of water, even some ice cream, in the middle of the night. Yet, in all those instances, she had switched on the room lights.
The house was still in darkness. If they had tried to have their vigilance sanctioned, maybe, perhaps, they could have brought some night-vision scopes. Instead she had her own binoculars, which she now raised to straining eyes.
The slight humidity in the air made the grey bricks of the dwelling shine in the moonlight. Could it have been the shadow of a branch from the trees in their target’s yard, caught in the moonbeams as some nocturnal bird made it move? Everything was possible; more so from the safety of Ralph’s sequestered panel truck. She dug Ralph in the ribs, eliciting a cacophony of grunts and gripes.
“I think I saw something. I’m going to take a look.” Her right hand went to the holster on her hip. Simultaneously, she tapped her left inside ankle with her right foot. Amy pulled back on the door handle. The roof-mounted courtesy light flickered on. She pulled the door closed; the light went off. Reaching up, she sought the plastic switch that killed the light, prepared to break the fixture if it became necessary. Her fingers felt the rough edges of the switch and pushed it to a position as far from opposite to where it had been. The door pull did not illuminate the panel truck’s cabin this time. She slid from her seat and stood outside. Ralph was now awake, watching her.
“I’m going to take a walk round the house; check if all the doors are locked. If I’m not back in a couple of minutes…” She left the phrase hanging. She had no idea what she expected Ralph to do, alone, if she did not return. Amy shook her head and took a tentative step toward the house.
As she crossed the street, she drew the standard issue Glock 22 from her hip. Despite the Firearms Instructor’s insistence that the gun’s three separate safety mechanisms meant she could, and should, have a round in the chamber at all times, Amy did not trust the weapon not to go off and injure someone. She remembered now to work the slide, forcing a round from the magazine into the chamber. She had never had to shoot in anger. Even on the four raids in which she had participated, she had been in the last contingent of agents, armed with repeating shotguns. By the time she had reached the fray, it had always been well and truly over. Now she was leading; her backup, pray he hasn’t snoozed off again, at an ever-increasing distance.
She could almost feel the adrenalin course through her veins. Her fingers and toes tingled. Her hands were shaking.
She reached the low wall and black-painted railings at the front of the property. Reaching out, she unlatched the metal gate that gave onto the path to the front door. The hinges squealed as she pushed it inward, just enough to slip through. Four steps. Five. Behind her the gate crashed shut. She spun round, her gun levelled as they had taught her in Quantico. Should have closed it herself.
All pretence of stealth was now a thing of the past.
She ran to the front door and pushed with her left palm.
It was firmly locked. Moving along the grey brick wall to her left, she reached the large window, showing the lounge beyond. The moon’s rays illuminated enough for her to make out the fireplace, with its dull red embers, and a large screen TV. To their right, a couch and a single cloth-covered lounge chair. All empty.
Amy kept moving reaching the end of the wall, peering around. Nothing. No one. She moved down the side of the house, passing a tall hedge. A few feet from the rear, a door with a single, broad, stone step. She peeked through a vertical glass slit set at head height. The kitchen. She could not see anyone inside. A big kitchen knife was lying on the central island. Its blade and handle shining in the light filtering through lace curtains.
Amy placed her hand on the doorknob and turned. She expected resistance; a locked door. The knob turned smoothly; the door swung toward her. She was tempted to go back to the panel truck; fetch Ralph. A sense of urgency filled her. If they were right; if it was here, now, the house occupant could be in deadly danger. Amy realised just how much Ralph and her had screwed things up. No one knew they were here. They had not even left a note for their bosses, or anyone in the BAU. That meant she was on her own… with Ralph.
Amy pulled the door wide and entered. She sniffed. Something in the air. A faint tinge. A slightly metallic odour. She stepped forward; her pistol held straight-armed before her; the smell stronger.
She traversed the kitchen, emerging on a short hallway that led to the lounge. Amy poked her gun around the corner and swept her arms from left to right. No targets presented themselves. Apart from the stench, now much more pervasive, all seemed in order. She crossed the lounge, stopping briefly to peer behind the couch, before leaving it behind.
At the far side, another hallway ran toward the back. She could make out four doors on the right, and one on the left at the end. Bathroom and bedrooms, she supposed. The occupier lived alone, so several of the bedrooms would be empty, she thought. Amy stepped across the hallway to the first door.
A doorknob; a quick turn; an explosive push: a bathroom.
Amy suppressed a cough. She had been holding her breath; since when, she did not know. She inhaled deeply, almost gagging on the aroma impregnating the air. What was that smell?
She forced herself to step down the hallway, nearing the second door. If this were my house, where would I sleep? Which would be my bedroom? Probably the closest to the bathroom.
Amy reached the door. She could hear her own blood booming in her ears, creating a hypnotic drumbeat inside her head. Her hands felt sweaty; her feet were ice cold. She held her breath again. The door was partially open; a few inches. She placed her left hand against the wood and pushed gently.
The door imploded. Something grabbed her extended arm and pulled. The force propelled her across the room, up against the far wall, a couple of feet off the ground. It was too dark to see who had attacked her. It might be the house owner. She raised her gun-hand. Shocked, she realised the impact with the bedroom wall had shaken her grip on the Glock. She tried to crouch, her right hand reaching for her BUG, the backup gun strapped to her left ankle.
Someone grabbed her throat. Pressure from immensely powerful fingers pressed on her trachea. Tears jumped into her eyes. She felt numb; could sense life sliding away.
Summoning her will to survive; she lashed out, scoring a solid kick against a well-muscled body. She felt herself lifted; her feet leaving the ground. More kicking. The attacker absorbed the blows without as much as a grunt. Amy tried punching ribs, just as Quantico’s Instructors had insisted. There, your opponent would release their hold and go down; here…
Amy felt herself thrown against the floor of the bedroom. Her hands scrabbled about, looking for something to use as a weapon. The attacker was on top of her. She could not reach her backup gun.
The attacker now used both hands on her throat. The pressure increased exponentially. Amy felt her neck would snap at any moment.
A yell. Far, far away. Receding.
Suddenly the hands were gone. She sensed movement. Fast, flowing; like a big cat.
She could hear the sounds of struggle from the hallway. A gunshot, loud in the narrow space. Something small thrown, clattering down the corridor.
Amy struggled upright, snatching the backup Glock 27 from its nest on her ankle. She commanded her trembling fingers to pull back on the slide. Stumbling. The bedroom door. More light. A crumpled figure, limbs strewn against the wall.
Outlined against the lounge doorway, a large shape paused, looking back, eyes seeming to glow. She raised her pistol and emptied the magazine; panic, fear, pulling the trigger until no rounds remained.
She peered through the smoky haze. The figure had gone.
She looked down. Ralph lay still. She saw his gun on the floor near the lounge doorway. Amy powered herself forward, scooping up the weapon, feeling Ralph’s warmth still on the butt, rushing into the lounge.
On the far side, the moonlight showed a huge figure. Her mind, assailed by unfamiliar sensations, multiplied its height and girth. It filled the passageway leading toward the kitchen.
She started pulling the trigger again; her training forgotten, her eyes closed; primeval hate for hurting Ralph drowning all rational thought.
Amy opened her eyes when the detonations stopped. There was no corpse on the floor, brought down by her reckless gunfire. The figure had left.
She reached to her left hip, extracting one of the two spare magazines in their belt support. Reloading was a series of clicks, familiar from the range, yet alien in this suburban home. She rushed across the space and emerged into the hallway. Running now. The kitchen empty. Its door hanging lopsided, hit with tremendous impetus.
Care to the wind, Amy charged outside.
Left. Right. Gun barrel seeking a target. God help anyone who came to see what the shooting was about. Amy was primed. She wanted blood.
A distant siren moaned. Then another.
Amy retreated inside, still gripping Ralph’s weapon. She hit the lights in the kitchen.
Spotless. Except for the blood-stained kitchen knife on the central island.
She entered the lounge. Lights on. Crimson footprints, two sets, traversed the cream-coloured rug before the fireplace.
She stepped into the hallway. Lights. Ralph’s body lay unmoving. Amy knelt alongside, feeling for a pulse. He was gone.
She stood, wearily. A couple of steps brought her to the bedroom.
The hallway light illuminated blood-soaked walls, smeared where her body had collided.
She stepped gingerly inside.
The smell hit her.
Amy spun, directing the vomit into the hallway, careful, as her stomach heaved uncontrollably, not to defile Ralph’s body.
* * * * *
Scary, huh? Well, it gets far worse for Amy.
Read the full novel now as an e-book devices or in Paperback
Want more novels featuring Amy and Katie?
the CULL continues in Bloodstone, Blood Feud and Blood Demon!
The final volume in the series, Blood Kill, out 2016.