chapter one copy 2.png

  December 20, 2010

 

  Devon knew that feeling as it gnawed away in the back of her mind. It was a feeling that had haunted her childhood and most of her adolescent life, a feeling she dreaded most.

 

  Moments ago, the passing treetops looked as if they were ablaze as the sunset over the mountains. Devon was now halfway through her ocean journey from Vancouver back to the city she had just left. During her travels, her mind would usually be captivated by the passing islands or entranced by the white and black foam trailing from the propeller blades of the massive ferry. Instead, she gazed numbly out upon the dark water drifting past, feeling lost. The passage between Vancouver Island and Vancouver was a secret love of Devon’s. 

  Her adopted father, Mark, moved across the water to Vancouver just over two years ago for a new job, but even before that, she never was short of excuses to visit the mainland whenever she could. Most people dreaded the rising ferry costs or complained about the two hours it took for such a short trip. Instead, she tuned them out; there was something about the distinctive West Coast scenery and the ocean scent that always excited her. Today she stood freezing on the empty deck, too anxious to sit inside and too impatient to get there. The blue hue from her cell phone screen lit up the inside of her hood as she checked the time. It was only six pm. Another two hours, and she would be back in Victoria, the city she had called home for the last seven years. Her outgoing call list read nothing but the same number over and over, repeating down the screen with the name Derrick beside it.

  Derrick was one of the first few people Devon met when she came to Victoria. He and his father lived next door to Mark in a small two-bedroom house. Derrick was only a few months older than her and the first guy she ever felt safe enough to let past her web of trust issues. After the transient upheaval of her youth, she moved in with Mark at the age of fourteen, where Devon’s life became exceptionally different. Finally, she was safe, allowing herself to start untangling her inner labyrinth. Finding a family in her adopted father’s home, building genuine friendships, and falling in love with Derrick left her in a state of detachment from her past. Like an old friend, that feeling reacquainted itself just two weeks before spending Christmas together. If that wasn’t bad enough, Derrick ended their relationship with a cryptic email telling Devon that he no longer wanted her in his life and that he was sorry. With no response to her replies, she felt misplaced. Staying in Victoria, alone and surrounded by reminders of what she lost, was an option she couldn’t shoulder. Not wanting to burden friends with her emotional baggage, she decided to escape the island by traveling to Vancouver. Her father’s company was just the shelter she needed from this emotional storm.

  Devon had never really experienced the dissolving of a relationship on this level. In her mid-teens, she dated a few boys that ended because her heart was never truly invested. It wasn’t until they were nineteen that Derrick finally told her how he felt. His confession was a relief to her since she had just initiated their first kiss. 

  Even so, her pride was not the kind to send her running to confront him like some crazy ex-girlfriend. She had witnessed her friends dealing with jealous exes and swore she would never let herself go down that road. The reason for her venture across the water back to Victoria was more severe than a broken heart or torn ego. It was after she had received a panicked phone call from a mutual friend who told her that Derrick had been absent from work for over a week and was not returning anyone’s calls. For seven years, she had known Derrick, and not once had he taken a day off work. Even when he was sick, he would endure the day to not let anyone down. That phone call was the final push into action, but the real driving force of her heart was her period being two months late. In the coming days, she would have received a call from the clinic to prove or disprove her results after an at-home pregnancy test showed positive. Devon didn’t want to discuss it with him on this visit. Instead, she decided to wait to determine if the pregnancy was official before saying anything to him.

  That feeling presented itself again: churning her stomach like the propeller churned the water below. An old friend, she trusted this feeling more than she trusted most people. This feeling was her protector, a warning that always held true. After spending most of her childhood in and out of foster care, Devon learned early what the outcome of this feeling would bring. Its outcome was this; bad tidings were upon her.

 

 

 

  In a daze, Devon stepped off a curb. What seemed like moments before, when she had stepped onto the bus platform outside the ferry, had vanished in a sea of memories. She didn’t even recall the ride or how she got here, but she pushed on, making her way across the empty road. Having spent her teen years on the streets of downtown Vancouver, she was accustomed to being surrounded by actual skyscrapers. She would simply smile, never one to crush Derrick’s excitement when he talked about the view from his eighth-story condo. It wasn’t nearly as impressive as some of the places she had witnessed, but all that mattered was that he was happy. Derrick had never left Vancouver Island, not even to cross the water to Vancouver. In a way, she found beauty in his simple nature. The height of his building might not have impressed her, but still, to this day, Devon was never sure how Derrick could afford such an extravagant place across from the park, especially on a meager bank teller’s salary. Since they worked together at the bank, she knew what sort of income he had. Devon chalked it up to Derrick’s savings; he had always been frugal with his spending. At least, he used to be frugal. In the past year, he also started investing in his wardrobe. Not just in the quality of his clothes but also his style had drastically changed. If anyone other than Derrick was doing this, she could have seen it as a façade. Instead, it felt like a genuine attempt at self-improvement. Regardless of his changes, he still remained the sweet guy she fell in love with years ago. 

  She stumbled forward, lost in thought, instead of looking where she was going. Her eyes searched for signs of light from the windows where Derrick’s condo stood. There was nothing to be found except the darkness covering the buildings’ skyline.

  Devon’s dark hair whipped across her face, stinging her already blushed cheeks as she pulled her scarf up to shield them from the December wind. The city of Victoria was indeed Vancouver’s opposite when it came to the bustle of city life. Sometimes the streets were so vacant of people during the winter months that she could imagine that an apocalypse had come and gone, and only she remained. She quickened her pace in hopes of escaping the beating of her pulse, which closely matched the still-present churning of her stomach. It was futile; her chest tightened with each beat the closer she got to the condominium. Inside her mind, she held a fleeting hope that she was overreacting for once in her life.

  The racing thoughts in her mind were briefly silenced as she stood in front of the intercom. “Merry Christmas to me,” she said aloud. Her hand hovered over the pin pad wishing for some reason to turn her away and head back to the ferry. Praying for the strength to somehow block the pain in her chest and not give in to all these emotions. Eight... Zero... One... Her fingers did the work for her almost out of muscle memory than actual thought. The clicking of the buzzer kept ringing through its first cycle until Devon heard the last click, followed by static. “Come on, Derrick, pick up.” She pushed the intercom code again as if somehow this would change Derrick’s disappearance from the world.

  Shivering outside in the evening air had attracted the attention of the night watchman Jackson. He stood up from his desk with a smile and adjusted his uniform before making his way over to the front door. A gush of warm air enveloped her when Jackson leaned out to greet her. Up until that moment, she hadn’t realized just how cold she was from the trip over. Knowing full well, the buzzer would not get her anywhere. She figured her relationship with the doorman might be her way into the building. Jackson had kept her company on nights when Derrick was late getting home from work. They mostly entertained each other with small talk. Until recent months, when their conversations were dominated by his excitement of soon becoming a father. No matter what the topic of the evening was, they always ended up debating over which late-night pizza place was the best in the city: Zombies or The Joint. Devon wouldn’t exactly say they were friends; they were more like friendly acquaintances. At least enough of one to help her out at this moment.

  “Good evening, Miss Andrews. Mr. Ashton is pushing his luck, leaving a beautiful woman out here all by herself.”

  “Hey, Jackson.” She put on a fake smile as she pulled her scarf down, exposing her face to the doorman.

  “You must be freezing out here. Why don’t you come in and wait for Mr. Ashton?” Jackson opened the door wide as he usually did, waving her in with a smile.

  The First obstacle was achieved; the lobby was her’s. Devon slipped past Jackson’s large frame as he moved back to give her more space to enter. The building’s height may not have been that spectacular, but the developers certainly knew how to attract the up-and-coming wealthy when designing the interior. The entryway was bright and airy. Miniature trees and shrubs surrounded a small indoor water feature, while potted plants softened the lobby’s corners. On her first visit, she could remember being impressed that these were actual live plants, not the artificial ones, collecting dust like in so many entryways in the city. They would burst into a riot of colors and scents in the spring, helping the lobby feel warm and inviting. 

  Devon knew that what she needed was not part of Jackson’s job, leaving her unsure how to approach him. If she was completely honest with him, he might not be inclined to get involved. Who in their right mind would? She thought. The tenant’s personal problems in the building were undoubtedly not his concern, and it may even go against some “doorman’s code of conduct.” She wondered idly if such a thing existed. One thing was sure, without his help, she knew she wasn’t going to get any further. “Thank you, Jackson. Also, you know it’s Devon, not Miss Andrews.”

  “I do like to be professional when I can be; there isn’t much in this world that calls for it these days.”

  “Well said.” She replied before placing her hand on his arm, trying to create a closer connection. She wasn’t the flirty type, and tactics such as this made her very uncomfortable. Still, anything to reach further ground. “Actually, I’m not really waiting for Derrick.”

  Jackson shifted uncomfortably by Devon’s statement, eyeing her suspiciously.

  “I was just in Vancouver visiting my Dad for some pre-Christmas celebrations when I received a call from one of our co-workers. She said Derrick hadn’t been in the last week, and there was no answer when I tried calling him. Everyone’s so worried about him, including me. I was hoping we could check on him to make sure he’s okay.” She removed her hand from Jackson’s arm to wipe at her eyes. Devon didn’t need to act in order to look desperate or on the verge of tears. A pang of guilt weighed on her as she took a deep breath. It was half the truth and hopefully enough to get the desired results.

  “Well...” Jackson paused, looking around the lobby. “Of course, we can. I have to stretch my legs and start my next set of rounds anyway. Come to think about it. I haven’t seen Mr. Ashton in a few days.”

  Devon’s heart sunk, and her skin turned pale as the blood drained from her face.

  It was apparent from her expression that he had said something wrong. In a desperate attempt to fix it, he nervously continued. “We can go up together. I’m sure it’s nothing.” Faced with a woman on the verge of tears, Jackson continued to stumble on his words. “We don’t want to have to fill out a missing person’s report or anything,” he chuckled. There was a pause as Jackson searched Devon’s face for a slight smile to his bad joke. Instead, he brought a new sense of panic to her distress. “Oh my god...sorry. I’m not very good at saying the right thing sometimes. You can ask my wife. I have a serious foot-in-mouth syndrome.” His awkwardness got her to laugh for the first time in days. 

  “Thank you, Jackson. I really appreciate it.”

 

  Devon repeatedly pushed the eighth-floor button inside the elevator as the door slowly closed. After taking a couple of deep breaths in a failed attempt to calm herself, her chest kept getting tighter.

  Her anxious behavior was enough to make Jackson start questioning things. “Is everything okay with you and Mr. Ashton?”

  Dammit, she knew it wasn’t fair to Jackson and that she couldn’t hide what was going on any longer. The right thing to do was to let him have the grim truth if that’s what he wanted. “Honestly?”

  “Yes, honestly,” He replied.

  “We broke up two weeks ago, and I think I might be pregnant.”

  “Seriously? Devon, I could lose my job!” The elevator dinged, and the door opened to the eighth floor. Taking the opportunity, she hopped out into the hallway before he could change his mind about helping her. Jackson placed his hand against the elevator door keeping it from closing. He glared at her, hoping she would get back into the elevator but instead, she stood still.

  “Please hear me out.” She waved at Jackson, inviting him into the hallway with her. He was unyielding in his stance. She could tell he was hesitant, and she knew she had to get it all out before he had a chance to stop her. “I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

  “But...” Jackson tried to get a word in.

  She cut him off. “Work honestly has not heard from him in a week. He hasn’t answered anyone’s calls. If you could, just knock on the door and see if he answers.”

  “And then what?” Jackson said, confused at what else to do.

  “If he answers, then he’s just hiding. I will walk away and not say a word,” she said in the calmest tone she could produce. There was nothing else to be said; she did everything to convince him that helping her was the right choice. Anything else would sound like excuses. 

  Jackson stood there contemplating her request. “Okay, fine, but you can’t make a scene. Please, this is my job we are talking about. I have a baby on the way, Devon. Promise?”

  Nodding in agreement, she put her hand on her stomach, knowing all too well what Jackson was feeling. “I know, I know. If it weren’t important, I wouldn’t even be asking. I promise, not a word.”

  He nodded as he reluctantly followed her into the hallway. “Okay fine. He’s probably just hiding in his man cave, licking his wounds for being an idiot. I love my wife, but to break up with you. That makes Mr. Ashton a first-rate idiot.” Jackson headed down the hall towards Derrick’s door while shaking his head as Devon followed behind.

  The door to Derrick’s condo was around the corner, just out of sight from the other units. To Devon, the last few feet were like facing the last mile of a marathon. After traveling most of the day to get here, now, for some reason, she came to a stop. The hairs on the back of her neck started to stand on end, followed by an overwhelming sense of dread and sickness. Every nerve in her body screamed at her to go back into the elevator. What was she hoping to find? That Derrick was inside, safe, and just acting like a jerk, or that something terrible had happened to him. Neither option was the one she wanted, but she had to find out. Devon was not the only one sensing it: the wave of dread that stopped her body from moving had also stopped Jackson from taking the last two steps towards the door. His posture stiffened, and she knew it was now or never. Fighting the feeling in her stomach, she pushed herself past Jackson and knocked loudly on Derrick’s door. Not wanting to get caught, Devon tucked herself against the wall just outside the peephole.

  The sound of her fist rapping against the wood was enough to snap Jackson’s feet forward. He nervously cleared his throat before calling out. “Um, Mister Ashton? It’s Jackson, the night watchman.” He looked at her while mouthing the words, now what? At the same time, he was shaking his hands in the air, unsure how to proceed or what explanation he could give to justify this intrusion into Mr. Ashton’s privacy.

  “Noise,” she whispered.

  Jackson shushed her with his finger in the air. “The neighbors called about a noise disturbance on your floor. Are you okay?” His statement seemed ludicrous, as the hallway was devoid of sound. Even the everyday busyness of other tenants was absent. Usually, she could hear the chatter of a television program or the clatter of dishes coming from behind the other units’ doors. Instead, there was nothing. The eerie silence clung in the air around them like a dense fog.

  She decided to step closer to the door, placing her ear against it, attempting to hear something.

  Squish.

  “What are you doing?” Jackson whispered, reaching out to pull her away.

  This time, she shushed him with her finger raised to her lips. “I think I heard something.” Adjusting her footing, she fully turned towards the door and heard the strange noise again. Squish. She looked down, finally realizing the sound was coming from under her feet. Beneath her in the dark blue fibers was a stain of black slowly creeping across the carpet from the bottom of Derrick’s doorway. Devon rocked her foot back and forth, creating the squishing sound before pulling her boot away from the rug.

  “Is that water?” Jackson asked.

  She shrugged her shoulders, unsure herself. Devon crouched down to take a closer look, placing her two fingers against the wet part of the rug. As she slowly lifted them, her hand began shaking. “Jackson, open the door!” Her words were no longer hushed.

  “What? Are you crazy? I can’t just enter someone’s suite without cause.”

  “Open the door, Jackson.” Smeared with crimson, she lifted her two fingers above her head towards his gaze. “It's blood!”

  “Shit!” Jackson fumbled with the ring on his belt, struggling to find the master key.

  That feeling held true. Devon snapped, frantically slamming her hands on the door, leaving bloody marks across it like a child’s finger painting. “Derrick! Can you hear me? Derrick, answer me!”

  Jackson finally found the right key; he pushed Devon aside and unlocked it. As he threw the door open, her body tensed when a cold blast of air flooded the hallway. A square of light from the hallway fell through the frame, stretching across the floor. The balcony was open as winter wind played with the gauzy curtains and the hue from the streetlights below danced across the dim unit. She could make out a pool of blood trailing a few feet across the hardwood floor until she spotted him.

  “Derrick!” she ran to him, slipping on the trail of blood and landing just beside his body. Derrick lay propped up against the couch, slightly curled, clutching his abdomen. Scrambling on her hands and knees, she tried to grip against the sticky wet floor so that she could kneel in front of him. There was a reek of musk in the air, and amongst the tang of iron was a faint hint of his cologne: something he only wore for special occasions. 

  As his dark blood began to soak through her jeans and covered her hands, she did her best to steady herself before placing her hand on his pale face. Devon was shocked at how hot his skin felt; he was burning up. Her heart leaped with hope. “He’s alive!” She shouted towards Jackson. “Derrick, please wake up! Oh god, what happened?” The only response he could muster was a slight moan as he tightened his arms around his waist. With no reply back, she looked at Jackson, only to find him standing frozen in the doorway. His face turned pale, and his hands shook at the horrific scene before him.

  “Jackson! Call 9-1-1!!!” She screamed before pulling Derrick’s hands away to see where the blood was coming from. A thick gush poured out from the side of his stomach. His wound was massive. “Oh god!” Devon quickly put pressure on it, holding back the flow with her bare hands. The attempt was useless as the blood flowed forth through her fingers, causing her to panic. “JACKSON, GODDAMMIT, HELP HIM!” She shouted louder, looking around for something better to staunch the flow. With her other hand, she started unwinding her scarf, hoping it would do the job. “Hang on, Derrick!”

  Finally, the security guard managed to pull out his phone. His trembling fingers attempted to dial 9-1-1 as his gaze froze on the massive pool of blood.

  Derrick’s eyes opened slightly, just enough to peer up at her, searching vaguely. “Devon, noo.” His voice was no more than a ragged whisper.

  “Oh god, Derrick, who did this?” The mask of her shock waned; tears welled up as she began to cry uncontrollably. She leaned down to kiss his lips. “Help is coming. You have to hold on.”

  Derrick moved his head slightly up to whisper in her ear. His words leaked out in a gasped breath that sent a chill up Devon’s spine. “It’s still here.”

  A low animal growl rolled across the room, vibrating through her chest. The sound originated from the condo’s deeper recesses, somewhere within the darkness of the bedroom hallway. The hairs feverishly stood up on her neck as the same feeling of dread from the hallway washed over her. Derrick’s words rattled in her mind: It’s still here. A thud from the doorway pulled her eyes toward Jackson. His face was locked in terror, staring past her into the darkness of the condo. The glowing light from his phone now lay on the floor, and all Devon could hear was. “9-1-1. Please state your emergency?…Hello?”

  As Jackson turned to run from the unseen threat, something razor-sharp tore into Devon’s shoulder, sending ripping pain down her arm. The force knocked her forward, and in a fraction of a second, she felt the sickening give of her right-hand plunge wrist-deep through Derrick’s gut, causing his body to convulse violently. The pungent odor of musk, now heavily mixed with the metallic smell of blood, had engulfed her as Devon’s head collided against the coffee table with an awful sound. For a brief couple of seconds, everything around her went black.

 

  “Ughhh...” she struggled to lift her head from the floor as her surroundings intensely spun, and vertigo overtook her senses. Portions of clouded detail were all she could make out as the room blurred against the waves of disorientation. Just below, Derrick’s body lay sandwiched between her blood-soaked jeans and the hardwood floor. Still dazed, she blinked hard several times, trying to clear the fog from her eyes. Devon fought to sit up against the agonizing burn in her head and the deep gash on her shoulder. What happened...Derrick, she mumbled before sliding her left arm out to brace it against the floor. As she lifted her torso, her movement was stopped short as something constricted around her other wrist, holding it firmly in place. Her focus returned only to find her mind grappling with the horror unfolding around her when she looked down. Oh, god, no! The words rang through her mind as she pulled frantically, finding her hand was now stuck deep inside the contents of Derrick’s stomach.

  His intestinal fluids sloshed between her fingers as his body jerked like a rag doll from each pull. Ripples of nausea overcame her as she swallowed against the bile wanting to erupt from the pit of her stomach. A new surge of intense pain ripped down from her clawed shoulder, causing Devon’s right arm to pull hard, freeing her wrist from Derrick’s corpse. Immediately a sensation of fire perforated out into the skin as she grasped at the widening gash on her shoulder. Unable to stifle the cry, she found her voice overshadowed by the screams erupting from the doorway. She had forgotten all about the doorman who had aided her in searching for her now-dead love. His aria of screams and tearing flesh were short-lived as she heard a brutal crunching sound. Her mind wheeled in the silence that followed as she clutched her stomach. The tiny life that may be growing was all she had left of Derrick, and she wouldn’t let this thing take their child. Fueled by a new surge of adrenaline, she pulled herself up using the side of the broken coffee table and bolted drunkenly for the patio. It was crucial to escape the thing blocking the doorway, or her silence would surely be next.

  She heard the thump of Jackson’s body hitting the floor, and whatever finished tearing him apart had now turned its attention on her. The wind blew the curtains wildly as she weaved between them and hastily crossed the threshold of the balcony. Devon’s body turned while she pulled against the glass door, sliding it closed behind her. Whatever it was impacted the thick glass, sending a spider web of cracks splintering out in every direction. Her face continued looking towards the collision as the heel of her boot caught against a piece of floor mat. She tried to correct her body in a desperate attempt, but the loss of balance was too severe. Unable to stop, she cascaded backward, her body slamming hard against the outer balcony’s cement wall.

  At the same time, the creature’s bulk slid quickly down the glass as it crumpled to the floor.

  Using her right arm, she propped herself up against the cold concrete. Gasping in terror, she tried to see what lay beyond the window through the cracks in the glass. All she could make out was that it was massive. “Fuck. Oh, fuck,” she stuttered. Between panicked breaths, she began to coach herself aloud. “Get up! Get your ass up. Now!” As she pushed down on the ground with the palm of her left hand, a more significant pain presented itself. This time, it spread further down her back and across her torso. A scream burst out from her lungs, and her skin burned as if it were on fire. She inhaled a few breaths to steady herself before making another attempt. Instead of using her arms this time, she used her legs to slide her back up against the cold concrete. Finding herself vertical again, she turned to brace against the railing as she looked anxiously for signs of people below. “Help! Help me!” she cried out, but no one was there to hear her. Frantically, she searched the balcony for anything to aid in her escape.

  Suddenly movement beyond the cracked window startled her. The creature began to twitch. Adrenaline pumped harder, coursing through her body. There was only one direction she could go, and that was down. Devon cautiously hovered over the side rail to peak at the neighboring balcony on the floor below. The terrace beneath Derrick’s suite stuck out a foot further, just enough that she could see a small red patio set. If she could lower herself down onto the table, she might be able to get help from the people below or at least get in through their balcony and escape down the stairwell. Using only her uninjured arm, she hugged the railing with all her strength. Devon managed to slide her legs up and over before lowering as much of her body as possible. Strong winds caught the sides of her jacket, pulling and shaking her body. No matter how much she stretched, she couldn’t reach the table. When she attempted to see how far away it was, everything began to spin as blood loss and vertigo got the best of her, causing her eyes to shut tight.

  THUMP.

  The sound jolted her back into action. Panicking, she knew she was out of time and that it was now or never. Her situation required more reach to get to the table, so Devon attempted to grab the cement lip below the railing with her injured arm. Maybe it would be enough if she could block the pain, but it was no use. Her foot was still too high off its mark, and she was slipping. The sweat from her hands slicked her bloody palm, and in a heart-stopping moment, Devon was falling.

  The top of the table buckled as she crashed onto it, causing her to cascade forward toward the center of the balcony. With no stopping her momentum, her body slammed hard onto the concrete floor, landing only inches in front of the patio door. In a futile attempt, she lifted her arm, trying desperately to reach the handle, but it was still inches away. She vainly punched at the glass door in her weakened state, hoping that someone inside would notice and come to her aid. The blood loss caused by her wounds was too extensive; her body was failing, and her arm collapsed to the ground. Incapacitated on the floor, all the strength and willpower to go on had left her. Derrick was dead. Jackson would never see his unborn child, and Devon was sure that she and her own would soon follow. At that moment, she saw the sky’s reflection against the glass door as the clouds parted, revealing an ominous red glowing disc now suspended in the night’s sky. In all her years, she had never witnessed an eclipse. Something about it comforted her as she smiled in awe of its beauty, while the reflection of its red ring filled the glassy surface of her eyes.

  Several gusts of icy wind bit into her flesh from all around her, adding to the burn she was already enduring. It felt as if the wind was ripping the skin from her body as she trembled and shook. Her heart began to beat hard and fast, pumping the pain to every crevice of her being while her blood began to boil. An eternity of torment in mere seconds, followed by the sound of tearing fabric, made her whimper through clenched teeth. Muffling the pitiful cries with her hand, she did everything in her power not to scream. In her head, she begged for the pain to end, for death to reunite her with the man she loved. Steadily, as her world began to fade, her heartbeat slowed, causing her to drift in and out of consciousness.

  An explosion came from the balcony above, startling her. Devon could hear the cascading pieces of glass skittering across the floor as the animal broke through. She closed her eyes and held her breath: maybe the animal wouldn’t find her if she was quiet. 

  A loud THUMP shook the air around her. There was nowhere left to hide; the beast was there on the balcony, ready to take its third victim. Her eyes opened with one last sliver of strength, just long enough to take in the creature's reflection hunched over her before trembling shut. The last thing Devon would remember was the animal’s hot panting breath against the side of her cheek.

 

 

 

  The van drove recklessly through the empty streets racing towards the scene. Briggs checked his gear for the hundredth time. It’s not that he thought his equipment was out of place or missing anything. This routine was just how he prepared for the action.

  “Hurry up and wait,” laughed one of his team members.

  Unwilling to exchange the banter with the man across from him, he methodically checked his magazines to ensure they were full and packed correctly in their webbing. Once through that, he began looking over his remaining gear; the non-lethal taser he was required to carry in its hip holster, handcuffs stored in its pouch on his belt, and the multi-tool in his cargo pocket. Briggs appeared to be calmly preparing for their entrance to any outside observer, but inside, he felt the charged energy that was always there before emerging into the unknown crime scene.

  The Emergency Response Team’s duty, also known as the ERT, was to clear the area and neutralize any hostile targets before the forensic teams entered. What little information he had received over his radio consisted of a missing young woman and two male bodies. Inspector Gregson suspected that she might be in the suite below but did not give any reason as to why. As unlikely as it was, she very well could be the perpetrator they were looking for. Even if she wasn’t, she likely witnessed something that could shed some light on what transpired earlier. Briggs watched as the full moon passed the van's window; he was sure that it was going to be a long and interesting night. It’s not that he was a superstitious man; he just found that full moons would bring people’s inner crazy out of the woodwork and onto the streets.

  He observed the rest of his team: each member followed suit, doing the same check. Only young Johnson looked nervous, but he knew that the kid could handle it. His nervousness reminded Briggs of his first tour of duty. Back when he was with the military all those years ago. While no training could ever adequately prepare anyone for what they may encounter on a mission, he could tell that Johnson had what it takes to survive in life like this. It didn’t hurt that the kid was also the best marksman he had ever seen.

  ERT was never the first on the scene, so when the van finally pulled up at the condominium, he wasn’t surprised to see reporters gathering out front. Just what we need more media circus in an already fearful city. 

  Being their lead, he was the first to jump out, followed closely by his team. His primary objective was reporting to Inspector Gregson. Hopefully, by now, Gregson would have more information before his men went in. Briggs could have just used the radio, but he wanted to speak with the Inspector before prepping his team. Without giving the reporters a second look, he walked past the cops guarding the front door and into the building’s foyer.

  Immediately the acidic, sweet smell of vomit struck him. Just to his right, bent over with his head between his knees, was the patrol officer who first found the bodies. At least he had the good sense not to contaminate the crime scene, he thought. 

  Other than the smell, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, aside from the posh digs now surrounding them. This place was definitely not the typical crack houses his team was accustomed to entering. He also knew that he would never be able to afford a place like this on his salary. Good thing I’m not in the ERT for the money, he chuckled to himself.

  Briggs walked up to the first uniformed officer that he could see. “Where is Inspector Gregson?”

  The officer gazed from his leather-bound notebook and proceeded to look nervous. “He just went down to the parking garage to interview the tenants of Suite 701.” He blurted out, “I can radio down if you’d like Briggs, Sir, I meant, Sir. Sorry, Sir.” The man rambled.

  “If I wanted to radio him, I would do it myself. Just point me in the direction of the stairwell, will you.” Briggs was direct and never one to worry about hurt feelings when it came to getting the job done.

  The Uniform dutifully pointed towards the back of the lobby, in a tucked-away corner. Residents living in this type of place rarely took the stairs, so there was little reason to dress it up. Before vanishing downstairs, he quickly told his team where he was going and that the residents of 701 had been located. If Inspector Gregson played his cards right, they could soon enter the crime scene. That or they’d be waiting hours for a warrant if the evidence of the girl being in their unit was flimsy. Brigg’s assumed this was the case, or they would be getting ready to enter the suite upon their arrival. 

  The lobby may have been upper class, but the parking garage was like every other one he had seen: the standard concrete supports and glaring neon lights. Even with the industrial fans doing their best to pump in the fresh air, there was a faint smell of oil and exhaust that would never quite go away. Just ahead, he could see Gregson talking to a pair of civilians. Judging from their attire, they were probably coming home from a night on the town. The age difference between them had him guessing second wife or mistress. The male’s body language was stiff and tense; Briggs could tell that the man was trying to assert his dominance over Gregson. Yeah, good luck with that. Gregson is no idiot, and no matter who you think you are, nothing gives you the authority in this type of situation. He smirked a little, knowing that Gregson would have none of it. The Inspector had known him a long time, almost as long as Briggs had been with the ERT. Over the years, the two men developed an understanding and respect for one another. He knew that this rich piss-ant wasn’t going to get the best of the Inspector. As he approached the group, he could finally make out their conversation.

  “Tell me what happened? You can’t keep us from going up there!” said the man

  Yup, this guy is used to getting his way, he thought. He smirked a little more. Thankfully Gregson was dealing with this guy instead of him. Briggs didn’t have the patience to deal with an entitled man-child who seemed to think that the world owes him everything. The world doesn’t owe anyone anything. It’s earned: this was Briggs’ outlook on life. If he interrupted them now, it could ruin the male dominance dance going on between the two men. He paused, just far enough back that neither of the civilians would give him a second look, giving Gregson the space he needed.

  Without flinching and ignoring the man’s attempt to assert himself, Gregson continued to talk to the woman instead. It was a good play, and he knew this would ruffle the man’s ego by undermining his self-declared importance. “The quick explanation Miss,” he smiled, “Your unit is situated directly below a crime scene. We have reason to believe that whatever went on in the condo above may have led down to your balcony. We are currently waiting for a search warrant to investigate your premises.”

  “Oh my god! That guy who lives above you!” The girl’s words were high-pitched and slightly slurred from drinking. She pushed on the man’s arm, trying to get his attention.

  Gregson continued, focusing his questions solely on the woman as if the man’s presence was meaningless. “Where were the two of you tonight?” Briggs knew there was no way that the woman had anything to do with the case, but she seemed the most likely candidate to help bring this issue to a close. This type of interview tactic was similar to finding the right pressure point to take an opponent down.

  The man grew stiff. “We were at a movie downtown and then dinner. We have witnesses!” He exclaimed nervously.

  It wasn’t hard to tell the man’s mind was quickly reliving every bad TV crime show he had ever seen. His reaction was comical, yet Gregson’s face stayed stoic as he finally turned his attention to the man. “These are just routine questions, Mr. Finning, nothing more.” He said before turning back again to the woman. “Were you acquainted with Mr. Ashton?”

  The man’s gaze seemed more interested in the woman’s answer than Gregson was.

  “Just saying hi in the elevator... What? That’s all, I swear.” She tried to reassure the man beside her by rubbing his arm.

  “What if it did? What if, somehow, something got into my suite?” The man dropped his arms to his side, finally showing genuine concern for his situation.

  “Sir, we cannot divulge any information on the current case at this point. However, if you were inclined to permit us to enter your condo, we could move this along. The sooner we have access to your unit, the sooner we can assess the situation.”

  “How long will that take?” Finning questioned.

  “The entire building is on lockdown. As it stands, no one will be entering the building or homes for the next 12 to 24 hours as we sweep for evidence.”

  “Where the hell are we supposed to go tonight?” Finning’s frustration began to rise as he realized how powerless he was.

  “Just let them in, Jim, so we can leave. I want to go somewhere warm!” The young woman whined, stomping her feet like a petulant child.

  Right on cue, Gregson had played his part masterfully. All he had to do was wait for the man to give in to the woman’s demands. He could tell she was accustomed to getting her way in the end.

  “Fine, but I want these back.” The man pulled out his keys from his pocket, fumbling with them as he detached his door key before forcefully placing it in Gregson’s open palm. “Can we go now?”

  God bless the predictable nature of a man’s need for a pretty girl, thought Briggs.

  “Sure, you two can leave.” Gregson gripped the key before snapping back at the young officer, who still stood patiently off to the right. “Get these people’s information, and don’t forget to get them to sign an entry form before they leave.” Having what he needed, Gregson turned to head back to the main lobby. To his surprise, he saw Briggs grinning behind him.

  “So, I guess I can greenlight my guys for entry?”

  “Did you pass your last psych eval, Briggs? Because that type of grin has no place at a murder scene.” He tossed the key over to the ETR member. “And yes, let’s get this over with quickly. We’ve got a missing woman.”

  “So, who’s the girl?” Briggs cut him off.

  “No one has a goddamn clue. She was seen on the security cameras in the lobby heading into the elevator with the doorman, and according to the building’s surveillance videos, she never left. If she’s suffered the same wounds as the other two, it’s doubtful that she’s even alive.”

 

  Before entering unit 701, Gregson and Briggs briefed the ERT fully on the situation. They knew the blood coming through the ceiling was a mix of doorman Jackson Penn and the tenant Derrick Ashton. The coroner’s best guess was that some kind of animal or animals bit the tenant and gruesomely ripped apart the night watchman. Their canine unit had picked up a scent in the bushes below, leading to the park across the street. Gregson and Briggs were not remotely convinced from the photos already taken upstairs. Both men were seasoned hunters and knew that nothing this close to the city had the ferocity and strength to inflict that much damage on an adult human male. The doorman’s head was partially severed from his body, and his torso was shredded into pieces. But where was the missing girl? Was she part of it or just another body now waiting to be discovered? The only evidence of her being there was smaller shoe prints left on the hardwood floor and some bloody handprints around the scene that were too small to match the two male victims. Whoever or whatever it was, had smashed its way through the sliding glass panel, leaving some sort of dissolved residue and a few bits of hair. This information gave some support to the possible animal theory but not enough. The way the balcony door had broken outwards and no signs of blood found in any of the stairwells provided a second theory. Gregson suspected that the killer, animals, or missing woman may still be waiting just beyond the door that the ERT waited patiently to breach.

  The team was now upstairs. Gregson swiped the radio headset from the table and placed it in his ear before switching over to the same channel as the ERT. “I’ll be watching the security feed from the lobby. There’s a camera set up in the hallway by the unit door. Briggs, get your team in place and wait for my order. I want you and Johnson to go in first, followed by Dixon, Forbes, and Daniels. You know the layout. Five officers in, and the rest of you wait in the hallway. Only enter if backup is needed. I repeat, only as a backup. I don’t want the scene contaminated, or forensics will have a field day.” Gregson sighed, relieved merely to be moving forward with what he already felt to be a long night.

 

  Briggs’ team was the best of the best. He had been in the military a decade before the fifteen years he was currently serving with the Victoria Police force. After three tours overseas, a desk job or cruiser wouldn’t have been a comfortable transition for someone who had seen as much as he had.

  Tall and lanky, Johnson was the newest member to join the ERT in the last year. Unlike Briggs, Johnson had only been with the Victoria Police for five out of his twenty-seven years on this earth. Since he joined the ERT, he mentored the young man and was confident in Gregson’s choice to send him in as his second. Briggs told him that if he went military, Special Forces would be an excellent place for a guy who possessed the skill for the kill. He failed to notice how this statement had always made Johnson very uneasy. Gregson hoped the kids’ marksman skills wouldn’t be needed and that it was just a blown-over table from the winter storm.

  It didn’t take them long to get into place, poised in the hallway with weapons angled, prepared to go as soon as the word was given. Briggs pressed on the mic for his radio headset, “Ready and waiting.”

  Gregson’s voice crackled in his ear. “Affirmative. ERT team, you are cleared for entry.”

  Briggs called out, “This is the Victoria Emergency Response Team. If anyone is in there, please make yourself known.”

  The only answer was the slow drip of blood pooling from the ceiling above the doorframe. He tried a second time. “I repeat, this is the Victoria Emergency Response Team. If anyone is in there, please make yourself known. We are armed and ready to enter. This is your last warning, lay down on the ground with your arms behind your head and do not resist, or you may be shot.” Still, there was only silence.

  Briggs stepped into position, covering Johnson’s left beside the doorway. Johnson held out the key and hovered it over the keyhole as the rest of the ERT held position; their weapons poised at the ready. Everything in the hallway was dead still. Not even their breaths could be heard as they stood frozen with anticipation. Johnson slid the key in as Brigg's gave the signal, turning it as he pushed open the door with the speed and grace he was known for. Briggs covered him as the five-person team rushed the interior, spreading out from room to room. The tactical lights mounted on their guns caressed every corner and crevasse, exposing all areas that one would hide. Less than 30 seconds in, he could hear his team calling out. “Clear.” “Clear.” “Clear.” “Clear.” He followed suit standing in the middle of the condo’s living room. “Clear.”

  The space around them was dark and silent as the men patiently waited for the following command. No matter how much time had passed, the memory of muscle and mind never forgot the routine or that rush of adrenaline that comes from the unknown possibility of death. This feeling was something they all lived for and why each of them found a home in the ERT. Briggs’ psychiatrist told him that it was a close parallel between the criminals and killers he faced and himself. In Briggs’ case, his conscience was that thin line of being a killer for good instead of a killer for pleasure. Either way, this is where he felt truly alive. He tugged the handle of the balcony but received no movement.

  Suddenly, he heard Johnson give a sharp, startled cry from the hall's darkness. “We have movement!” he shouted into his headset. 

  Instantly Briggs was bounding over an ottoman, his tactical light bouncing as he breached the door to the master bedroom. He stood in the room with his weapon raised and his finger on the trigger. Inside, he found Johnson waving his arms, repeating, “No action, there is no action in the unit. Stand down, backup.” By this point, it was too late. The other ERT members, who were in position down the hallway, rushed into the unit behind him.

  “Just what the hell is going on up there?” Gregson’s voice demanded, ringing through into Briggs’ earpiece.

  Briggs quickly assessed the room, seeing Johnson dusting himself off while Forbes did his best to shield a smirk. He let out his breath lowering his gun. “Just a couple of ERT members chasing shadows,” he replied. “The unit’s interior is clear, with no signs of entry or disturbance. The balcony door is locked from the inside. Just on our way to check it out now.”

  With no further leads, he knew that Gregson was looking down the barrel of a long night of paperwork and more unanswered questions. Was this linked to the killings in the summer? Was it just some random animal attack? If so, what kind of animal, and how the hell did it get into the eight-story condo? Also, where the hell was the girl from the security camera? Gregson’s voice interrupted his thoughts, “Cut the crap and clean it up.”

  “Yes, sir.” He was already pushing into the living room as the rest of the ERT formed behind him.

  Flap, flap.

  The sound made Briggs and the rest of the ERT tense. Silently they repositioned themselves amongst the furniture. Briggs readied his gun while taking the front position beside the balcony door. Johnson moved to his left, holding up his fingers for the countdown before mouthing the words “One, two...” On three, he pulled back the curtain as the light of his gun mount flashed around the balcony.

  His eyes could not wrap themselves around the images flooding back at him. A second later, one of the ERT members flicked on the balcony light overhead, exposing the grotesque display for all to see.

  To his left, Johnson stumbled back before slumping down onto an ottoman. Stammering nonsense, the poor kid tried to comprehend what he had just witnessed before his body hunched forward to throw up onto the beige carpet. To think that something so nightmarish was shielded from them by the thin layer of the balcony curtains.

  Briggs cursed into his headset.

  There was red everywhere. The balcony was a slaughterhouse.

  Flap, Flap came the sound again.

  Pressed up against the bottom of the glass door, flapping wetly, was what appeared to be the right side of a human face. It pulled back and forth in the wind clinging to part of a blood-streaked scalp. Large pieces of pale skin, mucus, and clothing lay heaped amongst a pool of crimson blood.

  He had never encountered anything like this in all his years in the military and with the ERT. It looked as if a person had brutally shed its skin; large portions retained enough detail to tell that this was, at one point, a human being. A sick thrill of dark fascination passed through him: knowing that there were still new experiences in a world where he felt he had seen it all.

  As he kneeled, Briggs found himself mesmerized by the empty sockets of the deflated face. The ERT waited in silence as he spoke into his headset. “We are going to need forensics in here. We found the girl.”

to be continued copy.png