Excerpt: ONCE BITTEN

once bittenLucy Weston lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment at the Oceanside complex on the west end of the island. It had only been a stone’s throw, no more than a half-dozen blocks, from the small bungalow she and her mother had shared as she’d grown up, and easy walking distance of the community college she’d been attending.

Once inside, John found, the bedroom to his left, a small galley kitchen to his right, separated from the conjoined dining and living area by a breakfast bar. From the outside of the building, he’d suspected the apartment would be light-filled, judging by the large windows and patio doors he’d seen. But inside, he was surprised to find it shadow-draped and dark, as if all of the curtains had been tightly closed, the blinds snapped shut.

He flipped the nearest light switch impotently up and down. That’s odd, he thought.

The electricity hadn’t been turned off in the apartment. Lucy hadn’t been gone long enough to miss a payment, and a glance into the kitchen as he walked past revealed the digital clock on the flat-top stove still aglow. Even so, when he tried the light switch in the dining room and living area, nothing happened, and when he looked down at the nearest lamp, peering past the edge of the shade, he could see that there was no bulb inside.

The apartment had an odd smell about it. More than just the musty odor of a small space that had been closed off for a week, there was something underlying and foul, like spoiled food.

His eyes adjusted to the gloom and he realized why the apartment was so dark. It looked like someone had taped overlapping layers of black plastic over the windows and glass patio doors.

Not just plastic, he thought as he approached the doors. Trash bags. The heavy-duty lawn kind.

“What the hell?” he murmured, running his fingertips lightly down the tautly drawn bag.

He dug his cell phone out of his pocket and flipped back the lid. It took him a bit longer to fish Monroe’s business card out of his wallet, considering he didn’t make it a habit to call his ex-wife’s boyfriend. Monroe answered the line mid-way through the second ring, his voice muffled and moist, like he spoke around a mouthful of ham salad.

“Monroe.”

“You know, you really have to be about the stupidest, sorriest excuse for a police detective I’ve ever seen,” John remarked mildly.

“Well, hey, Harker, nice to talk to you again, too,” Monroe replied. “This makes, what? Twice in one day? People are gonna think you’ve got a crush on me.”

“Like I’d ever be that hard up,” John said. “Hey, you know that little report of yours on Lucy Weston’s disappearance?”

“The one that probably cost you a good, what? Twelve bucks to copy?”

“Fifteen,” John said. “You completely forgot to mention the fact she’d taken stock in the Hefty garbage bag company and used it for window dressing in her apartment.”

“Did I leave that out?” Monroe said. “I could’ve sworn I typed a report on it.” John heard the momentary rustle of papers, as if Monroe put on a show of rifling his desk top. “I must’ve filed it somewhere else by mistake. Sorry. I thought that was kind of weird, too.”

John frowned. “Weird? It didn’t raise any kind of red flags with you, Monroe? Like between that and the fact this whole place smells like rotten eggs, maybe she was up to something in here, say, oh, I don’t know. Cooking drugs?”

Homes in which methamphetamines were being produced frequently had foil or trash bags layered over the windows to keep prying eyes away. What kind of Barney Fife dipshit doesn’t know that?

“Oh, it raised flags all right,” Monroe said. “I did a search on the spot based on probable cause. There was nothing there I could find, no chemicals, no tools, no cook kits. I even called in a drug dog from Key West, had it do a sniff sweep. No dice.”

“Oh,” John said, deflated. Apparently Monroe wasn’t as Barney Fife as he’d thought.

On the other end of the line, Monroe chuckled. “Maybe she just liked things dark, Harker.”

With a frown, John snapped the phone shut then shoved it back into his pocket. “Asshole,” he muttered.

He heard a strange sound from behind him, near the bedroom doorway. When he’d first started dating Bevi a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, she’d had a cat named Prince Humperdink that had hated just about everyone, but especially John. In their later divorce hearings, Bevi had once remarked that she should have better trusted the cat’s judgment.

Prince Humperdink had a habit of hiding beneath the recliner Bevi had kept in her living room, and whenever John had spent the night with her, he’d have to walk past that chair in the dark to get to the bathroom. During those late-night excursions, he’d invariably hear Humperdink from beneath the La-Z-Boy, a low, throaty, somewhat high-pitched growl emanating from the darkness. The sound he heard coming from Lucy Weston’s bedroom was very much the same.

What the…? He pivoted, brow raised, curiosity piqued. Neither Ruth nor Monroe had mentioned anything about Lucy having a pet. And surely the girl’s mother would have taken a cat or dog home with her instead of leaving it at the apartment.

When he saw the figure standing in the bedroom doorway, silhouetted against the backdrop of shadows, he froze.

And then he realized.

“Lucy?”

During his tenure as a cop, he’d seen all kinds of people who’d been all kinds of fucked-up: meth addicts and crack heads, strung out and slavering, staggering drunks who’d pissed or puked all over themselves; schizophrenics who’d abandoned their meds or hadn’t started them to begin with. But nothing in his life had prepared him for the woman who now shambled more fully into view.

The sunny-faced girl from Ruth Weston’s photograph was gone. Her pale hair hung about her face in a tangled, matted, disheveled mess. Her shoulders were hunched, her footsteps shuffling and slow, her hands dangling limply at her sides. She looked haggard, her cheeks sunken and gaunt. She wore only a bra and panties, but there was nothing titillating in the view. Her body looked emaciated, the bony prominences in her collar, sternum, rib cage and pelvis all starkly apparent. Her skin looked like mottled putty, ashen grey with purplish patches of shadowed bruising.

John drew back, stumbling over the wrought iron frame of one of her dining room chairs.

Her mouth hung open, slack-jawed and agape, her lips cracked deep enough in places to reveal red, raw meat beneath. Saliva crusted the corners and frothed along the edges.

But the worst thing was her eyes—sunken deep into the recesses of her sockets, shadow-rimmed, nearly black, the visible slits of corners so bloodshot, they looked vermillion.

“Lucy,” he said again and as she took another clumsy step toward him, he matched it in reverse, reaching behind him and pawing at the edge of the table, easing his way around it. “Lucy, my name is Jonathan Harker. I’m a private investigator. Your mother hired me to search for you.”

Again, that guttural, cat-like growl rose from her throat. Again, she lurched forward, and now the foam at her mouth began dripping against the floor in fat, frothy droplets.

What’s wrong with her? John thought, backing away again. She was between him and the front door, the only way out of the apartment. Her patio was to his immediate right, hidden behind the trash bags, but she lived on the second floor.

“Lucy, your mom sent me,” he tried again.

If his repeated mentions of her name registered with her, she didn’t show it. She didn’t say anything, just kept growling at him, her small breasts hitching up and down as she drew in heaving, ragged breaths. Her left leg appeared to be injured or lame and she dragged it behind her as if it was something leaden or paralyzed.

“I’m here to help you,” he said.

With a shrill, scraping cry, Lucy sprang cat-like from beside the breakfast bar, tackling him. She moved so quickly, so utterly unexpected that he didn’t have time to do anything except flounder in startled recoil. She plowed into his chest, knocking him off his feet, sending him crashing to the floor. He had a split second to see her mouth open wide, her canine teeth elongated and hooked like the vicious fangs of a sabre-toothed cat…

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