Cover Reveal. . . Detecting Fear!

Detecting Fear

Your heart pounds in your chest, breath catching in your throat as the hair on the back of your neck slowly prickles with the feeling of being watched.

What is it that you’re truly afraid of?

The neighbor next door who might be a serial killer? Falling prey to a psychopath? Or your own inner demons, unleashed? Murder, mystery, mayhem – pick your poison.

The stories in this anthology, previously published in periodicals ranging from Suspense Magazine to The Saturday Evening Post, run the gamut from Hard-Boiled to cozy, noir to funny, with whodunit as the theme.

Whether you’re a fan of great past detectives like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Poirot, or modern investigators like Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad and Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, you’ll find something to satisfy your inner sleuth within these pages.

I’m thrilled to finally share the cover for my short story collection, Detecting Fear, with you all! The book hits stores February 21st, 2021.

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No Netgalley account? No problem! You can get a PDF, Mobi or ePub version over at Bookfunnel, no account needed, just follow the link for a download. Click here to get your FREE copy at Bookfunnel!

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The Heat: Free Short Fiction

Is it a gut feeling, or something more? A young officer’s mettle is put to the test. Read on to see if you can handle “The Heat.”

The Heat first appeared in Tough: Crime Stories in March of 2019

 

The smell of damp earth mingles with the sharp tang of oil, tickling her nose, and for a moment, Police Officer Penelope Holden wonders what she’s doing in the basement of her Grandfather’s old farm house. She rises reluctantly from the memory, pulled by the nagging feeling that there is something important that she’s supposed to be doing. Then, in the blink of an eye, her eye, she’s back in the present, one quick instant of awareness before she moves and a sharp pain knifes through her head, clouding her thoughts and vision.

Holding still, breathing deeply, she looks around, taking in the hard dirt floor beneath her, dark stains of dampness spreading across the soil like hungry vines searching for prey, looping tendrils creeping from the edges of roughly cemented cinderblock. In the dim light she can just make out the exposed beams that cross overhead, the rickety staircase with no railing that leads up to the house above, the huge tank for heating oil hunched in the corner. She might not be under her Grandfather’s farm house, but she is in someone’s basement. Struggling to sit up, she finds her wrists and ankles are zip tied. Duct tape stretches tightly over her mouth, pulling at her skin. Penelope rolls onto her back and rocks her torso up. Her body pulses with pain, an uncomfortably intense pressure threatening her bladder

               It was late afternoon when Penelope knocked on the door. She’d been canvasing the neighborhood all day, one house after another, hoping for any lead that might prove useful in furthering the investigation into the disappearance of Sammy Kohlner, a six-year-old boy who had gone missing from his family’s backyard that morning. The lead investigator thought the boy had probably wandered off and focused his efforts on organizing search teams to explore the nearby woods for any sign of the boy. The boy’s mother, though, had been adamant that he wouldn’t have left the yard by himself, and that he couldn’t possibly had gotten farther than she could see in the time the child was left alone.

               They say that a second is all it takes, and it’s true. In the time it took Sammy’s mother to run inside and answer the phone, her son disappeared. “I wasn’t even gone a minute,” Penelope heard as she watched his mother sob. “I would have been back even sooner, but a motorcycle was driving by, and I couldn’t hear who was on the other end of the line until it passed.” By then it was too late. The boy was gone. And though her superior officer thought the child had wandered off, Penelope was struck by the conviction in the mother’s voice.

               Perhaps someone had taken Sammy, snatching him from the yard the very second his mother went inside, the sounds of the abduction concealed by the din of a passing noisy motor. That tiny seed of what if had been enough to make Penelope volunteer for the door to door inquiry. She had no idea that doing so would lead to this, her bound and gagged, and from the feel of the tender bruises covering her body, tossed down the stairs to end up on the dirt floor of someone’s basement.

               The door opened like the others before it. Penelope smiled at the woman, and though something inside her whispered danger as she took in the weathered face framed by grey hair, the stout, matronly body squeezed into a pair of too tight jeans, she kept her guard down, suspecting nothing. Her instincts cried wolf all the time, after all. When she went out on a rainy night to pick up some take out, or when the good-looking guy with the great smile standing behind her in line at the grocery store made eye contact. But, even as a police officer, Penelope had encountered little real danger in her life.

               Perhaps, if she had considered how a less prepared driver may have responded when her wheels hydroplaned on the slick road, of if had she ever gotten the cute guy’s name and ran his record, discovered that he had a long history of domestic abuse, she would have realized that it was her instinct that kept her safe. Maybe she would have trusted her gut when it spoke to her, sweat pooling on her upper lip, beading at her temples as the red door swung open, revealing the husky woman.

               Penelope introduced herself to the woman who opened the door. “Good afternoon, ma’am, I’m Officer Holden with the Waverly Police Department. I’m sorry to bother you today, but a little boy went missing down the street, and I’m checking with all of the neighbors, seeing if anyone saw anything, maybe a child walking alone, something that struck you as suspicious, anything out of the ordinary at all.”

               Noticing a piece of mail that had fallen across the threshold onto the toe of her boot, dislodged from the mail slot when the door opened, Penelope bent to pick it up. Handing the letter over, her eyes darted from the name printed on the envelope, Dr. Lee Chin, to the picture of the Asian family on the hall table, finally meeting the gaze of the late middle-aged white woman standing before her. The woman tracked the path Penelope’s eyes had taken. Turning to look at the photograph behind her, a smile spread across her face as she turned back towards Penelope.

               “I’m the nanny,” she said. “One of the children is actually in the bath right now, so . . .” she gestured with her head over her shoulder.

               “Oh, of course, I’m sorry. I can stop back later,” Penelope said, taking a step back, unable to shake the feeling of unease that had settled over her shoulders like a heavy coat.

               “No, I wouldn’t want you to have to do that. No reason to go through all that trouble. Please, come in. I just need to keep an ear open. I can do that and talk at the same time.”

               She stepped back, making a sweeping motion with her arm, indicating that Penelope should enter. Penelope snuck another glance at the photo as she passed, anxiety building with each step that carried her further into the house, worrying that she was wasting too much time, that each moment that passed allowed the missing boy to slip further from her grasp, but also something else, a worry whose source she couldn’t quite pinpoint

               Leaving the foyer, walking down the hall, it struck her, not like lightning, but as a subtle thought that slowly rose up, breaching the surface of her consciousness like a bubble. Both of the kids in that picture looked like teenagers. Why would they need a nanny? Or a bath?

               The synapsis in her brain fired, making connections, sorting through the jumble swirling inside her head, the daily juggle of what needed to be done that day, whether she had turned the coffee pot off, hope that the little boy would be found quickly and safely, wondering when would be the right time to approach her superior officer about entering the detective program and taking the exam, the discomfort of her pants’ button digging deeply into the soft flesh of her belly from the weight she’d recently gained. Reaching the living room, one thought broke through, and she had a single, glorious moment of clarity. Then a wave of pain crashed against her head, bringing with it a dark blanket that dropped, blocking from her vision the motorcycle parked incongruously on the living room rug and the little boy sitting in front of the TV.

A bead of sweat traces its way down Penelope’s cheek. Raising a shoulder to wipe at her face, she thinks she smells something burning. She draws a deep breath. She does smells smoke.

Penelope tilts her head to look up at the door. It looks hazy at the top of the stairs, but that could be from the lack of lighting. Is it her imagination, or is that a finger of smoke reaching out from beneath the door, beckoning to her like a waving hand?

A smoke alarm sounds from the house above, the high-pitched beeping echoing off the walls around her. Penelope tugs at her bonds, knowing that struggling against the zip ties is futile. Bending in half, she brings her wrists to her ankles, tugging her right shoelace out of the eyelets of her boot. When it’s half free, she pulls the lace through the zip tie between her wrists and puts the end in her mouth. Gripping the aglet firmly between her teeth, she saws the zip tie against the lace, the hard plastic biting deeply into the flesh of her wrists, her skin raw and burning. She pauses, inspecting the tiny trench eroded into her plastic bonds, then resumes her efforts, drawing her wrists up and down, back and forth, until the tie breaks, her arms flying wide with freedom.

She rips the tape from her mouth and undoes the lace the rest of the way from her boot, threading the cord between the zip tie and her ankles, grabbing the ends in each fist. A crash upstairs makes her flinch. Faintly, above the pounding of her heart, she thinks she can hear the crackling of fire. Her eyes water and burn. Sawing through the last of her bonds, Penelope rolls onto her knees and pushes herself to her feet, eying the door at the top of the stairs. Amber shadows flicker against the wall, like candlelight from a jack-o-lantern.

An engine thunders to life, the noise pitching to a roar then quickly fading. Late afternoon light seeps in around the edges of a bulkhead. The promise of fresh air propels Penelope forward. She moves unsteadily towards the bulkhead, her limbs stiff, back sore. Standing on the bottom step, she pushes against the heavy pressed-wood doors. They give a foot but do not open. Penelope peers through the gap, eyes studying the thick chain that prevents the doors from opening completely. Crouching, she climbs higher on the stairs until she is curled under the doors. Raising only one side up, she contorts she herself, pushing her head through the gap. Squirming, she fights to get her shoulders through, her legs bracing hard against the wall, her torso squeezed and scraped, breath forced from her lungs as she slowly inches her way through the narrow space until she flops clumsily onto the ground, completely birthed from the basement.

She lies flat on her back, panting, inhaling greedily. Staring up at the sky, squinting against the still visible sun, Penelope realizes not much time has passed since she had knocked on the front door. She must not have been unconscious long.

Pushing into a sitting position, her vision clouds, each beat of her heart throbbing through her skull. She pauses, letting the pain subside. As the grey haze recedes to the edges of her sight, her eyes focus on the tire tracks etched into the soft soil of the yard beside her. She studies the ruts which lead across the yard, to the house, then back over the yard through the back gate, unable to determine which set was made when the bike arrived, and which went it left. Does it matter? She feels like it does.

Penelope struggles to her feet, stumbles, wary eyes watching the roils of black smoke swarming angrily behind the windows of the house. She needs to call this in. She needs to report the fire. Yet she finds herself drawn to the tire tracks, approaching the design that repeats back and forth across the yard, a pattern not unlike like a set of fingerprints. The deep, pristine impression of a freshly inked finger, the first finger pressed against the FD-258 card when she books a perp at the station, then a lighter imprint, like when she presses the entire hand all at once without re-inking. Only the difference in these markings aren’t due to ink transfer. The tracks were made by a motorcycle’s tires. They were formed by the weight pressing the bike down against the earth.

Penelope’s head snaps towards the house, adrenalin flushing hot beneath her skin. There’d been less weight on the back of the bike when one set of the tracks were made. The kidnapped boy was brought to the house on the bike. If his weight wasn’t on the bike when it left, then that meant . . .

Running to the house, Penelope peers through the window, but the dark smoke, like low hanging storm clouds, blocks her view. She tries the handle on the back door, the knob twisting under her grasp. Shoving the door open, she’s smacked in the face by a wall of acrid smoke. Penelope drops to her hands and knees, eyes stinging, lungs burning as she coughs. “Sammy?” she chokes out, crawling forward into the inferno-like heat of the house. Her sweat-drenched skin prickles. The low growl of flames rustles in her ears, the noise grower louder as she continues forward, blinking rapidly against the heat and smoke, struggling for each breath. She feels herself weakening.

Panic wells inside her, every instinct in her body shouting for her to retreat. She can barely think above the noise – crackling flames, rasping gasps, gnashing teeth, frenzied thoughts. When she rounds the couch, and sees the shoe, she thinks she’s hallucinating. She is too late, has pressed too far, has sealed the fate for both herself and the boy by making the wrong decision. She should have called for help.

Sprawling on her belly across the carpet, she musters a small burst of energy and reaches for the tiny tennis shoe, an image of scuffed, dirty white leather with a red cartoon car across the side filling her brain as her eyes close. It must have been part of the description she had taken from the mother. Funny how your brain fills in details like that. Her fingers stretch to wrap around the phantom image. Penelope expects a fistful of air. When her hand clenches around something solid, she forces her eyes open, lids peeling back from the dried orbs with the resistance of Velcro. She squeezes. The shoe weakly tries to pull from her grasp.

“Sammy.” She feels the name leave her lips but can’t hear the sound. She strengthens her grip on the tiny foot, pushing herself forward with every ounce of strength she has. The panel on the bottom of the couch brushes across her cheek, rough material that smells like feet and dust. Penelope squeezes her face into the space under the couch, her lungs greedily drinking in the cooler, cleaner air. Her thoughts clear. Giving the small shoe clenched in her hand another squeeze, she’s shocked to feel a hot, damp hand wrap around her fingers. Releasing the foot, she takes the hand in hers. Drawing one last breath from under the couch, she reenters hell, smoke swirling, flames spitting, licking at the fabric of an armchair only feet away.

Her gaze settles on Sammy’s soot stained face, sweat and tears streaking paths through the grime. She draws him towards her, pulling him under her, guiding him towards safety. Penelope feels like she’s being boiled alive as they slowly inch toward the door, Sammy crawling under her with his hands and feet bound. Something grazes her back and she yelps, fire searing through her uniform, the flame dying against her flesh. The skin on her back scalds and tingles, itching as it flares into blisters. She wants to give in, to collapse, but she can’t. They’re so close; she can smell the drafts of fresh air mingling with the smoke, feeding the fire.

Wrapping one arm under Sammy’s stomach, she crawls forward on three limbs until she feels the soft forgiveness of earth under her knees. She presses on, getting Sammy as far from the burning house as she can before flopping onto her back, letting the heat from her skin leech into the cool soil beneath her.

A weeping sound tunnels through the darkness, into Penelope’s head. The world beneath her jolts and she panicks, tries to throw her arms out for balance, but she can’t. They are bound to her sides. Forcing the heavy drapery of her eyelids apart, she struggles to focus her vision.

“Ssh, Officer Holden, it’s alright.”

Following the sound of the voice, she finds herself looking into a pair of concerned blue eyes above her. “You have some second degree burns on your back, and we’re treating you for smoke inhalation. We’re going to take you to the hospital for further treatment.”

Eyes flying wide, Penelope searches the crowd of officials and curious neighbors gathered on the streets around her. “The boy?” Muffled words bounce off the oxygen mask strapped to her face.

“He’s just fine. In fact,” the eyes disappear from view and she feels the brake on the stretcher beneath her click down.

The back of Sammy’s head appears. He and his mother cling to each other. His mother holds an oxygen mask to his face with one hand, cradling him against her with the other. Penelope smiles towards the mother’s grateful face but is unable to take her eyes off Sammy. His arms wrapped tightly around his mother’s neck, his little black Nikes tucked snuggly against her hips.

“His shoes,” Penelope croaks.

Sammy’s mom stops gushing gratitude at Penelope and glances down at her son’s feet.

“I thought they were white. With red cars.”

“I must have described the wrong shoes earlier,” she says, her head tilting to the side. “I’m sorry. I forgot he had these on. I forgot he even owned them I was so panicked, but you found him, Officer Holden, and I’m so truly grateful for everything you’ve done. Thank you.” Her voice breaks. The woman buries her face into her son’s neck, muffling a sob.

Stepping forward, the paramedic releases the break on the stretcher and loads Penelope onto the ambulance. No one hears her say, “But I saw the shoes you described.”

The ambulance door slams shut and a familiar face looms into view. Detective Shaw takes a seat next to the gurney and gives Penelope a smile. “That was some good work today, Officer Holden.”

Penelope opens her mouth to speak, then stops herself. Had she really seen Sammy’s shoe in that burning house, or had she imagined it? Had she even found him? Or had he found her? Could she allow herself to take credit where it wasn’t due?

“Sir, I . . .” her voice trails off, not knowing how to describe what may or may not have happened inside the burning house.

Detective Shaw glances at the paramedic, busy inserting an IV into her arm. Lowering his head closer to Penelope’s, his voice low, Shaw asks, “Did something happen back there, in the fire? Something you can’t explain?”

Penelope blinks. Her eyes feel like they’re tearing up but are still beyond dry. She whispers, “Yes, sir.”

Leaning back, Detective Shaw clears his throat and says, “You’re a good cop, Holden. But what happened back there, whatever it was? That’s what’s going to make you a great cop. There’s no way to explain it. You’ve just got to go with it. That innate instinct, that gut feeling? Never doubt it.”

               Thinking back over the events of the day, Penelope knows he is right. She nods, a small smile curving the edges of her chapped lips. Detective Shaw’s words don’t just allay her fears; they infuse her with an inner calm she’s never felt before. A feeling that comes from knowing that she’s on the right path. This is what she is meant to do. Officer Holden is who she is meant to be.

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FREE Flash Fiction ~ The Hungry Games

The Hungry Games first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Stinkwaves Magazine.

 

The Hungry Games

By Shannon Hollinger

 

The experiment has gone horribly wrong. I was going for an exercise that would result in a Mother Teresa-like experience, but somehow ended up in the middle of Jurassic Park instead. Now I have a roomful of savage toddlers ready to tear me to pieces.

This semester I’m taking a social psychology class. I’ve just finished reading about dozens of studies that have proven the altruistic nature of chimps, the willingness of one to help another earn a treat even if it doesn’t result in a reward for themselves. This kindness can be seen across the animal kingdom. Was I really so misguided in thinking that a roomful of preschoolers would be capable of displaying the same behavior? Apparently, I was.

            In my hand is a box of popsicles. There’s only enough for everyone if the double sticks inside each package are split and shared. The hand that holds the box trembles under the intense gaze of every pair of eyes in the room. There will be no sharing today, that much is clear. Let the hunger games begin.

            Little Timmy Holbrook is closing in on my left. He’s the established biter of the group, our very own Hannibal Lecter. He’d gladly eat his Popsicle with some jelly beans and a bite of his auntie. There’s no reasoning with him. Timmy’s tiny baby teeth gnash together and I know it’s only a matter of seconds before I lose some skin. I toss a packet of popsicles in his direction and he grabs it out of the air with a chubby fist. Timmy retreats to a corner of the nursery, eagerly shredding the paper from his prize.

            This causes the rest of them to begin closing in on me. I feel like I’ve fallen into the tiger pit at the zoo. Sally Morgan rushes to the front of the pride. She stares up at me with two huge, baby blue eyes. An evil smirk contorts her round face as her little fists ball up at her sides. Sally is a screamer. The kid has a set of lungs any opera prima donna would envy. Her lips part and I watch in horror as her lungs begin to fill. Sally is priming herself for the wail of the century. My free hand fumbles into the box of popsicles. Sally snatches the package in a flash, leaving a trail of red scratch marks across the back of my hand.

            I glance around the room, desperately searching for a way out, but there is no escape from the nightmare I’ve created. The pack of wolves is advancing. Only one member is hanging back. This deviation in behavior draws my attention away from the closer threats at hand. I crane my head to see who the child is who seems to have lost interest in the popsicles, the kid with his back to me as he fiddles behind my desk. My jaw drops in dismay, a lump forms in my throat. It’s Billy Williams-the flusher.

            Billy’s pointy ears add to the mischievous expression on his face as he rounds the corner of my desk, my keys dangling from his hand. He looks from me to the bathroom. I follow his eyes and know I’ll never make it in time. Billy’s body is angled, his left leg twitching as he assumes a sprinter’s starting pose. His head slowly swivels back to face me.

            “Billy! I’ll trade you.”

            For a moment, I think the desperation in my voice promises more enjoyment for him than the sugary snack melting in my hand. My heart races and I fear he’s going to go for the flush, anyway. Then he darts through the throng of his classmates and rips the proffered gift from my hand. The keys land between the scuffed toes of my Nikes.

            I bend my knees, lowering myself close enough to reach them, careful to not take my eyes off the hair puller, the hitter, the liar and the curser. My finger loops through the key ring and I straighten just in time to see the toy thrower winding up. Patrick Doyle is standing next to the basket of playground toys, a dump truck raised behind his ear like a quarterback. The florescent lighting glints off the metal toy, the glare holding my attention like I’m hypnotized.

            Priscilla, the potty-mouthed princess, seizes the opportunity the distraction has provided. Dashing forward, she filches a package of popsicles out of the box. Priscilla hisses a few foul words in my direction and then retreats with her stolen goods. There are only two Popsicle packets left, but four kids. It’s not too late for them to share.

            “Patrick, would you split a popsicle with Blake?”

            Patrick looks at Blake and sneers. Blake is a liar. His weapon will be of little use until the parents come to pick their children up at the end of the day. Patrick’s eyes flit between me, the other kids, and the basket of toys, as he realizes launching an attack from where he now stands would enable his classmates to get to the goods before he could reach them. Patrick grabs a front end loader from the basket as backup and stalks forward.

            I hear the patter of petite footsteps and turn just in time to stop Tammy in her tracks. Her legs are bunched under her, one arm fully extended. The hair puller is ready to launch.

            “Tammy, will you share with Melissa?”

            Melissa shifts her focus from me to Tammy. She lifts her hand, stretches her fingers like she’s clawing the air, her digits settling into a fist. Melissa’s knuckles look sharp and dangerous. On my other side, Patrick has closed the distance and has his arm tensed to throw.

            “I’ll give you each a popsicle and a dollar.”

            Small heads cock to the side, regarding me with suspicious eyes.

            “I promise.”

            Four little hands appear palm up before me. Sighing with relief, I divvy up the treats and give them their money. It’s a small price to pay for escaping unscathed.

 

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Free Fiction ~ It’s All About The Cat

A woman is dead in her apartment. The only witness? A cat. This cozy mystery featuring Detective Shaw first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post.

 

It’s All About the Cat

By Shannon Hollinger

 

It’s clear that the cat is a narcissist. Detective Shaw watches the cat stare at its own reflection in the window, licking itself with long, self-indulgent strokes of the tongue. On the floor beneath the window ledge where the cat preens, a woman lays dead in a pool of her own blood. Tiny red paw prints cover the floor. One could almost fool themselves into thinking the cat had been distraught over the woman’s death. The missing flesh from the tip of her nose and the way the cat cavalierly ignores all the humans in the room, suggests otherwise.

“Bet you wish he could talk, don’t you?” a uniformed officer says, nudging the detective with his elbow.

“He?”

“It’s kind of hard not to notice.”

Detective Shaw turns toward the uniform, nose wrinkled in distaste.

Mistaking Shaw’s reaction, he says, “You must be a dog person.”

“Bird, actually.”

“Oh! You’re the one with the parrot. I’ve heard about him. The Professor.”

“Gilligan.”

“I’m Sam.”

“The parrot. His name is Gilligan.”

“Oh, right. I suppose that makes more sense.”

Detective Shaw nods as the crime scene technician gathers her samples and flashes him a thumb up. He squats next to the corpse, his eyes inspecting the body from head to toe.

“So, if it was you lying here, Gilligan would tell us what happened and who did it, right?”

Shaw squints over his shoulder like an annoying gnat is buzzing in his ear.

“Hey, Petie? This guy’s the detective that has the parrot.”

“No kidding? I’ve heard about him. Skipper, right?”

“No, Gilligan.”

“Not that, I know the bird’s name, dummy. I meant him. Detective Skipper, right?”

Shaw sighs. Standing, he claps his hands together and says, “I’d like to thank everyone for your help, but now it’s time to clear the scene.”

“What about Percival?”

“Who?” Shaw spins to face the cop called Petie.

“Percival? The cat.”

“Oh. If you want to wait around until we’re done here, you can take him with you until we notify next of kin if you want.”

“Really? Thanks, Detective Skipper.”

Shaw closes his eyes, counting until he hears the door shut. When he opens them, he finds the crime scene tech, Shirley, regarding him with sympathy as she tries not to laugh.

“Have you processed the cat yet?”

“Nope. Want to pin him down for me?”

Shaw glances at the cat. Percival yawns, his cat mouth opening impossibly wide, the gaping maw lined with tiny, razored fangs.

“I’ll pass.”

“Oh, come on. You two are going to have to become friends. You might as well get it over with now.”

“What do you mean?”

They stand staring at the cat. Reaching a hand up to his shoulder, Shirley gives it a squeeze. She looks up at him from the corner of her eyes, and says, “It’s not just the nose. Look at the left hand.”

Shaw follows her suggestion, his gaze zeroing in on the left hand, tucked tight against the body. His pulse quickens as he registers the bone protruding from the bloody stump of the ring finger.

“There’s no telling what he may have eaten. That cat is evidence. He’s going home with you tonight.”

“The hell. Why can’t you take him?”

“Can’t. Husband’s allergic.”

“Well, then your husband can stay with me.”

Shirley laughs, gives him a grin, then says, “Bet you wish you had a partner right about now, huh?” Shouldering her collection kit, she gathers her evidence bags.

“Where are you going?”

            “I’ve got to get these samples to the lab to process.”

            “But what about the cat?”

            “I lied. I processed him while the M.E. was clearing the body.”

            “But, wait. You can’t leave.”

            “I’ll tell you what. I’ll break the bad news to poor Petie. Now, you gentlemen have a good night together, alright?”

            He can hear her laughing long after the door shuts behind her.

*****

            “I’m sorry.”

            Another seed pelts the back of his head.

            “I said, I’m sorry.”

            A corn kernel grazes his ear as it zooms by.

            “Gilligan.”

            Feathers rustle as he turns to face the parrot.

            “I’ve locked him in the bathroom, what more do you want from me?”

            The bird rolls its pale eyes at him.

            “You want to join him?”

            Gilligan’s head cocks to the side. He shuffles on his perch, turning his back on Shaw.

            “Like I don’t have enough on my plate.”

            Detective Shaw returns to his notes, trying to recover his train of thought. The victim was a single white female, early forties, worked as a CPA for one of the larger local accounting firms. According to her neighbors she was quiet, kept to herself. No one could remember her ever having any visitors over. She lived in the coveted top floor apartment in a building with narrow halls and narrower walls, so their assessment on that front was probably accurate.

            Her coworkers, who had reported her missing, considered her a hard worker, thorough, dependable, but couldn’t remember her ever mentioning any family, friends, or significant other.

            The apartment had been beyond neat; every item had its place; every place was a neatly labeled container of some sort. Nothing appeared to have been taken. She didn’t own a car. She had no debts or vices that he could detect. As far as he could tell, the victim and her life had been completely unremarkable save for the fact that she had bought the apartment building before moving in, and that she was murdered.

            A scratching against the bathroom door is immediately followed by an angry shriek from Gilligan. Shaw walks to the bathroom and cracks the door open. Percival sits staring up at him, fluffy tail curled neatly around his paws. If Shaw didn’t know better, he’d say the cat was smirking. Opening the door a little wider, he sees the shredded roll of toilet paper, a puddle of yellow using the grout between the tile as a flood channel, and a pile of brown on his bath mat.

            He shuts the door with a sigh. How could he have forgotten the litter box? Grabbing a wad of paper towels from the kitchen, he wonders how such a small creature could hold so much mess, then freezes as he’s struck by another thought. He hadn’t brought any food or the cat’s water dish, either.

            Sinking down onto one of the kitchen chairs, he goes over the apartment in his mind, mentally revisiting each room. For the life of him, he can’t recall seeing any of the accoutrements that one would expect to accompany cat ownership. Even his own place bore traces of Gilligan in every room, and the parrot spent most of his time in a cage, albeit with an open door.

            Rummaging through his cupboards, Detective Shaw finds an out of date can of tuna, which he dumps onto a paper plate. Filling a bowl with water, he presents both to the cat, hoping to not incur any additional wrath. Bagging the evidence, he shoves the bathmat in a trash bag and gives the floor a quick cleaning before returning to his desk.

*****

            Shaw arrives at the station early the next morning, and he’s already made two stops. The first was the apartment building of his crime scene, where he had hung a poster displaying the very best of his limited arts and crafts skills. The second was a pet store, where he spent a ridiculous amount of money purchasing cat food and a litter box, and though he’d never admit it, a cat bed and a few toys.

            After leaving several baggies of ‘evidence’ on Shirley’s desk, he heads over to the Medical Examiner’s Office to check on his victim. Entering the autopsy suite, he finds Doc Hastings working over the deceased on the examination table.

            “Morning, Doc.”

            “Detective Shaw! Heard you have yourself a new roommate.”

            “Don’t people have anything better to talk about?”

            “Good news travels fast.”

            “I think your definition of good differs from mine.”

            Hastings smirks.

            “Do you have anything that would help with, oh, I don’t know, the case?”

            “You’re no fun today.”

            “I’m no fun every day.”

            “True.” Returning his attention to the body, Hastings says. “The findings on your victim are pretty cut and dried. She suffered from a single stab wound to the chest. The left ventricle was severed. It’s likely she was immediately incapacitated. Would have been unconscious as she bled out.”

            “What can you tell me about the weapon.”

            “I took a cast of the wound for you, but I feel fairly confident that you’re looking for a pair of scissors.”

            “Really? You ever work a case where scissors were used in a pre-mediated act?”

            “I’ve actually never worked one where scissors were used in a murder. I had one where a lady was running and tripped and stabbed herself once.”

            “That actually happens?”

            “Apparently.”

            “Hmm. Any defensive wounds?”

            “Not even a scratch. Poor gal never saw it coming.”

            “That’s consistent with the theory I’m working.”

            “Care to share?”

            “Not really.”

            “Ouch. At least tell me about the decedent. Who was she? The cranky spinster? A crazy cat lady?”

            “I don’t think either would really apply.”

            “But she had a cat.”

            “Maybe. Maybe not.”

            Placing the victim’s liver on the scale, Hastings spoke the weight into his Dictaphone, giving Shaw a dirty look over the top of his glasses. “Why are you being so difficult today? Are you missing the cat?”

            “What?”

            “Nothing. So, we’re thinking it wasn’t premeditated. Do you concur?”

            “I do.”

            “Which means it was either a crime of opportunity or passion.”

            “There are other options.”

            “Such as?”

            “An accident.”

“Is that what you think this was?”

            “No, not entirely.”

            “Are you trying to crush my last nerve?”

            “I am not.”

            “Then say something useful. Or interesting. Either will do.” He dictates the weight and appearance of the kidneys, then peers at Shaw over his glasses once more. “You may begin.”

            Crossing his arms, Shaw leans against the empty dissection table behind him, the metal cold through the thin fabric of his slacks. “We agree that the crime was not planned.”

            “Correct.”

            “And the victim doesn’t have any defensive wounds, which would support that she didn’t see the attack coming.”

            “Tell me something I don’t know.”

            “The cat belongs to the killer.”

            “Wait. What?” Hastings stops, arms frozen in the act of running the bowel.

            “There were no signs that the cat belonged in the apartment. No water dish, no food, no cat box. Nothing.”

            “Now, that is interesting.”

            Shaw nods. “I think the cat belongs to one of the other tenants in the building. I think the cat followed his owner upstairs when they went to talk to the victim and got left behind when the killer panicked after committing the crime.”

            “So, what are the other tenants in the building like?”

            “They’re all women.”

            “Ah, so it’s the killer who’s the crazy cat lady, not the victim. What are you thinking for motive?”

            “I haven’t a clue.”

            “Then, for your sake, Detective, I hope your theory pans out.”

            Detective Shaw’s phone sounds the Jaws theme from his coat pocket. He glances at the screen, then heads towards the door. “With any luck, this’ll be my proof.”

            Shaw waits for the doors to swing shut behind him before answering.

            “Hello.”

            “Um, yes, I think you found my cat.”

            The voice on the other end of the line is that of an older female. He quickly matches it to one of the faces he saw while interviewing the neighbors the day before.

            “I just may have. Can you describe the cat for me?”

            An irritated sigh is followed by a beat of silence. “Really.”

            “Well . . .”

            “If you insist. He’s a Siamese, blue eyes, tan and chocolate fur, has a collar with the name Percival on it.”

            “Yep, that’s the cat I found.”

            “When can you return him?”

            “When would be convenient for you?”

            Another sigh, like he’s being difficult. “I’d like him returned as soon as possible.”

            “Well, I’m at work, but if I left now, I could pick the cat up and be there within an hour if that would work for you?”

            “I suppose it’ll have to, won’t it?”

            “And what’s the address?”

            “What kind of question is that? You put the flyer up, don’t you remember?”

            “I put flyers up in several buildings in the area, ma’am,” Shaw lied. “I found the cat out by my trash cans. I wasn’t sure which building the cat may have come from.”

            “My Percival never would have gone outside on his own. There’s no reward, you know.”

            “I’m not interested in a reward, ma’am, I just want to return the cat to his rightful owner.”

            “Hmf. Well, it took you long enough. He’s been gone almost three days already.”

            “The address, ma’am.”

            “82 Elm, #3. I’ll expect you within the hour.”

            Pocketing the phone, Shaw pokes his head back into the autopsy suite and asks, “Hey, Doc. You got a time of death for me, yet?”

            “Myofilament decomposition would place death between 60 to 75 hours.”

            “Perfect, Doc, thanks. Gotta run.”

            “Yeah, yeah. You detectives are all the same. You only want me for my . . .” Finding himself alone, Doc Hastings sighs, returning his attention to the task at hand.

*****

            The door opens, revealing a sturdy looking woman in her sixties, a scowl below her glasses, frown lines in heavily creased folds above them.

            “Where’s my cat?”

            Shaw flashes his badge. “I’m Detective Shaw, ma’am. We spoke yesterday about your neighbor.” He gestures with his eyes to the apartment above them.

            “I told you everything I have to say. I’m busy.”

            “Waiting for Percival?”

            Her face scrunches, eyes narrowed, lips puckered. “What do you know about that?”

            “You called me earlier. I made the flyer.” Hearing a snicker from further down the hallway, Shaw clears his throat loudly. “I’m the one who found your cat.”

            “Percival would never leave the building. He never goes anywhere without me. I’ve had him since he was a kitten. He follows me around like a puppy dog.”

            “That’s just what I suspected.”

            “It is?”

            “Yes. Which is why I have this warrant here granting me permission to search your apartment.”

            She snatches the paper from his outstretched hand, glaring at him as she skims the text.

            “This is ridiculous. You’re not coming in. You’re not welcomed.”

            Footsteps approach as Shaw says, “That piece of paper says I don’t need a welcome. Now, if you’ll step aside, ma’am.”

            “I most certainly will not!”

            Two uniformed officers step up, one at each of Shaw’s elbows.

            “You don’t understand,” she says. Her body deflates as Shaw squeezes past her into the apartment.

            “I understand enough,” Shaw says. “I understand that your cat, the one that follows you around like a dog, was found in the victim’s apartment upstairs. I understand that you’ve already put a call in to the property management company, requesting to move to the victim’s apartment. And,” Shaw says, pointing to a sheet of paper on the kitchen counter, “I understand that you have a piece of the victim’s mail in your possession. Ask Shirley to bag this, will you, boys.”

            “You don’t understand,” she repeats. “Look at that bill,” she gestures to the piece of stolen mail on the counter. “Look at what she pays. $60 in the middle of winter in Massachusetts. $60! Do you know what I pay? Closer to $300! I can’t keep paying that on my pension. What was I supposed to do? Keep letting her steal all my heat for free after she stole my apartment?”

            Shaw lifts an eyebrow.

            “My ability to get by on my retirement was based on living in that apartment with that heating bill. I started out on the ground floor of this place almost twenty years ago and have been working my way up since. When the last tenant was moved to a care home, somehow that witch swooped in and stole the apartment from me. Then, when I went up there to ask her to split the electric bill since I was paying for her heat, she refused. Threatened to have me evicted for stealing her mail.”

            “Got it!” Shirley came out of the bathroom, a pair of scissors held up triumphantly in one of her gloved hands. In the other, she held a cotton swab with a pink tip.

            “I didn’t mean to . . . I didn’t mean what happened. Honest. I was just so mad. When she refused to tell me how she finagled her way into the apartment that was rightfully mine . . .”

            “I’ve got the answer to that one,” Shaw says. “She actually had every right to the apartment.”

            He watches her face turn several shades of purple.

            “You see, she bought the building.” Without waiting for a response, Shaw gives the uniformed officers a nod and leaves, the click of the handcuffs following him out the door.

*****

            Detective Shaw struggles to unlock the door, maintaining a precarious grip on the bags he’s juggling. “Gilligan, I’m home.” Shaw sets the bags on the table, untwisting the noose one of the plastic handles has dug into his wrist. “Gilligan?”

            Entering the living room, the first thing he sees is the open bathroom door. The second is the empty birdcage.

            “Gilligan!”

            A halfhearted squawk carries from the couch. Shaw stares at the scene, sinking slowly into the armchair behind him. The cat opens his blue eyes just a slit and smirks at him, then stretches his back legs farther across the couch. Behind him, the parrot continues to groom the fur behind the cat’s ear with his beak. Pausing, he cocks his head at Shaw, whistles, and says, “Pretty kitty.”

            “Don’t be an enabler,” Shaw says. Covering his face with his hand, he can’t help peeking through his fingers. He grins.

END

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Free Short Fiction ~ A Campfire Tale

A Campfire Tale first appeared in issue 18 of Dark Moon Digest Magazine. It was also chosen for the Best Horror Shorts 2015 anthology.

 

a campfire tale cover

“Tell us a story Aunt Fran,” Lilly-Anne suggested.

“Yeah, Aunt Fran, please,” the other children chimed in.

Aunt Fran gave them each an apprising look. The sun was fading fast past the horizon, the last of the golden rays casting long shadows about the campgrounds. She looked over at her siblings, across the site with their spouses starting a large bonfire which they no doubt planned to drink by until all the wood was burnt and alcohol consumed, leaving her to watch their spawn.

“OK,” Aunt Fran conceded. “What kind of a story do you want?”

“A ghost story,” Lilly-Anne said.

“No, a scary ghost story,” Samantha said.

“How about I tell you a true-life horror story?” Aunt Fran asked. The children eagerly edged closer to the small campfire, their marshmallows abandoned in hopes of a good tale.

“Yeah, right,” Frankie said. “As if.”

Frankie, being eleven, was at the age where he was convinced he was too old and cool for any kid stuff. Aunt Fran remembered his father, Jeff, being the same way at that age too.

“Honestly,” Aunt Fran promised. “I’ll tell you about the most horrible, terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Frankie rolled his eyes but moved closer on his roughhewn log.

“Well,” Aunt Fran began, “When your parents and I were younger, our parents used to take us camping. Not like this.” She gestured around. “Not a picnic where you stay late, then drive home. No, they used to drive us way out into the woods, hours past civilization to the most secluded spots they could find, and that’s where we’d pitch our tents for the night.”

“Our parents would stay in one tent, and all us kids would stay in another. My parents would put a padlock on the zipper of our tent. They said it was to keep the bears out, but we all knew it was to keep us from sneaking out and roaming around the woods at night, which, given the opportunity, we would have done.”

“I was seven the year they drove us way out to the wilds of Canada to go camping. It was summertime, but I remember it still being so cold that you could see your breath in the air. They had zipped us up in our tent for the night, me and your parents, and we huddled together for warmth and fell asleep.”

“This is stupid,” Frankie interrupted.

The other children hushed him and returned their rapt attention to Aunt Fran.

“The thing about being in the woods,” Aunt Fran told them, “is that even though it’s quiet, it’s not.” She held up a hand to stop any questions, a signal that she would explain. “There are no noises from civilization in the woods, no sirens or car horns or barking dogs or blaring TVs. That’s why people go camping, for the peace and quiet. Only it’s not quiet. There are little noises everywhere. An animal chewing. A bug buzzing. Twigs cracking, branches bending, the wind blowing. And when you’re a little kid, it’s really quite spooky.”

“I was the last of us to fall asleep that night. I remember listening to the sounds of the woods, imagining every type of creepy crawly that might be prowling around in the dark on the other side of the thin fabric of the tent. Finally, I focused on everyone’s breathing, as one by one my brothers and sisters fell into the easy rhythm of sleep. It made me feel safe, knowing they were there with me, and eventually the thoughts of bears and wolves and snakes that I attributed all the noises to fell away and I joined them in sleep.”

“To this day I don’t know what woke me that night. I was sleeping soundly, and then I awakened suddenly in a complete fright.”

The children clustered closer, anticipating the good part of the story.

“I laid still, on my back, unable to see anything in the pitch dark, listening to the noises around me. For once there was silence outside. All I could hear was my siblings’ breathing, but something didn’t sound right. Not how it had before. Someone was breathing too hard, and, well . . . anyway. My heart was racing and the hairs on my arms were standing straight out. I was trying to lie still, to pretend to still be sleeping, but I was going crazy, being so afraid and not knowing why.”

“So, I whispered into the dark to my sister. I was so scared to make a sound. The first two times I tried nothing came out, but I worked up my nerve, and I called her name. I put the words out there into the night. But she didn’t answer.”

Aunt Fran looked around at the children, who were hanging on her every word. “I was terrified to move, frozen with fear. It took everything I had to move my fingers, inch by inch through the dark until I found her hand. I took her small, cold hand in mine and squeezed, trying to wake her up. But she didn’t respond. I squeezed again and again, but nothing.”

“I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid to wake anyone else up, afraid they would think I was being silly, just their dumb little sister. I felt that if only I could see, could look around for a moment, I’d feel better. I had stolen a lighter from Jeff, your dad,” she pointed to Frankie, “earlier that day. I could feel it in my pocket, heavy with the weight of the guilt of stolen goods. I moved my hand, ever so slowly, fearful of making any movement fast enough to be detected in the gloom where God knows what lurked, until I had my hand in my pocket. I wrapped the lighter in my sweaty palm and began the painfully slow process of bringing it up.”

“I don’t know if it took minutes or hours, but it seemed like an eternity. Finally, I had it, in my hand, right up by my face. I was so scared to light it. To discover what it was that was in the tent with me, concealed by the dark, making me feel so frightened. But then I rolled my thumb on the lighter, the flint sparked, the fluid lit, and I could see.”

Aunt Fran paused for a moment, taking a deep breath. The children gathered even closer, clutching at each other, waiting for the moment when the adult yells “Boo” and they all got to scream and laugh.

“What did you see?” Lilly-Anne asked, biting her nails.

“I saw,” Aunt Fran said. “I saw my sister Georgia.” Her voice faltered.

“Georgia?”

“Yes, Georgia,” Aunt Fran snapped. “There used to be seven of us, but I’m sure your parents never told you that.” She closed her eyes for a moment, lost in the memory. When she opened them again, she had regained her composure. “I saw my little, baby sister Georgia, laying there in the dark beside me. Her eyes were open,” Aunt Fran recalled. “Those beautiful gray eyes. They were open, but they weren’t blinking.”

The children shifted uncomfortably, feeling awkward. They exchanged nervous glances.

“I screamed. I screamed like I have never screamed before or since. Everyone woke up. Our parents came running over with a flashlight, opened the tent, and then they saw too.” Fran sniffed and wiped at her eyes. “My mother scooped me up and carried me out of the tent. She made the other kids come with her. But not before I saw. Not before I knew.”

“What did she die of?” Frankie asked, curiosity overcoming his need to be aloof.

“My parents said it was just one of those things. Like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. That it was just her time.”

“Why did you tell us this?” Samantha asked.

“Because that wasn’t the truth. I saw with my own eyes, the bruises around her neck. Someone had strangled her. We were locked in that tent. No one could get in or out. One of your parents killed her.”

The kids recoiled in shock. One of the younger ones started crying.

“That’s bull,” Frankie challenged.

“Believe what you want, but it’s the truth,” Aunt Fran said. “If you don’t believe me, tell your parents you met a little girl named Georgia with curly blonde hair and pale gray eyes and see how they react.”

“Who . . . who do you think did it?” Lilly-Anne whispered.

“I wish I knew for sure.” Aunt Fran swallowed hard. “At first I thought it was your dad,” she said, pointing at Frankie. “I thought he may have believed that Georgia was the one who stole his lighter. But to be honest, it could have been any one of them. Your mom, or your mom, or your dad, or yours.” She pointed at each of the children in turn. “They all have anger issues, I’m sure you’ve seen that. All I know for sure is that one of your parents killed my baby sister.”

Aunt Fran rose from her seat by the campfire. “I’ve got to go. It was nice seeing you all. You guys be good. And be careful,” she added as an afterthought over her shoulder. She exchanged distant waves with the adults as she made her hasty exit, forcing a smile to her lips before she got in her car.

The thought that none of their kids would sleep that night, or possible ever look at them the same way again, provided her with little solace. She started the engine and backed slowly out of her parking spot. She would never forgive her siblings. Not any of them. She drove down the narrow dirt road that led back to the highway. One of them had killed her little sister, making her the youngest. If Georgia was still alive, she’d be the one stuck living at home, caring for their invalid parents, not Fran.

The children were silent until the taillights from Aunt Fran’s car were swallowed by the darkness. “Do you think she was telling the truth?” Lilly-Anne asked, eyes wide with fright.

Samantha picked up a photograph from the spot where Aunt Fran had been sitting. It was faded, well-worn with time and use. She looked at it closely. “I think maybe she was,” she said in a hushed tone, showing the picture to the others. The image was of their grandparents, much younger but still recognizable. Before them stood seven children, the smallest of which was a young girl with blonde curls.

“What do we do?” Lilly-Anne asked. She looked at the younger children, feeling suddenly burdened with the task of their safety.

“Sleep in shifts and watch each other’s backs,” Frankie said, taking the photo from Samantha. He balled it up and threw it in the fire. “And never say a word of this to any of them.”

END

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