I awoke with my hands brushing the cold fabric on my wife’s side of the bed. Those crisp sheets hadn't been occupied for hours but it was only now that I noticed. The sky was dull, tiresome, like every day that had gone before, struggling out of the frozen winter. Pulling myself awake, I looked around the bedroom, my eyes glancing at the time on my bedside clock – four-thirty – then further onto my winter dressing gown. I started to explore the house, almost trance-like after doing the same thing so many times before, and ending in the same place that I often did; the back door leading out into our garden.

Annabelle was wrapped in a red tartan blanket, sitting on the steps between the stone paving and the grass, throwing breadcrumbs into the frost-covered wasteland. She was my beloved, my wife of almost fifty years, but a shell of the bright-eyed woman I’d married; time had not been kind to her. Her hair now grey, her skin littered with deep folds and her body as frail as her mind. But I still loved her, and all she'd become, even though she was hardly a person any more.

Breathing warm air onto my hands, I walked to my wife's side, smiling. "Feeding the birds again? You spoil them you know."

Looking up, flustered and confused, my wife paused for a moment before she showed any sign of recognizing my face. "There isn't much food for them at this time of year. Fall is on the horizon and they must fatten up for winter." Her tired smile beamed and I knew I shouldn’t correct her.

"I know." I lied. "But I think they've had enough. Let's get you back inside. I'll buy some new things for the bird feeder after work today."

She nodded and pushed herself back to her feet, before wandering back inside, forgetting her reason for being outside in the first place. I watched her for a moment before I collected what was left of the new loaf of bread and followed her in. After her diagnosis they never told me, or maybe they didn’t know, how long we’d have before I lost her completely. Over the years she'd taken so many knocks I was surprised she was able to stay standing for this long. But I knew it was only a matter of time before she'd lose her last battle to dementia, and I was scared.

Cutting my losses and knowing I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep, I went back upstairs and started my morning routine. Shower, get dressed, have breakfast and read the news. Thankfully, nothing noteworthy to report and I was hoping that’s how it would stay.

But just as I finished my cup of tea, my worst fears were realised as I watched an all too familiar car drive up to my house. The thrill and the spark of excitement my job used to bring was long gone. Everything seemed to turn into a game after a while. A cycle of crime, with me as a constant witness. Scratching the back of my head, I walked to my front door.

"Good morning Harrison" chirped the fiery-haired woman from the driver's seat, eyeing me over the upper lip of the half-opened window.

"Morning to you too, Sharon" I returned. I turned and called to my wife from the front door, saying I’d be leaving for the day, but got no reply.

"New case?"

Nodding, the woman sat back in her seat. With a fluid movement, she slid her phone out of her pocket and into her hands, reading the recent texts. "Apparently so. A body was found around three am this morning, down Drew Street, at that old apartment complex."

The only time I was picked up in the morning was if there’d been a major crime, which sucked the fun out of what would otherwise be an enjoyable commute.

"The old Murphy place?"

"If by that you mean that total shit hole then, yes. The boys are due to question the janitor. It’s a few hours since he found the body but other than that I don't know too much about it."

Sharon was one of my closest work friends. She was twenty years younger than me, though she hardly looked in her thirties. Something about Sharon made her easy to be around, to be open with; easy to talk to. Her red curly hair was pulled back from her face with a white headband but strands of hair fell around her freckled skin. She’d have suited bright colours but she chose to keep her outfits grey and sombre. That particular morning she wore a light grey tailored suit and a long, thick woollen winter coat, with the collar turned up, as always, and short-heeled boots.

"Until we get there, I guess we can't really debate this case much. It's the first one in a long time and I was kind of hoping for another slow day today." I chuckled, getting into the car and buckling myself in.

Without looking at me, she put the car into reverse, backed off my driveway and onto the empty streets, heading towards the heart of the city.

"No crime means no work for us, and we both know that staying at home for long periods is unhealthy for the both of us." She responding with an unusually peppy tone. "Speaking of which …."

"Annabelle's doing fine at the moment" I cut in, smiling to myself. "She was out feeding the birds again this morning."

She grimaced, "I didn't think they were back from their migration yet."

"Some stragglers” I yawned, leaning back in my seat and closing my eyes.

As we pulled up Drew Street, I could see several other police vehicles already outside, their lights flicking on and off as people scuttled around them. A large group of nosy morning commuters had gathered outside, standing behind the police tape, watching as people hurried in and out of the building. Pulling to a stop, we made our way inside, down the oppressive hallways, up the stairs and into a bleak room.

Even at the best of times, I found the Murphy complexes suffocating; buildings that had been put up with only profit in mind. The more people they could cram in under one roof, the better.

My eyes fixed on the back of one of the other detective’s heads. Bruce Abby, or Annabelle as everyone called him, was pacing back and forth at the bottom of the stairs.

Abby was a man of I think you’d say ‘Pakistani heritage’, with thick black hair and a slightly unkempt appearance, made worse by the early morning call-out. He was in his forties, ‘though he still acted as if he was in his twenties, staying out late most evenings. Time hadn’t made his liver any stronger, so more often than not he was also nursing a hangover. Appearances aside, Abby was one of the friendliest people in the force. He and I had known one another for a very long time; when he was twelve his father was killed in a hit and run. Fresh from college, I was the officer who informed the family of their loss. Abby was only a child but he was still, even then, a very loving and kind person.

Hearing me approach, Abby turned around and smiled. The colour of his face was drained. “Morning Harrison, didn't expect to see you here so early.”  Though I liked him a lot, Abby had a famously weak stomach for both his liquor and his work.

“Returns to you Abby, and what fun thing do we have today?”

"Looks like something from a Hitchcock movie. The pathologist is doing his rounds with the photographer, so we should be able to start soon. Whoever did this Harrison, they made one hell of a mess." Abby loosened his collar slightly. I couldn’t tell if it was his hangover or the murder that had made him so pale, but something was definitely not sitting well with him this morning.

Only half listening to the description of the body Abby was giving, I continued walking with the detective. "Do we have an ID on the victim yet? Parents, friends, boss?" For a moment my thoughts strayed to Abby’s comment about the pathologist; he was a single father of a four year old adopted daughter. Though we tended to switch photographers, we had only one trained criminal pathologist in the district and that man never seemed to sleep.

"His mail is a bit of a mess but it seems he called himself Joshua Brown" Abby responded, though seeming to doubt himself as he said it. "In his early twenties; very thin; some kind of addict I’d guess."

"Can someone see if we can find any close friend of our victim; either that or try to see if we can find his dealer" I said to anyone willing to listen.

"Think this was a drugs thing?" Sharon asked walking up behind us.

"It's a guess. If this guy was an addict we can't cross that idea out just yet."

Almost the whole of the fourth floor was filled with people, most of them wearing sterile wraps, grooming the halls for evidence; keeping the other occupants at bay. The smell was the first thing to hit me. A heavy smell of something that had been festering for weeks, made worse by the building’s excessive heating. Next was the sight, through the open bathroom door leading to a poor soul’s last resting place.

Limp above the dirty water was the partially-decayed body of what had been a young man, now the host of maggots and flies. I held the back of my hand to my mouth, as the smell made my eyes begin to water. What this person was, all they had been and should have become, had been reduced to nothing more than a husk, hollowed out and left to spoil.

Although I didn’t know the victim I could empathise with them; I always did. Amidst the mess of the well lived-in apartment, I saw photos of people I presumed would have been their family and friends. Death never grew less shocking and it was always sobering to see someone’s end, and worse so when the last hours of their life had been as unpleasant as this.

“They’ve been dead for a little over two weeks, I guess” - a tired voice came from just inside the cramped bathroom - “but it’s hard to be exact given the conditions of this Freddy Krueger shit show.”

I stepped into the room with Sharon by my side, to see the pathologist, trying to suppress his amusement at their own terrible joke. “Good morning to you too, doctor.” A few steps behind us other officers were trying to get a peek at the epicentre of what was going to become our obsession for the next few weeks. Abby sheepishly stifled a gag, trying to remain professional in the face of such a grim scene.

No one seemed to like the pathologist, Doctor Resnekov. He was a tall and intimidating Russian gentleman, short sighted and with strangely long, blond hair that was almost always pulled back into a bun. Personally, I never saw what everyone was so worried about. Sure, the man had a rough exterior but he was a very smart guy. Though I didn’t speak to him on a social basis, I generally enjoyed the interactions we had.

“Do we know anything yet?”

“No, not much. It seems the victim was lacerated almost completely from head to toe with a five pronged instrument before having his chest cavity emptied, probably by hand.” He seemed to hesitate for a moment.

“But?” I asked.

The doctor shrugged. “So far, I can’t find any defensive wounds.”

Sharon was growing tired of waiting and pushed her way past the doctor to take a look at the bathroom. “What do you mean there are no defensive wounds?”

“I mean I can’t find any defensive wounds, Sharon.” He responded with a flat tone.  

“Are the wounds post mortem then?” Sharon interjected, gesturing to the empty syringe on the side of the bath.

“Maybe” I said before anyone else, only to see the pathologist shoot me an unimpressed look.

“I will have to check the wounds to get a timeline, but so far it’s kind of hard to work anything out, given the state of things.” The doctor made a motion towards the filled bath. “I also need someone to drain the bath and store the water, in case there’s something in his blood.”

Sharon huffed her annoyance but didn’t say anything as she started to explore the rest of the apartment. Knowing that I didn’t want to face a re-emergence of earlier fights between her and the pathologist, I nodded a thank you at Resnekov before joining her.

“Bastard” Sharon hissed under her breath, pulling on a set of sterile gloves.

“He’s the best the department has, and besides, he’s always grumpy” I whispered, not wanting anyone but Sharon to hear. But she had her own reasons for not enjoying Resnekov’s company.

Realising she’d cussed too loudly, Sharon sighed, looking over her shoulder towards me. “I know, I know… I just don’t like him. How can you even talk to him, Harrison?”

I shrugged, as I pulled on my own set of sterile gloves before starting to explore the rest of the apartment. “He’s got a lot on his plate. It must be hard to be a single dad, especially given the circumstances.”

Finding a bedroom, I opened the door and headed inside.

“Oh cry me a fucking river, Harrison!” Sharon chortled, showing her usual lack of empathy. “It doesn’t mean you have to be a douche to everyone else, just because you’re miserable.” She followed me into the bedroom but also I noticed that she didn’t raise the volume of her voice.

Not amused, I glared at her. “This is a crime scene, not a playground.”

She realised she’d crossed the line, so held her tongue and gazed around the messy bedroom. I wasn’t sure what it was we were trying to find, but making a map of the victim’s home was always a good place to start when it came to working out the who, what, when, where, and why of a murder.

The room felt unusually cold, compared to the rest of the building. For a second I ignored this, before noticing that Sharon was standing at an open window. “What is it?”

“The fire escape is down. Possible exit for our perp?” Her voice was slow, like she was trying to work something out.

“Could be.” I walked over, peering out of the window with her.

“Oh, I wonder if we caught them on film” She pointed up to a camera trained on the alley the apartment faced.

Moving back from the window, I folded my arms across my chest. “Looks like you have a job to do then.”

Flicking her hair dramatically as she turned, Sharon grinned, knowing I was joking. “Coz I totally have no social life whatsoever. Besides, don’t I need to be following all my dealers to see if our victim was a regular? They are bound to miss me if I’m cooped up in the office all hours.”

I smiled and went back to my examination of the room, “Your social life’s better than mine.”

“But I still can’t hold a candle to Abby. That man knows how it’s done.”

“I wish I still had youth on my side like that.”

Though her voice was muffled behind the closet doors, I heard her response.

“Are you saying you’ve never partied?”

“If you call drinking heavily and having a good time partying, then I can safely say I did some of that in my prime, but not now,” Gone were the days of recklessness, but the quiet life suited me all the same. “Reckon our victim had much of a social life? Friends or family we could contact.”

“Friend and family who’ll miss him, you mean?” Sharon said, her voice clear this time. “I’m not sure, his wardrobe looks a little… odd. There are no winter clothes in here.”

“Oh?” Turning from the bedside table, where I’d been hoping to find a phone, I noticed Sharon picking up several empty coat hangers from the floor.

“Considering how bitterly cold the winters have been these past few years, I’d expect a few sweater at the very least, but no, nothing.”

“How strange.” I pondered, looking to the weirdly empty wardrobe. What struck me about the closet - and the rest of apartment for that matter - was that through the mess and clutter, there was a kind of order; extreme order. It was as though the rooms had been altered. They didn’t live alone.

It only took a moment for Sharon to notice it too. “Maybe someone else lived here and took the clothes on their way out.”

We were about to start on one of our typically long arguments about possible relationships, motives and meanings, when we were interrupted by Abby. We both turned to look at him, seeing from the expression on his face that the news was grim.

After several more hours of digging around in the apartment, and having sent younger, lower ranking officers out to start their door to door inquiries, we left. Abby had told us that the doc had identified bite marks around the victim's neck, possibly from a large animal, but the body was too badly decomposed to give any clear indication as to what type of creature it was. Someone or something had gone to a lot of trouble to make a mess of that poor guy’s corpse.

Regardless, we wouldn’t be able to move much further forward until the reports came in on cause of death. Sharon collected the security tape from the apartment as we left; Abby scrutinised the photos of the crime scene; and began to list the evidence.

It was after midnight when I finally made my way back home. Annabelle was sitting in the large bay window at the front of our house, looking out at the dim streetlamps. She didn’t seem to notice me. Unlocking the front door, I called out to her, forced enthusiasm clinging to my words. She never gave any indication that she’d heard me.  

Speaking loudly as I walked through to where I knew my wife was sitting, letting her know she wasn’t alone in the house anymore, I was met by a strange sight. Annabelle had set the table and prepared food for four people; there was her chair, and my own, but why the other two? Sometimes, my wife would set a plate for our daughter, but never for a friend. The ‘third chair’ had become something of a habit of hers, if I could call it that, the one part of her that seemed routine and had some meaning, even if she didn’t realise the meaning was long gone.

“Juliet invited a friend over” Annabelle muttered without any prompt, “but they wouldn’t eat, even though they were starving.”

I couldn’t find the words to respond, only stared at the two extra plates. I walked slowly over to the messily laid table to see a stone-cold broth with chunks of raw meat, sitting in a large pot. It was supposed to be a stew but it seemed that none of it had been cooked.

“They were so thin… I just wish they’d eat something” Annabelle said in a hushed voice, continuing to look out of the window.

How could I respond? There was no use getting angry. This was the world as it existed in my wife’s head. Sighing deeply, I stacked the plates on top of one another before carrying them and the pot of uncooked stew back into the kitchen. Cleaning up the mess, I made dinner for two before lumbering upstairs.

Sleep didn’t come to me that night, Annabelle refused to stay in bed for more than an hour before wandering around the house. She’d never been this bad before. Every time I awoke, it was to an empty bed, I dragged myself up to walk around the house in my continuous game of hide and seek. Each time I found her sitting on the back step, looking into the black nothingness. With her, she had a single saucer of milk, half empty as her shaking hands spilled most of it on her slow journey out from the kitchen.

Our heads were heavy with the memories of the last few hours as we assembled at the morgue early the next morning, after a collectively sleepless night. As always, Doctor Resnekov had worked into the early hours to complete his report, leaving the rest of us to catch up. Sharon, Abby and I made our way along the silent corridors to the cold vaults below. Understandably, the building always left me with a heavy feeling in my gut, fearing one day this place would also be my last stop. There were no word to describe how unsettling this place was or the heavy silence it demanded.

The noise of our footstep echoed ahead of us as a familiar face poked out from around the door of the freezers, half covered by a surgical mask. Realising he had company, the doctor removed his mask and indicated we should followed him.

“You’re earlier than I expected you to be” Resnekov mumbled, walking over to a sheet that lay limply, half covering the body.

“Not too early I hope.” I responded in a light tone.

“Not at all. This one wasn’t as hard to crack as I thought it would be.”

To my left I could see that Abby had turned pale in anticipation of what was under the sheet. On my right, Sharon waited impatiently for the mortician to give us the lead we were looking for. “So how did our victim die?”

Without pulling the sheets back, the tall man simply produced a small folder of paper. “Heroin overdose.”

Sharon opened her mouth, speaking slowly. “Accidental OD or is this a suicide?” She paused for a moment. “And what about all the wounds?”

Shrugging his shoulders, Resnekov handed the papers to Abby before pulling the sheet back to reveal the body below. “Post mortem, every single one of them.” With a gloved hand he started to point out the tell-tail markings. “And the OD looks like suicide. There was more than enough to kill a horse in what I found in his blood alone.”

The young man’s body had lost its elasticity; the face was sunken and rotted away and the flayed wounds created deep cavities. Without the bath water to cover the trauma, all the body’s struggles were revealed. The ribs of the man’s chest had been pulled out and the heart was missing.  

“There are no bruises… his heart wasn’t even beating when it was removed. Whoever did this waited until our guy was long-dead.”

Abby placed a hand over his mouth, trying not to gag.

“But, why?” Sharon’s voice was raised in disbelief. “Why bother stealing a drug addict’s heart? Why do this?”

“Are any other organs missing?” I asked, looking at the body from some distance.

“…. Um, yes.” The doctor pondered the question for a moment, scratching his stubble-covered chin. “The heart is gone and so are the majority of the liver, one kidney and the adrenal glands. A lot of the bones that were exposed have had their marrow removed too, and we’re missing several other major glands, including in the lower neck. The stomach is still there, in part, but its contents are completely gone.”

Sharon turned to look at me, seeming to understand what I was getting at.

“What condition would those organs be in on removal? Would they have any monetary value?”

Raising an eyebrow, the tall man pondered the question. “The heart would be the most valuable but given how clumsily it was removed, it wouldn’t be worth much. Same can’t be said for the liver though. Chunks of that might be usable, if you’re thinking this is a case of harvesting, that is.”

I paused, my mind racing. “Could someone fake this to make it look like a botched removal?”

“Maybe…” Taking a moment to think he came up with another answer. “Yes, depending on what they wanted.” Though he seemed sceptical, this looked like a possible lead. And to be honest, at the moment we’d take any lead we could get.

Looking back over to Abby, still struggling to hold down his breakfast, I put out a hand to take the assortment of papers from Sharon, while she took a closer look at the body. As always, the report came in two parts; one in chicken-scratch notes, switching between English and what could only be Russian, and a second typed report, which contained several photos of interest.

“But why take only one kidney?” Sharon mused, looking back over her shoulder at me. “Is there something wrong with this one?”

“Surprisingly, this guy’s body was pretty healthy on death, and the remaining kidney would have been in perfect condition” the doctor responded.

“Then why bother leaving it?” Sharon said, sounding even more confused.

Nobody responded and the silence was broken by Abby, excusing himself from the room, having exhausted the time he could remain exposed to the husk before us.

We were no closer to solving the mystery; no closer to understanding what had happened; no closer to coming up with a motive that worked. We made our excuses and left, meeting up with Abby outside the building, where he was calming his nerves with a bottle of water.

The reminder of that day bore few fruits. Our door-to-door questioning brought no answers, we still didn’t know who our victim was, and it soon became clear that none of the CCTV around the building had recorded anything for months.

Determined to get home earlier than the night before, I made my excuses and left my desk before sunset. Again, Annabelle was sitting in the bay window, looking blankly out onto the street. Thankfully, this time the table wasn’t set, and the kitchen hadn’t been used. I slumped down in my arm chair and looked over to my wife.

“How was your day, Annabelle?”

She took a moment to respond before turning to face me. Her face was illuminated by a smile that melted away my irritation. “Oh… Juliet’s friend visited again today.”

I raised an eyebrow. That was the second time this mystery friend had been mentioned. Our daughter was always a very reclusive kind of person with only a small handful of very close friends. Annabelle know them all by name and had always referred to them by their names in the past. I’d never know her to speak of an unnamed friend. She could have forgotten, but at the same I felt suspicious. I would be easy for someone to take advantage of someone in her condition.

“What did they want?”

Annabelle took an almost unbearably long time to answer. “Nothing... I offered them some food again but they still said ‘no’… we just chatted, that’s all.”

I nodded slowly, feeling uneasy. “And did you recognise them?”

This time, Annabelle looked down at her hands as though searching for what to say next. “Not really… it was a pretty girl with lovely long hair and dark eyes but she didn’t do very well for herself.”

My eyes scanned the room, looking for missing valuables, but I couldn’t see anything out of place. “What do you mean?”

“She was so thin, you could see her bones…. She didn’t like it when I called her that.”

“Called her what? Did this girl tell you her name?”

Shaking her head slowly, Annabelle finally made eye contact with me. “I don’t remember.”

It was hard to know if this nameless girl was a real person or a ghost; a product of Annabelle’s mind. I decided it would be a good idea to ask someone to check in on Annabelle during the day if it happened again but for now I didn’t see any real cause for alarm. Nodding, I rose to my feet before turning to the kitchen.

“Tell me if they visit again, OK Annabelle?”

My wife nodded her head, then turned her eyes back to the street as I left her to watch the world go by.

After another sleepless night, I drove myself to work, meeting Abby in the staff room with some news from his end of the enquiry. Clues were proving hard to come by but Abby seemed to have his finger on the pulse. It seemed that the water usage from our victim’s flat had doubled roughly a month ago. Maybe the result of our ‘mystery flatmate’ moving in. Still, this new piece of information seemed to generate more questions than it answered. Who were they and where were they now?

With an Americano in hand, I joined my fellow officers for the daily briefing; the time to fill everyone in on the latest developments and assign tasks for the day. That included checking online noticeboards, to see if Joshua had ever posted an ad for a flatmate or offered an open bed. I had to admit, it still felt like we were grasping at straws, without much clear direction.

It was that feeling of creeping desperation that led me to pull the post-mortem report apart, looking at every detail over countless hours. The building was switching over to the night shift when I finally found it.

Written as a passing comment, Doctor Resnekov had likened the body’s injuries to an animal attack, referring to comments from a fellow pathologist, made with reference to another unsolved case. It almost looked like an afterthought, but it was worth a shot.

Realising I was now alone, I slunk into my office and started to scan the cold-case database.

It didn’t take me long to find, but that wasn’t all I noticed. In that state alone, there were four other documented ‘animal attacks’. They’d occurred over a regular period of time, moving from south to north across the state. And looking further back in time I found another similar pattern of attacks in Mississippi.

Though my eyes hurt, I had to keep going. I felt I was finally starting to see a pattern in this forest of trees. It seemed that every one to three months another one of these bodies had been found, in a pattern that seemed to weave its way up the country, in erratic bursts. They’d been classified as animal attacks, or in a few cases as the result of violent fights, and even cult crimes, but no one had ever connected the dots. From Pennsylvania to Virginia, then Tennessee and across to Mississippi, leading back almost half a decade to Texas. An anonymous little town to the east of Texas seemed to be the origin.

Those first documented cases involved two young men and an elderly lady, Nicholas Williams, Gabriel Campbell, and Jessie Ferguson, respectively; all killed within a week  of each other, then nothing again for almost three months. The town had been in shock, the whole population out hunting in the hills for a beast or a monster; just looking for answers. But gradually the hunt had been called off; the heat died down and, as I say, no one joined up the dots.

Pushing my glasses back up my nose I sat up and took another gulp of coffee.

If I was ever going to understand what had happened to the man in the bathtub, I sensed that  I’d first have to work out what had happened here. Going back through the cases, I started to make notes.

Jessie’s body was found on the 9th of November, but post mortem tests pushed the date of death back to the 7th. Decomposition had set in and part of the body had been eaten by foxes, with some of the bones scattered through the forest. The cause of death was originally reported as animal attack - a victim of what was then being called the town’s ‘beast’ - but the autopsy showed that she’d actually died from a heart attack.

Nicholas Williams died on 3rd November, his body found found by the roadside with bite wound to his neck. It seemed that whatever had bitten him didn’t have the stomach to finish its meal. Vomit from whatever had attacked him was found on the young man’s clothes and under a nearby tree. Interestingly, the cause of death was recorded as liver failure caused by alcohol poisoning.

It seemed that the monster - the beast - or whatever it was, hadn’t killed these people; it was scavenging, attacking their bodies after or around the time of death. It seemed to find the weak and just …. well, it didn’t bear thinking about. Someone or something was defacing the dead and it was my job to stop them.

As I move onto the next case, my feelings of frustration and confusion grew. Gabriel Luna Campbell had died of his wounds in hospital on the 2nd of November at 8:34am. According to the report, the poor boy was conscious when he was admitted to hospital and I furrowed my brow as I began to read the agonising detail of his last recorded words.

“They came back - they’re not gone - they’re still with us, but they want me to join them. I won’t lose them. They won’t die on my watch again.”

He’d repeated the same words seven times, before finally flat lining. I sat back and let the words sink in. I had no idea what to think, but just as I closed the case I noticed one more peculiarity. At the time of his passing the small town morgue was host to one other body. I moved my cursor over to the link, not expecting to find a connection.

But my heart sunk, my stomach clenched, as I saw something I knew only too well. A young teen with long white hair, skin like snow and bleached eyes was shown in a photograph at the top of the page, a bullet wound on the left side of his head. Matthew Lyet Campbell, the younger brother of Gabriel Campbell, had taken his own life at 5:09pm, on the 1st of the month.

Though I knew it wasn’t her, all I could see was her; my own little angel.

Putting a hand over my mouth, I tried to regain control, to push the image out of my mind, but I couldn’t. He was the same age as her, same build, same cause of death.

But something was different; something was wrong. My daughter’s body hadn’t been in such a mess, not as horrible as this. This poor child’s arms were covered in deep gouges from what seemed to be fingernails; their chest and neck were swollen purple and marked with what looked like handprints. Had they done this to themselves? The cause of death was given as suicide but from the wounds it looked like they’d been abused or attacked. Trying desperately to find justification for a suicide verdict in the light of the wounds that covered the body, I started to scroll through the autopsy report.

My heart felt like it was breaking as I stared again at the photo. The report hadn’t spared any of the gross details. It seemed that whoever had written the report was convinced of wrongdoing and they’d examined every part of their body in their search for answers, but they’d found no clear evidence nor any motive for what had been done.

“Go home Harrison.”

I started and span around in my chair to see a towering man staring at me from the far side of the room: Doctor Resnekov. He was leaning in the doorway, his face in shadow, hardly illuminated by the room’s dim light.

Trying to make an excuse, I found my mouth had gone dry and no words would come out.

“This case is getting to you, I can see it’s getting to all of you, but I’m worried for your health, Harrison. I may not treat the living anymore, but I can tell when there’s a danger that someone will find themselves visiting my lab.”

“H-How long have you been standing there for?!” I almost shouted, shaken by his presence.

He shrugged. “I saw the lights were on.” Standing straight again he started to walk over to me before leaning over the computer, pushing the power-down mode.

Powerless to stop him, I sat in silence with my mouth slightly open.

“I’ll drive you home. Take tomorrow off and then come back with a fresh head, OK?”

My mind didn’t seem register the trip home. I could hear the doctor talking to me but his words didn’t sink in. It was only when I was home and found myself once cleaning away the unused plates, that I felt my mind begin to return to normal.

I knew what I had to do. My mind was clear as I took the key from my drawer; the key that had remained untouched for so long. Taking a long breath, I unlocked the door that had been closed for such a long time. The room was the same as the day the paramedics had left it, save for the addition of dust. Sitting down on the queen-size bed, as I felt my legs crumple beneath me, I held my head in my hands, feeling nothing but regret. They couldn’t remove the bloodstains completely from the carpet, nor could I ever remove the image of her body from my mind. I just wished I could have been there for her.

By the time morning came around, my back was sore from spending a night on the sofa. I know I’d face hell if I went into work against the doctor’s explicit instructions, so I decided to phone in sick and packed up my car.

I wasn’t leaving, at least not for long, but I knew I needed to just get away from a while, and I knew where I needed to go. After a quick detour to the florist, I arrived at the cemetery just after nine. Lost in my own thoughts, I almost missed my phone going off in my pocket. Not rushing, I answered.

“Hello, Detective Harris -” Before I had a chance to finish my usual greeting, Sharon was barking down the phone at me.

“Harrison, where the hell have you been? Doc said something happened and I came over to visit or something, but shit man.” She stopped herself mid-rant. “What’s happened? Tall, blond and grumpy is being as vague as usual. Are you OK?”

For just a split second I found myself smiling. She cared enough about me to phone.

“I’m OK, just a bit overworked …” Still, I didn’t have the heart to tell her. “I’ll be in shortly, I think I might have found us a lead.”

Picking up that I wanted to change the subject, Sharon dropped her act. “Uhuh, so what is it? Give me a clue, if that’s what it is.”

“Kind of” I responded, looking down at the flowers I’d placed next to the almost fresh-looking grave, with its small headstone. “There seems to be a pattern of so called animal attacks and unsolved murders that all ID the same as our guy, going back over five years. I think we should make our way back and find out if our killer has messed up in the past.”

“So you think this is a serial killer?”

“Seems to be, but the kills are so sporadic and widespread, people haven’t linked them or they’ve taken the easy route and blamed the wildlife.” My mind started to wander back to the events of last night and to what I’d found. Putting my hand in my pocket, I pulled out the crushed ball of paper I’d taken my notes on. “The first reported killing seems to be a kid back in Texas; went by the name Gabriel Luna Campbell.” I swallowed hard. “But get this, he was attacked less than twenty-four hours after his younger brother committed suicide.”

The line when silent for a second as Sharon seemed to digest the information. “That is a rather odd series of events.” I could feel I’d hit a nerve, Sharon seemed to be putting two and two together regarding my morning absence. “Are there other family members we could contact?”

I remembered references to the family being large in the reports on both deaths, but couldn’t be sure of the details. “I’ll see if there’s someone we can track down.”

“Oh, OK sure.” The end of Sharon’s last statement inflected upwards. “I’ll try and have the cases up by the time you get in today.”

Nodding to no one in particular, I pushed the paper back into my pocket. “Thanks, I’ll see you in an hour or so.” And with that, I cancelled the call. Back to my thoughts; back to silence.

Parking outside the station, I made my way around to one of the back doors, hoping to avoid the walking ashtray before he tried to send me back home, to a wasted day of sick leave. Keeping my head down, I found Sharon alone in the evidence room; I pulled out my notes and told her what I’d discovered. It seemed our killer was slowing down after their initial activity in Texas.  The next step would be to pull out the detailed autopsy reports to see if we could find any more common features or patterns that might link the deaths.  

With Abby’s help, Sharon had already tracked down and started to contact the family of the late Gabriel Campbell. It seemed that Gabriel had been the third oldest of four brothers; a very active lad, just on the cusp of starting college with a scholarship for sports; the first of his family to go to college and a bright young guy.

Though the mother seemed reluctant to return our calls, the oldest brother, Adam, had agreed to speak with us. He’d moved after the death and was now living only a few hours away from us. After some friendly exchange, Abby had managed to arrange a meeting halfway between his home and our current location.

In the meantime, our priority was to find links between these old cases. Deeper and deeper we went, placing each event on a map, leading us back to Gabriel. Though the kills seemed to sometimes jump from one state to another, a pattern began to emerge, as clear as if it were a footprint. The killer - the person or thing - was travelling but why it killed we still didn’t know.  

It was gone six in the evening when Sharon walked back into the room where Abby, me and a few of the junior officers were still working. We’d decided to focus on collecting as much information on the victims as we could. There weren’t any common themes when it came to age, race, or gender, but they all seemed to have either a substance-abuse problem, or some kind of terminal illness. We’d thrown around the idea that the killer could maybe be a medical worker who had access to the victim’s health files; possibly knowing that their premature deaths might be just around the corner, but in truth we still had no real lead.

“Found anything while I was away?” Sharon asked, eyeing us over a smirk.

“We’ve only just started on his lousy theories” Abby responded, knowing that Sharon would have something else, to add to our workload.

“Well, well, productive as always.”  With her usual dramatic flare, Sharon tossed five photos and a single lab report onto the table.

Abby was closest to Sharon and I saw wince a little at the sight of the photos. I stood up to inspect them myself.

“Bite wounds.  One of the bodies from around a year back was fresh when it was found and the mortician had a mould made of the bite marks.” She was still holding a sixth photo. “The guy doing the autopsy seemed to have a theory similar to ours. He was convinced this was some of serial attacker so he tried to identify the thing based on its teeth.” Putting out her hand, with the photo still clenched between her fingers, she turned over the Polaroid.  


Abby let out a gasp, horrified and revolted. “Those aren’t human, Sharon”

“Oh yes they are, or at least the central set are. From the mould it looks like we have thirty two adult teeth marks and about fifty or sixty smaller puncture marks around the main set of teeth. Here’s a photo of the funky reconstruction the doctor made.”

“It looks like he may have used some artistic license here” I responded, picking up the photo of the reconstruction. As Sharon had said, the jaw was made up of a full set of adult teeth, surrounded by tens upon tens of needle-like shapes jutting out both in front of and behind the teeth I recognized as human. The front set were roughly an inch long, while the needles behind the human teeth were several millimeters long. “No person has teeth like this. How could you even make this?”

“I have no idea!” Sharon said laughing, clearly amused at our confusion. “I was sceptical too, so I did a bit more digging and it looks like one of the other autopsies found something similar. Though the detail wasn’t as good, they reported some kind of human bite, with puncture marks around the main wound.”

“So we’re looking for someone with a mouth full of needles?” I knew it sounded crazy even as I said it.

“How should I know” Sharon replied. “But if that is the case, then it sure narrows down our search. Don’t even need fingerprint ID if we literally only need to look in their mouth.”

“That’s… so disgusting… are … are they eating them?” Abby looked grey at the thought.

For a moment the room went quiet as the same thought dawned on all three of us, at the same time. If these are bite marks then, organ harvester or not, it suggested that the killer was eating parts of his victims. The missing tissue and organs must have gone somewhere, so was this a case of cannibalism?

Sharon was the first to break the silence. “Is it possible that this person isn’t selling the organs but just … eating them?”

“That might explain why they only took one kidney … if they were too full for the second one” Abby murmured.

I knew I wasn’t the only one in the room who was starting to feel ill at the way the conversation had developed. A cold chill ran up my back; a feeling that we could be on the brink of something more monstrous than any of us could handle. This case could be huge; a serial cannibal. I’d never even heard of such a thing.

At that moment my phone started to ring and no one seemed to notice as I slipped out of the room. I thought I recognised the number that flashed across my screen but I couldn’t grasp the context for a second and answered in my usual way.

I didn’t recognize the voice that responded; I’m not sure I could have even put an age or gender to the voice, but even that didn’t strike me as strange at the time. “You’re Annabelle’s husband?”

“Yes” I replied, glancing back into the meeting room and noting that Sharon had now got hold of Abby’s cigarettes and was refusing to give them back to him. “What’s happened?”

“She… um… told me to phone you… she got into this room? I.. she won’t stop crying.” The voice sounded genuinely scared and concerned for my wife’s safety.

My heart dropped. I’d forgotten to lock my daughter's room and Annabelle must have gone in. “I’ll be over as soon as I can; please stay with her until I arrive, OK?”

But, without replying, the caller simply hung up, leaving a buzz of static before the phone went dead. Without a word to anyone, I left; I had to go to Annabelle and I knew they’d understand.

I arrived home to a silent house. Annabelle wasn’t sitting at her usual spot in the window and the stranger on the phone was nowhere to be seen. Without even stopping to close the front door, I rushed upstairs to find Annabelle lying on our daughter’s bed, crying, encircled by photos. Arms open, I went to her side. She’d managed to block the events of that dreadful night from her memory but sometimes, when her mind became clearer, some of them would return.

I had no concept of time’s passing in the moments that followed. The woman I loved was trapped and miserable inside a shell, unable to grieve. Neither of us had time or the ability to move on. We’d simply locked the memories and the grief away.

Finally, Annabelle became calm again, forgetting why she’d felt so broken, and wandered back downstairs to wait at the window for our daughter to come home. Left alone, I started to clean the small bedroom, collecting up the items displaced by my wife and putting them back in their correct place, all the time trying to ignore the stain on the otherwise pure white carpet.

Alone in the room, the stranger's voice on the phone came back to me. I’d almost forgotten about the voice, but where were they now? I searched the house, looking for evidence they’d been there, but found nothing. Not a single piece of furniture had been moved, not an ornament or valuable had been touched; I even checked the fridge but everything was exactly as I’d left it. Both the back and front doors were open, letting cold air howl though the house, so they could have left once they saw me arrive, but why were they there in the first place?

Quietly, I walked to the back door, glancing across the garden before something caught my eye. Though the impression was faint, there was a single footprint pressed into the frozen soil. I estimated it was around a size seven and a boot of some kind; the person had been walking away from the house. So that answered the question of whether someone had been there but it also brought with it more concerns than answers.

Abby and I set off around lunchtime the next day for our meeting with Adam Campbell. As agreed, we were due to meet him at a police station mid-way between his place and ours, and we’d commandeered an interview room for the purpose. I decided not to tell anyone about what had happened with Annabelle, but I asked one of the patrolmen if they’d check in on her a from time to time during the day.

The meeting room was already occupied when we arrived. Sitting at the table was a man in his mid-twenties, strawberry blond hair and very freckled skin. Hearing us enter, he looked in our direction with a smile. It was obvious who he was; even with his tanned skin, he looked just like an older version of Gabriel.

“Hello Mister Campbell, thank you for agreeing to meet with us today” Abby said, with a smile, sitting down in one of the two remaining free chairs. “I’m Detective Bruce Abby, and this is Detective Harrison Smith.” As he continued with pleasantries, I unpacked the small bag of recording equipment and files, before sitting down beside my companion.

The young man smiled, eyeing the files I’d placed on the desk, in front of him.

“We believe you might be able to shed some light on an investigation we’re working on.” Taking one of the files, Abby flipped open the case, pulling out several photos as he did so.

Leaning forward in his seat, Adam turned the photos around and looked at them intently. “So you haven’t caught him yet?”

I pressed the record button. “Him? Do you recognize the killer, then?”

Shaking his head slowly, from side to side, Adam sat back again, his arms crossed.

“Kind of - I guess - it’s more of an animal than a person, at least that’s what the paper said.” His voice was strangely relaxed as he spoke. “I guess you know that thing got my bother, right?”

Abby nodded. “Yes, we do and we’re sorry for your loss.”

Adam turned away for a moment with a sigh, as though Abby had said the wrong thing.

“It’s alright, I’ve had enough people say they’ll pray for Gabriel, but it don’t change anything.”

Shifting slightly in his chair, Abby continued on, regardless.

“What can you tell us about the day it happened?”

Scratching the back of his neck, Adam seemed to think very carefully about what to say before he gave his slow response.

“The day itself didn’t matter, the week was just a blur; no one had time to grieve. Gabe was with us at the coroner's office when we got the news; I guess it hit him the hardest out of all of us, but then a thing like that don’t go down easily. He hadn’t seen the body yet and he told me that he was devastated he couldn’t have been there, so maybe that’s why they freaked out so bad.” He paused, and seemed not to notice the look of confusion on Abby’s face and my own.  

“After Ma’ started crying again, he stormed out, got in the pickup and just drove off. I had no idea what he was planning to do but the next thing we knew he was being pulled out of his car, all messed up and bloody like this.” Indicating to the photo of the victim back in Pennsylvania, he sighed. It seemed this was a story he’d told many times. “Not as bad as this one though. It had only bitten him here and there, but that was enough to kill him.”

Abby swallowed hard, watching the young man as he spoke. “What had made him so upset to run off? It was my understanding your younger brother, Matthew, had died at the scene.”

“Yes, Mathew was long dead when we got to him, poor kid, but that wasn’t what Gabe was so upset about.” A touch of frustration crept into his voice as he continued.

“I thought you would have known; it should be in those case files you have. Some sick fuck stole Matthew's body from the morgue. The office tried to make up some bullshit about organ donation or something, but you’d have to be dense to mistake some deadbeat for my …” His voice trailed off and it was clear he was getting angry.

The room fell silent. How could you respond to something like that? From the corner of my eye I could see Abby and I sensed his shock.  

Adam seemed to be growing more and more uncomfortable.  

“Gabe, well he took the news about Matthew badly, as we all did. He was convinced someone had taken him and determined to find out who.” He looked down at his hands.

“Growing up, we were always short on space and … well, given Matthew’s difficulties our parents put both of them in the same room. Ever since Matthew was brought back from the hospital, we all had this huge feeling of responsibility, especially Gabe, so when … when it happened … he felt he’d let him down. No one really knew what had happened, but someone was doing something evil in our town; first a body snatcher, then three attacks. After seeing what that freak did to Gabe and those other two people, I dreaded to think what they’d do with Matthew’s body.”

I leant forwards, my elbows on the table, trying to connect with the guy.

“How was Mathew? Is there any reason why someone would want to take him like that?”

“None I know of”, Adam shook his head “why, is this important?”

Abby interjected and I knew he was being careful with his words.

“It could be. We believe this person, whoever did this to your brothers, may have had something specific in mind when they made their moves.”

“Can you think of anything unusual in your family history or maybe in your family’s medical records?” I added, thinking back to our earlier conversations about organ harvesting.

“Uhm… well, Gabriel had been accepted into sports college and he was pretty much on top of his game; a really healthy kid. I’d been planning to go to college too, on a sports scholarship but …” Adam indicated to his left knee, which was supported with a strong elastic bandage. That, combined with the walking stick, answered what would have been my next question.  “Gabriel was popular; always stayed out of trouble.”

“What about Matthew, then? You seem to be a healthy, active family.” I asked, feeling increasing empathy with the guy and his brothers.

“Matthew?” Adam paused for a very long time before answering. “Matthew had some problems. Matthew, well he was blind ... among other things. He never left the house, never talked to strangers and you know, he was terrified, scared of the weirdest stuff.”

He stopped for a moment, opened his mouth but then seemed unsure of how to go on or what to say next.

“Some blind kids have super vivid imaginations, and that’s sometimes amplified in dreams. Combine that with …. well, Matthew was diagnosed as schizophrenic … so you could say he was basically stuck in his own head. We had a doctor who visited regularly but all he did was give him pills - pills after more pills - and in the end he ended up numb, like he was locked in his own shell.”

“Do you blame the doctor for what happened?” I interrupted. Abby shot me a frustrated look; I’d crossed a line.

“Yes, I guess to some extent … yes, maybe I do.” He didn’t seem sure of himself, and maybe I was putting words in his mouth, but I continued to push him, regardless. “They gave Matthew more and more medication, but he never seemed to get any better.”

What he was saying was hitting home with every single strike. The drugs, all those pills, they never seemed to do any good. They hadn’t helped this man’s brother, and they sure as hell didn’t help my daughter. I didn’t have the heart to say anything, and Abby seemed … well, almost too scared to interrupt.

“… It was a Saturday and nothing seemed particularly unusual or out of the ordinary, but I could tell Matthew was acting weird. Gabriel had gone out to watch a match with my younger brother, Peter, while I’d stayed at home. At the time I was dealing with the problem with my knee, so I was left to keep an eye on Matthew. I guess I wasn’t watching him closely enough … or maybe this had been his plan for a long time. I don’t know when he got a hold of it, or how long he’d been hiding it from us, but Matthew had gotten his hands on a revolver our dad had left us when he move out some year ago. It was only after Gabriel got back from his game, at about half eight, that we all realised what was going on.

Matthew had locked the door of the shared bedroom - the window wasn’t accessible, so we had to virtually pull the door’s lock off. I swear, I never heard the gun go off, but by the time we got in, he was already cold.” He paused in the silence. “The medics said he’d died at around five but I swear I heard someone walking around upstairs after that … and my God, he was in such a mess … I was convinced someone had gotten into the house and done this to him …”

He took another long pause before looking me dead in the eye. “Matthew had this imaginary friend, and I know it’s silly to even think this … but this wasn’t done by a phantom in his mind.” Again, he paused, trying to distinguish fact from nightmare. “A thing in the mind, well that doesn’t make a kid so desperate and terrified they’d do something as horrible as that.”

The photos I’d seen of Matthew came back into my mind. Every detail, from the self harm scars to the bruises. “Had he ever tried or talked about taking his life before?”

The young man nodded and I could see he was trying to hold back tears. “A few times, yes. Sometimes he’d scratch and bite at his arms, but once he tried to OD on sleeping pills. We should have taken him to a head doctor then, but he didn’t want to go, and Ma never trusted them either; nothing they gave Matthew made him any better, only ever worse.”

I turned his words over in my mind, thinking carefully about my response. “Maybe, if you think your brother was pushed by someone else into taking his own life, then it might be reasonable to think that his body was also stolen by that same person. And if Gabriel found out, perhaps the person responsible would have to cover their tracks?”

Abby nodded, turning back to our witness. He still looked incredibly uncomfortable and I didn’t understand why. “Who was this doctor of yours? Were there other people in your neighbourhood who were giving out drugs?”

Trying to think, Adam took a long breath before starting to list off anyone he could remember being close to the family medical affairs. Just as he started to struggle to dig up more useful information, he brought up one last name. “There was also this GP we visited, Dr. James - Elizabeth was her first name, I think - and we got all the pills from a chemist in the centre of town; I can’t remember the name but I could find out, if it’s important.”

Taking a note of the names, I nodded to Adam with a smile. I was done with my questions; I’d heard what I needed to hear. “Thank you for your time, Adam. I don’t have any more questions.”

He seemed surprised but also relieved: “Oh, OK … no problem.”

Abby shot me an equally confused look but didn’t seem to have any other questions himself, so we left it there.

I didn’t hear what either man said as the interview finished - I stood up and left immediately, making my way outside to make some calls. Sharon had to know - I was keen to tell her - this was a good and a real lead.

It was late when we got back. Abby made an excuse before heading home alone, while I stayed on at the station. He hadn’t seemed too pleased with me during the car ride home, but I knew he’d get over it. I also knew that now was the best time to speak with the pathologist. He usually worked two shifts each day, with a break in between, to allow him to go home to take care of his daughter. Since he got in so late on his second shift, he was almost always in his office after midnight.

Walking through the darkness, not bothering to find the light switches to illuminate the halls, I slowly found my way through the building; past the entrance to the morgue to Dr. Resnekov’s office. As I’d predicted he was there, his head down, working at his desk on a report.

I knocked lightly on the open door. “Good evening, doctor.”

With a sigh and a permanently tired expression, he raised his head, looking at me over the top of his glasses. “Oh, hello Harrison, you’re in late?”

I shook my head, making my way over to his desk. “Not really, I’ve just got back from a meeting, with a witness of sorts.”

That seemed to engage his interest. “Oh, we have a witness now?”

Nodding, I started to explain. “Yes, maybe. Though I’m not sure how relevant this all is. It seems we may have tracked our killer back four years, to a town in Texas. We’ve just been talking with the brother of the first victim and he believes that what happened to his family could be to do with …”

Resnekov cut me off, angrily. “Since when do we take the speculation of grieving family members as evidence, Harrison?”

I was taken aback by his tone but I continued, trying to sound as convincing as I could. “Well, it’s the best we have to go on at the moment. Plus he made some good points.” I leant forward slightly, trying to emphasise my words to make them sound more credible. “All the victims we’ve found so far, with one exception, have died either of natural causes or by their own hand. My theory is that someone knew these people were reaching their end and used that knowledge to their advantage.”

Continuing to look at me over his glasses, and looking for all the world like an unimpressed teacher, Resnekov took a moment to digest my claims before speaking once more. “So a healthcare worker?”

I grunted a “yes, possibly” before fumbling for my note pad. “We were given a few names to look at, doctors close to the family at the time this all started.” Handing over the notepad, I let him look over the names. Recognition flickered across his face.

“Elizabeth James….” he muttered, looking hard at the dried ink.

“Do you know her?”

“Yes but not that well. I attended the same medical school as her when I was training to be a surgeon. We had a program there where the seniors would help tutor the junior years; kind of a buddy system and although she wasn’t a surgeon she was my ‘buddy’ for a while.” I couldn’t read a single emotion in the doctor’s face. “It wasn’t long after I’d moved there and I was up for new things, so to speak.”

“You dated her?” I asked, reading between the lines and trying to hide my surprise. My reward was a single disinterested nod.

“Yes, I guess you’d call it that, for a while at least, it was an on-off thing.” He paused to think for a moment. “I graduated early and got my licence; moved away from med school and from her. Neither of us made much of an attempt to keep things going.” Finishing with a shrug, the doctor returned my notepad. “Can’t say I know anyone else on your list.”

I had to admit it did seem to be rather a strange coincidence, but I trusted the man and I knew he wouldn’t lie to me about anything that might affect one of our cases. I also knew he’d held his surgical licence for more than seven years so, by his account, he would hardly know her by now.

“Did she ever take an interest in surgery?”

“No, not really, she was rather… narcissistic. I didn’t mind much, I just liked practicing my English with her, among other things. To be honest,she hardly showed any interest in others’ lives, mine included.” With a quick movement, he removed his glasses and folded them on the desk, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “But then again, I’m not a great fan of nosey people.”

That felt like a personal dig; as far as I knew, I was the only person who ever came to the doctor on a regular basis, just to chat. Before now, I’d hadn’t thought he minded.

“Do you know where she is known?” I ignored the voices in the back of my head telling me to back away from this line of questioning.

I was surprised when he smiled at me; “I do actually. She’s in town at the moment and I’m planning on getting drinks with her later.”

I’d clearly misjudged what was going on and only managed “Oh, OK” as my rather feeble response.

His smile turned to a devilish grin; clearly he’d read my mind and was one step ahead. “You don’t think she’s the killer do you, Harrison? I may have a somewhat strange taste in women but I’m not one to date maneaters. I’m not into that.” The teasing seemed to amuse him.

“I didn’t mean it like that” I said, sounding more flustered than I intended. “How did you know this was a cannibalism case, anyway?”

“Harrison, you know me. I know all sorts of thing - that and our technicians love to gossip.”

“What’s your take on it, then?” I was determined not to be side-tracked by his mind games as I tried to take back control of the conversation.

He crossed his fingers slowly, one over another, and furrowed his brow. “Well, my take is that I’m a pathologist and not a cop. I’m not paid to come up with theories. But if I were, I’d probably phone up all my ‘friends’ in other morgues to see if they’d seen any similar cases; check them out for common themes and patterns. Other than the fact that all the victims, bar one, were partially eaten, after a sometimes unnatural death, are there any other links?”

“We couldn’t find any other connections.” I corrected him, keen to knock the smug doctor from his perch.  

“Oh, really now?”

“Yes, really.” A feeling that the doctor was maybe hiding something from me had started to creep into my mind. “Why is your doctor friend in town, anyway?”

Eyebrow slightly raised, his expression once again went blank. “She’s stopping over on her way back from Europe; staying here for two days before she goes home.” I thought I’d perhaps offended him, but I still couldn’t read anything on his face. “But no, Harrison, before you ask I can assure you she has no links to the stiff in the bath tub. She’s been out of the country for almost two months.” Before I could say anything else, he’d risen from his seat and walked to the door. “I would like to get my work done now, before I take some leave.”

Realising now that I had caused offence, mumbled a polite “good evening, then.” I walked to the door without making further eye contact .

“Good night” he replied. And with that, the office door closed behind me with a thud, leaving me in the dark halls. With a sigh I left, to make my dismal commute home, dreading another sleepless night with Annabelle.

I was relieved that there was no sign of another visit from ‘the stranger’ when I got home and checked the house. And I was pleased to see that a few of our neighbors had popped in to keep tabs on Annabelle while I’d been at work, leaving a pile of messages on the kitchen table. We lived in a friendly neighborhood with lots of housewives who were more than happy keep an eye on my beloved while I worked. If I knew for certain, or could convince myself, that no one was trying to manipulate my wife or get into our house, I might be able to sleep easier at night.

The precinct felt different when I arrived at work the next morning. I noticed one of technicians from next door wander into our main office a couple of times, making copies of papers and handing out files. Though I tried not to think about it, it was hard not to be paranoid.

All I could do was work on, following up on the few leads we had, but as time ticked by my theories began to feel less and less plausible. My idea that a doctor or member of medical staff might somehow be involved in the deaths began to look increasingly unlikely as solid alibis emerged for each person I looked at.

I was starting to realise I may have been guilty of putting words in our only witnesses mouth. I’d also given them false hope that an end to the case might be in sight.

Pushing my chair back from my desk, I looked out across the busy office, where everyone was occupied, with heads down, trying to make progress on a whatever case they were working on.

Sharon had managed to get some information about our victim’s dealer but they’d only been a customer once and they’d used up all their heroin to OD. Nothing was coming up from sweeps of the building and the other lines of questioning were getting us nowhere. It seemed that our victim had very few friends; nobody claimed to have seen or heard from him in months; and his boss hadn’t even noticed he stopped showing up to work!

Through the glass window of my fish bowl of an office, I watched a group of beat cops come running into the main area, led by a distraught women with red hair. At first glance I mistook her for Sharon, but quickly realised she was far more fearsome and looked more distressed than I’d ever seen my co-worker. She looked more disheveled too, like someone who’d gone without sleep for days.

Though several officers tried to restrain her, the woman made it clear that she wasn’t stopping any time soon. She had tears in her eyes from a pain that was still fresh and although I’d seen her expression countless time before, there was something different here too. These were emotionally fresh wounds, but no, not fresh - infected. A wound that refused to heal even after medication and treatment, because other people wouldn’t stop poking at the scar.

Dashing out of my office, I knew I needed to take control of the situation but before I could do anything her words knocked me into stunned silence.

“Why won’t you people leave them alone?” she screamed, as she was held back by one of our junior officers. “Haven’t you done enough already to soil their memory, my poor babies!”

Putting my hands up, to try to quieten the terrifying woman, I tried to keep any sense of shock out of my voice. “Miss, please calm down, what has happened?”

“You happened!” Her voice was straining, somewhere between a sob and a yell. “I don’t want another dirty cop telling me you’ll find out who stole the lives of my children because you never do, or you blame it on them!”

From the corner of my eye, I saw a rather flustered Sharon enter the room. She shot me a quick glance before looking back at the red-faced woman. I didn’t realise how quiet it had become; no one dared to speak.

“I…” her voice was become more controlled, and she continued slowly, with more sorrow than anger, “I won’t have… another person tell me they’ll find my son. Matthew is never coming back… and we all know that. Gabriel died trying to find him and I won’t have another person lie to me and say they can do a better job than him!” Black streaks of makeup were running down her cheeks, but I still recognised her; she looked so much like her children.

“Mrs. Campbell?” I asked, walking slowly towards her.

Yanking her arm from the young officer’s grasp, the exhausted woman glared at me. “Who do you think I am?” She sniffed as she spoke. “I heard you were bothering Adam.“

“We just want to get to the bottom of this case, Mrs. Campbell, and hopefully offer the victims’ families some solace.”

My answer clearly infuriated her and she fumbled in her bag, pulling out what seemed to be a handmade journal.

“You want answers? Fine, but good luck finding them because none of you pigs will ever work it out. All you ever tell me is lies.” With a powerful movement, she threw the dog-eared book to the floor, where it landed at my feet. “The devil has taken enough from my boys, it took their sight, it took their sanity and it took their lives. I don’t need you to take their dignity too.” And with that she turned around and left.

What on earth was she talking about? I didn’t think to follow her; at first none of us did.

Abby was the first of us to snap out of the strange spell the mother's outburst seemed to have placed on us. He ran after her, followed by a couple of the officers who’d originally brought her in, leaving Sharon and myself to look at what we’d been given.

I knelt down and picked up the battered book.

“Harrison.. are you OK?” Sharon asked in a soft voice, touching my arm.

For a moment I paused, unsure what to say a I realised I was trembling.

The woman we’d just seen had lost everything. She’d seen her son’s lives probed again and again, for answers that never came. “Yes, I’m OK” I said, standing up straight but my eyes caught Sharon’s looking back at me with concern, through a blanket of curly red hair.

“That poor woman.”

“Ya...” she mumbled, looking from my face to the book, held tightly between my hands.

There wasn’t anything else to say. This was what we’d chosen to do with our lives, the paths we’d chosen to take. We knew we’d face horrors and heartbreak, that’s just what happens in this line of work, but this case was really something else.

It took me a while to calm my nerves, but it also took a while before Abby returned. He’d worked his magic and spoken to the bereaved mother, managing to persuade her to explain what had happened and what she’d meant by her rambling words. Combined with the journal, which was filled with newspaper cuttings, bits of dialogue and photos, it really wasn’t hard to see why Mrs Campbell had become so distressed.

Her name was Grace and she was a single mother from a poor part of Texas who’d spent most of her adult life caring for her severely disabled son. When we’d spoken to Adam, he’d neglected to fully explain the set up in the house. Matthew, the youngest by a year, was born with severely impaired vision. Though he was registered as blind at birth, he didn’t lose his sight completely until the age of six. To add insult to injury, the boy was also trapped inside the home for much of the time, thanks to a skin condition - albinism - which left him with incredibly painful sunburn any time he did venture outside. By the time Matthew was seven, his father had enough of the family and left Mrs Campbell to fend for herself. It wasn’t long after this time that Matthew started having night terrors. When he woke from these nightmares, he would describe the most horrific things.

His mother tried everything; doctors, chemists, quacks, even a few priests, but nothing seemed to work. By the time Matthew was old enough to be left alone during the day, he was crippled by a combination of depression and insomnia. Though he tried to act normally and be happy, the demons in his head only got worse.

It didn’t come as a shock then when Matthew finally took his life. And although the family was distraught, it also came as a relief, in some ways, that Matthew was finally at rest. But that was when things took a turn for the worse.

Gabriel had always been very close to Matthew and his death hit him the hardest. When the news came that Matthew’s body had been stolen, he was inconsolable and vowed to track down whoever had taken his little brother. Grace was convinced that the same person who’d stolen her youngest son’s body and also killed Gabriel.

It also seemed, from the notes in her journal and her conversation with Abby, that the people in her town resented and maybe even feared her. All of her kids had been born out of wedlock, and to two different fathers who’d promised her the world but left her with nothing. When Matthew was born, with his problems, it seemed that some of her neighbours had taken it as a sign that God was punishing her. Others made it their business to let her know that in God’s eyes, and in theirs, she was a sinner. It seemed that in some ways she blamed herself for what she saw as an evil force, that had taken her children from her.

After their deaths, a local pastor had told her that her sons were damned, and that their deaths were a sign. Over the years, she’d started to believe that was true.

I wanted desperately to tell her that we’d prove the people of her town wrong, but I knew I couldn’t make that promise.

Later that evening, I found myself sitting in a bar with Abby next to me, slowly drinking a bottle of whisky the bartender had put aside for him. We didn’t speak; both sat silently lost in our own thoughts. The bar was quiet, and I was the only new face among ten or so regulars, who also had little use for conversation. After what felt like hours, Abby finally cut through the silence.

“Try as we might, we can’t rewrite history.”

I grunted a response, feeling the liquor dull my senses.

Abby placed his hand on my back. “We may not be the best, but we can work together and we will get to the bottom of this.” His voice was soft.

Shifting in my seat and turning my body slightly away from him, my reply sounded more angry than I intended. “This killer has been active for half a decade and no one’s ever gotten within a sniff of them.”

Scrunching his face in silent protest, Abby was quick to reply. “Oh come on Chief, this isn’t like you. I’ve known you for how long?”

“Far too long.”

“Exactly! And I know you better than anyone else on this force.” He grinned at me. “So when I say we can do it, I really mean we can do it!”

I smiled, feeling the strange embarrassment of flattery.  ‘I’m sorry, Abby, about the way I acted when we interviewed Adam. I put ideas in his head and it wasn’t professional of me to do that.”

Abby shrugged, “Well, we all do dumb things from time to time, Chief.”

Snorting, I continued. “Worst part is, it didn’t get us any further forward and all I did was piss Resnekov off.”

Abby’s jaw dropped open in mock horror. “Oh you did not! Chief, you’re a dead man.” He whooped, finishing his drink as he did so.

I chuckled, “And if you find me dead you know who your top suspect is.”

“Who? Doctor Creep or your heart murmur?”

For a second we both fell silent before busting out laughing. “Why not both?”

“Or a poisoning plot. Sounds like a gritty fifties film noir.”

“Yep, definitely best shown in black and white, with dramatic background music.”

Abby nodded, his face still beaming. “Well, wouldn’t that be the life.”

“What? Living my life in monochrome?”

“No, a scripted ending. All you’d need to do is flip to the back of the binder and read who the villain is. Everything clear-cut, straightforward.”

Refilling our drinks, Abby watched the liquor drain from the bottle

“Well, you’d still have to deal with the twist at the ending.”

Rubbing his chin, Abby seemed to ponder the ending of our hypothetical screenplay. “How about the villain’s actually a monster from outer space?”

“He’s from Russia, Abby. Don’t be so rude.” I smirked, receiving a snort in return.

“That’s not how it works, Harrison. Clearly your killer has to be someone nobody would expect. How about this as a plotline: you fake your own death to go undercover to root out corruption in the law?”

“And finally find out why I always get socks for secret Santa?”

Abby smiled, content that he’d successfully cheered me up after what he knew had been a horrible week. “Something like that, ya. Would that mean creeps-a-lot is on your side then?”

“I guess it would, or how else could I fake my own death?”

Before Abby could answer, the barkeeper wandered over. He knew all the officers in our department by name, and Abby he knew better than most. “Abby, your cab’s here.”

I hadn’t realised how late it was and we both knew I was in no fit state to drive home. Abby offered me a lift in his cab but I turned him down, opting instead to walk home alone. With a few pleasantries and vowing to finish the story we’d made up at a later date, we parted ways.

The walk was cold but I hardly noticed the frost forming on the ground, with the alcohol in my system to keep me warm. The world around me seemed to pass by faster than my brain could take notes. In truth, I don’t remember much of the walk home. I know I stopped for a take-out to soak up some of the liquor and I remember giving half of the grub to a couple of very grateful homeless guys. I didn’t take too much notice of them; just two old drifters I saw sitting stiffly down an alleyway, taking refuge from the cold.

That night I slept on the sofa again, only waking when I heard the sound of the back door being opened and Annabelle wandering outside to feed the autumn birds; four months late for their migration.

Arriving at work early the next day time, and buzzing with caffeine, I was met with some good news. Though it wasn’t strictly protocol, it seemed that the morgue had collected some interesting information regarding the historical cases linked to our own.

It struck me as strange that Doctor Resnekov was showing quite so much interest in this case. Normally, he would keep himself to himself, sometimes even reluctant to help us, and yet here we were. Sharon stood behind me, Abby sat in the chair to my left; we waited for the arrival of the grim doctor.

With a snap of the door handle, he walked in, carrying a coffee mug that proclaimed him to be the ‘world's best dad’. Seeing us there, all waiting for him, he sat down at the desk opposite us and started to drink from the factually incorrect mug.

“Well?” Sharon said impatiently.

Looking over his glasses at the fireball of a woman, the doctor responded flatly. “Give me a moment, Detective.” Placing the mug of piping hot liquid down on the desk, he pushed back his chair, opened a drawer and pulled out a brown, card folder. He checked the pages once, clearly stalling for time, then placed it on the desk.

Sharon walked over, snatching up the collection of papers, all the while glaring at the smug looking doctor. “What did you call us here for?”

“I know you’ve been looking at our killer's calling card, the bite marks.”

“Which you hardly covered in your preliminary report.”

I glanced across at Sharon. The atmosphere in the room had become thicker that smog.

He paused. “Since I knew you’d miss some of the details - none of you are experts, after all - I called around and got the notes on all the victims I could find. As we know, the more recent kills have these detailed bite patterns but the old ones, not so much.” As he spoke, I couldn’t help but think back on the conversation we’d a few nights before. I’d yet to decide if he was trying to cover his tracks or was acting out of spite, or both.

Sharon flicked back through the papers to the first few cases and nodded. “The bites are normal … normal human bite marks, that is.”

“Not only that, the additional teeth that appear later on gradually become longer and more numerous.”

Abby finally found the courage to speak. “Were they growing, do you think?”

The doctor nodded. “It certainly looks that way.” He took another mouthful of coffee before reaching down for something under his desk.

Leaning back, I took the files from a very puzzled looking Sharon; I could see immediately what was bothering her. There were names, locations and dates there that I didn’t recognise; almost twice as many cases as the ones we’d identified. “How did you find all of these ….’

I was cut off as Resnekov reappeared from under his desk, placing a jar labeled peroxide in front of him. It wasn’t the jar or the bleaching chemicals that shocked me, it was what was sitting at the bottom; it was the teeth. Each one was a little under an inch long. They were shaped like crooked needles, bent slightly.

“What on earth are they? Are they teeth?” Sharon gasped, although the doctor hardly needed to answer her question.

The doctor nodded, “That they are. One of my colleagues found them embedded in a body - one of the bodies detailed in that file - about two years ago, and I asked him to send them to me.”

I couldn’t stop staring at the jar. What on earth did they belong to?

“Sadly, any DNA traces we might have found have been ruined by the chemicals, but at least the teeth themselves have been preserved.” He tapped the glass and a few air bubbles lifting from the teeth. “They’re from the front of the mouth; three upper and two lower. There are muscle scars around the base and some damage to the teeth,from what appears to have been a blunt trauma.”

“Where did they come from?” I asked, feeling a little queasy as I looked at them.

“Some place in New York State. I’m not sure of the exact location, to be honest.”

“But our killer has only come up here recently and there haven’t been any bodies found there.” I spoke slowly, going over all the body locations and trails in my mind. “No, nothing in New York State.”

“And why would there be damage at the front of the mouth? Do you mean they were knocked out?” Sharon’s voice echoed my disgust.   

That’s when I saw it; that’s when the thought suddenly hit me. It wasn’t ‘it’ or ‘him’, it was ‘them’. There was more than one killer.

Ours had made their way up from Texas, over the span of about five years, but there were more. One hovered around the Great Lakes; another traced the east coast, vanishing in New Jersey; while a third was following in the footsteps of our own killer, sitting at the border of Louisiana but moving fast. And this was only in the US and over the past few years. Going further back in time and elsewhere in the world, how many others might have been missed?

My heart raced as I considered the magnitude of it all. We only seemed to have one here, but others were only a few states away. Why had no one else seen this? What were they?

I didn’t hear the last few words that the doctor said and I hardly noticed as I stood up and shook his hand in thanks. It was as if I was on autopilot; as though someone else was in my body, wearing my skin.

It was only when I found myself at the drink fountain, holding a plastic cup of water that I’d already half emptied, that I felt the heat finally leave my face. I realised Abby wasn’t with us; it was just Sharon and me. As the buzzing in my ears subsided, I found control again.

“Bastard” Sharon hissed under her breath, putting a cup to her lips. “That smug son of a bitch is acting like he can do our job better than us. All that man’s done is thrown a cat in with the pigeons.”

I nodded, slowly as she continued.

“God, and Abby, I thought he was going to throw up in there. He’s a great cop, but man, he has a weak stomach. How’s he going to cope with all this?”

“Whose …. stomach?” I mumbled, only half listening and still feeling confused.

Sharon looked at me directly and scowled. “Abby’s, he’s gone outside to get some fresh air and clear his head. This is all so gross and why did Resnekov have to lay it on so thick?”

This time I looked away, remembering everything that had been said and done. My head was clearing and I needed to think clearly.

Realising I was lost in thought, Sharon exhaled slowly before speaking in a kinder voice.

“Ya, this is going to be a big case, bigger than we expected … and it probably won’t be long until the FBI get involved, but we did our best, and we will do our best until then.” She hesitated for a moment. “I’m going to have a smoke outside and chat with Abby. Can you sign those creepy teeth out as evidence and meet us outside in a bit?”

“Sure.” I said, smiling as I watched her walk away.

Not for the first time, I felt that I’d outstayed my welcome on the force. I should have taken early retirement after my wife became ill and now it didn’t even look as though I’d finish with a clean sheet. I’d occasionally left cases open in the past but there was something about this one that made it too painful to leave unsolved.

Finishing my drink, I walked over to the desk and waited for the bright-eyed receptionist to notice me. It didn’t take long for me to complete the paperwork; it seemed the good doctor had done most of it for us, knowing he’d be rid of us more quickly if he ticked the right boxes.

I turned to look at the sad souls lingering in the reception area of the morgue, waiting to be seen - perhaps to view a loved one. The sterile and unfriendly room was brightly lit and full of people. Through the door, I could see Abby standing just outside, lecturing Sharon on how smoking would one day kill her.

Something felt wrong. I recognised a passing nurse as should escorted an elderly woman to make an identification. She smiled at me as she walked by, but something still I didn’t feel right. Carefully scanning every single person in the room, I noticed one person who looked different from the rest; an outlier.

Although I couldn’t see their face, they seemed to be some kind of a hobo, probably sheltering from the cold. Normally, the staff protested if they found ‘undesirables’ in the lobby of their spotlessly clean building, sending them over to us out of charity as soon as they arrived, but no one seemed to have noticed this particular individual. Between their trembling marble-white hands I could see a white cane, and around their right wrist was some kind of plastic bracelet that looked oddly familiar.

Something was wrong with them, though. They were so thin, they looked almost skeleton-like, with bluish veins showing clearly across the backs of their hands. I couldn’t recognize the illness but, whatever it was, it looked severe. I wondered how long the poor person had left in this world and whether anyone would even remember them when they were gone?

Their fingernails were several inches long and curled slightly into hooks, and their clothes seemed to be stained, rust red. They looked frail and malnourished to a horrible degree.

“Here’s your package, Detective.” A nurse blocked the stranger from my view as she held out a single brown box, wrapped in paper, in her arms.

“Thanks.” I responded, surprised that the parcel was heavier than I’d expected, and that it felt  unbalanced, presumably because of the liquid in the jar. Just one more signature and the evidence would be ours.

Our plan was to take the jar to one of the city museums, to see if one of the experts there could identify the teeth. And it was during those few brief moments, as I took the jar and thought about our next steps, that I missed the strange, thin man leave.

By the time the transfer was sorted, he’d gone. There was no sign of him out in the street as I left the building, and it flickered through my mind that someone might have taken pity on him; I hoped that was the case.

“You OK, Harrison?” Abby’s voice cut through my thoughts, snapping my back to reality and the job at hand. “You looked spaced out for a second there.”

“I’m fine.” I responded,“and I could ask you the same.”

Abby nodded, looking uneasy, and walked back towards Sharon, who greeted us with an upwards motion of her head.

We all knew we didn’t have long left with this case and that coming to some kind of a conclusion was a priority, if we didn’t want to look bad once the FBI showed up for the inevitable take-over. That certainly wouldn’t make the trip to the museum any easier, and I was finding the additional confusion caused by the teeth pretty hard to handle. This case was getting too big for us and we all knew it.

It was late in the evening when I finally pulled up outside my house and I sat for a while, debating whether or not to leave the car. I watched as light snow fell on the windscreen, obscuring the otherwise perfect view of my home. I couldn’t explain why I sat there, parked on the other side of the road as though I was on a stakeout, or why I felt unable to get out of my vehicle.

I could see Annabelle, sitting in the bay window, as always. Although her eyesight was fine, she didn’t see me; she never saw me.

I couldn’t stand being in my own home anymore, and now my place of work felt like a prison too. I’d never felt so lost. Never felt as I did now, unable to work out the most simple of puzzles. All I wanted was answers; that’s why I joined the force in the first place and why I’d stayed all these year. Taking a long, hard breath I pulled the car into drive; I stood for a moment in the snow and then, moving as though there was a heavy weight on my back, I walked to the front door and opened it in silence.

Annabelle said nothing; she didn’t seem to see me as I walked past her into the kitchen and closed the back door. Snow had come in through the door, leaving a huge puddle on the kitchen floor. Mop in hand, I started to clean up, trying to regain a semblance of order.


I looked up to find Annabelle standing by the kitchen table, her hands placed on the back of one of the chairs. That was a new behaviour.

“Have you been sending people to our house?” Her voice was quiet and the tone was unexpected.

It took me a moment to realise what she meant. “Yes, I have.” I offered no explanation.

She didn’t respond for a moment, and it was as if the words bounced off her.

“But why? I’m quite OK, here myself, me and …”

“It’s because you aren’t well, Annabelle. You leave food everywhere and one of these days we’re going to get rats or, heaven forbid, someone’s going to break into the house, because you always leave the back door open.” I went back to drying the floor, not looking at her.

“But I didn’t open the door.”

“Yes, you did Annabelle. Every morning you come down to feed the birds and you leave the door wide open.” I tried not to sound frustrated. For a while there was no response.

“… I didn’t open it though … they did.”

I stood upright to look at her more closely. “They?”

“They ...” her voice trailed off and she stared into the middle distance before snapping back to reality, “Juliet’s friend.”

“Our daughter is dead, Annabelle, so I strongly doubt that her friends came over.” I didn’t realise how hard my voice sounded until the words had left my lips.

“But ….” and again her words simply melted away.

“But nothing, Annabelle. It’s not a real person, you’re imagining it - and if they are real they’re trying to trick you, so keep this bloody door closed!” My voice rose until I was shouting. I didn’t mean to say what I’d said, and I definitely didn’t mean to shout. I knew she couldn’t help it.

I couldn’t face her for the rest of that evening; the guilt I felt was too potent. I doubted she realised or could even remember what I’d said, but I still felt terrible. For a while, I considered damning myself to another night on the sofa.

And I was still there, dozing on the sofa, at midnight when I heard the all too familiar noise of Annabelle climbing out of bed. I’d knew she’d start her usual routine of feeding the birds and I waited for her to try opening the back door, which for the first time I’d bolted tightly shut. I lay there, with my eyes half open, waiting, but Annabelle didn’t appear. I’d definitely heard her.

My eyes shifted from the back door to the stairs, which were just visible through the open door of the living room. Normally, Annabelle would be in the kitchen by now. Sitting up, I listened for the sound of movement, but nothing broke the silence. Maybe she had registered my earlier shouting and was afraid to come down. The feeling of guilt hit me again and I gazed back at the stairs.

Suddenly, there was a noise, but not the one I’d expected. It was a dull, slow clunk. My head snapped around to where it was coming from; the locked back door. The same noise sounded again, faster this time followed by several thuds, in quick successions. I held my breath as it continued and was now joined by what sounded like scratching.

Someone was trying to break in.

I jumped to my feet and I flicked on the light, looking around for something to defend myself with. Just as my eyes got used to the light, the noise stopped. My gun was on the coffee table; I took it from its holster and ran to the back door, flicking on more light switches as I went. Pulling back the bolt, I flung the door open and took aim at … nothing.

The artificial glow from the kitchen stained the snow that now covered the garden a bright orange. But the light didn’t reach far enough to reveal the intruder. Whoever it was had simply vanished. Holding my breath, I looked out at the snow to see footprints leading to the house and then away again. Someone was here.

I pulled on my boots and stormed out into the night, my gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other. I wasn’t able to follow the tracks very far; half way down the garden they veered off and vanished over the fence. I tried to follow them further but it was too dark and I felt too old and tired to do much more. Cutting my losses, I trudged back to the house and reluctantly decided to try and get some sleep. Things might look clearer in the morning.

When I awoke it was to a mass of text messages regarding the handover of our case to the FBI, at the end of the week. Although I’d had a pretty lousy night’s sleep the news made me feel strangely refreshed. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it finally felt as if, for me at least, the end of the case was in sight; that news, at least, brought me some comfort.

But it also felt like the finishing line was in sight, at end of a marathon - and somehow that gave me new energy. If I could find at least some of the answers, even if no one believed me, I could feel pride in myself and the team, when we stepped down from the case.

I spent the morning with Annabelle and headed into work later in the day, with my mind racing as I went over the mass of evidence and theories. It was only when I arrived that the grim details of the case were pushed aside by a sight I hadn’t seen in a long time.

Doctor Resnekov had returned for his evening shift, and was standing in the reception area of the main building, with a young girl, no more than four or five years old. She stood next to him, on her toes, trying to see over the surface he was writing on. Her long wavy hair was so blond it looked like gold, flowing down her back and loosely tied with a ribbon. She had shiny red wellington boots and sweet blue rain coat that looked new, as if it had never once been used for its intended purpose.

“Doctor?” I called, walking over, feeling slightly short of breath. “I didn’t expect to see you or Elise here today.”

Standing up straight and turning towards me, he looked at me with a expression I’d never seen on his face before. “Oh, good afternoon Harrison.” The small girl turned at the same time as her father and looked at me with huge blue eyes.

I smiled at them both. “I didn’t know it was bring your daughter to work day already. What’s happened?”

“Elise hasn’t been feeling very well recently, so I wanted to keep an eye on her.”  

“So you’re taking her to the morgue?” I raised an eyebrow at him.

“I don’t keep dead things in my office, Harrison”; a statement which I thought was probably a lie. “Besides, this is a one-off.” He scooped the small girl up in his arms. Though she looked to be in perfectly fine health, I didn’t question him. “Speaking of one-offs, I hear the FBI is taking the case?”

I shrugged an answer. “Looks that way. This one’s too big and covers too many departments for only us to handle.”

“You’re not giving up on it though?”

“I’ll work until the deadline, but after that it’s out of my hands.”

He snorted, “And I thought you’d finally become one of those cop who gets so obsessed with a case he ends up stalking the killer until his heart gives out.” His daughter giggled.

I did my best not to glare back at him, instead managing to nod and say, light heartedly. “Let’s hope not.”

“Have you checked the other cases yet?”

For a moment I wondered what he was getting at. “We sent the teeth off for analysis but …”

The doctor cut me off. “You should do that Harrison, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

“Is…” my words trailed off, not sure what to say. “Is this about your doctor friend? Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude or sound like I was accusing them of something.”

He didn’t respond; just contained to stare at me through his thick-rimmed glasses. “I’d recommend looking at the case files again, Harrison.” Giving me no time to reply, he turned on his heels and walked off with his daughter, towards to the adjoining building.

Not sure what to do or say, I turned away, doing my best to avoid eye-contact with the receptionist who’d been listening in to our conversation. I headed back to my office.

Slowly and carefully I began to dig. First, follow each case back to its point of origin. I made myself a list of questions as I went along, trying to find answers as I cross-referenced everything with the help of a rather reluctant Sharon. I was still convinced that the death of the blind boy had something to do with our killer, so why couldn’t the same be said for the other cases?

In no particular order, I began to unpick the other cases, looking for trends, and slowly a pattern began to emerge.

At the beginning of every case there was a point when either a doctor or the cops had reported a body missing and, as a result, there’d been a delay in the production of a death certificate. In one of the cases, two girls had gone missing on a hiking trip. One was found at a bottle of a cliff, half eaten by what the rangers thought at the time were bears; the other body was never recovered.  In another case, on the east coast, a car had swerved off the road, killing a family of five but only four bodies were ever found.The theory was that the fifth body had been thrown from the vehicle and taken by wild dogs. After a lone gunman attacked a school, one of the teachers was never found. There were rumours that the teacher was somehow linked to the attacker and had run off, but two of the  students said he’d died protecting them.

“Strange, have you seen this Harrison?” Sharon said, looking up from the other side of the desk.

“What is it?” I asked, straining my neck to look back at her.

“Have you noticed that the deaths in our area include a high number of elderly victims?” Tossing her notepad across to me, I noticed she’d drawn up a table to show the victim’s key characteristics. Though they were diverse in some ways, there was definitely a pattern. “Not only that, but the majority of victims in this part of the country were found in their own homes.”

A sinking feeling started to press into my gut. “Good work. Can you see other differences between the attacks in different areas?”

“A few. The ones down south seem to have shallower bite marks on the body and lots of defensive wounds on victims as well. “This one” and she pointed to a case from close to the Canadian border “inflicts much more damage on the bodies and in a couple of cases the victims have only been identified by their dental records.”

“Is ours the only one who waits until the victim are dead or can’t fight back?”

Sharon nodded. “It looks that way.”

“But how in the world would they know when someone is likely to die?”

“I don’t know, maybe they have insider information about people who are terminally ill.”  

“Or know people who can tell them…”

Sharon frowned, not understanding the implications of what I’d just said. “You feeling OK? You’ve gone rather red in the face.”

“Yes, I’m fine…” I glanced out through the glass windows of the office, to make sure no one was watching us. “I just need to make a phone call” I whispered.

For a second, Sharon looked at me in utter confusion before her face changed into an expression of horrified understanding. “My God ... Annabelle.”

I nodded, taking out my phone to call home. For Sharon’s sake, I set the call to speaker, letting the noise of ringing fill the room. The noise continued for an agonisingly long period of time before someone finally picked up.

“Annabelle?” I lurched forward in my seat, my movement startling Sharon.

At first there was no response, just heavy breathing. I didn’t recognise the breath as Annabelle’s, but I couldn’t be sure. As my eyes met with Sharon’s, I was suddenly stunned by the sound of a familiar voice. “No… Annabelle isn’t here right now.”

I knew that voice. It was the same voice that had spoken to me several days ago, phoning me to say that Annabelle was distraught, after she’d got into our daughter’s bedroom.

“Who are you? What are you doing in my house?” My voice had low and menacing.

There was silence and then the reply came and this time the voice sounded scared. “I… I don’t know …  she just let me in … and it’s so cold outside …”

Sharon gave me a strange look before speaking herself. “Who are you? Where’s Annabelle?” Her voice sounded more relaxed than my own, but I could see the stress on her face.

“She’s feeding the birds … I’m just trying to get warm … I’m sorry, I should go …” They sounded on the brink of tears.

“What are you doing in my house?!” I was scared and growing impatient and this time my voice was raised.

The voice on the phone changed too: “I’m waiting until I can eat again.”

I was on the verge of screaming but before I could respond the call ended and the room was filled with the sound of the dial tone. Shock and adrenalin pushed me out of my chair and I grabbed my keys and gun.

“Where the hell are you going!?” Sharon shouted, knowing the answer full well.

“Try to phone Annabelle again, and keep phoning her.” I pushed my phone into Sharon’s hands, as I ran for the door. My heart thudded violently in my chest.

“Do you think it’s our killer?” She was behind me now, redialling the number as she followed me out of the office.

“I don’t know, but I’m not waiting to find out. They’re in my house and, killer or not, I’m putting an end to it.”

I didn’t register my colleagues staring at me as I ran through the main office and out to my car. All I could think about was Annabelle ….. and that voice.  

I jammed the keys into the ignition as Sharon jumped into the passenger seat beside me. Slamming the car into reverse and with the siren blaring, I drove for home as fast as I could, not thinking about the snow, the icy rain and the slippery roads. Someone was in our house - that voice belonged to a monster, whichever way you looked at it - and Annabelle was in danger.

With each slow, passing second I listened to the sound of unanswered phone, Annabelle wasn’t picking up.  

My heart raced violently until my thoughts were drowned out by the sound of my pulse. They wouldn’t get away with this; I was going to put a stop to this harassment of my wife, no matter what it took.

Turning the wheel hard into our street, I locked my eyes on our home. I didn’t think of the icy roads, and I hardly registered Sharon’s scream and the noise of her hand hitting the dashboard as the car shot sideways into a skid and hit a wall. My body was full of adrenalin and I could smell the heat from the brakes. Fighting off the rising feeling of breathless, and with my heart fighting against my ribs, I leapt out of the car.

My vision was blurred but I noticed a shape moving towards the large bay window at the front of the house; thank God, it was Annabelle. Turning back, and now with a smile on my face, I opened my mouth to speak to my friend. My heart jumped at what I saw.

She was breathing, but her whole frame was crumpled against the car's airbag and her arm hung limply, pulled from its socket. I’d done this.

“Sharon?...” I nudged her lightly, hoping for a response but got nothing. “Can you hear me, Sharon?”

I turned towards my home again, noticing my wife still standing in the window. She looked fine; her eyes looked alive and bright. What had I gained by my stupid overreaction; I’d hurt my colleague and solved nothing.

I can hardly remember what happened next. The ambulance arrived within a few minutes and the news wasn’t good. Sharon hadn’t been wearing a seat belt and she’d blacked out on impact, but the real problem was with her arm. The shoulder was dislocated and her arm had sustained multiple fractures. I phoned Abby and told him to meet the ambulance at the hospital, and then I walked across the road to my house.

I found Annabelle and, as before, she had no real recollection of the intruder. It wasn’t that I’d stopped caring, but now my mind was focused on my phone and on what was happening at the hospital, to my friend. I wondered if Sharon would ever forgive me for my stupid mistake. And for what; all I’d done was chase a ghost.

I refilled my glass of whisky for what felt like the tenth time and gazed out at the frozen black sky. On this side of town, the stars were always blocked out by the lights of the city, giving the night sky a dark matt finish. I didn’t know what time it was, but it was late. I wasn’t going to be able to sleep, so why bother trying? I sat there with my whisky and my guilt.

Realising I’d finished the bottle, I stood up from the table - set for four people - and stumbled to the kitchen. My body felt heavy and I moved sluggishly, but I found what I wanted. Like the last, this bottle was half empty, but there was enough for a few more drinks.

My empty glass was still on the table and I debated returning to my seat, but it seemed simpler to drink from the bottle. It was then that I noticed something, from the corner of my eye. A shape, standing still and erect in the garden. Leaning back on the kitchen counter I stared at it through the window. I couldn’t work out what it was.

My heart began to race again and I dropped the bottle, the glass shattering as it hit the floor. I lurched back over to the table, struggling to keep steady as I went, and once again grabbed my gun. It was them; I knew it was them.

I threw open the back door and the cold hit me.

“What do you want?” I screamed, taking aim. “What do you want with my wife and my house? Because of you, my friend is in the hospital!”

It didn’t move; didn’t even flinch. The person - the thing - was dressed like a drifter, with worn-down walking boots, a thick and tattered winter coat and hood and torn trousers, that did little to keep the cold from their blueish skin.

“I said, what do you want?!”

This time, I got a response. Slowly they stepped back, lifting their head as they spoke.

“I ... don’t want … any ...”

It was them. I’d know the voice anywhere and now I had a face, I could put a stop to their wretched game. My hands trembled with rage and with the whisky in my system, I was barely thinking. This thing, this monster, had been in my home and had got into my wife’s head.

The noise of the shot and the recoil from my gun were what brought me to my senses. I hadn’t meant to pull the trigger; I just wanted to scare them.

The body crumpled forward, before collapsing face-down into the snow.

Shocked, I dropped my firearm and stumbled forward, reaching out to touch the body. I grasped the shoulders and rolled it over; the bullet had hit them in the neck, but that wasn’t what made my stomach drop.

I knew who it was; I knew them instantly. The skin was so white it looked like marble and the eyes were wide open and completely bloodshot; it was Matthew. His long white hair lay across face, but it didn’t cover the deep, pink scars across both cheeks that looked as if they’d been ripped through the flesh, so that in places the teeth were visible. His nails were long and curved and the skin on his hands was covered with swollen veins.

What had I done? My heart lurched and spikes of pain shot across my chest. I’d shot people before, but I’d never killed anyone.

I could feel my heart racing, faster and faster, and the vice-like pain told me something was dangerously wrong. I knew I was having a heart attack.  I staggered back, towards the open door and the safety of my kitchen.

All I had to do was find my coat; there were some pills in the pocket that would help. They might buy me the time to phone for an ambulance.  

And at least that he - that thing - whatever it was - was dead. It couldn’t be human; corpses only walk the earth in horror stories.

The pain in my chest was agonising, but knew I had to keep moving. As I got closer to the door, I could see my coat hanging up only a few metres away from me; get the pills and I’ll be OK. The thought also flashed through my mind that the case was solved; if the thing that had inhabited Matthew’s body was the killer, then I’d rid the world of that particular monster.  

My head started to spin and then I felt it. Stone cold and gnarled fingers wrapped around my leg, pulling me back with an ungodly force. Weak and unbalanced, I toppled forward, falling to the ground. I could hear a noise behind me now, a wet sound as if someone was choking.

Looking around frantically, I tried to locate my gun, only to realise I’d left it where I’d dropped it, in the snow. I kicked back, as hard as my body would let me, and managed to break loose. Stumbling forward a few more steps, I turned to see the thing now crawling towards me, through the snow.

A pungent, rotten liquid began to ooze from the its mouth and then, with a violent retch, it spat out the bullet, staining the snow brown.

“... You ... hurt … me.” It raised its head, but the voice that came from the animated corpse wasn’t the same as the voice on the phone. No, this was something much more evil; something primal.

“You’re dead. Matthew died years ago.” Though I tried to shout, my body was too weak and I could feel my chest becoming tighter and tighter.

It pushed itself half upright and for a moment it seemed weak, but then with a sudden burst of energy and speed it lunged again at my legs. This time its grasp was strong and the nails broke through my skin. I tried to kick it away but my legs wouldn’t respond; the pain in my chest was becoming unbearable and there was nothing I could do.

I looked at its face. The eyes had rolled back in its skull. There was nothing there that you could ever call living.

I had nothing to fight with and no strength to resist. My body was dying.  


Credit : emthesmall