Premonition of Terror
MASSACHUSETTS near Worchester, Tuesday, Early Morning
A SINGLE COMPUTER SCREEN GLARED in the darkened offices of Crime Scene Services. Trooper Leigh Danner flipped open a notepad where she had described a business card found near the body of her newest case. A purple card with only a Web address: DreamWatch.com.
Danni entered the URL, hoping to find a clue to the victim’s identity. She didn’t expect to spill her guts on a paranormal website, but stranger things had happened this night to lead her here at a quarter to five in the morning in dead silence except for quiet tapping under her desk where her foot twitched against the tiled floor.
No one was on the road but me.
She typed her experience on the site’s Submit Your Story form.
I’m still shaking. I can’t believe what just happened or that it happened to someone like me. I’m a state trooper … almost made it through my on-call shift when my pager went off. My heart raced like it always does when a call comes in, or the microwave beeps, the alarm clock, or any repetitive sound resembling the pager’s buzz. I called the shift commander for my assignment.
The police chief of a small town near Worcester had requested Crime Scene Services. I was to rendezvous with local police off the highway exit, eighteen miles away. The officer would escort me to a cabin off a wooded country road where a body had been found.
Rain had stopped hours earlier and the night was warmer than most. The dark moonless sky and dense ground fog in the valley slowed me down. By the time I arrived, it was 2:36 a.m.
I drove the narrow road until I spotted the cruiser then stopped on the opposite side, but the officer didn’t do anything. All my lights were on and I waited, but nothing happened. So, I got out of my SUV and crossed the road. The officer exited his cruiser and asked if I was Trooper Jane Smith (not my real name). He said he’d lead me to the scene and returned to his car. I turned to run back to my vehicle.
One step onto the road and headlight beams blinded me. I froze. A blast of cold air hit my face as I closed my eyes to certain death. My vest jerked behind me, its zipper cutting into my throat. I stumbled backward to the shoulder. Gravel spattered my legs like shotgun pellets as a pickup roared past—inches away.
I turned to thank the officer for grabbing me, only he wasn’t there. I could see by his interior lights he was seated in his car.
No one was on the road but me.
I know what I felt on my shoulder. A firm hand snapped me to safety with a grip stronger than humanly possible. One step forward and I’d have been killed.
I sat shaking in my SUV, angry at the jerk driver for nearly flattening me.
I don’t believe what can’t be proved. I process crime scene evidence to document events. I don’t know how to process this, but I know what happened and I know what I felt.
Someone or some … thing saved my life.
I never gave much thought to fate or destiny, but I can’t help thinking, I wasn’t meant to die tonight.
Anyway, I found your site and needed to unload. It helps to know I’m not alone.
Danni’s hand quivered over the Submit Your Story button, heart racing as if her pager had buzzed. Recalling the incident and typing the details made the experience difficult, if not impossible, to deny.
No one was on the road but me.
I know what I felt on my shoulder.
The submission form didn’t require an e-mail address. Not even a name. Several stories in the site’s archives had been posted anonymously. No detail could be traced back to her, yet she hesitated. The incident wasn’t something to talk about at work where ridicule was sure to follow.
She had to tell someone. Oh, what the hell.
She clicked the button.
CONNECTICUT, Tuesday, Early Morning
KATE HELD HER BREATH. Memories of a dream were fading too fast and anything but stone-like posture would disturb the link between this world and the next. She gasped as the dream’s details slipped from her spirit’s hold. A misty river. Statues silhouetted along a bridge. Spotlights cast on horrified faces. The gray and the blue and the red. And then it was gone.
How long had she sat in darkness? Asleep? Or lost in a trance on a mystical road?
The clock on the DVD player read 5:46. The table lamp’s soft radiance lit a circle around her like the white light she often summoned to form a metaphysical shield, a rite that had replaced bedtime prayer, a practice that of late, had earned an impressive failure rate.
The last images from another place and time flashed in her mind. Menacing and terrifying. Kate collected her energy to reestablish her presence. In her body. In her home. In the here and now.
There was something comforting about the quiet, empty house like when your car stops spinning out of control. You brace for impact but come to rest on the side of the road heading in the right direction, frozen like she was now. Stiff and cold. A shadowy silhouette of yourself like a statue on a bridge … while your mind catches up.
Then the shaking begins.
You’ve eluded damage or danger and can continue your journey, if only you knew where you were going. Or where you had been.
Her eyes darted around the living room to familiar things, cherished things—a brass palm tree from Rome, Canopic jars from Egypt, lava rocks from an ancient volcano. Vacation mementos and scrapbooks of daring times. She was adjusting to being alone and felt more like herself than she had in two years, as if doors had opened and air had cleared, like that first day after winter when you opened windows and smelled spring. Dormancy ended.
Her car had stopped spinning. Her journey began.
KATE WAS ALMOST FREE. The medical center brochure was all but complete. Copy changes had been finalized and approved, and she’d sized and positioned all the photos, except one.
She launched the page layout program, InDesign, and opened the image in Photoshop to balance the color before placing it on the inside front cover. A slight adjustment of the cyan level corrected the staff’s flesh tones, but the picture’s blue tint triggered a memory of last night’s bridge dream, though not enough to recall specifics.
It’ll come back.
She enlarged the photo to six hundred percent, magnifying two white specks on the front lawn. Rats. A Dunkin’ Donuts bag and discarded paper cup. She swept the cursor over the debris and hit it with the Clone Stamp tool, replacing litter with unspoiled grass.
Kate had arranged for the hospital grounds to be mowed, trimmed, and raked until flawless and posed the staff at the main entrance with no faces obscured. No small feat. She hadn’t noticed windblown litter in the frame, nor would anyone spot a couple of white specks in the printed piece, but she’d know they were there. She scrolled the image from top to bottom and side to side, correcting every imperfection in mindless rote.
Her hand stalled as she stared. She would have missed the distant bridge at normal size, but enlarged— its bluish tint contrasted against the sun’s golden light cast on the crowd of faces. Images from her dream rushed into consciousness, replacing the shot on the screen.
The dream. I remember the dream. She strolled on the Charles Bridge in Prague where a man emerged from a crowd of tourists. He passed nearby, walking in the opposite direction. A slight limp marred his gait. A shadow concealed his face. Though his presence was familiar, she sensed an aura of danger about him. She waited for him to step into the lantern’s light but was distracted by a glow on a nearby hill. People bumped against her, and she almost dropped her camera. She bent to clutch her belongings and nearly collided with the man. When she looked up, he was gone.
Kate jotted notes in her dream journal: Sunset. Bridge. Crowd. Dark stranger on Charles. Got it.
Was Todd the mystery man? It didn’t matter. The dream showed her on the bridge and left her feeling she’d soon collide with change. Don’t need a dream to show me that.
Decision made. She’d go to Prague as planned.
In a way, she was already there.
KATE HAD TO REMIND HER BROTHER about her travel plans.
Jack answered his cell, “Kate, what’s wrong?”
Why did he always assume something was wrong? “I’m going to Prague.”
“Todd came back?”
She hesitated as her lips parted and swear words stumbled in her mind. Don’t. She couldn’t tell him what happened on Sunday night … could never ever tell him about touching Todd in her bed. “No, but the trip’s paid for and I finished the hospital brochure. I’ll bill the job today, and if I watch my expenses, the money will carry me to the end of the year.” She left her computer in search of her coffee mug, nuzzling the phone between her ear and shoulder. “Timing couldn’t be better.”
“You’re flying to Eastern Europe by yourself?”
“I dreamed I should go.” She paused for the tirade that didn’t come. Quick, change the subject. “What are you doing this weekend?” She rummaged around the art taboret and the low shelves of the bookcase; favorite spots where her coffee often hid. Shifted clutter on the dining table, kitchen counter …
“Not inviting trouble by traveling alone to a foreign country.”
There’s the Jack I know and love.
He breathed into the phone. “Can’t you postpone until I can go with you?”
She couldn’t recall when she’d last heard an offer so insincere; she choked back a laugh. “You’re kidding, right? I love you, but I can’t see us traveling together. Ever.”
“Can’t one of your friends go with you?”
“None have traveled out of the States and I don’t want babysitting them to cramp my experience. Coop was my only good traveling companion.” Her throat tightened when she said her name. Elizabeth Cooper, Kate’s best friend since grade school, had gone MIA two years ago—her mind and maybe her soul were missing. Her body remained in coma at a nursing home down the road.
Kate’s head throbbed, and her stomach wrenched with a sudden queasiness as a migraine was born. “I’d rather just go by myself.”
Jack’s silence seemed to shout disapproval. He wouldn’t dare talk about Coop.
No one would.
“My flight leaves Saturday.”
“I hoped to see you, but I’m not up to a four-hour drive to Vermont. Too much to do.” She wandered to the back porch. “There you are.”
“I’m talking to my coffee.” She took a cold sip that might have been from yesterday. “Can you come down here?”
He paused too long. “Call before you leave for the airport.”
“I will, but not for a last-minute lecture. Remember almost Special Agent Kasabian, you can’t scold me like some FBI rookie. We sit at the same table on holidays.”
“Seriously, any plans while I’m gone?”
“Hanging out with Dante.”
Dante Benard, Jack’s college roommate, was like a favorite uncle. She and Jack affectionately called him Crash for all the cars he’d demolished, including three cruisers during a short-lived cop career. “I wish I could be there. I need a good laugh.”
“Yeah, well, lately he’s not laughing. I’ll fill you in another time.”
“I’ll come up when I return. After my jet lag. Tell Dante so we can plan something fun.”
The phone clicked. A dial tone replaced Jack’s good-bye.
Kate held the handset at arm’s length, smirking with a sense of accomplishment.
She’d told Jack she was going. There was no turning back.
MASSACHUSETTS, Tuesday Morning
THE LAB’S WASHROOM smelled of pine disinfectant, an odor Danni had learned to love. She washed her hands even though she’d scrubbed them an hour ago when she returned from her initial call-out with Detective Lt. Mike Riley. He had an easy way about him, even though he was a stickler for beyond-the-book procedure, insisting on waiting for a warrant before processing the crime scene, the cabin and its contents, vehicles that weren’t there but might return, the surrounding land, and access roads.
When the local cops offered hospitality at their headquarters with coffee, doughnuts, and a private office for phone calls and faxes, Riley was quick to accept. Danni headed to the lab for peace and quiet, and to stock her state SUV with supplies while waiting for Riley’s call that a search was legal. Several hours might pass before the District Attorney’s office secured a search warrant for the cabin, the scene of an apparent homicide.
The office wall clock read five fifty-nine. Danni was officially on overtime. She slipped out of her utility vest and smoothed the fabric over the back of her chair, tucking in the neckline tag that read, Target Boy’s Size 16. The vest’s right side bore the State Seal and white type on the left identified her mission: Crime Scene Services.
Sleeves pushed to her elbows, she opened a file and made note of the crime lab number her team would use, but that was all she could do. The vic had no wallet, no car. No problem. She’d identify him soon enough. In five years she’d not failed and wasn’t about to start now.
While waiting for Riley, she checked and replied to department and personal e-mails. Anything to pass time. Anything to avoid revisiting her crazy experience on the road. She had to put away that incident like she’d put away the barbaric slash across the victim’s throat. Where’s the warrant?
She had checked the URL listed on the business card, her only clue, intending to skim the entire site. Quick. Fast. Looking for a lead to John Doe’s identity—or to the killer’s.
Even during her early check, the glossy card was out of place in the rustic cabin though she resisted forming conclusions. There was something compelling about DreamWatch.com. Easy colors and soft-edged graphics seemed crafted by a feminine hand. A woman couldn’t kill like that. She’d lack height and strength. Later she’d ask digital services to track the webmaster.
Danni clicked through links to the archives. It was a curious site. Small and simple, with stories written in plain language by ordinary people like the card stated. Several claimed experiences similar enough that hers wasn’t so strange after all.
Earlier, she’d submitted a short version of her impossible episode before reviewing fluff pages for any connection to the crime and checking links to: About, Bio, News and Resources.
The Glossary was briefly distracting, but no one word defined what had happened to her.
Her quiet office. The fog. The incident on the road. Ghost stories. The site’s mysterious images lured her. The longer she looked, the more detail she saw. Eerie faces emerged from backgrounds. First one, then another. Did it move? Her muscles tensed.
A loud screech jolted her body against the chair, rolling it far from her desk and the images on the screen. The janitor’s pail had scraped against the file cabinet behind her. What the hell am I doing? She tiptoed the chair back to her desk and shut down the computer. Where’s that damn warrant?
THE PHONE RANG at seven ten. “Wake up. Get to work.” Lt. Mike Riley’s voice was as shrill as the screech of the janitor’s pail.
“It’s about freakin’ time. I’ve been waiting since five. Hanging around for hours. Hours, Riley. Hours.” She stashed evidence bags and print lifters in compartments along her pant legs. “Meet you there.”
“Now. Don’t make me wait. You know how I get.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m on my way.” She flipped on her vest, slapping Velcro straps secure, and grabbed her briefcase, weapon, and purse. The sun eased around the building as she crossed the parking lot to her state Ford Explorer, arms wrapped around extra supplies: a box of latex gloves that nearly matched the purple business card from the cabin and a cardboard evidence box to safely transport a big knife if she found one. Her briefcase nestled on the front seat and her laptop on the passenger floor. A SIG SAUER pistol was locked in the glove box.
She hit the road within ten minutes of receiving the detective’s call, time enough for McDonald’s drive-thru. “Sweet iced tea, large, and a breakfast burrito.” She handed over a five stashed in her pocket and tucked the food bag into the console on top of a cache of peppermint gum and sanitizing hand wipes.
She twisted to check for an opening, pulled into traffic, and drove toward the cabin. A lovely fall day. Perfect weather to work outside. Riley won’t mind waiting. Summer had been quiet. Too quiet; only three deaths, all from natural causes and all older adults. Danni didn’t like that. It meant fall was due for disaster.
Danni exited the highway, driving past the patch of ground she’d stood on last night. It seemed foreign in sunlight as if she’d never been there. She doubted last night’s incident had happened, because … How could it? Only a miracle could have saved her life. For what? Was she destined for something great? To solve this major crime? Or tomorrow’s crime? Or the next more important crime?
She turned onto the gravel road leading to the cabin. Daylight exposed the ruts she was unable to avoid last night, but the smell was the same. Moist earth. Rotting leaves. This was why she didn’t like fall. Bright colors and robust scents teased with excitement before surrender to death and decay.
Last night’s fog had been clammy against her collar. Even now her neck felt a chill. Her shoulder ached from the grip. She’d been yanked backward, the clench painful like a vise, snatching her from the rush of wind, away from calamity. Away from death. The more she thought of it, the stronger the grasp.
Her cells held its memory as if the cold hand still seized her, its hold tightening, its icy fingers reaching to her bones.
— end of chapter six —