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Dark Shadows Press
Gene Zollars has seen a lot in his twenty-plus years as a detective. In his mid-fifties, divorced and a recovering alcoholic, Zollars is beginning to wonder how much longer he can deal with the savargery that people wreak upon each other. When case after gruesome case lands on his desk, Zollars begins to receive help of a much different kind than his partner, Greg Huenemann, is able to provide. In one way or another, the victims of these terrible crimes communicate with him, giving him the information he needs to solve their cases. When he accepts this assistance from beyond the grave, Zollars achieves a level of understanding and connection with these murdered people that breathes new life into his tired career and brings justice to those who might never have had it.
The silence was heavy. It had weight, pressing down on him like a blanket, and when Gene Zollars finally regained consciousness, he noticed it right away. There was no ambient noise: no television drone, no creaking of the house settling, no kids shrieking outside. Only the awful pain in his head and the total stillness.
Zollars opened his eyes to darkness. He seemed to be lying half on and half off a couch, but the position of it didn’t feel right, and he suddenly realized he wasn’t in his own house. When his eyes adjusted, he could make out a thin sliver of moonlight, but it was coming from the wrong direction.
South, he thought blearily. My living room window’s to the west. Where the fuck am I? And how the hell did I get here?
The bar was the last thing he remembered: cheap imitation leather booths, hanging lights that were made from wagon wheels, and loud country music. He had been drinking shots, Zollars vaguely remembered, but with whom? That piece was just beyond recall, and an unmanning sense of panic seized him for a moment. He brought a careful hand up to his head.
Hurts like hell. Did I hit it when I passed out?
His fingers encountered the ragged edges of a wound and the stiffness of hair that had been plastered in blood. He knew well enough what that looked like; he’d spent twenty-odd years looking at corpses and crime scenes. Zollars slowly raised himself to a sitting position, unsurprised when the room began to tilt and sway. He closed his eyes until the moment of vertigo passed, then looked around.
What he could make out in the dim light didn’t look at all like his living room. The couch he was sitting on was Victorian in style, upholstered in fabric with a delicate floral pattern, and the two wing chairs opposite matched it. The carpet under his feet was thick and expensive, and the maple occasional tables held vases of freshly cut flowers. The large window to his left was flanked with velvet draperies, and just outside it, Zollars could make out an expanse of neatly mown lawn. He got to his feet and searched for a lamp, and when he found one beside a baby grand piano, he reached inside the shade and switched it on. Instantly, the room was flooded with what seemed like brilliant light, and Zollars squinted.
Then he looked down at himself, and all he could see was blood.
His clothing was saturated, turning everything he wore a deep, ominous crimson. Horrified, Zollars raised his hands, and they too were red; blood was grimed into the creases in his palms, caked under his nails, caught in the hairs on the backs of his fingers.
Christ. Christ Almighty. What the fuck happened?
He rubbed his hands along the sides of his trousers, but it didn’t help. The blood had dried, and from the look of it, it had been there for at least a couple of hours, maybe longer. Zollars took a careful look around the elegant room, trying to think like the detective he was. The only other blood he could see, other than the blood all over him, was a trail of droplets leading out of the room (or in, Zollars reasoned) and the stains that covered the couch on which he had been lying. He was tempted to believe the drops had come from him, but if he had learned anything in his career, it was to never assume anything.
Whose house is this? How did I get in?
Zollars began a cautious search of the rest of the house, yelling, “Hello?” loudly several times to warn any possible occupants. There was no answer but that thick, carved silence, and as he made his way through the rooms on the lower floor, he grew more and more uneasy. Nothing seemed out of place, and it wasn’t until he reached the stairs that his unease began to turn into outright fear. Leading directly from the living room over to the polished oak staircase, the droplets of blood became heavier, until by the time they reached the staircase they were splashes. More blood decorated the stair risers, and Zollars felt his stomach clench as he prepared to go upstairs. He looked at his hands again, and a horrible suspicion began to dawn in his mind.
Did I do something? Dear God, did I have another blackout?
It was self-evident: he had awakened in a strange house, unaware of how he’d gotten there, and he was covered with blood. It seemed that whatever had happened in this house had happened upstairs, and Zollars had to fight an amazingly strong impulse to turn and run out the front door.
You’re a detective, for Christ’s sake! One of the good guys, remember?
He began to mount the steps, careful not to step on any of the stains that stood out so shockingly against the light colored runner. The stains grew heavier the closer he got to the top, and when Zollars stepped onto the small landing on the second floor, he had already done the mental preparation that was automatic in cases like this (you’re gonna see something bad it’s a crime scene mannequins just think mannequins).
He stood for a moment, looking around, and saw the little girl almost immediately. She was lying half in and half out of a doorway, her arms flung out, her long red hair fanned on the carpet behind her. Her face was unblemished, but there was a terrible wound on her small chest, and the front of her pink pajamas was a deep, dark mahogany. Zollars walked over to her, looking down at her silently. Her eyes were closed, her lips parted as though she had fallen asleep where she lay, but the unmistakable stab wounds on her chest and torso told another, far more brutal story.
Zollars glanced into the room and saw another little girl, crumpled on the floor beside one of two twin beds. Her hair had been golden blond but was now bright red - soaked with blood - and Zollars closed his eyes when he saw the condition of her head. It had been caved in on one side, and brain matter had leaked out to puddle on the carpet. Her expression, too, was oddly peaceful.
Must have been taken by surprise. Poor little kid, she never knew it was coming.
Zollars left the room and went back out to the landing. There was a pool of blood in another doorway, and the wide swaths on the carpet and smeared handprints on the wall next to the door told of a desperate struggle. He went into the room and stopped dead. The sight that met his eyes was so horrific that he struggled for an endless moment with his gorge, sure that he was going to vomit on top of the blood that was already all over the floor.
The woman – and Zollars had to look closely to discern that she was indeed a woman – lay across the unmade bed, her legs spread wide. Her nude body was covered in blood, and there was a huge stain soaking into the bedclothes beneath her. Her head was flung back, revealing her slashed throat.
It isn’t just slashed. A wave of nausea tried to climb up his throat, and Zollars took a deep breath. It’s fucking chopped open.
The woman’s head was attached to her body by a small strip of skin at the back of the neck, and it was tilted unnaturally backward; if she had been capable of seeing she would have been looking right at the headboard of the bed. Zollars moved closer and examined her hands; there was red matter under her nails, and his mind automatically filed this information away: Defense reaction. The perp’s skin is under there.
The woman’s outspread legs indicated sexual assault, but again, Zollars couldn’t be sure. There was so much blood on her body that only the medical examiner would be able to say if she’d been raped.
Jesus, it looks like someone deliberately smeared the blood all over her.
Zollars looked reflexively at his own hands, and a cold feeling threatened to bring that panic up to the surface again.
No way. It wasn’t me. Couldn’t have been me.
You sure about that? A nasty little voice piped up in the back of his mind; if Zollars had been less cynical, he would have called it his conscience. How’d you get all that blood on your hands? Do you remember? Didn’t think so.
Zollars pushed that away and turned from the bed. There was a great deal of blood on the floor, and he knew that the woman had not been the only person killed in this room. He couldn’t see any sign of another body, but a wedge of light coming from the adjoining ensuite caught his eye. He moved toward it reluctantly (God, I’ve seen enough) and peered around the open door.
The room was an abattoir; blood sprayed the white walls to the ceiling and streaks and splashes were all over the floor. The shower curtain was pulled back, and a man lolled in the bathtub, awash in crimson. One leg was hooked awkwardly over the edge of the tub, and his head rested against the white porcelain at an angle. The man’s face was frozen into a rictus of horror, and after a moment Zollars could see why. Where his genitals should have been there was nothing but a bloody hole. His penis and testicles had been removed, and when Zollars searched the room he realized they were missing.
Charming. Nice trophy.
He backed carefully out of the bathroom and made his way back to the bedroom doorway, stepping around the blood on the floor. He went back down the stairs, wondering what the hell he was going to do. No matter how he looked at it, Zollars knew that if he came upon a man in a slaughterhouse who was covered with blood, he’d arrest him first and ask questions later. He stood in the front entryway, thinking about his options.
I could call it in myself, and tell the truth.
I could wash up first, and then call it in.
I could leave, and pretend I never saw it.
I could just wait, and see what happens.
The only real option was the first one, and Zollars knew it. He didn’t know what had happened in this house, but it appeared that he was involved somehow. If he looked at it with an impartial, detective’s eye view, he would consider himself a suspect. He patted his pockets, relieved when he felt the small lump of his cell phone. He pulled it out and flipped it open.
“Yeah, this is Zollars,” he said, after Holly had picked up at the station. “I got a situation here …”