Going to the Twisted Terror Convention in Sacramento made me want to get back to work on Drained, the second installment of the Lauren Westlake series. I am about halfway through the sequel and in order to hold myself accountable, I will be posting a chapter a week for your reading pleasure. If you enjoy what you read, please share it with others and leave a comment.
The hotel looked as if it could have been an Andy Warhol painting. The colors were bright and the décor was clearly meant to convey more than a passing resemblance to the 1960s motor lodges that were shelters to middle-class families looking for the American Dream on the open road.
Lauren opened her suitcase and sighed.
There was something about the symphony of cars, brakes, staggering voices, and the rhythm of the city that put her at ease. As she took the taxi from the airport, she could not help but be relieved by the steady parade of lights that greeted her––rain-drenched and sparkling like constellations in the night.
Her suitcase was otherwise empty.
There was not much to unpack.
The trip to Locke had been sudden and her Spartan collection of wardrobe reflected such a kneejerk decision. An off-white comforter adorned a bed that called to the weathered agent, but she knew she would get no sleep that night.
Lifting the case file free from deeper in the darkness of the suitcase, Lauren placed the open luggage on the ground and ran a finger over the torn package and its contents.
She had looked at the crime scene photos and crisply written reports several times on her private flight to Minneapolis and then her connecting flight to the Bay. More than once a fellow traveler had looked over her shoulder to find out what occupied her time, only to be disgusted and revolted by the grisly photos and cryptic narrative of the crimes.
It was the address that caught her attention once more.
She had never been to San Francisco. She knew no one in California, save for an aunt she rarely talked to who lived in San Diego on the beach somewhere. Not being familiar with the city, she walked over to the nightstand with a trendy lamp atop it, which was painted a garish green that obscured the muted light.
Opening the drawer, she found the folded and refolded city map that remained as a testament to a time before computers and navigation software. Opening it up and spreading it out on the bed, she read the address on the brown envelope to herself: 865 Union Street.
Tracing a long finger across the faded map, she found the motel’s location along Fillmore Street. Following the street back to the long line that represented Union Street, she tapped an indiscriminate place on the map where her mystery location could be found.
Grabbing her coat from a hook to the left of the door, she wrapped it around her shoulders. She had not taken off her holster since exiting the airport and a crawling sensation that lingered in her stomach made her think that she would not be parted from it for long.
Fog stung the night air.
Cold condensation covered the metal railings of the staircase and the fence that separated the walkway from a center area where the still waters of a swimming pool and a slightly swaying hammock waited for the light of the day.
Reaching into her pocket, she pulled free a wool cap. The air was not as cold as it had been in Minnesota; such thoughts sunk her mood, recalling Dominic and the macabre killer who had stalked the cold woods of Locke.
Lauren pushed the thoughts from her mind and lowered her chin under the collar of her coat. The walk was brisk as she moved up Fillmore and turned the corner onto Union.
THE OVERPASS THAT SEPARATED the yuppie hipster youth from the potentially poor was otherwise indistinguishable from any other place in the city. The fog had become a light drizzle that had forced Benny under the comfort of a concrete shelter.
This was not his normal squatting grounds, but times were tough and he had learned to roll with the punches. His grizzled features and unkempt salt-and-pepper hair might have been charming were he not several shades of crazy and hungrier than a feral cat.
In the late 70s he had fancied himself a musician, playing the tall bass with a few friends; it was tough for Benny to think of them as friends now. What passed for a friend on the street was someone who wouldn’t steal your blankets or chase you out of a rat-infested hole with a taped-together shiv made from broken bottles and pieces of fenders from cars stalled out, parked, and marked like epitaphs.
The 70s had not been kind to Benny. Cocaine had gone from recreation to lifestyle to death-style. As other band-mates started lives, as accountants and family men, Benny spiraled deeper into despair.
His friends lost his number.
It was not long before he didn’t have the money for electricity and then his life was lived in darkness. It was a short hop to not being able to pay rent and the streets became his home. Enough time wandering the cold abyss and he became too volatile to bunk in the homeless shelters.
He had become a creature of the street.
Benny could recall a time when he could wink and say a few smooth words and a beaming waitress might swoon––regaling her with his gigs around the city and the promise of a little danger.
Now, the danger was quite real.
Digging through one of the grocery carts filled to the brim with postmodern junk, Benny grumbled angrily and unintelligibly to himself. He was looking for something of great value; though such value was variable, especially to a man who no longer was encumbered by the constraints of modern society.
He had made a strange sort of existence for himself under the overpass. Newspapers were littered about like a well-manicured lawn. Boxes, crushed and water-damaged, were the wings of his great destitute estate. The barrel at the center of it all, burning brightly like a lighthouse on rocky shores, was full of the wisdom of Western society: newspapers, magazines, and various novels that had been cluttered about corners, tucked away by idle hands.
Retrieving a broken umbrella from the sea of garbage and treasure within his the cart, Benny was startled by the voice. “I do enjoy these brief moments of gentle rain. Do you find them as soothing as I do?”
Turning, Benny was immediately irritated by the man’s presence. Dressed to the nines––with angular, symmetrical, features––there was something unreal about the figure.
“I don’t want no trouble.”
The man smiled. “Nor do I. But I wonder, Benny, what is it that you are looking for?”
Benny looked at the streets and saw cars zip past, creating concrete dividers––obscuring him from view. It was part of the reason why he stayed: it had become his island, his cabin in the woods.
“Mister, I’m hungry. Do you have any food?”
The man smiled again, disarmingly. “I must admit I am a bit peckish myself. Though I have no food, at least nothing that you would find satisfying, Benny.”
Benny was struck by the disparity in their conversation, as if the man were not talking to him at all and instead reading from a script. This became more surreal as the man stepped past him and looked into the darkness. His features were adulterated by the shadows there: his dark hair made darker; his gray eyes disappearing.
There, in the darkness, Benny heard something move.
“Watch out, mister, there are rats back there. I catch them sometimes and cook them up.”
The man chuckled but did not respond, turning his back to Benny. When he spoke again, his voice had changed; it seemed bloated and distant. “They never look for the wretches, Benny. Give me your poor. Give me your hungry. These are just words. I’m hungry as well….”
The sound came again.
There was no mistaking that it was not a rat this time.
It was bigger.
Hollow, deliberate, steps haunted the shadow. A tremor crept up in Benny, rising into his throat like bile from his stomach when he ate from the dumpster behind the Korean restaurant a few blocks away.
“I don’t want no trouble,” repeated Benny, taking a few steps back, his voice quaking.
“You won’t have to worry about trouble any longer. I will take your fear. Feed on your fear….”
Benny thought to run.
Panic gripped him, but his muscles wouldn’t respond. He wondered if the lady doctor at the center had been right: Was he crazy? Was he chasing shadows in the dark?
Looking at his bin of junk, he saw the broken pipe that he had taken from a rundown building in the Tenderloin. He had thought it was copper, but it turned out to be rusted and useless like him.
Gripping it like he was Babe Ruth waiting at the plate, he watched the darkness. The well-dressed man had disappeared, but his voice drifted on the fog like a spirit.
“Why fight it, Benny? Is this really worth living for, this sad little life?”
Benny’s fear turned to anger.
Gesturing with the pipe, he shouted into the dark.
“How do you know my name?”
The laugh sent shivers down his spine.
Something in the darkness tripped and fell, dislodging the third and fourth cardboard bedrooms of his sprawling street estate. A form emerged in the darkness: something frightening beyond words.
“We know all about you, Benny.”
As the form took shape in the half-light of the passing cars, Benny held his breath and swung the pipe as hard as he could. There would be no game-winning home run to win the World Series. With a gnashing maw, the shadow blotted Benny from view and pulled him back into the darkness.
LAUREN WAS SURPRISED by how many people still milled about in the night despite the rain. Most walked with their heads high; a few carried umbrellas. Union Street was filled with upper-middle class crowds of men and women languishing at the end of their twenties or in the opening innings of their thirties.
The volume of music played over loudspeakers faded in and out as she passed several sets of stairs that led into darkened bars that sounded equal parts like a J-pop video and a monkey cage at a zoo. After a few blocks, the noise diminished and bars and nightclubs gave way to quiet residential buildings stocked with sleeping occupants and empty homes waiting for their drunken stewards.
The building was nondescript, blending into the surrounding two-story homes and apartments that lined the vacant streets. The front door was set back from the light of the luminance from the evenly spaced streetlamps. The name on the mailbox was chipped away, as if someone had been fiddling with it out of nervousness.
As Lauren approached it, she noticed immediately that it was slightly ajar. Heat flushed her chest as she saw the creeping darkness of the interior of the home revealed by the sliver of the exposed door.
Knocking, her voice was gravelly as she called into the darkened interior. “Hello? Is anyone home?”
Pushing on the door, it groaned as it swung open. Lauren peered into the interior, her hand reaching to her side holster. Drawing her weapon, she stepped into the shadow.
The front room was small despite the size of the home; a table sat just next to the entrance, items indistinguishable in the dark collected on its top. A few hangers just beside a mirror created surreal shapes in the darkness.
“The door was open,” called Lauren.
A heightened sense of possibility itched at her; the presence of something in the darkness seemed more probable given her time spent in the cold north. The creature that had haunted the rural community was something that she imagined would wake her in the middle of the night for many years to come.
Stairs, shadowed and steep, lead to another floor.
Silence permeated the space despite the sounds outside. Thick walls obscured the sound with each step she took deeper into the home. A giant rug at the center of the room was upturned at the corners. There was an open window at the far side of the room; the drapes lifted and contorted like a specter.
“Is anyone home?”
The living room and kitchen were separated by a high bar with broken bottles and papers strewn about. Liquid pooled in the center of stacks of papers, attempting to escape through little rivers that navigated off the edge of the counter and onto the floor. Cabinets were thrown open and dishes broke upon the ground.
Lauren removed a small flashlight she kept on her person and clicked it on. Shining the beam of luminance on the kitchen ceiling, there were darkened patches that looked like water damage.
Being careful not to crush the broken glass upon the floor, she moved about the spacious kitchen. The refrigerator door was propped open slightly. The bulb shone brightly. Drawers had been pulled over the runners; knives and spatulas were littered across the floor.
Shining the light on the floor, she paused. Broken dishes and large pieces of the stylized plates were strewn about; yet, there was a small area of crushed pieces of ceramic. Kneeling down, Lauren held her hand over the top of the depressed area. As she looked forward, lifting the beam with her gaze, she noticed that there were several more areas of crushed ceramic and glass that led out of the kitchen.
Standing once more, Lauren followed the shards until they were just glimmers in the carpet; the trail stopped by the stairs. Looking into the darkened living room, she could see the open window.
With a sigh, she turned and started up the staircase.
It seemed impossible to shake what had happened in Locke. Walking up the stairs, she could not dispel the apprehension that had gripped her at the Lavender house. It was not the loneliness or the danger that frightened her: it was the possibility of losing control, of not being the one who decided her fate. Lauren could hear sirens in the distance, but couldn’t be sure from what direction they were coming.
The room at the top of the stairs encompassed a large unencumbered space. Another massive dark rug spread across the center; though this one appeared undisturbed except for a wrinkle here or there. At the opposite end of the room in which she stood, there was a heavy desk with a chair––spun so that it was facing away from her––that seemed to breathe with the flittering war between light and darkness that engulfed the room.
The top of the desk looked in disarray. Papers and books were haphazardly placed. Lauren approached the desk and as she did so, she pushed back her coat and replaced her service weapon. Moving around behind it, she inspected the papers with a squint. She picked up some of the books, flipping through the pages idly before putting them back down.
Turning the chair, she noticed that it seemed uneven as it rolled. Further inspection brought her down into the darkness behind the desk. She touched the ground, moving her hand back and forth until she felt the slight bump in the rug. Pushing away the chair, she lifted up the rug and reached underneath. Stretching out her fingers, she felt the hard spine of a book and rescued it from its prison.
The book was simple.
That was not quite right.
Bound in unevenly cut pages with a hard substance bent into crude rings to bind it, the tome––and it most certainly earned the designation given its girth––did not seem of this world. Lauren touched the cover and then pressed her hand against it. Cradling it in her right hand, she could spread the fingers of her left hand over the entire cover.
Exhaling and closing her eyes, she tried to imagine the room as it was without the darkness and disarray. Someone had been here. That much was certain. They had been looking for something. An altercation had broken out in the kitchen and led the assailant, or the thief, upstairs…looking for this book.
A fight required at least two people.
Tucking the book into the long folds of her coat, she moved back down the stairwell. If the intruder had entered the home through the window, then why was the front door open? Had intruder and attacker gone their separate ways?
A long scraping noise drew Lauren’s attention. Removing her service weapon from its home once more, she steadied it and took the deliberate steps necessary to traverse the distance. Weight leaned against the front door, and then released. Lauren recognized the distinctiveness of the movement; it was not the Bay winds playing tricks on her. She realized that this was not her home. This was not her jurisdiction. Had she once more been led astray, down some phantom path?
The new arrival could not hide the heaviness of his footsteps––she assumed the gender given the length of the shadow and the statistical probability of which of the sexes was quickest to enter a home unannounced. “This is an active crime scene. I’m a federal agent. Lay down your weapon and get on your knees,” she commanded.
Standing at the edge of the stairs, she dared a look toward the front door. There was a cough and a short exhalation of air. Lauren adjusted her grip as she spoke again. “I am going to take your pause as evidence that you are not breaking and entering. Police or private security?”
Lauren holstered her weapon and sighed. “I’m coming out.”
Lights filled the house as another set of footfalls echoed near the front door. Lauren stepped down from the stairwell and leaned against the wall. The uniformed officer wore his inexperience on his sleeve: freshly shaven with a tremor in his voice let Lauren know that adrenaline was getting the better of him. Three other figures haunted the step and the disco of police lights penetrated the darkness and flickered through the home. It was going to be a long night.
If you still haven't read the first book in the series, Bitten, then be sure to grab it today for only $2.99 on Kindle.