Thursday, July 10, 2014

Featured Author Dawn Kopman Whidden Faceless - Excerpt


Faceless 

Dawn Kopman Whidden



Epilogue

She thought she heard someone in the brush behind her. Glancing around, she couldn’t spot anything or anyone. Probably just a raccoon, she thought as she continued through the dark woods, looking for her friend. She wasn’t scared to walk alone through the forest with only the moonlight and a flashlight to make her path visible, but she was pissed at Jamie for running off. Now, because the girl was pulling one of her drama acts, she found herself tramping through the woods looking for her, instead of being back at the house partying with the others.

Her shrill scream penetrated the dark night. She didn’t hear the others approach from the woods until they reached the spot where she stood. They had heard her screaming and immediately made their way to
her location. She stood staring at what lay on the ground before her. She heard one of the others cry out. “Come on,” she heard someone say. “Let’s get out of here!”




CHAPTER ONE

When you’re a homicide detective as well as a mother and the phone rings at three a.m., your first instinct is to take inventory of your children.When the dispatcher requests your attendance at a crime scene, you try to calculate whether your children could possibly be anywhere in that vicinity.

Shaking off my sleepy fog-like consciousness, I took a deep breath as the dispatcher read off the address. I asked her to repeat it as I clumsily reached for the switch on my bedside lamp, my fingers feeling their way in the dark. Suddenly, I heard a soft pop and saw a flash of light .I jerked my hand away as the bulb chose that moment to burn out, almost as if in protest.

I waited until my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I resigned myself to working in just the dim moonlight that made its way through the slats in the window blinds. I grabbed the pen and pad sitting on my nightstand. As I sat up and cradled the phone between my neck and shoulder, I felt my husband Glenn’s strong fingers start to massage the other side. He was barely awake, yet he was trying to help me relax. He knows all too well that these calls can lead to emotionally draining days and weeks ahead.

“125 Cedar Hill Road, detective,” she told me. “I tried to reach Detective Moran, but he isn’t returning my calls.”

“It’s okay, Wendy, I’ll take it,” I told her, just before I hung up the phone. Now I had another concern and now I had something else to worry about. Where was my partner of seven years? Was Joe sleeping off an alcoholic stupor? Maybe it was better that he wasn’t answering his calls.

“What’s up?” Glenn asked me, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He started to lean over to get his glasses, but I stopped him. “I’ve got to go. Go back to sleep, honey.” I pushed the button on my watch. It gave off a purple glow, allowing me to read the time.

“I probably won’t be back in time to get Bethany off to school. Can you take her? She’s got that science project and it would be awkward for her to take it on the bus.”

I am not much of a multi-tasker and I was trying hard to coordinate getting dressed in the dark and thinking of all the things that I was not going to be able to do that day. I knew it was going to happen, and I tried hard to avoid the inevitable, but damn if I didn’t stub my toe on the iron leg at corner of the bed.

“Damn! Damn!” I cried, tears welling up in my eyes as the pain shot up my leg. It didn’t last long, because I bit my tongue the moment I grabbed my foot to rub. Now the tears were flowing down my cheek. If there were any doubts in my mind at this moment, they were no longer part of the equation: It was not going to be a good day.

Suddenly, the room filled with a burst of light. In my exasperated state, I didn’t realize that Glenn had gotten up and flipped on the wall switch.

“You know, Jean, turning on the light isn’t going to ruin my sleep any more than you screaming in agony. Your trying to be considerate sometimes costs us both,” he declared, pretending to be stern while trying to keep a smile from betraying his amusement at my pain. I couldn’t help but smile at him. It never failed to surprise me how calming his voice was. After almost twenty years of marriage, I still found myself deeply in love with him. His deep and sexy vocal tone was enough to make me melt, yet visually, he had so much more of an effect on me. His deep-set green eyes and thick black eyes lashes (which any woman would die for), combined with his chiseled facial features (which were probably a throwback to his one-sixteenth American Indian ancestry) would make any pain seem to fade away. How easy it was giving birth to my two children when I found myself staring into those gorgeous green eyes so many years ago.

“Sorry,” I offered as I gave him a quick kiss on the lips. Taking a little bit more care now, I took my police-issued Glock 22 out of its lockbox and positioned it in my shoulder holster.

“Be careful out there, Jean—you’re not easily replaced.” His tone reflecting his fatigue.

“Go back to sleep,” I told him as I walked out the bedroom door. I walked down the hallway, and then stopped and backed up a bit as I passed my daughter’s room. I took a peek and laughed to myself as I saw
her spread diagonally across her canopied bed. She never did sleep from one end of the bed to the other. Even as a baby, she would lie across the crib corner to corner, as if she was compelled to take up the most space.

When she did crawl into bed with Glenn and me, we inevitably would end up sleeping on the living room couch, leaving her to enjoy our bed. I decided that if her father ever allowed her to grow up and get married, I would buy a king size bed for her and her husband. It would be a requirement for her to have a successful marriage. I stepped over Roxy, the four-legged family member, who barely raised an eyebrow as I walked out of the house through the kitchen door. I pulled out of the garage, hoping that the squeal of the automatic door would not disturb my neighbors.

A full moon hung in the sky, illuminating my driveway, which is probably why I didn’t notice that my headlights weren’t on until I started driving down my street. I turned the knob on the dashboard and my
headlights came on, spooking a cottontail, which sprinted in front of me. I barely missed turning it into road kill. I didn’t know what I was going to find at 125 Cedar Hill Road, but I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. Dead bodies usually aren’t. I also didn’t know whether I was going to find my partner, Joe, there—and if I did, what condition he would be in.

A light mist hit my windshield as the dark road loomed before me. These mountain roads were hazardous in the daylight, but at this time of the night, they could be downright treacherous. Too many fatalities happened on this very stretch of road, and I didn’t intend to end up a statistic—tonight or any other night.

A cloud must have passed by and blocked the moon’s light, so I turned on my high beams. The shafts of light looked like two colorless kaleidoscopes leading me down an endless dark tunnel.

One twenty-five Cedar Hill Road was on the outskirts of town, where the population of the town of Fallsburg is sparse, but affluent. A few of the homes could be considered mini mansions. Several of them sat on the edge of the mountain with a view of the small city of Monticello below.

I was so intent on watching the road, fearing that a deer would decide it was a perfect time to cross the highway that I hadn’t noticed the creature that was crawling up my right thigh. I felt the tickle first, and then I spied the damn thing creeping up my leg. I knew I shouldn’t overreact—it was just a bug—but I was petrified.

Afraid to take my eyes of the road, and with my hands locked onto the steering wheel in a death grip, I used my peripheral vision to track it. This had to be the biggest roach I’d ever laid eyes on, and it was on me. My stomach was now in knots as I realized this creature had wings. I had to do something quick, before it took flight and landed on my face.

Taking a deep breath and trying not to take my eyes off the road, I took one hand off the wheel and made a fist. My jaw clenched and my stomach turned as my fist smashed down on my thigh and I felt the crunch under the base of my hand. It was everything I could do not to scream in disgust as I rubbed my hand against my pants, trying to get the bug’s outer shell and guts off my skin. Shuddering, I finally let my breath loose. I was feeling relieved, but that lasted for just a second. At that moment, my cell phone rang and
shattered the silence.

Fumbling around, I grabbed the cell from my purse.

“Whitley,” I blurted out my name.

“Jean, it’s Marty, what’s your ETA?”

“I’m just about there, Marty. They called you in?” I questioned him, my thoughts still drifting to the remains of the roach on my pants.

“They couldn’t get hold of Joe,” he told me almost apologetically.

“I suppose I’m the next best thing.” He paused for a second, and then, as if he carefully made a conscious decision how much he should say over the phone, he continued. “It’s not pretty… well, you’ll see when you get here.”

I offered him a quick goodbye. I liked and respected Marty, but I was disappointed and angry that my partner was A.W.O.L. I was hoping Joe would pull himself together and get back on track. It broke my heart that my best friend and mentor was on the verge of losing everything, but from his perspective, he already had. It had been two years since his wife, Connie, had died suddenly of cardiac arrest.

Connie and Joe were just about to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary when she succumbed to an undetected heart condition. Connie was like a sister to me and a surrogate aunt to my children, so a part of my world was shattered that day, as well.

Joe’s daughter, Annie, was stationed in Afghanistan at the time, and returned to duty shortly after her mother’s funeral. She was scheduled to return home to the states six weeks later, when Taliban militants ambushed her Humvee.

She survived, but suffered brain damage, and was still hospitalized at a VA hospital in Riviera Beach, Florida. The prognosis was sketchy, however, we held out some hope that Annie would be able to overcome an array of disabilities.

Now Joe was angry at the world, but more importantly, he was angry with God. When Connie was alive, she would drag Joe to church every chance she got, and although he bitched and moaned about it, I knew he felt a strong connection to his Catholic upbringing.

In the beginning, when Connie passed away, he found himself going to church on his days off. Instead of going to the Lion’s Den, the local pub that served as a meeting place for off-duty cops, he found himself going to St. Mary’s Church, where Connie and Joe were married over twenty-seven years ago. It was where his only daughter, Annie, was baptized and christened, and finally, where Connie was eulogized.

He admitted to me that he felt comfort and solace there, and that he felt his wife’s spirit there—that is, until he got word of Annie’s injuries. After that, as far as Joe was concerned, the devil had not only won more than his share of battles, the devil had won the war, and Joe was just another casualty.

My thoughts of Joe were interrupted as I came around a curve to 125 Cedar Hill Road. There I was met with an array of activity, illuminated by flashing red and blue lights of scattered official vehicles, some of them with their motors still running and their exhausts spitting out fumes.

Crime scene technicians were making their way into the woods and I followed closely behind them. Within a few minutes, I found myself in the mist of more activity. Yellow tape and evidence placards were strategically placed throughout the wooded area. I carefully walked a few steps forward praying it was only weeds and dirt I was stepping on. A few steps more brought me to a small clearing and there it was. Two officers were erecting a small pop-up canopy over a gray tarpaulin. I squinted, trying to get a more accurate view of what lay under the tarp.

The moon was full and the glow from it seemed directly targeted on the spot and illuminating the area. I closed my eyes, hoping that when I opened them, I would realize my first assumption was wrong. It wasn’t too hard to imagine that underneath the tarp lay something or someone of small stature. I prayed silently that what had been discovered was not the body of a child.

My arrival had caught Detective Marty Keal’s attention, and he made his way toward me. Although the man may have been awakened from a dead sleep and been called in to work unexpectedly, Marty looked like he stepped out of a modeling photo shoot: Six foot three and broad-shouldered, with a body fat index which, I guessed, measured in the negative range. His physique was complimented by a mass of thick black hair that fell in waves outlining a perfectly formed face dotted with dimples that stayed hidden until he smiled.

His physical beauty was only just a bonus to his warm personality. Detective Marty Keal was just a hell of a nice guy, and a pleasure to work with. As luck would have it, Marty had been spending the night at his girlfriend’s place when his cell phone rang. The address that the dispatcher gave him was less than a ten-minute drive from Hope’s house.

If he had spent the night at home with his dad, affectionately known by all as the “Captain” a name the old man had acquired while working as a corrections officer at the state penitentiary, it would have taken him three times as long to get to the scene.

He reached his destination pulling his unmarked car behind Officer Patricia Beck’s cruiser, and grabbed a flashlight from the glove compartment.

Although a few large estates were scattered throughout the area, this particular spot was just on the outskirts of a wooded section. The full moon was shining brightly in the night sky, but a forest of tall pine trees cast dark shadows on the ground, making it difficult to see.

To make matters worse, and although Marty would deny it vehemently if asked, he suffered from ophidiophobia. Nothing could make Marty’s skin crawl faster than a slimy, long reptile that made rattling and hissing noises.

Ten yards from the road, he spotted Officer Beck. She stood directly across from a young girl who seemed to be in emotional distress. He could hear Officer Beck’s own voice quavering as she attempted to calm the girl down. As he got closer, he noticed two other girls standing in the shadows.

It was apparent that Beck, who was the first officer to arrive at the scene, was a little shell-shocked. She appeared to be desperately in need of reassurance. Even in the dim lighting, Marty could see that the pint-
sized rookie’s face was a ghostly white, with a slight green tint. She looked as if she was trying hard to keep whatever she had for dinner from making a re-appearance.

Marty couldn’t blame her. He recalled puking in some bushes at a gory crime scene not that long ago.

“Patty, what do we have?” he asked as he tried inconspicuously to shine the flashlight across the faces of the three girls. He pegged them to be most likely high school age. Grabbing hold of the crook of Marty’s arm, Officer Beck turned to the girls. “We’ll be right back, please try and relax… just stay right here.” She turned back to Marty.

“It’s bad, Detective Keal—real bad.”

She turned on her flashlight, establishing a bright LED path ahead of them, and she led him toward the tree line. The sound of the weeds and small rocks beneath their shoes seemed to echo throughout the woods. Each crunch beneath their feet seemed to be magnified tenfold as they walked down an overgrown footpath.

Officer Beck stopped abruptly, causing Marty to bump into her. “There.” She pointed with her light a few feet ahead.

Marty followed the ray of the young officer’s flashlight with his He could make out a small body lying face up, surrounded by a mound of broken twigs and weeds. Naked from the waist up, the small exposed white breasts assured him that his first assumption of it being a female was correct. He shined his flashlight slowly up from the torso toward her head, which lay at an angle facing away from them. Something seemed to be placed over her face, because he couldn’t make out any of her features. He walked closer in order to get a better

His first thought was that someone had placed a blanket over her, or that she was wearing a mask of some sort, but he wasn’t sure. He finally understood what it was as he caught a whiff of it. There was no mistaking it now; it was the distinct odor of burnt hair and flesh. There was no mask and there was no blanket: whoever this was no longer had a face. Instead, there was just a charcoal mass of melted skin
and muscle tissue. He turned back to Officer Beck who was kneeling now, head between her knees, trying hard not to be sick.

Marty walked over and knelt next to her, his large palm gently rubbing her tiny back.

“Hey, you okay?” he asked, as he tried to swallow some bile of his She nodded as her top teeth bit down on her bottom lip. It reminded him of that thing that Hope would do if she thought she was going to start to cry.

“Do you know who she is, Patty?” he asked her, still rubbing her back. “Do those girls know who she is?”

His hand rose and fell as he felt her inhale and exhale.

“They said that she is a friend of theirs, they all came up here together and she got separated from them. They went looking for her and…” As they heard the sound of backup vehicles arriving they immediately both let out a sigh of relief. “Come on,” he said as he led her back down the path to where they had left the three girls. He could see the other officers and crime scene investigators exiting their cars as they reached the opening of the woods.

Somehow, he managed to go on autopilot and began the task of directing crime scene techs and officers to maintain the integrity of the crime scene. This was his first major case, and he knew that this would make or break his reputation as a Homicide Detective. He was determined to do everything right.

Yet there was more at stake here than his reputation. Everything he did from this moment on would be key to finding the animal that murdered the girl now lying faceless in the woods. He prayed silently that Jean would arrive quickly. Marty knew that there was nothing better than the voice of experience.
                     

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