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Tess tucked her red hair behind her ear with a brusque gesture. She should have taken the time to braid it this morning, but the call came early, waking her out of a tangle of dreams. Double homicide downtown with some freaky strange details. She was glad she wasn't at the mercantile building dealing with guts strung across the ceilings like Christmas lights. No, she was out in the boonies serving a search warrant on a deserted farmhouse where the suspect's bloody car had turned up. By herself, at least until backup arrived. Roxy the dispatcher and Beavis the desk clerk were all she had. The department was stretched way too thin by this bizarre crime. Goose Crossing wasn't the type of town that warranted much homicide time from its cops. Mac and Fred were both trying to make sense of the strange symbols painted with the victims' blood on the floors of the store. Nobody had a clue why the perp had included roses from the floral stand and a dismembered pineapple in the display. A single banana had been left like a bent exclamation point right in the center between the two mangled bodies.
Tess eased the front door open. "Police!" she shouted as she swung her gun to cover all possible hiding spots in the entry. The old farmhouse creaked in the early morning sun. The furniture in the living room was old, worn, and covered with a fuzzy layer of dust. Somebody had been here recently, judging from the tracks across the wood floor. A lot of somebodies and not all of them human. The place smelled of fox, skunk, and a whole lot of rodents.
She prowled further into the dimly lit house. The main floor was clear—front parlor, two bedrooms, and a big farm kitchen—clear of humans, at least. Mice scurried into the shadows at her furtive footsteps.
"Police!" She swept a glance over the stairs leading up. Nothing bigger than a skunk had stirred the dust. That left only the basement cellar. She slipped through the hall to the top of the stairs leading down into darkness.
A passing farmer had reported seeing lights and hearing strange screams just before dawn. The timeline fit with the murders. So did the tire tracks that led to the farm straight from the parking lot of the mercantile. The lunatic who killed those two poor clerks had painted weird symbols with blood on the tires, leaving an unmistakeable trail to follow.
Tess tapped her radio. "Roxy? You here yet?"
The reply was so full of static Tess couldn't understand a word. She waited until it ended.
"I'm headed to the cellar of the old farmhouse. I'd appreciate backup real soon."
Bloody handprints lined the wall. The smell of burning candles and dust hung in the air. Tess eased onto the first step. She stopped, her gun pointed into the dark cellar. She didn't want to rush into the arms of a waiting psycho. Not by herself.
The scream started as a moan, quickly escalating to a wailing banshee. The hairs on Tess's arms stood straight up, along with every other hair on her body. The scream cut off abruptly. A puff of fetid air brushed over the detective's face.
"Wait time's over," she muttered. She stormed down the stairs. Something was in pain down there. Another victim? Maybe.
Candle flames flickered, sending shadows dancing over the walls. Tess suppressed the urge to vomit. The cellar was another gruesome scene, but this time, the only victim wore fur and might have been a raccoon.
She jumped as the scream came again. Weird, unearthly, enough to make all the hair on her arms stand up straight and her finger tighten on the trigger.
"Police!" She aimed at the dark corner draped in cobwebs. She caught a flicker of green eyes down low.
A cat streaked from the corner and up the stairs, gone almost before she identified it.
Tess released the breath she'd been holding and slid her gun into the holster. She crouched to study the bizarre murder scene. Blood and guts spattered the uneven concrete floor. Bits of fur decorated lumps of coal and moldy fruit that surrounded fat candles, the kind in a tall glass with biblical scenes on the sides. The mess was at least a day old, judging by how low the candles were and how dried the corpse bits were. Symbols were etched onto the floor in dried blood. Tess pulled out her phone to take pictures in the dim flickering light of the candles.
Something crunched in the corner, like a stealthy footstep.
She dropped the phone and whirled, her gun in her hand. "Show yourself!"
A woman stepped into the light. She was at least six-two and built like Marilyn Monroe, if the actress had been a linebacker for the NFL. Her clothes and hair were dark green, both tied with laces. Her eyes flashed white and green against the darkness of her skin, which was black. Not dark brown but midnight black, as if someone had poured ink over her. She held a crooked stick in one hand, pointing it as if it were a weapon.
"Drop it!" Tess shouted automatically.
"You drop it," the woman answered. Her voice was hoarse and deep, rasping in her throat like an old smoker's.
Tess rose slowly to her feet, keeping her gun trained on the strange woman. "Put it down and no one gets hurt."
The woman's lips quirked. They were black, too, with bluish green highlights. "Put yours down and no one has to die."
"Wrong answer," Tess muttered. Her finger tightened on the trigger.
"You loaded with silver?" the woman asked, her face showing amusement. "Because nothing else can touch me. Besides, I didn't do this. I'm looking for the perpetrators."
Tess loosened her grip every so slightly. She wasn't reading a threat from the strange woman. "I'm pointing a Glock at you."
"And I'm carrying a Thriebold Sixty-Four, which means nothing to you. Let's just say it is loaded with some nasty spells and can hold quite a bit of power. Want to find out what life might be as a garter snake? I didn't think so." The dark woman knelt in one fluid motion. Her finger hovered over a gobbet of raccoon meat.
"Don't touch the crime scene." The woman had her off balance. Maybe she was a hallucination.
"Don't worry, I'm a trained professional, too. Name's Shondeen. I'd give my last name but it takes almost half a page to write and too long to say. I'm an agent with the FBI."
Tess lowered her gun, thoroughly confused now. "You're a fed?" The crime had gone from Twin Peaks to X-Files in a hurry.
The woman, Shondeen, cracked a smile. "Don't be silly. FBI—Fairyland Border Investigations. We've got a class seven unauthorized intrusion here. Redcaps. Nasty." Shondeen flashed her green and white eyes at Tess. "Put the gun away and I'll fill you in. I could use some help on this one. I don't have time to call in backup from my side and the sooner we catch these unnatural spawn of the depths, the better for everyone."
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