Two towns flank the looming Shadow Mountain. A dark myth of the Predator drifts through the dense trees, a tale Police Lieutenant Hart never paid much attention to. When one unresolved death follows another—some people dying without discernible cause while others are clearly, and often brutally, murdered — he can’t ignore it any longer. Truth may lie in myth, but this one is spread to deceive everyone. The Predator exists, but he’s not entirely human. Hart will have to find the connection between the mysterious figure and victims with only one thing in common: a faint tattoo on the backs of their necks, a mark left when someone healed their incurable diseases.
Isaac Lasko has been in love with Hart since he moved in across the street seven years ago. He’s been helping Hart renovate his home, and their friendship grows more intense with the years, but Isaac can’t help wishing for a deeper bond. When he finally breaks through the lieutenant’s armor, the mystery surrounding the Predator threatens them both. Help will come, but at a price.
THERE WASN’T much Hart disliked about his job, but morgue visits he loathed. The smell of formaldehyde alone seemed to permeate the air from a corridor away. Freddie had been quiet the entire trek into the bowels of the hospital, but now she heaved a deep sigh.
“Just… there’s some weird shit going on.”
“What do you mean?” Hart yanked at a heavy double door, then felt like an idiot when Freddie hit a square button on the wall, and it crept open with a noisy groan.
“I don’t know, but I’ve got a feeling this is going to turn into something we’ve never seen before.”
“It’s already something I’ve never seen before.”
“That’s not what I mean, and you know it. This guy is careless, and a careless killer doesn’t get away with it for this long. Something isn’t adding up.”
Freddie’s mouth pinched together, and she said no more. As they walked, automatic lights pinged on before them, lighting their path. There was no one around, and it creeped the hell out of him. He really hated morgues.
“Like supernatural stuff?” he pressed. He wanted to laugh, the security guard and his Predator coming to mind, but something stopped him. He knew what it was like to live in this town, where the myth never was quite the joke everyone tried to play it off as. “That’s what you mean, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Something like that anyway. And I know what you’re thinking. I don’t believe in our mountain yeti either, but—”
“A yeti? Is that what he is now?”
“Why, what did you hear?”
“Just the Predator. Dad used to say it was just a loner who went to live in the Mountain and never came down. People don’t understand that kind of behavior, so they make things up. This was decades ago anyway. No way that guy is still alive. Or if he is, he’s really old.”
“It’s all just an old wives’ tale, but that’s not what I mean either. All this, it reminds me of stuff my mama used to say.”
“Will you tell me what it was your mother could see?”
Hart stopped, his hand on the knob of a metal door with a narrow pane of glass in the middle. For some reason it reminded him of a prison.
“Later,” Freddie said.
“All right.” He opened the door and held it for Freddie, the smell of formaldehyde slapping them in the face. “Welcome to hell,” he said under his breath.
“Bit cold down here for hell, wouldn’t you think?” A woman with chin-length blond hair tucked behind her ears stepped from a small scrub room to the right of the door. She dried her hands on a white towel, threw it with perfect aim into a laundry basket across the way, and smiled at them. “Can I help you?”
“I’m Chief Inspector Lesley, Brightly police. This is Lieutenant Hart from Riverside. We were hoping to talk to someone about the body found on Shadow Mountain.”
“Is that what it’s called? People keep telling me it’s the Misty Mountain. I’m Doctor Lisa Holden, and I’m pretty much in charge of everyone that comes through those doors feetfirst.” She pointed toward a large elevator down the hall.
“You’re the ME?” Freddie asked.
“Yes. Maxfield died a year ago. Just like that! Keeled over from an aneurysm. Poof! Gone.” The ME smiled widely, and Hart felt a bit horrified. “This is my first solo murder case, so forgive me for being a bit excited. You’re eager to see the body, I assume?”
Hart couldn’t imagine anything he’d want to see less, but he followed Dr. Holden down the hall anyway. Freddie gave him a blatant is she for real? look he completely ignored. He doubted Holden stood much over five feet tall, even with her shoes on, and he opened his mouth to offer help in opening the drawer, but there was no need. She already had her hands on the handle, one foot braced against another drawer as she yanked it out of its lock. Freddie’s mouth hung open as she watched Holden unzip the body bag cheerfully, and he jabbed her with his elbow.
“What can you tell us about the body, Dr. Holden?” Freddie asked.
“Please, call me Lisa. This is really a very interesting case.” Lisa glanced up and seemed surprised to see the both of them standing halfway across the room. She dug in the pockets of her white coat and snapped on a pair of gloves. “You can come closer you know. He won’t bite. But the Predator might, if he’s behind it.” Lisa let out a startlingly honking laugh.
“Kill me now,” Freddie muttered as they both approached the table.
“You can clearly see here—” Lisa held up a waxy gray hand, and Hart shuffled back when it flopped in his direction. “—that the victim was buried alive. His nails are torn, and I found wood splinters from the coffin as well as matching gouges in the lid.” She dropped the hand and lifted the other arm. “Same here. There is the usual amount of bruising you’d expect from someone who has tried to kick and punch something heavy in a panicked state. Cause of death was oxygen deprivation, but what is really interesting is this.” Lisa lifted her head to make sure her audience was paying close attention. She turned the head of the body toward them, and its open eyes stared straight at them.
“Oh God.” Freddie twisted away and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. Without thinking about it, Hart put a hand on her shoulder.
“Oops,” Lisa said happily. “Sorry about that.” It took a bit of effort to close the eyelids, because of rigor mortis or the temperature the body was kept at in its refrigerated compartment, Hart didn’t know. He did regret that cup of coffee back at the station, though. “But see this?” She pointed at a bruise on the side of the victim’s head, and Freddie turned around again. “At some point he was knocked out with something blunt. Vase, baseball bat, I’m not sure. But why not kill him right then? Your killer obviously had the instruments to do it.” Lisa mimed a blow, and Freddie made a distressed noise. “But this was carefully done so the victim wouldn’t die.” She faced them, beaming like a kid who’d found the most Easter eggs. “Someone wanted him to die slowly.”
“Were you called out to the scene of the crime?” Freddie asked.
“I was. It’s all in the report.”
Hart frowned at the bruise on the victim’s head. “Was there anything else at the scene apart from the fingerprint found? Shoe prints?”
“Or tire prints?” Freddie added. “Someone drove that coffin up there.”
“More than one someone, I think.” Lisa bounced on the balls of her feet, and Hart thought she was another gruesome discovery away from clapping her hands in glee. “Just imagine for a second. How heavy do you think a coffin is, with a body in it? Even if someone carried first one and then the other, this thing is solid wood. Not the most expensive one, but certainly no cardboard rip-off either. There’s a reason you always see six men carrying coffins at funerals, don’t you agree?” Hart had to avert his gaze from her blue-eyed enthusiasm. His grip on Freddie’s shoulder had become one of taking rather than giving support, but Freddie not so much as flinched. “And dragging a coffin like that would’ve noticeably damaged the undergrowth. As for tire tracks….” Lisa shrugged. “There’s a cross-country racetrack five miles from the trail where the hiker found the body, and the quads don’t stick to their terrain, so there’s tracks all over the place.”
“So, we’re looking at two suspects, not one.”
“Unless the killer made the victim carry his own coffin,” Hart said grimly, and even Lisa fell silent then. Not for long, though.
“I saved the best for last.” Lisa turned the head to the other side, and Hart thought he knew what was coming. He was wrong.
“Oh my God.” He dug in his coat for his phone and leaned close to the victim’s neck.
“Isn’t that the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?” Lisa asked. And there was the glee. “There wasn’t a tattoo there. I’ve already checked.”
It wasn’t anything like the other marks either, not even Ben’s. This one was black, blistered, and looked like it had bled. Hart snapped a photograph, realized how close he was to the dead body, and straightened quickly.
“Is it a burn?” Freddie asked.
“A brand, yes. One gone pretty wrong, by the looks of things. So my guess is that the victim was awake when branded, and he struggled. The pain must’ve been—”
Hart snapped. “Yes, thank you, we get the picture.” He gritted his teeth and took a careful breath to stop his chest from heaving. Lisa blinked at him in astonishment, and he turned away.
“Can we get a copy of your full report?” Freddie asked, already backing up to the large elevator.
“Sure, I’ll e-mail one to the station.” Lisa began to zip up the body bag.
“Great. Thanks, Doctor Holden.”
“Come back any time if you want another look,” she said, and strained to push the drawer back into place with her hip.
“Well,” Freddie said as the service elevator doors closed. “No need to look any further.” She pushed the fifth floor button.
“That woman is clearly the killer. She’s crazier than my great grandmother, and she thought Mother Theresa spoke to her in her dreams.”
“I think you’ve got to be a bit crazy for that job.” He wiped cold sweat from his brow.
“Medical examiners and cops both.”
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Indra Vaughn moved from Belgium to Michigan in 2008, leaving everything behind that wouldn’t fit in a single suitcase. She now lives in the suburbs of Detroit with a dog who thinks he’s a toddler and a toddler who resembles Bam Bam in more ways than one.
Indra’s professional background is in nursing and Chinese medicine, but she prefers to spend time making up stories about mysterious men and their unrequited love.
If you ever meet her, ask her about that teenage angst-infused poetry collection. That’ll break the ice for sure.