Excerpts

 

From Blood Red Winter, Chapter One

For the next half hour, I combed the property from one side to the other. If there was a dead doe or some other unfortunate creature, I sure couldn’t find it. I was glad I looked, anyway. The weak winter light was fading and I pulled out my phone and checked the time. It was going on 4:00. I would check out the house one more time and then call Tim back.

The sky started to drizzle feebly. I returned to the back of the house and looked for another door, finding one after a turn in the wall. It was attached to a small protrusion, like a mud room. The odor was strongest here – but still weak. This door was locked too. I breathed in that offensive odor again and wrinkled my nose, snorting to try and rid myself of it. I grabbed the brass door knob once more and wiggled it, then I pressed my shoulder against the door. I leaned in and pressed a little harder. As the wood started to creak and groan, I let off. No need to split the door in half, especially since I’d be the one fixing it. I backed away and went over to the nearest window. The glass was missing between three of the frames.

I squinted and tried to focus inside the dim space. I couldn’t see much, but as I stuck my nose in and took a good whiff, I nearly lost the contents of my stomach. Yeah, that was it – repulsive.

I staggered backward, cursing and trying not puke. Gathering my shirt collar around my mouth and nose to stifle my coughing, I went back to the window to have a look inside. I pulled my phone out of my back pocket and turned on the flashlight feature.

My heart was pounding so hard it shook my whole body. I don’t know what I was expecting to find. Before I shined the light inside the window, I tried listening for anything. My hands were trembling, my breath was coming out in short puffs of mist in the cold air. There was no reason to think the abominable odor couldn’t be from some critter that had wandered in and died. A stray dog could make a stench like that, and rats and other vermin may be scuttling around the carcass, which I might be able to hear. I must have known I was lying to myself.

The room inside the window was silent, still and stagnant in that impenetrable darkness which my searching eyes couldn’t pierce. The gloomy weather wasn’t helping. Any noises I did manage to catch were outside noises: the dried leaves in a live oak, the wind between bony cactus shrubs, the grass and gravel under my feet when I shifted my weight.

With my adrenaline up, my eyes and ears strained furtively for whatever was coming next. I tried to rest my hand near the window so I could angle the light from my phone. A dried up, cobweb-covered insect fell onto my fingers. I jerked my hand, but it was stuck to my thumb and I couldn’t fling it off. I smeared it onto my jeans and swore under my breath.

Enough – I needed to quit screwing off and look in that room.

Standing like a soldier, I aimed the light into the room, into the black hole beyond the broken window. I watched it illuminate the space on the other side of the wall. The beam flooded the small room with light, revealing the most horrifying thing I have ever seen.

A shabby, emaciated, lifeless body lay on the floor in a haphazard position, discarded there like a worn-out rag doll. I couldn’t tell the age or gender and I couldn’t see the body’s face. Its tattered, soiled clothing was covered in dirt or dried blood. I couldn’t say which. Higher up, against the wall, was a vision which assaulted my senses with painful clarity. A woman was chained standing upright, her arms high above her head, the rest of her body drooping in a back-breaking, spiritless position. Filthy, matted hair obscured most of her face and her white dress was drenched in blood. Dark red blood.

I jerked so hard from the shock that my hand slammed into the window frame with an audible crack. The single remaining piece of glass burst out of its frame and shattered on the rocks outside. I almost dropped my cell phone inside the room and clutched it with white knuckles. As I staggered backwards, my shirt collar slipped away from my nose and the nauseating smell of death violated my senses.

Dead bodies. I’d been smelling dead bodies.

With my entire body shaking, I stepped forward again and willed my hand to steer the beam of light. I forced myself to look at the rest of the room. It was full of old dusty furniture, boxes, a broken lamp, an ancient television set and other old junk. There was nothing else notable except for the filthy floor, which had probably been used as a latrine by the captive victims.

I turned away from the house and started to run. I ran through the thick grass all the way to the street before stopping to turn off the light from my cell phone. With a shaking hand, I tucked it back in my pocket. I turned around to see the house, which remained silent and crumbling in the diffused winter light. Just the way it had appeared when I arrived.

My breathing came hard and fast. My lungs gratefully devoured the fresh air. My eyes relished in the soft, overcast light from the sun. I had no thoughts at all. Nothing. My heart was pounding, the back of my hand throbbed from where it smacked the window. My palms and face were wet and my stomach contracted in little spasms. I glanced along the road and at the field but I was still alone. Feeling detached from reality, I staggered a little way down the road, just beyond Tim’s property. With my eyes on the murder house, I called 911. A few minutes later I called Tim.

The sense of unreality became like my guardian, an unshakable cloak that never left me as the authorities began to arrive at the crime scene. The Williamson County Sheriff’s vehicles appeared first, four cars in total including constables, followed by two ambulances and a firetruck. In a dancing sea of red and blue lights, the vehicles crammed themselves into the narrow street in front of the house and the ordinarily peaceful countryside exploded into life with the activities of the emergency team.

I watched Tim’s tan Ford pickup slide behind one of the police cars on the side of the road. He opened the door and the truck rocked as he heaved himself out of the driver’s seat. His face was stark white over his red flannel shirt. Despite the cold, Tim took a handkerchief from his back pocket and dragged it across his forehead. I waited to see if he’d notice me standing by the barbed wire fence, but one of the officers met him a few feet away from his truck.

On the other side of the street, another officer opened the door of his car and I raised my hand. I was the one who made the call and he’d want to know that. He strode my way across the paving, his eyes giving me a quick once-over.

Trent Lemend?” he asked.

Yeah.”

Deputy Sheriff Reyes.” He extended his large hand and I shook it. “Thanks for calling us.”

No problem.” I reached for my ID in my back pocket. I tried to keep from shaking as I pulled my license from my wallet and handed it to him. There was no reason to be nervous. I hadn’t done anything wrong.

While Reyes noted down my info on his clipboard, I put my hands in my pockets and studied him. He must have been about 6’ 2” because he was about five inches taller than me. The lines on his face told me that he was also about twenty years older, which put him around fifty.

What’s the best number for you, Trent?” Reyes asked.

I answered with my mobile number. I also gave him my work number for my second job outside the ranch, and Tim’s cell. Reyes even asked for an emergency contact, so I gave him a number for my best friend Kyle. I have no family in the Georgetown area; my parents moved to Dallas several years ago.

I glanced across the flashing police lights to locate Tim’s red flannel coat. He was still speaking with the same deputy, taking both hands and running them through his brown hair. He had removed his woolen hat and tucked it in his coat pocket. The officer’s mouth was pressed into a hard, thin line, while Tim told him whatever it was he was telling him. I couldn’t hear a word of their conversation.

Reyes began to run through a series of questions and I did my best with his queries, but other than finding the bodies and the manner in which I discovered them, I didn’t know much.

Do you know the property owner?”

Yes, that’s Tim Corbin. He’s my boss. I work on his ranch,” I said.

Reyes slightly raised his left eyebrow. “How long have you been working for him?”

Only a couple of months.”

And he asked you to have a look at the property this afternoon?” Reyes asked.

I nodded. “He called during my walk. He wanted me to make sure there were no squatters, since he doesn’t get out here too often,” I told him.

I brought my brief conversation with Tim to mind. The wind had been whistling through the space between my cell phone and my ear. Tim mentioned that he’d been neglecting the place and should probably add its maintenance to my list of regular duties. I never asked how he acquired this piece of land, whether by inheritance or as real estate purchased to be converted in the future.

This is the first time you’ve been here, Mr. Lemend?”

The first time I’ve walked onto the property, yes. But I take walks on this road all the time,” I said.

Reyes nodded, not taking his eyes off the clipboard. “How many times would you say you’ve been by here in the last month?”

My stomach cartwheeled, my heart rabbiting at a dizzying pace. I swallowed, clenching my fists inside my jacket pockets. “Walked by? I don’t know. I take a walk almost every day. Probably at least twenty times.”

A few passersby slowed to a crawl, gawking and craning their necks as they drove by. Several people stopped their cars and continued to watch from a short distance away as the front door of the house was broken down. One of the firemen heaved an axe at whatever piece of furniture was behind the door, and with a few more swings and a heavy kick from his boot, the door burst open. The firemen, officers and members of the EMT crew filed inside. Several officers remained outside by the porch with their guns drawn. Deputy Reyes and I were like actors in a detective movie while the commotion rolled along behind us in the background.

I was happy to tell Reyes everything I knew, but I didn’t know much. He not only wanted the details of how I found the victims, but inquired about the nature of my work for Tim, my private life and how long I’ve lived in Georgetown.

And you said you live near the property?” Reyes asked.

I live near here, but not on this street. That’s my current address on my driver’s license.”

Reyes nodded, scribbling furiously on his paper. “And in all the times you walked by, you never heard anything? Never saw anyone?” He looked up from the clipboard and waited.

I shook my head. “No, never. I’ve never even seen a car here.”

Okay,” he said, his eyes flicking back and forth between my face and his notes. “If you don’t mind, please go through the details of what happened today one more time. I just want to make sure I have everything.”

What happened today. Like hell if I knew what happened, all I knew is what I found. I guess he wanted to make sure I wouldn’t change any part of my story. “Sure,” I said, and I ran through my brief inspection of the house and yard again.

Reyes nodded and looked at what he’d written. “Okay. And how again did you find the bodies?”

I had just answered that, but I’d tell him again. “I looked into the back window. I tried to open the back door, but it was locked. I shined the flashlight from my cell phone into that room.” I sniffed, trying to repress the memory of the full force of that awful smell. Even now I could occasionally detect traces of it, especially since they’d opened the house. “I should let you know that I accidentally broke part of that back window. When I saw that – that – those bodies – I jumped, and I knocked a piece of glass loose.” As I held up my right hand, I saw there was a nasty bruise and a one-inch streak of dried blood across the top. I was so shaken up I hadn’t noticed.

Reyes’ eyes lingered on my cut. “Okay.”

Casting around for Tim, I could barely see him behind two officers. I saw the back of his red flannel coat and the handcuffs around his wrists. The deputy with the hard-set face guided him into the backseat of the sheriff’s car. I blinked, plunging further into the surreality that enveloped me in the fading light.

Deputy Reyes,” I said, making an effort to tug my eyes away from Tim’s misfortune. “I’d really not like my name released to the media, if that’s all right.” At least I had the presence of mind to think that far ahead. I didn’t know if the sheriff’s office would even do that, or maybe not this early on, but seeing Tim go to jail made me want to protect myself. Who knew what could happen? I must have left fingerprints on the front and back door, so I was glad I mentioned that I had tried entering both ways. There would be no trace of me on the inside of the house. Reyes didn’t seem to consider me a suspect so far, but I wondered if that was typical. Maybe I’d said all the right words when he asked.

That’s fine. You can choose to remain anonymous. We’ll contact you if we have any further questions,” he said. The creases in his forehead deepened. “Probably a good idea to take extra precaution for a while. Make sure to lock your doors. Be aware of your surroundings. Be safe.”

I will.” I expected him to tell me to stand on the opposite side of the street with the small gathering of onlookers, but he didn’t. He nodded and turned to join the others near the car where Tim was being held. After a moment he slipped into his cruiser, probably to relay my info to the station. I continued to linger on the grassy area near the old barbed wire fence, just beyond the shoulder of the road.

Since most of the emergency crew was inside the house and there was no longer anything happening near the door, I took a deep breath and looked around. The spectators were hanging on with dauntless interest, whispering and talking amongst themselves. About eight people had gathered, which was quite a crowd for this area. A middle-aged woman in a black jacket squinted at me, looking me up and down. My presence was in question, but I wasn’t giving her much to see. I was your run-of-the-mill, average white guy. With brown hair, brown eyes, and a medium build, there’s nothing particularly notable about me, good or bad. In this situation that’s probably a good thing.

A little boy next to the woman followed her gaze. He pointed and asked, “Who’s that?” She gave him some answer which I couldn’t hear. Did she tell him I was a suspicious man the officers were questioning? I knew it would have been best to leave. There was no further reason to stay there, but something kept me. I guess I was no better than the spectators.

The woman’s eyes were boring little red laser holes into my skull, so I turned to watch the house again. Time passed slowly. Some of the officers were still outside, talking near the cruiser Tim was cuffed in, but most everyone else was inside or somewhere else which I couldn’t see.

The temperature was dropping as the daylight slipped away. It was going on 6 o’clock and the overcast sky smudged out the sunset with chalky gray clouds. Finally, I saw the back of a blue EMT jacket emerge from the doorway as the first body was steered out on a stretcher. I couldn’t help noticing that it wasn’t draped in a white sheet. My stomach twisted and I shivered. The fleeting light gave me just enough visibility. Just enough – I could see. And what I saw was a young woman’s pale, dirt-streaked face, half-covered by an oxygen mask. She was deathly still with closed eyes, her head rolling limply to the side as she was jostled by her carriers, but she was alive. An odd sensation smoldered in the middle of my chest and I stood there unblinking, watching until the woman was loaded into the ambulance.

I couldn’t believe it. My mind couldn’t process what just happened or what it meant. I stared as the ambulance roared to life with its siren blaring and red lights blinding me. The driver steered it away from the derelict house and pulled past the small gathering, accelerating down narrow County Road 118 in the direction that led to the interstate.

The minutes ticked by and I wondered where the other body was. The woman on the stretcher must have been the one that was chained to the wall. She was wearing the white dress covered in dark red blood – the most blood I’ve ever seen. The other body, which lay on the squalid wooden floor, looked too wasted away to be living. That being the case, there would be forensics procedure to deal with and it would take hours before they removed it from the crime scene. I was still agitated, keyed up on adrenaline and my heart was racing, but it was over. I had seen everything I needed to see.

The sheriff’s cruiser holding Tim hadn’t budged. I felt bad for him, but there wasn’t much I could do. Feeling the many eyes on me, I turned to head home. I walked away from the flashing lights, the yellow police tape and the bewildered onlookers. As I trudged along in darkness, I couldn’t keep the question from my mind, even though I told myself it didn’t really concern me, not ultimately.

Would she live?

 

From Lake Caerwych, Chapter Six, “Ring of Stones.”

Celena and Max vanished inside the farmhouse, while Bridget lagged behind outside with Paul. He sat on the edge of the boat while Bridget finished up her tale of how she and Celena pulled off their Welsh holiday.

So that’s how we finally got our parents to agree. We traded our senior trip for a visit here and convinced them we’d be safe,” she said.

That’s really interesting. Your story makes it seem like you were almost destined to come here. I hope it’s worth it in the end,” Paul said. His left eye ticked.

Bridget sniffed and repositioned her feet, glancing down at the ground.

I mean… I hope coming here was really worth giving up your senior trip. It sounds like that’s a big deal where you’re from,” Paul said.

Oh, I know it’s worth it,” said Bridget. “The beauty of this place alone makes up for it.”

Paul nodded. “Well, I’m off. My dad is probably wondering where I am. Will I see you again?”

For sure,” she said. “We’re here all week. Hey, thanks again for taking us out in the boat.”

My pleasure,” Paul said. He smiled and stood up, grasping the straps he used to pull the boat dolly along. Bridget wondered how far away he lived. Dragging that thing across rocky ground for long periods wasn’t fun, but maybe he didn’t mind. He was in good shape, after all.

Bridget went inside the farmhouse and found Celena alone in their room.

You nearly gave me a heart attack,” Celena said. “I thought you were going to tell him everything!”

Bridget laughed. “No way would I do that. Besides, even if I did, what could possibly happen? He’d just think we were crazy and never talk to us again.”

Um, yeah, I have a big problem with that,” Celena said, giving Bridget a raised eyebrow. “That’s the hottest Welsh boy I’ve ever seen.”

That’s the only Welsh boy you’ve ever seen,” Bridget said.

All the more reason to keep him around,” said Celena, winking.

After dinner, Bridget lay in the bottom bunk and looked over their maps of Snowdonia on her cell phone. Celena was already snoring above her. Although they didn’t find much of anything, their first day seemed long. It was fun, exciting, and a little exhausting in a way. Bridget was so sleepy from all the fresh air and sunshine. The last time she’d spent so many hours outdoors in one day was during her childhood. Maybe Paul would show them some new areas tomorrow – maybe they’d find the cave. Bridget couldn’t put her finger on it, but she still felt like she got on his nerves. Maybe she was being self-conscious, or maybe it was because meeting people outside the US was new to her.

Bridget turned off her mobile and placed it on the side table, where it would charge. A little moonlight came in from the south window, and as her eyes adjusted to the dark, Bridget could just make out the silhouettes of trees. She closed her eyes, snuggled into the pillow, and felt herself drifting off.

Several hours later, Bridget woke up and looked at the clock. It was 1:28 a.m. The farmhouse was completely silent and there was no reason she should be awake. Feeling chilly, she threw a robe over the shorts and t-shirt she was wearing and walked quietly to the window. The gibbous moon had moved in the sky, brightening the night with a luminous glow. The Welsh countryside was beautiful even at this hour. It might have been nice to step outside by the front door and admire it, but the unfamiliarity of her surroundings made her think twice. Leaving her robe on, Bridget walked back to the bottom bunk and lay down. She pulled the blankets around her to get warm again. Just as before, Bridget quickly slipped into a deep slumber.

The next thing she knew, she was dreaming. She had known this would happen, just like it happened on the first night, and though she welcomed it in a way, it also frightened her. In her dream she was walking outside under brilliant moonlight. A gibbous moon hung very low in the sky, just as she had seen outside the window. Bridget traveled in the general direction of Llyn Caerwych, but by a different route. The way was more difficult and extremely boggy in places. Even in the strong moonlight she had to painstakingly choose her way. When she looked down, she saw that she had put her tennis shoes over her bare feet, and a thick mud started caking on the bottoms. There was also mud on her legs and a few red scratches. Perhaps those were from the shrubs she stumbled through or the several stone fences she climbed.

After walking for what seemed like a long time, she came upon open moorland and a vague structure appeared before her. At first she saw only jagged things, like teeth jutting upwards toward the sky, but as she neared them she saw that the teeth were actually slender, upright stones placed in a circle around a large cairn – a mound of stones about thirty feet across. The place had a strange, otherworldly feel to it, one she couldn’t quite place. A light fog hung around the ring cairn which only added to the feeling.

Bridget was uncertain if this was going to be a bad dream or not. It was certainly being set up to have all the makings of one. Despite her uneasiness, she continued to the nearest standing stone and peered at the cairn within. She caught the scent of lake water on a stream of air and wondered if it was coming from Llyn Caerwych or another lake nearby. It was impossible to tell.

Bridget put her foot within the circle. Nothing happened. She stepped inside and picked her way over and around the large stones until she was standing at the center. Now isn’t this the part where something crazy is supposed to happen? she thought, recalling the terror of the cave. Well, it’s only a dream. It doesn’t matter what I do. I’m just going to sit here until something happens.

She chose a flattish stone and seated herself. There wasn’t much to look at except the ancient stones encircling her, the nearly full moon in the clear sky and the little rivers of mist. Bridget’s body felt restless and she realized she was tired. Her eyes became heavy and her head began to droop. Maybe in this dream I sleep all night in an ancient stone circle, she thought. Not very informative.

Bridget gave in to the sleepiness and closed her eyes. She thought of the bed at the inn, where she knew she actually was. She tried to turn over and get more comfortable.

* * * * *

Bridget felt something hard and rough in her hand. It was a rock, she realized, and she was lying on a surface too coarse and irregular to be a bed. The flattish stone was beneath her, another rock was under her head and a smaller one was in her palm. She had fallen asleep in her dream after all. With a jolt, Bridget yanked her head up and she whirled around. It was well into the morning, or even early afternoon. The scenery looked so different that she almost couldn’t believe she was in the same place. The moorland still surrounded her with its scattered, violet-colored shrubs. She was still within the ring cairn, but there were more standing stones now and the pile was larger.

In a hasty panic, Bridget stumbled out of the circle, nearly falling as she navigated the rocks in her tennis shoes – but when she looked down at her feet, it was not tennis shoes she wore, but some kind of leather shoes tied with crude cords at the ankles.

Gasping, Bridget stopped short and stared at what was above the shoes. It was a long woolen dress, with a frayed and faded brown cloak around her shoulders. She saw a tendril of her hair hanging down and held it out for quick examination. It was a darker brown than the hair she had in real life and much longer. Bridget could see that the hair went well past her waist. It was dry, wavy and unwashed. Her fingernails weren’t painted, but instead had dirt underneath. The hand she held out was a different hand, not the one she had before going to sleep.

She looked back at the cairn and saw that there was actually a menhir, a tall, upright stone, standing off by itself, about ten feet away from where she had awoken. Bridget examined it but it bore no writing, only strange scratches along its edge that had no meaning to her. She slid her hand along the stone’s rough surface and it felt incredibly solid. It had so much dimension and texture.

This is too real, Bridget thought. This is not a dream.

Celena!” she called. “Celena!”

Oh, of course she cannot hear me. She is at the farmhouse.

With all her strength, Bridget took off in a pounding run toward the inn. She clutched the woolen dress in her hands to keep from tripping. A row of round, stone huts with roofs thatched with sticks and straw quickly came into view – cottages just like the one in Celena’s painting. As she drew near, Bridget pulled herself to a halt. Outside one of the huts, a man was roasting a deer on a spit. She cautiously approached him. He wore an animal skin tunic over grey, linen trousers, had long brown hair and a golden bracelet in the shape of a coiling serpent on one arm.

The man looked up from his cooking and Bridget wanted to ask if she was headed in the right the direction to reach the farmhouse. She opened her mouth to speak, but what came out instead was, “Anwyn?”

The man nodded, pointing south – not the direction of the farmhouse, Bridget noticed. Then she saw it. She saw the great, grey, stone wall encircling a village, with many huts and small houses within, more cottages almost identical to her friend’s rendition. Above the fortified wall flew a green banner bearing only a white crescent moon, the moon’s tips pointing to the right as on her pendant. For a moment she gasped for breath and clutched her heart.

Caerwych!” Bridget tried to say aloud, but instead heard herself saying, “Kassrikmagon!” This was the fort they had been looking for.

She started toward the walled settlement but hesitated. She felt for the pendant at her chest – there was the necklace. Holding it out, she saw the necklace was bright, shiny copper, with no verdigris to be seen.

This is impossible, Bridget thought. She shook her head, glanced at the man who was tending his little fire, then looked back at the ring cairn. Another feeling began gripping her, something like anxiety mixed with dread. She wasn’t safe. The sound of many beating hooves pelted the moorland, mixed with shouting and other sounds that she couldn’t make out.

Out of some instinct, she ran back to the ring cairn and placed herself in the center. She didn’t know if it would work or not, but it was all she could think to do. With her heart racing, she stood there and spoke the year of her own time. Nothing happened. She didn’t know how to say it in Welsh. Or do I? wondered Bridget. I knew Celena’s old name.

When she opened her mouth to attempt to speak the year, what came out was not Welsh but some other, older language. Bridget saw the first rider appear over a little ridge carrying a flaming brand, followed by another rider and then many more. Now she knew what the sound was – it was the hissing and crackling of fire on many oil-drenched torches. Dozens upon dozens of riders held their flaming brands high as they approached, leaving a trail of smoke behind them. It was too hard to tell how many there were.

The little hut village exploded into an uproar. Too much was happening for anyone to notice the young woman standing in the stone circle. Bridget’s nervousness surged into fear. She said the ancient word for her year, over and over, and nothing was happening. The riders were getting closer and closer to the village and the ring cairn. There was nothing she could do. She closed her eyes and said the word another time in panic.

* * * * *

When Bridget opened her eyes, it was night again. The gibbous moon illuminated the sky in the same place as before. The cairn circle was again ancient and in ruin. Curls of mist ebbed at her feet and she was wearing her tennis shoes.