Jamison, West Virginia
“Police in Charleston have confirmed the identity of a thirty-one-year-old woman found bludgeoned and dismembered in a hotel dumpster earlier this week, but will not release the name until the victim’s family has been notified. Captain Curtis Abbott declined to speak to the media about the specifics of the investigation, but confirmed that the department is following up on several promising leads.
“When asked if this grisly murder could possibly be linked to a similar murder committed last month, Captain Abbott again declined to comment. He advised the people of Kanawha County to remain calm, but stay vigilant. More on this macabre story as it develops.”
Natalie switched off the television and shuddered. Jeez, she was only a couple years younger than me. She set the remote down on her coffee table and walked into the kitchen. An overflow of garbage was preventing the trash bin lid from closing. Yes, that’s what I need right now, she thought. Some household chores to take my mind off the Charleston slayings.
Natalie tied the bag’s plastic drawstrings into a bow and lifted it out of the bin, then leaned the bag against the wall while she took a buffalo plaid flannel from the back of a dining chair and put it on. She opened the sliding glass door to the backyard and stuck her hand out. A solid gray canopy of angry clouds stretched across the sky, but they had yet to produce any rain. Natalie expected it wouldn’t be long.
She lived in the small suburban town of Jamison, not far from Charleston. Her house was nestled in the heart of Settlers Grove: a quiet, secluded neighborhood at a higher elevation that the locals referred to as ‘the hilltop of doom.’ The nickname stemmed from a geographical phenomenon specific to the area; ‘the calm’ was a weather anomaly prevalent in the early weeks of spring.
During the calm, a silence fell upon Settlers Grove. No wind, no birds chirping, no dogs barking. A heavy rainfall followed, lasting for hours, but when it was over, the sun came out and the sounds of everyday life returned.
The calm has definitely started, she thought. Hope I don’t get soaked.
Natalie grabbed the garbage bag and hurried to the receptacle at the side of the house. She threw the lid open and dropped the bottom-heavy sack inside. As she dragged the receptacle toward the curb, two young men approached. Both were dressed in hooded sweatshirts and baggy jeans, with backpacks slung over their shoulders. She recognized one of them as Jay, a twenty-five-year-old living in a run-down rental property down the street. She’d recently had trouble with him.
One afternoon last week, she had come home from work to find Jay and a couple of his friends snooping around the front of her house. They’d scattered as soon as she pulled into the driveway. Although their behavior was suspicious, they didn’t seem to have disturbed anything on her property.
Days later, however, Natalie received an electronic delivery confirmation from UPS while she was at work, only to discover that the packages were missing from her porch when she got home. With all the houses in the neighborhood spaced a fair distance apart, no one saw anything. The police investigated, questioning Jay at Natalie’s recommendation, but they didn’t find enough evidence to arrest him.
Natalie slowed her pace and waited for the men to pass before continuing to the street. On the way, one of the receptacle’s wheels locked up and scraped along the ground. She knelt down for a closer look—there was something jammed inside the wheel well. With her petite fingers stretched, she reached behind the wheel and dislodged a bulbous rock.
The first drop of rain splashed on top of Natalie’s head. She tossed the stone aside and wiped her hands on her jeans. When she got up, a young man in a white hoodie stood in her periphery.
“Ah, my bad.” The man put a hand on his chest. “I didn’t mean to scare ya. The name’s Thilo. Got a sec?”
Natalie rolled the receptacle into place at the curb. “I’m sorry, I really need to get back inside before the downpour.”
“Yeah, totally, but real quick, though,” he said, stepping toward her. “What’s the deal with calling the police on my boy Jay?”
Natalie moved to the opposite side of the bin. “I think maybe there’s been a misunderstanding.”
Thilo smacked his lips and took another step. “Kind of a bitchy thing to do, don’t you think?”
Natalie glanced toward the front door. Shit. I came out through the back and my keys are inside. “If you’ll excuse me, the rain will be here any minute now, so—”
“You know what I think?” Thilo rolled up his sleeves, revealing a tattoo on his forearm: a snake tangled in the eye sockets of a human skull. “I think maybe you haven’t gotten any in a while, and you were looking for a way to get his attention.”
“Well, don’t worry, girl,” another voice said from behind her. “You’ve got it.”
Natalie spun around to face Jay, standing there with his burgundy hoodie pulled up over his head. A numbing twinge of electricity shot down her spine. Her heart raced. They’ve got me boxed in.
A light, misty rain sprinkled down from the sky as Thilo inched closer. Natalie patted her pockets in search of her cell phone. Dammit, she thought, visualizing it on the kitchen counter. “Look, the calm is starting, and I need to get indoors.”
“Good idea,” Jay said. “Why don’t you invite us in and we can keep this party going.”
Natalie gulped. “Sorry, my husband’s on his way home, and I should get started on dinner, so…”
“Husband, huh?” Jay scratched his patchy goatee. “Can’t say I’ve ever seen a man around your house before.”
“Is that right?” Thilo folded his arms. “Aww, and here I thought we were becoming good friends. Why would you go and ruin it by lying?”
Jay put his hand on her shoulder. Natalie shrugged it off and backed into the garbage receptacle. The rounded plastic edge pressed against her back. “Guys, please. I just want to go back inside.” A silent tear streamed down her face. “I’m sorry about the misunderstanding with the police. It won’t ever happen again.”
Jay placed his hands on either side of the receptacle, pinning Natalie against it. He looked her up and down. “You’re right about that.”
The skies opened up. As a hard rain fell, Natalie screamed for help, but Thilo quickly reached around and covered her mouth from behind. Her eyes widened. Jay shushed her and grabbed her hand, forcing it down toward his beltline. Her fingertips found the cold metal of his belt buckle.
“You see, there’s consequences for calling the police on an innocent man,” Jay said. “But don’t you worry. I’m sure we can work something out.” He opened his zipper.
Natalie closed her eyes. Someone, please help me!
Thick raindrops hammered down on the lid of the receptacle. Without warning, Thilo removed his hand from Natalie’s mouth and screamed out in pain. She opened her eyes. Jay was staring over her shoulder, his jaw quivering. His grip on her wrist loosened.
Natalie shoved Jay backward and ran toward the house. She slipped in the mud in the soaked front yard and fell hard to the ground, the wind knocked out of her. As she struggled to get up and catch her breath, a hulking figure came into view behind Thilo, appearing to hover in midair.
A gloved hand jutted out from its midnight-blue cloak. Its fingers punctured the skin of Thilo’s shoulder, sinking deep into the trapezius muscle. The white cotton fibers of Thilo’s hoodie darkened with the blood gushing from the wound.
Thilo cried out in agony as Jay looked on, frozen in place. A dark trail soiled his jeans from crotch to ankle. The cloaked figure tightened its grip, ripping and pulling until Thilo’s trapezius muscle detached from the bone. Thilo wailed and dropped to the ground, clutching the gaping abyss beside his neck. He writhed around on the asphalt and vomited.
Natalie slid backward on her rear, unable to tear her gaze away from the figure’s hypnotic, pennant-shaped blue eyes. What is that thing?
Jay looked down at Thilo’s bloody shoulder, then turned and ran in the opposite direction. The cloaked figure melted into the ground and popped back up in front of him. Jay smashed into the figure’s broad chest like a cement wall, knocking himself down. He pinched his nostrils and examined the blood on his fingers.
The cloaked figure drifted toward him. It raised its hands and pressed them together in front of its chest, fingers extended and pointed up toward its chin.
“What are you doing?” Jay asked. “Leave me alone!”
Waves of purple lightning coursed down the figure’s arms and formed an undulating ball of energy around its hands. Billowing smoke rose from the tips of its fingers.
“Get the fuck away from me!” Jay scooted backward on his hands and feet. “You hear me?”
In one swift motion, the cloaked figure spread its arms out at its sides. Jay’s body disappeared into a cloud of smoke, leaving behind a mound of pink and white sand in the street.
The cloaked figure turned its head and glided toward her. She covered her eyes and cowered as the rain soaked through her clothes to her skin. “Please don’t hurt me,” she whispered.
“You have no reason to fear him,” a soft, kind voice said. “You’re safe now.”
Natalie opened her eyes with reluctance. Above her stood a fair-skinned woman with long ginger curls, dressed in an olive-green hooded scarf and a lilac gown, sullied with dark stains.
“What’s your name?” the woman asked.
“I… I’m, uh, Natalie.”
“Hello, Natalie. My name’s Lissette, and this is Kelasis.” She swatted the cloaked figure’s arm. “Where are your manners, Kelly? Help her up.”
Kelasis offered his hand to Natalie, but she shook her head and got to her feet. She looked at the pile of sand in the street where Jay’s body had been. “Did you kill him?”
Lissette brushed Natalie’s wet hair off her face. “We sent him somewhere he can never harm anyone again.”
“To a realm where he will most likely be violently killed,” Kelasis added.
Holding Natalie’s gaze, Lissette grinned and jabbed Kelasis with a blind elbow. “Are you okay now, dear?”
“Yes… I think so.”
Kelasis wrapped his cloak around Lissette, shielding her from the rain. “Then we should be going.”
“Yes, you’re right,” Lissette said. “I don’t want to be in this area any longer than necessary.” She shivered. “Too many bad memories.”
~ * * * ~
Natalie slammed the sliding glass door behind her and locked it. She tugged on the handle several times until she was satisfied that it was secured. Water dripped off her body and pooled on the engineered hardwood floor. What the hell just happened?
She swiped her cell phone off the counter and dialed 9-1-1. The rain pounded against the siding of the house, making it difficult to hear the faint ring as she waited for an answer on the other end. Outside the kitchen window, the overflowing gutters spewed like a busted dam.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?” a bored voice answered.
“My name is Natalie Clausson. I live at 521 Maple Street, and there’s been an… an altercation outside my house.”
“Did you witness the altercation?”
Natalie ran her hand through her hair. “Yes.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
“Yes. Two men.”
“Are they still there now?”
Natalie walked across the living room to the front door and peered out through a half-moon window. Thilo was slithering away on his stomach, leaving a trail of red smear across the pavement behind him. “One of them is, but he’s badly injured and moving slow.”
“Okay, thank you, Miss Clausson,” the dispatch operator said, typing. “I’m sending someone to your location now. Can you give me any additional details about the altercation before the police arrive?”
“Yeah, it was a…” Natalie looked toward the clumpy pile of wet sand that had formerly been Jay. A slender young man dressed in crimson robes stood in the middle of the street. He turned his head toward her house and locked eyes with her through a pair of black leather goggles with clear lenses.
“Ma’am? Are you still there?”
The young man smiled at Natalie and put a finger to his lips. He raised his hood and walked away.
“Ma’am? Are you all right? Do you need help?”
Natalie ran back into the kitchen, leaned against the pantry door, and slid down to the floor. Rainwater dripped from the ends of her hair and plopped against the tile. She dropped the phone at her side and brought her knees up to her chest.