Monstrous will be available December 13 (13 days!), so I thought this would be a good opportunity to post the first three chapters. I hope you like it. I very much enjoyed writing it. So without further ado, Frankie Mourning, everyone!
"The fear of you and the terror of you
will be on every beast of the earth
and on every bird of the sky;
with everything that creeps on the ground,
and all the fish of the sea,
into your hand they are given.”
~Genesis 9:2, Holy Bible
I died on a Thursday.
The thing about dying is, no one ever comes back. Not really. Even if all your parts are put back together—even if you’re walking around breathing, talking, screwing—it’s never the same again. Part of you is always going to wonder if the world is real, if you’re still lying on a gurney somewhere bleeding out. Or, in my case, pocked full of holes from lethal injection and forgotten in a cooler.
I died on a Thursday, and three days later I woke up.
When I walked out of the motel, the sun was coming up. I pulled a pack of Lucky Strikes from the pocket of my leather jacket and tapped one out. My lighter was dying and my hands were shaking, so it took a couple tries to get it to ignite. I pulled in the smoke and closed my eyes, the northern Wisconsin air already hot and humid, even this early. The keys in my back pocket bulged and I scanned the parking lot for Jimmy Wayne Frasier's car. My eyes slid over a Camry, an F10 pickup truck, recently washed, and then froze on a rusty Chevy Nova, a pair of ratty fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view.
“Jimmy, you're so goddamn predictable,” I said, letting the cigarette dangle from my lips as I fished out the keys. I pushed a pile of fast food wrappers and beer cans off the front seat into the parking lot as I drove away. I didn't know where I was going, but it didn't matter. They would find me. They'd find me and tell me where to go next. I looked at my hands on the grimy steering wheel, ragged from my work, blood caked under my fingernails.
Jimmy Wayne Frasier was a serial killer. Emphasis on was. I’d tracked him to the motel where he had no fewer than three dead prostitutes carefully arranged on the floor. And when Jimmy, slovenly and slow, lunged for the gun lying on the bed, I had him hogtied on the floor before he even knew what was happening.
He figured it out soon enough.
“Please call the cops,” he had blubbered. “Please. I don’t understand.”
“I don't completely understand it myself,” I admitted. “I'm dead, Jimmy. But soon you will be, too.”
I watched him squirm, shaking his arms frantically behind him, as I pulled a wicked little fillet knife out of my belt and walked slowly toward him. He was crying.
“Aw, Jimmy Wayne,” I lowered the knife with a sigh and straddled the chair, facing him. “This isn't fun for me, I promise you that. I'm not what you'd call a happy person, if you get my meaning. I've done some bad things in my life. Maybe even worse than the shit you've been doing.” I looked over at the dead women on the floor and wrinkled my nose. “Though not as gross.”
I got up and stretched, my knife still in my hand. I saw Jimmy looking at it and sat back down, leaned forward. “I don’t get a chance to talk to many people, Jimmy. If I could get some much-needed psychiatric therapy, I’d jump at the chance. God knows, I need it. But what would I tell them? They’d have me socked up in the crazy house before I even got to the good part. Either that, or they’d toss me back on Death Row.” I shrugged. “That wouldn’t be so bad. In the end, I got what was coming to me. I was fine with it. Dying. But then I woke up. You believe that shit, Jimmy? I fucking woke up from being dead. And I know I was really dead, because I know that's what you're wondering. You're thinking, either I'm crazy or messing with you, am I right?”
Jimmy was a puddle of tears now. His latex-gloved hands were scrunched into balls and his face looked like a big pink prune. I stood up and he became agitated again, struggling against the rope. I raised my shirt, pointing to my belly and tracing the scar up to the middle of the Y-incision.
“This is how they do an autopsy, Jimmy. Which I'm sure you know because of your dead people thing. Also gross.” I pulled my shirt back down and picked up the knife. “I guess I got autopsied, no other explanation. Don't ask me how I'm still walking around. Maybe I'm a zombie, or a vampire. But I just keep getting hungry, thirsty, my heart's still beating, and I still have to...you know. Go to the bathroom. Was that too much information?” I watched him, shaking his head, his eyes red from crying, clear snot dripping out of his nose. “Jimmy, it's really too bad I have to kill you. You should know, you're not the only one. And none of this is really your fault. I mean, it is, but all you people are like this. You just acted on it.”
I shrugged. “Well, it's been fun, Jimmy Wayne. You are a fantastic listener. It's been a while since I've talked to anyone like this. But I came here to do a job, so I guess the question is: Are you ready?”
The Nova's full tank of gas got me all the way to the village of DeForest, outside of Madison. I fueled up with Jimmy's credit card, smiling pretty for the camera pointed at the gas tanks. I parked next door at a Culver's, ducking into the bathroom to wash my hands before grabbing two burgers and a custard shake to go. Heading south. The sun was high now and I shed my leather jacket. But even with all the windows cranked open, I was still sweating. And after a while, the fast food wrappers sweating grease in the sun made my stomach turn.
The sun was sinking below the horizon, the sky a violent orange by the time I reached the outskirts of a city. I pulled into the first shady bar I could find, eyeing the shabby motel next door, its “Vacancy” sign lit up like a beacon. I stretched as I got out of the Nova, parked far in the back of the small parking lot.
I wiped down the surfaces, taking what little cash Jimmy had in his wallet and ditching the rest. Leaving the keys in the ignition, I grabbed my duffel bag and pulled on my jacket, even though it was still hot as hell. I was out of smokes, and smelled like an animal. I slipped into the bathroom in the dark, smoky bar.
I looked in the mirror and cursed. I cleaned up, trying to drag a comb through my tangled hair. I pulled a clean shirt out of my bag, shoving the sweat and blood-stained tank top into the bottom. I desperately needed a shower, but I wanted a drink more. I pulled my hair back into a ponytail, fishing a stick of deodorant out of my bag. I smiled at my reflection, blinking as something moved in the corner of my eye in the mirror. I spun to look behind me, but there was nothing there.
“I need sleep,” I muttered, smoothing my hair one last time. I'd been up too long. Even my reflection looked weird to me now. I walked out into the bar, freezing for a second at the dozen or so people. A couple of rough-looking old guys playing pool looked up and stared at me. I ignored them and slipped onto a stool. The woman behind the bar was wearing blue eyeliner and smoking a Newport. She didn't even put the cigarette down before coming over.
“What are you drinking, honey?” she said.
“Maker's Mark and Coke,” I said, flashing her a big smile. If I was going to waste Jimmy's cash on booze, I might as well get the good stuff. “And don't go easy on the Maker's.”
“Long drive?” she said, looking me over.
I zipped up my jacket and shrugged. “Not too bad. You got Lucky Strikes?”
She nodded across the bar. “There's a machine. Use quarters. It steals dollar bills.”
I changed what was left after the drink for quarters and walked over to the cigarette machine.
“What's your poison?” said a voice. I looked around and saw a man sitting at a table next to the machine. He was reclining, with his feet up on another chair, a brown drink in his hand.
“Luckies,” I said. “Looks like I'm out of luck.”
“That's funny,” he said without laughing. “Unfiltered?”
“Hell of a choice for a girl.”
I gave him a cold stare. “You’re a peach, aren’t you?”
“Shit,” he said, looking down at his glass. “I'm sorry. I've been drinking this swill for two hours. I'm not usually a dick.”
“Rough day?” I said.
“That makes two of us.” I put my quarters in and punched the knob for Camels. I pounded the pack in my hand, smiling. “See you around.”
“Wait,” the guy said, standing. He wasn't half bad when he wasn't skulking in the shadows. Under the five o'clock shadow and the dirty tee shirt, he was lean with dark eyes that he fixed on me. “Let me buy you a drink.” His face, dead serious until this point, broke into a half-grin, dimples appearing on his cheeks. “Please.”
“Why?” I said.
“Because I want to sleep with you.” He stepped out from behind the table and walked toward me, stumbling only a little. He smiled that half smile again and something stirred inside me.
“I'm just passing through,” I said.
“So am I.”
“I won't give you my number.”
“I won't ask for it.”
He was close to me now, his eyes a little bloodshot, but he was warm and alive and I could see myself forgetting about the world in him for a few hours. I smiled. Not the big country girl smile I'd given the bartender. It was a different kind of smile that made the guy's charming half-grin falter and sent the pulse in his throat jumping. He reached towards my hip but I grabbed his wrist. His arm was muscular and I saw the lines of a military tattoo in the dim light. He was stronger than me, but he let me hold his wrist, his dark eyes glimmering with a look I recognized.
“No promises,” I said. “Buy me a few drinks first, and I'll let you rent me a room at that flea-infested hole-in-the-wall next door.”
His smile came back, his eyes still fixed on mine. He pulled a hand out of his pocket, a big blue tag on a key ring reading “Starlight Motel” in silver letters.
“Already done,” he said. “I'm Thomas Dekker, what's your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Tommy,” I said. “I’m Frankie Mourning. Let's get that drink.”
The truth was, booze didn't do a whole lot for me anymore. I'd tried everything to quiet my head and have a few hours of peace. Uppers made it worse. They also made me chatty, which was dangerous in my line of work. Weed slowed me down. Ecstasy may as well have been an energy drink, and opiates made me feel like I had bugs crawling through my scars. There was no oblivion for me. I was still myself, no matter what I took. Alcohol was the only thing that made the nightmare end and let me get a few hours sleep, as long as I drank it fast enough.
Tommy Dekker bought me six drinks, though he himself stopped drinking after three. And by the time we stumbled toward his motel room around midnight, he felt pretty damn good to me. When he kissed me in the parking lot, his lips were hot and hungry, and he felt firm when I put my hand against his chest.
“What are you, a gym rat?” I said breathlessly.
“On the job training,” he panted, pulling me against him again. I jumped up, grinding myself into his hips, my legs around his waist, and he carried me across the parking lot, only taking his tongue out of my mouth when he dropped the key at the front door.
When we burst through the door, we fell against the wall, where he pinned me, unbuttoning my pants as I pulled off his shirt.
He kissed me hard and I shoved him down onto the bed, my whole body vibrating.
“I should take a shower,” I said.
“Later.” He grabbed my waist and pulled me on top of him. I straddled him, pulling off my coat and tossing it into a chair. I unbuttoned his jeans and he started to pull up my shirt.
“No,” I whispered, pulling it back down. “Anything but my shirt.”
“Why?” he said.
“You can touch me inside my shirt,” I said, “but it's not coming off.”
“What about your pants?”
“Those are coming off right now.” But he was already pulling them off, tipping me backwards on the bed. I laughed, but his face was dead serious again, and in a heartbeat, he had his own pants off and was on top of me. I moved to kiss him, but he took my hands, lacing his fingers through mine and pressing my arms down onto the bed.
“Wait,” he whispered. His breath smelled like good bourbon, sweet and rich. His nose was nearly touching mine, and the streetlight filtering through the dirty lace curtains shone on his face. “Wait,” he said again, and I found it hard to breathe. “I just want to look at you for a second.” His dark eyes were too close, his face too solemn.
“Come on, let's do this,” I said, wrapping my legs around him. But he didn't move, he just stared at me.
“God, you're beautiful,” he said.
“Shut up and do me,” I said, laughing. But he didn't laugh. He unlaced his fingers from my left hand and touched my face.
“Okay, enough.” I took his wrist from my face. “We'll do this my way now.” I pushed him off of me and climbed on top of him.
He didn't resist. But he kept watching me. Those goddamn eyes were burning into me so hot and fierce that I couldn't breathe. I lowered myself onto him, arching my back as he arched his. He didn't close his eyes, watching me. Not looking away, watching, watching me ride him like my salvation depended on it.
The climax came fast and hard and I felt him give way at the exact same moment. We buried our cries in each other's mouths, in a kiss that was too intimate. It felt like I was telling him my secrets, like he knew me now.
I rolled off and lay panting and looking at the water stained ceiling.
“Jesus Christ, Tommy,” I said.
“People don't really call me that,” he said, out of breath.
“What do they call you?”
“Is that what you want me to call you?”
He looked over and smiled his sexy half smile.
“You can call me anything you want, Frankie Mourning.”
“I'm going to call you Tommy,” I said. “Mind if I take a shower now?”
Tommy was passed out when I got back. I slid into the bed as quietly as I could. His face was relaxed in sleep. I knew I should go. I knew I should split before they found Jimmy Wayne Frasier's car. But I was so tired. I couldn't remember the last time I slept more than an hour, maybe two days ago? Three? I leaned back onto the pillows and watched Thomas Dekker sleep. He had tattoos all over his chest and upper arms. I couldn't make them out, even with the light from the parking lot. Marines, maybe. His hair was cut short, a dark brown color, and stood up in front. He had an eyelash on his cheek.
I raised my hand in the dark and was about to brush it away, but he opened his eyes. I pulled my hand back as he watched me.
“Why won't you take your shirt off?” he said.
“Bad heart,” I said. “I have scars.”
“I didn't want you to see. They're ugly.”
“They busted you open?” he said.
“You could say that,” I said. “I'm lucky they put everything back where it belongs.”
“Are you okay now?”
“Healthy as a horse,” I said.
He lifted a muscled arm. “Come here.”
I frowned. “Where?”
“You don't want me to put my arm around you?”
I shrugged. “If you're into that.”
I moved into the space he made, flattening my body against him and felt his arm pull me in.
“See, that wasn't so bad,” he said. His eyes were closed. I wondered how many drinks he'd had today. It was admirable that he mostly kept up with me.
“I'm not usually the cuddling type.”
“Neither am I,” he said, his voice heavy with sleep. “Stay with me tonight, okay?”
“It's either that or hitchhike,” I said.
“Which are you leaning towards?”
“I guess you'll do. There are killers out there.”
“That there are. Where you headed?”
“I don't know,” I said. “Maybe east.”
“You don't know where you're going?”
“I'm waiting for a sign.”
“I'll give you a ride,” he said. “I'm going to New York in the morning. I've got a shitty Civic, so it's not the lap of luxury or anything.”
“But,” I said, motioning around the motel room, “I've grown accustomed to such finery.”
“Buck up, princess,” he said. “I'll treat you like a queen.”
I don't remember falling asleep, but it was still dark when my eyes flew open, my heart beating fast. I looked around the room, getting my bearings, my eyes moving to Dekker. He was deep in an alcohol-induced sleep. I wondered if he'd even remember me in the morning. I inched out of bed and went into the bathroom, relieving myself and then drinking straight out of the faucet. I caught my reflection in the mirror and turned away. I was about to get back into bed when I heard it.
“Frankie,” came the whisper, so familiar that it hurt.
“No,” I said. “Not again. Just let me sleep.”
“Frankie,” it came again, loud and close and inside my head. “Frankie come outside. Come, come, come. Come out, Frankie Mourning and get your redemption.”
I slipped my jeans on in the dark. I couldn't find my shirt, so I pulled on Tommy's followed by my coat and boots. I left the door ajar, peeking another look at Tommy as I slipped out.
It was a clear night, but the stars were just out of view, the city illuminating the sky with a dirty light. I pulled out a Camel and lit it, walking around the corner of the motel. A raven squawked as it landed on a rusty pickup truck. It watched me out of one beady eye as I passed. The wraiths liked dark places, so I needed to find the shadows, even in a shady, sleazy place like this.
“Hey,” I said, walking behind the motel. There was an empty lot, surrounded with a barbed wire fence, my boots crunching on gravel. “Where are you, you creepy shit?”
“That's not very nice, nice, nice,” said a voice in my head. I spun and it was crouching in front of me, seeming to bleed into the shadows. I took a drag of my cigarette and blew out smoke.
“I was sleeping,” I said. “I haven't slept in days.”
“Maybe you don't deserve to sleep,” it said. This one's voice wasn't male or female, though most times it was usually one or the other. They liked to sneak up on you when your back was turned. As far as I could tell, it was a different one every time, though having never seen their faces, I couldn't have said for sure. I called them wraiths, but I didn't think they really had names. The raven watched us from atop the barbed wire, cocking its strange little head in the semi-darkness.
The wraith crouching in front of me was covered head to toe in a hooded cloak that seemed a part of its body. The edges were indiscernible, as if it could melt into the darkness at any moment. I couldn't see its face, either, the space under the hood unnaturally dark. I sometimes wondered if there would even be anything there if I ripped the cloak off. I also wondered if the wraiths were really there. Maybe I was just imagining all this. It was a pretty thought.
But I touched the Y-shaped scar that wound its way down my breastbone and I remembered the first night I woke up. I was pretty sure I wasn't making all this up, because if anything was real, it was pain. And those first days had been nothing but agony.
“Stop staring at me,” I said. “What do you want?”
“Touchy,” it said, voice echoing in my skull. “Seems I pulled you from lover's bliss, bliss, bliss.”
The raven squawked, as if in agreement.
“You can't keep him, Frankie. You're not exactly girlfriend material.”
“I'm not trying to keep him, asshole. Now tell me what you want.”
“It's what you want, Frankie. Redemption, remember? It's why you're alive. Mostly, mostly alive.”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. I dropped my cigarette onto the gravel and ground it out with the toe of my boot. “Yeah, I know. You creeps remind me every time. So where are you sending me?”
“We need you to do something a little different,” said the wraith. “Something a little outside of your pay grade, grade, grade.”
“I don't get paid.”
“That's not true. You're working toward a goal.”
“Yeah, like a company store,” I said. “With no indication of how long I have to do this or how many it's going to take to be done.”
“Even if you're never done,” said the wraith, “it's a better deal than where you'd be headed if we let you stay dead, stay dead.”
“Says you,” I said. “So what's this next job? And what do you mean, something different? Worse than a killer? Because that last guy killed a whole lot of hookers. It's worse than that?”
“You'll think it's worse.”
“Just tell me what the job is then, Morticia,” I said. “Or we could stand around yapping all night.”
“You have to go home,” it said.
“Home?” I said. “I don't have a home, I'm fucking dead.”
“You had one once,” said the wraith. “Your best place, and your worst place. All those trees and fresh air scrambling your brains. Where it all happened. The beginning of the end, end, end.”
“Oh, no,” I said, bile rising in my throat. “I'm not going back there.”
“You are,” it said. “You must.”
“I died, remember? Someone will recognize me.”
“You left ten years ago and your family never left their mountain. No one will know you.”
“I went to school.”
“Have a lot of friends, friends there? Besides, we know you only attended school for a few months. Before, before, before.”
I glared at the wraith. “Don't do this. Pick someone else. You must have other people doing this besides me. Anyone else.”
“You're the only one, one, one,” said the wraith. “Boss's orders.”
“Tell the boss to fuck off.”
“You don't mean that, Frankie.”
I looked away from the wraith, trying to slow my heart.
“I can't go back there,” I said. “Hellville is cursed.”
“Helmsville,” corrected the wraith. “Rugged country. It's beautiful there, isn't it?”
“I can't go back to that place,” I said. “Please don't make me do this.”
“It's already decided,” said the wraith. “And Frankie, Frankie, Frankie?”
“Helmsville, Montana isn't cursed. You are.”
The cloaked figure seemed to spin in front of me, and with a sound like sheets on a clothesline, the wraith was gone. And I was alone, but for the raven. I stared at the bird for a few seconds, waiting for it to screech at me. But even the bird was silent, and after a moment, it rose into the air with a flap of wings and disappeared into the darkness.
“Quitter,” I said.
Dekker was still sleeping when I slowly pushed the door open and slipped into the room. He was snoring softly, his wide chest rising and falling. I found his keys in his pants pocket. Feeling around, I found his thick wallet. I wasn't going to look at him. If I didn't look at him, I'd be fine. If I didn't look at him, I could keep on breathing. I turned to go.
Dekker snorted loudly and I froze. I turned slowly to look at him. His eyes fluttered and I felt my heart in my throat. I didn't know why I was so nervous. He was just a roof over my head. He was a bar tab and entertainment for the night. What did I care if he caught me? But I stared at Dekker's face, stock still in the dark. And I breathed again when he started snoring again.
I backed away, watching his face. He was just a guy, and a weird one at that. He was probably a shit when he wasn't drinking. Maybe he had a wife and kids. Maybe he kicked puppies for fun. But I recognized the feeling in my chest. It wasn't love or lust or anger. It was that feeling I got when what-might-have-been slipped out of my grasp. I'd had a lot of might-have-beens in my life. For the most part, I didn't think about them. Even when they were staring me in the face, I put them out of my mind.
I shouldn't have looked at him.
“I'm sorry,” I whispered. “I'm really sorry.
Dekker's Honda was being guarded when I found it. Three ravens sat on the hood, blinking at me.
“Come on,” I said. “I don't have a choice.”
The birds flew up onto the low-hanging roof of the motel, still staring at me. I was used to the birds. They were always there. Sometimes they were the only ones I talked to for days. I turned my back on them and got into the car.
The car started nice and quiet and barely made a sound as I pulled out onto the highway. When I flipped on the headlights, the ravens were gone. I was so exhausted my bones hurt. I pulled out his wallet, my stomach churning as I looked at it. I blew air out and opened it. I'd need money. I knew he had some, he'd been buying my drinks in cash all night. I wouldn't use his credit cards, it was the least I could do. He'd have them canceled by morning anyway.
Why had I given Dekker my real name? I didn't understand it. Usually I picked something out of the air. Sally McGrady. Antoinette Carter. I'd even used Rita Hayworth once and no one batted an eye. But I'd given him my name, the name I'd been born with. The name I died with. It was dangerous. I was being risky and I wasn't sure why.
I kept my eyes on the road, glancing down at the wallet by the light of the headlights behind me. At first I didn't know what I was seeing. Then I couldn't believe it was real.
“Holy shit,” I said. “Shit, shit, shit.” Repetitive as a wraith. I threw the wallet away from me, like it was a cockroach, but it fell open on the passenger seat. As a semi truck passed me, I chanced another look at it, as it gleamed in the lights cutting through the night.
It was a badge. A silver badge shaped like a star, the words Chicago Police etched into the metal. And across the top, the
The wraith was right. I was cursed.
The way my sister died is this: I set her on fire and watched her burn. It wasn't as simple as the cops made it out to be, but it's true. I killed her and I wasn't sorry. Just like I killed the seven other bastards afterward, in what the newspapers called an “orgy of death.” There was no orgy. They all had it coming and I didn't enjoy it. But the district attorney didn't see it that way and neither did the jury.
So when I found myself strapped to a table with a needle in my arm and a crowd of people looking on, that should have been the end. To be honest, I was relieved. I closed my eyes, thinking it was the last time and I think I even smiled. I could finally get some rest. I wasn't supposed to wake up again, especially not with my insides scrambled and a Y cut from my chest to my pelvis, stitched up with black thread and screaming from the pain.
You might think that coming back from the dead would be a good thing, but it wasn't. Not for me. I wanted to be dead. I wanted to fall into the abyss and never climb back out again. I wanted to close my eyes without seeing my mother and my sister covered in my father's blood, laughing at my screams. I wanted to sleep without dreaming of fire. But it's like Jagger says, you can't always get what you want. I wanted to be dead, but someone else wanted me alive.
I should have left the car on the side of the road and hitchhiked, taken the bus, hopped a train. Anything but this. I'd stolen a cop's car. Not just a cop, a damn detective. I fucked him and robbed him blind while he slept. I didn't know why I kept going, why I didn't immediately pull over and hitchhike my ass out of there. I just kept driving. And I didn't stop until I was in Sioux Falls.
Maybe I wanted to get caught. Maybe I wanted to see what would happen. Or maybe I just wondered if I was too far gone to turn back. Being on Death Row was the quietest time in my life. Strange as it seems, I found peace in that little white room. A soft voice came from a grate in my cell, the woman next door whispering prayers every waking second. I found it comforting. It reminded me of my father and his sermons. It reminded me of the time before. And I slept like a child.
What would the authorities make of me now? My body disappeared from the morgue, my organs all put back in good working order, and most assuredly not dead. Would they execute me again? Or would I spend an eternity in a hospital, poked and prodded? Why did I wake up after being pumped full of chemicals, cut apart, and stashed in a refrigerator? Why was I seeing hooded wraiths that melted into shadow, telling me where to find killers, where to stalk my next prey? The wraiths said it was the blood of Cain, tainting the mind, making humans kill. Was I a serial killer myself? Vigilante, like the old days? Or was I just another asshole desperate to grasp at any chance of redemption?
I found the shittiest motel I could find. The kind of place that takes cash and doesn't ask any questions. I grabbed my bag from the passenger seat along with Detective Thomas Dekker's wallet and found my room. Exhausted, I dumped everything on the bed, shed my leather jacket and my clothes, and stepped into the shower. The water pressure was shit and the shower head was crusted in a sickly white calcium deposit, but I closed my eyes and let the tepid water fall over me, trying to wash everything away. I stood there until the water was icy cold and goosebumps stood up on my skin.
But I didn't feel clean.
I lay on the bed, my hair still dripping, and lit a cigarette, watching the smoke curl and loop around itself. I listened for police cars, more curious than nervous. But all I heard was breaking bottles and the raucous laughter from a biker party in the
I took another drag and let the smoke swirl in my lungs before blowing it out. Then I sat up and grabbed my bag, pulling out a book and laying it across my legs. I opened it and took in the familiar and jarring first page. The scrapbook was black paper and I had glued the newspaper article, clipping the end of the article from the back of the newspaper and pasting it underneath the headline: West End Preacher Found Dead. There was a grainy black and white photograph of our old horse corral, a police officer standing inside of it, looking morose. Next to the picture was a photograph of my father, smiling in front of his church.
Trampled by horses. That was the story. No one asked any questions, and they surely didn't ask the shy 16-year old girl who hid in dark corners and shadows, trying hard not to be seen. I still didn't know if I would have told them, had they asked.
How do you tell a policeman that your mother and sister are no longer themselves? How do you tell someone that the people you love are no longer human? Back then I thought they were demons, from Daddy's sermons. The devil, the old adversary. But it wasn't so simple. I didn't know what happened to my mother and sister, but I know they changed. They were people I loved one day, and murderers the next. It only took me a year to become a murderer myself. To go from preacher's daughter to killer. It took me a year to feel good about burning my sister to death. One year from child to criminal.
It wasn’t that simple, of course. Is it ever? My sister, Rebecca, had never been what you might call kind. She was perfect. Pretty, smart, and willing to do anything to impress my mother. Odd images flashed in my mind when I tried to remember the exact moment when she changed from girl to monster. Snippets of nightmares, things I thought were true as a child. Adults thought I was crazy, or too imaginative, or full of the devil. And over time, I realized how surreal the memories were, too dreamlike to be real, too frightening to happen in real life. They were just dreams. But as a child, they had seemed real, and I was convinced for a long time that they were.
Rebecca was never kind, but slowly she became something darker. And, in time, she took my mother with her. In a way, they took me with them. Made me a monster, too.
The next page in the scrapbook was dated one year after my father died. The headline read: Teenage Harlot Kills Sister, Wounds Mother In Fire. The picture showed the collapsed bricks that had once been a chimney and the ashes of our house. The fence around the horse corral in the background. The smaller headline read: Frances Mourning Pursued By Police. The picture of me was a bad one. My one and only school picture for the one and only year I was allowed to attend public school in St. Thomas. By that time, I'd gone into full-on rebellion, as noted by my black eyeliner and sullen expression.
The facing page was an article about an unidentified doughy white man found dead in Wallace, Idaho. Police had no leads and no idea about why he was dead. I could have told them. His name was Kurt Garrett and he attacked me. He nearly got me. I was so young then, inexperienced, but I had already seen horrible things. Too many for a young girl; too many for a lifetime.
Kurt was an accident. I snapped. He was maybe 130 pounds, soaking wet. Just a greasy old perv with a thing for young girls. But I started hitting him when he grabbed me. He was trying to shove me into an alley when I began kicking him, punching him, and I didn't stop. I was a country girl, raised in the mountains. I looked small but I was strong from climbing trees, riding horses, doing chores. He was expecting a girl, easily pliable and timid. What he got was me.
Even after he fell, I didn’t stop hitting him. Not even when he stopped screaming. I didn’t stop until I was hitting wet meat and grinding bone and I couldn’t feel my arms anymore. I didn’t stop until my fractured knuckles throbbed and the skin on my fists
looked like hamburger.
When I caught my breath, I looked down at what I'd done. How many others had there been? How many girls that weren’t as monstrous as I was? I wiped the blood off my boots with the back of Kurt's salmon-colored polo shirt and walked away. I found his car idling a block away and got in and drove. What little that was warm inside me, I left in the street next to Kurt Garret's body. A bystander might say there were already ravens circling the dead man. But I knew better. They were circling me, just as they always had. As they'd done since I was a child. Before I killed my sister, before my father died, before anything, there were ravens. They followed me like they smelled death on me; they circled me, waiting, watching me trying to be good.
And they were there when I stopped trying.
The cops finally picked me up in Jacksonville. I turned page after page of newspaper articles of child molesters and dirtbags found dead along the way. Over to one coast and across the country to the other. One article called me the Hillbilly Hellion. But most of them went with the ever-popular Vigilante Killer. Or, usually more simply, The Vigilante.
There were columns praising me, but most condemned me. And then a two-page spread: Vigilante Case Goes To Jury. The picture was me in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs, my hair lank and dirty. I skipped the trial articles and stopped when I found the one I wanted.
Governor Denies Public Defender's Final Appeal; Vigilante Executed.
I stared at the headline for a long time, fingering the scar that ran down the front of me. Sometimes I stopped to feel my pulse. I still saw my mother's face, half scarred from the fire that I had hoped would kill her, too. I only said one thing to her while I was lying there in the windowed room, waiting for the drugs to take effect.
“You're not her,” I said to the scarred woman who resembled my mother. She didn't say anything. A serene smile spread across her face, puckered on the burned side, and that smile stayed there until I couldn't bear to look at her any longer. A thing wearing my mother like a coat, with nothing behind her eyes.
I turned the page. A full-color newspaper front page took up both sides of the scrapbook pages. It was a shot of the Florida State Prison, a gorgeous sunset in the background. In the foreground, blurry, were dozens of protesters, carrying signs. I could make one out that read FREE FRANCES, and another that said TOO YOUNG TO DIE. But the focus of the photograph wasn't on the people or the prison or the sunset. It was on the several hundred ravens that sat on the wall and barbed wire and circled above the prison, dotting the sky with black. The caption said: Hundreds of ravens gather just before Frances Mourning's execution. At the moment of her death, every bird took flight, turning day to night.
The image had shown up on websites, newspapers and television news shows across the country. I saw video feed much later, showing the moment of my death. It was chilling, not just because I knew I was dying behind those walls: the sight of all those ravens screaming and taking off into the air wasn't something you ever expected to see. The screaming was so loud you couldn't hear the reporter.
I closed the scrapbook with a snap. I'd have to print Jimmy's story when they found him, probably by morning. I threw the book onto the other side of the bed and picked up the wallet. I stared at Thomas Dekker's driver's license photo for what felt like an eternity. Even here, I felt his dark eyes burning into me. I felt the cold ridges of the badge with a finger. I suddenly felt so tired, the kind of tired that usually took seven or eight drinks. I turned off the lamp and closed my eyes, hugging the wallet to my chest. I thought I'd dream of fire or my sister covered in my father's blood, like I always did.
I don't know whether it made me feel better or worse to dream of a man with dark eyes who touched me as if I were something holy.
I wasn't awakened by policemen in the morning and, when I threw my stuff into the passenger seat of the Honda, no one even looked my way. I got watery coffee from the motel office, grabbing a doughnut from the box behind the counter when the manager wasn't looking, then got in the car and sat behind the wheel. I lit a cigarette, regarding the raven watching me from the lawn chair on the motel sidewalk.
No one was coming for me, not yet. I started the car and found a Conoco, using the dwindling money in Tommy's wallet to gas up and buy smokes. Then I found the highway. No one stopped me. No one cared. No one even noticed.
So I drove. West on I-90 all the way. All I had to do was stick to the highway. But it didn't feel that simple to me. It felt like choosing Hell over Heaven. I didn't know what my Heaven was, but I sure as shit knew Hell, and I was driving there in a detective's stolen car. I was driving right through the gates.
I looked toward the sky to see the lone raven soaring high overhead, leading the way.
It was past midnight when I rolled into St. Thomas. It was eerie seeing the school I'd attended for a few months. I sat at the four-way stop and watched the lone stoplight blinking red at me. Floodlights lit up the parking lots on either side of the intersection, the Real Western Motel on my right, the Travel Center on my left. I turned left and pulled into a space in front of the bar, at the end of a row that included the gas station, two restaurants, and gift shop. The Western-style boardwalk now had a niche carved out for an espresso stand. I flicked my cigarette out the window and looked down at the gas gauge, tapping it with a fingernail. It stayed stubbornly on empty. I’d used the last of Dekker’s cash at a gas station just after coming over Homestake Pass.
“Shit.” I looked at the bar. The Silver Saloon aimed for Wild West but settled for small town ghetto. As I walked through a door propped open with a chunk of asphalt, the smell of old cigarettes washed over me. It was sweltering in the bar, and packed with drunks. “Here we go,” I muttered. Heads turned as I walked through. Outsiders always sparked interest.
“Hey, darlin',” said an unshaven man at the bar, grinning blearily at me. He was wearing a battered cowboy hat. His sleeves had been ripped off and when I looked down, I wasn't disappointed. Cowboy boots.
“I like your hat,” I said. “Buy me a drink.”
“Yes, ma'am,” he said, saluting with two fingers, nearly falling off his stool. “Pick your poison, beautiful.”
A tired man behind the bar came over and nodded at me, glared at my new friend.
“Time to go, Grady,” said the bartender. “Go home, okay?”
“No!” said Grady. “I am going to buy my lady friend a drink and you can't stop me.”
“I can, actually,” said the bartender, rolling his eyes. “It's sort of my job.” He looked at me. “What are you drinking?”
“Shot of Maker’s,” I said, grinning at him. I turned my smile to Grady. “Thanks.” I looked around the bar. I was relieved that I didn't recognize anyone. I don't know why I thought I would, but the nervousness eased a bit. A group of middle-aged women playing a serious game of pool kept yelling at people who bumped into them. A cheerful cacophony of canned music came from a corner labeled Casino, its clean French doors separating it from the rest of the grubby bar.
“Here you go,” said the bartender, setting my drink down. “New around here?”
I picked up the glass and smiled. “Nah. I used to live here.”
“Oh? Whereabouts?” The bartender was wiping the counter around Grady, who was using his arms to hold his head up. A bearded, tough old man at the end of the bar was yelling, waving for him, but the bartender ignored him.
“West End,” I said. “Helmsville.”
“Shit,” he said. “Only reason to go to Hellville is because you don't want to be found.”
“I had weird parents,” I said, making my grin go wider, a million degrees of fake happiness.
“They still here?”
I looked toward the pool tables where a woman of sixty was waving a fist at a thirty-something man missing a few teeth.
“Nah,” I said, “not anymore. I’m just passing through.”
“Well, be safe,” said the bartender. “Yeah, I hear you, Al. Jesus, keep your shirt on.” He left to serve the other customers. I downed the shot, feeling better as the alcohol hit me. I turned the shot glass over and set it noisily on the bar.
“Well, Grady,” I said, turning to my new friend, sliding his wallet out of his back pocket as I pretended to rub his back. “It was awful nice to meet you. Now I have a little more driving to do.” I slid the wallet into my bag. I waved to the bartender, then, thinking better of it, palmed the cowboy hat off Grady's head and flipped it onto my own. A table of pudgy husbands out for the night started to clap and cheer. I raised my arms and grinned at them.
“Hey, have a drink with us!” said a short guy with a bushy mustache.
“Sorry,” I said, “I don't drink with married men. I'm virtuous that way.”
“Oh, come on, honey,” said his friend, putting an arm around mustache's sweaty shoulders. “He hasn't gotten laid all year.”
“I'm guessing he'll go another year just fine then,” I said, backing out the door as his friends choked with laughter. I got into the Honda and lit a cigarette, closing my eyes. “Easy as pie,” I said to myself, breathing out smoke. “Easy as pie.”
I pulled out of the bar and into the gas station, sidling up to the corner pump. St. Thomas was a crossroads. People passing through stopped here, the last place for food or gas for miles. It did an epic summer tourist trade. College kids were always starting summer adventuring businesses, taking rich white people rafting or fishing. Most of the locals depended on the mill. A few outliers lived here for the wild beauty and cheap property, but St. Thomas was at heart a logging and mill town.
And it always seemed like a distinct step up from Helmsville.
I pulled out Grady's wallet, sliding his credit card, pulling the sweaty cowboy hat over my eyes, and filling the tank. I took out the cash, around sixty bucks and a few bills. Then I slid out what looked like an ATM card, flipping it over and sighing at the four numbers written in permanent marker on the back. He'd written his PIN on the back of the card.
“Dammit, Grady,” I said, “you made it too easy.” I took the nozzle out of the tank and looked toward the convenience store. I could see cameras inside. Even if Grady did report his wallet stolen, the police probably wouldn't bother to check the feed. Still, I couldn't chance it. I was, after all, driving a stolen car. But I had a plan to solve that problem.
I froze, blinking, realizing I'd told the bartender the truth, too. Jesus, what was wrong with me? I’d always been self-destructive, but this was out of control. It was easy enough to lie, to make some untruth that sounded better than reality. Why did I keep telling people the truth? It was bad behavior and I had to stop.
I got in the car and drove through the four-way stop, pulling into the motel, slapping on a smile as I walked through the doors, the air conditioning feeling decadent after the bar. The girl behind the counter was wearing a little red bow tie, her hair tied in a tight ponytail, her eyes rimmed in thick, black eyeliner.
“Hey,” I said. “Can I use the ATM?”
She was chewing gum and looked me over. “Sure. Something wrong with the one across the street?”
“My old man kicked me out,” I said conspiratorially, taking off Grady’s hat and leaning toward her over the counter. “I'm going to drain his bank account. Those cameras real?”
She looked where I pointed and shrugged, blowing a bubble. “Nah. They're just for looks. He hit you?”
“For the last time,” I said.
“Fuck that asshole. Take everything he has.” She clenched her jaw, a hard look behind her eyes. “Get out of this shithole and go somewhere nice.”
“I hear California's good,” I said. I'd always dreamed of moving to Los Angeles after high school. California had seemed like a different world, an exotic land that wasn’t even in the same universe. But I hadn't even made it to the end of the school year. I frowned, sliding the card in the machine and punching in the numbers. This place was already pulling me back into my past.
“Shit, take me with you,” she said with a dry laugh. When I looked, she wasn't smiling.
I left Grady’s hat on the counter.
The road to the West End was treacherous at best, death-defying in the winter. But I cruised just above the speed limit, passing semi-trucks and RV's like I'd never left. Everything was familiar, even in the dark. Maybe especially in the dark. The twists and turns of the road, the shape of the trees against the almost-black sky. Even the crescent moon hanging high in the sky, black shadows crossing it quickly, blocking its light just for a moment. Ravens. It all felt too familiar, too close. They call it Big Sky Country, but I felt claustrophobic. Chain smoking now, I lit another cigarette.
Like I'd never left.
I knew where I was going by heart, even still. I'd traveled this dirt road a thousand times, walking, on my bike, a few times on a snowmobile, and later in my father's car. These old logging roads didn't have names and that's the way people liked it. Away from the world. Anonymous. My headlights didn't start to penetrate the darkness. Tree roots raised up the road in spots, disturbing the packed dirt of summer. In winter, the road was only discernible by tire tracks in the snow—when there were any. In spring the snow melted and turned the dirt into miles and miles of cold, cloying mud that sucked the boots off your feet.
And I was back. I felt sick and exhausted and ready to scream. But I swallowed it down and kept my eyes on the road. I knew where I was going, and that would have to be enough right now.
It was cold and I turned on the heat, but the air duct spewed a rotting smell, so I cut the heat and cracked the window. Up one last hill and around the last patch of trees, and there I was. The house was lit up like a beacon, and at first looked just as I remembered. I saw movement behind the curtains and I turned off the car, watching. From the house, 70s rock music rattled the windshield of the Honda.
As my eyes adjusted, I could see seven junk cars in front. One broken upstairs window was patched up with cardboard and duct tape. A Confederate flag covered what I knew to be the living room window.
I'd been careless lately, but that's not what this was. This was a calculated risk. The only person I'd ever known who could lose a car without a trace was inside that house. He was also the only person I could scare into keeping it a secret. The only person in this town who owed me.
And hell if he didn’t owe me big.
I got out of the car and started walking, then I was knocking on the weathered door that was peeling paint, the gray wood cracking underneath. I could hear voices inside, I couldn't tell how many with the music. I knocked again, louder this time, and the music stopped and the inside lights went out, leaving an oppressive silence in the darkness, the only light a watery bulb that barely lit the front step. I heard the voices again, and could tell there were only two of them. There was a sound like glass breaking.
“Shawn!” I called through the door, though I knew he was probably just on the other side. He would hear a whisper. “I know you're in there. Open the goddamn door.”
“Who is it?” said a woman.
“A blast from the past,” I said. “Just open up.”
I could hear bickering coming from inside in a stage whisper and rolled my eyes.
“I don't have time for this, Shawn. Open the door.”
The door opened a crack, revealing the darkness within. Then a ratty face with greasy, bleached hair emerged, a woman who hadn't eaten a square meal in months. She curled her lip, an attempt to look mean, I guessed. She looked me up and down.
“Who the fuck are you?”
“Is Shawn here?” I said, out of patience. It was taking everything I had not to just kick down the rickety door and haul the rat-faced woman out into the cold by her drug store dye job.
“He's here,” she said. “You can talk to me. I'm his wife.”
“Of course you are,” I said. “Tell him Frankie's come back from the dead.”
But someone was pulling the door open all the way and Shawn Delaney finally showed his face. The years had not been kind. He was wearing a blue bandanna over dirty hair that went to his bare shoulders, his jeans crusted with something I couldn't make out in the dim light. He had a bad homemade tattoo on his chest, meant to be a St. Thomas eagle, but looking more like a deranged pigeon. He'd been cute in high school, but now he had a bloated stomach and when he smiled nervously, I could see blackening teeth and rotten gums.
“Shit,” he said, dropping his can of Schmidt Ice. Cheap beer foamed up and splattered the woman's bare legs and she jumped back.
“Shawn!” she screeched, “Jesus!”
“Shit,” he said again, still staring at me.
“Got a minute?” I said. He nodded dumbly. “You'd better step out. I don't want to know what you got going in there. Your dad always kept it so nice.”
“He died a couple years back,” Shawn said, blinking.
“Sorry. He was good to me.”
“Excuse me,” said the woman. “What the fuck is going on here? Who is this bitch?”
“Watch it, honey,” I said. “Not enough meth in the world for you to take me on.”
“Ellie, calm down,” said Shawn, seeming to notice his wife for the first time. “Go check on the kids, baby. This is just an old
friend of mine.”
“Kids?” I said.
“Kids?” said Ellie. “Some blonde bitch shows up and you just want me to go check on the kids? I will divorce you, Shawn. You will not leave this house.”
“Baby, we're common law,” Shawn whined.
“I still have rights.”
“It's business,” I said. “He did a job for me years back. Just came to pick up my merchandise.”
“Oh,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “You owe him money?”
“More like he owes me.” Shawn swallowed hard.
“Shit, how much?” Ellie said, aiming her glare at Shawn now.
“We're going to settle in a trade,” I said. “Don't worry.”
“Trade? What, like sex?”
I laughed before catching myself.
“That's funny?” said Ellie.
“No, definitely not sex. Shawn?”
“Just go in the house, honey. I'll be back in a minute.”
“Well, okay then. But no sex, Shawn, you hear me?”
“I hear you, baby. You're the only one for me.”
Reluctantly, Ellie closed the door. And it was just my old boyfriend and me. He stared at me. I lit a cigarette, ignoring him, giving him a second.
“Hey, Shawn,” I said. I examined the cherry on my cigarette, blew smoke through my nose. He had track marks on his arms that he rubbed at nervously.
“Is that really you?” he said finally. “Frankie?”
I finally looked at him. “Not a ghost. See?” I reeled back and smacked his face, catching him off guard, making him teeter off the front step onto the grass.
“That's for what you said to the reporters about me,” I said, taking another drag, looking down at him. “I still owe you for what you said to the cops.”
“How are you here? How the fuck are you alive?”
I crouched down. “I'm not. Boo!”
“I'm not hallucinating,” he said slowly. “Ellie saw you, too.”
“You need to cut the crank, dumbass,” I said. “You look like shit.”
“You look amazing. I mean, for someone who's dead.”
“Thanks,” I said. “You have my dad's car?”
“I haven't touched it,” he said quickly. “I swear.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You sure about that?”
“I was too scared. After what happened with...after what happened. I didn't even tell your mom when she was here. It still has
the same tarp from ten years ago.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “My mother was here? Recently?”
He shrugged. “Couple months ago, I think. It was a few weeks after you...” He swallowed, his eyes welling, his brow furrowing.
He was either scared or about to soil himself.
“After I died.”
He nodded slowly. “Shit.” He rubbed his face. “Shit, what’s happening?”
“What did she want?”
“My mom, goddammit.”
“Oh! She was yelling some crazy shit, Frank. Like, really weird shit, how I stole your body from the morgue. I thought she was batshit. She was always kind of funny, anyway, you know?” When I didn't answer he turned his face away, frowning. When he looked back, he looked scared again. “I guess she wasn't so crazy, after all. You're standing here. Somebody must have stolen your body and done some science shit to it, right?”
“Something like that,” I said. “Except no one stole me, Shawn. I stood up and walked right out of that morgue. And if you tell anyone, I'll kill you. Understood?”
“I ain't telling no one, I swear.” A fragile smile spread across his face. “But it's pretty rad, right? I mean, you're back from the dead. That makes you immortal or some shit.”
“Damn straight,” I lied. “I need you to do me a favor.”
“A favor?” His smile faded.
“You see that car? The Honda?” He nodded. “Can you get rid of it?”
“Is that all?” he said. “Shit yeah, I can do that. Easy.”
“Whose car ain't?”
“Just give me my dad's car and I'll leave,” I said. “And after you get rid of the Honda, you can pretend I'm dead again and it’ll be like tonight never happened.”
“I'm real sorry. About everything.”
“Me too, Shawn.”
As he led me around, towards the shop, I heard him exclaim under his breath.
“What?” I said.
“That's weird.” He squinted toward the shop. As we got closer the motion detector lights came on, flooding what used to be a yard, but was now knapweed and garbage. The lights revealed what Shawn had seen in the dark, and he watched, open-mouthed as a half dozen ravens exploded off the roof of the shop and into the trees.
“I never seen ravens at night before,” he said. “I didn't think they were nocturnal.”
“You learn something new every day,” I said.
Blood of Cain, Book One
Pre-order now on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LXZQ9XO
Frankie Mourning died on a Thursday. Then she came back.
Tasked with killing the killers - people with the blood of Cain running through their veins - Frankie always gets her murderer. But this time it's different. This time she has to go home. Something strange is happening in Helmville, Montana. People are dying at an alarming rate, and the sheriff is ruling them all accidents and suicides. Nothing is as it seems and Frankie soon finds herself sucked into the tangled and seemingly supernatural mystery. Because the people acting strangely, the people killing everyone around her are haunting the mirrors. Now Frankie's own reflection is behaving strangely and seems hellbent on causing her harm.
In a world enmeshed in remote beauty, dark magic, and violent memories, Frankie feels lost. Luckily, a detective on the run for murder shows up. Thomas Dekker wants to help and claims he cares about Frankie. But daring to trust him could cost her everything.