The night dragged by on heavy feet unwilling to move at quickly, one plodding step after one plodding step, one scuffed old shoe after scuffed old shoe. Stan and JC called in every hour from a nearby pay phone to report nothing. They called because they were bored and to prove they were doing something. The son had not come out of the house, at least not by the front door. Each time they made a call they checked the back alley. The night was too cold to leave one of them guarding it outside the car. Benj could have done it, but his priority was Sophie and not Mrs. Gray’s strange kid. Tomorrow they planned to familiarize themselves with the street layouts and bring two cars. Guinness grew up in that well-to-do part of Dorian. He promised to supply them with streets kids frequented. Other than that, nothing, nada, zilch. As the moon made its way across the sky, West and Guinness drifted off to their house to sleep a few hours before the sun rose followed by Jack. Stan promised he did not need to be relieved by Guinness. Sophie stood and stretched before heading for the shower. She kissed Benj, still hiding something, on the cheek and left the pictures of lost children in a pile on the desk. Too many hours of that could break anyone’s heart, even a vampire’s non-existent one. She had had enough.
Hot water ran over her skin. It wrapped Sophie in a liquid blanket of warmth. The sadness of the new case washed down the drain, but the kid’s freckled faces faded, images of rent souls took their places. Murdered, tortured, violated men, women and children always waited on the edges of her mind to be remembered. Sophie hummed with the cadence of falling water, letting music wash her mind clean. No remembering. Not tonight.
A strange sensation built in the back of her heart. Warmth, a love like a friend, a close companionship, bloomed. It grew from a flower to a flaming passion. Her whole body flush. She pulled back the shower curtain sure Benj waited for her, silent and cold on the other side. The room was empty. She stepped from the shower, and faced herself in the mirror. Her cheeks glowed. Her chest beat a rapid tat-too, not in the all too normal fear, but with a breathless light-headedness. Images and feelings long suppressed delightedly embarrassed her.
Yanking her white towel off the bar, Sophie wrapped it around herself. She hurried out of the steam filled room. A tingling shiver ran down her spine. Benj leaned against the hallway wall, nonchalant in appearance only. He waited for her. His soul pulsed with desires long locked away. Sophie reached for him and stopped. JC and Stan waited behind him. Why was anyone else here? The fast flowing, growing passion she sensed from Benj had led her to believe they were alone. She would have grabbed her bathrobe and not her a towel if she had thought the guys would be waiting out here.
“What’s going on?” Sophie asked pulling the towel a little higher.
JC smiled and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a little velvet pouch and gave it to Benj.
“Love you both.”
Benj loosened the strings and dumped the bag over his thin hand. A simple silver ring with a large, round emerald dropped into his palm. He returned the bag to JC.
“Sophie? Will you marry me?” He held out his hand, the ring in the other.
Sophie gasped. She pressed one hand over her mouth. Tears, happy ones, incandescently happy ones, flooded her eyes. She slipped her small, fair hand in Benj’s large, cold one.
“I swear, by the King who saved me from myself, to love you and you alone as long as we both shall live.”
“I swear, by the King who I serve, that I will love you and you alone as long as we both shall live,” Sophie repeated.
Benj slipped the ring on her finger. A trail of sparks flowed across her skin at his touch. He reached for her, pulled her up against himself, kissed her hard on the lips. He kissed her not out of protective love, but out of passionate belonging. She melted into him.
“May I not be damned for this,” he whispered in her ear.
JC glance at Stan and gave him a silent head gesture indicating it was time to leave. Stan smiled and followed him out the door.
With their witnesses gone, Sophie cupped Benj’s pale, long face in her hands. Standing on her tip toes, moving against his warming body, she kissed his eyes, his lips and his face. Benj gathered her up in his arms, whispered dark vows in her ear, and took her.
The towel lay behind them in the hall, alone and forgotten.
Gathered around West’s bar the next afternoon, everyone talked and compared notes. Because their team included a vampire, damned to only walk in the night, they started work late in the day. All the curtains were secured to block out the sun. West sat at the typewriter, pounding away as Jack dictated to her. Guinness stifled a yawn while flipping through a Rolodex to find a contact and get tax information. Stan and JC both nursed cups of strong coffee – JC’s black and Stan’s with lots of cream and sugar. They tried, not very successfully, to avoid smiling at Sophie. She had snuck out of Benj’s room earlier in the day to get dressed. JC distracted Jack as she darted across the hall.
“If you grimaced at us one more time, you’ll crack a fang,” Jack whispered out of the side of his mouth as he passed by Benj sipping blood from a wine glass.
“If you don’t stop your obnoxious double entendres and grinning, I will skin both of you alive. I know how to do it. Do not test me.”
Sophie grabbed Benj’s wrist. A sad moaning surrounded her followed by images of sun and trees washed of color. Sophie slipped from her chair as she slipped from her body. Benj caught her before she touched the floor.
The broken girl lay under some leafless shrubs overshadowing a shallow hollow on the side of a hill. There was very little of her left. Just her soul, broken and torn, shimmering with the veil. A sense of tired sadness, a lone whisper of closure for her parents remained. All else that once belonged to the child had been taken. Taken by the man with the knives. She waited. She waited to be found so she could leave. Sophie told the broken soul she would be back…wait….please do not leave. But why was she still here?
Sophie sat up with a sharp inhale. It startled her when she woke up somewhere different than when she blacked out. Benj had moved her to the sofa, but she last remembered sitting at the bar. Everyone leaned in around her. Benj dammed up his worry, iced it in and examined her with a calm facade of a face. Sophie pushed her worry at his worry away. Something was very wrong.
“He dropped the body in Fir Park.” Sophie ran her finger between her eyebrows creased in confusion.
“What is wrong?” Benj asked.
Sophie glanced around, each face, each pair of eyes dear to her, each one waiting to hear what she said.
“She’s still there…”
No they stared at her in silence for a moment.
“What are you talking about?” Jack asked around his pipe steam.
“When I find a dump site, it’s the residue of the killer and the residue of the pain and horror I find. I don’t find the soul of the victim still in its body. It should have gone on to eternity, to the Plane Beyond. It shouldn’t be on the Material Plane. I really don’t understand. But this killer does have some magical powers. He must have trapped her here.”
Stan opened his mouth to ask a question but Jack forestalled him with a wave of his hand.
“What do you think we need to do?”
“Go find her, I guess,” Sophie said. She pushed herself up from the sofa. Benj offered her his arms.
“I won’t break, Benj.” She stood on her tip toes and kissed his cheek. “I just need a drink.”
Sophie headed to the kitchen. Benj followed. His worry broke through the ice he had piled over it. Sophie welcomed his cold arms around her realizing he needed confirmation of her wellbeing. She leaned into him sharing her warmth. They no longer had to be tentative in their need for comfort. They legally belong to one another physically as well as spiritually. Sophie relished the new sense of protection Benj wrapped around her. She did not hold in the sad emotions she picked up from the girl’s trapped soul but shared their burden. Her hands trembled. A child so lost and alone, confused, scared. Benj took her fingers and held them still. He kissed the tips of them.
“My love, my love, we will find her and help her,” he whispered.
“That’s what we do, right?”
The shaking stopped. She held tight to his love, his strength, his coldness.
Benj seated her on a barstool, filled a glass with water, and set it in front of her along with a bowl of chocolate chips.
“We’ll head out as soon as we can,” Jack said. “We need to see if Sophie can get a link on this bastard.”
Something in Jack’s voice caught Sophie. She glance at the tough old man. Real fear lined his face. Fear which only haunted him when his dreams returned to the war he had fought overseas and the boys he had left behind. Yesterday’s words echoed between them: “What if it’s you who’s not supposed to exist?”
A chill rushed over Sophie. Benj frowned. Jack shook his head at them.
“Well, what are you waiting for, another vision?” Jack stirred every one up. Stan watched and stayed out of the way while everyone went back to work. Sophie nibbled at the chocolate and drank some water.
“I need to sleep for a few hours,” Benj said. “So do you.”
A flutter stirred in her stomach. Benj laughed inside himself at her flushed embarrassment.
“Do we have time to sleep?” he asked.
Sophie smiled. Even after the last Reading she smiled. It surprised her. She had never enjoyed happiness after a Reading. Benj reached up over the barstool. He wrapped his arms around her, encasing her in his chilled love.
“Forgive me. If I had known the joy you would feel, I would have married you long ago,” Benj whispered in her ear. “It is rare to see you happy.”
“You make me happy.”
“That is very . . .” Benj paused, searched for the word.
“Cheesy?” Sophie supplied.
“That is not the word for which I was searching,” Benj said.
“But it is the right word.”
Benj frowned. “I suppose that is correct.”
Sophie lifted herself up and kissed him on the chin. She pulled his arms apart and stood up. “Yes, we have time to sleep before the we go to the drop sight.” She turned to the others, “Good night all.” Sophie headed down the hall.
“What was that?” Jack said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sophie smile that much.”
JC walked over and leaned towards Benj. “Whatever you did, it worked.”
Benj coughed. “All I did was something I should have done long ago.”
He shifted back to his room, their room.
Jack, Stan, Benj, and Sophie waited at the bottom of The Hill which rose out of a small forest of pines. Dorian’s one large park, Fir Park, encompassed The Hill, the highest point in town. The sun sank behind it, leaving them in gray twilight darkened by The Hill’s shadow. Benj insisted on coming. He did not like the unknown element of their new killer, the obvious magical element. They worked until sunset, bundled Benj in a black hooded coat, grabbed their trench coats and fedoras, and headed out with the vampire in the trunk.
“She here?” Stan asked.
Sophie pointed towards The Hill’s crown. “Right there.”
“You okay, Stan?” Jack clasped him on the shoulder. “You look like you might be sick.”
“Never seen a murder before. Not on this level.”
“Well, if it makes you feel better, you never get used to it.”
“Do we even know her name?”
“Cora Beare,” Sophie said.
“How did you know that?” Jack started.
“She just told me,” Sophie whispered. “She sensed me and wants me to help her find him.”
A wave of concern washed from Benj to Sophie. She tilted her head to the side and stared off into the pines. The sharp smell of the evergreens drew up memories of Christmas, snow, and simple childhood magic. Benj wrapped her hand in his. Sophie said nothing as she started into the pines. The others followed behind her. They passed through the tall trees. The fallen needles masked their footfalls. A fox lifted its head in surprise, sniffed the wind and trotted away. A gray owl dropped out of a pine and floated on a draft into the dark woods, silent. Sadness sifted down on Sophie’s shoulders as she thought of Cora never smelling or seeing this beautiful park again. Other names, other faces followed behind the shredded remains of the child. This was a sad, sad world filled with tattered souls.
“It’s very quiet,” Stan whispered.
“Murder does that,” Benj said.
They stepped out of the columns of evergreen trees and started up the hill. Thick grass, dry and brittle, ragweed, brambles and small shrubs rustled under foot. The going was slow for Jack, Stan, and Sophie as they navigated around mounds of grass and avoided holes in the ground. The twilight left unreal shadows and deception in the weeds. Benj maintained Sophie’s speed always at her side, his hand on elbow. Stars come out above them as the pink sky faded to blue and then to black.
Half way up the hill the wind increased. It rubbed the exposed branches of a small tree together with a sticky rustle. Brambles overgrew the tree as it broke above the grass. Even without its leaves, the interwoven branches and dried brambles provided cover from all but the most inquisitive observer. Already late in the fall, all such inquisitive ones were locked in classrooms during the day and studying during the night. Playing at Fir Park on The Hill was not high on the list of things to do. In the small hollow at the base of the bramble tree lay Cora Beare’s body, or what remained of it. Her last link to this world. Sophie ignored the tears on her face as she approached the drop spot. She spoke for the small soul.
“She is so alone, so scared. All she wants is to go home. She misses her Daddy, Mommy, and sister, Evelyn.”
“So she is still here?” Jack asked.
Sophie nodded. She hugged herself against the chill wind. Benj pulled off his coat, not needing it in the dark, and wrapped it around her, holding her
“Why is she still here?” Jack asked no one in particular, shaking his head.
Sophie broke from Benj’s embrace and walked up past the drop spot. She sat down in the dry grass and pulled her knees up to her chest. She wrapped her arms around them. “I don’t know.”
“What’s going on?” Stan asked.
“It is normal for the soul, torn or not, to go on to the afterlife, the Plane Beyond, after death,” Benj explained. “Cora’s soul should not still reside here. When we find the dump sites, Sophie tries to gain a link between the empty body and the killer. She does this based on the killer’s residue left in the tortured body, not because the victim’s soul is still here. So this is new.” He shifted to stand behind Sophie, a deeper blackness in the swiftly coming night.
Jack and Stan stepped closer to the tree. Jack flipped on his flashlight and turned the beam down into the depression. Stan hissed, jumping back.
“Yep, she’s here.” Jack said punctuating each word with a deep breath. “Boy howdy am I glad it’s a little colder. If this had been the summer–”
“Stop, please,” Sophie moaned.
“I smelled her long before we arrived.”
“Of course you did,” Jack said. He turned the beam around and shown it on Stan’s feet. “Now, this is where things get interesting. Stan, my boy, here is what you are going to do. First, call back to the house and let West know we’ve found the body. Tell her that if she doesn’t hear from us in about two hours, she needs to call Sheriff Conway and Agent Van.”
“Why did you say that and who are those people?” Stan asked.
“Think about it, Stan. Kinda suspicious, us finding this body in the dark. The cops will have lots of questions for us, and we won’t have answers they like.”
Even in the almost complete dark, Stan paled. “I think I’m gonna throw up.”
“Do it over there so you don’t get it on the body,” Jack ordered.
“What does Sheriff Conway have to do with this?”
“He knows us, and knows what’s special about our little family.”
“He never said anything.”
“Would you?” Jack asked. “Next, you’re going to call the police department. You’re going to tell them we’re out at Fir Park, on the east side of Old Hill. Let them know we just found what appears to be a dead body. There are four of us, we’re unarmed, and I have a flashlight. We’ll wait for the police to get here.”
Stan nodded. “This should be fun. I’ve never been arrested for murder before.”
“You will become used to it,” Benj said. “It is not so bad as long as the police officers stay calm.”
“Remember that time in Lakeview?” Jack asked.
“Yes. I thought we would never extradite ourselves from that cell,” Benj said.
“When you get done talking to them, come back here and we’ll wait for them.” Jack patted Stan on the back.
The grass cracked and crackled under foot as Stan hurried down the hill. An overwhelming sense of protection flowed from Benj. Sophie wrapped it around herself like a thick blanket. If anyone so much as leaned the wrong way, Benj would tear them limb from limb. The darkness became complete and the cold soaked up into Sophie through the hard ground. Jack waved his arms and blew on his fingers finally stopping to light his pipe. He moved up beside them without a word, just waiting for their reporter to return.
Less than twenty minutes later, Stan huffed and puffed back up The Hill. He dropped down next to Sophie in the dry grass to catch his breath.
“I never told you to run,” Jack muttered around the steam of his pipe.
Four police cars pulled up on the road below. The climbed to their feet, and Jack signaled them with the flashlight. The officers climbed The Hill. At a reasonable distance flashlights swept across them. They were ordered to spread out and put their hands where they could be seen. Complying, Sophie stood and rested her gloved hands on her thighs. Benj stood very still beside her focused on sending non-vampire vibes.
Two patrolmen confirm the body while the others kept an eye on them. The veteran officers took deep breaths when they saw the destruction inflicted on the small child. One young man bent over and put his head between his knees. Other officers quickly joined them to view the horror on The Hill. The darkness of the night broke into the beams of flashlights. Teams of men closed the road, hauled equipment, and a stretcher up the hill. One of them radioed in the information while another led Sophie, Benj, Stan, and Jack down the hill informing them that the detectives wanted to ask them some questions. One by one, they were escorted into patrol cars. A young man approached Sophie.
“Ma’am? We need you to come with us.”
“I know. I’ve done this before, Officer. We won’t be any trouble.”
Exhaustion washed over her as the officer helped her into the car. Knowing Benj road in the car ahead of her, Sophie leaned back in the seat, pulled his black coat around her, and snuggled up in the feelings of love which flowed from him. The horror Cora endured nibbled at the edges of her psyche, but Benj’s love, their new marriage centered her. The young officer followed the three other squad cars back into town. Sophie noticed the tension of his body. He sat stiffly in the front seat and kept glancing at her in the rearview mirror. He was so young and new to law enforcement. In a way, Sophie felt responsible for adding this level of human to human debasement to his life. She could see all the signs of someone who had never faced such mutilation and desecration of a little girl before. She remembered the first time she saw it. The world lost a bit of silver lining when the body of a tortured and murdered child lay at her feet. And as far as the young man knew, one or all of them might have done it to her. In his place, she would have been tense too.