He wore no mask. No long trench coat with the collar pulled up to hide his face. He wasn’t a shadowy predator stalking his prey in the refuge of midnight. The Collector did not hide. There was never any need. Instead, he strode down the street with ease. Each step calm and purposeful as he moved towards his prey.
The Collector stood outside the front door. Ring the doorbell? Or surprise her?
He loved a good surprise. With the slightest touch of the doorknob, the lock clicked. He gingerly pushed it open and stepped in and just as quietly closed the door behind him.
The foyer was dimly lit, but he wasn’t worried. A lover of research, The Collector was always thorough when he investigated a new acquisition. This time was no different. He knew she was home alone. Her friends wanted to go out, but she declined, and they left without her. He knew her parents wouldn’t be back until morning, and the neighbors on both sides of the brownstone weren’t home. And wouldn’t be home for a long time. Upon entering the living room, The Collector took note of the economics book on the sofa.
He smiled. “She studies so hard,” he said to himself. He picked up the book and sat down in its place.
Nineteen-year-old Riley Green shrugged out of a towel and put on her pajamas. She was a little old to be wearing Hello Kitty pajamas, but she didn’t care. They were cute and reminded her of her childhood, and she still fit them even with the fifteen pounds she gained since she started college. She wrapped her damp auburn hair in a yellow towel and stepped out of the bathroom. She lived in a dorm, but her parents kept her room just as she had left it. And she was thankful for that. It was nice having everything the same. Comforting even. It was like they were telling her no matter where she went in the world, she could always come home. A lot of kids at her college didn’t have that.
Riley towel-dried her hair with one hand and rifled through the books on her desk with the other. “Where is my economics book?” She dropped the towel and continued searching the room. “You left it downstairs idiot.” She sighed. She had left it on the sofa when she had gone upstairs to take a shower. She shook her head as she left the room, went down the stairs and stepped into the living room.
Riley’s heart stopped.
“Hello, Riley.” The Collector stood up. “Pardon my rudeness. I know I shouldn’t have let myself in, but I wanted to surprise you.” He stepped towards her.
“Who—how—” Riley pointed towards the front door. Fear seized her. Her eyes darted around the room. She had to get to the phone.
No! The door! She knew what she had to do. Get away. Runaway. Just move! But her feet wouldn’t obey her. It was like they were glued to that spot, and no matter how much she needed them to, they wouldn’t move. Fear had rendered them useless.
In a matter of seconds, his hand was tight around her throat. His thumb pressed against her windpipe. Riley clawed at his gloved hand. Gasping for air. Tears welling in her eyes.
He squeezed. Riley wrapped both hands around his wrist as he calmly and firmly guided her into the living room. With one hand still squeezing her throat, he used the other to pick his bag off the floor.
He gave her a sweet smile then released her. She fell to her knees. Her hands wrapped around her neck as she coughed, gasping for air. Newfound air burned her throat and lungs as she fought to catch her breath.
“Alright darling, I need you to rest a spell, while I get set up. Don’t want to spoil the surprise.” The Collector smiled as he kicked her twice in the head, sending her body flailing across the room. Her head slammed into the wooden leg of the sofa.
When her eyes closed, he went to work.
Riley’s eyes fluttered open as ice-cold water trickled down her forehead. Her skin prickled as the air conditioner clicked on.
“There you are darling. For a second I thought I had lost you.”
The Collector leaned over and gave her a lingering wet kiss above her left eye. The sickening mix of cigarette smoke and cologne trailed behind him as he walked away from her. She blinked. The world slowly came into focus. Her wrists were cuffed to the legs of the wooden table in the dining room. Completely naked and shivering, Riley pulled against her restraints. The chains rattled against the wood. He turned his head and winked.
Riley crossed her legs and tried to pull them closer to her body.
“Riiiiilleyyy. Don’t get modest on me now darling. It’s much too late for that.” The Collector slowly moved to the table. He popped his forefinger out of his mouth and dragged it down her stomach, leaving behind a repulsing trail of saliva.
“Please don’t kill me,” she whimpered.
“If you scream, I will not only hurt you, but I’ll kill anyone that tries to come and help you, and then I’ll prolong this, so you can stay alert and watch me kill your family. The things I’ll do to your little sister will make you wish you would have listened to me. What do you say?”
“They won’t be back for a week—”
The Collector took his fist and plowed it into the right side of her face. “You and I both know they’ll be back from their trip tomorrow. Don’t lie to me again.”
Riley choked back a sob. Her face hot and throbbing. Tears pooling in her eyes.
“I-I’m sorry,” she whispered through gritted teeth.
He smiled. A wide, happy, creepy little smile. “All is forgiven. Just don’t let it happen again.” He stroked her face and gingerly tucked a few strands of auburn hair behind her ear. “Let’s get started, shall we?”
He clapped twice before shrugging out of his raincoat to reveal a dark blue suit, light blue shirt and a silver and blue tie. With rheumy eyes, Riley watched him pull a small black bag from the inside pocket of his jacket.
“W-what are you—”
“I’m going to have fun. It’s been too long. Well not too long, but it’s been longer than I would have liked. But that’s a story for another time…” The Collector’s voice trailed off as if he were no longer speaking to her, but to the bag he had placed on the kitchen counter. After a few minutes in silence, he spun around to face her. Scalpel in one hand and his tie in the other. “Now I know you’ll scream.”
“No, I-I won’t. I promise.” Riley shook her head as he inched closer.
“Yes, you will darling. I know you will, you see I’ve done this before. The pain will make you cry out whether you intend to or not.” He grabbed her by the chin to keep her head still before shoving the tie in her mouth. “Better to be safe than sorry.” He tore off a band of duct tape and pressed it to her lips. “Now where to start?”
He started and ended the same way he always had. A single cut from breast to belly button. Followed by more cuts, muffled screams and laughing. When he neared the end of his play date, The Collector looked like a content predator who had just finished a feast. With blood up to his elbows and a grin dancing across his lips, he stared at his game. Fingers slick and sticky with warm blood. He had found his happy place. Magic could have been used, but he liked getting his hands dirty. The Collector had no magic of his own, only that which he had siphoned from others. But he liked how it felt. Peeling the flesh with his fingers. The stickiness of the warm blood. Watching the flesh split open as he sliced through it. Feeling the skin give way. There was never a more glorious feeling known to man. Better than food. Better than sex. Better than love. Carving someone up, holding their life literally in the palm of his hand, was better than anything he had ever experienced. He couldn’t get the same sensations with magic that he could with his bare hands. Magic would come later.
While he was the happy hunter, Riley was the ravaged deer. Slowly dying as the predator finished his meal. She had stopped moving after he had peeled the skin from the palm of her left hand. He checked her pulse every few minutes making sure she didn’t die before he finished. Riley stared blankly at the ceiling. Making no noises, not even a whimper. He had done it enough to know what the silence meant.
“And now your finale.” He stroked her hair and placed a soft kiss on her forehead. “When I finish this, you can die. I just wanted to make sure I was the last thing you’d ever get to see.”
He felt the wetness of her tears as he took his thumb and dug it into her right eye socket. Her breath slowed as he used his thumb to pry the eyeball from its resting place. By the time he had gotten it free and cut through the connective tissue, Riley was gone. Her left eye stared up at him, the green, no longer vibrant but dull and empty.
He took both eyes and stuck them in their new home. A small jar filled with an alcohol solution. There was a bigger one at home in his special room, but the small jar would do for traveling. He had written Riley’s name on the lid the day before, and he knew his collection was eagerly awaiting the new arrival.
He headed towards the kitchen, but something caught his eye, stopping him in his tracks. A bright red umbrella rested next to a chair in the living room. It was hers. He had seen her carrying it the day he met her. The Collector had enjoyed watching her from afar, but a gust of wind came as she was crossing the street and snatched it from her hands. The cherry red umbrella, that had matched her lipstick, landed two feet from him. Ever the gentlemen, he picked it up and handed it to her before walking away.
With the jar in one hand, he walked over and picked it up. It would make the perfect gift for an old friend. More a collector of objects than body parts, he knew his friend would love the umbrella and the story behind it.
The Collector took the jar and the umbrella and sat them on the counter next to his bag. He spun around and stared at her lifeless body. Blood pooling on the floor beneath the table. “Now I can have some real fun.”
In the dark hours of the morning, anxiety had murdered my several attempts at sleep. Butchered it and left no witnesses, except a leaf-shaped ceiling fan that just sat there and watched. My tired eyes flitted open for the millionth time. I glanced at the neon green numbers on the clock next to my bed. It was after six. The sun would be rising soon. Sleep was being an elusive little bi—nope said I was going to stop cursing. An elusive…I couldn’t sleep. Let’s just say that shall we. Since I couldn’t sleep, I figured I should start my day.
The thought sent my heart into overdrive. It became a jackhammer, pounding furiously against my ribs. My stomach twisted in knots. Excitement and anxiety, gladiators fighting in the coliseum known as the pit of my stomach. It was a fight to the death, and by the time I sat up and placed my feet on the cool hardwood floor, anxiety had excitement cowering in a corner, bloody and missing an eye. My suspension had been lifted. Finally.
The pieces of rubble that were my life was finally fitting together again. Like a large dysfunctional puzzle with two pieces missing. My husband and my daughter. My husband in his infinite jackass wisdom decided to divorce me while I was still in rehab. He could have divorced me before or after, but no. It was better for him to wait until the day after I checked into a rehab facility, so he could look like the better spouse and parent. He was neither. But being an alcoholic and a little too invested in my job didn’t help my case. He got custody of our daughter Miracle because apparently, my job made it difficult for me to spend time with her.
Well, I guess that was true. No. It was true. I would get so consumed by my cases that I neglected my daughter. More concerned with the dead than her. It wasn’t always that way. I can’t say what made it that way. I think I tried to rationalize it. The victims needed me more. If I didn’t speak for them then who would? They needed me more than my family. Their families were counting on me to get justice for them. And that was more important.
It wasn’t more important, and I know that now although I still haven’t figured out what took me so long to realize that. In focusing on the victims of my cases, my Miracle always came last. No wonder when the judge asked her who she wanted to live with, she chose her father. I was never there for her. No wonder she hasn’t spoken to me since. Not even to say hello. And that’s my fault. I should have done better. Tried harder. Made more of an effort to be a mother. After forced rehab and AA meetings, my life was finally getting back on track.
Captain Burge had forgiven me of my past behavior and agreed to give me a second chance, but I wasn’t sure if the rest of the department shared in his forgiveness. Now I was not delusional. Returning from rock bottom was not going to be easy. A lot of work would have to be done before I could gain back their trust. I mean, what else could you do after going into a drunken rage and beating a suspect half to death? I mean really.
I pulled myself out of bed. Before I could do anything else, I had to make up my bed. My father forced me to do this every day when I was younger. I hated it then. I hate it now, but I can’t stop myself. Old habits die hard and all that. I picked up my cell phone from the bedside table and headed downstairs. Coffee would help. Coffee always helped. I fixed a pot of coffee and cracked a couple of eggs for breakfast.
I sat at the breakfast bar in the kitchen with a cup of black coffee, an omelet and two pieces of butter and honey toast. I was out of bacon. Breakfast screamed bacon, but it would do. When I finished breakfast and placed the dishes in the sink, I was on my way to take a shower when the phone rang.
“Hello? … Alright, I’m on my way.”
My heart pounded harder. Excitement was in the middle of the coliseum in a pool of blood. Anxiety stood next to it, the proud victor. This was my first case in six months. It was time. I took a quick shower and threw on a pair of black jeans and a black tank top, and a pair of black boots. After tying my more frizzy than curly black hair into a ponytail, I stared at the mirror. Too much black. I looked like I was heading to a funeral. But it was a crime scene, so it couldn’t be anything too bright. I grabbed a long sleeve burgundy shirt and slipped it on over my tank top. Better. I grabbed my purse and headed out.
Mornings in New Orleans were quiet. It was the time of day when New Orleans was in a transition. Night owls were trying to get in before the sunrise, and the rest of us were just waking up, preparing to start our day. This was made even more evident by the blood bank on the corner. There were several scattered around the city. Some with a crescent moon on the door, and some without. If the blood bank had a crescent moon, it meant it was there specifically for vampires. This was put into effect shortly after the world changed, and magic announced her presence like a pregnant side chick who invited herself to Christmas dinner. Loudly and without an ounce of decorum. The blood bank was emptying out, which meant the sun would be coming up soon.
Regulated by the FDC, these blood banks allowed vampires to feed without killing people, and it made sure they got clean untainted blood.
I pulled up to the crime scene and put the car in park. The morning sun painted the sky a beautiful shade of mauve. I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. A drink would settle your nerves. I shoved the thought from my mind. A drink would help. A few drinks would be better. A drink would settle my nerves and relieve my anxiety and make the world feel like a better place. It would also get me fired from the job that I worked so hard to get back. I sighed.
“You can do this,” I said to myself as I opened the car door. You can do this. Pulling myself out of the car and closing the door behind me, I smoothed down my sweater and took several deep breaths.
The scene before me looked like a controlled form of chaos. Residents from the homes around the crime scene had already started pooling onto the street. A black van parked directly in front of the brownstone. Crime scene techs jumped out. They opened the back of the van, grabbed their bags and headed into the house. Uniformed officers framed the area in crime scene tape, keeping the onlookers at bay. Purse in hand and a few deep breaths later, I made my way towards the house. A man in a dark blue suit came out of the house as two crime scene techs were going in. He popped a cigarette in his mouth. He was young, mid-twenties maybe. Thick black hair pulled into a loose top knot; his beard was thick but well-groomed. As he lifted a silver lighter with neon blue letters on it, he glanced up at me and stopped. Eyes so gray they were almost translucent stared back at me and then winked.
“You Detective Dixon?” He tucked the lighter back in his pocket, took the cigarette out of his mouth and stuck it in his other pocket.
I nodded as I walked towards him. “Who are you?” I asked.
“I’m Elias Crowe, your new partner.”
We shook hands. A truck backfired, and his head spun towards the direction of the noise. And there it was. His reason for being stuck with me. I knew I was getting a new partner because my last one was forced to retire. I wondered who my new partner would be. Who would be unlucky enough to get stuck with me? Judging by the cut of his ears, I got my answer. Pointy with three piercings going up the sides and the last through the point. Obviously not ashamed of who he is.
Some people in the department felt the same way about Magical Creatures or MCs joining the police force as men did when women joined all those years ago. Or when people of color started joining. They hated it. So much so that some states banned them from having certain jobs. Like being a police officer.
He was stuck with me probably because no one else wanted to work with him, and those same people probably didn’t want to work with me either. Made no difference to me. When the world changed, I hadn’t been born yet. And as a woman of color, it didn’t feel right to discriminate against anyone. I tried to avoid it.
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
“Is the crime scene in there.” I nodded towards the doorway. I moved towards the brownstone steps. His hand darted out in front of me.
“I’ve already examined the scene. I could just tell you about it.”
“That bad?” I nudged his hand out of the way.
Elias glanced towards the house. “Worse.”
I took a deep breath. “Well, I should see it anyway.” I made my way up the stairs. After pulling on the sterilized booties over my boots, I picked up a pair of gloves and stepped inside the house. Elias close behind. I wiggled on the gloves as I walked through the foyer. I felt eyes on me. People glancing in my direction and then looking away. Ignore them.
My hand grasped the door frame for support. The smell of blood and death hit me like a punch in the gut. It was a smell I had become accustomed to, but it had been a while. The last time I had smelled it I stood over a nine-year-old boy in superhero pajamas.
“Are you okay?” Elias moved in front of me. Blocking the eyes of the pair of uniforms who had stopped what they were doing to watch me.
“Yeah,” I whispered.
The pair of officers snickered as they walked by.
“Is that about you or me?”
“Probably me,” I said. I smiled, and he smiled back.
The scent of death and blood was a difficult smell to describe, but once you smelled it, it would never be forgotten. “Tell me what happened here.”
Elias pulled out his notepad and flipped through a couple of pages. “The victim Riley Green was nineteen. She was home on break from college. Family was out on a weekend trip.”
“Why didn’t she go with them?”
“She had a big test when school started up. She had to study.”
“The family got back this morning and found this.” Elias gestured towards a room on the other side of the living room.
Once I got my bearings, I stepped further into the living room. “Is there a body?”
Elias bit his lip. “Kind of. Some of one. But it’s such a mess in the dining room, it’s difficult to tell. At least to me anyway.”
Two crime scene techs walked by, and I followed them. Through the kitchen and into the horror show that was the dining room. I’ve seen plenty of crime scenes, but this was… puzzling. And disgusting. There was no body.
“Are those—” I pointed to a dark pile in the corner of the room.
“Her organs? Well, yes ma’am, I believe so.”
In the far corner of the room rested the victim’s intestines. In the middle of the room was a wooden table, slick with blood. The blood was thick and dark. It had clearly been there for a while.
“Someone came in and removed her organs,” I asked.
“Seems so,” Elias said. “Don’t understand it though. Why go through all this to kill someone?”
I eyed the room. It was a heinous way to kill someone. “I’m willing to bet you, she was dead before the killer did this.”
“If she was dead already, why go through all of this?”
I looked around the room. It was immaculate. The dining room chairs had been lined up against the wall opposite the organs, perfectly. The chairs were a light gray, and yet there was no blood on them. How did he manage that? The blood had been contained to the table and the floor. It was nowhere else. “Was there any sign of forced entry?”
Elias shook his head.
“She probably saw his face,” I murmured mostly to myself.
“Doing this was fun for him. Not just killing her but the way he staged it.”
I glanced back at him. “Yes, staged. But you picked up on that already.”
He smiled coyly.
“Are you testing me?”
“Sometimes it’s better for an elf to play dumb in the presence of humans.”
“Better for who?” I stared at him. “Me, you or the dead nineteen-year-old whose blood we’re standing in right now? I don’t care that you’re an elf. I do, however, care if you can’t do the job.”
Elias nodded. “Yes, ma’am.” He smiled. “In that case, did you notice how the blood is only in the middle of the room?”
“That’s strange, right? I mean I know this is my first murder case and all, but with this much blood… Although we don’t know how he killed her.”
“That’s true. But— there should still be blood on the walls or the ceiling.”
“What does that mean? That there isn’t any blood anywhere else.”
“I don’t know. The organs are proof there was a body. Look at this.” I gestured to the room. “If those organs weren’t there you could never definitively say that someone is dead. The heart and intestines in the corner let you know someone died in this room.”
“So, the killer wanted us to know that Riley’s not missing, she’s dead?”
I glanced back at Elias who was taking notes in his notepad.
“Yes. And the necromancer can’t reanimate the body if there isn’t a body to reanimate.”