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A narrow trail snakes in front of me, lit only by the full moon. If I can make it to the road…or hide…
Low-hanging branches scrape across my face, breaking through my raised arms and drawing blood. But I can't stop. I have to keep running. Can he smell my blood?
I stumble and fall to the ground. For a moment all I can hear is the deafening thud of my heart. But then I notice it. Silence. No more footsteps hurtling down the path behind me. I pick myself up and keep running, not convinced I've really lost them.
Finally I stop, resting my hands on my thighs to try to slow my breathing. I look around at the houses perched on the hilltops to the right. They're too far away to hear or see me.
The crack of a branch on the far side of the trail frightens me. I back away. My eyes, even though fully adjusted to the night, strain to decipher my surroundings. Is someone behind that tree? I keep moving backward, but then another branch snaps behind me. I run.
Soon I hear the footsteps again. I push myself harder, run harder. I glance back, hoping they're farther away than they sound. But they're not. Slamming into something, I come to an abrupt stop. I fall backward. I look up. His face is in shadows, but I can see glistening white teeth as he smiles.
Fangs dig deep into my neck, accompanied by searing pain.
I wake up with a start, rubbing my neck. The very last part of the dream flashes back to me…what the…? But then I realize I've fallen asleep on the couch to a rerun of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Obviously its imagery spilled into my subconscious as I was dropping off.
I drag myself over to the TV and turn it off, moving my head from side to side to stretch my neck. Someone in Buffy may have got fangs in the neck, but all I've got is a crick in mine. Serves me right for falling asleep in front of the box. Flicking off the lights, I make my way into the bathroom for the usual nightly ritual—cleanse and moisturize my face and brush my teeth. I complete it all on remote, watching the process in the mirror like a third-party observer.
Before going to bed I decide to do a final sweep of my apartment. I'm always security conscious; my job and my past make me extra careful and I often find the only way I can sleep is to search my apartment before I turn in for the night. I grab my gun and start at the front door, looking through the peephole. The coast is clear outside. From my front door I can see most of the open-plan space of my living room and kitchen. White walls and down-lights are made warmer by rich hardwood floors and two French doors that lead to a large balcony—one of my favorite features during hot summer nights. Like half of the complex's balconies, mine overlooks the swimming pool and well-landscaped gardens.
The open-plan space has few potential hiding spots, so I move straight to the large hall closet. Once that's checked I head for the bathroom, even though I was in there less than a minute ago. I pull the shower curtain back with my left hand, aiming my gun low into the small bathtub. It's empty, and I move quickly to the next door—my bedroom, and the only room in the house with carpet…I love the feel of the squishy warmth under my bare feet. Dark wood furniture with a Japanese feel offsets the cream carpet, again creating warmth in what could be a stark room. I check behind my three-panel Japanese screen, before moving to the built-in wardrobe. Opening one door at a time, I scan the clothes and also squat down to make sure only my shoes, facing away from me, occupy the closet. Like the rest of the place, it's all clear. As my final check I flick on the outside light and make sure no one's on the balcony.
Looking down at the Buddha that sits in the corner of the room, I say: "All clear." But I'm talking to myself, not the deity. Maybe I need a pet.
Sunday, 11:00 a.m.
On my way home from Bikram yoga—something I've discovered since moving to L.A.—my BlackBerry buzzes with an incoming call. There are only a handful of people who could be calling me on a Sunday, and when I see the number is withheld I jump to the logical conclusion— work. Still, while all special agents are always on call, as a profiler most of my work is initiated in the office Monday to Friday.
"Agent Sophie Anderson."
"Anderson, it's Rosen." George Rosen is the head of the L.A. office's Criminal Division and many of my cases come through his department.
"Go on," I say.
"Do you know Temescal Gateway Park?"
"Uh-huh." Temescal Gateway Park is about twenty minutes from where I live and work—Westwood, L.A. I've even done a few of the park's walks.
"A body was found there an hour ago. Right on the border of Topanga State Park."
"And we've got a call already?" Police rarely call in the FBI so quickly in a homicide case, unless there's something strange about the death or the area is rural with no local expertise in murder cases—and nothing twenty minutes in any direction of L.A. is rural. There must be some other reason why the Bureau's being pulled in early. Could be jurisdiction if they suspect the killer's been active in other states or, given they're calling a profiler, it's also possible there's something unusual about the murder or the scene.
Rosen's tone softens. "You're going to love this one, Anderson."
"Really?" I lean back into the car seat and am met with the sticky sensation of sweat-drenched hair on the back of my neck. When you do yoga poses in nearly 104 degrees for an hour and a half, your body takes a while to cool down.
"It's gold." Rosen pauses again and I get the feeling he's enjoying keeping me in suspense.
I play along. "Come on. Spill it."
"Where to start… Female vic, reported missing early this morning…and there are two puncture marks on her neck."
Puncture marks? I immediately think of last night's dream, but say, "Like a snakebite?"
"Maybe. But there's another line of inquiry, too. Rumor has it a group of self-proclaimed vampires uses Temes-cal Park for rituals from time to time. The group's called After Dark and apparently its leader is a charismatic male, which fits the cult pattern. If we are dealing with a cult and it's suddenly turned violent…"
"Gotcha." I take a deep breath. Cults, or NRMs— new religious movements—if we're being politically correct, aren't my usual area of expertise, but I have studied the psychology behind NRM behavior and some of the more spectacular examples of cults gone terribly wrong in America's past. But is vampirism a religion? Maybe some people treat it like one.
Rosen continues. "Couple of months back they arrested two people who were in the park illegally, after hours. That'll be your starting point."
"Two people…that's hardly a cult."
"No, but they are part of After Dark. The two guys said they were in the park by themselves and stuck to that story, but rangers saw a much larger group dispersing." He takes a breath. "Come into the office and I'll brief you fully, then I want you to get your ass down to the crime scene."
"Yes, sir." I look down at my yoga gear. "It'll be half an hour. I'm not at home." Normally I'd head straight to work, but given my current state I need to shower and get some proper clothes on first. No way am I showing up at a crime scene in tiny shorts and a midriff top, both partially see-through from sweat.
Rosen pauses. "What the heck. It's a nice day out. Let's just meet at the scene. See you at Temescal Park in forty minutes or so."
Interstate 5 is busy as usual, but it's moving well and I make good time back home. Within ten minutes of Rosen calling, I'm pulling into a parking spot on the street and racing up the stairs to my apartment. My shower is rushed, but while I'm shampooing and rinsing I think about the case—what little I know at this stage. A cult of vampires? This could be big. Whatever happens, it'll certainly be interesting. And how many "vampires" are there in L.A.? I've got lots of questions and no answers.
Within fifteen minutes I'm showered and dressed in gray pants and a black scoop-neck top. To this I add my shoulder holster and Smith & Wesson before popping the suit jacket over the top. Time to hit the road.
I drive north on Veteran, past the massive veteran cemetery, up to Sunset. On the corner of Veteran and Sunset a guy with a board slung over his body advertises maps to celebrity homes, reminding me that I'm passing through that part of town. I take a left, traveling west.
The drive along Sunset is peaceful, and as the road winds through wealthy suburbia, with large blocks and beautifully kept houses and gardens, I try to recall last night's dream. I was running through a wooded area and there were at least two people running after me, maybe three because I had people on my tail when I slammed into the "vampire." I visualize Temescal Park and try to imagine it in the dark—the area certainly fits the bill, fits my dream.
As I round a bend just near Chautauqua Boulevard, a row of tall gum trees reminds me of home. In some ways America and Australia are so different, yet you could take small sections of each country and cross-transplant them without really noticing much discrepancy. The gum trees remind me of similarities, but one trip on the I-5 would remind me of the differences. And the drive-through Starbucks here…I could have done with a few drive-through coffee shops when I was on the force in Melbourne.
I hit Pacific Palisades, and the group of shops on Sunset gives the suburb a homely, almost rural feel. I'm close, and sure enough a few cross-streets later I come to Temescal Canyon Road. I turn right into the park's entrance and am immediately met with an LAPD car.
I hold my ID against the driver-side window and the officer waves me through. "Drive on up to the top, ma'am."
I follow his instructions and drive past a couple of parking turnoffs, until I see more cop cars and a Chevy Impala with the coroner's emblem on the door. I pull my car onto the side of the road, just after the Temescal Camp Store. A sign says Park Vehicles Only, but today it's overrun by law-enforcement cars. Rosen is holding a file in his hands and leaning on his car—obviously waiting for me.
Once I'm parked next to him, I open the door. "Is she up one of the trails?"
"Yup." Rosen moves toward me and waits while I quickly change into the runners I keep in my car.
I tie my laces. "Beautiful spot, huh?"
Problem is now this park will be forever tainted with murder and with memories of last night's dream. Not all my dreams come true, but obviously last night's must have had a psychic nature.
I stand up and take a deep breath of the spring air. The temperature isn't anywhere near the daily maximum yet but it's a pleasant and fresh sixty-one degrees.
Rosen hands me the file.
I take the white manila folder. "You spoke to the homicide detective?"
"Yup. Detective Sloan from LAPD. She said to take the Temescal Ridge Trail about a mile up."
I nod and flip the file open. The first photo is a close-up of a woman's neck, with two puncture marks. "Crime-scene photos already." I raise my eyebrows.
"We are in the digital age."
I smile. "Quite."
I 'd like to flick through the file's contents now, but I'm also eager to get to the crime scene. "I'll check this out later." I close the file but keep a hold of it. "Let's head up." I don't want to keep the LAPD waiting any longer— not when they've invited us onto their turf.
We make a beeline for a lone cop who seems to be on point. He stands next to a flagpole and an American flag twitches in the slight breeze above him. Around this bitumen area stand large trees—firs, oaks and sycamores— as well as smaller shrubs and a very young willow tree. Extending up behind the cop is a steep hill.
We show him our ID and he waves us through. "Take the left-hand trail, ma'am, sir."
We both thank him and follow his directions. Within three hundred feet we come to brown tourist signs indicating the different trails. We climb the couple of steps made from stone and take the left fork at the next round of trail signs, which tell us that the Temescal Ridge/Te-mescal Canyon trail is a 2.6 mile loop. So far the area is peaceful, but I know darkness waits for us. A woman has come to a grisly end at the hands of a murderer… or two…and it's up to us to give her justice. I know it's cliché but that's still how I see my job—bringing justice to the dead.
"Do you know Detective Sloan?" I ask Rosen as we walk up the steady incline.
"Sure. She's an old-timer. Did her stint in the Sheriff's Department but couldn't give up the chase." He lets out a little laugh. "LAPD decided to give the old gal a second running."
"Is she a fan of the Bureau?"
"I don't think she's particularly pro or anti. But she knows this case could be tricky. It's certainly unusual."
Given the uphill and windy nature of the gravel trail, coupled with the dense brush, we could be a minute's walk from the scene and wouldn't necessarily see it. I tread carefully and keep to the main pathway so as not to disturb anything that may turn out to be evidence. I also keep my eye out for anything unusual. No point looking for footprints, because the area's covered in them. If the perps left their own mark on the trail last night, they would just blend in with the hundreds of others. Hopefully there'll be some more telling prints near the body.
We get to a bend in the pathway and take the turn. The path extends up for another three hundred feet in front of us to a ridge, where the trail turns again…but still no body.
I look up the hill. "Maybe it's around the next bend."
"Sloan said they're in a clearing off the trail, but that we'd be able to see them from the main path."