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By Cathy McDavid
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Cathy McDavid
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Okay, Celeste. Time to smile pretty for the nice folks watching in TV land."
Nicholaus Blackwater adjusted the lens on his camera, bringing the upper half of TV-7's top-ranked investigative reporter into sharper focus.
"'Bout time," she grumbled through gritted teeth and positioned the microphone exactly six inches beneath her collagen-enhanced lips.
"Five, four, three, two, one," Nick cued, and zoomed in for a close-up.
"We're just outside the entrance of the Forever in Peace Cemetery where the mutilated remains of an elderly woman were found atop a gardener's house early this morning by a pair of grave diggers."
Celeste's face, the one most watched in the noon and six p.m. time slots, reflected well-practiced hints of shock and concern coupled with the trademark stoicism of any successful TV reporter. Fan mail, both paper and electronic, poured in daily, most of the viewers praising her talent for reporting the grisly details of whatever heinous crime she was covering in a professional, unbiased manner while still conveying compassion for the victims.
Her reputation, as Nick and everyone else at the TV-7 News Center knew, was the biggest joke to come down the pike since Richard Nixonclaimed he wasn't a crook.
Balancing the camera on his shoulder, Nick took a step backward, then another, as Celeste, whose real name was Judy Schwichenberg, walked slowly forward, her articulate and evenly modulated voice imparting what frustratingly few facts they really had on the deceased woman.
Keeping her in the left third of the picture, Nick captured the elaborately crafted wrought-iron gate to the cemetery in the right two-thirds. Yellow crime scene tape fluttered in the breeze, holding curious onlookers and morbid thrill seekers at a distance.
Suddenly Celeste stopped, looked down, and gave a shriek of alarm. "God damn it!"
Nick should have turned off the camera but didn't. He had a drawerful of Celeste outtakes. Once every few months, when the crew was feeling particularly snarly toward her, they'd have a late-night private showing at the station and watch the outtakes. Afterwards, they'd all feel better and less like the pond scum she was constantly accusing them of being.
"There's fucking dog shit on my fucking four-hundred-dollar shoes," Celeste screeched. The southern Ohio twang she'd spent years-not to mention beaucoup bucks-eliminating from her speech had returned with a vengeance. "Don't they have any groundskeepers at this place?" She glanced around as if one were waiting nearby with a shovel and rake. "What kind of moron takes a dog to a cemetery?" Oblivious of the crowd, she wiped the sole of her shoe on a strip of grass, her lips peeled back in a disgusted grimace. "Oh, ick."
Behind his camera, Nick smiled. Even on his worst days, and today definitely ranked as one of them, Celeste was good for a laugh. "It could have been a stray."
She'd tried that once already and when Nick turned her down, she'd embarked on a campaign to have him fired. If he hadn't been one of the best news camera operators in the Valley, with the reputation to prove it, he'd have been stuck working at some crummy local cable station for a fraction of his current salary.
Celeste had accepted defeat with minimal belligerence, a rarity for her, and they'd been working together ever since. Despite frequent power struggles, they were a good team, winning a number of awards, local and national.
"Your adoring fans are watching, darling."
Nick's reminder had the desired effect, and Celeste pulled herself together. In the time it took for the red light on his camera to blink once, she stood poised and ready, microphone in place. The whole incident might not have happened except for the bits of grass clinging to her shoe and the slight odor of dog excrement wafting on the breeze.
"And ... cut," Nick said ninety seconds later when she finished the report. He shut off the camera.
Celeste was instantly on her private cell phone with her personal assistant, and, by the time they walked the short distance to the news van, she had made two appointments-one with her investment banker and the other with her acupuncturist.
Inside the van, she checked her makeup in a mini lighted mirror while calling Sherri, her administrative assistant at the station, on her business cell phone.
Nick sat in the back of the van at the computer console behind Celeste's seat, adjusting his headset. Hooking his camera up to the transmitter, he sent the footage they'd just shot to the station.
"Heads up, Max," he said into his mouthpiece. "It's coming your way as we speak."
"I got it," Max replied through Nick's earpiece.
"How does it look?"
"Good. Hang tight while I check with the boss. Be right back."
Nick fished a pack of gum from his pocket. Popping a piece in his mouth, he asked Celeste, "Want one?"
She shot him an icy, like-you-don't-know stare. "I have dental implants."
Two minutes later, Bradley McEntee, the assistant news producer at TV-7, came on the wire. "Nick. Get Celeste. I want her included in this."
Nick tossed Celeste the spare headset, earning himself an exaggerated eye roll. She detested wearing anything that mussed her hair.
"Yeah, what is it?" she said once the headset was in place.
"What's with you two? That piece you sent over was pure crapola."
"The police aren't releasing any details." Celeste's soiled shoe held more interest for her than their conversation with Bradley.
"Need I remind you remind our viewership has slipped in the last month. You and Nick get your butts back out there and find something, anything, we can scoop KBCB with."
"What have they got?" Nick asked, readying his camera.
"Blood splotches on the outside wall of the gardener's house and Linda Perez's thirty-four-D tits shoved into a size six turtleneck."
Nick's gaze sought Celeste, whose eyes had narrowed to tiny slits.
He had to hand it to Bradley. Their boss knew exactly which of her buttons to push and how hard.
KBCB's recent acquisition had put herself through college by being a regional spokesmodel for a bathing suit manufacturer. Linda's dual degrees and long list of credentials weren't nearly as impressive as her physical attributes. Celeste, still considered tops in the Valley by her peers and fans, had nonetheless begun being compared to the younger, more voluptuous Linda.
It wasn't a comparison Celeste took kindly to.
Ripping off her headset, she tossed it on the floorboard and said to Nick, "Let's go."
"We're on it," Nick told Bradley before removing his own headset and powering down the equipment. Camera in hand, he pushed open the van's side door.
"Follow me," Celeste snapped and set out at a brisk walk.
Nick was only too happy to accommodate her. He'd been wanting a closer look at the murder scene and wondering just how to manage it. Now, because of Bradley, he'd get that closer look under the guise of doing his job.
* * *
"Damn rocks," complained Celeste.
Damn your three-inch heels, thought Nick, but wisely kept his mouth shut.
They left the service road and picked their way along the back end of the Forever in Peace Cemetery. Inside the wrought-iron fence bordering the cemetery lay a ten-acre oasis in the desert, resplendent with green grass, sprawling trees, and flowering rose bushes. Outside the fence existed an altogether different world. They trudged across dry, hard ground dotted with small cacti and scraggly weeds. Foxtails and burrs adhered to the bottoms of Nick's jeans like paperclips to a magnet.
Fifty or so yards in the distance, police and other official vehicles surrounded the small gardener's house, obscuring Nick's and Celeste's view.
"Christ, would you look at the cars. We'll never get a decent shot." Celeste grabbed the wrought-iron bars in her fists and pressed her cheeks to the fence, reminding Nick of a child at the zoo hoping for the alligator to stick its head above water.
"Let me try."
Turning on his camera, he panned the area, zooming in as close as possible. Even then, he could see nothing beyond the small fleet of vehicles parked three deep. Just for kicks he took shots of milling police officers and car doors bearing official emblems.
"What've you got?" Celeste asked.
"Wait a second." Nick had spotted a small area of disturbed ground at the base of a tall, leafy oak tree.
There! his mind shouted, his nerves instantly on fire.
Celeste squealed with unrepressed excitement. "What is it?"
"Hold on. Not sure yet," Nick lied.
He actually had a good idea of what the hole in the ground signified, but wanted to see for himself before letting anyone else in on his find, especially Celeste. With luck, the police would be too busy to expand their search of the murder site until tomorrow, giving Nick the chance to come back tonight and investigate-alone.
"Sorry, kiddo." He sighed as if disappointed. "Just a pile of rocks."
"Well, keep looking," Celeste grumbled.
Slowly, Nick moved the camera away from the hole, making wide sweeps back and forth along the manicured lawn. One minute passed. Then two. Celeste's foot started tapping. All at once, something unusual flashed across his line of vision. Sucking in a sharp breath, he inched back along the path his camera had taken until he came upon the object that had caught his attention.
"Son of a bitch," he whispered, fighting to keep his hands steady and the camera from shaking.
"What? What!" Celeste bunched in close to him.
"I think I hit pay dirt." And he had.
"Nick, I'm gonna throttle you if you don't tell me."
Not daring to pull away from the viewfinder and look at her for fear he'd lose sight of his find, he said grimly, "It's a body part."
"Oh, my God!"
He could almost hear her jaw drop.
The camera's soft whir was the only sound to be heard as he filmed the remains of what had once been the elderly woman's forearm.
Under a moving blanket of buzzing flies, bits of stringy tendons clung to a bloody bone stripped clean of flesh. Frail fingers, still intact, one bearing a gold wedding band, clutched a mangled and wilted bouquet of spring flowers. Petals were scattered on the ground around the forearm as if plucked and discarded in a game of he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not.
Nick, his stomach a churning volcano of revulsion, could tolerate no more. He shut off the camera and, leaning a shoulder on the fence, met Celeste's anxious gaze.
"Do you want to see?"
"Of course, you ninny," she snapped and waited impatiently for him to rewind the footage to the beginning.
When she was done watching, she stepped away from the camera, her mouth moving wordlessly, her cheeks a vivid shade of gray beneath her makeup.
"Pretty awful, huh?" Nick asked, his tone kind. He'd been prepared for the gore, at least. Celeste hadn't.
"Yeah," she croaked, pressing a palm to the side of her head and squeezing her eyes shut. "What sort of monster would do such a thing?"
Monster, thought Nick, didn't begin to describe the unholy beast the Ancients called Cadamus and the atrocities he could-and would-commit against his unsuspecting victims.
This poor old woman was only the beginning.
Countless more were destined to die in the weeks to come before Nick located Cadamus and drove the ritual dagger deep into the creature's stone-cold heart.
Excerpted from Night Hunter by Cathy McDavid Copyright © 2007 by Cathy McDavid. Excerpted by permission.
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