Beep. Beep. Beep.
The grove echoed with the rhythmic sound of the door chime. A bloody handprint marred the side-view mirror of the gray four-door hatchback sedan, dripping into a puddle beneath the open door.
Sprawled across the passenger seat, pale and motionless, was the body of twenty-two-year-old Tabitha Cook. Her short skirt dangled from the rear-view mirror, torn apart at the waistline; it swayed back and forth in the afternoon wind like a white flag that had signaled surrender far too late. White bone gleamed through the mangled stumps of her missing hands and feet. Above her half-open eyes—a perpetual look of laziness—blood leaked from a dime-sized bullet hole.
Sorrowful brown eyes peered out from behind the bushes at the edge of the grove. An indecisive glance shifted between the open door and the taillights fading in the distance—a dust cloud partially obscured the dirt road that led away from the dead end—before the Chocolate Labrador darted to the car and sniffed around the pool of blood. He shied away with a confused whine and hesitated only long enough for one cautious look through the open door before dashing off in pursuit of the car.
The local newspaper dedicated the front page to the murder; Tabitha Cook had been a well-liked native of Hickory Hills. The gruesome details hid between the lines, but that did little to erase the stark and ugly truth of her death. An outcry for justice spread throughout the state, but there were no suspects. And no witnesses.
Two months later, outside Coppersville, fourteen-year-old Toby Dickinson thrashed against the steel grip that held his head beneath the otherwise calm waters of Lake Calvin. It was not long before his struggles ceased, although, the man with the steel grip continued holding him submerged for several seconds before sliding free a glistened cleaver from his belt. He returned to his car some time later, a blood-dripping sack dangling from his fist.
Powerful jaws clamped onto the boy’s collar—the sound of the killer’s departure had not yet finished echoing off the canyon walls—and the Lab tugged the body clear of the water. His warm tongue caressed the boy’s cheek for an instant; then, with a low growl vibrating his throat, he bounded off in pursuit of the killer. His brown eyes were still red with sadness, but now there was an iron determination in his powerful gait.
The local newspaper told the sad tale of Toby Dickinson. Of a lonely fishing trip turned deadly. Children received strict instructions to come directly home after school. Deadbolts slammed into place on doors that people rarely locked. Fear rode a pale horse through Coppersville, but there were no suspects. And no witnesses.
Two months later, around four in the afternoon, a pile of intestines baked under the glare of the sun, steaming like a freshly extinguished fire. Above the fly feast, the camouflaged body of Edward Talbot swung gutted from groin to sternum. A broken set of antlers protruded jaggedly from his head, and a slow drip of blood fell from the stumps of his missing hands and feet.
Flies swarmed upward as the Chocolate Lab crept from behind a nearby tree, leaves tangled in his fur. He inspected the slippery mound of intestines with a wary nose, marked the tree from which Edward Talbot swayed, and tore off after the man he had now been pursuing for quite some time. He had not cared for the stench of Edward Talbot, but his sorrowful brown eyes had finally turned angry.
The local newspaper ran the story in true Red Creek fashion; they readily supplied every gruesome detail, leaving out not even a single fly. No one in town had cared much for Edward Talbot, and his passing seemed to inspire more conversation than he ever had, but there remained no suspects. And no witnesses.
Two months later, beneath an ancient elm tree outside Wailing Valley, William Finnegan clutched at the ragged hole in his throat. The gaping wound spurted his life out through his hands with each faltering heartbeat. His eyes flared with confusion and pain, and then clouded over with fear and panic.
Teeth dug into his ankle. He was too feeble to resist as the dog dragged him up and over the hill. As they neared the calm water of the pond at the bottom of the hill, however, he fought to no avail. Tendrils of icy water clung to him and pushed liquid fingers into his mouth and nose.
He slumped beneath the darkened water, his floundering arms unable to keep him afloat. The spurts of blood slowed to a trickle as he sank, and then finally to a bubbling ooze. A world away from the peacefulness of the pond, he lost the battle; his eyes went dark and empty. What he saw then, or if he in fact saw anything, was a mystery.
Brown eyes watched the final struggle…with satisfaction.
The local newspaper broke the news of the traveling salesman that had pulled over on his way out of town. Police speculated that a wild animal, perhaps a cougar, attacked William Finnegan as he exited his car; his throat shredded before he even had time to register the jaws clamping around his throat. From the condition of the corpse, they surmised that the beast had devoured both his hands and feet, although, whether that happened postmortem was indeterminable.
The following day, the newspaper ran a follow-up story. William Finnegan had not been such an innocent passerby, after all. Evidence that linked him to three previously unsolved murder cases was located within the trunk of his car. There had been no prior suspects. And no witnesses.