AEoT_Cover_SMALL

AN ELEMENT OF TIME

By Bebe Knight

CHAPTER ONE

 

“Great… who died now?” Veronica Chase asked herself as she pulled up beside the hearse blocking the road.

A sea of bodies covered in black from head to toe gathered around as the all too familiar clergyman spouted out his typical Psalm 23 speech. It was then that she recognized Mrs. Hawthorn front and center amongst the crowd. Her dear old husband had to be the poor, lifeless body lying in that casket. Even though Veronica had known the couple since she was old enough to walk, she still felt as though she was intruding.

“Please don’t see me. Just let me slide on by without being noticed,” Veronica begged as she continued driving, crouching down in her seat. She didn’t know if she could pull off the fake sympathy card, even if she was sorry for their loss. And of all days, today was the day she didn’t need a reminder of how much mortality sucked. Luckily, she came out unscathed.

The smell of decay pervaded the air on that crisp autumn afternoon, making Veronica sneeze as she stepped out of her car. The crunching of dead leaves under her feet was the only sound she could hear. Old marble headstones covered in mold and moss lined the cemetery path while the crypts and mausoleums were forced into the dark, dank edges of the property. Beams of sunlight flickered their way through the remaining leaves on the trees and onto the freshly mown grass as she headed toward the newer plots of land in the back.

The wind was still and the sky was blue as far as the eye could see. In one word, gorgeous;, most likely one of the last nice days of the season before the brutal winter reared its ugly head. It was peaceful and serene, yet Veronica could never shake the morbid feeling of being watched even when she knew she was alone.

As the path took a turn to the left, it was then that the brilliant white and yellow flowers came into view. Veronica guessed that the mums, her mother’s favorite flower, were left by her Mom’s co-workers from the local elementary school. To the left of her mother’s headstone was her father’s and her sister’s was on the right. They were just your run of the mill, dull-grey granite gravestones; nothing like their plot neighbor’s, Ms. Winters, pure white obelisk. Veronica regretted the fact that she couldn’t afford to get her family the best headstones money could buy, but times were tough and her parents would have understood.

As she slowly made her way to her family’s resting place, flashbacks from the night of her parents’ murder invaded Veronica’s head, just as they always did when she came to visit. But this time, it was different. It was the one year anniversary of the day she was robbed of the only people she ever loved. A mother, a father and a younger sister, all stolen from her like they were a piece of property. She came to a standstill and took a deep breath.

Stop! she ordered herself. Today is not the day to mourn, but to cherish what we had together.

Pulling herself together with the abridged version of her usual pep talk, she continued walking, stopping just short of their graves. Veronica was never able to walk over the bodies of her beloved family resting below, always insisting on staying at their feet. She never understood if it was out of respect or if it was the simple notion that their bodies were so close beneath her, and that frightened her a little.

 Building up the courage, she tiptoed her way over to their headstones and placed a small bouquet of flowers at the base of each of the graves. When she was done, she took one giant leap and landed at their feet again. Veronica plopped herself down on the ground and stared straight over the horizon.

“My job sent me out to California last month,” Veronica said out loud. “It was everything you guys told me it would be and more. I had time to see the Hollywood sign and skate down Long Beach. Stella, you would have loved San Fran. I mean, you will… God… I’m so sorry. We were supposed to go together.”

Stella’s death was still the hardest to absorb. While her sister’s body was never found, the police had enough evidence to close her case two months into the investigation. Veronica on the other hand, didn’t believe it for a second. Not only were there no remains to bring the closure that Veronica needed, but the evidence left behind suggested she had been abducted… not murdered. Veronica knew the police had closed the book on Stella Chase a long time ago, but she had only just started down the path of her own investigation and wasn’t about to give up hope.

As her vision became clouded by tears, she fixed her gaze on her parents’ headstones: BOOKER J. CHASE and ERIN M. CHASE. Both teachers in the MadisonPublic School, members of the historical society and loyal patrons of the local diner where every Sunday morning they enjoyed an early breakfast. Some might consider them the epitome of normal. Veronica wondered every day why the hell it had to be them. Was it random, like the bastard played “Duck, Duck, Goose” with the houses in their neighborhood? Or was there a debt with karma that needed to be paid? Whatever the reason, the guy responsible for their untimely demise was a monster. Not just a man with the personality of an unbalanced psychopath, but a straight-up monster out of a B-list horror flick.

Suddenly, a chirping noise broke through the silence, disturbing her train of thought. Veronica wiped her tears and rummaged through to the bottom of her bag to retrieve her cell phone, pulling herself together before she actually answered the call.

“Hello?”

“Chase, we got a present for ya,” a recognizable, hoarse voice rasped on the other end of the phone. “Pack your bags. You leave bright and early tomorrow morning.” It was the voice of her boss handing her another assignment.

“Oh, Van, I don’t know. You know what day it is… I’m not sure I’m up for anything right now.”

“That’s exactly why you need to take this. To get your mind off of things.”

Veronica sat for a moment, thinking over his proposal, and then sighed.

“Fine,” she accepted, knowing that she would probably regret it in the long run. “Be at my house at six o’clock to discuss the details.”

“Good, we’ll use this time to talk about your research.” With that, she hung up the phone. There was nothing more to discuss that couldn’t wait until she was home.

Veronica started working for Van and the boys the night her parents died. They were the ones who came to rescue her family, only to arrive minutes too late. They opened her eyes to a brand new way of life, one that she admittedly didn’t accept right away. Who could when someone tells you that the boogie man and the monster under your bed really do exist?

“Mom… Dad… I know I make this promise every time I come to visit, but I promise. I will get them back for what they did to you.” Veronica let out a quiet laugh. “I know you would drag me through the mud and back if you were still alive and I chose this career… but things changed. I’ve changed. So, I’m just hoping that you can still be proud of me for what I’ve managed to get through so far. And Stella… I know that you’re still out there somewhere. I promise… I will bring you home.”

Cutting her visit short this time, Veronica blew two kisses for her parents at their graves and one towards the sky for Stella; her farewell ritual whenever she came to visit. She stood up, brushed the dirt and leaves off of her clothes and started to walk back toward the car. There was a sudden gust of wind that shot right through her, followed by a peaceful calm. Veronica turned around and smiled, wishing to believe that it was them returning the kiss.

The October sun had already begun to set for the day. The same antique headstones Veronica passed on the way in looked different the second time around. Rays of late afternoon sunlight illuminated the Times Roman font on the front while elongating the shadows in the back. A burst of sun blinded Veronica as she turned the corner, making her wish she had brought a pair of sunglasses for the ride home. As she trudged back through the remainder of the cemetery, creating a ruckus from all the fallen leaves, she imagined where she would be right now if none of this had ever happened.

 You know exactly where you would be. Sitting in a classroom, studying some shit that doesn’t even matter, she thought, starting the engine and rolling out onto the road.

On her way home, while stopping by the library to drop off some books and the pizzeria to pick up dinner, Veronica admired the last of the colorful leaves that were still clinging to the trees. Red, yellow and orange rained from the sky as the wind blew a neighbor’s tree bare of what little was left on it.

The town was covered in Halloween decorations. Scarecrows and jack-o-lanterns sat on front porches waiting for their night to shine. Fall used to be her favorite time of year, especially Halloween. You could hide behind a mask and pretend to be anything you wanted to be. It seemed like such a simpler time then, when Veronica and her sister would get dressed in costumes and go out on the town. Now Halloween just terrified her, never knowing who was actually in costume and who wasn’t.

After finishing her errands, Veronica turned down her bumpy, dirt road. Veronica’s New England Colonial sat on the north side of town at the end of a dead end road. It was the one she lived in all her life and inherited after her parents had died. Being all alone in such a big house, far away from others, didn’t sit well with her after what had happened there, so she tried to sell it right after their death. Unfortunately, there was just no market for a house of horrors these days. She couldn’t complain too much though. There were more good memories than bad connected to it and she reminded herself that everyday.

Madison was an old township in Western Massachusetts where every building had a story and several men were local legends. There was plenty of history behind every nook and cranny of the New England suburb. It was small, it was quaint and it was home. Sometimes it reminded her of the show Cheers; everybody really did know your name in Madison. Veronica pulled into her driveway to see Van and Allen Shoemaker and Michael DiFiore, her colleagues, all waiting for her on her front porch.

“’Bout time you showed up,” Van called from the wicker rocking chair as Veronica escaped from the seatbelt. Van was probably nearing fifty years old, but the job made him look older than he really was. He had salt and pepper hair that was in desperate need of a cut and a five o’clock shadow that never seemed to fade. Veronica knew he must have been very handsome before he started working all hours of the night, but scars and time now made that a thing of the past.

“Yeah, well, I couldn’t let you boys go hungry. I stopped to get some grub on the way home.” Veronica pulled two pizza boxes out of the back seat of her Honda and handed them to Allen, who came running down the steps to help her.

“Thanks, V!” Allen, Van’s son, was in his early twenties and a spitting image of his father right down to his fingertips. Their trade was a family business, so to speak, so wherever Van went, Allen went. He shook his dirty blond hair out of his face and narrowed his voice to a whisper, “You know dad would have stopped at the closest Mickey D’s if you didn’t feed us, and I can’t stand that shit!”

“I know all about your father’s eating habits, Allen. Quite frankly, pizza’s not a giant step in the right direction.” Veronica fumbled with her keys as she made her way up the front steps, letting the guys inside.

“Hey Mikey, how’s it going?” Veronica asked when Michael passed her in the doorway.

“Not bad. Red Sox are going nowhere this year, but it’s all good.” Michael, Mikey to those who knew him best, was an all-American guy in his thirties; buzzed hair, medium build, average height. He joined the team for the same reason Veronica did. All of the guys had a motive for working together, but none of them liked to talk about reasons. Action was where the discussions usually led.

Veronica followed him through the living room, to the kitchen, and grabbed some paper plates while Van searched the fridge for some beer.

“Don’t even think about stealing my brewski, Van. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times, bring your own damn beer.”

“Yeah, yeah. Can we get down to business or what?” Van asked, handing a translucent green bottle to the other two and popping the top off his own. “Tell us about California, you two.”

Veronica glanced at Allen and tried to think of where to begin. The fact that her lead was a dead end was more than irritating — it was humiliating. She and Allen had gone together on a break in her parents’ case; however, when they got there, no one knew anything. At least no one wanted to talk about it if they did.

“Well…” she started, grabbing a beer of her own out of the fridge. “Like we told you on the phone, no one knew of a Hank Genwieter. We searched the San Francisco records, the records in San Diego, and everywhere in between. It has to be a fake name.” Veronica took a long pause to gulp down half the bottle of beer. “I know our source was trustworthy, but there was nothing.”

“If we only had a photograph, I’m sure we could have gotten someone to talk,” Allen added. “Without that, it seems we’re up the creek without a paddle.”

“I figured as much. You two have a good time at least?” Van asked with a mouth full of food.

“In Cali? Yeah. It was nice,” she replied modestly.

“Come on. Just nice?” Mikey asked with a smile stretching across his face.

It was times like this where Veronica was convinced her team was trying to play matchmaker between her and Allen. He had been a perfect gentleman on their trip together, but she definitely got the impression he was crushing on her; which made her feel horrible because she just couldn’t reciprocate those feelings toward him. Toward anyone lately, for that matter.

“It was amazing!” Allen blurted out after a moment of hesitation. “The most incredible place I’ve ever been!”

“I was afraid you guys were going to be disappointed in us. This was the first time you gave me an assignment that remote, I didn’t want to screw it up.” Veronica’s guilt about wasting Van’s hard earned money ate at her. If this job wasn’t her only source of income at the moment, she would have offered to pay him back every penny.

“Yeah, well, I don’t think any of us would have found out anything about this dog,” Van admitted. “I’m working on this Hank Genwieter. I’m positive that’s not his real name.”

Veronica slouched her shoulders and dropped her head in defeat.

“What’s wrong?” Allen asked, picking up on her obvious state of despair.

“It’s been a year and there has been no sign of this werewolf or his pack,” Veronica replied, grabbing another slice. “It’s frustrating. Some days I wish he would just come back!”

“V, don’t talk like that,” Van lectured her. “I’ve told you, someone as skilled as he is, and with a loyal pack behind him, it’s gonna be tough. He will always be our number one priority. But!”

“I knew there was a ‘but’ coming,” she said, taking a bite of pizza.

“In the meantime, I’ve got a new case for you. It’s not far from here, just over the border in New York. There’s four–”

“Four?!” Veronica exclaimed, nearly choking before Van could finish his sentence. One of anything was a nightmare, but four was an all-out horror movie set to real life.

“Yes, four. And you know we’re always here as back up if you need us.” Van clapped her on the back for support, making her stumble forward from the impact.

Veronica’s brain finally grasped what Van was hinting at. “Wait a sec. I’m going in on this alone?”

“Sure, I know you can handle it. It’s about time you got your hands dirty.”

Veronica cursed. She couldn’t help thinking that sometimes Van forgot she wasn’t one of the boys. She set down her plate as her stomach lurched, already unsure about the new assignment before it had even been given. Her gaze shifted around the room from one face to another, amazed at their show of approval. But it didn’t matter what it was; four was a big number and Veronica wasn’t as confident in herself as they were.

“Can you guys excuse me for a minute? I’ll be right back.” Veronica hurried out of the room and down the hallway. She thought she might be sick. Between the fear from the new case, embarrassment from the last one and grief from the anniversary of her parents’ death… it was a lot for a girl to handle in one day.

The number four kept repeating in her head. Four. Four. Four. Four calling birds. Four times four is two times eight. Four. The number of people that used to be in her family. Now it was only one and Veronica could certainly attest to the fact that one really was the loneliest number.

She could hear the guys conversing about the Red Sox back in the kitchen where she left them, obviously trying to make sure she wasn’t the topic of conversation since she was still within earshot. As Veronica took a few deep breaths and reminded herself about why she joined the team, she stopped to look at the family portraits hanging on the wall.

The hallway remained lined with snapshots and professional photographs of the family. Veronica couldn’t bring herself to take them down, no matter how much it hurt to look at them. One photograph struck her in particular at that moment, the most recent shot of the family before their horrific deaths. Booker and Erin looked so happy and peaceful in the portrait, not at all the way they looked the last time she saw them. Their clothing ripped to shreds, blood everywhere. It took weeks and an expert cleaning crew to get the house back into its original shape.

And her sister, with her long blond hair and blue eyes; she was eighteen when the picture was taken, about four months before her disappearance. People always used to mistake them for twins even though Veronica thought they were anything but. She had mahogany colored hair, green eyes and a fuller figure. Not to mention, she was four years older than Stella. Veronica often wondered if Stella would still be the same good-natured girl she used to be or if she had turned into a cavernous pit of despondency. Either way, it would be an anticipated reunion on all accounts.

Veronica gazed at her own image in the portrait, hardly recognizing herself anymore. Happiness filled her smile, which was genuine at the time. Her father had told a really lame joke, making everyone laugh, seconds before the picture was taken. Now, even when something was truly funny, her smile was always forced. In the photo, there was life in her eyes, looking forward to the bright future she was supposed to have ahead of her. The only things in her eyes now were tears and sadness. She herself had turned into a different person. What made her think Stella would be any different? Veronica just hoped she wasn’t too late. On that thought, she turned on her heel and marched back into the kitchen.

“I’ll do it,” she said, planting her hands firmly on her hips. “I’m Veronica Chase, and I’m a hunter now. I have no need to be scared of whatever lies in this godforsaken, rinky-dink town. So give it to me, what are we dealing with? Werewolves? Poltergeists? Demons?”

Van stood up and crossed his arms. “Vampires.”

Shit, Veronica thought.

Copyright 2013 Bebe Knight

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