Writing Distracted
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Coal Ridge

Set in a small, somewhat geographically secluded town in the Midwest, the blue collar people of Coal Ridge are friendly and laid back, enjoying block parties, gossip, and the simple joys that come with being a close knit community. Because everyone knows everyone else, secrets are hard to keep, but some are so well hidden that they've been forgotten. These are a series of short stories that explore a supernatural awakening that tests the bonds of family and community.

Happy Wednesday

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Chief Carabelli opened the door to the interrogation room. Taking his hat off, he offered a small smile to the lone occupant, a woman named Melissa Henderson with whom he'd worked in the Coal Ridge admin building for the past couple of months. Sitting down across from her, he took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Pushing her lips together to make a tight line, she crossed her arms over her chest and waited.

“I know this is not comfortable Melissa, but quite frankly this room isn't supposed to be comfortable.” Light reflected off the greased back midnight black hair atop his head, almost hiding the gray steaks. “I've read the statement you made, and I have some problems with it.” Her brow dipped to turn her expression into a scowl. Setting his hands on the table between them, he continued. “I need you to tell me what really happened?”

“I didn't do anything wrong.”

The Chief cocked his head to the side. “We work together, and family ties run deep in this town.” She scoffed at that; he continued. “My goal here is to keep you out of trouble, but to do that I need to know what really happened.” The only reason he was in here giving her this chance was because her cousin Steve had been his lead detective.

“God, I hate Valentine's Day,” she muttered, looking up at the ceiling with tears in her eyes. The Chief waited. “Shit.” Wiping at the line of tears now running down her cheek, she looked him in the eyes. “Fine. What do you want to know?”

“Just tell me what happened.”

It was her turn to take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Well, with the rest of the town shut down because of the snowstorm, me and Jason made our way in…”

*        *        *

“It's just us in the whole building,” Jason Sanford called out as he entered the small office packed with low cubicles. He was wearing jeans and a heavy sweatshirt, his hair still mussed from the stocking cap he'd worn on his walk down to the admin building. “It could be cozy?”

“We're working,” Melissa replied.

“It's also Valentine's Day.”

“I hate Valentine's Day.”

“Oh, don't be like that Melissa,” he admonished, making his way over to her desk. “What's wrong with a day dedicated to romance, where it’s socially acceptable for someone to express how special someone else is, and how awesome it is to have them in their life.”

“I'm going to barf on my desk.”

“You're such a sappy girl, you know that?”

Her sarcastic laugh echoed across the small room. February in Coal Ridge was not very exciting. Temperatures were below freezing most of the time and for the past two days snow piled up outside. While most of the Amber River Valley had ground to a halt because of the snowstorm, someone had to make sure that the paperwork was done so streets could be plowed, heating units at the schools could be inspected, and city folks could get paid. The life of administrators could not afford to stop, and with the building empty, this would be a great opportunity for her to dig into the system. “Don't worry Jason, you're girly enough for both of us.”

“Not nice, Missy.”

Pushing her lips together to make a tight line, she turned. “You know I hate that nickname.”

Jason grinned at her. “I know.”

Hearing him get up from his from desk, she minimized the screen with the past two months of criminal activities listed and turned over a scrap of paper. A moment later, his lips pushed up against her cheek. “It's chilly over there, how about we sit closer?”

“And what, take turns typing? We both have work to do, let's just get this done and we can get out of here.” She wasn't expecting him to be in the office today and it was throwing off her timing.

Wrapping his arms around her shoulders, he muttered, “Seems a little chilly over here too, let's warm you up.” Placing a hand on her back, he shouted, “Friction!” And began rubbing at her playfully. Melissa tried to hold onto her scowl, but couldn't, grinning wide as she pretended to fight him off.

When he leaned in for a kiss, she put a hand up. “Not at work.”

“But we're the only ones here.”

“If we made it in, someone else could too. It's against the rules for us to date.”

Jason sighed. “It's a stupid rule,” he mumbled, giving up and heading back for his desk. “We're grown ass adults. Besides, your cousin is on the force.”

“He and I are in different departments. You and I are in finance; we're supposed to keep an eye on each other. It's a smart rule, it's just inconvenient for us.” Pulling the screen back up, she began to take screenshots of select case files, ignoring the spreadsheet she was supposed to be updating. “Besides,” she continued,” I'm not ready to announce this to the world yet.” Coming back to Coal Ridge, she'd made up a story about a broken engagement to stifle questions about her personal life without giving anyone a reason to look into her recent past. It was a traumatic enough excuse that anyone asking questions would drop it when she didn't want to talk about it, but not so bad that she couldn't enjoy herself without raising suspicions. It helped that there was some truth to the lie. The problem was that she actually liked Jason and that made things more complicated as she had no intention of sticking around.

“Okay, forget Valentine's Day, how about I take you out to a nice dinner to celebrate Wednesday?”

Melissa finished screenshotting the case files and shook her head, a small smile touching her lips. She wanted to say yes, and not just because of the way it would brighten his face, but because he was sweet and polite and thoughtful, and he seemed to genuinely like her. They had started in their roles at pretty much the same time, allowing them to bond as the new people, and then there was the night they went out for drinks. Making out in the car afterwards was probably a mistake, but alcohol is good at mistakes. She could tell he was falling for her and initially she only went along with it to distract him—it was a small office and way too easy to catch one another accessing things they shouldn't—the thought that she might actually start to care for him never crossed her mind. “I doubt anything is open. Can't I just make you a nice dinner?”

His smile faltered. “But it's Wednesday, I want to do something special for you. How about I cook something?”

“Now you're just substituting Wednesday for Valentine’s Day.”

“Yeah, well, you've made your feelings about Valentine's Day clear, so I'm taking a different approach.”

“It's a stupid made-up holiday—” A loud bang echoed through the building. “Shit, that was a gunshot,” she exclaimed, palming the scrap of paper and shoving it into her sweater pocket. “I thought you said we were alone here?”

“We are,” Jason replied, ducking behind his cubicle, “I checked, Margie's not even here.”

“Well someone's here,” she said, pulling the Glock 43 out of her purse. With all the weird things happening in town, Steve had insisted she carry something more than mace, and put her through a more rigorous gun training than he’d had as a cadet. She'd wanted something small that was easy to carry. The end result was a five-hundred-dollar gun that she was able to expertly take apart, put back together, and keep in her purse.

“Don't you think you should get down. It could be a workplace shooting?” Melissa turned an open-mouthed stare at him, narrowing her eyes. “Okay, that was dumb. But still, it would be safer to stay here.”

“I have this to keep me safe,” she replied, waving the gun. “Get behind me and be ready to call 9-1-1.”

Jason held up his phone with the numbers already dialed into the screen, and squat-walked over to her. “I should probably lead the way,” he said, still hunkered down.

Moving past him, she shook her head. “I'm not walking like that. Come on.”

*        *        *

Chief Carabelli nodded, running his fingers across the metal table in the interrogation room. “So instead of doing the smart thing and staying put, you two went down to the booking room to find out what was going on?”

“I had my Glock,” she explained, a little more defensively than she meant. “But it was nothing; a chambered bullet in the perp’s gun that went off when Greg was pulling stuff out of the guys bag.” She paused. “You probably already knew that, huh?”

He nodded. “But you had no way to know it.”

Drawing her lips into a tight line, she acquiesced. “True, but we only heard the one shot and--”

“This is irrelevant,” he interrupted. “Let's get back to what happened.”

“No, it’s totally relevant. That burglar was raging pissed in his cell, and the gun going off had everyone on edge. That is part of what led to it and you know it.”

“Alright, alright,” the Chief acknowledged. “Everyone was tense, I get it. What happened after the two of you went back to the office?”

She stared at him a moment, wondering if she'd just revealed more than she meant, before continuing. “We were finishing up when…”

*        *        *

Steve walked into the small office. “What the hell were you thinking?” he shouted, stalking towards his cousin's desk. “You pointed your gun at Greg?”

“I didn't. Not really,” Melissa replied defensively, her eyes looking left as she lied.

“He surprised us coming around the corner,” Jason called from his desk. “It wasn't like we—”

“I'll get to you in a minute!” he interrupted, turning to point at Jason. “She doesn't need you to defend her.” Turning back to Melissa, he continued. “Well?”

“Well what?”

“What do you mean what? What happened.”

“You know what happened.”

“I want to hear it from you.”

“No, you want me to admit I did something wrong so you can rub it in my face,” she said, standing up. “You've been like this since we were kids and I'm not giving you the pleasure.”

“Giving me the—” he stopped, staring at her. “You pointed your gun at a cop!”

“Oh, stop being so dramatic, it was Greg. And I didn't even have my finger on the trigger,” she lied again. In reality, she'd had to ease back off the trigger to keep from shooting him but admitting that would just make the situation worse.

Steve's face was turning from red to purple. “He fucking shot someone last month who pulled a gun on him. Are you trying to get yourself killed too?”

“It wasn't like that,” Jason interrupted, stepping out of his cubicle and walking towards them. He stopped when Steve abruptly turned on him.

“I said I'd get to you in a minute. This is between me and her.” When he turned back, Melissa was moving away from him towards the door. “Where the fuck do you think you're going?”

“Away from you.”

He started to follow, but Jason touched his arm. “Come on, let her—”

Grabbing his arm and twisting it behind his back, he slammed Jason's face down onto the desk. “Do not put your fucking hands on me.”

The shadows in the corner of the room grew a little darker as Melissa rushed back, pushing her cousin with both hands. “Get off him!” The shove rocked them sideways but did not break the hold.

“This here,” Steve said, nodding at Jason pinned to the desk, “is your fault. You shouldn't be goddamned dating him anyhow. It's not allowed.” Seeing the expression on her face, he continued. “Oh, don't look at me like that, everyone knows you two are a thing, it's just that no one's saying anything cause they feel bad about what happened between you and your fiancé, that none of us even knew about.”

She hadn't told anyone in her family about her engagement because she wasn't close with any of them, and they'd only been engaged a few days when he’d—she didn't want to think about it, and so lashed out at the person bringing it up. “It's no one else's goddamned business what happened between us or who I'm dating.” She stepped into him, putting her hand under his chin, and pushed him away. Steve hated people touching his neck and always had; between that and the leverage it gave her, he was forced to release the hold he had on Jason.

The computer screens blinked off and back on.

Jason turned, his face red. Grinding his teeth together, he bit back the harsh things he'd wanted to say; with Steve it would only make things worse. Letting the snarl fall away, he muttered. “You're an asshole Steve; you always were.”

“He's not wrong,” Melissa added.

“To hell with you both,” Steve replied, looking between them. “I'm trying to help you here. Pulling your gun on a cop is a big—oh shit!” Grabbing at Jason, he caught the other man's sweatshirt and pulled him back, tearing it at the collar.

“What the hell—” Melissa started, before her cousin turned and pushed her back towards the door.

“Get the hell out of here, now!” he shouted, taking a step back from the snaking tentacle sliding off the wall, while keeping himself between it and them.

“What the—?” Jason uttered.

“Shit. Are we there or is it here?” Melissa whispered.

Steve's brow furled in concentration as he sniffed the air. “I think we're there.”

“Um.”

She shushed Jason. “You know how to get us back, right?”

“Yeah.” He paused. “Sort of.”

“Um.”

“Shut up Jason. What do you mean sort of?”

Jason took a step back. “There's a giant terrifying shadow climbing off the wall.”

“I know! Don't run, that will just draw it's attention.” Melissa turned back to her cousin. “Steve?”

*        *        *

With his eyes narrowed, Chief Carabelli cocked his head and put up a hand. “Hold up a second.”

“How can I tell you what happened if you keep interrupting me?”

“You're saying that Jason knew where you were, and he knew about the creature?” Melissa nodded, her mouth drawn in a tight line and her eyes looking left. “And he took the job here to stay close to the police because he thought we knew more than we were telling.”

“Yep,” she lied, her eyes looking left again. “That is exactly what I'm telling you. He knew about the pockets, but he didn't seem to know that the creature could draw people in…um, Steve told us that.” The Chief stared at her for a time, waiting to see if she would say anything more; when she didn’t, he motioned for her to continue.

“Jason said that we shouldn't run because that would only draw it's attention. That seemed like a dumb idea, so naturally I asked him what the hell we should do?”

*        *        *

“Back away slowly,” Steve whispered, motioning towards the door. “It won't be able to touch me, I think.” His left hand went up to the old badge on his chest, thinking about the symbols carved on the underside by someone back in the 70’s. When the Chief gave it to him and explained that it would protect him, he thought it was part of a practical joke, but then all this weird stuff started happening. “We need to get down to booking.”

They all watched as the shadow slowly moved into the room, taking on a feline shape, but with the head of a shark. Its form seemed to fill the spaces around and between the cubicles, silently expanding out from the corner. The entire form quivered as it stared at them.

“Why booking?” Melissa asked, her voice low and her eyes wide.

“There are symbols carved into the floor of cell two, under the big rubber mat,” he replied in the same quiet tone, stepping back to push them towards the door. “We need to pour salt over them.”

Her brow furled. “That works?”

“I goddamned hope it works cause that's what they told me to do if I find myself here,” Steve whisper-shouted. “Now shut up and move.”

“Uh-oh.”

He glanced back at his cousin. “What uh-oh?” That was when he saw Jason standing stock still, his eyes wide and his mouth slightly agape.

“I think it has Jason.”

“Oh really, Missy?” Steve replied. “Is that what you think?”

“You are an asshole.” With her mouth drawn into a tight line, she resisted the urge to drive a knee into his groin, but it wasn't easy. Instead she turned to the prone form next to her, slapping him lightly in the face. “Jason, come on honey, snap out of this.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “So, he's honey now?”

“Yes, he is! Do you have a problem with that?” Steve put up his hands and shook his head, realizing that he was pushing her too far. She glanced back at the creature. “What the hell’s it doing?”

“I think it's feeding on his fear or something.”

“Oh God, that's so creepy.” She muttered, slapping Jason a little harder. “Come on, help me snap him out of it.”

“I think we need to get him away from it. Pull him, see if he'll follow you.”

Melissa tugged on his arms; Jason swayed towards her but didn't move. “It's like he's stuck in—oh shit! There's a tentacle thing wrapped around his goddamn feet!” She punched her cousin. “Help me!”

“I don't think I should touch him.”

“What! Why?”

“They told me it will get angry and start to rage.”

“Who the fuck cares if it gets angry; it's not the goddamned Hulk! Help me!”

Steve reached forward. “This is a bad idea.” The moment he touched Jason, the man slouched and would have fallen had they not caught him. At the same time, the creature exploded into action, whipping tentacles around. Thanks to the badge, each time a tentacle hit one of them it passed through, but it felt like being struck by a padded stick, unpleasant but didn't really hurt.

“You got him?” Melissa asked, letting go of Jason and starting for the door.

Steve started to shout her name, but it was too late, one of the tentacles struck her in the back, knocking her into a cubicle. Items on the desk clattered to the floor as she struggled, swinging her arms and kicking her legs to fight off the ones gathering above her. Her screams for help were already falling to woozy pleas. Allowing Jason to topple forward, Steve dove for the cubicle stretching to touch her while keeping a foot on him. His hand found one of her pockets and he yanked her towards him. A scrap of paper, one he'd recognized because it had his passwords written on it, fell out of her pocket.

A tentacle that had snaked around her waist dissipated as the shark head shot forward, biting down on the desk, just missing as Melissa crashed to the floor. The creature flowed above them and silently slammed itself repeatedly into Steve, desperately trying to move him. With his head spinning from the cumulative impacts that rocked him back and forth, he grimaced, tightening his grip on Melissa. Although he had one foot hooked under Jason's shoulder, it was taking everything he had to stay in contact with them both.

The fact that no sound accompanied the creature's violent actions was unnerving. Steve could feel his thoughts unraveling. “I'm going to have to let him go,” he whispered through a wince. Melissa shook her head and started climbing down him, grunting each time the creature slammed into her.

When her feet hit his lower back, the shadowy mass over them jerked upward. Afraid to move for fear of breaking contact with them, Steve turned his head and looked up. It hovered at the ceiling, tentacles quivering as they waved about.

“Who told you it would react like that?” Melissa asked, driving a heel into her cousin’s back.

“Ow, damnit! I just saved both of you.”

“Not yet, Jason's still it of it. Spill it, who knows about this place?”

He grabbed the scrap of paper and turned over, holding it up. “What the fuck were you doing with my passwords?”

“Shit.”

“Yeah shit.” He said, sitting up. Trying to stay in contact with them both felt like playing some demented game of Twister. “That's why you went down to booking when you heard the gunshots. You were afraid I was down there, and I'd find my passwords missing.”

“No, I didn't.”

“Uh-huh. The only time you use that singsong tone is when you're lying.”

She pointed. “That things still up there.”

“Now you're changing the subject to cover your lie.” His lips peeled back in a humorless grin. “Talk about people never changing.”

She pulled her lips into a tight line and began to recite the lie she'd rehearsed in case she got caught. “Fine. I was researching a few cases for a friend. She works as a prison counselor and needed some background.” She held up a hand. “Don't worry, I didn't download anything, it's just a few dates and a little bio information. If Margie didn't drag her feet on the requests, it wouldn't even have been an issue.” Melissa realized that she was talking too much, revealing the details of the lie too quickly; it indicated nervousness and Steve was definitely picking up on it, so she stopped and pointed up again. “Now, about that.”

“We are not done with this,” he said, leaning in and pointing between them. “Right now, we need to slowly back out of this room and get to that cell. The problem is…” he pointed at Jason who was lying on the floor, his eyes open, breathing through his mouth.

“You take his shoulders, I'll take his feet,” she said, ducking as one of the tentacles probed close, “that'll keep us all in contact.”

“I think I'll be too far from you.”

“Does that matter?” She asked, frowning at him. “Don't we just all need to be touching?”

“I don't really know, but if I'm not touching you it might not be enough. Do you really want to take that chance?” Twisting her lips, Melissa shook her head, glancing at the creature above them. Frowning, Steve fingered the badge. “I could put it on him.”

“I don't know,” she started, her tone turning sarcastic, “can your pride handle pinning your precious badge on Jason?”

His lip curled up into a snarl. “It's either that or leave your Valentine here, Missy.” Removing his badge, he pinned it on Jason's chest. When he finished, a deep scowl furrowed his brow.

“Stop calling me that and don't call him that,” she snapped, and then muttered, “This is a stupid day.”

“What, Wednesday?”

“No, you idiot, Valentine's Day. Come on, let's do this.” Standing, she took Jason's legs while Steve took his shoulders. As they started carrying him to the door. She muttered, “I can't believe I'm here again on this of all days.”

“Wait, you've been HERE before?”

“No,” she blurted, looking left. “Don't be ridiculous. I'm mean back here in this stupid town.” The lies were really starting to pile up. As they moved towards the door, the creature dropped to the floor and filled the room, it's form slowly becoming indistinct.

“Your family moved away in grade school, what do you even remember about this town?”

“I remember you being a mean little prick who used to push me down if there was any chance, I would beat you at something.”

“We were kids, you can't still be mad about that.” The doorway was tight, but with Steve walking backwards they managed it, moving out into the hall and towards the stairwell. The shadow had become an amorphous blob as it followed.

Her lips drew a tight line across her face. “Don't tell me what I can't be mad about. I can be mad about any goddamned thing I want.” Moving up behind Melissa, the shadow began to take on a spider-like form, with a bird's beak.

“Whatever.”

One of Jason's arms thudded to the floor as Steve opened the door to the stairwell. “Be careful!” she chastised.

“Sorry, wouldn't want to damage your boyfriend, Missy.”

“Fuck you.” The shadow hovered just over her back, it's form becoming more distinct, the spider legs beginning to quiver.

“Nice,” Steve replied, shaking his head. He looked down at the prone form of Jason, who continued to stare at nothing, breathing through his mouth. “What do you even see in this guy anyhow?”

“My love-life is none of your goddamned business. Hell, my life is none of your business. I don't remember you caring so much when my Dad got transferred and we had to move away.”

“Oh Jesus, not this again,” Steve muttered, taking the steps one at a time, sweat beginning to bead on his forehead.

“Yeah, this again,” she growled. The shadow hugged close to her back, snaking tentacles beneath Jason towards her cousin. “After we moved you wouldn't talk to me on the phone and never responded to a single letter.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “You were my best friend and after I moved you treated me like I didn't even exist anymore. You have no idea what it’s like to go from having friends and family there all the time to feeling like you've been abandoned. So, you, of all people, have no right to—” the shadow flowed around her and slammed down on top of Jason, causing she and Steve to stumble and fall down the stairs.

Steve cried out and went abruptly silent.

Crashing down on top of Jason, Melissa yelped in pain as the badge dug into her chest, and together they slid to the bottom of the stairs.

The shadow moved off her and Jason, skittering down the next set of stairs with a form struggling within; it took her a moment to realize that form was her cousin. Unpinning the badge from Jason's sweatshirt, she held it up and considered her next actions. If she left Jason, it would get him, and she was still angry. Talking about it had brought back all those days she spent alone. A loud crunching sound coming from below, she shook her head and pinned the badge on herself, mumbling, “Sorry Steve, but this is kinda what it feels like to be abandoned by family.”

“Ugh. While I'm happy to have you straddle me,” Jason mumbled, “can it not be on concrete steps.”

“You're awake!” she leaned down and kissed him.

“Yeah,” he managed a grin, “but seriously, this hurts a lot.”

“Don't let go of me,” she said, helping him up, “we need to get to that cell so we can get the hell out of here.”

A series of wet popping noises echoed in the stairwell. Jason turned, “What the—” A forearm torn away at the elbow dropped out of the shadows, the fingers still spasming. “Holy fuck!”

“Yep, let's go,” Melissa said, pulling him through the stairwell door.

“Was that Steve?”

“Yep.” Moving quickly through the foyer, past the small Valentine's Day decorated reception desk, they headed for the police room.

“What happened?”

“It separated us, and I couldn't get to him.”

“What the hell is that thing?”

“I don't know,” she answered, looking him in the eyes as she pulled open the door, “but it's not supposed to be here.” They moved through booking to the holding cells. “See if you can find salt. I mean a lot of salt, like in a bucket or something.”

“Do you know what this place is?”

She hesitated. “I do.”

“Well?”

She sighed, pulling up the mat to find the symbols exactly as Steve described. “To put it simply, this is a pocket of Purgatory. The place souls pass through after death.”

“Are we dead?” She turned an open-mouthed stare at him, her eyes narrowing. “I know, dumb question. How do you know about this?”

“I have a friend who's into occult stuff. When she found out I was from Coal Ridge, she started telling me about how the recent disappearances were related to this place.” Leaving the cell, Melissa rummaged around the Warden's desk. “Keep looking for the salt, that thing is probably coming.” She probably shouldn't be telling him all this but talking made her feel less afraid. “When we heard about the stuff that happened back in October, I made plans to come here to gather information. It was easy enough to get a job with Steve's—” Her voice cracked, and she stopped.

“We'll deal with what happened to him after,” Jason said, his tone soft. “We'll get the state police and the army and whoever else we need to take care of this.”

“No!” The word exploded out of her mouth, causing him to take a step back. “You can't,” she continued, her tone stern, but softer, “we can't let anyone know that we know. It's not like the people in real power don't already know. Talking about this won't help anyone; we'll just end up conspiracy memes on Facebook.”

“You don't know that.”

“I do.”

“How?”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I told you my engagement ended badly.” He nodded; she continued. “Valentine's Day 2014. My fiancé and I lived in Chicago at the time, we were out at a restaurant. A guy came in with a gun looking for his ex. The situation was tense. People panicked, the guy started shooting, and I ended up in a pocket like this, watching as my fiancé’s soul passed through.” Her brow furled and tears welled in her eyes. “I thought the same thing, that people need to know about this, but do you think anyone believed me? They called it trauma, made me talk to therapists, but no one believed me. So yes, I know!”

“There's proof and I'm a witness,” he insisted. Melissa closed her eyes, her lips making a tight line across her face, and hoped he wouldn't say it. “You don't have to be involved, I'll take it to the media myself, get them investigating. The truth will come out.”

Fuck. “Don't Jason.”

“This thing can't just keep murdering people that accidentally get pulled over here. I won't let it!” He had that same determined look that wore her down and got her to agree to go out with him.

Melissa glanced down at the pail of salt she'd found in the bottom drawer of the desk and slowly closed it. “There's no salt in here,” she lied, blinking back the tears. “Let's go look in the fire truck garage, they have to have some for the sidewalks, right?”

*        *        *

Chief Carabelli stared at her after she'd finished.

Melissa stared back at him, doing her best to summon a tear, but it wasn't happening.

After a short silence, the Chief summed up, “So Steve gave you the badge so you could stay between the two men and then told you about the symbols in case the creature got him.” She nodded. “And Jason pushed your cousin into the creature after they'd argued. “Again, she nodded. He looked less than convinced. “Are you sure about this?”

“It's what I told you.”

His eyes searched her face for a moment. “You see, I've known Jason Sanford since he was a kid. He grew up three houses down from me. I'm having a hard time believing that he could even get angry enough to kill Steve.”

“It was stressful, the two of them were arguing about that place and what to do,” she lied, looking left, “I don't think he meant to do it.”

“If that were true, why did he try to take the badge from you?”

She paused. With each question, the lie was growing more complicated. She couldn't manufacture tears, but she had plenty of anger inside; summoning some of that, she slammed her hands down on the metal table. “Maybe you don't know him as well as you think. You didn't know that he knew about that place. What else didn't you know about him?”

The Chief seemed unphased by her outburst. After staring at her for a time, he asked, “This is the story you're sticking with.”

“Yep.”

He waited. “Nothing you want to add.”

“Nope.”

The Chief stared at her for a long moment, and then stood. “Okay. I'll have Greg take you home.” He turned to look at her again before stepping out of the room; it was obvious from his expression that he didn't believe her, not that there was anyone to confirm or corroborate, since she let the creature get Jason in the fire truck garage. She could still hear his pleas echoing in her mind and when she stood, the tears she'd failed to produce earlier began to flow down her cheeks.

*        *        *

“I don't think they believed me,” Melissa said into the phone, keeping her voice low, “not that it really matters.”

“I'm sorry you had to go through that...again,” a female voice replied, “and I'm sorry that I wasn't there to get you out this time.” A silence hung between them for a moment. “Were you able to get the information on Bruce Richards and Nick Denisco?” Her British accent gave their common names an exotic sound.

“I did, I sent them to your email.” She took a deep breath, drawing her mouth into a tight line. “Carabelli didn't say it, but I'm sure that I'm done working there, which is fine by me. I'm going back to Chicago as soon as I can. I can't be here any longer.”

She hung up the phone to cut off any attempt to talk her into staying and opened the envelope that was taped to her door when she got home. Inside was a happy face card; it read: “This is not a Valentine's Day card, it's just something to express how I feel about you. Happy Wednesday to the girl that's stolen my heart. Love Jason.”

Melissa's shoulders began to shudder as the sobs came unbidden; she didn't notice the shadows moving up the wall.

*        *        *

Outside the house where Melissa was staying, Chief Carabelli sat in his cruiser. When the lights in her room blinked off and back on, he muttered, “Justice is served,” and let a small smile touch the corners of his lips.