Flashback

Timeline: April 13, 2005

Ramiel and Lyla moved on as they always did. Their search seemed a rambling wander up the Appalachian Trail, pausing here and there for side trips to towns not far from the wooded path. In fact, they were searching for someone. Or, something.

Lyla had said that the Trail was like spine or perhaps an axis around which the events of their lives would revolve. It was true in a way. Every clue about the Dark Man they’d found was in a place not far from the old Trail. It seemed to meander by every point of interest, or at least reasonably near many of the major cities of the east coast.

Ramiel and Lyla had left the Trail a few kilometers back. They’d crossed into Connecticut from New York last week and now were on their way to a town called Cornwall Bridge to seek some supplies, wash some clothes, and look for clues as to the whereabouts of the Dark Man.

Lyla wiped at her brow and pushed back a few strands of hair that had escaped the tie she’d put in a few hours ago. It was hot and humid, and it had already rained on them once today. She wasn’t in a mood to push herself.

“Ramiel,” she said. “I’d like to stop and rest for a while. My feet hurt.”

They’d only been walking an hour. Lyla seemed reluctant today, despite stating a conviction the previous evening that she felt sure they might find a clue there.

“If we keep slowing down, we won’t make it to the town,” Ramiel said. He adjusted a strap on his pack a moment while she caught up with a couple trudging steps.

“It’s not far,” she murmured. But she kept walking and this time she kept pace with him.

A few minutes later, she spoke again. “Ramiel? Have you ever thought about what we will do if we find him? The Dark Man?”

He thought about that a moment, then snorted softly with derision. “Why, show him the mercy he showed us, of course.”

Something was still bothering her, he could sense it.

He stopped and sighed with exasperation. “Are you going to tell me what is bothering you, or are we going to continue playing this little game?”

Lyla stopped and smiled up at him. “I do love games,” she said smartly.Lyla.jpg

Her hesitance was in contrast to her apparent attitude last night. When they’d made camp, she had gone into a meditative trance as she sometimes did when they needed to know what to do next. He wasn’t sure what she did when she went into her little trances, but he did know that she always seemed relaxed and focused and, somehow she seemed to know more than she did before.

Last night was the same. She’d closed her eyes and meditated for a full hour after dark. Ramiel had been left to wait impatiently while she did… whatever it was she did. When she’d awoke, she looked at him with those dark eyes over the orange glow of the fire and said, “He’s been near here. A town called Cornwall Bridge. I know he was.” She had smiled at him then, giving him that gleefully mischievous grin that he knew well.

And with that, she’d quickly fallen asleep, exhausted by whatever effort it had taken of her to find out that much.

Lyla tried to clarify her feelings before Ramiel grew irritated. “It’s just that I have a bad feeling about this place. People have died here recently. Others are looking for someone to blame.”

He stared at her. “How can you tell?”

She looked at him. Of course, Ramiel meant the Dark Man. “I know, Ramiel. I’ve never told you how I knew where he’d been, or where to look for him.” She reached out to touch him. He took her hand.

“I don’t know the words to describe it,” she said. “But I can know things if I set my mind upon it. The mystery to me is why I can’t find him. I can only seem to find where he’s been.”

She shook her head. “Something bad has happened in that town, Ramiel. This isn’t going to be easy.”

He pulled her close and held her. “What is waiting for us there?”

Lyla sighed and rested her head upon his chest. Visions of the horrors she saw this morning floated in her mind. She’d cast her perception far ahead to the town and saw pain and death. The town was in a stir; several youths had been disemboweled.
“A killer has been left in the wake of the Dark Man,” she said. “Worse than we’ve seen before. Cold, brutal, completely disconnected with the suffering he inflicts.” She looked up and searched his eyes. “I’m afraid, Ramiel,” she said. “What if the Dark Man knows we are following him? What if he left this killer, this murderer behind for us?”

Ramiel spoke confidently, confortingly. “Then we’ll use him to send a message to the Dark Man. Even if he knows we are following him, it will not change the outcome.”

Lyla had remained nervous the rest of the way to the little town. They crossed an attractive little covered bridge on the way and discovered a tiny town that consisted of just a small cluster of houses at a Y-shaped crossroads. There was, however, a very attractive little building called the Cornwall Inn and Lodge that advertised itself as a tavern, restaurant and a bed and breakfast. That, at least, Lyla had greeted with enthusiasm.

As they approached, they noticed a couple of county sheriff vehicles, both of them utility vehicles.

Ramiel slid his arm over Lyla’s shoulders, drawing her closer to him. “Are you sure you want to stay here, we can keep going if you are not comfortable. If you can sleep outside one more night I will make sure the next place has a very nice bed for you.”

Lyla stopped as she considered that. “That would be safer,” she agreed finally. “But I think the next clue to Melisande’s killer is here or near here. If we want to find the Dark Man, I just don’t know where next we might try to find him. We’ve just got to be careful.”

She put an arm around his waist and looped a couple fingers in his belt to hold on. She seemed reassured by his contact.

The small inn and restaurant they looked pleasant, cozy, and really very nice for a place far from from well-traveled roads and busy cities. Trees surrounded the inn and its companion Lodge that sat directly across the street from the Inn itself. In addition to the two police vehicles, Ramiel spotted a big green family-type SUV parked in front of the Lodge, while an old Toyota pickup truck and a newish Dodge station wagon sat in front of the Inn.

“Well I know one thing, I am going to have to rub you down to get rid of the tension in you.” His usualy sly smile formed upon his lips, echoed by the msichief in his eyes. He was not sure where the boundries were between them, if there were any at all. He did know, however, that Lyla needed a distraction right now, something to take her mind off her worries. “What do you say we relax for the night, hmm?” He looked down into her eyes. “Or do you would you rather we get started on figuring out what happened here?”

Lyla turned to look at him with a wide smile and sparkling eyes. “A massage? Oh, I always love a full body massage any time of the day. Let’s get a room. I’m buying.”

That kind of went without saying, actually. Lyla always had money somehow. While Ramiel might be scraping along like a vagabond drifter, as long as he was with Lyla she made sure they were well-equipped and fed. He had no idea how she managed that, and getting a straight answer from her about that was like pulling teeth.

Lyla rented the one room with a queen-sized feather bed (of course). She knew Ramiel would be waiting for her to return with the drinks, so she hurried down the hall toward the room. She set the two bottles of soda down on the dresser and quickly forgot her disappointment that they were warm when she saw Ramiel was ready for her massage. They had been in the middle of restocking when she went to get them, but on the bright side they had been free because they were warm. Small towns do have their upsides.

He motioned for her to lay down on the bed. After a couple minutes passed, he handed a cold soda to her. “Ready?”

She looked surprised. Ah! she realized. He’d done something to it to make it cold. She smiled and sipped a bit, then nodded. “Ready.”

Lyla turned away from him and removed the little black strapless top she’d been wearing. She laid face down on the feather bed with a comfortable sigh, then reached around to her back, struggling to unhook her bra with one hand.

Ramiel let her struggle with it for a bit, enjoying her awkward dilemma. Then it came free with a sudden, almost inaudible pop.

She turned her face to the side on the pillow. Ramiel could see her eyes closed comfortably, and a smile upon her face. He couldn’t help but to take a moment view the smooth, bare skin of her back, and the the attractive curve of her waist. All that remained of her clothing was her tight-fitting denim shorts. It was the first time he’d seen this much of her.

There had always been this sense of what was “proper” between them. Although now he was beginning to wonder if that particular sense had never really been shared by Lyla. He’d never asked; he’d always assumed she preferred to have her privacy. But then, perhaps he was being greedy now. Perhaps she only took off her top to facilitate the massage. After all, it wasn’t as if she had acted in any way crass. He was only seeing what any masseuse might see. Yet it was very hard not to enjoy what he saw.

Ramiel was very careful as he placed his hands on her back, and slowly began to move his hands in gentle circular motions. He was careful for two reasons, one so he did not make himself uncomfortable, and two so he would not cross the delicate line between them; a line he thought that may only be in his mind. They had been together for so long, they were almost everything to each other, but he had always held himself back no matter how much Lyla teased him.

His thoughts had already trailed too far as he warmed the lotion in his hands. He had wondered for some time now what her skin felt like, wondered even more what it would taste like. Now all he had to do was lean down and find out.

Her skin was irresistible beneath his hands, he moved them as slowly as he could , touching as much of her body as she would allow, stealing slight brushes of the hand against more sensitive parts. He waited for her to protest, but all she did was moan. The sound made his pulse race. He leaned forward and traced his lips across her back, letting the tip of his tongue taste her sweat flesh, bringing a small gasp from her.

There was a sharp knock on the door. “County Sheriff, open up. We’d like to ask you a few questions.”

Lyla huffed in disgust. “I knew this would happen,” she griped quietly. “Will you stall them while I put something back on?”

Ramiel shifted just slightly as she rose from the bed, just enough to see the tender flesh that formed the perfected breasts, he wanted more than anyhting to touch them and had actually started to reach out as the second knock rapped the door.

He headed towad the door and froze realizing the predicament Lyla had left him in. Gotta think of somethign fast, OH!! older naked women. No wait that can be good, too. Mature smooth experienced women, AAAHH, No n no no… it’s getting worse. UMMM ok….Right, that time you walked in on Aunti Rose who is ancient and all the folds and witherd flesh. uuughgh. It didn’t take very long for his thought process to make him presentable, and he opened the door. Seeing it was an officer he played nice. “Good evening officer. How may I assist you?”

The tag on the man’s uniform read, “Deputy D. English”.

The deputy skipped introductions, however. He peered past Ramiel and caught a glimpse of Lyla facing away and pulling a shirt over her head. The room really was too small for her to go anywhere. He quickly took her eyes off her and focused on Ramiel to be polite. clearly, she wasn’t going anywhere. “You folks hiking the Trail?” he asked.

Just play nice and get him out of here. She is so… NO! don’t think about it. Old naked lady, old naked lady…

“Yes sir. We just arrived in town tonight.”

“Mind if I come inside?”

Ramiel could see Lyla in his peripheral, fully clothed and waiting. “No problem. Please come in.” He stepped to the side and opened the door for the officer to come inside.”

He went inside. As he passed, Ramiel noticed he had his hand on the butt of his pistol. Perhaps that was simply wise caution, but it reminded Ramiel that he did have guns with him. Unlicensed handguns.

It flashed through Ramiel’s mind that things could get sticky if his guns were found. I really need to get some sort of permit. But he was not too worried over it, as he had hidden them as he always does, in a toy box he carried in his travel bag. At a glance they just looked like toys. After all he had thought, some toy guns are confiscatd because they look real. It was a precaution he took when they came into town to stay the night.
Surprise showed on the deputy sheriff’s face after he made his way into the room and got a good look at Lyla and Ramiel. He asked, “You two related?”

“Does it matter?” came Lyla’s quick reply.

The deputy raised an eyebrow. “I hope not.” At the moment, he’d rather keep his mind on the crime he was investigating so he let it go for now.

“First, I need to get your names,” he said, taking out a notebook.

“Lyla Clairborne,” she told him.

The officer looked to Ramiel as he wrote Lyla’s name on his pad.

“Ramiel Dragos.”

He wrote that down on his pad, then asked the usual round of questions. “What is your business in Cornwall Bridge?”

“Tourism. We are taking the Trail and stopped on our way through.”

The man nodded. “Uh huh. Have you seen anyone else on the trail lately?”

Lyla smiled charmingly and shook her head. “No, officer.”

“Deputy,” he corrected.

“Sorry.”

“Where were you yesterday about three in the afternoon?”

Lyla looked thoughtful. “About twelve miles south of here along the trail. Deputy English, may I ask what this is all about?”

He ignored her question for the moment. “Was Ramiel with you?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“Did you pass anyone on the trail that could back up your statements?”

Lyla frowned. “No.”

The deputy sighed heavily and looked at each of them. He decided they’d hear of it anyway since all the locals were talking about it, so he decided to tell them what the investigation was generally about. “A couple local folks were murdered yesterday. Eye witnesses claim to have seen a stranger about, but I’m pretty sure their description isn’t anything like you two.”

In truth, Lyla and Ramiel would be very difficult to mistake. It isn’t every day that a couple of strangers looking like supermodels wandered into town.

“But right now the both of you are the only strangers around. I’m going to have to ask you not to leave the area until we get to the bottom of this. Strictly routine, you understand. You’re not under arrest and this isn’t an order. We suspect the stranger showed up by way of the Appalachian Trail, same way you came a couple days ago from but we haven’t seen any sign of him.

“If either of you remember something that might be important, I’d appreciate you letting me know. I’ll be staying here at the Inn. Right next door actually.” He looked meaningfully at the two of them. Lyla just sat there looking innocently pretty.

Damn! was all he could think. He was so close to her this time. Damn! echoed in his mind. Why did this guy have to be in the next room.

“Of course, off– ahem, Deputy English. We understand perfectly. If there is anything we can do to help just let us know.”

He opened the door for the deputy and waited politely to see if he was ready to leave or not.

The deputy pursed his lips then nodded. “All right. Hope you enjoy your stay,” he mumbled and then he walked out of the room.

After Ramiel closed the door, Lyla recounted her thoughts. “This has to be it.” She stood up. There was that little dimple between her brows always meant her mind was back to business told him that the moment between them had passed with the deputy’s arrival. And that meant she was probably going into “boss” mode.

“A stranger arriving here and then less than twenty four hours later, there are murders? It’s got to be the Dark Man. It’s just too big of a coincidence,” Lyla told him.

“You go down and order us something to eat. I’m going to hit the shower and clean up. When you get back, it’ll be your turn. Then we’re going to check out those murders before it happens again.”

Ramiel frowned and slumped his shoulders, yeah she was going to drag them into the middle of this. He watched her head into the bathroom, he heard the lock snap into place. He had his hand on the doorknob when he thought of something, Lyla naked in the shower.

He turned his attention to the bathroom door and once heard the shower curtain open and close, he concentrated on the lock to that door. He had been in there earlier and it was a simple enough lock, it only took a couple minutes to get it ti move, well a couple minutes a lot of concentration.

The door inched opened and he peeked inside, he could not help it, he knew she would most likely be mad, but he could not pass up this chance.

The shower was actually a combination tub/shower with a glass door. The glass had semi-translucent waves in it that obscured anyone inside the shower just enough that anyone looking in wouldn’t get very good details. Still, he could see her cream-colored skin through the glass, the shape of her body and even a hint of nipple when she turned just so. She was just in the process of lathering up shampoo in her hair when he got his glimpse. She didn’t appear to notice.

Then the door squeaked, a small, alarming protest in response to Ramiel’s over-curious lean.

He cringed when the door squeaked, but only for a second. If she is going to find out, might as well make it worth the beating, he thought with a mental chuckle.

A few quick steps got him to the shower door, and an instant later he swung it open. “Did you say you wanted chicken or pizza?”

Lyla nearly jumped out of her skin. She certainly screamed. When her eyes focused and she realized it was Ramiel, she was cross that he’d startled her so badly. “Out!” she ordered.

Despite the girl’s fury, it was hard not to enjoy the view. But he didn’t have long before his vision was swamped with water. She had directed the shower nozzle on him.

“Out out out!” she yelled.

He belatedly dodged out of the way and retreated back to the bathroom door and then leaned back. “So, chicken or pizza?”

His only response was the slamming of the shower door. He thought he actually heard her growl.

After they had eaten and Ramiel hit the shower as well, they worked on coming up with a plan. The best thing to do, they decided, was to figure out where the murders happened and if anybody saw anything. Certainly the police already did that, but it didn’t seem terribly likely that the deputy or the sheriff (whom they hadn’t met yet) would share that kind of information with them. And, even if they did it might be better to do the work themselves because it was often a lot more productive to get the information first hand, rather than simply get what others had observed and miss the same things they did.

Lyla_Shower.gif

No, Lyla was certain they needed to first do some checking of their own. Then perhaps later they could catch up to the cops, if they were amenable to conversation. She even thought they should split up, but Ramiel told her that would be extremely foolish. With a killer still on the loose and possibly not far away, any poking around could attract attention and he wasn’t about to let her wander off by herself under these kinds of circumstances.

It was just early evening when they came down from their room. Lyla had suggested talking with one of the innkeepers first and going from there. Since the police were here, they might know something about what was going on and when she’d arranged for their room, they reacted very well to her. Now the six pm sun shone through at an oblique angle as it did in Connecticut in May, illuminating the dining area. It appeared that the female innkeeper had just finished her own dinner and was clearing away her plate.

As Ramiel and Lyla approached, she smiled and greeted them. “Was the pizza all right?” she asked them. Ramiel had, since he had no guidance from Lyla, acquired a small pizza for two earlier. It had been obviously home made and the sauce was the Inn’s own recipe.

“Yes.” Ramiel looked around the room to make sure Deputy English was nowhere nearby. He didn’t appear to be.

“We were going to walk around town and see the sights, but we have been informed there has been some unfortunate events. I was hoping you could tell us where this happened so we might avoid those areas.” He returned her smile then. It was his best “good boy” smile. But, it held an edge of more to it, if she wanted to see it that way. He had learned the fine art of subtlety. If her mind was open to it, she would see his smile offered how nice he could be to her in return for her help.

She paused to look at him and he noted a wedding ring on her left finger as she gathered up her glass in that hand. Still, married or not, she wasn’t totally immune to his charms. She returned his smile, though it faded as she thought about the seriousness of the events lately.

“Well, you might want to avoid the area around the bridge,” she suggested.

Lyla asked, “You mean the one just to the west, over the little river?”

She nodded. “That’s the one.” Lyla and Ramiel hadn’t noticed anything unusual there, despite having crossed that bridge on their way into town. “They found Daniel Roberts’ body under that bridge. So if you have a mind to do some fishing you might want to head up stream instead.

“Also, there is a little old farm house just a quarter mile down Kent road. Rebecca Goode was found dead there this morning.” She seemed to reconsider. “Actually, if you want my opinion, you might be better off staying here rather than wandering off. The police are still looking for a killer out there. There’s a lot of hills, mountains and woods out there to hide. I overheard the sheriff talking about organizing a manhunt tonight. It’s all very bad business.”

She shook her head regretfully. “I do hope this mess doesn’t make you think poorly of this place. It really is so unusual to have any crime at all here. I just wish they’d catch this murderer and make it all stop.”

“If it were up to me we would stay in for the night, but this one,” he looked at Lyla, “just has to go see the sights. We are here after all and it would be a shame to miss such a lovely little town. Besides, I will get no rest if we stay in.”

The innkeeper chuckled. She seemed to misinterpret what he meant by saying he’d get no rest if he stayed in with Lyla. “Well, it’s more just a couple of houses clustered together and the Inn, but I must admit there is really wonderful scenery and normally a very relaxing atmosphere here. There are some other villages nearby but they are about the same size or smaller than Cornwall Bridge. The closest real town is Cornwall. It’s pretty small at about two hundred souls, but it has a grocery which also sells gas, a tavern and a police station. That would be about two miles from here.

“Then there is Torrington. That’s a good sixteen miles from here, but it’s a decent sized town of about… thirty five thousand? I think that’s right. Nice place, and it has more shopping opportunities.” She smiled kindly and proudly announced, “You’ve managed to find yourself in just about the most rural area that Connecticut has to offer!”

The innkeeper prattled on, happily sharing what she knew of the local sights. “Of course, no one comes out here for the shopping. There are some really nice parks out here. You’d know all about the Trail, I suppose. And Macedonia Brook park is very nice.”

Lyla recalled something from their maps. “Isn’t there a Mohawk Mountain park near here?”

Their hostess nodded. “Yes, but the most interesting part about that is the ski resort, which is now closed for the season. I believe all the trails are closed right now.”

Ramiel slid his arm across Lyla’s shoulders, his fingers tapping impatiently on her shoulder. Come on before this lady bores me to death, he thought to himself. I really would like to just stay out of it this time. Ugh. But maybe this time we will find the clue we need to lead us to the Dark Man.

“So,” he said aloud, “we going to go before night falls?”

Lyla smiled and looked up at him. She seemed to be comfortable with his arm around her. “Yes, we should get moving if we want to get any sight-seeing done.”

The innkeeper smiled pleasantly. “Enjoy yourselves.”

She seemed at war with herself over something as she looked first at Ramiel and then at Lyla, then Ramiel again. Then she finally decided to ask what was on her mind. “Forgive me for asking, but are you two–“

“No,” Lyla said before she could finish that sentence.

“Oh.” The innkeeper looked terribly confused but apparently that was the how Lyla liked it. Ramiel and Lyla left the inn and began their search for clues.

The bridge was very close by and it made sense to stop there first. It wasn’t obvious from the road that anything unusual had happened there. but once Lyla and Ramiel carefully picked their way down to the river beneath the bridge, they discovered an area cordoned off by police tape. Although the body had of course long since been removed, there was evidence of blood on the larger river rocks.

As they were inspecting the site, they heard a whizz and buzz followed by a wet splash. Looking about fifty yards upstream, they noticed a lone man with a pole was doing a little late-afternoon trout fishing.

Ramiel was tense, watching the area as though something was going to jump out at them. “I’m not so sure this is a great idea, Lyla. Cops are involved in this and spreading our tracks all over the scene, it’s not smart.”

He lowered his voice as he talked to her so the sound would not be carried to the ears of the nearby fisherman. “If I am caught with unlicensed guns I am in trouble.”

“Relax,” Lyla told him. “The police have already been over this and left it unguarded. I’m sure they are done here.” She nodded toward the fisherman yonder. “Let’s go talk to him. Maybe he knows something.”

He sighed and rubbed his head. He had given it an honest try to get out of this mess that was lying before them. It only took a few moments to move over to the man fishing. Ramiel stood a few feet from him for a while, watching him fish. After a couple moments had passed, he spoke up.
“How is the fishing in this area?”
The man carefully and slowly reeled his line in and, without looking up, he said, “Not bad. This river’s full of good trout for an evening meal.”

Lyla had followed Ramiel so quietly that he hadn’t heard her approach. The fishing man looked up, though, noticing. He nodded by way of greeting.

“I seen you looking around the scene of the murder under the bridge,” he said. “That happened yesterday, I’m pretty sure.”

Ramiel asked, “Do you know what happened with it?”

He nodded. “Yup. Was me that found the body, in fact.” He cast the line out again. Whiiiiiiz. Click. Then he began winding his lure back in again.

“Ugh, I am sorry for that, it still looks pretty bad over there, I can’t imagine what you must of stumbled across. Was it really bad?”
The man looked up at the slightly taller Ramiel. He was perhaps 60, with darkly tanned and wrinkled skin. White hair stuck out form under his plain green cap. “I guess so. It was Daniel Roberts. My son grew up with him. Danny had his guts ripped out and smeared all over the rocks. Real mess, that was.”

Lyla was a little unnerved by his calm. “Didn’t that upset you?”

“Sure,” he said. “I knew Danny. But I seen worse back in ‘Nam. I could tell you stories that’d turn that pretty black hair of yours white as your brother’s here.”

“Brother??” Ramiel looked at Lyla and then back to the stranger. He smiled then. “You aren’t the first to suggest that.” His smile broadened.

“My name is Ramiel, and this is Lyla.” He acted as though he would shake the mans hand, but did not want to interrupt his fishing.

“William Cobb,” the man said. He held the reel with one hand and shook Ramiel’s hand with the other. “Everybody just calls me Bill.”

“You were military. I hope I do not sound too pretentious for saying thank you for your services. I can see how the scene yesterday would not compare to that. I can not even imagine what you saw during that, it was probably a common accurance over there. What about here? The town seems pretty peaceful. Is it common for people to jump from the bridge? Is that what happened?”
Ramiel noticed his hand was being squeezed hard and when he looked, he noticed Lyla was staring at him.

“It… it’s just like what happened to mo– I mean Melisande,” she said in a low voice.

And as he recalled, the description of what had happened to Danny was just how they’d found Melisande in the kitchen that day when they came home from school. There was a bloody kitchen knife near her body and her belly had been cut open. She’d bled out eventually, but the end was undoubtedly horribly painful and unmerciful.

The police had finally judged it a suicide. There were no fingerprints on the apparent murder weapon but her own (she had been preparing dinner for the Morgans, with whom she was employed as a maid). The Morgans were no help at all, saying that yes it was possible Melisande had psychological problems of which they were unaware. No one listened to a couple of frantic teenagers who insisted their mother wouldn’t have left them that way.

Ramiel and Lyla had both been convinced it was murder. Lyla said she’d seen it happen, though he didn’t understand how that could be, and she never was able to explain to him. He did know that on the walk home that day she’d fallen down screaming and it took him several minutes to get through to the hysterical girl. When she was sensible enough to realize where she was, she took off at a run and he’d followed her all the way home.

“Home” was actually the servants quarters at the Morgan estate. Melisande worked for them as a maid, but she was usually done with her duties by the time Ramiel and Lyla came home from school, unless there was some special request or project that came up. This time, Lyla ran straight for the kitchen in the main house with Ramiel at her side.

Much later Lyla had she was trying to figure out some way to convince Melisande to let her stay out past curfew on a date that night. Then she said that something had come over her and she’d seen what happened.

It was a man in long dark clothes, she’d said. It was almost like a cloak, but it was more a black coat. She hadn’t seen one like that before. And he’d had his own knife. She said she saw him overpower Melisande, tie her up and gag her. Then he cut her open and watched as she slowly died while her screams were muffled. No one had heard anything.

After Melisande had passed out, he’d removed the gag and the rope, then bloodied a butcher knife and made sure her own fingerprints were on it. That’s all she’d seen. They’d run the rest of the way home.

No one believed Lyla’s story but Ramiel. There simply wasn’t any evidence for it, nor could she explain how it was she saw it happen when clearly she was elsewhere when it occurred. Lyla had always been something of a wild teen; she’d hung out with some shady people and was rumored to get into trouble. That included the Morgan girl, Elizabeth. Although Elizabeth certainly got herself into her own share of trouble (which eventually got her shipped off to a boarding school for girls across the country), Lyla seemed to pick up on Elizabeth’s habits after the Morgan girl had been sent away. Melisande, after all, couldn’t afford private school for undisciplined Lyla.

Ramiel, however, was another story. He excelled in academics and had already been enrolled in college-level courses by the time he was a sophomore. He hardly had to work at getting good grades. Still he and Lyla were close even then. She might have seemed like just another out of control teen girl, but he felt he understood her. He’d always been an anchor without which she might have coasted free and dashed herself upon the rocks of life.

So it was not difficult to understand that the Morgans certainly didn’t believe Lyla’s story. They’d always wanted to blame their failure in Elizabeth on her influence, though it was really the other way around. Trouble brewed very quickly, and since neither of them worked for the Morgans, they were soon dismissed from the Morgan estate.

Melisande’s murder had never been solved, or even properly investigated. Ramiel was able to convince Lyla to stay the few days left of school to make it to graduation his mother would have wanted it that way. But then they were on their own, trying to find their way in a hostile world.

It was two years later when they picked up the trail of the Dark Man, their mother’s killer. But that is another story.

Bill Cobb was looking at Ramiel. Apparently he’d been talking while Ramiel was reminiscing, but he hadn’t missed much. “…pretty rare, I’d say,” Bill was saying. “No, and after the second body was found, the sheriff decided it wasn’t suicide, either. Poor fellow’s pretty clueless if you ask me. No, I got my own ideas who dunnit.”

Ramiel blinked as the world began to refocus. “Ideas… ummm… really what is your theory?”

Lyla’s hand was still gripping his own. He returned the squeeze she was giving him to let her know it was all right.

“The sheriff wants to put this on a stranger that blew threw here a few days ago, but I don’t think that fellow had anything to do with it. But I seen that look in John Wilcox’s eyes.” Bill shook his head. “Not right if you ask me. He’s got a crazy look to him I ain’t seen in a long time. I can’t prove it, but I think he just… snapped. Ain’t no motive for it. Ain’t no reason for John to hurt nobody. But all the same, there’s something going on.

“I tried to talk to him this morning. We ain’t good friends or anything but we see each other, we usually wave or say hi. But he didn’t stop or anything today. He just kept walking like he was going somewhere important.”

“Other stranger. Right, the Deputy said thee was someone else passing through. Do you know what they looked like? Just a fascination really, since the Deputy questioned us earlier. Did this person look like one of us?”

Bill shook his head. “Nope. I’ve never met anyone that looks like either of you. This fellow was dressed in sort of a loose black long coat of some sort. Dark skinned, but tanned. Not black. He passed through and was gone a few days ago as far as I know.”

The Dark Man had been here. He had to be behind these murders, thought Ramiel. But why? It was the same question that had haunted them for years now. Why did he do it? Why mother?

“The others were found the same way,” Ramiel stated. “Did this person you are referring to have any connection or reason to do something like this? Or were the other bodies found close to here forming some type of pattern to connect him to it?”

“Yeah,” Bill nodded. “John knew both people that were killed so far. But then, everybody knows just about everybody around here.”

Lyla asked, “Where is Wilcox now? Are the police questioning him at least?”

Bill shook his head to that. “No, the cops won’t take my suspicion as evidence. Their focus seems to be on locating the stranger. You ask me, I don’t think they’ll find him.”

“If they do find him then what? Is there evidence to support an arrest?” Ramiel asked.

Bill cast his line again as he thought about that. “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

Ramiel looked at Lyla, “What do you say to letting him have some quiet for his fishing, hmm?”
Lyla nodded her agreement. “It was nice meeting you, Mr. Cobb. Just one last question before we leave you to your fishing. Your talk about John Wilcott’s got me a bit nervous. If he’s off his nob, then I think we’d want to avoid him. Can you give us a description and places he tends to be? I’d just as soon not be there.”

Bill threw Lyla a suspicious look, but then just shrugged. “Sure. He’s in his forties, brown hair, blue eyes. About my size, five ten or so. Stocky, though. He’s probably two ten, maybe two hundred twenty pounds. His place is about a half mile south of here right off of Kent. I don’t know if you’ll see him around or not. He retired early, has a nice place out there and usually goes to a bigger town to shop.”

“Thanks, Bill.” Lyla looked up at Ramiel and looped an arm through his.

The woods were quiet as they headed back in the direction of the Inn. Ramiel had the feeling that Lyla had every intention of finding Wilcott. He was bothered by the memories of his mother’s death, and distracted by the feel of Lyla against him. He slipped his arm out of her’s, and took a couple steps forward, shaking away the last remnants of the images from so long ago. He looked at Lyla, and wondered what she thought of him.
She reached up and touched Ramiel’s arm. The look in her eyes wasn’t teasing or devious, but just honest affection. “Ramiel. It’s–“

A rustling in the brush next to the path they’d taken to head to the motel interrupted her. They’d both heard the crunch of twigs and hissing sound of leafy branches brushing a large body. Then the thing lurched out of the undergrowth and onto the patch in front of them.

It was dead. Very dead. The stench told them as much, but the blue face, glassy, unblinking eyes, and the greyish pallor of its dead skin was obvious. It had the ragged remains of pants, but its shirt was ripped open and fluttering freely behind it, giving them each a glimpse of pinkish-grey mass of barely-healed flesh over its abdomen.

It looked like a man in his thirties.

The thing was dead, there was no doubt about that. But it didn’t move like the dead. It was fast! Both Lyla and Ramiel were so shocked, they hadn’t reacted when the monster charged straight into Lyla with fists flailing.

Ramiel attempted to intercept it and landed a twin punch meant to stagger it and push it back. It was like punching a slab of beef in a cold meat locker.

The zombie-like monster continued its single-minded attack upon Lyla. Desperate to find something to defend herself, she reached for her telescoping baton and snapped it out to it full two-foot length. Unfortunately, the slight distraction cost her as the zombie landed a blow to her shoulder that sent little electric tingles shooting down her arm and almost made her slip and fall.

Ramiel continued his own assault, landing several more even more powerful blows. Yet, the monster didn’t seem to feel anything.

Lyla thought she was ready to unleash a whooping on this monster now. With baton in hand, she prepared to attack. But, it was too late. The creature lunged at her unexpectedly and tackled her to the ground.

For Lyla it was one mind-bending horror to see the dead walking around and hitting her. It was far worse to be slowly crushed under the monster’s weight, to feel it’s cold, clammy and rotting skin on hers, and to smell the foul odors oozing from its gaping maw. The monster was now preparing to bite her to death. Lyla panicked now and let loose a shrill, incoherent, terrified scream. She struggled to escape the monster’s grip, but it useless. The thing was far too strong.

Ramiel jumped on it and gained a good grip on it even as it bit Lyla. He strained with all his might, but undead thing easily shrugged his best effort. As Lyla continued to squirm out of its grasp, Ramiel spotted a rock half-buried in the dirt and called it to rise. Obediently, the rough stone popped free in a shower of fresh earth and, per Ramiel’s command, leapt at the zombie, striking it with a loud smack.

Lyla screamed as the Zombie bit down, trying to penetrate skin. Ramiel struck the zombie again and this time bones crunched! It’s pelvis was shattered, but still it hung on to poor Lyla, though it moaned in protest to its loss of mobility.

Desperate to break free of the monster’s grip, Lyla struggle with all her might. In so doing, she dislocated her shoulder with a wet pop. Red haze overwhelmed her vision and she lost consciousness. Now the zombie had free reign of her flesh and he began to eat freely, tearing a chunk from her shoulder. Blood sprayed out upon the earth.

Ramiel was almost panicked now and kicked madly at the thing to make it stop. It continued chewing on her body until finally he managed a kick that caught the point of the zombie’s chin. With a snap its head flew from its shoulders and landed three yards away. It glared back up at Ramiel for a moment, then its eyelids closed. The rest of the body, still atop of Lyla, went still.

The Ramiel heard something metallic drop to the earth. When he turned, he saw William Cobb standing there, fishing pole on his shoulder and a tackle box had been dropped at his feet. He stood with gap-jawed amazement at the scene.

“I… I heard screams,” he stammered.

Ramiel growled, “Help me get this off her!” he said as he pushed at the body.

“Dear God,” Bill whispered as he ran over to help. “It’s Danny. Daniel Roberts. But… but he was dead.”

Between the two of them, they got the remains off Lyla. She was still breathing — barely.

Ramiel knew a bit of first aid and Bill silently helped, although he continued to cast nervous glimpses toward the now-still corpse of Danny Roberts. Ramiel re-set her shoulder as best he could and then staunched her bleeding.

“She should go to the hospital,” Bill stated. “She’s hurt pretty bad.”

Lyla’s eyes fluttered open, and though she was weak she spoke. “No. I’ll be okay,” she croaked. “I won’t stay in a hospital.”

Bill sighed. He’d met stubborn people before. He was one of them, after all. It was difficult to get them to see reason sometimes, especially if they were hurting.

“Listen, she needs to see a doctor,” he told Ramiel. “But if you can’t get her to see a doctor, then the next best thing is to take her to the Cornwall Inn and talk to the lady there. Her name is Margaret. She knows a thing or about healing up, got some old recipes from her grandmother and all. She might be able to help. She’s not a doctor, but a sight better than nothing.”

Ramiel put the snap baton away and lifted Lyla into his arms, cradling her close to him. “Thanks for your help, Bill. I will take her back to the inn.” He looked at the remains. “I am sorry you had to see that.”

He ran as fast as he could back to the Inn. Once there he found the woman innkeeper, Margaret, whose name was mentioned by Bill. She was straightening up various tables and chairs as she prepared to lock up for the night.

Margaret looked up and when she noticed Ramiel carrying the injured Lyla, concern flashed across her face. “Oh my!”

But to her credit she didn’t ask questions. Instead she got immediately to work, laying a blanket down on a comfortable couch. “You can put her right here,” she told Ramiel.

After he laid her down, she bent over Lyla. “Young lady, what happened to you?”

Lyla looked up her and weakly rubbed her throat. “I’m thirsty.”

Margaret patted her arm. “Don’t you worry. I’ll get you something to drink and then we’ll see about getting you fixed up.”

She walked a few steps, then turned. “Mr. Dragos? May I have a word with you in the kitchen?”

He was reluctant to leave Lyla. “Will it be all right if I leave for a moment?”

She nodded. “It’s okay, Ramiel.”

Ramiel gave her a comforting squeeze on the arm and then followed Margaret into the kitchen. There, the middle-aged lady turn to him. “Those are bite marks on her shoulder and neck! I’ll call an ambulance for her, but I wanted to know something. How did it happen?”

“No ambulance,” Ramiel told her. “She does not want one. And I will be truthful with you, I do not think you would believe me if I told you.”

“Try me,” Margaret stated.

He leaded against the kitchen counter. “We went for a walk and came across one of the crime scenes. Then we saw someone fishing upstream, so we went and introduced ourselves. That person was William Cobb. We talked to Mr. Cobb for a while and he told us a little bit about what had happened and then we left to come back to our room.

“There was a rustling in the bushes and the next thing we knew, we were being attacked. And well… the part you are not going to believe is that the person attacking us appeared to be a corpse with decaying skin, rotting stench. It leapt on Lyla and I had a heck of a time getting it off of her. I finally kicked its head off.

“About then Cobb appeared and told me it was Danny Roberts. Cobb sent us to you since Lyla did not want to go to a hospital. I cannot say I blame her, as no one would believe that story anyway.

“So if the cops ask, we will say she was bit by a dog.”

Margaret stared at him trying to decide if he was full of horse shit or not.

“Hey, if you do not believe me,” Ramiel said, “you can ask Mr. Cobb.”

Margaret said, “I will.”

“I am going to go make sure Cobb is safe because as I recall, there were two victims in this town and he is out there alone. Will you please take care of Lyla”

Margaret frowned. “There is a lot of strange things going on out there lately. I’m locking up for the night. Although the tavern will be open late as usual. When you need to get back inside, ring the bell.” She sighed. “And I’ll see what I can do for your sister.”

On the way out, Ramiel paused to lean down and kiss Lyla on the forehead. “I have to go out, but I will return.”

Lyla reached up and caught his arm. “Ramiel. Get the bastard that’s doing this to people. And get your guns.”

Ramiel just smiled. “On my way.”

Back in his room, Ramiel put on his twin shoulder holsters, then checked his guns to make sure they were in operating order and fully loaded. Then he shoved a spare clip, one for each gun, in his back pockets. He threw on his long coat and now he was ready for business.

What the hell was that thing? A… no it couldn’t have been. Ramiel couldn’t deny the truth. Damn, a zombie. Shit! Well, I have got to kill it, no question about it. Okay, so you kicked the head off it, and hopefully that one is done, but there might be another out there. Uhhh, and you left that nice ol’ guy Bill out there alone.

Ramiel sighed as he left the Inn. this was not going to be easy alone, if at all posible. He knew he might not ever see Lyla again if he found the the other one. I should have kissed her on the lips, was all he could think until he saw the tavern. Margaret had said it was still open. Well one shot of courage never hurt anyone, right? He closed his coat around him so it would not be brushed open and reveal his guns, then went inside.

As luck would have it, Bill Cobb was at the same tavern. He’d apparently had a similar idea. Bill’s plan was to track down the sheriff or his deputy and take care of the situation with Danny. He wasn’t sure what he’d say about it, but the messed needed cleaning up. Ramiel was going to check out the other murder site to see if another zombie had turned up near there, then he’d have to look on this John Wilcox. Bill told him where Wilcox lived. If it turned out Wilcox was creating monsters out of people, he needed to be stopped and they both agreed this wasn’t a matter for the cops. Bill didn’t envy Ramiel his position but assured him that if something happened, he’d do what was necessary to see Ramiel didn’t get into trouble for being a good samaritan.

They each enjoyed a shot of hard liquor and Bill headed out.

A few locals remained in the bar and, as Ramiel had noticed earlier, included a rather nice looking woman. She’d caught his eye earlier, while Bill was still there, and he’d made an unconscious mental note of her. This lady was in her mid-thirties and she was here alone. There was was no wedding band on her finger, though there was a tan line showing that she used to wear one. For whatever reason, she wasn’t wearing it tonight.

She was a red head with a fair to pink complexion and cute freckles peppering her nose and cheeks. Her eyes showed she’d been around the block a time or two, but she somehow managed to keep that youthful energy about her, although her demeanor was certainly not welcoming of company. She had turned away two men already who wanted to buy her a drink. Still, she was the only woman in the bar tonight.

Ramiel decided he would give it a go. Sure, she had turned down two guys already, but hey they weren’t him. Besides, if I am going to die tonight, I should have some fun first.

The tan line of a ring told him two things. Either she was recently single and needed some attention, or she was single for the night. He crossed the room and sat down next to her.

She’d been nursing something red in a wine glass and watched him a moment as he sat down. She set her own glass down and turned to get a better look at him. She smiled — or rather her eyes did. She was trying to play it cool, but she wasn’t going to turn away the best looking guy in the room before giving him a chance to stuff his own foot in his mouth.

He returned the smile in her eyes with one of his own. His eyes held the promise of what he could do for her, and to her. ” Tough night to be a man, but then maybe they are offering the wrong thing.”

Ramiel knew that she had been waiting for him all night, waiting to see if she could get what she wanted from him. He could see it in her eyes. He didn’t even ask what brought her here tonight, the need for companionship to fill a lost void, or the yearning to be naughty with a stranger, he didn’t ask, and he did not care.

He talked to her long enough to learn what he needed to, then he followed her to her SUV, and drove out to a nice quite place.

Ramiel started low on her body, working her into a wet tension, bringing sudden gasps and low, soft moans from her. He covered her entire body with the attention she longed for, working his way to her lips where he kissed her deeply, as though he would work his way back down through her. Her body was swollen with need, her breath came in short quick breaths and her heart beat rapidly beneath his touch.

He was well practiced at this art. The woman, Sally as it turned out, did not even notice him slip the condom into place. All she felt was the thickness of him push into her, pounding in a quickening rhythmic motion , until her body burst with the rush of orgasm.

Ramiel had given her what she wanted, what she needed, and once they were done, she dropped him off where he asked to go, she did not ask his name, she did not care to.

He left, walking into the night to possibly die, she left to return to her life as it was wearing a smile.

The second attack, so Bill had told him, had occurred about a quarter mile south of the Inn on Kent Road. Finding wasn’t a problem for Ramiel. As he walked along the road on that lonely, starlit evening, he easily made out the bright yellow police warning tape that marked a large square in the western ditch. The moon, being three-quarters full was bright enough to make the yellow tape seem to glow in the night. Parts of it had torn loose, though, and now the gentle breeze made it flap lethargically almost as if beckoning him to come closer.

Alas, all was quiet in that place, and there was little of interest he could see there. With a small river passing somewhere to the west, there were plenty of trees lining the west edge of the ditch but a lack of undergrowth beneath large, aged might let him use his flashlight to scan the dark part of the forest nearest the site. Nothing stirred and only an owl hooted somewhere in the distance.

Ramiel was not sure how to track a possible zombie, It would just be easier to make myself a target, and be alert.

So he walked around the area, making sure to go back into the less public spaces, as they were attacked in the woods the first time. He covered a large area, slowly and observantly. He was determined not to get caught off guard this time.

It was quiet, but he could still hear the animal nightlife, he tried to pay close attention to that, waiting to see if the sound stopped entirely in an area. If the animals are quiet there is usually a predator around. That might help me find this thing.
Unfortunately, the area remained relatively quiet, except for the occasional hooting call of an owl. Hours passed and eventually Ramiel was forced to come to the conclusion that one of two things happened. Either the zombie simply wasn’t here, or that for whatever reason, the second victim had not risen as a zombie.

But there was still one more place on his list to check. John Wilcott’s acreage was but a quarter mile down the road and, though it was after two in the morning, there appeared to be a light on at the house.

Ramiel approached the house quietly. He peered through a window while hiding as best he could.

There was a light on inside, a yellow glow caused by a single floor lamp standing next to an old, navy blue la-z-boy recliner. The room looked empty.

But just then Ramiel heard the purr of a truck’s engine and the crackle of gravel under the wheels as it pulled into the driveway. White light from the truck’s headlights splashed across the front of the house as it pulled up to a stop. Fortunately, Ramiel had approached from the side and was not exposed to the driver.

Peering carefully around the corner of the house, he saw the dark shape of a driver climb out and walk to the rear of the truck where he opened the tailgate. There was a heavy, sliding sound as he pulled a large bag in out and hefted it over one shoulder. With a grunt he slammed shut the tailgate and began to head in the direction of the front door of the house.

This always happens in the movies, really bad horror movies. Great, my life has become a late night made for tv sci fi channel special. Keeping to the shadows, Ramiel tried to covertly follow the man’s movements as best he could so he could find out what he was up to this late with a heavy — probably body — bag.

As he did so, Ramiel concentrated, drawing upon a power hidden within himself. It was a sort of mental preparation for a conflict he felt certain was soon to come. His nerves thus fortified, he carefully watched as he saw the man open the front door and walk inside. By watching through a window Ramiel was able to see him flick on an overhead light which illuminated more of the spacious living room.

The hidden investigator saw a large, flat-screen TV in the corner and opposite that a antique couch with overstuffed cushions and dark, hardwood arms. The carpet was plush and looked comfortable but the man, in all probability Wilcott himself, took no particular care at all. He tromped over it with dirty work boots until he reached the old couch. There he dropped his heavy package upon it and with a single, violent motion, he tore the plastic off. Ramiel, from his position could see directly what Wilcott had there. It was a girl.

She was a golden blonde with wavy hair that spilled free over the pillow. She had on a pale green nighty through which he could see a lacy bra and underpants, as if she’d been snatched right out of her own bed. And at this hour that seemed about right. The girl was also young. If he had to guess, he might say she was about his own age.

The victim also had a nasty bruise over her right temple. It was already purple and green, and she’d been hit hard enough some blood had flowed down her cheek, but that had already stopped. She was certainly groggy and likely suffering from a concussion. Her head lolled and he heard the faint sound of her pained moan through the window.

“Don’t worry,” Wilcott said in a voice that was much deeper and more resonant than one would have guessed. “Your pain will soon be over.” He drew a long, curved hunting knife from a sheath at his side.

Ramiel looked around him to see if there was a large rock. After a moment he found what he needed and threw it hard enough to smash the window and land near Wilcott.

Wilcott turned on his heel to face the window. Ramiel felt ice storm through his veins as he bore witness now to the man’s eyes. Wilcott stared at Ramiel with horrible, cold white lights in the ruined, dry sockets that were once filled with human eyes.

Shit. Ramiel knew it was about to get ugly, he pulled pistols from their holsters. I should have gone with plan A was all he could think.

A long shard of glass rose steadily from the floor and suddenly sliced through the air right at Ramiel! Luckily, remaining wood support in the frame of the window deflected it, causing the glass to shatter just before it might have struck his face.

This is going to be a pain in the ass. Lyla, I need to… fuck it. Ramiel pulled the twin pistols,taking only moments to aim before he began firing.

Bullets impacted Wilcott’s torso knocking him back. Devastating damage blew holes through his chest and shattered bone. The man hunched, then began to laugh as he straightened himself up. The holes sealed up and the mashed lead bullets fell out onto the floor. “You dare to attack me in my own home?” He roared with laughter again as he charged forward and dove through the window at Ramiel.

One outstretched hand touched Ramiel. The world seemed to swim before his eyes and the color of life seemed to drain away leaving Ramiel feeling naked and helpless before this ruthless terror from beyond the grave.

FUCK! What the hell? We are gone, outta here. Screw this shit, this town that girl. All that matters is getting Lyla someplace safe. Get her healed and move on, hearing about this for the rest of my life. Guns blazing.

DAMN. I am fucked either way. Oh well die like a man.

Ramiel did the only thing he could do. He kept shooting — point blank this time.

His desperate action met with instant success, however. Blood, bone and brain exploded from Wilcott to paint the side of the house. Then, with a surprised look on his face, Wilcott dropped dead in his tracks.

Ramiel moved quickly, not knowing if the thing was going to get up again. Standing over the thing, just out of reach, he unloaded the rest of his clip from one gun into it’s head. The impact of the bullets turned Wilcott’s head into an unrecognizable lump of wet flesh.

What the fuck are you?

Then he moved over and picked up the girl. With that he headed back the way he came. If that thing gets back up this town is on their own. He set out to find Bill hoping he would know who the girl was and where she belonged.

Epilogue
The girl who was very nearly a victim turned out to be another local, the granddaughter of Bill Cobb himself. The local sheriff also got involved at that point and it was discovered that Wilcott had another victim in his house, but he’d been dismembered and put in a freezer. The police were trying to identify the body but it was no one local. It could have been a hiker from the Triail.

According to the police report, Wilcott had snapped after his wife died some six months prior. Why he began his killing spree, no one knew, except to theorize that he wanted someone to come and kill him to end his pain. But no one really believe this.

The case seemed tidy. The sheriff didn’t want to look into the allegations that Daniel had come back from the dead and attacked Lyla and Ramiel. Instead he seemed to believe that Wilcott had stolen the body from the morgue. For what mad, depraved reason, he couldn’t say. But, there was evidence for the theory — some of Danny’s possession, known to be on his person when he died, was found in Wilcott’s house.

It took a Margaret’s attention and skill served Lyla very well. She was soon able to get up and around on her own in just a couple more days with barely a scar. Whatever herbal remedies the innkeeper used, they were very effective. Lyla told her she owed her one. Ramiel didn’t know for sure but he suspected Lyla didn’t even steal anything from the inn. Not a towel or bar of soap.

All in all, they were glad to leave. And, at Lyla’s urging, they decided to head out for a city to do some shopping and restocking of supplies.

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