There's Something in the Woods- Excerpt

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Chapter 2-Meet the Family

The Tanner household blended in with the rest of the neighbourhood, standing as a two storey house of genericness in sweet suburbia. A small white sign with gilded font indicated Jackrabbit Lane as the name of the street. Jackrabbit Lane dwelled in the modest side of town, safe for having close proximity amongst its neighbours as well as the added bonus of the local sheriff and a ranger both living in it. Jack didn’t know it but this had been used as a selling point by an estate agent to shift the property across the road from him.

Jack pulled into the wide driveway beside Matt’s green Forest Ranger Dodge sedan, got out and gestured for Riviona to pull up on the road just in front of his property. Jack’s blue eyes filled with relief as they spied Matt’s car and he hoped selfishly that Matt had delivered the grim news of the murders to Cassie, saving Jack the trouble.

Riviona’s car screeched and scratched as she stalled it and let it roll aimlessly beside the sidewalk before pulling up the handbrake. She had confirmed to Jack that she had rented the car but didn’t bother explaining why she had gone for an aged Mustang instead of something newer and potentially cheaper.

Jack, trying to keep his wince at the sound of the Mustang’s pain from his face, waited for Riviona to join him before he tugged out his house keys and led the way up the gravel drive to the front door.

The gravel crunching beneath the small wheels of Riviona’s travel sized suitcase assured Jack that the detective followed him.

Riviona glanced to the right to the modest front lawn as she stepped up onto the porch and marvelled at the twinkling lights situated on the grass. A collection of low bushes at the front of the garden hid the dazzling view from sight leaving it as a private pleasure for the Tanner residents. Populating the greenery were lit up red hooded mushrooms, luminescent blue winged butterflies, glowing green frogs sitting on stones shaped like lilypads, flowers with lightbulbs for centrepieces hiding amongst real flowerbeds, and a few colourful birds lit up against the bordering fence.

“Your lights are beautiful,” Riviona admitted, her voice a tad grudging as if she were reluctant to give the sheriff any kind of compliment.

“Huh?” Jack, ready to unlock the door, glanced over his shoulder. “Oh, those,” he said dismissively. “Yeah, they’re getting a tad excessive, the back is worse but my daughter Cassie loves them. I suppose they’re solar at least so no damage to the electric bill.”

“Daughter?” Riviona stared up at him in surprise. “You don’t live alone?”

Jack offered her a flash of a smile before he faced the door and turned the key. “Nope,” he said cheerfully. “Didn’t you see the Ranger’s car detective?” he quipped mockingly as he pulled out the key.

Riviona raised her free hand to her hip in a hostile stance missed by Jack.

“Of course I did but I figured you had a visitor or something. So, your daughter’s a ranger then?”

“Nope again, that’s my son, Matt.”

“Well surely I should find somewhere else to stay,” Riviona said quickly as Jack opened the door.

“Nope, third time lucky or unlucky is it? Nope’s a negative terminology so I suppose unlucky, right?” Jack glanced over his shoulder to the woman with another questioning look.

“Yes,” Riviona responded as she gazed up at him with annoyance in her gaze and a fresh frown plucking down at her pallid pink mouth, “unlucky indeed.”

Jack shook his head at her purposeful wordplay before stepping into the house. He tensed, his head darting to the left in the direction of the living room. He could hear crying through the closed oak door and he knew immediately that Matt must have told Cassie the news. Feeling awkward over his guest at last, Jack glanced back to Riviona apologetically.

“I think my daughter’s just been informed about the murders,” he said softly, “those girls were around her age. Can you give me a minute?”

Riviona lingered in the doorway as if she might escape back out it. “It’s your house sheriff,” she reminded him in a neutral tone.

“Yes and you are welcome in it.”

Jack looked to the open door pointedly until Riviona took the hint and entered the house, pulling the door closed behind her, securing her presence in the house for the moment. She clutched at her suitcase handle tightly with her right hand, jostling the satchel swinging from her shoulder slightly as she did.

“I won’t be long. You can set your bags down if you’d like.”

Jack headed through the living room door, slipping into the room and closing the door behind him hastily, preventing Riviona a look in to the residents.

All the lights were on in the room, it had Jack squinting slightly as his gaze darted up to the faux candles hanging in a brass candelabra above and then to the free standing light at the front corner of the room between the window and door. He glanced back to the adjoining kitchen where every spotlight glowed as well as the lamp resting on the counter that acted as a border between the two rooms, a border Jack always vowed to turn into a wall but had yet to get round to.

The sheriff tilted his head down to the three seater sofa sitting against the border counter as he took in its occupants.

Matt, still pale faced from the morning’s morbid affairs, glanced up to his father with annoyance and tiredness sullying his pale blue gaze. He mouthed the words ‘I told her’ before squeezing with his right arm the teenager crying against him.

“Cassie, honey,” Jack addressed her in a voice that he tried to keep gentle even as he forced himself to be loud to be audible over her sounds of sorrow. He could hear the tremble in her whimpers and see the quivering of her body and realised that she suffered from fear not grief.

“Cassandra,” he gave her full name firmly, determined to get her attention.

It worked. The teenager turned her head giving Jack a glimpse of a face still a little too fresh to be considered fully adult and yet lean and free of the chubby cheeks of childhood, shaped out with prominent cheekbones and a petite pointed nose.

“Dad,” her voice came out as a groan, “is it true?”

Jack nodded sombrely as he moved to take a seat on the couch. Cassie sat on it awkwardly, her body slumped sideways as she huddled against her brother, burrowing against his polished cotton, khaki ranger’s jacket.

Jack nudged his daughter slightly as he was forced to sit on the edge of the seat, squished against the arm of it. He glanced to her sympathetically and clasped his hands together on his lap.

“Cassie, I don’t know what happened to those girls yet, or who they are but it’s not going to be connected to what happened to you.”

Cassie blinked up at him, her face dismal as she let out a shudder. “But it was the same place, Matty said. And they were tore up, it’s not hugely different is it dad?” she queried angrily.

Jack glanced over Cassie to Matt who shrugged in response.

“It’s going to be all over the news,” Matt grumbled.

Jack nodded and turned his attention back to Cassie. “It’s a common trail,” he murmured. He fell short of using the word coincidence, knowing how it would be received and instead changed tact. “Look, I’ve someone to help me on this, a detective from New York.”

“New York?” Matt queried as he looked puzzled. “What’s this to do with New York?”

“Nothing probably but nonetheless I have a detective from there to help. In fact, she’s in our hall.”

“What?” Matt stared at his father in surprise, half-expecting him to admit he was joking.

Jack smiled and nodded. “Yep, came in as the tourist season starts but still expected to get a hotel room. Well that wasn’t gonna happen so I’ve brought her here. She’s had a long journey, least I can do is get her some dinner and a room for the night.”

Matt frowned and cocked his head slightly as his stare turned suspicious.

Cassie sat up, pushing back her dark hair as she regarded her father with the same look of suspicion.

“What’s going on?” Matt queried quietly. “Is she good looking?”

Jack frowned at him although the small, quivering smile Matt’s comment brought out of Cassie pleased him.

“Matt, don’t be crude. She’s an officer of the law, just like me, and an out of towner here to help so let’s play nice.”

Matt pointed at Jack accusingly. “You don’t play nice unless you’re after something old man.”

“Old man,” Jack scorned with a feigned gaze of shock, “I’m still in my forties you know, most sheriffs have twenty years on me!”

Matt lowered his hand and shrugged again before giving Cassie a grin. “Cassie, help me out here, have you ever known dad to be warm and welcoming to strangers without a motive?”

Cassie gave another weak, watery smile before shaking her head. “Nope.”

She reached again to push back some of her long strands of deep, molasses dark hair, hesitating as she sniffed back a blob of snot.

“I’m horrified that my children think so little of me,” Jack protested. “I am a wonderfully welcoming sheriff.”

“Really?” Matt queried sardonically. He gestured to the closed door. “How long have you kept this nameless detective loitering in our hall then?”

Jack opened his mouth as if to protest before closing it and nodding. “Point taken.”

Jack looked back to Cassie and reached out to grip her left shoulder and give it a reassuring squeeze. “You are always safe here,” he said seriously, “and I will do everything I can to catch whoever did this and bring them to justice.”

Cassie nodded but her head kept bobbing up and down rapidly as if she couldn’t stop it.

“Cassie,” Matt addressed her gently as he gave her a nudge.

The gesture prompted the teenager to stop nodding.

“You’ve got me too,” Matt assured her. “Remember what I always say?”

Cassie turned her frightened stare onto her brother. “No danger with a ranger around,” she answered softly.

“That’s right,” Matt said confidently with a smile. “Now, let’s make up for dad’s bad manners and let this poor detective in to meet us. I wonder who she pissed off in New York to get sent here. Did you say she needed dinner?” Matt looked over to his father.

Jack nodded and stood up from the couch. “Yep, suppose I should’ve considered take out huh?”

Matt snickered. “Maybe, I don’t know what we’ve got in the kitchen.”

“There’s mince,” Cassie said.

“Nope,” Jack remarked with a sheepish look. “I had that this morning.”

Cassie stared up at her father in surprise, her face curdling with an expression of disgust. “You had mince for breakfast? That’s disgusting dad.”

Jack rubbed at a stray strand of wavy hair behind his right ear. “I was hungry and in a hurry.”

“Wait,” Matt interrupted as he stared up at his father with wide eyes. “I had you out to me early, what on earth time were you eating mince at?”

“I don’t know,” Jack said defensively, “I was hungry so I had it, I wasn’t looking at my watch. Would you kids prefer I pigged out on donuts or something equally unhealthy instead?”

“You had mince before you looked at....them,” Matt remarked as his mouth rose up against his nose, creating wrinkles of displeasure about it. He made a conscious effort not to visualise this morning’s bodies as he stared up at his father in disbelief. “How did you keep that down?”

“I’ve had a few years of this sort of thing, you either learn not to lose your breakfast or you get a new line of work. Now, I think Detective Moon has definitely waited long enough. Give a good impression for me kids, remember daddy’s the sheriff and wants to look great to the out of towners because he needs to be taken seriously with this case.”

“And you don’t think they are taking you seriously?” Matt pounced upon his father’s real concern. “Even though they’ve sent you someone?”

Jack reached out and patted Matt on the head. “You’re too inquisitive for your own good Matty, it’s wasted on the rangers. You can pry later.”

Matt scowled as Jack patted him on the head but didn’t get a chance to answer as Jack headed for the living room door.

Cassie dabbed away the tear stains on her lightly freckled cheeks and pushed back her hair as she positioned herself into a more rigid sitting position.

Jack opened the door and looked out apologetically to the detective.

Detective Moon was seated on the stairs looking bored, her suitcase resting at the bottom whilst her satchel sat beside her, still linked to her shoulder. She had her phone out, grasped in her right hand but she wasn’t looking at it.

“No good games on your phone?” Jack queried cheerfully.

“No signal.”

“I’ll get you the wifi code. Anyway, I’m sorry for the delay, let me introduce you to my family and then we’ll sort dinner. Do you like Chinese?”

Riviona pocketed her phone, stood up and nodded. “Sure, if it’s what you have.”

Jack stared down at her as he tried to puzzle out her response. Her grey-brown gaze remained hostile and he knew she regretted coming here.

“We have a Chinese, an Indian and something that passes for takeaway with the teenaged tourists but I’m still determined to get shut down on a health code violation because I’m not convinced their meat is as advertised.”

Riviona stared up at Jack stonily. “Am I meant to pick that option? I’m confused, are you advertising them or are you trying to say my options are Chinese or Indian? Really just Chinese because if you liked Indian you’d have made that offer with the Chinese.”

Jack grinned down at her. “You’re the guest, what do you want?”

“A different hotel.”

Jack chose to take Riviona’s response as a joke and continued to grin at her. “I’ll let you meet the kids and we can order food after.”

Jack led the way back through to the living room.

Matt stood in the middle of the room, his blue stare on the doorway expectantly. Cassie remained seated, her curious stare a little more muted as it came as a barely flickered up glance from a slightly dipped head.

Riviona took in Matt first. Clean shaven and youthful faced, there was a slight dusting of missed stubble at his chin and a few fine lines beneath his eyes telling of adulthood. He was smaller than Jack but not by much, both of them were over six feet tall to her barely five feet five. She noticed his unusually pale eyes almost immediately, they were almost devoid of colour, detracting from the brightness of his slightly off-centre smile. Although he smiled at her and had a welcoming warmth to his fair face she still noted the shadows beneath his eyes, they were a hint of the worry he carried from this morning’s events.

Riviona’s gaze drifted over to Cassie. Her hair hung long and dark and her eyes shone blue just like her father and brother but her hair was poker straight compared to Jack’s waves, and fine unlike Matt’s, and her blue eyes were a beautiful blue that could almost be considered violet. She sat poised, long limbed and obviously tall like her father and brother but held an elegance and a subtle attraction to her that promised to bloom into an incredible beauty if cultivated correctly.

“Detective Moon, this is my son Matt.” Jack gestured to Matt with one hand. “And my daughter Cassie.” He gestured to Cassie in turn. “Kids, this is Detective Riviona Moon, she’s going to be having dinner with us and staying over tonight.”

“Evening,” Matt greeted brightly. “That’s an unusual name you have and quite lovely too.”

Riviona stared back at the ranger in surprise, not entirely sure if his tone held sincerity or not. “Thank you.”

Jack, standing behind the woman, shook his head at his son with a mocking stare.

“So let me guess,” Matt remarked cheerfully, “he said Chinese or Indian but made it clear you should take the Chinese.”

Riviona’s mouth widened with a sincere smile as for a moment her guard slipped down and amusement brightened her grey-brown stare. “Yes, and something about a takeaway with questionable meat.”

“Oh that’s Roddy’s,” Cassie piped up in a voice a little hoarse from crying. “It’s not that bad, just stay away from anything with sauce on it, the sauce hides things.”

“Things,” Riviona repeated dryly as her stare darted over to the teenager.

Cassie nodded and from a slightly bowed head she gave a faint smile in answer.

“Well I can collect the Chinese, if it’s what we’re doing,” Matt offered.

“NO!”

Three sets of eyes fixed upon Cassie with surprise at her shout. She stared up at her brother with a wide eyed alarm. She had jerked her head up quickly causing some of her hair to slip out from behind her ears revealing a single streak of silvery white on the right side.

“That against Chinese tonight huh?” Matt remarked weakly in a poor attempt at humour. He looked to his sister with concern as he waited for her to explain her outburst.

“It’s dark out,” Cassandra murmured worriedly. Her gaze turned begging as she kept it fixed upon her brother. “Don’t go Matty, please, it’s too dark.”

“Alright,” Matt answered in a grim voice. He glanced over to his father for support. “Order delivery?”

Jack, solemn faced at his daughter’s yell, nodded but his gaze remained upon Cassie. “Yeah, do that.”

Jack glanced over to Detective Moon, she tried to appear indifferent to Cassie’s odd murmurings about the dark and very purposefully kept her stare from the girl and the single streak of white hair she had that had slipped out.

“I’ll show you the menu Detective Moon,” Jack offered as he headed for the kitchen, gesturing for her to follow.

Riviona followed obligingly, glancing to Cassie briefly as she walked past her. The girl looked petrified but Riviona couldn’t work out why. Considering a maniac might be out there not only practically ripping girls apart but hanging their corpses in some sort of morbid display with dolls of all things was unsettling but the detective didn’t quite believe Cassie’s outburst to be directly connected. Cassie hadn’t seen the corpses, they were by all accounts out of towners so Cassie couldn’t have known them and considering they were all young, female and in the woods it was hard to imagine Matt could be at any risk to this murderer by collecting takeaway.

Jack hunted through several drawers noisily before he finally pounced upon a crinkled menu. He tugged it out with a triumphant cry, smoothed it out and presented it to Riviona as if he were offering her a gilded dish of caviar.

Riviona glanced down to it and back up to Jack before accepting it. “Anything to recommend?”

Jack looked back to the woman curiously, the hint of a smile budding at his lips. “Would you take my recommendation?”

“Probably not.” She glanced back down the menu, missing the smile that bloomed on Jack’s face.

“Well it’s prawn toast, prawn crackers and honey chilli chicken,” Jack informed her cheerfully, undeterred by her dismissive manner.

“Huh, I hate prawns, and chilli makes my eyes water.”

Jack shook his head before glancing over to the living room. Matt had sat with Cassie again and offered her platitudes.

“We tend to keep the lights on in the hall at night,” Jack murmured quietly, “hope you don’t mind, makes it easier to find the bathroom.”

Riviona glanced up from the menu to the sheriff with a stony expression. “Sure you want me staying here sheriff?”

Jack met her gaze once more, his stance relaxed as her petite figure did not threaten him.

“In my house or in my town?”

“Both.”

“Time will tell,” Jack replied. “Let’s just see if we can get through dinner first Detective Moon.”

She nodded agreeably at this. “Sure, I think I’m going to have noodles with chicken and sweet and sour sauce, can’t go wrong with noodles can you?”

Riviona saw Jack’s grimace. “Really sheriff? Not a fan of noodles?”

“Nope.”

Riviona sighed and gave a slight shake of her head, disturbing the fair hair half-spilled over her shoulders with the movement.

“We’re doing well so far you and I,” she remarked mockingly.

“Why’d they really send you here?” Jack queried quietly.

“I told you,” she answered firmly, “weird homicides are my speciality.”

“You said unusual.”

Riviona frowned and her defensive stance returned as her body became rigid and she raised one hand up to rest on her hip.

“Same thing sheriff.”

Jack shook his head. “No, unusual is when you find someone young and healthy dead with no visible cause. Weird is...”

“Hanging dolls with hanging bodies?” Riviona ventured coolly.

Jack frowned this time before nodding.

Dinner came within twenty minutes of being ordered, quicker than the norm because the sheriff’s household had ordered and business had turned slow this evening. Cassie, who had declined to order, refused the offer of food and refrained from sitting at the kitchen table. She lingered on the couch in the living room, staring numbly at the turned down television Matt had put on as a distraction.

Jack sat at the head of the table, Riviona to his right with her back to the living room, and Matt opposite her. All the food sat in the middle of the rectangular table to be shared up amongst them but all Riviona had taken were some boiled noodles and a small portion of chicken balls.

“Chinese really isn’t your thing, is it?” Jack quipped dryly as he looked at the abandoned batter skins Riviona had taken care to carve her chicken free from.

“No,” she replied quietly as she stared down at her plate.

“We’ll go shopping tomorrow,” Matt said chirpily, “and make sure there’s something better for your dinner then.”

“Tomorrow?” Riviona parroted as she looked across the table to the man in surprise.

Matt’s expression turned puzzled with her surprise. “Sure.” He glanced up the table to his father. “Isn’t she staying here?”

Jack gave a small smile. “Always inquisitive Matty,” he said the words almost as a scold and gave his head a slight shake.

“Well you aren’t solving that mess in a day.” Matt’s dark eyebrows furrowed down slightly. He felt like his father was admonishing him like a child. “Where else can she stay?”

“I don’t know. That’s a question for tomorrow.” Jack looked to Riviona and gave her a warm but slightly awkward smile. “You are welcome here but I’m sure you’ll want to review your options.”

“Sure sounds welcoming dad,” Matt spoke sarcastically to his plate.

“Are you going to give me the tour tomorrow sheriff?” Riviona queried.

“Sure.”

Jack reached for the last chicken ball with his hand and popped it into his mouth.

Riviona watched the man as he chewed the morsel quickly before swallowing it almost whole. She kept her expression blank as she placed her cutlery on her plate.

“I’ll clean up,” she offered.

“No, you’re a guest.” Jack waved off her offer. “Matty’s going to do it.”

“Hey!” Matt looked up in protest, frowning at his father’s smile.

“I’m going to show Detective Moon the spare room and facilities,” Jack advised.

“Riviona,” she corrected.

Jack looked over to her curiously. At the mercy of the over the top lighting in the room, the detective looked pale and weary, Jack wondered if it could be as simple as jet lag.

“If I’m staying in your house and working with you sheriff we should be on a first name basis.” Her rigid tone suggested she opposed her idea of getting to know Jack better.

Jack grinned at this before standing up from the table. “Well I’m Jack,” he reminded her, “so stop with the sheriff, flattering as it is to my ego.”

Riviona’s grey-brown gaze budded with curiosity as she tried to puzzle the man out, unsure if Jack was trying to be funny.

The young woman stood up too and followed the man back through to the living room.

Jack paused to glance Cassie’s way. The teenager remained stiff in her seat, her stare vacant as it lingered on the television but evidently wasn’t taking anything in. Jack refrained from saying anything, instead he turned away and continued to lead the way back to the front hall.

Riviona lifted her suitcase and satchel from the hall and followed Jack up a narrow staircase.

“Bad design I know,” Jack mused as his feet didn’t even fit fully on the stairs, “no idea who they built these stairs for.”

Riviona glanced at the blank, off-white walls on the staircase and on the landing before following Jack through to a door on the right.

“This is the spare room.” He turned to face her and gestured into the room with one hand.

Riviona took it in quickly. Furnished with a single bed, a wardrobe and a desk the room lacked the space for other furnishings. There were cardboard boxes stacked against a wall and sellotaped, their contents unmarked, and a single picture hung on the wall above them depicting the faded painting of a forest.

“I’ll show you the bathroom, one upstairs, and a toilet and sink downstairs.”

Riviona nodded as she deposited her case and satchel on the end of the bed before stepping to the side to allow Jack back out to the hall. She followed after him to the other side of the staircase to the main bathroom for the household.

Riviona found the bathroom large, set with a deep, wide bath, a shower with a large showerhead unit, and the expected sink and toilet. Towels hung on a silver rack, fresh and clean looking, and an ample supply of soap, shower gels, shampoos and conditioners sat ready for use, including a small section of luxury items that she speculated were Cassie’s. A lone rubber duck sat on the end of the bath beside a toy rubber shark.

“Well this is kind of it.” Jack gestured around the bathroom casually. “Gotta be quick about it, kids get up around seven, Cassie is in here first usually because she takes the longest, then it’s Matt, he tends to run her to school so he has to be ready around the same time, and then it’s me. I’ll wait for you of course,” he added with a smile.

“Right. What’s the hot water supply like?” Riviona smiled as Jack’s expression wavered slightly. “I can do lukewarm just fine sher-Jack,” she said with her own smile.

“Huh, how about cold?”

Riviona shrugged. “Sure.”

Jack’s azure eyes glittered with mirth. “Feel like you’re roughing it out here?” he quipped teasingly. “Don’t worry, I’ll tell the kids not to hog all the hot water. Matty’s the worst offender, boy spends too much time on that hair of his.”

Jack pushed at his own thick crop of dark hair. “Personally I think I have the best head of hair in this house. All natural too, no dying and not much in styling it.”

Riviona glanced up at Jack’s dark waves, her expression remaining cool and unimpressed as she kept her silence.

Jack lowered his hand and stepped out of the bathroom. “Well I’ll leave you to it. We’ll start looking over this case tomorrow.”

“Right. Thanks sheriff...Jack,” Riviona replied softly.

Jack glanced down at her in surprise and gave a small smile.

“You didn’t have to let me stay.”

“No but you didn’t deserve the alternatives.”

Jack walked off, heading for the staircase and leaving Riviona to ponder the oddity of his response.

Tired and eager to end the strange evening, the young woman retreated to the spare room. In there she plucked out the single pair of silk pyjamas she had brought with her and a dreamcatcher.

Dreamcatcher in one hand, she bit her lip slightly as she searched the room for somewhere to hang it. She looked to the painting of the forest, it was small, faded with light damage and age and sitting in a plain, wooden frame. She stepped up to it, frowning as she took in the dark trees and over exaggerated shadows, as it depicted an image of gothic horror designed to trouble the mind.

Riviona placed the dreamcatcher on the desk beneath the painting and tugged it off, it lifted with ease revealing a slightly bent nail and the expected dark stain of a patch of wall that had been denied light for too long. She placed the painting face down on the desk and ran a finger lightly upon the dark patch of the wall whilst gazing at it curiously. Tipping her head down to the dreamcatcher she stroked one of its reddish-brown feathers.

“No nightmares,” she said firmly.

Riviona lifted the dreamcatcher and hung it up on the crooked nail. She gave it a serious stare as she turned it slightly so that it hung evenly.

“No nightmares,” she repeated the phrase sternly.

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