Excerpt from The Demon Within

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Presenting…the prologue and chapter one of The Demon Within. Please note that it has not been copy edited, and some changes may be made before the final publication. In addition, some of the formatting and whatnot did not translate well from MS Word to WordPress.

 

Prologue

 I woke up before dawn on the floor, naked, covered in blood, a santoku knife in my hand. Less than a foot from me was a body, its head no longer attached to its neck. My hands shook, and I felt nauseated.

No, not again…

It had happened before, me waking up with a body next to me and no idea how I got there.

I called them Rages.

The first time, I was 17, and I murdered my best friend’s prom date. Julie had been so excited when Brad Kinnard, the class president and most popular guy in school, took her to the prom. But after we were there, I found out he’d slipped something in her drink and taken her to a hotel room. When I found them, Julie was unconscious, her blue dress pushed up over her head, her torn pantyhose on the floor. He was on top of her, red and sweaty, making low-pitched grunting noises. The room smelled like industrial-strength pine cleaner. To this day, that smell makes me sick.

The last memory I have is just one thought: I want to kill him. In that moment, a red haze bled over my eyes, and my blood turned to lava. A voice whispered in my mind: Give in to it.

So I did.

When I came to, Brad was dead, purple finger-shaped bruises around his neck, and Julie was still out cold. I had two choices: stay and get arrested, or run.

So I ran.

It had been 10 years since then, and I’d had six more Rages. Every time it happened, there had been a trigger. Every time it happened, I was defending myself or someone else. Every time it happened, I left a body or two behind. And every time it happened, I could always remember what set me off. I could remember that moment of snapping from rationality to the red-filled Rage.

I’d always had a reason. Always.

But this changed everything. I’d killed, but I couldn’t remember why. Sitting there, in a modern-style condominium with a skylight and an open floor plan and a carpet soaked through with blood…I couldn’t remember anything at all.

The back of his head now faced me. He was male, maybe in his mid-30s. Andrew, I remembered suddenly, his name was Andrew Seymour. And we had gone out on our first date the night before.

He’d picked me up at my apartment, his blue shirt contrasting nicely with his olive skin. At dinner, we had talked about the little things that mean everything: how we both loved the Beatles but he thought John Lennon’s solo work was pretentious, how we both thought Citizen Kane was vastly overrated, how he could eat Chinese take-out every day and how I could barely walk by a Panda Express without feeling queasy. We had laughed a lot. I liked him.

The last thing I remembered, we were sitting at the restaurant waiting for our dessert. I had a glass of wine in front of me. How much had I drank? I knew better than that. He had smiled at me and said, “I like you.”

And I had smiled back and said, “I like you, too.”

But it didn’t matter. That was before. Now, I’d had another Rage, and now it was time to run.

Again.

I struggled to my feet, fighting against the heaviness that always settled in my limbs after a Rage. Rage, rage—rags. Rags, I needed rags, something to clean up any trace I might have left behind. I found some dish towels in the kitchen. I started wiping all the hard surfaces, trying to get rid of any fingerprints.

I looked at Andrew’s body. What had he done to deserve this? Please tell me he did something to deserve this. Because if he didn’t, if I killed an innocent person, then that means I’m…

A bell clanged. I jumped and spun around.

A clock chimed on the wall, playing “Ode to Joy.” The face opened up, and little figurines danced inside. It was already 4:00 a.m. The sun would be up soon, and so would Andrew’s neighbors. I had to get out of here, and fast, before anyone saw me.

I wiped everything I could, but I still wasn’t satisfied. Bleach would help. I found Andrew’s laundry room, and a memory crashed into me. We had come in through the back door, through this room. We were kissing. His fingers tangled in my long blonde hair, seeking the zipper of my dress. His eyes asked a question, and I whispered the answer into his mouth: yes. He unzipped my dress, and then…

And then? But there was only blackness.

I pulled the bleach down from a shelf above the washer, making sure to cover my hand with a towel first. I poured some over Andrew’s body. Would it work? I wasn’t going to wait to find out.

I showered quickly and bleached down the tub when I was done. Then I raced around the living room, gathering up my clothes and putting them on. They looked clean, at least.

I checked the time. Almost 4:30.

Andrew’s car keys were on the counter. I grabbed them and went outside, forcing myself to close the door slowly. I walked down his front walkway stinking of bleach. I pressed the unlock button on the key, and a black Camry flashed in response. Before I got in the car, I lingered a moment, looking at the stillness I’d left behind. “I’m sorry,” I said, hoping somehow he could hear me.

And then I ran, again.

  • ••••

I was worried about the police finding me and connecting me to my other crimes. What I didn’t know is that they were the least of my problems.

Twenty minutes after I left, a man pulled up to the condo. He came because he had a feeling. He’d been doing his job for a long time, and he trusted his intuition. If any of the neighbors saw him, they probably would have described him as “nondescript.” He wasn’t—he could never be that—but he was very good at pretending he was, when he needed to be.

He entered the condo silently, making sure the lock showed no signs of his tampering. He looked at the body, the blood, the hastily cleaned condo. He didn’t take any pictures; he didn’t need any. He only stayed for five minutes, but he gleaned more in that time than the cops would in their entire investigation. But he didn’t care about Andrew, about how he died, or why. He only cared about one thing, and he was closer to his prey than he ever had been before.

Me.

  • ••••

As I drove toward the sunrise that morning, I thought about what I’d done, about what I was. It occurred to me that a religious person might pray at a time like this, but I didn’t believe in God, didn’t believe in anything really.

All of that would change a few months later when the man finally found me.

 

Chapter One

 It’s hard to know if you’re going crazy if you were never sure if you were sane in the first place.

It had been seven months since I’d come to New York City. Seven months since I’d fled Raleigh in the middle of the night. Seven months since Andrew Seymour…but no, I wasn’t going to think about that. I couldn’t think about that, not while I was at work, surrounded by people. So I shoved it into a box and pushed it into the back of my mind. Not that it ever went far.

I was working at Ivanov’s Books, a small store on 6th Avenue that specialized in hard-to-find books. I loved it because it had a cool literary vibe without being too trendy—creaky hardwood floors, pictures of knights and dragons on the walls, and soft pillows lining the aisles because they were too small to fit chairs—and because Mr. Ivanov had no problem paying me in cash. The store was always quiet, despite the prime location near NYU, and had a strict $25 minimum credit card purchase policy. I had a theory that Mr. Ivanov was an underground Russian intelligence agent, or maybe that the bookstore was a front for the mafia, because otherwise I couldn’t understand how he could possibly afford Greenwich Village rents.

Frankly, I didn’t care whether Mr. Ivanov worked with the remnants of the KGB or laundered money in his spare time. He gave me a 30-minute lunch break, and he always paid me on time, which is more than I could say about some of my former employers.

But ever since I’d started working at the store, I sometimes had the uneasy feeling of being watched. And it had been happening more often as the months wore on.

On this morning in early June as I was entering inventory into the store’s spreadsheet, the skin prickled on the back of my neck. I looked up from the laptop to see if anyone was waiting at the register.

Nobody.

I stepped out from behind the counter and walked through the aisles to see if someone had come in without my knowledge. (Though even that would be a strange thing, since there was a bell hanging over the door that rang every time it opened.) But the store appeared to be empty.

In one of the aisles, there was a book on the floor—a Pennsylvania travel guide. Pennsylvania had been my home state once upon a time, but I was a different girl then. Literally. I picked it up and re-shelved it. For a second, I could swear I felt someone right behind me. I spun around, but once again, the aisle was empty.

The telephone rang, nearly causing me to jump out of my skin. I rushed back to the counter to answer it, trying to calm my heart to a reasonable rate. “Ivanov’s Books, this is Dale speaking.”

The voice of my roommate, Nicole Cohen, filled the line. “Would you mind not coming home right after work? I’m bringing Devlin home with me tonight, and we’d like some alone time.”

Who was Devlin again? Male or female? First, last, or middle name? I could never keep track with Nik. “Sure, no problem.”

“Dale…are you all right? You don’t sound like yourself.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just…” I hesitated. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

Nik was silent for a long time before she answered. “I think that, when people die, the essence of who they are—their soul, if you want to call it that—is absorbed into the fabric of the universe. And I think that maybe sometimes, you can feel that essence near you, that maybe it gravitates to the love it felt during life. Does that make sense?”

Hmmm. Somehow, I didn’t think ‘universal essences’ explained what I had been feeling. “No. I mean real ghosts. Like The Sixth Sense or something.”

“Oh. Then no.”

Of course not. “Yeah, me neither. I’ll see you later tonight, okay?”

“Dale, are you sure you’re all right? I can give Devlin a rain check and we can have a girls’ night, if you need to talk.”

“No, don’t worry about it. Have fun with Devlin. I’ll see you later tonight.”

After I hung up the phone, Mr. Ivanov, a 70ish man with wispy gray hair and Buddy Holly glasses, approached me and shook his head. “She asked you to come home late again?” His Russian accent made the words sound clipped.

“It’s not a big deal. It’s just a few hours.”

“I don’t like you staying out so late on your own. You should ask someone to come pick you up.”

“I don’t know anyone with a car, and you know it’ll cost an arm and a leg to get a cab out to Brooklyn.”

“You need to be careful. It’s dangerous for a young girl by herself out there.”

If only he knew. But his concern made sense, given what I’d told him about myself. I’d told him that I’d just gotten out of a relationship that had become violent—true enough, but probably not in the way he assumed. I also said I was 22, an age that still seemed young and vulnerable, which made people more willing to help you out. I wondered how much longer I’d be able to pull off the youthful act; at 27, I was already five years older than I was pretending to be. But no one had questioned me on it so far, so I didn’t worry about it much.

I smiled at him. “I’ll be careful, Mr. Ivanov, I promise. You don’t have to worry about me.” That much, at least, was true.

  • ••••

Several hours later, after the bookstore closed, I went over to an internet café in Chinatown that was open late and accepted cash. The owner knew me now, and she waved as I sat in my usual spot and plugged my headphones into the port. I searched through the Raleigh-Durham newspapers to see if anything else had been said about Andrew’s death. I knew there was probably no reason to be so careful: there are millions of people in New York, many of them transplants from other places, so it’s not surprising that someone might be looking at North Carolina newspapers. On the other hand, just in case Big Brother really is watching, I don’t want my internet searches to flag me as suspicious.

But the results were the same as the last time I had checked 10 days earlier: Andrew Seymour, age 34, brutally decapitated in his own home. Six months after Andrew’s death, it was no longer big news, and the latest updates were merely blurbs on the crime blotter about how police had no new leads. Only one item interested me: police were still seeking a young woman named Crystal Truman for questioning. She had apparently disappeared around the time of Andrew’s death. She was described as average height and build with green eyes and long, bleached-blond hair.

But Crystal Truman didn’t exist anymore, and the woman I had become didn’t look anything like her. My new name was Dale Highland. I had discarded the green contact lenses in favor of my natural blue eyes. I’d cut my hair into a short, choppy style, and dyed it to an auburn shade closer to my natural color. Crystal had been big into bronzer; it was part of the California chic look she favored. But Dale was a low-maintenance, jeans and t-shirt kind of girl, and faux sun just didn’t work for her. She would hate the pretentiousness of trying to feign a tan on her pale skin. Plus, I was sick of putting all that crap on my face all the time.

My stomach muscles clenched when I clicked on the link for the earliest article, the one that had run in the newspaper the day after Andrew’s death. It had his bright, smiling portrait up front, followed by a picture of his condo door sealed off with police tape. The article described his death in blunt detail, stating that he was decapitated and that someone had attempted to clean the scene with bleach. I hated reading it, but I always did, like picking off a scab. I might not have looked like Crystal Truman anymore, but I knew who and what I really was.

A few weeks after Andrew’s death, I sent a $100 donation in Andrew’s name to the Humane Society, the charity listed in his obituary. It was more than I could afford. It wasn’t nearly enough.

There was a video with the article, some talking heads discussing the violence and brutality of the death. They speculated that it might have been a gang hit, but they couldn’t find any connection between Andrew Seymour and any known gangs.

But this wasn’t really the video I wanted to see. I opened a new tab and did a quick search. Months earlier, I discovered someone had leaked a video of the crime scene. Somehow, it still hadn’t been pulled down, probably because most of the viewers assumed it as fake, teaser footage for some upcoming horror movie or something. If I hadn’t known better, I might have assumed the same thing. Andrew’s living room was still splattered with blood, despite my best efforts to clean it up. Discolored patches covered the carpet where the bleach had splashed. The santoku knife was where I had left it on the living room floor, tagged with a yellow number “3.” Andrew’s body had been removed by the time the video was recorded. I don’t know if I could have taken seeing it again.

I watched it over and over again, until my eyes teared up and my stomach was roiling. Then I watched it some more.

Seven months later, Andrew’s death made no more sense to me than it had the night he died—the night I killed him. The Rages had never come without a reason. I always remembered the extreme, violent fury that took over me, the way it consumed me entirely—berserker rage, like the legendary Norse warriors I had read about as I teenager when I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me. But with Andrew, there was nothing. One minute, I’m out on a date, and the next thing I remember, I’m next to his dead body. I’d gone as far as to search Andrew’s public records online to see if I could find anything suspicious. Nothing. I couldn’t track down so much as a speeding ticket. I’d met Boy Scouts with more checkered histories.

After I’d killed Brad Kinnard on prom night, the media had dubbed me the “Schoolhouse Strangler.” They had a field day with it; it was exactly the kind of salacious story that played well on cable news. Brad’s parents were rich and influential, and they went onto every TV show they could find and painted him as a cross between Einstein and Mother Teresa and saying I had killed Brad because I was jealous he asked Julie to the prom and not me. Julie never commented publicly. I couldn’t blame her. Everyone knew the story they wanted to believe, and saying anything else would have only made things worse for her. Every story has to have a villain, right? I’ve been the villain for a very long time now.

After I finished replaying the video, I paid my balance and left the store. It was dark by then. I needed some time to collect myself before I could go home, so I started walking up Broadway, letting the sights and sounds of the city take over and block out everything else going on in my head. I had thought New York City would be loud enough and frenetic enough to silence the accusations my brain kept screaming at me: that I was a murderer, that I had killed an innocent man, that I was evil. It wasn’t. It was only enough to cover them up sometimes.

It was 10:00 before I finally made it onto the subway, feeling entirely too much like the girl who had run away from murder charges after the senior prom 10 years earlier. I closed my eyes and concentrated. I am Dale Highland. I am 22 years old. I grew up in Cleveland. My mother is a waitress. My father is a truck driver. I like strawberry milkshakes and Creedence Clearwater Revival and the smell of roses after it rains. I dislike cats and spiders and Adam Sandler movies. I had long since discovered it was the little details that make a person. By the time the L train crossed into Brooklyn, my mask had slipped firmly back into place.

Only a few other people exited the train at my stop. The neighborhood where I lived still had a largely industrial feel, and was still just on the wrong side of gentrification. By the time I had walked a couple of blocks away from the station I was alone, with nothing but the sounds of window-unit air conditioners and faraway firetruck sirens to keep me company. Suddenly, when I was about a block away from my apartment, I felt that strange prickling sensation on the back of my neck again. I circled around, but I didn’t see anyone. “Hello?” I called. “Is someone there?”

No one answered.