COLD IMAGE
Extrasensory Agents Book 4
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Excerpt
Caution: Contains Violent Content
 
Chapter One

Twenty Years Ago

“I’m so sorry, Derek, but it’s true. Your mom and dad are dead.”

Derek Monahan couldn’t say anything. Couldn’t think anything. Couldn’t feel anything.

His ears were messed up. Maybe he’d taken a pitch to the head. He was dreaming.

“I can’t believe it either.”

He could only stare at his dad’s best friend, who he’d always called Uncle Abe, wanting to punch him in the face for saying such a rotten lie.

“I know it’s not easy for you to hear. You can go right ahead and cry; I’m here for you.”

Derek wasn’t crying. He didn’t have a single tear in his head. They were frozen.

Finding out you failed a test—that was not easy to hear. Hearing the girl you liked didn’t like you back wasn’t either. Realizing there was no Santa Claus hadn’t been so fun, even though he’d suspected it.

This? This was the-f-word devastating.

“That’s why they didn’t come to my game?” he whispered, hating himself for being so mad at them earlier. When he hadn’t seen them sitting in their regular seats in the stands, he’d thought awful things—that his Dad always worked late, and his mom always forgot stuff.

He’d do anything for that to be true.

“You know they’d have been here if they could, son.”

“I’m not your son,” he managed to whisper through lips that suddenly felt cold, like he’d just gulped a Slurpee.

The man put a big hand on his shoulder. “Forgive me. That was insensitive.”

“How?” he whispered, dropping his stare to his feet, which he scuffed in the dust of the baseball dugout. One minute he’d been basking in his team’s appreciation for the double he’d hit to bring in Jason and Carl to tie the game. The next a cop car had pulled up and two detectives had gotten out, along with his Uncle Abe. They’d whispered with the coach, who’d called Derek in off the field, not meeting his eyes.

And then Abe had broken the news. Dead. His parents—both of them—dead.

“How?” he repeated.

Abe shoved his hands in his pockets and looked away. “We can talk about that later.”

“Tell me the truth, Uncle Abe.” He swallowed hard. “Was it a car accident?”

Abe shook his head, and tears fell down his face, big and shiny. Derek had never seen a grown man cry, other than when his dad fake-sobbed every time the Diamondbacks lost. These real tears shocked him.

“No, Derek. Not an accident.”

Derek’s stomach began to twist up and his guts cramped. He suddenly didn’t want to know the rest. But somehow, words came out of his mouth anyway; he couldn’t stop them.

“Did somebody kill them?”

Abe swallowed, the lump on his throat bobbing up and down. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a clump of used tissues and used them to wipe his nose.

Derek’s anger grew. Whatever the answer was, his imagination was only making it worse. He needed to know. Not later. Now.

He gripped Abe’s shirt in both his dusty hands. “Tell me. Would you tell me? Just fucking tell me!” he yelled, not caring that he was using the kind of words he usually only used to impress his friends, but never around adults. Right now, though, he felt like an adult. Like he’d become one in the last five minutes.

“It’s too much. You don’t want to hear this.”

Frustrated, rage building, he swung a leg back and kicked the man, his cleated foot connecting with a shin. Abe didn’t get mad. Instead, he grabbed Derek’s shoulders and pulled him close for a hug.

Derek almost resisted, but in the end, buried his face in the man’s shirt, hiccupping and heaving. But he still didn’t cry. He was shaking too hard, “How?” he mumbled.

He felt Uncle Abe’s chest move as he hauled in a deep breath. Finally, he answered.

“The police think that, this morning, after you left for school, your dad…well, I guess he got mad about something. He, uh…he hurt your mom, Derek. And then he hurt himself.”

Hurt his mom. Hurt himself. Both dead.

Derek wasn’t stupid. He knew the words for this. He couldn’t say them, but he knew them. Yet he didn’t believe them. “No.”

“I’m so sorry.”

He let go of his dad’s best friend’s shirt and shoved him away, staggering a few feet. He almost stumbled over his own glove, which had fallen off his hand, unnoticed.

“You’re a liar!”

His dad loved his mom. She loved him back. He saw them kissing all the time. They held hands when they went out. They rubbed their noses together and cuddled on the couch. His friends all thought his parents were gross. He told them he agreed, but secretly he was kinda glad he didn’t ever have to worry about them getting the big D like so many other parents had.

“My dad would never hurt her,” he growled. “He’d never hurt himself, either. We go to church together every Sunday. Everybody knows people who do that can’t go to heaven.”

“I’m sorry, Derek. I’m so very sorry. But the police, well, they found a note on your Dad’s computer screen. And the evidence….” Abe cleared his throat and shoved the crumpled-up tissues back into his pocket. “I think we should go.”

Derek saw him looking around and followed his stare, seeing how everybody in the stands, and on the field, was watching them. Heads were together as the word spread. He couldn’t help looking at the top of the bleachers, where Whitney Frost sat. She’d told him she was going to come watch him play. Now she was crying.

Everybody knew. Hopefully they didn’t know all of it—like that the lying cops were saying such bad things about his dad. But they knew his parents were dead. Coach had probably told one parent, whispers had gone around. Now the whole crowd was watching him with pity.

He hated it. He didn’t want pity. Turning away, he ground his teeth and curled his hands into fists, every muscle in his body tense and tight. “I wanna leave.”

“I called your grandma. She and your aunt are coming on the next plane. You’ve got lots of people who love you and who will take care of you.”

They lived in Georgia. Far from his home in Arizona. It would take them a while to get here. Hours, probably. Hours when he’d have to try to start believing this. Well, some of it. Because he would never believe—never—that his dad had hurt his mom.

“I want to go home.”

“Um…”

Derek didn’t even wait. He swung around and stalked toward the school building. His bike was chained to the bike rack. He’d be on it, pumping his legs and racing through his neighborhood, and would see for himself that this was all a lie. Or a mistake. His parents would be there, his mom in the kitchen making something boring and healthy for dinner. His father would be just getting home from work at the courthouse, and Dad would go in the kitchen and hug Mom from behind and she’d call him a perv and push him away and then they’d both see Derek standing there and mom would blush and dad would laugh and they would all have dinner and he and Dad would play a game on the Xbox while mom took a bath with her nightly glass of wine and they’d go to bed and tomorrow would be the same, followed by all the other tomorrows until Derek was a teenager and his dad would teach him to drive and he’d fight with his mom about whether he could get a motorcycle and they’d come to his high school graduation and take him to college and would be proud of him when he became a lawyer like his dad and him and Whitney Frost would get married and they’d all go to his own kid’s baseball games and his parents would still be holding hands.

They’d always be holding hands.

“You can’t go home, Derek.” Abe had followed, stopping him with a hand on his shoulder. “You can’t go in the house. The police are still there.”

“I’m goin’ home. Don’t you dare try to stop me.”

He pushed the man as hard as he could, and started running across the playground. Reaching the bike stand, he tried to remember the stupid combination to the stupid lock and his stupid fingers fumbled, the dial twisting and twisting. “Come on!”

“Derek.”

“I’m going, Uncle Abe!”

Abe crouched beside him and put his hands over the lock. Derek glared up at him, his eyes hot now…but still not teary.

“I’ll take you by the house,” Abe said, sounding unhappy. “But you can’t go in. Later, when the police are finished, they said they will take me into your room so I can get you some clothes and things.”

Derek didn’t argue. He couldn’t ride his bike home; he couldn’t remember the combination. He wasn’t even sure he would remember how to turn the pedals, even though his dad had taught him how to ride a two-wheeler when he was five.

He didn’t feel his feet hitting the ground as they walked to the police car. Didn’t hear the two cops say they were sorry, or the quiet talk they had with Abe. Didn’t notice the car rolling the six blocks to his street. But he did notice all the cars outside. Cop cars. Crime scene van.

“No ambulances,” he whispered.

“Your parents aren’t here anymore,” Abe said.

“Don’t give me that crap about them being in heaven looking down on me,” Derek snarled. “Because I don’t want them looking down on me, I want them right there in our house.”

Silence. Then he thought he heard one of the cops whisper, “Tough little kid, isn’t he?”

He didn’t feel tough. He also no longer felt like a little kid. Since the moment he’d seen Abe getting out of the police car and walking across the field toward him, he’d felt like he’d never be a kid again. Like he’d gone from twelve to twenty in an instant.

“I meant,” Abe said, still quiet and gentle, not like his usually joking self, “your parents’ remains have been taken away.”

“They’re at the morgue?”

Abe winced.

“I’m not a damn baby! Just talk to me like a person, not like I’m in preschool. My Dad’s a lawyer, okay? I’ve been in his courtroom.”

Was a lawyer. His Dad had been a lawyer. Before he’d died. Before he’d killed himself, if these people were to be believed. But I don’t believe them. I can’t.

“All right, I’m sorry. Yes. The medical examiner has taken the bodies away.”

Bodies. His parents were just bodies now. Shells that had once walked, talked, laughed, and come into his room to tuck him in when they thought he was asleep, even though he wasn’t a baby…and he’d liked it.

Dead. It was finally sinking in. The truth was settling into his brain, and he knew it would be there for the rest of his life. No matter how long he lived, the anguish over their deaths would erupt from his memories to make him miserable all over again. Your mom and dad are gone. Removed. Never coming back.

There was nothing he could do about that. But he wasn’t about to believe how they’d gotten that way. Somehow, he’d prove it. Then nobody would be able to say bad things about his dad again. “If they’re gone, why can’t I go in?”

One of the cops answered. “There’s still an investigation going on.”

“Why? I thought you think it’s an open and shut case and my dad killed my mom.”

He didn’t. He didn’t. He didn’t.

The cop shifted uncomfortably. “Well, the detectives just want to make sure they understand exactly what happened.”

Derek turned to Abe. “What did happen? Or what do they think happened?”

“No. We’re not going to talk about that right now.”

He studied the man’s face, seeing by the pain in his eyes that it was bad. Really bad.

Derek’s mind filled with pictures he didn’t want to see. Scenes from horror movies. Gooshy stuff he and his friends talked about in giggly whispers during sleepovers. Hooks, knives, chains, and everything bloody.

None of those things could ever be associated with his parents.

His dad was gentle. Kind. People in the courthouse might think he was mean because he prosecuted bad guys. But he’d never spanked Derek, never yelled at Mom. Never even slammed a door. He liked video games, and meatballs, and loved pitching to Derek in the back yard.

And Derek would never see him again. He’d never shrug off one of his mom’s kisses, would never again hide his pleasure when his dad told him he’d had a great game. They were gone. Just…gone.

At last the tears came. He felt his eyes rupture with hot moisture that blazed trails down his cheeks and fell onto his lap. He shook, his throat aching with sobs that wanted to come out, but he swallowed down. “I want my mommy,” he whispered, feeling himself revert to a younger age, when nothing had felt better than his mother’s soft hair brushing his cheek as she kissed him goodnight, or his father’s strong, protective hug. “I wanna see my dad.”

Abe turned in the seat and tried to pull Derek close for an embrace that could never replace his father’s. Derek stiffened, retreating to the far side of the car, huddling against the door. He didn’t want anyone except his parents. Not even his dad’s best friend, who, he knew, loved them too.

“Okay, it’s okay,” Abe said. “Let’s go. My car’s right over there.” He looked at the cop in the front seat. “I’ve arranged things with his grandmother. I’ll take him back to my place now. My wife and I will take care of him until his family arrives.”

One of the cops nodded, getting out. He came back to open Derek’s door from the outside—he hadn’t even noticed there were no handles. Derek got out, watching as the officer headed around to the other side to let Abe out. They weren’t looking at him. Nobody was.

He shouldn’t. He knew that. He should just get in Abe’s car and wait for Gram and Aunt Beth. But he couldn’t. He had to see the scene for himself, had to try to understand. There had to be something he would notice, something nobody except Derek would understand.

Something that would prove his dad was innocent.

He ran toward the side of the house, heading for the door that led into what his mom called the mudroom. They always left a key under a rock outside, in case they got locked out. He dove down, his nails digging into the soft dirt until his fingers touched metal. Standing, he jammed the key into the knob and pushed the door open, his heart pounding as he expected to see a cop standing there, waiting to cuff him for breaking into a crime scene.

Nobody was there.

He glanced around. Mom’s ugly gardening shoes sat on a mat, still coated with mud. Dad’s high-top Chucks, which he said made him feel young again, stood right beside them. They would never be worn again, and would stay there, next to each other, just like the people who’d owned them always had been.

“Derek, don’t!” a voice called from outside.

Abe and the cop were chasing him. Derek shoved the door closed, locking it in a stall for time, and then kicked off his cleats. Tiptoeing in socks, he passed through the laundry room, into the hallway. He heard voices coming from the kitchen—in the front of the house.

Maybe that’s where it happened.

Maybe. But something—some urge—told him to turn left, toward the back.

He moved on, avoiding a place on the hardwood floor that he knew squeaked. He wasn’t thinking, wasn’t even trying to prepare himself for what he might see. His parents weren’t here—their bodies were gone. But maybe there was blood. Maybe there was worse. Still, an immense pressure in his chest seemed to be pulling him along. If nobody else believed in his dad, not even Uncle Abe, his very best friend, Derek still did. He’d prove them wrong.

The office. That’s where his feet were taking him.

His dad called it his inner sanctum. It overlooked the long, sloping back yard. He’d claimed it when they moved in, saying he needed something nice to see when he had to look away from the ugly files of crimes and murders he brought home from work every day. That was why he’d always told Derek to stay out of that room; there were a lot of nasty pictures and stuff.

Daring each other, Derek and his best friend Evan had snuck in there once and found some of those pictures. They’d both had nightmares for days, but had never told anybody, knowing they’d get in trouble for snooping.

He sucked in a breath as he rounded a corner, realizing his gut was right. Yellow crime scene tape was stretched across the wide-open French doors. That’s where it had happened.

Where it was still happening.

Derek froze, his feet planted, his whole body starting to shake. A scream tried to rise in his throat, but he swallowed it, knowing he was in shock. He had to be in shock. They would think he was crazy. Because he couldn’t be seeing this. It was impossible.

He scrunched his eyes shut, knowing when he opened them again he would see the spatters of blood on the light-colored carpet, the leather couch, the wall, and the papers on his dad’s desk. So much blood. But he wouldn’t see the rest. No way.

He finally had the nerve to look again. And they were still there. His parents.

Not their bodies. They weren’t solid like the flesh and blood people he’d seen this morning at the breakfast table. They were…thin, colorless, kind of shimmery.

A form moved in behind him, warm and solid. A hand landed on Derek’s shoulder, but did not try to pull him away. Nor did Uncle Abe say anything. He apparently thought Derek had already seen the worst and needed to finish what he’d started.

But the worst hadn’t even begun.

He leaned against the strong, living man behind him, feeling able to continue looking.

“Dad?” he whispered, staring toward his father, who was a few feet inside the room, to the left of the door. His hands were behind his back, his arms twisted in a weird way and his shoulder bones bulged. His mouth was open in a scream, but there was no sound. His body straining, he struggled against something invisible that held him in place. But still he tried, leaning toward the middle of the room. Toward the couch…where his mother was lying.

He couldn’t see anyone else, but he saw her. She was pressed into the sofa, lying on her back, gasping soundlessly, a heavy weight was on top of her chest. Her expression was so scared, and her mouth was open in a scream like Dad’s as she looked up at something that wasn’t there. At least not to Derek’s eyes.

She wriggled and finally got a hand free. It lashed up, her fingers curled, her long nails extended like claws. They thrust into nothing he could see and jerked down, and then her hand was yanked away, her arm twisted painfully and shoved over her head. Even from here, he saw her nails were suddenly wet with a dark fluid.

A second later, a bunch of that same dark liquid came from her throat.

Derek put a fist against his lips to stop a scream, and to stop the puke churning up from his stomach. “Mommy,” he whispered, feeling tears flood his face.

He saw the shadow of a long knife, an eerie gleam on the blade. Nobody was holding it. He hadn’t even seen it until it had made its first deadly cut, appearing out of thin air.

Dad went crazy, jerking, jumping, and twisting. Finally, he managed to pull away from whatever had been holding him back. He raced over to the couch, hitting something, punching at nothing, and then dropped to his knees and put his hand over Mom’s wound. Black blood surged through his fingers, slower now. His body shook and he threw his head back, his mouth open in a silent scream that Derek couldn’t hear but felt all the way down to his bones.

It wasn’t over.

His father flew backward, as if he’d been yanked by strong hands. His feet skidded as he was dragged across the room, one of his shoes coming off at the base of the couch. He was fighting, not giving up. Struggling like a man possessed.

It didn’t work. His arms were clenched at his sides. Dad could only twist, trying to see his wife, who was so still, blood no longer surging, just dripping down to pool on the cushion beneath her. Where it touched the cushion, the blood was red. It also looked dry, like a stain sitting there for hours. Where it dripped from her ghostly body, it was black.

A rope appeared from midair, falling onto Dad’s head as if it had been hidden behind someone’s back. Although his father still tried to fight, he was held in a powerful grip.

The rope—pale grey—was wrapped around his father’s neck, growing tighter as the noose closed in a hard circle below his chin. But through the fuzzy grey ghost rope, Derek could still see the real one hanging from the iron light fixture in the middle of the room. It was blue.

A chair slid from behind the desk, moved by invisible hands, and someone stepped on it; he could see the real footprints left by bloody shoes. Then Dad was hoisted up, his fingers grasping at the rope, his body jerking. He couldn’t break free.

The chair was kicked away, landing on its back, the misty image melting into the real brown one, still in position, marked as evidence. Dad’s toes left the floor, going up inch by inch, until he dangled a foot above the carpet.

His eyes bulged. His neck strained. He shuddered and twisted. He was still trying to turn to look at Mom, lying dead on the couch, but kept facing the doorway where Derek stood. His father’s milky, almost transparent eyes looked right at Derek, or so it seemed.

Elsie. Derek!

Derek didn’t hear a voice, didn’t experience the words in his brain. He could just see Dad’s lips forming them, trying to scream them through his airless mouth. He also saw the pain—physical and emotional—followed by acceptance that washed over his father’s face as he realized he, like Mom, was going to die.

And then Dave Monahan was jerked down, yanked from below. His head bent at a funny angle as his neck snapped. His mouth stopped moving.

A twitch. A thrust. Within seconds, he hung motionless. Every part of him that had loved to eat pretzels and watch the Diamondbacks games on TV, the soft voice that was so effective in court because he was so likable, the crooked smile, the hint of gray in his hair…they were all gone.

It was awful. Worse than anything he’d ever seen or even imagined. But Derek didn’t scream. Didn’t sob. Silent tears continued to run from his eyes, and he remained close to Uncle Abe, glad the man was there to support him as he stared at the strange figures of his dead parents.

He didn’t believe in spirits, and these didn’t seem like actual ghosts. If any real remnants of his parents were here, in this room, they sure wouldn’t be acting out the final, awful minutes of their lives, especially not in front of him. They would be trying to comfort him, to say goodbye. So no. These weren’t their ghosts. They were something else.

Suddenly, they flashed out of sight, disappearing in a blink. He stiffened, half-glad the horrible vision was gone, but not ready to let them go completely. “Dad! Mom!”

Abe tried to turn him around. “Come on, son, you’ve seen enough.”

Before he could pull Derek away, the figures reappeared. They were right where they’d been when he first arrived at the room. Mom on the couch fighting and scratching, pushing up against someone who was determined to keep her down. Dad a few feet away, struggling while he was held back. It was starting all over again. Like a movie repeating.

What is happening to me?

“That’s enough. Let’s go.”

“Wait. Just wait,” he whispered.

“Derek…”

“No, Uncle Abe.” He looked up at the man. “Trust me. It’s starting again. I have to watch.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t explain. But please, just a couple more minutes.”

His dad’s old friend stared intently into his face, not looking skeptical or bossy the way grown-ups usually did. “Derek, are you…seeing something?”

It was as if he knew, as if this wasn’t totally unexpected. When he nodded, and heard the other man’s resigned sigh, he knew it hadn’t been. Uncle Abe had some idea of what was going on. He wanted to know why. But not right now.

“Go ahead,” the man murmured. “I’m right here for you, kid.”

Derek turned back toward the ugly tableau. It was horrible, painful to watch again, every second of it exactly like before. Even knowing how it would end, he still silently cheered for his dad as he struggled, and for his mom when she reached up to scratch an invisible face. He winced when the knife touched her throat and gasped as the blood gushed.

He was calm. Tearful, but not sobbing. Grieving, but no longer utterly terrified.

And then it was done.

He blinked. Waited. They disappeared. One shaky breath later, everything started again.

He sighed, at last understanding. He knew why he’d had to watch this awful thing over and over. Derek was the only witness to their murder. Their twelve-year-old son would be the one to make sure the world knew Dave Monahan had not killed his wife, and then himself. They had died fighting, loving each other. That much he knew. That much he could hold onto.

“They were murdered,” he said, the words coming out of a clenched jaw as he tried to remain calm. He had to make sure Uncle Abe believed him. “There were at least two other people here. Actually, probably three. I think it would have taken two of them to hold Dad back and make him watch while they killed Mom first, with a knife.”

There was the briefest pause, and then he heard a whisper.

“Eternal rest grant unto them, oh Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon them.”

Derek had done a couple of years in Catholic school. He mentally finished the prayer with his father’s best friend.

God, he hoped all that religious stuff was true. How he hoped his mom and dad really were at peace and he’d see them again someday. The real them, not these awful imprints their deaths had left in their family home.

Abe released his shoulders and turned him around to face him. Derek looked up at the man’s sad expression. It wasn’t suspicious or doubting. He believed. “Tell me.”

Derek pointed to his side, at the rope. “Dad was hung up right there. Mom was on her back, on the couch.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Abe mumbled.

“He tried to save her.” He sniffed. “Put his hand over the cut in her throat; then they dragged him away. His shoe came off.” He recited what had happened not because he wanted to relive it, but to make sure Abe believed him. He’d need his dad’s best friend—also a prosecutor—to help convince the cops. “They think it was my dad because of that note on the computer screen, right?”

“And because there were no signs of forced entry, and nothing was taken.”

Derek nodded. “Maybe not. But there were other people here.”

“Did you see them?” Abe asked. “Can you tell us who did this?”

“No. Not them. Just my parents.”

“Jesus…you saw…everything?” Abe asked, staring down at him with something like wonder, something like pity.

Derek hoped the man wasn’t afraid of him, or didn’t think he was some kind of freak. Right now, it didn’t really matter, though.

“My mom scratched one guy in the face. They need to look under her fingernails.” He turned again, staring at the chair, lying angled so he could see the seat. He focused on that, not on his dad being dragged toward the inevitable meeting with the rope. There was that smeary footprint on the pale cushion. “The footprints on the chair aren’t from my Dad’s shoes. They can check—one of the bad guys stood there to pull him up.”

Abe squatted down, staring at him. “Are you sure about this”

He nodded. “I’m positive, Uncle Abe.” Swallowing—gulping as sobs threatened to suffocate him—he turned his back to the study, knowing he’d seen enough and never wanted to see that awful scene again. “My Dad’s not a killer. I need you to help me prove it.”