Warning! This is a horror/dark fiction story so may be disturbing to some. There is strong language and sexual situations.
The sky was bright and sunny, birds chirping among the pines, white light dazzling off the snow and the blue waters of the lake.
Vince Wright sat at the kitchen counter enjoying a second leisurely cup of coffee, watching appreciatively as Annie moved efficiently from stove to fridge, clearing up the remains of breakfast.
She paused to lean across the counter, the soft curves beneath her green pullover accentuated by the light streaming through the window over the sink as she topped off his coffee from the glass Mr. Coffee carafe. “So, that’s the plan for today, you’re just going to talk to people?”
He nodded happily. “That’s it. The detectives are sure the killer has moved on to L.A., but I might pick up something of value.”
She frowned, filling a cup for herself and drawing up a stool beside his. “I still can’t believe he was hiding in the back of the Jeep….” She shuddered and he put an arm around her shoulder and squeezed.
“I’m so sorry, Hon. I should have followed up when I saw those tracks outside….”
She smiled, touching her fingers to his lips. “It wasn’t your fault…. It’s just so damned unbelievable. Those poor kids. Have you heard anything else about the girl?”
He shook his head. “The last I heard she was still drifting in and out of reality. Evidently, the others had been telling ghost stories about an old Indian spirit that’s supposed to stalk the lake and she’s convinced that was what she saw….”
“The Pale Spirit?”
Vince looked at her quizzically. “Yeah, but that never made it past the psychiatrist’s report. Where did you hear about it?”
She smiled indulgently. “You forget I used to come up here camping as a kid. The Pale Spirit is the great granddaddy of all Condor Lake campfire stories. I remember lying awake in my sleeping bag all night the first time I heard it, waiting for the beautiful white creature to come down from the sacred mountain and drink my blood…..” She paused and the smile faded from her face. “My God, that’s exactly what happened to the kids down at the Kramer cabin. You don’t think…?”
Vince nodded slowly. “That some psychopath may have heard that old story and decided to re-enact the legend?” He pulled a pad over from the telephone and scribbled the words Pale Spirit. “Do you remember the whole story, I mean, why the Spirit supposedly came down from the mountain to kill people?”
Annie nodded solemnly. “The killings were said to be the Indian’s retribution against the whites for defiling the land and frightening away the game.”
Vince scribbled a note to himself, remembering his own annoyance at the blasting rock music the kids had been playing when he had passed the Kramer place the other day; music that had probably carried a long way in the still mountain air.
“What are you going to do?” Annie was looking at him.
He glanced at the sparse notes and shrugged. “Well, I’ll let Frolich know about this, but right now its a pretty far fetched idea.
But its just possible that the murderer is some sort of deranged ecology activist,” she said, wrinkling her brow, “which means this could be his home base and he might come back up here again.”
He shook his head. “It’s too soon to jump to any conclusions like that,” he said, thinking of the dozen or so abandoned and empty summer cabins dotting the higher slopes above his and Annie’s place. He didn’t want her to start worrying unnecessarily… Still, maybe there was something to it. “Look, are you still planning on going down to the library today?” he asked.
She grimaced. “That’s what I get for setting my new screenplay in Old California. The producers want authentic, so I’ve got to do some research.”
He grinned. “Will you see if you can dig up anything on the legend of the Pale Spirit for me?”
She returned the grin. “Will you fix dinner? I have to return the rental and pick up the new Jeep after the library, so it’ll make me late.”
He stroked his chin and looked thoughtful. “Well now, I don’t know,” he teased. “What color Jeep are we getting this time?” He had been amazed and relieved to learn upon returning home last night that their insurer had decided to replace the stolen and wrecked four-wheeler and that Annie had gone down yesterday to pick another from the Chevy dealer’s stock in Redlands.
She bit her lip guiltily. “Color? Didn’t I mention the color?”
He shook his head slowly. “Nope, don’t believe you filled me in on that one little detail.”
“I thought forest green would be nice for a change…” she confessed.
“You know,” he said, “if I left it to you, everything we own would be forest green.”
She leaned over to kiss him on the nose. “I’ll do your research for you,” she said sweetly.
“But I still have to do the dinner?”
She grinned, grabbing her briefcase and parka and scooting for the front door before he could bargain further. “No Cajun spices tonight,” she called, stepping out onto the deck and disappearing down the stairs.
Vince grinned happily as he listened to the sound of her rented Ford Explorer crunching down the snowy drive. Yesterday’s brief encounter with the gritty realities of crime in the big city had underscored all the reasons he had fought so hard for this peaceful post and it occurred to him that he might actually be willing to give up police work entirely if it meant leaving Condor Lake, even though it had become painfully evident that their idyllic little world was not immune to the worst horrors the city had to offer. At least, he thought, the odds were better here. Glancing at the note pad, he picked up the phone and dialed Sheriff’s headquarters in San Berdoo.
“What?” Frolich had snatched up the phone on the first ring. The homicide chief’s rather large desk was a clutter of depressing reports and files on the Condor Lake murders and he was not in the mood for any more bad news today. He listened to the voice on the other end for a moment and his scowl deepened. “Yeah, yeah, OK, forget that then. What about the prints?” He waited as the forensics chief from the crime lab two floors below took a deep breath and went on. “You’ve got to be shitting me,” yelled Frolich. “You’re telling me you weren’t able to lift a single usable fingerprint from that whole damn place?” The lab chief hurried on with the rest of the bad news and he slammed the phone back into its cradle an instant before it rang again.
“What?” Vince Wright’s voice came over the line and he calmed down slightly, reaching for a cup of cold coffee and peering dismally into the sludge at the bottom of the cup. “Well, Junior,” he said when the deputy had finished expounding his threadbare theory, “the way things are going so far in this investigation I’m ready to look at just about anything. Check it out if you want, I’ll square it with your sergeant.”
Vince asked another question and the little detective laughed bitterly. “Well, let’s see, so far we got no latent prints from the cabin–L.A.P.D. got nothing from your car either. Those blood samples we took from that tree by the freeway turned out to be from some kind of animal, not the perp.”
He swallowed a slug of cold coffee, instantly regretting the decision. “Oh yeah, the footprints. Size five and a half, triple-E. No other details. The dirt was too soft or something. Now you want to hear the capper? Coroner thinks the kids were killed by a big dog.” He listened to Vince’s astonished protest.
“That’s what he says. They found fucking teeth marks on them. Anyway, Sanford is all over my ass. His serial murderer is now a dog. He wants you to find out who has a big dog up there.”
Vince asked one more question.
“No.” Frolich’s answer left little room for discussion. First check out the dogs. Then you can look into your whacko environmentalist theory, or whatever the hell else you can think up.” He laughed again, tossing the coffee cup at a trash can; missing and splattering the wall instead. “I figure what we’re looking for here is a tiny barefoot psychopath with a German shepherd. You run across anybody up there who fits that description, you call Deputy Chief Sanford right away.”
Frolich hung up and stared at the reports on his desk, waiting for the phone to ring again and wondering what in the hell else could possibly go wrong.
“The Pale Spirit of Condor Lake?” The elderly librarian, who looked as if she must have been sent over from Central Casting to fill the role, placed an index finger thoughtfully on the tip of her chin. “My word, I haven’t heard anyone mention that old story since I was a little girl.” She looked around to be certain that the sound of her wispy voice was not disturbing any of the readers arrayed at the tables near the desk. “My great grandfather was one of the very last victims,” you know.
“Excuse me?” Annie leaned forward, not quite certain the woman had understood her question. “I was referring to the old campfire story,” she said.
The woman nodded enthusiastically, the yellow pencils thrust through the gray bun atop her head quivering precariously. “Yes, yes,” she twittered. “Oh it was an awful thing back then. It happened long before I was born, of course, but people were still talking about it when I was a girl.”
“You mean it was more than a legend?” Annie’s voice rose above a conversational tone and the librarian’s clear blue eyes darted nervously about the room.
“Oh yes,” she whispered, pursing her lips by way of example. “They didn’t have such names back then, but The Pale Spirit would have been the state’s first serial murderer, if I’m not mistaken. It was in all the newspapers of the day. I believe The Chicago Tribune even sent a correspondent here to write a special series. Can you imagine?”
“That’s absolutely fascinating,” Annie whispered.
“Oh, it was quite the scandal at the time,” said the old woman, lowering her voice even further. “Some said it was a sex maniac while others held to the theory of vengeful Indians.” She crooked her finger, beckoning Annie closer. “Would you like to see the old news stories?” she asked conspiratorially?”
“You still have them here?” Annie was surprised. Most small libraries no longer kept periodicals going back more than a few years.
“Down in the basement,” said the old woman. “The County Historical Society and The Library Commission have been wrangling over them for years. It’s all history now, you see?”
“I see,” said Annie.
The librarian snapped her fingers for a young assistant to take her place behind the desk then led the way to a narrow door nearly hidden between stacks of cardboard boxes. Reaching inside for a light switch, she activated a bank of cold florescent lights and started down a painted steel stairway affixed to the bare concrete wall.
“I really appreciate this,” said Annie, visions of her own day’s carefully planned research evaporating as she descended into a huge, windowless room crammed with file cabinets and crumbling cardboard boxes.”
“It’s about time some one took an interest in the Pale Spirit,” said the old woman. “They never caught him, you know.”