A second look at In the Dark

It’s been one week since my paranormal fantasy novel, In the Dark, was published. The first chapter is available on the book’s page here on my blog and also as a preview on Amazon, Smashwords, Apple, Kobo, and Nook. So I thought I’d give you guys the chance to read chapter two.

If, after reading, you realize this is the best thing since sliced bread and you simply have to purchase the rest of the book immediately lest you spontaneously combust, there will be links at the end of the post. Thanks for reading!

 


 

Chapter Two

Considering the tornado cellar was a place a family would come to for safety in a catastrophe, there wasn’t anything useful. Avery found a few thin blankets, a rotting wooden table and chair, an old oil lamp, and a few bottles of water.

He cheerfully distributed the water. “Good to know our kidnappers don’t plan to kill us by dehydration.”

Lindsay propped the unconscious woman’s head up with a folded blanket and wrapped her up in another, hoping to make her more comfortable on the earthy floor. The woman stirred a little at being moved but otherwise remained unconscious. After the oil lamp had been lit by Avery’s handy lighter, the hostages emptied out their pockets and piled the contents before the light.

“These guys haven’t come to check up on us,” Bailey muttered, throwing a reproachful look up at the ceiling. “Either they’re too busy to make sure we’re still alive, or they don’t care if we all starve.”

Kyle’s stomach growled when he caught sight of the smashed Baby Ruth bar Bailey had added to their pile of supplies. Avery swore he had a stomachache from all the junk he’d eaten before being captured and Lindsay promised she wasn’t hungry, so Bailey and Kyle shared it.

“All right,” Avery said when the kids finished eating their meager midnight snack.
“Let’s see what we’ve got. Three cell phones—one dead, one broken and one having
no signal whatsoever—fifty bucks and forty-three cents, two pieces of squished gum,
a receipt for the Baby Ruth bar that has already been eaten, a small box of matches,
a pack of cigarettes. . .” He gave Lindsay a sideways smirk. “Now, Jules, really. A nursing student should know better.”

“Those are yours,” Lindsay said with a flat look.

Avery tried to smother a smile that was both adorable and infuriating. “You can’t prove that.”

“I’ve never smoked a day in my life and you know it.” Lindsay batted her brother’s hand away from the switchblade in their midst. “Don’t touch that.”

“But I’ve always wanted one of these.” Kyle sent a worshipful look Avery’s way. “Where’d you get it?”

“Now, that’s just stereotypical, little man. Not all BMX bikers carry switchblades. That could be Bailey’s for all we know.”

“Is everything a joke to you?” Bailey asked, her mouth twisting in annoyance.

“Pretty much.”

“What else do we have?” Lindsay asked, trying to be patient.

“We’ve got a comb and a piece of string, an MP3 player, two empty wallets, a driver’s license, and a note from a secret admirer.” Avery opened up the folded piece of paper. “Bailey, this is so junior high. How old are the people you hang out with?”

Bailey huffed. “Wrong again, biker boy. That MP3 player, the receipt, the comb, and the pieces of gum are the only things that I had in my pockets when I was taken.”

Avery turned to Kyle. “Sandy wants to know if you ‘heart’ her and asks you to circle yes or no.”

Kyle snatched the note and shoved it into his pocket. “I wasn’t going to circle anything. I didn’t even know I still had it.”

“Uh-huh,” Avery said. “Well, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m pooped.”

“How can you think about sleeping at a time like this?” Bailey asked. “We could’ve been snatched by sex traffickers!”

Kyle shuddered and wrapped his arms around his knees.

Avery threw the boy a worried glance before he cleared his throat and summoned a lazy smile. “Believe whatever you want, Bails, but don’t go spreading your fear around. It’ll only make things worse.”

“Everyone else is thinking it,” Bailey said, crossing her arms.

“We don’t know that for sure.” Lindsay scooted closer to her brother and wrapped an arm around him. “They could just be desperate lowlifes looking for a pay
day.”

Kyle was too quick to smile. “Yeah. I’m sure you’re right.”

“Kind of gullible, aren’t you?” Bailey muttered.

The boy flushed.

“Let’s not turn on each other now,” Lindsay said, wrestling with her motherly indignation. What’s this girl’s problem? Why pick on Kyle?

Bailey snatched the MP3 player before crawling away. “Whatever.”

“Well, that was dramatic.” Avery stood. “I’m going to find a quiet corner to sleep. Peace out, homies.”

Lindsay rolled her eyes at him and pulled her brother closer to her side. “I’m sorry you have to be here, munchkin.”

“I’m sorry you have to be here with him,” Kyle said, scowling at Avery’s retreating back.

“I’m an adult, hon. I’m perfectly capable of handling my ex.”

“Does it hurt a lot?” Kyle asked. “Seeing him again?”

“A little.” She fidgeted with a loose string on her frayed jean shorts. “But I expected that. I didn’t expect to. . .miss him, though. Not like this.”

“Did you love him?”

Lindsay watched Avery’s silhouette settle back into the adjacent corner of the room. “I did once.”

“Is that why you came back home? Because it was too painful to stay in Laguna?”

Lindsay sighed. “Yes and no. You deserved to know why I ran away to nursing school so suddenly, why I didn’t visit, why I hardly ever called.”

“It was Dad’s cheating, wasn’t it?”

Lindsay gave him an incredulous look. “You knew?”

Her little brother shrugged, staring intently at the dancing flame. “Not right away. After you left, Mom and Dad started arguing a lot. They stopped whenever I walked into the room, but I listened at the door once and heard everything.”

“I caught him having lunch with the other woman,” Lindsay said. “I saw the way he smiled at her. I knew they weren’t coworkers or friends. I confronted him about it later that day, told him to break it off or I’d tell Mom. He begged me to keep his secret. He wanted me to lie to you guys and I just couldn’t do that.”

Kyle nodded. “I understand.”

Her grip around him tightened momentarily. “You okay?”

He scoffed. “Our parents are going to get divorced. Are you okay?”

“No. . .but I’m glad it’s out in the open. Maybe I’ll be able to stay with you and Mom once this is all over.”

If this is ever over,” Kyle said miserably.

“Hey, don’t say that. Mom and Dad will pay the ransom. We’ll be out of here in no time.”
I hope. 
When she woke up, there was light in the cellar and not just the glow from the lamp.

Two men with masks crouched by the fifth hostage, murmuring to each other as they wrapped a clean bandage around her knee and gave her some medicine. A third man stood directly below the opened trap door in the ceiling, guarding the rope ladder. A fourth man stocked a small cooler with ice not too far away from the corner Avery had retreated to. A fifth man tossed a few rolled up sleeping bags onto the floor and eyed Bailey, who slept in another corner. A sixth man pointed the barrel of a gun at Lindsay’s face.

She went cross-eyed looking at it. Then her gaze slid up to meet the bright blue eyes barely visible through the holes in the mask. The heat of anger spread down the length of Lindsay’s body. The beast within reacted. It wanted to kill this man, to tear him apart with its teeth.

The stranger put a finger to his lips and gestured to the gun.

“We could use some hot food and a couple of pillows,” she said. “A little light would be nice too. I get it; you’re trying to scare us senseless by having us wake up to darkness. You’ve accomplished your goal already. Now let’s be adults.”

“Shut up! This isn’t a hotel service,” the man said with only a hint of an accent. He turned to his lackeys. “Hurry the hell up.”

They rushed to do as they were told.

“Leave some extra bandages and painkillers. I’ll make sure your injured hostage doesn’t get an infection and die before her family pays the ransom,” Lindsay said. “I’m a nurse.”

“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” He hit her across the face with the butt of his gun.

Her head jerked to the side, her neck popping painfully and her whole face throbbing. She slowly turned to look at him, pulling her lips back to expose her fangs. A growl filled the space between them, low and menacing.

The man stepped back. “Holy shit.”

“Jules?” Avery murmured groggily.

Lindsay reined in her anger and shut her mouth, willing the beast to retreat. It wasn’t easy. She was one day closer to the full moon. Pretty soon, she would have no control over it whatsoever. The thought made her stomach clench in fear. I have to get out of here!

Avery sat up, going from sleepy to nonchalant. “Morning, gents.”

The men pulled out their weapons.

Avery held his hands up. “Whoa, calm down.”

Kyle woke with a start and huddled closer to Lindsay. She gripped his hand, heart skipping in her chest. Everything will be fine. Everything will be fine.

“You just scared us, that’s all,” Avery said.

None of the men in masks said a word. They backed away from their hostages, guns raised. It wasn’t until all the men had climbed up the ladder and had closed the trap door behind them that Bailey started crying. Lindsay hadn’t noticed the teen had awakened until Bailey sucked in a long ragged breath and sobbed.

Lindsay reached up to wipe the fresh blood from her face.

“Lindsay, you’re hurt!” Kyle gasped.

Avery scrambled to his feet and ran to her. “Those bastards!” When he was close enough, he reached out to tentatively touch the cut across her cheekbone. There was nowhere else to look but at his face, not crinkled in amusement, not lazy and indifferent, but open and vulnerable and real. It was like turning back the clock to four months ago, when they were still together, when she believed he’d never do anything to hurt her. Pressure built around her throat. The world blurred around his face and then tears cascaded down her cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” Avery whispered.

She could almost believe he wasn’t talking about her cheek. From the way he was looking at her, he could’ve been reading her mind and apologizing for breaking her heart. She turned away and hurriedly dabbed at her tears.

Avery let his hand fall back to his side, adopting a hollow expression. Before anyone could say a word, the unconscious hostage sat up and screamed. Avery dashed over to her. Bailey yelped. Kyle jumped with a girlish shriek. Lindsay stumbled to her feet, ignoring the pain that raced up her shin. It wasn’t sharp enough to send her sprawling but it did slow her down.

“Calm down. It’s okay, it’s okay,” Avery said soothingly.

Her face was frantic with pain. “My knee! Oh, God, my knee! Wait a sec…” She looked around, short hair bouncing. “Where’s Dev? Who are you? What’s going on?”

“D-Dev as in Deveron Bo, the actor?” Bailey raced over to join them. “You’re his girlfriend, aren’t you? Cordelia Ridge.”

“Whoa, Cordi Ridge the model? It’s very nice to meet you!” Avery said.

“Yeah, I’m Cordi. Who the hell are you?” She moved her hands as if to grip her knee, but then paused. Her teary eyes widened. “Oh, God, my knee’s killing me.”

“Just take it easy,” Lindsay said, kneeling beside her and holding out placating hands. “We’re not going to hurt you. Kyle, can you get me some ice?”

Her brother raced to the cooler to obey.

“I want you to breathe deeply and listen very carefully to what I’m going to tell you, okay?” Lindsay said.

The grimacing woman nodded and leaned back against the wall, biting her lip.

“My name is Lindsay Whittaker. I’m a nurse. I’m going to take care of you. We’re pretty sure we’re being held for ransom. Thanks, Kyle.” She took the ice cubes and placed them on the thin blanket lying next to Cordelia. “We should be all right if we keep our heads. Once the kidnappers have what they want, they’ll let us go. I’m willing to bet we’ll be home by tomorrow night at the latest.” Lindsay tore out the section of the blanket around the ice cubes and twisted the ends together. “Hold still. This might hurt.”

Cordelia recoiled from the ice. “Are you sure that’ll help?”

“It’ll make the swelling go down. I promise. ” Lindsay applied little pressure but kept the ice over the model’s knee. “Can you remember anything that happened before you were taken?”

Cordelia nodded. “I was with Dev. We had lunch and then he drove me home. Men in masks jumped out of the bushes as soon as he drove away. They. . .They grabbed me.” Tears streamed down her face. “I struggled. A neighbor tried to intervene, but they shot my knee and threw me over their shoulders before he could reach us. They shoved me into the backseat of a van, where a guy was waiting with a syringe. Whatever they gave me knocked me out and. . .well, now I’m here. What kind of monsters would—?” She noticed the kids and made a strange little sound of outrage. “You poor things! What’re you doing here?”

“Paying for our rich parents’ success, apparently,” Bailey said with an odd chuckle.

“But you’re. . .Kelly Dune’s daughter, right? How did you get kidnapped? Don’t you have your own security guards?”

Bailey sighed. “I have a boyfriend. My mom doesn’t know and neither do the guards. I go to Zumba three times a week and sneak away from the guards before the class is over to visit him. I was leaving his house when those guys with masks took me.” She scowled at her fellow hostages, suddenly defensive. “I wouldn’t have had to sneak around if my mom would trust me more.”

“Parents. They think they know what’s best, but just end up choking the life out of you.” Avery must’ve seen the questions on their faces because he adopted a tired smile. “Not a story you would want to hear.”

“Were your parents abusive?” Kyle asked, serious and curious all at once.

“Not unless you consider abandonment abuse.”

Kyle lowered his gaze. “Oh. Sorry. . .”

Avery forced a smile and stood. “Don’t sweat it, little man. It’s not a big deal. I’m going to go see what’s in the ice chest. Anybody want anything?”

Kyle and Bailey jumped at the opportunity to get some food.

“Bring something for me and Cordi, won’t you?” Lindsay asked, gently rubbing her shin.

Kyle nodded and jogged after Bailey.

Cordelia threw Lindsay a quizzical look. “Why do you think he’s here? I mean, if he doesn’t have a rich family. . .”

Lindsay had no answer for her.


 

To prevent spontaneous combustion:

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B077XYDGKS/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&linkCode=sl1&tag=tirgeapubli09-20&linkId=cb1f31cb67d0f46d8068e258f8860c5c

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B077XYDGKS/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&linkCode=sl1&tag=kemberleeshor-21&linkId=2ddb60b7420ede928c9322fd1d39b5b6

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/764629

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/in-the-dark/id1321654138?mt=11

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/in-the-dark-94

Nook: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/in-the-dark-daniel-fox/1123728398?ean=2940154642689

A vampire short

Yes, I finally caved and wrote a vampire story.

I’d been successfully steering clear of the creatures since the Twilight series but I needed to write one more short story for my Intermediate Fiction Writing class. And I couldn’t seem to come up with anything else. Like with my mermaid short, I gave the vampires in this story my own unique twist. I’m sure I could’ve kept going and expanded this little world I created, but I’m satisfied with the way I ended the story. Hope you like it! I’m calling it: To Kill a Vampire.

 


 

Allen was not the kind of man who scared easily.

Having been a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department for almost fifteen years, he’d seen pretty much every grisly thing imaginable. Because of this, he’d developed an attitude of indifferent detachment, burying emotion down deep so that it wouldn’t get in the way of his investigations. Many on the force and the media had nicknamed him ‘Robocop’ because of this, but Allen didn’t care what they thought. Appearing to be cold or uncaring or insensitive was a small price to pay for justice.

The job got done swiftly and efficiently. The cases were always closed. Then Allen would go home to his wife, Elsa, and his ten-year-old daughter, Bethany, and become human again. In this manner, he lived in two separate worlds, was two separate people. The members of the LAPD had never seen Allen Hayes, loving husband and doting father. Likewise his wife and daughter had never experienced Detective Allen Hayes, Robocop.

The night a vampire broke into his house and snatched Bethany was the first time both of Allen’s worlds collided.

 

It was their anniversary. Allen had taken his wife out to the most expensive restaurant he’d been able to afford. Elsa’s pale blond hair was twisted into an intricate bun, exposing teardrop pearl earrings and a matching necklace. With blood red lips and a red satin dress, she was ravishing. Allen himself had bought a three piece suit for the occasion, had shaved his beard and sleeked his dark hair back. They were enjoying an evening of reminiscing, with good food and even greater wine, when Allen got the phone call.

He wiped his mouth with the cloth napkin and then reached into his suit jacket pocket.

Elsa’s smile wavered when she saw him pull out his phone. “Oh, honey. Ignore it. Please?”

“It’s Beth,” Allen said after checking the caller ID. He put the phone to his ear. “Hi, sweetheart.”

“Daddy,” Bethany sobbed. Her voice sent a jolt of terror through him. “I think there’s someone in the house.”

“Are you sure? Where’s Leilani?” Just a scream then. And the sound of the phone being jostled. “Beth? Can you hear me?”

“What is it?” Elsa asked, eyes dark with worry.  “Allen?”

He lifted a hand to silence her. His heart pumped hard.

“The babysitter is dead. But your daughter doesn’t have to meet the same fate.” That voice sounded like the hissing of water being poured into a hot pot. It woke up the Robocop in Allen.

“Who is this?” he deadpanned.

“Who I am is irrelevant. All that matters right now is that I have your daughter. And I won’t be giving her back until you give me any evidence you’ve collected against Fria McKellan.”

The name struck a chord. Allen had been assigned a new missing person’s case the other day, a fifteen-year-old girl who had seemingly vanished from her room one night three weeks ago. A note left behind said the girl had run away with a boyfriend – but her parents had immediately pointed the finger at Fria, their daughter’s new best friend and, according to them, a bad influence.

“We have no evidence against Ms. McKellan,” Allen told the stranger on the phone. “She was barely a person of interest. I didn’t even get the chance to interrogate her.” He paused. “Let my daughter go.”

Elsa clapped a hand over her mouth.

Allen reached across the table to squeeze her fingers.

“You will deliver any and all information you’ve gathered on Fria to the park on East 51st Street,” the slithering voice said. “I think it goes without saying that contacting your friends at the LAPD would be highly inadvisable. You have three hours. Every moment you delay, your daughter will make a very generous blood donation.”

Then the line went dead.

 

Once back home, Allen let the Robocop in him take the lead. His first order of business was getting Elsa to safety. It took some convincing, but he eventually managed to herd her into a taxi that would take her to a friend’s house.

“I’ll call you once this is through,” he promised through the partially rolled-down window.

“I should be with you,” his wife said with a sniffle. “I should be there when Bethany comes home.”

“I won’t be able to focus on getting her home unless I know you’re safe.” Allen touched her cheek with the tips of his fingers. “I’ll get her back, Elsa. I promise.”

They shared a quick kiss, then the taxi sped away.

Second on his list: Collect intel.

Allen walked the length of the house, shrewd eyes taking in every detail. This wasn’t his home now – it was a crime scene. The broken lock on the front door meant the kidnapper had forced his way in. The reality TV show still playing on the screen suggested the babysitter had left the couch in a hurry to see what was happening at the doorway. The picture frames hanging lopsidedly on the walls, the overturned table, the broken vase and scattered flowers in the foyer told Allen that Leilani had put up a fight. She lay on the tile before the downstairs bathroom.

It had been a quick death. Her neck had been snapped, her body tossed aside before the kidnapper had walked over her to the second story. Allen used two fingers to close Leilani’s eyes before he jogged up the stairs. He’d alert the girl’s parents after this was all over. He’d help pay for her funeral arrangements. Leilani had been a good kid.

There were no traces of dirt or shoe imprints on the carpeted stairs that Allen could see. The door to Bethany’s room was ajar. He nudged it aside and stepped in. Shoes and stuffed animals dotted the floor, kicked out of the way during the struggle. The empty circle in the room told Allen where the kidnapper had stood while he’d wrestled Bethany into submission.

The bright pink comforter had been yanked away; Bethany must have been hiding underneath when she’d made the call. Her cell phone lay abandoned by the pillow. Allen used one of his daughter’s discarded shirts to lift the phone, then hurried out of the room to his study further down the hall. He carefully placed the phone on his desk. Next, he took the decorative painting away from the wall and extracted the small camera hidden in the frame.

Once back in his study, he hooked up the camera to his laptop and got to work downloading the video file. Allen dusted the cell phone’s case for prints while the loading bar slowly filled on his computer screen. He frowned when the dark powder revealed only the small fingerprints of his daughter. Allen nudged the phone aside and pulled the laptop closer to him, hoping the camera would provide more answers.

The video box opened up on the screen, depicting a wide shot of the hallway with the stairs at the far end. Allen watched the numbers on the bottom right corner of the screen (date and time) as he hit the fast-forward button. He, Elsa, and Bethany moved at blurring speeds, walking up the stairs, down the stairs, across the hall, into each other’s bedrooms, into the bathroom over the last few days.

Finally he caught up with tonight’s feed. He hit play and leaned back in his chair to watch. Bethany came up the stairs and stretched her arms above her head, her blond hair swept away from one shoulder in a side braid. She yawned widely and let her arms fall back down to her sides.

Allen watched her go into her bedroom and come out a few minutes later, dressed in her purple monkey pajamas. She meandered into the bathroom, no doubt to brush her teeth, before going back into her room and shutting the door. The light under the door flickered off. The empty hallway was left in semi-darkness, and stayed that way for ten minutes. Leilani came up briefly to check on Beth before retreating back down the stairs.

Suddenly, the door to her room burst open from the outside, as if someone had kicked it down.

Allen rewound that segment. He leaned forward until his nose was almost touching the computer screen. The hallway was most definitely empty. A moment later, Bethany came floating out of the room, bound and gagged. She appeared to be unconscious. Down the stairs she went until she eventually drifted out of sight. Allen rewound the video and played it again and again. He stared at the footage until his eyes began to water.

But the images were always the same.

What in the world was going on?

A squeak on the stairs had Allen reaching for the Glock he kept taped under his desk. He spun around, handgun raised. A woman in dark clothes and heavy boots stood in the hallway with a crossbow.

They locked eyes. The woman froze.

“What are you doing in my house?” Allen asked calmly, pulse thundering away in his throat.

“My name is Clara,” the woman said, crossbow still aimed at his chest. “I’ve been tracking a group of freaks who call themselves the Brotherhood of the Bloodless. One of their members led me here.”

Allen took a step forward, gripping the Glock until his knuckles hurt. “Did you see him take my daughter?”

Clara’s intense blue eyes seemed to soften. She finally lowered her weapon. “No. I didn’t. I’m sorry.”

“What can you tell me about them?”

Clara tapped her fingers against the foregrip of her crossbow. “How much do you know about vampires?”

“They live forever. They drink blood. They can’t go out into the sunlight. They sleep in coffins,” Allen said. “What does this have anything to do with—?”

“They also don’t have reflections, can’t swear by God’s name, and are twice as fast and strong as the average human,” Clara interrupted. “They can only be killed by decapitation, fire, or a wooden stake through the heart.” She gestured with the crossbow and pointed to the wooden bolt it held.

Allen slowly lowered his Glock. “You’re joking.”

“The man that came for your daughter didn’t leave any prints behind, did he?” Clara asked as her eyes swept the hallway.

“No. He didn’t.”

“That’s because he’s practically a shade, an echo of the man he once was. A vampire lives forever, yes, but he does change as the years pass him by.” She peeked inside the bathroom. “He weighs less, his fingertips become smooth, he starts thinking more like a predator and less like a human with a soul.” Clara inched the door open to Bethany’s room with the toe of her boot and glanced inside. “The oldest vampires feel nothing at all, only thirst. They pass through this world like ghosts.”

Even though her words explained a lot, Allen couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. “You realize how crazy you sound?”

Clara laughed, a mirthless sound in the otherwise quiet house. “I guess I do sound like a crazy person.”

Allen raised an eyebrow at her. He’d encountered crazy people before; the kind that ranted and foamed at the mouth, and the kind who seemed perfectly normal until something specific set them off.

He proceeded with caution. “Does the name Fria McKellan mean anything to you?”

“She’s the coven leader’s daughter,” Clara replied without missing a beat. “She may only look like a teenager but she’s over a hundred years old. She lures innocents into joining the coven with the promise of immortality.”

That was the final piece of the puzzle. Suddenly, it all made sense.

Allen sighed and holstered his weapon. “The parents of Fria’s most recent victim filed a missing person’s report and named her as a suspect. I was told to be at a park on 51st Street in three hours to trade my daughter for any evidence I might have against Fria.”

“You go there and they’ll kill you,” Clara said, taking a step forward. “You’re a cop who knows what Fria’s up to. They can’t afford to let you live.”

“I’m not handing over any evidence. But I am going to get my daughter.” He paused. “I’d appreciate your help.”

Clara nodded. “I’ll do what I can.”

“Thank you.” Allen shut off his laptop and was about to leave the study, but paused. “You said you’d been tracking them for years? How did you find out about them?”

“The coven’s leader, Damon, bit my sister and claimed her as one of his wives,” Clara said, anger lighting up her eyes. “She’s barely twenty-one.”

Allen’s stomach turned. “What will you do once you find her?”

She averted her gaze, jaw working. “What I must,” she said at last.

 

Allen walked the length of the park on 51st Street, eyes peeled for a pale face or a suspicious figure in the dark. He knew Clara was watching from a distance but he saw no indications of being followed. He gripped the file folder full of fake police reports in one hand and ran a hand through his hair with the other. The empty swings swayed in the cold breeze. The jungle gym’s colorful pipes, slides, and rock-climbing wall seemed terribly out of place in the dark.

He was too exposed here. The Robocop in him was on high alert. Despite the thin wooden stake Clara had given him, hidden in the inside pocket of his jacket, and the Glock holstered at his side, he felt vulnerable.

“That’s close enough, Detective Hayes.”

Allen glanced around. He was sure the hissing voice had come from the cluster of trees to his right.

A pale man emerged from the greenery a moment later, bright red hair pulled into a ponytail. He was dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt. He walked with a swagger. A seemingly permanent smirk tugged at his mouth and his dark eyes danced.

Allen hated him immediately.

“I’m at a disadvantage,” Allen said coldly. “You know me but I don’t know you.”

“The name’s Clayton,” said the vampire. “That’s all you need to know.”

“Where’s my daughter – Clayton?”

Clayton nodded at the jungle gym behind Allen. Allen backed up slightly so that he could keep an eye on the vampire while checking the gym. Bethany now stood beneath the rock climbing wall, bound and gagged. Her hair was disheveled. Her big blue eyes were red-rimmed from crying. There was a tear in her shoulder, which decapitated one of the purple monkeys on her pajama top.

Rage made Allen’s scalp tingle. He wanted to hurt the second vampire who stood behind Beth, gripping her by the elbow. He wanted to unload a whole clip of bullets into that man’s chest. It wouldn’t do any good, but Allen would feel better.

Instead, Allen calmed himself. He turned back to the red-headed vampire and lifted the file. “I brought what you wanted. Now let her go.”

“Hand over the file first,” Clayton said.

Allen held the folder out and then dropped it onto the ground. “Come and get it.” Then he backed away, toward his daughter.

Clayton prowled forward.

They stayed the same space apart, both moving slowly, Allen closer toward Beth, Clayton closer to the police papers rustling on the ground. Allen was a few steps away from Bethany when a wooden crossbow bolt flew through her captor’s neck. His head was severed cleanly from his shoulders and flew to the side as his body dropped to the ground. Beth let out a scream and ducked. Clayton was on Allen in a second, grabbing a fistful of Allen’s shirt, spinning him around. The hand that gripped Allen’s throat was cold and immovable. Still Allen clawed at it with one hand while whipping his Glock out with the other. He fired three rounds into Clayton’s side – but the vampire barely flinched.

Clayton grinned widely, exposing enlarged fangs.

Two more wooden bolts flew out from the darkness. One bolt sunk into one of the vampire’s calves. Then the other. Clayton glanced over his shoulder and growled. Allen was losing oxygen fast. He dropped his gun and dug a hand into this inner jacket pocket. His fingers wrapped around the thin stake hidden there. Clayton turned back to Allen to get leverage. But then Allen thrust the stake through the vampire’s heart. An almost comical look of surprise took over the once confident face of the vampire. The hand gripping Allen’s neck finally fell away. Allen yanked the stake out and bent over. He took large gulps of air. The vampire lay motionless at his feet.

There wasn’t any blood on the ground or the stake.

Soft whimpering drew Allen’s eyes to his daughter. He tossed the thin wooden stylus aside and hurried over to crouch beside her. “Are you all right, Beth?” He took her by the shoulders and carefully angled her away from the bodies. He tugged the gag out of her mouth.

“Daddy,” she sobbed. “Those men…they…”

“They’re dead, sweetheart,” Allen murmured, untying the rope around her wrists. “They’re not going to hurt you ever again.”

The moment her hands were free, Bethany threw her arms around her father and cried into his shoulder. Allen held her close, stroked her back, murmured reassurances, blinked back tears of his own.

Beth was safe. She was whole.

When Clara came walking around the jungle gym and met his eyes, he nodded in thanks.

“You’re welcome,” she mouthed.

“Wait,” he said when it looked like Clara was going to walk away. “I’ll be right back,” he murmured to Beth as he stood. He left his daughter kneeling in the grass and approached this woman he hardly knew, this woman he owed so much.

“If you’re going after Damon, I’m coming with you.”

“I’d appreciate your help,” Clara asked with a grin.

Allen found himself matching smile. “I’ll do what I can.”