This is the first chapter of my first novel, SHADOW OF THE BEAST, set mostly in Annapolis, Maryland, published by the Design Image Group in 1998.
One more block, and I'm safe.
Oak branches arched over the narrow street, contracting it to a dark tunnel. A chilly September rain dripped from sodden leaves onto Jenny Cameron's shoulder-length hair. Her backpack, bulging with textbooks, sagged heavily on her shoulders.
Come on, Jen, we're going out for a snack. We'll give you a ride home after. She could be sitting at a table in a bright, dry room right this minute, munching on pizza. Nope, sorry, Dan's home alone with Paula. He'll never get her to bed without me.
What a lousy night to ride the bus. I just have to buy a car, and soon! Of course her twin brother wouldn't get off his butt and drive her.
Don't be such a wimp, it's only a four-block walk. A wet, dark, deserted four blocks. Still, this Maryland suburb of Washington was as safe as any neighborhood could be these days.
Brushing a soaked strand of brownish-auburn hair back from her forehead, Jenny quickened her pace from a brisk walk to a jog. The backpack thumped against her shoulders, while mud splashed on her jeans and clunky loafers. Wind whipped the trees and lashed her face with rain.
She peered ahead through water-flecked, gold-rimmed glasses at her house. Completely dark.
Power failure? No, the street lights were shining. Other houses were lit up.
Dan knows to leave the porch light on for me. The folks go away for one week, and I can't trust him to do a simple thing like that.
She hitched up the backpack and groped in her purse for the front door key, automatically stepping over the cracked porch step. Damn it, where's the key? She dug through layers of pens, tissues, coins, and crumpled bills -- there. Her fingers closed on the key ring.
The door creaked as she eased it open. She jumped at the sound.
"Dan? Paula? Where is everybody?" They couldn't be asleep. Her flaky brother couldn't have coaxed a twelve-year-old to crash for the night this early. Jenny fumbled for the light switch.
The pole lamp next to the door came on. "Dan, if you're playing some stupid trick, I'll kill you."
Her throat tightened. Come on, don't lose it yet. Maybe he took Paula out someplace and forgot to leave the lights on. He was spacy enough to do that, the way he'd been acting lately. She dropped her things on the nearest end table.
They would've left a note. Gone out for burgers, back soon. Jenny scanned the living room, rummaged through the magazines on the coffee table. No sign of a note.
Then she heard -- something -- from the den, at the other end of the house.
Something -- a low, drawn-out rumble of sound. A growl.
Quietly as she could, Jenny slipped off her loafers and tiptoed through the dining room, sidling around the perimeter of the hardwood floor to avoid the squeaky boards in the middle. She edged past the swinging door into the kitchen, her pulse throbbing in her temples.
Her groping hand fell upon the wall phone. What are you waiting for, call 911! She imagined sirens, flashing red lights, a pair of husky policemen barging in. And at the same moment, Dan and Paula strolling up the sidewalk with a video and bag of popcorn.
It's nothing to get freaked about. A stray dog in the back yard, that's all.
Leaning against the refrigerator, she felt along the top for the flashlight. She held her breath to listen closer.
Yes -- snarls rising to a crescendo. More than one.
Not out back. Inside the house.
Wind rattled the sliding glass door in the den, the one that opened onto the patio.
Shifting the flashlight to her left hand, she dug in a drawer for a butcher knife. Clutching the hilt in an overhand grip, she crept toward the closed door between kitchen and den. Sweat slicked her palms.
She tucked the flashlight under her arm to turn the doorknob. The mingled growls and snarls from the den grew still louder.
A foul smell wrinkled her nose. For a minute she couldn't place it.
Then it came to her -- decayed leaves, wet fur, rank odors. Something that belonged to the night, out there. Not in here. Her leg muscles trembled.
She jerked the door open and clicked on the flashlight.
The glint of red eyes.
She whipped the beam from side to side.
Two pairs of eyes.
The scene hit her in fragments, like scattered puzzle pieces. The familiar shabby furniture. A cushion and afghan from the couch heaped on the floor. A lamp smashed on the floor. The patio door, open.
And in front of it, a huge, shaggy animal. In the quivering flashlight beam, it looked -- deformed. A second beast crouched over another heap. Jenny trained the light in that direction.
On the braid rug Paula lay huddled face down, her powder-blue pajamas splotched with dark stains. The growling receded in Jenny's ears to a uniform roar, like static.
The thing stepped over Paula and slinked toward Jenny. A gleam of pink-tinged spittle drooled from its jaws. Screaming, she dropped the knife and flashlight.
Nausea swelled in her throat. A gray fog thickened in front of her eyes. Flashes of red.
* * *
She couldn't move. Her limbs felt like soggy rags. A dull pain throbbed in her left arm. Her jaws felt sore. The air smelled like swamp muck and moldy fur.
And something metallic. Blood.
After a while she forced her eyes open. For a minute, still too weak to move, she stared at the white ceiling.
Little by little memory returned. Oh, God, Paula! Dan!
Jenny painfully sat up. The room was still dark. She could barely see the open glass door to the patio, letting in a damp breeze. Crawling to the couch, she groped for the remaining unbroken lamp.
The light showed Paula's body on the rug. No, this has to be a dream. It has to be. She slumped on the couch and closed her eyes. When she opened them, the scene hadn't changed.
And there was another body. Dan's. The naked body of her twin brother, his brown hair matted with drying blood, his chest and neck gashed. She saw reddish paw prints next to him.
Jenny's stomach churned. She stumbled into the kitchen and slammed the door on the lurid vision. She hung onto the wall for several minutes before she could drag herself over to the phone. After dialing 911, she choked out the address and hung up. Staggering to the table, she realized that her blouse was completely shredded.
Her left arm oozed blood through the torn cloth. A thin, red stream dribbled from under her cuff and spidered across her shaking hand. She sat down and buried her head in her arms.
Hands touched her, and she found herself lying on her back with her feet elevated. Oscillating red lights penetrated her closed lids. Snatches of speech filtered through to her -- "She's in shock" -- "Starting an IV now" -- "Rabies inoculation."
Jenny heard a motor starting, felt the vibrations around her. The wail of a siren knifed through her head. She felt a hand on her shoulder. "Miss, can you talk? We need to know if you three were alone in the house. Was that your brother and sister in there?"
"Half-sister --" Tears stung her eyes. Please, not Paula!
"Was anyone else home?"
"No -- Mom and Dad -- my stepdad --" Her voice sounded thick and slurred. "They're away."
The gently relentless voice went on, "Can you tell me where they are? We have to notify them."
"On vacation --" The tears overflowed in racking sobs.
Over the siren, she heard a distant howl. Mocking her grief. Crying out to her.
End of Chapter One
SHADOW OF THE BEAST, a trade paperback horror novel, is available from