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A Choice of Darkness - Chapter 1

Chapter 1 (Monday)


     Warmed by the sun’s bright rays, Thomas Payne scooped up his wife and tossed her into the foamy surf.  Resurfacing with a sputter and a playful splash, her coquettish expression slowly transformed into a grin as she stared past him.  Following her gaze, Thomas turned in time for the breaker to strike him square in the face.

    Knocked underwater and dragged along the gritty bottom by a capricious Mother Nature, he humbly righted himself with a cough and sheepish grin.  Expecting to see Lynn as he broke the surface, his smile quickly faded at the bizarre scene playing out before him.  Beneath an overcast sky, the once moderate waves had morphed into large, powerful swells.  Thunder cracked and lightning flashed.

    Bewildered, he cast his eyes over the water and sand to find he stood in solitude.  Alone with the now cloying smells of the sea, desperation blossomed.  Only the fleeting scent of his wife’s perfume slowed its bloom.  As if to provide direction, the fragrance prompted him to scan the horizon, where he glimpsed a head bobbing among the waves, pulled along by an unseen current.

    Diving into the choppy water, he swam with herculean effort toward the receding figure.  With each breath he lifted his head to ensure he remained on course.  Astonishingly, though he swam hard, the gap continued to widen until Lynn’s figure receded and disappeared as though never having existed.

    Flooded with a sudden overwhelming sense of loss and subjected to the pounding of the water from above and below, Thomas floundered.  Exhausted of hope and strength, he stopped swimming and eventually stopped treading water; he gave up.  Relaxed and acceptant of their fate, he descended into the darkening depths, longing to join his wife.  Embraced in cottony arms of resignation, he woke with a start.

    Disoriented, he found himself alone, sitting up in bed, drenched in sweat rather than seawater.  The bedside clock indicated 4:32AM.  Since Lynn’s death from cancer five years ago, bad dreams visited regularly.  Accustomed to waking with adrenaline coursing through his system, he accepted the futility of wrestling more sleep from the waning night.

    Placing one shaky foot on the soft-carpeted floor and then another, he levered his well-muscled six-foot frame off the mattress and trudged into the bathroom to begin his day.  Passing the mirror, he saw his dark hair, though short, shot off at crazy angles and the whites of his normally clear green eyes blazed with ribbons of red.  Rubbing his hands over his face, he breathed deeply and whispered for the thousandth time, “Why did you have to go?”

    Reticent to continue down the well-travelled, but hazardous, road his thoughts now occupied, he began his morning routine by hopping into the shower.  As usual the steamy spray invigorated him.  It loosened and sloughed away the salt water residue of his dreams, carrying them down the drain and into the sewer from which they had come.

    Mind finally spinning at a respectable rpm, he turned his focus away from the demons of his night, to the monsters which inhabited his day.  A warrior of the first magnitude, Thomas J. Payne battled beasts for a living.  Working for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) for two decades, he witnessed the savagery and engaged in combat with that most dangerous of creatures: man.

    Starting as an investigator and later an investigative supervisor, he had conducted and overseen a wide range of inquiries, including numerous cases of homicide.  His combination of innate intelligence and highly honed work ethic made him an exceptional investigator, one well respected within his department and the law enforcement community.

    An hour later, having shaved, dressed, and eaten breakfast, he made his way to the office.  As expected, habit and work tempered his morning blues.  The tenuous truce with the demons occupying his sleep seemed to be holding.

    Now alone in the office, nightmare all but forgotten, he found himself energized by the significance of the day.  Two weeks in the making, today, Monday, January 1st, marked the first day of formal operation for the Major Crimes Task Force (MCTF) and Thomas’ first day as commander.

    A child of frustration, the task force had been conceived in the backrooms of state government.  Created from the political need to appear tough on crime, the governor tasked the director of the BCA with creating a statewide entity able to investigate, what he considered, noteworthy crimes.  Specifically, his administration established the MCTF to investigate two child murders that had occurred over the past month in the city of Harrisburg.  Since lawlessness in one’s capital city cast a pall over the local electorate, it fell within the aforementioned category of noteworthy crimes.

    An anomaly from an organizational perspective, the task force took its official guidance from the director of the BCA.  In reality, its commander would often receive informal direction from the governor’s office.  Having two bosses with, in some instances, two sets of goals had already left Thomas feeling as though he lived in two worlds, but belonged in neither.  As example, this morning, he struggled with finalizing a PowerPoint presentation for the governor and his staff regarding the city’s homicides.  His unanticipated conundrum: how much confidential information could he release to a non-law enforcement audience?

    Caught in contemplation, he nearly missed the subtle movement near his doorway.  Turning in his chair, he observed the intimidating, but familiar figure of Robert “Robby” Franklin.  A member of the fledgling task force and Thomas’ oldest and closest friend, Robby stood six foot two, slightly taller than Thomas but built equally as solid.

    Friends since high school, Thomas and Robby shared a love for sports and physical conditioning.  Though 40, they maintained excellent fitness through running, lifting weights, and mixed martial arts.  Conversely, while Robby had preserved the free-spirited nature of his youth, Thomas had become more pensive following his wife’s death.

    Noting he had Thomas’ attention, Robby remarked, “If I were a lion, you’d be lunch.”

    “If I were lunch, you’d have indigestion.”

    “Plus,” Thomas added, “I knew you were there.  Your big head blocked the light coming in the doorway.”

    Absorbing the dig, Robby retorted, “That might’ve hurt if I weren’t sure my head was perfect for my body.  How many times do I have to remind you—best of both worlds, baby.”

    The comment made Thomas smile.  A racial mix of black and white, Robby viewed his blended ethnic heritage as a blessing.  Consistent with his personality, he focused on the positive, made the best of his gifts, and shared them with others.

    This attitude had never been more apparent than after Lynn’s death.  Considered part of the family, Robby grieved her passing as he would a sister.  Yet, he became the rock on which Thomas relied to get through the long debilitating cancer treatments, the viewing and funeral, and the aftermath.  Moreover, while that aftermath continued to drag on, he remained at Thomas’ side.

    Returning to a critique of Thomas’ insult, Robby added, “By the way, that head comment was below you.”

    Waiting a beat, he asked, “Hard time sleeping again?”

    Glancing back toward his computer monitor, Thomas brushed off the remark by replying, “No more than usual.”

    He added, “I’m just crunched for time with this presentation.”

    Screwing his face into a wounded look, Robby responded, “I’m starting to get the feeling you don’t love me anymore.”

    Continuing, he added with a wink, “You know I still love you.”

    Then looking around quickly, it dawned on him that someone might misinterpret his witticism.  Attempting to limit any unintentional damage to his manhood, Robby puffed out his chest and in a deep voice announced, “Yeah, the manly, rugged kind of love one brother in arms has for another.”

    Maintaining focus on his computer, Thomas barely glanced up before stating, “On that note, I’ll get back to work, while you go off to examine your feelings.”

    Again, Robby attempted to look wounded; however, he failed miserably.  Obviously anxious to continue the conversation, he summoned a more professional tone and declared, “Assuming your briefing is about the city’s homicides, we should talk about a few things before you go.”

    Noticing Robby’s change in demeanor, Thomas looked up, his interest piqued.  While Robby often played the joker, his investigative insights usually proved valuable.  Now fully engaged, Thomas responded, “Okay, you’ve got my attention.”

    Noting Thomas’ interest, Robby began, “First, leave the crystal ball at the office.”

    Continuing, he explained, “We don’t have enough information to justify a full assessment.”

    Agreeing, Thomas replied, “I’ve been hesitant to push the PD for updates.  They don’t need me pestering them for reports.”

    “On a more specific note,” Thomas added, “The governor’s people are bound to ask about the blankets.  The media seems hell-bent on making a connection between them and the emergency response (ER) community.”

    Having referenced the synthetic yellow blankets commonly used by EMS, fire, and police personnel that had covered the bodies at both homicide scenes, Thomas admitted, “I don’t discount the theory, but it’s caused serious trust issues.  The city’s had a few mini riots as a result.”

    Thinking before continuing, he offered, “It’ll send police-community relations back to the Stone Age if the media turns out to be right.”

    “Speaking of the blankets,” Robby interjected, “targeting kids and displaying their bodies under blankets is pretty bizarre.  Assuming he’s as screwed up as it appears, understanding his motivation might be a tall order.”

    Sensing an opening for humor, he quickly added, “Unless we can find someone who’s just as screwed up and perverted to interpret his behavior.”

    Pausing to enhance the comedic effect, he laughed, “Maybe we could interview a few politicians.”

    Though Robby enjoyed rare form this morning, Thomas’ ambivalent stare signaled defeat.  Sighing in resignation, Robby groused, “Man, you’re tough.  I’m giving you my best material.”

    Again receiving no response other than a mute glare, he performed a quick about-face and before sidling away, proclaimed, “I need to find a more responsive audience; my talent’s wasted here.  Let me know when your funny bone grows back.”

    Though appearing distracted, Thomas had paid attention to Robby’s astute observations.  Additionally, his friend’s parting comments managed to bring a slight, if not noticeable, smile to his face.  One of Robby’s strengths, the ability to know when and how to lighten the mood, often provided respite from the demands of the job.

    Robby’s efforts, reminded Thomas of the dedication and self-sufficiency of his new team.  They required little direction and no prodding.  Since arriving the previous Monday, each of the five investigators had worked tirelessly to absorb the case information.  Eager to unlock the unit’s potential, Thomas returned his focus to his work, blissfully unaware of the fate train bearing down upon him.