I jolted upward and listened. What was that? Adrenaline roared through my veins. My heart pounded in my chest. I strained my ears and held my breath.
A large whitetail deer sprang from the dense forest. The doe nonchalantly munched on low-lying shrubs near the base of a pine tree. She leapt back into the dark forest after having her fill.
Once again, I was alone with the dead woman.
Did she move? No, it was the water. It lapped against her and gave her the illusion of life. I kept a close eye on her and paced.
“She’s dead,” I said. My voice sounded eerie after being silent for so long. “There’s a bullet drilled through her forehead. It’d be a miracle if she survived that and let’s not forget her face resembles a well used punching bag.” My voice reverberated lightly, bouncing off the surrounding trees. The heavy scent of pine and fermented juniper berries overpowered my nostrils and made me sneeze.
I stopped my pacing and stared down at her battered face.
When was Mike getting back? He’d been gone too long. I nibbled my fingernails, alternating hands. My cuticles were bloody and gnawed through. I looked down at the place where he once stood, our conversation flooded my senses.
“You have to stay with her, Cory,” he’d said as he fidgeted with the hem of his wet, faded orange-colored t-shirt.
“Why do I have to stay with her?” I wrung the end of my t-shirt and squeezed a stream of water from it. My hands shook from the river’s cold touch. Flipping a raft was never ideal. Why had I agreed to this damn trip? Drowning was one of my biggest fears, besides corpses. I glared at the dead woman as Mike continued.
“Because you have to, that’s why,” Mike said, his eyes flitting over her dead body and back to mine, crazed.
“Mike, you know I can’t do this.” I pleaded with him, but he wouldn’t budge. “How can you ask me to do this? You know I’m afraid of dead people.” I shook him, hoping to get his attention, but he only stared at me, silent.
“I can hardly breath. My palms are sweating,” I said and splayed my palms open to him. Couldn’t he see what he was asking me to do? “I can’t do this, Mike. I can’t be with this dead woman.” My voice seemed shrill to my ears. I shook him harder, but he was somewhere else.
“Cory, I can’t explain right now,” Mike whispered. Slow and deliberate, he pulled my trembling, sweaty hands from his shirt.
“No buts, Cory. This is the way it has to be.”
We stared at each other and seconds passed like hours. Something had happened to him. Something bad. I could see it in his eyes, the way he stood, the way his shoulders tensed toward his ears.
He told me he was going to hike out, and I was going to watch over her. My stomach turned at the thought, bile rose in my throat. My fear of the dead had been with me since I was child, filled me with incapacitating fear.
At my grandmother’s funeral, when I was five, I had vomited in her casket with my mother’s hand behind my head, urging me to give granny a good-bye kiss. I never was the same, hardly able to stomach road-kill I passed on the highway.
Dread filled me at the thought of guarding a dead woman.
“It isn’t right to leave her alone,” Mike said. His hands kept going up to his head like he needed to hide his mind from her as if she was listening to him, judging him . . . condemning him. He was terrified.
I watched him walk into the forest. The trees’ long bows closed about him, until he disappeared.
“He’s not coming back, is he?” I now said out loud. Panic cocooned my mind, stifled its oxygen.
“No, he said he’d come back,” I answered.
“What if he lied?”
Tears descended my cheeks, and I shrank to the ground. If he doesn’t come back, what will I do?
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that damn river.” I looked out at the black waters with resentful eyes. The river coursed along, oblivious to me, taunting me with its indifference. I picked up a dirt incrusted rock and threw it into the cold water.
“It’s not the river’s fault that you’re here.” My own voice sounded shrill. “You’re here because of Mike. He started all this. You wouldn’t be alone with her if it wasn’t for him.”
I felt frightened, confused, and angry. I started to pace again; my voice louder with every turn.
“Where is he, anyway?” I searched the circumventing trees as if I’d find him.
“Well, he’s not here. That’s for damn sure,” I said.
“He should’ve been back by now.” I slammed my fist into my palm.
“Why would he hurry back or come back at all for that matter? Don’t forget how he was acting when he left. He wouldn’t stay with her.”
“Why was that, anyway?” I said. “He knew about my phobia.”
“He made light of your plight before, though, remember?” I walked faster, taking tighter turns. “When you turned eight? Spencer gave you a special gift, that’s what he called it. Turned out to be a dead squirrel in a box. Mike laughed right along with Spencer, didn’t he? And you ran to the bathroom and vomited, the pathetic boy you are.”
“He apologized. He said he didn’t know. He said he was sorry.”
“Stop talking to me. I don’t believe you!” I yelled.
“I don’t want to be here!” I screamed.
“You don’t want to be here, huh? Well, that makes two of us.”
“What?” I turned, startled to find a man standing behind me. He had long, silver hair that hung loose on his shoulders. He wore dark clothing, like bad men did in old westerns my dad loved to watch on Sundays on TNT. His green eyes unsettled me. Terror tightened my gut.
He walked toward me, dust clouds puffed out from under each solid cowboy-boot step. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Cory.” My voice sounded small, weak, not at all like I wanted it to.
“Well, Cory, as you may know, we have a problem,” the man said and motioned toward the dead woman. She bobbed in the water and her seaweed-like hair clung to the driftwood that impeded her journey down the river.
“You see, Cory, you’re in my way. You’re not supposed to be here.” He stopped a few feet away from me and sat down on an old stump.
“Who are you?”
“Now that’s an interesting question. Who am I?” He laughed and looked at the dead woman. “Well, Rachael would be able to tell you, but since she’s dead, I think she’s going to have a hard time of it.” He chuckled, pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes, and lit up.
“I think we’ll save who I am until the end. How about we talk about you? Why are you out here pacing back and forth shrieking like a madman?” His tone was polite.
“Where the hell did you come from?” I stammered and tried to maintain my composure. I took a step closer. If I acted unafraid, he might leave me alone.
“I wouldn’t move if I was you.” He pulled out a gun that looked like my dad’s Glock 19, and pointed it at me. I stopped in mid-step.
“Actually, I don’t give a damn why you’re out here.” He squashed a large black beetle that circled around the tip of his boot. “The thing is, we have a dilemma.”
He kept the gun centered on my chest and walked toward the dead woman. One half of the river bank edged sharp into the dark waters, but the other half gradually declined, leaving a nice, small pebbled beach.
“See, I wasn’t planning on killing anyone today. But it seems the day has turned into a killing spree of sorts. Sometimes that’s just how it goes.” The man angled down the beach and stepped into the water. With one hand, he ripped something away from Racheal’s neck.
“See you later, my sweet.” He bent down, kissed the top of her head, then shoved her into the current with his boot.
“What are you doing?” I ran forward. “I’m watching over her! You can’t do that!” Yet, at the moment he shoved her into the current, relief flooded me.
He flicked the gun at me, reminding me who was in control. “You sure are one sick puppy. Watching over her?” He grunted with humor, shook his head, and climbed out of the water.
“Me, a sick puppy? What about you? You just kissed a dead woman!” My voice resembled a screeching cat. What’s going on? And where’s Mike?
“Calm down. I’m not going to kill you . . . yet,” he said and motioned for me to sit. “Now, take a deep breath.” He exaggerated his breathing in and out, impatient for me to do the same. “Now that’s better, isn’t it?”
We assessed one another in silence.
“Now, I want you to get that wood over there and make me a fire. It’s getting downright chilly.”
I stood up and headed toward the wood I had collected earlier after Mike had left. The man’s eyes followed me, burning into my back like a magnifying glass on an ant.
I stacked the kindling in a tee-pee fashion over a small pile of dry pine needles.
We were quiet as I worked. He didn’t begin speaking again until the fire was strong, and I was seated.
He pulled a silver flask from inside his jacket and took a swig. The gun never wavered from my chest. “Now, I think we’re ready for a little campfire story.” He lit up another cigarette. An evil grin etched his face under the light of the fire. “I ran into your friend on my way here,” he said.
My heart fluttered with excitement and dread all at once.
“He came running up to me telling me this crazy story about him and a friend finding a dead woman on the bank of the river.” The man’s eyes glinted with humor. “Of course, I was very interested in what he had to say.”
At that moment, I resigned myself to the fact that Mike was dead. Especially after he made the “killing spree” comment. I watched him carefully. There had to be a way for me to get out of here.
“He told me about your rafting trip. How you had flipped, and you lost sight of your friends. He said only him and his friend, Cory, had made it to the same shore.” He raised his bushy, silver-gray eyebrows at me and grinned. “That’s when you guys came across poor Rachael floating in the water. He said he freaked out when he’d seen her.” The strange man rubbed his hands together in front of the blazing fire and took another nip off his flask.
“Now, here’s an interesting tangent. He went on to tell me this strange story about being locked up, alone, with his dead mother, who his alcoholic father had beaten to death. His father went to get the police once he came out of his drunken stupor, but he’d made a detour on his way. He’d stopped at the local rum house and lost a couple of days in a drunk-induced blackout. Needless to say, this five-year-old boy was alone with his bloody, dead mother for two days while his father was down at the local watering hole getting sloshed. Can you imagine?” He looked up at me. His eyes pierced mine like frozen daggers dipped in blood.
No wonder Mike didn’t want to stay with her. I hung my head, overwhelmed with guilt.
“He was upset about leaving his friend with the dead woman. He kept saying over and over, ‘It had to be done. We couldn’t leave her alone.’ Before I put a bullet through his head, he told me all kinds of things. Damn, you’d have thought he was confessing all his sins or something.”
The man cleared his throat and took another swig off the flask. He stared at me without blinking and pulled out a cigarette.
“You want to know what else he told me? He told me about your fear of dead people. He said he was sorry for leaving you with her because he knew it would be difficult for you.” The man inhaled and looked at me coolly. “If you ask me, he was kind of a pussy.”
I stared at him and wondered how long I had left. Maybe only minutes. Seconds. Why had I thought Mike wouldn’t come? I should’ve trusted him.
I watched the man as he trailed onto another story. What were the odds of this happening? Of Mike and me finding a dead woman and her killer showing up?
“That’s when I shot her.”
“You sure don’t listen well. I said that’s when I shot her.” He looked annoyed, and his voice deepened. “Shit, you’re about as bad as she was. She never listened to me neither. She drove me nuts, what with all her damn talking.”
He stopped, seeming to rethink his words.
“No, she was a nag. That’s what she was. No wonder I shot her.” He shrugged his shoulders as if killing a nagging girlfriend was the natural course of things. “I never wanted to go for a damn hike anyway, but she wouldn’t let up. ‘Let’s go sit by the river, baby. You can make love to me by the river, baby.’ That’s what she said. All I could think of was pulling her tight shorts down and giving it to her.”
Another swig of his flask and his lips curled into a mischievous twist. “That’s one thing she always did right if you know what I mean.” He looked at me through the flames of the fire. The firelight danced wickedly across his face, bringing shadow where desperately there needed to be light. My breath caught in my throat, and I coughed.
“Of course, she had to go and ruin it. She started nagging, worried about Susie down at Buck’s Tavern and how much whiskey I drank. Well, it was none of her business. Damn woman, I slammed my fist into her pretty little face, but it still didn’t shut her up. So, I shot her.” He said this with another shrug and threw his cigarette butt into the fire.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I got back to the truck that I remembered her damn locket. She kept a picture of her and me in it. Said she needed me close to her heart. Hey, now where do you think you’re going?” He stood up and shoved the gun in my face.
“I have to pee,” I said. I stared at him without flinching and hoped he’d sit down and resume his story. “Do you mind?” I said. My heart thudded loud in my chest. I thought for sure he’d hear it and know I was petrified.
He drew me in with his winter-green eyes, and having decided I wasn’t a threat, or at least not an immediate one, said, “Nah, go ahead,” and flicked his gun. He sat down and resumed his twisted campfire tale.
“Like I was saying, the damn locket had my picture in it. I couldn’t leave it on her.” He pulled the gold locket out of his pocket and opened it up. He sat motionless for a moment, admiring the pictures inside.
I noticed a thick branch lying only a few inches from him. If I grabbed it, I could hit him over the head with it. It was a risk, but I was desperate.
The man kept his eyes forward, talking and smoking, completely unaware of my plan, and just when he turned his head to check on me, I grabbed the branch and swung as hard as I could.
A loud crack reverberated, and I felt cold cement slam against my cheek.
“You better tell me the truth,” the man yelled in my ear, his long, stringy silvery hair laid brushed against my upturned cheek. The smell of cigarettes wafted over me and caused my stomach to flip.
“Maller, let him up. Goddamn it, let him up,” an unfamiliar voice said. The pressure on my head lessened. I pulled my head from the cement and sat up.
This couldn’t be. I sat in an uncushioned steel chair. My cheek hadn’t slammed against cement but a steel table. Two men stood before me, both dressed in cheap suits, one blue the other brown. They looked like television cops.
“What the hell is going on?” I shouted. My heart rumbled in my chest, and my hands vibrated on the table. “Where the hell am I?”
“He wants to know where the hell he is, Duncan.” Maller laughed. His fist slammed into the side of my cheek, blood squirted from my mouth. Silvery long hair wrapped around my eyes and settled down about my shoulders.
“What the—” My voice died off as I fingered the long strands of hair. This wasn’t my hair. This was his hair. I pulled on it, and pain stung my scalp.
“What’s he doing, Duncan?”
“I don’t know. This guy’s a loon.” Maller said. “Hey, Jimmy. Jimmy!” He snapped his fingers several times in front of my face.
“My name’s not Jimmy. This isn’t my hair. Where am I?”
“Oh, you’re not Jimmy, and that’s not your hair. Original. Well, you can tell that to the two you killed in cold blood and the third you practically beat to death. Do you remember them?” Maller stared hard at me with twitchy, untrusting black eyes.
“Let me refresh your memory. Rachael Conway, age 23, light-brown hair, brown eyes, law student, raped and beaten, then shot in the head. Michael Stunner, age 20, black hair, brown eyes, gas station attendant, shot in the head. Cory McMillan, age 20, blonde hair, blue eyes, cellist for the cities orchestra, beaten with a piece of driftwood. You just happened to come across their dead and beaten bodies, right? Accidentally fell over them, and that’s how you got their blood all over you? That’s a good one, Jimmy.”
“I’m not Jimmy.”
“We’ve been looking for you for a long time, Jimmy Donovan. And we got you, snug up to your ears in DNA. You’re going down.”
“But I’m not Jimmy!” I said. “I can’t be.” I stared at my hands, dumbfounded.
“Cory and Michael surprised you, didn’t they?”
“I’m not Jimmy,” I whispered, staring at my hands that were not my own. These hands were older than mine, and the fingernails were yellow and dirty. The knuckles were wrinkled and weathered. The palms were calloused.
“Cory told us what happened.”
“What? Cory told you what happened? But I’m Cory.”
Both of the men laughed. “Can you believe this guy, Maller? I mean, we were told you were out of your mind, but we had no idea.”
“Cory and Michael’s raft flipped with some of their friends. They were the only ones to make it to the same shore. Cory said when they climbed onto the river bank and walked past the first round of trees, there you stood, gun in hand. You shot Rachael as she lay on the ground, bloody, crying, and begging for her life. Then you turned the gun on them.”
“I didn’t shoot them. He shot them, not me.” Panic twisted in my abdomen like a tornado and ripped my insides apart.
“You shot Michael first, and then you played with Cory, didn’t you? Like a cat with a mouse. Wanted to torment him a little before you killed him, huh? And after you tired of him, you beat him with a piece of driftwood.”
“I didn’t do that. He did. The man with the long silver hair. He sat on the stump and made me build a fire for him. He told me why he killed Rachael. He was drinking from a flask. He . . .”
“You’re the only one around here with long silver hair, Jimmy,” Duncan said.
I stood up and slammed my fist on the table. “I am not Jimmy!” Duncan punched me in the gut. I fell into my seat and grabbed my stomach. I gasped.
“Cory’s here to identify you. He said he wasn’t afraid to let you see him do it neither.” Pride dripped from Maller’s words.
I looked up to see a bruised-looking me standing on the other side of the two-way glass. I couldn’t believe it. It was me, but it wasn’t.
Something was different.
The eyes. They were ice green, piercing and wicked.
I didn’t know what to say or do. I sat there and stared at him. How did he do it? How did he take my body, my life? And then I heard him, in my mind.
“You thought you were going to get away, didn’t you? A piece of driftwood? Nice thinking, but it wasn’t enough against the likes of me, now was it?” He smiled on the other side of the glass. “You came at the right time, Cory.”
I watched him mouth the words that’s him. Jimmy Donovan to the police officer standing next to him. His eyes never left mine.
How could he take my body and give me his?
“Cory, it’s quite simple, really. Your soul is transferrable because I want it to be. Because I need it to be. Diabolus fecit, ut id facerem.” A smile, iniquitous at best, spread across his face. At first, I didn’t understand, my mind searching for the little bit of Latin I knew from college.
“The devil made me do it?” I said out loud. My eyes dropped to the table, baffled. I looked up and caught a glimpse of myself wink and walk out a free man, leaving me behind to take Jimmy Donovan’s murderous wrap.
“Yeah, right, Jimmy. The devil made you do it. You can tell the judge all about it,” Maller said before he and Duncan left me alone and shut the heavy door behind them.
I seized my long silvery strands of hair and screamed.