“Can someone else take it?” Bea’s voice sounded uneven, as if her vocal cords had been sanded. “There may be more than we bargain for with this one.”
“Seriously? When have you ever backed away from a case? You two are the best we have and I have full confidence you will work this quickly, professionally, and quietly.” John began typing on his keyboard. “I’ll send you what files I have and the allegation information. This is high priority, so, if you have other cases, set them aside until you get a good start on this one.”
“Will do, boss, we will go review the information now.” Craig began pulling a slumped Bea from the chair. “C’mon partner, let’s go form a game plan.” Craig pushed her slightly toward the office door. “John, we will have some news for you as soon as possible.” He called over his shoulder.
“Sounds good, Craig, and figure out what’s wrong with Bea. She looks like I gave her a project on a ghost.”
Bea walked silently to Craig’s desk, stopping just shy of his chair. “I really need to sit down or pace or something. This is crazy. What cosmic joke is the Universe trying to play on me?”
“Okay, now, breathe, Bea. Everything is going to be fine. We are professionals, remember. We can do anything.”
“I didn’t think I’d ever have to see him again, this is a huge problem.”
“Maybe it isn’t. Maybe this is a sign you are supposed to see a Goode guy again.” Craig guffawed, “I can’t stop the one liners.”
“Take a laugh at my expense. I don’t mind, supposed best friend.” Bea said through gritted teeth.
“I’ve never seen you so worked up over another human being before. I think this guy Andrew got Goode and under your skin.”
“Craig, you asshole, you either stop the jokes or I’ll deck you right here.” Bea’s face reddened and she balled her hands into fists at her sides.
“Okay, okay, I’ll stop for now, but, I can’t promise I won’t do it again, it’s too…Goode.”
Bea turned and stomped away from Craig’s desk. “Friggin’ men…”
“Wait, John wants us to look over this file together.” Craig chuckled and began reviewing the documentation on Andrew Goode.
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Maggie visited Colin five more times over the next six months. During this time, he never questioned her last name, address, or even for her phone number. They strictly met for the benefits they provided each other. Colin believed it was a perfect arrangement and he rather enjoyed anticipating the next time she might give him a call. Maggie called a couple of times when he was out of town, and although sorry he missed another opportunity to taste her sweet lips, he cherished hearing the disappointment in her voice. He knew it would keep her interested.
They met one time outside of Denver, when she reluctantly agreed to meet him in Idaho Springs at an up and coming microbrewery, Tommyknockers. “C’mon, it’ll be fun. One of the perks of my marketing job is getting to know more about the business, up close and personal. You will help and be a second objective opinion.”
Still running on the treadmill, she answered out the side of her mouth, “Okay, okay, I’ll do it. But, only if you’re buying.”
“You bet, the beer is on me. I assure you, it’s worth the drive.”
“Depending on when we meet, I’ll already be in the area, so, not really going out of my way.”
“You will? What takes you to the mountains?”
“I mountain bike every chance I get. When work doesn’t have me bogged down, I visit one of several trails up in the foothills and mountains. Can’t get enough of it.”
Colin slowed his treadmill speed to a fast paced walk. “I’ve never done that, wanted to try it though.”
“It’s perfect. No one else around, just me and the trail. Breathing in the quintessence of the mountains keeps me sane in this fast paced city life I lead.” She finally slowed her pace as well.
“So, I’ll meet you there for this little field trip, I’m always interested in trying a new beer and new eats.”
“Sounds great, and I assure you won’t regret it.” They proceeded to make plans to meet the following Saturday. The only exclusive dating experience they would share.
The week passed busily, with Colin thinking a few times of the weekend. Work continued to weigh heavily, with the increased rush of campaigns. The time at Tommyknockers became a welcomed end to the chaos of the day job that became an almost twenty-four seven obligation.
“I’m highly impressed. I had no idea this brewery would be such a delightful surprise. Everything I’ve had is to die for.” Maggie licked her lips, relishing the last of the beer battered mushrooms.
“The green chile beer leaves a taste of great Mexican food on my tongue. I’ve never had it anywhere else before.” Colin hungrily eyed the pint draw in front of him.
“How did you find this place anyway?” Maggie took a drink of her own beer.
“I’ve been doing some market research for beer advertising, sales, promotions, and the like. I started a list of microbreweries and visited several of them. But, once I came here, wow, I was hooked.”
“The menu is quite extensive for primarily a brewery.” Maggie looked around checking the surroundings. The large brew kettles stood only feet away from their table close to the bar. Although noisy, the environment teemed with the feel of comfort and the smell of malts, hops, and other ingredients.
“We could sit away from the brew action, but I like the atmosphere in this part of the restaurant.” Colin looked around appreciatively, taking in the energy.
“It’s fine, I’m enjoying myself. Watching all these different kinds of beer come out of the tap, makes me want to try them all. I’m noticing they have quite the selection.” Maggie admired the awards and posters on the wall detailing the different varieties available. “Maybe you should change careers, become a brewer or something? Have you ever thought about getting out of downtown Denver?”
“Maybe when I retire I could dabble in this. I’ve come too far to think about changing careers now.”
“I don’t know…I’ve been thinking a lot lately about being happy and what it would take. I’m just not sure the fast lane is what I want to continue in. I love the outdoors, I think I’m a closet hippie.” Maggie giggled.
“You’ve never really told me what you do for a living.” Colin inquired, more of a question than a statement.
“I work in environmental law.”
“Impressive. You are in the right state, that’s for sure.”
“I hope I don’t burn out before I make a difference. I really want something more for my life. This getting older stuff really makes me think about what matters.” Maggie took another long drink of her beer, closing her eyes deep in thought.
“I’m glad you met me here today, maybe we can do this again?”
“Possibly, Colin. I just don’t want to make any definite plans. No offense, but I really need to stay away from guys like you.”
“No offense? Hmm, well, would you explain yourself?”
“You and I could fuel a fire of irresponsible livelihood. Yes, we take our work seriously, because we neither one want that true human connection. It’s messy. If I keep hanging out with you, it gives me little reason to try to change that about myself.”
“Okay…” Colin furrowed his brow and frowned.
“C’mon, have you ever really been one hundred percent in a relationship. The kind where you care more about someone else than yourself. If you honestly tell me yes, I will apologize to you.” Maggie challenged him with her gaze.
Colin sat for several seconds. “I don’t think I’ve found the right person. But, it doesn’t mean I’m completely shallow and callous. I’m young, what’s wrong with enjoying life?” His tone became defensive.
“Simmer down boy. I didn’t say anything was wrong with enjoying your life. But, maybe we are both getting a little too old to play the casual dating game. It just isn’t fulfilling anymore.”
The waitress delivered their buffalo burgers and buffalo blue cheese fries. “Can I get you folks anything else?” She lingered over Colin’s obvious pout. “Need another beer?”
“Oh, no, thank you, this looks great. Actually, yes, please bring me another, that sounds good.”
“You got it.” She turned sympathetically to Maggie. “Can I get you anything else?”
“I’ll have what he’s having.” She smiled broadly, encouraging Colin’s dark mood to leave.
The waitress turned away and Colin began again quickly. “What if we tried dating?”
“Look, I like you, but we got started on the wrong foot. I don’t like our beginning and think it would taint our future. We can be friends, but, I just don’t see us going to any higher level.” Maggie spoke decisively, almost bluntly.
“I respect what you’re saying, I guess it’s just not good for my ego. Honestly, I’ve been having a sympathy biological clock. Lately, everything I have doesn’t seem like enough. I sound gluttonous.” Colin admitted, surprise registering across his features.
“Let’s enjoy these amazing burgers and breathe. I think it’s been awhile since either of us had such a heavy conversation. I think we are talking more openly because we have no obligation to each other. We know we can walk away, like a therapy session.” Maggie laughed.
“You’re right about one thing, these burgers are amazing. I don’t know if I want to call this therapy though.” Colin picked up the tall burger and took a large bite. Chewing thoughtfully, he finally said, “Yes, I’d like to be friends. Thank you for the offer.”
* * * *
Colin’s work routine revved up as the year progressed. The conversation with Maggie was long forgotten, and he returned to his former self-involved style of life. He and Hannah continued to keep long hours fostering a new holiday beer campaign. The contract proved quite the coup for Colin. Several microbreweries in the area, such as Tommyknockers, had been peaking with high levels of success, further driving the marketing campaigns for all the local craft breweries. It pleased him that Hannah demonstrated herself invaluable in sustaining the needs of their finicky client. Colin quickly learned craft beer makers have substantial reason to be particular with every process of the sale. In order to become successful, crafters must become heavily and personally invested in each brew’s success, from kettle to bottle to packaging to customer. The vast selling boom proved their efforts worthy.
Although they spent more than half of the hours in a day with each other, they kept their interaction strictly professional. They became comfortable enough to joke with each other and share the occasional personal story. However, unlike with Joelle, they shared the ideal working relationship. Neither crossed the gray boundaries where it became a bit too personal.
“So, boss, any plans for the upcoming holiday season?” Hannah inquired while hand drawing a simple chart.
“Not really, I’m not too big on the celebrations. The whole cheesy, coming home thing, smelling fresh coffee brewing, carolers, blah blah blah. Nah, not really my thing.”
“You sound like the stereotypical Scrooge. Although I prefer Bill Murray’s portrayal in that one take of the classic.” She stared intently toward the paper, sticking her tongue out in concentration, marking the top of the graph. “It’s just ‘cause you are married to the job and not to a live person. That would make all the difference for you.”
“You aren’t married. What’s your thought on the whole sha-bang? You know this holiday celebration routine.”
“I still enjoy it very much. The snow on the mountains, hot chocolate, decorating…I take part in everything. I have my family to share it with, I don’t need a romantic partner.” She stopped pencil marking the straight lines, looking accusingly at Colin. “You keep me too busy to entertain the notion of a real relationship.”
“I’m not trying to block you or cramp your style here.” Colin feigned hurt. “I thought making this team so successful was one of your top priorities.”
“Dude, and yes, I called you dude. Your whole sensitive, reverse psychology act works on any number of clients, but will never work on me. I totally have your number.” She returned to the grid at hand. “I do all this for me and very little of it for you. I’m preparing for my future by building a solid base now. Someday, I’ll be surrounded by chubby cheeked babies calling me mommy.”
“Hey, to each his own, I’ve never felt the attraction. It’s all too complicated when you start trying to care about someone else’s feelings. It gets in my way and, frankly, is too messy to be appealing.” “So, you’ve never felt a connection to another human being?” Hannah truly looked surprised.
“Not really.” Colin shrugged and took a long sip of his coffee. “I have zero voids in my heart that need filled. I have all I need right here in this building.”
“Wow, just wow. I didn’t know mythical creatures such as yourself existed. I thought that was only in bad fairytales.”
Hannah did not realize that just within feet of their conversation, The Skin Stalker listened intently.
* * * *
“Colin will never, and I mean never, possess a heart as black as mine, if I actually had a heart, that is. I suppose old junior here will have to suffice...” Looking down toward the body of his human host, he considered the frame he inhabited. The Skin Stalker examined a rugged, dying cuticle and debated on popping the finger off permanently “…until I’m finished with you.” With that, he snapped off the human form’s finger to the internal shrieks of pain emitted from the human host. “Shut up in there would you? You have no idea what else I could do to you for my amusement that would make you vomit in painful response. You wanted me here, remember? Practically begged us to take your pathetic soul.”
The Skin Stalker was taking his time shadowing Maggie. The impatience of his demonic infusion wanted to take her out quickly and feed from the supremacy of her death. However, his human plane knew it would be oh so much sweeter to take his time. He learned her habits, took in her scents. Feeding from her anxieties ever so often, he injected his demonic influence into the air and her skin took his essence into her body, sending shivers up her spine. Each time she looked around to see what caused the chill, but never did she see him, or know the root cause of her momentary discontent.
Maggie met her end shortly after visit number seven with Colin. The Skin Stalker had studied her every movement for six months and learned that even she had a routine. A solitary woman, Maggie rarely engaged with female friends outside of work. She was a workaholic, and aside from Colin, had no other intimate involvements. She had no family in the area and lived alone. She kept late and sometimes erratic hours, but her time revolved around the office, her apartment, the gym, and secluded bike paths just around the foothills and mountains.
The Skin Stalker knew that she kept her bike on the back of her small SUV. She also maintained two water bottles in two cages mounted on the frame of her bike. The Skin Stalker had just the perfect performance enhancing concoction to ensure his success on her final ride.
The third Friday night of November, as she lay sleeping for her third Saturday of the month solo ride, The Skin Stalker injected both water bottles with his magic brew. He performed the action quickly and regained his position away from her parking space. Anticipation filled his bowels with delight as the reminiscent smell of death triggered giddiness in his black soul.
The cold day dawned perfectly. A touch of dew kissed the grass and there was no wind. Maggie awakened with a combination of excitement and trepidation. She checked the local weather, skeptical of the temperature. However, the weatherman’s cheesy smile and reassurance boosted her motivation. “The day will start very chilly, but we will experience a quick unseasonal warm-up, so don’t stay inside. Take advantage of this gift before the holidays.”
“Thank you for keeping me to schedule.” She spoke toward the television, sipping her chai tea. Dressing in layers, she pulled a tight fleece cap around her head before walking out her front door.
The Skin Stalker waited for Maggie to appear just as the sun rose. Walking toward her vehicle, even through the warm sleeves, the crisp air caused her to shiver slightly. She pulled her warm-up jacket closer around her body against the chill of the morning. Checking her bike and the bottles took her mind off the temporary cold discomfort. Satisfied with their security on the SUV, she unlocked the door, got inside, and pulled out of her space.
The Skin Stalker followed her from a satisfactory distance as she drove across the quiet highway. He wondered how long it had been since he had a human sacrifice for his master. He counted the years as he kept pace behind Maggie. He never tired of the exhilaration of the kill. The “innocent” victim unwittingly forfeiting their life in place of his primary target.
“It was not as if any of them are wholesome anyway.” He scoffed toward humanity. Pondering the decline of morality, he estimated they could kill half the planet and be justified. No one lived chaste lives, very few during the centuries anyway. It was not about sex, people just did not understand. It was all the things they chose over righteousness.
The Skin Stalker worked to create a bigger and better audience for his master. “Come one, come all, ye who live self-serving, I have a place for you.” He allowed his true form to invade the surface of his human host for a moment as he patted his stomach with large, gnarly, hands. He allowed his sharp fingernails to scratch across his ghastly flesh with each tap of his remaining nine fingers.
Maggie pulled into the lot of the open space park. Arriving first in the parking lot did not surprise her. “I guess no one else is up to a frosty challenge this early.” She took one last sip of her morning beverage and pulled her keys before she exited her vehicle. Winter birds chirped, scavenging for seeds, and a few remaining crickets sang for the sunrise. Stretching while walking, she went around to the back of her SUV to release her bike from the rack. Her bike rested against her SUV while she donned her helmet and riding gloves. Double-checking the security of her water bottle cages once more, Maggie also made sure they were full. She walked her bike to the beginning of the desolate path, anxious to begin her ride.
“I need my blood pumping and fast, or this nip will never leave my bones.” She had no clue why she felt so edgy that particular morning, but her anxiety ran deep.
Taking one last look across the brightening sky, she noticed a fog effect over the skyline of Denver. The low clouds fogged the top of the city scape, giving a peculiar Jack the Ripper feel to the atmosphere. Intentionally clearing her mind of the dread, she forged ahead with zest for the day. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
She clipped into the bike pedal with her left foot and pushed off with her right. Making her way downhill, she clipped her right foot onto the pedal and burst forward with a strong leg push. Smiling, Maggie appreciated the sharp morning air and drew in a deep breath through her nose. She loved the smell of pine and earth, and her body responded in appreciation.
The Skin Stalker anticipated that by uphill mile three, she would pull a long drink from the first bottle. Maggie would then begin to feel dry mouthed from the chemicals. Taking a longer pull from the bottle somewhere around mile seven, she would become dizzy around mile ten. By mile twelve, she would dump over as the chemicals rendered her unconscious.
Maggie reached down to grab her water bottle. The ride uphill required a bit of hydration. She liked to drink more on her morning rides, rehydrating from the overnight hours since she had water intake. The Skin Stalker knew this, as he watched her routine intently for the past several weeks. She balanced with one hand as she drew the bottle up high and took a long draw.
Maggie was fine for another mile or so. It was then her stomach began to wrench violently with cramps. Maggie was one to push through the pain, so, she endured the ride. Confidently she continued on, sure the feeling would pass. The further she traversed, the more disoriented she felt. It was as if she was at the end of a grueling triathlon—the point where mind and body battle each other for dominance. Her mind kept pushing, “go, go, go,” yet her body rapidly deteriorated. With a final grunt, she toppled over on the quiet trail. Her thumping body disrupted a den of ground squirrels that chirped complaints as they scampered away.
Presto! Everything had gone as planned. He waited on the outskirts of the desolate makeshift path for her collapse. She was stronger than he expected, so it was mile fourteen before she could no longer fight the drugs flowing rapidly through her system. He watched her fall over and he rushed to the scene. He scooped up her limp body and raced down the hill on his four-wheeler. He remembered to swipe both water bottles because he wanted to leave as little evidence as possible for the police.
They needed to believe this was a crime of passion, not some random act of violence. Colin would eventually be their prime suspect. The Skin Stalker was sure of it. The morning sun painfully bright against his sensitive face, he worked more quickly. Scouting the area around his own vehicle, he used the key fob to unlock the back lift gate. Maggie’s lithe body fit perfectly into the space he prepared for her.
Looking around once again to realize he was still alone in the parking lot, The Skin Stalker folded her wilting body into a softball equipment bag and tied a plastic bag around her head, just to ensure success. When her breathing stopped, The Skin Stalker took an antique fountain pen, and with blue ink, punched a blue dot behind her right ear. “We mustn’t forget Colin’s trademark…”
When The Skin Stalker became one with Colin, a flood of selfishness, vanity, arrogance, lust, entitlement, and greed rushed forth into him. Colin fueled him more than anyone had in a very long time. It pleased The Skin Stalker because he might spend several months inside his current host due to this new muse in Colin. “Yes, Clark, I hear your muffled whimpers from in there. I’ll make this last as long as possible before I pull the scalp from your knotty skull. I hope this body holds up before it rots away.”
It might take more than one victim, better yet, he might maintain his power for several victims. The Skin Stalker smiled at the prospect of the next challenge of how many lives he could actually take. Only a short while into the killing, he felt confident in his anonymity.
The Skin Stalker drove Maggies’ lifeless body toward a Jefferson County softball complex, hoping to find privacy as he discarded her. He arrived at an empty field, parking close to a dugout. The blue shade cover and back wall would provide the necessary privacy. Carefully scouring the area for unwanted witnesses, it thrilled him to find solitude.
Punching the button on the driver’s door, he released the back lift gate. Quick as a flash, he unloaded the bag and wheeled it into the hollow dugout. Thoughts ran rampantly through his sick mind. The Skin Stalker heaved the bag onto the bench, however, with the odd weight it kept sliding off. He moved it to a corner, in full view of the opening. The confined space would also capture the odiferous whiff of her quickly rotting flesh, bound in the stuffy bag. Only a dead elk, or other mountainous animal in the area would give off a similar smell. The Skin Stalker spoke toward the bag, one hand over his heart. “I wish I could be here for the grand opening of that zipper.” He ceremoniously touched the zipper, running his fingers along the closed track. Almost lost in his sick reverie, the bugling of a bull elk plunged him back to reality, and his need to get away before someone caught him. The Skin Stalker quickly returned to his vehicle, driving away smiling, exposing the graying plaque buildup on his yellowing teeth.