Thriller Thursdays: THE RAPTURE OF OMEGA

Richland Metropolitan Police Department’s spitfire detective, CeeCee Gallagher, is back and on the hunt in The Rapture of Omega.

CeeCee reminds me of the star of TNT’s The Closer, Brenda Leigh Johnson. They’re both powerful women in a man’s world. They may look pretty, but they’ve got unique skills that get them to the bottom of any crime. Quick. And they can kick your ass.

In The Rapture of Omega (October 2011), the latest book in Dittrich’s detective series, CeeCee thinks she’s investigating three unrelated homicides, but when she notices that all the bodies have the same mysterious mark, the clues lead CeeCee to the work of a sinister local cult. You’ll get a taste of the horrifying events yet to come in the prologue previewed below. I don’t know about you, but all I could think while reading it was “DON’T DRINK THE KOOL-AID, PEOPLE!”

Thrill On,

Hannah

PROLOGUE

Jonestown, Guyana November 18, 1978

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light. No one can come to the father but through me!”

The words, screaming over the microphone, pierced her ears like millions of tiny needles fighting to reach the darkest depths of her mind. Putting her hands over both ears did little to ease the pain. She saw her older brother also had his hands over his ears; and his eyes were closed tight, as if waiting for the bomb to drop. Hunkered down and hiding underneath the bed, one would suppose that was the most likely reason. But the truth of the matter was far worse.

The temperature in the cabin soared as the day went on, causing both Rebecca and her brother, John, to long for a taste of water. Oh, they could have easily gone outside and drank the red water to quench their thirst like everyone else, but their mother told them to hide and wait for her—no matter what. When the screams began less than an hour later, Rebecca held her breath. The fear that had slowly crept inside held her in its tight grip; her heart was racing, and the sweat poured into her eyes. She knew that a six-year-old girl hadn’t ever died of a heart attack, but she was scared just the same. Rebecca and John were holding each other now, praying together that their mother would come for them soon. Rebecca accepted the somber truth that her father would not ever come back. He was probably asleep by now, along with the others. Still, she wanted her mommy.

Her father brought them here six weeks ago. He was the one that said their salvation was in Africa with “Dad.” That was what Mr. Jones wanted everyone to call him, Dad or Father.

The Temple had all been practicing for this day for a long time. It was supposed to take place a month from now, but this morning, at prayer, “Dad” said, “Today is the day of salvation.” Rebecca never truly understood the motive behind it, although she knew it had something to do with the upcoming apocalypse; “Dad” said this would be their only way into heaven.

Mommy never liked “Dad.” Once in a while, Rebecca would see her mommy’s eyes roll during his evening teachings, or she would sneak a wink and a smile to Rebecca and John. Rebecca closed her eyes and imagined what was going on outside.

The lines would be long as the members stood to willingly accept their drink, their ticket to heaven. The dedicated mothers would hold their babies as the men shot the liquid into the infants’ mouths with large syringes. One by one, they would each lie down and go to sleep, only to awaken in the house of God. “Dad” said it would be miraculous. Those who decided not to seek their salvation would be taken anyway.

Rebecca felt a growing resentment toward her father for bringing them here. He had changed. Gone was the man who took them out for ice cream after dinner, the man that told her bedtime stories, and the man that could impersonate Donald Duck better than anyone. Mommy knew that, too. Rebecca could see it in her face when her mommy looked at her father. Mommy . . .

“Where is she?”

John’s breathless question gave her a brief reprieve from her thoughts, but brought her back to the nightmarish reality they were in.

“Ma-maybe she’s already asleep.” Rebecca’s voice quivered.

“Don’t say that, Becky! She’ll come back!”

The fumbling doorknob about six feet to their right ended their conversation. John promptly put his hand over Rebecca’s mouth and pulled her as far back against the wall as possible. Sheltered only by the soiled mattress above their heads, they waited. Rebecca could feel John’s heart pounding through his sweat-soaked shirt and noticed her own pulse had quickened so rapidly, she thought she might faint.

“John! Rebecca!” The loud whisper of their mother’s voice filled the room.

“Mommy! Mommy!”

Rebecca pushed her brother away and crawled out from under the bed, at breakneck speed, before embracing her mother around the waist.

“Shhh! You need to be quiet, we don’t have much time. John, come here!”

Rebecca saw her mother look toward the door. Her mother, like John and Rebecca, was soaked with sweat, and dirty. Her clothes  were disheveled and she had a look in her eyes that Rebecca had never seen before; her mother was terrified, and that made Rebecca cry.

“Becky, honey, shhh.” Her mother knelt down and embraced her. “It’s going to be okay, but I need you two to listen, please. There’s a loose panel in the wood over there. Push on it and crawl through it—but be careful no one sees you!” Her breath was quickening as she looked at the door again. “Run, as fast as you have ever run, straight back behind the cabin into the jungle. If you stay straight, you’ll come up to a big tree with red flowers growing around the bottom—it’s hollowed. Crawl inside there and wait for me. Don’t come out unless you hear me calling! Do you understand? Don’t come out at all!”

Rebecca and John nodded their heads furiously up and down as Rebecca continued to wipe the tears that flooded her eyes.

“Where’s Daddy?” John’s own eyes were watery.

Rebecca’s mother paused. “He’s asleep.”

John began to really cry as Rebecca’s own floodgate opened up, full force. Their mother pulled them both to her breast, holding them tightly, but not for very long. She gently pushed them out in front of her, arm’s length.

“I love you both very much, okay?” Her mother was fighting back her tears something fierce. “Do this, and I will be there—I promise, and we’ll leave this place and never come back again. Now, go. John, take care of your sister. Go!”

Her mother pushed them toward the wall of loose paneling. As Rebecca crawled through the hole, she took just a split second to look back at her mother. Standing in the doorway of the cabin, her mother was sobbing as she watched her children escape.

“I love you, Mommy!” Rebecca could barely produce the words.

“Go, Becky!”

John pushed her through the hole before climbing out behind her. He grabbed her hand tightly and pulled as they started a dead run toward the jungle. Not looking back, Rebecca heard her mother scream as they reached the edge of the trees. It was a death scream. Rebecca had been hearing them for the last hour. John stopped so suddenly, she ran into him and almost fell down. He turned to face her and grabbed her by the shoulders.

“Go! I’ll meet you there!”

“Joh- Johnny, noooo!”

“Now, goddamn it!”

It was too late. Her brother had already started back toward the cabin. Doing what John had ordered, Rebecca had only run ahead a few feet when the sound of gunfire caused her to stop. She turned just in time to see her ten-year-old brother fall to the ground, riddled with bullets. If only for the sheer will to live, Rebecca ran like she had never before, deep into the jungle, the sound of gunfire close behind her. Dizziness and the pain in her side overcame her as she reached the tree with the red flowers. Crawling inside she began taking deep breaths as she listened to the potent voice, far off in the distance, scream his last words.

“If we can’t live in peace, then let’s die in peace! We are not committing suicide—it’s a revolutionary act . . .”

 CHAPTER ONE

Present

“The National Weather Service has just confirmed a powerful cell forming o the coast of South Africa, expected to reach hurricane status within days. The remaining Florida residents are already making plans to evacuate. If the expected path reaches the coast of Florida by next week, Hurricane Stephen would make the fourth major hurricane to devastate the Florida coast in the last six weeks. Florida governor Randall Jimenez is expected to order a mandatory evacuation for aected areas beginning Friday. In other news . . .”

I reached over and turned the radio off before tossing my half- smoked cigarette out the window. I didn’t need to hear any more depressing news about other parts of the world. I had enough here, in Mansfield, Ohio, to keep me occupied.

Just thirty feet from my car lay the remains of a murder victim—young, pretty, and savagely brutalized. I’d say that allows me a significant amount of depression. Fifteen years of looking at bodies never gets easier. I’d give a number on this particular murder, but I quit counting a long time ago. Most people assume that I, Sergeant Detective CeeCee Gallagher, am made of steel. After reading newspaper accounts that have deemed me the ace detective of the Richland Metropolitan Police Department Major Crimes Division, they tend to look genuinely surprised when I show any type of emotion toward a victim. That fact alone disturbs me. I don’t want to be perceived as a coldhearted bitch that was born without tear ducts, or a soul, for that matter. But then again, why should I care what they think?

The warm stream of sweat that slowly made its way down the side of my face alerted me that the air-conditioning in my car had just conked out. I sighed.

“You gonna come out and look at this, or are you hell-bent on losing forty pounds while you sit in there and melt?”

So deep in my thoughts, I hadn’t noticed that my fellow detective, and dear friend, Jeff “Coop” Cooper, had walked up to my window. Boyishly handsome, and devilishly funny, Coop was married to the boss—Captain Naomi Cooper, formerly Kincaid. Naomi was on the riverbank with the others, processing the body and scene. Coop began running his fingers through his dark hair and fanning his shirt out.

“Jesus! I thought it was supposed to cool down a little today.”

“It has. We have officially cooled down to a balmy ninety-one degrees.”

I whipped my long, sweat-soaked blonde hair into a ponytail before grabbing my briefcase off the passenger seat. Coop opened the door for me, still whining about the temperature.

“Ninety-one degrees, my ass. I think this sucks.”

“Ah, the pleasures of global warming.” I slammed my car door shut and nodded toward the embankment. “What have we got down there?”

“Prepare yourself. She’s only been there about two days, but the heat has accelerated decomposition something awful. It’s not pretty, and you can only imagine the smell.” He crinkled his nose as if I needed a visual. “Coroner says it looks like some type of crude abortion. She bled out.”

I stopped walking, already smelling the body. “What? Is she young?”

“Not really, late twenties. A group of Boy Scouts on a nature hike found her. I remember doing that . . .” He paused briefly as if to reflect. “Of course I was only in Boy Scouts for a year until my dad found out the leader was some homo—”

“Coop, please.” Sometimes he needed to be redirected.

“Yeah, right, sorry. Anyway, the coroner said she bled out  here so this is probably where the murder occurred. It’s not just a body dump.”

“Good, at least we don’t have to deal with any secondary crime scenes. Everything we’re looking for should be in this one spot.”

Entering the crime scene, an embankment along the Mohican River, I absorbed the familiar sight. Evidence technicians wearing their rubber gloves and holding their evidence bags were everywhere. Some were taking photographs, and some were on their hands and knees in search of the most miniscule piece of fiber or hair that could prove to be the sole piece of evidence leading us to our killer. Yellow crime-scene tape was strewn between the trees along the embankment while other detectives, including Naomi, stood inside.

It was a beautiful day, really. The region was known for its scenic value, usually traveled by tourists who wanted a leisurely stroll down the massive river’s banks to observe the rolling Appalachian foothills. It was disturbing to see a death scene mar a perfectly picturesque place. Of course, inside the mind of a murderer, things like that don’t matter.

Naomi waved me over. She was statuesque, blonde, and stunningly beautiful, but she and I had a rocky past. We had smoothed things over throughout the years and had become good friends. It was a rare occasion that my husband, FBI Special Agent Michael Hagerman, and I went out to dinner or a movie without Naomi and Coop. We were like a family.

“CeeCee, what took you so long?” Naomi asked as I teetered around an evidence technician bagging a pile of leaves.

“Sorry, Isabelle and Selina both have soccer games tonight, so I had to wait until Michael got home.”

“Sorry you’re gonna miss the games.” She tried to be sympathetic.

“Don’t worry, I’m used to it. So are they. What’ve we got?”

“Twenty-six-year-old white female, apparently had a crude abortion performed before she was drowned.” Naomi started to lead me to the body.

I stopped walking. “Drowned? Coop didn’t say anything about that.”

“It’s just a theory right now. The coroner said it would’ve taken a while for her to die from the bleeding and she’s got marks on her wrists where she was tied up. It’ll have to be confirmed in the autopsy, but it looks like her face was put in the water to drown her after the abortion was performed.”

I had a thought. “How do we know it was an abortion?”

“Just another theory because of the vaginal bleeding. She’s covered in blood from the waist down, and the coroner said that’s what it appears to be.”

“Any identification yet?”

“Yes, believe it or not, her purse was found three feet from the body. Empty, except for her driver’s license inside. It’s almost as if someone left it there on purpose so we’d know who she was. Her name is Kelly Dixon, and she’s from Shaker Heights.”

“Shaker Heights? That’s in Cleveland.”

“I know.”

We stopped at the embankment where the body lay. Coop was right; she looked awful. The decomposition, mixed with the water, had bloated her face and stomach. I’ve seen bodies like this before and they always reminded me of the old Kewpie dolls whose eyes and stomachs popped out when you squeezed them. Bodies like this never looked real. It was as if some Hollywood special effects company came in and decorated a department store mannequin to suit their upcoming horror flick. But it was real. The pungent odor that permeated throughout the area proved that to all of us.

The only part of the victim that indicated it was a female was the long dark hair that lazily swayed in the water. There was only about an inch of white material at the bottom of her pants that wasn’t blackened by the horrendous amount of blood. The ground underneath her and at her sides was just as black.

“Good Lord . . .” I murmured.

“I doubt the Good Lord had anything to do with it.”

If we only knew then just how right she was.

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