Samantha Walsh was still trying to figure things out. It had been a little more than a year since Alice had died, and she was just finally agreeing to move forward. In the fall, she had started college. A linguistics degree, with a minor in folklore. She wasn’t entirely sure this was what she wanted, but then, she hadn’t been entirely sure before Alice’s death either. But she had promised she would try to move past– past Alice.
Even just thinking of it made her heart shatter all over. It would be imprinted on the back of her eyelids forever. The world turning sideways, the sight of Alice with that man’s hand wrapped around her throat, reaching toward Sam. Sam’s own hand reaching back. And then the thud of her body hitting the asphalt. It would live inside her brain forever. She had no idea who that man had been, had no idea why this senseless act of violence had taken her other half away from her. She just knew that now she felt as though she were being swept out to sea without a life vest.
She was searching for a lighthouse, searching for a beacon in the sky to show her the way out of the dark water.
Maybe this was it.
She was standing in the woods, her curls messily contained in a falling apart bun, her black leather jacket and pants on over her bright red bodysuit. She was moving aside leaves and branches with her big black combat boots. She had a frown on her face as she examined the scene. The first two crime scenes had already been cleaned up and processed, but this one, this one they had called her into immediately.
Because there was a new serial killer in Columbus.
Serial killers were a specialty of Sam’s. She’d been active and working with the CPD for two years, having just passed her eighteenth birthday. It had been her parents' idea for her to connect with Detective Shaw, and that had proven to be a great idea so far. He knew how old she was, but after that first case she had brought in by herself, they had given her more respect than she felt she deserved. The first case she had ever solved for them had been the Whitehall Murders, bringing in a serial killer they had been hunting for five years.
After that, they had trusted her with far more than they should have. She had assisted in bank robberies, murder investigations, drug and arms busting, and two other serial killings. Hunting people down was really what Sam did best. She could find just about any human predator. The type of people who preyed on others, the type who had no regard for life.
The kind of person like the one she was looking for this time around.
The crime scene was simple– there was barely anything left of the man himself, but all of his personal items were there. His torn clothes, scattered, his wallet and keys in his pocket, a wedding band and necklace with dog tags in his other pocket. Shoes, bloody and ripped, lay next to a beanie. There were small pieces of flesh and bone around the place, and everything was stained with pools of blood.
The ID in the wallet declared that this man was Thomas Fitzgerald. He was a vet, dishonorably discharged according to the records that Detective Shaw had sent her, and he had multiple domestic violence reports. It seemed that despite this, he had fallen through the system and continued to walk as a free man.
Well. Not anymore.
She looked back down the trail that she had already walked. Leading up to the scene was a long and obvious chase. There were places where Thomas had been on the ground, thrown up against trees, had tripped and fallen. Honestly, with how obvious the scene was, she was shocked they had considered a wild black bear for the first two. This was so clearly human, so clearly man-done, that she was surprised she hadn’t been called out sooner. And now, she didn’t even have the other two crime scenes to work off. Because they had considered the original scenes to be animal attacks, they had cleaned them up and reopened them to the public.
That wasn’t helping her already building rage.
At least now that rage had a direction.
She stood up straight and crossed her arms as she played it over in her head. The long and broken underbrush, from the long chase. Bloodstains on the ground, on trees, on bushes. Spots where the bleeding became more extreme. There were claw marks on some of the trees, but on closer inspection, it was metal, and not actual claws, that had made the marks. Too consistent, too clean. Sam had seen black bear claw marks before. They weren’t nearly so clean.
Someone had wanted this to look like an animal attack. That was why they had picked the woods to do it. But they were also on a mission. This was the third murder. She only had photos and records for the other two, but she had already found a common thread.
All three of the men were pieces of shit. A war vet with an abuse record and a drinking tab in the hundreds. A drug dealer who was known to sell to kids. A three-times arrested mugger. All of them were horrible people and only became worse the more you dug into them. So this serial killer seemed to have a mission. To clean up the streets of Columbus.
While Sam could honestly get behind that, she couldn’t forgive anyone who went that path. They needed to be brought into the light and shown what true justice looked and felt like. She reached down to where her hammer sat and she lifted it and twirled it around.
She sighed and took one last look around the scene. She had some idea of what kind of a person this left her chasing. Now if only she could start a list of suspects.
The forest was so peaceful during the day. The sun filtered through the leaves and dappled the ground in an ever-shifting pattern as the breeze danced between the branches. Birds and small insects punctuated the silence with their songs. The only signs of human life were the long, bloody, torturous trail left behind by a man fleeing a monster, and the single figure following that path now, not yet cordoned off by garish yellow tape.
Tape wouldn’t stop local wildlife, anyway. The hiker, in his heavy boots, red fleece, and thick blue-jeans crouched down just off the beaten path and lifted his camera. The coyote, not five feet from him, lifted its head from the smear of blood it had been smelling and tilted its tawny head. He snapped his shot at that moment, then lowered it and smiled at the animal with his teeth closed. The coyote huffed, but lowered its head again to resume its search for scraps.
Of course, the poor coyotes were the ones being blamed for the condition of the bodies in the recent spree of brutal murders. They weren’t capable of the kills themselves; but they had a reputation for being opportunists, and whatever was left over from the real monster’s meal was fair game to them. Of course the killer wasn’t a bear. Even the most territorial black bear wouldn’t chase like this – wouldn’t toy with its victim. Bears were more pragmatic than that. One bite to the back of the head would do it. Or one swipe of its paw across the back, to break the spine. And bears, while opportunists, didn’t have the reputation for completely devouring the idiots who trespassed on their territory. Nothing except a polar bear would do that, and Lockbourne was a little too southern for that to be a problem. .
The hiker stood up, checking the coyote’s portrait as the creature disappeared back into the underbrush. He then glanced up at the tree nearest him, smeared with something dark and flaky, with a deep piercing gash at about shoulder height on his lean figure. He flexed his right hand very gently, then picked his camera back up. Not a slash, as a bear’s swipe would have been. More evidence to clear the name of the local ursine population.
But there weren’t that many other large predators in the area, either. The coyotes were the most common, the black bears the biggest, and the bobcats fell right in between, and that was… it. No timber wolves, no mountain lions, no brown bears. There was, however, a Wildcat. The Wildcat, town celebrity superhero Wildcat, all red curls with her black feline mask. The hiker tilted his head with a new interest in his blue eyes as the downwind brought him cinnamon, fire, and anger from her scent. When he caught her lovely eyes, the same gold as that coyote, he gave the cat-masked girl a smile and a wave.
“Good morning!” he called, genially, before turning to head back to the trail. No need to interfere if she was on the case, after all.
She was so focused on the main scene that she had almost completely missed the figure approaching. He came through the broken underbrush, following the blood trail toward her. She took in a sharp breath when his wintry blue eyes met hers. A smile, a wave, and then he turned back down the path. For a moment she stopped and watched him take back off down the crime scene, a camera strapped around his neck, held up in his hands like it might have been too heavy.
As far as Sam was aware, the police had already taken all of their photos and weren’t intending to send anyone else out– and as it was, she knew everyone on their teams, and was quickly introduced to anyone new. This guy was not only new, but his camera was a different model from the ones that the officers and the crime scene teams used.
Was he a reporter? He wasn’t really dressed like one, and Sam got the impression he hadn’t taken a picture of her. Every single reporter she ever encountered tried to take a photo of her when they could. He looked like… a photographer. A regular photographer, a nature photographer. From his beanie to his hiking boots, the tall and thin man looked like a regular nature photographer.
But then why had he been following the obvious chase trail?
She looked at the ground in front of her, at the scattered clothing and the personal affects of the victims, and her heartbeat began to pick up. She turned and raced off after him, catching up to him in seconds. She was hoping she was wrong, but the last serial killer she had caught, she had caught because he had revisited two of the scenes. His arrival at the second scene had been what had sealed the deal, and then Sam had been quick to catch him attempting to abduct his next victim.
God, she hoped this man wasn’t going to be the serial killer she was looking for. He was way too cute for that.
“Excuse me,” Her voice was soft, with a slight rasp to it that suggested it would become harsher in the future. “Good morning! I’m sorry to bother you, but I have some questions for you, if that’s alright. You’re really not supposed to be out here.”
She said it in the most authoritative way possible, but her voice was still too soft, too questioning. And despite it all, there was still an undercurrent of sorrow woven into her words. The sorrow she couldn’t shake, the sorrow that made her question everything she was doing. Even then, she was uncertain, whereas before, she would have been confident and brazen. She could hear her own voice in the back of her head, correcting her. She cleared her throat and then said in a far more assertive voice, "I mean, You're not allowed to be out here. This is a crime scene. I have questions for you."
The girl called after him, and the hiker turned back to face her. His face was open, relaxed, but his eyes were crystal clear and focused. His head tilted slightly, his curls bouncing just a touch, as she changed her tone from gentle and warm to something more becoming of a well-known superhero. She hadn’t lost the softness of youth. A teenager, by most accounts. A teenager people tried to keep quiet about, but were too proud of not to discuss.
“Crime scene? Oh, thank God.” He let the camera fall, carefully controlling it so it didn’t break the camera or his sternum. Then he laughed, not nervously, with one hand put up to make it clear he was clarifying. “I mean, obviously not about the... murder, now, right? But I thought for a minute that the cops actually thought these were bear attacks. It's a relief by comparison to know the local law enforcement isn't that dumb. They should be more careful what they tell the press, though. Black bears are endangered in this state. I'd rather not see some trigger happy hick go looking for a man-eater when that’s not what’s going on.”
Sam paused and looked at the man’s face. Her heart skipped a beat as she took in his curls, his sharp cheeks, his full lips, and his bright smile. For a moment she found herself lost in his eyes, but then she shook her head, her own curls, trapped as they were in their failing bun, began to spill out in long tendrils that bounced and curled around each other.
“I– I didn’t know that. Uhm. Listen, how did you find this place? The location wasn’t announced and it hasn’t really been long enough for even the press to find the place, Mr…?” She left it open-ended, obviously waiting for his name. Her voice was stronger now, less soft, less sorrowful. She sounded confident, in control, and bold. There was a hint of warmth to her voice, however, that was almost misplaced when taken into account with the rest of her tone.
She crossed her arms, her leather jacket pulling tight over her suit. The black cat mask, shaped after a small cat’s skull and complete with sharp teeth over her upper lip, obscured all but her golden eyes and her sharp chin. She was thankful for that, because when her heart had skipped that beat, her cheeks had warmed up to a degree she was embarrassed by. She let it roll off her as soft heat, filling the open space with her warmth.
This was… Completely inappropriate. He could have been a suspect. He could have been a serial killer revisiting the scene of the crime, camera in hand to take pictures of the gruesome scene. After all, he hadn’t taken a candid photo of her at work, like so many others would do. That was suspicious. He was suspicious. So what if he was cute? That shouldn’t have mattered.
The hiker looked surprised when she asked him his name, then smiled sheepishly, with just a hint of straight white teeth. “Right, sorry! Oscar. Oscar Fowler. I’d ask yours, but you’re obviously Wildcat.”
He gave his name with the familiarity of someone who’d prefer to be called that to something else. And she was a very public face, after all, with her yellow eyes and her orange hair. It likely wasn’t well-known that she smelled like cinnamon and apples and vanilla at close range, and that wasn’t a fact most would be interested in knowing. Especially since her identity was the subject of small-town chatter when they thought strangers weren’t listening. There was a lot of that going around, these days.
“A jogger passed by this morning and saw the buzz. She told someone at the coffee shop, someone overheard, now half the town’s making a point not to talk about it too loud. I figured since the area’s not exactly cordoned off it was free game to take a look.”
“Well, Osc– Mr. Fowler, we rarely cordon off sites this far off the beaten path. That doesn’t mean that it’s open to the public. In the future, you might want to check that before you go trampling through a crime scene.” Finally, her voice was fully back and it rang out through the trees, which absorbed the sound and echoed back only birdsong and insects chirping. She wasn’t letting the beat of her heart and her flush get in the way of her job.
She sighed and uncrossed her arms, putting her hands just above the flare of her hips. She closed her eyes for a moment to think. He wasn’t lying to her. He was speaking the truth about what had happened that had led him there. Oscar Fowler was his real name, if not all of it. Nothing he said was pinging the Vibe Checker too much. And him knowing who she was, well, anyone who’d been in the Columbus area for more than a few days knew who she was. She nodded her head and opened her eyes once more, giving the tall man a once over.
“But why would you want to take a look? What actually brings you here? Tell me that. Because right now you’re being… suspicious. Nobody just wants to go and walk around a crime scene.”
“Please, Oscar’s fine. Mr. Fowler makes me sound like a banker.” Not Mr. Fowler was my father – but a new twist on the old phrase. “And again, sorry for trespassing. I’ll remember that next time. I just– Ohio doesn’t have the greatest track record with large carnivores.”
He returned her once-over, never hesitating for too long along the lean young frame of his interrogator. His head tilted slightly, almost like a dog, and then he smiled amicably.
“Alright, you caught me. I write independently for a few different ecological magazines and online blogs. I was passing through when I heard about the first ‘bear attack’ –” he made finger quotes “– and when I told one of my clients, they asked me to stick around and check it out. Human activity framed like a bear attack made a lot more sense for what was released to the press, although clearly your murderer – right? – doesn’t know enough about bears. From here it looks more like a mountain lion attack if you ignore the incongruent clawmarks. Big cats are a lot more likely to become consummate maneaters. Too bad your guy doesn’t realize there aren’t any, and haven’t been any for like. Twenty years.”
“Well, Oscar. That… checks out.” Except it didn’t. He was lying to her. Her vibe checker ticked off the lie in the first half of his explanation. He was in no way a writer for ecological anythings. There was some truth in the fact that he had stayed because a client had asked him to, but everything else? It was a lie. Not only was he lying, but his observations of the site, well. Those were just a little too keen.
So he was here at the behest of someone else. That much was true. She thought for a moment as she took in his neutral smile. God, why was he so cute? Why did that seem to matter? She bit her bottom lips, a flash of white teeth as she caught it. She needed to focus on the actual task at hand.
He hadn’t done anything that would provoke more questioning, not unless she chose to reveal that she was a human lie detector so early. And really, keeping that under wraps from this guy might be good. At least then, she didn’t have to worry about him trying to carefully avoid lying to her in order to hide the truth. The less he knew about her being able to sort out lies, the better. So instead, she waved her hand toward the direction of the road and sighed.
“I suppose I can’t keep you for that. You sure have good observation skills. Just uh, keep safe and get back to the road. We have no idea if this guy is hang– Actually, would you like an escort back out?”
Oscar took a deep breath through his nose, and exhaled slowly as if tension was releasing from his apparently relaxed body. His smile changed just barely – from politely friendly, to equal relief. The shift was controlled enough to be deliberate. His eyes reflected the smile, from their professional sharpness to something softer.
“If it’s not too out of the way for you. I don’t want to interrupt the investigation, and I can find my way back. But it… couldn’t hurt.”
The hesitation might’ve been polite, or might’ve been nervous. It helped that as he paused he looked at the nearest tree – this one with a clear stain of blood where a hand was dragged down it, likely where the victim stopped for a breath before his attacker was on him again. That would be enough to make anyone hesitant to travel alone.
Sam swallowed a little in surprise as he accepted her offer, but she flashed the most brilliant smile she could muster. She shook her head, her fiery curls bouncing in their well-maintained spirals. “It’s not out of my way at all. I’m done with the crime scene as it is. I can come back if I need to revisit anything.”
A lie of her own. Detective Shaw and his people had already swept the place, and the moment they saw her come out of the woods, they would help up and collect what was left of poor Thomas’s things. Anything she needed would be provided to her by the detective if needed. But Sam was rather sure she wouldn’t be needing anything else. She never had before. There was nothing about this case that implied she would have to start now.
The vigilante started walking, gesturing for the young man to follow her. “You’re new to the area, aren’t you? I know all of the locals in Lockbourne. At least, uhm, I know of them. And you’re a new face. Are you from the city, or are you from elsewhere?”
She tried to keep her voice booming, stern, confident, but the longer she spoke, the more her voice faded back into something softer. Maybe it had been the softness that had seemed to enter his own features, but something was drawing the softness out of her. While his reaction to her offering to escort him had been controlled, almost, there was something about his eyes that made her melt a little, that pulled the real her out of the persona.
Now that it felt safe to look, Oscar’s eyes followed the bounces of her curls. She was cute. Couldn’t be older than seventeen, and that felt like pushing it, what with the soft voice and warm eyes and almost optimistic grin. She had to look even younger under that mask. He swallowed, too, reflecting her surprised action as she turned her back to him before following behind her, matching her pace when he could easily just pass her or walk at her side.
“Wisconsin, actually. Superior-Duluth area, if you know where that is. Really got into this on the Minnesota side of the border.” His voice carried traces of that northerner’s accent, too, once it was stated – all rounded vowels and gentle apologies. “I’ve been in town for – what, a month, maybe? Like I said, I rolled up right after the first attack. My client caught me right before I was planning to leave. They’ve been covering lodging for me.”
Six weeks felt like too short a time around Lockbourne. And on reflection, it was surprising that he hadn’t run into Wildcat yet, but then again, he hadn’t had any reason to. Especially since technically his hotel was in Obetz, another nearby small township. A little farther to the park they were walking through right now, but a bed was a bed.
Sam nodded her head and carefully climbed past a large rock, hopping right over it. She looked up at his face and in an increasingly soft voice, she asked, “I vaguely know- edge of Minnesota?”
She had caught his heartbeat flick up as he had looked at her, had felt it smooth back out after they had started walking. It had made her own pick up, and stay up. The walk was in no way exerting for her, but she could feel her heart trying to race in her chest. She wasn’t sure if it was from… attraction? Was that the word for this? Sam had no idea. Well, whether it was positive or negative, she couldn’t quite tell.
“I’ve never been there, but I remember some geography.” She said it with all the bitter sarcasm as a recently graduated high school student could have. She winced a bit. He didn’t look as young as she knew she did. He could easily have been twenty, but he was definitely not eighteen like herself. She hoped she wasn’t giving away her young age with statements like that. She tried to come across as older. More professional.
Most people didn’t like the fact that a teen was doing such dangerous work, such good work. Not that she cared what other people thought. Besides, this was just a holdover until the police academy, despite the fact that her parents wanted her to get another degree first. Circling back to that left a bad taste in her mouth. She looked up at the man, whose truths tasted like they were tinged with lies, and she softly said, “You should make sure you stay safe. It’s not the safest out in Columbus these days. Wouldn't want you to be the next crime scene I have to investigate, you know?”
He looked back down at her when she looked up. He’d climbed the boulder, not with difficulty, but maybe a little enjoyment of the little moment. His eyes were the same clear blue as the Lake Superior horizon on a January day. She’d probably never seen it – she admitted to never having seen it, and confirmed her approximate age in the same breath. His smile stayed relaxed, and even took on a slight edge of self-assurance that sent a twinkle into his midwinter eyes when she mentioned he might be in any danger.
“I appreciate the concern. I can handle myself alright, though.” A pause, as if considering whether the next statement was polite. The edge faded out of the smile. “You take care too, yeah? Don’t want to hear about any bears mauling the town celebrity.”
And then the smile shifted yet again, to become a little amused.
“That would definitely bring out the hicks with guns.”
“It would take a lot to kill me, don’t worry. I do this because I can, because it’s my duty, because I’m strong enough to protect others–” She cut off, her voice becoming strangled.
That wasn’t true. She wasn’t strong enough to protect others. The image of Alice’s face, wide-eyed and frozen in fear, passed through her mind, and she froze for just a moment, skipping a beat in their walk before she picked back up, falling back into step. “People need someone to protect them sometimes. I do this because I am capable of that.”
She straightened her shoulders out, as though she was carrying all of the expectations of the world on her back. She replayed his words in her head. Normally, her Vibe Checker only picked up on untruths, but this time, it picked up something unique. Oscar was underselling his confidence in taking care of himself. She reflected on this as they finally reached the trail again.
The road was still some ways away, so she decided to take him all the way out. This definitely had nothing to do with how attractive he was, and everything to do with how she didn’t want him to “get got”, as the saying went. Yeah, that was definitely it.
His head tilted again, just a touch, at the change in her tone. Or maybe it was at the creature at the side of the path – the coyote, which had given up on its hunt for scraps and was now cleaning the meat off of a large mouse instead. It looked up and saw Oscar, and it returned his head tilt while meeting his eyes.
Then it noticed Wildcat, snatched up its kill, and disappeared into the underbrush.
Oscar’s hands had been on his camera, but he let it fall again with another deep sigh that coincided with the lingering alarm and fear. He swallowed again, then exhaled the tension. A coyote and a mouse were natural. The manmade events here bore an extra layer of blame, of guilt, if the creature that orchestrated this was capable of that.
“Folks around here are lucky to have you looking out for them,” he said, and if she looked at him his smile would be reassuring. He’d certainly noticed the moment of weakness, and it was clear that the young man wanted to soothe it, rather than agitate old wounds.
She felt the jump in his heartbeat. It raced down his body and across the earth, reaching her and traveling up her body. For a moment, she thought it might have been something, but then she saw what he was looking at. A coyote, which ran away the moment it noticed her. Had he been afraid of it? His heart was pounding. Pounding like hers was beginning to.
She swallowed back the beat of her heart, the flush on her face, and the nervous knot in her chest. Did she like him, or was she nervous about his presence? Was it both? Should she be more wary of him? God, she was so confused at that moment. She didn’t really know what she was feeling.
“I guess so. I haven’t always been the best guardian for them, but I do my best. It’s the least I can do for–” She paused for half a beat, stopping herself from saying what she was going to, “- for these people. For Columbus.”
She was the talk of the town, Wildcat. She knew that. She knew there was heavy suspicion on who she was, on the fact she lived in Lockbourne. There had been an investigation when she was sixteen, where the police had tried to find her. They hadn’t, had moved on to other townships and suburbs. Detective Shaw knew who she was. He had shown up on her doorstep when she had stopped patrolling after Alice’s death. He had given his condolences and had asked her if she planned to retire. She had been so shocked that he had even suggested it. She just needed some time, she had said, before she could work again.
She owed these people everything. If they knew who she was, they never said a word about it to her. Nor had they spoken a word to the police. She owed them everything. They had been there for her, or tried to be, when she was just a child who couldn’t control her powers, who had burned people, who had played too rough, and had been too good at sports. They had seen her through Alice’s death. She remembered the dozens of meals and the small gifts, almost as equally given to her as they were to Camilla.
It was odd – it had to be, to see these little flashes of weakness from a vigilante with a hammer, someone who clearly had to prove to people how strong she was every day so they’d overlook her smallness, her softness. Alone behind her, though, it was impossible to miss. In the space of her hesitation. In the weight of that instant of pure fear. What was a Wildcat so afraid of?
Not that it mattered, of course, not really. Not right now, anyway.
“Hey, our best is all anybody can ask of us.” Oscar picked up the pace so he was next to her, instead of a little behind. He moved easily on the uneven terrain, clearly experienced with off-trail hikes just like this. “Anybody who asks more than your best doesn’t deserve even that much.”
“They never even ask for my best, honestly. They’ve never asked anything of me. But they deserve everything I can give. Everyone does. I do this as much for the people I protect as the people I fight. Everyone deserves to be saved, even if it’s from themselves.”
His heartbeat had been thundering. Right up until he started talking again, his heartbeat was high and strong. That wasn’t fear. She knew what fear and nervousness felt like. That was excitement. He was excited about something. Was it her? Was he excited about being near her, the same way she might have been about him?
Something in her instincts shied away from his excitement. This man… everything about him was confusing her. But thankfully, the road was in view. She could see the police where they stood by the trailhead. That gave her pause. How had Oscar slipped by them? She looked up at him for a moment, not long enough to be staring, but long enough that he would know she was observing him.
Oscar laughed a little bit at her optimism. He laughed softly enough that it could’ve been appreciative – after all, it wasn’t every day you saw someone with that kind of innocence anymore. People tended to miss that. He didn’t look old enough to be that jaded, but his laugh was almost nostalgic.
The road was in sight, much sooner than if he’d been alone. He’d come by way of one of the open trails, and he’d need to backtrack to reach where he’d started, but he didn’t argue with Wildcat. He had no response to the police presence, except for the little sparkle of curiosity at seeing them work.
Then he seemed to notice her eyes on him, as if he hadn’t felt her watching him one way or another since they first met, and turned to look back at her with the same curious glimmer. He smiled, and it turned more wry than any before.
“See something you like, sweetheart, or do you have a question for me?”