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Flames & Fervor (Clashing Claws Book 1) by Daniella Starre (1)

Chapter 1

Audrey Wright

The stench emanating from the body was enough to churn my stomach. Disgusted, I suppressed the urge to pinch my nose. Once I got used to the repulsive smell, I’d be fine. I smirked at the people who did give in and pinch. Every time they came close to the body and got a fresh whiff, they’d regret inhaling it from the get go.

A body had been sliced from chest to groin. The face and groin were both so covered in blood that I couldn’t tell from here if the victim was male or female. It didn’t help that officers blocked my view of the body so that I couldn’t see how tall the person had been or his or her build.

Already, a few bugs were flying around, but I figured that had more to do with the heat and humidity of a Philadelphia summer night than the body. It had rained earlier today, and the body was sinking slightly in the mud. The sagging branches of the nearby trees seemed to droop in sadness, the forest around the clearing standing as silent sentinels to observe the frantic investigation.

One of the police officers working the scene noticed me. “Press isn’t allowed back here.”

“Oh, I’m not the press,” I protested, smiling widely at him. He was tall but skinny. Way too skinny. I liked guys who had muscles. Lots of muscles. There was nothing like feeling strong arms wrapped around me.

“Audrey Wright. Get back. You know the drill.”

I straightened at hearing Hugh Mark’s stern tone. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would let me do a damn thing. He frustrated the hell out of me, made my job so much harder.

“I just need to do my job. I’m not in the way of your investigation,” I protested. “I’m not obstructing anything.”

“You’re being destructive is what you’re being.”

I whipped out my notepad. “Please, Officer,” I said, trying to appeal to his ego.

I never called him officer. We went to high school together and dated twice. He tried to touch my tonsils with his tongue. I kneed him in the balls. He never called me back, which was a good thing because I would’ve reached through the line and strangled him.

“Can I at least interview you later?”

“I’m not just an officer,” he snapped. “I’m detective. The lead detective on this case and—”

“And if I let you lick my tonsils will you give me that interview.”

Hugh glowered at me, and I couldn’t help laughing.

“Nothing about this is funny,” he said, sounding peeved.

Contrite, I hung my head. “I’m sorry. I’m just as angry and upset as you are. I don’t understand what’s going on. The public has a right to know what’s going on. The people are scared. There’s talk about instituting a curfew.”

“You’d have to talk to the mayor about that.” He turned to head back to the crime scene.

“Please!” I grabbed his arm. “Just a few comments. I want to know if you think there’s a connection to the animals fleeing the town. It’s not just the wild animals either. So many pets have gone missing. A few have turned up dead and now this? That’s the third body that’s been found slashed to ribbons. It all has to be related!”

“You aren’t Nancy Drew,” he said.

I bristled, furious. “I’m an investigative reporter. I might not have a badge, Detective, but I still investigate. I check the facts. I don’t just dish out gossip to sell the paper. I want cold, hard facts, same as you do.”

“You won’t get an interview with me. Case closed.”

“Do you have a suspect?” I called as he stomped away.

He didn’t turn around as he violently gestured for me to go.

“Thanks, bub, love ya too.” I glanced over at the officer who first tried to get me to ditch. “What about you? Got a comment for me? Any theories? Tips? Leads?”

He opened his mouth.

“Randall, if you say one word to her, I swear I’ll rip your tongue out.”

Randall shrugged and opened his mouth.

I shook my head. “Don’t apologize. He’s a grizzly bear. You even just say sorry, and he will make you pay.”

“Randall!”

Randall shrugged, threw me a sympathetic look, and took off.

I rubbed the back of my neck. More than anything, I hated to feel so hopeless, but that was exactly how I felt. Hopeless and lonely. One of those pets that had run off had been my St. Bernard, Rex. I missed the little guy. Little wasn’t accurate. Hadn’t been. Even as a puppy, St. Bernards were huge. He weighed at least one hundred and fifty pounds. He walked me, not the other way around. He would curl up beside me every night in bed, and he’d watch my TV shows with me. I’m such a Marvel girl it’s not even funny.

Maybe that was what we needed right now. A superhero to swoop in and save the day. I’d give anything to have Cap’n America here. He’d save the day and wouldn’t be an ass about it like Hugh.

Sighing, I stood there, as vigilant as the tree. I might not be able to ask any questions, but I could observe. Unfortunately, the questions were only piling up. The coroner and I were friends, so chances were good I could get the name of the latest victim from him. He’d gone to high school with us too. We’d gone to prom together senior year. I’d asked him, and we went as friends. After the whole tonsil incident, I hadn’t dated many guys in high school, and I was too involved with my studies in college to have a serious relationship. Just a couple of flings.

I’d been perfectly content investigating robberies and other smaller crimes. I’d helped with a grand larceny case a few months ago. That had been my crowning achievement, but seriously, this was huge. Murders.

At least I thought it was murder. It was possible it could be animal attacks, but what animals would cut people to ribbons like that? No. I didn’t think any would. I couldn’t get close enough to the bodies to see if the slashes could have been from a blade, but still, it had to be murder.

The victims. I was going to have to see what connections they had. Sure, the police had to be looking at that angle too, but I wasn’t going to drop this. I was a reporter. Whatever the police had, they might not give to the public. I would. I had a job to do.