Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

The Essence of Darkness

Tom Clearlake

Five unexplained child disappearances have plagued the small town of St. Marys in the span of four months; all evidence indicates that these are abductions, plain and simple. Special Agent Eliott Cooper is sent to investigate, but as the case starts to unravel he finds himself up against a dark and ancient evil, something that has been plaguing the town longer than anyone can remember. Will Cooper manage to solve the case, or will he end up as the next missing person?

Age Rating: 18+ (Content Warning: Extreme Violence/Gore, Violent Death)

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Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

The Essence of Darkness

Tom Clearlake

Five unexplained child disappearances have plagued the small town of St. Marys in the span of four months; all evidence indicates that these are abductions, plain and simple. Special Agent Eliott Cooper is sent to investigate, but as the case starts to unravel he finds himself up against a dark and ancient evil, something that has been plaguing the town longer than anyone can remember. Will Cooper manage to solve the case, or will he end up as the next missing person?

Age Rating: 18+ (Content Warning: Extreme Violence/Gore, Violent Death)

1: Chapter 1

The windshield wipers beat out a frenzied rhythm in the downpour, pounding the vehicle. In the distance, the first hints of light from St. Mary's started to twinkle through the glass behind the streaming raindrops.

The call from headquarters pulled him from his thoughts.

“Agent Cooper?”

“That’s me.”

“You’re going to take a right at the next intersection, then keep going straight. The meeting place will show up on your GPS shortly.”

Eliott Cooper had to slow down almost to the point of stopping. The wind gusts were powerful enough to shake the huge white unmarked Chevy SUV they’d assigned him for the mission.

He turned when he reached the intersection, leaving behind the motels on the edge of town.

The blinking neon signs disappeared in the rearview mirror one by one, and along with them, any comfort he might have enjoyed after his long drive.

The signal that appeared on the GPS screen showed an isolated spot in the vast expanse of forest surrounding the town of St. Marys, Pennsylvania.

He followed the indicated route, which twisted through five miles of rain-battered valleys. Then he left the road to take a muddy track that plunged into the woods.

The wheels got stuck in the mud several times. He drove slowly and had to stick his head out the window to see where he was going.

He hated rain.

That was typical for an agent who specialized in field operations. After twelve years of loyal service in federal intelligence, Cooper expected a little clemency from the sky.

But he often had the impression that the clouds only chose to open up over the countryside when he was starting one of his stakeouts.

He arrived at the meeting place and drove past the vehicle of the agent he was supposed to meet.

He parked the four-by-four on the edge of the flooded track, pulled on his boots and raincoat, and joined the man waiting for him under an umbrella.

Although he thought his face looked familiar, this agent turned out to be a complete stranger.

“I guess we can say punctuality isn’t your strong suit,” said the agent.

They shook hands formally.

“Have you seen the weather?” Cooper responded.

“Yes, I’ve seen the weather,” the other replied coldly.

The man studied Cooper unblinkingly for a fraction of a second. Behind his fogged-up glasses, his eyes showed a certain impatience.

Cooper didn’t have time to analyze his features in more detail. He was young—in his thirties, max—and a bit pudgy. No doubt he spent a lot of time sitting behind a desk.

“Let’s take shelter. I have some documents for you,” the agent said.

Cooper followed him to his vehicle, another Chevrolet Suburban, also white and unmarked. The FBI wasn’t exactly original on that front.

Once inside, the man meticulously wiped off his glasses and took a black plastic folder with the federal service seal out of the glove box.

“Here’s the complete updated file. I’ll let you look it over later. They must have told you about the nature of your mission.”

“Yes, I have everything I need,” Cooper replied, quickly flipping through the folder’s contents. “I see more or less what’s in store for me, Agent…?”

“Agent Reynolds.”

“Great. I won’t keep you any longer, Agent Reynolds. You must have a long drive ahead of you.” He closed the folder and slipped it under his raincoat.

“Yeah, I’m going back to New York.”

Cooper waved goodbye and opened the door to get out of the vehicle. “Drive carefully, Reynolds. They said the storm is headed in the direction you’re going.”

“I’ll spend the night in a motel if it gets bad.”

“Have a good trip.”

“Thanks. Good luck to you, Agent Cooper.”

Cooper closed the door and went back to his vehicle.

The already-dark sky grew even darker with the fading daylight. The moon appeared briefly between huge, fast-moving puffs of clouds. Its pale glow passed over the woods for a few seconds and then disappeared again.

The tall, silent trees were desperately flailing their branches in the icy wind. If he could speak their language, he thought, maybe they would tell him about the chilling events they had witnessed.

Over the past five months, a series of tragedies had struck the peaceful town. There had been several unexplained disappearances, a total of five, one after the other.

The small town—home to twelve thousand souls—had fallen into despair. The people of St. Marys might have rationally accepted these horrifying events if they hadn’t involved young children.

All the victims had been between three and five years old, and the most sordid rumors had spread in the wake of the police’s silence. Captain Howard Sherman’s investigations had produced nothing—not a single clue.

Even though they hadn’t used the term “abduction” officially, the consecutive disappearances couldn’t have been coincidences. Three weeks ago, the FBI had taken charge of the investigation.

Cooper turned on the heater, leaned the driver’s seat back, and settled in as comfortably as he could.

He took the time to pour himself a cup of coffee, or at least what remained at the bottom of his thermos. He thought about getting his stove from the trunk but changed his mind, deciding the coffee was still warm enough to drink.

The first pages of the file he had skimmed suffused his thoughts.

On June 9, 2017, Mrs. Madeline Jones was visiting her friend Abigail Harris for the afternoon. With Mrs. Jones was her son, Ryan, three years and five months old.

Mrs. Harris’s two daughters, ages twelve and fourteen, were responsible for watching little Ryan. They were playing together in the enclosed garden of the Harris residence.

It was a sunny afternoon. The two mothers were discussing schooling over a cup of tea on the patio, not far from where the three children were playing.

At about 3:30 p.m., Mrs. Jones saw the two girls run past the patio. She looked for her son but didn’t see him in the area.

Interrupting the discussion with her friend, she stood up to ask the girls where her little boy was. They answered cheerfully that they were playing hide-and-seek.

But they never found little Ryan.

Cooper raised his mug to his lips. The coffee was ice cold now. He set it mechanically in the cup holder without drinking and returned to his reading.

On June 20, the childcare workers at the Maurus Street daycare center organized a “flower-picking afternoon” in the surrounding fields.

When they returned to the center at 4:30 p.m., five-year-old Iris Winkler was missing.

On July 6 around 10 a.m., Sean Watson, age thirty-eight, parked his pickup truck in the parking lot of Dave’s Saw Shop. He entered the tool shop where he had left his lawn mower for repair.

When Watson came out of the shop eight minutes later, his four-year-old son, Jaden, was no longer in the vehicle.

Watson couldn’t contain himself after his son’s disappearance. Within an hour, he had contacted the parents of the other missing children and formed a group of almost a hundred residents determined to act.

Under pressure from the parents, Captain Sherman immediately organized a search that took place the same day. It involved nearly eight hundred people, including police officers and firefighters.

Forty-eight hours later, the operation had covered a ten-mile radius around the city. Yet the search had been in vain.

On August 18 at 3:22 a.m., Cassandra Elmer, in an obvious state of panic, walked through the door of the St. Marys police station, accompanied by her husband. She stated that a scream had jolted her awake during the night.

Her son Christopher, four years and eight months old, had been crying out for her. When she ran to his room on the second floor of the house, the window was wide open, and the child was no longer in his bed—or anywhere else.

According to the report, Captain Sherman himself had recorded Cassandra Elmer’s statement after a call had dragged him out of his sleep. The events at the Elmer house that night could only confirm the abduction theory.

Now the police had to take care not to panic the population of St. Marys even more. The growing unease threatened to cause unrest that the captain and his men would have difficulty managing.

At dawn, the captain had once again mobilized all his personnel for a second major search. This one brought together 1,728 volunteers.

Once again, the search found no children.

The rain had started beating down again. The drops were hammering the Chevy’s sheet metal non-stop. Cooper wrapped his raincoat around him and went to get the stove from the trunk. He needed more coffee—hot, this time.

It was going to be a long night.

Cooper liked the beginning of investigations, the feeling of plunging into the unknown, into an uncertain place, where the slightest element could be interpreted.

Ground zero—where everything had started and from which one had to reconstruct everything.

Then, on this improbable stage, based on uncertain deductions, the first tangible clues emerged, like actors coming out of the shadows, in turn, to give a silent, fragmented interpretation of the reality of the facts.

Protagonists cut from a funereal pantomime.

Then, these elements had to be handled with the utmost skill and care, without leaving out the slightest connection or similarity that could bind them.

Cooper had become an expert at this game. He had perfectly mastered the art of the hidden storyline.

These buried realities smelled so strongly of terror and death that sooner or later they had to come to the surface, like bluish, bloated corpses. Time could do that. Time could solve all mysteries.

But the investigator was there to speed up time.

Captain Sherman’s men had done their best to uncover elements that would have turned these disappearances into abductions.

But although abduction seemed obvious to everyone, nothing—absolutely no tangible evidence—had confirmed this hypothesis.

The delicious scent of the Aguadas he had brewed filled Cooper’s vehicle. He settled into the seat again and sipped his coffee while turning the information he had just learned over and over in his mind.

At this stage of the investigation, these disappearances were still disappearances. But the facts spoke for themselves.

It was technically possible to approach each case separately from the others, as if there were no connection between them. Some agents would approach the investigation systematically using this process.

But this process would only serve to prove the existence of an obvious link. If Cooper found himself more than six miles from St. Marys at the heart of these forests in an end-of-the-world downpour, it was for a specific reason.

One item in the file had been confidential until then.

Lying on the passenger seat, the opaque plastic folder Agent Reynolds had given him contained a sealed envelope awaiting his perusal.

He finished sipping his coffee, set down the mug, and savoring the moment, unsealed the envelope to read its contents.

On September 27, Garett Pearson, his wife, Kaitlyn, and their five-year-old son, Timothy, went to Mrs. Pearson’s parents’ house for dinner.

The house was to the north of town. Around 10 p.m., the family meal ended, and the Pearsons got into their vehicle to return home.

At 11:40 p.m., a driver called the fire department to report a vehicle on fire on North Fork Road. When they arrived, emergency services could only confirm the deaths of the vehicle’s occupants.

Upon notification, police immediately contacted the FBI, which sent several agents to the scene. The forensics team removed two charred bodies from the smoking wreckage.

Thanks to the vehicle’s registration number, they were able to identify the victims as Garett Pearson, thirty-five, a bank employee living in St. Marys, and Kaitlyn Pearson, twenty-nine, a stay-at-home mother.

The registry kept by the state’s health department listed them as the father and mother of Timothy.

Less than thirty minutes later, Timothy’s grandparents, informed of the tragedy, confirmed that their grandson had left in the car with his father and mother after the family dinner.

However, responders only found the bodies of Garett and Kaitlyn Pearson in the burned vehicle.

The next question to answer was under what circumstances little Timothy had managed to leave the vehicle. The first theory was that the force of the accident could have ejected the child from the car.

After leaving the road, the car had ended up against a tree below the road. The right front of the Lexus was indeed crumpled.

However, an agent noticed immediately that the impact was not what one might expect on a vehicle that had run off the road at high speed.

The damage to the front of the car was minor and indicated a reduced speed when the vehicle struck the tree.

The investigator also deduced that the force of the impact had therefore not been strong enough to sever the fuel system and ignite the automobile. An analysis of the remains of the Lexus soon confirmed these deductions.

Cooper let the SUV’s sway in the wind lull him for a few moments. The rain had stopped for the time being, but lightning continued to flash in the distance behind the hills.

Its rumbling reached his ears after several long seconds, muffled, as if the storm were now contained in a small cotton-filled box.

The report noted the Pearsons’ vehicle doors had still been locked and none of the windows had been broken. So that eliminated the possibility that the car had ejected the child.

It was still possible that he had gotten out of the car after the crash, just before it caught fire, and wandered around in a state of shock until he’d gotten lost in the woods.

But in that case, why hadn’t Garett and Kaitlyn Pearson left the vehicle too? Could the violence of the impact have caused them to lose consciousness? No—the impact had been minimal.

In addition, responders had found both in their seats with their seat belts fastened. No airbags had deployed.

Twenty-four hours after extraction of the two charred bodies, the forensic analysis department issued its autopsy report.

The Pearson deaths were not due to the fire in their car, and their respiratory systems showed no contractions that asphyxiation could have caused.

Their hearts had stopped beating before the fire had destroyed the vehicle.

That could mean only one thing: someone had staged this accident. Someone, or several people, had deliberately caused the deaths of Garett and Kaitlyn Pearson.

And someone had taken the child away before setting the car on fire.

Forensic technicians had found footprints around the Lexus, but it had been difficult for them to distinguish suspicious footprints from those of the emergency personnel who had arrived on the scene before the FBI.

Analyses showed that the suspicious prints were probably those of three people of average build. One set of footprints had vanished into the woods, heading north.

There was no doubt that Timothy Pearson’s abduction was linked to those that had taken place in St. Marys.

The beginning of this investigation gave off an unspeakable evil that Agent Cooper felt viscerally, despite all his experience. It was an uncomfortable sensation, one he wasn’t used to feeling.

Barely repressing a deep hatred, he immediately flipped to the next page, as if to dispel the chilling question of the killers’ motive.

“Fucking psychopaths,” he mumbled through gritted teeth.

The last document in the file was a map, something very familiar to him. The satellite photo included a thirty-mile radius around St. Marys.

The northern part of the circle, an area entirely covered by forests, was highlighted in red. He was going to have to operate in this sector.

The last page concluded by listing his mission objectives:

Strategic surveillance of the area,

Sample collection,

Detection and reporting of any human activity in the area,

The search, intervention, and questioning of any person who might be involved, and neutralization if necessary.

He briefly scanned the text and closed the file.

He knew exactly what he had to do.

If his superiors had assigned him this case, it was because he was one of the best-qualified agents for this type of work—one of the FBI’s finest bloodhounds.

And if they had made him responsible for this area, it was unquestionably because they were convinced that the kidnapper or kidnappers were still hiding somewhere in these forests.

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