Paulina Cole left the office at four fifty nine p.m. Her sudden
departure nearly caused a panic in the newsroom of the New York
Dispatch, where she’d worked as a featured columnist
and reporter for several years. Paulina was prone to late nights,
though many argued whether the nights were due to a work ethic that
was second to none, or simply because she was more comfortable
spending her time among competitive, ambitious and bloodthirsty
professionals than sitting on the couch with a glass of wine and
She had left that day after a particularly frustrating
conference call with the paper’s editor-in-chief, Ted Allen.
Paulina had spent the better part of two years becoming the
city’s most notorious scribe in no small part due to her
ambivalence concerning personal attacks, heated vendettas, and a
complete refusal to allow anyone to get the best of her. When her
instincts faltered, she called in favors. When she got scooped, she
would trump the scoop by digging deeper. And she held grudges like
ordinary folks held onto prized heirlooms.
Which is why, after reading a copy of that morning’s New
York Gazette, the paper Paulina used to work for and now
wished buried under a paper landfill, she demanded to speak with
Ted. She knew the man had a two o’clock tee time, but
she’d seen him golf before and cell phone interruption might
even improve his thirty seven handicap.
That day’s Gazette featured a story about the
murder of a young man named Stephen Gaines. Gaines’s head had
met the wrong end of a bullet recently, and in a twist of fate that
Paulina could only have wished for on the most glorious of days,
the prime suspect was none other than Gaines’s father, James
Parker. James Parker also happened to be the father of Henry
Parker, the Gazette’s rising young star reporter,
whom Paulina had as much fondness for as her monthly cycle.
Paulina had cut her teeth at the Gazette, and had
briefly worked side-by-side with Henry Parker. But after seeing
what the Gazette had become--an old, tired rag, refusing
to get with the program that hard news was essentially
dead--she’d made it her business to put the paper out of its
Nobody cared to read about the government or the economy--they
only cared about what they saw right in front of them, day in and
day out. It was all visceral. You bought the celebrity magazine so
you could make fun of the stars’ cellulite with your friends.
You shook your head at the news program that exposed the foreman
whose building was overrun with rats because he refused to pony up
for an exterminator. You scorned the politician’s wife who
stood at the press conference by her cheating louse of a husband.
Paulina gave those with no life something to live for.
The New York Gazette was dead. It just didn’t
know it yet.
So when Ted Allen suggested that Paulina write an article about
vampires, she was taken aback to say the least.
“Vampires are huge,” Allen had said. “There
are those books that have sold like a gajillion copies. Now there
are movies, television shows, soundtrack albums. Hell, newspapers
are the only medium that isn’t getting a piece of it. Teenage
girls love them, and teenage boys want to get into the pants of
teenage girls. And this all scares the living hell--no pun
intended--out of their parents, so you write a piece on vampires I
bet it’s one of our best selling issues of the
“What the hell do I write about a fictional
creature?” Paulina said, laughing at herself for even asking
“Oh, I don’t know,” Allen had said, clueless
as ever. “Didn’t I hear about some boys and girls who
go around biting people on the neck because they think they can be
vampires? Go interview them. Even better, go undercover and pretend
to be one of them. You know, pretend you like to bite
peoples’ necks and see what they tell you.”
“Ted, I’m almost forty,” Paulina said.
“I don’t think undercover will work.”
“Are you kidding?” Ted said. “What’s
that term? Milf? The teenage boys will love you.”
That’s when Paulina left.
Rain beat down upon the streets steadily, with the precision of
soft drumbeats. The drops splashed upward as they struck the
pavement, and Paulina felt the water soaking her ankles as she
exited into the gloom. A bottle of Finca Vieja Tempranillio was
waiting at home. It was a good red wine, with a slight plum taste,
and she could picture slipping into a warm bath with a glass in one
hand and a romance novel in the other. The rest of the bottle
sitting on the ledge just within reach, ready to be tilted until
the last drops were consumed. Ordinarily she was not that kind of
girl, but Paulina needed a night away from it all.
Paulina opened up an umbrella, and stepped into the sea of New
Yorkers, entering the crowded bloodstream known as the commute
home. The streets were chock full of open umbrellas, and she tried
to wedge her way into the crowd without having her eye poked out by
a random spoke.
As she took her first step from under the
Dispatch’s canopy, Paulina heard a man’s voice
yell, “Miss Cole! Miss Cole!”
She saw a man wearing a dapper suit and dark overcoat
approaching her. He was tall, six one or two, with hair so blond it
was nearly white, peeking out from underneath a billed cap. He
looked to be in good shape, late thirties or early forties and for
a brief moment Paulina felt her heart rate speed up. The car
service company had really stepped up their recruiting.
“Miss Cole,” the man said, stopping in front of her.
“My name is Chester. I’m from New York Taxi and Limo
service. Ted Allen called to request a ride home for
“Is that so,” Paulina said, barely hiding her smile.
She knew months ago that she had Ted by the balls. Keeping her
happy and pumping out pieces was worth hundreds of thousands of
dollars a year to the Dispatch, and the publicity she
received raised the paper’s profile more than their
‘crackerjack’ investigative team ever could. That Ted
would extend an olive branch so quickly surprised her at first, but
if she ran the company she’d want to make sure her star
reporter got home safe, sound, and dry.
“Please,” Chester said, “come with
He opened up a much larger umbrella and held it out. Paulina
smiled at him, a big, bright, toothy smile, and stepped under the
umbrella. He led her to a Lincoln Town car which sat double parked
at the curb. Holding the umbrella to shield her from the rain, the
driver opened the door. Paulina thanked him, picked up the hem of
her skirt and climbed into the back seat of the car. The driver
shut the door, and Paulina watched as he walked around to the
Two sealed bottles of water were set in a pair of cup holders,
and crisp new editions of that morning’s newspapers were
folded in the pocket in front of her. The rain pattered against the
windows, as Paulina unscrewed one of the bottles and took a long,
“Good day, Miss?” the driver asked.
“Better than some, worse than others,” she replied.
Traffic was bumper to bumper, and the car inched along. Paulina
began to grow restless. As much as she hated taking the subway, she
probably would have been home by now.
“You think there might be a faster route?” she
asked, leaning forward slightly when the car stopped at a red
light. The driver turned around, grinned.
“Let’s see what we can do.”
The driver made a right turn, and soon the car was heading east.
When they got to First Avenue, Paulina could see signs for the FDR
drive north. He pulled onto the on ramp and headed uptown. The FDR
tended to get flooded during heavy rain, but Paulina didn’t
mind chancing that to get home quicker. She watched the cars
outside, eyes widening as she saw her exit, 61st street, appear in
the distance. Yet instead of slowing down and pulling left towards
the exit ramp, the car sped along, bypassing the exit
“Hey!” Paulina said, leaning forward again.
“You should have gotten off there.”
“My apologies,” the driver said, “I must not
have seen it.”
Paulina cursed under her breath. The next exit wasn’t
until 96th street, and then he would have to loop all the way back
downtown. Just like Ted Allen to hire a car service for her and get
the one driver who didn’t know North from South.
Traffic moved along steadily, and Paulina sighed as they
approached the 96th street exit.
“Exit’s coming up,” she said, making sure to
“Got it, thanks Miss Cole.
As they approached the exit, Paulina noticed the car was not
slowing down at all.
“Hey, slow down? The hell is wrong with you, you’re
doing to miss it!”
The car drove right by the 96th street exit without slowing down
“Where the hell are you going?” Paulina yelled. The
driver did not answer. “I’m calling Ted. You’re
never going to work our account again.”
“Put the phone down, Miss Cole.” The driver’s
voice had lost all of its pleasantries.
“Screw you. Now I’m calling the cops. Forget our
account, your ass is going to jail.” She took out her cell
phone and flipped open the cover.
“If you ever want to see your daughter with all her limbs
intact, you’ll put the phone down right now.”
Paulina’s mouth fell open in a silent scream. Her
daughter...how? Paulina’s daughter lived with her first
husband, a wreck of a man named Chad Wozniak. He was a good father,
an aspiring architect who never made it past the word aspiring. He
was a good man, a decent man, but not a provider. That’s what
Paulina had wanted for her family, but in the end she had to do
what Chad could not.
Abigail. She was twenty years old. A junior in college. A 3.7
average, captain of the soccer team at some all girls school up in
Massachusetts. She and Paulina barely spoke. Maybe once every few
months, and usually only when Abby’s checking account ran
low. Abby was beautiful, even if sometimes this budding young woman
seemed like a stranger to her own mother.
“You’re a sick monster,” Paulina said, closing
“Don’t be like that. We’re almost
The driver took the FDR to the Triboro bridge, pulling off once
they’d arrived in Queens. He skidded around an off ramp, took
several turns in a neighborhood Paulina did not recognize,
and slowly eased into an alleyway bookended by two buildings that
looked like they were about to collapse. Paulina could see nobody,
hear nobody. She was all alone with this man. Through the rain and
desolation, nobody would hear her if she screamed.
The driver exited the car and walked around to the back seat.
Paulina locked the door from the inside. She heard a click as the
driver unlocked it with his remote. Before she could lock it again,
he threw open the door, grabbed Paulina by her coat and spun her
into the mud.
Wet slop splashed into her eyes. Paulina felt her eyes grow
warm, anger rising inside of her. She launched herself at the man,
her nails bared to rake at his face, but he merely grabbed her by
the neck, held it for one horrible moment as he stared into her
Then Paulina felt him press something against her side, and
suddenly she felt a scorching pain worse than anything she’d
ever experiences. Her body twitched as she screamed. She lost
control of her bladder, then dropped face down into the mud.
Paulina looked up to see the man holding a taser, smiling.
“I wouldn’t do that again. I can smell your
Paulina could feel hot tears pouring down her face. She was on
her hands and knees, caked in grime, and her body felt like it had
just been plugged into an electrical socket. She slowly got to her
knees, managed to stand up, her breath harsh and ragged.
“What do you want?” she cried. “Money?
Sex?” She shuddered at the last word, praying he
didn’t, praying there was something else, something that
wouldn’t leave a scar. Pain she could take, but that kind of
pain would never leave.
The man shook his head. Holding the taser, he reached inside his
overcoat, rain beading down the dark fabric. The water spilled down
his forehead into his eyes, but the man who called himself Chester
hardly seemed to notice.
He removed something from his pocket and held it out to Paulina.
She focused her eyes, then gasped.
It was a picture of her daughter, Abby. She was at the beach,
wearing a cute pink bikini, standing in front of a massive hole she
must have dug in the sand. The photo looked fairly recent, within
the last year or so. Abigail’s eyes were bright and cheerful,
her skin a golden brown. Abby. She looked so joyful.
Her daughter. Her blood.
“Where did you get that?” Paulina yelled.
“Do you really need to ask? I had a dozen others to choose
from. You really should tell her to be careful of what photos she
posts on the Internet.”
“You’re a freak,” she spat. “What the
hell do you want?”
“I want you to listen to me very carefully,” the man
said. He stepped closer, still holding out the photograph. Water
droplets landed on the photo but he didn’t seem to care.
“A long time ago, I fought in a war. I fought alongside men
and women who were like my own blood. Then, one day, we found
ourselves trapped. There was one man I fought with who was closer
to me than anyone. He was like a daughter. A mother. A
“That day, we found ourselves fighting for our lives. And
all of a sudden, out of nowhere, someone throws a grenade at us. I
was out of harm’s way, but the grenade went off right beside
this man I cared about. I remember looking at him after the smoke
cleared. He blinked his eyes, looked around like he was just
confused. The only thing I remember more than his eyes was the
splash of blood beneath him. Right where his legs had been blown
Then, in one fluid motion, he held the right side of the photo
with his thumb and forefinger, tore off a piece and let it flutter
to the ground. It landed in front of Paulina, speckled by rain and
“This is what your daughter will look like when I cut off
Paulina felt her stomach heave, her mouth opening, her eyes
burning as she cried. She reached out for the photo, but was too
weak to do anything.
“Blood has its own smell. It makes you want to vomit. And
imagine what happens when you see that much blood coming from
someone you love.”
He gripped the picture, and ripped off another piece. Again the
shred fell, twisting in the rain.
“This is what your daughter will look like when I cut off
her right arm.”
“Please,” Paulina whispered, her throat so
constricted she could barely talk. She closed her eyes.
“Stop. Just stop.”
The man stood there, holding the mutilated picture out for
Paulina to see. “Open your eyes,” he said. Paulina
shook her head. “Open them!”
“I have something for you,” the man said. “I
want you to take it home with you and I want you to read
“What?” she said, blinking away the tears.
“When you’ve read it, I want you to write an article
for your newspaper based on the information contained within. Your
article will run this Thursday. If it does not, for any reason
whatsoever...” the man took the photo and ripped off a piece.
Then he dropped the tattered photo into the mud.
“I will cut off your daughter’s head and send it to
you in a box.”
He walked over to Paulina, and before she could react he grabbed
her by the hair and thrust the taser into her side. Again Paulina
shrieked, and again she fell into the mud, panting.
“If you don’t do what I say, before I rip your
daughter apart I will burn her in places only her mother knows
The man took an envelope from inside his jacket. It was sealed
in plastic. He gave it to Paulina.
“This is the last you’ll hear from me if you do what
I say. If you tell anyone, I’ll will tear Abigail apart limb
by limb. If you go to the police, I will know you did and I will
burn her body after I kill her. I will know. I’ll
burn it so thoroughly they won’t be able to identify a single
piece of her flesh, and the last time you will ever see your
daughter whole is in photographs. I will save her severed limbs and
leave them on your doorstep. ” The man paused, watched the
blood drain from Paulina’s face. “If you live up to
your end, your daughter will be able to live the rest of her life
like a normal girl. She will be blissfully ignorant of what
happened tonight.” Chester did
not find this funny. “Otherwise, she will know a pain of
which you’ve only felt a fraction of tonight.”
“Please,” Paulina mewled.
Chester looked at the photograph of Abigail on the beach, her
smile wide like a small child. “If not, the only bliss
she’ll know is whatever happens after she dies at my
Paulina took the plastic, turned it over in her hands. Then she
looked at him, confused.
“In there is everything you need to know. And make sure
you don’t lose the piece at the bottom.”
Paulina looked at the bottom of the clear folder and saw what
appeared to be a small, block rock, no bigger than a pebble.
Paulina sat there, crying, sniveling and drenched. Chester
stared down at her, rain dripping off the tip of his nose.
“For your sake, I hope your daughter doesn’t have to
die. Terrible thing to lose one’s family. But that’s up
By the time she looked up, the driver was back in his car.
Something about those words felt personal, as though Chester had
experienced loss himself. Then the engine revved, and he was gone.
Paulina sat in the rain, mud staining her dress brown.
She watched him go, waiting to make sure he was gone. Her body
was wracked with pain, and she could barely stand. Her hands felt
like they’d held a battery from both ends, and when she
dialed the car service it took three tries to get the number right.
When he asked where she was, Paulina had to walk ten minutes just
to find a street sign.
“What the heck are you doing way out there?” the man
“Just get here, fast,” she said before hanging
It was half an hour before the car service arrived. Paulina
huddled under a nearby tarp to stay dry. The driver, a short, thick
man with a bushy mustache, got out. He looked her over, his lip
curled up. He was as confused as she was.
“Miss,” he said, “are you ok? Do you need me
to take you to the hospital?”
“Just take me home,” she said. “And help me
The driver bent down, put his arm around Paulina, and helped the
shuddering reporter into the backseat of his car.
As he drove away, the man said, “Don’t worry, miss.
I’m taking you home. Everything’s ok.”
Paulina looked up at him, slimy mascara stinging her eyes. And
she thought, no. It’s not.
Excerpted from THE DARKNESS © Copyright 2010 by Jason
Pinter. Reprinted with permission by Mira Books. All rights