Luke Hatcher's hands shook as he tightened the laces on his running shoes. When he tied the bow, his gaze went to the bloody uniform shirt wadded into a ball beside the front door. He'd worked hundreds of car accidents but none of them had been as horrific as the one hours earlier.
He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands in the hope that he could erase the images. When that didn't work, Luke did what he'd always done when thoughts of spilled blood filled his mind.
Throwing open the front door, Luke took off at a brisk pace. Despite the predawn hour and having gone without sleep after a long shift, he yearned for the mental release only running provided. His normal stretching routine didn't seem as important as the heart-pounding adrenaline he'd learned to use to replace the memories.
Clad only in a thin pair of jogging shorts, the cold October night felt good against Luke's bare skin as his feet hit the pavement. As he started his usual circuit around the streets of Cattle Valley, the mutilated body of the teenage girl resurfaced in the forefront of his mind.
It didn't take a psychiatrist to tell him why the girl's death had affected him more than all the others he'd witnessed in his line of work. Suddenly the girl's face morphed into the image of his mother. Luke shook his head, trying to rid himself of the disturbing memory before he lost what little food he'd eaten in the last twenty-four hours.
Although the temperature was below freezing, sweat poured from Luke's head and chest as he continued his five-point-six mile circuit around the older part of Cattle Valley. He preferred to bypass the new subdivisions that had begun to pop up on the outskirts. Although the homes were each unique and well-constructed, they just didn't hold the appeal the matured-treed neighbourhoods of the older section of town.
There was one house in particular that always welcomed him. As he neared the home at the end of the dark lane, Luke slowed to a stop like he did most days. He bent over and rested his hands on his knees as he tried to control his laboured breathing.
Luke stared at the structure, which was in a state of disrepair. The pillars on the front corners of the porch made the sagging roof appear to frown. If it was possible for a house to have a soul, he had no doubt the home at 226 Cherry Street would have been crying.
Luke had gone to City Hall to enquire as to who now owned the house, but received little information in return. The abandoned home belonged to no one Luke had ever heard of. The only information he got out of Carol was that the original owner was in a nursing home in Tulsa, Oklahoma and the taxes were paid yearly in cash by her estate. It was a pity the home had been allowed to fall into such disrepair.
It was hard for Luke to imagine he was looking at the same house that his mom had kept spotless with a profusion of colourful flowers decorating the front porch and walk. Of course he could have an idealised version of what it had once been, since before he'd been forced to move after the death of his mother.
When the porch light next door turned on, Luke knew it was time to go. He stretched his arms over his head before heading back down the street the way he'd come. The daily period of rest in front of the abandoned house always served to settle Luke's demons.
"Better than therapy," Luke said as he continued down the street at a brisk pace.
By the time he reached the alley behind the shops downtown, the fall sky was starting to brighten. Luke tilted his head back to smell the aromatic scent of cinnamon rolls that always permeated the morning air. God bless Kyle and his need to bake before the sun rose.
Lost in the smells wafting from the bakery, Luke wasn't paying attention to the road in front of him. When his right foot landed in an unexpected hole in the gravel path, Luke's knee hyper-extended, pitching him forward. He fell to the ground with a howl of pain as the sharp rocks dug into his hands and forearms. "Fuck!"
Luke rolled onto his back for a few moments before sitting up. One look at his knee had Luke shaking his head. The swelling had already begun. He supported the underside of his knee and slowly attempted to straighten his leg. It was painful, but he doubted he'd done serious damage.
After a quick scan of the surrounding area, Luke realised he was going to have to stand without anyone's help unless he wanted to half-crawl, half-drag himself across the gravel to the back of one of the buildings.
A noise from the shadowed dumpsters caught his attention. "Hello?" he called, hoping for help.