Title: Strange Appearance
Author: G. L. Didaleusky
Excerpt Heat Level: 1
Book Heat Level: 2
Finding unidentified and hairless dead teenagers in a Florida national forest takes a medical student and a pathologist’s assistant on a dangerous journey toward evil.
Two hairless teenage bodies are found dead with ritual-type death masks on their faces in Ocala National Forest. Robert Jenson, a fourth year medical student and Cynthia Davidson, a pathologist’s assistant, join together to solve these unexplained mysterious deaths. Clandestine members of a secluded satanic cult adjacent to the national forest cross their paths. Shortly afterwards, Robert and Cynthia face deadly situations jeopardizing their own lives as they soon discover someone doesn’t want them to know the truth behind the teenagers’ deaths. Robert and Cynthia’s initial platonic relationship evolves to amorous feelings and needs complicating their investigation. Evil touches the two medical sleuths. And they don’t realize it until it’s almost too late.
"Ocala National Forest is the third largest national forest of white pines in the United States east of the Mississippi River," Robert Jenson stated to a group of thirty people standing in front of him at the park's museum building. "Brown bears, black bears, wolves, deer and a variety of poisonous snakes make their home here. There are areas in the park people haven't explored due to its wooded density and remoteness. Over the past hundred years, officials estimated that over fifty people have wandered into the forest and were never found. They were either eaten by predators, succumbed by poisonous snake bites, or had died of exposure to the harsh environment."
A young man in his late teens chuckled. "Maybe they were taken by Big Foot?"
Robert grinned. "You're partly right."
"Yes. According to legend, a half man and half ape creature called Skunk Ape has been sighted throughout Florida from the Everglades to the northern region of the state, including here."
A middle-aged woman asked, "Why do they call it Skunk Ape?"
"Because when the creature is nearby and the wind is blowing right, it has a pungent odor like that of a skunk." This was Robert's seventh year as a tour guide for the summer months. He completed his third year as a medical student at the University of Florida two weeks ago. Almost every tour group for the past six years—and now this year—had had at least one person making a comment about Big Foot.
"Mr. Jenson," shouted a middle-aged, burly man behind him. He was wearing a ranger's uniform.
Robert didn't have to turn around to recognize Samuel Tallquist's voice. His boss never liked him from the first time they met seven years ago after Robert graduated from high school and was hired as a forestry guide for the summer. Robert had taken the job to help pay for college, but after the second summer, he looked forward to talking to visitors and answering their questions about the history and sites of the park. After undergraduate studies followed by medical school, the job also gave him relief from the complex information in medical books. He liked interacting with people and considered himself a congenial extrovert. Robert turned around. He could never figure out why he agitated Mr. Tallquist. "Yes, sir."
"You don't need to frighten these people about a mythical creature that doesn't have any scientific proof it even exists. No pictures or videos of this thing have ever been taken. People's imaginations are keeping this mythical creature alive."
"What's that smell?" asked a gray-hair man toward the front of the group.
A pungent odor permeated the area around Robert, Samuel, and the group of park visitors.
"Is it the odor of the Skunk Ape?" asked the teenager who had started the topic of Big Foot.
Other people in the crowd were nodding and making comments that a terrible odor was overwhelming them.
"No," Samuel answered, shaking his head back and forth. "I don't—"
"It's the odor emitted by a decomposing body," interrupted a young woman in her late twenties, who stood toward the front of the group.
Samuel stared at the woman and frowned. "How can you be so sure?"
"Because human decomposition has a very distinct smell. Once you smell it for the first time, you'll never forget it." She raised her head, turning it slightly to the right. "And since the wind is coming from the west, I'd say the odor is originating from over there." She pointed to the left of Robert and Samuel.
"Why should I believe what you say is true?" Samuel asked skeptically.
"I'm Cynthia Davidson, a pathologist's assistant for District 5 Medical Examiner's Office here in Marion County and surrounding counties. I am very familiar with this particular odor, since I deal with dead bodies every day in the morgue."
Robert grinned and chuckled to himself. That ah girl, put Mr. Tallquist in his obstinate place.
"Oh. Maybe you should check it out?" Samuel suggested. "Why don't you, young lady, and Mr. Jenson go find out if what you said we all smell is a decomposing body? I'll stay with the group of visitors while you track down the odor. Call me on my cell phone if you find something."
"Don't you think we should call the sheriff's department?" Cynthia asked as she stepped away from the visitors and stood in front of Samuel. She glanced at Robert, then back toward Samuel.
"Yes. That'll be a better idea," Robert agreed. Sure, he dissected a cadaver with fellow classmates for anatomy class, but he never felt comfortable being with a dead body.
Samuel glanced at Robert. "No. It's not a better idea." He then turned toward Cynthia. "If you find a body, you can call the sheriff's department. We don't want to jump the gun." He paused a moment. "I guess that's not a good choice of words." He chuckled. No one laughed.
Robert led Cynthia through a meandering trail wide enough for one person. Cynthia walked a few steps behind him. "So you're a pathologist's assistant for the county?"
"Why didn't you go further and become a doctor?"
"I don't think it's any of your business. We're here to check on a dead body, not my personal life."
Robert felt like his jaw dropped a foot as he became speechless. This attractive, petite female with short-styled hair, minimum make-up put him in an awkward state of mind. His good-natured personality was shattered by someone he thought was mild mannered. He enjoyed her comeback comment toward Samuel, but when it was now toward him, he didn't like the rejected feeling. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry into your life."
Cynthia snickered. "I was being a brat. I do this sometimes to get a reaction from people. I can see it affected you."
Robert sighed, letting out all the unpleasant feelings created by Cynthia's derogatory comments toward him. He felt reprieved. "You definitely were convincing. I got to say that about you."
"I'll try not to show my brat side of me toward you. Although I don't like anyone prying into my personal life. But I'm sure you were creating small talk."
Robert nodded. "I won't ask you any more personal questions."
"Don't promise something you can't keep. You never know what the future holds."
Does it mean she wants to get to know me? Or did she have many disappointments from empty promises in her life? "Like you said, we're here to find where the odor of human decomposition is."
"The odor is getting stronger," Cynthia said.
"I agree." Robert slowed his pace. His mind visualized a hiker lying dead on the side of the trail after being bitten by a poisonous snake. It wouldn't be the first time someone discovered a body in the forest. But it would be his first direct encounter of one. If this was what a pathologist or medical examiner dealt with every day, he was glad he was going to be a doctor who treated living patients.
"Stop," she said. "Don't move or say anything. I hear something to the right of us."
Robert's first thought was a bear or some other predator was about to charge them. He held his breath and listened for any movement. He heard the wind rustling leaves and branches of trees—and a buzzing noise.