The Gods Are Always At The Gates / Chapter Four

The Gods Are Always At The Gates / Chapter Four

- CHAPTER FOUR -

 

Paige collected the last of the sample tubes where they lay on the floor of the bus and placed them carefully into her satchel. She was amazed by what Abernathy’s gun had done to the deer’s head. The 10mm round turned the wall of the bus into a macabre Jackson Pollock. Even detached as she was in her investigative mode, she knew this scene would join the handful of memories from her graduate studies in Africa and South America that featured in her nightmares. She snapped the lid on a container housing the tattered remains of a mushroom and the base of the doe’s mycelium-threaded tongue.

“Paige,” Ray spoke loudly to overcome the N95’s muting, “I’m heading up with the last of the jugs you labeled for sampling. Do you need me to take anything else up with me?”

She shook her head, “No, but I’m done here. I’ll head up with you.” The last thing she wanted was to be stuck down here all by herself. She may be a woman of science, but the bus was undeniably creepy. In the red light and claustrophobic quarters, there was always something lurking at the edge of her vision.

Ray waited on the ground outside and offered a hand down in the dark, which she gratefully accepted.  Turning an ankle while jumping the few feet down from the bus would be more than a little humiliating. In addition, she was sure he would insist on carrying her up the ladder should she do so. Settling her bag over her shoulders, she marveled at Ray’s handiwork. He had fashioned a sort of rope net around the four glass jugs that she’d tagged for testing. The ropes wrapped many times around and under each carboy, then merged into a four-foot length of twisted line and netted the other two jugs on the other end. Presently, he picked them up by the twisted middle and slung them over his neck.

“Where’d you learn how to do that?”

“When I was little, my dad and I used to go spelunking in some of the mines and natural caves around here. You gotta know all sorts of knots and rope work when you’re climbing around in the dark. These basic harnesses are a cinch.”

“Huh. That’s a cool hobby to have as a kid.” Paige started up the rungs of the ladder. “Did you guys ever find anything?”

Ray waited until she was most of the way up the ladder then continued after her. “Oh yeah, we’d find all kinds of stuff! Abandoned mining equipment, underground rivers, big old crystal caverns. Hell, even found the occasional bone or two.”

Wisps of clouds raced across the sky despite the mild wind at ground level. Paige heaved her bag into the bed of the SUV and unclipped her mask, taking a deep breath of the warm evening air. Protective gear was necessary, but damned uncomfortable. She drank eagerly from a bottle of water she’d retrieved from the trunk, then mopped the sweat from her face and neck with a wet-wipe, depositing it into a sample bag and offered the package of wet-wipes to Ray.

“Were they human?” she asked.

He finished draining a bottle of his own and threw the empty container into the back, “Who knows. Could have been I guess, they were big enough, but they were probably deer or some other large animal. Nothing in these woods is gonna go after a person.”

“That you know of.”

A car door closed up by the house and Paige could see Abe and Deputy Mazzy walking down the hill toward the site.

Ray furrowed his brow, then conceded reluctantly, “Yeah, I guess. That I know of.”

Abe called down to them, “Ray, I’m gonna need you to drive the SUV around the other side and light up the dirt for me.”

Ray lept into motion, cranking the engine up as Paige hurriedly closed the last of their samples in the trunk. “What’s going on?” She asked.

Abe frowned and came to stand beside her, “We don’t have enough manpower at the station to secure the site, so we’re gonna have to cover this back up with dirt and hope nobody comes looking.”

“You can’t do that!”

Mazzy swore, and the John Deere revved to life.

“We don’t have much choice, Paige.” Abernathy squeezed her shoulder gently. “We’ll get back up in here as soon as we can to secure the site, and we’ll go from there.”

“Damn it. Alright. I’ve got a good sample set; it will have to do for now.”

* * *

It didn’t take them long to cover the doors in earth and return the skid loader to the treeline. Then they loaded the body bag with Evert’s remains into the back seat and headed back to the station with Abe and Mazzy leading the way. Once they were back at the station, Ray and an officer with mussed hair, a thin goatee and the name ARP stitched into his uniform carried Evert’s body into the clinic, then helped unload the rest of the samples from the vehicle. While they unpacked her samples, she began reviewing her experiments and updating her notes.

Necro Gleba: rigor mortis set. Negative frank mycelial growth. Check again in 8 hours.

Necro Spore: rigor mortis set. Negative frank mycelial growth. Check again in 8 hours.

Control: normal activity. Normal food and water consumption. No signs of aberrant behavior.

Plant Matter: negative growth

Agar: positive culture growth

Paige stepped up to Test Subject Spore’s cage, and while it had been running furiously on its wheel, it stopped and froze, staring sidelong at her. She reached out to note the amount of water left in the bottle, and the mouse flung itself from the wheel and pinned itself in the corner of the cage furthest from her hand. The animal’s eyes were wide, its pupils dilated. They swiveled everywhere, tracking motion that was not there.

Most of the water was gone from the bottle, she noted, but Test Subject Spore hadn’t so much as touched its food.

Test Subject Spore: skittish, paranoid behavior, possible hallucinations, possible loss of appetite, increased water consumption.

She lifted the box covering Test Subject Gleba. “Holy shit...”

The test subject was barely visible beneath the mass of fungal egg sacks that had erupted from its body and engulfed it. Despite the smaller size of the animal, the mushrooms appeared identical to the ones that grew from the John Doe currently on ice in a locker on the far side of the clinic. The mass was so large that the pink tentacles that had already torn free of the largest of the eggs were coiled around the bars on the top of the cage and dripped brownish black ichor down onto the plastic tray below. She carefully set the box down on the floor and pulled a mask over her mouth and nose. Ray and Officer Arp, opened the clinic door and carried in the carboys from the site.

“Stop! Get a mask, quickly!” she snapped.

Both men hurriedly set down the glass jugs and pulled a pair of surgical masks from a box affixed to the wall nearby the door.

“What’s wrong, Paige?” Ray asked, pinching the metal strip into shape.

“Test Subject Gleba has already developed fruiting bodies!” she said unable to keep the excitement from her voice.

The officers came closer, giving the body bag lying on one of the exam tables a wide berth, “What’s that mean?” Arp asked. Though the mask obscured most of his face he wore a pained expression, eyes squinted and turned away from the nearest light panels in the ceiling.

“It means the test subject has grown mushrooms.” Ray provided.

“Yes, exactly! Take a look.” Paige picked up her clipboard and stepped back so they could examine the specimen while she updated her notes.

Test Subject Gleba: deceased. Frank presentation of fruiting bodies. Growth appears to be accelerated by low light conditions or inhibited by normal light levels. Could explain light sensitiv—

The bottom fell out of Paige’s stomach, and painful little pricks of sweat manifested on her brow. Ray was inspecting the new mushroom growths, but at his side Officer Arp stood, transfixed by the black body bag slabbed a few paces away. Though his brow was a maze of knots, his eyes were unnaturally wide with the barest sliver of iris still visible at the rim of his pupil. His shoulders were hunched and shook with a minor but persistent tremor.

She looked around for something heavy or a practical weapon to use should he become agitated, not that she would be able to do much to protect herself from a man with a gun suffering from hallucinations.  Two packaged syringes were laid out on the far side of the workbench, next to the computer she found Doctor Houser sitting at earlier today. A step further was the medical lockbox with the ring of keys dangling in it.

Ray inspected the fruiting bodies using a metal probe while she moved cautiously closer to the medical cabinet.

“What are you playing at?” Arp said through clenched teeth.

Paige froze, and she heard the rough sound of a gun being jerked from a plastic holster. Unable to control the flinch, she shrunk to her heels, trying to make herself as small as possible.

“Officer Arp??” Ray gasped in shock.

“Ray, I don’t know how you’re doing that, but you better knock it off!”

She hadn’t consciously squeezed her eyes shut, but now she forced herself to open them and hazard a glance over her shoulder. Officer Arp held Ray by the collar of his shirt with one hand and held his gun shakily pointed at the body bag on the slab with the other.

“I said knock it off!” Arp shook him hard but didn’t take his aim from the bag.

Ray joggled his head, eyes wide above the mask, “Robert, I’m not doing anything, I swear! What are you talking about?”

Cautiously, Paige stood up and moved slowly to the medical cabinet. She was sure she had seen a bottle or two of haloperidol left in the locker when she was euthanizing the mice.

A high pitched whine escaped Arp’s throat, and he released Ray with a shove, then gripped the pistol in both hands, “Evert, you’re dead! Stay down you fucker!”

Ray stumbled backward into a wheeled stool, sending it spinning loudly away and caught himself halfway to the floor on the clinic countertop. “Robert! Evert’s in a body bag. He’s dead and he ain’t moving.” he looked to Paige for support.

 She shook her head and urged him on with her eyes as she closed her fist around the key slotted into the medical cabinet.

“Stay DOWN!” Arp squeezed the trigger twice, and chunks of cinder block across the room coughed from the wall.

Paige’s ears rang, and she tore the cabinet open before the gunshots echo died away, forcing herself to focus on labels in front of her. Officer Arp hyperventilated loudly past her shoulder, each exhalation accompanied by a rising whine like a charge priming itself before exploding.

“WHY WON’T YOU DIE?!” he shrieked, voice breaking with strain.

Vials spilled out of the cabinet, cracking and bouncing onto the floor as Paige searched frantically. Two 10-milliliter vials labeled Haloperidol Lactate sat quietly between a row of 10-milliliter Dilaudid-HP and fat 50-milliliter barrels of Lidocaine-HCl.

The rapid percussion of gunfire hammered Paige’s eardrums.

Her hands shook as she snatched the vials and fumbled for the pull tab on the packaged syringe.

Ray screamed and pleaded, then the erratic flat slaps and grunts of physical violence accompanied by the chirp of shoes on the clinic floor took the place of gunfire. Officer Arp’s voice joined the orchestra, howling and cursing.

Tears welled in her eyes as the frustration and fear grew behind the dam of her self-control. The plastic package yielded to her fingernails, and she bit the cap off the needle, jamming it through the vial ’s rubberized top. She was pulling back on the plunger when the gun barked twice, and there was a hot flash of pain in her calf. A man screamed out in pain.

“Paige,” Ray shouted, voice strained, “help me!”

She wheeled to see the two cops tangled on the floor. Ray lay on his back with Arp on top of him, back to front. The younger man’s legs were wrapped around his coworker’s, digging his heels into his hips, while he held the slide of the gun pulled, full back, with one hand and Arp’s jaw with the other. Arp struggled like a man possessed, finger still squeezing the trigger spasmodically. A ragged hole was torn the thigh of Arp’s left trouser leg, and a shiny dark red stain spread across it.

She checked the dose in the syringe, 5 milliliters had made it in. With no time to review the dosing on the vial, she hoped it wouldn’t kill him and that it would be enough to do the job. “Hold him!”

“I’m trying! Hurry up!”

Paige stepped forward, and heat surged up her leg, but it held her weight. Pushing forward, she clambered on top of the pile.

Arp saw the needle in her hand and surged with panicked strength, bucking furiously beneath her. “No! No! Nooooooo!”

“Ray, hold his head steady!”She felt them all raise up as Ray flexed, cranking back on the officer’s jaw. His carotid throbbed rapidly in his neck. She pressed the needle into the vessel as carefully as she could, and squeezed the plunger as hard as she dared.

The man screamed through clenched teeth and continued to thrash.

Another body joined the fray, then another and another, while a pair of strong hands grabbed her under the armpits and lifted her like a child. She yelped and swung around with an elbow.

Abernathy tucked his head back behind her shoulder, neatly avoiding the blow. “Easy!” He let her go, spinning her away from the melee and coaxed, “Easy. We got it under control.”

Paige took a deep breath and looked around. A pile of officers held Arp down. One had extracted the magazine from the gun they still wrestled with, while another kept his legs tucked under his arms and a third held down Arp’s other arm. None of them were wearing masks. “Abe! Everybody! Get a mask on!”

Abernathy moved with purpose, first masking himself, then carefully masking his officers engaged in the restraining effort.

The frantic pace of the struggle slowed in time with the volume of Arp’s clenched-tooth rambling.

She stood dazed as the pile of men untangled themselves and lifted their subdued comrade onto a nearby table. Arp flopped feebly, trying to resist their attention, but the antipsychotic had done its work. Doctor Houser slipped behind her and into the clinic, mask on, taking control of Arp’s care.

“What did you give him?” he asked.

“About 5 milliliters of Haldol.”

Doc winced, but nodded and set about removing the needle from the man’s artery, being careful to pack the puncture with gauze.

As the panic subsided, the fire in her calf began to demand her attention. She lowered herself to a stool and gingerly rolled up her tattered and bloodied pant leg. A long oozing gash cut across the back of her left calf where she felt the bullet graze her.

Abernathy sat on his heels in front of her, “So, what happened here?”

Ray dropped into the chair next to her.

She looked around and registered the damage for the first time. Big bites of cinder block were missing across a wide spread of the far wall along with a couple of chunks from the floor where she had been standing. “He is infected by the fungi.” Her voice sounded muffled and far away through the ringing in her ears.

Abe’s brow knitted in a frown, “How did that happen?”

“I’m not entirely sure but if I had to guess I’d say it happened when he got doused in the fungi laced moonshine the other night.”

“Are you any closer to a treatment?”

She shook her head. “I know basically what it is now, and could try antifungals to see if we can avoid it taking hold inside an individual but oral antifungals aren’t something your local pharmacy is likely to have, and they have some rough side effects. Antipsychotics may help with the erratic behavior, but the fungi’s constant production of psilocybin and other alkaloids I haven’t identified will quickly overwhelm any benefits of the drugs. I need more time to study.”

Abe nodded. “Officer Lovett, are you okay?”

“Yes, sir.” Ray seemed to inflate, where he had been sagged and slouched in the hard plastic chair with a distant look in his eye, now he sat back straight and attentive. “How’s Robert?”

“Let’s go find out.”

The three made their way over to where Arp lay muttering quietly to himself. Doc had a sleeve cut open to the shoulder, a rubber tube wrapped around his upper arm and was setting a blood collection IV into his vein. One of his pant legs was cut open to the hip, and a wide bandage with a thick pad of gauze was wrapped around his thigh. The beginnings of a red stain were starting to show near the center.

“How is he, Doc?” Abernathy inquired

Doc fit a vacutainer to the collection port and released the rubber tubing on the upper arm, watching the dark red blood rush into the tube, several more such empty tubes waited nearby.  “He’s well and truly sedated. Doctor Anderson here,” he tipped his head in Paige’s direction, “is a damn steady hand to get him in the carotid like she did. We’d still be fighting him down, elsewise. 5mL isn’t great for an IV stick like that. That’s about 25mg in a single push, but it’s under the max daily dose so we should be fine if we keep an eye on his heart rate. Looks like he shot himself in the thigh during the struggle, but missed any major vessels. All things considered, it could have been a lot worse.”

Ray gushed into the silence, “I’m sorry Sheriff, I tried to get the gun away from him, but I lost control of his weapon and couldn’t keep the slide out of position. “

“It’s okay, Ray.” Abernathy gripped his shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly. “You and Doctor Anderson are safe, and thanks to your courage and quick thinking Arp was subdued alive and without life-threatening injuries. You did good. When all this settles, I think we need to look at getting you a raise and your own car.”

The young officer colored again, corners of his eyes crinkling in a broad smile and subsided.

“Doctor Houser,” Paige asked, “Can you pull another two vials for me? Just anticoag, please.”

He grunted by way of answer and handed her a warm vial of blood.

* * *

As the officers dispersed, Doctor Houser got Arp secured in one of the clinic’s small isolation rooms, then hooked him up to a vitals monitor. While he did this, Paige set to work processing Test Subject Gleba, testing Arp’s blood sample and updating the paperwork for her other experiments.

Abernathy sent Ray home given he had been on the clock since first shift and was pushing dangerously close to a triple, which left Paige without a lab assistant. It wasn’t tragic, but she missed the extra hands. Doc began snoring softly in a chair outside Arp’s concrete alcove.

Raised voices attracted her attention, and she lifted her eyes from the scope.

She turned her stool in place, wincing at the discomfort in her calf where Doc and cleaned and super glued her grazing shut.

Just at the edge of her view out the clinic’s reinforced windows, she watched an animated discussion— argument really— between Deputy Mazzy and Abernathy. She couldn’t hear anything but the loudest shouted phrases but it was pretty obvious they were arguing about who was going after Carol. From the snatches of “conversation”, she could make out that Mazzy felt Abe was too close to the situation to keep his head.

“I was there when you ripped the lamp out of the wall today, Abe!” and “I helped you pick up the pieces when Carol left.” Then he said something Paige couldn’t hear, but Abernathy responded by lifting him off his feet by his vest and holding him against the wall. She was torn between the admiration she felt for the deputy who didn’t so much as bat an eye at Abernathy’s display of strength and aggression and the alarming thrill it gave her to bear witness. After a second Abe set Mazzy back on his feet and hung his head, looking back down the corridor the way they’d come. Mazzy took him by both shoulders, said something and gave him a gentle shake then released him and sped toward the exit. She heard him shout back, “I got the next one, remember?” before she heard the loud clang-thunk of the exterior doors slam behind him. Abernathy stood there for another moment then turned to face Paige who made no effort to hide her curiosity.

The door clicked open and Abernathy stuck his head inside, “I’ve got to get back on the horn with the FBI and surrounding police forces trying to get backup, so I don’t have time to follow up on a recommendation the—” he made a visible effort to control himself, “—the highly competent agents at the FBI provided to help us with our current problems. It seems they ‘can’t spare the resources for a small town drug problem’.” He failed to keep the contempt from his voice, “So, do you mind calling into the CDC and Georgia State and get them send to back up or resources?”

Paige blinked twice, then cleared her throat, “I— uh— yes. I have to call in the discovery anyway.” Her heart thumped hard in her chest. “Being my discovery, I get to name it: Scientific name: Paigia Pandorum  Common name: Nightmare Egg.” She frowned and raised an eyebrow as Abernathy’s face fell. “Too much? It’s too much isn’t it?”

He shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut, presumably pushing the fatigue back, “No. No, it’s fine. Very apt name, given the effects. I’ve just got this splitting headache from lack of sleep.” He stared hard at the floor for several seconds as if trying to discern the shape of something deep within the bedrock, then shook his head again and said, “it would be really helpful if you could make those calls for me. I gotta go wake up a bunch of crotchety old bastards and ask them to give me half their staff and budgetary discretion for an unknown amount of time, risk, and financial ceiling.”

“Sounds fun.” She said with a gentle wince, “I’ll make all the calls I can.”

“Thanks,” he said and started to close the door but opened it again smiling, “Listen, I really appreciate all you’ve done for us. If you’ll let me know when you’re ready to go to your hotel, I’d be happy give you a ride.” His eyebrow twitched briefly, and his dark skin flushed red.

Her pulse quickened, and the edge of a smile curled into her lips, “Oh, Sheriff. I’ve only got a few things left to do here for the night, then I’ll be more than happy for you to give me a ride. Though in my experience, it’s usually the other way around.” Heat began to fill her cheeks, among other things and she turned back to her microscope before she turned entirely pink.

* * *

Abernathy hung up the phone and slouched back in his chair. He rubbed his temples with his palms and screwed his eyes shut against the halogen glare coming in through his office door. Second shift was handing off to third in the bullpen, dividing up the patrols and follow-ups that had to keep going despite the developing mess with the Hightowers and the Nightmare Egg. He hadn’t intended to tell any of his people any more than they already knew since the outbreak last night. In a small town, word of anything travels fast, crime and casework were no exception. Garfield’s Crossing had just as big a problem with leaks as the gang task force in Atlanta. After they wrestled Arp to the ground and got him secured, he owed his people enough information to keep them out of the same predicament. So, he’d filled them in on as much as he needed to. There was something in the Hightower’s moonshine making people sick. Anyone who took a call where folks are acting erratically or those involving shine was to use the utmost caution. Taze first and ask questions later if the subject became at all combative. When asked where they were supposed to bring the arrestees, Abernathy told them to handcuff everyone to a chair in the booking room outside arm’s reach of anyone else. His people didn’t like it, and the dubious glances they failed to hide weren’t helping his frustration level.

He picked up the phone and dialed again, flexing his back until it popped, then adopted a more disciplined posture. The phone rang five times before someone answered it noisily. Abe held the phone away from his head as the loud fumbling worked itself out.

“Hello?” The voice on the other end was thick as if its owner had been moments from sleep when the phone rang.

“Marcel? It’s Abernathy, over in Garfield’s Crossing.”

The owner coughed, cleared his throat and spit loudly, “Oh, hey Abe! Sorry about the racket just now, I dropped the phone trying to answer it. Wife bought me one of these iPhone things, and the damn thing’s so slippery I can’t seem to keep my mitts on it.”

“I believe it,” Abe said amiably.

Marcel continued, “I don’t really understand this whole ‘Smart Phone’ thing to begin with. I mean, wasn’t nothing wrong with my old Nokia as long as I kept it plugged in. Tell you what, the Japs know how to make a phone.”

“Yeah,” Abe cut in, “Listen, Marcel, I need to call in a favor.”

“Huh? Oh... yeah, I’m sorry. What did you need?”

“We’ve got a situation over here that I’m a little short-staffed to handle on my own.”

The line was quiet for a few seconds before Marcel answered. “Is that so? What kind of a situation?” All mirth was gone from his voice, replaced with shrewd caution.

“I can’t say for sure, but we’ve got a couple of moonshiners selling product that's making people sick and dangerous. I’m not sure how far the stuff has spread, and I need more manpower.”

“Mhmm,” the Murray County Sheriff mused. “I gotta tell you, Abe. That sounds more like an ATF or FBI thing to me.”

“Yeah, I’ve already called them both, and they told me they don’t have the resources available to assist in a small town drug problem.”

“Departmental shit-shovelers.” Marcel cleared his throat loudly and spat again. “Listen, Abe. I’d love to help. I really would—”

“Damn it, Marcel,” Abernathy snapped, “throw me a line here. I’m not asking for your best guys; I just need warm bodies to cover all the bases.”

The line was quiet again, then Marcel said in a flat tone “Abernathy, I empathize with your position, but I don’t have the resources or the manpower to assist. Have a good evening, and I wish you luck.”

Click.

Abernathy slammed the phone down and shouted, “Thanks for nothing! And Nokia’s a Finnish company you fucking jackass.”

Doctor Anderson stood in his doorway, “That good, huh?”

He gritted his teeth and sucked in a deep breath. “Yes, that good. That was the last name on my list of favors, and I struck out on all of them.” He stood and collected his keys from a hook on the wall. “You ready to go?”

She chewed on her lip and nodded with hooded eyes.

* * *

They climbed into his police charger and drove the short distance to the Sunset Inn in relative silence, Paige fidgeting with her bag the whole trip. Under normal circumstances, the sharp sound of the steel zipper rattling against itself as Paige fingered the tab in an offbeat rhythm would have irritated him, but the pain in his head had started to move into the background since they left the buzzing lights of the station and he was feeling in a more forgiving mood.

“A bit like a snake isn’t it?” he said.

“Hmm?” Paige furrowed her brow and grinned, “I mean...”

“The driveway leading up to the Sunset.” He provided.  “These big long switchbacks leading up to the sign with those neon’s dangling off the end. It’s like a big long snake with its fangs all hanging down.”

She tilted her head to the side and screwed up her eyes at the sign. “Oh. Yeah... I guess it kinda is.”

They rounded the last hairpin and pulled into the Sunset’s parking lot. Like so many hotels of its kind, the Sunset wrapped around in a wide C curve, bracketing its parking lot on three sides. Abe pulled up to the hospitality center at one of the far ends of the curve and switched off the motor. While he got Paige’s overnight from the back, she went inside to sort out the room.

The scent of roses wafted thickly from her bag as he lifted it from the seat and he shuddered, visibly suppressing a gag. He set it on the hood of his cruiser and heard the latex balloon whine of a mushroom head stretching. The cold chill of adrenaline jolted his heart, and he froze with the straps of the bag held loosely at arm's length. As if it were a little kid begging him to play, the zipper tab fell from where it had been caught on a fold of fabric with a tinkle. He glanced at the hospitality center. Paige was laughing at some joke the night time manager had told her and tapping her credit card on the counter. The image through the glass rippled as if slick with rain. He made a mental note to talk to the owner at the next city hall meeting about replacing the aging single plate with something more modern, then turned back to the bag. He gripped the tab and carefully opened the canvas. Soft pastel cotton brushed his fingertips. With forefinger and thumb he leafed down to the next item of clothing as if scanning a periodical. A lace thong. Yoga Pants. Black Denim.

The bell on the front door chimed.

“Umm,” Paige said with a tone that bespoke incredulity and scorn.

Abernathy smoothly zippered it closed, “Sorry, thought I heard something break when I set it on the hood.”

“Couldn’t wait to get a peek at my delicates, eh?”

“No, I just,” he fumbled for words, thoughts sluggish and mushy.

She giggled and jingled a room key at him. A rounded diamond shaped tag with a golden A4 glossed onto its plastic surface dangled below, “Come on, sheriff. I’ll let you off the hook this time.”

Lifting the bag from the hood of his car, he followed her down the sidewalk beneath the concrete second-floor walkway serving as an awning for the first.

A2.

A3.

She stopped and stroked the brass number nailed to the door with sensuous care, bit her lip and locked eyes with him as she slid the key into the lock and twisted.

The door opened with a crackle of weather stripping and he followed her inside, setting her bag down on the bureau that ran most of the length of the modest room. In the half-light from a bulb in the bathroom that someone had forgotten to turn off he could see that they’d set her up in a room equipped with a desk and a king size bed.

Walking away from him, she pulled the band free from her hair and shook it out from the practical bun she’d employed while they had worked. She tossed the band onto the vanity then walked back his way. There was a hippy, languid motion to her gate that had not been there before as she returned to him, eyes slightly downcast.

 He turned to go, but she reached out and grasped the collar of his uniform.

“I’ve been hoping you’d take me up on this for hours,” she unfastening the first button, then the second.

“Whoa. Whoa, now,” he said, placing hands over hers. “Slow down.”

She looked up at him, the sleepy hunger in her eyes blending with confusion. “What? You wanna do it with our clothes on? I mean I can get down with that, but isn’t that vest uncomfortable?”

He shook his head and said gently, “I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression, but I can’t do this.”

“Oh.” She deflated, then she took her hands back from him, wiping them on her jeans.“Oh!”

Abe could almost see her replaying all their interactions in her head through the course of the day.

Paige stifled a giggle and bit one side her lip again, “Jeez, this is awkward. So much for getting laid.”

“Don’t get me wrong. You’re a very attractive girl.” Abe hurried to button his shirt, “Woman, I mean. It’s just—”

“Oh, no. It’s okay. I get it. I don’t know how I didn’t see it before.” She thumped her forehead with the heel of her palm “I shouldn’t be so closed minded... I just assumed, this being a small town in the south... Wow. Doesn’t it get complicated with you and Mazzy working together and all?”

Abe shook his head, “No, we’ve got a solid working relationship.”

She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips nodding with approval, “Color me impressed.” The silence stretched between them, “Well, I better get to writing my reports, and I’m sure you could do with some sleep.”

“Yeah,” he said and twisted the doorknob.

“But hey,” she said with a wink, “if you change your mind, you know where to find me.”

“Take care, Paige.”

“You too.”

* * *

Abe sunk into his seat behind the steering wheel and pinched the bridge of his nose. He snorted and shook his head then cranked the car to life. On his cell, he thumbed out a quick text before throwing the car into gear. That done, he pulled onto the main drag and rolled down his window, letting the humid night’s warmth fill his lungs. This close to midnight there weren’t many cars on the streets, and he made good time. One more text, then he turned off the highway and carefully navigated the poorly maintained backroads to his destination.

She was leaning on the door frame, tight coils of copper hair dancing freely in the slight breeze, arms wrapped around herself. Her pale, freckled legs extended into the oversized t-shirt she wore as if they went on forever. His fatigue melted to nothing at the sight of her.

Samantha Pinkerton grinned at him as he closed the car door and walked up to the house. When he reached her, she slipped her arms around his neck, “You know she thinks you’re gay, right?”

Abe wrapped Sam in his arms and brushed his lips against hers. “Let her think what she wants.”

She purred against his lips and pulled him in tighter.

With gentle reluctance, he eased her back, hands on the curves of her hips. “Shower first,” Abe said and pointed to himself, “you do not want to know what I’ve been crawling through.”

She scoffed, pulled him inside and pressed the door closed, “hurry.”

Sam swayed down the darkened hall, trailing her hand along the wall, pressing the bathroom door open as she passed it,  and gave him a hungry, smoldering look as she disappeared into the darkness of the bedroom.

Abe followed her in, deposited his gun on the bedside table and hurried into the bathroom.

* * *

The water, a degree below scalding, sluiced over his skin, peeled away the day, and sent it down the drain out of sight and mind. He twisted the knobs, grabbed a towel from the rack outside the curtain and wrapped it around his waist. Tension thrummed in his veins. He pulled the shower curtain aside, and Sam greeted him in the doorway.

 She leaned against the doorframe with an eyebrow cocked and a shameless grin on her lips.

The hum in Abernathy’s blood rose to a deafening roar at the sight of her. Hip kicked out to the side, left arm raised parallel to the doorframe. The posture lifted the t-shirt on her thighs and showed enough of her pale flesh to virtually guarantee it was all that she wore.

Abe climbed from the shower and Sam moved to meet him, she pulled his face down to hers and kissed him hard, southern social graces and decorum abandoned in the face of raw hunger. Her lips buzzed against his with the greedy noises she made in her throat. They were always like this when the tension of a case got bad, stress and strain venting itself into animal need.

Sam stood on tiptoe and nuzzled her nose against his. She played her hands down his heavily muscled chest and stomach, grinning against his lips. When she reached the rolled over the top of his towel, she slipped her fingertips inside and pulled him out of the bathroom and back toward the bed. Boards popped and creaked under their combined weight as they made their way.

He allowed himself to be led and gripped her nightshirt between the friction of his digits and the silk of her skin, lifting the thin cotton past her naked belly. She turned her back to the side of the bed and raised her arms into the sky. Stretched to perfect comfort, as the shirt was, it barely brushed her jawline and arms as he lifted it from her.

Sam jerked the edge of the towel and let it fall to the floor, then she was pulling him down on top of her.

* * *

In the bliss and the dark, time passed with the liquid smoothness of dreams. Try as he might, he couldn’t hold onto the moments as they passed, left only with the after images of Sam’s pale arched body, more felt than seen.

Something itched behind his eyes, a slipping sensation like the name of a song seconds before it passes out of reach

Her mane of wild copper was splayed out behind her head in the imitation of a saint as she lay beneath him, pleading in rapid breathy rushes.

Abe’s attention drifted as something worried in his ear, whispering something’s wrong.

He shook his head and sunk down to press his lips against Samantha’s.

A board popped in the hallway.

He jerked his head around, and his heart stopped.

Paige stood naked in the doorway, a silhouette of milk-pale skin shining light blue in the diffused light that filtered down the hallway from the bathroom. “So you’re not gay after all.” Her face was split in a lupine grin, lips shriveled away from too many, too sharp teeth. She took a step forward, and Abernathy lunged for the bedside table.

Sam cried out in surprise and discomfort as he cut his hip to the side, clearing the line of fire.

Paige was gone from the doorway.

Abernathy’s legs and chest throbbed and his eyes swam as he surged from the bed, arousal withering as combat training focused on the danger.

Paige’s lilting giggle pealed from the living room, and Abe rolled forward silently on the balls of his feet, gun thrust forward. After having adjusted to the last hour of darkness in the bedroom, the light blaring from the over-the-stove fluorescents in the adjoining kitchen was painful. Abe rounded the corner and swung his aim across the living space.

Paige was not in it.

He flicked his gaze at the window out the back side of the living room. The curtains were drawn. To the glass pane french doors, in front of the breakfast bar, shut tight and dark. Forward past the kitchen and the front door down to the second bedroom, the hallway was empty, and the door was closed. Outside to the front yard, the sky glowed a dull reddish-orange against the outline of the hills in the distance.

Something was not right.

Moving cautiously forward again, Abe made a second pass with his aim across the living room. The coffee table overflowed with a lumpy dirt mound.

Reaching the breakfast bar, he squinted against the painful glare above the stove. Tightening his grip on his firearm, he dove around the corner, angling to cover the space between the oven and the sink. Paige was not here either.

Behind him, the doorknob at the front door rattled as someone tried to open it and he spun, sliding on his backside and aiming between his knees at the wriggling doorknob. The lock was fastened. Abe scrambled to his feet as best he could, making sure his aim never wavered from the door. To his right, a small popping noise accompanied by the thick smell of roses attracted his attention, and he saw the pink tendrils of an egg unwinding themselves from the sink drain.

There was a knock at the door, and Abernathy’s throat clicked shut in horror at the face that stood there, looking through the decorative glass accent window. Carol cocked her head to the side and said through a mouth full of canines and no lips, “Aren’t you gonna open the door, Abe? Didn’t your momma ever tell you it’s rude to keep your guests waiting.”

“Carol, What the hell happened to your face?”

Her jaw slackened, and it turned her mouth into a rictus smile from ear to ear. She shook her head again, “Rude, Sheriff. Very rude.” The door swung back on its hinges and slammed into the adjoining wall. Carol was naked, flesh smeared with dirt and marks of recent abuse. She knitted her eyebrows and pouted despite her lack of lips, “Abe, you don’t look pleased to see me.”

He regripped the gun, “Carol, don’t take another step, I’ll put a bullet in your stomach if you do. Where’s Paige?”

“She’ll be around shortly. We had an errand for her.” Over her shoulder, Abe could see the bonfire glow on the horizon was closer now, brighter. Two figures loomed there, huge against the shadow of his car. The sixteen-point buck stood stock still, watching him through luminous pits in his skull. A gaunt man, equal the huge deer’s height, stood next to the beast casually stroking the twitching muscles in its neck. The man’s fingers were missing the flesh past the second knuckle, though he didn’t seem to notice. A black crown that soaked up the light from the front porch adorned his head. His features were sunken, and much like Carol it looked as if he may have gnawed off most of his own lips, making the illusion of a skull that much more potent.

 Carol took a step forward.

Abernathy aimed low and double tapped the trigger.

Fragments of the front door ripped apart and flew back at him, cutting his shins.

The phone rang next to him and with his free hand he answered.

“Yeah? Little busy.”

Eric Bacon said on the other end, voice tight with pain or out of breath, “You’re gonna want to make time for this, Abe. Get down to the Devil’s Grin as soon as you can. Paul just took off, talking about a sacrifice and the Hightowers.” The line went dead, and he hung up the receiver.

He shook his head and blinked.

“Abe?” Sam’s voice was fragile and worried.

He looked up and saw her standing in the hallway, arms wrapped protectively across her breasts. Purple-gray cordite smoke curled around the gun’s front sight. He looked around, and everything the light from the stove touched wavered like heat shimmer. Carol was nowhere in sight. The deer and his companion were gone. The sink was empty stainless steel.

“Jesus,” he breathed and stepped forward.

Samantha took a step back.

He halted, looked at the gun in his hand, then set it on the counter and moved toward Sam as she retreated to the bedroom. From the bathroom he retrieved his pants and vest, then headed into the bedroom. Sam sat on the bed with a blanket wrapping her up to the neck. The room swam uncomfortably with the warm light from both bedside lamps.

“What the hell, Abe?” she asked, cheeks streaked with ribbons of tears.

“I gotta go.” He said, jerking his pants on. “I’ll explain everything later.” He rummaged through a chest of drawers for a second and pulled on an old Gold’s Gym  t-shirt, then scooped up his bulletproof vest.  As he moved to kiss Samantha, she recoiled fractionally, and he stopped. A tear dripped from her chin. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

On his way out the door, he snatched the pistol from the counter, fed it a fresh clip and climbed into his car.

 

TO BE CONTINUED.

 

© Novis Opera LLC 2018


Coming soon

The fifth and final chapter to The Gods are Always at the Gates: The Famine King

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The Gods Are Always At The Gates / The Famine King

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