The Gods Are Always At The Gates / Chapter Three
- CHAPTER THREE -
Eric “The Wolf” Bacon sat patiently across from the glass in interview room one. He was in his sixties, and a lifetime spent in the wind and sun had turned his skin into light brown leather. The deep creases in his brow and cheeks helped illustrate the limit to his tolerance to anyone on the other side of the glass. His hair was thinning, drawn back into an elongated widows peak and exaggerated by the ponytail that hung several inches down his neck to his shoulders. The leather vest he wore was unadorned, save for an embroidered wolf's head over the breast pocket.
The door clicked, and Eric’s right elbow twitched back, though his hands stayed folded across his stomach. Abernathy walked through the door with a couple of polystyrene cups stacked one on the other and shut the door behind him with a soft click. He set the cups on the table and nodded to Eric, who sat forward and selected the cup furthest from him, peeling the tab back on the lid, letting out steam.
“Eric, thanks for coming down.”
He grunted, “Man like you calls in a favor and a man like me can’t help but answer it. What was the last time you called one in, anyhow?”
Abernathy pulled out the metal chair across from Eric and sat down, “It was that mess with the kid that took a bunch of the Knights to task over his sister.”
Eric nodded and frowned, “Allegedly,” he corrected. “What a cluster...”
“What was that... five years back? How is Jennifer these days?” Abernathy inspected his cup.
“Still gets twitchy when the boys get rowdy around last call.”
“Can’t imagine why.”
Eric took a sip of his coffee and grimaced but didn’t set it down. “Abe, you were nice enough to extend your hospitality, may as well come out and ask what you gotta ask.”
Abernathy pursed his lips and set his cup on the table, meeting Eric’s steel gray eyes, “Where’d the Hightowers move their operation to?”
Eric sucked his teeth and looked away, “Shit, Abe... that’s a mighty big favor. You know I couldn’t tell you that even if I did know.”
“Eric,” the Sheriff warned.
Eric shot forward quick as his nickname would imply and bared his teeth, “I’m not some boy you can talk mean to and get me to bend.”
Abernathy never moved a muscle, just kept his eyes on Eric’s. “I wouldn’t ask you if it weren’t important. We see eye to eye, old man. I’d hate it if I found out I’d misplaced my trust.”
“It’s a moot point, I don’t know where they moved to, just know they shut down the old place about a month ago.” He sat back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other. “Something turn sour between you and the Hightowers?”
“I think they’re selling bad moonshine—”
Eric barked a laugh, cutting the Sheriff off, “Abe, they’ve been selling bad shine since day one.”
Abernathy ground his teeth and the knuckles in his free hand popped as he clenched a fist. “Dammit Eric, that’s not what I mean,” he growled.
“You brought me in. Called in your favor,” he held up a hand with the last three fingers extended and lowered his middle finger, “and about some idiots going blind over bad shine? Abernathy, I don’t have much respect for your profession, but you’ve always had better judgement than this.”
Abe took a deep breath, set down his coffee on the table and put his feet flat on the floor.
Eric took the lid off his still steaming cup, “So we’re gonna do this, are we?” He uncrossed his legs and set his jaw, his lips pressed into a thin line.
Abe leaned forward and thumbed a button on the table’s built-in intercom, “Mazzy, bring me the photos.”
Eric furrowed his brow and looked between Abernathy, the mirrored window and the door, looking all the more like a trapped animal ready to fight “What are you playing at, Abe?”
“You need to see something.”
The door clicked open and Mazzy Euler walked in carrying a manila folder with a case label stuck to its tab. He sized Eric up and shook his head, “Ain’t like that, Wolf. There’s no fight to be had here.”
Narrowing his eyes, Eric shifted his attention between the deputy and the sheriff, but he set down the open cup of scalding coffee.
Mazzy handed the folder to Abe, then walked to the back wall and leaned up against the mirror’s frame, crossing his arms.
Abe considered the folder in his hands before placing it on the table and sliding it across unopened.
“What’s that?” Eric’s suspicion evident in his voice.
“We have reason to believe the Hightower’s moonshine is responsible... for that.” He nodded at the folder.
At arm’s length Eric flipped the cover open. The deadman in cell four was pictured in brilliant and unflattering detail. His mouth was forced open too far, teeth hidden behind the white mass of mushroom that had forced his jaws open. Boiling out of his chest was a pile of similar egg shaped mushrooms. Some appeared to have burst open, revealing ugly violently pink tongues lolling out. Eric drug the seat forward and sat up straight. He flipped to another picture. This was a close up of the “egg pile.” By all appearances, some creature had made a macabre nest out of this man’s chest cavity and laid a whole monstrous clutch. John Hurt and Alien came to mind, and Eric turned the page again. The “clutch” had been cut away to reveal a livid wound. Cracked and yellowed, the flesh looked like dried ham skin with purplish gray muscle beneath laced through with stark white twine, thin cords surrounded by a tangle of loose thin threads. Flip. A photo of the egg in the corpse’s mouth, except now the top was bulging, and translucent. The skin was shiny yellow and taut against the pressure of the coiled tentacles visible just beneath the surface. Flip. Eric grimaced and looked away, picking up the photo.
“Chester Harriman,” he said, looking back at the photo. The image showed a young man, with a pale complexion and tight springs of dark brown hair falling over his forehead and around his shoulders. His eyes were half closed and the pupils were flat and absent of reflection. Taking a deep breathe he continued, face drawn, “Poor kid,” he said as he flicked the photo. “You couldn’t call Chester a regular. You gotta have money to be a regular, but he was something of a fixture. Kid was a hard case. No family that I know of. None too bright. No jobs or prospects. Just hung around as long as people bought him booze which was often enough. He stopped showing up a couple days ago, which wasn’t unusual. Chester didn’t exactly have his lid screwed on straight so he’d get into a mood, start shouting and yelling at some of the boys. They’d bloody his lip or blacken an eye and run him off.” Eric paused and picked up his coffee and sat poised to drink for longer than was strictly necessary before taking a swallow, setting it down and continuing. “Anyway, he’d be gone for a couple of days. Never did know where the hell he ran off to. Some of the lads swore they’d seen him coming in and out of the old mines up the mountain, but I never heard of anyone finding his squat. So, but, sure as a stray he’d be back before long, usually with a couple bucks or some spare change, enough for a proper meal, beer and a pack of smokes.” Eric stopped and stared down at the photo, then piled them all together, and closed the folder, sliding it back across the table.
Sheriff Abernathy nodded. “When did you last see him?”
“Like I said, about a week back. He showed up looking skinnier than I ever seen him, and roughed up too. Jenny put a couple stitches in his eyebrow it was bad enough. I let him stay the night upstairs just to keep an eye on him. Usually he’d leave the bar roughed up, never seen him come to the bar with so much as a scratch on him that one of the Dead Heads didn’t give him. He stayed up all night, rocking in a corner talking to himself, wouldn’t take anything I gave him to eat or drink.” Eric’s lip curled in a thin smile, “He tells me the next day, sitting at the bar furthest from everybody but me, jumping like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs, he tells me, ‘Wolf, you’re the nicest damn zombie I ever met.’ Kid wasn’t playing with a full deck. He stayed in the bar for a few more days, getting worse the whole time, kept talked in the third person, ‘he’s so hungry.’ and I’d bring him food but he never ate a bite.” Eric shook his head, “Three days of this went by, him getting more paranoid and erratic the whole time. Stayed in the shadows, swearing anything the light touched was on fire. Got to the third day, right. Coming down to dusk. Sun’s pouring in through the front window, spilling over more and more of the bar, and he’s backing up the whole time. He stuck himself against the back wall, arms out wide,” he pantomimes, “like he’s on some ledge or something. Finally, the sunlight hit his shoes and he just screamed. Never heard anything like it come out of a man’s mouth. Then he bolted. Tore out the back exit and was gone. Seeing him now... I’m wondering what the hell I could have done.”
Abernathy picked up the folder, stood, and walked to the door. He twisted the knob, looked Eric in the eyes, then opened the door. “Thanks for coming down, Eric. You’ll let us know if you find something out?”
He stood and picked up his coffee cup, nodding, “yeah, I’ll call you. I still got your number.”
“You too, Sheriff.”
“One of the boys will see you back to the Devil’s Grin.”
“Thanks, but no. I’ve got my own ride back.”
Abernathy and Mazzy walked “The Wolf” back to the front and saw two bikers sitting on fat-tired roadsters. One of the two burly men kicked down his kickstand, dismounted and settled down behind his companion. Eric walked up, nodded to the pair, each of whom bore a wolf head on their breast pocket and mounted up. With a blat of engine roar, the big bikes erupted to life, were wheeled backward, and throttled up and out of the lot.
“I think we need to pay Evert a visit.”
“I’ll get the car,” Mazzy agreed.
* * *
Science was, by nature, a long string of slow meticulous tasks infrequently punctuated by brief flurries of excitement and activity. Most of it was very boring. They worked steadily for an hour or more setting up a variety of experiments. She’d euthanized a pair of mice and exposed them individually to the gleba, or the airborne spores, then repeated the process with a pair of living mice, and finally set up a control. She set Ray to work his way through the tissue and fungi samples preparing slides. Meanwhile, her experiments ran on cheap plastic wheels or nibbled spore laced water bottles and she examined the first sets of slides. Ray had proven to be quite capable and resourceful. He had been designated as Paige’s assistant or liaison, though perhaps “handler” was a more accurate term, as none of the other staff at the station seemed interested in interacting and Officer Lovett was all too willing. He had provided her with mice as well as cages to contain them and there were few tasks that he did not immediately take to after having been shown the proper technique. Nevertheless, his rabid sense of chivalry and puppy-dog need to please was irritating. She wondered idly, as she supervised him preparing the first few slides for microscopic inspection, if his mind and talents were not being wasted as a small-town cop.
She scribbled with one hand as she adjusted and focused with the other. The mushroom actually appeared to be mushrooms, functioning in symbiosis, like the fungi analog of Physalia physalis, or Portuguese Man O’ War. Under the microscope, the two species certainly resembled members of the Psilocybe and Clathrus genera, but were either new species, or manifested phenotypically similar structures but were of some entirely different genus or genera.
Her mass spectrometer verified that only one side of the pair produced the psilocybin, while the other appeared to be responsible for the rapid growth and virulence. Her preliminary tests had shown no presence of mycotoxins like that of the RNA clogging poisons found in the Angel of Death fungi, but the mass spec did return a dozen new compounds that it did not have in its catalog that were almost certainly alkaloids. Neither appeared capable of the Jumanji-like motility she saw them exhibit in the jail cell, but she supposed it was likely she jumped to conclusions and that all the movement was the result of stored mechanical energy. It certainly had not responded to stimuli when she took her samples.
“Ray,” She said, with her attention still focused on the microscope, “I would like to go out to Philip Henderson’s residence, ask his wife a few questions and take some more samples. I need you to requisition us a car.”
One of the mice began to scream before Ray could answer and they both rushed over. Test subject Gleba had backed itself into a corner and looked around frantically, swiping claws at patches of empty air.
Paige checked the chart she’d set up for the experiment. “We administered the gleba and spores about 2 hours ago. There was certainly psilocybin in that gleba, but I’ve administered pure Psilocybin to mice before and this isn’t how they react. I suppose it is possible the fungi have already started to spread mycelium into its internal organs, but we won’t know until we perform an autopsy and I’m not ready to do that just yet.”
“Gosh, that screaming is terrible. Can’t we do anything for him?”
The mouse spun, scratching and biting furiously at the wall of the cage, scoring the plastic then scrambled across the floor to the food bowl. It slammed its body down on one edge and flipped the metal dish over so it was hidden inside the concavity. The screaming turned to panicked squeaking, then gradually tapered off until all they could hear was the occasional chirp.
Test Subject Spore stood on hind legs at the plastic wall of its cage closest to Test Subject Gleba, it chittered and squeaked softly, casting nervous glances over its shoulders.
“Interesting,” Paige mused. She selected a long blunt metal probe and after moving the water bottle inserted the probe into the cage though the hole where the nipple entered the enclosure.
Test Subject Gleba crabbed at her as the probe slipped beneath the metal cage bottom and under the bowl’s lip but quieted again. She lifted the bowl to more squeaking complains, then as the light spilled over the mouse’s body the frantic panic screams returned. The mouse leapt with explosive energy, sending the bowl clattering away and scrambled around the cage looking for a way out and when it found none it finally repeated the process it had earlier to flip the bowl and hide beneath it.
She moved to flip the bowl again, but found Ray’s hand gently settle on hers.
“Doctor Anderson,” his voice was gentle and pleading. “Didn’t you want to go out to the Henderson place?”
Paige cocked her head and pressed her lips together, but removed the probe from the cage, replacing the water bottle. “I suppose I do.” She marked a note on the experiment record then took a cardboard box from the floor, turned it over and set it over Test Gleba. “Light sensitivity it would seem.”
Test Subject Spore made a single chirrup and folded his hands in front of his chest.
Paige made another mark on the chart and set it down. “Come on, let’s go.”
“I’ll get us a squad car.”
* * *
Ray left and returned a short while later with a shotgun slung over a should and a key fob with a numbered tag on it. Paige had restocked her field kit and made notes on all the other experiments while he was gone.
“Do you need a hand with anything Doctor Anderson?”
“No, Ray. Thank you though. Do you know where we’re going?”
He held the door open for her and gestured for her to head back down the hall deeper into the station. She complied and he followed in step. “Garage is just past the—” he swallowed and she could hear the rubber grip on the shotgun strap creak, “past the detention cells.”
They were silent as they passed the door to the detention block and went through into the garage. The warm air stank like engine grease, tire rubber and gasoline. An older model Charger was parked over a mechanic’s bay, though it lacked the traditional markings of a police car. Paige walked up to the passenger side and tugged on the handle.
“Nope, not that one” Ray offered and nodded to the door next to the roll up.
It was jarring to see the sun set so low, though intellectually she knew it was close to four o’clock. She suspected the omnipresent foothills embellished the distance the sun had traveled. Ray held out the key-fob in his hand and gave it a decisive squeeze, the gesture was hardly necessary but she imagined he imagined it make him look cooler than simply pressing the button. A black and white SUV’s lights blinked at them and she heard its doors unlock.
Ray opened the passenger door for Paige, “Can I take your bag for you?”
She rolled her eyes and lifted it from her shoulder, shifting its uncomfortable weight into his extended hand. Her shoulder was grateful for the reprieve but she refused to acknowledge it. He opened the back gate and carefully placed her bag inside, securing it with what sounded like a bungie, then checked a few more bags and plastic containers or compartments as she got into the front passenger seat. She’d never been in the front of a police car, but it was certainly crowded full of gear. Ray closed the back and Paige was immediately aware the heat in the cabin without the subtle cross breeze blowing through the bars into the prisoner section and out the back. The young officer opened the driver’s side, slapped the shotgun into a vertical lock that was mounted into console in front of the armrest. He turned the key and the engine rumbled to life, blowing gusts of hot air that rapidly cooled out of its vents. They closed their doors, buckled up and headed out of the parking lot.
“You know it's not a sign of weakness to accept another person’s help, right?” Ray offered as they drove back down Main Street the way they’d come into to town.
“I think that’s a matter of circumstance.” she said, lifting her chin.
“And that it doesn’t mean that the person offering the help thinks you’re incapable? Some people are just trying to be polite.”
“Those people in the prison cells, they really bother you, don’t they?”
Ray didn’t reply, just tightened his grip on the steering wheel.
“Did you know one of the victims?” she pressed.
The look he gave her wasn’t an angry one, or one of fear or resentment, though there were elements of both in it, but it gave her a little twist of guilt in her belly for the intentionally underhanded question and suddenly she regretted asking it.
“No, ma’am,” he paused, “not personally anyway. Thing of it is, in a town like ours, you know everybody. So when something bad happens to somebody that something bad sorta walks around like a ghost or a stain on everyone you talk to. You get used to that though.”
“That’s it?” she asked more gently.
“Not exactly. I used to get these nightmares as a little kid.” he stopped the car and waited for an older man and woman to cross the street, smiling and waving to them as he did, though the smile was empty. “They were so bad my mom took me into a doc in the city did this whole sleep study thing. Night terrors, they said. Pretty common in little kids. Said I’d grow out of ‘em. And I did.” He pressed on the accelerator again and flipped his blinker, turning onto Red Line Road. “But you see... in these dreams I’m stuck down in one of the old mines and I’m running from something, and it's getting closer and closer and I can’t see it, but I can hear it. Its teeth are crunching and scraping on bones, tearing and chewing on meat. I can smell it too. Like stomach acid and musty roses-- I still hate roses-- Anyway I can’t outrun it, and the dream ends the same way every time. This thing whispers in my ear, ‘I’m so hungry little man, can’t I have just one bite’ then wake up.” Ray took a deep breath and blew it out slowly.
She remained silent as he seemed to pack away the bad memories.
“It’s dumb kids’ stuff. Totally cliche. Every kid has the dream where they can’t get away from some thing, but then these cases with the stuff those people were screaming in their cells about how ‘he’s so hungry’ and how they think everybody just wants to eat ‘em.” his knuckles popped on the steering wheel. “Just brings back the old memories.”
They drove on in silence then until they turned onto the Henderson’s gravel drive and Ray racked a shotgun shell.
“Jesus, do you really think that’s necessary? We’re going here to ask some questions about how her husband was acting the last few days and take some samples.”
Ray frowned and shook his head, “believe it or not, I don’t really like guns. Lieutenant Thomas didn’t give me a choice. He made me promise I’d bring a gun, and the only firearm I’ve qualified on is the shotgun.” He pulled up to the front porch, put it in park, and removed the shotgun from the stand.
They got out and looked around. The house was in desperate need of attention, but was overall a nice old Victorian with a wrap around porch. Grey paint, that may have once been blue, curled back from the wood on every surface. Most of the shutters were just decorative facades and at that a handful were missing or hanging askew where multiple screws had already let go. The house sat in a large cleared field, complete with a small plot planted with corn, tomatoes, salad greens and other late summer and fall vegetables. All around was dense forest. A beat-up green Eclipse sat at the edge of the grass in the gravel roundabout’s center with the paint peeling off the center of its hood and roof.
Ray held the shotgun cradled in his arms, with his head and one shoulder through the sling attached behind its rear sights. Paige went around to the back of the squad car, rifled around in her field kit, retrieving two valveless N95’s and handed one to Ray.
“If you ask me, this,” she stretched one band of the mask out and fitted it over her head so it hung around her neck, “is more likely to save your life here. Put yours on like this and if I see anything I don’t like, I’ll shout ‘mask.’ Got it?”
He let go of the shotgun so that it hung loose at his side within easy reach of his hand and winced as he fit the lower strap over his head and around his neck. The mask fell below his vision as he released it and he flinched back from Paige’s outstretched hands. “What are you doing?”
“Relax,” she tisked and covered his mouth and nose with the fabric, pinching the metallic clip until it fit his nose snuggly. “Can you breathe through your nose?”
He took a deep breath in and the fabric flexed inward, “Pretty well, sure. It’s a little tight but it ain’t bad.”
“Good, can you smell anything?”
“This thing smells like a hospital.”
“Yes, but anything else, the gravel, the grass, my perfume?”
Ray’s ears turned bright red and he shook his head.
“It’s a good fit then. If I say ‘mask,’ make sure you keep it on until I say, okay?”
“Yes ma’am.” he nodded, pulling the mask down to his neck and cradled his shotgun in his arms across his vest.
They walked together to the house and Ray touched her arm at the elbow, then he continued past her. Steps creaked and sank beneath his weight. He rolled silently up to the edge of the window and peered into the dark interior, nodded to himself and advanced to the door where he stood to the side again. With his left hand, he opened the screen door enough to slip a foot inside to prop it open while he knocked, keeping his right hand on the grip of the shotgun the whole time. His knuckles made a solid crack on the door and he announced, “Carol Henderson? It’s Officer Lovett. We’d like to ask you a few questions about Phil. Can you come on out here?”
Paige found herself holding her breath and she felt silly. She’d spent time in areas of Africa that were still ruled by warlords. What did a bunch of hicks compare to cocaine-addled teenagers with AK-47s?
Ray knocked again, “Carol. Come on, it's me, Scooter. Just come on down. I’ve brought a doctor who has some questions to help with Philip.”
She disliked the implication that she was an MD, but imagined the distinction might be lost on someone this far from a metropolis.
Ray’s posture straightened and he nodded at her. “Looks like she isn’t home. May as well have a look around out here.”
They looked in through dirty screen windows as they circled the house. The furniture was old and beat up. One sofa cushion had torn, peeling leather down to the foam on one side along with its corresponding arm rest. Inside looked like a poorly maintained diorama from the early 80’s, all browns and tans, dark woods and heavy ashtrays. Beer cans and bottles covered part of the coffee table. Around the left side of the house, toward the back, Paige could see into the kitchen, with its sink full of dishes and half-full pot of coffee, but no evidence of people.
“Nothing over here,” Paige called to Ray, “I’m going to go take a look at that cornfield to see if there’s anything fungal going on. Sometimes corn can harbor fungi inside the husks, and so does the soil, so we’ll need to take samples.”
“Coming.” Ray called from around the house.
She walked around the back and down the steps outside the kitchen door and down toward the small plot of farmed land. Way back at the edge of the clearing, a bobcat with a tiller hitched up to the back sat in the shade. The ground hadn’t been tilled for months, it was doubtful she would gain any useful data from inspecting the tiller, so she turned her attention to the large garden.
Ray jogged up with her field kit in on hand and the shotgun held across his stomach with the other. “Here you go Dr. Anderson.”
“Thank you, Ray.” then after a pause, “You can call me Paige if you would like.”
“Alright, I will,” he beamed.
“Mask on, if there’s some kind of dangerous fungi out here in these we won’t know it until it’s too late.”
They both donned their masks and started combing the fields of corn and vegetables looking for signs of fungal infection. An hour went by examining corn and taking samples of soil before Paige said. “Ray, I’m not finding anything here that might indicate fungal infection or contamination.”
The evening’s collection of night birds chirped in response as the sky slowly turned orange.
“Ray?” she asked, removing her mask to clear its sweaty restriction.
A trickle of ice filled her veins. Adrenaline began sharpening her senses as she realized she didn’t know which way the car or house was. She was only four or five rows into the corn patch that couldn’t have been more than a dozen rows across, but she couldn’t see the edge. “Ray.” she shouted, walking quickly down the row in the direction she thought would lead to the house. The hair on the back of her neck pricked up and her thumping heart pumped more ice with each beat. “Ray!”
The row ended abruptly and she found herself inches from plowing into Ray’s back. He stood stock still, shoulders hunched, hands out of sight, but the shotgun’s strap was pulled taut against his vest.
Her breath caught in her throat as she remembered the men in Africa, shoulders hunched, knuckles pale clenching a grip of a gun, a piano wire wound to its breaking point. “Ray...” she reached out to touch his shoulder gingerly but halted as he adjusted his shoulders and she could hear the shift of gun parts.
“You ever see something you wish you hadn’t and ask yourself, ‘why me? Why’d I have to be the one to see this?’ cause now you know you gotta live with the choice of doing something about it, or leaving it for someone else to do something about it?”
“Ray?” she asked gently, trying not to sound threatening and ignore how much bigger he was than she. She stepped up beside him, to his right, away from the barrel of the gun. His face was white as a sheet and his eyes shone with the setting fire of the sun. He stared forward with the butt of the shotgun resting sideways against his shoulder and chest, finger laid lightly across the trigger, while his other hand cradled the pump and kept the barrel pointed at a black mass at the edge of the tree line. The mass was hidden in the forests, long jagged and toothy shadows. A mound of writhing black, maybe four feet high and twice as many or more across, squirmed ten yards away. Instinctively she shrunk behind Ray’s shoulder, “What is that?”
“A choice we’re gonna have to live with.” he said, and started forward with slow determined steps.
Paige felt more naked and vulnerable with each step Ray took toward the seething mass. She ground her teeth and hurried after him. To her horror, he raised the gun and split the gloaming with a report that left her ears ringing. The mass exploded upward in a screaming, cackling cyclone and she dropped to her knees and covered her head with her hands as dozens of crows fled the bark of gunfire.
Ray loaded another round and closed the remaining few yards to stop in front of what now revealed itself to be a lumpy mound of dirt. Beneath the rich smell of freshly turned soil was the unmistakable smell of a ruptured abdomen, a cross between a slaughterhouse and an outhouse.
Reaching behind him into a pouch next to a pair of handcuffs, Ray took a pair of blue gloves and pulled them on.
Another bump of adrenaline hit Paige’s nervous system and she nearly shouted, “Ray, mask!” as she pressed and secured hers over her nose and mouth.
Hurriedly, Ray complied. He pushed the shotgun back around so it hung in line with his spine and pulled his phone from his pocket. Camera app up, he began snapping pictures of the ground and dirt mound. Several pictures taken, Ray knelt and began brushing away loose dirt. The birds had clearly already been at parts of the body. Ragged chunks of flesh had been torn from the body’s eyes, lips, and cheeks.
Paige swore quietly.
Ray thumbed his phone a few more times and put it to his ear.
* * *
Abernathy’s phone buzzed in his pocket as he opened his car door and Mazzy slammed his own. He fished it out and answered, sitting down heavily. They had been by Evert’s place, his favorite haunts, even his ex’s place and had just endured a 30 minute shouting session about what a “no-good-scoundrel” he was and how “he better never try and come around here no more.”
“This is Sheriff Jackson...”
Mazzy absently rubbed the spot where his ring finger met the body of his hand with his thumb while Abernathy listened to the phone.
Abe tossed his phone into the center console, jammed the key into the ignition, threw the car into gear and let the accelerator close the door.
Mazzy flipped on the lights and sirens, “Where we going?”
“Phil’s place. Ray found Evert.”
* * *
Ray spat on the ground as the smell of roses wafted up out of the twilight and shivered. He could see the Sheriff’s car coming down Red Line and turn onto the gravel drive at the edge of the Henderson’s property. Ray shoved off the SUV and waited.
The sheriff’s car slid to a halt in the gravel, as Sheriff Jackson expertly feathered the brakes bleeding off speed while maintaining control. The dust rushed forward as Deputy Euler and Sheriff Jackson leapt from their vehicle, hands resting at the ready on their side arms. Ray compulsively checked the safety on his shotgun again and stopped himself before he saluted. He always felt it was appropriate to salute men like Sheriff Jackson and Deputy Euler, but he knew both disliked the gesture.
“Have you cleared the house?” the Sheriff asked urgently.
Ray cursed himself and pulled himself up straighter, “No sir, there wasn’t anyone home that we could tell and we didn’t see any drag marks to indicate the body had been dragged from the house after being shot.”
“Where’s Doctor Anderson?”
“Down by the body, taking samples, sir.”
The Sheriff nodded, “Okay, Ray. We’re gonna clear the house to make sure there are no ugly surprises and to make sure there’s nobody hurt inside that needs help. Is your firearm loaded?”
“Yes, Sir! Full magazine, 8 rounds of double O.”
The Sheriff nodded again, “I’ll announce us, kick in the door, and breach first. We’re gonna do a button hook entry. The door opens right, there’s stairs to the left. You’re in second and cover upstairs, Mazzy will bring in the rear, and will take your place while you and I clear downstairs, then move upstairs to clear the bedrooms and sewing room. Are we clear?”
Deputy Euler hadn’t looked away from the house the since they arrive. The Deputy was not a tall man, in fact, Ray stood half a head taller than him, and he might have weighed 160 lbs drenched with his clothes on, but Ray personally watched Deputy Euler subdue three Dead Knight bikers by himself and without personal injury. There was no doubt in Ray’s mind that the Deputy wasn’t a man to be trifled with.
“Ten-four” Deputy Euler answered.
“Clear, Sheriff,” Ray flipped off the safety.
Like a trio of wolves, they moved swiftly up the porch and to the door. Ray could only hope they were silent because he couldn’t hear over the volume of his heart pounding in his ears. He settled in behind the Sheriff between the lip of the door and the edge of the window while the Deputy flanked the door on the other side. He never saw them draw, but both men had their firearms at the ready.
The Sheriff opened the screen door slow and quiet, and Deputy Euler took it from his grip without word or signal. It hadn’t made a sound. “Garfield’s Crossing Sheriff’s Department!” The boom of the Sheriff’s voice both shook and bolstered Ray’s confidence. “Get down on the floor!” Then he stepped out and with practiced motion kicked the door just above its door knob over the deadbolt.
The door exploded open, weak wooden door frame spitting chunks of fractured wood into the house.
Sheriff Jackson seemed to shrink to half his size and slipped into the dark, quiet house. The Deputy jerked his head toward the door and Ray gritted his teeth coming inside and stepping up the stairway at the left. The house seemed to be made of hostile shadows.The coming night had already greedily eaten all but the most meager purple light leaking in through the windows. Deputy Euler slipped in like a ghost, silently up four stairs, beneath the level of his shotgun. He felt the Deputy’s hand on his belly and he flicked the flashlight on at the tip of the shotgun magazine, descending the stairs and following the Sheriff into the living room.
“Clear!” The Sheriff shouted and rushed forward to the next room.
Each room followed a scrambled version of that first entry and Ray held his fear in tight control through action and procedure.
The house was empty, but it looked like someone could be back at any time.
In the bedroom, Sheriff Jackson checked under the unmade rumpled bed, and in the opposite sides’ bedside table.
Deputy Euler asked, “Guns?”
“Missing.” Sheriff nodded.
The light fixture the Sheriff had been resting his hand on came free from the wall.
Sheriff Jackson let go of the fixture, letting it dangle by the wire and beat the drywall from his hand onto his pant leg. He returned to the bedside table and removed a cardboard box of .40 caliber rounds. Pocketing a few of them and tossing the box back into the drawer. “Let’s get a look at the body. Carol ain’t coming back here.” Then he walked out, each step firm and decisive.
“Deputy Euler?” Ray asked, thumb resting on the safety.
“Let him go on ahead. I’m sure he needs some space to think.” the Deputy stuffed his side arm into its holder and clapped Ray on the shoulder. “Is that your first time clearing a house outside a fire drill?
“Yes, Sir.” he gripped the shotgun tighter to keep his hands from shaking.
“Scooter, you did real good. Your mom and dad would be proud of that work just there,” he clapped him on the shoulder again. “Come on, let’s go take a look at Evert’s body.”
* * *
Abernathy carefully clipped his car’s radio back on its hook, fighting the urge to slam it down, as Mazzy and Ray came out of the dark old house. He’d called in their status to the station and asked that a notice be sent to all the usual places. At first sign of Paul, Carol, or the Hightower’s he was to be notified.
Mazzy and Ray talked quietly as they closed on the vehicle. His deputy gave Ray a firm squeeze on the shoulder. Abe nodded to his men, “Lead the way.”
“Yes’sir,” Ray said and headed toward the patch of farmland converted field. They found Doctor Anderson sitting cross-legged on the ground, labeling plastic sample containers a few yards from the body. Dozens of flies’ wings filled the air with a buzz that set Abernathy’s teeth on edge.
As Paige noticed Abernathy, she got quickly to her feet and dusted off her hands, “Well hello there Sheriff, what a pleasant surprise.”
“I’d prefer it under different circumstances.”
Her face took on a ruddy glow in the last few rays of sun before it dipped below the tree line, “Oh, I agree.”
“What have you found, Doctor?” Mazzy asked.
Abernathy pulled on a pair of gloves and took out a small flashlight from his pocket searching the ground around them.
She cocked her head to the side grinning, “what are you doing?”
“Looking for casings.”
“Doctor, any findings?” Mazzy pressed again.
Her smile fell at the corners but she began, “The body was shot multiple times in the chest. Ray tells me this was a man whom we are given to understand drank some of the same mushroom-laced moonshine as at least one of the other victims. I didn’t see a gun, so I don’t think he killed himself.”
A yellow flash of metal shone in the flashlight’s beam near the body, and Abernathy stooped to inspect the casing. Centerfire .40 caliber. He fished a bullet out of his pocket and compared them. The manufacture matched. There were more casings in the grass, Abernathy collected them and counted; One.
“There does not appear to be any active fruiting body growths on the body or mycelium―”
“―growing beneath the subcutaneous tissue around the bullet wounds.”
“I would like to move the body and examine the exit wound as well as get additional blood samples...”
A weathered wooden plank was barely visible in the pale light thrown onto the ground in front of Abernathy as he searched the ground at Evert’s feet, on the edge of the dirt mound. Abe traced the edges of the wood and felt smooth warm concrete beneath his gloved finger tips. “Mazzy...
Paige paused and Mazzy stepped into the silence, “Yes’sir?”
“We have to move the body.”
“Yes, exactly!” The doctor exclaimed. “I can’t inspect it very well at all in this light and the whole backside of the body hasn’t had an examination yet either.”
“Ray, get his feet, Mazzy and I will grab the arms.”
“Over here gentlemen, bring the body over here and flip him on his side if you can so I can access his back and his front.”
Ray and Mazzy hurriedly donned gloves and took their positions. “One, two, three.” they lifted together and shuffled Evert’s body a few feet off the mound.
“Oh.” Paige said, “Well, I guess that will do to. Ray, Can you turn him on his side.”
“Huh?” Ray said, distracted as Abernathy and Mazzy came back to where Evert had been shot, quickly brushing dirt out of the way. “The body?”
“Yeah, Can you flip it so I can get to the back there?”
Abernathy shoveled scoops of dirt away from the wood with his hands and Mazzy followed suit. Something sharp bit into Abe’s hand and tore his glove open. A black metal plate was bolted into the wood, attached to a hinge on one side, and held the scrap of blue nitrile in its jaws like a guard dog. “Oh, that’s not good. Mazzy, think you can hotwire that skid loader at the edge of the field?”
“You know it.”
* * *
The sunlight had failed almost entirely by the time they reached the skiff. Before they headed out they directed Ray and Doctor Anderson to retrieve the SUV and light the mound with headlights. Abernathy held the flashlight while Mazzy’s knife made short work of the wiring, then sparked the engine to life, twisting the pair together.
Abernathy stood on the frame of the John Deere, acting as look out for anything in the field that might give them trouble if they ran into it or over it. Under the bruised purple and blue of the evening sky, the surrounding forest was entirely black. He couldn’t see a foot into its yawning depths past the jagged teeth of evergreens. Abe had been in a dozen different hostile territory when in the Marines, from Afghanistan to Somalia. He’d fought against unseen enemies that darted from one dark, hollow building to another. After a while, once the initial panic of being shot at wore off, the real fear began to settle in and those houses, with their blown-out windows, breached doorways, and battle-scarred facades began to resemble severed heads. Gaping jaw hanging open to gobble up another squaddie. You learn to master that fear or you go crazy. Now, just like then, if Mazzy had asked him for one word to describe the houses or the forest around them it would be... hungry. The night creatures of the forest were waking up and they wanted their meal.
“Hey, Abe.” Mazzy sounded annoyed.
“Am I square?”
“The doors, am I square with the doors?”
Abernathy blinked and shook his head, he hadn’t realized they had arrived at the mound. The last few moments sifted back down to his conscious memory and he’d heard Mazzy talking for a while but neglected to answer, focused on the forest. Jumping down from the rails he walked in front of the bucket attached to the skiff and checked Mazzy’s alignment. “No, back up and come back to me. I’ll guide you in.”
“You got it.” Mazzy backed up and adjusted, with Abe’s guidance three times until everything was square, while Ray and the doctor looked on.
With a thumbs-up, Abernathy stepped out of the way and Mazzy carefully plodded forward, barely scraping the wood with the teeth on the edge of the bucket. For a tense minute, the big machine rolled forward by inches, Abe expected to hear the snap crunch of breaking wood, and the scream of shearing metal. It never came. Mazzy lifted the bucket and backed up then cut the engine off. The police SUV’s headlamps and spots painted the area with enough light to see by. A loose coating of dirt obscured a pair of steel banded storm doors secured with a padlock and set almost level with the ground.
“Ray, bring me a pair of breaching shells and your shotgun will you?” he called back to the pair at the truck. Ray did as he was asked, retrieving a pair of overloaded specialty shells from the trunk. The Sheriff accepted the shotgun, pumped out two of the 00 Buck shot and loaded the rounds designed for this kind of work. “Alright, everyone back up to the truck.”
Ray, and Paige who had followed him, complied, while Mazzy pulled out his sidearm and backed up behind the bucket.
He laid the shotgun on the ground and got to his hands and knees, laying his ear against the doors and concentrated. There wasn’t a sound or vibration coming through the wood. He took several deep slow breaths from different places around the doors, they smelled like wet ground, summer roses, blood and shit, but not the sour tang of acid or burnt plastic he’d come to associate with meth dens. Satisfied he wasn’t about to blow them all to hell he picked up the shotgun, placed the barrel against the ring securing the padlock, turned his face and body away then pulled the trigger.
The gun bucked in his hand, and his thumb would hurt like hell tomorrow. He stood and surveyed the door. The round had done its job, the steel rung was a mangled mess, snapped in two. With the irregular gash the deformed slug had torn in the wooden door, the gates into the ground resembled a malformed cyclops from myth.
In a slow creeping wave starting between his shoulder blades, every hair on Abe’s body stood erect and a cold sweat broke on his forehead. Tightening his grip on the shotgun, he raised it to half-ready and racked a shell. The light was gone from the sky but Abe could see the forests jagged toothy grin for the black against the starlight. Something had moved at the line of the trees, fluid and fast the way only a predator can. He scanned back and forth, never focusing on a specific point. He felt Mazzy step up to his side gun in his hands.
“What is it?”
Abe shook his head, but didn’t speak. The forest was hungry and its agents were out there stalking them, itching to bring home the meal. He took a deep breath and reigned in the irrational fear. He’d lived in these woods for years, hunted throughout the year and had never seen or found anything that he couldn’t handle. Superstitious mountain folk be damned, there wasn’t anything in the forest but animals and at that, none that were interested in making a meal out of a human being. Shaking himself he lowered the shotgun.
“Nothing, just thought I caught something out of the corner of my eye. It’s all good. Help me with these doors, will you?”
Mazzy visibly relaxed seeing the Sheriff lower his combat awareness and holstered his pistol. A glance back over his shoulder had shown him Ray standing in front of Paige, who was now stepping to the side to get a better view. He and Mazzy tugged on the doors; they moved easily on their hinges, shedding the remaining dirt and debris the skid loader left behind.
Abe clicked on his flashlight again and inspected the cyclops’ open mouth. A concrete tunnel with a runged ladder set into its surface led down roughly ten feet into the darkness. The kind was identical to the type of entrance ubiquitous in sewer and utility service tunnels. He frowned and waved Ray and Paige over.
“Yes’sir?” Ray asked, keeping a safe distance from the gaping hole in the earth.
Abernathy handed the shotgun back and passed him the two shells he’d unloaded. “I’m going down there to check things out. Mazzy, you and Ray need to stay up here and cover the entrance for me. I can’t imagine Carol or Paul is coming back here, but someone went through a lot of trouble to cover this up in a hurry, so I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that somebody comes back here. I, more or less, lived in that house for a couple years some time back and I can guarantee you this,” he nodded at the hole, “wasn’t here back then. Looks like more has changed here than I would like to believe.” Using his boot he pushed a small rock over the edge and into the black, then nodded.
Mazzy gripped his bicep, “Sheriff, let me go down there.” There was steel and concern in Mazzy’s eyes.
“No, Deputy, I need you up here watching my back. I got this one. You can get the next one.”
He sucked his teeth but nodded, then hopped up onto the bucket, then roof of the Deere, Glock still in his hands. “You better turn them eyes on in the back of your head, Sheriff.”
“Ten-four. Ray, you keep a wandering eye on that tree line and an ear out for cars coming down Red Line. Oh, and if you see a big sixteen-point buck out here, don’t shoot it, just get her, and your ass in that car and keep your heads down. Mazzy and I saw him on Red Line last night and I’m not convinced he isn’t sick.”
“Yes sir!” Ray saluted.
Despite his best efforts the corners of Abernathy’s mouth twitched, “Damn it, Ray.” then he returned the salute.
Officer Lovett gave a half shrug then slung the shotgun back over his neck and shoulder as he had when they cleared the house and loaded one of the two shells he’d been handed. The other shell he slipped into his breast pocket.
Clipping his flashlight to a strap on his vest and switching it off, Abernathy drew his semi-auto, checked the load compulsively then stooped down to grasp the top rung and step silently down as far as he safely could. He stopped and listened, but there was no change below him. Slowly and carefully, letting his eyes adjust to the near pitch black in the concrete tube, he descended the ladder one grip at a time, with his pistol pointed toward the opening he could barely see across from the base of the ladder. His feet touched down on solid but muddy concrete. The smell of roses was cloying in the still air at the base. Ahead in the darkness, a brilliant crimson star hung in the air. He froze and waited to see if it would move, but it remained fixed. Cautiously he pulled his flashlight from where it was clipped and clicked it on, wincing at the sound in the catacomb silence.
For a second, he couldn’t believe his own eyes. A few feet ahead of him, still under the square curtain of concrete that extended from the tunnel, was a row of shelves stacked with car batteries all daisy chained together, and the rear end of a school bus. The bloody star he’d been startled by was an LED on a computer board with an unconnected battery terminal and a red jumper clip dangling overhead. He stepped forward, gripped the clip and attached it to the terminal with an angry hiss of sparks. The interior of the bus was flooded with light the same color as the LED. Its rear windows dripped condensation. He waited again, forcing himself to slow his breathing and hammering heart and tried to ignore the part of his brain telling him that the windows were covered in blood.
Abernathy stepped over a small sump pump sitting in the well of the concrete basin and into the battery alcove. A wide mouthed pipe hungrily slurped the hose and a dozen thick cables trailing down from the batteries deeper into the bowels of the buried bus. He clicked the flashlight off and clipped it back on his chest, then gripped the handle on the rear door and gave it a twist. The air tugged gently at his back and turned the sweat dripping down his neck to ice. Deep in the bus he could hear the soft murmur of a fan and the drip of water.
He hoisted himself up and into the bus. Someone had removed the seats and built, in their place, sturdy floor-to-ceiling racks, leaving enough room in the middle to walk, hunched down the length of the bus. Stacked three deep, and in rows three high, were gallon carboys filled with grain.
A sneeze demanded Abernathy’s attention and he noticed the same smell of roses thick enough to taste in the air, saccharin sweet on the back of his tongue.
He wiped his face and shuffled forward bent in half. Midway down the length of the bus the shelves and carboys stopped and were replaced with a desk and worn leather coated doctor’s stool. The desk was covered in lab equipment, a small camp stove and propane tank, stacks of Petri dishes, a dozen tools that looked like dental picks and an autoclave. Stacked on the opposite side of the bus from the desk were dozens of cloth and plastic sacks.
Abe flicked his knife out and cut one open. Mixed grains spilled onto the floor.
Movement caught his eye and Abernathy flicked his gun up and ready.
Where the last few seats and driver’s compartment would normally be, it was sealed off behind a thick translucent sheet of vinyl which was riveted, then duct taped to the walls of the bus. At its center was a heavy gauge zipper. It was difficult if not impossible to see through the plastic in the bloody light thrown off by the tinted bulbs overhead, but a dark figure moved in languid sinuous undulations. Fingertips brushed the sheet and sent collected condensation dripping down.
“Garfield’s Crossing Sheriff Department. I am armed and will fire if you do not show yourself!”
The lights above buzzed and whined, then flickered out, plunging the bus into darkness. The air was immediately still. Behind Abernathy there was a click followed by a heavy clunk as an electrical relay clicked over. The lights overhead flipped back on spilling bloody light onto every surface and the entire surface of the vinyl sheet flexed, then growled like a hungry animal as it vibrated violently then went still again. Tiny rivers of condensation ran down the sheet, freed by the vibration.
Abe forced himself to breathe again and took a step forward. The movement and the dark figure inside the closed off room was no longer visible. “I’m coming in. Do not make any sudden movements or I will be forced to fire.” He traded grips from his right to his left so he could keep a line of fire on the right side of the room, where he had seen the first movement while he stooped and slowly raised the zipper on the curtain. Every click of the zipper’s teeth wound his jaw tighter shut. The zipper started at the bottom left, traveled up to within an inch of the ceiling, then right to provide enough room to step through without getting caught. Inside was a small partition, made of the same material with an identical door design fashioned to the left, forming some kind of an air lock. A fan with a pull chain on it was mounted into the bus’s ceiling where an emergency hatch used to be.
From behind the sheet came a gastric groan.
Abernathy froze and held his breath, cursing the pounding of his heart in his ears. Still no ravenous creature leapt at him, so he traded gun hands again and raised the interior zipper with his left.
The smell of roses was joined by the foul tang of rotten meat. Through the plastic wall he heard the wet sound bone crunch and muscle tear, but no other motion or noise. Stepping backward through the second door he met a hideous sight.
The well where there should be a door and stairs down had been filled and covered with plywood. A red bulb replaced the standard light above the door and bloodied the room’s interior. A low altar was placed against the wall atop which was affixed an upturned doe’s head. Screws penetrated its neck and held it turned skyward and in place. From its mouth protruded half a dozen ruptured white eggs where dozens more tongue-like tendrils slowly waved and quested blindly. The poor animal’s mouth was so crammed full of the fungus that it had torn its cheeks back to its jawline.
The gun trembled in his hand and he gripped it more tightly.
Written in messy hand along the border of the door, Abernathy could read: For he is ever hungry, feed him with your body and receive his blessing. Lo, the Famine King. For he does not slumber, dream for him while you wake and receive his blessing. Lo, the Famine King. Fill his larder, prepare his home, and open the gate. Lo, the Famine King.
The doe’s perfect black oil slick eye blinked and Abernathy pulled the trigger.
* * *
Mazzy heard Abe’s commanding voice echo out of the concrete tunnel and leapt off the skid loader, jogging up to the edge of the hole, listening hard. Crimson light spilled onto the floor at the base of the ladder. The lights blinked out and a second later flooded the chamber again. He heard Abe giving somebody a warning a second time and forced himself to ease back from the hole. As much as he wanted to rush down and support the Sheriff he wouldn’t do anyone any good taking a bullet in the face if someone made it past Abe and sprayed panic fire up the ladder.
A single hollow pop of a large caliber Glock went off and Mazzy dropped to his belly. He looked over the edge with just one eye, keeping as much of his head behind the wall of concrete and earth as he could. “Abe!” he shouted, then listened. Nothing. “Abe! Do you need assistance?!” He tried to keep the panic out of his voice. A wobbly shadow slid into the bloody red light at the base of the tunnel and he poked the tip of his barrel over the edge.
“That’s a one-o-six Mazzy, We’re all good.” The Sheriff came back.
Mazzy heard him wretch, then spit.
Abe croaked, “Coming up. Wanna tell Paige to grab her gear? We’ve got plenty of stuff down here for her to look over.”
Sitting up and holstering his weapon, Mazzy said, “Doctor Anderson, better suit up. Sheriff says you’re gonna wanna see this.”
TO BE CONTINUED.
© Novis Opera LLC 2018